Adam Straus

Kill Chain

Lance Corporal Tyler Eustace elbows Lance Corporal Andrew Black in the ribs. Black raises his head, the dreadlocks of his ghillie suit parting around his Cammie-painted face. Eustace rests one hand on the buttstock of his .50 cal sniper rifle and gestures with his other hand, bringing his index and middle fingers up to his eyes and pointing towards the objective area. Universal sign language for look over there, I think I see something. They can faintly hear the opening strains of the call to prayer sounding from the village mosque. 

Black sights in through his spotting scope, a mini-telescope propped up on a low tripod, its legs sunken into the soft dust. The optic is just high enough off the ground that he can peer through the dry grass around their hide site, towards the compound where Mohammad Abdul supposedly lives.  

Black adjusts his scope, panning over fallow poppy fields and across the turquoise Helmand River. On the far bank, he glasses the target area, tracing the walls that surround a small courtyard and a single-story mud hut. In the courtyard, a drying line is strung out with wash. Black counts one, two, three shalwar kameez hung up, twisting in the wind.

Then Black sees him. Military-aged male, salt and pepper beard, black turban, eyeglasses. That’s all Black can make out: Only the man’s head is visible through a crumbled cut in the compound’s wall. He is standing still, listening. Black reaches into his breast pocket and pulls out the laminated biometrics photo of Mohammad Abdul from his stint in prison aboard Bagram Air Base. He looks from the photo to the man in the compound and back again. 

There’s no doubt.

Black rolls onto his left side and pulls their blocky green radio from the top of his pack. Without needing to be told, Eustace sets up the Christmas tree antenna, angled north towards the FOB. Black twists the radio’s knobs, double checks he’s on the right frequency, and takes a deep breath to calm the excitement boiling inside him. 

Black has been a Marine for three years. During that time, he has slept 248 nights on the ground. He has ruck-marched 317 miles and run another 406. He has fired nearly 11,000 rounds from his M4 and various sniper rifles. 

So far on this deployment, Black has been in Afghanistan for five months, two weeks, and three days. He has participated in 82 patrols, stood 734 hours of quick-reaction force, and gone out on fourteen listening post/observation post missions, counting this one. On this mission, he has spent an additional two nights on the ground (both cold, one rainy) and shit in a plastic bag once. 

This is the first time Black has seen the enemy. 

He takes another breath and keys into the radio’s handset.

“Tripoli Main, Tripoli Main, this is Savage 1-1,” he whispers. “Packers. I say again, Packers.”


“Savage 1-1, this is Tripoli Main. Copy Packers.” 

Lance Corporal McKayla Palmer scans the laminated brevity code sheet on her desk. The piece of paper lists the steps of OPERATION BARRIER SHIELD in alphabetical order, from BEARS=WEATHER CALL FAVORABLE  to VIKINGS=ALL FRIENDLY FORCES RETURNED TO FOB SHORAB. She finds Packers towards the bottom of the page. 


OPERATION BARRIER SHIELD is designed to take down key Taliban leaders in Nad Ali with a series of coordinated raids by Afghan commandos, supported by Marine sniper teams in overwatch. Glancing up at the map board, dotted with blue and red thumbtacks signifying friendly and enemy locations, Palmer finds the grid for the snipers who just radioed in and notes it in the JOC logbook.

She takes a sip of her RipIt energy drink. It tastes like citrus-flavored battery acid. The acrid caffeine is almost enough to shock her back into reality. Since arriving in Afghanistan four months earlier, Palmer has been standing daily twelve-hour radio watch shifts in the Joint Operations Center. Her war has been fought at a distance: Voices in a radio handset, images on a screen. Radio static in her ear while she watches the JOC’s wall of drone feeds following Afghans as they tend their crops and ride their motorcycles and wash their clothes in the river and relieve themselves in their fields. Looking down from the panel of TVs to scroll Instagram on her phone. Rearranging the stray hairs that break free from the too-tight bun she has to wear to look “professional.” Scrolling Instagram some more. Taking in the endless thumbnails of engagement announcements and hunting trips and drunken nights at dive bars. It has the same thrill of attending her own funeral. Getting a glimpse of how the world would be without her, as she sits in the plywood coffin that is the JOC.

Palmer looks up from her phone and double checks the brevity code sheet. ACTION REQUIRED: NOTIFY TRIPOLI 6. Her fingers hover over the tac chat keyboard. As soon as she types PACKERS and presses enter, Tripoli 6 (the task force Commanding General) and his entourage are going to descend on the JOC. That means high-ranking eyes looking over her shoulder. That means no fucking around on her phone for the foreseeable future.

The thought of being without her phone makes Palmer realize she hasn’t spoken to her sister in a few days. She does some quick math. It’s 0936 in Afghanistan. Minus 10.5 hours means it’s about 11 PM the night before in Minneapolis. She can catch Daisy before she goes to bed, just to let her know someone is thinking of her. 

“Hi Day-Z, miss ya!! Hope you had a good day!!”


Daisy Palmer did not have a good day. On the mood calendar her therapist suggested, she colors orange the square for Thursday October 16, 2014. More bad than good. Not red (mostly bad), but not quite yellow (more good than bad). Certainly not green (mostly good). There hasn’t been a lot of green in the four months since she and Christian broke up. 

In those months, she’s spent an embarrassing amount of time right here: In her studio apartment, her only companions the succulents lining her one small windowsill overlooking a supermarket parking lot. The mirror on the far wall is supposed to make the 300 square feet feel like more, but it doesn’t. She knows she shouldn’t complain, not while her little sister lives in a platform tent with seven other women. But McKayla’s suffering doesn’t do anything to alleviate Daisy’s misery; it just makes Daisy feel bad about being miserable. 

The crown jewel of Daisy’s apartment is her bed. Queen-sized memory foam, tempur-pedic pillows, extra-heavy weighted blanket. Factoring in the time she sleeps (8 or 9 hours a night, counting the tossing and turning), and the hour or two of Netflix she watches from bed each night, and the hour or so she spends on her phone in the morning, Daisy essentially lives in bed. 

She used to get up, go out, go for runs, go to the yoga studio around the corner from her building. Leave her apartment to do things other than work as a digital marketing consultant. In addition to the first-order shock of finding herself single again at age 31, Daisy is experiencing some second-order shock: She’s watching herself from a distance and she can’t believe she’s still this fucked up four months later. 

She can’t believe it partially because she was the one who initiated the break-up. Daisy half-jokingly prides herself on never having been dumped: She broke up with her high school boyfriend, both college boyfriends, the guy before Christian, and Christian. And she broke up with all of them for the same reason: She couldn’t imagine any of them were it. The last man she’d ever be with. The best she could do.  

Surely it couldn’t have been Christian. He farted incessantly in his sleep. He was so self-conscious about his friends thinking he was “for the boys” that he wouldn’t answer her texts when he was out with them. He had a knack for forgetting dates (anniversaries, birthdays, planned trips to the lake) that suggested malice rather than incompetence. Or at least a level of emotional ambivalence that equated to malice, in Daisy’s eyes. 

And yet there was something. There must’ve been. 

Trying to recapture it, Daisy doom-scrolls Christian’s Instagram, something her therapist told her not to do. Daisy sees him as he is now, cradling his parents’ new puppy that she would never get to meet, sporting the stupid fucking mullet he grew out after they broke up. Daisy can’t help wondering whether it’s a “fuck yes, I’m free” mullet or a “fuck no, my heart’s broken” mullet. 

But she’s more interested in who he was a year ago. Two years ago. Three years ago. Searching for a clue of who they were together. Hoping to deduce from that who she might be alone.

Daisy’s three and a half years back, staring at a picture of Christian fishing from the dock of her family’s lake house (a picture she took!), when McKayla texts her. Daisy startles happily, seeing her sister’s name light up her screen. But when Daisy goes to tap the message banner alert, she accidentally likes the photo she was looking at. The one from three and a half years ago. 

“FUCK!!!!” Daisy shrieks, hurling her phone across the room. It bounces off the carpet and hits the molding with the unmistakable sound of her screen cracking. 



Christian’s phone buzzes, clamoring for his attention while he patiently listens to Kiera tell story after story about her second-grade students. He has to lean in close to hear her; there’s a group of young professional-types going ballistic with laughter at the table next to them, their voices reverberating off the bar’s narrow walls. Kiera’s tough to understand in her own right, as she fights through fits of giggles to recount this funny thing Davis said, this funny game Melanie and Allie asked her to play at recess, this hilarious drawing Jacob made.  

Christian feels like he should be annoyed; he’s barely gotten a word in since asking Kiera how she likes being a teacher. But there’s something endearing about her over-the-top excitement. Something exciting about the naked vulnerability of how clearly nervous she is. It helps that Kiera’s got an incandescent dimpled smile, even with wine-stained teeth. It helps that Christian can see the fullness of her curves beneath the thin fabric of the jump suit she’s wearing. Even though it’s only a first date, he can’t help but think how much more fun Kiera seems than Daisy. How much happier he might be with her. 

“…and I know this is corny, but I’m honestly just excited to get out of bed every day and go see what’s going on with the kids. Is that corny? Should I not admit that?” Kiera pauses to sip her wine. 

Christian’s phone buzzes again. “No, I think it’s sweet, actually.” 

“Thanks. Okay, I have to go to the bathroom. If our guy comes around, do you want to get another two glasses?” she asks. 

“Yeah, sure.”

Once Kiera vanishes around the back end of the bar, Christian slides his phone from his pocket to see what he’s been missing. It’s so dark inside Select Wine Bar that he quickly turns down his screen’s brightness.

There’s a spam email from J. Crew, two Tinder notifications (Caroline matched with him, Marielle replied to his message), seven texts in a group chat with his best friends from college (debating same-game parlays for the Vikings-Bills game that weekend), and a notification that Daisy liked a photo of his on Instagram. He clicks on Daisy’s name. It’s a photo from three years earlier.

“Honestly, it’s just fucking sad,” he texts his friends along with a screenshot of the notification. 

He leaves out the part where he was doing the same thing in the Uber to his date, except he didn’t accidentally like anything. He doesn’t mention that he had this weird premonition about what picture it was, even before he unlocked his phone. He also doesn’t say that he still remembers the smell of lake water in Daisy’s hair when she leaned into him to show the photo she’d taken.

“Look, babe,” she’d said. “You look hot.” 

Staring at the bathroom door, suspended somewhere between past and present, Christian tries to remember what he said back to Daisy. He only remembers that it made her laugh. 


Kiera is talking to herself while she pees. Not out loud; she’s not crazy. But in her head, she’s spitting rapid-fire advice: Don’t talk about yourself so much. Be quieter. Be more mysterious. Ask him something and just listen. Even after it seems like he’s done talking, keep listening, so he’ll keep talking. He’ll overshare. He’ll open up. When he opens up, be understanding. Whatever it is. Whatever he thinks it is. Act like you understand. And if he doesn’t open up, keep it light. It definitely seems like he’s at least kind of interested. Compliment his mullet again, but in an ambiguous sort of way in case he thinks you’re making fun of him. Or just ask about his parents’ new dog. He’s already mentioned the dog twice. He wants to talk about the dog. Its name’s Ari. Wait. Is Ari a boy or a girl? Don’t ask, he’s already mentioned it. Just try to avoid using pronouns. Don’t say ‘it’ either. He doesn’t seem like the sort of guy who calls dogs ‘it.’ Actually, just don’t talk. Just be quiet. Just be mysterious.


Hailey is surprised how shabby the bathroom is in a wine bar this nice. She wonders whether some profit from the $17 glasses poured from bottles that retail for $30 could be put towards glass cleaner for the cloud-spotted mirror, a new layer of wallpaper to cover the patches of cinder block showing through, maybe a second stall. Some girl is just sitting on the only toilet. Her pee stopped and now she’s just sitting there. 

Hailey checks herself out in the mirror while she waits. She’s wearing a loose black blouse and high waisted jeans; what passes for work clothes at a sustainable architecture firm. She has on a pair of peacock feather earrings she doesn’t really like. They make her feel like a girl playing dress-up. But her dad got them for her, and she feels bad when they sit in her jewelry box. Hailey makes a point of wearing them on low-stakes nights so she can feel good about having worn them, without, like, having to wear them. 

This is certainly a low-stakes night: After-work drinks dragging on too long, unable to leave because she’s the youngest designer at the firm and one of two women and she doesn’t want to be a wet blanket and she doesn’t want people to think she thinks she’s too good for them. But what she thinks is that she wants to go home and sleep. What she thinks is that her alarm’s going off in seven hours, and she already spent all day with these people, and she’s going to spend all day with them tomorrow, and maybe it’s enough already and they can all just say goodnight. If she ran the firm, there would be no after-work drinks allowed. That would be her first command: “Finish your work and go home.” 

Of course, Danny (the chief partner) would never cancel his beloved happy hours. That’s how he got to the top: He replies “awesome, thanks!” on email threads that have nothing to do with him, for which he has no need to be thankful. He’s the first person at the office in the morning and the last to leave at night, and he never accomplishes anything between those two events. He puts the first round of drinks on the company card. He’s dumb enough that no one feels threatened by him.

When Hailey arrived, he was already the chief partner, after spending fifteen years climbing and falling into that role. But what if they started from a blank slate? What if they crash-landed on a desert island as strangers and had to establish order from there? Standing in front of the mirror, Hailey pictures the eight designers from her office trying to form a government, build a fire, hunt wild boar. Hailey imagines herself emerging as the leader of their little tribe, as everyone slowly realizes how deliberate she is, how conscientious, how detail-oriented, how effective. 

Under her leadership, they band together. They construct shelters. They domesticate and breed the boar. They explore the island and find a freshwater lagoon. They explore the lagoon and find a network of caves. They explore the caves and find evidence of an ancient civilization; beautiful cave art and runes none of them can read, but all of them understand. 

Slowly, they transition from surviving like Robinson Crusoe to thriving like the Swiss Family Robinson. They build tree houses and water slides. They plant gardens. They have bonfires on the beach. Danny finds his niche digging latrine pits for the group. The tree houses start to feel like tree homes.

Finally, the toilet flushes and Kiera emerges from the stall. 

“Wow, I love your earrings,” Kiera says as she waves her hands at the motion-activated sink, Hailey sliding behind her towards the toilet.

“Thanks, my dad got them for me.”

Hailey scrolls Instagram while she pees. She’s thinking about the earrings. Was that girl making fun of her, mentioning them like that? Maybe she just said something to be nice. But why would she mention the earrings as the thing to be nice about? Could she tell Hailey was self-conscious about them? Or did she actually like them? Does it matter that she likes them if Hailey doesn’t? 

Hailey wishes she could flip a switch and like the earrings. She feels a wine-fueled surge of emotion for her dad. A rare moment in which the scope of his devotion to her seems painfully clear. Every diaper changed, every soccer game attended, every toenail he let her paint as a kid. His dedication building brick by brick an indestructible citadel in her brain, holding strong against a sea of doubts, resolute in its knowledge that at least one person in the world loves her deeply. She should call him, Hailey thinks. It’s barely after 11; he’ll be awake. She’s been here long enough. Time to call dad.  

So she walks out of the bathroom with her phone pressed to her ear. As Hailey passes her coworkers’ table, she motions vaguely: Pointing at the phone, shrugging, waving. Then she walks right out the door. 


“Okay, love you Hazy. Okay. Goodnight. Love you. Bye now. Love you.”

Eric Russo holds his phone at arm’s length so he can see the red button to hang up. He closes his eyes and leans back against the couch, letting the muted TV’s blues and whites play across his face. Silent sportscasters scream at one another while Timberwolves highlights roll. Thoughts blur in Eric’s head, their edges bleeding into one another, soaking in the edible he took earlier.

Eric always loves hearing from Hailey. And he’s especially glad to hear that she’s out with her coworkers, networking and moving up. He’s been telling her for years that’s how the world works, and even if she hates that sort of thing, she just has to suck it up and go. 

That’s never been Hailey’s strength, Eric muses. She’s always had her own way. At age six she would assign her then-two-year-old brother her chores, and blame him when they didn’t get done. At twelve she spent hours in the backyard fascinated by the construction of a chickadee nest, precipitating a nuclear argument with Amy when Hailey refused to come inside for dinner for fear she’d “miss something.” At sixteen she thought her school’s selection of My Fair Lady for the spring musical was sexist, so she organized her own guerrilla production of Wicked

And now she’s twenty-five and she’s okay. For all the times she could’ve stepped in front of a car or had a widow-maker fall on her head or been victim to any of life’s random, brutal violence; for all the times Amy and Eric wrung their hands about her recalcitrance and her attitude, worrying she’d never be able to make peace with the world; for all of the horrible things that could’ve happened and didn’t; now Hailey’s twenty-five and she’s okay. 

His job as a dad isn’t done, obviously. But thinking of what being a father used to mean, the constant presence and the constant sense of purpose that came with that, Eric feels like a vestige. A tailbone on the seat of his children’s lives. Micah and Hailey simply don’t need him the way they used to. 

Which leaves Eric plenty of time to consider the heart of the issue, the reason he’s sitting here stoned by himself while Amy pretends to sleep upstairs: Eric only gets to experience life once. This life was his top choice, without a doubt. It’s a good life. Really. It is. Suburban bliss takes a lot of shit, but there are worse things to aspire to than being able to take care of the people you love. 

But what about all of the other lives he could’ve lived? This is something that never occurred to him before the kids moved out. But when Micah followed Hailey to Macalester and then adulthood, Eric looked back over his shoulder down the corridor of his life, and saw all the doors had slammed shut behind him. 

Sinking into the couch, Eric reaches over to the coffee table and grabs his laptop. He props it up on his chest, his head against an armrest, arms bent at the elbow like a t-rex as he types, chin tucked six inches from the screen. Eric closes out his last browser window (a mess of tabs, trying to find a good birthday gift for Hailey, something like the peacock earrings she loves) and opens a new one on incognito mode. 

He goes to the State Department’s website. That’s his new dream to toy with, like a cat batting at yarn: Eric Russo, world-trotting diplomat. Eric Russo, the President’s personal representative abroad. Eric Russo, living in a luxurious embassy in Kampala or Buenos Aires or Canberra or Warsaw. There’s no “why.” It’s not even an idea of his. It’s an idea of an idea; the thing itself hardly matters. 

Checking the State Department’s job board is his mindless tic, the way someone younger might scroll Instagram or someone older might do a crossword. A stream of opportunities unfurls: foreignserviceexam,regionalmedicalofficer,foreignservicesecuritytechnicalspecialist,facilitymanager,educationprogramspecialist,policyanalyst… 

All it takes is a click to get started. Like pushing a boulder down a hill. A nudge, and then consequences, consequences, consequences.

There’s a button. Request more information. Yes, he should request more information. The kids are all grown up and it’s just information. 

There’s another button. Tell us a bit about yourself. He’s just being friendly; nothing wrong with that. Some relevant skills (a bit of French, a bit of Spanish). Some relevant experience (an undergraduate degree in political science, law school, twenty-nine years of contracts and mergers). 

Eric’s very high. He’s peaking. One more button. 


The ghostly outline of Eric’s reflection shows on the dark corners of the screen. Then his eyes shift focus and he blurs into the background. 


This is Mac’s fourth stint in Afghanistan since he joined the CIA in 2004, but it’s the first time he’s been senior enough to work at the gilded Kabul Embassy with State Department cover. He remembers the gritty optimism of the war’s early days with something like nostalgia: Living in a safe house in Logar, barely speaking a word of English for eight months, funneling money and weapons to a militia that dismantled the local Haqqani network with American air support. It was a brief flash of what the war could’ve been. What it should’ve been, in Mac’s opinion.  

Even though he still works a few sources of his own, most of his time is spent helping stand up the Afghan National Directorate of Security, to wean them from the American intel on which they’ve grown dependent. Instead of answering to, well, no one, Mac now answers to a moronic Foreign Service Officer. The “Special Envoy For Afghan Governmental Development.” The Envoy’s main purpose in life appears to be generating as many emails as possible with minimal substance. 

That’s the State Department way, though. One of the many things Mac hates about his on-paper employer is State’s new hiring initiative: Whenever a member of the public fills out an information request on’s job board, it pings a random bunch of State Department employees who (according to some faulty AI somewhere) are likely to “get along” with this person. If one of those State Department employees “mentors” this person through the hiring process, then if/when they are hired, the mentor gets a $5,000 referral bonus. The idea is that Johnny McIdiot is more likely to go through the rigamarole of completing the foreign service exam, a full medical profile, and a polygraph test if he’s got some hotshot calling in from Prague or Ulaanbaatar to egg him on. According to the mass email Mac received when the program went live, the intent is to “leverage the Department’s full spectrum of personnel to entice and attract qualified applicants by demonstrating the diverse opportunities available.” The actual effect, as far as Mac’s concerned, is to fill up his inbox with even more inane bullshit. 

So when Mac gets an email with the subject line “INFORMATION REQUEST – ERIC RUSSO” he deletes it unread. He has bigger things to worry about: One of his sources has gone dark on him. The guy was supposed to pick up a dead-drop envelope earlier that morning, but now he’s not answering Mac’s texts. 

Mac double checks his Roshan burner phone, a small Nokia-style brick. The last message is still the one he sent two hours earlier, asking whether the dead drop worked: زما ملګري، ستاسو کورنۍ څنګه ده

The source isn’t high enough value for an extraction, but it’ll be a massive pain in Mac’s ass if he gets killed or quits. It’s nearly impossible getting anyone in Helmand to work with the coalition. The Taliban are just too entrenched, and too willing to kill entire families for cooperating with the Americans. This guy’s been good; the dead drop is his payment for actionable intel he provided about a local bomb maker, one of the targets for a joint American-Afghan operation that’s about to go down across Nad Ali. 

After ten years in the Agency, Mac trusts his instincts. And his instincts are telling him something is wrong with the source. He types out another message, asking if there are any problems: ایا تاسو به پدې اونۍ کې د جمعې په لمانځه کې یاست


Ismael Ahmed throws his phone into the Helmand River. Well, it’s not really his phone. It’s the phone the Americans gave him, but he’s done with it now. Done with them. He’s got the third and final envelope of their money tucked into the folds of his shalwar kameez, and as far as he’s concerned, that means they’re even. 

Ismael crutches from the riverbank to his beat-up motorbike. He bought his bike with the second envelope the Americans gave him, in exchange for the location of a Pakistani man who had come to the village to wage war. Ismael needs the moped to get around: During an operation in the Soviet War, he stepped on a landmine. A fellow mujahideen found Ismael’s foot still attached to his shin in the branches of a date palm.

“Would you like this back?” his friend joked, holding up the bloody appendage while Ismael writhed in pain, tended to by a clueless medic. 

The truth is Ismael did not want his foot back. He was secretly glad to be done with the fighting. A warrior’s life (hunger, hardship, danger) was not one Ismael wanted for himself, even as a sixteen-year-old. The life he wanted was lived in the gentle shade of his father’s pomegranate orchard. He wanted the rhythms of the harvest. He wanted to see everybody he knew at Friday prayers. He wanted to drink chai and laugh in the bazaar behind a rug mounded high with pomegranates, breathing in their tart smell. 

But there are things a Pashtun man must do when an invader comes to his home. Ismael understood that, and he understood his wounding as Allah’s way of telling him that he had fulfilled his duty. Even if that wounding meant he could never run his own orchard. 

Ismael returned to his village. While he healed, he spent his days sitting by the river, singing charbeta songs alone. His uncle, an influential man in the village married to the then-muezzin’s daughter, took note of Ismael’s voice and suggested he train as the muezzin’s replacement. It would be a good career for any man, he said, especially a man who can’t walk and use his hands at the same time. 

That is Ismael’s life now. Five times a day, he sounds the call to prayer from his village’s mosque. He does not have a wife or children; the blast damaged more than just his leg. His family is the village. His joy is calling his family together for a moment of peace with God. 

Like any man, he has to provide for his family. When the American musafir first arrived, Ismael believed they could help. He believed they were going to stay. They came to him, because of his status in the village, and said they wanted to help bring peace. They said they would give Ismael money for the mosque if he helped them find their enemies. So he told them about a road the mujahideen used to bring in supplies from Pakistan, and the Americans gave him the first envelope. 

Now he knows the kuffar are leaving. He can see them shutting down their bases. He hears rumors from Kabul they are going to run. Ismael does not believe the Americans are for peace; he believes they are just for themselves. So when they approached him again, saying they were going to launch an operation soon and they wanted help, Ismael decided this would be it. One more name.

Driving back to the mosque, Ismael mouths a silent apology as he passes Mohammad Abdul’s compound. It is his first time betraying a man with a family, but Mohammad is the only man Ismael knows in the village who keeps bomb-making materials at his house. The American did not give Ismael much time to come up with information, and Ismael does not know if there will be another opportunity after this one.  

And Ismael needs the third envelope. The third envelope is for when peace arrives again. When the Americans leave. Ismael does not know what the future will look like, but he hopes it will resemble the past. His past. With the Americans’ money, he will make it so. The mosque will never want for repairs. No taxation at checkpoints along the road. The village will fund its own militia: No Americans, no Taliban, no Kabul. Just life. Just peace.  

On the roof of the mosque, Ismael breathes in the diesel fumes as the generator sputters to life. He taps the microphone twice to be sure the loudspeakers are working. This is what he bought with the first envelope the Americans gave him: A generator, a microphone, and an amplifier. The tools to carry his voice across the village, even as his voice weakens with age. Ismael says a silent prayer of thanks that he is here for another morning. Another prayer that he might see the night, too. And then he sings the adhan from somewhere deep in his soul, telling the faithful it is time to pray. He listens to his voice echo over mud huts and fields. He listens closely to the silence afterwards. He just listens.


Mohammad Abdul will not hear the full adhan. He’ll step inside to grab his prayer rug when Ismael starts the shahada. He’ll kiss Fatima as she collects the children’s laundry to take to the river later. When Mohammad steps back outside, Black will shoot him in the head. It won’t be a clean shot. Black will be nervous (it will be his first time) and he’ll jerk the trigger. The bullet will shear off Mohammad’s jaw and leave him to bleed out in the dirt. Fatima’s screams will drown out the muezzin’s call.

In the next world, Mohammad will wait alone in a blank space until Black arrives. He won’t have to wait long: Black will be cut down in an insider attack two weeks before he’s supposed to go home. 

At first, there will be anger. Black will recognize Mohammad and taunt him. Mohammad will call Black a coward for shooting him from so far away. Black will call Mohammad a coward for killing men with IEDs. Mohammad will say he was defending his home. Black will say the Americans came to liberate Mohammad’s home. Mohammad will tell Black about the torture he endured in prison at the hands of those liberators. Black will ask how many Americans Mohammad killed before he wound up there. Mohammad will say not enough, clearly. Then he will realize something strange is happening. 

“Wait a second, are you speaking Pashto?” Mohammad will ask.

“I’m speaking English, motherfucker,” Black will spit back.

“Well, I can’t speak English and I can understand you.”

“I can’t speak Pashto and I can understand you.”

“That must be how things work here,” Mohammad will say with a shrug. “Funny, I guess.”

Eventually, Mohammad’s family will begin to arrive. His wife Fatima first, then his two sons, Fuad and Umar. His youngest, his daughter Tooba, comes last. They will all live full lives, but they’ll arrive in the blank space as they were on October 16, 2014. Fouad a seventeen-year-old on the cusp of manhood. Umar a contrarian thirteen-year-old. Tooba a bubbly four-year-old. Fatima in the full flush of her beauty at thirty-six. 

Black will be alone in his corner of the blank space, forever twenty-two and forever a bachelor. Mohammad will corral his family as far from Black as he can, but it’s difficult keeping children entertained for eternity. There are no distractions. Just one another, and emptiness. Tooba will get it in her head that she wants to say hi to Black. Fatima will tell her no and foil several slow-motion escape attempts. But eventually Tooba’s screaming and whining and crying will get to be too much, and Mohammad will finally snap. Go. Let her talk to him. 

Tooba will toddle across the vast nothingness. Umar will follow, eager to do anything to annoy his authoritarian father. The two children will awkwardly hover next to Black. They’ll remind him of the niece and nephew he said goodbye to. He’ll introduce himself as Andrew and strike up a conversation with Umar about brothers and brotherhood. Andrew will reassure him that Fouad is just being a teenager, that they’ll grow close again once they’re both adults, just like Andrew and his brother. Andrew will let Tooba play with his bootlaces. He’ll realize this is the happiest he’s been since he died. 

After a while, Mohammad will come over to collect his children. They’ll get to talking, Mohammad and Andrew, about Helmand. The cold winters, the hot summers, the dusty ground, the rich earth next to the riverbanks. They’ll miss it, in their respective ways. 

Then they’ll sit together. Andrew and Mohammad and Fatima and Fouad and Umar and Tooba. They’ll sit together and wait for whatever comes after forever. 


That hasn’t happened yet, though. Right now, the war is still raging. Right now, Black is choking up on his rifle’s pistol grip, steadying his breath. Mohammad Abdul is stepping into the sun with his prayer rug tucked under his arm. It’s night in America and day in Afghanistan. One follows the other, like a snake swallowing its own tail. Around and around in a vicious circle, the rattle warning the fangs, the fangs continuing to bite, uncomprehending, until the rattle goes silent.

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Adam Straus is a Marine veteran. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, The Hopkins Review, Pithead Chapel, JMWW, trampset, Superstition Review, The Los Angeles Review, and elsewhere. Adam holds an MFA from Rutgers-Camden.