The war caught up with Garret Hoke at a roadside diner about fifty miles outside of Dallas. He’d driven all day from Jacksonville, where he’d been living with his parents since leaving the Army. He had a job lined up in Dallas with an acquaintance from Iraq, a guy named Polk, who’d started up a garage door manufacturing company.
Garret was wiping the gravy off his chicken fried steak when a woman in a red headscarf emerged from the storm and stepped into the diner. He looked up just as she glanced at him. Garret recognized her from her pale green eyes and the little beauty mark high on her cheek, just below the eye, and it seemed to him that she recognized him too, through the years and through all the extra hair he’d grown. She took a booth two rows behind his. Garret lost what little appetite he’d had and his toes went cold.
It was the widow. The woman from the market in Ramadi; the widow who’d cried Salim.
The woman ordered something when the waitress came by, and Garret did his best to keep calm. He looked out the window, into the thick cascades of rain, at the distant oil pumps bobbing like ghostly herons in the haze.
How astronomically small were the odds that a woman from a dumpy street in Iraq had come to Texas, and ended up in the same diner as him? Rationalizing didn’t help. No matter how much he told himself that this was a different woman, that it couldn’t be the same widow, he couldn’t escape the gut certainty that she was. Garret snuck quick glances at her. Every so often she’d touch her handbag. What could be in there? Garret imagined she’d want to kill him with something loud, because he’d go for loud if he was seeking revenge. Or maybe she had a knife. Something quick and quiet, something to get him with in the parking lot.
Garret thought about his car. In that car was an aluminum briefcase, and in that briefcase was the disassembled M4 carbine that Garret couldn’t go anywhere without.
It had happened in 2006, eight years ago. Garret, a private first class, was manning a checkpoint near a marketplace in Ramadi, a critical point of the contested city. The checkpoint had been set up two weeks before, and it was expected that every civilian in the area knew of its existence and the danger of approaching it unannounced.
It was evening when the car appeared. Force protection was the name of the game: don’t take chances, safeguard you and your buddies at all costs. The car was an old hatchback: peeling paint, one busted headlight, a dented grill. The checkpoint commander flashed his light at the car but it kept moving forward. Then the big spotlight came on and enveloped the hatchback in blinding light.
When the warning shot failed to stop the car, Garret’s commander yelled out an order, and Garret didn’t even think about it—he and his squadmates just took aim and opened fire. Was his the killing shot? Perhaps, perhaps not. Maybe it doesn’t matter in the end if the intent was there. He never got to see the man’s face, because the bullet turned the windshield into a spiral of cracked glass. The car lurched off course and slammed into a lamppost. Garret stayed at the roadblock, terrified and exhilarated. Something wet was rolling down the left side of his face, trickling down his jawline to his throat. No pain—that would come later, after the adrenaline faded. Only when he touched his ear did he realize it was mangled. A pea-sized chunk of cartilage from his earlobe had been carved away forever by a ricochet bullet. This was the reason he’d grow his hair long after mustering out.
The widow looked young, maybe just a few years older than Garret. She wore simple clothes: the headscarf, and a blue dress splotched with blood over her breast where she’d been cradling her husband’s head. It took all the effort of two big American grunts to keep the woman from running back into the car, where her husband was still belted into the seat. She lashed her head around, at one point fixing her stare directly at Garret, and that’s when he got a good look at her face, the wide green eyes, and the mark under her eye.
“Salim!” she shrieked, as the soldiers carried her off.
Garret had never killed a civilian before then. In fact, he’d never killed anyone before, as far as he knew. He’d fired his weapon at human shapes wending corners, he’d tossed a grenade into an alley after a couple of insurgents, and he’d traded volleys of colorful tracer rounds with invisible terrorists in the night. But he’d never known he’d killed someone. The intervening eight years had only crusted the memory over like a stubborn scar.
“Goddamn terrorists,” said an old highway patrolman at the diner’s counter.
He’d been there before Garret, slowly polishing off a slice of peach pie and reading a newspaper. The headline of the paper declared “ISIS CAPTURES RAMADI FROM IRAQI ARMY.” Garret had tried not to follow the news from that part of the world, but the media was making it hard with all the headlines and special reports. He imagined that if the widow had children, they’d have grown up angry and fatherless, maybe angry enough to march under a black flag.
“What are you on about, Ellis?” asked the cook behind the counter.
The cop looked to be off duty, but was still armed. His presence in the diner made Garret feel just a bit safer, but not by much.
“You read this?” the cop asked, shaking the paper at the cook.
The cook threw a knowing glance over the cop’s shoulder to Garret, as if to say Here he goes again.
“It says here ‘the Iraqi soldiers abandoned their posts to the Islamic State, in some cases without firing a shot.’”
“What’s your point, El?” the cook asked.
“Well after all our boys died in that shithole of a city, those ungrateful towelheads just rolled over,” the cop said.
Garret looked over at the woman. She was staring at the cop. Not quite a glare, but certainly impassive. Garret wished for the cop to just shut the hell up.
But the cop kept talking loud and waving the paper around.
“I think you’re bothering the fella at the table over there with all your yammering,” the cook said, nodding to Garret.
The cop squinted hard at Garret, like he was trying to pencil him into some kind of category. “Is that true, son? Am I bothering you?”
“No, sir,” Garret said.
Garret understood how he looked to people. Cargo pants, sandals, a t-shirt stained with paint, his red hair in a ponytail and his beard thick and tangled like the roots of a desert bush. The cop probably saw him and thought loser or worse.
“You sure? You look a little upset. I ain’t too loud am I?”
The cop grumbled something and went back to reading the paper in silence.
A waitress came by and gave the woman a cup of coffee. The woman opened a packet of sugar and slowly stirred it into her cup without looking down.
He had seen her since the incident, or thought he’d seen her, anyway. Several times in Iraq as a face in a crowd, that sort of thing. It had always punched the air out of his gut. It would happen on patrol, and all his squadmates would see the change in him, the way he started to slink instead of walk, kept his head down, the way his eyes got big, like a cat that’s seen something in the night. They started calling him Scoob because it was like he saw ghosts.
The waitress brought the woman a steak, and the woman set about cutting it, trimming first the fat off the edges, then dicing the big hunk of meat into neat little squares. The clatter of her fork and knife on the plate seemed deafening, as if it weren’t coming from two booths down but from inside of Garret’s head. He glanced around at the other patrons in the diner, and wondered why they weren’t bothered by the terrible noise. He tried to push it out.
In his head, he went over the steps to reassembling an M4 carbine, visualized the pieces sliding into place thanks to his quick hands. If everything else in the world wobbled, Garret could count on his hands to stay steady.
A few weeks back Garret drove up to Atlanta to visit his old squadmate. Sims was living with his girlfriend and her kid. Garret made the visit because one of their former squadmates, a quiet kid from California, had gotten on national news for blowing off one of his legs with an IED he’d made in his garage.
“It’s like, goddamn, why not just shoot yourself?” Garret said.
“War hits people different ways,” Sims said, opening up a pair of beers.
The two men drank and watched cars drive by. “How does it hit you?” Garret asked.
In answer, Sims reached into his work boot and drew out a three-inch knife. “Can’t go anywhere without it,” Sims said. “I can’t even shower without it in reach. How about you?”
In response, Garret opened up the briefcase to show Sims the disassembled assault rifle.
“Shit,” Sims said.
After a while, Sims said: “Come to think of it though, not everyone’s affected. Polk’s doing more than all right. Have you seen him on Facebook, washing his Ferrari, all smiles like one of those rich assholes you see on TV?”
“Some people sink, some people float, I guess,” Garret said.
“And we just kind of bob along, don’t we?” Sims asked.
The storm died down. It was getting late. The woman had finished her meal and now seemed to be thinking hard about something, almost in a trance. It occurred to Garret that he could just pay his bill and leave. If the woman followed him out, there were witnesses present, the parking lot was well-lit.
But then it also occurred to him that if this widow was truly bent on vengeance, such considerations wouldn’t matter. Around ten o’clock, the old cop paid his bill, got into his patrol car, and drove off. The other patrons were thinning out. The woman was still at her booth, her meal done. A waitress asked Garret if he was ready for his bill yet. He said he was. The waitress went over to the woman, asked the same question. The woman nodded.
Garret never had dreams about the husband. At least not directly. That is, he never saw the man in his dreams. But he’d felt the dead man’s presence. He’d dreamt once of driving the hatchback in the man’s place, through impenetrable dark, until the blinding spotlight of the checkpoint switched on and he woke up. And he’d had those shallow dreams where you’re just dreaming about yourself in your own bed, only you’re not alone. The body was underneath his bed, underneath the floorboards, like the beating heart in that old Edgar Allen Poe story he’d read in middle school. The one about the crazy guy who keeps saying he’s not crazy.
Garret took his phone out to check the time. 10:30 PM. It was just Garret, the woman, and the staff now. The rain outside had eased to a light drizzle that waxed the windows and made orange halos of the parking lot lights. Garret forced himself to stand, and didn’t look back at the woman who was still in her booth. He felt as if he were on a string, moving not quite of his own will. He wanted to stay in the booth under the bright lights where it seemed safe. But it wasn’t safe. He knew that. He had to get to his car, he had to get the gun and put it together. Under thirty seconds, he could do it, by God he could.
Garret left out the glass double doors at the same time as a fry cook. The cook had a few trash bags slung over his shoulder and turned away from Garret, making his way toward the dumpsters at the opposite end of the parking lot. Garret walked slowly toward his car, a lone shape under the light of a lamp. After he made it six paces, he heard the doors opening, and knew it must be her.
“Sir,” a voice—the woman’s voice—called. It was soft, like the murmur of rain. “Sir, excuse me.”
He should be running. Sprinting.
Why wasn’t he?
Her footsteps were slow, deliberate, and quiet. When he glanced back, he caught a flash of something silvery in her hand. He kept walking forward, brain screaming at his legs to start sprinting, but they wouldn’t go. A few more steps, and he stopped. Stopped just a few yards shy of his car, and the gun inside.
No shooting. No running away. He was tired, more tired than scared. Just too damn tired of it all.
With the mist coming down all over his face, Garret Hoke lowered himself down to his knees, sinking into the thin layer of cold mud that coated the blacktop. The woman’s feet inched ever closer. Garret put his hands on his head, and tilted his head up, exposing his throat to the universe.
The woman’s footsteps ceased. Her hand alighted on his shoulder.
He opened his eyes. The woman stood over him, holding out a hand. In that hand was Garret’s cell phone.
“Sir, you left this in the diner,” she said.
He took the phone from her. He heard himself saying thank you. She asked him if he was all right, touching him on the shoulder again. Garret heard himself saying he was fine.
Looking at her face under the bright glow of the parking lot light, it dawned on Garret that on the woman in Ramadi, the birthmark had been under the opposite eye. The woman moved away from him.
Garret got back up to his feet as the woman got in her car and drove away.
At the hotel, Garret shaved his beard, showered the sweat and grime away, and tried to get to sleep. Eventually he did. He’d meet his new boss and coworkers, get shown around the shop, learn the ropes and all that. Polk would help him find a decent place to live. He’d make new friends in Dallas, make good money, call his parents every weekend to be a good son.
But he couldn’t escape the widow. He’d keep seeing her. As a face in a bus, a pair of eyes glaring at him from the dimness of a movie theater. Walking in the street, he’d be struck by the certainty she was watching him from behind a mirrored pane of glass on the top floor of an office building. He’d listen to doorways at home and in the office for the sound of her breathing on the other side, a knife in her hand. And for the rest of his life he’d remember the moment when he was on his knees, his throat bared to the universe, when the widow was closing in on him and his salvation seemed at hand.