Distance from my second floor window on Fourth Street to Anna’s apartment across the street was a canyon, a gulf stretching six thousand miles. Back to the place that haunted my dreams, made my hands shake, killed ambition and chilled friendships.
So shocked when I saw her face, the scarred left side of her cheek that she tried to cover with her long dark hair. But the eyes, her eyes were the same green I saw when she stared at me through the smoke after the gunfire stopped.
How the fuck could she turn up in my city, my block, across my street!
* * *
The day when it all went down the sky was the color of dirty pavement, the countryside erupted in yellow dust, and humid air smelled of death even before we entered the village.
A bad day, a very bad day to die. Six of our platoon — my brothers — bought it when an IED took out their Bradley the day before. Then Ruiz was popped by a sniper as he sat down to eat. Barnabas, our squad leader, screamed at us to move out.
We moved. A team of three — Alex, the Joker and Tyrone — smashed in the front door of the piece-of-shit mud hut where we thought the shot came from. Place went under heavy fire for a full minute. Maybe two, then they came out, thumbs up, and walked on.
I followed, but stopped to look inside the house. That girl was the only one alive, huddled like a pile of rags in a corner. Those green eyes asking What the hell did you do to my family? Her family was all over the floor and table. No more breakfast for them.
How can the eyes say so much without words?
* * *
Back at the Company I found the First Shirt. Asked who we’d killed.
“Fucking enemy, that’s who.”
“One was still alive. A young woman.”
“Does she have a name? Any of them?”
He sorted some papers. “Battalion says Abbadabba-something. Fuck you expect?”
“But I heard Mosul had a lot of Christians. Were they Christian or Muslim?
“Fuck do you care? Okay. The chick is named Anna. What kind of name is that over here? Now get out.”
Week later I went to the hospital in town. Just curious. I saw her, bandages on her face. “Shrapnel,” the Iraqi doc said. “She will live. Her father was translator for Army.”
* * *
Who do you talk to about shit like that? Pinheads in the Pentagon had redeployed me back to the front three times. I told an Army shrink I was hearing static in my head, couldn’t think straight, thought I might kill myself. One more body wouldn’t make a difference.
He said, “Get back to your unit and quit malingering.”
When the saviors wipe out a family who did nothing, don’t we got a right to get crazy?
Found a priest — guess he was. An old fart. No collar, so he might’ve been some other kind of padre. “Son, we all have our cross to bear. I see nothing but good coming in the end — if there is an end. Will you pray with me?”
What good’s prayer if you’re dead? It’s a cop out for the living to get off the hook.
* * *
Anna, I’m scared. I haven’t got the guts to talk to you. I kept telling myself to cross the street and explain how it all went down. I felt strangled even thinking about it. I couldn’t do it.
So I watched. I’d see her go out on an errand, running like a mouse caught when you turn on the kitchen lights. Returning with bags of food or whatever. Or I’d see through her window as she messed around in the kitchen.
I didn’t pull the trigger, but could she ever forgive me? Maybe if I lied. Said I was over there once, building schools or some shit. Welcome to America, Anna.
Once, I saw her standing on the stoop and staring at the sky. Tears came to my eyes because she was so small and sad. Beautiful except for the scar. She could have been an American, someone’s girlfriend, someone looking for a good job, a step up the ladder.
* * *
Took me a long time, but I wrote a letter. Lots, but I tore them all up. Finally said, You don’t know me but I heard from neighbors that you are from Iraq. I was there once and loved the country and its people. I live across the street from you. If I can do anything to help you in your new country please let me know.
I signed it and added my phone number. Late that night I slipped the note under her door. And waited. I’d added that lie about loving Iraq. One more sin wouldn’t make a difference.
Two days went by and she didn’t call. Maybe she didn’t speak English. Or gave my note to someone who probably said I was a stalker.
* * *
Maybe a week later I was sitting on the stoop drinking a beer when she came out. She saw me. I stood up. Lifted my hand to wave. Smiled. A welcome-to-America smile.
An odd look crossed her face. Except for the left side that was scarred and would never move. She came down the steps to begin crossing the chasm between us.
At that second I saw a cab kamikaze around the corner, aiming at Anna. I jumped in its path, hitting Anna with a body block. Saw her float back to the sidewalk as the cab hit me. I arced over the hood and hit the street, thunk, like someone had dropped a hundred eighty-pound bag of something.
Cabbie hit his brakes. Then just stopped. No one got out.
I was hurt bad, but the pain hadn’t begun. The clouds above broke for a second and I saw blue sky.
Bad. I was either going to make it or I wouldn’t. I wasn’t afraid of death. I’d paid my dues now. If I made it through the day, it would be a good day. If I was going to die, well, it was a good day for Anna.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Anna’s bewildered look, her eerie green eyes saying, “So this is America.”
# # #
Bio: Walt Giersbach bounces between writing genres, from mystery to humor, speculative fiction to romance. His work has appeared in print and online in over a score of publications. Two volumes of short stories, Cruising the Green of Second Avenue, are available at Barnes & Noble and other online booksellers. He’s also bounced from Fortune 500 firms to university posts, and from homes in eight states and a couple of Asian countries.