Joe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than sixty magazines including Bartleby Snopes, Newfound Journal, and The Summerset Review. His novel, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.
When her son Billy was sent to Iraq, Angie Dekker purchased fifty-two pairs of athletic socks. She sent him one every week. Like an hour glass, the pile shrunk marking time until her son returned home. Pair thirty-two was in her hand when the two marine officers appeared at her door. She heard, “Fallujah,” “Killed in action,” and, “Deepest sympathies.” The funeral at Arlington National Cemetery was a blur. When everyone left, Angie cried alone. She anguished over Billy’s last moments like a stuck record in her brain.
Angie’s grief evolved into a singular desire to see where Billy died. The U.S. State Department blocked her visa applications; Iraq was dangerous even before The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria ate its cities. Frustrated, Angie flew to Istanbul. She approached the hotel concierge for a guide recommendation. He called an ex-colonel in Turkish intelligence. Mehmet Dogan had gray cropped hair. He’d lost a son in a military helicopter accident. He was sympathetic to Angie; nonetheless, he recoiled at the danger of her requested destination.
“Mrs. Dekker, may I call you Angie? I’m very sorry for your loss. But going to Fallujah won’t accomplish anything.”
Angie’s eyes wandered to the horizon. She sighed.
Dogan continued. “Why don’t you allow me to show you the real Istanbul? The Bosporus is beautiful, especially at night. I know an excellent seafood restaurant.”
“Mehmet Bey, you’re very gracious. I’ll go to dinner if you agree to take me to Fallujah.”
“I understand your need for closure, but there’s nothing for you there. Trust me.”
“I have money for expenses.” Angie reached for her purse.
Dogan raised his palm. “I don’t want payment. It’s a matter of safety.”
She took his hand in both of hers. “I beg you.”
“I’ll go on my own.”
“A woman shouldn’t travel alone. Men will take advantage.”
“Then guide me.”
“Give me the chance to dissuade you over dinner.”
Angie released Dogan’s hand. “I’m not hungry.”
“Excuse me. I need to get ready. I’m starting out tomorrow.”
The next day, Angie was at the Istanbul Atatürk Airport waiting for the Turkish Air flight to Diyarbakır. A shadow fell across her.
“You followed me.”
“Angie, please, don’t leave Istanbul.”
Dogan crossed his arms. “Perhaps I’ll have you arrested and sent home.”
“That won’t stop me. I’ll fly to Amman and enter Iraq through Jordan.”
Dogan puffed out a breath. “You’re being stubborn.”
Her eyes held his. “I will go to Fallujah. Mehmet Bey, have you gotten over your son’s death?”
Dogan broke eye contact. “No.”
“Then you should understand. Will you help me?”
Dogan sighed. He sat next to her. “You can’t go alone.” He rubbed his forehead. “If I take you, you must follow my instructions.”
“We must cover your blonde hair. We’ll buy you Arabic dress in Diyarbakır.”
Angie offered him her money in a pink pouch.
He refused. “You’ll need that when we’re back in Istanbul. In šā’ Allāh.”
Angie gave him a tight smile.
Dogan made some phone calls.
The two-hour flight to Diyarbakır was bumpy. Dogan had prearranged a taxi for the six-hour, two-hundred mile trip to Silopi, at the Iraqi border. Dogan cautioned Angie not to say, “Kurdistan,” as a Turkish inspector in fatigues reviewed her passport and kept a copy. Dogan showed the inspector his credentials, and the man saluted.
A huge yellow sun pictured in a red, white, and green Kurdish flag flew over the customs building when they crossed the Habur River into Iraq. Dogan negotiated a ten-day visa, lying about Angie’s purpose, and paying the Iraqi stamp tax.
“The south is aboil,” the uniformed officer said.
Dogan grimaced. Angie smelled the sour sweat that rose on Dogan’s back. In Zahko, they procured another taxi, a gray Renault with the “e” lost from the Magane hatchback logo. Dogan told the driver that Erbil was their destination.
As the car passed brown hills with patches of green, Dogan turned to Angie. “Don’t be alarmed.” He showed her the luger pistol he’d carried in his shoulder bag.
Her eyes widened.
He said, “It’s necessary.”
He leaned forward and put the barrel of the gun to the Kurdish driver’s head. The man’s cigarette dropped from his mouth. His hands flew off the wheel of the car. “I have no money.”
Dogan said, “Drive. South.”
“Fallujah. You’ll be well paid.”
“Al-ama. Give the money to my widow.”
The taxi smelled of rose water and rattled like a box of wrenches on the three-hundred miles to Fallujah. They traveled at night, Angie dozed on and off. Dogan was alert.
They arrived in Fallujah at dawn. The city looked like an ancient ruin with broken palm trees and spiked with mosques. Morning Prayer had begun. Atop a minaret boomed the melodic chant of the muezzin’s voice. “Allahu Akbar...”
Dogan’s face glistened. He turned to Angie. “Fifteen minutes. Then we go.”
The taxi driver’s head swiveled as he searched the street and nearby buildings. He left the engine running.
Angie wore a black niqāb and burqa covering her from head to toe. She trembled as she opened the taxi door and stepped onto the dusty street. Billy died here, she thought, what a filthy desolate place, and tears welled up.
The driver’s neck craned from the car window. “Let’s go.”
Dogan said, “Angie, we must leave.”
Angie sighed. She nodded and slipped back into the vehicle.
The taxi moved thirty yards. Two stolen U.S. military jeeps with camouflage paint appeared on either side of the street and sped toward the taxi, blocking its path back and front. A brace of dark-haired men in black flak jackets, gray pants, and boots carrying rifles with scopes and large magazines emerged from doorways on both sides of the street and surrounded the taxi.
Dogan’s fist slammed down. “Bok.”
Angie stiffened. Her stomach turned to acid. She put her hand to her mouth.
A tall, well-built man in a black skull-fitting takiyah and full beard strode to the car with rifle raised. He said in Arabic, “Get out.”
The driver stepped into the street with hands raised. Two men grabbed him. He struggled, then burst into tears. Dogan raised the pistol. Angie touched his forearm. He nodded and left the gun when they got out of the car.
The tall man turned to Dogan. “He’s a Kurd. You look to be a Turk.” His rifle pointed at Angie, “And what are you? Remove the veil.”
Angie didn’t understand.
The tall man’s voice rose. “Woman, remove the scarf.”
Dogan spoke English in a low voice. “He wants you to uncover your face.”
The tall man’s voice became excited. “English. Turk, what have you brought me?”
Angie peeled off her mask. She wanted to be defiant, but she had the urge to urinate.
Dogan said in English, “She’s Swedish. A tourist. We meant no harm.”
The tall man stroked his beard. He spoke English with a British accent. “You didn’t pray. That was a mistake. Lying to me is another.”
The tall man turned to Angie. “I’m called al-Nasir li-Din Allah. What’s your name and country?”
Angie looked at Dogan. “My name is Angie Dekker. I’m Swedish.”
Al-Nasir tilted his head. “He pressed the barrel of his rifle into Dogan’s chin. “Lie to me again and you’ll watch his head explode.”
Dogan said, “Don’t...”
Al-Nasir cracked Dogan’s skull with his rifle butt. He fell to the ground bleeding and unconscious.
Angie gasped. She bent to Dogan.
Al-Nasir said, “Tell me, woman. Now.”
Angie gulped. She didn’t look up. “I’m an American.”
Al-Nasir’s grin revealed white teeth. “And why have you come to Fallujah?”
Angie’s eyes rose. “My son was killed here. I wanted to see what he fought for.”
“And now that you’re here, what do you think?”
“He died for nothing.”
Al-Nasir roared in amusement. The men around him didn’t understand, but they smiled.
Angie said, “What will you do with me?”
Al-Nasir caressed his beard. “Something Shakespearean.”
The building where Angie was kept smelled like an outhouse pit. Bugs in her lumpy bed bit her left eye and it swelled. Fly bites itched and festered. Weeks passed. She was grimy from unwashed sweat, her hair matted and filthy. An old woman, clothed in black, brought food and water and emptied her latrine bucket. Angie feared she’d be raped, but no man touched her. She worried about Dogan, the old woman wouldn’t tell her what had become of him. She regretted involving the Kurdish driver. She had plenty of time to think.
Angie gulped when the old woman brought the orange tunic. She didn’t want to die. She prayed for the first time since she was told of Billy’s death. The thought of an afterlife comforted her; she’d see Billy again. But what if it all was a myth? Then there’d be nothing. They said Billy died instantly, without pain, without contemplation of his fate. That was better, she thought.
The morning Angie was taken to the desert, something in her water tasted funny. Angie became unsteady on her feet, her mind dreamy. The old woman had to help her put on the orange tunic. The military jeep bumped along the sandy road, then swerved onto the dunes for about a mile. In her sleepy state, Angie saw a line of men, dressed completely in black, all but their brown eyes covered. The tallest man in the middle, she guessed, was Al-Nasir. Angie’s hands were bound. She was half-carried from the jeep across the sand to Al-Nasir by two men on either side of her. She thought, I must fight, run, scream, but her spacey head damped down action. They pushed her to kneel at Al-Nasir’s feet facing a camera on a tripod.
Al-Nasir spoke to the lens in Arabic. To Angie, it seemed a long speech. Dogan came into her mind. She said a silent prayer. Her vision blurred.
Al-Nasir’s last line was in English, “America, you can’t protect your women.”
Angie caught the glint of the steel knife in his hand.
Al-Nasir brought his lips close to her ear and said in a soft voice. “I’ll be quick.”