With a bright red cough of flame, the car exploded from within.
Steel doors clothed in mustard-yellow burst from their hinges. Rapid origami folds carried them through the air, collapsing into misshapen balls of foil. The windshield, now a million shards of diamond, viciously flew through the air.
All the while, the birds that filled the static blue sky sang hosanna.
Then came the screams — hundreds of them — culminating toward a grating choir of discord.
The trunk, bronco-kicked toward the entrance of the roundabout, crashed into the passenger side of an approaching Civic. Breathless, the car sputtered and collapsed. Its mangled frame twisted and writhed as defeated bodies spilled through the shattered doors.
Janis Gagnon ran against the road, a paper cup of coffee flying from his hand and spattering to the concrete like dark, bitter raindrops. His leather satchel beat allegro against his right leg, intermittently wetted by the brief splashes of the rippling fountain. His hands shot out in front of him.
Just in time, he fell — pulling the little boy down to the sidewalk with him. The car’s rumbling, lifeless frame skidded violently in their footprints, illuminated by the bright sheen of screaming golden sparks.
The kid’s buttery face was frozen with terror.
Suddenly, a stereo sputter of gunfire beat into the air. Bullets with butterfly wings swam upward, into the belly of god.
Amid the erupting chaos, Janis could hear a motorcycle’s engine revving. Then, the bike sped off the road — it twisted and rolled out of the rider’s grip, kicking up clouds of dust, splashing into the misty waves of the fountain.
The driver twisted and tumbled along the ground, ten feet behind. He breathed hard, spastically, struggling to pull himself back to his feet.
Then the bullets came in force, sputtering to lawnmower beats. They rippled through his body, tearing his jacket to tiny shreds — ripping through the thick leather like it was tissue paper. They beat cymbal clashes on the dirt-misted pavement around his shattered skull. Blood sprayed from his neck as his fitful body crumbled to the road, dead.
Above, windows were opening in the buildings that overlooked the square. Janis spotted a rush of bodies and faces, rapidly changing, propping guns against the window frames.
Swiftly, he crouched. He grabbed the boy’s shaking, cold hand. “Can you walk?” he said.
The kid, maybe five years old, said nothing. His bottom lip quivered. His tiny brown eyes were gripped with fear.
“It’s going to be alright,” said Janis. He reached forward, softly collecting the boy’s slender, shaking frame, and lifted him up into his arms. “Everything’s going to be alright,” he repeated, blindly pushing ahead — away from the carnage.
For the moment, all that mattered was safety. A raspy megaphone was now blaring muffled words in a language Janis didn’t fully understand. The tones were angry, bitter, obscene. Janis enveloped the boy’s fragile body with as much of himself as he could. He held his breath deep in the recesses of his lungs. As he staggered ahead, he bit his lower lip, piercing the skin. He tasted iron blood.
Running ahead, he navigated in blind faith through an urban minefield of bullet spray. Waves of ammunition chipped into the stone at his feet. Janis found himself strafing rapidly, chaotically. Every breath was a prayer and luck was all that he could hold onto.
It couldn’t have been more than a few moments, but it felt like an eternity. Jutting for the brief shelter of a large building, he saw a silver glimmer of hope: the General Organization of Radio and Television. Janis rushed at the flimsy, wooden doors, throwing his body against them.
He drew a deep breath. The child in his arms was perfectly still, save for the soft, warm beating of his heart.
Janis threw himself backward, forcing their entire combined weight against the doors. He felt the cheap frame crack and the lock fall out of place. He slung the boy toward the ground, neatly setting him on the tiled floor.
“Stay here,” he said. “Okay?”
The boy could only stare back at him in response.
“I’ll be back for you,” said Janis. He crouched to meet the boy’s terrified gaze. “I promise. But I need you to be strong right now, alright? Can you do that for me?”
Hesitantly, the boy nodded.
“Alright.” Janis flashed a brief, sad smile. With a nod, he turned back to the dusty mist billowing around the twisted doorframe. The dark room was punctuated by hot, golden beams of sunlight — beams that rinsed his dark brown hair as he stepped back into the thick heat. Back toward the utterly godless chaos.
Biting his chapped, bloody lip, Janis reached into his satchel and retrieved a small, black notebook. A better weapon than any gun, he thought.
The scent of ash was fresh in the air, mixed with the stink of spilled blood. Intermittent, muted ripples of gunfire erupted. Janis dashed back toward the fountain, finding brief cover as he fell to a crouch against the stony edge. Countless bodies were strewn about, beaten to the ground. Traffic was blocked by wreckage in most lanes. Destroyed cars rested everywhere, their carcasses riddled with bullets.
Janis surveyed the scene. He didn’t see Abdul anywhere — either he had made it away safely, or he was dead.
Suddenly, a startling, mild buzz broke his concentration, vibrating up his pant leg. His cell, ringing incessantly. Five missed calls — long, long distance calls — from an American number. From The Bulwark. He pressed to ignore it. Immediately, the same number called back. He let it ring out.
Maybe fifty feet ahead, a man stood in the bay of a parked pickup truck. The engine idled, sputtering thick, noxious fumes into the air. He spoke into a megaphone, leading a rallying cry. Cheering bodies rallied around the circle — dozens of people banding together, raising their fists in the air.
Janis felt a shiver run down his spine as he withdrew his notebook and began to transcribe the events in black ink.
No sirens approaching, he wrote. Traffic stilled. Bodies strewn about — small man to the east fallen, fearful. Broken glasses, blood around neck. Coalition. Banking of bodies to west end, almost a pileup. Distant horns. Abandoned cars. Mostly silent — still wind. Tall, white man in a dark blue shirt, black dress pants — Alexei Sokolov(?)
Tightly gripping the pen, hovering over the page, Janis hesitated. What else could he do? If Abdul Cattan had died, then so had the story.
Ahead, in living colour, was a virile, chaotic rendering of his suspicions — barely a stone’s throw away — and yet Janis's voice was stifled. If he moved even a few inches from this tiny spot, his flesh would be filled with a fatal dosage of ammunition. Desperately, pathetically, he leaned from the confined, hidden space and snapped a few quick photographs.
Then, as if making his decision for him — as if acknowledging the limits of his civic duty — the truck filled up with a dozen smiling, laughing bodies and pulled off onto the highway. The remaining men piled into a crumpled, sputtering van, tossing the deceased driver down onto the pavement.
In an instant, they were gone. And just as quickly, life resumed. Suddenly, people began to emerge from the cracks and crevices of the place, staggering forward on torn legs. A middle-aged woman rushed toward the fountain, pulling a flaccid body from the rippling current. A young man fell to his knees, stroking the ashen hair of a teenage girl, blood trickling from her stomach. She looked into his eyes, and she smiled.
Finally, the drawl of a single ambulance came. It coursed through the packed, broken streets, weaving around deserted and destroyed vehicles. As it swung into the roundabout, a team of five men emerged, armed with two stretchers and a couple first-aid kits — wholly unprepared to helps the dozens in need.
Again, Janis's phone vibrated.
“Yeah,” he quietly said, flipping the receiver to his ear. Somehow, his shirt was torn. He was bleeding from a scrape in his leg — it soaked through the deep, raw blue of his jeans. He couldn’t feel any of it.
“Janis,” the bright, animated voice on the other end of the line said. “Finally, man, Where the hell have you been? I’ve been calling and calling and calling. Didn’t you get my message?
“I…” Janis muttered, dusting off his tattered shirt. “No. I didn’t.”
“Hey, y’know, that’s alright,” the voice said. “I’ve got some good news for you, buddy. We’re pulling you out.”
Janis was silent. A fuzz of static cut through the line.
“Janis?” the speaker said. “Do you hear me, man? Sorry, maybe we got cut off. The connection isn’t that great. What’s going on is that we’re pulling you out.”
“Yeah, I heard you, Dale,” Janis said. “But… I’m sorry. That’s just not going to work.”
The voice paused, then laughed. “Are you kidding me, man? Sorry, once again, maybe you didn’t hear me. You. Are. Coming. Home. Comprende? This is going to work.”
Janis paused, breathing in the sandy air. “No, you don’t understand. I’m really onto something here. This is big. Bigger than we could even know. It’s everything I’ve been saying. The Russians…”
Dale laughed. “Again with the Russians? Of course the Russians are involved, Janis. We’re talking Damascus. It’s like, a hop, skip and a jump away. They couldn’t not be involved if they wanted to. They go to Syria if they need to borrow a cup of sugar, for Christ’s sakes. It’s routine. And… to be blunt, it’s just not what matters right now.”
“Why’s that, Dale?”
Dale paused. “Um. I think you know why,” he said.
Janis sighed. “Because America is all that matters, right?”
“No. Because America is primarily what matters, man. We are an American magazine, so of course local supersedes global. Yes, I’m sure what you’re onto is probably an enormous story over in, what, the Damascus Gazette? But snap out of it. For what it matters, I believe you — what you’re on, this could be an amazing story. But we’ve got something even better for you here. Something really, really relevant. Something big. Don’t you want to come home?”
Janis paused. “You honestly think New York is my home?”
“It should be, man,” Dale said. “It’s awesome when you’re here. But no… you know that I know that. That’s not what I’m talking about; that’s not even where we need you. I just mean, like, this side of the world. The good side. That’s where home is. Not the middle of some war-ravaged, regressive little poverty state. I mean America.”
“I need more time,” Janis said abruptly.
“No,” Dale said. “Janis, this isn’t a discussion. We’ve made a plan, and we’re going to have to stick to it. You’re going to stick to it. We’ve got your contract, and we’ve got a heavy lead-in on something big — and they want you. They’re asking for you specifically. It wouldn’t matter even if I wanted to help you stay there, I…”
“Give me a month,” Janis said. “One more month. Then I’ll come back. I’ll do whatever you want. I swear to god. Anything.” He paused. “Please. I’m begging you.”
“Janis, you’re going to…”
Janis flipped the phone shut. He took a deep breath and stared out below the midday sun, watching the glorious, golden skyline. His pocket vibrated, again and again. He ignored it. The icon for voicemail popped into his notifications, then another.
He couldn’t be finished. Not yet.
The boy gripped Janis's hand, sinking ragged fingernails into his palm. His little face nearly smiled as they slowly passed through the dusty, quiet streets.
In that moment, the blistering heat was glorious. The cut of each jagged blast of sand through the intermittent thick winds was exhilarating. The distant yet enormous voices of commerce filled the thick air with familiar sound. It felt right.
Three months, Janis remembered. That was all the time that it took to make a place start to feel like it was home. Regardless of lingual and cultural barriers — and independent of his complete and total aloneness in that stuffy little apartment in Tadamon — he felt comfortable. Sequestered and silent, he felt safe.
Suddenly the boy spoke — the first words Janis had heard him speak.
Janis smiled, though he didn’t understand. He felt a tug against his arm, directing them down a small alley draped in shadow. Tall, tan buildings shot to the sky on their either side, opening onto balconies. They sauntered beneath the shade of pendulous laundry.
“Nem… awafq,” Janis said, slowly, butchering the grammar, the pronunciation. “Ma asmk?” What’s your name?
The boy didn’t answer right away. Maybe he didn’t understand. In a mutual silence, they continued walking.
“I’m Janis.” He gestured to himself. “Janis.”
The buildings to either side were gutted. Haphazard wooden planks jutted out, and grey, stony rubble spilled to the sidewalk. A young woman on a bicycle rode past, emitting a brief ding. A couple of outdated cars slowly made their way around the corner.
Side by side, they continued through the cool, shady lanes. For an instant, amid absolute desecration, it seemed like there was no carnage in the entire world. Janis and the boy were merely human beings — residents of a global community.
Barely ten minutes later, they came to an enormous complex, brimming with cheap, grey balconies that hung over a small courtyard with a silent, empty pool.
Janis mumbled in piecemeal Arabic, tripping over each syllable. Is this your home?
The boy nodded, grabbing his hand and pulling him toward the open door.
The industrial stairwell fuzzed with dim light. Fluorescent beams pissed yellow light over their heads through three flights of concrete stairs. Weak odours of chlorine and sweat mingled in Janis's nostrils. Ugly green paint scraped away from the walls and the railings. Their footsteps echoed all the way to the roof.
The hallways were homier, in a corporate, Best Western kind of way. The staticky rugs dampened their walk. Down the hall, past a hundred doors, they finally came to a tiny corner apartment.
The boy turned to him, meeting his gaze for the first time. He spoke in Arabic: My name is Nizar.
Janis smiled as Nizar slowly, cautiously opened the door.
The overpowering scent of roasting lamb flooded out into the hall, dispersed by the whir of a ceiling fan. The door opened onto a detached kitchen with a small wooden table situated by a window. A few plants were stacked upon the windowsill, spilling over with an assortment of fresh herbs.
Within the small, muted space, Janis could hear the dim lull of the television humming in the background. It sang with the quiet, tinny approximation of gunfire. A calm, clinical voice narrated over it in arabic.
As Janis softly shut the door behind him, the sound of light, approaching footsteps coursed through the living room.
A woman appeared from around the corner, her eyes wet with tears. She fell to her knees, desperately pulling Nizar between her arms and clutching him breathlessly tight against her body. She spoke quickly, her voice heavy with relief.
Janis couldn’t help but notice that she was beautiful — stunningly so. She was a thin, dark woman, dressed in a simple, blue, flower-spotted sundress. Her head was unveiled, and a long, thick braid of luscious black hair trailed along her back.
Still speaking, the woman finally released her son and looked up at Janis with deep, piercing brown eyes.
Janis was fairly certain that she was thanking him, and tried his best to respond in turn. He stammered through his cursory understanding of the language. “I’m sorry, uh. Laysat kabirat mae… alearabia?”
The woman smiled. She waved her hand, drawing a deep breath. “English?” she finally said through a thick accent.
“You speak English?” Janis said, surprised.
The woman nodded, rising to her feet. “Yes. I went to… University. In London,” she said. “I didn’t really have a choice. Culturally.”
Janis nodded. “I guess not,” he said, grinning maybe a little too wide.
“My name is Maya,” the woman said, rising to her bare feet. She was taller than he realized — just up to Janis's chin. “Thank you for bringing my son home to me.”
Janis smiled. “Of course,” he said. “I’m Janis.”
“Huh,” Maya said. “It’s not exactly a typical American name.”
“Probably because I’m Canadian,” Janis said.
“Ah,” Maya grinned. “Canada. The self-righteous photocopy of America.”
Janis smiled too. “We try,” he said. “But I guess it’s not exactly a common name there, either. It’s a bit… unusual. If people hear it, they spell it with a ‘y’, and if they see it written, they pronounce it ‘Janice’. Like, a woman’s name.”
“Hmm.” Maya said. “You are smiling. A very big smile. Why is that?”
“Oh,” Janis's eyes were apologetically wide. “I’m sorry if I’m being rude, or if I’m talking too much, or… it’s just that I don’t meet a lot of people here that I can really talk to. People who can speak English.”
Maya nodded. “Then why is it that you are here?”
Janis opened his mouth, then simply laughed — an odd, unexplainable laugh. He felt a tense pressure leaving his body, standing there in the tiny apartment’s cramped foyer. He couldn’t explain it. He met Maya’s eyes, and she smiled back.
Nizar had slipped from his sandals and run back into the living room, plopping himself heavily on the carpeted floor. He reached for the dial on the set, switching channels until the ostentatious lull of screwball music accompanied the movements of cartoon animals. A little smile lit the corners of his lips — like television could make everything normal again.
“Did he…” Maya paused. “Did Nizar see… anything?”
“Yeah,” Janis said. “I think so. Maybe a little more than he should have. It was… messy out there.”
Maya’s striking ruby-red lips formed a sad smile as she watched her son. “That’s the way it tends to go around here,” she said. “I suppose all that I can do is give thanks to God every time he comes home safely. When he goes to school, I’m worried that something will happen — something awful, something beyond my control — and that he’ll never return. Whenever I turn on the television, I see violence. And whenever I see violence, I think of him — of his safety. I want to check the next room to make sure he’s there, away from any danger. When he goes out, even if it’s merely to play, my heart…” she put her hands on her chest. “It aches for him. For all of this.”
Janis nodded. “I understand.”
“Will you join us for dinner?” Maya asked, suddenly upbeat. Her eyes glistened in the lamplight. “Please. It isn’t much — just lamb, vegetables. But it’s the least that I can do. To thank you.”
If the food seemed tempting, the company was doubly so. “Oh, I wouldn’t want to impose. Thanks, I…” Janis paused. His pocket wildly pulsed, sparking currents up his leg.
In one moment, this place was home. There was a beautiful, kind woman, a boy who could look up to him, and a hot, fresh, home-cooked meal ahead — in the next, with a simple phone call, the illusion was shattered. He was a man divided, subsisting on crumbs, inhabiting the cracks between spaces.
“I can’t,” said Janis.
“But I insist.” Maya softly touched his arm. “It’s just the two of us here. There is enough food.”
Just the two of us.
Janis could feel a bead of sweat trickling down his back. He wiped his hands on his jeans, leaving smears of dirt. “Okay,” he finally said, falling further and further into Maya’s deep, brown eyes. She smelled of cinnamon and cloves; he smelled of mud and salt. “Just… I need to…”
Maya smiled. “Down the hall,” she said. “On the left.”
“Thanks,” Janis said.
Dammit, he thought, staring at his tired, beaten face in the mirror. He felt pathetically lonely. He turned on the water, splashed it in his eyes, flushed the dirt from his skin. As the fan loudly whirred, he scrubbed his arms, rolling his sleeves up past the elbow and vigorously scouring away at the filth and soot.
He noticed a small cut on the left side of his chin, trickling a short stream of blood — being aware of it suddenly made it sting.
He towelled himself off with a thin, pink cloth that smelled like damp peaches and cream, then took a deep breath. Had it really been that long since he had spoken with a beautiful woman? It couldn’t have been. Maybe it had just been such a long time since he’d been spoken to by such a beautiful woman… at least, like that.
Friendly. Inviting. With kindness.
Was she flirting with him? That was the million dollar question. Janis knew that he was a good-looking guy, and yet he still found himself surprised every time a beautiful woman expressed even fleeting interest in him. He knew that it didn’t really matter — that it wouldn’t have any impact on who he was or what he had to do — but he really hoped, deep down, that she was flirting with him. It would just be a nice thought to hold onto.
He walked out of the bathroom to the front door. Then he kept walking — down the stairs, through the gate, and onto the warm, sunny street. He kept his face pointed to the ground as he marched forward, feet pattering like a metronome, down the road and ever further away. He never paused to look back.
Janis shuffled through the freezer, navigating past the pitfalls of frozen peas and corn to the treasure at the bottom: four cheese frozen pizza.
He set the oven to preheat, then queued one of his favourite albums up over the stereo. Jeff Tweedy’s soft, sandpaper voice glided atop the cool twang of electric guitar.
Janis sang along with the music, cutting up tomatoes and mushrooms for the pizza. He hummed through the words he didn’t know, searching the fridge for other fresh toppings.
That’s when his phone went off again, rumbling against the kitchen table.
But this time it didn’t bother him. He had resigned himself to one simple fact: how he felt and what he wanted didn’t matter.
Everything was bigger than himself, and everything had already been decided. This was a simple, pragmatic exercise of control. If they were going to pull his Visa — which of course they would if it came to it — he wouldn’t legally be able to stay in the country.
So why get comfortable? Sure, he could allow himself to fall in love with a beautiful woman. And sure, he could become more personally involved in the space he inhabited and the welfare of the people that surrounded him. But there was always that overarching, omnipresent knowledge that he could be ripped out by the roots and replanted across the ocean at any given moment. This phone call was merely a reminder of that. A wake-up call.
Still, regardless of attachment or ethics, Janis totally regretted not sticking around for that succulent dinner. He bit into the poorly crisped slice of pizza, chewing through the distasteful contrast between charred crust and half-frozen cheese. In his mind, he could practically taste that slow-roasted lamb: a perfectly seasoned cut of savoury, fresh meat, dripping with sizzling fat.
He went to the fridge and opened a bottle of Barada lager, letting the cap clink to the floor. He took a deep breath, then inhaled a deep swig. It was a malty kind of foul, with putrid notes of skunk.
God, but that woman was beautiful, he thought. The woman, the boy. The idea of having a family of his own. Deep down, Janis knew that wasn’t the sort of life that he was ever suited to have. He knew that it didn’t fit him — what he did and how he was — on a personal level.
That didn’t mean that, in moments like these, he didn’t find himself really, really wanting it.
He grimaced, choking down the rest of his beer. Then he pulled out his phone and made a call.
“Yeah,” Dale said after two rings, exhaustion weighing down his voice.
“It’s me,” Janis said. “Surprise.”
For a long moment, there was only silence.
“Fuck you, Janis,” Dale finally said. “You’re being a real piece of shit today. Making my life really fucking difficult, and I…”
“I’m coming,” Janis said.
Dale was silent for nearly fifteen seconds. Then, “Pardon me?”
“I’m coming back,” Janis said. “Wherever you need me to be.”
“That’s… great,” Dale said. “But… I mean, I’m still pissed at you, though. You can’t just blow me off like this and expect me not to be pissed. It’s not like agreeing to do your job suddenly makes your being a total dick about this okay.”
“Fuck you, Janis, you can’t just be all reasonable about all of this. You can fuck off, that’s what you can do.”
Janis laughed. “I’m looking forward to seeing you,” he said.
“Yeah,” said Dale. “I’m looking forward to seeing you, too.”
They worked out the particulars, then Janis took a much needed shower. Blood and sweat and crusty filth slid from his skin, down into the rusty drain.
Half-dry and standing on a towel, he didn’t feel clean. He ran pomade-smudged fingers through his damp hair, slicking it back. He threw on a black tee, a burgundy hoodie, and slipped into a comfortable pair of light-blue jeans — travel clothes.
Then he began the bafflingly simple process of packing. In hardly ten minutes, he was able to fill a suitcase and a satchel with his entire life.
Ten years ago, he never would have travelled without at least two or three emergency paperbacks tucked into his bag. Now, he was equipped with an iPad, a laptop. And while they never seemed to capture that same tactile sensation of putting flesh to paper, it seemed petty to sacrifice the necessary space in his luggage to accommodate a stack of physical books.
His books were all online. His music was all online. Even while he still committed to an archaic flip phone, his life was all online. It felt strange to be so untethered from any physical property — to be so portable.
The bachelor apartment was small, but in that moment it was even smaller. The kitchen table — his kitchen table, for a time — was just a piece of transitive property, ready to pass on to the next casual inhabitant. The bed, now stripped of sheets, awaited another body’s dreams.
As Janis stood by the door, surveying the dimly lit room, he smiled. This place had been his home, and yet he hadn’t made a single memory here. In a week, a month, maybe a year, he’d look back and he wouldn’t be able to remember the faded beige of the walls. He wouldn’t remember the shape of the rooms, the feel of the cold tile beneath his bare feet.
Soon, it would all slip away.
Slowly, savouring the moment, slipping into the silence of the room, he laced up his white sneakers. He listened to the hum of the walls, the footsteps of his neighbours, the sound of the city beyond his window.
Janis turned off the light and stepped away, into his next life.