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War Bride - Part One
Lillian and Youssef met in June of 2011, fell in love and eloped to Eden Prairie by November. She only told me after they moved in with Ben and I back in Minneapolis after Christmas, giggling over a glass of wine and showing off the modest ring; I remember being surprised that Youssef was able to afford one given that he’d only ever worked gig jobs, but I guess love found a way. She didn’t know how to tell Mom and Dad – she wasn’t scared to tell them, I mean, they knew who he was and how much she liked him, but he was a Muslim and they didn’t approve. “I don’t care what they think, really, but they do have a right to know.” She had been so full of energy and emotion, and her skin turned pink, then red, every single time he was in the room. It was love, and whether I or anyone else approved, it was real for her. So I was happy for her because there really wasn’t another choice, was there?
A couple of months later, Youssef found a job as a software developer in Chanhassen, and they moved out. She took me out to see the apartment they’d rented – it was nice, furnished, small, a “place to start” as she’d put it. Four months later they disappeared. Her landlord contacted me because they hadn’t paid their rent and left in the middle of the month and stole a couple of lamps and an armchair. They’d damaged the standing wardrobe trying to detach it from the wall, I guessed they’d tried to take it too, but gave up part way. He was furious and wanted to know who was going to compensate him. I hung up.
We called her, but the number was disconnected; we went to her work (she’d just started as an office manager at some furniture store) and Youssef’s, and in both cases they had just…not shown up. Neither had any credit cards, but they had liquidated their savings and checking accounts over three weeks. We found out later that Youssef had borrowed $3000 from a friend, whom he’d lied to, saying that he needed to buy a car. The police suspected foul play, but I knew in my heart what had really happened.
I eventually got a message from Lil on Facebook: I’m fine, we’re both fine and so happy. We realized that the life we could have in the States wasn’t what either of us wanted out of it. We are going to Turkey to spend time with his family and figure out what path we want to follow. I love you so much, tell Mom and Dad and Ben I love all of you, and I’ll talk to you soon. She didn’t know Ben and I had broken up because I hadn’t gotten around to telling her. A few hours later, she deleted her Facebook account. Like, permanently, not when you temporarily deactivate it to get some space from social media.
I knew that her message was bullshit.
It wasn’t a surprise when DHS came to visit us. She and Youssef had flown to Ankara but then fell off the grid before being photographed crossing into Syria. From there, the trail vanished. That was it, she was gone. Dad lost it and drove out in the middle of the night to Youssef’s brother’s place in Minneapolis and demanded to know what happened. We were woken up by the cops at three AM – Dad had been arrested for aggravated assault. He had waited outside Suleiman’s walkup and caught him coming home from a bar, breaking his ribs, nose and jaw. The police had to investigate it as a hate crime because Suleiman’s girlfriend insisted that he’d used racist language while slamming Suleiman’s head against a lamp post. I lied and said my Dad wasn’t racist and had been happy that Lillian had married Youssef, he was just angry he’d lost his baby girl. My Mom, because she had always been that way, never said a thing. She enabled my Dad for every minute of their forty years before he ran a red and was T-boned two years later, but that’s not why I’m writing this here.
“Your sister is dead.”
It had been almost eight years since Lillian and Youssef disappeared. We pestered the Government for every possible update for every moment of every day since they told us that Youssef had most likely joined ISIS and had gotten nowhere. “Is it because you don’t want to tell us, or you don’t fucking know?” Dad had snapped at the last one over the phone. They didn’t take our calls much after that.
So to have this Agent Smith cosplayer sit across the table - after I’d gotten the call pulling me out of work to come downtown and wait in the fucking lobby for almost three hours to talk to somebody - and just tell me that like he was asking if I knew how to fix a computer was infuriating. But, I had learned that the best way to deal with the Government and their flunkies was to internalize it, and just be bland. It…it was hard.
“What happened to her?”
He didn’t answer me. I remembered being in Vertebrate Biology in my third year of University when we dissected large feral cats in the lab, and the cold and clinical way the Instructor had shown us how to crack the ribs and pin them open so we could root through the poor thing’s guts. This dickhead had the same look my Instructor did.
“Have you had any communication with your sister since she and her husband left the United States? On social media? Email? Did she send you any physical correspondence?”
I said no. I told them that we had tried everything possible to find her, that Mom and I had actually traveled to Turkey after Dad’s death to try and find Youssef’s family - only to find out he hadn’t any. How Youssef’s brother had moved to Madison and changed all his contact information so we’d leave him alone. About how we’d basically lived in the DHS’ lobby for months, begging for anything they could give us. He just jotted everything down with a distant, placid expression. The weight of everything began to weigh down on me and my emotions ran down my face and onto the table. He offered me a tissue, and eventually just gave me the box.
“Please, you need to tell me what happened to her. Please.”
Agent Smith cleared his throat. “Your sister and her husband joined ISIS forces in Syria. We believe her husband was killed during the capture of Baghuz Fawqani in March of last year. She surrendered to American forces during the fighting and was moved to an internment camp where she was…questioned. She committed suicide on September 25th.”
September 25th. That was a Wednesday, wasn’t Anna’s party at the end of the week? What was I doing on the 25th?
“I’m truly sorry for your loss.” It was the first and only time he showed emotion, and he followed that up by closing his notebook, standing up and walking towards the door. Didn’t even offer me a handshake, not that I think I could’ve accepted it, I saw how much sweat he left on the door knob.
I was working late. I was doing month end accounts. I was doing month end accounts on the same day Lillian killed herself.
I tried to contact Mom, but couldn’t get through, the line was tied up. I didn’t really know what to say. My mind always went to macabre humour when bad things happened. “Sorry mom, Lillian killed herself. But you did get a 2 for 1 deal on babies with your only successful pregnancy, so I guess you came out even!” I had to pull over so that I could cry. I’d become emotional in that room, but now everything shot through me at once, like a knife rooting through my insides. I felt like the cats. I vomited and cried and then vomited some more. I didn’t think I could drive home, so I had to call my husband Adam to come get me. I could barely talk, I’m sure he went from zero to panic instantly when he heard me just moaning into the phone. I felt bad about it later, but I couldn’t do anything at the time, could I? I would’ve driven into a crowded crosswalk; I could hardly see straight.
Work was very understanding, they allowed me to take as much time off as I needed. Adam and I barely took any time off since the last round of IVF failed, so we had more than enough banked to stay home for a few weeks. For the first two nights I cried and he held me. He took Mom’s call when she tried to reach me back later the first night, because I just couldn’t do it. I hated that I was doing this to him, I hated watching his face implode as Mom came apart on the other end of the phone. I hated myself, I hated the Government, I hated Lil, and I fucking hated Youssef. I knew he was dead, but I wanted to destroy him.
“I hope he suffered. I hope that he died in fucking pain. I hope whatever happened to him hurt, a lot.”
Adam held my head and cooed, reassuring me that everything was okay, and that it was perfectly normal for me to feel the way I felt when my violent thoughts curdled into self loathing. Slowly my thoughts shifted from my hatred to my loss.
Talking to Mom was hard. I wanted to have a funeral and a celebration of life for Lillian, but Mom didn’t want to. It had been hard for her, losing Dad, and now to have Lillian’s death, which we had been living with in a way, be so violently confirmed…it was hard.
“I just can’t see you right now Melanie. I love you, but when I see you, I see your sister, and I see both of you as little girls when I couldn’t tell you apart while changing your diapers. I just, I love you but I need time.” I understood, and I wanted to support her, but I needed my mother too, and having her tell me not to come home, to the house I grew up in, that was agonizing.
I was sealed off in this bubble, with nobody but Adam to talk to, and when he had to go back to work, it was just me, at home, by myself. I worked some things out with my company, and they allowed me to telecommute four days a week, which was great, but I was alone. So my mind just went places dark, fast.
“How do we know she actually killed herself?”
The question had been marinating in my head all day, and I ambushed Adam with it over breakfast for dinner that I’d burnt.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, how do we know she actually killed herself? That’s not Lil, she would’ve never done that. She was so strong, stronger than I ever was. She loved life, she radiated life. Why would she kill herself? What if our troops executed her for being a war bride and then covered it up?”
Adam sighed. I remember how crestfallen he looked at that moment, as though he’d been thinking of the same things for some time.
“She was over there for almost ten years Mel. I mean, you knew her for the first eighteen years of her life, and she spent the next ten over there, basically. She might have been a completely different person, she might have seen and gone through such awful shit. Have you read about what kinds of animals those people were? You can’t know what she must have gone through to put her where she ended up.”
It pissed me off to hear him talk like that, but he was right, I knew. My memory of Lil had been preserved in amber; I didn’t really know her anymore. I didn’t know the sad woman whom they said took her own life a couple of months ago while I was doing expense reports. That thought started eating me, and it found plenty of meat.
I started harassing DHS again. I called them twice a day, every day and filed several FOI requests to gain access to whatever information they had on my sister. I remembered that when Agent Smith told me about Lil’s death, he’d leafed through what looked like a tan case folder. I wanted to see that folder. They said no. Then said it again, and again. The FOI requests didn’t help much either. I filed four in November and they were rejected by Christmas. “Matters pertaining to National Security.”
The reason I’m writing this all out here is because of what happened a couple of nights ago. I woke up in the middle of the night to pee, and realized I had a text when I reflexively checked my phone.
Don’t respond to this message. Add me on Signal - [REDACTED]
I didn’t recognize the number, and it didn’t sound like a classic case of wrong number-it is. I didn’t use Signal, but I knew it was an encrypted messaging app, so all of this seemed very mysterious. I was confused and intrigued, so I decided I’d give it a shot. After making sure Adam was still asleep, I took my phone into the bathroom and downloaded the app, then added the unknown number. I knew that whomever messaged me knew who I was, but just in case they didn’t I didn’t want to use my real name. So I named myself Miles Kennefick (the first thing that popped into my head) and messaged the unknown number.
MK: You interested in Chinese microprocessors?
I waited for the Unknown number to message me back, but they didn’t. It was getting late and I couldn’t stay awake too much longer, so I put my phone on silent and went to sleep.
Nobody had messaged me back by morning and I began to think of myself as an idiot. Was someone just bullshitting me? Did my “this sounds clever at 2 AM” spy code throw the Unknown person off? Should I just text them back on the number they gave me via SMS? Then my hands started to run cold – did I piss off someone with all my inquiring about Lil? Was this, like, an ISIS sleeper agent trying to target me? Had I just given away our location by messaging back? As I kissed Adam on his way out the door, I felt nothing but revulsion for myself, for everything I’d done. For how I’d treated Lil when she was still alive, and with us.
I’d seen a grief counsellor briefly after Lil originally disappeared. They told me that it was natural for grief to…fundamentally change a person. That it was normal for the bereaved to become a version of themselves that they didn’t recognize, that they may even dislike. I remembered how I’d started to become more like Dad – how I’d snap at every little thing, how I escalated in anger and paranoia at the drop of a hat, how everything in the world felt tasteless and grey and disgusting no matter what I did.
Adam changed all of that for me. I’d moved out of my parent’s place after finding a new job, and met Adam after going to a bar with my new coworkers. He felt fresh, and honest, and wasn’t in any way tied to my old life, which was saturated with guilt and shame and Lil. He was cute, he was funny, and he was so smart and loving. He made me feel loved, as though I was worthy of having a real life, the type of life that Lillian thought she could have with Youssef. Dad’s death further distanced me from the toxic energy of that loss, and I’d started to build a new relationship with Mom that silently acknowledged our shared pain, but didn’t dwell on it. Through all of that, I had Adam to lean on. And I didn’t just lean. I grew. I became the type of partner that he deserved to have.
Losing Lil a second time now infected my new life, the life I’d built with Adam. All those old sour feelings rushed back, filling my mouth with bile and head with sawdust. I didn’t want to be that person anymore. I decided to delete the app, and the text, and forget about all of it –
You have one (1) new message.
I looked at the notification, unsure if I wanted to read it at all. I began to hyperventilate, which the counsellor had told me was an effective immediate coping strategy because it helped you center yourself. When I was ready, I decided to read the message.
If you want to know what happened to your sister, come to CC Club at nine tomorrow night. Come alone. I’ll introduce myself.
I knew CCs, it was down on Lyndale. I think I’d been there once or twice to use the jukebox with some friends and colleagues. It was the type of place you could go and get lost in, which made sense but also scared me. I didn’t want to be on the news as a body being fished out of the Upper Mississippi. But I needed to know what happened to Lil.
I told Adam that I was going to head out with some of the girls to take my mind off things. I didn’t want him to know what I was doing, because he’d rightfully insist on coming along, and I was terrified of scaring the Unknown caller off. I just couldn’t take the chance. He was happy that I was doing something to take my mind off Lil. Trying to match his smile made me feel sick.
We lived near U of M, so I had to drive into downtown on the 94 and get off going southwest. I parked a few blocks away at the Red Dragon restaurant and took a cab the rest of the way. I didn’t want whoever it was to see what kind of car I drove, or try and follow me. In hindsight, I made it harder for myself to make a quick escape if I needed to, but something about the secrecy of all this put me on edge. When I got to CCs around 8:30 the place was packed and I couldn’t find a seat. I wanted to get there early to find a spot that felt safe and scope out the crowd, but now I felt overwhelmed by the number of people. It was loud – between the clatter of dishes, drinks, the jukebox and people, it was oppressive and intimidating. I didn’t know who I was there to see, I didn’t know what they looked like, and I wasn’t even sure they’d be able to find me.
I managed to snag a spot at the bar after about twenty minutes and began nursing a drink. I didn’t want to get drunk, but needed to take the edge off my anxiety. The bartender was cute and played his flirt for tips routine that I engaged in for fifteen seconds before returning to the drink. Some other asshole then decided to flirt for real, getting uncomfortably close and whisper yelling in my ear.
“Hey, you look all alone, wanna get out of here?”
I didn’t bother looking at him. “Fuck off, dude.”
“Uff-da! You sure about that? I’m friendly.”
That set me off. I spun at him, pissing venom – “Listen asshole-“
It was Agent Smith. He looked like a real human being.
“You sure about that? I’d love to buy you another drink.”
My brain farted for a second, it was hard to reconcile the sweaty pencil neck I knew from the Minnesota creepy nice guy in front of me. He held out a hand and I noticed he had a briefcase in his other one.
We found a quiet and cozy eatery a few blocks away, walking in silence the whole way. He nervously attempted to light his cigarette five or six times before succeeding, but had to promptly put it out when we stepped into the new place, found a booth near the back and ordered two diet cokes. He kept his parka and knit cap on. I kept my phone in my hand under the table, finger hovering over 911 on my speed dial as he began whisper-talking in the same semi-nervous and detached disposition I remembered.
“You need to stop calling us.”
“Your sister’s case was…delicate. She had several details in her deposition regarding troop movements that we cannot release to the public. She also described…acts of war that we don’t think the public needs to know about. For PR reasons.”
I didn’t care about any of that. “Did she actually kill herself?” I felt myself snarling.
His face betrayed his sympathy. “She did. I’m genuinely sorry. Look, I don’t want to slander your sister, and I’m empathetic to what you’ve gone through. What you’re going thr-“
“You don’t know shit about me!”
I knew I reacted extremely, and I could feel the other eyes in the diner on us. I didn’t care. “You assholes think you know everything, that you-“
“I lost my brother over there. He stepped on an IED on his third deployment. My mother committed suicide because of it. I know what you’re going through.”
The almost casual way he said it didn’t just stop me in my tracks, it hurt. I felt bad, but still vindictive. Glad that he hurt as much as I did. He leaned in.
“It’s because I know how you feel that I asked you to meet me. If you keep making requests, your name is going to get flagged. You are going to be placed on a watchlist. And not just you – your friends and family. Your husband. You don’t need or want that. I want to help you.”
He swung the briefcase up and laid it gently on the table.
“Your sister was a disturbed person. I don’t think you will find closure in this, in fact, I strongly recommend that you don’t read any of it. But if you want to understand what happened to her badly enough, then yes, you can read it. My only request is that you destroy it after. This is low level classified information; I’ve redacted some of the details myself so it is safe for your reading, but I wouldn’t recommend you publicize this.”
He pulled out his wallet and left money on the table, then wiped the lip of his drink glass with a handkerchief that he pocketed. I only realized then that he’d been wearing gloves the entire time.
“This should cover the bill. Get home safe. Can I pay for your cab fare back to the restaurant?”
I shook with anger, trying to process everything that he just told me, and my embarrassment at having been caught out. I just shook my head and he nodded, then left.
I got home about forty-five minutes ago. It’s hard to stop my knees from shaking and I’m exhausted from crying. I couldn’t overcome my curiosity when I got into the cab back to my car and had opened the briefcase to start going through the materials before I almost threw up all over the seat and had to stop.
My sister didn’t just commit suicide.
Lil had been interned in a POW camp in Syria for six months and hoarded the little plastic forks she got with her meals. The guards had done a bed check at 7 PM and discovered her the next morning at 8 AM. She had been dead for no more than two hours.
She had disemboweled herself. She used the forks to rhythmically tear herself open over the course of eleven fucking hours without making a sound. When they found her, the ropes of intestines that had fallen out of her body had only just started to cool.
And she was pregnant.
submitted by Jjustingraham