Walid sat at a table across from Mahmud. All Mahmud did was look at him, shaking his head. None of Walid's apologies worked. He woke up with sweat gluing his shirt to his skin.
Walid's sleeping wife stirred, but soon returned to her steady breathing. He swung out of bed, and walked out to the lawn, listening to helicopters in the distance. He was tired of the sound. The steady beat of an American machine gun started up, hitting a note inside his chest. Either someone was standing up to them, or they were shooting at shadows. Walid lit a cigarette and shivered as cold Baghdadi air leaked into his blood. The Samarra Mosque had been bombed earlier that morning, and though he still felt anger, he wasn't certain what to do about it.
"Walid, they're coming!" Haji Salaam yelled
Walid turned. His mind lingered on last night's dream. Smoke from late morning fires thickened the air and blurred the street. They had just set up a checkpoint, and he wasn't certain if Haji was joking.
"The Americans," Haji yelled, as he climbed into his car.
"The bridge to Azamiya." Haji started his car.
No way, thought Walid, he had promised last night to get at least one.
"Get back out, they are at least five daqa'iq away," Walid said. He tried to stop his voice from quivering. Normally, he would've done exactly what Haji was doing.
They were parked on the side of a small road that was regularly used by people who tried to avoid the main street's traffic. Taking a deep breath, Walid pulled out his handgun, and pointed it at the first car that came down the potholed street. He hoped it would stop; he knew he wasn't going to shoot.
"Identification. Where are you from?" Walid asked the driver.
"What is this police checkpoint?" the man asked, scrutinizing Walid with a look of disdain as he handed over his ID.
Walid looked at the man, surprised that he had obeyed him so easily. "Us?" he looked back at his group and felt more powerful. "We ask the questions here, where are you from?" Walid asked; the ID checked out.
"Hurriya, azizi, you?"
Walid smiled. One of their own. "We are only looking for Sunnis, drive on."
The driver hesitated, looking at Walid, Haji and their entourage, before swallowing his words, and driving on.
Walid pointed his gun at the next car driving by.
"Walid, they're getting close," Haji said.
Walid tried to slow his breathing down.
The car squeaked to a halt.
"Identification please. Where are you coming from; where are you going?" asked Walid.
"Where are your uniforms?" the driver asked back.
Walid pointed the gun at the driver's asymmetrical, beady eyes, and large nose. "No questions, just answer."
"Azamiya. I'm going to the market."
Walid's heart jumped. This was his moment to act, to prove Mahmud wrong. Walid felt queasy. He was not certain if this was right. He turned to Haji and the rest of his group and they came at the car.
"You are Sunni, n'am?"
The man's eyes darted to the other men, and he nodded uncertainly. "But I am a good man, I work with Shiites, azizi you must not…"
Walid opened the car door, and pulled the man by his shirt.
"No please, I have a family, what are you doing?"
Haji opened his trunk, and they stuffed the man in. When the man gave Walid another look, Walid felt like crying.
They all jumped in their vehicle, and drove away. Walid looked behind to see an American Humvee slow down near the man's car. Two soldiers nervously approached it, guns out, like it was a car bomb.
"They think it's a seeyara mufakhakha!" Walid forced out a laugh. The rest of them laughed with him.
They drove a little ways until they got to Salaam's place. They pulled the man out of the trunk, and dragged him into the house. On the living room floor, the man got on his feet, and started to beg. Walid tried to stand as tall and steady as he could. He could feel the eyes of his group on him. He fought the urge to shit. He hated the man for not making this easy.
"Please, why are you doing this?"
Walid stepped forward, his hands shaking, sweating. "You think you can destroy our mosques, and murder our women, and not expect us to fight back?"
"No, no, I have never done anything; I don't know anyone who does that. These are Arabs from other…"
Walid stepped forward, steadied his hands and shot the man through his face. The sound jolted everyone, including Walid. The man crumpled to the ground. Walid realized he had been hoping the gun would jam. A pool of blood spread. He told the group to clean up and dump the body near a Sunni neighborhood. They stared at him in silence. He decided it was awe.
A good night's rest was all he wanted, but his wife was giving him that look again.
"What is it?" Walid asked.
He'd been scared of killing again, so he found other things to do. Many Sunnis lived in Hurriya. He took his group and forced the Sunnis to leave. Walid and his men managed to collect taxes from some of the people or take some of their possessions.
His wife pulled out a poster that had his picture on it. Wanted, for 500,000 dinar. He was shocked; first that he would be on a wanted poster, then, that he would be worth so little.
"Where did you find this?"
"At the market. I tore some down, but then there were police everywhere."
He smiled; he loved that his wife would do that when she saw his poster. Other women would have just run away. He kissed her and caressed her smooth skin. She turned her head away.
Walid followed her eyes to the door. There was no one there. His stomach churned. Would the police knock his door down at any moment?
"Is dinner ready?" he asked.
She didn't reply and walked into the kitchen.
That night, after they had made love, she stared at the ceiling in a way that let him know that he needed to say something.
"It will be zian honey, don't worry about it." Walid, of course, hadn't stopped thinking about being caught for what he'd done. He felt small, foolish.
"You have one son and another on the way, in sha allah, what will we do without you? Think about it, Walid, please?"
He wanted to slap her, but she was right, he had to think about his family. He could not get arrested. He knew what happened in those prisons; sometimes people never returned. His family would most certainly starve. In the end, she was concerned with him turning out like Mahmud.
"I will," he said to calm his wife down.
"But what will you do now? Your face is everywhere, and people need money."
He looked around their room; the house had been theirs since they married. They recently bought a new heater, but the cracks in the wall were still growing.
"You could live with your relatives in Karbala until things got quiet again."
"Walid! Don't become like your brother, you are not him."
"Ooskut," he hissed, angry that she would dare to say such a thing. "I will take care of this."
Mahmud would have known what to do. Walid had fought with him after their father was killed in a missile attack during the invasion. But Walid could never stay angry with his brother for long. Mahmud had always been the one people in the neighborhood looked to for guidance. After the invasion, Mahmud had told everyone to wait and see what the Americans were going to do. He always thought about some greater good that Walid couldn't see.
Walid walked into the kitchen, put on a coat, and stepped outside. Winter was giving way to spring, but the air still bit. He could hear the helicopters again and, in the distance, some shooting. He lit a cigarette, sucking in the smoke to warm his insides. "Mahmud, Mahmud, Mahmud," he muttered. He missed him.
It was Mahmud who, when Al-Sadr rose against the Americans, decided to fight. We cannot lie down like dogs. Walid followed his big brother to Karbala, and they fought against the Americans. Mahmud fought without fear, firing clip after clip at the occupiers. Sitting in a dilapidated house, they found themselves overwhelmed as the Americans returned fire. Walid hugged the ground, his stomach churning. He remembered the disappointed look Mahmud flashed him; a look that he'd given Walid throughout his life whenever Walid had acted too weak.
Mahmud was shooting from a break in a wall when Walid, who was looking for a way to get out of the house, heard a grinding splat. He looked over to see Mahmud, half his head gone, falling to the ground.
Walid remembered lying on the floor of that house in Karbala and thinking about how to escape. He hid as the Americans came through. He crawled away when night fell. He came back to Baghdad, and everyone thought he'd been a brave warrior. People stood in awe of him, of Mahmud. He didn't tell them how wrong they were. Instead he lied about how many people he'd killed. Only he knew that man in Haji Salaam's living room had been the first. That man's face was still etched in his brain.
Walid finished his cigarette and threw it into the street. He walked back inside the house.
The next day Walid awoke to his cell phone ringing. "Yes?"
"Walid, your pictures, they are everywhere. Abdullah was stopped at a checkpoint today, and they asked if he knew who you were. I think you should lay low right now."
Walid felt his stomach acting up. He wondered what would happen if he did lay low. Would the police forget him and chase someone else? No, he was being a small man again. It was his time to stand up.
"We will not hide, we are protecting our neighborhood. Have the police done that for us?" He fought to keep his voice from cracking, from showing Haji his fear.
"No," Haji said.
"Of course not. Drive here now, we're going to settle this once and for all." He reached for his gun, but remembered that it was in the bedroom. He had the urge to drink, to stop his trembling.
He hung up and put on his clothes. It felt like someone else was doing it for him. He checked his handgun, tucked it into his pants, and grabbed the wanted poster. His wife was cooking breakfast, and he rushed out when she called him. He did not want to stop, but she called him again. He poked his head back through the door. "I will be back in a few hours."
Haji pulled up in his car, and Walid jumped in.
"The police center, where else?"
Haji stared at him. "But…"
"Are you deaf? Drive!"
Haji put the car into drive, but didn't press the accelerator. "Are you mutaeqed about this?"
"Yes, stop being a coward and drive. You have your gun right?"
"Yes, but the police center?"
Haji's voice threatened to kill the bravery he had mustered. "You never fought against the Americans. Are you a dog?" Walid asked.
"Then drive. When we get there I will go inside and you will stay with the car. All right?"
Haji drove the car without another word. Walid fingered his handgun and remembered what his father had told him: that no one was scared of an AK, since everyone owned one, but handguns reminded people of Saddam's secret police.
Five minutes later they stopped in front of the police station, and Walid hopped out of the car. It was a large cement building with massive steps leading inside. The guard at the front door stood silent as Walid walked past him to the shiny main lobby. Walid rubbed the wanted poster folded in his pocket before realizing that he was sweating too much. He wished he'd asked Haji to come with him so there would be someone beside him. He would not be able to fight all these policemen.
A large poster with his face grabbed his attention. He couldn't stay in the lobby for much longer. Walid saw signs for the police chief's office. It was down a long hallway to the left. He touched his gun and started walking. His hands trembled. He felt like he did after he shot that man in Haji's living room.
He stopped at the door with the police commissioner's name printed in English and Arabic. He leaned against the wall and looked up and down the hallway. No one seemed to have noticed him. From inside the room, he could hear a man yelling on the phone in a gruff voice. Walid thought about Mahmud; he thought about his family. He knocked and squeezed his trembling hands together.
The voice sounded large. Walid pulled out his gun with one hand and his poster with the other. He stepped into the room.
"What can I do for you?" the chubby, bald, man asked, hesitating when he saw the gun in Walid's hand.
Walid placed the wanted poster on his desk. "You're looking for me?"
The police chief glanced down at the image and recognition crept up on his face. "I…"
Walid felt his nerves calm down as the man stuttered, unable to finish a single sentence. He went around the desk and grabbed the policeman by his collar. He was fat, but compliant. Walid pulled him out to the hallway, over to the lobby. "On your knees." The man fell down and started to cry. Everyone was looking at him, but even the guards, with their AKs, didn't move.
"I am Walid, the man on this poster." He pointed at the poster on the wall. "I am not here for anyone else but this man." He looked around when he said it. He felt invincible and the trembling stopped. The overweight policeman continued to whimper, rocking himself like a child. Walid pointed, shot; the man fell. He looked the guards in the eye, and they turned away.
Outside, he lit a cigarette. He absorbed the nicotine hit and sauntered over to the car where Haji sat, staring at him.
He didn't say another word to Haji, and when they got to his house he nodded and walked in. His wife warmed up his breakfast, and he ate it, not speaking to her either, but keeping his eyes on Mahmud and the first man he shot, both standing behind her.
Read the rest of The Struggle Trilogy!
Also by this Author:
Tree of Freedom
Where the Sun Sets
About the Author:
Nelson was born in Tanzania where he lived for the first decade of his life. He then lived in India for a year before finally settling in the U.S. in the state of Michigan. From there he joined the Army and served for seven years as an Infantryman in 1st AD then as an Engineer in Fifth Group. After his time in the Army, he came to New York and earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University. He currently lives with his girlfriend in the Bronx.