Excerpt

Daybreak

Matt Gallagher

February 22, 2024 
The following is from Matt Gallagher's Daybreak. Gallagher is a US Army veteran and the author of four books, including the novel Youngblood. His work has appeared in Esquire, ESPN, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and Wired, among other places. He is the recipient of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship and was selected as the 2022 Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum Writer-in-Residence. He lives with his family in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The particulars of what had gone wrong, when, how, it’d lingered in him for years. Ten, in fact, a whole decade, Luke Paxton thought. She’s changed so much while I’m still very much the same. Since the world took her from you … well, nothing’s gone right. Nothing.

That wasn’t how it had happened, not exactly, but Pax didn’t like thinking about that part. He decided not to stew, he would not allow it. He hadn’t come all the way to Ukraine to do that. So on the street tram he fixed his mind to another, earlier memory. He thought again of Capri, and remembered.

It had been their last vacation before deployment. Their last trip as a couple. Had he been nervous? He must’ve been. Casualty reports all over Afghanistan were spiking, a predictable result, the officers said, given the nature of counterinsurgency, but of course, it usually wasn’t officers in the casualty reports.

Svitlana had been great that weekend. He recalled that, clean as light. She’d known just when to let him be, slipping away to a giftshop for those conch shell earrings, and she’d known just when to be there so he could blather away about the platoon, about who was squared away and who was a soup sandwich, about who he’d trust in combat and who he was wary of, and whether he could trust himself in the same awaiting crucible.

The island had been nothing but walls of rain. But they’d made do. They had their villa. They had the wine and oysters and strange Spaghetti Western movies neither of them could understand. They had each other’s needs and lusts and excesses and limitations, and they’d made do.

She’d asked that weekend about his family. Which was curious, she’d mostly left the subject alone. “Nothing to tell,” he’d told her, because he didn’t believe there was. He’d also liked being, for her, the man from nowhere.

Pax smiled in his thoughts. Dusk was rolling in like a wave. An older woman on the street tram said hello. Had it happened the way he remembered? Close enough, he decided. It happened close enough and close enough has to be good enough if anything’s ever going to be enough.

“You’ll wait?”

He’d asked in the pale still of first light, her straw, black hair across his bare chest, rain falling over the villa roof and windows and beyond it only the smells of the island and sea.

“Tomorrow to forever,” she’d said. She’d been 20 years old. He, 23. Kids, he thought on the tram in Lviv. A whole damn decade ago. “You make me feel good, Luke, and you make me feel safe.”

A moment of conviction, no matter what came next.

“Forever, then.”

*

Ten years later, ten years gone: he met Svitlana and her son near sunset at the Monument to the War Glory of the Soviet Army. When he arrived he found no statues, only a granite foundation with an inscription: “To the Vanquishers of Nazism.” The monument itself, Svitlana explained, had been dismantled the year prior. Denys wore a hoodie of a local soccer club, Karpaty, a golden lion standing against a shield of green and white.

“Soccer’s big here, huh,” Pax said, thinking of the man from the east at the train station.

“They’re not even my favorite team,” the boy said. “My dad cheers for them.”

The day’s wind had settled into a mellow wane. As they walked through a district of old villas and newer concrete-paneled apartment blocks, Denys listed the entire Ukrainian Premier League for his new audience. Brass tridents hung from Svitlana’s earlobes, Pax saw, not the conch shells. She reached over and tugged at one of Pax’s sideburns.

“You need a haircut,” she said.

“You still in that game?”

“It’s been awhile, I’ll admit,” she said. She’d worked part-time as a hairdresser in Italy for spending money. “And you?” She cocked an eyebrow. “All that hair in the back, not so much up top …”

“I’m just glad to have anything left.”

She laughed. He hadn’t meant it as a dig at her estranged husband, bald and faraway, though he didn’t mind when he realized it could be taken as one.

They were approaching a lane of businesses. Church bells began ringing in sequence, an appeal of the sublime to the secular gods of NATO for a no-fly zone. Together they paused under the bell tower of a modest Orthodox church, listening to its chimes. Three sea-green domes topped the building, corroded and hypnotic, a lean cross rising into the sky like a buoy. Pax watched the boy cross himself and Svitlana do the same, and he thought, huh, I don’t remember her being religious at all. He bowed his head and closed his eyes all the same.

Hey, You, cloud genie, Pax prayed. If You’re up there and bothering to pay attention there’s a lot of bad shit happening down here and it’d be cool if You intervened for once I know that’s not your jam or something because of free will and shit but no one here asked for this war so send your angel of death to take the one man responsible for all this suffering and ruin, that’s the move, dude, don’t be a bitch, amen.

Maybe not the best prayer, Pax thought. But it’s mine.

At the chocolate house Pax insisted on paying for their pastries and hot cocoas. They sat in the cafe while Denys watched tempered chocolate get poured into molds through a window.

“My Ukrainian is terrible. I keep getting these looks.” Pax popped his tongue off the roof of his mouth. “I hate relying on folks to know my language.”

“Your imagination. Most of us learn English in school.” Svitlana rolled her eyes. “And it’s not yours. No such thing as the American language.”

Pax smirked and took a large bite of pastry. As he chewed he noticed Denys shuffling his way through the crowd of other kids with a strange hesitance. He wasn’t going to comment but Svitlana saw him watching.

“He has macular degeneration. It’s genetic, they say. Both parents must carry the recessive gene. It’s why he looks at things from the sides of his eyes. It’s how he sees.”

“Jesus. Is there treatment or anything?”

“Not at this time.” A mechanical remoteness filled her voice. This was not the first she’d had this conversation, nor said these words. “It’s why we send him to the international school. They are more understanding with his learning.”

“That’s good.”

“It’ll continue to worsen. He may be fully blind by the time he’s an adult.”

“What about braille?”

“He’s resistant. But of course we try.” She took a long sip from her cocoa. “I try. Taras, he ignores it, thinks it’ll go away. Like some magic trick. The disabled are considered burdens in Ukrainian society. That his son is not perfect feels a violation. It’s all about him, of course.”

She has poise now, Pax thought, seeing her temples flex, watching her jawline set with each new divulgence. He’d come here for a young woman he thought he’d once maybe loved and found a grown person he wanted desperately to be worthy of.

I’m here to help, he wanted to tell her. Please let me help.

“If we don’t leave this country,” Svitlana continued, “the war will take Denys one way or another. Already he asks how he can shoot a gun at Russians with his eyes. An entire generation of children will forever have them as the enemy, and they’ll be right to. This war will not be a short one. He will grow up in it. They all will.

“And I thank God many times a day he will not fight. As his mother, this is the most normal thing in the world. The army will not come for him. But I see the hurt, the pain on him, as he begins to realize this. And I know the only way to save him from that is to take him far from his country and let him be anything but Ukrainian.”

Pax looked across the table. He reached across for her hand. She hesitated but let him.

There were no second chances. He believed that, knew it to be true. Just get to tomorrow, that was the whole thing. Life dangled dreams in front of people as a bright cloak, only to snatch it away if you dared try to reach them. Pax knew this, he’d figured out the score and told himself never again, no more, more times than he could count. But maybe, Pax thought again. Perhaps this was something else.

She stretched out a finger and began grazing, with a long, orange nail, the top of his wrist.

“You changed over there. Didn’t you?”

Afghanistan, he thought. Over here over there is still Afghanistan.

“Lana.” She was still grazing his wrist, a hint of a stroke, a whisper of a touch. “There’s something I should tell you about that.”

“Me first.” Her fingernail stopped but her hand stayed, her eyes holding a steady calm. “Milan was my fault. I handled it, everything, poorly. You needed me to be a rock. A problem was, I needed one, too. I had already come back here, to Lviv, was building a life. I knew it was a mistake to go. But you were so insisting. And I did miss you.”

Pax heard a noise repeating and repeating and realized it was his knee shaking against the underside of the table. He tucked in his leg so it could no longer reach and said, “I wanted things to be like they had been.” He thought about that. “Which was stupid.”

“You were alone,” she said. She squeezed his hand. “I know that was hard.”

Old hurt tore through his chest like wildfire. He’d buried so much of his life from then deep away, not on purpose, but to survive, to be able to just get to tomorrow. His midtour leave, in particular—it felt like something had split clean there, between before and after, rising and falling, and in the middle of it all lay only Svitlana Dovbush and her trident tattoo, tangled up in bedsheets in a damp hotel room surrounded by choices he could never make, but only desire.

Then Pax had returned to Afghanistan. The suicide bomber attacked the checkpoint a week after he got back. Seven days, exactly.

Had he been thinking about Svitlana, and Milan, and what had gone wrong between them, in that gunner’s cupola? Must’ve been, he thought. I must’ve been. It’s all I could think about. It was impossible for him to separate any of it, even when he knew he should, it had all braided together in the decade since. In the cafe, Pax heard another noise, repeating. It was his own pulse, hammering away in the pit of his neck.

“We had fun together.” Wistfulness laced Svitlana’s words. Because she’d changed and he had not, he’d been stuck and stuck and stuck. No, Pax thought, no. Not again. I can’t lose her again. No.

“I’ll take you all,” he said. His voice was rushed but firm. “To Europe, Barcelona, whatever. To America, if you want. We can get away.”

Svitlana frowned and shook her head. “No, Luke. I could do that myself if I decided to. I am not helpless. But there’s nothing to be done.” She took back her hand. “Despite everything, we must wait. It’s all we can do. A boy needs a father.” She looked away. “He needs his father.”

Another air-raid siren howled down from the holy above, abolishing whatever was supposed to come next.

__________________________________

From Daybreak by Matt Gallagher. Used with permission of the publisher, Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Copyright © 2024 by Matt Gallagher. All rights reserved.




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