The following is from Deni Ellis Béchard’s novel, Into the Sun, set in Kabul, Afghanistan, at the end of the “civilian surge.” Béchard is the author of the novel Vandal Love, winner of the 2007 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, as well as Cures for Hunger, a memoir about growing up with a father who robbed banks. His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Outside, Salon.com, and Foreign Policy, and he has reported from Afghanistan, India, Rwanda, and Iraq.
Explosions, shrapnel, indiscriminate bullets—so many expats had died over the years that I couldn’t help but picture my own end: in a restaurant garden one evening, after telling a near-death story, or in a bar, a guesthouse, any of the places foreigners sipped wine, whiskey, and cocktails, smoked pot or snorted methylphenidate—knockoff Ritalin shipped in from Iran or Pakistan, and sold without a prescription.
The deaths of expats were rarely fully explained. They’d been caught in the gears of war, the overarching historic machinations, plots cooked up in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, funded by Islamabad or Riyadh, or power struggles between Kabul and Kandahar, between Afghanistan and America—the circle jerk of politicians, generals, businessmen, warlords, opium kings, and transient diplomats. They were bystanders near someone important, or targeted directly, in strikes against the occupation’s colonial machine. Even journalists were threatened, for publishing propaganda—stories the Taliban hated and we loved—about brave Afghan souls risking everything to be Western: the athletes and musicians and actors, and, above all, the women.
Thinking back on the attack, I wondered which of us had drawn the Taliban. Of the twenty-one people in the house—Americans, Canadians, Australians, Brits, and so on—most were behind-the-scenes office types or neophyte reporters.
Security contractors were generally killed opportunistically while guarding a target. Justin taught Afghan women, but in a school too obscure to inspire such an organized assault; someone would just shoot him in the street. And like Justin, Alexandra was new here, the women’s rights organization she worked for one of many.
Tam was perhaps the best known among us, but though she’d told stories about being targeted for her exposés, the police or government were usually her antagonists, not the Taliban. Besides, before we’d started dating, I’d heard expats debunk the plots against her, chalking them up to vanity, self-promotion, and a dash of paranoia from having lived here too long.
Later, security video footage sold to CNN would reveal that a man had run by the front gate and thrown a duffle bag loaded with explosives against it. After the blast, I lost track of Tam, not sure if she’d stayed where she’d fallen or left me there. On the floor, my body was aware of adrenaline. Behind the ringing in my ears, Lana still crooned, but softly, as if the attack were her doing, and she was whispering to us, calling us somewhere.
I don’t know why I went to the balcony. In my shock, my brain had become less a thinking organ than a recording device. Bullets whirred past and thudded into the ceiling.
“This way,” a man shouted behind me. “The safe room is back here.”
I scrambled inside and across the living room. Downstairs, there was the clanging of a metal security door closing.
We all followed a burly man with a golden crew cut—definitely ex-military, certainly a security contractor — back to the lounge, a small room with two couches, a wall-mounted flat-screen TV, and a steel trunk for a coffee table.
“Anyone missing?” he called from the doorway, to no one in particular. The safe room remained open, and people were shouting, “Close the door! Close the fucking door!”
“There’s no rush,” he said. He wore a black button-down and jeans, and appeared a young forty. He must have been our host, his accent British or Australian. A piece of pulverized glass shone on his lapel like a diamond.
The gunfire rattled on, with enough lulls to suggest that people were moving about and the guard was returning fire. From the balcony came the sound of an occasional bullet ricocheting. Another explosion, in the courtyard this time, heaved the air and hit us with a wall of sound, resonating in the safe room like an ocean wave slamming into a cove.
The host went out and came back hauling a young man by the arm—a German I’d recently begun noticing at parties. He’d hidden in the bathroom, spots of urine on his pants.
“Check if anyone’s missing,” our host said. Alexandra, Justin, and Clay stood near the wall. Tam was fiddling with her iPhone, selling the story before it had finished happening. “Everyone here?” he asked and then shouted into the house, “Last call!”
He reached into the door frame, slid out a slab of iron, heaved it shut, and locked it with a lever. The sounds in the room became muted, like those on an airplane. Faraway gunshots popped, quiet as pebbles tossed at a window, as if the attackers had come here to court us.
With the safe room closed, I realized the silence wasn’t that of an airplane at all, but of a bunker, far beneath the earth.
“Let’s have a look,” he said and took a remote from its holster on the TV. He changed channels, from ESPN to Al Jazeera to a replay of Friends to a grainy colorless image of the compound yard, the guard booth obliterated and a dead man lying where he’d taken cover near a Toyota Runner riddled with bullet holes. Then he switched to a feed showing the metal security door at the house’s entrance. Three bearded men in shalwar kameez and body armor were inspecting it.
A woman in the back of the room called out a question, her voice a fearful chirrup. It took me a moment to realize she’d asked whether the men outside were Taliban.
“They are now,” he told her and turned from the TV. “Come on, everyone, there’s no need to be scared.”
“I’m not,” Tam said, holding up her phone. “I’m trying to get reception. I need to tell my editors what’s going down.”
“Now this is a proper safe room,” he replied as he made his way to an iPad console. “The walls are too thick for much cell reception, but we’ve got Wi-Fi. Password is end of the world, all one word.”
“Thank you,” she said. “And what is your name?”
“And you’re from?” “South Africa.”
“And is there any reason you would be targeted?”
“I have twenty foreigners partying at my place.”
This was what I envied about Tam: she had the presence of mind to ask questions others would consider only once their survival was guaranteed. She was already trying to deduce the target, an activity I’d engage in later, recalling memories as vivid as frescoes.
The room was crowded and hot, and we repositioned ourselves, easing out of our protective huddles. In the back, two people helped a woman who had glass in her eye.
“And this safe room is secure?” Tam asked, pausing from her typing to assess me and the few other journalists among the guests.
“Secure as it gets,” Steve replied. “There’s no access to us but through two steel gates on the ground floor and this one here. I’ve already put out a call to the police. And for those of you who are feeling queasy, there’s a bathroom behind that sliding panel.”
Tam was studying him.
“And what do you do for a living?” she asked.
“I sell safe rooms, among other things.”
A few expats actually laughed with relief, their voices unnatural, nervously hysterical as they touched each other for reassurance.
Steve unlocked a cabinet. I expected guns, but there were four bottles of Macallan 30 and one of Hendrick’s gin. He ignored the gin, cracked the whiskey, took out a stack of plastic cups, and asked who was drinking. Those who didn’t accept at first soon did, seeing others calm a little but also realizing we might not get a second chance to taste Scotch this old or this expensive.
Tam motioned me to the space on the couch next to her. Specks of glass glittered in her hair, like a party girl’s sparkles, and her eyeliner was smudged. If I were American, I would have boasted that an attacker had shot at me. He’d seen me peering over the balcony, and I’d felt the wind of a bullet at my ear. Everyone was engrossed with the Taliban on the screen, and though I sensed the fear around me, I felt emptied of my own. It had suddenly become a pointless emotion, unable to offer me anything.
The woman who had something in her eye rinsed it out— Steve had the place stocked with water, food, and first aid kits — and her eye was fine, only a little red. She admitted that maybe it was just dust, “though it felt like glass,” she said. “I’m pretty sure it was glass.”
“Fuck!” the German shouted. On the TV, one of our attackers had taken a brick from a green backpack, the kind school-children wear. He attached it to the front door, lit a fuse, and ran. Tam studied Steve, who sipped his drink, observing the screen. A few men and women held their heads, squealing until they were out of breath. The blast took out the camera near the entrance. It sounded like someone slamming a door in an old house. The floor vibrated.
Steve switched to a different feed. In the yard, the three insurgents held their Kalashnikovs at the ready and ran through the blackened doorway.
“How many doors left to go?” Tam asked.
“One on the first floor, at the bottom of the stairs,” Steve said, “and this one here.”
Something deep in my head seemed to contract, and everything in the room, the lines of the walls and ceiling, the TV and the expats, became sharp, as if a razor had cut away the dullness. Tam’s eyes, the crystalline departure at the iris’s dark blue edge, their whites slightly gray a side effect, she believed, of nine years in Kabul’s pollution, and a source of insecurity—were now infused with light.
I’ve often returned to my memories of that evening, when death was no longer an ending but an opening into a shadowless world, and each glimpse felt like a lifetime. Among the images that haunt me are those of Alexandra, Justin, and Clay. The people in the safe room—a few ex-military types, NGO workers whose security Steve’s company handled, and independent journalists or videographers for hire who went to any party that would have them—had formed groups on the couches or the floor, holding hands, whereas Alexandra and Justin stood apart, staring at the TV, their expressions beatifically blank.
Clay also stood alone, the tallest person in the room, at once compact and long-limbed, hard-faced like a fighter but not blunt, the lines of his skull crisp, his brown hair cropped short. He appeared detached despite the feral green of his eyes.
At the time, I made only cursory note of these three. The two men and her desire for them, so uncouth as to seem illicit, had become irrelevant. I noticed Justin and Alexandra because I saw in them the purity of what I felt, and I evaluated Clay’s strength as I asked myself who would protect us if the safe room was blasted open.
I might have forgotten their love triangle altogether—its only purpose, perhaps, to underscore the foolishness that brought about my near death—had they not died two days later. Though expats would fail to find a connection with the attack on the safe room, months of my own investigation would reveal that we were all nearly killed because of that very love triangle: a convoluted story of pettiness; less a plot than a conjunction of character flaws.
“The help is here!” Steve shouted. He’d switched from the camera downstairs, where one of the insurgents was setting up a round of explosives at the next door, to the camera in the courtyard. Afghan Special Forces were coming in, stout men in uniforms and body armor. We admired the determination with which they crossed the yard under fire.
“We’re going to be fucking okay,” Steve called out. “Who needs a refill?”
From Into the Sun. Used with permission of Milkweed Editions. Copyright © 2016 by Deni Ellis Béchard.