In the freeze frame, a confetti of glass hangs suspended above the pavement. A few shards still dangle from the coffee shop window. Midflight, some flash October sunlight, while others smear the faces of the people outside. I rewind to make the shards zoom toward the window. I send the vivid sprays of blood back into the bodies. Play, rewind, pause, twelve times before I can sleep.
Usually they send me to places like Germany or France, anywhere the tension is high. Today’s assignment is in the states, in my hometown of Dearborn, in fact. My bosses must think America is ready. After I’m done today, they’ll use the evening news to start a war.
Through the window, the coffee shop’s plump with the Sunday morning crowd. I know this place - I took my daughter here once. She begged for one of the Christmas cookie cookbooks at the register, but I didn’t have any money back then.
These events are fairly simple. Most of the work is done for me; they pick a neighborhood. On the day of, I get out of the van in full burqa and lead the drugged prisoner through the shiny glass door. I have no idea who the prisoners are. Could be Gitmo, could be liberal internet trolls whose spouses have just reported them missing. Whoever they are, they’re loaded with enough C-4 to make a new crater in the moon. I deposit them in the center of the Sunday morning chaos.
The stunned patrons always look like children, mouths hanging open over their lattes and muffins and mochas. Sometimes they scream, but no one’s quick enough. I hit the detonator on my way out.
We’re good. Our engineers are experts in C-4-to-floorspace ratios. The driver and I are the only ones who leave in one piece. In the following days, shocked locals are interviewed for the news. They mention the two people seen entering the coffee shop, and because of the burqa, they assume I never left.
Last night I woke gasping in a wash of blue light. I’d left the clip reel on again. My finger automatically went for the pause button, but I was too late. I hit pause at exactly the wrong moment and leapt from one nightmare into another.
In the edge of the frame, a dark-haired girl with a Hello Kitty backpack stands outside the coffee shop. Her head is craned back like she’s sky gazing. Except her head isn’t craned, it’s in the process of coming off. In this moment, the red smile in the five-year-old’s neck is only just beginning to widen. Her head is bent a scant few degrees too far. I rewind, then vomit warm beer in a neon gush courtesy of my dinnertime bag of Cheetos.
It’s usually when I’m back in the van and changing out of the burqa that I hear the payment ding on my phone. I leave the hijab in the van, and the driver drops me at a mall where I buy every new cookbook I can find. My house is full of precarious stacks of them, but I’m so used to avoiding them that they’ve never fallen.
I don’t know the driver. I don’t know who pays me. A guy named Ryan sends instructions to the burners. Ryan is my only human contact these days. Of course, Ryan is not his name.
It’s a crisp fall morning in Dearborn. My driver pulls up across from the coffee shop and we stop to wait for the van with the prisoner. You’d think they’d worry about reports of two white vans just before the explosion, but this is America. We’ve already decided what we believe. A couple blurry shots of the vans will show up on a conspiracy website, and that’s about it.
My ex-husband has our daughter. They set me up with a plausible history of drug and alcohol abuse. Okay, so they didn’t need to fake the alcohol part. They made everything legit, even sent us through the courts. They didn’t tell me about that part or I would never have taken the job, but what did I expect? People who do what I do aren’t allowed family. My husband thinks the CIA kicked me out after one too many benders. He thinks he’s saving our daughter from a trainwreck, and he’s right for the wrong reasons. She’s twelve years old now. If things had gone differently she’d be asking me about boys.
This time, the driver gets out and walks around to my side. The sliding door groans and then I’m squinting into the sun. I should have understood as soon as he opened his door... No. I should have understood when they gave me an assignment in Dearborn. They’ll already be finalizing the record of my radicalization… I should have known. As soon as they decided to start a war in the U.S., the bombing here would be scrutinized closely. I became a liability this morning, but I’ve been a loose end for a long time.
As the driver ducks into the van, I wish I could see his face under the mask, have onelast pretense of human connection. Instead, he comes closer. I open the dress and raise my arms so he can strap me up. Fucking crater in the moon.
The clips on my screen weren’t my own assignments, of course, but random Youtube compilations of real suicide bombings in Istanbul, Kabul, Damascus--places that don’t need false flags. When you get down to Hello Kitty backpacks, there’s really no difference, is there?
I walk unaided into the coffee shop. So steamy and warm, so boisterous. Nine children. I shut my eyes so I don’t have to watch the panic dawn on the faces of the mothers, the uncles, the grandparents. I haven’t cried in years. Instead, I think about my daughter. Any second now, someone will hit Play.