Daybreak: A Novel

Daybreak: A Novel

by Matt Gallagher
Daybreak: A Novel

Daybreak: A Novel

by Matt Gallagher


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A disillusioned American veteran volunteers for the war in Ukraine to reconnect with a woman from his past in this timely and powerful novel from a “vital” (The Washington Post) voice in contemporary literature.

Thirty-three-year-old Luke “Pax” Paxton has been out of the US military for almost a decade, adrift in an America he no longer understands, haunted by a mistake made in an unforgiving moment of combat. When an old army friend suggests they travel to Ukraine to help fight against the Russian invasion, he agrees, and together they cross an ocean to Lviv, the City of Lions. But Pax isn’t merely going out of the goodness of his heart. He carries with him the address of a former love, a Ukrainian woman named Svitlana whom he had known as a young soldier and has been unable to forget.

His feverish journey through Lviv takes him down winding and missile-cratered streets as he forms surprising connections with everyone from humanitarian volunteers to displaced Ukrainians and ordinary citizens trying to survive. And when Pax gets the chance to save someone dear to Svitlana, he just might be able to correct the wrongs that have wracked him with guilt for so many years.

Inspired by the author’s time in Ukraine, Daybreak is a deeply moving love story, as well as an exploration of the struggle to find meaning and redemption in the midst of war.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501177859
Publisher: Atria Books
Publication date: 02/20/2024
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 393,713
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

About The Author
Matt Gallagher is a US Army veteran and the author of four books, including the novels Youngblood and Daybreak. His work has appeared in Esquire, ESPN, The New York Times, The Paris Review, and Wired, among other places. A graduate of Wake Forest and Columbia, he is the recipient of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship, a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship, a Sewanee Writers’ Conference Fellowship, and was selected as the 2022 Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum Writer-in-Residence. He lives with his family in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter I I
The bus pitched east through midnight black and Luke Paxton sat with his head against the window, alone with his thoughts. Winter clawed at him through the glass but he kept himself nestled against it. He found the tinges of outside cold bracing, and wanted to keep awake. He wet his throat and stared out at the flurries of snow dusting the road. Dark, baleful forest lay beyond. A convoy of supply Humvees crested a small hill, pushing the other way, toward the border. Something sharp and hot swelled in Pax’s chest. Haven’t felt like this in a long time, he thought. It was thrill. It was fear. More than anything, Pax felt like someone again.

They’d crossed an hour before. First had come potholes, then bunkers and checkpoints with barrels of fire licking the night. The checkpoints were for show, performative, barely better than nothing and maybe not even that. Men with flashlights and slung hunting rifles, a gesture at presence for the sake of itself. What they need, Pax thought, is razor wire. Some Hesco barriers, staggered to force vehicles into a funnel. A machine gun on overwatch ready to snuff out any runaways and squirters. The basics.

They’ll learn, he thought. It’s all new here.

The bus slowed over an old bridge, reaching a village. Brittle Ukrainian sounded through a loudspeaker, reminding of the national blackout. At a bend a tiny church glowed dim, a mural of Jesus holding a candle charting through the snow. Pax blinked and blinked but the image stayed with him long after they left. He hadn’t believed for many years but still wanted to be a person who could.

Across the aisle, Lee was draped over his assault pack, snoring away with the clean conscience of a man who knows his place in the world. Pax had dressed to blend in, jeans, a simple black jacket. Lee wore a hoodie with a skull superimposed in front of crossed rifles, the word “INFIDEL” screaming above the logo. He’d raised the sleeves to his elbows to show off his tattoos of flames and razor wire and old unit crests. A nametape and subdued American flag patched across his assault pack, completing the look. When Pax had teased him about it at the airport, Lee had dug in: “I’ll be the only Asian around for a fucking thousand miles. People need to know they’re dealing with a killer.”

He wasn’t, though, that was the whole thing. Lee’s kill had eluded him through all his deployments, always seconds late to the firefight, a hesitant lieutenant at his shoulder, or a vexing, oblivious civilian standing between him and his chosen glory. It was just luck, happenstance, like so much else in combat, but Lee hadn’t been able to shake the sense of lost purpose in the homeland so now he was here, to again carry the gun.

“We gotta be there, man,” Lee had said when he’d reached out over the phone, trying to find a travel partner as crazy or bored as he was. “They need people like us.”

They? Us? Open questions. Pax had said yes since no one else would, he’d heard it in Lee’s voice, something between despair and disgust, and because he’d had no reply for Lee’s next line, delivered with all the subtlety of an ice pick: “What else you got going on?”

Pax had another reason for coming, too, one all his own, one that had little to do with this strange new war. He guarded this secret, protected it, had it buried deep in a notebook in the backpack between his feet. It’d been given to him ten years before and he’d held on to it ever since. A lifetime ago, he thought. When I’d been worthy of it. When I’d been worthy of her. The feeling in his chest swelled again. He tried to keep it there. It faded away.

From the rear of the bus, laughter crackled like burning wood. It was followed by amused hushes, which in turn yielded more laughter. Pax knew its source: young Ukrainian men returning from abroad to join the fight. Lee had chatted up the ones who knew English while they’d driven through the outskirts of Krakow, and learned they were a collection of students and IT workers living in the Nordic states. None had a day of military training. The leader, a tall blond kid with high cheekbones, hadn’t liked it when Pax interjected to ask what they thought they could contribute.

“This is our country” was all he’d said. He’d said it coiled, with hostility. Pax hadn’t meant anything with his question. He’d just wanted to know.

He turned and looked at the group. They were sharing a flask, all coltish energy and banter, trying to conceal whatever was going on inside them with noise. Which is what young people facing the prospect of battle must do. It was the way of things. This was not the time for much thinking.

I’m walking proof, Pax thought, smirking. I know just when to turn off my brain and ignore that I’m washed-up and broken. Pax was thirty-three. He’d been out of the army for more than a half decade. He didn’t actually believe he was washed-up. He was less sure about the broken part. His snoring friend was thirty-nine and had quit a job as shift supervisor at a regional electronics retailer in Southern California to come here. They weren’t near as close to Corporal Luke Paxton and Staff Sergeant Han Lee of the 173rd Airborne, U.S. Army infantry, as they’d needed to pretend they were to get this far, to be on this bus, rumbling into an alien unknown. Stopping to consider that, or anything at all, would’ve paralyzed them.

Pax took a slow yoga breath and rubbed at the prayer beads wrapped around his wrist. A lady at the VA had suggested these habits to him, once upon a time, and they worked, not always, but enough. His attention pushed out the window again but there was nothing there for him now, only the void of passing night.

“Sleep. Drink. Watch the dark. These are the options.”

Pax followed the rasping words across the aisle. Two rows in front of Lee’s slumbering form, a woman leaned over the back of her seat, elbows out, angled toward him. She wore an olive puffer jacket and had pulled her mousy brown hair back into a ponytail, a wave of stress lines running the horizon of her forehead. A shining blue eye the shade of a robin’s egg severed the space between. Under the dim lighting of the bus, he could just make out the drooping eyelid that fell over its twin. Pax had taken stock of her earlier. She’d been, and remained, the only woman on the bus.

“And talk,” Pax said, sliding over to the aisle seat of his row. “That’s another option.”

“American,” the woman said. “Most of your people are going the other way.”

Pax smiled. Doing something different pleased him. “For what are we born if not to aid one another?” he said, repeating a line Lee had posted to Facebook that had earned many likes.

In contrast to the young men, the woman’s English was precise, confident. She’d lived in Ohio for a year, she explained, during her studies. Between that divide and a mention of children, Pax allowed himself to relax into the conversation. She’s not beautiful, he thought, watching her good eye shine. Not that he could judge much on the matter. He knew he wasn’t handsome. Time had given him the face he deserved. Though the rules weren’t the same for women and men. It’s not fair, he thought. But what is?

“Where are your kids now?” he asked.

“They will stay in Poland with my sister until the war’s over.” The woman sighed, then corrected herself. “Until the victory.”

“Why—” Pax hesitated. It was a tricky question, he knew. But martial law demanded only Ukrainian men stay in-country. “I mean, if you’re okay sharing. I’m just a guy on a bus.”

“It is my duty,” she said. “I’m a military officer.”

“Of course,” Pax said, hoping he’d masked his surprise, knowing he hadn’t. He asked what type.

“NATO countries call it civil affairs. I’ll be back east in a couple days. My commander gave me leave to escort my sons to the border. We live near Kyiv, and we knew they’d strike there. They need the river...” She trailed off.

Pax asked the name of her hometown. A place called Bucha, she said. Nothing special. Just a quiet suburb.

“I was in the army, too,” he said. She nodded as if she’d known that all along. “Can I ask why you joined?”

She laughed. It was the ironic laughter of reluctant soldiers everywhere. “To change the world,” she said. Then her voice turned sincere. “It was Maidan. It was the only important thing which happened to us. It showed ordinary people can fight the big strongmen and win. I was too young for the barricades but my brothers and their friends went. They were my heroes. When they came home to rest I’d pour them tea and sneak them my father’s beers and listen to what they’d done and seen that day. Their table stories were like magic to me.” She shrugged through the dark of the bus. “Besides, my father swears we’re descended from Cossacks. Probably not true but families need their little lies.”

Maidan. Strongmen. Cossacks. Pax was familiar with these things in a hazy, malleable way, but didn’t want to betray the vastness of his ignorance. None of it was why he’d come. The officer saved him from any of that by returning his question: Why had he once enlisted?

“Wish I could remember, fuck,” he said, then, “Apologies,” because he’d been trying to curse less. His boss at AutoHut had told him it was unprofessional, low-class, that the real world wasn’t like the army, and while Pax had resented him for it, the criticism lingered. The Ukrainian didn’t seem to mind, at least. She didn’t even blink.

“Wasn’t patriotism or anything,” he continued, rubbing the stubble around his chin. “More like, a way to do something. I grew up in a small town, middle of nowhere. Biggest, nicest buildings were the Methodist church and the National Guard armory.” He paused, remembering. “Still think about that, sometimes.”

“And why are you here?”

Something seemed to curdle in the recycled air of the bus, and the woman’s good eye fixed on him like a shaft of light, the bad one falling away into the shadows. There was a directness to her rasping voice now, a sense of inquiry beyond the scope of conversation. Should I say that I’m looking for someone? No, he decided. Even through the duloxetine, Pax heard silent bells of caution.

“Wish I could remember that, too” was all he said.

He stretched back in his seat, as if to get farther away from the officer. From the corner of his eye, he saw Lee awake, watching them both with a glancing stare.

About time he stopped with the jabbering, Lee thought. Everyone knows who we are and why we’re here. Let that be enough.

Lee again checked his wristwatch. The hour had changed at the border and the old compulsion to inspect and reinspect his equipment simmered within him. His girls hated this tic but without it, where would they be? Down a few jackets and hats, for starters. He wasn’t flush with money. He didn’t have the resources to buy them new outfits every other week. And his fucking ex-wife, forget it. That woman was helpless. He had no idea how they’d get on without him around.

Lee held himself from going through his assault pack. Everything’s in there, he thought. Everything’s where it’s supposed to be.

Being in Ukraine didn’t feel strange to Lee. He knew he’d come as soon as the invasion proved real. It also didn’t feel strange to be doing it with a battle buddy. He’d trusted someone would answer the bell. It had surprised him, though, that it was Paxton. Everyone he’d expected to say yes, or at least maybe, had balked. Jobs, fatness, families—the typical bullshit, the typical snags. Pax had just been the next name in his phone.

Lee had liked him well enough when they’d served together. Kept to himself, but a good kid, someone you had to show only once what right looked like. Word was he’d had a rough go of it since. Which happened, couldn’t fault him for that. But Lee wasn’t sure what to make of him now. There was a sullenness Lee didn’t recall. And at the airport, when the withdrawal from Afghanistan came up, Paxton hadn’t even seemed upset about it, like everything they’d done over there had been for nothing.

“Dumb wars get dumb endings,” Pax had said. Then he’d just shrugged.

Lee again set his head against his assault pack. Need to sleep while we can, he thought, closing his eyes. He steadied himself with an old cadence. I’m not the killer man, he hummed. I’m the killer man’s son. But I’ll do the killing till the killer man comes.

Pax returned to his window. He pulled out his headphones and plugged them into an old MP3 player. The music of his youth filled his ears. They passed a warning sign for bears. I could’ve handled that better, he thought. Should’ve provided half-truths and half-answers, the way you’re supposed to. It’s what he’d done with the enlistment query. He had been a bit of a patriot but he’d learned long ago to never say it out loud. Flag-humping conservatives, clever-mouthed liberals, spoiled-ass civilians, even foreigners like this lady officer, they all glommed onto that word for their own reasons, their own set notions. There was no point in giving anyone that shard of himself ever again.

Boy goes to war to become a man and comes back someone he doesn’t know, Pax thought, to a country he doesn’t recognize. The biggest cliché on the fucking planet. The least I can do for anyone is keep it to myself.

The bus drove through another checkpoint with barrels of fire and tissue-thin security. “Why are you here?” she’d asked. He could’ve talked about the legion, how Lee intended to join to get sent to the front, and how he wanted to see if he could do supply work or intelligence or something. Pogue shit, sure, but still soldier shit. Something that helped. It all sounded vague and cloudy in his brain, though, and he knew it’d come out even more so. How to explain to people something he didn’t quite comprehend himself? Even if he tried and did his absolute best, there’d be more questions, the kind that sought out detail, the kind that teased out specifics.

It doesn’t matter who I am or where I come from, Pax thought. A snarling punk song turned over to a gangsta rap anthem. He began rubbing the beads on his wrist and counting them. I’m here now.

He made it through the beads twice over before stopping. You’re lying, he thought, not for the first time since leaving Tulsa. Be honest with yourself, at least. You came because of her and only her and everything else that isn’t her is a diversion, and you came because everything has gone wrong and nothing has gone right since the world took her from you.

That wasn’t how it had happened, not exactly, but Pax didn’t like thinking about that part.

In the notebook in the backpack between Pax’s feet was an address scrawled ten years before in cheerful, rounded handwriting. Both the address and the handwriting belonged to a woman named Svitlana Dovbush. Had Pax loved her? Maybe, he thought. No, he thought again—I definitely loved her. I didn’t know it then but I did. He’d thought of her intermittently since, sometimes with longing, sometimes with regret, sometimes with a useless fury he didn’t know what to do with. It’d been sporadic, though, like summer rain passing through. But I loved her, he thought yet again. Then the invasion of Ukraine happened, and no one anywhere could escape it. Then Pax couldn’t stop thinking about Svitlana, and their months together, a torrent of hard memory that beat down and condemned, and then Lee had called, and Pax knew the only choice, the only way to be someone again, was to come here, now, like this. If we could just go back, he kept thinking the night before buying his ticket. To that trip, that weekend, that time. If we could just go back and do it again, we’d get it right.

None of it matters, Pax thought again, looking out the window at more night. I’m here now.

He cycled through the MP3 player, searching. “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” had been her favorite. He’d liked it well enough but it had been her favorite. He wondered if it still was. The low-fi, acoustic scratching of the song transported him elsewhere.

In the far distance, the shape of a city under cold stars began to emerge. Everything was dark, everything was faint, but it won’t always be, Pax thought. Just get to tomorrow. He drifted into a fitful sleep against the glass of the window.

When he woke, the Ukrainian officer was gone. He realized then he’d never gotten her name.

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