Wounded Read online

Page 11


He pauses in the doorway of the mosque, backlit by the brilliant afternoon sun. “Be careful, Sabah. What you do is dangerous, and not just for you. ” And then he is gone.

  I am left wondering how much he knows, and what he will do about it. The answers are not pleasant.

  TEN

  HUNTER

  The darkness of this dank little room is oppressive. The stench of death is overpowering. Time ceases to pass. I don’t dare move from the corner, barely dare to breathe. I don’t know what Rania has planned, but I can’t do anything to help her. Merely breathing is excruciating. If I shift positions, searing pain spreads through every inch of my body. I was starting to heal, starting to have some semblance of mobility, and now it’s gone. I’m back to feeling as bad as the day I was first wounded. Fucking sucks. But at least I know my presence is still a secret.

  And then, suddenly, I’m not alone. I smell him first. Blood, harsh cleaner, sweat. I grip my KA-BAR in my fist and tense. I have enough strength for one lunge, and I have to get it right. I can’t see anything, not even shapes within shadows. I sense him nearby, gather my legs beneath me, snake-slow motions.

  His voice is a low rasp. “I would not do that, my friend. ” Thickly accented English. “Why are you here?”

  I don’t know what to say. “Sabah, she—”

  “You killed Ahmed?”

  “Yes. ”

  “Why?”

  I hesitate, knowing my answer holds my life or death. “To protect myself. To protect Sabah. ” I’m careful to use her assumed name.

  “Can you protect her from you?” His voice is casual, but I can sense the threat.

  “I’m trying. ”

  “Try harder. ” A shuffled footstep, done on purpose so I know he’s leaving. “Abdul, he will kill her soon. He is evil. A devil in man’s flesh. He hungers for things that no man should. She will refuse, and he will kill her. I let you live so you can stop him. ”

  “I will. ”

  “Yes, you will. Or I will make your death slow. ” I don’t even feel him move, but suddenly there’s a sharp point digging into my chest. My knife meets flesh, a return threat so he knows I’m not completely helpless; he doesn’t flinch, and neither do I. “She is not for you, American. Don’t get any ideas. ”

  And then he’s really gone. I don’t sense or smell him anymore. An unknowable amount of time later, I hear footsteps and voices. Hers and his. He says something I don’t catch, and then something about it being business, tells her to lie down. My stomach clenches, and my fist trembles around my knife. I know what’s about to happen, and I want to f**king die so I don’t have to listen.

  I focus on breathing, slow, shallow breaths, each one a wealth of agony. I hear cloth rustling, the slap of flesh against flesh, male grunts, and then an extended groan of release. I nearly vomit. I have to clench my teeth against the bitter bile. Hate burns in my chest. I could kill everyone in this moment. Every f**king person in the world except Sabah. I even hate her for a brief moment, for letting this happen. For being a whore. For getting inside my walls and into my heart, where I have to care about her. I don’t want to care. I don’t want to feel this burning hell of jealousy and hatred.

  He leaves, saying something about danger. I’m too upset to be able to translate.

  I feel her, smell her. “Are you okay, Hunter?” she asks.

  “No. ”

  Her hands touch my shoulder, search me by feel. “Are you hurt?”

  “No. ” I push her hands away. “Ahmed is gone?”

  “Yes. ” She takes my hands in hers and tugs.

  I let her help me to my feet, hissing in pain. We laboriously move back to her house, and again I have to hobble quickly to minimize my exposure in the street. When I’m lying down again, I’m sweating profusely, gasping for breath, fists clenched as pain throbs through me. She sits a few feet away, out of reach, watching me.

  I wave a hand toward the mosque. “Him, that, was to pay?”

  She nods, eyes downcast. A thousand different things flit through my head, but I can’t say any of them. I don’t think she wants to hear them, anyway.

  I close my eyes, trying to make it clear I have nothing to say. I hear her move, and then her hand touches my chest.

  “What you are thinking?” she asks, in halting English. “I feel your words. Speak them. ”

  She feels my words. Strangely, I know what she means. I shake my head. “Too much. No good,” I speak in Arabic. The more I use it, the better I speak it.

  “Say. ” She touches my chin, rubbing her thumb along my jaw. The gesture makes something in my heart twinge, balloon, and burst.

  “Fuck,” I mutter in English. Then, in Arabic, “I hate…” I gesture at the mosque, “…that. What you do. ”

  She takes her hand back, examines her fingernails. “I do, too. ” She shrugs. “No choice. That, or starve. You, too. ”

  “I know. ” I scrape a series of lines in the dirt with my finger. “I will go soon. ”

  I look down at what my finger drew in the dirt: RANIA. I wipe it away roughly.

  She glances up sharply at my words. “No. You die. ” She switches to Arabic. “If you leave me now, you will die. You are not well enough to leave. You cannot even walk on your own. ”

  “If not for me, you wouldn’t have had to do that,” I say in English, knowing she won’t catch it all and not caring. “If not for me…” There are too many ways I could finish that statement, and I say none of them.

  “If not for you, I would be alone. ” She speaks slowly in Arabic, so I can translate. “I was alone for so long. Now, you are here, and I’m not alone. I like not being alone. ”

  She looks down, as if ashamed of her admission.

  “We are different,” I say in Arabic. “Too different. ”

  “I am an Iraqi whore. You are an American soldier. I know. But…still. Should be…is…they are different things. ”

  Ain’t that the f**king truth. Should be and is are completely different things.

  I can’t help it. I can’t help kissing her. I know what just happened next door and disgust rifles through me, but it’s subsumed beneath the tsunami of need for her. There is so much pain in her eyes, raw and potent, and I just want to erase it. Fuck, she tastes good. She feels good. She’s like a drug whirling through my system, banishing intentions and logic. All that’s left is desire. My hands hunger for her skin, her silken flesh. My palm finds the hem of her shirt and brushes it up to cup her waist near her back. My fingers skim up her spine, trace the knobs and ridges to the bumps of her shoulder blades, protruding as she kneels above me, her hands on either side of my face, knees next to my chest. Her hair drifts to fall around us, a golden waterfall shimmering in the early evening light.

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  She tenses at my touch at first, then relaxes and lets my hand roam her back. When our kiss breaks, she leans back to sit with her legs folded beneath her.

  “I know what you want,” she says, sounding resigned. “I will give it to you. Just be still. ”

  She unbuttons the first two buttons of my fly before I have the courage to stop her. “No, Rania. You don’t know what I want. ”

  She struggles against my grip on her wrists. “Yes, I do. You are man. I am woman. I know. ” Her English is fractured by emotion, but clear.

  “It’s not like that. ” I don’t let go of her wrists. “Do you kiss them?” I ask, gesturing at the mosque.

  She flinches at my words. “No. Never. ”

  “Do they kiss you?”

  “No. ” She looks confused. “Why are you—”

  “I’m not them. I’m not one of them. I don’t want you like they do. ”

  Her eyes search mine, brown shining with tears. “Then what are you want with me?” She shakes her head, realizing her grammatical gaffe, and switches to Arabic again. “What do you want with me? I do not…I do not know anything else. This is w