Wounded Read online

Page 15


I let myself cry, pressing my cheek to his chest, away from the tender area where he was wounded, and eventually fall asleep, held close by Hunter’s arms, contented, confused, awash with physical pleasure and emotional pain.

  One last thought pierces the fog of impending sleep:

  Is this love?

  THIRTEEN

  HUNTER

  I’m woken by a male voice shouting Rania’s name. Rania, not Sabah. Before we can move, a familiar-looking young man appears in the doorway, heaving and sweating from extreme exertion.

  Rania gasps, and I look at her. She’s pale and visibly shaken.

  “Hassan?”

  Shit. That’s her brother, whom we both thought was dead. Rania is still naked except for her miniskirt, and she’s sitting up, bare ni**les peaking in the cold air. Her brother halts in the door, stopped short by what he sees: his sister in the arms of an American soldier.

  He starts jabbering in Arabic too swift for me to follow. Rania listens, clutching the sheet to her chest.

  My heart is pounding, and I can feel adrenaline begin to rush through my system. My skin is prickling, and my spine is shivering. I’m sweating, even though I’m cold in the early dawn.

  Battle.

  Rania tells me her brother is claiming that Abdul is coming to kill us. That evil f**king camel cunt who tried to rape Rania. He thinks he’s gonna get revenge.

  Fury boils through me.

  There are nearly fifty men coming for us, Hassan says.

  I turn to Rania, who has put a shirt and shoes on. “Hide. Don’t come out for anything. No matter what you hear, stay hidden. I’ll come for you. ”

  She shakes her head. “Hunter, you cannot do this. ” Her English is nearly unintelligible. “You are badly hurted. Please. Come with me. We run. ”

  I snatch the rifle from Hassan’s hands, check the clip, and then limp out the door. My leg blazes with every hitched step, but I have no time for pain. “I’m not running, Rania. I’m a f**king Marine. Marines don’t run. ”

  Hassan follows me, jabbering in rapid, angry Arabic. I don’t catch any of it, but I’m guessing he’s pissed I stole his rifle. I swing around and face him. “Protect your sister. Hide her. Protect her. ”

  “Give me my gun, American. ” Slowly-enunciated Arabic.

  I hand him my knife. “Use this. ”

  “Wait,” Rania says. She comes out dragging a bundle wrapped in a sheet. “It is your weapons, Hunter. I did not know what to do with them, so I hid them. ”

  I open the bundle to see my M16, spare clips, and body armor, which is battered and rust-red stained with my blood.

  “Fuck yeah,” I say to myself. “Real gear. ”

  I toss Hassan his rifle back and strap the armor on over my wife-beater. My M16 could use some love, but there’s no time for that. I can feel shit coming. My blood runs hot, ready for battle. I’m gonna f**king finish that bastard Abdul. He’s dead—he just doesn’t know it yet.

  I feel a small hand on my arm, and Rania’s breath on my neck. I wrap her close with one arm. “Hide, Rania. I’ll be fine. This is what I do. ”

  She gazes up at me, brown eyes liquid now, hot chocolate framed by loose blonde tendrils. “Please, Hunter. Come with me. Come away. There are too many. You are only one man. I…please. ” She presses her warm, soft lips to mine. Her next words are whispered. “I need you. ”

  I’m rocked down to the core of my soul by her admission. She needs me?

  I’m tempted. It would be easy to run.

  But, tactically, I know better. They’ll catch us. I can’t run. I can ambush them, fight them door to door. Go down swinging. Give Rania a chance. I don’t expect to make it through this, but I’ll damn well give it a try. Ooh-rah.

  I don’t know what to say to her. I’m in battle mode. Shut down. Hard. I’m not Hunter anymore. I’m Lance Corporal Lee, USMC. Semper Fi, bitches.

  I look down at her, brush a stray wisp of hair behind her ear with my forefinger. “It’ll be fine. I promise. ”

  She frowns and backs away from me. “Go, then. ” She seems angry. “Stupid men. Always wanting to fight. ”

  She turns and runs, vanishes around the side of the mosque.

  Hassan laughs. “She is afraid for you, American. She is angry at me for becoming a soldier. ” His eyes are hard and challenging. “I have killed many of your kind. ”

  I blink. “Just keep her safe. ”

  He spits. “For once in my life, I will. ” And then he’s gone, chasing after her.

  Finally, I’m alone. I spin in place, looking for the best spot. There, a burned-out wreck of a car nudging into a wall on an angle, not far from an alley. Cover, and a retreat. I limp to it, hide in an agonizing crouch. I can see the road in both directions, and the alley behind me isn’t a dead end. All I have to do is wait.

  There, a dark face below the red and white of a keffiyeh. Wait for it. My finger twitches on the trigger, seeing the rifle in his hands, but I wait. Spring the ambush after they’re committed. Two, three…six…ten. All in a line. I’ve got no grenades, nothing but my rifle and three clips. They’re stopping, now, crowding around the mosque. I see Abdul, striding in the middle of a cluster of heavily armed thugs.

  Page 41

 

  Now.

  Crackcrackcrack. I drop two, wet spray, pink mist, red blooms on chests. I don’t get Abdul, who ducks and runs as soon as the gunfire echoes.

  Crackcrack…crackcrack…crackcrack. More drop, spreading red life into the dust. They can’t see where I’m shooting from yet, so I keep firing. My bad leg is beneath me, screaming, my good leg supporting my weight, tensed, ready to propel me into flight when they catch sight of my muzzle burst.

  They’re dropping like flies. I don’t miss. There are too many of them clustered in the street. They were expecting to ambush, not be ambushed. Thank f**k for Hassan’s warning.

  Then they see me. Or rather, they see the flash of fire from my M16. I duck behind the rusted hulk of the car, listening to the metallic thunk and ping of bullets hitting the vehicle, the snap-buzz of rounds hissing past my ear. I shuffle sideways laboriously, shifting positions. My chest burns, still-healing muscles not ready to wield a rifle but given no other choice.

  Hackhackhackhack…hackhackhack. A few rounds hit too damned close for comfort, plugging through the weakened, rusted, blackened metal. Time to move. I lurch to my feet and throw myself backward, firing into the mass. They’re spreading out now, seeking windows and doors. I move down the alley, duck through a random door, and crawl out the window, ignore the huddled mother and children and aged grandmother in the corner. I flop to the ground roughly, cursing as I try to catch my breath. I roll to my stomach, gasping, panicked as my lungs struggle to release. I hear the muffled sound of a round going past my face, roll again and again, lift the rifle and find the muzzle-burst, fire. Hit, wounding but not killing.

  Then I hear a sound more welcome than anything I’ve ever heard in all my life: the answering crackcrack of M16s in the distance. Marines. I fire again, pinking an elbow sticking out from behind a wall.

  Crackcrackcrack.

  There, from the east. Now AK fire chatters up, individual rifle voices blending into a cacophony. I think I hear four rifles. One fireteam. There, there’s the SAW, short coughing buzz-saw bursts. I could cry I’m so relieved. I make it to my feet, then duck again as bullets whine past my ear, reminding me I’m out in the open. I feel a stinging burn cut along my bare arm, a bullet scratching a red line. I run awkwardly, dragging my stiff leg behind me. I need to tie in with that fireteam.

  I round a corner and have to scramble back. There’s a cluster of rag-heads—I feel a twinge of guilt at the racial slur, thinking of Rania—insurgents gathered with Abdul in the center. They’re surrounding a door, and there’s a lot of shouting, rifles pointing, but no one is shooting.

  I have to drag a hasty translation from my whirling head: Give h