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Page 3


One of them tightens his fingers in the fabric of his pants by his knees. They are all watching me. Fear pounds in my heart, but I cannot turn away. The foil with the roasted meat is within my grasp. I need it. I have not eaten in days. My stomach growls again, loudly enough for them all to hear, and the one holding the food smiles. It is not a humorous smile, a laughing smile, but a triumphant one.

  I reach for the packet, and he lets me take it. I want to gobble all the succulent, juicy meat down as fast as I can, like an animal, but I force myself to go slowly, nibble, watching the men. I take a bite, chew carefully, nearly moaning in relief. Another, and I almost forget about the men.

  Almost.

  A hard, big hand latches around my wrist. "Nothing is free, girl. " The voice is low and rough and hard.

  I look up to see beady brown eyes leering down at me.

  "I have no. . . no money. " I hand back the packet, although it takes a huge effort to do so. "Take it back—I cannot pay. I am sorry. "

  "I said nothing about money. " He chuckles like something is funny, but I do not know what.

  One of the others speaks up. "She is too young, Malik. No. "

  The one with the packet of meat—whose name seems to be Malik—glances back at the other one in disgust. "She is plenty old enough. You do not have to join in. " He looks at me. "Have you bled?"

  I am confused. "What? Bled?" I try to pull away.

  His grip on my arms tightens. "Yes, girl. Bled. Your monthly blood. Womans blood. "

  I feel horror and embarrassment pulse through me. "Y-yes. More than a year now. "

  He turns to the other men, grinning. "See? She is a woman. "

  I am beginning to understand what is about to occur. I shake my head and try to pull free. "Please, no. No. "

  Malik does not let go. His grin widens. "Yes, girl. Yes. You ate my food. Now you pay me. It will not hurt too much. I am not a monster. I will not share you. "

  "Yes, you will," someone says, threat in his voice.

  Malik growls, lifts his rifle from the ground without letting go of my arm. "No, I will not. She ate my food. "

  "You do not need to be this way," the one who first protested says. "She is just a girl. I will buy you more food. Let her go. "

  Malik spits on the ground, swaying a little. "You are weak, Mohammed. "

  He tugs me away from the fire, towards a black patch of shadows hiding the stairs. I stumble after him, fear pounding through me wildly now. The stairs creak under his weight, and in my fear-blindness I miss a stair, stumbling. Malik catches me, holds me up by the wrist and tugs me to my feet. There is a pallet of blankets on the floor in a corner, an empty bottle of booze, a box of shells, a cardboard box with cans and other food items in it, and next to the bed are some magazines with a picture of naked American women on the front.

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  I struggle, pull away, and try to kick him. He darts out of reach and then slaps me across the face, hard enough that stars burst across my eyes and my ears ring.

  I smell his breath as he thrusts his face close to mine. "Listen, girl. It is a fair trade. You need to eat, and nothing is free. "

  "I had one bite," I whisper. "Please, let me go. "

  Malik tugs my ripped hijab from my head and tosses it to the ground, pulling hair loose in the process, but I barely feel it. "I will make you a deal. If you cooperate quietly, I will give you more food, and some money. It has been weeks since I have had a woman, and you are very pretty. I am feeling generous. If you keep struggling, I might be forced to hurt you, and I do not want to do that. Not to such a pretty little face like yours. "

  Everything in me shrinks away from him, but my need for food, my need to survive moves my mouth. "Food? And money?"

  He laughs. "That got your attention. "

  He does not let go of me, but pushes me to the blankets. I stumble and fall to my back, scramble away from him, but he kneels near the foot end of the blankets to rummage in the box. He pulls out several cans of food, a packet of jerked meat, and a bottle of liquor. He sets these things on the floor, and then reaches in his pocket and pulls out a wad of money, peels off a few bills, and adds it to the pile.

  "There. I think that is more than generous. " Malik grins at me, and I realize he is drunk.

  I cower against the wall, staring at the food and the money, well aware that what he is offering will keep me alive for at least a month, if Im careful. But what he is suggesting I do to get it. . . I cannot. I just cannot. My knees tighten, and my arms cross over my chest.

  "I. . . I do not—" my voice cracks.

  I need the food, but I do not know how to agree. Fear boils through me, disgust at the sweat-stained armpits of his shirt, the scraggly beard on his chin, the hard brown eyes, the acne scars on his forehead.

  "It will be over quick, girl. "

  He moves to kneel over me, pushes my dress up over my hips with rough hands. He unbuttons the front, and my heart hammers as he bares my br**sts, my privates. My eyes are closed, my body trembling. My stomach growls, gnaws, fueling my desperation. Hard fingers claw at my br**sts, and I whimper. Hard fingers rip away my thin cotton panties, and dig into my soft privates. I cry out loud, but he ignores me.

  I try to pull away, but he holds me in place with a hand on my shoulder. A belt jingles, and that sound becomes seared into my soul. A zipper goes zzzhrip, and then his weight is above me. I squeeze my eyes closed tighter, try to close my knees, but he is already between my legs and something hard is pressing against my privates. I whimper again, and then something pinches, sharp and painful, and then pops.

  I weep quietly for my virginity.

  It is over quickly, and his weight is gone. Something hot and wet is on my leg. A piece of cloth is dropped onto my chest, and then I cannot feel his presence or smell him. I open my eyes, and see that I am alone.

  Allah, what have I done?

  I have not prayed to Allah in a very long time, and I do not know why I do so now.

  I take the rag and wipe myself. There is thick, sticky white fluid dripping down my thighs, mixed with blood. I nearly vomit but have nothing in my stomach to bring up, so I only dry-heave and taste acid. I take the cans and wrap them in my hijab. The money I clutch in my damp palm.

  I run home. I do not cry until I am in my bed. I bathe in the morning, but do not feel clean, even after scrubbing until my skin is raw. I look at the wealth of food, the money that can feed me, and I feel a bit better. It was awful, but it kept me alive.

  I eat, and push away my self-loathing, my disgust, my worry for what I will do when this is gone.

  TWO

  HUNTER

  Operation Iraqi Freedom; Des Moines, Iowa, 2003

  The bar is dim and blurry and spinning as I finish my beer. Ive lost count by now. Ten? Twelve? There might have been a few shots in there, too. It doesnt matter. Derek is next to me, perched on the stool with one foot on the scratched wood floor, flirting with a tall brown-haired girl with huge round br**sts. Hes close to scoring, Im pretty sure. Hes been working this girl for over an hour, playing up his best war stories from the last tour. Weve been back for a month, and were not due to ship back to Iraq for another month, but Derek has gotten plenty of mileage out of his experiences. And by mileage, I mean ass.

  This girl, for instance, is hanging off his every word, leaning closer and closer to him, arching her back to make her already-impressive rack even bigger. Shes stroking his knee absently, and hes pretending not to notice, all the while inching his own hand up her knee toward her thigh, which is bare almost to her hip bones in the little khaki shorts shes wearing.

  I wish him well. Ive got my own piece of heaven waiting at home. . . well, her home. Its where Ive been staying since I got back Stateside. Lani Cutler has been my girlfriend since my sophomore year of high school, and she waited for me through Basic, gave me somewhere to stay until I shipped out, and then gave me one hell of a warriors