Wounded Read online

Page 9


He swaggers away, buckling his belt. I remain there, kneeling on the hard floor, vomiting. Eventually I am able to stop, and I make my way back home, wiping my mouth. My cheek throbs, bruised.

  I stumble into the bathroom and brush my teeth obsessively.

  I cannot look at Hunter. He sees me, though, and exclaims angrily in English. Tries to get up.

  “No. Sit,” I say. “I am fine. ”

  “Not,” he says in Arabic.

  He begins the long, torturous struggle to his feet, so I kneel beside him and let him look at me. He takes my chin between gentle fingers, turns my face to the side to examine my cheek. His brow furrows, and anger flashes in his blue eyes. He touches my cheek, his finger a feather-light brush along the swollen skin. The longer he touches me, the hotter the rage in his eyes grows.

  He says something in English, a single growled question. I don’t need to know the meaning of the word to know what he asked. Who?

  I shake my head. “No. ” He understands that much. “I do not want you involved. He will kill you. He will kill both of us. ”

  “Who?” He says it again in English.

  “Abdul. ” I have to think hard about how to use gestures and our limited mutual understand to communicate who Abdul is. “Soldier, general. ”

  He shakes his head, shrugs. I stand up, try to assume an “attention” position, heels together, back straight, and then I salute. Hunter laughs at my pantomime, but nods, understanding. I draw my fingers in a wide rectangle above my left breast, meaning the row of medals and other colorful things a high-ranking soldier wears there, then pat my shoulders, meaning the rank insignia. Hunter seems confused still. I sigh.

  I hit on an idea. I put my forefinger on my upper lip, indicating a mustache, and say, “Saddam,” and hold my hand above my head. Then I move my hand down a few inches, indicating a slightly lower rank, and say, “Abdul. ”

  Hunter’s eyes widen as he comprehends my meaning. Abdul is a high-ranking general not far beneath Saddam Hussein himself. Or, he was until Saddam was overthrown by the Americans. Abdul has been a regular client for many years, since before he achieved his current rank.

  I sit down again, and Hunter touches my cheek once more. “No,” he says. His voice is hard, angry, determined. “I dead him. ”

  I laugh at his mangled Arabic and shake my head. “No. Say, ‘I will kill him. ’” I repeat it, pantomiming stabbing.

  He nods and repeats what I said. “I will kill him. ”

  There’s no humor in my eyes or voice now. “No!” I say it in English and Arabic. “No. ”

  He does not respond, doesn’t argue, but I can see in his eyes that he hasn’t changed his mind. He intends to kill Abdul for hitting me. I cannot make him understand. This is my life. This is my job. How I survive. If Abdul ends up dead, it could ruin my business, ten years’ worth of establishing clients and a reputation as Sabah.

  But something in my heart yearns to let Hunter do as he wishes. Something in me twinges and twitches, like an unused muscle coming to life. He wants to protect me. He sees me hurt, and there is pain in his eyes, anger for me.

  He does not know me. He does not even truly speak my language, nor I his. We know nothing of each other. We are enemies. Our people are at war. He cannot protect me. Not from the likes of Abdul. Not from anyone.

  Hunter’s eyes are mere inches from mine. I suddenly realize how close I am to him. His thigh brushes mine. His body is near enough for me to feel the heat pouring from him. I can see the individual hairs of his beard growing on his chin and cheeks, thick and black. A bead of sweat slides down his temple, curves over his cheekbone to mingle with the stubble of beard. He wipes his cheek on his shoulder, smearing the sweat into a shiny patch of wetness.

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  His eyes pierce mine, so blue, hot and deep and quavering with a tangle of emotions. I wonder what he is thinking. He licks his lips, tongue tip sliding over his lower lip, a pink dart.

  I do not realize what is happening at first. His face grows closer to mine, his eyes wide and locked on mine, so, so blue, so close. What is he doing? I cannot move. I am frozen by his nearness, trembling with fear and anticipation. This is it. Now he will take what he wants from me. He is still wracked with pain, I can see it in the way the corners of his eyes crinkle and the way his free hand clenches the blanket so tightly his knuckles turn white. But his other hand is still touching my chin, my jaw, the skin beneath my ear, his touch as gentle as a breeze. And now his lips are touching mine; why? What is this? He is kissing me? Clients do not kiss. They do not try, and I would not let them. It is sex, not love.

  I remember my mother kissing my father once when she thought I was not looking. They loved each other, Mama and Papa. She put her lips to his, and their mouths moved together, as if they were eating each other’s tongues. I did not understand it then, but now I do.

  He tastes faintly of meat and garlic and something else unique and indefinable. Something distinctly male. I do not know what to do. I am afraid of this kiss, what it means, what it has begun, where it will lead, why it is happening. I am afraid of Hunter. He is confusing. Strong, and huge, and hard, but gentle with me. Angry when I am hurt. I have seen wounded men before, and they were weak, barely able to move.

  Once, a few years ago, a client hit me in the side because I would not do what he wanted. He broke my rib, and I could not work for many days. I nearly starved. I told Abdul what had happened, why I could not entertain him, and Abdul did something. Made sure the client never came back. Not for me, but so Abdul could continue to enjoy my services. Each motion was impossibly painful. Each breath hurt worse than the blow that broke the rib. I could not move for the pain. Hunter has at least one broken rib, and he continues to move. It hurts him, I can see, but he moves anyway.

  He kisses me carefully, gently. Hesitantly. It is…soft and wet and hot. I do not stop. I want to stop, want to run away from him and his eyes that see me, his hands that touch me in a way I do not mind but should. His presence confuses me. I do not run away. I let him kiss me, and I know I should not, but I do.

  He pulls away finally, palm flat on my cheek, eyes searching me for a reaction. I do not know how to react. How to feel. I am confused. So turned upside down by him and by the kiss that I cannot move, cannot breathe.

  Something hot and salty stings my eyes. Am I bleeding? I touch my eyes and look at my finger. I am crying. Why? I do not know. Am I sad? What is this feeling in my heart, in my chest? It is a tightness, warm and thick, spreading through me. My skin tingles where he touches me. My thighs tremble, and between them…I feel a dampness, and a strange clenching heat, a tension like need.

  His thumb brushes the tear from my cheek, then the other side. He is still close enough to feel his breath on my face.

  My lips tingle and throb where his touched mine.

  It is madness, I know, but I find myself kissing him. Pressing my lips to his, a slow falling forward into him. His lips part and his hand curls around the back of my neck, holds me at the nape and pulls me closer, kisses me back.

  Something touches my teeth, my lips. His tongue. It is a bizarre sensation. Invasive and frightening. I pull away and look at him, and I can feel the confused expression on my face.

  What in Allah’s name am I doing, kissing this American soldier?

  I flee, wondering why I suddenly called upon Allah, why I let Hunter kiss me, why I kissed him back, why his tongue in my mouth was not unpleasant.

  I wonder, as my feet wend their way through streets and alleys, why do I feel a deep, coiling need in my belly to kiss him again?

  What do I do? What is happening to me? What have I done?

  EIGHT

  HUNTER

  Why the f**k did I kiss her? It wasn’t a conscious thought or intent. It just…happened. She was there next to me, her leg brushing mine, that small point of contact burning through me with lightning awareness. Her cheek was brui