It's the smell of blood that tells me I'm dreaming.
At this point in my life, it could be either one.
Either way, the smell fills up my nostrils and sticks inside my nose; rusty, metallic and sweet. I know from experience that if I'm sleeping, it'll still be there when I wake up. A pungent reminder of a night I'll never get away from.
It's a hell that I'll never escape.
Even as I squirm, as I try to wake, a noise penetrates my consciousness, a noise that doesn't belong in this dream. I know that because I've relived the same nightmare a hundred times. This new sound and sensation don't belong.
It's the unmistakable crunch of bone in my hand.
My eyes snap open and I look around, registering several things at once.
I am in a whorehouse in Kabul, the same one I always use. The girl's black hair is grasped tightly in my fingers, wrapped around my left hand. With my right, I clutch her limp hand, her broken fingers splayed at unnatural angles.
I immediately release her fingers and she stares at me, pressing her other hand to her mouth to contain a scream. Tears flood her eyes and spill down her crushed cheek. The blood turns her tears red and I realize something. The smell of blood wasn't coming from my dream. It was coming from her.
There is blood everywhere, spewing from her nose and her eye, from the entire side of her shattered face, dripping onto her nak*d olive skin and staining the yellowed sheets of the bed. I gasp and instinctively back away from her in horror, my gut tightening in shock.
"What the fuck?" I manage to choke.
When I move, she cradles her broken hand.
The hand that I broke.
Sweat forms immediately on my brow and my heart pounds wildly. I did this to her. I did this to her. What the f**k have I done? I'm panicked and shaken, but at the same time, my training kicks in and I pull myself together.
"I'm sorry," I tell her quickly, gathering my wits and stepping toward her, reaching out to assess her injuries. She flinches away, fear apparent in her wild eyes as she turns her shoulders away from me, as if to absorb another blow. My gut sinks at her response, at the knowledge that she is terrified of me.
At the sick realization that she has a reason to be.
I swallow hard, the thick taste of self-revulsion pooling in my mouth.
"Please," I tell her raggedly, holding my hand out. "Let me see. I won't hurt you again."
The prostitute, a slender girl named Niki, trembles but forces herself to remain still as I feel her arms and legs. She sucks in a breath when I get too close to her broken hand, but rigidly allows me to examine everything else. It's almost odd. I've f**ked this girl twenty different ways to Sunday, but right now she's as distant as a stranger. Because she's terrified.
"I'm so sorry," I tell her, glancing away from her stiff blood-spattered shoulders. "I won't come here anymore. I was asleep. I didn't know what I was doing. I won't ever hurt you again, Niki. I'm sorry."
One of her eyes is swollen shut, but the other one widens at my words and she grabs me with her good hand. Her fingers are cold and they shake.
"No," she whispers. "If you stay away, they will beat me for being unpleasing to you. Please. Do not stay away, soldier."
I stare at her, aghast. "I just beat you," I tell her slowly. "I didn't mean to, but that's not an excuse. I just beat you."
Niki shakes her head, flinching as the movement causes her pain. Guilt floods through me. I hurt an innocent woman. Jesus Christ. I'm a monster.
"You were sleeping," Niki says adamantly. "You have nightmares when you sleep. It wasn't you. It was the bad thing."
"The bad thing?" I ask uncertainly, my eyes frozen on her bloody face. She nods.
"It chases you," she answers solemnly in her thick Afghan accent. "It is different for everyone, but it chases us all. The bad thing caught you."
The bad thing caught me.
I swallow hard, trying to dislodge the f**king lump that has formed in my throat.
"I'm sorry, Niki," I tell her again. "Maybe the bad thing did catch me. I swear I'll make it right."
She looks at me curiously, her body tense with pain, but stays motionless as I wrap a sheet around her shoulders and quickly get dressed.
I'm out the door and down the hall within a minute. I ignore the moans and shrieks and thumping noises coming from the other dark, tiny rooms as I make my way down the battered hallway to the office. I know the man in charge sits in there, because I pay him every time I visit Niki.
He looks up at me in surprise when I walk in, but I don't hesitate. I toss all the money that I have in my wallet onto his desk; all the strange-looking foreign money that is equivalent to hundreds and hundreds of US dollars.
"The girl has pleased me," I tell him quietly. "I will be returning to the United States, but I'll miss her. She should be rewarded. Also, she needs a doctor. She's hurt."
The man stares up at me, his dark gaze gleaming at the sight of the large pile of money. He nods curtly without speaking, clearly unworried about the bloody girl down the hall as he snakes out dark fingers to scrape the bills toward him.
"She needs a doctor," I tell him firmly, gritting the words from between my teeth. "Now."
I slam my fist down on his table, hard, right in the middle of the money.
He looks up at me and wordlessly picks up the phone. He mutters words into it that I can't understand, then hangs up.
"It is done," he says shortly, returning his attention to the papers on his desk.
Without another word I slip out into the darkened streets of Kabul, making my way back to my camp outside of town. After I'm back in my tent, I mechanically begin folding things neatly into my knapsack. When my fingers brush against my satellite phone, I pick it up, then punch numbers into it.
"Colonel?" I say when he answers. "You're gonna need to send another XO out here. I'm coming in."
The colonel doesn't ask why. He knows me well enough to trust my judgment calls. If I say I'm coming in from the field, he trusts that there's a good reason. And of course there is. This is the only life I've ever wanted. Only something monumental would force me to walk away from it.
The bad thing caught you.
I've never retreated in my life. I've never backed away from a fight and I've never cowered in fear. Ever. That's not who I am. But I've been in combat long enough to know that when something unbeatable chases you, you do the only thing you can do.