I nod, cautiously touching my hand my face, trying to cup the stinging sensation. To make it go away. Hector’s eyes narrow at me. “Why don’t you take an almond? They’re delicious. Don’t you find them delicious? And then Raphael will take you inside so you can speak to Ramona. If you’re polite to her, she may find you some fresh clothes.”
This man is insane.
He flipped so quickly, violence surging out of him like the unexpected eruption of a geyser. He’s unstable, and I don’t want to risk pissing him off again. I get the feeling he wouldn’t flinch away from killing me if he thought I wasn’t going to be compliant. I reach out and take a sugared almond between shaking fingers.
“Good girl. Eat it,” Hector coaxes.
I force the small almond past my lips, and the explosion of sugar that follows makes my mouth ache.
“That’s it. Perfect.” Hector nods appreciatively. He stands, the action so quick and fluid that he makes me jump. He strokes one hand against the top of my head, shhhing me, and then turns his attention to Raphael.
“Get her inside. Make sure she’s given a room on the south side of the house.” He turns and climbs back up the steps that lead up to the wrap-around porch, opens the screen door, and disappears back inside the house.
That leaves Raphael and me, with my stomachful of knife-wielding butterflies. “On your feet, girl,” he snaps at me. The insanity is back in his eyes again. I want to turn and run. I want to blindly flee this malevolent, charming house and run until my legs can’t carry me any further. I would do it too, if it weren’t for the group of grim-looking men leaning up against the van I arrived here in. They all have weapons—a vast array of differently shaped guns and knives, small and large. But mostly, I don’t do it because of the baiting edge in Raphael’s words. It’s almost as if he’s willing me to disobey him, to run, to try and free myself…so he can have the pleasure of capturing me all over again and teaching me a lesson.
I get to my feet.
I go inside the house.
I think, perhaps, I will never see my family again.
SEVEN YEARS AGO
“Get down, get down, get down! Watch your fucking head, Duke. You nearly caught that round to the face.” Hands pull at me, bringing me to the ground. I’ve been trained, but boy am I fucking green. My lungs are burning with adrenalin and dust and the shitty realization that I nearly just died.
Cade is on his back beside me, choking on the dirt. Overhead, the powerful blades of the helo that just dropped us into the middle of this shitfight thump at the air, blasting us with even more dirt and dust as it gets the hell out of dodge.
“On your feet, boys. Keep low!” Richter hollers. So far, I’ve followed Richter from the academy, through basic training, all the way across to the other side of the world, and now it would seem I’ve followed him straight into hell.
They warned us how bad it would be. We believed them, too, but the reality of what we’re facing is beyond anything we could possibly have comprehended. Richter’s grabbing at my flak jacket, jerking me upright. He’s signalling to me, tipping two fingers to my right. “Got company, Duke. You’re on right flank. Shoot anything that moves. You okay, son?”
“Five by five.” I nod frantically, my finger on the trigger of my M4 Carbine, but I’m screaming inside my own head.
“You’re on point,” Richter yells. “Take a deep breath and accept this.” That’s his thing—accept that you are where you are. Accept that only you are in control of whether you come out on the other side alive. I push myself up onto my feet, my boots scraping against a fallen street sign half buried in the dirt road. Then we’re moving. Cade’s at my rear, gun aimed over my shoulder, protecting me. That’s our way. We always protect the man in front. In this instance, my heart is in my throat and my dick is hard, and I am in charge of protecting everybody. There are seven men at my back, counting on me to choose a safe passage for them through this madness.
We’ve navigated our way down three streets, choked with burned out cars and building rubble before we make contact. Gunfire rains down from overhead, immediately making my job almost impossible. “Down, down, down,” I yell. I can’t see a fucking thing. The narrow street we find ourselves in is being used to dry sheets—the stained white and yellow and salmon-pink cotton barely shifts on the slight breeze, blocking whatever may lie at the other end of the street from view.
Could be anything back there. We can’t pull through this way. I hold up my closed fist: freeze. All eyes will be on me back there. I know they’ll have already stopped moving and are crouched low behind me. More shots fire overhead, really fucking close. Like right on top of us, close. I hold my hand up in the air, my index finger raised, and I circle it over my head: rally point. Move back to the rally point. We need to find another way. I’m backing up, crouched low, scanning to find the shooters on the roofs over our heads when we hit smoke.
Smoke on the ground means another unit must be close; they’re trying to conceal their whereabouts, too. Couldn’t have come at a better time. I see Cade’s pack in front of me, PRESTON in big black letters across the material. There’s shouting up ahead, along with the rattle of more shots fired.
A cloud of smoke blows across our path, and then I’m stumbling, tripping, falling forward. I’m cursing myself out when I hear the metallic zip of a round firing no more than two feet over my head—exactly where I was standing a second ago.