If You Leave Online

Chapter One

Kabul, Afghanistan

It’s the smell of blood that tells me I’m dreaming.

Or awake.

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.

Jesus.

There is blood everywhere, spewing from her nose and her eye, from the entire side of her shattered face, dripping onto her naked 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 fuck 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 fucked this girl twenty different ways to Sunday, but right now she’s as distant as a stranger. Because she’s terrified.

Of me.

“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 fucking 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