It began to rain.
He sat up, and with trembling fingers, tried to unlace the boots he’d taken from the man he’d killed in the apartment. Took him several minutes to finally unravel the knot and pull off the boots. Dumped at least a pint of water out of each and then peeled off the layers of socks and wrung them out and laid them on the rock to dry.
His clothes were sopping wet.
He took off the hoodie, the T-shirt, the jeans, even his briefs. Spent ten minutes sitting naked in the alcove, twisting water out of the clothes until they were only damp.
He draped the hoodie over his chest, the long-sleeved T over his legs, and folded the jeans into a pillow. Lying against the back wall of the cave, he turned over onto his side and shut his eyes.
Never in his life had he been so cold.
At first, he feared it would keep him from sleep, his body shivering so violently in a failing effort to warm itself that he had to grasp the sleeves of the hoodie so he didn’t shake it off.
But as cold as he was, he was even more exhausted.
Within five minutes, sleep won out.
Ethan’s right ankle is shackled and chained to an eyebolt in the floor.
He sits at a ramshackle desk that holds three objects...
A blank sheet of A4 paper.
A black ballpoint pen.
And an hourglass whose black grains of sand are cascading from one bulb into another.
Aashif has advised Ethan that when the sand runs out, he will return, and if at that time what Ethan has written on the paper doesn’t delight him, Ethan will die by lingchi.
But Ethan knows that even if he had specific, high-clearance knowledge of a major upcoming offensive, wrote down dates, locations, targets, details of the anticipated ground strike and air support, it wouldn’t be enough.
Nothing will ever be enough, because no matter what he writes, he will die and die horribly.
All he knows of Aashif is his voice and those brown, evil eyes in which he senses not a desire to learn information but to inflict pain.
The guise of interrogation is merely foreplay.
Something to get Aashif hard and wet.
He is a sadist. Probably al-Qaida.
Somehow, Ethan didn’t allow that full realization to set in as he hung by his wrists in the torture room, but sitting here alone at the desk in the quiet, it hits him full force.
No matter what he writes, in a little under an hour, his life will become infinitely worse.
There is a single window in the room, but it has been boarded over with two-by-sixes.
Through tiny cracks between the panels of wood, brilliant strings of Iraqi sunlight tear through.
The heat is scalding, sweat streaming out of every pore.
The hyperrealness of the moment becomes unbearable, Ethan overwhelmed with sensory input.
—A dog barking outside.
—The distant laughter of children.
—Miles away, the eerie, cicada-like clicking of a gunfight.
—A fly buzzing at his left ear.
—The scent of Masgouf roasting nearby.
—Somewhere in the bowels of this compound, a man screaming.
No one knows I’m here. At least no one who can help me.
His thoughts veer toward Theresa—pregnant back home—but the onslaught of emotion and homesickness is more than he can bear in light of what lies ahead. The temptation to replay their last conversation—a VoIP call at the MWR—is powerful, but it would break him.
Cannot go there. Not yet. In my final moments maybe.
Ethan lifts the pen.
Just need something to occupy my mind. Cannot sit here and dwell on what’s coming.
Because that’s what he wants.
That’s all this is about.
* * *
Shot out of dreams of the war.
For a full minute, he had no idea where he was, simultaneously shivering and burning with fever.
Ethan sat up, reaching out in the darkness around him, and as his fingers grazed the rocky walls of the alcove, his internal GPS updated and the horror that had become his life came rushing back.
He’d thrown his clothes off in his sleep, and they lay scattered on the stone beside him, cold and damp. He spread them out so they’d have a better chance at drying, and then scooted forward until he perched on the edge of the alcove.
The rain had stopped.
The night sky hemorrhaging starlight.
He’d never had the slightest interest in astronomy, but he found himself searching for familiar constellations, wondering if the stars he saw shone from their proper stations.
Is this the night sky I’ve always seen?
Fifty feet below him, the river sang.
He stared downslope toward the water, and when he saw it, his blood froze.
Ethan’s first inclination was to scramble back into the recess, but he fought against the urge, fearing any sudden movement would draw attention.
Son of a bitch, they followed me.
Crossed the river after all.
They were down in those giant pines by the river and so well hidden in shadow that he couldn’t gauge their number.
At a sloth’s pace, inch by inch, Ethan withdrew into the recess, lowering himself until his chest was flattened against the freezing rock, now just peeking out over the lip of the alcove.
They vanished into shadow, and for a moment, aside from the river, the world stood absolutely still, Ethan beginning to wonder if he’d actually seen anything at all. Considering what he’d been through in the last five days, rote hallucinations would’ve been a welcome return to sanity.
Thirty seconds later, they emerged out of the shadow of the pines, onto the crushed rock at the base of the slope.
What the hell?
There was only one, and though it was the size of a man, it didn’t move like a man—traveling across the rock on all fours, hairless and pale under the stars.
A metal taste—byproduct of fear—coated Ethan’s mouth as it struck him that its proportions were all wrong, arms seemingly twice their normal length.
The thing raised its head, and even from this distance, Ethan could see its oversized nose pointed toward the sky.
Ethan wriggled himself away from the opening and as far back into the alcove as he could get, where he huddled with his arms around his legs, shivering and straining to listen for the sound of approaching footsteps or shifting rocks.
But all he could hear was the purr of the river, and the next time he chanced a look outside, whatever he’d seen—or thought he’d seen—was gone.
* * *
In the few hours of darkness remaining, sleep eluded him.
He was too cold.
In too much pain.
Too terrorized by everything he’d experienced to venture back into dreams.
He lay on the rock, overwhelmed with one desire. One need.