The air was acrid, the reddish dust like fire as it burned a path down my throat into my lungs with every pant torn from my cracked lips.
"Ugh," I groaned, the sound no doubt pitiful had I still been able to hear.
My ears still rang with an incessant ringing - a fuzzy static that threatened to consume me entirely.
The ground trembled beneath me, the bombardment that had left me laid low continuing with no sign of ending.
Blindly I reached out in front of me, my fingers scrabbling across the ground in search of even the smallest of cracks. Something, anything, that I might use to pull myself forward with. I felt my fingernails begin to rip backwards as I managed to drag myself a handful of inches forward. The pain mingled with everything else, tears turning my vision blurry until all that was left was a swath of maroon.
The dampness along my chest and midsection spurned me forward - the mortal wound that exhausted me further with each passing second. With every erratic beat of my heart, my life ebbed out of me in gushing spurts.
Three fingernails ripped off as I struggled to pull myself forward once more - earning all of an inch before I collapsed face first into the dirt.
Panting, eyes burning with the dust stirred up by my futile actions, I allowed my eyelids to slowly close.
I was exhausted.
I was resigned.
Blood continued to pool inside my fatigues, the warm ground beneath me accepting each drop that escaped greedily.
"Fuck," I muttered softly - my lips barely moving. The word rung around my head, bouncing off the recesses of my mind until it was all I could hear.
All I could focus on.
I cracked my eyes open, my cheek resting against the ruddy ground as I struggled to focus my vision.
Once blurry shapes soon grew details, characteristics emerging as I blinked rapidly.
My C8 IUR lay only a handful of feet away but it might as well have been miles. I no longer had the strength to retrieve it - to even use it - as my body began to shut down one organ at a time. Coldness began to seep into my extremities - trembles wracking my body only serving to stir up more dust around me.
'Was the ground still shaking, or was it merely me?' The thought flitted across my mind.
Even the Afghani sun that hung high above in all it's radiance couldn't warm me.
Like a lover, I longed to have my rifle in my hands. It's presence alone would be comforting - like some shield to gird myself against the encroaching darkness.
Blackness crept in from the fringes of my vision, a slowly rising wave that threatened to crash over me.
The pain diminished, fading from existence until all that was left in its wake was a numbness.
I felt my eyes close slowly, my body growing slack as I surrendered to the tide.
The scream tore me from my dream, my vocal chords threatening to snap in entirety. My anguished cry, one that sought to convey a pain untold, echoed around the walls before escaping out the bedroom window into the night.
Pitch blackness met me as I sat up in bed, the sheets slick with sweat under me.
I fought to control my breathing, panting, even as I subconsciously began reaching towards a rifle I should have known was not there.
"My gun," I mumbled, my words barely coherent as I fought to pierce the darkness of the bedroom.
Trembling hands stroked across the blankets pooled in my lap, blindly pawing.
'Where the fuck is it?'
My movements grew frantic with every pass of the blankets, twisting and turning even as I couldn't dispel the nightmare that still haunted me.
Anxiety made it hard to breathe - my throat feeling like hands encircled it, choking me. The blankets felt like tendrils, snaking around my limbs as if shackles.
"Shh," Came a soft voice from my left, the bed dipping slightly under me.
I turned towards the sound, wide eyes struggling to understand what I was seeing.
I could still picture my rifle laying in the dirt, my bloody and dirty fingers reaching out towards it with all the futility only a dying man could muster.
The image slowly faded before my very eyes, the darkness fading. Where once a desolate landscape lay, instead I could now make out the silhouette of a face.
It was that of an angel.
Turning away from those eyes, ones that tore me apart, I mumbled out a response.
"My rifle. I can't find my rifle."
It was plaintive, like a child that had lost his favorite toy.
Another pass with shaky hands made me want to scream in frustration.
A soft hand, cool to the touch, upon my shoulder had me turning back towards those pale green eyes that glinted in the moonlight.
"Where are you?"
With a shake of my head, I tried to understand the question. Even as I saw the bedroom around me, the articles of furniture that screamed of a civilian life - one that should have filled me with the feelings of safety and normalcy - I couldn't help but still feel trapped within my nightmare.
I could still feel the sun upon me, waves of humidity assaulting me as fresh sweat trickled down my forehead before stinging my eyes. Blinking rapidly, I fought to clear my vision once more.
The dry scent of sand and dust that clung to every surface filled my nostrils with every inhale.
"Afghanistan." I finally answered, scarred hands gripping the edge of the duvet in my lap.
It was a struggle to slow my movements, my legs still trembling as the adrenaline coursed through me - urging me into action.
To what action, I did not know.
Fingers upon my jaw had me turning my head until I was captured by her piercing gaze.
"Gray," The woman, the angel, said softly. "You're home. You're safe."
Her words were a plea - a plea for me to see reason, to understand.
She kept me focused on her, unwilling to let me look away even as I so desperately wanted to.
Why did her eyes tear me apart?
With a nod, a small smile, "Yes."
The last of the adrenaline slowly died away, coldness rushing in to fill the void that was left.
It was as if I was dying all over again.
Sweat cooled on my skin, adding to the chills that now wracked me.
Blankets I had only minutes ago shoved away; I now pulled towards me, seeking their warmth.
"Home." I repeated, trying to shake the nightmare that had chased me from my sleep.
A nightmare that had followed me out into the waking world.
Idle fingers continued to stroke along my roughened cheek - her piercing eyes holding me enraptured.
Her face finally sank in, memories emerging.
Her smile was blinding, breathtaking. It shook away the last vestiges of what was haunting me - grounding me in the now, not the was.
Nodding, "There you are."
I turned my head downwards, nuzzling my cheek into her hand. Heaving, I felt the mixture of emotions assault me at once.
Hayden's touch grew firm, fingers pinching my chin in her grip as she tilted my face upwards until I met her gaze.
Her eyes had grown flinty, hard.
"You don't do that." She admonished, her tone almost motherly in its scolding. "You don't beat yourself up over this."
How easily she read me.
"For what?" She asked quizzically, before continuing, "You already promised to make me pancakes to make it up to me."
Her light humour in the face of me breaking down made me all the more aware of just how much I didn't deserve her.
With a small chuckle, my teeth chattering slightly, I was all too willing to acquiesce.
My response proved to be the correct one; my answer garnering a satisfied grin.
"But first," She began, pushing the covers away from us, "You need a shower."
I couldn't help but nod in agreement. The scent of sweat hung around me, its pungent aroma like that of flies that couldn't be shooed away.
My movements were hastened by the idea of a hot shower. One that would wash away the sweat as if it were the sand and horrors that caked and mired me within my nightmare.
Sliding from the bed, a dainty hand caught my wrist before my feet had even hit the wooden floors.
Glancing back at Hayden, I merely arched an eyebrow in question before dipping my chin towards her hand.
Her smile was coquettish, eyes flirty.
"Not going to ask me to join you?" She asked, lower lip jutting out in a childish pout.
With a shriek, she giggled as I pulled her bodily from the bed.
I couldn't help but appraise her nude form in the moonlight, the way the shadows made her curves appear all the more alluring.
Where once I was cold, a fire began to burn within me.
Her motives were plain to see. Hoping to use my more baser needs to distract me, to chase away the last vestiges that haunted me.
If only for now. If only for today.
The nightmares of the past were forgotten for now, displaced by the hopes of the now and the morrow.
"Whatever did I do to deserve you?" I asked, drawing her softness against me.
A Mona Lisa smile was all that met my words, her eyes glinting.