Thatcher woke in a pale rocky room on a cot, his head booming with pain. The scent of blood and dust crammed the dry air, and his throat was as dry as sandpaper. He shivered in his own sweat with his right leg feeling like it was being pierced by a dozen hot needles. He removed a blanket from his chest and leaned up. His waist was wrapped in a bandage smudged with dry blood.
People argued in Arabic in the next room. Being fluent in Arabic, he turned his ear toward the wooden maroon door. One man said:
“Don’t you understand what will happen to our family if we keep him here?”
A lady argued: “And we know what will happen if the Taliban finds him.”
“He brings nothing but danger to our family.”
“We’re in danger anyhow.”
A young Arab lady dressed in a golden, black headscarf and long garment entered the room carrying a ceramic cup. She ambled over, her hazel eyes shining out of her darkened face.
In Arabic he asked, “Where am I? How did I get here?”
“You’re safe,” she said softly.
Thatcher was relieved the woman spoke Arabic.
A pain bolted from his nerve endings across his spine as she helped him sit up. She handed him the cup filled with water. What else might be in it? He supposed the lady meant no harm as he gulped it down, enjoying the coolness moisten his throat and mouth. She took it, refilled it and handed to him again. He guzzled it like he’d been stranded in the desert near dehydration, and water flowed out of him onto the bed before he could make it anywhere near the bathroom. Shit.
She looked away. “I’ll bring you a change of clothes.”
He looked away, feeling the blood rush to his face.
She stepped out of the room and returned with clean sheets and a pair of clean underwear.
“Where are my clothes?” he said.
“I’m afraid they’re ruined with dry blood. I’ll bring you a clean pair of pants and a shirt, but first I need to clean the wounds.”
She ambled over and grasped his hands as he struggled to sit up. She pulled and he swung his feet to the rock-hard floor, and hobbled to his feet. He stood there naked except for the urine stained underwear covering his butt and genitals, and the sheath covering his wounds.
The lady faced the other direction while he changed into a fresh pair of underwear. Never would he think he’d dress in Arab’s clothing, especially in underwear, where some other guy’s junk has been. But he didn’t have any other options.
He slipped into the new underwear while the woman changed the sheets on the cot.
“Okay, lie back down for me,” she said softly. “I’ll clean those wounds.”
As he slowly lay back down on the newly made bed, his back wrenched with horrible pain.
“The morphine has worn off.” She stepped away and grabbed a needle from a shelf dug into the rock wall. As she clasped his left arm and prepared to stick him with the needle, he grabbed her arm. Their eyes locked. Her face was soft and she wore a silver piercing in the right side of her straight nose. “Its morphine,” she assured.
She didn’t blink even once. He let go and felt a slight sting as she pricked his upper arm.
She removed the ivory blanket from his legs.
“You must be a nurse,” he said.
“My father is a doctor.” She removed the binding then grabbed another wet cloth from a rock table beside the bed. “I was a medical student in the United States before my family moved back to Afghanistan.”
She ran the warm rag around the gash on his upper leg and he hissed to a sharp pain that pulsated around the area. She meandered across the room into a bathroom and soaked the rag in a sink of water, turning the clear water a pale ruby-red. She returned and applied a clean sheath over the gash.
“What happened?” he asked.
“Your helicopter crashed not far from here. A sharp piece of metal from the wreck pierced your leg, and you got second degree burns to your back. You’re lucky to be alive.”
Thatcher agreed. But why was he alive?
“I need to wash your back.” She grasped the binding around his waist and slowly winded it till it was off. His back itched like dozens of mites were crawling across it. “Don’t scratch, you’ll make it worse,” she warned as he reached around.
He cringed as she rubbed his back with the rag, relieving some of the tingling sensation.
When she was through, she walked out of the room. She returned with a ceramic bowl, smoke steaming out of it. As she set on the table next to him, he was reminded of vegetable soup.
“What’s in it?” he asked.
“Goat meat with peas and carrots. Let it cool for a few minutes.”
She ambled across the room, grabbed a clean tan shirt and pants and placed them on the end of the bed.
“Here are clean clothes when you feel like changing,” she said.
The lady’s skin and features were as capable of enticing even a man, whose country considered evil, a terrorist. “Where did you learn English?” Thatcher said. “You speak it well.”
“I had a private English tutor when I lived in the United States.”
It bewildered Thatcher how anyone could live in the U.S, free, then move back to Afghanistan.
“How did I get here?” He asked.
Her chin dipped to her breasts. She looked at him again with dull eyes. “I found you unconscious a distance from where your helicopter crashed, in a trench.”
“Where are the soldiers that were with me?”
She shook her head. Her down turned facial expression spoke for itself.
Thatcher’s heart ripped apart as he buried his face in his grazed palms. As much as he wanted, he couldn’t produce tears. He lifted his face and exhaled. The lady leaned against the door silent.
“My father and I looked for other survivors.” Her thin lips twisted down. “I’m sorry.”
He released a painful grunt as he struggled to push himself to the edge of the bed. He needed to contact his base. The woman strode over and gently grasped his shoulders.
“I need to contact the people at my camp and tell them that I’m alive.”
“You need time to heal,” she said.
I can’t just lay here with my platoon searching for me. What if they stopped searching, thinking he was dead? Then he’d be stranded in enemy territory. He’d be killed, or found years later with a long beard, unidentifiable amongst the foreign population.
“How do I get out of here?”
“It’s impossible until you’re healthier. Never mind Taliban is patrolling the streets night and day.”
He gave in and let his body collapse to the thin mattress.
“If we can contact my base,he sighed, “we’d be able to help you and your family.”
The mysterious woman sat in a wicker chair beside the cot.
“Several months ago an American military slaughtered innocents in a village not far from here.”
He frowned shaking his head.
“My family was among them.” She pressed her thin lips together, holding him with her gaze. “My brother was killed in a shoot-out.”
What she was telling him made no sense. “Listen,” he said. “The American military is here to liberate your people, not kill them””
A spell of dizziness got a hold of him as he clasped his head, hoping it would subside soon.
“Rest.” She pulled the blanket to his chest. “We can talk later.”
“Why are you helping me?”
She turned as she opened the door. “Because I was able to.”
She walked out and closed the door behind her.
He lay there as foreign words reverberated off the walls in the next room. Guns and grenades blasted in the distance. Was it another U.S platoon sent to rescue him?
A loud boom shook the room, sending pieces of rock sprinkling to the floor. Machine guns blazed and men yelled Arabic just outside. Where was his gun, where was his damn gun?! He was an easy target.
Silence returned, except for a door creaking open in the next room and footsteps. Men talked amongst each other in soft voices. Thatcher listened.
One man said, “Some traders tried to bomb us.”
“Traders?” another man responded.
“Rebels.” There was a pause. “They’re taking care of. But we have another problem. As you know an American helicopter crashed not far outside of town early yesterday.”
“Yes, I heard.”
“A resident said he thought he saw one survivor. Have you seen anyone?”
“Of course I would’ve told you if I did, Rajab.”
Thatcher pulled himself, straining till he was sitting up in the bed. Turning”feeling a sharp pain in his right thigh”he lowered his feet to the floor. As he attempted to stand, he collapsed to the floor. Biting his bottom lip, he swallowed cuss words, as the men continued to talk amongst themselves.
He picked himself up from the floor when a door open and shut in the other room. The voices were gone. As Thatcher grabbed his clothes from the foot of the bed, the lady walked in. There he stood hobbling in his underwear.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“It was the Taliban, but they’re gone now.” Her coffee-colored face blushed and eyes glowing, she stared at his half naked body. She pulled a rug up and opened a secrete hatch in the floor. “If they return, you’ll hide in here,” she pointed down into a dark hole.
“I need my gun. Can you get it for me?”
“I’ll see what I can do, but my father doesn’t trust you won’t use it against him.”
“I won’t.” He shook his head. “What did the Taliban want with him?”
She looked at him, and then looked away folding her arms across her chest. “He is in the Taliban.”
A frigid wave of doubt rolled through the pit of Thatcher’s stomach. “Your father”” He gasped”” He’s in the Taliban?”
“Has been for twenty years.”
He struggled to slip his injured leg into his pants. He pulled them up and sat slumped on the end of the bed.
“Anyone with that much loyalty to the Taliban doesn’t help someone like me””
She shook her head. “We’re not all savages like they say we are in the United States. As soon as you’re healed, my father will take you to contact your military.”
He thought this was ironic, being aided by the enemy. As there was beauty found in women back home, he now knew there was beauty in women here. Perhaps, there was as much kindness here as there was back in the U.S.
She handed him his bowl of soup with a metal spoon dipped inside. He shoveled the chicken and vegetables into his mouth like he was starved. He chewed the meat into tiny pieces in his mouth, savoring the salty taste on his tongue.
The pleasant scent of flowery saffron and roses overrode the stink as she sat down on the bed beside him.
“My father may be Taliban, but he’s a doctor at heart,” she claimed.
Thatcher tilted the bowl to his mouth and poured the rest of the soup in, and for the first time since waking, his belly was full. “But he’s in the Taliban.”
“And you are in a military responsible for the deaths of innocent people,” she argued. “Our militaries aren’t so different.”
“Only we aim to help the innocent people here, not fly our planes into your city and detonate car bombs.”
“And liberating our people involves dropping bombs on our city, and raiding civilian’s homes?”
Without a word, Thatcher placed the empty bowl on the table and slipped the thin wool shirt over his head. The pants and top fit him loosely.
“Why did you come back to this hell?” he asked.
“My family needed me.” She took the bowl, walked to the door and shot him a quick smile before exiting.
It wouldn’t be long before the Taliban raided their home looking for him. Thatcher raked his hands over his face and sighed. The thought of taking refuge in the home of a Taliban doctor was unsettling. What would happen once they captured him? He’d be put up for ransom or shot on TV for his country to see.
A door opened in the other room. Boots”definitely more than one pair”stomped inside. The voices from earlier returned, more intense this time. Footsteps grew closer to the room. Thatcher grabbed the ceramic cup tight as he crept up beside the door. He tried to count the men by distinguishing their voices.
With his heart hammering, the door opened toward him.
He released a huge breath as the lady stepped in and closed the door. Wide-eyed, she removed the carpet and opened the hatch from the floor.
She gestured for him to crawl in. He lowered his mangled body into the hole and she covered it.
Laying there in dust, he swallowed a lump in his throat as footsteps entered the room. All his times in battle, he was scared at some point. As his colonel told him, being afraid just means you’re more aware of your surroundings; the enemy. “Fear will keep your ass alive,” the colonel had said.
The footsteps meandered closer to where Thatcher hid, along with the scent of sandlewood.
“You live alone with your father and mother?” the man asked the lady.
“How come a woman as beautiful as you isn’t married?”
“Priorities,” she responded with a chuckle.
Thatcher’s hands started to sweat as there was a pause of silence.
The footsteps faded and the door closed. Another door shut in the next room. Thatcher remained hidden until a light shone in his face as the lady opened the hatch.
“They’re gone,” she said. “You stay in the room. I need to talk with my father.”
“Why do you all have this hideaway?”
“To hide people like you,” she responded.
“What’s your name?”
She looked at him with a gleam in her eyes. “Alimah” She sauntered out of the room.
He put his ear to the door and listened to Alimah talk with her father.
“We can’t keep him here,” the father said. “Don’t you understand what they’ll do to us?”
“Doesn’t an innocent life matter to you?”
There was silence.
“Not as much as my family, Alimah. I have to do this for us, end of discussion.”
“At least in the United States I could live free as a woman should be allowed. Here I have to pretend I’m ashamed, hiding underneath all these clothes if I don’t want to be executed.”
Thatcher took a few strides away from the door as footsteps neared.
A man with a long tar-colored beard entered the room behind Alimah, holding a pistol. He wore a long white robe and headscarf. He pushed his reading-glasses up on his large nose, looking at Thatcher from head to toe. “You’re in excellent condition, so you should heal fast.” the man said. Alimah stood away shifting her eyes back and forth between her father and him.
Her father stepped closer, tightening his grip on the gun. “I’m sorry about what happened to your friends”
“Why would you be sorry for them?” Thatcher said.
The man ignored his comment. “I’ve cared for you as long as I could. It’s only a matter of time before the Taliban find you here””
“Give me my gun. Give me a fighting chance. I can protect your family.”
“They would know I gave it to you. And then execute my family in front of my eyes.”
“Listen,” Thatcher begged. “I can help your family. You don’t have to turn me over. Show me a way out of here and I’ll make certain my military helps you.”
“In the United States people looked at us like we were the enemy only because of our skin and religion. Here, we’re treated like everyone else. Why would I want to return to your country? Why would I want to bring my family back there?” he shook his head, his eyes turning cold. “The Taliban has the city surrounded anyhow.”
With a downcast expression, the father aimed the pistol at Thatcher. “Please understand why I have to do this.”
Thatcher’s heart thumped against his chest as he stood defenseless.
“Father, no!” the lady said, throwing her hands out at her father. “The underground passage. We can send him through there. They would never find him.”
“Alimah, you’re not thinking!”
As the man cocked the gun and stepped closer, she hurried out of the room covering her eyes.
“You know this isn’t the only solution.” Thatcher put his hand in front of him like they would reflect a bullet. “We can work something out.”
The man paused with a weak smile. “Thatcher. That’s a strong name, one that people will remember.”
Alimah rushed back into the room with a frying pan clasped in her right hand. She swung and slammed it against the back of her father’s skull. His body went limp, collapsing him to the floor. He lay there on the rock floor holding his head and his eyes falling back into his head.
His daughter stood over him aiming the pistol’s cylinder at her own flesh and blood.
“I am sorry, father.” Her brows furrowed, her breaths were heavy. “For moving back here with you!”
She yanked her headscarf off and tossed it to the floor as her long dark hair fell to the middle of her spine. Frowning at her father, she slipped out of her long garment, and stood there in her hunter-green bra and panties, her body tanned and stomach curved. She handed Thatcher the gun. He pointed it at her father, who sat there”his mouth dropped open”watching his daughter.
She gestured toward the corridor. “We need to get to the passage.” She led him out of the room and down a rock-hard hall that snaked to the right. Colorful vases, pitchers of men and women and other decorations set in slots smoothly carved into the wall.
“It’s too late, Alimah,” her father shouted. “They’re on there way. Get dressed! The Taliban will kill you for being in your underwear!”
Before Alimah and he reached a spacious room at the end of the hall, the door to the front room screeched open, followed by a multitude of heavy footsteps.
“Qudamah,” a voice hollered. “Qudamah.”
“I’m in here,” the father said.
Thatcher slid his finger to the trigger as he hid behind a corner in the spacious room. There were three tables and more holes in the wall that held ceramics.
Three men stepped into the hall and caught sight of Alimah as she slowly stepped into the hall with the gun.”
“Where is the American?” the man grumbled. “And where are your clothes?”
She’d smacked her own father over the head with a pan just to protect Thatcher. What would they do to her once they learned that she protected an American? What would they do to her as she ran around with her body unveiled. Her father seemed too loyal to the Taliban to forgive her.
Before she uttered a word, Thatcher spun around the corner and fired. A slug pierced the man’s skull and he crumpled to the floor with blood oozing from his forehead.
“Show me where the passage is,” he said, his breaths quickening.
More men stomped their way.
While Thatcher knelt behind a table, waiting for the men to make an appearance, she pulled a section of the floor up, revealing a narrow path that lead into a black chasm.
Realizing he was out of ammo, Thatcher grabbed an ceramic vase from the table and crept to the door as the mens’ footsteps grew nearer.
As one tall man stepped into the room, Thatcher whipped around with the vase and shattered it over his head. The man staggered back. Thatcher gripped a sharp piece of the vase”cutting the flesh on his palm”and stabbed the soldier in his throat. Blood spurted all over the pale-bronze floor as the man fell to his back grabbing his throat, and took his last gasp.
Before he could pick up the man’s gun, another soldier hit Thatcher over the back, knocking his breath out, and sending a sharp pain pulsating across his spine. Two Arab men garbed in long indigo shirts and pants”their heads covered with turbans and mouths masked with scarves”stood over him yelling with their eyes smoldering. The only thing he understood was. “Lay on your stomach! Lay on your stomach!”
Thatcher rolled to his belly and a lofty man tied his hands with rope. As Alimah begged for them to release him, one soldier smashed her in the face with the end of his gun, sending one of her teeth flying across the room. He then scolded her for being in her underwear. “Get dressed!” the man shouted. “This isn’t America! You’re not a whore. If i didn’t know your father any better, I would’ve executed myself.”
A shot was fired, and the lofty man’s knees buckled. Half his scalp hung off as he collapsed face first, his brains flowing across the floor in a mass of blood, like white rocks floating down a river of blood.
Alimah’s father swung a rifle–smoke circling from the barrel–around toward the other Arab soldier and fired, blowing half his face off as he was lifted off his feet, his body thudding to the floor across the room.
Thatcher stood there, his pulse racing. The father pulled a knife, stepped behind him and cut the rope from around Thatcher’s hand.
“Get out of here,” the father said. “Now. Others will be here soon.”
Alimah’s mother tossed her a pair of ivory trousers and a top. “You can run around in your underwear when you return to the United States,” she said.
The father looked at his daughter. “I’m sorry for depriving you of your freedom. I never meant to hold you as my prisoner. Live free as every child should. Don’t ever come back here. Never.”
Alimah fell into her father’s arms, and he squeezed his thin arms around her.
He removed his arms from around her and held her arms as he stared into her eyes. She looked at him and her mother, tears running down her cheeks. “Come with me,” she begged. “They’ll kill both of you.”
“We can’t leave our brothers and sisters,” the father said. “Not like this. We’ll get rid of the bodies, don’t worry. Now you all must go.”
Her father handed him two pistols. “When you reach the end there will be a stable of jackasses. Omar, my brother, will lead you through the mountains toward the American’s base.”
Her mother handed Alimah a lantern and she led Thatcher into the underground passage.