War imprisoned me, but my actions haunt me.

Footsteps echo down the corridor and adrenaline courses through my body. My mind races frantically and sweat drips off of my brow. Mutinously, my heart pounds inside of my chest; it wants out. I want out of this dreaded mission.

I grit my teeth and peek around the corner. It is the same every time. The same empty hallway with flickering lights and a desolate waste bin resting on its side. No sign of life.

Slowly, I creep through the familiar halls. Sounds of my footsteps send shivers down my spine.

I direct my gun forward, allowing it to explore for me. The trigger taunts me like bullies in a schoolyard. My fingers tense; I do not want to engage, in fact,  I never do.

Suddenly, a flash of clothes darts in front of me. My fingers squeeze.

POP. Enemy down.

I hate that sound. I hate my fingers for it. They feel raw and exposed. I clutch the handle and my fingers drum nervously on the rifle.

I crouch beside a suspicious looking door. Routinely, I breathe in three times and kick it open; I scream hoarsely and scan the room. A woman and child lie in the corner in front of a broken closet. The child whimpers and whispers to her mother, but the woman does not respond.

A cold fist grips my heart. Orders nag harshly in the back of my head.

No threats, no survivors.

I put a finger to my lips and force my eyes to smile. The woman speaks in strained English: “Leave.” She shields her daughter from me. “No more.” She pleads.

Her face is worn; haunting. The girl’s face is buried in her mother’s rags. I smile painfully and step towards the door reaching with one hand.

“ARGHHHH!”

In desperation, a small man barrels towards me from the closet brandishing a kitchen knife. Sadly, I expect the trick and shoot three times. Too late I realize it is just a boy who looks more terrified than angry.

The little girl cries out. She’s alone on the floor now, seeking shelter on the dusty concrete, with her toothpick legs tucked in against her rags. Panicked, I turn to my right and see the woman running at me with a weapon similar to the boy’s. The knife sinks into my arm and I grunt and shove the woman away. She falls against the wall limply, shrieking in a foreign tongue.

“Umi!” The little girl sobs. I pull out my pistol and shoot, ignoring the POP, POP, POP that seems to play on repeat in my head.

The girl’s face is a mess as she claws at the broken closet behind her. Her face widens in shock at the sight of me. She turns toward the woman.

“Umi!”

In her lap is a knife.

I exhale. I grit my teeth.

I blink.

No threats, no survivors.

POP, POP, POP.

I wake up shaking. My eyes squint at the clock beside me.

My chest is heaving and the sheets are soaked.

Again.

I feel my arm where the knife had entered.

“Umi!” echoes in my head. I cannot get it out. Like a broken record, that small girl haunts my mind.

I stand up. My face is either wet from sweat or tears; I do not know.

My voice is hoarse—I must have been yelling again. I scavenge for clean clothes and stumble out the front door. My bleary eyes widen when I hear the POP from locking the door.

The coffee shop shines with luminescence; the LEDs make my eyes wince. The artificial white light glares at me.

At the counter, I grumble my order. The black coffee tastes watery. I wish it was stronger so I could actually wake up. My eyes start to weigh down heavily and my head collapses onto the table.

“Mommy!”

My head snaps up, quickly I locate the nearest exit. I breathe; relieved I watch a young woman scoop up her daughter as they enter the coffee shop. It is light outside now, and my coffee is cold.

I hesitantly watch the child; the mom swings her back and forth with an affectionate smile. The daughter squeals. Her giggle is contagious and I surrender a hesitant smile.

“I love you, Umi!” The daughter exclaims. My smile freezes.

Immediately, my mind goes into hyperdrive. All of a sudden the cars outside are racing way too fast. The coffee grinder sounds violent and a little too familiar. The girl’s squeals start to sound more like shrieks. I think the woman is looking at me now. Her face grows cold and her brow furrows. The man behind the counter reaches for something without taking his eyes off me.

“Mocha for Jen!” The man hollers, and I fall off of my chair.

“Umi!” The girl points to me, and the mother watches curiously. I crawl back against the wall, and the world starts to close in. Everything is just so loud.

“I’m sorry,” I moan, “I regret it!”

I throw my shirt over my head and wait for everything to stop. But it doesn’t. It will never stop.

“Umi!”

Photo Credit: Google Images

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