Was the rot always there, or had his fangs driven in deep and injected it?

Enough to fill all the holes he left, all the cracks he made.

He’d always smelled like sweat and gun oil.

His voice was always somewhere between a rasping whisper and a rolling bass. A dog’s growl. Something at the back of the throat, coarse and rumbling. The thunder before a storm that never seemed to arrive. Sometimes, when the weather shifts, you swear you can still hear him over your shoulder.

People online who talk about it say the touch is the hardest part to forget.

You’re not sure if you’re lucky or not then, to have never known his hands in the first place. The feel of the calluses on his fingers, or the cuts across his knuckles. Old scars painting maps over his hands, his arms, his legs. He swore it was all from work, but you occupied yourself some nights imagining a person braver than you taking a knife to him.

Maybe she had been like that. The woman who he’d filled his bed with before you came along.

She’d managed to get out, away. Had she fought? Had she told him how horrible he was, or did she do what you did? Did she lay still, waiting for the shadow of him to pass over like an angry god through egypt? Leave blood on the door. Bow head and pray. You wondered if those things would have kept him from slipping in through the crack under the door at night. If anything could have stopped his invasion, his slow takeover of everything inside you.

Maybe the rot was always there, and he was less its creator and more a kindred spirit.

Maybe he’d just been drawn to the things already in you, already broken. The way wolves caught blood in the air. He’d seen you for what you were- wounded. Was it still a sin, to have not caused the wound but to lap at its edges all the same? No.. Maybe men like him were the best you ever could have gotten. He was a blessing, not a curse. He’d been right. He was the best you’d ever have. The only love something like you could hope to get.

“You looked good out there, today.”

A compliment. A formality. A segway into something you knew to expect.

There was no skipping over the prologue. You’d tried. Shedding clothes like skin and trying to become someone else -someone braver, someone ready- only seemed to irk him. He liked you better when you hesitated. When you backed away at his advance. A wounded animal to be cornered and overcome. You knew how to play the part, by then.

“Teasing me all through drills..”

Hands. The sound of them, snaking under clothes. Pushing fabric, seeking purchase. You can’t feel his nails digging tracks down from ribcage to hip bone. You feign a shudder all the same, eyes downcast. Hands pressed to the wall behind you, your nails a soft popping scrape against the uneven texture. You focus on that instead of the way he fills every space around you. A suffocating, insurmountable wall. Closing in on all sides until there’s nothing but the corner at your back and the wash of tan skin and half-shucked uniform in front. He’s oppressive. Forcing you back, laying into you. The smell of your childhood home hangs off him- rich scotch, dried on sweat, a tang of metal. He forces fingers in your mouth, a thumb over your tongue, and you wonder what it would be like to be able to taste him. What, exactly, the tangible sense of smell would be like at the back of your throat.

You realize only belatedly his other hand has drifted.

Low, past belt and fabric, to still-soft skin. He’s grasping and you fail to register, and his frustration sends a lance of something white and breathtaking through you. Everything seizes up, tense and afraid. Your lungs won’t fill, or at least not enough. Your heart falters uselessly, and every part of you feels hyperaware. The image of his face scowling at you burns into memory. The sound of him, a guttural noise of disapproval, travels from his throat to your bone marrow. Quaking.

“Get hard.”

An order. You swallow thick. Still can’t breathe.

He’s never liked it when you don’t seem appreciative of his attentions.

After all-

“It doesn’t have to be you, yknow.”

He hisses it, low. Angry. Into your ear so close it’s all you can process. His voice, his resentment. The smell of him fades even as close as he is, neck pressed up against your cheek. The sound of his hands drunkenly fumbling with your belt fades to background noise. All you can seem to understand is what he says, tearing your clothes off as if they were parts of you that you could feel him ripping away. Somehow, against all logic, it almost seems that way. Your pants dropping to the floor around your feet feel like skin cut free and peeled down. Your shirt rolling up is an exposure, opening your fragile bones and tender organs to his scrutiny.

“I could be with anyone in this squad.”

You know. It’s not a threat. It’s a reminder of fact. And you know.

“What would you be, then?”

Nothing. You know that, too, but don’t say it. You don’t dare speak when he’s like this.

“The kid with powers? Think anyone gives a damn about that? You bleed just the same.”

You don’t feel it, but you hear it, when his teeth graze your ear around his words. So close he could consume you- split jaw and tear into you. Dog teeth and rabid growling. Uncaring, clumsy claws. Tearing into you, flaying away the pieces and parts unneeded. His teeth hold back, but not forever. Barking into your ear more as he tears your shirt up over your head, a hand over your collarbone pressing enough a new break doesn’t seem unlikely.

“Bet you’d die just the same, out there. You want to find out?”

You tense your jaw. Shut your eyes. His hand slides, from collar to throat, but you don’t know until things feel wrong. Churning. Dizzy. You inhale but it never comes. Gasp, but the noise never sounds. Just a wet, strange clicking. Your body jerks on its own, your eyes open. His hand around your throat is white-knuckle and pressing, cramming you into the corner of his room as if you could be reduced so easily. Forced and folded and made smaller in the space. Your hands raise on reflex, though not against him. Just to scramble, to grasp. Holding onto him loosely, silently pleading for him to let go but not fighting for it.

If he doesn’t let go.. If you just wait it out..

You’d never have to feel like this again.

He backs away so suddenly it feels like a piece of you removed.

A loud sound, your body hitting the floor, registers strangely. Coughing, violent and raw, drowns out most else. He’s pacing away. Seeking cigarettes tossed aside on the bed. He lights up as you roll to hands and knees, struggling weak and useless in the knotting mess of boots and half-shucked pants.

He waits. He watches. He smokes.

The room starts to smell like menthol and burning leaves.

Long after he’s gone, you’ll smoke them just to remember him.

“Get up.”

A new order, though you haven’t filled the first.

This time, you obey. Staggering and shaking. But you obey.

“Come here.”

It’s difficult to walk as is, but he never said to deal with the tangled remnants of your clothes still clinging. So you shuffle, like some bound creature, leg in beartrap. He spreads his legs and waits for you to return to the home you’ve made so many times before in that space. There’s nowhere to look down that doesn’t offer some view of him, and you. Pale skin against tan hands. Cigarette smoke hazing the spaces in between. He runs his hands up your sides. Appreciative? Or is that just wishful thinking?

His voice is soothing, as much it can be, when he half-whispers to you.

“I take good care of you, don’t I?”

There’s a reverence about him when he’s like this.

What causes it, you don’t know. You don’t understand the ebb and flow of his anger and his kindness. Just that one tends to come when you’re wounded, the other when your chin is held a fraction too high. You’ve been learning how to keep it down. How to avoid eye contact. How to ignore the bruises he leaves in the mirror, when you’re around one.

“I look out for you, out there. I make sure you have everything you could want.”

He plucks the cigarette from between his lips. Holds it aloft. You know what’s coming, but you don’t brace. When he presses it to your stomach, it’s the first time in days you feel anything. A slow, building sensation. Something that hums through in gentle waves, growing stronger with each pulse. There’s no stopping the feint sound that raises out of you, not quite pained and not quite pleased.

“Thatta’ boy.” He mutters seemingly to himself before twisting the extinguished end and pulling the cigarette away. For a time, you both stare at the ashen crater left behind. When his hand raises, finger hovering over the red-grey wound, you tremble. He smiles, so fond and serene a part of you manages to feel bad for ever making him angry in the first place.

He looks peaceful, when he traces circles just over your skin with his thumb. Not quite touching. Teasing. You shiver beneath the promise of sensation, and he chuckles to himself wistfully.

“Tell me I do a good job.” He murmurs, quiet and soft. In the relative silence of his room after lights out, his gravelly rasp is near deafening to you. You hesitate, heart racing. He keeps talking when you don’t immediately answer.

“Tell me you appreciate how I look after you.”

There’s a strange inner conflict. An anger and a sorrow. A need to argue, and a need to apologize. When you look at him like this, vaguely illuminated by the lights of a single alarm clock in the room, he seems.. different. He’s not the sharp-witted, jovial man barking orders during practice drills. He’s not the tight-jawed, focused leader who directs you on the field. He’s someone else. Someone softer. Someone desperate and lonely. Scared, you think, of being alone.

He needs you.

And you, selfishly, need to be needed.

“You do a good job.” You assure him, hands rising.

You’re careful. Slow. You don’t want to spook the strange, unpredictable beast inside him. He lets you touch his hair, run fingers through it softly. The sound of it reminds you of home, long nights spent coaxing your brother and sister to sleep. He seems to ease at the touch, and whatever sensation it brings him. You can’t fathom what it must be like, but there’s a tender joy in seeing him relax from it. A feeling like you must be special, able to pet the once raging dog without being bitten.

“Thank you.” You whisper, and his shoulders ease as your hand drips down to rest against one.

“For looking after me.”

He presses his thumb into the burn at your stomach and you know. You feel it, a spark and then a radiating hum. Rippling out like waves in a lake, making your muscles tighten then tremble. He digs into the wound and you whine, though the sound is hardly an agonized one. He leans into you. Kissing you, for whatever good it does. He covers your stomach in chaste brushes of his lips and you watch, confused as always by the motions. It barely sounds like anything. Doesn’t feel like anything. You wish his mouth was a new cigarette, but you say nothing of it.

He needs this, you tell yourself. So you let him have it.

There’s a certain space, between everything.

A gap that exists, separating ‘a body’ and the stream of thought coursing.

There is no ‘you’.

The concept of ‘you’ does not make sense.

You know that will controls the body. You know that body has a name.

People call it “Cain”. But there is no concept of how that ties to the stream of thought.

The will pulls to the left. The body moves. By definition, that means the will controls the body. So is the stream of thought also “Cain”? What does that mean- if it means anything at all?

The concepts of identity and self are detached and meaningless.

There is no way to say “they no longer matter to you” because there is no “you”.

A body sits at the back of a bus, going nowhere.

The ID in that body’s pocket holds the name “Cain”.

The stream of thought goes quiet. The bus drives on into the night.

The body called “Cain” goes somewhere, though neither the body, the ‘you’, nor the thoughts know where. It just goes.

Somewhere off the bus, wandering numb in Frankfurt, you feel yourself stitch back together.

A familiar, surreal sensation. The feeling of a ‘self’ becoming real again. The understanding of ‘you’ holding weight. The body with a name is your body. The name, yours.

You shake off the haze in a back alley.

Check the date and time on your phone.

You lost eight hours of time. No memory of much beyond the vague sound of pocket change rattling on a bus. This is not new. This has happened before. What caused it this time, you try not to think about.

You get a hotel for the night in Germany.

Tomorrow, you’ll ride back home. For now..

Room service will bring you what you need.

The bar downstairs has the rest.

Before the night is over, you find an escort service on your phone.

Maybe tonight is the night you get over him..

There is a dissonance, when his fist cracks against your face.

Knuckles on cheekbone, a clattering and deafening second before the ringing starts.

You’re kneeling in the floor. There’s an awful, swollen-sounding laugh. Yours.

For just a moment, when his skin met yours and your body turned, it took you back.

Back to the snapshot second in his room, on base. Back to the night that smelled like menthol cigarettes and cheap scotch. Back to a time when he was still alive.

You’re laughing, and its choked. Swelling skin. Mounting tears.

The moment is gone before you can hold onto it. But it’s offered a key. A glimpse. A possibility.

You leave the bar before the fight can escalate. Foreign patrons and a tense owner seem thankful. Who wouldn’t- to be rid of you?

But you have the key, now. A way to go back. To reach him again.

You call the right numbers. Make the right orders.

A hotel. An escort.. Of sorts.

He’s punctual. You don’t care.

This isn’t about him. He’s a means to an end.

You talk, around glasses of scotch and shared cigarettes.

He asks what you want. You grin, despite trying not to. There’s a perverse, twisting nature to the look and feel of it. As if your face can’t decide what to do- to curl or break apart. You take another mouthful of liquor, and laugh after it.

“Hit me.”

It would be an order, if your voice didn’t strain it the way a beggar would a ‘please’.

The stranger understands. He nods. You talk for a time more and he tells you to shuck your shirt and jacket before he ever obliges.

But when he does, the moment returns.

A dim office in the barracks. An alarm clock serving as the only illumination.

Thick smoke and breath like your father’s. A tension in the air after the sound of fist-on-face fades.

You find yourself in the floor again. Laughing, again.

It’s amazing. There has never been anything more freeing and more agonizing.

Nothing more painful and more uplifting. You’re crying before you fully realize it.

Laughing. Sobbing.

Looking up to the stranger as his face pinches somewhere between concern and wariness.

You just choke and crack up at him, one hand pressing to your cheek as if to coax more feint feeling from it. None comes, but that’s fine. The greater pain is in your chest, anyway.

‘I don’t need you.’ Is what the hurt in your bones tells you.

You ask him to hit you again. Beg, plead. He hesitates, but obliges again.

You laugh harder.

‘I don’t need you to feel the way you made me feel.’

You ask him to choke you. He does.

You can’t stop crying, even when his hands force your laughter to fall silent.

It’s all an overwhelming wash of things. Anger. Sorrow. Freedom. Elation.

You can be free of him, finally. You can go back to him, at last.

Others’ hands bring the same ache, the same sense of comfort, that his used to.

By the end of the night as the stranger takes his money and leaves, you can’t decide if it was all to get further from the memories behind you, or closer to them.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter.

You bow your head in the shower.

You pray to nothing as the blood runs down the drain.

There is blood on your door, now.

His shadow won’t come into you anymore.

For better, or for worse.