BEFORE I FALL
Falling Series, Book 1
Stay focused. Get a job. Save her father’s life.
Beth Lamont knows far too much about the harsh realities of life her gilded classmates have only read about in class. She’ll do whatever it takes to take care of her father, even if that means tutoring a guy like Noah – a guy who represents everything she hates about the war, soldiers and what the Army has done to her family.
Noah Warren doesn’t know how to be a student. All he knows is war. But he’s going to college now to fulfill a promise and he doesn’t break his promises. Except he doesn’t count on his tutor being drop dead gorgeous and distracting as hell. One look at Beth threatens to unravel the careful lies Noah has constructed around him.
A simple arrangement turns into something neither of them can deny. And a war that neither of them can forget could destroy them both.
My dad has good days and bad. The good days are awesome. When he’s awake and he’s pretending to cook and I’m pretending to eat it. It’s a joke between us that he burns water. But that’s okay.
On the good days, I humor him. Because for those brief interludes, I have my dad back.
The not so good days, like today, are more common. Days when he can’t get out of bed without my help.
I bring him his medication. I know exactly how much he takes and how often.
And I know exactly when he runs out.
I’ve gotten better at keeping up with his appointments so he doesn’t, but the faceless bastards at the VA cancel more than they keep. But what can we do? He can’t get private insurance with his health, and because someone decided that his back injury wasn’t entirely service-related, he doesn’t have a high enough disability rating to qualify for automatic care. So we wait for them to fit him in and when we can’t, we go to the emergency room and the bills pile up. Because despite him not being able to move on the bad days, his back pain treatments are elective.
So I juggle phone calls to the docs and try to keep us above water.
I leave his phone by his bed and make sure it’s plugged in to charge before I head to school. He’s got water and the pills he’ll need when he finally comes out of the fog. Our tiny house is only a mile from campus. Not in the best part of town but not the worst either. I’ve got an hour before class, which means I need to hustle. Thankfully, it’s not terribly hot today so I won’t arrive on campus a sweating, soggy mess. That always makes a good impression, especially at a wealthy southern school like this one.
I make it to campus with twenty minutes to spare and check my e-mail on the campus WiFi. I can’t check it at the house – Internet is a luxury we can’t afford. If I’m lucky, my neighbor’s signal sometimes bleeds over into our house. Most of the time, though, I’m not that lucky. Which is fine. Except for days like this where there’s a note from my professor asking me to come by her office before class.
Professor Blake is terrifying to those who don’t know her. She’s so damn smart it’s scary, and she doesn’t let any of us get away with not speaking up in class. Sit up straight. Speak loudly. She’s harder on the girls, too. Some of the underclassmen complain that she’s being unfair. I don’t complain, though. I know she’s doing it for a reason.
“You got my note just in time,” she says. Her tortoise-shell glasses reflect the fluorescent light, and I can’t see her eyes.
“Yes, ma’am.” She’s told me not to call her ma’am, but it slips out anyway. I can’t help it. Thankfully, she doesn’t push the issue.
“I have a job for you.”
“Sure.” A job means extra money on the side. Money that I can use to get my dad his medications. Or, you know, buy food. Little things. It’s hard as hell to do stats when your stomach is rumbling. “What does it entail?”
“Tutoring. Business statistics.”
“I hear a but in there.”
“He’s a former soldier.”
Once, when my mom first left us, I couldn’t wake my dad up. My blood pounded so loud in my ears that I could hardly hear. That’s how I feel now. My mouth is open, but no sound crosses my lips. Professor Blake knows how I feel about the war, about soldiers. I can’t deal with all the hoah chest-beating bullshit. Not with my dad and everything the war has done to him.
“Before you say no, hear me out. Noah has some very well-placed friends that want him very much to succeed here. He’s got a ticket into the business school graduate program, but only if he gets through Stats.”
I’m having a hard time breathing. I can’t do this. Just thinking about what the war has done to my dad makes it difficult to breathe. But the idea of extra money, just a little, is a strong motivator when you don’t have it. Principles are for people who can afford them.
I take a deep, cleansing breath. “So why me?”
“Because you’ve got the best head for stats I’ve seen in a long time, and I’ve seen you explain things to the underclassmen in ways that make sense to them. You can translate.”
“There’s no one else?” I hate that I need this job.
Professor Blake removes her glasses with a quiet sigh. “Our school is very pro-military, Beth. And I would consider it a personal favor if you’d help him.”
She’s right. That’s the only reason I was able to get in. This is one of the Southern Ivies. A top school in the southeast that I have no business being at except for my dad, who knew the dean of the law school from his time in the army. I hate the war and everything it’s done to my family. But I wouldn’t be where I am today if my dad hadn’t gone to war and sacrificed everything to make sure I had a future outside of our crappy little place outside of Fort Benning. There are things worse than death and my dad lives with them every day because he had done what he had to do to provide for me.
I will not let him down.
“Okay. When do I start?”
She hands me a slip of paper. It’s yellow and has her letterhead at the top in neat, formal block letters. “Here’s his information. Make contact and see what his schedule is.” She places her glasses back on and just like that, I’m dismissed.
Professor Blake is not a warm woman, but I wouldn’t have made it through my first semester at this school without her mentorship. If not for her and my friend Abby, I would have left from the sheer overwhelming force of being surrounded by money and wealth and all the intangibles that came along with it. I did not belong here, but because of Professor Blake, I hadn’t quit.
So if I need to tutor some blockhead soldier to repay her kindness, then so be it. Graduating from this program is my one chance to take care of my dad and I will not fail.
I hate being on campus. I feel old. Which isn’t entirely logical because I’m only a few years older than most of the kids plugged in and tuned out around me. Part of me envies them. The casual nonchalance as they stroll from class to class, listening to music without a care in the world.
It feels surreal. Like a dream that I’m going to wake up from any minute now and find that I’m still in Iraq with LT and the guys. A few months ago, I was patrolling a shithole town in the middle of Iraq where we had no official boots on the ground and now I’m here. I feel like I’ve been ripped out of my normal.
Hell, I don’t even know what to wear to class. This is not a problem I’ve had for the last few years.
I erred on the side of caution – khakis and a button-down polo. I hope I don’t look like a fucking douchebag. LT would be proud of me. I think. But he’s not here to tell me what to do, and I’m so far out of my fucking league it’s not even funny.
I almost grin at the thought. LT is still looking after me. His parents are both academics, and it is because of him that I am even here. I told him there was no fucking way I was going to make it into the business school because math was basically a foreign language to me. He said tough shit and had helped me apply.
My phone vibrates in my pocket, distracting me from the fact that my happy ass is lost on campus. Kind of hard to navigate when the terrain is buildings and mopeds as opposed to burned-out city streets and destroyed mosques.
Stats tutor contact info: Beth Lamont. E-mail her, don’t text.
Apparently, LT was serious about making sure I didn’t fail. Class hasn’t even started yet, and here I am with my very own tutor. I’m paying for it out of pocket. There were limits to how much pride I could swallow.
Half the students around me looked like they’d turn sixteen shades of purple if I said the wrong thing. Like, look out, here’s the crazy-ass veteran, one bad day away from shooting the place up. The other half probably expects the former soldier to speak in broken English and be barely literate because we’re too poor and dumb to go to college. Douchebags. It’s bad enough that I wanted to put on my ruck and get the hell out of this place.
I stop myself. I need to get working on that whole cussing thing, too. Can’t be swearing like I’m back with the guys or calling my classmates names. Not if I wanted to fit in and not be the angry veteran stereotype.
I’m not sure about this. Not any of it. I never figured I was the college type – at least not this kind of college.
I tap out an e-mail to the tutor and ask when she’s available to meet. The response comes back quickly. A surprise, really. I can’t tell you how many e-mails I sent trying to get my schedule fixed and nothing. Silence. Hell, the idea of actually responding to someone seems foreign. I had to physically go to the registrar’s office to get a simple question answered about a form. No one would answer a damn e-mail, and you could forget about a phone call. Sometimes, I think they’d be more comfortable with carrier pigeons. Or not having to interact at all. I can’t imagine what my old platoon would do to this place.
Noon at The Grind.
Which is about as useful information as giving me directions in Arabic because I have no idea a) what The Grind is or b) where it might be.
I respond to her e-mail and tell her that, saving her contact information in my phone. If she’s going to be my tutor, who knows when I’ll need to get a hold of her in a complete panic.
Library coffee shop. Central campus.
Okay then. This ought to be interesting.
I head to my first class. Business Statistics. Great. Guess I’ll get my head wrapped around it before I meet the tutor. That should be fun.
I’m pretty sure that fun and statistics don’t belong in the same sentence but whatever. It’s a required course, so I guess that’s where I’m going to be.
My hands start sweating the minute I step into the classroom. Hello, school anxiety. Fuck. I forgot how much I hate school. I snag a seat at the back of the room, the wall behind me so I can see the doors and windows. I hate the idea of someone coming in behind me. Call it PTSD or whatever, but I hate not being able to see who’s coming or going.
I reach into my backpack and pull out a small pill bottle. My anxiety is tripping at a double-time, and I’m going to have a goddamned heart attack at this rate.
I hate the pills more than I hate being in a classroom again, but there’s not much I can do about it. Not if I want to do this right.
And LT would pretty much haunt me if I fuck this up.
I choke down the bitter pill and pull out my notebook as the rest of the class filters in.
I flip to the back of the notebook and start taking notes. Observations. Old habit from Iraq. Keeps me sane, I guess.
The females have some kind of religious objection to pants. Yoga pants might as well be full-on burqas. I’ve seen actual tights being worn as outer garments and no one bats an eye. It feels strange seeing so much flesh after being in Iraq where the only flesh you saw was burned and bloody…
Well, wasn’t that a happy fucking thought.
Jesus. I scrub my hands over my face. Need to put that shit aside, a.s.a.p.
Professor Blake comes in, and I immediately turn my attention to the front of the classroom. She looks stern today, but that’s a front. She’s got to look mean in front of these young kids. She’s nothing like she was when we talked about enrollment before I started. She was one of the few people who did respond to e-mails at this place.
“Good morning. I’m Professor Blake, and this is my TA Beth Lamont. If you have problems or issues, go to her. She speaks for me and has my full faith and confidence. If you want to pass this class, pay attention because she knows this information inside and out.”
Beth Lamont. Hello, tutor.
I lose the rest of whatever Professor Blake has to say. Because Beth Lamont is like some kind of stats goddess. Add in that she’s drop-dead smoking hot, but it’s her eyes that grab hold of me. Piercing green, so bright that you can see them from across the room. She looks at me, and I can feel my entire body standing at the position of attention. It’s been a long time since a woman made me stand up and take notice. And I’m supposed to focus on stats around her? I’ll be lucky to remember how to write my name in crayons around her.
I am completely fucked.
Jessica Scott is an Iraq war veteran, an active duty army officer and the USA Today bestselling author of novels set in the heart of America’s Army. She is the mother of two daughters, three cats and three dogs, and wife to a retired NCO.
She’s also written for the New York Times At War Blog, PBS Point of View Regarding War, and IAVA. She deployed to Iraq in 2009 as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)/New Dawn and has had the honor of serving as a company commander at Fort Hood, Texas twice.
She’s holds phd in morality in Sociology with Duke University and she’s been featured as one of Esquire Magazine’s Americans of the Year for 2012.
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