BREAK MY FALL
Falling Series, Book 2
I’m addicted to it. It’s how I feel alive. It’s the only thing that’s real any more.
And now I have to sit around and discuss it like it’s physics or calculus. I can’t do it. I can’t pretend that it’s some sterile academic topic. Violence isn’t sterile. It isn’t calm. It’s pulsing. It’s alive.
It’s my drug.
Until I met Abby, I never wanted anything beyond the next fight. Never considered that I might finally find a way back to the land of the living.
Now? Now I find myself dreaming of a woman with golden eyes.
But I can never be with her. Because I am not whole. And I never will be again.
But I cannot stay away. And loving her might finally be what breaks me.
My eye is less swollen than it was last week. It hurts a hell of a lot less than it did. I can no longer feel my pulse throbbing against my bones every time I squint in the North Carolina sun.
I’ve got exactly an hour to get from my apartment off east campus to the old science building on west campus. I’ll be lucky if I make it.
First day of class. Can’t be late.
I should be feeling rushed and just this side of a panic attack, if the condition of the undergrads around me are any indication. But I’m not.
I’m not anything. I don’t hate it here. Hate would involve feeling something. And lately, there isn’t much going on with that by way of feelings.
Or maybe I’ve been trying to ignore the sense of alienation that hammers home the message you don’t belong here with every beat of my heart.
I thought I’d be used to it by now. That maybe I would have found my place. But the college student remains a strange breed to me. These are not my people and this is not my space.
Half of them are wearing headphones. The other half are giggling with friends and looking around like they expect their parents to jump out from behind a bush or something. There’s talk about a broken nail during a frat party from last night right behind me. Or maybe it was a broken condom. Which is actually a lot more serious but somehow, ends up discussed with the same level of intensity as the broken nail.
Really intense problems here. But I don’t say anything. Because that would be rude. And I’m working on my interpersonal skills these days, or so I keep telling Eli.
I’m trying to pretend I belong here. But I don’t. And I never will.
I’m wearing a long-sleeved grey t-shirt and jeans. My tattoos are hidden. I’m not wearing any camouflage, and I left my dog tags in a shoebox on the top shelf of my bedroom closet in the apartment that my GI Bill money is paying for. I won’t be broke while I’m going to school. I mean, I’m not rolling in one of the many BMWs or Mercedes I see cruising around campus, but I’m not homeless and I’m not hungry so there’s that.
I think they set a land speed record with my separation paperwork when we got home from that last deployment. At the time, I couldn’t wait to be gone from the Army. Guess I hoped that maybe I’d feel a sense of normalcy return by now.
And now, I miss it. The chaos. The waiting.
But I can’t talk about those things here. If I don’t open my mouth, maybe no one will figure out that I used to be a soldier.
Maybe no one will ask me what it’s like to kill someone.
Funny how it hits me today of all days.
How lucky I am to be here.
How much I don’t deserve it.
As I listen to the conversations and try to find some element of commonality between me and the aliens surrounding me, a single feeling slides through the noise.
I am completely exposed. I can’t fucking breathe.
Today of all days, my fucking psyche has to decide to have a goddamned tantrum.
It doesn’t matter that I’m fucking on one of the richest campuses in North Carolina. I’m safe. The rational part of my brain is pinging hard against the wave of panic.
It doesn’t matter.
Unarmed. Unprotected. Out of uniform.
I want off campus. Away from the crowds and the noise and the problems that are so fucking trivial, I don’t even know where to begin.
I round the corner to the massive quad at the center of campus, tension sliding around my ribs and squeezing my lungs until I cannot breathe. Until all I see is darkness.
I don’t pass out, but it is a close thing. I double over until my vision clears.
I cannot stay here.
I need to get away. To get out.
To stop the fear from crushing the breath from my lungs.
It’s the first day of my second semester at school. And I’m going to spend it in a bar.
Because drinking is cheaper than therapy.
Until it’s not.
But I’ll deal with that some other time. Right now, I just need to go back into the emptiness inside me.
Because the raw, ragged feelings are too much, too soon.
And I will never, ever go back to the place I once was.
I was so fucking close. So close to walking into that classroom and pretending that the last six years of my life hadn’t happened. That the shitshow that was my last tour in Iraq hadn’t happened. So close to pretending that I’m just another normal guy on a slightly above normal college campus.
I walk into the closest bar, which is oddly enough, a golf club near campus. I order a local beer and two shots of tequila. The tequila to take the edge off. The beer to nurse until the pain and the panic and the fear stop.
The tequila goes down easily. Too easily. I close my eyes and rest my head against the cool glass.
“You look like you’re having a rough day.”
The familiarity of that voice hits me all at once. If I close my eyes, I can still see her that night under the streetlight.
But she’s not a memory.
I open my eyes and I am captured again by the soft gold of her eyes and the utter perfection of her smooth, dark skin.
Once, before the war, I would have flirted with her. I would have asked her for her number and if she wanted to get a drink.
Those days are nothing but a memory now. Broken by the impotent rage of combat and loss.
“Today was not a good day,” is all I say instead. I hate the powerlessness in that response. The weakness.
There’s a sadness in those soft golden eyes as she smiles back at me. “Can’t be that bad if you’re here.”
She motions to the polished old money evidenced in every detail of the rich bar. There are oil canvases on the walls in heavy brass frames. Hell, the place even smells like money, or at least what I imagine money smells like. Furniture polish and leather.
We didn’t have much growing up and my mom…my mom died trying to give me more.
I blink, wishing that I wasn’t as hazy as I am from the alcohol. “It’s not the place that’s the problem.”
She lifts one perfectly arched eyebrow.
It’s tempting, so tempting to spill my secrets to a stranger. As if we were on a plane and I could tell her everything and she would never see me again when we landed.
But I can’t take that chance here. No one knows the darkness that I struggle to hide every single day. Every time someone thanks me for my service, I feel the need to hide what I was and what I did from the world even more.
My hand shakes as I try to take a sip of the beer. I need to get home. Out of this wide-open, dark space and away from the shame of standing in that quad as the nausea and the fear reminds me once more of what I was.
What I am.
It will never leave me.
I can feel the rush of heat across my skin. The horror mixed with the excitement. The pure, animal pleasure of it all.
It’s burned into my pores, like the pounding violence of the fifty-caliber machine gun is seared into my memories.
Her touch surprises me. Jolts me out of the memories I can’t escape. Her fingers are soft against the back of my hand, near my wrist.
“Hey?” I look over at her because I can do nothing less. “Are you okay?”
The shame surges inside me, smothering the thrill.
“Maybe I just wanted to have a drink.” I want to flirt. To smile at her and ask her what she’s doing later.
But that would be normal. And I am most assuredly not normal. Not anymore.
The words are stuck in my throat.
I look down at my beer, away from the beautiful woman with the dark skin and the light eyes standing next to me. She reminds me of things I used to want.
Maybe I’ll give Eli a break and start drinking here. Maybe if I don’t go to The Pint so much, I’ll fight less.
Maybe if I fight less, I’ll finally start to forget.
A guy can dream, right? Me and alcohol are long lost buddies.
I’m pretty sure there’s a name for that. But as long as I’ve got my shit together, it doesn’t fucking matter.
I’m not in the Army anymore. I can drink at noon if I want without anyone sending the drug and alcohol people after me.
And that’s kind of terrifying.
I should walk away.
I don’t need this. I need get my happy ass to class three blocks away.
But I am stuck, rooted to the pain cast in shadows at the end of the bar.
There was sadness in the way he was hunched over the bar, one hand loosely cradling a beer.
I don’t know what hurt him like this. I don’t know why I feel this need to care about him when I don’t even know his name. There are shadows in his eyes and his mouth is set in a bleak, hard line.
And I am drawn to him. To the need to soothe his pain. To make it stop.
Maybe I’m just feeling guilty about the other night. I didn’t ask him his name. I left him standing there, bleeding in the flickering shadows from the streetlight.
So instead of being smart and disciplined and focused on school, I walk up to a stranger in a bar, a man wearing a sadness beneath a dark, swollen eye.
He is so grossly out of place here it’s not even funny. The men who drink here are polished and poised. There is no roughness about those men. At least not unless they’ve had a few too many.
Our boy here, though…There is raw power beneath the Henley stretched across his back.
And beneath that power, a darkness. Something tainted with sadness that has him chasing it away with beer before ten a.m.
I can see him visibly trying to relax. He’s breathing slow and deep. I recognize the gesture. I’ve done it often enough myself.
I don’t hate men. I haven’t even sworn off dating. But I’m tender from my ex’s hateful words the last time I saw him. I’m wary.
Even as I push my friends toward their own happiness, I hold back.
Because it hurts to love the wrong man.
He looks over at me and I can feel the pull of that darkness. That familiar desire is back. The need to fix things. Not things. People.
I can’t do this again. Not with him. Not with anyone. I need a nice, normal, well-adjusted guy. Not someone with shadows beneath his eyes who starts drinking before the sun reaches its peak in the sky.
But I don’t move. Don’t do the smart thing and leave him sitting there.
I lean on the bar next to him. Side by side. Cradle my head in my hand and just wait. Casual. Pretending my lungs aren’t too tight and my body isn’t too aware of the size and strength in this man.
He lifts the glass to his lips and just like last Friday, I am mesmerized by the movement in his throat. Who knew something as mundane as swallowing could be so captivating?
I am not going to think about pressing my lips to the pulse in his throat. Or running my fingers down that same spot.
“Want to talk about it?” How’s that for witty? I need Flirting for Dummies or something.
There is a scab over his right eye. “Are you my fairy god-therapist?”
I shrug. “Nah. Just thought I’d offer. You know, return the favor from the other night.”
His lips are flat and tight. “I run off a dude hassling you, and now you get to listen to me solve all the world’s problems?”
“Maybe not the world. How about just yours?” He’s prickly but I’m not afraid of him. There is something about him that feels…not safe. That’s the wrong word. No, never that. But something that makes the risk…worth it. “I’m a pretty good listener.”
He turns back to his drink and tosses back the remains. “It’s complicated.”
He rests his forehead against the empty glass and looks so broken and sad, it cracks the ice around my heart just a little bit.
I reach out. Hesitant. More afraid of his reaction than my own. My fingers brush against his shoulder before coming to rest on his upper arm. “Hey.”
It’s a long moment before he looks at me.
I immediately remove my hand from his arm. There is a coldness in his eyes. A threat of violence for invading his space.
Graham walks in at that moment, rescuing both of us from my awkward attempt at comfort.
My hand is shaking from the encounter when I reach for my check from him.
“You working tonight?” Graham asks.
“You know it.” I shoot him a look, willing him to leave me alone.
Graham pins me with a lifted eyebrow, and I shake my head slightly. Please don’t say anything.
But not our Graham. My best friend leans against the bar and taps the polished mahogany in front of Mr. Tall, Dark and Psychotic. “So our girl Fergalicious here is recently single, having had her heart stomped on by a bastard of an ex who I am obligated to hate for the rest of our natural lives. She’s studying public policy and has a natural talent for upside-down pineapple cake that really should be listed on her resumé.”
There is curiosity now in those dark green eyes. Gone is the cold threat of violence. Like it was never there.
But it’s not something I can forget so easily.
Because I know what I saw. I know where the bruise over his eye came from. A man like this…I know this kind of violence. This kind of rapid change in temper and mood.
And that’s my cue to get the hell away from him.
I look at the massive oak clock over the bar and fight the urge to stab Graham. He means well but damn it, just because he’s started dating Mr. Right doesn’t mean he gets to find my happily ever after for me. “Yeah. Anyway. I’ll see you tonight, Graham.”
Graham, of course, takes that opportunity to sneak away. Leaving me alone again with…him.
“Wait; you work here?”
So, of course, I’m standing here, answering the question he asked, and wondering about the ones he doesn’t. “Is that bad?” I ask cautiously.
“No. Just surprising.” His voice is warmer now, his words thick.
“I figured everyone at this school is…not the kind of people that have to work their way through college.”
In my head, I smile and pat his cheek in a slightly flirty and not quite condescending way.
In reality, I stand there, thinking of all the ways I could respond. “Well, that’s what you get for stereotyping me,” I say with a gentle smile. “Though I’ve never been mistaken for wealthy. I have been asked if I wanted to pay for something with cash or food stamps.”
He looks down my body, then back up. I can’t help but feel like I just went through some kind of inspection. I’m not even sure if I’ve passed or not. “That’s pretty fucked up.”
“You’ve never been stereotyped?”
He stiffens. It’s subtle, but there in the slight flare of his nostrils, the tightness in his back. He tries to play it off but I’ve been watching people for far too long. “People think I’m wealthy because I drink here.”
It’s a lie. One I might not have caught if I hadn’t been paying attention.
“I’ve never seen you here before.”
“It’s my first time.”
And just like that, I am completely confused by the man sitting in front of me.
He is a puzzle. One for someone else to solve.
I walk away before I do something infinitely stupid.
Like ask him his name.
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.
You should know your soldiers’ names and their birthdays. You should know their spouses names and anniversaries. When someone has lost a loved one, wee sign cards for coworkers we barely know, telling them our thoughts and prayers are with them. Is this genuine...