This is first draft material from a story I’m working on during a two week hiatus before I start editing Insurgent. It’s a departure for me, because it falls under the “new adult” genre.You can find the beginning of the story, discussion of what NA books are, and contents of the story, here.
Our job was to go out and draw fire (Dylan)
Okay, so I shouldn’t have said what I said about the strawberry scent.
Two days later, she showed up in Forrester’s office reeking of strawberries. She gave me a defiant look and sat down and started working.
I didn’t know whether to fly into a rage or break down crying, so I did the next best thing. I laughed. Long and hard, until I nearly had tears running down my face.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
That just set me off again, and she gave me a wry look. But finally, I settled down, started working, and began to feel optimistic. Maybe this could work after all.
At this point we were falling into a routine. Occasionally we would stop to discuss a particular item: journal articles, personal accounts, newspaper articles, whatever, and discuss precisely how to categorize and cross reference it. Occasionally, when she was busy poring over some obscure document, I’d oh-so-casually glance over and let my eyes rest on her.
I knew it was stupid to do it. I knew it. But I couldn’t stop myself. Because she was just as beautiful as ever. She wore faded blue jeans and calf-high boots that emphasized the curve of her legs, a grey t-shirt with a band logo on it (I didn’t recognize the band, but a Google search later would fix that), a thin white sweater. The t-shirt hugged her upper body, emphasizing her breasts and waist in a way that grabbed my attention and held it. Her hair was down, falling lush on her shoulders and halfway down her back. I kept wanting to reach out and run my fingers through her hair. I’d found myself remembering leaning in, kissing her neck, feeling her hair tent around me, and just breathing in.
“What are you doing?”
I shook my head, embarrassed. “Sorry,” I said.
“You were looking at me.”
Now I looked up at her eyes, then away. “Well, shoot me, then.”
I turned back to the computer, keyed in the information on the latest piece, the priceless diary of a banker who had witnessed the beginning of the riots.
I could hear her breathing as I typed in the information. The monitor of the computer just barely reflected her. She was staring at me now. Damn it.
Back to business.
“You know what I don’t hear?” she asked.
“I don’t hear any typing from his office.”
I snickered. “Maybe he only writes at night?”
“Or on alternate decades?”
“He might surprise us both,” I said.
“Anything’s possible,” she said. “But I think he’s a fraud.”
A exhaled suddenly, then said. “Maybe. But I was thinking about it last night. Imagine hitting the peak of your career at twenty two years old. He was still a senior in college when he won the National Book Award. Twenty-two, and you’ve got a major bestseller, the top award in your field. Who wouldn’t be intimidated? How do you follow up something like that?”
“Huh,” she said. “You’re right. I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
I grinned. “I love hearing those words from you.”
She gave me a grin, then threw a pencil at me. “Some things never change,” she said.
“Yeah, well, it’s hard to improve on near-perfection.”
She shook her head. “It’s five o’clock. Let’s wrap it up.”
“Okay,” I said. Then my stupid, stupid, stupid mouth ran ahead of my brain. “You want to grab a cup of coffee?”
She gave me an odd look, eyes a little narrowed and head slightly tilted, and said, “Okay.”
I carefully stood, hands at the edge of the desk, and grabbed my cane. A few steps to the door of Forrester’s office. I didn’t hear any sound inside at all. Jesus, I hoped he’s alive. I quietly opened the office door and looked inside.
Forrester was passed out at his desk, a little bit of drool pooling on the papers under his face.
Guess we didn’t need to ask if we could go. I closed the door and turned back to him.
“Is he writing?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
She looked surprised. “Really?”
“No. He’s passed out.”
“Oh. My. God.”
Depending on your point of view, experience, and attitude, we made our way to the coffee shop in either a companionable silence or an oppressive, awkward one. I’d prefer to think it was the former, but the pessimist in me says it was definitely the latter. About two thirds of the way there, she said, “You seem to be doing better today.” She nodded toward the cane.
“Yeah,” I said. “New physical therapist.”
“He moonlights, I think, as a dom. Advertises on the back pages of the Village Voice.”
She threw her head back and laughed out loud. “You’re crazy,” she said.
“No,” I said, shaking my head. “I’m dead serious. I think I caught a sight of leather straps hanging out of his desk yesterday. I’m going to have to give you my emergency contact information, in case I ever disappear after one of my appointments.”
“How often do you have to go?”
“Twice a week. And I’m supposed to walk at least a mile every morning. I think he’s going to make me start running soon.”
“What exactly happened?” she asked.
By this time we were at the coffee shop, so I said, “Let me get our drinks, then I’ll tell you the whole story.”
Five minutes later we were both seated out front, coffee in hand, and I said, “It happened back in late February. We were out on a patrol. Basically, our job was to go out and draw fire. Drive around until someone shoots at us, then the quick reaction force dives in and gets the bad guys. Or at least that’s the theory.”
She nodded, encouraging me to go on. “Anyway, that particular day we’d been in a small village, about three miles from the FOB.”
“The FOB?” she asked.
“Sorry. Forward operating base. Remember Fort Apache? It’s basically where you take a small part of the Army, plant them on a small target in the middle of hostile territory, and hang them out to dry.”
She leaned back, looking shocked. Probably more at my bitter tone than the words I’d used.
“Anyway, the village was about three miles away, and we went through there all the time. It was supposed to be friendly territory, but that’s all relative. Friendly means we didn’t get blown up there every day, just maybe once a week. The kids could get candy from us, and we were pretty sure they wouldn’t be killed for it, and that they wouldn’t be secretly holding grenades or whatever.”
A sad expression passed across her face. Almost a pitying expression.
I didn’t need her fucking pity. I leaned forward and said, “Listen, whatever you do, don’t ever give me pity. I don’t want to see that expression on your face, all right? I walked out of there alive. That makes me a fucking lottery winner, okay?”
Her eyes widened, and she nodded.
“Anyway… we got held up that day. One of the shopkeepers… okay that’s a stretch. This guy ran what was basically a cart beside the road, selling stuff to us, or to truck drivers who came through. Probably made fifty cents a day. I think he realized he could make a lot more working for the Taliban, because he held us up that day, telling some bullshit story about insurgents leaving the area, and he knew where they were going to be moving to, and so on. We finally finished with him, which gave the bad guys enough time to set up an ambush along the road back to the FOB.”
“So… what happened?”
“I don’t remember much. We were about halfway back when my humvee ran over the bomb. My friend Roberts was driving, and it hit mostly on his side. Everything went white, very suddenly. I couldn’t see anything, couldn’t hear anything, and then it was all gone. I woke up in Germany three days later, very lucky to be alive. Shrapnel had cut most of the way through my thigh and calf muscles. I got some permanent ringing in my ears, though the docs say that night go away in a few years. And … well, I spent a long time in the hospital, first in Germany, then after they stabilized me, they moved me to Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington.”
“And your friends?”
I grimaced. “I basically had two friends in the Army. Sherman was in the humvee behind us, got out without a scratch. He’s still over there in the boonies. And… well, Roberts didn’t make it.”
Her eyes dropped to the table, and she said, “I’m sorry.”
I shrugged. “It happens, Alex. People die. Roberts wouldn’t want me to spend my life all screwed up over what happened, any more than I would if our positions were reversed. He’s up there somewhere right now urging me to go get drunk and get laid, probably.”
She chuckled. “And are you following his advice?”
“Not yet,” I said, “But there’s always tomorrow.”
Not the smartest thing to say, I guess. Her gaze slipped away from me, out to the street. Finally, very slowly, she asked, “Why didn’t you contact me? After you were injured?”
I didn’t like the expression on her face, which was full of … grief? Longing? Sadness?
I couldn’t answer that question out loud. Because you ripped my heart out, I wanted to say. Because I couldn’t talk to you without hating you.
Because I loved you too much to put you through my bitterness and rage. Because I didn’t deserve to have you.
I shook my head, and said, in a light tone of voice, “It would be breaking the rules to answer that one, Alex.”