by E. J. Noyes
What do you do when the source of all your problems is the one thing you don’t know how to fix?
With Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell nothing more than an unpleasant memory, US Army surgeon Sabine Fleischer is ready to move on with her life—if she can just figure out how to move past her PTSD. Fresh from her first deployment since surviving a vehicle attack in Afghanistan, Sabine is finding the things she’s tried so hard to push aside aren’t as easy to ignore as she’d hoped.
Sabine’s girlfriend and ex-commanding officer Rebecca Keane is happily settled into her new job running a trauma department in a civilian hospital. Life with Sabine is everything Rebecca ever wanted. But when Sabine’s PTSD reappears worse than before, she’s left struggling with her own guilt.
There’s no doubt that both Sabine and Rebecca want the same thing. But how do you help the most important person in your life when they don’t want to need your help?
Ask Me Again is the must-read sequel to the best-selling Ask, Tell.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I never intended to publish this book, or honestly, even let anyone read it if I managed to finish it. Why write a book for nobody? Because sometimes, you just gotta write. Truthfully, the only reason I started writing this one was because I missed my characters so much, and in the way of a lovesick author – I could not let them go. A few weeks after I finished what I thought was the final draft of my debut, Ask, Tell (ha-ha, it was anything but the final draft) and left it to age like wine or whatever, I began the sequel. I wrote obsessively, like a teen in a dark bedroom hunched over a notepad scribbling about their first crush.
Lex’s Reviews - This book is really different than any other book Noyes has written. I would almost put this under drama-romance. This book is raw and heartbreaking at times, but it’s also about true love. I thought it was wonderfully written. I have read a few books that I thought tackled the subject of PTSD well, but I think this book seemed the most honest and realistic I have read. Even more than a romance this is a story about love. You believe this is real love you are reading about. And it’s not always an easy read. This book is a little tough at times and if you are like me, you might want to keep the tissues ready. But the love is there and it gives you hope.
Bethany’s Reviews - This book is not light and fluffy—it's chock full of raw, gritty and honest emotion, topped with a heap of pure, real love. Personally, I felt that it was refreshing to see characters who were so real, not idealized or over the top glamorous or beautiful, but real and honest characters dealing with real and honest struggles. I think the one thing I loved the most in this one is the overall message of love laced throughout the entire story. Even when situations were emotional and it was rough to be inside Sabine's head, you could still feel the surrounding love that Rebecca had for her. During the darkest moments, this one is still full of hope and healing. This is probably the most raw and realistic novel about PTSD that I've ever read, and I feel like I came out of the other side with a better understanding and ability to be more empathetic.
Pin’s Reviews - Ask Me Again is an excellent book, but not a light read. It deals with unpleasant events, with a protagonist fighting intrusive thoughts, severe anxiety, pain and hurt that is inside and tries to controls her—but it is essentially positive and motivating, and that is another thing for me to appreciate. I strongly suggest reading Ask, Tell prior to this sequel because some important nuances may be lost on you otherwise. E.J. Noyes has become one of my trusted authors, and I cannot wait to read her next book Alone, which is slated for May next year.
The closer the Army C-17 flew me back toward the States, the greater my unease became until I wasn’t sure if the sickening dread was true anxiety, or anxiety about having anxiety. Who the hell gets anxiety about going home from deployment? Apparently me, Queen of the Ridiculous.
I nudged Mitch with my knee. “Scoot out of the way.”
He huffed another exasperated sigh, dog-eared his page and unbuckled so he could stand up to let me pass. Captain Mitchell Boyd’s Texan drawl became even more drawn out as he tried—and failed—to sound like he didn’t want to throttle me for being so annoying. “Sabine, if I’da known you were gonna be up’n down this much, I wouldn’ta let you have a middle seat. Take some goddamned Imodium.”
“I already told you twice, I do not have diarrhea!” Midway through my loudly indignant rebuttal, the cabin went silent, leaving that last word to echo through the interior of the massive cargo plane. Perfect. The awkward silence was quickly covered by the sound of laughter and merciless teasing all around.
I raised a hand to acknowledge my socially inept outburst, then turned back to my best friend. “But you know what, Mitch? Your bitching would give anyone the shits.” I squeezed past him for the seventh time in the last four hours.
As I picked my way around prone bodies sleeping on all available floor space, I passed my good friend and deployment roommate, Captain Amy Peterson, who slept sprawled across the three seats she’d managed to wrangle. Lucky bitch. Even in this inelegant pose she somehow looked graceful, her honey-blond hair still contained in a perfect bun and beautiful features serene with sleep.
It was an illusion.
The moment her eyes opened, with her mouth following milliseconds after, the Sleeping-Beauty spell would break. Housed in that body, which wouldn’t look out of place in a Parisian couture house, was one hell of a surgeon with a filthy mind and filthier mouth. Amy came up with new and creative versions of expletives even I couldn’t imagine, chewed with her mouth open—usually because she was talking—and voiced her opinions loudly and without a single care as to who might be offended. I adored her and in all honesty, probably wouldn’t have survived the last few deployments without her, and Mitch.
Of course the bathroom was occupied. I fidgeted outside the door, wiggling my toes inside my boots, and glanced down the back to see if the second bathroom was free. Nope. Someone waiting outside that one too. A lifetime later, the door opened and I rushed into the tiny closet of a lavatory and yanked my pants down. Nothing but a trickle, just like the time before and the time before that. Get a grip, you idiot.
I leaned over to rest my forehead against the wall. What the hell was wrong with me? This wasn’t my first post-deployment rodeo, but instead of turning excited cartwheels, I felt like I was heading to the gallows. I’d been waiting for this moment for over ten months and now that it was here, I felt suddenly cast adrift.
My extended pity-party was cut short by tapping on the door, and a mumbled, “Kinda desperate to pee here, Fleischer…”
I finished up, flashed an apologetic smile at Major John Auger, another Med Corps surgeon in our team, who was jiggling outside the bathroom and made my way back to my seat. I had to squeeze around Amy’s feet which hung over the edge of the seats, boots still on but laces loosened and dangling and begging for mischief. It lacked flair but was too easy to pass up.
There was sniggering behind me as I carefully knotted the laces of her left and right boots together, my eyes on her face the whole time to make sure she was still sleeping. She was, snoring as usual. After rooming with her for two and a half deployments, I found it hard to sleep if she wasn’t in the small, plywood-lined room with me. Her glottal vibrations were a gross kind of white noise, helping to block some of the persistent, unpleasant sounds of living at a Forward Operating Base hospital in Afghanistan.
I shimmied past Mitch and buckled myself in, yanking the belt so tightly it hurt. He glanced at me. “You done? We’ll be landin’ in an hour, think you can hold it ’til we’re on the ground?”
On the ground. An invisible hand grabbed the back of my neck, squeezing already tense muscle until it felt like it was burning. In six hours or so I would see Bec, in person, for the first time in over ten months. Three hundred and fourteen days since I’d touched my girlfriend. Kissed her. Made love to her. Felt her talented, knowing fingers—uh, really not the time or place, Sabine.
I closed my eyes and conjured up the mental picture that I’d kept coming back to whenever I thought of her. The PG-rated one, that is. The night before I left, Bec had leaned on the kitchen counter, watching me use my laptop at the table. Blond hair loose around her shoulders, begging to be twirled around my fingers. Those ocean-blue eyes creased with laughter. Dimples a mile deep.
That memory triggered the one of what came after—the very much not PG version—where I ducked around the counter into the kitchen, then without a word pulled Bec’s shirt over her head. The memory bloomed, replaying whispered pleas and loud moans as she lay spread for me on the kitchen floor, and then segued into the hours in bed where we made love until we were so satiated we could do nothing more than just exist together.
You have the most inappropriate mental timing, Sabine.
I forced my thoughts back to those more appropriate in public. Like…family. Judging by the nonstop emails my younger sister, Jana, was over-the-top excited about my coming home. Mom’s constant emails in the last month had laid out detailed plans for the five days Bec and I would spend at my parents’ house in Ohio once I’d completed my post-deployment processing. Even Dad, hater of electronic communication, had added a few lines at the bottom of Mom’s latest message.
Everyone would be excited. So why wasn’t I? Why was I so afraid? More to the point, what was I so afraid of? The irrational panic bubbled up again, and the windowless, cavernous space was suddenly so claustrophobic I wanted to tear off my seatbelt and sprint away. But there was nowhere to go.
My nervous bladder sent another false, yet insistent message. This was getting absurd. I loosened my seatbelt and leaned down to where my backpack was stuffed under the seat in front, with Mitch’s boot covering it. “Move your hoof.”
He obliged and I rummaged in the bag, keeping it half-closed to hide what I was doing as I tapped five milligrams of diazepam from the bottle. Ever nosy, Mitch asked, “What’s that?”
The lie fell off my tongue. “Midol.” I palmed the Valium into my mouth and swallowed it with a gulp of disgustingly warm bottled water. “…Mom.”
“Mhmm, sure.” Mitch lowered his voice. “Sabs? You’re sweatin’.”
“Am I? That’s because it’s fucking hot in here.”
“You’re also shakin’, angel.”
“Well, it’s…cold too.” Nice comeback, Sabine. I wrapped my arms around my waist and faced forward again.
“How’s your stomach?” His concern was part friend, part physician and part someone who’s greatest source of panic had always been someone puking near him.
I wasn’t going to puke. Not yet anyway. “It’s fine,” I said forcefully.
“Please just let it go.” I spared him a pleading look. “I said it’s fine, Mitch, honestly.”
His mouth pressed into a thin line but he nodded and did as I’d asked. A few moments later, a large rough-skinned hand came to rest on my knee. I grabbed it, squeezed firmly and kept holding on. We’d been best friends for almost twenty years and I felt awful for cutting him off. For lying. For shutting him out this time.
But this wasn’t the place to discuss my stupid anxiety. And even if it was the place, what was the point? Mitch knew what was wrong, especially after dealing with me and my PTSD that had recurred within the first month back in Afghanistan. Recurred was a stupid term, implying it’d actually gone away in the first place. But…the way I was feeling now had nothing to do with PTSD. Did it? Maybe it really was just the deployment.
I closed my eyes and willed myself to leave the front behind, to forget about all the soul-draining surgeries and the men and women I couldn’t save or put back into one whole body again. I begged myself to shed the constant undercurrent of fear I’d had ever since leaving Bec at home. If I couldn’t set it all aside, it would slowly eat at me until I was nothing more than a hollowed-out shell. Of course, knowing that’s what I needed to do and actually being able to do it were two different things.
The plane ride home should have been a transformation of sorts, shifting my emotions and worries into a hidden place so I could interact with regular people again. Even as I tried to reason with myself, I wondered if I even needed to force myself to be normal. Did I really need to draw a curtain over my feelings? Bec wouldn’t expect that of me, and she certainly didn’t need me to make some magical metamorphosis from Deployment Sabine to Back-Home Sabine.
She knew as well as anyone what it was like over there, what it was like to come back. My girlfriend, Lieutenant Colonel Rebecca Keane, had been an Army surgeon for over eighteen years. She’d even been my boss during her final three years before she’d retired after The Incident.
I hated the way we all called it that, but I suppose “The time Sabine was in a Humvee which was hit by an explosive device that literally cut a man in half, then she and the driver also got shot and it really sucked” was a bit of a mouthful.
Bec knew how I’d been affected. But I so did not want our reunion to be full of How are you? and Are you okay? and that unspoken, underlying question that now seemed to overshadow everything. How is your PTSD?
Over two years later and post-traumatic stress disorder is still present for duty, Colonel Keane! I mean…honey.
I scrubbed both hands over my face, trying to dispel the feeling that had settled under my skin. Instead of the borderline arousal I’d felt five minutes earlier when thinking about making love with my girlfriend, my body now felt strange, almost weightless, as though it wasn’t really mine. An unpleasant sensation, but unfortunately not a new one. It had recurred intermittently since The Incident. Staring at my hands, touching my forearms, tapping my molars together usually helped bring me back to myself, but the undercurrent could linger for hours. Sometimes days. How was I supposed to be Bec’s life partner and equal if I didn’t even feel like myself?
For the rest of the flight I curled up with my eyes closed, leaning on Mitch’s shoulder while he read. The movement of his arm as he turned pages gave me something to focus on and I found myself counting the seconds between each flip. Mitch was a slow reader and after twenty-four pages lasting one thousand, nine hundred and thirty-eight seconds, I felt the Valium kick in.
My panic was blunted at the edges, making the anxiety at least tolerable. Its gnawing was like rats nibbling my bones, but I no longer felt like I was about to run screaming down the aisle of the plane. Good enough.
When we began our descent, the sounds of people moving rose to match the drone of the engines. I opened my eyes again, blinking away the sudden brightness. Mitch squeezed my hand then let it go. “You good?”
“Mhmm.” I straightened up and stretched as best I could with two tall men either side of me and the row of seats in front brushing my shins.
Mitch carefully folded down the edge of his page and set the book in his backpack. “Who’s meetin’ you? Jana or Rebecca?”
Sister or girlfriend. Neither. I massaged the back of my neck. “I haven’t told them. They still think we’re back the day after tomorrow.”
Mitch spluttered and pushed out a strangled, “The fuck?”
I raised my hands to forestall his rant. “I thought it’d be kinda cool. You know, be settled on the couch with dinner on the stove when Bec comes home from work tonight.”
Mitch had been like a puppy the whole time we’d been prepping to come home, and the fact I wasn’t doing backflips was foreign to him. He harrumphed. “She’s gonna be madder’n a wet hen when she comes home and sees you already there without tellin’ her we were coming back.”
“No way. Surprised, but not mad.” I shuffled, trying to get comfortable. “Besides, she did the same to me, remember?” While I was stateside recovering, anxiously waiting for Bec to give me her firm return date, she’d just turned up at my house one afternoon after separating from the Army. It was wonderful and sweet and had been a perfect gift. Now I wanted her to feel the same.
He said something else under his breath that gave the impression he thought he knew better than me. Then he raised his voice. “Geez, woulda thought you’d be dyin’ to get home. And into bed,” he added.
I was but was also being smothered by that fear of going home. To Bec. To my safe place. Totally rational, post-deployment jitters, that’s all. Keep lying, and maybe one of these days you’ll believe yourself. Mitch cleared his throat and gave me the pointed look I knew so well. Stop thinking and speak, Sabine, or he’s going to dig in. Before I could think of something to say, the address system crackled. The cabin grew quieter, then the usual incantations echoed through the plane. Prepare for approach, thank you for your service and sacrifice, welcome home and God Bless America.
Mitch leaned down to make sure both our packs were stowed under the seats in front. “You two goin’ away?”
Once all our in-processing requirements, screenings and briefings and crap were done, we were all being sent on two weeks’ block leave. Two weeks was shorter than usual, but the deployment rotations meant we were needed back at work at our new duty station—Walter Reed National Military Medical Center—ASAP. They’d only just moved the hospital to Bethesda and combined it with the Naval Medical Center, and Amy, Mitch and I would likely stay there until our next orders came through in six or nine or however many months it was until the Army decided what to do with us. “Mhmm. Just five days with the parents then the rest at home doing chores and stuff.”
“Boring.” Mitch had a week in Canada planned with his boyfriend, Mike. Mitch and Mike, my M ’n’ Ms. In the beginning I’d teased him about how they sounded like a sitcom. The original M, Mitch, raised both eyebrows. “You’re so domesticated it makes me sick.”
“Jealousy is unattractive,” I said sweetly. “And get off your high horse. What are you guys doing for the second week once you get home, hmm?”
He blew a raspberry at me, his presumably snide response smothered by a command through the cabin to sit down and belt in. From a few rows forward there was a thud and a loud, “Which of you fucking assholes tied my laces together?” Amy’s head popped up over the seats. Her murky green eyes found mine, then narrowed. “Sabine, you shit!”
I affected an innocent look. “Moi? Would I really do such a thing?”
Her response was a middle-fingered salute that was most definitely not in the prescribed military manner.
After a hard landing at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, we taxied for an eternity until there was parking space for the huge plane. The moment the C-17 became stationary, everyone leapt up and noisily began gathering their kit. I did the same, albeit with less enthusiasm. Amy hopped to her feet and launched herself toward me, arms outstretched for a hug. “Come on, let’s get to this bus and get our asses home.”
I held her tight, burying my face in her shoulder and absorbing her strength. I wondered if she remembered me from the early days, our first deployment, when I didn’t need to lean on her so much. When I was normal and didn’t have a meltdown every time there was an incoming enemy fire drill. Or real enemy fire.
She’d had a front row seat to some dark times in our last two deployments—my ex’s cheating and breakup from thousands of miles away, my subsequent breakdown, then The Incident and PTSD. And she’d stood firm with me through it all.
Amy planted a smacking kiss on my cheek, gave Mitch the same treatment then rushed toward the rear door, calling for us to hurry the fuck up. My friends and coworkers disembarked in a seething mass of combat uniforms and excited chattering, and I was swept up and deposited outside with them. Everyone began to disperse toward the buses, but I was stuck in place, as if my boots had melted into the tarmac.
Ten yards ahead, Amy elbowed her way through the crowd, desperate to get to the transport that would take us to the base where family and friends would be waiting. Waiting for everyone except me. Mitch paused, looked around and when he spotted me, waved me over. “Fleischer! Let’s go.”
I nodded and tried to move. Couldn’t. The only way I could unstick my feet was with a decisive internal count of one step, two steps…three. No, stop. Don’t do that, not here. You don’t need to. Mitch always called my demand for regulation and organization OCD, and maybe it was, but what was happening to me now sat in some uncomfortable gray area. I’d had to admit to myself that after The Incident, certain things made me uncomfortable. Like messy surgical trays, misaligned shoes and walking anywhere without counting my steps. Because, you know…I might need to count them to get back to safety if something happened.
I gritted my teeth and jogged over to him, singing the theme song to Sesame Street in my head to override the intrusive mental counting. Mitch’s warm, dry hand found mine and he tugged me toward the buses. By the time we reached the vehicles, I could barely breathe. I bent over and rested my hands on my knees, trying desperately to oxygenate and stop the dizziness that threatened to topple me. Mitch’s hand moved to my back. Along with Amy, he’d spent this deployment holding my hand, literally and figuratively, whenever I had a moment and his solid presence helped push some of the panic aside.
Someone spoke from my right. “Are you okay, Sabine?”
I raised my head. “Mhmm, fine. Thank you, John. Just getting over the flu.” Stand up, Sabine. People are staring. I straightened and forced a smile.
Mitch rubbed gentle circles on my lower back, his voice calm and quiet. “You’re okay, darlin’. Come on, we’re here with you.” He gave me a gentle nudge forward. “We’re home now and it’s all over.”
All over, yes, but I still had to get into a vehicle. Nothing’s going to happen, Sabine. You’re stateside, you’re fine. Mitch slung his arm around my shoulder, maneuvered me to a bus and into a seat near the front. My emetophobic friend bravely ignored my anxious dry heaving—another unfortunate side effect of my PTSD—and kept his thigh pressed against mine in his version of a show of support. Turned away from me, the music blasting through his headphones blocked the sound of my gagging and completed his little safety bubble. Reaching over from the seat behind us, Amy massaged my shoulder and gave running commentary on the scenery passing by to help distract me.
The trip to Bethesda took fifty-three minutes in familiar traffic and as the bus finally pulled around, I got my first look at where I’d be working until my next posting. Impressive, even with the cranes and mounds of dirt scattered around the grounds. Weapons and equipment handovers, check-ins and final checks took almost three hours and then we were released out into the world again. It began as an orderly procession but the moment we came within sight of the parking lot, and the view of a few hundred people massed and waiting, everyone pretty much let formation go to shit. Mitch grabbed my hand again, both to pull me along and also to stop me from getting lost, and dragged me toward the crowd.
Amy was tackled around the legs by a red and blue blur who was way taller than the last time I’d seen him. She dropped to her knees, pulling her son into a fierce hug, her hand strafing the back of his head. I recognized her husband, Rick, rushing toward them but didn’t wave or draw his attention away from the woman he hadn’t seen in months. It wasn’t the time.
The parking lot was a staging area for joyous reunions—kids climbing over their parent newly returned from deployment, couples embracing and kissing, parents crying and laughing. And even though I’d planned that nobody was there for me, a vise of disappointment tightened around my chest.
Mitch’s step quickened when he spotted Mike and I hung back as he strode over with a gait so excited he was practically levitating. The two men paused, staring at one another for a long moment before Mitch grabbed his partner and pulled him in for a crushing hug. At this distance I could almost hear bones grating. Mitch lifted Mike up off the ground and they kissed sweetly. The repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a thing of great beauty.
They’d met during our last deployment when they’d both been on a few days’ leave in Qatar. They’d conquered distance and DADT until Mike’s separation from the Army a few months before we’d left for this, our latest deployment. My boys were so sweet together, and also like oil and water. Six-three of All-American handsome Mitch who thought ball, beer and barbeque were the greatest things on earth. Then bookish, quiet Mike who only stood as tall as his boyfriend’s shoulder and loved sitcoms and cooking and painting.
Once they’d finished their polite-for-public-eyes greeting, Mitch called, “Sabine! Stop draggin’ yer tail and get over here!”
I rushed over as quickly as I could juggling both backpack and laptop bag as well as a heavy kit bag on my shoulder. I set my gear on the ground, and Mike swept me up into a warm embrace. He smelled faintly of freshly baked cookies and aftershave. “So good to see you, Sabine.”
I wrapped my arms around his lean frame. “You too.”
Mike released me carefully, not letting go until my feet were on the ground and I’d straightened up. He peered around curiously. “Where’s Rebecca?” He slipped an arm around his boyfriend’s waist and kissed the underside of Mitch’s jaw. Mitch responded with a small rumble of pleasure and brushed his nose through Mike’s hair. They were so cute, it’d be nauseating if I didn’t adore them so much.
“At home. Or work.” I gnawed the inside of my cheek before elaborating, “I didn’t give her our updated arrival time. Wanted to surprise her.”
Mitch’s massive paw landed on my shoulder. “Sabs thinks it’s romantic, sneakin’ in like this.” He jerked me back and forth, knowing full well I hated it.
I shouldered my big bag again, knocking his hand away in the process. “It is.” I didn’t want to be caught up in a discussion about how I chose to come home, so I backed up a step and punched Mitch’s arm, knowing full well he hated it. “Speaking of, you two should get the hell out of here and get all caught up. Don’t forget to come up for air.”
Mitch laughed. “You can talk.” He snatched me up and hugged me so hard I groaned. Then he spun me one-eighty degrees, murmuring, “Love you, darlin’.”
I kissed his bristly cheek and squeezed him back. “Love you too, Mitchy.”
When he dropped me, he asked, “You want a ride?” The question lacked enthusiasm, and considering his boyfriend was in touching range I didn’t blame him.
“Nah, thanks. I’m good. I’ll see you back here in a few days.” I blew them each a kiss and made shooing gestures.
Mike returned my blown kisses. Mitch rolled his eyes. The boys quickly tossed Mitch’s bags into the trunk and drove off with an out-the-window-wave each. I stood on the curb, watching other families drive away until the crowd thinned, and I was one of the few people left. It was almost eleven in the morning and I could be at the front door of our two-story Tudor in the outer suburbs of D.C. in forty-five minutes, if the traffic was good and the cab driver drove like my sister.
But I wasn’t going home. I just…couldn’t. Not yet.
Jana whirled through the door a little after seven p.m., still dressed in one of her impeccable work suits, and holding pizza and a bottle of Veuve Clicquot. “Sorry, Bec. Court ran late, then I got tangled up with a client,” she explained, and went on to blurt a bunch of random thoughts—an endearing trait she shared with Sabine. “Messy divorces are awful, but they pay so damned well. I’m tempted to buy a bigger condo or even a house, but do I need more than two bedrooms for just me? Oh my God, these new shoes are so painful, it’s a pity they’re so fucking sexy or I’d probably ditch them. Maybe I’ll buy a house with a yard and get a dog. I was going to get something healthier for dinner, and then I thought screw it, I’ll just do an extra gym class this week. Eating pizza with champagne isn’t tacky, is it?”
She dropped her bags on the table, slid everything else onto the kitchen counter and with a happy sigh slipped out of her heels. I had to choose something to respond to, so I smiled and answered her final question with, “No, it’s not tacky.” I picked up the champagne, which was fancier than what we usually drank with our catch ups. “What’s the occasion?”
“We’re celebrating, obviously.” Sabine’s sister pulled two champagne glasses down from the cupboard above the coffeemaker.
“Celebrating what exactly?”
“Sabbie’s home the day after tomorrow, and I made it through the day without killing anyone or yelling at opposing counsel.” She paused and added a cheeky, “Only just. Plus I got a fantastic settlement for someone who really deserves it while nailing her bastard ex-husband to the wall and I negotiated a custody arrangement for another client that actually works for everyone, kids included. Well, as much as those things can. Oh! And I have another date with Hot Coffee Roaster tomorrow night.” Jana left me to open the bottle while she busied herself fetching plates.
Good enough reasons for me and given I didn’t have to work for the next four days, a few glasses of champagne sounded heavenly. I’d taken a couple of vacation days to get organized before Sabine’s arrival, and to have some uninterrupted time once she came home. Then I had another two weeks concurrent with her post-deployment leave so we could reconnect, and visit her parents and grandparents.
I busied myself with popping the cork and tossed it to the ground for the cat. Titus was a ginger and white blur as he batted the cork around the floor, until he eventually punted it across the room and under the fridge. Game over. Sabine would have been on hands and knees fumbling for the cork, and even moving the fridge if she couldn’t reach the insignificant and replaceable cat toy. Innocuous daily events like this were when I was most aware of her absence. I pushed the feeling aside, reminding myself that in less than forty hours, she would be home.
Jana poured champagne, raised her glass and flashed me a smile. “To our last dinner as The Left Behinds.” She’d dubbed us this silly name not long after Sabine had gone back to Afghanistan. From the outset, Sabine’s family had accepted and enfolded me, but during Sabine’s deployment Jana and I had grown even closer, drawn together by mutual sadness. She’d become the sister I never knew I’d wanted. Or needed.
I tipped my glass to her. “Cheers.”
After a mouthful, Jana set her glass down and gathered her bob into a ponytail. She had the same hair as Sabine—a shade off black, thick and straight. After tucking a few loose strands back, Jana asked, “Have you heard from her since Monday?”
“No.” I couldn’t help frowning. Two days without contact was odd but not cause for alarm. “Have you?”
“Nope. Probably just technical issues, work, preps, all that shit,” Jana said dismissively. After supporting her sister through three deployments, Jana knew the coming home routine almost as well as I did.
I murmured in agreement and carried the bottle and my drink to the table. Jana brought the pizza and settled across from me, her butt barely hitting the seat before she flipped the lid. Her expression was one of pure delight, as though pizza would solve all her problems. Jana pulled out slices and dropped them carelessly onto plates. “When do you guys go to Ohio?” She studied her thumb then licked it.
I helped with a piece of cheese that was trying to part ways with the rest of the topping. “Two days after she’s finished all her in-processing.” Sabine would have to complete a week on post-deployment debriefing, and physical and mental evaluations before being allowed her two weeks’ leave.
“Time with the in-laws. Lucky you.” Jana didn’t bother to hide her smirk.
My smile was automatic, and genuine. “I know.”
Sabine and her family were extraordinarily close, and at the beginning of our relationship, I’d been consumed by an emotion I could only call envy. My parents died when I was five. I was an only child and my aunt who’d raised me had died eight years ago. Then the Fleischers began to treat me like a daughter, and that envy turned to love and an overwhelming sense of acceptance.
Jana ate most of her slice then set it down with her eyes half-closed and her mouth still quirked into a smile. After a mouthful of champagne she said, “You know she’s been sending me emails this whole time making sure that I’ve been taking care of you.” Those last four words were accompanied by air quotes. “I wonder if she’s going to make me give her a detailed report.”
I swallowed quickly and laughed. “I know. I’ve been getting the same. Except mine are more along the lines of ‘is Jana taking care of you?’”
“Ugh, she’s such a control freak,” Jana complained. After a moment she seemed to collect herself, and grew serious. “But…she’s way different with you than I’ve seen her with anyone else. Protective of you and of your place with us. You do belong with us, Bec.” After a decisive nod, she let calming silence envelop us.
I stared into my champagne flute. Protective. I was eight years older than Sabine and logically, I should be protecting her. It didn’t feel as though I’d done a very good job of keeping her safe. Before I retired from the Army I’d broken so many rules to be with her. Then I’d sent her on the errand that led to her being hurt. And I hadn’t been able to protect her from having to redeploy when she was clearly still struggling with PTSD.
Every time we’d Skyped during our time apart I’d wanted to weep. She’d insisted that going back to where it’d happened would help her move on, to let her see that it was just a place, nothing more. And I’d disagreed, but only once out loud because her jaw had set into that stubborn line of insistence I knew so well.
Over the past months I’d watched helplessly as the angles in her face grew more pronounced, the shadows under her eyes darkened and the defeat in her voice became more prominent. And I knew being over there was doing the opposite of what she’d thought it would. But there was no pleasure in my being right this time. The only thing I’d had to hold on to was that when she came home, she could begin to heal again, away from at least one stress. Another step closer to her completing the contract that exchanged med school for seven years of service still tying her to the military. In less than two years she’d be done.
Jana stared at the pizza box then pushed it aside. “How’s work?”
The question drew me away from my introspection. “The wrong side of hectic.” I didn’t mind. Being busy helped keep my mind away from the loneliness.
“Anything exciting happening?”
“The usual gunshots, stabbings and car accidents. Oh, actually no, I did have something interesting today. An MVA where the steering wheel broke and the impact threw the driver forward onto the column. It was still embedded in—”
“No! I don’t want to know.” Both her hands came up palms out, fingers splayed wide in the biggest STOP gesture she could make. “I’m sorry I asked.”
I smiled into my champagne. “Almost got it past you.” Jana hated gore and it had become a game to see how much detail she’d listen to before cutting me off. I also hoped that telling her some of the realities of the people passing through my trauma unit might scare her into moderating her driving a little—she’d look right at home on an Indy 500 track—but after all this time, it seemed a lost cause.
The MVA was an interesting case. It’d taken me and my team hours to remove the shaft then repair the damage, and I’d thought how much I would have liked Sabine’s steady hands working alongside mine. We often spoke about our cases during this deployment, and if I’d wanted to I could pretend it was just like when we actually worked together. Almost…because being without her was a constant dull ache that no amount of make-believe would ever dispel.
After Jana and I finished dinner and cleaned up, we relocated to the den to watch mindless television and talk about mindless things. The date she had tomorrow night, Sabine’s homecoming, whether Jana really needed a dog. Most of the bottle ended up in my glass and when nine o’clock rolled around, Jana stretched, her toes pointed like a dancer. Her nails were still the delicate pink from our day at the spa last week. “I’d better get home.”
“Not staying?” She had a room here in case of emergencies. Like too much wine.
“Ugh, no. I wish I could, but I need to file a brief tomorrow and if I stay here we’re going to open that expensive bottle of scotch you’re saving for Sabbie.” Jana sprung to her feet and wasted no time putting her heels back on—they really were very nice—and gathering her coat, handbag and briefcase in a whirlwind.
“You know all you need to do is come around, and you can share it. Maybe we can open it up this weekend. The three of us.” The thought made my stomach flutter with excitement. We were so close to normality.
“Mhmm, sounds good.” Jana flicked the collar of her coat up. “I guess she’ll call me when she’s settled.”
“I’m sure she will.” Probably before she’d settled if I knew Sabine. I wouldn’t be surprised if she asked me to stop at her sister’s office in the city on the way home from the base. The thought of being in a car, doing something as mundane as driving with my girlfriend sent another surge of excitement through me.
“I can’t wait to see her,” Jana said quietly, pulling open the door.
“Me either…” In the open doorway, I embraced her tightly. “Thanks for coming over. Drive safely.”
“Will do. I’ll talk to you guys really soon!” Jana released me with a cheerful, “Love you.”
“Love you too.”
She squeezed my shoulders then strode to the brand-new silver Mercedes she’d only had a month, parked in the driveway. Clearly, messy divorces did pay well. When she’d reversed out and driven away at her usual terrifyingly excessive speed, I went back inside to tidy up.
I ran a cloth over the counter, lingering and smiling to myself as my thoughts flickered briefly to the first night I’d been here, two years ago. Before that, for over eighteen years, I’d worked within an institution that made me suppress a part of myself and I’d always felt pride in my discretion and incredible willpower. Then the first time we’d operated together, Sabine had torn it all down with a lame joke and a sheepish, helpless look.
She’d slowly stripped away every bit of self-control I had until I’d broken down, acted against protocol and come to this house during recreation leave. When I’d knocked on Sabine’s door it wasn’t as her superior officer, but as a woman wanting a lover. We’d danced around the inevitable until I’d shed my clothes, hopped onto this very counter, opened my legs to her and begged. We’d devoured each other for most of the night and the next day, and every day we’d been together since only strengthened my conviction that I’d done the right thing for us.
After one last check to make sure the house was locked up, I turned out the lights and climbed upstairs. The champagne had dulled me to a pleasant sort of inebriation and I wondered if I might actually fall asleep in a reasonable amount of time, rather than lying awake thinking of everything I had to do the next day. It was wishful thinking. I’d always been prone to insomnia—a consequence of being on call—but with Sabine away it had increased. I’d been subsisting on around four hours a night, supplemented with naps in on-call rooms.
I pulled on one of Sabine’s old tees and climbed under the covers. After an hour, I was still running through mental lists. Finish cleaning the house, grocery shopping, brush the cat and make the bowtie I was going to sneak onto him, plan meals. The other side of my insomnia was because I hadn’t heard from her in a few days. I knew firsthand how hectic the last days of deployment were but still, I worried.
Rationally, I knew that if something had happened, we’d have been notified. I’d made that exact call to her parents and my stomach still churned whenever I thought about it. Even more rationally, I knew that the chance of Sabine, a member of AMEDD, the Army Medical Department, being involved in anything dangerous was unlikely. She’d already defied probability once. Twice was unthinkable.
I closed my eyes and pictured the moment when Sabine would be back in our house. A pleasant warmth bloomed in my chest, spreading through my body and bringing a comforting lightness. I relished the thought of just being able to breathe again. Her return wasn’t even about the physical side of her being here, though I missed intimacy more with every passing day.
I couldn’t wait to see her face, to reacquaint myself with her features and learn those new things that would have changed, which would be almost imperceptible to anyone else. To watch her long eyelashes cast shadows over those glorious cheekbones, and the freckles spreading to the straight bridge of her nose. After so much time where we couldn’t acknowledge what we wanted, and having spent so little time together, I still marveled at the physicality of her. Everything symmetrical and proportionate. Knowing Sabine and her demand for self-perfection, she’d probably spent her time as a fetus forcing her body to grow with straight angles and complementary features.
I couldn’t help reveling in her lithe, strong body. To let myself be lost in eyes so dark they were almost black. To enjoy the touch of her hands, a little larger than mine and always punctuating the air when she spoke. I could spend hours kissing full lips, so frequently lifted in a smile or a grin, and listening to her deliciously husky voice. I never tired of running my tongue over her small breasts or the tightly muscled planes of her body.
If I loved the physical, then I worshipped her intellectual and emotional aspects, all that simultaneously pleased yet confounded me. I would spend my life studying her, trying to work out the intricacies that made her her, and I’d never grow tired of it. She could be so serious and strict, and then turn around and laugh or joke about something most people wouldn’t find funny. Sabine held herself to impossible standards, but forgave almost every shortcoming in those she held close. She was a perfectionist in every aspect of her life and I loved her more than I could ever put into words.
I loved the way she’d appear seemingly out of nowhere to ask me something or just tell me of something funny she’d just seen. Her intricate stacking of the dishwasher and how she’d give me that look when I stacked it wrongly. The way she always parked her car against the garage wall with millimeters to spare so I’d have plenty of room for mine. Her one-sided conversations with the cat. Her laughter. I opened my eyes again, imagining that sound. Without it, the house seemed empty and stale.
At FOB Invicta Military Hospital in Afghanistan, despite us living and working in the worst of circumstances, I’d rarely had a day without hearing her laugh or make a joke—always dry and quick-witted. I would hear her distinctive voice and laughter bouncing through the barracks or hospital as I sat in my office, and the sound would have me stop what I was doing to listen until she was out of earshot. And I’d wish that I knew what had fueled her mirth, or even more pathetically, I would wish it was me making her laugh.
A low throb in my depths brought me back to the present and I considered sliding a hand under the sheet. But I didn’t want that impersonal solo release, not when she’d be home so soon. I pushed my remembrances aside and shifted my focus to tomorrow. Clean the house, change the sheets, buy groceries, mow the lawn, choose lingerie…
When I woke, I couldn’t figure out what had roused me, but after lying quietly for half a minute, the reason became terrifyingly clear. In the still night came the unmistakable sound of movement downstairs. Soft, steady footsteps made their way up the stairs and along the hallway. I fumbled on the bedside table for my glasses and reached for my phone, thumb playing over the screen to unlock it. 11:16 p.m.
The gun, locked in our closet safe, was no more than ten steps away but it might as well have been ten miles. We had been a gun-free household, but Sabine insisted that while she was gone I should have a handgun for protection. Given her overall anxiety, I acquiesced. After my time in the military I was more than comfortable with firearms. D.C. was much safer than it used to be, and I never actually expected to have to use one in this capacity.
I flung the covers aside, slid stealthily from the bed and started backing quietly toward the closet. The footsteps paused, then the partially-open bedroom door cracked open further. Despite my panic, and my thumb readying to dial 9-1-1, I couldn’t help myself, whispering hopefully, “Jana? Is that you?”
The door opened further and a dull thud of something being dropped on the wooden floor echoed through the room. “Almost, but not quite.”
I would have known that voice anywhere. In my dreams or awake. Under water, from across a desert or crowded room. Most importantly, I knew it from where it spoke fifteen feet away. The light flicked on, illuminating the best thing in my life.
She was dressed in her ACU, and though she would have been traveling for at least twenty-four hours the combat uniform was immaculate. Her smile was both cocky and shy, and her dark eyes studied me with intensity. She rubbed the back of her neck, then raised her hand in an uncertain gesture. “Hey, honey. I’m home.”
It took only two seconds to cross the room and the moment I was in reach, Sabine grabbed me and pulled me against her body. I let out a choked sob, wrapping my arms tightly around her waist as she held me. God how I’d missed her hugs. She loved hugging, and hugged hard and with her whole body, like she was trying to transfer love through osmosis. I buried my face in her neck, unable to stop the tremor in my arms. Her grip eased fractionally before she bent her head to kiss me.
She tasted like her spearmint gum, smelled exactly the way I remembered and felt like the safest place I’d ever been. I couldn’t hold her close enough, couldn’t touch enough of her and couldn’t quite believe she was really here. “Why didn’t you tell me you were back today?” I asked through my tears.
She pulled away slightly, wiped the moisture from under my eyes and grinned a trademark Sabine grin—a little crooked, and so bright it was like the world had been in shadow before. “I wanted to surprise you. I’m sorry it’s late and you’re already in bed.” Her normally husky voice was even rougher with an edge of gravel, breaking on words the way it always did when she was tired.
I laughed through my tears. Of all the things to apologize for. With my hands running up and down her arms, I soothed her. “It’s okay, sweetheart.”
“And I’m gross. I haven’t showered since I left Afghanistan, and I was going to get flowers, but I couldn’t find the right ones.” She was over-explaining, trying to justify why she wasn’t here at the time or in the way she’d wanted. It was so Sabine, trying explain what she deemed a lack of perfection and being blinded by the fact that all I cared about was that she was here. “And I—”
“Darling, I don’t care. I don’t care if you haven’t showered or brushed your teeth or hair or whatever. I love you, and I am so happy you’re here.” I took her face in my hands and kissed her again.
Sabine reached up to grasp my wrists gently, the way she always did when I held her face and kissed her. This simple familiar action brought a fresh round of tears. Kissing her felt like that first sweet intake of breath after leaping into a pool. As she held me, kissed me softly, I realized how relieved I was at her sudden appearance. If I’d had time to think and prepare all day tomorrow and the next morning, I would have been nervous about how to interact with her. About what to say, what to do. This was pure instinct.
Her forehead rested against mine, her voice thick with emotion. “Bec, I have spent the past ten months thinking of what I would say to you when this moment finally happened and now I can’t fucking remember any of it.” Sabine shrugged helplessly and her voice wavered. “Except that I love you. And I’ve missed you so much.”
“Me too,” I managed to say around the hard lump in my throat.
“Look at me.” Sabine lifted my chin with a forefinger, her eyes shining with unshed tears. “I love you,” she said again. Then her lips were on my neck and my cheek before they found my mouth again. We kissed like kissing was sustenance. We kissed like being together was the only thing keeping us alive. Now that she was home, and in my arms—it was.