Chapter 1: Prologue
"I love the smell of napalm in the morning!" Cash was only trying to lighten the mood; help keep the fear at bay. Noah knew that. But nerves were too badly shot up; the platoon too afraid.
"Shut the hell up, Rivers!" Calvin snapped at him; stiff shoulders pressed against the opening of the doorway; rifle nestled between nervous knees in readiness. "This ain't a fucking joke!"
Cash snorted in the darkness, hands shaking. Of course he knew that. He meant no harm. He was just as scared.
"Yeah, Rivers! Fuck!" Jo breathed heavily; a thick smell of blood filling the air from the bullet wound on this right calf. It was infected, Noah was sure about that.
But it didn't matter. They weren't getting out anyway.
"We're trapped!" Calvin exclaimed for the fourth or fifth time, voice raising a further notch of hysteria. He risked another quick peek around the crumbling brick lintel, only to have an enemy's sniper bullet ricochet off the brickwork; inches from his head. He flew back inside and out of sight. His face was bright with panic, even in the bad light. "Shit! We really are trapped. Aren't we, Blue?"
Noah tried to avoid the man's wild, wide eyes; still hopeful despite the situation. With one last clip of ammo in his pocket, and hands clutching an almost empty gun, what could Noah reply to him? What could he say to any of them?
He felt at the four dog-tags hanging around his neck; one his own, the others belonging to the men they'd lost that week; swiftly whipped over their necks as the platoon retreated further and further back. Noah had hoped to one day return the metal tags to their families, but that wasn't likely to happen now.
Kissinger, Brown, and their platoon leader McClatchy, the man who had taken the young Noah Mayer under his wing and sheltered him for two whole years; all gone.
Noah stoically held back the threatening tears. He had to be the strong one here. For whatever reason, these men were looking to him for strength; and that gave Noah a purpose. It gave Noah focus.
He propped his shoulders up against the wall of the small one-roomed house; roof long since blown off in a previous mortar attack. He dropped his head back; closed his eyes to the visions of death that refused to leave him. He swallowed hard; wondered why they all looked to him for answers. Compared to the rest of the platoon, he was the rookie, the youngest… yet at some point during the past week his cool head had made him the unofficial leader.
It wasn't a role he wanted.
For at least two days they'd been sheltering there; a standoff. There was no way out; Noah knew this; had already accepted it. The radio lay smashed at his feet, but it didn't matter. They hadn't been able to signal for help even while it was working.
Except for the slight starlight bathing them through the hole in the roof, it was pitch black and silent in the desert; that eerie silence when you knew you weren't the only people there. Insurgents were watching… waiting. Soon the US platoon would run dry of ammo or worse, food and water. Eventually they'd be forced to make a deadly mistake.
However this ended, their fate was sealed.
Noah crossed his arms over his knees; dropped his forehead into them. Sweat dripped from his face and onto the gun he held tightly to his chest. He nodded affirmation in response to Calvin's question. He couldn't bring himself to say it out loud.
"Shit!" Jo exclaimed in what was almost a sob, kissing the crucifix he kept round his neck; a protection charm gifted to him by his mother. He made the sign of the cross over himself.
Noah watched a little jealously. Nothing like bombs and mortar to make you wish you had something to cling to; something to believe in. He'd been thinking about God a lot lately actually.
God and Luke.
Opening his eyes, Noah partially lifted himself off the stone floor, rooting around in his deep cargo pockets for the letter he kept safe there. Almost two-years-old, the paper was crumpled; thin and fragile where the page had been folded into four; read and re-read.
He didn't open it now; simply spun the paper square around between his fingers. He knew what was written there by heart anyhow.
I know you're already out on patrol. It's something too terrifying even to think about. Anyway, I hope you get this.
Collage isn't working out for me. I'm going to take time off to figure out what I want to do with my life. Reg asked me to move with him to Chicago and I said yes. He's become really special to me, Noah, and that's why I'm writing.
I thought I could do this, but six months in… It's harder than I imagined. I will always love you sweetheart, but I need more than vague letters with silly little xxx's on the bottom. I still don't understand why you chose to go there. Does it give you such a strong sense of purpose that you can ignore a future beyond the army? A future with me?
I'm sorry. I don't mean to come off as bitter. I might not understand your decision, but I do understand your heart; and I know your enlistment has nothing to do with some kind of macho patriotism.
I just wanted my Noah to come back to me. I want my Noah back. But I know that won't happen… and I can't sit around waiting for that knock on the door…
You'll always be in my thoughts.
If Noah could adopt one talent, it would be the deliverance of words. Then perhaps he could have found a way to hang onto Luke; make him understand... tell Luke how he really felt.
Change, so he could be enough for him.
The grenade landed with a strange ticking sound where it bounced twice, just inside the doorway. It came as no shock to him. He simply wrapped his head in his arms as it exploded.
Everything settled around him; he found himself covered in heavy debris; part of the concrete roof crushing one knee. He felt numb, except for a strange feeling in his spine like tiny pinpricks.
The combination of smoke and thick dust was suffocating; unbearable. He couldn't hear anything; just a strange hollow whooshing; a high-pitched whistling sound and the thump of his heart slowing. As Noah closed his eyes; welcoming the darkness; he knew he was crying; cheeks staining with regret.
Luke's premonition; Luke's greatest fear as he clung to Noah years ago, begging him not to enlist; was realized. For the first time in his life, Noah found himself praying; that Luke had moved on enough to avoid any further pain from this.
A light wind twirled a pretty dance of leaves; picking up sunshine along the way; reaching Noah’s cheek in a warm kiss. He breathed it in; all oak and rich soil, laced with a hint of meaty flavors wafting down from the farmhouse barbeque beyond.
Beats the smell of antiseptic and medication any day of the week!
They’d start looking for him soon. He could hear the feint strings of music, chatting and laughter. So many people came to welcome him home; neighbors, his old collage professors, the crew from Java; friends with their new families and new lives.
It hadn’t been easy to slip away, but Noah craved the solitude. He still felt shakily insecure and unreal. It felt impossible for him to be there, and yet somehow he was; after years of dreaming the place up in his head.
He slowly circled the large trees until he found what he was looking for. Leaning carefully forward on his crutches, he ran a shaky hand over the deep grooves cut into the old oak.
L ♥ N
It was still there. A symbol of just how young and innocent they were then.
He carefully shuffled himself over to the nearest wooden fence; watched the floor for any wayward tuffs of grass that might trip up a less able-bodied person.
Leaning back against the fence, he tried not to think of how easily his younger self would have climbed the fence to sit right on the top; hands gripping hold on either side; feet carefully balanced on a lower rung. He’d spent many a moment up there side-by-side with Luke, while they discussed their future; dreamed dreams… shared kisses.
He sighed and dug around in his front pocket, feeling for the two yellow capsules he knew were there. He studied them in his palm for a moment before swallowing each one dry. There was a water tap not too far, right beside the barn, but he’d used up all his energy making it this far.
Being there felt wonderful and painful all in one burning breath.
Luke was everywhere. His essence caressed each room and sweetened the air.
Luke was all Noah could think about.
It was Luke’s laugh Noah fell for first; all loud and full; uninhibited. It was this same laugh he chased through the trees; feet picking up speed as the sound dimmed beyond the clearing.
“Luke,” he half gulped, half giggled, “come on! Where are you?”
He stopped running to listen. Birds chirped incessantly; the icy wind rustled at dry leaves, sending many falling in an orange and red rain over Noah’s head. As he brushed these from his shoulders, he could hear the horses whinnying in time for their afternoon feed; Ammo barking excitedly somewhere to Noah’s right.
Then he heard it; a teasing song from the vicinity of the barn. “No…ah…”
A grin spread across his lips; his heart pulled toward the sound. He turned on his heal; headed that way. Clearing the trees he traversed the corner of the barn; only to find himself slammed up against the wooden panels that formed the large structure.
“Gotcha!” Luke forced a leg between Noah’s knees with a grunt; pressed his chest close; smelled his way up Noah’s neck until they were nose-to-nose.
“You know,” Noah reminded him, pulling Luke closer by his belt loops, “if we get caught, you’re the one who’s gonna get it from Emma...”
Luke cutely smirked; tilted his head seductively. “Perhaps… but it will be worth it.”
Luke’s breathy words ghosted over Noah’s lips. He shivered at the same time as he smiled. Luke’s fingers fumbled and wriggled between them; urgent in their determination to unbutton the expensive Levi jeans his mother insisted on buying for him.
Any thoughts of Luke's grandmother and her strict rules of conduct for their behavior on her farm were instantly forgotten. Even the danger that Noah might lose his adoptive new home wasn’t enough to overpower Luke’s effect on Noah’s every sense.
Is this really happening right now?
“Come on, cowboy!” Luke demanded, still so temptingly close that Noah had only to speak and their lips would touch. “I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours…”
With a quick whip of sound, Luke’s jeans were round his knees, and the blonde was extremely busy in the task of helping Noah find a similar state of undress. They stood together for a moment, their exposed thighs touching; goose-bumping under the freezing breeze; until by silent consent they both removed their underwear. Barely with a breath between their lips, they held each other skin-to-skin; hearts struggling to find a regular rhythm under winter layers and teenaged hormones.
This was as far as they’d ever dared go. They stared at each other without words; anticipation building until one or both of them broke, and their lips were dancing. The more their tongues touched, the more aroused Noah became, until it was almost torture.
As if sensing this, Luke reached low between them; began to touch Noah. He was furtive at first, slow and interested in every ridge and dip; then with more urgency, helping Noah over, while also in search of his own desperate release. As Noah shyly returned the gesture; he felt in awe of the noises they were making. They sounded foreign to his ears; nothing like he'd experienced with previous girlfriends; more primal and animalistic... yet as natural as breathing. The warmth from Luke’s relentless handlings turned into a heat that shot fast from his head to his toes. His entire body shuddered until... with shock... his legs gave out.
So did Luke’s.
They fell limbless in a heap on the icy ground; all musky, and breathy, and sticky, but totally alive.
He watched Luke’s eyes widen at the sound of quickly approaching footsteps, followed by his mother’s voice, “Noah? Are you down here, Noah?”
Noah jolted as though embarrassed to be caught with that memory.
“Noah?” Luke’s mother called. “Are you down here, Noah?”
“Here,” he replied, clearing his throat; awkwardly hopping in one spot to reposition a crutch under each arm.
“There you are!” Lily’s smile was wide and loving; eyes hinting worry. “I’ve been looking everywhere!”
“Sorry.” Noah lowered his head; eyed his disjointed shadow.
“It’s not too overwhelming is it?” she asked. “I don’t know… Once people found out about the barbeque, they all wanted to come and see how you are.”
Peer at the freak you mean?
The thought was as ugly as Noah knew it to be untrue, yet it crossed his mind anyway.
“We’ve all missed you, sweetheart.”
Noah looked up as Lily used the same endearment Luke had in his letter all those years ago.
Yeah… everybody missed me… everybody…
“Do you need some more time?” she asked.
He shook his head; forced a smile. “No it’s okay. I was just catching some air.”
She nodded; waited for him to start moving to slowly follow on beside him. “I just spoke to Luke…” Noah’s shoulder’s tensed. “…he sends his best wishes.” She was watching him closely, but Noah kept his eyes forward. “He doesn’t say it, but… I can tell he misses you.” Noah remained silent; tried to pick up speed as much as he could. “Noah, he-”
“Please, Mrs. Snyder,” Noah quickly interrupted; stopping still. Taking a deep breath, he looked up at her. Once he did, he really wished he hadn’t. She looked so terribly sad. He sighed. “I really don’t want to seem ungrateful… I mean you’ve done so much for me and… I don’t even know why… but… I just… I just can’t…”
She was nodding at him now, squeezing his shoulder to let him know he needn’t say more. “You’re okay here though, right? Happy?”
Noah nodded and tried to smile.
“And you’re not in too much pain, I hope?”
Noah couldn’t answer that without it being a lie, so he was more than a little relieved to see his old friend Jeff, bounding down the hillside to meet them; plastic cup of beer in his hand. “There’s the missing guest of honor! Where you been, man?”
“Just for a walk…”
“Well, come on! We can’t toast without you!” Jeff’s eyes were sparkling; evidence of the happiness he felt at having his friend back.
“Well okay,” Noah reluctantly told him, “but I’m afraid I can’t drink…”
Jeff raised his eyebrows in question.
“Meds and booze don’t mix.” Noah told him.
Jeff knocked his forehead with the palm of his free hand. “I’m such a prick! Sorry, buddy! Wasn’t thinking!”
Noah smiled at him. “It’s okay... really…”
“I mean… God! If I got blown up, I’d probably load myself up on the good stuff too! Strong stuff, if you get what I’m saying?”
“Yes,” Noah nodded, as they began to approach the barbecue. “I get what you mean, Jeff…”
“Noah!” Holden excitedly waved. “Get over here and choose your meat before these vultures get their hands on everything!”
Noah waved awkwardly with one crutch hanging from his hand.
A line of hungry and expectant paper-plate-holding guests was already forming. Noah felt their curious eyes on him, watching with a kind of macabre interest, the way Noah’s empty left pant leg flapped as he hopped by; growing silent with the numbed way people had of not knowing what to say… or how to act…
He reached the start of the line; couldn’t help but smile at the way his old friend Casey yelled with fake indignation, “Hey, there’s a line ya know?”
The tension broke, and the line of people laughed loudly.
“Yeah, there is!” Noah yelled back without looking over his shoulder. Instead he got to work picking the best cuts of meat off the grill. “But some of us are more important than others!”
Casey whistled loudly. “Well, well… look who came back from war with an inflated ego!”
“Love ya too, man!” Noah replied, winking at the smiling Holden; who followed with Noah’s plate as they made their way over to the salad table.
But Noah’s mood was only temporarily lifted. As he sat at the nearest table with his food; thanked Holden for his assistance; Noah couldn’t help but scan the crowd. He hoped against hope that a pair of hazel eyes might suddenly appear, even as he knew they wouldn’t.
Jackets were pulled on as a cold evening wind swept in from the north. Stubbornly ignoring doctor’s orders, Noah finished off his sixth beer; staggered about the yard bidding guests farewell, and thanking them for coming. He was grateful that nobody asked him what he planned to do with this future; even more grateful that nobody asked about his past; although he could see the curiosity burning in their eyes.
The booze combined like a beautiful symphony with the fentanyl in Noah’s blood. It danced a ballet over his broken heart; masking thoughts of Luke for a few hours at least. As things quieted down, he found an abandoned picnic blanket spread under Grandma Emma’s favorite apple tree. He carefully sat, leaning back against the bark with his eyes lightly closed. He listened to the farm; to the gentle voices of Lily and Emma offering up their goodbyes and promises to keep people updated.
With every minute the crowd thinned, until only the core few remained; quietly chatting as they helped to clear up.
He blinked as a shadow fell over him; blocking the last of the day’s sunshine. Casey stood beside him; grinning and leaning on a broom.
“So,” he said good-humoredly, “getting blown up gets you out of clean up duty, ha? I’ll have to remember that!”
“I don’t recommend it,” Noah replied, picking at the long grass around the base of the tree. He placed the end of one stalk in his mouth; sucked at the sweetness.
“No.” Casey said; grimly suddenly more serious.
“I just…” Noah deeply sighed; looked out over the yard. “I can’t get my head around why I’m here…?”
“At the farm?” Casey asked.
“No,” Noah softly clarified. “I mean here... I mean alive.”
For the first time Casey frowned. “You wish you weren’t?”
Noah shook his shoulders in frustration. “I don’t know, Case! I guess… maybe… yes…”
Casey took a seat on the blanket beside his friend. “Would you still be saying this if Luke had come today?”
Noah thought long and hard for a moment. “Despite what people think, what I’m feeling now isn’t about Luke. At least not totally...”
“Wanna talk about it?”
But how was Noah supposed to express this? He was barely able to voice his emotions at the best of times. How did he explain this almost crippling feeling of responsibility and guilt? How could he put this anger and pain into words a fun-loving guy like Casey could understand? A guy who’s only knowledge of war came from books and movies.
So Noah said nothing, merely shook his head.
“You know,” Casey softy said, “Luke still loves you...”
“Then where the hell is he?” Noah clamped his mouth tightly shut; surprised at how fast he reacted; surprising even himself at the bitterness in his tone.
“You’re the one that left, man!” Casey reminded him. "I mean, you got back together with the guy after all that crap with your dad, and then you left him the very next day. How did you expect him to take that?" Then he softened almost instantly. “This-” He gestured toward Noah's legs.
Noah looked up at his friend as Casey struggled to vocalize the seriousness of Noah’s injury.
“Look,” Casey said after a moment’s thought, “I get this ain’t easy on you. Nobody would expect it to be! I mean… hell man!” Casey’s eyes watered. He quickly blinked them dry; trying to keep a steady voice. “We thought you were going to die!”
“All I’m saying is… cut Luke some slack, okay? This can’t be easy on him either…”
Noah struggled to stand; was grateful when Casey didn’t try to help him. Once he was fairly balanced on his crutches he let out a long breath. “I get what you’re saying… okay, Case?”
Casey nodded, stretching out to squeeze his friend’s shoulder.
“But face it,” Noah continued, “Luke moved on a long time ago and… honestly, I’m glad. I really am. I’m happy for him. I’m happy he didn’t have to…”
“What?” Casey asked, “Take care of you? Love you?”
“Don’t ask me that Casey, ‘kay? Please…”
“Noah, you are not a burden!” Casey assured him; forcing his friend to look him directly in the eye. “You hear me? Not to Lily, not to Holden and you definitely wouldn’t be to Luke, okay? Trust me on that! I’ve known Luke my whole life… The guy loved you then and he loves you now. He just… he’s just scared. Like you are…”
Noah shook his head, unable or unwilling to let those thoughts wash through the minefield that was his brain. “I appreciate what you’re saying, but as soon as I get word from the army I’m out of here. I don’t belong here anymore. These people… these people are taking care of me out of some misplaced sense of obligation. They're better off without me. All of them.”
But Noah held up a hand to silence Casey. “Luke is with Reg now. What we had was great… amazing even… but it’s over. I’ve accepted that and… please, Casey… I need you to as well. I have to stay realistic right now. I’m in no position to dream. And anyway, Luke doesn't need to be saddled with all my shit anymore. He's free now. And that's how I want it.”
Casey sadly regarded his friend but finally shrugged. “Whatever you need, man. But I'm telling ya, you're making a big mistake.”
Noah patted Casey on the back; made an excuse about being tired. He escaped to Luke’s old bedroom, which had since become his. The walls were coved with framed horse riding ribbons and basketball trophies adorned most surfaces. There were photos too; of Luke and the family mostly. But also one or two of Luke and Noah together, smiling like there was no tomorrow. Noah supposed that in those days there hadn’t been. They’d lived each moment as it came; sunning themselves in that feeling of being together.
He lay quietly, staring up at the ceiling.
What a fucking cliché!
After almost four years in the desert, Noah had heard every breakup story there was to tell! He’d seen it happen to more soldiers than he could count. Most of the time it wasn’t even a matter of ‘if’, but rather of ‘when’. And always the poor soul could be found drunk and silent somewhere afterward.
He knew it was coming.
He knew when the lieutenant called out his name, “Noah Mayer?”
He knew as he watched the letter pass backward through the hands of men crowding around; all eager for words from home.
He knew even before he slipped his army knife under the flap; carefully tore the envelope open.
The letter had taken fourteen weeks to reach him. Honestly, it was a miracle it had. By now they were so deeply entrenched in the desert, it could be months before they saw another platoon.
He jumped when he felt a hand on his back. It was Colonel Mac.
“Come on, sergeant! Better get yourself fed before we hit the road.”
Noah cleared his throat; hiding his face so the colonel couldn’t see his tears. “Where to this time?”
“Just a trip down Turath Street! Same ‘ol story! Say… you okay?”
Noah nodded. “Yeah… just… just got a Dear John.”
The colonel sympathetically sighed. “Happens to the best of us. Anyway, plenty more where that one came from! Hey, soldier?”
“Not for me…”
The colonel regarded Noah for a moment. “You gonna have a clear enough head out there, kid? There’s reports of insurgents, so I need you to be on your best game!”
When Noah came downstairs that morning, he found Lily and Holden arguing in the den.
“Turn it off... please!” Lily was saying. “Quickly before he gets here!”
Holden was watching CNN; an expose on some or other military disaster in Afghanistan. Lily grabbed the remote out of her husband’s hand; quickly changed the channel.
“You can’t protect him from it, Lily!” Holden scowled. “It’s on the news almost every night! He’s gonna see it, whether you like it or not!”
“Look, Holden,” Lily replied, “Noah’s seen enough of war to last a lifetime! Even if all I do is protect him from those blasted news reports, than so help me I’m going to do it!”
Noah felt suddenly as if he couldn’t breathe. “Please don’t fight about me,” he softly requested from the doorway, making them both nervously jump.
“Oh sweetie, you’re up!” Lily fussed. “Don’t you worry about Holden and me. You know what we’re like. Now… let’s get you fed! Emma’s been making pancakes all morning just for you.”
After breakfast, Noah helped Holden load hay bales into the back of the old pickup.
“Rest if you’re tired, you hear?” Holden insisted. “Don’t try to be a hero! You’ve only been out of hospital a few weeks! I don’t want Lily accusing me of sending you straight back!”
Noah smiled. “I will. It'll just be nice to get out of the house.”
They drove along the fences, stopping off to fill the feeding pens. The wind had dropped and the sun grew hotter toward midday, sapping Noah of strength; forcing him to rest more often than he would have liked. The ache in his leg was a constant pain that burned as his stump; chaffed within its prosthetic cup. He tried to ignore it... wanting to be as much help to Holden as possible... but eventually he couldn’t hide his agony from the older man, and Holden insisted on driving Noah back to the farm.
When they arrived, Lily crossed the yard with look of worry and a large envelope in one hand. “It’s from the army.”
Noah stared down at the letter extended toward him.
Seeing his expression, Lily quickly snatched it back. “You don’t have to read this now. Only when you’re ready.”
“No, I do,” Noah said. “It’s my orders so…”
She nodded, and this time he took the letter. He settled on the nearest bench; scanned the contents with shaky hands. Lily and
Holden watched on.
“What does it say?” Holden asked, unable to hold back his anxiety. "Surely they can't send you back?"
“I’m to report to the VA hospital in Branson a week from Monday.”
“But you only just arrived?” Lily moaned. “How long for?”
Noah shook his head. “Doesn’t say. Rest of my term, I guess. Says I’ve been selected to trial some fancy new prosthetic. Suppose it takes some time to get fitted and there’ll be some physio… so…”
Lily sniffed and looked away. “So a long time then?”
“Well it’s good, right?” Holden reminded them all. “I mean, this new leg should help, right?”
Noah caught Lily’s eye and they both nodded.
“Well, good,” Holden said. “Noah, why don’t you go lie down? It’s been a busy morning for you.”
Noah retired to bed but didn’t sleep. Instead he trawled through the materials contained within the envelope; photos, medical explanations; fancy brochures. He read that he was one of only five GIs chosen to trial this revolutionary new procedure. The program was designed to take up to a year, but it would likely take longer, seeing as how they were the first participants. They’d live in accommodation provided by the army, report daily, and be confined to a wheelchair for most of the time.
Johnny Cash sang about cool water; his distinctive baritone filling the small space like a lullaby. Noah leaned one elbow out the open window of Holden’s truck; rested his head in the crook.
They drove at a leisurely pace past infinite fields of tall yellow corn that swayed and rolled in the ever-present wind. He closed his eyes; enjoyed the breeze tickling at his fringe and cooling his open-collared neck.
“He works all the time, you know?”
Noah jerked awake from his doze. “Hmm? Sorry, did you say something?”
“Luke?” Noah’s uncomfortable shifting didn’t go unnoticed by the naturally observant Holden. Luke’s father turned the sound down on the radio. “I don’t want you to feel bad because he didn’t come. It’s not just you… he…” Holden sighed, shaking his head. “We hardly see him ourselves anymore. He’s buried himself in some project with the foundation. Ever since-”
Noah nodded, turning his face to the window as Holden’s sentence broke quickly off. “Ever since I came back...”
“Ever since he found out you were hurt, yes…”
“For what, son?”
Noah glanced down at his lap. “I’m the reason your son’s staying away. He doesn’t want to run into me…”
The truck came to rest at a T-Junction; and Holden waited to pull out into the road again before saying, “That’s not true. He’s just…”
“Scared? Yeah. That’s what Casey thinks too.”
“And you don’t?”
Noah heavily shrugged his shoulders. “The Luke I remember doesn’t run... he faces things head on.”
Holden glanced swiftly at Noah before continuing; eyes on the road ahead, “You know, when Lily phoned to give Luke the news, he wouldn’t let her tell him. It took three days before he picked up our call. He was terrified of being told you were dead.”
“But I didn’t die,” Noah pointed out. “I’m right here. And where is he? If he cares so much like you all seem to think or want or whatever…” This wasn’t a conversation Noah wanted to have; especially with Holden. He didn’t want anybody to see him fall apart; and he was always perilously close to that.
Elvis came on the radio and Holden drove for a while, softly humming along; drumming in time to the music on the steering wheel. For a moment Noah felt relieved. It seemed the conversation was over... he could once again fade away inside his own thoughts, watching the world pass by in the truck’s wing mirror.
But just as he began to doze once more, Holden admitted, “I don’t know exactly why Luke’s behaving as he is. I can only tell you how he sounded… his relief that you were alive… his fear over your condition...”
Truthfully Noah didn’t know what to make of that; except it stood to reason that Luke would still have some feelings for him. But Noah felt like he was being more realistic than Luke’s family. The cold reality was that Luke didn’t love him the same way as before, and really, that was for the best. “The Luke I knew would have come,” he simply said, with a tremor in his voice.
Holden nodded; acknowledging the unspoken, “If he really wanted to.”
“Perhaps he’s not the same person anymore, Noah,” Holden surmised, after shifting gear to pass a slow-moving transit van. “Maybe all that’s gone down has changed something in him… as it has you…” Holden waited for Noah to speak, but Noah had nothing more to say. Holden sighed, “You’re not gonna disappear on us, are you kid?”
Noah felt his heart squeeze, just as it had back at the farm when he bid Luke’s family goodbye... hugged Lily and kissed Emma... the younger Snyders crying and asking when he’d be back.
“I’m not gonna drop you at that hospital today, only to never see you again right?” Holden kept on.
Noah didn’t know where to look.
“Our feelings for you are real, Noah. They have nothing to do with Luke.”
“I know,” Noah assured him, “and I’m sorry… You’ve been good to me. The way you’ve always taken me in when I haven’t had anywhere to go and...”
“We will always be there for you.”
Noah sighed. Being with the Snyders hurt sometimes. “I’ll do the best I can,” he eventually promised. “Can that be enough for now?”
Holden smiled. “At this stage, we’ll take anything we can get!”
The truck rattled down a long manicured drive that circled round an old white fountain; two cherubs blowing water-music out of flutes. Branson University Military Hospital was tucked away on a peaceful and secluded 150-acre, 19th century farm, just west of the main town. The old red farmhouse had been extensively modernized without loss of character.
Holden whistled under his breath, bending his head low to peer up at the building through the truck’s dusty windscreen. “Looks more like a home than a hospital.”
Noah swallowed hard; stomach tightening with nerves and apprehension. He should have no problem with something like this; new place, new situation, new faces. It was simply a mirror of his entire life after all. Maybe there was a time when he would have been fine; back when Noah didn’t know what a home felt like. The Snyders had spoilt him; given him too brief a glimpse of what a true family was like.
Noah sometimes wished he could go back to that time when it didn’t matter; when he didn’t have anything to lose. A ruffling noise startled him. The driver door was open and the seat empty. Holden was already heaving Noah’s bags from the back of the truck. Noah breathed back the panic; stepped carefully from the cab... real limb first, artificial last. He felt a chill deep in his bones, despite the afternoon heat. He shivered and pulled his army fatigues closer round his body; jumping as Holden’s hand rubbed up and down his arm.
“Looks like quite a place,” Holden reassured him. “It’s got to mean something you were selected for this program. It will work out, kid. You’ll see.”
Not feeling nearly as confident as Holden... and hiding too many feelings of unworthiness to count.. Noah merely nodded; slung his standard issue rucksack over his shoulder and dragging his crutches out of the truck.
The grounds seemed to be crawling with army officers, robed patients and medical personnel. Some sat peacefully under trees and at tables; talking or playing cards. Others rushed busily here and there. Some were out for a quite walk or a more vigorous jog. The parking area was quieter; only a few cars parked in rows marked for the doctors and visitors.
Holden carried as much as he could handle up the wheelchair ramp. Noah followed at the slower pace he’d been forced to become accustomed to. They were both surprised when the home’s very normal looking front door automatically swung open for them.
“Amazing,” Holden muttered. “This place is something!”
Noah wasn’t sure whether Holden’s reaction was genuine or merely his way of shining a little sunlight on the situation for Noah’s sake. He suspected it was a little of both.
“Private Mayer, reporting for duty?” Noah said to the pretty blonde nurse at reception.
“Yes, private. We’ve been expecting you. You’re the last to arrive.”
“The last?” Noah asked.
“The last in your particular group of trials,” she clarified with a smile. “We’re very excited about this new prosthetic! It’s quite something!”
Noah gulped and nodded.
She turned to Holden. “I’m sorry sir, this is as far as family can go. If you’d like to say your goodbyes, I can show Private Mayer to his suite.”
Noah frowned. “Suite?”
“Oh yes!” she smiled eagerly once more. “This facility is top of its kind in the country. You will be very comfortable here. I can assure you of that.”
“That’s good.” Holden smiled, clapping Noah on his shoulder. “I’ll just go get the rest of your things.”
Noah silently waited, watching Holden through the large front window. As feelings of uselessness threatened to take hold, he saw them off. Since the moment he woke in that hospital bed, he’d denied himself even a pinch of self-pity. He didn’t deserve any.
“You’re very lucky!” Her voice broke through his thoughts; bringing him back to the present and out of that bombed house in the desert. Noah looked back at her as she continued, “We had a queue of hundreds hoping to be chosen for this trial. But the selection was based on very specific medical records.”
Holden stumbled in with the bags, giving Noah some reprieve as his thoughts jumbled like rocks in his head.
“You can leave those here,” the receptionist told Holden. “I’ll have somebody take them to Private Mayor’s suite.”
“Noah?” Luke’s father was intently studying him. Noah blinked; locked eyes with Holden. “You okay, kid?” Holden asked, concerned. “You look white as a sheet…”
“I don’t want to do this,” Noah replied.
“Do what?” Holden was steering Noah to a nearby waiting area, but Noah resisted.
He turned back to the receptionist. “How do I get out of the programe?”
“I’m sorry,” she asked, face astounded as Noah hobbled over.
“Noah, what are you saying?” Holden was back by his side.
Noah looked back at the older man. “There must be somebody else? Somebody who really needs this!”
“But you need this,” Holden sternly said, suddenly understanding and not liking the direction Noah was taking.
“No!” Noah stumbled and Holden caught him. Noah felt ashamed. He never wanted to yell at Luke’s father, but this was something he couldn’t face.
“Help me to understand,” Holden requested, seeing the pleading in the intense blue of Noah’s eyes.
Noah shook his head, fighting the urge to cry. “You can’t. Nobody can.” He faced the young woman once more; still leaning on Holden for support. “Thank you for the opportunity, but there must be somebody else.”
She looked lost and more than a little worried. “I’m afraid the selection was very specific. It’s far too late to find a replacement. The program begins in the morning.”
“Why wasn’t I informed?” he moaned. “Why wasn’t everything explained to me beforehand? I would have told them I didn’t want this!”
“I’m sorry…” It was obvious the young nurse was lost for words.
Noah felt all at once sick and dizzy. He stumbled again, leaning on Holden, who this time insisted on taking Noah to the waiting area.
“Come over here and sit down,” he instructed. He waited until Noah was seated... the boy’s dark head of hair hanging forward... before continuing, “Let’s relax and talk this over first. This is important, son. It’s about your future. Don’t you want to improve your mobility as much as possible?”
“It doesn’t matter,” Noah mumbled through his dizziness.
“How can it not matter?”
Noah’s head came up and he stared fixedly at Holden; willing the older man to somehow glean his muddled thoughts and understand. “I lost my leg,” he solemnly said. “That’s all. But they’re dead. All of them!”
For the first time he saw that Holden understood and relief flushed over him.
“You see losing your leg as some kind of punishment?” Holden asked with shock.
“I led them into a trap.”
“They followed you, son,” Holden asserted. “That was their choice. You did what you thought right. You did the best you could. You were inexperienced and thrown into an impossible situation. What happened wasn’t your fault.”
Tears pricked; escaped; and for the first time, Noah cried.
“For whatever reason,” Holden continued, crouching beside the armchair while he rubbed slow circles into Noah’s upper back, “you are the person chosen for this amazing opportunity. Perhaps by completing this program, you’ll be opening a door to help other young men like yourself. Maybe that’s your purpose now? Don’t sell yourself short, okay? You deserve this as much as the next guy. Promise me…”
Totally confused, Noah could only look at the man.
“Promise me, Noah.” Holden persisted.
Tired; leg throbbing as the pain medication began to wear thin; Noah could only nod in response.
“Oh, my God!” Noah exclaimed, pointing to the plume of dark black and gray smoke rising above the three-story buildings ahead.
“Shit! This don’t look good!” Calvin muttered; snaking their DPV down a street choked with traffic; past bazaars and shops selling bootlegged DVDs.
“Out of the way!” Noah screamed, hanging off the side of the vehicle; frantically waving his hands at the locals ahead of them. “Kaif ha-laka! Kaif ha-laka!”
Most of the town’s inhabitants were fleeing the sounds of bombing and gunfire; women clutching babies to their bosoms; men hurrying them quickly forward.
“Step on it, Rosen!” Jo yelled at Calvin from the rear; already loading his rifle clip with the aid of Rivers.
The DPV took a sharp right turn on two wheels, forcing the four passengers to hold onto the vehicle’s elevated bars for dear life. Spotting the rest of their platoon, Calvin brought them to a halt under the shade of a large silver water tower.
Burning cars littered the open square; along with smoldering bodies. Colonel McClatchy, Kissinger and Brown were sheltering behind the bulking mass of an upturned cargo truck. They were under fire from a relentless insurgent attack. At least twenty enemy soldiers had ambushed the US platoon and were firing on them from inside buildings and behind walls.
Noah scanned the area; cautiously stepping out of the small vehicle; keeping low. He held his handgun ready, took a breath and ran. Ducking and diving, he hid behind anything he could find on route; fallen bricks, a car, an old horse-cart. Bullets flew past his ears like tiny whistling birds. His heart hammered as adrenaline flooded his bloodstream.
Just as Noah was near to reaching McClatchy and the others, a beat-up Ford pickup raced past; pulling up beside the cowering US platoon. Inside, a bearded man with crazy red eyes... eyes on fire... stared directly at Noah and smiled.
“No!” Noah screamed; jumping to stand.
The pickup disintegrated, taking Colonel McClatchy with it. Noah was thrown flat to the ground; pushed against the gravel by the hot force of the explosion.
Deafened and disorientated, Noah blinked to find Rivers and Brown bending over him. “Take it easy, Blue! We gotcha!”
Someone was screaming. It took Noah a while to realize the sounds were coming from him. Huge smears of red covered the pavement, his hands; the remnants of McClatchy’s body having landed over Noah’s feet.
Noah vomited down his chest; lay back trembling.
Noah flung the covers from his body; heaving for breath. Sitting up, he battled for minutes with an invisible enemy. Terrified, sweat-soaked, he gasped for breath... in and out... until his heart settled. He struggled to remember where he was; calming only as his eyes adjusted to the darkened hospital suite.
Feeling somewhat steady, he shifted his body from the bed; used the headboard to help pull his tall frame to standing. He reached for the crutches where they rested up against the bedside table; hopping his way to the bathroom so he could throw cold water on his face.
Leaning on the sink, Noah released a shot of air; stared at his dripping reflection in the darkened mirror. His eyes were shadowed and sullen; he hardly recognized himself.
He spent the rest of the night sitting on the edge of his unmade bed, staring out the widow at the moon-bathed hospital grounds. He moved only when his alarm-clock began beeping.
It was difficult showering and dressing himself, but he’d always struggled to accept help with this; even back when he’d really needed it. Eventually he’d fitted on the temporary leg; nothing more than a long metal pole with a boot stuck on the end; and dressed in his army casuals.
Somebody rapped on his door.
“Coming!” he called. “Just give me a minute, please.”
After a struggle to reach it, Noah opened the door to find Nurse Mantel waiting outside. “Oh,” she remarked with surprise. “I came to see if you needed any help getting ready, but I see you’ve managed on your own.”
The exertion of the morning had caused a thin film of sweat to form on Noah’s brow. He quickly wiped it away on his sleeve. “I’m good thanks,” he assured her; hiding a grimace as a bolt of pain shot through his body.
She smiled. “Well, anytime you need anything, just ring the buzzer. Whoever’s on duty will see to you as soon as possible.”
Noah nodded and said his goodbyes, carefully closing the door on her.
He turned to survey his suite, which just like a mini apartment; everything a singleton needed to feel at home in an environment that was anything but. His pills were already lined up like disciplined soldiers on the tiny kitchen countertop; two yellow, one pink, three white and a red. He stared at them for a moment before pouring a glass of water and downing them one at a time.
He’d just taken a bite out of an apple when his cell rang. It was Lily.
“Morning, Honey,” she sang. Noah could hear the worried mother in her tone. “I hope I didn’t wake you. How have you settled in?”
“I’m okay,” he replied. “I’ve been awake for a while.”
“Have you made any friends yet?” She asked.
“Lily, he’s only been there five minutes! Give the kid a chance!” Noah heard Holden say in the background.
“I’ve just slept the night,” he told her. “I’ve not seen anybody… just a few nurses.”
“Oh, well,” she replied, “I’m sure you will meet plenty of people today. You start the program soon, right?”
“In about two hours.”
“That’s good. And how are you feeling? Have you taken your meds?”
Noah smiled despite himself. “Yes Mom, I do know how to take care of myself.”
There was silence as they both digested what he’d allowed to let slip; even if it was in semi-derision.
“I know that, sweetheart.” There were touched tears in her voice. Noah felt his own throat tighten. “You can’t blame me for being a little worried, now can you?”
“Thank you,” he responded; unsure of what else he could say.
Words. Nothing but words. Lots of words.
“…I need you to be prepared. The new prostheses may not work for all of you…” the voice of the facility head droned on. “…possible infections… new bone must bond with the titanium implant…”
Noah hazily scanned the gathering of one-legged young men. The others listened with interest and furrowed brows. They really wanted to be there.
“…new legs should offer better control and eventually less pain… four months in a wheelchair… three months training…”
Noah was feeling the sleepless night. His eyelids grew heavier by the minute. He was relieved when they adjourned for breakfast, so he could help himself to a black coffee from the table set up at the back of the room.
“Before we eat,” Dr. Patnick was telling the assembled men and medical staff. “I’d like to introduce you to an important member of the research team; the man instrumental in getting this project off the ground, and owner of Oceanview Medical Biotics, the company that designed the new prosthetics.”
Noah stirred three sugars into his coffee as the room erupted with whistles and catcalls. A young man with blonde hair strode in; stood beside Patnick; anxious eyes searching every face in the room until they found what they were looking for.
Noah gasped; dropped the Styrofoam cup. He didn’t move as two nurses rushed to his aid; began cleaning up the spillage round his feet. He didn’t notice the other participants staring at him.
Bonded in that hazel glare, he couldn’t breathe at all…
Just as Noah zipped up his bag, the door to his Chicago hotel room flew open. Luke burst in; closing the door with his back.
“What are you doing here?” Noah chastised. He only had a few minutes before he was due to meet the army processing officer down in the lobby. “I told you the policy! No visitors!”
It briefly occurred to Noah that Luke must have somehow swindled a keycard for the room; but before he could chastise Luke on this subject, Luke spat, “I don’t care!” His eyes flashed with that stubbornness Noah had fallen in love with. “I’ve got to say this!”
Noah wasn’t finding the character trait very amusing in that particular moment. “Luke, I’m not kidding! You’ve gotta leave! There… No unauthorized persons in here, okay? It’s against regulations! You want to get me kicked out?”
“Would that be a bad thing?” Luke sarcastically replied; although there was little humor in his voice.
Noah sighed. “Why are you doing this?”
“I am trying to save your life,” Luke stipulated, enunciating each word to make sure his intention was clear.
“Well,” Noah replied; in no mood for Luke’s games, “I’ve got a news flash for ya! The army teaches you how to not get killed. And well… you know what? I’m a pretty good student! So would you please just leave?”
“No!” Luke maintained. “The army’s not the answer. Not for you! You’re gay.”
“I’m aware of that,” Noah assured him; with a tone that asked how it was relevant at all.
“So it’s the whole don’t ask don’t tell thing," Luke continued. "You don’t get to talk about being gay; you don’t get to tell people you’re gay; you don’t get to act upon it…”
Noah had heard enough. “Well, you’re the only one I want to be with, so I’m not worried about acting on it… And I won’t be talking about it, because that would just make me miss you more… So the whole don’t ask don’t tell thing… it works for me!”
Luke was relentless. “So, you’d be fine with not putting my picture in your locker? Or… or not being able to read my letters to your friends?”
“Luke,” Noah softened, “it’s just for a few years.”
He said it in reassurance, but it was the wrong thing to say yet. Luke’s face fell. “Years?” he asked as though he’d heard incorrectly. He shook his head. “God… I wish your father wasn’t dead, because if he was alive, and he brought this up, you would laugh in his face…”
His grief still so fresh, these words pierced Noah’s heart and his reaction was swift. “Yeah well, he is dead! And it woke me up! I can’t just go to school and make movies! I’ve got to do something with my life!”
“Yeah, but this?” Luke asked. “It’s like your dad is running your life from the grave or something…”
“And what are you doing?” Noah accused. “I mean, coming here? Talking to me like… like I’m too stupid to make my own decisions!”
“No! Noah!” Luke grabbed Noah by his biceps. “I am terrified!” His eyes shone with fear; his voice shuddered as he smoothed his hands up to Noah’s shoulders. “I am so scared I… I am so scared it’s like I can’t even breathe!”
The fight left Noah in an instant. “Well…” he said, drowning in Luke’s gaze, “I’ll be okay…”
“No…” Luke whispered.
Noah drew Luke into his arms; holding him tight. “I will! I’ll be okay.”
A knock at the door had them both tensing.
“Mayer, open up!”
Noah broke from the embrace and sighed with resolve; making his way to the door. He opened it a crack; stuck his head out. “Um… I’ll be right down in a sec,” he told Sergeant Davis and another officer standing outside.
“Is there some reason we can’t come in, Mayer?” Davis asked with suspicion.
Noah knew he couldn’t lie without risking his place in the army. “No,” he said; trying but failing to come up with a solution. Reluctantly he opened the door wide to reveal a sheepish looking Luke.
The officers entered, looking stern. “You were fully informed of the policy, Mayer. Who’s this?”
To Noah’s horror, Luke answered defiantly, “I’m his boyfriend.”
The officers appeared unfazed. “Did Mayer invite you up to this room?”
“No!” Noah quickly replied; looking to Luke to fix things. “Will you tell ‘em?”
“What if he had?” Luke responded.
For a moment, Noah wondered whether Luke would tell the truth, or whether the blonde would use the opportunity to get what he wanted; Noah kicked out of the army before he’d even been processed.
Noah turned swiftly to face Luke. “When I came here I sighed an agreement to follow strict rules and regulations; no alcohol, no drugs, no going past curfew, no unauthorized guests! Violation of these can get me kicked out!”
“Is that true?” Luke asked the officers.
“If Mayer invited you up here he’s out,” Davis clearly confirmed.
Luke’s eyes met Noah’s.
“Will you tell the truth?” Noah requested.
Luke made a sound of irritation. It was clear he was still unhappy about the situation. “Noah told me there were no visitors, I didn’t listen and I came here anyway.”
Noah crossed his arms.
“Son,” the second officer said to Luke, “I’m going to have to ask you to leave now.”
“Thank you for telling the truth,” Noah told Luke.
“Yeah,” Luke swallowed; staring at the floor as he searched for words, before piercing Noah with a look of such blinding want, Noah almost kissed him, “but the truth is… is that I love you.” Luke’s hand caressed Noah’s cheek; Noah too mesmerized to care that the two officers were witness to it. “There’s no truth greater than that.”
The breath left Noah’s body as Luke’s hand dropped away. The blonde sadly nodded once, before leaving the room as requested, followed by the second officer.
When he’d come back to his senses, Noah turned to the sergeant. “I was telling the truth before, Sergeant Davis. I mean, he did follow me here…”
“I believe you,” the man replied. “But be warned, if there is some part of you that’s uncomfortable with your decision to enlist, you shouldn’t sign the oath.”
Noah blinked. “So what, now you don’t want me?”
“Of course we want exemplary young people like you,” Sergeant Davis assured, “but what do you want, Noah?”
The answer was immediate. “I want to serve my country.”
The sergeant smiled and nodded. “Then let’s get about doing that.”
They left the hotel together. A car was already waiting outside to take them to the processing center, but Noah had barely strapped into the backseat when he heard Luke call his name. “Noah!”
The officer closed the car door and Luke’s face appeared at the window, palms up against the glass.
“Noah,” he pleaded, “don’t do this!” He banged on the glass. “Don’t go! I love you!”
It took everything in Noah to break that hazel gaze; stare ahead instead. If he didn’t, Luke would pursued him to stay; and Noah knew deep down this was something he had to do. He was born to serve; born to be a soldier in the US army. His entire life had been geared toward this and he would follow it through. It was all he knew. And one day, perhaps he'd actually be worthy of the love Luke wanted to gift him.
This wasn’t about his father. It wasn’t.
So he ignored Luke’s plaintive looks. He allowed the car to drive away. He didn’t realize it would be the last time he saw Luke. It would bother him for years to come that they never kissed goodbye.
Luke’s eyes held that some look now, Noah noted; all fear and hope; determination; love tinged with anger.
Luke’s matured voice filled the small meeting room. It shuddered with forcefully-suppressed emotion. He let the other patients know how pleased he was to be there; how he hoped the trial would be successful.
It was all too much for Noah. He felt all the blood drain from his body; pushed his way to the exit. Alone in the long corridor, he leaned back into the wall; struggling with shivering fingers to free his cell from the confines of his back pocket.
“Noah?” Holden’s voice raced through the phone to Noah’s ear. “We weren’t expecting to hear from you so-”
“Did you know?” Noah interrupted.
He could hear the soft drone of Luke’s voice coming from the meeting room; continuing to address the other patients.
“Sorry?” Holden asked.
“Did you know?” This time Noah shouted; his soul crushing under the weight of betrayal.
“Are you okay, son?”
“Not really,” Noah replied; a sudden burst of emotion releasing tears and snot he quickly wiped on the sleeve of his khaki shirt.
“What is it?” Noah heard Lily ask Holden. “Is something wrong?”
Holden made a noise to shush her, before readdressing Noah. “Take a few deep breaths, and tell me what’s happened.”
Noah complied, breathing in and out; filling lungs that burned and constricted in the depths of his chest. “Luke,” he gasped.
Applause could be heard from behind the wall; murmured conversations and the sounds of people moving about.
“Luke?” Holden clarified. “What about him?”
“You really don’t know?”
“Noah, you’re not making much sense.”
“Luke!” Noah said again. “He’s here!”
“Calm down, son. What do you mean?”
The door to the meeting room banged open; Noah shook his head at the anxious and uncertain form that filled it.
“He’s here,” Noah softly repeated, dropping the phone to his side. He pushed off the wall until he was standing a mere yard from the man who’d disappeared from his life, only to haunt his existence.
This time Luke wouldn’t meet Noah’s gaze. The blonde grasped his hands together; wringing his forefinger in a habit that was so familiar, it physically hurt to watch. The hazel eyes flitted over Noah’s lower body, until finally Luke looked up; eyes glistening like dirty snowflakes. “I… I’m sorry,” Luke half-whispered. “I can’t do this. I thought I could, but…” The drum of his footsteps on the linoleum grew fainter as Luke retreated.
Noah stood in a shocked frozen state. He watched Luke leaving. Panic erupted and he yelled, “Luke, wait!”
But the door at the end of the corridor was already swinging loudly back and forth.
Luke was gone.
Noah maneuvered through his first physiotherapy session on strained autopilot; struggling to get his head around the morning’s events. All he could think about was the wrecked look on Luke’s face; how tired Luke seemed. Noah wanted to know more; understand everything. But only Luke had the answers; and Luke was gone.
The team’s lead physiotherapist was reportedly a world leader in the field; and seemingly ultra excited to be on this new scientific journey. As Isaac pumped Noah’s leg; assessing the nature and extent of Noah’s injuries; he joked amicably about their shared biblical names and said something about it being fate they should meet. Isaac couldn’t have known how much that reminded Noah of Luke; the man who Noah supposed, was funding Isaac’s pay package.
What did Luke’s presence at the facility really mean? If all this time Luke was working on finding a solution to Noah’s predicament, why had Luke walked away that morning without explanation? Why had he never mentioned anything about the project; not even to his family?
Noah wasn’t naïve enough to think Luke still wanted him; especially after the way their relationship ended. Not to mention the fact Noah wasn’t exactly a catch anymore; broken, limbless mess that he was. Besides, Noah knew Luke was still residing in Chicago with Reg. He’d overheard enough snippets of hushed conversation between the Snyder family members to painfully deduce as much.
But were these enough reasons to not even speak to Noah?
The very thought of Luke and Reg together was always like a punch to the gut. He closed his eyes; swaying slightly during a balance exercise.
Worried, Isaac shot forward to hold Noah up. “You okay?” he asked, gripping Noah under his armpits. “You wanna stop?”
“No,” Noah breathlessly replied; pushing himself out of Isaac’s hold. “Let’s just get this over with.”
His mind whirred with all those many questions only Luke could answer. He robotically followed Isaac’s requests; speaking only when spoken too; moving about the room and completing various tasks as instructed. He answered all the questions regarding his general health; pre-existing conditions, past medical issues, allergies, phobias; until he felt so poked and prodded; so utterly laid open he wanted to scream.
He kept glancing up at the silver clock on the wall, but the session dragged painfully on; both physically and emotionally.
“Now,” Isaac was saying as he scribbled something in Noah’s file. Noah gingerly lowered himself in the chair opposite Isaac’s small desk. “I’m gonna suggest you undergo massage therapy. A few sessions will help with your blood flow. I also think you’ll benefit from some ultrasound treatments, hydrotherapy…” Isaac kept ticking through the list of available options. “Oh and electrotherapy should work wonders.”
Noah nodded in agreement when Isaac looked up, even though he wasn’t planning on staying.
Something like worry flashed in the physiotherapist’s dark eyes. “I’m also gonna expect you to keep up this range of stretches.” Isaac whipped a sheet from the inside of Noah’s file and handed it too him. On it were diagrammatic figures to demonstrate the required movements.
Apparently concerned by Noah’s despondence, Isaac leaned forward; patted the top of the sheet Noah held with his pen. “I can’t stress the importance of this enough. It will certainly speed up the healing and bonding process if you can adhere to a strict regime.” Isaac regarded Noah for a moment. “You’re also looking very peaked. Are you eating?”
“Yeah,” Noah replied, almost defensively.
“Have you eaten today?”
Noah rolled his eyes. Stomach in knots, he hadn’t exactly felt like eating recently.
Isaac scribbled more notes in the file. “I’m gonna expect you to stick to a healthy diet. The nutritionist can help with that. Make sure you take nothing but your prescribed medication and definitely no alcohol. Any questions?”
“No.” Again, Noah checked the clock. They were one minute over time.
Isaac noticed and was staring at him again; making him tetchy.
“Are we done?” Noah hopefully asked.
Isaac glanced back up at the clock. “I guess. But can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” Noah replied.
“Do you actually wanna be here?” Isaac’s eyes burned into Noah’s at the question.
“That obvious, ha?”
A quizzical look past over Isaac’s face.
“What?” Noah asked; growing more and more uncomfortable under the intense scrutiny.
“Just what?” Noah pressed again.
“Well, the other candidates are all ears, ya know? They wanna hear what I got to say. But you… It’s like you’re just following orders.”
Noah wobbled to a stand; snatching up his crutches and hobbling toward the exit. “Maybe that’s because I am,” Noah almost snapped; balancing precariously so he could press the exit button. He didn’t mean to be rude. He felt bad about it. But his patience was on tenterhooks. He hated being examined.
The door slid open. He was one hop through it when Isaac said, “I’m putting you down for a psych-evaluation.”
Noah stopped with his back to the physiotherapist. He heavily closed his eyes.
“There’s no point in training up your body if your mind’s not in it. I’m gonna request an official order from the major too,” Isaac added. “Since you’re obviously so good at following them, at least that way I’ll know you’ll go.”
The centers administration offices were strangely located in the basement. Noah maneuvered out of the elevator and headed down the stark white corridor, trying to remember the directions as given to him by a kind male nurse on reception.
Every joint in his body screamed in protest. Sweat beads were dripping down the center of his back; his arms shook with the strain of holding him up; his body exhausted after the day’s trials.
His lower half hurt worse than fire.
Noah knew he was supposed to be in the chair.
Noah hated the chair.
He loathed how restrictive it was; he hated the way passersby shot looks of sympathy his way.
It felt too much like going backward instead of forward. He’d worked so hard during the months in the army hospital to stand on his good leg; it was soul-crushing to be ordered back into the chair.
“It’s necessary to rest the stump during this process,” Dr. Patnick had told him during their first appointment. “We are going to be asking a lot of you physically; we don’t need to compound that if we can help it.” Seeing the downhearted look on Noah’s face, the doctor kindly smiled. “I understand it’s hard, but it will all be worth it when you see this new limb in action. Trust me. Besides, all the other participants will also be required to hang up their crutches for a while.”
But Dr. Patnick didn’t know about Noah’s history with Luke. That when Noah’s father first discovered their budding relationship, he’d lost his mind and put Luke into a chair; temporarily paralyzed. They’d worked through it; Noah sticking like glue to Luke’s side; whether Luke wanted him there or not. But at the time, he never truly understood what it was like for Luke. He had some idea now; and it hurt to think of how bone-deep that fear must have been for Luke.
Almost breathless, Noah turned down the first right and second left, until he was facing the door of his commanding officer, Major Blade Christie. The name was neatly taped across the center of the door. It was odd. Noah spent the entire morning impatiently waiting for this moment; now he struggled to work up enough courage to knock on the door.
Leaning sideways into the doorframe, Noah dug two painkillers from his pocket... quickly swallowed them... hoping they’d give him the boost he needed to get through this meeting. Shaking he took a deep breath; rapped on the door with his fist.
“Come in,” the voice of authority pierced through the door. Noah instinctively reacted; straightening up.
He pushed the door open, closing it carefully behind him; trying not to embarrass himself by staggering, or worse falling. He stood to attention as best he could. “Noah Mayer, sir,” he said with a wobbly salute. “Requesting permission to speak freely?”
The major leaned forward on his large mahogany desk as Noah said his name; eyeing the young soldier with interest. It made Noah feel instantly uneasy.
“At ease, private,” he said; releasing Noah from the agony of holding so tight a stance.
Major Christie was in his fifties; greying with matching white military moustache over thin lips. His eyebrows were thick, bushy and unkempt. It was difficult not to focus on them. Noah tried to keep his eye-line just to the right of the man’s face.
Behind the desk a basement window spilled the late afternoon sunlight in a strip across the room. The windows were open, pumping fresh grass-scented air into the space.
“You’ve just had your first day of sessions, am I right?” Christie asked.
“Yes sir,” Noah replied; his body shaking. He felt sick; but he did his best to hide this from the major.
“How did they go?”
“Good, sir. Thank you.” Noah licked his lips; tasted the salt of sweat there. His breathing was steadily becoming heavier... longer. He knew something wasn’t right, but he’d waited the whole day to speak to the major. He wasn’t going to stop now.
“What can I do for you, son?”
“Um…” Noah blinked his eyes back into focus. “Request permission to leave the program, sir?”
“Why would you want to do that?” There was no anger in Christie’s tone, not even surprise or interest. It felt as though the man already knew the answer; just wanted Noah’s confirmation. “We’ve had men begging to be on this trial.”
“My reasons are of a personal nature…” This may have been the army, but even the army didn’t have a right to all of him. “And-”
“…and I gather nothing at all to do with young Mr. Snyder?”
Noah gasped. For a moment he was sure he’d heard wrong. “Wh…what?”
The major couldn’t know… He couldn’t!
“Have a seat, son.” The man indicated the chair opposite his desk.
Noah wanted to decline; but to be honest he was on the brink of collapse.
His superior seemed to notice. “Are you feeling okay? Drink?”
Christie smiled; leaning over the desk to grasp a glass decanter and pour Noah a water.
“Thank you,” Noah softly muttered as he drank from the glass. He set the water down on a nearby coaster; focusing on the condensation rather than looking at the major.
“I’ve been working with Luke on this project for quite a few months now,” Christie continued, creating a temple with his fingers as he leaned back in his chair. “It didn’t take much to work out that his passion was far more personal than purely philanthropic.”
Noah’s throat constricted; he fought to keep the shuddering out of his voice. But his lower lip trembled. “Sir, with all due respect… I…”
“I’m afraid I cannot grant permission to release you from the project, Private Mayor. Too much is at stake here.”
Tears pricked the backs of Noah’s eyes. “I’m sorry… I don’t understand.”
The major nodded. “I realize the very nature of this conversation would usually be considered counter-military by some, but under the circumstances-”
“Wait…” Noah didn’t even care he’d interrupted. “What circumstances?”
“Project Walk, this project, is a joint venture between the army, this hospital and Oceanview Medical Biotics (funded by the Luke Snyder Foundation),” Christie explained with a certain level of earnestness.
Noah didn’t like the feeling creeping up his neck that he was somehow at the center of everything.
The major was still speaking. “For the army to get its hands on this level of life-like biotic prosthetics is unheard of. Involvement would usually be impossible based on cost alone. As a result, Oceanview doesn’t stand to make any profit from its development.”
“What?” Noah couldn’t believe what he was hearing.
“The contract signed between all three parties was conditional to one thing...” Noah’s heart rattled in his chest as his mind caught up with Christie. Christie nodded in affirmation, “...that one of the first five trail participants be Private Noah Mayer. You.”
Suddenly the major’s expansive office felt like the smallest box in the world. Noah shook his head.
“Do you understand what I’m telling you, son?” the major clarified. “It seems the only reason any of us are here at all, is because a bomb went off in Iraq one day… and you were in it.”
Noah reached too violently for the water glass; sent it spattering to the floor. It rolled away from the deposited puddle and hit the skirting board with a clank.
“I… I…” he swallowed; stumbled in his attempts to stand; the movement blasting pain straight through his skull. He pressed shaky fingers to his temple and rubbed. It did nothing to alleviate the sting. “I want to speak to Luke then. Tell him… tell him I’m not participating any further until I see him!”
Worry clouded the major’s countenance. “Private, I hope you understand that your participation is required by direct order from your superiors. Your mission as it is.”
Noah was beyond caring in whose presence he was standing. “It’s not right!” He had to hold back from yelling; drowning under the weighted pressure of it all. “You can’t put all this on me!” It’s not fair. “Please… I need to talk to Luke.” I need Luke.
“Son,” Christie’s voice was warmer; almost fatherly, “I think you should head back to your room to calm down. You obviously need rest. Things will become clearer for you after that.”
“Then I can see Luke?” He heard how childlike he sounded and internally cursed himself for being so weak. Dad was right. “Is Luke here? Is he still here?”
Christie sympathetically smiled. But it was clear the conversation was over. “I’ll see what I can do. You’re dismissed.”
Noah nodded awkwardly; made his escape from the room. As soon as the door closed behind him however, he collapsed; chest tightening and breath wheezing. His vision clouded. He thought he heard somebody shout his name; footsteps running closer.
“Help!” a familiar voice yelled. “I need help over here!”
His ears drummed with the sound of perceived explosions, screams, shouting; before the sensation of being lifted; warm hands cupping his checks... arms enveloping him.
“It’s okay, Noah.”
“Breathe. Just breathe.”
He tried but it burned. There was a loud buzzing in his ears. He forced his eyes open; managed a sliver; saw nothing but a blur of color... a quick focus on wet brown eyes made him want to lift his hand to touch.
“It’s okay, Noah. I got you.”
The voice felt like protection. He relaxed enough for blessed air to flood his lungs. With one loud gasp, he gave in to the darkness.
Nights were as much a blessing as a curse. For the first few hours it meant relief from the relentless desert sun. It meant sanctuary; camouflage from the enemy.
But then the cold would set in; the kind that ate through a man’s skin to reach the sensitive bone beneath. No amount of huddling together could stave off the crisp sharpness in the air. But there was usually nothing for it but to huddle, try to sleep; and wait for morning.
This night, they’d failed to find a safe place to bed down. It was quickly becoming too dark to see; only a sliver of blue and red light framing the horizon. Already the wind was up; chilling those areas of flesh exposed to the elements.
First Lieutenant Shadrach Kissinger, or Shades as he was known to their platoon, had inadvertently found himself in charge; being the highest ranking officer after they lost the colonel the previous day.
Noah couldn’t help notice that Kissinger was on edge. The troupe followed their new leader; but did their new leader even know where he was going?
Silently Noah increased his pace, passing Rivers and Brown; both too tensely surveying their surroundings to notice.
“We’re being followed, aren't we?” he whispered to Kissinger; sidling up beside him. Their eyes locked. "That’s why we’re still moving?”
Kissinger considered Noah for a moment; grimly nodded. “You’re smart,” he said. “Anybody ever tell you that, Blue?”
“Someone once did,” Noah replied.
The lieutenant glanced back over his broad shoulder. “Just don’t tell the others, ‘kay? This mission’s already turned to shit as it is…”
“Why haven’t they extracted us?” Noah asked. “I mean, we lost the colonel for God’s sake!”
“I think we’re surrounded. I think we walked into some kind of trap.”
“You mean the intel was compromised?”
The first lieutenant sniffed. “Only thing makes sense. If we’re surrounded, could be the rescue mission can’t get in.”
They marched quietly for a while; Noah considering what this might mean for their small platoon. The prospects that came to mind made him shiver.
“We’ll have to shelter soon,” Noah reminded Kissinger. “It’s getting too cold.” As he spoke, a white mist expelled from his lips; as though to solidify his point.
“What about over there?” Kissinger nodded to the left of them. In the distance there appeared to be a natural earth mound. “Think we could use that to keep the wind off?” He peered up at the darkening sky. “Could be a sandstorm tonight…”
Noah followed Kissinger’s gaze skyward, dreading the thought; subconsciously ringing a finger around the rim of his ear in anticipation of the sand to come. Sure enough the approaching storm could just be made out in the distance; where the clear starry sky gave suddenly way to an inky blackness.
“What about our tail?” he asked.
“Just have to hope they also bed down for the storm,” the lieutenant replied. “Anyway, that small hill should act as a buffer.”
The two men turned toward the horizon. minding their feet for trip wires and leading their party over the rough terrain.
By the time they reached their destination darkness had descended. Noah was just able to make out a natural trench at the back of the mound; perfect for trapping in their much needed body heat. No chance of a fire. The terrain was flat and dry; the night clear. Any firelight would be seen from miles around.
They ate quietly from their meager supplies; pooling what they had together in an effort to make it last.
“Little low on the H2O ain’t we, shades?” Rivers worriedly asked, tipping the last drop from his canteen on his tongue.
“There’s a town to the north of here,” Kissinger replied; hiding under a sleeping bag so he could study his map with a penlight. “They’ll have a spring or a well or something.”
“That’s if there’s anybody left there,” Brown reminded him.
Rolled up like sausages in a pan, they lay in silence; sleep quick to come to their tired minds and bodies. Noah felt himself slipping into his usual fretful slumber. He’d always been a light sleeper; always with one ear open for trouble. This served him well in the desert; but also starved him of much needed rest.
Left alone with his thoughts; he wondered what Luke was doing right in that moment. Who he was with…
“Fuck Rivers!” Gonella shouted; jolting everybody awake; some grabbing for their guns. “What the fuck?”
“Shut up, Jo!” Rivers mumbled. “I ain’t touched you! I ain't even moved, man!” Suddenly Rivers joggled about with a yelp. "Fuck, Jo, I said it weren't me!"
"I didn't do na’thing!" Jo whined in response.
"God, would you clowns shut the fuck up?" Rosen irritably yelled. "It's bad enough we have to fight the enemy, without you bunch of morons at each other's fucking throats all the time!"
"Yes Calvin," Gonella responded, "but I’m telling ya, something stung me real bad and-" Gonella howled again in pain.
Noah was just about to react when a bolt of burning heat struck him straight in the ankle. He yelped; the momentary ache enough to send a shooting spasm up his calf muscle.
Pretty soon all five of them were screaming as tiny but brutal pricks of heat hit them from all directions; the insects in question really living up to their name.
"Fire ants!" Brown screamed, scrambling frantically up the side of the trench. "It's a whole fucking nest!" He reached the top and staggered to his feet, bending over to vigorously brush down the front and back of this cargos. "Fucking hell!" he exclaimed, straitening up to watch the others moving to extract themselves from the angry nest. "That was-"
A shot rang out, echoing across the empty landscape. There was a delay; but not long enough for Brown to react.
Noah stopped brushing himself down long enough to lock eyes with the corporal and ask, "Berry?"
The look Corporal Bernard “Berry” Brown gave Noah in that moment, would stick with Noah for the rest of his life. It was shock and fear and realization. The bullet was clean through Brown’s heart. He dropped in a crumpled heap; quickly overcome by an undulating black mound of protective ants.
Noah screamed; and then screamed some more. He brushed at his arms, his torso, his legs; but nothing could rid him of the ants. Millions of them! They scampered over his skin, out his nose, through his ears; bites like lightening. They burned! Every part of him burned.
“Noah, it’s okay.”
The trench expanded; swallowing him whole; burying him alive. He chocked on fine sand and crawling ants. He was falling; desperately reaching out for something to grab hold of. Shadows gathered to him; wrapped him tightly until he could no longer breathe.
Hands were on his shoulders. The world lurched. He coughed uncontrollably; unable to draw himself away from the blinding fear. Panic clawed at him fiercely like some savage animal. He had no body; no hands to feel with, no heart to love, no eyes to see. His screams were deafening.
The voice was so soothing. Noah searched it out; even as his eyes squeezed tightly shut. He couldn’t face Berry’s dulled eyes.
He realized suddenly that he was clinging to skin; to solid body.
“Noah open your eyes,” the voice demanded. “You’re dreaming. Just open your eyes.”
Noah shook his head; still struggling to suck air into his lungs. “Ants…” he gasped.
The warm hands holding him down were now stroking his arms. “You’re safe. Take a deep breath.”
Noah did, his eyes opening on the exhalation.
He knew Luke was a mirage. Obviously, out here in the desert. But he didn’t care.
“Take another breath,” fake Luke instructed. “Slowly in…”
Noah inhaled deeply; eyes focused on Luke’s.
Air shuddered from his lungs. He ignored the pain to keep hold of Luke’s image for as long as possible. “Don’t go…” he begged; fighting to keep his eyes open. He knew if he didn’t, this dream would end and he’d go back to falling. Yet when he reach up to touch Luke’s face, the skin beneath his fingers felt surprisingly warm and real.
“Just go to sleep,” Luke softly told him, kissing Noah’s fingertips. “I’ll be here when you wake up. I promise.”
Something pricked Noah’s inner-elbow.
“What was that?” he heard Luke ask.
“A sedative,” somebody replied; a stranger’s voice. “It’s a little stronger. Hopefully he’ll sleep for a bit longer. That’s really all he needs right now.”
Noah clung to the Luke-mirage as numbness caressed his blood.
Luke was mad about something. “He’s been staying at the farm for weeks,” he was saying. “How could you not notice he wasn’t sleeping?”
“Come on, Luke.” It was Holden; using his fatherly placation on Luke. Noah smiled internally; knowing what little effect it usually had once Luke was on a rant. “You know what Noah’s like…”
“And you!” Luke seethed. “What the hell am I funding you people for? You’re supposed to be caring for him! He’s skin and bone and nobody noticed? I have to find him on the fucking floor?”
“I’m sorry, Luke,” another voice replied. “He’d only been at the facility for a few hours. We’ve barely gotten a record going for him. He was supposed to be in the chair…”
“Luke,” Holden again, this time more sternly, “it’s not the doctor’s fault, okay? Everybody here cares about Noah.”
Light blinded Noah as he forced his eyes open. Disorientated, he needed to see Luke to believe he wasn’t dreaming. But there was sunlight streaming into the room.
“Luke?” he asked; but no sound came out.
“I want round the clock care for him!” Luke was still on a rampage. “I don’t care if somebody has to stay awake for 24 hours! Noah comes first! Understood?”
“Luke, you’re being unreasonable, son.” Holden sighed.
“Unreasonable?” Luke scathed. “Do you even know how much money the Foundation has wrapped up in this project? Ha, Dad? Do you?”
“Luke…” still his voice refused to surface to sound.
“I have done nothing for months but eat and sleep this thing! And it’s not going to fail! Not on my watch!”
“Luke?” Noah tried again.
Suddenly Luke was there, blocking the light; staring down at him with concern. “Hey?” He smiled. It was the most beautiful thing Noah had seen in a long time. Luke seated himself on the side of Noah’s bed. He pressed his palm to Noah’s forehead, checking the temperature. “Wow. That’s much cooler! How are you feeling?”
“Stop… yelling at your Dad.”
Luke wetly laughed. “Okay. Anything for you. Anything.”
“Noah, can you hear me?”
“He is coming awake… Noah, if you can hear me, please squeeze at my hand.”
Not Luke. A stranger. Somebody lifted the lid of Noah’s right eye. Noah irritably shook his head, eyeball burning from the brightness.
“Nurse, turn down that light, please?” Accented. Not American.
“Yes, Doctor,” a woman replied.
A change in the room. Darker. Was it a room?
Where am I?
“Noah?” That voice again. “Squeeze my hand if you understand what I am saying.”
Noah complied. It was difficult; weak. Why was it so difficult?
“Good.” The voice had a smile in it; kind. “That is good. Now, can you open your eyes?”
Everything felt… numb…
Private? The army!
Noah must have displayed some sign of distress, because the voice said, “It is okay. You are in the hospital. You are safe. But you must wake up now.”
Where are the others?
Noah rapidly blinked. The room was darkened; but not by so much he couldn’t see the older gentleman standing above him; white coat immediately putting Noah on edge.
“Hospital?” he croaked; voice barely a whisper.
The doctor nodded. “You’re at Landstuhl. I am Doctor Ullmann.”
Noah frowned. “Germany?”
Again the doctor nodded. “You have had quite a fight, Private. For a while, we did not know if you would survive.”
A sickening ball of panic quickly formulated in Noah’s gut.
“My platoon?” he tentatively asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” Doctor Ullmann replied. “Concentrate on getting better.”
Weakly Noah tried to rise. “But what happened…?”
The doctor pushed him back down into the pillow. “Relax, please.”
“I need to know… what happened.” A bright flash. A bang so loud it burst his ears. “Explosion… There was a… a bomb? There was… There was… No. No. It was a grenade. Oh God! Are they alive?”
The doctor remained silent.
“Please…” Noah begged.
“I am sorry. They did not make it out. Only you.” The doctor smiled. “They are calling you a miracle.”
Noah shook his head; felt the tears dampening the pillow.
“Your family is here.”
Noah blinked; then frowned.
“They are very desperate to see you. But I cannot allow this, until you are calmer. Understand?”
Desperate for anything even remotely familiar, Noah nodded. He focused his breathing; closing his eyes.
“Good,” Doctor Ullmann said. “I will let them in. One at a time, though. And only for one minute each. Then I will be back to examine you, yes?”
The doctor left the room, followed by the young nurse. While they were gone, Noah took in the space around him. It was small but military clean; every piece of equipment gleamed and stacked neatly in place.
Touching his face for the first time, Noah discovered the two small pipes in his nose as well as the IV in his right arm.
He took mental stock. Chest. Neck. Arms. Hands. Torso. Legs… Legs…
Something was… off…
He tried again. Legs and feet.
A warning bell started a distant chime in his head; soft but persistent. He started his body cataloguing again, bone by bone; but stopped when there was a light rap on the door. As it cracked open, he couldn’t help the tiny glint of hope. For a moment he thought.... But then he realized they were Luke’s eyes, but not Luke.
“Oh Noah, baby.”
Luke's mother rushed across the room, grabbing Noah’s IV free hand and squeezing tightly. She kissed him on the forehead. He closed his eyes; breathing her scent. He was confused by her presence, but too desperate to question how it was possible.
“We were so worried,” Lily sniffed.
With too many emotions to name he sobbed the first thing to enter his brain. “They’re all dead.”
She sadly nodded. “Yes, I know, sweetheart. But you don’t think on that now. We’re all here to take care of you. Holden and Mother are right outside. We took the jet over as soon as we heard the news.” Then seeing the unspoken question in Noah’s eyes, she said, “Luke… I’m sure he would have come, but…”
Noah closed his eyes for a moment. Then to save her any further awkwardness he said, “It’s okay. I understand.”
Because he did; though it didn’t hurt any less.
“How are you feeling?” she asked, running fingers through his hair.
Again Noah simply said the first thing to come into his head. “I can’t feel my legs.”
As the words left his lips he felt a quick bolt of terror.
Lily’s face paled; a tear dropped down her cheek.
Somebody was mowing the square of lawn just below Noah’s balcony. The low rumble of the ride-on would recede each time the gardener completed a lap; only to drone loudly on the re-approach. The resulting grass smell wafted sweetly in through the open balcony door on the breath of a warm wind. Occasionally, footsteps could be heard passing just outside the door; sometimes accompanied by voices; nurses and doctors on their rounds.
Otherwise the room was silent; and had been for at least 30 minutes.
Noah lay prone in the bed, focused on the continuous drops within the plastic drip hung neatly beside his bed. He followed the flow of liquid down the clear tube, to where it disappeared inside his arm.
Luke lay beside him above the covers; one arm behind his head; eyes focused on the ceiling.
For a while, Noah had become all too aware of the proximity of Luke’s pinkie finger to his own. One small swipe sideways and Noah could grasp it. He was thinking just this when Luke made the move himself; warm hand coming to lie softly over Noah’s. It startled Noah and he gasped.
Luke whipped his hand back. “Sorry. I…”
Noah turned his head to look at him; their gaze deepening. “Luke?”
“Yeah?” Luke softly replied.
“What’s going on?”
Luke breathed deeply, shifting up to rest his back against the headboard. “You were dehydrated and exhausted, so you collapsed and-”
“I don’t mean that,” Noah interrupted. “I mean… I mean with you?”
Luke rubbed his face with both hands. “Oh Noah,” he whispered. “Everything?"
“I’m sorry I walked out like I did,” Luke quickly interrupted; briefly closing his eyes; doing that little wringing of the finger thing. “It wasn’t… It’s not…”
“It’s okay.” Noah replied; giving Luke an out. “I know it’s awkward. That I’m not the man-”
“It’s not you,” Luke adamantly insisted; staring down at Noah. “I mean… it is you… but, not how you think. Shit! I’m getting this all wrong…” He stopped talking for a moment to take a breath and start again. “You have to understand, Noah. I have played that moment when I’d see you again over and over in my head for so long, but even so… I wasn’t prepared. Nothing could have prepared me for how I felt. Nothing.”
Noah steeled himself; ready for the “I felt it was my duty” speech he was sure would come next. Luke was happy in Chicago with Reg. Which, with Luke so close, he had to remind himself was a good thing. This was all just… obligation.
“How did you feel?” Noah had to know.
“Like I wanted to kill you myself!”
So this is where the new chapters start.
I did post Chapter 10 originally, but after working on this story, I changed Chapter 10 quite a lot. So some of this will be familiar and some is new...
The old red bicycle’s front tire made a strange rumbling noise of complaint, as Noah encouraged it to speed in fast pursuit of Luke along the rough path that led through the grazing pasture; Luke having the advantage of knowing every bump, hole and crack on the way through the grass as well as he knew the back of his hand.
Occasionally Noah would hit a hump and the bike would lift off the ground, ramping down hard with two bounces that shook his insides; threatened to break the 1950’s style bicycle in half. He was laughing so hard too; the combination of these two elements making his stomach hurt. The bikes on the farm may have been old, but that sure didn’t stop them from being fun.
“Where are we going?” he yelled through the wind that blew the hair back off his head.
Luke looked back with a cheeky grin, his fringe flopping over his face. “I want to show you something.”
They hit the woods; followed another path through the dappled shade, riding for quite a way before Luke finally skidded the bike sideways to stop, almost causing Noah to drive right into him.
“Watch it!” Noah complained, narrowly missing the blonde, brakes screeching in protest.
“Sorry,” Luke laughed, “should have warned ya!” His face was flushed with the happiness of having recovered so much of his fitness, after not knowing if he'd ever walk again, much less ride a bike across the farm.
“You think?” giggled Noah, still trying to catch his breath. “Just don't overdo it, okay?"
Noah gave him an admonishing look, but laughed with him as he surveyed their surroundings. "Where are we anyway?”
They had arrived at another small clearing. A few yards from where they were, Noah noticed a small water ditch running down the hill.
“See that ditch?” Luke pointed at it.
“That’s the boundary marker between Snyder farm and Farmer Fred’s land.”
“Farmer Fred?” Noah grinned; mind flashing images of storybook characters.
“Yeah, the neighbor. About the grouchiest person in the whole of Oakdale. He really doesn’t like people on his land at all.”
“Aha? And you wanted to show me this?”
“No,” Luke replied mysteriously; lifting his bike over the ditch, mounting and waiting for Noah.
“If he doesn’t like people on his land, should you be doing that?” Noah suggested.
“Well there’s a reason he doesn’t like people on his land, that I would like for you to experience.”
“I don’t know, Luke,” Noah looked back the way they had come. “What if he calls the cops?”
“He won’t. He’s in love with my Grandma Emma. We sneak over all the time and the most he’s ever done is yell at us.”
“But surely we should respect his wishes, Luke.”
“Noah…” Luke moaned in his best sing-song voice. “Come on! Live a little!”
Noah remained hesitant.
“If you come over here I’ll give you a kiss.” Luke smiled seductively; his full smile that lit up his face and dimpled his cheek.
Noah snorted in disdain, but that didn't stop him from carrying his bike over, balling the front of Luke’s blue-stripped shirt in his fist, and pulling Luke into a long kiss. Exploring with his tongue, he felt that strong desire they had for each other quickly reach his toes. Luke shivered; pulled Noah’s head down toward him with vigor, their bikes knocking together with a metallic clang that sent the birds fluttering panicked from the trees.
Luke laughed sweetly into Noah’s mouth. “We scared the birdies…”
Their eyes locked in that way neither of them could explain; as though they had forever to just stand there staring. Noah still couldn’t get over how wonderful it felt to be with Luke, like something more powerful than love held them together. He shivered, all too aware of the fear he always felt at that thought; like something buried deep inside the darkest pit of his soul. If he listened to it, he'd run. He'd lose this. Instead, as he had done many times before, he shook the unwanted thoughts from his head; went in for another kiss. The moment was broken when the Labrador barked impatiently; jumping up at Noah’s leg to demand equal attention.
“That dog is so fucking in love with you!" Luke laughed, half annoyed by Ammo's bad timing. "Not that I blame him." Luke winked, saying, "Let’s go.” He squeezed Noah's biceps fondly; looking up at the late afternoon sky which threatened rain. “Don’t want it to get dark on us.”
Noah climbed back on his bike. They rode a more leisurely pace along a ravine, stopping to push when the banks became too sandy. They traversed a hill; came across a beautiful vegetable patch of lettuce, carrots and tomato vines. In the center of this was a small enclosure with a gate leading to an apple orchard. The black Labrador set off chasing and barking at a few black crows that scratched around, pecking at bugs on the ground.
“Are you planning on stealing Mr. McGregor’s carrots, Peter Rabbit?” Noah teased in his best British accent.
“Better,” Luke replied, smiling at the joke. “Leave the bike.” Luke dropped his black-rimmed bike to the grass and headed for the orchard; turned to wait for Noah. “Come on,” he whispered, holding out his hand for Noah to take it.
Feeling nervous at being discovered, Noah dropped his bike on top of Luke’s; allowed Luke to lead him by hand through the gate and into the apple orchard, eventually reaching a rather impressive looking cherry-red apple shed.
“Farmer Fred’s apple cider has won first place at the Illinois Interstate Fair every single year for the past ten years. It’s legendary.” He turned to catch Noah’s expression. “And totally alcohol free, so you can wipe that worried look off your face.”
Noah relaxed, but not completely.
“My sisters and I often used to come here to sneak a sip,” Luke explained with a grin.
“You realize that’s theft, right?” Noah chastised.
Luke fake gasped with a giggled. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Policeman,” he pouted, placing a finger on his lips, “however will you punish me?”
He was so adorable Noah couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh,” he replied, pulling Luke closer by his belt loops, “I’m sure I can think of something.”
They always meant to kiss softly; just a light peck; an acknowledgement of the moment; but it never ended up that way. There was such a strong repressed sexual energy between the teenagers; every kiss would deepen; become more and more urgent in its desperate need to break free. A loud crack of thunder sounded, sending Ammo whimpering to hide under a wheelbarrow. Noah laughed at him.
“Coward,” Luke told the dog. Then turning back to Noah he said, “Come inside. Let’s have a quick sip. We got time…”
“Luke, we need to go before it rains.”
But Luke was already dragging him into the shed, where barrels of cider sat ready for use. Luke grabbed a wooden mug from the window ledge; filled it from one of the barrel taps. He passed it to Noah who glugged the crisp golden liquid down in one go, suddenly realizing how thirsty he was from their ride.
“Good?” Luke asked with anticipation.
“Amazing!” Noah confirmed, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "Man, that's awesome!"
Quickly Luke poured another cupful; drank his share down just as eagerly.
“More?” he asked Noah.
“No thanks,” Noah said. “Feels bad enough to help ourselves to one cup without permission.”
“And Noah’s been a very, very bad boy...” Luke suddenly soothed, walking closer seductively. He pressed his body against Noah’s long frame, rooting out a quickened breath from Noah’s lips.
Noah pulled Luke tighter; pressed in for yet another kiss, and another, and another. These were apple-laced; even more heated than the last. The cup Luke held dropped to the floor with an unnoticed clank; rolled away until it reached the wall across the room. Ammo happily lapped up the path of droplets.
“You know?” Luke said as they broke for breath, lips terribly close. “If we carry on like this, one of these days we’re not gonna to be able to stop. We’ll just rip each other’s clothes off, and take each other right where we're standing.”
Noah swallowed hard at this, his Adam’s apple bobbing; his groin growing uncomfortable in the tight jeans he’d pulled on that morning. “Keep talking like that,” he replied in a half whisper, marveling, not for the first time, at Luke’s confidence, "and perhaps that moment's right now...”
“You know,” Luke whispered warm into Noah’s ear, as Noah drew Luke tight into his chest, “having you living here at the farm, I've started to resent having to do other things. I resent having to stop to eat and drink. Having to study. I resent having to spend even one second doing anything but this...” Luke kissed him again, hands carding through the hair on Noah’s head.
Noah found it impossible to get close enough to Luke. His hands wanted to touch everywhere. His lips wanted to claim every single inch of skin.
“What the hell is going on here?” A voice broke through their desire-fueled haze. They broke apart like they’d been hit by a volt of electricity. A small, elderly man stood before them with fire in his eyes.
“Sorry,” Noah gulped, looking guiltily over to Luke, who was actually trying to suppress a laugh. “We were just…”
“Fornicating all over my apple cider! That’s what you were doing!” The man waved a skinny finger in Noah’s face.
Noah felt his face flush red.
“You make the most delicious cider, Farmer Fred,” Luke sang, in one of the sweetest voices Noah had ever heard from him, “sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. I wanted Noah to taste it. Wasn't it good, Noah?”
"Oh," Noah stumbled, sure his eyes were like saucers, "um... yeah. It's the most amazing cider, sir."
The man seemed to soften when he realized it was Luke, though he was still clearly pissed. “Don’t let me catch you here again, Luke!” he said. “I’ve told you before. The cider is off limits until the fair, and then you gotta pay for it like everyone else.”
“Yes, of course,” Luke replied, trying to hide half a smile. “We’re sorry.”
“Sorry, sir.” Noah gulped, clearly embarrassed.
“Now get off my land, the both of you! And take that mutt with you! He’s constantly digging up my flower beds.”
Carefully they maneuvered around the cross little man to fit through the door. Then they took off running, giggling like naughty school kids.
"Fornicating all over my apple cider," Luke mimicked; tears of laughter running down his face.
“Ammo!” Noah called, followed by a whistle, patting his thigh as he ran. “Come boy!”
There were often times while they were dating when he and Luke would find themselves at loggerheads. Noah came from a world where everything was either black or white. There was a rule and you followed it without question. It was essential in the army, especially in combat, that every player knew the rules and stuck by them no matter what. It was the glue that held the platoon together; it was the glue that kept the separate factions of the army operating in sync; and more importantly, it was an outlook that helped keep you alive. It was something drummed into Noah from the time he could understand speech.
In Luke’s world there were multiple colors; grey, blue, green, yellow, red, purple. An array of beautiful options and paths he could take; endless possible combinations. And Luke tended to spend most of his time in the colors; seemingly seeking out the excitement of breaking the rules; challenging them when he felt them unfair. Always just skirting the line. This resulted in more than a few tense moments between them. Luke on one side of the fence, usually begging Noah to climb over and join him; and Noah on the other, asking Luke to stop whatever compulsive action he was about to undertake. This would result in many occasions when they ended up in explosive arguments; spitting angry words at each other, despite the incredible love between them.
Noah always supposed it was one of the things that hurt Luke the most when Noah agreed to marry Ameera to keep her in the country. Noah seemed to care so much about this girl, that he would be the one to break the law on this occasion. There were many times when the anger grew large enough to form a fissure and split them up. But somehow they would always find their way back, since neither could go very long without the other; angry or not. So as Luke spat the words he didn’t want Noah to hear, Noah knew it was because Luke was only too aware of where the words could lead. Words said out of fear and anger, “Like I wanted to kill you myself!”
Looking instantly stricken, Luke cupped his mouth. Noah realized then, Luke was afraid to risk everything he'd done to get Noah to the center. Noah’s heart went cold; old insecurities wrapping like tendrils round his lungs. The words, Noah suspected, had been sitting just behind Luke’s closed lips; on the tip of his tongue. They had been gnawing for exit; building up pressure until Luke spat them out with a force that shocked them both; all fire and spittle.
For a moment neither of them moved nor spoke. Noah simply watched Luke, waiting to see what the man would do next. Luke shifted off the bed; standing with his back to Noah. He took a deep breath before turning. “This is why…” he stopped as the words caught in his throat.
“You’re angry with me,” Noah stated.
Luke closed his eyes and nodded. “Yesterday, when I saw you I wanted to punch you! I wanted to say I told you so! I wanted you to know what it’s been like…”
“So you left.”
Again Luke nodded. “You don’t need this from me right now. You have to concentrate on getting better. I don’t want my emotions or feelings to get in the way of your recovery.”
“You’re entitled to your feelings, Luke.”
“Fuck you, Noah Mayer!” Luke glared down at Noah with disbelief, before starting a fast pace of the room. “God!” He threw his arms in the air in frustration. “You don’t even care, do you?” He stopped mid-stride; stared Noah in the eye. “You almost died!”
Noah swallowed hard, looking away from Luke’s penetrating glare. “I know you want me to say I regret going… that I wish I hadn’t left.”
“But I can’t, Luke. I can’t regret it. I don’t. I did what I needed to do.”
Luke wiped his mouth with his fingers; like he was clearing the words that wanted to pour out.
“But I do regret hurting you.” Noah waited until Luke looked right at him. “I never wanted to do that. Never…”
Luke’s shoulders slumped and he nodded. “I know. Damn you. I hate it, but I do know.” He wiped his face in both hands; moving to stand and watch the scenery outside the balcony window.
“Why, Luke?” Noah softly asked, waiting for Luke to turn before continuing. “All this?” Noah indicated around the room.
Luke hugged his elbows as he turned back to Noah. “You have to ask?”
“What about, Reg? Your letter said-”
“You never wrote back...”
Noah shook his head. “I didn’t know how to. I...”
L ove you.
“…I wanted you to be happy… and… you seemed that way. So…”
Luke puffed out a sardonic laugh, pressing his forehead into the palm of one hand. “Reg is a great guy...”
Noah was sure he felt the seams of his heart split open; internally chastised himself. He had wanted this for Luke; yet the hurt refused to dissipate.
“…but,” Luke continued, “we lasted about two weeks.”
Noah frowned, sure he’d heard wrong. “But you live together? Don’t you?”
Luke smiled. “Yeah... live... as in housemates. Nothing more. We realized pretty quickly we were better off as friends. And anyway, I couldn't... I can't...”
Noah felt tears prick his eyes the relief was so strong, but he held them back. “Oh…”
“I regretted sending the letter. But when you didn't write back I thought..." He turned back to the window. "So I let it go. It was selfish, but… I don’t know. I thought it would make things…”
Luke nodded. When he spoke next, his voice shuddered with emotion. “But it didn’t, because it could never change my feelings for you. It didn’t change the danger you were in. And I was so scared, Noah. Every time the phone rang; every knock at the door. My heart would go cold. I couldn’t take it. And then five months ago-”
Noah closed his eyes with realization. “Lily called...”
“She said…” Luke wiped his eyes with the back of his hand. “She said… ‘Luke, it’s Noah…'”
“I’m so sorry.”
“All my nightmares… They all came rushing down to that point in time. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t imagine a world without you in it. I couldn’t let her tell me you died. I just hung up on her.” When Luke turned again, their gaze was so intense, Noah was sure he felt all of Luke’s fear; like a cold trembling deep in his bones. “Eventually I had to face it. I had to know one way or the other. I called her back and she was already in Germany. God, the relief I felt!”
“But you never came…” Noah shifted in the bed, once again studying his fingernails.
“I did,” Luke softly replied.
Noah’s head shot up.
“Of course I did.”
“What?” Noah was flabbergasted. “But… your mom never said…”
“They didn’t know,” Luke explained. “I arrived late in the night. I went straight to the hospital and bullied my way in. But when I saw you-”
“Like this you mean?” Noah despondently nodded toward the flat space under the covers where his leg should have been.
Luke was seated by his side before Noah could blink. He grabbed Noah’s hand in both of his own. “Noah,” he asserted; holding Noah’s gaze as only he could, “I want you to hear me, okay? I’m sorry you lost your friends.” The tears pooled quickly; fell when Noah blinked. Luke squeezed Noah’s hand tighter; experience telling him Noah might try to pull away. “I’m sorry you lost your leg. But I am so fucking grateful you’re alive, that I can’t even care about any of that.”
A speck of hope, a dappled spot of light, before a dark black cloud of guilt descended so quickly it swallowed everything; even Luke’s presence and the touch of his skin. Noah wrenched his hand out of Luke’s grasp.
“I’m tired,” he heard himself say... muffled; somehow detached.
“Yes… Yes of course you are.” Luke quickly stood. “I’m sorry. I’ve said… I’ve said too much and you’re not in a place to… Shit. I didn’t want to do this now.”
Noah turned on his side away from Luke, drawing his body into a safe ball; pulling the drip line over his torso.
“I never could shut the fuck up…” Then, “Noah?”
Noah couldn’t respond; his head pounded. He closed his eyes tightly.
Luke seemed to wait for a moment; apparently unsure what to do. Eventually he whispered, “I’m not leaving. I’m staying here at the center. Any time… I mean, if you want to see me, just ask at the admin desk and I’ll come. I won’t come see you unless you want me to, okay?”
Noah kept his eyes closed, but found the energy to nod. He heard Luke’s feet shuffling toward the door and something inside sprung to life. “Luke?” he called.
“Yeah?” There was relief in Luke’s voice.
“Why didn’t you stay in Germany?”
There was a moment before Luke replied, “While I was sitting with you, one of the nurses gave me this.”
Noah heard a rustling sound. He was aware that Luke had placed something on the table beside the bed.
“You were holding it when they found you,” Luke continued. “It’s how I knew that you still… I mean… You were holding it when you thought you would die… It set me on this journey.” He was contemplative for some time, Noah heard him take a strained breath.
Noah lifted his head slightly so he could stare up at Luke. It took a lot of effort, but he knew Luke needed it. “No matter what, I do know where all this comes from.” He indicated the center with his hands.
Luke acknowledged Noah’s words with a gentle smile, before nodding his head and leaving Noah’s room.
Noah buried a hard sob in the pillow, turning his head to the table. There, charred and crumpled but still neatly folded, was Luke’s letter.
There was a sudden thrumming in Noah’s ears. He was vaguely aware of two voices speaking in low tones outside, before somebody tapped lightly on his door. He heard the door open a crack.
“Noah?” It was Holden. “You okay, son?”
Noah sniffed, eyes blurred by tears. “Will you sit with me for a while?”
Again, some of this used to be chapter 10, so may be familiar. Most is new.
“God, we’re so lazy today,” Luke mused happily from underneath his elbow; bent and elevated to shade his eyes from the blistering sun. His wet hair was dark, plastered in streaks down his face and behind his ears.
“We should move into the shade soon,” Noah replied; enjoying the way his skin prickled as the pond water evaporated from his exposed skin; legs still slightly sore from swimming the perimeter of the pond with Luke. “Emma will whip our hides if we end up as sunburnt as we were last week!”
“Yeah,” Luke giggled at the thought. “She was not impressed with us at all!”
Noah watched Luke’s tanned stomach muscles clench mid-chuckle. He spread his fingers over them; fanning the ribs; letting his fingertips slip slightly under the band of Luke’s trunks.
The long grass was flattened by their spread towels; soft and spongy under his back. The breeze rustled the trees, and in the distance Noah could just make out the industrious hum of Emma’s honey bees. Instead of moving as he’d suggested, he lay back with a contented sigh. Luke’s hand found his; their fingers flattening together.
“I want to lie here with you forever,” Luke whispered.
As always, Noah felt the sadness quickly. “Nothing lasts forever, Luke.”
Because it didn’t.
Luke sat up on one elbow, turning his body to look down at Noah. “Isn’t that what you want too?” Luke’s eyes were suddenly glassy; like Noah had just punched him.
Noah stroked Luke’s cheek in reassurance. “Course I do. I want us to last more than anything.”
“But you don’t think we will?”
Noah smiled up at Luke... at his beauty... at his character... at his seemingly endless optimism.
“You don’t,” Luke realized, “do you?” He sat up hugging his knees; watched the horizon where his sisters could be seen bobbing up and down in a tiny rowboat.
Noah shifted up to hug him from behind; chin resting on Luke’s shoulder. “All I’m saying,” he softly explained, “is that life is unpredictable Luke. It’s better to be realistic than set yourself up for disappointment. At least that way it’s not a shock if it happens. Who knows where we will be five or even ten years from now. We’re still kids and we’re still feeling our way. I mean, it wasn’t long ago I was pretending to be straight. I don’t even really know who I am yet. And I know you don’t either. So I know things could change at any moment, as much as I wouldn’t want them to. That’s why I intend on making the best of absolutely every precious moment you choose to give me.”
Luke twisted his head with a sideways glance... a tiny smirk that Noah wanted to kiss immediately. “Sometimes, Mayer,” he hummed, “I don’t know whether your words are making me happy or sad.”
Noah squeezed Luke tighter. “Right now I just want to be wherever you are... and that’s enough.”
Swimming laps in the Olympic-sized pool quickly became Noah’s preferred source of physical exercise at the center. He’d always enjoyed swimming. Not only did it dull the pain in his muscles, it had a hypnotic effect on his psyche, and he found he could drift off into a quiet part of his mind for at least thirty minutes... which was as long as Isaac would allow him to push himself.
On his tenth return lap he spotted two long legs and feet dangling in the water, lightly tapping the wall of the pool at the top of his lane. He broke out of the water to find Luke sitting on the side, soaking his feet... trousers rolled up while he watched Noah intently. Noah noticed for the first time just how much more mature Luke looked. His hazel eyes seemed wiser somehow, framed by softly forming laughter lines that Noah assumed would one day deepen. He was beyond the most handsome man Noah had ever known, and he lost his breath at the sight.
“Hi,” Luke smiled down at him, almost shyly. “Reception said you wanted to see me?”
“Hi,” Noah replied, feeling nervous; running both hands over his hair to encourage the water back off his face... pushed his swim goggles up.
“You’re looking so much better,” Luke noted.
Noah cleared his throat, “Thanks.”
“So,” Luke continued, “I was wondering whether you would like to walk the garden with me?”
“Sure,” Noah liked the idea of finally pinning Luke down to a proper conversation. He knew it wasn’t going to be easy to let Luke know how he felt. “I just have a few more laps. Is that okay?” He pointed back down the pool.
“Of course." Luke smiled.
“You’ll wait here?” Noah asked, patting the side of the pool, afraid Luke would disappear again.
“I’d like that." Luke smiled.
Noah nodded, readjusted his goggles and kicked off from the side. But he only managed two laps. The calm serenity from before was gone, and his mind was back to being nothing but a befuddled mess... especially knowing Luke was so close and watching him. He felt self-conscious; lungs struggling to hold enough air under the water. As his hands touched the wall between Luke’s legs, he breached the water to pull off his goggles. Avoiding Luke’s eyes, he ducked under the lane buoys and headed for the corner of the pool where the access chair lift was installed.
Luke immediately hopped up to help him, but Noah was quick to call Isaac over. He saw Luke’s understanding almost immediately... the way the man stepped back slightly. Having once been temporarily paralyzed, Luke knew what it was like to feel so reliant on help from others... when your limbs could no longer do something as simple as climb a pool ladder.
While Isaac maneuvered the chair up and out of the water, locking it in place and looping his arms around Noah to help him get seated on the poolside bench, Luke towel dried his own legs and feet... sitting beside Noah to adjust his trousers and put his shoes back on.
Noah looked up just in time to catch Luke staring glass-eyed at the stump where Noah’s leg once was. Noah quickly reached for his prosthetic limb; eager to get out from under Luke’s sympathetic gaze.
“Oh no you don’t!” Isaac chastised. “You know what the doctor said. You need to rest your working leg. Let me get the chair for you...”
But by the time Isaac returned with the chair, Noah was already pushing himself up to standing; positioning the crutches under his arms. “No, I’m fine like this. Thank you.”
“Noah, I really must insist that you-”
To Noah’s surprise Luke stepped in. “Noah says he’s okay. If he wants to walk, he can walk.” He grinned softly at Noah. Noah couldn’t help but return a grateful smile.
“But-” Isaac continued.
“Don’t worry,” Luke told him. “Noah’s strong. He’s got this.” Luke turned to Noah. “Walk you to the change rooms?”
Noah nodded, feeling something light in his chest. They set off walking side-by-side along the length of the pool. It felt in that moment for all the world like they were taking a stroll at a public pool. Luke’s hands were relaxed in his pockets as he slowly kept in time to Noah’s pace.
Noah left the changing area a few minutes later, to find Luke waiting for him on a bench under a pink blossom tree that kept raining color down on him like confetti. Luke was carrying a small tied up cloth bundle in his hand, as well as a drinking flask.
“What’s that?” Noah asked as way of conversation, briefly leaning forward to pull a blossom from Luke’s hair.
“Just a snack,” Luke replied, eyes sparkling golden in the bright sunshine... shaking his locks like a puppy to get rid of any further petals. “Are you strong enough to walk a little way? Or we can just sit here too if you like?”
Noah actually did feel somewhat energized from his swim. “Let’s walk. I could use the air.”
The going was slow. Noah wasn’t in full-form, and he was quick to become breathless. They reached a small duck pond set quite a way from the main frontage of the house.
It was Luke who decided they had gone far enough. “Well, it’s not Snyder Pond, but it will do…”
Their eyes locked in memory for a moment before Noah breathed in deeply.
“Let me help you down,” Luke offered.
Once Noah was comfortably seated on the manicured lawn, Luke sat down beside him. He proceeded to unwrap the small parcel.
“Are those...” Noah asked in excitement.
“Yep… Grandma Emma’s oatmeal raison cookies." He ran one under Noah's nose. "She sent them with Dad, just for you…”
Noah smiled thankfully, taking a small bite. “Your dad get home okay?”
Luke nodded with a contented smile. “And from me,” he unscrewed the cap off the flask; poured the caramel liquid into it, “your favorite coffee blend from Java.” He handed the warm cup to Noah. “See,” he continued, “I remember everything.”
Again their eyes found each other, and Noah struggled to break the gaze. “Thanks,” he whispered, taking a sip; closing his eyes as the warmth ran through him; bringing back memories from happier days.
“Do you remember how many hours we used to spend just sitting by the pond?” Luke asked.
“Yeah,” Noah replied, taking another bite of his cookie.
“I’ve missed that.”
Noah looked at him... nodded.
“I’ve missed you,” Luke continued, once again capturing Noah’s gaze. "Sometimes so much it's a physical ache, you know?"
“I miss you too,” Noah replied, feeling choked up. “More than you know.”
Noah could see the unspoken question on Luke’s face.
Then why did you leave?
But Luke remained silent, taking a cookie for himself, twirling it in his fingers.
“So,” Luke began, after sitting and eating in silence for a few minutes, “what did you want to speak to me about?” He looked down at a blade of grass; pulling it out with his fingers.
Noah shifted uncomfortably; pressed his hands around the coffee cup. “I don’t really know how to begin…”
“It’s okay,” Luke replied. “Take your time.”
“Luke… I’m just… I’m completely overwhelmed by all of this. What you’ve done for me is just…” he threw his hands up as he struggled to find the words. “I can’t believe you would buy a company just so that I can-”
“I want to help you get better, Noah.”
Noah turned his head to look at Luke. “I know that. And I’m so grateful for everything…”
“Why do I get the feeling there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
Noah made a move to take Luke’s hand in his own, but pulled out last minute to rather clench his own fingers tightly together... fearful of where a touch might lead.
“But…” Noah sighed. “I don’t want it, Luke.”
“Noah, there’s difference between recovering from the loss of limb and actually having the opportunity to barely notice the loss. I mean this prosthetic is the best in the world! It becomes a part of you, so you hardly ever have to take it off or worry about it at all… And it’s so life-like! State of the art robotics. They can even program it to suit your natural gait. Didn’t you read any of the brochures?”
“Of course I read them. It’s an amazing project, Luke. Incredible even. You should be proud. And I know it will change so many lives, but it doesn’t change how I feel, Luke. I don’t want this.”
“You don’t want to get better?” There was a dark tone to Luke’s voice. He stood up sharply; back to Noah.
“I am getting better, Luke. Every day I get stronger. I don’t need this fancy prosthetic or five star treatment to get better. I want you to give my spot to another soldier.”
Luke walked closer to the water’s edge. Noah couldn’t help but think it was to increase the distance between them. His dirty-blonde hair blew in the wind as he hugged his elbows in contemplation, eyes scanning the water.
Luke shook his head... uncharacteristically quiet... which only served to put Noah more on edge.
“Luke?” he repeated. “Please? I want you to ask the major to let me leave. I can’t be released without consent. I’m here on military order.”
Luke spun around, mouth a stubborn line set on his face. “No.”
“No?” Noah asked.
“You heard me,” he replied. “No. I won’t do that. This program is the best thing for you. I know it is. I researched it to death. I won’t let you throw this away.”
Noah felt anger course through his veins. “I’m sorry,” he spat, “you won’t let me? Since when did you get to decide what I do with my life?”
“Since you almost got yourself fucking killed!” Luke all by screamed back at him. “Despite me begging you not to join the army! I knew something like this would happen! I fucking knew it!”
Noah couldn’t believe how swiftly the mood between them changed.
“Oh please,” Noah scoffed, “you couldn’t have known what would happen any more than me. I could just as easily have come back without a single scratch.”
“Maybe so, but you know what, Noah? You didn’t! And you promised me you would be okay. You promised!”
“Yes I did. But I shouldn’t have. It was an impossible thing to promise, and because I promised it, you got hurt more than you needed to... and I’m sorry about that. You have no idea how sorry I am.”
“But you’re not sorry for leaving me. I just can’t understand why! I just can’t! We were so good together! We were so happy before Ameera showed up. I know we were! Why wasn’t I enough, Noah?”
Noah didn’t think it was possible for his heart to break more than it already had over the years apart, but he definitely felt it rattle once more inside his chest. He shook his head, trying to find the words to explain something he couldn’t really understand himself; when words were already so elusive to him. “Luke,” he said as clearly as he could, “you were everything. Don’t you get that? You were so much, that sometimes I had to pinch myself because I couldn’t believe you were real and wanting to be with me. I was seventeen and so fucking in love with you I could hardly breathe most of the time.”
“Yeah, you say that, but you still left…” Luke was done holding his emotions back. Noah knew how hard it was for Luke to keep things bottled-up. Luke rarely ever tried to hide how he felt. Tears streamed freely now, and Noah wanted nothing more than to wipe them away. “Please… make me understand. I need to understand why you would destroy everything.”
“Because you may have been enough Luke, but I wasn’t! I went from being a kid with nothing… a kid who grew up with hardly a kind word from my dad... to being in a relationship way too heavy for a teenaged romance. I had no idea who I was without my dad and the army... and if I wasn’t enough for me, how could I ever have been enough for you?"
Luke shook his head; total frustration in every line of his face. “What are you talking about? I loved you, Noah... broken, fixed... it made no difference to me! I loved you just as you were. I never wanted you to be anything but what you are.”
“And maybe you were okay with that, Luke, but I wasn’t. I wasn’t going to be some fucked-up mess that you had to fix. There was no way I was going to be that for you! No way! My father died after doing some of the worst, most crazy shit ever, and I didn’t know how to navigate all of that! Everything was spiraling out of control, and I wasn’t going to pull you into the whirlpool with me. No fucking way!”
Luke opened his mouth to respond... the energy between them electric with emotion... but before he could say more, a heavy truck passed along the narrow road. It traversed one of the speed humps, and something in the bed of the truck lifted and crashed down with three loud bangs like gun fire.
Noah swallowed the metallic taste of blood in his mouth. The gash on his head sent blood dripping down his face; pooling between his lips. The oil barrels were the only cover for yards; afforded no space to move an inch... even to wipe the blood away.
The enemy hadn’t seen him, but he could hear them rounding up the two women and the child Noah hadn’t been able to reach in time. He would hear their screams and the baby crying in fear, as the women were raped in the doorway of their crude home.
He swallowed back the bile; knowing that if he puked he was done for. He also knew there was nothing he could do to save the civilians. He was out of ammo; there were five insurgents and only one of him. In situations such as these, his training commanded he sit it out, no matter how difficult.
After what felt like an agonizing eternity, three gun shots rang out… pop, pop, pop!
“Noah breathe!” Luke’s voice. “Oh my God, Noah, please breathe!”
Noah began to struggle against the arms holding him tightly from behind... utterly confused... but he couldn’t free himself and he couldn’t draw breath; he was under water and something was dragging him down.
“Come on, bubby! Please breathe!”
Noah couldn’t escape the panic... the feeling of discovery... the sound of gun fire and the smell of blood. His chest heaved in its effort to draw air into his lungs, but Noah’s body felt ridged and tight with terror. He wheezed loudly... arched his back... struggled to escape the enemy he was sure had found him. But strong arms refused to let him go.
Eventually he fell boneless; dropping into them in defeat and exhaustion. As soon as he relaxed, cool air whooshed back into his lungs; his vision began to clear. He lay still, chest rising and falling with each noisy breath.
“It’s okay now,” he heard Luke whisper.
He focused his gaze; realized his head had lulled back into Luke’s shoulder. Luke’s arms loosened comfortably around him. Noah closed his eyes... allowed his body to descend fully back into Luke’s chest.
“They’re not here. Whoever you're so scared of, they're not here. You’re safe. I’m so sorry. I shouldn’t have brought you out so far. I wish I could learn to keep my fucking mouth shut!” Luke rocked them slightly; his hands soothed down Noah’s arms. “God, you’re shivering so much. I think you might be in shock. Shit! Shit!”
Noah took another enormous gulp of air; his entire body enclosed in ice and a shivering frenziedly…
“Here, drink this.” Luke held the plastic coffee cup to his lips. Noah shook his head. “Just a small sip. Please Noah, you need the sugar.”
Noah complied... made a face. Luke had laced the cup with enough sugar for six people. Luke made a noise somewhere between a laugh and a cry, until he was sobbing into Noah’s neck. The atmosphere charged with electric energy, Luke’s tears infecting Noah, until he too was sobbing into Luke’s chest.
Noah missed running.
The grunt-grunt, as his breath synchronized a rhythm with the thud-thud of footfalls on the pavement; matching to every second beat of his heart. His mind would still be abuzz with thoughts... but clear; not foggy like it usually was... bogged down with the other distractions of life. Running had always been an escape... from his father... from his fear... even from Luke, when those feelings felt sure to blow him in two. Too much. Too strong. Too damn scary.
If I could just run...
He shivered; pulled his bathrobe tight across his body. Fall would occasionally announce her imminent arrival with an icy blast of wind that swirled around Noah's neck in a whirlwind of leaf-filled air. His room's balcony came equipped with specially modified furniture, to make sitting outside as comfortable as possible. He'd taken to hanging out there in the mornings; mournfully watching the joggers below circumvent the grounds. It was a special kind of torture. Noah didn't really want to think too hard about the reasons why he subjected himself to it.
There was a top of the range... not available for market sale... virtual reality, running system set up in the gym. Noah didn't even want to think what strings Luke pulled to get it, without even considering the cost. Noah tried to use it a few times, but it was a poor substitute for the real thing; no whoosh of wind in his ears, fresh oxygen in his lungs... no nature smells and sounds to transport and sooth him. It was purely the exercise, with very little psychological benefit.
Somebody knocked on his door. He ignored it as usual, but somehow this never stopped people from entering to check on him. Sometimes it was like living in a fishbowl.
"Noah, you decent?"
Dr. Miric. Just great.
Noah didn't even shift in his chair to acknowledge the psychiatrist; didn't even turn his head to glance at her as she approached. "I told the nurses I'm not doing sessions."
"We're concerned for you, Noah. It's been three weeks since you left this room. Your doctor says you're healthy enough to continue your sessions."
"And God forbid I delay the project more, right?"
"It's not about the project, Noah."
Noah closed his eyes; scratched with frustrated urgency at the rough growth of hair on his face. "Good, because I've told anybody who will listen, that I'm not leaving this room until I speak to Luke Snyder."
On an average day at the center, Noah's routine demanded he spend an hour every afternoon in Dr. Miric's office. Nowhere in his orders did it say he had to speak to her, and so he never did. He would slump back into her wide leather sofa, cross his arms; stare at the clock in absolute silence... wait for the minutes to tick away. It was agonizing and boring as hell, but Noah was nothing if not stubborn. Besides, it was easier than the hours he spent in the corner when he was a child... whenever his father was too busy to administer punishment of the more corporal kind.
To her credit, Dr. Miric would sit out the hour with him; poised in her chair... waiting for him to verbalize words he had no intention of speaking.
"Are you ready to tell me about what happened at the pond?" Seemed the good doctor possessed a stubbornness to match his own.
Noah rolled his eyes, but remained silent. He noticed out the corner of his periphery how Dr. Miric adjusted her tortoise shell spectacles... held his breath, hoping she'd leave.
"You say you want to speak to Mr. Snyder?"
No such luck.
"I think I can arrange that."
That got Noah's attention, just as she knew it would. "You can do that?"
"On one condition..."
Oh of course, there's a catch.
But seeing Luke was his only hope of getting out of the program. "Fine," he sighed in agreement.
"In the interest of full disclosure, I can't promise anything. I can talk to him; ask him to come. But I can't compel him to, understood?"
It wasn't exactly what he hoped, but it was better than nothing. "Whatever... What's the condition?"
"You tell me your story from the top. You leave nothing out. And I'll know if you do."
Noah's small laugh carried a bitter edge. "Of course. Well, if you already know everything about me, why the hell do you need me to tell you again? Isn't that a waste of expensive therapy time?"
Ignoring his question, as well as his attitute, she asked, "Deal, or no deal?"
Noah stared out at the bright blue sky. "Deal."
"Great." She moved out onto the balcony, taking the seat opposite him... opened up the notebook in her hand; pen at the ready. "Beautiful morning, isn't it?
Noah sighed. "I guess."
She soaked in the view for a few minutes; turned her intense green eyes back to Noah. "Why don't we begin?"
"What do you want to hear?"
"Everything. I know your experiences in Iraq are still very raw, so we don't need to go there yet. We can get to that when you're ready. Think of me as a conduit. I'm here to help you confront your feelings, and I realize that's not an easy thing to ask of you. But sometimes, just talking can help you lay to rest any unresolved trauma or feelings you may have."
"I'm fine. I just want to get this over with so I can talk to Luke. The sooner I talk, the sooner that happens, right?"
"I certainly want to help you do that Noah, but it may take a little time."
"Well ask me then," he leaned over to the small table next to him, grabbed the pills he'd placed there; swallowed them dry.
"Are you in pain?"
"I'm fine. The meds help and that's all I need right now."
"For your injuries, yes. But what about your mental health? That's what concerns me the most. Given what you've been through recently, it stands to reason-"
"Look doc, I get this is your job, but can we just get on with it?"
"Noah, you're suffering panic attacks. That's your body's way of telling you things are not as they should be."
"I'm fine. I can handle it."
"Mm-hmm. How are you sleeping?" Noah shifted uncomfortably and she took that as her answer. "Noah-"
"I just want out of here. Once that happens, I can deal with the rest. Having to be here like this, it doesn't help. I just want to leave."
"Can I ask you something?"
Noah sighed. "Could I stop you?"
She smiled. "Where are you going to go?"
"Well, if you get released from your obligations to the army, where will you go? Where is home?"
Images of the farm, of Luke and the Snyders, flashed instantly. Noah's stomach twisted.
There must have been quite a look on his face, because the doctor said, "Okay, let's start somewhere a little easier. How about you tell me about yourself? Start with where were you born."
"You want to know about my childhood?"
"Yes. That's usually a good place to start."
Noah closed his eyes, summoned up his earliest memory; began to speak. To his surprise the words came easily. They flowed from him in a torrent that left him spent and exhausted by the end of it all. He gave her everything; his childhood, his schools, the places he'd lived, the languages he spoke, his father. That one was the hardest of them all. But he told her flatly; almost without emotion. Just a matter of fact, "My father was a psychopathic, narcissistic, control freak, and now he's dead."
Like a story that happened to somebody else.
He told her everything, except...
"What about Luke Snyder?" She leaned forward as she spoke; like a child at the climax of a story.
Perhaps it was because the dam had burst... or perhaps it was Dr. Miric's soothing tone... maybe he was just too exhausted to build up his usual wall, but Noah crumpled; felt sick as a wrecked sob escaped his lips. "Where is he?" he asked. "He said he'd come if I asked for him." He met her contemplative gaze, internally cringing at how pathetic he sounded. "I need to see him."
Noah didn't have to open his eyes to know Luke was there, and that thought made him smile. "Luke?"
A warm palm pressed into his thigh, rubbing gently. "Shush, go back to sleep."
Noah's eyelids were heavy; his mind foggy with painkillers and a tiredness that was bone-deep. But he forced them open; took a moment to focus on Luke's face. Luke pulled the small stool closer; laid his head on the pillow beside Noah's head. Left hand drawing gentle circles over Noah's scalp, his cheek dimpled as he returned Noah's smile.
"How did you get in here?" Noah whispered; voice dry and cracked. "Visiting hours are over..."
"When have rules ever stopped me, hey?" Luke's eyes shone with natural mischief.
Noah pretended to think for a moment. "Um... since I've known you... that would be... never."
"Is Mr. Goody-two-shoes scared we'll get in trouble?"
"Because I can leave if you-" Luke made a move to go.
Noah linked their fingers, drew Luke back to him. "Don't you dare!"
Luke grinned. "Scoot over." He pulled himself up onto the hospital bed; wrapped Noah in a warm cocoon of legs and arms.
Noah realized in that exact moment, that he'd never felt so safe. Which was surprising, considering he was a newly outed gay kid, who'd recently been hit over the back by two homophobic assholes. He shivered when he thought what might have happened to Ameera had Luke's parents not shown up. It took a herculean effort on Luke's part to pull Ameera free through the perpetrator's car window. She still sported bruises on her upper arms from the force of Luke's hold.
"You okay?" Luke whispered; no doubt feeling the quake in Noah's body as those memories took hold.
"Yeah, I was just thinking about Ameera."
"Oh." Luke tried his best to hide it, but it was becoming more and more obvious to Noah that Luke wasn't Ameera's biggest fan.
Honestly Noah couldn't really blame him. Ameera had shown up completely out of the blue, just as their relationship was beginning to take shape. She claimed to be somewhat of an adopted daughter to Noah's father; recently arrived from Iraq through less than legal channels. They still had no idea whether they could trust her; or even if her story were true at all. For all they knew, she was sent by Noah's father to stir up trouble between them.
But Noah had a niggling feeling that she was being truthful; that she was in danger from his father; innocently had no idea the kind of man Colonel Mayer really was. Noah felt the need to protect her; rational or not. He just hated to upset Luke in the process. "You protected her. I hate to think what could have happened if those thugs had driven off with her. Thank you, Luke."
"Anyone would have done it."
"No," Noah disagreed, "not everyone. It took guts to stand up to them like you did."
"Yeah well," Luke replied, "when they hit you, I saw red. I've never been so angry. It was pure instinct that kicked in, I guess."
Noah smiled at him. "My hero..."
Luke kissed him gently. "You're my hero too" Another kiss pressed to Noah's lips; accompanied by a grin. "And a damn fine looking specimen of one too... Maybe I should get you in some of those red Lycra tights?"
Noah felt the warm blush travel up his cheeks. "Shut up..." He shoved Luke's shoulder gently.
"It's true," Luke stated; trying to drive the point home, "you're beautiful, Noah. Inside and out. I'm so lucky."
"I'm the lucky one. I have this amazing brave guy that looks after me. I feel safe with you, Luke." He pulled Luke tighter to him as the drugs took hold once more, pulling him into a deep, warm and secure sleep. "It's the safest I've ever felt in my whole life."
"I'll always protect you, Noah."
"You love him." It wasn't a question.
Noah lifted his eyes to hers; nodded.
"And," Dr. Mirik broke their gaze to sweep her eyes over the facility grounds, "I think it's clear he loves you too. A whole damn lot."
Noah frowned. "You didn't know?"
She shook her head. "No."
"He didn't tell you?"
I thought they all knew...
"Before last week, I'd only ever seen him in person once... for my final interview. He took me out for dinner and asked me a lot of questions. I felt that he was more interested in personality than qualifications. But anyway, I have files on all the patients taking part in the project. Your file was very detailed. I wondered at that. I happened to be in the reception when they brought you back from the pond. Mr. Snyder was beside himself... shaking. I had to give him something to calm him down. I saw a lot of anxiety in him and suggested he come see me."
"As a patient?"
Noah shifted in the sofa.
She watched him with a practiced eye. "But the incident at the pond peaked my curiosity, so to speak. You just confirmed what I already suspected." Noah swallowed, wiped a hand down his face. "Must be pretty overwhelming for a kid with your background," she continued. Noah met her piercing gaze once more. She canted her head, "to be loved this intensely?"
"I think that's why I joined the army," he admitted softly, surprising himself. "When I'm with Luke, it's like this..." he gasped as he sought a way to explain the unexplainable. "It's this visceral feeling right in my gut, this instinctual knowledge, without a doubt, that if he had to," Noah's breath shuddered; he hugged his arms in tight, "Luke would destroy himself for me." The doctor didn't respond, just held Noah's gaze... waiting. "He is everything I could ever want or need in life, but I can't be the same for him. How could I ever be? I mean, just look around. Look at what loving me does to him." Noah threw his arms up at the scene around them. "How do I cope with all this? It's too much. He's too much."
Dr. Miric nodded. "I see."
"And now he's avoiding me, because of what I asked at the pond."
"What did you ask?"
"For him to let me go."
"To move on from you?"
"No..." Noah sighed, "I mean, yes. Maybe. But also, from here. I can't leave unless the army releases me, and they won't because-"
She nodded as she began to catch on. "The program is all about you."
Noah nodded desperately. "I get that he wants what he thinks is best for me, but he doesn't understand. I can't do this. I can't have this. I don't..."
"Finish that thought."
Noah blinked. Shook his head.
She nodded. "Okay, that's enough for today. " She stood to go. "One day I'm going to ask for the end of that sentence, okay Noah?"
He glanced up at her.
"Once we do that, we can start to move forward." She clicked her pen, slipping it into her coat pocket. "But you did good today."
"You'll speak to Luke?" he asked.
The bedsit was small; but clean and tidy. On the walk over her mood dissipated from optimistic excitement to disappointment, especially when he only half-heartedly kissed her back. It wouldn't be the first time a woman didn't get the promise he apparently exuded via his physique. Still, she wasn't about to let his obvious lack of enthusiasm get in the way of her fun.
She sat him against the headboard to watch her. He took another swig from the brandy bottle. He was going to have to be blind drunk to see this through. She was a beautiful girl, no doubt about it. The guys in his regiment watched them leave the bar with a kind of open-jawed awe and envy. Like most of the women in Iraq, she sported dark seductive locks of hair, long eyelashes and creamy brown skin like a rich caramel mocha. With a come-hither expression; a body Western women would die for; she ran the pad of her thumbs down her tiny waist; made a move to remove her skirt with a well-practiced seductive air. These women weren't hookers. Most were from good families. They sought out potential husbands like any other woman... albeit illegal in their country... hoping one of the American GIs would fall in love; steal them away to safety and prosperity in the US one day. They did this at great risk; entertaining the GIs in illegal bars and clubs; the only time they didn't wear a full burka.
"Don't do that," Noah said softly. "Come lie with me."
The girl raised a dark eye-brow in surprise; obediently lowered herself on the bed beside Noah. Noah handed her the illegal brandy. She took a long satisfied swig before placing the bottle on the table beside the bed. Noah laid down on his side, pulled her down into an embrace; closed his eyes. He pressed his head to her breast; almost purred when she stroked soothing fingers through his hair. This was what he needed; wanted. He wished she'd be satisfied to just allow him to sleep that way all night. But he knew better.
"What's your name again?" He did ask her in the bar, but the music was too loud for him to make it out.
"Arezo." She had a melancholy voice now that Noah could hear it properly. He supposed the other guys found the accent incredibly sexy. So would he.. he guessed... on a different gender.
"Beautiful name. What does it mean?"
"Wish or desire..." Her eyes burned with heat as she raised herself on one elbow; shifting Noah over. She was there for a reason; wanted Noah, even if he didn't seem that keen. She ran a hand over Noah's prominent pectorals; down his taut stomach; feeling him through his Tan 499. "You have a nice body. Very firm."
"Thank you," he gulped; realizing he'd gone too far with her to pull out now. He was in that rather uncomfortable position he'd found himself in before, where he kept going just so as not to hurt the girl. That old shame and embarrassment flooded him as she ran a long fingernail lower, only to find him flaccid and completely un-turned on. The self-loathing started a strong familiar flow under his skin like a poison.
"Let me help you," she said; once again flashing that look of disappointment Noah was only too familiar with.
He downed the remainder of the brandy; let the fluid hit him as only neat brandy could; closed his eyes. His mind drifted off to fantasy; old friends he relied on to get him going. Oddly the male forms in this fantasy were just that... forms; strong, beautiful bodies without faces. He never thought of Luke in these moments at all. He couldn't. Not like this. He sighed as his body slipped into the natural mechanics of masculine need. Took comfort in the touch.
The session with Dr. Miric had Noah befuddled and swimming in the soup that formed all his memories. He'd never been a smoker, but he bummed a couple off a nurse... promised not to tell... sat on the balcony under the stars, inhaling deeply. He was starting to understand the appeal as his blood warmed; his mind mellowed. He thought about Arezo... and the others... Maddie too... His minimal sexual encounters in Iraq were mostly for show; appease the minds of his heterosexual platoon, so he didn't have to risk...
He squeezed his eyes shut. It ended up being irrelevant how he felt then. After a few months the lies made him sick. Physically so. Until one dark night, as he shuddered under the weight of suppressed emotion, it happened to catch Cash's attention. "Blue man, you okay? Something's been bothering you real bad for a while now. What's wrong? You can tell me."
He told Cash everything about Luke in a whispered breath. "I lost him..."
They were all squeezed together under a palm; shivering in the blackness; not a star in the sky that night. They all heard him. They all knew. Nobody cared. The relief he felt was soothing.
Noah's first day of grade one ended with him in utter awe of his teacher, Ms. Sullivan. She was full of this joyful, playful energy; a warmth he'd never known. He worked all day to get her to look at him; smile at him; tell him he did a good job. He could barely sleep that night; could barely breath at the thought of her smiling down at him the next day. He was so enamored, that on the second day of grade one, he presented her with a posy of wildflowers he picked on the walk to school.
And for this she hugged him.
Ms. Sullivan was a generous 34FF. When she pulled the stiff little boy's body closer, his head all but vanished in the soft voluptuous cushion of her chest. He'd never known anything like it; never felt more comfortable, more wanted, more safe. He felt something move inside his chest, a sadness, a sense of loss; but also a peace.
The rest of Noah's time in her class was spent in search of those warm hugs. He'd work extra hard, he'd draw her beautiful pictures, he'd pay her compliments. There was nothing like a hug from Ms. Sullivan.
Six months passed and Noah's father was transferred to France. When his last day of school arrived, Noah knew he had to have one last hug. He waited for the all the other kids to clear the class; approached to say his goodbyes. He thanked her shyly; hid the tears he felt deep inside. He wasn't allowed to cry at home; he was used to hiding them. He hung back, making up things to say; trying to initiate a final hug. But Ms. Sullivan was too busy packing up things from her desk.
Noah took a deep breath; found courage from deep inside he didn't know was there. Up until that point, this was one of the most scary things he'd ever done. "Um... Ms. Sullivan?"
"Yes Noah, dear?"
"Can I have a hug?"
It was this deep need he had for affection of any kind, that meant Noah wasn't adverse to women. The sex part was simply perfunctory release; a way for him to shake off all the natural hormones of any young male. For Noah, being with a woman was more about companionship; warmth. Being that he grew up without so much as a pat on the back, he loved to be touched; soaked up affection of any kind with a fathomless desperation.
In the dark places where he hid all his true feelings, he knew he had a preference for men. The few times his thoughts wondered in that direction, he was quick to douse the flame; ignore the pull. There was just no way for him to even entertain that thought; so he didn't.
Then one day his friend Gabe caught him by surprise by kissing him. They were working as interns at the theatre in Branson; squeezed under the sound and lighting deck, trying to fix some faulty wiring. Noah froze. When Gabe drew back from the kiss, his face fell, "Oh man, Noah! I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking and-"
Noah shut him up by quickly kissing him back.
It was a forceful tug in his chest; an impulse. It came to him naturally like breathing. Looking back, he couldn't say he saw stars, or that the world aligned, or any of that romantic shit. But the pulse of pure sexual energy that rushed his blood, was like nothing he'd ever experience in his life. His lips brushed stubble; his chest knocked against hard, warm muscle; his fingers brushed a strong jaw. His nose filled with the scent of the manly ARM & HAMMER fragrance he'd come to associate with Gabe. He was instantly throbbing hard in his jeans; groaning; half snatching Gabe closer.
Something crashing down on stage broke the spell. Noah withdrew sharply. Gabe gasped; eyes shining with something like longing. Noah felt like dying. He flung himself out from under the booth; grabbed his backpack; murmured something about having to meet his dad; hightailed it out of the room as fast as his legs would take him.
The following day at the theatre was awkward. Gabe was the shy sort. He kept glancing at Noah from beneath his eyelashes; biting on his cuticles. Noah felt like the worst kind of asshole. Gabe was a good friend, and Noah had ruined things between them.
"Look, Gabe," he said; finally cornering the man at the coffee machine. "I'm really sorry about what happened yesterday. I was just joking, but I realize now that I may have confused and hurt you."
"Oh." Pure disappointment flashed over Gabe's kind features.
Noah grimaced, despite the fact he was more than used to being on the receiving end of those looks. "I'm not gay."
"Yeah," Gabe replied softly. "I know. It was my fault. I kissed you first." There was a long moment of uncomfortable silence. "Look, can we just forget it happened?"
"Yeah," Noah signed in relief, smiled wide. "I really like you, Gabe. As a friend."
For a while after that, the cycle of Noah's love life continued as normal; Noah met girls, Noah dated girls, girls dumped Noah. That was his life. And it was... fine.
But then one day, completely out of the blue, there was Luke.
Luke taking care of Noah... calming him... reaching up to fix Noah's tie, just as he would continue to fix Noah for the duration of their time together. He was fucking gorgeous; the most desirable person Noah had ever encountered. There was next to no way for Noah to resist as Luke came closer, smelling of fresh air, coffee and pure sunshine.
Where the kiss with Gabe was all sexual, the kiss with Luke was mostly emotional; and it came out of nowhere; sudden, abrupt, astonishing, magical and scary as fuck.
And unlike Gabe, from the very moment Luke said, "Noah, you can say whatever you want to say, but we both know what happened," Noah knew he was in a bucket-load of trouble. Luke was no wallflower. He was not shy in any way, shape, or form; and he was by far the most irresistible creature Noah had ever seen.
Over the days that followed that kiss, Noah tried all forms of resistance and self-denial; all of which worked in the past. But with Luke, there was no room in Noah's infatuation for him for any doubt over his sexuality, or fear over his father's wrath; only a certainty that day-by-day he was falling more and more in love with this persistent Luke Snyder; powerless to stop it. He'd never been more terrified... yet exhilarated... in his whole life.
Noah’s fellow amputees had formed a strong bond of cheerful camaraderie, by the time Noah ventured out of the confines of his room for lunch in the dining hall. Their wheelchairs were all positioned close together around a table, where they chattered away companionably around mouthfuls of food. At first Noah felt awkward and out of place. He plated up at the buffet table; wheeled himself around, in search of an empty spot amongst other hospital patients and staff; not wanting to presume himself one of them.
Nick Hine was quick to remedy that. “Mayer? Over here, man!” The red-head had a wide and welcoming smile, that dimpled his cheeks much the same way Luke's did.
“How ya feeling?” Stuart Kerk asked, slapping Noah on the shoulder as Noah positioned his chair beside him; placed his tray down. “We heard what happened.”
"Thought you guys would be mad I delayed the project," Noah explained.
“Don't sweat it. Gotta look out for each other,” Nick told him, offering Noah the bread basket. When Noah refused a loaf, Nick continued, “And you gotta look after yourself better. This process ain’t gonna work if you don’t keep up with your health and fitness.”
Noah nodded, hiding his grimace by stuffing a forkful of rice into his mouth. He wasn’t even hungry. He hadn’t really felt hungry in a long time. There was this tight hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach that made swallowing food almost painful; a loss, a loneliness. Just something missing. A knowledge of all he could never have.
Relieved the group didn't question Noah about the panic attacks, they spent an hour eating and telling half-truths about where they’d been and what they’d done to “get broken”. The stories became steadily more and more fanciful until the group were in fits of laughter.
One of the guys was a sturdily built stallion of Spanish decent named Alejandro, who fancied himself a lady's man; boasting publically and crudely about his exploits. "First thing I says when they told me 'bout my leg, 'Fuck the leg! My dick still working?'" The table erupted; Dwight half choking on a chicken wing. “Hey, Mayer?” Alejandro said suddenly, catching Noah off-guard. “Couple of us gonna sneak out on the town tonight. Met a couple of local honeys the other night and we plan to meet up again. You up for it? 'Cause they are, if you know what I mean..." He grinned almost manically. "Fancy some pussy?”
Noah glanced down to hide his expression.
Here we go again.
“No,” he said. “But thanks for the offer.”
Seeing Noah gaze in the direction of his missing limb, Alejandro made his own deduction. “What ya worried about, Mayer? Never screwed a girl before?”
“It’s not that,” Noah replied, feeling a warm blush rise up his cheeks. The cafeteria doors banged open, and just like that Luke walked in, chatting with the chief resident, Dr. Lister.
"Hey, it's Snyder," Stuart pointed out. "Wonder how much that kid's worth..."
It had been weeks since the incident at the pond, and Noah was struck dumb for a moment. After trying to see Luke for so long, Noah felt shock at this sudden appearance; anger at Luke's obvious avoidance flaring up inside.
“More than you'll ever make in three lifetimes...” Nick was laughing as the conversation continued around Noah; oblivious to his inner-turmoil.
"What a life..." Stuart sighed.
"So what you say, Noah?" Alejandro pressed; clearly not willing to let their earlier conversation go.
Luke spotted Noah then; seemed surprised for a moment. He stilled as though frozen; but eventually smiled uncertainly across the room at Noah; obviously glad to see he'd finally left his room. Noah shot him a dirty look back, dipping his head.
"Noah?" Alejandro tried again.
"Tonight? The pub? The honeys?"
Noah blinked at him. “It’s just…”
“The surgery?” Dwight guessed. “Yeah, we all hear ya, man. Having the end of your bone sanded so they can screw in a titanium bolt would put Rambo on edge.”
“Nice choice of words there, Wright!” Nick laughed. “Thanks for helping put all our minds at rest.”
“If you’re worried about the whole missing leg thing,” Alejandro placated, “these girls find it sexy. Turns them right on. This one girl was so wet-”
"Urg, Gomez! Shut the fuck up while I'm eating, man!" Dwight moaned.
“Actually,” Noah began, Luke’s muffled voice wafting like a summer breeze over his shoulders from across the room. Luke had since made his way over to the lunch line; was still holding a conversation with the doctor. Every time he caught Noah's attention, Noah would lock angry eyes back. Luke stared at him apprehensively, darkening the pit of fury deep inside of Noah. "Fuck it. Count me in."
So, I wanted to write more for this chapter, but since it's taking me so long, I figured I'd post what I have and just make the chapters short from now on if I have to.
In the 1900s, the small river community of Branson... once nearly washed away by record flood levels from the White River... could never have imagined that the idea of building a dam to stem the tide, would lead to the sprawling metropolis of high-rise hotels and bright neon lights of present day. The White River started life in the rugged beauty of the Boston Mountains just northwest of Arkansas. One of the world's rare north-flowing rivers, it loops a path through craggy outcrops, forested hills and eroded cliffs; giving birth to tributaries... sparkling passed quaint souvenir shops and roadside farms along the way... to eventually supply Branson's Lake Taneycomo, where it was held back by the Powersite Dam.
On the banks of this wide river, stood the Soldier's Rest pub. It was nothing at all like the destination Noah had first imagined. Run by an Irish immigrant, Liam McCarthy, the pub was more a home than a tavern; with comfortable sofa seating throughout, warm fire and dimmed lightening. The place welcomed weary veterans with an open-armed embrace. Not a stranger to war himself, having had his fair share of combat during the Irish Troubles, the elderly landlord treated all the army personal with a fatherly grace and warm smile. Occasionally.... Noah would later discover... he would stop the jukebox, reach for his fiddle, and entertain them with an Irish keen; either sad or funny, depending on his mood.
The establishment itself was situated in one of Branson's older buildings, and had clearly been refurbished over the years with great care and love. The place appeared to have been airlifted directly from the Irish countryside. It was hard to believe this hospitable gem was situated in the heart of one of America's country music capitals. The interior smacked of old-world Celtic charm and character, with exposed brickwork, low wooden tables, standing timbers and carved exposed beams.
As promised by his fellow servicemen, a number of attractive ladies frequented the bar, happy to keep a lonely officer company, should he be at all receptive. What their deal was, Noah didn't know, nor did he particularly care. He watched them peel themselves away from the bar, gravitate toward their intended targets with practiced prowess.
Noah was the last to fully enter the pub, having paused a little longer outside to finish off his cigarette. All four of Noah's compatriots were already fully occupied. It was obvious the skinny raven-haired lady with Alejandro already knew him intimately, if the way she licked his ear and cupped his butt-cheeks was any clue. Noah smirked at him, and Alejandro winked over her shoulder; grinning from ear-to-ear.
As he made his way over to the bar, he noted the place was fairly quite. It was still early, and a week night. He wondered if business would pick up; secretly hoped it wouldn't. If he was right about the storm coming their way in due course, he certainly wanted as few people witness to that as possible. He checked his watch nervously; exhaled a shuddered breath.
You can do this.
"What can I be getting for ya?" the kindly barman asked.
"Beer?" the old man scoffed. "Nothing wrong with a good ale, but it's whiskey you be wanting tonight, sonny-boy, if I'm not mistaken. What whiskey will not cure, there is no cure for. That's what me Da always used ta say."
"I'll get that, Liam..." The woman who spoke had the smoky glamour and sexual allure of Marpressa Dawn; dark extensions tied back in an almost-1950's style, highlighting sharp checkbones. She was well-groomed, with smooth caramel skin, and an almost professional appeal; as though she were about to undertake a job interview. Perhaps that was exactly how she saw it. She slipped almost seamlessly onto the stool beside Noah.
"Cheers." Noah air-toasted her, before swigging the double-shot in one satisfied gulp.
She offered him a wry smile. "Another?"
"I'll get it." Noah held up two fingers to the barman, without even asking the woman what she wanted. She didn't seem to mind.
"That's more like it, sonny!" Liam laughed, patting Noah on the back; exchanging whiskey for the banknotes between Noah's fingers.
The woman sipped her glass demurely, chocolate eyes watching with interest as Noah swigged his back. "You really are thirsty!"
Noah swayed at the extra hit, aided by the various drugs swirling his system.
"Top ya up?" The barman held up his bottle, and Noah nodded, watching the liquid whirlpool in his tiny glass. He was going to need all the Dutch... or rather Irish... courage he could get.
He glanced quickly around the pub, ascertaining where his fellow amputees were situated. All four were successfully entertaining female companions; Stuart keenly playing DJ by the large 1960's jukebox, while a red-head pawed at him. An old BeeGees song blasted out, but changed seamlessly to a sadder Beatles beat.
"I'm Nina," Noah's new friend said, sticking out her hand.
He shook it briefly; pushed her new drink over, even though she was still on her first. "Noah."
Noah swigged his next drink back. They chatted amicably for some time; actually found common-ground. Nina was a theatre set designer; regaled him on behind-the-scenes stories that actually got Noah laughing at times. He returned the conversation with memories of his own past-life living in Branson; his own theatre experiences. He found himself enjoying her company; which was a rather odd sensation for him.
By the time Noah was on his eighth or ninth shot, Nina was sufficiently loosened up, easily keeping up with him by swallowing back her drinks with equal gusto. At some point she moved from sitting to standing close; rubbing his back with suggestive affection; sometimes carding the hair at the back of his neck. That was okay by Noah. He had a plan to win his freedom. The wheels were already set in motion. He angled his head, pulled her down until she was almost straddling him. She took that as invitation to kiss him. It wasn't one, but he let it play out anyway. It was a full kiss; deep and long. She moaned and felt up his chest. He closed his eyes, found himself almost enjoying the softness of it. There was comfort to be had as her arms snaked his neck; in the anonymity of it all. When they broke the kiss, he buried his head in the center of her chest; feeling overwhelmed by the simple touch of her hands on his skin. Almost to the point of tears, he quickly hid his face by kissing her again.
He had a clear view of the pub entrance. They were extremely exposed where they were, so he decided to surreptitiously maneuver Nina to a more secluded settee area to the right of the bar. He ordered a full bottle of whiskey, and pulled her down with him onto the three-seater.
"How long were you deployed for?" she asked, changing the subject of their conversation as they made themselves comfortable.
"Few years," he replied, squeezing her knee.
"Must be weird being back?"
"You have no idea. People don't get it. Not really. They see shows and movies, but it's nothing like the real deal."
"Tell me," she said softly, burying herself into his side.
"It's the things regular people find to complain about that really get me."
"What do you mean?" She ran her palm in smooth circles over his heart, hooked one leg over his thigh.
Noah thought for a while; took another sip of his drink. "You could be standing post and it's 100 degrees. The sun's beating down on you and you fucking dying. And you find yourself so ridiculously happy to have this half-drank canteen of water on you. I mean, it's been sitting in your pouch all day, and at best it's lukewarm, but it's the best damn thing you have in your life at that point. You never knew it was possible to love an inanimate object as much as you do in that moment. But here's the thing, okay?"
She nodded attentively.
"It isn't just for today, or tomorrow, or for the weekend. It's indefinite. It's all there is for weeks, months, years... You have no idea how long. Pure discomfort for the next however many years to come. And mentally it screws you up so bad."
"And then you finally find yourself back in the civilian world, and some fucking prick outside your hospital room's complaining 'cause there's no lemonade in the soda machine. Like that's the fucking worst things he's ever known. Things like that just..."
"Guess combat really puts life and problems into perspective, ha?"
Noah nodded," Yeah. At least some of it."
"Do you mind... Can you tell me about it?"
Noah threw her a questioning look, but quickly realized she was asking about the leg. He hesitated, but she was a stranger, and suddenly he found himself spilling the entire miserable saga. Sweat started to bead, his breathing became labored, and he realized speaking about it there was a really bad idea.
She noticed and swiftly changed the topic, for which he was grateful. "You got a girl, Noah?"
Noah smoothed a hand down her arm. "I had somebody when I enlisted. Not a girl."
Nina eyed him for a moment before her eyebrows raised. "Really? And so this is..." She pointed at herself and then at Noah.
Noah shrugged. "What can I say? I'm greedy when it comes to affection."
"I see," she smiled at him. "You said had?"
"Yeah. He ended it."
"Was it serious?"
"You loved him?"
"So, what happened?"
"He never left the civilian world, I guess. Couldn't understand and... I don't know."
She nodded. "I think I can understand. I mean, it must be a lot of waiting around to find out whether this person you love's going to live or die. A bit like a massive game of Russian Rolette. Will I see him again? Will he make it?"
Noah sighed. "I never thought about it that way before."
"So, where is this love of your life now?"
Before Noah could answer, the music cut out suddenly. The bar was plunged into silence, before an angry voice shouted, "Just what the hell do you guys think you're doing?"
"You're about to find out," Noah grimaced at Nina.
Luke stood like a fiery god of fury, having pulled the plug on the jukebox. The cord dangled in his hand; utter rage almost glowing from his pours. He looked utterly breathtaking. He dropped the plug to stomp into the center of the room, waiting demand-like for a response.
The absolute silence in the room was deafening, before Stuart spoke up in a timid squeak, "You're absolutely right, Mr. Snyder. This was a stupid idea and-"
"Plug it back in!" Nina jumped at Noah's sudden command; Noah's heart palpitating as Luke's blazing eyes landed on him. Luke faltered completely as they shifted over to the woman half in Noah's lap. A complete look of surprise and sick shock flushed Luke's features pale. He wavered slightly, thoughts playing clear as day; feelings open for all to read, as was the norm for him. After months of feeling abandoned by Luke, wanting nothing more than to see him, Noah had no idea what was driving this constant compulsion to alienate him. The clear pain he was inflicting on him almost broke through Noah's resolve, but he hadn't known what Luke was capable of then; what Luke had been doing all this time. It was too much. Luke needed to be set free from it all, as did Noah. And there was clearly only one way for Noah to do that. So Noah pushed through the doubt; barricaded those feelings; gave into the anger. "Stu, plug it in and turn the music back on!"
"Noah..." Luke's voice broke; but there was warning behind his tone too.
Nobody moved. The silence in the room continued; those present no doubt intrigued as to the obvious tension at play between the two young men. Noah pulled his gaze from Luke; glared directly at Stuart. "He's not your fucking captain, your major, or your colonel. He doesn't get to say fuck all! Turn the fucking music back on!" He swiped the bottle from the table and drank heavily; wiped his mouth on the back of his hand; pulled a stunned Nina in for another deep kiss. She kissed him back, but pulled away with a confused expression, her eyes returning to Luke, who was watching them with so much pure hurt on his face, that Noah's heart sank immediately to his shoes. He didn't want this. He didn't want to put Luke through any of it. But Luke had left him with no out... choice-less. As he reminded himself of that fact, of Luke's incessant need to call all the shots as far as they were concerned, of his need to control Noah... including Noah's thoughts, feelings, and actions... Noah rose shakily from the settee; his stump screaming in sudden pain in the cup of the prosthetic. He winced; and despite the situation, saw Luke take a step over to help him.
"You can't fucking help yourself, can you?" Noah spat; watching Luke's eyes grow wide at the pure resentment flying his way. "Who the hell do you think you are? Telling these men they can't got out. That they can't relax? That they can't fucking enjoy themselves? You have no fucking idea what they've been through!"
"Fucking shut up, Mayer!" Alejandro spoke up then. "You gonna get us all kicked off the program."
That actually got a laugh out of Noah.
"Mr. Snyder," Alejandro groveled, "I'd just like to go on record as saying, Mayer here don't speak for me or the other guys. I'm really grateful for the work you done here and the program, and I know this was a bad idea. It won't be happening again."
Several of the other soldiers nodded their agreement.
Noah scoffed. "Don't worry, Ale. Your place here is safe. Mr. Snyder would never kick you off the program."
"Noah!" The name came sharp and swift from Luke's lips... a warning.
"What?" Noah asked him. "Shouldn't I tell them why they're really here? Don't they deserve to know the truth about all this? Shouldn't I tell them how you're keeping me prisoner in a program I never fucking asked for?"
For the first time, Luke looked away. His voice sounded suddenly defeated as he spoke to his shoes. "The bus is outside. I'd appreciate it if you guys were on it. There's a lot riding on this program, and you need to be healthy and rested. So... it's up to you. Get on the bus, don't get on the bus. I don't fucking care anymore." With that he turned on his heal and headed out the door.
Noah flew after him. Chased him to the sidewalk where Luke's cab was waiting. "Don't you fucking walk away from me!"
Luke turned; eyes glistening. "Don't walk away from you? Really, Noah?"
Something in Luke's expression ripped a hole in Noah's heart.
"Are you out of your fucking mind?" Luke gave a sardonic chuckle. "Since the day I met you, I've tried with everything I am, everything I have, to walk toward you. Even when I've tried to walk away, I couldn't! You say I'm holding you prisoner here, but you're the one holding me. Can't you see that?"
Luke's words stole Noah's breath. It had always been like this. Noah would feel steadfast in his resolve to end things with Luke, only for Luke to speak and wash away all sense of reason.
"You take all the light, Noah, and you leave me in the dark. Because I've always been totally open and honest with you... about everything. How I feel, how you make me feel, what I want... And the worst thing is knowing how much you love me, but having absolutely no idea what you want to do about that. Everything you do, every move you make, is to push me as far away from you as you can get me to go. So fine. You win. Again. I'll speak to the powers-that-be in the morning, and then you'll be free to do whatever the fuck it is you want."
Luke was so close to leaving. Noah watched as the other man stepped into the cab. He expected doing this would hurt, but it was a far worse pain than he imagined... it burned in his chest. He wanted to shout Luke's name... stop him... but he forced the name down with a solid gulp. It was for the best, and perhaps he'd gone to far this time anyway.
But with one leg in the cab, Luke suddenly paused.
Luke withdrew... When he looked back at Noah, his expression was brightening with a dawning knowledge. "You did this. All this was..."
Noah shook his head.
Luke stared at his feet. Noah could almost hear his thoughts as he put all the pieces together. "You did this on purpose." Luke lifted wet eyes to Noah; burning with determination; seeing truth. "You left the message for me at the reception desk. You knew I'd come looking for the guys and I'd find you with some girl! You wanted this!" He turned suddenly to the cab; asked the driver to wait.
Panic rose up in Noah. "Luke..."
But Luke was on a roll, and Noah knew there was no stopping him now. "Because this is what you do. You push me away. It might be more fucking elaborate this time, but it's the same dumbass shit that you always pull." Luke moved so close, Noah could feel his breath. "It's the reason that matters. You want me to leave, because you love me."
Noah dropped his forehead to Luke's. He couldn't help it. Being so close fogged his brain; made things he needed to do so much fucking harder. "Please," he whispered; desperation-laced.
Luke didn't pull away as he spoke the truth. "You're pushing me away, because you believe I'm better off without you. But you can't make me hate you, Noah. You can't make me leave. I know you too well. And... I like being your prisoner. So, no. Nice try, but I'm not giving up. I'm not going to stop. I'm going to make you see you're worthy if it damn near kills me. I'm not going to grant you release." Luke paused for a moment; closed his eyes like he was savoring something. "I'm going to fix us. I promise." Swiftly he pulled Noah in for a kiss. It was short, but hard and determined and so, so, sweet. As he withdrew, he held Noah's gaze for a minute, before climbing back in the car. "The bus is waiting for you." Luke nodded through the open door toward the minibus now loaded with Noah's fellow amputees; all staring at the spectacle with shock. "I suggest you get back to your room and rest. You've got a lot of work ahead of you."
As the cab disappeared Noah fell to his knees. He felt wrecked, torn in two, exhausted.
"Come on, man, let's go." Noah didn't know who spoke, but he felt the hands of his new friends lifting him up; guiding him to the van.