This had been a mistake.
I wasn't ready for a fancy dinner surrounded by people, even if most of them were returning veterans like I was and might actually get it. But five months after coming home from the most horrific experience of my short life to find that my parents had been killed by a drunk driver while I'd been gone--it was just too damned soon. Seeing Janni had been a bright spot in a cesspit of misery, until I remembered that I'd probably never see her again and the rest of our friends were scattered.
My well-meaning Army psychologist thought that getting out would be good for me, but I'd barely held myself together through dessert and the speeches of gratitude. Only the breathing exercises I practiced on a nearly hourly basis had prevented me from diving under the table or disappearing out the door. Or possibly self-combusting. I picked at the food, which was actually good, seemed a shame to waste it, but I could hardly swallow past the huge lump in my throat. My stomach was rebelling in any case.
I made a less-than-graceful escape as soon as I could.
The night was cool, but I was sweating, and I yanked my jacket off and tossed it into the back seat as soon as I got to my car. Working a finger under my tie, I unknotted it, left it hanging around my neck. The top three buttons of my white dress shirt came undone next, and I rolled the sleeves halfway up my forearms.
And then I sat in my car until everyone else was gone. Alone with my thoughts and my incipient panic attack and my Ruger in the glove box. I tried to drown the thoughts out with heavy metal blasting on the speakers. Wasn't too successful. Especially when "Don't Fear the Reaper" hit the playlist next.
I reached over and pulled the gun out. Turned it over and over, contemplating it. Flipping the safety off and on. Six and a half pounds on the trigger, and I wouldn't have to deal with any of this anymore...
Hands trembling, I safed it and placed it carefully on the passenger seat as if it was hot, leaned forward until my head rested on the steering wheel and my elbows rested on my thighs. The thought hadn't come from nowhere, and I didn't like how seductive the idea seemed lately. "Breathe," I whispered. My fingers scrubbed through my hair again and again.
The light tap on my window scared the shit out of me--I thought everyone had gone, and it came in a pause between songs. Recognizing Janni in the glow of the streetlamps, I hit the button on the armrest that lowered the window. I looked at her without turning my head. "Hey," I said.
"Hey," she squeaked, hell, she'd seen the Ruger. Her throat moved in a convulsive swallow. "I'm, uh, done here, and could really use a cup of coffee. I'd love some company?"
I closed my eyes and exhaled a shaky breath. Interacting with people tonight had nearly finished me, and I didn't know--
My hand moved of its own accord toward the gun, and I consciously stopped it from going there and turned off the CD player instead. Killing myself and having someone find me after the deed was done--well, that was a whole other animal from doing it in front of somebody. Especially somebody who might care in particular because she knew me rather than in general because she was human.
And I couldn't bring myself to say, "No, sorry, can't go for coffee, busy committing suicide, please leave and let me do it." She'd blame herself for not stopping me, because she was just like that in high school. She had a tendency back then to want to fix people, and the fact that she'd knocked on my window told me that she hadn't changed too awful much. The moment had passed, and I wasn't sure whether I was relieved or not.
"You know a place?" I said instead. I turned to look at her, but the effort of lifting my head from the steering wheel was too much, so I left it where it was.
"Yeah, there's one just around the corner. Let me take you there." Her eyes were wide in the lamplight, and her lip trembled. Shit. I hadn't meant to frighten her.
I forced myself to smile. It felt hideous, but I could see her relax, so I supposed it worked. "Okay. Sure. Okay." I rolled the window up and put the gun back in the glove box. Still hadn't lost the tremor in my hands. Opening my door, I got out and hit the lock button. Her subcompact was the only car left in the lot besides mine.
"Seat belt?" she asked after starting it and putting it in gear. I twitched, because I'd been reminding myself to breathe again. Strange enclosed spaces...
"Don't wear 'em," I said shortly. She flinched. Stop scaring her, I told myself. "Bad memories, honey. I don't like being restrained. It's a thing."
The drive to the cafe was short, and we sat at a table with coffee cake and decaf. An uncomfortable silence stretched between us. "Sorry," I finally said, shredding the cake with my fork. Not eating it, because that lump in my throat was still too big. There was a reason that the good twenty pounds I'd lost during my captivity were having a hard time coming back. "I'm not very good at this interpersonal stuff anymore."
"No, hey, it's all right." She reached across the table and ran a finger across my hand. I shivered a little. It'd been...quite some time since I'd let anyone touch me. "I get it."
My eyes came up, although my head didn't. "Do you?"
Her eyes dropped. "Well. Not really. How could I? But--" She stopped, clenched her fist, looked at me again. "If you want to talk about it, emphasis on the if--"
"I don't. Talk about it." I swallowed hard and rubbed the scars that ringed my wrists with my thumbs. Harsh, permanent reminders of being handcuffed to the ceiling, blood streaming down my back and arms--
I stopped that train of thought before it led me down yet another dark tunnel and derailed me under the table. "More a matter of can't," I continued hoarsely. "That way lies panic attacks. Hyperventilating. People call ambulances or the cops because I pass out, or lash out, in public. Random panic attacks and flashbacks are bad enough. Remembering on purpose is just stupid." The shakes hit me again, and I set my fork down before I dropped it.
Janni's fork rattled against her plate. "I hope, I hope the people who did that to you are all dead," she said furiously.
I tilted my head and bared my teeth. It wasn't a smile, exactly, but it was close. I'd forgotten about the Mama Bear aspect of her personality. "They are. It was...untidy." The expressions on the faces of the Special Forces guys when they'd opened my cell had been something else. A few terse words over the radio, and the shooting and screaming started again. None of the insurgents had been left alive, and none of the screams had been American.
A memory bubbled up, junior English, memorizing scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream for extra credit, and the nickname I'd given her. "You...are adorable when you're mad. Fierce Hermia." A couple of her tears splashed onto the table, and I squeezed her hand. "It's okay," I said, even though that was probably the biggest lie ever told in the history of ever. But I didn't want her to cry on my account.
"Come home with me," she burst out.
I was startled. Her sense of self-preservation seemed to have deserted her; after all, we hadn't seen each other in five years and I'd changed, a lot. That gun on my seat, for one thing, was new. "I don't expect you to--"
She put her fingers over my lips. "Call it comfort from an old friend." No one had looked at me that tenderly in, well, quite some time. The knot that had taken up permanent residence in my chest loosened, just a little. "You shouldn't have to do this by yourself, Ben."
And, oh, god, was I tired of doing this by myself. One night, I told myself. Enough to survive this episode. But just this episode, because the idea of burdening her with the wreckage of my psyche long-term was excruciating. So I dropped my head and closed my eyes and nodded, and she caressed my fingers with hers and sat there with me until the shakes settled down to a manageable level.
When we got to her little apartment, I offered to take the couch like a gentleman, because I certainly didn't expect her to share her bed with me. We'd never had that kind of relationship, and starting now seemed kind of stupid, not to mention precipitous, considering everything.
But she blinked several times and looked at me like I'd sprouted another head. "What? No. Don't be ridiculous. We're both grownups and I don't sleep naked as a rule." In fact, she had green flannel pajamas with penguins dancing across them, and they were really cute on her.
I liked to wear boxers and a tee to bed, myself, and she loaned me an oversized shirt with penguins on it she'd bought at some zoo. I was detecting a theme. I dropped my glasses on her dresser and shucked my dress shirt. She gasped behind me. Shit, I was so tired I'd forgotten about the scars on my back. Should've warned her. Or faced her. Or something. The scars across my chest weren't quite so dramatic and mostly covered by hair anyway.
I pulled the tee on with a muttered curse and turned and gathered her into myself, because she looked devastated. She buried her face against my shoulder and whispered, "I thought I knew, but seeing it like that, oh my god, Ben..." I brushed a tear off her cheek with my thumb but couldn't speak past the lump that still hadn't disappeared from my own throat, and we stood like that for a few minutes.
Not letting me go, she backed us toward the bed and we fell in together. This wasn't how I'd planned on spending this night, hell, I wasn't sure I would have lived through this night if she hadn't stopped me. I stuck my nose in her hair and inhaled her scent, and she tucked her head under my chin and nuzzled my chest. Mentally and physically exhausted, we let sleep tumble us down, and for once, I thought, maybe the bad dreams would leave me alone.
It was a forlorn hope. I woke us both up later, screaming about needles and thrashing in the grip of a nightmare. Janni held me and kissed my hair and reminded me to breathe, that I wasn't there anymore, I was here, and safe. "I've got you," she said, over and over.
And she did have me. I'd never felt safer in my life. I wrapped around her and panted and thanked a God I was starting to believe in again that she'd tapped on my window.
This time, my sleep was dreamless.
And there's a DVD Commentary for this DVD Extra here.