Written Fireside is the brainchild of the fabulous and lovely Lori Connelly and this is the fourth time I've taken part. I'm particularly happy to be writing part of this story because it will eventually be published with all proceeds going to the charity Pets For Vets. This is a US charity dedicated to providing a second chance to shelter dogs by rescuing, training and matching them with American veterans who need a companion pet.
Noah Hale is an author suffering from PTSD related insomnia, needing peace and sleep. All he wants is to be left alone. A certain little dog has other ideas.
Catch up with the story so far here...
PART 1 - Lori Connelly
PART 2 - Elsa Winckler
PART 3 - Angela Campbell
PART 4 - Jane Hunt
And without further ado, here is my PART 5...
Noah sensed the explosion even before it tore through the armoured vehicle. A sense of something huge, an expanding force beneath him, the air tightening. Then came the explosion, so loud it forced out everything else in his consciousness. The falling, the crashing impact of the ground against his shoulders and back, and a moment of perfect, clear silence before the screaming kicked in. Disorienting blackness, the acrid bite of smoke in his throat and his eyes. Then he became aware, through the darkness, vaguely at first, of a slight weight on his chest and something wet swiping at his face. He swatted at it blindly, his mind focusing on that one small sensation, one thing that didn’t fit with the all-consuming sense-crushing flashback.
He opened his eyes. Gertie paused mid-lick, then apparently decided he still needed reviving and got right back to it. She was sitting on his chest. The screaming, the smoke, the blackness disappeared as he raised shaking hands to pet the small dog. His body, catching up with his mind, was braced against the hard flagstones of the yard. He relaxed his taut muscles slowly as the pounding of his heart and the beads of sweat on his face began to subside.
Not the roadside in Afghanistan. His duplex. The cool darkness of his neighbour’s yard.
The sudden memory of Amanda’s scream made him sit up and Gertie jumped from his chest to the ground.
Amanda was kneeling on the flagstones next to him and as he sat bolt upright she pressed a hand tentatively against his shoulder. Gertie capered around them.
‘Are you OK?’ she said gently. ‘You scared the hell out of me.’
Her worried blue eyes were inches from his own. He fought a mad impulse to just lean that short distance and kiss her, to just block out the horrific past with her reality.
‘You can talk,’ he said. ‘I heard you scream and then I lost my footing. No big deal.’ He had no desire to talk through his nightmares with her, to taint her view of him with the baggage of his past. ‘What the hell happened? Are you hurt?’
She shook her head.
‘I’m fine,’ she said. ‘I got through the window alright but then I tried to climb down and fell on the dressing table.’ She held up her wrapped hand a little. ‘Bruised butt and this. I got off lightly except that I broke the mirror. Seven years bad luck, as if I need any more.’ She offered him a small smile.
He got to his feet and held his hand out to help her up, oversensitive to every touch of her skin against his.
‘Let’s get you inside and see to that hand. I’ve got first aid stuff in my kitchen.’
He had held her hand a beat too long, making butterflies flip in her stomach. His side of the duplex was so military-tidy, almost austere, a major contrast to the girly clutter in her own side of the building. Gertie ran ahead and capered around the floor, as if she thought the place needed livening up too. What had happened in the yard continued to gnaw at Amanda, despite his brush-off assurance that it was no big deal, distracting her for once from the relentless sensation of missing Rachel that plagued her everywhere she looked. Seemingly unaware of her presence, Noah had been thrashing and shouting at something or someone who wasn’t there. When she tried to rouse him, he’d been bathed in sweat and the look in his eyes when he opened them had been one of panic.
No big deal.Ten minutes later and her cut was cleaned and dressed and he apparently couldn’t get her out of the duplex fast enough.
‘Thank you for helping me get back in,’ she said.
He held the door open for her.
‘Even if you did pay for it with your hand?’
‘Without you, I’d still be out there and Gertie would be stuck inside. I’d never get a locksmith out this late. You have to take a risk sometimes, right?’
He didn’t answer.
Sleep was the enemy. The terror of the panic attack was still fresh in his mind. Two attacks in these last weeks. I’m regressing. Dread coursed through him at the thought. He’d come so far with his therapy. He’d thought he had some level of control. Putting his negative relationship with Jessica behind him had been another healing step forward.Sleep was out of the question.
From the depths of a kitchen cupboard, he grabbed a six pack of Red Bull that he hadn’t touched in months. His old weapon against sleep from the early days of his struggle with PTSD, from the time before Mary’s counsel, when avoiding sleep had been his go-to course of action.
Just for this one night, he told himself. He couldn’t face the thought of another night-terror so quickly on the heels of the last one. For this night only, sleep could go to hell. He drank a can of Red Bull off straight, then took a second out to his yard and sat down in the chair, letting the caffeine course through his veins and spike his awareness. The night air was cool and sweet against his skin. He glanced across at Amanda’s side of the duplex, now in darkness, his mind imagining her before he could stop it, asleep in bed in her insubstantial vest and pants, her dark hair fanning across the pillow. He swallowed hard, and took a huge slug of his drink to distract himself. Her gentle concern for him had touched him, but he couldn’t allow himself to be seduced by that. Who knew what she might become if she knew the truth about him. Would her sweet concern transform into exasperated impatience, the way it had with Jessica?
His eyes felt gritty with tiredness and he rubbed his hands slowly over them.
The whining started perhaps an hour after Amanda had finally got to sleep, the painkiller that Noah had pressed on her at last kicking in and diminishing the discomfort from her throbbing hand. She’d tried at first to ignore the racket by squashing the pillow over her head, but Gertie had just turned up the volume and now she’d added door scratching into the mix.
‘Gertie, be quiet!’ she groaned, exasperated.
In apparent triumph that she’d managed to wake Amanda up, Gertie launched into a series of excited yaps.
For Pete’s sake.
Amanda dragged herself out of bed, forced one eye open and staggered to the back of the kitchen, where Gertie was now hurling herself at the door.
She leaned close to the window and frowned, then checked the illuminated numbers of the kitchen clock just to be sure. It was three in the morning and Noah was sitting out in the yard, apparently having a drink.
She undid the lock, being careful to latch it this time – there would be no repeat performance of the earlier locking-out debacle, thank you very much – and stepped out barefoot into the cool darkness. Gertie dashed ahead, found her way through the dividing fence and threw herself at Noah.
He jumped guiltily, then turned to nod a greeting as if it was perfectly normal to sit on your patio in the small hours. There was a long pause as he groped for something to say that wouldn’t make him sound like a total arse.
‘What’s wrong?’ she asked softly, and her voice was so kind and gentle that it made his heart twist in his chest.
‘Nothing,’ he said, gruffly. He leaned down to pick up his drink so he didn’t have to look at her, took a sip. ‘I’m sorry if I woke you. I thought I was being pretty quiet.’
‘You didn’t,’ she said. ‘That pain in the arse of a dog woke me. And you might want to sit outside in the middle of the night on your own but she’s having none of it. She was clawing the door down to get to you.’
He put the drink on the ground, then pushed his chair back and picked Gertie up. She snuggled against him as he crossed the yard to Amanda.
‘What the hell is it with you?’ he whispered to the little dog.
Amanda’s dark hair hung in loose sleep-waves and her skin shone smooth in the moonlight. He wondered if her cheek felt as silken to the touch as it looked.
He handed Gertie across the fence. Amanda took the little dog from him but didn’t step down and head back into the duplex. Instead she held his gaze with her blue eyes, making his pulse quicken.
‘I’m having trouble sleeping,’ he said, because she was obviously waiting for some kind of explanation.
‘I’m not surprised if you’re downing Red Bull at three in the morning.’ She nodded at the can of drink on the ground next to his chair. ‘Are you mad? Most people would go for cocoa and maybe a warm bath.’
He avoided her gaze. Gertie looked from one of them to the other.
‘Well if you think giving her back to me is going to cut the mustard, you’re deluded,’ Amanda said at last. ‘This dog is on a mission. You’d better come round to mine.’
‘What?’She stepped down from the fence and put Gertie on the ground.
‘Come round to mine. I’ll make us both some warm milk and we can talk it over. Whatever’s bugging you.’Her voice was matter of fact. She had not the slightest clue what can-of-hideous-worms a chat with him would open up. He stared after her. He didn’t do talking it over with virtual strangers.
‘Come on,’ she said again. Gertie ran from Amanda back to Noah at the fence, yapping madly. ‘She’s not going to quit that until you do. She’ll wake the street.’
Gertie jacked up the volume, clearly determined that he would not be getting out of any midnight talk with his gorgeous neighbour, no matter how ill-advised it might be.
‘OK,’ he said at last, giving in.
His last relationship had been a train-wreck and now he was apparently relying on relationship advice from a dog.
You can read Part 6, written by Mandy Baggot, on Tuesday 28th July.
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