NOAH SLOAN AND HIS cousin Liam sat on the bar stool in a dark, dive of a bar. Liam wanted to get him out of the house, claimed he spent too much time alone. Through daily badgering, he finally convinced Noah to leave the warmth and quiet of his home in the country for lunch, a drink and hopefully more. Noah had no interest in lunch or the more.
Nursing his drink, his mind drifted in and out. He wasn’t aware of the menacing, pit-bull vibes he gave off or that everyone except his cousin gave him a wide berth. Thoughts of war, death, and grief clung to him with dogged tenacity no matter how many times he sat in the shrinks’ office, he couldn’t shake the cloud of despair.
He exhaled and tossed back another shot of tequila out of boredom more than anything else. Alcohol no longer affected him. After his discharge, he’d tried to stop the dreams with drink, didn’t work other than to give him more intense headaches.
Liam slapped his back smiling.
Noah glanced at him and read concern despite the smile. They thought he’d snap, completely lose it again. Harm himself or others. Vague memories of debilitating pain, blood, being strapped and confined plagued him. He couldn’t remember clearly, and that frustrated him more.
“Stop frowning, we’re here to have a good time, breathe fresh air, take in new possibilities,” Liam said leaning closer with a grin.
Noah growled and turned away. Liam was the light to Noah’s darker personality. Both stood around 6’2”, side by side you’d see similar angular shaped faces, sharp cheekbones, blade noses, dark brown hair, although Noah’s was long enough for a ponytail and Liam’s just brushed his shoulders. Noah’s eyes were a mix of blue and brown and lacked the warmth of Liam’s lighter blue. Both had muscular builds, but Noah’s chest was slightly wider. People often mistook the cousins for brothers, indeed they were best friends and closer than Noah and his much younger brother from his mom’s second marriage.
“That chick’s been eying you since we stepped inside here. Let’s send her and her friend a drink.”
Noah didn’t respond. There was no let’s, Liam was broke. What he meant was for Noah to send them a drink. He pulled out a couple bills, slid them to Liam. “Do whatever you want, but keep me out of it.”
Smiling widely, Liam nodded. “Thanks. Pay you back when I get paid next week.”
Noah didn’t bother acknowledging the statement. Next week would never come. If Liam paid everyone he owed, he wouldn’t have a check.
“Another one,” Noah told the bartender, sliding the shot glass forward. Since Liam didn’t show any signs of leaving soon, he’d keep drinking.
“Thanks for the drink,” a husky, female voice said sliding onto the stool next to him.
Noah noticed her long, tanned legs first. His gaze traveled upward, took in the jean shorts, exposed belly button, her barely concealed breasts, reddish-brown hair, interesting light brown eyes and thin lips. She wasn’t unattractive but nothing he would stop doing what he was doing to take home either. Which had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the dark images floating through his mind.
He didn’t trust himself. Neither should she.
“Liam bought it, thank him,” he said tipping his head toward his cousin who sat at the table with the blonde.
“I did. He told me to thank you as well.” She placed her hand on his thigh.
He tensed. Since being discharged he disliked being touched by strangers or talking to them. She was losing on both fronts.
“Is there any way I can thank you?” She leaned forward. “I’d love to fuck you.”
He read the hunger in her gaze and wondered if her words were supposed to make him horny? Turn him on?
Which meant he was more fucked up upstairs than he realized. There was a time he’d pulled women left and right, would have two in bed, fucking all night long until he passed out. Now the idea of being with her left him cold and limp.
He didn’t immediately respond and glanced at Liam and the blond who now sat on Liam’s lap, her nipple in his mouth as she bobbed up and down on his dick. No wonder the place had a funky odor.
Dr. Higgins, his therapist, said he needed to rejoin the world, socialize more. Dig deep to find the manners he utilized before the surgery, before becoming a mental patient.
“As charming as that would be, I’m going to pass.” He didn’t look at her when he spoke, instead, he tossed back his shot and winced at the bite.
“You’re turning down free pussy?” she said close to his ear.
“Yeah, I’m on a fast, can’t indulge,” he lied. The Doctor would be proud of him for not hurting this female’s feelings.
Out the corner of his eyes, he saw three large men strode inside. Scruffy looking, lots of tattoos, big round belly's, wore black tees with scarves tied on their heads. Motorcycle jocks, he thought as something crashed behind him.
The sound of a slap and then a low, growl. “Bitch.”
Noah looked over his shoulder. Liam stood to the side, eying the three men as he finished repacking and securing his junk. Priorities.
“Stop, Big John.” The blond was snatched from the floor and all but tossed into the arms of the two other men.
“Shit, told her not to do it,” the female sitting next to him murmured. “Big John’s crazy. He don’t want her but don’t want no one else to have her either.” She slid off the stool and walked off.
Big John swung, his fist connected with Liam’s belly.
Must’ve had the wind knocked out of him. Noah turned around fully to watch. His cousin could handle himself, win or lose, he created the problem. As long as it was just the two of them, Noah wouldn’t interfere even though he wanted to.
The idea of beating these three to their bloody knees excited something twisted inside of him. His hand curled into a fist as Big John knocked Liam to the ground.
Liam charged and punched the biker in the gut. Didn’t have much impact, not until Liam followed it with several other punches and hit the big guy beneath the chin, snapping his head back.
Big John went down hard.
Glee exploded inside of Noah. He wanted to join in but forced himself to remain still. Shaking it off, he stared at Liam, made sure his cousin was alright to continue. If not, Noah would step in and stop things.
Standing slow, Big John swung and missed. Liam stepped forward and hit him with a series of punches again. People mistook Liam’s easy-going ways as a sign of weakness and ended up learning painful lessons. Most people in this area of Texas worked with the land, or some kind of labor with their hands and didn’t take shit from anybody.
Big John grabbed Liam in a surprise move, spun him around to his friends who moved forward.
“No.” Noah slid off the stool in an easy move as violent anticipation swam through him. His therapist would say he should remain in control, be the peacemaker rather than fight. It was never a good idea for him to lose control. But this was his cousin, brother of his heart, the only person left who mattered. That settled it.
“No.” He shook his head. The other two, almost carbon copies of Big John, looked at him, then at Liam. “If this big ass bitch can’t win a fight on his own, it’s over. You two yahoos aren’t helping him.” Noah pointed to make sure they understood.
Rather than respond, predictably, they charged him. Noah reached back, grabbed the wood stool he had been sitting on, swung and knocked the closest one upside the head so hard he slammed into the second one. Both hit the ground.
Someone screamed in the background.
Blood ran down the head of the first guy as he lay still. Glaring at Noah with teeth bared, the second guy, cursed as he jumped up and with quick steps swung at Noah.
The fist glanced off Noah’s chin, turning him slightly. He ducked the next punch, slammed his fist into the guy’s stomach with a hard right, and then hit him with an upper-cut beneath his chin. The guy flew backward and hit an unforgiving hard-wood table.
He didn’t get up.
Chest-heaving, Liam stood over Big John, clenching and unclenching his fist. The guy remained moaning on the ground with blood running down his nose and forehead. Several bruises dotted his face and his right eye was swelling shut.
The blond ran to the Biker and placed a kiss on his lips. “Big John, baby talk to me.”
Noah looked at the bartender who had watched the entire thing. “I’ll pay for the table and chairs.”
“Thanks. First time I’ve seen those three go down. They’re a part of a larger group, so watch your back,” the bartender said with a slight smile.
The female who offered him a quickie was on the phone while staring at him. It was time to leave if they didn’t want to take on a whole gang.
His cousin looked at him and nodded. Noah slapped down three one hundred bills and walked out.
“Don’t leave,” the female said.
They ignored her and headed to Liam’s car.
They didn’t say anything for a few moments. “Gotta admit she had a nice rack,” Liam said with an unrepentant grin.
“Not worth getting the shit beat out of you, though,” Noah said knowing it wouldn’t change his cousin’s MO.
“Not even. That dude had a serious left.” He rolled his bruised cheek a few times.
“Drop me by the house, I’ve got an appointment with the shrink in a few hours and need to get a bite to eat first.” The chicken sandwich the bar served had been inedible. He ate a few of the fries and returned the basket. Now he was starving.
“That’s right, forgot about that, what time is it?” Liam asked.
“Appointment’s at 4:30.”
“Is it helping? Still having nightmares?” Liam asked.
“Part of PTSD.” He didn’t discuss his problems, not with anybody. They could code him as mentally disabled or anything they wanted but no one knew what was really going on with him. No one knew his brand of crazy.
Noah pulled into the parking lot, looked at the five-story V.A. building and cursed. He would prefer fighting the entire gang of Bikers than dealing with these appointments.
“Fucking hate this shit.” He slammed his palm against the steering wheel, closed his eyes and took several deep breaths.
No good. His heart had been racing like a fucking thoroughbred since he rolled over this morning. These dreams or whatever the hell they were would be the death of him. Like bullets or land mines, they exploded in his sleep, taking him places he’d been and others he couldn’t imagine. It was like someone was playing a big cosmic joke on him with the things he had seen.
Real or not? He had no way of knowing. Sometimes, he felt intense emotions, colors and smells. Then the mist would roll in, cover everything, sometimes causing pain, other times confusion. God, he wanted his old life back.
He glanced at the dashboard clock and stepped out of his truck. The sooner they started, the sooner he could leave.
“Noah Sloan, 11:00 with Dr. Higgins.”
“One moment, I’ll call you when she’s ready,” the receptionist said offering a small smile.
Whenever the receptionist smiled, the doc was having a good day and he might get out early. That would be great, sleep pulled on him. He needed one night without those frigging dreams to catch up on his rest.
“Mr. Sloan, Dr. Higgins will see you now.” Again that soft smile.
Moving quickly with a hopeful early departure expectation, he entered her office and sat in the chair in front of her desk.
Young, smart and decent looking with reddish blonde hair, green eyes, and a nice figure, Dr. Higgins inhaled and released her breath slowly. There was no smile, no warm greeting. She looked as if she hadn’t slept well last night either. Well, damn. Why was the receptionist smiling?
“Good morning, Master Sargent Sloan.”
Noah didn’t react. Had she forgotten he no longer responded to his military title? He crossed his legs and looked at her.
An image of a woman in pain flashed across his mind reminding him of something he had seen in his dreams. He closed his eyes for a second and counted to five.
“Bad dream?” she asked when he opened his eyes again.
He didn’t respond, never did when she poked into his nightmares.
“It’s been a while since we talked, Noah. How’ve you been?” Her glance flicked from his face to something on her desk and back to him again.
“Been good, Doc. How’ve you been?”
She smiled but it was off, not quite right. “Headaches? Pain? Still going to physical therapy?”
He hadn’t been to PT for two months, she knew that. What was going on with her? “Like I said, I been good. No complaints.”
Another flash, he heard a scream, sensed a struggle before it disappeared. This time he counted to ten. When he was tired, exhausted, his dreams tended to follow him.
“What’s wrong, Noah?” her voice softened, concerned.
“Nothing, just remnants from a dream. Don’t make much sense.” He looked at her.
“Tell me about your dream.”
She didn’t want to hear about the ugly things he saw, the underbelly of society.
“Don’t call me that. Not anymore,” he snapped.
“Sorry, but I need you to talk to me. The sooner you share something, the sooner I can let you leave.”
“You don’t understand. They’re not real dreams, more like snapshots of action, like a bad movie clip of a jackass slapping a woman around in the back of a white jeep. She hit her head, sees stars, there’s blood. Fucking asshole.” He rubbed his forehead to ease the pounding in his skull. When would this stop? “See? Not a dream, just stupid shit that pisses me off messes with my sleep.”
“What did you say?” Her voice wobbled.
He waved his hand, not wanting to see it again. “Nothing. Just rambling. Not even sure anymore.”
She stared at him.
“Listen, Doc, are we doing a full session today? I didn’t get much sleep last night or the night before and would appreciate it if you could cut it short.” When she didn’t say anything, he released a long breath and fought down the rising anger of being in this chair.
Her face was white as snow with a few red blotches on her cheeks. She stared at him with lips trembling.
“What’s the matter, Doc?” Concerned, he stood and headed toward her.
She held out her hand. “No. Sorry. One moment.” She raced out of the room.
Frowning, he looked at the door, returned to his seat and closed his eyes. He must have dozed off for a few minutes because he heard her calling his name.
“Sorry,” he said wiping his mouth. “You okay?”
She nodded but didn’t say anything for a while. “That was very unprofessional of me, I apologize. Please, I’ll let you leave early today but before you go, tell me about your dreams? Are they violent? Places you’re familiar with? People, you know?”
He didn’t want to discuss the dreams. They were a pain in his ass. Since the surgery the nightmares were bad, but walking through his dreams, seeing the things he saw, was worst.
“Not violent always.” Just most of the time. “Sometimes I’ve been to the places I see in the dreams.” Doesn’t happen often, though. “I don’t see faces, so it’s hard to tell if I know the people in the dreams. I get more of an impression, know what I mean?” Most times I see faces. But I also know the people even without their faces.
Just like he now knew, she had been the woman in the back of the Jeep being beaten.
The horrified surprise on Dr. Higgins face made him smile. Maybe she’d back off, stop asking so many questions. The smile faded. There had been so many faces and attacks and crimes in his nightmares. Not being able to help tore him up inside.