“No.” He shook his head in denial and took another deep drag on his clove.
A cord snapped inside me and I got angry, but I needed to do something to get a reaction out of him, he was so separated from me right now. “This is such bullshit, Ethan! You need some help with these nightmares. Look what it’s doing to you!”
He didn’t say anything, and the silence between us screamed out against the city’s night sounds.
“If you won’t talk to me about it, then you need to find a therapist or a group or something to get you some help in dealing with this.” No reaction, just more smoking. The red tip of the black cigarette burned in the dark and still I got nothing back from Ethan.
“Why won’t you answer me? I love you, and I’m here for you and you won’t even tell me why you smoke cloves, let alone what they did to you in Afghanistan.” I leaned closer to him. “What happened to you over there, Ethan?”
I could hear the panic in my voice and knew I was close to another crying spell. His behavior hurt me terribly and made me feel like I wasn’t important enough to share in working through his biggest fear. Ethan knew all my deep shit and said none of it mattered to him. Didn’t he know I’d walk through fire for him? I’d do anything to help him when he needed me.
He carefully stubbed out the cigarette he’d been smoking, using the ashtray next to the lounger. He folded his hands in his lap and stared out at the city. He never looked at me once as he started to speak in a soft voice.
“I smoke them because all my guards had cloves. Hand-rolleds of spiced tobacco that smelled so f**king good I nearly lost my mind. I craved to have one. I nearly went insane with craving them.”
I froze in the chilled night air, listening to Ethan, my heart breaking with each word he gave me.
“Then . . . on—on th-the day they were going to execute me, a miracle happened . . . and I was spared. I lived. Their wicked blade did not find my neck.” His voice cracked.
“Blade?” I had an idea where this was going, but was afraid to even think about what Ethan might be trying to explain to me.
“Yeah. They were going to videotape my beheading and show it all over the world,” he spoke so softly but the words were brutally loud.
Jesus Christ! No wonder he had nightmares. I couldn’t even imagine what he’d endured physically as they tortured him, but the emotional torture of believing what they would do to him must have been worse. I couldn’t hold back the gasp that escaped, wanting so badly to hold him, but he continued speaking.
“You want to know what the first thing was that I asked for?”
“I walked out of my prison, not completely sure if I was really alive, or dead in hell. A U.S. marine got to me, shocked I’d walked out of the rubble still breathing. He asked me if I was okay. I told him I wanted a clove cigarette.”
“Oh, baby . . .”
“I was alive, you see. I lived and was finally able to smoke one of those lovely clove hand-rolleds I’d gone mad over for weeks. I smoke them now . . . because . . . I guess it helps me to know I’m really alive that way.” He swallowed hard. “It’s such a load of shit . . .”
“Oh, Ethan . . .” I moved up from the lounger and over to put my arms around him but he held me back.
“No,” he said, holding his hand up to keep me at a distance. He seemed so very distant from me right now—unreachable. I wanted to cry, but knew that would just make it harder on him, and I didn’t want to cause him any more stress than he already had.
“Go back inside, Brynne. I don’t want you out here with me right now. It’s bad for you. I’m not . . . good . . . to be around. I need to be alone.”
“You’re sending me away?”
He slowly lit up another clove, the flame of his lighter glowing bright as the tobacco ignited. “Just go back to bed, baby. I love you, but I need some time by myself right now.”
I felt something from him. I couldn’t believe it, but I could swear I was reading him correctly. Ethan was terrified of doing something to harm me somehow and that was the reason he asked me to leave him alone.
I granted Ethan his wish even though it broke my heart to do it.
I caressed Brynne’s photograph in its frame on my desk. The one I’d taken of her with my mobile when she showed me Lady Percival for the first time at the Rothvale. She looked so happy and beautiful. Last night she wasn’t happy. No, I’d scared her and then made things worse by sending her away when she tried to reach out to me.
. . . God in heaven, I f**ked up with her. I tried to imagine switching places. What if it had been she who had sent me away after a nightmare and refused my comfort? I’ve been on the receiving end of that before, and it sucked. It had felt awful, just like I’d made her feel.
Still, I had been afraid last night of what I might do to her if she touched me any more than she did. The other times I woke up from one of those nightmares? Yeah . . . not nice. I’d gone off on f**king tangents—literally. Using sex, and Brynne, to level me out to a place where I could come back down from that horrible place I’d found myself in my dreams. She didn’t understand how much I was walking the razor’s edge in those moments. I didn’t trust myself with her. What if I hurt her or went too far with the sex? She was pregnant and vulnerable now. I just couldn’t take the risk of what I might do.
It had been the hardest thing to send her back inside last night when she wanted to stay with me and listen to my story. She’d tried to hold me, but I’d kept her back. I hadn’t even looked at her face, because if I’d done it I would have caved. I had no willpower when it came to Brynne.
To keep myself from taking her after I came back inside, I’d slept the remainder of the night on the couch. I didn’t trust myself to get back into bed with her. All it would take was her scent up my nose and the sound of her breathing next to me and I would’ve been on her and buried deep, trying to get lost inside her. Brynne was my heaven. I’d seek out my heaven endlessly. I knew myself well.
She was right, though. About so many things, but about last night’s f**kup she was completely right. I needed some help. There were places I could go for it. Lots of soldiers came home from the war with issues and baggage. I was just another in a long f**king line of others before me. I got that. I didn’t want to face the demons, but I knew I needed to. More important priorities were in the canvas that was my life. I had Brynne now. We had a child on the way. Neither needed me having psycho dreams and terrorizing their peaceful nights.