Today I’m hosting author Charles Sheehan-Miles on my blog, with an excerpt from his latest novel, Just Remember to Breathe.
Ground Rules (Dylan)
“I think we need to set some ground rules,” she said.
It was the third day of classes, and our first day actually working for Doctor Forrester. Forrester had a gigantic pile of information, books, files and source documents. It was a disorganized mess. Our first assignment was to begin organizing it and cross referencing it. We divided up the work fairly easily: I set up a database, and she sorted the material and began feeding it to me.
Unfortunately, it was difficult to work together when we spent most of the time either glaring at each other or ignoring each other.
“What are you talking about?” I asked.
“Look… like it or not, we have to work together.”
I nodded. I’d tried to get reassigned to a different work study assignment, but there weren’t any openings.
“So, let’s go get a cup of coffee. And talk. And figure out how we can do this without being at each other’s throats.”
I felt a lump in my throat. It was one thing to sit here in Forrester’s office with her. It was another thing entirely to go somewhere else with her, and sit, like normal people, and talk about anything. But she was right. If we were going to be doing this every other day, we had to set some ground rules, or we were both going to be miserable.
“Fine,” I said. “When?”
“I’m finished with classes for the day. What about right now?”
I nodded. “All right.”
I slowly stood. I was in a lot of pain. The day before I’d had my first physical therapy session at the Brooklyn VA hospital. Loads of fun. My physical therapist was a 45 year old former Marine, and he was of the school of thought that pain was good for you. Problem was, it’s hard to argue your point with someone missing a leg. Seriously, what sympathy was he going to give?
I never liked Marines anyway.
So, I followed her to the coffee shop around the corner from Forrester’s office. It was nice, a small place, with a few outdoor seats. I was incredibly self conscious as we walked. She’d picked up a New Yorker’s pace during her year in college here. I, on the other hand, moved at something like the pace of a turtle, thanks to the gimp leg and the cane.
She slowed herself down to keep pace with me. About halfway there, she finally said something to me.
“So… what happened to your leg?”
I shrugged, gave a terse answer. “Hajis thought I would look better without it I guess. Roadside bomb.”
She sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s not so bad. I got to go to the hospital, and live. That makes me lucky.” What I didn’t say: unlike Roberts, who left that roadside in a bag.
At the coffee shop, she said, “You grab a seat. I’ll get us coffee. You still take yours loaded?”
I nodded, and muttered, “Thank you,” then eased myself into a seat next to the sidewalk.
While I waited for her, I took out my phone and scanned through my email. Junk. More junk. Email from Mom. I’d answer that one later. She was naturally worried about me. Some things would never change. For the longest time I’d been angry with my mom over kicking me out when I quit school. Nowadays, I was grateful for it. It gave me a chance to get some hard knocks early. It gave me a chance to get my head on straight and figure out my priorities when I was young enough the damage wouldn’t be permanent. Tough love, they call it in the program. She was a believer. I’d have never guessed she’d have five years clean and sober, so something was working there.
When Alex returned to the table, bearing two gigantic cups of coffee, I put the phone away.
“Thank you,” I said. I sipped the coffee. Oh, that was good.
She smiled, met my eyes, then looked away very quickly. The brief eye contact, which remarkably wasn’t a glare, twisted at my stomach and made me look at the ground.
“Okay,” I said. “Ground rules.”
“Yes,” she said.
We were silent. What, did she expect me to come up with them?
I shook my head, then said, “Okay, you start. It was your idea.”
“Fair enough.” She looked at me thoughtfully, then said, “All right. The first rule. We never, ever talk about Israel.”
I closed my eyes, and nodded. Talking about it would hurt way too much. “Agreed,” I muttered.
She looked relieved, which somehow broke my heart all over again.
I spoke. “We don’t talk about what happened after either. Not when I visited you in San Francisco. Or the year between. Or the year after.”
“Especially not the year after,” she said. Her eyes were glistening as she looked at the table.
We were silent again. This was just a barrel of laughs. I felt like I was attending a funeral.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said.
“Why not?” she replied.
“Because … because, well, sometimes it hurts, Alex. A little. A lot. Jesus Christ.”
She looked away, and damn if her eyes weren’t beautiful. Her lashes were like a mile long.
“If we’re going to get through this year, I think we have to move past that,” she said.
“It’ll be like we’re strangers.”
I shrugged. “Okay.” Like that could happen.
“We start over. We just met. You’re some guy who just got out of the Army, and I’m a girl from San Francisco going to college here. We’ve got nothing in common. No connection. Not friends. Certainly not… what we were.”
Not friends. Of course not. How in hell could we be friends, after what we’d been through?
I nodded, feeling miserable. Shit, it’s not like I had any friends anyway, not anymore. I’d lost touch with the ones from Atlanta, who couldn’t deal with what I’d become. And the ones in Afghanistan… except for Sherman and Roberts, I’d never gotten close to any of them. Roberts was dead, and Sherman was still out in the boonies.
“I don’t know what we were anyway. None of it ever made any sense.”
She shrugged, and then hugged her arms across her chest, and I felt like crap for what I’d said. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“Why?” she asked, looking away from me, out at the street. Her lower lip was trembling, and I wanted to hit myself in the head with a sharp pointy object.
“It’s true, isn’t it? We never did make any sense?”
“Oh, God. Let’s not do this. Please.”
“Okay.” Her face was twitching, and it was obvious she was holding back a tear.
“Look,” I said. “This sucks. But we’ll be okay, all right? It’s only a few hours a week, anyway. What we had … it was another world. We were in a foreign country, being exposed to all kinds of amazing stuff. We weren’t ourselves, our real selves. It was … It was fantasy. A beautiful fantasy, but fiction all the same, okay?”
She nodded, quickly, then wiped her eye with a fist, smearing her mascara.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“We’re already breaking the rules,” she said.
“No. We’re not. No more talk about the past. From this point forward, we only talk about now. You’re absolutely right. Any more rules?”
“I don’t know.”
I frowned, then said, “Fine. What do you think of Doctor Forrester, anyway?”
She shook her head. “He’s a giant fake.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Really?”
“Well, yeah. Just look at him. Tweed jacket! He wrote one novel fifteen years ago, won a National Book Award, and he’s been coasting on that ever since.”
I grinned. “That is one hell of a case of … um….”
Oh shit, not now. I couldn’t think. Sometimes this happens to me now. I forget words, phrases. I closed my eyes, trying to center, let my mind come at it from a different direction. I pictured a typewriter, an old manual one, and it popped in. “Writer’s block.”
She giggled. Still upset, but the change of subject helped. It was nice to see a little color on her cheeks. “Do you still write?” she asked.
I nodded. “Of course.”
I shrugged. “The war, right now. It’s all … stream of consciousness, I guess. Not organized in any way. Just trying to get my thoughts down. My therapist down in Atlanta said it might help.”
She turned and looked at me, really looked at me, for the first time, I think, since we’d run into each other three days before.
I shrugged. “Along with the gimp leg, I’m technically diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And traumatic brain injury. Got my brainpan rattled when the bomb went off, you know? It’s all labels, anyway.”
“What do you mean?”
I frowned. “I’m just… I’m not exactly the guy you knew, Alex. Sometimes things here… they don’t seem as … as real. As it was over there. Maybe I’ve become an adrenaline junkie. Reality just isn’t colorful enough for me.”
She sighed. “I felt that way for the longest time after we got back from Israel.”
“You’re breaking your rules again.”
She paused, then spoke again. “But I really did. It was so intense, and interesting and colorful. Then all of the sudden things were mundane, and grey, and it was get up and go to school and do homework and none of it seemed to matter as much.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Anyway, I think working with Doctor Forrester will be interesting, at least. I thought for sure my work-study would be slinging dishes or mopping floors or something.”
“Yeah, this is a lot better,” she replied. “And just think, you get to see a real writer in action.” When she said the word ‘real’ she held her hands up and made little quotes. I laughed.
“Okay, you’re probably right. Let’s see if he produces anything this year. At least we can make sure the research is all lined up.”
She grinned. “We should make a little wager on it.”
I raised my eyebrows. “Feeling a little competitive?”
“I say he produces absolutely nothing. Twenty dollars.”
“Fair enough. What’s the threshold. Fifty pages? A hundred? Two?”
“He has to finish at least a first draft.”
“Deal.” I reached across to shake her hand. She took it, and though the action felt natural, it felt too natural. Taking her hand. I let go quickly, feeling as if I’d been burned. Touching her… it was just too intense.
We were both silent again. Awkward. As. Hell.
“I should get going,” I said, at the exact same time she said, “Well, I’ve got somewhere to …”
We looked at each other and both of us burst out laughing. “Okay,” I said. “Yeah, this is awkward. Are we really going to be able to do this?”
She shrugged, and gave a smile I knew was fake as a three dollar bill. “Of course, Dylan. It can’t be that hard.”
I started to gather my bags, then took three dollars out of my wallet. “For the coffee,” I said.
“Keep it. You buy next time.”
I paused, then put the money back in my wallet. Next time? Was this going to be a regular occurrence. Probably not a good idea. Not a good idea at all.
Just Remember to Breathe
Alex Thompson’s life is following the script. A pre-law student at Columbia University, she’s focused on her grades, her life and her future. The last thing she needs is to reconnect with the boy who broke her heart.
Dylan Paris comes home from Afghanistan severely injured and knows that the one thing he cannot do is drag Alex into the mess he’s made of his life.
When Dylan and Alex are assigned to the same work study program and are forced to work side by side, they have to make new ground rules to keep from killing each other.
Only problem is, they keep breaking the rules.
The first rule is to never, ever talk about how they fell in love.
My background: I spent some time traveling the Middle East on my own in the late nineteen eighties, then went back courtesy of the United States Army as a tank crewman during the 1991 Gulf War. After that I spent most of the next two decades pursuing dual careers: nonprofit activist and information technology professional. Eventually the two combined: from 2003 until 2009 I was completely in the nonprofit sector, served as executive director of two nonprofits and director of IT of a third.
Unfortunately, when the 2008 economic crash hit, it took my career with it. For several years I had to retool, and managed restaurants in the Atlanta area. Recently I found my way back into my chosen career: I work in veterans outreach and public affairs for a law firm which represents disabled veterans. In my free time I write books, this blog, play with the kids, and generally try to make it through life doing as much good as possible.