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Strength (Wild Men) by Jo Raven (1)

Chapter One

Griffin

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They say that when you meet death head-on, your life flashes in front of your eyes: important moments, the faces of your loved ones, and a sense of love and peace.

So, I’m thinking, what about your Humvee exploding and body parts flying around you? It sure sounds like the perfect way to get that life movie rolling, right?

Only what flashed before me was the desert, car parts, my friends’ parts, arches of blood and dust, the sky, the road, the sky, the road, the sky...

And that deep black when all the lights in a city go out.

It was the darkest moment of my life, or so I thought.

Until I found Sophie again and realized I could never have her.

But that’s not a story I want to tell. No, the only reason I’m recalling the bomb that took my life apart in Iraq is the pain. Familiar pain that’s wrapped around my body right now, an all-encompassing agony.

Back then, I almost lost my leg. The doctors had to put it together again, broken bones and torn muscles and ligaments, like a puzzle.

The aftermath of this surgery feels similar. Every fucking inch of my skin hurts, a dull, throbbing ache that spreads into my bones and joints. The long incision where they went in to remove tumors and probe everywhere is itchy. It stings like the sharp blades of hell whenever I twist awkwardly.

Though this time around I’m not alone.

She’s here.

The thought seeps into my drugged dreams, finds cracks in my sluggish thoughts and worms its way to my consciousness. Last time, in the military hospital, I’d lain alone for days and weeks, staring at the fissures in the ceiling, counting the minutes, cataloguing sounds, wondering why I was still alive.

What for.

Someone coughs in a bed down the row. A nurse is changing the sheets, expertly rolling a patient this way, then that on the narrow mattress.

But I can feel her presence at my right. If only I turn my head, Sophie will be sitting by my bed, reading, like she has done during the past two days while doctors have prodded and moved me, checked the incision, checked my charts and asked how I feel.

Like hell warmed over, that’s how.

She has only smiled at my cursing and I wanted to curse her, too, for being there, watching as I struggle, smiling that secret smile that could mean anything, but nothing I can understand. It’s in a foreign language, one I’ve never learned, and my forays into ancient lands and bloodbaths haven’t given me one drop of wisdom, just a gimp leg and a loathing of hospitals.

Such as this one.

Yeah. Life does have a sense of twisted humor, doesn’t it, though right now it hurts to laugh.

Everything hurts, even her. She hurts worse of all.

She’s reading one of her favorite books, I discover when I finally manage to roll my heavy head her way. Rilke’s collected poetry. There’s one poem she really likes... what was the name? My head throbs as I try to recall.

The blindman’s Song.

That was it.

Or was that my favorite? God knows, I never used to read poetry before I met her. Didn’t know what poetry was. Now I read her favorites every day.

A ritual to keep me sane.

“You’re awake,” she says. She has a way of speaking softly when I’m not completely awake, and it’s good. I don’t always wake up knowing where I am, what happened, if I should be looking for my gun and start shooting.

Remnants from the old, bloody days in the desert. You’d think I’d be over this by now, but it looks like bad things stick to you like gum, impossible to get out, just as good things sluice off you and fall like water.

Figures.

“I brought you ginger lemonade.”

One of the few things my stomach tolerates these days.

She remembers. Every day. It makes no sense to me. I stopped asking why she’s here, why she’s back, why she’s been by my side for months now, so I just focus on sitting up, in fits and starts, startled yet again when she gets up to help me.

You’d think I’d be prepared for it, for the feel of her small, strong hands gripping me under the armpits, dragging me up just enough to sit, as the pains and aches shoot through me like stray bullets, then settle into a steady, familiar throb.

Her sweet face hovers over me, bringing a tired smile to my lips.

No idea how she does that. Any of that. She’s the prettiest witch in the world, with magic unlike any I’ve ever witnessed.

“How long?” I croak around the straw, almost choking on the sweet tartness of the drink.

“Two more days, they say,” she interprets my monosyllables correctly, and takes the half-empty glass from my shaking hand. “The doctors say they want to monitor you a bit longer before they let you out.”

“Out of the cage,” I mutter.

Her brows arch, but then she shoots me a quick smile, one that vanishes before I can decipher it.

What could it mean?

Fuck, I really hate hospitals. Hate their antiseptic and urine stench, their dim hallways and the sorrow and fear emanating from every corner, my own instinctive recoil when I realize I’m trapped inside one, even if the ceiling here has no cracks for me to count.

“I’ve brought you something to read,” she says, her voice a whisper traveling over my chilled skin. “If you feel up to it.”

She slips the book into my hands. Its size, shape, thickness is familiar. I blink, focus on the cover with its pastel watercolor of a ship. Trace my fingertip over it.

One day, I’ll sit by the sea and paint until the solution eats through my skin and flesh, until I figure it all out. How the sun strikes the water, how the ships tilt, how the colors blend. How they bleed into each other. For years I’ve practiced, tried to nail it, perfect the technique, but it hasn’t worked out so far.

Yeah, so she remembers this, too, the fact I’m interested in watercolors. Beats me as to why or how. I’m not gonna question it, I decide once again, quite honestly too damn relieved to have something from home in this unhospitable hospital.

“Got to go to work now.” She leans over me, does something to the pillows, and I breathe her in. “Will you be okay?”

Before her words sink in.

I nod, frowning down at the book. Of course she has to go to work. And of course that’s okay. I’m fine. Why wouldn’t I be?

I wonder if she’s coming back, like every day, every night. My chest goes tight, my breath catching.

And again, I tell myself I don’t care.

***

Two days later and true to their word, for once, the doctors approve my release from the hospital cage. Sophie isn’t here—and why should she be, right?—and I receive the news with a mixture of anticipation and panic.

What the fuck, Griff. Get your shit together. She’s not your crutch, your nurse, or your anything.

So I grit my teeth and hobble to the toilet on my own, just to prove to myself and to the nurse that I can, then change into my own clothes. I bend over to pull on my socks and shoes, I have to swallow back bile when that pulls at the raw wound that bisects my chest, tugging sharp on the staples.

By the time I’m ready to go, I’m sweating bullets and I’m so dizzy I can barely stand, and the nurse keeps asking if someone is here for me and looks all worried and shit.

No, I don’t have someone here for me.

Motherfucker.

It is very anticlimactic, all said and done. Nothing like flying free from a cage, yet relief hits me as I finally climb into a cab, lean back in the seat and rattle off Sophie’s address.

I’ve lived in her small apartment for a month now, and it’s damn scary how used to it I’ve let myself become.

Granted, by the time I moved in with her—that she took me in, that is, like you’d take in a stray from the street—I’d been so exhausted from the chemo and radiation therapy you could have tossed me into a litter box and I’d have barely noticed the difference, as long as I could lie down and close my eyes for long stretches of time that sometimes turned into days.

Days and nights, twisted up in long ropes of time, looped around my neck, weighed with rocks and despair.

After hunting through my wallet for bills, I pay the cab and get out. Time to draw some money, I think. To earn some money. To earn points with life.

Is it worth it, though? The effort of getting out and making my way inside the building leaves me winded. Is life worth it, or what’s left of it?

I’m in the process of shedding my jacket, wincing and cursing said life, when the door of the apartment opens and Sophie rushes in.

I’m caught with my arms in my sleeves, frozen in place, the pain caging me as efficiently as a straitjacket, and I only catch a glimpse of her stricken face before she’s there, helping me, peeling the jacket off me and leading me to the sofa.

“Why didn’t you call me?” she asks softly. “I called the hospital, they said you left.”

“And here you are,” I whisper, too tired to wonder what I should say or not say, do or not do.

“That’s right.” Her hand is warm on my face, lingering for just a moment, and I shiver, unprepared for her touch. “You only have to ask, Griff.”

Griff. Only she calls me that. Not because others haven’t used the nickname before, but right now, there’s only her.

Only her is left. All the others have abandoned ship. She did once, too, of course. Can’t forget that. Can’t forget how she walked out one day, shut me out, and dated my best friend, Marvin.

The guy I thought was my best friend. My only friend, so that losing him along with her meant I was left with nothing.

Just goes to show how much I understand about people, or rather, how little: and that’s why I can’t take the chance of being wrong again, even if it means being left with nothing.

I’m getting used to the nothingness, I tell myself. It’s familiar by now.

So why does her presence feel so good?

***

Watercolors. Canvas. Brushes. Sketchbook. Pencils, sharpener, eraser, and books about drawing and painting.

All right, I’m all set, ready to get down to drawing and painting, to creating... but all I do is gaze outside the window at the overcast sky. It’s weekend, and Sophie is home.

Home.

I realize I’m straining to hear her movements in the apartment, her steps, her shifting of a book, the rustle of her dress.

Wait, I think she’s in the shower now. Trickle of water, muted splashing sounds.

How would the water run over her body, over her soft skin, over her breasts, between her legs? Warm and silky, and I can almost feel her body under my hands, and I’m half-hard before I know what’s happening.

What keeps happening when I think about her. My dick hardening, and my mind spinning. It’s been like this since the day I met her and hasn’t gotten any better. Not even when she left.

Certainly not since she came back, even though now I know what I want.

Too late, though. I can’t have her. I tried to please her, and instead I scared her. End of story.

Lie down in the bed you made, right? And all that jazz.

If she was ever interested in the guy I was before sickness struck me down like the hand of God, for sins I can’t remember but must have committed, she sure as hell can’t be attracted to the husk of a man I am now.

My hair fell out with the treatments, and it’s now only a dark fuzz on my scalp. I’ve lost so much weight my bones jut out—my hip bones, my shoulders, my elbows, my knees. I lift my hands and the sleeves of my sweater slide down, baring my tattooed forearms. I’m a knobbly, badly-put together skeleton.

Which brings me back to the question of why she’s here—and of how long it will take before she runs away again.

“I’ve made you some tea,” she says a while later, when I look away from the ever-fascinating window—or was I dozing? Hard to tell. “And toast.”

Hurray. I receive the tray, struggling to refocus—on the present, on the apartment, on the here and now.

She’s dressed, her hair dry, a faint smile on her face. Indulgent, I guess, used to my mind wanderings. Patient.

No sign of the water I’d imagined flowing over her body earlier. Did I dream that? Wouldn’t be the first time.

I settle the tray on the coffee table beside me, not sure I’m hungry, and startle when she crouches down beside me, then kneels, setting a hand on my thigh.

“How are you doing, Griff?”

I grunt in reply.

“Grunt twice if you want to be left alone,” she says, dark eyes looking up, right into mine. “I promise I’ll go.”

But I find myself hesitating. Not about the grunting twice part, but about letting her see in how much pain I am, how her touch affects me, and how I wish...

No. Bad idea.

“I’ve been better,” I allow, and that faint smile returns to her lips.

It’s too faint for my liking. Too sad. She should be doing stuff that makes her happy, living her life, not caring for a... a cripple, like me. A sick man.

She must read something on my face, because she frowns. “Shall I bring your painkillers?”

I shake my head. My stomach roils at the thought. “’M fine.”

Her gaze doesn’t waver. Her hand presses down, and I feel its warmth, its small, precious weight through my thin sweats. “You’ll get better,” she says. “You’ll get through this.”

I start to shake my head again, because this isn’t up to me, this is the disease’s will.

“You’re the strongest person I know,” she whispers, “and... you won’t leave me alone. You can’t, Griff, you can’t give up. I...”

Clapping a hand over her mouth, she rushes to her feet and hurries away from me, heels clicking on the floor. I hear the bathroom door slam closed.

I blink. What the hell just happened? I glance at the tray with the cooling tea and toast, then around her living room with its poetry books and my watercolor books—our books all mixed up just like our lives—and wonder what I’ve done.