Gasping, Jace sat up in bed. Rivulets of sweat ran down his back, making him shiver in the cool air of the apartment. His heart was pounding and his whole body shook with a combination of fatigue, adrenaline, and fear.
The sounds of gunfire echoed in his head, accompanied by screams of pain. He could still hear the sirens going off in the distance, even if they weren't real. It was a familiar soundtrack that played on a continuous loop in his head, making it hard to break away from the nightmare. Because unlike most bad dreams, at one time his had been real. No matter how hard he fought in his dreams, he never could change the outcome. He couldn't save his friends.
He concentrated on the texture of the cotton sheets against his skin, trying to ground himself in the here and now. This...this was real, not the nightmare-- at least not anymore. Even as he told himself that, he could taste the grit of sand in his mouth, feel the arid desert wind on his skin, and smell the scent of gunpowder heavy in the air.
He was the sole survivor. The only one to make it back alive. He'd beaten the odds and now every day was a reminder of what he'd lost and what he'd never be again.
Six months. That was how long he'd been stateside. For six months he'd been poked and prodded by doctors in every way imaginable. His shrink assured him his nightmares were normal for someone who had suffered the trauma he had. With enough time and hard work, she believed they would eventually go away. He wasn't so sure. After all, he knew plenty of guys from Vietnam who still suffered flashbacks. It didn't give him much hope of someday being normal, whatever that meant.
Untangling himself from the covers, Jace climbed out of bed. He wasn't going to be getting any more sleep tonight. As it was, he was lucky if he got more than a few hours.
After using the bathroom, he pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, grabbed his wallet, and headed to the kitchen, where he stood looking out the window, lost in thought, while he waited for his coffee to brew. The streets were quiet this early, or this late, however you chose to look at it. He'd been living in this apartment since his release four months ago. Every day he had some form of therapy and his place was within walking distance of the hospital.
As much as he hated living in a city, he wasn't ready to face his family. He hadn't even told them he was stateside. He knew if they found out there'd be no stopping them from coming to see him. For now it was better to let them think he was still in Germany.
Both his therapist, Dr. Summers, and Landon, a nurse he'd become friends with, had been trying to convince him to tell his family the truth. While he knew he should, he was afraid of how they would react to seeing his injuries. It was hard enough having strangers gasp and stare, but he didn't think he could handle it if his family reacted the same way. He knew what he looked liked. He looked like a monster now. Parents had actually pulled their children out of his path when he was walking down the street. He'd heard their whispered comments. Having his family look at him as if he were a freak... It would break something in him. Something he wasn't sure could ever be fixed.
He used to be a fairly good looking guy. In high school he'd never had to work very hard to get a date. Girls had loved him. Hell, he'd even had a few guys hit on him. On more than one occasion he'd used his looks to his advantage. Those days were long over with. Now, it was all he could do to get most people to make eye contact with him.
The hardest part was that sometimes he would forget. Then it was like the first time all over again. He would relive the disbelief, the horror, the anger-- all of it.
When he'd first woken up in the hospital, he'd known something was wrong. The thick bandages covering his face had been the first clue of how bad it was. The second came when no one would let him near a mirror until after he'd talked to a shrink. By the time he was allowed to see the damage, the stitches had been removed and the skin was all pink and shiny new.
Staring into that mirror, all he could think was that he looked like some mad scientist had sewn him back together, piece by jagged piece. The doctors said the scars would fade over time and become less noticeable. Not that it would really matter.
He let out a bitter laugh as he looked at his reflection in the glass. "Well, at least I will still turn heads."
Running his hand over his short cropped hair, Jace turned to fix himself a cup of coffee. Everyone kept telling him how lucky he was to be alive, but he was finding it hard to consider it luck. It was more like a curse. He'd been the only one in his unit to survive, which gave him no comfort at all. In fact, it was one of the things haunting his dreams. He should've died with the rest of them. For some unknown reason he'd been spared. Instead of eternal rest, he got daily torture, nightmares, panic attacks, flashbacks, and the memories of what had gone down. He wasn't suicidal, but most days he felt as if the rest of his unit got the better deal.
He absently rubbed at the mound of scar tissue over his heart. According to the doctor who had saved his life, the piece of shrapnel had missed by only millimeters. A little more to the left and there wouldn't have been anything they could have done for him. He would've bled out on the way to the hospital.
During the six months in the hospital in Germany and the two months at the hospital here, he'd had nothing to do but think. He still hadn't come up with a good reason as to why he lived when the others had died.
Once he finished his coffee he rinsed out his cup and filled his travel mug before grabbing a pair of socks and his shoes. Since he had a few hours before he had to be at the hospital, he was going to go for a walk. As much as he hated being around people, he also hated being cooped up in his little cell. He needed to be outside and not be surrounded by walls all the time.
He often took walks late at night or early in the mornings, when the streets were mostly empty and it was too dark for people passing to really see his face. He could walk down the streets and not have people staring at him. It was his time to pretend, if only for a little while, that he was normal. That he was the same guy he had been before leaving for the war. Before he'd become a monster. Before he'd had to watch his best friend die. He could pretend for a short time everything was okay, everyone was alive, safe at home with their families, and he was just an average guy out for a walk.
He pulled on his hooded sweatshirt, flipping the hood up before opening the door and stepping out into the quiet hallway, trying not to make any noise since most people were still in bed asleep. He made his way down the stairs and out into the darkened streets. With no specific destination in mind, he picked a direction and started walking, turning his head away whenever anyone passed by. He knew the sun would be coming up in another hour or so and then he would have to head to the hospital. He always took the first appointment. Since he didn't sleep, it gave him someplace to go after wandering the streets.
As he was passing by an alley, a noise caught his attention. He heard a male voice begging for mercy. In response to the plea was the unmistakable sound of flesh striking flesh, followed by a cry of pain. Without really thinking, Jace turned into the alley.
His night vision was better than most, so it didn't take long for his eyes to adjust. The street lamp cast barely enough light for him to make out three men.
Two larger men had a smaller man pinned to the wall and they were working him over pretty good. Either the smaller man wasn't a fighter or he'd long since given up, because he wasn't even attempting to fight back.
"Hey. What's going on here?"
The thug closest to him turned and looked at Jace. "Mind your own business. This doesn't concern you."
Jace's breathing slowed and his muscles started to relax as years of training kicked in. "I think he's had enough. Why don't you let him go and move on? There's no need for this to go any farther."
The one who'd spoken before turned away from the man they were beating and took a few steps toward Jace. He watched as the thug puffed out his chest and stood a bit straighter, trying to make himself appear bigger than he really was.
"I'll decide when he's had enough."
Jace glanced at the man who was now on the ground being kicked by thug number two. When he turned his attention back to the one in front of him, Jace saw the sneer on his face.
"I don't think he's had enough, yet," Thug number one continued. "Do you, Earl? You think the little punk's had enough?"
The other man, whose name was apparently Earl, laughed and shook his head, before delivering another kick to the smaller man's ribs. Jace heard the grunt of pain, but there was no other response. A few seconds later, a whimper escaped, making both men laugh.
"I can't walk away from this," Jace said with a sigh as he shook his head.
Puffing up his chest in much the same way his buddy had, Earl stepped toward Jace. "What'cha gonna do about it, huh? You gonna play the hero, tough guy?" They both chuckled.
Jace took a deep breath and his pulse slowed even more. "I don't want any trouble."
Earl grinned and looked at the other guy over his shoulder. "You hear that, Hank? He doesn't want any trouble." Again they laughed, but Jace ignored it, making sure to keep his eyes on both men.
"Maybe he should've thought of that before he stuck his nose in where it didn't belong." Hank glared at Jace, but Earl was Jace's main concern since he was the closer of the two.
Before Earl even turned, Jace saw the punch coming. Easily dodging it, he pushed Earl away from him. That only seemed to piss off Earl even more.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jace saw Hank move, but kept the majority of his focus on Earl. With both of them focused on him, at least they were leaving the other guy alone.
Any sense of joviality was gone, leaving nothing but anger in its place. Earl's tone had a distinct growl to it when he spoke. "You'd better get out of here, before Hank and I give you a little of what we gave him." He pointed over his shoulder with his thumb to the man lying, unmoving, on the ground.
Jace saw Earl tense for his next strike and was ready for him. Before Earl could follow through on the swing, Jace had him in a sleeper hold. He struggled, but Jace knew there was nothing Earl could do to escape.
Hank stood there wide-eyed, seemingly unsure what to do now without his buddy to tell him. Earl's struggling grew weaker, before stopping altogether. He waited until Earl's body went lax and then counted to ten before letting him fall to the ground, not bothering to try and ease his way. A few bumps and bruises were the least of what he deserved.
Jace looked over at Hank, still standing in the same spot, now staring at his friend's crumpled body on the ground. "I think you'd better take your buddy and get out of here."
At the sound of Jace's voice, Hank looked up. He stared at Jace for a few minutes before finally nodding. Jace stepped back, giving Hank room to pick Earl up off the ground. Making his way over to the smaller man, Jace squatted down and checked for a pulse. When he felt a strong, steady rhythm against his fingers, he let out a sigh of relief.
He watched as Hank gathered Earl up and headed out of the alley. He could tell Earl was starting to come around and Jace wanted to be long gone before he had time to get his bluster back. He wasn't afraid of those two bullies. Rather, he wanted to get the injured man somewhere he could check him out and see how badly he was hurt.
Gathering him in his arms, Jace carried him the few blocks to his apartment. He made sure to use the shadows on the way back in case Earl and Hank were stupid enough to try and follow him.
He had no idea what he was going to do with the guy once he got him back to his place, but for now, he only cared about making sure the guy woke up. He hadn't even made a sound when Jace picked him up.
Jace made it back to the apartment without anyone seeing them. In order to get his keys out of his pocket, he had to shift the man in his arms. It wasn't hard to do considering Jace had carried bales of hay that weighed more.
Once inside, he glanced at the couch before taking him to his bedroom. The couch wasn't very comfortable to sit on, so there was no way he was going to make the guy sleep on it. Laying him on top of the quilt, Jace went to get his first aid kit and some supplies to clean him up with.
Returning to the bedroom, he sat everything on the makeshift nightstand and turned on the light so he could see what he was doing.
He got his first good look at the stranger and saw he wasn't much more than a kid. He looked to be eighteen-- maybe. It was hard to tell with all the bruises, swelling, and dirt. Not to mention his face was really thin.
Carefully removing the guy's clothing, he tried not to jostle him too much. It took him longer then he thought it would, since the kid was wearing several layers of clothes. Once he'd stripped him down to a pair of too big boxers, Jace took a good look at him. The kid's ribs clearly showed under the huge bruises already starting to darken. It looked as if he hadn't eaten in quite some time.
From the look of things, Jace was guessing he'd been on the streets for awhile. Where the hell were this kid's parents?
One eye was swollen almost completely shut. The other one was sunken in and had dark circles under it. His hair was greasy and he didn't look like he'd had a bath recently. The shoes he'd been wearing were at least a size too big and had a hole in them. Jace found a small roll of bills stuffed into the toe of one shoe. He set it on the nightstand in plain view, so he would see it when he woke up and know it was safe.
Using a wet washcloth he began to wash him down, clearing away the blood and dirt so he could get a good look at the kid's injuries. When he started cleaning the cut on his lip, the guy let out a pained whimper and Jace paused, waiting to see if he would wake up. When he didn't, Jace continued to clean him, drying him as he went.
With his front cleaned, Jace started putting antibiotic ointment and bandages on the worst of the injuries. Gently Jace rolled him to his stomach, careful of his ribs and bruises. There were more bruises on his back and Jace noticed some blood on the pillowcase. Upon further inspection, Jace found a good sized knot and a small laceration. He cleaned it the best he could and tried to bandage it, but he couldn't get the butterfly strips to stick. Since it didn't seem to be bleeding anymore, Jace put some antibiotic ointment on it and called it good.
When he was done bandaging all the open wounds he could see, Jace rolled him back over, figuring he would be more comfortable on his back. He didn't appear to have any trouble breathing or anything, which was good, because Jace wouldn't know what to do, other than call 911. He had some basic first aid training, but he wasn't a medic. He could handle bandaging a wound; the rest was beyond his limited skills.
After dumping the dirty water into the bathroom sink, he went into the kitchen and grabbed a few bags of frozen veggies out of the freezer. He didn't have any ice packs, so the veggies would have to do. He wrapped a couple hand towels around the bags before gently placing one over the kid's eye and the other on his bruised ribs.
When the kid didn't move or even make a sound at the cold touch, Jace started to think maybe he should've taken him to the hospital and been done with it. He still wasn't sure why he'd brought him back to his place, but for some reason, he felt the guy would be better off here.
He stood there for a minute, watching the steady rise and fall of his chest. Convinced he was okay for now, Jace headed into the other room to make a few phone calls. First, he needed to call the hospital and let them know he wasn't going to make his appointment today. Since he never missed a day, he knew there were going to be questions. He let out a relieved breath when a nurse he didn't know answered the phone and took the message.
Before making the next call, he took a minute to gain his courage. Hitting the send button, Jace listened to the phone ring. He wasn't sure if he wanted anyone to answer it or not.
On the fifth ring, someone picked up.
Jace froze for a moment, unsure what to say. Maybe he should've had something planned before he dialed the number. "Uh, hey, it's Jace. Um... Are you busy?"
His question was met with silence and he wasn't sure if he was going to get a response or just dead air. He heard an exhale of breath. "No. What's going on?"
"I need your help." He hated how his voice shook.
"All right. What do you need?"
Jace let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. He hadn't spoken to Landon since their fight a few weeks ago. He hadn't even been sure Landon would take his call.
"I need you to bring your bag and come over to my place."
"No, I'm fine. It's just, well, I kind of found a kid getting the shit kicked out of him earlier. I cleaned him up the best I could, but I wanted you to look at him and make sure he doesn't have any life-threatening injuries. He was unconscious when I found him and he hasn't woken up yet."
"Give me twenty minutes and I'll be there. I've got to get dressed. I'm assuming you have coffee, right?"
"Yeah. And thanks for doing this."
"No problem." Landon paused. "This doesn't mean we're okay though."
Jace hadn't figured it did. His voice was quiet when he spoke. "I know."
"Be there in a few." Landon hung up before Jace could say anything else.
Setting the phone on the table, he grabbed the coffee pot and poured the rest of what was in it into his cup, before starting a fresh pot. It should be done by the time Landon arrived.
As he sat down at the table he thought about the fight that had ended with Landon walking away and them not talking for the last few weeks. He was so deep in thought that when Landon knocked on the door it startled Jace, causing him to jump and spill his coffee on his hand and the table. "Shit. Hold on a second."
He grabbed a towel and did his best to wipe up the mess before heading to the door to let Landon in. When he opened the door he wasn't prepared for what he saw. Landon looked like he hadn't slept in weeks. His eyes looked hollow and by the way his clothes were hanging on him, Jace was guessing he hadn't been eating regularly either.
He stepped back to let Landon in and then closed the door behind him.
"Where is he?" Landon asked, looking everywhere but at Jace.
"In my bed."
Without a word, Landon headed toward the bedroom. Jace let out a sigh and followed after him, stopping in the doorway. His bedroom wasn't very big and with the queen-size bed there wasn't much room to move around.