Nolan stepped out of the car and looked around the street. Quiet, so damned quiet. He wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or not. Not after spending nearly four years never sure what the next minute would bring. He didn’t have to be on the lookout for enemies here though.
His dad was already coming around the front of the car. “I could have helped you,” he insisted.
“My arm’s in a sling, Dad, it’s not like I lost it. I can still do some things myself.” He regretted the words almost as soon as they left his mouth. And yet there was still anger simmering under his skin. His father didn’t deserve it lashing out at him, though.
Though his face had paled, his father didn’t respond to the words. Carrick Hunter had always been good at holding onto his emotions. Better than Nolan ever had. “Go on in,” he said, his voice still calm. “Your mom’s waiting. I’ll get your bag.”
He wished he had his father’s calm. He’d been trying to project just that while he waited to get out of the hospital. But, that had been too quiet, too. Despite nurses coming in every hour on the hour, it seemed, and people passing in the hallways. Everything had seemed so quiet, except in his own mind. That felt like chaos. Sometimes it got so loud in there, he felt sure he was under attack again.
Then, behind him, he heard a loud thud and a sharp curse. Maybe his dad wasn’t holding onto his emotions as well as he’d thought. Maybe that should make him feel better, that he wasn’t the only one having trouble, instead he felt guilt. That he’d been the one to bring the older man to this. That he’d survived. But, three other families were burying their children. And one was waiting to see if their son would walk again, even after a prosthetic leg.
But, he’d gotten away with a couple bullets and some shrapnel in his chest and shoulder. He’d have scars, but he was still alive with all his limbs. What did he have to complain about? What was so special about him that he’d been the one to survive intact?
Pointless. It was all so pointless.
He reached for the door, but it was already swinging open. And his mom was right there, an arm around his good side, pulling him in for a gentle hug. He closed his eyes and tried to let her comfort bring him peace. Instead just feeling her touch sent more chaos through his mind. He pulled back before the panic could take over and tried to force a smile onto his face. “I hope that smell means you’re making me a wonderful welcome home dinner.”
“You know it,” she said, but even her smile looked strained. “Only the best for my hero son.”
Those words were like another bullet crashed into his chest. He couldn’t even draw in a breath. “I’m not a hero,” he murmured. He’d survived. That didn’t make him a hero. “Troy, Nick, Connor. They’re the heroes, Mom. Not me. I just made it home.”
He heard her quick sob, but she didn’t cry against him. “And you can’t know how thankful I am for that. Come on inside. You can get settled in your room before it’s ready.”
“Where’s everyone else?” he asked.
His mom’s lips pursed. “Tate is off somewhere with Rebekah.”
“What the hell happened to them being divorced?”
“Language, Nolan,” she admonished. “You’re not off with your platoon right now.”
And he likely wouldn’t be again. His enlistment term was up in a matter of months. Unless he was cleared for duty again by then, he wouldn’t be seeing them. And he wasn’t reenlisting. Physically, he could still fight. Emotionally, he’d been out of the fight even before the attack that had sidelined him. He’d already been questioning the point of the war. He might not have the right answers, but he knew it was one he couldn’t fight anymore.
“And,” his mom continued, “they are still divorced. It’s not the first time since then, though, that they’ve…spent time together.”
‘Spent time together’ was apparently code for hooked up, a term his mother was likely never to use. “What about Kelan and the twins?”
“I don’t keep tabs on your older brother, but I imagine he’s at the school, too. And that’s exactly where your younger brother and sister should be at. They’ll be home in about an hour, though.”
Right. Kelan was teaching now. Jace and Jessica were finishing their last year of middle school. It was hard to remember all of that sometimes. Especially hard to remember that his baby siblings were teenagers now. He’d been in the Middle East for their last two birthdays. Nearly back to back tours.
His mother put her hand on his good shoulder, but the touch sent his mind into that chaotic spin again, and he jerked away. He saw the pained look come into his mother’s eyes, and he wished it hadn’t been him who had put it there. “I’m going to lay down,” he told her. “Will you wake me if I’m not up for dinner?”
“Of course. And I’ll make sure Jace and Jess keep it down when they get home.”
“You don’t need to do that,” he insisted. “I doubt they can be louder than anything else I’ve learned to sleep through.”
His dad had already dropped his bag in his room, and he dug through it after he’d kicked off his boots. He’d taken a pain pill just before his father showed up at the hospital to get him. He had a bottle of those, but he ignored them. It wasn’t time to take another one. Instead he dug for the bottle the hospital’s psychiatrist had given him. They were supposed to put him back on even ground. He’d avoided taking any so far though.
He swallowed the small pill then climbed into his bed. He didn’t know if it was the medications or pure exhaustion, but he found himself slipping right into sleep.
Nolan sat up straight in bed, sweat soaking him and a scream trapped in his throat. Then, the ache in his shoulder cut through, and he dragged in a deep breath. Rifle fire turned back into a rapping at his door. The screams of his platoon mates turned into his younger siblings’ raised voices.
“I told you two to keep it down,” his mom’s voice came through the door. “Your brother is resting. If he doesn’t feel up for dinner, he certainly isn’t going to want to hear you two going at each other.”
“It’s okay, Mom,” he said, though it came out as more of a croak. “I’m up.”
“Give him some room,” she said. “You don’t need to jump on him as soon as he comes out here.”
He’d laugh if his head wasn’t pounding so bad. His shoulder throbbed, too. It was a good thing dinner was ready. He needed to eat something before he took another pain pill. And he was going to need one soon.
Nolan stood up from the bed and took a moment to wish he had a bathroom attached to his room. Then, he could wash this panic sweat off before having to face his family. Might as well get it over with, though. First, he stashed the anxiety pills back in his bag. Even though a part of him knew there was nothing to be ashamed of, another part was just that.
When he stepped into the hallway, his mother stood in front of two teenagers, her arms out in front of them. The girl was chewing on her thumbnail, and her gaze skimmed over him, as if making sure for herself he was still whole. Relief came into her eyes then she was turning away. “Knew you weren’t hurt that bad. See, Jace? There was no reason to worry.”
He glanced over at the boy, who was sticking his tongue out at his sister. “I’m not the one who was worrying, Jess. That was you.”
There was some concern in the boy’s eyes, but definitely more excitement. Nolan knew that meant there were going to be questions. He’d want all the stories. Nolan had no desire to tell any of them right now. Maybe he never would. He saw them replay enough in his sleep. He didn’t feel like welcoming that in.
His dad and older brothers were already at the table when they stepped into the dining room. He saw worry in his dad’s eyes, but even though it was in his brothers’ as well, there was more curiosity there, as there’d been in Jace’s. “See? Still in one piece,” he said as he pulled out his chair with one hand. He could see his dad’s look turn from worried to reprimanding in an instant. But, Tate laughed before he could say anything.
“I’d stick with the day job instead of taking on comedy, little brother.”
That twisted his stomach into a tight knot. None of them knew he didn’t have a day job anymore. Even though he was still technically employed by the United States Marine Corps, he couldn’t work. Not until he was cleared for duty. And that wouldn’t be for at least a couple more months. And then he only had to make it through the rest of his term.
When he didn’t respond, the rest of the table fell quiet. His mom set his plate in front of him, but even though he knew he needed to eat, he didn’t have much of an appetite. And she’d even made his favorite meal. He didn’t want to make her feel bad by not eating it, but he felt like he could barely even choke down one bite.
He pushed the food around his plate between bites and soon conversations resumed. He’d always liked to listen to the way his family interacted, even if he didn’t always participate in discussions, or sometimes arguments. But, right now, it felt like all the different voices were clashing together instead of flowing around him. The little bit of food he’d eaten sat heavy in his stomach, and his breathing was coming quick. He needed to get out of here.
But, when he pushed his chair back from the table, his mother looked worried. “I’ll be right back,” he said. “I need to take my meds.”
He saw his father’s hand on her arm and just barely heard him murmur, “Let him go. He’s adjusting. Let him.”
He took another of the little pills from the bottle in his bag and just held it in his hand, staring down at it. He didn’t like feeling as if he was dependent on them already. But, he needed something to quiet all this noise in his head. If they did that…He closed his hand around the pill as he heard footsteps coming down the hall. Then, his middle brother, Kelan, stood in his doorway. He nodded at Nolan’s closed hand. “That your pain pill or something else.”
Nolan’s head jerked back at the question. “It’s not…it was prescribed to me. I’m not-”
“I wouldn’t think it, Nolan,” he assured him, taking another step into the room. “There’s more than what you’re telling us, though, isn’t there?”
He gave a quick shake of his head. “It’s just my shoulder.” He tried shifting so he could push the bottle farther into the bag, but Kelan was fast.
He studied the label on the bottle for a minute before looking back up at Nolan. “Pretty sure this isn’t for pain. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s to treat anxiety.”
“It’s nothing,” Nolan insisted.
“Nothing to be ashamed of, that’s for sure,” Kelan said. “Nolan, you’ve been in a war zone. You’ve seen friends killed, wounded. You’ve been wounded. It’s to be expected you’d be a little off kilter. You don’t have to hide it from us.”
“I’m not crazy.”
“Hey, you were the psych major. I’m just a teacher. I’d say you’d know better than me. But having trouble dealing isn’t the same as losing your mind. You should know that.”
Nolan did know that, and the psychiatrist had said pretty much the same thing. But, it wasn’t as easy to apply that knowledge to himself.
“Take the pill, Nolan. It doesn’t make you weak. It’s no different than taking one for your pain. Then, maybe you can settle down enough to eat with us.” His head came back up, and he saw his brother smile at him. “If you thought none of saw how tense you were and how you jerked every time a voice rose, you’re blind. Mom’s worrying herself, so take the pill and come back to eat.”
He wasn’t sure why, he hadn’t wanted any of his family to know how much he was struggling, but his brother’s words helped settle something in him. He took the pill, grabbed one of the other ones for the pain in his shoulder, and followed his brother back out to the dining room to rejoin his family.