Stacey stared up at the stars. She had never seen so many or so clearly. The sky was like a black quilt spread out, dotted only with those tiny threads of light. She shivered; it was incredibly cold, considering how hot the day had been.
“That’s how it is out here. Hot as hell during the day and cold as Niflheim at night.” Reb held out a steaming, metal cup of something fragrant. “Afraid it isn’t coffee. We should save that for the morning, but my mother sent some of her homemade teas. I’m not sure what this one is for, though. Sleep, maybe. Relaxation?” He brought another cup to his lips.
What would it be like? To kiss this man? How long had it been since she kissed anyone? It had to be Iggy. But those last few years, after Laura was born, sex had been… Well, it had never done much for her anyway. But the kissing had been nice. Once upon a time. Or she thought it had been.
“Penny for them.”
Stacey loved the way her laughter boomed and echoed off the great rock walls that surrounded them. “Inflation?”
Reb extended his hand slowly. It was still hard. Maybe it always would be? To touch a man and be touched by him. But she could not deny how incredibly right it had felt as they waited for his father to return. Just the two of them on the top of that cliff, leaning against a tree that was probably older than both of them combined. Wrapped in one another’s arms. Holding and being held.
She looked at that hand for a long moment. It remained steady. That alone spoke volumes about this man. He understood. Reb knew how hard this all was for her. And he waited, giving her the choice and power. Even as much as she knew he needed this.
She reached out hesitantly. She looked up into those dark eyes, that face lined with perhaps as much pain and hurt as she had known.
What would she have done without this man? Probably something incredibly stupid that would have gotten them nowhere and hurt her girls deeply.
Her fingers touched his, and he laced them together, drawing her closer. Her throat tightened, her heart raced, and her mind willed her body to relax each taut muscle. This was Reb. He won’t hurt you.
She felt the panic and bile rising in her throat as he pulled her against his hard body. She knew that she was stiff as he wrapped those strong arms about her waist. But that was better than fighting him, hitting out wildly like she had that night in the shower.
He leaned his head against hers. His warm breath skimmed her ear as he whispered, “Thank you.”
And she knew. He understood. Reb knew precisely how hard this was for her. He appreciated the sacrifice she was making. And as comforting as his embrace was on some level, it was still a sacrifice.
She felt warm lips pressed to her forehead. It was not the type of kiss that she had been thinking about. But it was the closest she had come in more than three decades. And it did feel nice. Right, somehow. Then it was gone, and her soul wept. Cried out for his lips against her skin.
He leaned back, and those dark eyes stared into hers. “So, are you going to tell me?”
Stacey was not certain if he was speaking about his earlier question or things deeper still. She started to shake her head, but Reb turned her in his arms so that once more, she was staring up into that vast quilt of darkness punctuated only with those tiny specks of light. It was much more comfortable this way. Easier to speak of things when she was not looking at him.
“I was wondering what it would feel like to kiss you.” She found the truth spilling from her mind past her lips without thinking.
Tears gathered in her eyes. Stacey tried to pull out of his embrace as that deep peel of laughter once more ricocheted off the walls of the canyon that stretched out like the abyss of her soul all around her. But Reb held tight.
She fought harder as he tried to turn her to face him. His finger captured her chin and forced her face to his, though her body remained aligned back to front with his. “You’re not ready for that.”
She shook head and laughed, “I may never be.” Did the damned tea have truth serum in it? Or was it the anonymity of darkness and the bleak cold of the desert? Or maybe it was the man? Perhaps she could not lie to Reb? Didn’t he deserve the truth, at least?
She shook her head harder and broke free of his grasp enough to lower her head to the ground as she spoke. “I was raped.”
There was some other note to his laughter this time. It held a sadness that matched her own. “Tell me something I don’t know, sweetheart.”
But she was passed the point of caring. Those waters that she had kept dammed for the last twenty-seven years, four months, and one day, give or take an hour or two had broken down all the walls she had so carefully built to contain them. She shoved him. So hard that Reb tumbled onto his butt at her feet.
“You want the fucking truth? Kerr raped me. Forty-seven times. No, he did not hold a gun to my head. Or a knife. No, he did something worse. He held my daughters’ futures and lives over me. And he used me…”
She wanted to run. Run away. But she could not. There was no way she could find her way in the darkness of an unfamiliar landscape. No more than she could run that night when the man grabbed her, ripped her shirt and bra away, pushed her pants down. When he…
It was more than she could manage. She might not be able to run far in the chilly night, but she could get away enough. She made it as far as the edge of the clearing as the meager contents of her stomach purged themselves from her body. As she wished that she could eject the memories from her shattered mind. But some stains were eternal.
Reb wanted to go to her. Wrap Stacey in his arms and tell her that everything would be alright. But he knew that even his touch would set off more of those demons now. And he certainly could not make promises that he was not confident he could keep.
So instead, he stayed by the fire, boiling more water and making another cup of tea. It seemed an eternity of damnation before she finally walked from the shadows. Her head was down, and her shoulders slumped. They shook a bit still as she took a seat across from him.
“Here. Drink this.” He held out the cup. Her hands trembled as she took it. When she looked up with a tight smile to thank him, he noticed that her eyes were still red and swollen. He would not diminish her pain by asking if she felt better. He knew that no matter how many tears, they never washed away the pain or humiliation.
“I was nineteen. Idealistic and stupid. Though Mama and Mike, he was my other father, disagreed with it, I wanted to follow in Barry’s footsteps.” His throat tightened around the words, “Hell, even he tried to convince me not to join the Marines.”
He brought his cup to lips, though he could not taste the tea. Only that sand that had filled his mouth, nose, and throat for almost a quarter of a century. “But I wouldn’t listen. With the arrogance of youth, I thought I knew exactly what I wanted.”
“What I found was starkly different than my dreams, though.” He paused and drained the cup. Though the warm liquid did nothing to ease the tension in his throat, he pushed the words past it anyway. “Bootcamp isn’t easy when you arrive with long hair and the name Rebel Zappa Moonchild.”
Reb stared into the fire. In the flames, he saw each of their faces. Just as he had over three dozen times as he gazed through the scope of his M40. As he had when he pulled the trigger and watched those men die, over and over again.
“My DI, that’s Drill Instructor, Marine talk for your mother, father, best friend, and worst enemy for thirteen weeks. One-quarter year of your life. And Staff Sergeant Wayne Burgess was not having any long-haired, free love hippie with a name like Rebel Zappa Moonchild walk across that stage on graduation day.”
His hand trembled as he reached for the kettle that hung over those flames. He felt like they consumed his soul, but he was no Phoenix. Except for her. For her, he would do anything. Even rise from those damned flames like an avenging angel.
“No matter what he did, though, how much tougher he was on me than anyone else, I would not give up.” His laughter was filled with bitter bile as he admitted, “Hell, usually I beat the crap out of his favorites. Usually, good Southern boys like him. I can still hear that Texas twang in my nightmares sometimes.”
“It must have been hard. Coming to Sebida?”
He looked up into those eyes, noticed that fresh tears were trekking down her cheeks. He did not mean to make her cry. He never wanted to make Stacey sad. But sometimes you just had to finish something. Was that why he had stayed?
He shook his head before continuing where he left off. “I think the one that pissed Burgess off the most was marksmanship. Mama hates guns. So, until Snap-in Week… Sorry, that’s what they call the first week of marksmanship training. Until then, I had never even held a gun. Hell, most of my life, I had been vegetarian.”
“But I was a natural. I could outshoot his boys that had been playing with guns and hunting since they were old enough to walk. Hell, if I were a betting man, I’d swear that I could outgun Burgess himself. So, it must have surprised the fuck out of the man when my performance in FFR…”
“Sorry, that’s Field Firing Range. It’s the second week of marksmanship training. Anyway, I qualified then for sharpshooter training. It’s wasn’t Barry’s MCTU1. That’s the Marine’s version of SEALs and Green Berets. Sorry about all the jargon. The military is like that.”
She nodded her head and brought her cup to her lips. Reb knew that he had to finish the story. Before he lost his courage. “During Marine week, that’s the final part of basic, and you have more freedom. I was walking the beach…”
He was not sure if he could continue. He had never spoken of it before. To anyone. Not even Chad knew the details. Reb sucked in a depth breath as if preparing to dive deep, and perhaps that was precisely what he was doing.
“They came at me from behind. They beat the crap out of me first. But not the face. No where that could be seen. But the doctors said I had two broken ribs. They held me down. Facedown in the sand. I swore I was going to suffocate in it. I wish I had.”
Reb knew that Stacey’s were not the only tears glistening in the flames. Fire and water. But not even those could cleanse some things. Nothing ever could.
“They took turns…”
She was around the fire, and Reb collapsed into her soft arms. He knew he had to finish the rest of the story. “I prayed to die. I begged and pleaded with every fucking diety I had ever heard my mother or Mike talk or write about. Hell, I even tried Jesus and the Virgin Mary like the chaplain talked about. But none of them saved me.”
“I must have passed out at some point. I don’t know or remember anything.” He could almost see the man’s face. There were few people that Reb would call friends. Chad. Jack. And Mike.
Though he admitted that at times he hated Corporal Michael O’Malley. Perhaps if he had not come along when he did, Reb would have died in those sands. The doctors certainly thought so. Whether from asphyxia, hypothermia, or his injuries. How many times over the past twenty-something years had he wished that Mike had not found him? Too many to count.
But who would be here for her now? What would have happened to Stacey? Maybe that was why? Perhaps she was the reason he had survived? But dammit, he was tired of just surviving. “Someone found me. Insisted I go to the hospital. Took me there himself.”
“I never told anyone. Mike saw, of course. Chad was my instructor at sharpshooter training. I was having nightmares. Waking everyone up with my screams.” He shook his head and laughed at the irony, “They would have discharged me, except for my perfect scores.”
“And maybe it all made me more lethal. I never hesitate. Everyone hesitates. But not me. What no one knows is that it is always them in my sights. Their faces. Burgess.”
Reb’s words resonated with something inside of Stacey. How many times had she thought about, dreamed of, doing just that? Pulling the trigger on Earl Kerr. Yes, more than once. When she took the girls behind their trailer for target practice, it was not bales of hay, trees, coke bottles, or white paper sheets with black circles that she saw. But the man’s sneering face.
She squeezed his shoulders tighter as if to pass some of her small cache of fortitude to this man when he needed it most. He had certainly done the same often enough over the past few days. She brushed a bit of his hair out of his face.
“So, what now? What the hell do we do?” She sighed heavily as the truth slipped past her lips. “Where do we go from here? What the hell are we? Friends?”
Stacey turned her head and looked out at the dark, shimmering blanket of the desert sky. She could not face him for this one. Hell, she was not sure she could face herself. “I have to be honest, Reb. I admit that I am attracted to you.”
Her throat tightened until she feared she might choke, but still, she forged ahead, pushing the words past the constricted muscles. “Honestly, more than I have ever been to anyone else. But even if we discounted the age difference, I…”
Her tears came more quickly. One star seemed to shine brighter, and she focused on that rather than the words she forced from her lips. “I don’t think I could ever…”
Stacey knew she was cheating. Avoiding the hard part. This man had been nothing but kind to her. He deserved better. So much more than she could ever give. But at the very least, he deserved her honesty, in deed as well as words.
She turned back to face him. The fire at least offered soft shadows to soften the hard reality. “I don’t think I could ever bear anyone’s touch.” There, the words were out.
He nodded, and she could see the muscles in his throat move up and down as he spoke. “What do you mean by that exactly, Stacey?” His gaze held hers captive. “Are you talking about sex?”
She nodded her head because words were beyond her. But she was not prepared for the gentle peel of laughter that broke the desert peace. She felt betrayed. Belittled. She had thought he would understand. Pain stabbed her heart, her chest tightened, and she feared she could not draw her next breath.
She fought to break free of his arms. She might not make it far in the cold night of this foreign land, but she needed to get as far away from the man as she could. She needed to think. About her next move. Tomorrow, she would leave this place. Somehow.
But he held tight; his fingers gripped her chin and forced her to face him. “I have not had sex in over a decade, Stacey.”
She stilled in his arms. Though she remained stiff and unsure, it was as if her body was as frozen as her mind at those words. Wasn’t sex what all men wanted?
As if he could read her mind, Reb spoke into the darkness. “I’m not sure that sex ever did much for me.”
He turned and stared off as she had at the ebony blanket of sky twinkling with the stars. So far and yet so close. “It may seem strange. I mean, my mother, my parents’ lifestyle. Two husbands, then three. And as you see, even that does not stop my mother from taking lovers.”
“She follows the Minoan tradition. The priestess-queen free to take whoever she wished as lovers. But at least she is fair about it, so were her ‘husbands.’ Growing up like that was not easy.” He waved his hand towards the dark horizon. “This place came about because I got into a fight at school when a boy called Indie a freak.”
“Maybe none of that matters, or perhaps it shaped my views of sex? I’m sure the shrinks would have a field day with it all. But the whole ‘free love’ thing never worked for me.”
He paused, and she felt him tremble in her arms. She strained to hear his next words, “I was a virgin that night. I had never even been with a girl. Let alone…”
Stacey wished with all her heart and soul that she could do something, anything, to heal the hurt that she heard in his voice. But she understood all too well that some wounds could never be healed. “You don’t have to…”
Reb shook his head violently, “No, there you are wrong. I do have to. I have never told anyone. Anyone. And it has festered inside of me. One of the things they taught me in first aid was that sometimes, as painful as it was, you had to drain the pus from an abscess or the person would die.”
His eyes stared deeply into hers, and she felt the truth of those words. Hadn’t she done the same all these years? Twenty-seven years, four months, and a day of silence and walls too high for anyone to scale. In some ways, she had never even let her daughters within them.
“I’m tired of rotting from the inside, Stacey. Of the pus of hatred eating me from within. I know that if anyone understands, it is you, sweetheart. Just I understand your pain.”
It made perfect sense. How this man had known just what to do when she fell apart in that shower. The unspoken connection that she had felt with him from the very beginning. But that did not answer her question. “Where do we go from here, Reb?”
“As you said, we jumped right past the friends bit. There is something else I should tell you.” He hesitated, and that scared her even more. This silence was anything but comfortable.
“You remember that phone call? How everyone was talking about all that mystical bullshit? The kind of crap that my mother and sister believe in?”
She could only nod. “They aren’t the only ones. I have dreams. Or I have had since I came here. At first, I did not know what they were. I thought they were just nightmares. Accidents. When I was in the military, sometimes it was attacks or landmines. It only happens if I know someone, though. As if I can sense what is to happen to them in the future.”
“So, when I left the Army, I decided the best way to avoid the dreams was to not get that close to anyone. I had learned more than just how to shoot a gun. I had computer and security skills, too. So I set up my own business. It gave me the freedom to travel. To constantly be moving.”
“But from the moment I came to Sebida. I started to have them again. The dreams. But for the first time, it was not someone I knew in the dream. It was you, Stacey. I saw you in my dreams. And you’re covered in blood, and there’s fire all around.”
Reb squeezed her so tightly that she could not breathe. “I knew the moment that you came into the casino that I could not let anything happen to you. That I had to protect you. I knew something else too. I knew that we were meant to be.”
She shook her head and pushed at him. “No, Reb. No. How can you even say that? When you know, I have nothing to offer you?”
“Nothing to offer me? I’m alive right now because of you, darlin’. If it weren’t for you, I would have blown my brains out this afternoon. I have always known I was dangerous. When I disassociate.”
“That’s another reason I never stayed in one place or around other people too much. It was safer for them that way. And usually, like you, I can control it. Keep it all bottled safely inside and away from people I care about. But I knew… I knew there was no guarantee it would always be that way.”
“Today was my worst nightmare come true. I lost my shit around innocents. I hurt the one man I love and respect more than anything. And it could have been worse. I won’t lie to you, I’m still scared that could happen again. Especially around you. I could never forgive myself if anything…”
“But I also know you need me. Just as I need you. I told you it was not about sex. Do you know how I know that? After that night, I spent a decade indulging in hedonism deeper and darker than anything even my mother can imagine. I explored it all. I fucked hundreds of women in some juvenile attempt to prove I was a man.”
“When I did not find what I wanted there, I thought maybe I was gay. Maybe they knew… Maybe I gave off some vibe… Perhaps that was why they…”
“But rape is not about sex. It never is. It is about violence. Power and control.”
“I could never submit… But I could… The term is top. To be the giver rather than the receiver. But that was not my thing either.”
“In BDSM, I found some solace. Some release. It taught me control. How to control myself above all. But that was never sexual. And did not fill the hole completely.”
His eyes met hers in the soft glow of the fire. “Only one thing calms my demons, Stacey. The same thing that I believe soothes yours. Here. Like this. Together.”
Tears marred her vision and choked her words. But she knew he was right. The only peace she had found, tentative though it was, was her short few days with this man. Though the world, her world was falling apart around her, he had been her rock and, yes, her salvation. The way that her father had always preached, only god could be. But god had turned his back on her and hers. This man had not. And she somehow knew he would not. Ever.
“But how?” Were the only words she could force past that tightness.
He brought their hands, fingers laced together, to his lips. “Like this. It’s all I ask. Not sex. That is too easy…and too hard. For both of us, perhaps. But this, your simple touch. Though I know how hard that is for you, too.”
“Hell, I admit, that other than you and perhaps my family, it isn’t easy for me either. But your touch, just holding hands or hugging, maybe one day with some work we’ll even manage those kisses? What do you say, darlin’? Are you willing to try? To give us a chance?”
She bit her lip. It sounded so simple. And so incredibly hard at the same time. But she had to admit. He was right. From that first moment, his hand had grabbed her in the casino, it had been different. Could it work? Could they manage a relationship? Without sex? Was that possible?
“Okay, we can try, Reb. But I want your word. If you change your mind. If you need sex…” The words seemed stuck in her throat, her mind rebelled at the very idea, but it was only fair. “We do it your mother’s way. An open relationship, I guess they call it. As long as you’re honest with me, if you need… Just no lies…”
He pulled her closer and pressed those warm lips to her forehead. “Deal. But know this, woman, the only person I want is you. Anyway. Any how. My best friend, yes. And while I doubt either of us will ever want or, as you say, need sexual intercourse, you are the only lover I want. And yes, we can be and are lovers – without sex.”