Burnout: A Short Story Prequel to Shades of Blue

BURNOUT (5)

 

“Gabe, our fatal flaw is that we don’t need each other.” While the words were harsh, his wife’s voice was matter-of-fact.

“Didn’t seem like that last night, now did it?” Gabe stood by the window with his coffee cup, looking out at the rain. The gloomy day outside mirrored the mood inside, despite the bright lights.

“Sex–good sex–has never been a problem for us.” Tabitha moved to stand beside him, not touching. Her fingertip followed a raindrop down the windowpane.

 Despite his comment, Gabe knew she was right. They’d tried to blame the distance between them on tragedy plus their frantic schedules in the days following 9/11. A firefighter and a trauma nurse, they’d both been buried at work, barely crossing paths for days at a time. Much of the time he’d chosen to crash at the firehouse, spending his rare downtime drinking at the bar or punching at the boxing gym until he couldn’t see clearly or stand up straight. It beat facing a wife he didn’t know how to comfort or spending the long hours alone.

 Amid back-to-back shifts, Tabitha had chosen the hospital’s on-call room over a tormented husband or likely empty apartment. When they did find themselves home at the same time, they’d sought comfort together in their bed, only to wake with one or the other one already gone, the sheets cold.

With all of that churning about in his mind, Gabe set his cup down and leaned forward, hands against the window, arms bracing his body. “We’ve made a big mistake, haven’t we?” He turned his head to look at her.

Tabitha had nodded, looking at him sadly, her eyes dry.

She reached out to touch his side, briefly. “I think the nightmare we’ve lived since 9/11 exposed us for the fraud that we are. That we love the idea of stability, the idea of an us more than we love each other.”

“I’m sorry.” He reached out to squeeze her arm lightly.

Sliding an arm around him, she returned the light squeeze and turned away. “Me too.”

***

Three days later, as dawn streaked the horizon, Gabe’s neck was tight, noises clanged loudly, colors screamed even with his eyes closed. The damned roaring sound and the smell of scorched metal never went away. Day or night, alone or with others, the noise and smell were constant inside his head unless he beat them back by drinking–a lot–or punishing his body until it shut down. Neither of which was a good way of keeping a fledgling marriage together through tough times–Gabe had only to look around the firehouse bunk where he slept every night now to be reminded that he’d learned that one too late.

Giving up on sleep even in the face of exhaustion, he made quick work of a shower and headed down the hall to the kitchen. Coffee. By the third cup, maybe he’d be almost functional.

In the firehouse kitchen, Nash, his long-time best friend, handed him the mug he’d just filled and picked up another one. Leaning against the counter, the two sipped in silence as the kitchen filled with members of the squad, some coming on duty, others headed home or to the bunks. They jostled and teased, including Gabe and Nash in their shoulder punches and taunts.

“Ghost town,” Nash muttered for Gabe’s ears only, pushing off the counter and striding out of the room.

Gabe remained where he was, simply too tired to move, absently answering others in the chatter. He knew exactly what Nash meant, for while the firehouse buzzed with activity, the two of them were all that was left of their original crew.

Between the terror of 9/11 and the more recent horrific Melbourne Road fire, their squad had been devastated by loss. Too many children with tear-streaked faces standing in stunned silence by the side of their one remaining parent as graveside flags were presented, too many empty chairs at once full kitchen tables, too many tears—seen and unseen. With the exception of Gabe and Nash, those left standing had walked away from firefighting, hoping to move on, to manage the memories in a way that resembled normal life. Whatever that was.

Ignoring the “wash your own dishes” rule, Gabe set his mostly empty mug on the counter and left the firehouse. He knew what he needed to do to survive, he just didn’t know if he had the guts to do it.

***

In a world where uncertainties and worry crashed about constantly, Jill was well aware that the key to surviving—and even thriving–was in knowing that moments like this one right now had happened before and would happen again. Moments that cradled a little bit of perfect, keeping hope alive and making everything worth it.

Jill nestled deeper into the curve Nash’s body made around hers. Always aware of her, even in sleep, the big man stirred, pulling the covers over them both and tucking her more snugly against him.

“All’s well?” he murmured, his morning-rough voice making her smile. She loved the sound of his voice first thing in the morning.

“All’s well,” she whispered, her fingers tracing the Maltese Cross Celtic Knot tattoo on his forearm, the tattoo that mirrored the ever-present pendant hanging around her neck. He’d given her that pendant the day he’d promised he was Her Person and asked her to be His Person, the one they both could count on no matter what the moment brought to their lives—no matter her past or their future. He had changed her world. She sighed softly, watching the light in the room slowly brighten as morning dawned outside the wall of windows.

The city that never sleeps had a rhythm that changed in infinitesimal moments as the night ended and daylight crept up the sky. The pale blue, nearly sheer curtains let the light in while giving privacy to the studio apartment they’d shared since their marriage a month before. Getting married in the days after the Melbourne Road fire had been their defiance of the dark days, a beacon of hope for themselves and everyone they knew.

“I can hear you thinking.” Nash growled in her ear, dipping his head to nibble at her neck. “Mmm.” She wiggled around to face him, pressing against him from lips to toes, his stubbled face cupped in both hands. As their kiss deepened and legs tangled, hands wandered and soft moans drifted up to float on the air like bubbles, a siren sound split the air as Nash’s phone lit up.

With a heartfelt groan, he dropped his head to Jill’s shoulder and inhaled deeply of the light lemon scent that was her, the scent that would act as a shield as he met the call with his firefighter brothers. Being yanked from his wife’s bed, even for the job he loved, was not the way he liked to start what was sure to be a long day—or any day for that matter.

Still curled amid the rumpled covers, Jill watched Nash grab his keys as he read the address on his phone screen and finished dressing at a run, blowing her a kiss as the door closed behind him.

She sent him off with a smile that vanished when the door closed, her heart filled with icicles as she snuggled into his still warm space. After the devastation of recent months, it was hard to breathe when he was working. Fighting fires was his life, it was what had brought them together again after years apart, but the nightmares weren’t going away—his or hers. He said he slept better with her by his side, but she’d woken many nights to find him silhouetted against the windows, staring sightlessly out into the city.  She’d coax him with her kisses, offering him the solace of her body, sometimes drawing him back to bed, sometimes coming together against the windows as she sat on the wide window sill. They talked, but later.

For a moment, Jill let herself daydream of a life free of fires, free of the frantic pace of the trauma ER–the job she’d loved until recently. But helping and healing, it’s who they were, she reminded herself sternly, giving up on sleep and dressing in leggings and one of Nash’s FDNY tshirts.

Opening the curtains to the city, she decided she’d make a breakfast casserole that would easily reheat when he returned. She’d pretend her man wasn’t a hair’s breadth from mortal danger while she stirred eggs with the rising sun and watched Friends reruns on her day off.

***

At the front of the bar, Ray closed the door firmly behind him, locking it tightly to keep the world out for a time. A former firefighter himself, Ray knew crisis when he saw it. The mood of the motley crew gathered in his bar tonight was as dark as he’d ever seen it–and he’d been around a long time.

Today they’d lost another injured man from the Melbourne Road fire. Travis had fought so hard to live after a catastrophic head injury and had zealously tackled an arduous recovery that involved learning to speak again, to walk again. With one or more of his FDNY brothers by his side every step of the way, Travis had been a beacon of hope, something good to focus on. Today he’d fallen during physical therapy–a common enough occurrence–only this time he didn’t get up, a massive stroke killing him instantly.

As the hours passed, the rainy day growing darker outside, Ray poured drinks and called cabs or significant others as needed, the voices around him rising and falling as games of darts and pool were played, Travis’ name mentioned here and there.

At the back of the bar, Gabe leaned against the wall, letting it hold him up. “C’mon, Arch, the couch awaits.” Nash nudged his friend none too gently, the nickname Gabe had earned on duty now as familiar as his name .

It was rather astonishing that Gabe was still standing. He’d been with Travis when the stroke had happened and had spent the past few hours topping the grueling day off with most of the bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue Label that was still in his hand. Gabe shook his head. “Go home with Jillian, she needs you.” Jill had been by Travis’s side too, having tagged along with Gabe for the visit.

“Gabe, I’ll feel better knowing you’re safe on the couch.” Jill tugged on his arm, laughing in spite of the situation when Gabe nearly toppled forward. Gabe between them, Nash and Jill got him to the bar, Ray already pouring hot coffee.

“Got any more eggs back there?” he called back to the kitchen.

“Coming right up!” the answer came, the bright voice out of sync with the mood.

Gabe pointed a finger at Nash. “I might be drunker than I’ve been in awhile, but I am not, I repeat not going home with you two. You both need comfort sex and I don’t need to be the reason you don’t get that tonight.”

Jill nudged the coffee closer. “Drink. We’ll talk about it after you’ve had two cups and some food.”

Three cups of coffee and a plate of ham and eggs later, Gabe managed to convince his friends to let Ray call him a cab and he’d talk to them tomorrow–well, later today.

Hand to heart, Ray promised to see Gabe safely into a cab, saying he’d call a cab-driver friend who would ensure Gabe actually got inside his apartment.

Reluctantly, Nash and Jill gave in, their own grief and exhaustion finally winning out. Hugging Gabe tightly, Jill pressed her cheek to his. “Love you, be safe.”

Gabe kept his gaze on his coffee cup as he returned her hug and that of Nash from the other side. “Brother–” Nash began. Gabe cut him off, low-voiced, “Go. She needs you.” Nash nodded, squeezing Gabe’s shoulder and tossing a meaningful glance at Ray. Ray picked up the phone to call his cab-driver friend. Jeff didn’t typically work this part of the city, but he’d come by request.

Gabe waited for his ride, his nearly-blind drunk state settling into comfortably numb. Downing the last of the coffee, he stirred restlessly, rising from the bar stool. “I’ll wait for my ride out front.”

“I’ll walk you out, Arch.” Ray wiped his hands on a bar towel, dropping it to the bar top.

Gabe shrugged, knowing Ray well enough to know refusal would be wasted.

Outside, he leaned wearily against the lamp post, a light rain falling as the cab pulled up to the curb. The driver spoke to Ray as he opened the back door for Gabe. “I was mid-fare, but she insisted she doesn’t mind the extra time.” Jeff nodded at Gabe. Ray gave Gabe a slight nudge. “Company manners, Arch.”

Gabe rolled his eyes and slid into the cab, leaning his head back and closing his eyes. Faint perfume wafted across the seat and led him to speak, eyes still closed, to the woman he shared the space with. “Are you a figment of my ridiculously inebriated imagination?”

The woman, a mere shadow in the dark cab, gave a low, edgy laugh. The darkness coupled with the scent of whiskey and rain-dampened leather made the scene surreal. “And here I thought you were a figment of mine.”

***

Bright sunshine stung Gabe’s eyes even through his aviators, eliciting a curse as he strode out of the high-end hotel he’d found himself in upon awakening. Walking in the direction that would eventually lead him to the firehouse, he kept a fast pace, drinking coffee from the quintessential NYC blue go-cup in his hand, artfully dodging people and pets as only one familiar to the crowded streets could do.

The city was its usual chaos, a chaos in which he’d once thrived. Now the sounds and crowds screeched and shrieked at him, making him want to hunch his shoulders against the onslaught. His neck tight in defense, Gabe downed the last of the coffee and tossed the cup into a trash bin, never breaking stride. On autopilot, his plan was to pull his shift and go be with Travis’ family, connecting with Nash and Jill somewhere along the way. The night before was a mere haze of scents and shadows, and that was okay with him.

***

“Dammit, Gabe, I want to be able to walk home.” Nash gasped as he, yet again, hit the floor of the boxing ring with a resounding thud.

“Sorry.” Gabe grimaced, reaching out a hand to pull his friend up, the two of them drenched in sweat and panting hard.

From the sidelines, Ray’s father, Geno, laughed, tossing them both a towel. “Get outta my ring and let some real fighters in there.”

The two stumbled off to the showers, Nash muttering about undue violence while Gabe grinned with a wince, pressing the back of his hand against a half split lip.

Showered and dressed, they shouldered their bags and walked around the corner to the bar. They both ordered giant subs, drinking only water in silent agreement; both had been consuming a lot of liquor recently. Nash had Jill to focus on and keep him from making it an ugly habit, but Gabe wasn’t so lucky. Spending most of his nights in the firehouse bunk, he focused on simply surviving, putting one foot in front of the other and repeating the process.

Gabe sat back against the booth, draining another glass of water. Without preamble he said, “Brother, I’m out.”

Nash took a moment to finish his sandwich and nodded. “About time you took a few days off.”

Gabe shook his head. “Travis was the last straw. I’m done.”

Elbows on the table, Nash rubbed his knuckles thoughtfully. “Okay. What now?”

Gabe toyed with his water glass, a finger marking streaks in the condensation. “I just know I’m done, not one more night in this city.”

Nash raised an eyebrow, “You’re leaving today?”

Gabe nodded. “I’m going home. Clear my head of the noise.”

“That’s probably the best idea you’ve had since you demanded I kiss Jillian properly.” Nash pushed back his chair.

Gabe rolled his eyes and stood, too. “Let’s go tell your wife I’m leaving you.”

Nash groaned. “Oh, great. You know she’s going to hit us both, right?”

Waving a hand to the server, Nash had their meal put on his tab, and together the two left the bar where they’d whiled away so many hours.

***

“He’s so lost and alone, Nash.” Jill curled into the circle of her husband’s arm, her hand on his chest, his heartbeat strong and sure against her palm.

“Tough time for him, yes, but he’s not alone. He’s got us, and Sheila and Robert will see to it that he’s both coddled and put to work.” Nash tightened his arms around her.

Gabe had just left their apartment after a short–tearful on Jillian’s part–see-you-later visit, promising he’d keep in touch and that they’d get together next month.

“I know that, but he needs somebody by his side. You know how us being us has made this whole horror show bearable. Gabe hasn’t had that.”

Nash nodded, stroking her hand where it rested on his chest, her head tucked under his chin. Pulling back, he tipped her chin up. Framing her face with his hands, he kissed her softly, both comforting and stoking the fire that always simmered between them.

“Life does go on…” he whispered, sliding his hand up her bare leg and under the edge of her shorts. Ever surprised at how eager she was for his touch, Jill leaned back, arching against his hand as her tongue tangled with his. With a grin, he pushed her further back onto the couch pillows, one hand keeping firm hold on her shorts so that they slid off her body.

“What have we here?” Nash’s voice was husky as he admired his wife’s creamy skin against the deep green of the couch. From half-closed eyes, Jill went breathless as her husband winked at her and positioned himself full length on the couch between her legs. Blowing lightly, he bent his head to her.

“Oh, my.” She breathed, her eyes drifting closed as she gave herself up to the waves of glorious sensation his mouth and hands brought her.

Life did indeed go on.

***

Heart racing, mind confused, Gabe rolled to his feet only to fall off the bed, his body slamming to the floor. “Fuck.” Coming fully awake, he stayed where he was, rubbing his hands over his sweat-dampened face, bringing his ragged breath under control. Thankfully he was in his parents’ guest house and not the B&B. The solid thud that had shaken the floor would surely have brought them and their guests running.

Pushing to his feet with a groan, he made his way to the kitchen and downed two glasses of water from the tap before he felt steadier. Opening the deck doors, Gabe let the cool ocean air wash over him. “Hello 2am.” He moved restlessly about the deck before standing still, taking in the scene in front of him. The back of the two-room guest house faced the New England shore, and while there were several hundred feet between the deck and the sea, only sea grass, sand and waves were to be seen in the moonlight. And the night sky.  Before coming home this time, he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen the night sky he loved.

Wide awake and restless, Gabe made his way out behind his parents’ house to his father’s woodshop. A master woodworker, Robert’s current project was making toys for the FDNY charity drives. As Gabe had been a willing apprentice as a young boy, earning his own touch with wood, it was easy for him to put his hands on a block of wood and get busy. He sketched then sanded and begun what would eventually be a fully functional dump truck to make some lucky little kid’s day.

As the hours passed, his hands stiff and his eyes growing tired, Gabe cleaned up the workbench, leaving the half-done truck for his father to finish and add to his charity drive shipment. He left the woodshop and returned to the deck of the guest house.

He had to admit, the endless cacophony of sensory onslaught he’d endured in the aftermath of the fire had begun to dull just a bit as the days passed–during the daylight hours at least. His parents and sister had welcomed him with open arms, asking few questions, although Tally seemed to think sisters were entitled to questions—and answers. She, her husband Sebastian, and their two toddler boys lived just down the beach and were part owners of the family B&B, as was Gabe. Tally and Bas worked there full-time, toting the boys with them. Gabe grinned, thinking of his nephews tumbling about like puppies. His grin faded as he realized he couldn’t stay. As much as he loved fishing with his Dad, helping Bas with this and that about the property–not to mention his mother and sister’s fussing over him–he just couldn’t stay. Why that was or what he would do next, he had no idea, he just knew he couldn’t stay here.

As he lay on the deck, looking up at the fading stars, dawn brushed the horizon, turning the sky above the sea blue and lavender, Gabe was no closer to a solution as to where to go, what to do. All he knew was it had to be soon. He had to move on.

                                            The End…For Now…

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Where does Gabe decide to go? Will he see Nash & Jill again? Is there peace and maybe even love out there for Gabe Montgomery?

 

Read more about what’s next for Gabe in the first Island Sanctuary novel, Shades of Blue!

Reviewers say:

*”A lyrical and enjoyable read, Shades of Blue is about finding friendship, family, healing and love in unexpected places. It’s also about second chances, and how holding on is sometimes all about letting go. If you like Nora Roberts, you’ll love Shades of Blue.” –Holly Layman (on Goodreads)*

*“Amazing book! Could not stop reading once I started it. Loved each character.”- Rita Smith (on Goodreads)*

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Back of the Book Blurb:

“I can promise you one thing will stay the same—me.” 

She wants to get lost in her memories.

He wants her to find her way home.

Heart-broken and reeling with grief, widowed writer Charlie flees to a far-flung tropical island in search of a safe haven where she can let her treasured memories consume her. Hiding away from the world, she battles nightmares and fresh tragedy while trying to make sense of her new reality.

Living his island dream, firefighter-turned-fisherman Gabe Montgomery is determined to be Charlie’s port in her storm of pain and loss. Blindsided by life-changing revelations from his own past followed by the possibility of a terrifying personal loss, Gabe realizes that sometimes letting go is as much a part of love as holding on.

When Charlie and Gabe acknowledge their powerful connection and cling to one another for comfort and hope, both face a frightening dilemma: surrender to the past,or face the challenges in front of them.

Will the memories and mistakes consume them or can Charlie and Gabe hold fast to each other and the hope that will bring them to a promising future together?

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Purchase Shades of Blue Today!