The crack of thunder and water flooding his ears…his eyes…rushing down his throat and spilling into his lungs as he tried to scream around it. A sick gurgle escaped him, but nothing more as he silently screamed and screamed and-
Noah’s eyes snapped open as he took in a gasping breath. For a split second he could see the waves looming over him, but he blinked and the ceiling of Olivia’s living room slid back into place. He’d come home, hadn’t he? And then immediately had that same recurring dream he’d been having at the clinic. Though judging by the fact that he was alone in the living room, he hadn’t been screaming this time.
He sat up slowly, blinking in the sunlight coming in through the window. Olivia and Andrew’s voices were low murmurs in the kitchen and he was suddenly nervous again. They could act as casual and welcoming as they wanted to, but Noah knew there was no fully fixing what he’d done. At least not in the six weeks he’d been away. What if he went in there and they kicked him out? He knew he’d deserve it, but he wasn’t sure he could handle it.
Except for the cutesy Halloween decorations hanging on the walls and the fireplace, the room looked almost exactly the same as it had for the past two years. The only difference was the small shelf that used to hold all of Mia’s toys in her room was now out here. A white bunny, slightly stained with tomato sauce, peered curiously over at him from her perch on the tiny wire shelf. He gave her a grim smile, then glanced around the room again. A mug sat on the coffee table in front of him. It was full, and he vaguely remembered something about Andrew making tea. So he reached over and took a sip, grimacing at the cold liquid inside.
Noah’s throat was sandpaper and his bladder was going to explode. But he wasn’t quite ready to walk into the kitchen and face the others. So instead, he sat where he was, focusing on his breathing. Last time he’d been in this room, he’d said such awful things to all of them, but especially to Olivia. He didn’t remember all of it, he’d been in unwilling withdrawal and parts of the evening were gone, but what he did remember was enough to make him choke on the shame. And yet, she’d been out in the parking lot this morning, ready to pick him up. She wasn’t stupid, so she must have had some reason to still care. But even after weeks of therapy and meetings, Noah wasn’t prepared to say what that reason might be.
And Andrew. He’d fully intended to show Andrew how put together he was last year when he and Cleo came back. And instead Noah had immediately fallen headlong into an addiction so strong that he’d needed to go to rehab.
Yep, mission accomplished.
Cleo wasn’t here and honestly, Noah didn’t blame her.
Noah ran a hand over the soft couch cushion he was sitting on. Shit, he’d fallen asleep while Liv was getting lunch together, hadn’t he? He remembered sitting awkwardly in the living room with Andrew, then nothing. Hopefully he hadn’t been asleep long. It would be just like him though, to be an asshole and ruin Liv’s lunch plans.
“Hey, you’re up.”
Noah turned toward Liv’s voice. She was standing in the doorway, leaning comfortably against the frame as she looked at him.
“Yeah,” he said, voice rough. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to fall asleep.”
She waved him off. “Don’t worry about it,” she said. “We saved you some lunch. Well, it’s pretty much supper now. Come on.”
Before he could apologize again, she ducked back into the kitchen, leaving Noah to follow. He stood up, still blinking some in the light, and followed her. It used to be so comfortable. He’d never thought twice about walking into her kitchen and joining in the conversation until this year.
A tray of barbecue chicken sat on the counter beside the sink, along with a large bowl of salad and a tray of buns. Before he could protest, Olivia was stacking a plate with food and handing it to him. “Eat up,” she said. “We already finished. Andrew just went outside with Mia but I’ll sit with you.”
“I want to.”
The steel in her voice was new, and it made him stand a little straighter without realizing it. But it was tempered by the soft smile she gave him as she handed him a glass of ice water. “I missed you,” she said. “I want to spend time with you.”
Before he could sit down with her, he badly needed to use the bathroom. So Noah excused himself with an awkward jerk of his head toward the bathroom door, then stepped away.
A moment later he was washing his hands and glanced in the mirror, immediately regretting that decision. Then he looked over at the tub and noticed with dismay that a tile was missing from the ceiling. He leaned in the shower to look up at the small, jagged hole. Drywall showed through and that was looking pretty battered too.
What other damage was hiding around the house? Noah had a responsibility to keep it in shape for all of them. How was he possibly going to make up for all of this? It was impossible.
When he came back out to the kitchen, Olivia was sitting at the table, looking out the window. Still tempted to bolt upstairs, Noah walked toward the table and sat down. He hadn’t been hungry until that second, when he smelled the chicken. Now it was all he could do to not wolf it down in seconds.
“Thank you,” he said.
She smiled at him and he smiled back, feeling something unknot inside himself just a little. “How are you feeling?” she asked.
“I don’t even know,” Noah admitted. “Um, good? And terrible.”
She nodded. He wanted to keep going, but he also wanted to shut up forever. Either one seemed to be completely fine with Olivia. So instead he kept eating.
“They feed you well there?”
“Not as good as you.”
Now she was blushing, clearly caught off guard. But those kinds of comments had been so simple once. An easy compliment, meant sincerely. That had been a daily thing. But he’d been so cruel to her this year. The good mood that had been slowly flickering to life inside him evaporated and the food tasted like sand in his mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Shit, why were her eyes red? Had he really come home and immediately made her cry? Noah started to stand up, but Olivia grabbed his hand and pulled him back into his seat.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Everything is okay.”
No, it wasn’t. But he would let her lie to both of them for a few minutes.
“Andrew, um,” he started, then cleared his throat. “Andrew’s leg is better?”
She looked puzzled for a second, then nodded. “Oh! Yeah, it was only twisted.”
“Sorry, I couldn’t remember for a second.”
It had been almost two months, of course she wouldn’t remember a minor injury. It wasn’t like time had stood still out here while Noah was attempting to become a person again. Things had changed and moved on and he’d have to figure out how.
Olivia nodded toward his plate. “Eat up,” she said. “There’s brownies for dessert and I told Mia she couldn’t have one until everyone was having one. Though I’m taking her trick or treating later, so she’s going to be buzzing with sugar anyway.”
Noah picked up his fork and tried to rediscover the appetite he’d had thirty seconds earlier.