Toronto, Canada, 2006. A few months after the worst year of the Iraq war.
Gabriel Navarro splits his time between his job slinging ink at the Atlantis Ink tattoo parlor, and working on his master’s degree in fine art. Gabe is twenty-two, sure of his beliefs and his artistic integrity, and naïve enough to think he’ll never have to compromise. And then one night Jake MacLean walks into the shop and changes everything.
Jake Maclean is twenty-eight and a veteran American Army pilot. He's been staying with his ex-pat sister in Toronto while he tries to get his life in order. The problem is, he can't. After his disastrous final mission in Iraq, he's overcome with anger and survivor’s guilt, trapped in a losing battle to atone for a failure he’s sure can never be forgiven. Left without hope, he decides to have his memory of the mission tattooed on his back, with the condemning words: God Will Judge Me. He doesn't expect to fall for the tattoo artist.
Gabe falls just as quickly and deeply for Jake, though Jake's reluctance to talk about what happened frustrates and worries him. Gabe knows Jake isn't doing well, but accepting Jake’s claims that he's "fine" is far easier than dealing with the frightening truth. But soon it’s horribly clear Jake can’t control his panic attacks or flashes of violence, and he's getting worse. If Gabe can’t help him face his demons, Jake is headed for a crash -- and there’s every chance he’ll take Gabriel down with him.
Gabe stopped in front of the door to his apartment, hesitating with his hand on the knob. The air was hot, damp, and weighted. Even the metal of the doorknob was warm. He couldn’t hear anything, but he didn’t know if that was a good sign or not. He steeled himself and carefully pushed the door open.
“Jake? It’s me, Gabe,” he said as he slipped into the apartment. The living room light was on, so it was easy to see everything in the small space, and Gabe found Jake immediately. He was sitting on the floor with his back against the half wall dividing the living room from the kitchen. His too wide eyes were fixed on the wall opposite and blank as the empty white space there. Jake took shallow, shaking breaths, like he was having trouble filling his lungs. And he was scratching his arms with short sweeps of his fingernails: up and down, up and down, over and over again. He didn’t look in Gabe’s direction when he came in.
“Whoa! Hey, what are you doing?” Gabe closed the door and locked it automatically, then went to Jake and dropped to his knees in front of him. “Jake, Jake, can you hear me? Come on, listen to me. You’re cutting yourself. Stop it. Stop it!” Jake had bitten his nails ragged, and a few of the lines on his arms were bleeding where the rough edges had sliced through his skin. “Jake?” Gabriel wanted to snap his fingers in front of Jake’s face, or grab him by the shoulders and shake him. He didn’t only because he had a feeling it would make it worse, whatever this was Jake was going through. It was like Jake didn’t even know Gabe was in the room. Was this what Rob was talking about? Rob said Jake could be violent; he hadn’t said anything about this.
“Jake, it’s me, Gabriel,” he said. “I’m right here. Can you hear me?”
Jake nodded with a tiny, jerking motion of his head. “Yeah.”
“Okay, great,” Gabe said, only slightly relieved. Jake’s fingernails were still moving rhythmically along his upper arms, as if Jake had no idea he was doing it. Gabe grabbed his wrists as gently as he could, but Jake still startled badly. He knocked his head against the wall.
“Sorry! Sorry,” Gabe said. He let go immediately, but Jake latched onto his damp shirt, bunching his fists in the cloth.
“This is real. You’re real,” Jake said. His eyes were still wild and dark as caverns, but at least he was looking at Gabe’s face like he could see him.
“Uh, yeah,” Gabe said. The wooden floor was making his knees hurt, but he didn’t want to move in case he startled Jake again. He put his hands on Jake’s wrists, rubbing his thumbs gently back and forth over tendons tight as piano wire. Jake’s pulse was galloping. “It’s me, Gabriel. You’re in my apartment. You know that, right?”
“I’m sorry,” Jake said. “I didn’t know where else to go.”
“No, it’s okay,” Gabe said. “It’s fine. I’m glad you’re here. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get back.”
“S’okay,” Jake echoed hollowly. Gabe didn’t know if he was calming down or not, but his breathing seemed to be slowing a little. “I --” Jake made a sound that was a little too close to hysteria to be a laugh. “I think I’m going crazy.”
“Don’t say that,” Gabe said, probably too quickly. “You’re not. You’re not crazy, okay? You’re all right now, see?” He slid his thumbs into the palms of Jake’s hands, carefully unlocking Jake’s fingers from Gabe’s shirt. “You’re all right.”
“Yeah,” Jake said, swallowing. He took a few deep breaths and then nodded. “Yeah. I’m fine.”
“Great.” There was no way Jake was fine, but at least this was better than Jake staring at nothing and ripping up his own arms. Gabe shifted so he was sitting cross-legged on the floor, hissing as the blood rushed back into his knees. Jake was still holding onto Gabe’s thumbs. “What happened, anyway? You seemed kind of ...” He had no idea what word would describe Jake’s awful, blank-eyed terror. “Nervous.”
Jake let go of Gabe to swipe the sweat off his forehead. His hand was trembling and his shirt was so wet with perspiration that it was clinging to him. “Just a bad memory. It happens sometimes.” He took one of Gabe’s hands again and gripped it. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” Gabe rubbed his thumb back and forth over Jake’s knuckles, willing to anchor Jake as long as he needed him to.