Breaking the Rules

TRIGGER WARNING: Sawyer and Alma’s story comes with a trigger warning because it deals with combat stress, PTSD, and suicide. If you are sensitive to these issues, this book may not be for you.




I don’t feel his hands around my neck until it’s too late. His fingers tighten, robbing me of breath. I can’t scream. I can’t move. Fear overwhelms me, taking over every cell in my body. I hear him shouting at me, calling me by a name I don’t recognize in a language I don’t understand. I try to pry his fingers loose but he’s too strong.

Drew, wake up! You’re dreaming again!

But the words don’t come out. There are only my desperate gasps for air as his fingers tighten and I claw at his face, my nails digging into his eye sockets.

Suddenly he lets me go and I fling my body off the bed, my knees hitting the floor first and then the rest of my body following after. My belly, my shoulders. I should feel the pain but I don’t. I make it toward the far wall before my legs fail me, my knees buckling beneath me. I turn around and press my back against the wall, my arms held up in case he comes back, still deep in his dream.

“Alma?” Drew’s voice is like a child’s, uncertain of what just happened. “Alma?! Baby, you okay?” It’s a man’s voice now, this time filled with confusion. “Fuck, baby, what happened? You okay?”

He crawls toward me, his face illuminated in the semi-darkness. “Baby? You okay?” He asks again as he finally makes it toward me. As he gathers me in his arms, I don’t fight him. I can’t. I’m too tired, too exhausted, and too scared.

“Alma, I’m so sorry. You okay?” He pulls away to check my neck, recoiling in horror when he sees what he’s done. All I know is that my neck is sore and it hurts to swallow. “Baby, I’m so sorry.”

I break into sobs. What if he hadn’t woken up?

“I’m so sorry, baby. I’m so sorry,” he mumbles again and again. “Say something, Alma. Please. Say something.”

“You need to see someone, Drew,” I whisper hoarsely. “Whatever it is you’ve been doing, it’s not working. You need to tell someone.”

As Drew pulls me closer, I feel his body trembling. I know he’s been hurting ever since he returned from his last deployment two weeks before everyone else. Combat stress, they said. He could no longer lead his unit as effectively as he could. It had been his decision but it might as well have come from higher up. It broke him somewhere inside and now, it’s breaking us.

But I can’t keep forgiving him like I have the past four months since it started happening—the anger, the rage, and the dreams, all of them transforming him into a man I don’t recognize anymore—our marriage bearing the scars that hadn’t been there before.

“You could have killed me, Drew,” I whisper as I bring my hand to my neck, “me and the baby.”

As he lets me go, I see the guilt on his face. His expression shifts to disgust and then fear. His Adam’s apple bobs as he swallows, nodding. “I’m sorry, babe. It won’t happen again. I promise.”


“Promise me you won’t tell anyone,” he says, gripping my shoulders. “Promise me.”

I stare at him. Is that the only thing he’s worried about? That people will know what’s really happening? “Drew–”

“Promise me, Alma.” His grip on my shoulders tighten, his eyes engaging mine. “Don’t tell anyone.”

“But you have to tell someone about this, Drew. Please. Call–” I pause, almost saying someone’s name before I realize that it will only send him into a rage. Sawyer had come to talk to Drew because I’d asked him to, nothing more. A friend visiting a friend out of concern. “Call your case manager,” I say instead. “Tell him you need inpatient therapy. The rest of the things you’re doing… the pills, the weekly therapy sessions… they’re not cutting it and I can’t keep pretending that things are getting better.”

Drew gets up from the floor and paces the room. As he rakes his fingers through his unruly blond hair, I can’t believe I’m looking at the same man who rescued me after getting stood up by a date at an Oceanside bar six years ago. After watching me for half an hour, he decided that whoever I was waiting for had just made the biggest mistake of his life. I didn’t really need rescuing but the way Drew looked at me told me he was a man of his word.

But that man is gone now. It feels as if he left a huge part of him behind in Afghanistan this time. He’s different. Angrier. Short-tempered. Forgetful even, which is so unlike him. I can’t keep telling myself it’s because he’s not familiar with Los Angeles because he grew up here. His parents live in Palos Verdes. But he’s been forgetting the simplest things lately, like directions to the doctor’s office for the ultrasound a few weeks ago. He couldn’t remember where it was or when it was even he had it on his phone. The same thing happened at the VA when they sent him to another building to see a new therapist and he lost his way. He’s too proud to admit it. He used to be the happiest guy in the world, always finding something to smile about no matter how bleak things were. It was one of the things his fellow Marines told me they loved about him. Now, I can’t remember the last time he laughed.

“I can help you fill out the forms,” I say. “If you tell your case manager what happened, I’m sure she can refer you–”

“I told you, I’ll take care of it,” he says through gritted teeth before getting up from the floor and walking to his side of the bed. He slips on a pair of jeans and grabs a shirt from the dresser, one of its panels knocked loose from the last time he punched it.

“Where are you going?” I ask as he slips his feet into his boots.

“Where else?” he snaps. “Out.”

“But, Drew, you can’t just walk out.”

He kicks the dresser with his booted foot and it cracks. “Look, Alma, I’m doing my best, alright? I’m not a fucking kid that you have to make my calls for me.”

This time I don’t say anything. I don’t want him to get more upset. Besides, this isn’t the first time we’ve had this discussion. Nor is it the first time we’ve tried to get him admitted. He’d gone to get help two months ago but turned around when he realized that men he knew just might see him there. Him, Drew J. Thomas, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Valor and two Purple Hearts, the squad leader who led his men through hell and back, the same Marine who risked his life to pull his best friend to safety when they fell under enemy fire.

But what can you do when the man everyone remembers is not the same man who came home to you?

“Drew, if you don’t call someone about getting inpatient therapy today, I won’t be home when you get back.”

Drew kneels in front of me and rests his hands on my belly. At twenty-eight weeks, I can’t wait to welcome our son into the world but not like this, not when his father can’t separate his dreams from reality.

“I thought you promised to be with me through everything, Alma. Through sickness and in health, through richer or poorer…” His eyes search my face. “What happened?”

“Our baby is due in two months, Drew. It’s not just me now,” I whisper, covering his hand with mine. “I need you to think of him, too. What happened today… what if it happens again after the baby is born?” My voice breaks as I continue, “What if you don’t wake up next time?”

Drew’s expression turns into anger. “I told you. It’s not going to happen again.”

“I just want you to get better. Ask your case manager to refer you to an inpatient therapy facility today. Could you do that for me?” I reach out to touch his stubbled jaw but Drew turns his head away and gets up.

“What are you doing?” I ask as he grabs his phone, wallet and keys from the bedside table.

“What do you think?”

Before I can say anything, Drew walks out of the room, slamming the door behind him. As the front door slams shut, I’m too stunned to do or say anything. I fight back the tears but it’s no use. They roll down my face, falling on my belly. None of my vows had prepared me for this. None of them included sitting back and letting the demons he fought overseas take residence in every corner of our home. I touch my neck gingerly, the memory of his hands tightening sending shivers up and down my spine.

What if he hadn’t woken up?

I retrieve my phone from the bedside table and scroll through the names in my Contacts list. I feel my desperation mounting, the realization that I can’t be here when he gets back. Not unless he calls the VA and requests more help. I wish I could call one of the wives or even his Sergeant for help but we’re no longer living in Camp Pendleton. Drew is a civilian now and Torrance has been our home for the last eight months.

I also can’t call Drew’s parents who have no idea what’s really going on. They believe that Drew is perfect and there’s nothing I can do or say that can change that. He’s their oldest son, the one who set records and received many awards after returning from deployment, the hometown hero. In their eyes, Drew can’t do anything wrong.

I keep scrolling, pausing when I see a familiar name and feel my chest tighten.

Sawyer Villier was the Marine Drew had pulled out of the burning Humvee five years ago. Shrapnel from the blast had torn right through the door, embedding in his leg. Sawyer was Medi-Vac’d and flown to Germany and then to Walter Reed where he underwent numerous surgeries to save his leg. It meant an end to his career as a Marine sniper but they remained close and for years, when Drew was deployed one more time, Sawyer would come over to help around the house. Nothing major, but it was a big help. Whether it was clearing the rain gutters of debris or helping me carry the Christmas tree into the house because I was determined to celebrate the holidays even when Drew was deployed, Sawyer was always someone we could depend on until two months ago when they had a misunderstanding and Sawyer hasn’t come by since.

But I tap his number anyway and wait as the phone rings. Four rings later, Sawyer picks up but I can barely hear him over the background noise. It sounds like he’s in a wind tunnel.

“Villier here,” he says, his voice curt.

“Sawyer, it’s me, Alma.”

“I know.”

“I was hoping you could talk to Drew…” I’m stammering but I can’t help myself. I’m suddenly embarrassed, ashamed for needing his help.

“You know I can’t do that, Al,” he says. “You know what happened the last time I was there.”

“I know but–”

“I have to go.” The line goes dead, the noise in the background gone. I take a deep breath, wishing I didn’t feel so hopeless but he’s right. Sawyer is the last person Drew would want me to call, not after what happened two months ago.

I look at the room around me, at the walls with the holes Drew had punched out that I’ve patched and patched again, the dresser drawers that hang loose because he’d yanked them clean off their rails. And then there’s what I woke up to, his hands wrapped around my neck. There’s no patching that one.

You either mean what you say or you don’t, Alma. Make up your mind and stop making excuses for him. One day he’s going to hurt you again and this time he won’t wake up from his nightmare. You won’t either.

It takes all my willpower to get off the bed and start packing. I don’t want to leave but I also don’t want to be here when Drew returns. Seeing the bruises forming on my neck as I stare at my reflection in the dresser mirror is all I need to know that everything is not fine and they won’t be unless he gets help. And no matter how much I love him, I need to do this, not just for myself but for our baby, too.

What happens if he doesn’t wake up the next time?

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