He needed a minute, maybe a little longer, to feel something other than regret and a sense of having been left behind. This was ridiculous, or so Eric tried to tell himself repeatedly, but the reassurance only deepened the feeling that some part of him was slowly dying. He took in his home, the brown frame bungalow with a sidewalk that curved around to meet the driveway and the double garage. It was a nice home, for navy housing, in a nice community. Everything was safe and predictable and the same. The bushes around front needed trimming, and the flower beds were now filled with dead and composting perennials in the chilly fall air. Even the leaves had turned yellow and were dropping at a steady clip, covering the once green grass. It was average work and would be the excitement of his weekend. There was always something to do for his house and home.
He slid his hand over the sturdy black steering wheel and pulled his keys from the now silent ignition. He loved this car, a ’67 Shelby Mustang GT 500, one of the best cars—in Eric’s humble opinion—ever built. The 320-horsepower engine alone was an adrenaline rush. It had been a steal. He had picked it up from a sergeant, a man with a wife and three kids and another on the way. The man had loved the car, or so he said, but he was being re-stationed across the country, and it was time to say goodbye to his toy. Eric suspected those orders had come from the sergeant’s wife, because Eric would have moved heaven and earth to take this car across the country with him had he been in the sergeant’s position.
For Eric, this car was an indulgence he believed he was entitled to after giving up the sea for Abby. He would never say that to her, though he wondered whether she knew. She was so kind and fragile, and saying how he felt would only be cruel. It would hurt her, and she’d blame herself. He wouldn’t be able to live with himself, seeing the hurt in her eyes. Even though he felt empty on land, he’d choose Abby and his children over the sea any time. Most sailors and career navy men had both, but then, the married ones often had strong, stable wives manning the home front. Even though Abby had pleaded with him not to give up his career, he knew that her demons and nightmares and the pain of being taken still haunted her. No, he couldn’t take a chance and leave her and the children again. He needed to protect her. He needed to be her rock. He needed to be here to wake her, holding her when the nightmares took hold, reassuring her that she was safe.
A tap on his window startled him. He glanced out before opening his door to see Mary-Margaret, the wife of Joe, his best friend and former XO. She stepped back, wearing blue jeans and a cream sweater. Her dark, straight hair touched her shoulders, and she wore tiny gold hoops in her ears. She was holding a dish covered with a towel.
“Are you planning on sitting in your car all night, mooning over your new toy?” she said, her right dimple flashing as she teased him—though for some reason she seemed less put together tonight than she normally was.
He gave the heavy door a shove, and it clicked closed. Taylor, Mary-Margaret and Joe’s eldest boy, was hovering beside her uneasily. At fourteen, he’d grown again, and he towered over his mother by almost a head. His dark hair was getting long, covering his ears, and his hands were shoved in his jeans pockets.
“Are you missing some kids?” Eric asked right before he heard her two youngest arguing as they came out of the house next door. It was good having them close by, as Mary-Margaret and Joe had been his saving grace when Abby broke down. At the time, he’d been shipped out, and Abby had walked out on the kids in the dead of night. If Mary-Margaret and Joe hadn’t been so close…Eric still cringed as he relived that panicked call when Joe told him Abby was gone. He took a breath to push away that painful memory. He didn’t like going back there and reliving what had happened.
Janey stomped across the grass toward her mother, wearing blue jeans and a hoodie, her long, dark hair in a ponytail. Her face was a picture of preteen surliness. Steven, who had celebrated his eleventh birthday last week while his dad was away, slammed the door of the house and leaped off the front step into a pile of leaves, calling after his sister. His tan jacket flapped open, his short, dark hair sticking up. Eric could see that the kids had had enough of their dad being away. They needed him and had held it together, but the tension was building. When Eric glanced over at Mary-Margaret, she rolled her eyes.
“The joys of sibling rivalry,” she muttered.
“What’s going on?”
“Joe’s been gone too long, three months…” She stopped and glanced up at Taylor, who was listening. “Run on inside, Taylor. Give Abby a hand with the kids.”
Eric took in all the kids. Steven and Janey had stomped right past him as if he didn’t exist. He could see that Taylor and his younger siblings were at an age where their independence shone through. It didn’t help that Joe was stationed over in Iraq—which was the reason the kids and Mary-Margaret were at his house now. Joe was going to Skype in, having actually arranged it with Eric…which he now thought was odd, considering how close Joe and Mary-Margaret were. Maybe there was something going on that Joe needed to talk to Eric about.
Eric realized that Taylor was still standing there, ignoring what his mom had asked. He wondered whether Taylor was going to argue with her, as he stayed where he was, shifting from one foot to the other, shoulders slumped.
“Taylor, your mom asked you to do something, and I don’t see you moving,” Eric said. This time, the boy snapped his attention to Eric and shrugged. He said nothing but started up the sidewalk into the house through the open door. Eric definitely needed to have a talk with the boy. “What’s going on there?” Eric asked, taking in Mary-Margaret’s annoyance.
Was she angry at him for stepping in? He didn’t think so, but she was losing control here. The kids were growing up, but a sadness lingered over them—and something else was going on, something he couldn’t put his finger on. He’d never seen Taylor not listen to Mary-Margaret before. For a moment, he wondered whether Joe’s distance was sowing dissension in the ranks. They needed their father, his authority. But Eric was here, and right now it fell to him to step in and take them in hand while Joe was away. Another thing he had overlooked.
Mary-Margaret sighed and shook her head. “Hormones, I think, and Dad’s not here. They miss him more than usual. We seem to be fighting more, and Taylor ran into some trouble at school.”
“Oh, what kind of trouble?” He glanced up to the house and the open door, listening to the voices of Abby and the kids, along with the squeaky chatter of his four-year-old daughter, Rachel.
“You know, the usual with kids his age: mouthing off to his teacher, was caught smoking in the bathroom at school with a couple of his friends. Stupid stuff.”
He gave her all his attention, fighting the urge to drag Taylor back outside and give the kid a lesson he’d never forget. Disrespect was a line he shouldn’t have crossed, and Eric would make sure he never made the mistake of smoking again. “I’ll talk to him. Sorry, I should’ve been over more. I’ll make sure to stop in every day until Joe gets back. As for this smoking thing, rest assured, I’ll put an end to it,” he said, glancing up to the house again. Another thing had been piled onto his plate, another thing he’d slipped up on. Taylor was at an age where he needed more of everything, more guidance and direction. Now he was going down the wrong road, experimenting and making bad decisions.
Mary-Margaret was watching him under thick lashes, her lips tight. He wasn’t sure what was going through her head now. She appeared to be carrying the weight of the world, and she let out a sigh. “Would you? I’d really appreciate it,” she said. “Joe calls, but we’re so used to saying all the superficial stuff, how everything is good even though sometimes I feel as if everything is falling apart. I have to hide so much from him, pick and choose what to tell him and when to tell him. At the same time, I know how mad he’s going to be when he finds out I didn’t tell him something because he’s been off fighting, playing soldier or whatever it is you guys do over there.
“When he comes home and finds out, sometimes he doesn’t take it well. He thinks I’m hiding things from him, so there are things I just never tell him. It becomes this balancing act you get good at the longer you’re in the military.” She glanced away and then forced a sad smile to her lips. “Sorry, I think maybe I’m just tired of holding it all together and going through this song and dance. But you know, Eric, what hurts sometimes is that I don’t think Joe really wants to know. He wants to go play war, and I hold everything together for him.”
“I’m sorry,” Eric said. He didn’t know why he felt the need to apologize. That was exactly what he’d done to Abby, but at the same time he’d understood Joe’s need to go off and fight and serve. It was a part of himself he’d had to give up, a piece of his soul that he’d now lost—that need to go off and save the world, to be in the fight, the action, to have that adrenaline driving him.
“Taylor and I have always been so close,” Mary-Margaret said, “but he needs a man to talk to.” She swept her hand in front of her face and set it on top of the dish she carried. “Never mind me. I’m just tired and missing my husband.” She stopped and glanced down. “Eric, is there something going on with Joe?”
He frowned, not really sure what she was getting at. “You know I can’t tell you what Joe’s doing or where he’s stationed.”
She appeared almost embarrassed, licking her lips. After all the years he’d known Mary-Margaret, he’d never known her to be nervous. “I know,” she finally said. “I don’t want to put you in an awkward position, but Joe has been so distant—unusually so, lately. We’ve been married a long time, and the navy life is all I know, so I understand there are things you can’t tell me…but you can tell me if my husband’s having an affair.”
It took him a moment to realize she was serious. “Uh…I don’t know where this is coming from,” he replied, “but Joe is probably the last man to cheat. If he was having an affair, we wouldn’t be friends. If there was even a hint that he was stepping out on you, well, you know I would break his face.”
Perhaps that wasn’t what she wanted to hear, because she suddenly let a tear fall as her face crumpled.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he said. He put his arm around her shoulder and pulled her close, and she instinctively rested her head against his chest. She was taller than Abby by a few inches, but shorter than his six feet two inches. As he looked down at her, she sniffed, trying to pull herself together, nodding anxiously. He could tell she was trying to find her voice.
“I don’t know, Eric. There’s something different about Joe, and it’s not that he’s distracted. I know the difference. Do you know why he insisted he Skype here, at your house? He didn’t answer the email I sent yesterday asking what was going on.”
Eric wasn’t sure what to say, but he too was wondering why Joe had insisted on Skyping here. It seemed odd, but he wasn’t about to fuel Mary-Margaret’s suspicions. He needed to have his own chat with his friend. “I’m sure it’s nothing. He’s been training is all I know, and being in camp instead of onboard a ship may be throwing him off. He’s got a lot on his plate is all, I’m sure.”
It sounded good, anyway, but Eric still couldn’t get over Joe’s choice to join a ground team as part of ordinance training, to be part of a convoy clearing the way. It was dangerous, and Eric wondered why he’d put in for this posting in the first place. It was something he’d expect from someone younger, someone without a wife and three kids. This posting had been a choice, even though Joe had told his wife otherwise. Maybe this was his midlife crisis. Eric really needed to take his friend aside and have a talk—but not tonight.
“You haven’t heard when he’s coming home, have you?” Mary-Margaret asked.
They started walking up to the house. Eric was in his uniform, and he tucked his hat under his arm. He then extended his hand so Mary-Margaret could walk ahead of him. He didn’t like seeing her like this, and he really hoped Joe would set things straight or fix whatever this was with his family. “Friday,” he replied. “I don’t think anything’s changed, but we’ll find out soon. He’s Skyping in at six.”
“Six, are you kidding? I thought it was at seven. It’s almost six now. Why the change?”
He hesitated, grinding his jaw as he tried to make sense of what could have been a misunderstanding. Damn it! What was he doing, putting himself in the middle of his friend’s marriage? Maybe Joe had been hoping Mary-Margaret wouldn’t be there. Eric hoped not, as he followed the frantic woman into his house. There had to be a good reason for the mix-up, or at least he hoped to hell there was. He was taken in by the spicy aroma wafting from the kitchen and his wife’s concern as she saw Mary-Margaret dashing past her.
Eric closed the door behind him, and his gaze went to Abby, who wore a red apron over a black turtleneck. Her blond hair was tied back in a ponytail, and she wore dark-rimmed glasses, a recent addition after she started having headaches and found out she was nearsighted. She looked cute.
“Hi,” she said, taking him in. She hesitated a moment, holding a dishtowel in her pale hands, and she gestured to Mary-Margaret, who snapped at Steven in the kitchen as he helped himself before everyone was ready to eat. Abby took a step closer to him. “Everything all right?”
She was so petite, curvy in all the right places. She still struggled with nightmares from when she had been taken in Paris and sold to an Arab. She’d escaped, beaten and pregnant, which had been how he’d found her. She still woke in a cold sweat some nights from nightmares that would have her crying and begging, always after something upsetting happened during the day. Eric found himself taking a minute every day when he came home just to look at her, to get a sense of how she was doing. He’d talk to her and sometimes question her, trying to figure out if she was upset or hiding something. From there, he always had a pretty good idea of how her day had gone. He’d learned, too, to keep anything upsetting from her. When the TV was splashed with everything horrible and dramatic happening overseas in the war in Iraq, he turned it off.
“Joe’s Skyping in at six, which is any time now, but he told Mary-Margaret seven,” he explained. “He must have been busy, and their wires just crossed.” He was trying to lighten the mood, but she frowned anyways.
“Does he do that often? That doesn’t seem like Joe,” she said, looking up at him. Of course, she’d also figured out there was more to it.
“How was today?” he asked, and she took another hesitant step and then another until she was standing so close he could smell her sweetness and feel her heat. She reached up and touched his face. He could hear the scrape of whiskers as she slid her hand over his cheek, her light blue eyes taking him in. She didn’t try to hide from him now like he knew she had before, not wanting to burden him. She’d almost destroyed herself, their children, and their relationship in the process, and she promised never to do it again. He could see the effort she made every day.
“It was a good day,” she said. “I missed you. How was your day?”
He leaned down and kissed her, sliding his hands over her cheeks, smoothing over her soft, silky hair, caressing her for a second with his thumbs. She smiled up at him, the light flickering in her eyes, chasing away the shadow that had been there a moment before.
“It was good,” he replied. It had sucked, actually, getting dragged into meetings most of the day. He missed the action of being at sea on his ship, in the thick of it. Now he was pushing paper, commanding from shore, something he had never wanted to do.
She smiled at him and leaned into his hand before he pulled away. “Liar.”
He raised his eyebrows. She’d never called him that before. He didn’t like it, and he moved to pull his hand away. “Abby…”
“You think I don’t know what you did for me, for us? You gave up what you loved.”
Rachel ran into the small living room, surrounded by brown plaid furniture—plain, serviceable. “Daddy, you’re home!” she cried. She was always so happy. She had dark hair, dark eyes, round cheeks—a happy girl. Eric prayed she would never know where she came from.
He stepped back and lifted her, giving her a little toss. She giggled, and then another set of tiny hands grabbed his leg. He didn’t miss the pure joy in his little boy’s face. Charlie had his mother’s eyes and his father’s expression. Eric couldn’t believe he was a year old already, into everything. He never walked anywhere, he ran.
He leaned down and set his hat on Charlie’s head. The boy giggled and then raced in a circle as the hat drooped over his eyes. When Eric looked at Abby again, she was frowning, watching him, waiting. Over the past year, she’d become stronger, more understanding, and at times she pushed issues with him when he wanted to just leave things alone. She talked more, listened, and had even started calling him out when she didn’t believe him, like now.
“You’re more important,” he finally said, hoping she’d drop it. She was, after all, and so were his children.
Her gaze changed to understanding. He could see the moment where she suppressed whatever she was thinking and nodded. “I love you,” she said, lifting her hand and hesitating only a second before touching his arm softly, confidently.
“I love you, too.” He leaned down and kissed her.
He glanced up when Taylor and Janey wandered into the living room, ignoring them and plopping on the sofa. Abby looked over at the same time he did. Anyone could see how unhappy the kids were.
“I’m going to get dinner finished so we can eat. Your father’s Skyping in soon,” Abby told the kids before wandering into the kitchen to put dinner on the table.
Eric connected his laptop to the TV so everyone could see and hear Joe when he called. This was the first time they’d ever gathered together for the call. He’d just opened the screen when he wondered if Joe wanted to talk to him first, alone. There wasn’t much he could do at this point. He’d just presumed Joe would want to talk to everyone, and he’d asked Abby to invite Mary-Margaret and the kids over. There was one thing Eric knew about his former XO, though: Joe didn’t do anything sloppily. He was deliberate, organized, and knew what everyone’s roles and schedules were better than they themselves did. No, this mix-up with the times definitely wasn’t normal for him. Eric shook his head, cursing Joe under his breath. He didn’t like this bullshit, not one bit.
The Skype signal rang on the computer, and Eric clicked “Answer.” Joe’s face filled the screen. He was sitting in front of his computer, wearing a brown T-shirt. His short, dark hair was a mess, his face a little scruffy, and he was looking down, probably at the keyboard.
“Is that Dad?” It was Janey who called out, and everyone came into the living room. The kids were chattering excitedly in the background.
“Joe, everyone can see you,” Eric said quickly. “Your wife and kids are here, but you must have gotten your wires crossed.”
He didn’t know why he’d said it—maybe to warn him, maybe just to let him know he was on to him. More than anything, Eric wanted to make sure Joe watched what he said. He didn’t want to see Joe screw up something so good. He had family responsibilities, and although Eric wanted to have time alone to talk to his friend, that wouldn’t happen tonight.
“Hi, guys! How’re you doing? Boy, do I miss you all,” Joe said.
Eric stepped back as the kids started calling out to their dad and flooding him with questions. Even Eric had to sigh, unable to tell who’d said what. Joe was smiling and leaning down closer to the screen.
“You didn’t shave today, Joe,” Mary-Margaret said as she held her arms across her middle. She may have sounded calm, but Eric could see how tense she was.
Joe was grinning ear to ear. “No time. It was either shower and shave or Skype. I only have so much time here.”
“You’re still coming home Friday, Dad?” Taylor was hovering just behind Eric, who glanced at him. The young teen was struggling with awkwardness. He needed his father.
Joe was flickering in and out, and he squinted as if having a hard time hearing. “Taylor, I’m coming home Friday, yeah. Listen, how is school going?”
Taylor shrugged as if Joe were right there. “Good.”
Far from good, Eric now knew, but Joe didn’t need to hear that right now. On Friday, he could learn everything about his kids and his wife—and then he could have a word with Eric. Eric was also planning on having a much-needed talk with Taylor, and he’d sit down with Steven and Janey, as well, make sure there was nothing else going on.
A bang had Eric glancing back at the screen, which was flooded with bright light and wobbled a bit. “Joe, what’s going on?” Eric said. He was right in front of the screen, close to the mic.
There was commotion behind Joe and a lot of static before the screen went dead.
“Eric, what’s going on?” Mary-Margaret said. She was right beside him, gripping his arm, and the kids were calling out, “Dad! Dad!” Janey started crying.
“It’s probably just the connection,” Eric said. “Everyone needs to calm down. It happens from here to there. Damn satellites,” he snapped, feeling bad immediately for losing his temper.
“So that wasn’t an explosion?” Mary-Margaret said. She ran her hand through her hair, shaken and wide eyed as she reached for her kids, who all went into her arms.
“That could have been a hundred different things. I guarantee you it was most likely a problem with the satellite, so whatever you’re thinking, stop it.”
Even as he spoke, though, Eric was thinking the worst. He wouldn’t share any of his suspicions until he found out what was going on, but Eric knew what an IED sounded like, and the screen between them had muffled the reality of how bad it really was. Where Joe was stationed, anything could happen. His wife didn’t know that, though, and neither did his kids, and Eric didn’t intend for them to find out now. Eric had lived and breathed war for most of his life, and he knew the drill. Whatever it was, the family would never find out the truth.
This anxiety, though, the worry and not knowing, wasn’t something he was familiar with.
“Abby,” he said. When he turned, she was holding Charlie, and Rachel was gripping her leg. Both kids were quiet, taking in the stress in the room. “I’m going to make a call just to ease everyone’s minds, find out what’s going on. Why don’t you get the kids ready for bed?”
Her eyes darted to Mary-Margaret and the kids and then back to Eric, and she rubbed Charlie’s back, resting him on her hip. She started to say something and then hesitated, glancing at the kids. “Janey, Steven, Taylor, why don’t you give me a hand getting Rachel and Charlie bathed and ready for bed?”
Good distraction. Man, he was proud of her. She met his gaze, and for a minute he knew she understood. Abby called the kids again, and this time Mary-Margaret let them go. Before Abby could move and step away, he touched her face, and she leaned in. It was only a second, but it was a connection he needed. She could be so grounding at times. He could see how she’d changed, having become more confident, handling a situation he knew she wouldn’t have been able to before. She nodded before putting her arm around Janey and leading the kids down the hall. He turned back to the blank screen and the sound of Skype trying to reconnect. But there was nothing, just a quiet room and Eric and Mary-Margaret, alone.
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