THE WAY HOME - Book No. 2 - "ONE-EYED JACKS "
“Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin they think of
firelit homes, clean beds and wives.” ~ Siegfried Sassoon
Afghanistan – July
It wasn’t the memory he would have chosen – not when he couldn’t even remember his own name – but he knew that he used to have nightmares about vampires. Hiding under his bed and in dark closets. Swooping down on their Dracula wings, sinking their fangs into his neck and sucking out his blood.
How ironic, then, that he’d become a vampire of sorts: a creature who lived in the night, hid from the light, and sucked sustenance as though it were blood from a young Afghani woman who despised him but wouldn’t let him die. She brought him food, water and medicine. And opiates that she liberally laced in all three.
He watched her now through an opiate induced haze, physically incapacitated and totally dependent on her. He knew that her name was Rabia and that shecould ill afford the things she brought for him. He also knew that if he were caught while she harbored the escaped American soldier a horde of Taliban warlords were searching for, not only would he be tortured, interrogated and finally executed, so would she.
So he didn’t know why she continued to help him, but he had no option but to accept it. Just as he had no choice but to believe what she’d told him in heavily accented English about who he was … because he didn’t remember. He didn’t remember being an American soldier, or what had happened to him, or how he’d escaped from the Taliban and ended up here.
The panic and anguish that stalked him whenever the opiates wore off were as huge and dark as the cave where she hid him. So he gladly relinquished both to the apathy induced by the poppy. Apathy was painless. Apathy made it tolerable to know that weeks, maybe months of his life were gone. His memories … gone.
Only the vampire dreams remained of who he’d been. And only the woman kept him alive.
He studied her now as she prepared his meal in the dim light of an oil lamp, in a silence that embodied their uneasy and unnatural bond as shifting shadows danced along the curved rock wall and dust swept into the cave on a wind that never quit blowing. He knew scattered words in Pashtu but didn’t know why he knew them. She had a passing command of English but rarely chose to use it. More irony that she represented the one constant in a life that had been reduced to pain, fear and the vertigo that crippled him even more than the opiates. And he didn’t know whether to thank her for keeping him alive, or hate her.
Moving his head slowly to avoid triggering another vertigo attack, he pulled the ragged blanket around him against the chill of the cave floor.
Because he was too weak to feed himself, he watched her eyes as she offered spoonfuls of lukewarm soup. He couldn’t see her features beneath the dark scarf she wore over her head and wrapped around her neck to cover her face. He could only see those eyes, onyx black, winter cold and void of any emotion but weary disdain.
It had been the same thing every day for twenty-three days. He’d used a small pebble to scratch a mark on the rock wall every day since he’d regained consciousness. She would appear wearing dark, baggy trousers beneath an encompassing scarf or burqa that covered her from head to knees completely hiding her body beneath yards of coarse, draping cotton. The scent of the summer heat and the scorch of the sun that she brought with her were reminders that a world existed outside this cave. A world that wasn’t dank and dark and cold. A world that was hostile and foreign and where, she assured him, he was not safe.
For twenty-three days she had been the only soul he’d seen and she had yet to look him directly in the eye. He wouldn’t recognize her if he saw her on the street. Not that he would ever leave here. If the pain and the vertigo didn’t keep him flat on his back, the ankle shackle that chained him to the rock wall would. And then there was the poppy. Who knew how deeply he’d been dragged down that rabbit hole?
Some days – the lucid ones, when he couldn’t fight the fear – he would lie here shivering and wish for death. When pain ripped through his head, when the dizziness became so crippling it reduced him to lying rigidly still, hugging the rock floor in a desperate and futile attempt to stop the nausea, that’s when despair crushed him. And he would beg her to let him die.
Always, she refused. She continued to risk all to make certain he stayed alive and he had no idea why.
He knew only that every time she appeared on quiet feet and condemning silence, he felt both shame and gratitude because she hadn’t forgotten him … the way he’d forgotten everything but the need to leave this place that even God had forsaken and find his way back home.
If only he knew where home was.
Northern Minnesota – July
Today, of all days, Jess Albert needed routine. Most days she got it. Shop keeping wasn’t exactly a glamorous, high profile or lucrative occupation. In fact, every day was pretty much a repeat of the day before and the day before that. Little mini ground hogs days stacked up like cord wood one on top of the other. All that was about to change, however, to the tune of the old bell fixed above the Crossroads General Store’s front door.
“Until tomorrow my little lotus blossom. Dream of me.”
Jess grinned as one of her regulars, Boots England, delivered his standard good bye, tucked his newspaper under his arm and limped toward the door on his recently replaced knee.
“One of these days Marcia’s going to show up with a shovel and bash one of us over the head if you keep flirting with me like that.”
“Ah, but what’s life without a little danger?” He wiggled his bushy white eye brows, blew her a kiss and let himself outside on a hot rush of July air to get in his Saab and drive the four miles back to his lakeside cabin for his afternoon nap and his wife of almost fifty years.
The bell above the store’s front door dinged softly behind the irrepressible old flirt, sounding the same as it had since Jess’s father had first set up shop almost fifty years ago. Jess loved the sound of that bell. It was comforting and comfortable, the bedrock of her childhood, as ingrained in her psyche as the scent of sunscreen, bug spray and the cherry nut ice cream she’d already scooped gallons of this summer.
She’d spent her youth playing on the scarred pine floors, eventually working behind the counter and after burning out as an ER trauma nurse, finally taking over the store when her parents had retired and moved to Arizona three years ago. So yeah, she loved the sound of that old bell. She especially loved it because every time it rang it meant business which was good because her quarterly taxes were due soon and, as always, she was a little short on cash.
She also loved it because it meant she had another customer to help keep her mind off the fact that this particular day would be a tough one to get through. She glanced at the framed 8 X 10 photo of her and J.R. that hung on the wall behind the cash register. Suntanned and smiling, their whole lives ahead of them. And then it wasn’t. At least it wasn’t for J.R.
He would have been thirty-five today. If he’d been home and not deployed, she would have baked him a cake and some of his buddies on the base would have stopped by and they would have drank a little beer.
But the last birthday J.R. celebrated had been thousands of miles from home. He’d been thirty-two. Eight months later, he’d been dead.
“Too late to add these to the bill?”
She looked up at the young father making some last minute purchases before he and his son headed out onto the lake for a week of camping and fishing. He’d added a map and two black ball caps with Lake Kabetogama embroidered across the bill in red to their growing stack of supplies.
“Not a problem.” She gave him a bright smile and harnessed her attention back to the business at hand. “Anything else?”
The Crossroads Store was a North woods version of a Wal-mart – on a much smaller and less state of the art scale. The store had been supplying locals and travelers alike for over eighty years. You needed boots? Whiskey? Bait? Groceries? DVD rentals? Anything you could think of the Crossroads provided.
“Yeah, throw in half a dozen C batteries and we’ll call it good, right, son?”
The boy looked to be around ten with flashing brown eyes and buzz cut blond hair. He was the image of his father and antsy to start their grand ‘just guys’ adventure.
“Do you think we’ll see a bear?” Equal measures of hope and trepidation peppered the boy’s question.
“It’s a good possibility,” she said, feeding his excitement. “Last DNR count, over a hundred and fifty black bears called Lake Kabetogama and this part of Voyagers National Park home. Where’re you camping?”
The dad dug into his breast pocket and quickly checked his camping permit. “Blue Fin Bay.”
“Ah. Then there’s a pretty good chance you might spot one.”
The boy’s eyes grew as big as bobbers.
She couldn’t help but laugh as she continued ringing up their sale. “Make sure to police your camp site every day and store your food in the bear proof lockers the park service provides. You’ll be fine.”
The bell rang again in the background. Jess glanced up from the cash register in time to see a pair of broad shoulders and the back of a baseball cap disappear down the center aisle toward the live bait tanks.
It was a sight she saw dozens of times a day during the summer season. Another fisherman burning with fishing fever, hoping to get lucky and needing some bait. Since she was on her own for a while until Kayla Burke, her mainstay summer help, got back from a bank run, she left the newcomer alone to figure out what he wanted while she finished ringing up twenty gallons of gas, a mocha cappuccino, a root beer and the rest of the groceries for the father and son campers. She gave them directions to Wooden Frog Landing where they could put their boat in and wished them good luck. Once they’d headed out the door, she decided she’d better check on Mr. Ball Cap.
Wiping her hands on a paper towel and heading out from behind the counter, she nearly tripped over Bear, her twelve week old Labrador pup. The dog was a mass of sleek, glossy black fur, big clumsy feet, and happily thumping tail. Still fully spent from their run early this morning, Bear had ‘assumed the position’ and napped soundly by her feet.
“No, don’t get up.” She grinned at the oblivious dog and headed down a row of shelves stocked neatly with everything from canned goods to marshmallows to fishing lures, and walked toward the last place she’d seen the top of the ball cap disappear.
“Sorry for the wait. What can I get you?”
“Not sure. What do I need to catch the big ones?”
The voice stopped her cold. And routine, mundane and comfortable shifted to excitement and chaos in one long, heavy heartbeat. It didn’t matter that the row of stocked shelves hid him. She knew exactly who was back there.
Holy, holy cow.
Talk about a blind side. It had been a year ago February since she’d met this man and exchanged a very few words him. No way should she have remembered the timber and the pitch of his voice so clearly after … what? Eighteen months? Yet she was one hundred percent certain it was him before she hesitantly made the final turn to face him.
“Surprise.” He smiled, hopeful and expectant and even a little shy. Coupled with his very large, very striking, and very unexpected presence, it set off a handspring of emotions in her stomach.
“Yeah,” she finally managed, along with a return smile that felt as forced as it felt necessary. “You could definitely say this is a surprise. Hello, Ty.”
She started to extend her hand, thought better of it and stuffed it into the back pocket of her shorts. “Wow. You’re a long way from home.”
A very long way. Not merely a long way from Florida. A long way from his life. A heck of a long way from a cold winter night when he’d swooped in and out of her life like the storm he’d blown in on. And now here he was, back again. One of the men who had been in the thick of a dangerous rescue. A man who had made enough of an initial impression on her that she’d opened up her gun safe to him and three other virtual strangers based on his word alone.
Unable to stop herself, she started at Tyler Brown who looked nothing like J.R. but who she suspected was like him in every other way. Every way but one. Ty Brown was alive. J.R. wasn’t. Her husband had died thousands of miles from home, fighting a war she’d never quite understood, hadn’t truly sanctioned and that she hadn’t been able to keep him from fighting. Looking at Ty – who’d made her think of J.R. the first time she’d seen him – unsettled her as much as it confused her. And yes, unfortunately, excited her.
Yup. Her day had gone from mundane to totally bonkers to the tune of a bell above the door.
“So.” He looked expectant when she stood there. Guess he finally decided one of them needed to say something and since he’d brought this game into play, she was fine with it being him. “Thought I’d do some fishing.”
Florida was no longer surrounded by an ocean full of fish?
Because he had this little ‘if you buy that, I’ve got some farm land in the Sahara desert I’d love to sell you’ smile, she avoided the obvious questions like: What was he really doing here? And the most damaging one: Why did it seem to matter so much?
“Early July’s not the best time of year.” Two could play this game. “But I’m told fishing started to pick up a bit this week.” She pasted on her shopkeeper smile and pretended her world hadn’t been tipped on end. “You want live bait?”
His grinned, looking both thoughtful and amused, like he knew that she knew he hadn’t come all this way to fish but was willing to play it that way until she got used to the idea. “Live bait. Yeah, sure. Why not? Live bait would be good.”
She moved behind the bubbling minnow tanks, hoping she didn’t appear as off balanced as she felt. “Got a sale on flathead chubs.”
That spurred a soft chuckle. “My lucky day.”
She could not look at him because for God sake, live bait had not brought him back to Kabetogama. Neither had fishing but she wasn’t ready to process that yet. Head down, she started scooping up minnows. “Couple dozen do you?”
“I don’t know. Will a couple dozen do me?”
He was laughing at her now … not unkindly but like he found her entertaining which meant he saw right through her.
Lord, she hoped he didn’t have her figured out. Or maybe she did. Then he could tell her exactly what was going on in her head because she didn’t have one solid clue. Well, maybe one. There hadn’t been a man in her life since J.R. And there’d never been a man who triggered the physical reactions this man had at first sight all those months ago. Reactions he triggered again today.
It had both unsettled and puzzled her that she had experienced such an instant and strong physical reaction to Ty Brown on that very brief first meeting. But she’d chalked it up to a cold, isolating storm, the threat of imminent danger and a lot of long lonely nights alone in her bed.
But then he’d disappeared from her life as quickly as he’d come in to it. Which had been good. Which had been fine. She’d actually been relieved when he hadn’t called even though he’d said he would – at least that’s what she’d told herself several times since. She didn’t want to get involved with anyone. She especially didn’t want to get involved with a man like Tyler Brown who was just like J.R. Special Ops soldiers, whether active duty or retired, were always warriors. They would always be the man leading the charge, putting themselves in danger, living for the adrenaline rush and dying for God and country and the guy next to him in the trenches.
She’d lived with that man. She’d loved and tried to understand that man. But neither love nor understanding had been enough to keep him home, keep him happy, or keep him alive.
Simon and Schuster