Author: Teresa Mummert
"It is. I don't really want to talk about work. Tell me about you." I tucked my hair behind my ear and forced a smile.
March 13, 2010, Saturday,
Bangor International Airport, Maine
"You got a pen?" Owens tapped me on the arm, startling me awake.
"What the hell? I was finally sleeping."
"Yeah, I know. We're about to land. Give me a pen. I want to give that flight attendant my number."
"You have a girlfriend." I slipped my hand inside my top and grabbed a pen and the letter I had forgotten about from my cousin.
"She's my pen pal, and we aren't exclusive. Who's that from?" Owens asked as he took the pen from my hand and wrote his number on a piece of paper.
"Does she know that? It's that letter from my cousin. He's in Maine."
"So are we, man. We're about to land."
I sat up in my seat and glanced out the window. My eyes drifted down at the envelope in my hand. I flipped it over and ripped open the top.
March 1, 2010, Tuesday
May spoke to Chelsea. We wanted to plan a trip down to see you when you come home. I'm sorry. No one deserves to go through that. I don't know if this letter will reach you before your mid-tour leave, but I'd like to see you. May and I have an extra bedroom and would love to spend time with you if you get the chance. Tyler and Zack ask about you constantly. I tell them you're a hero and out fighting the bad guys. They can't wait to hear your war stories.
I don't like to share news this way, but we don't get to talk much on the phone, so here it is. May is pregnant again. She swears it feels like a girl this time. Can you believe that? After six years, our persistence paid off. Hope everything is well with you. Give me a call sometime.
"Everything good?" Owens leaned forward and glanced down at the letter. I quickly folded it and shoved it back inside my pocket.
"Yeah, my cousin and his wife are having another baby."
"Nice." Owens smiled and sank back in his seat.
"Everyone knows about Chelsea."
"Shit." Owens scrubbed his face with the heels of his hands. "What are you going to do?"
"Well, I ain't going home to be humiliated. So much for being a hero."
"No one thinks this is your fault."
"Please buckle your seatbelts and return your seats to their upright positions," a man announced over the intercom system.
We didn't speak until we were wandering through the airport, shaking hands with those who had come to welcome us home safely. People cheered and thanked us for our service. An elderly man wearing a Vietnam vet hat held out his cellphone for me to use. I took it, staring down at the buttons and wondering who I could call. I was dreading stepping foot back in North Carolina.
"Jake? Hey, man! How are you doing?"
"Jesus, is this Shane? How have you been?" Jake pulled the phone away from his face and yelled to his wife. "Honey, you will never believe who is on the phone!"
"Busy? What? No. Just getting the kids' dinner ready. Where are you?"
"Bangor. I'm at the airport. I want to come see you if that offer is still on the table."
"Yeah! I'll be there in like… Just wait for me. It won't take me a while to get from Bridgewood."
"I'm not going anywhere, no rush. I think I need to grab a room for the night. Maybe meet up with you in the morning?"
"Yeah, sure. Just give me a call. Don't be a stranger. Shane, welcome home."
"Good to be home." I lied and hung up the phone.
"God bless you and thank you for your service, son." The elderly man took the phone and smiled up at me.
"Thank you too, sir," I replied and made my way over to Owens who was shoving cookies into his mouth.
"Next flight is in a few hours. Texas, baby! When's yours leave?"
"It doesn't. Change of plans. I'm gonna visit my cousin."
"Woah, you can't just do that. You're gonna unleash a shit storm."
"Don't worry about it. I'll call whoever I need to call. I can't go back there. You know it wouldn't end well."
"Yeah, all right, man. Stay safe."
"You too. Don't do that girl of yours wrong!" I yelled toward Owens as he began walking away. I grabbed my bags and headed out the front door of the airport. The sun was blindingly bright after being locked away in airports over the last few days. I wished I had arrived at night. It was easier to hide the sadness when no one could see into your eyes. The air was chillier than I anticipated and I was thankful I was still wearing my uniform.
I wasn't about to waste anymore of my time. I walked through the crowds of travelers and made my way down to the main road that led into town. It wasn't far until the rows of hotels came into sight. I glanced up at the tall buildings and opted for the local motel that was laid out in two stories. Tall buildings made you a target. My eyes scanned the other structures before I picked the area I wanted to stay. I stepped inside the lobby and dropped my bags to the floor with a thud.
"Can I help you?" The older woman from behind the desk turned to face me, pushing her glasses up the bridge of her nose.
"I need a room for tonight. Two thirteen if it's available."
She studied me for a minute, pondering my odd room request. I wasn't in the mood to explain.
"This isn't the place for casual encounters. If you're looking for something like that, you're in the wrong town." She raised her eyebrow in an attempt to appear authoritative. I laughed and struggled to maintain my composure.
"Yes, ma'am. Just looking for a three hots and a cot."
"Well, we don't serve food here, but there is a vending machine around the corner and a few restaurants within walking distance
." I nodded as she slid the key to the room across the counter. "That will be fifty-nine ninety-eight and check out is at eleven a.m. No later or I'll have to charge you for an extra day."
"Understood," I replied as I pulled sixty dollars from my wallet and laid it on the counter. I grabbed the keys and my bags and made my way to my room for the night.
I was completely jetlagged and need to make a few phone calls to make sure my status wasn't changed to AWOL.
I unlocked the door to the room and pushed it open with my bag. As I stepped inside, I crinkled my nose at the musty smell that assaulted me. I dropped my bags to the ground and groaned as I grabbed hold of my shoulder that was stinging in pain. The Army ages your body and mind quicker than any other job out there. I glanced around the room. The walls were painted a light blue that was dull and faded over the years. There was a small writing desk that sat across from the bed. It wasn't home, but it would do. I grabbed the phone on the desk and called SATO to change my leave plans before I fell back onto the bed and closed my eyes and begged the memories to stay away long enough to get some rest.
May 5, 2008
"Can I buy you a drink?" I smiled as I sat down on the barstool next to a leggy blonde that had come in on her own.
"I can buy my own drinks." She grinned and stared off at the rows of bottles behind the bar.
"Fair enough," I sighed and took a sip from my mug. I glanced over my shoulder at the other soldiers who had accompanied me to the Raging Rooster, a small dive bar just outside of the base. They raised their glasses and laughed, knowing I was about to strike out. "You mind if I keep you company?"
"It's a free country." She smiled as her fingers traced the rim of her glass.
"That it is." I laughed into my drink. Her eyes drifted to me as she scanned my camouflage uniform.
"I guess I should thank you for that."
"If you really want to thank me, you can tell me your name."
March 15, 2010, Monday,
Holstein and Leeman Advertising Agency, 8:00 a.m.
I hadn't even gotten my blazer off before people were asking me to run errands and look over reports. I wanted to scream. This wasn't where I expected myself to be just a day shy of my twenty-seventh birthday. I had hoped to advance further in my career as I had watched countless men do. I was nothing more than a glorified secretary, and my patience was wearing thin.
"Could you help me?" a voice called from behind me.
"Can't anyone do anything for themselves around her?" I mumbled under my breath as I spun around in my chair. Two strong hands came down on the arms, stopping me from rotating with a sudden jolt. I was face to face with an incredibly rugged and handsome man I had never seen before.
"Where's the fun in that, sunshine?" he asked with a wink. My heart leapt into my throat as I stared into his dark blue eyes.
"I was beginning to think you weren't coming!" Jake called from across the hall as he made his way over. The stranger stood and held out his arms to hug him as my eyes traveled over his muscular physique.
"Sorry. I overslept." Shane rubbed his hand over his dark, buzzed hair.
"An entire day?" Jake laughed and hit him playfully on the arm.
"Jet lag. Looks like you could use a few hours," he laughed.
"Been a long week. This is Jenn." Jake motioned toward me with his hand. My eyes never left Shane's.
"Nice to meet you. I'm Shane." He smiled politely and deep dimples settled into his sun-kissed face. He stretched out his hand for mine. I let my fingers slide across his palm as he gripped on to me tightly. His palm was rough and calloused from years of hard work. Electricity shot through me from that simple touch. I pulled my hand back and placed it on my lap. "So, congratulations are in order! I hear this one is going to be a girl?"
Jake's face sank as he took a deep breath.
"You didn't get my last letter? It probably went out after you already left. What day did you send that?" His eyes fell on me. My heart fell to the pit of my stomach. My hand slipped down into my blazer and I pulled out the addressed envelope and held it out to them.
"I'm so sorry, Jake. I had a lot on my mind." It was only a matter of time before Jake found an excuse to fire me and I had just made his job easier.
"It would have missed him in transit anyway." Jake's hand ran over his hair as his eyes focused on the tile floor in front of him.
Shane took the letter from my hand and looked over the envelope before looking back at Jake.
"It wasn't meant to be." He shrugged, trying to come off unfazed. "Two kids are a handful as is. The economy isn't what it used to be."
"I'm sorry." He put his hand on Jake's shoulder and gave him a sympathetic look. "At least you can keep trying," he joked, hoping to lighten the mood. He slipped the letter into the back pocket of his jeans.
"I'm no quitter." Jake smiled. "Sorry about Chelsea."
Shane's eyes glanced over at me and back at his cousin. "Already forgotten." The muscles in his jaw ticked as he clenched it.
"Why don't I take the day off? I know a great sushi place in town and May is just dying to see you."
"Sounds good. I could use some real food and maybe a drink."
"Jenn, can you handle my reports for the rest of the day?"
"Sure, no problem." My mind reeled with the new information about Jake. I always thought he was just a mean person by nature. I never would have guessed so much was going on in his home life. I couldn't fathom losing a child.