A HERO COMES HOME


A Bell Sound Novel #3
Avon Books
February 2020 (01-28-20)
ISBN-10: 0062854194
ISBN-13: 978-0062854193


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CHAPTER 1

Sally Dawson stood, momentarily transfixed, staring at the scene before her. She felt a little like Alice in Wonderland falling down the rabbit hole, except, in this case, it must be the Graceland hole.

A native New Yorker, she had seen just about everything on the streets of the Big Apple. And, really, she’d been living in Bell Cove for almost nine years now, ever since her late husband, Captain Jacob Dawson, had brought her to his hometown as a bride. So, she shouldn’t be surprised by what the well-meaning wackos in this small town came up with. But this beat them all, even last Christmas’s Grinch contest, where everyone was running around like a chicken with its head cut off, trying not to get “Grinched.”

No, this was a new high for Bell Cove. Or was it a new low? In terms of corniness, that was. “Jailhouse Rock” was blaring from the loudspeakers, the Sexy Senior Swingers (aka the Old Codgers Dance Club) were performing some amazing jitterbug moves on the newly laid asphalt parking lot, and a twenty-foot neon Elvis, with his trademark crooked grin, oversaw the entire event. Actually, it wasn’t a jitterbug, but that Carolina favorite, the “Shag.” No Outer Banks event could be held without that homage to boardwalks, hot sun, and beach music.

The line waiting to get into the diner was twenty deep and, with all the new arrivals, hadn’t gotten any shorter since the doors opened three hours ago, at noon. And, yes, with perfect timing, the town bells, each with their own distinctive sounds, began to chime the hour. First, Our Lady by the Sea Catholic Church. Bong, bong, bong! Then, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong! And finally the clock in the town hall tower. Clang, clang, clang!

No one even paused in their conversations at the ringing. It was, after all, a town that had been founded over a hundred years ago by the Conti brothers, Italian immigrants who built Bell Forge. The small factory became known for finely crafted bells, the kind that hung in cathedrals and big city towers and on college campuses, but they also made bells as musical instruments. Every business in Bell Cove—every residence, in fact—had a bell attached to its door, thanks to the Conti influence. The one over the door of Sally’s bakery, Sweet Thangs, was a soft jangle that she’d come to love.

Still bemused, Sally noticed that everyone in line, not just the dancers, had made an effort to suit their appearance to the occasion. Women and girls, no matter the ages, wore sweater sets or pastel-colored blouses with Peter Pan collars tucked under tight cinch belts into circle skirts over bouffant petticoats, leading down to bobby socks and saddle shoes. Still others wore figure-hugging pedal pushers or dungarees rolled up to midcalf, with flat ballet slippers. Ponytails and poodle cuts abounded. The guys, men and boys, went either preppy with crew cuts, button-down shirts, and back-belted khaki pants with white buck shoes, or else they went full greaser with black leather jackets over white T-shirts and ducktail haircuts.

No, it wasn’t a reenactment of that movie Grease. It was the grand reopening of the Rock Around the Clock Diner and the Heartbreak Motel, and it looked like everyone in the small town had shown up . . . and was commemorating the event as only Bell Cove-ites could in their own unique, wacky style.

Delilah Jones—rather Delilah Good since she’d recently married Darrell Good, treasure hunter and former Navy SEAL—was the owner of both businesses, but a little fact like that never fazed the good people of Bell Cove who tended to take over when there was any excuse for a celebration. No wonder then that they were using the reopening of the Elvis- and 1950s era–related businesses as a prelude to the town’s new Lollypalooza Labor Day Weekend to be held in a few weeks. God only knew what they’d come up with for that!

George Saunders and Lance Bowes, whose Out of the Closet chain of North Carolina thrift shops, including the one on the town square, just down the street from Sally’s bakery, must be doing a thriving business with all this vintage apparel. Sally had to admit, she was benefitting from increased traffic in her bakery today, too, a spillover from this event.

Enough dawdling! Sally readjusted the large bakery box filled with four-dozen fresh-baked hamburger rolls in her arms and walked on. Here and there, people called out to her.

“Hey, Sally! Need any help with that?” Frank Baxter from Hard Knocks Hardware asked. Frank, who was renowned for his comb-over hairstyle to hide a bald spot, or rather a comb-forward hairstyle complete with bangs, wore an Elvis wig today. And a jumpsuit! At close to seventy years old, with a bit of a paunch, he was not a pretty sight.

But that was mean, Sally chastised herself. Frank was a nice man. In truth, everyone in this town was. A little bit crazy, but good-to-the-soul people.

Still, Sally blinked rapidly to avoid gawking. “Not now, Frank. But thanks for offering. Six blocks ago would have been nice, though,” she chided in a teasing way.

“Ouch!” he said and grinned.

Standing next to Frank was his main squeeze, or the person Frank would like to squeeze. Everyone knew he had a thing for Mayor Doreen Ferguson, who owned the shop next door, Happy Feet Emporium, which had to be doing a run today on blue suede and saddle shoes. Doreen, also close to seventy, wore purple capri pants with a white sleeveless blouse tied at the waist, ala Rizzo from Grease. Her brown hair had been teased into a bouffant hairstyle with the ends flipped up, thanks, no doubt, to her daughter Francine who owned Styles and Smiles hair salon. “Where’s that outfit I sent you, girl?” Doreen inquired with an exaggerated glower. “You’d make an incredible Ann-Margret.”

Hardly! I’m too skinny. Don’t have enough on top. And my pixie hairstyle would never do for Viva Las Vegas. “Oops. I left it back at the shop. It’s a little big, and I didn’t have a chance to alter it,” she lied.

“Excuses, excuses!” Doreen wagged a forefinger at her and said, “You better not think you’re getting out of a costume for Pirate Day.”

Wanna bet? “I wouldn’t think of it.” As part of Lolly Weekend, the town council had decided to set aside one day to celebrate the shipwreck treasure discovered several weeks ago by Merrill’s salvaging company. What that had to do with pirates was anyone’s guess. But then, Bell Cove folks put their own spin on everything that happened hereabouts. In a nice way, she reminded herself. And it was good for business.

With a little wave, Sally continued walking to the back of the diner. She was about to set the box down and knock on the door, but it opened suddenly and Delilah smiled warmly at her. “Thank you, thank you for answering my SOS call! We’re almost out.”

“Really?”

“Yep.”

“Wow! You started with eight dozen.”

“I know. Isn’t it great?” She took the box from Sally and motioned for her to come in.

The narrow kitchen that fed the diner through a wide pass-through window was a beehive of activity: Orders yelled out, mixed with laughter, and an occasional muffled curse as grease spattered. A myriad of smells. Hamburgers sizzling, peanut butter and bananas melding in grilled sandwiches, and Delilah’s trademark multiflavored cinnamon rolls. Overlaying it all was the voice of Elvis crooning through the sound system, “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Merrill, in a white apron and hokey chef’s hat, waved to her as he helped Andy Briggs, the cook, at the stove. “You’re an angel, Sal,” he declared, referring to the rolls, she assumed, which Delilah set down on the counter near him.

One high school kid worked the fryers, while another was washing dishes, the two of them exchanging trash talk about some skateboard competition.

Delilah’s grandmother, Salome Jones, whom some called the “Glam Gram,” was plating dishes, even as she was dressed to the nines in a sheer, shiny silver tunic with a deep décolletage over tight black spandex yoga pants. Her dyed blonde hair was swept up into a beehive style. No surprise that the lady had been a Las Vegas showgirl at one time. From behind, she could have passed for her twenties, rather than her sixties. In fact, she could have played the role of Ann-Margret better than Sally any day, no matter what Doreen Ferguson said.

Delilah’s five-year-old daughter, Maggie, was sitting on a high stool at the prep table mashing ripe bananas with a fork.

“How adorable!” Sally remarked to Delilah.

The little girl looked like a Mini-Me version of her mother, both of them wearing poodle skirts and bobby socks, their blonde hair pulled back into high ponytails, Delilah’s silver blonde and Maggie’s more a gold tone.

“Thanks. You have no idea how many hours we spent picking out these ensembles. Maggie is very particular about not being too matchy-matchy.”

“I’m surprised your grandmother isn’t out there with the dancers,” Sally remarked. “With her dancing background, I mean.”

“Oh, she was. And she will be. But Stella, Andy’s assistant, needed to take a break, and Gram offered to help out here.”

“Lilah! Why didn’t you ask me if you need help?”

“You have enough on your plate without helping me, too. Just keep baking those rolls for me. That’s help enough.”

“I am so impressed with what you’ve done here, Lilah. Really, how did you manage to pull this all together in less than a month?”

“Well, we’re working on a shortened menu today,” Delilah said, handing her a cardboard menu insert. “Just three appetizers, three entrées, and three desserts. Fried dill pickles, oysters Rockefeller, and catfish nuggets. Then, bacon-topped meatloaf with mashed potatoes, brown gravy and Southern-fried corn; fat cheeseburgers with all the works and a side of French fries; and, of course, grilled peanut butter and banana sandwiches, with or without bacon. Then, for dessert, banana pudding, the Fool’s Gold Cakes your bakery made for us, and my cinnamon rolls.”

Sally had to laugh at Delilah being able to spout out her entire menu. Which wasn’t surprising, really. Sally could do the same for her bakery offerings, even though they changed often. “Everything Elvis related, I notice.”

“Right. Have to keep everything according to Uncle Clyde. Although I managed to squeeze my cinnamon rolls in, you’ll notice.”

“Your uncle must have been a character,” Sally commented.

Everyone knew that Delilah had inherited the business—the diner, the motel, and the bayside land—from her great-uncle Clyde. Even as she’d been in prison! But that was another story.

“He was,” Delilah replied. “The man loved Elvis, obviously, as evidenced by the Heartbreak Motel, and all the kitschy Elvis stuff everywhere—posters, jukebox music, food. But his business was a tribute to that whole rock and roll era, as well, by naming this the Rock Around the Clock diner.”

“You could say he was lost in the sixties,” Sally joked.

“For sure.”

Sally glanced at the menu Delilah had handed her. “So, not a salad in sight.”

“There will be eventually. We are a work in progress.”

“Tell me about it! But, when I said I was impressed, I meant the diner renovation itself. I know you were doing all the grunt work yourself for a while but this”—she waved a hand to encompass her surroundings—“well, you made some major improvements in a miraculous amount of time.”

“Money,” Delilah said with a self-deprecating grimace, making a motion of her head toward Merrill. “My husband is a computer genius and he managed to find all these internet sources for equipment, even the specialized stuff like tabletop jukeboxes for the booths, and service sources, including, can you believe, there are actually people who repair neon signs? But he also used his computer skills to hire staff, set up staff schedules, and make menus. Bottom line, though, is money talks, and without the cash I made for my share of the shipwreck treasure, I’d still be sanding rust off the exterior of this diner.”

“You’re speaking to the choir here, girlfriend. I was sitting home with three kids just getting by on social security after Jake died. It was only when I got his death benefit check that I was able to open my business.” Jacob Dawson, a captain in the Army, Delta Force, had been declared MIA more than three years ago, leaving her with three kids, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, then aged five, four, and two. Six months later, the death notice came. “Sitting home” pretty much said it all where she’d been concerned in those early days. If it hadn’t been for her young brood, she would have been comatose with grief and guilt. In the end, the bakery had been her salvation in more ways than one.

Delilah nodded, seeming to understand without the details, and said, “Where are the boys today, anyhow?”

“Kevin took them fishing.”

“Woo-hoo!” Delilah said and grinned at her. “Do I sense a love connection here?”

Sally felt her face heat. Kevin Fortunato, or K-4, an ex-SEAL like Merrill, had been hitting on Sally since he’d arrived in town a month or so ago to join the treasure-hunting company. To no avail . . . until recently. Which was surprising for him, apparently, since he’d avoided the dating scene after his wife died of cancer several years ago. And surprising for Sally, too, since she hadn’t been involved with any man at all since Jake’s death, and despite her vow never to be involved with a military man again, even an ex-soldier.

“Not a love connection.” Not yet anyhow. “But an attraction.” Definitely, an attraction. “I consider him a friend at this point.”

“With benefits?”

Sally’s face heated some more. “No.” But lots of almost benefits. Like kissing till my bones melt. Or touching that verges on near sex. Sally wasn’t sure how much longer she could hold out. Not that he was pressuring her, but just being himself, sexy as sin, was pressure in itself.

“But you’re tempted?”

“Oh, yeah!”

Just then, the cell phone in her pocket buzzed. She took it out and glanced at the screen. “Speak of the devil,” she said, and read the text message.

Where R U?

Diner. U back already?

Already??!!##

Sally laughed. Eight hours with three energetic boys—on a boat, no less—would tire even the most patient adult. But one not used to kids . . . well, Kevin must be ready for a nap by now.

Before she had a chance to remark on that, Kevin wrote again.

U R needed at home asap.

Her heart skipped a beat. Emergency?

No. Visitors.

Who?

Just come.

On that ominous note, Sally said quick goodbyes to Lilah and the others, and hurried to her cottage, which was several blocks away in the row built more than a hundred years ago for the Bell Forge workers. Her home was across the street from the one where Jake had grown up with his mother and father. His father, Joseph Dawson, a commercial fisherman, still lived there by himself since his wife, Margaret, Jake’s mother, died last year of a heart attack. Joe was a godsend of help when Sally had to work, as his wife had been before her death.

Sally was a half-block away when she saw Kevin walking toward her. How nice, that he was coming to meet her! Away from the chaos of her house where her three boys would be vying for attention. They must be across the street with their PopPop. So, Kevin coming to meet her represented a rare, private moment.

Nice.

Kevin was wearing the same running shorts and raggedy Navy T-shirt he’d had on this morning with sockless athletic shoes. Tall, compared to her five-five, but no more than six feet, probably an inch or two less. And muscular, as all SEALs or ex-SEALs were. All Special Forces guys, for that matter, as she well knew, having lived in a house cluttered with the old-fashioned weights and barbells that Jake had favored. His black hair was short, but not as military short as when he’d first arrived in town. With dark Italian coloring enhanced by weeks of sun out on the ocean-salvaging expedition, he was one good-looking man.

Maybe it was time to move to the next level.

Maybe it was time to check out his bed at the Heartbreak Motel, where he lived, temporarily.

Maybe making love with Kevin would be the best birthday present she could give herself. She would turn twenty-eight next week, after all, and she hadn’t engaged in sex in almost four years.

As they got closer to each other, she smiled at him. An enticing smile, accompanied by a quick flick of her tongue to wet her lips, which she hoped conveyed her invitation.

He didn’t smile back. And there was no doubt he’d understood the message in her smile.

She faltered and came to a complete stop.

He came right up to her and put his hands on her shoulders. The expression on his face was stone-cold serious.

“Oh, my God! Did something happen to one of the boys?”

He shook his head.

“Joe?”

Another shake of the head.

He stepped to the side, deliberately. They were a short distance from her cottage by now, and she could see what his large body had been hiding from her view.

A black sedan with a white license plate and blue lettering, clearly marked US Government, sat on the street. There were small American flags on either of the front fenders. Standing beside the vehicle was an older, gray-haired man in full military uniform, the four stars on his epaulets denoting him a general. Beside him stood a distinguished-looking, fortyish, black man in a tan suit who she could swear was Senator Bolton Smith, North Carolina’s newest bright star on the political horizon.

Sally’s knees went weak and she might have fallen if not for Kevin’s firm hold around her waist. This was shades of the death notification visit she’d gotten from the Army three years ago, but then it had been a lower level Delta Force officer and a military chaplain.

What does it mean?

What is the worst thing these people could tell me?

Jake is dead. He can’t be declared dead again.

Maybe it’s some posthumous medal he’s being given. Well, forget that. She’d had enough with the military long before Jake had left for his last deployment. But Jake had been gung-ho Uncle Sam and God Bless America to the end, bless his patriotic soul.

“Mrs. Dawson?” the general said when she got close enough to notice the grim expression on his face, which matched the one on Kevin’s face, as well as that of the senator who had a cell phone in one hand, which he was tapping away at with an expert thumb. How rude! But then, maybe it was an important call he had to make. Direct line to the president, she joked to herself.

But then she heard him say “Yes, Mr. President.”

Holy frickin’ hell!

“Yes. I’m Mrs. Dawson,” she said to the general.

Kevin walked away, leaving her on her own.

It was all so strange. If she’d felt like Alice falling through the Graceland garden hole before. Now it was more like Alice in Woo-Woo Land.

Only seconds had gone by, but her brain reacted like it was viewing a series of slides. Pictures on the walls of her brain that went click, click, click.

Kevin greeting her before she reached home, a warning of sorts in his caring eyes.

The black sedan with the government plates in front of her house. Didn’t they see the no parking sign

A high-ranking military man waiting. For me!

And a senator, for heaven’s sake. In Bell Cove! The townies will have him over at the Elvis diner doing the Shag, if they find out.

The surprisingly absent sound of three boys laughing and shouting at the same time, each vying to get her attention, especially after a day fishing. What does it all mean?

The military man coughed to clear his throat and said, “I’m General George Parker from the Joint Chiefs. In Washington.”

She tilted her head to the side and waited.

“I have some good news for you, Mrs. Dawson,” he said, though the tone of his voice didn’t sound like it.

“That’s great. I could use some good news.”

Was it ironical, or what, that the bells of Bell Cove began to ring then? A drumroll couldn’t have done it better. Bong, bong, bong, bong! Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong! Clang, clang, clang, clang!

When the reverberation of the bells stopped, into the silence General Parker announced, “Your husband is alive.”

*****

CHAPTER 2

He could “go home again,” but he didn’t want to . . .

“Oompfh!” The muscles in Captain Jacob Dawson’s scarred back screamed with agony as he lowered the bar on the weight machine. The compact multifunction gym station, which probably cost a cool fifty grand, worked every part of the body imaginable. Today, Jake was concentrating on lost upper body strength. An uphill battle to say the least . . . and painful!

“Jake, my man, you are sweating like a fisherman hauling in two-hundred-pound gill nets under a blistering Outer Banks’ sun.”

Surprised, Jake twisted around on his seat, too quickly, and about passed out at the lightning bolt of pain that struck the back of his skull. Even so, he reached, reflexively, for his trusty Ruger, which, of course, wasn’t there. All this happened within a split second, and he was about to duck for cover when reality hit.

It was just his longtime friend, second lieutenant Isaac Bernstein, who’d walked, unannounced, into his private room at the Landstuhl military hospital in Germany. “And, dude . . .” Izzie sniffed the air in an exaggerated fashion, ignoring Jake’s reaction, “you stink like bad tuna, too.”

“Bite me!” Jake said and stood, taking a moment to get his balance. He still wasn’t used to the soft brace on his left leg. He limped over to the bench where he grabbed a gym towel and began to wipe the sweat off his brow and bare chest.

“How’s the leg doing?” Izzie asked after watching his gimpy progress.

“Just super. After three surgeries and a titanium rod implant that weighs about five pounds, I still can’t dance.”

“Not even the Shag? Oh, man, you’ll lose your Carolina creds.”

Jake threw the towel at Izzie’s teasing face.

He caught it midair and tossed it back at him. “Remember the dance contest in Myrtle Beach? You and me and the Marconi twins from St. Bernadette’s. I was the winner, as I recall. In more ways than one.” He waggled his eyebrows for emphasis.

“Dream on, brother. Even at sixteen, I could beat your ass in any contest, whether football, swimming, fishing, or . . . dancing.”

“I don’t know about that. I have fond memories of Angela Marconi. She was my partner that night, and . . .” He began to sing “Under the Boardwalk.”

Grinning, Izzie stepped forward to give him a warm bro hug, despite his smelly body.

Jake barely restrained himself from shoving his friend away. He didn’t like to be touched anymore, not even by his buddy since toddlerhood when they’d been dog-paddling side by side in the cool waters of Bell Sound, their mothers best friends since college, fellow teachers at Bell Cove Elementary School for many years. Of course, Jake’s mother was gone now, but he and Izzie had many shared memories.

“Cool digs!” Izzie remarked a short time later, as he sipped at one of the beers he’d snuck in.

Jake was sipping at the other, the first he’d had in the three months he’d been residing there. Didn’t matter that it wasn’t even ten a.m. Beer was the breakfast of champions on occasion.

“A suite, no less!” Izzie continued as he gazed around the large room.

Yes, Jake had a suite, if you could call it that . . . a traditional patient room with an adjoining sitting area featuring institutional-style furniture, a bare-bones couch, coffee table, TV, and dining table, and an alcove for the gym equipment. It was located in a private—in other words, secret—wing of the hospital where Uncle Sam hid those high-profile soldiers it didn’t want the public to know about. Down the hall, at the moment, were a congressman’s pilot son who’d crashed a billion-dollar aircraft in some reckless Top Gun maneuver, and two unidentified soldiers rescued from a work camp in Russia, where they had no business being. Probably SEALs.

“Suite, my ass! They can call it that all they want, but, in the end, it’s a jail. I’m just as much a prisoner here as I was for three years in an Afghan cave.”

“You don’t mean that.”

“Yeah, I do. The surroundings might be more comfortable. The food a little better. And I don’t get tortured every other day, except by Nurse Hatchitt and his happy needle.”

“His, as in male nurse?”

Jake nodded. “Marine lieutenant Delbert Hatch, RN, as in registered nutcase. Solid gold butt-inator.”

Izzie smiled at that reminder of the name the two of them, at age of about ten, had given to anyone, mainly adults, they classified as assholes. “So, no pretty young things prancing around?”

“Be careful where you talk like that, man. Even I, isolated like I am, know what constitutes sexual harassment.”

Izzie pretended to zip his lips.

“And, no, there are no pretty young things here, not that I’ve seen. Personally, I think it’s just another form of legal torture Uncle Sam is inflicting on me. Visual deprivation.”

Izzie popped the caps off two more bottles of beer and handed one to him. They moved to the low couch where they both leaned back and propped their shoes on the coffee table. A flat-screen TV on the opposite wall was showing yesterday’s Yankees game against the Red Sox, with an announcer narrating, at a low volume, the play-by-play in German.

“Seriously, you know what would happen if I tried to walk out of this hospital with you, right?”

Izzie took a long draw on his brew, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and raised his brows in question.

“There would be so many sirens going off you’d think we were being attacked.”

“They’re just trying to protect you.”

“Bullshit! I can’t make a phone call, and my computer is locked so that I can read but not participate in any forum. Not even receive or send email.”

“No interactive porn, huh?”

“Hah! They’d probably encourage that. Do you know what my shrink—Dr. Sheila—asked me last week?”

“I can’t begin to guess.” Izzie smirked.

Jake elbowed him, and Izzie elbowed him back. Immature, yeah. A sign of longtime companionship, more so. They grinned at each other.

“Dr. Sheila asked me if I’m suffering from wargasm.”

Izzie’s eyes went wide before he let out a hoot of laughter. “What the hell is wargasm?”

“Google it when you get home. You won’t believe it.” Jake took a small sip of his beer and set it aside. He really wasn’t in the mood for alcohol. The combination with his meds was making him a bit nauseated.

“The private hospital wing, the mental and physical rehab, the isolation . . . all these things . . .” Izzie paused, then continued, “Well, I repeat, they’re protecting you until you’re well enough to return home.”

“And I repeat, bullshit! They’re protecting their own asses. I leave here and tell the press what happened to me in that Taliban shithole, it will jeopardize that ridiculous truce with the Balakistan rebels. If the brass had their way—and they’ve been trying to brainwash me with some asinine ‘forgive and forget’ philosophy, for the sake of peace, for three months now—I would go home and keep my mouth shut. It’s all politics!”

“Everything in the military—hell, everything in life—is politics. You know that.”

“Yeah, but I don’t have to like it.” Jake gazed at his friend, who was wearing Army fatigues, and smiled. “Is that another bar I see on your chest, soldier?”

Izzie puffed his chest out and grinned. “Yep. Finally made captain. Now I’m just like you.”

“Hah! They want to make me a major and plant me in some defense department office, making ‘Hail to the Chief’ promo videos. Or some such crap.”

“Be real, man, you’re in no shape to return to active duty, if that’s even what you’d want,” Izzie said, not in an unkind way.

“Don’t I know it!”

“A cushy job in DC sounds pretty good to me, short-term anyhow.”

“Yeah, right. You’d be as miserable in a desk job as I would.”

“Maybe.” He studied Jake for a moment. “You do look a lot better than you did three months ago when they brought me in to identify your unconscious body.”

That had to have been hard for Izzie, but then, Jake would have done the same for him in a heartbeat. “I saw pictures in my file this week. I looked like Frankenstein’s younger, uglier brother. Now, I look like some Long John Silver Freakoid.”

“You do not.”

Jake put a hand to the patch over his one eye and then held out his hands to display his nailless fingers.

“The nails will grow back, and your other injuries will heal eventually. Maybe not totally, but . . .”

“Not my eye.”

“The laser surgery didn’t work?”

“No. They want to do another one in a month or so, but I am not sticking around this burg that long. Even if I have to rappel down the side of the building using bed sheets.”

“And then what?”

“Hell if I know!”

“Still don’t want to go home?”

“Still don’t want to go home,” Jake agreed.

A sudden idea seemed to occur to Izzie and he said, “Please don’t tell me you had other injuries.”

At first, Jake didn’t understand until he noticed the blush on Izzie’s face and his quick glance downward to Jake’s crotch. “No, the package is still intact. Wanna see?”

“Hell, no!” Izzie relaxed visibly. But then he continued on the previous vein, “Don’t you want to see Sally? And your kids?”

Jake shook his head.

“They miss you.”

The kids might. He wasn’t so sure about his wife. They’d exchanged words before his last deployment. Harsh words. As for the kids, three years was a long time in kid land. They probably didn’t even remember him.

Jake had been sent recent pictures of his kids . . . and of Sally. The boys, Matthew, Mark, and Luke—yeah, he’d been on a Bible kick back then, and hoping for a John, eventually—were eight, seven, and five now. Luke had been only two the last time he’d seen him. He saw no resemblance to himself in the gremlins, except for their blue eyes . . . and maybe their mischievous grins.

The boys, even the littlest mite, had attached themselves to Jake like leeches—adorable leeches—whenever he’d been home on leave. And wailed like banshees every time he’d had to leave.

As for Sally, her long hair, a luxuriant light brown with golden sun highlights that he’d loved to wrap around his hands when—Not going down that road!—had been chopped off to an almost boyish style. The flighty girl’s parents had been artsy-fartsy Broadway set designers and had raised their only child with only one aspiration, to sing on the Great White Way someday. Until she’d met him, that was. Sal did have a voice like an angel . . . a powerful alto for such a petite woman, like that singer Adele.

How had the girl who couldn’t boil water or balance a checkbook managed to open and operate a successful bakery? And why hadn’t she gone back to Manhattan and her parents and a possible singing career when he’d “died”?

In answer to Izzie’s question, though, about his family missing him, he replied simply, “They’ll get over it.”

“But why? I just don’t understand why you’d want them to.”

“I’ve changed.”

“We all change. Hell, if you must know, you’re probably better looking with that broken nose.”

“I’m not talking physical changes. Inside—” he pounded his own chest “—inside I’m like an unpinned grenade. The least jarring and I might explode. And don’t you dare tell that to my doctors or they won’t ever release me.”

“You do know you have a serious case of PTSD, don’t you?”

“No shit!”

“PTSD isn’t terminal, my friend.”

“Really, Dr. Bernstein? Now you gonna give me the talk? Boot Camp 101. ‘The Perils of Warfare.’ Blah, blah, blah. I’ve heard that lecture before. Next you’ll be telling me about STDs and the need for condoms, especially in foreign countries, complete with gory gonorrhea pictures. Did you bring pictures?”

Izzie sighed. “So, what . . . ? You gonna go off and live in the woods by yourself, or something?”

“Something like that. Maybe I’ll be like one of those new frontier Alaska guys. Alone in the wild. Just me and the bears and wolves.”

“You hate the cold. You’re an Outer Banks boy to the bone. A sun lover.”

“Well, maybe some warmer frontier,” he conceded. “A jungle, maybe. Aren’t there still frontiers in the Amazon?”

“Sorry, bud, but you gotta go back to Bell Cove. At least for a while. They won’t release you if you don’t agree to that.” A slow smile twitched at Izzie’s lips as he seemed to think of something. “Actually, you’ll fit right in back home with that eye patch.” Izzie went on to fill him in on the latest antics in their crazy-ass hometown, this time involving some shipwreck discovery which was being celebrated with a pirate theme during the Labor Day Lollypalooza, whatever the hell that was. They were even trying to get Johnny Depp to come, dressed in a Captain Jack Sparrow costume.

“Figures,” Jake said. “I hope they don’t expect me to play the part.” Another reason for him not to go home.

Which brought them to the big elephant in the room.

“Don’t you want to know about Sally?” Izzie asked.

Jake remained silent, working hard not to show any emotion. It wasn’t as hard as you would think, being as dead inside as he was.

“My parents moved to Seattle to be near my sister Leah. So, not much reason to return to Bell Cove.” Izzie sighed deeply and said, “I do talk to Sally occasionally on the phone, but that’s kind of awkward, y’know what I mean.”

“Because I was dead?”

“Well, yeah. Anyhow, I haven’t seen her in three years, ever since they declared you dead and a memorial service was held, but . . .”

Izzie’s nervousness raised some alarm bells in Jake’s aching brain. He needed a Vicodin, or five, which he wouldn’t take. The painkillers dulled his senses too much. “What?” he demanded.

“She just started dating.”

Jake felt like he was kicked in the guts, even though three years was a long time for a wife to stay loyal to a husband she thought was dead. He shouldn’t care. He didn’t care. Still, he asked, “How do you know?”

“Uncle Abe told me. Did I tell you that Uncle Abe’s deli was featured on that Food Network show, Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives? They called his Reuben sandwich ‘Ruben’s Greatest Masterpiece.’”

“That’s nice. So, who’s the guy Sally is dating?” he asked nonchalantly.

“A Navy SEAL.”

A SEAL? Fuck! “That’s nice.” You hypocrite wife of mine! You berated me up one side and down the other for being in the military. You constantly demanded that I quit. Called me a selfish bastard. Now you take up with the most military of all the services? Shiiit!

“Actually, he’s an ex-SEAL. He’s working on that treasure-hunting team in Bell Cove now.”

An ex-SEAL? Who’s now a hotshot Indiana-Fucking-Jones? Oh, that’s better. Not! “I hope they’ll be happy.”

“If you must know, that’s why I’m here.”

“Ah, so you’re not here out of friendship. You have ulterior motives.”

“Don’t be a dick. The brass figures it’s time for you to go home.”

“Let me guess. They sent you here to convince me that it’s in my best interest to do what they want when they want?”

“C’mon, man! You don’t want Sally to go getting married or something when she’s already got a husband.” He could tell that Izzie was trying to make a joke to ease the situation.

Jake wasn’t laughing. In fact, he showed no emotion at all. It was a trick he’d learned during his long imprisonment. The best way to fight his torturers was to not reveal his feelings. After a while, it became second nature. “And you know what dating leads to.” Izzie winked. Another lame attempt at humor.

Jake maintained his stone-cold expression.

“Apparently the guy likes kids.”

Crap! “I hope they’ll all be happy together.”

His friend was nervously peeling the label off his beer bottle, which raised some warning flags for Jake. Something was rotten in the state of Denmark . . . or, rather, Germany, and one particular hospital room. Jake sensed that this wasn’t just about his friend visiting him and casually asking about his plans to go home.

Jake could feel the red mist begin to form, a sure sign he was going to lose it any minute now. That’s how the rages usually started. A mist in the distance, like a sunrise on the horizon. Sometimes, he was able to tamp it down at that stage. Other times, it swelled and got brighter. Still a haze, but hot. He could feel it. Then the haze would become thicker, more liquid, like water, coming at him in waves. Blood, that’s what it became. He could not only see it, but smell it, and in the worst cases, taste it.

No! I can stop this. He gritted his teeth, clenched and unclenched his fists, and took several deep breaths before he calmed down. “All right, Izz, give it to me. The whole story. The brass sent you here to soften me up for . . . what? Spill! What is it you haven’t told me?”

Izzie inhaled deeply, to brace himself.

Or was it to give Jake time to brace himself?

“They’re informing Sally that you’re still alive.”

The waves were back. Crimson red. A slaughterhouse scent on the wind. A metallic taste on Jake’s tongue. “Without getting my permission?”

“No choice. ‘Gotcha!,’ that WikiLeaks-style internet site, got wind of your rescue and deets on the two guys who didn’t make it out. They’re running with the story tomorrow, half of their facts twisted and unverified. It’s a goat fuck about to happen if the Pentagon doesn’t get a handle on the announcement themselves.”

Jake licked his lips and swallowed hard, fighting the urge to hurl. “Sounds like a classic case of preventive damage control, fucked-up military style.”

“Bingo!”

“When? I mean, when are they telling Sally?”

Izzie glanced at his watch. “Right this minute.”

Waves crashed in his head. A tsunami. Slowly, he lowered his legs off the coffee table and stood. Inch by inch he turned to Izzie. “The pricks!”

“They’ve arranged for you to call Sally in a few hours,” Izzie informed him. “Three at the latest, which would equate to nine p.m. in North Carolina. Not much time to prepare, but everything’s happening at warp speed. Sally will be expecting your call. So, no reason to . . .” Izzie’s words trailed off as he realized he was talking too much and too fast.

Jake gazed at Izzie as if he hadn’t heard right. “Is that so? Have they arranged what I should say, or when we should meet, or whether we should have sex before or after saying hello? Did you bring cue cards with you?”

“Be reasonable, Jake.”

“I have nothing left, man. I am nothing. What the Taliban didn’t take from me, my own military is. They think they can control everything about me. When I eat. When I sleep. When I piss. What I can see or hear. They’d like to reach in and mold my mind to their specs. Well, fuck that!” Without thinking, he reached down, grabbed his half-empty bottle of beer, and threw it, smashing the television screen into a gray cobweb with the German baseball announcer still blathering on, before falling to the floor into a mess of booze and shattered glass.

“Oh, man! Oh, Jake! No!” Izzie said, as he stood, too.

Through the red haze of his vision, Jake barely registered Attila the Nurse come bursting through the door. Before he could react, the nurse had him in a head hold and was jabbing his arm with a needle. Almost immediately, he began drifting into the peacefulness of tranq-induced waves. Not the bloodred ones of his rage. These waves were crystal clear. Like a sweet summer day on Bell Sound.

It was a sign of how broken Jake still was that he could swear he heard the bells of his Outer Banks hometown ringing in his head. In fact, during his three years as a POW, he’d often heard those annoying bells. Back then, he’d thought they were calling him home.

The thing was, he no longer knew what, or where, home was.

*****

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