I don’t know how to start this letter, or if I should even be writing you one. You just lost your husband, and I… lost one of my best friends. I don’t think any of us will know what’s the right thing to do. Not for a long time. What I know is that I can’t imagine the pain you must be feeling. Knowing Danny won’t be there for the birth of your son. Or his son’s first day of school. Or any of those things that you’ve dreamed of since you were a little girl.
I can’t make this right, and I know me writing to tell you that is practically useless.
But I’m here.
Tearing up the weather-worn letter I’d been working on for a month and a half in the middle of the desert during my deployment suddenly seemed like a great idea. Until I glanced over my shoulder to see Lincoln Hayes, my best friend, staring out at the desert with a defeated expression on his face. Like the entire world was gone. For him, though, it practically was.
“Fuck,” I mutter once more.
Rather than tear up the letter I couldn’t even bring myself to finish, I folded it into the same tight square as before and slipped it back into the pocket over my left breast, closing my eyes briefly as it’s negligible weight returned to my chest. Suddenly, I felt like I could breathe again.
“One more month, Remy. One more month.” Linc’s voice hit me like a freight train. Since the accident, I don’t think I’d heard more than one word from him at a time. “Then we’re out of this hell.”
His eyes never left the anchor he’d been staring at every single day since the accident.
“Do you think you’re going to go home?” I coughed, trying to cover the heavy emotions I felt digging into my chest. “To see your mom. Parker.” Even saying her name sent a chill down my spine.
Stop. The order was useless, though. I’d never not think about Parker Hayes. I hadn’t before, and I wouldn’t now. She’d always been the perfect contradiction, wrapped in sass and fire. Everything that made the wet dreams of a teenager come to life.
Linc’s shoulders tensed, and then he sighed, slumping into something that didn’t resemble my best friend in the slightest. “No. I can’t see her. Not yet. Not until I have something to tell her.”
But he wasn’t talking about Parker. Nor was he talking about his mom. I could tell that much by the way his eyes darted over my face, almost afraid of what I’d say next.
Hell, I’d be afraid too, honestly.
“Kennedy’ll wait for you.” I took the high road, and deserved a fuckin’ trophy for it. “She’ll be hurt, and no doubt will give you all sorts of shit about it. But you lost your brother, Linc. You deserve some time to figure out your life, to salvage what’s left of your happiness.”
“She’s your sister, man.” Linc closed his eyes, wrapping his hands around his face. His pain filtered through the short distance between us, bringing me into the circle of his grief and desolation.
“Yeah.” I shrugged. “But Kennedy knew exactly what she was getting into. There’s a reason I didn’t go after my heart.” Flashes of Parker filled my mind, and I was powerless to stop them.
Her, dancing under a sky full of stars when we went camping during high school.
Her, running around the field next to the elementary school in eighth grade, trying to get away from something in a distant memory.
Her, on the first day of school, walking in and knocking me on my six-year-old ass, without even knowing it.
Her, never knowing that she owned me.
And she never would.
“I’m sorry.” The words felt wrong, like acid pouring out of my throat, and I wished like hell that I could take them back. That I never had to utter them in the first place.
“They got the debris cleaned up.” Linc’s emotionless eyes shifted back to the familiar desert. “Where Danny’s chopper went down. You can’t even tell anymore.”
“Let’s go.” I grabbed my rifle, sitting against the Humvee that Linc had taken up an almost permanent position against.
Linc didn’t follow, at least not at first. A few seconds later, though, he pushed himself away from the truck and came with me. Every step seemed hesitant, forced out of him.
I couldn’t blame him. Hell, with every step, I was thrust back to that day. The one when we all had lost Danny. Linc? He lost more than the rest of us. He lost his brother—his twin. When he’d come back from emergency leave, he did so with a piece of his soul missing.
Silence fell between us, where it never would have before, as we approached the scene of Danny’s accident.
“He’s not gone,” I told him bluntly. “You think he’s gone. But he’s not. He’s here. Watching over you, watching her. Making sure you’re covered.”
I stood in silence, with my eyes on anything but Linc, while he grieved. That, and I hadn’t cleared it with anyone for us to head out through the gate. Honestly, though, I didn’t give a fuck anymore. Not when this godforsaken place had stolen so much from us. I didn’t want to die, though, so I kept an eye on our surroundings and prayed that a firefight didn’t come raining down on top of our heads.
“Thank you, Remy.” Lin cleared his throat, and we both ignored the obvious signs that he’d been crying.
“No problem. Now, let’s get back before they notice we vanished for ten minutes.”
Linc laughed bitterly. “You kiddin’ me? No one will even look at me right now. I doubt they’ll even notice we’re gone.”
I know it was completely ridiculous, but I swear to every god in the sky that in that moment, I felt Danny there with us. Walking back to the gate as we crossed the border back into camp, he vanished.
A month later, Linc and I were headed in two distinctly separate directions, two different stations. Another unit was short a man, and Linc volunteered. He wouldn’t be going home any time soon, I knew that. But then again, neither was I. Time and space were two things I needed far away from Birch County. That, and I wasn’t man enough to admit the truth.
“You gonna keep your promise?” Linc’s question caught me off guard and I almost tripped as we stepped off the plane.
The only thing that kept me from tumbling down the airplane steps like a fuckin’ kid was the fact that I had a tight grip on the handrail.
“The promise you made that night to Danny. To watch out for Parker.”
When I turned around, there was a glint in Linc’s eye. The same one he’d get when we were on patrol and something was about to go sideways.
I tried to keep my mouth shut. Really I did. And then he went and drove a knife through my chest without even trying.
“If you love her, the way you had to in order to give her up, then you’ll be there for her.” His eyes cut straight through every barrier I’d kept up for the last two years. The same ones I’d constructed to keep her out.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I lied. He knew it too. I saw the way his left eye ticked, when he struggled to keep himself under control.
We finally made it off the tarmac and into the airport’s lobby, trying to blend in as well as two Marines in uniform could. Even blending in as well as we could didn’t give me a break from Linc’s continued glare. If anything, it became even more obvious, when we took our seats in the same fuckin’ terminal.
I couldn’t catch a break.
“I’m waiting for an answer, Remy.” He didn’t wait for my answer, though, when he saw the coffee shop open across the lobby.
With a sharp glance, he left me alone at least for a moment. When he returned with two cups of black coffee, I almost groaned. It’d been so long since I had a decent cup that I wasn’t sure my body would know what to do with it.
“Here.” Linc handed the second coffee over, and I didn’t care about the heat. I drank that bitch straight down.
“I’ll do it,” I practically snarled. “I’ll keep an eye on her. But that’s it.”
Linc opened his mouth to give me some sort of smart-ass retort, no doubt. Before he could, though, the PA system turned on and his plane started loading.
That didn’t stop him from pointing a threatening finger at me and narrowing his eyes.
“This isn’t over, shithead. I know you love her. So did Danny, otherwise he would have never asked you to take care of her if anything happened to him.”
I didn’t call him out on his bullshit, even though I wanted to more than anything. Him and Kennedy were different than Parker and me. He’d been in love with my sister forever, and she knew it. She’d given him a chance. Parker didn’t have a clue how I felt, and she never would.
Still, when the terminal emptied and I had nothing left but time as I waited the twelve hours for my flight, all I could do was think about that night. Reliving the haunting memories that I’d never be able to forget.
Needing to breathe, I went to the bathroom to splash cold water on my face. While I clutched either side of the porcelain sink in front of the metal mirror, I hardly recognized the man staring back at me.
Dark circles had taken up permanent residence under my eyes, and with them the now-familiar haunted expression that I’d never escape. I closed my eyes, hoping to escape the nightmare that followed me everywhere.
“Thank you,” Danny slurred drunkenly. “For pushing her away.”
“I didn’t do anything.” The lie slipped out easily enough when we were at Lucy’s Bar, drinking before we left Birch the next day. “She chose you.”
Danny snorted, and his eyes went to the woman he’d married that morning, with me and his brother as witnesses.
“She settled on me, and we both know it. I’ll take it, though. I love her more than anything, Remy. In time, I think she’ll love me too. For now, the baby is enough.”
I cringed at his words and bit my tongue, wanting to remind him that a baby was never a good reason to get married. But I didn’t. It wasn’t my place. It would never be my place.
Suddenly sounding very much sober, Danny grabbed my shoulder. He waited until I glanced up from the bottle of beer I’d been nursing half the night as I tried not to stare at Parker. She was sitting across the bar with a group of her friends, my sisters among them.
“If something happens to me, Remy. I want you to help her. Watch her. Take care of her.” His voice broke. “Love her.”
“Come on, Danny. Nothing’s gonna happen.”
“Promise me, Remy.”
“Ask Linc,” I hedged. “He’s your twin.”
“No.” Danny shook his head somberly. “He’s in love with Kennedy, always has been. I can’t ask that of him. But you …” He looked around, making sure no one was close enough to eavesdrop. “You’re the only one who loves her more than me.”
I swallowed hard at his words.
“Promise me, Remy.”
Unable to say anything, I nodded, making the promise that would seal my fate.
“I’m sorry, Danny.” I opened my eyes, feeling once more like he was standing right next to me. “I don’t think I can keep my promise.”
“Yeah you can.” His voice echoed in my head, a faint memory. “Let yourself love her.”
“One day,” I whispered to my best friend’s ghost. “Maybe one day.”
I walked away, refusing to admit I was lying yet again.
Get Balls to the Wall and find out what happens next for Remy.