Authors: Alexis Morgan
“He won’t go far, but I’ll keep an eye on him.”
In fact, a breath of fresh air would feel good about now. As soon as Nick opened the door, Mooch shoved past him to charge down the steps. He took off running across the yard, barking at a squirrel, which took refuge in the nearest tree. Satisfied he’d handled the intruder, Mooch quieted down and made a quick circuit of the yard.
When he finally took care of his business, he came trotting right back. Nick followed him into the kitchen. Clearly the dog was adjusting well to Callie’s house and yard. That was a good thing because Nick was really hoping she’d offer the dog a home here with her. He’d miss the furry misfit, but Mooch deserved a permanent home.
And if Nick made up his mind to re-up with the army, he’d have to find the dog a new home anyway. Mooch had been through enough of a change in leaving Afghanistan behind without having to deal with multiple moves.
While they’d been outside, Callie had set out a plate heaped high with food. Nick was sure he couldn’t eat it all, but he’d give it his best shot.
He sat down and picked up the first sandwich. Food was another thing that hadn’t held much appeal since his return. His mom had pulled out all the stops when he’d gotten back, fixing all of his favorites. She’d said he needed fattening up and teased him that the army hadn’t been feeding him right.
Not even her best apple pie had tasted good to him, but he’d gone through the motions and eaten everything she’d put in front of him. In truth, it might have been sawdust as far as he could tell. He was afraid he’d hurt her feelings when he hadn’t once asked for seconds like he used to, but sometimes acting normal took more energy than he had.
Nick bit into the thick ham sandwich Callie had fixed for him, expecting to have the same problem. To his surprise, it actually tasted good. He took a second bite. Meanwhile, Callie sat back down and studied a handwritten list. He couldn’t read it from where he was sitting, but whatever it was had her full attention. It was a relief not to have to make conversation, another problem he’d had at his parents’ house.
He loved them dearly, but their constant questions had about driven him crazy. He didn’t want to talk about his experiences in the war with them or anybody else, for that matter. They didn’t need to know how bad it had been and wouldn’t have understood if he’d actually tried to tell them.
He’d caught them exchanging puzzled looks a few times, as if they were wondering who this taciturn stranger was. He might have looked like their son, but he clearly didn’t act like him. Nick had finally given up and announced he needed to deliver Mooch to his new owner. Rather than fly, he’d chosen to drive to the Pacific Northwest from his hometown in Ohio. Nick didn’t know how his parents felt about him leaving again so soon, but his own most identifiable emotion had been relief.
Callie finally looked up. “You must have been hungry. Can I get you something else?”
He looked down at his plate to see what she was talking about, only to find it was empty. He’d chowed down on two sandwiches, a healthy helping of salad, and a handful of cookies. Wow.
“No, I’m fine. In fact, I ought to get going.” He pushed the plate aside. “I didn’t mean to take up so much of your afternoon.”
It was too soon to spring the idea of leaving Mooch with her, and it would give him an excuse to come back.
“I didn’t have any plans.” She frowned. “As I recall, you’re from back east somewhere. Are you stationed out here now?”
“No, I’m between assignments.”
In fact, he wasn’t really living anywhere anymore. He’d given up his apartment when his unit had been deployed. Until he made up his mind what he wanted to do next, he had no reason to put down roots anywhere, not even temporary ones.
“I need to find a motel room for tonight. Are there any here in Snowberry Creek that take pets?”
She bit her lower lip as she thought about it. Finally, she shook her head. “No, but there’s no reason you can’t stay here. My folks are gone for the summer, so there’s plenty of room.”
She didn’t sound all that enthusiastic, not that he blamed her. A woman alone shouldn’t be too quick to trust a man just because they had one friend in common.
Then there was the problem of him wandering around at night when he couldn’t sleep. At his parents’ home, he’d slipped out the same way he had as a teenager to walk the streets until he was too exhausted to think.
He carried his plate over to the sink. “I don’t want to put you out, Callie. I’ll head back toward I-5. There’s bound to be some motels along the interstate. Maybe tomorrow I could come back, and the two of us can go out to dinner.”
He kept his back to her until she answered. He’d already intruded on her privacy by showing up unannounced. He didn’t want her to feel obligated to accept his invitation simply because they’d both known Spence.
Her answer wasn’t long in coming. “I’d like that, Nick. But instead of driving all the way back to the highway, I have another suggestion. Spence’s house is right next door. Well, actually, it’s my house now, I guess. I just can’t get used to that idea. He left it to me . . . you know, when he—”
She stopped to clear her throat. When she didn’t continue, Nick filled a glass with ice water from the door of the refrigerator and brought it to her. She took a long drink and set the glass down.
“Sorry, it’s just that I’ve been having a hard time getting my mind around the whole idea. You know, of Spence being gone.”
And Nick had actually been there standing on that godforsaken street holding Spence’s bloody dog tags in his hand.
There was a world of questions in Callie’s eyes as she stared up at him, but thank God she didn’t ask them. He didn’t want to lie to her about what had happened and couldn’t bear to tell her the truth. He sensed a real innocence about Callie, and he didn’t want to be the one to destroy it.
“You were saying?”
“Oh, yeah. Spence’s house is just on the other side of those trees. You could stay there, if you’d like. I had the power turned back on, so you’d have electricity and hot water. The fridge is empty, but you can either come back over here for breakfast or there’s a good café in town.”
Could he stand to stay in Spence’s home? He guessed he’d find out. “Are you sure? I don’t want to be a bother.”
“I’m sure. And don’t worry, I’d do the same for any of Spence’s friends. I’ll get you some clean sheets and pack up some food for Mooch. I have enough for tonight and his breakfast in the morning. After that, you’ll have to hit the grocery store.”
“I’ve got some kibble out in the truck, too.”
Now that they had a plan, Callie turned into a whirlwind. A few minutes later, he was loaded down with sheets and a few cans of dog food. She followed him out to the truck with a sack of groceries intended to get him through the evening and early morning.
Her eyes went wide when she got a look at the clutter and trash scattered in the cab of his truck. For all practical purposes, he and the dog had been living in it for the past week. After he’d quickly tossed most of it into the backseat, Callie handed him the groceries and stepped away. “I’ll lock up the house and meet you over there.”
Was she afraid to get in the truck with him? That didn’t seem likely when she’d already offered to let him spend the night in the same house with her.
“I can wait. There’s room in the front seat if you don’t mind being a bit crowded. Mooch takes up more space than you’d think.”
She bit her lip again, evidently something she did when she needed to think things through before answering. He found the gesture adorable, but it made him want to be the one doing the nibbling on that full lower lip. He slammed the lid on that thought. Even if he was in any shape to be looking for a relationship, she was off limits. Way off limits.
“Okay, it won’t take me long.”
As Callie ran back to the house, he couldn’t help but stare after her. With some effort, he looked away, turning his attention to Mooch. “Dog, you catch me looking at her like that again, bite me. Hard.”
The dog’s tail thumped on the ground. His excitement warned Nick that Callie was already on her way back. It was obvious that Nick wasn’t the only one who felt the pull of Callie’s warm smile.
He opened the passenger door for her and stood back while she and Mooch clambered in. By the time Nick reached the driver’s side, the two of them had staked out their territory. She was sitting flush up against the far door with Mooch sprawled half in her lap, half on the seat.
As Nick started the engine, he had to wonder if it was wrong to be jealous of a dog.
allie’s parents would have a hissy fit if they ever found out she’d invited a total stranger to spend the night in their house with her. They’d be only marginally happier to learn that Nick was camping out next door. She didn’t care. Meeting Nick was like reconnecting with a little piece of Spence, and she wasn’t ready to let him drive away. Not yet.
He’d seemed reluctant to take her up on the offer of a free room, and she felt as if she’d bulldozed him into accepting. It was only for a night, maybe two. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask whether he had someplace he had to be. He hadn’t yet explained why he’d come in the first place.
Yes, they had both been friends with Spence, but it wasn’t as if their paths had ever crossed. If Nick had simply wanted to offer his condolences, surely mailing a sympathy card would’ve been easier than a trip across country. In truth, she should’ve been the one sending the card. After all, Nick had spent far more time with Spence over the past few years than she had.
“The driveway is just past the trees. It’s pretty overgrown, but you won’t have any trouble navigating it with this truck.”
He turned onto the gravel road, the truck lurching and bouncing along the rutted ground. “The place has been pretty much vacant since Spence enlisted. My dad used to keep the lawn mowed, but it got to be too much for him.”
She was babbling, but the silence in the truck was heavy rather than comfortable. The house was set back some distance off the road on an acre lot. The driveway curved around a small island in front that used to be filled with rosebushes. Only a few of the most hardy had survived years of neglect.
“You can park anywhere. There is a garage off to the side, but it’s full of stuff.”
Nick pulled past the steps and stopped. She opened her own door and climbed down with Mooch right behind her. Nick stood back and studied the house, starting with the front door and then gradually tilting his head back to check out the second and third floors.
“Wow, I knew Spence owned a house, but he never said anything about it being this big.”
No surprise there. She also doubted he’d shared how miserable he’d been living there once his parents had been killed. Not only did it contain memories of how happy he’d been when they were alive, but it also reminded him of what a hell his life had become after his mother’s brother had moved in to take care of him. His uncle had been a real bastard. Still was.
“There aren’t many of these old beauties left in the area, but I’ve always loved this house.”
That was true, but then those bad memories had been Spence’s, not hers. “Shall we go in? I’ll show you where everything is and then get out of your way.”
She headed up the steps to unlock the door. When Nick caught up with her, Callie held the door open and let him enter first. Once inside, she flipped on the living room light.
“The kitchen is straight back. The appliances are old, but they work. There’s a bathroom on this floor and another on the second floor next to the master bedroom.”
She led the way upstairs, turning on more lights as she went. With the gray, rainy day, the house needed all the help she could get to banish the shadows. At the top of the steps, Callie opened the first door on the right.
“I’ll put you in this room. The bed has the best mattress, and the closet and dresser are empty.”
She opened the linen closet in the hallway and pulled out a couple of towels and washcloths and hung them in the bathroom. “These might be a bit musty, but they’re clean.”
Back in the bedroom, Nick was already making the bed. Between the two of them, they made quick work of it and then headed back down to the truck for another load. She carried in the groceries while he brought in his duffel bag. It was identical to the one that Spence had, another painful reminder that he’d never again show up at her doorstep to dump it behind her couch.
She needed to get home before she gave in to the tears that were burning her eyes. “I’ll be around tomorrow morning. Feel free to stop by if you want.”
Thinking about Spence’s duffel brought another thought to mind. “There’s laundry detergent and fabric softener on the shelf over the washer and dryer you can use if you need to do a couple of loads.”
Nick gave her a puzzled look. “How did you guess I’m on my last clean shirt?”
She nodded toward the bulging green canvas bag at his feet. “In all the times Spence came to visit me, he never once showed up with clean clothes. I suspect that it’s a survival skill they teach in the military. You know, a special class on how to find a soft touch who’ll wash your socks for you.”
For the first time Nick really laughed and held up his hands in surrender. “Guilty as charged, although I’ve only pulled that trick on my mother. I wouldn’t think of asking you to do such a thing.”
“Well, then, I’ll leave so you two can get settled. Oh, and before I go, we should exchange cell phone numbers.”
When that little chore was taken care of, she headed back home, still thinking about how much younger Nick looked when he laughed. It was a shame he didn’t do it more often.
Mooch followed her through the trees. When they reached the edge of her parents’ lawn, she patted him on the head. “Thanks for seeing me home, big guy. I’ll be okay from here. You’d better get back to your master.”
Because for some reason she couldn’t quite put her finger on, she suspected Nick needed looking after far more than she did right now.
• • •
“Yeah, Mom, I’m fine. Mooch and I had a nice trip.” Nick listened for a while, waiting for her to get to the point. He closed his eyes and gave the only answer he could.
“I’m not sure how long we’ll stay here or when I’ll be back home.”
The silence on the other end of the line was deafening. When his mother finally said good-bye, he could hear the disappointment in her voice, but there wasn’t much he could do about it.
Until he found out how the muscle damage in his arm was going to heal, he couldn’t make plans. She knew that, but that wasn’t the real root of the problem. His folks had made it clear that they were ready for him to leave the army and move back home.
His dad had come right out and said they would like to have some grandkids while they were still young enough to enjoy them. He’d laughed as he said it and punched Nick on his good arm to lighten up the moment. It hadn’t worked. They both knew that as their only child, the responsibility to spawn the next generation rested squarely on Nick’s shoulders.
He’d had no good answer for them. Yeah, he got that they wanted Nick to live the life they’d always envisioned for him. They’d give anything to see him happily settled with a wife and a couple of rug rats, preferably living within the same zip code as theirs.
That wasn’t going to happen anytime soon, if ever. He hadn’t had the heart to say so outright, but they’d heard what he wasn’t saying anyway. In the end, he’d tossed his duffel in the truck, loaded up on kibble for Mooch, and left. He’d made a habit of calling his folks every couple of days because he knew they worried about him. He didn’t do it simply out of a sense of duty. He really did love them, even if he had trouble showing it right now.
As he hung up, he thought about his duffel again and smiled, remembering Callie’s teasing on the subject. She was right. If he wanted to have something clean to wear tomorrow, especially if they did go out to dinner, he needed to make use of that washer and dryer she’d mentioned.
“Come on, Mooch. I’ll fix you a bowl of water and then start the laundry. After that, maybe you and I ought to do a little recon and scout out the lay of the land around here in case we need to go on a midnight ramble. We don’t want to get lost on our first night in town.”
And wouldn’t that be embarrassing? Normally he had a good sense of direction, but lately his internal compass had been off. He’d hate like hell to wake Callie up in the middle of the night because he couldn’t find his way back on his own. That would sure as heck impress her.
When the washer was busy chugging away, he put on his jacket and walked outside. Before pulling the door closed, he patted his pocket to make sure he had his cell phone and the house key Callie had left with him. Mooch had already taken off for the thicket of trees behind the house. At least the dog had found a new purpose in life: chasing every squirrel he spotted.
Mooch stopped at the edge of the woods and waited for Nick to catch up. The dog seemed to enjoy exploring this new world, but he preferred to have Nick along for backup. They both had a lot of adjusting to do to get in sync with living outside of a war zone.
Nick didn’t know about Mooch, but he didn’t miss the background sounds of gunfire and explosions. On the other hand, it was hard to get used to so much quiet. They’d both been living with the constant adrenaline rush that came from being on high alert twenty-four/seven. At least they were both less jumpy now than when they’d first landed stateside. Nick would take any progress back toward normal that he could get.
The rain had stopped, leaving the air fresh and clean. Mooch ranged ahead, circling back every few minutes to touch base with Nick. They were following what used to be a pretty wide trail. Blackberry brambles and other weeds had encroached on it, but the path was still easy to follow as it wound through the trees.
Had Spence played here when he was little? Probably. Woods like these were the perfect place for a pack of kids to run wild pretending to be cowboys or pirates or soldiers. He could almost hear echoes of a young Spence hollering battle cries at the top of his lungs as he vanquished his imaginary foes.
The image made him smile. Damn, but he missed that guy. Spence had always been the first one to crack a joke and lighten the moment whenever things got tough. The man had taken the business of defending the country damned seriously, but he’d also understood the need to let off a little steam once in a while. Even now, Nick’s clearest memory of him was the wicked grin on Spence’s face as they ripped through those narrow streets like they were in a Grand Prix race.
He and Mooch had circled around through the woods to a point where they could just catch a glimpse of the house next door. Had Callie ever walked on the wild side with her good friend Spence? That might explain how protective Spence had always acted about her. For sure, he’d always been careful to shield her from the truth of their situation no matter how bad things were. When the two of them had chatted online, he’d kept things light, entertaining Callie with the funny side of war. Now, there was an oxymoron if there ever was one.
He’d left out the blood, pain, and fear they’d all experienced. For Spence, Callie was an escape from the reality of war, a gift to be treasured and protected. At one time, Nick had hoped to have some of that for himself with his ex-girlfriend Valerie.
Yeah, and see how well that had worked out for him.
Lost in the past again, he hadn’t realized that he’d left the woods behind. He and Mooch were now standing in the middle of Callie’s backyard. Son of a bitch, they needed to get back to the trees before she spotted them. The last thing he wanted was for her to think he was stalking her or something.
“Let’s go, boy.”
Mooch normally responded immediately, but this time he plunked his backside down in the grass and stared at the house.
“Damn it, dog, come on. We need to get out of here.”
Mooch favored Nick with a quick glance but then turned his attention right back to the house. Clearly, he’d rather be with Callie right now. Big deal. So would Nick, but that didn’t mean it was going to happen.
He stomped back within grabbing range of the dog. When he tried to snag Mooch’s collar, the dog snapped at him and danced out of reach.
“Fine. Stay there.”
Nick walked away, refusing to plead with the ungrateful mutt. A few seconds later, Mooch came slinking up to him, his whole attitude one of apology. Nick knelt down to give the dog a careful hug.
“I know, boy, but we’ve got to give her time to get used to us.”
Mooch, glad to be forgiven, wagged his tail and took off down the trail, leaving Nick to follow in his tracks. It was time to change loads in the washer and figure out what he was going to do for dinner. Tonight he’d eat alone, but not tomorrow evening. As he let Mooch back in the house, he realized he had something to look forward to for the first time in weeks.
It felt surprisingly good.
• • •
Nick dialed Leif’s number and waited. It took longer than usual for him to answer, but then his friend wasn’t getting around all that well these days. “Hey, buddy. How are you feeling?”
Leif sounded a little short of breath, but he was definitely stronger than the last time they’d talked. “Better. The physical therapist says I can graduate to walking with a cane with my brace later this week.”
“So the exercises are helping?”
Leif sighed. “Yeah, I guess. I haven’t been able to pin them down on when I’ll be back to a hundred percent.”
The frustration in Leif’s voice was understandable. All that medical babble would drive anyone crazy, but it was worse when you suspected they were trying not to tell you some hard truths. Leif’s ankle had been seriously fucked-up in the same attack that had taken Spence’s life.