Authors: Elizabeth Reyes
Her eyes dropped in pain, and Brandon knew why. He squeezed his hand into a fist. All those times he’d tended to her weren’t because she wasn’t well. Most of those times, she was hurt—injured because of his asshole dad. As if she’d read his mind,
she looked up and patted his arm.
“Regardless of why you were tending to me, Brandon, whether it was because I was banged up or was nursing a cold, you were still so attentive and looked after me so thoroughly. Do you remember how you used to bring me flo
wers from the backyard every time?”
Brandon gnashed his teeth. He couldn’t even look at her now. Yes, he remembered, so he nodded but said nothing.
“Look at me right now, Brandon,” she said.
He didn’t want to, but he finally did. His mother wasn’t that old
, but those eyes had lived through so much they were worn and tired beyond her years. Lowering her hand, she undid his tightened fist and slid her hand into his then looked up at him again. “Your father never did any of that. He didn’t feel things like you did. I want you to remember that always. You have a wonderful heart capable of loving and feeling the things he never could admit he did. You’ll make a wonderful husband and daddy. I know it.”
Swallowing hard, Brandon looked away from her hopeful eyes and
moved his food around on his plate. As much as he’d like to believe that, he just couldn’t. Even though he’d hated his father for so many years for being so cold and having such an impenetrable exterior, a part of Brandon knew he was a lot like his father. He hadn’t shed a tear when the man died, and something told him he never would again. It’s why he wanted to start all over. He didn’t want to become his father, but he knew he’d never change enough, and he wouldn’t put another human being through what his father had put him and his mother through. But for the sake of avoiding the deep shit he had no intention of getting into on this trip, he shook his head.
“I don’t think it’s in the cards for me, Ma.” He shrugged. “I’d just as soon concentrate on my care
er in the Marines—the only thing I’ve ever been good at. Everything else in my life so far . . .” He shook his head, swallowing in the bitterness. “Having my own family is not something I anticipate ever happening.”
His mom was silent for few moments befor
e picking up her water glass and drinking. “I think Shakespeare said it best when he said, ‘What’s past is prologue.’”
Brandon didn’t look at her. Growing up reading books and poetry had been his escape. He’d read enough Shakespeare to know what that meant
, but it didn’t apply to his past. His was too fucked up.
“It’s like fate, son. The past has set the stage for what’s to come.”
Again he laughed humorlessly. “Then that’s pretty fucked to think about, considering what my past has been like.”
His mom stared
at him for a moment. The pained expression said it all, and he knew what she was thinking before she even said it. “I know I failed you—”
“No,” he said, shaking his head and throwing his napkin down on his plate. “Let’s not start with this again. You did
your best. He was just too damn unpredictable and dangerous. You were only trying to protect me. I get it, Mom, okay? You stuck around because you were afraid he’d come after you and in the process hurt me. We both know it’s what he would’ve done. Look,” he said before she could start again. “I don’t know.” He shrugged, not wanting to look her in the eyes, so he stared down at his glass of water. “Maybe it will happen someday. I’ll stay open-minded for you, okay?” he lied. “If I ever get the chance, I’ll take it.” He glanced up at her still very remorseful eyes. “Okay? Just promise me you’ll stop blaming yourself for the past. You’re right.” He lifted his glass in the air to make a toast. “To our fresh start and to forgetting about the past.”
“Yes.” She sque
ezed his hand. “Always remember, Brandon, you had no control over what happened in the past. Arm yourself with the lessons that your past—good and bad—has given you, and take control of your future. It’s time to leave all that behind and move onward, son.” She smiled, lifting her glass quickly, but even seeing her immediate change in mood, he couldn’t summon so much as the tiniest of smiles. He forced himself to at least not frown. “To our bright future,” she said, clinking his glass.
Satisfied with their t
oast, his mother thankfully changed the subject after taking a sip of her water. She started talking about the neighborhoods in Georgia she’d seen online. This was a much better topic. He’d rather think of their new beginning.
Just as she promised she would, Brandon’s mom was up before dawn. “Let’s get moving, sunshine” she said, holding up her cup of coffee and smiling. “I didn’t make you one because I know you hate the stuff.”
Brandon nodded, grabbing their things and heading out. They were off to a b
etter start this time. Yesterday, his mom had jumped on the freeway heading in the wrong direction, and it was miles before the next exit where she could get off and they could turn around. Maybe this did mean they’d make it there on time after all.
hing was going smoothly for the first fifteen minutes until his mom swerved suddenly, and Brandon saw she’d blown a tire.
“Fucking great,” he said through his teeth, looking into the rearview mirror.
He turned on his own hazard lights and followed closely behind as she made her way onto the tight shoulder. She made it there, but it took Brandon a few more minutes to park his much larger truck in a way that he wasn’t sticking out into traffic. He glanced up at his mom as he continued to maneuver the big ass U-Haul, but he had to wait until there were no cars coming so he could twist out then back onto the shoulder. His mom stayed put in the car as he mentally ordered her to. She’d be no help coming out anyway.
Groaning at the thought of having to take everyth
ing that was so tightly packed in the back of the minivan so he could pull the spare out he decided right there he was done humoring his mom. They were getting a trailer as soon as he replaced her tire. He didn’t have time for all this shit.
He did a doubl
e take when he saw the driver’s-side door open and his mom start to get out. “Stay in the van!” he yelled, motioning with his hands, but his window was still closed, and she obviously hadn’t heard him. “God damn it,” he mumbled as his finger hit the button to lower the window.
Just as the window went down, he was startled by a truck’s loud horn as it flew by him so close it shattered the side mirror loudly. Brandon lifted his arms and hands up in front of him in reaction. Between his arms, he saw as his mot
her, who’d already stepped out of the van, didn’t even have a chance to react. She and the entire open minivan door were literally blown away by the truck’s massive force.
“I don’t need it, sir.” Brandon stood at attention in front of Master Sergeant Hatch, who sat behind a desk.
Hatch stood now. “Son, you gathered your mother’s remains in pieces just days after burying your father. Then you came straight here without taking a single day off.”
“Sir, thanks to the Marines, I was prepared for that and much worse. And there was nothing I could do during the investigation but report to duty until it was over. Her remains were then cremated and sent to me. I didn’t need to take time off.”
Brandon wouldn’t look at him, but he knew the sergeant must be staring
at him as if he were one cold son of a bitch.
“They were the only family you had, and as far as I know, you have no close friends. You have to be feeling something, and you can’t keep all of it inside you. It’s not healthy.”
The sergeant paused, but Brandon wouldn’t respond to that. He felt nothing, and because of that, he was convinced now he’d already turned into his father. He was certain his old man would consider therapy weak too.
“You’ve got to let some of what you’re feeling out, or it’ll only build
until you finally blow.”
Brandon stared straight ahead, both arms to the side of him. Hatch had no way of knowing that blowing up—breaking down—was not anything Brandon would ever do. If witnessing his mother torn apart then walking around gathering the pi
eces of her body hadn’t broken him, he knew nothing ever would. “Sir, I’m fine. I don’t need therapy.”
He heard the sergeant take a deep breath then sit back down. “Have a seat.”
Taking the seat across the sergeant’s desk, Brandon saw the displeasure on the older man’s face. “It hasn’t affected your work, so I can’t force you into therapy, but you will be evaluated.” He lifted the folder in front of him and motioned it toward Brandon. “You have all the qualifications to enter DI school, and I’ve already signed off the go-ahead to start all the preliminaries, but you’ll have to pass a psych evaluation before you’re accepted. Now are you sure you wouldn’t like to speak to someone before going through that? If you don’t pass the eval, you don’t get in. They don’t give a shit that you just lost both your parents. You need to be one hundred percent ready, both physically and mentally, to get in.”
“I’m sure, sir,” Brandon said without hesitation.
The sergeant exhaled, pressing his lips together as he shook head. He wrote something in Brandon’s file before handing it to him, wishing him luck then excusing him.
As Brandon walked out the door, he knew he had to get accepted. Failure was not an option. He was born to be a drill instructor, and since the Marines had been
the only thing he’d been proud of—never let him down—this was what he’d pour his heart into instead: The Corps.
Grasping on to the cold handle of the gun, Regina’s body shuddered uncontrollably. Before tonight, she’d never even held a gun much less used one. Crouched down in a cold corner, she rocked back and forth, and the sobs came louder and louder.
Her entire body began to shake as thoughts of her family came to mind and what they’d say when
they found out. Her father had a weak heart. Would this kill him? They’d all be devastated, no doubt.
“Why!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “Why, Ryan? Why did you have to be so fucking selfish?”
Staring at her bloody knuckles, she chuckled grimly. All she’d wanted to do was break a few things to help ease the anger, and she couldn’t even do that without hurting herself. A few things like some dishes and then a bottle had quickly turned into her smashing every piece of furniture she owned. She stood up sloppily, holding on to the walls for support. The blood on her hands was smeared against the expensive blossom branch tile she’d taken so long to pick out, and now all of this meant nothing. The anger inundated her again. “This is all your fault! Do you hear me?!” She held the gun up over her head. “You did this! You! I hate you! I hate you! I hate you!”
Falling against the wall, she pressed her face against the cold tile and sobbed. Her entire face was one slobbery mess. Never in a million years would
she have guessed she’d become this pathetic person.
. Yet here she was holding the gun that would soon seal her fate. That she’d had succumb to such weakness riddled her with shame. Yet this is what it’d all come down to.
The knock on the front door w
as completely unexpected, and she froze. She waited, and then there were more knocks.
Recognizing her neighbor Quinn’s voice, Regina squeezed her eyes shut.
“No!” she muffled her own whispers against her fist. “Go away.”
He knocked again. “Is everything all right? I heard you screaming, and Mrs. Shimley said she heard the sound of things breaking and crashing in there earlier. Are you okay? Do you need me to call someone for you?”
Still sobbing, Regina slid her body down the wall until she hit
the ground with a thud. She couldn’t even put two words together. She was crying so uncontrollably.
“Mrs. Brady, please answer me, or I’ll assume you need help.”
If he came in now, he’d see what she’d done. He’d try to stop her and ruin everything. The sound of the pounding on the door was now like a body slamming against it, so she scurried herself off the floor and rushed into the front room. Her thoughts were spinning. She couldn’t let him in!
Something slammed against her doo
r again, and the third time, the door crashed open. She stood there frozen, staring at a stunned Quinn breathing heavily. They stared at each other for a few silent moments, and then his eyes began to quickly look around the room. They opened wider and wider as he took it all in. She saw the moment his eyes noticed the gun in her hand, and she began to lift it, her hand shaking violently.
He shook his head, his eyes nearly bulging out now in terror. “Mrs. Brady—Regina—don’t shoot, please!”
Ronald Reagan National Airport
Taking one last look at the flight status board, Brandon frowned. As frustrating as it was, he was at the very least grateful that his flight still read delayed and n
ot cancelled like so many of the others. That was one thing he wasn’t going to miss about the East Coast: this frigid weather. He may not be thrilled about having to go back to San Diego, but the warm sunny weather was one thing he’d welcome with pleasure. He’d already checked ahead, and even in January, the temperature there was in the sixties. He thought about how he actually considered turning down the promotion just to avoid having to go back and possibly face his demons. He was glad now he’d come to his senses and didn’t allow the past to dictate his future. He’d earned this promotion, and nothing and no one was keeping him from it.
Glancing out the snow-laced windows, he shook his head. “Good riddance.”
The line at the deli counter had shortened considerably since he first arrived, so he decided he may as well grab something to eat. He still had a five-hour flight ahead of him, and from experience, he knew, unless you were in first class, the in-flight food sucked ass.
The dark haired girl who stepped i
n line just before him nearly knocked over her very expensive looking carryon as she rolled it along too hastily. Her other hand was at her ear, where she held her phone. Brandon didn’t know much about bag brands, but he could tell just by looking at it, it was expensive. Everything about her said expensive from her long leather coat to her high-heeled sleek city boots to the equally expensive purse that hung on her shoulder. The sunglasses that sat on top of her head alone probably cost more than his airline ticket. She even smelled expensive.
“No, Daddy, I’m fine.” Her bracelets jingled as she reached out for a tray. “I have a car service picking me up at the airport, and I’m all set up in a condo when I get there. Don’t worry.” Brandon stared at the side
of her face dryly. It figured the princess was well looked out for. “Yes, I’m meeting
at Flemings for dinner tonight if I make it on time. My connector flight was delayed. I’m in D.C. right now.”
Grabbing a tray, Brandon glanced around at the choi
ces of chips he had to throw on it, trying to ignore the girl’s annoying conversation with
. She struggled to push the tray along while pulling her carryon and holding her phone at the same time. Cradling the phone between her shoulder and her chin, she looked up at the lady behind the counter who was waiting to take her order. “I’ll have a chicken salad with no tomatoes or egg with light thousand island dressing and a Coke Zero.”
“The salads are premade.” The bored-looking lady held out a premade sala
d in a plastic container. “We only have regular thousand and Diet Pepsi.”
“No, I already told Mom I’d look into buying a car when I got there.” Princess glanced up at the lady behind the counter and held up a finger. “You can’t just give me your car, and b
esides I don’t drive stick shift.” She glanced back at Brandon and offered an apologetic smile for holding up the line. “Daddy, let me call you back. I’m in line right now. Okay. Okay.” She smiled at the lady behind the counter then at Brandon again.
on stared at her unsmiling, taking in the small details of daddy’s little princess. The lip gloss that she wore was barely there but enough to accentuate her already plump lips. They were subtle and flawless, as were her well-manicured French-tipped nails. She had dark features: dark, thick, shiny, near-black hair that flowed down halfway to her elbow and dark lashes that draped over those big brown eyes. The fact that this grown woman was standing here talking to an obviously overbearing daddy and that she referred to her grandmother in Spanish brought back the annoying reminder of . . .
“Yes, I promise,” she said, finally sounding as impatient as Brandon was beginning to feel. “Okay, bye, bye. I love you too.”
She hung up, smiling crookedly at Brandon, who again offered no smile in return. Turning back to the lady behind the counter, she waved the salad away and glanced around. “Is there some place here I can get a salad made?”
The lady behind the counter pressed her lips together, taking the salad back. “Y
ou can try Gordon’s,” the lady said, and with that, she was done with the princess, moving on to Brandon. “What’ll it be?”
Brandon put in his order for a turkey sub and an iced tea, not noticing which direction the princess had gone. He ate quietly, sittin
g on the floor near a window overlooking the runway, his back against the wall.
He was over being bitter about having to transfer back to a place he’d vowed he never return to. San Diego was a huge city, and the truth was just as in South Carolina where he
’d been a DI for the past four years, he’d be spending most of his time on the base anyway. Whatever time he spent off the base he’d be sure to steer clear of La Jolla.
“Well, I was just gonna go back to the same gym I always went to.”
Brandon glanced up to see the princess on her phone again, standing in front of a seat in one of the nearest rows of seats to him. He studied her for a moment as she removed her coat, revealing the rest of her long high-heeled boots. They went all the way up past her knees. What she wore under them—skin hugging leggings and a gray sweater that draped over her round but tight little ass and hips—said a lot about how much time she must spend at the gym.
As his eyes made it all the way up to the scarf around h
er neck and back to the full lips that had caught his eyes the first time, he noticed she was watching him watch her. The expression on her face was an amused one. Brandon was anything but amused. Her lips curved into a smile, and he looked away. Pulling himself up, he gathered his trash. He threw his military bag over his shoulder and walked away, annoyed that he’d given the pampered princess yet another reason to feel better about herself, as if a girl like her didn’t already have enough reasons to feel superior to those around her.
A few days after Brandon arrived in San Diego, he was all set. They’d given him a week to relocate. Who needed a full week? His things along with his Jeep were delivered the day after he arrived, and his apartment was already set up before he got there. They’d offered to put him up in the NCO condo complex on base, but as he did in North Carolina, he preferred living off base. It was the only time he ever left the base, but living on base meant closer contact with some of his co-workers. Everyone who lived on base spoke of the base as a small town-like place where everyone was a close-knit military family. He wanted no part of that. All the relationships he’d ever made in the Marines were strictly professional. Having no emotional attachment to anyone, even his fellow Marine brothers, was how he liked it. He lived and breathed the Corps, and if he ever had to, he’d take a bullet for any of them any day. He respected them all, and they could trust he was absolutely dependable, but there was zero attachment.
On occasion back in North Carolina, he’d had a beer with some of them at the local watering hole, and they’d talked work and sports. Mostly he’d listen, adding little to the conversation. He was used to the jokes about him be
ing a hard-ass. Some of the guys even tried breaking him out of the character they accused him of being in at all times, but it never happened. It never would because it wasn’t an act. He just had no desire to open up to anyone and talk about his personal life. As he told them all, he didn’t have much of a personal life, so there was nothing to talk about.
Now that he was at a new base, he already knew the invitations to have a beer with his “brothers” were going to be inevitable. But just like back at his
old base, he didn’t want his lack of socializing to do just the opposite of what it was supposed to do—keep the attention off his personal life. It seemed the more of recluse he was, the more mysterious and interesting he became to those around him.
y, he’d only been there a few days, and the questions had started. He’d been asked twice by a couple of his superiors why he lived off base if he was single. “Why fight the traffic every morning when you could just be here already?”
Another one of the sing
le DIs had questioned if there were other motives. “Is it so the chicks here don’t see who you take home every night?” The DI had laughed when he’d also asked, “You don’t want them comparing notes?”
This morning, he was meeting with the previous Gunnery Se
rgeant in charge of the platoons and lower ranking DIs that Brandon would now be in charge of. He wanted to touch base with Brandon and show him around the building he’d be calling home for the better part of his weekdays.
“It’s been under construction for
some time,” First Sergeant Carter said. “When it’s all over, there’ll be a new building over there with a bridge that connects to this one and an underground tunnel that will connect both buildings as well.” He pointed at the area in question as they walked around some of the construction work just outside the building they were headed into. “In the meantime, it’s been a pain in the ass. Make sure you save anything you’re working on often because even though they’re supposed to tell us when they’ll be shutting off the electricity for a few minutes, they don’t always do. Some of us have learned the hard way that we should’ve backed up our shit more often.”
Carter shook his head as he walked on before continuing. “Some of the engineers have set up camp inside
the building. Letting them borrow a couple of offices and conference rooms in the building took up less room than bringing in a temp bungalow for them.” He looked back at Brandon. “Get used to seeing civilians in civilian clothing coming in and out of here.” The sergeant turned back to where they were headed but continued talking. “It’s usually during the week, but they’re all on strict orders to wear their photo ID badges at all times. So if you see anyone in here without one, feel free to question him. In fact,” he glanced back at him very seriously, “you’re supposed to. Civilians without photo ID are not allowed in this building at all. Those photo IDs make them the only exception.”
Brandon nodded, following the sergeant into an elevator as he continued
to talk. They got off on the second floor, and Brandon followed him once again through the long hallway. A couple of plain clothes men walked out of one of the doors, and Brandon took note of how the sergeant scrutinized them but kept walking as they both were wearing large photo IDs around their necks. Brandon took in what the IDs were supposed to look like for future reference. The door to the ladies’ room next to the room the other men had walked out of opened, and a woman also dressed in a plain clothes skirt suit walked out. The clinking of her shoes that echoed through the stark hallway as she walked caught Brandon’s attention. Not often did you hear that on the base. He glanced down to take a look and saw the high-heeled shoes she wore.
The shoes had
obviously caught the attention of the sergeant too because he actually stopped and looked her up and down then focused on her ID badge for a moment. Brandon stopped also and waited for the sergeant to proceed. That’s when he recognized her. She slowed, staring at the sergeant a bit perplexed. It was the princess from the airport in D.C. Her long hair was up in a twist today, and she wore glasses now, but there was no mistaking those eyes and those lips.
What the hell?
Glancing down at her badge, he read her
name: Regina Brady. Below it was the name of the engineering firm she was with, her title, the title of her project, and some numbers.
Apparently satisfied, the sergeant nodded at her and started walking again just as Brandon and Regina’s eyes met. He’d b
een wearing his fatigues at the airport as well, so he figured if he recognized her so easily, even as different as she looked now, she’d easily recognize him too. Her eyes confirmed he was right as they brightened and she smiled. Brandon held her gaze for a moment, his deadpan expression unfazed, before turning away and walking off without a word.
When they were a bit further, the sergeant turned back to him again. “She must be new. I haven’t seen her before.”
Without comment, Brandon walked into the room where his desk awaited. There were two other desks there, also occupied by two other sergeants who quickly stood as Brandon and the sergeant walked in and saluted them. The sergeant introduced them as Staff Sergeant Rodriguez and Sergeant Evans. Evans was obviously younger than Brandon, but Rodriguez appeared to be the same age as he was. Brandon, like any other soldier, immediately took note that he outranked them both.
The sergeant went on, filling him in on the minor stuff he would’ve figured out on his
own such as where the break room was and the list of added duties he’d be required to do on top of the usual ones, now that he’d been promoted to Gunnery Sergeant. He also told Brandon his box with all his office belongings would be delivered to him later. Brandon listened intently and respectfully, annoyed that his thoughts had gone back to the princess from the airport. He’d been certain that she was Hispanic. Brady? Then he remembered that she’d referred to her grandmother as
. The last name could mean only one thing—she was married.