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Thank you all who have been reading and following along. I always appreciate getting feedback. It helps with becoming a better writer and it’s always an ego boost, so feel free to reach out. I will always respond!
The usual spiel: This isn’t a stroke story, (more porn with plot.) Be warned, it’s very long. 33 chapters, and many sexless ones before it gets sexy, which is why it was originally published under novels/novellas, but readers asked for it to be put under gay male due to content, so here we go.
This book is dedicated to all of the brave service members and their families who sacrifice so much every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the liberties that they swear to protect and uphold.
Although references in this novel may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are complete works of fiction. They are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental. In an effort to do the United States Army justice, and to show my respect to my country, I have applied all possible efforts to merge fact and fiction to entertain, while portraying the military, and the hardships and achievements of soldiers, with respect, dignity and accuracy to the best of my abilities. It’s my hope that I’ve done you all justice, and that all of the creative licenses taken with this novel are understood to be the efforts of imagination, and not any judgment or disrespect against the U.S. military. Thank you all for your service.
I think anybody who has had a long relationship and has had a really hard time letting go, wants to feel like it’s not all for naught, and it’s meaningful, because it makes you who you are. —Rashida Jones
I’d been scrolling through websites for over an hour on my phone, looking for cheap flights from Florida to New Jersey. I’d found two that left for Newark tonight at different times, but I hadn’t pulled the trigger on either one yet. Max had given me the privacy to wallow in my indecision by leaving me alone while he took a shower. He’d left the bathroom door open so I could catch glimpses of him through the glass shower door if I turned my head the right way.
Water streamed down the tight lines of his body, and the silent invitation to join him was as blatant as they came. But we both knew that I wasn’t going to walk in there. Cheating us both out of moving on by playing in the past was out of the question. I loved him too much for that.
I sighed as I let my head thunk back against the headboard, my fingers light over the keys so I didn’t accidently hit something that would choose a verdict for me. I was tempted to call Tara to find out how Ben was, but I didn’t feel I had that right anymore.
I sighed, and the growl of my stomach gave me a few minutes to put the decision off for a while longer. I hadn’t eaten anything since we’d had breakfast at the diner down the street this morning. I couldn’t think this hard on an empty stomach, so I flipped through the phonebook on the nightstand for a local pizza joint. After placing the order for the ham and pineapple pizza that was Max’s favorite—and a poor apology for the hot and cold act I’d put him through yesterday—I gave the pizzeria the phone number and address to the hotel. Since I’d been told it would be twenty minutes or so before the order was ready, I was caught off guard by the ringing of my cell about five minutes later. Thinking the delivery guy was lost and calling for directions, I answered without looking at the casino oyna caller I.D.
I blinked. “Adelyn?”
“Yeah, it’s me… Are you okay?”
The hesitancy in her tone combined with the question set an immediate mood to the conversation. I glanced over at the bathroom doorway before I got up to move away from the background noise of the shower to one of the overstuffed armchairs by the window.
“Yeah, sweetheart, I’m fine.”
“Are you sure? You’re not hurt?”
“No, I’m not hurt,” I said. “Why are you asking?”
Her voice was soft, devoid of its usual sass. “I know something bad happened between you and Father Ben yesterday. I was the one that opened the door when he and Tara came to the house to see if you were with us…” There was a long pause and I could feel her anxiety even over the line. “Did…did you do that to his face?”
I closed my eyes. Since I’d landed in Florida, I’d sworn to Adelyn that I’d never hurt her or her family, and now Ben was living proof that I’d broken my promise. Clearing my throat made only a marginal change in the rasp of my voice.
“Yeah, Addie, I did.” I didn’t try and explain the nightmares or the PTSD. None of it mattered now that I’d confirmed to my niece that I really was the monster under the bed.
She was quiet for so long, I was convinced she’d hung up on me, but then her voice came over the line again. “Mami sent me and Emma upstairs, but I came back down to listen and Father Ben was talking to Mami and Tara in the kitchen. He was so upset, Uncle Sam. He kept saying that what happened to him was an accident, but that you blamed yourself and he was afraid you would do something stupid… The way he was talking…I thought you were never going to come home again…”
I was expecting rage, confusion, anything but the tears suddenly thickening her voice. I felt my heart break. I’d stayed away from Florida for three years because I’d allowed Connor to get into my head and make me believe I was protecting my family. Leaving that hospital room yesterday, I’d told myself the same thing. In neither scenario had walking away turned out well for me. The hitch in my niece’s soft breathing didn’t point toward the third time being any kind of charm.
“I’m sorry I scared you, Addie. I should’ve called to let you know I was okay. I’m with Max.”
“I know. He called Tara while they were all still in the kitchen. I heard her tell Mami and Father Ben that you were with him and safe.” She paused and then said, “I know about your PTSD, Uncle Sam.”
I couldn’t stop the immediate stiffening of my spine. My denial died on my lips when she said, “And don’t try to lie to me about it because you think you’re protecting me. I’m not some dumb kid.”
There was a hint of the old brass in her voice though her pitch was still soft. I pressed down hard along the bridge of my nose. “Who told you I had PTSD?”
“Father Ben. He heard me moving around outside the kitchen and asked Mami if he could speak to me alone. She said it was okay, so we sat in the living room and talked. He doesn’t treat me like a kid so he told me that what happened… That you flipped out after you had a nightmare because you have PTSD. I’ve heard about that on the news and stuff, but didn’t know all the details, so he let me Google it on my phone and then we just talked…”
I closed my eyes because I could hear her crying now.
“I.. I saw Father Ben’s face when I opened that door, and all I could think was that you slot oyna lied to me, to all of us, and you were just like Dad after all. But when Father Ben talked to me in the living room, he wasn’t mad at you at all. He was just sad, and said you might leave again because you were scared, and that you’d rather let us hate you for that than accidentally hurt us, because you love us that much. Is that true?”
“Of course I love you all, Addie, but it’s complicated—”
Her exhale rattled nosily over the line as she cut me off. “Stop it! You said that life is all about choices, and that sometimes yours have sucked. If you leave us again, that’s going to be the suckiest one.”
Words failed me but she filled in the blank, her voice soft but confident when she said, “You’re nothing like Dad was. I don’t know what he did to make you stay away, but I know now that you were trying to protect us. But you don’t have to. We love and trust you. I trust you… Please come home, Uncle Sam.”
I’d returned to Florida to right the wrongs Connor and I’d committed, and had kept up a stoic face in front of my nieces and Sofia, wanting to present myself as a strong figure they could rely on. I’d been so caught up in doing the right thing that I hadn’t realized I’d already reached that goal. They’d given me their love, but it took that gently voiced forgiveness from Adelyn to help me see it. My family needed me, but I needed them just as much. Maybe more.
I couldn’t answer for a long moment. When I did, my voice was rough. “I love you, Addie.”
“I know, so I expect to see you tonight. I’m going to go now. Tell Uncle Max I said bye.”
She disconnected the call as Max came out of the bathroom and smiled at me. It wasn’t the smile of a happy man, but he didn’t look angry either when he leaned in and kissed me lightly. He pulled back first, and the kiss he pressed against my wrist lingered long after he watched me exit out of the fight reservation screen. * * *
I hadn’t dropped Max off at the airport because he’d insisted he take a cab so I could drive his rental back to Sofia’s. We’d said our goodbyes back at the motel. Maybe in six months after he came back to Florida we’d be at a point where we could have a real conversation as the friends we’d once been, but until then, there was nothing left for us to say and I needed to get home.
I veered off the main highway before I got to her neighborhood, taking a detour to the private beach that Connor and I’d discovered as kids on one of our adventures of avoidance from our Dad. It was more rocks than water, a place meant for sitting and thinking, not swimming. Though I hadn’t been here in years, it was easy to find the spot that we’d claimed as ours.
When I sat on the very edge of the cliff, my legs and the edge of my ass hanging off the lip, that same sense of exhilaration I’d felt as a kid rippled up my spine. All it would take was the wrong shift in balance, and I’d fall into the sweep of the riptides below. Connor and I’d faced the danger with teenage bravado, daring life to do its worst, believing things could never get any worse. Sitting there, I accepted the challenge of surviving potential failure, instead of hiding behind all my bullshit. I watched the water until the sun started to set.
By the time I returned Max’s rental to the dealership and called a cab to drop me back off at Sofia’s, it was past 9pm. After paying my fare, I hesitated at the base of the driveway. The porch light was still on, gently illuminating Sofia and canlı casino siteleri Adelyn sitting Indian style on the now infamous porch swing.
Sofia smiled as soon as she saw me, not saying a word as she scooted over so I could sit between her and Adelyn. She put the swing into gentle motion with one foot firmly on the floor, the other drawn up so her bare toes peeked out from beneath the hem of her pajama bottoms. My throat felt tight, and I struggled over what I should say until she slid her hand over mine without looking at me, and just held it tight. After a brief hesitation, Addie did the same thing.
None of us said anything as we just sat there and exhaled in the silence that was broken only by the low hum of the cicadas. I don’t know how long we sat there, but eventually they let go so we could all stand up. Sofia immediately tucked close to my side, and slid her arm around my waist. I slowly put my arm over her shoulders, and then walked with her into the house after Addie opened the front door. I froze for a moment when we walked into the kitchen, fighting down the panic that hit me immediately. I knew I was awake, home and safe, but the nightmare still floated around in the recesses of my mind, and it took everything I had not to run out of there.
I swallowed hard, but Sofia didn’t move away from me. She just shifted to take my hand instead. “Emma tried to stay up and wait for you, but she fell asleep around 7pm. You should wake her up.”
“She’ll be happy to see you, Sam,” she said gently. “And you need to see her too. Go ahead.” When I didn’t move right away, she gave me a soft push toward the living room.
I looked over at Adelyn who just gave me a small smile as she murmured. “I’m glad you’re back, Uncle Sam.”
I nodded, not trusting my voice. After a moment, I exhaled slowly and walked into the living room. The TV was still on, but Emma was oblivious to the noise. She was curled up asleep on the couch beneath an afghan throw, one little foot sticking out beneath the edge. I gently tucked it back under when I sat down on the edge of the couch, and the touch woke her immediately.
She blinked, her expression confused with the disorientation of sleep for a minute. I knew when she registered my presence completely because she smiled, and it was so full of pure love, I almost broke down. This was real. Hard and messy just like Ben said, but real and mine.
“Hi Uncle Sam. Are you staying now?”
I nodded without any of the hesitation or second guessing I’d experienced when she’d asked me almost the exact same question the day after I got to Florida.
“Yeah, honey. We need to pick out that green stocking for Christmas.”
Her eyes lit up as she crawled into my lap. I let her get comfortable, and then tucked the afghan around her so she was comforted by its warmth, and I was comforted by hers. We cuddled up on the couch until her breathing slowly evened out, and mine eventually matched it.
I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep until the scent of maple syrup teased my senses and I opened my eyes. Blinking against the light, I experienced a slight moment of panic, not sure if I was still dreaming, but then I felt Emma snuggle closer against me. She smelled like strawberry shampoo and the little plastic balls on her long braid were digging into my midsection. I rested my hand lightly on her back, and then looked up when I noticed Addie standing in the doorway with two plates of food in her hands.
She sat on the edge of the couch and put one in front of me on the coffee table. When I saw the Mickey Mouse pancakes, my breath caught and she met my eyes with a small but gentle smile.
“I love you, Uncle Sam.”
Fuck it. If this was a dream, I’d deal.
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