“Are you sure you don’t want to stay here?” I asked.
She nodded, but stayed silent.
Stubborn little shit. “I’ll give you a key, and the code to the gate. I’ll call you as soon as I get there so you know that I got there all right. I’ll try to let you know what’s going on, and how long we’re looking at me being gone. Don’t freak if you don’t hear from me for a long time. That’s normal.”
It was especially normal for me, since I wasn’t going to be doing the normal stuff that a soldier does over there. I was going to do what I do best: interrogate.
When Layne, my old CO, called the previous night, I knew it wasn’t going to be good. They only used me when it was dire. The government didn’t like using my services if they didn’t have to. Unfortunately, I started using them a lot towards the end of my career; now I was back, doing what I was good at, with little thought to my own peace of mind. I hated every fucking minute of it. I didn’t like myself when I had to be that person.
She nodded, and then stood, stooping down to grab her jeans. She made her way into the bathroom, and shut the door. I watched the door, silently wondering if I should go in there and make sure she’s all right. I didn’t though, deciding she needed a few minutes.
I gathered the rest of my junk, grabbed my duffle, and set it by the front door. Walking to the back door, I made sure it was locked before turning the A/C off. I’d taken care of the food in my fridge before the party tonight by stuffing it all into the communal fridge in the shop. I got a good laugh out of the fact that my beer would most likely still be there when I got back.
The others didn’t like Old Milwaukee. I loved it though, mostly because I’d grown up drinking the shit as if it was water. James and I had many great times that were all because of Old Milwaukee. James had graduated to bigger and better, while I stuck with what I knew. Which is why I was ribbed for drinking it. They called it a “pussy” beer, and said only women drink it. Fuck, I didn’t care, as long as it was wet and cold. I didn’t need the expensive stuff to be happy.
“Max?” Payton asked from behind me.
I blinked, and saw her standing in the light of the hallway. “Yeah?”
“Are you ready?” She asked.
I gave a stiff nod, and walked up to her, wrapping my arms around her. “Will you give me a ride? I was going to wake Ember, but since you’re already awake this works out better.”
“Sure thing. Let’s go.” She said.
We walked, hand and hand, out into the cool night air. The sound of leaves tumbling on the ground could be heard over the chirp of crickets in the pre-dawn stillness. It was just shy of four in the morning, and nothing was awake to break the tranquility of the night. I came to a sudden halt when I found myself being blocked in by five bodies. My team.
Curious glances were being made in Payton’s direction, but I didn’t acknowledge their silent questions. Every time they’d seen us together, Payton’s attitude came out to play. She was hell on wheels in public, but sweet and docile while we were alone. Kind of like a baby kitten, spitting mad one second, and purring in your lap the next.
“Thought you could sneak off, didn’t you?” James asked.
I smiled, and gave each of them a shake and clap on the back. Yeah, right. I knew they would be here, no matter what. They didn’t like that I was being called back, and they were none too happy that I would have no one to watch out for me. We’re all a team.
“You’ll call us as soon as you know something.” Sam informed.
That was our Captain. He looked out for us, even when he wasn’t in charge anymore.
“Sure thing, Cap. Y’all will watch over Bubbles here, won’t you?” I asked, while hooking Payton around the neck with the crook of my arm, pulling her into my side.
“Bubbles?” Elliott asked with a cheeky grin.
“Well, I discovered tonight that she wears these Angry- oof.” I groaned as a pointy little elbow jammed its way into my sternum.
“Isn’t Bubbles what Janie calls that blue Angry Bird?” James asked questioningly.
“Sure is.” I grinned.
Payton gave me her best shut-up-before-I-rip-your-balls-off look, and I snapped my mouth shut without saying anything that would put my future kids in any danger.
“I’ve got to get to the airport. Watch over my sister. Keep an eye on Bubbles.” I said, giving each man a handshake, before leading Payton to her car. A thought suddenly entered my mind, and I felt like a complete dumbass that I was about to leave without the most important piece of my life.
Turning, I ran back into the house. Inside my closet was my trusty M-4. I’d cleaned it and kept it honed over this last year, even though I didn’t use it the same as I used to; although that was about to change. Thinking ahead, I grabbed four magazines, and headed back out the front door. Payton was standing in front of the boys; all of them watching her curiously, listening to her talk about her brother’s latest football game.
“He scored twice! He’s got recruiters from A&M and UT coming to watch his game on Friday. He hasn’t told them he’s going into the Navy, though.” She chattered excitedly.
“Navy?” Elliott spat outraged.
The boys echoed his oath, and hooahed. I joined in from my position behind them. The boys remained passive, while Payton jumped a foot, and ducked her body into a ball at the ground before realizing what she’d done. My heart sank. Six months we’d been at this, trying to overcome the fear, and it didn’t look like she’d made any progress at all.
Knowing that the way to handle this was to play it down, I said, “Let’s go, Bubbles. Unless you want me to miss my plane and be court martialed. Then tell everyone about your Angry Bird underwear in retaliation.”