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Jake Tanner had pulled out the desk chair in his home office and started to sit when the front doorbell chimed in the blissful quiet. He would never take silence for granted again. A long breath swooshed from his lungs as he straightened and gripped his cane, then limped toward the foyer. Through the long, narrow window with beveled glass, he could make out his neighbor standing on the porch.
Marcella Kime found a reason to see him at least a couple of times a week. He'd become her mission since he'd returned home to Cimarron City from serving in the military overseas. A few days earlier she'd jokingly told him she missed her grandson, and he would do just fine taking his place. He still wasn't sure what to make of that statement. He had returned to Cimarron City, a town he'd lived in for a while and visited often to see his grandma. Dealing with family, especially his father, the general, had been too much for him three months ago when he'd been released from the military hospital.
He swung the door open to reveal Marcella, probably no more than five feet tall, if that, with her hands full.
"Good morning." She smiled as she juggled a large box and a plate of pastries. He reached for the parcel.
"The Fed Ex guy left this late yesterday afternoon. I meant to bring it over sooner, but then I had to go to church to help with the pancake supper. You're always home so I was surprised he couldn't deliver the package."
"Went to the VA hospital in Oklahoma City."
"Oh, good. You went out." She presented the plate of goodies. "I baked extra ones this morning because I know how much you enjoy my cinnamon rolls. I'm going to put those pounds you lost back on in no time. I imagine all those K rations aren't too tasty."
"I haven't had MREsmeals ready to eatin six months, and no, they aren't tasty. In the hospital I was fed regular meals." But he hadn't wanted to eat much. He was working out again and building up his muscles at least.
"Oh, my. K rations certainly dates me. That's what they were called when my older brother was in the army."
His seventy-five-year-old neighbor with stark white hair never was at a loss for words. After she left, his head would throb from all the words tumbling around inside. He wanted to tell her again that she didn't need to worry about him, that in time his full appetite would return, but she continued before he could open his mouth.
"I'd come in, but I have to leave. Saturday is my day to get my hair washed and fixed. It needs it. Can't miss that." She thrust the plate toward him. "I'll come back later and get my dish."
After placing the parcel on the table nearby, he took the cinnamon rolls from his neighbor, their scent teasing that less than robust appetite. "Thanks, Miss Kime."
"Tsk. Tsk. Didn't I tell you to call me Marcella, young man? Your grandma and me were good friends. I miss her."
"So do I, MissI mean, Marcella."
When she had traversed the four steps to his sidewalk, Jake closed his front door, shutting out the world. With a sigh, he scanned his living room, the familiar surroundings where he controlled his environment, knew what to expect. Even Marcella's visits weren't surprises anymore.
Jake balanced the plate on the box, carried it into his office and set it on the desk to open later. It was from his father and his new wifea care package as they'd promised in their last call. Finally, they weren't trying to talk him into coming to live with them in Florida anymore. He needed his space, and he certainly didn't want to be reminded daily that he'd let down the generalhe wouldn't follow in his father's footsteps. He needed a sense of what this house had given when he was growing uppeace.
He snatched a cinnamon roll as he sat in front of his laptop, his coffee cup already on his right on a coaster. While he woke up his computer, he bit into the roll and closed his eyes, savoring the delectable pastry. Marcella sure could bake. Before getting started in his course work for his Ph.D. in psychology, he clicked on his email, expecting one from his doctor at the VA about some test results.
Only one email that wasn't junk popped up. He recognized the name, a message from the wife of a soldier who had served under him in Afghanistan. His heartbeat picked up speed. He should open it, but after an email a couple of weeks prior where he discovered one of his men had died from his injuries in an ambush, he didn't know if he could.
His chest constricted. But the woman's name taunted him. With a fortifying breath, he clicked on the message. As their commanding officer, it was his duty to know what happened to his men, even if he couldn't do anything about it.
His comrade was going in for another operation to repair the damage from a bomb explosion. Her words whisked Jake back to that day six months ago that had changed his life. The sound of the blast rocked his mind as though he were in the middle of the melee all over again.
Sweat beaded on his forehead and rolled down his face. His hands shook as he closed the laptop, hoping that would stop the flood of memories. He never wanted to remember that day. Ever. The walls of his home office began to close in on him, mocking what peace he felt in his familiar surroundings. He surged to his feet and hobbled around the room, dragging in breaths that didn't satisfy his need for oxygen.
I'm in Cimarron City. In my house. Safe.
In the midst of the terror that day in the mountain village, he'd grasped on to the Lord and held tight as He guided him through the rubble and smoke to save whomever he could. But where was God now when he needed Him? He felt abandoned, left to piece his life together. Alone.
He paced the room, glancing back at the computer a couple of times until he forced himself to look away. Lightheaded, he stopped at the window, leaning on his cane, and focused on his front lawn. Reconnoitering the area. Old habits didn't die easily.
He started to turn away when something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention. He swung back and homed in on a group of kids across the streettwo boys beating up a smaller child.
Anger clenched his gut. He balled his hands as another kid jumped in on the lopsided fight. That clinched it for Jake. He couldn't stand by and watch a child being hurt. Adrenaline began pumping through him as though he were going into battle, pushing his earlier panic into the background. He rushed toward the front door. But out on his porch, anxiety slammed into his chest, rooting him to the spot.
Jake's gaze latched on to the three boys against the one, taking turns punching the child. All his thoughts centered on the defenseless kid, trying to protect himself. Heart pounding, Jake took one step, then another. His whole body felt primed to fight as it had when as a soldier he vied with the other part of himsweat coating his skin, hands trembling, gut churning.
Furiously he increased his pace until he half ran and half limped toward the group, pain zipping up his injured leg. The boys were too intent on their prey to notice him. When he came to a halt, dropping his cane, he jerked first one then another off the child on the ground. He tried holding on to the one he pegged as the leader while reaching for the third kid, but the boy yanked free and raced deeper into the park with the second one hurrying after him.
"What's your name?" Pain radiating up his bad leg, Jake blocked it as much as he could from his mind and clasped the arm of the last child, smaller than the other two who'd fled and more the size of the boy on the ground.
The assailant glared at him, his mouth pinched in a hard line.
The downed kid still lay huddled in a tight ball. As much as Jake wanted to interrogate the bully he held, he needed to see to the hurt child. He memorized the features of the third attacker then released him. As expected, the third attacker fled in the same direction as his cohorts.
That was okay. Jake could identify him. He wouldn't get off scot-free.
Adrenaline still surging, Jake knelt by the boy. That sent another sharp streak of pain up his thigh. But over the months he'd learned that if he concentrated hard enough, he could ignore the aches his injury still caused. "You're safe now. Can I help you? Where do you hurt?"
For a long moment the child didn't say anything. Didn't move.
Concern flooded Jake. He settled his hand on the boy's shoulder. "Where do you live? Can you make it home?" Should he call 911? Had the bullies done worse damage than he realized?
Slowly, the child uncurled his body. He winced as he turned and looked up. Jake took in the cut lip and cheek, blood oozing from the wounds, the eye that would blacken by tomorrow, the torn shirt.
"Let me help you home."
Wariness entered the kid's blue eyes. "I'm fine." He swiped his dirty sleeve across his mouth, smearing the blood.
"Who were those guys?"
The child clamped his lips together, cringing, but keeping his mouth closed.
"The least I can do is make sure you get home without those kids bothering you again."
The boy's eyes widened.
The child nodded once then tried to stand. Halfway up, his legs gave out, and he sank to the ground.
Jake moved closer. "Let me help." He steadied himself with his cane.
When the boy stood with Jake's assistance, he wobbled but remained on his feet.
"I've been in a few fights. I know you have to get your bearings before doing too much."
The child tilted his head back and looked up at Jake, pain reflected in his eyes. "Did ya win?"
"Sometimes. Can you walk home? If you don't think you can, I'll call your parents." He dug into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
"No, I can walk." The child glanced over his shoulder. "Do you think they'll come back?"
"Not if they know what's good for them. I won't let them hurt you again."
"I wish that was true," the boy, probably no more than ten, mumbled, his head dropping. His body language shouted defeat.
"It's getting worse," Jake heard the kid mumble to himself. That again aroused the protective instinct in him.
"C'mon. Show me where you live. Is it far?" He looked back to check for the trio who had jumped the child. A male jogger and a couple, hands clasped, were the only people he saw in the park. "I'm Jake. What's your name?" With his injured leg throbbing, he used his cane to support more of his weight than usual.
"Josh." The boy dragged his feet as they turned the corner onto Sooner Road.
"Why were those kids bothering you?" The question came out before Jake could censor himself. He didn't want to get involved. Yet, the second he took the first step toward the fight, he had become involved, knowing firsthand what the boy was going through.
Josh mumbled something again, but Jake could hear only the words, "like to fight."
"Have those guys bullied you before?"
The boy's pace slowed until he came to a stop in front of a one-story, redbrick house with a long porch across the front. "Yeah. The big one has since he moved here," he said, his head still hanging.
"Do your parents know?" Jake studied the top of the child's head, some blood clotted in the brown hair. The urge to check the wound inundated him. He started to bring his hand up.
Josh jerked his chin up, anger carved into his features while his eyes glistened. "I don't have a dad. I don't want my mom knowing. You can't tell her." He took a step back. His hands fisted at his sides as if he were ready to defend that statement.
The taut set of the child's shoulders relaxed some, his fingers flexed. "But you will."
"No, I won't. I can take care of this myself. Mom will just get all upset and worried."
"She'll know something is wrong with one look at you." Jake gestured toward the house with a neatly trimmed yard, mums in full bloom in the flower bed and an inviting porch with white wicker furniture, perfect for enjoying a fall evening. Idyllic, as if part of the world wasn't falling apart with people battling each other. "Is this where you live?"
Josh stuck his lower lip out and crossed his arms, wearing a defiant expression.
Instantly, Jake flashed back to an incident with a captive prisoner who gave him that same look. His heartbeat raced. His breathing became shallow. His world shrank to that small hut in the mountains as he faced an enemy who had been responsible for killing civilians and soldiers the day before. He felt the shaking start in his hands. Jake fought to shut down the helplessness before it took over.
"Josh, what's going on?" A female voice penetrated the haze of memories.
Jake blinked and looked toward the porch. A tall woman, a few inches shy of six feet, with long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail that swished, marched down the steps toward them, distress stamped on her features.
"What happened to you?" Stooping in front of the boy, the lady grasped Josh's arms. When he didn't say anything, she peered up at Jake. "What happened?"
"Is Josh your son?"
"Yes." The anxiety in her blue eyes, the same crystalline color as the boy's, pleaded for him to answer the question.
Jake shifted. He'd done what he said he would do. He'd delivered the child safely home. It was time to leave Josh and his mother to hash out what had occurred in the park. He backed away, his grip on the cane like a clamp. He spied the imploring look in Josh's eyes. "Your son needs to tell you," he said.