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The motel room looked as tired as Captain Sam Brody felt after his endless flight from Sumter Air Force Base in South Carolina to Alamogordo, New Mexico. Of course, the bachelor party he'd been to last night might have something to do with his exhaustion. Seemed everyone Sam knew was hooking up or getting married.
He tossed his duffel on the garish bedspread and joined it a moment later, glad to be sitting on something relatively soft. The transport plane he'd hitched a ride with had been incredibly uncomfortable with all the turbulence, and the taxi he'd hired at Holloman Air Force Base had evidently been cobbled together with chewing gum and shocks made from empty soup cans. His car, packed with all he owned in the world, was due to arrive in a few days. In the meantime, he'd find an off-base furnished apartment.
He had ten days of leave ahead of him before he started life at the new base, with a new wing, new line of command, new everything. The only thing he knew for sure about moving to this small military town was that someone he used to know lived here. The wife of an old friend.
Sam shut down that line of thought quickly. He was too damn tired to let his memories sidetrack him. What he needed was some food, a beer and a bed. He opened up the drawer of the nightstand and pulled out the phone book. It was about a quarter of the size of the one in Texas. He sure as hell wouldn't miss the weather, although he'd probably miss the humidity in the middle of a dry-as-dust summer in the desert.
Most of the delivery foods he found were pizza, so he picked a familiar chain. After ordering a large cheese, he wasn't shocked at the laugh he got when he asked if beer was on the menu. But he'd seen a market a block away, so no worries.
Before he put the phone book away, he went to the white pages but Emma wasn't listed. It wasn't surprising. Most likely she didn't have a landline. Clicking through his cell phone's contacts he found Emma Lockwood. He hadn't deleted the listing in the three years since Danny had died. Of course he had her Alamogordo address, but it was a long shot that she still lived in the same town, let alone the same house. She probably didn't even have the same number. He could always delete everything later if it turned out Emma wasn't interested in whatever.
He didn't have time to shower and make a beer run before his dinner arrived, so he settled for washing his face before walking to the market. The September evening felt good on his skin despite the fact that it was still in the eighties, but he'd have to get used to the smell. Randolph Air Force Base always had a hint of mesquite in the air. Just like the wind had carried the ocean back in his hometown of Seal Beach, California.
He shoved his hands in his pockets as he strolled, checking out the scenery. Nothing much to it. He could have been in any inner-city area littered with billboards and graffiti on brick walls, people walking with purpose from the stores that weren't boarded up.
There was a lot more to Alamogordo than this neighborhood, but he didn't mind staying here for a few days. Odds were he wouldn't run into any other pilots. Any other officers at all. Which was a good thing for the time being.
Transitions were part of air force life, but they never got easier for Sam. At heart, he was a homebody, which made no sense for a man who loved to fly as much as he did. But he'd grown up moving a lot as his mother searched for employment. Retirement after he'd gotten his twenty years would be a welcome relief. He'd find himself a comfortable house, something with enough land around it that he wouldn't hear the neighbors. He'd have a yard and a couple of rescue dogs, and he'd put down roots there. A real home. Hopefully not on his own.
He wondered if Emma still wore her blond hair in that ponytail. Danny'd sure liked to tug on that, even though it made her cross. He'd always been an overgrown kid. Hell of a fun guy, generous, too. They'd all shared so much laughter: Danny and John Devlin and then Emma Taylor, the waitress at the Rusty Nail bar and diner a couple of blocks away from the Air Force Academy. He'd loved those years. The three guys had bonded quickly, shared a house that wasn't exactly the Ritz. They'd all wanted to fly F-16s and they'd all worked their asses off to get there.
But sometimes the studying got to be too much and they'd head off to the Rusty Nail. Danny had seen Emma, and she'd seen him right back. It was all over but the paperwork from that night on. They'd gotten married a year later, in Danny's senior year.
God, she'd been so pretty. Slender and delicate. Little wrists, long fingers. She always looked perfect, even in those terrible T-shirts she wore back then. Crazy stuff, big writing over her chest. Mostly with pictures of heavy metal bands. Which she didn't actually listen to. She just liked the shirts.
He didn't realize he was smiling until he saw his reflection in the convenience store's door. Leave it to Emma to make a horrible day better. He used to think Danny was the luckiest son of a bitch he'd ever met. Until he wasn't.
The little market not only carried his favorite beer, but a cooler and ice, so he bought himself a six-pack, some beef jerky and a box of Pop-Tarts for the morning. Nothing he could do about coffee except get himself to a diner as quickly as possible, because, screw it, he was not drinking microwaved instant. Not for anything.
The pizza arrived twelve minutes after he got back to the motel, and it was hot enough to burn the roof of his mouth. The TV wasn't as much of a success. There weren't many channels that worked, but one of them was ESPN, so that was okay, even if half the picture was snow.
He woke up the next morning to the sound of the TV, still dressed, his second beer half-empty on the nightstand. The day ahead would look better after a shower and a decent breakfast. At least, he hoped so.
With five minutes left of Emma Lockwood's creative writing class, all fourteen of her students had their heads bent, the sound of clicking laptop keys a staccato symphony she knew by heart. She'd given them a writing assignment when they'd come into class, a simple mood piece, but she'd asked them to write it in a genre that wasn't their own. So Mrs. Dealy, who was taking the class for the third time because she loved to write but didn't have the discipline to do it without deadlines, was tackling science fiction, even though she wrote love stories. Jared, one of her freshmen straight from Holloman High School, was extremely brave, writing his piece in the style of Raymond Chandler, a real hard-boiled mystery.
Emma wished all of her students were as enthusiastic as the ones in this class. But so many of her courses were merely stepping stones to an associate degree. Most of the students would go on to get their bachelor degrees at New Mexico State, but for some, this would be the end of the education line.
She sat on the edge of her desk with two minutes on the clock. "Okay, everyone," she said. "Please continue working on the assignments throughout the week, and we'll hear them during Friday's class."
Reggie Porter, one of the several veterans who'd come back from the war and was using the G.I. Bill to help him get a better job, raised his hand, although he didn't wait for her to acknowledge it. "How long are these supposed to be?"
"Between four and nine thousand words."
"So there goes football night."
"It'll be exciting," Emma said and smiled at his deadpan expression. "Just think of how much you learned during the first-person exercise. Broadening your horizons is never a waste of time unless you let it be. Give it your best shot. Ingenuity counts. Make the genre clear in the story itself."
The bell went off and the post-class shuffle of laptop cases and backpacks began. They were in their second month of the fall semester, so there was conversation among them, mostly about the work, but sometimes about other things. She was glad. She wanted her classes to be enlivened by dialogue off the page as well as on.
After cleaning the blackboards and making sure everything in the room was tidy, she got her purse and her books and walked the semiquiet halls to the faculty lounge in the Lower Campus Classroom building at Holloman Air Force Base. The sound ofjets taking off and landing had become background noise after living close to them for so long, not just here, but in Colorado and Utah. They'd never stopped reminding her of Danny, but at least now the thrum of the engines didn't feel like a punishment.
Sharon Keeler was at the coffee machine, staring at the sludge at the bottom of the stained pot. Sharon was part of the arts faculty staff, but she was mostly concerned with her drama department. They were doing As You Like It this fall, and she was in a tizzy about costumes and lighting and the lack of much discernible talent among the students.
"You in for a late night?" Emma asked.
Sharon nodded, her long dark hair looking worse for wear since this morning. On the plus side, she'd worn her favorite cow-themed earrings, a sure sign she'd been in a good mood this morning. "Campus-planning committee meeting. You want to come?"
Emma held back a laugh because she didn't want to be cruel. "Sorry, I have lesson plans, grading book reports and laundry. I know, scintillating."
Emma and Sharon turned when Gary Lyden walked in. Gary wasn't particularly great-looking, but he was a runner and a health enthusiast and he put himself together really well. Somewhat newit was his second year in the math departmenthe was an Idaho transplant. Mostly, he was nice. A solid guy who was good with his students and easy to be around. Emma and he were becoming better and better friends, as it turned out.
"Are you coming tonight?" Sharon asked. "I know it's Tuesday and you have that Habitat meeting later, but none of the teachers RSVP'd and besides, it wasn't my fault. It was the only night the parents could come, and I'm desperate."
"Really?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "How desperate?"
"Fine, I'll bake you an entire batch of granola fruit bars all for yourself. Well, not this week, but soon. Good enough?"
Gary rubbed his hands together. "Those are damn good snacks. So yes, I'm in. But don't think you can talk me into helping with your scenery. I'm into theory, not practice." He looked to Emma. "You can't make it?"
"Not tonight. In fact, I'm going to actually leave the base before 7:00 p.m. I think it might be the first time that's happened since the semester started."
"They do keep chipping away at us," Sharon said as she went to the sink to wash out the coffeepot. "I should quit. Get myself a career that pays better money."
"Or at least one where the out-of-pocket expenses aren't so high," Gary said. He came closer to Emma and touched the back of her arm, but only for a second. "You want to run tomorrow?"
"Hmm " She should. The exercise was helping with her energy dips. They'd been heading out for a couple months now, going to the high school track before school started on Mondays and Thursdays, but she wasn't sure yet if she wanted it to become anything more regular. "To be honest, I could use a decent morning's sleep since I have a later class. Sorry."
"No problem. Thursday then?"
"Good. Yes. Thursday." She went to her mail cubby, which was conveniently placed at the bottom of the stack, and got her notices and flyers and a couple of letters from the school district. She'd look at them later.
Behind her, the door swung open again, only this time there were several teachers coming in, seemingly in the middle of a fierce discussion about the merits of soccer over football.
She waited until the doorway was clear, then waved her goodbyes. Her phone rang just as she reached the exit to the parking lot. The name on the caller ID stole her breath and her grace. She stumbled, but thankfully didn't fall.
Sam Brody. She hadn't seen him since shortly after Danny died. But she'd thought of him. More often than she should have, considering. But not so much lately.
She almost let the call go to voice mail, but it was so out of the blue that she couldn't stand it. She pressed the key. "Hello?"
"Emma," he said, and his voice sent a shiver skittering down her back.
"Sam. It's been a while."
"I know. Too long."
She nodded, but held her tongue.
"Hey, I'm just calling to let you know that we're neighbors."
"What?" Emma looked around, conscious of how loud she'd been. "What do you mean?"
"I've been assigned to Holloman."
"Now. I'm on leave, though, for the next ten days. Enough time to find an apartment. Get my bearings."
"So you're here now?"
"Yeah. I'm here."
"Oh. That's great. That's great."
"We'll see, but then, you know how it is, being transferred. A real crapshoot."
"I can give you some pointers if you need them," she said, wincing the moment the words were out of her mouth. It had been a reflex. They'd been friends once. Certainly Sam had been one of Danny's closest. They'd gone through a lot together, but after the crash, both Sam and John had stopped calling. Not their fault. She'd made it clear she wanted some space. Especially from Sam.
"That'd be great," he said. "I was thinking maybe you'd like to go out, have some dinner with me?"
"Not necessarily," he said, although he spoke so quickly it was clear that was just what he'd meant. "I'm sure you're busy. With a your life. Here. You teaching?"
She thought about telling him dinner wasn't such a good idea, but the words wouldn't come. She was walking now, nowhere in particular, down some stairs, past rows of cars. "How about tomorrow night?"
He sighed. "Tomorrow night would be perfect. You'll have to say where, though. I've got no idea what's around here."
"Are you staying at the base?"
"Nope. But I'm close to it. So how about you text me the name and location of your favorite restaurant. I'll meet you there. Tomorrow. Seven okay?"
"Yeah. Seven's fine." Her heels clicked on the concrete during a lull in jet traffic as she slowed to a standstill. "It'll be good to see you again."
"It will. Don't forget to save the number, now."
"Okay. Have a good one."