The bony fingered lady swatted me away from the glass faster than a soldier running from a grenade. Without breaking eye contact, she wiped away the smudges I created on her precious counter. Those near black eyebrows rose high, threatening daggers to my soul if I so much as hiccupped in her general direction. That fake crooked smile aimed for a sale, but her eyes harbored man-eating-hatred for any poor soul like me who inquired about engagement rings.
“That one.” I raised my chin, puffed out my chest and pushed my filthy finger on her glass case, not bothering to hide the smirk creeping its way up my face.
The word livid wouldn’t describe her response. And, honestly, I didn’t give a damn. This was going to be the fucking happiest day of my life.
She gestured to the other case, full of rings with extra sparkle, additional jazz and double the dollar signs. “How about one of these, sir?”
I leaned over, allowing red paint to drip onto the glass. When the lady stifled a gasp at the red smudge on her glass, I smirked inwardly. Paintballing with the guys definitely had its perks.
“Maybe I’ll buy her a necklace instead.” Green splatters followed in my wake as my muddy shoes squished over the pristine white floor and crossed the store to another case, one filled with elegant necklaces.
Witch-lady scorched lasers into my back, and I used all my energy to hold a serious face.
She cleared her throat like a professional ready to perform a Broadway play, but instead of a musical note, a screech echoed off the diamonds through the shop and into the back office. “George! You have a customer!”
Good ole-Georgie-boy, who I’d never met a day in my life, sprang out from the back, like he was floating on air. “Ooh, does paintballing hurt? What if they hit you in the, you know…?” He winced and cowered like a ballerina at a dodgeball tournament.
Though, come to think of it, ballerinas would be pretty badass players, twirling around each frantic throw. Like Dad always said, It’s not about the power of the beast behind the weapon, but the technique and skill. A snort escaped my throat.Tonight, I would definitely be showing Eva my technique and skills.
I chuckled. “No, man, paintballing doesn’t hurt. It’s not like a real bullet.”
“You’ve been shot?” George clutched his heart like a Grade-A Emmy award winner.
“You should come next time…paintballing, I mean… not overseas.” A blond lock fell in front of my eyes and when I tucked it behind my ear, blue smeared across my palm.
George batted his long lashes. “Oh, you’d like that wouldn’t you. A big meaty guy like you ready to protect me.”
I smiled at the stranger. “Protection is what I do. But if I don’t hurry up and buy a ring, my girl’s gonna be pissed that I’m late for dinner.” I smiled and caught my reflection in the mirror behind the cash register. Purple dye covered my teeth. The walkie talkie in my back pocket buzzed in static.
A high-pitched voice spoke much too loudly for any human ear. “Roger, can you hear me? Over and out.”
I rolled my eyes and smeared yellow over the walkie-talkie as I pushed the button. “Tess, my name is Phoenix, not Roger.”
Static buzzed. “Oh, come on, just pretend. Like we’re doing it for real. Over and out.” Tess giggled, apparently unaware that she still had her finger on the button.
I shook my head, when she finally let go, I dropped my voice. “Okay, Tess, you’re my spy number one. I need coordinates for the drop off point. Over and out.”
That would take her a minute at least.
I glanced at my watch: 1800 hours. Soon tears would streak down Eva’s face when I’d look up at her from one knee. She’d clasp one hand to her mouth and do a little dance and pull me up by the elbow, squeeze my giant biceps and plant a huge kiss on my deserving lips. We’d probably rush through dinner just to get to dessert—licking chocolate syrup from each other’s skin.
George pulled out two rings, one white gold with a one Karat diamond, the other rose gold with a spiral shape and smaller stone. “What’s your girlfriend like? I can help you decide based on her personality.” He propped his elbow on the recently windexed counter and centered his chin in his palm—ready for a chick flick-worthy romance story.
“I know which she’d want.” I pointed to the smaller diamond. “With all her pottery making, she’ll take the ring off often, so it won’t get dirty. So, she’d want the cheaper option in case she loses it.”
George tapped a nearby clipboard. “We have insurance plans for brides who lose…things.”
“Nah, I’d rather take the risk.”
George nodded. “I knew you’d say that.” He took his time shining the stone and wrapping it. The clock above the counter ticked on, making me regret the choice to not shower first as paint oozed down my briefs.
Spy number one chimed into the device. “Roger. I have coordinates 35.0527° N, 78.8784° W. Rendezvous in one hour. Over and out. I mean, live long and prosper.”
That was fast. Who knew my fifteen-year-old cousin was so resourceful? I pushed the button and winked at George, before asking, “Does spy number two have my outfit?”
“Spy number two?” Tess giggled. “Oh, yeah. I mean, yes sir. But why did you pick a pirate costume, wouldn’t Eva want you in a tux? Over and out. So long, partner.”
I handed over my credit card to George, who was basically doing a tap dance on the other side, then pushed the button. “Negative. I’m sticking with the pirate gear. And it’s not a costume. It’s the real thing. Make sure you find my sword.”
George walked out from behind the counter and looked up at me. “Pirate? This proposal will be just…perfect.” I could’ve sworn tears formed in his eyes as this stranger leaned in and wrapped his arms around my waist, covering the front of his shirt in turquoise and yellow and red splashes.
“Give me your card, I’ll let you know how it turns out.”
His eyes lit up like firecrackers. “Yes! Please! I can write a story about all the details on my blog! It’ll turn into a movie!”
After pocketing the jewelry box and his contact info, I marched over my puddles of red on the floor, trying not to think about how they looked like blood—a sight I was too familiar with. But that wasn’t a thought for today.
The sun drenched into my cheeks as I stepped outside. Heat bore down quickly and powerfully, unusual for a February evening—even for the South. I tore off the paintball gear to my tee and jeans. My pickup truck beeped when I clicked my keys, startling a few teen girls sitting on the park bench.
“Sorry,” I threw my gear in the back while noticing one girl eyeing my sleeve of tattoos up and down.
“No problem.” She smiled with bedroom eyes, knowing exactly what she was doing when she uncrossed her legs. But her charming face wasn’t Eva’s, and even though I was only twenty, a teen girl wasn’t my thing.
The truck door slammed shut, catching the fabric of my pants between the door and frame. I yanked it out, tearing a hole in the side of the rough fabric of my pants. “Layla” by Derek and the Dominos boomed through my stereo. I rolled down my window and sang along, replacing “Eva” in the lyrics. The teen girls giggled as I shoved on my aviators. I pulled out of the spot, burning rubber.
Wind rushed in through the cabin and a sports car tried to pass, but I floored it and saluted the guy in my rearview, egging him on. The engine roared like the lion inside me and showed the mid-life crisis man who was boss. Unfortunately, my phone rang, interrupting all the fun and halting the song at the best part.
Dad’s voice projected through the speaker. “Phoenix?”
“What’s up, ole timer?”
“I’m only forty-five.”
“Like I said, old as dirt. I probably won’t even live to that age.”
A door creaked in the background. “Quiet, son. Don’t want your mother hearing that.”
I checked the side mirror, watching for that douchebag sportscar to pop up unannounced. “But it’s true.”
He sighed. “We all know it’s true. Don’t need reminders. Anyway, I need your help with something tonight.”
“No can do, ole timer. I’ve got plans.”
His voice dropped. “What if it’s an order?”
I bit the inside of my lip and released the heavy pressure of my combat boots from the gas. “Is it an order, Lieutenant Peterson?”
Papers shuffled in the background. “It’s… important.”
Dad was messing with me. “Do it yourself.”
He basically growled. “Is that how you speak to your commanding officer?”
I pulled over, bouncing on my seat from the gravel. My jaw clenched as I took the call off speakerphone and held the phone to my ears. “What’s wrong, Dad?”
A cardinal landed onto the hood of my truck and stared at me through the cracked windshield. While I ever-so-patiently waited for Dad’s response, like a perfect only-child would do, the sportscar flew by me, and the man raised a middle finger in the air. Same to you, asshole.
Doomsday clouds appeared from nowhere and covered the setting sun, cascading shadows on the forest to my right. Anytime, now…
So, I asked again, “What’s wrong, Dad?”
He cleared his throat. “I owe someone a favor.”
Really? That was all he was gonna say?
I shook my head and checked the mirror as a cop car flew by. The sunset’s rays were fading, and darkness rolled in faster than usual. “Do I need to bribe you with Mom’s baking to get you to talk?”
He grumbled under his voice. Something was definitely wrong, so I offered, “I can come to you. Where are you at?”
“No, no. I shouldn’t have called or gotten you involved. Nevermind.” His tone switched.
My heart thumped fast as I straightened in the driver’s seat and changed gears. The tires kicked up dirt as I sped back onto the road and checked his location on my phone. “You’re home now?”
“No, I’m leaving. Your mother can’t know… Phoenix, just forget I called.” He hung up.
Shit. What the hell?
With one steady hand I checked Dad’s location again, but he had turned off the sharing feature. Damn it! The speedometer rose higher down the country road.
Spy number one’s voice croaked through the walkie talkie. “We don’t have eyes on Eva. She was supposed to leave her pottery studio and meet us at the nail salon. Me and spy number two will be MIA while we find her, then will drop her off at the destination. I think I need a better nickname, how about Bond, Tess Bond.”
I didn’t respond. A needed exhale escaped my lips as I glanced at the dashboard. 1830. Find Dad. Fix his fiasco. Shower. Change into epic pirate outfit. Find sword. Meet Eva. Propose. Easy Peasy.
Raindrops plinked on my hood as I sped toward our house, my heart rate quickening at each passing second. Would Dad have told Mom where he was going?
Only three miles away.
Why would Dad call me instead of his coworkers? Because he trusts me more. What happened? The drizzle turned to downpour, slamming water on his windshield and I could barely see. Squinting, I moved to the edge of my seat, cramping my long legs under the steering wheel and peering out into the monsoon.
Two miles from home.
What did Dad get himself involved in? Was he in danger? Wind erupted through oak trees and water sprayed up as I catapulted through deep potholes. The battering sound against my windows was almost deafening.
A screech came through my quiet radio. “Weather alert: flood warning in Cumberland County.”
The truck pulled me off the road and metal screeched against concrete. Crap! A flat!
I checked my phone. No service. The glovebox dropped open at my forceful touch. I grabbed my Glock, just in case, pocketed my keys and phone and sprinted down the country road.
In any other weather, I’d be there in seven minutes, but the rain blinded me. The gravel slid underfoot and water splashed up into my socks. Left foot. Right foot. They thudded heavily, but fast. My muscles burned and my breath quickened.
Our two-story brick house came into view, complete with a white picket fence. Mom’s twenty bird feeders in the yard were all toppled over from the wind. I rushed inside, shook out my hair, and wiped my face on my jacket hanging by the front door.
Her cat pranced forward, circling my feet and licking the water from my boots.
“Mom?” I walked through the hall so fast, my shoulder caught one of the picture frames on the wall, knocking it down and smashing the glass to the floor.
“Goodness!” Mom walked out of the kitchen, her long blond hair pulled back in a ponytail and worry lines stretched on her forehead.
The scent of brownies made me suck in a breath. I marched to the fridge and gulped down a water bottle, crushing the plastic between my fingers with each swallow.
“Sorry, I’ll clean that up.” I crouched and picked up the broken pieces of the frame.
Mom knelt too and laid her hand on mine. “Don’t worry about it. I need you to find your father.”
I met her hazel eyes. Her look confirmed that he was in trouble. “Where is he?”
The damn cat nudged against me, leaving fur stuck against my wet forearm.
Mom’s hands shook as she picked up the glass pieces slowly and placed them in a neat pile. “I…I don’t know. He was mumbling under his breath and pacing around, said something about a bus, then ran out of here.” Her eyes darted to the pantry, where we kept a stash of hidden guns.
“No, we don’t need those.” I pulled her to her feet. “I’ll find him but my phone is wet. I need yours.”
She nodded and rushed across the kitchen, pulling her phone from the charger on the counter. The oven blared just as the electricity flashed off.
Mom pulled out the brownies and leaned against the counter. “Last hurricane we lost power for two days.”
“This isn’t a hurricane. And I’ll get your power back up once I find Dad. Be right back.” I kissed Mom’s forehead, swiped the phone and stormed to my room, closing the door behind me.
While tearing off my soaked clothes, I messaged people quickly.
One to Dad- “Where are you?”
One to Eva- “May need to push back our dinner an hour or so. xoxo. I’ll make it up to you with chocolate and that strip tease you like.”
One to Spy number one- “Keep Eva distracted or take her shopping. I’ll pay for whatever.”
One to my best bud on my army team, Specialist Ryan- “I need your help tracking Lieutenant Peterson. Can you get his location?”
My watch beeped, reminding me that I needed to be headed toward the restaurant soon. The waiter I had paid to deliver a treasure chest full of her favorite chips would have to be patient for our late arrival.
My clothes lay in a heap on the ground, smelling like a wet dog. I pulled out the jewelry box from the pocket and set it on my dresser. Focusing on my meditative breathing, I opened it up and stared at the glistening diamond.
The air conditioning turned on, sending a gust of frigid air through the vent over my naked body. I shivered and reached for a pair of briefs in my drawer when a soft knock tapped on my door.
“One second, Mom.” I grabbed a pair and threaded one foot through the leg hole when my door creaked open.
Hoping it was just the damn cat, I swiveled around to shut it quickly. Instead, I met Eva’s gorgeous brown eyes. My heart slammed under my ribs, threatening to break free and an erection formed immediately.
She glanced down and instead of her cheeks turning rosy like I was used to; a frown covered that porcelain face. I yanked my underwear up and tried to step between her and the engagement ring, fully on display.
But she saw it.
Her jaw dropped a tad as she gently closed the door behind her and leaned against the wood, head angled up to the ceiling. Uh oh. My breathing accelerated and my chest rose and fell heavy as I moved toward her, with hands outstretched.
She bit her lip and eyed the ring again, then squeezed her eye shut and backed away.
“Eva?” My voice stuck in my throat and dread flooded through my veins at the look on her face.
Her sweet eyes were hard as she stared out the window. “I…I didn’t know you’d be here.”
Whatever was bothering her, I could fix it. I could make it better. As I moved in for a hug, she blocked me with one arm.
“No.” Her voice was stern.
She bit her lip. Any other time that slight movement would rile me up, but her energy wasn’t right.
I studied her. “If you didn’t know I was here, then why—”
“I came to talk.”
“But we have plans tonight. We could talk at dinner, so why—”
“I didn’t come to talk to you. I came to talk to your mom.”
Goosebumps crept up my skin, covering my tattoos as the realization of upcoming bad news set in, but I clamped my mouth shut so I wouldn’t say anything to make it worse.
Eva’s eyes watered but she kept her face solid. “I came to explain to your mom… why…” Her voice shook.
The torment harassing her was too much for me to bear. I wrapped my arms around her. “Take a deep breath. We can fix the problem.”
Eva pushed out of my embrace, completely shattering my heart. “No. You’re the problem.”
I froze and a new gust of air from the vent attacked me. Turning from her sharp face, I pushed my fingers into my temples and dropped my head.
She dug through a drawer behind me and when I turned back to face her, a dry shirt hung in the air from her fingertips. Fingers that had traced the outline of each line of all my tattoos. Fingers I had licked honey off. Fingers that formed her unique pottery pieces. And one specific finger that I picked out the engagement ring for.
I forced a swallow, like a mound of rocks was stuck in my throat and gently pulled the shirt from her grip. She crossed her arms and moved a step back, eyes on the floor as the phone rang from my bed.
I sighed. “Eva, what did I do to upset you?”
“Nothing. We’re just in different places in life.”
It felt like claws were ripping out my beating heart. “We can be in the same place. Let’s slow down.”
She gestured to the ring. “Clearly, we’re on even more different paths than I thought.”
My jaw tightened and my chest felt like it was on fire. “I don’t have to propose.”
Eva finally looked up and a tear from the corner of her eye. “But you want to.”
I nodded. Words wouldn’t form at the sight of her crying. I was the cause. I was making her cry.
Her eyebrows knitted together. “That’s the thing. I don’t want you to propose.”
The air was stolen from my lungs. The pain of daggers pierced my stomach. Over and over, tearing apart my insides. “Okay. What do you want?”
“I don’t think you want me to answer that.”
Rain battered against the window and my phone rang again.
“Are you gonna get that?” She wiped her wet cheek, moving her chestnut hair out of her face.
“No.” I slowly moved forward again. “Please, let’s talk.”
Eva reached into the bottom drawer, knowing where all my belongings were, and chucked a pair of pants at me. “Stop. I knew you wouldn’t accept what I have to say.”
I dropped the pants to the carpet and sank onto my comforter, sending out a loud puff sound as air escaped from the blankets. “What am I supposed to do? Let you walk out of my life? Tonight…” for a moment I couldn’t breathe. “I was going to…”
“I knew you were soon. I just didn’t think it’d be now.” She sat on the bed, but on the other end, worlds apart.
Before, on this very bed, we had tossed and turned under the sheets for hours, flesh against flesh. How could she rip that away?
A throbbing pounded in my temples, but I pushed it away and faced her. “What can I do? I can wait. If you’re not ready. We can take our time.”
The phone rang again, but I silenced it and threw it across the floor.
She blurted out. “I want to have sex with other men.”
Every muscle twisted in indescribable pressure. A roaring echoed in my ears and I could feel my eyes widen in horror while gazing into her brown eyes. Picturing her with another man was pure torture. I stood and stumbled across the room, to the opposite corner, fists clenched at my sides.
“I’m twenty-one, Phoenix. We’ve had three great years, but you’re the only man I’ve been with. I want to see what else is out there. I have a full life ahead of me, options, adventures. There’s no way I can settle.”
Settle. To her I was settling. Those words were a gut punch. “Okay.” I stared her down as my heart rate quickened, terrified of her walking out my door.
“Okay?” She stood and tilted her head.
I wanted her to stay in that room. But if time and space were what she needed, I’d give it.
I rolled in my lips and nodded. “If you need a few months or a year…”
Eva’s posture straightened. “No, Phoenix. We’re not leaving this open. I will always love you—”
I held out a hand. “Don’t. Don’t say that if you don’t mean it.”
She folded her arms. “Fine. I used to love you. But this is over. I’m not coming back. Don’t wait for me. Please find someone new.” Eva reached for the door.
No. I couldn’t let her leave. Not like this. Not now. How could I wake up tomorrow without her in my life? I rushed over and dropped to my knees in front of her.
She didn’t meet my eye. “We aren’t meant for each other.” Her dress fluttered against my jawline as she turned and left. The door clicked quietly behind her.
The carpet tickled against my calf as I buried my head between my knees. Pain erupted threatening to steal my oxygen from my chest. Count to ten and move on, soldier. Dad’s words echoed back. Okay, I was alive. I had tomorrow. Count to ten.
Sprawling flat on the carpet, I wiggled into my pants.
I stood, pulled a knife out of my drawer and hovered over a pillow—one I had let Eva rest her head.
My knuckles clenched around the knife and I stabbed that pillow repetitively until feathers smothered the bed.
I snapped the jewelry box shut and buried it deep under my briefs. Breathe. In. Out.
I picked up the phone from the carpet and swiped the lit-up screen. Multiple missed calls.
No. I’m over the damn counting. Fuck seven through ten, Eva. Fuck you!
Before listening to the voicemails, I shook my body, releasing the tension and dialed Ryan back.
“Your Dad is a hard one to find, man,” Private Ryan sounded serious on the other line.
“You can’t locate him?”
“Negative.” Ryan was in the zone, focused and alert.
“Okay, call me if you find him or hear anything.”
A tree branch smacked into my window, breaking through.
“Shit!” I jumped toward the hallway, needing to check on Mom.
But…Eva would be down there, breaking the news to Mom. Eva was the daughter she never had. That girl was breaking more than one heart today. I cracked my knuckles, holstered my Glock and walked downstairs. Mom was chopping brownies at the counter, eyes red-rimmed.
My heart leapt again. “Are you okay?”
“I spied on you. I heard everything.”
I whirled around. “Wait, Eva didn’t talk to you herself?”
“Where is she?”
Mom pointed her knife toward the door. “Gone. You deserve better.” She sniffed.
She was wrong. Eva was perfect.
“Then why are you crying?” I asked.
Mom pointed that knife straight at me. “Because…you have a heart of gold. And I know it’s breaking and I can’t do anything to take away your pain.” She moved a crumbling brownie onto a plate. “Here, eat this.”
“I need to go after her. This storm is bad.”
Mom smushed a giant bite against my lips, forcing me to open. The gooey chocolate melted over my tongue, warming my body.
“Thanks, Mom.” I disguised the hitch in my voice.
“She doesn’t deserve your protection.”
“Everyone deserves protection. Listen, go sleep down in the bunker until the morning. You’ve got your magazines and food down there.”
She dropped the knife into the sink splattering dishwater everywhere. “Fine. But only because it’ll calm you.”
“I am calm.”
Her tender grip grasped my chin. “Don’t lie to me.” She released me and headed straight to the pantry, opened the trap door, and descended from view.
The floorboards creaked as I marched toward the front door. I grabbed her car keys and rushed into the rain. Great, soaked twice in one day. I sped down the road, passing my abandoned truck on the way.
In just a few minutes, her car came into view, swerving over the yellow line. Pulling up beside her, I honked gently to not startle her. After gesturing for her to pull over, I followed her to the shoulder. She jumped out and slammed her door, strutting towards me. Rain was the only thing connecting us.
“What the hell, Phoenix? Just let me go!”
“I am. You’re free of me.” I threw up my hands and shouted. “But it’s not safe to drive in this.”
“I’m a big girl and know how to drive. I know my limits.”
I bared my teeth, trying to hold back the comments I wanted to yell. “So, you don’t want my help?”
“No. Leave! If I crash, it’s my own damn fault. Please go.”
Every fiber of my being wanted to argue back, drag her back to Mom’s and safely tuck her into the bunker. But I squeezed back into my car without a word and drove off, leaving her alone in the rain. I slammed my palms into the steering wheel, jerking my entire upper body with them. My heart hammered out of control in my chest.
“Aahh!” My scream echoed off the leather, stained with circle dots from the water rolling down my jaw and splattering everywhere.
She doesn’t want me. We’re done. I couldn’t fix this. It was over. Say it out loud, soldier. Dad’s voice was like a phantom in the air.
“It’s over.” A wave of calm washed over me as I said it once more. “It’s over.”
My heart rate steadied, and clarity struck. I knew what I had to do.
I checked the phone. No new messages from Ryan. I called Dad. Straight to voicemail. Where would Dad go? What would he be doing? My mind reeled trying to piece together the few pieces Mom and Dad both mentioned. He owed someone a favor, regretted getting me involved, didn’t want Mom to know. What had Mom said? A bus? Would he be at the bus station? Why? Which one?
Steering with one hand, I googled all the closest bus stations to our house and headed toward the first one. As the minutes ticked on, and I crossed off more bus stations off my list, the rain slowly softened. The clock showed 2300.
Mom’s gas tank binged and a red symbol lit up—near empty. Perfect.
I called other bus stations asking for a man with Dad’s description, six foot three inches, 200 pounds, bald, most likely in camo. Though for the last five calls, I omitted the camo part. If something shady was going on, he wouldn’t want to be caught in his uniform.
Glancing at Mom’s phone, I hoped she wasn’t worried sick. I should’ve given her mine, in case it dried out. Her screen showed twenty percent battery. I dug around for a charger. Nothing. Could buy one from a gas station while I fill up. I reached into my back pocket. Empty. Damn it. My wallet was in my other pants sprawled on my carpet.
I stopped at a red light and flashed my hazards as other cars approached. The phone buzzed. Dad’s number. My heart slammed, threatening to break free.
“Hello? Dad?” My voice came out high pitched.
A painful groan came from the other end. He was hurt. Crap. No!
“Marie?” He coughed and gurgly spurts of liquid exploded from his mouth. Don’t let it be blood.
“It’s Phoenix. Where are you?”
Another loud groan followed by “I’m…five minutes from… Oak City’s train station….”
“Hurry… the intersection….” His breathing faded. “… Onyx and Jewel…”
“Okay. I’m ten minutes from there!”
More like twenty, but I could make it work. “What happened to you?”
He spat something.
“Okay, okay. Don’t talk. Just stay on the line.” I moved the phone in sight, ten percent battery.
I shook my head and floored Mom’s car, speeding through winding turns and zooming through red lights. All the while, I held the phone to my ear, listening as Dad’s breathing turned more labored as each minute passed by. Terror locked on tight to my chest and wouldn’t let go.
Finally, I pulled into the empty intersection, where a flashing streetlight ignited a silhouette laying in a ditch. No!
I scurried out of the car, tripping on a tree branch, and fell to the ground. My palms landed hard on pebbles and broken glass that sliced into my flesh. Dad lay in the mud, covered in cuts and bruises. A large scrape on his temple oozed blood. I scrambled over, crawling towards him.
“Glass,” he whispered, trying to point behind me.
“Ssh, don’t move.” I ripped off my shirt and wrapped it around his bald head.
One eye was already black, and tears covered his shirt. “Were you thrown out of a car?”
“We need to get you to a hospital.”
“Dad! Yes! We have to.”
“First…we have…to go…”
I checked his limbs for broken bones and signs of internal bleeding. The biggest concern seemed to be a likely concussion. I snapped in front of his face, checking his response, but it was hard to see with only the moonlight shining down.
“Where do we have to go?”
He pulled a driver’s license out of his pocket, showing a sixteen-year-old girl named Cali Walsh. “Here.”
“That’s an order.” Dad coughed.
He groaned when I helped to lift him to his feet. After wobbling for a moment and staggering to the side, he limped to the car.
“How do you feel?” I held him steady by his waist.
“Sore and dizzy. But I’ll live.”
“We’re still going to the hospital.”
“Her house first.”
After he eased into the passenger seat, he flipped down the mirror. Scrapes claimed his face and head, but the bleeding had stopped seeping through the shirt wrapped around his forehead.
I entered Cali Walsh’s address into Mom’s GPS, knowing it’ll take up the rest of the battery, so I memorized the directions and drove forward. Dad stared at the window, lips rolled in tight. I eased into each turn softly, watching him out of the corner of my eye.
The car rolled into a suburban neighborhood, full of spacious yards and houses to match. Squinting, I found the mailbox matching the driver’s license and pulled over.
“Stay here.” Dad ordered and peeled the now-red shirt off his head. Slowly, he dabbed blood and dirt.
“I have to. I don’t have anything to wear. Why are we here?”
“I’ll tell you when I come back out.” He groaned and ducked out of the car, limping his way up the long drive.
The phone chimed again. Ryan’s number lit up the screen, next to the five percent symbol.
I sighed. “It’s me.”
“We can’t locate your Dad, I mean Lieutenant Peterson.”
“I got him.”
“Roger.” Long pause. “Also… I hacked into his email and found something.”
“How? They’re protected.”
“I have my ways. You sounded like he was dying or dead… so, I didn’t have a choice. Just… keep this quiet.”
“All emails seemed routine for work. Except one.”
“It was a message from an unknown source. It said to deliver a briefcase to 222 Golden Street in Ash Mountain.”
“Yup. And I looked up who lives there. I’ll send you info.”
“Okay, hurry. This phone is about to die.” I hung up.
The phone purred as a link to an article popped up. A teen girl who looked the same age as Tess, stood on a farm next to a Golden Retriever. Mountains towered behind her and a camera draped around her neck. The title of the article read:
Our very own Ash Mountain sophomore,
Raelyn Bell, wins photography internship
I zoomed in.
What did Dad get himself into?