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A Soldier’s Return

Written by Lee Tobin McClain

Chapter Two

Daniela Jiminez.

Gabe would have gotten a kick out of meeting up with her again if he hadn’t been such a wreck.

Man, those fireworks had put him right back in Iraq. His clothes were still soaked with sweat, his muscles aching from how hard he’d clenched them.

She’d talked him down pretty good. He remembered that about her, that there’d been something calming in her demeanor. She was the kind of gorgeous that looked good in faded jeans and no makeup. A natural beauty, and she’d been natural inside, too. None of the shrill, fakey stuff that had marked some of the popular girls.

“I guess I did hear you enlisted,” he said. They’d both been poor kids from big farm families, with no hope of college except through the military. He remembered lying in the back of his dad’s pickup with his arm around her, looking up at the night sky and dreaming of what the future might hold.

“Yeah. You were my role model.” She said it with a smile in her voice, but not laughter. “Everyone talked about what a hero you were. You’re probably the reason six or seven of us joined up.”

That sobered him immediately. “I’m sorry for that.”

She was quiet a minute. Then: “As far as I know, everyone made it home, or else they’re still overseas but okay. Manny Garcia’s making a career of it, stationed in Alabama now, I think.”

Nobody had come home a wreck like him. That was why he wanted to get away from Esperanza Springs. Their little hometown was too friendly, overinvolved. Tell us about your purple hearts. What was it like over there? Thank you for your service.

“Do you want to come out, now that you know I won’t bite?” The words were joking, but her voice sounded strained. Had she heard about him and his issues? What had his family revealed to the ranch?

“You work here now?” he asked, to buy time. He didn’t really want to come out of this dark, cocoon-like little cabin. Didn’t think he could look her in the eye, when she’d seen, or rather heard, his weakness. She’d known him in his cocky quarterback days.

He wasn’t cocky now.

“Yeah. I’m studying to be a psychologist, but for now, I’m a peer counselor and jack-of-all-trades here at Redemption Ranch. You know,” she added, “it would be a lot easier to talk if you’d come out here.”

“I will in a minute.” He felt like he didn’t have a choice. “How are your parents doing?”

“Fine. Dad’s still farming. Mom started an embroidery business, doing jackets and bags for the sports teams, you know?”

“Oh, what Dicey Dickerson used to do.” He fingered the multiple dog tags he wore, a choice that struck his family as excessive. For him, it was a way of holding on to lost friends.

“Yeah. Did you hear that she passed on?”

“Can’t say I’m surprised. She was old as the hills when we were kids.” A memory came back to make him smile. “Do you remember when she accidentally embroidered an extra a on Manuel Garcia’s jacket? Turned him into Manuela.”

Her laugh, low and throaty, buzzed along his nerve endings. “And his folks were too nice to tell her about it. Poor Manny had to wear that jacket with the girl name all through to senior year.” She paused. “What’s going on with your family? I heard they moved.”

“Yeah, to Denver, but a couple of my sisters are still here. Joy and Patty.”

“You staying with them?”

That was skirting territory he didn’t want to walk on. He flicked on a second lamp and looked around the little cabin, noticing for the first time that there was decent art on the walls, colorful dishes in glass-fronted cupboards, red and yellow dish towels. Someone had tried to make the place homey.

“Gabe?”

“I’m here. You could say I’m staying with Patty.” That was where his stuff was stored, anyway, in his sister’s basement.

No way was he going to subject her three little kids to his brand of crazy, though.

No way would he subject anyone he cared about to that, Daniela included.

“It’s weird to come home,” she commented. “And you know what else is weird?”

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Talking to an old friend from the opposite side of a wall.”

“Okay.” He stood up. “I’m coming out.”

He could do this. He could face a person from his past—a pretty, appealing woman—and let her see who he’d become. She was a trained counselor, so he couldn’t hide much from her, but she’d been a nice girl in high school and she sounded even more compassionate now.

He put one foot in front of the other and all too soon, he’d made it the short distance to the cabin’s door.

“Gabe.” Her voice sounded anxious all of a sudden, less of the cool, collected counselor and more of an insecure woman who was still pretty young.

“Yeah?” He paused, his hand on the doorknob.

“Just so you know,” she said, “I’m not the same.”

He pushed out a laugh, even though nothing was funny. “Welcome to the club. I’m not the same, either.” He reached out to open the door.

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