Coming Home

Coming Home
12,000 words | Short Story | Complete | Out of Print–Online | January 2013

Coming Home is a 12,000 word short story that was part of Less Than Three Press’ “Kiss Me At Midnight” collection for New Year’s Day 2013.

Before Craig ran off to join the army, he and Zach were the best of friends (with benefits). Since returning, Craig has done his best to avoid his old friend, loath to encounter the pity he’s found everywhere else, to be reminded of what he is and isn’t. But then he’s called in to help search for a missing girl and runs headlong into their long-avoided reunion.


Zach didn’t have to look at his clock to know midnight had finally arrived and with it the new year. His phone buzzed non-stop for what felt like half an hour solid to alert him of a new text, a new Facebook message, a new Tweet, a new e-mail, another friend chiming in to say, “Hey, Happy New Year! Wish you could have partied with us! Sorry you missed it! Better luck next year!” Yes, yes, it was finally the new year and, unfortunately, some people had to get up the next morning and go to work.

As far as Zach was concerned, they (and thereby his phone) could all shut the hell up already. He was ready to simply turn the damned thing off until morning when it sounded with the familiar digital crooning twang of The Paisley Prints, “Everything has changed/ It may never be the same/ But baby, I’m coming home…” He and Amy had seen them in concert the summer before, and she had forced him to assign her number, and her number only, with the band’s ringtone ever since.

He reached blindly across his nightstand, feeling for the phone in the darkness (of course he’d left it lighted screen side down) and knocking his alarm clock to the floor in the process. He managed to grasp it just before his voicemail picked up. He flipped the phone open and laid back against his pillows once more, rubbing at his dark eyes lazily. “Happy New Year,” he drawled.

The other end of the line was nothing but background noise: a radio or television playing mellow bittersweet music, a muffled conversation as if from another room, the soft scratchy white noise sounds of unidentifiable movement, all of it making Zach wonder if he’d been pocket dialed. But then she spoke, “Have you heard about Craig, yet?” Amy’s voice was strained and tired, not wanting to speak at all, the total opposite of her normally bubbly, effervescent, talking a mile a minute self.

Something cold and hard gripped at Zach’s stomach. His heart raced. His body froze. “No, what’s—”

“There was a bomb.” Across the line, he could hear her composure breaking, almost see her bottom lip spasming uncontrollably as she bit back a sob. “He’s in Germany, now. That’s all Mom and Dad knew when they called. I … I don’t even know if he’s … Oh my God, Zach,” she cried. “Oh my God …”

*~*~*

Craig sat in a chair by the hallway door, running one hand through the long, thick hair of Dixie’s scruff and holding her leather leash tightly in the other. She sat in his lap, filling it entirely, nearly burying him under her long black and white winter coat. The red vest hanging loosely around her chest proclaimed in bold white letters, “Working Dog, Do Not Pet.” She panted from the warmth of the crowded conference room which had become command central over the course of the past hour or so. Craig himself was beginning to grow uncomfortable from the heat. He’d removed his gloves, but was otherwise still fully clad in his winter gear: down-lined black parka over a fleece vest and thermal shirt, thermal pants under denim, well-worn hiking boots with thick wool socks and a black toboggan pulled down tight on his head, concealing his short trimmed hair. The darkness of his gear only made his face look paler, and the heat from it all only made him more irritable, less tolerant of the crowded room.

Craig hated crowds. Always had, but now even more so. In spite of the warmth it held in on him, being hidden under Dixie’s hairy bulk did make him feel a bit more at ease. Like maybe if he sat still enough, pulled his toboggan down low enough, held on to Dixie tight enough, the black and white on black and white would merge and they would blend into one another and he somehow wouldn’t be there surrounded by strangers, trying not to hyperventilate.

“Aw’right.” Karen Bright, Blackwater Falls State Park’s senior park ranger was short and thick built with brown curly hair and, unfortunately, a leg in a cast. She stood at the front of the room leaning on a crutch to keep her balance as she kept her weight off her broken ankle. A snowmobile accident Christmas Eve had left her hobbled until February at the earliest, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time. The lodge and park staff along with the volunteers called in from the local area tugged on their coats, fiddled with their newly issued two-way radios in confusion and looked over their park maps. “I want everyone to keep in constant radio contact. Anyone finds the smallest little thing? You call it in. Even if you don’t find anything after you’ve swept an area, call it in so we can mark it off. I know the weather’s gettin’ pretty rough out there, so keep on your toes and be careful. The time we spend pullin’ your busted ass out of the wilderness is time we could be spendin’ lookin’ for this little girl, understand? You’ve all got your maps? Flashlights? Okay, if there’s no further questions, then head out. Remember, stick together and keep in contact!”

The seat Craig had picked as a refuge and an easy escape route suddenly became damn near Hell on earth as the entire room full of people did an about-face and headed toward the exit. The doorway grew congested, and the crowd gathered ’round, drawing in close as they all awaited their turn to file out. They pushed in, bumping against Craig’s knees, brushing against his elbow. He held tightly to the thick hair at Dixie’s neck. She stopped panting and attentively watched the crowd pass, giving a soft anxious whine as she did so.

Craig closed his eyes, counted in his head, listened to his breathing, tried to think about something else, tried to focus on anything but the people around him. He could hear the therapist from over to Parsons’ voice saying soothingly, “It’s okay, Craig. No one here wants to hurt you. You’re safe here.” The same words he’d told himself every day in the desert to keep his trigger finger from slipping after word had gotten around about another IED, another sniper, another suicide bomber, another mother, father, brother, sister, husband, wife, fiancée who wouldn’t be heading home to the ones he or she had left behind. He focused on them, the ones who hadn’t made it back, and the crowd, the conference room, the missing little girl and everything else faded away until he was left with only the cold, hard, empty feeling in the bottom of his gut.

Karen patted his knee gently, barely more than a tap. Brought out of his reverie, Craig saw the crowd had passed and was beginning to disappear down the lodge’s long hallway and out the main entrance doors. He loosened his grip on Dixie, and she leapt from his lap down to the cool floor to shake and stretch.

“I’ve got another ranger on his way,” Karen began. The rest of her thought was put on hold while she slowly, gingerly sat down beside him, her one leg still bearing all of her weight and throwing her off balance. She let out a tired sigh as she finally settled into the chair after successfully keeping her ankle from hitting the floor. She put her crutch and the short stack of papers she’d been carrying in the seat next to her. “I’m sending you two down along Elakala Trail and into the canyon if I have to,” she continued. “Chances are she’s not there, but if she is, I need two experienced guys to go down in. I don’t want a search and rescue turning into a body recovery after some first timer slips and falls on the rocks down in there.” She sighed again, this time more of a groan. “This wouldn’t have happened if people would keep their kids on a leash. Right, Dixie?” The dog turned at hearing her name, cocking her head to the side and setting her flopped ears askew. “That’s what I thought.” Karen leaned back in her chair, resting her head on the wall behind her. She rubbed a hand across her face and pinched the bridge of her nose. “God, what a way to ring in the New Year. Then again, I don’t suppose you’re much into New Year’s.”

“Not really.” Craig fiddled with the end of Dixie’s leash, rubbing a thumb across the stitching in the leather and, with his other hand, slowly flipping the end back and forth.

A knock outside the conference door caused them both to look up, and suddenly, Craig wanted to be anywhere but where he was in that moment. He recognized him instantly. Even with the new beard and the ridiculous red plaid bomber hat pulled low on his head, Craig knew Zach the moment he laid eyes on him. The square face, the long-legged frame. Big dark, nearly black eyes. A few errant curls of thick equally dark hair, wrapping around the edges of his hat. Craig’s body tensed, and for a moment, he feared he felt the tell-tale tingle of an oncoming attack dancing along the nerve endings of his hands. He wanted out of the conference room. Now. Anywhere but there, in that moment, with Zachary McNemar’s face lighting up with a wide toothy grin at the mere sight of him, making him feel so … so … And having him standing so close as he stepped into the room? With Dixie sniffing him and wagging her tail in that nervous way she did when she liked someone but didn’t know if she was allowed to like him yet? God. Fucking. Damn it. Anywhere but there. Anywhere. Back in the crowd, back at Fort Benning, even back in mother fucking Iraq, Anywhere but there.

“Zachary,” Karen said as though his name were greeting enough. She sat up straight in her chair and offered her hand. “I knew you’d be good for something if I got you back in town.”

“Karen,” Zach said, leaning across Craig to shake hands. Dixie continued to sniff him curiously.

“Figured you two would be the best pair to go shimmying along the trails out there. You boys probably know the park better than I do.” Like the backs of their hands and every inch of one another’s naked bodies, but Karen didn’t need to know that. From the day the two had met in middle school until Zach moved south to Ansted for work after college, he and Craig had spent their every spare hour hiking, biking, rock climbing, backpacking and camping in the state parks and forest areas that saturated the mountain highlands area of the state. With Blackwater being only a few miles outside of town, they quickly made it their second home. But, unfortunately, it was a second home they hadn’t spent any time in together for years.

Karen handed Zach a two-way radio she’s had clipped to her jacket and a photo from the stack she’d sat in the chair next to her. He clipped the radio to the rear of his belt in one fluid motion forged by years of clipping and unclipping his own radio there day after day. Paying the radio no mind, he turned his full attention to the photo: a little girl, scarily more than toddler with a head full of red ringlet curls, rosy cheeks, and big brown eyes smiled up from the color print with the park’s namesake waterfall in the background.

“Her name is Madison Jennings,” Karen said. “Three years old. Photo was taken this morning. Last seen in her room around five o’clock when the family laid down for a nap. We’ve done two sweeps of the building, haven’t found a thing. Her family did some hiking yesterday and today, so she does have some limited familiarity with the area. But we all know it’s a whole different world out there with the snow on and in the dark.”

Zach nodded, muttering, “right, right …” under his breath.

“Head down Elakala first. If you get it done and there’s still no sign through the rest of the park, I might have to send you two down into the canyon.”

“Right … Will do.” Zach folded the photo and stuffed it into his coat pocket. He then pulled out his gloves and began slipping them back on. Craig took this to mean he was getting ready to leave, so he stood and began to tug on his own pair of gloves, passing Dixie’s suddenly cumbersome leash from one hand to the other while he fought to get the right fingers in the right holes. He rezipped his coat and pulled down at his toboggan, making sure it was as low as it would go.

“Keep me posted if you find anything,” Karen said, watching Zach step out of the room and wait for Craig to follow. “Craig?” He stopped just shy of the threshold and turned to face her, Dixie copying his every movement in canine miniature. “You be careful.” She thought she saw him nod, but it was such a slight movement she couldn’t be sure. Either way, Craig continued on down the hall with Dixie taking the lead, keeping her leash slack, but forging ahead of him as though to show the way. Zach followed a few steps behind. Once they were out of sight, she again leaned back in her chair and rested her head against the wall. What a way to ring in the New Year …

They’d made it down the hall just past the gift shop with its veritable sloth of blank faced black bear plushes staring out from the toy shelves before Zach broke the silence. At least verbally. He’s been playing with the snap that held his long handled flashlight in place on his belt since the moment he’d set foot outside the conference room. “Been a while, hasn’t it?”

“Yep,” Craig replied tersely. He kept his focus forward, intent on making it down the hall, out the door, across the trail and, heaven forbid, into the canyon with as little interaction as possible. Another thing he hated, along with the crowds, was surprises. It was a relatively new loathing. It had first reared its ugly head almost exactly one year ago but had grown in intensity within the past five minutes.

“You look good. Amy says you’ve been doing a lot better lately.” Zach tried to keep his tone jovial, but there was too much nervousness flooding his every word to make it convincing. The subtext came out all wrong. “I haven’t really seen you since—”

“I thought you were still working down at Hawk’s Nest.”

“I was. I only left last week. With everything that’s happened with dad, I was looking to transfer closer. So, when an opening popped up at Seneca, I jumped on it and I start day after tomorrow. I’ve got a place over in Harman now. It’s really nice. Small, but nice. It’ll do for now.” The nervousness was also making Zach chatty, overly friendly and generally annoying. He waved at the woman working the front desk when they passed by. “Still haven’t unpacked or anything. Half my stuff’s still down in Ansted.”

“You should have called,” Craig said. His tone was somewhere between contempt and indifference but rang with a harsh finality. He pushed open one of the lodge’s heavy front doors. Dixie passed through ahead of him and then he followed after, letting the door attempt to shut itself behind him. It stopped once it hit on Zach’s shoulder.

Zach paused, frozen in the doorway, staring after Craig as he headed out into the snowy night. The large, heavy flakes falling on his black hat and coat camouflaged him under the dim lights of the parking lot. “Yeah. I know,” he said, not fully sure Craig could hear him. “I should have …”

Outside the lodge, Craig unclipped Dixie’s leash, wrapped it around his hand and then stuffed it into his coat pocket. She stood and waited until he patted her sides to turn her loose and let her run and romp through the snow. She dove headfirst into the fresh layer of powder, attempting to burrow into it, shoveling it up into the air with her muzzle. Craig smiled at the sight of her switching from “work mode” to “play mode” so easily. But watching the flakes continuing to fall all around her, his expression turned markedly more worried. The snow fell quick, fat and wet, filling Dixie’s tracks nearly as quickly as she made them. It would be impossible to tell if a snow covered depression was man-made, animal-made or simply the lay of the land. It turned any thought of following the missing little girl’s tracks into a hopeless dream.

“He onto something?”

Craig started at finding Zach had walked up beside him to watch Dixie sniff and paw at the ground, her muzzle and feet fully buried in white. Craig kept himself from jumping, yelling or otherwise lashing out, but his nerves still danced with the energy to do so. It made him wholly uncomfortable in his own skin. Red-faced anger colored and warmed his cheeks against the cold. He took a deep breath through his nose before correcting, “She. Dixie is a she.”

“She onto something?”

“Dixie’s not trained for tracking, but she’s got the same nose as any other dog, I guess, so … who knows?”

Zach looked down at his boots, then to Craig. “What is she trained for?” He looked at him with a mix of pity and curiosity to the point it cooled the heat in Craig’s cheeks and turned his expression cold and hard.

“She’s a service dog,” Craig bit out. He rolled his shoulders and looked after her. “And, if she starts tugging on your shirt or pants leg, make sure I’m not near any stairs or anything, ’cause I’m about to go down.”

“Go down?”

From the surrounding mountain side, soft, distant calls of “Madison! Madison!” traveled across the snow covered landscape.

“C’mon,” Craig said. He fished a small flashlight from his pocket, clicked it on and started across the parking lot toward the trail head, Dixie falling in line just a few steps ahead of him. “We’re wasting time.”

*~*~*

Some band neither of them much cared for was playing in Times Square, but with the ball ready to drop in a few minutes and only one other channel available on Zach’s local stations, they figured they’d suffer through. The remains of the two twelve packs they’d managed to drain during the course of the evening helped take the edge off the over synthesized, auto-tuned train wreck that had passed for music over the course of the soon to be ending year. Zach was feeling a little more than a buzz from the alcohol. He wouldn’t say he was drunk yet, but he was getting there. The most obvious sign for Zach that he was nearing inebriation was that he was becoming really, really boring. So boring in fact, that he turned to Craig and asked the most overused question of the season, “Any resolutions this year?”

Craig downed the remainder of his beer, giving a shallow belch to clear his throat before stating plainly, “I’m gonna join the Army.”

Zach started to laugh it off. It wasn’t a good joke, but he could never really tell once the alcohol hit his system, so he tended to laugh at everything. But then he saw the serious expression on Craig’s face and felt suddenly sober. He sat up straight as possible on his old, broken-down couch, facing Craig and playing his part as the voice of reason in his fiend’s otherwise nonchalant, go with the flow, happy-go-lucky life. “Well … what’s your family think about that?”

“My folks are okay with it, I guess,” Craig said. He ran his thumb up and down the smooth neck of his empty bottle. “At least, they haven’t said anything against it. Amy’s pissed, though. She keeps trying to talk me out of it. I tell her I have my reasons.”

“Such as?”

“Well, for one, I bag fucking groceries for a living.”

“And you’re so good at it.”

“Fuck you, man.” Craig put his bottle back to his lips, remembered it was empty, and lowered it again.

Zach stretched out a hand to gently touch the top of Craig’s thigh. “You know if you join now, you’re pretty much guaranteed a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan.”

Craig eyed the hand mischievously. “Why sign up if you’re not gonna get to see the world?” He slid down in his seat to inch the hand ever closer to his fly. “Besides, they’ll pay my tuition if I decide to go to college when I get back.”

“If you want to go to college, then just go to college.”

“You have something against the military all of a sudden? Jesus, Zach, your dad was in the Navy for like a million years.”

“It’s nothing like that. If this is something you really want to do, then fine. Do it. I’m behind you 100%.” Zach patted Craig’s leg in reassurance. “But don’t sign on thinking you can quit any time you want. This is a long term commitment and I can’t even get you to tell me whether or not you’re free for the next weekend. You really need to think about this. And remember: they’re not looking to recruit guys like us.” He pulled back his hand, resting it in his own lap and looking down at it solemnly. “You’ll have to spend the next eight years locked in the closet, and I’m not sure you’re cut out for a life of celibacy.”

It was Craig’s turn to laugh. “Don’t worry. They won’t ask. I won’t tell. And I don’t have to pretend I’m straight until I go see a recruiter, so …” He put his empty bottle on the coffee table, then planted one knee on the couch and swung the other around to straddle Zach’s lap. He bent his head down to kiss Zach, his tongue wandering lazily around Zach’s mouth, tasting the beer that flavored his own. He ran a hand down the thick knit of Zach’s sweater, fiddled with his belt enough to undo the buckle, then rubbed his hand roughly over the outside of his jeans, waiting to feel Zach begin to stiffen through the thick material and beg to be released.

Back in Times Square, the countdown commenced, “Ten … nine … eight … seven … six … ” quickly becoming background noises while Craig and Zach worked their way toward their own, much more satisfying end to the evening.

It was the last time they touched.

*~*~*

The Elakala Trail of Craig’s memory was, for the most part, short, flat and straight; barely worth noting when compared to some of the area’s other offerings. Staggering through the snow by the light of his flashlight, attempting to follow Dixie’s tracks as faithfully as possible, Craig had to wonder why the trail of his memory no longer existed. The tree roots constantly cut across the trail, threatening to grab hold of his toe or heel. A myriad of rocks seemed to magically materialize out of the snow, creating unexpected, unwanted oases of solid mass in the desert of otherwise soft, pliable ground. He had been tripping and sliding along before he had so much as made it out of sight of the lodge.

Craig had known the bridge over the upper portion of Elakala Falls to be slicked with moss and moisture during even the hottest, driest parts of the summer when the tannin-darkened water which normally gushed over the series of falls turned to barely a trickle. Despite this, Craig still saw the bridge, however short it was, as a welcomed respite from the trial and tribulations of the trail. The wooden boards made a flat, relatively debris free surface where he could walk with little fear of some unknown obstacle suddenly catching his foot and pulling him down. He took his time in crossing, conscious of both the hard packed ice-like layer of snow hidden beneath the fresh powder and the rocky terrain which awaited him on the other side. His steps were short, deliberate and carefully placed, and he held the hand rail firmly.

Where the water cut through the landscape at the top of the falls, it created an opening in the canopy. Out from under the protection of the evergreen needles and the barren hardwood branches the weather was turning to near whiteout conditions, but the clearing still provided the best vantage point for overlooking the surrounding area. “Madison!” Craig called out over the dull roar of the falling water. He shined his light about, making the most of the view.

Dixie had crossed the bridge swiftly and sure-footedly, with her nose to the ground. She paused when her paws hit the trail once more, perking her head and ears when she heard Craig call out for the missing girl. She waited, rather impatiently, for him to follow. Twice she looked at Craig over her shoulder, took a few short steps as though to start down the trail once more, then stopped, looked to see if he had followed, and resumed waiting with a huff.

Craig pointed his flashlight toward the craggy snow covered rock deposits on the other side of the bridge, the hundreds of boulders casting secretive shadows; up the creek bed where the water moved silently under the overhanging laurel and rhododendrons; down into the falls which sang out in a broken chorus of tumbling splashes as the so called “blackwater” made its way over the series of cascades eventually leading down into the canyon beyond; and, for a moment, back from where he’d come, catching Zach in his beam and watching him move through the brush and briars while scouring the areas around the trail, his head pointed down and face obscured by his bright hat. Zach lifted a hand to shield his eyes, and Craig realized his moment had lasted for a little longer than he’d though. He’d been staring. And what was worse: he’d been caught. Attempting to look nonchalant, he pulled the light lazily across the falls to shine forward once more.

With his sudden rush of embarrassment beginning to fade, Craig’s mind cleared, and he realized something along the opposite side of the creek bank leading down to the top of falls stuck out in his memory as being unnaturally blue. He retraced his flashlight’s path, finding the small bright patch of color tucked under an outcropping rock on the steep bank mid-way between the relative safety of the flat ground around trail and the imminent dangers of the rocky crest of the falls. Craig turned and crossed back to the middle of the bridge, leaning against the railing to get a better look. Dixie whined behind him once he reversed course on her. She sat down in the middle of the trail with her back to him.

He wanted to, hoped to, write it off as a plastic bag, litter from some ungrateful son of a bitch who didn’t deserve the opportunity to enjoy the parks. But the color was wrong: too dark, too bright, too solid. It was something else. “Hey!” he called to Zach without looking away from his potential find, fearful he might lose sight of it if he did. “You see that down there?”

“What?” he heard Zach say above the rustle of branches.

Craig motioned with his flashlight, tracing a wide circle around the spot of blue where it lay sheltered from the snow. Zach’s own light, a piercingly bright white beam, zeroed in on the “that” in question as he stepped onto the bridge to stand beside Craig to get a better look. He squinted at the unnatural blue standing out against the dark soil and white snow uncertainly, turning his head to the side just so. Then his eyes widened in alarm. “Oh shit!”

Zach moved so quickly, the ice like layer of packed snow on the bridge threatened to pull his feet out from under him. Before he could fully regain his composure, he was sliding down the creek bank nearly to the water in his haste to inspect the blue item further. He picked it up, turning it over in his hands. It was a mitten. Small. Child-sized. His brows drooped, and he pursed his lips, his expression growing grim for just a moment. But then, as though a switch had been thrown on his emotions, his brows lifted, his eyes grew round and his mouth began working itself with unvoiced questions. He shined his light up the creek bank and down into the falls. “Madison? Madison!”

“Hope she didn’t go the way of Elakala.” It was an offhanded comment, and the moment Craig said it, he wished he hadn’t. Local legend said the series of falls got their name from a Massawomee prince who had leapt to his death from the very topmost fall which he and Zach then stood directly above. It wasn’t the fall itself that would prove to be deadly; such a height could be easily survived under favorable conditions. It was the rocks at the base of the falls which would kill anyone who dared repeat Elakala’s fateful fall.

Checking to make sure one foot was firmly planted before moving its twin, Zach moved cautiously along the creek bank to get a better view of the crashing water below them. The panicked worry that had contorted his face slowly faded into a softer, slightly more relaxed edginess. Amidst the browns, blacks, grays, frothy, frosty whites and worn, muted greens of moss from summers past, no other colors stood out. “No … No, I don’t think so. Just a glove. Can’t tell if it was hers either. I wouldn’t think a little girl would have a blue glove, would you? Looks kinda big for a three-year-old, too …” He continued to shine his light around the rocks at the bottom of the falls, working the knitted glove in his hand, continually rubbing the material between his thumb and fingers.

“Better call it in.”

“Right …” Zach deftly pulled the radio from his belt, holding it and his flashlight one-handed. The two-way crackled to life once he hit the button on its side. “This is Zach and Craig out on Elakala to Lodge.”

“I hear ya’, Zach,” Karen’s voice echoed over the sound of the falls. “Wha’cha’got?”

“We’ve found a blue glove along the bridge here at the falls. Looks small, might be a child’s size. Can’t be sure.”

There was a pause on the other end, the silence from which seemed to damper even the rumble of the falling water, casting the whole world in a tense quiet. When Karen’s voice finally came back, cutting through a buzz of static, it was slow and subdued. “Roger that. I’ll talk with the parents, see if it might be hers. Keep lookin’ in that area, see if you find anything else.”

“Will do. Zach, out.”

*~*~*

Looking back, Craig’s not sure if they were on foot or riding in the truck. He’s not sure if they were heading out on patrol or coming back. He’s not sure who was next to him, ahead of him. Not sure what he was thinking about, dreaming about, looking forward to. All he remembers is looking up into the crowd and seeing those eyes.

He saw the man coming. The joke was that they all looked alike, but that wasn’t true. Looking into that man’s eyes, Craig could see the difference between someone trying to pick up the pieces of his life and build a better country for himself and his family and a man bent on blindly killing others to accomplish his means, destroying those he saw as less than himself in order to cleanse the world.

They looked right at one another for what felt like eternity, but there was no way to alert the others, no way to hoist his gun into position, take the ugly mother in his sights and put an end to it all before it began.

The words caught in his throat and his body moved in slow motions. There was no time and yet it felt like that was all there was: time enough to stare into those hard, hate-filled eyes and know that from that moment on things would never be the same for him.

Before he could so much as blink and rid his vision of the sight of those crazed, wild eyes for just a fraction of a second, the world turned fifty different shades of white, all sound imploded inward on itself, his mind detached from his body as pain ripped through his body and then …

Nothing.

*~*~*

When Karen radioed back, the news was promising, but at the same time disheartening. The family had been out hiking in the park the day before and Madison had lost one of her blue hand knit mittens somewhere along the way. Chances were it was the mitten she’d lost the day before; combining that with the fact they hadn’t found any other sign of the girl in the area surrounding the falls, there was no reason to believe she was there and they could continue down the trail. Unfortunately, that meant no one was any closer to finding her, which the radio confirmed in earnest. Not long after Karen had responded in regard to their found mitten, the other searchers began to chime in with status reports: “Nothing so far at the barn.” “Balanced Rock Trail’s all clear for now.” “We’re half way on the first leg of Yellow Birch and haven’t seen anything.” “Haven’t found anything at the cabins.” The radio continued to chatter while they pressed on.

Dixie was so happy to be up and moving again that at first she took off at a dead run before remembering herself and slowing to a more Craig-like pace, albeit quite a ways ahead of him since she did not wait for him to catch up. She put her nose to the ground once more, forging on through the snow and increasingly rocky terrain. She scaled boulders, twisted around tree roots, up slick inclines, down rough cut rock stairs, all with ease; while behind her, Craig struggled to follow her trail.

Craig was just thinking how envious he was that Dixie had four legs to keep her balance with when the ground slid underneath him as though God himself was pulling a rug out from under him. He panicked, shooting his arms out to grip his open hand around a nearby tree trunk and plant the other with the flashlight in its grip on the nearby rock face, hoping to catch himself, but he was too late, his reflexes too slow. He eased the fall, but he couldn’t prevent it. He sat in place, making sure he could still feel his extremities, waiting to feel them lose control, praying to whatever deity might hear him that he not have a seizure in the middle of the woods with Dixie casting a quick glance his way before continuing on and only Zach to help him.

From behind him, Craig could hear Zach’s footsteps beat a path out of the underbrush, quickening until he was standing behind him. “You okay?” The bright white of Zach’s flashlight poured over him, casting Craig’s shadow on the trail ahead. Craig felt, near literally, on the spot. He glared at the halo of light, wanting to tell Zach to shine the fucking thing somewhere else, but biting his tongue out of courtesy.

“Yeah. Just fine,” Craig said, his tone bitter and sarcastic. He stood, moving stiffly, slowly, to dust the snow from the back of his pants. “Juuust fine.”

Zach’s light moved from Craig to the ground, searching for the rock or tree root responsible for his fall, hoping he might avoid it himself. There didn’t appear to be any readily identifiable culprit. “Must have been the snow,” he said. “It’s getting slick out here.”

It felt as though the snow was clinging to his glove, the cold seeping into his fingers, but when Craig shook his hand to try to knock the snow loose, he discovered there was none there. He flexed his empty hand, curling his fingers in and out, in and out. They felt … funny. Jittery. Like he’d had too much caffeine. Even as he held his flashlight firmly in his other hand, he could feel the same tingling coursing through those fingers as well. It wasn’t the same feeling that signaled an oncoming attack, but still… it was not a welcome sensation. When Zach’s light again hit upon him, Zach found Craig watching his hand intently as he flexed it open and closed.

Zach stepped closer, but resisted the urge to reach out for that hand. “You know,” he began softly, “if you wanna talk about—”

“Thanks,” Craig cut him off, his voice louder than need be, echoing through the trees. He balled his hand into a fist to hold it stiffly by his side. “But I have professionals for that.” He put his light to the ground, found Dixie’s quickly disappearing tracks and began walking again. The soft crunch of Zach’s footfalls in the snow behind him soon followed after. The moment Craig thought he was safely outside of Zach’s periphery, away from his pity, he found himself again flexing his hand where it hung by his side, trying to work the feeling back into it.

As the trail curved around the hillside, it began to slope downward, taking them lower as the falls cut a path deeper and deeper into the earth. Craig took his time in navigating the level patches of ground between tree roots serving as improvised steps, keeping his open hand on the tree itself, checking his footing was solid before taking another step. It made for slow goings, and Dixie’s tracks were quickly filling in ahead of him. Not that she was of much use on such terrain anyway. With the trail growing narrow, it was impossible to find a more navigable path. That still didn’t excuse her from having run of on her own, leaving him to fend for himself. He’d be having a long talk with her trainer first thing in the morning.

From behind him, Craig heard Zach searching the laurel thickets, stepping to the edge of the bank to look down into the steep ravine that led to the lower falls of Elakala, pausing every so often to call out, “Madison!” He excused his own slow pace by saying it made it easier to search, but in truth, Craig’s eyes never left the ground except to see what new obstacle awaited him on down the trail. Having passed one more tree without incident, he looked ahead to find another set of rock stairs cut into the landscape, this time with no trees or large rocks within arm’s reach on either side to aid in his balance. If the snow covered trail ground, with its base of half rotten leaves, evergreen needles, nut hulls and other such forest refuse was slick enough to give him a slip, then the rocks were not to be trusted in the least.

Craig resisted the urge to worry his bottom lip, cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Zach, and called out hopefully for his dog, “Dixie!” He waited, staring down the rough cut row of stone steps. A thin line of half covered tracks ran directly down the center of them. There was no response: no bark, no whine, no movement on the trail ahead of him to indicate she’d heard him and was coming to his aid. “Shit,” he mouthed.

Taking a deep breath, Craig rolled his shoulders and, lifting his arms into the air as though he were pantomiming walking a tightrope, began making his way down as he had before, ensuring one foot was firmly planted at all times before moving on. The snow compacted and crunched under his feet, being pushed farther and farther down to the point Craig feared his foot would never hit solid ground. But, he’d made it half way down the steps and somehow managed to find rock, or at least what felt like rock, beneath him every time. The outlines of the steps’ contours had become obscured by the drifting snow, making him second guess his footing, slowing him to the point that he told himself Zach would catch up to him before he made it to the bottom. If this had been before—well … before his “accident” Craig would have leapt over the steps entirely. Soared through the air and not cared whether he fell when he landed or not. Busting his ass on the soft snow below wouldn’t be anything compared to cracking his skull on the rocks in-between. He wondered if Zach was still foolhardy enough to attempt such a thing.

Lifting his foot to ease down onto his one last remaining stone stair, Craig felt something shift. The snow began to slide underneath him, and before he could put his foot back down to regain some semblance of balance, there was nothing under him at all. His hands worked instinctively to find something to hold on to, digging his nails into the air itself, never finding anything more than a few scant needles from the outstretched branches of a distant pine to grasp on to. His flashlight flew into the air, the light swirling until it hit the ground, to again cast him in a halo of thoroughly unwanted light.

His breath caught in his throat, going in but never going out. The bare canopy loomed above him, black branches against a dark, water-colored sky. The snowflakes caught in the glow of his flashlight drifted down lazily, floating on the air. His head and his back throbbed, his hands tingled and shook. He closed his eyes as he winced. “Fuuuck.”

With not a sound, Zach was there: a warm, solid presence Craig could feel looming over him. “Craig, are you—!”Craig cracked an eye to look up at him, seeing the same wild, wide-eyed look Zach had gotten when they’d found the mitten by the creek bank just moments ago. He looked … scared. Frightened and worried. Full of nothing but pity, sympathy, commiseration. God, it pissed Craig off. Not at Zach, but—

“I’m fine, God damn it! Just fucking fine!” Craig felt at the back of his head, sliding a gloved hand under his toboggan to touch gingerly at his scalp and pulling it around to check for blood. By some miracle, there wasn’t any. He sat up, propping himself up on an elbow at first and then pulling himself forward by grasping the base of one of the one last final fucking stair. He rose quicker than he intended to, making his head swim and his vision blur. He cradled his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his drawn in knees, willing the pain, the sudden feeling of nausea, the throbbing, all of it to go away. Fuck, that hurt. Oh, Jesus fuck, did it hurt. “God damn it,” he groaned. “God fucking damn it …”

He felt Zach sitting down beside him, their legs brushing against one another. It spooked Craig, made him flinch, but no matter how mad he tried to be at Zach for it, he couldn’t muster the emotion. His eyes stung with the need to cry, to break down, to let it all hang out. He wrapped his hands around the back of his head, rubbing at it. Zach touched him lightly in the small of his back, slowly beginning to rub his hand in small circles. Oh God, did he want that. Just to be touched and held, and of fuck, he couldn’t stand it any longer. “Do you know what the worst part is?” he said, his words muffled into his lap. Zach made a small noise as if to respond, but Craig didn’t wait for him. “They all had someone they were coming home to. Something they were going to do. And I didn’t have shit. I joined because for once in my life I wanted to do something worth doing and you know what happened? It blew up in my face. Pow!”

Craig pressed backwards into Zach’s touch, leaned his body against him. “I survived. And for what? To come home, crawl back in my closet and go on leeching off my parents. Same as before. Nothing’s changed. Oh, except for the part about how I have a seizure every other God damned day and piss all over myself. Yeah, that’s the good life right there. So glad I survived for that. And now—” He lifted his head, his voice to scream down the trail. “—my fucking dog has run away!” The words echoed through the ravine below them, drowning out the sounds of the water.

Zach put his arm around Craig’s shoulder, pulling him close. He fought to find the right words to say. He hated the silence, didn’t want Craig to stop now that he’d finally started to open up to him, but at the same time he didn’t want to misspeak and bring the conversation to a halt. “Maybe …” he started uncertainly. “Maybe you’re here for a reason.”

Craig scoffed. “Don’t start that shit. Everyone’s always telling me that, like it’s some fucking divine conspiracy that I survived. If there’s a reason, I haven’t found it yet—unless it’s to be a total burden on my family. And if that’s case, then God can go fuck himself, because I am so over that.” He looked up into the still and quiet of the frozen wood, his head against Zach’s shoulder. “I shouldn’t be here.”

“Don’t say that.”

“I mean here, right now. Walking a trail in the middle of the night, snow up to my shins, all these fucking rocks and tree roots? I am seriously the least useful person for this sort of thing now. I should have stayed home. And I would have—if someone other than Karen had called, I’d have said no.” Craig shrugged off Zach’s hand, then used him as leverage to stand, keeping one hand resting on Zach’s shoulder while dark spots danced across his eyes. “But, I try so fucking hard to be the Craig that everyone knew before that I said I’d come. I got blown to hell and back and everyone expects me to go right back to being the same old Craig they knew before: bagging groceries, climbing mountains, driving down to hang out with you every weekend. But now? Now—” He counted the items off on his fingers. “—I don’t work, I can’t drive and I have so much fucking trouble with my balance sometimes, I can barely walk across a level floor. And Karen wants me to go down into the fucking canyon? Jesus, people.” He tugged at his toboggan, pulling it low on his head once more. “Fuck it.” Zach stared up at him, watching him turn and look up the trail, toward the lodge. His expression was cold, severe. “Just fuck it.”

Craig bent down to pick up his flashlight, brushing it against his pants leg to remove the excess snow. Once he stood back upright, he swayed for a moment as his vision again turned spotty. Zach eyed him, but soon turned his glance toward his boots. He fiddled with his own flashlight, swinging it from side to side in his grasp. He reached behind one of the flaps of his hat to scratch behind his ear. Neither of them moved from their spot.

Dixie’s bark sounded in the distance, breaking the stillness as the sound carried down the trail. Zach looked up. “What’s that mean?” he asked.

“Maybe she sees a squirrel. At this point, I don’t fucking ca—” Another sound reverberated up the trail, making the words pause in Craig’s throat: the shrill, frightened cry of a small child. The two of them looked at one another, eyes widened in bewilderment, seeking confirmation that the other had heard the noise as well—was still hearing the cry as it wailed on. “Shit.” Craig was running and sliding down the trail again before Zach could so much as make it to his feet.

“Craig! Craig, be careful!” Zach called out behind him.

The ground moved underneath him, tilting, shifting, slipping this way and that. Anytime it threatened to knock him off balance or pull him down, Craig fought on, pushing off of whatever surface he could find to bring himself back upright. The world moved past in a blur of brown, white and gray. All he could see was the trail, all he could hear was the trembling, wailing cry of three-year-old little girl. Dixie barked again. He was getting closer. Just around the next bend, the next curve, over the next boulder. Then, suddenly, she was there: Dixie looking over her shoulder at him, her tongue hanging out, her tail wagging, like she was absolutely thrilled to see him.

She paced the length of a dugout below one of the rocks. It was big enough that she could have crawled in, heck, Craig could have fit if he were feeling particularly agile, but neither of them moved any closer. “Dixie, down,” he said. She lay in the snow, her tail still wagging behind her. Craig knelt beside her, pointing his flashlight into the pitch darkness of the crevice. The light hit upon a patch of bright blue, then pink, and then … Madison Jennings: three years old, last seen in her room at five o’clock when the family lay down for a nap. Red hair, rosy cheeks, scared out of her mind.

Craig extended his empty hand. “It’s okay. I’m not gonna—”

“I lo-o-ost my mitten!” she cried, her words broken as she sobbed and wailed. She shook terribly. Craig wasn’t sure if it was from cold, from exhaustion, from fright, or all of the above, but oh, how she trembled. She pulled herself out of the dugout, keeping a sharp eye on Dixie, then collapsed onto Craig, holding him around the neck and hanging against him. He wrapped his arm around her and rocked the two of them gently back and forth.

“Your mitten?” He pulled his cap off one-handed, fumbling to keep hold of his flashlight while he attempted to push the black toboggan down over her unruly curls to cover her ears. “Your blue one? Oh sweetie, we found that.”

“M-m-mommy was ma-a-ad.”

“I know. It’s okay.”

Zach rounded the corner, skidding to a stop behind them and encircling them in the white halo of his flashlight. For the first time, he saw the scars that crisscrossed the back of Craig’s scalp, cutting his short, dark hair into a patchwork quilt. Craig turned to look up at him. “Better call it in,” he said, a small smile on his lips.

“I wanna go home,” Madison cried, burying her face in Craig’s coat, holding him tighter. She kept repeating her plea, “I wanna go home! I wanna go home!”

“Shhh, shhh, shhh. It’s okay,” Craig said. He patted her back and continued to rock her. “We’re going home. It’s okay.”

Zach fumbled to grasp his radio, nearly dropping it in the snow. “Lodge, this is Zach. We’ve found her.”

*~*~

Menendez and Krause’s wives and kids had sent him cards. Sullivan’s fiancée had crocheted him an afghan, a zig-zag of variegated browns, tans, greens and grays: the colors of the desert, the colors of his fatigues. Kendris’ boyfriend had mailed him one of her books on the Appalachian Trail with a note saying, “She was so excited to finally have someone who wanted to do the entire trail with her one day.” And Amy, darling little sister that she was, had sent each and every one of them a thank you note on his behalf. If he’d managed to write them on his own, he wasn’t sure what he would have said. Gratitude seemed like the wrong emotion. What he felt was more akin to regret. It was different when they still had someone of their own to worry about—at home or over in that godforsaken desert. But when it came to the families of those who hadn’t made it, if anything, he felt the need to apologize. They were all worth so much more than him.

One summer afternoon when she took her turn at keeping an eye on him, Amy called to him from the kitchen, saying, “Craig, Zach’s on the phone.” Craig noted that she had left the part about how dear Zachary was in town for the weekend and wanted to know if he could swing by to see how his former fuck buddy was recovering since being blown straight to full-fledged American Hero status by some nameless fuck head unspoken, but that didn’t keep the cold, hollow feeling from forming in his stomach. “Craig?”

When she stepped around the corner into the living room, he faked sleep and told himself it was because he was wearing a goddamned diaper and the rattiest pair of sweatpants ever made; it was because he hadn’t showered all day and hadn’t shaved all week; it was because there was a walker parked beside him at the couch and the only thing he’d accomplished so far that day was to watch a marathon of some little girls’ princess and unicorn packed sugary-sweet cartoon; it was because he was nursing a headache the size of the entire Sinai peninsula and wanted nothing more in life than to actually fall asleep in hopes that it might fade, unfortunately such a thing wasn’t possible in the real world. But a part of him knew he was only making excuses. He hadn’t found a way to put the real reason into words yet and therefore couldn’t begin to explain it, least of all to himself.

“He’s asleep right now, Zach. I’m sorry. But, hey, let me know when you’ll be up next time, maybe we’ll plan something. I’m sure he’d—What’s that?” There was a pause and then Craig heard her socked feet crossing the old crinkled linoleum, the latch of the storm door clicking open then closed as she stepped outside, and a hushed whisper carrying his deepest, darkest secrets on the wind through the screen and back into the still and quiet of the house.

*~*~*

Zach carried Madison out of the woods, rubbing her back with his flashlight held awkwardly in his hand and shushing her the entire way while she continued to whimper and whine. She barely held on to him, instead clinging to her newly found mitten for dear life, leaving her a dead weight in his arms. With her head on Zach’s shoulder, she kept her eyes firmly fixed on Dixie, watching her prance through the snow a few steps ahead of Craig. Dixie, for her part, stayed on task, blazing as root and rock free a path for Craig as possible, stopping every so often to make sure he was still making progress behind her before moving on. Her eyes did occasionally turn upward to look on Madison, however, and she would wag her tail nervously before returning her eyes to the trail and Craig. Craig noticed the cold of the wind and snow on his scalp for the first time, but other than that, suffered no other misfortunes on his return trip to the lodge.

A pair of paramedics met them at the edge of the parking lot, just beyond the trail head. Zach handed Madison off to them for a quick once over before taking her to her frantic parents in the slowly filling lodge lobby, but first, he plucked Craig’s cap from her head and handed it back to him. Craig muttered a quick “thank you” and pulled the cap down tightly over his head, hiding his scars once more.

“Are you sure you don’t want them to take a look at you?” Zach asked.

“No. I’m good,” Craig said, running a gloved hand lightly across the back of his head. He eyed Zach shyly. “Thanks.”

By the time they made it into the lodge, the tearful reunion had already begun. Madison’s parents both broke down sobbing, falling to their knees to cradle their precious little girl in their arms, thankful to all creation for their daughter’s safe return. While an unspoken sentiment of giving the family their space passed through the guests and returning searchers, the same thought was not applied to Madison’s rescuers. Everyone wanted to congratulate them, shake their hands, slap their backs, tell them what a good job they’d done, essentially, as Craig saw it, they wanted to invade his personal space.

Craig put his hand down, feeling restlessly for Dixie once the crowd began to rather around him and Zach. She butted her head against his palm and let it rest there, his thumb rubbing stiffly behind her ear. She stood close and watched the crowd, turning her head to focus in on any sudden movements. Whether Zach was simply that humble or he sensed Craig’s growing discomfort, Craig wasn’t certain, but he was grateful that Zach brushed them all off saying he and Craig had simply done what anyone else would do.

Karen was their true savior, fighting her way through the crowd on her crutches and pulling them back down the hall to the conference room for a quick chat with the local authorities and some short paperwork. It didn’t take long, but it was enough time for all the other searchers to return to the lodge, turn in their radios, and then start their way back to whatever else they’d been doing on their New Year’s Eve.

By the time Karen released them, saying, “Hang around for a second, we might need you for something else,” it was as if the entire lodge had returned to what they’d been doing prior to Madison going missing. It felt as if the entire incident had never happened. The atmosphere in the lodge returned to one of joy, hope and celebration. Guests came down the stairs to gather in the dining room in pressed shirts and cocktail dresses, ready to celebrate the sense of renewal from getting to start over at the beginning of a new year. As they all crossed the lobby, they seemed to ignore Craig and Zach who had retreated to a couch by the fireplace in an effort to escape the hubbub.

Karen hobbled around the rear of the couch to drop a pair of keys on the cushion between them. They’d heard her coming from all the way down the hall, Zach turning in his seat to face her while Craig sat with Dixie in his lap, the pair of them both half asleep. Craig wiped the sleep from his eyes to look up at her. “I got you both a room if you want to stay the night,” she said. “Might as well at this rate, you’ve only got about half an hour before the ball drops.”

“Thanks, Karen,” Zach said, turning over one of the keys to check the room number.

Craig frowned. “Actually, I was hoping to head back—”

“Oh, stick around,” Karen said teasingly. “Manager says everything’s on the house, whatever you boys want: rooms, food, you name it. The kitchen’s still open, get yourselves a steak or something. Dale and I are headin’ over there now if you want to join us.” She motioned to her husband waiting at the dining room doors across the lobby.

Zach looked from the dining room to the worn-out, dejected expression on Craig’s face. “I don’t think either of us is that hungry. Maybe we’ll swing in for some finger food later.”

“Suit yourselves, but whatever you decide to do? Have some fun. You boys deserve it.” She patted Craig’s shoulder heartily. “And besides, it’s New Year’s! Live it up!”

Craig picked up the spare key still lying on the couch cushion, reluctantly tucking it in his pocket. He waited until he could no longer hear Karen’s crutches touching their way across the lobby floor before speaking again. “Would you mind giving me a ride home in the morning?” he asked. “Dale brought me up. And I’d call my folks or Amy, but …”

“Right. No problem.” Zach twirled his room key between his fingers. He paused as a thought occurred to him. “I can take you now if you want?”

“No,” Craig said with a sigh. “I’ll stay.” From the dining room, a noisemaker blared loud as a fire alarm. Craig cringed, grabbing hold of Dixie, his breath catching in his chest. Dixie whined, craning her head to see where the noise may have come from. Zach reached a hand out, brushing lightly across the top of Craig’s thigh. “Let’s find someplace a little quieter, though?” Craig said, trying to slow his breathing.

“Right, right.” Zach stood and spied a small room in the farthest corner of the lodge’s ground floor. “I think I know a good spot.”

It was technically the sun room, but in the dim light of a quarter mooned winter’s midnight, the small room with its tall windows was better used for watching the snow fall. Craig slouched down in a chair, stretched his legs out and made every effort to get comfortable. As sore as he was, he could only imagine what sort of shit he’d feel like come morning. Dixie sat at his side, resting her chin in his lap. He scratched behind her ears, making her sigh appreciatively. “You were an asshole, today,” he told her. “But you did good, I guess.” She wagged her tail, smacking it into the side of his leg.

“Champagne?” Zach asked once he rounded the corner into the room with a plate full of hors d’oeuvres in one hand and two flutes of gold tinted bubbly in the other. He sat the food on a low lying coffee table in front of the couch, the only two other piece of furniture in the room. Before he sat, he took one of the glasses from his hand and extended it to Craig.

Craig eyed the glass forlornly. “No, thanks. It messes with my medication.”

Zach’s eyebrows lifted and his eyes went wide for a split second as he stood again. He pointed, a glass still in each hand, back toward the dining room. “You want me to get you something else? Water? Coke?”

“No.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. Don’t worry about it. It’s fine. Really.”

Zach frowned slightly and sat back down, taking a sip from one glass while setting the other on the table by his plate. Dixie stood to sniff at the food from the edge of the coffee table. Her chin brushed the very edge of the table’s surface and her tail wagged nervously.

“No,” Craig said forcefully. She sat, resting her chin on the edge of the table, still staring. “Don’t you dare give her anything,” he continued, turning his focus to Zach. “She gets the worst gas of any dog I’ve ever known. Dad will sneak her something from the table, and then she wakes me up in the middle of the night with it.”

Zach grinned and placed his glass alongside its twin on the coffee table. “You want some? I know you’re not much for the shrimp, but …”

“No, that’s okay.”

He picked up a piece of pineapple from his plate —”Why? It give you gas, too?”—popping it into his mouth.

Craig laughed. “Ha! No.” And for a moment, Zach saw the “old Craig,” as he’d put it earlier, peaking through in that throaty laugh and lopsided smile. Craig ran his hands across his toboggan, rubbing and scratching the back of his head through his hat. “Honestly?” he said through a yawn. “I just want to go to bed.”

“I, uhh,” Zach fought to find the words, stalling over the piece of fruit in his mouth and waving a hand at the back of his own head. Craig looked at him, slowly lowering his hands. “I saw your scars,” he continued. “When you took your hat off for—? I know there are some I’ll never see, can’t see. That no one ever will. But, I, uhh …” He sighed, looked at his lap and rubbed his hands against his pants. “I really missed you when you were gone. It was different when you were on base. It was just like you were at work or something. But then, you were over there … You were in a war zone, and I was going about my daily life like that was somehow okay. Like nothing could ever happen. All I wanted was for you to come home. I just wanted you home, safe with me. Then Amy called to say you’d been hurt.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember what happened after that. I know I went to work that day and the day after, but I must have been a zombie. Nothing else mattered until I knew whether or not you were okay. And even then …” He looked at Craig, catching the rapt expression on his face. “Do you remember being at Walter Reed?”

Craig’s face went blank and he shifted in his seat to look out into the night. “Not all of it,” he said after a reluctant pause. He continued to fidget in his seat, finding it suddenly difficult to get comfortable. “Only the last few weeks, I guess.”

“From the day you were back on US soil, I went to visit you and your folks every weekend I had off—every one. I drove the wheels off that old Jeep of mine. Literally. I was there every week until …” Zach sighed and leaned back on the couch to stare out at the falling snow with Craig. “Until Dad had his stroke. I had just left Ansted to head your way when Mom called that morning. Then I had to start spending my weekends back here or in Morgantown, taking care of dad, taking care of mom, taking care of the house, the bills—a million other things they suddenly needed my help with. Then peak season rolled around. We had someone quit at work. I just—I got so busy that … I never forgot about you, Craig. I know you have your reasons for being upset with me, for not letting me see you all those times, but …” He turned his head to stare at Craig, studying his profile as he continued to look out blank faced into the night. “You always had someone to come home to. Still do.”

They could hear the countdown coming from the other room. “Five… four… three… two… one!” Craig closed his eyes. The posture seemed relaxed, but his face tightened with pressure as he braced himself for the onslaught: the blare of noisemakers, bang of poppers and shouts of “Happy New Year!” erupted in the distance. Zach eyed his worriedly, watching as he stone-facedly withstood the duration. One explosion of commotion after another until Auld Lang Syne began to play and the noise started to slowly die down and fade away. Zach watched him until he felt embarrassment begin to creep across his cheeks and had to look away, instead watching the large flakes falling outside, covering the ground in an ever deepening layer of white. They may not have made it to Craig’s place even if they’d tried.

Zach leaned forward to pick up his glass again. He swirled his liquid inside, watching the bubbles form, spin to the top, and then dissipate. “Any resolutions this year?” he asked. He took a long drink of the champagne, the bubbles catching in his nose and making it itch.

Craig chuckled humorlessly, his eyes still held tightly shut, thinking back on a previous New Year’s they’d spent together when he’d asked that same damned question. He rubbed a hand at his one temple. “Not really.”

Zach eyed him again. “Headache?”

“No. It’s … I dunno.” Craig opened his eyes, turning his head to look at Zach, then turning it back to the windows with a frustrated sigh. “It’s not like we can just pick up where we left off or anything like that. We can’t go back to the way things were before. We just—we can’t, okay?. Things’ve changed … I’ve changed. It wouldn’t be the same. Hell, it’ll probably never be the same. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to … that we can’t—” The words faltered in his mouth and he shook his head as if to break them loose. “Fuck it.” He looked to Zach, his expression frustrated and tense. “Let’s start over. You and me.”

Zach’s eye brows lifted in surprise, touching at the brim of his hat. “Start over?”

“Yeah.”

“You mean …” Zach rolled the idea around in his head, not completely pleased by the thought of it. “Act like none of what we did ever happened? All of it’s gone. We’re strangers.”

“Yeah.”

Zach pursed his lips and hung his head to look down into the rising bubbles at the bottom of his glass. “Right …” he said, his voice low and rough as he forced it to sound neutral. He quickly downed the last of his champagne in a hard swallow. He cleared his throat to ease the irritation before saying again, “Right.” When he sat the empty glass on the table, he spied the other and after a moment’s hesitation, took it up and began downing it as well, taking it in small sips to keep the bubbles from fizzing in his nose before he could swallow.

Craig wasn’t sure if he’d managed to piss him off or simply upset him, but he knew one thing for certain: being cast adrift in the ever lengthening silence which had overtaken the sun room and the lodge as a whole was making him increasingly uncomfortable. More than at any other point during the evening, Craig wanted to be somewhere else and it didn’t much matter where. This time, however, the urge was such that he was finally ready to do something about it.

He felt in his coat pockets for his cell phone, fighting to pull it out without dragging his gloves along with it. Whether it was the stress from the situation or his shriveling pride causing the acrid, bile-like taste in the back of his throat, Craig didn’t care, but he fought to keep it from rising regardless. Amy’s number was the first in his contacts list. Amy, the little sister who had tried to convince him not to run off to war in the first place, who had broken down crying every time she had visited him in the hospital, who had snuck around behind his back to keep Zach updated about his progress when Craig himself was avoiding him at all costs, and who was now the only person he knew whom he could turn to and not have to worry about questions or explanations in the aftermath. His finger hovered over the “send” button, waiting for his last fiber of hesitation to give way.

But then Zach cleared his throat once more. He put the empty second champagne glass down on the coffee table, straightened his posture, and took off his ridiculous red plaid bomber hat. He mussed his dark hair in an attempt to make it presentable, smoothing his hand across his scalp in hopes of forcing the curls jutting out in all directions to lie down and attempting to part it evenly from his crown. He then turned toward Craig and put out his hand, saying, “Hi. I’m Zachary.”

Craig stared at him, unsure of what to make of the sudden change of mood, of emotion. He searched Zach’s expression for some sign of what it meant. There was none of the degrading pity from earlier in the evening contorting his brow and turning down the ends of his mouth. No forced sympathy, no overdone kindness, no hollow empathy, only those dark earnest eyes Craig could remember looking to him time and again, searching his own expression in turn, looking, hoping to find his emotions reflected there. Craig pulled his finger away from the “send” button, instead hitting “end” before tucking the cell phone fumblingly back in his pocket. He scooted to the edge of his seat and, with the faintest line of a smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, accepted Zach’s outstretched hand, shaking it slowly, gently, and far too intimately for a stranger. “Hi, Zach.”

Zach held on in silence, lingering over the familiar warm feeling of Craig’s skin against his own once more. His face lit up with a small, toothy grin beaming out as a bright white crescent from under his dark beard. “Hi, Craig.”

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