Home > The Last Letter(2)

The Last Letter(2)
Rebecca Yarros

All those guys groaning—no doubt missing their wives, their kids—just reaffirmed my position on the attachment subject.

“Seriously, New Kid?” I growled as the newbie scrambled to clean up the crap he’d knocked off the footlocker that served as my nightstand.

“Sorry, Gentry,” he mumbled as he gathered up the papers. Typical All-American boy fresh out of operator training with no business being on this team yet. He needed another few years and way steadier hands, which meant he was related to someone with some pull.

Havoc tilted her head at him and then glanced up at me.

“He’s new,” I said softly, scratching behind her ears.

“Here,” the kid said, handing me a stack of stuff, his eyes wide like I was going to kick him out of the unit for being clumsy.

God, I hoped he was better with his weapon than he was with my nightstand.

I put the stack on the spare inches of the bed that Havoc wasn’t currently consuming. Sorting it took only a couple of minutes. Journal articles I was in the middle of reading on various topics, and— “Crap.”

Ella’s letter. I’d had the thing almost two weeks, and I hadn’t opened it.

I hadn’t thrown it away, either.

“Gonna open that?” Mac asked with the timing of an expert shit-giver.

“Why don’t you ever swear?” New Kid asked at the same time.

Glaring at Mac, I slid the letter to the bottom of the stack and grabbed the journal article on top. It was on new techniques in search and rescue.

“Fine. Answer the new kid.” Mac rolled his eyes and lay back on his bunk, hands behind his head.

“Yeah, my name is Johnson—”

“No, it’s New Kid. Haven’t earned a name yet,” Mac corrected him.

The kid looked like we’d just kicked his damn puppy, so I relented.

“Someone once told me that swearing is a poor excuse for a crap vocabulary. It makes you look low class and uneducated. So I stopped.” God knew I had enough going against me. I didn’t need to sound like the shit I’d been through.

“Never?” New Kid asked, leaning forward like we were at a slumber party.

“Only in my head,” I said, flipping to a new article in the journal.

“She really a working dog? She looks too…sweet,” New Kid said, reaching toward Havoc.

Her head snapped up, and she bared her teeth in his direction.

“Yeah, she is, and yes, she’ll kill you on command. So do us both a favor and don’t ever try to touch her again. She’s not a pet.” I let her growl for a second to make her point.

“Relax,” I told Havoc, running my hand down the side of her neck. Tension immediately drained out of her body, and she collapsed on my leg, blinking up at me like it had never happened.

“Damn,” he whispered.

“Don’t take it personally, New Kid,” Mac said. “Havoc’s a one-man woman, and you sure as hell aren’t the guy.”

“Loyal and deadly,” I said with a grin, petting her.

“One day,” Mac said, pointing to the letter, which had slid onto the bed next to my thigh.

“Today is not that day.”

“The day you crack it open, you’re going to kick yourself for not doing it sooner.” He leaned over his bunk and came back up with a tub of peanut butter cookies, eating one with the sound effects of a porn.

“Seriously.”

“Seriously,” he moaned. “So good.”

I laughed and slid the letter back under the pile.

“Get some sleep, New Kid. We’re all action tomorrow.”

The kid nodded. “This is everything I ever wanted.”

Mac and I shared a knowing look.

“Say that tomorrow night. Now get some shut-eye and stop knocking over my stuff or your call sign becomes Butterfinger.”

His eyes widened, and he sank into his bunk.

Three nights later, New Kid was dead.

Johnson. He’d earned his name and lost his life saving Doc’s ass.

I lay awake while everyone else slept, my eyes drifting to the empty bunk. He hadn’t belonged here, and we’d all known it—expressed our concerns. He hadn’t been ready. Not ready for the mission, the pace of our unit, or death.

Not that death cared.

The clock turned over, and I was twenty-eight.

Happy birthday to me.

Deaths always struck me differently when we were out on deployment. They usually fell into two categories. Either I brushed it off and we moved on, or my mortality was a sudden, tangible thing. Maybe it was my birthday, or that New Kid was little more than a baby, but this was the second type.

Hey, Mortality, it’s me, Beckett Gentry.

Logically, I knew that with the mission over, we’d head home in the next couple of days, or on to the next hellhole. But in that moment, a raw need for connection gripped me in a way that felt like a physical pressure in my chest.

Not attachment, I told myself. That shit was trouble.

But to be connected to another human in a way that wasn’t reserved for the brothers I served with, or even my friendship with Mac, which was the closest I’d ever gotten to family.

In a move of sheer impulsivity, I grabbed my flashlight and the letter from where I’d tucked it into a journal on mountaineering.

Balancing the flashlight on my shoulder, I ripped open the letter and unfolded the lined notebook paper full of neat, feminine scroll.

I read the letter once, twice…a dozen times, placing her words with the pictures of her face I’d seen over the years. I imagined her sneaking a few moments in the early morning to get the letter written, wondered what her day had been like. What kind of guy walked out on his pregnant wife? An asshole.

What kind of woman took on twins and a business when she was still a kid herself? A really damn strong one.

A strong, capable woman who I needed to know. The yearning that grabbed ahold of me was uncomfortable and undeniable.

Keeping as quiet as possible, I took out a notebook and pen.

A half hour later, I sealed the envelope and then hit Mac in the shoulder with it.

“What the hell?” he snapped at me, rolling over.

“I want my cookies.” I enunciated every word with the seriousness I usually reserved for Havoc’s commands.

He laughed.

“Ryan, I’m serious.” Whipping out the first name meant business.

“Yeah, well, you snooze, you lose your cookies.” He smirked and settled back into his bunk, his breathing deep and even a few seconds later.

“Thank you,” I said quietly, knowing he couldn’t hear me. “Thank you for her.”

Chapter Two

Ella

Letter #1

Ella,

You’re right, your brother outright ate those cookies. But in his defense, I waited too long to open your letter. I figure if we actually do this, we should be honest, right?

So one, I’m not good with people. I could give you a bunch of excuses, but really, I’m just not good with them. Chalk it up to saying the wrong thing, being blunt, or just not seeing the need for mindless chatter or any other number of things. Needless to say, I’ve never written letters to…anyone, now that I think about it.

Second, I like that you write in pen. It means you don’t go back and censor yourself. You don’t overthink, just write what you mean. I bet you’re like that in person, too—saying what you think.

I don’t know what to tell you about me that wouldn’t get blacked out by censors, so how about this: I’m twenty-eight as of about five minutes ago, and other than my friends here, I have zero connections to the world around me. Most of the time I’m good with that, but tonight I’m wondering what it’s like to be you. To have so much responsibility, and so many people depending on you. If I could ask you one question, that would be it: What’s it like to be the center of someone’s universe?

V/R,

Chaos

I read the letter for the third time since it came this morning, my fingers running over the choppy handwriting comprised of all capital letters. When Ryan had said there was someone in his unit he was hoping I’d take on as a pen pal, I thought he’d lost his mind.

The guys he served with were usually about as open as a locked gun safe. Our father had been the same way. Honestly, I’d figured when weeks had passed without a reply, the guy had snubbed my offer. Part of me had been relieved—it wasn’t like I didn’t have enough on my plate. But there was something to be said for the possibilities of a blank piece of paper. To be able to empty my thoughts to someone I would never meet was oddly freeing.

Given his letter, I wondered if he felt the same.

How could someone make it to twenty-eight without having…someone, anyone in any capacity? Ry had said the guy was tight-lipped and had a heart as approachable as a brick wall, but Chaos just seemed…lonely.

“Mama, I’m bored.” Maisie said from next to me, kicking her feet under the chair.

“Well, you know what?” I asked in a singsong voice, tucking the letter away inside my purse.

“Only boring people are bored?” she replied, blinking up at me with the biggest blue eyes in the world. She tilted her head and screwed up her nose, making wrinkles at the top. “Maybe they wouldn’t be so boring if they had stuff to do.”

I shook my head, but smiled, and offered her my iPad.

“Be careful with it, okay?” We couldn’t afford to replace it, not with three of the guest cabins getting new roofs this week. I’d already sold off twenty-five acres at the back of the property line to finance the repairs that had been long coming and mortgaged the property to the hilt to finance the expansion.

Maisie nodded, her blond ponytail bobbing as she swiped the iPad open to find her favorite apps. How the heck a five-year-old navigated the thing better than I did was a mystery. Colt was a wiz on the thing, too, just not quite as tech savvy as Maisie. Mostly because he was too busy climbing whatever he wasn’t supposed to be.

My gaze darted up to the clock. Four p.m. The doc was already a half hour late for the appointment he’d asked me for. I knew Ada didn’t mind watching Colt, but I hated having to ask her. She was in her sixties and, while still spry, Colt was anything but easy to keep up with. She called him “lightning in a bottle,” and she wasn’t far off.

Maisie absentmindedly rubbed the spot on her hip she’d been complaining about. The complaint had gone from a twinge, to an ache, to the ever-present hurt that never quite left her.

Just before I was about to lose my temper and head for the receptionist, the doc knocked before coming in.

“Hey, Ella. How are you feeling, Margaret?” Doctor Franklin asked with a kind smile and a clipboard.

“Maisie,” she corrected him with serious eyes.

“Of course,” he agreed with a nod, shooting me a slight smile. No doubt I was still five years old in his eyes, considering Dr. Franklin had been my pediatrician, too. His hair had more gray, and there was an extra twenty pounds around his middle, but he was still the same as he was when my grandmother brought me to this office. Nothing much changed in our little town of Telluride. Sure, ski season came, the tourists flooding our streets with their Land Rovers, but the tide always receded, leaving behind the locals to resume life as usual.

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