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The Last Letter(4)
Rebecca Yarros

“This is Ella MacKenzie,” I said, prepping to hear whatever Colt had done to aggravate his teacher.

“Mrs. MacKenzie, good. This is Nurse Roman at the elementary school.” There was more than a tone of worry in her voice, so I didn’t bother to correct her on my marital status.

“Everything okay?”

“I’m afraid that Maisie is here. She collapsed on the playground, and her temperature is at 104.5.”

Collapsed. Temperature. A deep, nauseating feeling that could only be described as foreboding gripped my belly. Dr. Franklin had missed something.

“I’ll be right there.”

Chapter Three

Beckett

Letter #6

Dear Chaos,

Here’s another batch of cookies. Hide them from my brother. No, I’m not kidding. He’s a shameless thief when it comes to these. It’s our mother’s recipe, well, really our grandmother’s, and he’s an addict. After we lost our parents—our Father in Iraq and Mom to a car accident a month later, I’m sure he’s told you—these were always in the kitchen, waiting after school, after heartbreaks, after football game wins and losses. They’re pretty much like home to him.

And now you have a piece of my home with you.

You asked me something in your first letter, what was that? A month ago? Anyway, you asked what it was like to be the center of someone’s universe. I didn’t know how to answer then, but I think I do now.

I’m not the center of anyone’s universe, honestly. Not even my kids’. Colt is fiercely independent, and he’s pretty sure he’s been put in charge of personally seeing to Maisie’s safety—and mine. Maisie is confident, but her quietness can be mistaken for shyness. Funny thing? She’s not shy. She’s a ridiculously good judge of character and can spot a lie a mile away. I wish I had the same ability, because if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s a lie. Maisie has incredible instincts about people that she definitely didn’t get from me. If she’s not talking to you it’s not because she’s a wilting wallflower, it’s because she simply doesn’t think you’re worth her time. She’s been like that since she was a baby. She likes you or she doesn’t. Colt…he gives everyone a chance, and a second chance, a third…you get the picture.

I guess he gets that from his uncle, because I can admit that I’ve never been able to give second chances when it comes to hurting the people I love. As embarrassed as I am to admit, I still haven’t forgiven my father for leaving us—for the look on my brother’s face, or that easy lie that he was just going TDY for a few weeks…but then never coming back. For choosing to divorce my mother instead of the army. Heck, it’s been fourteen years and I still haven’t forgiven the officer who gave the order that got him killed—for breaking my mother’s heart a second time. I really hate that about myself. Yeah, Colt definitely gets his soft heart from my brother, and I hope he never loses it.

At five years old, my kids are already better people than I will ever be, and I’m ridiculously proud of them.

But I’m not the center of their universe. I’m more like their gravity. Right now I’ve got them locked down tight, their feet on the ground, their path obvious. It’s my job to keep them there, close to everything that keeps them safe. But as they get bigger, I get to loosen up just a little, stop tugging so hard. Eventually, I’ll get to set them free to fly, and I’ll only reel them in when they ask, or they need it. Hell, I’m twenty-four and sometimes I still need to be reeled in. I honestly don’t want to be the center, though. Because what happens when the center doesn’t exist anymore?

Everything…everyone falls out of orbit.

At least, that’s what happened to me.

So I’m good with gravity. After all, it controls the tides, the motion of everything, and even makes life possible. And then when they’re ready to fly, maybe they’ll find someone else who keeps their feet on the ground. Or maybe they’ll fly with them.

I hope it’s a little bit of both.

So do I get to know why they call you Chaos? Or is that as secret as your picture?

~ Ella

“Chaos, you wanna share?” Williams asked over comms, nodding toward the letter.

“Nope.” I folded letter number six and slipped it inside my breast pocket as the helo carried us to the op. Havoc was still between my knees. She wasn’t a huge fan of helicopters, or the rappelling we were about to have to do, but she was steady.

“You sure?” Williams teased again, his smile bright against his camo-darkened skin.

“Absolutely.” He wasn’t getting the letter or a cookie. I wasn’t sharing any part of Ella. She was the first person who had ever been only mine, even if it was just through letters. That wasn’t a feeling I wanted to part with.

“Leave him alone,” Mac said from next to me. He glanced to my pocket. “She’s good for you.”

I almost blew him off. But what he’d given me was a gift, not just in Ella but in the connection to more than just the guys, the mission. He’d given me a window to normal life outside the box I’d confined myself in for the last ten years. So I gave him the truth.

“Yeah.” I nodded. That was all I could give him.

He slapped my shoulder with a grin, but he didn’t say “I told you so.”

“Ten minutes out,” Donahue called out over the comms.

“What’s it like? Telluride?” I asked Mac.

His eyes took on that wistful look I used to roll my eyes at. Now I was oddly desperate to know, to picture the tiny town she lived in.

“It’s beautiful. In the summer it’s lush and green, and the mountains rise up above you like they’re trying to take you closer to heaven. In the fall, they look dipped in gold when the aspen turn…like right now. In winter, it’s a little busy because of the ski season, but the snow falls around Solitude, and it’s like everything is blanketed in new starts. Then spring comes, and the roads turn muddy, the tourists leave, and everything is born again, just as beautiful as last year.” He let his head drop back against the UH-60’s seat.

“You miss it.”

“Every day.”

“Then why are you still here? Why did you leave?”

He rolled his head toward me with a sad smile. “Sometimes you have to leave so you can know what it is you left. You don’t really value something until you’ve lost it.”

“And if you never had it?” It was more of a clinical question. I’d never been attached to a place or felt a sense of home. I’d never stayed anywhere long enough for that feeling to take root. Or maybe I wasn’t capable of having roots. Maybe they’d been sliced from me so often that they simply refused to grow.

“Tell you what, Gentry. You and me. Once this deployment is over, let’s take some leave, and I’ll show you around Telluride. I know you can ski, so we’ll hit the slopes, then the bars. I might even let you meet Ella, but you’ll have to get through Colt.”

Ella. We only had another couple of months on this QRF detail. Then it was goodbye to Quick Reaction Force and hello to a little downtime, which I usually despised but now felt mildly curious about. But Ella? That curiosity wasn’t mild in the least. I wanted to see her, talk to her, find out if the woman who wrote the letters really existed in a world that wasn’t paper or perfect.

“I’d like that,” I answered slowly. He’d offered countless times, but I’d never taken him up on it.

His eyebrows rose as his wide grin became almost comical. “Want to see Telluride, or Ella?”

“Both,” I answered truthfully.

He nodded as the five-minute warning came over the comms. Then he leaned in so only I could hear him, not that the others had a shot over the rotors anyway.

“You’d be good for each other. If you ever let your feet stand in one location long enough for something to grow.”

Worthless. You ruin everything.

I shoved my mother’s words out of my head and focused on now. Slipping into then was a disaster waiting to happen, so I slammed that door shut in my head.

“I’m not good for anyone,” I told Mac. Then, before he could dig any deeper, I ran a check on Havoc’s harness, making sure she was clipped in tight so I didn’t lose her on the way down.

Gravity could be a bitch.

Ella’s comments on that subject ran through my head. What would it be like to have someone ground you? Was it comforting to feel that safety? Or was it suffocating? Was it the kind of force you relied on or the type you fled?

Were there really people who stuck around long enough to be considered that dependable? If there were, I’d never met one. It was why I never bothered with relationships. Why the hell would you sign yourself up to invest in someone who would eventually say you were too flawed, too complicated, to keep around?

Even Mac—my best friend—was contractually obligated to be in the same unit I was, and even his friendship had limits, and I made sure to never test those lines. I knew in the pit of my stomach that he’d burn anyone to the ground who hurt Ella.

Ten minutes later we touched down, and that was the only gravity I had the time to think about.

Chapter Four

Ella

Letter #6

Ella,

Thank you for the cookies. And yeah, your brother stole them while I was in the shower. You think he’d be three hundred pounds by now.

I thought about what you said about gravity.

I’ve never really had that—anything tethering me anywhere. Maybe when I joined the army, but really that was more about my affinity for the unit than it was for anywhere or anyone. Until I met your brother, and they started pushing us through selection. Unfortunately, I am overly fond of him, as is most of our unit. It’s only unfortunate because sometimes he can be a real pain in the rear.

Why do they call me Chaos? That’s a long, unflattering story. I promise I’ll tell it to you one day. Let’s just say it involves a bar brawl, two really angry bouncers, and a misunderstanding between your brother and a woman he mistook for a prostitute. She wasn’t.

She was our new commanding officer’s wife. Whoops.

Maybe I’ll make him tell you that story instead.

You mentioned in your last letter that Maisie wasn’t feeling well. Did the docs get to the bottom of it? I can’t imagine how hard that has to be for you. How is Colt doing? Did he start those snowboarding lessons yet?

Gotta go, they’re rounding us up, and I want to make sure I get this in the mail.

Catch you later,

~ Chaos

The only sounds in the hospital room were the thoughts screaming inside my head, begging to be let free. They demanded answers, shouted to find every doctor in this hospital and make them listen. Knowing Telluride wasn’t going to look any deeper, I’d brought her an hour and a half away to the bigger hospital in Montrose.

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