“You sure I can’t give you a ride, Sgt. Phillips?” the sixty-year-old woman I’d sat next to on the airplane asked for the fifth time.
“No ma’am,” I replied promptly. “Where can I put these for you?”
“Right here is just fine.” She pointed to a luggage cart.
“I’d be happy to carry them to the car for you.” The cart might be easy for her to maneuver but lifting the heavy luggage into her trunk by herself? Not happening.
“My son is picking me up and I promise I won’t lift a thing.”
I looked around skeptically but didn’t see anyone but my own ride. I gave Bo Randolph a chin nod of acknowledgment but held on to the carry-on bag that looked like someone had puked flowers all over it.
“What’s up, man?” Bo bumped my fist in greeting and then pulled me in for a hug.
“Just making sure Mrs. Kremer gets to her car in one piece.”
“We’re waiting for my son,” she chirped. “And there he is now.” Mrs. Kremer’s son looked to be balding and forty. One glance from Bo and we silently agreed that despite her son showing up, we’d still be helping them out. Over both their protests, Bo and I picked up the luggage and placed it in the back of the four-door sedan. Mrs. Kremer gave us both a kiss, leaving behind the smell of lilacs and baby powder.
“Always the good Samaritan,” Bo joked as we walked to his crackerjack box of a car.
He just shook his head. “Only because I’d have looked like a fool standing there while you hauled her luggage around.”
“She looked frail,” I protested. “Besides, you and I’ve both carried far more weight over much longer distances. Enough about the woman, let’s talk about your damn car. Will my pack even fit in there?”
“Yes, princess, it will. How come you didn’t ask Noah to pick you up if you hate my baby so much?” He hit a button and a sorry excuse for trunk space appeared at the rear of the vehicle.
“I didn’t want to make you cry. You’re an ugly crier,” I said. I threw my seabag and pack into the trunk and wedged myself inside the even tinier interior.
“True that. Seriously, forty-five days? How’d you manage that?”
“How do you think? I’m a lucky fuck.”
“So The Honorable Dennis Phillips came through?”
“Guess so.” My old man was on the House Armed Services Committee and had pulled some strings to get special dispensation for me to take forty-five consecutive days of leave at the beginning of summer. The fact that it went through was helped by the fact I’d taken almost zero leave for the past six years and that I possessed a spotless record, but it was still a big deal. Other Marines would have killed to have even half that many days off in the summer. Literally knifed me in the gut. I shifted in the seat, which was too narrow for my six-foot-one, two-hundred-and-five-pound frame. “This car is too fucking small for you.”
“I like ’em tight.” Bo stroked the leather dash of his sports car.
“Given your dick is so tiny, it’s no wonder you need ’em small. AnnMarie’s still a virgin then?”
“What?” He jerked his hand back and glared at me. “No talking about AnnMarie and sex. Besides, I saw you staring at my junk plenty while we were in A-stan.”
“Because you whipped it out every five seconds.”
“Can’t help that my dick’s so big my regulation pants couldn’t keep it in.”
I shook my head but knew I was grinning like a loon. “Missed you, man.”
“You too,” Bo said, smiling back. “Forty-five days is going to be gone in a blink of an eye.”
“I know.” My grin dimmed a little. This wasn’t entirely a vacation. My exact orders from Congressman Phillips were to pull my fucking head out of my ass and sign my re-enlistment papers or start applying for college. He wanted me out and my grandfather wanted me to stay in. I felt a little like a sorry bone between two angry pit bulls.
I had eight years under my belt, a new meritorious promotion to staff sergeant that I wasn’t sure I deserved, and some serious doubt about whether being a career Marine was the right choice for my future. During our family Christmas, I had made the mistake of mentioning that evaluating everyone’s “knife hands” while running during physical training didn’t hold a lot of meaning—and Dad had pounced.
“There’s plenty of room for you outside the Corps,” he’d said.
Then Pops had bristled. “Corps was good enough for me and good enough for you. No sense in planting doubt in the boy’s head where there was none before.”
Match to kindling, the two had gotten into one of their heated arguments. Having two career Marines scream at each other like they were trying to make the other break first had resulted in Mom leaving the table in tears and my two older brothers glaring at me. I’d wanted to sink under the tablecloth but since I’d started it, I sat there and took it like the man I was supposed to be.
Since then I’d told Pops that my commitment was as sound as ever and Dad that I’d think about college. When Bo and Noah, two former Marines in my platoon, invited me to spend my leave at their posh pad with a bevy of college coeds at the ready, I fled before the yelling could start again.
“You really in a tizzy about whether to re-enlist?” Bo asked, surprise evident in his voice.
“Marines don’t get into tizzies,” I scoffed. “We get angry. Also drunk. Shitfaced. Tired. No tizzies, though.”
“Which one are you?”
“Tired. I’m supposed to shit or get off the pot.”
“Is shitting staying in or getting out?”
“We all know that re-enlisting is for the motards who can’t stop wearing all their USMC gear off the base, have more than one Marine tattoo, and can recite the Marine Hymn by heart.”
“So you, essentially.”
I slunk down in the seat and pressed a thumb to my temple. “Which is why I should get out before I become one of those Marines that we all made fun of when we were lance corporals.”
“What’s the real problem?”
I pressed harder. “The real problem? Let’s see. I didn’t sign my re-enlistment papers yet, causing Captain Billings to call my dad, who then decided to gleefully tell Pops he had lost. They yelled. Mom cried. Oh, and my ex is sniffing around again.” And it sucked being responsible for people instead of just equipment, but I didn’t admit that last one out loud.
“Do whatever you can to make your mom stop crying,” Bo advised. “If mama isn’t happy, ain’t no one gonna be happy.”
“Maybe.” The sad truth of it was that someone was going to be unhappy. Because I cared about all of them, that sucked. Hoping to change the subject, I said, “You fuckers better have something good planned for me every day.”
“We said you could come stay with us and hang out, not that we’d be your cruise directors.”
“All I want to know is whether AnnMarie and Grace are bringing some single friends over. I’m a Marine on leave. I need some special attention.”
“AnnMarie’s neighbor’s got a thing for guys, I’m pretty sure.”
“Yeah.” My interest was piqued. Both Noah and Bo had been single in the Corps and for two years after they separated. The minute they’d moved up here to go to Central College, they’d each hooked so tightly to a girl that neither could move without the other feeling it. I hoped it wasn’t something in the water. I didn’t need or want that kind of complication. But hot girlfriends meant hot single female friends and that was all good in my book. “Hot? Good personality? What?”
“He’s bi-curious, according to AM.”
I groaned. “Sorry. Gray don’t play that way. What about AnnMarie’s roommate? Seem to remember that she had a tight ass and body.”
“Do you know any single women?”
“I’m not a pimp either.”
“That was your fantasy, wasn’t it?”
“How did you end up with such a classy piece like AnnMarie?”
“Dunno but if you fuck it up for me, I’d have to kill you.” He was dead serious. That was another thing that just didn’t make sense in my world anymore. Bo had once been the biggest skirt chaser in our platoon. It didn’t matter if the girl was big, small, or Martian, he’d do them. Now all he could talk about was one chick. And if that didn’t set a lad’s mind spinning, I didn’t know what would. It confused me because all I knew of women was that they’d cheat on you the second your back was turned. I learned that lesson early on and that cheating girlfriend had been my last.
“You’ve discovered my evil plan. I’m here to lure your girl back to San Diego with me.” I rolled my eyes. He knew, like all the guys in my platoon, that I didn’t believe a relationship with a woman could ever survive repeated deployments or a twenty-four-month unaccompanied tour to Okinawa or some other overseas duty station.
“You still believe in the no-relationships-while-serving thing?” This time, it was Bo rolling his eyes.
“It’s not a thing. It’s a truism. Semper Fidelis only matters within the Corps. Feel free to fuck your brother’s girlfriend, sister, mother, so long as you’re true to the Corps.” The bitter taste of infidelity always sat on the back of my tongue no matter how many times I tried to swallow it away.
“Thanks, Oprah. I’ll let you know when I need more relationship advice.”
“Just pointing out that the odds aren’t much better outside the Corps, if that’s one of the reasons you’re thinking of not re-enlisting.”
“Does Noah have to suffer your Dear Abby musings?” Noah Jackson and Bo were my kind of Marines. They fought hard and didn’t complain, but they knew how to have a good time when we weren’t busy picking sand out of our asses.
Noah was the more serious of the two and I’d thought he would have made a career of the military, but his ambitions were different. He wanted to build an empire and you couldn’t do that on a military salary—no matter how much combat pay you received. We’d both signed up for every possible tour we could in all the most dangerous places. My burning ambition was to have as much adventure as possible. Unlike Noah, I didn’t need to own the world to be happy. These days, though…I wasn’t exactly sure what I needed.
When I was ten, Pops had given me a knife engraved with Semper Fidelis on the blade. He’d retired after thirty years in the Corps, and my father had made it to twenty. But neither of my two older brothers were interested, and so it had fallen to me to carry out the tradition. After years of hearing whispered stories of bravery and honor and brotherhood, I couldn’t wait to wear the dress blues and the white gloves and carry that damn sword. Because I enlisted during war time, I got to do things that had meaning.
Since the troop drawdown, though, I’d felt…unmoored, to borrow a Navy term, as if I was standing on ever-shifting sand. People I’d known for a long time were changing. All around me, guys were settling down, picking out furniture, and going to flea markets on the weekends. They did couples things, like couples’ showers and shit like that, and while I didn’t want to go to those damn things, I felt like everyone else was moving on and that I was just stuck, spinning my wheels like I was some stupid groundhog that should be put out of my misery.
I don’t know what it was, but every time I had gone to sign those re-enlistment papers, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. On one side, I had my pops and my commanding officer, Captain Billings, warning me about how boat space was shrinking and that even for an exemplary Marine like myself I could be squeezed out if I didn’t hurry my ass up. On the other side sat my dad, who sang an entirely tune—that I should get out now while I still had time to go to college, find a job, settle down.
Then there were the men in my platoon. Good men who would place their lives in my hands. I wasn’t just making sure that my weapon was ready now but that theirs were too, and that was a responsibility you didn’t take lightly.
“Nah, you know Noah doesn’t speak unless it is absolutely necessary,” Bo said, answering my earlier question. “His frozen yogurt palace is always stuffed full of estrogen. We could swing by and scope out the women there.”
“I thought you’d said that the only females in Noah’s shop were a mess of teenage girls and soccer moms.”
“So? They’re still females.”
“My choices are to be a pedo bear or cougar bait?”
“Better go cougar. They’re in their sexual prime. They could teach you something.”
“Let’s just head to your place.” Upon arriving, I pulled my gear out of the trunk and followed Bo into the home he shared with Noah and three other guys – one complete with full floor to ceiling plate glass windows at the rear that overlooked a pool. The weather was great here. I’d missed the beach back in San Diego, but I needed to get away. The more distance I put between the base and me, the better I felt. Right then, I wanted to pound some beer, ogle some women, and relax.
A loud noise like a gunshot echoed, and I immediately ducked down to my knees, throwing my bag in front of me. I looked for Bo, but he was propped against the counter, crying with laughter.
“I’m so sorry.” AnnMarie leaned over me—her long dark hair nearly touching my face. “We just popped the champagne.”
I looked around and saw a group of people with shocked faces and a few girls in front holding a sign that said “Welcome, Grunt.” One of Bo’s roommates (whose name I didn’t remember) stood frozen with the bottle in question, champagne dribbling from the open neck like he was pissing all over the floor. Noah broke from the group and pulled me to my feet because Bo—the asshole—was still laughing.
“Sorry, we weren’t thinking.” Noah tried to look repentant, but I could see he was fighting a big-ass grin too. The crowd had recovered, and he started introducing me around.
“You fuckers.” I laughed, because it was funny. You could take the Marine grunt off the base, but you couldn’t eliminate his reaction to close-quarters fire. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you planned that.”
“Bo would’ve had to frisk you to make sure you didn’t draw on us.” Noah shook his head. “We both know he’d have liked that far too much.”
One little blonde who’d been part of the sign committee murmured a few words I didn’t catch. I thought her name was Alice or Amy or something like that. I’d met her before when I’d come up for a weekend to see Bo and Noah’s set up.
“What’s that, sweetheart?” I had to double over to talk to her. Some guys loved a good height disparity. I preferred a taller women. Easier to have sex standing up.
“You guys are all so mean to each other. Noah made us write grunt on your sign.” She stuck her lower lip out, which might have been an invitation to do something, although I wasn’t sure for what.
“Grunt is a good thing for a Marine. You have to pass infantry school, otherwise you’re in the rear with the gear,” I explained. After eight years of being enlisted, I spent most of my time with other Marines or Marine wives and Marine girlfriends. I didn’t love explaining things to civilians but part of why I’d come here to see Bo and Noah in the Midwest was to get away from the military folks, clear my head, and come up with a life plan. God, I sounded like Dr. Phil.
“What’s infantry school?”
I reined in my impatience and started to explain when Grace came over and rescued me.
“Amy,” Grace said. “Leave the pretty Marine alone. His glass is empty and you know how guys get when their glass is empty.”
“They get thirsty?” Amy asked.
I kind of wanted to hear Grace’s reply, but her eyes were silently telling me to get while the getting was good. I fled to the group out at the pool, which included Bo’s girlfriend.
“AnnMarie, you got any cute, single girlfriends available for me?” Truthfully, I planned to keep my pants zipped the entire time I was here, but I figured people expected me to be a horndog—and I didn’t like to let anyone down.
“There’s a whole bunch of single women here.” She waved a hand at the ever growing crowd. “We held this party just for you.”
“I appreciate that, but I’m only here for a short time. Pick one for me. I want to use my time wisely.”
“Oh no, not the ‘why one night hook ups don’t make good sex’ lecture.” Bo groaned.
“What’s this?” she asked.
“Ignore him. Bo doesn’t like anything that requires thinking,” I said.
“He’s actually very smart.” She looked adorably peeved that I was saying anything bad about her boy. While I enjoyed giving both my boys shit, I was happy that Bo was with someone who defended him so fiercely. I kind of wanted that. Someday. Like in ten years, I told myself.
“I can see you’re still in the early stages of a strong infatuation,” I teased, wondering how long it would be before Bo would carry AnnMarie off to have some dirty hot sex that we’d all hear because this house, as nice as it was, did not have enough sound proofing. I’d learned that the last time I’d come to visit. The guys in this house enjoyed the ladies, often and loudly.
“I want to hear this theory,” AnnMarie said.
Bo flopped back and heaved a huge theatrical sigh. “Now we’re in for it.”
She put her hand over his mouth. “Start talking.”
He must have licked her hand because she pulled it away with a yelp and wiped her palm on her shirt, giving Bo a dirty look. Yup, it was official. I was jealous of one of my oldest friends because of the easy relationship he had with his girl. Maybe coming here had been a mistake.
I forced my gaze away from the happy couple and onto the growing crowd. There were a lot of gorgeous women here, and many of them were eyeing me like I was top grade prime rib at an all-you-can-eat buffet. I’d be a fool not to take advantage of an offer.
I turned to AnnMarie to explain my theory. “It’s not that hook ups aren’t good but it’s like the difference between a nice song and an awesome concert. One is a three-minute interlude. The other is an event. The better you know your partner, the better the sex is.” My eyes surveyed the eclectic mix of students, construction workers, musicians, and gym rats that made up the new friends of my old friends. If I did hook up, I wouldn’t want anyone who would form an attachment. My time here was temporary, after all.
“Maybe for you it’s three minutes.” Bo smirked.
“Whatever. You can’t tell me it’s not better with AnnMarie than anyone else.”
“I was a virgin when I met AnnMarie,” Bo said loftily. AnnMarie just rolled her eyes. “Besides, just because AnnMarie knows a girl, doesn’t mean she knows her medical history.”
“Why do you need that?” She quirked an eyebrow at me.
“I’m just careful,” I replied. I didn’t want to go into the long, sordid story about my past brush with a serious STI due to a cheating girlfriend. I’d come away clean, thankfully, but it had been a close call.
“Plus she has to be in the medical profession,” Bo added.
“Jesus, she does not.” I was going to have to take him to the ground because he’d forgot the kind of beating I could deliver.
“Your last three ‘companions’ were in the health field.” Bo held up his fingers. I grabbed a couple and twisted them back as he tried to hit me with his other fist. AnnMarie grabbed at him and he subsided. Still, her scowl was directed at me.
“I’m not going to hook you up with any of my friends if you’re dating someone!” she said disgustedly.
“I’m not seeing anyone,” I assured her. “I’m just not into the bar hook up.”
“Why’s that?” This was a question from Adam, the one who’d popped the champagne cork. He had more tattoos than some of the guys I served with. I guess it went with his rock band lifestyle.
“Safety,” I said.
“Too many chances of putting the stick in crazy?” another roommate asked. It was Finn this time, the guy who actually owned this house.
“No way. Crazy is awesome. Crazy in the head; crazy in the bed,” Adam said.
I shook my head. “No. Disease. Pregnancy scares.”
“Suit up, man.” Adam tipped his head back and drained his beer. I waited until he was done to impart some much-needed sense. It was the same tip I gave to the new recruits.
“You can still get herpes on your ball sack.”
Adam looked down at his lap and so did nearly every guy within listening distance. One by one, they all got up and left. Presumably to go look at their nuts. Bo gave me a nudge and high-fived me. Civilians, Marines—they were all the same in some ways.
Grace came wandering out and sat down next to us. “Where is everyone?”
“Checking out their balls,” AnnMarie said. Her dry delivery made Bo and me crack up again while Noah looked on with a smirk.
After Adam had convinced himself his gonads were in good health, he showed me where I’d be staying for the few weeks I’d be here.
“You sure I’m not putting you out or anything?” I threw my seabag and backpack down near the door in case Adam had changed his mind about letting me use his room. The place was pretty clean for being the bedroom of a twenty-five-year-old musician who lived with four other guys. Not military clean. There was shit everywhere, like two guitars in the corner and a mess of woven bracelets, heavy silver rings, guitar picks, and what looked like four or five different pairs of headphones on a dresser. But there weren’t any empty pizza boxes on the floor or half-filled beers on the nightstand. Instead, it looked like the room of a guy who lived in his music.
“Nah, I’m going to bunk in the garage. It’s where most my instruments are anyway.” Adam went over to the dresser and shoved everything off the top and into the drawer beneath it—presumably clearing space for my shit. “This is the bathroom.” Adam opened the door to what I’d thought was a closet. Inside was a decent-sized bathroom with a shower, a toilet and a sink and another door. “Closet’s through there. I tried to clear a little space for you.” The closet looked like a denim factory. There were dozens of jeans piled on custom shelves and another full set of shelves with an unholy amount of boots and shoes.
“Not to be offensive, man, but you’ve more clothes and shoes than any guy I’ve ever met.”
Adam gave a negligent shrug. “I like clothes. So sue me.”
“I’ll just leave my stuff in my bag.” I didn’t feel comfortable setting my gear up beside Adam’s. I was only here for a short while and I’d had plenty of practice living out of my pack.
“Your call,” Adam said. “Use what you want. The cleaning crew comes on Wednesdays at three. We all try to get out of here and leave them alone.” He paused, looked around the room again, and then gave me another shrug.
The cleaning crew explained the decent state of the room. The shrug, however, was weird but I let it pass without comment because it wasn’t any of my business. If Adam had been in my platoon, I would have probably had to ask nosy questions to make sure he wasn’t fucking up his personal life so bad that it would affect his performance in the Corps. But he wasn’t, so I shut my mouth, showered off the travel grime, and shrugged on a fresh T-shirt, cargo shorts, and sandals. Downstairs, the party seemed to be in full swing, with people littering the patio outside and some poorly playing a first-person action game on the big screen in the living area.
“You allow these atrocities to occur without retribution?” I asked Bo, who was leaning against the wall grimacing as the video game players missed kill shot after kill shot.
“I don’t know them but we can dunk them out in the pool later.”
“This is just a normal everyday occurrence here?” I waved at the mass of people moving in and out of the house toward the back patio and into the pool. Bo’s gaze traveled around the room, stopping at AnnMarie talking animatedly to some girl I hadn’t met. I had to nudge Bo out of whatever fantasy he was concocting. He jerked a little and then punched me in the arm. “The fuck?” I said, punching him back.
“I was having a moment.” He scowled. Like he hadn’t had a moment earlier when he’d dragged AnnMarie away from the pool for some private time.
“Let her be for a minute and maybe she’ll miss you,” I retorted. This riled Bo up and soon we were grappling on the hard wooden floor. He struck me twice in the ear. Bo had big fists but his larger body also made it easier to maneuver around him.
I’d gotten a choke hold around his neck and was pulling his head away from his shoulders when a huge stream of cold water hit my face. “Motherfucking what?” I yelled, dropping Bo. AnnMarie stood there with an empty pot, looking both exasperated and amused.
“You guys are acting like you’re five.” She tapped her foot by my head.
“Nah, I was still fighting like this when I was fifteen.” I smiled, getting up and pulling her in for a hug. I pressed my wet body against hers for all of one second before Bo pulled me off. He and Noah picked me up and proceeded to throw me into the pool.
I kicked off my shoes and stripped off my T-shirt and shorts, throwing the whole lot up on the pool deck.
“Keep your panties on,” Bo shouted as my clothing hit the concrete.
“No worries, man, I won’t embarrass you by showing my package to all the girls here.”
“No one wants to see your pasty white ass.”
“I think you’re more afraid that AnnMarie will see my giant dick and leave you.” Predictably, Bo jumped into the pool. We started trying to drown each other, but I’d had too much training for that.
Bo’s entry into the pool prompted the rest of the crowd to jump in and soon I was too interested in all the honeys around me to want to wrestle with Bo anymore. Noah tossed me a pair of swim trunks, and I changed under the water. We played pool games until I was too hungry to be distracted by all the bikini-clad coeds in the water with me.
“You really know how to press Bo’s buttons,” AnnMarie commented as I threw together a sandwich and wolfed it down in three bites.
“When you spend a few years stuck next to a guy 24/7, you get to know him pretty well,” I explained. She handed me a soda and I drained that too.
“Did you hate it? Is that why you want to get out?” she asked, sipping at her drink.
I made up another sandwich before answering her. Part of me resented the question, but that’s why I was here, and I guess everyone knew it. Answering their questions might help sort out the confusion in my own mind. “Everyone says you don’t miss the service, you miss the men you served with. So no, I don’t want to get out because I saw your man far too much in the desert.
“When you’re deployed, you are always busy doing something, and you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. Whether it’s going to look for insurgents or handing out aid. At home, some guys get to do embassy duty or presidential assignments, but a lot of us stay on base. When you’re on base, you train, but it doesn’t feel as…”
I paused, unsure of the word I was looking for. “Important?” I still wasn’t sure what was making me feel out of sorts. “My pops—grandfather—says that the reasons for getting out will always outweigh the reasons for staying in.” I laid my sandwich down, my appetite kind of gone.
“Sounds tough.” AnnMarie made a clucking sound of sympathy, and I gave her a wry smile in return.
“Kind of a downer of a discussion for such a nice day.”
She patted me on the arm. “Nope, not a downer at all.”
She was lying, but we both left it at that. If I’d known the answers to AnnMarie’s questions, then I wouldn’t be here; I’d be in sunny Southern California with my boys at the beach. I picked up my sandwich again because I couldn’t let it go to waste. I ate the whole damn thing methodically, without enjoying it. I was afraid that no matter what decision I made—getting out or staying in—it’d be the wrong one.
“How come you refer to Bo and Noah as Marines even though they’ve been out of the military for a couple of years now?” AnnMarie asked.
“Once a Marine, always a Marine,” I explained. “It’s the oldest, best fraternity in existence. I could be anywhere and if I yelled Marine in trouble, I’d have every Marine in the room lending me a hand. It’s a brotherhood like no other.”
“Sounds like you love it.” Her eyebrows were raised in challenge.
Yeah, I guess I do.” I sighed. I did love my brothers. They would be the thing I missed the most about the Corps, but I also would miss the sense of purpose and the idea that I was involved in something bigger than myself.
Thankfully, I wasn’t allowed more time for my dilemma to mess with my head because Bo sidled up to me with the fat grin that he wore when he was about to get us all in trouble.
“Want to go to a bar?”
“What about all this?” I nodded toward the crowd.
“Mal’s going to stay here.” Mal was another roommate.
I shrugged. Party here, bar there. Made no difference. “I’m going to trust that you have good things planned for me.”
“Don’t doubt it,” he said, giving me a hard slap on my back.