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Babes

I am not concerned that you have fallen. I am concerned that you arise.

—Abraham Lincoln

After attending one funeral after the other while I was in the military, I was done. All I wanted was to move the fuck on, even if I didn’t think it was possible.

Sofia and I hadn’t spoken much since I’d arrived in Florida. Especially not about Connor. My brother was the giant elephant in the room that we all tiptoed around.

We played our parts. Sofia and I were polite strangers. Adelyn was the tumultuous force that rattled windows when she slammed doors and went stomping around the house. Only Emma acted like she belonged, slowly relaxing a little more every day. I now had an explosion of stuffed animals in my room that mirrored the ones in hers. She was a good kid; a sweet and happy one. Untouched by the force of nature that’d been her father, all because he couldn’t be bothered to raise his kid.

A deep inhale dragged the briny tang of ocean water and ozone into my lungs. Overlaid were the hints of Sofia’s flowery perfume, and the minty gum that Adelyn was chewing. Yesterday’s storms had finally cleared. Our town’s cemetery bordered the water, which reflected the clear, cloudless blue of the sky.

“Uncle Sam?” Emma’s little voice was fearful. I glanced down at her as she pointed to the armed soldiers standing stoic and ready by the flag covered casket. “Are they going to shoot Daddy?”

I squatted down till the bars and medals on my uniform were at the level of Emma’s head. She tucked into my side when I put my arm around her, speaking quietly into her ear.

“No, sweetheart. It’s a way for them to say goodbye. They’re going to fire their weapons three times, so everyone will know your daddy was a hero. Okay?”

Emma nodded, but her small fingers slid into mine when I stood.

Sofia looked straight ahead. There was no expression on her face, though I could see the tear tracks on her cheeks when Benjamin Santiago began his sermon.

Today he was somber and professional, his white collar the only color to his outfit. His voice was a calm baritone, but I only heard half his sermon, distracted by the compassionate warmth in his eyes whenever our gazes met. I turned toward the water to avoid it, and to distract myself, I thought about Connor.

When our mother died of cancer while we were still in high school, we were given the green light to leave our life of abuse behind. The day after we graduated at eighteen, Connor and I found jobs as mechanics at a local place on the other side of town, and got an apartment a few blocks away. Three weeks later, I met him and Sofia at City Hall to be a witness for their wedding ceremony. Adelyn had just turned two.

Things weren’t easy for three people trying to raise a child when they were barely adults themselves, but even though Sofia’s family hadn’t approved of a teenage pregnancy, they were supportive. We made it work, and for almost a year life was good. But just as we started to fall into a routine that hinted we might finally be able to provide the stability for Connor’s family that ours had lacked growing up, Connor came home one day and told me he’d enlisted in the Army. He went with me to speak to sign up the next afternoon.

Ben’s voice brought me back to the present.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We say goodbye to Connor Trammel today, a man who was much more than the sum of his parts; a brother, husband and father.”

Ben didn’t acknowledge Adelyn’s soft snort. “We give him to you, Father, and ask that you embrace him and grant him some of the peace we hope to find for ourselves. Amen.”

“Amen,” Sofia murmured. Emma echoed, but Adelyn and I remained silent.

Ben turned toward us. “Are you ready?”

Sofia and I nodded in unison, and the rifles were raised. The first shots jolted us all. Emma turned her face against my leg for the last two rounds of echoes. My hand moved against her silky head, as the flag was removed from Connor’s closed casket and folded into that tight triangle I’d become well acquainted with over the years.

A soldier that looked too young to shave solemnly presented it to Sofia. I was surprised when Adelyn’s hands came up to support her mother’s. Their fingers tangled, holding tight on top of the flag as people began to file toward us to give their condolences. Even without Max’s presence, the turnout was impressive. I suspected more of that was for Sofia’s sake than Connor’s.

Friends I hadn’t seen in years came by to tell us how sorry they were, and just as Adelyn had predicted, most of it was bullshit. My daddy had earned his reputation, and Connor had followed in his footsteps. But all was forgiven when a man died.

As I turned to shake the hand of the woman who’d been our eighth grade teacher, a commotion broke out among the crowd of protestors gathered just outside of the gates. I’d caught a glimpse of their signs when we’d pulled up to the cemetery, but cars had created a barricade to hold them back. Music casino şirketleri had been pumped in through speakers during the funeral services to try to drown out their chanting, and it had worked well enough that I’d almost forgotten they were there. But with the cut in the music, their shouts were coming through loud and clear.

I was too far away to hear all of the vitriol they were spewing, but I could see the signs more clearly now that I focused all my attention on them.

Baby killers.

Turn or Burn.

Thank God for dead soldiers.

That last sign was being held up by a kid. He couldn’t be older than ten or eleven, and the sign was almost as big as he was. His expression held more confusion than anger, but he raised his sign with conviction when the chanting grew louder.

All of the blood drained from Sofia’s face when she followed my gaze, and saw the protestors. I was moving before I even realized it, handing Emma off to her mother. “Get them into the car,” I said through clenched teeth. “I’ll be right back.”

Despite the sea of black around us, all I could see was red.

One of the officers caught up with me before I could reach the small barricade that had been set up between us and the protestors.

“I’m sorry, sir, but you have to stay back.”

“They need to get the fuck out of here.”

“Freedom of speech,” called a skinny woman with frizzy hair.

“We’re exercising our constitutionally protected rights!”

“The only reason you have any rights is because men like my brother and me protect this country.”

Before I could answer, someone from the crowd hurled something at us. The object bounced off the arm of one of the officers and hit the grass with a soft thunk. It took me a minute to recognize the Ken doll that looked like one Emma had. This one was dressed in camouflage, and had been soaked in red paint. He leaned over and spit at my feet. It only took a second to remember all the friends I’d buried and I snapped.

I broke past the officer closest to me. Catching him off guard gave me the extra seconds I needed to punch the smug face of the man. I felt his blood slick on my fingers where his nose bled before I was dragged away from the shouting mob.

People were yelling on all sides, but my vision had narrowed to a thin, dark tunnel. Laid over the voices in the cemetery were those of people in my nightmares. My memories—past and present— merged over one another. I struggled as I felt more arms restraining me.

“Easy, Soldier. Stand down, son!”

“You’re going to pay for this,” a woman screamed, holding up a cellphone. “We’re going to take this to the media!”

“Samuel.”

My name cut through all the chaos. I blinked against the sunshine, but instead of grinning skulls, there was only Ben’s calm face bringing me home.

He reached down a hand to help me to my feet. Behind him I saw the police officers watching me like I was a feral animal. Giving me space, but with clear, defined parameters.

Ben let go of my hand. I mourned the loss of the warmth until he placed the hand on my shoulder.

“You need to arrest that man. He’s disturbing our protected right to gather and voice our cause!” someone shouted.

“That’s not the way we saw it happen,” one of the officers interrupted, his voice cool and steady. “Looks to us like your people were creating a public disturbance, and when asked by officers to keep it down, one of you got unruly.”

He took the ruined doll that Ben held out. I hadn’t even seen him pick it up.

“You assaulted a police officer. Our friend here, an American hero, helped our officers settle things down. Maybe he got a little overzealous, but it was still within parameters of a citizen arrest.”

A blue clad shoulder rose in a shrug and the officer casually rested his hand on his hip near his gun. “Isn’t that the way it happened, boys?” Murmurs of agreement rose up all around us from the uniformed men standing around me.

“We’ll get a report down detailing everything.”

I swallowed hard as the protestors continued to spew threats. Ben gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze to keep me still. He stood beside me.

“A man died in a war meant to protect these freedoms you’re are abusing today. Show some respect.”

Ben’s hand slid off my shoulder to curl in mine as he took a step closer to the crowd, keeping me just behind him.

“If you can’t manage that, I’ll pray for all of you which will take a while. Bless you all.”

I blinked. That was unexpected.

“Come on, Sam,” Ben said. “Officer Whelan, can you clear a path so the family can leave in peace.”

“No problem, Father Santiago.

Shouted protests followed our return to the cars, but all I could focus on was the solid warmth of Ben’s hand. He didn’t let go until we reached the truck.

“How’s your hand?” he said about the one he hadn’t been holding.

My knuckles were still bloody when I checked, but casino firmaları I shrugged. “It’s fine. I’ve hit harder things than that guy’s head.” Where are Sofia and the girls?”

“They’re with Tara.”

“Who?” I followed his gaze to where a pretty woman with long blonde hair stood with her arm around Sofia’s shoulder.

“She’s a friend. They’re fine. I’m more concerned for you right now.” Ben’s eyes scanned my face.

“I’m fine. He deserved it.”

“I’m not disagreeing, Sam. Those people are vultures, preying on grief and pain, and God will remember that when He deals with them as He chooses. But your responsibility is to your family. What good are you going to be to them if you get yourself arrested? Use your head, Sam.”

“Okay…you’re right.”

“Of course I am. Now go walk it off. I’m going to get Sofia and the girls.” He hesitated. “Can I trust you on your own?”

A smart-ass retort sat on my tongue, but I swallowed my pride when I saw the genuine concern in his eyes. “You can trust me, Ben.”

“Good,” he murmured. “Because we have an incoming.”

I followed his gaze. My sister-in-law and nieces were cresting the hill with Sofia’s friend in tow. Sofia’s already pale face dropped the last few shades to corpse-like as she neared us and saw the police. I wiped my bloodied knuckles on my dress pants before she got too close.

“Sam, are you all right?”

Anxiety laced her voice. A few more octaves of desperation, and we’d have all the neighborhood dogs howling.

I ignored Adelyn’s hostile look as I looped an arm around Sofia’s waist, trying to keep myself between her and the protestors.

“We’re fine. Hi,” I said to the other woman. I’m Sam.”

The hand that slid into mine was attached to a slim wrist that poked out beneath the denim shirt she was wearing knotted over a long dark skirt. Long wavy blonde hair spilled out beneath a cream fedora. She stuck out against everyone dressed in black, especially with her red, sexy-secretary style glasses that framed bright blue eyes. She was gorgeous, and her wide, slightly crooked smile amped her up from a solid ten to a hundred and ten. Had I been even remotely interested in women, I’d have wondered what she was hiding beneath that long skirt.

“Hi, Sam. I’m Tara Fitzgerald, a friend of Father Ben and Sofia’s. Nice to meet you.” She startled me by leaning in as if she were going to kiss me. But instead she whispered her next words against my cheek. “Good job on clocking that jerk. I fist bumped the air since you were otherwise engaged.”

There was a touch of Deep South to Tara’s voice, but it seemed to come and go with certain words, reminding me of Max. Once again I wished he were here, though had he been, the likelihood of us both spending the night in jail for assault would’ve been inevitable. Harder to play the crazy soldier card times two.

“Nice to meet you, Tara,” I said when she pulled away.

“Thanks for coming.” I turned to Sofia. “Ready to head home?”

“Could I have a minute?”

Although Sofia’s voice was calm enough not to concern her children, I could see her beginning to fall apart. Tara smiled at me as she looped her am through Sofia’s.

“We’ll catch up in a few.”

“Take all the time you need. Emma, do you and Addie want to help me figure out the car GPS?”

Emma looked torn between playing with a new gadget and comforting Sofia, but in the end she took my hand, her little fingers holding on tight. Adelyn rolled her eyes at her mother and flounced ahead of us. Ben and I exchanged looks when he stayed behind with Sofia and Tara.

“We’ll be okay, Sam. Go with the girls.”

Reluctant as I was, I herded my nieces away. When we reached the steeper parts of the hills, I swung Emma up onto my shoulders. She shrieked in delight, plucking my hat off of my head to put it on hers. Her fear over the gunfire was long forgotten with that enviable memory loss only children and the senile can manage.

“I’m so high, Uncle Sam! I can see the birds real close.”

“Maybe you can catch one.” I jiggled her, earning another delighted squeal. For the first time in weeks, I felt my mouth curve into a genuine smile.

Adelyn muttered something inaudible beneath her breath as she climbed into the rear seat and snapped on her headphones. The volume was so loud, the coast of Africa could share her indulgence for emo rock.

I settled Emma into the front seat for the time being so she could reach the GPS. My hat was too big on her, covering the rounded tips of her ears. Her legs swung several inches above the floor carpeting as she played for a few minutes, the soft beeps adding the occasional break in the soundtrack of waves, wind and teen angst.

“Uncle Sam? Can I ask you a question?” Emma said.

“Sure, baby.”

The beeps continued for a moment. “Mami is sad, right?”

I nodded. “She’s a little sad right now. But she’ll be all right.”

“Addie’s mad, not sad.”

The güvenilir casino leather seats creaked as I readjusted, stealing a look at my older niece, who was diligent in her dismissal of us. “She’s sad, too, Emma. She just shows it differently. Sometimes when people have all these feelings bubbling up inside of them, they don’t know how to show them. So they say mean things, or act in ways they usually don’t.”

Silence reigned from Adelyn’s corner, but the music got a little lower. “Are you sad, Uncle Sam?” Emma looked at me with startling sensitivity considering her age. “Is that why you have bad dreams?”

I fought the desire to lie. Instead I tried redirection. “Why would you think I have bad dreams, honey?”

“Because Addie and I heard you yelling Father Ben’s name yesterday when I got up and got her so she could get me some milk. You said, ‘Oh, God, Ben,’ so Addie said you were praying.”

A muffled snicker from the back seat set my ears aflame. Before I could come up with an exit strategy for this entire conversation, Emma continued. “Addie said you were talking to him on the phone, and asking him to talk to God so he’d take away your bad dreams.”

“You do pray pretty loud, Uncle Sam,” Adelyn murmured. “Might have to work on that.”

The little shit wasn’t bothering to hide her delight at my situation when I met her eyes in the mirror. I didn’t have time to be scandalized that my sixteen-year-old niece seemed to know that it’d been more than praying, because Emma was tugging at my hand to try and get my attention.

I cleared my throat hard, ignoring the silent shaking of Adelyn’s shoulders in my peripheral vision.

“I pray just like you do, Emma, because when I’m sad it helps me think. We all get sad sometimes, but eventually we’re okay.”

Emma put down the GPS and scooted a little closer to me. “I’m not sad…is that bad?”

I shook my head, thanking all deities on high that she took the bait. “You’re always allowed to say whatever you feel, Emma. Your daddy wouldn’t want you to be sad.”

“I’d be sad if you went away,” she said, reaching over to touch my hand. “I want you to be here for Christmas, because Mami makes gingerbread men, and I put sprinkles on them. And we open presents. Maybe we’ll get more from Santa if you’re here, too.”

The hopeful expression in her eyes drew a smile from me. Christmas was a solid six months away. I didn’t want to make promises, but I hadn’t seen my niece this excited since I’d gotten here.

“We might be able to arrange that. Maybe even hang a stocking on the stairs for me.”

A snort escaped from Adelyn’s corner, but Emma’s face lit up. “What color do you want?”

“Green,” I said, thinking of Ben’s eyes.

“Mine is pink,” she confided.

We chatted for a few more minutes, Emma happily taking up the slack to do most of the talking. Adelyn remained quiet, but there was enough movement in the set of her lips to classify as a truce if not a smile.

Sofia returned, red-eyed but calm. Emma climbed into the back seat to be with her mother, which forced Adelyn up front with me. Tara waved goodbye before heading toward an old blue convertible in the parking lot.

Ben came to my side of the SUV, his hand resting on the rolled-down window. “Hey.”

“Hi,” I said, trying to play off that guilty look you developed when you knew you’d been talking about someone. “Is Sofia all right?’

He nodded, lowering his voice. “She will be. Just needs some time, like you all do.” He paused, leaning in a little closer. “I got your message last night. Sorry I didn’t call you back. There was a situation at work I had to handle, but I’d like to talk.” His smile was warm. “Is it okay if I drop by later? Maybe we can go out for coffee?”

In the light of morning, that same scenario that had kept me up half the night was both more tempting and daunting.

“Father Ben, Uncle Sam is staying for Christmas!”

Emma’s cheerful interruption saved me from answering. Ben looked between us, amused. “Is he now? Well that’s great.”

“I haven’t decided anything yet…”

“Uncle Sam, you said you wanted a green stocking, so we have to get you one.” Emma continued as if she hadn’t heard me.

I glanced in my review mirror at Sofia, who was smothering a smile. “You’re right, sweetheart. I did say that… But…”

“No butts. Mami doesn’t like that word.”

I could’ve sworn the corner of Adelyn’s mouth twitched as I got a dress down from a five-year-old.

I sighed. “Okay, but you need to figure out the stocking situation for me, kiddo.”

Ben had an engaging grin, and he was using it freely. “That sounds like an important job, so I’m going to trust you with another one, Emma. Are you listening?”

Emma’s little head popped between the seats like a whack-amole so she could hear him better. “I’m listening, Father Ben!”

“Fantastic. You need to help me by making sure your Uncle Sam has nothing to do this Tuesday. If you have to help him do his chores, or tickle torture him to stay home that night so I can pick him up later, you have my permission. Got it?”

“Okay!” she agreed with a bob of her little head. “Where are you taking him? Can I come?”

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