Halos and Heroes Ch. 16

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Thank you all who have been reading and following along. I always appreciate getting feedback. It helps with becoming a better writer and it’s always an ego boost, so feel free to reach out. I will always respond!

The usual spiel: This isn’t a stroke story, (more porn with plot.) Be warned, it’s very long. 33 chapters, and many sexless ones to come before it gets sexy, which is why it was originally published under novels/novellas, but readers asked for it to be put under gay male due to content, so here we go.

This book is dedicated to all of the brave service members and their families who sacrifice so much every day so that the rest of us can enjoy the liberties that they swear to protect and uphold.

Although references in this novel may be made to actual places or events, the names, characters, incidents, and locations within are complete works of fiction. They are not a resemblance to actual living or dead persons, businesses, or events. Any similarity is coincidental. In an effort to do the United States Army justice, and to show my respect to my country, I have applied all possible efforts to merge fact and fiction to entertain, while portraying the military, and the hardships and achievements of soldiers, with respect, dignity and accuracy to the best of my abilities. It’s my hope that I’ve done you all justice, and that all of the creative licenses taken with this novel are understood to be the efforts of imagination, and not any judgment or disrespect against the U.S. military. Thank you all for your service.

***

When you jump for joy, beware that no one moves the ground from beneath your feet.

—Stanislaw Lec

The screech of my cell phone woke me from nightmares of screaming voices in the night. In the dream it’d been completely dark so I couldn’t see who the voices belonged to, but they’d all shouted my name in a muffled symphony of horror and pain supported by the sharp crack of gunshots. Awake, I could still hear them, and my heart pounded hard in my chest as I shoved the sheets away to fumble on the nightstand for the phone.

My voice was strained as I pushed it past the panic still creating a lump in my throat. “Hello?”

“Hey, sleepyhead, let’s go. I’ve been waiting outside for five minutes.”

“Tara?” I blinked again, rubbing a hand over my face. Dawn was just beginning to creep over the horizon and thin streams of light wormed their way through the blinds into my bedroom. I squinted against the glare as I tried to see the number illuminated on the screen of the digital clock on my nightstand.

“That’s my name. Dangit, you forgot, didn’t you? Look outside.”

Forgot what? I rolled out of bed and moved to the window. When I parted the blinds, I could see Tara standing out front in workout gear. She’d left the fedora off today, and her long ponytail bobbed with impatience as she shifted from foot to foot.

“Damn,” I muttered. “We’re supposed to go for a run today.”

“Yep, so get your butt moving or I’m calling the house to sic Emma on you.”

“On my way.”

We hung up, and I grabbed a pair of sweats and a tee shirt. Some deodorant, a quick brushing of my teeth and a wet hand passed through my hair completed my morning beauty routine.

I’d forgotten our plans for a run, but I didn’t mind the distraction. Whoever said that running away from your problems wasn’t a good solution was full of shit. Faced with the options of stewing in my own guilt or burning myself out with cardio, I chose door number two.

After leaving Adelyn a note about where I was since Sofia hadn’t come home yet from her night shift at the hospital, I grabbed my house keys and joined Tara downstairs, hitting a jogging speed immediately.

“You look like hell,” she informed me, giving me the onceover as she fell into step beside me. “Rough night?”

I shrugged and earned a shove to my shoulder that threw off both my rhythm and hers.

“Best friends don’t lie to one another.”

She sounded so much like Emma I would’ve smiled if I’d had the energy but it just wasn’t there.

“Lousy dreams. Didn’t sleep well,” I said as I found my tempo again.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

“Nope.”

“You’re such a boy—all stoic and macho. Was it one of those naked in public dreams?”

“No.”

“Darn,” she said, grinning when I turned my head to stare at her. “Hey, just because I don’t want to bump uglies doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the landscape for the aesthetics.”

I rolled my eyes, but I let Tara continue her mission to try and pull me out of my funk.

“So, have you talked to him yet?”

“Who?”

“Ben.”

I shook my head. I hadn’t seen Ben since the night I’d left the support group a week ago. “No, but he calls every day and leaves a message on my cell. The man is more persistent than casino siteleri crotch itch.”

Tara laughed. “Eventually you’ll get worn down. He’s good like that.”

“He almost wore me down a few times,” I admitted. “But my primary objective right now is to get my family back on track.”

“And after that?”

I shrugged in response, picking up my speed just a bit more. Since I ran at least 20 miles daily, I was capable of keeping a strenuous pace. I hoped Tara wasn’t, but she shot back to my side.

“Have you given more thought to coming back to the group?”

“I can’t get into the whole religion thing.”

“Who’s asking you to? I was raised Jewish. Hayley is agnostic. We just sit around and talk. No preaching going on.”

“Not my scene.”

Tara shrugged. “Okay. Are things at home any better with Adelyn?”

“If by better you mean that she can stand to be in the same room with me then, yeah, things have improved. But she still won’t talk to me.”

“Hey, I work with teens on a daily basis, and sometimes having a conversation with one is like dealing with E.T. and a bad phone connection.” Tara rolled her eyes. “Family is the tie that binds and gags, my friend. If they’re not making you crazy, they’re not doing their job.”

I hid a smile. “Right.”

“Laugh all you want,” Tara said. “But the sooner you drink the Kool-Aid, the happier you’ll be.”

“I’m thinking that having my own place will help.”

“You’ve been looking?”

I nodded. “Mostly apartments in the area, but my pockets aren’t that deep.”

“You can always stay with me if you need some space. I have a basement apartment that I was renting out to a woman I went on a few dates with. It didn’t work out.”

The face she made forced me to ask. “Bad breakup?”

“OMG the worst,” she gushed. “Seriously though, I could use the extra income and since we like two different kinds of pie, we won’t have any awkward morning-after moments. My place is about a ten-minute drive from Sofia’s.” She smiled. “I’ll even throw in rom-com movie nights once a week.”

“Thanks, Tara. I’ll think about it.”

“No problem. Now move. The sooner we finish this run, the sooner I get my post-torture donut.”

“Are you kidding?”

“What’s the point of working out if you don’t ingest calories to burn?” She grinned and took off.

I slid my ear buds in and picked up my pace again. As we made our way down the streets, we found a pace we were both able to maintain without overexerting ourselves.

It was quiet at this time of day. Dark houses and parked cars made no noise, and Tara stopped talking when we hit a steady speed. There was plenty of time to be alone with my thoughts, but each time old memories threatened to resurface, I ran a little faster, forcing Tara to keep up.

The pavement beneath our feet glistened from this morning’s early showers. The skies were still patchy, but by the time we’d gone five miles and reached the main drag, other early risers were beginning their morning runs and errands.

From my peripheral vision, I could see Tara starting to lag. I could’ve easily banged out another fifteen miles and then some, but I slowed down as I rounded a turn to give her a chance to catch up.

“Hey, let’s go get your donut. If you pass out on me, I’ll have to carry you and find out you fudge what you weigh by telling me it’s all water weight because you have to pee.”

She flipped me off and I grinned

“Do you always run like a damn demon?”

I grinned again as I stretched out with the help of the brick wall of the building beside the coffee shop she stopped in front of. “Can’t keep up?”

“Didn’t say that. I just need to get two donuts instead of one. Besides, this place has the best coffee in town.”

I nodded as I raised my arms over my head, trying to work out the kinks. My body tingled from the exertion, but I felt calmer now. That feeling lasted until Ben walked out of the café. He was holding one of those cardboard cup holders filled with one Styrofoam coffee cup. It was balanced on top of several boxes of donuts. I looked over at Tara who batted her lashes at me, all innocence.

“Best coffee in town my ass,” I muttered.

She smiled. “And it just so happens to be right beside Maplewood, and the place Father Ben gets donuts every Saturday morning for the kids. And whoops, wouldn’t ya know, it’s Saturday.” She grinned. “Morning, Father Ben. Fancy meeting you here.”

Ben’s smile was surprised but pleased. “Hey, guys. What are you doing out so early?”

I wiggled the wire attached to my ear buds in response before I removed them. “We went for a run, and Tara decided she needed to bribe herself with a donut so she could keep up with me. She didn’t.”

Tara flicked my arm. “Don’t be surprised if I never share my goodies canlı casino with you again.”

“I thought we weren’t into each other’s goodies.” I was trying to keep a straight face, but Ben started to laugh.

Tara poked me again. “Don’t be mean or I bet Father Ben won’t share his goodies with you either. Make him work for it,” she said to Ben. “Sam, call me later to figure out the moving details.”

Tara wiggled her fingers and was off faster than she’d been on our run. Ben and I looked at one another before he held out the Styrofoam coffee cup. “You look like you could use this. C’mon. I’ll show you around since Tara cut and ran on you.”

“Did you put her up to this?”

“No, but I’m not complaining.” He smiled as he continued into the house.

The linoleum floors were faded and I could see water spots on the ceiling as we walked down a hallway, but the kitchen was immaculate. I caught a hint of bleach in the air.

“Can you grab that bag to your right on the counter and see if there’s cereal in there?” Ben said as he set down the coffee and donuts. “I bought groceries this morning and haven’t had a chance to put everything away yet.”

I looked where he pointed and fished through the bag. It was one of those green recycled ones that Sofia kept in her car. Ben took the boxes of cereal when I held them out, beginning to stock the shelves. As he worked, kids drifted in and out of the kitchen to filch donuts. They all looked at me with obvious curiosity, but like most teenagers around strangers, they kept their distance.

“So this is Maplewood?” I asked when we were alone again.

Ben nodded. “I started the organization, but we’re co-hosted by the church now. We get mostly young teens—a lot of runaways. But we try not to discriminate if someone needs a place to stay. I remember what it was like when I was lost and didn’t know who to turn to. Having a safe place to spend the night was a luxury.”

“The kids seem happy here.”

“I hope so. We try and maintain an open, structured atmosphere. As long as they’re here, the kids have to attend school and they all have part-time jobs to keep them out of trouble.”

He tossed me a couple cans of soup to put in the cupboard closest to me, and we worked in a comfortable silence. I assumed he was feeling me out to see if I’d bolt. After the last few times we’d been together I couldn’t blame him, but I had an hour or so before I was expected back home and his company was more appealing than adding another fifteen miles to my morning run.

When Ben pulled out a chair for me at the table, I sat without protest. He smiled as he straddled his own chair backward.

“Funny how we keep meeting like this,” he said, stacking his arms on the top of the chair to rest his chin on them. “I love God’s mysterious ways.”

I snorted. “Not much mystery in Tara’s matchmaking. She’s as transparent as a window.”

“It sucks when your friends know what’s best for you, doesn’t it?”

I didn’t know how to answer that without smiling, so I changed the subject. “How many kids are staying here?”

Ben’s eyes crinkled with his grin, but he let me get away with it. “One girl and four boys, including Cayden.”

“Is that the kid you told me about?”

Ben nodded, and his expression turned grim. “He got into it with the same boy again last night. Worked him over pretty good. We’re trying to figure out whether to ask him to leave. Eddie threw Cayden under the bus when we questioned them, but Cayden refuses to defend himself.”

“You can’t save everyone, Ben. If he’s a bad kid, it might be best if you toss him.”

“Cayden’s not a bad kid,” Ben insisted. “Something’s wrong, and I want to know what it is before I write him off. Can you talk to him?”

“I’m not qualified to counsel kids, let alone deaf ones. What am I supposed to do? Use hand signals?”

“He’s not deaf, Sam. He’s just having a hard time coping, and I thought you could help him.”

“Because I’m so well adjusted myself.”

Ben sighed, and I had to physically sit on my hands to keep from reaching out to smack myself for being difficult.

“All this kid needs is someone to listen, to talk to. An outlet. That much you can do. Sam…please?”

It was the please that did me in. I sighed. “Shouldn’t you give him some warning?”

“If I did he’d probably run.” Ben’s grin did nothing to reassure me. “It’ll be fine. C’mon.”

He helped me to my feet, guiding me toward the staircase.

“Cayden’s room is the second to the left off of the stairs. His roommate’s not here, so it’ll just be the two of you.” Ben’s hand was warm on my shoulder. “Do you want me to come in with you?”

I shook my head. “Let me see if he’ll even open the door. If he doesn’t want to talk, I’m not going to push.”

The floorboards creaked as I walked kaçak casino up, and I found myself doing mental repairs. Walls were in need of repainting and the carpets could use a little extra love. I caught myself before I could add new lighting fixtures. This wasn’t my home and Ben didn’t need any more encouragement to try and change that.

There was no answer when I knocked on the correct door and identified myself. It could’ve been because the kid was partially deaf, or that he just wanted me to go scratch. Going with scenario number one, I pushed open Cayden’s door to stand in the doorway.

Cayden was a lean kid with close-cropped rusty hair and a demeanor about as inviting as a pack of territorial wolves; still too young to have to shave though the look in his eyes was as jaded as that of men I’d met who were twice his age. The quick onceover he gave me acknowledged my entrance, but he didn’t speak.

“Can I come in?” I was glad I didn’t expect an answer, because I didn’t get one.

Scouting a chair out from the other end of the room, I dragged it over slowly, giving Cayden the chance to bolt. When he remained put, I dropped into the chair.

“Hey, Cayden. I’m Sam, a friend of Ben’s. He thought we should meet.”

Again I got no answer. I was beginning to think I’d have better luck communicating with stucco, when Cayden suddenly rolled over to face me. His head tilted slightly to one side as if he was focusing on the sound of my voice. The light overhead put focus on the small hoop earing through his left nostril.

“Why?”

Cayden’s voice was too loud for the room, his pronunciation careful but exaggerated from trying to sound like he wasn’t having difficulty hearing me.

I shrugged, my gaze moving over the surroundings that were severe, almost Spartan in their absence of personal effects on his side of the room. “He seems to think that because we were both military, I can figure out why you’ve been such a punk lately.”

Cayden scowled. “I got my reasons.”

“I respect that, but since those reasons may get you tossed out on your ass, you might want to reconsider how important keeping your crap to yourself is worth.”

I got another hostile look, but he was meeting my eyes now. “You were a soldier?”

“Ranger,” I corrected. “Still am, no matter what the paperwork says.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Kids?”

“Nope.”

“Wannabe shrink?”

I laughed out loud. “Hell no.”

“So you’re not here to convince me that the sun will shine out my ass tomorrow?”

My smile came easy as I shook my head. “Not my thing to lie to kids. Your life sucks right now. But you can make it better by not getting yourself kicked out of here.”

“Father Ben wouldn’t kick me out.” Cayden’s tone was cocky, but his eyes gave away his uncertainty.

“I’ll admit not to knowing him that well, but I don’t think he’s a man that bluffs. You put his back against a wall when you beat up that kid last night.”

“Eddie’s an asshole. He deserved it for what he said about Father Ben.”

I felt my left eyebrow arch. “What did he say?”

Cayden’s expression turned wary, his body language tense. “It’s okay, “I said to reassure him. “If this kid is biting the hand that feeds him, by all means consider me the bus to throw him under and tell me when to back it up.”

After a reluctant silence, Cayden spoke up. “He said I’d better watch myself in the showers, because he’d heard that Father Ben was gay and that I was his type.”

“Definitely deserving of a fist to the face, though I happen to know for a fact you’re not his type.”

I earned myself an assessing look. “You and him are a thing?”

Good question. “We’re friends.”

“So that means you’re into him.”

“Maybe. That a problem?”

Cayden shrugged. “As long as you two aren’t making me watch, what do I care? I like guys, but I don’t do old saggy balls. “

His smile was just on the verge of satisfied smart ass and I laughed. “Teenage hormones and my niece equal death, but if you’re not interested in skirt lengths that make my head hurt, I’ll introduce you to Addie. She won’t talk to me or her mom, but maybe she’ll open up to you. I think you both need a friend.”

Cayden’s lips curled just short of a second smile. “I know Addie,” he said. “She comes by sometimes. We don’t really talk, but she seems cool.”

“She is, but she could use someone to play interference when she needs backup. Like keeping her away from the knucklehead she’s into.”

This time Cayden’s smile was genuine and lingered for a few seconds. “Are you going to tell Father Ben what Eddie said?”

“He’s going to ask and I won’t lie to him.”

Cayden nodded. He rolled onto his back and popped his ear buds back in. Apparently our conversation was over.

“Sam?” Cayden’s voice stopped my trek to the door.

“Yeah?”

He hesitated then straightened up in bed, shoulders back.

“Father Ben’s been good to me. Be good back.”

When he raised his hand to salute, I saluted back.

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