Halos and Heroes Ch. 01

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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, 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.

I will also post disclaimers when appropriate about any potentially triggering content given the PTSD themes Sam deals with.

This story 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.

***

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey. —Kenji Miyazawa

People say you can never come home again, but the reality is that no matter how far you run, life always comes full circle and forces you back to the place where your cast-off shit lives.

Overdue homecomings, they are a bitch.

The long black skeleton of the Orlando International runway did an excellent job of hammering that point home once we were low enough for me to make out the shapes of all the emergency vehicles lining the tarmac. The blue flash from police cars overlapped with the red of the fire trucks, lighting up the night. A window seat and a headset had allowed me to block out the world during the flight, but there was no escape after the crackle of the plane’s intercom system interrupted the curious buzz of voices that had started the moment people began noticing the airport activity.

Not even the ringing in my ears was loud enough to muffle the calm voice of the pilot and the words which generated complete silence almost immediately.

The jerk of the plane’s wheels was minimal when they touched down on the runway, but there was none of the applause that usually followed a successful landing. Finding out that your standard, happy civilian flight to the Sunshine State was a military escorted hearse, was an effective way to maintain the moment of silence the pilot requested to honor fallen Army hero, Sergeant Connor Trammel.

Passengers in the window seats leaned back far enough to share the view with their seat companions when we passed under the graceful arc of water created by the fire trucks parked on either side of the runway. I doubted any of them had ever seen a water cannon salute; a tribute and acknowledgment from every class of service member—both military and civilian—that one of our lost had finally returned.

The water from the trucks splattered my egg-shaped window. They streamed down the pane like tears. I pulled down the window shade. They could go cry a river for someone else. I was a United States Ranger with just enough pride left to finish the last mission I’d ever be on; after years of shunning his home and family for a military life, Connor was coming home.

My brother and I’d enlisted together, and we were leaving the same way; both decorated soldiers honorably discharged after our years of service. The only difference was that I was walking out of the plane instead of being carried out in solemn parade via a flag covered casket.

No one came out of combat zones without scars; the public ones that were visible, or the silent ones that cut the deepest and haunted you. After thirteen years in the service, I’d finally taken my place among all the other long-time soldiers I’d served with; those who survived hell and tried to make one last desperate attempt at normalcy, and instead tried to erase the screams in your head.

My anxiety attacks had started small at first. levent escort I’d managed to keep my shit together with nights of self-medicating comfort found in the arms of Jack Daniels. It wasn’t perfect, but no one asked and I wasn’t going to tell. None of us were. What we’d seen, what we’d done… that was between the men who’d risked their lives for each other and whatever deity they prayed would deliver them home. Admitting your nightmares meant being put under scrutiny and having every one of your actions and sacrifices dissected and invalidated.

I’d messed up with one booze induced confession to a man I’d thought had my back, and the consequences spared no time snapping my life apart like a match stick.

It felt like my reenlistment request had been denied even before my ass touched the seat of the doctor assigned to head shrink me about the anxiety attacks that’d started small enough for me to compartmentalize. But after my CO told me that Connor had been killed, and the news triggered an epic panic episode in his office, there was no hesitation from the doctor’s pen when he signed off on my discharge papers.

My knuckles were white from gripping the top of the seat in front of me. After surviving years of harsh desert sun and multiple enemy insurgent plans for my destruction, I was back on home soil fighting nausea, and deciding how to unfold my six-foot-four frame from the seat that felt like it was meant for a Lilliputian.

“Sergeant Trammell?”

I glanced over at the brunette flight attendant whose tentative smile was aimed at me.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“I’m very sorry for your loss. Your brother was a hero,” she said softly. “You all are, and I just wanted to thank you for your service.”

The combined lengths of the two flights that had taken me halfway around the world to deposit me in Florida had given me plenty of time to compress years of emotions into a manageable stone face. But anything past a forced smile wasn’t happening right now.

“Thank you, Ma’am. Will you please excuse me? They’re waiting.”

“Of course.” She quickly stepped aside to allow me to make my way through the doorway, and down the metal staircase that led to the airport blacktop. As soon as my boots touched the ground, I stared firmly at the glossy sheen of the wet tarmac until I could look stoic.

Anyone who loved men and women who swore to bear arms for their country understood that a time might come when they’d be the ones standing on the tarmac in tragic expectation. But even long-time military families expected the people they loved to come back one day. Watching the solemn procession of a uniformed honor guard making its way toward the plane’s cargo bay, was a painful confirmation that a welcome home party wasn’t in the works.

I exhaled deeply as the flag-wrapped casket was lowered slowly into the protection of solemn soldiers waiting to welcome their brother home.

There wasn’t enough inside the casket to stuff an envelope. Insurgent bombs didn’t leave much behind in the way of mementos, but the military was big on honor, formality and dignity. Years spent protecting those ideals was the only reason my hand came up in perfectly timed salute to mirror those of the other service members standing by. This was a time of remembrance about Connor’s faithfulness to his country, not the lack of it to his family or to me. Whatever else he’d been, Connor was an American hero.

The mourners blended together like one unified mass of black fabric, but there was no mistaking Connor’s widow when she stepped forward. Every soldier there felt the loss of one of our own, but the sag of Sofia’s body was distinctive; someone whose heart was shattered.

The honor guard paused in front of my sister-in-law long enough for Sofia to get close. She made the sign of the cross, kissed her fingers and then touched the top of the flag covered casket before stepping back to let the soldiers continue their slow journey across the tarmac. Only after Connor’s casket had been safely secured in the transport vehicle, did I make my way toward her. She turned when I was halfway there, as if she sensed me coming. The people around her instantly moved away with murmured words of sympathy.

Sofia held out her hand and I slid mine into in, holding onto those slim, cold fingers when they squeezed tight.

“Sam…”

Sofia’s voice was exactly the same as it’d been the last time I’d seen her, but that gentle tone was the only thing I recognized about the woman in front of me.

In every memory I had of her, Sofia topkapı escort was a petite, graceful brunette with a Colgate smile. The woman who currently clutched at me like a lifeline was pale despite the tropical climate. There were silvery strands woven through her long hair, and her smile was thin and tight, doing nothing to detract from the pronounced bags beneath her eyes. No toothpaste company in the world would’ve chosen her as their poster child now.

“Thank you for coming,” she said softly. “I know it’s not easy.” Sofia glanced around us quickly, scanning the area. “Where’s Max?”

“He couldn’t get the leave, Sofia. But he sends his love.”

“Okay.” Sofia’s gaze swept over me in a brief onceover. Her smile tightened around the edges as her brown eyes met mine with visible mixed emotion.

As a kid, there’d been plenty of upsides to Connor and me being identical twins, but not today. I’d have spared Sofia the pain if I could have, but both my brother and I’d been soldiers forced to comply with regulation standards. With little room for deviation, there hadn’t been many options to make me look less like the man she’d be burying soon.

I didn’t laugh easily like Connor had, but these days my mouth was set so hard I looked lipless. The touch of premature silver at the temples of the sun-lightened bit of military-short brown fuzz I called hair, and the deeply etched lines bracketing my otherwise unchanged blue eyes were also new. Time stood still for no one, and my steady stream of deployments over the course of thirteen years had tagged me up like a commemorative wall of graffiti.

For a moment, Sofia and I stood in that strained silence of shared grief. But before I could figure out what the hell etiquette dictated I say to my estranged sister-in-law, slim arms wrapped around my neck. Sofia dragged me down almost a foot to her level. I was sure it looked warm and cozy as hell to anyone watching. Only I could feel the dampness of her tears against my cheek.

“I’m so happy you’re home, Sam,” she murmured.

I didn’t know what to say to that, but I wasn’t expected to answer. Sofia released me abruptly, her frail shoulders set with purpose. “The girls are waiting in the baggage claim area. I thought it’d be easier on them.”

I looked around the busy airport once we got inside, squinting against the blinding fluorescence of the indoor lights. “They’re old enough to be left alone?”

Her lips twisted into a small smile. “Emma is five and Addie turned sixteen two months ago…” she paused with a little smile. “We’re getting old.”

I tried to force a smile back, but it was easier to just hug her lightly against my side for a moment where I didn’t have to think of how to respond.

We were both thirty-two. Sofia had gotten pregnant and given birth to my oldest niece, Adelyn, when she was sixteen. Addie being sixteen now, brought up emotions I planned to keep under wraps. I’d intended to cut and run after the funeral, but I had a brief glimpse of a future where I cleaned my gun on the porch waiting for whatever boy she was dating to show up.

That finally drew out the appropriate tight smile for Sofia after I patted her lightly and let her go.

“They grew up fast…” At close to two in the morning, in the bright world of a busy metropolitan airport, there wasn’t anywhere to hide from the fact that what I knew about my nieces in the past three years, came mostly from the emails with embedded pictures that I’d received from Sofia when I was stationed both overseas, and stateside. I’d never emailed her back.

I exhaled as we moved toward the baggage claim on one of those motorized walkways that seemed to defeat the purpose when people on foot were passing us. Pointless, but I was good with that. All the time spent traveling had wrung me out both physically, and emotionally. I didn’t know how to deal with Connor’s family.

My family.

My thumb and forefinger rubbed together, the craving for the cigarettes I’d given up years ago hitting me hard. Being accountable for the men in my unit was easy; all well-trained soldiers, they understood exactly how much they were risking every time they stepped into a combat zone. Only one member on my team had ever looked at me with the same desperate hope to be saved that I saw in Sofia’s eyes. And he’d died in my arms to a lullaby of gun fire.

I gagged for a moment as bile came up my throat and burned, but I swallowed the pain back down and patted Sofia’s arm again to reassure her I was alright.

Since the loss of her parents beşiktaş escort in a car accident seven years ago, all she’d had were Connor and me. Now he was gone and she and the girls were my responsibility.

“Sorry about the late flight.”

“It’s all right. I have the week off, and I switched my shifts at the hospital for next week with one of the other nurses so I can be home a little more for a while. None of us were sleeping anyway. Emma was helping me set up your room. Don’t be surprised if you find a Beanie Baby tucked into your pillow tonight.”

It was the perfect segue into telling her my plans to leave Florida after the funeral, though I wasn’t sure where I’d go. But I couldn’t make myself wipe away Sofia’s tentative smile. Bad enough Connor had already broken her heart. If she could handle this massive cluster-fuck with grace, a few nights in civilized suburbia wouldn’t kill me. I reset that thought when we broke through the crowds, and came face-to-face with a bored-looking teenage girl who was a dead ringer for my brother and me at that age.

Adelyn’s big, deep blue eyes met mine and widened slowly, the whites contrasting with the harsh black eye liner she’d wielded like war paint. Her upper teeth were slightly crooked when she bared them, not in a smile, but with savage determination to still the subtle tremble of her lower lip.

She wasn’t the one who said, “Daddy?” in breathy uncertainty, and I slowly squatted in front of the little girl clutching Adelyn’s leg.

Emma’s dark hair framed her cheeks in two shiny braids, and bright pink glasses perched on the edge of her nose. Skinny arms and legs in blue denim shorts and a pink, sparkle-studded t-shirt replaced the chubby toddler of most of my memories.

Before I could get a word out, Adelyn yanked her little sister back. “He’s not Dad,” she snapped. “Dad’s dead, Emma. That’s his twin brother, Sam. You don’t remember him because you were just a baby when he and Dad both dumped us.”

“Adelyn Marie! Sam, I’m so sorry. Adelyn, usted se disculpa a su tío immediatamente!” Sofia’s eyes widened in distress.

“Why?” Adelyn said. “Is he going to get mad and leave again if I don’t apologize? Let him. He’s not changing anything by being here now. Dad’s still dead and we’re all happy about it.”

What the fuck?

Despite her bravado, Adelyn immediately took a step back when I got to my feet. It just about did me in when she flinched and shoved Emma behind her. Adelyn’s left arm came up fast to protect her midsection, her delicate face turning away from me. It was an instinctive move, and my teeth ground together hard enough to threaten a few thousand dollars, worth of dental work. I’d learned how to protect those soft spots from my old man by the time I was eight.

The abuse had to be recent. Sofia’s father would never have allowed his family to be used as punching bags, so I’d have known if Connor had started hitting them when Sofia’s parents were still alive. My brother had never raised a hand against Sofia or the girls in front of me. I might have made excuses for Connor most of his life, but I’d never have allowed him to hurt his family.

Only problem with that self-righteous bit, hoss, is ya did.

I shifted my weight, keeping my hands in Adelyn’s line of sight. To my right, I could see Sofia in my peripheral vision. She’d caught her daughter’s reaction just as I had and I could feel the shame rolling off her in waves.

I forced my voice to remain calm as I said, “Hey, you want to be mad at your dad or at me, that’s fine, Adelyn. Have at it. I’ve spent years living in places where some people would be happy to take me out with a bomb they rigged from a XBOX controller. But your mom doesn’t deserve this and neither does Emma. So go walk it off and wait for us by the car.”

“Or what?” she shot back. “You can’t tell me what to do.”

“I’m not your dad, Adelyn. He and I don’t operate the same way. I won’t ever lift a finger toward any of you.”

My niece’s glare was fierce, but I didn’t back down. The trembling at the left corner of her mouth intensified before she turned away. “Come on, Emma.”

“Uncle Sam?” Emma’s little face turned to me, expectant of direction.

“Go with Addie, honey.” I smoothed my hand over her silky head. “Your mom and I will be there soon.”

Emma’s brown eyes met mine for a moment, magnified behind her glasses. “You promise?”

Right then, I heard the door slamming on any likelihood of staying in a hotel. “I promise, Emma. “We’re going home.”

I got a brief smile as she slid her hand into Adelyn’s, allowing her sister to drag her toward the sliding glass doors of the airport exit. The bright lights allowed me to clearly make out the movement of Adelyn’s lips when she looked back over her shoulder.

I hate you.

Yeah kid, take a number.

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