Nov. 26, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland.
Marine Gunnery Sergeant Mark Shepherd jerked awake. Lunged for the rifle that wasn’t there. For a second, he was disoriented. He’d forgotten where his body was.
In his head, he was still in Kandahar.
“Sir?” asked the bespeckled receptionist with kind eyes, and a marshmallow voice. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, blinked. Straightened.
The psychiatrist’s office, like most things military, was clean, efficient, and functional.
There were metal folding chairs in the lobby instead of plush leather couches. Unadorned white walls instead of framed artwork. Cheap blinds instead of designer drapery. Stained concrete floors polished to a high sheen instead of marble.
The austerity suited him.
He liked things neat, simple and uncomplicated. Black and white. Liked having rules to obey. Protocol to follow. Liked the reliability of routine, the consistency of chain of command.
The military had given him direction when he’d had none. Had supplied a wild, undisciplined boy from Kentucky a firm place to land. He’d joined the Army right out of high school, and for the past twelve years, it had been the only life he’d ever known.
But now, the career he thought would last a lifetime had come to an abrupt end. He didn’t know how he was going to adjust to the outside world. Or make peace with his sins. Either way, he couldn’t stay in the military. He was no longer the best of the best.
And when it came to the Marines, it was either up or out.
He tapped his aching knee with the end of his cane, felt a sharp twinge in his lower back. It was a constant reminder of his mistakes. The rules he’d broken. The burn was familiar. The pain an old friend.
Definitely, out. No further advancement for a busted up gunny who’d already risen through the ranks faster than most. He’d been lucky that the Marines let him limp along for the past year. For that, he was grateful.
The door to the psychiatrist’s office opened and a red-haired young man emerged. Dressed in black jeans and a black leather jacket, the kid scurried through the lobby. Head down.
A sense of inexplicable urgency seized Shepherd. Wrenched his gut.
The kid looked as if he’d gone through the wringer, blotchy skin, red-rimmed eyes, and a runny nose.
“Private,” Shepherd called.
The kid stopped, whirled. Stared at him with a haunted gaze. Saluted.
“Forget that.” Shepherd snorted. “My days as a gunny are over.”
The kid looked uncertain, darted a glance at the exit.
“Don’t run.” He hadn’t meant to sound so commanding. It was habit.
But the kid’s nose twitched like a frightened rabbit.
Driven by an impulse he didn’t bother analyzing, Shepherd shuffled unsteadily to his feet. “Listen—”
Panic flared in the kid’s eyes. His chest heaved. Quick as a breath, he jumped forward, planted his palms against Shepherd’s chest.
Jolted, Shepherd landed hard on his bad leg. Fell into the chair. Grunted in pain.
“Stay away!” the kid yelled, terror in his eyes. “You stay away from me!”
Shepherd raised both hands. “Whoa, you’re here. Now. Maryland.”
The kid shook his head, appeared as dazed as Shepherd had felt a couple of minutes ago.
“It’s okay, it’s okay. You’re safe,” Shepherd soothed. “You’re home.”
“Am I?” The kid swiveled his head, eyes wide.
“Yes. Are you with me?”
The kid swallowed, bobbed his chin.
Shepherd wanted to touch him, reassure him, but he didn’t dare. “Whatever is going on, you’ll get through this. I promise.”
“Yeah?” The kid gave a skeptical laugh, his lip curling in a half-sneer. “Any sage advice, Gunny?”
Shepherd drilled him with a don’t-give-up stare. “Survive.”
“I’m working on it,” the kid mumbled, turned for the exit.
The kid stopped, looked back. “Yeah?”
Shepherd reached for his duffle bag, took out the cedar spirit flute he’d hand carved as a parting gift for Dr. Fox. Extended it toward the kid.
“Playing helps. Take it.” Shepherd nodded.
To his surprise the kid took it. “You made this?”
“Long time hobby.”
The kid fingered the holes. “I ain’t musical.”
“That’s what’s great about a spirit flute. It’s basically just a whistle.”
“You’re giving me this?” The kid clutched the flute to his chest.
Shepherd met the kid’s eyes. “Semper fi.”
“Thanks.” The kid smiled for the first time since he’d come into the room. Skittish, but real. Slipped the flute into his back pocket.
“You’re welcome.” A lump of emotion clawed at Shepherd’s throat. Someone else unhinged by war.
“Good luck, Gunny.”
Hand touching the flute in this back pocket, the private disappeared out the door.
A long silence followed.
“That was sweet of you,” the receptionist murmured. “He’s had a tough row to hoe.”
“That’s me.” Shepherd’s laugh was as skeptical as the kid’s. “A regular Tootsie Roll.”
“Well, Tootsie, it’s your turn.” She nodded toward the psychiatrist’s office.
Feeling both amused and grim, Shepherd used the cane to leverage himself to his feet again. Winced at the fresh river of pain rolling over him. Tightened his jaw and straightened his spine as best he could. Tried not to groan. Turned the doorknob, and stepped over the threshold into the doctor’s office.
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