Once we are inside the airport, Meg and I head to the bathroom, but the minute she’s in the stall, I dart away and find a locker to store my gun inside. It kills me to leave the security it offers behind but I’m without an option. She is, of course, frantic when she finds me but I soothe her by telling her I was looking for a Ginger Ale for my stomach, and she helps me locate a Sprite instead.
Now, I’m unarmed and on a plane headed to what I am certain is danger. I spend the first hour of the flight dozing off and on with Liam’s voice in my head. Is that you, baby?I need to hear your voice. I love him. I love the way he calls me baby. I love that he cares this much and I hate what I did to him on that call. I hate it so much.
Somehow, I force down the snack that is served, and sleep afterwards. I wake to my hand hitting a stack of pictures Meg has set on my lap. I can barely swallow as I look at shots of Chad.There’s one of him laughing and there are fine lines by his eyes that didn’t used to be there. This is a recent shot, the six years showing in his face. He looks older, more mature, a fully developed man like Liam. And amazingly, now that I see Chad’s face, I can look at other moments in my mind and see him clearly.
I touch the photo, wishing I could touch him, praying I will hug my big brother, who I thought buried beneath fire and pain. This photo feeds the hope in me. Another of him on a motorcycle. My mind replays the many times I’d seen him on one in Egypt. One more of him with Meg, his arm around her shoulder. I study it and try to see the spark between them that I know people must see between me and Liam, but it’s just not there. Maybe if he was looking at her, I’d see it.
The announcements for landing begin and I glance at Meg. “Thank you.”
“You can keep them. I have more.”
“Thank you.” I tuck the photos into my purse when I’d really like to study them longer, but I need to mentally prepare myself for what might be waiting at the gate when we land, or rather, who.
By the time we exit the plane at the terminal, I’m a ball of nerves and Meg holding on to my arm like she’s afraid someone will grab me and run, doesn’t help at all. Clearing the walkway, I scan the crowd, and a mix of disappointment and relief washes over me when my big, bossy, lovable man is nowhere to be found. “So far so good,” Meg murmurs. “Let’s hope that means your plan worked.”
“Yes,” I agree. “Let’s hope.” And I do hope. This is a miserable way to operate but it’s about protecting both Chad and Liam, the two men in my life I am blessed to have alive and well. Moving through the airport to the rental cars, despite all the reasons Liam’s absence is a good thing, I crave that sense of awareness I have when he’s nearby, that odd prickling of my skin and the singing of my soul that he creates. But it doesn’t come. He does not come.
By the time we exit the rental van to pick up our car, the warm Texas November has me tying my jacket at my waist, and fairly confident that we aren’t looking at any roadblocks of the Liam Stone nature. Once we’re settled in some sort of gray Dodge, we pull onto I-35 for the two hour drive to Jasmine Heights. I sink down into the seat and ball my fists on my legs. I’m going to face the Godzillas of my past without Liam.
“At least it’s a short drive,” Meg comments. “Thirty minutes according to the GPS.” She pauses and I feel her look at me. “You okay?”
I don’t look at her. “Yes.”
She’s quiet a moment. I want her to stay that way. She doesn’t. “You think they’ll kill him if we don’t jar your memory in Jasmine Heights?”
A vise-like sensation tightens around my windpipe. I force out air to reply. “I think they’ll hurt him or someone else I care about.”
“Yes,” I agree, and the word is lead on my tongue. “Like Liam.”
We fall into blessed silence, and I stare straight ahead, willing myself to be calm and collected, terrified the answer to all of this isn’t in my head, or if it is, I won’t remember it in time to save Chad and Liam. My brother has to be alive and he has to stay that way. I can’t lose the brother I just found again and I can’t lose the man who has brought me back to life. But my track record of love and loss is terrifying.
“Jasmine Heights city limits,” Meg announces and I sit up straight, staring at the sign I thought I’d never see again. She asks, “Any hotel preference?”
“I don’t know.” I don’t care. “Stay on this road and take the Snyder exit.”
“Sure. You know this place. I don’t.”
I direct her to the exit and through several twists and turns. “Here,” I say at the final turn and frown at the shopping center at the edge of my old neighborhood. I point to the residential street.
“This isn’t a hotel.”
“No. It’s my old house.”
Where, is right. It’s now a restaurant. My house is a restaurant. “Pull into the driveway.”
“Shouldn’t we get a motel first?”
“Pull in, Meg,” I bite out.
“Fine. Fine. I’ll pull in.”
She parks in the front row to the right of the door. I stare at the fancy red and white brick building with a big sign that reads “Red Heaven Restaurant.” The irony of the word “heaven” does not escape me. Though the population of this city has grown from ten thousand to nearly twenty since I was last here, it was, and is, still small enough that everyone knows what happened here.