Page 21 of Stinger

Dylan studied me. "Nah, you won't be."

"No, seriously, the odds are not in my favor when it comes to becoming a SEAL."

"How do you figure?" Dylan asked, taking another sip of his beer.

"Dude, I explained the whole twenty percent thing, I explained about all the insanely talented athletes that try out every year and don't make it–"

"Yeah, you did, but here's how I see it. It doesn't all come down to how great of an athlete you are, or how fast you can swim however many yards in the ocean while on the verge of hypothermia." He sat his beer down and took his feet off the coffee table and sat forward on the couch. "What it comes down to is how much heart you have, and how you will give this your all, not because anyone will give you accolades, but on the contrary, because no one ever has, and you don't depend on that for your success. Those guys out there who have been coddled constantly, and cheered for their whole lives, they'll be the first ones to quit when they don't have anyone to depend on but themselves. But not you–because you've never known any different. And that sucks. But in this case, it's your strength. It's your ace in the hole. I'd bet on you, Carson Stinger."

He picked up his beer and sat back and kicked his feet up on the coffee table again as I stared at him, not knowing what to say. "Did I tell you I was making a career change too? Motivational Speaking. Don't all line up at once, people."

I burst out laughing.

Dylan grinned, but then went serious. "Meant every word of it, bro."

"I know you did, man, I know." I held up my bottle in cheers to him.

CHAPTER 16

Eight months later, April

Grace

I sat in the semi-darkness, staring at the horizon, hearing the bird conversations begin all around me. I smiled as the yellow glow in the distance hit my eyes. It was like those birds knew moments before the glory of the sunrise would appear and were singing its welcoming praises. I sat there until the full, round sun had fully emerged from beyond the horizon. I thought of Carson, as I always did when I watched the sun rise. I wondered where he was. I wondered if he was happy. But I didn't let myself wonder any more than that, still couldn't let myself wonder any more than that.

I continued on my run along the C&O Canal with the other early morning joggers and when I was done, I drove home and took a quick shower. I needed coffee. I guess I'd never really be a morning person. But I made it a priority to set my alarm to run outdoors rather than on the treadmill, so that I could watch the sun rise as often as I could. I'd missed too many of them already.

I'd be graduating law school at the beginning of the summer and the next two months were going to be jam packed with studying and test taking. Plus, I'd been applying for jobs in D.C., hoping to get a position in the prosecutor's office. I was filled with excitement to see where life would take me now that I was headed in a direction I had chosen for no other purpose than I wanted it. I put the coffee on to brew and went about starting my day.

**********

Carson

"Get your dicks out of the dirt shitbags!" Instructor Wegman yelled. Holy mother of Christ, every muscle in my body was screaming out in pain. We had been at this for almost five hours straight now, our punishment for failing a knife inspection during our first week of SEAL Training. We had been about to do an ocean swim and the instructors came around to inspect our gear, an inflatable vest, Co2 cartridge and Ka-Bar knife. When Instructor Flynn had rubbed my knife on his arm hair, he had looked up at me and yelled, "FAIL!" Fuck me. By the end of inspection, seven other men and I were told to join the instructors at the Grinder–our workout area–at ten p.m.

I was already worn completely out from a day of brutal workouts that started at five a.m. We had begun with a Grinder PT, a four-mile timed run in our boots and pants, in the soft sand, which we were expected to do in thirty-two minutes or less, we ran sand dunes, and then we did a two thousand meter swim, and that was only before lunch.

But there wasn't a choice. All eight of us had lined up shoulder to shoulder as the instructors stood before us, looking at us disgustedly. "If you can't even be trusted to take care of a piece of equipment, how the f**k are we supposed to trust you with our lives in the field, shitbags?" We stood silently as the instructors berated us, telling us what fuck-ups we were. That was okay. At least it was a small break.

But then the beating had started. They had told us to run to the surf, get wet, and run back in two minutes. When we got back, Instructor Wegman had looked at his timer and shook his head. "Two minutes, ten seconds, shitbags. For every second you're late past two minutes, you do that number of eight-count body-builders." And so we had done our ten body-builders and then ran back to the surf again to try to do it in less than two minutes. The second time, it had been two minutes, and twelve seconds. So we did twelve, eight-count body-builders. Each time, we took longer and longer, our bodies physically unable to pick up speed in our exhaustion. This had been going on for five hours. We were now doing sixty, eight-count body builders, barely able to move, limping back from the water each time, wanting to crawl.

As my legs buckled beneath me on the way to the water, a guy next to me grabbed onto my waist and pulled me up. "Whoa, steady. I got ya. Take it slow and give it a minute to recoup in the water. There's no way we'll make it back in under two anyway. Let's just try to make it back."

I gave my legs a minute to stop shaking and continued on with him toward the surf. "Thanks, man," I groaned out, grimacing as bolts of pain shot up both legs.

"My first name's Noah."

I nodded. I only knew him by his last name, Dean. "Carson."

Noah muttered, "Fucking hell," as he dunked himself in the cold, nighttime ocean water and then stood up and closed his eyes for a minute, unmoving, letting his body rest. I followed suit and after a few seconds, we turned and started moving toward the shore again, this time our teeth chattering, shivering with cold. It was f**king miserable.

"I can't do this anymore," I ground out, my jaw unwilling to move it was shaking so hard.

"I bet you said that three hours ago, too," Noah ground out. "I know I did. And yet, turned out we were wrong because here we are, still doing it."

My face twisted into something maybe resembling a smile as we limped up the shore back toward the Grinder for another set of body-builders. Maybe a hundred this time.

I stumbled away slightly as a classmate next to me vomited onto the beach.

"Shitbags, don't fail knife inspection again," Instructor Flynn said, getting up from the platform the instructors had been sitting on watching us all night. We were dismissed.

As we started limping away, Instructor Flynn said, "Hold up. Before you go in, clean up all this sand you got all over the PT area."

An hour later, we limped inside to sleep for an hour before morning PT would start. As Noah turned to go toward his room, I said, "Hey, thanks again."

Noah just nodded, giving me his own version of something resembling a smile.

When I pulled myself out of bed an hour later, feeling like I had fallen off a cliff and hit every jagged rock on the way down, I thought to myself, there is no f**king way I can do this for another day. How the hell am I going to make it through Hell Week when I can't even make it through one brutal punishment for one night? Hell Week was going to be five days and nights like the one I'd just endured, probably much, much worse, on zero sleep. I was losing it from only having an hour of rest. How would I make it a full week with no sleep, and being tortured constantly? From what I heard, by Friday, most men were delirious and swollen so badly, they were asked not to go out in public. I simply wasn't cut out for this. It was a wrap.

I limped outside intending to ring the bell. In that moment, nothing seemed more important than getting back in bed and trying not to move. I felt half-crazed with pain and exhaustion.

As I stepped outside, the sun was just breaking over the horizon of the Pacific Ocean in front of me. I stood still, my eyes trained on that small sliver of brilliant orange. I closed my eyes and pictured Grace standing in front of me, my arms around her as we had gazed out at the same picture. Grace. An energy shot through me, giving me the smallest burst of strength, just enough to turn back around and walk inside, away from the bell and toward the showers.

CHAPTER 17

Fourteen Months Later, June

Grace

I moved a pile of mail aside, making room on the counter for the takeout salads I had just picked up for Abby and me.

She sat down on the barstool next to me and started opening and arranging her food.

I picked up the glass of ice water in front of me and held it up. "To Brian passing the Bar Exam!" I said. "And the fact that he'll now be able to support you in a style to which you'd like to become accustomed."

Abby grinned and held up her own water, clinking mine softly. "To Brian. Thank God, all that studying is over and I get my fiancé back. I mean, unless your work hours are any indication, and then, never mind. Nothing will change."

I laughed, shaking my head. "I'm not that bad," I said.

"Yeah you are," she disagreed. "But luckily I don't have to live with you for very much longer," she winked, teasing me.

"Haha. You're gonna miss me," I said, taking a bite of salad. "But you picked a good one, you know that, right?" I said, nodding my head toward her solitaire engagement ring.

She sighed and smiled. "I know. He's a keeper. I mean as long as he doesn't piss me off in some 'toothpaste cap' kind of way, this should work out."

I laughed.

Abby and Brian had gotten engaged at Christmas time, and were getting married in September. Next week was the big move-out weekend for all of us. I had found a great apartment in the U Street Corridor area and although I was a little nervous to be living by myself for the first time in my life, I was excited too.

The last piece to fall into place was Brian finding out the day before that he had passed the Bar Exam. We were all going out later to a celebratory dinner.

"Now," Abby went on, "all we need to do is find you a great guy who doesn't leave the toothpaste cap off."

"Oh no. Uh uh. I'm too busy to date. Don't even think about some weird set up. My job barely leaves me enough time to go to the grocery store on a regular basis. I hardly have time for a guy." I speared a cherry tomato and brought it to my mouth.

I had gotten my first job in the D.C. prosecutor's office and was working in juvenile court. It wasn't necessarily exactly what I wanted to be doing, and I was looking to work my way up. But as of now, there were no other positions and very low turnover in the other courts. I knew I was lucky to be in the office I had strived to be in, and so I worked hard to make a good name for myself.

I looked over at Abby and she was studying me. "You still think of him?"

"Who?" I asked, knowing exactly whom she was referring to.

"You know who. Don't try to give me that," Abby snorted.

I put my fork down and turned to her at the counter, tilting my head. I couldn't lie to Abby about this. I took a deep breath. "Yeah. But it's not a bad thing, Abs. It doesn't hurt. I just… wonder how he is sometimes. I wonder what he's doing. I wonder if he ever thinks of me."

Abby studied me. "As long as he's not the real reason you've apparently sworn off all men since you returned from Vegas two years ago."

I let out a brittle laugh. "I haven't sworn off all men. I went out on that date with the guy from my law class that I ran into last year."

Abby raised an eyebrow. "Grace, you grabbed coffee with him when you saw him on the street and you wouldn't even let him pay for yours."

I huffed out a breath. "We flirted, Abby. It was date-ish."

"Grace, he told you you looked nice and you said he looked well too. That is not flirting, babe. I had that same conversation with my Grandpa when I saw him last month. You gave me the details. Don't try to make it look like something it wasn't now."

I frowned at her. "Anyway, it's not about swearing off men. You know I didn't date much even before I met… before I went to Vegas. I'm just busy. Really, Abby, that's the only reason. I'm not closed off. If I meet someone who really appeals to me, I'll make an exception, okay? I promise. Don't worry about me."

"So the super hunk who lives downstairs doesn't appeal to you? Because you certainly appeal to him."

I thought about that. "No, he's too… super hunky."

Abby raised an eyebrow. "And the really cute guy who asked you out at Happy Hour at Marvin last month wasn't your type either?"

"Abby! Seriously. Really. Not closed off. The right guy will come along, I'm just waiting for that… certain something. I'll know it when I find it. When I find him."

She looked at me with narrowed eyes for a second, but then took a deep breath and said, "Okay. If you say so. Anyway, do you mind if Brian gets here a few minutes before I do tonight? He had to put in a few hours at the office today and was gonna come straight here from work, but he'll be off a little before me. I could only get the last couple hours off from the restaurant."

Abby was working as executive chef in the restaurant of a big hotel downtown. She had completely re-vamped the menu and the profit margin had soared. I was really proud of her.

I shook my head. "No, of course, that's fine. I'll be getting ready. He knows where the remote is."

Abby smiled. "Okay, he'll call you when he's almost here. He wants to give you a huge hug for all the study help. We both really appreciate it."

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