Eighteen Months Later
“Kayla,” Shelby said to her two-year-old daughter. “Are you hungry?”
“Food,” Kayla said, her little legs tugging her mother along. “Hungry.”
Shelby laughed. If it weren’t for Kayla she wondered how she would have gotten through the past few years. But her daughter needed her and Shelby needed Kayla to remind her of her husband and to remember to put one foot in front of the other and do what needed to be done. It wasn’t just her anymore. She had to be the strong one.
“Let’s go get you some food then,” Shelby said, holding Kayla’s hand to pull her away from the sidewalk and into a little cafe while they waited for the oil to be changed in her car. It was the perfect little outing for the two of them on her day off. A splurge of sorts.
“Hey there, sweetie pie,” the hostess said when Shelby opened the door. “A table for two?”
“Yes. That’d be great and a booster seat too.”
“Follow me,” the hostess said.
Shelby turned, horrified when Kayla let go of her hand and ran to a table where two men in uniform sat. Navy. Probably just off base at the moment.
“No, no, Kayla,” Shelby said, rushing over. “Not Daddy.” She picked her daughter up to prevent another jailbreak. “I’m so sorry.”
“Is your husband in the Navy?” One of them asked. The older one. Old enough to be her father and the one that was in a fancy uniform similar to what Ethan wore on their wedding day. Their wedding picture was in Kayla’s room. The younger one—the handsome one—was looking at her with curiosity. The one Kayla had run to, surprisingly.
“He was. He passed away. I was pregnant at the time, and Kayla has only seen his picture. I’m afraid she saw your uniform and got confused,” she said to the older man, still not sure why Kayla ran to the younger man. Though he wasn’t in a formal uniform, he shouted soldier, not sailor.
“No worries,” the younger one said. “I have to say it’s the first time I’ve been mistaken for someone’s father, but hey, nothing wrong with that, especially with someone as adorable as your daughter.”
“Thanks,” Shelby said, dipping her head and turning back toward the hostess waiting to seat them across the restaurant. “Come on, sweetie, let’s go get you some mac and cheese.”
“Not Daddy?” Kayla asked, her eyes starting to fill.
“No, Kayla. I’m sorry. It’s not Daddy,” she said, hugging her tight and then kissing her cheek. “I wish. It’s just the two of us and it’s our fun day. Food, right?”
“I want mac and cheese,” Kayla said, easily distracted. Oh, to be two again and just forget about the past.
“Nah,” Jared said to Admiral Kevin Anderson. Jared had a break between classes and the admiral wanted to get off base to have this talk. Jared wasn’t looking forward to it, even if the admiral was a friend.
Because he was a friend, Jared wasn’t looking forward to it.
“How are you doing?” Kevin asked.
Kevin sighed, like Jared expected. “I know this isn’t what you wanted in your life. You’re into your second semester now. Are you settling in?”
“Not much to really settle into.”
No, he didn’t want to be a college professor. When he got his masters in engineering while in the Navy he fully expected to be in the field. Analyzing or creating weapons. Looking at blueprints while going on a mission. Action mixed with his brains. That was what he wanted and that was why he became a SEAL.
Not to teach.
“You’re not wearing your hearing aid,” Kevin said. “Or your glasses.”
Jared wanted to grind his teeth but didn’t. Instead he shrugged. “And yet I can hear you just fine. See you too.”
Kevin laughed and he heard that sound loud and clear. He also knew Kevin brushed the sarcasm off when maybe he wouldn’t with someone else. Of course, Jared wouldn’t have used that tone if they were on base.
“That’s only because I’m sitting on your right. If I sat on your left you’d barely hear or see me without significantly turning your head.”
“The glasses don’t change my vision enough. It’s still blurry in that eye, so why bother wearing them if I’m this close to someone?”
“It’s not for your left eye but your right eye. You’re seeing fine out of it?”
“Yes,” Jared said, picking up the menu. “Would you like me to read something for you?”
“We both know that isn’t the problem with your vision.”
“Exactly. So no reason I need them on here.”
“What did they say about contacts?” Kevin asked.
Jared didn’t want to talk about this. He didn’t want to remember that the career he strived for was gone because of a blast. Because a bomb exploded in a building that his unit was in. Half died that day. Those that lived weren’t the same as when they walked in.
Many would say he was one of the lucky ones. They were probably right, though he didn’t often feel that way. Not until it was shoved in his face that he could have died. Some days he kind of wished he had. That he didn’t have nightmares and concerns, fears. That he was still the boy that entered the service at eighteen and turned into a strong man. A born leader, many had said.
He had no problem when the lovely young woman was standing in front of him smiling and apologizing because her daughter mistook him for the father she’d never meet. It was times like that when he realized he was fortunate and had to stop feeling sorry for himself.
“They said they’d consider contacts in another six months.” The muscles were getting stronger in his right eye. Just a bit longer, he was hoping.
“That’s good,” Kevin said. They paused when the waitress came over to take their order. He took that moment to look around the restaurant, his eyes landing on the young woman and her daughter. The vision wasn’t as clear, but he knew it was them. “Do you wear them when you’re in class?”
“You know the answer to that since you popped in during a lecture last week,” Jared said, dryly.
“Very true. So you are wearing them.”
He wasn’t so vain that he wouldn’t, not if he knew he needed them, and in the lecture hall, he needed them. The students were too far away for him to know who was who. He couldn’t be a leader and teach them if he was afraid of anything in his life. Or at least showing that fear.
Wearing glasses or wearing his hearing aid wasn’t about fear. He wore that during class too and no one even noticed half the time. Hearing aids were so small now; unless someone was looking, they wouldn’t notice. Especially with Jared being six foot four. Not many were his height so most were looking up at him anyway, not down or behind.
He just hated wearing them because it reminded him of what he lost. Of his dreams and goals. And maybe that he wasn’t whole again.
Not just his sight or hearing, but mentally. Internally. PTSD. Yeah, he had it. He had nightmares. He had visions. He woke up in a sweat. And he had pain on the left side of his body. Scars that would never be gone. Skin that was torn and put back together. It could have been worse, he knew, but it was bad enough.
“Was this lunch just to parent me?” Jared asked, laughing this time. No use taking his grouchiness out on Kevin. Kevin would only ignore it for so long. His own parents didn’t nag him this much. He may have a high level of respect for Kevin, one where he only addressed him by his first name when the two of them were alone, but he still wasn’t going to sit here and be treated like a child. Not completely.
“Actually, no. The spring semester is coming to an end in a few weeks. You’ll have some time on your hands.”
“Yeah. They scheduled me for two classes over the summer.”
“And you’re wondering what you’re going to do with all that free time?” Kevin asked.
He had been. He was thinking of taking a vacation during the time he didn’t have classes at all. Then he wondered where he’d go. Not back home to see family so they could question him like Kevin.
Or worse yet, coddle him.
Going on a vacation alone didn’t sound all that pleasing either.
“I’ve got a few thoughts,” Jared said. He didn’t have to admit they weren’t things he really wanted to do.
“Oh, well then never mind.”
“Nothing is set in stone,” Jared said quickly.
Kevin laughed. “I figured. I could use you on a few things this summer. Just some projects I’m working on.”
“What projects?” Jared asked.
“Ones that would require you to mostly work in an office.”
Jared grimaced. He took the teaching post because that was a better option than riding a desk. At least until he could convince someone to let him back in the field. He didn’t need to be on the front line, but he wanted something more than sitting in an office away from everyone and everything analyzing data and plans and passing it all along other channels.
He wanted to be the channel things were passed to.
“I don’t know,” Jared said.
“Just part-time. A few projects. I could use your help. I’d say another set of eyes, but that’d be insensitive.”
“Just one eye then,” Jared said, laughing. He could joke about it if he needed to. He knew Kevin’s heart was in the right place.
“One of yours is better than two of most people. Still. Think about it and let me know next week.”
Jared heard a giggle—a child’s giggle—and his heart fluttered. His lips curved and he glanced up to see the little girl waving at him, laughing. Her mother looked to be trying to distract the child.
“Yeah. I’ll let you know.”