Author: Aleksandr Voinov, L.A. Witt
Publisher: Samhain Publishing
Format: ebook, paperback
The text from Deb wasn’t entirely out of the blue, but I always got nervous when I saw her name on my phone. With her father in fading health, no news was usually good news, so a message could mean anything.
Can we meet for lunch?
Well, that wasn’t too bad, then.
I didn’t have to be at work for a few hours. She probably had a pretty short window between dropping the kids off at school and picking them up. While I waited for a response, I pulled up the traffic app and checked traffic between Seattle and the Eastside where she lived, which gave me something to do besides worry that she was going to tell me her dad’s condition had worsened. I hadn’t even seen much of the Hawthorne family since I’d left the Church, but they’d been like my second family when I was growing up.
She texted me back with the time and suggested a place on my side of Lake Washington. Convenient. Just in case we ran late—when didn’t we?—I put my work clothes in a bag and left them in the backseat of my car.
At twelve thirty on the nose, she pulled into the parking lot of one of those insanely healthy vegan cafés in Fremont, just outside of downtown Seattle. Hope you’re buying this time, I thought. Places like this were not cheap.
As soon as I saw her, my heart dropped. She always looked tired—six kids under seven will do that to you—but she was tense. Really tense. Nervous.
“Hey.” I hugged her gently. “You all right?”
“Yeah. I’m fine.” She pulled back and plastered on a phony smile that was totally out of character for her. This wasn’t good.
“How’s your dad?” I asked quietly.
Deb straightened a bit, the smile faltering. “He’s not well, but that’s not why I’m here.” She gestured at the coffee shop. “Let’s go in and sit. I…need to talk to you about something.”
Yeah. Definitely not good.
“Deb.” I touched her arm. “Just tell me. Straight out.”
She shook her head. “I don’t think this is—”
“Please. No beating around the bush.”
She held my gaze for a moment and then swallowed hard. “It’s about my brother.”
Something twisted deep in my gut. She had four brothers, three of them still living. I cleared my throat. “Okay. Which one?”
Deb locked eyes with me, though it seemed to take a lot of effort. “Joshua.”
I winced and shifted my gaze away. “How in the world is this urgent, then?” Unless someone had found his body. At least then, maybe we could all have some closure, but God, his parents didn’t need—
“Chris.” When I met her eyes again, she whispered, “He’s alive.”
“What?” My knees buckled. I grabbed the side of her minivan and leaned hard against it. “How the hell… He’s alive?”
She smiled, but that nervous tension remained in her expression. “It’s a long story. I’ve…I’ve been back in contact with him for a while. Almost a year now, off and on.”
I could barely breathe. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because he didn’t want anyone to know.” She exhaled. “He knows people were hurt when he left.”
“Left?” I growled. “What do you mean he left?”
“Exactly that. He left.”
Left. I had a hard time trying to work out whether this was one of those horrible nice phrases, like “he passed away” or “he’s gone home to Jesus,” a pretty veneer for something awful, or whether she was really so blasé about it. Seeing the tension around her jaw, the second option looked a great deal unlikely. “Explain. Please?”
She tugged at my arm toward the café, and I got the hint and sighed.
We found a table—she’d selected a quiet corner—and then we went through the torturous process of ordering drinks while he left, he left echoed through my head.
When she leaned forward again, her eyes were all soft. “So, yes. Joshua left. That’s how he puts it.”
It was only really sinking in that he was alive. He could still do that. Use words. Give things names and descriptions. Something shifted in my chest, some kind of weight, or maybe grief, or maybe something else entirely. I wanted to strangle him, but this was only his sister, and she didn’t deserve that.
Deb went on. “Joshua reached out to me about a year ago. He found me on Facebook, of all places.” She leaned back when the waiter brought our coffees—decaf for her, of course—and ordered her superfood salad. I shook my head when the waiter asked me if I wanted anything. My stomach was too busy knotting and twisting.
“So, how is he?”
She drew up her shoulders. “Well enough, I think. I asked him to come home to make his peace with Dad.”
Another one of those pretty words. Whether the old man wanted to be made peace with was an entirely different matter, but we both knew that. Deb always believed in family and forgiveness. I wasn’t so sure about all that. I had precious little experience with happy family reunions.
My stomach was busy enough to tolerate the sip of coffee. No way could I have eaten anything now. “All right.”
“He’s arriving this evening at Sea-Tac.” She lifted her eyebrows.
Oh no. I’m not picking him up with you. No way.
I started to shake my head, but she reached across the table and put a hand on my arm. “He wants to see you. He’s here to make peace with our father, but…you’re the one he’s been talking about recently.”
“And after five years of thinking he’s dead, I’m supposed to show up at the airport with flowers and a smile?” I pulled my arm back. “No. Just…no. I can’t.”
“It doesn’t have to be tonight. He’ll probably need to rest and settle in anyway. I’m sure he’ll be jetlagged, and…” She trailed off, then lowered her gaze and picked up her coffee.
“Jetlagged.” I tilted my head. “Where exactly is he coming from?”
Deb took a sip of coffee, rolling it around for a moment before she set it back down. “France.”
I blinked. “France? What in the…” I closed my eyes and shook my head. “Last I heard, he was missing and presumed dead. Now he’s alive and flying in from France?” I sat up. “What is going on?”
She took a deep breath. Folding her hands on the table, she met my eyes, her expression taut and stoic like it probably was whenever she had to explain something difficult to one of her children. “When he disappeared from his mission, it was because he left. He just…left. He wasn’t kidnapped or killed or anything like that. He left, he changed his name, and he joined the French Foreign Legion.”
I stared at her, waiting for the punch line. That was not the Joshua I knew. Not even close. He was the straight-A student, the track star, the football star, the everything-he-ever-did star. The first-chair trumpet player and promising business student who’d locked in a full-ride scholarship to Brigham Young, only to have his life tragically cut short during his two-year mission. People like that grew up to be CEOs. Or bishops. Or senators. They didn’t just up and walk away from everything to join the…
“The French Foreign Legion. You’re serious.”
Deb nodded. “I didn’t believe it either, but then I could barely believe he was alive until I talked to him.”
The words thumped against my chest. “You’ve actually talked to him? Like, on the phone?”
She nodded again.
So he was alive. His sister would have known if he was an imposter or a scam artist. If she’d spoken to him and still believed him, then he really was alive.
Laughing softly, she said, “He sounds a lot different now. I mean, it’s his voice. I knew it was him the moment I answered the phone.”
“Then how is he different?”
“He’s got an accent now. French, I guess. His English was actually a little rough.”
I struggled to imagine Mr. Class President, he of the eloquent speeches even in high school, having any difficulty with the English language. “But you’re sure it was him.”
Her laughter vanished, and she nodded slowly. “Absolutely. Chris, I wouldn’t lie to you. Not about this. Joshua is alive.”
Something shifted again in my chest. Like every damn organ I possessed. Maybe her relief or her love for her brother—some of that translated itself to me, though I didn’t want it to. I’d mourned him for so long that hearing he was alive was actually painful. But the whole story seemed unbelievable at the same time, exotic and strange and so not Joshua. I wanted to see him. And I never wanted to see him again. All this was half a dream and half Careful what you wish for. Alive. And soon back home.
“What else…did he say?”
“He mostly asked about the family, but he didn’t say much more apart from what I told you. He seemed to be really…I don’t know. Relaxed? About some things? Laid back?”
“Well, I asked him what he was going to do if he decides to get out, and he said, ‘Something will come up’.” She shook her head. “Like it didn’t matter and like he wasn’t worried at all.”
Not like Joshua either. I wouldn’t exactly call him a control freak, but he liked his plans and his schedules, and he was usually extremely well prepared. A shrugged God will provide attitude was out of character for him.
“Where is he staying?”
“He didn’t say. I offered, but maybe my house is a bit too busy. Can’t have him overdose on family right away.” She smiled a little. “I’ll let him recover from the trip before I introduce him to the other kids.”
Five years. Good heavens. He didn’t know most of her kids. She’d been pregnant with the third and fourth when he’d allegedly died, and there’d been two more since then. His own family was full of strangers now.
And maybe it was wise to give him some space. He’d bolted once—though the why was what really interested me. The Legion? What kind of harebrained idea was that? Who ran away from home—or a mission, for God’s sake—and joined the Legion?
I rubbed the bridge of my nose. “When are you going to pick him up?”
Her face was all open and inviting. Somehow, she managed to put the possibility out there in the room without applying pressure or guilt-tripping me. Then again, there was no guilt to trip over. If anybody, that was Joshua’s role.
“International flight? He might be delayed.”
“I think it’s a connecting flight.”
So epic possibilities for delays and other clusterfucks.
I sucked on my teeth for a moment. Though, how bad could it be?
Pretty damn bad. You could try to punch him, and you both get arrested.
“I could wait with you.”
She smiled and reached over the table to touch my hand. “Thank you, Chris. I’m sure it’ll mean the world to him.”
Unless I punch him. Bastard.