Author's Note: Found a note written in pencil on a folded yellow sticky while walking the dog through a local community college parking lot: "I am tall and slender. I have short brown hair. My eyes are brown and look like dots." Figured it would make a good writer's prompt.
Fly Like An Eagle
The ex solider dressed in civilian clothes came out of the airport gate at Bradley International Airport outside of Hartford CT and took a seat in one of the chairs in the baggage claim area. He took out his cell phone and dialed the number he had programmed into it a year earlier.
"Hello?" It was a woman's voice on the other end.
"Is this Nicky Eagleton?" Eli asked nervously.
"Yes. Who's this?"
"Nicky, my name is Eli Jennings," he let her known. ""I'm home from Afghanistan," he explained. "I served with your Dad."
"You knew The Eagle?"
"Yeah," Eli said. "I know this sounds totally crazy, but I was hoping to see you."
"Why?" She asked suspiciously after a pregnant pause.
"I'm not really sure," He confessed.
"Where you calling from?"
"Bradley Airport," he reported.
"Do you know where Hillsboro is?"
"I can find it," he replied.
"It's a small town in Massachusetts off the interstate about fifty miles north of where you are," she explained. "I work at Johnny C's Diner. Come find me there."
"Wait, what do you look like?" Eli asked. "So I'll recognize you," he added awkwardly.
"I am tall and slender. I have short brown hair. My eyes are brown and look like dots."
"Thanks," Eli said. "I'll look for you."
"Okay," Nicky said before the line went dead.
Eli got his two duffle bags off the baggage claim belt and went to the information desk to check on bus routes and availability. It took a few connections and waits and then a long ride with several stops but he finally made it to Greenville six hours after calling Nicky. From there, Eli took a cab to Hillsboro where he was dropped off in front of Johnny C's Diner. He liked the feel of the town as he glanced around and the diner looked like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
Eli grabbed his bags and headed inside the diner. It was after six and the place was busy. Eli looked for a tall and slender waitress with short brown hair and brown eyes that looked like dots. He was pretty sure he spotted Nicky Eagleton coming out of the kitchen carrying two plates. She was tall and slender with short brown hair and her eyes did look like dots. She was wearing skin tight jeans and a yellow Johnny C's tee shirt with a 'Johnny C's" on the right breast.
Eli stuffed his bags underneath an empty stool at the counter and took a seat, trying to get Nicky's attention.
"Nicky!" He called as she passed by after delivering the plates to a booth.
"Sorry," she said. "Not my station. Trudy will be happy to serve you in a moment."
"Nicky, I'm Eli," he said when she passed by again. "The guy who called you earlier?"
She stopped and peered at him. "Oh," she said. "Well, I don't get off 'till seven so why don't you order supper and we'll talk later?" Nicky suggested. "Trudy will be right with you."
It wasn't as if Eli had somewhere else to go or anything else to do. Trudy was friendly and personable, looked to be in her mid-twenties with long blonde hair pulled up in a pony tail underneath a visor. Eli ate his meatloaf dinner while observing the diner which was full of cheerful and satisfied customers who had great rapport with the bantering waitresses, bus boy, and the cooks. He felt like he belonged there. Trudy treated him like he was a regular customer and not a first time visitor. The food was delicious and Eli ordered a slice of Boston Crème pie with a cup of coffee for dessert, making small talk with the customers around him, chatting with Trudy his waitress, and keeping an eye on Nicky as she went about her work, displaying a friendly manner with everybody she interacted with too.
Eli nursed his cup of coffee until Nicky was finally done with her shift. She refilled his cup at the counter while pouring herself one too. "Why don't we sit in a booth?" She suggested.
Eli grabbed his bags and his cup of coffee and followed her to the booth in the far corner of the diner. Business had thinned out some but there were still customers scattered around the diner eating a late dinner.
"So, you served with The Eagle," Nicky said from where she sat across from Eli in the booth.
'For almost two years," he confirmed.
'How many tours did you do?" Nicky asked.
"Three," he reported.
"Well, thanks for your service," Nicky replied sincerely. "The Eagle did seven."
"I know," Eli replied. "He was a hero to all of us."
"The odds are bound to catch up with you when you do seven war zone tours," Nicky sighed.
"His death devastated everybody," Eli remarked. "It was the worse day of my life."
Nicky studied him for a long moment. "So what did you want to tell me?"
"Just that your father was the bravest and greatest person I've ever known."
"Yeah, I heard a lot of that at his funeral," Nicky replied.
Eli was a bit surprised by how reserved and detached she was about her father and his death.
"He died a hero," Eli said.
"I don't care about heroes," Nicky replied flatly. "All I know is that he's dead. Maybe it would be better if he was an alive coward."
"I didn't mean to upset you," Eli said defensively.
"You didn't," she sighed. "It's just that I get tried of all this 'Support the Troops' stuff and making everybody who dies over there a martyr. The only way to really support the troops is to get the troops out of harm's way."
Eli nodded but didn't say anything in reply.
"How did you get my cell phone number?" She asked as she continued to look at him.
"I was one of the guys who had to go through all of his personal affects," Eli explained uncomfortably. "Pack up his tent and all that. He had a little address book and I happened to see your number there. He had mentioned you a few times in various conversations and I just felt the need to meet you. For closure, I guess."
"What did he say about me?" She seemed genuinely interested.
"That you liked to dance," Eli recalled. "That you were good enough to play in the WNBA. Stuff like that. He sounded very proud of you."
"He really didn't know me," Nicky revealed. "My parents divorced when I was young. He was never around. I stopped dancing when I was fifteen. I'm tall but I never liked basketball. I only saw my Dad two or three times in the last six years of his life."
"I'm sorry," Eli said awkwardly. "I didn't know."
"You saw him as the Hero Soldier and I'm glad he had a positive influence in your life," Nicky said. "But to me he was just an absent father that I barely knew."
"I guess I made a mistake coming here," Eli realized.
"He hadn't called my cell phone in years," Nicky said. "I'm surprised he still had the number"
"Maybe I should go," Eli sighed.
"What were you expecting?" Nicky wondered with annoyance. "You came all this way just to tell me how great my Dad was?"
"I guess I just wanted to share in the grief," Eli said.
"But he's been dead for over a year," Nicky pointed out.
"Maybe I'm still mourning," Eli realized aloud. "Anyway, I'll leave you be." Then he realized that he was in a small town with no immediate plans. "Are there motels around here?"
"Greenville," Nicky answered.
"Does that cab company run at night?" Eli wondered as he pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.
"Where are you from?" Nicky asked.
"No where, really."
"I don't have one."
"What about your family?"
"I really don't have one," he admitted.
Eli shook his head no.
"What are your plans?" Nicky wanted to know.
"I don't have any, actually."
"Where are you going from here?"
"I don't know," he blushed.
She sat back in her booth bench and gawked at him. "Are you still in the Army?"
"Discharged a few days ago," he reported.
"And you came here," she stated with disbelief. "To see the daughter you never met of a guy who's been dead for more than a year? On a whim. "
"And now you have no where to go. No job. No plans."
"I'll figure something out."
"Why'd you get out of the Army?"
"Couldn't take it anymore. Eight years of war is enough."
"How old are you?"
"I'm twenty-five," Nicky revealed. "Did The Eagle like you?"
"He was the best mentor I ever had," Eli told her. "He took me under his wing. Taught me everything I know. I wouldn't have made it without him."
She shook her head with resignation. "Come with me," she ordered as she slid out of the booth.
"Where are we going?" Eli asked with confusion as he paid the bill.
Nicky didn't answer his question as she said goodnight to some of her co-workers before leading Eli out the back door of the diner to an older compact car parked in the lot.
"Are you giving me a ride to Greenville?" Eli asked as he climbed into the passenger's seat of her red car.
"Let's just say I'm Supporting The Troops," Nicky replied sarcastically as she drove them out of the parking lot.
She pointed out a few of the local businesses as she drove down the town's main street.
"This is called the flat's section," she explained as they began to drive through a neighborhood full of ranches and duplexes. You can walk to town from my house if you have to."
She took a few side turns and then pulled into the driveway of a run down white ranch. "This is where I grew up," she said. "My mother came back when she divorced my father. She grew up here too."
"Where is she now?" Eli wondered.
"Dead," Nicky replied. "Cancer. She went two months after The Eagle."
"Wow, Nicky!" Eli said with true compassion. 'I'm really sorry. That's horrible."
"So, I guess I don't have a family either," she remarked. "My grandmother is in Arizona but that's about it. I really don't know much about The Eagle's family. There were so many people at the funeral that it was hard to know who was who."
"He's buried in Arlington, right?"
"It was very impressive, I must admit," Nicky said as they sat in the car in the driveway. "Mom was too sick to go but the guy I was seeing at the time drove me down. They did all the bells and whistles for The Eagle. The full show."
"He deserved it," Eli remarked.
"Why don't you come in?" Nicky said. "You can stay here. Cheaper than a motel."
"I couldn't do that," Eli said. "I appreciate the offer but you don't owe me anything, Nicky."
"You're the only person I know who knew The Eagle," she said sadly. 'I think there's some poetic meaning there somewhere."
Nicky climbed out of the car and Eli did the same, grabbing his two bags from the back seat. Nicky led him into the house, a single story home from the 1950s that was showing its age. But the interior was clean and well maintained even if some of the fixtures and structural features were outdated.
"Living room," Nicky said as they stood in the center of the room. "Kitchen through there, dining room slash junk room there." She pointed to a room to the left before walking him down a side hallway to the right. "Bathroom at the end," she continued. "I moved into Mom's room because it's bigger but you can stay in my old room if you want." She gestured to the smaller bedroom across from the master bedroom and Eli stepped into it with his two duffle bags.
The room was cluttered with empty cardboard boxes and various other junk but there was a bed and a dresser and a closet which was all he needed.
"This is fine," Eli told her. "Thanks a lot."
"Sure," Nicky replied with a smile. "It's not as if you have somewhere else to go."
"True," he agreed.
"Well, make yourself at home," she said. "I'm supposed to meet someone at nine."
"A date?" Eli tried not to sound disappointed.
"Not really," she replied before disappearing from the door.
Eli spent the evening tidying up the room so he wouldn't trip over stuff. He didn't unpack his bags because he wasn't sure how long he was staying and he didn't want to appear presumptuous. He explored the house (except for Nicky's room which would be an invasion of privacy), especially the kitchen to learn where the basics were and then he went to bed, suddenly exhausted from the last few days of travel, processing and changes. A week ago he was in Afghanistan, then Germany, then Texas for his final discharge processing, and then he flew to New England and now he was staying in the house of The Eagle's daughter. Quite a few days!
Eli never heard Nicky come in that night but he heard her stirring around in the kitchen the next morning. He glanced at his cell and saw that it was after nine so he climbed out of bed, threw on some clothes and made his way to the kitchen where he found Nicky sitting at the kitchen table eating a bowl of cereal.
"Hey," he said.
"Good morning," she replied, wearing flowered pajamas with no robe.
"Thanks again for letting me stay."
"Don't worry about it," she said, "Sleep okay?"
"Yeah, thanks," he said.
"You're kind of noisy," She commented.
"What do you mean?" Eli asked as he went to the counter and poured himself a bowl of cereal from the box she had left there.
"You snore," she said. "And even with both doors closed I could hear you mumbling in your sleep. Yelling even."
"Sorry," Eli sighed. "I have nightmares sometimes."
He didn't say anything as he got the milk from the refrigerator, filled his bowl and then took a seat across from Nicky.
"Is there anything I need to know?" Nicky asked with caution. "Do you drink to access? Are you violent? PTSD problems? Should I be locking my door? Have a gun under my pillow?"
"They say I may be a little depressed but they don't consider me a danger to myself or anybody else," Eli told her.
"Do you have a gun in there?" Nicky asked.
Eli shook his head no. "I'm done with guns," he said.
"Okay, but let's just make a deal right now for the record that if you start going off the deep end in any way I'll have to ask you to leave," Nicky said.
"Sounds reasonable to me," Eli concurred.
"So, I work from eleven in the morning to seven at night, Monday through Friday," Nicky informed him. "Do you have a driver's license?"
"Yeah," he confirmed.
"You could drop me off at work and use my car if you needed to do anything important," she said.
"I can't think of anything right now," Eli replied. "I saw there's a bank in town. I might have my funds transferred here just for the convenience but I can walk there."
"Okay," Nicky said as she stood and brought her bowel to the sink. "I'm going to shower now."
"Okay," Eli replied, watching her hips swing through her pajama bottoms as she left the room.
Eli waited until Nicky went to work before he spent a few hours cleaning the house, performing some of the tasks and chores that Nicky had overlooked in recent times like mopping the kitchen floor, cleaning the bathroom, vacuuming, dusting and generally tiding up. He figured his fresh eye picked up on stuff that Nicky didn't really notice in her daily routine.
Eli also walked downtown and took care of his banking. He found Fontaine's Family Grocery Store and bought as many groceries as he could carry to help stock up the house since he was there too. When he got back to Nicky's place, he showered and then made a stew in the crock pot.
Nicky could smell the stew as soon as she walked into the house around seven thirty and she was genuinely flattered by his kind gesture of making supper for her.
"But I'm going out," She informed him sheepishly.
"A date?" Eli asked.
"Not really," she answered, sounding slightly embarrassed. "But I need to get ready."
Eli could smell her perfume over the stew when she stepped into the kitchen later. He turned and did a double take when he saw her wearing a tight black dress that ended above her knees with a white belt wrapped around her slender waistline wearing just enough makeup to accent her beauty.
"You look stunning," Eli blurted out.
"Thanks," she said, grinning happily. "It's nice not looking like a waitress."
"Have a good time," he said.
"Okay," Nicky smiled. "You have a nice night too."
"Sure," he replied, knowing it was just him, the television set, and maybe a large bowl of ice cream.
Eli watched a couple hours of mindless television before fishing out the sleeping pills the Army shrink had prescribed for him and he fell asleep rather quickly once he took them, never hearing Nicky returning home from her night out.
The smell of bacon and eggs is what awoke Eli in the morning. Once again glancing at his cell, he saw that it was after ten this time. He dressed and made his way to the kitchen.
"Hello," Nicky greeted him from where she stood at the stove, dressed in a different pair of pajamas this time.
Eli went to the refrigerator and got the orange juice, pouring two glasses and setting them on the kitchen table while Nicky scraped the bacon and eggs out of the pan onto two plates she took down from the cupboard. She put the plates on the table along with a box of donuts.
"Did you have a nice evening last night?" Eli asked.
"Yeah, it was fine," Nicky replied without much excitement in her voice.
"Are you serious about this guy?"
"We dated in high school," Nicky revealed. "We bumped into each other about a month ago and we've been testing the waters to see if there's anything still there."
"And?" Eli asked with interest.
"I don't know," Nicky sighed honestly. "I have a sort of 'been there done that' attitude about him."
"High school's over?" Eli guessed.
"He really hasn't changed," Nicky complained. "He works for his father. He's never been out of Blue County. He likes to hang out with the guys. I thought we had evolved beyond that stuff by now."
"What are you going to tell him about me being here?" Eli asked.
"You're a friend of my father's," Nicky said with a shrug. "But I'm thinking it's not going to come to that anyway."
"I love my job at Johnny C's but I don't want to be a waitress the rest of my life," Nicky said. "I'd like to get out of here once in a while, see something different for a change but he's not interested in travelling. I know war is hell but at least you've been out there in the real world."
"And I'll never see the world the same way," Eli said.
"I have vague memories as a little kid living on different Army bases and driving through different parts of the country before my parents divorced," Nicky recalled. "I liked that sense of freedom and adventure."
"There is a lot to see," Eli admitted.
"What about you?" Nicky wanted to know. "Surely you must have some plans and ideas about what you're going to do with the rest of your life."
"Staying alive had been my main objective for so long that I really haven't given it much thought," Eli said.
"You gave coming here some thought," Nicky remarked.
"I felt I owed it to The Eagle," Eli said.
"Well, you can check that off your bucket list," Nicky observed. "Now what?"
"I don't know," Eli confessed.
"You can't be serious," Nicky groaned. "You must have thought about it at least a little."
"A little," he admitted.
"Well, what did you come up with?"
"Hillsboro, actually," Eli admitted sheepishly.
"The Eagle used to talk about this place," he revealed.
"No, really," Eli laughed.
"He's only been here a handful of times," Nicky said.
"He talked about the ballpark," Eli told her.
"Beano Field," Nicky acknowledged. "It's not far from here. He loved going there for some reason."
"He said it was pure baseball," Eli recalled.
"He just made it sound like a great place to live," Eli said. "You know, he only had a few years left before he retired."
"He was supposed to retire five years ago," Nicky said with annoyance.
"Yeah, he couldn't walk away from the war," Eli sighed. "But he talked about retiring here."
"Why would he possibly come here?" Nicky frowned.
"I can think of one reason," Eli replied, giving her a long look.
She looked sad all of a sudden. She was finished with her bacon and eggs and she brought the plate to the sink, standing there and looking out the kitchen window for a long time. "Stupid war," she mumbled.
Eli stood and brought his glass and plate to the sink, putting it in besides hers. He didn't know her well enough to give her a hug although he knew she could use one.
"Looks like a nice spring day out there," Eli observed, glancing out the window. "You want to go for a walk or something?"
Nicky turned and smiled at him. "Let me get dressed," she said.
Bundled in her winter jacket, Nicky took Eli through some of the surrounding neighborhoods, telling him stories about her childhood, the kids she knew in the various houses, the games she played, and the schools she attended. They must have walked three miles which was no big deal for Eli who was used to marching ten miles a day when necessary.
Nicky's cell went off and she answered it. The call started off cheerfully but Eli could sense that Nicky was becoming more annoyed as the phone conversation went on. Eli stepped away to give her some privacy and by the time she ended the call Nicky was visibly perturbed.
"Was that the guy?" Eli wondered when he caught with Nicky.
"You mean the asshole," Nicky replied.
"We were going to go out tonight but he just backed out," she said, sounding offended.
"Something came up?"
"Monster Pull in Springdale," Nicky said, shaking her head with disbelief.
Eli burst out in laughter.
"Shut up," Nicky said but she started laughing too.
They walked back to the house and took seats in the living room after Nicky detoured to the kitchen for a couple of bottles of water.
"I don't suppose it's all him," Nicky sighed when she returned to the living room and sat on the couch next to Eli.
"The monster pull guy?"
"The guy before him got tired of my drama too," she revealed.
"Oh, my war hero absent father getting killed and then my forever sick mother dying too," Nicky sighed. "I was sort of an emotional basket case for a while."
"I've seen enough death to last me a millennium," Eli said. "It wears you down. Losing two parents in a span of a couple of months is really tough."
"What's the story with your parents?" Nicky inquired.
"My mother died giving birth to me," Eli revealed. "One of those freak things and the ultimate sacrifice."
"My father couldn't deal with the aftermath and I ended up being raised by my maternal grandmother but she died when I was sixteen," Eli told her. "So I ended up back with the old man but he wasn't able to function as a real father and I was mostly on my own. I joined the Army partly to get away from all that."
"I'm sorry, Eli," Nicky offered.
"I don't even know where he is these days," Eli admitted. "He moved after I joined and I haven't heard from him since."
"That's not right," Nicky complained.
"I guess you and I have a few things in common besides your father," Eli realized.
"Is that why there's no woman in your life?" Nicky wondered.
"Pretty hard to develop a romance from a war zone," Eli replied. "I haven't lived in one place for longer than a year since I left home."
"Thank you for your service," Nicky replied almost automatically.
"I know you have issues with The Eagle as a father but he was the best mentor and father figure I ever had in my life," Eli stated.
"I'm conflicted," Nicky admitted. "I know the guy was a war hero who loved what he did. That's one reason my mother left him. She couldn't deal with the intensity and the lifestyle. I need to keep his soldier role separate from my resentments, bitterness and anger about his failures as a father. It seems I'm the only one who has issues with him."
"You're his only daughter," Eli replied. "You saw him differently then the rest of us."
"I wish I saw him the way you guys did," she sighed. "What was it about him for you, exactly?"
"He was just one of those guys who exuberated confidence, competence and stature from the moment you met him," Eli answered. "I was getting kind of burned out and jaded by the time our paths crossed but almost from our first conversation I felt inspired and motivated all over again because of his enthusiasm and trust. He had unique communication skills that enabled him to interact with others on a really personal level without compromising his authority."
Nicky sat back on the couch and put her feet up on the coffee table, turning her head where it lay against the back of the couch to listen to him.
"He was career Army all the way," Eli continued. "But he wasn't one of those fake guys all full of himself. He was down to earth and he saw the individuality of each Solider he came in contact with. He believed in the mission, the uniform, the flag, and the honor of service. He didn't come across as macho but he was a man's man. He was serious about the mission but he knew how to have a good time and he had a knack for making people laugh, even in tense and stressful situations."
"He liked to try to make me laugh," Nicky recalled. "I was usually so uptight or pissed off at him that I just sulked."
"He was very mature and seasoned yet he could be hip and down to earth when he wanted to be," Eli said. "But he was determined to be the best and to make those around him the best they could be too. Nobody inspired me to do my job the way he did."
"In what way?" Nicky wondered.
"He made us all believe that any and all of us could make a difference and be the difference," Eli said with admiration. "That we were all in it together and that we all depended on each other no matter what our rank or position. He'd take the time to sit down with you and ask you the tough questions about who you were as a person and as a soldier, what your career goals were, where you came from, and what kind of person you wanted to be. I never thought about some of that stuff until he started asking the questions."
"But you don't have any goals right now," Nicky pointed out. "You said so yourself."
"I just needed a break, Nicky," Eli sighed. "A chance to recharge my batteries, zone out, sleep in a regular bed, watch mindless television, and regroup. It's been a long eight years and the last year has been particularly difficult without The Eagle around to help guide me. He's the guy who taught me that I could achieve things bigger than myself. He showed an interest in my future and he shared his knowledge and experience to make me a better soldier and person."
'I'm glad he made a difference for you," Nicky said with a sad smile.
"He died where he wanted to be doing what he wanted to do and in the way he wanted to do it," Eli said with pride. "They'll never be another one like The Eagle."
He glanced at Nicky and saw that tears were rolling down her cheeks. "You okay?" he asked gently.
"I wish I knew him the way you knew him," she sobbed.
'I'm sorry it was difficult for you," Eli said.
"The thing is I never really hated my father," Nicky said. "I just didn't know him. He was never here. The holidays and my birthday and Father's Day were hard because he wasn't here for them."
"You had your mom," Eli pointed out.
"Thank God for that," Nicky replied honestly. "I don't know how you did it without a mom or a dad."
"My grandmother was pretty special," Eli smiled fondly.
"My mother was mostly neutral about The Eagle so she didn't pollute my mind about him," Nicky said. "I just had an emptiness where happy memories should have been."
"I have a feeling the same was true for him," Eli replied.
"Really?" Nicky asked with surprise.
"The Army can be a really lonely place, Nicky," Eli told her. "I'm sure he had his own emotional wounds."
"I was too busy resenting him to think about that stuff," Nicky admitted. "Now, with Syria and ISIS seeming to extend the stupid war yet again I understand why he wasn't around more."
"I remember seeing your baby pictures in his stuff I packed up," Eli said. "And some childhood photos too."
'Yeah, all that stuff is down in the cellar," Nicky said. "Came in a bunch of boxes. I haven't opened them yet."
"His medals are probably in there," Eli remarked.
"I don't care about medals," Nicky said with a heavy sigh.
"You should really open up those boxes, Nick," Eli advised. "There's some stuff in there you should see."
"I didn't want to do it alone," she admitted.
"Do you want to do it now?" Eli offered. "I'll do it with you."
She thought about it for a moment and then slowly got up off the couch. "Okay," she agreed, leading him to the door in the kitchen that led to the cellar.
"All this stuff was in a storage bin in Virginia," she said when they got to the bottom of the stairs, gesturing to a pile of belongings stacked against the wall – a nice riding ten speed bicycle, a large flat screen television, some furniture pieces, some art work, some clothes, some collectables from various parts of the world. "And here are the boxes that came in the mail."
Eli recognized the two large boxes he had helped pack up and ship out after The Eagle died. "Do you want me to open them for you?"
"Sure," she sighed heavily as she took a seat on a carton with the storage bin stuff.
Eli used his pocketknife to cut open the taped boxes and he opened the flaps for her to see what was inside. Nicky stood and peered inside the boxes, seeing his ribbons and medals, his uniforms, some letters, and several photographs, including some of her as a young girl and adolescent.
The Eagle's wallet was also among the items. She lifted it out of the box and looked through it, discovering several photos of her inside.
"He was always carrying you around with him," Eli said quietly. "That's what I wanted you to see."
"Mom too," Nicky said with surprise when she saw several photos of her mom. Nicky wiped away a few tears from her eyes as she stared at the images.
"I hope you can find it in your heart to forgive him," Eli said.
She took the wallet in her hand without saying anything, walking past Eli in a semi-daze back up the stairs. Eli followed and found her collapsed on the couch as if she had been shot. He sat next to her and she slumped into Eli with a gasping cry, the sobs coming freely now. Eli awkwardly embraced her in a hug and ran his hands through her hair while trying to comfort her as she wailed out her emotions and her buried hurts.
"Did you forgive your father?" Nicky asked.
"I learned to let go," Eli clarified.
"Let go of what?" She asked as she cuddled against him, her tears wetting his shirt.
"The disappointment," Eli said. "The 'I wishes'. I learned to accept what was true in my life without letting it define me. I met a lot of guys in the Service with chips on their shoulders, always blaming their past and their upbringings for their problems instead of taking responsibility for their own careers and their own failings. I never saw The Eagle feel sorry for himself. He was always forward thinking, always grateful for whatever situation he found himself in. He was forever positive even though I imagine he had a lot on his mind deep down."
"Do you think I'm wrong?" Nicky asked.
"About what?" Eli wondered.
"About how I feel," she sighed. "About how I've resented The Eagle all these years."
"How you feel is true for you," Eli answered.
She lifted her head up and stared at him. "Aren't you going to tell me to get over it and move on and to stop feeling sorry for myself and get my act together and stop being a miserable, negative, unhappy mess?"
"Why would I tell you that?"
"That's what the last guy advised," Nicky revealed. "He got tired of me moping around about my father and my mother. He said I was terminally mourning and he couldn't take it any more."
"You're better off without him," Eli said.
"And now I have the monster pull guy pretending like we're still sixteen," Nicky complained.
Eli shook his head sadly. "Sometimes it's easier not to grow up."
Nicky peered at him with interest as she wiped the tears off her face. "You don't think I'm being selfish? Over dramatic? Self-absorbed?"
"Because your parents died?" Eli frowned. "I'm surprised you're not in rehab somewhere."
"You're the first guy who really understands," Nicky decided.
"We just met, Nicky," Eli reminded her. "There's a whole lot still to learn and get to know about each other."
"We know enough," Nicky stated as they sat on the couch looking at each other.
"Do we?" Eli asked. "Aren't you concerned that I'm just back from a war zone? That I come from a broken home? That all you know about me is that I knew your father?"
"You knowing my father is good enough for me," Nicky announced.
"Why's that?" Eli didn't mean to sound like Joe Friday in Dragnet.
"Because you're the only link I have left to him," she replied. "My grandmother didn't like to talk about him. I got my mother to tell me a few happy stories about when they were dating and when they were first married before she died and I have some old photographs to look at but you knew him before he died."
"I saw him die," Eli revealed, slumping back on the couch.
"What!?" Nicky asked with stunned surprise. "You never told me that!"
"I try not to think about it," Eli said.
"Tell me," she whispered.
"I don't think I should," Eli told her.
"I want to know what my father's last few moments on Earth were like," Nicky said softly. "Please?"
"I was with my mom when she died," Nicky interrupted. "It was a gift. And I'm glad my father didn't die alone if you were there. Please tell me what happened."
"Most of us who were over there for any length of time were numb," Eli revealed. "We'd do what we had to do, surviving mostly. We knew eventually time would catch up to us and that any one of us could be the next one at any given moment. Didn't matter how careful we were, how well trained we were, how skilled we were. Sometimes it was just fate, bad timing, or being in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Tell me," Nicky insisted.
"Going on patrol in villages and towns was very dangerous," Eli explained. People took shots at us and we had no choice but to shoot back. They'd setup a bomb in the road and sit by a window and set off the IED, usually remotely by radio. You had to look for the one with the radio. The ones who were innocent ran. The ones who were involved stayed. So there would be gunfire from windows and you'd shoot back. It was all a bad dream. You just did your job, did the mission, and you were glad you were alive at the end of the day."
"What happened to The Eagle, Eli?" Nicky quietly asked.
"We were on patrol," he sighed. A couple of guys got pinned down in an alley. The Eagle used the cover of an HUM-V to try to get to them and rescue them. Some bastard shot him in the back from one of the windows."
"Oh, damn," Nicky sobbed.
"It was like watching a slow motion movie," Eli recalled his voice flat and trance-like. "The Eagle staggered, turned and fired his gun but then somebody set off the IED before we could get them out of there and those three guys died. The blast knocked The Eagle hard against a wall and I knew he was dead. He looked like a rag doll. But the thing is, he could have saved himself. He didn't have to go after those guys. But that's who he was. A hero. A guy who looked out for others. A guy who was willing to sacrifice his life so that others could live."
"Nobody told me exactly what happened until now," Nicky said through her tears. "They said he died defending his country and that he died in combat action but nobody ever told me how he died and why he died, so thanks for telling me the truth, Eli."
"I'm sorry it happened," Eli replied.
"Me too" Nicky said quietly. Then she glanced at him and saw how pale and withdrawn Eli looked. "You okay?"
"I'm never going to be okay again," Eli replied blankly. His brow was covered with sweat and he was physically shaking.
"Oh my God!" Nicky said. "You look terrible."
"It's hard remembering what I saw and experienced over there," Eli confessed. "Thinking about the blood. And maiming. And the death. There was always death."
Nicky wrapped her arms around him and held him tight. "Shhh," she said. "I'll never ask you about any of it again. I promise. Now that I know the truth and what hell is really like, I will never speak of it again."
Eli nodded his head with relief and appreciation. "If only I could forget," he sighed.
"I could help you forget," Nicky said quietly.
Eli glanced up and saw the expression on her face, a mixture of sympathy, pity, sorrow, loneliness, and even longing, her eyes and face wet from her tears. Eli knew he was feeling the same way, defeated by war, depressed by loss, and alone in the world.
"That would be a mistake, Nicky," Eli sighed.
"I don't care," Nicky decided as she leaned in and kissed him. "Maybe this is why you came here."
"I came here because of The Eagle," he told her.
"The Eagle would want you to make sure his daughter is going to be okay," Nicky replied. "And he would want his daughter to make sure one of his soldiers was going to be okay too."
Eli didn't answer her and she took that as permission to proceed. She kissed him again and she could sense Eli trying to resist at first before letting go and kissing her back, almost with desperation. Nicky weeded her hand through Eli's short haircut as they continued to kiss and Eli eventually worked his way down to her neck while holding her body close to his. She pushed him away and looked into his eyes with a pleading stare.
"Let's forget together," she whispered.
Eli lay in Nicky's bed stroking her hair and kissing her forehead. They were both naked under the covers.
"You are tall and slender," Eli told her. "You have short brown hair. Your eyes are brown and look like dots."
"Yes," she agreed with a purr as she ran her fingers over the multiple tattoos on his biceps, shoulders, back, chest, and thighs. "There sure are some interesting things to see under a Soldier's fatigues," she remarked.
"Lots of guys get inked," Eli said. "Right of passage. Custom and tradition. A way to mark where you've been and what you've done. As long as they can't be seen while in uniform its okay although I heard they're going to change some of the regs."
Nicky liked the red and orange Phoenix on his shoulder as well as the Aztec God of war on his bicep.
"The Phoenix is me rising from the ashes of my life and the Aztec God is for my protection," Eli told her. He stuck his foot out from underneath the covers and pointed to some Arabic writing on the top of his foot. "That says 'American Solider," he said.
"Was the Bald Eagle for The Eagle?" Nicky asked.
"Yeah," Eli admitted. "It was the last one I got, ironically."
There was also the Army symbol, the American Flag, a military ID tattoo ("meat tag," as Eli described it), and a bull dog.
"Did it hurt getting them?" Nicky asked.
"It feels strange," Eli admitted.
"I think I'd like to get one of an Eagle somewhere for my Dad," Nicky decided.
"That would be a great tribute," Eli said.
"But where should I get it?" Nicky wondered.
Eli pulled back the covers to reveal their nakedness. "Well," he said, leaning in and kissing her breast. "You could get it here." Then he moved down and kissed her just above her pubic hair. "Or here." The he rolled her over on her side and kissed her butt. "Or here."
"I don't want to have my father that close to those areas," Nicky deadpanned as she rolled onto her back and pulled the covers back up.
"The back of your shoulder then," Eli advised.
"God, I've never done anything like this before," Nicky said with amazement.
"Getting a tattoo is no longer that radical," Eli assured her. "Even for a woman."
"I meant jumping in bed with a guy two days after I met him," Nicky clarified as she snuggled against him.
"Well, this was a special circumstance," Eli said.
"The monster pull guy has been waiting eight years for his second chance," Nicky realized.
"He shouldn't have gone to the monster pull," Eli replied.
"Damn right," Nicky agreed. Then she peered into his eyes. "How are we going to make this work?"
'I'd say we're off to a pretty good start," Eli grinned.
"Yes, the sex was great, Eli," Nicky agreed as she sat up on the side of the bed and glanced over her shoulder at him. He gave her exposed backside an appreciative love tap as he stared up into her eyes. "But there's more to it than that."
"I know," he sighed. "We both succumbed to the moment. Christ, I survive life and death situations over there and then get bowled over after two days here."
She giggled, flattered by the compliment but then she turned serious. "I'm scared," she admitted.
Eli reached his hand out and took her arm from her side, squeezing her hand. "Don't be," he encouraged her.
"What are we going to do now?" She asked. "What are your plans? Are you going to stay?"
"I thought you didn't want to stay," Eli commented, rubbing his finger along her spine, stopping at the top of her ass crack.
"What are you talking about?"
"Didn't you tell me that one of the reasons you didn't want to commit to monster pull guy was because he wasn't going anywhere? That you wanted to travel? See a piece of the world?"
"Ah, that's just a pipe dream," Nicky said with sadness and regret in her voice. "How can I leave? I have my job. This house. My mother left it to me. I owe it to her to keep it."
"You could rent it out," Eli said. "And I'm sure you could get your waitress job back when you returned."
"Where would I go?" She asked, slipping back into the bed under the covers, suddenly interested in his idea.
"Look, I have a little money saved up," Eli revealed. "I was thinking about travelling around the country for a while before I figured out what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Why don't you come with me?" He suggested.
She looked at him stunned. "Are you serious? You'd take me with you?"
"Well, we'd have to use your car," he admitted sheepishly. "But, yeah!"
Nicky was definitely intrigued by the idea. "Where would we go?"
"Here, there, everywhere," he grinned.
"I'd like to go there," Nicky replied dreamingly.
"So, let's," he smiled warmly.
""Do you believe that this was supposed to happen?" Nicky asked. "All of this?"
"Sure," Eli answered. "Maybe it's The Eagle, circling above."
"It's a crazy idea," Nicky realized.
"Hey, what better way for us to get to know each other than to travel around the country together?" Eli asked.
"What if it turns out to be a bad match?" Nicky worried. "I'd hate to be a thousand miles from here and realized we're a bust."
"So, you'd dump me off and head home," Eli shrugged.
"That wouldn't be very nice," she pouted.
"You don't owe me anything, Nicolette," Eli told her.
She laughed. "God, nobody ever calls me that anymore."
"So, do you want to?" Eli asked, raising his eyebrows.
Nicky looked into Eli's eyes, not quite believing any of this had happened to her. "I'd love to," she said honestly. "I'd really do, believe me!"
"It's just complicated, that's all."
"I just can't up and leave."
"Why not?" Eli wondered. "It's really not that complicated at all if you really want to do it."
Yes it is," she insisted.
"Well, think about it," Eli told her.
Nicky continued to snuggle against him trying to figure out the whirlwind that was the last few days of her life. Just when she was finally coming to terms with the wreckage of her life – her dead absent father, the passing of her ill mother, and the end of her relationship (and the potential start of another one with monster pull boy) – she receives a phone call out of the blue from a guy who served with her late father. Then, hours later, he's sitting at the counter of Johnny C's Diner and for some reason she felt compelled to let him stay at her house and now here she was in bed with the guy after an intense afternoon of some of the best (and most physical) sex of her life.
And he's talking about taking some sort of crazy road trip, travelling across the country? Just like that? Nicky turned her head and stared at him. He had fallen asleep and he looked so peaceful even though she knew his story was anything but peaceful and serene.
"I've lost my mind," Nicky said to herself as she slipped out of the bed, found her robe, and went into the kitchen to cook them some dinner. It was dusk outside – she never spent an entire Saturday afternoon in bed having sex before and she realized it was a great way to pass the time on her day off, especially with her would be boyfriend at the frigin' Monster pull!
Nicky returned to the bedroom with a tray of a couple of sandwiches, some fruit, some cold vegetables, and two beers. Eli stirred and then opened his eyes with a start, scaring Nicky who almost dropped the tray as she knelt on the bed.
"Sorry," Eli muttered. "You always sleep with one eye open over there," he said, sitting up. "Just be careful around me, especially at night and when I'm sleeping. No sudden noises or movements. If I freak out over the sound of an airplane, or a lawnmower, or a car backfiring, or fireworks, or firecrackers, or some other weird loud noise, just remember where I've been."
Nicky put the tray down on the mattress, leaned over and kissed him with emotion. "You poor damaged dear," she said with sincerity. "What did they do to you?"
"If I disappear for a while, I just need my space," Eli informed her. "It's nothing personal."
"You will come back, right?"
He looked at her with a pained look on his face. "As long as you will have me," he replied.
They ate the meal bed without saying much. Nicky had turned the radio on and soft music played in the background as she sat with her legs folded on top of the covers with her robe still on. Eli was sitting up but still covered by the covers up to his waist, his tattoos on his chest uncovered for her to look at.
"I guess we sort of did things ass backwards," Nicky realized.
"Letting you stay here. Having sex. Now we have to get to know each other when we should have done that first."
"We know each other, Nicolette," Eli insisted. "We knew each other before we even met."
She glanced at him and smiled. "You're probably right."
They made love again before going to sleep and when Eli awoke in the morning, Nicky was already dressed.
"Where are you going?" Eli asked with surprise.
"It's Sunday," Nicky answered with a smile. "I have to go to Church. I promised my mother I'd go and pray for her soul in heaven."
"Pray for mine too," Eli replied.
She leaned over and kissed him. "I'll be back in an hour or so."
When Nicky returned, she found Eli sitting at the kitchen table with a road map of the United States unfolded across the table. The coffee was made and he had made some pastry.
"What are you doing with the map?" Nicky asked.
"Oh, just plotting out potential routes," he said. "Do you like baseball?"
"It's okay," she replied.
"We could visit every city in America that has a major league baseball team," he said. "See a game at every park."
"We could," she smiled, pouring herself a cup of coffee and sitting next to him at the table.
"See all the biggies too, of course. Grand Canyon. Mt. Rushmore. The mighty Mississippi River. The Great Lakes."
'I'd like to go to Texas," Nicky said. "That's where we lived when I was little."
"If we figure a hundred bucks a day in general we could stay out there for three months on the money I have," Eli said with excitement.
"Would we go the way the Eagle flies?" Nicky asked.
"That would be appropriate," Eli smiled. "If we skip the baseball part, we might be able to stretch another month into the trip."
"You're really serious about this?" Nicky asked with an intense look on her face.
'Of course," he grinned. "It will be fun."
"And you really want me to come with you? 24/7 stuck in a car with me?"
"Well, it is your car," he joked. Then he looked at her for a long moment. "It would give us time to get to know each other," he reminded her.
"Or kill each other," she rebutted.
Eli smiled. "Or love each other," he countered.
"You really want to do this?"
'How many times are you going to ask me that question, Nick?"
"Don't worry about the money, Eli," Nicky replied. "Just plan the trip. I'll need to give work a few weeks notice. And get somebody to watch the house for me."
"You mean you'll come with me?" His face lighted up happily.
"It would be a dream come true," she smiled.
"Great!" Eli said, leaning over and giving her a hug. "But we will definitely need to watch the money," he worried. "Even if we camp out and stuff it's still going to be expensive."
"I have money," Nicky replied.
"Huh?" Eli looked up in surprise.
"I was the beneficiary on all of The Eagle's insurance policies," Nicky revealed. "Plus my mother left a little bit too. So money won't be an issue."
"What were you waiting for if you already had the money to travel?" Eli wondered.
"I didn't want to travel alone, you jerk," she replied with a groan. "My dream was to take my mother on a cruise or some big trip somewhere but she was too sick to go.
Monster pull jerk certainly wasn't interested. So when you said you wanted to travel, I figured it had to be an omen."
"It was The Eagle," Eli insisted.
"So let's plan on leaving on May 1st and come back by the end of October," she said. "Five months should give us plenty of time to see the country and get to know each other."
"So, we're going to fly like an eagle!" Eli exclaimed with a huge grin on his face.
"Yes, we're going to fly like an eagle," Nicky replied, her eyes tearing up just a little.