Mike looked around him with shock. He was not sure what he had expected, but it certainly was not this. Maneuvering Esther around the circular drive-way, he pulled up in front of the sprawling, brick, and glass edifice that Luke called home.
The center of the driveway was filled with a rock garden, a small waterfall cascading into a koi pond below, and even a statue of Buddha. The place screamed money. Big money. Sure, Mike knew that the man was the premier Harley-Davidson distributor in the area. But, still. Nothing about him spoke of this kind of wealth.
Dressed in his dusty boots, old jeans, and a t-shirt, Mike felt decidedly underdressed. When he had phoned Caleb earlier for the address, he had asked what to wear, and the man said, “Nothing fancy.”
But clearly, their definitions of fancy differed. For a moment, Mike contemplated running back into Laguna or even Huntington Beach, see if any of the shops were still open. Maybe find something else to wear, perhaps khakis and a Hawaiian shirt like the Colonel had worn Saturday night.
But before he could turn Esther’s engine back on, the bear burst through the dark wooden doors and descended upon him.
“Hey buddy, I wasn’t sure if you’d have the nerve to come after the ass I made of myself the other night,” Luke said sheepishly, his cheeks ruddy with embarrassment.
“Bring man into house, idiot,” came the shrill call from the doorway.
Mike looked up to the tiny creature standing in the open doorway. In place of the black leather, she wore a loose-fitting sarong this night. Its bright red, orange, and yellow patterns were an almost perfect match to the shirt that Luke wore along with his shorts and flip flops. Mike smiled, realizing that he was not underdressed after all.
“Yes, Ma’am,” the men said in unison.
Luke hit Mike on the shoulder as he got off the bike. “How’s the bike? Any problems?”
“None. Spent the whole day yesterday cruising the Pacific Coast Highway. Perfect Sunday ride. Went all the up to Santa Maria then back down here.”
Laughter boomed from the man. “Surprised you walking, boy. Don’t you know that you have to go slow? Break your muscles in with these machines.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve ridden a few times in the past. Those rental things when I had some time off. I just needed a bit of a break. I didn’t even realize how far I had gone until I was headed back.”
“I understand. That freedom is why I love my job so much. These girls are special.”
Kim Lee smiled in greeting as they came up the steps. “Sergeant Mike, nice to meet you.”
Mike looked at the diminutive woman in the bright light of day. Gone was the creature of darkness that barked orders better than many drill sergeants. In its place stood a remarkably beautiful woman. Again, he wondered at her age. The few lines about her eyes and a couple of strands of grey hair that he had failed to notice in the dim light of the parking lot gave away nothing.
“It’s my pleasure, Ma’am. I’m sorry if our party the other night caused you any inconvenience.”
“This man nothing but trouble for forty years. What one more night?” She playfully swatted the bear’s stomach with the back of her hand.
“Aw, Sugar, you know you love me anyway.”
“I love your money, this house. I love America. You, I put up with, old fool.” She turned back into the house and padded barefoot across the marble-tiled foyer, expecting the men simply to follow her.
“Don’t believe a word she says. That woman waited thirty-five years for me to fulfill the promise I made to her that I’d come back for her and our baby girl. Turned down more than a few marriage proposals from what our daughter tells me.” The man shook his head as he watched his wife disappear across the designer living room and out of glass doors onto the patio.
“I could never get her out of my blood.” Mike heard the reverence in each word. “You ever met a woman like that, buddy? Someone you know you’ll never be good enough for, but can’t help loving anyway?”
Mike could not force words past the lump that formed in his throat, so he simply nodded. Both men stood for several moments in silent contemplation, lost in their own demons and dreams.
Fate or whatever the hell was out there had granted his paltry wish. His sleep that night had been filled with images of her. Her crown of dark curls spread across the pillow as he ran his hands up and down her full figure. He had worshiped her breasts with his mouth before moving lower still. His name had sprung freely from her lips as she cried out from the pleasure he gave her. That Southern twang that he had heard when he eavesdropped upon Tommy’s Skype conversations. Yeah, he knew, intimately, the hell of loving a woman you would never be good enough to have.
He had woken the next morning so hard that even the ice-cold shower had failed to solve his problem. Instead, he had been forced to take matters into his own hands, standing beneath the spray, his hands moving on his hard cock as his mind replayed every image and sound from those dreams. Dreams that had been his only comfort for two years now. But, even when he had come, there had been no real relief.
The thought of her had ridden him all day long, just as he rode her namesake along the sharply winding roads that paralleled the Pacific Ocean for hundreds of miles. The Colonel’s words. The way that Ty had looked at Kay. The closeness he had felt between the Hernandezes that had sustained them through what was probably the worst day of their lives. Hell, even the way that Kim Lee had bossed Luke about like a little boy. They all served as a bitter reminder of what he would never have – love.
That should not have been any real shock to the little boy who had lost count of the number of foster homes he had been in. Or the Marine, who had filled his pain with beer and one-night stands, when he was not fighting bloody wars in lands that most people could not locate on a map.
But things were different now. He did not have the Marines anymore. No one depended upon him for anything. And for the first time in decades, there was nothing to wake up for. No place he had to go. Nothing he had to do. He was, as he had been over twenty years before – nothing. A nobody. And the pain of it all was closing in fast. Too fast.
“We better get our butts out there with the others, or Kim Lee is gonna box us both upside the head,” Luke broke the silence.
Mike nodded, still unable to form words as he followed the man through the living area. He noted again the expensive and fashionable furnishings that looked so out of place with what he knew of this down to earth man.
Luke must have noticed his stares. “Kim Lee wasn’t lying. She does love my money. But I figure, hell, let her spend it. Seems the least I can do to make up for all those years of having nothing but the hatred of her people in that god-damned jungle hell hole.”
Wrapping his arm about Mike’s shoulder, he led him to a glass case against the wall. It was full of pictures. Pictures that told a story of love and pain. The largest was a silver frame that was obviously a wedding photograph. Luke’s smiling face stared out of the frame at Mike, but so, too, did Kim Lee’s slightly overwhelmed one. Beside them stood Luke’s son and a breathtakingly beautiful young woman that was almost an exact replica of her mother, except for the striking hazel eyes. The younger woman was flanked by a man that was also of mixed heritage, Asian and black. In his arms was a baby girl in a frilly white dress.
“Lots of girls in her position gave their babies up. The orphanages were full of Amer-Asian children that no one wanted. Hell, some even left them to die in the streets. But not my Kim Lee, she kept Jade Su. Did whatever she had to, to make sure our little girl had a place to live, food to eat, and an education.”
“I know my wife has scars every bit as deep as my own. So, every time I get a credit card bill, I stop and remember that, and thank God that I got it to give her cause she deserves every damned cent. More than those others that I write alimony checks to every month.”
“Old man, what you doing now?” the voice carried on the sea breeze through the open patio doors. “We waiting.”
A million questions danced through Mike’s mind. The story that Luke told was just scratching the surface, and he knew that. Mike wanted so desperately to hear the rest. To believe that, for once, good things did happen to good people. That for some people, there was happiness to be found at the end of the pain.
It was the only thing that kept him going these days. The thought that the damned money he had saved over the past decade might offer some of his friends hope. That, somehow, he might use it to bring some relief and maybe a bit of happiness. Before…well, just ‘before.’
“Get a move on, boy. I know that sound. We about to have hell to pay.” Luke led Mike through the patio doors onto a veranda that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. Waves crashed against the rock cliff upon which the house was built. Their sound blended with the laughter of a dozen or so people that milled about the pool that was the centerpiece.
Mike recognized most of the faces. Caleb was there with a pretty brunette woman. A little boy that was only slightly older than Miguel sat on the Colonel’s lap as he chatted with Larry at a table off to the side. A considerable umbrella offered shade from the still bright summer sun.
Another couple that Mike recognized as Luke and Kim’s daughter and the mixed-race man from the photograph were sitting at the edge of the pool. Their feet dangled in the water as two children splashed and played nearby. The little girl in a pink bathing suit was about the right age to be the baby in the wedding photo. The boy was a year or two younger.
Luke led Mike over to a bar that was set up near the sliding glass doors.
“What’s your poison? Bud? Corona? Or something with a bit more kick?” A smile lighted his weathered face.
“Bud’s fine,” Mike looked around once more. Another Asian woman was chatting away with Kim Lee close to where Mike and Luke stood. He could not understand a word they were saying, but the conversation was animated.
“That’s Kim Lee’s baby sister Su Kim,” explained Luke. “She came over with Danny and Jade Su for a visit this summer. The house is a bit full. Hell, my wife is demanding we buy a bigger one.” Luke pointed to his daughter and her family in the pool. “If we could get Jade Su and Danny to move over here with the grandbabies. I would do it in a heartbeat. My little girl not only looks just like her Mama, but she’s just as stubborn.”
“She and Danny run a charity in Vietnam that reunites Amer-Asian children with their American fathers. That’s how I found them. I saw this story on the news about them. One look at her and I knew that was my baby girl.”
His eyes moved to where his son stood chatting with Larry and the Colonel. “I pissed Caleb off big time when I hopped on the first plane out of LAX to Vietnam. He thought I had lost my mind. Traveling halfway across the world to meet a woman that I did not know for certain was even my flesh and blood.”
“I love that boy, but it took him a long time to come around. He was certain that they were just gold-diggers after my money and an American visa. But I knew…” The bear thumped his massive chest. “I knew, in here, that they were mine. And I couldn’t wait to hold them.”
Love shone in his eyes as he watched his wife arguing with her sister. “I went to bring Jade Su home. To fulfill the promise that I made to Kim Lee when they pulled us out of there. I told her I would come back for them.”
“Of course, damned politicians, they closed the borders off for decades. I was just a kid then, barely twenty, but I tried my best. I sent hundreds of letters when I got home. The Red Cross, my Senators, the US embassy, anyone I could think of. Hell, I even got my ugly face on the news, pleading for information. But it was like they had dropped off the face of the earth.”
“It was a decade before I gave up. I almost lost it all then. I had built up my business when I came back, so I would have something to offer when I found them. But those days were so dark I came damned close to losing it all in the bottle. Met this gold-digger and she took half of it all too. For six months of hell as her husband.”
The bear inhaled deeply. “That woke me up some. But I just tried another drug to stop the pain. I got saved and ended up in this church that kept milking me dry too. But it weren’t all bad. I met Caleb’s mama there, and we got married. We were together for almost fifteen years before my mid-life crisis ended it all. She could not take it when I quit the church and started back to hitting the bottle.”
“But I just couldn’t stand the pain no more. The religion wasn’t deadening it any more than the booze had. I figured, at least, the bottle was more fun than the church. Hell, I always found better friends in bars than I ever did in church. At least with them, you ain’t got to pretend you’re perfect.” Luke suited action to words as he opened a bottle of beer for himself and brought it to his lips.
He took a long swig, emptying half the bottle before he continued, “I went through two more temporary wives before I saw that news show. I was still married to the last one when I left. She told me if I walked out the door not to come back. I called my lawyer on the way to the airport, signed over the house, and wrote her a check. Good riddance to bad rubbish, right?”
Luke waved to his daughter, “It was easy enough to find Jade Su. That news story had money and the press flocking to them. I was lucky, too. She recognized me instantly from the faded picture her Mama had. But what I was not expecting was what came next.”
The smile lit not just his face but his eyes as well. “She and Danny asked me back to their home for dinner. When I walked through the door, there she was. The only woman I ever really loved.”
Turning to where his wife was talking loudly and making sweeping hand gestures with her sister, he laughed again. “Damned woman didn’t even have the decency to age a bit in thirty-five years. She was just as beautiful as the young girl I had met all those years ago when our platoon cleared out their village ahead of a firefight.”
“At first, she wouldn’t talk to me. At all. All those years of shame, holding on to the promise that a stupid kid, who didn’t know shit about how this fucked up world really worked, made to her. Paying the price for what her people thought of as treason. She hated me. And I deserved every single bit of it.”
Looking Mike in the eyes, he spoke in a low tone as if sharing some ancient secret of the universe. “You know hate is the other side of love. I learned that with my marriages. I could always walk away without any problem. Just pay them off and leave, cause none of them meant anything to me. Not really.”
“But not Kim Lee. I would do anything to get that girl back. Pay any price. That’s how I did it in the end. I bought her. With my money and the promise that I would give her everything I ever said, and more. After years of suffering, it was just too much temptation to resist.”
“She agreed, but, boy, what a price. I thought I would go crazy that first year. She barely talked to me. And the separate bedrooms? Well, that weren’t my idea of marriage.”
“Thank God I had matured from that hot-headed kid. I stepped back and decided that the only way we were going to make it through was if we started all over. So, I spent that time courting my wife. The old-fashioned way. Flowers. Chocolate. Dinners at the best restaurants. You name it. Anything to see her smile.”
“I meant what I told Ty…sweet-talking and good loving will win any woman over in the end. You just got to have patience. But she’s worth it.”
He raised the bottle and finished it off. “I figure we lost thirty-five years, so I’m planning to have just as many loving her. Five down and thirty to go, my boy.” He opened two more bottles and passed one to Mike. Lifting his Bud, he clinked it against the one that Mike held.
Mike smiled, “Thirty and more, my friend.” The man’s happiness touched something deep inside him, fueling his resolve, giving him the strength he needed to face some of what lay ahead. “Thanks for sharing that,” was all he could manage to push past the knot in his throat.
Luke’s gaze pinned him, “Your pain rolls off you, son. I feel it. Deep in here.” He patted his gut. “I’m gonna tell you something I ain’t never told another living soul, not even Kim Lee.”
“After Caleb’s mama kicked me out, I was staying in the back of the shop. One night, I got drunker than a skunk, as my daddy used to say. I pulled out my old footlocker with all my stuff from Nam. The uniform. Old Polaroids of Kim Lee and Jade Su,” Mike saw the bottle tremble in his giant hand as he lifted it to his lips and drank again.
“At the bottom of that box, I found my old Colt. There were still bullets it in,” the man paused in silence as if just speaking about it took him back to that night.
“I hurt so bad. I felt like everything I did was doomed to fail. I had failed Caleb and his mama, just like I had failed Kim Lee and Jade Su. Hell, there was even enough of that damned religion still left in me that I thought I had failed god too.”
He pinned Mike with his stare as he spoke, “I put that gun in my mouth, and I pulled that trigger.” A giant laugh that echoed louder than the waves shook the man. “The damned thing jammed. I thought, what a fuck up is that. I couldn’t even kill myself. I drank until I passed out.”
Luke walked from behind the bar and came to stand next to Mike. Wrapping his arm about his shoulder one more time, “Look around, boy. Look at this house. Look at my son and his family. Look at Jade Su, Danny, and my grandbabies.”
Mike watched a single tear spill from the corner of the bear’s eye and track down his weathered cheek as his gaze traveled to his wife once more. “But look hardest at Kim Lee. She’d still be sweating her ass off, making barely enough to survive while she sewed designer clothes for rich people.”
“If that gun had not jammed that night, none of this would be.” His eyes bore deep into Mike’s soul. “When that moment comes for you. And I know it will. I can feel that. You remember this moment, and you put that gun away. Cause somewhere out there is a good woman like my Kim Lee that needs you to save her from life’s pain just as much as you need her to push those demons aside and save your sorry soul.”
Extending his other hand to grasp Mike’s in friendship. “Trust me; shared burdens ain’t nearly as heavy as they feel right now. The love you find in the arms of a good woman will save you like not even god can.”
The man turned back to the bar and lifted his bottle. Bringing it to his lips, he drained it before pinning Mike with another of those soul-deep stares. “Don’t you damn well forget that cause I don’t want to be wearing that god-damned uniform to your funeral, Marine.”
Mike stared down at the beer in his trembling hand. The man’s words hit closer to home than he could have imagined. The decision that he had come to yesterday as he walked along the deserted beach, just south of Point Hueneme, echoed through his mind. As he sat there watching the waves crashing on the sand, the rock cliffs rising behind his back, he had set his course.
He would make the trip he had planned. Use the blood money he had saved to ease the pain of as many of his friends as he could. When his bank balance was zero, he would make one final trip to the place where it all began. That graveyard in Boston where his mother and unborn baby sister rested. He would join them…and hope like hell that his journey had cleared the karmic balance sheets enough to buy him peace.
But how had this man known that?
Looking around at the loving family and friends that littered the patio, Mike doubted his words. This man could not understand. He could not know what it felt like to be totally and utterly alone in this world. A lifetime of being alone. No one and nothing. How could he?
Mike watched as Luke walked over to his wife, wrapping his massive arm around her and drawing her into a loving embrace. Pain shot through Mike. Pain a thousand times worse than the burning shrapnel that had torn through his arm as he raced to Tommy’s side, too late to do more than listen to the boy’s final words. His last thoughts were of the woman they both loved. Mike thought of the promise that he had made the boy at that moment. To look after her.
God, what he would give to be blessed with a chance to keep that promise, the way Luke was keeping his promise made so long ago. But he knew it was a futile wish. Some people in this world were just lucky. Others, like him, stood looking in, like that little boy had looked through the glass window at that shiny red bicycle that had become a curse that followed him to this day.
Mike brought the bottle to his lips and drained it in a single swallow. This night he did not have to worry about looking after others. Kim Lee would see to that. She would see to his sorry ass too, no doubt. For a moment, he felt guilt wash over him that he would be another burden to the woman that had borne so many others. But the need to drown it all was more potent than that niggling guilt. This night, it was his turn to get drunker than a skunk as Luke had said.