Chapter 11 – Somethings Even Chocolate Can’t Fix

Simone’s Mississippi Mud Special

2 cups of sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick unsalted butter
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup cocoa
1/4 cup water
2 eggs
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup buttermilk
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 bag miniature marshmallows
1 cup glazed cherries, chopped
1 small bag of chocolate chips

1 stick unsalted butter
3 tablespoons cocoa
6 tablespoons milk
1 pound confectioners’ sugar
1 cup chopped pecans, walnuts or almonds
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 13 by 9-inch baking pan. Combine the sugar, salt, and flour in a large mixing bowl. Bring the butter, oil, cocoa, and 1/4 cup water to a boil in a saucepan. Add to the flour mixture. Beat together the eggs, baking soda, buttermilk, and vanilla. Add to the chocolate mixture, mix well, and pour into the prepared pan. Bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.

While the cake is baking, make the icing by melting the butter in the cocoa and milk over low heat. Bring the mixture to a boil, then remove from the heat. Stir in the confectioners’ sugar. Slowly mix in the nuts and the vanilla. Allow the cake to cool before covering it with miniature marshmallows, chocolate chips, and cherries. Pour the warm icing over the cake and the marshmallows. Cool the cake before serving.

Jill smiled weakly and waved as the school bus pulled off from the curb. Exhaustion and something else ate at her insides. She promised herself that she would take a nap when Britney and Ashley had theirs. She shook her head. This should have been easy. Old Hat. Instead, it was eating her lunch, she thought. Three days. How the hell was she going to take three months, maybe more?

“Are you sure you’re all right? Why don’t I take the babies for the day? You can rest and call the damned doctor to make an appointment,” Simone insisted.

“No, really, I’m fine.”

Simone’s braids danced as she shook her head, “No, no, you ain’t, gurlfriend.”

Something occurred to her, “Gurlfriend? Simone, when was the last time you saw Trisha?”

“At your house on Monday morning, I think.”

“I left a message on her voice mail yesterday morning, but I still haven’t heard back from her.”

Simone’s frown deepened, “I’ve left three. I think it’s time we had us a little intervention, gurlfriend.”


“Yeah, a fancy word for ganging up on the poor girl.”

Instead of turning back towards their houses, they walked ahead in silence. It was only a short walk. Most of the homes in their neighborhood looked almost identical. There were no numbers painted on the curb or the front doors. Most of the people in this ordinary-looking subdivision were military, and those were just the most basic of security measures.

Simone pounded loudly on the door. When their friend did not answer immediately, Jill rang both the home phone and Trisha’s cell. “No answer.” She jostled the double stroller trying to quiet the girls.

“Her car is in the driveway. Trav’s truck, too,” Simone noted.

Jill fought back that uneasy feeling once more. She hated it, but it was becoming a way too common occurrence.

“You stay here with the babies. I’m going around back to look around,” Simone pushed past her.

Jill hummed softly to the girls as she waited. She tried to keep the worst of the worry at bay. She knew the babies would pick up on her emotions, and she did not want them upset unnecessarily. But when the front door swung open, it was Simone that stood in the doorway, not Trisha. Her eyes filled with unshed tears. “Simone, oh god, what is it?”

“I need you. Turn on the TV and leave the girls in the living room. Then come to the nursery.”

Bile rose in Jill’s throat, “Nursery, oh god, something’s wrong with T.J.?”

“No, I don’t think so, but she won’t let me get close enough to find out.”

“What?” Jill squeezed the stroller through the front door. But Simone had already gone, disappeared back down the hallway towards the sounds of uncontrolled crying. Jill could recognize the baby’s, but the screams and sobs of a woman practically drowned them out.

She turned on the large screen television. She did not need to search for the remote as the lilting voice of Elmo boomed out of the speakers hidden in the wall next to it. It was a good thing, too. Looking around the room, Jill thought that the proverbial tornado had hit it. It was not just the toys and clean laundry that were thrown about it, but the couch was shoved at an odd angle, and the end table had been turned over.

The lamp that usually sat on it was broken into pieces on the floor. Her first thought was to pick up those pieces; they were sharp and dangerous. But the wailing down the hall seemed to be growing louder with each nano-second. With the girls strapped in their buggy, they should not be able to reach it. “Well, at least not in the couple of minutes it takes me to check on things with Simone.”

As she padded down the hall, the sounds grew louder and louder. She could not make out any words, just the heart-rending pleas of a wounded animal. When she pushed open the door to the nursery, her mouth fell open. Only the faint light from a small crack in the Handy Manny curtains illuminated the room. But what she could see horrified her.

Dirty diapers were strewn about the room. Bottles too, empty ones, half-full ones, and there were half a dozen more full ones lined up on the dresser, next to jars of baby food and an open box of animal crackers. The carpet was a landmine of toys everywhere. Each step must be carefully negotiated to keep from stubbing a toe or tripping.

But by far, the worst was the woman if she could be called that, sitting in the rocking chair squeezing the toddler and screaming. It was not just the shrill sounds emanating from her mouth that made Jill think of the mythological Celtic creature, a shrew. The being was pale beyond words, well except for the dozens of dark patches that marred most of her body.

Bruises were everywhere that she could see, around the torn nightgown that hung limply from one purplish shoulder. Jill thought she could even see the faint circle of teeth prints on the swell of that breast. “Oh god, what happened to her?”

Simone’s eyes pleaded with Jill for help. “That’s not important right now. We need to get them help. I called nine-one-one, and they’re sending an ambulance and the police. But we need to get her to let go of the boy before they get here.”

“Never. I have to protect him. He’s coming back. He said he would. And next time he’s going to take T.J. He said so,” screamed the creature as she rocked the crying baby back and forth faster and faster.

Jill picked her way through the toys towards her friend. She had to fight back nausea when she got close. The smell of human waste was almost overpowering. She put her hand across her nose and breathed through her mouth. Tangled layers of red hair formed a half-mask across the creature’s face. But even through it, Jill could see the blank stare of a madwoman beneath the swollen blue tissue surrounding her eyes.

She knelt on the floor by the rocker. She reached out to touch her friend’s knee, but the thing jerked back so suddenly that it almost toppled the rocker. Jill drew her hand back slowly and looked up at Simone. She shook her head as she began to sing softly the same lullaby that she did with the babies.

“Shh, Trisha, it’s all right, sweetie. No one’s here but me and Simone. No one’s going to hurt you. I promise,” she crooned as the song came to an end.

The woman shook her head, violently, “No, no, you’re wrong. He said he would be back. Said he was always watching me. Said he would know if,” she broke down in tears once more as she clutched her son even closer. The boy let out another cry and tried to squirm away.

“Trisha, you’re hurting T.J.,” Simone whispered.

“No, no, have to keep him safe. Can’t let anything happen to him. He said he would,” she kissed the boy’s red curls. “He said that accidents happen to people all the time,” Trisha looked at Jill as she spoke.

Jill forced air through her lungs. “Who, Trisha? Who is he?”

Trisha shook her head. “No, can’t tell you. Just put you in more danger.” The woman stood up suddenly, clutching the child closer to her chest. The rocker turned over in the melee. “Have to get away. Far away. Have to keep T.J. from him.”

Jill could hear the sirens in the distance. She looked at Simone for help. “Give T.J. to me, Trisha. If he is coming for you, then let me help you. Let me keep him safe.”

Trisha’s usually beautiful face contorted in pain and fear, but she nodded her head and kissed the screaming boy’s head. “You’re right. I can’t protect him. Not anymore.” She passed the child to Jill reluctantly. Then she slumped to the floor, burying her face in her hands. “It doesn’t matter. Not anymore. It doesn’t matter what happens to me as long as T.J. is safe.”

Simone knelt on the floor next to the creature that bore little resemblance to the former beauty queen that was their friend. She slowly extended her hand to the woman’s back. Trisha flinched at the first contact but did not pull away this time. “It’s alright, sweetie. We’re here now.”

Jill looked the little boy over carefully. Other than being frightened by the strange behavior of his mother, he seemed fine. Even his diaper seemed to be fresh. “No, sweetie. You did good. T.J. is fine now. You did it. You kept him safe,” she kissed the boy softly. “Everything is all right now, sugar,” but not even the knot in her stomach believed the hollow words.

“Hello,” came a distant voice.

Simone looked up at her. “You go, let them in, and take care of the children. I’ll stay with her.”

Tears began to run slowly down Jill’s cheeks. “Alright. I’ll call Chloe or Beth. Have them come over to watch them. Then I’ll meet you at the hospital.”

Simone nodded as two uniformed police officers walked through the door, guns drawn. “Ma’am?” one questioned.

Jill brushed a tear off her cheek. “The scene is secure. No one was around when we found her. Please get the paramedics in here as soon as you can.”

The man in front nodded at his partner, who backed out of the room, his gun still drawn. “Afraid we need to check that for ourselves, Ma’am,” he replied as he continued to block the doorway with his weapon drawn.

It seemed an eternity before the words, “All clear” rang out of his partner, and the man put away his weapon. It was a couple of more minutes before three emergency medical technicians walked through the door carrying two large orange bags. Jill exchanged glances with Simone as she slipped from the room, carrying the baby towards the living room where Brit and Ash were beginning to fuss.

She softly rocked the stroller with her hip as she sang along with Ernie. Tears raced unchecked down her face as she murdered “Rubber ducky, you’re the one. Rubber ducky, you make bath time so much fun.” But her mind was splintered.

She grabbed her cell phone from the small bag that hung from the handle of the stroller. She filed through her contacts until she found Chloe’s number. She did not even have to explain the situation, just tell the woman that she needed her.

Jill hung up the phone and tried to focus on caring for the children, but her mind was as numb as her body was cold and tired. Time seemed to freeze as one television show ended, and another began.

Moments later, Chloe was racing up the walk as the ambulance crew pushed the stretcher with Trisha’s limp body through the front door. Her friend burst into the living room, “Oh my god, Jill, what happened?”

Jill could barely speak as she passed T.J. to the woman’s arms. “Be back,” was all she managed to mumble as she raced down the hall to the bathroom.

Nausea finally won this battle. She knelt on the wet floor as she gripped the sides of the toilet. There was not much to come up, just a bit of herbal tea and some crackers. But the dry heaves continued for several more minutes.

Finally, when she thought that the worst of it had passed, she stood slowly and splashed some water on her face. Looking around, she realized that this room bore its own signs of chaos. The tub was full. The water on the floor was obviously from where it had run over. Half a dozen towels were thrown about the room. Several bottles of soap, disinfectant, and even bleach were scattered about the tub.  She fought back nausea again at the overwhelming smell of the chemicals.

“Oh god, Trisha, what happened to you?” She backed slowly out of the room. She mulled over what she knew, and she did not like the conclusions she came up with.

She walked slowly back down the hall, holding onto the wall a bit as everything swam about her. She tried to smile as she entered the living room where Chloe was trying to answer the police officer’s questions.

Jill noticed that Dwayne, too, had arrived and now held T.J. and Chloe’s son Thad on his lap in the wheelchair as he made funny faces at her daughters. She passed a hand over her face as she stepped up to take over, answering the questions as best she could anyway.

“Ma’am, do you know what happened here?” asked the grey-haired, middle-aged detective that had joined the two uniformed police officers.

“Not really, officer. We hadn’t seen Trisha in a couple of days. She hadn’t returned our calls either. So, we decided to come over and check on her and T.J.”

“We, Ma’am?”

“Yes, Simone and I. Simone Jackson. The three of us are friends.”

The man nodded his head, “Yes, Ma’am. You said you had not heard from her in a few days. When was the last time?”

“Monday morning. Our husbands are in the Navy, and they shipped out. I had a little brunch at our house that morning.”

“Yes, Ma’am. And your husband is?” He wrote quickly in a small notebook.

“Commander Daniel Monroe, officer.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I know him. I responded to the call when his first wife died.”

Any other time, Jill knew her curiosity would have demanded she attempt to pump him about the dozens of questions that had been bothering her for months about the woman’s death. This morning, it all seemed so irrelevant. Rachel was dead. And as much as she did not want to think about it, she knew that if she and Simone had not stopped by, there was a genuine possibility that Trisha might be too.

“I don’t know what else I can tell you. Trisha didn’t say much about what happened. She just kept mumbling and ranting about him coming back.”

“Him, Ma’am? So she clearly indicated that her attacker was a man?”

“Of course. Did you think it could be a woman? Look around.” She caught herself, knew that she was acting sexist and disrespectful. The man was just doing his job. “I’m sorry, officer. It’s just that I’m upset. Someone hurt my friend very badly. Even if she had not said it was a ‘he,’ I would have just assumed with this level of violence.”

The man smiled and nodded slowly. “Yes, Ma’am. Most people would, but let me tell you I’ve seen the damage that women can do. Even when they are smaller, they can still wreak havoc if they get riled up enough. Seen some pretty big guys wearing black eyes or worse.”

The way that he looked when he said that sent those bells tingling once more in her gut, but with Chloe and Dwayne around, she checked her tongue. “Yes, well, she repeatedly said he and him. So, I think we can safely assume it is a man this time.”

“Yes, Ma’am, and that is a help. You said that your husbands are deployed? When was that again, Ma’am?”

“Monday, Monday evening.”

“And that was the last time you saw her? Before her husband left?”

Jill swallowed hard. She did not like where these questions were going. “Yes, officer. That was the last time we saw her.”

“Before he left, Ma’am?”

“Yes, a couple of hours before. But I don’t think there is any way that Trav could be responsible for this. That was three days ago.”

“The EMTs couldn’t give us a specific time, Ma’am, but they said those bruises weren’t fresh.”

Jill choked at his words. “Oh, god.”

“Ma’am, do you know if Missus Hall and her husband were having any problems?”

She wanted to lie, wanted it so badly. She did not want this man thinking that their friend might have done this. Done this horrible thing to his wife. But she knew how angry he was. How hurt and betrayed.

Reluctantly, she had to admit that spousal abuse, especially among high-stress macho types like police, fire, and military, was an all too common problem. She knew the realities of it personally, had dealt with the darkest of its wreckage, what it could do to families, …and to units like this one. “They were having some problems, officer,” she whispered.

“What kind of problems, Ma’am?” He continued to scribble in a notebook.

“Trisha had an affair during Trav’s last deployment.”

The man wrote faster. “Do you know if they were getting any help, Ma’am? Counseling? That sort of thing.”

“No, I don’t think so. I just found out about it a few days ago. Trisha told me when I saw her at the mall with the other man. They were arguing about something when I walked over. She was pretty upset.”

“You know who this man is, Ma’am?”

“Yes, Clay Dodd. He used to be in my husband’s unit a few years ago.”

“Yes, Ma’am. I know Mister Dodd too. Could you hear anything they were talking about?”

“No, not really. They both shut up when I came over. But Trisha told me later that Dodd was trying to get her to convince Trav to quit the Navy and come to work for his father at Storm Breakers.”

“She said he threatened to lie and tell Lieutenant Hall that their affair was continuing if she didn’t. She was pretty upset about it. I didn’t have the chance to ask her any more questions because my step-daughter was injured in a fall down the stairs at the mall.”

His brow furrowed, “So, Mister Dodd wanted the man whose wife he was having an affair with to come to work for him? That seems a bit strange? Do you know if Lieutenant Hall knew that it was Mister Dodd, who his wife had an affair with?”

“Mister Dodd has been poaching men from my husband’s unit for some time. He even tried to get my husband and Master Chief Petty Officer Jackson to quit and come to work for them. But, yes, Travis knew who Trisha had the affair with. She told him herself when she confessed the whole thing months ago.”

“She confessed the affair to her husband? Months ago? Do you know when that was exactly?”

“Right after he came back from their last deployment. So, I don’t think it could have been Trav. If he were going to harm his wife, wouldn’t he have done it before now? When she first told him about it? And no matter how much he might be upset with Trisha, he loves his son. He would never do anything that might hurt the boy.”

“Perhaps, Ma’am. But there is no evidence of forced entry, so your friend likely let her assailant into the house, or he was already here. And according to the paramedics, the little boy was not hurt at all, just his mother. Perhaps Lieutenant Hall didn’t realize how badly he had hurt his wife, or maybe he was counting on you or one of the other wives to find her before something happened to the child.”

Jill sucked in her breath. The man looked at her, “Ma’am, is there something more I should know?”

Her voice trembled as she answered, “Trav asked Simone and me to keep an eye out for her.”

The man looked solemn as he closed the small notebook and placed it back in his pocket. One of the other officers called from down the hall, “Sergeant Martin, I think you should see this.”

“Excuse me, folks,” he mumbled.

Jill slumped onto the couch next to Chloe. She had taken Britney out of the stroller and was now holding the fussy toddler on her lap. The woman passed her daughter to her and picked Ashley up out of the stroller. “You don’t think it could be Trav, do you?”

But before Jill could speak up, it was Dwayne that responded. “No way. As she said, Trav would have never done anything that might hurt T.J. I know that much. If you ask me, the detective should have been asking more questions about that sleazeball Dodd. That son of a bitch is nothing but trouble. He always has been. Even when…” Dwayne paused.

Jill nodded, “I agree. He was awfully angry with Trisha that day at the mall.”

Her eyes went wide as she realized that Clay had been at the mall the day that Jess was pushed down the stairs. Her stepdaughter’s description of a big man would undoubtedly apply to him as well. “Oh my god,” she gasped as she passed Britney back to Chloe.

“Dwayne, take Chloe and the children to my house,” she reached into the small purse on the stroller and pulled out her keys. She fumbled with them for a moment before she tossed him a set. “Those are to the house. I have to get to the hospital, check on Trisha, and talk to Simone.”

She pinned the man with a cold stare. “No matter what happens, don’t leave the house or let anyone in.”

He palmed the keys as he swung his wheelchair towards the door. “Yes, Ma’am. You can count on me.”

Jill called out to the officers that she was leaving for the hospital. She assured him that he could reach her later if he had any more questions. She raced down the streets towards her home. She was breathing heavily and was more than a bit panicked by the time she reached the SUV.

She fumbled with the key. Her fingers trembled so much that it was hard to get them into the lock. She drew several deep breaths to clear her mind as she slipped the key into the ignition. She backed out of the driveway and pulled into the road. 

Why had she not thought of it sooner? Dodd was there. At the mall that day. He was angry already. How easy would it have been for the man to race across the mall? Perhaps he did not even mean it. Maybe he was just so angry with Trisha and her that he had pushed Jess without thinking. But that second one? If Jess was right and she had no reason to doubt her step-daughter, even if that first shove had been accidental or in the heat of the moment, a second would have been deliberate.

And Trisha? The police sergeant said there was no sign of forced entry. But would her friend have let the man in? She knew she was upset that day at the mall. But Trisha was angry with Travis, too. Had she meant to restart the affair? Or maybe she had simply let him in to discuss his blackmail?

Jill looked up to see the light turn yellow. She put her foot down on the brake, but nothing happened. Her car continued forward, and she pumped the brake harder. Her hand came up to blow the horn as the light turned red. But she did not manage even to touch it before the loud crash of metal on metal jolted her. Her body jerked forward as something came up to hit her in the face, and everything went black.

Daniel watched as the bright orange sun began to set over the desert. At least they would not have to worry about the cold night this close to the gaping hole in the ground that boiled and churned with red hot molten lava. He looked over where Samuel talked and laughed around the campfire with the man they had named Doc. Technically, Brent Jacobs was not a real doctor but held a Ph.D. in geology. 

As missions went, this one was damned cushy. God damned cushy, in fact.  His unit was doing a bit of reconnaissance on the Afar, a desert tribe in Ethiopia that had until recently been friendly. But with growing tensions in the region, and with neighbors like Eritrea and Somalia, there were rumors that extremists had targeted the group as its latest potential recruits for spreading militancy and violence.

Usually, he and his men would spend days or weeks laying low and observing the tribe, but Jacobs’s research on the Erta Ale volcano provided the perfect cover for the group to get closer to the tribe. Because of Jacobs’s connection to his father’s oil business, he worked closely with the government. The man had been more than happy to substitute his usual security and guides for members of Daniel’s team. Others of Daniel’s unit watched from a distance and probably cursed the lucky bastards their simple luxuries like a campfire, hot food, and even their tablets.

Daniel finished his final checks around the perimeter; you could never be too careful. Samuel was frowning and nodding at something the man said. Curiosity drove him towards the fire. Doc stood up as he approached. “Comman…,” the man caught himself. With a nod, he began again, “Daniel, is everything alright?”

“Yeah, Doc, everyone seems to be settling down for the night. No problem.”

The man with dark blond hair and natural smile nodded, “Sounds like a good idea. Rappelling down into the crater tomorrow will be a real challenge. I better be heading to bed too.” Looking at Samuel, he smiled, “Think about it, at least.”

Samuel nodded, “I will. I promise you that.”

Daniel sat on a blanket across from his friend. The two of them stared into the fire in silence for a moment. He wondered what the Doc had wanted Samuel to think about, but knew the man would tell him in his own time.

As for him, his mind was a thousand miles away and seven years in the past. As it had been every day for the past few weeks, he sought answers, explanations, and, most especially, absolution. But there was none to be had.

“Everything alright? Did you check in with Trav and the others?” Samuel asked.

“Yeah, other than being mad as shit that we’re here, and they’re out there, everything is cool.”

Samuel chuckled, “Damn straight. Seniority ought to have some perks.”

Daniel stretched, feeling aches and pains that he had never noticed before. “Do you ever feel you’re getting too old for this shit?”

Samuel’s shoulders slumped, “Only every fucking day for the past seven years.”

Seven years. Seven years since the incident that had taken his friend’s life. Samuel’s friend and Jill’s husband. Daniel sighed.

“I’ve been looking for a way to say this, man. And I guess since you mentioned it, this is as good as any.” Samuel shifted on the blanket, poking nervously at the fire with a steel rod. “When we get back, I’m putting in my papers. I’m retiring.”

Daniel’s mouth dropped open. “What? You’ve decided to accept Dodd’s fucked up offer?”

Samuel shook his head, “Naw, man. I’m tired and old, not stupid. Simone and I have been talking about this one for a while.” Looking over at Doc as he spoke quietly with their Afar guide next to his tent, he continued, “But Dodd ain’t the only one that recognizes our skills. Doc’s offered me a job, running security at this place he’s building in West Texas.”

“You don’t buy his shit, do you? I mean all this end of the world crap.”

Samuel shrugged, “I don’t know, Danny boy. The man is some kind of fucking genius from what our Intel said. His daddy is rich as shit, too.”

“I know, but you of all people should know how that kind of shit can screw somebody up. I mean, it all just seems too weird. Some kind of mad scientist if you ask me.”

“He’s not like Dodd or Rachel. His theory might be a bit out there, but everything I’ve learned about this guy is on the up and up. You know he put himself through his doctorate program without any help from his father. His dad had thought he’d use his geology degree to find more oil, but the guy was more interested in his volcanoes.”

“Still, have you listened to his whole theory? A series of volcanic eruptions around the world that will plunge us into a new Ice Age. Come on, that’s science fiction crap.”

Samuel poked the fire again, “Maybe, man. But his ideas for sustainable living on this damned, I don’t know, commune, I guess, are fucking amazing. Raise your own food, recycle everything, and everyone pulls their weight.”

“Hippie fucking crap. Utopia. You know it never works like that.”

“I don’t know. Maybe it could.” Samuel met his gaze, “Man, like you said, I’m getting too old for this shit. I’m Four Two. Forty fucking two. I should have been out of here long ago.”

Daniel felt anger and betrayal knotting in his gut. “So, why the fuck didn’t you, old man?”

He slumped, “Simone and I agreed that as long as you needed us, we’d stick around.” Samuel looked up and smiled, “But you don’t need us no more, man. You got Jill, and like I keep telling your sorry ass, that woman is great. Second best one I know.”

Daniel lay back on his side and watched the fire flicker, “I know.”

“It still bothering you?”

“It probably always will,” he whispered.

Samuel chuckled, “Tell you what, since you won’t listen to me on this one, when we get home, I’ll have Simone do a fucking séance. Let the son of a bitch give you his blessing himself.”

Daniel laughed, “Yeah, right. Even you don’t believe half the crazy shit your wife does with her voodoo magic.”

Samuel crooked his eyebrow, “Maybe not, but I do know this. You got to let this one go. Like I told you, you ain’t god. There was nothing you could have done; everyone knows that. But if you keep letting these ghosts from your past gnaw at your guts, you’re going to screw up the best thing that ever happened to your ass. And that would be a real shame, my friend.”

His friend ran a hand across his face, “But I can’t have your back forever. Hell, even this Hotel Hilton shit is getting to me. I feel it in my back every morning when I wake up. The truth is that men my age, David’s age, don’t belong out here. When you get older, no damned matter how hard you work at it, your reflexes slow, little pains creep in.”

He pinned Daniel with his stare, “And it can cost you your life.” Samuel looked off at the rolling sandhills on the horizon, “Or worse yet, others.”

Daniel nodded, “I know I call you old man, but Samuel, you know that I’d be the first to tell you if I didn’t think you were up for the job.”

“I know, man. And if this was just everyday shit, I know I can still kick most guys’ asses. Hell, I’m retiring, not curling up in a hole somewhere and dying. You know there is life after this adrenaline rush shit.” He winked, “Fuck, there’s even more fun ways to get that fix.”

Daniel roared with laughter, “Please no more about how you like your buns buttered.”

“Aww, man, from what my wife said about what Jill had in her bags on their little shopping expedition, I don’t need to be giving you no advice.” He hummed, “She’s a super freak, super freaky.”

Daniel threw the stick that he had been using to play with the fire at his friend, hitting him squarely in the chest.

“Hey, you might be into the pain thing, but I ain’t. Especially not with you, buddy; wrong equipment. And no damned cushion for the pushin’ either,” Samuel joked as he tilted his hips back and forth, imitating the act.

“Fuck man, what am I going to do without you?” Daniel laughed.

“I know. Seems like we been friends forever. You know, I’m sure Doc could use another good man down in Texas. The place is hundreds of acres. Nice quiet life, plenty of time with your daughters,” he winked again, “and your wife.”

Daniel pondered Samuel’s words, “I don’t know. I used to live for this shit. The mission. The adrenaline. The game. Now, all I can do is wonder what new thing Britney and Ashley are getting into. Is Bel doing all right? Did Jess win her soccer game this week?” He sighed, “Is Jill feeling better?”

“Don’t worry; I’m sure your wife will be fine in a few more weeks. These things usually go away on their own by the end of the first trimester.”

Daniel’s eyes flew open, his mouth dropped. An elephant sat on his chest, making it hard for him to breathe. “What? Jill said it was food poisoning like Bel had.”

“Yeah, I know. Girl can be as dense as her husband sometimes. Simone’s been trying to get her to see the doctor since you two came back from your parents’. But man, come on, don’t tell me after four daughters, three pregnancies that you didn’t wonder the same damned thing?”

Daniel shook his head, trying to think. “No, Jill just seemed so certain that it was the same as Bel. If I had any idea.”

“What? Your ass wouldn’t be out here right now? Never bothered you before, buddy. Hell, you missed Bel’s birth and the first six weeks of her life. Maybe I’m not the only one that needs to be thinking about what the fuck I’m doing out here, sleeping on the ground in another shithole. Maybe you ought to think a bit about why the fuck that woman has your guts in knots and your balls in a vise.”

Daniel chuckled to himself. Jill might have his balls, but it certainly was not in any vise. However, he was not sure that he would not put it past Mistress J to try it. His mind played over his friend’s words. Pregnant? Could his wife be pregnant? “Stupid fuck, of course, she could be.”

“Damned straight. Now you catch on. The question is, what you gonna do? You gonna keep letting something that was not your fucking fault, something that is ancient history, control your life. Or you gonna be man enough to tell your wife how you feel about her, and be there for her and your daughters this time?”

Samuel stood and kicked sand into the dying embers. “Talk to Doc when you grow up and face the truth. The man ain’t like Dodd; he don’t poach. He only made the offer when he learned I was thinking about quitting.”

“You could do lots worse than some fucking eco-village as he calls it in the middle of nowhere. This old man can’t wait to spend his days farming, hunting, and fishing. And every damned night for the rest of his life wrapped up nice and tight in his wife’s welcoming bosom.”

Daniel’s mind was already playing over other things, possibilities that he had never even considered. “Yeah, just be sure not to smother in there, you old fool.”

“Hell, ain’t you figured out yet, that’s the best way to go. Think about it, man.” He looked off towards the hills once more, “This is a young man’s game. You trained them damned good, even that piece of shit Dodd knows that. Trav might have his personal problems, but he’s a fine leader.”

“Seems to me, I knew this guy once, who kept running from his problems on the home front. He made a damned good commander too, sir.” Samuel punctuated his words with a salute before he turned and walked towards his tent.

Daniel sat, staring at the dying embers. Lost in his thoughts as around him, the night grew colder and darker. His questions and thoughts were more fractured and darker still.

Cold. It was so fucking cold, as Jill opened her eyes. Bright lights sent shards of pain shooting through her head; she closed them quickly. Her mind tried to piece together the puzzle. Where was she? A warm hand squeezed hers, and she turned her head, opening her eyes more slowly this time. “Simone?”

“Yeah, gurlfriend. You had me scared there for a bit. You’ve been out cold since the ambulance brought you in. Damned good thing, I saw the stretcher when they wheeled you in. But what were you thinking? I know you wanted to get to the hospital as fast as you could and check on Trisha, but you shouldn’t have run a red light to do it.”

Jill shook her head at her friend’s words, igniting another round of pain. Hospital? Trisha? Red light? None of it made sense. She tried to remember what happened. Why was she in the hospital? And why did her whole body ache like she had been in an argument with a school bus?

Not a school bus. Another car. “Oh my god, the accident. Was anyone hurt?”

Simone laughed and shook her head, “That’s just like you. You are lying in a hospital bed, and your first thought is, was the other guy alright.” She squeezed Jill’s hand, “Yes, the guy was rushing to work. All he saw was that his light was green. He did not even notice that you were still coming. Seriously, gurl, what were you thinking?”

Jill furrowed her brow as she tried to remember the accident. It was all still a bit fuzzy. She had taken Jess and Bel to the bus stop. Then she and Simone had gone to check on Trisha. “Oh god, Trisha?”

“She’s fine. Well, as fine as she can be. The doctors gave her some sedatives. They checked her over, and nothing was broken, but she is banged up pretty good. They are more worried about her mental health right now. Decided to keep her for a couple of days’ observation.”

“What happened? Did she ever tell you?”

“Not really. Just more gibberish about him coming. About how we have to protect T.J. The doctors said she was beaten up pretty badly.”

Simone looked down at the floor as she whispered, “They wanted to do a rape kit, but Trisha wouldn’t let them get anywhere near her. They said it probably wouldn’t have shown anything anyway. Said it had happened two to three days ago and that she had bathed.”

Tears spilled from her eyes as she continued, “Poor baby, her skin was red and raw. Doctors said she had rubbed herself so hard trying to clean up. Said she probably even used cleansers.”

“Bleach,” Jill whispered as she felt her stomach turn over.

“How did you know?”

“I smelled it when I went into the bathroom to…”

“To throw up again?”

Jill smiled weakly in admission. She forced her mind to recall the rest. The policeman. Chloe and Dwayne. “Britney and Ashley! Chloe and Dwayne were supposed to take them home.”

“Shh, they did. The girls are fine. I spoke with Chloe when they brought you in. Tried her first, figured you would call her before Beth. She said that you were upset when you rushed out of Trisha’s. Said you told Dwayne to take her and the children to your house and not let anyone in. Then you just ran out. What’s up, girl?”

Jill tried to remember, it seemed important, whatever the missing piece was, but her mind was like one of Britney and Ashley’s puzzles, pieces strewn about the floor, some hidden or lost.

“I don’t know. I remember answering the detective’s questions. Well, as best I could anyway. And something doesn’t feel right. It just doesn’t make sense. But for the life of me, I can’t remember what,” she tried to sit up.

Simone placed a hand on her shoulder, “Lay back down. The doctors said you probably had a concussion. They want to do a CAT scan to make sure it is nothing more and some x-rays of your spine too, but since it isn’t life-threatening at this point, they are waiting on some blood test results.”

“Blood tests? For a car accident?” Jill collapsed back against the pillow, trying to make sense of anything her friend was saying. Trying to remember what had upset her so much that she would endanger herself and others by driving recklessly.

“Yeah, I told them you might be pregnant.”

“Pregnant? Simone, we talked about this. It is just taking me a little longer to get over the food poisoning. But I can’t be pregnant.”

“Can’t? Don’t tell me, can’t.” Simone stood back, her hands on her hips, “You aren’t screwing the ever-loving daylights out of that stud puppy you’re married to, fucking the man every chance you get?”

She arched her brow, demanding a response, but Jill could only blush. “So, what type of birth control you been using, gurlfriend? Cause none of ‘dem is perfect, you know.”

Jill looked down at the white sheet. “I told you before the chances of me getting pregnant at my age are slim and none.”

“Yeah, well, sweetie, slim ain’t birth control. And lots of women our age are having babies these days.”

“With help. Drugs. IVF. That sort of thing. Don’t get me wrong; nothing would make me happier than another baby. But why get my hopes up when something isn’t going to happen?”

Her friend rolled her eyes, “I bet you maid service for a month that I’m right. You’re pregnant, gurlfriend. And all the sticking your head in the sand in this world ain’t gonna change that. I wasn’t letting the doctors do tests that might hurt that little peanut, not when it wasn’t a matter of life and death. So, sue me,” she crossed her arms over her ample chest and stuck her chin out.

Jill reached out and laid her hand on her friend’s arm. “I know you were just doing what you thought was best. But this time, you better have the chocolate cake and a big box of Kleenex when that test is negative.”

“Deal, sweetie. My Mississippi Mud Special, but I won’t be making it cause you most definitely got a bun in that oven, and it ain’t your delicious cinnamon ones either. Now you rest while they finish up those tests. I’m going to check-in on Trisha and call Chloe again.”

Jill nodded as her friend slipped from the curtained cubicle. It was impossible to stop her hand from resting protectively over her lower abdomen. “I wish you were right, girlfriend. Oh god, I wish,” she whispered as she gave in to the overwhelming aches that radiated throughout her body. She closed her eyes, grasping for those missing pieces of the puzzle. Her mind tried to fit them together until her head hurt, and tiredness overcame her.

Daniel worked the wench, lowering cameras and infra-red equipment into the deep crevice in the earth that was literally pulling itself apart at the seams. Below the black, red, and orange lava boiled and bubbled in the crater. It had been a decade and a half since his introduction to geology class at the Academy, and he had never thought to be this close to an active volcano. In some ways, it seemed as dangerous, or more so than the dozens of combat and reconnaissance missions, but Doc assured them it was not, a calculated risk, he called it.

Calculated risks were something that he understood. Something he dealt with on a seemingly daily basis. Something that occasionally cost other men their lives. Men like Sergeant Major David Smith. After weeks in the hot, dry desert, it seemed he was no closer to finding the answers he sought than he had been that night as he traced the man’s mark on his wife’s lower back.

His wife. The words rolled through his mind and off his tongue so much easier than they had months ago. In fact, his life before her seemed a fuzzy memory, a bad dream. As Samuel said, he spent more and more time daydreaming of her welcoming arms, her lush curves, and her sweet cries of release.

Hell, if the man was right, he had even more of a reason to dream of homecomings. A baby. The idea of his wife being pregnant did things to his gut that he had never imagined possible.

“Hey, man, you with us?” called Samuel from the sharp, solid cliff of cooled rock over a hundred feet below.

“I got your back, old man.” The familiar words stuck in his throat, knowing what else was to come when they returned.

Doc finished adjusted some of the monitoring equipment and came back to stand next to his friend. The two men conversed for a moment before he yelled, “Bring us up.”

Daniel threw down the ropes that would hoist the men back to the ridge that overlooked the cavern of the volcano. It took only moments to bring them up as the group began packing to head back to their base camp. He watched as the two men laughed and chatted again. The knot in his stomach at the growing bond between the men could only be jealousy, knowing that this man was his friend’s future.

He was busy coiling the rope, his mind thinking of another time and another rope when the man approached him from behind.

“Samuel said you wanted to talk to me,” Brent said as he tossed his rappelling harness into the back of the Land Rover.

Sometimes his friend knew him better than he knew himself. “Do you honestly believe that the world is coming to an end?” he asked more than a bit skeptically.

Brent Jacobs paused as he finished packing the monitoring equipment. He frowned as if considering his answer carefully, “I do. Enough that I have written bug-out plans for the Defense Department. Enough that I am investing my own money to build a facility that will stand the worst of it. Enough that I have personal plans to protect my family. So, yeah, I do.”

The man squared his shoulders. He was not what most people would picture as a science nerd. At six foot two, he might easily be mistaken for one of Daniel’s team. When they learned of this assignment, Daniel had expected to spend most of his time babysitting the man. But Doc had proven more than capable of managing the rough terrain, carrying his share of the weight on the long hikes, rappelling into the hundred-plus degree cavern in the asbestos suit and never complaining about the harsh conditions of their camp.

“I know how crazy the whole thing sounds. Hell, I hear it often enough from my ex. But it is a proven scientific fact that the oceans are carbon dioxide sinks. That carbon dioxide eventually makes its way into the sediment on their floors, which then gets sucked under at the spots where two or more of the Earth’s plates meet. That carbon dioxide then gets mixed with molten magma and released back into the atmosphere when volcanoes explode.”

“If enough ash and gases are released into the atmosphere, then it can block out sunlight, lowering global temperatures like it did in 1783 when Laki erupted in Iceland. It is estimated that six million people died as a result of crop failures and gases. Six million people from one little volcano, commander?”

The man pinned him with an intense stare, “Seventy-five thousand years ago when Lake Toba erupted in Sumatra, it caused an Ice Age that virtually annihilated the emerging human species. That was the most recent super-eruption, but there have been others. Right now, everyone has their eyes on Yellowstone, another supervolcano that some scientists think is overdue for an eruption.”

“But the truth is that it does not take a super-eruption to kill off a species. Just forty thousand years ago, Neanderthals were wiped out of existence by a series of smaller eruptions across Eurasia. An analysis of material taken from ice cores and sediments leading up to those eruptions have shown a gradual natural increase in greenhouse gases, including carbon dioxide.”

“So, hell, yeah, I believe it is not only possible, but the forecast models my team and I are working on shows it is coming.”

The man shook his head, “The problem is that we have not been able to pinpoint the tipping point, that point in geological time when the carbon sink can no longer function properly, and volcanic eruptions work as a reset button of sorts. But just because I have not been able to calculate the exact point does not mean it is not coming. It is.”

Daniel frowned as he tried to come to terms with what the man said. One intro class did not make him an expert, but what Doc said made sense. But it was the conviction in his voice that spoke louder than his words. This man believed that a series of volcanic eruptions would initiate a new Ice Age. In their lifetime. “How close is your team to this tipping point, Doc?”

Brent Jacobs dropped his blond head and stared at the ground, “Not fucking close enough, my friend. The issue is that the one volcanologist that I think could tweak the formulas and get it right isn’t speaking to me right now.”

Daniel’s eyebrows shot up, “I didn’t know that scientific disagreements got that volatile, man.”

Brent’s laughter rang across the desert dunes as he slapped Daniel on the back, “They don’t, but divorces do.”

Jill tapped softly on the door, but there was no response. She opened it slowly. Every light was out; only the call button glowed above the bed. At first, she thought her friend was asleep. The broken woman was huddled in the bed with the blankets pulled up to her chin.

She stumbled a bit as she made her way across the room. The past few hours remained a blur, and her head throbbed from being slammed against the airbag when it exploded. It throbbed differently with the latest turn of events.

Despite her protests to Simone, she would not be tasting her friend’s Mississippi Mud Cake anytime soon. The rabbit had died, as the old saying went. She was pregnant. As happy as that news made her, she was still in shock from it as well as the car crash.

She would just sit for a few minutes with her friend before returning to her room. But as she got closer to Trisha, she heard the soft cries and hiccups. She noticed that her friend’s eyes were almost swollen shut and a dark shade of purple, almost black. Tears were leaking from the corners. The woman trembled, whether, from cold or fear, Jill could not tell.

“Trisha, sweetie, is it all right if I sit with you for a bit?” she asked as she approached the bed. The wounded animal that had taken over her friend’s body merely shrugged and turned her head away.

“Thanks, girlfriend. I just wanted to check up on you before I go to sleep. I don’t know if Simone told you, but I had a car accident today on my way to the hospital. I don’t remember what happened but they say that is normal, retrograde amnesia they call it.”

“Said it would come back in bits and pieces over time,” she knew that she was rambling but had no idea what to say. She wanted to rouse her friend, bring back that fighting Texas spirit, but words would not come.

“Chloe, Dwayne, and Simone are taking care of the children for us. Chloe took T.J. home with her, said Dwayne would spend the night on the sofa just to make sure things were okay. And Simone and Althea moved into mine for the night to care for the girls. I guess we don’t need to worry about anything there. I don’t know about you, but it sure is odd not having them around, not having anything to do.”

Trisha turned her head slowly, “Was T.J. alright?”

Jill smiled that even in this state, her son could reach her. “Yes, sweetie, the medics that brought you here checked him over good. There was not a mark on him. They said you had fed him and looked after him well.”

More tears slipped from her friend’s eyes. “He said he would…” Trisha paused and drew a deep breath.

Jill reached out her hand to take her friend’s, but she drew back. “Who, Trisha? Who? What did he say? We can’t help you, can’t keep T.J. safe if you don’t help us. Who did this to you?”

The woman shook her head of red tangles violently against the stark white of the pillow.

“You know the police think that Trav did this to you. They asked an awful lot of questions this morning.” Jill felt the knot rising in her throat and choked on it, but she knew she needed to find out. “Did he? Trisha, did Travis beat you like this before he left?”

Trisha’s eyes went wide, as wide as they could beneath the bruising, and she brought her hand to her mouth to stifle a small cry, but all she did was shake her head violently from side to side. Jill felt every muscle in her body relax. She sighed in relief and smiled softly. She had not wanted to think that their friend could do this to his wife, but she knew from experience that you could never know for sure what a man was capable of behind the closed doors of his home.

“Who, sweetie? Who? The police said that there was no sign of forced entry; that you had to have let the person in.” The choked sob that her friend emitted as she turned back away, ripped at Jill’s heart.

“It isn’t your fault, Trisha. I’m not saying it is. But who would betray your trust like this? Who would do this to you? Please tell me, sweetie, so we can keep you safe. Let us help you.”

“You can’t. He said he would know if I told anyone. That he would come back and hurt T.J. Said he could arrange for Travis to have a little accident.” She gripped the cold metal bars that were raised on the side of her bed until her fingers turned white.

“He said that he would come back and do it all again. Said I was just a whore like all the rest. That my body was his to use until…” Trisha shook and covered her mouth as she turned even paler. “Oh, god, no! No!”

Jill reached out her hand and placed it softly on her friend’s shoulder. The woman did not fight her as she turned her slowly to face her. “What? What did he say, Trisha? What did he say he was going to do to you?”

“No, I can’t say it. It is too horrible even to think. I can’t be. Oh god, it just can’t be,” she cried.

Jill bent over the bed and wrapped her arms about her friend as she cried, her body trembled with each sob. She cried out “no” over and over again for several moments. Until finally, she was too exhausted, there were no more tears to be cried, and she stilled in Jill’s arms.

Jill stood up slowly and reached over to the dresser next to the bed, grabbing several tissues and wiping them across Trisha’s face. “Sweetie, I know you have been through hell these past few days. But keeping it inside is only going to make it worse. Tell me what he said, what he did to you. Tell me who hurt you.”

“I can’t. I won’t place the rest of you in danger. Nobody can stop him. He’s too powerful, too much money. He’ll just buy off the cops or get the best lawyer. He said no one would believe me anyway. That everyone knew what a slut I was, to begin with. That not even my husband would listen.”

She stared down at the white sheet covering her chest, “He’s probably right about that one. If Travis didn’t believe me about,” she fiddled with it for a moment. “Well, if he did not believe me that it was just the once, then he would never believe me about this either.”

“Oh, sweetie, this is different. Look at you. No one can doubt that someone hurt you. Hurt you badly. Simone and I were there, we know. We will make him understand.”

“No, no. He said he would say it was just rough sex. That I wanted it. I liked it. Oh, god, maybe I did. I let him in. I was so mad at Travis that I just wanted to hurt him. So, I invited him, but I swear I never meant,” she sobbed again.

“Let who in, Trisha?” Jill played over all the things her friend had said. The pieces of this puzzle were falling into place at last. But she shuddered. The man always made her uncomfortable, but this? “Trisha, was it Clay Dodd? Did he do this to you?”

Her friend turned her back to her, “You should go, Jill. Just go.”

“Trisha, we can help. We’ll go to the police together. I saw what happened at the mall, how he upset you, threatened you. We will file charges, get a restraining order, do whatever it takes, sweetie. Simone and I will stand beside you.”

“No, it wouldn’t do any good. He’d just come after you too. I can’t let him hurt anyone else. Please just go away,” Trisha cried.

Jill shook her head but realized that her friend was still not thinking straight. She had been through so much. Probably more than Jill knew, or wanted to know. Perhaps a strategic retreat was the best option. “Alright, girlfriend, I’ll go. For now. But I’m going to check in on you tomorrow morning before they send me home.”

Her friend shrugged and held tightly on the rails again. “I’ll see you then. Try to get some sleep. Chloe and Dwayne will take good care of T.J. until you can, but he needs his mommy. You have to get better, Trisha, for his sake.”

“T.J.,” her friend whispered. “Have to protect him. Have to keep him safe. Always.”

“You did good, sweetie. He’s fine. Now focus on getting better so you can take him home.”

“Home,” she whispered. “Home?”

Jill squeezed her shoulder, “That’s right, now rest. We’ll talk more tomorrow.” She turned and slipped out of the room, closing the door quietly behind her.

She could not make her feet move, collapsing against the wall as tears slipped down her cheeks. “Oh, god, Trisha, what has he done to you? What has Dodd done now?” That cold apprehension swamped her once more.

Her head spun, and she slipped slowly to the floor, fighting back nausea with slow, cleansing breaths. “Oh little peanut, give Mommy a break, will you? She needs to think, make some sense of this mess, figure out what to do.” Her hand rested protectively over her lower abdomen, cupping the tiny miracle that still seemed too good to be true. A baby. Daniel’s baby.

“Missus Monroe, what are you doing up? You are supposed to be on bed rest. Are you alright? Any pain? Did you faint?” the young nurse fired the questions so quickly that Jill could not process them. “Let’s get you back to bed,” she commanded as she helped Jill to stand.

Her room was just a few doors away, but the walk had not seemed so far on the way to see her friend. Jill leaned against the woman as she helped her to bed. “You stay there until the doctor comes tomorrow. You have a concussion, and with the way that airbag deployed, we can never be too careful about that baby.”

“Wouldn’t do anything to hurt the baby,” Jill whispered, feeling suddenly very tired.

“We know you wouldn’t. Now get some sleep. It’s what you both need right now.”

But sleep was not easy coming that night. The dreams assailed her mind. She was running from something. Someone was chasing her. David was calling to her, but then he disappeared in a billow of smoke, and her heart lurched. She ran to where he had been standing, but when it all cleared, it was Daniel standing there.

No matter how fast or far she ran, she could never reach the safety of his open arms. And that cold fear just gripped her stomach more, eyes were on her, watching her every move. She turned to look, but could not see anything. She tried to stop, but she could not. She could not stop. She just kept running…and running…and running.

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