The room was utter chaos. Everyone was speaking at once. The older woman, Reb’s mother, had her arms wrapped about the man that as much as Stacey could tell was his father. The younger woman had her hand protectively cupping her abdomen as if the babies had witnessed it all. And the other man just hovered.
She was not certain what had happened exactly. But she knew one thing. He needed her. The man that had been her salvation was in as much trouble as she was. And something told her that she was the only one that could reach him now. That the two of them, though broken, were stronger together.
Stacey turned to leave without saying a word. The younger woman reached for her, “Where are you going?”
She shook the hand off her arm, “To find Reb.”
Indie, that was her name, shook her head, “No, you can’t. Obviously, it’s not safe. Better if we just leave it. Give my brother some time. He has always done this. Gone off on his own to think.”
Stacey felt the anger rising at the callousness and complete lack of compassion in the woman. No wonder he had not wanted to come back here.
But it was the older man, his father, who responded. “For all those fancy degrees, sometimes you can be foolish, girl.” He turned to the older woman, “I’m going with her after my son. And maybe while we’re gone, you both ought to do a bit of meditating on things.”
“That boy has been running from something most of his life. And it don’t add up. His problems with Edward, his military career, I understand all of that leaves its mark. But this goes deeper. And it’s about damned time, someone found out the truth.”
His eyes seemed to drill into the woman that as improbable as it seemed was Reb’s mother, “Before we lose him for good, Cellie.”
The woman started to shake her head in protest, but he held up his hand. “That boy is on the brink. And I’m not sure that he’s talking about running this time.”
The younger man, she forgot his name, stepped forward, and placed his hands on the older woman’s shoulders. “Is there anything we can do?”
“Pray to whoever the fuck you want that we’re in time.”
Reb’s ‘father’ turned and stared at her, “If his truck is still here, I think I know where he might be heading.”
That was the first good news that Stacey had heard in the last hour. “Then, let’s go.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” the younger woman grasped hold of the man’s arm as he walked passed her.
“I know you mean well, Indie. But you and your Mama get so caught up in saving the whole damned world that you forget what’s really important. Family. Friends. The people that are there for you every day.”
His eyes traveled to his daughter’s swollen abdomen, “I hope you’ll think about that before those grandbabies arrive. I don’t want to see another…” He looked back to the woman that Stacey supposed was his wife, or something like that, and just shook his head.
“Let’s get going. Reb’s already got a head start on us. And I don’t think we have time to fool around.”
Stacey nodded and turned back to see the older woman collapsed in tears in the man’s arms. While Indie seemed frozen in place, her hand on her babies and her face a mask of pain. Maybe she should feel sorry for them, but right now, all that mattered was the man who had held her naked in that shower as her world crashed around her. Now, his world was crashing in on him. And she was damned well determined to be there for him as he had been for her.
Reb stopped at Elvira only long enough to get his gun. He loved this damned truck. He reached a bit deeper and pulled out an old journal and pen. Those damned doctors at the VA had suggested it. Not that it helped much, but then again, nothing had.
He had thought…
He shook his head; no, Stacey was better off without him. Just look at what happened this time. He had never lost his shit like that. Not on an innocent, like his dad. Maybe he should have done this sooner. But he knew that was not right. Fate had him stick around long enough to help her.
But she was here now. As his sister said, they’d make sure Stacey got the help she needed. That was what was important. All that mattered.
He grabbed his Baretta M9 and a full magazine for it. He looked at the rifle he had gone out of their way to borrow from Chad and shook his head. He’d have to make sure that they knew to return it to his friend.
Gun. Bullets. Paper and pen. That about covered it. He closed the back of Elvira and ran his hand over her shiny silver surface. “You’ll take good care of her, won’t you, girl?” He would feel better knowing that his girls were together and that Stacey would not have to rely on that piece of shit they left parked at the casino.
Why was he procrastinating? Hell, it was what he had been doing over this shit for over a quarter of a century. But he did not have a choice anymore. He had always known he was dangerous. A ticking time bomb. But now he had gone off. On one of the people that he loved most. Hell, what if that had been Stacey? No fucking way.
This stupid survival instinct could bite it. This time he had no choice. It was for the best anyway. The dreams would stop, and the people he cared about would be safe. So, why was he still dragging his feet?
He knew where he was going. His spot. From the moment they had stopped here late that summer, it had been his refuge. A red rock cliff that overlooked the stream that ran through Agartha. There was always a peace there that spoke to his soul. Even in the worst of times. And this was definitely that.
But it was over an hour hike from here, and he had loads to do. Writing those letters would be hard enough. He turned and looked back at the place that had been his family’s home for three decades.
While it was always changing, there was something ethereal and timeless about this land. He knew its history well. Even before she bought this land, his mother and Mike had done their research. The vast majority of that focused upon the Paliatki at the Coconino National Forest, but they had been more interested in the Paleo-Indians of the Archaic era. She and Mike had spent years excavating the land and writing about that pre-history period.
His mother had always been such a fucking dichotomy. A child of one of this country’s wealthiest families, two, or was it three, Ph.D.s, speaking at numerous scientific conferences, and bestselling author. ‘Married’ to two, then three men, at the center of numerous conspiracy theories regarding ‘lost civilizations,’ a believer in holistic healing, and power of the mind bullshit. Who named her first son Rebel Zappa Moonchild.
Maybe he needed to forgive her that one…before he faced whatever was to come – if anything. It was not her fault. Any more than it was Barry’s for inspiring his idealistic belief in the Corps.
Not that the Corps was the problem. Someone had to do it. Even his mother’s life work had concluded that it was the lack of defensive preparedness that had resulted in the fall of many matriarchal and egalitarian cultures to their domineering and patriarchal ones that had controlled this world throughout the last five-thousand years of written history.
The problem was that nothing was black and white in this world. There was good and evil in all of it. And he had gotten caught up in that. Become both the victim and the perpetrator. But maybe that was all of us. No one completely good, and maybe, just perhaps, no one was completely bad either? Though he had certainly seen enough human monsters in his day to wonder about that.
Time to find those answers was running out with each step that he took closer to that cliff. He would use those precious moments left to him to try and make some sense of it all. But the only thing that had made sense to him since the moment those dreams began was her. Stacey Reynolds.
He almost hoped like hell that his baby sister was right about that reincarnation crap. And that next time, they had even half a chance at love and happiness that was denied them in this one.
He smiled as those cliffs came into view. His tree was still there. It hung precariously to that thin layer of eroding red dust. He always believed it was some miracle that it had stood for this long. The mesquite had been mostly full-grown when he was a boy. Now its thorny branches stretched outwards and upwards in all directions as if reaching to capture what sun and rain it could.
There was something right about it. About ending it here, where it had in many ways begun. Maybe that was better than in the sandy stretch of beach where he had always thought his final chapter would be written in blood. As it had been that night.
He ran his hand across his face trying to clear that grit from his nose and throat. Though his mind knew it was just an illusion, he could taste it. He had been choking on the damned stuff for almost a quarter of a century. But it ended. Here. Today.
Despite the breathtaking beauty of the land around them, Stacey could not focus on anything – except him. Reb. When had that happened? She had sworn off men, off all relationships, other than her family, long ago. Since when had she come to care so much about the man? And what the hell did ‘care’ even mean?
Were they friends? Reb had said they were kindred spirits. Maybe she had sensed that? Recognized on some instinctual level that he too battled demons? But it was more than that. He was the first person that she had been attracted to or felt any connection with since…?
Stacey had wondered for years if she had ever been genuinely attracted to Iggy. Or had she been desperate for the attention and ‘love’ that he represented? Not that that had been real or lasted very long.
“It isn’t much further now. Since his truck is still there, I’m pretty sure this is where the boy will go. It’s always been his special place. Ever since he was a kid…”
Stacey looked at the old man, though perhaps that assessment was not fair. Barry had walked and climbed the almost nonexistent trail easier than she had, even though the man had well over a decade on her, probably closer to two.
She was not sure how far they had walked or for how long. From the way that the sun was rising in the sky, she would guess at least an hour or more – close to mid-day. Most of that had been in silence. She was grateful for that, uncertain what she would even say to the man, whom Reb claimed as his father.
Stacey had spent most of that time trying to figure out what had happened back there. It did not make much sense. Reb had been her rock, which was a strange thing to say. She had spent the last thirty-two years being the strong one, doing whatever it took to raise three girls alone.
But it seemed from the moment that little eco-friendly piece of shit car had headed down that county road in a cloud of dust, she had lost her it. She had always suspected that she would. When the day came when her girls no longer needed her, and she had no reason to be strong anymore. She had planned, or perhaps fantasized would be a better word, for years.
The thing was that now was not that time. While she might not know precisely where her girls and those grandbabies were, they still needed her to be strong. And she had been failing them all.
If not for this man, for Reb, she did not know what she would have done. Probably attempted to finish the job that Mercy started. And what would that have accomplished? Even if she had succeeded at killing Kerr as she had planned for all those years, it would not bring her girls home, clear Laura’s name, or Mercy’s.
Of course, what was she doing about any of that now? Here? Maybe that was the problem, perhaps they should not have come to this place? Perhaps Ryan and Laura were wrong? Maybe she should have headed straight to that old cabin outside of Lubbock like they had planned all along?
But it was too late to consider that as the man held out his hand for her. This last bit had been challenging. They had been climbing over rocks and brush for the past five or ten minutes.
She had no idea where they were going, or more importantly, what she would say when they got there. She only knew that when he walked away, something inside of her had shifted. Like some damned piece was missing. And she had known that she had to go after him. She had to.
As Barry pulled her those last few feet to the top of some plateau with a few trees seeming to grasp for dear life to its rocky red soil, she saw him. Reb sat, his back leaning against one of those trees. He alternated between writing in a notebook and looking out on what she could see was perhaps the most spectacular vista she had ever seen.
The sun glinted off of something shiny on the ground next to him. It took a moment for it to register that it was a gun. The man seemed to register that fact, too, as he held out his hand to block her way. “I’ll go.”
“No. No, it needs to be me.” And though she had no idea why she said that, Stacey knew it was true. Knew that only she held the words that would stay this man’s course. She just wished like hell that she knew what those fucking words were as she stepped from behind the small clump of trees that had hidden them.
He looked up, and she could see that his eyes were red and swollen. It felt like an elephant sat on her chest. She found it incredibly hard to draw air past the knot that constricted her throat. She might not know what to say, but she knew what she had to do.
She raced to his side and knelt beside him. And for the first time in twenty-seven years, four months, and around twelve hours, Stacey Reynolds reached for a man. Of her own free will, she wrapped her arms about Reb as he collapsed into her embrace. His larger body shook with tears as her own began to flow onto the top of that receding hairline.
She knew. She understood pain like that. Because she had lived with it. Not just for the last twenty-seven years, four months, and twelve hours, but for as long as she could remember. And until this moment, the only respite she had ever had was her girls. But strangely, the peace she found as they clung to one another crying transcended even that.
She might not know the specifics of his pain, but that did not matter. She had no idea what happened next, but that did not matter either. This moment. Pouring out a lifetime of hurt, that was all that mattered. At least for now…
Reb clung to her for what seemed like eternity but was not nearly long enough. Their tears ran together. Melding and combining, as perhaps their bodies never could. But that did not matter. What mattered was that Stacey held him. And he knew, in his gut and his heart, how incredibly hard that was for his woman. He treasured each moment as the gift that it was. Though he knew he did not and never would deserve it.
Had he known they would come? He noticed his father hanging back in the treeline behind him. Of course, Barry would have known where to come, where to look for him first. Had he done that on purpose? Chosen this place because he knew his father would seek him out here?
But her? Stacey was a precious gift he had not anticipated. He pulled back just a bit. His fingers brushed her tears from her cheeks, “What are you doing here? You shouldn’t have come.”
His heart shattered into microscopic pieces when he saw the pain of his thoughtless words and heard her breathy, “Oh.” She tried to draw back out of his arms, but now that she was here, he was not letting her go.
“But I’m glad you are.” The admission was more difficult than he imagined. How long had it been since he needed anyone?
Even during his time in the military, they knew his skills were not well-suited to teams. A sniper worked alone most of the time. Just as he had these past few years, drifting from place to place.
Stacey was different. He had known that even before she walked into that casino as damaged and broken as he was.
What was he doing here? How could he have forgotten? She needed him now. As much, even more, than he needed her. Maybe they always would. He had thought this was the right thing, a selfless act, but it wasn’t.
He wrapped his arm about her. He felt her stiffen and draw back. “Please, I need you,” he whispered into her hair.
Stacey nodded and shifted, tightening her arms about his waist and leaning into the ancient mesquite bush.
His father approached them cautiously like they had so many injured animals on Indie’s rescues. He supposed his baby sister was still at it. She had just shifted to two-legged vermin instead of four, or winged, or slithering. He should not have envied her efforts. How was she to know? He had spent almost a quarter of a century, making sure that no one knew. Well, almost no one.
His father knelt; Reb knew that must be an effort for the man who was closer to eight decades than seven. “I’m guessing you need that time alone even more now, son. So I’m heading back to Agartha.”
Reb nodded and half-smiled as he continued, “I know that you can live off this land, but the little lady? How about I pack up some stuff and bring it back on the ATV? Then ya’ll can set up camp here or wherever you want.”
“Yeah, thanks, Dad. I wasn’t planning…”
Their eyes met, and Reb knew. His father had known. Barry knew why he came here. Reb started to drop his eyes, but the man shook his almost white head, “It don’t matter now.”
And he knew that his father meant that. Maybe one day, he would come clean to the man he had spent a lifetime trying to emulate. But today was not that day. Right now, he had something, someone, far more critical that he needed to address.
He smiled, a genuine one, and extended his hand. The one that clasped his was gnarled, the knuckles swollen and misshapen, the golden skin covered in darker age spots and paper-thin. But the grip was firm, as if his father were trying to hold on to him, not just physically but in some more profound way. “You know I’m always here. When you’re ready.”
Reb nodded as he fought down that lump in his throat. It was the gentle squeeze of her arms around his waist that urged him to speak, “I know, dad. Just that right now, Stacey and I need some time. Alone. There’s lots we need to talk about.”
“I figured. I’ll bring that stuff back in a couple of hours. Anything specific you want or need?”
“Yeah, there’s an M40 in the back of my truck. I wanted to come out here, away from everyone, for a bit of target practice. It’s been…”
“A long time. I understand. But maybe it’s best if your mother and sister don’t.” Barry paused and looked off in the direction of the compound before he continued. “I’ll cue Mason in, too. I know that things are a bit strange. But trust me on this one, he’s no Edward.”
“Now isn’t the time, Dad.” Talking about his mother’s new boyfriend, or was this one another husband, was the last thing that he wanted to do at the moment.
If it weren’t for Stacey, he would never have come back here. Maybe they shouldn’t have? But he knew. As full of old memories and new troubles as this place was, it was still the safest place for her. And nothing else mattered. Nothing.
His father nodded and turned to walk away. Those arms squeezed gently once more, and he turned to stare down into her face.
The face of the most beautiful woman he had ever seen. Sure, the years and pain were etched in fine and deep lines across her forehead and around her eyes and mouth. He suspected that the rich reddish-brown color came from a bottle and that beneath it laid more than a couple of grey hairs.
But he had his own, lines and grey hairs as well as hurts and heartaches. They were well matched in so many ways.
“Want to talk about it?”
He shook his head and returned the hug, “Not right now. All I want is for you to hold me and me hold you.”
He knew that moment was coming. He had known since before he saw her on that video feed. But now was not it. He knew that a couple of hours was not enough time for this talk. And the last thing he wanted was for them to be disturbed once that dam broke. Inside both of them.
Besides, in some ways, things like this were so dark that they belonged hidden in the depths of night. No, he was confident he was right. Let his father bring the supplies. Then they would hike up the mountain a bit. There were some caves there that were perfect for his purposes.
Tonight would be soon enough. Alone. Undisturbed. With his woman. They would talk then. But for now, he sank back into the ancient embrace of the tree that had always been some symbol to him of the slow and steady movement of time and the inconsequential nature of man. This time though, he felt anything but. In her arms, he could move mountains. Which was a damned good thing, because the ones they faced made Everest look small.
He leaned his face into her soft hair and kissed the top of her head. Her crown chakra. He could not have been raised by Celestine Rainbow Moonmother and not know that. The highest, the symbol of inner and outer beauty, our connection to the spiritual, and pure bliss.
He would have said it was all a bunch of hoowee, except pure bliss pretty much described this moment. And for a man who had known so little stability and joy in his over four decades on this planet, it was something to hold onto. Just as he held on to her, and she embraced him. Yeah, pure bliss about covered it.
“I love you,” he whispered into that thick, sweet-smelling silk.