Jack Carter was looking forward to meeting up with one of his oldest friends, Ryder. As soon as he hit Eagle’s Ridge, he was going to walk right into the No Man’s Land diner and order a burger, just like they used to do when they were kids. And then, he pictured that he and Ryder hopefully would meet up with some of the guys, whoever was in town, up on the ridge. They’d drink a few beers, throw a log or two on the fire, and look down at Eagle’s Ridge and where they’d grown up. They’d reminisce about school, and sports, and the first girls they’d ever touched, and their lives in the armed services after that.
After meeting his friends, his plan was to surprise his widowed mom, and crash in his old bedroom.
Just like he used to do.
Even after the fiasco of renting wheels, Jack felt confident. The car business had happened in Seattle. He’d been surprised at how many people wanted to get out of town early on a Saturday morning. The rental counter had been so crowded that Jack had somehow ended up in the back of the room, penned in by restless travelers, next to a plastic fern in a corner. But he’d managed to keep his cool, had managed to rent a car in spite of perspiring profusely. He’d thrown his bag into the backseat, and with a death grip on the wheel, he’d driven out of that crowded garage, down that crowded street, and out of a crowded town.
As soon as he’d cleared town, he’d texted Ryder, told him he was on his way.
Can’t wait, man, Ryder had texted back.
It had been a few years, that was for sure. To say Jack was looking forward to this mini-reunion was an understatement. He missed his best buds—Ryder, the brothers Zane and Adam, Wyatt, Ford, and Noah. He’d find time to swing by and see Lainey, too, one of his first real girlfriends.
He missed Eagle’s Ridge, missed being part of a community.
He missed being the guy he’d been before he’d joined the Marines.
It was a beautiful day, perfect for a Founders’ Day celebration. Ryder’s grandfather was one of the founders of Eagle’s Ridge. It was hard to imagine the old guy was still alive, but then again, Jack remembered him as tough as nails. He’d been an Air Force pilot during World War II and used to tell them amazing stories. He probably had a few more now. Jack was looking forward to this—it was going to be fun.
But when Jack drove into town, he was surprised to see that traffic was crawling in both directions down Main Street. Founders’ Day weekend had always been big in Eagle’s Ridge, but Jack wasn’t expecting anything like this. The event had grown—tents and pavilions had been set up on both sides of the river. Main Street, with its collection of trendy restaurants and eclectic shops, was limited to foot traffic, and even that was already pretty thick.
To get to No Man’s Land, Jack would have to join that stream of humanity and walk up Main Street.
No big deal, Jack told himself. He could do it—it wasn’t that far. He parked his car and got out, and joined the crowd. But as they moved along like one corporate body, Jack’s skin began to feel itchy. He felt hemmed in again, and shoved his fisted hands into his pockets and tried to focus on his breathing. He was a head taller than most, so he could see pretty well. He could see Sentinel Bridge, which he’d have to cross to get to No Man’s Land.
His pulse began to ratchet. This is not a big deal. This is Eagle’s Ridge, asshole. You’re in the Blue Mountains, as far from enemy territory as a person can get, so calm the hell down—it’s been two years, man.
The internal chastisement worked for all of a minute. But then someone laid on a car horn, and all of Jack’s rational thought shut down. His heart went haywire, speeding up, then skipping around, then failing to beat at all. He struggled to get air in his lungs and broke into a cold sweat. He was not going to lose his shit in the middle of Main Street, and yet, he couldn’t seem to stop himself. His vision blurred to the point that he could hardly see in front of him. His legs felt numb. He had the single, horrifying thought that he was going to faint. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, he was going to pass out on Main Street, in Eagle’s Ridge, on Founders’ Day.
He turned around, knocking into a man so violently that the man stumbled and fell against the side of a building. The man shouted at him, flipped him off, but Jack didn’t offer an apology—he was too desperate to get off that street.
“Move,” Jack said through gritted teeth. “Move, damn it.” He was loping against the tide almost blindly, knocking against people in his haste. He was running before he realized he was. Fight-or-flight, fight-or-flight. He’d lost his fight—it had been consumed by fear somewhere along the way—and now all he had was flight.
When he reached the parking area, the line of cars trying to get in had grown even longer. He banged into his car and scanned the parking lot—there was one way in, one way out. How would he get out? He was trapped! Anyone with just a passing acquaintance with firearms could come in and start picking them off, one by one, and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it.
He couldn’t breathe. His heart was on fire. He clutched at his chest, certain he would die in a parking lot, gripped by a heart attack.
“Hey, buddy, are you okay?”
The voice was that of an older man, but Jack couldn’t focus on him. “Heart attack,” he croaked.
The rest of it was a blur. There were sirens, and then men around him, men in uniforms. If they were uniforms, he must be safe. Was he safe?
“Can you hear me?” one of the men asked.
Jack nodded. His head hit the wheel well of his car. He realized he was on the ground, gravel pressing into his body, and he had no idea how he’d gotten there.
“Are you taking anything?” the man asked.
Jack focused on him. A paramedic.
“Maybe some kind of beta-blocker?”
“What?” He was unable to form a coherent sentence.
“You’re okay.” The paramedic put his hand on Jack’s shoulder. “It’s okay.”
It wasn’t okay! Nothing was okay!
“We can take you in if you want, but your vitals are good. I’d check in with your doctor if I were you.” The paramedic began to pack up his stuff. “You had a panic attack.”
Jack’s face flooded with heat. “No way.” He didn’t know what had happened, exactly. This wasn’t the first time he’d had painful heart palpitations. But it wasn’t a damn panic attack. That was impossible—he was not that guy.
Jack drove back to Seattle that night. He couldn’t go near Main Street for fear of it happening again. He didn’t try to see his mom, either, unwilling to discuss why he looked as if he’d just been beaten to death, to face the possibility that maybe he was more like her than he wanted to be.
When he finally reached home, he walked in through the door of his apartment, locked it, then slid down on his haunches and dry heaved. What was happening to him? He was an ex-Marine. He’d served two tours in Afghanistan. How could this be him?
It was then that Jack saw the text from Ryder. Dude, where are you?
He turned off his phone and wearily put himself in bed.