It trembles from my shaky nerves and it makes me seethe with anger.
I can’t even pull the goddamn trigger because I am a coward.
The same coward I’ve been all my life. The same one that walked away from the girl I loved and his best friend because shit got too real and I couldn’t deal.
The same boy who turned into a man, hiding in the military because he was too fucking scared to face his guilt. The same one that made piss-poor decisions that had a ripple effect on the rest of my life.
The consequences that would unfold.
The mistakes that would be made.
If I could take back some of the things I’d done in the last ten years, I would. Without a doubt. All but one.
But that’s not how life works, is it?
And now here I sit, overlooking the Smoky Mountain range, my feet dangling off a dock at my parents’ lakefront home, regretting almost everything. Regretting all the stupid things I’ve done, the decisions that can’t be undone and the things I couldn’t save.
I couldn’t save my friendship with Sage.
I couldn’t save my sister from the cancer that ate away her insides. Or my mom from having to suffer through the deaths of her only daughter and her husband.
I couldn’t save those on my watch and in command, who died and left widows and fatherless children behind.
I couldn’t save my doomed-from-the-start marriage.
And I couldn’t save myself from breaking London’s heart when I left her, kneeling on the ground, tearing out her heart through her tears. The pain to see her like that was so great it cost me a piece of my soul.
I was a coward then and I’m a coward now.
The gun in my hand is the only thing that reminds me that I’m a man and I have courage. That I’m doing the right thing and will save my son from looking up to a man he calls Daddy and finding out later the devastating truth. That his father is a lying piece of shit and a no-good, worthless man.
My breath is stilted as I lift the cold, metal gun and press it into my temple, as I have to consciously drag air into my lungs.
The irony in all this is that London once called me her protector. She thought I was some goddamn hero. As did my family and friends, and those in my pararescue unit in the USAF that I served with. And now my crew in the Tennessee forest fire rescue squad. All those men and women who thought the pins, stripes, medallions, and plaques that have been bestowed upon me over the years prove that I was meant to be revered.
If only they knew…
I’m nothing but a shell of a man, hiding behind a made-up heroic façade.
Closing my eyes, a myriad of memories flash through my head. Like the explosions in the night sky that I escaped countless times in missions in my special ops pararescue unit.
In a blink of an eye, the last ten years appear, at first bright and bold and then clouded with the black stain of death, regret, and guilt.
Everything changed that prom night ten years ago. Every moment and step I took after that was marred by the stupidity of my youth. My ignorance and arrogance. My recklessness. And my naivete of how people – and hearts – can change in a single moment.
My heartbeat ramps up, beating wildly on a collision course as I waffle back and forth over what I must do.
If I want to save my son – the only one that I can honestly save at this point in my life – I must take control of this one final decision.
I mentally count down my last seconds on this earth.
I breathe in through my nose, inhaling the crisp, fall scent of the land and earth around me. The fragrance of my childhood.
Come on you coward, just do it already.
Everyone will be better off without me.
The small, excited voice of my son, Taylor, reverberates off the water, as I hear him calling me from the top of the hill close to the house I grew up in.
Shit. He was supposed to be gone with my mother in town. I was supposed to be alone.
Dropping the gun to my lap, I quickly snap on the safety and slide it in the holster between my thighs. Turning to look over my shoulder behind me, I place a smile on my face, reserved solely for my son. Shielding my eyes from the direct sun to see the shadowed and silhouetted body of Taylor running down toward the lake dock.
Fuck, what if he would’ve found me?
A sick feeling of despair rumbles inside my stomach, retching to climb out. He wasn’t supposed to be here. I’m a selfish prick. What was I thinking?
Taylor flies toward me, his five-year-old spindly legs leaping in gigantic strides and arms flailing in all directions from his sides. He looks like a crazed octopus from one of those cartoons.
Standing and sliding the gun into my back pocket, I stretch my arms out wide and welcome him home.
“Hey buddy. You’re home. What are you doing back so soon?”
He slams into my body and I pick him up, swinging him around in the airplane toss he practically lives for. His joyful giggle worms into my heart and eats away at my guilt.
“Hi Daddy! We came home ‘cause Nana brought someone to see you.”
I’m sure confusion is etched across my face. Our trip home was an unexpected visit and I can’t imagine anyone knows I’m here or would stop over to see me. I don’t have any friends left in this town anymore and the ones I once had…well, I burned those bridges a long time ago.
“Who is it, buddy? One of Nana’s friends?” I inquire, thinking maybe it’s Helen or Marjorie, my mother’s church friends.
Taylor shrugs his bony little shoulders at me, wiggling from my grasp and jumping out of my arms and onto the wooden dock. He runs toward the edge of the platform and I have to grab his wrist and pull him back with a hard yank to keep him from barreling into the water.
My son is fearless. Like I was at that age.
But that trait is long gone for me.
Taylor grins widely, crinkling his nose up and laughs.
“I don’t know,” he giggles, running back in the other direction. “Some lady named London.”
My legs nearly buckle from the weight of that name. In fact, I have to sit back down on the dock to keep from falling over.