“We wait. We hope. We pray. Until you’re home again.”
Integrity first, Service before self, Excellence in all we do.
This we’ll defend.
Those are the mottos of the five military branches of the United States. I have brothers in four of them.
Chris Kennedy is the oldest at thirty-one; he’s a Marine Raider. When our dad died, he took over as head of the household. Every paycheck he got, he put it into our family’s bank account. He had always been a caretaker. When our dad was away, he would help take care of me and my brothers. He’d always helped mom whenever he could: taking us to school, helping us with our homework, making dinner, and overall just being like a dad. I adored him, and he’d always been the brother I went to if I was having a hard time.
Then there was Nathan, the second oldest at twenty-nine; he’s a Navy SEAL. If you could have the complete opposite of Chris, it was Nathan. As a young boy, he’d always been a bit of a daredevil, getting into things he probably shouldn’t have. Once in a while, it even landed him in detention at school. But he was brilliant both in academics and in sports and had been the star quarterback for our high school. That had caught the eye of many recruiters from universities all across the country, but much to our surprise, he chose the Navy. To be honest, none of us thought he would actually last because he’d never been the best at taking orders. But he proved us wrong, and we couldn’t be more proud of him. He was a lot different now, not as daredevil as he used to be, but he had changed after what happened to dad…
Liam came next. He was the middle child at twenty-eight and is a Green Beret. He is definitely the brainiac of the family. I’m pretty sure he has a photographic memory. He’d been bullied a lot in middle school and even part of high school because of how smart he was. This was unbeknownst to our older brothers who would’ve punched anyone if they messed with Liam. But somewhere between junior and senior year, he went through a massive growth spurt, growing up and growing big. He had asked Nathan to help him train to bulk up and you could see the effects of it. No one messed with him after that.
James is the youngest of the brothers at twenty-seven and is in the elite forces of the Air Force. He’d always been the shy one of the brothers, but always kind. He noticed things that most people didn’t, and always knew when something was bothering any of us. It was James who Liam had gone to about the bullying because surprisingly enough, although James was quiet, he had been popular. Maybe that was because he was a football star, like our brothers before him, or maybe it was because he was extremely good looking (although I overheard the girls say all my brothers were). Regardless of the reason, Liam had gone to him, and James had promised not to say anything to Nathan or Chris. To this day, they didn’t know. The only reason I knew was because I overheard a conversation between them.
Lastly there was me. The youngest of all of them at twenty-six. Unlike my brothers, who had followed in the footsteps of our dad, I followed the footsteps of our mother. I was a military psychologist like she had been; she taught me almost everything I know. I’d always been the friend in the group that people came to, either to vent to or for advice. I took either one in stride, and it always had given me a sense of pride knowing people trusted me with their innermost secrets and that they trusted my advice. But I wanted to do something for the military as my brothers and father had done before me, so I became the same thing my mother did.
When my dad had passed away, my mother had trouble being around military families who needed grief counseling when she was dealing with her own, so when I graduated university, she made the decision to open up a counseling firm for anyone who needed it. However, she avoided any soldiers. She sent them all to me. But we didn’t do it alone. My best friend, Hannah Lee, joined us as well. What was unique about our business was that you not only had the option of talking to my mom in a private room, you also had the option of going on a horseback ride with me. And then Hannah provided therapy rides for kids with disabilities; she was a natural with them. For a while, we didn’t think it’d take off, but soon we were booked every day. You paid for how long you wanted the session to be. We had six horses of our own, but if a patient wanted to bring theirs, we encouraged that too. It was a nice little setup and kept the three of us preoccupied from worrying too much about my brothers.
Hannah Lee understood the heartache and the anxiety that came with having a family member in the military. She was engaged to Nathan and had been so for the past five months. He’d been deployed for almost the same amount of time, having proposed to her right before he left. We wouldn’t be seeing him at least for another month. It was hard, but we managed.
Both Liam and James had been deployed a week apart from each other. Liam would be gone close to three months, James and Chris around six. Chris had been deployed almost six months ago to date, so the wait to see him would soon be over, and I was barely able to contain my excitement.
“Honey, I have errands I desperately need to run. Can you and Hannah handle taking care of the horses by yourselves tonight?” Mom asked, digging around in her purse for her keys.
“Of course. Everything okay?”
“Yes, of course. Do you need anything from the store?”
“I think we’re low on milk,” Hannah mentioned, walking into the room. “And could you grab some more Oreos? The birthday cake kind?”
“Ooh, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream too!” I added.
“How you girls stay in shape is beyond me. I even think of a donut, and I gain five pounds.”
“It’s all the lifting we do,” Hannah laughed.
“The only thing I’ve seen you two lifting recently is cartons of ice cream. All right, Abigail, Hannah Lee, I’ll be back. There better be some Ben and Jerry’s left in that fridge for me when I get home. Along with some wine,” mom warned, the smile on her face taking the seriousness out of her words. She finally found her keys in her purse, then left the house.
Hannah and I headed out the back door to go take care of the horses and get them ready for the night. It didn’t take long. We were so used to doing this that we had a routine down to a tee. Plus it was only six horses that needed to be fed. Hannah and I switched off doing the feeding and the grooming. Today I got to do the latter while she did the former. It allowed her to head back to the main house and start cooking dinner. She and mom wanted to cook a massive roast for dinner due to it being Chris’s birthday. We couldn’t celebrate with him since he was overseas, but we wanted to celebrate as if he were. We’d sent him a few cakes to his location so he could not only try multiple flavors, but he could share with his brothers-in-arms. Considering Hannah could cook like no other, I was secretly glad today had landed on her day to cook.
I lead Drogon out of his stall. He was one of three horses that I owned. Viserion and Rhaegal were my other two. If you can’t tell, I’m a fan of Game of Thrones. Hannah Lee owned the other three: Kodiak, Sitka, and Atka. I always used Drogon in my sessions, and she always used Kodiak. The two were the most temperamental, and while I knew most of my clients could handle them, I didn’t want to be sued in case one of them were injured. In Hannah’s case, most of her clients couldn’t handle Kodiak so she never let them ride him.
Even though all the horses had been fed and been prepped for the night, I was feeling rather upset at the thought of my brother not being here on his birthday and rather than drag Hannah into my melancholy mood, I chose to stay out in the barn with my country music and my horses.
I was belting out to George Strait, slowly working through my way grooming each of the horses, unaware of how much time had passed, when my phone buzzed. It was my mom. Turning down the music, I answered.
“Hi honey, I know this is last minute, but I ran into three friends and invited them over for dinner. They know Chris, and I thought it’d be nice to have them celebrate. We’ll be another hour and a half before we’re home because I still need to go to the store and the traffic is terrible. Could you let Hannah Lee know?” Mom asked.
“Yeah of course. Do we know them?”
“I think so. But then again we see so many people, it blurs together who knows who now. All right, I’ll see you soon sweetie. Love you!”
“Love you!” I hung up and shoved my phone in my pocket.
“I wonder who the friends are?” I asked Sitka, facing her. “Who on earth could it be?”
I had a tendency to talk to the horses like they were people, like they could understand me, like they could respond back. I knew they weren’t people, but I believed whole-heartedly that they could understand what I was saying. And maybe they couldn’t respond in English, but maybe they responded in their own way. There had been too many instances that proved to me they could…
After putting Sitka in her stall, I made my way back into the house. My mouth watered at the smell of prime rib, roast potatoes, gravy, carrots, and Yorkshire pudding being cooked for dinner. Knowing Hannah Lee, she had made a feast that could feed an army so I knew it’d be no problem that we had three more people eating with us.
“Hey, mom is bringing three friends of Chris’s over to celebrate his birthday. Is that okay?” I queried.
“Yeah of course. I’ve already showered but if we have guests coming over, I’m going to need to make myself presentable. I’ll let you shower and get dressed first but then could you watch the food while I do my hair and makeup?”
“Awesome, see you in a bit.”
The moment Abigail came down without her makeup on, I raised my eyebrows at her. She simply smiled, raised her makeup bag and said, “There’s a mirror right there. I’ll do mine down here so you can go and get dressed without having to rush.”
“You’re a doll!” I exclaimed. “The gravy might need stirring once in a while, and the potatoes will need to be turned over in about ten minutes. Otherwise, you won’t need to do much.”
“Sounds good,” she responded. I dashed up the stairs to my room, hurrying to do my hair and makeup. Thankfully my routine didn’t require much, and God had blessed my hair today so that even with the near hundred-percent humidity, it was still smooth, straight, and glossy.
About twenty minutes later, I went back downstairs. Abigail was sitting at the bar, scrolling through something on her laptop. I caught a glimpse of Chris’s face on the screen, and it dawned on me she was looking at photos of her family. I chose to let her be, because she had never been one to really show emotion, not even to me. But I also knew she’d come to me when she was ready to talk about something, when she had gathered her thoughts and could put them into words.
“Hey, I’ll be right back. I’m going to go put my laptop upstairs and charge it before mom gets here. I think that’s her headlights pulling up now,” Abigail said, nodding towards the window where I could see two beams of light coming down the driveway. My best friend hastily made her way up the stairs, just as the car parked outside the driveway.
Mrs. Kennedy entered the kitchen via the mudroom, grocery bags in hand. In it she had gallons of ice cream, massive boxes of Cheez-Its, cookie dough, and some other essentials, but I wondered what kind of breakup this friend of Chris’s had gone through to require all that. I mean I’d help them eat it, but still, that seemed a bit overkill.
“Where’s Abigail?” Mrs. Kennedy asked.
“Upstairs, charging her laptop.”
“Would you go get her? Make sure you come down with her so she actually comes down.”
“Sure,” I said. I padded quietly upstairs to find Abigail staring in frustration at her computer, causing me to say, “Something wrong?”
“Computer is freezing up. Mom home?”
“Yeah, she said to come down and for me not to come down without you so you actually come down now.”
Abigail snorted, getting up from her bed. The two of us went back to the kitchen, Abigail leading the way. Just as she reached the bottom of the stairs, she came to a screeching halt, causing me to bump unceremoniously into her.
“What the-” I began before she bolted to an unseen stranger. I finally reached the kitchen to see why she had reacted the way she did. Three people stood at the bar, chatting and smiling with my mom. Chris Kennedy, who was currently being strangled to death in a hug by Abigail; a tall, handsome, dark-blonde in a Marine’s uniform stood next to him with a gentle smile on his face.
Then there was a man with piercing green eyes and short cropped hair standing in a Navy uniform, grinning at me.
“Is my fiancée going to give me a hug or is she just going to stare at me?” Nathan queried in amusement. I felt the tears roll down my face as I ran and jumped into his arms. He lifted me up, causing my feet to dangle off the ground. One arm had wrapped itself around my waist while his other hand cradled my head against the crook of his neck, and instantaneously, all fear and worry and anxiety disappeared the moment I saw him.
“What are you doing here?” I heard Abigail ask through her own tears.
“My tour ended early and I happened to find out from Chris that he was supposed to be getting back a day or two before me, so instead he met me in Newark, and we got a plane to Dallas together. We wanted to surprise y’all and we let mom in on the secret just today,” Nathan explained. At this, my fiancé set me down so he could hug his baby sister. I took the chance to hug Chris, him having been like an older brother to me since I could remember.
“Who’s your friend?” Abigail inquired.
“This is Grey Stone. He’s a brother of mine in the field,” Chris said.
“It’s so nice to meet you,” I told him, giving him a hug.
“Thank you for letting me crash your birthday dinner for Chris. I know it’s a family affair,” Grey stated.
“Any brother of Chris’s is family of ours,” Abigail said, pulling him into a hug too. “Speaking of dinner, what do you say we go eat? I’m sure y’all are starved.”
I wrapped my arms around Nathan’s waist, reveling in the fact that he was here, still partially unable to believe this was anything but a fantastic dream. But the flutter in my heart when he pulled my lips to his told me that this was anything but.
Throwing her arms around Chris and Grey’s shoulders, Abigail ushered them to the dining room table. Nathan threw his arms around mine and his mom’s shoulders and we followed the rest of the family.
And for this one night, everything was perfect.