Chapter 22 - Ugly Mug
I tried to think of different ways to count the months but nothing worked.
May through November had passed at a torturously slow pace and considering I'd been on four separate tours to the Middle East, that was really saying something.
It killed me to get closer to River knowing that I would leave and I had no intention of telling her until I absolutely had to.
"Have you seen my blue top?"
River bounced into the kitchen with furrowed brows.
I shook my head. I hadn't seen her blue top since I shoved it into the bottom of the trash can last week. It tended to rid up her back and she was too innocent to know what that did to the boys her age.
"And also, happy birthday."
She plopped down on a barstool and I slid a bowl of yogurt and granola in front of her. I had become accustomed to taking care of her and it made ironing out my thoughts easier. It made the line between is wider, which was exactly what it needed to be.
Because River was bound and determined to cross it.
"I have to go, your lunch is in the fridge."
I wanted to distract her. She had been making a huge deal out of her birthday and I didn't want her catching onto anything.
I wasn't going to work today and I could hardly believe I'd been able to keep her out of the loop for this long.
It was even harder to believe that I had included Taylor Thomas in my plans.
He was in charge of inviting everyone over and distracting River today.
I was on my way to Norfolk to pick up her gift and a few other things that I couldn't find in our small town.
River was the least materialistic person that I knew. She didn't care about gifts but the gift I was picking up today would be the best one.
Jackson's plane was scheduled to land in two hours and River had no clue.
He was the only member of her family that mattered to her. The rest wasn't important enough.
She didn't have anyone else.
That was something that we shared and maybe one day, I would tell her all about it.
She tried to ask once but I was able to change the subject without her being too suspicious. Although I did find it interesting that she asked about my parents on the anniversary of their accident.
As if she somehow knew, which was virtually impossible.
After I found the things I needed for the party I pulled into the airport pick-up area at the same time Jackson walked out.
"My God, I never thought I'd miss looking at your ugly mug, Holmes!"
I walked toward my best friend and couldn't help but laugh.
"I missed you too, you idiot."
He dropped his bag on the sidewalk and pulled me into a bear hug.
"River has no idea right?"
He asked as he let me out of his grip.
"None at all."
"I'm not sure how you managed that. How has she been? She always tells me she's fine but you know how she is."
I did know. River would rather cut her arm off than ever let Jackson know that something was bothering her.
"Yeah, I do. But she really is fine."
"She dating the Thomas kid yet?"
My heart started to pump faster but I reminded myself to calm down.
"Not that I know of."
I managed to ground out.
"Probably for the best. I like the kid, I'd hate to have to kill him."
Funny, because I felt the exact same way.
"So I'll go into work for a few hours and after you pick River up, I'll head back to the house and we can party. You already bought the booze?"
"You know I did."
I slapped him on his shoulder and drove us home.
Hours had past and Jackson had already left when I got into my Bronco to head to the school.
I was so distracted when I pulled into the circle at the front of the building that I almost missed the back of Novack's head as it dipped down.
He was off to the side, half-hidden behind the shrubbery where most anyone wouldn't pay him any attention. But most anyone didn't have a River radar hardwired into their damn brain. I saw her orange backpack peek out before he turned his body toward her.
If I would've done one thing differently, took one extra step, got caught at a red light, blinked at the wrong damn time, I would've missed that son of a bitch in River's space.
I wasn't even sure what happened after that. All I saw was red and my only clear thought was to physically remove him from the earth.
I wanted him to be gone.
To no longer exist.
He was touching someone that wasn't his to touch.
She was. . . She wasn't his.
I could hear her voice screaming at me. She was begging me to stop and he was lucky that her voice was the only constantly clear thing in my mind.
I let go and his body fell to the ground as he coughed, holding his throat. Apparently, I had been choking him.
I could see people gathering in my peripheral vision and the reality of the situation started to sink in.
River was tugging at my arm when I looked over at her. Tears were rolling down her pink-tinged cheeks and all I wanted to do was wipe them away.
I almost did until Novack spoke.
"You're no different than me," He coughed more before continuing, "look at the way you're looking at her."
I wanted to kick him until he was nothing but a pulp but River grabbed my hand and pleaded with me to go with her.
"Pack your office, Novack."
I spat out before dragging River into the circle. He'd be out of a job within the hour.
I swung the passenger side door open but she wasn't moving fast enough, I grabbed her waist and hoisted her up into the seat then I grabbed the seat belt and stretched it across her body, and clicked it into place.
I didn't move, I stood still as I leaned my body awkwardly in her space.
He was right.
I was just like him.
"No, you're not. You're nothing like him."
She whispered as she reached out and cupped my right cheek, her tears falling onto her lap.
I didn't mean to say the words out loud, they meant too much.
They were heavy.
They were a confirmation.
One that neither of us was ready for.