A booming voice pulled me from my sleep. “Kailee, I need your keys.”
I popped up from my bed shoving my blankets far enough down so I could see and pulled the sleep mask off my head. Jackson stood in my doorway. Daytime already? I groped around my nightstand until the rubber of my phone cover brushed my fingers. I grabbed it and blinked my eyes until I could see the faceplate. 3:01 a.m. “Jackson, why do you need my keys?” I moaned.
“I’m goin’ to Austin.”
“Why do you need to go to Austin at three a.m.?”
“Take care of somethin’.”
“What’s wrong with your truck?”
“I hit a Plymouth yesterday.”
And now you want to drive my car. I sighed. “Give me ten minutes.”
“Kay, I don’t need you to drive me around.”
“I’m way too hung over to drive, but you’re not going off in my car by yourself. I learned that one the hard way.” When you were gone with it for two days and dad spent the night at his office and forgot to take me to school. I had to call Farrah and I never know when she’s going to flake on me.
“Kay, you don’t need to come. If you do, you have to sit in the car.”
I sighed. “Jackson Wayne Hill, it’s my car. Do you want to use it or not?”
“Just give me the keys.”
“If you leave in my car without me, I’ll report it stolen. How long will you spend in the brigs for that one?”
Jackson sighed and backed out of my room. There was something wrong with his lack of response. I got up, threw a pair of dance pants and a t-shirt on, grabbed my keys, and started down the stairs. I held out my hand to give Jackson the keys then snapped it back. “Have you been drinking?” I asked.
I sighed. “Not really isn’t no.”
“Kailee, give me the keys.”
When Jackson got on a mission like this there was no changing his mind, and I knew I couldn’t drive. I gave my brother my keys and hoped I wouldn’t regret it later. “Don’t drive over eighty. Don’t change lanes two at a time, and don’t dart in and out of traffic.”
“I taught you how to drive.”
No you didn’t. The guy that taught me how to drive never came home from Afghanistan. “I know.”
Jackson started driving my car toward his back roads, and no way were we taking Phantom Soldier tonight. It got its name from all the accidents that happened at night when drunk grunts sped to get back to base before anyone had noticed them gone.
“Take thirty-five,” I said.
“I need to meet someone.”
“And I need to live to take my chem test tomorrow. Thirty-five or park my car.”
Jackson didn’t say anything, but he turned left at the fork instead of right. We were taking I-35. I was so tired I could barely keep my eyes open, but I was afraid to fall asleep while Jackson was driving. He turned some heavy metal crap on, and I wanted to turn it off—find a nice pop station or even country—but fighting with Jackson was never worth it. He was more than twice my size, and since he’d come home, he got really mad over nothing sometimes. So I stared out the window into darkness. It was the perfect way to spend the wee hours of Monday morning. I had no idea why we were going to Austin, and as curious as I was, I wasn’t even sure I wanted to know.
“Sissy, I have to tell you something.”
My chest tightened. Nothing good ever started with those words. This phrase meant Jackson was in trouble and needed help. It almost always ended up meaning I’d have to tell my dad something. The kind of something he didn’t want to hear. I sighed. “Jackson, what did you do?”
“Nothing. It’s just, I’m not in the military anymore.”
That wasn’t bad news. I mean, I didn’t know what my dad would say, but I was glad Jackson was done with the military. He wasn’t the same person he was when he left, and I didn’t know if I’d ever get my big brother back. But I knew the longer he was in the less likely it would become. “Why not?”
“I got kicked out.”
Ahh. The bad news. “Why?”
“They—they said I’m crazy. My PTSD leads me to violent tendencies, but it’s a medical discharge. No one else will know. It’s just—I’m not like you. There is nothing else I can do.”
“Aren’t violent tendencies good in the military? I would think that’s what they were going for.” Jerks. They sent my brother to a war zone. He was thrown fifty feet when a Hummer exploded. His back would never be the same again, and he wasn’t even twenty-one. But the PTSD they caused was too hard to deal with, so they were done with him. All of the sudden, I understood why people talked trash about the U.S.
“I guess they think violent tendencies are only good when you can control them. I punched my bunkmate’s face in. That’s why I’ve been staying at home.”
“So you’ve been out for a while. How come you haven’t told us?”
“I don’t know. I don’t really want Dad to know, but my savings is almost gone. He’s going to figure it out soon.”
“And you want me to tell him.” Dad wasn’t going to be happy about it, but I wasn’t mad about being their referee this time. I was more worried about Jackson than anything.
It was four a.m. by the time we made it to the city. No surprise there. But the mosque we pulled in front of was a shock. A sense of doom consumed me. My fingers trembled and something dropped in my stomach. If last night’s vomiting hadn’t purged my stomach of its contents, I’d be throwing up right now. “Jackson, what are you doing?”
“None of your business. Stay in the car.”
“What are we here for?”
“I told you. I have to talk to someone.”
“At a mosque? Jackson, what are you doing?”
“Nothing. Kailee, just stay in the car. I won’t be long.”
I didn’t like the sound of this. I had no idea what we were doing at a mosque, but I knew it couldn’t be good. Jackson had had nothing good to say about Muslims since he came home. “God, please keep my brother from doing anything stupid,” I prayed. Ten minutes passed and then twenty. I saw Jackson disappear through the front door, so I knew the mosque was open. But I felt weird trying to get in a mosque at four a.m. There was something unsettling about this. We shouldn’t have been there. The past few days had been hard enough with Jackson’s crap. I texted my brother, “Call me when you’re ready,” and got out of the car.
I needed to run. It wasn’t like there was anything else to do while I waited on Jackson to finish God only knew what, and a good run would help me think about everything that had happened in the last twenty-four hours. I broke the law last night for the first time ever, because yesterday I saw the truth. Caleb and I were not getting back together. It was over. Every time he had said he loved me, he lied. He loved someone else, and there was nothing I could do about it. To make matters worse, I kissed a guy last night who wanted nothing more than to get away from me. But even though I’d been in love with Caleb for a couple of years, he wasn’t in my dreams last night. Someone else was. The guy who wanted nothing more than to get away from me. It was probably the alcohol. Either way, I would run until my legs hurt, because then my heart wouldn’t. I sprinted down the street. I ignored turns as long as possible, so it would be a straight shot back. But I hadn’t got very far when smoke filled the air, burning my throat and making it hard to breathe. I looked back in the direction of the mosque. The sun had barely started to come up and everything was covered in a gray haze. What happened back there? Jackson! I yanked my phone out of my pocket, but I didn’t have a call or text. I contemplated if I should turn back or just keep jogging until Jackson decided to call, when speeding tires whizzed behind me, followed by a horn.
My heart pounded. Something caught in my throat as I jumped around to see my convertible speed toward me. It halted beside me. Jackson flipped the door open from the inside. I took the handle and pulled it farther open. Scooting into the car, I noticed a middle-aged lady in her bathrobe on her front porch. She made eye contact with me and shook her head. I didn’t have time to worry about why. Sirens went off somewhere behind us as I shut the door.
“Jackson, are you okay?” I asked.
“I’m fine.” His words were rushed and clipped. He stood up on the gas and barreled us toward the highway. He never slowed down as he took the ramp.
“I told you to stay in the car. You weren’t supposed to take off.”
“Jackson, what happened?”
“Nothing. I don’t know.”
“What were the sirens for?”
“I don’t know.”
He was lying to me, and he knew that I knew it. But I wouldn’t push the matter any further because the less I knew was probably better. At least this way if someone asked, I couldn’t tell them anything. Thank God, he’s out of the military now. If he’s done something really stupid, prison will be better than the brigs.