THE CLAYS LIVED in a bungalow-style building that crouched between a small, unkempt lot plastered with mottled-yellow leaves and a row of identical duplexes. Steam rose from a vent near the back door, and Lauren could smell dryer sheets, laundry being done. The walk from Shane's had left her body feeling refreshed and strong, her joints loose and humming. Now she had a clear head to think about what she'd have to do at home.
She stepped up to the back door and pushed it open, instinctively putting her hand down to stop Sebastian from jumping, then remembered he was gone. To hear the door creak and no barking felt like missing a step. His round blue dishes were not on the floor beside the closet, but his leash and collar hung on a hook by the coat rack, along with Danny's jacket, her father's plaid scarf and puffy coat. It smelled like home; a damp autumnal smell of leaves, musty old books, and some kind of citrus cleaner, or maybe someone had been eating an orange. Things she forgot existed made her smile in recognition. Wallpaper, linoleum, the vintage microwave with the analog clock on the front. She was shocked at how clean the kitchen was, dropped her bag in the corner and took a few tentative steps toward the living room.
"Hello?" her father called, and the sound of his voice caught in her chest and made her want to laugh, suddenly calm and giddy at once. She heard the squeak of the ottoman being pushed away from the couch but kept quiet, stood grinning by the kitchen table, waiting for him to lay eyes on her, excited to see his face after so long.
Jack Clay walked into the hall, his hair pulled back into a shaggy gray ponytail. He opened his mouth and shook his head, blinked quickly, then smiled. He was wearing faded jeans and beat-up slippers and a red sweater that looked brand new. His chest expanded and he held his breath, his face at first confused; and then, filled with relief, with joy, he stretched out his arms and then, overcome, began crying.
"Dad," she said tenderly. He rushed into the kitchen to hug her, choked with emotion and laughing. He looked well.
"Dad," she said again, patting him on the back. He kissed her on the cheeks. "Oh my girl," he said, and his voice was hoarse. "It's my girl." She squeezed him tight and rested her head on his shoulder, then heard the race of Danny's footsteps pounding heavily down the stairs and he burst into the roomsix inches tallerhe hadn't been kidding, as tall as she was now.
Danny threw his arms around her and their father, and he rocked them back and forth. Jack let go so that he could give his sister a proper embrace. "Whooooo!" Danny yelled. He high-fived her. Then hugged her again. She rested her head against his shoulder and they stood that way close to tears. He still felt like a baby to her. Taller and thinner but no muscles. She pulled back to look at him. His once round face was now longer and defined, making their resemblance clear, the dark hair and eyes and some- thing in the expression. Some abiding tough sweetness.
"The two of you," Jack said, wiping his eyes, the smile still there. "Look at you."
Danny picked her up and walked in a little circle around the kitchen, humming some cartoonish victory song. And their father started laughing, really laughing from his gut, a sound they both loved.
"When did you get here?" Jack asked. "You didn't walk all the way from the airport, did you? We'd have picked you up!"
She and Danny stood side by side, arms around each other's shoulders, leaning into one another, a force now twice as strong as yesterday, smiling indulgently at him.
"I took a cab."
"Oh sweetheart, you're soaking wet," he said, shaking his head. "Danny, run down and get your sister some clothes."
Danny headed down to the basement, and she heard the hollow clang of the dryer door. A sound that proved she was home. That this was real. She had left the FOB, left Amarah. She had not dreamed this. She and Sue Godwin and Specialist Gibbons had driven to the airbase where they'd boarded a flight that had taken them back to the States. Less than three days ago, hours ago really, she'd been out on patrol. Now she was standing in the kitchen. Done with it. All of it.
From Be Safe I Love You by Cara Hoffman. Copyright © 2014 by Cara Hoffman. Reprinted with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc.
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