Skyscrapers

by The Outsider

Copyright© 2020 by The Outsider

Drama Story: Civil engineer Todd Rook felt he had little to show for his time on the planet other than a good job and a few possessions. It will take a former friend from his past to make him understand what he had, and what he still needed.

Tags: Romance   Military   Workplace   Alternate Timeline  

See the man with the lonely eyes
Oh, take his hand, you’ll be surprised

– Supertramp

<ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!>

The annoying klaxon of my alarm clock jerked me from sleep. I grabbed the clock and threw it to the floor, silencing it for nine more minutes.

<ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!>

God, I hate Mondays. Now I had to get out of bed and find that damn clock -- which is what a throwable alarm clock is designed to make you do.

I didn’t sleep well last night, but that didn’t change the fact it was time for work. All those beers watching football yesterday didn’t help, either. I shut off my alarm and sat back on the bed. I scrubbed at the heavy stubble on my face. No getting away without shaving today.

Putting weight on my left leg was more of a joy than usual. I knew that misstep at the job site Friday was going to come back to haunt me. Not doing my strengthening exercises didn’t help, either.

The forty year-old face staring back at me from the bathroom mirror looked as tired as I felt. I ran my hand through my thick but prematurely gray hair; I needed a haircut. I patted my stomach and grimaced at how it jiggled. I promised once again to get back into shape -- like I had every day for the past five years or so.

After a hot, leisurely shower I strapped my heavy-duty knee brace on and got ready for the day. I gave thanks once again for the baggy canvas work pants I favored. Unlike most pants I didn’t have to spend fifteen minutes trying to stretch them over my brace, or fighting in vain all day to get comfortable. I simply pulled these up and away I went -- albeit slowly.

Grabbing my work bag I limped out to my truck. Cliché, I know: a guy who works at construction sites drives a truck. Half the time I parked in a paved parking lot and worked in an office. It was the other half of the time when I needed it.

What I really needed today were my ultra-polarized prescription shades and maybe the sunscreen in my bag, depending how long I was on site. My backpack held those items along with my Corps of Engineers hardhat and my nifty inflatable PFD -- an inflatable personal flotation device or ‘life jacket’ for the uninformed in the audience. Working on the water you’d better slather that sunscreen on every place you have exposed places, and the higher the SPF the better. Reflected sunlight can cause sunburn inside your ears even on a cold fall day. Ask me how I know.

As a senior district engineer I didn’t really need to be out here checking on a project for the third day in a row. I was senior enough to have minions now, my minions all know their jobs, and I hate micro-management as much as they do. One of my minions was out here cutting her teeth as a sub-project lead, however, so I felt I needed to swing by.

Beth was good, just green. She worked her way up through the ranks in the district as a heavy equipment operator while going to engineering school at night; she had the knowledge to manage this job, as well as the people skills, but this was also her first time running part of a project and it was entirely on the river. The Mighty Mississippi wasn’t very forgiving. I knew the rest of the guys would watch out for her, but you can never underestimate Old Man River.

Standing five-foot-four in her steel-toed work boots, I dwarfed Beth at six-six in mine. The thirty-four year-old blonde cutie made jeans, a twill work shirt, and her float-coat look damned good; if my heart wasn’t a cold, dead cinder -- and I wasn’t her boss -- she’d have more than my professional attention. Her husband might take issue with that, too. Still, it was hard not to smile around her.

A face that used to get me to smile -- one I hadn’t seen since college -- surfaced from my memories. I shook off the unwelcome ghost.

“Hey, boss,” Beth chirped as I stepped onto the barge waiting to take us to the site.

“Hi, Beth. How we looking?”

“Good. The other groups finished up with the new lock gates last week and will have them operational late today or early tomorrow. That’s freed up the equipment we need to place the rebar and forms inside the cofferdam today. We should be able to pour the foundations for the powerhouse mid-week. Give the hydraulic cement a week to cure after that and the crew will start placing the generators inside and putting up steel.”

“Sounds good. That’ll put the project a week ahead of schedule. Nicely done.”

She shrugged as the barge left the shore. “The crews know what they’re doing, and haven’t given me or the foremen any grief about getting stuff done. Especially not since I took care of Dolan that first day.”

Ah, yes, Tom Dolan. Asshole Extraordinaire. He’d been a thorn in my side since I reported to the Rock Island district office six years ago. Also gifted heavy equipment operator like Beth, he wasted that well-earned reputation by being the most disagreeable person possible. He never started a job without bitching about it for ten minutes first, bitching about it the whole time doing it, or bitching about it to his buddies at the bar later. Usually it was a combination of all three.

He grabbed Beth’s ass the first day of the powerhouse job. Without blinking she raked her boot down his shin and smashed her forearm into his face when he bent over in pain; she hadn’t made it to site supervisor by being timid. Dolan flopped to the ground with blood streaming from his nose. She woke him up by dumping a five-gallon water cooler on him.

“Get this piece of shit off my job,” she growled before walking away. Four guys grabbed his arms and legs and tossed him in the back of his truck. I know he’d been crowing long and loud how he had seniority over Beth, and should be a supervisor instead of her; he now faced a constructive dismissal hearing.

Beth got a not-so-stern talking to from our boss, and a bouquet of flowers from the rest of people on her crew. Anyone in our district would have done anything Beth asked even before that -- because earned her position by working hard on site and in school, and she asks. She also takes every opportunity to praise people’s work, though she won’t shy away from telling them when they messed up. She does it in a nice way, like a coach trying to teach and not as someone trying to embarrass them. People eat it up and treat her like their favorite kid sister. Doesn’t work for everyone, but it does for her.

“So what’s your plan for this week?” I asked her. Beth walked me through the schedule for the week’s work, and what she needed to watch for on-site. Her plan included laying of the heavy cabling for a bank of Neptune’s Forge generators. The ten massive new Neptune’s Forge HM-105s would provide seventy-five percent of the power for the entire Quad City area once online. The Corps of Engineers planned to add a powerhouse to every lock and dam complex on the Mississippi.

“Well, you sure don’t need me here watching over your shoulder. That plan sounds good.”

I turned to survey the site again and a beam of sunlight reflected off the river, catching me right in the eyes. Even through my ultra-dark sunglasses the light caused pain to lance through my left eye and deep into my brain. I flinched and turned away.

“You okay, boss?”

“Yeah, old football injury...” I blinked a few times and brushed tears from my left eye. I shook my head to clear it, but the pain remained. “I’ll see you later this week, Beth. I’ll be at the office if there’s a problem.”

I rode another construction barge back to the staging area on the Iowa shore and my truck. I dry-swallowed some ibuprofen to kill my headache as I drove. The Government Bridge to Rock Island Arsenal lay less than a hundred yards upriver from where I’d been and was my usual route to work. It’s a good thing you don’t need paperwork to drive from state to state in this country; I’ve driven from Iowa to Illinois and back more times than I can count. I’m an engineer, so I can count pretty high.

I pulled into district HQ’s parking lot after showing my ID badge to a heavily-armed nineteen year-old at the arsenal’s gate. I thanked the spirit of whomever decided to include an elevator in the redesign plans for this building. My desk was on the third floor and my knee still wasn’t happy.

“Hey, Todd.” My boss Sanjay Patel may look like he just got here from the subcontinent, but the accent told everyone he was from Georgia. My attitude had improved since I got here from Vicksburg, and Sanjay was the main reason.

“S’up, boss?”

“‘S’up?’ What are you, sixteen?”

“You’re only as old as you feel, boss,” I quipped as a I sat at my desk.

“And today you feel... ?”

“At least sixty.” I felt like I needed to ice my knee. Too much time on the water puts a lot of stress on it -- especially since I haven’t been doing the exercises I learned at physical therapy years ago.

“How do things look on the lock and powerhouse project?”

“Like I said two weeks ago, they’ve got it nailed. The locks will be in service within a day or two and they’ll finish up in about a month, barring any issues. My team is a good one this time around -- they’re under budget and ahead of schedule.”

“Good to hear. Anyway, Colonel Torkelson’s change of command ceremony is next week and he’s bringing his replacement by for a tour later today.”

“Great. Shoot me now. Why does the Army care about what we do here again?”

“Because we’re the ones who will build or repair any civil works they need built or repaired on-post. The fact that we’re called the United States Army Corps of Engineers might have something to do with it, too.”

“Yeah, well the new guy better not expect us to fix the toilet in his office like the guy before Torkelson. What a tool he was.”

“Smile and wave, Todd. Smile and wave.”

“Right. I’ll try not to drool on the floor either, Sanjay.”

“Don’t get my hopes up.”

I attacked the pile of paperwork sitting on my desk while awaiting the Army’s pleasure. I could see my desktop by just after noon. Some days I wished I was back on the job sites full-time.

“ ... and up here is where our senior engineers hide,” I heard Sanjay say as he walked back into my area. Geez, how many times have I heard him tell that joke? I rose from my desk and turned to greet the Army officers.

I don’t play poker because I can’t hide my emotions very well. Jack Torkelson and I always got along well, but his replacement would pose a challenge. I thought I’d left this person twenty years in my past, and I wasn’t happy to see her again. From the look on her face the feeling was mutual.

“Colonel, I’d like to introduce you to one of my able assistants, Todd Rook,” Sanjay said to Colonel Torkelson’s incoming replacement.

“No need to, Mister Patel. Mister Rook and I have met.” Well, she certainly had the ‘unhappy CO’ voice down pat.

“Colonel Torkelson,” I said, extending my hand, “best of luck to you, sir.” I spared a brief glance at the other officer. “Colonel.” I turned my back and sat down at my desk. Sanjay made apologetic noises and led the officers away. I’m not sure how long I glared at my computer before someone slapped the back of my head.

“What the f•©k was that?” Yeah, Sanjay wasn’t happy. I noticed my fellow engineers had left the area, too -- good call on their part.

“A bit of bad history resurfacing.”

“Well, you better get that shit out of your system because Colonel Porter’s here for four years! We have to work with her office, and I’m not gonna cover your ass if you piss her off!”

“So, just assign someone else to her projects.”

“BULLSHIT! If it’s your turn to lead a project, it’s your turn! You know how I operate! Now what is your problem with the lady?”

I turned away as more storm clouds gathered over my head. Sanjay wouldn’t let it drop, though. He walked around my desk to keep glaring at me.

FINE!“ I spat. “Have you heard why I wear this damn brace? Or wear sunglasses that could qualify as welding goggles?”

“Yeah, some fraternity asshole beat you up in college.”

“Some football-playing fraternity asshole beat the shit outta me, Sanjay!” Sanjay played Division III college football, so I had to throw that dig at him. “He broke my cheek, my jaw, my nose, my arm, my ribs, damaged my eye, and stomped the hell out of my knee. I had a four-year Army ROTC scholarship in college, Sanjay; they paid for my civil engineering degree. You wanna guess how the Army usually expects ROTC scholarship students to repay their largess? Huh?

“Your new friend, Lieutenant Colonel Samantha Porter, was that asshole’s girlfriend at the time. He beat the f•©k out of me for talking to his girlfriend. Sam and I had been best friends since freshman year, Sanjay, and nothing more! More than once I told her he hated my guts; she kept blowing off my concerns and it cost me. I wanted to be an Army officer since I was twelve, Sanjay, an officer in the Corps of Engineers like my dad. Her boyfriend took that all away from me.

“F•©k!” I yelled, lurching out of my chair and throwing my stapler to the floor. “Goddamn it, I was happy here! Good crews, good coworkers, good boss! Now I have to transfer to another district to make my retirement date! F•©k this, I’m outta here!”

Lucky for me my condo in Davenport is down the street from my favorite bar. No, I’m not talking about the flashy place on the first floor of my building overlooking the river but the dive two blocks away; it’s an easy walk even when I’m not thinking straight -- like now. Six years of coming into this place made me a regular. That and trading punches with the guy who tried to throw me out the first time I walked in. I won, so I still come here.

“Little early in the day for you, Todd,” Bill commented from behind the bar. It was only one in the afternoon.

“Bad day,” I replied as I slid onto a stool.

“You want your usual?”

“Shot of Black Jack to start, Billy. Then I’ll have my usual.”

Bill’s brows rose. “Oh, that kinda day...”

The whiskey burned on the way down, then lit a fire in my belly. “Oh, yeah,” I croaked, “that’s what I needed...” I nodded at Bill and he plunked my beer down in front of me.

Paul, my favorite regular at Billy’s and the asshole who got in my face during my first visit, chose that moment to make an appearance.

“Collishboy!” he slurred as he put his arm around me; I think he meant ‘college boy.’ “Howyadoin? Buy me a drink.” His breath stunk and his BO almost knocked me off my stool.

“Get your arm off me, Paul,” I snarled. I was in no mood for his shit today.

“Ah, c’mon!” He hadn’t caught the tone of my voice and leaned closer. “Juss one little drinky drink.”

I turned toward him, causing his arm to slip off my shoulder. “Get lost, you disgusting piece of shit.” He must not have liked me calling him that because he tried to hit me; a seven year-old would have seen his punch coming. Glasses rattled when Paul wound up face-down on the bar with his arm twisted behind him. The room went silent.

“I’m not in the mood for your shit today, asshole!”

Paul whimpered in pain.

“Todd, ease up, man,” Bill pleaded. “You’re hurting him.”

I flung Paul’s arm away in disgust. I think I threw a ten at Bill to cover my drinks before storming out.

Anger fueled my walk home. I used the door from my building’s back parking lot to get inside. I hate trying to dodge twenty-somethings leaving the overpriced place out front before I can make it to the main door. Having one of them piss me off tonight would be a bad thing.

I didn’t bother with the elevator and stomped up the back stairwell. I flung the door to the fourth floor open, pounded down the hall, then slammed the door of my condo shut behind me. I paced back and forth trying to calm down, which didn’t work. My scream of rage echoed through my place.

Have I mentioned I hate Mondays?


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Goddammit.

<ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!>

Someone kept stabbing an ice pick into my forehead in time with the harsh tone of my alarm. It seems Tuesdays aren’t any better than Mondays when you have a hangover. Last night I stood at the kitchen counter and tried to find solace in the two six-packs from my fridge. I don’t recommend drinking when you’re angry.

I shut off the alarm and rolled out of bed. Staggering across the hall to the bathroom, I glanced in the mirror. Status confirmed: I looked like shit.

I managed to choke down four ibuprofen, then chased them with diluted orange juice after I made it to the kitchen. My stomach flip-flopped when I looked at the food in the fridge. I dry-swallowed another eight hundred of the pain reliever after I rinsed my vomit into the garbage disposal. I’d better wait on breakfast.

At the office I dropped my stuff at my desk. I tried to ignore the looks from my coworkers but I could feel their eyes on me. I sighed and turned for the stairs. Up on the fourth floor I knocked on the open door to Sanjay’s office. He looked up from his laptop and folded his arms across his chest.

“You look like proof that zombies exist,” he offered.

“I feel like it.” Were the lights always so bright in here?

“Did you come by to eat a little crow today?”

I held up a hand. “Can we not mention food right now?”

“What, like chicken and waffles? Bacon sandwiches? Sliders?”

“Nice to see you’re still the same asshole you’ve always been.” He laughed at me and waved me to a chair. The room took a second to stop spinning.

“You gonna tell me what that was all about yesterday?” he asked.

“I pretty much told you the whole story yesterday. Not much else to it.”

“You gonna make it through the day?”

“No promises. In case you’re wondering, I’m all set for lunch.”

He laughed at me as I walked out.

I cleared my paperwork backlog but didn’t accomplish much else. I drove to Jack Torkelson’s office mid-afternoon to apologize.

“Please, Todd, I already knew you were an asshole,” he laughed.

“Well, I didn’t want your opinion of me to falter in the week before you PCS. Is your relief not around today?”

“No, I cut her loose a few hours ago; she’s at her condo unpacking. It’ll be easier to get a handle on things here if she doesn’t have to worry about dodging boxes when she gets home.”

“Condo? She’s not living on-base, then?”

“No, she opted to get a place in Davenport again. She’s letting an officer and his young family take the on-base housing originally assigned to her.” As a colonel, Sam would have rated a decent-sized place.

“I’ll catch up with her at some other point, then.” I hoped to keep ‘missing’ her, honestly. “No need for her next four years here to be awkward if she keeps running into me; with as much work as the district does here, I’ll see her quite a bit.” Though not if I can help it, I thought.

“Am I going to see you at the reception after change of command Friday?”

“I’ll be there. Where are you headed next?”

“Fort Lee, Virginia. Assistant to the Chief of Ordnance.”

“See you Friday.”


I spent some time with Jack and his wife after the change-of-command ceremony Friday afternoon. I escaped after about a half-hour. Events like that make me uncomfortable -- too many smiling people. The ceremony was the official end of my work week so I decamped to my favorite watering hole.

Did I take time to talk to Sam? Not so much. Too many people wanted her attention and I hadn’t yet apologized to her. If I could stretch not talking to her to cover the four years she’d be here that’d be even better.

At Billy’s I was nursing my third beer and feeling mellow the whistling started behind me. I ignored it, knowing what kind of clientele tended to draw whistles at Billy’s. Then a familiar and unwelcome voice cut through the country music.

“You touch me again and I’ll feed you that hand through your ass!”

Christ, I didn’t want to talk to her now, not when I’d just started to unwind. How the hell did she find this place? I doubt the Davenport Chamber of Commerce has it on its list of tourist attractions. I kept my eyes on my beer.

I almost spilled that beer all over myself when my buddy Paul hit the bar next to me face first again. His right hand was bent up behind his shoulder blade. That didn’t look comfortable, and neither did the underwear pulled way up past his waist.

“Guinness!” my nemesis barked to Bill. His eyebrows rose, but he pulled her a pint and set it on the bar. Damned if she didn’t drink it while keeping Paul’s hand pinned behind his back. I sighed. I guess having to talk to her was inevitable.

“Would you be more comfortable sitting, Colonel?”

“You’re next on my list if you call me ‘colonel’ again, Todd!” She hauled Paul up and shoved him out of her way. He disappeared into the shadows at the back of the room.

I allowed myself a good look at my one-time friend as she sat down. The years had been kind to her. Her glowing chestnut locks cascaded down over her shoulders, without a gray to be seen anywhere; the look had always been much more flattering on her than the tight bun she wears while in uniform. Except for a few laugh lines the skin of her face was smooth. Any extra pounds on her long frame were well hidden; my money was on her still being very fit. Sam wore no wedding ring on her left hand, either.

She looked damn good. Shit.

“No, I’m not married, Todd,” she growled, her dark eyes boring holes through me. “I’m sure your wife wouldn’t be happy about you checking me out like that, or with you sucking down beers here all afternoon, either.” I held up my bare left hand. “Thanks for showing me all five fingers, at least,” she muttered.

“Give me a minute.”

We sipped our beers without trading barbs for a moment or two.

“Guess you were trying not to talk to me today, huh?”

I’m surprised I didn’t snort beer out my nose at that. “Just figure that out, Ms. Porter? That’s why I left the reception when I did.”

“You weren’t around when I was stationed here ten years ago.”

“Ten years ago I was halfway through my time as an engineer on the Cape Cod Canal in Massachusetts. After that I worked down in the Vicksburg district, mainly on flood control projects. I came here six years ago. I had planned to stay until I retire in a few more years.”

“Oh, and now a ghost from your past has shown up and you might change your mind on that? Didn’t know you were still afraid of me, Todd.” Okay, a definite edge to her voice now; my keen powers of observation told me she was pissed.

“I’m not afraid of you, Samantha,” I sneered back. ‘I don’t know why the carpet’s all wet, Margot!’

“Whatever you have to tell yourself, buddy. You’re the one who tucked tail and ran back to Minnesota.”

“I noticed you didn’t come back to my hospital room during the week I was there, either.”

“While you were flat on your back, Todd, I was busy dealing with the Neanderthal who thought he was still my boyfriend. He had trouble understanding we were through after he beat up my best friend. I finally had to knee him in the balls to get it to sink in. By the time I got back to the hospital you’d already pulled up stakes and disappeared. You didn’t return any of my calls or letters, either.”

“I was too busy trying to get healthy and finish my degree! I was a little busy suing the frat and your boyfriend, too.” Not to mention I didn’t want to stay in that goddamn town. To this day I’ve never been back.

“Uh huh. And the five minutes it would have taken to send me an email or call me?”

“I could ask you the same thing.”

“You might want to check your spam folder, pal: I DID email you. You’re the one who never answered.” She sipped her Guinness before dropping the hammer on me. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you had a crush on me, Todd?”

“Right, the weakling, walking beanpole telling the prettiest girl at school that he likes her ... When the hell was I supposed to do that, Sam? Every time I wanted to you were with someone else -- someone who could kick the shit outta me by the way -- or you’d just broken up with them. Then the cycle would start all over again. Even after I finally bulked up I was too shy to tell you how I felt. That’s why I yelled at you after Lonergan beat me up. I was hurt, frustrated, whatever -- take your pick. My plan for the future had just been shattered and I blamed your boyfriend Daniel T. Lonergan for it.”

“Rightly so...”

“And I blamed YOU, Sam!” I yelled, slamming my fist down and cutting her off. “Goddamnit, I lost count of how many times I told you Dan hated my guts but nooooo, you kept blowing me off! ‘You’re imagining things, Todd... ‘ Sure, right up until he destroyed my f•©king knee!”

Sam’s angry glare reflected in the mirror behind the bar. “Our friendship is what I’ve missed the most over the years since then, Todd. Sure, I made friends at OBC and in the years since, but nobody’s ever been the kind of friend you used to be. I’m sorry I never recognized that for what it was then.” She finished her drink. “Too bad you’re such a miserable f•©king bastard because of it, too.” Bill waved off the look asking how much she owed him and she left.

I drained my own glass. So much for feeling mellow -- the clouds had gathered again. Well, three drinks, three hours ... I should make it home just fine. Standing made me rethink that a bit, but whatever. Bill slapped my receipt down in front of me. I always settled up at the end of the night.

I looked at the total. “What the hell, Bill?”

“You chased a lady like her away more than once? Damn straight I’m making you pay for her drink.”

I threw forty bucks on the bar, a thirty percent tip just to avoid the argument. The cold late-November night air outside woke me up. I was surprised it hadn’t snowed here yet.

I trudged up to the fourth floor via the back stairs again. I locked my door behind me and turned on my sound system. I set my music software to shuffle and sat on the couch looking out across the river.

I left my lights off. With my curtains open the streetlights provide enough illumination inside to see by. Having my lights off also lets me see the glow of navigation lights on the river barges, the lights on the dam, the bridge, and at the arsenal. Many a night have I sat here in the dark thinking about things.

Tonight my mind was stuck on Sam. She was right -- I did have a crush on her all through college, and seeing her today brought it all back. The friendly hugs we shared in the past always left me wanting more, her tall, six-foot frame fit so well against my six-five height. And the first time I saw her in a sports bra and tight shorts ... I’d always been too afraid to follow up on my feelings.

As I sat there a song from the distant past started, one I hadn’t listened to in over ten years. Slow, plaintive notes from an electric guitar filled the room. One line of the song really got to me.

It’s a broken life that I cling to...

Shit, is that what I’ve been doing all these years? I always got along fine with my coworkers but I’ve never really hung out with any of them, never allowed myself to get close. I’d go to all the parties and show my face, but I never stayed long. I was better than I’d been in the past, but I still used my college injuries as a shield to keep others away.

So find me a way to leave this wasted life behind me...

I looked down the hall toward where the two bedrooms were. Only one was a bedroom, the other held a few random things. I glanced around the main room of the condo. A few personal items here and there but I wouldn’t call the room ‘inviting.’ What I would call it was empty, barren, sterile...

Wasted.

My earlier fatigue returned. I was forty years-old and had nothing to show for it but my job and a few possessions. I hauled myself up and limped to the kitchen. I remembered there was another six-pack in the fridge.


<ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga! ... ahOOOOga!>

I really gotta stop leaving beer within easy reach when I’m moody. Hangovers are no fun at my age.

I wouldn’t be getting an early start on my drive home to Saint Cloud, that’s for sure. Praise be, I didn’t have to work today with it being Saturday; I was also on vacation as of yesterday afternoon. Moving slowly I finally got myself together. I called my mother as I pulled out of the parking lot.

“I expected to hear from you three hours ago, Todd.”

“I could say the same for you when I didn’t call at eight, Mom.”

“And you didn’t leave then, why?”

“I figured the world should stop spinning before I started driving.”

I could hear her purse her lips. “Todd Alan Rook ... do you mean to tell me you were hung over this morning?”

“Yep!” I replied with false cheer.

“Todd...” she growled.

“Mom...” I growled back. “I ran into Samantha this week.”

That left her speechless for a moment. “Samantha? Samantha Porter?”

“That’s the one, Mom.” I sighed. “Wasn’t really expecting to ever see her again.”

“Where did you see her, Todd?”

“She’s still in the Army, Mom. She just took command over all the manufacturing and maintenance shops at the arsenal.”

“And how is she?”

“Okay, I guess; we haven’t really talked much. Still looks the same, though.”

“I remember her being such a lovely young woman, inside and out.”

“Yeah...”

“Did you ever tell her about your crush?” Mom must have heard my surprised blink. “A blind person could have seen you were infatuated with her then, Todd. When did you figure it out?”

“Not until last week, honestly...”

“Well, you’ll have about seven more hours to think about things before you get here. You be careful; your stepfather and I will see you for dinner.”

Mom nailed the drive time: with three bathroom breaks it took me seven hours to get to her house; thank God for ibuprofen once again. And no matter how old you are, when you show up at your mom’s house after over a year away you’re gonna get a huge hug.

“Hi, Mom,” I said once I could breathe again. At six-foot-one Mom was no little old lady.

“Hi, sweetie!”

“Mom,” I sighed. “Hi, Dan,” I said while shaking hands with my stepfather. Yeah -- Dan -- that made things awkward when Mom first introduced him. Mom let me finish dinner before she asked about Sam. I don’t know how she held out that long.

“So... ?”

“I barely got to talk to her, Mom, so I don’t know much about her life since college.”

“How did she look, Todd? Happy?”

“Can’t really say there either, Mom. She wasn’t real happy with me when I last saw her so I might not be the best source of information.”

“Do you still care for her?”

“Maybe? I don’t know. It’s been hard to separate my feelings for her from the anger I still feel.”

“Todd,” Dan interjected, “your mom told me a little about your friend after you called this morning. Based on what I heard it’s clear to me you two had feelings for each other back then, even if neither of you recognized it at the time.” He picked up his beer and leaned back in his seat. “Of course, I’m an old Marine NCO who’s probably just talking out his ass.”

“You’re always talking out your ass, Dan,” I laughed. Mom made a disgusted sound at the male bonding and walked out of the dining room shaking her head.

“Look, Todd, I know I’m only your stepdad, but if you want my advice just relax and enjoy being with your family this week. If you do that, when you head back to Davenport you’ll probably be in the right frame of mind to think about this situation with your friend.”

“Dan,” I replied, putting my hand on his shoulder, “you got Mom to smile again after Dad died. At the time I didn’t think she’d ever get there. You’re more than just my stepdad.”

I swear the gruff old Jarhead had tears in his eyes.

I got to hang out with Mom and Dan for four days before Thanksgiving. I got past Dan’s first name long ago and we had some good talks; he really was a good guy and a terrific granddad to my sisters’ kids. I also took the time to cruise around the part of Saint Cloud where I grew up. Not much had changed from my last visit.

I felt more relaxed than I had in years by the time my sisters and their families converged on the house Thursday morning. The other grandkids looked like they were all gonna be tall and most were still in junior high, though a couple had just started high school. When my oldest niece Astrid walked through the door, however, I wondered who the tall, blonde bombshell was for half a second.

Guess what, Todd? Your niece is twenty-two and all grown up. Shit, she was at least six feet tall now.

“Uncle Todd!” Astrid cried before dashing over to hug me. “You’re here!”

“Good God, Astrid,” I whispered during the hug. Holy Sweet Jesus. Wearing that short skirt her legs really did go all the way up... “Are your parents beating the boys back with a flame thrower?”

“No, I do my own dirty work now that I’m out of college.”

I haven’t seen her since before her freshman year in college, though we’ve talked on the phone lots. I’ve always felt close to her; there were many times when I felt closer to her than my sisters. I smiled at some of my best memories of her.

Astrid’s eyes narrowed before she leaned back and studied me.

“What?”

“Who are you and where’s my mopey Uncle Todd?”

“Has it been that bad?”

“Hey, Mom!” she called. “Your brother’s not a morose, moping asshole today!”

“Astrid!” my oldest sister Frankie squawked. I don’t doubt Frankie’s called me that a time or two.

“Tell me my description’s inaccurate.” She paused but no reply came. “Didn’t think so.” To me: “You and me are having a skull session after dinner, sir.”

As usual Mom pulled out all the stops. I don’t know how she does it, but food for twenty appeared all at once and all of it was still hot when served. I hope she taught my sisters how to do that, because I’m about hopeless in the kitchen. Before I could slip into a turkey coma after dinner, Astrid took me by the hand and pulled me out to the sun porch. She handed me a beer and pointed me to a chair.

“Wait, what the hell is that?” I asked, pointing to a similar bottle in her hand.

“It’s a fermented alcoholic libation, much like the one I just handed you.” She took a long pull from the bottle.

“You look far too adept at drinking.”

“No shit, Sherlock. College, remember? In addition to majoring in chemical engineering, I minored in alcoholism like most of my peers.” It’s not hard to see why Frankie says Astrid should be my daughter based on her attitude at times. “I’m growing out of that phase, though. Anyway, it’s story time.”

“‘Once upon a time there were three bears... ‘“

“Knock it off, wise guy. You know the story I want to hear: what changed that my beloved Uncle Todd, the man who taught me how to cause trouble, is no longer angry at everyone and sad about everything?”

“I think you really inherited that from your mother,” I snorted; Frankie was a real handful growing up. Astrid inherited the look she gave me from her mother, too. “Okay, fine. I ran into an old friend a few weeks ago, someone I haven’t seen since college.”

“Who was it?”

“You might have been too young to still remember her, but it was my friend Samantha.”

“Miss Msantha?” Astrid squealed. “She’s back?”

I had to laugh, not only at Astrid’s reaction but at the thought my super-intelligent niece wouldn’t remember my best friend from college. Frankie and her husband Bruce lived in the next town over from my university back then; Sam and I visited their house as much as possible to see Astrid. And get a free meal.

“Yeah, after all this time...”

“So what actually happened your senior year?”

“You don’t know the story? I figured you would have heard it from someone in our family by now.”

“I know I stopped seeing her sometime before I turned four, that’s it. Now spill.”

I spilled. I told her about everything: my crush, The Incident, how I ran away, and how we ran into each other again. It was probably fifteen minutes before I got through it all.

Astrid stared at me. “And now that you’ve found her again you’re doing your level best to drive her away? Do I have that right?”

“Did you load up on psychology electives at school, Doctor Freud?”

“Cigars? Blech! I’m a woman and therefore smarter than you, that’s all.”

“Humble, too.”

“I’m the complete package, what can I say? Seriously, Unk, you gonna let Samantha go again?”

“I don’t think I want to but I’m still so damn angry, Astrid.”

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