Breaking the Rules: Chapter 1



A Year Later…

It’s too early to start drinking but I brought the beers anyway, one for me and one for the man lying six feet underground in a place that looks more like a city park than a cemetery. With its perfectly manicured lawns, meditation gardens and a manmade lake, it’s not a bad resting place at all. His grave even overlooks the Pacific Ocean.

I look down at Drew’s name on the headstone, one man’s life condensed into a rectangular piece of black granite and a few words under his name. Loving son. Faithful husband. Devoted Father. And beneath it, in bigger letters, United States Marine Corps.

What the fuck, man? Why didn’t you call me? After everything we’ve been through…

I take a deep breath and will myself to relax. I didn’t come here to raise hell with a dead man. I didn’t come here to judge. I came to pay my respects, visit him one last time and get a few things off my chest. I get down on one knee and wipe the headstone with my hand even if there’s nothing there. It’s immaculate just like everything else around me.

You had everything, man. A wife, a kid on the way… I sigh, rubbing my temples. Why couldn’t you have called me…someone, anyone? Hell, I don’t care. Someone. Why’d you listen to the demons? Why’d you let them win?

I let the words hang in the air for a few moments. I can sense my frustration building, that familiar feeling of helplessness growing. It’s the same feeling that hits me every time I think of Drew and what could have been if I only I’d been there for him… if only I didn’t fuck things up and let everything go to hell.

What’s done is done, Villier. Get the hell out of here and don’t ever come back. I laugh under my breath, remembering his voice and the last words he spoke to me more than a year earlier.

But I don’t leave. I’m not about to let a ghost chase me away. Instead, I remember all the shit we did as Marine snipers six years earlier. Crazy times… times that cemented our bond as brothers, where each day we went out on patrol could be our last. And for seven months we did it.

One week before we were to return home, our Humvee got hit by an IED. I still remember the moment it happened—the boom that changed everything—Drew pulling me out and winching that tourniquet tight around my leg where shrapnel tore right through. Years later, pieces of that damn shrapnel embedded in my skin still set off airport detectors. I laugh about it now though I wasn’t laughing then.

The slam of a car door invades my thoughts and I turn my head to see a petite, dark-haired woman lift a baby from the back seat of an SUV. She’s lost weight since I last saw her at Drew’s funeral a year ago and as she approaches, frowning when she sees me, she looks almost vulnerable except for the familiar intensity in her hazel eyes.

Alma Thomas, Drew’s wife. No, his widow.

A swirl of emotions hits me then—anger that she never told me about the extent of Drew’s problems, sorrow for everything she’s been through since he killed himself, and as she leans toward me to give me a light hug, a fierce surge of an emotion that I refuse to name.

“Hi, Sawyer, what a surprise to see you,” she says as she gives me a light kiss on the cheek. “Are you here on business?”

“I was but I’m off the clock now,” I reply, moving the beer can I’d set aside for Drew to the side as I help Alma set a blanket on the grass. “My boss flew in this morning and my flight to Albuquerque isn’t till this afternoon. Thought I’d pay the big guy a visit.”

She smiles. “I really appreciate that. How long have you been here?”

“Half an hour maybe?” I glance at my watch. Yes, half an hour of wishing I could turn back time and talk him out of pulling that damn trigger.

“I’m really glad you came.”

“I am, too.”

She adjusts the sling along her side as Tyler yawns, watching me curiously.

“He looks just like Drew,” I say. “I’m glad we ran into each other. I should have called you to let you know I was coming.”

“It’s okay. We come here on Fridays after Reading Hour at the library and I let him run around the garden over there.” She cocks her head toward a fenced-in area with benches and a white gazebo. “It beats sitting at the apartment.”

“I drove by your old house, by the way,” I say as her eyes widen in surprise. “I didn’t realize you’d moved.” Maybe I should have called her but even if I did, old habits die hard. I made the turn into their old neighborhood out of habit.

“The house was too big for just Ty and me,” Alma says, her gaze on the ground. “And it was kinda difficult to find a roommate considering what happened in the garage.”

“Your neighbor told me that you moved out of the house two months before… before it happened.” My voice is accusing now, as if everything that had been bottled up inside me since I last saw Drew alive comes rushing out. “Why didn’t you tell me, Alma?”

She looks at me, surprised. “I can’t believe you have the nerve to say that. I did call you. I asked for your help but you couldn’t be bothered.”

I stare at her but I don’t say anything.

“But after what happened the last time you were at the house a month before,” she continues, “I couldn’t blame you for not wanting to get involved again.”

I look away, shame filling me. Of course, I remember the phone call. And yes, I did hang up on her. After what happened the day I stopped by their house because she had asked me to talk to him a month earlier, I stepped away.

Drew had been alone in the house when I arrived, already drinking at eleven in the morning. He didn’t hear the doorbell ring. He was too busy writing in his journal with heavy metal blasting from his speakers in the backyard where I found him. He was always writing in his journals, even back at Camp Pendleton. I remember seeing him put his journal away and we hung out like I always did, only this time, I tried to talk him into getting more help at the VA, maybe even trying out some alternative healing therapies I’d tried years earlier when I’d gone through something similar. But all he could talk about were of his latest mission, the one where he lost two of his men. Just like the two men who died in the Humvee when we hit that IED six years earlier, he never forgave himself for not doing more than he could have.

When Alma got home from work that afternoon, I knew I had to speak to her in private. I needed to know what was really going on. Most of all, I needed to know that she was safe. For the first time since I’d known Drew, I couldn’t trust him, not when he was drinking as much as he was and talking nonstop about the Marines who died under his watch and the men responsible for their deaths. I’d seen how PTSD worked—I went through it when I first returned from Afghanistan after almost losing my leg—and I was afraid for her and the baby. When I took her aside in the hallway, she didn’t have to say the words for I could see the fear in her eyes. I could see it in the way she flinched when I brought my hand to her face…

That’s when Drew saw us. That’s when everything changed between the three of us and I had to step away—appalled, ashamed, guilty. Three months later, Drew would be dead and I’d show up at his funeral and never come back… until now, a year later because I couldn’t stay away any longer.

“I understand why you didn’t want to talk to me,” Alma is saying, her voice bringing me back to the present. “After what happened that day, it was probably for the best.”

“That’s not true, Alma,” I mutter. “That day, I… I wanted to make sure you were safe.”

Her eyes search my face. “Was that all?”

My mouth turns dry, the memory of seeing her eyes fill with tears as I cupped her face that day comes back to me. It broke me to choose between staying faithful to the man I’d called my brother for six years and the woman he married.

The silence that follows is deafening, broken only by Tyler babbling and holding up his plastic giraffe to me, as if showing it off. Alma plants a kiss on his forehead and I see her lower lip tremble.

“Forget it,” she says. “None of this will bring him back.”

I clear my throat. “Look, Al, can we talk about this over coffee? We don’t have to talk about Drew, but just… just stuff. Maybe catch up.”

Alma takes a deep breath and nods. “Sure. There’s a diner about three miles from here, just down the hill. They’re known for their pancakes. You can meet me there.”

I know the place she’s talking about. I drove past it on the way to the cemetery. “That sounds great.”

“I was about to text you anyway,” she adds. “Drew left you something.”

“He did?”

She nods. “I was going to mail it but I needed to make sure you still had the same PO box.”

“It’s the same, yeah, but I’m here now. I can pick it up and save you the postage.”

A gust of wind blows a lock of hair in front of her face and Alma tucks it behind her ear. “I didn’t want to cut your visit short. If you’d like to visit awhile, go ahead.”

I pick up the beer cans from the ground. “Nah, I’m good.”

“I’m not going to take long,” she says. “If you want, you can follow me there.”

“Stay as long as you want. I’ve got to check my emails anyway.” I make my way down the hill toward my rental car, tossing the beer into the trash bins along the way. There’s a bench beneath the shade of a jacaranda tree but I walk past it, needing to be in the safety of my car to think.

After relaying my condolences to Alma a year ago, I never thought I’d see her again. With Drew gone and what happened between us three months before he killed himself, there was no reason to keep in touch with her. There’s also that unspoken code of not getting close to your best friend’s widow. It’s just there. You just don’t do it.

Still, that’s not what’s bothering me for I could care less about what other people thought. Right now, as I watch Alma kneel in front of Drew’s grave and touch his headstone, I feel like an interloper. I feel like I know too much but at the same time, I don’t know anything at all.

Who am I to say that everything I thought I saw when I’d visited them a year and a half ago pointed to a scared and battered woman? So what if she answered my question about whether things were okay or not with a stammered yes or a furtive glance to make sure Drew wasn’t close by to hear her? What if it had all been my imagination?

But what if it wasn’t? What if my gut instinct was right, that she was no longer safe around Drew?

Yeah, right, Villier. Not that you did anything about it. You ran, dude. You ran like a fucking coward.

The knocking on the passenger window startles me from my thoughts and I see Alma waving at me from outside the car.

“I’m ready,” she says cheerfully as I get out and follow her to her SUV a few feet away. I hold open the rear passenger door as she buckles Tyler into his car seat, her auburn hair glistening in the sun.

“Look, Al. I’m really sorry about Drew,” I say as she hands Tyler a purple octopus before checking the buckle of his car seat.

“You did what you could and I really appreciate that.”

I could have done more, I almost counter but I keep my mouth shut. Like she said earlier, nothing I can do or say can change the reality that Drew Thomas is dead.

“Are you ready for that cup of coffee you talked about?” She asks as I shut the passenger door.

I nod, taking the hint. “Sure.”