Top-secret missions were never all the movies make them out to be. He was glad this would be his last.
Sean stepped out of his black Altima and moved to the sidewalk on the dark street. The Bottoms Up bar was around the corner on Fourth. Its neon sign swung out over the concrete as he walked toward the building. His palms were sweaty. It had been 18 long months since he’d seen or even spoken to his bride.
The months in between had been torture for him, literally. He could still feel the vestiges of continued healing in his body. All he’d wanted for the past few hectic weeks was to surprise Jessi by coming home on their anniversary. She still lived in their apartment. His key had worked in the lock, but she hadn’t been home when he arrived. He searched and found her calendar with this place written on it. It also had a heart with their names on it. He smiled to himself.
Now he was downtown, hoping to surprise her, although this was not quite the romantic location he would have chosen. As he drew nearer, there was a commotion at the door. A woman with her coat half on stumbled out onto the pavement. The heavy bass of a country tune followed. He caught her before she could fall. She looked up at him with a blank stare and a silly grin.
Jessica? Recognition slammed him in the gut.
A burly man followed, coming to an abrupt halt before Sean. “Let her go, man. She’s with me.” The brute was dressed in dirty ripped jeans, construction-style boots, and a wife-beater T-shirt that said, Give blood—play rugby. He reeked of beer and sweat.
The girl in Sean’s arms stiffened as she turned to look at the loser. “I am most certainly not with you,” she spat out.
Sean’s years of military training brought him to high alert at the man’s threatening stance and tone. He’d hoped to live a peaceful life now and had left any weapons of his past occupation back at the base. In comparison to this man before him, he probably looked soft, wearing dress pants, a crisp white dress shirt, suit coat, and tie. He glanced down at his disheveled wife. Her blonde hair was pulled into a ponytail, and her blue eyes appeared glassy as she gazed up at him. Whatever it took, he would protect her.
“I know you, don’t I?” Her eyes squinted. She’d obviously forgone her contacts, but where were her glasses? She looked adorable in her confusion.
“Come on, Jessica, you promised me,” the bully said as he flexed his muscles in an attempt to intimidate and reached a hand out for her.
But Jessica continued to gaze at Sean. Slowly she turned to glare at the loser, her speech slurred. “I promised you nothing, Artie. You can leave now. I’m with him.” She placed a hand on Sean’s chest, and his heart flipped.
Sean wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her close as they faced Artie. “You heard the lady. You will leave now.” Sean spoke low, but his voice was edged with titanium. He had no weapons, but even with his hands and feet he was a highly trained killer. He could feel adrenaline pump through his veins as his body prepared for a possible fight. This certainly wasn’t how he’d hoped to spend his anniversary. But then, in the past year and a half, when had anything ever happened like it was supposed to?
Artie’s eyes darted nervously between Sean and Jessica. He shifted on his feet, clenching and unclenching his fists. Sean stared him down. The man finally turned and walked back into the bar, leaving them alone on the dark sidewalk with only the neon lights from the bar sign providing illumination.
Sean relaxed and let out a breath of air he didn’t know he’d been holding. He turned Jessica toward him, pulled her coat up over her shoulders, and held her gently by her upper arms as he bent to look in her eyes.
Jessica stared at him, and her head wobbled. “You’re cute. You remind me of…” And with that, her eyes closed and she fell limp.
Sean swept her up and took her to his car. Maneuvering her into the front seat, he reclined it back and buckled her in. He tried to wake her up, but she didn’t respond. Her pulse was slow and weak. Saying a quick prayer, he drove her to the emergency room. She couldn’t be drunk. She hated alcohol.
A short while later, Sean sat in the hospital room, his shirt unbuttoned, his tie loosened, and his sleeves rolled up. His jacket lay over the arm of the recliner. His suspicion had been right. The date rape drug had been slipped into her drink. Her blood-alcohol level had been so low it was almost nonexistent, whereas the amount of the tranquilizer was enough to have killed her. Sean thanked God for bringing him to her when she needed him most.
Needed him most? She’d needed him over the past 18 months, and he hadn’t been there. He’d been listed as missing in action and had suffered severe injuries in Iraq. If not for the kind ministrations of a missionary family, he would have died. When he recovered, he completed his secret mission for the government…and returned home to find his bride in serious trouble.
Why would she ever go to a bar? It wasn’t her style. But she had no way of knowing he was alive and well. The military had been unwilling to tell her, due to the sensitive nature of his mission. Could that have driven her to this? He shook his head. That part of his life was over now. Over for good. He was here in the States to stay. He hoped. But there were never any guarantees for career military personnel.
He watched Jessica hooked up to the monitors but breathing, thankfully, on her own. His heart ached for the pain his service to their country had cost her. Tonight could have turned out tragically different. The weight of that settled around him like a wet woolen blanket, suffocating him in guilt. He should have been here.
But his country had needed him too. His injuries had complicated things. She didn’t even recognize him with his slighter weight and different haircut. New scars littered his body. Would she find those repulsive? He cried out to God as he held his head in his hands and wept for all the should-have-beens.
Deep in his spirit he was reminded that God was a God of grace and mercy, and He had brought Sean back in time to protect his wife. God had seen him through the war and the trials in a foreign land. God saw and knew the pain of both of their hearts. If God could bring him here to this moment in time, he could certainly trust God for their future. The weight lifted, and he settled back into the leather recliner and slept….
A warning prickled the back of his neck. Someone was staring at him. He could feel it on the edges of sleep. He tensed. Where was he again? He inhaled slowly. Wherever he was smelled funny, and he could hear a steady beeping. Then it came back to him. He wasn’t in Iraq, but in a hospital room in the States. He let himself relax. Opening his eyes, he saw white everywhere with soft blue walls as a backdrop. Jessica was lying there, squinting, watching him. He rose, went to her purse, and dug for her glasses. Gently placing them on her face, he moved a strand of hair off her cheek.
Her eyes focused, but he could tell she still didn’t recognize him. He reached down with his left hand to clasp her left hand. There was a white line where her wedding ring had been, and his heart cracked a bit that she had removed it. He had saved two years for that ring, starting after their first date, certain she would be his. Her hand warmed at his touch.
He gazed into her eyes. “Jessie…did you doubt I would return for you?” He croaked the words out. The man who could speak with authority to soldiers in battle was struggling when faced with his wife. Uncertainty filled his heart. What if she didn’t want him? The thought was devastating.
Her eyes widened as she glanced from their joined hands to his wide gold wedding band and then up to his face. “Sean?” Tears streamed down her cheeks.
Reaching for a tissue with his free hand, he wiped the tears, then held the tissue for her to blow her nose. She did so noisily, like a foghorn . . . something he’d always teased her about but secretly loved. He smiled at her and tossed the tissue to the can by the side of the bed. Her eyes closed, and her grip loosened in his hand. “Jessi?”
She didn’t respond, so he sat back down to wait and pray as she slept.
Awhile later he returned from the snack room with a cup of instant coffee that tasted like heaven compared to what he got in the field. Entering the room, he saw her eyes open. She seemed startled when he turned the corner by her hospital bed. Little lines appeared on her forehead and between her eyes. He came to set the coffee down and put her glasses back on her face.
“You were listed as missing,” she whispered. “It was after a horrible attack, and so many died. But they couldn’t find you. They told me you were probably dead.”
He gave her half a grin. “Not happy to see me, Jess?”
“How are you here?”
“Later, Sweetheart. I’m sorry you had to go through all you endured in my absence. I’m home now and hope to make it up to you somehow.”
“Make it up? How can you make up the past year and a half? You waltz back into my life and want to pick up as if nothing happened?” He could hear the pain and loneliness in her voice. She never was one for surprises.
“You were drugged last night, Jess. If I hadn’t ‘waltzed in’ when I did, you would likely have been raped and dead by now.” His voice was soft, trying to take the hardness out of the reality.
She gasped. Her eyes held his as if to test the veracity of his words. “I don’t remember much. Only that you were like a guardian angel. I was safe in your arms.”
“I told you I would come back to you.”
“Pretty words, Sean, but you’re human, and I thought you had died. I thought God had taken my best friend from me.” Tears began again and Sean wiped them away with his thumb. She brushed his hand aside. “You couldn’t have called or emailed or Skyped to tell me you were well?”
“I was alive—but not well—and in enemy territory. Knowing you were waiting for me back home was the only thing that kept me fighting to come back from the hell I was in. I had no way to contact you. I can explain more later. I feel awful that you suffered so in my absence.”
Her body shuddered as she fought back more tears. Sean smiled. His redoubtable wife. She was his treasure, a gift from God he would try to never take for granted. He had missed her so much.
“If the doctor will let you come home, we can start fresh, you and I. Would that be okay?”
Jessica nodded. She reached to touch his unshaven chin, and he leaned forward to make it easier for her. Her frown deepened as her hands moved to his head and traced the scars amongst the short hair and along his cheekbone and forehead. “You almost died, didn’t you?”
Sean nodded. “But I didn’t. I came back for you. I’d hoped to surprise you for our anniversary. I had so many dreams of how wonderful our reunion would be.”
Jessica dropped her hand. “I was heartbroken you might never be coming back. Connie, a friend from work, invited me to meet her at the bar to visit and play pool. I didn’t want to be in our apartment. Alone. Missing you.” She shrugged. “I kept getting hit on and finally decided to leave.”
“But someone had other plans for you. I’m glad I came in time, Love. I would have been inconsolable to learn that anything had happened to you.”
Jessica smiled. “But you are here now. Thank you, Sean.”
“Anytime.” He smiled down at her.
The nurse came in to disconnect Jessica from all her apparatus and Sean left so she could dress. When he returned, he held out a bouquet of flowers. “Happy anniversary, Jessi. I’m home.”
Jessica walked to him and took the flowers. She brought them to her nose, inhaled, then set them on the bed. Clasping her arms around his neck, she pulled his face down to hers. His arms went around her waist as he waited for her next move.
“Kiss me, Sean. Please? I have so missed your kiss.” He willingly obliged. Her kiss felt like home.
This story was one of 39 published in I Choose You, an anthology by Oak Tara Press.
The rights reverted to me last year.