The base was just a small speck on the horizon and nothing but a collection of small buildings on the outskirts of San Antonio, Texas. It was surrounded by barren countryside, and there was nothing green around it for miles.
The engine of my F-15 Eagle roared as I began my descent. John Vance, the Lieutenant Colonel leading the training exercise, delegated our landing positions through my headset. When his voice cut off with a resounding “over,” I dropped fifty feet, along with the fifteen other fighter planes in my squadron.
“Yo, Flynn,” another voice cut through my headset. This was not the Lieutenant Colonel. This was Grady; my happy go lucky roommate and best friend on base. “You’re flying like a little bitch today. What’s the deal?”
Our conversation was on an open signal and would be heard by everyone in the squadron. I was sure there was plenty of giggling happening within the cockpits as we closed in on the San Antonio base.
“Colonel’s orders,” I said.
“Don’t blame Vance for your shit flying, brother.” Grady chuckled.
“Major Flynn displayed some exceptional flying today, Major Taves,” John Vance drawled into the headset. “Perhaps you and the rest of the squad could look to him for some opportunities of improvement.”
There was a thick moment of silence over the headset as I grinned like a fool to myself in my cockpit. “You hear that, Major Taves?” I teased Grady all the time. It was no secret that my flying was of a completely higher standard than the others in my squad. It got under Grady’s skin—and so did me calling him “Taves.” He had specifically asked me when we started bunking together to call him strictly by his first name. But there was no fun in that. “Exceptional flying. You lot could learn from me.”
“Like how to be an ass?” Grady drawled.
“Don’t let the compliment get to your head, Ace,” John amended. “You’re a cocky bastard as it is. Enough chit-chat. Let’s get home. The evening is yours to do as you see fit.”
“Time to get fucking laid,” Grady sang over the headsets.
This time, the rest of the squad didn’t hide their laughter from us. We landed, spirits high, and climbed out of our planes. The Lieutenant Colonel was the first out and made his way down the tarmac toward Headquarters as the rest of us took off our helmets, headsets, and eyewear.
Grady joined me at my plane with the top half of his flight suit pulled down and the sleeves tied around his waist. I was in the midst of tying mine as he pushed his sunglasses up his nose and put his hands on his hips. “It’s gonna be a good night, Flynn. I can taste it. Bring on the babes and the alcohol. It’s been way too fucking long.”
I clapped my friend on the shoulder as we started toward our officers’ quarters. “You got that right. Do you even remember how to fuck?”
Grady slapped my hand off his shoulder. “Get bent. ‘Course I know how to fuck. Put it in, three thrusts, done. Right?”
“The poor women who’ve been unlucky enough to have been loved by you.” I chuckled.
“Nah, I’m just so good that three is all they can handle.”
“Or they want you to think that so it’s over quick. Like pulling off a band-aid.”
Grady pulled his sunglasses down his nose and glared at me. His curly blond hair was damp with sweat and hung in front of his blue eyes. “My ex seemed to think I was more than adequate in bed.”
“I think the key word there is ‘ex’.”
“Fuck you too.” Grady laughed, shoving me roughly to the side.
I stumbled but caught myself. Grady was a big boy. He was six foot five and had a good three inches on me. His mane of curly blond hair made him look even taller, and his thick, broad-shouldered frame made him the sort of man you didn’t want to tussle with. Like me, he was skilled in hand-to-hand combat, and the two of us had sparred several times during training events back in Austin. It was a draw each and every time.
We got to our quarters and grabbed our shower caddies before heading out to the shared bathrooms. A couple of other guys were there from our flying squadron, also scrubbing down. After washing away the dirt and grime of the day, we headed back to the officers’ quarters to get dressed and drown ourselves in cologne.
Grady pulled a picture from one of his bags and stared down at it. “Man, I miss my damn kid. It’s been nearly eight months since this picture was taken. I can’t imagine how different she looks now.”
“Ask Darlene to send you some new pictures. We have this thing called the internet, you know? She could just share them all with you.”
Grady snorted and shrugged his shoulders. “She doesn’t want to share anything with me. She’s still punishing me for choosing this shit over her and Emma.”
Emma was Grady’s three-year-old daughter. He talked about her on a daily basis. I wished I could relate to the way he ached to see his daughter, but I couldn’t. The thought of having a child scared the hell out of me—more so than flying a fighter plane into enemy territory for air warfare did. That was a breeze. There were rules and protocols and flight plans. But a child? There was so much unknown. And the world was a ruthless place. The idea of worrying for a little human was simply too much pressure.
“Emma is yours as much as she is Darlene’s,” I offered, hoping I was saying the right thing. “Maybe instead of getting piss drunk tonight, you should give her a call?”
“Nah,” Grady said. “She doesn’t want to hear from me.” He looked up at me and smiled, then handed me the picture of Emma that he had shown me almost every week for the last four months that we’d been in San Antonio. “Isn’t she cute as a button?”
Knowing this routine like the back of my hand, I took the picture and stared down at it like I always did. Emma was a cute kid; I’d give him that much. She was only a little over two in the picture. She was giving the camera a half-toothless smile. Her pale purple dress was splattered with drool and food—of what kind, it was impossible to tell—and her blonde hair hung in tight ringlets. She was her father’s daughter. That was for sure.
“She’s adorable, Grady,” I said before passing back the picture.
He ran his thumb over it and smiled to himself. “Yeah. She is.”
“You sure you don’t want to call her?”
He glanced at me. “Darlene?”
“Yeah. Who else?”
Grady sighed and tucked the picture back into the front pouch of his bag. “I’m sure. She doesn’t want to hear from me. Not unless she knows I’m coming back for good. She hates the military life, and I can’t blame her. It’s a lot of stress. She’s afraid of getting that call one day, you know?”
“Sure,” I said, even though I didn’t. There wasn’t a woman waiting at home for me, nor was there likely to ever be. Attachments only made my job harder. Love complicated things; it made it harder to take risks in the air, and that was my calling. The only people back home were my mom and dad, and my dad had been a military man as well. I grew up on military bases, and my parents knew the cost of this life. They were used to it.
We both got dressed in jeans and T-shirts as the night started to cool off. After slicking my hair back and shaving, we were ready to head out into town with the rest of the men and women who had the weekend off.
Everyone met at the gates and waited for the transport to arrive to take us into San Antonio for the night. As we waited, Grady nudged me in the elbow. “You’ll be my wingman tonight, right? You’ve got a way with the ladies.”
“A way with them?”
“You know what I mean. They just flock to you. It’s fucking weird.”
“It’s probably just my devilish good looks and southern charm.”
Grady arched an eyebrow and peered down at me. “Or the humbleness.”
I grinned. “Damn straight.”
The transport arrived just after eight o’clock in the evening, and the ten of us who were heading off base piled in. The van was filled with laughter and loud voices as we all shot the shit and teased Dylan, the youngest kid in the convoy, about meeting a girl. He was a wiry kid who had just joined the Air Force three months prior. San Antonio was his first base, and he was flying as part of our squad. He reminded me a bit of myself when I started at the ripe age of twenty-two.
Grady leaned forward and rested his elbows on the back of the seat in front of him, where Dylan was sitting. “So, what’s your type, kid?”
Dylan craned his neck to look back at us and smiled sheepishly. “Uh, I don’t think I have a type. I like blondes, I guess.”
“Guys or girls?” Brady waggled his eyebrows.
“Girls,” Dylan said hurriedly.
“Relax, just an innocent question. We all like what we like.” Grady chuckled. “You have a girl back home?”
Dylan shrugged weakly.
Grady and I exchanged a glance before my friend grabbed the kid’s shoulder. “That sure as hell looked like a yes to me.”
“Well, there’s a girl I like,” Dylan said. “But she’s not interested in me. I don’t think she even knew I existed while I was still there.”
Grady clamped his other hand down on Dylan’s other shoulder and squeezed. Then he jostled him around playfully. “When you go back home in your Air Force blues with your rank, medals, and ribbons, she won’t be able to remember what life was like before she knew who you were. Trust me on that, kid.”
“Ignore him,” I said, rolling my eyes. “Major Taves tends to glorify love and women. He can’t help it. He’s weak.”
Dylan cracked a smile and looked back and forth between Grady and me as we both started up some playful banter. The rest of the convoy joined in as I harassed Grady, who cursed at me for always inciting a mob mentality wherever I went.
“It’s not my fault,” I said defensively. “People just like me better. And I’m a better pilot than you, which has to mean something.”
“You’re a better pilot than everyone on base,” Dylan said gleefully.
Grady scowled at the kid. “Who asked you?”
“What?” Dylan said. “Everyone says so. And it was obvious when we were out on the training exercise. The Lieutenant Colonel says Flynn flies like he is the plane. I wish I were that good.”
Grady scoffed and slumped back in his chair. “Everyone says so,” he muttered under his breath. When he looked up at me, the lights of San Antonio were coming into view. “Don’t fuck up my chances of meeting some girl tonight, Flynn. And none of this ‘he’s the best pilot ever’ bullshit? You lot hear me? I’m sick of being upstaged by a cocky playboy.”
The convoy roared with laughter, and I settled back into my seat. “I’ll hook you up with the prettiest girl in there. Don’t get your panties in a bunch about it.”
“You’d better,” Grady mumbled.