Zach got slowly out of the car he rented at the small air port he had flown into. He had never been to Appaloosa Plains before even though his Grandfather had grown up here. He wiped his sweaty palms down the sides of his pant wondering if he should have called first. He inspected his clothes. His sweatshirt was a little baggy from the weight loss he experienced despite being pregnant.
He rested a hand momentarily on his stomach. They seemed to be healthy. Seemed to be growing despite the doctor’s concerns over his weight loss. He ate maybe not as much as everyone seemed to think he should but he did eat. He couldn’t help it if everything he ate tasted like card board or it just wouldn’t stay down once he did manage to choke it down.
An older woman emerged from the house stood for a moment on the veranda staring at him. “Are you lost young man? she asked walking towards him.
Jolted from his thoughts Zach stared at her “I wh…um” his voice tapered off as his mind blanked refusing to connect coherent thoughts into words.
“Aunt Beulah the….”Waylon stepped outside his hair longer than it had been the last time Zach had seen him. “Zach?” he asked eyes riveted towards the blonde standing in his drive way.
“You know him?” his Aunt asked transferring her imposing gaze to her nephew relaxing just a little.
Waylon nodded eyes never leaving Zach’s face. “He’s the one…from university….I mean um.”
His Aunt nodded a look of understanding transforming her face into a genial hospitality. Moving past Waylon she stopped long enough to pat his shoulder. “Invite your young man inside. I’ll get the coffee.”
Waylon nodded walking towards Zach who appeared to have grown roots. “What are you doing here?” he asked once he was close enough to be heard without raising his voice.
“I should have called first” Zach choked out “I’m sorry. I…I should leave.” He reached for the door handle of his rental.
“Stop” Waylon cried “don’t go.” He leaned against the door preventing Zach from opening it.
A fleeting look of desperation crossed Zach’s face as he attempted to adjust to the situation. “I shouldn’t have come” he mumbled again backing away from Waylon.
“Zach it’s me” Waylon held his hands out to him “the same guy you shared a room with for almost a year.” He let his hands fall to his side taking a small cautious step towards the Zach who looked like he was about to break into a run. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
Zach closed his eyes as he attempted to slow his racing heartbeat and breathing. He struggled a moment when a pair of strong arms engulfed him in a warm embrace. Waylon’s familiar scent filled his senses momentarily giving him respite from his growing panic and anxiety. He trusted Waylon didn’t he? “I know you wouldn’t hurt me” he said hoping the doubt he felt didn’t come out in his voice “you know me I panicked.”
“I’m sorry” Waylon apologized stroking the blonde’s head “you got a hair cut. It looks good.”
Zach heard the note of disappointment in his voice. He kept from saying Teasha had kept him from shaving his head. He kept remembering how rough fingers had snarled in his longer hair yanking his head around. He shivered breaking the hold Waylon had on him.
Waylon stepped back putting his hands up in surrender “why are you here?”
“I” he sighed knowing he couldn’t put it off any longer “I needed to talk to you.”
“We could have talked on the phone” he pointed out irritation making his voice gruffer than usual “but someone wouldn’t answer my calls.”
Zach shrugged fidgeting with his fingernails “I’ve had a lot of things on my mind lately.”
Waylon grunted crossing his arms “Teasha mentioned you were seeing a therapist.”
“Uh huh” Zach looked up once wondering when Waylon had talked to his sister.
“Did it help?”
“Some” Zach mumbled “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“What do you want to talk about?” he asked his brows knitting together. Before Zach could respond the front door opened and Waylon’s Aunt announced coffee was ready. Smiling Waylon called back “we’ll be there in a minute.” Turning back to Zach he said “Aunt Beulah makes the best coffee.”
Zach followed Waylon into the house his eyes wary. “Thank you Mrs Gil” he murmured politely as she handed him a blueberry muffin on delicate plate.
“How do you take your coffee?” she asked.
“No coffee” he shook his head “if it’s not too much trouble I would love some milk.”
“Since when do you drink milk instead of coffee?” Waylon asked “you practically lived off the stuff at school.”
“Things change” he ignored the look of astonishment on Waylon’s face.
“It’s coffee. What could have changed that you can’t have coffee?” Waylon asked incredulous.
“Waylon there’s plenty of reasons to not drink coffee” his Aunt interrupted him upon seeing how jumpy Zach was becoming under the barrage of questions. “I remember when I was pregnant with your cousin I would have killed for a cup of coffee.” She laughed at herself missing the dismayed panic in Zach’s eyes. “I’ll leave you two alone. I’m sure you have a lot to talk about.”
When she was safely in the other room. Waylon leaned towards Zach “are you pregnant?”
Zach glanced up misery in his eyes. His lips pressed into a grim thin line. He could see his hands shaking as he set the milk on a nearby table. “Yes” he whispered.
“Damn” Waylon growled “it’s his isn’t it?”
Zach’s chin jerked up. His eyes wide as tears swelled and rolled down his cheeks. “It’s not” he protested. “I knew you’d assume that but they’re not. I didn’t…I wouldn’t.” He clenched his hands together under the disbelieving gaze of his boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend he corrected himself as he staggered to his feet “I knew this was a mistake.”
“Zach” Waylon cried reaching out to grab Zach’s arm as he passed him on his way to the front door. “Don’t run away. I’m sorry. Of course the baby’s mine.”
“You’re just saying that” Zach jerked his arm away “you think I’m so weak-minded that you can just say anything and I’ll believe you.”
“You know that isn’t true” Waylon protested anger causing his voice to come out gruffer than normal. He dropped his hand releasing Zach and took a step backwards “what did you expect me to think?”
“I expected you to believe me” Zach yelled at him. He crossed his arms hugging himself. Shocked at the vehemence he put into the words.
“Zach honey, you’re scaring me” Waylon said keeping his voice carefully neutral afraid to startle the blonde.
“I’m scaring you?” Zach demanded incredulous “why can’t I be upset? Any other person would be upset but I shouldn’t be? This is ridiculous. I shouldn’t have come.” He turned to leave stopping in mid stride as he was confronted by two men, one uniform.
“Waylon Gil” one of the men demanded in a deep no nonsense tone.
“Zach what’s the matter….” Waylon’s voice faded upon seeing the unfriendly faces of the officers at the door. “Can I help you?” he asked.
“Are you Waylon Gil?” one of the men asked.
“I am” he confirmed puzzled “what’s going on?”
“You are under arrest for the murder of Dexter Gage” the officer informed him while the other pulled out a pair of handcuffs. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney….”
Zach leaned weakly against the wall, ears buzzing, eyes growing dim as his vision narrowed. Why was this happening? Waylon wouldn’t hurt anyone, would he? He began to shake as a memory from that night forced its way to his consciousness. His heart was racing the way it had been that night as he stared down the barrel of a gun, knowing at any moment Dexter could pull the trigger. Someone had been screaming his name but all he could hear were the words Dexter was saying. Telling him that if he couldn’t have him then no one else could. Hearing the gun off. Something slamming into his back. The wet cold grass scratching his face as he lay on his stomach. Slowly realizing he hadn’t been shot. Dexter had missed. Relief surging through his body as he slowly recovered his senses.
He cowered in the grass covering his face and ears while Dexter and someone exchanged words. Someone with a familiar voice was yelling. The gun going off for a second time. A loud splash. An agonized scream. Then silence. Without looking Zach pushed himself up and ran. Ran to the dorm. Ran home. It felt like he was still running. No matter how far or how long he ran he couldn’t run from that night.
Teasha had sat with Zach while he waited for his fight. She worried about him going alone but with their younger brother being in a car accident neither of their parents could go with him and she was on her way to see Phoenix. At least it was a non-stop flight to Appaloosa Plains and Waylon would be there to pick him up she thought. “I’m glad you’re going to tell him” she said frowning at his lack of enthusiasm “is something wrong?”
“No nothing” he was quick to say sounding despondent to her ears. She couldn’t help but wonder why while she was waiting for her own fight to take off for Bridgeport. It probably wasn’t a good idea to let him go alone she realized now considering how despondent he was. Of course he had been that way ever since that night with Dexter. Trying to get him to talk about what happened was enough to make him close down, withdraw into himself. At least he seemed to be talking to his therapist.
As soon as she could she would call Zach. She had a terrible feeling something awful was about to happen. Although it could be her own apprehension over seeing Phoenix. She hadn’t seen or spoken to him in months. She had received a call from a hysterical woman who had called her to ask her to come see him.
Still deep in thought she collected her luggage and walked out to get a taxi to her hotel. She had just enough time to check in before going to the hospital to meet Phoenix’s mother. She’d have to wait to call Zach until afterwards she thought. She tossed her bags on the bed. Fished her brush out to remove the snags and snarls from a day on the run.
She arrived at the hospital. Followed the directions the nurse had given her to the waiting room. Hesitantly she approached an older woman crying in a corner. An insolent teenage boy stood scowling at everyone within sight. Taking a deep breath she approached the pair “excuse me are you Mrs McBride?”
“Teasha” the woman cried jumping to her feet and throwing her arms around the startled girl. “I’m so happy you’re here.”
“Humph” the boy slumped against the wall “I thought Phoenix broke up with you.”
Her eyes narrowed realizing that these were the people who had convinced Phoenix to dump her. “He tried” she replied “when he’s better we’ll rectify that.”
“Yeah right” the boy scoffed “take a look at her.” He pointed towards his mother “this is what being married to a military man does to a person. This is your future. You should run while you can.”
Teasha had to admit the boy made a striking point. Seeing the abject misery the woman was in didn’t paint a pretty picture. She had grown up with a father who was gone a lot fighting dangerous forest fires. Risking his life to save others. Her other dad had always supported him even though she could see the worry in his eyes every time Ramsey was called out. She could appreciate the fact Phoenix didn’t want her to worry like that over him but it wasn’t his decision to make.
“I think it’s my choice” she gazed steadily into the boys defiant eyes until he looked away first. Turning to the woman she asked “can I see him?”
“Yes” she nodded “just go in. The nurses know you’re coming.”
She walked down the hall heart leaping into her throat the nearer she came to the door. What if he didn’t want her here? What if he wants her to leave? She hesitated hand on the door praying for the strength she needed to handle whatever came next.
The room was dim. Only the sounds of machines marring the silence. Phoenix lay motionless on the bed. She gulped suddenly afraid of what she might see as her feet propelled her forward. “Phoenix” she croaked in a near whisper almost afraid of disturbing the silence.
He stirred on the bed. Hand plucking at the blanket. “Who’s there?” he asked voice rough and scratchy.
“It’s me” she said moving into the light so he could see her better “Teasha.”
He glanced in her direction than quickly away, a shimmer of tears on his once full cheeks. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“I came because you needed me” she spoke softly like she would to Zach.
“I don’t want you here” he grumbled swiping at his eyes with the back of his hand.
She glanced away, towards the door half tempted to leave and never come back. She tossed her hair back as if preparing for battle. Taking a deep breath she said “you don’t get to make that decision. Even if you tell the nurses you don’t want to see me I’ll sit in the waiting room.”
He turned to face the wall “you don’t understand.”
“Understand what?” she demanded trying to keep from feeling sorry for him.
“My back” his voice wavered “it was severed in the crash.” His face screwed up moaning he said “I’ll never walk again.”
The sound of thunder filled her ears. Feeling weak she dropped heavily to the bed. She tried to take his hand, to offer what comfort she could.
He jerked from her touch “I don’t want your pity.”
“I wasn’t offering you any” she cried “you seem to have that covered all by yourself.” She stood up strode purposefully towards the door “you’re right you don’t need me. People survive worse things than paralysis. They don’t give up.” She looked back knowing this might be the last time she ever saw him “I thought I was offering something to live for. A life with me.” She opened the door “I won’t wait around for you to change your mind. I’m through waiting. I thought I could prove to you I’d make a good soldiers wife. I should have been asking if you’d make a good soldier.”
When he didn’t respond or even move to stop her she walked out. The click of the closed-door made her feel like she had given him a death sentence. Maybe she had. He would now have to live with his wreck of a mother and his brother who forever throw the fact he couldn’t walk because of his short-lived military career. While she waited for the elevator she was half tempted to turn around and try again. She didn’t want to leave him like that.
She took a deep breath as the elevator doors opened. If he wanted her, he knew how to find her. The ball was in his court now. There was nothing else she could do.
She gazed out her hotel window wondering what she was going to do now. She had planned on being her at least a week if not more. She realized she had been overly optimistic despite her parents attempts to the contrary. Her phone rang. Racing to her bag she fumbled to find it. “Hello” she cried frowning as the sound of sobs reached her ears. “Zach is that you?” The sobs if anything got louder “Zach I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.”
“They. Arrested. Him” he said each word distinctly like he was unfamiliar with the words and what they meant.
“Arrested who?” Teasha asked confused.
“Waylon” he sobbed.
“Oh no” she murmured thinking the police had found out about what he and Donovan did. Hacking the guy who swindled his Uncle out of his lifesaving’s. She immediately started to worry about Hannah and how she was coping and whether she’d face prosecution for her minor part in the scheme. She licked her lips as she forced herself to ask “why was he arrested?”
The word hung in the air like an elephant in the room. Large and conspicuous. “What?” she gasped “who?” Her thoughts racing. Going back to the last time Zach had been at university. Waylon had opened the door. Covered in blood. What did he say? Oh that the blood wasn’t his. She had assumed it was Zach’s. She had trusted him with her brother’s life.
“They think he killed Dexter” Zach confided in her. She could hear the shock in his voice.
“Did he?” she asked.
“Did he what?”
“Did he kill Dexter?’ she wished she could reach through the phone and shake her brother to wake him up.
“No of course not” he said although his voice lacked conviction.
She could hear the doubt and fear in his voice. Was that why he had been so reluctant to talk to Waylon? Had he been afraid of him all this time? What was worse? Which was worse to have as the baby’s father, a murder or a rapist? “I’m on my way” she told him grabbing her bags from where she had tossed them on the bed and heading towards the door.
I’m curious who my readers think killed Dexter Gage. Please vote in the poll below. The most popular answer may be answer to the mystery of what happened that night. Vote as many times as you want.