A heartwarming story about a Marine searching for his new purpose in life after a tragic brush with death causes his unwanted discharge. To find it, he takes an epic journey to heal, give back, and let go of the past.
There was a softness in the air. Sweet like Eleanor’s homemade cookies baking in the oven. The lush grass, wildflowers in the highway medians, and blooming cherry trees added to the fragrance and saturated his view with a rainbow of vibrant colors.
It was the quintessential spring day in Virginia. A little welcoming to ease the blow, Jackson thought and hated every last bit of it.
Looking out the passenger side window of his ride, he searched for a few ominous gray clouds in the distance. A rolling thunderstorm would better match his mood and the shambles his life had become. Still, the beautiful April morning paid him no mind.
Ironic, he complained to himself with a long sigh. Not that long ago, he would’ve given anything to be ignored.
But as usual, what he wanted didn’t seem to matter.
Surprised, Jackson turned toward Aiden, his friend, and fellow Marine, in the driver’s seat.
“Where were you just now? I said your name three times.”
“Sorry.” Jackson looked down at the small wooden box in his hands and realized he had been squeezing it hard enough for his hands to ache. Dropping it on his lap, he rubbed his fingers. “I was thinking I don’t know how to do this.”
“I know,” was all Aiden could say. He’d seen it countless times in others and knew what Jackson would suffer next. Debilitating pain, suffocating guilt, confusion, and roaming without purpose through the days. Some turned to alcohol or drugs. Many disappeared without a trace.
That’s why Aiden got out before he lost every sense of who he was. Four years of his life were spent in the Marines, most serving under Jackson, and that was enough. He was proud of his service, grateful even, but he never intended to make the military a lifelong career or let it define him as Jackson had.
“Remember when we arrived in Afghanistan the first time?” he asked, hoping to distract Jackson from the raw emotions he struggled to control and understand. “We’d barely wiped the sand out of our eyes before we were attacked. I was terrified, and you had no patience for it. You told me the world would not wait for me to decide what type of man I wanted to be.”
Tuning out, Jackson focused on the passing landscape outside. He knew where Aiden’s impromptu storytime was heading and wasn’t impressed.
Undeterred, Aiden continued to fill the awkward silence and make his point. “I wanted to punch you at the time, but I’ll never forget it. I’m grateful for what you taught me. After that, whenever things got unbearably difficult as they often did, and I could feel myself slipping into the darkness…” He paused when Jackson’s gaze cut to his.
Since his brush with death, Jackson was acutely acquainted with unforgiving darkness and how it can consume the mind. But he wasn’t in the mood to be motivated or inspired and wondered if he would ever be again.
When Jackson didn’t look away as expected, Aiden continued. “I had to make the conscious decision to be the person I needed to be to survive and keep the darkness where it belonged. This is your moment, Jax.”
“I shouldn’t be here.”
“No, you shouldn’t, but you are. Now, what are you going to do about it?”
Aiden flashed his trademark toothy smile over his shoulder when Jackson had nothing to say, then returned his attention to the road.
As the pair made their way down Virginia’s I-95 toward Richmond, Aiden attempted to keep Jackson talking and his mind distracted by asking questions. He asked about high school and his traveling adventures with BMW (his nickname for Jackson’s three closest friends and fellow Marines, Billy Barnes, Will Mason, and Josh Wilson).
Jackson had only fond memories of high school with his friends. The four of them were inseparable and had played football together since they were nine. Jackson also ran track in the spring since running came so easy to him and kept him in shape for football.
Billy and Josh played baseball in the off-season, and Will spent every minute he could chasing girls. How Will managed to attract so many beautiful girls with seemingly little effort was often a topic of animated debate, but none of them complained.
Billy and Josh were happy to take advantage of Will’s talents and allow him to do all the work. Send Will into any situation, and he’d soon return with a hoard of stunning females. Jackson would indulge in the game sometimes, but girls and relationships didn’t fit into the lifestyle and future he’d mindfully planned for himself.
All he wanted was a lifelong military career and to satisfy his insatiable hunger for adventure. He wanted to travel the world and make a difference. To live freely and gain experiences, not possessions or wealth.
He was grateful it was a dream all three of his friends shared, and it took little convincing to get them to join the service alongside him. After graduation, they spent every free moment living as they wanted. Free and together.
Whenever they were on leave, they traveled instead of going home. They toured Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa with no itineraries or expectations. They explored the land and found thrilling new adventures by immersing themselves in the culture. When they grew tired of traveling and doing things their mothers would never approve of, they drank too much and camped wherever they passed out.
They were young, daring, and reckless, but they were exactly who they wanted to be.
Easy conversations about past adventures ended when they took the exit toward Jackson’s childhood home. He rolled his shoulders to release the tension, but no amount of stretching could prepare him for returning to the one place he’d avoided for the past eight years.
Aiden followed Jackson’s directions through several turns until the road narrowed to a private gated entrance surrounded by a line of meticulously trimmed shrubbery. Aiden pulled the car up to the black box that housed the keypad and punched in the code Jackson provided.
The gate hitched into motion.
“Something funny?” Aiden asked when Jackson laughed.
“It’s been almost fifteen years. You’d think the old bastard would’ve changed the security code.”
“Maybe he wanted to make sure you could always come home.”
Jackson scoffed but couldn’t blame him for his optimism. Aiden had a profound respect for and close relationship with his father—something Jackson wanted once with his own when he was young and oblivious.
As the old gate inched open at the speed of dripping molasses, Jackson’s thoughts drifted to his beautiful mother, Jacqueline. The code was her birthday.
He was in the seventh grade when she died and desperately needed his father for comfort. But the Great Grayson Vane was unreachable, and their already fragile relationship turned volatile and vanished before his mother was in the ground.
Less than a month after the funeral, Grayson moved into a penthouse apartment downtown. He’d stop by the house on occasion, but it wasn’t to visit with his grieving son. He had parties to host, business deals to make, and expensive possessions to show off to the flavor of the week. If it weren’t for Eleanor, the estate’s caretaker, Jackson might have ended up in foster care or fending for himself at twelve years old.
Suddenly, the car moved, bringing Jackson’s focus back to the present, and he directed Aiden where to park.
“Be right there, Jax,” he promised.
Jackson leaned back against the headrest and waited for Aiden to appear beside the car. Then, grunting out his disgust for the fate he’d been dealt, he pushed hard on the door and had no choice but to accept Aiden’s help into the wheelchair.
There is no other choice, now is there? He’d accepted that every movement of his repaired legs and hips would be excruciating, but he couldn’t get past the dependency they created. Whenever he needed help with basic tasks like getting out of a car, it was the same as jabbing at his heart with a dull butter knife. He despised nothing more, and the last thing he thought he’d be at this point in his life was a burden, yet again.
“All right, Jax. Let’s get you home.”
While Aiden pushed Jackson up the driveway, he admired the dignified colonial house, which was more of a mansion by Aiden’s standards. A stunning example of what history and wealth could buy, and a sight not easily forgotten.
The smokey gray stone covering the two-story structure contrasted against the dark green shutters, manicured lawn, and overflowing flower beds and gardens. The center had a large porch flanked by wide white columns and an extended wing on each side. Wisteria growing along the inside corners was blossoming wildly in lively shades of purple and blue. The windows glinted in the sunlight, and it was easy to see every flawless detail had been labored over with love, courtesy, and commitment.
“This will work,” Jackson finally said when they came to the small roundabout with a garden of shaped bushes and flowers circling a central water fountain.
To Aiden’s relief, the house had a side, ground-level entrance door, and he headed toward it. They didn’t get far before the screen door flew open, revealing a plump older woman with dark gray hair. She wore a white apron over her yellow dress, and her hair was neatly tied in a bun on top of her head with a thin blue ribbon.
“Hi, Eleanor,” Jackson greeted.
A shaky grin was all he could assemble as she stood motionless before him, her hands clasped over her mouth. It took a moment for her to wade through an ocean of shock, relief, and emotion, but when she did, tears sprang to her eyes. Rushing to him, she bent to wrap him in a hug.
Now, he was home.
She took Jackson’s face in her hands and kissed his forehead and cheeks before straightening to study him, her hands on her hips. “You could have told me you were coming back today.”
“Best one ever. I’ve missed you so.” In looking him over, her heart sank. He was skin and bones, slumped inside his wheelchair, and it was odd to see him with long hair and a beard. But saddest of all, his eyes were dull and hollow. Where was her Jackson? “You’re too skinny,” she complained to keep her worries from showing. “Didn’t they feed you over there?”
“Hospital food makes me lose my appetite, and since it wasn’t your cooking, it wasn’t worth eating.”
“Such a charmer.” Pulling herself away, Eleanor turned her attention to the man standing behind him with a satisfied smirk on his face. “Who’s this handsome fella?”
“I’m Aiden, Jackson’s chauffeur, corporal, and friend.”
Aiden reached out his hand, but she stepped around the wheelchair instead and swallowed him in her arms, squeezing the air from his lungs.
“Any friend of Jackson’s is a friend of mine.” She gave him a loud kiss on the cheek. “Please come in and relax a bit. You must be worn out from your flight.”
Still recovering, Aiden folded his arms and leaned on the back of the wheelchair. “You could have warned me,” he whispered to Jackson with teeth clenched.
“And miss out on seeing that look on your face? Not a chance.”
Eleanor held the door for Aiden to push Jackson inside, then led them through a large mudroom and butler’s pantry on the way to the eat-in kitchen. The antique off-white cabinets surrounded the bright, cheerful room and were topped by matching marble countertops with tan, gray, and gold specks. The massive island in the center took up half the space and provided bar seating for four.
Following Eleanor down an adjacent hallway, Aiden tried to take in the magnificence of the Vane estate. Oil paintings, Oriental rugs, sculptures, and vintage furniture. His eyes couldn’t move fast enough. Then, there was the curved staircase, layered crown molding, original wide plank hardwood floors, and the most enormous crystal chandelier he’d ever seen. All of it was so spectacular, extravagant, and nothing like Jackson.
Aiden had only known Jackson as his unyielding sergeant who took no shit and could drink anyone under the table. He never got the slightest bit tipsy, and Aiden both respected and despised him for it. Too many times, he took on the challenge only to wake up hours later naked and covered in mud or soaked in piss—courtesy of imaginative Marines who could never let a good drunk go unpunished, as if conditioning in the Goddamn desert with a hangover wasn’t bad enough.
Oh, and that was another reason Aiden spent most of his free time cursing Jackson. He never fatigued. He could run for hours without tiring, and he tortured his squad with the same regimen. Bastard, Aiden accused with complete admiration.
After depositing Jackson in a bedroom as Eleanor instructed, Aiden returned to the car to retrieve his bag.
“Please stop worrying, Eleanor,” Jackson insisted. She was fussing around the room, moving breakables and small pieces of furniture to clear a path for the damn wheelchair he was strapped to. “I’m not dangerous in this thing.”
“I know. I only want you to be comfortable.”
“I’ll be fine.” At least, he hoped to be one day.
With a long sigh, she sat on the bed to face him. Everyone who knew him understood how much Jackson loved being a Marine, but she knew it best. They’d talked about it at length since he was a boy. It was every part of who he was, as his friends were. Accepting all he lost and his new circumstance would not come easy. She knew this and recognized the sorrow in his eyes. But it wasn’t only the military life he was missing.
“When we first heard what happened, I thought we’d lost you.” She lowered her gaze and pulled a tissue out of her apron pocket for the tears that were sure to follow. “We had no idea where you were. All we knew was what we heard from others, and while it wasn’t much, none of it was good.”
She blotted at her eyes. “I’m so sorry about Josh and Billy. I know how much they meant to you. Such sweet boys.” She shook her head, catching a glimpse of Aiden in the doorway.
“I’m going to head out. I’ve got a couple more hours of driving ahead of me,” Aiden said awkwardly, crossing the room. “Jax, I know you’ll get back to your old self soon. There’s nothing that can keep you down for long.”
If only he could believe that, Jackson thought. He was never one to give up, but at that moment, he couldn’t see a point in trying.
“Sergeant Vane, it was an honor to serve with you.” Aiden clicked his heels together and held a formal salute. Then, he looked down at Jackson with his eyes only and grinned.
“There’s no need for that.”
Aiden dropped his hand and shook Jackson’s. “Glad you’re alive, Jax. Now, stay that way.”
Not having the words, Jackson nodded and returned to the window. Several minutes later, he watched Aiden’s car disappear around the bend, symbolizing the end of his life as he once knew it.
Although his heart was beating and his lungs were still taking in air, everything was broken, and nothing was as it should be.