You don’t recognize this handwriting because a beautiful army nurse named Sally is writing this letter for me. I don’t think I’m going to make it, little sis. That’s okay. Hell, if I don’t pull through, I died fighting the good fight and I’m damned proud. So no moping around and getting sad. I could have died a million stupid ways when I was a kid. At least I got to go out doing something that matters.
But, Nins, you know I’m going to milk this dying-young crap.
There’s two things you’ve gotta do for me.
First, you gotta move on. Find a good guy. Start a family. And name your first son after me. Promise me that. Little Walt, NO MATTER HOW MUCH YOU HATE THE NAME. (Ha! See, I still get to be the boss even after I’m gone.) I want a little Walter growing up in Galton, giving the teachers hell, just like I used to. Remember, it was our promise to each other after Mom and Dad passed that we’d move on and not let anything stop us. Don’t stop now, little sis.
Second, I want to do something for a buddy. His name is Mick Rivers. Listen, I want him to have my house in Galton when he gets out of here. I know he’ll say I should go *#$% myself, but, Nins, can you make it happen?
Thanks, sis. I’ll see you on the other side. I miss you already.
Private First Class Walter Stokes, U.S. Army
Two years later
Nina Stokes was in her garden searching her tomato cages for the perfect beefsteak when a sporty red car roared halfway up her driveway and stopped. She spared it half a glance, then went back to her vegetables. It was reunion weekend at Galton University, the elite college that dominated the tiny town of Galton, New York. This was the third car she’d spotted this morning using her driveway as a turnaround. It could be annoying having the first driveway on the first road that was clearly marked as leading out of town.
Nina went back to her tomatoes, ripping out the hairy galinsoga that had crept into the cages. She felt bad that she hadn’t been taking as good care of her garden as she usually would have, but she was deep into the process of illustrating a cookbook, The Vegetable Virgin. It was demanding all of her attention. If she nailed it, hopefully she’d get the job for The Meat Menage. Then, if she was lucky, The Soup Slut. So finding the perfect plump tomato to nestle next to the green beans for the Italian Veggie Casserole illustration was essential. She moved down the row, carefully peering under leaves.
When she spared a second glance, the car was still there, idling in the middle of the long drive that wound up her hill. She ducked a little lower. She hated giving directions, as she never remembered the names of roads. She might say, Go right at Mrs. Gradon’s amazing cornflower blue hyacinth garden, surely drawing a blank stare from a person in a car that flashy.
She was inspecting the last tomato plant when the driver floored the gas. The car jumped forward, then braked hard, fishtailing up a cloud of dust mere feet from her tulip border.
The crazy-loud engine revved a few times, then cut.
She had ducked back into the garden in alarm, but now she dared a peek over the vegetation.
The front door of the car opened.
A man unfolded from the front seat, a flash from his aviator sunglasses momentarily blinding her. Her vision cleared in time to reveal him stretching his arms above his head, as if he’d just woken up from a truly excellent dream.
Nina put a hand on the nearest tomato cage to steady herself. Good thing she’d staked and caged the bushes for extra support. Talk about the perfect beefsteak.
The man pulled his T-shirt over his head in a swift, one-armed movement. She ducked low, tried to swallow, pulled the brim of her sun hat low to cover her blush and her ridiculous smile.
The most beautiful man I’ve ever laid eyes on is stripping in my driveway. God, I love this town.
She took a deep breath, the whiff of compost grounding her. I am a serious artist, a respected yoga teacher, and a sporadic, inattentive, but sincere gardener. I am an orphan, an optimist, a lover of quiet and peace. But I am in no position to be a woman who swoons over a good-looking man, even if he appears like a god in my driveway and seems determined to disrobe.
Still, she couldn’t tear her eyes away from his tanned, trim physique. She couldn’t quite get the beginning of a wicked smile off her lips.
Be careful of things that look too good to be true.
The man turned to lean through the driver’s window of his car, and she tried again to shake off her response. Obviously, her boneheaded reaction was due to too little sleep and too much work.
And then everything changed.
She saw it.
Everything disappeared in a rush of tunnel vision. Gone were the tomatoes, the vague aroma of car exhaust, the fat robin keeping an eye trained on her from the maple tree. Only the tattoo on his shoulder was clear in the shining whiteness of her sudden dizziness: the downward-pointing bowie knife with a flowing white ribbon wrapped around it. She couldn’t read the words on the ribbon from this distance, but she knew them by heart. After all, they had been inked into her brother’s arm too.
Duty. Honor. Country.
Nina’s body went cold with dread.
He could be anyone from the unit.
He might not be Mick Rivers. Sure, she’d stared at the guy’s picture for two long years, wondering about him and his relationship to Walt. But military men all looked alike from a distance. The close-cropped haircuts, the square jaws, the wide chests that tapered to narrow waists. This guy could be any G.I. Joe Shmoe who had just happened to be passing through when he remembered this was Walt’s hometown. It had happened just five months before. A soldier named Bill had looked her up to drop off a few mementos of Walt he had saved.
Anyway, if this man was Mick Rivers, she had to keep a cool head and hold her ground. She had given him an entire year after Walt’s letter arrived to respond to her endless correspondence. She had promised herself that after the year had passed, the house was hers. Now that she was alone in the world, she wouldn’t put herself at the whims of others. Her first duty was to herself, and she was going to stand by it.
If Mick Rivers was here for his house, he was a year too late.
While she panicked in the garden, trying to hold firm to her resolve, the man had calmly walked around to his trunk, dug around a bit, then come up with another T-shirt.
He looked around the place, and she ducked lower. His eyes, thankfully, glazed right over the garden.
She sat down, butt in the dirt.
She loved her brother and respected his wishes, but she had to get this guy to leave. She’d just tell him that he was too late.
The house was all she had left.