The two conservative nutjobs did a great job keeping each other company.
Alley sat on one of the leather-clad couches in Lambert Acres' living room and smiled like a fool whenever the parents looked her way. Her father, Master Sergeant Hank Amherst retired, wore a polo shirt tucked into a belted pair of slacks. So did the Reverend Dave Sun, Jia's father. As the evening waxed on, they bragged about their respective daughters while comparing political philosophy.
"You think they'll notice if I slip out the window?" Alley whispered, leaning to the side.
"Probably," Nate said beside her.
"Just leave to use the loo and slip out the back door." Finn lounged on the couch next to Nate, at least until Amara bounded down the stairs and pushed his legs over so she could sit down too.
"What's the loo?" Nate asked.
"Don't interrupt English when he's being English," Alley said. "Speaking of English...hey Amara, how's Jia holding up?"
"Um, fine? She just finished feeding Jake." Amara looked like she wanted to be doing things to her boyfriend right now but the sheer amount of people in the house forced her to behave. Especially with family around.
"Hey, Amara, you didn't invite your parents over," Nate said, as if it suddenly occurred to him.
"That's because they weren't invited," Amara answered. There was a still silence in her words that ended any further probing on the subject.
Alley swallowed a sinking feeling in her stomach as she contemplated her options. Tempting as it was to stay on the couch, some conversations could only be put off so long. Heading to the kitchen now had the best odds on keeping things fairly civil.
After taking a drink order, she made her way past the two fathers and found her mother in the kitchen. Dr. Sarah Amherst stood at the backdoor, looking out into the night. The sight slowed Alley's step. Though she'd known what to expect, there was a poignant loneliness to the woman even her daughter hadn't expected to feel.
Sadly, all good things must end. Alley opened the fridge and caused Mom to turn around. By the time Alley shut the door, their eyes were naturally drawn together.
"Having fun, Mom?"
"Don't say you're proud. I don't want your pride. I just want you to keep Dad off my back, make nice with my friends and crawl back into the hole you live in once tonight's over."
Mom's composure visibly shook. Alley wished she could feel something about it. Sadness, regret, guilt, anything. Even her usual anger felt distant. Instead, a weary shroud hung low on Alley's shoulders. Family Weekend was a resounding success by any measure yet she felt no satisfaction from that either.
Maybe it was time for a pick-me-up. She needed something to get through tonight. Definitely something to offset the conversation about to happen.
"-I really hate you that much? Little bit!"
"Can't you even let me finish a sentence?" The last was said at a dangerous volume level. Any more disrespect would bring more parental attention. At the end of the day, not worth it. So Alley didn't interrupt her again, just crossed her arms and waited. "I want to make things up to everyone. Why else do you think I took this job?"
"To win credit with me?"
"Have I claimed credit for it? Did I even tell you I worked for West Private, Alley? I'm here to do what good I can with what I have. I can't change the past and I'm tired of arguing about it. I just want...I want us to be a family again."
Unshed tears hung in Mom's eyes. There it was, the twist in chest, the stab in the heart. No matter how hard Alley tried to hate her mother for what she'd done, love wouldn't die. Mom was in pain. It took an extraordinary will to see someone in pain and leave them there when you had the power to end that pain.
Alley just walked out.
The living room atmosphere was so different, it felt like surfacing out of deep, cloudy waters. Finn, Amara and Nate sat on the couches talking. On the stairway, Jia and her Mom descended slowly. The absolutely gorgeous Chinese girl held her son with such a look of love it made Alley's heart ache to see it. It ached, knowing she would never receive the blessing of its dispensation. Jia would never love her like that.
Stupid crushes. One more complication she didn't need on top of Mom working at West. Alley made for the screen door but didn't resist when her father's hand fell across her shoulder.
"Alley, Dave here's under the impression you've got someone you're seeing," Dad said. "Who is it? When do I meet this gentleman?"
"No one to meet, Dad," Alley said, turning around to face both men. Dave Sun in particular got her attention. His golden eyes were a perfect match for Jia's but they lacked her warmth. "I came to school to study, not to chase boys."
"There's no one you're interested in then?" Dave Sun pressed.
"I'm just trying to live by 1 Corinthians 7:34, Mr. Sun," Alley said, forcing the biggest smile imaginable. 'An unmarried woman is concerned about the Lord’s affairs: Her aim is to be devoted to the Lord in both body and spirit. But a married woman is concerned about the affairs of this world—how she can please her husband. I am saying this for your own good, not to restrict you, but that you may live in a right way in undivided devotion to the Lord'."
"Very good," Dave said, acknowledging her effort with a little smile. "You seem close to my daughter. She's lucky to have a friend who knows scripture and understands what it says."
The message couldn't be any clearer. Alley pointed her thumb over her shoulder, towards the screen door and waved them both off with a promise of returning in a minute.
Outside, the evening air blew warm and steady. Alley ran a hand through her blonde hair and took a moment to appreciate how silky smooth it'd become ever since she started stealing Jia's shampoo. Now that she was alone, it was easier to remember how far she'd come from a few months ago. Alley was fit, having more fun than ever and calling the shots. She spent most of her day in a bikini listening to Britney Spears and Miley Cyrus. Compared to Iraq or Afghanistan, this was child's play.
Alley hopped down the porch steps and walked briskly across the paved stone pathway to the carport and the shop beyond. Her Mom's Nissan and the Sun's rental took up two parking spots, shortly to be joined by a third. She cupped her eyes and squinted through the headlights of a truck making its way in.
Eli. Great. A couple of weeks and Jia was already inviting him over to meet the parents.
Aggravation piled on top of aggravation. Alley shouldered her way through the shop door into her private gym space before anything else added to her mood. She knew what the problem likely was. And if it wasn't, the same solution would solve things anyway.
The interior shop space now featured foam mats, lots of windows, a chin-up bar and some basic weights as well as a ballet bar ringing the walls for balance exercises. One whole side was taken up with mirrors so she could watch her form. In the back, the old garage stuff was piled onto shelves that now held paint cans, gardening equipment and a set of mechanic's tools. In one corner stood a specific case she kept locked.
Alley produced the key, unlocked it and looked through its contents. An M4 rifle dissembled for transport along with its standard LA-5 infrared laser sight and M3X tactical light. Her M9 Beretta was packed next to it along with two extra clips. Her ammunition, 5.56mm for the rifle and 9mm for the pistol, were kept in a separate case which she unlocked next.
Buried beneath a bundle of bullets was the jackpot. Alley picked up a bottle of water from a case she kept ostensibly to rehydrate after workouts and swallowed a handful of pills. Replacing the cap, she tucked one of the concealed pill bottles into her pocket for taking into the house.
That's when she stood up and noticed Eli looking in the window.
Alley blinked. She stared at the visage of the blonde, bearded man and blinked at him, expecting him to go away. The look on Eli's face was remote, deliberately withholding emotion. He'd seen her, seen enough to guess.
So why hadn't she seen him? Why couldn't she see him now?
Moving at a quick pace across the foam mats, Alley hit the wooden exterior door and stalked around the corner of the shop. Then she grabbed Eli by the shirt and hauled him around until she'd dragged him inside her private workout space. Shutting the door, she pushed him onto the foam mat and stood over his prone form.
"Are the drugs asking the questions or is that you?" he retorted.
"Jesus, you think I give a shit about the drugs? I want to know how you snuck up on me."
"I-what?" There was honest confusion on Eli's face. Assuming that was real. It'd been so long since she'd needed only her eyes, Alley wasn't sure she trusted them anymore.
"Why can't I see you?"
"I don't und-"
"Eli, I'm going to make this real simple for you. Why can't-"
But it was Alley's turn to not finish a sentence. Even as she looked at him, she knew how the conversation would go. Where it could go. Permutations played out in her mind, most of them unsatisfying but a few producing interesting leads. Unfortunately, they all led to the same conclusion.
"Shit, you really think it's the drugs?"
"I'm afraid to think this is how you are normally. What's in them, anyway?" Eli asked, knowing better than to leave his prone position on the mats.
"Oh nothing special. Oxycontin, aclonazepam, paroxetine, some Seroquel, little bit of Adderall."
Eli's blue eyes went wide. "Is there anything you're not on?"
"Aspirin. Gives me heartburn. So does this conversation. Why am I answering all the questions?"
At last, Eli propped himself up on his elbows and slowly regained his feet. He'd come dressed tonight in a nice dark gold shirt with an equally dark red tie. It looked good on him. As men went, he was reasonably fit but not military fit much less HCP trained. Everything about him screamed innocuous.
As they stared at each other, Alley couldn't shake those brief moments when he'd taken her completely by surprise. Nothing could, except when she wasn't paying attention. Had her attention actually slipped? On its own? It was that or Eli could somehow block her ability when nothing had ever been able to do that.
"Why the drugs, Alley?" Eli asked.
"Why is it any of your business?"
He just looked at her. There was such infinite sadness, sympathy and compassion in those sharp blue eyes. Alley knew then what he could do, what he would do and what he would hold secret if she asked. She had a minute before Dad would interrupt them. One minute to cover her tracks and avoid a scene. Or at least control the scene.
Alley swallowed hard and prepared for tears.
"Fine. Listen up because I'm only going to say this once and with the understanding you're not to repeat this. My prescription cocktail here is what I do to get by. Without it, I get suicidal. You see, a few years back I met my soulmate. What other people call falling in love was more like catching fire from reentry. It was magic, it was heaven and it was ripped away when Iris died. I avenged her, Eli, and while it was the first time I killed, it wasn't the last. I was with Army Force Ops for two years and I killed 497 times while deployed. I lost the only thing that ever meant a damn to me and it made me a monster...but here I am, in college, trying to find a better life like everyone. So yeah, maybe it is a little fucked up to pop pills twice a day to stay level but, all things considered, I have it good. Now, do me a favor and let me handle my Dad, okay?"
Just then, the door to the shop opened up. Master Sergeant Hank Amherst stepped into the room, his closely cropped hair greying but his body still firm under a thin layer of retirement fat he'd allowed. His polo shirt was perfectly pressed, his slacks sharply creased and there wasn't a spot on him out of place.
"Am I interrupting something?" he asked, obviously not giving a damn if he was or not.
"I'm Eli Amsley, sir," said the blonde man still reeling with Alley's admission. At least he bought Alley time to wipe her eyes dry.
"Amsley, eh? I knew an Amsley in Iraq. Good man. Are you? Are you two...?"
"Dad, this is Jia's friend," Alley said, feigning a perfectly crafted sigh. "Are you done embarrassing me or can we get back to the party?"
"Sarah says there's no boy in your life but I don't believe her. Instinct, Alley. I know something's going on with you and I'm going to find it out sooner or later."
With that, Dad gave Eli a last nod, turned and shut the door as he left. The two remaining students kept their gaze on the door for a few moments. Then Eli said, "I'll respect your confidence, Alley, if that's what you want. So long as it's safe."
"He doesn't know, does he? About...about Iris?"
"Who, Dad?" Alley's eyes flicked to Eli's face and promptly went back to the door. "He doesn't want to know. Just because they repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the service doesn't mean it was repealed in my home. I don't mind. It keeps things simple for both of us."
Alley wiped away more tears and nodded mutely. At last, Eli left the shop so she'd have a minute to get her composure back. She took it gratefully. Then, when she could manage a pretty smile without it cracking at the edges, Alley spared the back corner a single glance while turning Iris' promise ring on her finger with her thumb.
"See you someday, babydoll," she whispered, her gaze lingering on the gun case before dropping to her ring finger. "Soon. When this job's over maybe."
Then Alley Amherst left her sanctum and went to convince a house full of people that she was still among the living when her heart hadn't beat in almost three years.