Story Excerpt
Operation Tango

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They say a baby bird imprints on the first creature it sees when it's born. I wasn't a baby bird, but I had imprinted on Hank the moment he stood over me with his fists raised, protecting me from playground bullies.

I had been five.

Hank had been seven.

He was my hero from that day forward. If he laughed, I laughed. If he hurt, I hurt. If he got a brain freeze from eating his ice cream too fast, my head ached as well.

Hank was everything.

And then one day, he wasn't.

He was just gone.

I watched the casket being lowered into the ground with a sense of the surreal. It didn't seem possible that a man so full of life could simply be gone. Hank was bigger than life. When he walked into the room, there was always a pause as if the air had been sucked right out of it. His mere presence made people around him pulse with life.

I couldn't believe he was dead.

It just wasn't possible.

Logically, I knew I was suffering from shock. The news had come just two weeks ago. Hank's helicopter had been hit by a missile and gone down. It had spun in the air before crashing to the ground and exploding on impact.

There had been no survivors.

Proof of that was currently being lowered into a grave marked by a headstone that stated this was sacred ground belonging to a hero who died in combat.

Hank had been there for me for over twenty years, a constant at my side. Where there was one of us, there was the other one. We skipped school together, celebrated birthdays together, discovered sex together. We'd even had chicken pox together.

We had done everything together.

What was I supposed to do without him?

Who would keep me out of trouble? Who would get me into trouble? Who would stand beside me as I walked into the future or held my hand when it felt as if the future was going to crush me?

Who would listen to my secrets?

When the honor guard shot their rifles in tribute to the fallen soldier, I jerked. I clenched my hands together until they ached to keep from jerking when they did it again and again.

I knew it was meant as a sign of respect, but I never understood why they shot a rifle for someone who had died in war. I didn't think rose petals needed to fall from the sky, but gunfire seemed out of place to me.

But what did I know?

I hadn't decided to go into the service when Hank signed up. What I knew about serving my country could fit in a thimble. I was very good at supporting someone who served, however. I had sent monthly care packages and letters every week. I had spent countless hours waiting for Hank to call.

And now, he would never call again.

How was I supposed to deal with that?

I drew in a shaky breath as I watched Hank's mother clutch the flag that had been draped over his coffin to her chest. I knew his parents had been proud of him. I had no doubt the flag would be treasured as a symbol of his service as were the medals he had received.

It seemed like cold comfort compared to having the living, breathing man at my side.

When everyone started to walk away from the gravesite, I stood there and stared. I couldn't seem to force my legs to work. Everything inside of me was frozen in place.


I swallowed tightly before raising my eyes to look at the older woman standing beside me. Even faded with age and sorrow, her dark brown eyes gutted me.

They were Hank's eyes.

"It's time to go, Ian."

"I know," I whispered as my gaze went back to the grave. "I just..."

I didn't have an answer Juliana Moore would understand. She had lost her son in a senseless accident of war. I had lost my everything.

"He is gone, Ian. You have to let him go."

"I can't." Tears welled up in my eyes, the first I had felt since I received the news.

I should have cried before now. I knew that. That was the normal reaction for someone who had suffered a loss. I just hadn't been able to.

I don't know why.

"Come on, honey." Juliana tugged on my arm. "The others are waiting for us."

I cast one more look at Hank's grave before allowing his mother to pull me away. As we walked back toward the long line of black limousines, I couldn't help but think Hank would be amused as shit at all this fanfare.

He was kind of a simple guy. He liked watching football with his buddies, backyard barbecues, and burping contests. His idea of gourmet eating involved not eating with his hands. He owned a suit, but only because his mother bought him one. And he never met a beer he didn't want to drink.

He was also the best man to have at your back if there was trouble. He would give a stranger the shirt off his back, he was always willing to lend anyone a helping hand, and he had a smile and kind word for everyone.

Hank never made a promise he didn't keep, which was one of the reasons why I was so upset. Since the day I met him over twenty years ago, Hank had never broken a promise to me.

Until now.

He had promised he would come home.

He hadn't.

I would never forgive him for breaking that promise for me.