Authors: Lauren Landish
“Please, I doubt there was much talking, and there certainly was no explanation of your job description.”
In all honesty, I’ve always been proud of Wesley’s determination to make his own way in the world, enlisting for a five year term instead of using his father’s money to go to college. Becoming a Ranger, he had taken college courses in his spare time. He actually had two years of his degree finished before his enlistment was up, and afterward, he finished the remaining two years in eighteen months.
That’s Wesley. He lives hard and relaxes hard too, disappearing during his vacations for weeks at a time, out of contact with the rest of the world. “So, how many Olgas and Svetlanas was it?”
“None at all,” Wesley said, and I could hear at least some truth in his voice, with something underneath that I couldn’t quite put my finger on at the time. Wes checked to see that Mom and Gerald were debating what to watch over the Netflix feed before leaning in and whispering in my ear. “I’d rather have a Robin, anyway.”
“Not much meat on a robin,” I replied, intentionally ignoring his innuendo. “Wouldn’t you rather have a chicken or a duck instead?”
Wesley looked at me intently, like he wanted to say something else, when Gerald punched a button on the remote to the television, and the next program started. I patted his hand and regretfully lifted it off my shoulder. “Come on, if we don’t watch, you know your father is going to bug us about it at dinner.”
* * *
fter enjoying roast beef
, mashed potatoes, asparagus and gravy in the dining room, the family was waiting for dessert when I brought up my suspension. I explained the whole situation before passing the letter over to Gerald, who silently read the memo. “And you did nothing wrong, Robin?” he finally asked, passing the letter to Mom. “You’ve seemed a bit off since you broke up with . . . Todd, was it?”
“Tom, and yes, I’m sure of it. I reviewed both my notebooks and the briefing handouts I gave the military, and I know that I specifically said not to take the drone into a turn that sharp. While the PR packet said that the drone was supposed to perfectly mimic a bat in terms of maneuverability, a bat can do that because it weighs one pound and is six inches long, not sixteen feet long and weighing three hundred pounds. And how was I supposed to know he’d pull a stunt like that right above the flight line, crashing it into an F-22?”
“Ah well, I never could stand the Air Force anyway,” Wesley joked from his seat across the table. “Give me a Warrant Officer in an Apache over anything the Air Force can send me any day.”
“So what are you going to do?” Mom asked as Chef brought out slices of rich chocolate mousse pie for everyone. Topped with a dollop of whipped cream, it was Mom’s favorite, a passion I also inherited from her. I’m a dedicated chocoholic, and was glad that Chef only bought the best, Ghirardelli being my personal weakness. “This doesn’t sound like the sort of suspension that will get a fair shake. Someone’s head is going to be on the chopping block for this, if only to save everyone else’s butts.”
“I know, Mom. I’ll be fine, don’t worry. You know my skills are in demand. If anything, I’ll go into business for myself. It’s about time I do what I really want to do anyway.” It had long been a dream of mine to build a fully functional humanoid exoskeleton that would have industrial as well as medical applications.
“Ah yes, your Iron Man suit,” Gerald said. While the term was a joke, Gerald had made his fortune in medical devices and encouraged me at every turn with my dream. I’m sure that if I had asked him, he would have been an angel venture capitalist for me with no question at all. “So what about making a version for your brother? Just have to make it bulletproof and armed.”
“With current power supply technology, that’s going to be a long way off,” I said with a smile. Gerald truly was a unique mix, a genius businessman on one hand, and a geeky teenager on the other. It was part of what I loved about him. “Besides, Wes isn’t a Ranger anymore. Unless you have plans on moonlighting as a superhero, Wes?”
“Not likely,” Wes replied, licking his spoon clean. “Hey, you know what? I was planning on heading up to Canada for a week now that I’m back. It’s real isolated, backwoods survival, camping-type stuff. How about you come along? It’ll do you some good. Get your mind off of things.”
I snorted derisively. “Wes, you know that I’m about the only Apache in existence who can’t start a fire, even if you gave me a box of matches and a bottle of lighter fluid. My idea of roughing it up is a Holiday Inn where they change the sheets only every other day.” It was true. I mean, I do have my tomboy side, but the outdoors was just totally not my thing.
“I know, I know, but trust me, it’ll be fun. I can adjust my load, make it easier for you, and you’ll be able to get it all out of your head. I promise you, you’ll have the time of your life.”
I thought about it. The idea of spending time with Wesley was appealing. I hadn’t been able to do much of it after we both were finished with college. But still, there was the whole camping and outdoors part of the adventure that was so not me. “Wes, I appreciate the offer, but . . . ”
“But Pocahontas is going to be severely in need of a manicure after spending a week in the wild with her stepbrother,” Wes teased, using the name for me that he knew I hated. I mean, I’m proud of my Apache heritage, but being Apache isn’t my whole identity. His voice softened, and he reached across the table and took my hand. “Come on, it’ll be fun. And I promise, if you agree, I’ll give you a year of no teasing at all.”
I felt his fingers covering my hand, and his touch felt more like a boyfriend’s than a stepbrother’s. It was one of the reasons I had resisted spending so much private time with Wesley in the first place. I didn’t know if I could trust myself around him. He was in so many ways what I wanted in a man. And yes, the electric tingle of his fingers on my skin touched me in ways that I shouldn’t be thinking about my stepbrother. “Wes, I . . . ”
“I promise, I will be on my best behavior,” Wesley said, interrupting me and flashing me that irresistible smile, that smile he’d always used whenever he wanted me to do something for him. It worked more often than I cared to admit. “Scout’s honor, and you know I was an Eagle Scout, after all.”
“Who got kicked out when you got into a fight with your Scoutmaster, if I remember correctly.” It was the only comeback I could think of, I was so desperate to hold on to some semblance of resistance.
Wes let go of my hand to shrug his shoulders. “Not that again. You know that asshole deserved it anyway. He was bullying the younger Scouts. Just because I took care of it my way doesn’t mean I was wrong.”
I thought about it for a second, then nodded my head. Wes was right, and from some of the rumors I heard afterwards, bullying wasn’t the only thing the Scoutmaster had done with some of the younger scouts. “Okay, a week in Canada. But you have to do something for me first.”
Wesley and my parents all smiled, and Wesley raised his hands up in celebration. Mom scraped her plate for the last bite of her pie and looked at me. “What is it Wesley has to do anyway?”
I leaned back and pointed at my clothing. I was still wearing my work clothes, but it wasn’t that much different from my casual clothes, unless I was in the gym. “Wesley needs to take me shopping. I doubt I have anything that’s warm enough for the Canadian wilderness.”
“Perfect,” Wes said, his eyes twinkling. “Tomorrow, I’m taking you to the Army Navy surplus store. Forget REI or North Face, we’re getting you the real deal.”
ou’re sure about this
?” I asked, looking at the small, single-engine sea plane. The damn thing looked like something out of a National Geographic documentary. “No offense, but it looks like it shouldn’t even get to the end of the runway, let alone take us three hundred miles north.”
“I know, but I’ve used these guys before. They have a top-flight reputation, and while the plane doesn’t look like a lot, it’s as mechanically sound as anything in the skies today. They’re a good outfit. You did a good job this past week preparing, by the way—you’ll be just fine.” Wes seemed very sure of himself, and I trusted him more than my gut. Still . . . I couldn’t help but feel a little uneasy riding in this damn thing. I loved to fly, but I was used to riding in first-class luxury.
I looked down at my backpack, an unwieldy looking, external frame rig that Wes insisted was light and nimble. I had worn it around for about an hour the day before, fully packed and ready for the trip. I knew I was strong enough to carry it; after all, I did go to the gym often enough. I didn’t have a lot of strength, but I was in pretty decent shape. It didn’t really matter though, the pack still seemed strange and uncomfortable regardless of the weight.
I couldn’t complain, however, looking at Wesley’s pack. His was twice the size of mine, and he also had packed two cases of military rations that was being stored in the cargo space in the pontoons of the plane. While the twenty-four meals wouldn’t be our entire diet for the week, it gave us a very large cushion in case I scared away all the fish or we couldn’t find foraging foods.
God, I really have no idea what I’m getting myself into,
I thought. I never cared to camp out in the back yard, much less out in the damn forest.
I knew that Wesley was carrying almost all of the shared items, and even my own sleeping bag was slung on top. I was able to lift his backpack, but I doubt I could’ve carried it for more than a dozen steps without stumbling. It had to weigh over a hundred pounds. “If you say so. You promise I don’t look ridiculous?”
I looked down at my clothing, gray military trousers with thermal underwear. Up top I had three layers on, a light silk undershirt, followed by a polypropylene thermal top, followed by a military field jacket. I felt like a weekend warrior going off to play Rambo. At least Wesley had insisted on my purchasing normal hiking boots.
“You won’t have time to break in a set of combat boots, and I don’t want you dealing with blisters all week,” he had explained in the store. “These civilian boots are almost as tough, but they break in a lot easier.”
“So why are you wearing your old boots?” I had asked him, indicating the insulated boots he was wearing. He had been wearing them for the entire day they had gone shopping, getting used to them again. Thankfully, he wore his normal jeans, and they didn’t look too out of place, with most of them hidden under the denim.
“They’re an old set,” Wesley had explained, looking down at the black scuffed leather. “They’re broken in well, and I know I could go a month in them if I needed to. They have plenty of miles left in them.”
Heaving my backpack onto my shoulder and heading toward the seaplane, I thought of the past few days, and how great it was to just hang out with Wesley, all the stress in my life seemingly taken away. Even in the unfamiliar realm of the Army Navy store, I had felt comfortable, amazed again and again as Wes expertly asked the store owner about the equipment he had available. He hadn’t patronized me either, explaining for me each of the options at length. By the end, I felt as prepared as I ever could be.
Stepping onto the seaplane, I let Wesley tie my bag down in the cargo racks next to his own before taking my seat. At six foot four, he took the single seat on the right side, his long legs stretching out into the open space of the aisle. I chose the window seat on the other side of the plane, wanting to be able to see the landscape as it rolled by. It was my first time in Canada, and I wondered if the Rocky Mountains looked different compared to Colorado, where we had taken vacations twice before.
“Hey folks, if you all will strap in, we can take off anytime,” the pilot said. He looked like he was in his mid-forties, and kind of looked like a younger Harrison Ford, just about twenty pounds heavier. “Flight time is going to be about two hours, more or less. The weather report says we may have some clouds in about an hour, but the campsite should be clear. I hope you guys packed plenty of warm blankets though, it’s supposed to be dipping into the single digits at night.”
“We’re prepared, thanks,” Wesley said. I shivered at the thought and glanced nervously over at my stepbrother, who smiled reassuringly as the pilot went up to the cockpit, closing the door behind him.
Wes could tell I was still a little unsure. “Seriously, don’t worry. The sleeping bags are rated for sub-zero, and we’re going to have a fire every night. I packed three hot water bottles, and we can fill them every night and heat them up. With those and the tent sealed up, you’re going to be just fine. Trust me.”
, he said. If it was anyone else, I’d never have agreed to this in the first place. But with Wesley, when he said
, I did just that.
The sound of the engine cut off my reply, and I sat back while the sea plane taxied. The wheels attached to the plane’s pontoons allowed it to use regular runways as well, although it was a noisy takeoff. Despite the thrill of the adventure, I knew I’d prefer flying in a Dreamliner any day over a seaplane.
Reading my thoughts, Wesley raised his voice over the engine. “This is nothing,” he said, grinning as the ground dropped away and they were airborne. “You should try riding in the back of a C-130 sometime. You spend most of the time wondering if your teeth are going to rattle out of your head or not. And don’t even get me started on what passes for passenger airliners in Eastern Europe these days. Tupolev might make decent bombers for the Russians, but their idea of insulation sucks. You’d think a company that makes airplanes designed for Siberia would be a bit better on the insulation than they are.”
I laughed and shook my head. “This week, you’re going to have to fill me in on some of these details. I feel like there’s so much of your past four or five years that you haven’t told me about.”
“Tell you what, you tell me about what you’ve been up to, and I’ll tell you what I’ve been up to,” Wesley said. “Since we finished high school, it’s always felt like we’re going in separate directions. I sometimes wish we were back in those days, when I was sneaking looks at you in your bikini out by the pool in the summer.”
“I don’t think sneaking is the word I would use,” I laughed, thinking back. “You were flat out ogling me. I’m surprised Mom didn’t throw a bucket of water on you more than once or chase you off with a broom.”
“Well, it was a lot to ogle,” Wesley replied, his eyes traveling up and down my five-foot-ten-inch frame. I’ll be honest, it felt good, because I knew that Wes liked my mind as much as my body. “What I never understood is why you’ve never been able to hang onto a guy.”
“What do you mean?” I replied defensively, scooting over into the aisle seat so as not to yell. “It’s not like I’m some sort of tramp.”
Wesley shook his head. “No, not at all, I know that. You’re not exactly on Taylor Swift’s level, but you’ve gone through a few men.”
“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I can’t help it. I guess I just have bad taste in boyfriends. I keep picking the assholes who want to jump into bed with me and then won’t commit.”
“You mean you have a tendency to pick bad boys and try and rehabilitate them,” Wesley replied with a smirk. “Mother showed me pictures of one or two of them from when I was gone. Jeez, Robin, could you have picked a scruffier bunch of dweebs?”
“Hey, Tom was an asshole, but he was no dweeb,” I replied. “I met him coming out of the gym, where he’d been in the boxing class. I actually saw him fight once, he’s good.”
“You know, I don’t think you should pick your boyfriends by how good their jab is, Robin,” Wesley said as he stretched his arms over his head. “Besides, you know there’s a lot more to being a badass than just boxing anyway.”
I guffawed and looked Wes up and down. “You know, speaking of rehabilitated bad asses, you seem to have done pretty well for yourself. I remember you getting into quite a few scuffles yourself.”
“You mean like the time I rammed Franky Timmons’ head into the back of his Escalade?” Wes said. “Father wasn’t too happy about that one.”
“Well, you did earn yourself a week’s suspension, and Frank ended up with twenty stitches in his scalp,” I replied. “And to top it off, doing it a week before he took his senior portraits? He looked like Frankenstein in the yearbook with that thing.”
“He called you a slut, he deserved it,” Wes said simply.
“And how do you know I’m not?” I asked, intrigued. Wesley would often tease, and he often said things to me that had an innuendo to them that I knew he put in intentionally, but he was rarely open and honest in his thoughts. “Maybe I’m a slut at heart.”
“I guess sluts do have their use, but you’re not one of them,” Wesley said. “I’d never be attracted to a slut for more than a night.” Startled at his seemingly unintended words, he turned his eyes away from me and looked out the window. I could feel a blush creep up my neck and I turned away as well, both of us losing ourselves in inner dialogue as the mountains rolled by.
The Canadian terrain was pretty awesome as it rolled underneath us, rugged and untamed. I had to admit, the pilot was giving us our money’s worth, staying low enough that I could easily see individual trees and other details. I watched as hills and mountains unfurled beneath us, and could see the frost and snow on the higher elevations.
The intercom crackled on and the pilot came over the cabin speakers. “Hope you two are enjoying the flight. This baby doesn’t have autopilot, so I regret to say we have no in-flight service. However, if you look under the seats of the front row, I did put away a cooler of snacks. Nothing too fancy, just some Cokes and sandwiches, which my wife made for you. If you like pastrami on rye or roast beef on cracked wheat, dig in. If not, no offense taken, I’ll be happy to eat them on the flight back. We should be landing in about an hour or so.”
The intercom clicked off, and I looked over at Wesley. “I hate rye.”
“Split the roast beef with you then?”
All traces of our uncomfortableness disappeared, and Wesley’s easy smile reappeared on his face. “Yeah, I’ll do that. You want a Coke? Trust me, don’t worry about the calories, you’ll burn plenty over the next week out here.”
“All right. I thought you computer guys were addicted to the stuff though, sure you want to share with me?”
Wesley chuckled. “Of course. We’re not all the same, you know. I mean, I don’t have a single Hello Kitty item in my entire home, and my Guy Fawkes mask is never worn.”
I laughed and nodded. I’ve collaborated with plenty of computer programmers with my work in robotics, and had gotten used to the coders with their own little quirks. “And I know you’re never going to be caught dead wearing an
“Never. I can at least appreciate that those types of programmers are at least following their hearts and not worrying about society’s rules, though,” Wesley said, getting the snacks and handing me the cold bottle of soda. He tore the sandwich in half and handed me my portion, still wrapped in the plastic. “I sometimes wish I could do that too.”
“What rules have you wanted to break that you haven’t already?” I said with a smirk as I took a bite of the delicious food. While the pilot’s wife wasn’t on the level of sophistication of Chef, she knew how to put together a good roast beef sandwich. “You planning on robbing a bank sometime soon or something?”
“No, but . . . ” Wesley said, before his eyes shot to the front of the plane. “What the hell?”
I tilted my head questioningly before I felt it too. The plane, which had been flying levelly for most of the flight, was descending, even though by my watch we were still at least forty minutes from our destination. Wesley got out of his seat to go up to the front when suddenly the plane descended more steeply, and he had to catch himself on the seat in front of him. “Strap in,” he said, looking out the window. “We’re going in.”
I hurriedly tightened my lap belt, staying where I was near the window. The trees came closer, and I could see the birds wheeling out of the way. A sharp crack from the cabin caused me to scream, and the plane tilted, pitching to the right in a slow turn. I felt Wes sit down in the seat next to me, quickly pulling the belt tight before wrapping his arms around my shoulders and pulling me into his chest protectively. “It’s okay, Robin,” he whispered in my ear as we heard the pontoons scrape against the tops of the trees. “We’ll make it. I love you.”
Before I could say anything, the cabin was filled with the shriek of pine boughs on the skin of the airplane, like a million fingernails on chalkboards. I could feel myself screaming but couldn’t actually hear myself as the sound got louder and louder. When the first crunching sound filled the cabin, I was sure I was going to die.
Lost in the cacophony, I could still feel Wesley’s arms around me, giving me at least the thinnest of hopes we would survive. In that moment, I realized that I never wanted any other man’s arms around me. It was like a light went on, and everything was clear now. All the boyfriends I’d gone through had been because I couldn’t admit to myself that I wanted my stepbrother. A river of emotions came flooding through me, and I could feel tears in my eyes as I hugged him tighter, thinking that if I was going to die, at least I’d go in his arms.
Crashes and ungodly sounds filled the cabin, and I could feel us being tossed around, shaken and rattled. Something, I wasn’t sure what, hit me in the head, and I felt the world start to spin. With a sudden, crunching stop, we came to a rest, and it took me a while to realize I wasn’t dead. The silence after the noisy descent was eerie. I could hear my heart beating in my chest, and I could hear Wesley’s heart where he’d pulled me against him. “We . . . we made it,” I stuttered unbelievingly. “What happened?”