Bungalow Nights - By Christie Ridgway


VANCE SMITH HAD FACED down Taliban bullets with more cool than he felt sitting on the beachside restaurant’s open-air deck. He was here to meet his companion for the next month, and not that he’d admit it to anyone, but there was an undeniable film of sweat on both palms—sweat he couldn’t even swipe against his jeans thanks to the fiberglass cast that bound one wrist and the soft brace that was fastened around the other.

Sometime during his short hospital stay, a dumb-ass private with Picasso pretensions had taken a Sharpie to the pristine polymer wrapping on his left arm and drawn a big-busted, half-naked warrior princess, detailed enough that Vance had been forced to beg his cousin Baxter this morning for some help in disguising the X-rated image. He was meeting an impressionable young person, after all.

Grimacing, Vance glanced down at his cousin’s solution, then back at Baxter himself, who was sitting across the table, nursing a club soda. “Really?” he said to the other man, not bothering to blunt the edge to his voice. “A tat sleeve? That’s the best you could come up with?”

Baxter blinked. In their youth, people had mistaken the two of them for twins and they still had the same blond hair and blue eyes. But while Vance sported a soldier’s barber cut and casual clothes, his one-year-younger cousin had a salon style and looked the epitome of his nickname, All Business Baxter, in a conservative suit and tie. His gaze dropped to the nylon fabric stretched over Vance’s cast. “I say it’s inspired. And I could have made a worse choice, you know. As it is, you almost blend in.”

Vance grunted. He supposed Bax was right. The sleeve’s design wasn’t demonic, or worse, straight out of a prison documentary. Instead, the images were intricate and colorful weavings of tribal signs, tropical flora and curling waves. Nothing to scare off a child.

“Snuggle up closer with Teddy if you’re still worried,” Baxter advised. “Then your new little friend won’t even notice them.”

It wasn’t embarrassment but annoyance that burned Vance’s skin. “Shut up,” he said, adjusting the toddler-size stuffed bear on his lap. A big blue satin bow was tied around its neck. “And remind me why you’re not at work again?” His cousin managed the numbers end of the family business, Smith & Sons Foods, that grew avocados and citrus in a fertile area about sixty miles southeast of here. “Shouldn’t you be counting packing crates or something?”

Baxter tilted his head and seemed to consider the question. “Good point. I am very busy. But I’m also the only relative who gets more than the rare two-line email from you. My three sentences confer a certain responsibility upon me.”

Vance looked toward the ocean to avoid the censure in the other man’s gaze. The restaurant was situated at one end of Southern California’s Crescent Cove, a gentle curve of land that created a shallow cup for the gray-blue Pacific water. Today’s bright July sun scattered gold discs onto its dappled surface. A beautiful sight, and as different as could be from the stark landscape of Afghanistan that he’d been gazing upon for months, but he didn’t find it soothing. There was that kid in his future. Four weeks playing father figure to a stranger.

“‘Confer a certain responsibility,’” he muttered, taking his uneasiness out on his cousin. “You’ve turned pompous, you know that?”

“It must be those sixteen hours a day I sit behind a desk,” Baxter replied without heat. “Not everyone has spent the last half year or so dodging IEDs and getting in the middle of firefights.”

“It’s my job.” He was a combat medic, and though it wasn’t what he’d originally planned for himself, Vance held no regrets about being the one to aid his fallen brothers on the battlefield. He did it damn well. Lives had been saved.

And some not.

“Uh-oh,” Baxter said now. “Stay with me, fella. You look ready to bolt.”

“I’m not going anywhere.” He could still hear his grandfather’s voice in his head. A man never breaks a promise. And Vance lived by that. His fingers absently played with the ends of the stuffed bear’s satin ribbon. “When her dad was dying in that godforsaken valley, I swore to him I’d give Layla a vacation to remember at Beach House No. 9.”

The injured colonel had carried the details of his planned trip in the interior webbing of his combat helmet, where it was common for soldiers to tuck valued letters and precious photos. Like