I’m very excited to give y’all a SNEAK PEAK at the first two chapters of my upcoming book, The Colonel and Her Sergeant! If you like what you read here, you can pick up the rest of the book on June 9th.
“To be pleased with one’s limits is a wretched state.”
– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Even though two miles of Florida woodlands and a thick pane of ballistic glass separated Captain Anna Archer from the launch pad, she watched the rising Delta II rocket as though she herself were lifted atop the brightest light she’d ever seen, pushed into the sky by thousands of invisible human hands from the advent of rocketry to the room of engineers she stood with that day, slipping the surly bonds of earth and touching the face of God as most people can only dream, until the moment it blew up.
A plume of smoke, then a flash, then a cluster of tiny explosions like a fireworks display gone off all at once, black instead of pretty colors. Two seconds of silence followed, as Anna and everyone else in the control center were too shocked even to gasp. Then the boom came, warping the glass the way the Space Shuttle’s sonic boom did when it landed, but this boom kept rumbling like rocks rolling down a mountain. The cloud of burning rocket fuel billowed out from the last place in the air the launch vehicle had been whole, black tendrils spreading across the sky and sloping down as if to engulf the earth. The eagle-eyed could see pieces falling to the ground, flaming chunks of the satellite and its launch vehicle slamming into the trees and the ocean.
Around her, phones began to ring and panic reigned—not the screaming kind but the quiet kind, where people gave one-word answers to complicated questions. After arguing with the chief engineer, the launch group commander looked up the procedures for a catastrophic failure: keep everything, notes and all, for the imminent investigation. Find out which way the wind was blowing, because no one could leave until they knew the toxic cloud of burning rocket fuel was out of their egress path. Nobody was hurt, the launch group commander swore to others, and himself; they’d cleared the area for launch, as they always did, in case something like this ever happened. Because failure was always possible, everybody knew.
Still, people cried. They watched the cloud that used to be the rocket they’d all worked thousands of hours on as it leaked across the sky and blotted out the sun, hiding their faces in their hands, waiting for the commander and head safety officer to release them so they could grieve at home. Later, they would discover the explosion had been caused by an internal crack in one of the solid rocket boosters, incurred at some point during transport months or even years prior—no one knew exactly when. The solid rocket booster lead engineer had known his system was responsible almost immediately after the explosion, due to the massive drop in chamber pressure one-and-a-half seconds beforehand, but he wouldn’t admit it until two days later.
The spacecraft atop the rocket—a Global Positioning System satellite—had cost roughly two-hundred-and-fifty-million dollars; the rocket, another hundred million. Add to that the cost of standing down the entire fleet and the total financial cost of the failure was around one billion dollars. But the money only really mattered to the people who would pass judgment on them. What mattered to the people in that room that day, what Anna could only begin to understand as a young captain, was the loss of a dream. It should have been if you did everything right, followed every procedure, checked every box, and gave every piece of your heart and soul, then you would reach the stars. And yet here was proof it wasn’t so. She knew it that day, stared into the abyss of that reality, and quickly looked away.
The investigation into the accident, and how no one caught the critical defect, and what needed to change so it never happened again, lasted for seven months. The Air Force didn’t launch another rocket for almost two years. The inquiries and subpoenas for information were still ongoing when the time came for Anna to move on to her next assignment.
happen,” the launch group commander said to Anna, a few months before the final
report came out and he was fired. “It’s how you learn and ultimately become a
better officer.” Tears welled at the corners of his eyes. He tried to smile
through them. “Everybody fails sometimes.”
“I offer neither pay, nor quarters, nor food; I offer only hunger, thirst, forced marches, battles, and death. Let him who loves his country with his heart, and not merely with his lips, follow me.”
– Giuseppe Garibaldi
Through the din, Colonel Anna Archer heard him laughing. It was a noise that came deep from the gut, sped through the throat, and launched from his lips with such gusto she rudely turned away from the colonel talking to her so she could put eyes on its source. A tall young man with olive skin, black hair slicked back into one thick wave to stay within Air Force regulation, service dress cutting his torso into a sharp inverted-A. He stood about thirty feet away, underneath the chandelier of the Tides Club ballroom, its light glinting off a sea of medals and ranks around him. On one side of the room was the stage with the grog bowl yet to be filled with noxious ingredients, next to an Air Force Anniversary-inscribed sheet cake on display for the cocktail hour. On the other side, dozens of round tables with white linen cloths, red, white, and blue flower bouquets adorning each. In the center, him. It was as if the light bent toward him, casting his frame in an effervescent halo. Chatting with a group of friends, he made that noise every time one of them told a joke—young people.
An enlisted man. She turned away.
“What did you say?” she asked Coronel Joe Bashir, the 45th space wing vice commander, as he regarded her with one eyebrow slightly cocked, waiting for a response to whatever he’d said. “I’m sorry. It’s loud in here.”
“I said you have your work cut out for you with that charge problem.” Everybody said that. “I’m not a rocket expert, but I’ve been stationed at Patrick Air Force Base for two of my previous assignments, and I can’t remember the last time both the Atlas and Delta launch fleets were grounded.”
She could, vividly. “That’s a risk you take when you’re forced to consolidate manufacturers, unfortunately. If there’s only one company in the world left that makes the booster stage separation charges you need, and commissioning a back-up company isn’t economically viable…well, here we are. Delaying our launch schedule indefinitely. Would’ve been nice if previous launch group commanders had—”
Anna cut herself off with a tiny shake of her head she hoped Joe didn’t notice, then smiled as if she’d made a joke just in case he had. Complaining about her predecessors was bad form, even during an informal chat with one of her peers. “We should be careful,” she said, “We’ll be sent to the grog if we’re caught talking shop.”
She took a long sip of wine from her glass, swallowing a sudden knot of anxiety. Under no circumstances could she admit what she actually thought of being forced to fix the previous commanders’ bad decisions, all men before her who’d moved on and up. Barely two months into the job and her chief engineer dropped a report about faulty booster charges into her lap. Those goddamn charges—which created controlled explosions to blow the rocket stages away from one another, so the payload could ascend to orbit after it broke free of Earth’s gravity—had been failing tests for months. Why hadn’t this issue come up before? she’d asked. Because the failures fell below the threshold required for the private company to report, per their government contract, the chief engineer answered. The commander before her had known, even had multiple high-level meetings about it with the vendor’s leadership. But he hadn’t passed this information on to anyone else. Didn’t want to cause a panic over a minor issue, he’d told her only when she asked him about it, a few days before his promotion to general.
Joe shrugged. “You’re right.” He took a swig of his beer, then smacked his lips and grinned. “No shop talk. These things always get resolved anyway. When you’re the boss, you won’t even remember the charge issue, right?”
She laughed and rolled her eyes a little. Well, the timing was perfect. Next year would be her pole year, when she’d be in the promotion zone for general. If she got picked up for her first star—as most of her predecessors had—she’d pin on the following year, just as the current wing commander was leaving. The sequence of events was classic—tradition, even.
“We’ll see,” she told Joe. “Nothing is certain—”
“Colonel Anna Archer!”
She recognized the voice before she turned around—Brigadier General John Guinness, the 45th space wing commander himself. A tall man made gaunt through excessive exercise, he wore a wide practiced smile at odds with cold blue eyes. A stately blonde in a sequined black dress had her arm hooked through his.
“Mister President,” Anna replied with a smile, referring to his official title for the night—President of the Mess.
“Anna, I’d like you to meet my wife, Ofelia.”
“Very nice to make your acquaintance,” Anna said with an abundance of warmth as she shook Ofelia’s hand.
Ofelia responded with a delicate squeeze befitting the woman whose role it was to be the soft counterpoint to her hard, important spouse. Anna’s mother had excelled at the role, always quietly smiling beside her husband, occasionally throwing out a charming quip, before the divorce.
“I used to work for Anna’s father,” the general said to his wife, “Major General Herbert Archer, remember him? He retired a couple of years ago. Greatest boss I ever had, looked out for me during some tough times. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.”
“It’s good to finally meet you,” Ofelia said with a slight southern drawl. “We need to have you over for dinner soon. I’m embarrassed we haven’t yet.”
“No, no, it’s my fault— too much traveling. I think I’ve briefed every single person in the Air Force on the faulty booster charge situation. I’ve slept in my own bed maybe two days this month. When I got home from this last trip, I threw away food in my fridge so old it had become sentient and tried to declare personhood.”
Ofelia slapped her husband’s arm. “You need to stop working your people so hard, John.”
“If Colonel Archer didn’t like it, she wouldn’t do it. But we all love our jobs, no matter how hard they get. It’s what we signed up for, right?”
She smiled and nodded along with Colonel Bashir. Wasn’t that the truth—most of the time.
“My wife has a point, though. I’ve been lax in my duties to make sure you’ve been properly introduced to everyone. Ah, there’s some of my staff now.”
He waved to a group of people a few feet away. When they noticed his beckoning, they snapped to attention. A man and a woman separated from the small cluster and hurried over. Anna suppressed a flinch when she recognized him—the man with the siren’s call of a laugh.
“Colonel Archer, I’d like you to meet Technical Sergeant Kathy McCleen and Staff Sergeant Victor Shamrock. They’re part of my Commander’s Action Group.”
She shook hands with McCleen first, then Shamrock. He had a nice smile—slightly crooked with bright white teeth, like a classic Hollywood rogue.
“Sergeant Shamrock,” she greeted him, recognizing too much formality in her voice even under the circumstances of the huge gulf in rank between them. The tone, at least to her, compensated for the fact she was studying his eyes in a very unprofessional manner. She couldn’t tell what color they were. They seemed both brown and blue at the same time, depending on how the light hit them, like those of a newborn baby. How did one get those kinds of eyes as an adult? She’d never ask; it was beyond rude. As a light-skinned black woman with hazel eyes, she’d lost count of all the times strangers asked her if she was “mixed,” as if she were an interesting breed of dog.
“Colonel Archer.” He kept gripping her hand, not painfully but hard enough if she pulled away, if she’d wanted to, it would be awkward. Subtly his gaze drifted down her body, then back up to her face before settling heavily on her eyes. A lot of men did that—sized her up and liked what they saw. But none of them could tolerate being in the passenger’s seat of a relationship, and so it usually went no further, or died after a handful of dates. Turned out the male version of Ofelia didn’t exist—or maybe it was Ofelia who didn’t exist. The mirage of Anna’s mother had dissolved once Herb retired. Maybe none of it was real, and these pockets of illusion were all that was left of tradition.
She didn’t like thinking these thoughts, or considering why looking at Staff Sergeant Shamrock had suddenly brought them on. They weren’t good for her. She pulled her hand away and turned up the corners of her mouth into a polite smile.
“It’s good to place a face with a name,” he said. “I see you on e-mail correspondences all the time and hear your voice over telecons, but never laid eyes on you. Was wondering if you were real or not. Ma’am.”
“Of course I exist,” she snapped. Why is a black female colonel so hard to imagine? she almost added before stopping herself. What was she doing? He was trying to be charming, and she was overreacting.
Despite the sudden tension in the air, Shamrock shot Anna his rogue’s grin. “I mean I was wondering if you were as good as you seemed. Cool, collected, quick with the right answer—like a dolphin.”
“Dolphins. They communicate telepathically, faster than the speed of sound. That’s why they’re so clever.”
She blinked at him. He couldn’t be serious—
“That’s what my crazy uncle used to say. Personally, I believe a person’s intellect, flexibility, and drive to learn is the key to success. Or, you know, it could be telepathic dolphins. Go with the simplest explanation, my uncle said—for him, it was telepathic dolphins. He did have a touch of dementia, but sea mammals never report problems setting up video conferences, so maybe he was on to something.”
He laughed the same baritone boom that had captivated her moments before. What a strange man—goofy, but with those looks…what an interesting man. She found herself chuckling along with him, her cheeks warming, bubbles popping in her stomach like the fizz of champagne. It had been a while since she’d experienced that feeling; hell, decades.
“I saw a National Geographic TV special recently that swore mermaids were the masters of the ocean,” she said. “Are you sure your uncle wasn’t confusing mermaids with dolphins? People often mistake the two.”
“Maybe. He believes weird things sometimes. He reads too many books.”
Anna studied his blue-brown eyes again, a smile lingering on her lips. She knew nothing about him—except that she already liked him. There was nothing wrong with a harmless crush, really. She’d need to drop by the CAG office more often. A little witty banter and eye candy would brighten up her day, and make visiting the wing commander less unpleasant.
“You’re incorrigible, Vic,” Ofelia said with an oh, you wave of her hand.
“True,” General Guinness said. “Let’s not forget our customs and courtesies.” The general eyed the sergeant with the slightest hint of disapproval, which would’ve had the effect of an open-handed slap on anyone besides Shamrock. The sergeant remained glowing, still amused with himself, the unspoken rebuke rolling off.
“If you’ll excuse me, I need to use the little girl’s room,” Ofelia said, “It was a pleasure to meet you, Anna.”
Barely a few seconds after she’d left, a female captain with red hair and old fashioned horn-rimmed eyeglasses snuck up behind the general and whispered something into his ear. She leaned in so close her lips almost touched his lobe—Captain Christy Shalen, Anna remembered after a moment. She was the general’s executive officer, functioning as his personal assistant and handler. For a subordinate, she seemed awfully comfortable getting close to him.
“Speaking of customs and courtesies,” he said, “I’m told the official festivities are about to start and I need to get into position. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll see you two colonels at the head table in a few minutes.”
General Guinness stepped through their small circle, pausing next to Anna. He leaned toward her, not as close as Captain Shalen had gotten but near enough she had to fight the urge to recoil.
“I need to discuss something with you,” he said in a volume only she could hear, “as soon as possible. Not here, though. Make an appointment with my exec.”
He pulled back with a mild grin. Anna watched him as he walked away, groups of Airmen parting to make way as he cut straight through the ballroom toward the head table where she and Colonel Bashir would join him when the dinner bells chimed.
What did they need to discuss that they hadn’t gone over dozens of times already? Certainly not the damn charges; she’d been clear in her daily reports that there weren’t any new updates. He implied it was a personal issue, but the proximity of his delivery could’ve incorrectly influenced her impression. What else could it be? Good or bad? Career-affecting or no?
If she were as forward as Sergeant Shamrock, she would bring it up during dinner and insist he tell her this secret now. She wasn’t, of course—that was career suicide for her. Maybe she was overreacting again, but probably not.
soured, Anna finished her drink as quickly as was possible without looking like
an alcoholic, then excused herself. Dinner would start any minute, along with
the pomp and circumstance. Might as well take what little time was left to do
breathing exercises in a bathroom stall and calm herself so she could enjoy the
spectacle. For Shamrock she spared the slightest of glances and a tight smile
before turning away, embarrassed by her earlier unprofessional thoughts of him.
Hopefully after tonight, she’d never see him again, but of course that was
“The rules of fair play do not apply in love and war.”
– John Lyly
Chess was the game most associated with warfare, which was why Maria learned to play it when she joined the military. She’d gotten pretty good at it over the last five years, learning different strategies and gambits, reading books on game theory, even taking an online course to polish her style. She wasn’t close to grandmaster-level, but she could beat most casual players. These days, however, she played only when the mood struck her, and not as something she needed to know to be a good Air Force officer.
Turned out chess and warfare were nothing alike. Broadly, one was fair, while the other was not.
She’d been struck with the mood to play that evening, after she’d received a work e-mail telling her she hadn’t been selected for the Air Force Institute of Technology graduate degree program. Specifically, it had been a “congratulations” e-mail to all the people in the 45th launch group who’d gotten in, and the list hadn’t included her. Better luck next time, her boss had said. Why wasn’t I good enough this time?, she’d asked. Why wasn’t a woman with an engineering degree who literally does rocket science for a living good enough? He said he didn’t know, as if it was a cosmic mystery. Too many other qualified candidates with a special something she lacked—like a penis and luck. But she could only speculate.
Lying on her sofa with her laptop on her stomach, she clicked on the electronic chessboard. “Queen to D-two,” she said to herself. “Checkmate, boy.”
In the chat log with her human opponent, a guy with the handle MarkySnark, she typed: good game. next time don’t sacrifice your queen so early
He typed back: cunt.
She let out a long sigh. That’s what she got for using a female-sounding handle—EmpressMartinezz. Poor sportsmen weren’t uncommon, especially when they realized they lost to a woman, but fuck this guy: Aww, poor baby got his tiny man feelings hurt—
Before she could hit enter, she glanced at the clock and froze—ten past six.
“Oh, shit.” She snapped her laptop closed and launched off the couch, running to her bedroom to change into her mess dress as quickly as possible.
“I should’ve said no,” Maria griped to herself as she stood on one side of the A1A highway, the Tides Club on the other side. Rain pelted her hair and fancy uniform, water soaking into her high heels as she danced around a puddle to get to the stoplight pole.
Mashing the pedestrian signal with her fist, she yelled, “Come on!” She was already late for this stupid thing, and now she was about to arrive looking like she’d swam there. Cars zipped by in the dark as she waited forever for the light to change from green to red, the walk sign popping on across the street. She tottered across, heels squeaking as she went. When she was over halfway to the other side, a car ran the red light and nearly hit her, its tires squealing as it swerved to avoid her at the last second. Damn light—it only changed when people pressed the button to cross, so drivers were used to it always being green. Still, it’s not like they didn’t know the light was there, and that sometimes it turned red. The jerk had the balls to honk at her.
“Asshole!” she screamed at the car’s taillights.
Finally on the other side, she ran into the club, cut through the empty foyer, and headed straight for the ballroom. Pulling the door open a crack, she heard General Guinness giving a speech.
“…We are at the forefront of today’s warfighting efforts…” he said. Military jargon, blah blah. He droned on for another minute until something he said warranted applause, and the crowd responded by slapping the fat end of their spoons on their tables. Spotting an empty seat next to Jake, which he must’ve saved for her—in the outer row of tables, thank God—she tip-toed through the ear-splitting cacophony and slid into her chair just as the noise died down.
“Look who’s finally honored us with her presence,” Jake said, glancing at Maria as General Guinness said something about air power. “Jesus, did you swim here?”
“Shut up.” She brushed water off the shoulders of her satin mess dress coat, then did a double-take when she saw Jake’s boring civilian girlfriend Sarah next to him. Frowning, she looked away so it wouldn’t seem aimed at Sarah. “I made it, didn’t I? You owe me fifty bucks.”
“But you’re late.”
“My car wouldn’t start.” Why did Jake asked Maria to come, and then bring his girlfriend? Yes, Maria and Jake were merely friends, at the moment, but come on. That wouldn’t last long, and he knew it. Stupid boy. “And you didn’t say anything about being on time. You said, ‘Come to the Dining Out, and I’ll give you fifty bucks.’ So here I am. Cash only, please.”
Major Duncan, Maria’s boss, shot them both a side-eye from across the table.
“We’ll discuss terms later,” Jake whispered, then was quiet as he seemed to focus on the wing commander’s speech.
Already the night was a bust, and she’d only just arrived. Now she was stuck there, unable to leave until the mess was adjourned—per the rules, anyway. At least she’d successfully avoided getting called out for being late. Good thing no one cared enough about her to notice besides Jake. Quietly seething and already bored, she ignored the general and took a moment to get her bearings. Jake looked sharp in his mess dress, but men always did compared to the bulky female version of every military uniform. With a blond crew cut, light blue eyes, and a strong, clean-shaven jawline, he was made for an Air Force recruitment poster. Sarah wore a pink chiffon thing, also perfect for a spousal recruitment poster, if such a thing were ever necessary. Major Duncan sat with his wife, smiling and nodding as if enraptured by the speech, but he picked at the sleeve of his coat with his usual nervous energy, constantly worried about acting the right way and saying the right things while never sure exactly what those were. Two other couples shared the table, Maria’s coworkers, all officers with their dates or wives, leaving one empty chair next to Maria where her theoretical plus-one would’ve been. At the front of the ballroom sat Colonel Archer, her group commander, looking poised and regal as always. She’d never actually talked with Archer since the colonel traveled all the time, but she’d heard good things, absolutely fantastic commander and leader, destined for general, etc. Average things for a colonel.
Finally, General Guinness stopped talking. After some painful “witty banter” with the master of ceremonies, a representative from each squadron came forward to throw noxious ingredients into the toilet-shaped grog bowl. Security Forces used a combat boot to pour in “foot jam,” which turned out to be clams. The Loggies threw in a glass jar of “dried camel snot from the Middle East,” aka coconut. Maria’s unit, the 5th space launch squadron, poured in “rocket fuel”—chocolate schnapps. When each unit had contributed something, Guinness declared the grog open and the waiters brought out dinner.
As Maria picked at her salad, she noticed Jake writing something on a cocktail napkin.
“What’re you doing?” she asked.
“It better not be what I think you’re doing.”
“Too late.” He rose from his chair with a mischievous grin, clinking his tiny dessert spoon against a water glass.
“Don’t you fucking dare,” Maria said, earning a glare from Major Duncan.
“Point of order,” Jake announced to the mess. Everybody in the ballroom quieted down to look at him. Maria sighed. He would do this.
“Mister Vice, I’d like to report a rule violation,” Jake said to Lieutenant Colby, the vice president of the mess who also served as the master of ceremonies. How he’d gotten the job, she wasn’t sure; he certainly wasn’t that charismatic. He also might’ve been the tiniest grown man she’d ever known who didn’t have a medical condition. Duncan had probably lobbied for him; something about the kid’s wee stature compelled special treatment from others, despite the fact there was nothing actually wrong with him.
“State your point,” Colby answered.
Maria felt a blush rise up her neck as Jake read a limerick he’d jotted the napkin. “Captain Maria Martinez was dragged to the mess; it’s no secret she didn’t want to come. She complained and she moaned in a grouchy tone, determined not to have any fun. When she showed up here, it was very clear; she was late and wet like a frog. In her soaked blues, and breaking the rules, Mister Vice you should send her to the grog!”
The ballroom exploded with the ear-splitting sound of hundreds of spoons banging against tables. When the cacophony died down, Colby replied, “And how do you defend yourself, Captain Martinez?”
Rolling her eyes, Maria stood. Usually, these Dining Out snipes were reserved for higher-ranking folks and their lackeys, like the cool kids in the lunchroom slinging food at each other to prove they didn’t care who saw, even though that was the whole point. As Colonel Archer’s executive officer, Jake was one of the cool kids, while Maria was most definitely not.
The crowd stared at her, probably wondering who she was. Her eyes flicked to Colonel Archer, watching the show with that polite yet somehow expressionless smile she made all the time. Now was her chance to make a good impression by being witty and clever. Maybe that was Jake’s real aim.
“So say all us bitches—snitches get stitches!”
You’d think an organization whose job it was to kill people and blow stuff up would be more tolerant of violent innuendo, but not this Air Force. She got some uncomfortable chuckles but mostly disapproving frowns. Major Duncan sighed, and Colonel Archer’s mask of a smile dropped a hair. Jake’s lips tightened, his grin turned wry. Maria bit the inside of her cheek so she wouldn’t burst into laughter. That’s what he got for trying to force her to play the game.
“Sounds like Captain Rivern spoke the truth,” Mister Vice said. “But you obviously need some…supervision, so Captain Rivern will go with you.”
The audience banged their spoons at that. See, nobody cared about just her.
Sighing, Maria marched to the front of the ballroom, zigzagging past tables in sharp facing movements as Jake followed a couple of steps behind. They lined up shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the grog table and took turns spooning sludge out of the toilet-shaped bowl into a plastic cup. She made sure to get one full ladle’s worth, so she wouldn’t get jeered for underfilling her cup and have to drink again. Chunks of marshmallow, coconut, bits of salsa, and minced clams floated through the pinkish fluid, the buoyant stuff resting on top while the meaty stuff sank to the bottom.
Maria did an about-face, careful not to spill the drink. She held her cup high and said with Jake, “To the Mess!”—“What a mess!” the crowd yelled back—then chugged the grog. People squealed and snickered as she and Jake held the cup to their lips until every last morsel was gone, chewing while keeping the rim pressed to their lips, per the rules. When she finished, she flipped the cup upside down and held it over her head as proof—another rule—and the crowd rewarded her with more spoon-slapping at surviving the dreaded grog. In truth, it wasn’t that bad; it tasted like a weirdly chunky punch. Even the clams were neutralized thanks to its base of Tang and lemon-lime soda. Hell, you wouldn’t even know there was alcohol in it unless someone told you.
She followed Jake back to their table, passing friends who slapped his arm and chuckled. When they sat and the ballroom filled with chatter again, Sarah hugged him.
“That looked disgusting,” she said. “You’re not going to throw up, are you?”
“I’m fine, baby. It’s no big deal.”
She squeezed his hand. “If you say so. I’m just glad you’re okay.”
Maria fought the urge to roll her eyes. Sarah had obviously never been to one of these things before. She raised a glass of wine. “Nothing liquor won’t fix.”
She clinked her glass with Jake’s, and they drank a toast to surviving the grog together while Sarah painted on a tight smile. Maria suppressed a snicker; it was too much fun turning Sarah’s screws. Jake’s girlfriend was so nice, so bland. She was everything Jake wished he wanted in a woman, to match his good-boy officer image and make his retired colonel father happy. But she knew Jake’s shameful secret—he liked the bad girls.
Maria slapped Jake’s arm. “We should have a grog bowl at work. Make the new lieutenants drink from it as part of their initiation.”
“No,” Major Duncan cut in as if he thought she was serious. He could never tell.
“Why not? You’re always complaining about how being stationed at a civilian-heavy base like Patrick makes us ignorant of the ‘real’ Air Force.”
“Because it could be seen as a form of hazing.”
Maria gestured around her. “Then what is this?”
“The Dining Out is a proud Air Force tradition we are not bastardizing so you can have fun messing with people.”
She shrugged. “Seems exactlylike the military way.”
“Don’t make me write you up, Captain Martinez.”
She scowled into her wine glass. “It’s more of a Marine thing anyway…”
Atop the table, she noticed her phone vibrating with some kind of notification. She picked it up, unlocked it; a text from her mother.
M’hija, Isabella has been released—
Maria looked away, a reflex learned long ago. Her eyes settled in front of her, where General Guinness and a baby-faced senior airman—the highest and lowest ranking people on base—gripped a large knife together and awkwardly cut into the Air Force anniversary sheet cake. Polite spoon-clapping followed.
The message from her mother better not be what she thought, but there was no way it could be anything else. She’d known it was coming, just like you could watch an out-of-control car skidding in your direction and know its seemingly random path was destined by a higher power to hit you.
Jake tapped her shoulder; she flinched. “You alright?”
She blinked at him, then dropped her phone face-down on the table and wiped away the deep frown she knew had settled on her face. “Never better. Wanna beat it out of here and get ice cream?” She glanced at Sarah. “That military-commissioned cake is probably dry and too sweet.”
“They haven’t adjourned the Mess yet. I don’t think we’re allowed to leave.”
“None of this crap is mandatory. It only exists to ingrain in us a sense of obedience.”
“Wow, that’s cynical. Why did you even come?”
“Because you asked me to, Jake. I don’t actually want your money.”
He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “I thought you’d have a good time. Maybe talk to some people who can grease the skids for your AFIT application next year.”
“Then you don’t know me very well. Come with me.”
Jake’s lips pressed into a tight line. “I can’t leave.”
“Of course you can.” She threw her phone into her black clutch purse and stood. “This is how you do it.”
Maria marched out of the ballroom, ignoring pointed looks as she left. She shouldn’t have come. Military pageantry had always been a waste of time. She was delusional to think this one would be any different because Jake wanted her there. And she would not answer her mother’s text, or the phone calls and pleas to help her heroin-addict sister that would follow. Absolutely not. L