Barring any unforeseen complications, I intend to post one chapter every Monday. Why wait so long between posts? Truthfully, there are only 16 chapters, and since it took me nearly two years to finish (yes folks, I actually started writing this story in March of 2005!) I don't want to rush and start posting it too quickly. I figure once a week is a nice interval. )Chapter 1
April 1, 2005
0045 ZULU (1945 local)
Lucky Dream Palace
Falls Church, Virginia
Once again Harm and I are here at the Lucky Dream Palace, having so-so Chinese food and chatting about anything and nothing. At least this time he's actually engaged in the conversation – when we were all here last winter to celebrate Petty Officer Coates' promotion, he'd spent half the night transfixed by the bubbles of the restaurant's gigantic fish tank. At the time our friendship had been on shaky ground; we'd been civil to each other, certainly, but there was an underlying tension that I don't think either of us knew how to bridge. Of course, looking back I now realize that our discomfort with each other was due in large part to the circumstances through which we'd arrived at that point. Had I known, truly, how Harm had felt about me… still feels about me… well, it's all water under the bridge as they say.
Things have been easier between us since Christmas, when I wrapped a Navy-issue sedan around an unsuspecting tree. Despite the subsequent shift in our relationship, though, neither of us has initiated the first step at moving beyond old friendship. I guess some things never change.
"How was everything? Would you care for box?" a feminine voice asks in stilted English.
The waitress, a young Asian immigrant wearing a floral print bandanna and a pleasant smile, flashes a shy glance at Harm as she sets the check folder, with two fortune cookies, on the table between us.
"I'm all set," Harm replies with a gesture to his near-empty plate. "Mac?"
"No thanks." I shake my head at the waitress, who gives a brief nod before gathering up the remnants of our dinner and disappearing off behind a curtain into the darkened kitchen. Across from me, Harm relaxes back into his chair, apparently not in any hurry to leave.
"So, got any big plans for the weekend?" he asks casually.
"Nothing special. Starbucks ice cream, flannel pajamas, and the three comedies from Netflix that were waiting in the mailbox when I got home last night. You?"
For the last month we've been working together as co-counsel on a special, and surprisingly complex, review that had been dropped in General Cresswell's lap by the SECNAV's office and subsequently passed along to us. This afternoon, finally, after four weeks of nonstop investigating, deliberating, and sometimes-heated-but-always-professional arguing, we were at last able to put the finishing touches on our four-hundred page report, slap a bow on top, and present it to the general for his review. After taking a perfunctory pass through the first few pages, the general then surprised both of us by mentioning that on-call duty for our sections over the next few days had been assigned to Commander Turner, leaving Harm and me free to relax over the weekend without having to worry about fielding the questions of the less experienced off-hours staff.
This came as a complete surprise, but not an unpleasant one. Since the two of us had been taken off the normal on-call rotation for the duration of the review, we'd started an informal wager around who would get the honors for the first weekend after the project wrapped. Harm, of course, thought I would get stuck with on-call, and I in turn figured it would be him. Needless to say, we both lost the bet, and the unexpected gift of our first work-free days in over a month was accepted eagerly and with a minimal amount of fanfare.
"I'm heading out to Blacksburg first thing in the morning." Harm grins at me. "To see Mattie and Tom. Now that Grace Aviation is back on its feet and apparently doing well, Tom's enrolled Mattie in beginning flight lessons. I promised her I'd take her up for a spin."
"Do they know you're coming?" After all, we only found out about our last-minute mini-vacations about two hours ago.
"Yeah, I called from the office before we left."
"Sounds like fun. Tell them I said hi."
"Will do." He nods, glancing down at the table. The check from our meal is still sitting on the red vinyl tablecloth, folded neatly in a black leather envelope and buried underneath two individually packaged fortune cookies. "I guess they're not doing the whole 'cookies in a basket' thing anymore."
"Nah," I smile, although his sudden mention of our last dinner here brings with it a sense of unease and dread. "Two cookies is more cost-effective. The whole basketful from last time was just meant to impress the two-star in the group."
Reaching for the cookies, Harm takes one and passes me the other. Our fingers brush as he drops it into my palm, leaving me feeling bereft when he pulls his hand back as quickly as it came. We open the packages in silence.
For some reason, I don't want to see what the little slip of paper has to say. That last time we were here, the rest of the group had found it oddly amusing when everyone's fortunes had turned out to say the same thing: Your unspoken desire is the road not taken. Take it. All of the fortunes except for mine, or so I'd led everyone else to believe. There was something in those words that I couldn't bear to articulate aloud, especially in front of Harm, so instead I'd made up something stupid and tried to pass it off as the truth. Everyone seemed to accept it at face value as they'd continued discussing the odds of five separate fortune cookies having identical messages, but for the rest of the evening I'd felt Harm's eyes on me when I wasn't looking. It was as though he'd known that I'd chickened out of admitting my 'real' fortune and couldn't quite figure out why.
It's just a cookie, I tell myself now, popping open the hermetically sealed cellophane wrapper and cracking open the two halves of the cookie inside. How bad can a weirdly translated, mass-produced, standard-Chinese-restaurant-fare fortune cookie's fortune be?
"Let's hope they're not the same this time," Harm says with a smile. "'Take the time to deliberate; but when the time for action arrives, stop thinking and go in,'" he reads aloud, chuckling as he holds the small slip of paper between his forefinger and thumb. "That's not a fortune, that's an Andrew Jackson quote."
"They probably weren't counting on the cookie being opened by someone who's as familiar with American political history as you are. But at least it's straightforward," I point out wryly, thinking of the cryptic fortune we'd all shared at Coates' promotional dinner.
Harm's attention immediately shifts to me. "What about yours?"
Sliding the little white piece of paper from one side of the cookie, I unfold it gingerly:
If you want to change your life, you need not look beyond the present moment.
I can't help but give a small snort at the cookie's message. Like anyone else, there are definitely things about my life that I'd love to go back and change… but the key phrase in that thought is 'go back.' God, there is so much I wish I could have the chance to do over, do better, do right. But life will forever be full of what-ifs and could-have-beens, and more than anyone I realize that despite all of my good intentions, nothing I do or say can change the choices I've made. Change the past.
"Mac?" I hear Harm say quietly, his voice earnest as he looks at me over the discarded wrapper of his own cookie. It's not like I'm whispering, but I can barely hear my own voice as I read the fortune aloud to him, just as he expects. After all, reading our fortunes aloud is a tradition of sorts.
He simply looks at me.
"I'm going to run to the ladies' room," I tell him, folding the small slip of paper between my fingers as the waitress approaches with folded hands and a shy smile. There's no reason for either of us to speculate about the cryptic words of my cookie's 'fortune.' We're just two colleagues who could be described as best friends and perhaps potential soulmates, individuals who have exchanged meaningless fortunes at Chinese restaurants on many occasions without cause for speculation. Why should this time be any different? Again, things never seem to change. But if I'd wanted to think about how my life might have been different…
Well, there's no point in dwelling on the 'what ifs.'
Harm nods, wordlessly reaching for the check as I push back from the table and grab my purse. The words from the cookie's fortune ring through my mind, a suddenly unwanted reminder of all of the events from recent years that have kept me from truly achieving my deepest desire:
If you want to change your life, you need not look beyond the present moment.
What does that mean, exactly? I wonder as I head into the women's restroom. I don't really have to use the facilities, but I definitely need some separation from the immediacy of Harm's penetrating gaze. Despite the fact that we've known each other for the better part of a decade, he still has no idea how much his eyes truly affect me. There is no other attorney, military or civilian, who can influence my judgment of a client's innocence or guilt based on a single look. And that's not even considering the fact that he's a man – a one-hundred percent, red-blooded American man who can, if he sets his mind to it, turn the entire female population of the eastern seaboard into a steaming puddle of goo with a single glance. It's a good thing Harm doesn't realize how much his eyes turn me on, because I'd be in big trouble if he did!
My face begins to heat up and I quickly direct my thoughts away from that particular path, instantly aware that I'm standing in a public restroom with a dampened paper towel in my hands. Fortunately, none of the stalls behind me appear to be occupied. Pressing the towel coolly against my neck, my eyes drift shut and I work on calming my mind. I stand there for a few minutes, eyes closed, grateful for the quiet peace away from the bustle of the dining room outside.
"What you change?"
The raspy, sharply demanding female voice startles me. Whipping around with a decidedly un-Marine-like yelp, I smack the back of my wrist against the cheap laminate countertop. Standing a few feet away, by the wall, is an elderly Chinese woman of medium height. From her worn clothing, the way her graying hair has been pulled up into a serviceable bun, the mop in her hand and her broken English, I immediately infer that she's a restaurant employee. The question of how she got into the restroom without my hearing wanders restlessly in the back of my mind – I've been standing here at the sink for nearly four whole minutes now and never heard a thing. She must have one hell of a soft touch!
"Excuse me?" I ask, eyes narrowing as I gingerly cradle my now sore wrist. The woman blows out an annoyed breath.
"What you change?" she repeats huffily, placing one hand on her padded hip. "If could go back and change one thing in your life, what you change?" With her accent, the words come out stilted, ting instead of 'thing' and you instead of 'your.'
If you want to change your life, you need not look beyond the present moment.
"What would I change about my life?" I reply back numbly. God, what wouldn't I change?
Apparently pleased that I understand the question, the woman flashes me an excited gap-toothed smile. "One," she says. "One thing you change. But beware, what you think you want to change not necessarily the correct thing to change."
I open my mouth to respond, but something in her gaze stops me cold. Behind the veil of her eyes, there is a depth and awareness about this woman that makes me believe she knows more and sees more than I can possibly imagine. The wheels in my head begin to turn, now that the shock I felt a few moments ago with her unexpected appearance has started to wear off. How does this woman know about my fortune? A picture forms in my mind, of the way Harm looked at me when I read the words out loud. It can't be a coincidence that her questions directly tie in to what the cookie said, can it? She must sense my sudden wariness, because her eyes shrewdly lock onto mine.
"A good change this," she says enigmatically, her lips twitching with barely concealed glee. "Good choice you make." Nodding with satisfaction, she gives me one last wink before stepping nimbly towards the door.
"Choice?" I'm confused. "But I didn't make a choice!" I call after her, watching helplessly as the door swings shut. Once again alone in the ladies' room, it takes about half a second for me to follow her out into the short hallway. Stepping out into the darkened corridor, I look both ways but the woman is nowhere to be seen. A quick glance into the kitchen shows it to be empty, save for a young man busy scrubbing down an industrial-sized wok, so I turn back towards the dining room. She's not here either.
"Everything all right?" Harm asks as he rises from his seat. He must sense my confusion because his eyes are filled with mild concern.
"Yeah," I say quietly, taking one last look around for the woman who has seemingly vanished into thin air. Pulling out my wallet, I reach for the check. "Let me just take care of this—"
"Don't sweat it," he interrupts, motioning for me to put my money away. "My treat."
I look up at him in mild surprise, but smile in thanks. Can we really have made it through an entire evening without getting into some sort of inane argument? "I'll pick it up next time."
He returns the smile, and for a moment I'm taken back to a time when there was nothing between us except easy friendship and the occasional professional disagreement. Basking in the fond memories of the 'good old days,' I keep to myself as we walk silently out into the parking lot. Although the sun has set, the sky is still bright and only a handful of stars have begun to twinkle to the east. I pull out my keys as we walk side by side across the pavement.
When we finally reach our cars, Harm extends a soft, "Goodnight."
"Goodnight, Harm," I return warmly before at last turning to my Corvette and giving the driver-side door handle a sharp tug. To my annoyance, I find the door still locked. Giving the button on my keyless-entry remote another deliberate push…
Normally I'd be able to hear the door unlocking, but for whatever reason the remote doesn't want to work. That's odd, I think, pushing the button one more time. Getting the same result, I shrug inwardly and unlock the door the old-fashioned way, using the key. Tossing my purse beside me as I slide into the driver's seat, my relief at getting into my car is short lived: the key turns in the ignition, but the car won't start.
I sit there for a moment, puzzled. After turning the key again to no avail, I try turning on the headlights. Nothing.
"Something wrong, Mac?" A few feet away, Harm is peering at me over the soft-top of his own 'Vette, waiting like the gentleman he is until I'm safely on my way.
"Dead battery," I sigh. Fortunately my insurance policy with USAA includes roadside assistance, but it's late and all I want is to get home.
"Want a jump?"
Dropping my head back against the seat, I look over at him. "Did you ever get your cables back from Coates?" I inquire, knowing full well that he gave them to her when she'd found herself in a similar situation a few weeks ago.
Harm grimaces sheepishly. "Not yet. Want me to give you a ride?"
"Would you mind?" All of a sudden my dinner is settling heavily in my stomach, the long hours of the last few weeks seeming to hit me at once, and I find myself struggling to stifle an unexpected yawn.
"Would I have offered if I did?" he counters. "Come on, I'll drive you home."
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