The sun hasn't risen completely yet, the sky is barely lighting up and I'm wide awake, running headfirst towards the river, where the screams are coming from. They echo across the trees and mountains that surround me. I want to pick up the pace but my lungs are already burning, my hands are tingling and my vision is a little fuzzy. I'm about to pass out but I don't stop. I can't stop. The screaming pierces through my body, pushing me forward. The leaves crunch underneath my boots and the black tunnel around my eyes closes in on me even further but still I press on. I'm so close I can practically feel the soft mud swallowing up my boots.
When I finally get to the clearing the screaming turns into a gurgling sound that tells me that I might be too late. I see a mass of fur and before my instincts of self-preservation kick in I take aim and unload three bullets into the bear. A blur of brown anger turns towards me and soon we are both running towards each other at full speed. I would have thought something that heavy would move slower than it actually does. The bear reaches me before I can manage to kill it with my handgun and it takes a swipe at me as I keep running to meet it, my brain not processing the scene or an appropriate reaction from the lack of oxygen. I feel something below my torso being torn to shreds and I keep shooting until I blackout.
A loud ringing wakes me up and I'm transported back to my hotel room at the Rosewood Inn. I touch my chest and then reach out to feel the scars on my left thigh, as I always do when I have this dream. I can't really call it a nightmare when I'm just re-living memories, can I? Satisfied that I'm still in one piece I shut off my alarm and check the emails I received throughout the night. Most of them are low priority stuff, dirty jokes and pictures the rest of the guys send to every agent. I roll my eyes and get out of bed, heading towards the bathroom. I turn on the bathroom light and stare at my reflection in the mirror and frown. My eyes instantly look at the raised scar tissue that I both hate and am proud of. These scars were the reason why I even got pushed up the ranks so quickly and yet… they make me feel ugly. Ever since that blonde physical therapist called me pigskin I turned all my rage towards the goal of being able to walk on out of there. I was ready to eat my own gun the first day I was back at home; it seemed like the best solution at the time. But something in the back of my mind stopped me; my competitive nature told me that it would be letting that Alison girl win. So instead I pushed it all deep into a box and stored it in the back of my mind. I could deal with the aftermath of that camping trip later.
Later turned into today and I still wasn't completely over it. To be fair it had only been about a year or so but still being haunted by nightmares and what-ifs makes me feel like a failure. And there's nothing that I hate more than failing at something. I like being the best at everything and even mental health feels like a competition where I'm not getting first place. I shake my head and get dressed for my morning run. I need to clear my head and the only thing that works is running until everything hurts as much as my scars do. Until my legs throb and I'm covered in sweat.
"Yo. Rambo, ready to roll?" Marco enthusiastically shouts at me from his spot. He's casually leaning against the hood of the car, his sunglasses reflecting everything in front of him. I nod and get into the passenger's side, automatically reaching for the coffee cup before Marco gets inside. "Fucking Rambo, that's my goddamn coffee." He complains just as he takes a sip from his own cup. I stare at him and aim my middle finger at him. "Shut up and drive Ken." He laughs and punches my shoulder playfully. I laugh along with him and warn him about keeping his eyes on the road because traffic is always heavy in the AM. We both lose it and nearly choke on our coffees. Rosewood is dead to the world; it's too early for soccer moms and kids to be outside.
When we reach the Fields residence we park on the curb directly in front of their house and walk on over to the front door. We're ready to relieve the last shift. It's just one guy from our team; usually the night shift is quieter so presidential candidate Wayne Fields' wife requested just one agent. The disruption to the family's daily life is still something they haven't quite gotten used to yet. It's still too recent. With 100 days left until the election, we've only been with the family for 20 days and Pam Fields is still getting a feel for the whole 24 hour protection thing. Ken knocks on the door after we do a quick scan of the perimeter.
"Hey Bubbles, what's up man? Ready to let the real pros take care of business." Ken happily greets the agent that gets the door. Bubbles stares at Ken's right cheek for a couple of seconds too long before answering. I glance over at Marco, wondering if it's going to get to him. Most days he lets it slide, but once in a while he gets confrontational over the lingering stares. I hate those days because I'm usually the one that is stupid enough to step in between Ken and the unfortunate soul that can't control his eyes. It doesn't always escalate to something physical, unless we've all been drinking. But even when they're sober, most of the guys I work with are pushing 40 and when some girl that's barely 23 tries to get them to settle down, it kind of has the opposite desired effect. At 7:00AM it is far too early to deal with this testosterone filled bullshit. I hold my breath, waiting for the inevitable swing aimed at David's nose.
Bubbles laughs and pushes Ken out of the way. "Whatever, they must think fucking Fields doesn't stand a chance if his wife's detail is a bunch of punk ass kids." The tension I previously felt between them evaporates and they start to rough house like a couple of boys and I laugh. The commotion summons Mrs. Fields to her front door and shakes her head disapprovingly. I can tell that even though we've disrupted her daily life, she's glad to have people around her once again. With her husband on the campaign trail and her daughter finishing up university it must have gotten pretty lonely for a woman that has dedicated her whole life to looking after others. She coughs and the guys break it up, looking flushed from embarrassment at being caught acting like hooligans by Mrs. Fields. "David, is that any way to treat poor Marco? He's just a kid. You should know better than that." She playfully hits Bubbles with the towel she was drying her hands with and ushers us inside as she glares at his retreating figure.
"How many times have I told you boys to stop fighting?" Mrs. Fields asks rhetorically as she pinches Ken's right cheek, even though he's 30, she still treats him as if he were a kid. "Go on, sit down. Breakfast is ready for you guys." Ken blushes and mumbles something before sitting down at the table. Mrs. Fields is the only person I've ever seen; aside from the medical staff that treated him; touch Marco's scarred cheek. Ever since the camping trip everyone learned to leave the right side of his face alone. I only touched it on one occasion. While we were both in the hospital, recovering from our respective wounds. When the bandages came off he started crying because he felt like a monster. He wondered how a girl was going to fall in love with him now that he was hideous and deformed. I didn't know how to react so I responded with the wrong emotion.
I laughed and when I realized what I had done, I just told him that he was overreacting. I touched his face and before my mouth could connect to my brain the words 'You're still as pretty as a fucking Ken doll Marco, so don't worry your pretty little face over it, you'll be all right. Besides it's not your looks that keep all the girls away, it's your personality.' He smiled and tried to kiss me, confusing my concern for romantic feelings. I jumped back and told him that I was gay. He was the first person I ever admitted that to. I couldn't look him the eyes because it was the first time I even said those words out loud. He started laughing for the first time since we both came to and wiped the tears from his eyes. 'Fucking Paige, of course you'd be gay. No kick ass girl like you could ever be with some fucking wimpy ass dude. You'd probably fuck him with a strap-on instead of letting him top you.' I laughed and poked at his scar tissue. 'Fuck, I should have let that fucking bear eat your sorry ass if this is the kind of thanks I get.' He winced and shook his head from side to side. 'Naa, don't be like that. I love you man, so thanks for going all Rambo on that bear. You know guns blazing and shit to save me. I owe you one.'
Mrs. Fields places a plate of eggs and bacon in front of me and it snaps me out of my memories. "Thank you Mrs. Fields, you know, you don't have to cook for us. We get a continental breakfast at the Rosewood Inn included with our rooms." I say automatically, silently wishing that she doesn't take my being polite seriously enough to stop spoiling us. "I know, but I'm just used to cooking for three every morning. And please, Paige, call me Pam." Ken doesn't do polite, seeing as he's already shoveled half of his food into his mouth. I look down at my plate and smile. "Okay Mrs. Fields. Thank you for going out of your way to make us breakfast again." She rolls her eyes at me and pats my shoulder.
Our earpieces cackle to life and Bagel's voice fills interrupts our watch. "This is agent Scott on Swimmer detail, ETA on the Fields residence is 20 minutes. Over and out." Ken nods in my direction from across the kitchen and speaks into his sleeve. "This is agent Gonzalez standing next to agent McCullers we read you loud and clear and are standing by for your arrival agent Scott. Over." I cautiously step closer to Mrs. Fields and wait for her to sense my presence near her so she can safely put down the knife she's washing before addressing her. "Mrs. Fields we just received confirmation that your daughter is on her way and will be here in about 20 minutes. Would like for us to help you prepare for her arrival in any way possible?" I offer, even though our only job is to keep her safe from any potential threats, it's hard to remain coldly professional when Mrs. Fields has gone out of her way to treat us as a welcomed presence instead of an intrusion. "No, thank you Paige. I'm almost done with the dishes and lunch should be ready by the time Emily arrives." She answers absentmindedly. Whenever she answers that way Mrs. Fields is usually going over mental checklists of everything that needs to be done. I nod and step next to the fridge at my usual spot in her kitchen and let my eyes scan the kitchen and look out the windows before resting them on Mrs. Fields again.
Even while I am vigilant, my mind tends to wonder off. Time slips away and soon our earpieces let us know that they're pulling up to the curb. When the doorbell rings Ken and I shadow Mrs. Fields unobtrusively. The door unlocks as we're making our way through the house and a sweet voice cuts through the house. "Mom?" I look up and my body shuts down. I just stop because my brain forgot what I was supposed to be doing so I awkwardly stand in the hallway and stare at her. The pictures in the house are completely dated, they stop at her high school graduation and they don't do this Emily standing in front of us any justice. Her hair is so black it's almost blue where the sunlight hits it. Her eyes are a deep brown, and warm like a summer afternoon. The way she smiles as she hugs Mrs. Fields tightly convey the love and relief she feels at being home makes my chest ache because I've never hugged anyone the way she's hugging her mom. Like that one person means the world to her. Laughter bubbles from her stomach and it shakes both of them with the pure joy of being together. I blush. This moment feels too intimate to share with three strangers.
They finally break apart and Emily's eyes meet mine. I can feel my face heat up even more and soon the tips of my ears are burning up too. Fuck. I think to myself; hating my pale skin because it gives my emotions away way too easily. I look at the ground and bite my lip before looking up again. Emily smiles softly and gives me a half wave before Ken introduces himself as agent Gonzalez and I'm finally able to function again. I walk up and introduce myself as agent McCullers and Emily smiles widely before saying her name. She doesn't automatically let go of my hand and our joined hands hang between us. I search her eyes for any clue as to what's going on in her mind, if she feels this connection between us or if it's all in my head but Mrs. Fields shouts from the kitchen that lunch is ready and we break apart.