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Seek and Ye Shall Find

"I've got sunshine on a cloudy day
When it's cold outside, I've got the month of May.
I guess you'd say
What can make me feel this way
My girl (my girl, my girl)
Talkin' 'bout my girl (my girl)..."
"My Girl" by the Temptations

 

Prologue

It had been a long time since he'd been in this part of the country. He'd left the campus of the illustrious University of Puget Sound, and never looked back, never came back. It had been the only college out of the dozen he'd applied to that had accepted him. Hell, maybe they'd known then what he hadn't. He'd never finished getting that degree, and maybe the people in all of those other universities, who went over those applications...filled out by high school students full of dreams, full of hope...had known. Why waste time, effort, and space on someone who wouldn't see it through, right? He was only six credits shy of his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. He could probably pick them up from some online college...if he had a mind to...although the lack of an actual degree had never been a hindrance...not in his line of work.

It was sunny. Warm and sunny and the sky was a beautiful azure blue. Unlike the day he'd left. It had been cold and rainy that day. Fit his mood pretty damned well if he remembered correctly. He parked the rental car. Things had certainly changed in twenty-eight years.

He still wasn't sure how the committee had come upon his address, or why they'd sent him an invitation to the reunion party. He hadn't graduated with his classmates. No, he had been in the middle of survival training at boot camp when his roommate and buddies were walking onto the stage to get that diploma...one that declared that they'd successfully bullshitted their way through four years of college.

Seemed odd to have the reunion this year as well, although there'd been something about having one every year after the twentieth...he hadn't bothered reading that part. He was even more baffled that he was here. Must be old age, he thought. Making him nostalgic. So long ago. So many things he'd do differently. Luckily for him, there were more things he'd do exactly the same. He'd never regretted joining the Air Force. Never regretted becoming a Special Ops agent. Never regretted laying it all on the line for his country. He figured it was a pretty fair deal. He'd been given a shot at having the best of everything, just by the accident of birth. Oh, his parents weren't wealthy. Far from it. His father had been a truck driver, his mother a teacher in a tiny town in the middle of Kansas. But they'd been good people. And he'd grown up knowing he could do anything, become anyone he wanted. Hell, if he'd had the notion, he could have flopped himself on the road to the White House. That thought made him chuckle. Politicians made his trigger finger itch. 

Through the door and into the lobby. He wondered how many of the men and women, all of them older and paunchier and gray, he'd recognize. He was proud of the fact that even at fifty-one he was trim and lean. He could still run ten miles at a shot. Had actually entered a couple of marathons. Just to prove to the snot-nosed kids he worked with that the old man still had it.

He wandered toward the banquet room of the hotel. Could see the table set up just outside of the open double doors. Disco music was blaring, and he could see the reflection of a disco ball on the walls and floor of what he could see of the room. Yeah, they'd seen the birth of that era. May true rock-n-rollers forgive them!

Three women were sitting at the table, all of them dressed in their finest, he was certain. When he made it to the group and their welcome signs, he pasted a smile on his face.

"You're here for the Class of '75 reunion?" the one sitting in the middle asked.

"Sure am," he replied, flashing a smile at them. Over the years he'd been told he had a captivating smile. It must be true, he thought, watching two of the three women preening and batting their eyelashes at him. Damned broads had probably been married for twenty five years and had grandkids!

"Name?"

"Gary Franklin."

While one of the women checked the register, another searched through the name tags. The third, however, studied him carefully. "I'll bet you don't remember me," she said after a few minutes.

"I'm sorry, I'm terrible with names," he replied, offering an apologetic smile. She did look a bit familiar.

"I'm Natalie Powers. Well, was, I'm Natalie Burke now," she replied.

Oh, hell. "I remember," he said softly.

She nodded. Stared at him for another minute or so. "She never told you, did she?"

He frowned. "Who? Told me what?"

Natalie shook her head. "It's been a long time. I suppose some things are better just left alone."

"Here's your nametag," the middle woman - a bleached blonde if he'd ever seen one - said to him, holding up the stick-on piece of paper. She stood up and leaned over the table, a move that had her ample cleavage damned near hanging out of the top of her low-cut dress.

He allowed the woman to put the nametag on his jacket, noting her hands were running over his chest a bit more than was necessary. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck were standing up. Just like they did whenever he was in a situation that was potentially dangerous. His gut told him that something was going on, something he should know about. And his gut had never been wrong. The fact that he was standing there was proof of that!

She took note of the way his eyes narrowed slightly. His body had tensed. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have said anything," Natalie said softly.

"Do you have to stay here, or can you join me for a drink?" He asked. No sense in playing games. He'd never been very good at them to begin with. Cookie had never played games. She'd been straight up front with her feelings. Never demanded more from him than he could give. Accepted what he did as a part of her life, and made the best of it. Even after ten years, thoughts of her still ripped through him, leaving him breathless with pain. She'd been a fighter, his Cookie. But in the end, the goddamned cancer had won.

Natalie glanced at her companions. "I'm really just sitting here keeping Susan and Theresa company."

"Is there a bar in this place?"

"Downstairs."

"Natalie!" Susan, the bleached blonde objected. "You can't just whisk Mr. Franklin away before he's had a chance to go in and mingle!"

"I'll be back," he said, winking at the woman. Didn't need the bimbo making a scene.

"And I'll be right here," she purred.

Natalie rolled her eyes. Some things changed...people grew up. Some things never changed. Like Susan's loose knees. She grabbed her handbag. "It's this way."

 

A  A  A  A  A  A

 

The bar was small, dark and relatively empty. Of course, it was fairly early, Gary thought. He followed Natalie to a table in the far corner. He should have contemplated the fact that he'd run into her friends. Hadn't even crossed his mind. She hadn't crossed his mind. Not once after he'd met Cookie had he thought about her.

The waitress was at the table before they were seated. "Gin and tonic," Natalie said.

Gary barely noticed the woman who waited for his order. Shook himself mentally, gave her an apologetic smile. "Bailey's, neat."

When the waitress was far enough away, Natalie sighed. "I wanted to tell you...wanted her to tell you. But she wouldn't. She said that she wasn't going to screw up your life. And that she..." she turned her head, tried to blink the tears from her eyes. "I suppose now it wouldn't be a problem."

"Natalie, what in the hell are you talking about?" Gary asked.

"Do you remember when Brenda left school?"

Of course he remembered! The fact that she'd disappeared from his life had been one of the major factors in his decision to join the military. She'd just...vanished. No goodbye, no explanation...just...gone. "Yeah. I remember," he said quietly.

The waitress had returned with their drinks. Neither of them spoke until they'd fortified themselves with a sip of their chosen alcohol.

Natalie took a deep breath. "She was pregnant, Gary. Four months pregnant when she left. She said that it happened the night you showed up at the farm."

He closed his eyes. Brenda, the beautiful, slender girl with long blonde hair and big green eyes, the girl every guy on the campus had the hots for. The girl who, for some unknown reason, had chosen him to be her boyfriend. They'd met their freshman year. Started dating their sophomore year. Been inseparable their junior year. Bid one another a tearful farewell at the end of that school year. She had returned home for the summer, to the sugar beet farm in California where she'd grown up. He'd found a job at the docks in Tacoma, to earn enough for the next year of school. So he'd worked all the extra hours he could, saved his money, and finally had enough to go visit her. He'd wanted to spend the Fourth of July with her. He'd taken a full week's vacation, dreams of days lazing with her, taking her to the beach...just being with her, on his mind as he'd driven south.

Her parents had taken an instant dislike to him. His hair was too long. He smoked cigarettes, and her mother was certain he smoked pot. He had no plans of becoming an attorney, or a doctor, or any of those fine, acceptable occupations. He did, in fact have plans of becoming a high school English teacher. Like his mother. Not good enough for her parents. Not a Kansas boy with no higher ambition than teaching for their daughter. No, sirree.

Brenda's father had told him to leave, not even allowing him to see her. But she'd found out, through her younger sister, that he'd been to the house. She'd shown up at the motel where he'd rented a room for the night, before tackling the long drive back north.

It had been spectacular. He wasn't a virgin, he'd had a couple of steady girlfriends through high school who had put out on a regular basis. But he'd never made love...not like he did that night with Brenda. That night, he'd become a man. Because he'd learned about love in the arms of an angel. Memories raced through his mind, digging up emotions that had long been dormant. "You're sure?"

Natalie nodded. "Oh, yeah. She wasn't sure until August. She was going to get back to school, and have an abortion. Except, by the time she had the money together, she was told that she was too far along to have it done in the clinic...and she couldn't...she couldn't go to the hospital...they would've notified her parents."

"She went home?"

"No. I don't know where she went, and that's the God's honest truth. Debbie and Jenny and I looked for weeks. We kept hoping she'd come back, or at least call."

"Then...she...uh..."

"She had the baby," Natalie whispered. "She called me one night in March, I couldn't tell you the date...she was crying, I could barely make out what she said. Something about not being able to do right for the baby...that she didn't have a choice, and that she was too...too..." Once again she turned her head.

"Too what?"

"Too fucked up. She said she didn't even know where she was. I tried to get her to look around, to tell me what she could see, and told her that we'd be there as soon as we could...but she hung up."

Holy Mary, Mother of God! He wanted to scream. He wanted to cry. Hell, he wanted to laugh. How fucking ironic! He and Cookie had tried for years to have a baby. It had never happened for them. The one night, one goddamned night with Brenda, and he'd knocked her up! "So where is she...are they?"

"I don't know...I really don't. I never saw or heard from her again. Debbie thought she saw her in Seattle once, a couple of years later, but it couldn't have been her."

"Why not?"

"The woman Debbie saw was a hooker."

Christ! Wasn't that a kick in the pants! Brenda had been a virgin when she'd spent that night with him. He knew that for sure because of the blood. Not a lot, but enough to know that he'd 'popped her cherry'.

"I'm sorry, I always thought that if she'd kept the baby, she'd have let you know, somehow. I mean, we all knew you were in the Air Force, I'm certain they could have located you."

"Yeah," he replied. He'd still been in training! Finding him wouldn't have been difficult. He'd have married her...hell, he'd planned on marrying her! After that night together, it was all he could think about! She'd been...distant...when she'd returned to school in September. She was carrying a heavy class schedule, so he'd convinced himself that she was just tired, completely focused on her studies. He tried to be the caring, supportive boyfriend. Seems there had been a damned good reason for her attitude. God, she must have hated him!

Then one night in late October, just a couple of days before Halloween, if he was remembering correctly, he'd trudged over to the dorm to see her in the pouring rain...and she was gone. Natalie had been stunned, had come back to the room to find Brenda and her things...gone. Just...gone. He'd been devastated. Calls to her home remained unanswered. The minute he spoke, asking for her, whoever picked up immediately slammed the phone down. His grades began to fall. By mid-terms he knew that graduating was a fifty-fifty proposition. In January he'd gone to the recruiter's office. By February, he was in boot camp. And had been chosen for special training.

"That's why you joined the Air Force," Natalie said, her eyes widening with insight.

"One of the reasons, yeah," he admitted. Probably the single largest contributing factor, if he were honest with himself.

She sat there staring at her glass. It was better than looking at his face...the pain...the shock in his blue eyes. Why in the hell hadn't she just kept her mouth shut? She hadn't even let the man get inside the door before she was telling him about the child he'd fathered. The child he'd never known about. For all she knew, he was married and had half a dozen kids and a few grandkids! Why had she opened her mouth? "Look, I'm sorry to have dumped all of this on you like this. I just...I guess I always thought that you knew...that Brenda would have contacted you."

"Well, she didn't." He tossed back the last of his drink. Felt it burning in his stomach. He reached for the name tag on his jacket, pulled it off and folded it in half. "You'll understand if I don't feel like going back up there."

She nodded.

"Don't know why I was invited in the first place," he muttered. "I didn't even graduate!"

"Gary, if...if you ever need to talk..." She opened her purse, pulled out a business card. Wrote a number on the back. "That's my home phone. Any time."

"It's not necessary but...thanks." Numb fingers tucked the card into his shirt pocket.

She gave a bitter laugh. "I figure I owe you, after what I've just done!"

He didn't say a word. Didn't even acknowledge that she'd spoken. He stood up, managed to get his legs to work well enough to carry him back to the rental car. He dropped down into the seat. Out there, somewhere, was his kid. A part of him. What a fucking kick in the pants!


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