I stand at the window, watching as Mattie gets into the beat up old pick up truck with her father. She's smiling as something he's said, and I wonder what it might have been. It's nice to see them getting along, even if it does mean that soon I won't have her in my life anymore.
Going to the fridge, I take out a beer and twist the cap off, tossing it into the sink as I return to the living room and sit heavily on the sofa.
I've lost so many people in my life, you'd think I'd be used to it by now. That it wouldn't hurt so much. But it does.
It hurts almost as much today as it had when I was six years old and was told that the father that I thought was perfect was missing and would never be coming home again. But I kept that hurt and pain buried deep inside so that I could be strong. So that I could be the man of the house and take care of my mom.
Only I lost her, too. To someone else. Someone not my dad. I felt angry and betrayed when she told me she was marrying Frank Burnett. I couldn't believe that she would have my father declared dead. "He *not* dead!" I remember yelling at her. I was sure he was alive out there, somewhere, just waiting for me to find him.
That's what led me to the next person that I would lose: Gym. Running away and joining up with Stryker had been my way of rebelling against my mother's remarriage. I was determined to find my father and bring him back so that we could be a family again. But instead of finding Dad, I watched as Gym was cut nearly in half in a hail of bullets. I was furious with Stryker for not letting me go back to save them.
The ex-Marine had stared me down, never once showing weakness. "All you would have done was to get yourself killed, boy. Let it go."
"You lived with them!" I had yelled at him, not understanding. "They were your family!"
He'd just stood there. "Let it go, Harm. Or it'll eat you alive."
"Yeah. Like you've let those men you served with go?" I had challenged, and was gratified when his eyes flickered slightly. "That's why you're here, looking for them in stead of back in the states!"
"And that's why I'm alone," Stryker had declared, grabbing his pack and moving down the path that would take us back to the airfield, where he put me onto the first flight back to the states.
Stryker had warned me not to use him as an example, but I guess I did. Shutting out the pain by not letting anyone close enough to cause it.
I've had friends over the years, lovers. But few of them ever got past the defenses that I've carefully build up and maintained over the years.
Diane came close. I think that if we had ever managed to actually connect, it would have been great. But before we could find a way to work it out, she was gone.
I never really lost Kate Pike, but things got all tangled up between us. One weekend of hot, sweaty sex and I knew that I needed more from a relationship. I wanted it all, the whole package: love, marriage - a family of my own. We managed to maintain the friendship, but working with her was impossible. She wanted to continue the physical relationship, but I couldn't.
I don't really count Meg as being one of those that I lost either; in fact, she's one of the few bright spots in the dark tapestry of my life. Smart, sweet, and perky - I grin at the thought, knowing how much she hated that description - she was the little sister that I never had. I know, too, that she would have accepted more if I'd been willing to give it, but I didn't want to screw up that friendship.
At least, that's the line I've always used. Makes it easy not to have to get too close, to keep moving. Less chance of being hurt that way.
I have no illusions that the only reason I started a relationship with Annie was because of Josh. It was the chance to have the family I'd wanted for so long, and to keep a promise to Luke to take care of them if anything happened. But I sabotaged that relationship by lying to Annie, and by encouraging Josh to lie as well. Sank it right to the bottom of the Atlantic. Josh still sends me the occasional post card, and I smile as I realize that nothing Annie had done had been successful in changing her son's mind. Whether he was able to get into the Academy or not, Josh Pendry was going to join the Navy as soon as he was old enough, even if it meant his mother never spoke to him again.
Jordan Parker had come close to breaking down the walls, maybe because she'd known why they were there and how to get around them due to her training as a psychiatrist. But when things got too heavy, I managed to screw that relationship up as well - by not telling her that I was thinking about going back to flying. I didn't let her in. And then she died. Another chance, gone. Another person in my life that I had to say goodbye to.
Renee was different. Totally opposite of almost every woman I'd ever been attracted to. She was funny, and loud, and a little abrasive - a female Mic Brumby, I guess, chuckling as I finish my beer. I shared more of myself with her than any other woman, but it still wasn't enough. Not for her, or for me. If I'd been more honest with her *and* myself, I would have known it wasn't going to work out and ended it a long time before she cut me loose and decided to marry Cyrus.
There was only one person that I could see myself with in my old age - and it wasn't Renee. Or Annie. Or Jordan.
One day in a rose garden, I met the one person who *could* get under my defenses farther than anyone else, yet still not far enough for them to crumble. So I shored them up as best I could and attempted to keep them strong. Somehow, I knew that if they ever fell to let Sarah Mackenzie inside, she had the power to hurt me so badly that I'd never manage to recover.
Eight years, and we still haven't managed to break down each others protective walls. Because it's not just my walls that are a factor here. Mac's got walls of her own. Sometimes I think they're thicker than mine. Growing up with an abusive, alcoholic father after being abandoned by your mother will do that.
We've come close once or twice, but never quite far enough. I've almost lost her a couple of times. To Dalton Lowne, to Mic Brumby - and to Clayton Webb. She's gone farther with me than anyone else. She went to Russia to help me find out what happened to my dad. I haven't always been there for her - and maybe I haven't always been the best friend in the world.
But sometimes it's easier to not keep in touch than to keep in touch and know that it's just opening you up to more hurt. Last year was just about the worst time in my life. Sergei left; my career started a slow, downward spiral; I was arrested for a murder I didn't commit; that insane mess in Paraguay; Mac said 'never'; spending six months flying for the CIA; getting fired; and ending up crop dusting.
Of course, if all of that hadn't happened, I wouldn't have met Mattie - and I wouldn't be sitting here, thinking about how screwed up my life has been because I haven't been able to reach out, to actually *connect* with people, to let them in.
I've let Mattie in. Sometimes I think she knows me better than I know myself - and she doesn't let me get away with the easy answers, the evasions that I tend to give when I feel like I've been cornered. And I hope I've been good for her, as well. She's not the angry, belligerent young woman that I first met.
I know I'm losing her back to her father. I doubt he'll wait long after school is out to file a petition to regain custody. But I'll make sure Mattie knows that whatever happens, she can always come to me and I'll be here for her.
Just like I plan to be here for Mac. As long as she was with Webb, I couldn't make a move - I'm not the type of guy who moves in on someone else's relationship. Well, except for that one kiss that she and I shared during her engagement party. And even then, I came home and beat myself up over it. Without the words, even that kiss wasn't going to be enough for Mac to know how I felt.
And I couldn't say the words then. I can fly supersonic, I've faced death more than once - but just the thought of saying the words and opening myself up to being hurt frightened me more than anything I've ever faced in my life.
I can say them now, but she's not ready to hear them. Not now, with Webb's death still so fresh and her medical problems she has to face. I think she really did love Webb - and it's going to take some time for her to get over that, to be ready to move forward. So I'll give her the space she needs. I'll be her friend again, helping her through the next few months as much as she'll let me, letting her know that I care.
And once she's ready, I'll say the words she's been waiting to hear - whether she says them back to me or not. Even if she doesn't, at least she'll know how I feel. I don't want to lose her again.
Because taking a chance is part of life - even if you get hurt.
And the trick is in getting back up and getting back into the game.