Warning: Mention of suicide in this one.
“Alaina, will you calm down? Tell me what’s wrong.” Declan ran a hand over the side of his freshly buzzed head. He hadn’t even been back stateside for a week yet, and he’d just talked to his sister a couple days before. For her to call again so soon…it had worried him when the sergeant had said he had a phone call.
“Just breathe, Alaina. What did Jacob do now?” Declan didn’t exactly have any love for his stepfather either. And he knew Jacob felt pretty much the same way toward Declan. The other man had never been able to buy him, or even Alaina, off with gifts, like he had their mother. They’d seen past that, though, to see he was nothing like the man their father had been. But, Declan wasn’t the one who had to live with the man. Alaina did. For at least another year, until she turned eighteen.
If he’d ever thought that man had even raised one finger against either of them, he’d do whatever it took to get them safe. But, as far as he knew, Jacob had always stuck to words to hurt. Alaina’s sobs only grew harsher, though. He’d faced insurgents, IEDs, that blasted heat, but it was Alaina’s sobs that made his knees weak with fear.
“Please, Alaina. A mhuirnín. Talk t’ me.” He could hear his accent get thicker as the fear crept up. He couldn’t beat it back down, though.
“Mom. She…she’s dead, Declan.”
Everything inside of him went numb. No, that couldn’t be. He’d just talked to her that last time he’d called Alaina. She’d seemed a little off, distant. But, she’d been like that a good bit since his father had been killed. He’d tried to cheer her up, but he could hear Jacob in the background berating her and belittling him. The first thing he wanted to do when he got leave was go home and wrap his hands around the man’s neck.
That probably wouldn’t go ever well.
“I found her when I got home from school today.” She was still crying, but he could understand her words better now. “She was laying on the couch and wouldn’t wake up. Her medicine bottles were all empty.”
His stomach clutched hard at that. Last he knew, she had prescriptions for anti-anxiety, antidepressant, and sleeping pills. How many of each of those had she had left? “Where’s Jacob?”
“He…he’s here. They called him at work. He wasn’t happy to leave.”
He burned at that. Nothing was ever important enough for him to leave work for. His head was ringing, trying to process it all. “I don’t…I’ll find a way to get home. I have leave coming. I’ll try to get it moved up. There has to be something. How’d this happen, Alaina?”
“It’s been really bad, Dec. She wouldn’t tell you how bad. He’s been just…I need to go. Please come home, Dec. I need you.”
“I’m not taking her.”
Declan stared across the table at his stepfather. “What do you mean? You have to take her. You’re her guardian until her eighteenth birthday.”
“Your mom didn’t have a will. She should have at least thought of it after your dad got himself killed. She never did much of that.”
Declan was surprised he hadn’t ground his teeth down to nubs yet. He’d been home for two days. His mother had only been in her grave for two hours. His stepfather had dragged him from the reception dinner after to have this talk with him. And he’d already made more than one comment, basically calling Declan’s mother stupid. And now he was blaming his dad for his own death.
“Leave Mom out of this. She was a lot smarter than you’ve ever given her credit for. She was hurting, and you took advantage of that. And my da,” he added, “was killed doing his job, protecting other people. So, you can just leave him out of this as well.”
“You’d better be showing me more respect, boy. I would have figured your precious military would have pounded that into you by now.”
He didn’t have a fucking clue what he was talking about. “The Marines taught me to respect those who deserve it. You drove Mom to this. You certainly don’t deserve anything from me.”
Jacob let out a snort. “You don’t know what you’re talking about, boy. She didn’t have a backbone, or she never would have been so weak. I didn’t do nothing to her. Never laid a damn hand on her.”
There was more than one way to beat someone down than with your fists, though. But, this argument wasn’t going to get them anywhere. “Back to Alaina.”
“I told you. I’m not taking the girl. I’ve spent enough years paying for her. She’s not mine. I’m not doing it any longer.”
Jacob pushed up from the table then, and Declan could only stare at him. He’d only just turned twenty-six. He’d just re-enlisted for his third term in the Corps a little over a year earlier. How was he supposed to raise his little sister? That’s what this meant, wasn’t it?
He scrubbed his hands over his face and thought back to how Alaina had been since he’d arrived in town. Clingy, particularly when Jacob was around. How she’d told him how bad things had gotten recently. How Jacob would lock her in her room for hours for something as simple as talking back. How he made her do all the chores around the house, or he’d withhold her money for her lunch at school.
He’d figure things out. But, even if Jacob hadn’t refused to take her, Declan didn’t think he could have made himself send his sister with that man. Not even for another year.
Somehow, they’d make it work.
Note: Declan shows up partway through Guarding the Heart, and has a larger part in the end of it. I’m currently working on his story, Protecting the Heart.