Hurricane Lauris tore through North Carolina, leaving devastation in her wake. When the Marines of Camp Lejeune respond with help and resources, Staff Sergeant Troy Matson immediately volunteers. His mission is to assist Sheriff's Deputy Austin Delaney and his K9 partner, Decker, search for trapped survivors. Their mutual attraction is instant and intense, but all of the destruction leaves Troy conflicted. Austin proves to be a surprising source of comfort and understanding in Troy's search for redemption, but returning to their daily lives might end what has only just started.
Troy had been to Jackson, North Carolina numerous times in the past for specialized training conducted at Camp Lejeune. He’d always stayed in a hotel, or the Bachelor’s Enlisted Quarters, so what he’d seen of Jackson had always been limited. He liked what he’d seen, but knowing the good restaurants and bars wasn’t useful when trying to find someplace to live.
The recon community was small and tight-knit, so Troy had gotten solid housing recommendations from some former 2nd Recon guys. He was on his way to meet with a landlord who owned several properties he rented to Marines. The pictures of the place made it seem perfect. For a little extra rent, Troy could have access to a large storage shed on the property. That way, he wouldn’t have to store his jet skis at a separate location.
He followed the directions of his GPS to a sprawling neighborhood, thick with trees and shrubbery. Most of the houses were set well back off the winding, paved road. Luckily, the driveways looked clearly marked with the addresses they led to. Troy had nearly forgotten neighborhoods like this existed. Houses built from wood, surrounded by tall green trees were like small patches of paradise.
Troy slowed down when his GPS told him he was approaching his turn. The row of numbered mailboxes was easy to spot, so he made his right-hand turn when the electronic voice said to. The gravel of the driveway crunched beneath Troy’s truck tires. After only a few hundred meters, he emerged from the trees into a large clearing. He slowly rolled past the small house on his right. It was blue with white trim, and seemed like it was in very good shape. Across the clearing was a structure that looked like a small version of a classic barn. Troy guessed that was the storage shed.
If this had been Iraq, he’d be surrounded by endless sand. The flimsy wooden doors were never enough to keep the mud brick houses secure. Troy didn’t miss the constant smells of garbage, livestock, and human waste.
He pulled up beside a newer model, full-sized pickup. An older gentleman stepped out of the cab as Troy shut off the engine of his own truck.
“Mr. MacKay?” Troy asked, climbing out of his vehicle. The heat hit him like a fist. The humidity wrapped around him like a damp blanket. The air was so heavy, Troy thought he felt it passing into his lungs. Iraq was a hell of a lot hotter, but he’d never felt like he could reach out and touch the air.
“That’s me. You must be Troy.” Mr. MacKay approached Troy, hand extended. He looked to be in his late sixties, but was still pretty agile. His hair was steel gray and cut short. He wore tan Carhartt pants, boots, and a chambray shirt. His handshake was firm. The calluses, along with his clothing, told Troy that Mr. MacKay still did a lot of physical work.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir,” said Troy.
“Have any trouble finding the place?”
“Good.” McKay pulled a ring of keys from his front pocket. “Ready to take a look?”
“Yes, sir. That would be great.” Troy followed MacKay toward the front door.
The house had a small front yard of healthy grass with floral borders. It was attractive, and would be easy to maintain. That was a huge plus. Up close, the house’s exterior looked good. Troy didn’t see any obvious problems, like loose rain gutters, or a leaking water spigot.
“The last tenant was a Marine, too,” MacKay said, opening the door and stepping inside. “He was stationed here for two years before he left for Okinawa. The carpet and paint are all brand new. He kept the place up, but I still checked everything, from the stove to the furnace. Not so much as a leaky faucet.”
They had entered into a small living room. Troy could smell the fresh paint, despite the open windows that provided a cross breeze. The walls were the same dull white found in nearly all rental properties. The plush blue carpet surprised Troy. He’d expected the standard rental-beige.
Mr. MacKay gestured toward a door on their right. “There’s a half bath here, and a full bath in the bedroom. Dishwasher in the kitchen, and a washer-dryer in the mudroom.”
Troy stepped up into the raised kitchen. It was small and efficient. There were no frills, but it had the necessities and plenty of counter space. A door on the left opened into the mudroom which, as promised, contained a stacked washer and dryer.
“This your first time stationed at Camp Lejeune?” asked Mr. MacKay.
“Yes, sir,” Troy answered from the bedroom doorway. His Cal King would take up most of the space, along with his bureau, but that was fine. The full bath was just what he expected. It was bright and clean, with no signs of any leaks. “I’ve attended training here, several times. But this is my first long-term stay.”
“You did your intake in San Diego, then?” MacKay asked.
“Yes, sir.” Troy tested the sliding glass door that opened from the bedroom onto a rear patio. “I’ve been stationed in Oceanside and Miramar, in between a couple of deployments. So this is a pretty big change for me.”
“Well, I think you’ll find North Carolina to be warm and welcoming,” said Mr. MacKay. “The thing you’ll find hardest to adjust to will be the weather.”
Troy chuckled as he slowly worked his way back through the small house. He looked closely for any problems, like cracks in the walls, or signs of past leaks or flooding. “It’s not like Iraq’s got a moderate climate. I can deal with the heat, and I might get used to the humidity, but I doubt I’ll ever learn to like it.”
The doors opened and closed correctly. All of the windows were easy to work. The flooring was secure, with no signs of lifting at the corners. Troy couldn’t find a damn thing wrong.
“Nobody ever learns to like it,” MacKay said. His expression had darkened slightly when Troy mentioned Iraq. “Air conditioning helps a little.” To demonstrate, he pushed a button on the screen of the digital thermostat. Moments later, a quiet hum was accompanied by frigid air exiting the ceiling vents.
“Which is wonderful, until you step outside and it feels like you’re breathing oil, instead of air.” Troy lifted his face toward one of the air vents.
“Makes your lungs stronger,” Mr. MacKay said with a wry smile. “At least you’re getting your first hurricane out of the way, right out of the gate.” He shut off the air conditioning.
Troy turned quickly to face MacKay. “Excuse me?”
“We just got word that Hurricane Lauris is gonna make landfall, after all.” He pulled his cell phone from his shirt pocket and thumbed the screen several times. “Apparently, it’s already met up with a few smaller storm systems. It’ll pick up a couple larger ones on its way this direction, so it’s gonna be an ugly one.”
“When’s it supposed to hit?” Troy’s possessions were still in transit with Moving Services, but they were supposed to arrive three or four days from now.
“It varies, depending on how far away we are from the eye,” replied Mr. MacKay. “But Lauris herself should make landfall the day after tomorrow.”
Troy had no idea how people could stand waiting for the inevitable natural disaster. He’d rather have earthquakes. The ground moves for a minute, then you deal with the fallout. They were all going to worry about the hurricane for days, then they’d suffer through it for days. Who’d even have the energy to deal with the aftermath, at that point?
“Sounds like it’s going to be a particularly bad one,” Troy said. He didn’t have to report in for a month, maybe he should drive back west until he was out of the storm’s reach.
“Yep. She’s supposed to drop a lot of water over a large area. Of course, the high winds will damage some important structures, which will make the flooding and debris worse.” MacKay waved in the general direction of the front door. “Would you like to see the storage shed?”
“Yes, sir. That would be great.” Troy had been able to leave his jet skis at a fellow Marine’s house. He’d known Frank Kuefer in Iraq. When Troy received his orders to 2nd Recon, he’d reached out. Frank had let him park the jet ski trailer in his driveway, so he didn’t have to haul it around house hunting.
Mr. MacKay led Troy toward the small barn. “This is where I store the landscaping equipment, my tools, and materials for securing the houses for storms. The second side is available for you, and you’re free to tinker out here, too.”
That was part of the appeal of this particular rental for Troy. “How do you prepare to ride out a hurricane anyway?”
“Well, if you decide to take the house, I can show you how we do it,” replied MacKay. “I’m actually going ’round to all my properties today, getting them secured for the storm.”
“To be honest, sir, I can’t find a single thing wrong with the house,” Troy said. “I’d be happy to help you get everything buttoned up, since I need to learn how, anyway.” It would be nice for a change, protecting a house from destruction.
Mr. MacKay removed a padlock from the shed door. “That would be great, if you don’t mind.” He pushed the two large doors open, revealing the spacious interior, including ample workbench space for storing tools.
Troy loved the house. It was perfect for him. It was surprisingly nice for the amount of rent, too. Suspicions were that Mr. MacKay gave Marines a particularly good deal, and Troy was starting to believe they were right.
It didn’t take them long to get the paperwork out of the way. Troy had provided a lot of info upfront, via email, just in case he wanted the house. He’d been pretty sure he would. Mr. MacKay handed over a set of keys when Troy gave him a check for the deposit and rent.
“Let’s get your gear moved inside, then we can get her buttoned up,” MacKay said.
Troy didn’t have much to move in. He’d brought an air mattress, several seabags and rucksacks filled with clothes, and a few essentials he’d need while waiting for Moving Services to arrive. Between the two of them, they had the back of his truck emptied out in just a few minutes.
Mr. MacKay showed him what to do, and Troy took on the most demanding jobs. None of it was hard for Troy, but climbing on roofs and lifting heavy boards probably wasn’t as easy for Mr. MacKay as it used to be. Especially in this heat and humidity. Troy’s shirt was damp and clung to him everywhere. Each time he wiped sweat from his forehead, it immediately beaded up again.
“I’ve got a couple of flashlights in my gear,” Troy said, as they loaded lumber and tools into MacKay’s pickup. “But I better pick up several more.”
“That’d be wise,” MacKay agreed. “Candles are too dangerous with the wind blowing. You don’t want to fire up the generator until after the storm passes. Even then, the power it’ll give you will be minimal.”
“That’ll be the first thing I do,” Troy said, climbing into the cab of MacKay’s truck.
He’d spent so many hours on the road in the last week; Troy liked the idea of a day filled with physical work. He hadn’t had to think twice about offering to help Mr. MacKay secure all of his houses. He could use a chance to secure some front doors, instead of kicking them in.