| Forget Me Not |
By Marliss Melton
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Helen immersed herself in the bath so that only her eyes and nose cleared the layer of bubbles. Gazing down the length of the tub, she studied Gabe’s picture, standing amid a ring of dancing candles. Mixed emotions stormed her heart as she stared into his eyes.
Even from a distance of a few feet, the eyes in the eight-by-ten portrait mesmerized her, just as they had when she and Gabe first met. Light green with a gold starburst at the center, Gabe’s eyes had given him his code name, Jaguar. They were uncannily direct, making her blush whenever he’d stared at her, which had been quite often in the beginning. But by the time he’d disappeared last year, only two years into their marriage, he’d scarcely given her the time of day. He was too wrapped up in being a SEAL platoon leader and in saving the world.
Helen blew the encroaching suds away from her mouth, sending a bubble into the air. It drifted a moment and then disintegrated. Like my love for you, she thought, addressing the man in the picture.
He’d disappeared a year ago. The Navy wouldn’t reveal where he’d been or the circumstances surrounding his disappearance. For twelve long months, they’d referred to him as MIA, missing-in-action, never as deceased. But all that changed last week when a young officer appeared on her doorstep bearing a flag.
With twelve full months gone by, the Navy was ready to declare Gabe dead. The flag made it official. Strange that a brand-new banner with crisp red stripes and bold stars would send Helen into shock. Not that she’d expected Gabe ever to return, but the way the flag had been folded in military fashion drove home the reality of his death like nothing else. Seeing the flag so tightly bound made it possible to imagine that Gabe’s vitality had also been subdued.
Yet, on the heels of her shock came an inordinate sense of relief. She wouldn’t have to surrender the newfound independence she’d discovered in recent months. She wouldn’t have to give up the job that gave her so much satisfaction. She would raise her thirteen-year-old daughter alone, as she should have done in the first place.
It wasn’t easy to admit, but her marriage to Gabe had been a mistake, an unnecessary detour. She’d thought she needed him to redeem herself in her parents’ eyes. She’d wanted Mallory to have a father. But Gabe, with his drive to save the world, hadn’t had time for a wife, let alone a stepdaughter.
Within a year of their marriage, the man who should have been her knight in shining armor had practically forgotten her. Three years in, he was dead.
So now it was over.
The mighty, indomitable Jaguar was gone, taken out by some faceless enemy. The flag made it evident. It was time to put the past behind her and to let it go. She didn’t need Gabe Renault to make her whole. She’d done just fine this past year on her own. Better than fine. And yet . . .
Even with her ears underwater, the words of the Natalie Cole CD playing in her bedroom reached her clearly. “Unforgettable, that’s what you are . . .” A pang of regret pierced Helen’s heart.
She missed him from time to time. Closing her eyes, she could still feel his hands on her, his hot, scandalous tongue. He’d known every pleasure point on her body and used his knowledge to his advantage, calling her back to him whenever her heart began to drift away.
“Unforgettable, in every way . . .”
He wasn’t here to call her back now. She was free to go, to live her own life. With a deep sigh, she released her regret and sank into the water. Emerging moments later, she reached for the shampoo.
The telephone rang in another part of the house. Helen waited for Mallory to pick it up. She’d taught a step class in the morning and body sculpting in the afternoon. Arriving home this evening, she’d desperately craved a long, hot soak in the tub.
“Mom, it’s for you.” The bathroom door slammed open as Mallory marched in without knocking. In the light of the candles, her face looked waxen. Maybe it was just her complexion against the dye job she’d just given herself.
Black? “Oh, Mal,” Helen cried, “what have you—”
“It’s urgent,” Mallory said, holding the phone out.
The size of Mallory’s green eyes made Helen hesitate. She took the phone and leaned out over the edge of the tub. “This is Helen,” she said quickly.
“Mrs. Renault, this is Commander Shafer over at Portsmouth Naval Medical Center, Traumatology.”
Helen lifted her gaze to her daughter’s shocked face. This had to be about Mallory. She’d acted out again, had to be.
“Ma’am, I’m calling to let you know that we’ve got your husband here. It’s a remarkable story, actually. He washed ashore in South Korea, just below the DMZ. He was in pretty bad shape considering . . .”
The commander kept talking, but Helen couldn’t hear him over the ringing in her ears. “I’m sorry, I think you’ve made a mistake,” she said, cutting him off. “My husband’s dead. He’s been missing for a year.”
“He’s not dead, ma’am. The man we have is Lieutenant Gabriel Renault. He’s been in North Korea all this time.”
It couldn’t be Gabe. Her mind flashed to the officer giving her the flag. It had been folded so tightly, so permanently. “Have you positively identified him? How can you be sure?”
“I understand that this is coming as a shock,” the commander soothed. “But you can rest assured we IDed him thoroughly before making this call. His commander has been in to see him. All that’s left is for a family member to do the same. He is alive, ma’am, and in pretty good condition, considering what he’s been through.”
Helen swallowed convulsively. Shock and amazement competed with powerful denial. The freedom she’d relished this last week was an illusion. Gabe was back. He’d been alive all this time!
“I’m sure you’ll want to get down here right away,” the commander prompted.
“Of course,” she said, though she wasn’t nearly as sure as he was.
Maybe they’d made a mistake. How could Gabe have survived a year in North Korea, of all places?
“There’s something you should know, ma’am, before you see him.”
She braced herself for awful news. He’d tell her now that Gabe had been tortured or mutilated.
“He’s lost a portion of his memory, apparently. He doesn’t have any recollection of a family of any kind. This sort of thing is normal, I want you to understand. It’s an indication of post-traumatic stress disorder, nothing that can’t be dealt with. We’ve got him on meds that keep him calm. Why don’t you come down to the hospital tonight, and I’ll go into more detail with you?”
Shocked into silence, Helen stared up at her pale-faced daughter. He doesn’t remember them?
“Yes.” She forced herself to say. “I’ll be there in about an hour.”
“Great. We’re on the third floor. Just ask for Commander Shafer, and I’ll escort you in to see your husband. Maybe someone should come with you?” he suggested.
“I’ll bring my daughter.”
The commander hesitated, no doubt picturing a young child. “Okay, we’ll see you soon.”
The phone clicked in Helen’s ear. It fell out of her numb fingers and hit the bath mat with a thud. The flames of the candles seemed to bleed together. Maybe she’d drowned in the tub and was experiencing some kind of hallucination.
“Mom!” It was Mallory, bending over her with midnight hair instead of chestnut. “It’s Dad, isn’t it?” she demanded. Her pasty complexion wasn’t solely a result of the dye job. “He’s back, isn’t he?” Mal asked in a tight voice. Helen couldn’t tell if she was overjoyed or upset. It probably wasn’t that simple.
Poor Mallory. When Helen and Gabe were married, she’d been euphoric with the expectation of finally having a father. It had been a painful disillusion to discover that her new father had no time for an adolescent daughter.
“He doesn’t remember us.” Helen related what the doctor had just told her. “He’s suffering some kind of amnesia from being . . . um . . .” She couldn’t bring herself to say it.
“Tortured?” Mallory supplied.
“I think so. We need to get to the hospital.” Helen levered herself upward.
“Mom, your hair’s full of soap.”
Helen cranked on the faucet and stuck her head under cold water. She dressed in record time, brushed the tangles out of her hair, and jammed her feet into her tennis shoes while Mallory waited on her bed.
“You want me to drive?” Mal asked, looking suspiciously composed.
“Yeah, right.” Helen forced a laugh. For someone who wasn’t even related to Gabe, Mallory was a lot like him. She took blows without a blink, seemingly unaffected by the harsh realities of life. But then the stress manifested itself in some self-destructive behavior that sent Helen scrambling for a counselor.
“It’s not that hard to drive,” Mallory insisted, following her down the hall and out the front door.
Helen drove the silver Jaguar that had been Gabe’s exclusive property. It was nearly nine o’clock on a gorgeous August night. They chased the sun that was sinking fast behind the trees. Helen took Route 264 at eighty miles an hour, her fingers so tight on the steering wheel she had to pry them loose to turn up the radio.
Just pretend everything is normal, she told herself. She was aware of the fact that she wasn’t feeling grateful. It wasn’t every day that a missing serviceman reappeared. What kind of wife was she not to be thrilled?
She was wary, that was all. She didn’t know what to expect. Gabe had been held captive for a year, caught by the enemy in what must have been a weapons seizure gone bad. North Koreans were notoriously unfriendly to outsiders. No doubt they’d worked him over good for information that could be used against the U.S.A. God knew what kind of effect that would have on his personality.
She glanced at Mallory and wondered if her daughter felt as tumultuous as she. Mallory looked composed, staring out the window at the Norfolk and Portsmouth skylines. It was impossible to tell what she was thinking.
“It’s going to be all right, Mal,” she said, if only to keep them on line and communicating. The counselors had all stressed the importance of communication.
Mallory said nothing. Glancing down at her lap, Helen saw that Mallory’s fingers on both hands were crossed for luck. She tore her gaze away, wondering what Mallory was wishing for—that Gabe would be okay? That he’d remember them? Surely she wasn’t naive enough to wish for more than that.
How awfully he must have suffered, so badly that he’d repressed his memories! She quailed to think of his agony. More than that, she shuddered to think how he must be now, a terrorized, mental wreck.
She could see her newfound freedom flying out the window. Just an hour ago, she’d admitted to herself that her marriage to Gabe had died of neglect. How ironic that the moment she’d put his memory to rest, he returned to her, perhaps to wring that last drop of commitment out of her before he shook her off again.
She wouldn’t turn her back on him, not in his time of need. She’d do everything in her power to see Gabe healthy again. And when he was finally whole, she’d give him back to Uncle Sam, who owned him anyway. She’d tell him then that their marriage was over.
It wasn’t like the news was going to destroy him. Gabe didn’t need her any more than she now needed him. It’d hurt his pride more than it would his feelings.
Blowing out a long, steadying breath, Helen felt better for having made a decision. This reunion was just temporary.
The knock on the door startled Gabe out of a drug- induced lethargy. He’d been staring at the empty TV screen envisioning a baseball game he remembered watching four years ago, wondering how he could remember that and not remember the three years in between. “Yeah,” he called, pushing himself into a sitting position.
The knock had been charged with purpose. Gabe held his breath, thinking it just might be his wife and kid—the ones he couldn’t remember. Dr. Shafer had warned him they were on their way. He’d bathed and shaved for the occasion, but he still didn’t feel ready. How did a guy prepare for that kind of thing anyway?
A bouquet of flowers preceded his visitor through the door. Over a bright orange spray of lilies, he recognized the leader of SEAL Team Twelve, Commander Lovitt, and he started struggling out of bed to salute him.
“At ease, Lieutenant,” Lovitt called, making formality unnecessary. Marching in, he deposited the flowers on Gabe’s bedside bureau. “From the office,” he explained, dusting a few fallen petals off his dress whites, as meticulous as ever. Obviously, Lovitt was on his way to some function. “How’s the patient today?”
Lovitt had asked the same question yesterday, only Gabe had been too tranquilized to answer. “Better, sir,” he said. “I apologize for not responding yesterday . . . ”
Lovitt waved away his apology. “There’s no need to explain, Lieutenant. You’ll have bad days and good days. At least you remembered me.” Lovitt’s gray eyes sharpened, an implied question in his statement.
“Yes, sir. I remember being stationed here, working primarily with Echo Platoon, but that was three years ago.”
Lovitt’s long stare struck Gabe as grave. “Mind if I draw up a chair?” he asked.
Gabe’s heart sank. “No, sir. Please do.” Lovitt’s somber expression made him nervous. It made him think his commanding officer was going to cut him from the team without giving him a chance to get his memory back.
Lovitt hitched up his perfectly creased trouser legs and sat, military straight, in the visitor’s chair. “Tell me what you remember, son,” he exhorted.
Gabe swallowed hard. “Of the mission, sir?” He’d been through this just yesterday, with an analyst from the Defense Intelligence Agency, a man whose questions had worked him into such a state of anxiety he’d had to be tranquilized. Gabe didn’t want to be put through that particular wringer again.
“No, no,” Lovitt corrected. “I mean everything. Start with the beginning. Where were you born?”
The tension in Gabe’s shoulders eased. He had no problems with his long-term memories. His childhood—as much as he’d like to forget it—seemed like only yesterday. “I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, 1968.”
“Go on,” Lovitt prompted, giving him a patient nod.
“My grandmother raised me,” Gabe continued, wondering just how much detail the CO wanted. Did he need to know that his young mother had died in a car accident when he was just six, that he’d never known his dad?
“We, ah, we lived in a tenement house on Acushnet Street.” His grandmother had been an alcoholic who lived off her dead husband’s pension. As far as parenting was concerned, she was about as influential in Gabe’s life as Santa Claus. Gabe had bluffed his way through school and was heavily into street crime when his first real father-figure interceded—Sergeant O’Mally of the New Bedford Police.
Gabe was certain Commander Lovitt didn’t need to hear about Sergeant O’Mally, but it was chiefly due to him that Gabe had joined the Navy in the first place. If O’Mally hadn’t talked the judge into dropping car theft charges, Gabe would just be getting out of jail. Instead he’d been given an opportunity to redeem his sorry life by joining the U.S. Navy.
“I enlisted when I was eighteen.” Gabe decided to spare his CO the details. “I was an EW for about eight years,” he added, referring to his grade as an Electronics Warfare Specialist.
Lovitt nodded, his short, silver hair reflecting the halogen light overhead. Gabe guessed the man already knew his background—he was just testing the patient’s memory, the same thing everyone else had been doing since his medevac from the Korean Peninsula three days ago.
With a burst of impatience, Gabe summed up the rest of his life quickly. “I was recommended for BOOST,” he added, referring to the Broadened Opportunity for Officer Selection and Training, a way for enlisted men to become officers. “And after four years at the Naval Academy, I went straight to BUD/S training.” The Basic Underwater Demolition training in Coronado was etched so deeply in Gabe’s memory, no amount of post-traumatic stress could erase that. “I remember all my training, sir,” he felt compelled to add. “I can still serve my country with integrity.”
Lovitt gave him a grim, pitying look. “Three years is a long time to forget,” he commented solemnly.
It was, in fact, the longest span of time any man had forgotten due to PTSD, according to Gabe’s doctor.
Gabe’s blood pressure rose. He sat taller in his bed, hoping to look less like a starved skeleton and more like his former self. “It’ll come back to me, sir,” he swore.
“I’m not here to relieve you of your job, Renault,” the commander soothed. “You’re one of my men, and I’m concerned about you. According to Commander Shafer, there was damage to the frontal lobe that might also play a part in your amnesia. Now, I choose to believe that your memory loss is temporary. But you’ve got to keep in mind the possibility that it could also be permanent.”
Gabe stared at Lovitt’s stoic features and wondered what the man was really thinking. Lovitt was a good CO—capable and dedicated, but impossible to read. At least he didn’t seem to be implying what the DIA analyst had hinted at yesterday: that Gabe had buckled under his captive’s persuasions and blurted government secrets; that the amnesia was a convenient way to forget his disgrace.
Then again, did the CO have any idea what kind of scars were on Gabe’s torso? He curled the fingers of his left hand toward his palm, hiding the fingernails that were just growing back.
“Do you remember anything about the night you disappeared, Lieutenant?”
Gabe had known the question was coming. Of all the puzzles he presented, this one troubled his interrogators the most. Where the hell had he been for the past year? The Navy had just declared him dead.
Gabe let out a breath and cleared his mind, desperate for even a glimmer of that mission, something to restore his commander’s faith in him. For a second, an image formed—light blazing in the darkness—but then it receded, lost in the gaping hole of the past three years. He shook his head, ashamed to meet his commander’s eyes.
Lovitt leaned forward and squeezed his wrist. “I don’t want you worrying about your career, Lieutenant. I want you to concentrate on getting healthy, getting back on your feet. It’s a goddamn miracle you’re here with us today.”
“Thank you, sir,” Gabe muttered. He appreciated Lovitt’s show of support, but he heard plainly the underlying message: Lovitt didn’t expect Gabe to recover. He didn’t think Gabe would ever be a SEAL again. The realization made Gabe’s stomach hurt.
“I hear they’re releasing you tomorrow,” the CO said, standing up.
“Yes, sir.” His innards cramped at the reminder. He was going home, even though he didn’t know where home was. He last remembered living in the BOQ—Bachelor Officers Quarters. Now he had a wife and kid. No doubt he lived with them, though he had no idea where.
The only family he remembered were his brothers in Echo Platoon. “Are the guys around, sir? Westy, Bear, and . . . the new guy, Luther?”
Lovitt gave him a wry smile. “Luther’s now a lieutenant, junior grade,” he said patiently. “The men are working coastal patrol. I’ve radioed in the news of your reappearance, and Master Chief León is flying in as we speak. I imagine he’ll be by to see you before you’re released.”
Gabe nodded, relief flooding through him. “Thank you, sir.” Master Chief was exactly the man to have around at a time like this. Unlike the CO, he wouldn’t undermine Gabe’s confidence. He’d bully Gabe into remembering the past three years, suggest he get his ass back on the job, double time. Gabe looked desperately forward to his visit.
“Well.” Lovitt clicked the heels of his spotless white shoes together. “Take it easy, Renault. Your wife’ll take good care of you. She’s a lucky woman to have you back.”
Gabe couldn’t bring himself to answer to that one. He’d seen what his captors had done to him. He couldn’t imagine any woman wanting him, period.
“I’ll leave you to rest.” Lovitt turned toward the door.
“Good night, sir. Thank you for the flowers,” he called, though he couldn’t bring himself to even glance at them. Lilies. Christ, weren’t those for funerals?
As the door thudded shut, Gabe collapsed against the pillow and cursed at length. His commander had pretty much eliminated him already. If he didn’t recover his memory, and fast, he’d lose his job. He’d lose his identity. And then what?
With insidious depression, Gabe considered what he’d been before he’d been a SEAL—little more than a hoodlum, really. Becoming a SEAL had taught him self-respect, self-control. It had given him purpose and direction. It had given him the best years of his life. Before the SEALs, he was just a kid prowling around looking for trouble and picking fights to relieve the deep-down anger inside of him.
If he wasn’t a SEAL, then what was he, a husband and a father? How had that happened?
He was the last man in the world any woman should marry. Not that he didn’t like women. Hell no, he loved their bodies, loved the powerful way they made him feel. But he didn’t know the first thing about intimacy. He didn’t like it when soft, tender feelings stole over him. Feelings like that had a way of turning on a man, twisting his guts inside out, and he couldn’t afford that. It’d taken him ten years of his adult life just to get his head on straight. He couldn’t afford to let a woman mess him up again. So what was he doing married, with a kid already?
A knock sounded at the door.
Jesus, God. He was about to find out.
Excerpted from Forget Me Not , by Marliss Melton . Copyright (c) 2004 by Marliss Arruda. Reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Company, New York, NY. All rights reserved.Back to top