True Gold

by

Michelle Pace

Growing up in True, Alaska, the only truth I knew was that Delilah Campbell was an arrogant pain in my ass. She was also my everything, and still haunts my every waking moment.

I don’t have a single memory that doesn’t include Lie, and I can still taste her, even though Alaska’s no longer big enough for the both of us. After our savage breakup, I fled, chasing my dream and becoming a decorated Green Beret. Ten years later, one bad jump propelled me straight from Special Forces back home, guiding rich idiots into the wilderness, where I struggle to keep them from getting themselves killed. It’s not the life I planned, but at least I’m not behind a desk somewhere.

Then one night, my cell rings, shattering my peaceful existence.

Connor,” I’d recognize her voice anywhere, and it’s like I’m sixteen again, crazy in love and cocky as hell after finding all those gold bars everyone’s been searching for since before we were even born.

I want to tell her to go to hell and throw my phone in the river, but it seems Delilah’s visceral grip on me is permanent.

“It’s mom. She’s missing. I need your help….”

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Connor

Bloody

“Come and get it, ya pain in my ass.” I whistle, and after snapping at one last trout, my Alaskan malamute, Runt, bounds along the wood planks of the floating dock, crossing the overgrown lawn. He pauses at the base of the porch steps, waiting for a second invitation. I make kissing sounds, and he lumbers up, sniffing at the remains of my meal. He tears into my leftover steak enthusiastically, and I ruffle his thick coat. Unsurprisingly, he ignores me just like he ignores the broccoli I left on the plate.

I kick my feet up on the knotty porch railing, enjoying the muted sky. It’s August, so it’ll be hours before the sun sets behind the cedar-covered hills. You’d think I’d be desensitized to this view, having grown up here, but the wild and unmarred beauty of the Kenai Peninsula lured me home after years abroad. Though my memories of Alaska are mixed and complicated, this land had been in my family for generations, and my mother always referred to this house on the river as her happy place. She’s gone now, and there’s no place I’d rather live after my jarring discharge from the army.

I’d planned to serve until I retired, just like my old man. Frankly, serving my country is the only career I’d ever considered. Unfortunately, injury ignores destiny, and one careless landing ten years into my career was all it took. Funny how losing focus, even for a moment, can cost you everything. Neither surgery nor months of physical therapy changed the fact that I was eighty percent of my former self, which wasn’t enough for Special Forces. I was faced with two options: a desk job or discharge. I refused to go from Green Beret to paper pusher, so home I went.

My premature return crushed me but after a few months of feeling sorry for myself, I found a way to use my unique skills in the private sector. Leading tourists on hunting and fishing expeditions pays the bills, and I volunteer for Search and Rescue every once in a while so I don’t feel like a total sellout.

As if on cue, the knee pain comes, and more scotch vanishes from my glass. I’ve just wrapped up a ten-day hunting trip with some skinny-jean-wearing assholes from Portland, who drove me to drink more than my bum knee does. I tolerated their cloying cigar smoke, not to mention their juvenile questions about how Eskimo pussy stood up against the “garden variety.” Their shoddy attempts at hunter safety were another matter, and after three days, I’d been ready to ditch them like the Donner party and let Mother Nature sort it out. Somehow, I mustered up the discipline not to smother them all in their sleep, and they left grinning behind their handlebar mustaches and already planning another trip back to the last frontier.

I shake my head with a soul-rattling sigh. Suppressing the urge to shoot people who were a danger to themselves and everyone around them is taxing, but better than a nine to five in some factory. I earn a hefty paycheck keeping idiots alive so they can brag to their fellow craft-beer-guzzling hipsters how they’ve “conquered” Alaska. Lucky for them, I’m compensated very, very well.

My phone rings, and the interruption pisses me off. I need time off like other people need sleep. I haven’t broken a barstool over anyone’s head lately and I’d kind of like to keep it that way. After every hunt, I religiously schedule myself seven days of blissful solitude. Just me, a fridge full of beer, and my nightly date with Pornhub. Resolute about preserving my downtime, I let the call go to voicemail.

My ringtone starts up again, and I roll my eyes. Glutton for punishment that I am, I look at the screen.

An unfamiliar area code. A number I don’t recognize.

An inexplicable chill runs through me, and I try to shake it off, but my gut tells me to answer, and my gut is never wrong.

I swipe the screen hurriedly, ready to chew someone’s ass.

“Who is this and how did you get this number?”

A pause follows, and I hear her inhale. The intake of air against her vocal cords gives her identity away, and I go numb as I realize who’s on the other end of the line.

“Connor?” My name from Lilah’s lips wakes my slumbering temper, along with my dormant libido. Ages have passed since I heard her smoky voice, but I’d recognize it anywhere. My heart lurches and my knuckles crack as my hand clenches into a painful fist.

Delilah Fucking Campbell.

Fucking isn’t actually her middle name, but it should be.

“Hello?” She sounds nervous, which is as rare as the birth of a white buffalo. Lilah’s the cockiest person I’ve ever met, and after my time in Special Ops, that’s saying something. My pulse thunders in my ears when I remember the way she strutted into every room like she owned the place. I realize I’m on my feet and pacing, and I blush. A simple greeting from her has me at the ready. Just like the old malamute resting beside my chair, I’m a well-trained dog responding obediently to her dinner bell.

Delilah had been my first friend. My first kiss. My first time. Vivid flashbacks of that particular night cause cracks in my icy reserve. Lilah’s the only girl I’ve ever loved, and our disastrous breakup whipped my ass ten times worse than my piece of shit father ever had.

I hear Lilah release a frustrated breath through the tiny speaker in my phone, and I swear I can taste her as if we’ve just kissed. My temples throb in time with my pounding heart. “Connor? Are you there?”

“I’m listening.” I fight to sound cool and detached. She has a lot of nerve calling me, but then she’s always had balls of steel.

“It’s Lilah.” Her unnecessary introduction makes me twice as furious.

“No shit.” I’m tempted to hang up on her then and there. So much for keeping my cool. I hear her sigh, and flashes of her inundate me. The candy she always snuck into the movies, and how it tasted on her tongue as we made out in the back row. The way the guys in school gathered to watch her stretch at cross-country practice like frat boys at a strip club. How they thought she was playing hard to get, when she was just balls to the wall, so good at the things she deemed worth doing that she didn’t get how average people could live with their mediocrity.

All this comes rushing back with stinging clarity. Once upon a time, Delilah was my everything. We used to be inseparable, a package deal…Lie and me against the world. I knew her better than I knew myself back then. Or at least I thought I did.

“I need your help.” This isn’t a request, and her audacity makes me laugh. After all the blood shed between us, she thinks she can just appear out of the blue and I’ll do her bidding. If she’s going to rip open this scab, I’m going to make it hurt.

End of Excerpt