HOMETOWN HERO (Chapter One only)
By Robyn Anders
Copyright 2005 by Rob Preece, all rights reserved.
Except for use in any review, reproduction or use of this
work in any form is forbidden without the written permission
of the publisher. Cover art copyright 2005 by Jane Graves,
all rights reserved.
Published by BooksForABuck.com
June 1, 2005
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Russell Lyons, lately Lieutenant in the U.S. National Guard but now just an ordinary citizen, glared at the reporter.
She was cute, with short brown hair and puppy-dog-brown eyes gazing up at him through small rectangular glasses. She'd been snapping pictures of him getting ready for the parade.
He wanted her to go away.
"I really don't understand what possible interest an interview with me could have for your readers," he told her for maybe the tenth time.
"You're a hometown hero, back from the wars," she said. As if he needed reminding. "Of course people are interested in you, in your experiences, and in how the war changed you."
He would be interested in remembering his experiences and how he'd changed too. Since he had no memory of anything before he had awakened in an army hospital in Germany, he didn't think he had a lot to contribute.
"Even your readers might understand that I'm going to have a hard time explaining the ways I've changed since I can't remember anything about the way I was."
She pursed her lips. Strangely he found his gaze fixated on those lips.
"I saw you at the newspaper archives the other day," the reporter reminded him. "You must have come across your name once or twice. That should give you an idea of who you were. Now my readers would like to know who you've become."
Yeah, he'd spent some time at the newspaper office looking for his past. And yeah, he'd come across his name a time or two. Or a thousand times was more like it. He'd been captain of the football team, lead pitcher for the baseball team, point guard on the basketball team, voted most likely to succeed of all seniors at Shermann High School in central Missouri. The only thing was, none of the stories brought any memories with them. They might as well have been written about someone else. The roadside bomb had stripped him of his memory as completely as it had stripped the man riding with him of his life--a man he couldn't even remember.
He clenched his fists in frustration. The doctors said he would probably recover his memories eventually. With or without them, he intended to get that golden life back. No foreign freedom fighter was going to take that from him.
The reporter with the puppy-dog eyes was waiting and he decided to give her a quote.
"Tell your readers I'm happy to be home in the warm embrace of my family and friends, proud to have served my country, and ever-more-certain that Missouri is the best place in the world. If there are any other usual clichés you newspapermen use, throw those in too."
"Newspaper woman," she reminded him.
He'd known that. Known it and hadn't wanted to think about it. He was an engaged man.
"Do the doctors think your memory will return?"
"My doctors are completely clueless."
The ace reporter for the Shermann Advertiser-Dispatch, didn't even bother suppressing her wince. "Still have that Lyons arrogance, though, don't you?"
"I don't know. Do I?"
"Come on, honey." His fiancée, Heather Cochran, couldn't have been a more distinct contrast to the dark-haired reporter if she'd tried. Tall, slender, elegant, with hair so blond it was almost white, she seemed to dance rather than walk. "Hi Cynthia. Have you got what you needed?"
"Oh, Russell. Don't tell me you've been giving Cynthia a hard time. Anyway, there's a parade waiting on this hero and we don't want to make the people wait."
Heather brushed an invisible bit of lint off his uniform tunic, handed him his cap, and turned a thousand-watt smile on the reporter.
He admired the way Heather had of taking charge, of keeping everything organized and in its place, no matter how trying the circumstances. She'd organized this parade from the start, persuaded the Mayor to declare a town holiday, and then turned out the VFW, Indian Guides, Boy Scouts, and Shermann High marching band to participate.
She started to bustle him out, but he stopped and turned back to look at the reporter. "I really don't know what else I could tell you, Cynthia. Writing an article about me would be like writing an article about a startup company before its management even conceived their product. I'm a blank slate."
Heather shook her head. "You don't have conscious memories, honey, but you're the same person underneath. I can feel it. You're going to have to trust me on this." She turned her considerable attention on the reporter. "Cynthia, you've written this story a thousand times. I sent you the official engagement report I wangled out of the army and photos of Russell's Purple Heart. Just make Russell look good. He deserves it."
"Cynthia, we've really got to go. We'll do lunch some time. I've been wanting to talk to you about buying a bigger ad in the Advertiser since we're almost done with the expansion on dad's department store."
"Talk to Andrew about advertising, Heather. I'm a reporter, not management."
Heather flashed her most winning smile. "I didn't go to high school with the advertising department. I'm a 'person person.'"
"I'll do the best I can on the story," Cynthia said.
"I guess I'm as ready as I'm going to be." Russell stood, stretched his back where a few hunks of shrapnel remained as nagging reminders of the explosive device that had stolen his memories.
Cynthia had turned away, but she stopped suddenly. "Have you looked at the stories in the high school paper?"
He shrugged. "I tried. Everything was lost in the fire when the old high school burned down. Nobody thought to preserve copies anywhere else."
"I've got a set from when we were there."
"We were in high school together?" He would have guessed Cynthia was younger than he, at least as young as Heather who'd been a freshman when he'd been a senior.
"I skipped a couple of years of elementary school," she admitted. "I can bring the clippings by your office tomorrow and we can go over them. Could be it will stir up some memories, give you something to talk about in our interview."
He shrugged. "Maybe." Nothing else had dredged even a hint of memory. It was odd. He would have thought that he would have forgotten things like which fork to use at a formal dinner, how to knot a tie, how to tell a custom-made dress shirt from one bought off the rack. Instead, the amnesia had left him with a set of useless skills and no memory of who he was. He'd spent six weeks in an Army hospital in Germany trying to call up any memory of his background, his friends, the reason he'd joined the National Guard. He'd ended up with nothing except what he could deduce from the strange set of factoids and habits he retained.
Cynthia tossed him a reluctant smile. "Right. I'll bring them by your office tomorrow. Shall we say around ten?"
"Come on," Heather urged. "The band has already started to play."
"I've got to take some pictures of that. Everyone whose kid is in the band will buy a newspaper." Cynthia vanished out the door so quickly Russ almost missed it.
"How about after the parade, you take me to dinner and then I show you a little surprise?" Heather offered, her voice low and seductive.
He wasn't sure why he didn't take her up on her many offers. Heather was a beautiful woman. From the letters she'd sent him when he'd been in the hospital, it seemed that they had been a number since he'd been a senior in high school and she'd been the youngest cheerleader captain in school history.
Still, he couldn't remember her. Sex with a beautiful stranger might be a great fantasy, but Heather was his fiancée. And Russ figured he owed it to his fiancée to know her at least a little bit before confusing everything with sex.
Cynthia glanced at herself in her rearview mirror and grimaced. Unfortunately, she'd remembered her makeup and her lipstick was still shiny and fresh. All of which meant this was as good as it was going to get.
She took a deep breath, gathered the bulging suitcase filled with old Shermann High 'Shermie' newspapers, and dragged it out of her Mini-Cooper. This was important. Her journalistic senses were sending out signals that her feature on Russell Lyons could be a barnburner, maybe even a Pulitzer Prize winner. If she could really make it shine, she had a chance to stand out--for the first time in her life. A chance to gain the respect of the people of Shermann, people who had treated her with a polite distain ever since her parents had died and she'd come here to live with her aunt.
That Russell had made her heart go pitter-patter since the first day of high school didn't matter. What mattered was becoming someone more than the woman to talk to about running a larger ad in the newspaper.
She'd been sitting in his parking lot for half an hour already, waiting until her clock rolled around to ten o'clock so she could see Russell. She checked her notepad, her digital recorder, her laptop, then dragged out the suitcase. She was good to go.
She'd never been to Russell's building and was expecting something a little more substantial than an empty desk at reception. Still, Russell's office itself was spacious, if a little overly male with cushy leather chairs, shelves filled with expensively bound antique books, and a widescreen computer that made her laptop seem like something from the twentieth century.
"Want a cup of coffee?" Russell emerged from a supply room, a steaming mug in his hand. "How do you take it?"
"Cream, if you have it."
He took the heavy suitcase from her, easily lifting what she had busted her tail to drag in, handed her the cup, and got himself another one.
"Have a seat."
His hand barely brushed against her back as he held her chair for her, but it was enough to get her hormones revved up. He sat across from her at the table, ignoring the oversized desk where framed photos of Russell scoring touchdowns, accepting trophies, and presiding over the Student Body Association created a perfect picture of this narcissistic man.
"You just happened to have all the old school newspapers?" He raised a quizzical eyebrow.
"I figured I might need them some day. I was the editor, after all. Thought they might come in handy when I win the Pulitzer Prize."
He raised an eyebrow. "You were editor way back when you were a freshman? Don't they normally reserve that post for seniors?"
She nodded. "Normally."
"Wow. You must be pretty smart. Triple-promotion and the newspaper editor as a freshman when you were what, thirteen?
"We're not here to talk about me." The words popped out before she could control herself. Actually, the words hadn't been so bad. The tone, though, was.
Unfortunately, Russell had picked up on it. Which was a bit strange. He'd never noticed her tone, or anything else about her before his National Guard unit was called up and he was sent off to the Middle East. It wasn't that he wasn't sensitive, he was just sensitive to the people who mattered--and Cynthia had never mattered, to him, or to anyone else in Shermann.
He pushed his chair back from the table. "Whoa. Are you just prickly this morning, or is this going back to some history we share and I can't remember? I looked through all of my pictures, and I didn't see any with the two of us so I didn't figure we were ever a number. But, hey, if I took you out and then forgot to send you flowers the next day or something, I'm sorry."
As if. Russell had been way too busy to make time for the slightly gawky, and highly nerdy girl Cynthia had been in school.
In some ways they'd been huge rivals, but the rivalry had existed only in Cynthia's mind. She wasn't supposed to know it, but she'd only gotten five votes when she'd run against Russell for Student Body President. The annual 'best student' scholarship had been the killing blow, though. A single 'B' in Physical Education had kept her from edging Russell out for the scholarship that would have let her pursue her dream--the journalism program at Northwestern University. Without the money from that scholarship, a scholarship Russell had simply added to the rich assortment of athletic, academic, and activity-based scholarships he'd effortlessly collected, she'd been forced to live with her aunt, attending the program at University of Missouri Extension in Jefferson City while Russell had breezed through a business program at Yale.
Her only saving grace was, at least he'd never been interested in journalism. He probably would have beat her at that too, and never noticed he'd just rolled over her, crushing her into the mud.
"We never dated each other and I'm not angry."
He caught her with those midnight blue eyes of his. "We never dated? I must not have had very good judgment back then."
"You're assuming it was your choice." Which was a laugh. Of course it was his choice. There wasn't a single girl in Shermann High who wouldn't have dumped whatever boyfriend she had and gone out with Russell if he'd so much as crooked a finger at her. Unfortunately, Cynthia was no more immune than the next woman.
He ran a hand through his thick black hair, growing out now from the military buzz he'd brought home from the army hospital. "You know, you're right. How strange. I wonder why I assumed that it would be up to me?"
Maybe because he had looked in a mirror. She kept her mouth shut.
He shrugged. It didn't matter. "Right. So, do you want to leave those papers with me, or don't you trust me to get them back to you."
"It isn't about trust. Our deal was, I let you look at them and you let me interview you."
Russell frowned. "You know, Cynthia, there were forty soldiers in that parade. Some of those guys who fought World War II have great stories, and they aren't going to be around forever. There's nobody left from World War I, you know. When I was a kid, there were still some, but they've all died. All their stories are lost forever now. And the Vietnam guys, some of the things they were talking about curled my toes."
"I'm sure that's very--"
"Then there's me." Typically, Russell didn't even notice she was talking and kept on rolling. Rolling over Cynthia like she imagined he'd rolled over whatever enemies he'd run across when he'd been in the Middle East. "I can tell you about the hospital in Germany, about what it felt like to look at Heather's picture and wonder who the heck was that woman on my nightstand. If I had a drink or two, I might even be able to tell you about how the man in the bed next to mine had screaming nightmares every night.
"And guess what? That's my whole life. That's everything I remember, ever."
Humility from Russell Lyons? If she hadn't been there, she wouldn't have believed it possible. In the fifteen years since she'd first seen him in the freshman assembly, she had never, ever, known a time when the golden boy, Russell Lyon, would even think about suggesting that someone else's story might be more interesting, more important, than his own. The sickening thing was, he'd normally been right--just as he was wrong now. The people didn't want to hear another story about the fading memories of the greatest generation. They certainly didn't want to hear anything about a war they still pretended had never existed. They wanted to glory in today's war, today's action, today's victories, today's returning hero. "I think our readers would love to hear about your experiences in the hospital."
He considered, his deep-blue eyes penetrating hers like scalpels. "Really? Okay. The army takes good care of their wounded. They've got the latest equipment and, with all of the casualties we've had, the doctors get a lot of practice and have gotten really good at their jobs. Lots of guys who would have died in earlier wars are coming home to lead productive lives. There isn't a lot more to tell."
She didn't believe that, but she was a good enough reporter to recognize when her source was shutting down. "Okay. Tell me about how you're adjusting to being back in Shermann."
Russ glared at the infuriating woman across the table from him. He'd agreed to this interview to humor Heather and because Cynthia had promised him her help in getting a piece of his life back. Neither of those reasons meant he intended to expose all of the pain and anger that were his sole remaining memory of a war he must have set off to fight so full of hope and certainty. At least he assumed he had set off hopefully. His parents and Heather had deleted his actual e-mails he'd sent them after being called up, but they'd all assured him he'd been gung-ho, just as he'd always been gung-ho about everything, they said.
He didn't feel so gung-ho now. Weeks in a hospital, weeks of hard work on rehabilitating a body that had experienced more overpressure than the human body is supposed to endure, weeks of agony sandwiched between the mind-numbing blur of morphine, and then a hard week of withdrawal from the pain-drugs had sapped him of that youthful energy. But he was still young and he wanted it back, along with everything else that the war had ripped from him. Which was why he was sitting here putting up with the interview. In the suitcase, Cynthia didn't just have high school newspapers, she had his past. One way or the other, he was going to get it back, reclaim his place in the town, and once again be the golden man of Shermann, Missouri.
"Right. About being back in Shermann. Everyone has been very nice. Salt of the earth. Missouri folk are the greatest."
She wrote that down, apparently oblivious to his abuse of multiple trite clichés. Had he always been a cynic? He couldn't remember, but he'd have to ask Cynthia. Heather didn't seem to pick up on nuance. Her response to questions that required introspection was to shrug her pretty shoulders, wrinkle her pretty nose, and suggest a shopping trip--or sex.
"I'm sure our readers would like to know how you intend to manage your investments. Won't your loss of memory put you at a disadvantage?"
Most of the soldiers he'd met in the Army hospital had been heading back stateside for a life on Army disability pay and dependence on already over-extended relatives. He's been a little surprised to learn that he was the exception. In the decade after he'd graduated from college, he'd taken a few thousand dollars he'd inherited from an aunt and earned from a variety of summer jobs, and piled it into a small fortune of ten million dollars. Despite neglecting his investments when he'd been in the hospital, the fortune was largely intact. Between money, a beautiful fiancée, a supportive family, and a community that idolized him, he could hardly be considered disadvantaged.
"You know, that's the first good question you've asked."
"Thanks." She didn't speak the follow-up--for nothing--but it was definitely there. Cynthia Meadows had an attitude a mile wide. For some reason, he found he liked it. It was probably just because he was sick of the combination of sympathy and obsequiousness that normally seemed to surround a wounded veteran who just happened to own half the town of Shermann.
"As it turned out, just as I didn't lose my ability to speak English, read, or handle basic arithmetic, it also seems that I didn't lose my sense of the market, of trends and timing. I certainly can't explain why, and it certainly isn't something that I can take special credit for, but the knack with investments is still there."
She scribbled something. "Interesting. Are you planning on continuing the, uh, philanthropic ways you had before you went to war?"
From her lips, the word philanthropic sounded almost like a slur. Maybe she was one of those people who figured that charities made people dependent and kept them from going out and doing things on their own.
He wouldn't have guessed that of her, but then again, he couldn't remember whether he'd been particularly skillful at judging people. Maybe he was as bad at people as he was good at investments.
He considered her question, then decided to give her the truth.
"Let me tell you what I'm planning. I'm planning to recover my life." He clenched a fist. "Recover my entire life, exactly the way it was before I went off to the war and had a huge chunk of it ripped away. That's why I want to look at the papers you brought for me. That's why I'm spending so much time with Heather and my parents. That's why I came back to Shermann in the first place, when for all I can remember of growing up here, of even my parents' faces, I might as well have gone to New York where, at least, the cultural life is more than the annual Junior League faire."
He'd said it baldly, but he meant it. From the newspapers, from the people with the faces of strangers who swore they'd been his friends, from the testimonials lining his office walls, and from Heather, the beautiful woman who was to be the future Mrs. Russell Lyons, he'd learned that his life had been close to perfect. Loved and respected in his community, the man who'd hooked the most beautiful woman in town--a woman who stuck with him despite the disaster of war--and a financial success. Who wouldn't want to reclaim that heritage?
His answer, or perhaps the emotional force behind it, appeared to rock Cynthia back on her figurative heels. It sure wasn't what she wanted to publish in her newspaper.
"I see. Well, you'll find a lot of your life documented in the Shermie."
She reached down and unzipped the cheap oversized suitcase she'd stored her newspapers in.
"The bad news is, it's going to take a while to go through them. Not only are you in every issue. In most issues, you're covered in more than one article."
"Perfect," Russ told her. "The more I learn about myself, the sooner I can get back to being the person I was: the person I am meant to be."
"Right. Since I did most of the paste-up, how about if I find the articles and pass them to you? You can check them over and, if you're interested, you can scan them into your computer or run them through the copy machine."
"This is going to take longer than I thought. Let's grab some lunch and we can get back into it--unless you've got other plans." Russ stretched his body, wincing slightly as he went through one particular contortion. He'd been sitting almost motionless for hours, reading one article after another about a young man who shared his name, his body, but who had none of the same memories.
Cynthia's brown eyes softened and she reached a comforting hand to touch him on the arm. "Are you okay? I knew you were injured, but I guess I only really heard about your memory."
He told himself to ignore the sensation of her touch. Cynthia was simply showing concern. She didn't want him responding to her in a sexual way. Besides, he was an engaged man. Sooner or later, he'd start responding sexually to Heather, and he wasn't the kind of guy who would just sex up a girl and dump her--at least he didn't think he was.
He pulled his arm away from her touch. "The good news is, I've still got all my pieces. Which is a lot more than I can say for some of the other soldiers in the military hospital. The bad news is, I've got a few bonus bits--including some hunks from a bomb and some bolts and pins the doctors put in. Believe me, you don't want to be near me when there's a metal detector around."
Cynthia felt like whimpering when Russell jerked his arm away from her. She knew she wasn't a fashion-plate like Heather, but she worked out, ran, studied T'ai Chi. She wasn't horrible and pudgy the way she'd been in high school. It hurt that Russell couldn't stand her touch, even for a second, even when every female instinct inside of her needed to comfort him, to care for the man who had sacrificed so much.
An injured Russell Lyons just didn't fit into her mental model. She was used to him being perfect.
He shrugged, then winced again. "As far as I know, I can't blame this on you. Anyway, you've got to eat, you might as well join me."
He must have assumed she was apologizing for his injury rather than for touching him. Well, that made sense. He'd probably already suppressed the memory of that brief contact.
"While we're eating, you can tell me more about what I was like in high school, and afterwards."
It wasn't a date, but a small, uncontrolled, part of her wanted to jump up and dance. He'd never taken her anywhere before, even when she'd been his Parliamentarian in the Student Council.
A louder part started sending warning flags. Shermann was a small community. If rumors started floating around that she was trying to horn in on Heather's man, no matter how unlikely it was that he would respond, she would be cut off from that community, ostracized by the businesses who bought advertising in the Advertiser-Dispatch, the society leaders who created the stories, and the ordinary people who bought the newspaper and allowed the paper to survive in a world where newspapers were becoming a dying artifact of an earlier, simpler time.
"I don't think Heather would approve," she said.
"Heather? Why should she--" He caught himself. "Listen, I'm talking about having lunch with a friend, someone who's known me for what, fifteen years? That's half my life, more than half of yours. Nobody is going to mind."
Apparently Russell had forgotten more than he was letting on. Cynthia thought he was wrong, that people would gossip. Still, Heather knew she was working on this article, had actually suggested the write-up at the same time she'd conceived the parade in Russell's honor. And if Heather didn't mind, she would make sure the rest of Shermann went along. Between running her father's department store, being Russell's steady girlfriend, and her dominant personality, Heather created, rather than followed, the conventions of Shermann, Missouri.
"I guess that would be all right."
"Good. We'll take my car."
Heather's Mini-Cooper was a good dependable car: one distinctive enough that it caught people's eyes, especially here in rural Missouri where pickup trucks were more common than gas-sipping coupes. She'd scrimped for years before she could afford to buy it. Compared to the leather luxury of Russell's Jaguar, however, it was a broken-down jalopy.
He opened the door for her, lightly grasping her elbow as she slid into the car, carefully tugging down her skirt even though she knew Russell wouldn't bother looking at her legs in a million years.
Again, her heart responded to his touch, pounding so hard she wondered if he was only pretending he didn't hear it.
His stereo started a bluesy jazz number the instant he fired up the Jaguar's massive engine.
"I never knew you liked jazz."
"Really?" He engaged the gear and pulled out of his office parking lot. "What kind of music did I like?"
"Punk Rock, I think."
"You're kidding." He looked genuinely confused. "Why?"
"You never told me why." And she wouldn't have presumed to ask.
"Right. I guess I'll have to learn to like it again, then. Maybe my time in the hospital exposed me to some different influences."
Something about his answer sent her reporter instincts into high gear. "Why would you force yourself to appreciate a type of music you don't even like now?"
He glanced at her as if seeing her for the first time. "I already explained this to you. I'm going to recover my life--and you're going to help."
He signaled, then turned into the parking lot for the Shermann Winery and Brew-Pub, an upscale restaurant where Shermann's business elite gathered to mingle and exchange gossip.
Cynthia had eaten at the Brew-Pub exactly twice in her life. Her aunt had brought her there the day she'd graduated from high school--and learned that the scholarship she had hoped to achieve would never be hers. And the Advertiser-Dispatch's publisher had invited her to accompany him when he'd been pitching the banker for a loan to expand his operation shortly after he'd hired her.
With meals starting at close to fifty bucks, and even a Diet Coke setting a customer back five, there was no way the Advertiser-Dispatch was going to allow this on an expense report.
"Uh, maybe we could go someplace a bit more, uh, casual."
"You look fine to me." He engaged the parking brake and stood.
As a high school athlete, Russell had been all lean muscle. After college, he'd relaxed a bit, not getting fat at all but tending toward trim and firm rather than cut and rock-hard. His stints in active duty and rehab had chiseled muscles she knew she'd never seen before--and she'd been the reporter who had taken the shots of Russell emerging from the pool the day he'd won the state champion in the butterfly--the day his Speedo had nearly slipped off.
"It's just that--" she might as well say it. "Look, Russell, I don't have the cash handy to buy lunch here."
He laughed easily, as if she'd told a mildly amusing story. "I picked the restaurant, I'll pick up the tab. Besides, Heather tells me I always eat here. You're helping me get back into the person I am."
Maybe that was true. Before he'd set off to war, Russell had liked to hobnob with his peers, the men and women with money, the people who made decisions about zoning, growth, and where Shermann was heading.
"I'm writing an article on you; it's only fair that I pay for expenses." She could put it on plastic and skimp for the rest of the month.
"The day I make a beautiful woman buy me lunch is the day I have my head examined."
Another reason for her not to like Russell Lyons: as if she needed any more. He was a chauvinist and he could turn her heart without even meaning to. Beautiful, right.
He opened the restaurant door for her, waved away the waiter who tried to seat her, and then sat across from her at the narrow rough-hewn wooden table that the Brew-Pub used in a failed attempt to pretend to be a German country-style restaurant rather than the exclusive place it was.
He glanced at the menu quickly, then looked at her.
"Okay, Cynthia. Tell me why I shouldn't like this place."
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