The expanded version of my novella, Truth or Dare, is coming out May 1st! It originally appeared in the Under the Mistletoe Anthology, but I can't wait for you to read my Author's Cut. Here's the first chapter.
Truth or Dare
by Julie Coulter Bellon
The spot where Jonah’s foot should have been¾ had been until a year ago¾ was hurting again. The phantom pains from the amputation came mostly in the evenings now, which always made it hard to sleep. Jonah sat in the darkness of the family room, enjoying its black comfort, how it hid the display of track and field medals and trophies he’d won in high school. With the snowstorm that had been threatening all day finally unleashing itself, it was as if Mother Nature was commiserating with him. The howling wind outside perfectly matched his mood.
Good thing his parents weren’t home to see this. His mother would frown and turn the lights on and offer to watch TV with him. Or she’d bustle around, getting him something to eat or wanting to know how he was feeling. That was the most dreaded question of all. He didn’t know how he was feeling, but he did know he needed some peace and quiet.
Since coming home from rehab three days ago, this was the first evening he’d been alone. His friends and neighbors meant well, but there had been a steady stream of visitors to the house, coming to tell him how sorry they were for his “accident.” As if losing his foot to a roadside bomb in Afghanistan was equivalent to a fender bender or something. But it was the pity in their eyes that bothered him the most. He didn’t want anyone to pity him.
He leaned back in his father’s recliner. His mother had instilled manners in him, so he’d smiled at everyone who came and tried to make it okay for them, but he’d never felt more alone. No one would ever understand what it was like to try to buy one shoe or have to put your pants on sitting down.
He flexed his good leg, careful not to hit the dog sleeping at his feet. Or really, just his foot. Jonah grimaced. Would he ever get used to only having one foot? Even after a year of rehab it didn’t feel natural. Maybe it never would. His thoughts turned to the wine in the fridge. It would be so easy to numb himself, but going down that road never led anywhere good. He’d tried. It was time to get up and turn the lights on. Stop feeling sorry for himself and read a book or grab a movie to watch. Anything except more sitting in the dark.
Bending down to get his prosthetic foot, he pulled up the pant leg on his sweatpants, put the liner and sock over his stump, then strapped the prosthetic foot on and ratcheted it tight. “Wake up, Magnus.” The golden retriever didn’t even move. Jonah poked him gently in the side. “Hey.”
Magnus’s ears perked up, and he turned his face toward the door as if someone were there. “Just the wind, boy,” Jonah assured him. “It’s getting bad out there.” But then he heard it, too. Something or someone was scratching at the back door.
Glad now that the lights were off, Jonah stood. If someone thought they could break into his house, they could think again. His military training kicked in, and he crept to the window. With the barest movement of the blinds, Jonah squinted to see the back porch through the swirling snow. It wasn’t a human trying to break in, but a dog that wanted to come in.
He let out a breath, trying to calm the adrenaline running through his veins. “It’s for you, Mag,” he said, before he turned to flip on the lights.
His dog was standing in front of the door, pawing it. He obviously knew his visitor. Jonah walked over and opened it, letting in some snow and a smaller golden retriever who was obviously happy to see Magnus. She shook out the ice and snow from her fur, and Jonah watched, amused, as they greeted each other. “You’ve been holding out on me, buddy.” He bent down to scratch her behind her ears. “And who do you belong to?”
She gave him a cursory glance before turning her attention back to Magnus. Jonah watched the dogs for a moment longer and then headed back to the recliner. They followed him and flopped down next to his chair when he sat down. The pair got comfortable lying next to each other. “A girl who likes a quiet evening at home? You’re a lucky dog, Magnus.”
The quiet didn’t last long before the doorbell echoed through the house. Since he knew his parents had a key and he didn’t expect them for another hour or so, Jonah thought about not answering it. But with the storm raging outside, he knew he had to let whoever it was in.
“Probably someone looking for your girlfriend,” he said to Magnus as he got up from the chair. “At least I hope it is. Please don’t let it be Ms. Davis.” His mother’s friend meant well, but when she’d come by earlier today she couldn’t stop saying “you poor boy.” It was enough to make any soldier want to go AWOL.
He walked slowly down the hall, grateful his parents didn’t have stairs, or the person at the door would be waiting a lot longer. He opened it with both dogs at his heels. A woman stood in front of him, bundled in a parka, hat, and scarf so only her eyes were visible. She pulled her scarf down. “Hey, Jonah, I’m looking for my dog, Lola. Did she come over here?” She craned her neck, trying to get a look at the dogs who were hiding behind him.
Jonah was battling to hold the door with the wind and snow slamming into them so hard he could barely see the porch stairs. He motioned her inside. Once she was in, she pulled off her hat and scarf. Her short brown hair was sticking up at odd angles, but she didn’t seem to care about anything except her dog.
“Lola, honey! You scared me! Never do that again.” She hugged her dog while she scolded her. Magnus was trying to nose in on the hugging action, too, and got a scratch behind the ears for his trouble.
Jonah looked down at the reunion. She’d started to peel off her coat and gloves, while her dog danced around her. The woman’s heart-shaped face dredged up memories from a lifetime ago.
Kami Jackson. A little zing of awareness skittered up his spine. Her smile was entwined with so many of his happiest high school memories. Being on the track team together. Star-gazing. Best friends for life. Or so he’d promised her. She’d matched him in humor, goals, and ambition, and he’d even allowed himself to imagine what it would be like to marry her. But after graduation, he’d joined the service, she’d fallen off the grid, and he’d had no choice but to let her go.
He swallowed, knowing he had to say something. “Hey, Kami.”
She managed to look up at him while her dog finished bathing her chin. “We haven’t seen each other in nearly six years, and all I get is a ‘Hey, Kami?’ Come on, you can do better than that.”
Part of him wanted to smile at her sass, but he gave her an impassive stare instead. It would never been the same between them, so why try to go back? Besides, what did she want him to say? “Okay. How about, it looks like you need to get a leash for your dog.”
She frowned up at him, and he saw the shadows under her eyes. She looked exhausted, and in that moment, he wished he’d said something to make her smile.
“I can see we’re bothering you. I’ll just take Lola and head home.” She stood, and both dogs zigzagged around her legs, begging for more attention. “Just give me a second.”
She tried to bend down and grab her gloves and got some more wet doggie kisses. Magnus was totally focused on her, but looked back at Jonah every now and then as if he couldn’t understand why Jonah wasn’t joining in on the fun. Would he even come to Jonah’s side if he called? He wasn’t sure. Magnus was giving Lola and Kami some pretty adoring looks, and it was obvious he knew them well. Jonah hadn’t been a part of Magnus’s life for a while.
He folded his arms, watching how easy it was for Kami to stay balanced while two dogs jumped on her. He’d always taken the ability to stand upright for granted. Watching her stand on two feet didn’t hurt like it might have months ago, though. He’d worked really hard in rehab to deal with his feelings of loss and resentment, and he was grateful for that effort now.
Taking a breath, he watched her try to put her things back on and was surprised at how different she looked. The thin girl he remembered from high school was still trim, but her jeans and sweater now had curves in all the right places. Yet, her eyes that had always been laughing in high school, weren’t laughing anymore. She had a hollow look in her face, like the people he’d seen visiting their loved ones at the rehab center. Did that have to do with losing her dog? Or seeing him? Probably the latter. Who wouldn’t look like that, seeing him now?
He didn’t wait to see the pity in her eyes or hear how sorry she was. Reaching for the handle, he opened the door and immediately felt a blast of cold. “I’m glad you found your dog.”
Kami didn’t say a word to Jonah, just snapped a leash on Lola’s collar. The dog immediately sat down on her haunches in the doorway and began to whine when she looked outside. It did look pretty bad out there. The frigid wind effortlessly pushed the snow into drifts, blasting it sideways across the yard. Jonah turned in time to see Kami square her shoulders, her mouth pulled into a tight line.
He sighed inwardly. Okay, his mom had raised him better than this. He was out of line and that wasn’t like him. The old him, anyway. “Hey, that storm’s really picked up. Do you want to wait a bit and warm up at least?”
Even to him, his voice didn’t sound very welcoming, and Kami’s look of misgiving confirmed it. He was out of practice. Magnus stared up at him, clearly unimpressed at his attempt. The dog darted a glance at Kami as if to say, yeah, my human’s a little rusty at this. Sorry.
Jonah straightened. His dog was not going to be embarrassed by his lack of manners. He could fix this.
Kami pulled on the leash. “No, thanks. We’ve bothered you enough. Come on, girl.” She ducked her head, but not before he saw the hurt in her eyes. Guilt welled in him.
Jonah grabbed her arm as she squeezed by. “Hey, I’m sorry about what I said. Give me a chance to make it up to you.” He bent down so she’d be forced to look at him. “I was just about to eat some of my mom’s stew and that would definitely warm you up. Are you hungry?”
She hesitated, pinning him with her gaze as if to gauge his sincerity before she finally relented. “Okay, that would be great, actually.” She didn’t exactly look convinced as she took off her coat and gloves for the second time, but at least she’d agreed to stay.
When she turned, he could see her jeans were soaking wet. How long was she looking for her dog? “You’ll never get warm wearing that. I have some sweatpants you could borrow, and we could throw your jeans in the dryer.”
She shivered and looked down. “Thanks. I’m freezing.”
He was about to turn down the hall to his room, but his prosthetic foot caught on the rug in the entryway, and he stumbled. Biting back a curse, he put his hand on the wall to anchor himself and find his balance. He stood there for a moment, unwilling to meet her gaze. How could he limp along in front of the girl who remembered him as a confident track star? He didn’t want her to see what he was now.
When he didn’t move, she stepped forward. “Jonah?” Her cold fingers on his arm jolted him out of his thoughts.
He forced his feet to step forward, hoping all the gait training he’d suffered through to make his walk look normal had worked. “I’ll be right back. You can wait in the kitchen. It’s right through there.”
She nodded and dropped her hand, as if she knew he didn’t want to talk about it.
“Did you think I forgot where your kitchen is?” Kami gave him a small smile. Her voice was warmer now which helped Jonah to relax a bit. “It felt like we were either here at your house or at the track all through high school.” She looked around and for just a second the exhaustion on her face melted away. “Don’t you wish you could go back sometimes? Everything was so much simpler then.”
Every day. Jonah still struggled to accept his new reality sometimes. It was too easy to wish for his life before the pain and rehab and managing a prosthetic. “We had some good times.”
The brightness in her eyes faded. “Yeah, we did.”
He waited until she’d started toward the kitchen before he walked down the hall to get the dry clothing for her. Magnus stood beside him and licked his hand. That dog still read him like a book. Jonah touched his silky head. “I’m all right, boy.”
When he walked into the kitchen, Kami was on a stool, hunched over the island, her head in her hands. She looked small and defeated, something he’d never seen on her before. “You okay?” he asked as he joined her.
“Just tired.” She tried to muster up a smile, but it looked more like a grimace.
“You still staying up late star-gazing?” He wanted to see a real smile on her face, one that reached her eyes.
“I wish.” She looked down at her hands, folded in front of her. “Remember how hard I tried to teach you the constellations? You claimed you could never see them, but I always thought you could.”
“I just wanted an excuse to stay out late.” And to be near her. Even with her struggles in her home life she was light and fun, intelligent and driven, and that had drawn him to her. There had been so many times in their last year of high school that he’d thought about what it would be like if she were his girlfriend, but he didn’t want to ruin the friendship if it didn’t work out. In the end, he’d settled for staying best friends, but a part of him still wished he’d been braver and tried for something more. And if his reaction when he first saw her tonight was any clue, even after six years, those old feelings were still there for him. But so much had changed. Even if they did rekindle their relationship, what could he offer her now?
His tried and true friend-zone tactics he’d mastered when he was around her in high school kicked in and he stood to put some distance between them. “I’ll warm up the stew and get the sugar cookies for dessert.” He put his lead foot down carefully and walked slowly to the fridge.
“I love your mom’s cookies. Did you decorate them?”
“She tried to get me to.” It was a Christmas tradition at their house, and his reluctance had put a damper on it for his mom. His conscience twinged with guilt, remembering how he’d claimed he was tired and retreated to his room. He should have humored her.
“You were just trying to make sure they all stayed edible, I’m sure. You always did use way too much icing.” Her sassy tone was coming back and he glanced back at her to see if she was smiling. From the way her lips were pressed together, Kami was barely holding back a grin. A little corner of his heart warmed to see it.
After carefully setting down the container of stew, he rested his palms on the counter, facing her. “Hey, I’m an expert at decorating those. And you can never have too much icing.”
“When you can’t tell if the cookie is supposed to be Santa or a stocking, there’s too much icing.” She quirked an eyebrow in challenge.
He shook his head. This was too easy. “Who cares what it’s supposed to look like as long as it tastes good?”
She didn’t admit defeat gracefully and merely rolled her eyes. “Because it’s a sugar cookie, and decorating it to look like something is half of the fun.”
“Mine look like something. Something good to eat.” He leaned toward her. “You have to admit, I’ve got you there. I mean, what can you say to that? You know it’s true because you finished off every cookie I ever brought you.”
“How do you know I didn’t give them to my dog?” Kami laughed and Lola pricked up her ears at her mistress, as if she was hoping for that very thing.
Jonah narrowed his eyes and pointed his finger toward her. “My cookies are a work of art. You just don’t want to admit it.”
She held up her hands in mock surrender. “Okay, okay, I’ll plead the Fifth.” She looked up at him and, for a moment, it was as if they were back in high school again with nothing more to worry about than next week’s math test or tomorrow’s track meet. But Kami dropped her eyes quickly and the moment was gone. She picked up the folded sweatpants from the counter. “Thanks again for letting me borrow these. I’ll just go change out of my wet clothes before I say something that might incriminate me.”
He chuckled as she disappeared into the guest bathroom. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d joked around like that with someone. He’d missed it.
Turning toward the task at hand, he got things ready for their meal, getting out bowls and spoons. Before long, Jonah heard the bathroom door open and the dryer next to the mudroom start running.
When she came back into the kitchen, he noticed she’d smoothed her hair. It was strange not seeing her in the ponytail she’d worn through high school, but he could definitely get used to her short hair and how it drew attention to her eyes. As his gaze traveled downward to the sweatpants she’d borrowed, though, he could hardly smother a laugh. The waistband was pulled above her waist, and she’d rolled up the pant leg bottoms until it looked like she was wearing fat ankle weights.
“Let me guess. The pants didn’t fit?”
She gave him her best are-you-kidding-me look. “Yeah, you’re a bit taller than me.” She turned her ankle to model the uneven rolls for him. “I might start a new fashion, though. Winter Storm Chic. What do you think?”
“It could work.” He gestured to the rolls. “And there’s the feature of being able to pull the excess material down over your cold feet, which could be a selling point.”
She shook her head. “I think someone already invented something for that. Called socks.” She wiggled her bare toes.
“Do you need some? I’ve got extra.” He inwardly winced. Of course with only one foot he’d have lots of extra socks, but he didn’t want to call any attention to his injury if he could help it. Kami didn’t even glance at his feet, though.
“I think I’m good, thanks.” She moved past him and sat down on her stool at the kitchen island again. “So, is it weird being home?”
Here it comes. He’d wanted her to be different, but no one could resist fishing for gossip on how the town’s amputee was doing. He glanced over at her, disappointed. “Not really.”
But her face was still open and smiling. “It’s all your dad was able to talk about. He’s so glad you’re here.”
Jonah resisted the urge to stare at her. She didn’t seem to be looking for gossip; she was just happy for him and his family. When did I get so suspicious of people’s motives? “My dad loves to talk. Probably because his patients are captive audiences.”
She laughed. “The perk of being a dentist, I guess.”
“Is that where you saw my dad? At his office?” He rubbed his hand over his jaw. He wasn’t surprised his dad had talked about him. His parents had been there for him through every step of his recovery, spending as much time with him as they could while he was at Walter Reed in Bethesda. When they’d asked him to come home to Hill Spring for Christmas, he couldn’t say no.
“No.” She shifted in her stool. “He came by the high school the other day with his sponsorship banner and we got to talk a bit.” Then, as if she couldn’t sit still, she slid off the stool and came to help him dish up the stew.
“He’s sponsoring something?”
“Harrison Dental proudly supports the Hill Spring Huskies.” She took the smaller bowl and headed for the microwave.
“Are you a sponsor, too?” He was trying to connect the dots, but something wasn’t clicking. She’d always wanted to be an Olympic runner. What was she doing back in Hill Spring, anyway?
“I’m the new track coach at Hill Spring High.”
“You replaced Coach Stubbs?” he asked.
She leaned in and he caught the faint, flowery scent of her shampoo. “Yeah, can you believe it? After thirty years of coaching, though, he can’t leave it alone and still comes out to watch my practices.”
Jonah had never thought that man would retire. Coach Stubbs lived and breathed the track team. He was the most intense man Jonah had ever met before he joined the Marines. Even then, he could only think of one or two drill sergeants that were more intense than Coach Stubbs. “That’s got to be intimidating, having your old coach watch you be the coach.”
“I keep thinking he’s going to give me critique notes or something, but so far, he hasn’t said a word. In a way, that’s kind of worse. I mean, what if he hasn’t said anything because he thinks I’m doing it all wrong?” She took the second bowl of stew from him and queued it up for the microwave.
“I’m sure you’re doing great.” And he meant it. She would be a great track coach.
He leaned against the counter and watched her punch in some numbers and press start to warm up the stew. Since the accident he’d always felt tense when he was in public or around people who weren’t family, but that had evaporated with Kami. Their easy camaraderie had returned, as if they’d never been apart, and for the first time since he’d woken up in the hospital, he felt normal. But the best part was, there wasn’t a trace of pity in her eyes when she talked to him.
He hadn’t expected that, but he liked it. A lot.