"I'm so sorry, Parker." Dana clutched the clipboard in front of her, like a lifeline for a drowning woman. "I'm so sorry. I'll get Boo back to you as soon as possible."
Somehow I managed to nod, and that was it before I had to go.
Catching up with an old friend over the lifeless body of my dog wasn't how I wanted to spend my night. Not in the slightest.
"Can I have his collar?" Nox's question threw me off guard. I looked not at Dana, but at Pam, who'd fast earned every ounce of respect that I had left.
"Yes, sweetie," she answered quietly. "Let me get that washed off for you. Why don't you go with your mom out to the waiting room and I'll bring it right out."
"Make sure it's his," Nox ordered her suddenly. "It's important that I have his, so I can hang it with my Daddy's dog tags."
My son was the only person in the entire world that could gut me with one sentence. Hell, the kid could do it with a single word. But him wanting to hang Boo's collar with Danny's dog tags on our living room wall was something I hadn't even thought of.
"You know," I said when we were sitting back in the waiting room doing just that … waiting for Boo's collar. "You're the smartest kid that I've ever met in my entire life. Boo will be able to watch over us, with his collar right there."
Nox nodded solemnly. "Just like Daddy does. And we can say good night to him just like we do for Daddy too."
Every night before bed, I let Nox tell his father how his day was. What he did, and what he wanted to happen the next day. I never listened to the conversation, not that I didn’t want to hear, but because that was Nox’s time. His only chance to know his father was through other people’s memories and those blackened metal dog tags. The tags I’d scrubbed over and over again to try to clean them, but couldn’t. The only piece of Danny they’d given back to me, besides the folded flag that sat in a frame on my wall. I didn’t need them for myself, but for the son that he never got a chance to know.
When I finally got Nox into bed it was well after three in the morning, and I knew we wouldn't be going to sleep. Nor would I be going to work, either. Instead, I stared at the collar, which we'd immediately hung next to Danny's dog tags, and I cried until there was nothing left.
Just like I'd done the night after Danny's funeral.
"Is this ever going to get easier?"
Five years later, and I still knew the answer was no.
Daisy barked in the back seat, not happy about our current situation.
"I can't just leave," I told her when she whined impatiently. "I'm sorry, Daisy. We can't just go."
My K-9 partner did not like being in the back seat of the cruiser. She didn't actually like cars at all, or enclosed spaces. But she was a working dog, and the best in Maine, so she put up with it to work.
She'd been that way ever since her accident overseas. Even though she'd retired from service in the Marine Corps, she wasn't done working, which she let me know every single morning—loudly.
"It'll just be a little longer, I promise."
She stuck her snout between the seats, setting her nose on my shoulder and huffed.
"I know, girl. But it's not just anyone. It's Parker. And Nox. We have to watch out for them."
Yes, I knew the second I stepped up to the vehicle that it was Parker Hayes in front of me. The same Parker I'd known since kindergarten, when she'd flipped upside down on the monkey bars, not caring in the slightest that she was wearing a dress. Her response at the time had been to kick Linc in the shins when he teased her for wearing underwear with flowers on them.
She had the same long brown hair, although it had been secured on top of her head in a ponytail that had seen better days. And her dark-brown eyes had been red and swollen, sure. None of that mattered, though, because she was still gorgeous. Even more so now that she’d grown into a woman with real curves.
But she wasn't my Parker. Even though it was beyond clear that Boo was dead, I kept my best professional voice and led her to the emergency vet.
That's how I found myself, at midnight, waiting in the parking lot with my lights off on the cruiser, waiting for Parker and Nox to leave. I would follow them home. Like the stalker creep that I'd apparently turned into when it came to her.
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