“He didn’t mean it. Michael loves you.”
“I want to believe that,” Jolene said quietly, and it was true; she wanted to believe in Michael and his love for her, but her faith had been shaken. She was afraid to trust him so completely again. If he could just fall out of love with her, what did it all mean?
Before Tami could finish, her phone rang. She went to the kitchen and answered. “Oh. Hi. Yes, sir.” She turned to Jolene, mouthed Ben Lomand, and then said into the phone, “Really? I see. When, sir? So soon? Oh. Okay, Jolene and I will handle the phone tree. Thank you, sir.” Tami hung up the phone slowly and turned to face Jolene.
“We’re being deployed.”
When Jolene and Michael had first seen the house on Liberty Bay, it had been a beautiful sunlit July day. They’d been out driving, enjoying their time together after an afternoon barbecue at his parents’ house. They hadn’t been looking for a house.
But there it was, just sitting at a bend in the road, waiting for them, a for-sale sign stuck haphazardly by the mailbox. A quaint little farmhouse in need of love, a sagging wraparound porch, and three green acres that cascaded down to the black ribbon of a quiet country road. Across the road, there was a small patch of land, an afterthought really, that lay tucked between the road and the sweeping gray crescent of beach.
It was the little bit of beachfront that drew them in. The first thing they did to the property was build a deck above the sand. They built it with their own hands, she and Michael, laughing and talking and dreaming the whole time.
We’ll barbecue out here on the Fourth of July … and show Betsy how to find sand dollars … and eat dinner from paper plates while the sun sets into the water …
It was only a thin strip of grassy land stitched alongside a winding ribbon of asphalt, but it was Jolene’s dream, her slice of paradise. The smell of the sea and the sound of the waves comforted her. She had always come out here to think, to recharge. Especially in those long, barren years between Betsy and Lulu, when Jolene had been so desperate to conceive another child. Here, alone, month after month, she’d cried when her period started. And here was where she’d come to thank God when her prayer had finally been answered.
Now, she sat in one of the Adirondack chairs that flanked a rusted metal fire pit. It was raining, but she hardly noticed. She stared out at the flat gray waters, pockmarked by falling rain, and thought: How will my children handle this? How will I? How will Michael?
How much a world could change in three hours …
They’d always known she could be deployed; at least since September Eleventh they’d known it, and yet she and Michael had never discussed it. How could they? Michael didn’t want to hear about her career in the military. Every time she even brought up the idea of other soldiers deploying, he’d gone off on a rant about the wrongheadedness of sending troops to Iraq.
She knew what he thought, what he saw—the military’s dark side, the mistakes, the way the brass let down soldiers and veterans. That was politics, though. Separate, somehow. For her, it was different. The Guard was her family, too.
Honor. Duty. Loyalty. These were more than words to Jolene; they were part of her. She’d always been two women—a mother and soldier—and this deployment ripped her in half, left a bloody, gaping tear between the two sides of her.
Who would help Betsy through the rocky terrain of adolescence, give her advice about bad boys and mean girls and all the kids in between? Who would walk Lulu into kindergarten and hold her when she woke, sobbing, from a nightmare?
And there was the risk. Jolene was a helicopter pilot. She would tell Michael and the girls that she wasn’t allowed in combat, that she would be far from harm’s way, but she knew it wasn’t true. Helicopters were shot down all the time.
We’ll come home, Tami had said.
Jolene had nodded, smiling, although she knew—they both did—that no such promise could be made. It didn’t matter now anyway. Tomorrow and the future wasn’t something they could control. For now, they had a job to do, a job they’d been trained for. Civilians didn’t understand, maybe they couldn’t, but a soldier stepped up when he or she was needed. Even if she was afraid, even if her children needed her. It was Jolene’s time to give back to the army, her time to serve her country.
She placed a hand over her chest, feeling the slow, even beating of her heart. She closed her eyes, hearing her heartbeat mingle with the whooshing of the waves on the pebbled beach and the exhalations of her breath. Tears stung her eyes, fell down her cheeks, mixing with the rain. She imagined all of it—the good-bye, the missing, the loss. She pictured her daughters crying for her, reaching out for her, unable to really understand her absence.
But she had no choice to make. At that, she felt a kind of peace move through her, an acceptance of the situation and a realization of who she was. She had given her word that if called to serve, she would go.
She hated leaving her children—hated it with a passion that could have crippled her if she gave in to it, but she had no choice. She would go to Iraq for a year, do her job, and come home to her family.
That was what she would tell them … what she would believe.
She was prepared, had always been prepared, for this moment. For more than twenty years, she’d trained for it. A small part of her even wanted to go, to test herself. She wanted to go … she just didn’t want to leave.
She pulled her hand slowly away from her chest, let it fall in her lap. At her feet, a small collection of dried white sand dollars lay in a cloverleaf pattern, a reminder of last summer. She bent down, plucked one up, rubbing the pad of her thumb over the porous surface. Then she stood up.
She was going to war.
* * *
At one o’clock Jolene called the preschool and arranged for Lulu to stay later, and then she called Michael at work. He kept her waiting long enough that she began to think he wasn’t going to answer, and when he did finally take the call, he sounded preoccupied.
“Hi, Jo. What is it?”
“I need you to come home tonight,” she said.
He paused; she heard him breathing. “I have a lot of work to do. I think I’ll sleep at the office tonight.”
“Don’t, please,” she said, hating how it sounded as if she were begging. “Something has come up. I need to talk to you.”
“I think we need some time apart.”
“Please, Michael. I need to talk to you tonight.”
“Fine. I’ll be on the six o’clock boat.”
For the next few hours, she tried not to think about the future, but it was impossible. As the time for carpool approached, she found her spirits lagging. The thought of seeing her children—looking at them, seeing their bright smiles, and knowing the pain that was coming their way—was terrible. She kept losing her balance, stumbling. Once, in the kitchen, she’d looked at the yellow-school-bus framed photo of Betsy’s school years, and she actually had to sit down.
Help me through this, she prayed more than once.
At the preschool, she parked out front and went inside slowly, hearing the high-pitched buzz of children’s laughter before she even reached the gate that led to the backyard.
“Mommy!” Lulu said, shrieked really, throwing her hands in the air and scrambling to her feet. She ran at Jolene, threw herself into Jolene’s arms.
“Do you have something in your eye, Mommy?” Lulu asked. “Cuz I gotted sand in my face at lunch and it made me cry.”
“I’m fine, Lucy Louida,” Jolene said, grateful that Lulu didn’t hear the thickening of her voice. She carried Lulu out to the car, strapped her into the seat in the back, and drove across town to the middle school. As usual, Betsy was one of the last ones out of the school. She hung back from the other kids, as if she didn’t want to be seen. Then she ran to the SUV and climbed into the backseat, slamming the door shut.
Jolene stared at her daughter in the rearview mirror and felt a flutter of panic. She’s so fragile now …
“Are you going to just sit here all day?” Betsy said, crossing her arms.
How would Betsy get through seventh grade without her mom? What would happen when she started her period? Who would help her?
“Mom,” Betsy said sharply. “Are you brain-dead?”
Jolene drove into the stream of carpool traffic. She meant to start a conversation, say something, but her throat felt tight. When she pulled up to Mila’s house, her eyes stung with tears that didn’t fall.
Her in-laws’ house was a small L-shaped rambler built in the late seventies. It was small in comparison with the newer houses on either side of it, but the land was stunningly beautiful. Set on a deep, treed waterfront lot, it overlooked the placid waters of Lemolo Bay. Giant evergreens studded the landscaping; here and there, mounds of multicolored flowers grew around their rough brown trunks. Mila had turned this yard into a showpiece; every year it was on the local home and garden tour as a magnificent example of Northwest landscaping. The water out front was shallow and clear; in the summer, it warmed enough for swimming.
“Why are we here?” Betsy asked.
Jolene didn’t answer. Instead, she parked in front of the garage and let the girls out of the car. Before they even reached the front door, Mila came around the side of the house. She waved, smiling brightly, wearing a big flannel shirt over jeans tucked into bright orange rubber boots. A multicolored scarf covered her poofy black hair, à la Liz Taylor, and fist-sized silver hoops dangled from her ears. In her left hand was an enameled watering can. “Hey, girls,” she said.
“I’m sorry to call at the last minute like this,” Jolene said, bumping the car door shut with her hip.
Mila shook the dirt from her gardening gloves; it rained onto her boots. “Ah, honey, what’s family for?”
Lulu got out of the car and put on her kitten-ears headband, mewing loudly for attention.
“Not this again,” Betsy said, pushing past her sister.
Mila put down her watering can and glanced around. “Hmmm. Where is my granddaughter, Jolene? Did you leave her at home? In the car?”
“What was that noise?” Jolene said.
Lulu whipped off the headband. “I’m here! Yia Yia.”
Mila picked Lulu up and held her.
For a moment, Jolene couldn’t say anything. The weight of her future pressed down on her chest so hard she couldn’t breathe.
Mila frowned. “Are you okay, Jo?”
“I’m fine. Michael and I need to talk, that’s all. I’ll pick the girls up tomorrow if that’s okay?”
Mila stepped closer. “You tell my son he needs to do better. Work is important, but so is family. I tried to teach his father this lesson, too, but…” She shrugged. “You will do a better job of it than I did.”
Jolene could only nod. It seemed a lifetime had passed since the missed track meet. She almost blurted out—I’m being deployed. She needed to tell Mila, needed to feel a mother’s embrace, but she couldn’t do it, couldn’t be comforted yet.