An hour ago, she’d put them to bed. God forgive him, but Michael had let her do it alone.
Now he was in the family room, standing in front of the fireplace. Bright orange and blue flames danced across a tepee of logs, sending off waves of heat, and yet still he was cold. Frozen, really.
He glanced through the kitchen. In the window above the sink, he could see moonlight skating across the bay.
“They’re asleep,” Jolene said, coming into the room. “We can talk now.”
Michael wanted to say no, I don’t want to talk, not about this, not yet, not anymore. He knew it was selfish of him, and small, but it pissed him off to be left here as Mr. Mom. Not that he could tell anyone this. He’d look like an a**hole if he admitted that he didn’t want this job that had fallen in his lap, didn’t know if he could even do it. How was he supposed to manage a sixteen-person legal firm, defend his clients, and handle the day-to-day minutiae that came with raising two kids? Carpool. Field trips. Meals. Laundry. Homework.
Just the thought of it overwhelmed him.
“How the hell am I supposed to do it?” he said, turning to her. “I’ve got a job to do.”
“Your mom will be a huge help. She said she’ll hire someone for the store, and that’s perfect. I don’t want a nanny taking care of the girls—they’ll be so scared and confused,” Jolene said. “Especially Betsy, she’s fragile these days, and kids can be cruel. She’ll need you, Michael. They both will. You’ll have to be really present. I want—”
“You want.” Already he was losing patience with that sentence. “Classic, Jo. You’re the one leaving—but not before you tell me how you want me to handle things while you’re gone.”
“Not things, Michael. My children.”
He heard the way her voice broke on that and knew how deeply his words had cut her. Not that long ago, he would have turned to her and taken her in his arms and apologized. Now, he just stood there, dropping his chin forward, staring dully at the scuffed hardwood floor beneath his stockinged feet. The echo of that word—divorce—hung like smoke in the air between them.
She waited a long time. Her breath sounded like waves breaking along a shore, ragged and uneven. He could feel her judging him. Then, quietly, she left the room.
* * *
On Monday morning, Tami showed up after carpool, and honked her horn.
Jolene walked down the driveway and climbed into her friend’s big white truck.
They looked at each other, and in that look—unaccompanied by words—they revealed their fears, their hopes, their worries.
Tami sighed. “How was it?”
“Brutal,” Jolene said. “For you?”
“I barely survived.” She put the truck in reverse and backed down the driveway. In no time, they were speeding down the interstate toward Tacoma.
“Seth tried to act cool when I told him,” Tami said after an unfamiliar silence that had gone on for miles. “He asked what would happen if I didn’t come back. He’s not even thirteen. He’s not supposed to have to ask his mom a question like that.”
“Betsy was pissed off. She said she wouldn’t forgive me if I left her. That I love the army more than I love her.”
“Carl cried,” Tami said softly after another long silence. “I’ve never seen him cry before. It was like…” Her voice broke. “Man, this is hard.”
Jolene swallowed the lump in her throat. “What’s worse,” she said quietly, “a man who cries when you go to war or one who doesn’t?”
At that, they both fell silent. The miles passed quickly, and in no time, they were at the post, driving up to the checkpoint.
They handed over their IDs, nodded to the soldier, and drove onto the post.
In the hallway outside the Black Hawk classroom, they found several members of the unit seated in chairs along the wall. No one was saying much of anything, except for the younger men, who seemed amped up and eager. Smitty—young, young Smitty, with his braces and pimples and puppy-dog buoyancy—was grinning, going from man to man, asking what combat was like, saying they were going to kick some ass over there. Jolene wondered how his mother felt right now …
Jolene and Tami leaned back against the concrete-block wall, waiting their turns.
The classroom door opened. Jamie Hix strode out. His army-issue hair—short and dirty blond—stood up from his tanned, broad forehead. Lines fanned out from the corners of his gray eyes—they were new, those lines, etched in the days since their deployment had been announced. No doubt he was thinking about his young son. Would his ex-wife use this deployment to take his son away from him? “Your turn, Jo,” he said.
With a nod, Jolene walked into the classroom, where she found a man in dress uniform seated at a long desk with papers spread out in front of him.
“Chief Zarkades?” he said, looking up at her. “At ease. Have a seat. I’m Captain Reynolds. Jeff.”
She sat down in a chair facing him, her back ramrod straight, her hands in her lap.
He pushed a stack of papers toward her. “Your family plan is in place. Your daughters, Elizabeth Andrea Zarkades and Lucy Louida Zarkades, will be cared for by your husband, Michael Andreas Zarkades. Is that correct?”
“Your mother-in-law is also available, I see.”
The lawyer looked down at the paper, tapped his pen. “Deployment can be difficult on a marriage, Chief. Is there any cause to worry about this plan?”
“No, sir,” Jolene said.
The captain looked up. “Do you have a will?”
“Yes, sir. I’m married to an attorney, sir.”
“Good.” He pushed a stack of papers toward her. “Sign and date your family plan. And the funeral arrangement addendum. I assume you want Michael notified in the case of your death. Anyone else?”
“Okay, then, Chief. That’s all. Dismissed.”
She stood. “Thank you, sir.”
“Oh, Chief? We recommend you write letters … to your loved ones.”
Jolene nodded. Letters. Good-byes. They recommended she write letters in which she said good-bye to the people she loved most in this world. She tried to imagine that … Betsy opening a letter one day in the blurry future, seeing her mother’s handwriting, reading her last words—and what would they be, those last words, written now, before she knew all that she had to say, before they’d had this lifetime together? Lulu would be crying, wailing, yelling, What? She’s gone where? her small heart-shaped face scrunching up, tears forming in her dark eyes as she tried to understand what that even meant.
“Be safe, Chief. God bless.”
* * *
The next two weeks passed so quickly Jolene half expected to hear a sonic boom echoing along behind. She wrote and edited and rewrote at least a dozen to-do lists, filled a three-ring binder with every bit of information she could think of. She canceled the magazines she wouldn’t receive, hired a neighbor’s son to mow the grass in the summer and check the generator next winter, and she paid as many bills in advance as possible. All of this she did at night; during the day she was at the post, preparing to go off to war. She and her unit flew so many hours they had begun to breathe as one. By the first of May, she—and the rest of the unit—were actually getting itchy to leave. If they were going to do this thing, they wanted to go. It was the only way they’d start marking off the time until their return.
At home, life was an endless series of poignant moments and elongated good-byes. Every look, every hug, every kiss took on the weight of sorrow. Jolene didn’t know how much longer she could stand it. Every time she looked at her babies, her throat tightened.
And then there was Michael.
In this short time they had left together, he had pulled away even further, spent even more time at the office. She rarely caught him looking at her, and when she did she saw resentment in his eyes and he looked away quickly. She had tried to talk to him about all of it, the deployment, her feelings, his feelings, her fear, but every volley had been met with retreat until finally, exhausted, she’d given up.
It seemed he’d told her the truth: he didn’t love her anymore.
Sometimes, late at night, when she lay in bed beside him, unable to sleep, afraid to touch him and aching for him to touch her, she wondered if she even cared anymore. She wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, interpret his coldness as fear and concern, but in the end her innate optimism failed her. She needed him now, maybe for the first time, and he had let her down. Just like her parents.
Tonight, after a long day at the post, hours spent getting ready to leave, she pulled her SUV up into the garage and parked, sitting in the darkness for the minutes it took to find strength. When she felt sure she could be herself, she got out of the car and went inside.
The house was filled with golden light and the scent of lamb stewing in tomato and spices. A hint of cinnamon sweetened the air. She could hear the girls talking somewhere, but their voices were muted. No one seemed to have much to say these days. They were all holding their breath for the last good-bye. Betsy had taken it particularly hard; she’d begun acting out, throwing tantrums, slamming doors. Supposedly someone in class had made fun of her for having a mom who was going off to fight “in that stupid war,” and Betsy had had a near breakdown. She’d come home begging Jolene to quit the military.
Jolene hung her coat on a hook in the mudroom and went into the kitchen, where she found Mila at the sink, washing up the dinner dishes. Michael was still at work—lately, he rarely got home before ten o’clock.
At 8:10, the sun was beginning to set; the view through the window looked like a Monet painting, all bronze and gold and lavender pieces juxtaposed together.
Jolene came up behind Mila, getting a waft of the woman’s rose-scented shampoo as she touched her shoulder. “Hey, Mila. Moussaka?”
“Of course. It is your favorite.”
That was all it took these days for Jolene to feel melancholy. She squeezed her mother-in-law’s upper arm. “Thanks for coming over tonight.”
“Yours is in the fridge. It needs about three minutes in the microwave,” Mila said, drying the last plate, setting it on the counter. “How was training today?”
Jolene drew back. “Great. I couldn’t be more ready to handle myself over there.”
Mila turned, looked up at her. “Pretend with Betsy and Lulu and even my son, if you must, but not with me, Jo. I don’t need your strength. You need mine.”
“So I can tell you I’m a little afraid?”
“You forget, Jo, I have lived through a war before. In Greece. The soldiers saved our lives. I am proud of what you are doing, and I will make sure your daughters are proud, too.”
It meant so much to hear those few simple words. “And your son?” Jolene asked at last.
“He is a man, and he is afraid. This is not a good combination. He loves you, though. This I know. And you love him.”
“Is that enough?”