“Oh.” Lulu scrunched her face in thought. “What if I lose a tooth? You’ll come home for that, won’t you?”
Michael sat down and turned on the TV.
Betsy made a sound of pure frustration and left the room. The sound of her footsteps on the stairs reverberated through the house.
“What about bedtime stories? Who will read to me?” Lulu said, frowning.
“Lulu, honey, put your toys away. I’ll be right back.”
Feeling shaky, Jolene followed Betsy up the stairs and knocked on her door.
“Go away,” Betsy screamed.
“You don’t mean that,” Jolene said. “Not tonight.”
There was a long pause, then: “Fine. Come in.”
Jolene walked into the bedroom and went to the bed.
Betsy didn’t move sideways, but Jolene sat down beside her anyway. She put an arm around her daughter and pulled her close.
“I’m trying, Mom,” Betsy said at last.
“On the news—”
“Don’t watch the news, Betsy. It won’t help.”
Jolene sighed. “I’ll tell you what. Let’s synchronize our watches’ alarms. That way when the alarms go off, we’ll think of each other at that second.”
In silence, they set their alarms.
“I shouldn’t have said that about the dog tags…” Betsy said, her voice uneven.
“It’s okay, Betsy.”
“I’ll miss you,” Betsy said after a minute. “I don’t know why I’m being so mean to you…”
“I know, baby. I was twelve once. And you’ve got a lot to worry about right now.” Jolene kissed Betsy’s cheek.
They sat there, holding each other for a long time. In the quiet, Jolene felt as if she were coming undone. How could she leave tomorrow, walk away from her family, say good-bye to her children?
She wanted to tell Betsy everything she would need to know for her whole life—just in case, to warn her about sex and boys and drugs and makeup, about social politics and college admissions and bad choices. But it was too early—and too late.
Finally, she kissed her daughter’s cheek, said, “Are you ready to come back downstairs?” and got up.
“I don’t feel like watching TV. I think I’ll read,” Betsy said.
Jolene could hardly challenge that. She didn’t really want to go back downstairs, either. “Okay.”
She went downstairs, where she found Michael watching TV while Lulu sat beside him on the sofa, doggedly asking him questions about how long Mommy would be gone.
“Come here, Lucy Lou,” Jolene said, scooping her daughter into her arms. “It’s time for your bath.”
Jolene carried Lulu upstairs, gave her a long, play-filled bath, then got her ready for bed.
As she looked around for last night’s book, she saw Lulu scamper out of bed, put on her ratty gray cat-ear headband, and climb back into bed.
So Lulu wanted to play. Jolene turned to the bed and stopped suddenly. “Oh, no. Lulu, where did you go? Did the fairies steal you?”
Lulu made a sound and clamped a hand over her mouth.
“Was that the wind?” Jolene went to the window, opened it. “Lulu, are you out there?”
Lulu took off her headband and burst into tears. “I want to stay inbisible ’til you come home.”
“Aw, Lulu,” she said, climbing into Lulu’s narrow bed, taking her baby into her arms.
“Who will find me if you’re gone?”
Jolene tightened her hold, thinking of all the things she’d miss.
Lulu would start kindergarten and ride the bus and make new friends, all without Jolene beside her. “I love you, Lucy Louida. You remember that, okay?”
“Okay.” Lulu snuggled under the covers and closed her eyes. In minutes, she was asleep.
Jolene kissed her cheek and left the bedroom. On her way out, she snagged one of Lulu’s yellow plastic barrettes from the dresser and slipped it into her pocket.
As she went downstairs, she was struck by the quiet in her house.
She got no answer. Moving from room to room, she didn’t find him anywhere, but his car was in the garage. Finally, she caught a glimpse of something out front.
She stopped at the kitchen window and looked out. Moonlight glanced off a figure seated on their dock.
She slipped into the pair of boots that were always at the mudroom door. Zipping up her hoodie, she left the house and walked along the fence line down to the main road.
On the other side, she followed the wooden steps down to their dock. The full moon lit her way. She stepped on something that made a loud, cracking sound.
“I guess you found me,” Michael said, lifting a bottle to his lips.
Jolene sat down in the chair beside him. He’d built a fire in the metal pit off to the side, and some heat wafted her way.
“I’m sure you’ll tell me getting drunk is a bad idea.”
Jolene sighed. How had they come to this place, and how would they ever find their way back?
She reached out, said, “May I?” and took the bottle from him, taking a sip of the bitter scotch. It burned all the way down.
“You must be upset,” he said.
She nodded. Normally she stayed away from alcohol, both because of her family history and because of her career. A DUI would ground her, and she would never do anything to risk her ability to fly. “I’m human, Michael. In fact, getting drunk sounds good right now.”
“I’m scared, Jo,” he said quietly. “I don’t know if I can handle it.”
She waited for him to say something more, maybe reach for her. When he didn’t, she turned to look at him.
In profile, his features sharpened by moonlight, he looked remote and cold. She saw the way he held his lips pursed in disapproval, as if the slightest relaxing would undo him, and she hated that she was leaving him now when their marriage was in trouble. She needed to believe he still loved her, or that he could love her again.
“Look at me,” Jolene said.
He took another long drink from the scotch bottle and then turned to her.
They were close enough to kiss; all it would have taken was the slightest movement by either one of them, but neither leaned toward the other.
“Don’t get hurt over there, Jo,” he said, his gaze steady.
She heard a caring in the words she’d thought was gone, and it filled her with a sweet and tender hope. Maybe they could fix it, maybe one perfect moment could put them back on track. She needed him so much right now she couldn’t stand it; she needed to be able to take his love with her.
Slowly, she put a hand around his neck and pulled him closer, kissing him, but even as her heartbeat sped up and passion flared inside her, she felt him holding back. It was like kissing a stranger.
She drew back, humiliated. “Take care of my babies,” she whispered.
But he was drinking again, staring out at the rolling waves.
“It’s too bad you think you have to say that,” he said.
She got up and returned to the house, alone.
Michael woke up alone. At some point, long before dawn, he’d heard Jolene awaken and climb out of bed. Without turning on the lights, she had dressed in her camo fatigues—ACUs—grabbed her duffle bag, and left the bedroom, quietly shutting the door behind her. He had pretended to be asleep. Later, he’d heard a horn honk outside; Tami had come to pick Jolene up.
Afterward, Michael lay alone. He thought he’d never fall asleep again, but somehow he had, and he’d been wakened hours later by the alarm bleating beside his bed.
Now, it was The Day. He woke the girls up and then took a long, scaldingly hot shower.
He had no idea what to wear for a deployment ceremony, so he went for the ever-popular charcoal slacks and matching V-neck cashmere sweater, but when he looked in the mirror, he saw a stranger. His dark eyes had a haunted look, and the shadows beneath attested to the fact that he hadn’t slept well in weeks.
“Dad?” Betsy walked into the room, wearing white knee-length leggings, a long pink sweater cinched tight at the waist by a wide silver belt, and Ugg boots. Her long blond hair hung in frizzy ringlets to the middle of her back.
She looked like she was trying out for some Disney kid show where people burst into song at the drop of a hat.
“Is that what you think you’re wearing?” he asked.
“You can’t tell me what to wear.”
“Why not? I’m your father.”
Betsy rolled her eyes. “I came to tell you that Lulu isn’t coming with us.”
“What do you mean? She’s four years old.”
“I know her age, Dad. I just said she won’t come. And she’s wearing the headband.”
Michael had no idea what difference a headband could make. “Fine.” He sighed—he was exhausted already and it was barely past eleven. “Come on,” he said to Betsy and headed down the hallway.
Lulu’s room appeared to have been ransacked. There were toys and clothes everywhere; all of the bedding had been pulled off the bed and lay heaped on the floor.
She sat in the corner, wearing her ragged gray kitten Halloween costume, with her skinny legs drawn up to her chest. Her eyes were red and watery from crying and her cheeks were blotchy.
He looked at his watch. They were late. “Get up, Lulu. We don’t have time for this. We have to say good-bye to your mom.”
When he reached down for her, she screamed, “You can’t see me!”
Betsy grabbed his wrist. “Lulu’s invisible when she has the headband on.”
“Oh, for God’s—”
“Lulu,” Betsy said in a singsong voice. “Where are you? We need to go.”
Lulu didn’t answer.
Michael felt acutely out of his depth already and Jolene hadn’t even left yet.
“I know how afraid Lulu must be to say good-bye, but Mommy needs our kisses to keep her safe,” Betsy said.
Lulu burst into tears. Taking off the headband, she stood up. “I don’t want her to go. Will she be back for dinner?”
Betsy took her sister’s hand. “No.”
“My birthday?” Lulu said hopefully, clutching the ratty cat-eared headband. It was at least the fiftieth time she’d asked this question.
“Come on,” Michael said tiredly. “We need to change your clothes, Lulu.”
“No!” she screamed, scrambling away from him. “I want my kitty costume!”
“You should give in, Dad. Trust me,” Betsy said.
“Fine,” Michael said, sighing. He picked Lulu up, and the three of them went out to the car.
They drove away in a heavy, awkward silence.
When they picked up his mother, she tried to fill the silence with chatter, but her buoyant pretense at optimism soon faded. Michael turned on the radio, let Clint Black be their voice.
At the guard tower, he eased to a stop and handed his and his mother’s IDs over to a very serious-looking young man in uniform.
“Go ahead, sir,” the guard said finally, handing him back the two licenses.