Home Front (Page 22)

Home Front(22)
Author: Kristin Hannah

“What? I just got home. What’s going on?”

“I got home late,” he said, cursing under his breath. “She’s not here.” He hung up before his mom could answer. Fear latched into him, deep and profound. “I’ll call her friends,” he said, picking up the phone again, then pausing. “Lulu, quit crying, damn it. Who are Betsy’s friends?”

Lulu wailed. “I don’t know. She’s gone.”

He called the school and listened to the after-hours message.

With a curse, he hung up.

“Maybe she ranned away,” Lulu said.

Michael went out to the porch. The rain was falling hard; it studded the grass, collected in muddy puddles in the driveway. He thought about the bay, the deep cold of the water and its allure for his children. “Betsy! Where are you?”

The more he yelled her name, the more Lulu cried and the more Michael panicked. What in the hell had he been thinking? He should have left his car downtown and walked on the damn ferry and taken a cab. Or he could have called Carl. Why hadn’t he thought of that then? Damn. What if some guy had watched Betsy get out of the car, followed her up to an empty house…?

Yelling her name again, he grabbed Lulu as if she were a football, perpendicular to his body, and ran through the rain toward the neighbor’s house. Resettling her as he ran, he made it to Carl and Tami’s house in less than a minute. He pounded on the door.

Carl opened the door. “Michael, what’s up?”

Michael wiped the rain from his eyes. “Betsy’s not home and she should be. I thought maybe she came over here.”

Carl slowly shook his head, and Michael felt his stomach plunge. He thought for a second he might be sick.

Seth walked into the living room, chewing on a Tootsie Pop. Holding a tattered copy of Stranger in a Strange Land, he was wearing tight jeans and high-tops and a ratty Gears of War tee shirt. His black hair was drawn back from his narrow face in one of those samurai knots. “What’s up?”

“Betsy’s not at home,” Carl said. “Michael’s worried.”

“I bet I know where she is,” Seth said.

“Really?” Michael said. “Where?”

Seth tossed his book on the sofa. “Wait here.” He ran past Michael and went outside.

Michael and Lulu followed him down the driveway. Carl grabbed an umbrella and joined them at the mailbox. Seth paused at the street, looked both ways and then crossed, climbing down to the beach.

She’s not supposed to go near the water alone. Rain thumped the umbrella overhead, drowning out the sound of their breathing.

Minutes later—minutes that felt like hours—Seth appeared again, with Betsy beside him. They were climbing up the beach path toward the road. Both of them were soaked.

Michael’s relief was so great he almost fell to his knees. “Betsy, thank God.”

As they neared, he could see how angry his daughter was, and how hurt. “How could you?”

“I’m sorry, Betsy.”

She shoved the wet hair out of her face. “You’re supposed to be here when I get home.”

“I know. I know.”

“I’m never supposed to come home to an empty house.”

“I’m sorry. But I think you’re old enough to come home by yourself.”

“Aaagh!” She pushed past him and stalked into the house, slamming the door shut behind her.

He looked gratefully at Seth. “Thanks, Seth.”

“It’s the big tree by the Harrisons’ dock. She always goes there when she’s upset.”

“Oh. Well. Thanks.” It shamed him that the neighbor kid would know Betsy better than he did. He turned and went into the house. There, he wrapped Lulu in a big towel and put her in front of the TV before he went up to Betsy’s room.

Her back was to him. Rainwater dripped down from her wet hair, darkening her shirt. She was staring out the window. “I’m sorry, Bets. If you had just listened to—”

She spun to face him. “Don’t you get it? I thought you were dead.”

“Oh.” How had he not expected this? Jolene would have known Betsy’s fear and protected against it. Of course Betsy would worry about losing the only parent here. “I’m sorry, Betsy. I screwed up. I won’t do it again. Okay?”

Betsy’s eyes filled with tears. She wiped them away impatiently.

“I’ll always be here for you.”

“Ha.”

Downstairs, the phone rang.

A moment later, Lulu shrieked: “It’s Mommy!”

Betsy pushed past Michael and ran downstairs.

Reluctantly, he followed. This was not good timing for a call.

“Mom,” Betsy said, holding the phone to her ear, looking furious. “Dad wasn’t here when I got home today. He forgot me. If you were here this wouldn’t happen.”

Lulu threw herself at Betsy. “Give it back! I was talking to her—”

Betsy pushed her away. Lulu plopped onto her butt and screamed. “I wanna talk!”

“Betsy,” he said, “let Lulu talk, too.”

Betsy made a face, but let Lulu into the conversation. The two girls sat down together at the table, talking over each other.

Sighing, Michael went into the kitchen and poured himself a drink. Within ten minutes, Betsy was handing him the phone. “She wants to talk to you, Dad. She doesn’t have much time for us. Like always.”

He took the phone and went into the family room, sitting down. “Hey, Jo.”

“Really, Michael? You forgot her?”

“If you want to bitch me out, don’t bother, Jolene. I feel bad enough.”

There was a pause, then, “You scared her, Michael.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

Another pause. “We’re leaving tomorrow,” she said. “For Iraq.”

“Has it been a month already?”

“Yes, Michael.”

In the insanity of the last four weeks, he’d forgotten this date, almost forgotten that she was going to war. He hadn’t really forgotten, of course; the knowledge had been a shadow, rarely glimpsed in the hectic mess of his days. Up until now she’d been safe, so it had been easier to think about himself.

“I don’t know what communication will be like at Balad, or how long we’ll be there. I’ll keep in touch as best I can.” She paused. “Michael, it would be really nice if the girls could send me letters or e-mails if we have Internet.”

He thought about her days over there, how empty a part of her would be without her girls. It was kind of shameful that she’d had to ask this. Especially since he knew how hard it was for her to ask for favors from him or anyone. “I’ll make sure,” he said.

“Thanks. Well. I gotta go now, the natives are getting restless.”

“Jo?”

“Yeah?”

“Be safe,” he said. “Take care of yourself.”

She sighed. “Good-bye, Michael.”

“Good-bye.”

All he wanted to do was go to the counter, retrieve his drink, and finish it. He even thought fondly of getting drunk.

Instead, he dialed the local pizza shop, ordered dinner, and went upstairs.

Betsy’s bedroom door was open. He peeked in, saw that she wasn’t there, and walked down the hall to the bathroom.

She was peering into the mirror, messing with her face.

“I don’t think you’re supposed to squeeze those things,” he said.

She pivoted, screamed, “GET OUT,” and slammed the door shut in his face.

He stood there a long time, waiting for her to change her mind and apologize.

Nothing.

Finally, he went back downstairs and found Lulu watching Jolene’s good-bye video again.

He groaned.

The pizza arrived, and he paid the kid and slapped the pie on the table, yelling, “Dinner.”

“Pizza is for birthdays, Daddy. Not dinner,” Lulu said with a sigh. She walked past him and climbed up to the table just as his mother walked into the house, looking irritated.

“Don’t you ever hang up on me again, young man. Is Betsy okay?”

“She’s here,” he said. “I don’t know how okay she is.”

“Thank God. From now on—”

“Please, Ma. Yell at me tomorrow. It’s been a hell of a day.”

His mother stared up at him. “You need to do better, Michael,” she said evenly.

“Yeah. I’m aware.”

Before she could say anything to make him feel worse, he left the kitchen and walked into his office, where, thankfully, it was quiet. He closed the door behind him and sank into the chair by his desk.

He didn’t think he could do this. And this was taking care of his children.

What in the hell was wrong with him? How could he be such a success in the courtroom and in his office and with his clients but fail so completely with his own family?

He sighed. His wife had been gone less than a month, and already he was tired of feeling like a failure in his own home.

Eleven

The next morning, Betsy still wasn’t talking to him. Michael awoke early, started breakfast, and got the girls to school on time. When he finally got to his desk—late—he was already tired. But at least he felt competent here.

At eleven o’clock, the call he’d been waiting for came in.

Keith had requested an interview. Finally.

Michael grabbed his notes and left the office. Fifteen minutes later, he arrived at the King County jail and took a seat in a dingy interview room.

Keith came into the room, wearing the orange jail jumpsuit, his wrists shackled in front of him, leg chains scraping and jangling across the stone-tiled floor.

“Leave us,” Michael said to the guard. “And uncuff him.”

“Sir—”

“Uncuff him,” Michael repeated. “I understand the risks.”

The guard frowned but did as he was asked, then left the room to stand guard just outside the door.

Keith sat down at the table across from Michael, rigidly upright. In the pale overhead lighting, he looked surprisingly young and fresh-faced. His crew cut had grown out, stood up now like a jagged blond crown above his face. “My father says I have to talk to you.”

“I’m trying to keep you out of prison. You’re not making my job easy, by the way.”

“Did you ever think I don’t deserve to be saved?”

“No,” Michael said evenly. “I didn’t. And neither has your father. Or your mother, who I hear cries herself to sleep at night.”

“Low blow.”

Michael opened his pad and uncapped a pen. “You know why I’m here, Keith. You promised your dad you’d tell me what happened that day. And I hear you military types are big on keeping promises.”

“I killed the love of my life,” Keith said, and finally there was emotion in his eyes. “I must have.”

“What? What do you mean, ‘you must have’ ? ”

“I’m crazy,” Keith said quietly. “I must be. I can’t remember shooting my own wife. Does that sound sane to you?”