Michael studied his client. Honestly, this was the first good news he’d gotten on this case. He hated that he was analytical enough to hear pain and think good, but that was his job, sorting through heartache for reason. Although the law was a codified set of rules, justice was far from set in stone. In court, there was always room for ambiguity, for emotion, for sympathy. “Tell me what happened, Keith. Minute by minute.”
Keith stared dully at the wall. Michael saw that blank look come back into the young man’s eyes.
“She wanted to go to Pike Place. I knew it was a bad idea, but I didn’t know why, I couldn’t say why. And you know, I love … loved Emily and we did what she wanted, especially after I got back from Iraq.”
“Why then specifically?”
“I was hard to live with. I was constantly having to make shit up to her. Anyway, we went to the market.” He paused so long Michael was about to prompt an answer when Keith started talking again. “It was sunny that day. The market was crowded. Piano players, jugglers, magicians, fish throwers, bums. You couldn’t walk a foot without someone bumping into you or running out in front of you or trying to sell you something.”
He looked down at his shaking hands. “I started to get edgy, tight. So I had a straight shot of tequila at the Athenian, but it wasn’t enough to calm me down. I got so jumpy. I get jumpy a lot lately. That day, every movement startled me, got my heart pumping—and there were a lot of movements. I kept thinking people were after me. So, while Emily was picking out flowers, I zipped back into the Athenian, and had a few more shots.”
“A lot.” Keith sighed. “I know drinking doesn’t help. It’s something Emily and I had been fighting about. She thought I drank too much and got mean. And I could feel it that day, me getting mean.”
“Did you drink much before Iraq?”
He shrugged. “I guess not.”
“Lots. Sometimes it made the … yelling in my head quiet down. But it didn’t help that day.”
“It made it worse.”
Keith nodded. “We were leaving the market—I was pissed and pretty drunk by this time—and this homeless guy jumped out at me. Emily said he just walked up, but it didn’t seem like that to me. Or, he came up fast, and he was a skuzzy-looking guy with all this long black hair and a Jesus beard and I hit him so hard he went down. I saw blood spray up from his nose. Emily started screaming that she didn’t know me anymore and there was this … shaking that made it impossible for me to stand still. The next thing I remember is seeing Emily lying on the floor in our living room.” In his lap, his hands clenched and unclenched. “It was like I woke up in someone else’s nightmare. There was blood everywhere, on me, on the wall, on Em. Half of her head was just … gone. I bent down and tried to give her mouth to mouth and I did compressions. The whole time I was screaming and crying. It wasn’t until I saw the gun—my gun—that I knew what I’d done.”
“And that’s all you remember.”
“Okay. I’m going to need you to talk to a psychiatrist. Will you do that for me, Keith?”
“Sure. It won’t make a difference, though. I don’t need a doc to tell me I’m crazy.”
Michael looked at his client, thinking, This kid needs my help. He knew how heavily the deck was stacked against them, and for the first time in a long time, he felt hopeful. This could be the kind of case that mattered. He wished his dad were here to hear about it. “I’ll set up the appointment.”
You are NOT going to believe this. Dad bought me a cell phone. My very own one. Yesterday I was in the lunch room and I put it down on the cafeteria table and you should have seen Sierra’s face. She couldn’t STAND it. Only the high schoolers have cell phones. I told Sierra she could make a call if she wanted and she did and then she walked to class with me. You said one smile could make a difference—maybe you’re right. Maybe she’ll want to be my friend again. I really miss her. Well, I have to go now, Dad’s yelling for me. Like always. He is totally stressed. Yesterday he forgot to put the garbage out for the truck. Everyone misses you. Xo Betsy
I’m glad to hear about your cell phone. It will be good for emergencies. Take good care of it and use it wisely. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say that if you have to bribe someone into liking you, she’s not much of a friend, but we can talk more about this later. I’m FINALLY leaving for Iraq today. I’ll write again when I land. Love you to the moon and back.
P.S. I hope you’re helping your dad around the house …
* * *
When Jolene stepped off the cargo jet and onto the flat sand at Balad, it was like stepping into a furnace. Tiny sand granules moved invisibly on the hot wind, insinuating themselves into everything—eyes, ears, nostrils, hair, throat. Jolene wanted to cover her mouth and nose in protection, but she stood tall, eyes watering, waiting.
There was a lot of waiting: for orders, for supplies, for transport. Their trip seemed to have taken forever. From Texas to Germany to Kuwait to Tallil to Al Kut to, finally, Balad Air Base.
Wind blew through the base, hot as fire. In seconds, Jolene was sweating. After what felt like hours of waiting, she and Tami were assigned to a small trailer with wood-paneled walls that were pockmarked with tack and nail holes from previous tenants. A pair of sagging beds and a pair of scarred-up metal lockers were the only furniture.
Jolene dropped her heavy duffle bag on the floor: dust puffed up around it. Dust, she knew already, was one of the many new facts of her life. She sat down on the narrow bed, holding her rough, newly issued bed linens and the pillow she’d brought from home. The bed squeaked beneath her.
“We need some pictures and posters,” Tami said, coughing as she sat down on her own bed. “Like Keanu or Johnny.”
Jolene sighed and looked at her friend. The trailer smelled of dust and heat and of the men who’d inhabited it before them. Wind rattled the room, plied at the windows and doors, trying to come in.
Suddenly an alarm sounded.
Jolene was first to the door. She opened it for Tami, grabbed her friend’s wrist and pulled her through. The alarm and speakers were on a pole just outside their trailer and the repeated announcement—GET TO THE BUNKERS!—was so loud she couldn’t hear anything else.
There were dozens of cement bunkers positioned around the base. Jolene and Tami ran for the nearest bunker and went inside.
There was no one else in here. They sat on the floor inside, in the dark, while mortar fire exploded all around them. Shards of cement rained down. Somewhere close, a rocket hit hard and exploded. The acrid smell of smoke slipped through the cracks in the door.
And then it was over.
Jolene stood up, not surprised to find that her legs were a little shaky.
“You notice we’re the only ones in here?” Tami said. “Where is everyone?”
Jolene opened the door. Sunlight, bright as a starburst, blinded them. Black smoke hung in the air, burned their eyes. Everywhere she looked, she saw troops acting as if nothing had happened. They were riding bikes from one trailer to another, standing in line at Porta-Potties, playing football. She turned to Tami. “They told us Balad was called Mortaritaville. I guess now we know why.”
The alarm sounded again. Mortar fire erupted to their left, a cement wall exploded. Smoke wafted their way.
“That’ll take some getting used to,” Tami said when it was quiet again.
Jolene looked at her best friend and knew they were both thinking the same thing. For the next year, they could be killed any second of any day—while they were sitting in their trailer or playing cards or taking a shower.
How did you handle knowing that any moment you could be killed, maimed, blown to bits? Worse than her fear was worry for her children. For the first time, she really thought, What if I don’t make it home? How will my children survive without me?
* * *
That night, after a long day spent filling out paperwork, meeting the men and women she’d be serving with, and listening to endless lectures about everything from the scorpions on base to the use of CSEL survival radios, Jolene finally made it to the showers at eleven o’clock. Because there were so few women on base, the shower lines weren’t long, but a woman didn’t walk there in the dark alone. The army had come a long way—but not far enough. “Battle buddies” were encouraged.
After their showers, she and Tami walked back to their trailer in silence.
Once inside, Tami collapsed on her bed and was sound asleep in no time.
Jolene was well past the point of exhaustion, but she was too wired to sleep, so she got out her laptop and started a letter home. She wasn’t connected to the Internet yet, might not be for some time, but she could type the letter tonight and figure out how to send it from the comm center tomorrow. She needed to connect with her family right now, and this was the only means available to her.
She imagined them in detail, completely; the family, her family, gathered on the sofa, with the letter bringing them together. Betsy would read it aloud.
The base was bombed four times today and we just got here.
Jolene imagined their reaction to that … and knew what her letters home had to be.
My loves, she wrote, missing them so sharply it was difficult to go on. She drew in a deep breath.
It was a long flight over here, and I have to admit that I’m tired. Betsy, you wouldn’t believe how flat it is, and how everything is the same color, like dying wheat. And man is it hot. I think I was sweating before I even got off the plane.
Tami and I are roommates in a little trailer. It’s kind of how I imagine college would be. So we need photos and posters to make it homey. Can you help us out? I’ll send pics when I can …
Jolene wrote everything she could think of to say. When she ran out of steam, she closed the laptop and put it in her locker. That was when she noticed the pink journal Betsy had given her for her birthday. Reaching out, she brought it to her lap and opened it. She’d intended to give this journal back to Betsy when she got home, but after less than twenty-four hours, she knew that wouldn’t happen. She needed a place where she could be honest because from now on, she was Chief Zarkades, and she couldn’t show fear or hesitation any more than she could tell her family the truth.
She opened the diary and wrote.
This journal was supposed to be for you, Betsy. I intended to write down all my feelings over here, so that when I come home, I could give it to you, say here, this is everything I thought while we were apart. I thought I’d give you all the advice you would need, that I’d be wise and helpful. The perfect mother, even from a world away.
But the truth is that being your mother is breaking my heart. I have to figure out how to be strong, how to put my love for you and Lulu aside. If I can’t, I won’t be any good to anyone.
Here, between these pages you gave me, I’ll have to talk to myself. Hopefully writing about my fear will lessen it. Maybe someday I’ll give it to you, when you’re old enough not to judge me too harshly.