The base was attacked four times today. By the fourth time, when the alarm sounded, Tami and I just looked at each other and shrugged and stayed in our trailer. I kept putting away my clothes, but I could hear the whistling of missiles and mortar fire exploding, and I thought will I have a chance to say good-bye to my girls? and then it was over.
It’s a word that seems to crop up more and more in my life lately. Like my marriage.
I feel so alone over here, without Michael. Sometimes I pretend that he’s still waiting for me back home. That he still loves me.
Then I wake up to the sound of bombs. I’ve been in-country a day and here’s what I think: I’m going to die over here.
Why didn’t I think that before?
* * *
Michael left the office at about noon and drove north of the city. He pulled up to the street and checked the address he’d been given. He peered through his car’s side window, frowning. Yes, this was the place.
The psychiatrist’s office did not inspire confidence. It was housed in a run-down midcentury house on a bad stretch of Aurora Avenue. Traffic streamed past it, honking.
Michael parked between a rusted pickup truck and a shiny green electric car. Following a cracked, weed-patterned sidewalk to a slightly sagging front porch, he stopped at the front door and knocked.
The door was opened almost immediately by a lanky older man with shoulder-length gray hair and an elongated, wrinkled face. In a blue plaid suit, at least two decades out of date, and lime green shirt, he looked like a cross between Ichabod Crane and a low-rent British rocker. He was probably seventy years old, but there was something strangely youthful about him.
Michael hoped this wasn’t the doctor. Juries liked their experts to look like experts.
“You must be Michael Zarkades,” the man said, extending his hand. “Christian Cornflower. Most of my patients call me Doctor C. Come in.”
The doctor stepped back. In the front room, a young woman with purple hair and a silver nose ring sat at a whitewashed antique desk, her fingers clacking on a keyboard while she talked on the phone. Nodding at her as he passed, the doctor led Michael through an office that was full of comfortable, overstuffed chairs and old-fashioned oak tables. Rose-patterned paper covered the walls, which were further decorated with needlepoint samplers sporting pithy sayings like today is the first day of the rest of your life.
Finally, they came to what probably used to be the home’s master bedroom. A big window framed the limbs of a beautiful old apple tree, decked out in bright green leaves and dotted with tiny new fruit. The walls here were 1970s wood paneling, decorated with more samplers and framed diplomas from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and Berkeley.
The doctor took his seat behind an antique mahogany desk.
Michael sat in a comfortable, overstuffed red-velvet tufted chair, facing the desk. “I have to say, Doctor Cornflower, you come highly recommended. I’m defending a young man—”
Michael frowned. “I didn’t name my client over the phone.”
Christian shrugged eloquently. “I may look like I was at Woodstock—which, sadly, I missed—but don’t mistake my demeanor. I’m a smart man, Michael. You took on the seemingly impossible defense of Keith Keller, who shot his wife in the head and then barricaded himself in his home for hours, threatening to kill himself. It was on television, for God’s sake. A SWAT team brought him out, splattered in blood, with cameras rolling. Everyone knows he did it. I knew that if you were smart—and I hoped you were—that sooner or later you’d end up at my door.”
“And why is that?”
“I specialize in post-traumatic stress disorder. The minute I heard Keith Keller was a former marine, I looked into his case. He did two tours of duty in Iraq.” He shook his head. “The Department of Veterans Affairs is absolutely criminal in its negligence in helping the troops coming back from Iraq. By the time this damn war’s over, we’ll have hundreds of thousands of severely traumatized soldiers trying to put the pieces of their lives back together. This thing with Keith will become, sadly, too common, if we don’t start helping these young men and women.”
Michael took out a notebook. “Go on.”
“I was in ’Nam. 1967. I saw firsthand how good men could be swallowed by war. And in Vietnam, at least you could go somewhere to blow off steam. In Iraq, nothing and nowhere is safe. The woman who smiles and waves can blow up the soldier who tries to help her cross the street. This was occasionally true in Vietnam; it’s commonplace in Iraq. The roads are rigged with IEDs—improvised explosive devices—that kill anyone who passes by. Bombs are in garbage heaps, in animals, in people, in ditches. You’re not safe anywhere over there. Our soldiers are returning with extreme post-traumatic stress disorder.”
“Could extreme PTSD diminish one’s capacity for reasonable thought?”
“Absolutely. That’s the question that begs to be asked in this case. It’s not some random bad guy shooting his wife and claiming he’s crazy. Keith Keller served his country and, while he came back physically undamaged, it may not be the end of the discussion. I’d have to speak with him to make an accurate diagnosis, however.”
“Can you tell me a little more about PTSD, how it works?”
“It’s entirely possible Keith didn’t even know he was killing his wife. He could have been disoriented enough not to know where he was or what he was doing. I can’t say, of course, specifically until I speak with him. But I can say with authority that too many of our troops are coming home with devastating PTSD and that this condition can cause a soldier to snap. By all accounts, Keith Keller sounded like a good man before the war.”
Michael tapped his pen on the pad of paper, thinking through the possibilities. Cornflower had just handed him a defense to murder one, but it was tricky. Jurors were notoriously reluctant to accept a diminished-capacity defense. And they hated insanity.
Christian pressed his fingertips together. “PTSD is a legitimate psychiatric disorder and has been for decades. A person can literally be incapacitated by the disorder. What’s happening over there … well … you should know as well as anyone.”
Michael frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I understand you’re a military family. Your wife is a helicopter pilot serving in Iraq right now, isn’t she?”
“You really do your homework.”
“I like to know who I’m talking to. Your wife, is she telling you much?”
Michael didn’t like the way the doctor was studying him. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “She just got there, but they don’t let women in combat situations. Mostly she’ll be ferrying VIPs around.”
“Ah,” he said, eyeing Michael. Then he smiled. “She’s a mother. Her instinct is to protect. Of course.” He paused.
“Of course, what?”
“Here’s what you need to know: some clichés are true, and war is definitely hell. It’s being afraid all the time, and when you’re not afraid it’s because you’re so pumped full of adrenaline you could literally burst. It’s watching people who you love—really profoundly love—get blown to pieces right next to you. It’s seeing a leg lying in the ditch and picking it up to put it in a bag because no man—or part of a man, your friend—can be left behind. It’s the dark night of the soul, Michael. There’s no front line over there. The war is all around them, every day, everywhere they go. Some handle it better than others. We don’t know why, but we do know this: the human mind can’t safely or healthily process that kind of carnage and uncertainty and horror. It just can’t. No one comes back from war the same.”
“Will you meet with Keith, assess him? I’ll need a diagnosis if I’m going to go for a PTSD defense.”
“Of course,” Christian said. “I would be honored to help this young man.”
Honored. That was a word Michael hadn’t heard in connection with one of his clients in a long time. So many of them were guilty as hell. He was proud to be a part of the criminal justice system—an important part—but he was rarely proud to defend an individual client.
It made him think of Jolene, for whom honor was so important. She would have liked that he took this case. He rose to his feet, shaking Dr. Cornflower’s hand, saying, “Thank you.”
All the way home, he thought about Keith, and this new defense … and what had happened to this formerly good and decent young man in Iraq.
What happened to him over there?
And then, he thought: Jolene, what’s happening to you?
He was late getting home, as usual, and he knew by the look on Betsy’s face that she’d been counting the minutes, adding them up to hold against him. The thought of another angsty teenaged tirade, which he deserved, was more than he could stand.
His mother came into the kitchen. “I had no problem staying an extra hour. Don’t worry about it.”
As he said it, the phone rang.
Somewhere, Betsy screamed—actually screamed—“I’ll get it!”
He heard footsteps thundering down the stairs.
Michael smiled ruefully, walking his mother to the back door. “Thanks again, Ma.”
She kissed his cheek. “By the way, an e-mail came in from Jolene. Lulu is dying to read it, but I reminded her of the rules—no reading it until you got home—and she’s a bit … excited.”
Michael kissed his mom and watched her walk out to her car. He thought, not for the first time, that he couldn’t have handled this without her. When she’d left, he went into the kitchen and poured himself a drink.
Lulu marched into the kitchen. “We got an e-mail from Mommy. Can we read it now?”
“Can I have a drink and change my clothes first?”
“No, Daddy, I’ve been waiting FOREVER.”
Michael glanced at Jolene’s calendar, seeing that tonight dinner was supposed to be baked chicken and rice. He thought a can of mushroom soup was involved. “Okay. Go get your sister. I’ll meet you at my computer.”
Lulu ran upstairs. Mere seconds later, she was back, her little face scrunched up tightly, her cheeks red. “She’s on the phone.”
“Tell her to hang up.”
“Well, we can wait—”
“NONONONO!” Lulu wailed. Tears filled her eyes.
Michael knew he was the boss here, but frankly, the thought of a Lulu tantrum was more than he could handle right now. With a sigh, he went upstairs, found Betsy in her room, talking on the phone. “Can you call her back, sweetie? We’re going to read Mom’s letter before your sister levitates.”
Betsy turned her back on him and kept talking.
“Betsy,” he said in a warning tone.
“Get out, Dad, I’m on the PHONE.”
He took the phone from her, said, “She’ll call you back in ten minutes,” and hung up.
You would have thought he pushed the red button on a nuclear warhead. Betsy screamed, That was Sierra! so loud he went momentarily deaf.