He walked through the family room and into his office, where he sat down at the computer and booted it up.
Jolene, he typed, then stopped, deleted that, and began again.
Do you remember when I first called you that? We were at the arboretum, in a rented rowboat, watching baby ducks float through the reeds. You said, “I wonder how they find their mom,” and that made me understand how hurt you’d been by your childhood. It took you a long time to tell me what it had been like, and when you finally told me … that’s when I knew you loved me. I used to look in your eyes and see my own dreams. When was the last time we really looked at each other? I wonder. Anyway, back to the ducks. I said, “They just know. Like I know you’re my Jo.”
“I want to be yours,” you said.
I loved you so much it hurt. I used to lie in bed and imagine losing you in terrible ways. Sick, huh? But I did it. I loved you so much it was as if I had to think about losing you or I would have lost myself instead. Did you love me like that?
I think you did.
So what happened? When did we stop being lovers and start being just the girls’ parents, and then roommates? When did I start blaming you instead of myself? I think a lot of it started with my dad’s death. I had never lost anyone before—I didn’t know how it felt to be ripped apart like that, and I didn’t handle it well. I think I blamed you for everything that was wrong in my life.
Is it too late to go back?
I hope not.
I thought I had it figured out, that we had run our course, but I see how wrong I was, and how I hurt you, and I’m sorry.
I’m sorry. That’s what I know now. For so many things. I guess war doesn’t only change the warriors. Those of us on the home front go through our own stuff.
I miss you.
He stared at the e-mail. It was so short. What good was I’m sorry with what she was going through?
Could she forgive him? There was only one way to know.
He hit Send.
* * *
Jolene woke up, coughing, her eyes watering, the taste of blood in her mouth. She called out for her crew again, got no answer. Tami was beside her, strapped in her seat, slumped forward, unconscious.
Jolene tried to unhook herself from the seat. On the third attempt, she saw the problem. Her right forearm was a bloody mess. She could barely lift her hand, and her fingers didn’t work right. Using her left hand, she leaned forward over the scorched and blindingly hot instrument panel to do an emergency shutdown.
“Mayday,” she said, finding it hard to talk, to concentrate. The radio wasn’t working. She passed out again. When she awoke, she gave her coordinates over the radio, hoping it was working now. She needed the CSEL radio. Where was it? Think.
“Tami,” Jolene said, trying to reach out for her best friend, but she couldn’t move. She tried to unhook herself, but she couldn’t; something was wrong with her. Her body wasn’t responding. Something was wrong with her right foot.
They were taking fire again. From a distance, she could hear the guttural sounds of men talking, their footsteps thundering forward.
I have to get out, establish a perimeter.
We’re still taking fire.
She tried to unholster her weapon, but her right hand wouldn’t work.
Finally, she unhooked from her seat and crawled painfully through the cockpit. She grabbed Tami, unhooked her from the seat and pulled hard. Tami slid sideways, her eyes blank, her lips slack. Jolene fumbled with Tami’s helmet, got it off, and saw the huge wound in her head, the blood gushing out of it.
“Stay with me, Tami…”
She looked back into the bay. The right side of the fuselage was gone; bits of metal were melted and smoldering. The canvas straps and netting were on fire. Smitty, slumped sideways, had a black, gaping hole in his chest; it was bleeding and smoking. His eyes were flat, blank. Dead. Jamie lay crumpled in the corner. “Jamie! Jamie!”
She had to get them all out of the helicopter.
When she moved, a wave of nausea rolled through her. The pain in her foot was staggering. Jolene threw up and tried again. She unholstered her weapon with her left hand and brought it up, shaking in her hand, and tried to see through the smoke. “Tami, I’m going to get you out; then we need to establish a perimeter. We need the radio. Jamie, wake up. Jamie! Get Smitty out. Help me.”
She lifted up on her good arm, tried to aim out the ruined fuselage. The tap-tap-tap grew louder, more insistent. She grabbed Tami, hefted her limp body on her back, and crawled slowly out of the cockpit, falling to the ground, hitting hard. Pain exploded into her thigh.
It was Jamie. Or had she imagined his voice? “Jamie,” she said, but her voice was barely a croak of sound. She lay there, breathing hard, Tami’s body a deadweight on top of her. “Come on, Tami, wake up, please…”
She heard the alarm on her wristwatch bleat its lonely sound, but it wasn’t real. She knew it wasn’t real. She couldn’t have heard it above all this noise—the shooting, the screaming. “I’m sorry, Tam,” she said, dragging her friend through the dirt. Her vision swam, blood pounded through her head.
Behind her, the helicopter exploded. She threw herself on top of Tami, covering her friend’s body with her own. Something hit Jolene hard, knocked her sideways … she lay in the dirt, stunned, staring up at the night sky, seeing burning bits of metal falling like fireworks through the blackness, raining down on her.
She heard the bleating of her watch alarm again … or was it something else? A scream? A bomb whizzing past her? A shout? She thought, BetsyLuluMichael, and then she was falling, fading … and there was nothing.
Michael stood at the kitchen window, staring at the coming night. It was mid-September and cool, with a whispering breeze that made the skirts of the giant cedar trees dance along the edges of the tall grass. The days of beach walking were coming to a close; autumn was drawing near, with its cold, frosty mornings and endless falling rain. He knew without looking that the plum trees had begun to lose their leaves.
In the lavender light, he stared at the white fence line that delineated their land. This is us, Jolene had said as she helped him hammer the slats in place so long ago. The Zarkades family. Everyone will see this fence and know we belong here.
Down on the bay road, a car came around the bend, its headlights bright spots against the sunset. He watched the car approach—it was a boxy, official-looking vehicle. At the bend in the road, the car slowed … at his driveway, it slowed more and turned in, then parked.
Michael’s fingers curled around the smooth, cool white tile counter. Turn around, drive away … you’re in the wrong place …
A soldier got out of the car, slammed the door shut, and turned to face the house.
Michael closed his eyes, breathing so hard he felt light-headed.
The doorbell rang, sounding ugly and discordant.
He walked woodenly to the door, opened it. “Is she dead?”
“I’m Captain Lomand—”
“Is Jolene dead?”
Michael clutched the door frame, afraid for a moment that his knees were going to give out.
“I’m sorry for coming like this. I knew how it would look, coming up the walk, but I didn’t want you to get a phone call from a stranger for … this. May I come in?”
Michael nodded numbly and stepped aside, thinking, But you are a stranger. The man walked into the house and went into the family room. He acted as if he’d been here before, which probably he had, but Michael had no idea who he was.
The captain stopped by the sofa, remained standing, and removed his hat. When he looked at Michael, his eyes were compassionate. “Jolene’s Black Hawk was shot down several hours ago.”
Michael lowered himself slowly to the brick hearth. Behind him, a fire blazed. It was too close, and too hot, but he couldn’t feel anything.
“She’s being transported to Landstuhl, Germany, right now. It’s the biggest American military hospital in Europe. She’s in good hands.”
“Good hands,” Michael repeated, trying to will his mind to work. “But how is she?”
“I don’t have any details, sir,” Lomand said.
“Was Tami in the helicopter with her?”
“Yes,” Captain Lomand said. “But I have no information about her condition at this time. Except that she’s alive.”
“What do I do? How do I help her?”
“Pray, Michael. That’s all we can do for her right now. As soon as we have information, a Red Cross worker will call you.”
Michael stared down at his hands, saw that they were shaking. Funny things came to him, stupid things—he heard his own heartbeat and the way breath escaped him, the sound of a beam settling somewhere in the house.
“People will stop by later. To help,” Lomand said.
Michael had no idea how strangers could help, but he didn’t care so he said nothing. Words seemed dangerous suddenly; there was too much he didn’t want to hear or think. He wanted this man gone. “I need to see her.” That was all he knew for sure.
Lomand stood there a moment longer, looking pained. “She’s a fighter,” he said quietly.
“Yeah.” Michael couldn’t listen anymore. “Thank you…” He meant to say the man’s name, but he’d forgotten it. He got up and headed toward the door, opening it. He heard the captain behind him, heard his heavy footsteps on the wooden floor, but neither of them spoke.
At the door, the captain said, “We’re all praying for her.”
Michael nodded. He didn’t have the strength to speak, not even to say thank you. He stood there in the doorway, watching the captain walk down the driveway, his back ramrod straight, his hat fixed firmly on his head, his arms at his sides.
Time fell away from Michael. One minute he was standing there, watching a soldier walk to his car, and the next minute he was alone, standing in the cold of an open doorway, staring at a yard that was slowly growing dark.
In his career, he’d heard dozens of victims and defendants say I don’t remember what I did … and I just snapped, my mind went blank.
He knew now how that felt, how a mind could simply shut down, stop working.
Slowly, he closed the door and returned to the warmth of his kitchen. All he could hear was his own heartbeat, his own breathing, and those words, over and over and over again.
She could be dying right now … all alone …
He closed his eyes, imagining it for a moment, the loss of her, the funeral, the words, the feelings. As much as it pained him, he couldn’t stop. He wanted this pain; he’d earned it, and how would he survive the worst if he wasn’t ready?
The problem was, he didn’t know the worst, couldn’t identify it. There was telling the children, raising them without her, failing at it, stumbling; there was standing in front of their friends—a widower who had let his wife go to war on a tide of bad words, broken promises; there was coming home without her and learning to sleep alone.