Betsy didn’t respond. She just stood there, staring at Jolene, her eyes wide with hurt. She was scared, too. And why wouldn’t she be? Her mother had come home missing a piece of her body. It didn’t exactly paint a comforting picture for the future. And the first words her mother had said to her had been in anger.
Jolene knew this was the time to set the tone, to say hey, I’m missing a leg, but who needs two, anyway and make them all feel better, but she couldn’t do it. She just couldn’t. She hadn’t found the courage to even look at her leg. How could she act like it didn’t matter?
Mila came up behind Betsy, put a hand on her shoulder, and pushed her forward. “Your girls were so excited to see you again. They hardly slept a wink.”
Jolene heard the hesitancy in her mother-in-law’s voice, and the subtle rebuke. Jolene should be handling this differently.
“You will be yourself again,” Mila said after an uncomfortable silence in which Betsy stared down at the floor and gnawed on her thumbnail.
Jolene nodded. She wanted to believe that. “Of course I will. It’s just been a long flight, and my leg hurts.”
“It will just take time.”
She gritted her teeth. Hopefully it looked like a smile.
“Well,” Mila said, “we should get home and let your mom rest.”
“Yeah,” Betsy said too quickly.
“Kiss me, Mommy!” Lulu said, opening her arms for a hug.
Michael picked her up and Lulu leaned forward, throwing her arms around Jolene’s neck and burrowing into her neck like a little bunny. “I love you, Mommy.”
And there it was. The love. It filled Jolene’s heart to overflowing. She didn’t even realize she’d started to cry. She held on to her daughter so tightly neither one of them could breathe. “I love you, too, Kitten. And I love you, Betsy and Mila. I’m sorry I’m so tired. It’s been a long flight.”
“We understand, don’t we, girls?” Mila said, patting Betsy’s shoulder.
“Betsy?” Jolene said. “Do you want a kiss good-bye?”
“I wouldn’t want to hurt you,” Betsy said, sounding sullen.
“Betsy,” Mila said warningly.
Betsy walked woodenly forward and leaned down to kiss Jolene’s cheek. It was lightning fast, that kiss, over before it began, and then Betsy was edging away from the bed.
Jolene waved good-bye with her left hand and watched them walk away. Only Betsy didn’t pause at the door, didn’t look back and smile.
Michael stayed at her bedside.
“The house is almost ready,” he said. “Your friends from the Guard helped me build a ramp. We turned my office into a bedroom. No stairs.”
“The separation you wanted.”
“Don’t do that, Jo. Please. I’m trying.”
And really, Michael, it’s about you. She sighed, too tired suddenly to do anything—to fight, to pretend, to feel. This day had gone from bad to worse and there was no end in sight. She’d thought the worst of her injuries was her amputated leg, but there was something else wrong; this numbness inside of her. She wanted to do the whole reunion over and be a better mother this time. “Good-bye, Michael,” she said.
“You keep pushing me away.”
She laughed bitterly; it turned into a sob. Throwing back the covers, she showed him her half leg, swollen to twice its size, cut off above the knee, and wrapped in gauze and elastic bandages. “Look at it, Michael. Look at me.”
The pity and sadness in his eyes was her undoing. “Jo—”
“Get out, Michael. Please. Please. I’m tired.”
“My mom read me the riot act for leaving you in Germany. Apparently when a woman says go, it means stay.”
“Not this woman. Go means go.”
She wanted to cross her arms and sigh dramatically, but of course she only had one good arm. She used that hand to pull the covers up, and she closed her eyes.
She heard him move toward her, felt his breath on her cheek as he leaned forward and kissed her temple. The gentleness of it made her want to cry. She swallowed hard and said nothing.
Finally, he left her, and she was alone again.
It was a long time before she fell asleep.
* * *
Jo! Don’t leave me—
Tami is screaming, crying … blood is spurting from her nose and her mouth … her eyes. Jolene is trying to get to her, trying to reach out, but a bomb falls … exploding. The black night is full of fire and falling shrapnel, and now she can’t find Tami. Somewhere, Smitty is yelling out for her, saying he’s trapped. Jolene is yelling for them, coughing through the smoke, dragging herself through the dirt, looking …
Jolene woke up, gasping in pain. It felt as if someone was twisting her foot in the wrong direction, as if the bones were snapping in protest.
She grabbed the overhead bar in her one good arm and hauled her body upward until she was sitting up. Breathing hard, she stared down at the flat blanket. “You’re not there,” she screamed. “You shouldn’t hurt anymore.”
She flopped back onto the bed, staring up at the speckled white acoustical tile ceiling, gritting her teeth. Tears burned her eyes. She wanted to give into them, maybe cry so hard she washed away on a river of tears and disappeared. But what was the point of crying? Sooner or later she’d wipe her eyes and look down and her leg would still be gone.
“It’s common, you know.”
With a sigh, she turned her head. Through the billowy wave of her pillow, she saw the black man standing in her doorway and knew why he was here. To help.
“Go away, Conny,” she said.
He came into the room anyway.
As he moved, he took something out of his pocket—a rubber band, maybe—and pulled his gray dreads into a ponytail. Diamond earrings glinted in his dark ears.
“It’s not every man who can wear pink scrubs,” she observed wryly.
“Not every woman can fly a helicopter.” He stopped at her bedside. “May I?”
“May you what?”
“Help you to sit up,” he said gently.
She swallowed hard and met his gaze. The compassion in his black eyes hurt as much as the phantom pain in her leg. “Go away.” The words were a croak of sound.
“You just gonna lay here and feel sorry for yourself?”
“Yeah,” she said. That was exactly what she wanted now—to be left alone. She’d spent a lifetime being Pollyanna, believing in the power of positive thinking, and where had it gotten her? Tami was hurt, her marriage was broken, and she couldn’t even get out of bed on her own.
He put an arm around her and eased her upright, positioning the pillows as a comfortable backrest.
She fought him weakly, too depressed to even care, really, then she gave up.
When she was upright, he stepped back just enough to be polite, but not enough so that she owned her space. “Like I said, it’s common.”
She didn’t want to talk, but she was pretty certain that a mulish silence wouldn’t work with this man. She’d lay odds that he had the patience of a sniper.
“Fine. What’s common?”
“The pain in your lost leg. It’s weird, I hear. Feels like it’s actually in the foot.”
That got her attention. “Yeah. How am I supposed to forget about it if it keeps hurting?”
“I don’t suppose you’re going to forget about it anytime soon, do you?”
“It’s the cut nerves. They’re just as confused down there as you are. Nothing feels right to them; they’re looking for that foot.”
“I can help you deal with the pain until the nerves heal completely. Teach you some basic relaxation techniques. Exercise and a nice hot bath can help, too.”
“The morph**e worked.”
He laughed again. “Soldier girl, we aren’t giving you any more morph**e. You can’t just sleep through this.”
“I suppose you have a better idea.”
“I do indeed. What physical therapy did they start with you in Germany?”
She lifted her casted right arm. “What do you think? It’s not like I can use crutches.”
He frowned thoughtfully. “Gee, you’re right. I guess I won’t start you there.”
“Look, Conny, as much fun as it is to have you stalking me, I’m tired. I didn’t sleep well last night, and I’m exhausted. Why don’t you come back later?”
“I’m here now.”
“I’m asking you to leave. Telling you to, actually.”
“Wait. Are you confused, soldier girl? You think we’re in some big-ass helicopter and I’m your crew?”
“No, you look. As my grandbaby says, you aren’t the boss of me. I’m the boss of you. Your family is paying plenty for you to get rehabilitated, and that is exactly what’s going to happen.”
“I can’t move. Get it?”
He smiled. “Well, I know that. I’ve got your chart. And then there’s the flat blanket and the busted-up arm. I’m not asking you to move. Yet.”
“So what are you asking of me?”
“Just to start. I thought you wanted to fly helicopters again.”
“You going to grow back my leg like one of those sea-monkey kits we had as kids?”
That made him laugh. “I have to say, they told me you were nicer.”
“Yeah, well. I lost a part of me. Nice went with it.”
“Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to start real easy, with something you can do.”
“I’m going to show you how to wrap your bandages. The pressure of a good, tight wrap helps with the pain. Think of it like swaddling one of your baby girls.”
She tried to scramble away from him but there was nowhere to go. “No. Go away.”
He put a hand on the headboard and leaned toward her. His lopsided ponytail fell to one side. “It’s normal, not wanting to look, but it’s part of you, Jolene, part of your body. You have to learn how to take care of yourself. I’ll go slow.”
“I don’t want to look. Go away,” she said, quietly now. She was having trouble breathing. Panic had a good, strong hold on her.
He let go of the headboard and moved down toward her legs, peeling back the blanket as he went.
She reached for the blanket, grabbed it, tried to hang on; he pulled it free.
She saw her lower half—the blue pajama bottoms on one leg, with its perfect pale foot at the end, and the other, jutting out beneath the fabric that had been cut away with scissors and now was fraying.
It was grossly swollen, huge, rounded at the end, wrapped in white.
“Take a deep breath,” he said.
“I … can’t.”
“Look at me, Jolene,” he said.
Her one good hand curled into a fist. She tried to catch her breath and couldn’t.
“Just look at me.”
As he said it, his hands moved to what was left of her leg—her residual leg, they called it. Wouldn’t want to say stump; that was an ugly word.