“I don’t think I’m ready to go home, Conny. We should postpone until—”
She saw the understanding in his eyes. It shamed her to show such weakness to him. “Until I’m ready,” she finished lamely.
“Today,” he said quietly.
After he left, she sat there, staring out at the sunshiny day, squeezing the ball he’d left with her. I did it, Tami.
Yes, you did, flygirl.
Jolene would have sworn she heard the words, but no one was there. She looked out the window. Was that you, Tam? She wanted to believe in it, believe in the idea of her best friend finding a way to communicate across all these miles. Maybe it meant Tami had awakened …
She looked behind her. An orderly stood at the door, holding a few envelopes rubber-banded together.
“I’ve got your mail.”
He came into the room and put a pair of letters on the table beside her. She stared down at them, surprised. Finally, she picked up the packet and pulled out the top letter. It was from someone in Kansas.
Dear Jolene Zarkades:
I read about your story in the Topeka Gazette. I can’t believe I’m writing to you—a stranger—but my heart won’t let me say nothing.
I close my eyes and I think of you because I know how you’re feeling.
I was fourteen years old when I lost my leg. Just an ordinary girl from a small town, worrying about getting pimples and passing tests, and wondering when I would need a bra. Not a helicopter pilot or nothing cool like that.
Then I heard the word: cancer.
My mom cried more than I did. I was more worried about being different. I know you’re probably strong, because you’re in the army and all, but I wanted to make sure someone told you to be gentle with yourself. I wish I’d known that. It took me a long time. You think life will never be normal again, but it will. You and your daughters will be fighting again in no time—and about her chores or her choices. It won’t be about your leg at all!
God bless. I have lit a candle for you and your family in my church. Our prayers go to you.
Mavis Sue Cochran
Jolene wiped her eyes and put the letter back in its envelope, then opened the second one.
I’m PFC Sarah Merrin. I’m at Walter Reed, after six months in-country.
I don’t really know what to say or even why I’m writing to you. I guess because it’s quiet here now. And you’re a woman.
I lost my leg last week. Now they’re afraid I’m going to lose the other leg. Infection in blast injuries is bad, but I guess you know that. I’m going to be here a long time.
How do you do it? I guess that’s what I want to know. They tell me I’ll be able to walk again—even run—but it hardly seems likely and when I look down at what’s left of me, it isn’t pretty. Can’t see my husband sticking around after I take my clothes off.
Any words of wisdom you got would sure be helpful.
Jolene put the letter back in the envelope and stared down at it. She knew how Sarah felt, lying in her hospital bed, so far from home, wondering what part of herself she’d get back and what she’d lost forever.
But wisdom? Jolene had none to offer.
She would just add Sarah Merrin to the list of people she couldn’t help, the people she’d let down.
* * *
That night, after a long, grueling day at work, Michael left the office and drove to the rehab center. As he drove through the stop-and-go rush-hour traffic, he thought about the jury consultant he’d met with today. They’d begun voir dire proceedings—jury selection—in the Keller case. As every criminal defense attorney knew, cases could be won or lost before the trial even began. Jurors were crucial. He would need to find compassionate, liberal-minded people who believed that a good man’s mind could be broken by war. The prosecution would be looking for hard-liners who thought psychiatric disorders were just excuses for criminality.
It was dark by the time he reached the rehab center. He parked close to the entrance and went inside. The minute the bright lights enveloped him, he let go of the Keller case and thought about his wife.
She was coming home tonight. Finally.
He hoped that now they could begin to really heal. Last night, he and the girls and his mother had spent hours readying the house for her return. They’d placed flowers on every surface and filled the fridge with her favorite foods. His mother had spent all day in the kitchen with the girls, making baklava and moussaka; they’d frosted a lemon cake and decorated it with fresh orchids. They’d hung a banner across the front porch that read: WELCOME HOME TO OUR HERO! and moved the WELCOME HOME, MOMMY banner to the kitchen.
Betsy had spent hours decorating Jolene’s new downstairs bedroom. There was a new bed and a bright new comforter and literally dozens of pillows to help her position her leg while she slept.
Everything was perfect.
At the rehab center, he walked down the brightly lit hallway to her room and found her sitting in her wheelchair, looking out the window.
She was as beautiful as ever in profile. The scrapes and bruises on her face were almost healed. The only scar remaining was a small pink slash along her jawline. She was frowning slightly, chewing on her thumbnail.
“You look nervous,” he said, coming into the room.
She turned, saw him, and didn’t smile. “I am.”
It was a surprise, that answer. Jolene had never shown fear or anxiety, not when her parents died, not when she gave birth, not even when she went off to war. All of that she’d handled with the stoicism and courage that was as much a part of her as the green of her eyes.
She didn’t really want to go home; he could see it in her eyes. It made him wonder sharply if he’d lost her.
He wanted to say something real, but she looked so distant—as if her composure were the thinnest of shells—that he didn’t dare. “It’s time to go home.”
“Home,” she said, turning the word into something foreign, a little frightening. “My things are in that duffle bag.”
He picked up the big army-green duffle bag, carried it out to the car, and was back to get her in no time. Taking control of the chair, he wheeled her out of the rehab center. In the parking lot, he opened the car door and then turned to her.
Her pant leg fell away from the amputated leg like a flag in no wind. He stared down at it, wondering how he was supposed to lift her. Conny had never shown him. Could he touch her leg or would it hurt her?
* * *
For hours, Jolene had been imagining her homecoming. In her mind, she pictured it unfolding perfectly—the girls laughing, her crying, Mila making them all some food. She’d spent the last hour sitting in her chair, in the shadows of her room, telling herself she could do it, she could go home and be the woman she used to be.
Then, at the Lexus, she saw Michael hesitate. He couldn’t even look at her leg, let alone touch it.
She gripped the chair’s metal wheels and rolled past him, determined to climb into the passenger seat herself.
“Jolene, wait—” Michael said.
She ignored him, set the brake, and reached up for the side of the car. What should she hold on to? What would steady her the best? She hadn’t practiced this with Conny.
“Looks like soldier girl is trying to do everything all by herself. I thought we talked about that.”
Conny crossed the parking lot and came toward them, his dreadlocks swinging. As he moved, he retied them in a ponytail.
“Hey,” Jolene said when he stopped beside her.
“You sneaking out on me? I stayed late to say good-bye.”
“It’s not good-bye.” She looked up, afraid suddenly to leave him, afraid to go home, where everything that she’d lost would be so apparent. With Conny, effort was enough; at home, the expectations would be higher.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’ll be seeing you three days a week.”
She nodded, tilting her chin up. He knew how badly she wanted to be the mother she’d once been, the woman she’d once been—and he knew, too, how scared she was that she would fail. They had talked and talked about it. Or rather, he had talked and she had listened.
He squatted down beside her, his knees popping in protest at the movement. “Everyone is scared to go home,” he said softly, so that Michael couldn’t hear. “It’s safe here.”
He reached out for her left hand, held it in his dark baseball mitt of a hand. “Don’t tell me you’re not tough enough for what comes next, soldier girl, ’cause I know better. It’s a new beginning, that’s all.”
It was true. She was tough enough. She always had been, from the moment she’d realized that her parents were unreliable. She’d learned to take care of herself. If she could survive her parents’ deaths and Michael falling out of love with her and losing her leg and Smitty dying, she could handle going home … she could love her babies again and be a new version of herself.
She swallowed hard. “By this time next week I’ll be playing lacrosse.”
Conny grinned. “That’s my girl.” He patted her hand and stood up. “Ten o’clock tomorrow. Don’t be late.”
“She won’t be,” Michael said.
“Michael,” Conny said. “Here’s how you help our girl get into the car.”
Jolene let Conny help her to a stand and then she pivoted on her foot and backed into the passenger seat with Conny’s hand steadying her. She couldn’t help noticing how her half leg stuck forward when she was seated.
Conny patted her shoulder one last time and closed the door.
Then it was just she and Michael, sitting in a car together. She didn’t want to remember the look on his face in the parking lot, when it had been time to touch her, but what else could she think of?
He made small talk all the way home. She nodded and made listening sounds and stared out the window.
The familiarity of the landscape sucked her in, reminded her of the life they’d shared in the shadow of these magnificent mountains; when they turned into their driveway and the headlights shone on their white fence, she thought: I’m home, and for a split second the joy of that was pure and sweet and intoxicating. She forgot about her leg and her husband and her lost crewman and comatose best friend; she thought how lucky she was to be here at all. She still had what mattered most to her in the world: her daughters. And now, finally, she would be Mommy again.
There, just next door, was Tami’s house. You should be there, Tam, she thought sadly.
As they drove up to the garage, the security light came on in a burst of brightness—
And she was in the helicopter suddenly, turning back around to look at Smitty. All she could see was the gaping, smoking hole in his chest and the flatness of death in his eyes …
She snapped back to the moment and found that she was shaking. Swallowing hard, she clasped her hands together to still them. A banner hung across the front door—WELCOME HOME TO OUR HERO!
Hero. Heroes brought their people home.