Home Front (Page 50)

Home Front(50)
Author: Kristin Hannah

Usually, Michael would refute every piece of evidence in the opening, try to plant doubt about the case both in its specifics and in its entirety.

In this case, however, Michael was going to take a calculated risk. He wouldn’t refute that Keith had killed his wife. What he wanted the jury to understand was why. In Washington State, it fell to the state to prove each element of the crime, including intent. Put simply, the state had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Keith had intended to kill his wife.

Intent.

That was the crux of it.

He was still mulling it over at five thirty, as he drove off the ferry and headed toward home. As he turned into his driveway, he wondered how Jolene’s day had gone. For once, Mila wouldn’t be here, taking care of the girls after school. They were with Jolene again for the first time.

Pandemonium greeted him.

Every light in the place was on, the TV was blaring some movie with teenyboppers dancing together, and the girls were fighting. He could tell by the wild look in Lulu’s eyes that she was seconds away from a screaming fit, and Betsy looked pissed.

At his entrance, they stopped shrieking at each other and started screaming at him.

“Whoa,” he said, raising his hands. “Slow down.”

“Mommy doesn’t like us anymore,” Lulu said.

“She was a bitch, Dad. I know that’s a bad word, but it’s true,” Betsy said. “And now she’s in her room and she won’t come out. When I went in, she said, ‘Not now, Betsy.’ She hasn’t even apologized for this morning.”

“This morning? What happened this morning?” he asked.

“We were late to school. We missed the bus,” Betsy said, her voice shrill with the remembered horror of it.

“She dropped the water for oatmeal and said a bad word,” Lulu added solemnly, her mouth trembling. She was seconds away from crying.

“Now, girls, you remember we talked about this. It isn’t going to be an easy transition. We’ve talked about being patient, remember?”

“Yeah, well, you should have talked to her about it. I even offered to help with breakfast and everything,” Betsy said. “There’s something wrong with her, Dad.”

Through the blustery anger, he heard his daughter’s fear, and he understood it. Jolene wasn’t the same woman she’d been before, and none of them knew quite how to deal with her. “We’ll be okay, Betsy.”

“You know what, Dad? I’m sick of hearing that. It’s a big fat lie.”

“She’s different,” Lulu whispered, crying now. “She didn’t even talk to us after school.”

Michael knelt down and opened his arms. The girls ran at him, throwing themselves into his embrace. He held them tightly.

When they finally drew back, Michael saw the tears in Betsy’s eyes. “I’m so sorry, Betsy. I know she hurt your feelings—”

“Mine, too!” Lulu said.

“Both of your feelings,” he corrected. “But just think of how bad it feels when you get a cut or a bruise. She lost her leg. It’s going to take a while for everything to get back to normal. I should have prepared you for that. Hell, I should have prepared myself for it.”

“You said a bad word,” Lulu said.

“Thank you, Miss Word Police.”

“What if she never gets better?” Betsy asked.

“She will,” he promised. Then he kissed each daughter’s cheek. “Now, go order a pizza, Betsy.”

“She might as well still be gone,” Betsy mumbled, walking away.

Michael went over to the office. Knocking softly, he waited for an answer. Not getting one, he opened the door just a crack.

The room was dark. Pale gold light from the eaves outside provided an ambient glow, illuminating the sharpness of her cheekbone. Beside the bed, the silver handles of the wheelchair glinted like strands of mercury. On the nightstand was an opened bottle of wine and an empty glass.

Frowning, he went to her bedside, stood beside her. In all their years together, he’d never seen her take more than a sip of wine. He picked up the bottle—it was half empty, at least.

He wanted to wake her up, talk to her about what had happened today—why she was drinking wine—but he knew how precious sleep was to her.

And would she talk to him about it, anyway? Even before the deployment, back when their marriage had been intact, Jolene wasn’t one to talk about bad days or failures or disappointments. With the exception of love, which she showed exuberantly, she kept her emotions to herself.

It was part of why they’d gone so wrong. She’d never needed him.

He closed the door and left her alone.

He spent the evening with his daughters, eating dinner with them, playing a game, watching a Discovery Channel special on dolphins. They were still hurt and angry and confused when he put them to bed.

When the house was quiet again, he put on some sweats and went back to work on the Keller opening. The trial was set to start soon, and he still hadn’t figured out how to make the jurors really understand PTSD, how to put them in Keith’s shoes. He was making a note about that when a bloodcurdling scream echoed through the house.

He threw the papers aside and ran out of his room. Another scream rose up from downstairs, swelling, spiking.

He ran down the stairs and pushed open the office door.

Jolene was screaming in her sleep, writhing so much the sheets and blankets had come free of their moorings and were twisted around her. Pillows lay scattered on the floor.

She screamed, “Mayday! Tami—I can’t lift you. Damn it—”

“Jolene!”

“We need a perimeter,” she yelled, crawling across the bed toward the nightstand.

“Jo!” He grabbed her by the hand and she elbowed him hard in the gut. His breath rushed out and he let go for a second. She kept moving, toward the edge of the bed.

He lunged at her so she wouldn’t fall off, put his arms around her. She punched him in the eye so hard he lost his balance, and they fell to the floor together, landing with a thud.

She came awake with a gasp, frowned in confusion. “Michael?”

Betsy and Lulu stood in the doorway, looking terrified.

“WHAT’S WRONG WITH HER?” Betsy shrieked.

Jolene was shaking; he could feel her trembling.

“Your mom had a nightmare, girls. That’s all.”

“A nightmare?” Betsy shook her head. “Do we look stupid?”

“Go upstairs,” Michael said, helping Jolene stand. She was breathing like a freight train beside him. “I’ll take care of your mom.”

“Can I sleep with you?” Lulu asked her sister. There was a tremble in her voice.

“Sure.” Betsy took Lulu’s hand and led her away.

Jolene climbed into bed and leaned back against the headboard so hard it banged against the wall. “Sorry about that,” she said shakily.

He sat down beside her.

“I’m having … trouble, Michael,” she said, swallowing hard.

It was the closest Jolene could come to asking for help. “I know, Jo. We’ll get you some help.”

“Are they safe with me?”

He wanted to say yes, sure, of course they are, but he was sitting here, his eye throbbing from a punch she probably didn’t remember throwing, feeling his wife tremble beside him. And the truth was, he didn’t know.

Twenty-Four

The next morning, Jolene was up before Michael.

He found her in the family room. She had a mirror set up at one end, and she was walking in front of it, studying her gait, trying to walk as naturally as she had before.

As he watched from the doorway, she tripped, fell hard, and cursed.

He went to her side, reaching out. “Jo—”

“I have to do this myself,” she said through gritted teeth, shoving his hand aside. “I have to be me again.”

He heard the desperation in her voice and saw the fear in her eyes, and he drew back. It actually hurt to watch her climb to a stand and waver, grab the back of the chair for support.

She fell three more times while he stood there. Each time, she curled her good hand into a fist, breathed hard, and got back to her feet. She didn’t curse again, didn’t say a thing about her pain. And he knew it had to hurt like hell; Conny had told him she’d been working so hard she had blisters on her stump.

“You look great,” he said when she made a good pass and an apparently easy turn.

She smiled at him, but he saw past her can-do attitude and was startled by the sadness in her eyes. He saw what it cost her to fall, to trip, to need help with the simplest things. She frowned. “You have a black eye.”

“Very Jack Sparrow, don’t you think?”

“Did I do that?”

“Not on purpose, Jo.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I know. Don’t worry about it.”

“Right,” she said tiredly.

He saw how fragile she was, how scared by the idea that she had hurt him—and that she didn’t remember doing it. He wanted to talk to her about the nightmares, but she’d just put up one of her walls, and how could he scale it? He had no idea what she’d been through in Iraq. What would he even ask?

The girls came running down the stairs. At the sight of Jolene, they stopped so fast Betsy shoved Lulu forward.

“Girls,” Jolene said, looking as sad as he’d ever seen her. “I’m sorry about last night. It was just a nightmare.”

“A nightmare that gave Dad a black eye,” Betsy said tightly. “What’s wrong with you?”

Jolene sighed. “I’ll be fine. Honest. I just need to try again.”

“I’m hungry,” Lulu said. “Daddy, are you going to make us breakfast this morning?”

Michael saw Jolene’s reaction to that. She looked disappointed; her shoulders slumped. She turned and limped away, walking resolutely toward the mirror again.

“Okay,” Michael said, “let’s get breakfast going.” He ushered the girls into the kitchen, made them breakfast, and then followed them upstairs, where they got ready for school. “Tell your mom good-bye,” he said as they headed for the door.

“Bye, Mom,” they said dutifully together. They didn’t look at Jolene, and she kept walking toward the mirror, gauging her gait. Michael walked them both to the end of the driveway and stayed until the buses came to take them away. Then he returned to the house. When he approached Jolene, he saw the sadness in her eyes.

“Hey,” he said, touching her arm.

“Don’t be nice to me this morning,” she said. “I can’t take it.”

And there it was: the reminder of how far apart they’d drifted. She didn’t want to be comforted by him, even now when she was terrified and depressed and her heart was breaking.

“Come on, Jo, it’s time to leave for rehab” was what he ended up saying. It was all he could think of.

On the ferry, she didn’t want to leave the car. So they sat there in silence until Michael looked at her. “It must have been terrible over there,” he said tentatively, feeling like a fraud. He had no idea, and both of them knew it.