“Were you scared all the time?”
She stared out the car window. “Not all the time. I don’t want to talk about this, Michael. It doesn’t matter now.”
“You’re home, Jo,” he said.
She nodded but didn’t look at him. Neither did she speak again on the drive through Seattle. She just stared out the car window and shrugged in answer to his questions.
When he dropped her off, he said, “Jo? We need to really talk about all this, you know.”
“Yeah,” she said. “I know.” She sounded exhausted by the very idea of it.
He watched her limp into the rehab center and then he drove away. Instead of going straight to his office, he turned onto Aurora and drove to Cornflower’s office.
There, he walked up to the desk, saw the girl with the hardware all over her face and the purple hair. “I know I didn’t call. But I’d like to see Chris, if that’s possible. I’m Michael Zarkades.”
“Yeah,” she said, “just a sec.” She got up and walked down the hall. A minute or two later, she was back. “He’ll see you in the sunroom. It’s that way.”
Michael followed the hallway out to a pretty little glass-walled sunroom decorated in 1950s rattan furniture and overflowing with greenery and flowers. It reminded him a little of his parents’ living room, with its wide-plank wooden floors and floral cushioned furniture. A framed, yellowed poster of “Desiderata” hung on the only solid wall. Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence. He couldn’t help smiling. His mother had once had the very same poster on her bedroom wall.
“I don’t have long, Michael,” Chris said, closing the door behind him. “A patient will be here in ten minutes. Is it Keith? Are the nightmares getting worse?”
Michael sat down in one of the floral cushioned chairs. “It’s my wife, Chris. She’s … different. Last night she drank a few glasses of wine—I know that doesn’t sound like much, but her parents were alcoholics. I’ve never seen Jolene have more than a few sips of alcohol. And she woke up screaming.”
“She give you that shiner?”
“She’s always had a hell of an arm. You should see her pitch.”
Chris smiled and sat down. “Obviously, we need more than ten minutes for this discussion. I’d be happy to talk to Jolene if she’d do that.”
“She’s not a big talker in that way, but she did say she was in trouble.”
“She’s a soldier, Michael, which means she won’t want to appear weak, and it will be difficult for her to admit that she’s having trouble adjusting. As you know, nightmares and trouble sleeping are common symptoms of PTSD, but they’re also a normal reaction to having been at war. In most cases, these nightmares will diminish over time. We really need to worry if she’s still experiencing acute symptoms in three months. But she’s going through a lot of emotions right now—she’s probably grieving over her lost crewman and her comatose friend; she’s probably feeling some guilt—misplaced—that it’s her fault the bird went down; she’s probably afraid that your family is irrevocably broken and that she doesn’t have the strength to hold you all together again. Add to that the fact that she’s lost her leg and most likely her career, and you have a woman in crisis.”
“So how do I help her?”
“She feels like she’s coming apart,” he said quietly. “You think you’re one person, and then suddenly you’re not. You don’t know who you are. And the nightmares can be absolutely terrifying.”
“I saw that.”
“Make sure there are no weapons in the house.”
“And watch her drinking very carefully. That can really exacerbate the problems she’s having. Mostly, Michael, get her to talk to you. Listen without being judgmental.”
“Jo and I have never been particularly good at talking.”
Chris gave him an understanding nod. “This would be a good time to change that, Michael.”
* * *
On the ride home from rehab, Jolene wanted to talk to Mila, but she couldn’t form the words. She kept reliving last night, when she’d woken from her nightmare, on the floor, screaming, with her children staring down at her in fear. It was eating her up inside; it had been all day. She’d barely been able to concentrate in PT.
What in the hell was wrong with her? She needed Tami more than ever. The thought of that only made her feel worse.
As they pulled up to the house, Mila turned to her. “Are you okay, Jolene? You’re awful quiet.”
She imagined herself saying I’m afraid, Mila, something’s wrong with me, but she couldn’t do it. She was terrified of opening the floodgates, of revealing the depth of her fear. For the first time in her life, she was really, truly afraid. More afraid than she’d been in Iraq.
“Rehab was a bearcat today. The blisters are killing me.” She smiled tightly, hating the lie.
“Do you want me to stay with you until the girls come home?”
“No. I’m getting better. Honestly. I’ll take a nap and then I’ll be stronger. I’ll have snacks ready for them when they get home from school. Maybe we’ll play a board game.”
“Okay,” Mila said hesitantly.
Jolene managed a smile. Giving her mother-in-law a quick kiss, she got out of the car and went into the house. When the door closed behind her, she sagged forward on her crutches, and finally released the breath she’d been holding.
She needed a glass of wine. That would calm her jagged nerves, still the trembling in her hands. Just one glass. There was nothing wrong with that.
Her hands were shaking again. She went to the refrigerator, poured herself a glass of wine, and sat down. By the time she’d drunk two glasses, she felt slightly better. The wired feeling had dissipated somewhat. But the fear remained.
She needed help.
There. She’d thought it. Nothing mattered more than her children, and she was losing them, pushing them away, frightening them. She’d punched her husband in the face and didn’t remember doing it. What could she do to her children? She went to the phone. After a quick look in the phone book, she dialed the Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I think I need to talk to someone,” she blurted out when the receptionist answered.
“I’m an OIF vet. Injured. I need to talk to someone about the nightmares I’m having.”
“Just a sec.”
Breathe, Jolene. Don’t hang up.
“Can I help you?” a man said abruptly.
“Oh. Yes. I hope so. I’m a returning Operation Iraqi Freedom vet, and I’m having some trouble sleeping.”
“Are you thinking of hurting yourself or others?”
“What? On purpose? No. No, of course not, but I just—”
“I can make you an appointment with a counselor.”
She sighed in relief. “That would be great. Thanks.”
“How is December fifteenth?”
“I’m sorry. Did you say December fifteenth? It’s October.”
“Yes. That’s how long the wait is. We’re backlogged. A lot of returning soldiers need help. If you’re thinking of hurting yourself, however…”
She knew what would happen if she answered in the affirmative. They’d stamp whacko on her file. “No. Thank you. I don’t need the December appointment. I’m sure I’ll be fine by then.” She hung up the phone and sat there.
Her phantom pain was back, twisting her ankle hard.
She made her way to the family room and collapsed on the sofa, trying to gut it out. Sweat itched across her scalp. She closed her eyes and concentrated on breathing through the pain.
Later, a knock at the door interrupted her thoughts. She came awake sharply. How long had she been asleep? Were the girls home already? She glanced at the clock. It was only three. She got up, retrieved her crutches, and limped slowly to the front door, opening it.
Ben Lomand stood on her porch, holding a bouquet of flowers.
“Ben,” she said, smiling for the first time in days. “It’s so good to see you, come in.” She led the way back into the family room and sat down on the sofa.
“I came to see how you’re doing,” he said, sitting beside her. “Michael said you’d be home now.”
“I’m getting better every day,” she said.
She steeled herself. “Have you spoken to Smitty’s parents?”
He nodded. “At the funeral.”
“Do they blame me?”
“Of course not, Jolene. They know their son was a hero and that he died serving his country. They’re proud of him.”
“I tried to get to him.”
They fell silent, each knowing there was nothing to say.
“Jolene,” the captain said at last, a pained look on his face. “I’ve got some news for you.”
“What is it?”
“I’ve got your physical profile from Captain Sands in Landstuhl. It assesses your FFD.”
FFD. Fitness for duty.
“Oh,” she said softly. With all that had happened in the past weeks, she’d forgotten about her career. About flying.
How could she have forgotten? “And?”
“You’re a pilot,” he said, his eyes filled with compassion. Maybe some soldiers could fulfill their job assignments with one leg. Not a pilot.
He was going to say she could never fly again. She closed her eyes for just a moment, feeling as great a pain as her missing leg. “I don’t meet the retention criteria,” she said. “Of course I don’t. I only have one leg.”
“You could appeal. Go on probation, see if you could meet the criteria for duty after rehab.”
She looked at him. “They won’t let me fly again, though, will they?”
The answer was in his eyes. “No. No flight status. But you could stay in the Guard maybe. Or if you retire, you’ll have full benefits.”
“Benefits,” she said softly, trying to imagine her life without the military, without her friends, without flying … but she was a pilot. A pilot. How could she be in the Guard and not fly?
What was left to her now?
“I’m sorry, Jo.”
She nodded, looked away before he could see the sadness in her eyes. “Thank you, sir,” she said in a thick voice.
After he left, she grabbed the bottle of wine and went into her bedroom.
* * *
The ferry was docking on Bainbridge Island when Michael’s cell phone rang. “Hello?”
“Mr. Zarkades? This is Principal Warner, from the middle school. I’m afraid there’s been an incident with Betsy.”
The ferry banged into the dock; stilled. He started up his car. “What? An incident, did you say? What does that mean?”
“Betsy was in a fight.”
“You mean a fistfight?”