“I’ll be right there,” he said, hanging up. He followed the line of cars off the boat and across the ramp and up onto the road. Out on the highway, he hit the gas.
Twenty minutes later, he pulled up in front of the middle school and parked. Inside, the bright white walls were decorated with dozens of Science Fair and History Day banners. In the principal’s office, he found Betsy in the waiting room, her arms crossed tightly, her mouth pressed in a flat line. At his appearance, she looked up, her eyes widening.
He gave her the Hand and kept walking. At the front desk, he introduced himself and was led into the principal’s office.
Principal Warner, a petite, pretty woman with kind eyes, noticed his black eye and frowned.
“I fell off my bike,” he said tightly.
She smiled, but only a little. “I’m sorry we had to call you. We’re all aware of the struggles your family is currently facing. Please, sit.”
He sat down. “She got in a fight? With whom?”
“Sierra Phillips and Zoe Wimerann. From what I hear, they were teasing her about her mother. It seems Sierra’s dad made some comments about women’s ability to fly helicopters, and Zoe responded by laughing. Betsy swung the first punch.”
He sighed. No wonder Seth called them the bitchwolves. “There’s a lot of water under the bridge with these girls. Beyond that, Betsy’s having some issues dealing with her mother’s return. It hasn’t gone as smoothly as we’d expected.”
“Her teachers tell me she’s been acting out in the past few days. Snapping at friends and not turning in her homework. We have an excellent school counselor, if you’d like her to see someone.”
“Thank you, Principal Warner. I’ll let you know if that becomes necessary. And now, I’d like to speak to my daughter, if you don’t mind.”
She stood. “Certainly. And … how is Jolene?”
Michael didn’t know how to answer that. He was getting sick and tired of pretending that everything was fine. “She’s not good. That’s the problem.”
“Perhaps she needs some time.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I hear that a lot.”
Principal Warner walked him out of her office, led him to where Betsy sat, looking mulish now, both scared and angry.
“Betsy,” the principal said, “I’m going to let your father handle this for now, but if you’re caught fighting again, I’ll suspend you from school. Do you understand?”
Betsy nodded glumly. She followed Michael out to the car without saying a word.
“Is this the whole frenemies thing?” he said, opening his door. “Because I thought Sierra was your BFF.”
“Don’t try to sound cool, Dad. It’s weird.”
“These girls are not worth your friendship, Betsy.”
“I know that,” she said, sighing. “I’m done with them.”
Michael got into the car. “What happened, Betsy?”
She got into the passenger seat and looked at him. Her face was flushed. “I just lost it, Dad. I don’t even know what happened. But it wasn’t my fault. Zoe totally started it. She hit me first.”
“And why did Zoe hit you?”
“I called her a bitch. But she is, Dad. She really is. You always say truth is a defense.”
“Nice try. Look, Bets, I know you’re upset with your mom, but—”
“Not everything is about her, you know.”
“This is. You punched a girl for saying something mean about her. But, you know, Betsy, you’ve been a little mean to her yourself. Maybe you feel bad about that.”
“You were mean to her before she left.”
“Yes, I was. And I feel bad about that. But I don’t go around punching people.”
“She barely looks at me. Mom, I mean. I don’t think she even likes me anymore.”
Michael sighed. And there it was. The real problem. “I know, baby. Your mom is different, and it hurts all our feelings, so you’re acting out. I get it, I do. But you can’t go around hitting people.”
Betsy looked at him. “I’m scared, Dad,” she said quietly.
“Yeah,” he said. “We all are.”
* * *
Jolene heard the door open, heard footsteps coming toward her bed. She knew it was Michael.
She pretended to be asleep. The three glasses of wine she’d drunk had sedated her, given her solace from the grief and fear and anger. She couldn’t face the family who wanted her back. And Michael would be the last person on earth she could talk to about her lost career anyway; he’d always hated her service. He’d probably say, good, and let it go at that. He couldn’t possibly understand how it felt to know that she’d never fly a Black Hawk again.
Even as she had the thought, she hated herself for it. Smitty was dead, for God’s sake, and Tami lay in a hospital bed far away, fighting for her life. What right did Jolene have to bemoan a lost career?
“Jolene, I know you’re awake.”
She lay perfectly still, trying to slow her breathing. She didn’t dare look at him, not tonight, when her sense of loss was as deep as a mountain cavern, bottomless.
She kept her eyes closed until finally—finally—he left her alone.
For the next week, Jolene hid from her family. It was surprisingly easy to do. She spent days at the rehab center, working hard, becoming increasingly self-sufficient, and then she came home, begged Mila for help, and disappeared into her bedroom. Wine and sleeping pills dulled her pain enough that she could sleep. Night after night, she heard her family beyond the door—talking, laughing, watching TV. They were going on with life, living it without her, and at each bit of laughter, she felt herself fall deeper into this sweaty darkness, until she began to have trouble even imagining a way to crawl out.
She lay in her solitary bed, cut off from everyone and everything, knowing she was giving up, giving in, but unable to change. What could she reach for? Who would help her to stand in her newly precarious position? Her children were afraid of her, and she was afraid of herself, afraid of her own crumbling, unreliable mind. Tami was too sick to offer help, and that was another of Jolene’s sins. No matter how often she told herself the crash wasn’t her fault, guilt was always there with her at night, a vulture waiting to pick at her bones. She called Germany often, talked to Carl, but they both knew his wasn’t the voice she wanted so desperately to hear. Their conversations had become stilted lately; hope had worn thin.
Michael scared her, too, perhaps most of all. He kept saying the right things, words she’d longed to hear, but he didn’t really love her. How could he? He had stopped loving her when she was at her best; how could he possibly love her now, at her worst?
She was terrified that if she let herself believe him in a moment of weakness, it would ruin what small bit of pride was left to her.
Every morning, she vowed to do better, but each night found her back in her room, taking sleeping pills to help her sleep. And still she had the nightmares.
“You’re going to court with me today,” Michael said one morning in mid-October, coming into her bedroom without even knocking.
“No, thanks,” she said.
He walked over to the nightstand and picked up the empty wine bottle. “You can walk or I’ll carry you.”
She sat up in bed. “I haven’t come to court with you in years.”
“You will today. Mom said she’ll handle the girls. We’ll need to be on the seven fifty boat.”
She stared at him. “Fine,” she said at last.
It took her a long time to get ready—naturally—and when she was done, she returned to her bedroom and looked at herself in the full-length mirror.
From a distance, she would probably draw no attention. It wasn’t until you came near or saw her walk that you noticed the ugly plastic prosthetic foot.
“You look beautiful,” Michael said from the doorway.
She pivoted awkwardly on her good foot.
His gaze swept her from head to toe, taking in the hair that fell free to well past her shoulders, the green boatneck sweater that showed off just a little skin, and the black pants that covered the part of her that was gone.
“Maybe I’m not ready to go out in public,” she said.
“You’re ready. Conny says so.” He offered his arm. She clung to him, let him steady her as she made her slow, hitching way into the family room, where the girls and Mila were waiting. It broke her heart all over again to see how warily her children stared at her.
Mila rose at her entrance. “You have her pills, Michael?”
“I have everything,” he said.
Mila came forward. Jolene couldn’t help noticing that the girls hung back.
“You can do this,” Mila said.
Jolene felt a rush of remembrance at that, a sweet longing for her life before. How many times had Mila encouraged her over the years, and then stayed by her side? It had been Mila who had told Jolene, over and over again, in the barren years after Betsy, keep trying, there’s always hope. You’ll have another baby, I know it. An old, ragged desire to make her mother-in-law proud rose up in Jolene; it was tattered and torn, but there, and it felt good. “Thanks, Mila,” Jolene said in a hoarse voice.
And then they were moving, she and Michael, making their way through the family room and the mudroom and into the garage. Jolene got into the car with some effort—her damned temporary leg was unwieldy and heavy.
She wanted to take off the prosthesis and massage her leg in the car, but she didn’t have the room. On the ferry, they stayed in the car. Jolene sat there quietly, staring out at the island’s coastline while Michael read his notes.
When the ferry rounded the bend, Seattle was in front of them, a steel and gemstone tiara set above the waters of Elliott Bay. The sky on this early morning was rose-colored, tinged in aqua blue at the horizon. Mount Rainier rose elegantly above the city, deigning on this day to be visible.
She’d forgotten how beautiful it all was and how big. From here, she could see the stream of headlights snaking along Alaskan Way, zipping over the antiquated concrete viaduct.
Please be strong enough for this, she thought, realizing suddenly that she’d be moving in a crowd—could get jostled and bumped.
On Third Avenue, Michael pulled into a parking place right in front of the courthouse. She knew he’d have to have an associate move the car later, but she was glad he understood that the shortest distance was best for her.
He came around to her side and opened the car door.
“You can do it,” he said evenly, reaching for her hand. She clung to him, stepped out onto the sidewalk. As she stood, clouds wafted overhead, blocking out the ineffectual sun, sending a smattering of rain to the sidewalk.
“Can you carry my crutches?” she asked. “I might need them later.”
She began the long, slow walk to the courthouse. In no time, she was breathing hard, sweating. She concentrated on each step, ignoring the pain caused by her blisters.