Keith rose. Staring down at her, he bent his arm in a salute. To her horror, she felt the sting of tears. She shook her head. “I’m not a soldier anymore.”
Keith’s smile was heartbreaking. “We’ll always be soldiers, Jolene.”
* * *
When they got home, the house was empty. Mila had taken the girls out for dinner and left a back by 8 note on the kitchen table.
Jolene limped into her bedroom and sat down on the edge of the bed. Although she was in considerable pain, she felt jittery, edgy. Michael’s opening statement had been seductive, romantic, and it scared the hell out of her to believe—even a little—that he’d changed. On the long ride home from court, she and Michael had made small talk. She listened to his questions and formulated answers, but both of them heard the echo of all their unspoken words.
Michael knocked at her bedroom door, walked into the room.
She stared up at him. “There’s something wrong with me,” she said quietly. Her heartbeat kicked up. “I’m afraid.” It was as honest as she knew how to be, as honest with him as she’d ever been. “What if I’m like Keith?”
“How do you know?”
He walked toward her, came to her side. Taking her hand in his, he pulled her to a stand. His gaze was steady, and in the darkness of his eyes, she saw the shadowy reflection of their whole lives, the good and the bad. He leaned slowly, slowly forward, saying, “I’m going to kiss you, Jolene…”
She knew he was giving her a chance to stop him, and there was a part of her that wanted to push him away and run and protect what was left of her heart. But she couldn’t.
His kiss was everything she remembered, everything she’d ever wanted. Her body responded to him in the way it always had, wholly and completely.
When he drew back, she could see that he was as shaken by the kiss as she had been. His breathing was ragged.
“Tell me it’s not too late for us,” he said. She heard the desperate plea in his voice and knew she’d never heard it before.
“It’s not too late,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “But I’m not ready…”
He smiled at last, and it was his smile, the one that had swept her away all those years ago. How long had it been since she’d seen it? He walked over to the nightstand by the bed, opened the drawer, and took out a small plastic bag.
She heard the jangle of metal as he opened the baggie, and she knew what was inside of it. Why hadn’t she thought about it before? Her belongings. They’d given her jewelry to him in Germany—her dog tags, her watch, her wedding ring. He took something out of the bag before putting it back in the drawer, closing it with a click.
She drew in a shaky breath.
He moved toward her, reached for her left hand. Without looking away, he slipped the wedding ring back onto her finger. “You will be,” he said, and the certainty in his voice struck a chord deep within her.
She watched him walk away, close the door behind him. Twice, she almost called him back, almost said, I was wrong, I am ready, but she was too afraid.
She hobbled into the bathroom and got ready for bed. Climbing under the thick comforter, she positioned the pillows around her residual leg and closed her eyes. The simple golden band added a forgotten weight to her hand. For the first time in weeks, she went to sleep without a glass of wine or a sleeping pill. Keith was right. She would take his advice. She would come home to the people who loved her—her husband, her family. She had to be able to do it. She’d gone to Iraq, for God’s sake, she’d flown helicopters in combat. How could it be harder to come home than to go to war?
Her last thought, as she drifted off to sleep was, Tomorrow I’ll start over, Tami. I’ll be Mommy again. I’ll come home at last.
Jolene woke to watery yellow sunshine pouring through her window. It illuminated everything in the room—including the empty wineglass on her nightstand and the collection of orange pill bottles.
Today was the day she would give all that up. No more sleeping pills, no more wine to calm her jangling nerves. She closed her eyes and imagined it in detail—she would rise confidently and go into the kitchen and make breakfast for her girls. Then she would take them aside and talk to them openly, tell them that the war had hurt her mind for a while and sucked out some of her spirit but that she could handle it now. She was ready to be Mom again, and that she’d always, always loved them, even when the numbness was at its very worst. They wouldn’t understand, perhaps, wouldn’t believe her completely, but it would be a start. From there, she would prove it to them by improving every day, by getting strong and showing her love more freely. She wouldn’t be afraid anymore.
She got out of bed and grabbed her crutches, hop-swinging into the bathroom. Emerging only ten minutes later, dressed for rehab, with her prosthesis on, she limped out into the kitchen and started breakfast. Pancakes today—like the old days. She got some blueberries out of the freezer and started the batter. Every now and again she caught sight of her wedding ring and it made her smile. Hope felt as close as it ever had.
As she poured the batter in dollops on the hot griddle, she heard Michael come up behind her. He moved in close, leaned over her shoulder. “Pancakes, huh?”
“A peace offering. I could have learned quantum physics in the time they took to make.” She smiled at him, and for a second they were Michael-and-Jo again, and she thought: We can do it.
She wanted to know what he was going to say, leaned closer to hear the words, but the phone rang. Michael went to answer it. “Hello?” It was obviously the office; he frowned, sat down, and lowered his voice to say, “When?”
The girls came thundering into the room.
“Mommy’s making pancakes!” Lulu said, her frown turning into a smile when she saw that the pancakes looked ordinary.
Jolene turned slightly, saw Betsy’s narrowed gaze. “The griddle’s too hot,” her daughter said.
“Thank you,” Michael said, hanging up the phone.
Jolene smiled. “Michael, Betsy thinks the griddle is too hot. Will you tell her I was making pancakes before she was born?”
Michael stared at her, unsmiling. “Maybe you should sit down, Jo.”
“Sit down? Why? My leg feels great.”
“Betsy, finish the pancakes,” Michael said.
“Why me?” Betsy whined. “Why do I always have to do everything?”
“Betsy,” he said so sharply Jolene frowned.
“Michael?” she said. “You’re scaring me.”
He took Jolene by the arm and led her through the house, toward the bedroom. When she sat down on the bed, she looked up at him.
“It’s Tami,” he said quietly, sitting beside her. “She died last night.”
Jolene couldn’t breathe. As if from a distance, she saw Michael holding her, soothing her, rubbing his hand up and down her back, but none of it reached her.
For more than twenty years, Tami had been there for her, keeping her strong when she felt weak. I’ve got your six, flygirl.
And Seth … he would grow up without a mom …
She made a great gasping sound and started to cry.
“It’s okay, Jo,” Michael said, stroking her hair.
“No.” She felt wild suddenly, feral. “It’s not okay. My best friend died and it’s my fault. Mine. She died and then I left her behind…” Her voice broke. “I’m never supposed to leave anyone behind.”
“I’m sick of people telling me it will be okay. It won’t be okay. It’ll never be okay.”
She couldn’t take this pain. It was consuming her, devouring her. She stumbled to the nightstand and grabbed her sleeping pills. Opening the container, she spilled three into her shaking palm. “A nap will help,” she said, her voice shrill. “I’ll feel better after a little nap.”
It was a lie. She wouldn’t feel better, but she needed to close her eyes and get away from this grief. She couldn’t bear it. Not anymore; she wasn’t strong enough. Her heart might just stop … and would she care?
She swallowed the pills, dry, and sank to the bed, hanging her head, willing them to work.
Michael moved closer, took her in his arms again. She knew he was judging her for taking the pills, thinking that she was pathetic and damaged, but she didn’t care. It was the truth anyway; she’d been snapped in half and her courage was gone.
She looked at him through her tears. “We were supposed to grow old together. We were going to be old women, sitting on our deck in rocking chairs, remembering each other’s lives…”
* * *
On the day of Tami’s funeral, Jolene couldn’t get out of bed.
As soon as she woke up, she poured herself a glass of wine. Downing it quickly, she poured and drank another. But there was no help in the bottle today.
She heard the shower start upstairs. Michael was up.
Throwing the covers back, she got out of bed, put on her prosthetic leg, and made her way across the family room slowly; aware of every step, every bump and line and scar on the wood floor. In the past few weeks, she’d made excellent progress with her prosthesis, she was able to wear it almost all the time now, and her movements were getting stronger every day.
At the rag rug, she positioned her fake foot carefully so she wouldn’t slip and then kept going. Up the stairs. Grab, lift, thrust, place, step. Each riser took phenomenal concentration and resolve. By the time she got to the master bedroom, she was sweating.
She shouldn’t be up here. It was off-limits, really, this second floor. No one trusted her to use the stairs. No one trusted her to do much of anything, really. She could hardly blame them.
She limped over to the closet and opened the louvered doors. Her clothes were all still there, neatly aligned.
The first thing she saw were her ACUs, the combat fatigues, with the black beret pinned to the chest. She and Tami had worn that uniform almost every day in Iraq …
Beyond it were her class As—dress uniform: a jacket, knee-length skirt, and white blouse. She pulled it out, stared down at the jacket with its gold detailing, surprised by the emotion that washed over her.
“Jo?” Michael said, coming into the room. He was bare-chested, wearing a towel wrapped low on his hips; his hair was still wet. “You’re crying,” he said.
He came over, took the uniform from her. “Let me help you get downstairs. Mom should be here by now.”
“I can’t do this.”
His gaze was steady, warm. “You can.” He held on to her arm, steadied her as she moved through the bedroom and went down the stairs, where Mila was waiting at the kitchen table, sipping coffee.
“I came to help you get ready,” she said gently.
Jolene felt as empty as corn husk, hollow, dried-out. She was shaking when her mother-in-law took her by the elbow.
Mila helped her into the shower. When Jolene was done, and wrapped in a big, thick towel, Mila positioned her on the toilet, then brushed and dried her hair. Her residual leg stuck out like a baseball bat, still swollen and decorated with bright-pink stitch marks. Mila wrapped it expertly in the elastic bandage and then covered it with the gel sock.