He kept hold of her arm as they went into the family room, where Mila and the girls were waiting. Mila and Betsy both held foil-wrapped casserole dishes, and Jolene thought, I should have cooked.
Tami’s seven-layer dip. She loved it …
She almost stumbled; Michael held her steady. They walked out of the house and across the yard. On this cold November evening, it was already darkening. Soon, there would be frost on the fence posts and across the green surface of the grass.
Michael opened the gate. They walked through the opening and over the hump of grass and up the Flynns’ gravel driveway. At the house, there were dozens of cars and trucks parked out front. Lights blazed from the windows.
I love a party.
She heard Tami’s voice, her throaty laugh … or was that the wind through the cedar boughs?
Seth welcomed them into the house; he looked as dazed and shaky as Jolene felt. She saw the envelope sticking out of his pocket. It was a reminder of her own last letter from Tami, which lay hidden in a drawer in her nightstand, still unopened. He wore his mother’s dog tags around his neck.
“Stay with your mom,” Michael said to Betsy. He and Mila worked their way through the crowd, taking the food to the table.
“Lucky me,” Betsy muttered under her breath.
Jolene barely heard. She remained by the door. She heard talking, even laughing, but it made no sense to her. Tami should be here. It was her house …
The narrow manufactured home was too full of people; food covered every surface in the kitchen and dining room. Most of their Guard unit was here. Oh, God, there were Smitty’s parents, their faces different now, lined by the kind of grief that constricted blood flow and tightened skin. What would she say to them? What would they say to her?
An easel in the center of the room held a poster-sized picture of Tami in her ACUs, smiling brightly for the camera, waving to the folks back home. Jolene had taken that picture only a few weeks before the crash … Give me your real smile, Tam, come on …
She closed her eyes, trying not to remember. Count to ten. Breathe. She needed to go talk to Smitty’s parents, to tell them how sorry she was for their loss and how brave their son had been. He didn’t suffer. Was that what they would want to hear? Or that he’d been courageous or funny or thoughtful?
Behind her, a door slammed shut. Bam! Jolene screamed. In an instant, she was in Balad again, and the base was under attack, and a rocket whizzed by her head. She reached for Tami, told her to take cover, and threw herself to the ground.
She hit so hard it knocked the breath from her lungs, made her dizzy.
When she opened her eyes, she saw a pale white patch of linoleum and a sea of feet. Not boots … not sand. Nothing smelled like smoke or mortar fire.
Feeling sick with shame, Jolene realized that she was on the floor of Tami’s house.
Her family and friends—and the soldiers from her unit—stood around her, beers in their hands, smiles faded, peering down at her with concern. They were talking. Was it to her or themselves? She couldn’t tell; their voices were a chain-saw buzz of sound. Michael was in the kitchen, standing beside Carl. A song—“Crazy for You”—blared through old speakers in a distant room.
“Oh, my GOD,” Betsy yelled, distancing herself from Jolene. “What’s WRONG with you?”
Jolene saw how mortified her daughter was. “I’m sorry, Betsy,” she whispered, crawling slowly to a stand. She was shaking now; she couldn’t breathe. She hated the pity she saw in the eyes around her.
She knew she should say something, make some pathetic excuse, but what was there? She could see by the way her friends were looking at her that they knew, all of them; they knew she was damaged now, broken. Crazy.
She limped for the front door, pushing through it, going out into the night.
“Jolene, wait,” she heard Michael yell from inside the house.
She slammed the door shut behind her and kept going, limping down the gravel driveway and across the grass field that separated their properties.
She was almost home when Michael caught up with her. He took her by the arm, tried to stop her.
She pushed him away. “Leave me alone.”
“Don’t say anything,” she hissed. She was losing herself as she stood here, falling apart by degree. “Leave me alone.”
“Jolene,” he said. “Let me help you.”
She pushed past him and went into the house, then limped into her bedroom. She turned to slam the door shut and stepped wrong, came down hard on her blisters, and a rage exploded inside of her, made her shake it was so powerful. Suddenly she wanted the prosthesis off—off—she couldn’t stand looking at it. She leaned against the dresser and took it off, screaming as she threw it across the room. The ugly plastic leg hit a vase Mila had given them last Christmas, and the pretty blue and white Chinese porcelain cracked into pieces.
She started to laugh even though it wasn’t funny, was the opposite of funny, but she kept laughing. Look, Tam—no leg!
She wanted to sink to her knees, but she couldn’t do it. One of the many things she couldn’t do anymore. It took everything she had just to stand here, storklike, swaying.
She laughed harder at that. Then she realized she had to go to the bathroom and she’d thrown her leg and the wheelchair wasn’t here and her crutches were in the mudroom.
Cursing, she hopped awkwardly forward, balancing on the furniture. In the bathroom, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror and looked away. Her hands were shaking as she unbuttoned her jeans and shoved them down to her ankles. She realized too late that she wasn’t close enough to the toilet.
She hopped closer, stepped down on one pant leg, and lost her balance; her ankle twisted. Falling sideways, she grabbed the towel rack. It ripped out of the wall, and she crashed to the floor, hitting her shoulder on the edge of the sink hard enough to make her cry out.
She lay there for a moment, dazed, her shoulder and ankle throbbing, and suddenly she was screaming in frustration.
The bathroom door banged open. “Jolene?”
Michael knelt beside her, touched her face. “Baby,” he said softly, in the voice she had once loved—still loved—and it made her feel so lonely and lost she couldn’t stand it.
“Are you okay?”
“Do I look okay?”
“Baby,” he said again, and suddenly she was crying. Sobbing. She tried to stop, to hold back these useless, useless tears and be strong.
Michael took her in his arms and held her tightly, stroking her hair.
Once she’d started to cry, she couldn’t stop. Great, gulping sobs wracked her body, shook her like a rag doll until her nose was running and she couldn’t breathe. She cried first for Tami, but then it was for everything she’d lost, all the way back to her parents, and even before that, for the family she’d longed for as a child and never had. She cried for Smitty, and her lost career and her missing leg and her best friend and her marriage.
When she finally came back to herself, she felt weak, shaky. She drew back and saw that Michael was crying, too.
He gave her an unsteady smile and she needed it—needed him. Telling herself anything else was a lie. “I take it you need to go to the bathroom.”
It made her laugh. Only she could have the breakdown of her life on the bathroom floor, with her jeans down around her ankles. Ankle. “Yeah.”
He got up and picked her up as if she weighed nothing and set her on the toilet, then he reached over and unspooled a wad of toilet paper, handing it to her like a perfect white rose.
She’d peed in front of him a thousand times in their marriage, but now the act felt painfully intimate. She thought about asking him to leave and changed her mind. Whatever was happening now between them, she didn’t want to ruin it.
She flushed the toilet when she was done.
He knelt in front of her, helped her pull her panties back up.
She saw him look at her gel-socked stump and felt sick to her stomach. He would look away now …
Instead, he slowly peeled off the gel sock, and there it was—the ugly, rounded stub of her once-beautiful leg. He leaned forward and kissed the bright pink scar.
When he looked up, she saw the love in his eyes—there was no denying it anymore. Impossible as it seemed, he’d fallen in love with her again. She’d known on that day in the courtroom, hadn’t she? Known it and feared it.
“You know, right?”
“No arguments,” he whispered, then he picked her up and carried her out of the bathroom. She expected him to set her down on her bed, but he kept walking, out of her room and up the stairs.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Our bed,” he said, climbing the stairs with her in his arms.
She clung to him. All the way up the stairs she thought of why it was a bad idea for them to make love. The doctors had told her she could “resume sexual activity” when she felt ready, but what would it be like?
She wanted to say stop, I’m not ready, but even as she had the thought, pushed up by a lifelong fear, she knew it was a lie. She had been ready to love this man from the moment she first saw him. In all these years, that had never changed. They’d hurt each other, let each other down, and yet, here they were after everything, together. She needed him now, needed him to remind her that she was alive, that she wasn’t alone, that she hadn’t lost everything.
She had to believe in him again; it was their only chance. Her only chance. There was no protection from being hurt except to stop loving all together, and she couldn’t do it. She’d tried. She wanted love—reckless, unpredictable, dangerous. Even with her damaged body and her even more damaged heart. She wanted it. Wanted him.
He shoved the bedroom door open and then kicked it shut behind him. At the bed, he stopped, breathing a little hard from the exertion of carrying her up the stairs. In his eyes, she saw the same intense passion that had jolted her body at his touch, brought her back to life, but she saw fear, too, and worry. They lay down together.
“I love you, Jo,” he said simply, although they both knew there was nothing simple about such a declaration.
“I love you, too, Michael,” she said brokenly. “I always have.”
He took her in his arms and kissed her. Her body came alive at his touch, opened to him, and she moaned his name, pressed against him. She drew him close, wanting him more than she ever had.
His hand slid under her shirt, unhooked her bra.
She took a deep breath, trying to gather her courage. She wanted him, wanted this to happen, but it frightened her, too. What would love be like with this new body of hers? Would he really still want her?
Moonlight came through the window, illuminating her pale legs. Her thighs were the same size—the swelling had gone down—one tapered to a knee and a shapely calf and a foot. The other …
She so rarely let herself really look at it. Now she did, and she knew Michael was looking, too, at the amputated leg, with its rounded end and Frankenstein stitches, still an angry pink. Lulu had been right: it kind of looked like a football.