Jolene looked up sharply. “What did you say, Carl? What did Seth say about Tami?”
“He was mad at me for using the picture from Iraq. He yelled, ‘That’s not my mom. It’s not even her real smile.’ I should have listened to him, and then Betsy said, ‘My mom hasn’t smiled since she got back.’”
“I know where they might be,” Jolene said.
“Where?” Carl asked.
“They want the last pictures of us,” she said, her throat tight. “The last time they saw their moms.”
“The Crab Pot,” Michael and Carl said together.
“You go,” Carl said to Michael. “I’ll stay here in case you’re wrong.”
Jolene and Michael were already moving, going into the house, grabbing the car keys. In no time, they were in the car, backing down the driveway and turning onto the bay road. Neither spoke as they drove along the water. At some point, Jolene reached out and put her hand on his thigh, needing to touch him. “If anything happens to them…”
“Don’t say it, Jo,” he pleaded.
They pulled up into the Crab Pot parking lot, which was empty. Two solitary streetlamps threw spots of light down on the asphalt.
Michael ran and Jolene limped as fast as she could to the front door, which was ajar. The window beside it was broken. Shards of glass lay on the weathered silver boards at their feet.
A pinprick of light shone in the shadowy interior.
Michael opened the door slowly; it creaked in protest.
Seth and Betsy were huddled together at the wall, holding Polaroid pictures in the beam of a flashlight.
Jolene heard Seth say quietly, “See her smile, Betsy? That’s her.”
Jolene’s relief was profound, but short-lived. She should have been truthful with her children from the beginning. She should have warned them that war could hurt her, change her, change them. Protecting them from the inevitable had only increased their pain and confusion and caused all this collateral damage.
“Hey, Betsy,” she said quietly.
Betsy saw her and grimaced. “We’ll pay for the window. Don’t worry.”
“We aren’t worried about the window,” Michael said.
“I had to get out of there,” Seth said, tears filling his eyes. “They were all telling these stories about her in the Guard. And I missed her so much I couldn’t stand it. I wanted to see her the way I remembered her. Betsy was the only one who understood.”
“A good friend is like that,” Jolene said quietly.
Betsy swallowed hard, staring at her. She held out the Polaroid picture of their family; it shook slightly in her grasp. “She never came back.”
“Come here, Betsy,” Jolene said.
Betsy looked terrified by the request. She clung to Seth’s hand as if she thought she might be yanked into a whirlwind if she let go. After all that had happened in this year, that was smart thinking on her part. They’d all become Dorothys, hurtling through a tornado. Who knew where they would land?
“I’ll tell you what,” Jolene said at last. “We’ll take Seth home, and then you and I will talk.”
“Are you going to lie to me and tell me everything is fine?” Betsy asked.
“No,” Jolene said quietly. “I’m not going to lie to you anymore.”
* * *
It took them almost an hour to get everything settled down and taken care of back at the house. All the while, Jolene thought about the advice young Keith Keller had given her: Come home to the people who love you. It was time, finally, for Jolene to do that, and, to be honest, she was more than a little afraid.
When Carl and Seth and the police finally left, Jolene looked at Betsy, who was standing on the end of the porch, wrapped in a big blanket.
“Can we talk now?” Jolene asked quietly.
Betsy nodded, although she didn’t look happy about it.
Jolene took her daughter by the hand and led her into the family room. At the sofa, Betsy tugged her hand free and hung back while Jolene sat down. Michael kissed them both and went upstairs.
She heard his footsteps on the stairs, then creaking on the second floor.
They were alone.
“What do you want to say?” Betsy said, standing back. Her cheeks were still red with cold and her eyes were wary. For the first time, Jolene noticed the small pink pearl earrings.
She frowned. “Are your ears pierced?”
“I wondered when you were going to notice. I guess you have to look at me to see them.”
“I know, but—”
“You weren’t here. And I’m practically thirteen.”
It was a sharp reminder of all the time Jolene had lost with her daughter, and of the problems that lay between them now. In Jolene’s absence, life had gone on; Michael had stepped up to the plate and guided their family, and he’d made decisions along the way. Jolene had never wanted to leave her children for any reason, and yet she had; she’d abandoned them in a way, and Betsy couldn’t forgive her.
“No,” Jolene said slowly. “I wasn’t. I’m sorry about that, Betsy.”
“I know you’re sorry.”
“It’s not enough. What is?”
Betsy looked away. “I don’t want to have this conversation.”
“Come here, baby,” Jolene said gently.
Betsy moved forward woodenly.
“Closer,” Jolene said.
Betsy shook her head.
“You’re mad at me for leaving … and for getting hurt.”
Betsy shrugged, said, “Whatever.”
Jolene didn’t look away, even though the pain in her daughter’s eyes was a terrible thing to see. “I know I’m not the mom you remember, the mom you want. I know you’re mad at me. And I deserve it, Betsy. Not for going to war. I had to do that. But for who I’ve been since I got home.” She got up, trying not to limp, and reached out, taking hold of Betsy’s warm, soft hand. “I’m sorry I scared you. Or embarrassed you.”
Betsy’s eyes filled with tears. “I read Tami’s last letter to Seth. Did you write me one?”
Jolene wanted to lie, to say no, of course not, I knew I’d never leave you alone, but she was done with wrapping her life in pretty paper and pretending. “I did. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, thinking about leaving you and Lulu and your dad.”
“What did it say?”
“There were a lot of words and stories and advice, I guess. I tried to tell you everything you would need to know without me. I told you about my life, my parents, the kind of childhood I’d had, and how love—and motherhood—had changed me. I told you I was afraid to leave you. Things I should have told you before I left.” She looked at Betsy. “It said I love you in a thousand different ways.”
“Do you still?”
Jolene felt tears come to her eyes. She couldn’t help wondering how long it would wound her, the memory of this question. “I will love you forever, Elizabeth Andrea Zarkades. I might screw up, I might embarrass you, I might yell at you, but I will never, ever stop loving you. You’re my firstborn. The first time I held you…” Her voice broke on that; the tears started to fall. “I fell in love so hard it cracked my bones.”
The hug came so fast, Jolene stumbled sideways, almost lost her balance, but she clung to her daughter until they steadied. She held her daughter tightly, breathing in the familiar, girly scent of her corkscrewed blond hair, feeling Betsy’s sobs.
Jolene knew there would be more fights, probably lots of them, and screaming and hurt feelings and wrong things said, but there would be this, too.
Finally, Betsy drew back and looked up. Her beautiful, heart-shaped face glistened with tears. “I love you, Mom. To the moon and back. I should have said it when you left.”
Jolene didn’t know it until right then, this second, but those were the words she’d been waiting to hear. “I knew, baby,” she said, holding her close again. “I always knew…”
The psychiatrist’s office was a boxy little midcentury house that backed up to the fury of Aurora Avenue. Michael pulled up out front and parked next to an electric car. “Are you ready for this?”
Michael smiled in encouragement. “I’m pretty sure that’s the right answer.”
Jolene got out of the car. In the week since Tami’s memorial service, she had relaxed a lot. The talk with Betsy, the reunion with Michael, the return of Lulu’s laughter—all of it had combined to restore Jolene’s sense of self. She’d poured her wine down the drain and put her sleeping pills away. But she still had a long way to go. Even in Michael’s arms, she sometimes woke screaming for the crew that had been lost, for the helicopter that had crashed. Sometimes she still found herself standing somewhere—in the kitchen, in the bathroom, on her own back porch—and loss would overwhelm her. Maybe that sadness would be a part of her now, a weave in the fabric of her soul; or maybe it had been there all along and she’d never let herself see it. All she knew was that it was time to dig deeply into her own psyche, to figure out how to come home from war figuratively as well as literally, how to forge a new life after a sharp bend in the road. Since she’d given up drinking, it was easier to see the path of her own life more clearly.
An older man greeted them in the main room of the house. He was tall and gangly-looking, with long, unkempt gray hair and an angular face. He was wearing baggy black pants, orange clogs, and a Grateful Dead tee shirt. “Hello, Jolene,” he said. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”
This was her doctor? “Oh,” was all she could think of to say.
He smiled broadly. “I’m Chris Cornflower. I see Michael didn’t prepare you.”
Michael laughed. “There’s no preparing someone to meet you for the first time, Chris. It’s an experience.”
“He told me you were a Vietnam vet,” Jolene said.
“And I am. A POW, too.” He reached out and shook her hand. “I’m thrilled to meet you, Chief.”
“I’m not that woman anymore.”
“And there’s our job, Jolene, to find out who you are now. Would you like to come back to my office?”
She hesitated, looked back at Michael, who smiled and nodded. “Okay,” she said.
She followed Chris into a small, nicely decorated room in the back. She was glad to see that there was no couch. “I don’t know exactly how to do this,” she said, taking a seat in the comfortable chair positioned near his desk.
“I have some experience,” he said, giving her a smile. “We could start so many places. Your childhood, your experiences in Iraq, your best friend, your civilian future. Whatever you want to talk about first.”
She laughed nervously. “When you put it like that, it makes me think we’ll be doing this for a while.”
“Only as long as you want to, Jolene. You’re the chief here; I’m the private. You lead, I follow.”
She was afraid to dive into this conversation. They both knew it. But she’d already let fear guide her before, and that hadn’t worked. “People see my lost leg and they think that’s the problem. But I lost more than that. Sometimes I have no clue who I’m supposed to be or what my life will look like from here on. I was good at being a soldier. I like answers.”