A Hero to Come Home To

Prologue

 

 

Thirteen months, two weeks, and three days.

 

That was the first conscious thought in Carly Lowry’s head when she opened her eyes Tuesday morning. It was like an automatic tote board, adding each day to the total whether she wanted it to or not.

 

Thirteen months, two weeks, and three days. The way she marked her life now. There weren’t events or occasions, no workdays or weekends, holidays or seasons. This was the only important passage of her time.

 

Thirteen months, two weeks, and three days since the helicopter transporting Jeff had been shot down in Afghanistan. Since her own life had ended. Her stubborn body just didn’t recognize it.

 

Closing her eyes again, she groped for the remote on the nightstand and hit the power button. The morning news was on, though she paid it little mind. She didn’t care about the latest bank robbery in Tulsa, or the sleazy lawyer’s newest excuse to keep his high-profile client out of court on homicide charges, or which part of the city had construction woes adding to their morning commute.

Here in Tallgrass, Oklahoma, none of those things had happened in a long time. It was a great place to raise kids, Jeff had told her when they’d transferred here. Low crime rate, affordable cost of living if they discounted the air-conditioning bill in the dog months of summer, and all the amenities of Fort Murphy right next door. He’d loved downtown, with its stately buildings of sandstone and brick, none taller than three stories, as solid as if they’d grown right up out of the soil. He’d liked the old-fashioned awnings over the shop windows and the murals of cowboys, buffalo, and oil rigs painted on the sides of some of those buildings, along with restored eighty-year-old ads, back when phone numbers had only three digits. He’d loved the junk stores, where detritus of past lives showed up, their value and sometimes even their purpose forgotten. Rusty faded pieces of the town’s history.

 

He’d loved her. Promised their time in Tallgrass would be good. Promised that when he retired from the Army, they would settle in just such a little town to finish raising their kids and turn gray and creaky together.

 

He’d broken his promise.

 

A sob escaped her, though she pretended it was a yawn and threw back the covers as if sleep might entice her if she remained in bed one minute longer. Truth was, crying every night wasn’t conducive to a good night’s sleep.

 

She avoided looking in the mirror as she got into the shower. She knew she had bed head, her pajamas made no attempt whatsoever at style, and her eyes were red and puffy. When she got out ten minutes later, she concentrated on the tasks of getting dried, dressed, and made up instead of the signs of tears, the fourteen pounds she’d gained, and the simple platinum band on her left hand.

 

She was ready for work early. She always was. While a cup of coffee brewed in the sleek machine she had bought as a surprise after Jeff had coveted it at the PX, she opened the refrigerator, then the pantry, looking for something to eat. She settled, as she did every morning, on oatmeal labeled as a “weight-control formula.” She ate it for the protein, she told herself, because she needed the energy at work, and not because those fourteen pounds were huddled stubbornly on her hips and plotting to become twenty. To help them along, she added creamer and real sugar to her coffee, then topped off the meal with two pieces of rich, chocolate-covered caramel.

 

It was still too early for work, but too late to stay in the house any longer. After making sure the papers she’d graded the night before were inside her soft-sided messenger bag—of course they were—she stuffed her purse in, too, before grabbing her keys and heading outside to the car.

 

It was a chilly morning, but she didn’t dash back in for a jacket. A utilitarian navy-blue one was tossed across the passenger seat. Since college, she’d kept one in the car for cold restaurants, not that she ate out much anymore. Eating alone was bad enough; doing it in public exceeded her capabilities.

 

Two miles stretched out between her neighborhood and the Fort Murphy gate, then less than another to the post’s school complex where she taught. Most soldiers reported for duty an hour or more before school started, so she could wait that much longer at home and make the trip in less time, but moping was as well done in the car as at home.

 

She moved into the long double-lane line turning off Main Street and into the post. The only traffic jams Tallgrass ever saw were outside the fort’s two main gates in the morning and afternoon. Jeff had liked to go to work early and stay late because life was too damn fun to sit idle in traffic.

 

He’d never sat idle.

 

Finally it was her turn to show her license and proof of insurance to the guard at the gate, who waved her through with a courteous, “Have a good day, ma’am.”

 

Oh, yeah. Her days were so good, she wasn’t sure how many more of them she could handle.

 

"You need to talk to someone," her sister-in-law had advised her in last week’s phone call.

 

"To who? I've talked to the grief counselors and the chaplains, I've talked to you, I've even tried to talk to Mom." Carly’s voice had broken on that.

 

Lisa’s voice had turned sympathetic. "You know your mom doesn't 'get' emotional."

 

A thin smile curled her lips as she turned into the parking lot for the schools. None of her family “got” emotional. Mom, Dad, and three brothers: scientists, every last one of them. Logical, detached, driven by curiosity and rationale and great mysteries to solve. Unfortunately, she, with her overload of emotion, wasn’t the right sort of mystery for them. They were sympathetic—to a point. Understanding—to a point. Beyond that, though, she was more alien to them than the slide samples under their microscopes.

 

Easing into a parking space, she cut off the engine. Large oaks, with last fall’s brown leaves waiting to be pushed aside by this spring’s new ones, shaded the U-shaped complex. She worked in the one ahead of her, the elementary school; the middle school was, appropriately, in the middle; and the high school stood across the vast lot behind her.

 

Only two other employees had beaten her: one of the janitors and the elementary principal. He was a nice guy who always came early—problems of his own to escape at home, or so the gossips said—and brought pastries and started the coffee in the teachers’ lounge. He was about her father’s age, but much more human. He understood emotion.

 

Still, she didn’t open her car door, even when the chill crept over her as the heater’s warmth dissipated. The comment about her mother hadn’t been the end of her conversation with Lisa. Her sister-in-law had returned to the subject without missing a beat.  "You need to talk to someone who's been there, Carly. Someone who truly knows what it's like. Another wife."

 

Lisa couldn’t bring herself to use the word widow, not in reference to Carly. Carly couldn’t, either.

 

"I don't know …" She could have finished it several ways. I don't know if I want to talk to anyone. I'm all talked out. Or I don't know if talking could possibly help. It hasn't yet. Or I don't know any other wives whose husbands have died.

 

But that wasn’t true. Wives—widows—didn’t tend to stay in the town where their husbands had last been assigned. They usually had homes or families to return to. But she knew one who hadn’t left: Therese Matheson. Well, she didn’t actually know her, other than to say hello. Therese’s kindergartners were on recess and at lunch at different times than Carly’s third-graders, and their free periods didn’t coincide, either.

 

But Therese had been there, done that and had the flag and posthumous medals to show for it. Therese really, truly knew. Would it hurt to ask if they could meet for dinner one evening? One dinner wasn’t much of a commitment. If it didn’t pan out, so what? At least she would have eaten something besides a frozen entrée or pizza.

 

Therese would be at school before the eight-fifteen bell. Carly would find out then.

 

***

 

“Tuh-reese, where’s my pink shirt?”

 

Thirteen-year-old Abby’s voice had always had a shrill edge, from the first time Therese Matheson had met her, but it had grown even worse over the past months. It was designed to get on her nerves quicker than a classful of kindergartners who’d had too much sugar, too much whine, and not enough rest.

 

“Tuh-race,” she murmured for the thousandth time before raising her voice enough to be heard upstairs. “If it’s not in your closet, Abby, then it’s in the laundry.”

 

Footsteps reminiscent of a Jurassic Park T. Rex resounded overhead, then Abby appeared at the top of the stairs. She was barely a hundred and ten pounds. How could she make such noise? “You mean you didn’t wash it?”

 

Therese bit back the response that wanted to pop out: How many times have I told you? Instead, keeping her tone as normal as possible, she said, “You know the policy. If it’s not in the hamper, it’s not going to make it to the washer.”

 

The girl’s entire body vibrated with her frustration. “Oh God, the one day a week we don’t have to wear our uniforms and we all decided to wear pink today, and now I can’t because you can’t be bothered to do your job! My mom always …” The words faded as she whirled, her pale blond and scarlet hair flouncing, and stomped back to her room.

 

Your job. Therese leaned against the door frame. Being a mother was work, sure, tumultuous and chaotic, absolutely, but it wasn’t supposed to be a job. It was supposed to be balanced by love and affection, common courtesy and respect. While their little family had an overabundance of tumult and chaos and resentment and hostility, there was precious little of the good things that made the rest worthwhile.

 

“Oh, Paul,” she whispered, her gaze shifting to the framed photo above the fireplace. “You were the glue that held us together. Now that you’re gone, we’re falling apart. I’m trying, I really am, but…” Her voice broke, and tears filled her eyes. “I don’t think I can do this without you.”

 

For as long as she could remember, she’d wanted a husband and children, and for the last six years, she’d wanted Paul’s children—sweet babies with his ready smile, his good nature and sense of humor, his endless capacity to love.

She’d gotten his children, all right. Just not in the way she’d expected.

 

A distant rumble penetrated her sorrow, and her gaze flickered to the wall clock. She blinked away the moisture, cleared the lump from her throat and called, “Jacob! The bus is coming.”

 

Again heavy steps pounded overhead, then her tall, broad-shouldered stepson took the stairs three at a time. Only eleven, he was built like his father and shared the same coloring—dark blond hair, fair skin, eyes like dark chocolate—but that was where the similarities ended. Where Paul had been warm and funny and considerate, Jacob was moody and distant. Paul had been easy to get along with; Jacob was prickly.

 

Not that he wasn’t entitled—rejected by his mother and abandoned, however unwillingly, by his father. Therese tried to be there for him, to talk to him, to comfort him, and God knew how often she prayed for him. But the last time he’d let her hug him had been right after Paul’s funeral fifteen months ago. It seemed the harder she tried, the harder he pushed her away.

He paused only long enough to grab the backpack in the living room, then the door slammed behind him. He didn’t say good-bye, didn’t even glance her way.

 

Therese tried to take a calming breath, but her chest was tight, her lungs so compressed that only a fraction of the air she needed could squeeze through. In the beginning, right after she’d gotten the news of Paul’s death, the difficulty breathing, the clamminess, the fluttering just beneath her breastbone, had been an occasional thing, but over the months it had come more often.

 

People asked her how she was doing, and she gave them phony smiles and phony answers, and everyone believed her, even her parents. She was afraid to tell the truth: that every day was getting worse, that she was losing ground with the kids, that her stomach hurt and her chest hurt and her head was about to explode. She did her best to maintain control, but she was only pretending. Whatever control she had was fragile and, worse, sometimes she wanted to lose it. To shatter into nothingness. After all, nothing couldn’t be hurt, couldn’t suffer, couldn’t grieve. Nothing existed in a state of oblivion, and some days—most days lately—she needed the sweet comfort of oblivion.

 

Another rumble cut through the rushing in her ears, and she forced her mouth open, forced Abby’s name to form. Unlike Jacob, Abby didn’t ignore her but glared at her all the way down the stairs. Contrary to her earlier shriek, she was wearing pink: a silk blouse from Therese’s closet. It was too big for her, so she’d layered it over a torso-hugging tank top and tied the delicate fabric into knots at her waist.

 

Abby’s defiant stare dared Therese to comment. Just as defiant, she ground her teeth and didn’t say a word. She had splurged on the blouse for a date night with Paul, but no way she would wear it again now. If it was even salvageable after a day with the princess of I-hate-you.

 

The door slammed, the sudden quiet vibrating around Therese, so sharp for a moment that it hurt. The house was empty. She was empty.

 

Dear God, she needed help.

 

She just didn’t know where to get it.

 

***

 

As the warning bell rang, Carly left her class in the capable hands of her aide and made her way to the kindergarten wing that stood at a right angle to her own wing. Therese Matheson’s classroom was at the end of the hallway, next to a door that led to the playground. It was large and heavy, especially compared to the five-year-olds that populated the hall, but since five-year-olds were proven escape artists, it was wired with an alarm to foil any attempts.

 

Therese stood in the hallway, greeting her students, ushering the stragglers into the room. Pretty, dark haired, she looked serene. Competent. So much more in control of herself than Carly. For a moment, Carly hesitated, unsure about her plan. What could she possibly have to offer Therese?

 

Then she squared her shoulders, fixed a smile on her face and approached her. “Hi, Therese, I’m Carly Lowry. Third grade?” One hand raised, thumb pointing back the way she’d come. “I, uh…My husband was…”

 

Sympathy softened Therese’s features even more. “I know. Mine, too.”

 

A pigtailed girl darted between them, pausing long enough to beam up, revealing a missing tooth. “Hi, Miss Trace.”

 

“Good morning, Courtney.” Therese touched her lightly on the shoulder before the girl rushed inside.

 

Kindergartners were unbearably cute, but Carly couldn’t have taught them. That young and sweet and cuddly, they would have been a constant reminder of the kids she and Jeff had planned to have. Would never have.

 

“I was, uh, wondering…well, if you would mind getting together for dinner one night to—to talk. About…our husbands and, uh, things. If…well, if you’re interested.”

 

Therese considered it, raising one hand to brush her hair back. Like Carly, she still wore her wedding ring. “I’d like that. Does tonight work you?”

 

Carly hadn’t expected such a quick response, but it wasn’t as if she had any other demands on her time. And if she had too much time to think about this idea, she very well might back out. “Sure. Is Mexican all right?”

 

Therese smiled. “I haven’t had a margarita in months. The Three Amigos?”

 

It was Tallgrass’s best Mexican restaurant, one of Jeff’s favorites. Because of that, the only Mexican food Carly had since he died had been takeout from Bueno. “That would be great. Does six work for you?”

 

Therese’s smile widened. “I’ll be there.”

 

The bell rang, the last few kids in the hall scurrying toward their classes. Carly summoned her own smile. “Good. Great. Uh, I’ll see you tonight.”

 

An unfamiliar emotion settled over her as she walked back to her own classroom. Hope, she realized. For the first time in thirteen months, two weeks, and three days, she felt hopeful. Maybe she could learn how to live without Jeff, after all.

 

 

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