Part III: What Love Remains
Sara never really got any explanation of the events of Cold Lazarus. And when an old friend of Jack’s shows up unexpectedly, she is determined to get some answers.
Archivist’s Note: Please be aware that although I do consider this tale of Flora’s to be a fairly accurate depiction of events which took place in the universe where my own story “All That We Leave Behind” and the rest of the By Honor Bound series are set, neither the scenes between Jack and Sara nor Jack’s visit to Lisa Cromwell depicted in Flora’s story take place in my universe, for the simple reason that in my universe, Jack does not have time to recover enough from his own injuries and emotional shock to visit Lisa before learning that Frank Cromwell may well have survived his fall into the Stargate and have reached the planet to which the wormhole jumped. Also, in my universe, Carter realizes this is possible before Frank’s status has been officially declared, so that he is never listed as ‘missing, presumed dead’ but rather is simply MIA. However, Sara’s recollections of Frank’s visit with her after his car accident and of their conversations are accurate to my own universe in every way but timeframe. It should be noted that while Frank’s visit with Sara occurs in early March of 1999, I place the events of “A Matter of Time” in July of 1999, whereas Flora places them in March. I simply posit several months passing between the 121st Special Tactics team being briefed by General West and the time when they are actually called upon to carry out the duty for which he prepared them. My own treatment of the timeline should in no way be taken as detracting from Flora’s outstanding work. She sets the events of “A Light In Dark Places” at Christmas 1998 (thus placing the episodes “Serpent’s Lair” and “Within The Serpent’s Grasp” at that time as well); “All Go Down Together” and the Frank/Sara portions of “What Love Remains” follow just over two months later in both her timeline and my own. — Ana Kaye Lake
The phone rings.
I ignore it, ripping open a bag of French fries and dumping a few handfuls into the fryer. It never crosses my mind that any phone calls here could have anything to do with me.
“Good evening, Pirate’s Cove?” Jill, my boss, answers the phone, chopping lettuce at the same time. “Yes, we’re open ’til nine.”
I’ve been working here for a little over two years, now. It was a month after Jack left when I saw the “Help Wanted” sign outside, while I was at the grocery store across the street. And even though Jack and my dad both made sure I didn’t need any money — and I hadn’t worked as a waitress since I graduated college — I went over and told the woman at the take-out counter I was looking for work.
“There’s about a half hour wait.” Jill makes a horrible face at me, even though her voice is perfectly friendly.
She asked me, when I first came in, if I minded getting my hands dirty, and washing dishes and helping her cook when the dining room was slow. I said no, I didn’t mind, and I was hired.
And we soon became good friends.
“You come right on over, hon, we’ll put you on the list.” She hangs up the phone and whacks savagely at the head of lettuce. “Fuckin’ twit,” she tells me, as I lean in front of her to read two orders the waitress just gave us. “I’m like, ‘good evening, Pirate’s Cove,’ and she’s like, ‘is this Pirate’s Cove?’” And she shakes her head, gathering the lettuce and scooping it into a plastic tub. “No, you twit, it’s fuckin’ McDonald’s. Mary Ann!”
Mary Ann, one of the two waitresses who’s here, doesn’t appear. “Mary Ann! Sara, I don’t know where she is, can you go clear tables one and eight?”
The phone rings again.
Jill hates this place. She’s been managing this restaurant along with her sister ever since their parents died. It used to be they’d work alternating days, but now her sister works Mondays and Tuesdays, and Jill gets everything else. But she’s too loyal to her family to leave.
“Good evening, can I help you?”
Me, I love it. There was a time, back when I was working my way through college, when I swore I’d never, ever, go back to working at a restaurant. The hours are long, the money’s not that great, and I get to go home every night smelling like fish, or like grease from the fryers. Smells that never really come out of my clothes, no matter how many times I wash them.
But Jill and her crazy crew are my friends, now, and after I lost the two people closest to me I needed all the friends I could get. Working here, I get to meet all kinds of people, just chatting with all the customers who come in. But most of all, it’s comforting because, when the dining room gets busy, we’re all running around like crazy people trying to get everything done, and there’s no time to think about anything else. And when I get out at night, I’m too exhausted to be depressed for too long, before I fall asleep. Usually. And after about a month of trying desperately to keep busy, cleaning and fixing up a house that’s no longer a home, I was ready to try anything to escape from memories of the past, if only for a little while.
I can feel my cell phone buzzing in my pocket as I head out to the dining room, but I don’t have time to answer it now.
Squeezing between two tables and forcing a smile for the impatient family of six waiting for table one, I gather up forks and plates and dirty placemats in my arms and slip back into the kitchen, dumping everything in the sink by the dishwasher.
Grab six menus, and back to the dining room. “How are we all doing tonight?” Lay the placemats out quickly, ask them if they want anything to drink. Then over to table eight, grab as many dirty dishes as I can carry, and back to the kitchen. Jill’s hanging up the phone with a furious look on her face.
And it rings again.
Mary Ann has finally reappeared, and takes the dishes out of my hands. “So help me God,” Jill says, grabbing the phone, “if that’s Lauren saying she’s not coming in — Good evening, Pirate’s Cove?”
I go to the waitresses’ station, filling two cups with ice. “Who?” I hear Jill ask. “Can you call back later? She’s busy right now.” I’m about to leave the kitchen when she yells my name. “It’s for you.” She gives me a look that says this is not a good time for a very long chat. “You know somebody named Lisa?”
Startled, I set down both glasses with a thump, reaching for the phone. “Hey.”
Sometimes, though, the past can find me even here.
Of all my friends from the old days, Lisa Cromwell is the only one I still talk to regularly. We were closer than sisters once. Best friends, neighbors, fellow military wives waiting for our husbands to come home. Even now, when our husbands haven’t contacted us (or each other) in years, she’s still the one I call when I just need a shoulder to cry on.
It’s more than that, though. She lives up in Denver, now, and we don’t see each other much. But we have a pact, Lisa and I, an understanding… if I ever see her ex-husband, or hear anything about him, I’ll tell her everything. And she’ll do the same. Even though that’s not a likely scenario. Jack doesn’t make a habit of dropping in to check on Lisa, and she’d hardly welcome him if he did. But we don’t keep secrets from each other. Not about Jack and Frank. Those two have kept so many secrets from us, half in the name of Air Force regs, and half in the name of “protecting” us from knowing things they think would hurt us. Somehow it never seemed to cross either of their minds that no knowledge could be worse than what our imaginations came up with, watching them suffering in silence. And so we vowed, long ago, that we would always tell each other the truth, no matter how much it might hurt.
But Lisa doesn’t usually call me at work. Lisa never calls me at work at six o’clock on a Friday night. So I know, before she says a word, that this can’t be good news.
“Thank God, I’ve been trying to call you for two hours… ” I can tell from her voice she’s been crying. “Guess who was just here?”
“Frank?” Just seeing her ex-husband would upset her, after he’s been gone for eight years without even a letter. But that’s not what scares me most — I can’t picture Frank showing up at Lisa’s door to just waltz back into her life. The only reason he’d go to her is if it’s desperately urgent and he’s looking for me.
I’ve been divorced now for more than two years, but still there’s that familiar knot of dread settling in the pit of my stomach, a feeling all military wives know. If something happened to Jack, and Frank couldn’t reach me at home… but surely if Jack was hurt the Air Force would’ve contacted me by now?
Unless it was Jack who’d been to visit. And there’s only one reason Jack would contact Lisa.
“No,” she eventually answers. Jill’s impatient glare is gone, and she’s looking concerned now at the expression on my face. Oh, God, no… Frank, you didn’t…
“What happened?” I hardly dare ask.
There’s a long silence, and her voice cracks when she says, “Frank’s missing. Presumed dead.”
I close my eyes. Of all the cruel ironies in the world… I always knew this was coming. Knew it ever since he left Lisa back in ’91, when he found out Jack was alive. He wouldn’t have been afraid, I know. And he wouldn’t have had a clue what kind of effect his death would have on the rest of us… but especially on her.
“You talked to Jack?” I don’t know what else to say, and I’m still half in shock. Thinking, if he had to die, why does it have to be like this?
I know, from agonizing experience, how those words “presumed dead” can haunt a grieving widow. Those doubts that never quite go away, what if it’s not true, what if he’s alive somewhere? And it’s going to be even harder for her to believe he won’t come back somehow, and prove us and the Air Force all wrong.
After all, we’ve both seen it happen before.
“Yeah.” Mary Ann shoots me a poisonous look as she walks quickly past me, carrying three full plates, but I ignore her. “Are you … can you come over here?”
“I’ll be right over.” She hangs up, and I look at Jill.
And this is why Jill’s the greatest boss I’ve ever had, even if she does scream at us all when we’re busy. Because even though we’re down two people already with a line out the door, she takes one look at my face and says, “Honey, go. We’ll manage.”
My cell phone rings again as I’m getting in my car, and I flip it open as I start the engine. “Lisa?”
“No.” He sounds exhausted. “It’s me.”
Steering out of the parking lot with one hand, I feel suddenly cold. Somehow, hearing from Jack makes it all real in a way it wasn’t two minutes ago. I can’t think of anything to say. Part of me wants to pray, to ask God to rewind time just a few days, just long enough for us to fix all this, make it not so.
But I know that’s useless.
“You heard?” There was a time when his deep, familiar voice would warm me, like a blanket wrapped around me, but there’s a note in it now that sounds wrong. Nothing obvious, to anyone who doesn’t know him well, but he’s not taking this as well as he’s going to pretend. He was there, I realize. He must’ve been, if he knew so quickly. It’s not like he’s been keeping track of Frank, and if he knew before anyone else told Lisa…
“Yeah.” It’s dark as I turn onto the road, accelerating through a yellow light. “What happened?”
I should’ve known better than to ask. Jack doesn’t say anything for a long time, and by the time he does I know exactly what he’s going to say. “Training accident.”
The words sound hollow. “You son of a bitch.” Now I can feel the tears stinging my eyes, as I jam on the brakes, skidding to a stop inches from the sign. “Is that what you told her?”
“No.” He sounds worn out, defeated. I’m surprised… not that I really think he told her anything, but even the admission that he can’t tell her the truth is more than I expected. Better than a story she’d know was a lie. “You going over there?”
“Yeah.” For a moment I want to reach out to him, touch him, take away some of the pain I know he’s hiding. “Jack, I — ”
“Good. She shouldn’t be alone right now.”
“Jack — ” Click. I throw the cell phone angrily on the seat next to me, pushing down on the gas. That was probably the only reason he called, to tell me to go comfort Lisa, if I hadn’t heard already. He wouldn’t call me for his own sake, not because he wanted to talk to me. No, he’ll probably go home, get drunk, and hide from the world for a week or so, then go back to work and pretend like nothing happened.
It’s his way, and I don’t know why it makes me so mad. With everything we’ve been through, I should know better than to try to comfort him. He wouldn’t let me in after he came home from Iraq. He wouldn’t let me in when Charlie died. But there’s still that part of me that can see the little signs, in his face, in his voice, and wants to heal those wounds only I can see.
I’ve tried before, too many times. And all I got was more pain for myself, and I can’t deal with that anymore.
Damn him for doing this to me. Damn him for making me want to care again. Damn him for making me want to help, when I know he won’t let me. And damn Frank, too, for running off to get killed without thinking of how it would affect the rest of us.
It was a dark and stormy night, the kind of night that starts all kind of clichéd stories. So I guess I should have known something was going to happen.
Any sane person might’ve wondered what exactly I thought I was doing out here on the road, when it was after midnight and raining cats and dogs and horses and even a few small elephants. It was coming down in sheets now, great silver curtains sparkling in my headlights and obscuring most of the road, spattering against the roof of this old car with a hissing noise. Not to mention the vague rumblings of thunder that were getting louder, and the distant flickers of lightning I could sometimes see through the thick trees.
I’d been on my way home from my dad’s house. He’d wanted to me to stay overnight. It was stupid, he said, for me to drive all the way back to my house in this storm when it was this late. And I can’t really say why I didn’t, except that I had a real longing for hot chocolate, and my own soft bed.
Maybe it was more than that. Maybe it was some higher force that drew me out that night. To this day, I wonder.
And then I saw him. A man in Air Force blues, sitting hunched over on the church steps, his head bowed. He was far away across the lawn, and through the rain I couldn’t make out his face, but somehow I was sure it was Jack.
I felt my breath catch in my throat, choking back sudden tears as I wrenched the steering wheel hard to the right, coming to a stop at the side of the road.
Why? I demanded silently, opening my eyes and staring at the windshield wipers still beating back and forth, and the swaying pines. Why here? Why now? Why did he have to pick tonight to come here? I did not need to face him tonight.
Pull yourself together, I ordered myself sternly, swiping a sleeve across my eyes. It was a while before I could get up the courage to look behind me, to see that the slumped figure hadn’t moved.
I’d see him last almost a year ago. And it was that time that gave me nightmares still. I hadn’t told Dad what happened. Hell, I still didn’t know what had happened. Dad still thinks it was Jack he talked to, then. How could I tell him anything else?
Hey, Dad, you remember the last time Jack came over? Yeah, when he was acting all weird? Well, turns out there was a reason… seems like he’s turned radioactive or something. Or cloned copies of himself. And learned how to shape-shift, too…
He’d think I’d finally lost it. I hadn’t even told Lisa, and I told her everything…
Lightning flashed, brighter this time, and I couldn’t help shivering.
“It’s not Charlie,” he’d said. Yeah, thanks, Jack. He knew damn well I saw what that gun did to my baby. I saw him lowered into the ground. I knew it wasn’t Charlie in that hospital a year ago. But he sure looked like Charlie. And his hand felt like Charlie’s clasping mine for just a few seconds. I know it wasn’t Charlie, Jack. But tell me this — who the hell was it? And what happened to your radioactive double? And what in the name of all that’s holy are you doing for this top secret Air Force program now?
The day after it happened he called me, and that was the only way I knew I hadn’t completely lost it. He’d seen the same thing I had. But he couldn’t tell me about it now, he just wanted to hear I was all right.
So I told him yes, I was, and he promised a better explanation soon.
It was a month before I heard from him again.
The first week I waited patiently. The second week I thought maybe he was having problems persuading his superiors to let me know the details. The third week I was afraid he’d decided it would be easier on me to cut himself off from me entirely, and he had never intended to tell me anything or even try to talk to me.
The fourth week I was sure of it. And I was furious.
He was either a coward, afraid to face me or his own feelings, or an insensitive son of a bitch who didn’t care about me, or even realize what it did to me to see my son, my dead son, come to life before my eyes. Or both. Either way I wanted nothing to do with him. He left a message on my machine the fifth week, apologizing profusely for not contacting me for so long. I ignored it. In my mind there was nothing that could possibly justify what he’d put me through in the past weeks. The next time he called I told him I didn’t want to hear it, and to just leave me alone.
It’s not like he would have told me the truth, even if I’d let him talk to me.
Staring out the window, I wondered what he was doing here tonight. Why was he at the cemetery at midnight in the rain? I couldn’t help remembering how he’d looked, the last time I saw him. He’d looked weird, then… vague, emotionless. Uncertain. Before he started spraying blue lightning bolts I was worried he was having some kind of nervous breakdown. That empty, lost look in his eyes was one I remembered from when he came back from Iraq, and I thought maybe the accumulated trauma of the past decade had finally caught up to him. Now I wondered the same thing, shivering again. He could be in real trouble, some kind of delayed trauma reaction or whatever they call it. Or he could just be drunk. But either way I couldn’t leave him out here.
But I couldn’t face him right now, either.
I’d told him to leave me alone, and he’d respected that. After a couple months I wished he hadn’t. I was still angry, but I wanted to know. I needed to talk to him. And a part of me also wanted to know he cared enough still to call me. But apparently he hadn’t, or he’d thought I’d really be able to put this behind me without him.
Jack, you sorry son of a bitch.
I didn’t know how I felt about him now. If I still wanted him to care, if I still wanted us to have a chance together, if I’d ever forgiven him for what happened to Charlie. I only knew I was terrified to get out of the car and go to him.
And I was furious with him for making me feel this way.
Sara, stop being such an idiot, I told myself angrily. It might not even be Jack. There are a lot of Air Force people in Colorado Springs.
But whoever it was wouldn’t be sitting in the rain at midnight, the calm voice of logic said, if he had a working car and was able to drive it.
So get out of the damn car already, and ask the man if he needs a lift, for crying out loud!
I scrubbed a hand across my eyes, turning the engine off and shoving the door open. It never crossed my mind to take an umbrella as I sprinted up the drive to the church steps.
There was an overhang that sheltered us from the rain, and I leaned against the heavy oak door for a few seconds to catch my breath, pushing my wet hair out of my face. It was a minute before my voice would work, but he didn’t seem to notice me until I spoke.
It came out sounding kind of breathless, a second before I realized it wasn’t my ex-husband.
All the same he started at the name, looking up finally, dazed brown eyes meeting mine. And I was suddenly very glad Jack hadn’t picked tonight to visit Charlie.
This could have been ugly.
I tried to keep my voice steady, sinking down to sit on the step next to him. “Frank, what are you doing here?”
He’s drunk, was my first thought. Then, I thought he was still overseas. His blue uniform was soaked through, and he was shivering. For a moment we just stared at each other. I hadn’t seen him in more than a year. The last time I talked to him was a long-distance phone call at Christmas from God knows where. He’d been about to leave on a mission then — he didn’t say so, but I could hear it in his voice — and I wondered what it was, what he’d been doing.
He looked like hell. His eyes were unfocused, and I don’t think he was seeing me at all, at first. When I touched his shoulder he flinched, and when his head turned I saw blood matted in his hair and trickling down his face.
Damn. Not drunk, then, but certainly not in good shape… I didn’t know much first aid, but I knew head injuries were bad news. “Frank? What happened?”
“Sara?” He blinked at me, like he was really seeing me for the first time, but not too sure he wasn’t imagining things. “What the — ” Still looking confused, he covered his eyes with one hand, looking back at me a few seconds later like he expected to find I’d never been there. “What are you doing out here in the rain?”
“I might ask you the same thing.” Mixed feelings struggled for expression as I reached out to touch the side of his face, finding a raised lump just above his temple and blood still flowing from a deep gash. First and foremost was an overpowering relief that Jack wasn’t here, that I didn’t have to deal with him tonight. But talking to Frank Cromwell was walking into a whole different emotional minefield, one I wasn’t at all sure I was up to navigating right now.
Practicality won out finally, though, and I swore silently at myself for leaving my cell phone at Dad’s place. Oh, well, I could drive him to the hospital myself. “Come on,” I said, standing up and offering him my hand. “Let’s get you out of here.” He grabbed onto the railing, trying to pull himself up, then finally relented and let me help him to his feet. “My car’s here, they’ll fix you up at the emergency room and get you warm and dry… ”
“No.” He seemed to straighten, one hand on the railing for support. He looked haggard, rain mingled with blood smudged across his cheek, but the dazed expression was gone. In his face there was only that same mixture of reserve and awkward affection I’d always seen when he looked at me, tempered now by regret and a soul-deep exhaustion.
I gave him a sharp look. “What, you want to stay here?”
“My hotel’s not far from here.” He said it like he really thought I was going to drop him off and leave him alone at a hotel room with an untreated head injury. “If you can just give me a ride over there, I’ll be fine.”
“And I got a bridge to sell you in Arizona.” Watching him swaying, I wished again I’d brought my cell phone. Or at least an umbrella. With a sigh I put my arm around him, ignoring the way he stiffened. “I swear, you’ve been hanging around my ex way too long.”
Every time you open your mouth, my mother used to tell me, you always put your foot in it. I’d said it without thinking, cursing myself when he looked away, that brief tightening of his lips betraying a world of pain he’d never show me.
“Come on,” I said quietly, picking up the black duffel bag and a briefcase sitting on the steps next to him, guiding him toward the car. After a few hesitant steps he finally put his arm around my shoulders, leaning heavily against me. I could feel him shivering. “How long have you been out here, anyway?”
His voice was tired. “Don’t know.” I opened the car door, and he practically fell into the front seat, leaning back and closing his eyes. “Ran my car into a tree. It was brand new… government property, too… ”
The car door made a satisfying slam as I got in and started the engine. “It never occurred to you to call an ambulance?”
“Somebody else called it.” His eyes cracked open a fraction. “Must’ve been out a couple minutes… ”
“And you woke up and told the paramedics to leave,” I finished, thinking, Sara, honey, I don’t know why you’re surprised. When it comes to common sense he’s got three things working against him… one, he’s male, two, he’s military, and three, he used to hang around Jack O’Neill.
“Should’ve asked ’em to call me a taxi,” he mumbled, and I shook my head as we pulled away from the curb.
“Look, you really should get that looked at,” I tried one more time. “It wouldn’t take long… ”
In the end I wound up taking him to my place, against my better judgment. There was nothing I wanted more, that night, than to go straight home, change into dry pajamas and go to sleep. But he needed my help right there and then, whether he wanted to admit it or not. And whether or not he thought he deserved it, he was a friend, and I was worried about him.
So I got out of my sopping wet clothes, opened my drawers and stared at the contents for a moment before thinking, the hell with it, and pulling out my flannel pajamas and a bathrobe. The man was practically family, after all. Once upon a time I could almost have called him my brother-in-law. And if he was going to show up after midnight, he’d better not expect me to dress up for him.
I grabbed an old flannel shirt and jeans that had once belonged to Jack, giving them to Frank before I headed down to the kitchen. After discovering I had run out of cocoa, I proceeded to boil water, rummaging through the cupboards for my decaf mint tea. The next task was to find my first aid kit, and by the time I found it he was standing in the kitchen doorway.
Leaning against the doorway would be more accurate, in Jack’s old clothes, his feet bare and his wet hair sticking up in all directions. He looked disoriented, glancing around the kitchen like he wasn’t sure if he should come in. “Sit,” I told him firmly.
There was a look in his eyes I didn’t like, and I didn’t think it had anything to do with being knocked on the head. He hadn’t been here in more than a year, but all the same this house was as familiar to him as his and Lisa’s had once been. This same room was where the four of us used to sit up late, drinking hot cocoa and talking and telling stupid jokes, and all those things friends and family do together. It was a small room, but it felt terribly empty now with just the two of us. Still he didn’t argue, sinking into one of the chairs as I poured mugs of hot tea for both of us.
We started at the same time. “Have you heard from — ?”
It was always the first question, whenever we saw each other. He turned away, putting both elbows on the table and resting his head in his hands. “No.” His shoulders were rigid. “You?”
“No.” Taking out a strip of gauze, I splashed alcohol on it. “Yes.” He looked at me again, wrapping both his hands around the warm mug. “It’s — a long story. I’ll tell you in the morning.”
He winced at my touch, closing his eyes as I tried to push his hair away from the wound. I knew he was way past the end of his rope, if he didn’t press me to tell him the whole story right now. And I couldn’t help feeling a strong surge of pity, and almost reluctant affection, as I dabbed gently at the blood on his face.
That was quite a lump he had there. I didn’t know how to tell if it was a concussion. Hell, it could be a skull fracture for all I knew, but there was no way to tell without getting him to an emergency room.
For a brief, irrational moment I wished Jack was here. Jack knew all about first aid. Of course, it was anybody’s guess whether he’d help Frank or punch his lights out…
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” I asked, holding the gauze against the still oozing gash. He shook his head, then winced again at the motion.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said softly.
“Frank, don’t be an idiot.” Honestly, did he really think I would have left him sitting outside bleeding in the rain? Although, knowing him, he probably thought that would’ve been no more than what he deserved. “What are friends for?”
“I don’t want — ” he started, looking away from me again, but I cut him off with an exasperated sigh.
“Don’t say you don’t want to make trouble for me.” I took a deep breath, dropping the bloody gauze on the table and picking up a clean strip. “Look at me.” He blinked, looking extremely awkward, but didn’t say anything. “You’re not going anywhere until I’m sure you’re okay,” I said sternly, fixing him with my best angry mom look. “And I don’t care what Jack says, you’re my friend, and this is my house now.” And Jack’s not exactly high on my list of most favorite people right now, but we won’t go there. “So will you stay still, for crying out loud?”
His shoulders slumped, but he didn’t move, staring at his mug of tea with an expression that was now completely unreadable. I suppressed a sigh, squeezing some antibiotic cream onto the clean gauze. I couldn’t help thinking of Charlie, sitting in this same chair, squirming impatiently as I washed and bandaged his scrapes and bruises. Men, I thought… it doesn’t matter what age they are, they’re all the same…
“They been wearing you out on exercises all day?” I asked, in an attempt to break the uncomfortable silence that had descended.
I wondered why I bothered. Even his exercises were probably top secret.
“No.” It was almost a whisper. “Just one… very… interesting… briefing.” He waved an unsteady hand at the briefcase on the table.
His eyes were drifting closed again, and I shook his shoulder gently. “Stay with me a little longer here,” I told him, looking through the first aid kit for some tape. “I’m almost done here, then I’ll let you rest.”
He nodded, and I glanced idly at the briefcase, noticing for the first time that it was locked with a combination lock. “So is this going to blow up if I enter the wrong combination?” I asked, a second before I saw the name stamped across the top.
W. O. West.
And there was a small explosion in the back of my brain.
“I don’t know, I’ve never tried.” But I wasn’t listening. A very interesting briefing from General West, of all people. Not an officer high on my (or Frank’s) list of most favorite people, but if he was working for West now he might know something, or someone who knew about what Jack was doing.
Suddenly wide awake, and more than a little frightened, I taped the gauze in place over the wound. “That’s the best I can do right now,” I said. “You sure there’s nothing else I need to look at?”
He stood up with an effort, leaning on the table. “Thanks.” It was almost inaudible.
I gave him a little smile, but he didn’t return it. “Any time,” I said. “The guest room’s — ” I stopped, nodding toward the doorway. “You know where the guest room is.”
Of course he knew where the guest room was. It had been his and Lisa’s second home, once. “I don’t want to make trouble for you,” he said, looking down. “I’ll be fine on the couch.”
I would have protested, but I could see he was less worried about making trouble for me than about facing the memories in that room tonight. That, at least, I could understand. “All right.”
I went upstairs to find him a blanket, and by the time I came back he was already stretched out on the couch in the living room fast asleep. Even now, though, the lines of strain didn’t disappear from his face. There were deep shadows under his eyes, faint white scars along the side of his face that hadn’t been there before. He looked older, much older than the last time he was here. These last few years had not been kind to him.
I spread the blanket over him, looking down at him for a long moment before turning out the light. These years hadn’t been kind to any of us.
Lisa doesn’t look up when I open the door, coming into the living room. She’s sitting at the far end of the couch, watching TV. CNN, some woman talking about problems in Yugoslavia. Wrapped in Frank’s old camouflage field jacket, hugging herself like she’s cold. She keeps staring straight ahead when the screen door bangs shut behind me.
“I’ve been watching the news,” she says, without looking at me. Her voice is far away, fragile. “Just in case there’s something on. You never know.” One hand reaches for the remote, flipping through a few channels. It’s on the weather report right now, but she doesn’t seem to notice. “Something about where… or when, or how… ”
Or why, I fill in the last word silently. That’s the biggest question, I know. ‘It’s not that he’s risking his life, Sara,’ she used to tell me. A long, long time ago… ‘I could live with that. Not saying it would be easy… but I could. It’s that I’ll probably never know why…’
“You find anything?”
The coat’s way too big for her, and in it she looks very small and lost and young. I sit down on the couch, remembering all those times when Jack was gone, when I’d go bed wearing his old shirts and imagine his strong, safe arms were holding me.
But I don’t want to think about Jack right now.
Looking around the room, I can see it’s pretty much the same as the last time I was here. Not much by way of decorations, except for a few framed photos on the mantel. Most of them are of people I’ve never met, fresh young faces filled with hope for the future. Her students, mostly. While she was still married she used to work as a substitute teacher in the Springs, and after Frank left she got a permanent job at a high school near Denver. She loves her job, I know, and she’s been fairly happy here. But she’s never dated anyone since Frank left.
There’s another picture, at the far end of the mantel, of her and him the night they met. I wasn’t there, didn’t know either of them until years later, but I’ve heard the story a thousand times. He and Jack were twenty-four, the night they graduated Special Ops training, and she was eighteen. They’d taken her and a group of her friends to a county fair, blown several months’ base pay buying them all candy and stuffed animals and rides. By the end of the night he had her number, and not long after that she had his heart.
A year later they were married, just days before he left for his first overseas mission. Her whole family disapproved strongly, and as far as I know she hasn’t talked to any of them in almost twenty years. But watching her and Frank together, when I met her a few years afterward, was what eventually convinced me to take a chance on Frank’s charming, crazy friend.
A couple more clicks, and the channel changes again. Fox, this time. “If it was as big as he said it was… ” and her voice cracks a little, “ …you’d think there’d be something on about it.”
You’d think so, I thought, as she dropped the remote on the coffee table, next to a battered-looking cigar box I’d never seen before. But after more than fifteen years as a Special Ops wife, I know better than to count on such things.
I knew pretty much from the start what I was getting myself into, the first time I gave Jack my number and told him he could call me. I’d said no at first, repeatedly. I first ran into him at a store, when he was tagging along shopping with Frank and Lisa, and against my better judgment I’d let him draw me into a conversation.
He made me laugh, with his completely off-the-wall sense of humor. He made me feel beautiful, just in the way he looked at me, and the way he talked to me, in a conversation that lasted less than fifteen minutes. And there was something about his smile, his spontaneous little-boy grin, that made my heart beat just a little bit faster than normal.
But I was not swept off my feet, not then. Not yet.
He asked me for my number, before they left, and I told him, with a laugh that was almost reluctant, that I didn’t date Army guys.
“Good,” he’d said. “We’re Air Force!”
I wasn’t moved, though. In high school, and in junior high, I’d watched too many of my older friends’ boyfriends leave for Vietnam. Some of them came back. A lot of them didn’t. And I’d sworn long ago never to do that to myself.
I watch her as she reaches toward the cigar box, pulling her hand back before she touches it. “What is it?”
She looks at me for the first time, and her eyes are red, but dry now. “I don’t know.” There’s a distant look in her face. “Jack left it here, said it was all they could find of his personal stuff. I — haven’t opened it yet.”
I pick it up carefully, lifting the lid. There’s mostly only papers, old and crinkled, covered with Lisa’s rounded handwriting. Letters, most of them dated from the early ‘80s. One dated September 9, 1991. I remember she showed that one to me before she sent it, asking me if I thought she’d said the right things, if there was anything else I thought she should add, to convince him to come home.
It didn’t work.
And there’s one fragment of a letter in his hand, never finished, never sent. I don’t read it. She takes one look at it and sets it aside on the coffee table, like she’s not ready to read it just yet.
And then there are the pictures.
Underneath the letters there’s a picture of her, looking no older than some of her high school students. There’s a picture of him and Jack the night they graduated Special Ops training, and one of the three of them with their arms around each other the day after Frank and Lisa got married. All of them grinning at the camera, all looking impossibly young.
Then there’s one that must’ve been taken in Germany, their first Christmas together. Sitting in an armchair next to the tree, she’s on his lap, and his arms are around her. And the look on her face in that picture is the one that made me give in, and let Jack take me out that first time, years ago.
Lisa and I had clicked immediately, recognizing in each other a kindred soul. They were new to the Springs then, and during those days I hung around with them, showing them how to get around, I couldn’t help noticing the way they looked at each other. The way they stayed close to each other, and how much they seemed to treasure every moment they spent in each other’s company. They didn’t try to be obvious about it, in front of other people — they were both very shy — but it made an impression on me, seeing how happy they were together.
It wasn’t until after Jack and I were already pretty serious that I saw how miserable she was when he was gone.
Jack was adorable, he was charming, he was funny — he was like a big kid, a lot of the time, but there was a deeper side there he didn’t show often. There’s a picture in here of that week the four of us spent up at his grandfather’s cabin in Minnesota, when he proposed to me. We’re sitting on the end of the dock, our feet dangling in the water, and he’s got that goofy grin on his face.
Oh, yeah. Once I let my guard down I was his, hook, line, and sinker. I knew what I was getting myself into, but for him it was worth it. He had that dark side, that closed-off part of his mind even then, but even if he couldn’t say the words very often he knew how to show me he loved me. There was that grin, and that special note in his voice when we were alone. And his hugs, the way he’d wrap his arms around me and hold me, every evening he came home from the base…
And there’s Lisa again, she’d be, what, twenty-five or so, in this picture? Holding Charlie the day we brought him home from the hospital. I swallow hard past the tears stinging my eyes, looking at the next few pictures, different combinations of the four of us, all holding Charlie. I can’t believe how young we all look…
We were a family, the five of us. None of us really had much other family, not who we had any regular contact with… except for me, and Dad’s job kept him away too often back then. But we had each other, and we knew just how lucky we were. We treasured those times we were together, because we knew how quickly everything might be taken away.
But we never suspected just how it would all fall apart.
Through the years we were Special Ops wives, there were two things we counted on, to comfort us in the uncertainty of our lives. We knew that no matter what, Jack and Frank would look out for each other as much as they could, and neither would ever come home without the other.
And whatever dangers our husbands had to face on a daily basis, we would always have Charlie. We wouldn’t let anything happen to him. He was our hope for the future, when the present seemed all dark.
I hand the photos to Lisa after I finish looking at them. She doesn’t make a sound, but I can see a tear sliding down her face as she takes them. She’s not the only one crying, as I pick up the last photos in the box.
After Jack came home from Iraq and made it quite clear he wanted nothing to do with his former best friend, Frank and I still kept in touch. A letter once a year, Christmas cards, and every year I always sent him Charlie’s school picture. They’re all here, from the six years between the Gulf War and Charlie’s death. Jack never knew, of course.
Looking at them all in order, from four to ten years old, I can’t help the tears filling my eyes. Setting them back in the box, I put it back down on the table, folding my arms and staring at the TV. The announcer is saying something about Kosovo, and I wonder if that’s where they were. Where Frank still is, whether he’s dead or alive.
Stop it, Sara.
I have to know. “What did Jack say, when he was here?”
Training accident, my foot. Lisa looks up after a little while, laying the pictures back in the cigar box. “All he said was, ‘you know I can’t tell you.’”
She sniffs, and I reach across the coffee table, handing her a box of tissues. And I try to imagine the scene that took place here, just a few hours ago. Try to imagine her reaction to seeing Jack for the first time in eight years.
Jack’s not the only one of us who knows how to hold a grudge.
Frank and Lisa had been having some problems before that last fateful mission. She’d been asking him to retire for years, and on Christmas Eve 1990 she asked him one last time to pull some strings, get a job stateside. If you go to this war, she told him, I won’t be here when you get back.
It wasn’t that she didn’t love him. And when he came home, wounded and in shock and grieving for his best friend, she was here. And they got back together. For about two months.
When he found out Jack was alive, he caught the next plane back to Saudi, even though the war was ending.
And he never came back.
She never forgave Jack for that.
I still remember the last time he and Jack saw each other. Jack was in the hospital, and Frank had been staying at our place, looking after Charlie while I stayed with Jack. I wasn’t in the room, and I didn’t hear what Jack said. I saw Frank walk out of the room, his face set and expressionless, but paler than I’d ever seen him. He didn’t look at me, didn’t say a word to me. Jack was still pretty upset when I went in to talk to him afterwards, furious would be more like it, and he told me in no uncertain terms he never wanted to see Frank again. He’d only been in the States for a week, and he was still very weak, recovering from horrific injuries I didn’t even want to think about. None of that meant a damn to Lisa, when I told her what had happened. She was grabbing her coat before I finished telling the story, looking like she was about ready to shoot somebody, injured or not.
“Where do you think I’m going?” she demanded, when I asked her. “I’m going to give your insensitive asshole of a husband a piece of my mind, that’s where I’m going!”
We were both worn out and scared, our tempers dangerously frayed from the last two months’ agonizing uncertainty. It wasn’t that I blamed Frank for anything. But Jack was in no condition to get in a fight with Lisa right then, when she was looking like nothing so much as a mother grizzly defending her cubs. In the end we wound up screaming at each other for about half an hour, before she got in her car and drove off way too fast.
I don’t know where she went, but it wasn’t to the hospital. And she didn’t find Frank, either, but that night I came home to find a message from her on my answering machine.
We both apologized, and we spent the rest of the conversation crying. After that we were still friends, and when Frank left to go back to Florida she came over every day to take care of Charlie, until Jack came home from the hospital. She never did confront him about Frank. She never spoke to him again. Until tonight.
Right now I can’t bring myself to be angry at her, no matter what she might have said. There’s a part of me that knows whatever he’s doing to himself is far worse than anything she can say. And after everything that’s happened since ’91, I don’t think I have the strength to defend him, or to be angry on his behalf anymore.
“He said Frank saved his life.”
The words drop quietly into the silence between us. I look at her, but she’s staring off into space now, at something only she can see. Her face is frozen, and she hardly seems to notice the tears running unchecked. I want to reach out to her, but she doesn’t look at me. She doesn’t even seem aware that I’m here.
I can’t say I’m surprised. There’s a certain awful, tragic symmetry about the whole ugly mess. And for Frank, who always saw this kind of thing with a soldier’s black-and-white mentality, it would have been the only possible ending to the story. Blood can only be paid for with blood. His own death would have been a small price, when he’d already lost everything that made his life worth living. For Jack, though, it’s not going to be that easy to accept.
“It’s what he would have wanted,” I say finally. She knows that, of course. She doesn’t answer at first, though, and for about a minute I think she didn’t hear me.
“That’s what I keep telling myself.” But she doesn’t sound comforted. I fold my arms, letting the silence lengthen. There’s no sound now but the ever-present hum of the TV, but the words of the announcer don’t register anymore.
You’d think, I reflected bitterly, it wouldn’t affect us so much now. He hasn’t been a real part of our lives in the last eight years. It’s been more than two years since Jack and I were together as husband and wife. We’ve moved on, now, made our own lives as independent women, cut ourselves off from the men we loved once.
And we thought by doing so, we could protect ourselves from being hurt by them anymore.
All of a sudden she covers her face with her hands, drawing her knees up to her chest with a strangled little sound. She seems to draw back into herself, moving away from me, curled up against the arm of the couch.
Her shoulders are rigid, and she doesn’t move at first when I put my arm around her. Feeling helpless, I squeeze her arm gently, murmuring something inane and vaguely comforting over her choked and muffled sobs. It’s a while before she relaxes, turning to me and flinging her arms around my neck.
“Oh, God, Sara… ” She’s trembling violently, forcing the words out. “I miss him so much… ”
“I know.” I know, honey, I know… I don’t know what else to say, so I only hug her harder. “I know.”
“It’s been eight years.” The words are barely audible, stifled against my shoulder. “I didn’t think… it would be this hard… ”
Jack and Frank aren’t a part of our lives anymore, I try to tell myself, and whatever was left unfinished between them isn’t anything we should lose sleep over.
I wish I could believe that. But that doesn’t stop the horrible empty feeling overwhelming us both, the worst I’ve known since Charlie died. It’s still hard to accept the fact that Frank’s gone, that another member of our little family is dead. And our grief over his loss isn’t any easier to push aside, just because all of us haven’t been together as a family in eight years. If anything, it’s harder, to think of all those times we could have been together, and we weren’t.
I can’t help thinking of the last time I saw him. I had a hard time falling asleep that night, and in the end I only got two hours of sleep before my alarm clock woke me at five o’clock. It was Wednesday, my long day at work, and I had to get there in time to help Jill serve breakfast.
It wasn’t until I saw the blue uniform draped over a towel rack in the bathroom that I remembered my unexpected guest from the night before.
He was still fast asleep when I tiptoed down the stairs. Looking at the clock, I could see I was already late. Oh well, Jill would understand. I hoped. I needed coffee before I was going anywhere.
Spooning my favorite hazelnut coffee into the filter, I picked up the phone with my other hand, dialing the restaurant. “Jill? Hey, it’s Sara… I know I’m late, I’m really sorry, but I have a — kind of — unexpected guest here.”
Her response was predictable. “Is he cute?”
“No.” I rolled my eyes. “Well, I don’t know… but it’s not like that.” Ever since she found out I was divorced, she’d been trying to get me to start dating again.
“Sure, hon, whatever you say.” There was a pleased note in her voice, and I knew she wasn’t convinced. “Look, Sara, you enjoy yourself, have fun, okay? We don’t have that many tables, I’ll be fine without you ’til lunch if you want.”
“Jill, he’s — ” My ex-husband’s ex-best friend, I thought to myself. How did I explain that one? And I gave it up. If it made her feel better to think I’d finally found myself someone, let her. “It’s a long story. I don’t know when I’m going to be in, but it should be soon. I’m really sorry about this… ”
“Sara, we’re slow as shit, trust me,” she said, affection laced with exasperation in her voice. “Take your time, okay?”
She actually looked disappointed when I showed up only fifteen minutes later. But she must have sensed I wasn’t in any mood to talk about my mysterious guest. I was glad of that, and even more grateful for the three families who walked in a couple minutes later wanting breakfast.
I’d left Frank a note before I left. I knew if I didn’t, he’d be long gone by the time I got home. He wasn’t the type to sit around and rest no matter how badly he’d been hurt, unless there was someone around to make him, and he would be especially reluctant to stay at my house any longer than absolutely necessary. But I still worried about him, and I wanted to keep an eye on him for at least twenty-four hours to make sure he wasn’t hurt more seriously than I thought.
And I needed to talk to him.
I told him that in the note. ‘Don’t even think about going anywhere, I need to talk to you about something. It’s very important.’ The last three words underlined five times.
It was almost nine when I got home. I would have stayed longer, but Jill insisted she didn’t need me tonight to help clean up, and told me to go home. It was dark out when I got in my car, thick clouds covering the stars. I was exhausted, and my feet hurt. But for once I almost wished I could’ve stayed at work. The weather report predicted more storms for tonight, and it was with some misgivings that I pulled into my driveway.
My dad’s blue Mustang was parked in the garage when I got in, and I remembered belatedly that he’d promised to come over and fix my porch railing today. Turning off my car, I wondered if he’d ever met Frank — at my wedding, maybe? — and if he’d remember him if he had…
I slammed my door shut, noticing the Mustang’s hood was up as I entered the garage. “Car problems again, Dad?” I asked, walking around the front of the car — and stopping with my hands on my hips. “You, Colonel, are supposed to be resting.”
Bending over the engine with a look of intense concentration, Frank didn’t look up immediately. From where I was standing I couldn’t see exactly what he was doing, but I heard something click just before he stood up, turning to me. “That should do it for now,” he said, as if I hadn’t spoken. “You’re gonna have to replace the ignition soon, though.”
“That’s very nice.” If he could hear the sarcasm he didn’t let on. “The car could have waited, though. I seem to recall telling you to take it easy.”
“For cryin’ out loud, Sara, I’ve had worse hangovers.” I was right, he’s been hanging around Jack way too long. That innocent look he was giving me now was Jack’s trademark. I just shook my head as he wiped his hands on a grease-stained rag.
“Are we done out here?” I asked patiently, pushing open the door to the house. “’Cause I don’t know about you, but I’m hungry.”
“You don’t have to — ”
“Hey,” I cut him off. “Don’t argue with me, okay? I want to have a look at your head, too. Come on.”
My dad was in the kitchen, already making sandwiches for dinner. I hugged him quickly, very relieved to see him here. I wanted to talk to Frank. I wanted him to tell me something, anything, about what Jack was doing. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t happy to put it off for a few hours, now that it came down to it.
“Your friend’s a fair mechanic,” he told me, with a curious tone that said Frank hadn’t exactly been forthcoming about how we knew each other. Hardly a surprise. “Doesn’t talk much, though.”
Frank came into the kitchen then, looking like he was a lot more stiff and sore than he’d ever let on, and Dad gave him a suspicious look.
I waved him to sit down, and when I didn’t say anything Dad went on, “The railing’s all fixed. All it needs is a couple more coats of paint, and we can take care of that tomorrow.”
I nodded distractedly at him, opening the first aid kit I’d left on the table last night. Tugging at the bandages, I threw away the bloody gauze strips and examined the long gash and the swelling around it. I heard Frank hiss softly as I touched the bruised lump, which was now turning a lovely shade of purple, and his lips pressed tight together as I swabbed alcohol gently over the cut.
It wasn’t that I was afraid of what I might find out tonight — well, okay, I was afraid of what I might find out. I was absolutely positively terrified, to tell the truth.
And I was also scared that he wouldn’t tell me anything, that he’d hide behind his rules and regulations and try to pretend he didn’t know what I was talking about. I wasn’t sure which scared me more. I knew that whatever he told me, I wasn’t going to like it. And there was still that tiny part inside of me that held onto the hope that whatever Jack was doing, whatever had happened the last time I saw him, had a legitimate explanation. The kind of explanation that would let me forgive him for what happened.
But all the same, whatever the truth was, it couldn’t be nearly as bad as some of the things that I could imagine, late at night. Or some of the nightmares that had brought me awake gasping at three in the morning.
It was a pretty awkward dinner. Frank and Dad didn’t have much to say to each other, and Frank didn’t have much to say to me that he wanted to talk about in front of a stranger. Me, I was exhausted and edgy at the same time, and hardly in the mood to make small talk.
After dinner, though, as I finished washing the dishes, the uneasy feeling that had haunted me all day only grew stronger. Frank would have helped me with the dishes, but I told him emphatically to go sit on the couch and take it easy. Dad, apparently jumping to the same conclusion Jill had, figured Frank and I wanted to be left alone, and went upstairs to look for his coat.
As I started drying the plates one by one, a new and very disturbing thought occurred to me.
I couldn’t stop thinking of the last time I’d seen Jack. The way he talked, the way he looked at me. He hadn’t said much, nothing at all like his usual sarcastic, irreverent self, and there was that unsettling vagueness in his eyes. He’d seemed distracted, distant…
The man’s got a head injury, for crying out loud, I told myself exasperatedly. And he’s obviously been pushing himself way too hard for a while now. Anyone would be acting weird.
I’d watched him curiously all through dinner. He ate like he was starving, but he hardly said a word. He was an intensely private person, I reminded myself, same as Jack, and pretty shy around strangers who weren’t military. I knew this. Difference between him and Jack, though, I thought, was that Jack was very good at keeping the conversation going with crazy stories and bad jokes.
He was probably still hurting, too, even though pride would never let him say so.
But I couldn’t shake the thought, once it took hold of me, that the man in my living room was not who he appeared to be.
Who the hell else would he be, Sara? I demanded angrily. Yeah, he’s quiet, awkward, just like Jack was last time. But Frank’s like that. Jack’s not. Quit being so damn paranoid.
My hands were trembling just a little, as I started to put the dishes away. This was ridiculous. There was no logical reason on Earth to suspect Frank would hurt me. He wasn’t always easy to understand, but I knew he’d cheerfully take a bullet for me, same as he would for Jack. From the time I met him he’d treated me like a younger sister, and in the few times I’d seen him in the past eight years that overprotective attitude he’d always shown me had only grown stronger. Half of it, I didn’t doubt, was part of that chivalrous streak he’d always had — and the other half was the consuming guilt that still tormented him.
So why was I afraid of him now?
What if it wasn’t Frank?
He looked like Frank. He acted like Frank — well, okay, not like the Frank I knew eight years ago, but then none of us today were anything remotely like the people we were eight years ago. He knew who I was. He knew who Jack was… but then whoever it was that had looked like Jack knew me, too. Knew a hell of a lot about me, and our life together… except for one very significant fact…
Be sensible, Sara, I told myself. Only problem was, there was absolutely nothing sensible about this whole mess. Frank would never hurt me, I knew that. It was as ridiculous as… as the idea of him going around spraying blue lightning bolts everywhere. Or Charlie walking down the hallway toward me, looking alive and well if a little disoriented… or…
I jumped, the plate falling from my hands to shatter on the counter, whirling around to see my dad standing in the doorway. “Whoa, easy there, it’s me.”
“Sorry,” I whispered, angry at myself for being so spooked.
“You okay, kiddo?” he asked me. I just nodded, as he helped me sweep up the ceramic fragments, dumping them in the trash. Hoping he couldn’t see how badly my hands were shaking. “I was just coming to say goodbye,” he went on. “I’ll be over tomorrow to paint the railing, is nine all right?”
“Nine’s great,” I said, resisting the sudden overpowering urge to ask him to stay the night. He hugged me, and I gave him a quick kiss on the cheek, watching as he walked out the door and shut it behind him. I wanted to run after him, tell him not to leave. And I hated myself for it. Hated myself, and hated Jack even more for doing… whatever he was doing, and making me so scared.
I turned around, staring out my kitchen window at the darkened garden. The house was silent, now, but I could see a brief flicker of lightning illuminating the clouds for just an instant. I heard the Mustang’s engine grumble to life, heard it fade as the car left the garage and drove away. Taking a deep breath, I picked up another plate, and began to carefully put away the rest of the dishes. When I was finished, I turned to find Frank standing in the doorway.
I hadn’t heard him approach, which spooked me even more. He was watching me like he wasn’t sure how to begin the conversation, as I hung the dish towel back on the rack and closed the cupboard.
“I’m tired,” I told him shortly. I didn’t feel up to dealing with him — whoever he was, and whatever news he might be able to tell me. “We’ll talk in the morning.” I brushed past him, and practically fled up the stairs.
I felt like a complete idiot about a minute later.
Pull yourself together, I ordered myself. I didn’t go straight to my bedroom, stopping instead just outside Charlie’s room. Leaning against the doorway, I felt the fear gradually draining out of me, leaving mostly anger in its place.
It was dark, the curtains drawn over the windows, but I could still see it. Lately, whenever I passed this room, I couldn’t get it out of my mind, the image of Jack — or what I’d thought was Jack — sitting on the bed in there. Hugging Charlie’s pillow, and looking like he was about to start crying. That alone should’ve told me this wasn’t my husband, I thought bitterly. Such a different Jack from the one who’d sat there dry-eyed with a gun in his hands.
I’d kept this room the way it was then. Dad used to say I should pack everything up, store it in the attic, and move on. But I couldn’t do that. Sure, I’d moved on, got a job, made new friends, and found a way to go on living without the two people who had meant everything to me. But I wasn’t going to just pack away all Charlie’s stuff in the attic somewhere like he’d never existed. No way in hell. There was no one here for me to wake up, but all the same I tiptoed as I entered the room, sitting down on his bed. “Hi, sweetie,” I said softly, looking around in the dark.
So many nights, over the years, when Jack was away and I couldn’t sleep, I’d get up and come in here, watching our son. Sometimes when he was still a baby, I’d sit in a chair next to his crib and watch him sleeping. When Jack had been away for a while and I hadn’t heard from him, when I didn’t know where he was or what he was doing, I’d come in here late at night. And I’d find some peace, watching the expressions on that tiny, infinitely precious face, and the way his little hands clutched at the blanket.
When he was older, I’d just stand in the doorway, and listen to the soft sound of his breathing. And it would comfort me sometimes, when I felt totally helpless and afraid thinking about Jack in danger, to watch my baby asleep and know that even if I couldn’t protect Jack, there was no way I’d ever let any harm come to our son.
“You remember Uncle Frank, don’t you?” There was only silence, but somehow I felt safe and comforted in here. Here, where so many nights I’d held my son and soothed his nightmares. Here there was nothing to be afraid of, I’d told him so many times, it’s just a dream, Mommy’s here and nothing’s going to happen to you… Back then all it took was a hug, and a few reassuring words, and everything was okay again. I drew my knees up to my chest, resting my chin on my hands and staring at the window.
It was too dark to see clearly, but I didn’t need light to know where everything was. His picture on the dresser, his space posters on the wall, his baseball and glove and that little model space shuttle Jack gave him for his fifth birthday… “He’s come back to visit. I know it’s been a long time, and he’s very sorry he didn’t come sooner… ”
Uncle Frank’s going to think I’m really losing it, I told myself wryly, if he hears me up here talking to an empty room. But for some reason it helped. Sometimes I could still find Charlie here, if I came in and sat quietly and talked to him. Some nights I could almost feel like he was here, looking down at me from somewhere far away, or even sitting on the bed next to me, shrouded in darkness. When I reached out my hand, though, all I found was a stuffed bear, lying next to me. A bear wearing a blue Air Force uniform I’d painstakingly sewed, one Christmas long ago.
Funny, how a little thing like that can bring back so many memories.
We hadn’t even thought they’d be home for Christmas that year. Charlie was only six months old at the time, and Jack was going to miss his first Christmas. Lisa was staying over at my place for the holiday, but it had been a subdued Christmas Eve dinner. Our husbands had been gone since July, we had no clue where, and not even Charlie’s wide-eyed wonder at the lighted tree could give us any real Christmas cheer.
I was depressed, and Lisa was angry, at the Air Force, and at Frank, too, for not being here. She’d been married several years longer than I had, and this wasn’t the first Christmas she’d been alone. They hadn’t even called us all week, and before we went to bed that night, I remember her crying.
I need a miracle, Sara, she’d said. I need a miracle.
And five hours later, at four on Christmas morning, she was pounding on my bedroom door. Saying, wake up, Sara, they’re home! They’re home!
I picked up the little bear, smoothing his rumpled uniform and looking into scratched glass eyes. Jack and Frank had gotten leave at the last minute and caught a flight home from wherever they’d been stationed, and in typical Jack fashion they’d decided not to call ahead. They’d brought that bear with them as a present for Charlie, and for years afterward Lisa and I called it the Miracle Bear.
Miracle Bear had been well-loved. I can still see Charlie’s arms wrapped around the fuzzy creature, his little face half hidden by brown fur. One day when Charlie was three, and asking why we’d given it that name, I sat down and wrote a little story about a bear who lived all alone in a cave at the top of the Rocky Mountains. He was lonely in his cave, hibernating for the winter, so one Christmas Eve he set out on a journey down the mountain through a snowstorm to find a friend in Colorado Springs.
Frank and Lisa were here the first time Jack read it out loud to Charlie. And I know I’m hardly a Pulitzer-worthy author, but that’s still hardly an excuse for the way Jack and Frank looked at each other and burst out laughing, when he got to the part where Miracle Bear almost fell off the side of a cliff in the blizzard.
He’d claimed they weren’t laughing at me, or my writing style at all. But they never would tell me what was so damn funny. But Charlie had loved that story, and made Jack read it over and over again. He made me read it to him when Jack wasn’t here. But it wasn’t quite the same, he’d tell me. Daddy always does the voices, he’d say. Daddy growls like a bear…
Jack was like a big kid, really, especially with Charlie. He’d missed Jack so much, when he wasn’t here. Whenever Jack said goodbye he’d always salute him, a very proper little soldier, and then he’d run at him and Jack would pick him up and hug him. He was so proud of his Daddy, and somehow he understood that what Jack did was important.
But that didn’t help the disappointment, and the anger sometimes, when Jack missed his first day of school. His first baseball game. His first school play. And somehow I never could do the voices, in any of his favorite stories, as well as Daddy could.
I hugged the bear tightly, squeezing my eyes shut against the sudden tears. “I’m sorry, sweetie,” I whispered. “I always told you not to be mad at Daddy. I tried to understand, to make you understand. Be strong for both of us.” The room was silent, and all of a sudden it felt empty, and if Charlie had ever been here he was gone. “Daddy has to go away to keep us safe, and he can’t always explain why. You remember when I used to say that? We just have to trust him.” My voice broke. “I’m so sorry, baby. I guess I’m not very good at taking my own advice… ”
The only answer was the whisper of the rain, the first drops hitting the roof with a soft shush. And then I really started crying, hiding my face in the bear’s soft fur, holding onto the stuffed toy like I wished I could hold my only child.
I know it’s a mistake. Quite possibly the dumbest thing I’ve done in years. Nothing good can come from this.
I should’ve stayed overnight at Lisa’s. It’s after midnight now, and she’s asleep finally. But she’s going to need a friend tomorrow, and she told me I was more than welcome to crash on the couch if I didn’t feel like driving home yet.
I should’ve called up Jill, she wouldn’t be asleep yet. She keeps strange hours. I could call her up, and tell her I’ve had a completely and totally crappy day and I want to forget about it. She wouldn’t ask why. She’d just drag me out to one of the clubs she goes to, and even though it’s hardly my usual style we’d get a few drinks and stay ’til they closed. And then go back to her place, sit on the couch and watch cheesy chick flicks until the sun comes up and we fall asleep.
Hell, I could’ve called Dad. So what if he’s asleep, he wouldn’t mind me coming over now. I could tell him the whole long, ugly story and cry on his shoulder, and so what if he’ll be worried about me, and fuss over me until I’m about to go insane. It’d be better than the best thing that could possibly happen, if I go through with this&hellip
But that’s just me, I guess. Rushing in where angels fear to tread, jumping off a cliff with my eyes wide open, sticking my hand in the fire after I’ve already been burned too many times. Some people never learn.
It’s a quiet night, not a cloud in the sky. Not many people on the road at this hour, nothing to see out here but the white lines on the highway, and the green signs flashing by, counting down the miles ’til the Springs.
I’m tired, but not really sleepy, just wrung-out emotionally and confused. My exit comes faster than I expected it to, and before I know it the off ramp is spiraling away toward the city. Last chance to change my mind, but I hardly think before I signal and turn left. The lights are still on, like I knew they would be, when I pull up in front of his house. The rest of the houses on this street are dark, and a light breeze sighs in the branches of the trees as I get out of the car.
At the door I stop, whatever common sense I have left making a last stand before I knock. But it’s way too late to rethink this now. You’ve come all this way, Sara, honey, now ring the damn doorbell.
The door’s open, just a screen between me and the little hallway leading into Jack’s house. I square my shoulders and press the doorbell, not expecting a response.
I don’t get one. Now that I’m here, it hits me once again what a stupid idea this is. But I open the screen door, stepping cautiously into the dimly lit foyer.
There’s a thump from somewhere inside, and footsteps now. “God dammit, Daniel!” Jack doesn’t sound happy. “I told you to leave me alone — oh.”
Suddenly we’re standing face to face in the doorway of his living room, the furious look on his face melting into — I don’t know what. Surprise, certainly, but that’s not all. There’s a lot more going on behind those eyes than I can hope to guess. “Hello, Jack.”
He doesn’t say anything, just stares at me for a while, his expression somewhere between shock and guarded hostility. I’m not sure what I expected. Taking a moment to study him, I notice the half-healed cuts on his face and neck, like he either got sprayed with shrapnel or glass from an explosion, or lost a fight with a particularly vicious housecat. His hair’s started to go gray, turning to a startling silver on top.
“Can I come in?” He doesn’t answer, so I walk past him into the living room, looking around. I’ve never been in his house before. The décor’s sparse, no photos or anything sitting around in here. Over on the mantel I can see his various medals in frames. There’s a comfy-looking couch on one side of the fireplace, and two armchairs on the other, and a couple of star charts on one wall. And on the coffee table, a glass and a half empty bottle of scotch.
He follows me into the room, leaning against the couch, and when I turn I see he’s on crutches. Now that I’m here I don’t know what to say. This isn’t the vacant-eyed stranger who showed up at my door almost a year ago, now. His face is set in that rigid, expressionless look I know too well, but there are all kinds of confused, tangled emotions bottled up in those chocolate-brown eyes.
Finally he drops the crutches, sitting down on the arm of the couch and folding his arms. His voice is low. “How’s Lisa?”
“She’s sleeping.” I let myself sink into one of the armchairs, noticing for the first time the scratches covering his arms. If it was Charlie sitting on the arm of the couch like that, I would’ve yelled at him.
“Good.” He reaches for the scotch, pours himself another shot and drinks it quickly, setting the glass down with a thump. Every move is tightly controlled, radiating suppressed anger. At who? I don’t know. Me, Frank, himself? Probably all three.
“How much of that stuff have you had?” I ask, waving a hand at the bottle.
He gives me a look that’s half irritated, picking it up again and examining the label like he’s fascinated by it, before pouring himself another shot. “Not enough.”
I watch him silently as he drinks it, wondering for the thousandth time what exactly possessed me to come here. What help did I really think I could be? I wonder where his friends are, whoever they are these days. Judging by his first response when I came in here, he probably made it clear he wants to be left alone tonight…
I don’t flatter myself, thinking it means anything that he didn’t throw me out yet, when he wasn’t going to let this Daniel person in. Anything besides the fact that he’s desperate for a little distraction, after who knows how many hours chasing his own thoughts round in circles. And that unlike any of his friends at NORAD, he doesn’t have to explain to me what’s wrong. He doesn’t trust me, any more than he trusts them. He just doesn’t want to have to retell the whole story, of him and Frank and Iraq and all that happened after.
He makes a move to stand up, then his face twists in pain and he flops down on the couch again. “What happened to you?” I ask, indicating the crutches.
He stares at me, not saying anything for a little while, and then I know just what he’s going to say. And I’m sick to death of hearing it. “Don’t say it,” I snap, standing up, and his mouth closes abruptly. Don’t say it was a goddamn training accident. We both know that’s a lie, and there’s no point repeating it here again.
Silence follows me as I walk over to the fireplace, thumping my fist quietly against the mantel. Looking at the array of medals here, half a dozen Purple Hearts, and… wow. The Air Medal, dated last Christmas. So it was big, whatever he got into then. Frank was right.
“I just watched an old friend die.” His voice is flat. “That’s what happened to me.” I take a deep breath, let it out slowly, but I don’t turn to face him yet, silently swearing at myself. I came here to try to help, not to start a fight with him. “Anything else you need to know?”
I know he’s only lashing out at me because I’m here, and because he’s drunk, but it hurts all the same. “Jack — ”
“He’s dead because of me,” he says, biting off the words. “He knew he was gonna die. I saw his face. He knew.”
I turn around to look at him finally, leaning back against the mantel. “You know he would have wanted it this way.”
“You think that makes it easier?” He flings it at me with a kind of disbelieving scorn.
What can I do but fold my arms and shake my head, looking down at the coffee table so I won’t have to meet his eyes? “No.”
If they’d had a chance to talk, if they’d been able to work things out, I know Lisa would’ve told me.
It would have been the first question she asked him, the most important thing she’d want to know. Was Jack able to put aside his own pain and eight years’ worth of unresolved anger long enough to honestly talk about his feelings with his friend? I could have guessed the answer to that question. But I don’t have to. Lisa would have asked, would have wanted to know if her husband ever got the absolution he’d needed before he died. And if Jack had said the words, he would have told her. And she would have told me.
I tried, over the years, to get them speaking to each other again. God knows, I tried. But that kind of hatred was something I couldn’t begin to understand, and I was having a hard enough time at first to keep him from pushing me away, too. I’ll never know to what extent hatred kept him alive, for those four months. But in his letters to me afterward, Frank seemed to understand, and not expect anything from Jack but what he got. After a while I gave it up, telling myself I should be glad our marriage had survived as well as it had, and not to ask for the impossible.
Now I wonder if I should have kept after him, tried harder to get him to look past what he would always see as the ultimate betrayal. I should have known the depth of the bond they shared wasn’t something that could be lightly cast aside, not without consequences. I saw his face, Jack said. He knew. If there was time for that much, maybe… he might not have said the words, but Jack could have gotten the message across with a look… I’m grasping at straws, now, and I know it. And I wonder why it matters so much. Frank’s long past caring, now.
Unless it’s true, and Jack still matters to me a hell of a lot more than I want to admit even to myself.
But I have to know. “Did you two … was there time for … ?”
He’s shaking his head, reaching for the bottle again and downing another shot. “No.” I look up, meeting his eyes just in time to see something crack. “No, there wasn’t time. There wasn’t time to sit down and talk about it.” He stands up suddenly, grimacing as his bad leg bumps against the table. “We didn’t kiss and make up and solve everything and live happily ever after, like you always said we should. And now we won’t ever — “ He breaks off with a choked sound, bending over to grab the crutches, and when he looks at me again the confusion in his face gives way to fury. “Is that why you came here?” he asks. “To say ‘I told you so’? What do you want?” He’s yelling now. “You were right. I was wrong. Is that why you came? Is that what you want to hear?”
I can only stare at him in shock, the tears filling my eyes without a warning, unable to speak for at least a minute. My lips are trembling when I finally find my voice. “Jack, you son of a — ”
Turning around, he limps out of the room. I hear the crutches banging on the stairs, as I stumble over to sink into the armchair again, curling up and clasping my knees. “You son of a bitch,” I whisper, shaking my head, looking at the doorway where he disappeared. “You sorry son of a bitch.”
This was a mistake. God, was this ever the biggest mistake I ever made. I should have known better. I did know better. But I had to come here anyway, never could let sleeping demons lie.
Now I let the tears come, curled up in a ball with my head pillowed on my arms. I wanted to help. I thought I could help. I was so stupid.
All of a sudden I can’t help remembering, sitting in my living room at home with a stranger who wore my husband’s face. Remembering myself, so ready to trust him. What’s with you? Upstairs? For a minute I thought you were going to cry… Where’s all that O’Neill military bravado?
I don’t think I have it.
The last thing I expected to hear. But I’d wanted so badly to believe him, to believe that bravado, that armor of his was gone. I wanted to believe he’d come back ready to open up to me, so much that I was willing to forgive everything else, if only he’d let me in. If only he’d let me help, let us help each other.
I’m waiting for you to say “I’m sorry” or “I want to get back together” or… anything, whatever’s on your mind, just talk to me…
I really thought it would be that easy.
I should have known better.
A door slams upstairs. Why, Jack? What is it with you? Why do you have to work so damn hard to push away the people who care about you? It’s a while before I can stop crying, but at last I sit up, sniffing, dashing the last of the tears away. I can still hear Jack, pacing back and forth, footsteps punctuated by the thunk of a crutch on the floor.
I shouldn’t have come here. Taking a deep breath, I stand up. I understand Jack better than he realizes, and I know, now, that there are some things you can’t forgive. And some things you can forgive, but you can never forget. And I’m not ready yet, to forgive him for all the hell he’s put me through. For Charlie’s death. For what happened a year ago. For what he said tonight…
And it’s worse than useless for me to come here, to try to help him forgive himself, when I can’t even forgive him yet.
It’s cold when I go outside, letting the door shut quietly behind me. There aren’t many streetlights on this road, and I can see more stars here than I can at my house where it’s brighter. A cold breeze brushes my face, ruffling my hair as I look up.
I’m surprised, then, to see a ladder leaning against the side of the house, going up to what looks like a deck built on the roof. He’d always talked about building one on top of our old house. He’d actually convinced me, after he bought that telescope. We need a place to put it, he’d said. It was going to be a present for Charlie, for his tenth birthday.
Some impulse makes me go over to it, clasping the rungs and looking up. Carefully, I climb up the ladder, stepping out onto a rough wooden platform. And in the middle, a folding chair set in front of it, is Charlie’s telescope.
With a lump in my throat, I reach out to touch the cold metal, sitting down in the chair. I left my coat in the car, and it’s freezing up here, but I hesitate long enough to peak into the lens.
And I don’t want to, but as I play with the focusing knobs I find my mind drifting back. It’s the last thing I want to think about, the last thing I want to remember. It’s no use. But as the clear, cold stars come into focus, I find myself remembering Frank, and one of the last conversations I had with him.
Somehow I knew it was a dream, but it didn’t help. I was standing in that dark hospital hallway, and I could hear running footsteps. Charlie was alone in the dream, running down the hallway toward me, his little face lit up with joy. And I held out my arms, like I always did, ready to pick him up, hold him close to me, but before he reached me he started to glow.
He stopped, blue sparks shooting out of his hands, wrapping around his body, and I tried to run to him as he fell. I was frozen in place, I couldn’t move, I couldn’t even scream. I could only watch as he writhed on the floor, the blue light surrounding him, getting brighter, and listen to him yelling. “Mommy! Mooommmmyyyyyyyyyyyyyy!”
I woke up, tangled in my sheets, sitting up in the dark and trying to catch my breath. There was no sound but the ticking of my bedside clock, and the steady fall of rain outside.
It was almost two. And I knew from experience I wasn’t going to be falling asleep again any time soon. Lightning lit up the room as I got up, moving over to the window and pushing back the curtains. It was raining harder now, and a clap of thunder startled me, sounding almost like a gunshot.
Still shivering, I wrapped myself in a bathrobe, closing the door behind me and padding down the hall toward the stairs. Hot chocolate, I thought tiredly. That was what I needed now, and a little while to watch the storm before I tried to go to sleep…
At the bottom of the stairs I stopped. Frank was awake, standing by the window with his back to me, perfectly still in the darkness. And I froze, one hand gripping the banister, all the irrational fears I thought I’d banished last night slamming into me again. He wasn’t aware of me, and for a moment I was afraid to move, afraid to breathe for fear he’d turn and see me.
There were no curtains over this window, and the next bolt of lightning lit up the whole room. I could see it, a long crackling rope of fire splitting the sky, and for that instant I couldn’t see his face, only a black silhouette against the white light…
I must have gasped aloud, because he turned around just as the room went dark again. “Sara?” A second before the thunder crashed, louder than before, a sound like boulders cracking apart right over this house. “You okay?”
No, Frank — if that’s who you are — I’m not okay. Do I look like I’m okay? I took a deep breath, trying to steady myself, and flung up one hand as he took a step toward me. “Don’t!”
“Sara, what — ?”
“Don’t come any closer.” He stopped, spreading his hands slowly. My heart was pounding in my ears, and I was this close to running back up the stairs and locking myself in my room.
Get a hold of yourself, Sara. My hands were shaking as I wrapped my arms around myself. Think. What’s something only Frank would know?
“What’s your wife’s name?” My voice sounded funny, a little breathless.
There was a long pause. I couldn’t see his face, couldn’t see anything but the outline of his body in the dark. “What?” He sounded completely baffled. “What on Earth — ?”
“What’s her name?” Stupid question, Sara; Jack — or his evil twin — knew who you were.
“Lisa.” Now he was worried, taking a step toward me. “Lisa O’Reilly. Sara — ”
That one was obvious. Another question… “My son’s name.” Something about the way I said it made him stop, standing perfectly still again. “What was my son’s name?”
“Charlie,” he said quietly. “What’s going on? What’s wrong?”
I held out my hand again, silently warning him to come no closer, while I tried to breathe normally. There was really no way to tell how much of Frank’s memories any imposter might have. “When — how did you and Jack first meet?”
“Special Ops training, 1977.” Three more steps, and he was standing in front of me. “Sara, please… tell me what’s wrong. What’s this all about?” He reached toward me, making as if to touch my shoulder. “What’s with all the questions?”
“Don’t touch me!” I batted his hand away, half expecting to get an electric shock when I touched him, and surprised when I didn’t. For a tense moment we stared at each other, as thunder growled ominously.
My mind was racing. Something not obvious. Details, Sara, details. “There’s — ” I swallowed hard, struggling to keep my voice steady. “There’s a stuffed bear upstairs. In Charlie’s room.” All of a sudden there were tears in my eyes. “Wearing a blue uniform. How did it get there?”
“Christmas present for Charlie, 1986,” he answered promptly. And I wanted to believe no one but him could know that. I wanted it so badly. “We brought it home with us from — ” He stopped, apparently remembering that wherever they’d been was still classified. “Sara, you’re scaring me. What — ?”
“And what — ” I asked, blinking the tears away, “What was special… about that Christmas?”
I stared at him, feeling almost paralyzed. Would he know what had happened that Christmas, if he wasn’t who he appeared to be? Would he tell me everything, all the little details, how Lisa cried, how Jack sang ‘We Three Kings’ with no sense of pitch whatsoever, how Charlie didn’t care and gurgled happily along with him anyway? Would I believe him, no matter how much he knew?
And what, asked the panicky voice in the back of my mind, would I do if it turned out this wasn’t Frank?
Lightning flashed then, illuminating his face for the first time, throwing weird shadows around the living room. He wasn’t looking at me at all. It was there and gone in the time it took the lightning to disappear, but for that instant I saw the raw emotion in his eyes, caught in the memory of that night, the anguish and the aching loneliness he’d always hidden so well.
He didn’t say anything until we were plunged into darkness once more, and his voice was a rough whisper, but it was all I needed to hear. “What wasn’t special about it?”
Relief flooded through me in a warm wave, sweeping all my strength away with it so I had to grab hold of the banister to steady myself. Frank reached out his hand slowly, and when I didn’t pull away he took my arm, leading me over to the couch.
My legs gave out completely then, as Frank went across the room and switched on the lamp, bathing the room in a soft yellow glow. I was still shaking when he sat down next to me, more than a little embarrassed, but too relieved to be very annoyed with myself just yet.
“Sara.” In the lamplight he looked tired, but any other memories I’d stirred up were now gone, locked away deep inside where he always hid them. “You okay now?” I swallowed, nodding silently. The look he was giving me was intense and very, very worried. “You want to tell me what that was all about?”
“I — ” I stopped. Poor Frank, he probably thought I was really losing it this time. Not that I blamed him. And now I was about to prove him right. “Look, I need you to tell me something. Or find out something, or… ” I looked down, twisting my hands in my lap. “This is going to sound really far out… ”
I looked up just in time to see his hand curl into a fist, the worry and confusion in his face turning to sudden comprehension. And then it hit me.
The words were quiet, but no less angry. “You knew.” He looked away from me, and now he had that shuttered look, like a door had slammed closed. “You knew everything.”
Jumping up from the couch, I crossed the room quickly to stand at the window, watching the rain lashing down. “Everything about what?” he asked.
I rounded on him. “About whatever it is Jack’s doing!” He didn’t flinch at my accusing tone. “About what happened last time he was here! About why I needed to talk to you… Are you in on this, too?” I demanded. “Did you help plan — whatever it was? Are you two working together on this … project … thing?”
“Jack and I haven’t spoken in eight years,” he said stiffly. “You know that.”
“So maybe you’re working on the same project at different bases,” I retorted. “What in the hell is this all about? What are you two doing?”
He looked uncomfortable. “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Don’t give me that.” I was furious. “It’s been almost a year now, and I haven’t gotten any kind of explanation, not even some bullshit about a training accident! Not from the Air Force, not from Jack — “
“Sara, calm down — ”
“Don’t you tell me to calm down! I’d like to see you &mdash ” I broke off, glaring at him. “I saw — oh, hell, I don’t know what I saw! Someone who looked like my husband, but he wasn’t. I know he wasn’t because he was glowing, and shooting lightning bolts, and he made lightbulbs explode at the hospital. I was there. I touched him and he nearly fried my hand.” I held out my hand to him, so he could see the white scar on my palm where the electric charge had burned through the skin. “And when he left — ” My voice broke, and I stopped. “When he — it — whatever left the hospital… he looked like… like my son… ”
I spun around to face the window, wiping away new tears, and when I turned back that uncomfortable, guarded look was gone. Frank was staring at me with something very like shock. “That… ” Looking down at his hands, he finished softly, “That wasn’t in the report.”
“I’m not crazy, Frank.” Somehow it didn’t surprise me, that Jack would leave out that last little detail, if he could get away with it. “I saw what I saw.”
“I know,” he said, passing a hand over his eyes and sitting up straighter. “Look… I don’t think either of us is gonna be able to get back to sleep tonight. Why don’t you tell me what happened?”
Well, I wasn’t going to be going back to sleep, that was for sure. I wondered briefly what had woken him, whether it was the thunder or some nightmare. Sinking into an armchair across from him, I picked up a pillow and hugged it against my chest, thinking of the complete and utter weirdness of this situation.
It was two o’clock in the morning, and I was sitting downstairs in a bathrobe with a guy — not just any guy, but my ex-husband’s ex-best friend, no less — and getting ready to tell him the kind of story you couldn’t usually find in a tabloid. But even though I was still mad at him, and I wasn’t about to let him off the hook ’til I got a complete explanation, I was grateful all the same.
I’d never told anyone about what happened, that day. One last hug and then a short phone call from Jack, just enough to reassure me it actually had happened, and I wasn’t losing my mind, and then that was it. Dad would’ve thought I’d finally cracked. I didn’t talk about Jack or Charlie with Jill, never had. And Lisa… I don’t know why I hadn’t told Lisa. At first I was waiting for an explanation, waiting until I could have something to tell her that would sound almost plausible. And later on I just wanted to forget the whole thing.
But Frank believed me. He wouldn’t tell me I was crazy. From the way he listened to me, that serious expression, I could almost make believe all this was normal.
So I told him everything. I told him how I was working on Dad’s car one day when, out of the blue, my ex-husband showed up at the end of the driveway. How he’d seemed rather vague and preoccupied at first, and how he’d scared me when he didn’t seem to realize Charlie was dead. And how I’d found him upstairs in Charlie’s room, afterward, looking like he was going to start crying. And Frank just listened, with that quietly attentive way he had, that for some reason always made me want to spill my guts all over him.
I hadn’t meant to, but for some reason I found myself telling him about the conversation in the park. It wasn’t that relevant, I’d thought, except for the fact that he’d collapsed and started throwing off blue sparks a couple minutes later.
“ …and I told him — I said I needed him, and he just said ‘I know.’” My laugh sounded hollow. “I was like, what, you can just say it? And he says something about how he was sorry, it should’ve been said sooner… I should’ve known, then. I mean, seriously. Does that sound like Jack to you?”
Frank just shook his head, looking away. “Then what?”
I shrugged. “He said he had to take Charlie back through the star gate. That was right before… ” I trailed off when he turned to me again, looking startled.
“Through the what?”
“Star gate? Don’t look at me, I don’t know what it is. Something round, made of metal… something about energy.”
He had that intense look again. “What else did he say about it? This is important.”
“Nothing,” I said, curious now. “Not that I remember. He wanted to get back to it, whatever it was. And… he wanted to bring Charlie with him… why, what is it?”
“It’s — a code name for something.” Smooth, Frank, real smooth, I thought. Have to make sure you know how far your pet project’s security has been compromised? “So what happened next?”
What happened next is something I still had nightmares about. I leaned forward, my old frustration returning. “I don’t know, Frank, you tell me. What makes a person give off that kind of electric current — for no reason I could see — and then be perfectly fine afterwards? Any normal person had that amount of charge going through him, he’d be dead, I know that.”
Frank was thinking hard. Trying to come up with some kind of plausible explanation, some convenient lie that I could pretend to believe. “It’s not really that simple,” he started, and I glared at him again. “Look, I don’t understand the whole thing myself, I just read that one report — ”
“Oh, please.” Don’t even start this with me, Frank. “You know what it was. You know what happened, don’t try to tell me you don’t.”
“Sara… I swear to God I didn’t know shit about any of it ’til two days ago.” He met my infuriated disbelief with a look that was calm and a little sad. “And believe me when I tell you this is a matter of highest national security, probably the most secret and most important operation in the history of this country.”
“Sell it to somebody else,” I snapped, striking the pillow in frustration. Underneath it all, though, I was really frightened now. This was starting to sound like a conversation out of a bad X-Files episode. Just what the hell were they hiding? And how did Jack get involved in it? “Like it’s so freaking important to the security of this country for all us poor dumb civilian schmucks to think the only reason we have a military is so you boys can hang out and run training exercises all day. I may not be Air Force but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a brain!”
“I never said — ”
“Frank, look at me.” Predictably, he’d slipped back behind that military mask again, but he raised one eyebrow, waiting. “This is me you’re talking to. You know me. And I would hope — ” I took a deep breath, clasping my hands together as I prepared to cross a line I’d never dared to cross before. “ — even after everything… I’m still your friend.”
He nodded slowly, like he suspected what I was about to ask. “And you know damn well nothing you tell me will ever leave this room.”
The words hung in the air between us, and in the fragile silence that followed he turned to the window. Thunder rumbled again, starting softly and growing into a growling crash.
I’d never asked him to break regulations for me before.
I’d hated the system of secrecy he and Jack worked under, all the years I was married to a Special Ops officer. And sometimes I’d hated them both for being a part of that system, that kept such a cruel wall of lies between family members. But I’d never asked either of them straight out to violate their orders. It wasn’t like it would have been the end of the world, if I ever knew any of the details of their missions. Believe it or not, I did know how to keep secrets, and I wasn’t interested in bringing media attention to the activities of the US military, however shady I knew some of those activities were. They both knew that.
But all the same I’d never asked. Even if it killed me, to watch Jack leaving and have no idea where or why, and even if we both knew no one would ever find out, it would have been a breach of a sacred oath. And for all his flippant and irreverent attitude, I knew how seriously Jack took his oath to the service.
So I’d accepted the secrets, and the blatant lies, like a good military wife. I knew full well what I was getting into, when I married a Special Ops man.
But nothing in the job description said anything about watching your dead child appear, living, before your eyes.
And maybe Jack could brush off something like that like a good little soldier, but I couldn’t. And I wouldn’t. As his wife, as a grieving mother, I deserved better than that.
“Sara, I — ” Frank had never expected me to question our unspoken agreement, and now that I had he obviously had no idea how to respond. “It’s not that I don’t trust you. And God knows… I wish… ”
“What is it, Frank? Are you that scared you’ll get in trouble?” The words were sharp, bitter. “Or is it so awful you’re ashamed to look me in the eye and tell me what you’re working on?”
“It’s not like that,” he said, sounding awkward. He looked disturbed, and sincerely apologetic, but he didn’t say anything else, spreading his hands in a helpless gesture that only made me more angry.
“Was it an accident? Some kind of experiment gone wrong? Or did he plan it all this way?” The change was so fast I almost missed it, the way his face was suddenly devoid of all expression. “It was what, some kind of super robot? Or is it some kind of new stealth technology? You guys can make somebody look like a totally different person?” This was starting to sound like some kind of wacked-out sci-fi TV show. “Was it some kind of a test? Someone thought it’d be cute to have somebody look like Jack, and then send him out to see if it was good enough to fool me?”
“Sara — ” His voice was tight.
“And then what?” I demanded harshly, overriding him. “Was it Jack’s idea to make it look like Charlie? Was this some kind of a sick joke!?”
Frank stood abruptly, two steps taking him to the window. I couldn’t see his expression, but from the set of his shoulders I knew his face was showing far more than he wanted me to see right now. The silence lengthened, bearing down on us, until the sound of the rain seemed to get louder and louder. He didn’t say anything, standing perfectly still. Except for his hands, curled into fists and trembling just enough for me to notice.
When he spoke, it was in a strange, choked voice, like he was forcing each word. “If you really believe that… ”
He was angry, I realized, staring at him with a sort of shock. Angry didn’t begin to cover it; he was mad as hell, furious, enraged, and all of a dozen words that weren’t even close to strong enough. I was so surprised, I couldn’t think of a word to say.
I’d never seen him lose his temper before.
Oh, I knew he could be the worst kind of hardass to anybody under him. And I knew perfectly well he was capable of killing a man a dozen different ways with his bare hands. But around me, at least, he was always in tight control of whatever he might be feeling. And I’d certainly never seen that force of fury directed at me.
There had been times, I reflected, back when Frank and Jack were friends, when I’d become so used to never seeing one of them without the other that I’d forget why. They’d hidden it so well, behind their bad jokes and their half-friendly, half-insulting banter, and the pranks they had loved to pull.
And then there were times, like right now, when I got smacked upside the head, hard, with the realization of just how much those two once cared about each other.
And how much Frank still cared.
So much that at the mere suggestion that Jack could do such a thing, his anger was like the shock wave from a thermonuclear blast.
Even after Jack hadn’t spoken to him for eight years.
I stood up, letting out the breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. “Damn it, Frank… ” He made no response, didn’t even turn around. “What am I supposed to think?” Then, softer, but still insistent, “What would you think, if you were me? What do you expect me to think, if nobody tells me anything?” I saw his shoulders relax a little, and I wrapped my arms around myself, feeling helpless. “For God’s sake, Frank, give me something.”
“He’s doing something good, Sara,” he said finally, to the window.
I waited for something more, but there was nothing but the roll of thunder, sounding close now. “No details? That’s it?” Thumping a fist against the chair’s arm, I asked, “I’m just supposed to trust you?”
His shoulders stiffened again, but as he finally turned I saw the fury in his face give way to self-disgust. “I won’t ask you to trust me,” he said hoarsely, sinking wearily down onto the couch. “God knows you’ve got no reason to.” He covered his face with one hand for a moment, but when he looked up at me his eyes were intent, earnest. “But if you ever did love him, trust Jack.” I raised both eyebrows at him, openly skeptical, but he went on, “If you really believe he would ever do anything deliberately to hurt you… then you never really knew him at all.”
There was a quiet conviction in his tone that both surprised and moved me. Somehow I knew that even if Frank hadn’t read the report on the incident, it still wouldn’t ever occur to him that Jack hadn’t acted completely honorably. But that kind of faith was peculiar to those who’d faced death together repeatedly over the course of almost twelve years. And I didn’t think I’d ever had the kind of absolute trust in anyone, as Jack and Frank once had in each other.
“He might have at least come to talk to me,” I insisted, sitting down again and leaning forward with my elbows on my knees. “I think I deserved … an apology, at least, if he couldn’t tell me what happened. And the chance to… to talk about it with him.”
“Would it make any difference,” he asked quietly, “if I could tell you I know — from a confidential source — that during the month after this incident he was away on a mission the whole time?”
Staring at the floor, I forced myself to think about it, and answer honestly. “No.” He didn’t look surprised, or angry anymore, just sad. “Well, maybe if he’d told me that the first time he called… ” I trailed off, wondering if I would’ve listened if he’d tried to tell me he was on a mission. Probably not. There are some wounds that are just too deep, and some pain no amount of apologies can heal. “I don’t know. I just couldn’t … couldn’t deal with him, then.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” he said, with a look that said he understood. “But someday when you’re ready to talk to him,” he went on, “maybe you’ll give him a chance to tell his side of the story.”
I looked away, trying to imagine myself calling Jack up, almost a year later, to demand an explanation after I’d already refused his peace overtures so many times. That would only open too many old wounds, for both of us.
Frank seemed to know what I was thinking, and his next words surprised the hell out of me. “He still loves you.”
“I suppose he told you that.” I regretted the sarcasm as soon as I said the words, seeing the way his lips pressed together again, like he was in pain. There it was again, that absolute certainty, his faith that he could still know Jack’s feelings despite eight years of silence. “Why are you defending him, anyway?” I asked, curious and a little exasperated. “After… everything, after all he’s done to you.”
I didn’t expect an answer. A question like that aimed way too close at feelings that were too personal, and painful memories that were too strong. A second later I wondered why I’d even asked, when I knew he’d close down and shut me out again, destroying whatever fragile understanding we’d built.
So I was stunned when he looked me right in the eye, and said, “Maybe ’cause I know how bad it hurts.” He jumped up off the couch like he couldn’t bear to sit still any longer, walking over to the fireplace and stopping just short of slamming his fist into the wall. “To be shut out like that. To not have the chance to… to even try to explain.”
He spun around, pacing restlessly up and down the little room, fists clenched at his sides. I wanted to go to him, to say something, but there was nothing to say. Nothing I could do but watch him, as he struggled for control.
“It’s not just that,” I admitted, as he stopped pacing finally, leaning against the back of the couch. “It’s… ” There were tears filling my eyes again, and I brushed them angrily away with one hand. “It’s everything… ”
“Sometimes people make mistakes, Sara.” He spoke so low I had to strain to hear him. “Sometimes you can fix ’em. Sometimes… sometimes you can’t.”
I shook my head quickly. “That’s not what I meant.” How to explain it? “Yeah, I was angry. It was — it was his gun, it was — ” I swallowed hard. “But I could’ve forgiven him for that. If he would’ve just talked to me, let us try to help each other, let me… ” I sniffed, blinking away more tears, and I saw him reach into his pocket like he was going to offer me a handkerchief, before realizing he didn’t have one. “Why?” I asked him, like I thought he’d know. “Why couldn’t he just… open up for once? I needed him, Frank, I needed him.”
He shook his head. “If I knew the answer to that question… Lisa and I would still be together.”
“I could forgive him for what happened to Charlie,” I said finally, forcing the words out through the tears. “That was an accident. But when he left… ” Frank’s eyes were haunted when I looked up at him, pleading for understanding. “That wasn’t an accident. He left to try to kill himself. After I’d just lost Charlie. I can’t forgive him for that.”
I drew my knees up to my chest, burying my face in the pillow as more tears came, choking back sobs. After a moment there were strong hands on my shoulders, his deep voice murmuring something that sounded reassuring. This simple gesture of comfort was my undoing. Something seemed to snap inside me, and I couldn’t stop crying, hugging the pillow and letting it all out, the fear, the hurt and the anger and grief.
I wonder if that’s why he chose this house.
I think I finally understand, now, why he wanted to build a deck on top of our house. I’d been dead set against the idea at the time. It would be too expensive, too much work, and Charlie wouldn’t be careful enough up there, he’d end up falling off the roof and breaking his neck… But there’s something about being up here above all the houses on the street, nothing around me but the dark, quiet sky. And there’s something about looking up at the vastness of the heavens that brings me some measure of peace.
Charlie always loved the stars. And I loved to watch him and Jack together at night, as Jack taught him the names and the shapes of the constellations. I always hated having to call them inside when it was time for Charlie to go to bed.
If you didn’t have a map, Jack told him, you could always find your way by the stars. And he showed Charlie how to find the North Star, and what constellations were in the east, and which were in the west. For Charlie it had been a fun game, an adventure, when sometimes they’d pretend they were explorers on a great journey through our backyard. And Jack loved those games as much as Charlie did, but I knew that for him, reading the night sky could be anything but a game. Too many times, I was sure, he’d had only the stars to show him the way to safety and home.
I’m lost in my own thoughts when I hear a sound from the ladder, turning just in time to see Jack drag himself onto the deck with an effort.
With a guilty start I wonder how long I’ve been up here. He doesn’t even notice me until I stand up, pushing the chair back with a scraping sound. I half expect him to be mad, but instead he looks surprised, and a little uncertain.
I should have known he’d be up here eventually. He used to find comfort in the night sky, long before we got the telescope. Though how he managed the ladder is beyond me.
Feeling very uncomfortable, I move past him toward the ladder, when his voice stops me. “You don’t… have to go.” It’s not quite an apology, not quite a plea for me to stay, but something just short of both. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
I should have just left, I’m thinking. I don’t want this to turn into another awkward scene, and right now I’m hoping I can extricate myself from the whole situation as painlessly as possible. Go home to my empty house, curl up and cry myself to sleep in private.
But I see him sway a little as he leans against the deck railing, and I realize I can’t leave him now.
He’s drunk, and he’s busted his leg somehow, and if I leave him alone he’ll probably break his neck trying to climb down.
How the hell did I get myself into this?
“Jack.” He scares me when he sits down suddenly, leaning back against the railing and looking up. “Jack, you can’t stay up here. It’s freezing.” When he doesn’t look at me, I crouch next to him. “Come on, let’s get you to bed.”
“Not yet.” He looks lost, staring up at the sky like his once familiar map has been changed, and he no longer recognizes the patterns up there. I sit down next to him, shivering. Not yet, Mom, Charlie would say. Can’t we stay out a little longer? Just five minutes? It’s just started to get dark!
“Jack — ” He ignores me, and I sigh. Fine, then, I think. Maybe the stars will bring him some peace tonight. Nothing else seems to be working. If nothing else, I can stay with him and make sure he doesn’t kill himself climbing down from the deck.
A cold breeze seems to pierce right through the thin shirt I’m wearing, and I move closer to him, letting him warm my left side. He doesn’t seem to notice, and he doesn’t look at me when he speaks. “Looks pretty, doesn’t it?” Not sure how to respond, I just nod, and he waves an unsteady hand at the heavens. “All those stars — all the light from those stars — ” The words are a little slurred. “It’s all thousands, maybe millions of years old. They’re so… far away… ”
“It takes the light a long time to get here,” I finish softly. I was never as into astronomy as he was, but I remember listening to him telling Charlie about it.
He looks at me sharply, then turns back to the sky. “Some of these stars aren’t even there, anymore.”
That’s a strange statement. “Stars don’t just disappear, Jack,” I say gently.
There’s a soft snort from him. “No, they just burn out, or blow up. Something like that. I’m not an astrophysicist, for cryin’ out loud. Ask Carter… ” He trails off, and I’m thinking, now that sounds like the Jack I know. “Or… they collapse. Turn into white dwarfs. Neutron stars.” His voice drops. “Or black holes.”
I’m only half paying attention to the science lesson, but something in his tone makes me look up at his last words. “And there’s no way we can know for sure, from here. We won’t see what they look like now for another million years. Not unless — ” He breaks off, looking down at his hands.
This is significant, somehow. Though I can’t for the life of me guess why. I wish I’d brought my coat. The wind’s picking up, rustling through the trees, and it’s getting even colder.
He doesn’t say anything else, and I look away, staring at the branches of the trees next to the house. My eyes are starting to drift closed, and I know I should be getting back home now. “Jack.” He doesn’t answer. “Jack, it’s cold up here,” I try again. “You need to rest, let your leg heal. You’re going to catch a cold up here.”
I might as well have been talking to a wall. Sighing again, I wrap my arms around myself, exasperated. “Jack,” I say again, shaking his shoulder.
If he even knows I’m here, he doesn’t make a sign. Finally I give up, leaning against him and resting my head on his shoulder, trying to soak up as much of his warmth as I can.
“They’re not as bright here.” His voice is remote. “Not as bright… as… ”
As somewhere classified, I don’t doubt. And I’m about to say something, ask if we can go inside now, when he starts speaking again. The words come slowly, but they’re not slurred anymore.
“They used to tie us up outside.” And suddenly I’m wide awake. “Sometimes for hours.” Sitting up, I look at him sharply, but he’s lost somewhere in the past, most of his face in deep shadow. The chill that runs through me has nothing to do with the cold, and I clasp my hands together hard. I’m not at all sure I want to hear this.
But all the same I have to know. He’s never talked about Iraq before, not to me, not to anyone. He must be a hell of a lot more drunk than I realized, to talk about it now.
“This one time, I guess they forgot about me.” His hands move restlessly, playing with a twig, but the rest of him is perfectly still. “Left me out there after the sun went down. It was cooler, then.” He throws the twig aside, and I watch it fall of the edge of the roof before remembering to breathe. “Our guys had been bombing all day, we could hear ’em. I guess they must’ve hit a power plant, ’cause the lights were out all over the city.” There’s a long pause, so long I think he’s not going to say anything more. But in the next words there’s a note almost of awe. “I swear to God, Sara, you never saw so many stars.” He lets out a long, shuddering breath. “It was… so damn beautiful… ”
I turn away so he won’t see the tears, wiping my eyes with one hand, my throat too choked to say anything. “I thought he was gonna come that night.” The bitterness creeps back into his voice. “I’d… almost… stopped hoping. But that night7hellip; I really thought he was gonna come back.”
Sometimes people make mistakes, Sara… All I can see is the haunted look in Frank’s eyes. Sometimes you can fix ’em. Sometimes…
I remember the day he came to our house, standing on the doorstep like he had no memory of how he got there, and that shell-shocked look on his face. Two months after Jack was supposed to have been killed. I remember the months of frantic phone calls, and letters, to the Air Force, the Red Cross, the UN… He was gone, back to Saudi, three days after he found out, but still he called me whenever he could. Even when he had nothing but bad news to report.
Jack didn’t know about that, hadn’t seen the look in his eyes, hadn’t heard the desperation in his voice growing stronger with every phone call. He didn’t know how Frank had planned and prepared everything for the rescue mission. How he hadn’t slept for weeks, and kept after any officer who would listen, pleading and threatening, using such language to General West that he just about ruined his own career.
Jack only knew that no one came, for four long months. No one allowed Frank to do anything to help his best friend.
How can I even begin to imagine what’s going through his mind now, what horrifying memories the last few days have dragged back to the surface? I know only too well how the scars, mental and physical, never really went away. You don’t get over something like this… best you can do is keep going, try as hard as you can to forget, to move on. That was how Jack dealt with it, anyway.
He wasn’t interested in my help, either, after he came home. It tore my heart apart to see him, when he woke up in the hospital. He looked so fragile, his arms so thin the first time he wrapped them around me, holding me with all the strength he had left. But when he came home, he would just sit for hours, staring into space. Sometimes, at night, he’d let me hold him after he woke up screaming, but more often he’d turn away and say it was nothing. Either way, he’d never tell me what the nightmares were about.
I’d lie awake, and try to cry softly so he wouldn’t hear. And I’d pray, with everything I had, asking God to please just let him talk to me, let me know the right words to say. Let us get through this, and I’ll never ask for anything again. To this day I don’t know where I found the strength, to keep going and to be there for him through that time, when it seemed like he was doing everything he could to shut me out.
I lay a hand on his arm, but he doesn’t react. What can I say? Do I tell him how Frank tried, how he would have given anything, done anything, parachuted into downtown Baghdad all alone if they’d let him? He knows that already, and none of it made any difference. Do I tell him about the last time I saw Frank, how the guilt still tormented him after so long? That would hardly help him. Jack knows all about guilt.
“We had maybe a minute.” It’s barely above a whisper, and I squeeze his arm gently, encouraging. “We both knew it might be the last. I wasn’t… didn’t want… ” I know it’s useless, but right now I’d give anything to be able to take away some of the anguish behind those words. “He always was a stubborn son of a bitch.”
I just nod, not feeling the cold anymore at all, knowing if he doesn’t talk about this now he probably never will. “He wouldn’t let it go. Wouldn’t let me ignore him this time. Knew me too well, I guess.” It’s too dark to see his face, but I can feel the muscles in his arm tense. “He asked me. To forgive him.”
That surprises me. Frank tried, in the months after he came home, to get Jack to talk to him. But after a little while he seemed to give up, or else to accept that there could never be any absolution for him. He always thought he deserved nothing more from Jack than what he got. And even if Jack had forgiven him, I know that wouldn’t have helped him forgive himself.
So why did he ask, then? What gave him the courage, I wonder, to face Jack and his own feelings, buried for so many years? To admit to Jack and himself how much he still cared, how much it still hurt, how much he needed that absolution, whether he deserved it or not? He must have known, in that moment, he was about to die. But still it amazes me.
“I told him to go to hell.” His voice is soft, full of self-loathing. “There was — an explosion. He pushed me out of the way. I tried… tried to hold on to him… ”
“Jack — ” And then I realize it’s no use. There are no words that can fix this now. It’s far too late for words. So I stroke his arm gently with one hand, as he bows his head. Giving him the only thing I can, the reassurance that he’s not alone.
Could they ever have fixed what was between them, moved beyond the past, if Frank had lived? Could they have been friends again, as close as they used to be? It’s obvious now Jack still cares, as much as he used to act like he didn’t, and I know if there was anything he could give, including his own life, to save Frank, or even just to let him hear the words he needed to hear, he would give it in a heartbeat.
But I also know, from bitter experience, there’s a world of difference between forgiving and forgetting. Some kinds of trust, once broken, can never be repaired. And the trust those two held in each other once was beyond anything I’ve ever known.
The tragedy of it all, though, is that we’ll never know. They’ll never know if they could have saved their friendship, never be able to sit down and talk about everything that happened. They’ll never know if the friendship they still felt for each other could ultimately prove stronger than the pain of the memories.
After a long moment Jack looks up at the sky, and his hand moves to cover mine. I don’t know how long we sat there together, it felt like at least an hour, but my eyes are starting to close when he looks at me. “You’re cold.”
I’m still shivering, and his eyes seem to focus, really seeing me now. “Yes, Jack,” I say quietly, “it’s March in Colorado, and it’s almost four in the morning.”
He lets out a soft sigh, and I can see the mask is back now, either that or he’s just too tired to feel anything. “Come on.” He almost falls over trying to stand up, though, and I have to grab his arm to steady him.
“Whoa, easy there.” He holds onto the railing as I look down, wondering how we’re going to get down. He doesn’t look very capable of negotiating a ladder right now.
In the end he manages it all right, and he leans on me as we go back into the house. The warm air seems to hit me in a wave, and there’s a part of me that just wants to sink down in that big armchair and go to sleep.
But I have to get home. It’s late, and I have to work tomorrow. “Are you going to be all right?” I ask seriously.
Jack sinks down onto the couch, running a hand through his hair. “Yeah. Sure.” He sounds exhausted, but not totally convinced. “You betcha.” Then, as I lean over to give him a quick hug, he says, “You don’t have to leave.”
I straighten up, surprised. A few seconds later he seems to realize what this sounds like, and he looks suddenly awkward. “I mean… you can crash on the couch if you want. It’s pretty late… I have spare blankets… ”
This is a bad idea, and I know it. But now that he mentions it, I really don’t feel like driving all the way across the city right now. So I sigh, and tell him, “All right.”
I’m going to regret this, in the morning.
He starts to stand up, but I give him a look and he sits down again. “Blankets are in the closet at the bottom of the stairs.”
I’m only out of the room for a minute, but when I come back with the blanket he’s fast asleep, his head tilted back and his mouth slightly open. It’s a sight that tugs at my heart still, to see him like this. For a minute he looks almost peaceful, his bruised and battered face slack and vulnerable in a way I haven’t seen in years. I hesitate a long moment, listening to him snoring softly. Then I sit down next to him, without bothering to turn out the light, sinking into the softness of the cushions and laying my head on his shoulder. I spread the blanket over us both, letting myself relax, surrounded by his familiar warmth.
When I got downstairs, Frank was all decked out in full dress blues, standing by the counter with a mug in one hand. I gave him a look as I came into the kitchen. “Tell me that’s decaf.” His raised eyebrows said quite clearly, I wouldn’t waste my time, and I sighed, deciding it wouldn’t do any good mentioning that caffeine generally wasn’t recommended for people with possible head injuries. Instead I took the mug he offered, taking a careful sip. “You going somewhere?”
In uniform he looked somehow different, comfortable, more self-assured. Or maybe it was just easier to pretend this way. “I have an appointment with some people at the Academy, to start setting up training scenarios,” he said. “Rest of the team’s not gonna be back for another two weeks, but we might as well start planning.”
Jack would’ve had something to say about that, the thought hit us both at the same time. Leave time is not for catching up on work, for cryin’ out loud! It’s called vacation for a reason. Time to kick back, relax, go fishing…
Frank always made a great show of reluctance, especially at first. But for all that, I know he missed those days. And it wasn’t so much that he didn’t know how to relax with two weeks’ leave, as that he had no one to relax with… except too many memories.
I didn’t believe for a minute he was going to talk about training exercises, though.
“I’ll drive you,” I offered. He looked like he was going to protest, then remembered he didn’t have a car. “You want breakfast before you go?”
He shook his head quickly. “No, I’m all right.”
Shrugging, I grabbed a muffin from the counter and sat at the table. “You can at least sit down, you know. You look like you’re waiting for an inspection.”
His lips twitched a little at that — the closest I’d seen him come to a smile — and he refilled his coffee cup and sat down across from me. “I told the commandant I’d be there by 0900.”
“To plan your training exercises.” I nodded. “Right. You told me.” I took a long sip of coffee, grimacing a little. Frank made it a lot stronger than I usually did. “I don’t know what you’re really doing over there, and I’m not going to ask you to tell me.” Leaning forward, I clasped my hands around the warm mug. “I’m just going to make a couple educated guesses. You don’t have to tell me if I’m right.”
His expression guarded, he tilted his head to one side and waited for me to go on. “You’ve been keeping track of Jack for a while now.” If I didn’t know him I might have missed it, the way his face froze for an instant before he looked away. “That’s not a guess, that’s a fact, you’ve told me. And if I know you, you’ve volunteered for hazardous duty whenever you had the opportunity, in the last few years. I don’t know what half of those mean,” I waved at the ribbons on his jacket, “but I’m pretty sure they’re not the kind you get sitting behind a desk.” I fixed him with another look. “Or running training exercises.”
He didn’t say anything, but then I didn’t expect him to. “If half of what I see on the news these days is true, we may be at war in Yugoslavia pretty soon,” I went on. “At a time like this, you take an assignment back stateside teaching cadets. Where you report directly to General West, of all people. And you’re not trying to fight this.” His face still averted, he nodded. “I also know that whatever Jack’s doing, he’s based out of Cheyenne Mountain.”
He looked up finally, and when his eyes met mine I saw a quiet determination that confirmed the rest of my theory. “West wouldn’t have told you what Jack’s doing unless you’re going to be involved in it somehow. Now he would know — or Jack would tell him — not to have you two working directly together. So my guess… is that you’re some kind of backup team. Extra security. Something like that. I’m not even going to guess the details, but you wouldn’t take stateside duty with a war on the way unless you know Jack’s working on something dangerous. And the reason you’re here is to be ready to help if something goes wrong.”
I’d worked this out late last night — or early this morning, actually, lying in bed trying to fall asleep again. Knowing Frank as well as I did, there could be no other explanation, and I didn’t need him to break any regulations to know I’d guessed it. And if that wasn’t enough, his next words confirmed it. “Nothing’s gonna happen to him.”
He looked like he wanted to say something more, but that was all he could say without revealing classified information. “I know.” If Frank has anything to do with it, I was sure Jack would have at least a fighting chance. But I wasn’t about to lose sleep over it. I’d spent far too many nights, over the years, worrying about Jack when he was on missions. Or at least, I tried to convince myself I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.
The look he gave me then said he knew exactly what I was thinking. “You wouldn’t be so mad at him if you didn’t still care.”
He met my skeptical glare without flinching. There was a surety in his eyes I hadn’t seen in way too long, the look of a man who knew his duty. No fear, no doubts, only calm acceptance. I would have expected him to be at least a little nervous about the idea of meeting Jack again. But it wasn’t until that moment I realized why he wasn’t.
He expected to be called in to help, if anything went wrong. To pull Jack’s ass out of the fire, the way he couldn’t in the Gulf. To do whatever he had to do, so that Jack would get home all right.
And when he did get called in, he didn’t expect to come back alive.
Didn’t expect to, didn’t want to… I felt a chill run through me. He meant to give his life, when — not if — he had to, to save his friend and to make some atonement for his past failure. And he expected — he hoped — it would be soon.
I swallowed hard, setting aside the remaining half of my muffin, suddenly no longer hungry. I didn’t have to put forward this last guess, to know I was right. And I didn’t know how to say it, or what good it would do, to confront him with it.
After all, it wasn’t like he had anything left to lose.
So I got up, finishing the last of my coffee in a long gulp, and setting the mug on the counter. He followed me wordlessly out to the car, throwing his duffel and briefcase in the back seat.
Overnight the rain had turned to sleet, and although the sky was beginning to clear up now, the roads were still icy. This gave me something else to concentrate on, a reason not to have to say anything, while I was trying to absorb this latest revelation. And figure out what on Earth I was going to say to him, in what might be our last goodbye.
He sat silent beside me, playing with his hat, turning it around in his hands. Along the side of the road, long-needled evergreens bowed under the weight of ice coating their branches, and the sun was beginning to come out from behind thick banks of clouds. “Sara, are you… ” When he finally spoke, it was with an awkward look, like he wasn’t sure how to say what he needed to say. “Are doing all right as far as money and all that?”
He always asked that, whenever we talked to each other, in that almost apologetic tone. Like he was afraid I’d be offended at the suggestion that I couldn’t take care of myself. And from anyone else I might be. But I knew this need to make sure I was provided for was more his way of honoring what he saw as his duty to Jack, than a lack of confidence in my abilities. Even so, my answer was always the same. “Sure, I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
Silence descended again, as we turned onto the main road leading toward the Academy. Then he asked a question he’d never asked me before. “And… is Lisa doing all right?”
He wasn’t talking about money this time. He still sent her the bigger part of his salary, and she had a job of her own. “She’s fine,” I said quietly. Thinking of the conversation I knew I’d be having with her, as soon as I dropped him off at the base. She’d want to know all the details.
Looking at him, I could tell he still loved her as much as he ever did. It was never an absence of love that kept them apart. But he left her, eight years ago, because he was convinced he didn’t deserve her, didn’t deserve any kind of happiness. And for some strange reason he thought it would be easier for her, if he stayed away after the war and didn’t come back.
He never actually divorced her, though. He would have, I was sure, if she’d wanted it, but I guess he thought that as long as they were married, the Air Force would provide for her when he died.
I wondered if I should tell him how much she still loved him.
He probably wouldn’t believe it. And besides, she’d moved on, found a job she loved and friends she could trust. After all this time, it would only reopen old wounds. Especially when I knew he was involved in something very dangerous. If she wanted to contact him, after I told her everything that had happened in the past two days, let it be her decision. I didn’t have the right to decide for her.
I could see the crystal spires of the Academy chapel now, turning in the main gates, and beyond them the snowy peaks of the Rocky Mountains. The guard at the gates snapped a sharp salute for Frank, and he returned it, sliding easily back into his military attitude.
The wind was cold, striking our faces as we got out of the car. Frank put his hat on, straightening his uniform as I stood in front of him, not knowing what to say. “Please say you’ll have a doctor check that out,” I said, waving a hand at the side of his head.
“Douglas — my medic — will want to see it, I’m sure,” he said. He looked resigned, like he’d avoid it if he could. I was right, he had been hanging around Jack too long. “Thanks again,” he said, standing straight, his eyes lingering on mine in that familiar awkward affection, saying all those things he’d never say out loud. “For everything.”
“You know… ” I had to stop, clear my throat. “You’re always welcome at my place. Any time.”
He just nodded, squaring his shoulders again, before turning around and walking away. And all I could think of was that day, more than two years ago, when Jack had packed and left without a word to me. Carrying top secret orders, and with a look in his eyes telling me he wouldn’t be coming back. The look of a man with nothing left to live for. I saw that expression again. There in Frank’s eyes. And I could feel the tears starting in my own.
I let him get maybe halfway across the parking lot, before I called to him.
He turned, waiting as I ran toward him. I had no idea what I was going to say. What I could say. “Frank, you know… ” I stopped, and he looked at me, with that concerned expression. “If anything happens to you… ” The wind tore across the parking lot, cutting through the thin coat I wore, and I shivered. “If you and Jack don’t fix this between you… ” My voice wavered, and I swallowed hard, finishing in a rush. “Jack will never forgive himself.” His face was set, and if he believed me he made no sign. “You know him,” I insisted. “You know I’m right.”
He looked away, squinting in the sun. I tried one more time. “He wouldn’t hate you so much if he didn’t still care.”
Our eyes met then, and his held a look of hopeless anguish that no words could help. For a long moment we stared at each other, as he struggled to regain some semblance of military control. Finally I gave up on finding words and hugged him. He was surprised, and didn’t respond at first, standing stiffly for a few seconds before he wrapped his arms around me, holding me against his chest as I fought the tears. I was not going to cry.
It was a long time before he stepped back. I watched him as he walked away, straight and military correct.
He didn’t look back.
I don’t want to move. I’d almost forgotten, in the past year, how warm and safe I always felt in his arms. I’d almost forgotten how much I’ve missed this, watching the rise and fall of his chest while he’s asleep.
I knew this was a stupid idea.
’Cause now I’m here, all I want is to stay right where I am now, to let him hold me close, to make this moment last. And I know that’s impossible.
It’s too easy, in moments like this, to believe we could work things out. To say that as long as we love each other, somehow everything else will fix itself. But I know better than that.
Jack stirs, his arm drawing me closer before he opens his eyes with a groan. “Ahh, crap.”
“Good morning to you, too,” I say, as he claps a hand over his eyes.
At the sound of my voice, he looks up, blinking. Like he’s surprised to see me here.
I get up now, a firm hand on his shoulder telling him to stay put, and retreat upstairs to look for aspirin. His house is small, and it might have been cozy if it weren’t for a lack of any personalized decorations up here. And if I didn’t know he lived here all alone. I can’t help pausing in the doorway of his bedroom, looking in at the wide bed with the rumpled sheets, feeling like I’m staring into something private but unable to help myself.
There are two framed pictures in here, the first I’ve seen in this house. One, sitting on the bedside table, is of Charlie. His last school picture, his face so warm and alive, looking out from under the hair flopping in his eyes. And next to it, in a frame I recognize as Lisa’s, there’s Jack and Frank in uniform, twenty-four years old, looking ready to take on the whole damn world by themselves.
I turn away then, going into the bathroom where I find a bottle of aspirin in the medicine cabinet. There’s a certain familiar rhythm to it all, I’m thinking, as I go into the kitchen, filling a glass with water. I could almost pretend we were still married, that Jack had come home late after some all night party. I set the aspirin and water on a table by the couch, barely meeting his eyes as he swallows two pills dry. He looks worn out, confused, and I’m not ready yet to face the questions in his eyes.
I knew I should’ve gone home last night.
But I know if I had, I’d be sitting at home right now, wondering how Jack was doing, and trying to get up the courage to call and ask him. I can’t face him right now, but I can’t leave, either. So I escape into the kitchen, half hoping, half afraid he’ll say something to me. When he doesn’t, I call Jill, on some impulse I can’t explain, and tell her I’m going to be late. When I tell her I’m at my ex’s, she says just take as much time as you need.
It would’ve made things a hell of a lot easier, if she’d ordered me to get there as fast as I could.
Flashes of last night come to me unbidden, as I turn on the hot water and set out to attack the dishes piled in his sink. The grief, confusion, and anger when I first arrived, all that helpless fury finally finding a release, a target. No, we didn’t kiss and make up and solve everything and live happily ever after. And now we won’t ever —
I wonder if he knows how badly he hurt me, with those words. And then, in that matter-of-fact voice that chilled me, “They used to tie us up outside.” Seven words, but they were all that was needed to call back too many memories, too many nights lying awake imagining all manner of horrors my husband had endured.
Keeping his house clean obviously hasn’t been a top priority of his for a while. These dishes look like they’ve been left here dirty for weeks. The familiar physical work is somehow soothing, as I grab a scrub brush and squeeze soap onto it.
It’s a compromise, I guess, between walking out of here — which I can’t do — and sitting around waiting for Jack to come talk to me — which I won’t do. At least this way, I’m doing something useful while I put off the painful goodbye I know has to come soon.
But every minute I stay here means it’s going to hurt worse, when I leave.
Sara, honey, be sensible. Yes, it’s horrible and tragic, what happened to Frank. And it’s even worse for Jack than for you. But feeling sorry for Jack isn’t enough of a foundation on which to rebuild your relationship.
And the pain is still too fresh, the wounds still too deep, for me to stay here and comfort him as just a friend.
I’d almost managed to get used to life without him, in the past two years. And now if I stay here much longer, I might be destroying all the progress I’ve made in these years.
I shake my head angrily as I start loading the dishes into the dishwasher. Eight years apart from her husband didn’t make Lisa’s grief at his death any easier to deal with.
I wrap my arms around myself. To hear him tell the story, it was only Frank’s split second reflexes that saved Jack from the same fate. It could easily have been Jack dead with him, or instead of him.
Flicking the switch on the dishwasher, I open the refrigerator, in search of breakfast. The slightly sweet, rotten smell tells me I’m not going to find anything good, before I see the patches of green and white fuzz covering most of the food in there. Obviously Jack hasn’t been home much lately. Wrinkling my nose, I drag the garbage can over and start cleaning out the fridge.
He’s not home very often, if he lets his house get like this. He’s still going on missions, dangerous missions. Are you sure you want to get into all this again? Are you sure you want to let yourself get close to him again, when you’re only going to be alone, and worrying about him most of the time?
With a disgusted glare I drop a bunch of black, squashy bananas into the trash. I can’t believe I’m thinking this way.
I shouldn’t even consider this.
I want to be angry with him. I don’t want to remember the look in his eyes last night, when he asked me to stay. It’s too easy to believe he wants me to stay for longer than just one night. And way too easy to forget, just long enough, all the reasons why I shouldn’t. I still can’t think of him, still can’t be with him for any length of time, without remembering Charlie. Without expecting to hear little running footsteps, to see him come running in to throw his arms around me and tell me all about whatever new exciting adventures he’s had today. I can’t go through that again. It’s been too hard trying to forget.
Anger is better. Safer. Easier. If I stay angry at him, if I remember all the ways he hurt me, I won’t let him hurt me anymore.
I know I’m lying to myself, even before Frank’s voice echoes in my mind. You wouldn’t be so mad at him if you didn’t still care.
It was easier for Jack to stay angry at Frank, for eight years. Easier than accepting the idea that someone he trusted so much could make a mistake in the heat of battle. That sometimes no matter how much you care, no matter how hard you try, you can’t always protect the people you love most.
And now Frank’s gone.
I still can’t believe it.
Frank was always there. Jack’s shadow and his other half, in a way even I never was. He was the quiet one, moderation to Jack’s wild and crazy side, the calm and steady strength I leaned on those times when I was terrified for my husband. He was the one who called, mere weeks after we were married, to tell me Jack’s chute had malfunctioned on a supposedly routine training jump, leaving him missing and badly injured in some wilderness. It was Frank who called me, hours after two officers brought the terrible news that Jack was dead, and Frank who ended up as a convenient target for my grief and anger: at him, at Jack for dying, at the Air Force for taking him from me. He was always the one I dumped on, when I was worried or scared or mad at the military in general. When he brought me the news that Jack was alive, and a prisoner, he never said a word in his own defense. I said horrible things to him then, words I’d give anything now to take back. How could this happen? How could you let this happen? I thought you two were supposed to look after each other! How could he be alive, if you left him for dead over there?
He refused to let me give up hope. We’ll get him back, he told me, every time he called. I swear to you, we’ll get him back.
And against all odds, Jack came home. Against even greater odds, he was able to recover physically and mentally, and our marriage survived.
Only to founder against a reef far more destructive.
In the end the beer is the only thing in Jack’s fridge that hasn’t gone bad already. Shutting the door, I tie the trash bag and take it down to the garage. When I come back inside Jack’s kneeling in front of the fireplace, stacking logs and pieces of newspaper.
He doesn’t hear me enter, so I stand in the doorway of the living room, arms folded. Not knowing what I’m going to say, only knowing that it would be so much easier to leave without saying goodbye.
If you and Jack don’t fix this between you…
My last words to Frank come back to me, as I hear a faint popping noise from the fireplace. Sparks fly into the chimney as Jack sets the scraps of paper alight. I watch as he closes the grate, standing up straight and watching the flames lick at the newspaper. And I wonder what he’s thinking.
If you really believe he would ever do anything deliberately to hurt you… then you never really knew him at all.
“He told me you’re doing something good.” The words come quietly, and he doesn’t say anything, doesn’t turn. “He was at my place, about a month ago. He knew… ” I swallow hard, wondering if this is such a good idea, knowing it’s too late to go back now. “He knew what you were doing.”
He turns around then, leaning against a chair, looking exhausted and hung over still, but his eyes are sharp and focused now. “If this is about… ” he starts, but I hold up a hand.
“Let me finish.” If I don’t say this now, I might never find the nerve again. And it has to be said. “When I saw you last… I never really let you explain. And I should have. I’m sorry.”
He looks down, his hands slowly crumpling a scrap of paper. “There wasn’t much to tell,” he admits, sounding defeated. “Not much I’m allowed to tell you. Maybe it’s better… ”
“No,” I cut him off. “No. I still should’ve let you… ” I trail off, as he shakes his head, throwing the crumpled paper in the corner. “I’m sorry,” I say again, and the words sound useless. Futile. “We didn’t exactly end it well, did we?”
I hear his soft sigh, but my thoughts are far away. Remembering the day I found out he’d come home, that he hadn’t gotten himself killed like he’d been planning to do. I’d waited, then, for him to contact me. I hadn’t had the courage to call him myself, to go to him, to ask him why he’d decided to live.
Now I wonder what would’ve happened if I had.
“No,” he says finally. And I know I’m just making it worse. There’s no point going over what we might have said, what might have been.
“I should have trusted you.” I don’t know where the words come from. He looks up, a thread of surprise creeping through the regret in his eyes. “I thought… I was angry, I didn’t know what to think. Whatever it was… I thought you planned it that way. That you didn’t care how I felt about it. I should have known better.”
His eyebrows draw together, curious, and he watches me like he thinks I’m not finished. There’s so much else I want to say, but I can’t find any more words to say it. So I finish quietly, “It wasn’t your fault, Jack.”
I don’t know if I’m talking about Frank or Charlie. Maybe both.
And maybe it’s better this way. We shouldn’t think about the past. “Is that what you came here to say?” he asks finally.
I look away, feeling my breath catch in my throat. He says it like he’s hoping I’ll say no. There’s no one else in the world anymore who could see it, who could guess that behind that mask I know so well, he’s asking me to stay. He’s sober now, and he won’t ask me directly. It’s as close as he’ll ever come to opening himself up, laying himself bare for me for the last time.
But all I can say is, “I’m sorry it took so long.” It’s a tearful whisper, an echo of a stranger with my husband’s face. I can’t think of any other words. “It should’ve been said sooner.”
The shift is almost imperceptible, but I can see him retreat from me, the door slamming shut behind his eyes. He just looks tired, as he picks up my jacket from the back of the chair.
I’m trying not to cry as I put it on, resisting the urge to turn and throw my arms around him. I don’t know what to do now. I can’t stay because I feel sorry for him. I can’t stay because he just lost Frank, or because I feel bad for the way we ended it before. I can’t change the past, any more than he can. Any more than Frank could. Some mistakes you can’t fix.
It’s all or nothing, now, I know. I can’t stay here unless I’m willing to put it all on the line, for better or for worse.
And I still don’t know if I’m ready to forgive him. If what love remains between us is stronger than the pain of the memories.
I don’t look at him, staring instead at the fireplace, the flames spreading to catch in the logs, more sparks exploding in the heart of the fire. I don’t know if I have the strength to give him everything again, the way I did once, to try to rebuild what we had.
But if I walk out of here right now, I realize, I may never get the chance to find out.
And if there’s one thing Frank’s death has taught me, it’s that sometimes God doesn’t care when you’re ready.
I take a deep breath, forcing myself to look at Jack. “I — ” His warm, chocolate-brown eyes are full of a multitude of regrets, and there’s more pain than I can guess at hidden in those depths. “I don’t have to leave just yet.” I reach out, touch his arm, but he doesn’t move. Doesn’t let himself hope. Not yet. The next words don’t come easily. “I want to know, Jack.”
He frowns. “Know what?”
“If we could have fixed this.” The flicker of surprise in his face is gone so fast I think I imagined it. “If we can still have a chance together. I don’t want..” I raise one hand to touch his face, tracing the lines of the cuts on his cheek. “You almost died, Jack. I don’t want to find out, tomorrow or the next day, or a year from now, that you’re dead and I — I never — we never tried to find out… ”
I can’t go on. I swore I wasn’t going to cry now, but I can’t stop the tears, seeing the look on his face. So many confused, tangled emotions playing across his face, grief and hope mixed. He doesn’t say anything, and I look down, thinking I’ve waited too long.
Jack never was very good with words. He never could look me in the eye and talk about how he felt, during the best of times. But there are other ways of saying “I love you”, and when he reaches out and wraps his arms around me, I know he’s found the one that’s always worked for him.
His strong arms hold me now, enfolding me in his warmth and his love, and I can feel the slow beating of his heart through the fabric of his shirt. I don’t know where this is going. I don’t know if we can ever go back to the way we were, or if what we have left will be enough to keep us together. All I know is that right now I feel like I’ve finally come home.
Part IV: So Builds An Absolute Trust