Colorado Springs, February 1999
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 here 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.