Colorado Springs, August 1999
This is a mistake.
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…
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 peek 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.