3. What Love Remains

Colorado Springs, August 1999

The sun is shining brightly through the window when I wake, and it takes me a second to remember where I am. Sitting on the couch at Jack’s house, his arm around my shoulders, his chin resting on the top of my head. Feeling the rhythm of his breathing, slow and strong and achingly familiar as he sleeps.

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.

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