Read When She Came Home Online

Authors: Drusilla Campbell

Tags: #Fiction / Family Life, #Fiction / Contemporary Women, #Fiction / War & Military, #General Fiction

When She Came Home (12 page)

BOOK: When She Came Home
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“They aren’t going to run us out of here, Glory. Just talk to me as if we’re the only people here. Act like you’re having a good time.”

“As if.”

“Don’t knock it, Glory. Learning to pretend is one of the secrets of life. When I was in Iraq, in the beginning especially, we’d go out in convoy and I was really scared but I acted as if I wasn’t. Tried to anyway. Sometimes I even managed to convince myself.”

She had Glory’s attention now and to prolong the moment, she could tell her more about Iraq. But was it appropriate—even if she smoothed the edges of her experience, sanded the rough spots, and left out the craziness—to tell Iraq war stories to an eight-year-old? In the end her instinct to protect Glory won out at the price of losing the moment.

“We’re going to sit here and pretend we’re having a good time. You aren’t, I know. But why share that with them? It’s not their business. They don’t matter, Glory.”

“They’re talking about you too, you know.”

“I know.”

And she could guess what they were saying.

Frankie only half believed the civilians who said they
opposed the Iraqi war, but fell all over themselves supporting the troops. It was the politically correct position to take, just as its opposite had been during the Vietnam years. She knew that the mothers in the bleachers took one look at a woman in uniform, cammies or dress, it didn’t matter, and made assumptions about the kind of person wearing it. None of them good.

She asked, “What do you think they’re saying?”

“You know.”

“Tell me, honey.” She nudged her gently. “I’m a Marine. I can take it.”

“Colette says you have to be stupid to want to fight in a war.”

“Honey, no one
wants
to fight. But sometimes it has to happen.”

“She says Marines are stupid.”

This made Frankie laugh. “You want to know a secret?”

Glory nodded tentatively.

“One or two of them are.”

They stayed another twenty minutes, pretending to enjoy themselves, and after a while they did—as much as was possible for an unhappy eight-year-old and her mother, deep in enemy territory. Frankie pointed out what Gina and her coaching assistants were doing, explained the purpose of the drills. The girls divided into teams for a practice game.

“That’s Solli. The one with the bandage on her leg.”

“She’s too aggressive,” Frankie said when she had
watched a few moments. “You make errors if you’re all the time pushing, pushing, pushing. She doesn’t have any sense of strategy and she’s a ball hog.”

When they were leaving Gina jogged off the field and walked them to the parking lot. Frankie mentioned Solli.

Gina waited to answer until Glory was in the car. “Solli’s a pain in the ass and her mother’s worse. Remember how much fun soccer was, back in the day? It’s not that way now. You wouldn’t believe the level of competition and the mothers are in it up to the roots of their perfectly colored hair.”

“I thought Glory’d want to play but she’s not interested at all.”

“How old is she? Third grade, right? If she hasn’t been playing for at least two years already, she’ll never catch up.”

“But she needs something to kick or hit.”

“Don’t we all?” Gina laughed. “My niece is into kickboxing. Ten years old and you don’t want to mess with her.”

Chapter 15

A
few nights later Frankie and Rick left Glory with the General and Maryanne so they could have a night out together. At dinner Frankie described Glory’s visit to a gym to observe a kickboxing class made up of elementary school girls, all doing their best to look and sound fierce. Glory had been interested enough to give it a try, six classes to start with. Over hamburgers and microbrew beers, the laughter came easily and their quick back-and-forth conversation felt familiar and comforting. There were times during the evening when Frankie felt almost normal.

But after the movie, walking back to their car three flights down in the parking garage, she broke out in a sweat in the echoing stairwell. She worried who might be coming up or down the stairs, and each of her senses sprang to alert. Rick wanted to talk about the parts of the movie that had moved him and didn’t notice how uncomfortable she was. He stopped on a landing to make a point.

“When the guy got left on the platform, when his
brother took off? That long, slow shot of the train pulling out of the station? It was amazing, the way it sustained.” She didn’t answer him. “You didn’t see it, did you? You were asleep.”

“I wasn’t.”

“I teared up,” he said. “I really felt for that guy.”

“It was sad, yeah.” She started down the stairs. He pulled her back.

“You didn’t even see it.”

A security door clanged, one floor up.

“Can’t we talk about this in the car? I don’t like this place.”

At the sound of footsteps and murmuring voices, Frankie held her breath and stepped back into the corner of the landing.

“Honey, what’s the matter?”

She dropped to a crouch and Rick, suddenly aware of what was happening to her, jerked her up into his arms and held her. Frankie had the sensation of ants crawling across her back, a thousand legs, thin as hairs.

“Breathe, baby. In and out, feel my breath. Follow my breath.”

A second later a pair of men with friendly faces came down the stairs, talking animatedly. They smiled when they saw the couple embracing in the privacy of the stairwell, said hello, and passed. Another security door clanged on the lower level and in the stairwell it was quiet again; but Rick didn’t let go of her.

He pressed his cheek against her hair. “Breathe with me, stay with me, Frankie. You’re safe.”

Driving home on Washington Street she tried to make conversation but the earlier mood had evaporated. She saw the sign for Jack in the Box ahead on the right.

“Turn here,” she said impulsively. “Let’s see if Domino’s working. You can meet her.”

“It’s late.”

“You’re always saying you want to meet her. Come on, it won’t take long. I promise.” She pointed at a parking place and was out of the car before he pulled on the emergency brake. “I’ll be right back.”

Inside there was no one in line and the manager was the only person working. His moist brown eyes had seen everything and been disappointed by most of it.

“Not here. Flu or sumthin.” He was beyond curiosity. “She better get well fast. I been takin’ her shift at night and it’s killing me.”

“Has anyone else been asking about her? Besides me?”

“Ex-husband. Shows up every couple nights.”

“What do you tell him?”

“She lives in her van. What else is there?”

Frankie’s throat ached.

“You wanna order something?”

“A small Coke.”

When she opened the car door, Rick had reclined his seat back and was listening to classical music with his eyes shut.

“She’s not here.”

“Well, that’s too bad.” He jerked the seat upright, turned the key in the ignition, and jammed the car into reverse. “I’d like to meet her since she seems to be the most important person in your life.”

“I hate it when you’re sarcastic.”

“I’m trying to understand what it is between you and this woman, this woman who
lives in her van.

“Why is that so important to you, Rick? Why does that bug you so much? She came back from Iraq and she was a little fucked up, not a lot, but considering she’d been raped once and—” She stopped. “Don’t look so shocked. It happens all the time.”

He shifted back into park and turned off the engine.

“Not all the time, Rick. That was an exaggeration. But it’s there, it’s always there.”

On FOB Redline she never walked to the showers alone at night or took the shortcut to the mess, and like most of the female officers, she did nothing to emphasize her femininity. Even now, working at the MCRD, she didn’t wear makeup; and though her hair was still long, she kept it pulled back, braided and clipped down. She was vigilant, always.

Like a prey animal.

“Domino’s five feet three and weighs a hundred and twenty pounds. I’m six feet and as strong as most men. Rape wasn’t a big worry for me, but I stayed alert.”

Like a wide-eyed gazelle in lion country.

“And now?”

“I can’t just turn it off, Rick.”

“In stairwells.”

“Everywhere.”

Constantly.

There was no way to make Rick understand how war exhausted the senses. The smell of an alien spice, the taste of sand, sunlight glinting off a piece of junk in the road ahead. The noise and the heat, always the heat. War exhausted the senses as it focused them to a pinpoint laser. Domino understood this. Frankie didn’t have to sit in a car and explain it to her.

“If she and I had met before the war, maybe we wouldn’t have been friends, not the same anyway. Now we have the girls in common, that’s important. But what makes us friends is…”

She wanted him to understand, but these days the right words were rarely there when she needed them.

“It’s crazy over there, Rick.” No one safe at home could ever understand that. “It’s insane.”

During her ten months in Iraq Frankie had been in the Green Zone only once, with Fatima, to be interviewed for an armed forces radio program about reconstruction efforts, specifically the school the Army and Marine Corps were rebuilding in a community on the edge of Baghdad, a few miles from Redline. After months on the base a visit to the
Green Zone seemed like a vacation, and even though they would be gone less than a day, Frankie had been excited.

She was used to the look of the city from the ground, but viewed from above, evidence of years of violence spread to the horizon in every direction. Baghdad was a vastness of biscuit-colored rubble, many streets lined with immense concrete blast walls, rights-of-way obstructed by checkpoints and rolls of concertina razor wire. Darting children played and scavenged among the ruins of bombed-out vehicles, and Frankie would not let herself imagine what their day-to-day lives might be like. The fear, the confusion, and the anger they must feel. She had joined the Marine Corps because of her empathy with the children who were victims of war. At the same time, coalition forces of which she was a part were contributing to the misery of the boys and girls in the ruins. It was a moral conundrum that twisted her mind into knots. She left it alone most of the time.

And yet, in the midst of war, the ordinary chores had to be done. Below and to the west Frankie saw laundry laid out on the roof of a building that had escaped damage. In the midst of the blasted-out scene, a stippled mélange of black and brown and tan and white, she glimpsed a scrap of brilliant tropical turquoise. Perhaps a headscarf, a relic of peacetime. To Frankie’s eyes it was like seeing a pool of clear water, Lake Tahoe on a summer day.

The Green Zone had once been a riverfront compound, embraced on two sides by the syrupy caramel-colored Tigris River. The Americans and their allies had expanded
the elite area to include the convention center and Hotel Al-Rasheed and surrounded the entirety with blast walls almost twenty feet high, surmounted by coiled razor wire.

The driver of the white GMC Suburban that picked them up at the helipad was an Army corporal named Ansten from Yakima, Washington, with yellow hair and eyes the shade of washed-out denim. In the vehicle the air-conditioning was cranked so high that Frankie was actually chilly. Ansten was a talker and nothing, including a direct request from a Marine Corps captain, could silence his ebullient chatter for long. He seemed to regard himself as the Green Zone’s official tour guide. The car stereo played classic rock.

Over the vocals of “Sugar Shack” Ansten told her they were listening to Freedom Radio, 107.7. “On the FM dial, ma’am.”

In front of the Republican Palace, the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority, their Suburban proceeded at a crawl under the scrutiny of heavily armed military guards. Frankie and Fatima gazed at the palace like tourists.

Fatima said in her slightly accented English, “When I was very young, before my parents sent me to live in Pittsburgh, the enclave was only for the rich and powerful. My mother told me that there were no stray dogs here, no trash. Not even a cat without a home.”

Further along the road Frankie saw three men in white shirts and ties talking together at a shaded shuttle stop,
anonymous behind expensive sunglasses, pistols strapped to their thighs. Several signs identified restaurants serving Chinese food. Burger King welcomed them to Baghdad. A young man with a clipboard stood under its awning wearing a T-shirt that asked “Who’s Your Baghdaddy?”

Suddenly Frankie was ravenous for a fast-food hamburger. “After the interview we’ll come back here.”

“Whatever you want, Captain,” Ansten said. “We got everything here. You like salsa, there’s dance classes two nights a week. Bible studies too. It’s Little America, you know? There’s booze and cafés and just about anything you want if you got the cash. You can even go to movies in Mr. Bad’s palace. What about that, huh?”

Checkpoint Three, the main entrance to the Green Zone from the city of Baghdad, was directly in front of the convention center where the broadcast studios were located. Hesco barriers—containers the size of Volkswagens filled with rock and dirt—created a protective wall shielding soldiers at the checkpoint. Concrete slabs blocked off what had once been an eight-lane expressway. What Frankie thought must once have been a grandly impressive entrance to the convention center was now lined with dead trees where flocks of crows perched and observed. Trash of all kinds was everywhere—scrap metal, punctured tires cooked by the sun, plastic bags, and candy wrappers on the ground or caught in the barbed ringlets of wire. Between the S curves of concertina wire, extending back from the checkpoint, hundreds of Iraqis waited in line to pass into the Green Zone.

“Did you ever see anything so crazy in your life? It’s the same every day.” Corporal Ansten pointed at the lines of people making their way through the checkpoint into the zone. “They all want something, ma’am.” He had never acknowledged Fatima. “They come for a job or information or they got something to report. And the reason it takes so long is, they gotta show double ID and they get frisked two, three times. Plus there’s sniffer dogs and Iraqis aren’t crazy for dogs. Can you believe that? Man’s best friend but they don’t care for them.” Pointing at the blast wall marking the perimeter of the zone, his tone became serious. “Can’t keep the rockets out though. We get hit almost every day. And it don’t matter how high the wall is, if a guy can get in with a bomb stuck up his—”

BOOK: When She Came Home
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