Read When She Came Home Online

Authors: Drusilla Campbell

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

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BOOK: When She Came Home
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No one had a response to that.

Dr. Wilson said, “Perhaps we should reschedule our meeting for another time when the father can be here.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary,” Scott said. “I’m sure Captain Tennyson will want to speak with her husband about this and to Glory as well, of course. But I don’t expect we have a significant problem here. Frankie, you were a spirited little girl as I remember, and no doubt Glory has inherited some of that from you. Here at Arcadia we haven’t had as much experience dealing with the children of military personnel as the public schools have, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t aware of the realities. And certainly we only want the best for Glory.”

She went on talking from the bottom of a well, being
kind and empathic, assuring Frankie that whatever challenges Glory was currently facing, they were manageable and the school had the resources to help her. Frankie barely heard what she said but she let her gentle tones float up and then sink back and around her, soothing as a cascade of cool water.

Frankie looked at Ms. Peters. For Glory’s sake she wanted and needed the young teacher’s approval.

“There’s nothing wrong with Glory,” she said. “She’s a good girl.”

“That’s right,” Ms. Peters said. “She
is
a good girl, and that’s why I wanted to have a conference with you. So we could stop this before something happened. It’s not right for an eight-year-old girl to talk about guns and shooting people.”

Chapter 5

I
n the school parking lot Frankie tried to reach her therapist again and got the message machine yet another time. Frustrated, she wanted to kick a hole in the side of her car but she imagined Scott, Wilson, and Peters at a window, shaking their heads, tut-tutting as they watched her, like entomologists observing bug behavior.

If Dr. White would just pick up her damn phone.

She wished her friend Domino had a cell phone. Or a house or apartment, somewhere Frankie could go and talk to her. Domino was the only person who understood what Frankie was going through.

They had met on a Saturday at the free children’s clinic Harry and Gaby operated on Abbott Street in Ocean Beach. Frankie had been home from Iraq three weeks and volunteering at the check-in desk; Glory was with her. Domino had brought her daughter, Candace, in for a preschool checkup. What Frankie recalled most clearly from that first meeting was Candace’s dark hair pulled back
from her forehead in intricate entwined French braids with red ribbons twisted through them. To Frankie this time-consuming effort spoke of a mother’s love and concern.

They had been the final patients of the day and the atmosphere in the clinic was relaxed and unhurried. While Candace and Glory colored and whispered and giggled, Frankie and Domino talked, and though they had almost nothing in common apart from their daughters and military service, they liked each other right away. Frankie didn’t have to explain why being home was difficult. There was nothing to explain or make excuses for.

Domino—Dominique—was the daughter of a small-town pharmacist, a good Lutheran girl from Kansas who wore her hair and skirts long and went to church twice on Sunday. She and her siblings had been raised in a strict congregation in which the life of a woman was pegged down by three words:
Kirk, Kinder
, and
Kuche.
Church, children, and kitchen. Looking at her mother, Domino had seen her future and rebelled. She and Jason, her high-school boyfriend, married on the run and joined the Army together. When Candace was born Domino’s mother took over the job of raising her.

Candace was almost eight now, but apart from informal home schooling, she had no education. This year Domino was determined to enroll her, but it would not be easy. Mother and daughter lived in their van, moving from the Walmart lot to Costco to, sometimes, the narrow, deserted streets behind the sports arena. A counselor at Veterans’
Villa was trying to find them a room somewhere but, so far, no luck.

The day they met Rick was at meetings in Las Vegas and wouldn’t return until Sunday night. Mothers and daughters had eaten hamburgers for dinner. Domino insisted on paying for herself and Candace, but afterward when they walked down the street to the Korean-owned doughnut and ice cream shop on Newport, she let Frankie treat them all to sundaes. Afterward they walked on to the park, and while the girls worked off their sugar highs, Frankie and Domino sat at a picnic table and talked through the warm August twilight into the dark. They had been meeting and talking every few days since then.

Frankie told Domino the truth: about her mood swings, her anger and problems with concentration, the way her mind drifted out of reality in the middle of a conversation, one thought interrupting and squabbling with another. When Domino recommended that she see a psychologist, Frankie paid more attention than if the suggestion had come from Rick or Harry. Even so, she didn’t consider it seriously at first. Frankie was a Marine brat and knew how the system worked. Although psychotherapy (emphasis on the
psycho
) was supposed to be confidential, this was a condition she did not believe existed at any but the highest levels of the military. At the MCRD gossip was a form of entertainment. By one avenue or another, word that she had sought help at Balboa would eventually reach her office there and then the General. It had taken more than
Domino’s prodding to get her into therapy. It had taken a visit to the supermarket on the Friday before Labor Day weekend.

The day had begun badly.

At breakfast Rick was sullenly quiet as he scrambled eggs, still resentful that Frankie had left him alone with the television the night before so she could talk to Domino on the phone for an hour. He had grumbled and Frankie defended her right to choose any friend she wanted, even a woman with no home who had to borrow a phone and worked at a fast-food restaurant. The way Rick put it, Frankie preferred a homeless woman’s company over his, and in a way he was right.

That morning Glory didn’t want her eggs, and Rick, normally a paragon of parenting, threw her plate into the sink. Glory cried. He made a guilty fuss apologizing, as if a father didn’t have every right to lose his temper. The General had certainly yelled at Frankie a few thousand times. Weepy and plaintive afterward, Glory begged to stay home but Frankie put her foot down.

“School’s your job. You go whether you want to or not.”

She practically had to shove her daughter out of the car in front of Arcadia School.

By the time Frankie got to the MCRD, her nerves were shredding, and she lost her temper three times before noon.

Glory was morosely uncommunicative when Frankie picked her up at the curb in front of the school that afternoon.
Waiting, she stood apart from the other girls, chewing the end of her corn-colored ponytail, her expression a thundercloud on the hot Indian summer day. She slung her backpack over the seat back.

“Whoa, easy there, tiger.” Frankie forced a lilt into her voice, a lightheartedness she did not feel. She looked at Glory more closely. “You okay? Have you been crying? Why were you crying?”

“I am so hot. I’m gonna die. They oughta close school when it gets this hot. Back East they have snow days, we oughta have heat days.”

“You know it’s always like this in September. And they can’t close school. You only started back last week.”

“When’s it gonna rain?” Glory flapped her skirt up and down in front of the air-conditioning vent. “I’m gonna die if it doesn’t rain soon.”

“Stop being dramatic, Glory. Believe me, this heat is nothing to complain about.”

Frankie had landed in Kuwait in midwinter when it was cold and the air cracked like dry twigs. She remembered thinking what would become a theme running through every day’s thoughts: when will it rain?

I’m going to die if it doesn’t rain soon.

Her lips, the corners of her eyes, and inside her nose had cracked and bled in the dry frigid air. She begged Rick to send economy-size jars of petroleum jelly, but this made the condition worse. The sand stuck to it, made a crust. Gradually the days had warmed and at first the heat was
a welcome relief; but by the time she left Baghdad in early August, the thermometer often read one hundred fifteen or twenty degrees in the middle of the day and no one, not even the Iraqis, was comfortable. Regardless of the temperature, on community visits she wore her cammies with the sleeves buttoned at the wrist and tucked into her boots, Kevlar and helmet, sometimes gloves and goggles. Under all this she sweat and no matter how much water she drank, she was always thirsty. She longed for water. She thought about water all the time and in every form from ocean waves to rain. The more water she drank, the more she sweat.

Her body stopped feeling like her own.

In the car Glory said, “Are you even listening to me? Do you even care how I feel?”

“I’m listening and of course I care.”

In Iraq the wind was worse than any southern California Santa Ana, stronger and steadier, hot and dead dry. It came with a hollow roar or a whine or the banshee’s scream, thirty or forty or fifty or sixty miles an hour.

The wind was part of the everywhere noise. The thuppa-thuppa of helos and the engines of vans and trucks and tanks and Humvees, sometimes gunfire, explosions, horn blasts, yelling, always yelling: silence was a luxury in Iraq. For the first few weeks the constant noise at Forward Operating Base Redline gave Frankie a headache that made her eyes cross.

The air stank of motor oil and other things. Outdoors
there was no escaping the constant, eye-watering reek of burning garbage and sewage, sometimes the chemical tang of explosives, sometimes death.

And sand. Sand was everywhere, indoors and out, in the offices and gym, the mess and even the showers. At night it found its way between her sheets and scraped her skin like an emery board. Sand was infinite in its variety. There was the kind of sand that was all hard grit and stung like BBs when it blew in her face. Moon dust was sand as fine as baby powder that clogged her nostrils and caked her lips and caught in her eyelashes. Her boots sank deep in the heavy sand that made walking a hundred feet feel like a mile-long, uphill trek. Like walking through molasses. Wind lifted the sand and carried it across the desert. It hid the sky and turned the day orange or muddy brown. Fine and coarse, bearing grit and insects and fragments of litter, a sandstorm was a bombardment that might last an hour, sometimes a day or more.

Heat. Wind. Noise. Stink. Sand. They blended into one sensation that she felt in her ears and her eyes, up inside her nose and at the back of her throat. Even her gums felt dry.

“Mom, watch out! You just ran a red light, what’s wrong with you?”

Half in the car, half in Iraq.

She had been one of several female Marines involved in an operation intended to empower Iraqi women and enroll their communities in rebuilding the nation that Saddam, sanctions, and generations of war had destroyed. For
most of her deployment she was the only female Marine officer on FOB Redline. Her particular assignment was the rebuilding of a school destroyed by mortar fire during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

From the beginning she had fought a sense of isolation, of having been forgotten by the corps. Living in prefab housing called a can, a room large enough for a bed, a locker, and a table for a television and DVD player, given no official team and no clear orders and lucky to have a female interpreter, she worked with more soldiers than Marines.

Despite the downside she had been proud of her mission and willing to put up with anything so that the school might be built. Though she wore a flak jacket and Kevlar helmet, carried a rifle and traveled in convoy, Frankie thought of her work rebuilding the school as diplomacy with the potential to create a solidarity that might hold up where politics failed.

“Where are we going? Why aren’t we going home?”

“We have to stop at Vons. There’s nothing in the refrigerator.”

Food did not interest Frankie; she’d lost weight in Iraq and more since she’d come home. But her family had to eat and while Rick enjoyed cooking, he hated marketing so the job fell to her. Mostly she went to the Exchange, but it wasn’t always convenient.

Four-thirty on the Friday before Labor Day wasn’t the
worst time to shop at the huge Vons on Midway, but it was up there in the top ten. Frankie and Glory got to the checkout stands and there was a line at every one.

“We’ll never get out of here.” Glory moaned dramatically.

Frankie clearly remembered the faces of the three people standing ahead of them in line that day. Two men and a fat woman with a child banging his tiny shoes against the metal cart.

“Can I go to the car?” Glory draped herself across their heaped grocery cart. “I’m exhausted.”

“Show some backbone.” Frankie heard the General’s voice.

The woman in front of Frankie wore blue jeans stretched tight across broad hips and pushed a cart full of pasta and cheese and varieties of frozen potatoes. The child in the cart swung his tubby legs, clanged his heels, and stared at Frankie with round blue eyes.

She stuck out her tongue.

“Mom!”

The boy burst into tears.

“Oh. My. God. Why did you do that?”

She didn’t know.

The child was inconsolable.

She said, “Your kid’s got a set of lungs on him,” and felt Glory making herself small beside her.

The mother turned. Frankie felt like sticking her tongue out at
her
too. Instead she jerked the shopping cart forward
and back, forward and back. “Tick-tock, tick-tock.” Like a metronome.

“Can I go to the car?”

“Would it kill you, Glory, to keep me company?”

The boy’s cries descended to the whimpery level. Occasionally he glanced furtively at Frankie as the woman unloaded food onto the checkout belt. She pulled cards out of her wallet and shuffled through them once, twice, a third time.

Frankie called out to the checker, “How much longer is this going to take?”

“I’m sorry, ma’am.” The checker looked barely older than Glory but she wore a wedding ring. “You can check your items in the self-serve line, if you wish. There’s never anyone there.”

BOOK: When She Came Home
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