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 (9 page)

BOOK: When She Came Home
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After almost a minute the door was opened by a man wearing a long, loose-fitting cotton dishdasha and sandals. Standing in the open door he said nothing until he had put on sunglasses, a pair of Ray-Bans. The first thing Frankie thought was that this might be a signal to someone. Automatically she looked back over her shoulder. Her face was
hot and a pulse beat under her cheekbone. Fatima stepped forward and explained why the Army had come. The man’s eyes were hidden behind his glasses, and Frankie was glad not to see the expression in them.

The soldiers secured the interior of the house, then Frankie and Fatima followed. The main room was large and full of furniture, lamps, and suitcases as if the residents were prepared to leave at any time. On the walls were ornately framed adages from, Frankie presumed, the Koran. Looking around her she was distinctly conscious of having invaded someone’s private space and thought of her own home and how she would feel if Iraqi soldiers insisted on searching it. When she had thoughts like this, she wondered if she belonged in Iraq. She would never know if such things occurred to other Marines. She would never ask for fear of revealing something vulnerable and exploitable in herself.

Three women swathed in black abayas huddled on a couch, holding hands and wailing as if the end of the world had come. Major Whittaker tried to talk to them but they were too terrified to listen or respond. Soldiers searched the house and outbuildings and found no weapons cache. No need for Major Whittaker after all. The soccer players were brought inside and interrogated with Fatima interpreting. In the end it was decided that they were no more than they seemed, children playing ball. As Fatima questioned them, they stared at the glossy swathe of scar tissue on her cheek,
but if she noticed or cared about their scrutiny, she hid it well.

When the soldiers ignored the crying women, the noise subsided; but if anyone approached them, they resumed their wailing. Frankie thought she knew how to settle them once and for all.

“Just so you know, sir,” she said to the major, “I’m removing my helmet.”

“Don’t do that, Tennyson. We’re not secure here.”

“Sir, I’m taking it off now.”

As she lifted the Kevlar helmet from her head, her thick Nordic-blond braid tumbled to the middle of her back. The silence in the room was as shocking as it was sudden. Then the women began chattering to Fatima, and the youngest of them laughed, covering her mouth. Frankie looked at Major Whittaker. He wanted to smile, she could tell.

Frankie and Fatima, followed by a couple of young soldiers hanging back at a discreet distance, took the women into a small side room and a search revealed they were concealing guns under their voluminous black robes. Small arms, but more than they were legally permitted for self-protection though they asserted repeatedly that this was their only purpose. All but the allowed number were confiscated.

As Frankie and the soldiers were getting back in their vehicles, she heard one soldier say to another, “Jesus, that Scarface is an ugly bitch.”

For the last two and a half hours, since the Iraqi man stood in the door and put on his sunglasses, Frankie’s nerves had been pulled tight like a slingshot, waiting for a target to let go on.

“You watch your mouth, soldier.” She was several inches taller than the young man and broader in the shoulders. It flew across her mind that she had grown up being bullied by an expert and that if she wanted to, she could make this kid wet his pants. Even with her farmer’s-daughter braid hanging out the back of her helmet, she knew she was formidable. “I never want to hear you speak that name again, do you understand me? She’s seen more action than you’ll ever have the guts for.”

Major Whittaker stepped behind the soldier. “Captain Tennyson.” He had piercing steel eyes. “Time to mount up.”

Back at FOB Redline he told her she had almost crossed the line.

“You gotta lasso that temper, Captain.”

“Yes, sir.”

“And how come you didn’t know? They all call her Scarface. That’s just the way it is.”

“It was disrespectful, sir. She’s part of the team.”

“Yeah? Well, she’s an interpreter. She lives with it. So can you.”

“She’s my friend.”

He raised one eyebrow. “She’s an Iraqi. Think again, Captain.”

After that she felt closer to Fatima than before, more protective. One night as they watched a video in her quarters, Frankie made a promise.

“When this is over, I’ll see you get back to the States. And your family. All of you. You’ll be safe there.”

Chapter 11

F
rankie parked the Nissan in a quiet residential neighborhood a block from Arcadia School.

Before breakfast and during Glory had recited a litany of aches and pains and excellent reasons to go to her grandparents’ house across the street instead of school. She was a good student, and it was probably true that she could miss a few days with no serious consequences, but in Frankie’s school days, the only excuse for absence was something broken or a fever above ninety-nine degrees. She told Glory to haul her butt into the car. Glory had slumped against the passenger door ever since, silent and sulking, clutching her backpack to her chest like body armor.

She parked under a Brazilian pepper tree so old and twisted that it must have been growing in that square of soil before the lots and streets of Mission Hills were surveyed or houses built. It had broken and buckled the sidewalk, bored beneath the asphalt, and lifted it like veins on the back of a hand.

“Why’d you stop here?” Since Frankie’s breakdown in the supermarket, Glory had a way of looking at her as if she expected a bad surprise.

“We need to talk.”

“Now?”

“Are you going to be okay today? Will you be nice to Colette? No threats?”

“How do you know about Colette?” Glory’s question was more an accusation.

“I know what happened in the playground.” Having said too much, Frankie had to say more. She blazed ahead, one size eleven boot after another. “I know that you threatened her. Ms. Peters told me.”

“Her! She hates me.”

“Why do you say that?”

Pouting, Glory kicked her toes into the dashboard. “If she died, I’d be glad.” Her anger at the teacher sucked the oxygen from the air.

Frankie rolled down the car windows. In front yards and gardens up and down the street, hoses and sprinklers were at work. She took a deep breath. Until she went to the Middle East, she hadn’t known that damp green air was a luxury.

Awake at three a.m. the night before, she left the bed and went downstairs to the computer in Rick’s office. Wrapped in a blanket, she’d gone online and input
bullying.
She had learned that the best advice for parents was to
listen.

“Ms. Peters loves Colette, Colette’s her favorite.” Tears pooled in Glory’s eyes and floated against her lower lids, but she was the General’s granddaughter and knew she wasn’t allowed to go soft like a bad apple. “Why are we just sitting here?”

“Can you pretend to like Colette? Would that help?”

“Mommy! You don’t get it. She doesn’t
care
if I like her.”

Colette cared about something, though. Frankie didn’t need her therapist or the Internet to tell her that. Probably attention. And power, definitely power. But there was no point explaining this to Glory.

“What does she say to you?”

Glory muttered something.

“I didn’t hear you.”

She whipped around and yelled, “She says I stink.”

It was so ridiculous that for a second, Frankie didn’t take it seriously. Then she remembered her own elementary school experiences and wondered if girls still used the insult word
cooties
, or if all the little bugs had died off with her generation.
Big Foot’s got cooties in her big booty.
Where had they come up with that? Who said it first and passed it on until half the fifth graders were chanting it?

“Colette says I don’t wipe my butt but I do, Mommy. I’m really careful. Only—” She cut off her words and stared out the car window. “Can I go now? I’ll get in trouble if I’m late.” She tried to open the door but Frankie had engaged the security lock. She flung herself back into the seat corner and stared straight ahead.

“I’m not letting you out of the car until—”

“Okay, okay.” Now the tears spilled. “I didn’t mean to do it but I had a stomachache and when I went to the bathroom I had to use a lot of paper because, you know, and that made the toilet get plugged up and overflow. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“Is that what this is about?” Frankie leaned across the console and held her daughter’s damp cheeks between her hands. “A plugged-up toilet?”

Glory sniffled and nodded.

“Oh, my sweetheart, my girl.”

“After, at recess, Colette called me stinky pants and now she says it every day. If I try to talk to her, she holds her nose. I got so mad I told her I’d shoot her.” Her eyes shimmered like blue-green turquoise at the bottom of a clear pool. “I wasn’t kidding either.”

“You were so mad.”

“I wanted to shoot her with one of Grandpa’s guns.”

Frankie heard in Glory’s voice how misery got mixed up with fear and excitement when she talked about guns. It was the same in any battle, any skirmish, any run-in with the enemy, the thrill and terror of the power that came with guns. Frankie wasn’t immune. The truth was she liked wearing a sidearm.

“You do know that there’s only one way to handle a mean girl?”

Glory’s square little shoulders drooped as if she knew her mother’s advice wouldn’t help.

“You have to ignore her.”

“It’s not just her, it’s her friends too. They all say it.”

“You’re a stinky pants, Glory.” Frankie waited for a reaction. “Stinky, pinky, rinky-dinky.”

“Don’t be dumb.”

“Stinky pants, full of ants, stands on the table and does a dance.”

“That’s disgusting.” And dumb, but kind of funny.

In the distance Frankie heard the first bell.

“Dumb and disgusting, but just words. When Colette and her gang say mean things, I want you to think rinky-dinky, stinky-pinky. And when you look at them, I want you to see their faces like big old toilet bowls.”

“Mom, that is so gross.”

“Exactly. You’re going to want to laugh when you see those toilet bowls and it’s going to be hard not to. When Colette says ‘stink’ you’re going to think
stinky-pinky toilet bowl
and you’re going to want to laugh, but you have to promise you’ll try not to. They’re going to ask you what you’re smiling about, but you can’t tell them. Even if they beg you, you have to keep the picture of those rinky-dinky-stinky toilet bowls locked up in your imagination like the guns in Grandpa’s cabinet.”

“It won’t work.”

“Oh, yeah, it will.” Frankie sounded more confident than she felt. “It’s like learning to kick a soccer ball, Glory. You have to practice and practice and then one day you make a goal.” She leaned across the console again and
kissed her damp forehead. “But that isn’t all you have to do. And the next part is the hardest of all.”

“What?”

“I want you to walk away from them and not look back.”

“What if I can’t do it?”

“Oh, you can do it. You’re a girl who can do anything if you set your mind to it. You just have to do it and do it and then one day it’ll be so natural, you won’t have to think about it at all.”

“How do you know? How can you be sure?”

In front of the parked Nissan a yellow cat ambled across the street as if it owned the right of way. There had been a few cats hanging around FOB Redline. When she was new to the place and green, Frankie bent to stroke one and a hundred fleas leapt for her hand. Was that what cooties were? Fleas?

“It happened to me.”

“No way.”

“When I was in the fifth grade I was almost five feet eight. Taller than the teacher.”

The petite little girls at Arcadia School had pointed at her big feet and whispered about her behind their tiny hands, giggling:
Bigfoot
.

Maryanne’s advice had been self-control. “Bite your tongue, make it bleed if you have to.”

Once Frankie had done exactly that and been sent to the nurse’s office, where she held the tip of her bleeding tongue in a piece of gauze for ten minutes.

“Did they stop saying that stuff?” Glory asked.

“Eventually. Mostly I got tougher and so will you.”

A block away, the second bell rang, a note more insistent.

“Glory, I know something you don’t.”

In the bright sunlit car her daughter’s pupils had contracted to black dots.

“Girls like Colette would wash out of the Basic School in the first week.”

“Mom, not everyone wants to be a Marine.”

“Yes, they do. They just don’t admit it.”

Thirty minutes later Frankie surrendered to tears in her therapist’s office. Mortified, she grabbed a fistful of tissues from the box beside the couch and wiped her eyes. It was good to have a neutral space where she could vent, but under any circumstances, crying left her exposed, undefended.

Dr. White’s office was on Herschel Street in a mixed-use bank building, nicely anonymous. Anyone seeing her go in might think she was visiting a dentist or making arrangements for a new will. At just eight thirty in the morning, the marine layer was low and heavy over La Jolla, shrouding the palm trees and three- and four-story buildings in damp gray wool. From the couch where she sat Frankie could look down four floors and across the street to the microbrewery on the corner. In the outdoor patio a man in white pants and shirt and wearing a headset held a conversation
while hosing down the flagstones. Stores up and down the block were still closed but the bagel shop next to the brewery restaurant did a brisk business. As Frankie watched, a woman in a bright orange blazer, pencil-slim brown trousers and torturous heels, double-parked and ran in, leaving her Mustang convertible’s caution lights blinking.

An irrational anger tightened her chest. Frankie despised the woman for her entitled behavior.
Stop the world! Drive around my snazzy black car. I want, I
need
a cup of coffee, I
deserve
a double latte immediately.

BOOK: When She Came Home
7.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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