“She’ll be home tomorrow?!” he exclaimed, bouncing in place, his lanky little body half in and half out of a pair of red and white striped footed pajamas. His mother had had them delivered to him for Christmas (Love, Santa the tag had said, but he knew better) and he refused to wear anything else.
He was eight years old and slight for his age, but his energy was palpable as a burgeoning storm. Together, we had been working on getting ready for bed for at least an hour, but it seemed we had made very little progress. As he bounced, the little bells on the feet of his pajamas exulted in a great frenzy. In these, I could always hear him coming.
Iridescent eyes of blue searched mine for an answer and he wanted it, like, yesterday. I could not help the smile that smeared across my face. With windswept, sandy blonde hair splashed across his forehead like the abandoned strokes of an artist’s brush and his toothy, beaming grin, he looked just like his mother. It made my insides suddenly capsize with a feverish, unrelenting want.
“Yes sir,” I say with a chuckle, trying to place my hands on his shoulders to calm him, but he was vibrating like a star.
“Really, daddy?!” His eyes were as a big as saucers, filled to the brim with hope and reverence.
“Really, really,” I said, and then, satisfied, he catapulted toward me for one of his famous bear hugs. I cried out with feigned consternation and then toppled to the floor with his giggling, writhing body caught in my arms like a startled carp in a fisherman’s net.
I could not blame him for his excitement. His mother, a decorated staff sergeant in the Army, had been deployed for almost eighteen months and was nearing the conclusion of a tour that felt as though it would never end. And she would be home just in time for Christmas.
“Did you brush your teeth?” I asked him pointedly, fingertips braced on his ribs and prepared to tickle, knowing that he had not.
“Yes?” he answered, more a question than it was an answer.
“Hmm…” I started, fingertips drumming his sides, feeling him start to tense. “Are you sure about that? After all, you know what happens if you don’t brush your teeth,” I warned.
“Oh yeah, I’m sure,” he fibbed with a nod, calling my bluff.
“I see,” I contemplated quietly, pausing for effect. He was suppressing a giggle as best he could.
“You asked for it!” I announced at long last, with an incredulous laugh, tickling him with a gentle fury. He squealed and squirmed, recoiling from my touch.
“Okay, okay, okay!” he panted and twisted, trying to free himself from the torturous treatment.
After a few moments I released him and watched him take off down the hall toward the bathroom, little bells blazing. I called after him with a laugh, “If you hurry, we might just have time for a story, Ben!”
I laid there on the floor with my hands behind my head, my gaze lolling lazily over the intricately and colorfully painted octopus that sprawled languidly across the opposite wall. Once when my wife was home, we had taken a family vacation to Monterey Bay and had visited the aquarium. Ben immediately fell in love with an octopus there (whom he had named Ollie) and had been obsessed ever since. For his birthday that followed, his mother had hand painted the friendly octopus, his underwater paradise and all his seafaring comrades. I had spent the afternoon in the navy lounge chair in the corner, content just to watch her, marveling. There was nothing the woman couldn’t do.
The sound of Ben’s pounding footsteps and tinkling bells yanked me from my reverie, but I wasn’t fast enough to dodge his attack. The next thing I knew he had landed, knees first, on my chest and gut. I welcomed him as best as I could with a compliant and pronounced oof, my breath caught in a pained laugh.
“Was I fast enough, dad? Do we have time for a story?” He peered down at me with a sweet, sleepy smile, one with an uncanny ability to coax pretty much whatever he wanted from me, a trait he had undoubtedly inherited from his mother.
I furrowed my brows and appeared to be deep in thought, pretending to contemplate whether there was time.
“Yes,” I smiled finally, squeezing him to me. “We have time.”
I held him to me for a moment, inhaled his sweet cologne of sunshine and bubblegum toothpaste. I was always so in awe of him, this perfect little being, half myself and half her and all wonderful. Even when she was gone, she radiated from him, and I drank it all in.
A short while later I had him tucked in after a story, up to his chin in his octopus comforter. Though he continued to argue that he was not tired, his droopy eyelids belied his contention; he was fighting a losing battle.
“I don’t want to go to bed,” he whined softly, very quickly losing his resolve. His eyes, always seeming darker as the day wore on, were suddenly very sad, and it made me ache.
“I want to be awake when she gets home,” he said with a sniffle.
My heart somersaulted against my ribs. I could not bear to see him sad. He had done so well most of this tour, just as he had done during the other two. He was resilient. There were moments, however, when he couldn’t cope; moments when he wanted, no, needed his mother, and the pain that came with my inability to satiate his agony always felt like it might break me. And I empathized with him completely; his mother was the heart, the sun around whom we religiously orbited. She brought with her a light that excised the impenetrable darkness that endured in her absence.
I brushed a few strands of hair out of his eyes. “I promise I’ll wake you as soon as she arrives,” I said softly.
“You swear?” he croaked with a yawn that he tried (and failed) to stifle.
“I swear,” I said, tucking him in more tightly. I bent and pressed a kiss to his forehead, feeling him settle back into his pillow. I watched as his eyelids, soft as butterfly wings, fluttered closed.
Downstairs I wandered quietly around our kitchen, a glass of bourbon in hand, humming the theme song to a cartoon I knew Ben always watched though I could not remember its name. Our kitchen had just been remodeled and I had cleaned it. It smelled of citrus and unblemished steel. The refrigerator and the pantry were stocked. I wanted our home to be ready to go when Noralee arrived, because she was somehow always ready to go. I wondered after each tour if she would need some time to readjust to life at home, but she had always jumped right back in. Each time she returned I’d planned on making her breakfast in bed, and each time she’d beaten me to the punch.
I’d met Noralee my junior year of high school. She was a sophomore and had moved to California from the east coast. She’d had an accent I couldn’t place (she pronounced creek like crick), and she told me later it was something Pennsylvania natives called Pennsyltucky. I fell in love with her almost immediately. When she wasn’t working, she was always in blue jeans and cowgirl boots, sometimes no shoes at all. Ben had gotten his golden hair and his light eyes from her, while I remained the outcast with black hair and eyes as dark as night.
There was an easiness to loving her that made me feel like I was loving a dream. She was funny without being mean, and she could teach without being condescending. She could be stern, too, whenever it was warranted. She was fiercely protective, and she was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She reminded me of the first lightning storm I’d watched with her on a screened-in back porch back east when she’d taken me home to meet her parents, and I always thought of her that way; electrifying, awe-inspiring and a little scary. I couldn’t sit for too long and think about just how much I loved her because it terrified me to the marrow.
I sipped from my glass and walked into the living room to take a seat on the couch. I peered at our wedding photos that lined the wall beneath the stairs. She had wanted a simple country wedding, with her family and her childhood friends. She wore a little white dress and boots, and I was in jeans and a button-down shirt. Most of my family and friends couldn’t make the distance, but I hadn’t cared. All I needed was her. And I had made it my endeavor to always make her smile the way she smiled on our wedding day.
My gaze flicked to the clock above the television. It was almost eleven. I sighed and sipped from my glass. I always felt anxious the night before Noralee’s return, but not in a bad way. I felt like a kid on Christmas Eve. I was so excited I couldn’t sit still, and I rarely slept, hence the bourbon. It always helped to take the edge off. I could feel it working.
I always missed her terribly. She was more than my wife; she was my best friend. We couldn’t talk on the phone often since the distance was so great, but we were able to text and email at times. I hadn’t heard from her in a couple days. The end of her tour always seemed to be the busiest time.
I retrieved my phone from my pocket and reread her last message to me:
I’ll see you soon, handsome. Make sure we have eggs so you can make me breakfast.
That had made me laugh, since the opposite was always true.
I thought absently of what we might do first. It could be cold in December, but Noralee liked going to the beach and burying Ben in the sand. She’d bury him all the way up to his neck and the two of them would laugh like maniacs. I’d snapped the best photo of them a few years back and it hung proudly in our dining room. The two of them were a force to be reckoned with. I often sat in the background and just watched, so bewildered by how lucky a man I’d become.
I awoke, disoriented, to the sound of a knock at the front door. It was not like me to fall asleep on the couch. I blinked the sleepiness out of my vision and looked at my watch. It was still early, barely eight o’clock. She had surprised us and come home early – something she had always wanted to do!
I all but threw myself off the couch, tangled in her pink throw blanket, and stumbled to the foyer. Smiling from ear to ear, barely able to contain my joy, I threw open the door, tears squeezing their way out of my eyes, I couldn’t wait to--
Something was wrong.
Where was my wife?
I stared, aghast, dumbfounded, at the two individuals before me, men I was certain I knew by name and had met but for the moment did not, could not recognize. They were foreign to me, these wretched, alien beings. They were not welcome here! I had not asked for them to come, and yet here they were, these cryptic agents of dread and inevitable collapse, upon whose wings I knew that only formidable news could travel. It had to be a mistake. I wanted to close the door, slam it in their distorted faces, but I couldn’t bring myself to move. The weight of their arrival was too great, and it had stupefied me.
They stood still and tall, solemn, like great and powerful pillars, unwavering and steadfast in their charge, as silent as the grave. Their dress uniforms were crisp and clean, their sorrowful countenance so thick and apparent I thought that like smoke it would smother me. I watched in disbelief, as though I were watching a movie of someone else’s life, as they moved in slow, simultaneous, and purposeful movements, each man reaching for his own cap to pull it down and place it firmly over his chest. They had said everything and nothing all at once.
My knees buckled and down I went, down, down, spiraled all the way down, into an unimaginable black abyss. I clawed at the floor, wrapped my arms around myself, begged that this nightmare would somehow turn into just another dream. I prayed that I was still asleep, that at any moment I would awake, and I’d still be on the couch looking at photos of her smiling. And then the sudden awful realization that I would never see her smile again struck me down further still, deeper into the center of myself where only misery lived now.
I felt my life pour from me as though I were stuck with a shiv. I saw it pool on the white marble beneath my knees and hands, watched our memories dissolve into one another and begin to blur into nothingness. I saw her face in front of me, her beautiful smiling face, and then it began to melt into something else, something horrible, something I didn’t recognize. I watched her eyes bleed down her cheeks and into her mouth until her face went black. My chest crumple inward, into itself, like a tin can caught in a clenched fist. How could she just be gone? I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t speak. This couldn’t be real. Surely, they had the wrong house.
My anguish ripped through me like a wave. It tore me limb from limb, left me with nothing. I unraveled; an old sweater burst at every possible seam. My heart disintegrated. I felt its sullied remains creep up my throat and into my mouth. I tasted its bitterness on my tongue like vomit. I was certain that I was screaming, but in fact I made no sound at all.
What would I tell my son? Oh, oh, my son, I wanted to wail, but no sound would come from me. My body refused. I felt I had no tongue, it had diminished. I had lost my voice, lost everything. Who was I without my Noralee?
I felt the cavernous hole in my chest begin to burn, scorched and black at the edges. It stretched and stretched and stretched and I could do nothing to stop it. It was a wildfire and I an open field; it tore through me like kindling, and it left nothing, not even ashes, in its wake.
In a moment of desperate clarity, I realized that Ben hadn’t seen these men; he wouldn’t yet know. I knew what I needed to do suddenly, miraculously; it came to me. New life came to me, new purpose. I needed time, I had to shield him from this, I needed to prepare.
I tried desperately to stand, pushed off the floor with my hands and stumbled. I wanted to shove these angels of death away and shut the door on them before it was too late, before my sweet, innocent boy realized too soon and too unceremoniously that his mother would not be home for Christmas after all.
Just then, a noise resounded on the stairs behind me, a sound that I once welcomed but now in this moment wanted with all my power to avoid. But it was descending too rapidly, moving with too much purpose for me to stop it, was upon me before I could even turn around: the unmistakable and harrowing sound of bells.