by Siobhan Fallon, Army spouse
“I shouldn’t be the one to tell you this, but I’m afraid that if I don’t, no one will.”
Val sat at her computer, scanning her inbox, and her eyes paused over a new Facebook message from an unfamiliar name, Bernadette Brown. She clicked open the message and peered at the small photo of the sender: a woman in camouflage. She hesitated, then told herself it must be news about Billy’s return.
She started to read: “I shouldn’t be the one to tell you this, but I’m afraid that if I don’t, no one will.” Val pushed away from her desk, lurched to her feet, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.
Until that moment, it had been a good day. No, a great day. Val had gotten an e-mail from Billy early that morning telling her he’d gotten his orders: He’d be home in less than a month. The e-mail was short, no details, but it didn’t matter. For eight months she ‘d been counting the days he was away from her and now she could start counting the days until he returned.
She didn’t know if it was her huge smile or constant talk of her soldier coming home, but she had managed to rake in almost twice her usual tips during the lunch shift at Danse Macabre. On the way home, she stopped for a mango smoothie with whipped cream-it seemed just right for her celebratory mood. Sunny yellow, decadent, impossibly sweet. She sipped and wondered if there’d be a welcome home ceremony. Val wanted to meet Billy’s friends, the soldiers he served with and wrote home about, wanted to learn about the vastly different lives they led in the “real” world, hidden for nine months by camouflage.
She entered her apartment and went straight to her computer, loving the little laptop, the bearer of such good news. Billy had been distant the last couple of weeks, his e-mails briefer and briefer, sometimes leaving out the words “I love you” or “I miss you.” But Val wasn’t going to worry about that now. Finally, her life was beginning again. When Billy had time to call, she was going to suggest they spend some of his leave here in Louisiana. He could show her where he’d grown up and introduce her to the cousins and high school friends who lived nearby. Then they’d drive back to Atlanta and decide what to do with their shared life.
It was only a seven-hour ride, but they’d stop along the way wherever they pleased-roadside farm stands with the crisp fall fruit Billy hadn’t tasted in so long, country diners with biscuits and gravy he craved, jazz and Southern rock on the radio, American flags flapping on main streets, small towns, pick-up trucks and everything else he’d been fighting for. Then they’d spend the night at a chain hotel with an indoor pool, HBO, and free breakfast in the morning. Hours and hours of conversation seemed like an indulgence after all these months of echoing, dropped phone calls, let alone finding herself in a bed with him again, his heartbeat within reach. Val swore she would never take the sound of Billy’s voice, the feel of his hand in hers, his soft, deep-sleep snore, for granted again.
That’s when she opened the message from Bernadette Brown.
“I shouldn’t be the one to tell you this, but I’m afraid that if I don’t, no one will.” Val, standing away from the computer as if afraid it would electrocute her, leaned in cautiously toward the screen to continue reading. “You don’t know me, but Billy talks about you all the time so I feel like I know you. Billy and I grew up pretty close to each other. I’m from Violet, Louisiana. He’s my closest friend here.”
Val slammed her hands on her desk, the cheap wood bucking, almost toppling her forgotten smoothie. Who was this woman? “Something happened. Ten days ago Billy was out on patrol with his squad and the lead Humvee was hit with an IED…”
The rage leaked out of her and she sat down in the chair, holding the edge of the desk to steady herself. Billy had e-mailed her just that morning. Yes, of course he had. Of course he was OK.
“As far as IEDs go, this wasn’t so bad. It was two old Russian mines, but the Humvee was driving along a wadi, and the force of the explosion made it flip into the ditch. Most of the soldiers were fine, some minor burns and scratches, but Jake Smalls had just taken off his helmet to wipe sweat from his face and landed on his neck at the wrong angle. He didn’t make it.”
Val pressed a cold hand against her eyes, feeling terrible relief and grief at the same time. Over the past eight months, whenever Billy told her a story about what was happening in Afghanistan, he usually mentioned Jake Smalls. Snippets of Billy’s e-mails and phone calls came back to her, how Private Smalls had two kids at home, how he was a sought-after carpenter in Biloxi, how the guys made fun of him mercilessly because of his name. Billy once told her how Jake, fed up, stood in the middle of the chow hall and dropped his BDU bottoms, announced that anyone who was curious about the size of his junk could take a look now and forever hold their peace. He got into some UCMJ trouble, but Billy, a mix of laughter and awe in his voice, said no one made any ‘small’ jokes again.
“Billy said he hadn’t told you about Jake’s death, but I can tell it’s tearing him up. Billy won’t talk about it much but, as the squad leader, I think he feels responsible. Maybe talking to you will help. Bernie”
Bernie. Yes, Billie had also mentioned a friend named Bernie, a mechanic, and Billy was always hanging out with the FOB mechanics. Val had assumed it was because he loved anything with a motor, not because there was a chick there changing oil pans. She bit the inside of her cheek. So there was a woman in Afghanistan Billy had been able to turn to, someone he could find when the phones were down, someone who could comfort him when Val was just a cursor blinking on a computer screen, when Val was only an idea of marriage thousands of miles away. Val clicked on the photo of Bernie, but since they weren’t Facebook ‘friends’ she could only look at the one image, a sunburned woman in a Kevlar vest and aviator glasses, her blond hair pulled back in a sweaty bun. Val shuddered.
A blond gal who probably knew how to hunt as well as change a tire- totally Billy’s type. She shook her head and told herself she couldn’t get carried away about Billy having a female friend when the real issue was that Billy had lost a soldier he admired, a man he trusted. That was what Val needed to focus on. She switched from Facebook and opened her regular e-mail account.
“Billy, please call me as soon as you can. I heard about Jake’s death.” She continued, “I had to find out from ‘Bernie’-who I learned is a WOMAN. Billy why did you talk to her and not to me???” But she erased the Bernie bit immediately, instead typing, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do. I love you.” A year ago she would have been furious; she would have stretched her fear about casualties into >> jealousy and accusations about Bernie/Bernadette. But now she took a deep breath and tried to be the woman her soldier needed her to be.
Val’s cell phone rang in the middle of the night. She grabbed it, green letters beaming from its face: Unknown.
“How’d you know about Jake? Is it on the news?”
Val sat up, blinking in the dark room. “No. Bernie tracked me down on Facebook and told me. Billy, are you OK?”
“I’m not dead, am I?” he replied harshly and Val took a deep breath. “It was my decision to make that detour. My decision and Jake’s the one who paid.”
Val felt a sudden heat fill her face, her eyes, her throat, her cheeks. “My God, don’t say that, you couldn’t have known about the IED. Billy, baby, please don’t blame yourself-“
“I don’t want to talk about it. And Bernie shouldn’t have told you. Dammit, I don’t need you all freaked out.”
His words sizzled through the distance between them. “Dammit, I don’t need you all freaked out”? Did he actually just say that? Her sensitive, non-cursing Billy? How had she somehow become a target because she wanted to make sure he was OK? She took a deep breath, feeling the edges of her own anger. “I know you and Jake were friends. I’m your wife; you can talk to me about anything.”
“Val, don’t try some analyst crap on me. You don’t understand. Let’s leave it at that.”
She nodded silently. Billy was right, she didn’t understand. How could she ever know what her husband was feeling right now? How could she understand his loss and fear? He knew the men who had killed Jake were jubilant at the life they had ended, and were trying to kill more of Billy’s soldiers, trying to kill Billy himself. Every day he went beyond the wire, he was facing that nameless irrationality, that hatred of complete strangers. And every day he was aware that Jake Smalls was gone. Val had searched the Internet after getting Bernie’s message, trying to find out what to say to a soldier who had lost a buddy, and had been unable to find anything. Her sister Lucy gave her some phones numbers she’d gotten from her own redeployment briefs before Jim’s return, Military One Source, Military Family Life consultants, and Val vowed to call them first thing in the morning.
“You’re right, Billy, I can’t understand. But I’m here for you, just tell me you know that, OK?” She waited for him to strike out again, and if he needed to yell at someone, to rail against the death of his friend, Val would take it gladly.
Instead there was silence. Then she heard him take a ragged breath. The sound of Billy desperately trying not to cry made Val press her hand against her mouth.
“Yeah, I know,” he finally said. “I gotta go.”
“I love you-” she began and heard a grunt in reply before the phone went dead.
Val couldn’t remember the last time she had prayed, but she had a feeling no one upstairs was going to hold that against her; what were prayers for if not for the waiting wives of deployed soldiers? She thought of Billy, she thought of the weight he was carrying, the weight of Jake Smalls added to his Kevlar, his gun, his gear, his boots. She wondered about the other accumulated tragedies he had never told her about, all the losses becoming rocky and hard, like splinters rough and rubbing against the soft inside of the man she adored.
But Val knew she was strong enough to deal with his anger, to deal with his guilt, to deal with whatever he was bringing back with him. “Please bring him home,” Val whispered into her pillow. She said those words over and over again, losing the beginning and the end, until just the word “home” played in her mind, the most potent prayer she could think of, until she prayed herself to sleep.