Authors: Marilyn Pappano
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For everyone who serves, whether in uniform or not, who sacrifices years of your life or hours of your time, who fights in a hostile land or keeps the home fires burning. For everyone who feels that rush of pride upon seeing our flag, that rush of gratitude upon seeing a member of our Armed Forces, and that rush of sorrow upon hearing of yet another American casualty, and for every one of you who prays
God bless America
, thank you.
History defines strong as having great physical power, as having moral or intellectual power, as striking or superior of its kind. But with all due respect to Webster, there’s strong, and then there’s Army Strong.
Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow.
ifteen minutes after retrieving her luggage from Tulsa International Airport, Avi Grant still sat in her rental car, doors locked, windows up, keys in her hand, the temperature inside climbing. Sweat broke out on her face and hands, inside her uniform and boots, and her stomach churned so wildly that a lesser woman would lean out an open door and heave her guts onto the sizzling pavement.
She breathed deeply, head back, and focused. She could do this. An image flashed into her mind: the colonel, her mentor. Another image: Frankie, from Massachusetts, loved baseball. Another: Camarena, married with two kids. Rebecca, who’d shared her quarters and tastes in music and chocolate. Ian, organizer of soccer games with plans to be a priest. Chatham, who joined the Army to escape his overbearing parents. Miller, whose wife got pregnant every time he finished a rotation. Chandra, who’d never met a man as good as her dog.
The sweat rolled, picking up tears at the corners of her eyes and continuing down her cheeks. Finally Avi swiped her sleeve across her face, then inserted the key in the ignition. She started the engine, rolled down the windows, and turned the AC to arctic blast. It took a moment longer to back out of the space and wend her way through the parking lot to the exit.
When the plane landed, she had looked out, thinking she could have been in any medium-size airport in any medium-size city, except for that clear blue Oklahoma sky. She swore its colors, in all its moods, weren’t used in any other sky; she could recognize it with half a glance. The clarity today meant there was no ozone alert. The streaky clouds moving from east to west testified to the winds up high, but down here on earth, not so much as a breath of a breeze was blowing.
She had been back in the States ten days—not long enough to fully adjust to flying, driving, being alone. She followed road signs to I-244, vaguely taking note of the changes along the way. The freeways were wider, the overpasses still bumpy, the drive-in theater on the north side of the road a welcome replacement for the historic one that had burned down a few years earlier.
There were shortcuts she could have taken to get to her destination quicker, but she was in no rush. Her parents were out of town and wouldn’t be back for a week. Mom had accused her of knowing that when she scheduled this trip, and Avi had lied and said of course not; would she do that? Then Mom had apologized, and Dad had taken the phone and said, “Of course you’d do that.” She’d taken four weeks, her leave for an entire year. Was it too much to want the first week of it to herself?
Dad had been relieved that she wanted time alone. A thirty-five-year anniversary cruise wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to cancel at the last minute.
She circled around downtown Tulsa, then took 412 toward Sand Springs. It seemed everywhere she looked, she saw signs for Indian casinos. She’d taken enough gambles with her life. She had no interest in doing so with her money.
Though somebody has to win,
a voice whispered.
Why shouldn’t it be you?
She recognized the voice as belonging to Ian of the soccer and priesthood. He’d had a great poker face, lying to them all even as he lay dying.
Don’t worry. I’m gonna be okay.
She squinted her eyes tightly and told herself it was because of the powerful August sun starting its afternoon slide. As she turned north again, she blinked away the few drops of moisture that spilled from her eyes.
As soon as she left town behind, the scenery gave way from houses to hills, rocks, and weaving roads. The trees were green, like much of the grass, but the dustiness that covered them spoke of a dry hot summer, as if Oklahoma had any other kind. She hoped there’d been enough rain the past few months to put on a lovely show in the fall.
The farther north she drove, the fewer trees, more grass dotted with small patches of wildflowers and occasional houses. Cattle and horses lazed in the sun; dogs dozed on porches. A squirrel darted across the road in front of her, chittering as if chastising her for disrupting his day.
This was real life out here: farmers, ranchers, housewives, commuters to jobs in the city. Normal life. What was her real life? Her time in Afghanistan was over for the moment, though the Army made no promises. She’d thought she’d seen the last of the desert four times before. She’d spent a lot of years in remote provinces that most Americans had never heard of until some of their fellow citizens died there. Even then, it was a million miles away. Nothing for most people to worry about. It didn’t touch them, safe at home.
And people like Avi couldn’t get away from it.
When mechanical horses’ heads, pumping oil in small fields, began making more frequent appearances along with real-life horses’ and cattle’s and kids’ heads, she drew a deep breath. Her destination, Tallgrass, had been founded over a hundred years ago to support the oil and ranching industries in the area. Growing up in Tulsa, she’d visited GrandMir and Popi in the town a hundred times, but she remembered few details about it.
On the other hand, she’d never forgotten a thing about GrandMir and Popi: their house, their business, her cooking, the strays Popi collected, their church, their neighbors, and how happy they were. She’d imagined the same kind of life for herself one day.
Until she’d met a handsome Army officer, tall and forbidding in his dress uniform but quick to break into a grin that made a ten-year-old girl feel like the most important thing in his world. The day she’d met then-Major George Sanderson, she’d changed her mind about being a professional traveler, a zoologist, and Speaker of the House when she grew up—any job with the word
in its title had sounded good to her—and decided to join the Army instead.
She’d done it, too, enlisting during her senior year in high school. She’d even gotten her dream duty assignment: serving under Colonel Sanderson on this last go-round in Afghanistan.
Where three months ago she had watched him die.
A green-and-white sign stated that she was entering Tallgrass city limits, and she gratefully refocused on her surroundings. Nothing looked familiar, with most of the buildings on this southern approach fewer than ten years old, while her last visit had been fifteen years ago for Grandmir’s funeral. She hadn’t expected to remember any of it, though. While waiting for her flight in Houston that morning, she had called up a map on the Internet and committed the directions to her parents’ house and their nursery to memory.
Once she’d passed the nondescript buildings a person could find on the outskirts of any town, she had to admit that downtown Tallgrass could charm a person if she was in the mood. The buildings were constructed of brick faded to a rosy hue or of sandstone, its drab earth tones reminding her of the desert. None stood taller than three stories, hugging the ground, a smaller target for the nonstop winds that swept across the plains.
Avi made a right turn onto Main Street and drove 1.4 miles to Grant Plant Farm. For a moment, she was seven again, coming to work with GrandMir and Popi, running barefoot through the nursery, hair in pigtails, denim overalls just like Popi’s, hearing his great big belly laugh and GrandMir shaking her head, saying,
They were gone now, buried side by side in the cemetery outside the little country church they’d attended all their lives.
Avi was only thirty. Too young to have lost so many people.
We’re not lost, Avery,
Popi would have said.
We’ve just gone home.
With a deep breath, she shut off the engine and climbed out. Gravel crunched beneath her boots as she passed through the scant shade offered by the board sign that had stood there longer than she’d been alive. To the music of chimes and water tinkling in the distance, she walked inside the open-walled structure and removed her sunglasses, breathing deeply the scent of damp earth.
She’d lived in the dirt, worked in it, had it blown by fierce desert winds into places it shouldn’t have gone, but she hadn’t taken off her shoes and dug in it for pleasure since the last summer she’d spent here fifteen years ago. God, she’d missed it.
Customers stood in line at both registers, and water dripped from the irrigation system. Mom had said she would leave the keys with Linda, one of their longtime employees, and Avi looked around until she found her, white-haired, tanned skin, unsteady hands culling plants past their prime from a display.
“Linda? Hi. I’m—”
A brown gaze studied her an instant, then the wrinkled face relaxed and a welcoming smile softened it. “I know who you are, Avery Grant. You’re the spittin’ image of your grandma Mirabelle when she was your age.”
The compliment pleased Avi, though she knew her regular-average features didn’t begin to compete with GrandMir’s beauty. She smiled,
on the tip of her tongue, but the woman didn’t pause more than a few seconds.
“So you’re finally home safe and sound. Though I guess this isn’t really home since your mama and daddy moved here after you joined the Army. Still, it must be glorious to be back in Oklahoma. I bet some part of you started pining for this place five minutes after you left.”
Not exactly. Avi had been living her dream, following in George’s footsteps, busting her butt to get through Basic, going to Signal school, finding her stride in Army life. It hadn’t been until her second deployment, maybe her third, when she’d found herself dreaming of plains, hills, and forests, oil wells and cowboys and Indians, tornados and droughts and floods, blistering summers, bone-chilling winters, sadly short autumns, and the most incredible spring season anywhere.
Linda had continued talking, her familiar accent soothing with the backdrop of water and sweet-scented flowers, but she interrupted herself as Avi tuned back in. “Here I am, chattering away, and I know you must be tired from your travels. Let me get the keys for you, and you can go home and get some rest. It’s such a shame that Beth and Neil's cruise happened to be this week, but I know they’re excited about getting back to see you.”
Avi followed her to the office, tiny and crammed to bustin’, Popi used to say. She remained outside and watched while Linda sorted through a desk that should have collapsed under the weight of the mess it held, coming up with a key ring. She handed it over with a triumphant gesture. “Here you go. Now, if you need anything, you call me, okay? I’m sure your mom left notes for you all over the place, telling you everything you could possibly want to know, but we’re here if you have any questions at all.”
“Thank you.” Avi pocketed the keys and turned toward the nearest exit, but Linda stopped her with a hand on her arm.
“Thank you for your service, Avery.”
Emotions rippled through her—gratitude, discomfort, sadness, guilt—but she managed a wobbly smile. “You’re welcome.”
A sweet smile tripled the wrinkles on Linda’s face. “No, honey.
welcome. Welcome home.”
* * *
Smoke billowed up from the grill, carrying with it the amazing aroma of roasted chicken. The wind blew it toward the house on the west, then did a one-eighty and sent it rushing into the yard on the east, carrying its flavors long after the gray wisps had dissipated.
Ben Noble had a warm, sunny day, a garlic flavored chicken on the grill, a sweaty pitcher of tea within arm’s reach, and a fresh supply of ice in the cooler beside him. What more could a man ask for?
Maybe someone besides his mother to share it with?
His gaze shifted to the house sitting small and tidy at the far side of the yard. It was Lucy Hart’s house, occupied by Lucy—who liked him a lot—and Norton, her mutt, who didn’t. Ben liked Lucy a lot, too, enough to date her for a month or so at the beginning of the summer.
Enough to agree with her, no matter how painfully, when she’d pointed out that as far as relationships went, they were great friends.
He had plenty of friends. He hadn’t been looking for another—for anything at all, in fact—when he’d met her, but it hadn’t taken long for ideas to pop into his head: a girlfriend, a woman to settle down with, to have kids and a future with. But Lucy had been right. They were very good friends, but it didn’t go beyond that. There was no spark, no anticipation, no promise.
she’d said forlornly.
He really wished he could have been the one to give her back the magic her husband’s death had taken.
Behind him the kitchen door closed, and his mother’s voice filtered across the patio. “I’m leaving for the store now. Anything you want?”
He turned to face Patricia, wearing a skirt in light blue, a shirt that picked up the color in its floral pattern, and sandals, makeup on and her hair styled expensively casual. She always looked her best, even if her only destination was Walmart. It was one of the things, she said, that her late husband George had loved about her.
Funny. Her total lack of concern with her appearance—wild hair, flowy clothes, overload of shiny jewelry, and bare feet—had been one of the things Ben had loved about her back before she’d abandoned him and his sisters, along with his father, for George.
After two decades, he could hardly bear to hear the man’s name or see the uniforms that were common in Tallgrass with an Army post in town.
His fingers tightened around his iced tea glass. “No, thanks. I’m good.”
“The chicken will be fine on the grill if you want to go inside where it’s cooler.”
“Okay.” He would go in in a while, but at the moment he was too comfortable to get up.
“All right then.” Her smile wavered before regaining strength, a little gaily false now. “I’ll be back soon.”
She still hadn’t quite figured out how to say good-bye, whether it was for an hour or until his next visit to Tallgrass. Neither had he. Twenty years of virtually no contact made that sort of thing hard to peg. He wished he could put all the blame on her—after all, she was the adult, the parent—but he was an adult now, too. What had happened in the past belonged in the past…but damned if that wasn’t easier said than done. He would like to think he was mature enough to silence the fifteen-year-old boy who’d mourned his mother’s disappearance and his father’s death a few years later, but didn’t everyone’s childhood shape them into the person they were?