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Afterglow

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The day was going too well.

Christen was hyper aware of this fact.

Something in the air caused the hair on her skin, on the back of her neck, to rise as she drove down the road to her father’s country home. North Georgia was typically smoldering hot this time of year in late June, but today the temperature was rather mild, and cool enough with the wind blowing the leaves around the great Oak trees in town. She’d put the top down on her Mercedes after leaving work, wanting to enjoy the last little inch of Summer before the cold came in so unwelcome. However, after starting up the old vehicle and cruising for a few miles, she recognized quickly and eerily that it was too cold. It was eerie, and off-putting, and it made her quickly frown as she turned down the radio. Something was wrong.

Call it motherly instinct, call it whatever you want.

Something was really, really, wrong.

Chris thought of Donovan immediately, where she left him with her father this morning before heading off to work. She was thirty years old, and made more than enough money to afford a babysitter, but her dad had instantly protested, wanting nothing more than to spend his lonely Summer days with the five-year-old before school started back.

She’d agreed to the arrangement in May, and honestly- it had comforted her to know that her dad was watching him instead of a stranger, or a group of strangers at the town’s daycare center. Though now she wasn’t so sure.

What if something has happened to dad? And no one is there to watch Donovan?

What if something has happened to Donovan?

The alarm sounded heavy in her brain as she sped up, taking a sharp right turn into the driveway where her suspicions were validated. Parked next to her dad’s Ford truck was a black Escalade. A police interceptor, from the looks of it. Christen sped down the driveway and jammed the car in park, tires skidding across the loose gravel leading up to the massive white house. The car door was flown open. The hard top practically forgotten about, as she took the front porch steps two at a time to the open screen door.

Before her fingers could wrap around the metal handle, laughter- her father’s laughter- bellowed out through the house and into her ears, giving instant relief to her racing heart. She could barely make out the sound of another voice, light and airy, feminine and almost familiar, until-

“Kelley?” She choked, pushing her body into the house that smelled like home.

Sergeant Kelley O’Hara was the first person her eyes laid on as she stepped into the living room, dressed in full-service uniform with her upright posture, hands clasped behind her back. They’d not seen each other in years, three years to be exact, not since her mother’s funeral. Christen looked back towards the black Escalade, finally noticing the U.S Government license plate. She felt like she was going to choke, understanding that perhaps her earlier suspicions that something was deeply wrong had been true. There was no reason for the woman to be standing in her house.

No reason but one.

Christens eyes began to water as Kelley took her in, looking peaceful and exhausted. Her father took one look at Christen from where he sat in the recliner and knew immediately what she needed, tilting his head across the living room towards the couch next to her. Her gaze softened at the sight of her son. Donovan was resting quietly on the worn couch, thumb stuck between his lips while his feet were tucked under a throw blanket. She stepped towards him, hearing the way her heels clicked against the hardwood as she bent down to kiss his forehead. Once she sat her purse next to him on the couch and tucked the blanket tighter around his legs, she felt the knot rise high into her throat and the tears begin to accumulate.

“Chris, I-“

Christen stood up, turning to face her old friend with the tears collected around her chin. She sniffed and sent a quiet prayer to ask for her knees not to give out when the news was dropped on her like an atom bomb.

“What happened to her?” She whispered, meeting Kelley’s hazel eyes briefly as she crossed her arms around herself, trying to protect herself from the dread.

Kelley softened at her question, un-clenching her hands behind her back and visibly relaxing. She walked around the glass coffee table, stopping a few feet from Christens trembling form.

“Take a walk with me Chris.”

“Goddammit Kelley,” She bit through the whisper, trying to keep her voice down and not wake her son. “What happened to her- spit it out.”

“It’s not like that, baby girl.” Her dad rose from his seat, bringing his mug with him as he stood and shook his head, nodding towards the front door that he’d just watched her walk through. “Hear her out.”

Christen met Kelley’s eyes again, allowing herself to breathe and wipe her fingers across her cheeks before nodding once and allowing the other woman to lead her outside.

They took the steps gently. Christen allowed her position behind the woman to observe, taking in her shiny black boots, the pale green pants and uniform jacket heavily decorated with pins that she knew nothing about. It was a cold contrast from her own pink Summer dress, decorated with little flowers, glowing with warmth. She’d always felt that about their uniforms, how cold and uncomfortable they seemed, all the negativity she felt when she touched the material or stood close to it.

Kelley walked next to her quietly for a few moments, leading them past the hanging Oak trees and Orchards that covered her father’s yard. They’d grown up in these trees. Swinging from them, falling from them, taking bites out of the fruit from the ones that made fruit. She’d had her first kiss beneath these trees, and it was here that she’d said goodbye to that girl- hiccuping from the sobs that wracked her body as she watched that same damn green uniform get into that old truck and drive away.

“How’ve you been, Chris?” Kelley asked, reaching up to grab a pear and using the fruit to keep her from meeting Christens eyes, now that they were alone.

“Why are you here?” She countered, “What’s happened?”

Their eyes met, Kelley’s gaze flipping back and forth between her left eye and right eye, trying to judge her state of mind, Christen assumed. The woman kneeled on the grass before sitting down, motioning for Christen to do the same, so she did. Kelley’s eyes took in her figure, as if she hadn’t seen her in more years than she had. Christen felt herself getting anxious at the staring, she felt her heart skip inside of her chest as Kelley’s eyes lingered on her hands, on the wedding band she was currently twirling that sat heavy on her left ring finger. She’d not even meant to wear the rings this morning, knowing they no longer held any significance, but she’d placed them on out of habit after waking up and had forgotten to take them off.

Quietly, but not subtly, Christen covered her left hand with her right one, covering all traces of the news that caused Kelley’s head to shake and her jaw to clench. They sat for a few seconds in silence before the woman sighed.

“Nothin’s happened. I mean, I do have news. I just, I uh-“

She paused. Then, “Chris, uh, Tobin came home today.”

The sharp, stinging, inhale of breath that pierced her lungs was enough to get the friend’s attention again. Her mouth was open, eyes low in disbelief, heart racing so hard that she could feel it in her fingertips and temples.

“She’s uh, she’s injured. But, but uh, I think they’ve released her for good. Her unit hit an IED and an enemy sniper hit her from a way’s away.”

Before she could ask the mumbling girl to keep going, she continued, “It killed eight of our squad, only reason I wasn’t with them was because of a really bad kidney infection that hit me a week before, I was ordered to say on base. She’s not too bad off, just a few cuts here and there, a lot of bruising, and… she uh, she took a bullet to the hip but she, she… she hid in the wreckage until we could get another unit sent out to do damage control.”

Kelley wasn’t going to cry, this much Christen knew, but it didn’t stop her lip from trembling and her jaw from clenching with every sentence she finished. Tears had long since been free falling down Christen’s cheeks. In all honestly, she wanted to have a panic attack, she wanted to wrap her old friend in her arms, she wanted to scream and get in her car and go see the wreckage that the war had left of the only other person she’d loved besides her parents and son. She wanted to do a lot of things, a lot of things that she knew wouldn’t end well for her.

Kelley turned her eyes away from the pear that she’d been picking at with her nails, allowing her watery eyes meet Christen’s again.

“I thought I’d lost her, uh… they’d told me about it before the med unit got there and found her… found her beneath some fucking bodies. And the only thing I could fucking think of after thinking that my best friend was dead was thinking that she’d never get to meet-m.. meet her son.”

Christen’s eyes closed at the line, unable to listen to it anymore. She wished the girl would stop talking, wished her good day would have ended the same as it began, wished she wouldn’t have made the choices she’s made. She heard the girl brush her hands on her pants and stand, and looked up as a sticky, pear scented hand was held out for her, so she did the same. The world was spinning as she stood, processing, fighting the ache that Kelley had provoked, fighting the last six years of her life.

Kelley shoved her hands into her pockets and shook her head at the crying girl in front of her.

“I came here because I don’t know what happened. All I know is… we came back six years ago to visit after a deployment, you guys were doing fine. We deployed again and suddenly my best friend wasn’t talking, wasn’t eating, was drinking every chance she got. I know that I returned a few years ago to say goodbye to Mrs. Stacy one last time and you had a two-year-old on your hip that looks just like my best friend, and some man staring at you like a piece of meat. When I asked Ali at Miss Sandra’s Diner who the man was, she shrugged and said your new boyfriend. When I asked Ali who’s kid it was, she said you’d had him two years ago and wouldn’t tell, assuming that you’d cheated on Tobin and that’s what ended the relationship. I told myself that for a while, knowing Tobin’s issues with all of that. But, but…”

The woman shook her head again in laughter, “Chris, he looked just like her.”

Christen bites her lip and looks to the ground, tears still dripping from her cheekbones, unable to form words at the woman’s revelations. A strong hand comes out to hold hers, directing her green eyes up to meet the bright hazel pair across from her.

“He looks just like her. And she’s not stupid, no one is. And it’s going to kill her when she meets that little boy and sees a version of herself, the same kid in the picture on her mama’s mantle. So I need you to tell me truthfully,” The sergeant pleaded, “Please tell me I’m not crazy.”

A silent sob rips its way from her chest as she cries, pushing her head into her hands with each cry that wracks her body as she shakes her head back and forth.

“I’m not crazy?” She shakes her head. Kelley asks again, “It’s hers?” She nods into her hands.

“Okay, okay.” The woman slowly speaks, pulling Christen’s trembling body into her hold with one hand on the back of Christens head to keep it in place at her shoulder. “I know, it’s okay. I just needed to hear it.”

She cries for what feels like hours, standing beneath the pear tree, and it takes her back to all those nights she spent crying at the hands of her mother while pregnant at twenty five, terrified of being a single mother and terrified that she’d found out too late. Her mother had soothed her, and told her that she’d loved her, and that they would raise the baby to be healthy, and happy, and strong. And it had became a source of hope for her, those words that were whispered into her panicked ear as she gave birth, knowing that Tobin was across the world, knowing that Tobin had walked out on her.

Christen regains that strength, feeling the love from her mother in her heart, allowing her to pull her head off of Kelley’s shoulders and wipe the moisture from her eyes in what felt like the hundredth time that evening.

“I need to know what happened so we can figure out what to do about this. Tobin just got here today, we flew in together, I dropped her off at home before I stopped by here… it won’t be long before she knows, Chris. This town has never been big enough for the both of you.”

This causes Christen to smile, despite her not feeling all that happy at the moment.

“And I need to know more about that ring on your finger.”

This causes Christen to frown.

 

They sit on the back porch as the sun sets, swinging back and forth on the old porch swing that’s belonged to the family since before she was born. Kelley’s sipping a beer with her father who sits in a rocking chair, and Christen is feeling anxious as she nurses sweet honey tea and begins the story.

“I found out I was pregnant four weeks after she left. Morning sickness, altered habits, the whole nine. I knew immediately what it was, but I put it off because it didn’t make any sense to me how it could have happened in the first place.”

Kelley shook her head, closely watching Donovan jump on the trampoline. She’d taken off her jacket once they’d gotten back inside, leaving it draped over the couch so she could enjoy the evening heat in her starchy green undershirt. “It don’t make sense to me even now.”

Christen set her glass down, “Dad would you mind getting Don ready for bed, for me?”

Cody knew it was his que to leave the two women alone to talk, giving his daughter a quick kiss to the forehead before wrangling his grandson from the trampoline. It took a village, but the laughing boy finally crawled through the netting and into his arms. Christen watched with a smile on her face, willing the child to always stay so small and charming. The little boy had been fascinated with their guest once he woke up as they stepped back inside, immediately launching himself into Kelley’s arms so that he could be closer to the shiny decorations and medals covering the chest of her jacket. She’d let him run around with her hat on and taught him unsuccessfully how to salute.

Once the duo finally made their way inside, with Christen’s promise to come upstairs and tuck him into bed, she’d folded her legs in the seat and gave the woman next to her attention.

“We’d been having sex for years, Kel. Tobin was supposed to be sterile, so I was never on birth control and we never used a condom. The doctors had told her she was. They’d known that since she was little and was born the way she was.”

“But she wasn’t, I mean…” Kelley nods suggestively towards the house, “Clearly.”

Christen shrugs. “Clearly. I don’t know, but he’s definitely hers. No DNA test needed. He acts just like her, stubborn and quiet, contagious laughter, energy, all of it. Not a lick of me in him apart from his hair and skin.”

“His skin?” Kelley mumbles, suggestively stroking her chin.

Christen’s eyes roll, “Kelley, he’s obviously not white.”

“Tobin’s white?!” She stands, looking wild and laughing, up to her typical antics. Christen hits her arm and pulls her back down onto the porch swing. “Damn, coulda fooled me.”

They grow quiet, watching the lightning bugs and listening to the crickets that surround the house, filling the still air with life and music.

“She left me the day you guys deployed. Told me she was doing it for my benefit, with her job and all, that she didn’t know from one day to the next if she was coming home walking or in a casket. Told me she couldn’t see me suffer like that, not even from heaven, so it was best if I moved on. We’d been together the night before, slept together I mean, she’d cried through the whole thing so I kinda had a feeling that something was wrong, but she wouldn’t speak when I asked her about it. She always cried before she deployed, just… just not like that, you know? Then I find out I’m pregnant, not knowing where she was, how to get in contact with her, if it was even worth it.”

Kelley scoffs, “It would have been worth it. She would have came home as soon as she could have.”

Christen’s eyes lower in frustration as her head shakes, “She would have been reckless out there, knowing that we were all the way back here needing her. I couldn’t risk her getting killed because of her mind not being in the right place. I would have rather died than to know she was in more danger. Burying her…” The words get caught in her throat. “That’s a nightmare. I could have handled a newborn, and I did, but that? No. I could never. And I suppose that’s the reason she left.”

 The conversation grows quiet again, with Christen recognizing the far-away look in her old friend’s eyes, knowing that she understands the feeling of dread that comes with the thought of Tobin’s death.

“So you moved on, though? I mean… with the ring and all. That the man I saw?”

Christen nods, giving Kelley what could be the most lifeless look she’s ever seen. “My husband, yeah. Jermaine.”

“Husband.” Kelley scoffs again, swigging her beer. “Never thought I’d see that with you, Press. Where is he right now?”

The beer bottle is gently taken from Kelley’s grip as Christen turns it up and finishes it off, setting it down on the side table with a thud and a sigh.

“In jail since last weekend. Also, he’s my ex-husband, sorry. Still getting used to saying that.”

“In jail? For what? You’re divorced? Why are you wearing the ring, then?”

Christen sighs again, willing herself to steel, to say the words clearly, like it’s nothing. She’s almost proud of the way her makeup hides the faint bruises to her cheek and forehead, how the lipstick hides the healing cut. What it couldn’t hide, however, is the marks covering her stomach, the deep purple bruise that rests above her hipbone from being thrown against the edge of the kitchen island in their home. It was the worst of it all, what will take longest to heal, the reason for her wearing dresses for the last four days.

“Three counts of domestic battery. I accidentally put the ring on this morning out of habit.”

She stands, now. Looking quickly through the window to make sure her dad was asleep in his chair, before hiking up her dress to reveal the product to her old friend, who’s eyes darken and jaw clenches at the sight of it. Kelley’s nostrils flair as her head dips, fists clenched and knuckles white as they grip the seat below them.

“He started hitting me about a year ago. At first it was nothing big. We were a year into our marriage, we’d have little arguments and he’d shove me off him roughly or grip my wrists too hard. Then he started doing it when he was drinking about four months ago. It kept getting worse and worse, so I served him divorce papers last weekend. My dad was supposed to be there with me, but I’d gone to the house early to start packing my things to make it easier for dad. Jermaine got home an hour earlier than usual, saw the divorce papers, flipped out. We argued for a while before he smacked me, once it finally hit him that I was leaving. My dad got there about five minutes after, right as I was thrown into the counter top. It took about five police officers and Ashlyn to pull my dad off him.”

Kelley shakes her head from where they rest in her hands.

“I’d been saving all of the pictures of the bruises for a while now. My lawyer printed them and piled them on the judge’s desk. We might have been in there for 10 minutes while the judge looked at the photographs and granted me a divorce. And a good chunk of his assets. And the house. So,”

Christen taps her palms to her thighs, running them back and forth along the material of her dress.

“It’s okay though. It could have been a lot worse. I’m just thankful that it’s over, and that he never laid his hands on Don.”

Kelley sits back upright, still shaking her head. Her fingers reach for the unopened beer and twist the cap off.

The third wave of silence washes over the pair as night falls around them. Christen yawns into her palm, deciding that it’s best that she stays here for the night instead of getting Donovan out of bed and driving them home. It’ll be the third night that she’s slept in her childhood bedroom, unable to do anything with the house down the street while she’s putting it up for sale. The settlement had left her with a good chunk of cash, enough to buy another house whenever she was ready. Enough to send Donovan to that private school if he wanted to go. Enough to take them both on an end-of-Summer vacation that she’s been planning since the beginning of Spring, when she first spoke to her lawyer about getting divorced. Though, Tobin’s presence in the town now means that a vacation won’t be happening. Christen knows of the opportunity she’s been given to tell her ex the truth. Christen knows where her heart is, where her heart has been since the girl left her beneath the pear tree six years ago. Just like how she knows that she only married because it was safe, because he flattered her, because he had a good job and could provide them with security that she didn’t have as a young, heartbroken mother. Just like she knows that God always has a plan, and she’s reminded of that plan every day when she twirls that old cross necklace Tobin gave her between her fingers.

She doesn’t know where Tobin’s heart is at. She doesn’t know how she’s going to react to any of this once she tells her. The woman has probably changed. Hell, they both have.

But what she does know. What she really, genuinely, does know, is-

“You can’t tell Tobin what happened with your ex husband.”

“Huh?” She questions, looking at Kelley curiously, who looks at her with dead set eyes and dilated pupils.

“She’ll have him killed, Chris. Or she’d do it herself.”

 

 

 

 

Kelley manages to finish four beers as the conversation carries on. They swing for a little while, catching up on old times and old memories of growing up together, neither one of them mentioning how the conversation always ends up on Tobin. Somehow, it always does. Christen notices and blames it on growing up in a small town. Kelley grew up in a house down the street from the family home, though they eventually moved across town, right around the time they entered seventh grade, right around the time Tobin’s family was moving into town and buying the house that Kelley’s family was selling. The three girls instantly connected, with Kelley introducing Christen to Tobin at school. Tobin was indoctrinated into the middle school friend group, fitting in perfectly at the groups lunch table, alongside Ali, Ashlyn, Ali’s brother Kyle, Megan R and Meghan K, who they called “Kling” to not confuse anyone from Megan R. It was a tight knit group, still is.

Ashlyn works for the police department as a lieutenant, married Ali (who owns and works at Miss Sandra’s diner) straight out of high school.

Kyle runs the only barbershop in town.

Megan R, deemed “Pinoe” by the friend group their freshman year, went off to college in New York before traveling for a while, though she eventually found herself back home and burnt out from the city life. She now works at the high school as Head Athletic Coordinator, with Kling. Kling teaches physical education.

Christen works at the preschool as the Administration Head. It’s monotonous work, but she loves it. Not much of her job involves spending time with the kids, as most of it involves coordinating the day to day activities of the teachers and ensuring they have all they need, but the little time she does get to spend with the little ones- watching them learn and grow and play- it lights up her life.

So the friends were all together, looking out for one another, taking each other for drinks after long days and hosting Super Bowl parties at each other’s houses. All of the original group but two- Tobin and Kelley, and it always felt like some thing was missing. Some of them used to comment on that, mostly Ashlyn, saying how it always felt like the group was incomplete, missing Kelley’s antics and Tobin’s golden aura. It took Christen exploding one afternoon after one of Ashlyn’s comments, as they all sat gathered around Ashlyn’s backyard on Veteran’s Day where they were hosting a bonfire, for the comments to stop. She couldn’t even remember what was said, but she remembers the guilty looks she received as she threw her beer can into the fire and stormed inside, biting out “Well, they aren’t here and they aren’t going to be, and I don’t fucking think I want to be either.”  

Christen doesn’t think she’s heard their names being mentioned ever since, and she was thankful for that. The hardest part had been the updates ceasing. Ali no longer showed her photos of the two girls that were posted on Facebook, all dressed up in their tactical uniforms somewhere in the middle of a desert in God knows where. They always turned off the news, protecting Christen from the latest updates about ISIS bombings in the Middle East. They stopped letting her know that Cindy and Jeff had received a phone call from Tobin. She knew that it was for her own benefit, but that was harder.

So she made a little bargain with herself. Every now and then, probably once every two or three months, she’d call Kelley’s parents and ask how their daughter was doing. They were always nice to her, she always thanked them and ended the conversation before the tears could start up, but it helped.

The situation with Tobin’s parents was different. Cindy and Jeff, much like their daughter, had some time of odd relationship with proximity and distance to Christen. If she was at the grocery store, they were at the grocery store. If she took Donovan to the park, they just so happened to somehow have their other grandchildren that day… at the park, not to mention Tobin’s older sister’s both lives thousands of miles away. They’d watched Donovan grow up, they saw his familiar face, and despite knowing that he was their grandson, they were also hyper aware of the situation between Christen and their daughter. So they showed Christen the same amount of love and sacrifice that they instilled in Tobin, that same love and sacrifice that caused Tobin to break up with her, and they never said a word.

She asked them for updates with her eyes. She’d meet their gaze, they’d nod to let her know that Tobin was okay, and both parties went their separate ways. It wasn’t an ideal situation, none of it was, but it was all that she could handle and all that she could offer them. So it’s the only thing that happened.

Christen sighed, knowing that the situation was about to change, not knowing exactly how that situation was going to change. Tobin was home now, less than a mile down the street asleep in that same house, and Christen knew that she’d be knocking on the front door tomorrow.

“Hey Chris,” Kelley giggled from beside her. It was getting late, they’d both been drinking for a while now, turning them both into a broken record of old memories.

“Do you remember that time in 11th grade, Tobin was throwing rocks at your window upstairs that night she finally got the balls to walk over and ask you out? And she accidently threw one too hard and it busted the windowpane?”

Both girls break out into laughter, Kelley remembering being hidden in a bush below the window after Tobin begged her to come for moral support in case she was turned down. She laughs because of the memory of Tobin’s face, how her eyes went wide and her hand covered her mouth. Christen laughs at the memory of her dad’s booming voice, wondering who the hell was busting out his window at 11pm. Tobin had stuttered her way through the explanation and apologies to Christen’s father, finally getting to the point of the whole debacle of how she’d wanted to ask his daughter on a date. Christen had been listening from the living room, eyes wide at the explanation, and before her father could even say a word in response, she’d pushed her way barefoot through the front door and said yes with a smile so wide it reached her ears.

Their first date had been classic and magical. A nervous ride in Tobin’s truck to the drive-in theater. It was the dead of Fall, so Tobin had let Christen wear her Letterman’s jacket and hold her hand on the way over there. The girls, being best friends for years up until this point, had already spent so much time together that simple things like a Letterman’s jacket and holding hands was the normal. This time though, it was different. It was special. Christen had felt special, and Tobin had played the perfect role in their first date despite the nerves they knew they both had.

Anguish washed over her at the memory, an anguish so familiar because she feels it every day. Every time she’s alone in a bed. Every time she smells something that reminds her of Tobin’s skin. Every time she comes across an old picture. Every time she sleeps with someone else. Every damn time she looks at her son. It’s a hole in her chest and memory that can’t be filled or covered up. Every year the hole gets a little smaller, but it never goes away, and it never heals fully.

Christen’s sobbing before she knows it, the laughter being replaced very quickly by the anguish, coming out of her in gasps for air and quiet cries. It’s so sudden and startling that it shocks Kelley, who quickly stops her giggling and pulls her to her chest.

Christen gasps the words out between the cries, “I don’t know how to do this. She’s going to hate me for this, I-”

“Shh.” Soothing fingers run through her hair. “She ain’t gonna hate you, Chris. Tobin’s not like that.”

The fingers lift up her chin, forcing her eyes to meet those of her friends.

“She’s going to be very confused, and hurt. But Chris, she loves you. She always has loved you. You know it’s always been you.”

Christen stands now, out of the chair and snatching her face from the grasp with a shake of her head in defiance as the thousandth tear of the night runs down her cheek.

“She left me, so don’t start that. I can’t- I can’t hear that right now.”

Kelley reaches for her wrist as she turns to go inside, snatching her back around and away from the back door.

“Why do you think she’s home, Chris? The girl doesn’t have any roots, she coulda went anywhere now that her honorable discharge has been processed. She didn’t even fight them when they told her she was done, she said she was going home.”

The statement pisses her off, boiling her blood to the highest degree at the thought of herself being anywhere on a list of Tobin’s priorities. Christen snatches her hand away in anger, pointing to the woods towards Tobin’s house.

“She wouldn’t have left me if she wanted this! God dammit. I’ve spent years begging God to tell me why she couldn’t have just stayed, why she felt the need to fucking protect me like some fucking hero in some fucked up movie that I didn’t sign up for.”

Kelley steps closer to her, trying to get the woman to calm down, but it’s to no use. Christen swats her hand away and bites through the tears.

“But you know what I did sign up for? You know why I’m so fucking angry? Because I signed up for the military with her, as her partner. I was in that room too when she signed those fucking papers. I knew what I was getting myself in to. I knew the sacrifices I was going to have to make and I didn’t care.”

“WELL SHE DID!” Kelley yells, voice breaking on the last word. Christen watches as the woman clenches and unclenches her fist, bringing her right hand up to rub the tension from her jaw as she shakes with adrenaline. The tension breaks into a silent standoff, with both girls heavily breathing and waiting for the other to speak.

Quietly now, Kelley starts again.

“Tobin did care. She didn’t want you to make those sacrifices. I can’t tell you it was right what she did, she knows it wasn’t. I watched that girl cry herself to sleep for weeks after we got back. Then we deployed… and she’d have to get up and see shit that no one should have to see… do shit that no one should have to do… live in a fucking horror movie all day, and go back to sleep with a picture of you in her hands, not knowing if she’d wake up again. And I know that’s why you didn’t tell her about Donovan. And no one, not even her, is going to blame you for that. But don’t you dare say that she wouldn’t have left, or that she doesn’t love you. Cause that picture’s still in her fucking wallet and she’s home for good, and she’s not going to want to waste a minute of the freedom she’s been given now.”

Kelley steps towards her again, putting her arms around her shoulders in a hug to apologize for yelling. “I didn’t mean to raise my voice like that, and I’m not here to speak on her behalf or anything, but Chris… look how our lives have played out, man. You and Tobin ain’t meant to be apart, and everything that’s happened ‘til now has shown you that, that little boy in there is all the proof you need.”

 

 

 

 

Christen wakes up to the sound of her son’s laughter paired with Kelley’s, putting an instant smile on her face. She smells breakfast cooking, making the smile grow even wider as she leans up and stretches her arms above her head.

Saturday mornings in the Summer have been her favorite time of the week since she was a child. Her mother would raise all the windows in the house before she cooked, a tradition her father has kept alive now that she’s passed, allowing the sounds of the birds and the smell of the grass to mix with the scent of pancakes and bacon, all wrapped up and carried through the house by the natural sunlight streaming in through the windows. It was a perfect way to wake up, and probably one of the reasons the new house hunting will be put off for a few more weeks so that she can enjoy it for longer.

She showers as quick as she can after shaving before pulling her still-wet hair into a tight bun and throwing on a pair of short jean overalls over an old blue t-shirt that she grabbed out of a drawer. It hits her as she makes her way downstairs that the t-shirt is one of Tobin’s from high school that had been stuffed in the dresser of her old bedroom.

Any other day, the shirt would have been ripped from her body and thrown in the garbage, but she doesn’t care to do that this time. Not after the conversation with Kelley last night. They managed to drink about six beers a piece, depleting the last of her father’s supply, and she forced Kelley to stay in the spare bedroom instead of going to a hotel after she’d been drinking. That led to a conversation of Kelley staying the rest of the weekend here until her parents come back from their vacation on Monday. The set up worked in both of their favors. The girls could catch up, Kelley wouldn’t have to get a hotel for two days, and Kelley could be here for when Tobin eventually stopped by in case things went sour.

Christen smiles once she reaches the open-styled kitchen, watching her father cook with his “Big Daddy” apron on as Kelley tickled Donovan at the breakfast table. Kelley had on a new pair of her service pants and a new green shirt while Donovan was still in his favorite dinosaur onesie. Sat atop his head was Kelley’s green service hat. Christen made a mental note to ask Kelley if she needed to borrow some clothes, not knowing if the girl had brought any other clothes with her.

Donovan’s eyes come alive again once he spots his mother leaned up against the kitchen threshold.

“Mommy! Miss Kelley said she would go fishin’ with me!”

Christen laughs, walking towards them to put a kiss on the boy’s head. She eyes her old friend suspiciously. “Did she now? Is papa coming too?”

She slides up next to her dad, pouring a cup of hot coffee to start the day off. Her dad wiggles his eyebrows at her, looking overjoyed to have more company than usual to join him for Saturday breakfast.

“I suppose.”

“Oh hey, CP? Word got out that Big Daddy was cooking breakfast so like… everyone’s on their way.”

Christen whips her head around to her friend, who’s got a shit-eating grin on her face.

“Kel, that’s too many people to feed with no warning!”

Two sets of eyes roll, one set belonging to her son and the other belonging to her friend. It startles Christen for a second, before she remembers that Kelley is practically still a five-year-old.  

“Well then,” Her dad laughs, “I better start cooking more food. And thank the Lord me and Donovan went grocery shopping yesterday.”

Minutes later, the four are joined by the five loud and hungry stragglers that file into the kitchen, all of them squeezing Kelley so tight that her green shirt is wrinkled in the process. Christen leads them all outside to the patio tables so they can catch up and let her dad cook in peace, laughing as her son replaces Kelley’s military hat for Ashlyn’s round police hat. Not much talking is done on her part, it’s too peaceful- watching the gang sit around and make each other laugh again like it used to be. They’re older now, with careers, tattoos, and one five-year-old added to the mix, but it still feels the same as before. Childish jokes are made at everyone’s expense, laughter is loud and frequent, perhaps the only difference is the lack of curse words due to said five-year-old and Christen’s sharp gaze, but it’s familiar.

And it’s home.

And it’s all about to be disrupted.

The laughter and animation are so loud that no one catches the sound of that old familiar truck pulling into the gravel driveway. It used to be one of Christen’s favorite sounds. She’d heard it a million times before. When Tobin picked her up for school in the morning, when they had a date to go on, when she had a bad day and asked Tobin to come and pick her up, every Sunday morning before they went to church, and when Tobin came home from deployment. But the sound was so foreign to her now that even if everyone had been quiet when it happened, she might have not recognized it.

Her father, however, with the back doors closed from all the commotion and the front porch windows open, had recognized it instantly. His hand stopped from where it had been flipping the next pancake, ears tuned in to the outside to make sure he was hearing things correctly, then the sound of that old truck door shutting sounded throughout the house.

Christen angled her head backwards as the back door was opened, watching her father peak his head out quickly and wipe his hands on a hand towel. Every hair on her body stood up, as if lightening was about to strike through the blue sky above her head.

“There’s someone at the door for you, baby.”