Chapter no 19

The Women

The smell of burning flesh. Someone is screaming.

I run forward, crying for help, trying to see through the smoke.

There’s a baby in my arms, burning, her skin blackens and falls away. I am holding a pile of bones …

Choppers overhead. Incoming.

A scream. Mine? The red alert siren blares. Something explodes near my head.

I throw myself out of my cot, hit the floor, crawl for my flak jacket and helmet.


Frankie came out of the nightmare slowly, realized she was on the floor, in her bedroom.

Curling into a ball on the rug, she tried to go back to sleep.



The next time Frankie awoke, it was 2115 hours and the house was dark. She heard the faint ticking of her bedside clock. She had no idea how long she’d slept. A day? Two?

She got dressed and wandered through the house. At her father’s office, she stared at the pictures on the heroes’ wall, saw Finley smiling at her on his way to war.

Another world. Now no one welcomed you home, let alone celebrated your leaving. Suddenly she felt suffocated by the scent of lemon furniture polish and expectation. She’d been raised to be a lady, always, serene and calm, smiling, but that world, and those lessons, felt far, far away.

Outside, a full moon shone down on the waves. She felt drawn to the beach, as always, the stretch of sand that had been her playground as a child.

“Hey, Fin,” she said, sitting close to the waterline. An occasional spray of water hit her cheek, felt like tears.

She closed her eyes. Just breathe, McGrath.

Gradually, the tightening in her chest eased. Much later, she went back to her frilly pink room and climbed into bed. In the glow of her bedside lamp, she opened her nightstand drawer and pulled out a piece of stationery with her full name written in elegant script across the top.

March 17 Dear Barb,

I’m home. No one told me how tough it was, this re-entry. Why

didn’t you warn me? People spat at me at the airport, called me a baby killer. What the hell? My parents haven’t even asked about Vietnam. Mom acts as if I am home from band camp and my dad has barely said a word to me. Honest to God.

It’s weird.

Tell me I’ll be okay, will you?

And how about you? I’ve been thinking about you, sending good thoughts to you about your brother. Grief sucks.

Being home makes me miss Fin all over again. It’s like staring down at a puzzle with one piece missing; it ruins the whole thing.

Now I’m back to bed. I’m more than tired. Too many hours of travel and despair and jet lag, I guess.

Love you, sis. Stay cool,


Then she stripped down to her bra and underwear and climbed back into bed.



“Wake up, Frances.”

Frankie opened her eyes slowly, feeling grit on her eyeballs. She sat up, feeling bruised. Once again, she was on the floor.

“I’ll meet you in the kitchen,” Mom said, looking worriedly at Frankie before she turned and walked away.

“Okay,” Frankie said, tasting something foul in her mouth. When had she last brushed her teeth?

She limped to her closet (how had she twisted her ankle?), pushed past her old pogo stick and shoved aside a hula hoop, and then slipped into her pink chenille robe and left the bedroom. Why was everything about her past so damned pink?

“Finally,” Mom said from the kitchen table, smiling.

Frankie went to the coffeepot, poured herself a cup, and sat down at the table across from her mother.

“Where’s Dad?”

“You look awful, Frances.” “I’m having nightmares.”

“I’ve made reservations for lunch at the club. I thought it would feel good to get back to real life. Just us girls.”

Frankie sipped her coffee, savoring the bitter, rich taste of it. Nightmare images clung like cobwebs to her mind. “Is that what you think the club is, real life?”

Mom frowned. “What’s wrong with you?”

“People spat at me at the airport,” Frankie said, surprised at the way her voice broke. “Called me a baby killer.”

Mom’s mouth opened in surprise, then slowly closed. “I’ve called Paul and made you an appointment for this morning. A nice new haircut always brightens my mood.”

“Sure, Mom. I know how much appearances matter to you. Where’s Dad?” she asked again.

“I bought you some new clothes. They’re in your closet.”

“Mom? You didn’t answer me about Dad.”

“Let me catch my breath, Frances, will you? A little warning that you were coming home would have helped.”

“You’ve known the date for a year, Mom.”

“You still should have called. Go take a shower and get dressed. You know I abhor being late.”

Nodding, Frankie rose, took her coffee with her, and walked back to her bedroom. There she found the new clothes that Mom had bought.

Bell-bottom pants and plaid separates and tunic tops. All a size too big. None of it felt right. So she put on the red dress she’d bought on Kauai, and pantyhose, and sandals. So what if it was March and she was dressed for summer? The dress comforted her, reminded her that Rye was coming home to her in twenty-three days.

She found her mother waiting impatiently at the front door. At Frankie’s appearance, one plucked eyebrow arched. As Frankie neared, Mom’s nostrils flared.

“Yeah. The dress smells mildewed. I know.” Mom managed a smile. “Let’s go.”

Fifteen minutes later, she and her mother were at the island beauty salon, being fussed over by Paul. “Who has been cutting your hair, darling?” he said.

“Me,” Frankie said. “Or a girlfriend.” “With a machete, it looks like.”

Frankie smiled. “Pretty much. I just got home from Vietnam.”

The distaste on Paul’s face was unmistakable. He actually took a step back. “I think I can pull off a chin-length, sideswept bob. Okay?”

That look from him hurt, but she should have been ready for it. “Sure.


Paul set to work, washing, combing, cutting, styling. When he began to tease the back of her hair, Frankie stopped him, said sharply, “None of that girlie shit for me, Paul.”

She heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath. “Language, Frances.

You’re not a longshoreman.”

When Paul finished, Frankie stood up and looked at herself in the mirror. He’d made her black hair glossy again, teased it up in back, and cut

it in a precise line along her jaw. Long bangs swept to one side. “It’s nice,” she said. “Thanks.”

He nodded crisply and walked away.

At the Coronado Golf and Tennis Club, a uniformed Black attendant met the Cadillac, and opened Frankie’s door. She stepped out, felt a strange sensation of collision. How could this cool, white, moneyed world exist in a bubble, while in Vietnam a war was raging, and here at home, people were protesting the violence and fighting for fundamental civil rights?

The main clubhouse was designed like an old-fashioned living room, centered around a stone fireplace. Here and there, groups of men were seated, drinking and smoking. Cocktail lunches were the norm here for the working men. A group of women wreathed in cigarette smoke played bridge in a room off to the right.

The waitress led them to her parents’ favorite table, which overlooked the pool. White tablecloths, silver flatware, bone china plates, and a centerpiece of fragrant flowers.

Frankie sat down.

“How lovely to be out with my girl for lunch,” Mom said, taking out her silver cigarette case, extracting a slim cigarette, lighting it up.

When the waitress appeared, Mom ordered two Bloody Marys. “Kind of early, isn’t it, Mom?”

“You, too, Frances?” “What do you mean?”

“Your father keeps remarking upon my drinking. When he’s home, that


Before Frankie could formulate a rejoinder, a man appeared at their

table. An elderly man with walrus jowls and a gray military flattop, wearing a brown suit with a thin tie. “Bette,” he said, smiling jovially. “How nice to see you out and about. My Millicent says you are favored to win the tournament again this year.”

Mom smiled. “Millicent is too kind. Frances, you remember Dr.


“This can’t be Frances, can it? Home from Florence already?”

“Florence?” Frankie was about to say more when she heard a loud crash.


She dove for the floor. “Frankie? Frankie?” What the hell?

The world righted. She wasn’t in ’Nam. She was in the country club dining room, sprawled on the floor beside the table like a fool. Not far away, a waitress was kneeling on the floor, picking up broken glass.

Dr. Brenner took hold of her hand and helped her to her feet. “Frankie?” Mom said, frowning. “Who falls out of a chair?”

Frankie didn’t know what had just happened. The memory had felt so real. “I … don’t…” She felt clammy, shaky. She pushed her hair out of her face, felt the sweat on her forehead. It took effort to smile. “I’m sorry. I just got home from Vietnam and…” And what?

Dr. Brenner let go of her hand. “There are no women in Vietnam, dear.” “There are, sir. I did two tours.”

“Your father said you were studying abroad.”

What?” Frankie turned to her mother. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Dr. Brenner left like a shot at the curse word.

Mom looked around to see if they were being observed. “Sit down, Frances.”

“You lied about where I was?” “Your father thought—”

“He was ashamed of me? Ashamed of my service, after all those stories, all that hero talk?”

“Sit down, Frances. You’re making a scene.”

“Am I embarrassing you?” she said. “And you think this is a scene? No, Mom. A scene is when a soldier comes in off the battlefield holding his own foot. It’s when—”

Frances Grace—

Tears scalded Frankie’s eyes. She ran out of the club, heard the whispers that would grow into rumors about “the McGrath girl,” and she would have laughed if it didn’t hurt so much.

Down the street, a stitch burning in her side, she hailed a cab.

It was easy now, just a hand in the air. No uniform to make people hate


The taxi pulled up alongside her, the driver rolled down the window.

“Where to?”

Where to?

It felt as if there were nothing left for her here, in this place she’d always loved.

But where else?

She said, “Ocean Boulevard,” with a sigh, and wiped her eyes. She had nowhere else to go.

Once there, she pulled out a piece of the blue stationery. In a hand that wouldn’t stop shaking, she wrote to Rye, tried to ease her hurt by sharing it.

March 22, 1969 My love,

I miss you so much I can’t stand it. I’m counting the days until your


Things at home are terrible. I don’t know what to do. My parents lied about my service in Vietnam. That’s how ashamed they are of me. It makes me mad in a way I’ve never felt before. Furious. Pissed off. Today I caused a scene at the country club. I can’t quite control this new fury that is eating me up. Maybe I just need sleep …

Everything is so weird and upside down, I haven’t even told my parents about you. I’m not sure they’d care.

I can’t wait for you to come home.

I love you, F



Sometime later, Frankie woke up sprawled on her bedroom floor with a pounding headache and a sore throat. Probably because she had screamed in her sleep.

She got to her feet, held herself together by sheer force of will. Nightmares had left her shaken, and she was still angry at her parents’ betrayal. The room was dark, no lights on to banish the night. How long had she slept?

In the hallway, decorated in rich wood and gleaming brass, she smelled cigarette smoke, lemon furniture polish, and a hint of Shalimar perfume.

Mom was in the living room, still dressed for the club, seated in a chair by the cold fireplace, sipping a martini, reading a Life magazine. A pair of table lamps illuminated the room; a fire in the fireplace sent out waves of heat.

Dad stood by the fire, dressed in a suit and tie, holding a drink and a lit cigarette. At the sight of Frankie in her robe, he frowned. No doubt she was not looking her best.

“Yeah. It’s me, Dad, back from studying abroad in Florence. The food wasn’t nearly as good as I expected,” Frankie said, unable to keep the hurt out of her voice.

“No one likes a smart aleck, Frankie,” he said.

She went to the bar, poured herself a large gin on the rocks, and took a seat by her mother.

The tension in the room felt heavy; she saw the wary, worried look in her mother’s eyes.

Frankie reached over for one of her mother’s cigarettes and lit up. “When did you start to smoke?” Mom asked.

“I think it was after a red alert.” At her mother’s blank look, she added, “Rocket attack on the hospital. The explosions were deafening. Terrifying. Or maybe after a push in the hospital where men came in blown to shit. Who knows? One minute I wasn’t a smoker, the next minute I was. It helped with the shaking in my hands.”

“I see,” her mother said tightly.

“No, you don’t,” Frankie said, desperate suddenly to explain. If they would just listen, everything might fall into place. “At the Thirty-Sixth— that’s the evac hospital where I was assigned—my first shift in-country was a MASCAL—mass casualty—and, shit, was I a disaster,” Frankie said. They were staring at her, listening. Thank God. “This soldier came in on a litter, all blown to shit. He’d stepped on a Bouncing Betty and his legs were gone. Just gone. I had no—”

“Enough.” Dad slammed down his drink on the bar. He’d used such force the glass could have cracked. “No one wants to hear these stories, Frankie. Sweet God. Legs blown off.”

“And the language,” Mom said. “Cursing like a sailor. I couldn’t believe the language you used at the club. And in front of Dr. Brenner. I had to call Millicent and apologize on your behalf.”

“Apologize on my behalf?” Frankie said. “How can you not care about my war experience?”

“It’s over, Frances,” Mom said smoothly.

Calm down, Frankie. But she couldn’t do it. Her heart was pounding and she felt a surge of fury so overwhelming she wanted to hit something.

For a moment she held back, but the effort it took felt toxic, as if the stories she wanted to share might turn to poison inside of her. She couldn’t be here, pretending nothing had changed, that she’d been in Florence for two years instead of holding men’s body parts together in her bare hands. She felt choked by her need to say, I was there and this is how it was. For them to welcome her home and say they were proud of her.

Frankie stood up abruptly. “I can’t believe you’re ashamed of me.” “I have no idea who you are anymore,” Dad said.

“You don’t want to know,” Frankie said. “You think it means nothing when a woman, a nurse, goes to war. You think it’s glorious that your son goes to war and embarrassing when your daughter does.”

Her mother stood up, holding a now-empty martini glass, a little unsteady on her feet, tears in her eyes. “Frances, please,” she said. “Connor. You both—”

“Shut up and drink,” Dad said in almost a snarl. Frankie saw how her mother sagged at that.

Had it always been like this? Had Mom always been a shadow woman, held together by vodka and hair spray? Had her dad always been this angry man who thought he had the right to dictate every action and emotion in this house?

Or had it been losing Finley that ruined them?

Frankie didn’t know. She hadn’t lived with them these past two years, and truthfully, she’d grieved alone and then she’d gone to Vietnam and learned a whole new kind of loss.

Frankie had to get out of here before she said something terrible.

She left them standing there, staring at her as if she were an intruder, and walked out of the house; she slammed the door shut behind her. It wasn’t like her, that burst of fury and the wanting to display it, but she couldn’t stop it. Out on the beach, with night darkening around her, she dropped to her knees, wanting to be calmed by the sound of the surf.

But it made her think of Vietnam, of Finley and Jamie and the fallen.

She screamed until she was hoarse. And the anger inside of her grew.



March 24, 1969 Dear Rye,

This time at home has been a shit show. Even as I write those words, I think, that isn’t me, but it is me now.

I’m angry all of the time. And hurt. My parents hardly speak to me and rarely to each other. They don’t want to hear anything about Vietnam.

That’s not even the worst of it. I have these terrible nightmares of the war. I wake up feeling like I’ve been beaten up.

It’s because you’re not in bed with me. I could sleep in your arms.

Dreaming of it, of you coming back, is holding me together.

I’m counting the days until you are here. With me. I think of us. You. A house. In the country, maybe. I want to have horses, a dog. A garden.

Things aren’t as easy as I thought, coming home. But it doesn’t matter. All that matters is us.

I love you. F



On a cool evening, two weeks after her homecoming, Frankie sat in a chair on the patio, her feet tucked up underneath her, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. In her tattered Army-green T-shirt and baggy shorts, she smelled of mildew and mold and dust, but it was vaguely comforting. She sipped an ice-cold martini and glanced idly around.

She was home, in her own backyard, where soon the jacaranda tree would burst into full purple bloom, and the gardeners would spend hours raking up the fallen flowers. It was like a time capsule, this yard, where

nothing ever changed. The outside world could be breaking apart, but inside these walls, all was calm, quiet, cocktails. Maybe that was why people built walls: to look away, to ignore anything they didn’t want to see.

In the last few days, the family had fallen into an uneasy détente in which no one talked about the war. Frankie hated every moment of it, felt stripped bare by her parents’ shame, but it wouldn’t be for much longer. She just had to make it until Rye came home. She hadn’t told them about Rye or their love affair; she hadn’t talked to them about anything, really. Just the weather and food and the garden. Neutral topics, all. It was the only way to hold herself together in their presence.

“I’ll call it the Shores, I think,” Dad said, exhaling smoke as he poured himself a Manhattan. “Or maybe the Cliffs.”

Frankie listened to her dad’s business talk and pretended to be interested.

She was trying her best to be the girl they’d raised, the girl they expected. She didn’t fidget, didn’t say much, never mentioned the war. Played nice. They didn’t seem bothered in the least by her silence.

It felt vaguely dangerous, this enforced calm. As if each word she swallowed contained a venom that might someday kill her.

She focused on her martini. Her second. Thinking she would have killed for this ice-cold drink in-country.

Dad went to the stereo system, changed albums, put on The Beach Boys. “California Girls” started playing.

“Turn that shit off,” Frankie snapped.

Both of her parents stopped what they were doing to stare at her. “Who do you think you are?” Dad said.

Frankie stood up abruptly.

She almost screamed, Look at me, to him. See me.

“I’m right here, Dad,” she said, her voice shaking. “Your daughter, home from war.”

He turned back to the stereo, busied himself with the stack of records.

Frankie felt fury building again, filling her up, stretching her out of shape.

She went to the bar, grabbed a bottle of gin, and walked back to her bedroom, slamming the door behind her.



St. Elizabeth’s Orphanage. I’m kneeling on the cold stone floor, holding Mai in my arms, stroking the child’s soft hair. I hear the whir of incoming helicopters from far away. The pop-pop-pop of gunfire.

A bomb rips into the stone walls, sends stone flying in a dozen directions. I hear children screaming.

Another bomb.

I look down; Mai is melting in my arms. Fire everywhere.

Frankie came awake with a scream, her heart pounding; she was drenched in sweat.

She stumbled out of her room, into the dark, quiet house. 0523 hours.

She went to the kitchen phone, picked it up, and dialed Barb’s number. No doubt there would be hell to pay when the bill came in—long-distance calls were so expensive—but she needed to talk to her best friend.

Barb answered on the second ring. “Hello?”

“Hey,” Frankie said quietly. Holding the receiver to her ear, she slid down the kitchen wall and sat on the linoleum floor. “I … just thought I’d check in on you. See how you’re holding up? How’s your mom?”

“Frankie?” Barb said. “How are you?”

“We don’t have to talk about me. I know how much you miss your brother—”

“Frankie,” Barb said. “Are you okay?”

Frankie shook her head, whispered, “No. Not okay.”

“I got your letter. Your folks really told people you were studying abroad? That is brutal.”

“Yeah.” Frankie let out a breath. “That’s rough, man,” Barb said.

“How was it when you came home? Bad?”

“Yeah, but my mama’s block is full of vets coming home. Ain’t no lying about it. All I know is you gotta push through, keep on going. Soldier on. It’ll all settle out.”

Frankie heard the hope in those words. “Rye’s home soon. So, there’s that. I swear, if he asks me to move in with him, I’m saying yes.”

Barb laughed. “You, Miss I-Need-a-Ring-First?”

“That’s not me anymore,” Frankie said.

“Yeah. Life is short, and don’t we know it? You having a party for him when he gets back? Maybe I could get Ethel to road-trip to la-la land.”

“I hadn’t thought about a party.”

“You and I know how hard it is to come back. A little cake helps everything.”

Frankie thought about it. A party. “His dad lives up in Compton. Maybe we could plan something together.”

“That’s the spirit.”

“Thanks, Barb. I knew you’d haul me out of this funk I’m in.” “What are girlfriends for?”

They talked for a few more minutes, and by the time she hung up, Frankie had a plan.

It might be a bad idea. Or a great idea.

She wasn’t sure.

All she knew was that once Barb had suggested the idea of a party for Rye, Frankie was on a mission.

So she dressed in the new clothes her mother had purchased for her— baggy bell-bottom jeans and a tunic top with a hip belt—and called information to get an address for Stanley and Mo’s Auto Repair in Compton.

By 0900 hours, without a word to her parents, she was dressed, with makeup on, and pulling out of the gated yard in the baby-blue Volkswagen Bug that had been her sixteenth birthday present.

On the ferry, she rolled down her window, let the air wash across her face. She heard the roar of heavy equipment and the clang of jackhammers being used to construct the bridge from San Diego to Coronado—an improvement her father had fought tirelessly for. She felt hopeful for the first time in days. Directed. She was—in the words of her favorite poem, “Desiderata”—advancing confidently in the direction of her dreams.

On the mainland, she cranked up the radio, heard Wolfman Jack’s famous howl, and sang along with the music. Cream. Country Joe and the Fish. The Beatles. The music of Vietnam.

In Compton, she slowed down. It had been years since the Watts riots, but the remnant of that time of trouble was still visible in boarded-up

windows, broken porches, and graffiti.

Spray-painted Black fists emblazoned the walls of empty storefronts and closed-up restaurants. The poverty of the neighborhood was obvious.

She passed a junkyard, where heaps of metal and broken-down cars huddled behind chain-link fencing. A growling dog followed her moving car from one end of the fence to the other, straining at the end of big-linked chain.

Abandoned cars sat on untended lots, their tires missing, hubcaps gone, windshields cracked. Many of the houses were dilapidated, in need of paint. She saw groups of Black men ambling down the street, dressed in black, wearing black berets.

Stanley and Mo’s Auto Repair was housed in a 1940s-era gas station with a large garage beside it. OUT OF BUSINESS had been spray-painted in red across the garage doors. Crushed beer cans littered the yard. A trash can erupted with garbage.

A trio of young Black men walked past the garage. One of them saw Frankie and stopped to stare for a moment, then walked quickly to catch up with his friends.

She pulled into the empty parking area and stepped out of the car.

Somewhere close by, a dog started barking. A car backfired, sounded like gunfire.

Calm down, Frankie. Breathe. It was just a car. Not a mortar attack.

She walked up to the shop’s office, which looked abandoned. There was chicken wire and plywood over every window and someone had painted PANTHER POWER beneath one of them. The words were smeared, as if someone had tried to wash them away and given up.

She knocked on the door.

“Go ’way,” someone yelled from inside.

Frankie opened the front door and was assailed by the odor of stale beer and cigarette smoke. “Hello?”

She pushed the door open all the way and stepped over the threshold. It took her eyes a moment to adjust to the gloom inside.

A single lamp sat on a metal filing cabinet, which was covered with stacks of paper. Old calendars covered one wall, the pinup kind from another era. Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth.

A grizzled man sat hunched in a wheeled office chair, staring at a rabbit- eared TV on another filing cabinet. As the World Turns was on.

“We’re closed,” he said harshly, without even looking at her. “Been closed since the riots, but I ain’t damn leaving. They won’t run me out.”

“Mr. Walsh?”

“Who wants to know?” the man said, taking the cigarette from his mouth. He turned slowly, saw her, and frowned. “Girlie, you are in the wrong part of town.”

Frankie moved forward slowly. She saw the resemblance of Rye to his father—it was as if Rye’s handsome face had been layered in fleshy gray modeling clay and left out in the sun to dry. The older man had cheeks that sagged into jowls, and a bulbous nose. Thick brown eyebrows contrasted sharply with his colorless face and graying blond hair. He had a mustache that was badly in need of tending. Gnarled hands curled around his drink glass. He wore a gray mechanic’s jumpsuit that read STAN on the pocket.

Frankie saw the reality of Rye’s childhood before her. No wonder he’d felt uncomfortable in the McGrath home, at Finley’s going-away party. No wonder he’d joined the military and dreamed of flying faster than the speed of sound.

It made her even more determined to show him her love with a welcome-home party. “I wanted to talk about throwing Rye a coming-home party. I’m—”

“I know who you are, missy. And there ain’t gonna be a damned party for my son. You should know that.”

“Are you one of those people who are ashamed of the men and women in Vietnam?”

He snorted. “Women in Vietnam. You on drugs?” “Mr. Walsh, I want you to know—”

“Let me stop you right there.” He headed to the metal desk beneath the boarded-up window, which was covered with papers and ashtrays and dirty dishes. He rifled through a pile of envelopes and magazines and plucked out a piece of paper. “Here,” he said, handing her a telegram. “Three days ago, two assholes in uniform showed up here to tell me my kid was dead. Shot down. Some place like Ankle. Ankee. Who the hell knows?”

Frankie stared down at the telegram. We regret to inform you … Lieutenant Commander Joseph Ryerson Walsh has been killed in action.

“Remains ain’t recoverable, the shitheads said. He certainly won’t need no welcome-home party,” Mr. Walsh said.

Frankie couldn’t draw a breath. “It … can’t be true…” “It is.”


“Go on, missy. Nothing for you here.”

She turned away, stumbled out of the dirty office, and made it to the Bug and collapsed inside.

The telegram shook in her hand.

We regret to inform you.

Rye. She thought of him carrying her to her hooch … the night he’d shown up in her OR, worrying about her … their first kiss … that night on the beach on Kauai where he’d shown her what love felt like. I’m afraid I’ll love you till I die …

Rye. Her love. Gone.



Frankie didn’t remember driving home. When she pulled into her parents’ driveway and parked, she looked up through her tears and was vaguely surprised to see where she was.

She got out of the car, forgot to close the door or take her keys. She walked into the house and went directly to her bedroom. Music followed her—Pat Boone, her mom’s favorite singer, tried to soothe and romance with his voice, but she barely heard it.

It had been only a few hours since she’d heard those words—killed in action—but already it felt like a lifetime of sorrow. Interminable.

She climbed into bed, shoes and all; she leaned back into the stacks of pillows against her headboard and stared up at the frilly pink canopy.

Grief blunted the world, put a thick, cottony veil between Frankie and everything else. She was so numb it took a moment to realize that someone was knocking on her bedroom door.

“Go away,” she said.

The door opened. Her mother stood there, smiling uncertainly. It was how they looked at each other these days, but Frankie didn’t care about that,

either. “There you are—”

Frankie heard her own scream and knew it was a mistake, but she couldn’t stop herself. She went from screaming in anger to sobbing in the time it took for her mother to get to the bed.

Frankie rolled away, tucked her legs up into the fetal position.

Mom edged up onto the bed beside her, stroked her hair. For a long time, she didn’t say anything, just let Frankie cry.

Finally, Frankie rolled into her mother’s embrace, instead of away from


“What is it?” Mom asked.

“I fell in love in Vietnam.” Frankie drew in a shuddering breath. “He

was shot down. Killed in action.” She looked at her mother. “How could I not have known?”

“You never said anything about a man over there…” Mom sighed heavily. “Oh, Frances…”

“You didn’t want to hear anything about the war.”

Frankie waited for words of wisdom, for something—anything—to remind her that she still had a reason for living.

Mom said nothing, just stroked her hair and held her close.

Frankie felt her heartbeat slow, felt vaguely that it might be physically breaking down and would be unable to beat in a world without Rye, in this body of hers that felt suddenly foreign.

Footsteps, coming down the hall.

Her father appeared in the open doorway, a briefcase in one hand, a handful of mail in the other.

“A friend of hers was shot down,” Mom said.

“Oh,” Dad said. He turned around and walked away, closing the door behind him.

Frankie curled into her mother’s arms and cried.



They’re shooting at us.


A spark of light hits the Huey broadside. The gunner shoots back, the chopper veers sharply to the left, then up to the right, does almost a


Another shot. Sparks. The ra-ta-ta-tat of the gunner shooting back, and then a loud crack of an explosion. The tail of the helicopter bends, breaks, falls to the jungle. Another explosion; this one is the fuel tank. The chopper bursts into a ball of flame and smoke and crashes to the ground.

A thick black column of smoke and flames shoots up from the jungle; the trees catch fire.

Frankie woke up, still in the throes of the nightmare, thinking that she was in Vietnam again, that she’d seen Rye get shot down.

The world righted itself slowly.

She was in her bedroom, with the frilly pink tulle canopy overhead, and the ballerina jewelry box on her nightstand.

Last night had been brutal. Consecutive nightmares. She had a vague memory of wandering through the dark house, smoking, afraid to sleep.

Feeling numb, her body heavy, her heart heavier, she stood, but once she was up, she didn’t know what to do.

She just stood there.

There was a knock at her door.

Frankie sighed. It had been only two days in a world without Rye; forty- eight hours of this grief, and already she couldn’t stand being in this house. She hated the way her mom watched her, with sad, wary eyes, as if she were afraid Frankie might run out into traffic at any moment.

Mom opened the door. She was dressed in a lavender silk peignoir with pearl buttons and pom-pommed white slippers. A white turban covered her hair.

Frankie stared at her through bleary, bloodshot eyes. “How do I stop loving him?”

“You don’t. You endure. You go on. I won’t insult you by mentioning the supposed healing properties of time, but it will get better.” Mom gave her a sad, compassionate look. “He would want you to live, wouldn’t he?”

Frankie had lost track of the variations on life-goes-on that she’d already heard from her mother.

The words had become just clanging noises in the empty room inside of


“Sure, Mom. Right.”

You'll Also Like