When her son walked into their townhouse, Zach’s dark-brown curls shielded his eyes. It wasn’t the first time Stephanie thought the deflection looked intentional, but she hadn’t yet found evidence that her son’s aloofness hid anything significant. She resisted giving him a hug.
His phone dinged with a soft melody she’d not heard before, one that didn’t match the hard-rock beats he usually assigned to the few callers he had. He looked at the screen, swiped the face of his phone, and shook his bangs out of his eyes. The thick curls settled back into place.
“Hey, there,” Stephanie said. “Who was that?”
“Nobody,” he said, before he brushed past her and into the small kitchen.
Zach pulled down the coffee mug that his father used to love, the white one stained with gray veins at the bottom, a picture of a fading eagle across the curved surface. Seasoned, his father called it. Dirty, Zach used to believe. But things change, and it had become the only thing he’d drink out of since his father had left for Afghanistan three months before.
“Are you ready for the SAT?” she asked.
The faucet sputtered before providing a steady stream to fill the cup. Zach never tested the water before drinking it, never added ice or heated it up. Stephanie had never been so accepting. She always wanted the water to be just right. Her husband called her Goldilocks. Zach didn’t even assess the water before brushing his teeth.
“Your English teacher e-mailed me. What’s her name again?”
Her son’s mouth curled into a little smile. At least Stephanie thought it did.
Zach twitched, his left shoulder rising up. “What did Meg want?”
“You call her Meg?”
“She says she’s too young to be called Mrs. What did she want?”
“You were supposed to meet with her but didn’t show up, so she was worried.”
Zach shook his head, pushed back his shoulders, priming himself for something—a fight maybe. After a long, slow drink, he set the cup down a little too hard on the table.
There was a time that she could read every tell about her son, the way he twisted his foot when he knew the answer to his question would be a no even if he desperately hoped for a yes. The question, “Can we please get a dachshund?” nearly left a bare patch on the thinning carpet outside her bathroom door. Another tell: the way he stood too close to her, sometimes holding her hand, when he wanted the answer to be no. “Are we moving again?”
Now she had to rely on instinct. She wished her husband weren’t thousands of miles away in a different time zone entirely. There were plenty of things she missed when John was deployed—falling asleep next to him, sharing two scoops of butter pecan ice cream in a waffle cone and pretending to fight over the last bite, not having to clean the cat litter, and rubbing away his scratchy kisses. But parenting a teenage boy alone was the hardest, especially now that Zach was a good eight inches taller than she was. She probably still outweighed him but not by much. His scrawny frame was filling out with every pull-up he mastered. He’d started off needing an oversized rubber band to support his body, but now he could do nearly ten.
The soft melody from his phone rang out again. This time, he didn’t look at it.
“Don’t you want to get that?”
“I’m going to shower.”
Stephanie reflected back to that morning. Mostly she was on autopilot, each day very similar to the day preceding it, but she was certain Zach had showered before school. She’d just hung up in his closet the black Pink Floyd T-shirt he was wearing the day before, another item claimed from his father.
When she heard the shower running, she walked down the hall toward the bathroom. He wasn’t humming or playing music. A little farther down the hall, the door to his room was open a smidge. She pushed it farther and walked in. His phone was on his dresser next to a picture of his dad in soft, tan fatigues, standing next to Zach on his first day of kindergarten. Fatigue was the exact right word for how she was feeling. Another frame donned a picture of Zach with three swim medals around his neck, all with blue ribbons. His smile in that picture was especially broad. A nod to happier times.
The phone vibrated, and she glanced at the screen. A call from MS was coming in.
She picked up his phone and guessed at the password: 0414 (his birthday), 1211 (the day of his first Junior Olympics cut), 0224 (her birthday, which made her laugh—he would never pick that), and then 1600 (the SAT score he aimed for). Once upon a time, she wouldn’t have paid his phone bill without access to his password, but now he had his own money and thrived on the independence of her not knowing every single thing about him.
She tried 0313, the day his father left. Of course.
It didn’t look like MS had left a message, and if there were any texts, they’d been deleted. The only trace of MS was a missed call and a pinch in Stephanie’s stomach.
Her friends had told her that her son had that sultry, sulky look that would serve him well as an adult. Like Zac Efron, they would laugh. And those eyes, they would say, so dark and handsome. These women didn’t flirt with Zach or linger too long on a compliment. They were just dissuading her fears that he was too much of a loner.
But now she considered the possibility that a grown adult could be interested in Zach. It wasn’t that far-fetched. A young teacher might only be a few years older than her son. She shuddered. But even a young teacher would have to be twenty-four at best and there had to be professional ethics, lines that wouldn’t be crossed. Why did she always go for the worst-case scenario? This lady could just be checking in on him. She might even be a mother herself. John would tell her to calm down.
But why would she be worried about her son? It was one thing for a mother to have an inkling that something might be brewing. But another adult being concerned could mean real trouble.
John would either say that Stephanie was crazy. Or he’d say that it was probably harmless flirting. Maybe he’d go so far as to joke, “Good for him. She’s probably hot.” But it was 4:00 a.m. in the Middle Eastern desert, so she wouldn’t have the benefit of John’s counsel.
The phone in her hand vibrated again. This time it was a text that read, “Where were you?”
The water in the shower turned off. Panicked, Stephanie dropped the phone. It landed on the carpet. She hurried to the kitchen and turned on the local news. When tired of the high school football updates and the state fair ribbon report, she sat at the kitchen table and opened her laptop. And closed it, convincing herself she was being silly. She washed the dishes and read the mail. With no other cleaning to do, she sent an e-mail to John.
Her curiosity got the best of her, and she logged onto Facebook. Her first attempt was Megan, then Meghan Shilling. Neither search resulted in anyone in Georgia over fifteen. Then she entered the name Margaret Shilling within the town of Columbus, Georgia. The first hit was a beautiful young woman with blond highlights and perfect, square teeth. An honors English teacher at Shaw High School. She’d graduated from the University of Georgia two years prior, making her about twenty-four.
The pinch came back to Stephanie’s stomach. She checked the time. Afghanistan was still nine and a half hours away.
When she heard Zach in the hallway, she closed her laptop.
He came into the kitchen. “Is there anything good to eat?”
She stood up and moved toward the fridge. With one hand on the handle, she said, “So tell me some more about your teacher.”
“Which one?” he answered, without looking at her.
“Why is your English teacher calling you?”
The question made him turn toward her. “How do you know that?”
“Moms know everything, remember?” She said it, hoping he would smile.
“Is there food or not?” His right foot twisted on the linoleum.
“I worry about you . . .”
“Can’t you just let it go?”
Stephanie opened the refrigerator. Her options were limited. Eggs or bagels.
“Omelets. We’re having omelets,” she answered. “Do you want cheese on yours?”
With the fridge still open, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She pulled out the last two eggs and a bag of shredded cheddar and closed the door.
There it was: the fine line she was always afraid to cross. Should she push it or let it go? Zach had certainly become more broody since his father left. She didn’t think he would ever hurt her, but she wasn’t sure she wanted to test that belief. For the past nine months, he’d repeatedly blamed her for moving him in the middle of his junior year, his anger escalating at times. She’d taken him away from his only real friends, his girlfriend, and a potential swimming scholarship. A great house with a pool and gentle winters. They could’ve stayed in California until graduation, he argued, and screamed that she always put his dad’s life first, not even caring about her own. He didn’t understand how everything could hinge on a career, and she didn’t know how to explain that it was more complicated than that. He punched his hand into his fist and walked away. The next morning his swim coach offered to let Zach live with his family until he finished high school.
None of it had been easy. She’d loved the house and the pool, too. She’d made friends. Good friends. When John hinted at retiring there, she’d planted lemon trees in the backyard. She grew roots on an avocado seed in the kitchen window. When he forwarded the e-mail notification for their next move, she threw the seed in the trash.
And now John was on his second deployment since they’d moved to this smallish southern town where folks still gathered at their nana’s house for Sunday dinner after church services and ate homemade biscuits and talked about hunting and SEC football.
When she asked her husband about retiring, he told her his men still needed him.
The next morning, she woke up earlier than usual to go for a run. The air was unexpectedly crisp, and her heart cramped a little. So she mostly walked for about two and a half miles. She loved how the early hours of the morning were filled with nothing. No fighting, no rushing, no overthinking. Just breathing deeply again and again. She felt like lying down on the sidewalk and watching the few clouds in the sky like she did when she was a small child. Imagining how embarrassed Zach would be made her smile. There’d been a time when he would have thought of it himself. Pulled her to the ground and held his breath until she looked up.
When she was finished with her walk, she picked up the newspaper at the end of the driveway. The back tire on the driver’s side of her minivan was flat. A nail was poking out on the top of the tire. Another reason to miss John.
Inside the house Zach was toasting a bagel. He was dressed and texting furiously.
“I’m going to need to use your car today,” she said. “So I’ll drive you to school.”
“But I need it.”
“Your car is a family car, remember? I get first dibs. So unless you have a spare tire hidden somewhere, I’ll drop you off.”
“Yes, what time do you want to leave?”
“Now,” he said.
She let Zach drive to school. He had too many opinions about how fast she drove, what lane she should be in, and what radio station to listen to. She closed her eyes for the ride until he slammed on the brakes, thrusting her forward. Her seat belt snapped tightly against her chest.
“What happened?” she said.
He dropped his cell phone into his lap.
“Were you on your phone? Are you kidding me?” She looked around to make sure he hadn’t hit anything or anyone. It all seemed clear. She wiped her eyes with the tips of her fingers, relaxed her shoulders.
“Who in the hell are you texting with that can’t wait another five minutes?”
“Jesus, Mom, it’s not that big of a deal. Dad does it all the time.”
“Give me your phone.”
“I need it. And besides, you can’t take it when I pay for it.”
“Fine, but put it away until we get to school.” She gripped her seat-belt strap.
Her mother had warned her about this shift in parenting. Up until now, nearly everything her mother had said about being a mother proved to be untrue. Laundry wasn’t a bother, having a child didn’t ruin her life, and her son didn’t hate her. But the pushback from Zach stung.
When they pulled in front of the school, Zach checked his phone again. There didn’t seem to be anything too interesting on the screen. He turned off the car, took the keys out of the ignition, and got out.
“Hey,” Stephanie yelled out the window. “How am I supposed to get home?”
She slid over to the driver’s side.
“Oh, right,” he said. He tossed the keys into the window, but she missed them. They landed on the floorboard on top of a folded piece of paper.
She put the keys back in the ignition and opened the paper. MS it said, with a phone number and a small, doodled, smiley face with long eyelashes.
Stephanie’s heart tightened.
After adding the number to her contacts list, she turned on the news. There had been an explosion on a base in Afghanistan. Twenty American soldiers were dead.
She sent John a message to call her ASAP. She leaned back in the driver’s seat and closed her eyes until she felt the vibration of her phone. John responded with seven heart emojis, their traditional I love you text, a heart for each of the seven days every week they were without each other. There was also a note to check her e-mail. He hated texting anything more than ten words, using e-mail for longer messages. The e-mail said that he was OK but had lost three of his men. Young kids barely older than their own son, one of them had a wife at home. A picture was attached of a young man in uniform, one he’d been telling her about. He had steely, blue-gray eyes and a tender smile and reminded John of their own son.
She called him immediately. “Oh, my God. Thank God, you’re OK. I don’t know what I would do . . .”
“I’m fine. It’s these kids they send out there. They are always in more danger than I am.”
“Well, thank God.”
“Thank Him for what, Stephanie? That I survived and they didn’t? It would have been better if it had been me.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re scaring me.”
“I’m fine. How’s Zach? Is he ready for the SAT? It’s this weekend, right?”
“He’s as ready as he’ll ever be.”
“How’s he doing?”
“It’s hard to tell. The same, I guess.”
They told each other they missed one another and loved one another and were thankful for being able to talk even if it were only a few minutes. He promised to stay safe, be smart. She promised to get the rest it sounded like she needed.
She’d missed the chance to bring up MS. John wanted to hang up because he had letters to write to the parents of these young soldiers. She knew that every time this awful thing happened, he’d painstakingly research what he didn’t already know about each young man as if it were the first time he’d ever written such a thing. As if the words were impossible to find. He’d write as if it were the letter his own mother would receive. They were letters that would have to endure tear stains and countless re-readings. He used 100 percent cotton paper and a flair pen, black, of course. He wrote each letter twice. Sent the best one home to the soldier’s family and kept one in a shoe box on the top shelf of their closet. During their call, Stephanie had been folding and unfolding MS’s note in her hands. When she realized this, she threw it back down on the floorboard in front of the passenger seat.
Stephanie didn’t remember the drive home. A flat tire was a nuisance for sure, and she was worried about her son, but they seemed minuscule worries next to the news that would soon be thrust upon these mothers and wives. She turned off the car.
After calling AAA, she decided to check the pressure in the three other tires on her car. It could save her another fiasco later, and she didn’t want to argue with Zach again about driving him to school.
The tire-pressure gauge wasn’t in her glove box. She went back to Zach’s car and looked in the console between the front seats. There were more notes with MS scrawled on them. Underneath them sat two keycards to a cheap motel on Victory Drive.
If she still lived in California, there’d be several friends she could call about Zach and John, but they were all still sleeping. She thought about calling her mother, but there’d be little empathy there. It would likely turn into a call about what happened at bridge and whose hair was now officially blue. How this would never have happened under her watchful eyes.
The AAA driver pulled into the driveway. Impatiently, she watched him hook up and secure her car.
“Where do you want it towed?” he asked, when he was done.
“To the shop on Fort Benning,” she answered. “Do you mind if we drop off this other car at my son’s school? It’s on the way.”
She parked Zach’s car in his spot and made sure his parking pass was hanging straight on the rearview mirror. Her reflection revealed a tired face and a severe lack of color in her eyes, lips, and cheeks, like she’d taken a shower in bleach. Then a young man that looked like Zach appeared in the background. She turned a bit too quickly to see if it was Zach and got a crick in her neck. Firmly, she rubbed her thumb against the tightening muscles just below her left ear.
When she looked up again, there was no doubt it was Zach. His shoulders were pushed back, no longer slumping, and his hair was out of his eyes. He was getting into the passenger side of a white convertible VW bug. Unfortunately the top was up, so she couldn’t see who was driving.
She got out of the car and rushed over to the tow-truck driver and said, “Please go ahead without me. They know you’re coming.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and actually tipped his Braves baseball cap. Southerners were nothing if not charming.
Then she got back in Zach’s car to follow the white convertible. The driver was very responsible, slowing at every stop sign before stopping and never speeding, making it hard to discreetly follow behind them.
They ended up at the back parking lot of the park. Stephanie watched them in absolute disbelief. The woman with her son was more beautiful than her profile picture let on and taller, too, standing a few inches shorter than Zach. He got out and then walked around to open the door for the driver, extended his hand to help her out of the car. John had taught him that. From the backseat, MS pulled out a blanket. They walked together to a shaded spot at the edge of the park and sat down next to each other.
Stephanie pulled out her phone. Someone had to do something. She needed to call the school. The principal should know about this. The police? John? Someone. How could this be happening?
She should call the police, right? Was it illegal or just wrong? It had to be illegal. Zach was not eighteen yet, not for another couple of months. He was still her baby. She should have known to trust her instincts and pushed harder on Zach for more information the previous night.
John would say to calm down. Nothing has really happened. Zach was skipping school. John would ask if she was sure the girl was a teacher.
He’d want to know if Zach looked happy.
He did look happy. But this wasn’t right.
She pulled up MS’s contact info and pressed Call. When she saw her reach for the phone, she hung up. What did she think she was going to say?
What would Zach say if he saw her number?
MS shrugged her shoulders and put the phone in her back pocket.
Stephanie pulled up Facebook on her phone. Typed in Margaret Shilling. Columbus, Georgia. There was no doubt that this was who was with her son. Under relationship status, nothing had been selected.
Stephanie scrolled over to her photos. There Meg Shilling stood in a plain wedding dress that looked more like a slip than anything else. She stood on the side of a mountain dusted with snow. Standing with her was a handsome soldier in a white uniform. Her simple bouquet was made only of daisies, wrapped in sheer white fabric. She’d chosen no veil but instead a headband made of loosely braided ribbons in peach, cream, a baby blue.
Then a picture of what looked like her mother and father on either side of her, their arms wrapped around her waist. Her father, in dress blues, was kissing her on top of the head. She leaned into him.
Stephanie looked up at the woman sitting with her son. MS brushed something from Zach’s mouth. She looked directly into Zach’s eyes and held his gaze for a couple of seconds. Stephanie felt nauseous.
She’s married to a soldier. What the hell is going on?
Zach wrapped his arm around MS’s shoulder. Stephanie shuddered.
Stephanie scrolled through MS’s page looking for pictures of small children. Or swing sets or toys.
The next picture featured a flag folded into a triangle and held by two young female hands that were mirrored by two white-gloved hands. A handing over of loss.
Stephanie imagined the words she’d heard too many times:
On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States military, and a grateful nation . . .
Stephanie leaned back in her seat and rolled down the window. Sweet Jesus. It was more layered than a wedding cake.
The next picture captured three people from the back, two women dressed in black, and a man in dress blues. In front of them a casket was being lowered into a grave. Their arms wrapped around each other’s waists once again. The same young hands that had received the flag clenched the back of the dark-blue uniform. The hand in the photo was blurred: it must have been shaking.
The tightness in Stephanie’s neck returned. Through the front windshield, Stephanie could see that Zach and MS were unfolding a blanket, setting out what looked like a picnic, and sharing sips from a water bottle. As her son talked to this woman, his entire face lit up. She’d almost forgotten his deep, easy smile.
John always talked about grace in his letters. It was a thin veil that had the power to guide widows and mothers of loss through the impossible. That enabled those in mourning to breathe again, believe again.
Across the world, her husband drafted a letter to a mother and a wife to share the horrific news that the man they both loved had been killed. John had promised her that he would never use the words “ultimate sacrifice” in such a letter. Sacrifice implied there was a choice. That someone was willing to give someone up forever to an enemy they would never see, to a brutal battle their loved one’s death could not end.
Zach leaned back onto the blanket, stretched fully out. MS lay beside him. He played with the ends of her hair. Stephanie now felt like an intruder in her own son’s life.
Maybe this could be OK. Zach would leave for college soon. This would be a blip in his timeline. She watched Zach and MS and wondered mostly if they both didn’t deserve a little happiness, if they had already lost enough by the sacrifices they did not choose. If there wasn’t room for grace. Stephanie backed the car out of the parking lot.
On the dash, her cell phone vibrated with the words John rarely said out loud: I love you. In a few months, Zach would be away at college. With any luck, MS would be a memory. His happiness, too, would dim and retreat, but for now it was real.