Heather Lawrence lives alone in a townhouse on Long Island. Her husband died when the towers came down. Her only son Paul was a boy then, but now he is eighteen and enlisted in the Marines. Now he is in Afghanistan somewhere, searching for justice in the desert.
Before he left, Paul called his mother to say he loves her and to promise to be careful. He also wanted to give her something, a website address.
“Just write this down,” Paul said.
“What is this for?” Heather asked, suspicion in her voice.
“Ma, it’s great. It’s this online support group. Families and friends, you know. To stay in touch. In case you ever have questions or want someone to talk to.”
“I don’t think I have anything to say to these people, Paul.”
“Just—Ma, please. Are you writing this down? Here, I’ll read it out again.”
Heather sighed as she wrote down the website on the back of a pink post-it note.
“Paul,” she said. “I’d rather you weren’t going.”
“I’d rather a lot of things, Ma,” Paul said. “For one thing, I’d rather you were proud of me instead of just angry all the time.”
“I am proud of you,” Heather said, her voice nearly a whisper. She folded the note so the sticky tab held the web address inside and tucked it into her wallet.
In the six months Paul has been gone, Heather has not retrieved the post-it note from her wallet once. She has had no questions, and has felt no need to discuss her son’s deployment with strangers on the internet. Each morning Paul has been gone has been like each morning before: Heather wakes up and makes a pot of coffee, pours out a cup, and tips the rest into a thermos she takes with her to the bank, where she works as an account specialist. The bank is a good fit for Heather because in this office there are many 9/11 widows like her, some also with sons who have gone off to war, and so there is a common interest in keeping the conversation to the weather. When the work day is done, Heather comes home, cooks for one, then takes a glass of wine to her bedroom, where she reads until she falls asleep.
One afternoon this rhythm is interrupted when Heather answers a call at work, and the man on the line explains that he is a casualty assistance calls officer. The first thing he wants her to know is that Paul is alive. The second thing he wants her to know is that Paul’s vehicle was struck by an IED and he has been taken to a hospital in Germany, where doctors are treating his burns but don’t expect to save his leg. The third thing, the thing the officer doesn’t say, is that Paul will be different in his mind now, not just his body.
At home that night, Heather paces, trying to shake the hard rock out of her chest, to settle her churning stomach and to steady her breathing. She takes the pink post-it out of her wallet and unfolds it. She opens her laptop and Paul’s voice fills her ears as she keys in the website address.
Heather spends the better part of an hour just reading, absorbing the reverse chronology of postings, a voyeur to the suffering and anxieties of others. It has not occurred to her until now, witnessing these discussion threads, to tally and tabulate her son’s correspondences, the quantity and frequency of his calls, the rate of mail sent or received.
Peg Hughes: Hey, anybody out there heard if the guys made it to Marjah yet?
Suze Feldman: PLEASE REMEMBER OPSEC. IT IS GOOD TO HEAR FROM OUR MEN BUT IF YOU POST ANYTHING ABOUT TIME FRAMES OR REPORTS OF MOVEMENT YOUR POST WILL BE DELETED.
Janice Dickerson: Thanks for the reminder, Suze. Gah it’s hard enough as it is without crazy bitches running around saying things that could get our marines hurt or killed!
Suze Feldman: EXACTLY, JANICE. WE MUST ALWAYS REMEMBER OPSEC. OUR MEN’S LIVES ARE ON THE LINE!
Carol Branch: Did something happen? Is there news? I haven’t heard from my guy in weeks!
Janice Dickerson: No everything is fine.
Heather Lawrence: Well no everything is not fine, there is a war and our sons are in danger.
Janice Dickerson: Heather are you OK? I am happy to talk if u want to message me!
Carol Branch: Have they gotten to Marjah yet?
Patricia Ingraham: everyone just shut up, i will hunt you down if something you post puts our sons and husbands in harm’s way remember KEYSTROKES KILL
Janice Dickerson: AMEN PATRICIA
Patricia Ingraham: THIS ANGRY MARINE MOM WILL GET YOU IF YOU POST ANYTHING YOU SHOULDN’T
Carol Branch: Sorry!!! But has anyone heard from their marine lately???
Suze Feldman: I HAVE EXPLAINED THIS A HUNDRED TIMES BUT OK HERE GOES AGAIN. OPSEC MEANS DO NOT POST ANY INFO THAT WILL BRING HARM TO OUR MARINES. ESPECIALLY DATES OR LOCATIONS OR ANYTHING ABOUT THE MARINES MOVEMENT. NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE YOU NEVER KNOW WHO IS WATCHING!!!
Erica Mitchell: Evil is real, GOD BLESS OUR MARINES AND GOD BLESS THE USA!!!
Brittany Jones: I got a call about a week ago, Carol, but haven’t heard anything else since…sorry!
Patricia Ingraham: you are lucky, brittany, it has been nearly 2 weeks for me!
Janice Dickerson: I think there is only one sat phone going around, ladies…be patient!
Erica Mitchell: GOD BLESS THE USA! SEMPER FIDELIS! GOD BLESS OUR MARINES!
Patricia Ingraham: God bless YOU, erica!
Suze Feldman loads her two kids, ages one and three, into a double stroller and sets out for an early morning run. She’s four months pregnant with the next one, and it’s a toss-up whether Ryan will be home in time for the birth. It would be his first.
But Suze doesn’t complain. She did, after all, know what she was signing up for. Her daddy was a marine, as was her daddy’s daddy, and now she is married to a marine herself. This is the life she wanted.
During a deployment, Suze and Ryan are like the Kennedys. The men look to Ryan for confidence and inspiration, and the women look to Suze to run the battalion’s social scene, just like her momma and her momma’s momma before her did.
Suze likes being the one to know what sort of wine the battalion commander prefers, the one women ask what to wear to a promotion ceremony or what to bring to the battalion picnic. When the Family Readiness Officer came looking for a volunteer to manage the “Friends of the Battalion” message board, all gazes shifted toward Suze, who shrugged and smiled and said, “I’d love to.”
Suze reigns over the “Friends of the Battalion” message board like it is a homecoming court and she’s been voted queen. It is a role she takes seriously: As queen, it is her duty to protect her subjects—from themselves, if need be. The battalion commander made it clear at the deployment briefing that all must work together, the men in the field and the wives in the home, to uphold operational security. IEDs and enemy fire aside, the BC’s wife warned Suze, the greatest danger to Ryan and his men often lies at home, with the women. The women who, despite repeated Family Briefings on the subject, despite emails and phone trees and poster campaigns, continue to blow the men’s cover on social media.
Sarah Worth: Hey Suze, do you have any links to press coverage of last week’s events?
Carol Branch: wait what happened???
Suze Feldman: LAST WEEK A MARINE IN THE BATTALLION WAS TRAPPED IN HIS VEHICLE AFTER AN IED STRIKE. I THINK THERE WAS SOMETHING ON CNN. HOLD ON LET ME FIND IT.
Patricia Ingraham: praying for all our marines!!!
Carol Branch: Is he ok? Do we know who it is? Is it a lance corporal? My hubby is a lance corporal!
Heather Lawrence: It is my son. He is a corporal. They are trying to save his leg. He will be ok.
Erica Mitchell: GOD BLESS YOU HEATHER! GOD BLESS YOUR SON. HE IS BRAVE AND WE CAN’T WAIT TIL HE IS HOME SAFE. SEMPER FI!
Janice Dickerson: We are here for you, Heather!
Suze Feldman: HEATHER YOU AND YOUR SON ARE BRAVE AMERICANS. WE ARE ALL PRAYING FOR YOU.
Mary Evans: I have a pic of my boyfriend with a marine last name Edgerton, if this is your loved one message me and I will send!
Mary Evans: oops is it ok I said the name?!
Suze Feldman: MARY YOU ARE FINE.
Mary Evans: ok just making sure, what with opsec and all!
Suze Feldman: OPSEC MEANS DO NOT POST ANY DATES ABOUT FLIGHT WINDOWS OR TROOP MOVEMENT. PERIOD. COME ON PEOPLE THIS IS NOT HARD.
Peg Hughes closes her laptop and sits on the couch in the empty two-level townhouse, listening. Through the wall behind her, a baby is crying. Has been crying. The mother’s voice is tired and has lost all of its saccharine soothing power. The couch faces the television, which mutes most of the sounds that come through the wall behind it. It’s too bad, because these are better sounds. Sometimes Peg turns off the television and crawls behind it to press her ear against the cool painted drywall. Through this wall, she often hears the voices of a man and a woman. Sometimes she hears them cooking together—pots and pans clattering, water running in the sink, the crisp chop-chop-chop of a sharp knife. Sometimes even the smells come through, maybe an aromatic curry or the thick, sweet scent of something garlic-y and wine-roasted coming out of the oven. Peg wishes there were a way to rearrange the furniture so the television masks the baby sounds and lets in the cooking-couple sounds, but the cable box is where it is.
Everything Peg stares at from her perch on the couch is yellow. The walls are a shade of yellow that is too bright to be called pastel but too pale to resemble egg yolk. When Adam was home, the yellow paint was a cheery color that warmed the place. With Adam gone, the yellow wall color makes her think of Adam’s blond hair. It drapes her days with reminders of him. All of Adam’s hair is blond—the short, buzzed tufts of it on his head, the hairs on his arms and chest, even his pubic hairs are light and soft. Adam’s blond eyebrows and blond eyelashes frame bright, clear eyes that are whatever shade of blue the sky is that day. His skin is fair. When he wasn’t looking, Peg shoved three bottles, sealed in zip lock bags and duct tape, of SPF 75 sunscreen into his sea-bag.
Peg sits on the couch and waits to hear from Adam that the marines are ready to leave Camp Leatherneck and enter Marjah. She sleeps with her phone on her chest. This call, when it comes, will be the last for a month or more, Adam has warned her; it takes a long time to walk on foot, uninvited, into a hostile, isolated village. In the sequence of “clear, hold, build” that Peg has heard so much about since the president announced on national television he was sending her husband in a surge of marines to Afghanistan, it is the “clear” part, the most dangerous part, that is Adam’s mission. Other battalions will come later to do the rest, like shift work: clock in, then seven months later, clock out.
In the kitchen, a fruit fly lands on Peg’s bare shoulder, raising the flesh beneath its touch. The fly hovers near the trash can, which seems always only half full now that Adam is gone. Peg cooks infrequently now, often eating out, alone or with girlfriends, then microwaving the leftovers. What little food stuff she throws out just sits there, decomposing in the midsection of the can.
Peg checks her phone. No missed calls. She flips her laptop back open, and the “Friends of the Battalion” webpage refreshes.
Carol Branch: Got a call this morning!!!
Janice Dickerson: oh carol that is wonderful!
Carol Branch: We were disconnected 4 times but it was so great. So good to hear his voice! I hope everyone has a great week!
Janice Dickerson: good things come to those who wait!
Erica Mitchell: PRAISE GOD FOR OUR MARINES. PRAY THEY ALL COME HOME SAFELY.
Sarah Worth: Anyone have pics of alpha co?
Patricia Ingraham: I’m sure there will be lots of press when they get to Marjah.
Suze Feldman: JUST HEARD FROM THE FRO THAT ANOTHER MARINE HAS BEEN INJURED. THE NAME HAS NOT BEEN RELEASED BUT PLEASE DON’T PANIC. MORE INFO TO COME.
Brittany Jones: whaaaa???
Erica Mitchell: EVIL IS REAL AND WALKS THE EARTH. PRAY FOR OUR MARINES.
Janice Dickerson: Let us know the name when you can, we will add him to our church prayer list.
Peg Hughes: you guys are seriously freaking me out
Suze Feldman: ALWAYS REMEMBER OPSEC PEOPLE!
Mary Evans can’t wait to graduate from high school. Just a few months to go, and all this waiting and wondering will be over, she is sure of it. She wonders how he will do it: Will he pull her aside privately, maybe after a nice dinner—maybe during the dinner, a ring in her fortune cookie like in that movie they saw? — or will he make a big, splashy scene, getting down on one knee at a ball game, or at her graduation party? Jake could go either way, Mary thinks, and she smiles to herself. That’s the great thing about Jake. It is so exciting how unpredictable he can be.
At the last bell, Mary races to her locker to check her phone—no missed calls, what a relief. She hopes Jake will call soon. She wants to know what he is missing most over there, so she can prepare a feast for him when he comes home. Her mother is teaching her how to cook, and Jake’s mother has given her some recipes for Jake’s favorite dishes. She’s not coughing up the recipe for her famous pineapple upside-down cake, though—Jake’s favorite of all his favorites. But Mary isn’t discouraged. Once she is Jake’s wife, she is sure his mother will not only give her the recipe, but teach her how to make it, too.
Out in the parking lot, Mary walks toward her car. It’s easy to spot because she’s plastered the bumper with yellow ribbons and stickers that say things like “USMC Sweetheart” and “Half my heart is in Afghanistan.” She wears T-shirts and sweaters in a rainbow of colors that scream USMC across her chest, and her gym shorts and her yoga pants all have USMC scrawled across her ass. Jake says it’s sexy, and she likes the way he grabs at the lettering on her clothes when they make out.
Mary drives to the grocery store. Her mother doesn’t get off work until 5, so Mary has taken to doing the shopping. Her father is teaching her how to manage money. He helped her open a checking account, and he deposits the week’s grocery money there for her to use.
In the produce aisle, Mary picks up a white onion, then a yellow one, then a red one, and realizes she doesn’t know which one to get for the meatloaf her mother is going to teach her to make this weekend. She pulls her phone out of her jeans pocket and dials her mother’s office.
“Mom, what kind of onion did you say we needed for the meatloaf?”
A series of staccato beeps garbles her mother’s reply. Mary looks down and sees the familiar 808 area code for the Hawaii-based satellite phone her boyfriend uses to call home.
“Mom wait Jake is calling!”
“Oh, go, take it, I love—”
Mary clicks over to pick up Jake’s call.
“Jake! Oh my gosh, Jake, hi! Is that you? Jake?”
“I’m so sorry sweetheart,” her mother’s voice answers. “It’s just me.”
“Oh.” Mary frowns at her phone screen. She tries again to transfer the call. “Hello?”
“Still just me.”
Mary’s eyes pinch shut as she fights the distortion creeping over her face, the corners of her mouth tugging uncontrollably downward. “Oh Momma,” she says, and holds up her shopping list to hide her flushed cheeks.
“Honey, why don’t you just head home now,” her mother says. “Just leave the cart and head home. We can go to the store together later, when I get home from work.”
Mary sniffs, dabs her eyes. “No,” she says. “I’m fine.” She straightens her shoulders. “I can do this. Jake would want me to be strong.”
“Honey, I’m sure he’ll call again soon. I’m so sorry. I feel just awful.”
“It’s not your fault, Mom. Jake says the sat phones aren’t very reliable. The calls do drop a lot when we talk. But listen, I should probably go, in case he calls back.”
“Okay sweetie, but really—”
Mary sighs. “I’m okay, Mom. But real quick—which onion did you say?”
Mary’s usually smiling face is blank as she pushes the cart up and down the aisles. She has to backtrack often to grab something off a shelf she’s already walked by, so the shopping takes longer than usual. The phone sits in the cart basket—where Jake’s child one day will sit, Mary thinks—and she checks it again. Four bars, full battery. No missed calls.
Jake enlisted when he graduated. Mary had been afraid he’d leave right away, but they had that whole summer together. It was the best summer of Mary’s life. She saw Jake every day, and they drove to the beach every weekend. When Mary’s junior year began, Jake promised they wouldn’t break up, and now Mary is sure they never will. It is hard, though, being apart this much. It wasn’t so bad while Jake was at Parris Island, just a four-hour drive that made it possible to visit him on weekends. But when he shipped up to Camp Geiger, more than eight hours away, Mary and Jake became reliant on their phones to stay in touch because her mother still won’t let her spend the night. This isn’t so different from that, Mary thinks. Well—except that now, the calls only go one way. She used to be able to leave little voicemails for him on his cell phone. Now, all she can do is wait to hear from him. But don’t they say that good things come to those who wait?
All the checkout lanes have a line, so Mary picks one and waits. She scans the magazines and tabloids that line the aisle. A bridal magazine catches her eye. She stares at it for a moment, then smiles and puts it in her cart.
Heather Lawrence: Having a tough day. Just heard from my son, they had to take his leg after all.
Patricia Ingraham: Praying so hard for you, Heather! Life is so fragile, our boys are just trying to help but instead get shot at or blown up
Janice Dickerson: Heather, we are here for you! So sad about your son 🙁
Mary Evans: praying for you, heather!
Mary Evans: i am having a bad day too
Mary Evans: my marine called but I was on the phone with my mom and when I tried to switch the calls we were disconnected! he didn’t call back 🙁 hope he is ok!
Janice Dickerson: oh boo Mary, that sucks! I am sure he will call again soon
Mary Evans: yeah me too my mom feels sooooo bad!
Erica Mitchell: GOD SAVE US FROM THIS EVIL. GOD BLESS AMERICA. SEMPER FIDELIS.
Brittany Jones: I tried to get on this page earlier today, it said it was shut down? Glad it’s back! You all are my marine family!
Suze Feldman: WELL THAT IS WHAT HAPPENS WHEN PEOPLE DON’T FOLLOW OPSEC, THEY RUIN IT FOR EVERYONE AND ENDANGER OUR MARINES. EVERYONE STOP POSTING ABOUT WHEN THE MARJAH ATTACK WILL LAUNCH!!! WHAT IS SO HARD ABOUT THAT. IF WE CANNOT FOLLOW OPSEC I WILL BE FORCED TO TAKE DOWN THIS WALL.
Peg Hughes: okay, reagan…
Suze Feldman: NOT FUNNY! OPSEC IS SERIOUS PEOPLE. GET WITH THE FUCKING PROGRAM OR GET LOST.
Patricia Ingraham: Suze is making an important point! Remember, KEYSTROKES KILL
Carol Branch: Suze thanks for all you do to keep our marines safe! Semper fi!
Sarah Worth: Yeah can we just block the opsec violators instead of disabling the whole site? Love my marine family!!!
Suze Feldman: I AM DOING MY BEST BUT SOME PEOPLE ARE GOING TO RUIN THIS FOR EVERYONE. OPSEC OPSEC OPSEC PEOPLE!!!!
Phone calls from the CACO become so disruptive to Heather’s routine that she takes a few days off work. At home, she stays in her bed, the blankets wrapped around her, reading the message boards online and waiting for the phone to ring. The CACO is well mannered but seems unsure at times how much to say to Heather about her son’s injuries, about the blood that spilled from his ears when the bomb exploded, about the shrapnel that tore through his skin, about the collapsed steering wheel that pinned him inside the Humvee, about the flames that surrounded him as the engine burned out. About the marine who was fatally shot by enemy fire while pulling Paul to safety.
“There must be someone who can come to be with you during this time,” the CACO keeps saying.
“I just want to see my son,” Heather says.
One evening Heather lies in bed, staring at the words in a book she holds open but doesn’t read, when the phone rings.
“I guess you’ve heard about my little mishap,” Paul says.
Heather yelps, giving away her surprise and relief to hear her son’s voice. She is surprised by how many questions there are, how many things she wants to know. Things like, is he okay. Is he in pain. What does he remember about what happened. How much of his leg is gone. Are there scars on his face. How well did he know the marine who died saving his life. Did that marine have a family, too. When is he coming home. Heather asks the first question but leaves the rest unspoken, so that Paul’s voice is the one bouncing off a satellite dish, not hers.
“I’m fine, Ma, I’m fine,” he says, and describes to her his hospital room and the medical staff. Paul talks and talks and tries to make light of things, especially the leg he lost. “You know Ma, I’d been thinking I might lose some weight out here, but this isn’t quite how I meant to go about it,” he says.
“Don’t joke,” Heather scolds, and rubs her right leg, gripping it, digging her nails into its flesh so she can feel that it is there.
“Listen, Ma,” Paul says, “Are you taking care of yourself? Sounds to me like the CACO’s more worried about you than he is about me. Did you go to that site, Ma?”
“I’m doing just fine,” Heather says. “Worried to death about you, but that’s nothing new.”
“You might like it, Ma, the site,” Paul says. He coughs, says he has to go now, says he loves her, says he will be home soon.
After she hangs up the phone, Heather lies back in bed and tries to imagine her son without a leg, with burns on his skin, and scars, she imagines, in his mind. She glances over at the message board on her computer screen, refreshing every minute with new posts from concerned and hopeful wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters. It surprises Heather, who is not religious, how many of them invoke God, and she wonders how they can find it so easy to fit God into this equation of war. Heather types out the phrase, “My son is coming home,” but deletes it without posting. She folds the laptop closed. She is surprised to feel something like dread mixing in with her relief that Paul will be home soon. A different Paul will be home soon, she thinks. She knows she will love him just the same, but there is something different now in that, too. She places the laptop on her nightstand and turns off the lamp. In the darkness she composes sentences she can never release from her fingertips, like My son is coming home and I’m afraid, but who would say such a thing?
Liz Egan teaches writing and directs the writing center at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. She holds an MFA in fiction from George Mason University, and is co-editor of Gazing Grain Press, an inclusive feminist chapbook press.