October 1990—Washington, DC
It rained for three days.
This was not the soft, slow soak that twelve-year-old Frankie Byrne knew. Rain in Washington, DC, was a wall of cold liquid steel flooding the streets with rushing litter-filled water that could sweep a pedestrian off her feet if she didn’t hang on to her father’s hand. It swamped the Mall and ruined shoes bought especially for the meeting with President and Mrs. George Herbert Walker Bush.
Frankie loved it.
Her brother, Harry, was still in a wheelchair then, and the part of his trousers where his legs should have been was soaked. Frankie would have been in a terrible mood if she were the one who’d had her legs amputated at the knee, but Harry never complained about anything.
The limo heater blew hot air, and before they’d driven a block Frankie wanted to shed her coat—pale blue wool and, like her shoes, bought for the special occasion. She would feel more comfortable in soccer shorts or sweats and athletic shoes, but she was Brigadier General Harlan Byrne’s daughter and knew what was required of her. Every night since they checked into the Hilton Hotel, she had practiced balancing a book on her head while walking across the room she and Harry shared. She wobbled on the kitten heels as if they were three-inch stilettos. He said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen, better than Seinfeld.
She began to unbutton her coat. Her mother shook her head.
“We could cook a chicken in here.”
“That’s enough, Francine.” When her father used his command voice, there was no point arguing.
She was too excited to sit still, but her parents and Harry were solemn as pallbearers. The General’s back was so straight it hurt her own to look at him, but when she did she automatically tucked in her stomach and dropped her shoulders down and back an inch or two. She composed her face into an expression that she hoped matched her father’s in sobriety.
More than anything she wanted the General to be proud of her, and if that meant she couldn’t crack a smile from now until taps, she would manage somehow. Sitting straight and strong, her father looked magnificent in his Marine Corps dress uniform with the stars and bars polished and the Purple Heart ribbons lined up perfectly. He’d been shot twice in Vietnam, once in the leg and once in the shoulder. He rescued three of his Marines from the VC and kept them all alive in a hole in the ground until a helo found them. Another time he was hit with shrapnel; he had a five-inch scar under his shoulder blade. He’d been bitten by some kind of snake too, a death-on-speed adder, and almost died, but no one gave out medals or ribbons for a snakebite.
The General had put his life on the line for his Marines and for America and that’s why he and his family had been invited to Washington. The president had declared a special day to honor the country’s heroes.
Frankie had been revved up and practically manic (her mother’s word) since they landed at Dulles International two days earlier. She had worn herself out enjoying all the things there were to see and do in the capital, and at night there had been adult parties where she was on her best behavior. Being Harlan Byrne’s daughter, she was accustomed to meeting important people in the government and military. The year before General Powell and his wife had come to dinner. Without knowing any details, Frankie knew that her father’s opinion on military matters was valued although he had long been retired.
“Stop complaining. It’s only a few more blocks.”
“I can smell you,” Harry taunted. “Chicken fricassee.”
She aimed a kick at him and hit car upholstery where his shins used to be. Her cheeks blazed, but he only smiled and shrugged and that made her even more ashamed.
Harry was five years older than she and ordered her around as if she were a grunt; plus he teased her, promising that if she’d do his chores he would give her half of one of his cinnamon rolls. And not always the smallest half either. There was nothing stingy about Harry. And when Frankie’s life got sharky which it did whenever the General went after her for grades or table manners or not trying hard enough in sports, Harry was always there like a rock in the surf she could scramble up on and feel safe. It was Harry who told her she was a natural athlete and to be glad she was the tallest girl in the seventh grade at Arcadia School.
Harry had been accepted for Annapolis before his accident, slated to be a Marine like their father and every Byrne before him going back to the War of Independence. In the General’s office there was a display case holding the medals and ribbons he had inherited from his forebears. Frankie had watched his face when he learned that Harry would never serve. Not a muscle twitched to show how much this grieved him, but Frankie knew it just about broke his heart.
Amazingly Harry had quickly adjusted to his disability. Frankie’s suspicion that he was relieved to escape military duty was confirmed when he told her he had always wanted to be a pediatrician and now he could be. She was incredulous.
Until his accident he had never told anyone that his ambition was to go to Africa and work with Doctors Without Borders or to open a clinic for poor children right in San Diego. His aspirations and ambitions had been pipe dreams, subordinate to the General’s determination that he would distinguish himself as a Marine Corps officer.
Harry had been breaking school rules when he took a shortcut through the parking lot at Cathedral Boys’ High. It was spring and the track coach was a bear for punctuality, but Harry was a senior with girls and graduation on his mind. He wasn’t paying attention and neither, as it happened, was Mr. Penniman, one of the history teachers. He’d had trouble starting his ancient VW van, had to play the clutch just so. One minute there was no one in his rearview mirror and the next there was a thump and Harry Byrne went down.
The doctors at Scripps Hospital had tried to save his legs but they were a mess, and although Harry was young, they would never mend properly. Frankie was with her parents when the doctor told them, “We’re going to have to take them. At the knee.” She remembered how her father’s jaw set. Barely moving his lips, he said, “Do it.”
For a while Frankie was angry at Harry for being late for track, for not seeing the old VW van, for never really wanting to be a Marine. He seemed like a traitor to the Byrne family, the corps, and the General in particular.
The guard at the White House gate held a black umbrella over his head as he talked to the limo driver, then saluted the General and waved them up the circular drive to the entrance. At the entrance there were more umbrellas and Frankie’s shoes got wetter, but the welcoming committee at the White House knew how to handle Harry’s chair and had him inside before the rest of them.
“Welcome to my humble home,” her brother whispered and swept his arm in an arc, grinning like the Wonderland cat.
Everywhere she looked there were sober-faced men in uniforms and suits, buds stuck in their ears. A Marine who looked like Bon Jovi offered her his arm, and she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow though she was able to walk just fine in her little heels. She tried not to hear them squishing. The family was escorted down a long hall lined with paintings and mirrors framed in gold and through a wide doorway into a lovely room with windows facing the White House lawn. They were seated in the front row of about twenty comfortably padded chairs.
The room filled with other men in military uniforms from all the services. Some came alone, others had wives and children with them. Frankie hoped she didn’t look as dorky and awestruck as the other kids did. After a little waiting time, a disembodied voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States,” and everyone stood and there was more saluting and then the leader of the free world walked in and stood about six feet from Frankie. She observed how pink his skin was and that he had a Band-Aid on his left thumb, as if he’d chewed on a hangnail and made it bleed.
The president called the General to the front of the room and shook his hand hard, holding it in both of his while he looked him straight in the eye. He made a speech about the General’s heroism, his humility, and his service to the country since he had retired and he said the nation was grateful and proud. Through it all the General stood as still as the officer Frankie had seen the day before, guarding the tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. Composed, and in her eyes, radiant.
“Harlan Byrne,” the president said, “you are a great American hero.”
Everyone in the room clapped enthusiastically and then another hero came forward, but the General stayed beside President Bush. Thirty minutes later there were six men on the dais, three on either side of the president. Flashbulbs reflected off every mirrored and polished surface in the beautiful room. Frankie wanted to be a Marine standing beside the president in a dress uniform, wanted to be covered with ribbons and medals.
At the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Bush came in wearing a wine-red dress with a lace collar and shoes with heels like Frankie’s. The General introduced his family to the first couple.
The president shook Harry’s hand. “We heard about your accident, son, and Mrs. Bush and I are so very sorry. A terrible thing to happen. Terrible. I understand you’ve decided on a career in medicine.”
“I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful doctor,” Mrs. Bush
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Whatever he does,” the president said, “he’ll make you proud, General Byrne.”
Frankie glanced at the General, though she did not really expect his expression to show his feelings. In Ms. Hoffman’s English class she had learned the word inscrutable. No other word described her father as well. Without looking at Harry, she knew what he was thinking. They both knew he could win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, but the General wouldn’t be as proud as if he wore the uniform of the Marine Corps.
“Mr. President, may I present my daughter, Francine?”
Mrs. Bush said something about soccer.
“Yes, ma’am,” Frankie wasn’t quite sure what she was agreeing to. She stood up straighter and looked right over Barbara Bush’s head, out the window to where the lawn stretched away from the house and the rain fell in silver chains.
“And I understand you have a beautiful singing voice.”
Mrs. Bush had a friendly way about her. Talking to her, Frankie relaxed and it seemed natural to tell her about the Bach cantata the All Souls’ choir was rehearsing.
There were more questions and she must have said and done the right thing because as they all filed into the dining room for a fancy lunch, her mother whispered, “I’m very proud of you, Frankie.”
The praise would have meant more coming from her father.
2001 to 2007—San Diego, California
On September 11, 2001, when terrorists attacked the United States, Frankie and Rick Tennyson had been married sixteen months and had a daughter named Glory and an Irish setter named Flame. When it became clear that American forces would be going back to Iraq for the second time in ten years, she knew what she had to do.
She had Glory with her in the stroller, and the recruiter asked three times, was she sure.
She made her announcement at a family dinner.
Harry spoke first. “Shit. You’re kidding, please say you’re kidding.”
Her mother didn’t bother telling him not to swear at dinner. She sat back and covered her mouth with her table napkin as tears welled in her eyes. “What on earth possessed you?” She pushed her chair back and fled into the kitchen.
“Is this some kind of a joke, Francine? Because if it is...”
The General knew it wasn’t a joke. “Why in God’s name would you do such a thing?”
She had been prepared for their shock and initial upset.
“I want to serve our country, sir.”
“What about your family?”
“You’ve got a finance degree,” Rick said, sounding confused. “You work in a bank.”
Her sister-in-law, Gaby, asked, “Is it final?”
“I leave for Quantico in six weeks.” First there would be officer’s training and then months and months of Basic, what she knew would be the most physically and psychologically grueling months of her life. “After that, I don’t know where they’ll send me.”
“They’ll send you goddamn nowhere!” the General roared.
Gaby sighed and reached for Rick’s hand in sympathy.
“I can’t believe you’d do this. What about our daughter?”
Everyone seated at the table looked at the baby in the high chair. Glory stopped stirring her peas into her mashed potatoes and looked back at them.
“Answer your husband, Francine. What about your daughter? I can understand a man enlisting, but a wife and mother? This is wrong. Very wrong. Unnatural.”
Until the General used the word unnatural Frankie had not understood the depth and breadth and steel of his opposition to women serving in the Marine Corps. This was more than the shock and anger she had expected. It was worse than disapproval. As if an iron gate had dropped between them, she felt herself shut out of her father’s heart.
Later Frankie and Rick put Glory to bed together as they always did, Frankie sang to her, and the baby’s eyes never left her face.
Across the crib Rick interrupted. “You only got pregnant to please me. You never wanted her.”
“I wanted to wait.”
Rick was ten years older than she and had felt the need to hurry. Probably because of this, he had taken to fatherhood immediately; but until Glory was almost a year old Frankie had only gone through the motions. Accustomed to being good at everything she committed to, she was determined to master the skills of a good mother in much the same way she had learned to block and kick a soccer ball, by repetition and an effort of will.
She had felt foolish making conversation with a baby who didn’t understand a word, but she did as all the books said she should, pointing out and naming things until her conversational skills deteriorated to the simplest sentences, just nouns and verbs with a modifier tossed in when she was inspired. She read all the recommended childcare books and followed all the prescriptions for a happy healthy baby. Eventually and without Frankie noticing how it happened—by hourly, daily increments, she supposed—the love had come. Now, like Rick and the rest of the family, she was completely smitten with Glory, who was certainly the brightest and prettiest baby who had ever lived.
“You wanted a baby and I wanted you to be happy,” Frankie said. “I love her now. Isn’t that what matters?”
Glory followed the conversation, her sleepy eyes looking back and forth between her mother and father.
“Anyway, I’m doing it for her.”
“That is such a load of crap.” Glory’s eyes opened wider.
“How can you even say it? You should be gagging on the words.”
“Rick, there were children on those planes. Glory could have been one of them.”
He exhaled in disgust.
Rick was doing fast and furious sit-ups on the far side of the bed, his toes tucked under the chest of drawers. He jumped to his feet and faced her. The tendons in his neck stood out like the roots of an old tree.
“Just tell me why.”
“Don’t poke your finger at me.”
“I want to hear the truth. No more bullshit.”
“I’m not lying.”
“Frankie, don’t you know yourself better than that? Have you so little insight?”
He used his condescending, I’ve- lived-longer-and-know-more-than-you voice, and her desire to cooperate froze.
“I told you. I’m doing it for her.”
“The hell you are. You’re doing it because you’re a twenty-five-year-old woman who’s still trying to get her father to love her.”
On the soccer field if someone elbowed Frankie out of the referee’s line of sight, she waited for the right moment and got her back. In games and life, the impulse to retaliate came to her as naturally as breathing. But this was Rick and part of her understood his anger and even sympathized with it. If their positions had been reversed, she too would be confused and heated; however, she would eventually accept his decision to serve and defend because she had been raised to believe that this was what military families did when the country was threatened.
“It would be different,” she said from the closet doorway, “if it were you who wanted to go.”
“But it’s not me, Frankie. It’s you, the mother of my daughter.”
“I’m a woman, so I don’t get to do what my conscience tells me? There has to be some deep dark Freudian explanation?”
“Shall we pursue that idea? Do you think you’re up for that conversation?”
She ignored his challenge. “This war is about who we are as a nation.”
“Stop.” He held up his hand. “If we’re going to talk about this, you have to do one thing for me. Stop the spin. Stick to the truth. You enlisted because you’re the General’s daughter and you’ll do anything, even leave your family to fight in some godforsaken desert, just to hear him say you’re a good girl and give you that look.”
“The one he gets on his face when he starts talking about his father and his uncle and grandfather. All the bully Byrnes who risked their lives so America can be free.” He looked disgusted. “If you knew how tired I get of listening to that crap.”
His vehemence stung her. “I thought you loved my father. He loves you.”
Rick laughed. “But he’d love me so much more if I were a Marine.”
They had always talked in the dark. It had been their way from the beginning.
“What are Glory and I supposed to do without you?”
He was calmer than he had been, more hurt than angry.
But this was harder to bear. She wanted so much for him to understand.
“On the plane that hit the Pentagon there were a bunch of kids on a National Geographic field trip. And there were two little girls. Sisters. I imagine I’m their mother and I know they’re going to die and I can’t help them.”
He rested his index finger on her mouth. “Just stop. It isn’t your fault those children died and it’s not your job to save the world.”
“Your folks live in Massachusetts, Rick. We’ve flown in and out of Boston ourselves.”
“There are dozens of flights every day.”
“But it could have been us. We could have been at your folks and had Glory with us....” She sagged under the weight of the images. “It can’t happen again. Ever.”
War was men’s business and the General knew how to call in favors. Though he could not undo her enlistment, he made sure that after officers’ training and the Basic School, his daughter was separated from her unit and posted to the small finance office at the Marine Corps Recruitment Depot in San Diego, about twenty minutes from ocean Beach. Most nights she was home from the shop in time to fix dinner. She became a fixture at the MCRD, and every day it rankled, it gnawed, it galled her that while her friends were in Iraq and Afghanistan, she was a paper pusher in her hometown.
Glory was just finishing first grade when the opportunity arose for a ten-month deployment in Iraq, what the Marine Corps called Temporary Additional Duty. Frankie would be posted to a Forward operating Base as part of a joint effort to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. She told herself, she told Rick and her father, that the TAD was only ten months.
“I have to do this.”
Rick looked grim and clenched his jaw. The General stopped talking to her.
October 2008—San Diego, California
Frankie had been home from Iraq for almost two months, back at the MCRD, a captain now and adjutant to the chief financial officer, Colonel Walter Olvedo. She and Olvedo were meeting in his office on the day the call came from Glory’s school. Frankie’s phone vibrated against her thigh but she didn’t touch it.
The situation in the office had reached near critical, and she and the colonel had been trying to have this meeting for weeks. The surge announced by the president had created problems for the previously insignificant San Diego office of Financial Affairs. It had tripled in size and now handled not only payroll for the MCRD but other bases in southern California as well. Also—and this was new—a number of sensitive classified matters came across Frankie’s desk. Seven of the nine young Marines in the office had inadequate clearances and insufficient financial training to deal with these and were inclined to be careless unless Frankie rode them hard and constantly. Olvedo had sent a dozen messages up the pipeline requesting more qualified personnel, but with everything that was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one had time for anything as far from the line of fire as Frankie’s shop.
“Is that your phone buzzing, Captain?” Olvedo had heavy black brows that made him look cross most of the time despite his pleasant and easygoing disposition. “It sounds like a killer bee.”
Olvedo’s wife had once been a career Marine but after their third child was born she left the service to go back to school to become a teacher. His mother-in-law lived with them and helped out with childcare. He knew Frankie couldn’t ignore a call from Arcadia School.
“We’re done here.” He waved his hand toward the office door. “Do what you have to do.”
Thirty minutes later she was hurrying across the parking lot to her Nissan.
“Captain Tennyson, please, wait up. Please.”
At the car she turned to see a young man in chinos and a blue blazer hurrying toward her.
“I’m glad I caught you,” he said, panting a little. He handed her a card.
“You work for Senator Belasco?”
“I’ve been trying to reach you for the last three days.”
He added in the tone of a parent to a willful child, “You haven’t returned my calls.”
“If I wanted to talk to you, I would have called back.”
“Then you did get my messages.”
“I’m in a hurry, Mr. Westcott.” She unlocked the Nissan and threw her tote across to the passenger seat. “I don’t have time for you or your boss.”
“There are things you don’t know, Captain.”
“I’m late for a meeting at my daughter’s school.”
“Have you been following the hearings, Captain?”
Senator Susan Belasco’s investigation into allegations of criminal wrongdoing by the private contracting firm Global Sword and Saber Security Services, G4S, had been front-page news for the last several weeks.
“I have nothing to say to the committee.”
“A boy was killed at Three Fountain Square. He was ten years old.”
“Don’t call me again.” She slammed the car door and revved the engine as she shifted into reverse, muttering as she backed up. “Move your toes, you son of a bitch.”
Taking the back road out of Mission Valley, she used her cell phone to call her therapist, Alice White. As expected, she got her voice mail. Frankie’s situation could not honestly be called an emergency so she hung up without leaving a message. What good was a therapist if she never picked up her phone?
The Arcadia School secretary had sounded vaguely accusatory, or maybe Frankie had imagined that. Lately she felt like everyone was trying to pick a fight or poke a finger at her. Dr. White said stress made it hard to read people and situations correctly.
Walking fast across the asphalt parking lot to the school entrance, her breath fluttered at the base of her throat and she wished she were wearing her service uniform, not the utility camouflage that was blousy and comfortable as pajamas. More officially dressed, she would not feel so much like a schoolgirl about to be called on the carpet for kicking a soccer ball through a school window.
Arcadia School had grown within her experience from a small private primary school to a complex of buildings and grounds spread over two blocks of prime San Diego real estate. She had a cloudy recollection of walking this hall for the first time when she was younger than Glory, excited and scared and proudly self-conscious in her new school uniform. The waxed floors still rippled with reflected light from fluorescent bars in the ceiling and the mural in the foyer next to the office depicting generations of Arcadia schoolgirls tossing up handfuls of posies with Native Americans, Father Serra, and Cabrillo’s ship in the background was as hokey as it had been that first day. She had gone on to be one of the stars in Arcadia’s constellation. Class valedictorian, a National Merit Scholar, president of the senior choir. She had played serious basketball and captained Arcadia’s soccer team at two national championships.
At the office door she inhaled, wiped her palms on the thighs of her pants, set her hand against the doorplate, and pushed.
The office was exactly as she remembered it: a long, crowded, and disorderly room. Across from where she stood, a wall of windows was covered by slatted blinds drawn up to irregular heights. She had to look away to keep from ordering someone to even them up.
Below the level of the counter, she pressed two fingers against her wrist. Her pulse hammered. What was she afraid of? This was a school and she had spent ten months in Iraq, for godsake.
Frankie had read the standard issue pamphlets on stress the Marine Corps provided. She knew that readjusting after deployment took time and was always a challenge, greater for some than others. Her deployment had been fairly typical, even uneventful. The General had been through much worse in Vietnam and adjusted to being home without making a fuss and so would she. Her wide goalkeeper’s hands made fists hard and tight enough to punch a hole in the counter as she waited for someone to notice her.
A gray-haired woman looked at Frankie in her cammies and then over her shoulder at the door as if she expected an invasion to follow. “You’re Captain Tennyson. Of course you are. I’m Dory Maddox, the head secretary. I’m sure you don’t remember me. I started here when you were in the senior school.”
Arcadia was divided into the lower school for girls in kindergarten to third grade and upper school for grades four through eight. Senior school was high school.
“I have an appointment, ma’am.”
The parentheses at the corners of Dory’s mouth tightened, hinting displeasure, and Frankie realized she should have tried to make a little polite conversation. She had been deployed less than a year, but in that time she had forgotten the rules of polite behavior; and not only were her expectations frequently unreasonable, she was often abrupt and unintentionally rude.
Her therapist’s calm voice came into her head. “It’s hard to readjust but little by little, you’ll feel more comfortable in your skin.” After months with all her senses pumped, no one expected her to switch them off like a light at bedtime. No one except Frankie.
At the far end of the Arcadia office, a door opened and Frankie recognized Trelawny Scott, still wearing her black hair pulled into a tight chignon, still peering at the world from behind round Jackie o glasses. Years ago, Scott had taught biology to Frankie’s ninth-grade class. Today she looked smaller and thinner than Frankie remembered her, but still formidable. Her palm was dry and cool when they shook hands.
“Look at you! A captain in the Marine Corps. I’m sure the general is very proud of you.”
Scott’s well-meant ebullience embarrassed Frankie though she knew it was meant to put her at ease.
“There’s a marvelous photo of you in one of the trophy cases. Have you seen it, Frankie? Making that famous save? I don’t care how much that coach argued, the ball never made it over the line. It’s perfectly clear in the picture.”
“Speaking for myself, ma’am, I never had any doubt about it.”
“Frankie, you were never one for doubts! I imagine Glory will be just like you.”
“You know my daughter?”
“Oh, my yes. I should have explained. I’m headmistress of the lower school now. I took over from Miss Winslow six months ago.” She opened her office door wider. “Come in and sit down. You already know Glory’s teacher, Ms. Peters, of course.”
Frankie stopped in the doorway. Trapped.
She had learned in the Marine Corps to avoid dead-end spaces. Like right now: no matter how much the headmistress was trying to cover it up, Frankie smelled an ambush up the road.
When She Came Home
- Genres: Fiction
- paperback: 336 pages
- Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
- ISBN-10: 1455510351
- ISBN-13: 9781455510351