Untitled work, rough draft, not edited, read at your own risk, etc etc etc. Also copyrighted, please don’t repost anywhere. Thanks. You can catch up from the beginning here.
Get your parents to watch your kid.
I’m back at my car, without really noticing how I got there. I don’t know the guy who walked into Matt’s classroom, but his brief appearance made it clear I was dealing with two, not one, assholes. Matt gave the no hint that there might be a strike. Instead, he reassured me he’d do everything he could for Jasmine, that he would help provide some stability she desperately needed.
Stability I can’t provide her because my little sister barely knows me.
I growl with the effort of suppressing tears as I start the minivan and put it into gear. A big part of me wanted to replace the van, because it had been my mother’s, and because it reminded me of her. Another big part of me whispered that it was paid for and I had no source of income for the foreseeable future.
So I drive. My mind circles back. I can’t remember when I was this angry, except maybe when I was in Iraq.
Intentionally, I turn my mind away from that. I’m halfway across the notch to Amherst before I calm down a little. And when I do, I’m more than a little bit troubled.
I’m angry because Matt—no, Mister Paladono, Jasmine’s teacher—had promised he could do something for Jasmine I couldn’t. And now he can’t, because of the strike, which he’s apparently up to his ears in organizing. But it’s not just him. I’m troubled now that I’d even consider finding myself depending on some guy I don’t even know to help my sister.
It shows just how far out of my element I am. Sergeant Ryan would have laughed. She used to say I was one of the most hard nosed MPs in our unit. That I never depended on anyone. And when Sergeant Ryan said that, she didn’t mean it as a compliment. She meant I wasn’t a team player. My default mode has always been to try everything on my own, to depend on no one, to be self-sufficient.
You can’t do that in a war zone. You have to learn to depend on other people. We depended on our drivers and machine gunners, on the men and women who delivered ammo and foot, on the weather and on the people who delivered the mail.
More importantly, we depended on our squad mates. And when things got bad, they got bad quick. I’ll never forget the terror when we were ambushed on the way back to Iskandiriyah. Half a dozen guys went down in the first couple minutes, and our SAW gunner, an infantryman, panicked and wouldn’t get back on his gun. You couldn’t blame him—it was a dangerous, bloody mess. I was on the ground, but Nicole jumped up into the truck and got on the gun and kept shooting until the barrel got so hot the machine gun jammed.
Later though, it was all bullshit. I loved Tokyo, but I was one of two women in our unit, and every time I turned around one of the assholes wbould be trying to play grabass. I quickly regained my reputation for being a loner.
But what do I do now? Jasmine can depend on me, but it’s just us. And deep inside—I don’t want us to be all alone. I guess I did depend on at least two people.
My Mom and Dad. I depended on them. It never even crossed my mind that they wouldn’t be there, today, tomorrow, next week, next year.
It never occurred to me that when I left last February, it would be the last time I saw them.
And what hurts … I can’t go back. I can’t go back and say to my mother that I’m sorry. That I was a self-absorbed bitch, that I was inconsiderate, that I didn’t consider her feelings. Not it’s too late. It’s too late to go back and repair it, it’s too late to put my arms around her and beg her forgiveness.
What. The. Hell? As I approach the traffic circle near Atkins where I collided with Matt Paladino’s car the other day, I struggle to get a grip on myself. Seriously? This isn’t who I am. This isn’t who I want to be.
I turn on the radio. I was so out of whack when I got in the car that I didn’t even put on music. Now that was weird. An unfamiliar pop song begins to play. Fifteen minutes I’m parking in the lot near the visitors center at UMASS Amherst, across the street from the administration building. Nervously, I lock up the minivan and walk across Massachusetts Avenue. It’s a very unfamiliar environment. The valley overall gives me this sense of space… spread out, with tree covered hills rolling his above the Connecticut River. UMASS is the largest concentration of buildings in the area, with the library standing 26 stories, towering over everything in the area. I have an electric sense of purpose as I walk through the building. I’m surrounded by college kids, most of them just a few years younger than I am.
There were times over the last five years when I regretting joining the Army instead of going to college. I had the grades—I graduated in the top 10 students in my class. My father was a professor at Mount Holyoke College, walking distance from the house, and that fact meant I could go for free. Some people rebel by drinking, or getting arrested, or picking a different sport than their parents.
I rebelled by joining the Army. I rebelled by going to war.
The Veterans Services Office at UMASS is a chaotic space, crowded with posters and flyers and paper and interns. It’s a storm, a whirlwind of paper and pens and chaos, and at the eye of the storm stands Craig Stills, the director of veterans services.
The thing about Craig is, he operates inside his own perfect no-bullshit bubble. All you have to do is look at his prosthetic legs (both of them) and arm (one) to realize he’s the real deal. The Silver Star citation hanging on his wall was verification. In 2005, somewhere along MSR Tampa just a few miles east of Iskandiriyah, he’d saved a soldier’s life and sacrificed his limbs in the process.
“Zoe!” he calls out in a strong voice. It sounds like broken gravel. “Come in, sit down!”
“Hey,” I say. I walk toward his desk. It’s piled high with files and books. I look at the titles with interest. Achilles in Vietnam. Soul Repair: Recovering from Moral Injury After War.
“You can borrow them if you want. My office is kind of a lending library.”
“I’ll think about it.”
“You hanging in there?”
I nod. I don’t want to say too much. I don’t want to talk about what’s going on inside. I just want to get down to business. “What do you hear?” I ask. I try to hide the trembling in my voice. I’m starting to realize—I really care about this.
He grins. “It took some doing, since you’re long past the deadline. But you’re in.”
I jump to my feet, accidentally knocking half a dozen books and some papers off his desk as I scream, “I am?” As the books fall, I shift to horror. “Christ, I’m so sorry.” I kneel down to pick them up.
His smile just gets bigger. “Zoe, they really wanted you in. Everyone knows you’ve gone through a brutal time. You deserve it.”
I carefully don’t answer as I set the books back on his desk. He senses my reticence. “Here’s how this will work. It’s going to take a while for your veterans benefits to come through. Probably a couple months. We can get you a small advance for books and you’ll be able to go ahead and register for classes. You need to do that today, classes start Monday. All right?”
I nod. I’m overwhelmed. He walks me through the first steps. I’ve got a long laundry list of things I’ll need to do. Visit the IT office in person, because I can’t wait the days it normally takes to get an account set up. Figure out how to use the online systems. Register for classes. Get my textbooks. Fill out paperwork and more paperwork for the GI Bill.
I don’t care. I’ll do all of it. But most of it I’ll have to do tomorrow, because the elementary school gets out in forty minutes and I need to get home to meet Jasmine. Let’s hope South Hadley’s teachers don’t go on strike, because if they do, I’ll be dragging her along for all of it.
I manage to get back out to my car and on my way home in plenty of time. As I drive back to South Hadley, I remind myself that I’m going to need to work my class schedule around Jasmine’s school hours.
I’m home in plenty of time, so when she gets off the school bus, I’m standing on the wraparound porch sweeping. Fall isn’t here yet, but it will be soon. The wind blows dust across the porch, and as I sweep, a few flakes of paint, already peeling, break loose. She walks slowly away from the bus and toward the house, her head bowed, eyes on the ground.
I stop sweeping and watch her. I wish I had some clue how to help her. But of course, what she really needs is Mom and Dad. And there’s nothing at all I can do about that.
“Hey. How was your day?”
She walks up the steps and looks at me. The boards creak under her feet. “Okay,” she responds without enthusiasm. She walks right past me, opens the front door, and disappears inside.
Damn. I set the broom against the wall and go inside the house.
Her book bag is on the floor near the stairs, and I can hear her thumping around upstairs. That was quick. I stand there, listening. This is a very old house, and here and there loose boards make it easy to tell where people are. Jasmine is in her room. But that doesn’t last long. I hear her walking again, but no longer in the soft sound of sneakers.
She thumps down the stairs wearing riding boots.
“Homework?” I ask.
She seems to thud to a stop at the bottom of the stairs. “I don’t have much,” she says. “Can I do it after dinner? I want to ride Mono.”
“I don’t know, Jasmine….” My voice is hesitant. I don’t like that—I rarely hesitate when making decisions. But what’s the right thing to do here. Her eyes begin to well up with tears.
I sigh. “Yeah. Okay Ride until dinner time if you want.” I need to muck out the stalls anyway. Which raises another issue. How the hell am I going to take care of three horses while I’m in school? It’s nearly four in the afternoon, and the horses haven’t been out of the paddock to graze today, though I’d fed them hay first thing this morning. Horses take a lot of taking care of.
By the time I get to the stable, Jasmine is already on her way to the paddock with her saddle.
“Make sure you run the other two.” She nods. Jasmine is short of words lately.
I sigh when I step inside the stable. All three stables are soiled, of course. Shoveling out the stalls is a familiar task, of course, though it has been years. Scrape it down to the bottom, then lay out a new bed of shavings. I dump and scrub the water buckets and refill them. The last few days I’ve been able to let them spend a lot of time either in the paddock or grazing, but soon enough winter would be here and they’d be in their stalls a lot longer during the day and night. And that meant mucking out the stalls twice a day, because muddy or wet conditions meant infections.
Shovel in hand, I begin to muck out the stalls. The thunder of hooves outside tells me Jasmine is running Mono hard, with the other two horses on tethers. In the meantime, I shovel. I scrub. I sweat. I’ve been in the Army five years, and I’m probably in better physical condition than the vast majority of American women. But by the time I’m finished my shoulders hurt. Shoveling out stalls and scrubbing requires a different set of muscles than I’m used to using.
Maybe I should sell Nettles and Eeyore. I’d hate to see them go, but I don’t know how I’m going to take care of them.
Selling Mono, however, isn’t an option.
Finally finished. I step outside of the stable and look down the hill.
Our land stretches nine acres, running mostly behind the line of houses along College Street. Jasmine is down there at the far end, where our land abuts Paul Armstrong’s. She’s moving slower now, but Mono is still moving quickly, the other two horses right behind. I turn to talk back to the house, stretching my arms and shoulders. It’s 5:30 and I haven’t even started dinner.
I look in the fridge with a frown. I’ve never really cooked dinner much—living in the barracks in Tokyo, I didn’t have to. We all ate in the mess hall or on the economy. I have Mom’s old recipe book, though, and sometimes when I was teenager she made me cook with her. And options were limited—the only thing left in the fridge is chicken legs.
Fried chicken it is. I wash my hands and get the meal going, mentally noting that I’m going to have to go grocery shopping. One more thing I’m not really equipped to do.
I bread the chicken as the oil is heating up, then drop the chicken into the hot oil. I drop of oil hits my wrist, burning me.
The phone rings.
I walk over to it and pick it off the cradle, then walk back to the stove—the cord reaches far enough.
“Hey, it’s Nicole. What are you doing?”
“Cooking dinner.” As I answer I open up a bag of frozen green beans and pour them into a pot of hot water. No potatoes. Or rice. I’ve got half a loaf of bread. No butter, but… best I can manage right now.
Nicole launches into a story. “Okay, so classes start on Monday, and all the kids are moving in, right? You’re not gonna believe what happens.”
She pauses, and I know she’s waiting for me to ask what happened. I do. “What happened?”
“Huh. Anyway, a bunch of freshman guys get into a fight in the North Residential Area at the dining hall. It’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of—one of the guys wanted sushi, and another one called him a not-so-nice name, and the first one bunched him. It turned into a brawl.”
“A brawl? Seriously?” The chicken is sizzling now, a satisfying sound. Smells nice too. I see Jasmine through the window… she’s leading the horses back to their stalls for the night. Third grade or not, she knows how to take care of them. At least I don’t have to worry about that.
“Yeah, seriously. We made fourteen arrests, and classes haven’t even started yet.”
I throw my head back with a full-throated laugh. I am so glad I didn’t consider applying for a job as a cop.
“So what happens next?” I ask. I walk to the pantry—mostly empty—trailing the phone cord behind me. Nicole goes on telling her story, elaborating with more and more outlandish facts.
What the hell?
I kneel down. There’s a hole in the baseboard of the pantry, and it looks like something’s been chewing near there. Then I see the tiny black dots.
Rat droppings. I shudder.
Then I hear Jasmine scream.
Instantly I jump to my feet, dropping the phone. The phone’s on the end of a long wound up cord, which retracts suddenly, yanking the handset across the floor until it crashes into a cabinet.
Jasmine is at the kitchen door, eyes wide, staring at the pan of frying chicken, which is now burning with foot high flames. She screams again, and I launch myself across the kitchen to the sink, searching for the fire extinguisher. It’s not where it belongs. I shove cleaning fluids and various unnamed items around until I finally pull the extinguisher out from the very back of the cabinet. Without hesitating, I pull the pin and aim the extinguisher.
It’s empty. Nothing at all. Damn it!
I search, my mind first turning to the sink, but water will just make an oil fire worst. Then my eyes fall on the five pound bag of flour.
I tear it open wide and pour it on the flames. Instantly the flames are smothered and the kitchen is enveloped in silence.
I’m breathing heavily and staring at Zoe, who stares back at me. In the background, I can hear Nicole shouting into the phone. “Zoe? Zoe? Is everything okay?”
I hesitate for just a second, then reach for the phone. “Everything’s okay,” I rush out. “Pan caught fire, but it’s out now.”
“Are you shitting me?” Nicole screamed.
“Nicole, I gotta go.”
“Zoe, wait —”
“I gotta go.” I hang the phone up.
Jasmine is still staring at me. “What?”
She says, “I’ve never seen a fire in here. Mom never did that.”
Mom never caught the kitchen on fire? I don’t know what to say, but my chest tightens and I want to say something unkind. I can’t even imagine what to say that might be appropriate. I just turn back to the pantry and look for something for dinner, because we sure aren’t having fried chicken.
I stand in the pantry. Pretty slim pickings. Some staples, like flour, but I’m no baker. Pasta is all gone (we ate it), so is the spaghetti sauce, the tortillas, the rice.
I need to go grocery shopping.
High at the top of the pantry is a box of Lucky Charms. Every once in a blue moon, Dad would buy a box. He wouldn’t let anyone else have them, which is why it’s way up there. I step on the bottom shelf to be able to reach to the very top and pull the box down.
It’s half full. “All right,” I say. “Change of plans. We’re eating Lucky Charms.”
Her response is caustic. “We’re eating what? Mom never made me eat cereal for dinner.”
“Well you know what, Jasmine? I’m not Mom.” I drop the box on the table, then walk to the fridge.
Ahh, damn it. There’s no milk. I sigh, then say, “Okay. Okay. That’s not going to work.” I look back at her. “Pizza?”
She nods. Then she says, in a very low voice, “Sorry, Zoe.”
“Pizza it is. We should both go shower though. You go first.”
She runs out. I sag against the counter. I’ll call Nicole back later and apologize. Meanwhile, I’m looking at the disaster of the kitchen. Flour covering the stove. Oil splattered everywhere. Black oily soot coating the range hood and the wall above that.
That’ll take some cleaning.
I turn to walk upstairs, but stop in my tracks when the phone rings again. Who the hell is that?
I pick the phone up off its cradle once again. I need to get a shower and change into not-horse-and-fire-smelling clothing, and go to the bank and get some cash, then we’ll head to the pizza place up the street. Hopefully this will be a quick call.
“Zoe? It’s Matt Paladino.”
My mind stops in place, and my body follows. I breathe a sigh and say, “What … what can I do for you?”
He hesitates. I’m guessing that means it is bad news. “I wanted to let you know—the teachers union met this afternoon. The vote was near unanimous to strike.”
I close my eyes. “Do they even care how this is going to disrupt people’s lives?”
I can almost hear his sigh. “Zoe…”
I exhale. “I know. I get that there are reasons. But … you can’t just disappear, Matt. You can’t. She’s lost everyone she depends on. We don’t have any other relatives, and she barely knows me, and you’re the only adult she even really knows. You can’t just disappear.”
There’s a long silence. Then he says, “I’ll do the best I can, all right?”
I guess that’s the best I can expect.