Winters in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, were temperamental. The sunshine and a temperate southerly breeze that started a day could turn into biting, salt-tinged snow flurries by afternoon. But one thing Harper Lee Wilcox could count on was that winter along the Outer Banks was quiet.
The bustle and hum and weekly rotation of tourists that marked the summer months settled into a winter melancholy that Harper enjoyed. Well, perhaps not enjoyed in the traditional sense … more like she enjoyed surrendering to the melancholy. In fact, her mother may have accused her of wallowing in it once or twice or a hundred times.
In the winter, she didn’t have to smile and pretend her life was great. Not that it was bad. Lots of people had it worse. Much worse. In fact, parts of her life were fabulous. Almost five, her son was happy and healthy and smart. Her mother’s strength and support were unwavering and had bolstered her through the worst time of her life. Her friends were amazing.
That was the real issue. In the craziness of the summer season, she forgot to be sad. Her husband, Noah, had been gone five years; the same amount of time they’d been married. Soon the years separating them would outnumber the years they’d been together. The thought was sobering and only intensified the need to keep a sacred place in her heart waiting and empty. Her secret memorial.
She parked the sensible sedan Noah had bought her soon after they married under her childhood home. Even though they were inland, the stilts were a common architectural feature up and down the Outer Banks.
Juggling her laptop and purse, Harper pushed open the front door and stacked her things to the side. “I’m home!”
A little body careened down the steps and crashed into her legs. She returned the ferocious hug. Her pregnancy was the only thing that had kept her going those first weeks after she’d opened her front door to the Navy chaplain.
“How was preschool? Did you like the pasta salad I packed for your lunch?”
“It made me toot and everyone laughed, even the girls. Can you pack it for me again tomorrow?”
“Ben! You shouldn’t want to toot.” Laughter ruined the admonishing tone she was going for.
As Harper’s mom said time and again, the kid was a hoot and a half. He might have Harper’s brown wavy hair, but he had Noah’s spirit and mannerisms and humor. Ben approached everything with an optimism Harper had lost or perhaps had never been gifted with from the start. He was a blessing Harper sometimes wondered if she deserved.
“Where’s Yaya?” She ruffled his unruly hair.
Of course, her mom had picked an unconventional name. “Grandmother” was too old-fashioned and pedestrian. Since she’d retired from the library, she had cast off any semblance of normalcy and embraced an inner spirit that was a throwback to 1960s bra burners and Woodstock.
“Upstairs painting.” Ben slipped his hand into Harper’s and tugged her toward the kitchen. Bright red and orange and blue paint smeared the back of his hand and arm like a rainbow. At least, her mom had put him in old clothes. “Yaya gave me my own canvas and let me paint whatever I wanted.”
“And what did you paint?” Harper prayed it wasn’t a nude study, which was the homework assignment from her mom’s community college class.
“I drew Daddy in heaven. I used all the colors.” The matter-of-factness of his tone clawed at her heart.
No child should have to grow up only knowing their father through pictures and stories. Her own father had been absent because of divorce and disinterest. He’d sent his court-ordered child support payments regularly until she turned eighteen but rarely visited or shown any curiosity about her. It had hurt until teenaged resentment scarred over the wound.
Noah would have made a great dad. The best. That he never got the chance piled more regrets and what-ifs onto her winter-inspired melancholy.
“I’m sure he would have loved your painting.” Luckily, Ben didn’t notice her choked-up reply.
He went to the cabinet, pulled out white bread and crunchy peanut butter, and proceeded to make two sandwiches. It was their afternoon routine. Someday he would outgrow it. Outgrow her and become a man like his daddy.
She poured him a glass of milk, and they ate their sandwiches, talking about how the rest of his day went—outside of his epic toots. His world was small and safe and she wanted to keep it that way for as long as possible.
Her mom breezed into the kitchen, her still-thick but graying brown hair twisted into a messy bun, a thin paintbrush holding it in place. Slim and attractive, she wore paint-splattered jeans and a long-sleeve T-shirt that read: I make AARP look good. Harper pinched her lips together to stifle a grin.
“How’s your assignment coming along?” Harper asked.
“I’m having a hard time with proportions. It’s been a while, but I’m pretty sure my man’s you-know-what shouldn’t hang down to his kneecaps.”
Harper shot a glance toward Ben, who had moved to the floor of the den to play with LEGOs. As crazy as her mom drove her, she was and would always be Harper’s rock. The irony wasn’t lost on her. As hard as she’d worked to get out of Kitty Hawk and out of her mother’s reach when she was young, she’d never regretted coming home.
“It’s been a while for me, too, but that’s not how I remember them, either.”
“A pity for us both.” Her mother pulled a jar of olives out of the fridge and proceeded to make martinis—shaken, not stirred. She raised her eyebrows, and Harper answered the unspoken question with a nod. Her mom poured and plopped an extra olive in Harper’s. “How was work?”
Harper handled bookkeeping and taxes for a number of local businesses, but a good number closed up shop in the winter. “Routine. Quiet.”
“Exactly like your life.”
Harper sputtered on her first sip. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I hate seeing you mope around all winter.” Her mom poked at the olive in her drink with a toothpick and looked toward Ben, dropping her voice. “He’s been gone five years, sweetheart, and you haven’t gone on so much as a date.”
“That’s not true. I went to lunch with Whit a few weeks ago.”
“He was trying to sell you life insurance. Doesn’t count.”
Harper huffed and covered her discomfort by taking another sip. “What about you? You never date.”
“True, but your father ruined me on relationships. I have trust issues. You and Noah, on the other hand, seemed to get along fine. Or am I wrong?”
“You’re not.” Another sip of the martini grew the tingly warmth in her stomach. Their marriage hadn’t been completely without conflict, but what relationship was? As she looked back on their fights, they seemed juvenile and unimportant. It was easier to remember the good times. And there were so many to choose from.
She touched the empty finger on her left hand. The ring occupied her jewelry box and had for three years. But, occasionally, her finger would ache with phantom pains as if it were missing a vital organ.
“You’re young. Find another good man. Or forget the man, just find something you’re passionate about.”
“I’m happy right where I am.” Harper hammered up her defenses as if preparing for a hurricane.
“Don’t mistake comfort for happiness. You’re comfortable here. Too comfortable. But you’re not happy.”
“God, Mom, why are you Dr. Phil–ing me all of sudden? Are you wanting me and Ben to move out or something?” Her voice sailed high and Ben looked over at them, his eyes wide, clutching his LEGO robot so tightly its head fell off.
“You and Ben are welcome to stay and take care of me in my old age.” Her mom shifted toward the den. “You hear that, honey? I want you to stay forever.”
Ben gave them an eye-crinkling smile that reminded her so much of Noah her insides squirmed, and she killed the rest of her drink. She was so careful not to show how lonely she sometimes felt in front of Ben.
“Harper.” Her mom’s chiding tone reminded her so much of her own childhood, she glanced up instinctively. Her mom took her hand, and her hazel eyes matched the ones that stared back at Harper in the mirror. “You’re marking time in Kitty Hawk. Find something that excites you again. Don’t let Ben—or Noah—be your excuse.”
Harper looked to her son. His chubby fingers fit the small LEGO pieces together turning the robot into a house. She had built her life brick by brick adding pieces and colors, expanding, taking pride, until one horrible day she’d stopped. Maybe her mom was right. Was it time to build something new?
“I’m not sure what I want to do,” she said in a small voice, the uncertainty but also the resignation startling. As a teenager, she’d been confident and ready to chase her dreams. Fate had intervened in a big way.
“I’m not saying you have to figure it out overnight, but I’m thrilled you’re even considering the future.” Her mom squeezed Harper’s hand before retreating. “How’s your friend Allison doing? I know you’ve been worried about her.”
“I got an email from her today.” Harper popped a martini-flavored olive in her mouth, glad to focus on the messiness of someone else’s psyche. “She didn’t say much about Darren, but … I’m worried.”
Nothing Allison wrote in the email raised alarms, but it was exactly what she had omitted that had Harper’s stomach dipping. Not a word about how Darren, her husband, was adjusting after his last disastrous deployment. He was alive, the cuts and bruises long healed, but the damage was more insidious.
From the bread crumbs Allison had dropped in their conversations, Harper feared Darren was exhibiting the hallmarks of PTSD. Allison’s tendency to put a sunny spin on things only increased Harper’s unease. PTSD wasn’t something a wife could coddle away with bandage changes or favorite meals.
“Why don’t you take the weekend and drive down to Fort Bragg? I’m happy to watch Ben.”
As soon as her mom suggested a visit, Harper realized the notion had been lingering in the back of her mind for days. “It would be a good time to go. Everyone is caught up and business is so slow in the winter. One condition”—she wagged her finger at her mom—“Ben is not allowed to tag along to your nudist painting class. That is a talk I’m not ready to have.”
“You make it sound like we all prance around naked. There’s only one naked model, and come to think of it, he’s single and young and I can vouch for the fact you won’t be disappointed. It might not make it to his kneecaps, but…” Her mother cast a gaze meaningfully between her legs. “A fling would do you good.”
“Mom, seriously.” Harper’s laugh ruined her attempt at prudish outrage.
Her mom harrumphed, but an answering smile played at her mouth. “Fine. No nudists while you’re gone.”
“It’ll be a quick trip. I’m sure I’ll find Allison her usual perky self.” The glance she and her mother exchanged did nothing to settle her nerves.
Two days later, Harper was on the road to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, simmering anxiety keeping her alert behind the wheel. Allison was the consummate officer’s wife. She was friendly and social without coming off as fake or pushy.
After Harper and Noah had settled in a town-house community popular with military families outside the Naval base in Virginia Beach, Allison was the first one to knock on her door with a beribboned wicker basket full of housewarming presents.
It had taken months for Harper to adjust to life as a military wife and Allison had played a big part in her ability to find happiness in the role. They’d formed a true friendship, and as they faced the lonely months with their husbands deployed Allison became the sister she’d never had.
Having her to lean on throughout the weeks after Noah had been killed had made a huge difference. Now Allison needed help, even if she was reluctant to ask for it, and Harper refused to let her down.
As she got closer to Fort Bragg, the number of trucks and motorcycles whizzing by her well over the speed limit skyrocketed, and testosterone rose off the roads like the heat mirages.
She’d forgotten what the bases were like. Full of brash, confident men who lived on the edge of danger. Men who were exciting and overwhelming and sexy all at the same time. Of course, they could also be bossy and tight-lipped and a general pain in the ass.
After negotiating the checkpoints, she drove down streets populated with cookie-cutter base housing. A formation of soldiers jogged through an intersection in their boots and BDUs—battle dress uniforms.
Despite the cold winter air, she fanned her flushed cheeks. The darkest, most selfish part of her missed having a man in her life. In her bed. Acknowledging the fact made her feel weak and guilty.
She peeled her gaze off the clump of pure masculinity and counted down the house numbers. Although Fort Bragg was only a half-day drive from Kitty Hawk, Harper had only been down a few times to visit. After Noah’s death, Allison’s and Harper’s lives had diverged.
For sanity’s sake, Harper had focused on leaving all things military behind, while Allison was in the thick of that world, her husband climbing the ranks, his promotion to Commander in JSOC—Joint Special Operations Command—his latest achievement.
It had garnered a move into a bigger house and upped the unspoken requirements on Allison to entertain. Not that she seemed fazed by the pressure. Her ability to make wives—and husbands—of the officers and enlisted soldiers alike feel comfortable was her gift.
The house sat on a quiet corner. Allison’s three kids played out front wearing nothing but jeans and long-sleeve shirts, unbothered by the chill, their cheeks flushed, their laughter and squeals settling some of Harper’s unease.
“Hi, kids.” She stretched herself out of the car and smiled. “I’m your mom’s friend Harper. It’s been a while since I’ve been down for a visit.”
Libby, who was ten if Harper’s math was right, smiled back. “I remember. You brought us saltwater taffy.”
“I did, and I might just have another box stowed in my bag for a treat after dinner.” She winked, and the kids cheered. “Your mom inside?”
Libby nodded, her smile dimming. “Daddy’s sleeping, so she sent us out to play.”
“I’ll be quiet then.”
A cobblestone walkway led to the front porch. Two rocking chairs with dusty, pollen-covered cushions sat to the side. The kids resumed their game of tag, and Harper watched them a moment before cracking Allison’s front door open and slipping halfway inside.
“Allison? You here?” She kept her voice soft.
No answer. She stepped fully inside and listened. The house was dark, the low ceilings and partitioned-off rooms giving it an old-fashioned feel compared to the openness of her mom’s house.
She followed the tink of silverware down the hall. A room on her left opened into a formal living room with a wet bar along one wall but no TV. Dust motes danced in the single shaft of sunlight winnowing between brocade curtains, giving the room a disused feel.
Family pictures led her down the hallway. The kids as babies, toddlers, and their first days of school. Darren in his dress uniform at his promotion ceremony. Allison had invited Harper, but she hadn’t come. Knowing Darren was receiving something Noah had strived for but would never have had been too painful. Selfish. She’d been so selfish in her grief.
She shuffled to a stop at the kitchen entrance. Allison’s back was to her as she sorted silverware from the dishwasher to a drawer. No curtains obscured the afternoon light from the small window above the sink.
Even with her back turned, Allison showed hints of stress. Always slim, she was downright skinny, her shoulder blades too prominent under a red T-shirt that was half-untucked. Her hair was pulled back into a lopsided ponytail, a look she usually only wore at the gym.
“Hey,” Harper said.
Knives clattered into the drawer, lying like pick-up sticks. Allison whirled around, her hand on her chest, her breathing rapid. Surprise stripped away any pretense she might have worn for appearance’s sake.
She looked haggard. Spent. Weighted. Harper had worn the same expression for months after Noah’s death. Things were even worse than Harper feared. She crossed the kitchen and hauled Allison in for a hug. Allison’s body loosened until she collapsed into Harper, a desperate sob escaping.
Harper let her cry, rubbing circles on her back and whispering soothing nonsense words. After too short a time, Allison stiffened, and Harper released her when she really wanted to encourage her to get it all out. But that wasn’t Allison’s style. She grabbed a paper towel and wiped her eyes and blew her nose.
“Sorry. I thought I had time to grab a shower and clean myself up before you got here.” Allison redid her ponytail and tucked in her shirt, her gaze focused somewhere over Harper’s shoulder.
Allison hummed but evaded Harper’s eyes. “Allison, look at me.” Finally, her gaze skittered to meet Harper’s. “You don’t have to play the perfect officer’s wife. Not with me.”
Allison’s chin wobbled, but she nodded firmly.
“You have some wine stashed?” Harper didn’t wait for an answer but opened the fridge to find a bottle of white in the door. Grabbing a glass, she poured and pressed it into Allison’s hands. “Hop in a steamy shower and take your time.”
“I’ll handle dinner and the kids. Darren too, if he wakes up. Go.” She used her no-arguments-allowed mommy voice, and Allison complied without another peep of protest.
Once her footsteps faded up the steps, Harper inventoried the pantry. Leave it to Allison to have the fixings available for any type of casserole imaginable. Harper went with a beefy, cheesy noodle concoction that was a favorite of Ben’s and the definition of comfort food.
Allison still wasn’t down when Harper called the kids in for dinner. She herded them into the kitchen and sat down at the table but didn’t fix herself a plate.
“Is Daddy up?” Ryan asked around a mouthful of pasta. He was the spitting image of Darren with his thick, dark eyebrows, wide mouth, and prominent nose. On his eight-year-old face, the combination looked ungainly, but Harper had no doubt he would grow into a handsome man.
“I haven’t heard him stir.” Harper took a sip of iced tea while she debated the friendship ethics of pumping Allison’s kids for information. “Does your dad take lots of naps?”
Libby nodded. “He doesn’t sleep so good at night. Mommy says he has bad dreams.”
Sophie, the youngest at five, piped up. “Sometimes he’s really loud and wakes me up.”
Libby shushed her little sister as if she was aware of the strangeness and the need to keep secrets.
“Everything is going to be okay.” Harper held Libby’s gaze as the hated platitude slipped out of her mouth.
God, the number of times she’d heard the same words after Noah had been killed had made her want to scream or punch the kindhearted soul in the face. At the time, nothing felt like it was ever going to be okay again. Now she understood. You said it when you didn’t know what else to say. The crazy thing was all those people were right. Eventually, everything was okay. Not the same, but okay.
Harper left the kids to finish up their dinner and stood at the bottom of the stairs, listening. Nothing. She climbed, trying not to make a sound, but the steps creaked under her weight.
The kids’ rooms were empty, so she padded to the end of the narrow hallway. The door was cracked, so she toed it open enough to peer inside. Allison had curled herself into a ball on top of the covers next to her husband. Both were asleep.
Harper returned to the kitchen, forced herself to eat a small bowl even though worry had stolen her appetite, then played crazy eights with the kids until bedtime. Libby and Ryan got themselves ready for bed, but after a quick bath Sophie begged for a story, her big blue eyes impossible to deny.
Harper tickled her. “Can we read about a princess? Ben never lets me read those.”
“Princesses are my favorite,” Sophie said between giggles.
Harper snuggled next to Sophie and read until the little girl drifted to sleep. Reaching over to turn the lamp off, Harper dropped her nose into Sophie’s shampoo-perfumed hair. A few months older than Ben, Sophie seemed younger. Was it simply their different personalities or had growing up without the umbrella protection of a father forced Ben to mature faster? Harper prayed Sophie traversed this difficult time without losing her innocence.
Lying next to Sophie in the dark, Harper let her imagination travel down alternate futures. One where Noah hadn’t died. One where they had a daughter with his blond hair and blue eyes. One where Ben had a father and little sister and she had a husband.
She startled awake, blinking up at the glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling. Had she dreamed the noise? Her heart pounded a steady rhythm in her ears, masking external sounds. What time was it? Her phone was downstairs, but the moon was high, the streets quiet.
As the adrenaline faded, her body loosened, and she closed her eyes, wanting to somehow reinsert herself into her dream. The snick of the front door closing bolted her upright. After a quick check showed Libby and Ryan both in bed, Harper shuffled to Allison and Darren’s room and peeked in. Allison had burrowed under the covers at some point, but Darren’s bulk was missing.
Thankfully still dressed, she made her way down the steps, shoved her feet into her running shoes, and muttered a curse. He was a grown man, but wandering the streets in the middle of the night in February was not normal. Harper had a feeling nothing had been normal since he’d made it home.
She jogged into the middle of the street. No sign of him in either direction. She spent precious seconds waffling over which way to go, finally taking off at a fast walk into the heart of the base. At the next crossroads, she turned in a slow circle on the hunt for any movement.
Yellow and red slides of a playground were lit by weak streetlights. A dark figure hunched in a swing and rocked back and forth. Harper’s heart dropped from her throat back where it belonged.
Darren did nothing but watch as she approached and took the swing next to him. The squeak of the chains broke the silence of the night. She shivered and stared down at his bare feet.
“I’m not crazy.” His voice was graveled with disuse.
He planted his feet and stopped his swing. “They all think something’s wrong with me.”
“Who’s ‘they’?” Harper sensed his defensiveness and deflected.
“I’m not crazy,” he repeated.
“No one thinks you’re crazy, Darren. But … you were injured.”
“Banged up. Not like some of my boys who came home without legs or in body bags.”
Harper was out of her depth, drowning in platitudes. How was she qualified to help exorcise his demons when she still fought her own? “There’s different kinds of injuries. You might be physically healed, but concussions can affect you for months.”
“Fuck that.” He pushed up and stalked off. She scrambled to follow. “I should be able to deal with a head knock.”
He didn’t turn back toward the house, and she kept pace at his side. “Aren’t your feet cold?”
He glanced down, his step stuttering slightly as if he hadn’t realized he was barefoot. His stalk evened out and slowed to an amble. “No.”
“Liar.” She forced tease into her voice and was rewarded with a twitch of his lips.
“Did Allison beg you to come down and save her from the living hell I’m putting her and the kids through?” Resignation sucked any emotion from his voice.
The one thing she’d hated above all else in the weeks after Noah had died was the pity in people’s eyes and voices. “No. She begged me to come down and put my foot up your ass.”
This time he smiled and came to a stop. “Did she really say that?”
“I read between the lines.” Harper shrugged and looked around, trying for nonchalance. “Look, I’m tired and completely turned around, so unless you want to explain my frostbitten body to Allison and the MPs, I need an escort back to your house.”
He huffed something resembling a laugh, which she counted as a small victory, and turned them around. She kept the conversation light and about how great his kids were. Tension seeped out of her shoulders when the house came into view. She wasn’t scared of Darren, but he was a big guy and physically forcing him back inside wasn’t an option.
“I’ll bet Allison keeps stock in hot chocolate. Want a mug?” she asked.
“Why not. No way I’ll be able to go back to sleep.” His expression was flat, just like his voice.
Under the kitchen lights, the toll the injury had taken on Darren became more apparent. His eyes were bloodshot and shadowed. He, too, had lost weight, and his hair was longer than she’d ever seen it.
Sure enough, a dozen packets of Swiss Miss were in a polka-dot bin in the pantry. Darren sprawled in a chair and fiddled with the fringed edges of the place mat. She set down steaming mugs and joined him. While she’d never been shot at, she was intimately acquainted with death.
“I had nightmares every night for months after Noah died. Still do sometimes,” she said. When he didn’t speak or look up, she continued. “Every night I dreamed another horrible way he was killed. Dreamed he died quick and painless, dreamed he suffered, dreamed he died all alone. There were times Ben was the only thing keeping me sane.”
She refused to push him any further, and the silence stretched taut.
“McIntyre got shot three feet away from me. Then a bomb went off, and I was on my back. He dragged himself toward me, one of his legs a bloody stump.” His words came out choppy, bordering on unemotional even though his eyes said differently. “Over and over and over in my head. I can’t get away from it. From him. Maybe it’s a blessing Noah was killed.”
Anger flared quick and hot in that hollowed-out place in her heart, spreading like wildfire. She popped up and slapped her hands on either side of his mug. The untouched contents sloshed and left a brown stain on the cheery yellow place mat. For the first time, his attention was fixed on her and not turned inward.
“Don’t you ever fucking say that again, you hear me? I would do anything, give up anything, to have him back. I don’t care what kind of shape he was in. And Allison feels the same way about you. She wants to help you. Let her, dammit.”
His brown eyes were wide and his mouth gaping. Her anger died as quickly as it had flared and left her feeling as shocked as he looked.
The stairs creaked and broke the intensity of their gazes. Harper cleared her throat and retrieved a paper towel to dab at the spilled hot chocolate.
Allison shuffled into the kitchen, squinting against the light. “Is everything okay?”
Harper forced a smile. “Fine. Darren and I were chatting over some hot chocolate. Want some?” She didn’t wait but grabbed another mug. With her back to Allison and Darren, Harper dropped the pretense and the smile and took a deep breath. She owed Darren an apology.
She rejoined the couple, and as they spent the next twenty minutes making small talk the tension diminished. Darren leaned closer to Allison, and she reached out to touch his arm or hand, hope erasing a portion of the worry clouding her face.
They said quiet good nights at the foot of the stairs. Halfway up, Darren glanced over his shoulder and their eyes met. Harper couldn’t read his expression, but he kept a hand on Allison’s waist the rest of the climb.
Harper stretched out on the couch but popped back to sitting when footsteps sounded on the stairs again.
Allison appeared with a blanket over her arm and a pillow clutched to her chest. “I can’t believe I forgot to give you these.”
Harper took them and set them at her hip. “No worries. I actually fell asleep with Sophie after reading her ‘Rapunzel.’”
“She’s crazy about fairy tales and loves to play make-believe.” The indulgent smile faded. “Sometimes, I feel like I’m playing make-believe. Pretending, you know?”
“You don’t have to pretend with me.”
“I’ll see you in the morning.” She nodded and paused in the doorway of the den. “Thanks for coming down and getting him home this time.”
This time. Darren’s midnight ramble wasn’t a onetime thing. Harper’s nerves took a swan dive.
Harper lay down, her thoughts jumbled between past and present. Darren and Allison’s struggles peeled back the callus on her memories. The abyss that had almost claimed her after Noah’s death yawned closer than it had in years, and after she fell into a fitful sleep, Noah haunted her dreams.
Copyright © 2019 by Brandon Webb