Unraveled, p.3
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       Unraveled, p.3

         Part #3 of Woodlands series by Jen Frederick
Page 3


  "Did you hate it? Is that why you want to get out?" she asked, sipping at her drink.

  I made up another sandwich before answering her. Part of me resented the question, but thats why I was here, and I guess everyone knew it. Answering their questions might help sort out the confusion in my own mind. "Everyone says you dont miss the service, you miss the men you served with. So no, I dont want to get out because I saw your man far too much in the desert.

  “When youre deployed, you are always busy doing something, and you feel like you’re doing something worthwhile. Whether its going to look for insurgents or handing out aid. At home, some guys get to do embassy duty or presidential assignments, but a lot of us stay on base. When youre on base, you train, but it doesnt feel as. . . "

  I paused, unsure of the word I was looking for. "Important?" I still wasnt sure what was making me feel out of sorts. "My pops—grandfather—says that the reasons for getting out will always outweigh the reasons for staying in. " I laid my sandwich down, my appetite kind of gone.

  "Sounds tough. " AnnMarie made a clucking sound of sympathy, and I gave her a wry smile in return.

  "Kind of a downer of a discussion for such a nice day. "

  She patted me on the arm. "Nope, not a downer at all. "

  She was lying, but we both left it at that. If I’d known the answers to AnnMarie’s questions, then I wouldnt be here; Id be in sunny Southern California with my boys at the beach. I picked up my sandwich again because I couldnt let it go to waste. I ate the whole damn thing methodically, without enjoying it. I was afraid that no matter what decision I made—getting out or staying in—it’d be the wrong one.

  "How come you refer to Bo and Noah as Marines even though theyve been out of the military for a couple of years now?" AnnMarie asked.

  "Once a Marine, always a Marine," I explained. "Its the oldest, best fraternity in existence. I could be anywhere and if I yelled Marine in trouble, Id have every Marine in the room lending me a hand. Its a brotherhood like no other. "

  "Sounds like you love it. " Her eyebrows were raised in challenge.

  “Yeah, I guess I do. " I sighed. I did love my brothers. They would be the thing I missed the most about the Corps, but I also would miss the sense of purpose and the idea that I was involved in something bigger than myself.

  Thankfully, I wasn’t allowed more time for my dilemma to mess with my head because Bo sidled up to me with the fat grin that he wore when he was about to get us all in trouble.

  “Want to go to a bar?”

  “What about all this?” I nodded toward the crowd.

  “Mal’s going to stay here. ” Mal was another roommate.

  I shrugged. Party here, bar there. Made no difference. “I’m going to trust that you have good things planned for me. ”

  “Don’t doubt it,” he said, giving me a hard slap on my back.



  I FELT LIKE I WORE a scarlet letter. Not “A” for adulterer but “W” for widow. I thought the defining moment of my life was going to be when I married or maybe when I had kids. Instead, it came two months after the wedding, when the “casualty team” showed up at my door, expressing the sorrowful regrets of the Secretary of the Army. I doubted the Secretary of the Army knew who my nineteen-year-old husband was, and I seriously doubted the sorrowful regrets.

  My reaction wasn’t very graceful. A real Army wife would’ve stood stoically by while the two Army men in their service class “A” uniforms somberly delivered the news at the door of my condo. My response was first screaming at them followed by an ungraceful collapse on the floor and finally spewing snot all over their wool jackets.

  Bitsy, my sister, tried to cheer me up months later by reading Internet articles of all the other ways I could’ve embarrassed myself. “At least you didn’t stab anyone or try to burn yourself,” she pointed out. I didn’t question the veracity of those reports because it actually did make me feel better that there were a handful of people that took the news worse than I did.

  At the funeral, the chaplain had held my hand, repeatedly murmuring, “You’re so young. ” That was the refrain of my life now. Samantha Anderson, widowed so young. I heard it everywhere. At the grocery store, the library, and even at the stupid bar where I worked.

  It seemed like people in my life placed themselves into two general camps. There was the camp, which included my family, that was ready for me to move on from the death of my best friend, only lover, and husband of two months. The other camp wanted to enshrine me as Will Anderson’s widow forevermore. I wasn’t at all sure what camp I fell into, but I knew I was lonely. I was tired of being a widow, and I was tired of bartending for a living, and I was tired of having to serve as Will’s avatar for the family he left behind. I guess I was in the tired and lonely camp.

  But I set that sentiment aside today to endure my monthly luncheon with Will’s parents—David and Carolyn. Sometimes my brother-in-law Tucker showed up, but more often than not, it was just me. Last night, Tucker had called and explained earnestly that he just wasnt up for it this month—again. His inability to have any kind of emotional investment in his family was irritating on most days, but it was enraging on days like today. As if I looked forward to the monthly lunch.

  "Im so glad you came today, Sam. " Wills mom patted my hand. That made one of us. It was a strained meal, what with Carolyn drinking her lunch, David criticizing her for it, and both of them wondering what I was doing to uphold Wills memory. The slight ache at my temples that had hummed in the back of my head when I woke up was spreading across the entire surface of my skull and face. I lifted a shaky hand to my temple in an effort to relieve the pain.

  "Have you registered for your classes this fall, dear?" Carolyn handed me the butter dish.

  "I did. Im taking eighteen hours. "

  Carolyn tsked. "That sounds overly ambitious. Will wouldnt have wanted you to work that hard. "

  I slid a dollop of butter in the shape of a flower onto my bread plate and swallowed a sigh.

  "Smart to try to catch up for lost time," interjected David. “Since your dad gets you free tuition, you might as well take as many credits as possible. ” If Carolyn had said the sky was blue, I swear David would have told her it was green. Mom said that David was a great law partner, but a sucky life partner. Lucky for Mom she got David as a law partner. It was Carolyn who had to live with him every day. He continued. "If you do eighteen credit hours every semester and at least twelve in the summer, youll be on to law school in two years. You got a full year under your belt before you quit the first time. "

  I gave David a tight smile. He couldn’t resist getting his jabs whenever he saw an opening. "Lets just take one semester at a time. "

  "You should start planning now what prerequisites youll need to get your major and whens the best time for you to take those classes. " David buttered his own roll and then pointed his butter knife at me. "Otherwise youll be stuck waiting around an extra semester trying to finish out your degree. No need to waste more time. After all, wasnt going to college the reason you stayed here instead of moving to Alaska?"

  Yes, David, stick the knife in deeper. Twist it around. I dont think youve caused enough pain yet.

  "Will would be so proud," Carolyn added.

  I fought back a grimace. He would not be proud. He hated school. Why else had he escaped to the Army right out of high school? What other reason was there to spend more and more time in the ROTC during high school, playing at drill on weekends? It was because he couldnt stand school. And he didnt want to be a lawyer like his dad. Like my mom.

  "Itll be nice to finally have one of you kids join the firm. " Carolyn smiled at me.

  "If I dont," I demurred, "then Bitsy for sure will. "

  "Bitsy is whipsmart, but shes only fifteen. Itll be eight, nine years before she can join. You can be there in five, maybe even four if you apply yourself. " David waved his knife at
me again. The likelihood of anyone finishing college and law school in four years was so low that I wasnt even going to respond.

  Not that it mattered to David. He could argue both sides of a topic for hours on end. I guess it made him a great lawyer, but he was a shitty dad. Reason two why Will had hightailed it out of here before the last high school bell had rung.

  David must have recognized the ridiculousness of his statement because he set down his knife and leaned closer to me. "Were just anxious to get some young attorneys in so your mom and I can take some time off. "

  Carolyn leaned in on the other side, and I felt like they were squeezing me like a lemon. "Yes, dear. David keeps promising me that Austria river cruise and we cant do that if Anderson and Miller have no associates. "

  Will wouldve told you to hire some already and stop living out your fantasies through your kids. Mom has told me that I didnt have to sit through these lunches or all the other landmark days of Wills life with Carolyn, but if not me, then who? Tucker, who had abandoned family events long ago, showed up only at Christmas and then only for a few hours. He refused to play Carolyn’s games, as he put it. But grief wasnt a game. My counselor had told me that everyone grieved in their own time and in their own way. Who was to say that Carolyn was somehow wrong just because it created more pain for others around her? Will had loved his mother and I just couldn’t abandon her.

  "Ill get there," I said. That was suitably vague. Id agreed to go back to college, but I hadnt fully bought into becoming the legacy that David and my mom were looking for. Well, mostly David. Mom had Bitsy. And David? He had Tucker, who was supposed to have entered the firm a couple of years ago, but he’d bailed to become a tattoo artist.

  "Ill be fine, though," I assured Carolyn. "After this summer, I won’t be working at the bar anymore. Only classes. "

  The mention of the bar brought a disappointed moue to Carolyns face, her lips puckering and flattening. Carolyn thought tending bar was too low class but I wasnt sure that folding shirts at the Gap was a more honorable occupation.

  "What will you be studying then?" David asked. "I think literature would be a good basis for a law degree. "

  Once more David didnt need a response. He loved the sound of his own voice and it was just best to allow him to drone on about the different majors I could take to prepare me to be the best lawyer ever.

  "Will wouldve loved this place," Carolyn said in between cocktails. I nodded but inwardly disagreed again. It was like Carolyns vision of Will was remade into who she thought Will should have been instead of who he was. The food wasnt even that good but Carolyn felt like Will deserved this nice restaurant. As if he was keeping a scorecard in his afterlife of how we marked his passing. Year two. Spent at a two-star Michelin restaurant. Five cocktails. Twenty Kleenexes. A deduction for lack of crying from the wife. C+.

  And lunch lurched on. I looked at the clock and then the waiter. Please bring the main course, I pleaded silently but he looked away.

  EXHAUSTED AFTER LUNCH WITH THE Andersons, I wasn’t prepared to face the same question that Mark, the manager, had taken to asking me every time I walked through the door. “You okay to work the bar?" He never looked at me as he asked. The floor, the bar top, the stage where the live band performed, all held more interest, but ordinarily I’d have my work face pasted on—the one with the fake smile and happy-to-be-here attitude.

  Ever since I’d had the episode, Mark had been acting awkward around me. Apparently if you start sobbing just one time while salting a margarita glass, you’re marked as a difficult employee, even if you showed up on time, didn’t try to set up dates with the bar rats, and got along with the other staff.

  Mark should have cut me some slack. The days around the anniversary of Will’s death were always the worst. A newspaper reporter had contacted me wanting to know if he could interview me for a two-year retrospective on the war that wasnt a war anymore. Pass. I was still suffering the results of the nonstop coverage that had blanketed the city the first time Will died. Every year, they tried to kill him again. Or to at least make us suffer through his death again by reporting on me, his family, and the snuffing out of the promise of his young life.

  It didnt help that a photograph of his mother and me at Wills funeral had gone viral. Wed clasped hands over the flag given to me by the Army Honor Guard during the service. Two generations of sad women captured in one picture.

  Grief porn, Bitsy had called it. Just looking at the picture made hearts ache. Id become the girl who was widowed before her twentieth birthday. So no, I didnt want to rehash to the media about how my nineteen-year-old husband was killed by an IED or comment on the growing epidemic of young widows. I’d hung up on him before hed finished asking his question. But ever since the phone call in February and my subsequent breakdown at the bar, Mark had been uneasy around me, giving me looks like I was too emotionally unstable to work around regular humans.

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