Zann Redeker closed the conference room door behind her and blew out a sigh of relief. After months of twisting in the wind, something finally had broken her way.
It helped a lot that the mayor himself had vouched for her. A longtime family friend, Willard “Ham” Hammerick had helped plead her case with the town manager, all but offering his personal guarantee that she’d be a model employee from this day forward. Now he jostled her shoulder with a fatherly hand. “I know you’re glad this nightmare’s over, Zann. Come Monday morning everything goes back to normal, like it never even happened.”
She appreciated the sentiment but her life was still light years away from normal. At least getting her job back gave her a fighting chance. “Thanks for sticking your neck out, Ham. I promise I won’t screw up again.”
“I know you won’t. I’m just sorry we had to put you through all this rigmarole.” Always the gentleman, he helped her into her heavy parka as they walked toward the lobby. “Used to be when you made a mistake, you apologized and everybody moved on. Now the first thing people do is call a lawyer to see how much money they can get.”
“This was nobody’s fault but mine.” She would be forever embarrassed for the trouble she’d caused her bosses at town hall. In a rural hamlet like Colfax, Vermont, even the tiniest scandal was front page news. It wasn’t long ago that the townspeople were cheering her return from Afghanistan as a war hero. Now they probably thought her just another combat veteran with mental health issues. A walking cliché.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Zann. You made a mistake but you paid the price fair and square. It all comes out in the wash.” Ham’s masterful empathy and habitual use of folksy idioms endeared him to local voters, making his continuous reelection a foregone conclusion.
“Getting my job back…at least that takes the pressure off. Now all I have to do is sort this mess out with Marleigh and catch up on our bills.”
He gave her a grim half smile. “I was sorry to hear you’d moved back home with your mom and pop. What’s going on with the house?”
Zann cringed to think how many people in the closely-knit town knew of their marital problems. “Marleigh got an offer from the real estate agent but she needs me to sign the papers too. Maybe now that I’m going back to work, we won’t have to sell. I’m heading over there right now to try to talk her out of it.”
It wasn’t only their house that needed saving. Marleigh didn’t trust her anymore, and like everything else, that too was her fault.
“Good luck, hon. We’re all pulling for you.”
Feeling exposed under his watchful eye, she thanked him again and skated tentatively across the icy parking lot to her SUV, a rusted Jeep Grand Cherokee with 164,000 miles of wear and tear. As usual, the engine turned over several times before finally catching and sending a blast of frigid air up from the floorboard. With her fingers shaking from the cold—to say nothing of her gut-wrenching anxiety—she tapped out a text on her phone: Just got big news can i come to your office?
More than a week had passed since they last spoke by phone, which should have been enough time and distance for Marleigh to calm down and rethink her rash decision to sell the house. Instead she’d forged ahead and jumped on the very first offer, dropping the papers off for Zann’s signature without even hanging around to talk.
The reply was devastating but not surprising. Only if ur ready 2 sign contract.
“Twist the knife, how ’bout it?” Zann pounded her steering wheel as she studied the ultimatum on her text screen. An open-handed slap would have been kinder.
Another fight about the house was the last thing they needed, especially with all of Marleigh’s coworkers straining to hear. She’d bring the contract, all right, but that didn’t mean she’d sign it. The house was all they had. If they sold it, what would bind them together?
It was after three o’clock, almost press time for the Colfax Messenger, the newspaper where Marleigh worked as city editor. They’d be winding down their workday.
On my way.
What choice did she have? With her back against the wall, there was nothing left to do but come clean. Marleigh had been right all along—Zann had hidden something from her since last May, a secret so explosive it could rock the very foundation of their marriage. But then keeping the secret had done that too.
Bottom line—she wasn’t the person Marleigh thought she was.
“Goddamn it.” This was it. The whole truth, nothing but the truth. It wasn’t just the last three and a half years they stood to lose, but the rest of their lives too.
Her Jeep plowed through the slush onto Colfax’s Main Street, now bustling with after-school traffic. Between the crosswalks and bus stops, it took almost ten minutes to travel a quarter of a mile to the newspaper office, a flat one-story building at the edge of the town’s modest commercial district. The lined spaces near the door were reserved for customers, so she parked alongside Marleigh’s gray sedan in the area designated for Colfax Messenger employees. Six cars…that was practically everyone on staff, making this a spectacle for all to see.
The stakes of her last-gasp appeal were high—if Marleigh said no this time, it really was over.
* * *
On my way, the text read.
The coffee turned to acid in Marleigh’s throat. It wasn’t in her nature to be so pigheaded, but Bridget had a point—pigheadedness was the only language Zann understood anymore. One of them had to be the adult. Now three months behind on their mortgage, they faced foreclosure by the bank within days if they didn’t act.
Financial ruin wasn’t even the worst of it. Even if they somehow staved off bankruptcy, their marriage had suffered a savage blow. Her heart still held out for a miracle but her rational side was quickly losing hope. The woman she’d married only three years ago had been a kind, peaceful soul whose love felt like the most precious thing in the world. Was it even possible for Zann to be that person again? Their love should have been for all time. Six months of nudging, begging and demanding hadn’t worked. Zann was on a road to self-destruction and she was taking Marleigh down with her. With each day that passed, the end game looked more and more like divorce.
Divorce. She’d never even uttered the word aloud and now it seemed all but inevitable. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It wasn’t supposed to end at all.
“Everything okay?” Bridget asked, peering from her adjacent desk over a pair of Oliver Peoples reading glasses that she didn’t actually need. The lenses were the lowest possible strength, she’d explained. Apparently her boyfriend Luc thought they gave her a sophisticated flair.
“I just got a text from Zann. Says she has big news about something, asked if she could come by.” Feeling guilty for her weakness, she quickly added, “But I told her only if she brought me the signed contract.”
“Good for you. You need to hold the line on this, Marleigh. I’m here if you need backup. You’re the one who taught me to stand up for myself.”
“I think I can handle it,” Marleigh muttered.
The heavy glass door swung wide, sending a gust of wintry air around the room. Editor Clay Teele entered and stomped his snow-covered shoes on a welcome mat that stretched all the way to the chest-high customer service counter. Though short and wiry, he always managed to overpower the room with his intensity. “What have you got, Anderhall?”
Marleigh held out her working versions of the day’s assignments. “Suspicious garage fire on Highbridge. Owner of puppy mill pleads guilty to animal cruelty charge. I’m still working on the police blotter for tomorrow…couple of break-ins, vandalism at Hannaford’s, and a hit-and-run on a parked car at the armory.”
“Over a thousand expected for Winter Festival,” Bridget said, adding her story to Clay’s pile. “Plus I got some good snow pictures from Barry. And the high school honor roll’s out. I went over this morning and got quotes from some of the kids.”
Clay’s shoulders drooped, his typical response to a slow news day. Scandalous drug busts, graphic vehicle accidents and raucous town council meetings sold more papers. That mattered a lot with all the ads running for Christmas sales. “Please tell me there’s something exciting in sports.”
Terry Henderson, whose desk sat behind Marleigh’s in the back corner, continued typing as he answered, “Bruins won, Celtics lost. Got those off the wire. Colfax varsity plays Rutland tonight.”
Marleigh, Bridget and Terry were all that remained of a local news staff that had withered from a dozen over the past six years amid a continuing downturn in newspaper readership. Clay culled national and state news from the wire services and wrote a daily column for the editorial page, answering directly to the corporate office in Burlington.
Tammy Hatch, the youngest Messenger employee at twenty-four, handled advertising sales. Like Clay, she had a glass-enclosed office with a door, a blessing to everyone since she spent ninety percent of her time on the phone chattering with potential advertisers.
Though Clay was editor and boss, it was Fran Crippen who kept the place going. A widow with Colfax roots going back to the American Revolution, she’d managed the customer service desk for almost forty years and knew every subscriber by name.
Marleigh punched up the lead on her puppy mill story and submitted the final version electronically to Terry’s inbox for copy edits. She was ahead of schedule for a change—which gave her a few minutes to talk if Zann actually stopped by.
As Clay disappeared into his office, Bridget leaned over and murmured, “Is it my imagination or is he crankier than usual?”
“He’s always like that when he gets back from a meeting at corporate. They’re probably leaning on him for more budget cuts.”
“Cripes, we’re down to six people. It’s all we can do to get the paper out as it is.”
Marleigh worried every day the honchos in Burlington would decide to cut their losses on the cluster of small-town dailies and shut them all down. They’d folded a handful already and were hiring stringers to cover local news for the statewide Burlington edition. In fact, she’d taken on some freelance work in nearby Middlebury to make ends meet after Zann lost her job.
“Luc says I ought to try working at the Montreal Gazette,” Bridget scoffed. “Like I’m just going to walk in there and get a job. I reminded him I’m not even Canadian.”
After years of being emotionally and physically abused by her former husband, Bridget deserved someone who would lavish her with the finer things. That was Luc Michaux, a day trader from Montreal who had fallen in love with both Bridget and the small-town life of rural Vermont.
“What are you and Luc up to this weekend?”
Bridget scrunched her nose and shrugged. “Not sure. He’s been in New York all week. He’s been so busy…hasn’t even called me in like, two days.”
Marleigh briefly considered inviting her over to hang out, but she needed to finish packing. If their sales contract went through, she’d have only a couple of weeks to get out. The buyers were paying cash and wanted to close by the end of the month.
“Don’t look now, but somebody’s coming,” Bridget said. Her desk afforded the best view of the entrance. “And I’ll be damned…it looks like she’s got the papers in her hand.”
Just knowing Zann would walk through the door any moment filled Marleigh with both longing and dread. Longing for the thrill Zann had aroused since the first day they met, and dread that today could be the beginning of the end. The last time they spoke, Zann had warned of leaving Vermont once and for all if they split up. Sign on with a private military contractor and return to a war zone, she said. Threats like that were hard to swallow, but they only prolonged the suffering. Marleigh had to put her own feelings first for a change and let the chips fall.
At five-eleven, Zann was a formidable woman, no small thanks to the stiff posture ingrained through years of military life. Her usual swagger had faltered somewhat since her troubles started last summer. She glanced hesitantly at Marleigh’s coworkers, peeled off her gloves and fleece cap, and shook out her shoulder-length dark hair. With a small wave to Fran she ambled closer, her aching smile threatening to break Marleigh’s heart. In a gravelly voice, she said, “Hey…think we could go somewhere private and talk?”
The calm words were a welcome change from a month ago, the last time they’d stood face-to-face. Then, Zann had been desperate for a lifeline and anxious about having to move out of the house.
Marleigh stole a glance at the papers in her grip, confirming it was the contract with a 72-hour deadline she’d hand delivered to Zann’s father three nights ago. The finality of signing over their house gripped her as she rolled her chair back and gestured toward the hallway leading to the restrooms and break area. “Let’s get some coffee in the back.”
The break area was barely large enough for the card table and four plastic chairs. A refrigerator stood against the far wall where a small window overlooked the employee parking lot. The counter held a cheap coffeemaker and an apartment-sized microwave, with storage cabinets above and below.
Zann shrugged off her parka and draped it over a chair, all without letting go of the papers. “You look great. As usual, I mean…you always look great to me.”
Marleigh took the compliment in stride. There was nothing special about her appearance today. She wore old corduroy jeans and a black fleece pullover that zipped to her neck. Her caramel-colored hair, short and straight, was overdue for a cut. She suspected the compliment had more to do with Zann just being glad to see her. “What you look is tired, Zann. You taking care of yourself?”
“Best I can. It hasn’t been easy…I know, not for you either. ”
“Of course not. I hurt just as much as you do.”
“I haven’t signed these yet.” Zann slapped the papers in her opposite hand, then drew in a deep breath and nearly choked as she let it out. “I’m so sorry for getting us into this mess. It kills me to think everything we worked so hard for could be gone forever just by writing my name on this stupid piece of paper. I’d do anything to keep that from happening. That’s why I’m here, because I need to tell you something. Please just try to keep an open mind. If you hear me out and still decide this is what you really want, I’ll go ahead and sign it.”
“I appreciate that, Zann. I really do. We can’t hold on any longer. At some point, we have to just…” She couldn’t bring herself to say it—they were saying goodbye to their dream.
Zann’s face fell, but she recovered instantly with the same strained smile as when she’d walked in the door. “There’s still time to work this out. I promise I didn’t come here to give you the same old shit again.”
“We’ve already been through everything a million times. What’s left to say?” The resignation in her voice had more to do with hopelessness than resistance. She could never not listen—that’s why Bridget had urged her to avoid another bargaining session. Even after all they’d been through, she’d always be a slave to Zann’s magnetism. “I’ll listen, but don’t expect it to change anything.”
“That’s all I’m asking. Thank you.” Zann leaned against the counter and folded her arms, blowing out a nervous breath. “First of all, I just came from a meeting with Malcolm and Ham. I start back to work on Monday—same job, same salary. Everything back just like it was.”
A part of her wanted to leap for joy. Zann had been suspended from work for the last five months, causing what had been an almost-manageable crisis at home to spin completely out of control. It had upended not only their financial stability but Zann’s sense of purpose. In practical terms, this could put them back on solid ground.
But was it too little too late? It didn’t fix the underlying problem—Zann was grappling with a personal demon from her past and refused even to say what it was.
“And now comes the big news,” she went on, her wide green eyes showing a glint of cheerfulness that didn’t jibe with the occasion. “I went for the psych eval like they asked…and like you asked. Turns out I’m not even all that crazy. Can you believe it?”
“I never thought you were. I just thought you needed to talk to somebody.” Except she’d hoped that somebody would be her. Zann had kept her in the dark for too long.
“We set up three more sessions but he says we can go longer if I think I need it.”
Marleigh wanted to cheer, but after so many empty promises there was no shaking the fear that this was purely an attempt to manipulate her into calling off the sale. Zann wasn’t easy to trust anymore—she could very well keep her appointments but sabotage her progress and they’d be back where they started, especially if she lost her job again.
“Look, Marleigh…this is what you wanted, isn’t it? Everything’s going to be okay now. I love you.”
“I know you do. And you know how much I wanted you to get help. But it doesn’t change how much you hurt me.”
“How many times do I have to say it? I’m sorry. All this crap I’ve been going through has nothing to do with you.”
“It has everything to do with me if you shut me out. I’ve never given you a reason not to trust me, not once.” Her voice rose with every word, enough that she forced herself to close her eyes and take a deep, hissing breath.
This was their pattern. Or rather, Marleigh’s pattern. She started every conversation wanting badly to believe Zann was ready to turn the corner. In the end, the hurt would overwhelm her and she’d lash out. The issue wasn’t only the lack of trust. Zann had ignored her pleas for so long that it began to feel like deliberate indifference to the toll it was taking on their marriage. The final straw came when Marleigh concluded that she was the only one who cared about saving what they had.
“You’re the only person I’ve ever completely trusted in my whole life.” Zann took a step toward her, holding her hands out as if begging to be believed. “It was never about you. Hell, I could barely stomach telling the psychologist, and he hears this kind of shit all the time. But I swear I’m ready to talk now. I’ll tell you everything you want to know.”
Marleigh couldn’t deny her surge of hope that today might be the breakthrough Zann needed. That they needed. The fact that she’d finally confessed to someone had to be good news. “Whatever this is, Zann…I’m pulling for you. I want to see you happy again.”
“I can’t be happy if we aren’t together. Simple as that. The reason I haven’t told you…I was scared you wouldn’t love me anymore.”
Marleigh’s arms opened automatically as Zann closed the distance between them and enveloped her in a hug. She was utterly powerless every time Zann reached for her.
“Can we hold off a little longer, Marleigh…please? I don’t want to lose our house. We’re supposed to grow old there. Give me one last chance to fix this. If I screw it up this time, I swear I won’t fight you anymore. Just please don’t throw us away yet.”
As she buried her face in Zann’s warm neck, strong arms tightened around her waist. And her heart responded the same way it always had. She wanted so, so badly to say yes, but…
The window casing shuddered from a change in air pressure, a faint signal that someone had entered the lobby. Marleigh broke their embrace. “Look, this isn’t the time or place to—”
Two sharp pops erupted in the outer room.
Zann gripped her shoulders tightly and whispered, “Those were gunshots!”
June, three years earlier
Khaki combat boots were a bit overkill for lawn work but Zann’s only other options were running shoes or the black corframs she wore with her service uniform. Her entire wardrobe needed a civilian overhaul.
“You don’t have to do that,” her mother yelled from the patio door. “Corey Hammerick only charges fifteen dollars for the whole yard.”
Zann waved her off as the mower roared to life. She’d been sitting on her ass since returning to Colfax two weeks ago. No job, no prospects. Bored out of her mind. There wasn’t much demand for experienced combat soldiers, especially one who couldn’t even raise a weapon.
The Troy-Bilt mower was self-propelled with a motor on the front wheel that pulled it forward as long as she squeezed together two bars on the handle. Easier said than done, since the radial nerve in her left arm had been severed by a bullet from a Taliban fighter in Afghanistan—five months ago today. Now four surgeries later, she had only a trace of feeling in her thumb and index finger, and little control of her elbow or wrist. The physical therapist’s most optimistic prognosis was a fifty percent recovery, a number that had drawn her a medical retirement from the Marine Corps after only eight years.
No way was she settling for fifty percent. The last surgery, a tendon transfer, had swapped the affected muscles to another nerve. Now all she had to do was train that nerve to do a new job. On any given day it meant three hours of repetitive therapy. The aggressive schedule was necessary—she’d been advised that recovery had to happen soon or the muscles would lose their tone forever. Six months from now she could be maxed out.
Mowing grass seemed to put all the right muscles to work, at least. Maybe the answer was to swallow her pride and sign on with a lawn service for the rest of the summer. That would buy her some time to decide on a new career. Surely someone had use for a Syracuse grad with the self-discipline of a Marine Corps officer.
“Zann!” Her mother dodged clumps of freshly-clipped grass as she picked her way across the lawn. “Did you forget about the interview? That reporter just called and said she’d be here at two o’clock.”
“Ugh!” It was tradition, the editor had said, for the newspaper to profile the grand marshal of the town’s Fourth of July parade. No one had ever declined the invitation. “You think it’s too late to change my mind about this whole parade business? I’m going to look like an idiot.”
“Oh, come on. It might be fun.”
The parade gig had been Ham’s idea. He’d just been elected mayor on a campaign of bringing back small-town values like family and patriotism. What better way for Colfax to celebrate Independence Day than to put a local face on the War on Terror?
She couldn’t imagine anything worse than being the center of attention at a town parade, and would have flatly refused if not for her mom’s gentle reminder that it would mean a lot to her father’s friends and coworkers at town hall. Personal relationships mattered and Ham was a friend.
“I should be done by two o’clock,” she shouted. And if she wasn’t, the reporter could just cool her jets. Maybe she’d get bored and leave.
* * *
Marleigh crept along Fullmer Street, one hand on the wheel and the other on her scribbled directions. Most houses in the neighborhood were Cape Cods, two-story cubes with a pair of gables on the second floor. These were the established families of Colfax’s professional class—doctors, attorneys, professors.
“Eight-seventeen,” she said aloud as she rolled to a stop in front of a home that was markedly different, a small bungalow separated from its neighbor on one side by a row of juniper trees, and on the other by a tall wooden fence. Why would those neighbors feel the need to hide the house from their view? It was a small but tidy home, freshly painted in pale yellow with white trim and shutters, and surrounded by colorful petunias and mums. An American flag hung limply from a mount in observance of Independence Day, less than a week away. Clearly the Redekers were patriots.
The grass between the sidewalk and the street was freshly mowed, but a pair of grooves suggested this was where guests were expected to park. She checked the vanity mirror and applied a light coat of pink lip balm, the only makeup she wore in the summer.
This was a plum assignment, an in-depth profile of an interesting public figure. At thirty-four, Marleigh had earned the chance for more challenging work, having paid her dues reporting small-town news for the local afternoon newspaper, the Colfax Messenger. Community events, police blotter and traffic accidents. Not much else happened in rural Vermont.
Today’s interview was special for more than just a professional opportunity. She was already in awe of her enigmatic subject, United States Marine Corps Captain Suzann Redeker, a returning war veteran who’d tried at first to shun the attention her heroic deeds warranted. That alone made her intriguing. What kind of person eschewed the prestige and acclaim of her hometown? According to the commendation report, Redeker had been awarded the Bronze Star with V—one of the nation’s highest medals for valor—after rushing headlong into a hostile dwelling to save another soldier. While her effort had been unsuccessful, she’d taken out four militants who’d amassed weapons for an imminent assault on Camp Leatherneck in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan, home to thousands of Marines.
Notepad and recorder in hand, Marleigh climbed the stairs and rang the bell, eager to meet the courageous Captain Redeker.
A sheer curtain wafted as someone inside checked her out. Then a middle-aged woman appeared at the door, the captain’s mother Marleigh assumed. She wore the unofficial uniform of a housewife in summer, Capri pants with a knit top that proclaimed her World’s Best Grandma. “You must be the reporter Suzann told us about.”
In preparing for the interview, she’d learned Chuck Redeker worked in the town clerk’s office as a property tax assessor. Modest income but at least recession-proof. His wife Leeann advertised in the Yellow Pages as a seamstress doing alterations out of her home.
“Yes, Marleigh Anderhall with the Messenger. Here to see Captain Redeker.”
“Please come in. I’ll get her.”
From the entryway, she peered into the living room, as simple and neat as the exterior of the house. The furniture appeared worn but comfortable. Family photos lined the wall, including one of a smiling young couple with two small boys. The father in that photo had to be the Redekers’ son, since he looked exactly like the woman who’d answered the door.
In the corner was a shrine-like exhibit that included a carved mahogany eagle on a pedestal. Beside it was a photo Marleigh recognized as her interview subject, probably taken years ago when she was first commissioned. Wearing Dress Blues with a white cap, she stared sternly at the camera with a glower of determination. Mounted on the wall beneath the portrait was a glass case that displayed two medals, which Marleigh surmised from this distance to be the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. According to Clay, the latter was why the good captain was now back in Colfax—a medical discharge for injuries sustained in combat.
The front door opened behind her, this time to Captain Redeker herself, now standing on the porch. She was taller than average and sturdily built, and her dark hair was pulled through the back of a Red Sox cap. A faded orange Syracuse University T-shirt, its long sleeves pushed to the elbows, was tucked neatly into worn jeans.
There was an instantaneous vibe about her, a stereotype Marleigh made a conscious effort to resist. A woman could be physically imposing without being gay.
And that would be a real shame. She’d always been a sucker for a strong woman in uniform, and her imagination raced to fill such a vision with the features of Captain Redeker.
The captain’s face was lit with uncommonly pale green eyes and the faintest hint of a nervous smile. “Sorry, didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I was out back and didn’t want to track through the house.”
Marleigh looked down to see tan combat boots covered in freshly clipped grass. A war hero who mowed her parents’ lawn…humility personified. “It’s okay. I’m here from the Messenger. Is today still good for our interview, Captain?”
“Yeah, sure. Would it be okay if we did this out here on the porch? Mom’ll kill me if I get her rug dirty.”
Her voice was more animated than Marleigh had expected, given her reluctance over the phone to the interview. Messenger readers were sure to find her fascinating.
Mrs. Redeker reappeared. “I have to go pick up some zippers and thread, Suzann. Don’t forget your dad’s grilling hamburgers for dinner. The Hammericks are coming over.”
That had to be the mayor, Marleigh thought, since Hammerick wasn’t a common surname in Colfax. It was curious to think of the Redekers, obviously a working-class family, hobnobbing with the town’s power center.
The captain waited gallantly for Marleigh to choose the rocker before spreading herself in the center of the swing. With a tap of her foot, she started the gentle pendulum.
“I should properly introduce myself. My name’s Marleigh Anderhall.” She handed over a business card and placed her recorder on a side table between them. “If it’s okay with you, I’d like to record this interview. This gadget’s a whole lot better at taking notes than I am.”
“Fine by me. Just don’t ask me to sing.”
She was instantly charmed by the hangdog smile—not that she needed more charming. Redeker’s personal story had captivated her even before they met. “I feel like I ought to confess something, Captain. I’ve read your Bronze Star citation about a dozen times and I’m a little starstruck to meet you.”
“Thank you…I guess,” she mumbled sheepishly. “Like I said on the phone, I can’t imagine why anybody would be interested in me. I’m a pretty boring person.”
Surely she realized she’d done something extraordinary. “I spoke with someone yesterday at the town manager’s office. He said they really had to twist your arm to get you to agree to be the grand marshal at the Fourth of July parade. Should I take that to mean you’re modest? Or just shy?”
It wasn’t the first question on Marleigh’s list, but she needed to establish a conversational rapport to make the captain more forthcoming. Redeker had already explained that she couldn’t say much on the record about her time in Afghanistan. Apparently most military actions were considered classified.
“I don’t know that I’m either one,” she answered with a shrug. “Some people might think what I did was a big deal, but it was just my job. Same as any other Marine. It’s what we’re trained to do.”
“And right there—that’s what makes it interesting. A woman who grew up right here in Colfax wins a Bronze Star, and we think she ought to lead the celebration on the most patriotic day of the year. But you’re going to tell us why valor like yours is just another day at the office for the Marine Corps. Sound right to you, Captain?”
She finally grinned. “Call me Zann. I’m a civilian now. Or I will be if I can get a few more years in without being called back up. Not even a medical retirement gets you out of the reserves.”
Zann. A stronger sounding name than Suzann, perhaps chosen by a girl who resisted frilly things.
“A civilian. How does that feel?”
“It’s definitely going to take some getting used to. Yesterday I almost saluted the mailman.”
Marleigh chuckled and leafed through a small stack of clippings, handing her the oldest one. “Here’s something kind of interesting…turns out I’ve written about you before. I first came to work at the Messenger twelve years ago as a college intern. One of my assignments was to write blurbs about all the high school seniors who got scholarships. You were headed to Syracuse with the ROTC.”
Zann smiled faintly as she studied it. “I remember this. Mom and Dad bought up about twenty copies of the paper and sent them to everyone they ever knew. You’d have thought I cured cancer or something.”
“That’s what proud parents do.” There was a second article from four years later, a column about Colfax families with a military connection. Fresh out of college, Zann had joined the Marines as a second lieutenant. “I came across this one too, but it’s not one of mine. Volunteering during wartime…even more impressive than a scholarship, if you ask me.”
The smile dimmed as she silently scanned the words. “That was the deal I made when I accepted the scholarship.”
Marleigh went on, “A lot of people were against the war but they respected the people who sacrificed by putting on the uniform and going into harm’s way.”
“Yeah, that was good while it lasted. Hard to sustain the support though when it drags out so long.”
The reporter in Marleigh wanted to pursue that remark, but her assignment was to write a feel-good piece to celebrate a heroic soldier coming home, not a takedown of politicians or protesters. Opening a can of worms could derail her interview, perhaps causing her subject to clam up.
“So what was it that drew you to the Marine Corps instead of one of the other branches?”
Zann shifted and draped an arm on the back of the swing, a surprisingly relaxed posture for someone who’d been so reluctant to talk. “To be honest, ever since 9/11 I felt like busting some heads, and the Marines…they’re all gung-ho, you know? The toughest, the first to get to where the trouble is. I guess the short answer is I wanted to be in the middle of the action. I thought my best shot was with the Marine Corps. Plus it’s like a family. I’m sure you’ve heard that saying—once a Marine, always a Marine.”
Knowing the recorder would capture their words, Marleigh was free to focus on her subject and her unusual combination of features—a strong, intimidating physique that was feminized by soft eyes, rounded lips and smooth-looking skin. The sharp jawline hardened her face somewhat, and her husky voice suggested she didn’t suffer fools. It wasn’t hard to imagine soldiers jumping at her orders.
“But the official policy of the Pentagon was not to allow women in combat. Were you thinking they might change that for the War on Terror?”
Zann rolled her eyes. “You’d think—especially after enlistments dried up. I waited four years to get deployed and ended up doing three tours in Afghanistan.”
“Three tours…that sounds like a lot. But at least you were lucky you weren’t sent to Iraq. The local National Guard unit got deployed there. One of them works at my hair salon now. She said it was like going through the back door to hell.”
“Iraq, Afghanistan. It didn’t really matter to me. If I learned anything in the Marines, it was to shut up and do as I was told. That whole argument over Iraq was for you guys to figure out.”
Marleigh picked up a hint of rebuke. “Sorry, I didn’t mean…I’m sure what they did over there was important.”
“No, I get it. Some people say we shouldn’t have been there in the first place, but the guys I knew felt pretty good about what they accomplished over there. On a personal level, I mean.”
“So what did you do all that time while you were waiting to get deployed?”
“Two years advanced officer training at Quantico, two years instructing urban tactics at Camp Lejeune. Then I lucked out and got picked for one of the FETs. Gave me a chance to put my knowledge to work.”
Marleigh recognized the acronym, sounded out to rhyme with vets. “I read about those, the Female Engagement Teams. Team Lioness, I think they called it.”
“Talk about making a difference…we really did. All the FETs were attached to regular combat units that went out on patrol. We were combat soldiers too. They just wouldn’t call us that because of the Pentagon policy.”
“Pretty absurd, right?”
“Guess that’s one word for it. Our job was to change hearts and minds. A typical FET was six or eight female soldiers paired up with a couple of dozen infantry. We’d go into villages—all of us carrying a full pack and M16s just like regular infantry—but our main mission was to talk to the women. The wives and daughters and mothers…see, they weren’t comfortable around male soldiers. Just talking to a man could be humiliating for a Muslim woman. Imagine how they felt being patted down by one. They got so they’d hide from the patrol units, but we could see them sneaking around. It made everybody tense, trigger happy. We turned all that around by engaging with them…asking about their families, giving toys and candy to their kids. When you show people you care about them, that you respect their customs, they’ll help you. They didn’t want their kids getting blown up or going off to join the radicals. So they’d help us and tell us things we needed to know, like who was working with the Taliban, or what time a truck came through the village and how many men were on it. They knew we were there to keep them safe.”
It was then she realized Zann had been waving her right hand as she talked, while the left lay still in her lap. Lifeless. Was that the reason for her Purple Heart? For leaving the Marines? “It sounds like dangerous work.”
“Like I said, it was a job. The danger—being aware of it, focusing on it—that’s what kept you alive.”
* * *
The lingering gaze at her lap was subtle but certain. Marleigh Anderhall had noticed the weakened appendage hanging almost uselessly from her shoulder.
“I can tell you want to ask about my injury,” she said evenly, resisting the urge to chuckle at Marleigh’s blush, her second of the afternoon after the scornful remark about soldiers getting deployed to Iraq instead of Afghanistan. “Go ahead, I don’t mind.”
Marleigh was charming with a good mix of friendliness and professionalism. And attractive too, she admitted. Especially the brown eyes that smiled so much. It was tempting to read more into their connection, to entertain a certain vibe that they also were speaking to one another through a more personal undercurrent. Or maybe she was so flattered by Marleigh’s respect and admiration that she mistook it for interest.
“Okay then…you were awarded a Purple Heart. Was that because of your arm?”
“I took a bullet here,” she answered, drawing an imaginary line just above her left elbow, which was covered by her sleeve. “Right through the radial nerve, which it turns out is how you bend your elbow and wrist. I don’t have a whole lot of strength in my hand but I’m still working on it.”
“I’m guessing you planned on a career in the Marine Corps. How did you feel about being discharged?”
“Separated is what they call it…means exactly what it says,” she added dismally. It was as if a wall had been dropped between her old life and where she was now. “They’re there and I’m here. I wasn’t happy about it if that’s what you’re asking. But I went through all the assessments fair and square—it was pretty clear I wasn’t up to the job anymore. You can’t take a gimpy arm onto the battlefield when you’re responsible for other soldiers in your team. I would have been the weak link.” She’d practiced those words in her head at the Naval Hospital at Camp Lejeune once she’d gotten word she was being recommended for medical retirement. The verdict didn’t change just because she didn’t want it to be true.
“So it was hard to accept.”
“Most days I realize I’m damn lucky to be alive. I was wearing a tactical vest with ceramic plates. That’s something you put on every time you leave camp, even if it’s just to fetch a ball that gets thrown over the fence. It protects your major organs, which is the difference between life and death if somebody’s shooting at you close-range with a semiautomatic rifle.”
“The commendation says you were ambushed. That must have been terrifying. It scared me just to read about it. You were on patrol in the Helmand Province?”
She nodded. “What they put in the commendation…that’s pretty much all I’m allowed to say about it. The particulars are still classified. Probably will be until fifty years after all of us are dead.”
Marleigh wagged her pencil by her cheek the way Groucho did his cigar. “Well now, that’s a problem, Captain Redeker…Zann. Because if I can’t write about your wartime heroics, I’m going to have to write about you. And something tells me you don’t like to talk about yourself much.”
Zann chuckled. “You could end up with a very short article.”
“Maybe…maybe not. How about you tell me what you’re looking for out of life now that you’ve come home to Colfax?”
“You would have to start off with a hard question.”
“What makes it so hard?” Marleigh narrowed her eyes and leaned forward, as if she thought the answer would be a whispered secret.
Which in some ways, it was. Zann hadn’t discussed with anyone, not even her parents, her reservations about coming back to her hometown for good. She’d changed so much in the time she’d been gone, not only as a Marine but as a woman. In her mind, Colfax was only a stopover, a place to recover from her injury and buy some time to figure out what to do next. She doubted seriously the town could offer what she needed to feel at home.
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