by Jane Mortkowitz

DANTZLER AWARD FOR FICTION WINNER

Each year Limestone publishes works by University of Kentucky undergraduates: the winning story of the Dantzler Award for Fiction and the winning poem of the Farquahar Award for Poetry. We are pleased to include Jane Mortkowitz, the winner of the 2014 Dantzler Award for Fiction, in this edition. 

            Cassie is there at the bus stop to meet him when he comes home. It is snowing, and she is freezing as she bounces on the balls of her feet and cranes her neck, straining to see down the road through the white dust, to see the bus driving down toward her. Her skin is covered, but she is the first to admit that her boots, tights, dress, and pea coat are not strictly appropriate for the dead of winter’s low temperatures. She wants to look her best, though. Her husband is finally coming home after twelve long months.

            By the time Jamie’s bus pulls up at the stop, Cassie’s nose is running and her face is flushed from the cold. She is glad that she declined her parents’ offer to come with her to greet him. She wants this moment to be private, and they would have been uncomfortable standing in the snow.

            The bus comes to a shuddering halt. White smoke puffs from the exhaust pipe for a full thirty seconds before the door pops and folds open. A stream of men and women in khaki boots and geometric camouflage, with regulation backpacks, come flowing out of that door and finally she sees him.

            He looks exhausted and lost as he steps off the bus and onto the white pavement.  Cassie watches him from afar for a few seconds more before running to him. She throws her arms around his neck and waits for him to lift her up and spin her around. He does not. He stands very still for ten heartbeats before slowly raising his arms. He places shaking hands on her waist and presses a gentle kiss to her short, black, hat-covered hair.

            “Hi, Cassie,” he greets her softly.

            She gazes up at him, at his distant expression, and tries to find that feeling of home that he has always given her. She searches her heart for the warmth that she has associated with him since they were children. She searches his gaze for the Jamie who left. She sees only a tired stranger gazing over her head and into the distance. Uncertainty filling her, she shifts so that she can take his hands in hers. Even through her mittens, she can feel that they are rough, calloused by work. His hands were always so soft before…

            “Let’s go home,” she suggests, giving his hands a squeeze.

            He nods and offers her a smile that rings false, his eyes remaining distant. She leads him to her car and watches him throw his backpack into the backseat before climbing into the front passenger seat. She stands outside of the car for a few moments, then slips into the driver’s seat. She digs her keys out of her purse and frowns when she looks up and he has a cigarette in his mouth.

            “Since when do you smoke?” she asks him, frowning faintly.

            He shrugs and waits for her to start the engine. He rolls down the window before lighting the white cylinder. Instead of answering her question, he blows smoke out the window and suggests simply, “Let’s go home.”

*          *          *

            Jamie does not seem to know what to do in the house, now that he’s there. He sits around the living room, then moves into the kitchen, and finally goes outside.

            Eventually, he takes to running in the mornings. When Cassie finds herself waking up alone, she says nothing at first. Then she confronts Jamie for the first time, and he snaps for the first time, and they fight for the first time.

            “So, what do you want? I’m supposed to wait until whenever you wake up to go running?”

            “No, but…why don’t you ever want to go running with me?”

            “Because you can’t keep up with the pace I want to set.”

            She feels her eyes burn with tears, but he is not facing her. But I can, she almost says, but she can’t, really. She’s no athlete, never has been. She barely even passed gym class in high school…

            A car backfires outside, and Jamie shoots off like a spring coiled too tightly. He grabs her and lunges forward and then they’re both on the ground, his body covering hers protectively, his eyes wide and his breath unsteady.

            At first, she is afraid to move at all. She doesn’t want to startle him. Then, slowly, she threads her fingers into his dark red curls and finally pulls him into an embrace. He is stiff on top of her and they do not say anything for a long time.

            If I can get him out of here, she thinks, staring up at the ceiling of their military-provided house that she has spent the past fifteen months to make perfect for him, then he will be okay. We will be okay.

*          *          *

            Cassie sits on her front porch and watches the end of the block. Jamie will be returning soon. She takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, trying to steel her nerves for his return. She almost dreads it.

            As the seconds tick by, Cassie looks down at her wrist and frowns, considering the bruises imprinted on her pale flesh. Her mind wanders to the night before. She hears Jamie’s whimpers in her mind, feels him thrashing in the bed beside her, sees the pain, the fear, and the worry etched on his face, his eyes screwed shut. She reaches out to touch his shoulder, to pull him out of the nightmare.

            His eyes snap open without seeing. He sits up abruptly, gripping her wrist tightly to pull her hand off his shoulder, to break that contact she’d tried to initiate. He is a force of nature, his fist rushing toward her face.

            She screams “Jamie!” and he freezes. The animal slinks back into its cage, and her husband stares at her, horror on his face. He pulls away from her, pale and shaking and a thin layer of sweat breaking out over his face.

            “Cassie, I…” He shakes his head slowly and looks away from her. “I’m sorry, I…”

            He falls silent and lies down, pretending to go to sleep. But Cassie knows him too well, and neither of them sleep that night.

            She is exhausted. She looks up to see Jamie standing in the yard, watching her. Sedately, he makes his way to his wife, waiting for him.

            “Hi,” she greets him quietly. He cannot look at her, which makes this even more awkward.

            “Hi,” he greets her in return, his voice as soft as his footsteps as he creeps from their bed each morning.

            Then he skirts around her and goes inside.

 

             Cassie calls her parents and tells them about the trouble she’s been having with this husband she no longer knows. Her and Jamie’s anniversary is coming up, and her mother tells her that they are going to fund a retreat for the two of them, when Jamie has leave, so that they can have some alone time together. Away from the Army. Away from everything. Jamie looks less than enthused about the prospect of the three-hour drive to Aunt Susan’s lakeside cottage, but he agrees.

            When they arrive, Cassie finds that the lakeside cottage is not what she expected. She’s never been to Susan’s summer house before, but she’s been looking forward to a happy cottage and a bright blue sky.

            Instead, she is met with gray. The sand is gray. The water is gray. The sky is gray. They have been promised the little house for a week. She hopes that it will not be so gray for the whole time, but it seems fitting somehow.

            She reaches for his hand, but it is not there. Her heart aches, but she is no longer surprised by the lack of human contact. It seems that his hand is never there for her anymore. She would really be shocked if it were there to meet her own hand now.

            They kept the car cold with the air conditioner, but it is sweltering here. She pulls off her cardigan and wipes sweat from her forehead with her hand, looking around helplessly. She hears the trunk of the car slam down behind her as Jamie pulls the bags out and starts carrying them to the cottage. There is a set of keys waiting for them in the mailbox. Cassie uses them to open the front door. Inside, the gloom and heat are more oppressive than ever.

*          *          *

            In the days to follow, both their tempers wear thin. The road is up a hill, away from the lake. All day, all night, there is a dull roar of traffic that is sometimes lost in the wind off the lake. During the day, she watches Jamie wander the beach, and at night, both her nightmares and Jamie’s keep her awake. She doesn’t know what haunts her husband. He has never told her. She is plagued by news images and his own distant behavior.

            What did you see there? she wants to demand of him. But she is never brave enough to do so. She doesn’t want to spook him. She doesn’t want to risk the chance that he might run from her. It’s hard enough to make him sit still as it is. Once, she dropped a dish and it took her three hours to find him, when he left the room without a word. They were the worst three hours of her life.

            She does not know how to handle this stranger. It’s as if she’s faced with someone she’s never met before. She asks herself how she can be supportive under such circumstances, but she never voices this question to anyone else.

            On the nights when he flees her company because some noise or another sets him off, she sits up in bed, sweating. On her laptop she researches post-traumatic stress disorder. The webpages give her definitions and symptoms and list medications and therapy techniques. None of them tell her how to help him. None of them tell her how to cope.

*          *          *

            The sheets are stuck to her back when she wakes up on the fourth day. Cassie blinks, sweat pooling around her eyes and making her hair cling to her face. Jamie is gone again. It is the third day this week that she’s woken up without him in bed with her. She closes her hand around the sheet and feels her wedding ring slip on her wet finger. They have been married for almost two years, she realizes numbly. Their anniversary is tomorrow. They are only twenty, and she knows that the odds of young marriages lasting are bad, but she still expected it to last more than two years…

            A car alarm honks in the distance, away from the water. She realizes that this is probably what drove Jamie away. Who knows how long it’s been blasting. Her head throbs from a nightmare she can only hazily remember. Even if she wanted to sleep more, she tells herself that the car alarm would keep her awake. Rising, she pulls the sheets off the bed; she looks around the sad little bedroom. The longer she is here, the more depressing she finds it. The walls had once been whitewashed, but now they only look gray. There is no air conditioning in this place, and the ceiling fan and open window provide such little relief. She runs a hand through her hair—wet enough to stand on end when she musses it—and shakes her head slightly. She turns to finish yanking the sopping sheets from the bed.

            Jamie is not in the hallway, as she passes through, or the kitchen where the rickety old washer-dryer waits for her. She shoves the sheets into the machine, dumps in a cap-full of detergent, and the lid slips from her hand, slamming with a clang that is loud enough to make her wince. She almost hopes that he is not in the house. She does not want to frighten him.

            The air is no less oppressive in here, she decides, as she takes a look around. The colors in this room are sad, too. Once, this place must have been happy. Maybe it wasn’t even that long ago. It wasn’t so long ago that she and Jamie were happy too…before he decided that the only way to support her was to risk his life and leave her for so long. There were a few precious weeks, between the wedding and the recruitment office, where things were magical.

            Now she stands in the middle of the empty kitchen and ponders what to do. Through the window, she can see the sky. It is gray, cloudy, pressing down and threatening, as it has been for days. Now, the clouds seem ready to burst. Where is he? She considers making another round through the cabin—maybe he side-stepped her somehow?—when there is a blessed gust of wind that blows the front door open. It wasn’t latched shut. She glances out the window once more and frowns. The sky rumbles, threatens to rain, and lightning dances across the moody landscape. Shaking her head, she lets out a huff of frustration and returns to the bedroom to pull off her thin pajamas and tug on some clothes before rushing out the front door.

            “Jamie? Where are you?” she shouts, cupping her hands around her mouth. The wind whips her words away, lost somewhere over the water. She catches sight of a pair of jeans lying on the sand, and her gaze hesitates on them for a moment before shifting out to the water. Her mouth tightens when she sees his head, his hair wet and a darker red, bobbing in the water a few yards from the shore. Fear grips her heart tightly. Lightning flashes again, and she starts running toward the shore. Surely he wouldn’t…he couldn’t do that to her. Even this new Jamie, this stranger, this…this broken man she’s become accustomed to wouldn’t give up like this…would he? She realizes that she doesn’t know. She can barely even register that he’s moving, alive, and she keeps praying for it anyway. Be alive please be alive please

            “What the hell are you doing in a lake during a thunderstorm?” she demands, as the thunder cracks down from the sky, her feet skidding to a halt in the dull-colored sand just inches from the gray water. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you that water conducts electricity?”
 

            He stands, rising from the water, and turns to her, his eyebrows high and curious. “What?” He holds a hand to his ear, to indicate that he didn’t hear her. She supposes it is possible that the wind really had carried her words away, but perhaps he is just pretending so he wouldn’t have to come up with an excuse for his reckless behavior.

            “Are you trying to kill yourself?” She forces her tone to soften just a little.

            He shakes his head. “No. Couldn’t take the heat.” He glances up at the sky. “The rain will break it.”

            For a moment, she says nothing. Couldn’t take the heat, he said. It is the most explanation she’s received for any of his behavior in months, and it softens her heart, just a bit. Slowly, she reaches out her hand as the thunder cracks again. He accepts and lets her lead him into the cottage, into the bedroom, onto the stripped-bare bed.

            They lie there together, for a time, in silence. Finally, she reaches for his hand, hoping that he will accept her comfort once again. He does not, so she rolls away and makes for the door as the rain begins to fall.

            “Jamie, please,” she says, a pleading edge to her voice. She stands in the door, holding her hand out to him. “I miss you. Please come home.”

            Something cracks in him. He takes her hand and lets her lead him outside. The rain feels absurdly cold after days of sweltering heat. They take off their clothes on the porch and walk naked across the wet sand, down to the water. Cassie is not entirely sure if this is even legal.

            “What are we doing?” he asks her as she leads him into the water. The tension in him breaks, maybe, just a bit. There is even a faint smile playing at his lips as she takes him into the water and they sit down on the sand. The water comes up past her waist. “Didn’t anyone teach you that water conducts electricity?” he parrots her, something resembling teasing in his eyes.

            She smacks his arm gently, and retorts, “I thought you couldn’t hear me.”

            Lightning flashes overhead. Thunder rumbles. Jamie shrugs.

            “I always hear you. I just…can’t always answer.”

            Stark naked, completely vulnerable, with no barriers between them, she pulls him close and kisses him deeply. It takes her a long moment to realize that they are both crying now, and it feels as if Heaven is weeping along with them.

            “Come home,” she begs him again, sobbing, as the words tear themselves from her throat. “Come home, come home, I miss you so much.”

            For the first time since his deployment, he holds her with tenderness, rocking her back and forth as they risk their lives so stupidly in the rain. It does not feel like a risk, though, as she cries against his wet skin, and he presses his cheek against her hair.

            “I’m home,” he tells her. His voice is steady. He says it only once, and does not elaborate.

            It is enough.

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