Kizzie’s husband shunned their special needs daughter and volunteered for Iraq to avoid his family and engage in nefarious operations that ended in his death. The post chaplain tried to help the young widow adjust, but would his feelings for her and the search for his lost sister cause problems?
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JBER Joint Base Fort Richardson Elmendorf, Alaska
Butch frowned as he looked at her in the corner, sucking her thumb, rocking back and forth. “It’s just a phase. The doctor said she’ll get through it soon. She’s confused right now. I’m doing my best, but it’s just me.”
“I’m working overseas so you can get those fat paychecks. With the base housing and the food allotment, you two are sitting pretty.”
“No, not pretty. A father is more than a paycheck. No. Strike that. I’ve never thought of you in terms of money—even before she was born or we were married—and I never will. What I need now, more than ever, is your emotional support. When she’s teething, I’d love a break. Even if you rocked her while I got a nap lying down instead of sitting up in the rocker, it would help. Good Lord, just to take a shower alone and wash my hair with two hands instead of one…”
“Why don’t you just call Bea?”
“She has four kids of her own. I don’t want to burden her.”
“But you want me to… Oh, never mind.” Butch bit his tongue before he said words he’d never be able to take back.
“Yes, I want you to share the burden. But also the joys and blessings. And one more remark about how I’m the reason she has Down Syndrome just might get you salt in your coffee, buster. Life just happens!”
Butch looked down at Kizzie from his towering six-foot six-inch height, not even trying to mask his disgust with the argument that had been ongoing for the two years since Zoe’s birth.
“Zoe’s your daughter. Look at those beautiful green eyes. She certainly didn’t get them from me. They’re just like yours. I’ve never cheated on you and never will. You had your chance for a paternity test and turned it down. Still, we can do the cheek swabs any time you want.”
He shook his head and reached for the door. “I don’t have time for this crap. Same whine, different day. And your whines don’t improve with age. I’m outta here.”
“Where are you going?”
“But you are home.”
“No, I’m not. Home is where you feel needed, wanted. Where you can do something worthwhile…”
“For God and Country but forget the wife and kid? Oh, what was I thinking when I married you? You know, your rugged good looks came at a terrible sacrifice. The only spine you have is the one the army issued you. When your tour is up, you’ll be worthless, unable to stand on your own two feet.”
“Then it’s a good thing I signed up for another eighteen months. See you then,” he said, then walked out. He opened the door a crack and added, “Maybe,” the door pulled shut with a whoosh of finality.
Kizzie looked out the window and watched as he stepped up into his lifted four-wheel-drive truck and sped away from the house, momentarily spinning out of control before straightening out. “That’s all you need—another reckless driving citation. They’ll bust you so far down you’ll be scrubbing latrines ‘til there’s peace in the world.”
Ring! Ring! Ring!
“I’d like to speak to my son.”
“You’ll have to call him on his cell. He just left.”
“He didn’t pick up, that’s why I called the house.”
“I’m sorry, Mother Wadsworth, but as I said, he’s not here.”
“Hmph! Maybe if you were a better wife, he’d stick around longer. I hope you didn’t make him mad enough to sign up for another tour! You and that daughter of yours are enough to make a sane man crazy!”
“She has a name, and Zoe is his daughter, too.”
“Well, thanks for asking how we’ve been, Mother Wadsworth,” Kizzie said sarcastically into the phone with no one on the other end. “It was nice talking to you, too. Maybe you can drop by and see your granddaughter. She’s almost walking now, you know.” She looked at the receiver, shook her head in disgust, and added. “Thank God for small blessings. I’ll never move from Alaska if she keeps her word to never set foot in this state again. What a bi…”
“Oh, sweetie, is your mouth hurting you again. Those confounded eye teeth sure make life miserable for you. Here, let me get you your nummy.”
Kizzie took Zoe out of her walker and held her close, digging through the frozen peas and carrots to retrieve the blue knobby teething binky. “It’s only been in here a few minutes, honey.” She put the fluid filled pacifier between her own lips and pretended to chomp down on it. “Yummy, yummy. Cold and soft. Come on, sweetheart. Let’s go back to the rocking chair. Mommy needs a time out before she starts throwing things.”
“Oh, thank you, Bea,” Kizzie said, holding back the tears. “I’d love to come over for dinner. I haven’t eaten right in days.”
“Well, I thought I’d leave you two lovebirds alone for a few days before I called.”
“Oh, I guess I didn’t tell you. Butch re-upped. I don’t know when he’s actually getting deployed. He took off in a huff a few days ago and I haven’t heard from him since. Zoe and I have been in the rocking chair for days now. I’m not sure who’s cried the most.”
“Good grief, woman! Why didn’t you call me? Can you manage to get the both of you in your car and get over here? I don’t have anyone to watch my tribe or I’d come get you. I really need to get a bigger vehicle. I can’t fit one more car seat into this one.”
“I stink and need a bath before I see anyone…”
“Just grab some clean clothes, her diaper bag, and come on over. I’ll watch her while you get a shower over here. The roast is in the oven, I just finished two apple pies, and all we’re lacking is you and that beautiful little girl of yours.”
“Oh, Bea,” Kizzie gushed, her tears blocking off any more words.
“Don’t say another word. And if you have dirty clothes, throw them in a duffle and bring them along, too. I know how hard it is to get much done when you have a little one teething.”
“I really didn’t think teething would take this long…”
Bea changed from consoling friend to big mama mode. “Now, not another word. Hang up, grab your gear, and come on over. LuLu is ready for a little girl to play with. She’s bored with all her brothers and keeps asking for a baby sister. Maybe this will keep her happy for a year or five.”
“I don’t know if you realize what a blessing you are, Bea,” Kizzie said, handing off her dozing daughter. “Of course, she fell fast asleep as soon as we were out of the garage…”
“That seems to happen to all babies. I’ll put her in Tommy’s crib for now. The monitor’s all set up. Why don’t you get your bags and what-not from your car, then head upstairs to the guest bath. I got the kids and dinner covered.”
Kizzie leaned in and gave Bea a long hug, absorbing as many positive vibes as she could, trying not to linger too long in her friend’s arms. “What am I going to do?”
“I told you, take a shower—or a long bath, if you’d like—then come down for dinner.”
“No, I mean about Butch…”
“One dilemma at a time, dear. Life is much more manageable with a full stomach and a clean body. You were here for me when I needed you. I’m just returning the favor.”
“You’re doing more than that, but you’re right. Clean hair always makes me feel better. And is there anything more comforting than the smell of pot roast and apple pie?”
The giggles of children playing filled the pause before she could answer. “Yes, that,” Bea said, nodding toward the family room where the older children were playing, “is every bit as comforting. Happy, healthy children interacting with each other is even more wonderful than the scent of cinnamon and beefsteak.”
“You’re right. I’d better get upstairs or I’ll start crying,” Kizzie said, then headed up the stairs. Or I’ll start crying all over again!
‘Bath or shower?’ went through Kizzie’s frazzled mind until she spotted the bowl heaped high with homemade bath bombs, their erratic shape and marbled coloring indicating that this was another of Bea’s stay-at-home-with-the-kids projects. She picked through a few of them, took two of the smaller torpedo-shaped ones, sniffed them to make sure she wasn’t going to come out smelling like a piece of fruit, then added them to the tub and turned on the water, ready for the first bath she’d had in nearly three years. “Bath first, then shampoo and shower. I may not be queen for a day, but I can be queen for twenty minutes or so.” She peeled off the clothes she’d been wearing for two days and nights then knelt to swish the bubbling bath bombs through the water, mixing the scent of lavender and roses throughout.
“You’d think that a good husband would be willing to give his wife at least a little break every once in a while—what’s so hard with that?” She paused in her musing as she twisted her hair up into a knot on top of her head, rearranging the mass of curls, and stabbed the black-enamel chopstick back into it. “And there’s the answer, smack dab in the middle of the question: a good husband. Now what am I going to do?”
She double-checked the water temperature, satisfied that it was mama bear hot and not baby bear tepid, then slipped under the bits of floral petals and leaves. “Ah, just right. I’ll solve today’s problems tomorrow. Or let them solve themselves. This is my time. No hassles allowed.”
Knock, knock, knock. “Are you all right or did you fall asleep?” Bea asked.
“Oh, shoot! I did fall asleep. I’m sorry. I’ll be right out.”
“No, no worries. Go ahead and finish. I still have to set the table. I just wanted to give you a heads up about dinner,” Bea said. “Zoe’s awake and having a blast, so don’t worry about her.”
“Oh, thank you so much. I’ll be down in a minute or less,” Kizzie said, the tub already draining.
“As long as you don’t mind reheating your dinner in the microwave, you can stay in there for another hour, if you’d like.”
“Oh, no, no, no. I’ll be down in a few minutes. I still need to wash my hair.”
“Help yourself to whatever you see. I’ll tell you all about them when you come down to eat.”
“Thanks,” Kizzie said, then got ready for her shower. It was then she noticed. There was not one bottle of commercial shampoo, conditioner, or body soap in the shower. She opened the container with the hand-drawn label ‘lilac shampoo’ and sniffed. “Oh, my! That smells delicious! Oh, you are so going to be used,” she said, then pulled the shower knob and indulged in the floral scents and creamy textures of the homemade products. It was only when she noticed that the water was getting cooler that she realized the hot water heater was running low. “Oops! Time to get out and face the real world.”
After she dried off and sampled the lotions and talcum powders, Kizzie felt recharged. All she needed was real food and at least five hours of uninterrupted sleep, and she’d be back to one hundred percent human. The eighty percent level she was at now was good, but she couldn’t help but want more, especially since she could almost taste the aroma of dinner now that it was out of the oven.
And then she heard it—Zoe was giggling.
She’d laughed before. She was generally a happy baby, but she was downright having a giggle fest, her squeals of joy rising and falling as she caught her breath, ready to start all over again.
“You like that ball, don’t you?” the deep male voice asked. “Here you go. Now you throw it to me.”
Kizzie inched her way down the stairs, her head poking around the corner to spy on her daughter’s source of glee without distracting the entertainer. She could listen to that laugh all day and never get tired of it.
A dark-skinned man with a very short haircut had a red golf ball in his hand and was trying to get Zoe to grasp it. Although he had on black sweats and a neon orange long-sleeved tee shirt, he had the crisp, clean-cut appearance of a soldier. Holding the ball with one finger and a thumb, he was showing the little blonde baby how to grasp the fascinating red orb.
“You did it, Zoe!” he exclaimed when she bent her fingers around it.
Her giggles and squeals began again, her arm lifting up, fingers wide open again.
He put the ball back in her hand and renewed his efforts. “Now throw it,” he said, and guided her hand, letting go at the last second so she would drop it.
“You did it again!” he said, then clapped his hands together. “Let’s say yay!” he said and held her hands to show her how to clap.
“She can clap by herself,” Kizzie said, then came down the stairs, glad that she was at least clean and presentable, even if all she had left to wear was an oversize UAA sweatshirt and drawstring pants with a hole in the knee. “I never thought to teach her the word for it, though. She’s my first child and she’s special needs. She…um…has Down Syndrome.”
“Hi, I’m Heath,” he said, standing up to shake Kizzie’s hand. “And, just for the record, I believe all children have special needs. It’s why it’s called special: they’re all different. Zoe’s adorable.” He glanced back at the walker Zoe was seated in, then turned and took the red golf ball. “No, no, honey. That’s not for your mouth.” He put the ball in his pocket then lifted her up out of the walker. “She really likes red. Or maybe it’s the ball.”
“I think it’s you she likes,” Kizzie said, then blushed as she realized that what she had said sounded like a flirt. “I mean, she doesn’t act this way with her father…” Her face reddened even more. “I mean, I think dinner’s ready, right? I’m so hungry, my brain has gobbled up all my common sense.”
Bea came out of the kitchen with another place setting. “Heath, you’re staying for dinner,” she said rather than asked. She scowled as she searched for a place to put the plate down, finally deciding that at least one person would have to sit at the kitchen counter.
“Begging your pardon, Mrs. Zaharis, but I just came by to drop off these golf balls to your husband. Tell him I’m sorry I’ll miss this week’s game, but I’ll be back on the 25th. I have a few things I have to tend to at Eielson, but I’ll be ready to either meet or beat his handicap the first Saturday after that.”
“You play golf in the snow?” Kizzie asked.
“Yes, ma’am, we do. That’s why we play with red balls. Not that it makes the ball any easier to hit…” He glanced at Bea, rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Your dinner smells delicious, but I have a flight to catch. I might just plan to show up at supper time when I come back on the 25th.”
Bea picked up the dinner plate and serviceware from the counter, ready to return them to the kitchen. “I’m counting on it. It may get elbow to elbow at the table, or even elbow to kitchen counter, but I always make enough food for friends and family. You’re both. Now, if I can’t interest you in dinner, at least I know you’ll have room for something else. I made a few pocket-sized pies, just right for a plastic container. Stay still a minute…”
When Heath turned toward the door, Kizzie told him, “You’d better not sneak out of here. She’ll chase you down like a little red golf ball in the snow.”
“Just grabbing my jacket,” Heath said. “Besides, I’ll bet her slice is meaner than her drive.”
“You got that right,” Bea said, and handed him a paper bag with his to-go dessert. “Have a safe flight. Peace to you and yours and in all you do,” she said, then gave him a big hug.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, then sighed at her scowl. “Thank you, Bea. Those words really do mean a lot.”
“I know,” she said.
“Mama, I’m hungry…” hollered a young voice.
“You’d better go feed the next generation of America’s finest,” Heath said, then pulled the knit cap out of his jacket and pulled it on. “Oh, and I’ll remember to look for those special lotion recipes for you.”
“Bless you all over again,” Bea said, then held the door for him.
She shut the door behind him. “Such a nice young man,” she said to Kizzie, then covered her frown with a phony smile. “Let’s eat, folks!”
Kizzie picked up Zoe and sat down at the end of the table where she’d have room for her daughter on her lap.
“Why didn’t you put her in the high chair?” Bea asked. “I set it up for her.”
“I thought that was for Benny.”
“I got the booster seat!” Benny crowed.
“Yeah, and I got the bicyclopedia,” Robbie added. “That’s a fat book Mama said has old stories in it.”
“And I’m a big girl and don’t need anything to sit on ‘cept my bottom,” LuLu said, her head held high, trying to make herself look taller and older than her six years.
“Okay. I’ll try the high chair. I’ve never been able to get her to stay upright, though.” Kizzie approached the seat as if it was a trash can she was supposed to toss her daughter into, leery of her weak-muscled daughter being able to support herself.
“Oh, you’d better use this, too, if she still slips sideways,” Bea said. She brought out a bright yellow and orange flowered piece of fabric.
“An apron?” Kizzie asked, watching Bea slip it over the back of the high chair, spreading the ties off to the side.
“Nope. Just set her in there, the cloth between her legs…that’s right.” Bea brought the fabric with the ties up the rest of the way between the baby’s legs, then tied a bow at the back of the chair, supporting the baby in an infant keep-her-upright straight jacket.
“Wow! I’ve never seen anything like that. If this works, I’ll be able to have my bread and butter it, too!”
“Stick with me, Kizzie,” Bea joked, “I’ll show you more tricks than a seven-toed cat has toenails.”
“Does that include how to make your bath toiletries? Those bath bombs were the bomb! And the shampoo and lotion…” She brought her hand up and sniffed the back of it. “Ahh…”
“I took some of my great-grandmother’s recipes and modified them with botanicals from around here. Just about every neighborhood has at least one house with a lilac tree out front. I harvested as much as I could last spring with the older kids helping me and little Tommy stowed in a backpack. I have a few dandelion recipes I want to try out this spring. Maybe you and Zoe can help us with the harvest.”
“Thanks. I could use the diversion. I didn’t get a chance to tell you, but Butch is gone. Again. He signed up for another tour. I thought he was going to take a few classes, so he could get a promotion and stay stateside. At least, that’s what he always told me. I think he’d rather do anything than spend time with us.” Kizzie huffed in disgust, then took a big bite of roast beef dipped in mashed potatoes, stuffing food in her mouth so her foot wouldn’t fit. Bea doesn’t want to hear your problems. Work it out with Butch, not the major’s wife, no matter how nice she is.
“Hi, honey. Sorry I’m late,” Zeke called out as he hung up his overcoat on the hook in the mudroom.
“I know how it goes, an officer’s work is never done,” Bea said. “No need to apologize, but thanks just the same.”
“No,” he said, and bent to kiss her on her proffered cheek, “Major Zeke Zaharis knows how to delegate and defer tasks to a later time. The world will still turn in the right direction if I sign orders tomorrow, after I’ve enjoyed supper with my family and friends and had a good night’s sleep. Thanks for joining us, Kizzie. And Zoe! My, how you’ve grown! Sitting in a high chair like a big girl, too.”
He looked around the table, then back over to the breakfast counter, the overflow diners’ spot. “Where’s Heath? I thought he was dropping by tonight.”
“He was. I mean, he did. He said he had to go up to Eielson for a few days. He apologized for missing this week’s golf game, but said he’d tangle with you on the first Saturday after the 25th.”
“Oh. All right…” Zeke looked around, a frown of concern momentarily graying his face. “By the way, did he…”
“Yes, he did. He brought a whole box of red golf balls for you. Although, you might be one short. He may or may not have returned the one he and Zoe were playing with. Robbie, quit squirming and eat your dinner. We have pie for dessert.”
“So, Kizzie, how’s Butch adjusting to being back in the States?” the major asked, piling mashed potatoes on his plate.
Kizzie made the bite she had just taken last a long time, chewing as she thought of a diplomatic way to answer him. Screw it! Quit protecting your husband! He made his own decision without consulting you—he can darned well pay the price of his actions.
“The short version,” she said, “is he’s not.”
“Not what?” the major asked.
“Not adjusting, coping, whatever you want to call it. We spent a little time together, then as soon as Zoe got a little fussy, he couldn’t wait to leave.”
“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be fine…” he added a few pieces of meat and two ladlesful of gravy to his mashed potato volcano then decided he needed more gravy.
“No, I don’t think so. He said he re-enlisted for another tour.” Kizzie bit her bottom lip, willing herself not to cry, but it didn’t work. Tears ran down the outside of her cheeks as she calmly said, “He said he’d be back in eighteen months. Maybe.”
And then the waterworks let loose. “Oh, shoot,” she said, holding the dishcloth to her face. “This was supposed to clean up Zoe’s messy face, not mine.” She took a couple of deep breaths, then guzzled half a glass of water. “I didn’t set out to be a single mom, but if he doesn’t want to be a part of our lives, I won’t force him. Nothing’s going to happen while he’s deployed—like a divorce—will it?”
Zeke’s fork stopped inches from his mouth, then he set it down on his plate. “I want you to continue being the good person you are. If Butch doesn’t toe the line, he’ll find himself missing more than a good woman and beautiful daughter. Don’t worry about him. He’s a big boy and if he hasn’t learned the importance of family…” He looked around at his family, Bea feeding the baby his last bite of food, his daughter and older sons scooting the peas around the potatoes on their plates, trying to make it look as if they’d eaten more food. “Well, the man’s more than one shell short of a magazine.”
“Mama,” Zoe said, reaching for her mother’s hand.
“She said mama!” Kizzie squealed, her face bright with joy. “That’s her first word—mama!”
“March fourteenth, a day to remember,” Bea said. “The day she said her first word and you stopped worrying about pleasing a man who could never be pleased. Now, see if she wants more of those potatoes, then I’m going to clear the table. March Fourteenth—3.14— is Pie Day and Pi Day!”