When You Make It HomeBy: Claire Ashby
I first caught sight of Theo at his welcome home party. A mob shifted around him, jockeying for a position next to the guest of honor. I lingered near the door to the living room and listened to the joyful words and murmur of good wishes directed toward him.
Someone whispered, “… lucky to be alive.”
The doorbell rang and crowd parted. For a moment, he stood alone. Tears burned the backs of my eyes. I couldn’t see the luck in what was left of him.
Ellie pinched my arm. “Don’t stare,” she said on her way to the door.
I bit my lip, turning away. But my attention found its way back to him, and I sneaked another look at his arms, surveying the road map of scars trailing away from bandages. My gaze traveled to his face, and I gasped. Theo glared at me with defiant hazel eyes, as if to say, Go ahead and look all you want; I can take it. I knew he’d lived through much worse than I had and that my own problems paled in comparison with his. I could use some of his strength. But, of course, I couldn’t tell him that.
“What’s wrong with you?” Ellie hissed, using the same voice as when she caught me eating the cookies meant for story time at our bookstore.
She steered me into the dining room, and once she had me cornered, she snatched a box of tissues and pushed them at me. “Get control of your hormones. We already went over this. If you want to keep your secret, you can’t get all teary eyed.
“I know.” I blinked rapidly, waving the tissues away. “I’m not crying. I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” I pressed my lips together, trying to clamp down on the list my brain rattled off. I had plenty wrong with me. But a party wasn’t the time for a self-directed lashing. I could save that for home, after I dispensed a generous share of support to my best friend, who was desperate to give her brother-in-law the hero’s welcome he deserved.
Ellie hugged me, and the tension between us evaporated.
“Don’t let Theo see you looking at him with those weepy eyes. He gets pissed whenever anyone shows him an ounce of sympathy.”
“Deal. But I wish we could do something for him.” I hadn’t meant to gawk at the guy.
With all the progress updates Ellie had shared with me, I knew far too many details about his surgeries and struggles. Theo often woke up screaming, but no one said whether his cries came from pain or nightmares. That knowledge haunted me until my overactive imagination filled in the blanks. I knew too much about the man, and I’d never met him before today. Worse, all I could do about it was put on a happy face.
I stepped back and reached out to touch the soft cotton of Ellie’s new yellow dress. “You look fantastic.” The fabric hugged the curve of her belly, erasing any doubt she was pregnant and not just packing on the pounds.
“Thanks.” She scanned the crowd. “Jake got back late last night,” she whispered. “He picked Theo up at the rehab facility and brought him to their mom’s house.” The lines around Ellie’s mouth deepened. “Jake offered to let Theo stay here, but fortunately, their mom didn’t like that at all. Jake’s optimistic, but I never met Theo before he deployed, you know? I wish I had.” Ellie rubbed her belly. “Theo’s quiet.”
The doorbell chimed, and Ellie hurried off. I used the chance to slip into the bathroom. I flipped the exhaust-fan switch and sighed with relief that the hum muffled the noise of the partygoers. With trembling hands, I turned on the cold water and let the icy stream rush over the insides of my wrists. I took a deep breath and checked my clothes in the mirror.
My new Marc Jacobs jacket covered the basic black T-shirt that hid a waist-contouring camisole. Skinny jeans and burgundy, open-toed heels completed my look. Almost anywhere else in the country, my outfit would’ve been perfect for a casual spring evening.
But not in Texas.
Early May, and the temperatures had already soared into the mid-90s. To make matters worse, my jeans fit tighter than they had the week before. I’d expected they would loosen after I wore them awhile. At least the cut of the jacket hid my growing belly. My secret is safe for another day.
I licked my lips and swallowed the lump in my throat before rejoining the party. The chatter and laughter had risen to competitive levels. I couldn’t face trying to fit in, and I fell back into a trance. Theo fumbled around Ellie’s living room, gripping his crutches. One of his arms was heavily bandaged, and he had a thick square of white gauze taped below his ear. But what sent a shiver through me was the sight of his leg. He had only one.