In “Illumination,” Abby learns that her husband Mitch is returning early from deployment. She has only twenty-four hours to reconcile the version of herself she kept up over the phone to the one Mitch will see at home. As Abby wrestles with the task of a messy house, she is also forced to examine the gaps in her marriage, and why, upon her husband’s happy return, she feels on the brink of losing herself.
“With just twenty-four hours until Mitch’s arrival home, tendrils of panic creep through Abby’s chest…”
When the phone rings at 8:43 a.m., Abby answers it with barely disguised irritation. No one ever calls this time of day except solicitors. Mitch always calls at bedtime—just after sunrise in Kabul, before the start of his platoon’s daily patrol. The connection this morning is crisp, without a trace of echo, and it takes Abby a moment to register Mitch’s voice on other end of the line.
“Get rid of the boyfriend.” Mitch laughs. “I’ll be home tomorrow morning.”
Abby gushes with delight as he charges on about schedules being pushed up, his arrival back stateside this morning, an overnight stopover in Dallas, things he wants to do when he gets home. She tells him she can’t wait to see him and hangs up the phone. “Oh my God,” she sobs, glancing wildly around the kitchen. “Oh my God.”
Of course, there is no boyfriend. It is the same tired, recycled joke he’s been throwing at her since the first deployment three weeks after their wedding, and Abby always plays along even though it wears on her nerves. She half-wishes that were the problem.
Usually there is plenty of notice before Mitch’s homecomings—weeks to scour, to scrub, to toss, to file. Weeks to create the illusion that she’s actually been living as if Mitch were home all along. Still it’s stressful every time he asks what she’s been doing, fabricating completed tasks and later trying to recall exactly what she’d supposedly accomplished. During one phone call halfway through his second deployment, she made the mistake of boasting she’d spent an entire Saturday cleaning out the attic. She forgot all about it until two days before his return and then had to call in sick at work and spend seven hours sitting on a filthy attic beam, sifting through dusty boxes of junk. That was a close call, but not as close as this. With just twenty-four hours until Mitch’s arrival home, tendrils of panic begin creeping through Abby’s chest, curling around her heart, crushing the very breath from her body. She rushes from room to room, trying to decide what to tackle first.
The family room is not the worst, but it’s bad. She has been practically camped out in it since he left, her bed pillows propped on the couch, a wrinkled comforter balled up on the recliner, empty Coca-Cola cans stacked on the fireplace mantle, five months worth of dust layered on the coffee table. And so she starts there and spends half a day in a mad cleaning frenzy—a room-by-room, top-to-bottom, elbow-greased scouring that would impress the likes of Martha Stewart. A little after 2:00 p.m. she glances at her watch and remembers her 3:00 p.m. shift at the post bowling alley. Cursing, she flies into the shower, dresses quickly and heads out the door.
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