“Illumination” by Denise Schiavone

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.

Chrystal is at the counter when she arrives, trying to gauge the right shoe size for a nervous, pimple-faced teenage boy whose scowling girlfriend hovers nearby, popping gum. “Here ya go, Sweetie,” Crystal drawls.

Crystal has the best drawl of any military wife that Abby has ever known. Three tours there on Fort Bragg and Crystal’s nearly erased every hint of Midwestern plains girl from her being. Still, Abby marvels at the apparent authenticity of Crystal’s twang, her love of sweet tea and flea markets and Nascar and pork barbecue, her sassy yet somehow sweet and thoroughly southern way of scolding her three squalling children into submission.

Abby herself aches for her own tiny hometown outside of Buffalo, even four years after getting married and leaving with Mitch. She does not regret leaving with him, but she sometimes finds herself wondering if things should be different. She hadn’t given much thought back then to what they should be, only that she wanted to be with Mitch and to evolve into what should be together. He’d been so young and hopeful when she met him, so excited with his fresh buzz cut and buffed-out shoes. It had been hard not to get caught up in that, in the anticipation of what they might become. She envisioned them embarking on this huge adventure, a vast landscape of possibility and discovery. His discipline and sense of self would balance her flightiness, would help ground her when she felt adrift. She loved that about him—the fierce determination, the ability to size up any situation and clearly see the black and white of it all.

Back then, Abby felt that whatever uncertainties they faced, they would figure it out together. But in whatever ways Mitch balanced Abby, he did not seem to need the same of her, and Mitch’s vision of how things should be became very quickly established: by God, by Country, by Service—leaving little room for evolution of any sort. Now she finds herself yearning for the simplicity of that place she used to call home, longs for freedom from such clearly defined lines in the sand.

When Abby informs Crystal of Mitch’s surprise homecoming, Crystal erupts. “Well my God, you could have called in sick you know. Given yourself more time to get ready!”

Crystal’s husband Ray is a Sergeant First Class with six deployments to The Sandbox under his belt. Crystal speaks of his time away with near-reverie: days filled with Canasta club and Red Hat Society gatherings and PTA meetings and ‘Mommy and Me’ classes at Gymboree.

“I don’t need more time.” Abby shakes her head. “I needed to get out of the house.”

“Oh those homecoming butterflies fluttering in your stomach, I know. Almost like our wedding days, huh?” Crystal’s head bobs enthusiastically. “Did you pick up something special to wear for him tonight?”

How Crystal still thinks of such things after popping out three kids amazes Abby, who forces a thin smile. “I have a few possibilities stashed away.”

The boy returns to the counter, shoes in hands, his eyes darting to and fro. “We changed our minds.” The girlfriend has retreated to the arcade near the entrance. Crystal arches an eyebrow but takes the shoes and gives him a refund anyhow.

Abby watches the boy, shoulders slumped, follow his girlfriend out of the bowling alley. They slink across the parking lot, two gray silhouettes illuminated by the blazing white heat of a blinding midday sun. Abby thinks of Crystal’s kids, whom Abby met only once: a rambunctious brood. Military brats, people call them, traveling the world with their parents—improvising, adapting and overcoming like so many miniature marines and sailors and airmen and soldiers. Serving in their own way.

Crystal used to make not-so-subtle comments about how things would get better once Abby and Mitch had their first baby, when Abby would have someone to keep her company and lots to do to stave off the loneliness. But at some point Crystal stopped, probably fearful there was something actually physically wrong keeping Abby from getting pregnant. Abby only wishes there were. Then she would not have to suffer the guilt that accosts her as she continues to evade the fate everyone seems so intent on her embracing. Abby isn’t certain she doesn’t want children. But she is certain enough of her uncertainty, keenly aware of how her stomach twist to knots every time her period is late, every time Mitch’s eye catches on a cute baby, every time Crystal uses the word “when” instead of “if.”

Abby watches Crystal work the floor, her thick hips bumping past customers, her toothy smile lighting flirtatiously on men, women and children alike. She sees the woman Crystal will be thirty years from now, still making Ray’s breakfast, boasting about her grandkids and reminiscing about so-and-so who used to serve with them at Fort So-and-So, oh so long ago. Crystal embodies this vision like a caterpillar within a cocoon. Abby feels nauseous at the mere thought of thirty years of the same of anything.

The leagues roll in about 4:00 p.m. and the tempo picks up, saving Abby from further interrogation by Crystal. In between threads of customers, Abby wonders what Mitch is doing at that moment. Standing beneath a near scalding shower? Enjoying a steak dinner cooked to order? Stretching out atop a queen sized hotel bed, thinking of how good it will be to back in his own place? Abby sees him in her mind’s eye and feels the weight of this vision with every minute that ticks by, with just a little over sixteen hours until he returns. When Abby clocks out at 8:00 p.m., Crystal waves like a princess from her post at the hot dog machine and blows a kiss that says ‘Go get ‘em, Sugar’ without uttering a single word.

After returning to a shadow-filled house, Abby grabs a slice of cold pizza from the fridge and collapses onto the living room sofa. That is when she looks out the front windows and realizes: the lawn has not been mowed in over TWO weeks. The grass stands at least a foot high. Decaying leaves lie clumped along the edges of the driveway. Prickly weeds flag the flowerbeds. Excuses swirl through her brain, but not one stands out as a viable reason why Abby would neglect Mitch’s beloved yard for that amount of time. She tosses the half-eaten slice of pizza into the trashcan and runs to the shed for the mower.

As darkness descends, neighbors begin peeking through curtains, watching Abby in the yard. Mr. DeMartino across the street hovers at his bay window, his head cocked sideways. Abby ignores him, ducking her chin, concentrating on the thin beams of light spilling onto the grass in front of her. The Panther Vision hat, purchased last year off the Internet, does not live up to its bold claim to illuminate up to fifty feet ahead. Abby can see roughly five feet of ground in front of her, and the rows are becoming more and more crooked as she propels the mower through the damp blades of grass and watches nightfall swallow the last remaining shreds of daylight. The lawn is only half-done, yet she pushes on, determined to finish the job.

Now with thirteen hours left until Mitch’s plane touches down, Abby vows to never again let this happen. Next deployment, she will follow the checklists, to a tee, without fail. She blinks back tears and squints through the inky blue darkness around her, searching for the edge of the row she just completed. The August heat is insufferable, even after sundown, and her t-shirt is drenched in sweat. Ignoring her aching shoulders, she pushes the mower faster, noticing the beams of light appear weaker now, the hat possibly in need of new batteries. But there are no spare AA batteries in the house. Restocking household essentials is not on any checklist; Abby is supposed to just do it. Occasional oversights should be understandable. Still, Mitch will wonder, with all the time she has while he is away, what has she been doing that she can’t keep track of such simple things?

When Mitch first gave Abby one of his checklists, they were driving to the airport for an overnight flight to Bagdad—his second deployment. “I got you a little something.” Mitch slipped it from his coat pocket and handed it to her.

“What?” she asked, eyeing the small black booklet, wondering if might contain a receipt for a lawn service or cleaning company or a gift certificate for dinner out. Wouldn’t that be nice?

“Well I noticed you seem to have a little trouble focusing when I’m gone. This thing has daily, weekly and monthly task organizers, and I created a few simple checklists for you. Super-easy to follow. You’ll love it.” Mitch turned his gaze momentarily from the road ahead and winked at her. Abby was seized with the impulse to throw the organizer in his face, but she didn’t want to cause an accident. Besides, it seemed the least she could do, keeping things in order at home while he spent six months in a combat zone half-way around the world, putting his life on the line for God and country. She swallowed the lump swelling in her throat and gave him a tight, close-mouthed smile.

Eventually the organizers were replaced with various apps, all meticulously researched and approved by Mitch. The latest, Planner Plus, boasted 4.5 customer review stars. Abby hadn’t so much as glanced at it since Mitch downloaded it onto her phone.

Now plodding through the darkening yard, she wonders if she should have learned to use the app after all. The mower sputters and coughs a bit, and Abby clenches the handle grip and holds her breath until the oil-smeared beast lurches ahead. She bites her lip and thinks, this is my part, my duty. The light beams from the hat flicker once, then again. My small sacrifice. For God and country.

By 9:45 p.m. Abby finishes, tucking the mower back into its spot in the shed and surveying her work. Mounds of grass clippings stretch in rows across the yard, the uneven pattern and shape creating an image almost like a misaligned and miscolored flag. Mitch never leaves grass clippings on the lawn, but Abby doesn’t have the energy, or the daylight, to rake and bag. At this point, she simply doesn’t care.

Abby tumbles into a deck chair, her mind doing a quick rewind of the interior house sweep she completed just before leaving for work. She left the worst room for last. “The craft room,” as Mitch always referred to it, his lip curling up every so slightly. Little bigger than a broom closet, it barely fit all her art supplies. She’d grabbed a few empty cardboard boxes and swung the door open, sucking in her breath at the sight of it, as if she hadn’t spent nearly every waking moment in this room, as if she could somehow have missed the stacks of half-finished canvases propped along the walls, the paint-caked brushes strewn on the floor here and there, the tarp crumpled in the corner, splattered with various colors like a bloodied shroud.

She packed all of the pieces except her two favorites to show Mitch. The first was an abstract of a woman, naked and curled into a fetal position, hair fanned around her head like a halo. The second was a desert landscape, the place where she imagined Mitch to be, a pink horizon stretched above a harsh brown expanse of wilderness that could cause man and beast alike to kneel to God in fear. Two finished pieces among dozens of half-formed notions and false starts and hopeful possibilities. Abby stared hard at the paintings propped side by side. She knew this woman: knew her loneliness and sadness, felt the anguish seeping through her bones and into her gut. She saw this barren place in her mind’s eye, pictured it when she spoke to Mitch on the phone and heard the sigh of the desert wind in the echo of their conversations. She wanted Mitch to see what she saw, to feel what she felt in his absence. She set each carefully on their own easels, even though she knew Mitch would likely do what he always does. He would stare vacantly through them and praise her and pat her shoulder and offer to hang them in the basement. As if it were a hobby, something to pass the hours—as if she were a child yearning to have her pictures hung on the refrigerator. But still, she left them on the easels in the freshly cleared room. Three boxes of paintings in all she shoved in the musty crawlspace at the back of the laundry room. From experience she knew she would not return to these until Mitch’s next trip. By then the sparks of clarity, the bits of vision that had inspired the starts to these masterpieces, would likely have flickered out, suffocated by the minutia and routine of everyday life.

Abby nods off for some time in the deck chair, awakening later to an overwhelming thirst. A deep, aching thirst, crackling like sandpaper in her throat. It is nearly midnight. She pulls herself out of the chair and into the dark house. At the refrigerator, she holds the door ajar and peers inside. The shelves are nearly empty but she will have time to restock early tomorrow morning, time to pick up his favorite snacks and fresh OJ and items for his welcome-home dinner. Time enough before she has to be at the airport at 1000 sharp to pick him up.

For now she just wants a cold drink, and a beer sounds like just the thing. She stoops down to the lower shelf where the beer is stashed and freezes in place, her eyes growing wide. She scans the shelf, which at first glance appears empty. But no, there is something tucked in the back. A bottle of Heineken. One bottle of Mitch’s favorite. She has forgotten to restock Mitch’s beer supply. And now all that remains is a single bottle.

Tomorrow is Sunday. God love the North Carolinians, who are somehow all right with their archaic ban on alcohol sales before noon on Sundays.

Abby recalls previous homecomings: Mitch dropping his bag at the door, tugging her to him, his eyes subtly scanning the house. The appreciative smile as she hands him a cold one and watches him lift it to his mouth and suck down half a bottle in one swallow. The little things—the comforts of home—he tells her, these are the memories he clings to when he is away, the things he counts on being in place when he returns. And Abby knows Mitch depends on her to be the keeper of these things. How could she not remember something as simple as a six-pack of beer?

And yet a lone bottle remains—just one—but perhaps enough to spare Abby his disappointment, thinly veiled though it might be.

She closes the refrigerator, the cold beer grasped in one hand. It is then she notices a pinpoint of light reflected in the door and realizes she hasn’t yet removed the Panther Vision hat, and its beam casts a weak but persistent glow that pierces the darkness around her. Within her chest she feels a brief tug, followed by a pop and a release, like air being let out of an overinflated tire. An unexpected calm settles over her.

Despite the hour it is still warm, and Abby has had the windows open all day hoping to air it out; a stuffy heat has gathered in the house after hours of brutal outdoor temperatures. Within seconds she can feel beads of condensation gather on the neck of the bottle and trickle down her palm and along her wrist. Abby holds the bottle to her neck, savoring the chill of the glass against her skin. She trails her finger along the bottle top. She cups the rough metal edge in her fist, squeezes, and twists. A hiss of cool air meeting warm rises before her. Closing her eyes, she lifts the sweating bottle to her oh-so-dry-lips, and tilts her head back.

denise photo smllDenise Schiavone grew up in the Midwest and served twenty years in the US Navy before retiring from active duty in 2006. She earned her MA in Writing from Johns Hopkins’ University, her fiction has appeared in Outside In Literary & Travel Magazine and The Mulberry Fork Review, and one story received Honorable Mention in Glimmertrains April 2013 “Family Matters” competition. She lives with her family in Maryland.