Several weeks passed since Charlie and Fran spoke to one another. Since that night, Fran kept herself busy with the summer market and preparing her heart, and their home, for Charlie’s eventual return to Appaloosa Plains.
With Maya’s departure for school, Fran’s workload doubled at the market, and, on the last day, she walked toward her produce stand with Destiny on her hip. Sunny stood at her bakery display, her arms outstretched for the baby. “Good morning, Frannie,” Sunny greeted her.
“Thank you for taking her, Sun. Good morning!” Fran sighed. “I’m glad today is the last day. I am a tired Mama.”
“Why don’t you let us take Desi for the weekend, Fran?” Sunny offered. “Take some time for yourself. You deserve it.” She kissed Destiny’s cheek, and the baby giggled. “Besides, Caleb and I miss our kids being this little. It would be a pleasure for us.”
Fran nodded. “Okay. Let’s plan for this coming weekend? I could use some time to get Mama’s bedroom set up…” She swallowed a sob and wiped a tear from her eyes. “This weekend is okay?”
Sunny took Fran’s hand in hers and squeezed it. The two women said nothing more. “This weekend is perfect. Maya is home from school, and she’ll love it.”
When the market closed for the season, Sunny followed Fran back to the farmhouse to retrieve everything Destiny would need for her weekend with the Bradfords. In Sunny’s arms, Destiny reached for her mother and gave her kisses.
“I will see you in three sleeps, sweet pea,” Fran told her. “Be good for Aunt Sunny and Uncle Cale.”
“Bye-bye!” Destiny chirped. “I wuv Mama!” Fran waved and thanked Sunny again. Instead of going inside the house, she took the truck keys from her pocket, resolved to celebrate her weekend of freedom. She seldom did anything for herself, and since Destiny was with her best friends, she climbed into the pickup and headed for downtown.
Fran’s first stop was the Koffi Cafe, where she had worked over twenty years earlier. Her old boss, Ken, had long since retired, and she didn’t know or recognize anyone anymore. She walked in and sat down at the counter, her purse tucked in between her feet. A man, who looked ten years her junior, walked over to her and smiled.
“Hello beautiful,” he greeted her. “What on earth is a pretty young thing like you doing here alone?”
Fran blushed—her eyes surveyed this young, would-be suitor. She lowered her voice and hesitated. “I had some free time to myself tonight, so I thought I’d treat myself to a meal I don’t have to cook and clean up afterward.”
As they spoke, he checked her left hand. “I see you wear a wedding ring. Where is your lucky husband?”
“He’s deployed overseas,” Fran huffed. “He left a while ago.”
The man rolled up his sleeve to display a tattoo. “Got this in the army. I served overseas just a few years ago. It is lonely for a man to be away from his family, his wife in particular.” He rolled the sleeve back down. “My wife left me when she grew tired of waiting for me to come home.”
Fran lowered her head. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
“So, is everything okay with you?”
She shook her head. “No… no it’s not.”
“What’s your name? Mine’s Jason.”
“So, what is wrong, beautiful Fran?” His smile soothed her. “What makes everything not okay?”
She took a deep breath and exhaled. “My husband went to a strip club with his buddies, and he kissed another woman.” She swallowed back a lump of emotion. “It was a tremendous insult.”
He nodded his head. “I can understand that, sweetheart,” he mumbled. “There’s temptation everywhere when a man is lonely. Even the most faithful man can fall. We’re only human after all,” he said, a sad tone in his voice.
She sighed. “We had just talked an hour before. We have a three-year-old daughter. She should have reminded him what he has waiting for him, even if I couldn’t!”
“I’m sorry, Fran,” he said. He handed her a slip of paper. “If you ever get lonely, I’d love to take you out for coffee or dinner sometime.” He winked and turned. “Call me.” Her face flushed, but she took the slip of paper from him and looked at it, placed it into her pocket, and smiled. You still have it, Fran, she thought to herself.
When she got home, Fran opened the front door, then closed it behind her—its latch sounded lonesome in the house’s silence. She realized she hadn’t been alone in the house for quite some time—no Penny, no Charlie, no Destiny.
“Hello?” she said out loud. She half expected to hear a voice reply, but knew she wouldn’t. It felt almost alien, but it gave her a sense of independence that she hadn’t ever experienced. Fran was on her own—no commitments, no responsibilities. She walked into the kitchen and sat her purse on the counter and took some deep breaths. She opened the refrigerator and saw a bottle of wine Sunny and Caleb had given her a few months earlier.
From a nearby cabinet, she took a wine glass. “No time like the present,” she said as she uncorked the wine bottle and poured it—the blush fluid pooled at the bottom of the glass. She picked up the glass, swirled the liquid around, and took a sip. It was just a little sweet and tingly on her tongue. Mmmmmm, she thought, this is tasty. She poured a bit more into the glass and walked up the stairs towards the bedroom, intent on relaxing before bed.
Frannie peered into the bathroom. She realized she had never used the tub for anything other than to shower or bathe Destiny. Hmmm. Maybe a bubble bath would help me relax a bit, she thought. She found her bath bubbles, turned on the hot water spigot, and placed the stopper in the tub. As it filled with steamy water, she added the soap and watched as a mountain of foam formed.
Fran went back into the bedroom, disrobed, grabbed a big, soft towel, and her bathrobe. She padded back into the bathroom, its air heavy with steam and scented with lavender from the bath bubbles. Once she turned the water off, she tested it with her hand, then hung up her robe, and placed the towel on the toilet next to the tub.
She placed one foot into the water. The warmth made her shiver. She placed her other foot in, then let herself descend into the foamy water. It felt inviting against her skin, and she could feel it flush the tension from her body. Basking in the feeling, she closed her eyes and leaned her head back. A million images flashed through her mind. The one unexpected image that shocked and excited her was Jason. She visualized him there in the tub with her and moved her hands over her body the way she imagined his hands would. Lost in the moment, she threw her head back, her eyes closed—she wished to see Jason’s face. But the mental image faded, and Charlie’s form took its place. At once, she felt guilt and shame, but excitement, too.
She rinsed off, drained the tub, and patted herself dry. She pulled her robe on and walked back into the bedroom. Refreshed, she finished drying off, then dusted some powder and dabbed on a little of Charlie’s favorite perfume before she dressed for bed and shimmied beneath the covers. As she settled her head onto her pillow and hugged his pillow close to her chest, she sniffled and sighed. “I miss you, Charlie,” she said aloud before she drifted to sleep.
She awakened with arms wrapped around her body, rolled over, and collected her morning kiss. “Good morning, love,” she greeted him.
“Good morning, baby,” the familiar voice greeted her. She reached to caress his cheek, but a cloud obscured his face. “How did you sleep?”
“Okay,” Fran replied.
She went downstairs and started breakfast. “Where is Destiny?” she asked him while she finished making a pan of sausage gravy. Charlie’s favorite breakfast was almost ready.
“Don’t you remember, darling?” he replied. “She is with Sunny and Caleb this weekend.” He wrapped his arms around her waist and kissed her neck. Her soft giggles filled the kitchen.
“Oh yes, silly me,” she said.
After breakfast, while she was cleaning up the kitchen, he stood behind her at the sink. “Frannie, my darling,” he whispered into her ear. “Let’s go upstairs and make love.” He spun her around to face him, but she could not discern his features.
“I’d love to, Charlie,” she said, a sexy growl in her voice. She took his hand and led him upstairs to the bedroom. She couldn’t remember the last time they’d been together. Fran shuffled around in her dresser drawer and removed an article of clothing. “I’ll be right out,” she whispered. He waited on the bed for her with great anticipation.
When she emerged from the bathroom wearing a revealing negligee, his face lit up. “You look amazing, baby,” he said, his arms open. “Come here.”
She walked to him and sat on the bed next to him. He pulled her close to kiss her, ran his hands over her body. Fran sighed with pleasure and moved closer still. Her hungry kisses consumed him. Before they became one, his face came into view—Jason’s face…
Fran woke with a start, her heart pounding. The feelings of shame and guilt overwhelmed her, but she hated to wake from such a steamy dream. I have to get over this. As flattered as she was by Jason’s attention, she still belonged to Charlie. She didn’t have to return his mistake with one of her own.
Before breakfast, she turned the horses out to graze. She rubbed Marne’s and Sweetie’s noses, gave them each a kiss and a pat on the shoulder. The morning temperature was crisp, but predicted to warm as the day progressed. Summer is fading, she thought. “Enjoy it, ladies,” she told them. Fran turned on her heel and went back inside.
The task at hand that morning was preparing her mother’s old bedroom, the one where Maya stayed during her time at the farm, for Charlie’s return home. Fran wasn’t ready to let him back into her bed—she was still resentful and hurt. As she pulled the linens from the bed, she knocked over a photo of her mother, Penny. She picked up the photo and sat on the bed, tears in her eyes.
“What do I do, Mama?” she cried, the portrait in her hands. “How do I make it through? How can I forgive him?” She had processed none of her feelings since Sunny had shown her the photograph, but now she unleashed a torrent of emotion. She grabbed a handful of the bedding and buried her face into the mattress, and she screamed.
“I am so angry with you, Charlie! How could you do this to me?” Heartbroken sobs reverberated off every wall. “I have been faithful to you, and this is how you repay me?” An 8×10 portrait of them sat on the dresser, and she walked to it, picked it up, and stared at it. She traced his form on the photo, then hurled it onto the floor and stomped on it with the heel of her cowboy boot, shattering the glass and breaking the frame. Shards of glass flew everywhere and Fran huffed in frustration. “I can’t do this now!” she screamed. Fran stormed from the bedroom and slammed the door.
She stomped out to the yard and grabbed Sweetie’s tack, saddled her, and climbed atop the agile young mare. A gentle prod urged Sweetie over the low fence, and Fran rode her toward downtown. Fifteen short minutes later, she was outside the diner again. She dismounted the horse and tied her at the post out front, spread some hay from a nearby stack, and patted her shoulder. “Good girl, Sweetie,” she praised the young horse, then opened and walked through the diner’s front door.
She sat at the counter and didn’t pay particular attention to her surroundings. “Coffee,” she asked the waitress behind the counter. A few minutes later, she felt a presence standing over her shoulder.
“I thought that was you,” Jason said and grinned. “Mind if I join you?”
Charlie and his squadron prepared for the most important mission of their deployment. The outcome of this mission would either make or break the allied forces’ efforts for victory. Charlie, demoted because of the bar fight, sat on the sidelines and took notes from Colonel Jim Gentry.
Jim outlined his vision for the mission, the tactics, and execution. The plan appeared sufficient, but he lacked the experience and expertise to lead. Though Charlie disagreed with Gentry’s assessment, he could no longer speak. He sat and jotted down notes for his role, and he did so, praying that Jim’s inexperience didn’t get them captured or killed.
When the briefing adjourned, Charlie walked to Lorne’s tent and announced himself. “Come in, Farmer,” Lorne called him. Charlie entered and snapped his posture to attention. “At ease.” The men sat as friends because, in reality, they were. “What can I do for you, Charlie?”
Charlie knew that attempting to override Jim’s direct orders could get him into hotter water with his CO. But he couldn’t let the tactical blunder stand, one with the potential for casualties. Charlie knew the risk, but he would take the chance.
“Lorne, I just wanted to discuss Gentry’s plan of attack—” he began when Lorne stopped him.
“Think long and hard about whether you want to march down this road, Charlie. You know I value your opinion, but you also know you aren’t high enough rank to offer your suggestions anymore. What you’re doing is insubordination.”
Charlie shook his head. “I know, Lorne, but I have to address this with you.” He pulled the maps from the briefing and laid them on the desk before his CO. “Lorne, you know if we approach from this direction, the enemy will detect us immediately. It may cut our engagement time by two-thirds, but we can’t all get to safety before they spot us, and they retaliate.”
Lorne approved the eventual plan, but somehow he missed the detail Charlie pointed out to him. The additional information left Lorne in a tough position. Recognizing the error would undermine his authority, and damage Jim’s credibility. But Charlie’s assessment was correct. The strategy was flawed and could end up costing precious lives.
“I will review this with the others, and make the needed adjustments,” Lorne said. He motioned Charlie closer to him and lowered his voice. “Off the record, I don’t know how I missed it. Outstanding work.” He stood at attention and Charlie did as well. “Dismissed, Farmer.” He left Lorne’s tent, still feeling uneasy and unsure.
That evening, Charlie dug his phone from the footlocker, plugged it in, and dialed Fran’s number. Just as he took a breath and prepared to leave a message on her voicemail, he heard her answer the call.
Charlie choked back tears and collected himself. “Hi Frannie,” he greeted her.
“Hello, Charlie,” she returned his greeting, a chilly tone in her voice. She heard him sniffle into the phone. “You know,” she mumbled, “I shouldn’t have answered this—”
“Wait, Frannie, please…” Charlie whispered. “I have something to tell you. It’s pretty important.”
She settled down into the chair and watched the horses play in the pasture. “What is it?”
“My squadron… a mission is coming up within the next eighteen to twenty-four hours.” He lowered his voice to a whisper. “The strategy is flawed, and I can’t fix it.” He swallowed hard and took a deep breath. “If this mission goes south, I might not make it home, Fran.”
“Why are you whispering, Charlie? I can’t understand you!” Fran held the phone close to her head and plugged the other ear with her finger.
“If anyone overhears me, I could get into deep, well deeper trouble, Frannie. I have to be quiet. Did you hear what I said about the mission?”
She shook her head, as though he could see her. “No, Charlie, I didn’t.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “This mission’s tactics might fail. If it does, a bunch of us might not make it home, myself included.”
Her eyes welled with tears. “Why would you design a plan like that, Charlie? I don’t understand.”
“Baby, I’m not in charge of those things anymore. The incident at the bar earned me a two-rank demotion and a pay cut.” His mind raced—he needed to say so much, and he feared he couldn’t.
“What? Why?” Her tears came fast and flowed from her green eyes.
“That doesn’t matter right now. I need to tell you some things. I’m sorry about the bar. My stupid mistake has cost me almost everything I’ve worked for and love.” He swallowed a growing lump that formed in his throat. No, he thought to himself, you’re going to tell her!
“I still don’t know why you embarrassed me like—”
“Please, let me finish. Please, Frannie?”
She sat in silence for a moment and wiped tears from her eyes. “Okay. I’m ready.”
“We went to the club to celebrate our victory… at least that’s what I told myself. I miss you, and I thought a change of scenery would ease the ache of missing you.” Charlie took a deep breath. “But Frannie, it only made the pain so much worse. Jim paid the girl to dance with me, but I didn’t fight hard enough to stay off that stage. When everything counted, when I had to choose between right and wrong, I failed. I failed you—I failed us. And honey, I’m sorry. I know I’ll never deserve your forgiveness, and I won’t even ask you.”
Fran sniffled on the other end of the phone. She wanted so much to believe his words, to trust him. “We have much healing to do, Charlie, when you get home. How sincere you are, and what you do when you come home will help me decide how to move forward.”
Charlie swallowed a sob. He had to keep going—the call was too important. “Frannie, my life insurance policy is in the strongbox where you found the gun. Just in case you…” He took a deep breath. “In case you need it. It’s enough for you to live on, and for Destiny’s college.” He heard her sniffle and sigh, but he wondered if she heard him. “Frannie? Did you hear what I said? Honey, this is important.”
She shook her head and wiped tears from her eyes. “Yes, Charlie. Something is in the strongbox—”
“It’s not just something!” He felt her slipping away, as though her attention was elsewhere. “This is important. My life insurance policy, Frannie. Didn’t you hear me say I might not make it home, darling?” He grew frustrated as they spoke.
“I heard you, Charlie,” Fran snapped, her tone of voice icy once again. “You don’t have to talk to me like I’m an idiot, or try to guilt me into forgiving you—”
“NO!” Charlie shouted and then cried. “Baby, you don’t have to forgive me. Please pay attention, so you know…” he took a breath and exhaled, “…where to find it. Frannie, tell me you understand what I’m saying.”
She sighed and rubbed her neck. “I understand, Charlie,” she said, her voice cold and sharp. “I have heard everything you’ve said.”
He sniffled and tried to collect himself. “Please do one more thing for me. Give our little girl a kiss and a hug, and tell her how much her daddy loves her. That I will watch over her, and you, too. I love you both beyond words. And Frannie, I am so sorry I betrayed your trust. I don’t want to go to my death without telling you how much I regret hurting you, and how much I love you and our daughter.”
Fran sat straight up in her chair. “Charlie? You sound like you’re saying goodbye!”
“Haven’t you heard a thing I’ve said, Frannie?” Charlie asked, his voice shaky with emotion. “I can’t say it again. Please don’t make me.”
The reality of what Charlie was trying to say struck her, and Fran cried. “You can’t be serious about not coming home. Please, tell me you’re not serious! Destiny needs her daddy. You need to come home. I won’t accept this!” She trembled with emotion. “Charlie, I need you.”
He half-smiled at her confession. Maybe she still loves me, he thought. “Pray for us as if the world depends on it. Maybe, we will get lucky. Maybe, we will find favor from above. Either way, it’s our only chance to survive.”
Her heart broke hearing his words. “I will pray, Charlie. We will all pray. I want you to know that I still love you.” She waited for a reply, but none came. “Charlie?” She disconnected the call and tried to redial, but the line was dead.
Eighteen hours had passed since Charlie’s call home. Sunny and Caleb took Destiny while Fran waited at home in silent agony. She could say nothing regarding Charlie’s mission, so she asked the Bradfords to pray. At the dining room table, Fran sat with a plate of leftovers and picked at it. It was her third attempt to eat something since the phone call ended, but she still had no appetite. She wrapped the plate and placed it back into the refrigerator.
The temperatures were crisp that evening, so she wadded up some newspaper, placed it under a small stack of firewood, struck a match, and lit the paper. Within moments, the first flames ignited the dry wood, and the hearth radiated the heat she desired.
Mesmerized by the fire, she stared into nothing, overwhelmed by fear. What if Charlie was right? She thought. What if he didn’t come home? How would she survive as a single mother? The questions haunted her in consciousness and tormented her in sleep.
A loud knock on the door awakened her a few hours later. She rubbed her eyes, walked to the door, and opened it—two men in uniform stood before her. “No…” she cried. “No…”
“Miss, can you please state your full name?” the man asked, his hat in his hand.
With a shaky voice, she whispered, “Frances Justine Farmer.”
“I am Lieutenant Van Ross and this is Army Chaplain Joseph Brooks. Mrs. Farmer, we regret to inform you that your husband, Major Charles Farmer’s plane went down during a mission…” Fran heard no more words as she fell to the floor, though the young man continued to speak. Her head swam, and she felt dizzy. The chaplain extended his hand to her to help her up, but she shook her head and pushed it aside.
“Is he…” she couldn’t bring herself to say the words.
“He is missing in action, Mrs. Farmer.”
“Is he alive?” she asked.
The chaplain made no sign, positive or negative. “Our report only says that he’s missing, Mrs. Farmer. We have no further information. Please accept our condolences. Our resources are in short supply, but know we will have a team searching for him when it becomes workable. We will provide further information as it becomes available.” He offered his hand to Fran once more, this time to pray with her.
“Thank you,” she whispered and watched the men turn to leave. She locked the door behind them, then fell to her knees, sobs wracked her body. “Please, no…” she wailed. “NO!” She gasped and screamed again. “No no no! We prayed night after night for protection for him! You failed me! You failed him!” She looked toward the heavens and shook her fist. “You failed ALL of us!” Fran bawled, her breath came in ragged spurts—she collapsed to the floor, and drew her knees up to her chest.
When she calmed down a bit, she stood in front of the fireplace, picked up the photograph with the broken frame. She gazed at the image, traced Charlie’s form on the paper, and wept. “I’m sorry,” she whispered to the photo. “I’m so sorry.” She collapsed back into Charlie’s easy chair, the frame still grasped in her hands, and cried herself to sleep.
The next morning, another knock came. When Fran didn’t answer it, Sunny used the key Charlie had given her to unlock the door and open it. She found her best friend curled up asleep in the recliner, her pretty face stained by a night’s worth of tears. She knelt by Fran’s side and tapped her.
She stirred and squinted to see, her eyes bleary, her face puffy. “Sunny?” When she recognized her friend, she broke down, weeping in Sunny’s arms.
“Oh, sweetheart, I’m so sorry. You two didn’t deserve this fate.”
“What do I do now? How do I raise Destiny by myself? How do I support her?”
“You lean on your friends, sweetie. We will all be here to help you when you need it.” Sunny rocked her and tried to comfort her. But comfort eluded Fran.
“I can’t keep asking for handouts, Sunny. I’ll wait tables in the off-season. It’s all I know.” Fran took a breath and sighed. “I don’t suppose Charlie’s life insurance policy will help if his status is unknown.”
“If you don’t have a death certificate, it’s not much use to you, no,” Sunny affirmed. But Fran sat up and pulled away, a flicker of hope in her eyes.
“If there’s no death certificate, there’s a chance Charlie might be alive.” She smiled for the first time since the men brought her the news. “I refuse to accept that he died. He will come home to me. He promised he would.”
Sunny pulled herself to her feet and stood. “Caleb and I will stand with you, Frannie, believing that Charlie is alive, and he will come home.”
The women hugged again. “Thank you, Sunny.”
“You don’t have to worry about Destiny, Frannie. We will keep her with us as long as you need.”
Fran thought for a moment. “Maybe just a few more days? I need to find out details. I need to know what preparations to make if we lose Charlie’s pay while he is missing.”
“Whatever you need, Frannie, we will stand beside you and hold you up. You shouldn’t do this alone.” Sunny hugged her again. Fran thanked her and waved as Sunny left the house. She climbed the steps to the bedroom she shared with Charlie—it had been hours since she slept. Instead of climbing straight into bed, she knelt at the side, her hands folded, a prayer in her heart.
Thank you for sparing Charlie’s life, for protecting him while he is away. Thank you for leading him back home. Today, I am standing in faith, believing that he will come back to the family that loves him. Amen.
Six months later
An airplane that carried the survivors from the ill-fated mission that cost five men their lives, with dozens more wounded, arrived home in Appaloosa Plains. Among the injured were Jim Gentry and Trent Moore, two of Charlie’s brothers deployed overseas with him and based in Appaloosa Plains. After the mission, the allied forces lacked the manpower and resources to search the area. Based upon witness accounts of Charlie’s plane crash, and considering the unforgiving heat of the arid desert, the army changed his status to ‘Killed In Action’—a hero who had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Fran stood with the other military families as a matter of ceremony. In the middle of the throng of soldiers that left the aircraft, Lorne Turek appeared carrying Charlie’s duffel. As he approached Fran with it over his shoulder, she fell to her knees, crying.
“Fran,” Lorne said. “I am so sorry about Charlie.” He was on the brink of losing his composure. Seeing her was more difficult than he had imagined. “I gathered his belongings…” a sob choked him. “This is my fault. I am responsible for his death, Fran. I should have listened to him.” He placed the bag next to Fran and knelt with her. He pulled a small, flat item from his pocket and placed it into her hand. “Charlie wanted me to give you this if he didn’t survive…” He took her into his firm embrace. “I am sorry.”
Fran looked at the object Lorne gave her—a name patch embroidered with the word “Farmer.” She pushed him away and slapped him across the face. “You ruined my life, you bastard!” she screamed. “You killed my husband, the father of my baby girl…” A sob choked her words. “The love of my life.” She took a deep breath and exhaled in a vain attempt to regain her civility. “I will never forgive you for that, Lorne Turek. Never!” Cries of emotional suffering escaped her body—she buried her face in her hands. “Never…” she repeated until Lorne got to his feet.
“I lost much in that mission, too—” Lorne tried to explain, but Fran stood on her feet, rage on her face.
“You will NEVER lose as much as I have!” she spat. “You live, and my Charlie is dead!” She picked up the duffel from the grass where Lorne placed it. “I never want to see you again.” She turned to walk away on wobbly legs. The crowd’s attention focused on them when Sunny ran toward her.
“I’m here, Frannie,” she said, her arms enveloping her best friend. Sunny looked at Lorne. “It’s best that you leave her alone.”
He nodded his head in agreement. “I will keep my distance. Again, I am sorry.”
Sunny motioned to Caleb, so he broke into a jog to meet the two women. “How can I help, Sunny?” he asked.
“Carry Fran back to our truck for me? I’ll grab the duffel. She can’t be alone tonight. We’ll set up Cale’s room for her.” Sunny gave her husband a peck on the cheek before he picked Fran up to carry her. “Thank you.”
Caleb sighed. “I wish this wasn’t happening, Sun. It doesn’t feel right.”
“I’m afraid this is only the beginning,” Sunny replied. “She and Destiny have a long, hard road ahead of them.”
“That they do,” was his terse reply.
Without his remains, Fran had nothing to bury, no sense of closure. She and Destiny stood at a graveside service. An empty casket sat before them as Charlie received the highest military honor at his funeral.
“Mama?” Destiny pulled at Fran’s black dress. “Where’s Daddy?”
She shook her head and reached for her daughter’s cheek to stroke it. “I don’t know, sweet pea.”
“Why?” As four-year-olds are apt to do, she met every answered question with another question. She nudged Fran’s leg and pointed at the casket. “Is Daddy in dere?”
Fran swallowed back tears. “No, sweetheart, he isn’t.” Please, stop asking questions, Destiny, she thought.
“Where’s Daddy? I want to talk to Daddy,” Destiny mumbled. Fran picked her up and held her on her hip.
“I know you don’t understand, baby girl, but someday you will. Someday, you’ll understand how much your daddy loved you.” Fran swallowed hard and blinked back tears.
“Can I go play wiff Maya?” she asked Fran, who nodded her head. Sunny and Caleb approached Fran as Destiny ran toward their daughter.
Caleb hugged her first, and then Sunny. “How are you holding up?”
Fran wiped tears from her eyes. “We’re taking it one day at a time.”
“It’s nice they’re going to restore his rank,” Caleb said. “That’ll make you eligible for his widow’s benefit.” Sunny jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.
“Why don’t you get a glass of water for Fran, Cale?” Sunny suggested. He grumbled under his breath but walked away, anyway. “Frannie, what can we do for you?”
She smiled for a moment. “Remind Destiny who Charlie is every time you talk to her. Sunny, she can’t forget him. I promised him she wouldn’t.”
Sunny took her best friend’s hand and squeezed it. “Of course, Frannie.”
After the funeral service concluded, Fran and Destiny returned home to an empty shell of a house. She turned the light switch on at the door and slipped from her sandals. Destiny ran up the stairs to her bedroom and squealed. Fran chuckled at her enthusiasm for bedtime.
After a warm bath and warmer pajamas, Fran sat in the rocking chair with Destiny on her lap. The two of them snuggled together, Fran’s phone in her hand. It was a ritual they did every evening before she tucked Destiny into bed at night. As she dialed her voicemail, a robotic, female voice announced zero new phone calls, and the first saved message:
Hi Frannie, it’s Charlie. Baby, I know you’re angry with me, and you should be. But if you’ve believed nothing else I have ever told you, please believe what I’m telling you right now. Baby, I’m sorry for everything. I love you and I miss you and our daughter. All the regret I have is deep, and it’s undeniable. Honey, I wish I’d never gone to the bar that night. I wouldn’t be talking to this machine if I hadn’t. Pick up, sweetie. Please, pick up?—An uncomfortable silence, and then his voice continued—“Alright, honey, maybe next time? Please, never forget how much I love you… the both of you.”
Destiny’s face lit up when she heard Charlie’s voice on the message, and Fran wiped tears from her eyes. “Daddy loved you, Destiny. Please don’t forget him.”
“Don’t cry, Mama,” Destiny said and hugged her close.
“I won’t anymore, sweet pea.” She put Destiny on the floor, walked to her bed, and kneeled. She patted the spot next to her, and their daughter joined her on the floor while Fran prayed the prayer she never believed she would:
Thank you for watching over Daddy. Thank you for keeping him with you, and for taking him home to be with you. We will miss him until we see him again. Amen.
Twelve Months Later
“Mama? Can I put this in the chest with Daddy’s stuff?” Destiny asked, her favorite stuffed doll clutched in her fingers.
“Why do you want to do that, sweet pea?” Fran asked her. “Don’t you love Angaloo anymore?”
Destiny hugged the toy kangaroo to her chest. “Yes, but Daddy gave him to me.”
Fran nodded. “You can if you’d like to, Desi.” She knelt to her daughter’s height and hugged her. “I love you.”
“I love you, too, Mama.” Destiny handed the doll to her mother, then turned and walked to her bedroom, which was still the sitting room next to the master bedroom.
Fran folded the last of Charlie’s favorite clothing: his blue shirt, his favorite jeans, and the boots he wore in the barn. His old brown sweater, a pair of dress slacks, and his slippers. Inside the duffel that Lorne had given her was his prayer book, his journal, the wedding photo he carried with him to every deployment, and his phone. She placed all of his things into a cedar chest in the attic. Fran was ready to close it, save for one item that remained downstairs.
She padded down the stairs and took the portrait from the mantle. On her way back to the attic, she looked at the photo, the frame still broken, the glass still missing, a huge mar on Charlie’s image where the heel of her boot had damaged it. When she got to the second floor, she heard Destiny playing with and talking to her dolls and smiled.
When she reached the top step in the attic, the cedar chest was open, waiting for her. She knelt in front of the trunk and clutched the photo to her chest. She sighed and looked at it, and traced his image with her fingers. Tears welled in her eyes. Then she kissed the photograph.
“I love you, and I miss you, Charlie. But I need to let you go.” She looked at it one more time, placed it into the chest, then closed the top. The lid was heavy and closed with a hollow finality. Frannie’s shoulders heaved in sorrow as she leaned over the trunk and cried for Charlie for one of the last times.
A Month Later
Since Charlie’s death, Jason was there for Fran as moral support and a comfort in the middle of the biggest tragedy she had ever encountered. He was there to help her pick up the pieces of her shattered life, and now, a year after she laid her husband to rest, she was ready to close that chapter. She thought of Jason that morning as she opened the diner, and a smile crossed her face.
Fran finished wiping the counter when Jason walked into the diner. Her face lit up when she saw him. “Hello beautiful!” was his standard greeting, and it was the same this day.
“Hi honey,” she returned his greeting. “The usual?”
“You know me too well,” he laughed. “Yes, baby. Coffee and a blueberry muffin.” He lowered his voice. “I’ll take a kiss if you can sneak it.”
She laughed and swatted him with the cloth rag. “You know I can’t while I’m on duty,” she blushed.
“Where is your name tag, Ms. No Name?” Jason teased.
She looked down at the empty spot on her dress and sighed. “I guess it’s on my other uniform.”
“Nice going!” he continued to tease, and she stuck her tongue out at him, giggled, and put the rag away.
The diner was empty, the early morning rush long since over. Fran and Jason flirted together when a ragged-looking man shuffled into the diner. Snowflakes covered his tattered, tan coat, and the man was dirty. Vagrancy wasn’t a problem in Appaloosa Plains, though it wasn’t unusual for an occasional passerby to seek a handout.
Fran glanced at him, then looked for another server to save her. When she decided she was alone, she sighed, gave Jason a look, then walked over to the man sitting at the corner booth. “Good morning,” she greeted him. “What can I get for you?”
The man didn’t look up. “Coffee,” he said. “Cream, no sugar.”
She nodded. “I’ll be right back!” she said with a forced smile on her face. Jason was still sitting at the counter, and he watched her every move—the sway of her hips, the way she carried herself. In a week, he’d take her to dinner and propose, and he hoped she would agree to become Mrs. Jason Matthews.
“How’s the straggler? Another out-of-towner?” Jason asked.
Fran hesitated. She hated discussing other patrons with him. “He’s a customer, Jason. Same as you, but not as annoying,” she teased. She poured a cup of coffee and grabbed a handful of creamers. “Now, behave yourself!”
She walked to the corner table and placed his coffee on it, then she stood with her pad in her hand. “What would you like this morning?” she asked him.
The man ran his hand over his face in frustration. “Coffee is it for me, I’m afraid,” he murmured, but Fran heard the faint rumble of a hungry stomach. She got a better look at him when his gaze shifted to hers. His face was gaunt—a long, graying beard obscured most of his features. His salt and pepper hair reached his collar, and it looked unkempt and more than a little dirty. Fran felt a pang of sorrow for him. What had placed him into this dire condition?
Her expression and tone of voice softened. “Are you sure? You look like you could use a hot meal.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “Look, I’m not here seeking a handout, but if you insist, I won’t say no.” He picked up the menu and searched for the cheapest item. He decided and pointed at a bagel.
Fran smiled at him. “I know exactly what you should have!” She jotted something on her notepad. “How about some orange juice?”
The man nodded and waved at her. “Thank you.”
Jason recognized the look on her face as she walked toward him. “You’re going to buy his meal, aren’t you?” Fran grinned, winked, and walked back toward the kitchen to turn in the man’s order.
She turned and looked at him. “You know, Jason, many times I wouldn’t have made it without someone’s help. It’s time I gave back.”
Jason shook his head. He had seen Fran go without many times to ensure Destiny had necessities. This time, her sacrifice would benefit a worn, old man she’d only just met at the diner—to put warm, nourishing food into his stomach and maybe an encouraging word into his soul. Jason hated seeing Fran and Destiny struggle, so he dug a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet.
“That’s one thing I love about you, Fran—your generous heart. But let me take care of this one, baby.” Jason tucked the bill into her hand. “I don’t want to see you sacrifice anything for some homeless bum.”
Fran scowled. “That’s not nice, Jason!” she scolded him. “There are many times I would have been in his shoes. But the community rallied around me and saved my life.” She looked with sympathy at the worn old stranger. “Besides, I’d be willing to bet he has no family. Maybe he is lonely.”
Jason, concerned that Fran was becoming too attentive toward the man, put his foot down. “Don’t even think about inviting him back to your home, sweetie. You don’t know him from anyone. He could be a drug addict, a criminal, or worse!”
“Oh relax,” she said and rolled her eyes. Sometimes, she couldn’t fathom why she loved Jason so much, but despite herself, she did. “I’m not bringing a dirty old stranger into the house with my little girl. I just feel sorry for him.”
When the order was ready, she took it and walked toward the stranger with a carafe of fresh coffee. She placed the carafe on the table and set the plates down in front of him.
“I ordered this special for you,” Fran said with a smile. “Eggs, bacon, gravy, fresh biscuits, and grits. I used to make it all the time…” She stopped herself before she got emotional. “Can I refresh your coffee?”
The man nodded while Fran filled his cup. She noticed how he looked at the spread—she figured it was the first thing he’d eaten in days, maybe weeks. She patted his shoulder. “Enjoy your breakfast. If you need anything, my name is—”
“Frannie,” the man said and completed her sentence. “Sweet Frannie.”
Fran screamed and dropped the carafe, which shattered at her feet. Jason sprung into action and rushed to her aid, ready to defend the woman he loved. When he reached her, she stood trembling and staring at the haggard old traveler.
“No…” she said in utter disbelief. “It can’t be.” She stooped lower to gaze into the stranger’s eyes, at his face, looking for a sign, anything that confirmed her suspicions.
Jason’s heart raced a hundred miles an hour. “What is it, Fran? Did this man hurt you?” He blocked her with his body and took a protective stance.
Fran nudged Jason and moved toward the old man. He turned as if to stand, but took Fran’s hands instead. “It was my destiny to meet you,” he whispered and played with the wedding ring she wore on her left hand. When he stood and smiled at her, she knew it.
“Oh… my… it is you! You’re alive! You’re alive…” Fran collapsed into his arms and he held her as she wept.
Jason stepped back, confused. “Would someone please tell me what the HELL just happened?!”
Fran buried her face into the man’s neck and cried. “Oh, Charlie…”
He wrapped her up in his arms and held her close to him, his hands caressing her cheek. “Honey, I’m home.”
Jason walked to the counter where he had been sitting and opened his wallet. From it, he pulled a twenty-dollar bill and left it on the counter before he walked toward the front door, never to return.
Poses By Bee
Couple Set 2
Custom content and poses are not my property and used in compliance with the TOUs.
**A special shout-out (and a HUGE thank you!) to my friend and editor, Chris W., whose ideas, guidance, and encouragement made this chapter possible. I couldn’t have done this without you! And another special recognition to my brainstorming buddy (he knows who he is!) for the back and forth and inspiration. Thank you!**