Jeff lay on his cot in the early morning darkness. Rodriguez
and Peters were still asleep, snoring lightly. He thought about
Lisa, back in their little bungalow in Portland. He shuffled
through the time zones, figured she’d already given the twins
their baths and put them to bed. He pictured her sacked out on
the couch, exhausted, flipping through the TV channels, braless,
her full breasts and nipples outlined against one of his T-shirts.
He knew he should be missing her and the kids, but he just
couldn’t feel it. The last time they’d talked by phone, he couldn’t
wait to get off the line. She’d seemed antsy, too. He was
grateful when Tyler started crying, then Ethan, and Lisa said she
needed to go and fix them something to eat.

He told himself this was just normal shit he was going through
now. Feeling so cut off from things at home. From Lisa and the
kids. He’d done this before, he reminded himself, but that was
before the babies. He felt a lot more alone this time. Thank God
for Rodriguez, the only other NCO in his unit who was over forty.
Jeff felt like the old man on this tour. Some of these kids looked
like babies. A picture of his own sons flashed through his mind
and with it a dagger of guilt in his gut. He thought about the
rush of happiness he’d felt when the doc had given him and Lisa
the news. All those years of trying and then it was finally
happening. It was all a big blur for those first few months after
the boys were born. They’d both been so fucking tired, but
damn, were they ever happy. But then as soon as he’d gotten
called up, Lisa freaked out. Did she think
he wasn’t pissed off
about the lousy timing?

Bullshit, he thought, and grabbed his shaving stuff from the top
of his footlocker. He was just doing his job. Besides, he was
lucky this time: hot showers, a weight room and a rec center
whenever they got back on base inside the Green Zone in
Jalalabad. During his last deployment, two years before, in ’06,
he’d been stuck for all twelve months at an FOB, one of the
outposts that overlooked what command liked to call a
“population center.” It hadn’t looked like much to Jeff, just a
bunch of crumbling stucco and mud houses and some dreary-ass
patches of farmland. His squad’s quarters were even worse,
though. Not even a lousy Port-a-John. They’d had to wrap up
their shit in foil bags and burn it.

Then on top of that, you never knew when the enemy would fire
off an RPG from higher ground or strafe the outpost with sniper
fire. But since then, the Brits mostly, but some of the US and
French troops, too, had cleared most of the province of
insurgents. Now, Jeff thought, at least when they rolled out in
their Humvees on security details, they had the satisfaction of
knowing they’d gained
something in exchange for those long
dusty months.

Jeff pulled on a pair of shorts and felt around under his cot with
his foot for his Adidas sandals, kicked them out, and slid his
feet in. He grabbed the soft, blue towel that Lisa had sent,
along with a bunch of other stuff, in her last care package. She’d
included a great picture of Tyler and Ethan, too, one of those
package deals from JC Penney with the blue-sky background.
Their pudgy-cheeked little faces looked down at him now from
where he’d taped the photo inside his locker. In the five months
he’d been gone, the twins had morphed from babies into full-
fledged little humans. He saw his own gray eyes in both of his
boys, the pale red hair that was still peach fuzz, but would
likely darken up to the same shade of red his was now. He
shook his head as though to clear a moment of confusion,
draped the towel around his neck, and headed down the hall to
shave and shower.

* * *

Lisa looked at herself in the full-length mirror and liked what
she saw. Her panties just covered the C-section scar and her
stomach was as taut as it had been in college, her arms and
thighs sculpted and muscular. Even her breasts, enormous and
painful during the long months of pregnancy and breastfeeding,
had returned to their former shape. She’d even gone down a cup
size—a benefit of breastfeeding, her mother had insisted—and
this pleased Lisa immensely, since she now thought she looked
even thinner. The long walks she’d been taking with the twins—
pushing the bulky stroller to and from the park—were paying off.

She dressed quickly, pulling on the pair of jeans she’d splurged
on at the mall, the first item of clothing she’d bought herself
since the boys were born. The jeans looked good on her and
she’d wanted them. It wasn’t a difficult decision. She completed
the outfit now with a white, lacey tank top that peeked out from
under a pale blue, tailored shirt, the first three buttons undone.
She spent several minutes trying to decide whether to tuck the
shirt in or leave it out, finally opting to tuck it in, and then
grabbed a belt from her side of the closet. Too bad Jeff wasn’t
here to see that she’d finally shed the baby weight. Serves him
right, she thought.

Tyler and Ethan were mesmerized by the DVD she’d popped in
earlier, both of them drowsy enough, she hoped, to let the
McCullough girl put them to sleep without too much trouble. She
sat down on the edge of her bed and watched them, their little
faces looking vaguely conflicted at Big Bird’s predicament. She
couldn’t help but smile at her sons, perfect mirror images of one
another, their reddish-blonde hair still coming in, but sticking up
in wispy tufts wherever it was a bit longer. She remembered
how insanely happy she and Jeff had been in the doctor’s office
the day he’d told them the in vitro had taken. Not only were
they going to have one baby, they were going to have twins.
They’d laughed and cried and hugged like lunatics, right in front
of Dr. Chin, who’d looked maybe a little embarrassed, but every
bit as happy as they did.

“Hey, Pooh Bears,” she said now, her voice breaking a little,
“Mommy’s going out soon and Justine’s gonna stay with you.
Remember Justine?” She cuddled them both, burying her face in
the sweet milky baby scent of their scalps as she kissed them.
With any luck, she’d be able to get out the door without the
tears this time.

When the doorbell rang, both boys clambered backward off the
big bed and toddled into the living room. So much for bedtime,
Lisa thought as she opened the front door.

“Hi, Mrs. Ingram. Hope it’s okay I’m a little early.”

Lisa held the screen door open while the girl lugged in a heavy
backpack covered with all sorts of protest pins and dangling
objects. The twins gazed up at the heavy-set Justine, nearly as
captivated with the girl’s lip rings and tattooed arms as they’d
been with Big Bird.

“No, no, that’s great. They’ve had their baths and I’m ready to
go, so it’s good. Come in.” As she watched Justine now, she was
reminded again of the girl’s perpetual awkwardness. She
supposed that this—along with her weight—kept Justine out of
the dating and party loop. There’d be no other reason for a girl
her age to be babysitting on a Saturday night. Her own high
school years had been a blur of football games, dances, and
parties. The time seemed golden, effortless and now,
completely inaccessible. The thought blindsided her with
sadness. And I’d been doing so well all day, she thought, willing
herself to shake it off.

“The phone numbers are all on the fridge,” Lisa said, as Justine
trailed her into the tiny kitchen. “If they want, they can have
their Sippy Cups before bed, but nothing else to eat. Oh, and
Ethan still needs the diaper rash cream when you change him,

“Sure, no problem.” Justine stooped to pick up Tyler, who’d
attached himself to her pant leg. “You look really pretty, Mrs.
Ingram,” she added, her chubby face turned toward Tyler and
not Lisa.

“Thank you, Justine,” said Lisa; she smiled at this, her cheeks
pinkening. “Okay, little ones, come give Mommy kisses.”

* * *

Jeff turned the water as hot as it would go and let the spray
pepper his shoulder blades for as long as he could stand it. The
water pressure was surprisingly good. He tried to relax, to clear
his mind of all the lousy thoughts that’d been dogging him. He
felt edgy. The crazy thing was he didn’t feel any safer inside the
gates now than he had at the FOB in ‘06. The enemy’s actions
were unpredictable then, and no less so now. What’s more, they
sure-as-hell didn’t have any problem killing their own women
and children. If anything, they’d gotten more brazen. Desperate,
it seemed to Jeff.

On his squad’s first night back from their mission into Gardez,
the Taliban had fired rockets—just outside the base—but they
hadn’t breached the concrete barriers. Roused from a dead
man’s sleep, Jeff heard the warning sirens and the car alarms,
so loud they nearly canceled one another out. The blast ignited
everything within a two-block radius. Charred bodies lay
everywhere, some unrecognizable as human, man or woman.
Jeff’s company commander ordered his squad to tally and gather
the dead. Jeff remembered pulling a young Afghan boy and his
mother from their burning car. Both died before the medics could
get to them. He’d felt helpless and angry. He thought about Lisa
and his own boys at home. Safe. Right then, the whole fucking
war—the way innocent people got wasted for no good reason—
seemed pointless. But the worst part was the stench. Jeff knew
he’d never escape that smell of burning flesh.

Morale had been low after that. Jeff tried to cajole his men into
a more upbeat frame of mind. The problem was he wasn’t any
better off. They’d all seen what they’d seen at the blast. And
maybe some of them had seen worse. But the
kids, the women—it wasn’t so easy to suck it up after that.
Those burned up bodies stayed stuck in his head. He could flip
through the gruesome images like pages of the photo albums
Lisa made up of their boys.

They’d been in country five months and his guys were bitching
more and more.

“Command has their head up their ass,” Rissling kept saying
after the debriefing. “What I wanna know is what the fuck’re we
still doing here?”

“Right,” said Truong. “They send our asses here to train the
Afghans for Chrissake—but
they don’t have to follow NATO

“How ‘bout we take a page from that book, Sarge?” asked
Rissling. “Shoot first, ask questions later.”

Jeff wasn’t sure anymore how to answer his men—these two,
really just boys—but he’d bet a fifth of Jack right now the
fuckers who’d done the blast had probably walked right past his
squad and scurried back into their maze of run-down huts.

* * *

Lisa grabbed her car keys from the basket on the kitchen
counter, walked out the front door, and drove off in the Hyundai
SUV that she and Jeff had bought just before the twins were
born. The purchase had been a big one for them. Money had
been tight long before the babies—they owed Lisa’s parents a
fortune for the IVF treatments, the huge chunk the insurance
company hadn’t covered—but now, with Jeff deployed and
without Lisa’s income, she felt panicky every time she sat down
to pay the bills. A few months before, she’d never have
imagined spending money on a babysitter, but things had
changed. She deserved this little extravagance, she told

But midway to the restaurant, the sadness she’d felt earlier
began to seep back in. It followed its usual path, veering off
now toward anger, and Lisa thought again about how hopeful
they’d been—she and Jeff—when the pregnancy had been
confirmed. The months and months that had then turned into
years were finally behind them. She’d truly felt their lives were
about to begin. Why hadn’t she expected that Jeff would be
deployed again? This was her own fault, she admitted, not
listening to that know-it-all woman from the Family Readiness
Group. Lisa figured she just hadn’t been ready to hear it. The
first two deployments had been bad, but that was before the
babies. She’d pinned everything on their arrival, and now Jeff
was gone again. How was that right? She blamed Jeff and part
of her knew this was ridiculous. The US military called the shots,
not her husband. And maybe she even blamed God for making
them have to wait so long to finally start their family. But
however she looked at it, she felt alone. Deserted.

She flicked on her turn signal and pulled into the restaurant
parking lot. It was still early and, if she’d wanted, could have
had her pick of the few choice spaces in front. She circled once,
and then parked in the back of the building where the dumpsters
and recycling bins were only partially concealed by a low, cinder-
block wall. She turned off the engine and sat motionless, her
hands resting lightly on the steering wheel. She thought about
the way Jeff had looked when they’d first met, ridiculously
handsome and fit. She flushed remembering how urgent their
lovemaking had always seemed back then, as though no one
else could have ever felt the way they did.

She flipped down the visor and checked her face in the mirror.
She’d outlined her hazel eyes with a soft brown pencil and even
added a little mascara, both to good effect, she thought now.
Lisa faked a wide smile, brushed on some lip-gloss, and flipped
the visor back into place.

* * *

Jeff sat on the edge of his bunk. His mind wavered between
wanting to get back to Lisa—the old Lisa—and feeling relieved
at the distance the war had placed between them. In the last
weeks before he’d deployed, she’d made his life a living hell. In
some ways, he almost couldn’t wait to go. When she wasn’t
mopey and crying, she was bitchy and yelling at him. She’d even
snapped at the twins and he worried, not for the first time, that
she wouldn’t be able to keep it together while he was gone. It
had taken her so long to get pregnant that it shocked him to
hear her raise her voice to the babies. Something he swore he’d
never do.

This was one of the downsides of the Guard. Not living on base
with other Army families. Lisa not having the other wives to
lean on. But she’d refused to go to the Family Readiness
meetings after his first deployment, said the women there were
trailer trash, practically teenagers. Lisa said this wasn’t what
she’d signed on for. Three deployments in six years. Well, guess
what? Did she think this was
his idea of a good time?

Then he saw her face at the parade grounds the day the 41st
Brigade Combat Team assembled, his boys bundled into their
strollers. Tears smearing her makeup and two lines of black
mascara down either side of her face. She looked beat.
Miserable. He’d felt awful then, felt like he really was running
out on her and the kids.

Yep, his life pretty much sucked, he told himself. Then he
stuffed that sentiment along with the rest and headed back to
see if Rodriguez and Peters had gotten their lazy asses up.
They’d hit the mess for some breakfast. He’d listen to Rodriguez
carry on about his kids—they were up to something like six of
them for Chrissake!—and any other damned thing that rattled
off the guy’s tongue. Pain in my ass, Jeff muttered, but then he
smiled despite himself.

* * *

A tall, muscular man was waiting at the hostess stand when
Lisa came through the door. She watched the now familiar smile
spread across his bearded face when he spotted her. She tried,
unsuccessfully, to quiet the fluttering in her stomach.

“Derek, you weren’t waiting long, were you?” she asked, a smile
of her own taking over.

“Just got here,” he said, and then turning to the hostess, a slim,
dark-haired young woman wearing a skimpy, black dress, “She’s
right here. See, I told you she wouldn’t stand me up.”

Lisa noted the way the woman’s face flushed at this, how she
fumbled a moment with the menus before saying, “This way,
sir.” Then Derek placed his arm lightly around her shoulder and
she allowed herself to relax a little as the two followed the
hostess to a small table in the back of the nearly empty
restaurant. The place was a favorite of Derek’s and it suited her
because it was in a neighborhood, slightly on the seedy side,
and not likely to be frequented by anyone she knew.

“Enjoy your meal,” the hostess said, handing each of them their
menus, and smiling demurely now. “Your server will be right
with you.”

Lisa eased back into the soft cushions behind her. The
restaurant had a Bohemian décor and their table was partially
ensconced by a silky, pale-green curtain, tied back with thick
gold-braided cord. The first time they’d come here Lisa had
joked that it felt like a harem. Now Derek reached across the
table and took Lisa’s smaller hand in both of his.

“So, how’re the little guys?”  

Lisa felt the roughness of Derek’s hands, an occupational hazard
of his work as a landscaper, and she thought about the
incongruity of this: everything else about the man was gentle;
soft was the word that Jeff would use.

“Oh, they’re great,” said Lisa, tucking a strand of sandy-blonde
hair behind her ear with her right hand while Derek still clung to
the other. She’d not worn her rings—the thin gold wedding band
and antique engagement ring—since the babies were born. At
first she’d worried that the prongs on the diamond might scratch
the babies or the rings might slip off in the bath water, but
then, once Jeff deployed, her reasoning was likely more
motivated by spite.

“They were pretty easy tonight, though. That worries me a
little,” she continued, seeing Derek’s eyes cloud with concern.
“Oh no, I don’t mean
worry, worry,” she said. “I don’t know . . .
It’s just kind of weird to see them letting go a little easier now.
They love Justine, you know.”

“Well, isn’t that a good thing?” Derek leaned in now and folded
Lisa’s other hand into the warm, little huddle he’d made
between them on the tabletop. His eyes, deep blue and
punctuated with the palest lashes she’d ever seen, turned merry
again. “It shows they trust you to keep them safe, right?”

“True,” said Lisa, drawing out the word. She remembered how
she’d felt the first time she and Jeff had left the twins with
someone else. She’d been terrified and that was when her
younger sister had flown in from Erie to stay with them and help
out. “You two need a night out,” Celeste had insisted. “Every
parenting magazine says you have to nurture the marriage,
along with the children.” Now Lisa felt a nagging queasiness as
the guilt crept back in.

“They’re just growing up so fast,” Lisa continued. “That must
sound stupid. You probably think I’m ridiculous, always going on
about this stuff. I’m sorry— ”

“Do you realize how often you say that? I’m sorry? You have
nothing to be sorry about. You’re an amazing woman.”

Lisa withdrew her hands from Derek’s and steepled them in front
of her. A slender blonde waitress headed toward their table, but
then discreetly changed direction, taking her cue from Derek’s
expression. Lisa wished he could have known her before she’d
had the twins. She’d have liked for him to see her in the tailored
suits and silk blouses she’d worn to her office on meeting days.
Jeff always said it turned him on to see her in her “power suits.”
They’d had a long-standing joke about this, since Jeff’s entire
work wardrobe consisted of identical khaki pants and black polo
shirts, the standard uniform for all the electrical engineers at his
company. None of that seemed the slightest bit funny now,
though. Jeff’s boss had said he’d hold his job open till he got
back this time, but who knew when that would be.

The plan had been for Lisa to take her maternity leave, plus a
couple of months without pay, and then to ease back into part-
time hours when she could.

“I don’t feel very amazing,” Lisa said, “but you’re very sweet to
say that.”

“That’s how I feel.”

She drank in the steadfast attention that Derek provided her,
his eyes never moving from hers. She hadn’t been looking for
this, Lisa told herself again. She’d plucked Derek’s business card
from the bulletin board in the coffee shop where she brought the
boys some mornings for treats. He’d come out to the house,
done the raking and the heavy yard work that Jeff would have
done. They’d talked that first afternoon on the back patio, the
leaves still drifting from the trees. Her tears and then his
tentative kiss had been completely unanticipated.

“I know that,” she said now. “It’s all kind of . . . I don’t know
. . . surreal, I guess, to have this crazy thing happening to me
. . . well . . . now. You know? It’s the timing,” she trailed off.

“Well, technically,” he said, smiling again, “there’s really
nothing all that crazy going on between us, if
that’s what you
mean. You’re allowed to have a friend, Lisa. And, as a matter of
fact, you deserve to have that much,” he said, the smile
suddenly dissipated, his tone nearly strident.

“We’re both adults,” said Lisa. “I think we know where this is
headed.” She hadn’t expected it, but tears suddenly stung her
eyes. She felt indignant, but at whom she wasn’t even sure. The
whole situation felt like a soap opera. She knew, on some level,
she still loved Jeff, and that was the part that was hardest to
figure out. Was it possible to love her husband and to hate him
at the same time? Was she a horrible, selfish person because
she wanted right now, needed right now, to be held? Her
husband—her children’s father—was in a war zone, a fact she
tried not to dwell upon. But she realized now that each
deployment and each return had incrementally chipped away at
their marriage, and would continue to do so. How absurd that
she’d kept at it—the idea of having a baby—and amazingly,
finally, conceived when she was nearly forty.

“I’m not pushing you, Lisa. This has got to be your decision, not
mine.” But Derek’s thoughtful expression quickly gave way to a
disarming smile. “Not that you don’t know what my vote would
be,” he said, taking her hand again. “Tell you what,” he
continued. “Let’s order some dinner. Dinner is a good thing.
Sharing a meal with a friend is a perfectly acceptable way to
spend an evening. Agreed?”

“Agreed.” She spread both of her hands flat on the table and
took a deep breath before she picked up her menu.

* * *

Jeff was happy when the orders came down. Relieved even; at
least it was something to do. As squad leader, he had two five-
man teams of infantry soldiers under his command. His
sergeants, Rodriguez and Peters, would take three of the
privates in their vehicle and the other three would ride with Jeff.
The two Humvees would provide an escort—diplomatic security
detail—for some NATO brass into Kabul.

At 0600 the sun was just peeking above the horizon. Jeff
ordered Private Rissling to man the turret gun on the vehicle
he’d be driving, and Rodriguez took this post on the other. Jeff
had known Rodriguez from Task Force Rita back in ’06—when
their unit got yanked out of there just two weeks in—and
packed off to Afghanistan. Looking back, Jeff figured he had to
give Rodriguez at least half the credit for keeping them all alive
back at that God-forsaken outpost. He remembered him there,
the big, beefy man praying silently each night, those wooden
rosary beads clicking against each another, as the others slept.

Jeff remembered how scared he’d felt then, just knowing the
enemy was out there, all around, lurking in any one of those
blasted out buildings up in the hills. He knew he had to squelch
these thoughts, but they popped up now, more and more. He
wished he could pray like Rodriguez.

He thought about his boys, the way they’d felt, slippery in his
hands, the first time Lisa made him give them a bath all by
himself. He’d been scared to death of doing something wrong,
but Lisa said not to worry. He could do it. And he had. He
remembered the way their skin felt when they were warm and
dry from the soft towel after the bath, then slippery again and
smelling sweet from the baby lotion that Lisa said to use. He’d
touched his lips to each of their foreheads when he was
through. He’s felt an unimaginable sense of relief. He’d bathed
his baby boys and hadn’t harmed them. All of them—he, Lisa,
the babies—they were safe.

* * *

In the parking lot, Derek leaned down into the SUV’s open
driver’s side door, his hand flattened on the roof. Lisa sat
behind the wheel, her purse on the seat next to her.

“Completely up to you,” he said, his eyes not leaving hers. “You
know how I feel. I’m not going anywhere.”

At dinner, the conversation had traveled its usual route, circling
and circling what they both preferred not to say out loud; the
next step would take her even further away from her husband
than she felt right now.

* * *

At ten kilometers out on Jalalabad Road, Jeff reached his
platoon commander, Second LT Richmond: no negative
intelligence to report from Kabul. Truong, a nineteen-year-old
from Denver, was riding shotgun with Richmond, his M-16 at the
ready. Jeff glanced off into the dusty hills. The sky was robin’s
egg blue. It made no sense, he thought: something that perfect
spread out over a shithole like this. A second later he heard the
blast. He felt the Humvee flip, felt himself powerless as he
slammed against the roof or the floorboards—he couldn’t tell
which. He saw the flames, and hollered for Truong to get the
others out.

He saw an image of his little brother, Carl. They’d stayed up
late and a storm took out the power. Lightning lit up their room.
Red curtains glowing like they’d been plunged into hell.
Complete darkness, but then those bright flashes, bleeding
through the curtains. Each clap of thunder reverberating in his
chest. The flashes.

He tried to move but something heavy was crushing his leg. Hot
steel singed his flesh. Flames thrashed, reaching for him, the
heat a monstrous beast. His eyes burned—nearly blinded now—
as black smoke billowed. He breathed the acrid smell of
explosives. He called out for Rodriguez and Peters.

He saw Lisa, her body hard and muscular. Sweat-slicked. She
smiled. He wanted her, but then the smile turned arrogant.
Brazen. Like she knew something he never would.

“Get them out!” he yelled. “Get every last motherfucker out!”

* * *

Lisa looked out the passenger-side window, then back to Derek.
“Okay,” she said. “I want to.”

He bent down and kissed her gently. She felt the softness of his
beard on her face.

“I’ll follow you, then,” she said.

Dina Greenberg’s poetry, essays, short stories and reviews have appeared
in Bellevue Literary Review, Chronogram, Gemini Magazine, The Warwick
Review, Existere, and Barely South, among others. Her flash fiction “Radio
Silence” was chosen for Vine Leaves Best of 2015. She earned her MFA in
writing from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she
served as managing editor for the literary journal Chautauqua. Dina leads
creative writing workshops in the Wilmington community.
by Dina Greenberg