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By Rebecca Yarros, Karen Grove and Nicole Steinhaus
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Rebecca Yarros
All rights reserved.
Who the hell would be pounding on the door at 7:05 a.m.?
Three tiny knocks on my bedroom door echoed the harsher ones downstairs. Mom was going to chew their butts for interrupting her morning routine.
"Come in!" I called out, scanning through my iPod's playlist before pressing sync. Music made running more tolerable. Barely. Running was hellish, but I'd already calculated how far I had to go to compensate for the Christmas fudge I'd be scarfing down during the rest of my visit home. The thermometer outside said thirteen degrees, and human ice sculptures were overrated, so Colorado at Christmas meant it would be treadmill city. Yay, me.
Gus's strawberry-blond curls popped through the small opening of the door, my lab goggles from Chem 101 perched on his forehead. They gave his seven-year-old, puckered-up-in-frustration face a more mad scientist vibe. "What's up, buddy?" I asked.
"Ember? Can you answer the door?" he begged.
I turned down the music coming from my laptop. "The door?"
He nodded, nearly losing the goggles. My lips twitched, fighting the smile that spread across my face while I tried not to laugh. "I'm supposed to go to hockey, and Mom won't answer the door for carpool," he said.
I put on my best serious face as I glanced back at the clock. "Okay, Gus, but it's only seven, and I don't think you have hockey until the afternoon. Mom never forgets a practice." I'd inherited my type-A nature from somewhere.
He let out an exasperated sigh. "But what if it's early?"
"Six hours early?"
"Well, yeah!" He gave me a wide-eyed stare declaring me the stupidest sister ever.
"Okay, buddy." I caved like always. The way he'd cried when I left for college last year pretty much gave the kid free reign over my soul. Gus was the only person I didn't mind going off schedule for.
I checked Skype one more time before closing my laptop, hoping I'd see Dad pop online. He'd been gone three months, two weeks, and six days. Not that I was counting. "He'll call today," Gus promised, hugging my side. "He has to. It's a rule or something. They always get to call for their kid's birthday."
I forced out a smile and hugged his scrawny body. It didn't matter that I turned twenty today, I just wanted to hear from Dad. The knocks sounded again. "Mom!" I called out. "Door!" I grabbed a hair tie off my desk and held it in my teeth while I gathered my long hair back in a pre-run ponytail.
"I told you," he mumbled into my side. "She won't answer. It's like she wants me to miss hockey, and you know that means I'll suck forever! I don't want Coach Walker to think I suck!"
"Don't say suck." I kissed the top of his head. He smelled like his orange, Spiderman-labeled shampoo and sunshine. "Let's go see."
He thrust his arms out in victory and raced down the hallway ahead of me, taking the back stairs closest to my room. He slid through the kitchen in his socks, and I snagged a bottle of water from the fridge on my way. The knocks sounded again, and Mom still didn't answer. She must have run off for errands with April or something, though seven in the morning was way too early for my younger sister.
I passed through the dining room, twisted open the top on the bottle, and walked into the living room, opposite the foyer. Two shadows stood outside the door, poised to knock again.
"Just a minute!" I called out, hopping over the Lego star destroyer Gus had abandoned in the middle of the floor. Stepping on a Lego was a special degree of hell that only someone with a little brother could really understand.
"Don't answer it." Mom's strangled whisper came from the front staircase, which stopped only a few feet from the front door.
"Mom?" I came around the steps and found her huddled in on herself, rocking back and forth. Her hands covered her hair, strands of dark auburn the exact same shade as mine weaving through her fingers where she tugged. Something was wrong. "Mom, who's here?"
"No, no, no, no, no," she mumbled, refusing to lift her head from her knees.
I drew back and took a look at Gus with raised eyebrows. He shrugged in response with a see-I-told-you-so look. "Where's April?" I asked him.
"Sleeping." Of course. At seventeen, all April did was sleep, sneak out, and sleep again.
"Right." Another three knocks sounded. They were brisk, efficient, and accompanied by a soft male voice.
"Mrs. Howard?" His voice was distorted through the door, but through the center glass panel, I saw that he'd leaned in. "Please, ma'am."
Mom raised her head and met my eyes. They were dead, as though someone had sucked the life from them, and her mouth hung slack. This was not my Stepford-perfect mother.
"What's going on?" April asked with a massive yawn, dropping to sit on the top step in her pajamas, her bright red hair a messy tangle from sleep.
I shook my head and turned to the door. The knob was warm in my hand. They taught us in elementary school never to open a warm door during a fire. Why did I think of that? I glanced back at Mom and made my choice. Ignoring her plea, I opened the door in slow motion.
Two army officers in Dress Blue uniform consumed our stoop, their hats in their hands. My stomach lurched. No. No. No.
She knew. That's why Mom hadn't opened the door. She knew.
Tears stung my eyes, burning my nose before the men could even get a word out. My water bottle slipped from my hand, bursting open on the doorframe and pouring water over their shined shoes. The younger of the two soldiers started to speak, and I put my finger up, silencing him before I softly shut the door.
My breath expelled in a quiet sob, and I rested my head against the warm door. I had opened the door to a fire, and it was poised to decimate my family. I sucked in a shaky breath and put a bright smile on my face as I turned to Gus. "Hey, buddy." I stroked my hands over his beautiful, innocent little head. I couldn't stop what was coming, but I could spare him this. "My iPhone is on my nightstand." In the room furthest from the front door. "Why don't you head up to my room and play Angry Birds for a bit? It's not hockey, just grown-up stuff, okay? Play until I come get you."
His eyes lit up, and I forced my smile harder. How long would it be until I saw that in his eyes again? "Cool!" he shouted and raced up the front steps, passing April on his way. "See, Ember lets me play with her phone!" he teased as his footsteps raced toward my room.
"What is going on?" April demanded. I ignored her and turned to Mom.
I dropped to my knees on the step beneath hers and brushed back her hair. "It's time to let them in, Mom. We're all here." I gave a distorted smile through the blur my vision had become.
She didn't respond. It took a minute before I realized she wasn't going to. She just wasn't here. April scooted down the steps, sitting next to Mom. I opened the door again and nearly lost it at the pity in the younger soldier's eyes. The older one began to speak. "June Howard?"
I shook my head. "Ember — December Howard. My mother," I choked out and gestured behind me, "is June." I stood next to her and reached through the banister railing to rest my hand on her back.
He could be wounded. Just wounded. They came to the door for serious wounds. Yeah, just wounded. We could handle that.
The soldiers nodded. "I am Captain Vincent and this is Lieutenant Morgan. May we come in?"
I nodded. He wore the same patch on his shoulder as my father. They stepped in, their wet shoes squeaking on the tiles of the entry hall, and shut the door behind them. "June Howard, wife of Lieutenant Colonel Justin Howard?" he asked. She nodded weakly, but kept her eyes trained on the rug while Captain Vincent ended my world.
"The Secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your husband, Justin, was killed in action in Kandahar, Afghanistan, earlier this morning, the nineteenth of December. He was killed by small arms fire in a Green on Blue incident in the hospital, which is still under investigation. The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family in your tragic loss."
My hands slid to the railing to keep me upright, and my eyes closed as tears raced down my face. I knew the regs. Twenty years as an army brat had taught me they had to notify us within a certain number of hours of identifying him. Hours. He'd been alive hours ago. I couldn't breathe, couldn't drag the air into my lungs in a world that didn't have my father in it anymore. It wasn't possible. Everything dropped from under me, and unmatched pain tore through every cell in my body, erupting in a sob I couldn't keep contained. April's scream split the air, ripping through me. God, it hurt. It hurt.
"Ma'am?" the young lieutenant asked. "Is there someone we can call for you? Casualty Assistance should be here soon, but until then?"
Casualty. My father had been killed. Dead. Green on Blue. He'd been shot by someone in an Afghani uniform. My father was a doctor. A doctor! Who the hell shoots a doctor? They had to be wrong. Did Dad even carry a weapon?
Why wasn't Mom answering?
She remained silent, her eyes trained on the pattern of the carpet runner on the stairs, refusing to answer.
Unable to answer.
Something shifted in me; the weight of responsibility settled on my shoulders, dislodging some of the pain so I could breathe. I had to be the adult right now because no one else here could. "I'll take care of her until Casualty Assistance arrives," I managed to say with a shaky voice, speaking over April's shrieks.
"You're sure?" Captain Vincent asked, concern etching his unfamiliar features.
I nodded. "They keep a binder, just in case this —" I shoved my knuckles into my mouth, biting down as hard as I could to stop the wail desperate to emerge. I steadied myself again, sucking in air. Why was it so damn hard to breathe? "In case this happens — happened." Dad was a believer that nothing bad happened to prepared people. He'd hate to know he'd been wrong.
The captain nodded. He pulled out a form and had me verify that the information in Dad's handwriting was correct. This was our address, our phone number. Those were our names and dates of birth. The lieutenant startled. "Happy birthday, December," he whispered.
Captain Vincent sent him a silent glare. "We are so very sorry for your loss. Casualty Assistance will be here within the hour, and the care team is ready if that's okay with you." I agreed. I knew the drill, and what Mom needed.
The door shut behind them, leaving our world shattered.
For the next hour, Mom sat silently on the stairs while April wailed on my shoulder. This wasn't real. It couldn't be. I couldn't hold her tight enough to make it stop. The care team arrived around the same time April's cries softened to sniffles. I waved them inside. Armed with sympathetic eyes and casserole schedules, the three women from the family readiness group of Dad's unit took over the tasks that hadn't been done yet. The breakfast dishes were cleared, laundry put in place, the cereal Gus had spilled earlier on the kitchen floor swept. I knew they were here to help — they would smooth things over until Grams could get here — but I couldn't help but feel invaded, taken over like we were somehow unable to care for ourselves.
Who was I kidding? Mom was still huddled on the stairs. We couldn't care for ourselves. One of the care team members took Gus a snack and assured me he was still engrossed in Angry Birds. I couldn't tell him. I couldn't do it.
The casualty assistance officer knocked quietly an hour later, and I opened the door. April walked Mom to the couch and sat her down, bracing her with pillows to keep her upright. Her eyes changed focus from the carpet runner to the blank screen of the television deep within the recesses of the armoire. She refused to look at any of us. I'm not sure she was capable of understanding what had truly happened. Then again, I'm not sure I was capable of understanding what had really happened, either, but I didn't have the luxury of going catatonic.
"My name is Captain Adam Wilson," he introduced himself. He wore Dress Blues just like the notification officers had, but he seemed uncomfortable in the role he had been assigned to play. I knew I would be. His frame nearly filled the loveseat across from the couch my mother sat upon, and he dragged the coffee table toward him, softly scraping the carpet. "Did you want someone to take notes?" He glanced at Mom. "For when she's feeling up to it?"
"I've got it," a woman from the team said softly, pen and notebook ready.
Captain Wilson gathered a stack of papers from his leather briefcase, and tugged at his tie, making a minor adjustment. "There's another child, correct?" He shuffled through a few of his papers until he selected a form. "August Howard?"
"Gus is upstairs," I answered, taking the seat on the other side of Mom, closest to Captain Wilson. I clutched the black binder I'd gotten out of Mom's office. It was the very last item in the filing cabinet, just like Dad had told me before he left. "I haven't told him yet."
"Would you like me to?" Captain Wilson asked softly. I briefly considered it. Mom was in no state to discuss it with him, and Captain Wilson had probably been trained to deliver information like that. I couldn't do it though, let a stranger alter the universe of my little brother.
"No. I'll do it myself."
April began crying again, but Mom sat as still as ever, vacant, not really here with us. "I want to give him as long as possible before I have to. His world is still normal. He doesn't know that nothing will ever be the same for him." I bit back my own sob. "He's seven years old and everything he knows just ended. So I think I'll give him just another few minutes." Before I tear him to pieces. My skin flushed as new tears came to the surface. I supposed that was the way things would go for a while. I needed to get better at pushing them back.
Captain Wilson cleared his throat and nodded his head. "I can understand that." He explained his role to us, that he would be our guide to Dad's casualty process. He would help us through the paperwork, the ceremony, the things no one saw coming. In a way, he was our handler, sent here to be a buffer between our grief and the United States Army. I was thankful for him just as much as I hated his sheer existence.
He would be with us until we told him we no longer needed him.
After he finished his explanation, the barrage of questions began. April excused herself, saying she had to lie down. There was no doubt in my mind that within a few minutes, this would all go public on Facebook. April was never one to suffer in silence.
The questions started, and I opened the black binder. Dad's handwriting was scrawled all over the pages of his will, his life insurance policy, and his last wishes, all the paperwork carefully organized for this exact moment. Did we know where he wanted to be buried? What kind of casket he wanted? Was there anyone we wanted with us? Was the bank account correct for the life insurance money to be deposited? Did we want to fly to Dover to meet his remains while the army prepared him for burial?
Dover. It was like crossing the army's version of the river Styx.
Mom remained silent, staring at that blank television as I found the answers to what he asked. No question pulled her from her stupor, no tug of her hand, no whisper of her name could bring her back to where I was desperate for her to be. It was becoming blatantly obvious that I was alone. "Is there someone we can call to help make these decisions with your mother?" His mouth tightened as he slipped a discreet glance toward my mother. I was unsure how many shocked widows he'd seen in his career, but Mom was my first.
Grams was a day away. Because she was Dad's mom, I knew the army had officially notified her, just as we had been. No doubt she was already on her way, but until she got here, there was no one else. Mom's parents were dead. Her brother had never been around much in our lives, and I couldn't see a good reason to bring him in now. "There's just me," I replied. "I'll take responsibility for the decisions until she can."
"Ember?" Gus's small voice came from the steps where he stood. "What's going on?" I placed Mom's hand back in her lap. It wasn't like she noticed I was holding it anyway. After the deepest breath ever taken, I walked over to my little brother. I sat down next to him on the steps and repeated everything we knew in seven-year-old terms, which wasn't anything really. But I had to repeat the one thing we knew for certain. "Daddy isn't coming home, Gus."
Little blue eyes filled with tears, and his lower lip began to quiver. "Did the bad guys get him?"
"Yes, baby." I pulled him into my arms and held him, rocking him back and forth like I had when he was an infant, our parents' miracle baby. I brushed his hair back over his forehead and kissed him.
"But it's your birthday." His warm tears soaked through my running shirt and immediately chilled as I held him as tightly as possible. I would have done anything to take away this pain, to unsay what I knew had to be said. But I couldn't take the bullet from Dad.
Gus cried himself out while Captain Wilson sat, patiently observing my mother and her nonresponse. I wondered how long it would be until words like "medicate" and "psychologist" were brought up. My mother was the strongest person I knew, but she'd always stood on the foundation that was my father.
Excerpted from Full Measures by Rebecca Yarros, Karen Grove and Nicole Steinhaus. Copyright © 2014 Rebecca Yarros. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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