From a Distance
There are some things you learn best in calm, some in storm. Willa Cather
The way she saw it, some families were like well-tended parks,
with pretty daffodil borders and big, sprawling trees that offered
respite from the summer sun. Others and this she knew
firsthand were battlefields, bloody and dark, littered with shrapnel
and body parts.
She might only be seventeen, but Jolene Larsen already knew about war. She'd grown up in the midst of a marriage gone bad.
Valentine's Day was the worst. The mood at home was always precarious, but on this day, when the television ran ads for flowers and chocolates and red foil hearts, love became a weapon in her parents' careless hands. It started with their drinking, of course. Always. Glasses full of bourbon, refilled again and again. That was the beginning. Then came the screaming and the crying, the throwing of things. For years, Jolene had asked her mother why they didn't just leave him her father and steal away in the night. Her mother's answer was always the same: I can't. I love him. Sometimes she would cry as she said the terrible words, sometimes her bitterness would be palpable, but in the end it didn't matter how she sounded; what mattered was the tragic truth of her onesided love.
Downstairs, someone screamed.
That would be Mom.
Then came a crash something big had been thrown against the wall. A door slammed shut. That would be Dad.
He had left the house in a fury (was there any other way?), slamming the door shut behind him. He'd be back tomorrow or the next day, whenever he ran out of money. He'd come slinking into the kitchen, sober and remorseful, stinking of booze and cigarettes. Mom would rush to him, sobbing, and take him in her arms. Oh, Ralph...you scared me...I'm sorry, give me one more chance, please, you know I love you so much...
Jolene made her way through her steeply pitched bedroom, ducking so she wouldn't konk her head on one of the rough timbered support beams. There was only one light in here, a bulb that hung from the rafters like the last tooth in an old man's mouth, loose and wobbly.
She opened the door, listening.
Was it over?
She crept down the narrow staircase, hearing the risers creak beneath her weight. She found her mother in the living room, sitting slumped on the sofa, a lit Camel cigarette dangling from her mouth. Ash rained downward, peppering her lap. Scattered across the floor were remnants of the fight: bottles and ashtrays and broken bits of glass.
Even a few years ago, she would have tried to make her mother feel better. But too many nights like this had hardened Jolene. Now she was impatient with all of it, wearied by the drama of her parents' marriage. Nothing ever changed, and Jolene was the one who had to clean up every mess. She picked her way through the broken pieces of glass and knelt at her mother's side.
"Let me have that," she said tiredly, taking the burning cigarette, putting it out in the ashtray on the floor beside her.
Mom looked up, sad-eyed, her cheeks streaked with tears. "How will I live without him?"
As if in answer, the back door cracked open. Cold night air swept into the room, bringing with it the smell of rain and pine trees.
"He's back!" Mom pushed Jolene aside and ran for the kitchen. I love you, baby, I'm sorry, Jolene heard her mother say.
Jolene righted herself slowly and turned. Her parents were locked in one of those movie embraces, the kind reserved for lovers reuniting after a war. Her mother clung to him desperately, grabbing the plaid wool of his shirt.
Excerpted from Home Front by Sarah Hannah. Copyright © 2012 by Sarah Hannah. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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