From Issue 15: "Homecoming" by Ashley Hand

A note from the editor: Ashley Hand's sparse prose and concise storytelling work so well together in this story of one military marriage. It's a humane story, masterfully worked. I loved this one from the first scene, and Adrienne from her first line, and I hope you will too. 

Yi Shun Lai
Fiction Editor

Homecoming

Ashley Hand

Reading time: ~5 minutes

Emmett put his bags down on the floor and dropped to his knees. The bulldog was peeing, on Emmett’s hands, on the pant leg of his uniform. Her nails scrabbled across the hardwood as she spun in circles and jumped to lick his face.

You’re a good girl, he said to the dog.

She’s happy to see you, Adrienne said.

I’m going to shower, he said.

Okay.

I’ll get the rest of my stuff out of the car when I’m done.

I can get it.

Leave it for me.

Okay.

Adrienne stood in the entryway. Dust floated in the late afternoon sunshine filtering in through the windows. At 6 a.m., she’d hauled the Shop-Vac out of the basement and sucked up the little balls of hair and lint and skin that had accumulated along the baseboards, the dirt in the dining room from the plants she’d recently potted. She’d made a cup of coffee in the Keurig and walked around the house for twenty minutes holding the hose out in front of her, suctioning the dust out of the air and into the little tank. Emmett would want to come home to a clean house. She made another cup of coffee, and another. She shouldn’t have had any. She was nervous. She needed a Xanax. But she couldn’t drive if she took a Xanax.

Adrienne heard the rush of water come alive in the walls. Her eyelids felt heavy. She’d glued fake eyelashes to her real eyelashes that morning, after cleaning. It cost $100 to get them done professionally, so she bought a strip for $5.99 from Walgreens. She’d propped a mirror against a houseplant on the kitchen counter and sidled up to it with a pair of tweezers and fancy superglue that was safe to put next to her eyeballs. The trick was to do the eyelashes one at a time. She’d watched a YouTube video that said you couldn’t plunk a cluster of three or five onto one eyelash because your real eyelash would get heavy and fall out. You had to take one false eyelash with a pair of tweezers and dunk it in the glue and then line it up properly so the swoop was going in the right direction and then place it carefully on your real eyelash and then wait for ten seconds for it to dry and then do the next one, so on and so forth, about eighty times each eye. Grey’s Anatomy was playing in the background. She made it through three episodes.

After the eyelashes, she curled her hair. Put on lipstick. It was the kind that you could still wear if you planned to kiss someone. She’d kissed the meat of her hand between her thumb and index finger to test it out.

She’d waited in the hangar for over an hour for his plane to land. Emmett had hugged her and kissed her cheek when he stepped out onto the concrete tarmac. She told him he could kiss her on the lips but he said, Your lipstick, and she said, It won’t come off, and he said, Are you ready to head home? and now here she was still waiting in the hallway for him to get out of the shower and for them to make love and for it to feel normal again.

An email, a few weeks into his deployment:

 

I feel separated from the entire world. No other person I know has been here. They’ve barely heard of it. The hadji cook thaws the meat out in his car on the drive back from the city. I could disappear and nobody would be able to place their finger where I was on the map.

 

The emails got shorter and more spaced apart. Emmett was on missions at night, outside the wire, camping on the scrubby Afghan desertscape with eighty pounds of gear.

Adrienne mailed boxes with freeze-dried stroganoff and spaghetti Emmett could heat up over his JetBoil. She attached love notes on Post-Its to the packaging. She trolled Al Jazeera for news. November 7, three US troops were killed and three others wounded in an IED blast near Ghazni. She knew Emmett's tiny base was somewhere in that region. She sent him an email with a photo of the bulldog wearing a too-tight sweater.

 

Hope all is well, love you.

 

Adrienne woke up in the night with fears of bombs, explosions. She drove five minutes to the gas station for menthols and sat on the curb smoking to calm down. She heard from him on November 9.

 

Did you remember to call someone and have the sprinklers blown out?

 

She owned a house on the other side of Albuquerque. She’d bought it before she and Emmett were married, before she’d moved into his home with its blue Mexican tiles and terra cotta floors and alabaster stucco walls at the base of the Sandías. Her house was crumbly and old. She bought it because of the chimney, and the wood siding, and the covered porch. It had character, and also she couldn’t afford anything better. She spent the entire summer renovating it. She peeled up seven layers of vinyl flooring to expose the original wood underneath. She rented an industrial sander to grind off the glue and paint splatters, then waxed and polished them herself. She knocked down walls. She built walls. She trimmed windows. She removed toilets and tiled bathroom floors. She made herself broke on that house. She loved that house. It was in a bad area. She could hear sirens at night when she was trying to fall asleep. She installed locks on all of the windows and a home security system. She built a fence around the small property so that she didn’t have to look at the neighbors, the paunchy wives and barefoot children. She could have lived in that house forever and never come out. Now it was rented out to a family with small children who probably pooped in the bathtub and smeared jam on the walls. She wished it was empty.

Adrienne sat on the sofa and waited. The water shut off in the bathroom. She heard Emmett moving about on the tile floor. Then it went quiet. She stood. She would go join him, kiss his body, touch the whole, intact pieces of him, take him in her mouth. She felt tears sliding out of the corners of her eyes. She sat back down. She would stay put. She tucked herself under a blanket. She looked around for the bulldog. Had the dog gone in the bedroom with Emmett?

She put her head down on an upholstered oblong pillow. She focused on her meditations, her breathing. She fell asleep. When she awoke, there was a note on the counter.

 

Went for a run.

 

You don’t go back to normal life so easily, you just don’t, Adrienne told her sister later on the phone, when Emmett had been away for upwards of an hour on his run and Adrienne found herself at loose ends, not wanting to leave the house in case he returned. She kept the oven preheated. Steaks were marinating in the fridge. It was okay, Adrienne said, she would stand by Emmett until they survived and got to whatever was on the other side, and her sister said, oh sweetheart, and Adrienne said, it’s okay, and her sister said, do you think it would be easier if it wasn’t just you two, if there were kids, and Adrienne felt the tears again. She said she had to go and could she call her sister back later, and then she sat at the kitchen table and waited for the sound of the front door.

young woman with long brown hair smiling at camera. she is holding a coffee cup in her right hand and leaning forward.

Ashley Hand had this to say about "Homecoming":

Images of joyous military homecomings can be quite compelling—women in sundresses holding colorful banners, children waving small flags on sticks, dashing heroes scooping loved ones up into their arms. We’ve altogether mythologized these reunions. As a woman who has been, by turns, the one deployed and the one welcoming a deployed lover home, I meant to pull back the curtain and show that reintegration can in fact be strained and sad and anticlimactic. The story here is in the silence, the things that go unsaid. Special thanks to my longtime mentor Donald Anderson for his guidance and support in getting my writing to print.

Ashley Hand is a service academy graduate and spent her career as an Air Force officer deploying around the world. She lives and writes in upstate New York, where she is pursuing an MFA at Cornell University and works as an assistant editor at EPOCH magazine. Find her on Instagram: @ashley.unabridged.

Reprinted with permission from the author.