A brush with the supernatural?
A rock concert?
A poolside revelation?
The need to know what's up?
The confessions of a friend?
The dream of escape?
A sick pet?
An English assignment?
The rear-window view of a murder next door?
The search for the mother you never met?What keeps you up all night?
"Counting the hours," my dad wrote in his last email. "Exactly forty-six more and I'm out of this godforsaken place. Phase Two begins! Love you all." All meaning Mom, my eleven-year-old brother, Neddy, and me, Lara.
"Hey Mom," I said. "An email from Dad."
"Is everything all right?" Mom said, hurrying over from whatever she was doing, the laundry maybe—laundry, I remembered at that moment, that I'd promised to take care of before school. For some reason, Mom just couldn't get used to these emails coming in real time from a war zone, got alarmed whenever one turned up in the in-box. She leaned over my shoulder for a closer look at the screen, a bottle of spot remover in her hand. I was aware of her eyes tracking the words, could feel her concentration, so intense.
"What's the time difference again?" Mom said.
"Thirteen hours?" I said. "Or maybe with turning back the clocks it's—"
"Why can't you guys get this?" said Neddy, doing his homework at the kitchen table. He glanced at his watch. "It's eight thirty-five a.m. over there, a.m. tomorrow."
"That's good," said Mom.
"What is?" I said.
"That it's already tomorrow," Mom said.
"For God's sake," said Neddy. "Forty-six hours is forty-six hours." Probably the very words Dad would have said, but they wouldn't have sounded so annoying coming from him. Dad had a real gentle voice, deep but soft. Neddy's voice had a grating undertone even when he was in a good mood. But he and Dad both had that precise way about them, a precision you could see in Dad's email, how the grammar was always right and all the letters that should have been capitalized were. That precision was what made him such a great pilot. Nobody had told me that—I just knew. Once, when I was really little and we still lived on the base, Dad took me up in an old World War Two P-39, let me sit on his lap while he flew. Somehow his hands on the controls looked intelligent, as though each contained a tiny brain, thinking about every movement. I felt so safe, like the sky was my natural element. He even did a few barrel rolls, just to hear me laugh. Dad liked my laugh, for some reason. "Where'd Lara get a laugh like that?" he'd say.
Mom went to the calendar on the fridge door. "So forty-six hours from now means Thursday at six thirty-five P.M.?"
"Duh," said Neddy.
Mom took a red marker and made a big ! in Thursday's square. That didn't mean Dad was coming home on Thursday; they always flew to the Ramstein base in Germany first. But he'd be back by Sunday or Monday and then there'd be big changes, what Dad called Phase Two of our lives. Phase Two started with Dad resigning from the service and taking a piloting job with Executive Air, a charter company. Mom and Dad were real happy about it. He'd be home three or four nights a week and most weekends, and the pay was good. They'd already put down a deposit on a house in almost the nicest part of town. A house with a pool! Plus Neddy and I were going to have our own bedrooms for the first time, instead of sharing. Even the address sounded great: 88 Hickory Lane. I'd already written it on all my schoolbooks, scratching out "3712 Baseline Road, Apt. 19."
Mom went to the beauty parlor and had highlights put in her hair. Once or twice I heard her singing to herself. Mom had a beautiful singing voice, had even made a demo for some record producer when she was a teenager. She cleaned the apartment from top to bottom and rearranged the furniture. Thursday night she made a special dinner—pork roast with orange sauce and pecan pie for dessert. Mom kept glancing at the clock. At six thirty-five she went to the fridge and took out a bottle of wine. Mom didn't drink wine, didn't drink at all. "Who wants a little sip?" she said.
"Bring it on," said Neddy.
Mom gave him a look. "Just this once, buster," she said.
I took three glasses from the cupboard and set them on the table. Mom was unscrewing the cap off the wine when the buzzer went. She pressed the intercom button and said, "Yes?"
Then came some static, followed by a man's voice. "Mrs. Byron?"
"First Lieutenant Kevin Skype and Chaplain Ferrarra to see you, ma'am. May we come up?"
Mom went white, the color of a corpse in the movies. The bottle of wine slipped from her hand and smashed on the floor, but while it was still in midair I noticed a soaring eagle on the label, rising in a pure blue sky, the image so clear. I remembered that eagle way better than anything that happened in the next few days.
There's a crazy thing I've thought about a lot of times and still don't understand. After someone dies—someone close to you, I mean, like a father—why should it be so important to get the body back and bury it? They're dead, right? That's the big thing. So what difference should it make? All I can tell you is that it does. It makes a big difference.
I know, because we never got to bury my dad. Chaplain Ferrarra said there was nothing to recover after the crash, nothing human to bury. We had the funeral—packed church, trumpeter playing Taps, buddies of Dad's who called him a hero. They were all so gentle, big guys kind of trying to make themselves smaller, if you know what I mean, so they wouldn't be towering over the three of us. Something strange happened to me in the church: I suddenly felt so alive, more alive than I'd ever been, just glowing with it, hyperconscious of my beating heart, the blood flowing through my veins, the oxygen filling my lungs. That shamed me, but there was nothing I could do about it. Anyway, the full-of-life feeling didn't last long. Soon the three of us were back in Apartment 19 at 3712 Baseline Road and I was all hollowed out. Going through the motions: an everyday saying that I now understood through and through.