You Never Know

By: Mary Calmes

Chapter One


BACK WHEN I was in the Army, I had a buddy who was always trying to use the exact right words for things. So when in Afghanistan, instead of saying we were headed in the basic direction of Kabul to deliver guns, explosives, and whatever the hell else was in the truck we were driving that day—and ended up taking a detour—he said that this coddiwomple we found ourselves on could not possibly be safe.

I remembered turning and looking at him as he drove, thinking, the hell did that word mean? I never got the chance to ask. We were hit by an RPG and that was the last time I ever saw him.

Since I was the one of us who was allowed to get older, I realized knowing the exact word for something was actually very useful. As a result, I added many words to my otherwise meager vocabulary. At the moment, the word “petrichor” came to mind. The scent of the rain on dry earth—and even though dirt was never actually bone dry where I lived in Benson, on the coast between Brookings and Gold Beach, the smell was what I imagined the word to mean, somewhere between rotting flowers and rain.

As I ran through the woods near my house, I breathed in the cold, moist morning air of early September and tried to recall what I was supposed to do today. It was Saturday, and for once I didn’t have to work until afternoon, but I was relatively certain I was forgetting something I’d committed to. It was dicey even attempting to remember anything without my calendar because my brain didn’t work the way it used to anymore, not after the accident. I normally lived well with my limitations. It wasn’t like I forgot what I was doing in the middle of a task, and at work I stayed on top of my responsibilities with the help of a watch that talked to me and a phone that did the same. Personal stuff was where I usually found myself in the doghouse.

Wanting to get to the coffee shop before all the hipsters in town got up and headed over, I raced down the hill, cutting across the road in intervals, not looking, just darting, knowing I was the only one besides Mal Harel and Preston Garber who lived this far above the town. I sent up the millionth thank-you to my father for having been such a gentle soul that living inside the city proper had been untenable. After my mother passed away, without her happy birdlike chirping that kept people focused on her and off him, the simple energy it took for him to get out of bed in the morning and interact was too much. My company was all he needed, and he held on all the way until I got my contractor license, finally succumbing to the pain of losing the love of his life, peacefully, in his sleep. People said no one could die from a broken heart, but I knew better.

As I popped out of the woods on one side of the main road, someone blew a horn at me. Turning, I saw Gail Turner and her husband, Toby, sitting at a stoplight. I waved back and they both—even the big man—returned the gesture. He’d been a tough nut to crack, but because there was a stillness in him that resonated with me, we’d forged first a tentative acquaintance that blossomed into a true full-blown friendship. Gail and I had been close in high school, but our lives had taken different paths. Unlike others, though, when I came home from serving—broken and alone, filled with snarling, wounded rage—she had not let me run her off. She was, she said, made of stronger stuff. I had to take her at her word, as she’d been on the receiving end of festering bitterness and scalding self-hatred and had given me back only humor and infinite calm.

The day she left her two-year-old daughter with me had been the turning point. There were probably people who could stay jaded and angry and simmering with revulsion of the whole world while having to feed a toddler, watch Sesame Street, and push them on a swing at the park, but I wasn’t one of them. It wasn’t, as it turned out—in me. Alma, who was now nine, had shrieked with happiness at the height I got the swing, and when I told her I had to sit down—my right leg was held together with screws and scar tissue and I could barely stand at that point—she yelled my name as I started for the bench situated twenty or so yards in front of her.

“Hagen!”

I had enough time to turn before she was sailing through the air and down into my arms.

Scrambling to catch her, I had burst into tears when I had her safely clutched to my chest, my hand on her small, fragile back.

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