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A Whole Lot of Empty

by Gay M. Walker

Jillian awoke quickly from the half-sleep, fists clenched, adrenalin pumping. “Yessir. Schimmel here, sir. What can I do for you, sir?”

A smiling face, creased and weather-beaten, peered down at her.

“Relax, honey. You’re a civilian now. It was tough on you, huh?”

She nodded slowly, recalling long nights, bottomless pots of coffee, a headset that had seemed a permanent part of her anatomy, the pressure to listen, always listen, to the airwaves — and the hell she paid if she was caught dozing off.

“Lives depend on you, Schimmel,” she’d been told. “Every piece of information is valuable, if it’s accurate. Get one word wrong, and we could lose a unit, but you get ’em right and we could end this goddamn war.”

As if she alone could save the politicians from themselves, or so it had felt. The pressure had been immense. The guys on base had become her friends, like it or not. That was war. Even those she didn’t like meant something to her, because she shared the same uncertain destiny. She took each casualty personally, as if she’d failed them somehow, visiting the ones she could. She’d pay her respects to the families of the KIA now — she couldn’t bring herself to call them dead — her comrades deserved that much. Whoever said that war was hell had been right.

“You awake there, miss?” asked the bus driver. The woman touched her arm again.

Jillian shook herself out of the semi-conscious state and struggled to focus on the driver. The woman’s cap had fallen over her eyes when she bent over, so Jillian found herself staring at the Greyhound insignia above the bill instead. “Waking up, anyway. Where are we?”

“At your stop, miss. You said to wake you up if you was sleeping. You sure you want off here? Ain’t nobody gets off here since them hurricanes.”

“Yeah. I’m sure.” Jillian slung the canvas duffel over her shoulder, turning it so the handful of other passengers couldn’t read “J. Schimmel, US ARMY” where it was stenciled on the side. Then she took a deep breath and stepped off the bus and into the deserted street. She waved at the driver without looking back, although there was no one waiting at the stop to greet her, and turned in a slow circle to examine her surroundings.

Half the town had washed away since she’d left it; what remained was altered almost beyond recognition. How long had it been? She ticked the years off on her fingers. Seven now. Seemed like a lifetime. More than a lifetime, if you measured it in losses. She shook her head against the memories, blinked back tears and resolutely walked down the empty road toward her childhood home.

The old schoolyard was abandoned, the swings she’d fought over as a child now rocked by ghosts in the gentle breeze. The stillness amplified the smallest sounds — a hummingbird gathering nectar, a bumblebee searching for pollen, a scrap of paper skittering down the street. And in the background, if she listened carefully, she could hear the echo of a child’s laughter and her own voice raised in argument the day she’d left.

“What? You did what?” yelled Gran. “No woman in this family has ever done anything but teach or raise a family, and I will not have you be the first to do otherwise.”

“It’s too late!” she’d replied. “I’m signed up.”

“Well you can just un-sign up.” Gran crossed her skinny arms in front of her chest and glared at Jillian with her bright blue eyes.

“No.” Jillian had stood her ground, had remained proud and refused to back down.

Gran’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment or two, then she’d wiped her hands on her apron before untying it and tossing it over the back of a chair. She’d grabbed Jillian’s hand, and pulled her towards the door. “Come on, now. We’ll go right on down there, explain to them you made a mistake. We’ll clear this right up.”

But Jillian had remained rooted in place. With effort, she had managed to keep her voice quiet and even. “Gran, I’m eighteen. I am not going to let you take me down there like a recalcitrant child and tell them I changed my mind. I have not changed my mind. I want to go to college, and this is how I’m going to get the money to do it. I leave tomorrow.”

“But you can go to college. There’s the junior college, right down the road...”

Jillian could hear the pain and confusion in Gran’s voice, even now. A tear slid down her cheek. But as an eighteen year-old, she hadn’t been sympathetic.

“I want to go to a university, Gran,” Jillian had said. “And I don’t want to owe you, or anyone else. I can save some money this way, pay my own way. And I can do something for my country at the same time.”

“Well, I won’t have it.”

“You don’t have a choice.”

“Oh, but I do,” said Gran. “If you go, it will be without a goodbye from me. And don’t be expecting any letters, either. No granddaughter of mine joins the army.”

Whether out of pride or stubbornness, or a little of both, Gran had remained true to her word, and that had made the last seven years all the harder for Jillian. The last two years had been especially long and painful, because Jillian knew the town had been devastated.

It had taken months for Jillian to learn whether Gran even had the sense to evacuate — months until a distant relative had finally answered one of Jillian’s letters with a single sentence, “The woman says to stop hounding her, she is fine.”

What kind of welcome would she get now, Jillian wondered, arriving on Gran’s doorstep unannounced? So much had changed. When Jillian enlisted, she’d expected to learn a foreign language, serve a few easy years on American soil, put some money away for college, then return home pretty much as she’d left it.

She’d learned a foreign language all right — half-a-dozen of them, even — languages she hoped she would never hear again for the rest of her life. But after that, life had turned out to be anything but what she’d expected. And Gran? Jillian could only imagine what life must have become for her, living in a virtual ghost town, with two-thirds of the residents gone and most of the homes in disrepair.

Jillian climbed up onto the sagging porch of her childhood home, taking care to avoid a rotted-out middle step. She made a mental note to buy lumber in the morning, and wondered whether she should buy a hammer, nails and paint, too.

She peered through the open front door into an empty front room, and then tried the screen door. It was locked. She rapped twice, but received no answer. “Gran? Gran, it’s Jillian.”

“Jillian? I don’t know no Jillians.” Gran’s voice, rough from too many cigarettes, answered from somewhere in the back of the house.

It had been hell convincing Gran to quit smoking fifteen years ago, but Jillian had done it after learning about tobacco at school. She wondered if Gran had found the last of the anti-smoking messages yet — Jillian must have hidden two hundred of them in the house — or if one still turned up on occasion. She also wondered if she’d have to go through hell trying to convince Gran to quit again, wondered if Gran had picked up the habit during Jillian’s long absence.

“Come on now, Gran,” said Jillian. “Be fair. I’ve come home. I want to apologize. Can’t we just talk?”

“Ain’t nothing to talk about,” said the elderly woman, hunched over and frail, as she shuffled slowly towards the screen door.

Jillian smiled. There was, at least, no sign of a cigarette. “There’s plenty to talk about. I’m moving to this town for good, and I need a place to live, permanent-like. I thought maybe you could give me some recommendations. I’m real handy with a hammer and nails, and I can paint, too. I’ve been gone for a long time, but I’m not leaving again. I plan to call this town home.”

Jillian saw the hint of a smile at the corner of the old woman’s mouth. “Listen, Gran. I’m sorry. What I did wasn’t fair. It wasn’t right. I should have talked to you first.”

“Damn straight it wasn’t right.”

The woman in front of Jillian was as thin and transparent as tissue paper, and looked just as likely to be blown away by the slightest breeze as she stood fumbling with the lock. Only her eyes and her voice remained the same.

“Well, get on in here.” Gran motioned Jillian into the room. “You want something to eat?”

“No, I’m fine.”

Gran studied Jillian from head to toe. “You don’t look fine. You look pasty and underfed. You need you some grits.”

“Okay. I need grits.”

“So, what you really come for?” She looked at Jillian out of the corner of her eye. “A place to stay until you go to that fancy university?”

“No. That can wait. I came for you. You’re all I got left.”

“Oh,” Gran stopped short. “Oh,” she repeated. A smile lit up her face, then seemed to Jillian to spread through the room, filling it with a warm glow. Gran’s transparency diminished, and she looked less frail. “You mean you come home? Really come home?”

“Yes,” Jillian answered. “I did. I’ve got a whole lot of empty that only home can fill.”

Copyright © 2007 by Gay M. Walker

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