The snow fell outside the window of the small farmhouse. They sat, cups of coffee in their hands, and enjoyed the peaceful morning. Charlie had been home from the war zone for a day, but he was already intent on spoiling his wife.
“I’m going to care for the animals soon, love,” he said, mesmerized by the flames in the fireplace. He reached for her hand and touched it, and she wrapped her fingers around his.
“Charlie, you just got home,” she tried to protest. “Take a day off.”
“I’ve had almost a month off, Frannie. I have no order to report to the base, so you’re stuck with me.” He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed it. “Besides, I told you when I got home that I’d spoil you to make up for all the time I missed.”
Fran blushed. “Chores are not what I thought you meant.”
“Oh, don’t worry, there is plenty of that coming your way, too. Right now, being home is pure bliss. I missed the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of home. The last night, I didn’t think I’d come home. I’ll always believe it was your prayers that saved me, Frannie.”
“I wasn’t the only one praying for you back here, Charlie. Caleb and Sunny, our friends at the market, your parents—“
Charlie groaned at the mention of them. “That reminds me, I have a bone to pick with them.”
She scowled at him. “Don’t be too angry with them, Charlie. They’ve gotten old since you left. Your dad looks sickly.”
“They broke the biggest promise they’ve ever made to me, Frannie. How can I trust them again?”
“All I’m saying is you’ll notice it when you see them.” Maybe it was his deployment that aged George and Dolly Farmer. Perhaps they were getting older and were slowing down. Whatever the reason, their condition concerned Fran.
“Honey, this torments me. What if I would have died? I wouldn’t have been able to correct it. They swore to me they’d care for you.”
“Charlie,” she squeezed his hand, “I’m not their daughter. They have no obligation to me.”
“You’re their daughter-in-law, the wife of their only son. You should mean more to them than how they’ve treated you, Frannie.” He huffed in frustration and dreaded the conversation he’d have with them.
“You’re making too much of this. I’m fine.”
“Because Sunny and Caleb took care of you, not my folks. I’m sorry, Frannie, they disappointed me, and I’m not sure I can forgive them for it.”
She took his hand and stared into his eyes. “Be careful, Charlie. Don’t say things you can’t take back, things you’ll regret. Once the words spill from your mouth, they can’t go back in.”
He reached to stroke her cheek. “When did you get to be so wise, my love?”
“I’ve been reading. I’ve learned a lot.” She stood to put her boots on. “I need to feed Marne and muck her stall. Go rest, Charlie.”
He wanted to take the burden from her, but he underestimated the pain in his shoulder. The cold weather made it ache, and all he wanted was to lie down. “Okay, love. I’ll be upstairs.”
Fran expected much more resistance than he gave, and it troubled her. “Are you okay, Charlie?”
“I’m tired, honey. It’s been a terrible year.” He got up from his chair and walked to her. He took her into his arms and held her. “I’m thankful to be home.”
They broke their embrace, and she touched his face. “I love you,” she whispered. “When I finish with Marne, I’ll meet you upstairs. I want to be close to you.”
His stare was empty as he looked past her. “I’ll be waiting.”
Fran and Charlie napped together when she returned from the yard until a phone call awakened them. He looked at the display and rejected it. Fran yawned and looked at him, her eyes heavy with sleep. “Who was it, Charlie?”
“Ma,” he said. “I don’t feel like dealing with her right now.”
“What if she needs you? You shouldn’t ignore them.”
“She has Pa if she needs anything.” He set the phone back on the nightstand.
“Charlie, please don’t neglect her. I’m telling you, your dad isn’t well.”
“Fran, please drop it. I don’t want to deal with her on the phone.”
“I SAID NO!” he shouted at her. He got up and fled the room. Fran heard his heavy footsteps as they went down the stairs, and her eyes filled with tears.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered into the pillow, and she wept until she fell asleep.
Charlie put his boots on and grabbed his winter coat from the closet. With his scarf wrapped around his face and a warm cap on his head, he hustled toward his parents’ house down the street. He walked up the front path and rapped on the door. Dolly answered the door, a smile on her face when she saw her son. But her happiness was short-lived when he marched into the house.
“No hug for your Ma?” she asked him.
“Why should I?” he raised his voice. “You did NOTHING to help me while I was away. Frannie was starving, and you did nothing!”
George heard the shouting and walked from the bedroom. The scene upset him. No one disrespected his wife the way Charlie had done, and he intended to stop it. “Son, who do you think you’re talking to?” George stood in the doorway, his arms crossed, and he tapped his foot in anger.
“Charles, Frannie never told us she was in trouble. How are we supposed to know if—”
“You’re supposed to check on her like I asked you to!” Charlie was livid. “You know she’s too proud to ask anyone for help!”
Dolly shook her head. “Pride goes before a fall, Charles.”
“Oh, don’t EVEN!” he shouted. “Don’t you quote that to me! She was all alone. Without me, she would have nothing!”
George had heard enough. “Charles Raymond! You will not speak to your mother with disrespect. Am I clear?”
Charlie backed up and pointed at his father. “You. You’re no better! What, don’t you like Frannie? What caused you to treat her this way?”
“I tried to fix that junk heap you left,” George stated.
“Is that all you did for her? You looked at my truck. Gee, thanks. That makes everything better.” The sarcasm was biting and uncharacteristic for Charlie.
“I’m warning you, son. You’re not too old for a whipping if you need it,” George threatened him.
Dolly frowned at her husband. “No one is whipping anyone. Charles, take a seat. And George, you’re not innocent, either. Sit down! We’re talking this over!” She stood, hands on her hips, two seconds away from a meltdown.
Charlie sat, though he didn’t wish to. He couldn’t look at either of them. “What did Fran do to you? Has she disrespected you or been mean to you? She spent her thirtieth birthday alone after you called and told her you’d take her for dinner. What happened?”
“Charles, Fran is a lovely girl,” Dolly began. “I mean, she’s a woman of strong faith, from a proper family, well-mannered. But couldn’t you have picked someone more fertile? We aren’t getting any younger, you know. We’d like grandchildren from our only son.”
Charlie shook his head. “You think you know all about us, don’t you?” It was another reminder he had failed Fran. “Do you want to know why we haven’t been able to conceive, Ma?”
“It can’t be on our side, Charles,” Dolly said. “Our family is healthy—“
“It’s me, Ma. I’m the reason we can’t have children. You resent Frannie for nothing!” Charlie folded his hands and hung his head. “During the plague in Dragon Valley, the treatments I received damaged me.”
“Oh, Charles,” she cried. “I didn’t know!”
“Yeah, well, now you do. Does it change anything? You should have told me you felt this way before I relied on you.”
“We want to like her, Charl. She is such a private person,” George interjected. “If she was friendlier—”
Charlie interrupted his father. “She is plenty friendly. You know, maybe Fran sensed you two feel this way about her. We argued about you, and she must have known how you feel about her, but she took your side, anyway! And I yelled at her before I left the house.” He rubbed his temples with his thumbs. “What a fool I am.” He stood and took his hat from the couch where he sat. “We will discuss this, but I need to get home and apologize to her and pray she forgives me.” He walked to the door and opened it. “Tomorrow. We will sit down and work through it together. And you will tell her the reason you don’t like her. If you don’t, I swear I will.”
“Charles…” Dolly tried to say, but Charlie walked outside and slammed the door behind him.
He hurried down the quiet, icy street back home to Fran. Charlie removed his boots and set them by the hearth to dry. He tiptoed into the bedroom and peeked into the door. Fran was asleep, curled into a fetal position, her arms wrapped around his pillow as she had done most nights while he was away. Charlie knew he had hurt her, and that he was in the dog house. It was uncharted territory for him. He’d never caused her pain on purpose, so he didn’t know how she would react.
He sat on the bed with her and touched her cheek. She opened her eyes, and they welled with tears. “I’m sorry—” she began.
“No, honey. You have no reason to be sorry. I’m in the wrong, and I’m so sorry I hurt you, Frannie. I love you, and I want things to be good between us.”
She sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes. “Why did you yell at me? I’ve never heard you raise your voice to me.” She sat up and looked at him. “You hurt me.”
He reached for her to hold her, and she snuggled into his arms. “Frannie, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to face my parents for a few reasons. But I paid them a visit when I left here. You’re right about my pa. He doesn’t look well, but he would have given me a whipping despite it.” He recalled his conversation with his folks, and he clamped his teeth together. “I resolved nothing with them. We need to go sit and work it out together.”
“I learned some things I’d rather not know, but it answered the questions I had. I wish I would have known before I asked the favor of them.”
“They don’t like me, do they?” Fran asked.
Her question brought the tears he’d been fighting since he left his folks’ house, and he shook his head. “No, love, they don’t.”
“I’ve suspected it, but I hoped things would be better in time. That I’d be worthy of you in their eyes.” She sighed.
“That’s not it at all, my love. They have a wrong impression of you. But I’m afraid it might be difficult to overcome.” He kissed her forehead. “Sweetie, can you forgive me for yelling at you? I feel terrible, especially since I have missed you for so long. It’s not right—”
She put her finger to his lips and smiled. “Of course, I forgive you.” She caressed his cheek and looked into his eyes. “You know, the best part of a fight is making up.”
He flashed her an impish grin. “Well then, let’s make up.”
The following day, Fran and Charlie walked hand in hand to his parents’ house. He was ready to confront them, though Fran was only there for support. Their pace was slow, and they were in no hurry, thankful for their time together. The snow had fallen at a steady pace since Charlie’s arrival back home, and the road where they lived was impassable by car or truck. A layer of ice beneath the snow made driving treacherous, and they were grateful the two homes were close together.
“Thank you for coming with me, honey,” Charlie said. “I know you don’t like this, but it concerns you, too.”
“I wish things were different, but I don’t think forcing them to like me will accomplish much.” Her boot hit a patch of ice, and she lost traction. Charlie tried to save her fall, but they both ended up on the ground in a drift of snow. Fran giggled like a child. “Are you okay, Charlie? I’m sorry.”
He sat up and groaned. “I keep forgetting I’m just a few months from surgery on my shoulder.”
“Let me help you up, love,” she said and stood to hold her hand to him.
“I’m getting too old for this.” He groaned as he stood and brushed the snow from his clothing. “Thank you, sweetie.” He swept snow from her hair and stared into her eyes.
“Anytime,” Fran replied. “Are you ready for this?”
Charlie shook his head. “No. But this conversation needs to happen.” They walked up the steps to the elder Farmer’s home, and Charlie knocked on the door.
Dolly answered it with a smile on her face. “Come in!”
“Where’s Pa?” Charlie demanded.
“He’s in the basement working on a project. I’ll call him upstairs.” Dolly disappeared for a moment. Charlie showed Fran to the couch and held her hand as she sat down. He took his place next to her.
Minutes later, the four of them sat together, the silence among them awkward. Finally, Charlie spoke. “I think you two owe Frannie an explanation.” She reached for his hand, and he squeezed it.
“Charles, don’t do this,” Dolly began.
“Why shouldn’t I, Ma? Frannie deserves to know why you don’t like her.” He looked at his mother and frowned. “Tell her. Tell her why you don’t like her.”
“Charl,” George spoke. “Don’t press it, son.”
“Last chance before I spill your secret,” Charlie warned them. “Think long and hard about whether it’s worth losing your only son.”
Fran’s eyes filled with tears. “It’s not that important, Charlie. It’s okay.”
“Of course it’s important, my love.” He caressed her cheek and wiped tears from her face. Charlie was restless and waited for them to speak up, but neither did.
“I would like to go home,” she whispered. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the real reason.
Charlie stood and took her hand. “This still isn’t over, Ma, Pa.” He led her to the front door when George spoke up.
“Charl, wait. You are right. It’s not fair to Fran. Let’s sit down and talk .” George scooted next to Dolly and took her hand. “Fran, we have misunderstood something about you.” Dolly looked at him and shook her head, but he nodded. “Sweetheart, we misjudged you. In our desire for grandchildren, we believed that the problem was—”
Fran’s breath hitched, and her heart broke. “My fault? You think I haven’t given you grandchildren on purpose?” The hurt on her face was palpable. “Charlie? Is this true?” Charlie nodded his head. And then something happened Charlie never saw coming: Fran got angry. “First, I don’t see how our ability or inability to have children is your business! It is a personal and emotional issue for both Charlie and me, and your nosy interference has no place!”
“Fran—” Dolly began, but Fran shut her down.
“No! You’re going to listen to me! I have noticed your chilly attitude for a few years now. I felt guilty that I wasn’t good enough for Charlie. And today, I found out the reason.” She shook her head with disgust. “Before my mama died, she thought of Charlie as her own—the son she and my daddy never had. It hurts me to think you don’t feel the same about me. I’ve always been told I’m not strong enough. I’m not faithful enough. I’m not friendly enough. I’m not good enough. But I’m always enough for Charlie. I don’t need to be suitable for you! This conversation is over!” When Fran finished speaking her mind, she stood. “I want to go home, Charlie.” She shook with emotion and tried not to cry.
“Are you happy?!” Charlie snarled at his parents. “Come on, love.” He took Fran’s hand and led her from the house. It upset both of them, and he regretted his role in Fran’s distress.
They weren’t outside the door for ten seconds when Fran cried. She clung to Charlie as she sobbed. “I’m sorry I disrespected your parents, Charlie. I should go apologize—”
“No, honey. My folks had it coming, and it was glorious. You have no reason to be sorry. They are the ones who owe you an apology. I don’t think it will happen. They could surprise me, but I doubt it.” He kissed her cheek and took her hand. “Let’s just go home, my love.”
They strolled back to the house. Charlie whispered words of comfort and love to Fran as they walked. “Please don’t cry anymore, love. They aren’t worth the pain they’ve brought.”
“I just can’t believe it, Charlie. Do they know the reason?”
He nodded. “They do. It has changed nothing.”
“It breaks my heart. My mama loved you as her own. I guess what the book says is true. A mother-in-law will be against her daughter-in-law.” She wiped tears from her eyes. “It’s okay, though. As long as I am sufficient for you, Charlie, I will be content.”
“You know you are, my love. Always.” They reached their front gate, and he opened it for her to pass through it. “Let’s go snuggle, my love. I need you so much.”
“I thought you would never ask, Charlie. I love you.”
A month later
After the devastating attack overseas, the new commanding officer summoned Charlie to the base. It was the first time Charlie had been in his uniform since he had returned home a month prior. He wiped his hands on his pants and knocked on the door. “Come in, Farmer,” came the reply.
Charlie entered the office of his late superior officer. Though he knew his name, he had never met him. “Captain Charles Farmer,” he announced and stood at attention.
“At ease, Captain,” Major Lorne Turek said. “Take a seat.” He motioned for Charlie to sit, which he did. “Captain, I have the approval to offer you a promotion and an increase in rank. But it comes with a transfer to Twinbrook. I know what a promotion like this could mean for your career.”
There was much to consider. The obstacle was the farm and Marne. He doubted he could get Fran to move, and he wasn’t willing to be separated from her again. “Can I get back to you, Major? I am not a single man. My wife is pretty rooted here.”
“You can, but don’t procrastinate. Rebuilding this outpost will take precious years. Give it some thought and get back to me, Captain.”
Charlie saluted him. “Thank you, sir.”
On his drive home, Charlie had much to consider. The promotion and rank increase was the answer to many prayers. But Fran lived in the house in which she grew up, and took over her family’s livelihood, the farm, her legacy. Moving to Twinbrook would mean giving Marne away, and he would never ask her to do it. The mare was the last gift from her mama.
He opened the front door, and Fran called him from the kitchen. “Is that you, Charlie?”
He sighed. “Yes, love. It’s me.”
She walked from the kitchen, her apron around her waist, and a towel in her hands. “What did they want?”
He shook his head. “It was nothing, baby. They wanted to know if I needed anything from a wellness standpoint. I told them I’m fine.”
“Couldn’t they have done that on the phone?” She sat at the dining table, pulled out a chair, and patted the seat for him. “I feel it’s more than just that.”
Boy, did he hate lying to her. “No, sweetie. That’s all it was.” He looked into her eyes. “I’ll be fine as long as you are with me.”
“You know I will be.” She caressed his cheek. “I’m cutting vegetables for supper. Would you like to help?”
He smiled. “Of course.”
After supper, Charlie cleaned Marne’s stall and fed her while Fran cleaned the kitchen. When they were both finished, they met upstairs in their bedroom. Charlie laid down, his undershirt still on his body. They cuddled together, Fran’s head on his chest, and she listened to the sound of his heartbeat. She snuggled closer and kissed him, and he wrapped his arms around her—he stroked her arm.
“What are you doing, my love?” Charlie cooed.
“I want to be close to you.” She reached her fingers under his shirt to touch him. “Why do you wear a shirt? It’s awkward.”
Charlie sat up and put his feet on the floor. “I don’t want you to see it, Frannie.”
She scooted closer to him and wrapped her arms around his waist. “See what?”
“It’s just a gunshot wound,” she said, but he pulled away from her.
“No, it’s not. It wasn’t just a bullet from a standard gun that hit me. It was a shot from a high-powered rifle. The scar’s not pretty, you know.”
“Are you afraid I won’t love you? That it will disgust me?” She kissed his arm.
Charlie shook his head. “I want to shield you from the horror of war, Frannie. It’s bad enough that I have to see it, the painful reminder that you almost lost me. Another way I failed you.”
Fran got up and sat next to him on the bed. She looked into his eyes. “I want you to hear me, Charlie. You have never failed me or disappointed me. And I don’t care how your body looks. Your scars make you who you are.” She caressed his cheek. “I love you, no matter what.”
Charlie pondered her words, took a deep breath, and exhaled. “Please be careful, love. It’s still tender.” He reached for the bottom of his shirt and pulled it from his body. The scar was still red in places, pink in others, and it looked painful. Fran saw it and gasped, her eyes filled with tears. She traced the border of the wound, careful not to cause him pain.
“This went all the way through?” she asked. He nodded his head and then watched her face as she examined his shoulder. “How long before it’s healed?”
He shook his head. “Eight months to a year,” he whispered. “The skin has healed, internal damage will heal slower. I should start physical therapy soon. I’m just waiting for the medical orders to come back from overseas. We lost everything in the outpost attack. Hospital records are forthcoming. I don’t know when.”
She placed her hand on his shoulder and peeked around to his back. The injury was healing well, but it needed more time. She traced the scar with her fingers and kissed the surrounding skin. “Charlie, I had no idea it was this bad. You made it sound minor on the phone.”
“I didn’t want you to worry, love. Others were worse than me. Many more never came home. In comparison, it was just a flesh wound.” He lifted her chin and looked into her eyes. “I knew I’d never be able to hide this from you forever, Frannie. I was just hoping it would look better when you saw it.”
“What can I do to help you, Charlie?”
“Encourage me, love me, and always be here for me, Frannie. Hold me when I have nightmares. Tell me how much you love me. Remind me, when my faith is hanging by a thread, that you still pray for me.” He blinked back tears. “Comfort me when I don’t understand why a young boy took a bullet for me. Fran, that private sacrificed his life to save mine because you were here waiting for me. It should have been me, baby…” his voice faded to silent agony as he tried to make sense of the fateful day. “It should have been me,” his whisper was almost too soft to discern. Charlie’s body shook with sobs as he came to terms with a death he could have prevented, and the guilt that the wrong person had died.
She held him to her and rocked him. “Shh, honey,” she whispered. “I’m here.” They laid down together, wrapped up in one another, and together, they wept.
Up Next: Chapter Twelve, Generation One
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