Four Months Later…
The fireplace flickered its last bit of warmth before it burned out. Fran was sound asleep, her phone in her hand. She waited on a phone call from the war zone. Charlie had talked to her hours before their most dangerous mission yet, and he promised to call her when they were safe. A dream startled her awake, and she looked around the room wide-eyed, her heart pounded wildly.
I wish he would call me, she thought. Since he was injured, his missions were stressful for her. Fran looked at her watch. She knew she should go to bed, but she doubted she’d sleep when she was this anxious. The time was 4:52 am.
Fran got up and walked to the kitchen to heat up water for tea. Outside, a dusting of snow sat on the ground, her plants frostbitten and nearly dead from the cold. The sunroom door desperately needed to be weatherproofed, a chilly draft made the kitchen uncomfortably cool. With winter upon Appaloosa Plains, it was a priority but her barter goods were skimpy and money was tight. With all that needed to be done around the house, she was sorry Marne hadn’t become pregnant in the summer. She could have used the help with feed and bedding for her over the colder months.
The tea kettle whistled and she turned the gas off. Fran plopped a chamomile bag into the hot water, stirred some honey into it and went back to the living room to sit. Even in her warmest clothing, she was cold, and it was much too early to go into the yard to fetch more firewood. So she sat in Charlie’s easy chair and reclined, a blanket wrapped around her.
Fran picked up the teacup and breathed in the minty vapor of the chamomile. It was her favorite tea and it was especially wonderful with fresh honey. She sipped on the hot beverage and sighed. Another sleepless night.
An hour later, the phone rang with Charlie’s number on the display. Finally! She answered the phone sleepily.
“Hi love,” his happy voice answered. “We’re safe.”
“It’s so good to hear your voice. And I’m happy you’re okay.” She tried not to yawn in his ear.
“Have you been awake all this time, love?”
“Mmhmm,” she answered. “I made some tea about an hour ago, took one sip and fell asleep, I guess because it’s ice cold.”
“Well, you can get some rest now, honey. We are all okay.”
“Is there any chance of you coming home for our anniversary? I don’t want to spend it alone.” Their tenth anniversary was weeks away.
“No, baby, there’s no leave, no time off at all. And I wish there was because I miss you.”
“It’s hard being here without you. It’s just me and Marne. No foal, either. She’s not expecting.” She was cold and on the verge of shivering.
“Oh sweetie, I’m sorry. I know you were hoping for a foal in the spring.” A delicate sneeze came from the other end of the phone. “Are you getting sick, Frannie?”
“I might be. It’s pretty chilly in the house. I can’t seem to warm up.” She sniffled and tried not to sneeze again.
“Why is it so cold? Doesn’t the furnace work?”
“It does, but the doors are drafty. I don’t want to waste the heat. The sunroom door really needs to be weather-stripped.”
“Why don’t you do it, honey? There isn’t a good reason for you to be cold like this.”
She sighed. She knew he would worry if he knew the truth, and she tried to keep it from him. “I haven’t got much to barter anymore. Without Missy and Moo, I don’t have the resources we used to have from them.”
“What about paying for it with cash?”
“I don’t have it. When Marne didn’t turn up pregnant, I had to order her feed and bedding for the winter months and finance it myself. It took all of my earnings for the season and then some.”
“I don’t understand, Frannie. What about my pay?”
“I haven’t seen a dime since you’ve been gone. Money is very tight. I don’t even think I have enough firewood to go all winter long.”
“This is ridiculous!” Charlie was angry. It was bad enough they were apart, but to know she was suffering back home was more than he could bear. “I will look into this for you.”
“It’s okay. We’ve made it through leaner winters than this,” she said.
“No, it’s not okay, love. You shouldn’t be struggling to survive because I’m away. I will inquire and call you back soon. But I have to go now, sweetie. I love you.” He blew a kiss to her.
“I love you, Charlie,” she replied.
When they hung up the phone, Charlie went to his commanding officer and asked to speak with him.
“What’s on your mind, Farmer?” he asked.
“Sir, my wife back home is starving and it shouldn’t be! Why is she not getting my salary while I’m away?” Charlie was livid.
“I don’t know.” He jotted a phone number for Charlie to call. “Call this number and check with them. If they don’t know, they can find out.”
“Thank you, sir.” Charlie took the slip of paper and left the tent. He was on his way back to his own tent when air raid sirens sounded. Everyone scrambled for the bunkers on base. They had all done the drills, but this time it was the real thing. Airplanes flew overhead and fired upon the small outpost where the unit lived. Charlie ran and barely made it inside before the gunfire rained down upon them. But to his horror, only five other soldiers were in the bunker with him.
“Where is everyone?” he shouted, panic in his voice. But no one had an answer. “I’m going back up!” he announced, but a younger man stopped him.
“No, Captain. You have a wife at home that needs you. I’m going.” Before Charlie could command him to stand down, the young man opened the hatch. He was struck by a bullet and killed instantly, his body slumped into Charlie’s arms.
“NO!” Charlie yelled and cradled the soldier. “No…” He fell to the floor and cried, the boy in his arms. “It should have been me,” Charlie wept. “It should have been me…”
Fran’s phone rang again shortly after she had hung up with Charlie, his number on the display. An uneasy feeling washed over her as she picked it up and answered it.
There was terror in Charlie’s voice, the sounds of chaos in the background. “Frannie, listen to me. Our outpost is under attack. I am one of five that I am certain survived. I don’t know about the others. Please, baby, please pray harder than you ever have.”
Fran tried to scream but she couldn’t draw a breath. It was as though the air had been sucked from the room. “Charlie…” she finally whispered, she gasped for breath as fear gripped her.
“I’ll call you as soon as I can, Frannie. I love you with all I am.”
“I love you, Charlie…” She barely got the words from her lips before the line went dead.
Fran immediately called her mother-in-law. Her hands shook as she dialed the familiar number.
“Hello? Fran, is everything okay?”
“Charlie just called, his base is under attack. He is okay so far, but I don’t know how this is going to end…” Fran choked on a sob. “Pray for him, please.”
Dolly nearly dropped the phone. “Honey, you shouldn’t be alone. Come to our house—”
“I need to be here if he calls back. Spread the word, and pray for them.” Fran lost her composure and collapsed on the floor, consumed by fright. “I have to go…” she told Dolly and hung up the phone.
Word spread quickly through Fran’s circle of friends. Within minutes of her phone call to Dolly, Sunny was at the front door of the farmhouse.
“Fran?” she called from outside. “Fran, open up.” She picked herself up from the floor and stumbled to the door. When she saw her friend, she burst into tears. Sunny wrapped Fran in a solid embrace, let her cry and whispered words of comfort to her.
A few minutes later when Fran was able to collect herself, she invited Sunny inside to sit. “I need to go grab some firewood,” she said, but Sunny stopped her.
“I’ll go get it, Frannie. You just sit.” Sunny picked up the wood tote and slung it over her shoulder. In just a few minutes, she returned with a good stack of firewood, but Sunny’s face wore a look of concern. “Is that all the wood you have?”
Fran nodded. “I’m really struggling, Sun. I’m in denial to think I’m really this bad off, but I can’t afford to deny it much longer or I’ll starve to death.” She had already lost ten pounds she couldn’t afford to lose.
Sunny took out her phone and jotted a note on it. “Why is it so cold in here?” The chill went through all her layers of clothing right to the bones.
“The sunroom door in the back is nearly exposed to the outside. The weatherstripping is gone. I know I need to have it fixed, but I don’t know how I’ll pay for it.” Fran arranged the wood in the hearth, wadded up newspaper beneath some kindling and started the fire that would warm the ground floor of the house. “Not having Charlie’s pay has been extremely difficult. And oh boy was he mad when he dragged it out of me, too.”
“I hope not at you, sweetie. It’s not your fault.” Sunny rubbed her hands together and blew into them. “Do you mind if I start the tea kettle, Fran? I’m freezing.”
“Not at all. The fire will be roaring in a few minutes, and we can sit by the fireplace while I wait for him to call me.” I hope he calls me, she thought.
Sunny and Fran sat and talked for an hour but Fran was fighting to stay awake. “I hope you don’t think I’m being rude, but I can barely keep my eyes open. I was awake all night, waiting…”
“What can I do to help you?” Sunny asked. “Can I feed Marne for you, or collect eggs from the coops before I go?”
Fran smiled. “I’d love it if you’d gather eggs for me. And please take them home with you. I have plenty—”
“No, I’m not taking food from you.” Sunny noticed how thin Fran had gotten. “Please take care of yourself, if not for you then for Charlie. He will need you when he comes home.”
Fran nodded. “Thank you. I will do better. Please let Dolly know I’m okay?”
Sunny sighed. Fran wasn’t okay and she wasn’t keen on lying. “I’ll tell her, Frannie. I’ll be by later to check on you, and call me when you hear from Charlie.”
Fran had tamped the fire out and wrapped her sweater around her shoulders. “I will.” She thanked her friend and watched her walk to the yard to feed the chickens. Sunny would leave the eggs in the garage refrigerator for now.
Fran climbed the steps with tired, heavy legs and somehow made it to bed before she fell asleep.
Hours had passed, and Charlie still clung to the body of the young man who had sacrificed his life. The quiet outside was eerie but no one was brave enough to open the hatch to peer outside. One of the privates under Charlie’s direct command finally tapped him on the shoulder.
“Captain? Are you okay, sir?”
He shook his head. “Not really.” He set the boy’s body down on the floor of the bunker and before he got up, he took the tag from his neck chain. “I guess I have a phone call to make.”
He stopped at the hatch and listened for sounds, any indication that there was life outside the bunker. When he cracked the door open to look, the scene above ground was utter devastation. The camp had been destroyed and he doubted anyone who had stayed above had survived. The only noises were sounds of nature, the occasional cicada and a wolf baying in the distance.
He placed his rifle at the opening of the hatch and peered out, ready to fire at any hostiles within the camp, but nothing stirred. Carefully he opened the door and emerged from the bunker. All living quarters were decimated, not one tent remained intact. There were no signs of life anywhere, but Charlie walked to his CO’s tent to find him lying dead just feet from what was the tent door. One by one, he searched the bunkers but only found two more survivors. Out of a unit of seventy-five men, only seven survived. Charlie was now the highest-ranking soldier.
He walked to his tent and dug through the wreckage. The only item that survived was his prayer book with their wedding photo inside. He clutched the book to his chest, his eyes looked to the heavens. Charlie fell to his knees with tears in his eyes and he prayed.
The survivors had nowhere safe to sleep for the night so they planned on staying in the bunker until help could arrive. They salvaged what little food they could from the mess tent and brought it with them. Charlie remembered his phone call to Fran and knew she had to be worried sick. So he dialed her number on his cell phone, but the line was dead.
“Dammit!” he exclaimed. “The attack must have taken out communications.” This posed another problem. With radios destroyed and the cell towers down, they were stuck with no backup, no way to convey a message to the higher-ups that they were compromised. They would need to wait for a reconnaissance mission to find them. The night would be long and lonely, and Charlie worried about Fran.
Halfway through the night, Charlie heard voices shouting outside the bunker. As the Captain, he listened for the safe word at the hatch. And when it was spoken, he opened the door, his weapon at his side. “Captain Charles Farmer,” he said. “Identify yourself.”
“Major Boyd Sturm, Air Force. Are you the only survivor, Captain?”
“No sir, there are six others in the bunker. But I am the highest-ranking survivor. The others are privates.”
“There are only seven of you alive? How many men in this unit, Captain?”
“We were seventy-five strong, sir.”
Major Sturm signaled for the transport to approach. “We’ll retrieve the dead in the morning. Come with us, and we’ll get you out of here. Why didn’t you radio for help?”
“Our communications were taken out, even the cell tower. We had no way to contact anyone. My wife is waiting on my phone call, and I would imagine she has given up on me by now.”
“When we get back to our outpost, you can contact loved ones. For now, let’s get you guys out of here.”
The evacuation took minutes and the seven survivors of the previous day’s attack were on their way to safety.
Fran’s phone rang early the next morning. It was not Charlie but Sunny Bradford on the line. She nearly didn’t answer it but she reached for the phone anyway. Her voice was tired and she felt awful. Fran hadn’t slept well nor had she eaten anything since Charlie had called the previous morning.
She sighed. “Yes. Hi Sunny.”
“Have you heard from Charlie? I’ve been worried.”
“No, not a peep. I’ve almost resigned myself to the idea that he’s gone, though I don’t know why I haven’t heard anything from the base here.” Fran sniffled and wiped tears from her eyes.
“Well, maybe no news is good news, Frannie. Why don’t I pick you up and we’ll go to breakfast together, my treat? You shouldn’t be alone.”
She was going to decline, but if there was one thing she knew about Sunny Bradford, it was that she seldom took no for an answer. “I need to shower first. Give me about half an hour?”
Sunny smiled. “I can do that. Caleb is home with the kids, so I have some time for myself. I want to spend it with you.”
For the first time since Charlie’s frantic call the previous morning, Fran smiled. “I’m touched.”
“Well, go get ready, and I’ll let myself in.”
Fran was in the shower upstairs when Sunny opened her front door with the key Charlie had given her. She tiptoed into the kitchen and unpacked two bags of groceries into the refrigerator and pantry, folded the bags and placed them into her purse. “Fran,” she called up the stairs, “I’m here.”
“Oh, hi Sun. I’ll be down in a few minutes,” Fran said as she dried her hair. She was already dressed in a warm sweater, her jeans, and cowboy boots.
Five minutes later, she descended the stairs. “I have my cell with me, just in case. I’m ready.”
“Let’s go,” Sunny replied. “I just need to tell Caleb something I forgot about the kids.” She typed a message to her husband and placed the phone in her bag.
After Sunny’s car drove away from the Farmer house, Caleb and a co-worker pulled up to the house and parked in the driveway. In the back of his pickup were two cords of wood and the materials to completely weatherproof the doors and windows in the whole house. Two minutes behind them was a group of friends who would complete the work while the women were away from the house. Sunny arranged it all and Caleb paid for it, the labor donated by the men who would complete the job. Everyone in town adored Fran and no one wanted to see her fail when Charlie was away.
Charlie was awakened by a nightmare, the events of the previous day replayed in his head. Sweat was beaded on his forehead, his heart pounded as he sat up. The sun was up and the outpost bustled with familiar sounds. He got up and dressed, and wondered why he hadn’t been briefed on any upcoming missions. The CO for this unit was in his tent, and Charlie approached to announce himself.
“Come in, Farmer,” he summoned Charlie inside. He stepped in and stood at attention. “At ease, Captain. What can I do for you?”
“Sir, I’m curious. What will happen to the survivors of my unit? Will we be absorbed into a different unit?” Charlie asked.
The commanding officer sat back in his chair. “You boys have seen enough action this deployment, Captain. I’m waiting on confirmation, but I believe the seven of you will return home within the month.”
“Sir, with all due respect, I am willing to serve out my time. Just tell me where to go—”
The CO shook his head. “It’s not my decision, Farmer. That decision comes from the top.” He walked to Charlie and held out his hand. “I know you’re holding the tag of a young man who took a bullet for you. Let me make that call for you. Call your family and let them know you’re okay.”
Charlie tried to remain stoic, but a lump formed in his throat. “Thank you, sir.” He took the tag from his pocket and placed it into the CO’s hand. “Please let his family know he died a hero.”
“You’re all heroes, Farmer. You’re dismissed.” Charlie turned and left the tent. Once he stepped outside, he wiped a single tear from his eyes.
He walked back to the tent where he had been assigned and took his prayer book from under his pillow. Still tucked inside was their wedding photo. He took it out and looked at it, traced Fran’s image on the paper and wept. He nearly made her a widow, and he seriously considered not re-enlisting when his time was up.
He took his phone from his pocket and dialed her number. It rang until voicemail answered it. Rather than hang up, he waited to leave a message:
Frannie, my love, I’m sorry I didn’t call yesterday as I promised. I will explain when I talk to you later. I have some news, which I’ll tell you when we speak. I’m safe, and I will call you. Oh, how I love you my darling, and I can’t wait to hear your voice.
His time was free, so he laid down to rest and waited for the time when he would call his love.
Fran didn’t see the missed call on her phone until she and Sunny had left the diner. But she listened to the message with tears in her eyes. She clutched the phone to her chest and sighed relief.
“He is safe!”
“That is awesome news,” Sunny replied and hugged her friend. She knew Caleb and the guys needed just a little more time at the house so she flooded the engine of her car purposely. “I can’t get this thing to start,” she feigned frustration. “Let me call Caleb.” She took her phone from her purse and dialed his number.
“Hello?” he answered.
“Caleb, I can’t start my car,” Sunny said.
“We need twenty more minutes and we’ll be finished,” he replied. “I’ll be there.”
“Thanks, love,” she said and hung up the phone. “Twenty to twenty-five minutes, Fran. Do you need to be somewhere today?”
“No, just back home to care for Marne.” They both went back into the diner to sit and stay warm while they waited for Caleb to rescue them.
Half an hour later, Caleb appeared in his old pick up truck. He got out and tipped his hat to Fran. “How’s Charlie? Have you heard from him?”
Fran nodded her head. “He’s safe. I don’t know anything else, but he said he would call tonight.”
“Good to hear,” Caleb replied. “What’d you do, Sunny?” he mock scolded her, his hands on his hips. “I told you when the engine floods to hold down the gas pedal.”
She smiled and winked at her husband. “You’re right, Caleb. I’m sorry I made you come all this way when I know you’re busy at home.” She hugged him and gave him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Well, alright,” he nodded. “Please tell Charlie he’s in our prayers, Frannie.” Caleb tipped his hat again and climbed into the cab of his truck. Fran nodded and waved as he drove away.
Sunny started the car with ease and blushed at Fran. “I guess we’re good to go. Are you ready?”
“Yes, and thank you for this distraction, Sunny. I needed some time away from the house. Someday, it will be my treat.” Fran sat beside Sunny in the front seat of the car and buckled herself in.
“You’re welcome,” she replied. Sunny couldn’t wait for Fran to see the work Caleb and his friends had done in her home, and the pile of firewood stacked by the barn.
Fran turned the key in the front door, Sunny right behind her, and the first thing she noticed was a blast of warm air. Caleb had stacked firewood inside the house by the fireplace. Fran looked around in amazement. “What’s going on?” she asked.
“Caleb and his co-workers came and weather-stripped all your doors and windows, and we had two cords of wood stacked outside for you to carry you through the winter. Fran, you broke my heart yesterday and I can’t let you fail when Charlie is serving the country overseas.” Fran started to cry, and Sunny embraced her. “You’re my best friend, and I can’t let anything happen to you. Caleb and I are thriving, and it kills me to see you struggling so.”
“Sunny, I don’t know what to say!” Fran sniffled and hugged her again. “Thank you so much.”
“It was our pleasure.” Sunny smiled at Fran once more. “I really need to get home. Tell Charlie we both said hi, and we love him.”
“I will,” Fran replied, still in shock.
It was later that afternoon when Fran’s cell phone rang again, this time with Charlie’s number on the display. She was very happy to see it. He heard the smile in her voice when she said hello.
“Hi, love,” he greeted her. “It is so good to hear your sweet voice, Frannie.”
“Hi, Charlie,” she replied. “I thought I’d never get to hear your voice again. Tell me you’re safe. I need to hear it.”
“Oh honey, I’m definitely safe. But so many are not coming home with us. We lost sixty-eight men in that attack yesterday.” Charlie choked back a lump of emotion that took up residence in his throat.
“Oh, Charlie, no! Sixty-eight?”
“I still can’t believe it myself. But the enemy must have followed our caravan back to our position and planned the ambush. The ones who didn’t make it to safety never stood a chance. It was horrific.” He shook his head at the memory of it.
“So what happens now with so many casualties?”
“Well, that’s part of what I needed to tell you, honey. The seven of us who survived are coming home. I’m not finishing my deployment, but I don’t think we’ll be out of here before a month is up.”
“I’m so happy that you’re coming home!” Fran squealed. “I can’t do this anymore. I’m done.”
Charlie nodded. “I’m pretty done too, love. I’ve seen more death than I ever cared to see, on both sides.”
“I have some good news too, Charlie. Sunny came and got me for breakfast this morning, and while I was gone, Caleb came in and did repairs on the doors and windows. And they brought me two cords of wood.” Fran smiled. “We are so blessed, Charlie. We have such wonderful friends.”
“I don’t know how I’ll ever repay their kindness,” Charlie said. “I’m so thankful they are taking care of you.”
“They wouldn’t have known if you hadn’t called yesterday morning. I called your mama after I hung up with you, and she must have called Sunny and Caleb. She was at the house in minutes. She saw how little firewood I had stocked, and felt the chill in the house. She even noticed I’ve lost a little weight. She stocked the fridge and pantry with food, Charlie.” She wiped a tear from her eyes. “She and Caleb amaze me.”
“Why didn’t my mom go sit with you?” Charlie began to get angry. In every possible way, they let him down when it came to Fran’s well-being.
“She wanted me to go to their house, but I needed to be by the phone, just in case.”
“So her solution was to pass it off to someone else.” He spoke through gritted teeth.
“Charlie, don’t be angry with them. They have their own lives—”
“You don’t understand, love. I asked them specifically to watch over you, and from everything you’ve told me they haven’t done what I’ve asked of them. This doesn’t make me happy.” The CO appeared in the door of his tent and motioned to Charlie. “Sweetie, I need to go. I’ll call you soon. I promise.”
“Stay safe, Charlie. I can’t wait until you come home. I love you.”
“I love you, my Frannie. I’ll keep you updated.” With a kiss, they ended the phone call.
Fran sat in the pickup truck she had purchased months earlier, parked at the municipal airport where she waited for Charlie’s plane to land. The flight was minutes away according to the information he had given her. He was the last of the survivors in his unit to come home and the wait was excruciating for both of them.
The snow was deep and it fell heavily in Appaloosa Plains, and she hoped the flight wouldn’t be diverted to another airport. But nearly right on time, the bright landing lights of the aircraft appeared in the sky through the heavy snow. Excitement built up inside her chest, and she felt as though she’d scream.
The plane taxied closer to the airport and when it stopped the door opened on the opposite side from where Fran stood. She saw his feet jump from the steps into snow that was ankle-deep, and then walk behind the aircraft to speak with someone. From the rear of the plane, he appeared, and Fran squealed when she saw him.
Charlie saw her waiting for him, and he fought every instinct to run into her arms. Step by step he walked away from the plane until he cleared the engines, then he stopped and stood at attention. “At ease!” came the command, and when he heard it, Charlie ran toward her.
She stood and waited, her face in her hands. Finally, she couldn’t wait for another second and ran toward him. When she reached him, he picked her up and spun her around, her arms wrapped around his neck.
They both wept as they clung to one another, and he placed her back down into the snow.
“Hi love,” he said just as casually as he would have on a normal day. He looked into her green eyes, the ones he missed desperately and kissed her. “Oh honey, it’s so good to hold you.”
“I love you, Charlie,” she whispered into his ear. “Let’s go home.”
Up Next: Chapter Eleven, Generation One
You Name It, I’ll Pose It
- Request 12 by Blams
- Wedding Part 3 by KiddoSims
Hercules Military Transport Airplane by Carlos at Simming in Magnificent Style
Custom content and poses are not my property and have been used in compliance with the TOUs.