Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Other books by this author:
The Good Sister
Little Girl Gone
Drusilla Campbell is the author of three critically acclaimed novels: Wildwood, The Edge of Sky, and Blood Orange. Before she started school she had crossed the Pacific Ocean three times. In her twenties she lived in Europe and Central America. Today she's happy to stay at home in San Diego with her husband, the attorney and poet Art Campbell, two rescued dogs, and three horses.
Chapter One Excerpt
October 1990— Washington, DC
It rained for three days.
This was not the soft, slow soak that twelve-
year- old Frankie Byrne knew. Rain in Washington, DC, was a wall of cold liquid steel flooding the streets with rushing litter- filled water that could sweep a pedestrian off her feet if she didn’t hang on to her father’s hand. It swamped the Mall and ruined shoes bought especially for the meeting with President and Mrs. George Herbert Walker Bush. Frankie loved it.
Her brother, Harry, was still in a wheelchair then, and the part of his trousers where his legs should have been was soaked. Frankie would have been in a terrible mood if she were the one who’d had her legs amputated at the knee, but Harry never complained about anything.
The limo heater blew hot air, and before they’d driven a block Frankie wanted to shed her coat— pale blue wool and, like her shoes, bought for the special occasion. She would feel more comfortable in soccer shorts or sweats and athletic shoes, but she was Brigadier General Harlan Byrne’s daughter and knew what was required of her. Every night since they checked into the Hilton Hotel, she had practiced balancing a book on her head while walking across the room she and Harry shared. She wobbled on the kitten heels as if they were three- inch stilettos. He said it was the funniest thing he’d ever seen, better than Seinfeld.
She began to unbutton her coat. Her mother shook her head.
“We could cook a chicken in here.”
“That’s enough, Francine.” When her father used his command voice, there was no point arguing.
She was too excited to sit still, but her parents and Harry were solemn as pallbearers. The General’s back was so straight it hurt her own to look at him, but when she did she automatically tucked in her stomach and dropped her shoulders down and back an inch or two. She composed her face into an expression that she hoped matched her father’s in sobriety.
More than anything she wanted the General to be proud of her, and if that meant she couldn’t crack a smile from now until taps, she would manage somehow. Sitting straight and strong, her father looked magnificent in his Marine Corps dress uniform with the stars and bars polished and the Purple Heart ribbons lined up perfectly. He’d been shot twice in Vietnam, once in the leg and once in the shoulder. He rescued three of his Marines from the VC and kept them all alive in a hole in the ground until a helo found them. Another time he was hit with shrapnel; he had a five- inch scar under his shoulder blade. He’d been bitten by some kind of snake too, a death on speed adder, and almost died, but no one gave out medals or ribbons for a snakebite.
The General had put his life on the line for his Marines and for America and that’s why he and his family had been invited to Washington. The president had declared a special day to honor the country’s heroes.
Frankie had been revved up and practically manic (her mother’s word) since they landed at Dulles International two days earlier. She had worn herself out enjoying all the things there were to see and do in the capital, and at night there had been adult parties where she was on her best behavior. Being Harlan Byrne’s daughter, she was accustomed to meeting important people in the government and military. The year before General Powell and his wife had come to dinner. Without knowing any details, Frankie knew that her father’s opinion on military matters was valued although he had long been retired.
“Stop complaining. It’s only a few more blocks.”
“I can smell you,” Harry taunted. “Chicken fricassee.”
She aimed a kick at him and hit car upholstery where his shins used to be. Her cheeks blazed, but he only smiled and shrugged and that made her even more ashamed.
Harry was five years older than she and ordered her around as if she were a grunt; plus he teased her, promising that if she’d do his chores he would give her half of one of his cinnamon rolls. And not always the smallest half either. There was nothing stingy about Harry. And when Frankie’s life got sharky which it did whenever the General went after her for grades or table manners or not trying hard enough in sports, Harry was always there like a rock in the surf she could scramble up on and feel safe. It was Harry who told her she was a natural athlete and to be glad she was the tallest girl in the seventh grade at Arcadia School.
Harry had been accepted for Annapolis before his accident, slated to be a Marine like their father and every Byrne before him going back to the War of Independence. In the General’s office there was a display case holding the medals and ribbons he had inherited from his forebears. Frankie had watched his face when he learned that Harry would never serve. Not a muscle twitched to show how much this grieved him, but Frankie knew it just about broke his heart.
Amazingly Harry had quickly adjusted to his disability. Frankie’s suspicion that he was relieved to escape military duty was confirmed when he told her he had always wanted to be a pediatrician and now he could be. She was incredulous.
Until his accident he had never told anyone that his ambition was to go to Africa and work with Doctors Without Borders or to open a clinic for poor children right in San Diego. His aspirations and ambitions had been pipe dreams, subordinate to the General’s determination that he would distinguish himself as a Marine Corps officer. Harry had been breaking school rules when he took a shortcut through the parking lot at Cathedral Boys’ High. It was spring and the track coach was a bear for punctuality, but Harry was a senior with girls and graduation on his mind. He wasn’t paying attention and neither, as it happened, was Mr. Penniman, one of the history teachers. He’d had trouble starting his ancient VW van, had to play the clutch just so. One minute there was no one in his rearview mirror and the next there was a thump and Harry Byrne went down.
The doctors at Scripps Hospital had tried to save his legs but they were a mess, and although Harry was young, they would never mend properly. Frankie was with her parents when the doctor told them, “We’re going to have to take them. At the knee.” She remembered how her father’s jaw set. Barely moving his lips, he said, “Do it.”
For a while Frankie was angry at Harry for being late for track, for not seeing the old VW van, for never really wanting to be a Marine. He seemed like a traitor to the Byrne family, the corps, and the General in particular.
The guard at the White House gate held a black umbrella over his head as he talked to the limo driver, then saluted the General and waved them up the circular drive to the entrance. At the entrance there were more umbrellas and Frankie’s shoes got wetter, but the welcoming committee at the White House knew how to handle Harry’s chair and had him inside before the rest of them.
“Welcome to my humble home,” her brother whispered and swept his arm in an arc, grinning like the Wonderland cat.
Everywhere she looked there were sober- faced men in uniforms and suits, buds stuck in their ears. A Marine who looked like Bon Jovi offered her his arm, and she slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow though she was able to walk just fine in her little heels. She tried not to hear them squishing. The family was escorted down a long hall lined with paintings and mirrors framed in gold and through a wide doorway into a lovely room with windows facing the White House lawn. They were seated in the front row of about twenty comfortably padded chairs.
The room filled with other men in military uniforms from all the services. Some came alone, others had wives and children with them. Frankie hoped she didn’t look as dorky and awestruck as the other kids did. After a little waiting time, a disembodied voice announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States,” and everyone stood and there was more saluting and then the leader of the free world walked in and stood about six feet from Frankie. She observed how pink his skin was and that he had a Band-Aid on his left thumb, as if he’d chewed on a hangnail and made it bleed.
The president called the General to the front of the room and shook his hand hard, holding it in both of his while he looked him straight in the eye. He made a speech about the General’s heroism, his humility, and his service to the country since he had retired and he said the nation was grateful and proud. Through it all the General stood as still as the officer Frankie had seen the day before, guarding the tomb at Arlington National Cemetery. Composed, and in her eyes, radiant.
“Harlan Byrne,” the president said, “you are a great American hero.”
Everyone in the room clapped enthusiastically and then another hero came forward, but the General stayed beside President Bush. Thirty minutes later there were six men on the dais, three on either side of the president. Flashbulbs reflected off every mirrored and polished surface in the beautiful room. Frankie wanted to be a Marine standing beside the president in a dress uniform, wanted to be covered with ribbons and medals.
At the end of the ceremony, Mrs. Bush came in wearing a wine-red dress with a lace collar and shoes with heels like Frankie’s. The General introduced his family to the first couple.
The president shook Harry’s hand. “We heard about your accident, son, and Mrs. Bush and I are so very sorry. A terrible thing to happen. Terrible. I understand you’ve decided on a career in medicine.”
“I’m sure you’ll make a wonderful doctor,” Mrs. Bush said.
“Thank you, ma’am.”
“Whatever he does,” the president said, “he’ll make you proud, General Byrne.”
Frankie glanced at the General, though she did not really expect his expression to show his feelings. In Ms. Hoffman’s English class she had learned the word inscrutable. No other word described her father as well. Without looking at Harry, she knew what he was thinking. They both knew he could win the Nobel Prize for Medicine, but the General wouldn’t be as proud as if he wore the uniform of the Marine Corps.
“Mr. President, may I present my daughter, Francine?”
Mrs. Bush said something about soccer.
“Yes, ma’am,” Frankie wasn’t quite sure what she was agreeing to. She stood up straighter and looked right over Barbara Bush’s head, out the window to where the lawn stretched away from the house and the rain fell in silver chains.
“And I understand you have a beautiful singing voice.”
Mrs. Bush had a friendly way about her. Talking to her, Frankie relaxed and it seemed natural to tell her about the Bach cantata the All Souls’ choir was rehearsing. There were more questions and she must have said and done the right thing because as they all filed into the dining room for a fancy lunch, her mother whispered, “I’m very proud of you, Frankie.”
The praise would have meant more coming from her father.
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DISCLAIMER: I was not compensated.