Call of the Crickets

Award Category
Golden Writer
Logline or Premise
Army widow fights to prove her husband is not a traitor while raising the child he never met.
First 10 Pages

Call of the Crickets

Chapter 1

June 26, 1996

Paxton’s internal radar bleeped at the sight of two soldiers walking down the well-worn corridor. They wore dress greens adorned with ribbons, a stark contrast to the drab grey hospital walls. The tap, tap, tap of their shiny black shoes sent chills up and down her spine.

Returning her attention to the viewing window in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Ft. Bragg’s Womack Army Hospital, she studied her newborn daughter, Abigail Leigh, as she slept in the NICU nursery. If only she could touch her, smell her, kiss her, rock her, things would be fine. But arriving two weeks early and fighting pneumonia, Abby’s first home was this incubator. All because the doctors hadn’t realized Paxton was Strep B positive.

“Don’t be afraid, baby girl,” she whispered to the spotless glass. “They’re not here for us. They’ll go on by.” When she sensed they’d stopped, she felt her heart crack. All the disinfectant-scented air seemed to drain from the area. She couldn’t breathe. Her knees felt like jelly. She would’ve fallen if she hadn’t been sitting in a wheelchair she’d gotten from the maternity floor. It seems the nurses were right to make her use it.

“Excuse me, ma’am.” The younger man’s voice was firm but quivered. “Are you Paxton Lockhart, wife of Master Sergeant Nathan Lee Lockhart?”

“I am,” she said.

He took a deep breath. “I’m Master Sergeant Jeffery Cotton from Delta Force Rear Detachment, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Could we please go somewhere more private?”

“No. It’s a mistake,” she said without turning around. If she didn’t look at them, perhaps they’d go away. She tried to focus.

The men remained standing behind her. It’s possible that Nate was only injured. She looked over her shoulder at them. Their stoic expressions told her what she didn’t want to know.

Paxton slumped in the chair. A nurse’s aide appeared from nowhere and patted her shoulder. The men were still talking, but Paxton couldn’t grasp their words. When they turned and walked toward the small chapel, the aide followed, pushing Paxton behind them. As they rolled down the deserted hallway toward the chapel, Paxton counted the shiny floor tiles to quell the bile rising in her throat.

Her hands gripped the handles of the chair and squeezed until her fingers turned white. She suppressed a sob and, just like she learned in yoga class, consciously breathed, and tried to focus.

She forced herself to stay calm and unemotional. Nate would want that. It’s the Army way.

The plan had been Nate would get home, then Abby would arrive. Like any good Army family, they had a contingency plan. A video conference call, a new service provided by the military, was their backup plan. But Paxton’s preeclampsia and Abby’s early and abrupt arrival meant even Plan B fell through. Paxton touched the incision through her gown. It hurt, but not as much as her heart. She bit the back of her lip and glared at the two men who stood before her, one a chaplain, the other a master sergeant, Nate’s new pay grade. Their Class A uniforms were so formal. She’d rather they’d worn the common fatigues she was so accustomed to. No, she’d rather they were not there at all.

Paxton took a deep breath and stared at them, waiting for them to speak yet not wanting to listen. Her heart pounded so hard she was sure they could hear it.

The master sergeant fidgeted. “The Secretary of Defense asked me to express his deep regret that your husband, Nathan, died in Iraq. Details remain classified, but someone will notify you when we learn more. The Secretary extends his deepest sympathy to you and your family during this trying period.”

This trying period? Are you kidding me? Death is forever. A wounded glare was the only response she could manage. Her gut felt like she’d been sucker-punched.

The chaplain knelt in front of her and reached for her hand. “The Army records show you are the primary next of kin, but there is no secondary listed. Who else should we notify?”

She focused on the chaplain’s nose. It was long, narrow, and a little crooked. If she fixated on that one feature, maybe she could keep it together until she was alone. She heaved a sigh. “No one, sir.” She eased her trembling hands into her lap as the chaplain stood. “Nate’s parents died when he was two. He grew up in foster care. There’s no one else to tell.”

“I see. Do you have friends who can help when you’re discharged? Base and community resources are available.”

Preeclampsia meant more time in the hospital, although the nurses said she’d go home in three or four days. But she had no one to go home to. Her husband was deployed—no dead. Her parents were dead. Her only sibling, Joellen, who was also expecting her first child, lived six hours away near Atlanta.

“I’ll be okay. They won’t discharge Abby until she gains a few pounds, at least a couple of weeks.” She grabbed her ponytail, twisted it into a knot, then secured it with a clip she pulled from her pocket. “I’ll stay here with her as much as they’ll let me.”

The two men exchanged glances.

“A CAO will contact you with more information,” the master sergeant said.

“A CAO? I’m not sure I know wh—”

“Sorry. Casualty Assistance Officer.”

“Oh,” Paxton said.

“They’ll help you navigate the administrative channels, give you information about insurance benefits, and things like that. They also ensure Nate’s remains, belongings, and personal effects are handled with respect. Since you don’t live on post, at least housing won’t be an issue for you.”

Paxton leaned forward and covered her face with her hands as she tried to imagine her future without Nate. Withering sobs escaped through her fingers. So much for keeping her composure.

The men stood as she wept. When she caught her breath, the chaplain nudged her shoulder.

“Mrs. Lockhart… Mrs. Lockhart.”

Wincing, she shivered and tried to regain her composure. “I’m sorry. What else do I need to know?”

“That’s it for today. Is there anything we can do for you before we leave? Can we call a neighbor or friend to stay with you?”

She shook her head. “I’m okay. I’ll call someone.” She couldn’t tell them there was no one to call. Her thoughts whirled a mile a minute. When they discharged Abby, she’d square things with the Army, then move to Atlanta to be closer to JoEllen. She and her sister were as different as night and day and hadn’t always gotten along, but they’d talked almost every day for the past seven months. It warmed her heart that they’d grown so much closer as they shared the ups and downs of their pregnancies.

We can raise our children together. Abby and I will be okay.

The chaplain cleared his throat, and his gaze drifted down to his perfectly shined shoes. “We’ll make the nursing staff aware of the situation on our way out.”

“I’m fine. I mean, that’s fine.” She wished they’d leave so she could think. Her heart ached at the thought her beautiful, innocent daughter would never know her daddy, and she’d never feel his arms around her again.

Chapter 2

Two weeks later, Paxton dressed Abby in a pink sleeper, wrapped her in a lightweight blanket, and thanked the nurses and aides on the hospital floor that had become her second home.

Sadness engulfed her as she drove Abby home from the hospital without Nate. She fought tears and gripped the steering wheel until her knuckles turned white. Get it together. You’ve got a kid to get home in one piece. Focus!

She glanced in her mirror at Abby, snoozing in her baby seat, and her heart smiled.

“If your daddy were here, he’d be recording everything on his camcorder,” she told the sleeping child. “I bet he’d already have a hundred pictures of you.”

Nate was a natural photographer. She smiled as she remembered how he’d taken a picture of pretty much every flower he’d seen on their Hawaiian honeymoon.

Paxton pulled into her driveway, surprised to see someone had mowed the lawn. She was even more surprised to see unfamiliar children playing in her yard and three women sitting on her porch. She squinted to get a better look. One was Lolly something, a down-the-street neighbor known as the neighborhood Gladys Kravitz. She didn’t recognize the other two.

She’d heard all about Lolly. As she and Nate were unloading their moving van, several neighbors stopped by to welcome them to the neighborhood. Most warned them about Lolly, who, with her bright orangish-red hair and even brighter orange lipstick, reminded Paxton of Endora from Bewitched. Up until now, she had dodged Lolly with a quick wave and a dash into the house or car. She sighed and closed her eyes for a few seconds.

When she opened them, Lolly was leading the charge toward her car. Paxton groaned at the thought of having to deal with these women. Why were they here, and what did they want? She tried to smile, but her heavy heart made it difficult.

“What can we do?” Lolly asked as she tried to open the car door closest to a still-sleeping Abby. Paxton was thankful she’d left all but the driver’s door locked. She walked to the car’s passenger side before unlocking it. She knew they weren’t a threat, most likely over-zealous neighbors, but it was still unnerving. After unbuckling Abby and freeing her from her car seat, Paxton grabbed her diaper bag and walked to the house. Her visitors followed close behind.

When she unlocked her front door, one of her guests, a heavyset, dark-skinned woman with at least fifty braids, ran past Paxton to the thermostat and turned the air conditioner on full blast.

“Whew, I’m so hot; if I don’t cool off some, I’m gonna end up a puddle of chocolate milk.” She pulled out the front of her shirt and fanned herself with her hand.

“I’ve just got to sit down a minute before I fall down. This heat is something else this year.” After the dark-skinned woman dropped to the sofa, she grabbed a magazine from the coffee table, lifted her braids, and fanned her neck.

The thin, perky blonde bounced in and plopped beside the woman with braids. “Let’s unload the food from the car before it melts.”

“Don’t rush me. The food’s in coolers. It’ll be fine.”

The blonde turned to her friend. “No, ice will only last so long. Let’s go.”

“Just give me a minute, will you? Why don’t you go check on the kids? Tell them to stay in the yard and to come to the door if they need us. I’ll be ready to bring everything in after you’ve done that.”

Lolly walked in and let the door slam so hard Abby twitched.

The one with braids, who didn’t want to move five seconds earlier, leaped from the couch like a superhero, lunged toward Lolly, and scolded her in a stage whisper. “Woman, we’ve got a baby here. You need to turn your volume down.”

“Oh, pshaw,” Lolly said. “Little one has to get used to her surroundings at some point. It might as well be now. I need a glass of water. Okay if I grab one from the kitchen?” She disappeared into the kitchen before Paxton had time to answer.

Feeling invisible, Paxton eased into her favorite chair and rocked Abby in her arms.

After the blonde checked on the children, the two mystery women made four trips to a cherry-red Chevy Suburban and lugged in three giant coolers and two bags of groceries.

The activity overwhelmed Paxton, and she was about two seconds from telling her visitors to get the hell out. Instead, she took a deep breath and joined the conversation.

“What’s all this?” she said as she struggled to find her voice. “And who are you people?” She hoped she sounded more hospitable than she felt. Her Granny would roll over in her grave if she knew they hadn’t called before they came. But their breach of etiquette didn’t mean she could be rude. Granny would haunt her for sure.

Why’d she even let them in? She wouldn’t have done it if she was married to a civilian. But it was different in the military, where families watched out for each other. These other two might be associated with the wives’ auxiliary on post. They still hadn’t identified themselves, like they expected her to know who they were.

She and Nate had found a house in Fayetteville precisely for that reason. Living on post afforded little privacy, as everyone seemed to know everything about everyone else. With the possibility of frequent deployments at a moment’s notice, they’d rather have their privacy when Nate was home. On the flip side, it was easy to isolate and not make new friends, and she sure could use some now.

The braided-hair lady cleared her throat. “Oh, hon, where are my manners? I’m Harriett Jones, and this here is my friend Susie Bates. We’re part of the Compassionate Friends from the post.”

Paxton remembered reading about the group of military spouses who functioned something like a welcome wagon. They appeared during sickness or death or when you had a new baby. She thought people joined organizations like this for protection against bad things.

“We’re so sorry for your loss,” the blonde said. “But we’re super excited about little Miss Abigail.” Her high-pitched voice reminded Paxton of Tweedy Bird. “We brought you a few things to tide you over. Most of the casseroles you can freeze.”

“You know it’s just me, don’t you?” Paxton asked. “You brought enough food here for three months.” At least it’s in disposable containers. It would take forever to return this many bowls and casserole dishes.

“Oh, you know how it is when you cook,” Susie said.

Lolly stepped in front of the other women, almost knocking tiny Susie down. “I’m sure you know who I am—your neighbor three houses down. It’s the house with pink shutters and lime green door. We ain’t formally met—you’re always in such a hurry to get in your house or your car—but we’ve waved a time or two. When I saw the two girls sitting on your porch swing, I came to investigate.”

Harriett rolled her eyes, and Paxton almost laughed. Almost.

Abby fussed, so Paxton excused herself and took her to the nursery. She wasn't surprised when the women followed. At least they hung back in the doorway.

“This is your room, baby girl.” She choked back a sob. Instead of strangers, Nate should be the one beside her at this private moment.

“Let’s go, girls,” said Harriett, the one with the braids. “Let’s unpack the food and put it away. Then we can have some refreshments ourselves.”

Nate’s death hadn’t hit Paxton at the hospital, but back in her home, surrounded by reminders of him, the weight of grief was overwhelming. It was just her and Abby now. Abby started crying, and Paxton picked her up from the crib she and Nate had bought and put together one Saturday afternoon. Such a sweet memory.

She rocked Abby in the exquisite rocking chair Nate made for her during the two weeks between finding out she was pregnant and his deployment. She unbuttoned her blouse, and a hungry Abby latched onto her breast. As Paxton rocked, tears rolled down her cheeks. She tried to stop, but her tear ducts wouldn’t cooperate. She didn’t want to expose her baby to such sad energy. Abby slept like an angel as she took her mother’s milk; Paxton had to focus to keep from falling asleep, too. Finished eating, Abby stirred, and Paxton hugged her daughter closer even though it hurt her breast. Abby burped, and Paxton eased her back into the crib. She changed Abby’s diaper and turned on her mobile, then stood by the crib watching the rise and fall of her daughter’s chest. My God, she’s perfect.

As she reached down to adjust the tiny cap on Abby’s head, Paxton heard a loud crash followed by expletives. Startled, it took a moment to remember she had guests.

She rushed to the kitchen. “What happened in here?” Paxton stared at the floor, covered with shattered glass.

Lolly shrugged. “I had the dropsies. Not to worry. It was just an old cake plate I found in your China cabinet. I’ll get you another one. It ain’t worth much, I’m sure, being so old and all. I remember my grandma had one just like it.”

Paxton spun and viewed an empty spot in her China cabinet, the spot where her Granny’s cake plate had sat. She didn’t think her heart could hurt any more, but it did.

“Don’t worry. I know I can find you one close enough that you won’t even know the difference. I go to yard sales every weekend.”

Paxton’s anger had stopped her crying, but it didn’t last. Yard sale? Un-fricking-believable. The tears were back, and within seconds, she was ugly crying.

Harriett wrapped her arms around Paxton. “Now, now, Cutie Pie. I won’t tell ya not to cry, ‘cause if I’m in your shoes, I’d be crying me a river, but I will tell you to sit down and relax.

“Let’s make some refreshments, and then we can visit.”

Too tired to object, Paxton settled into a green, overstuffed leather chair in the living room, closed her eyes, and fell into a light slumber.


F. Taylor Tue, 22/08/2023 - 15:11

An intriguing start to the story; it has a certain filmesque quality.