If You Believe In Me
by Natalie J. Damschroder
Three years ago, Amber Benedict fell in love with Kale Riker and pledged to wait for him to return from the military. Even though she rarely hears from him, she’s steadfast in her belief: he’s coming home to her, and soon. Then the government tells Kale’s family that he’s missing in action, and they have given him up for dead.
Kale Riker has been away from civilization and Amber for three long years. He’s been promised he can retire his commission when he completes his current mission, but now he’s seriously wounded and facing a long recovery. Worse still, security risks force a communications blackout, leaving him no way to let Amber know he’s alive.
Can Amber hold out against an entire town pushing her to give up on love while Kale fights to get back home to her before Christmas?
© 2012 Natalie J. Damschroder
Amber hummed a Christmas carol into the frigid evening air, her boots thudding on the snow-dusted steps of the Rikers’ front porch. She shifted the grocery bag to her left arm to unlock the door and grunted when her tote slid off her right shoulder. She could almost hear Kale’s chuckle as he teased her for not making two trips to the car, and the longing that swelled her throat killed the desire to sing.
She swallowed hard and tugged off her mitten, catching the keys before they fell. Kale’s parents were still at work, but she’d wanted a head start making their “traditional” week-before-the-holiday dinner—if two years in a row could be considered a tradition. They might not have heard from Kale for six months, but if they were able to talk to him wherever he was stationed right now, she didn’t want to be tied to the stove.
Plus, the more she had ready before they got home, the more she could relax with the couple that had become her surrogate parents in the last couple of years. She shivered at a gust of wind, slid the key into the deadbolt, and paused.If it turns without sticking, he’s safe and coming home to us.
Her spirits lifted when it did, the song returning with a new lilt. She “br-rrr”ed and quickly closed the door behind her, careful to keep her feet on the woven runner while she toed off her boots. Halfway through, she froze, her humming fading into silence. Something was wrong.
The Rikers always had their artificial tree up by today, exactly one week before Christmas. But that corner of the room stood empty and shadowed. No lights twinkled along the mantle. Her nose wrinkled at the house’s chill staleness. Even when they were at work, the house always greeted her with scents of fresh pine from the boughs climbing the banister and spice from clove-studded oranges and gingerbread candles. Why hadn’t they decorated yet?
She tried to shrug off her uneasiness and headed toward the kitchen. Hopefully, no one was sick. She hadn’t talked to them in a couple of days, but they would have told her to reschedule if something had come up. Okay, they were humoring her a little. She knew her insistence on doing everything the same way wouldn’t guarantee anything. Kale had been here the first year she cooked chicken marsala for him and his parents. Last year, he’d been able to videoconference with them, which was better than nothing. This year will be nothing, and next year—
Amber slammed the door shut on that well-traveled thought path, but her unease grew. The house was so still, she kept glancing over her shoulder at the echo from her own footsteps.
She snapped on the radio to keep her company and began emptying the bag of groceries. Chicken, pasta, mushrooms, butter, scallions… They’d have flour and all the spices already. But dammit, she’d forgotten the wine in her car.
Halfway back to the front door, she spotted the suitcases at the foot of the stairs. What were those doing there? The Rikers never went anywhere during the holidays.
Maybe the baggage was empty. She hurried over, hating the dread that grew with every step. They could have just been cleaning out closets or something, planning to move the bags up to the attic when they brought down the holiday decorations. She yanked at the biggest one, ready for it to pop up off the floor. Pain snapped through her shoulder. It was full. Heavy. She blinked back flashing lights in her peripheral vision and sank down on the lowest stair, clutching her shoulder.
The big black cases loomed in front of her, taunting. They weren’t locked. She could open them and examine the contents to try to figure out where they were going. She imagined sterile white walls and rows of hospital beds. No! She wouldn’t jinx Kale by thinking of Ramstein.
Maybe they’d gotten word that he was coming home.
She shot to her feet, a burst of elation numbing her shoulder pain. They could be planning to meet him at the base, and they were going to tell her tonight at dinner. They’d probably leave early tomorrow morning. She swung around the glossy newel post to hurry back to her dinner preparations. If Kale’s unit—
Her gaze landed on a colorful folio lying on the sideboard, and her thoughts screeched to a halt. Those were plane tickets. Amber rubbed her suddenly damp palms on her jeans. The constant tug of conflicting emotions made her stomach roll.
She shouldn’t look at the tickets. She’d jumped to conclusions, thinking the trip had anything to do with Kale. They could be going on vacation after the holidays, even if Christmas was still a week away. Kale’s mom always liked to prepare for travel early.
But not this early.
Amber’s feet carried her closer to the oak sideboard. The folder screamed for attention, lying all alone next to simple silver candlesticks. If their cherubic nativity scene had been set up like it was supposed to be, Amber never would have spotted the piece of paper. Peeking inside would be a betrayal of the trust they’d bestowed when they gave her a key. But doing this, and hiding it from her—wasn’t that a betrayal, too?
No, that wasn’t fair. She wasn’t their daughter, even if they’d filled in for her parents in some ways since the car crash that killed them nearly five years ago. The Rikers didn’t owe her anything.
But they owed their son. And Amber was Kale’s representative at home, wasn’t she?
She twisted to see the clock over the fireplace. Five o’clock. They’d be on their way home from work, and never used the cell phone in the car. She couldn’t wait. Her brain would drive her insane with all the possibilities. Her hand shook, but she reached for the packet and peeled back the corner, looking for the date of departure. If it’s after the New Year…
The letters and numbers were stark black against the pale green ticket stock. December nineteenth. That was tomorrow. They were leaving tomorrow. She closed her eyes and swayed, catching herself against the heavy piece of furniture. Her heartbeat roared in her ears, the silence and staleness of the house pressing in around her.
A wave of cold air struck her. She turned to the open front door, where Kale’s parents stood. His mother looked sad, his father grimly determined. Amber didn’t give a second’s thought to the fact that she’d been caught. All she could think was what the fuck?
“What is this?” Her voice came out high. She brandished the folder. “Where are you going?”
“We’re taking a cruise.” Arthur stood straight, defiant. “Two weeks in the Caribbean. Long overdue.” He strode past her into the kitchen, his knee-replacement waddle more pronounced than usual. A moment later the silverware drawer rattled and cupboard doors banged.
“I don’t understand.” Amber swallowed back anger. “Why would you leave now?”
Dorothy pressed her lips together and stared up at Amber for a few seconds, her eyes watery. Amber was struck by how frail she was, her skin papery and loose. She’d always appeared old to Amber, because she and Arthur hadn’t had Kale until they were in their mid-forties, but now the wrinkles seemed deeper, the circles under her eyes darker. She’d lost weight in the last few months. How had Amber missed it?
“I’m sorry, dear, I need to go lie down. The shop was busy today. Arthur can explain.” She started slowly up the steps, her face turned resolutely away.
Amber set the plane tickets where she’d found them and braced herself to enter the kitchen. “Arthur?”
“You left the chicken out. It’s contaminating the entire counter.” He chucked the sweating package in the trash, ignoring Amber’s cry of protest, and scrubbed at the counter with a soapy sponge.
She’d never seen him like this. “What’s going on?”
He glanced at her, faded blue eyes snapping. “I told you. We’re going to the Caribbean. For two weeks.”
“But what if Kale comes home?”
“He’s not coming home.”
Amber flinched and felt her face flush. Don’t lash out. Maybe she didn’t know all the facts. “Did you hear something? Did he call?”
“No. That’s the point. We haven’t heard anything from anyone for half a year. It’s been three months since they declared him missing. He’s not coming home.”
Amber shook her head, afraid to look away from him, her heart breaking at the pain he must be feeling. “Of course he’s coming home,” she reassured him. “You have no reason to believe otherwise.”
He just glowered at her as if she were stupid. Her flush deepened, and this time she was unable to hold back the rush of anger. The argument she’d laid out in a relentless litany since Kale had been deployed rolled through her head. If he were dead, the military would have sent someone to the Rikers’ house to notify them, released his body to the family if they could, and given him a hero’s burial. They’d received no such notification. Nothing at all, in fact, for months.
Too many months.
Kale had contacted home whenever he could. The haphazard nature of the communication had been difficult, but Amber hadn’t expected anything less. She’d done a lot of research in those first weeks, wanting to give them the best chance she could. Deployment statistics were bad enough for couples who had been married for years. She and Kale had only been together a few weeks before his deployment.
His leaves were short and infrequent, but they packed a lot into the time and reinforced the love they’d declared before he left. The last time she saw him, two Christmases ago, she’d faced the final stretch of his service with ease. It was almost over, and they could spend the rest of their lives together.
Then something changed.
At first, when she didn’t hear anything from him for several weeks—all her e-mails going unanswered, her mail sent back unopened—she assumed he’d changed his mind about her. Maybe even met someone else. Eventually, she asked his parents if they’d talked to him. When they said they hadn’t, the growing pain of rejection had chilled to fear. Was he missing in action? A prisoner? On an assignment that required him to go dark? None of the possibilities she dreamed up made complete sense, especially as time went on…and on. His parents inquired through channels and were told only that Kale would make contact as soon as he was able, and they were not at liberty to discuss the nature of his work.
That alone was difficult enough. Amber found herself stuck, unable to plan for the future, unwilling to act like there wouldn’t be one. And then, three months ago, all the news outlets exploded over an unidentified squad of servicemen captured, killed on film, and buried in as-yet-undiscovered graves. The government denied any such thing had occurred, but within days the Rikers received notice that their son was missing in action, with no other details confirmed or conveyed “at this time.” Amber seemed to be the only one who refused to connect the two.
Arthur rinsed the sponge and dropped it into its holder on the edge of the sink. “We’re old, Amber. We can’t endure this anymore. You know Dottie’s been sick. It gets worse every day we don’t get word, every holiday that he’s not here.”
“But we just need to have hope—”
“Hope means fear. And it’s tearing her up inside.” A strand of hair from his comb-over drooped, exposing his scalp and making him look uncomfortably vulnerable. He straightened and swept his hand over the top of his head. “It’s tearing you up, too. You can’t deny that.”
She tossed up her hands. “What do you think I can do about it? I can’t change what is.”
“You can move on.”
Her breath hitched. “What?” she managed to croak.
“Dottie won’t get better if she doesn’t start moving through the grieving process.” The way he said it made it clear he meant himself too, but he was part of a generation that wouldn’t discuss such things. “We just have to accept that our son—” His voice quavered. “Our son is gone.” He pressed the side of his fist to his mouth. Amber wanted to put her arms around him but doubted he would accept that right now.
He cleared his throat and dropped his hand. “You should do the same.”
“I can’t.” Images flashed behind her eyes. Some people worried about forgetting what someone had looked like when they were gone for a long time. Amber didn’t have that problem. Moments in time were captured like GIFs. Kale grinning down at her, a towel around his neck, his hair sticking up all over the place. In his Santa suit, sitting on the throne-like wooden chair in the rec center, pulling her onto his lap and taking advantage of the very short skirt of her red-and-white Santa’s helper costume. The night he told her he loved her, need burning so brightly in his eyes, burying the terror he refused to let her see.
Standing proud and tall and solemn in his uniform on deployment day, ready to fulfill his oath to his country.
He’d fulfill his oath to her, too.
“I believe in him,” she whispered, then said it again, louder. “I believe in him.”
Arthur shook his head. “I’m sorry, sweetheart.” He glanced around the kitchen, as if extending the apology to everything he’d done and said in the last few minutes. Amber didn’t care about trashed chicken, and no simple “sorry” could compensate for giving up.
She stood, teeth gritted and fists clenched, as he limped past her and out of the room. The stairs creaked under the pressure of his slow steps, and their weary weight eased the tension from her shoulders. She sighed and slumped into a gingham-cushioned kitchen chair. How could she be mad at them? They thought they’d lost their only son, the miracle baby that had given their lives meaning and purpose. Maybe the only way they could live was by accepting that he hadn’t.
The pain in her chest throbbed. The Rikers’ decision to proceed as if their son was gone wasn’t the cause. It didn’t shake Amber’s conviction that Kale was alive and would be home soon. No, it was their dismissal of her that hurt so much.
She pushed to her feet and reached for the container of mushrooms, placing them back in the grocery bag. Onions, butter, a box of pasta all followed. She stuffed the bouquet of chrysanthemums and alstroemeria for the centerpiece on top and strode back to the table to put on her down jacket.
They could have invited her to go with them on the cruise. Maybe it was too hard, living through another Christmas in Hempfield without Kale or any news of his return date. Maybe a cruise was a good idea. But they didn’t have to abandon their son. Abandon her.
She stepped outside, making sure the door locked behind her, and sniffled into her mitten. It was full dark outside now, the sidewalks icy. A few cars passed on the crowded residential street, but people drove into their garages and avoided the frigid air.
She stared at the stars in the clear, cold sky, and wondered what they looked like to Kale. No, it wouldn’t be night over there. Wherever “there” was. She wished she had some clue, some way to feel connected to him. She opened her eyes wide, watching for a shooting star to wish upon. A cloud drifted toward the slivered moon, and she zeroed in on it. If the cloud covers the moon before the next car passes…
A light honk pulled her attention from the sky, and she realized how freaking cold she was. She waved back at Colette, the high school teacher driving by, and hustled her stuff to the car. She didn’t want to think about the Rikers or their belief of what happened to Kale, so on the drive home she ran down a mental list of the things she had to do over the next couple of days. The biggest job was helping set up the rec center for Christmas Eve, when Santa gave out presents to Hempfield’s neediest kids and then hosted a big party for anyone who wanted to come. Kale used to play Santa, but their friend Danny had filled in for the last few years. There were donated presents to wrap and label, cookies to bake, and the Santa suit and helper costume to be picked up from the dry cleaners.
She had to work a shift at the soup kitchen, drop cleaned and sorted party clothes at the women’s and children’s shelter, and help put together three dozen Christmas dinner gift baskets to be delivered to families the morning before Christmas.
If Kale were here, she wouldn’t have time to do any of that. When he got home, she’d have to shift a lot of her responsibilities to other people. Maybe she should start now. They were too reliant on her, and she didn’t want to feel torn. Kale would deserve her full attention, and even if people understood why she was suddenly unavailable, it wouldn’t stop them from needing her.
The next two weeks would be hard, with the Rikers gone and Amber having to face Christmas Eve and the site of some of her happiest memories alone. But not as hard as whatever Kale faced overseas. Now she had a plan, and that gave her strength. She would survive this, and so would Kale.