Ashlyn smiles as she sits down to dinner. “Grandma, if you keep feeding me mac & cheese I won’t fit into my uniform.”
“Does that mean you’d get to stay home?” Chris asks hopefully.
“Noooo, Bubba, it means I will be running wind sprints in the desert until I puke,” she answers.
“Damn. Thought we’d found a loophole,” Grandma jokes as she kisses the top of Ashlyn’s head.
Ali walks in and sits down at the table. “Kyle’s plane should finally be arriving in two and a half hours according to the flight tracker. We should have just enough time to eat, have a walk on the beach, and then meet him outside the baggage claim.”
“We better take him a big bowl of Grandma’s mac & cheese. Maybe if he’s stuffing his face he won’t be whining about his insanely long journey across the country,” Ashlyn suggests.
Ali chuckles. “Good idea.”
The group starts to eat, the only sound Ashlyn’s happy moans as she eats her second helping of her grandmother’s famous dish. Ali shakes her head and looks at Mrs. Harris.
“How is it I make mac & cheese just like you showed me and I don’t get the same response.”
“It’s missing a special ingredient, Alex,” Ashlyn answers between mouthfuls.
“Florida sunshine,” Ash, her grandmother, and Chris answer.
As those three burst into laughter, Ali looks at Grandpa Harris. “How do you put up with them?”
“Earplugs,” he jokes, making Ali giggle.
After dinner, Ali and Ashlyn take their nightly walk down along the water. At one point they stop, staring out at the undulating reflection of the moon. Ashlyn stands behind Ali, wrapping her in a hug, and resting her chin on her shoulder.
“Did you know that no matter where we are in the world, we only see the one side of the moon?” Ashlyn says.
“When you look up in the sky, no matter where in the world you are, you only see that side right there,” she explains pointing. “The far side of the moon always faces away and we’ve only ever seen about 18% of it from our vantage point here on earth. Only astronauts have ever seen it all as they orbited the moon and none ever walked on that side.”
Ali snuggles back against her. “I forget sometimes this is the space coast and you must have studied space a lot in school.”
“Yeah. It was neat.”
“But what is all this about? Why the astronomy lesson?”
“Actually, it’s a lunar lesson, not astronomy,” Ashlyn points out with a grin. Ali rolls her eyes. Ashlyn stares up at the moon. “It’s about the fact that no matter where I am or where you are, if I look up at the moon, I’ll know it’s the same thing you’ve been able to see. The stars and constellations may be different, but the moon is ours to share. So, when I’m missing you the most, I’ll look up and think of it as a moment in time spent with you.”
Ali spins and buries her face into Ashlyn’s shoulder, her tears falling unchecked. Ashlyn holds her close, fighting her own tears. After a few minutes, Ali eases back and gently kisses her wife.
“That was beautiful, honey. I keep thinking that nights will be the hardest, they always are. Now...now I have something to help me chase the fear and loneliness away.”
The two share a tender kiss and another hug. They then make their way back to the house so they can drive to the airport and pick up Kyle.
Kyle picks up his sister and spins her around. “ALIBEAN!”
She giggles and hugs him back. When he puts her down he pulls Ashlyn into a hug, lifting her up off the ground and shaking her. She laughs.
“Put me down, you big lug!”
He sets her on the ground and gives her a big kiss on the cheek. “Can I just tell you I thought I wasn’t going to get here before you got back from the sandbox across the sea?”
Ashlyn grins. “Well, we’re glad you made it. And Grandma sent a big bowl of her mac and cheese to help you relax and forget the bad weather and reroutes you’ve had to deal with.”
“Mmmm, mmmm, good!” He moans, rubbing his tummy. “I’m feeling better already.”
They get his luggage in the car and make their way back to the Harris house. It is the night before Thanksgiving.
The night before Ashlyn starts her goodbyes for a year.
She shivers in her seat, her stomach doing the summersault it often does when she feels the clock in her mind ticking the minutes away. She puts that out of her mind and concentrates on the siblings catching up and making plans for the beach the next morning.
Ashlyn concentrates on the feeling of her feet hitting the sand. She had jogged three miles down the beach and was now on her way back. She focuses on her breathing. She measures her pace. She ignores the few people staring at her, wondering why she is making this run in ACU’s and boots.
As she gets back to where she had left Ali, she is surprised to see her surfboard stuck in the sand. She looks out at the water and sees Ali just beyond the break, her face turned towards the shining sun. Ashlyn quickly strips off her uniform and pulls her wetsuit on over her boy shorts and sports bra. She admires her wife for a few seconds before running out into the waves and paddling out to join her.
“Where’d our boards come from?”
Ali smiles, her face still facing the sun. “I called Chris and asked him to bring them by for us. I wanted one more surf with my wife before she leaves; another memory to hold on to while you’re gone.”
Ashlyn smiles. “I like that.”
Ali finally turns to face the blonde, lying down on the board, her arms crossed under her head. “I keep hoping I’ll wake up and this is a dream. Do you think all military spouses go through that?”
Ashlyn paddles closer so she can stroke Ali’s hair. “Yes. We all know deployment is inevitable. Doesn’t mean we like it; doesn’t mean it doesn’t scare us. It’s just...the job.”
“I keep thinking about all the places you’ve been and all the people you’ve helped. You went into all those places not really knowing what could happen to you or what the people might do to you. It got scary for you a couple times. Now...now at least you know to expect the scary shit and you’ll know to stay alert at all times. You’ll know most people love you while a scary fraction hates you; like, deadly hates you. It won’t be so easy for you to be surprised and hurt. And knowing all that, I’m trying to figure out if any of it should comfort me.”
Ashlyn smiles. “All of it should. I was always aware shit could hit the fan. Now I know shit will hit it at some point. Maybe more than once. I swear to you, Alex, I will not be complacent or drop my guard. I’m coming home to you, baby, in one year. No. Other. Option.”
Ali slides off her board into the water. She pulls herself up on the edge of Ashlyn’s board and gives her a kiss. It was supposed to be a quick peck, put Ashlyn grabs the back of her wife’s head and deepens the kiss. Ali throws an arm over Ashlyn’s board to give her balance as she responds to her wife’s questing tongue. When the kiss finally ends, both women have eyes darkened by desire.
Ashlyn takes a quick glance towards the shore then slides down into the water. She turns them so her back is to the surfboard and Ali’s arms are across it, Ashlyn trapped between them. Ashlyn starts to kiss her wife harder, her hands traveling to the zipper on the brunette’s wetsuit. Ali moans as she realizes what is about to happen.
“Don’t let go of the board,” Ashlyn says as she ducks out from her wife’s arms and slides around behind her. “Hold tight, baby.”
Her mouth latches onto Ali’s neck as her right hand slides around toned abs and down into neatly trimmed curls. Ali’s breath hitches as her hips twitch. Ashlyn smiles at the response. She moves her mouth to Ali’s ear and sucks in the lobe as her hand moves into warm wetness. She feels the throbbing clit against her hand as she starts to thrust in and out with 2 fingers. It is not an ideal angle. And it is not easy to fight against the tightness of the wetsuit.
But it works.
Ali’s knuckles are white as she grips the board and rocks with her wife’s movements. Her head lolls back onto Ashlyn’s shoulder.
“Oh, fuck, baby. Oh, that feels so...so...oh, so good,” she pants.
Ashlyn can feel her wife nearing explosion. She sucks her neck a second, then kisses back up to her ear. “Cum for me, baby. Cum all over my hand.”
“Oh. Oh. OH! ASH! OH!”
Ali’s hips go into convulsions as she does indeed cum all over her wife’s hand. Her arms go weak and she’d have slid off the board if Ashlyn hadn’t had her with one hand. Ashlyn slides her hand out and uses both of her arms to support her wife against the board until the brunette’s breathing steadies.
“I love you, Alex,” she whispers into her wife’s ear as she carefully re-zips the wetsuit.
Ali turns her head to accept a kiss. “I love you, too.”
After a few minutes, Ali pulls her board back by the leash and climbs up on it. She giggles as she straddles it. “That feels different.”
Ashlyn just smirks. “Good different?”
“Oh, hell yeah!” Ali laughs. She glances towards the beach and her smile turns to shock. “Mom!”
Ashlyn’s head whips around. Yep, Deb is sitting on the beach with Kyle, watching them. From the look on their faces they had been there long enough to guess what the women were doing out in the water.
“Wow...I think I might actually die of embarrassment. It really can happen,” Ali mumbles, her forehead bouncing on her board.
“Who’d’ve thought I’d actually be happy about leaving the country,” Ashlyn commiserates.
The two women exchange a look and start to giggle. With nothing to do but face the music, they turn towards the shore. Ali lets Ash take the first wave in, admiring the form and body of the blonde. As she steps off into the shallows, Ashlyn turns to watch her wife take her wave in. She smiles proudly as she sees how good the footballer has gotten on the waves. As Ali exits the water, Ashlyn grins.
“We might make a surfer girl out of you yet, Right Back.”
“Who you kidding? I’m the bomb!” Ali brags.
The two laugh and go to greet Ali’s mother, who has come up to join in the Thanksgiving dinner. Which is also doubling as the family send-off for their soldier.
Ashlyn takes a deep breath, inhaling the aromas of all the delicious foods on the table. And, yes, Grandma made another batch of mac & cheese. Ashlyn smiles at Kyle.
“Think there’s a way to bottle that smell? Maybe make it a liquid so I could flavor my MRE’s with it?”
Kyle slings an arm around her shoulder. “Afraid not, sis. Sorry.”
“Damn. It was a thought,” she grins.
“Yeah,” Kyle whispers.
Ashlyn looks at him, surprised by his voice. She sees the tears in his eyes and starts to shake her head, now fighting her own.
“No, Kyle, please don’t cry,” she begs. “I’m a sympathetic crier and I just...I can’t...I need...please don’t cry.”
He gives her a sad grin. “Sorry,” he chokes as a tear finally escapes.
She pulls him into a tight hug. Both are now crying freely. Ashlyn feels his hands gripping her shirt and squeezes him harder. Deb had been about to bring rolls into the dining room but sees them. She quietly backs out to give them their moment, her own tears now threatening. After a few minutes, Kyle leans back. Ashlyn reaches up and delicately wipes his eyes.
“I’m going to be okay, Kyle,” she says softly. “I mean, I know bad shit happens over there but I’ve had the training, I have people around me I trust, and I have the love of everyone back here to be an added shield for me. I need you to believe I’m going to be fine. Not just for me, but for Alex. Trust me to get home to her next year. We both need that from you.”
He pulls her forward and kisses her cheek. “I’ll believe. I may cry myself silly sometimes missing you and worrying about you, but I’ll believe you’ll be home next year with a bangin’ tan.”
Ashlyn laughs and nods her head. “Count on it.”
“So is this a private moment or can any fool jump in?”
Ashlyn’s head whips around, her smile beaming. “WHIT!”
Whitney smiles as Ashlyn lifts her up in a big hug. “Did you really think you were getting out of the country with just a Skype goodbye from me? I mean, really, Ash.”
Ashlyn smiles and kisses her cheek. “Glad you made it, Whit. I love you.”
“Love you, too,” Whit says, her voice catching.
Ashlyn chuckles and shakes her head. “No, no, no. Don’t you go starting after I just got Kyle stopped.”
Whitney laughs through her tears and wipes her face. “Sorry, bestie, you’re just going to have to deal with a bunch of tears. If you leave this room you’ll see why Kleenex stock has jumped 10 points.”
Ashlyn laughs and nods. “Yeah. I kinda figured things would start to get harder.”
The two lock arms and go out to see what else they can do to help get Thanksgiving dinner on the table.
As everyone stands around the tables, set like a buffet, Ashlyn’s grandfather clears his throat. “Before we start, I’d just like to thank everyone for being here today.” He looks around at his family, including Ashlyn’s cousins who had come for the meal/send-off party. “Every year I am so thankful to have such wonderful, loving people to call my family. This year...this year today takes on a bit of a somber undertone as we know it’s also when we say goodbye to Ashlyn for a year.” He pauses a moment, to control his emotions as he looks at his granddaughter. “Ashlyn, you’ve always made me and your grandmother so proud. You’ve a heart of gold and an indomitable spirit. You have forged an amazing path in your life and this next one, though it terrifies us all, is no surprise to me. You go not to fight, but to help. Your heart has always been about caring for others more than for yourself. When you told me about the Corps of Engineers and what you would be doing, I knew you’d found your niche.” He lifts a glass. “So I’d like to propose a toast,” everyone raises their glass. “May you go forth with love, safety, and kindness and return to us next December a better woman than you leave us.”
“Hear hear!” Deb chimes in through her tears as everyone clinks glasses.
Ashlyn clears her throat and walks over to give her grandfather a big hug. They hold each other a moment, then she turns to everyone.
“It means so much to me that you all are here, not just for the meal which will be AWESOME,” she notes with a grin and people chuckle. “But also that you’re here to see me off. Yes, it’s pretty damn scary if I think about it too much but I promise you I will do my best to stay safe and get back to you before you know I’m gone. I love all of you so much and I will carry that love with me wherever the Army may take me.”
Everyone raises their glasses again. Grandma then clears her throat.
“Everyone take hands. Let us pray.”
She says a prayer of thanks and hope, then smiles and looks up. “Now, dig in!”
Everyone fills a plate then moves around the house to find a place to eat. Ashlyn makes a point of visiting with everyone that had come for the day, sharing laughter and memories with them.
For her part, Ali had watched from afar. Her mind is memorizing the hearty, beautiful laugh that Ashlyn can bellow. She imprints the hair flicks and hand gestures that come when she is amused and excited. She just takes in absolutely everything she can; every mental picture that will help her get through the coming year. She jumps, startled, when an arm wraps around her shoulder.
“She’s always been a born entertainer,” Tammye says.
“I believe that,” Ali says, returning her mother-in-law’s hug.
“So how are you holding up?”
“Depends on the minute. Sometimes I’m fine. Other times I...I don’t...I don’t know how to breathe without crying,” she answers honestly. “This is going to be the longest damn year of my life.”
“Good thing you have World Cup prep to keep you busy.”
“True. I’d go mad without training and stuff to keep my mind blank for a couple hours a day. I hope the more practice the team needs the faster the Cup comes. We may not be ready but at least it puts us halfway to Ash’s return,” she jokes.
Tammye smiles. “I think I’ll hope for the same thing. No offense to the team.”
Ali grins. “No offense taken.”
Later that evening, Ashlyn stands staring out at the waterway that runs behind the house. In her hand she holds a bottle of SmartWater as she thinks about the childhood that led her to this point in her life. Ups and downs. Confusion. Pain. Soccer. Absent parents. Loving grandparents. A devoted brother she adored. Parents coming back into her life. UNC friends teaching her about life. Ali.
“Better watch for gators. I hear they like Army brats.”
Ashlyn smiles as Chris steps up beside her. “Army brats are kids of personnel. Remind me not to bring my kids down here.”
Chris laughs and wraps his arm around her shoulder. They stand there in silence for a few minutes.
“I’d have never made it out of here without you, Chris,” she finally says.
“You would have. You’re stronger than you realize, Ash. You’d have made it and done exactly what you’re doing now. You didn’t need me.”
Ashlyn turns and stares into his eyes. “I needed you every day. I still do. My heart would shatter if something ever happened to you.”
He gives her a melancholy smile. “Now you know how I feel as you head off to a war zone. Building shit or whatever you’re doing, it’s going to be a dangerous year. We both know that. You’ll see and do shit that will haunt you.” He places his hands on her shoulders. “So when you get home and you need to scream or punch things to get the fuck over it all, call me. I’ll be there for you. Lean on me, Ash. Promise me.”
Ashlyn brings her hands up to his. “I promise, Bubba.”
He pulls her into a hug. In a tumultuous childhood, they had been each other’s constant; the one person they could count on when their parents were absent for various reasons. And now in their adulthood, they can still be the one person they break down to without fear of rejection. Their heart will ache while they are apart. When the hug ends, they turn and walk back to the house together so Ashlyn can continue to say farewell to her family.
Friday morning a crowd is standing on the front lawn to say their goodbye to Ashlyn and Ali as they prepare to leave. Ashlyn had insisted on a cab, not wanting to cause a scene at the airport. She hugs each person, saying a few words to them an accepting their words of encouragement and acceptance. When she gets to Whit, the defender holds out a thumb drive shaped like a soccer ball.
“Did you really think you were getting out of the country without a proper goodbye from the gals on the team?” she says with tears in her eyes. “It was Pinoe’s idea and everything was sent to me so I could give it to you. A little light watching for the plane on Monday.”
Ashlyn closes her fist over the drive. It means a lot to her. “Right. Thank you,” she croaks. The two share a strong embrace. “You were my friend from minute 1, Whitney. You’ve been my sister since minute 2.”
Whitney chokes back tears. “Back atcha, Ash. I love you. Please come home safe.”
“I love you, too.”
Ashlyn then steps to her grandmother who wordlessly pulls her into a hug, sobbing into her tall granddaughter’s shoulder.
“Oh, Grandma, please don’t cry. Please? I’ll be home in no time. You’ll see.”
“My little troublemaker. I love you so much. Be safe. Or else.”
Ashlyn smiles and kisses her cheek. “I will be, Grandma. Promise. I love you.”
She then moves to Kyle, who pulls her close. Ashlyn takes a deep breath and whispers something in his ear. He sobs but nods his head. She kisses his cheek and steps next to Deb. Deb frames her face with her hands.
“Be safe, my girl. I love you.”
“I love you, too, Deb. Thank you for...for always accepting me and loving me.”
“It was always easy. You loved my girl more than anyone before. I knew I wanted you in Ali’s life the first time I met you.”
The two hug again then Ashlyn says a very emotional goodbye to her brother and parents. As the hug with her mother ends, Tammye kisses her daughter’s cheek hard.
“I’m counting the days, baby girl.”
“Me, too, Mama. Me, too.”
Ashlyn takes one more look at the gathered group then turns and hurries to the car. Ali waves at their family.
“I’ll call when we get to DC. Love you all.”
Deb, Tammye and Grandma give her a kiss, reminding her they are there whenever she needs them. As the cab pulls away, Deb walks over and pulls Kyle into a hug.
“What did she say to you, Ky?”
Kyle’s tears start anew. “Ash...she made me...promise to...to be there for Alex...if...if she dies. She said Alex would need me to get through it.”
He sobs again and Deb pulls him close. She cries, too, imagining her daughter being inconsolable at the loss. Deb kisses Kyle’s cheek, wordlessly vowing to be there for him as he helps hold his sister up should the unthinkable happen.