The first time two U.S. Army Casualty Notification Officers came looking for Macy, it was to tell her that her husband Finn had died in Afghanistan.
Suicide bomber, the taller officer said. Nothing left but a half-burned dog tag.
Macy didn’t remember much after that, except that she was getting groceries out of the car when they’d arrived, and the taller officer’s eyes were the exact shade of the head of iceberg lettuce that had rolled away when she’d dropped the bag.
Three years later, when the third Casualty Notification Officer came to see Macy, she would remember Finn’s black lab, Milo, racing in between the tables they’d set up on the lawn, pausing to shake the river water from his coat and spraying the pristine white linen table cloths. She’d remember thinking don’t panic, don’t panic, over and over again as she stared at those dirty brown spots on the tablecloths.
Everything else would be a blur.
The officer found Macy at her Aunt Laru’s limestone ranch house just outside of Cedar Springs, in the Texas Hill Country west of Austin. It was a beautiful spread, forty acres of rolling hills covered in live oaks, cedar, and blooming cactus on the banks of the Pedernales River.
Laru Friedenberg had married and divorced three times before the age of forty-five. The marriages had left her a little bit jaded and a little bit wealthy, and when Laru learned Macy was hosting a luncheon, she’d insisted that Macy host it at her house. The luncheon was a fundraiser to benefit a non-profit organization, Project Lifeline. Macy and a friend had founded the charity to help families of soldiers who’d been wounded or killed with financial aid or services. The organization was a success thus far, and Laru was eager to help.
“I didn’t put up with Randy King for six years to sit and look at this view by myself,” Laru had said with a flip of her strawberry blonde hair over her shoulder. “Have the luncheon here, Macy. A pretty setting and plenty of liquor will open up those wallets faster than the devil in a white suit.”
As it was June and not yet miserably hot, Macy had decided to have it on the grassy riverbank and had set up three large round tables beneath the twisted limbs of the live oaks. She’d dressed the tables in linen, littered them with rose petals and rose centerpieces, and set them with fine china from Laru’s second marriage. She’d enlisted Laru to make batches of her signature white and red sangria, and had food catered from Three Sisters, which specialized in “discriminating palettes.”
“If by discriminating they refer to gals who won’t pass over a single morsel that isn’t nailed down, then I think we’ve got the right caterer,” Laru quipped.
The day was overcast and a slight breeze was coming up off the river. An hour before the guests were due to arrive, Laru insisted on tightening the halter of the pink sundress Macy had found on sale for the occasion. “You look so cute!” she said at last, her hands on her waist. “Very hostessy. Has Wyatt seen you in that?”
“Not yet,” Macy said as she donned the pearl earrings and necklace he’d given her. He was always giving her gifts: Pearls. An iPhone. A boat.
“Best make sure he doesn’t see you until after the luncheon. He’s likely to tear it right off your body.”
“Laru!” Macy said with a laugh.
“What?” Laru asked innocently. “It’s no secret that every time that man looks at you his eyes get as shiny as new pennies.”
“Well, he’s not invited. It’s ladies only. Rich ladies, and as we both know, that’s not his type,” Macy said, pointing at herself, and making Laru laugh. “Besides, he’s in San Antonio for a couple of days.”
Satisfied with her appearance, Macy walked outside to check on everything once more. Ernesto, Laru’s handyman, was out front, sweeping the flagstone porch. “If you see a bunch of women in fancy hats, send them on around, will you?” she asked, indicating the walkway around the side of the house. “Gracias!”
Macy followed the path around the corner of the house. Laru was right—the setting was truly lovely, and her tables looked perfect. But as Macy stood there admiring her work, Milo shot past.
“Hey,” Macy muttered. Milo was not the sort of dog to run. Generally, he was much happier lying around in the shade. But when he emerged from between the tables, she saw that he had a grungy rope toy in his mouth. Out from beneath another table shot a beagle in hot pursuit.
“Hey!” Macy shouted as Milo headed for the river. “Milo, no!” she cried. But Milo dove heedlessly into the river, paddled around, then climbed up on the bank, taunted the beagle with his toy, and dashed up to the tables, where he paused to shake the water off his coat. “No!” Macy cried.
The beagle barked, and Milo was off again.
Startled by the sound of a male voice, Macy whirled around and came face to face with an army officer in full dress uniform. Her heart skipped a beat. What was he doing here? Finn was dead. Dead for three miserable, long years. Three years in which Macy woke up every morning to face the heartache of him being gone all over again, missing her sun and moon, realizing that it wasn’t a bad dream, that he wasn’t going to come through the door with his tanned arms and his straw hat pulled low over his eyes, grinning like he wanted her with syrup for breakfast.
“Beg your pardon, ma’am—I am Lt. Colonel Dan Freeman with the United States Army,” he said. The bags under his eyes made him look like a sad old hound dog. “I need to speak with you, please.”
“Me?” she said as Milo and the beagle dashed in between them. “Is it the fundraiser?” she said, thinking wildly that perhaps the Army didn’t approve. “It’s the fundraiser, isn’t it?”
“The Lifeline Project,” she said. “My friend Samantha and I—we wanted to help the families of fallen soldiers because they really need more than just the death gratuity. Not that the gratuity isn’t generous. It is! But there is all this…this emotional stuff that money can’t fix. So we started the Lifeline Project. That’s okay, isn’t it? Surely that’s okay.”
What was she saying? She didn’t need the army’s permission! Macy was rambling, which wasn’t like her at all, but there was something about the officer’s demeanor, his blank look, that made her anxious. “You’ve never heard of us, have you?”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am.”
Macy swallowed down a very bad feeling.
A barking dog, a sound of a car’s wheels crunching on the gravel drive in front filtered into her consciousness. Someone shouted, “Bad dog!”
“What is it?” Macy asked softly. “What has happened?”
“Would you like to sit down?” he asked.
Now Macy’s belly swooned. “Sir…I am about to host a fundraiser.”
“It can’t wait, ma’am,” he said, and smiled. “Maybe we can sit at one of those tables.”
“How did you find me?” she asked, ignoring his gesture toward her tables.
“Your neighbor told me you were here and was kind enough to give me directions.”
“Okay,” she said resolutely, despite the rubbery feeling in her legs. “Okay, Lt. Colonel Freeman, you can’t tell me anything worse than what the Army has already told me, right? So please, whatever it is, just say it.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lt. Colonel Freeman said. He kept his hound dog eyes steady on her as he reached into his coat pocket, took out an envelope and held it out to her.
Her heart pounding, Macy stared at it. She didn’t want to touch that envelope. It was impossible that it could contain anything that had to do with her—Finn is dead! He’s dead, he’s dead! The officer shifted slightly, moving the envelope closer to her, and Macy reluctantly took it. Her hands were shaking so badly she could hardly open it; the envelope fluttered to the ground as she unfolded the letter.
“Ma’am, if I may,” the officer said. “The secretary of defense regrets to inform you that we have made a gross error in concluding Sergeant Finn Lockhart was killed in action because he has indeed been found alive. On June eighteen, at oh two hundred hours…”
Macy never heard the rest of what he said. She couldn’t breathe, she couldn’t speak, and everything began to swirl around her. The last thing Macy saw was Lt. Colonel Dan Freeman lurching forward to catch her as she melted.