Jack took Jesse into his arms.
Jesse simply said, "Bye." His favorite new word. Jack whispered into his ear, and to whatever Jack was saying, Jesse just kept repeating, "Bye."
He put Jesse down next to Hailey. "I love you both." They hugged his legs.
"This is it, babe," he said, pulling Amanda into the group hug.
"I love you, Jack."
"I love you. I'm already counting the days. This is a good thing I'm doing. We're doing."
"Honorable. Amazing. I know." Her throat grew tight. "I love you for it, but I hate it. I miss you already." She took Hailey's hand. "Come on, Jesse. We have to let Daddy go." Jesse looked up at Jack and then waddled over to her without a word.
Jack heaved his duffel bag over the bed rail to his shoulder, reaching for her hand one last time.
She squeezed his hand, trying to smile through tear-filled eyes. Her thumb traced his wedding band. Her heart hung in her throat as her fingers slipped from his strong hand.
Watching his long familiar strides, her breath caught with every step as he moved across the parking lot toward the other soldiers. Proud, and ready to fight for freedom.
Butterflies danced in her stomach.
"We can be brave together," she said, hoping saying it out loud would make it true.
Hailey started wailing, which made Jesse cry. She knelt and held them close. "Wave to Daddy. Make funny faces." Hailey and Jesse sniffed back tears, then started mugging. Anything to keep them from crying. "We'll go get hot dogs to take home for lunch when we leave here. Deal?"
Jesse flapped his hand. "Bye."
Hailey, with tears falling onto her cheeks, held Amanda's gaze. "Daddy has to come home."
"Yes, he does, honey. We will plan lots of things to do. He's going to be home just as soon as he can be."
She turned and watched as the bags were loaded onto the bus, and then the guys. Once Jack cleared the door, she couldn't see him through the tinted windows.
"Come on, let's blow Daddy one more kiss before we go." They all raised their hands to their mouths and blew kisses. She had no idea if he'd even seen them, but he'd know. He always knew.
She put the kids in the back seat of the truck and buckled them into their car seats. Denali was standing with his paws on the tailgate. She lifted the chubby fellow and stuck him on the floorboard under the kids' feet.
As she closed the rear door, she saw one of the gals from the women's group heading toward her.
She didn't have that much strength right now. A pedicure or a game of bunco wouldn't change that Jack was gone and would be for quite some time. Although she'd been one of them in the past—the wives supporting those who had husbands away, and she knew firsthand their intentions were honorable—she just couldn't do it today.
Amanda hopped into the front seat and cranked the truck, pretending she hadn't seen the woman. She drove off with a slight pang of guilt, mostly because she lived in base housing too. They were neighbors. No way would she be able to avoid these ladies for long. They were determined to help one another, and that was a blessing. Amanda realized that. But right now she was sad, and she wasn't ready to let go of that yet. She needed to muster every smile she could to put on a brave and happy face for her children. That was her priority.
Rain fell, and from the looks of the sky, it was settling in for a while.
She stopped at the drive-through to pick up hot dogs for lunch and then drove home. Thankfully, Hailey and Jesse seemed exhausted by the morning's events too. Jesse was already asleep in his car seat. When they got home, Amanda woke them up to get them inside. They ate hot dogs and then all climbed into her king-size bed, even Denali, and watched cartoon reruns.
She hugged Jack's pillow to her heart, hoping the scent of his aftershave wouldn't fade anytime soon. Once Hailey and Jesse fell asleep, she cried quiet tears. She missed Jack already, and he probably hadn't even made it out of the state yet.