Serena's mom has this saying.
"Only those who've been bit by the snake get to tell each other how it feels."
Growing up, Serena heard it just as often as she heard "Daddy'll be home soon" and "If I hear one more word out of any of you, I will stop this car and leave you on the side of the road." Mom said it whenever she'd fought with Aunt Tiffy or Aunt Molly; when Serena came home crying 'cause Lissy and Jen thought she was too little to play with; when Teddy broke her toys or, later, when Jen kissed the boy Serena had been pining after for years.
"It means that you got to hold tight to them, not matter what you do to them or they do to you, because you're the only ones who know what it's like."
"What what's like?"
"Guess you'll find out one day."
"Is it a Unit secret?"
"It's a Unit secret."
That was then.
Sergeant Serena Brown, too close to thirty and with little to show for it, is sitting in a bar just outside of Fort Bragg. She was born at Bragg, lived there until she was four when Fort Griffith and the Unit came into their lives. Now she's stationed there, but even two years on it doesn't feel like home.
The bell jingles above the door; Serena's back tenses but she doesn't turn around. Time enough.
"Serena," says a voice from long ago and far away.
"Lissy Gerhardt." She turns then. Lissy is still Lissy; tall and slim, though the green hair is new. "You made it." As if Lissy's standing in front of her isn't proof enough of that.
"Didn't you trust me? Jen called; she'll be here soon as the kids are asleep. What have you done with yours, by the way?"
"With a friend," Serena says.
Lissy's ordering a martini. "You want one?"
"I don't drink."
"Huh. I take it Emily and Teddy will be here?"
"Theodore, if you please. He is a dignified gentleman these days and he will not answer to Teddy."
"People who knew him when he was a fat smelly baby have the right to call him Teddy." Martini in hand, Lissy takes a seat opposite Serena. "He still at the university?"
"Still and always. Don't know what a doctorate in English Lit's going to get him but he's going to do it anyway. He and Emily are coming, anyway. Guess they're running late."
"Guess they're here," Emily says, right by Serena's ear.
"Lissy, you rat," Serena says, standing to greet her siblings. "I take it you knew they were standing behind me?"
"I ran into them in the parking lot," Lissy says, just as Teddy says "Fat and smelly baby? Really, Liss?"
Emily's regarding Lissy, her head tilted to one side. "You've got red hair on Facebook."
"Yeah, well. I got bored. So you got old enough to come to the party, little Emily."
"They even let me in the bar now," Emily says. "I've got beer and everything."
Serena looks up at the ceiling as Lissy and Emily tease each other. She gets that they're killing time, waiting for Jen to get here before the serious stuff starts, but it sounds weird all the same. This isn't a social gathering.
Jen arrives ten minutes later, all perfume and badly applied makeup. Serena hates herself for noticing; it can't have ever been easy being Lissy's sister. She apologises breathlessly - the baby wouldn't settle - and does a round of the table, kissing each of them briskly on the cheek, before dropping herself into the last seat.
It seems to Serena like the air around them has chilled, and they're all looking at her. She's never known what to do or say at these things and she's always wished that Lissy, as the oldest and the most outspoken of them, would take charge. But Serena organises these things, picks the venue, bullies them all into coming and loans money she doesn't have for travel expenses, for one reason and for one reason only: they've all been bitten by the snake.
Serena lifts her glass of orange juice, and waits for the others to raise their glasses in response. They do, swiftly, silently.
(She remembers laughing as Lissy pushed her on a swing, swinging high against a clear blue sky.)
"Fifteen years," she says.
Glasses clink around the table.
This is now.
Serena is two months shy of her twelfth birthday and for the most part, happy. It's early summer; school's about to let out and she and Hannah (Hannah Donaldson, three houses down, her mother an E-4 deployed in Iraq) are full of plans for the best summer on record.
She's doing her math homework when the doorbell rings. Mom's out back with Emily so Serena puts her pencil down and goes to answer it, but when she gets there Teddy's beaten her to it and broken the family cardinal rule of not opening the door without checking who it is. His eyes are wide and his face pale and all he says is "Serena."
Jonas Blane and Colonel Franklin and another man are standing in a row on the porch, all in Class-As. Behind them a silent crowd flocks together at the end of the driveway, helpful and self-important and pitying.
"Miss Brown," Jonas says, like he hasn't known her since she was knee high to a grasshopper. "Is your mother in?"
"She's out back," Serena says. The whole foundation of her world is shifting; almost blindly, she reaches out and takes Teddy's hand. She hasn't wanted to hold his hand, and he hasn't let her hold his, in years. She swallows hard. "Come on in."
They file past her in a solemn, silent line. Jonas puts his hand on her shoulder as he passes; his touch doesn't reassure. Hand in hand with Teddy, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other Serena follows them into the living room. The sliding door to the back yard is open; Jonas says, in his deep, familiar voice, "Mrs Brown" and Serena sees the exact moment Mom turns and realises why they're here.
The next few minutes are cold and horrible. Serena feels like she's somewhere far away, watching through fog and listening through static.
"Dad's dead, isn't he?" "...training mission..." "...Mack..." "...yesterday..." "...Carlito's bringing them home..." "...tomorrow..." "...so very sorry, Kim..." "...Mrs Brown..."
Jonas's hand on her shoulder again. "You pull yourself together, soldier. Your mom needs you right now."
"My dad's dead," Serena says, her voice foreign to her own ears.
"Yes. He is."
That was then.
"Remember Teddy's birthday?" Jen says. "Sixth? Or seventh? The one with the bouncy castle."
"Sixth, I think," Serena says. Her father had come home two weeks after Teddy's seventh birthday party with stitches on his head.
"Yeah, sixth. Because we'd all been back at Fort Griffith a couple of years by then. Anyway."
Serena wonders if Jen's already drunk.
"And someone gave you a water pistol, remember, Teddy?"
"It was me," Lissy says.
"Yeah, that's it, it was Lissy. Anyway. So here's Ted with this, this lime green water pistol, and he runs off and fills it up and he shoots a few people, and he does it all again, and he keeps doing it till he gets sent to his room."
"Let's all remember how I got sent to time out on my birthday. Thanks, Jen."
"No, no, no, wait, there's a point to this."
"Is this the one where - " Emily begins, and swiftly falls silent at Jen's glare. "Your story."
"So the party's going on, only it's a little bit awkward because of the birthday boy being in time out, and then someone notices Katie Brewer's missing. The kid from across the street, remember, father in Bravo team? And so Katie is missing, and then the water pistol's gone, and Teddy's not in his room? And your dad and our dad and Katie's dad and Charlie, they're all conferring in the corner, making like a search plan and stuff and telling each other that of course the terrorists haven't got the kids - because why would a terrorist want Teddy, of all people - and then Katie and Teddy ambush them, these big Unit men ambushed by two little kids, and they'd been to Katie's and got her water pistol? And my dad was dripping wet and so was yours, and next thing we know someone else's dad has gone for water bombs and more water pistols and it turned into this massive water fight, except we all ended up sitting in a row against the fence while it turned into some kind of Unit training mission with all these crazy tactics?"
Serena remembers, all right. Couldn't even have a friendly water fight without it turning into a big deal. She'd been both proud of and embarrassed by her father, and hadn't known where to look.
"Katie and I were grounded for a week for sneaking off," Teddy says, idly tossing a peanut into his mouth and crunching loudly. Emily punches him in the arm.
"Well, it was the weirdest birthday party I ever went to." Lissy runs her finger round the rim of her empty glass. "Anyone for another drink?"
Serena's craving a vodka tonic. "No thanks," she says, just a little too firmly, and has to look at the table to avoid catching Emily's eye.
No one says anything until Lissy's back with the drinks. Serena wishes, then, that she'd asked for another orange juice just to keep her hands busy. She checks her cell instead, in the silence, hoping for a message from someone in the outside world.
"It was a good party," Emily says. "Anyway."
Serena looks around the table, at each of their faces. "Yeah. It was."
This is now.
It's Serena's job to look after Teddy and baby Emily in Texas. She's the biggest, and the oldest, and she knows things the others don't. She even knows things that she's pretty sure Grandma and Grandpa don't, but of course she doesn't let them know she knows.
Every day when she gets home from school she goes straight to check on the babies. She makes sure Teddy's napping so he's not grumpy later, and she cuddles Emily for a long, long time. She gives Emily her bottle, too, and changes her diaper when Grandma lets her, and when Teddy wakes she gets him a snack and plays with him so he doesn't wonder where Mommy is.
Grandma asks if she wants to have Kara over for a playdate. She doesn't. She doesn't want to go to the pool or the park or the mall unless Teddy and Emily are coming too.
She's the big sister, and Mommy and Daddy aren't here. Until they are, Serena's going to look out for the little kids, because she understands.
That was then.
Jen says "I should check on David and the kids. I got Cooper settled before I came out but she doesn't always sleep through the night. I'm just going to give David a call. Just to make sure everything's okay."
When Jen's gone Lissy rolls her eyes. "David isn't actually incompetent, though Jen makes it seem that way."
"I was surprised they all came," Emily says. "This isn't what I'd consider much of a holiday destination."
"You're just lucky Jen didn't turn up with all three kids in tow." Lissy looks thoughtfully at Serena. "Is that why you picked a bar?"
"It seemed like as good a place as any. I have no idea where adults go when they go out without kids, other than to bars."
"Speaking of kids, I've got some books for Robbie in the car," Teddy says. "Remind me to give them to you."
"Come round and see him tomorrow. Before you leave."
Jen comes back, tucking her phone into her pocket. "Cooper's still sleeping. It's good. Serena, how's Robbie when you go out?"
"Robbie's seven. He's fine."
She'd deployed to the sandbox for six months when Robbie was two years old and again when he was five. He'd spent the first deployment with his father and the second with Serena's Mom, who'd come down to stay with him. Robbie learnt to be fine a long time ago, the same way that Serena did.
It's not so bad being an Army brat.
"I was just asking," Jen says, sounding wounded. Serena's pretty sure she hadn't snapped, but she doesn't care if she did.
This is now.
It's the Fourth of July, and it's a good one. They have a cookout at the Gerhardts'; someone puts Mack in charge of the grill and all the meat is burned black. Uncle Charlie and Aunt Joss bring baby Zoe and Serena gets to hold her for the first time. Even Lissy's in a good mood, which is rare enough because Lissy is always what Mom calls "being a teenager".
Serena's dad has a black eye and one arm in a sling, and Bridget's walking with a limp. If anyone asks (and Serena doesn't) they say it was a training mission and laugh about how wrong it went. It makes Serena mad, because it isn't funny that every day for two months she woke up wondering if today was the day her dad was coming home.
She knows better than to tell anyone how mad she is.
But today, though – today is perfect, and Serena's happy.
That was then.
Round about 10pm the melancholy kicks in. Serena's the only sober one and she's racking her brain for another funny story, even if it's one she's told a dozen times over, just to stop Emily from staring into her drink like it's the end of the world. But Serena's fresh out of funny and Lissy's got a thoughtful look on her face, and so instead of just wishing Lissy would take over Serena bites her lip and lets her do so.
"Fifteen years," Lissy says.
Serena looks around the table. Teddy, pushing his glasses repeatedly into place. Jen, staring somewhere over Emily's shoulder with tears in her eyes. Emily herself, hands in her lap, fidgeting the way she does when she's anxious or upset. And Lissy, face pale under all that green hair.
"It doesn't seem like that long ago," Serena says, but Lissy's still talking.
"I was living in New York when mom called. I'd just moved into my first apartment and everything was perfect. I was going to rule the world. I got on a plane the next day and never went back."
"I was doing my math homework."
"Mom and I were weeding the garden," Emily says, "and then Jonas was there."
"I remember," Serena says.
"I was in college. The end of my freshman year. I was in the library with my cell on silent. Mom left five messages for me to call her before I even looked at it. And I knew. She didn't have to tell me." Jen swipes at her eyes with the back of her hand, smearing her mascara.
They've told these stories before. They tell them over and over and over, like it's going to change anything, like the telling will make the hurting go away. They've been living with this for fifteen years. Serena thinks they should have got one thing figured out by now.
It doesn't go away.
This is now.
"Lissy and Jen are going," Serena says. "And I'm coming too. If you don't take me Lissy will."
"I'm not having this argument with you, Serena. It's no place for you. It's no place for any of you. And Lissy will do as I say if she knows what's good for her."
"Lissy's twenty years old and she stopped listening to you a long time ago. He's my father. He's my father and I want to be there." Serena's angry voice gives way and she finds herself pleading, her heart pounding and her stomach icy cold. "I need to be there."
In her bedroom, Emily is screaming at them to shut up, over and over and over.
"Fine, Serena. Do whatever you want. Your father always did."
That was then.
"I always thought it might happen," Jen says. "I think I always knew that someday it probably would. That their chances of making it out of the Unit alive were – but then Jonas stopped going on missions and I thought, well, he made it through so that means my dad will too, but I guess that logic -" Jen puts her face in her hands, shoulders shaking, and lets out a sob that makes three people turn to look at them. Serena's no good at this; she looks at Lissy, at Jen's sister, but Lissy's concentrating hard on a scrap of paper advertising some band, her back straight and stiff. Serena looks at Teddy, and at Emily, and then Emily puts her arm around Jen.
It occurs to Serena just how uncomfortable these chairs are. Next time, she thinks, she'll choose somewhere with decent seating.
Jen cries, and Lissy toys with everything she can find, and Emily looks around the room wide-eyed as she tries to comfort someone more than ten years older than herself. Teddy goes quietly to the bar and returns with orange juices all round and a few bowls of fries, balanced awkwardly on a tray. As he puts the tray down on the table Jen wipes her eyes and sits up and smiles weakly at them all, and the look of relief that flashes across Emily's face is so unmistakable Serena almost wants to laugh.
This is now.
Serena's still not talking to her mom as they drive out to meet the plane. They've dropped Teddy and Emily at the Greys and told Emily how important she is to be helping Joss look after Zoe and Stella. (Serena wonders whose kids Zoe and Stella will look after when Joss has to go meet Charlie's body, and hates herself for thinking it.)
This is what happens, in the Unit. People die. Everyone should be used to that. Serena remembers, vaguely, when Hector Williams died: at least, she remembers a lot of people crying, and her dad yelling about something in the middle of the night right after Hector's funeral. She doesn't remember anything about Hector.
Tiffy and Lissy and Jen are already at the airfield. Serena hasn't seen Lissy for months. She looks different - slimmer, maybe. Angrier. But Lissy was angry a lot, a state of affairs Serena found both terrifying and fascinating. Now, Jen is holding Aunt Tiffy's hand and Lissy is standing a little away from them, but she smiles when she sees Serena and hugs both of them. Then mom hugs Aunt Tiffy, and Lissy and Jen and Serena stand there in a little huddle watching the sky, and waiting.
Jonas is there, and Colonel Franklin, and even Colonel Ryan. There's a crowd of other men, some Serena knows, some she doesn't. She's pretty sure they're all in the Unit. They stand a little way away, and none of them speak to her.
Serena hears the plane before she sees it, dark and heavy against a perfect summer sky. Beside her, Lissy tenses, and Jen looks at her feet. Serena can't keep her eyes off the plane; she watches it circle overhead, and land, and come to a complete, silent stop.
Only then does Jen look up.
The cargo bay opens. As they all stand there - Mom and Serena, Aunt Tiffy and Lissy and Jen - Jonas and the other men go over. Serena can see Charlie, and Bridget, and the coffins.
Two coffins. Sergeant Major Macdonald Gerhardt, United States Army.
And Master Sergeant Robert Davis Brown, United States Army.
The Star-Spangled Banner and the Stars and Stripes and Army uniforms, crisp and green. Serena is freezing cold and going crazy. The colours around her are too bright, too unreal. Nothing makes sense, but everything is real, and she wants to throw up. But she insisted on coming, and she grits her teeth and straightens her back and pretends to be perfectly fine.
That was then.
"You know, I tried to find out where they died," Lissy says.
"Mom said it was the Philippines," Emily says.
"It wasn't the Philippines any more than it was a training exercise. I know that much. I asked Bridget after the funerals. She wouldn't say much, but she took it for granted that she and I both knew that the Philippines was a much a lie as the whole training exercise thing. Charlie wouldn't tell me either. But I was at Old Home Week last year - "
" - You never told me you were going!"
"Shut up, Jen. Does it matter? Anyway. I asked around, listened to some old war stories. You know. The usual. I'm pretty sure it was North Korea."
"Does it matter?" Jen asks, turning Lissy's words back on her. She's angry about something, but Serena wouldn't like to guess what.
"Yes. Because we were lied to our whole lives, about everything. He was my father and what do I know about him? I know he was a mean drunk and he spent half my childhood sleeping on the couch. And half the rest of it he could have been anywhere."
Jen's voice is so quiet that Serena can barely hear her. "But he loved us."
"He did. I'm not denying that. He loved us. And when he was angry he took it out on mom, never on us. He never laid a finger on us. He hardly ever even yelled at us."
Serena's always had trouble reconciling the Mack she remembers with the one Lissy and Jen knew. In her memories, Mack tickles her and lets her ride on his shoulders. Sometimes he was hard and sharp, in a way that her father never quite was, but she was never saw him yell.
"He loved us," Jen says again.
"I know. I know. I fucking know, okay? But maybe that wasn't enough for me. Maybe I want the truth."
"Well, maybe I don't," Emily says, her voice harsh in a way Serena had never expected. "I don't care where it was or who did it or what was the last thing they saw, okay? All that matters is that they're dead, and we have to live with it. So, you go out and play detective and if that makes you feel better, I'm not going to stop you. But for God's sake, whatever you find out, don't tell me and don't tell anyone who doesn't want to know."
Serena looks from Emily to Lissy, and back again. Emily's right, and so's Lissy, except that Lissy might be unclear on the concept of national security. Teddy might remind her, but he's too busy pretending not to be here, and Jen's apparently close to tears again.
"Play nice," Serena says, wearily. "Both of you. All of us."
Lissy puts her head in her hands. Serena waits, uneasily, for an argument that never comes. Lissy sits like that for a long time, and when she lifts her head there are tears in her eyes. "It's not fair. We didn't sign up with the Unit. No one ever asked us what we wanted. We just got told don't say this, don't say that, don't trust anyone outside the Unit. Don't have friends outside the Unit unless you want to lie to them every single day. We were kids. Kids. Kids shouldn't have to listen to their mothers cry themselves to sleep or see their fathers come home with some injury no one will explain." Lissy's voice cracks then, and the tears begin to stream down her face. "I just want my dad."
Serena bites her lip and stares at the table, because she's wanted her dad every single day since those men turned up on the doorstep, and also because watching Lissy finally lose it is heartbreaking. Someone's chair scrapes backwards. It's Jen. Serena watches almost in slow motion as Jen wraps her arms around her sister, her face pressed against Lissy's hair, and holds her as she cries.
This is now.
That was then.
This is who they are.
Eventually, Teddy and Emily stand up to head back to their hotel, and take Jen with them so she doesn't need to call a cab. Serena goes to follow them, but Lissy catches her eye and she sits down again, telling Teddy and Emily she'll see them tomorrow.
"What's up?" she asks, when they're alone.
Lissy is calmer now, her eyes still red. "I told you guys I went to Old Home Week last year."
"I met someone."
"Okay," Serena says, trying to figure out whether this is good or bad or both, and why Lissy's telling her.
"Yeah." Lissy drums her fingers on the table. "She's in."
"In the Unit?"
"Yeah. Just my fucking luck."
"I'm sorry, Lissy."
"I love her. And she's in the Unit. And I don't know what to do about that."
Serena has no good answers. "What does she want?"
"Me, God knows why. She knows I'm not the type to sit around at home and knit and go to FRG meetings, but she still thinks this... thing... might be a good idea. She actually wants to be with me."
"And if she wasn't in?"
"If she was a nice mechanic or pilot or – or school teacher, I'd be thrilled. But it's the Unit. I watched my mother go through it over and over and over. Watching my father walk out the door and not knowing if he was ever coming back, until the day he didn't come back. I went through it. And I don't know if I can do it again."
"Okay, so." Serena Brown is really not the go-to person for relationship advice; any of the others would have been better. "So, I guess, will you regret not giving it a go with her?"
"You sound like my brain," Lissy says, and laughs.
"If I walk away from her it'll break my heart. What's left of it." Lissy taps someone's empty glass on the table thoughtfully. "I have cursed Bridget so many times for whatever the hell it was she did to get herself in the Unit and 'open the door for women'." Lissy says the last few words like she's quoting something. She probably is. A bit of Old Home Week propaganda, most likely.
"If it wasn't Bridget it would have been someone else."
"I know. I know. And good for her, but man it makes my life hard."
It's Serena's turn to laugh. "I don't think she was thinking of you when she did it."
"No, probably not."
They sit in silence for a few minutes. With the others gone, and the emotion and tension with them, Serena is suddenly exhausted and longing for her own bed. And with Robbie at his friend's place, there's even a chance for a rare sleep in.
"I have to do it, don't I?" Lissy says, suddenly.
Serena blinks. "Don't look at me. I've never really been in love. But if you want to be with her, then yes. Go be a Unit wife. Help out the newbies and kick senators into line like your mother used to do."
" - Harass generals' wives like your mother -"
"That was only once, wasn't it? When I was really young, soon after we came to Fort Griffith, and it was about the FRG."
"In all fairness, I'm pretty sure my mother only yelled at a senator once too. That I know of."
"You'd be good at that. When you weren't doing the Unit wife thing, you know, sitting around at home knitting."
Lissy rolls her eyes. "Can you imagine?"
"I'm so fucking scared. And I'm going to do it anyway."
Serena nods, looking into the face of her oldest friend, and her oldest sister. "You've got my number, right? Not that there's much you could actually tell me, but, you know."
"Yeah. I've got it. Thanks. And, thanks for listening. And for hauling us all out here. I keep forgetting that Jen and I actually have a few things in common, and you and Ted and Em -" Lissy shrugs, apparently out of words.
Serena gets it. "We always had each other. All of us. You and Jen are some of my earliest memories, you know? No one else got it."
"Yeah. What was it your mother always used to say?"
Serena smiles, remembering, and on impulse reaches out to squeeze Lissy's hand. "Only those who have been bit by the snake get to tell each other how it feels."
Lissy grins, and squeezes back. "Maybe I'll go bite the damn snake."