Porch Lights by Dorothea Benton Frank

Chapter 1

This island is a very singular one. It consists of little else than the sea sand, and is about three miles long. Its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile. It is separated from the mainland . . .

—Edgar Allan Poe, “The Gold-Bug”

Meet Jackie McMullen

I will tell you the one thing that I have learned about life in my thirty-something years that is an absolute truth: nothing and no one in this entire world matters more to a sane woman than her children. I have one child, my son, Charlie. Charlie is barely ten years old, and he is the reason I get up in the morning. I thank God for him every night before I go to sleep. When I was stationed in Afghanistan, I slept with a T-shirt of his wrapped around my arm. I did. Not my husband’s. My son’s. It was the lingering sweet smell of my little boy’s skin that got me through the awful nights while rockets were exploding less than a mile away from my post. I would fall asleep praying for Charlie. And, if I had known what would happen, I would have petitioned harder for my husband, Jimmy’s, safety in those same prayers. I should’ve prayed harder for Jimmy.

Now I’m driving south on I-95 while Charlie sleeps, slumped in the seat next to me, and I wonder: what the hell was the matter with Jimmy and me? Why did we think we had the right to be so cavalier about what we did for a living, pretending to be bulletproof and fireproof and thinking nothing could happen to us? Sure. Me—an army nurse doing three seven-month tours in a war zone—and Jimmy answering the firehouse alarms, rushing out to save what? The world? No, my Jimmy died trying to save a bunch of low-life crackheads in a filthy, rat-infested tenement on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He fell to his death when the floor beneath him collapsed. How do I tell my Charlie to make any sense of that when I can’t make sense of it myself?

Ah, Jimmy McMullen, there will never be another man like you. Nope. Not on Earth and not in Heaven. You were one of a kind. Here’s to ya, blue eyes, wherever you are. I took a swig from my water bottle.

I was pretty certain that wherever Jimmy was couldn’t be too far away because I could feel him, watching over me, over us. And when the world grew still, deep in the night, I could literally feel enormous regret gushing from his gorgeous big Irish heart, regret about leaving us. But I’d never believe it was his fault for one minute. He’d been stolen from us, ripped out of our lives like a bad tooth. Jimmy’s death was another victory for the Dark Side. Plain and simple. At least that’s how it seemed to me. I mean, I was not some crazy religious fanatic at all, but I believed in God. And the God I believed in would never sanction such a senseless, violent death for such a righteous man.

Jimmy McMullen was a righteous man who loved his church and never missed Sunday Mass unless he had a fever of a hundred and three. On his days off, he took Charlie and his toolbox over to the rectory and hammered loose boards back in place or unclogged a slow draining sink or put a coat of paint where it needed to go. Father O’Quinn would ask Jimmy if he could help him out on Saturday at nine in the morning, and Jimmy would be there at eight thirty with a bag of old-fashioned doughnuts and a disposable cardboard tray, two large cups of coffee wedged in the holder. That’s what he did in his free time when he wasn’t taking Charlie to a Yankees game. That was just the kind of guy he was. Faithful to his family, his church, and his word. And generous to a fault. You would’ve loved him. Everyone did. Charlie idolized him, absolutely idolized him. And Charlie’s despair was the cause of the deepest, most wrenching concern and worriation I have ever known. No matter what I said or did, I just couldn’t seem to bring him around.

It was completely understandable that a child of his age would be traumatized by the loss of a parent, even depressed for some period of time. But the changes in Charlie were alarming and unnerving. After two months or so I kept thinking he would somehow make peace with our new reality because life goes on. He did not. Jimmy’s Aunt Maureen was the one who made me see that something had to be done.

“This child is severely depressed,” she said. “He’s not eating right or sleeping well. We’ve got to do something, Jackie. We’ve got to do something.”

“I know,” I said. “You know, in Afghanistan when a child loses his father he’s considered an orphan. They’re sent to orphanages, where the boys outnumber the girls about ten to one.”

Aunt Maureen looked at me, unblinking, while she quickly calculated the whys and wherefores of such a radical policy—without a husband the woman sinks into poverty, without government intervention they would literally starve, little boys are valued more highly than the little girls . . . what happens to all the little girls? Human trafficking? She knew exactly what I wasn’t saying.