Kelly Sokol is the author of “Breach” and “The Unprotected,” which was featured on NPR and named one of Book Riot’s 100 Must-Read Books of Pregnancy, Childbirth and Motherhood. She is a Pushcart Prize-nominated author and MFA creative writing graduate. Her work has appeared in Alpinist, UltraRunning Magazine, The Manifest-Station, Connotation Press, and more. She teaches creative writing at The Muse Writers Center. Her new book “Breach” is an unflinching and timely gaze into the marriage of an enlisted special operator and his wife.
“Breach” – Marleigh Mulcahy grew up in a boxing gym, the daughter of hard-drinking parents who did not keep a stable roof over her head. In the cinder-block Box-n-Go, amidst the sweat and funk, she meets Explosive Ordnance Disposal specialist Jace Holt, a highly and expensively trained bomb diffuser with three successful deployments behind him. With a heady mix of hope, carelessness, and a ridiculous amount of courage, they begin a family. When Jace returns to active duty, a roadside bomb resurrects ghosts from the couple’s past and threatens the life they have built. The following is an excerpt from “Breach.”
Excerpted from “Breach” by Kelly Sokol, published by Koehler Books. © Copyright 2022 by Kelly Sokol.
As Marleigh pulled into the parking lot, she saw two cars and a crotch rocket parked outside the gym, but no stragglers. Plenty of the guys walked or ran over from the neighborhood, so she never knew how many people were there until she got inside. It was already ten o’clock, so she would only have to wait a half an hour before turning off the lights and locking up.
The gym’s heady, humid smell had been almost welcomed when she entered. She always knew where she stood here. It was a small cement box, but she garnered something like respect when she walked in. It hadn’t been earned; she knew that. Her grandfather’s creation and dedication was a shadow she stepped into and tried to lengthen. But plenty of people enjoyed a security in the world that they did nothing to create. Fancy Graham, for example. Marleigh had to put up with his bullshit—he was a customer for a couple of hours. That girlfriend let him treat her like that, like they both deserved it. And for what?
The only people inside were Terry and the new guy, Jace. Back again. She tried not to stare. He was shirtless and had his shorts gathered high on his muscular thighs, crouched in fighting stance.
His gloves were up, protecting his face. They were in the ring sparring. Terry had him moving through a complicated routine and seemed to make the guy drop lower each time to avoid being clocked in the side of the face with the sparring pad. Terry saw Marleigh first and gave her a quick nod, then got back to business. As Jace stepped, jabbed, crossed, and ducked to make contact with and then avoid Terry’s swing, he saw her. He stood, losing his boxer’s stance—the crouched ready position, weight on the toes, knees bent.
“Marleigh!” he said, his voice deep and masculine, but with a child’s excitement. Terry’s mitt whacked him across the side of his face and split the corner of his lip. She winced. Jace grinned at her like she was a marvel, not some tired waitress covered in shrimp peels. She studied him, too, she couldn’t help herself. His compact muscle on such a tall body, those perfect Chiclet teeth. The curve and bounce of his hamstring, undoubtedly her favorite part of the male body. Remembering that Lynetha told her Jace was EOD, Marleigh wondered what would happen if he hurt his fingers boxing. It was a rookie mistake to clench your fists inside your gloves. Can you disarm bombs with broken fingers? A bomb tech. That meant there was a brain inside that stupidly perfect body. She didn’t really care. She was just happy for any distraction from the shitty night, and how she’d been treated. No one respected waitresses or bartenders, one reason she wouldn’t be one for much longer. It felt good to have someone so happy to see her.
“One more go, Terry. I’ve got this.” They moved through the maneuvers again. Jace was focused and quick. He landed a punch over one of Terry’s mitts.
Marleigh tilted her nose down and sniffed herself, suddenly self-conscious of her dirty T-shirt and shorts, knowing she carried a greasy, shellfish stink, wondering if Jace could smell it. Marleigh picked up one of the cleaning caddies and headed to the bathroom like she was going to restock the toilet paper and clean up for the night. She planned on doing that, of course, but she also wanted to see the damage the night had inflicted upon her. The bathroom wasn’t so bad. No one made it that far to puke, so she almost never had to clean that up. The trainers had to dump and spray the buckets.
She looked in the mirror and dabbed beneath her eyes to clean up the smudge of mascara, holding a wet paper towels to her cheeks to pull the flush from her skin. She clucked at herself. If anyone but Jace was out there, she wouldn’t have given herself a second look before heading home and washing off the day in the shower. Her white T-shirt was short and tight, the Thirsty Camel logo stretched across her left breast, and the hem grazed her belly button. Her black shorts were high-waisted with a minimal inseam, highlighting her tiny waist and perky ass. The uniform didn’t leave much to the imagination.
The round bell sounded, muffled through the bathroom wall. Terry didn’t dawdle at the end of the night. “You gotta work on your foot speed and keeping tight. You’re too tall and goofy to be a boxer.” Terry was just like her grandfather. No bullshit. No puffing up a boxer so that he’d keep showing up and paying and training just to keep getting his ass kicked in the ring. That was for the big money gyms. Marleigh could hear in his voice that he liked Jace and could see something in him. She didn’t want to hear that.
She could get this bathroom clean and just wait him out. They’d be leaving soon, and then she could vent the night’s bullshit on the heavy bag. Nothing could squash her libido quite like cleaning the can. He’d realize he wasn’t really that interested and leave her alone. She gave the bathroom the most thorough cleaning ever, but as she slipped the plastic gloves off and threw them in the trash outside the bathroom door, Terry and Jace were still there, bent over a table. Both turned to look at her. Jace smiled that smile again.
“Don’t tell the other guys,” Terry said, before tearing off a piece of paper and handing it to Jace. He nodded at Marleigh, “And don’t tell boss lady I’m giving you workouts outside the gym, neither.” Marleigh cocked an eyebrow at them. Terry rarely did that.
“Just make sure you’re paid up, new guy.” She wiped down the ropes on the far side of the gym from them. Then she moved to the first heavy bag.
“Don’t stand around staring,” she said, keeping her back to Jace as she cleaned. “We’re closed. Y’all get out of here.”
“Don’t have to tell me twice,” Terry said. “See ya Monday.”
Jace walked to the ring and pulled wipes out of the plastic canister. “I made this mess. Can I help you clean it?” She should tell him no. Terry would walk out and they would be alone. She wasn’t afraid of the new guy. He stood there, shirtless and still breathy and sweaty, two Clorox wipes dangling from his hands.
“Sure. Wipe down the weight benches and racks and I’ll finish over here. And how ’bout putting on a shirt first? You keep sweating on everything and I have to keep wiping it down.” Clothed and across the room. Yes, that was definitely best.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said with a mock salute. “I brought a friend with me, a different guy. He didn’t make it all the way through the workout, but he’ll be back.”
“Do you want an award? And what’s with the note you left?”
“Nah.” He wiped the benches as well as the sweat puddles on the floor around them. “Where have you been? What’ve you been up to?” She remembered when her grandfather lived with her, how he’d come home from the gym all keyed up, how he wanted to hear about her day, and how she would stay up too late to tell him because no other adult had asked. Pops stayed with Marleigh each of the three times her parents tried to quit drinking. They weren’t interested in sitting in meetings surrounded by a bunch of drunks. “What good will that do?” they asked. Each time, they took off for a cabin in the woods, away from Ocean View, the beach, and all its temptations. Each time, Marleigh hoped her biggest hope, it swelled inside her so big it hurt, that they would really do it and come back to her sober and reliable and normal. That they would come home and at least like her again. After the third time, Marleigh realized hope was just a tease. It only let her down and made her feel worse. But she always had Pops.
Jace moved quickly, from station to station, flinging used Clorox wipes like basketballs into the trashcans.
She recognized that same Pops energy in Jace. “I’m like that after working late,” she said. “Tired but wired.”
“That’s it,” he said.
“What does EOD really mean?”
“It means Ever On Duty or long-ass time in the Navy.”
Most squids she knew planned on four years and out, found the simplest duty they could.
“I’m like a really expensive one-man roadside cleanup crew.
Except instead of cigarette butts and beer cans, I get rid of bombs. Explosive ordnance disposal.”
“No wonder you’re good at this.” She shrugged at the mop and bucket. “And instead of highways, you clean up—”
“Desert markets, Humvee corridors, jungle shit. You name it.”
He wasn’t what Marleigh had expected. “Don’t you need all of your fingers for that? What if you break one boxing?”
“So long as I can control my robot, I’ll be fine. Anyway, it’s a miracle I still have ten.”
She mopped the last corner of the floor, letting that thought sink in. “You’re not going to worry about me now, are you?”
Gym clean up took less than fifteen minutes with the two of them. She clicked the sign to closed and put the CLOSED SUNDAY placard in the window. “We’re closed tomorrow, so don’t try and show up.”
He stepped closer. She could feel the heat coming through his T-shirt. He reached out as if to sweep a sweaty curl across her forehead. “I like it best when the gym’s closed.”
She bobbed just out of his reach. He wasn’t allowed to touch her. Not yet.
“Ah, are you training with Terry, too?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know.”
That little pinch, down low, when Jace got too close. She hadn’t had a boyfriend in a while. The guys she knew were all lazily okay with falling in step with the same life as their parents, living in the same neighborhood. Same shit, different day. Her responsibilities in the gym most of them could tolerate, if not respect, as it was a family business and all that. But school and her other jobs were like luxuries and annoyances to them. They distracted her from them. Her family someday would be a real family. A mom and a dad, a checking account with a balance at the end of the month, and kids they loved.
Marleigh never dated boxers. She saw how the boxers treated their girlfriends when they showed up at the gym. Sometimes, in high school, those girls would corner Marleigh to find out who else their boyfriends were seeing. Marleigh never told, so the guys looked out for her. More than a couple of the girls accused her of sleeping with their guys. Marleigh just wanted out, as none of these boys or girls was going anywhere.
“Since we’re both wide awake, go out with me. Let’s do something.”
Marleigh ducked out from underneath his arm. “We’re both disgusting. And no way in hell I’m going back to the Camel.” She straightened up the front desk. Jace cleaned up the rolls of pre-wrap, and sprayed Lysol into used gloves.
Her mother often taunted her for not having a boyfriend. Jackie would think Marleigh wasn’t good enough for Jace. “I was winning contests when I was your age,” she’d say. “You shouldn’t waste your youth.”
Wet T-shirt contests. “Nice, Mom,” Marleigh’d say. Her mother wore her hair way too long, down past mid-back. And Jackie cut her own bangs. From far away, she looked almost pretty and almost young. But her face up close was wrinkles and broken capillaries, like she was constantly blushing. She was a walking scam.
“You’re nothing special,” she’d told Marleigh over and over. “If someone asks, you’d better say yes.”
At first, the girls in high school called her a slut for hanging out with the boxers. Then a dyke when she got serious about sports. The hours of jumping rope and heavy bag work built her endurance. She was a strong soccer midfielder. She wasn’t sure it would take her anywhere past high school, but it got her out of the house and the gym. Instead of sleeping around, Marleigh figured out how to make herself feel all tingly and hot. Some of the girls did it on long bus rides in the dark. She made the few guys she slept with come on her belly, though she’d never be able to get pregnant anyway, according to her mother. “Trash in, trash out,” her mother said. “Simple as that.” Enough with Jackie’s crazy; maybe Marleigh just needed to scratch an itch. Maybe Jace was leaving town soon and that would take care of that.
“Ya ain’t gotta go home, but get up out of here,” Marleigh said. Jace had sprayed and resprayed the gloves. “I need to lock up.”
“Sorry, yeah. I’ll get my stuff. But once you lock up, walk with me?”
“I haven’t been on the beach at night yet. Show me?” He held up
two fingers. “Scouts honor, I won’t pull any shit.”
She shook her head.
“You’re right, I was never a Scout. But you don’t have to worry about me.”
Maybe she could go and forget about the night.
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