The boundary between battlefield and home front blurs. Are there wounds love can heal?
Marleigh Mulcahy grew up in a boxing gym, the daughter of hard-drinking parents who didn’t keep a stable roof overhead. In the cinder-block Box-n-Go, amidst the sweat and funk, she meets EOD 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’ve built.An unflinching and timely gaze into the marriage of an enlisted special operator and his wife, Breach is a story of betting it all on love, a couple’s determination to change the trajectory of their lives, and one woman’s promises to the man she loves and the boys they’re raising.
What choices will a desperate mother make to keep her family whole?
About the Author
Kelly Sokol’s work has appeared in print and online publications including The Manifest-Station, ConnotationPress, The Quotable, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She serves on the Board of Directors of The Muse Writers Center in Norfolk, VA, where she also teaches creative nonfiction and fiction writing. She also serves on the Board of Directors for ForKids, Inc. and advises the Board of the Seven Cities Writers Project. She earned her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College.
Kelly is a low-lander who dreams, in color, of the mountains. When she is not reading, writing or parenting, she can be found wandering or skiing the backcountry, or training for it. Kelly is represented by Michelle Johnson of Inklings Literary.
Marleigh looped the tail of the letter y on her note card to complete the word autophagy, transforming the letter into a pointed trident. Multitasking was a survival skill; still on the clock at the gym, she learned her biology terms while practicing her art. Outlining and shading. She should have forked the tail, instead, into a mouth that turned on the open arms of the letter. She liked when form and meaning matched. Couldn’t a letter self-devour as much as a cell? She slid the card to the bottom of the stack. She only had a few more minutes to review the terms before she had to close Box-n-Go and leave for class.
The fake prizefighters bell dinged as the gym door opened. Marleigh looked up as two new guys entered. The first one, bigger and better looking than his friend, flinched at the smell and the heat. Box-n-Go regulars stopped noticing the stink—sweat and blood and yeast and leather all wiped down with Clorox.
Hot new guy spoke first. “We want to box.” He had no accent. His hair was buzzed. He had a lopsided dimple bigger than Marleigh’s pencil eraser on one side of his smile. Managing her grandfather’s gym had few perks, but a view like this was one of them.
“That’s what we do here. Drop ins are twelve dollars, or you can prepay three sessions for twenty.”
Often, wannabes were caught cold by sore muscles after their first workouts and never returned. Projection bias, a term she’d learned at night school at ECPI. People told themselves that paying guaranteed that they would show up. School cost her a lot, too, and she never missed a class. She’d need all the tricks she knew and plenty she didn’t to keep Box-n-Go’s doors open and her plans on track.
New guy dug into the pockets of his mesh shorts, muscular forearms tightening, opened his wallet and slid out a credit card. Marleigh tapped the laminated wall sign: Cash Only. He scratched at his freshly buzzed scalp, the skin still bright white above his ears and at the base of his neck.
His buddy thumped him on the shoulder. “I’ve got cash,” he mumbled. On the other side of the thin wall, the real round bell sounded. The speed bag started, the clang of the chain as it was struck. The treadmills revved.
New guy took his friend’s money and handed it to Marleigh. He yelled over the din. “Two three-packs.”
Marleigh nodded. She pointed to the spiral notebook open in front of her, facing the men. Each line had hand-drawn sections for Name (your REAL name), Date and Paid Y/N, and Manager’s signature. The new guy signed Jace Holt. Then he thrust his hand out between her nose and the notebook, forcing her to shake.
“Pleasure to meet you!”
His eyebrows were thick and light brown above big, dark-brown eyes. Marleigh twitched him a half smile and nodded at the book to get his friend to sign in. The round ended with a ding and the treadmills and speed bag slowed. She set two release waivers in front of the new boxers. Both signed without reading the language she’d cut and pasted from a Wiki how-to. No one ever read it. No one wanted to think that far ahead. Basically, the paragraphs said that if you got fucked up in here, you knew what you were getting into. Box at your own risk.
“Do you have your own gloves?” Marleigh asked. The friend held up his pair. Jace shrugged and shook his head. She plucked a pair from the metal rack behind her and sprayed them liberally with Lysol, holding them out to him with her fingertips. “Wrap is right there. You can use ours tonight, but bring your own or we’ll start charging you next time. This isn’t your mama’s house.”
Jace held up his hands as if to guard his face. “These are deadly weapons,” he said. “The wrap just protects the other guy.” He smiled wide at her, and it connected, sending a dangerous twinge deep in Marleigh’s gut, somewhere he wasn’t supposed to be. His triceps strained, a curve of navy ink showed at the edge of his shirtsleeve, almost certainly an anchor. Of course. Working in a gym only a couple miles from Norfolk Naval Base, the largest base in the world, Marleigh could spot a sailor.
“Good luck.” Marleigh crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair. “Go on and wrap up and find Terry.” Marleigh was trying to save the gym financially until her grandfather found someone he trusted to run it permanently. She was the only business head left. Terry made boxers and boxing trainers. He could identify anyone’s strengths and weaknesses in minutes. If Marleigh could find a way for the gym to make money, Terry would be the perfect person to take it over for Pops.
After checking the clock, she tilted her head down to her notebook and found the paragraph she’d been annotating in her textbook. She forced herself back into the biology notes she was taking and reeled her mind back in when she was tempted to peek around the doorway to see what Terry had Jace doing first. The classes at ECPI, a school billing itself as a college, cost way more than Tidewater Community College, but they offered a fast track to hygienist school. Marleigh had a plan and a schedule—bust ass short-term for that long-term life of her dreams. She loved how dental offices all coordinated—décor, dress code. Front desk staff clad in blue shirts and black bottoms on Wednesday, orange and black the whole month of October. The hum of air-conditioning and swish of wealthy patients with time and money to spend on their teeth. The cool, neutral scent of fluoride, X-ray equipment, and air-conditioning.
She had to be out of there in ten minutes. Six months into courses at ECPI, Marleigh would begin her hygienist apprenticeship in less than a year. Clean, minty fluoridated teeth replacing rot and disuse with orderly, uniform beauty. The first step in her real life. No time for distractions.
Biology she could learn from a textbook, but Ocean View’s Box-n-Go was an anatomy lesson. None of the guys ever had their shirts on after round one. She was going to ignore Jace. She resisted sneaking a glance into the gym.
The gym never really washed out. The odor was yeasty, a musk with a sharp edge, sweat in leather, used wraps, shared helmets and groin protectors, the plastic gloves the trainers wore when the boys sparred, rusty blood when a lip or eyebrow popped open, a bright straight line, thick and resinous, Lysol sprayed into gloves after every match, the bucket of bleach used to wash everything down. It all coalesced, somehow.
The strongest smell, the one that made her try to hide the rise and fall of her chest, came from the men’s bodies. Almost like in high school when she left her shin guards in her bag after a game, forgetting to air them, to wash the socks. No ventilation. Rich people didn’t reek like that. But there was something more. The perfect stink that originated in all the Vs of men—their armpits and where their thighs met. The deep cuts that started above their shorts, at the hips, and finished under. As they sweated off pounds during a bout and their shorts slipped down and their bellies tensed and twisted. That’s the smell that lingered. Sweat and hair and crotch and pheromone. Man stink, animal and visceral. She went to sleep with it in the curls of her hair. She imagined running her fingernails up the back of the new guy’s freshly shorn neck.
Focus. He didn’t have twenty bucks on him. He had to be low-level enlisted, even if he looked a little older. She reviewed the material for tonight’s quiz one more time, mumbling the vocab aloud, confident that between the music, the grunting, and the misery in the other room no one would hear her, though the “wall” forming the reception-slash-office didn’t go all the way to the ceiling.
She double-checked the cash in the box with the sign-in sheet for the day. It was short by fifty-two dollars. She added and re-added the columns but couldn’t rectify the difference. Shit. She didn’t need this tonight. The gym was dangerously in the red. Her grandfather had been far too lenient on people making their payments over the years, always prioritizing training over profitability. Her efforts were probably too late, but Marleigh couldn’t let Pops lose his gym.
Marleigh turned over the page and there was a sticky note from Serpent (not his real name, his ring name). I O U. He was late on his payment plan and should have paid eighteen dollars the last two visits. He was, of course, long gone, and now she was running behind. And Serpent’s missed payments only accounted for thirty-six dollars. What about the additional sixteen dollars? The gym had Q-tip-thin margins in its best years, but no one besides Marleigh and Terry, and Pops, when he could remember, had any clue how desperate the gym’s financial situation had become. If the fighters kept acting like this, there would be no gym for them to stiff. Where was the remaining cash?
She clicked the exterior light from open to closed. The trainers, fighters, and the two new wannabes could stay past ten, but on Marleigh’s school nights, no new boxers could sign in past seven, unless her parents showed up to take over. But that happened never. Her father, Parrish, had been a hot-shit boxer. He’d quit before she was born. Her mom, Jackie, ran the gym’s front office until Marleigh was in high school. Jackie hadn’t kept many records; Marleigh was certain Box-n-Go fell off the financial cliff under her watch. Jackie no longer had a key to the cash box.
The clock read 6:53. Marleigh had to be in her car by seven so she could slip on a change of clothes and stuff her gym clothes in a plastic bag. She scanned the list of boxers still in the gym. A few of them had problem friends or girlfriends that she had to remind the trainers not to let in. She saved that for last. She locked the cash box in the gun safe against the wall and ran a copy of the week’s receipts so she could bring it to her grandad’s tomorrow. Marleigh stacked her books and notebooks on the edge of the desk—she left her bag in the car, too. She repeated the vocab for the quiz. She turned out all but one light in the front room and made her way into the gym—a fancy name for three cinder-block walls with a cement floor. The boxing ring took up half the room, a speedbag hung in one corner and two treadmills squeezed in next to the bathroom door. Two weight racks and benches took up the other wall. Jump ropes hung over every door frame, and large white buckets were strategically placed around the room for snot and spit and puke and blood. It was small and old school. But three trainers had up to twelve guys sweating their dicks off at any one time. Even women sometimes, usually scary Marines with something to prove. Marleigh only trained when the gym was empty.
The room fell quiet when she entered, just as it always had for her grandad. The new guy, Jace, was shirtless on the weight bench. She knew she’d be able to sense him somehow, even if she couldn’t see him. She kept her back to him. “I’m shutting it down out front. Y’all know the rules, nobody else comes in. Marco and D’Ash, I’m looking at you.”
The fighters in the ring held out their knuckles for a bump, signaling agreement.
“We won’t cause any trouble, Marleigh,” D’Ashandre told her.
She fist-bumped the guys in the ring over the ropes. “Good. Terry can let y’all out and close up.” She’d known Terry since she was a kid. He showed up in OV Box one day after months in a group home for adolescents somewhere across the long Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel Marleigh could see from the beach. “My mom gets another shot at me,” he’d said, his voice and mouth tight. “Least I’m out of that dump.”
“Marleigh, huh?” Jace said from behind her. He stood up and re- racked his weights. “Like Bob?” He mimicked smoking a joint and stepped closer to her.
She rolled her eyes and ignored him. “I’ve gotta go,” she said to the room. “And remember, he’s watching.” She pointed to an old glossy photograph on the wall—her grandfather before he was a father himself. The colors were faded, but his eyes were clear and bright and present. His body hard as cement. She turned to walk out.
Jace took a big step closer, his body intimidating but his expression goofy and boyish. He had a dimple even without smiling. “Marleigh, don’t we get fist bumps too?”
“I’m leaving. And those are for the guys who stick around.”
He jumped between her and the door. “I’ll stick around.”
“Get out of my way. I’m already late.”
“Not without a fist bump.” He held out his fist. “We’ll be back tomorrow. She’d be down the street bartending, but Jace didn’t need to know that. Marleigh shoved her body around him. He leaned to the side and pinned her to the doorframe. “We bought three packs, remember?”
“Fine.” She bumped him with her left hand and pushed him out of the way with her right shoulder. He let her move him and exaggerated his reaction to the shove.
“I’m going to walk you out. This is a shitty neighborhood.”
“No kidding. I grew up here.” Stop talking, she reminded herself. Go! Another bell sounded. Jace stood in the doorway as she turned the exterior lock to the building and got into her car. The dash lit up. “Shit!” 7:08. Checking that he’d gone back inside, Marleigh pulled the smelly T-shirt over her head and replaced it with a button-down—no time for a bra change—and shimmied into jeans. She tore out of the parking lot.
Excerpted from BREACH by Kelly Sokol, published by Koehler Books. © Copyright 2022 by Kelly Sokol.