Across a road from Camp Pendleton, in a neighborhood of beige stucco tract homes, Alicia Johnson answers her door. Fear flashes in her eyes as she looks gingerly for someone in uniform who may have come to deliver bad news.
"It happens any time there's a knock at the door when you're not expecting somebody," she said. "It happens even with phone calls. I'll be glad when I don't have to worry about the phone ringing."
There are 74 houses in this government-owned complex, where children play in frontyards around newly planted trees. From most of the homes, a Marine Corps officer has been deployed to the Middle East.
On a cul-de-sac in the shadow of the base that shipped 30,000 Marines to the war, four homes face a park. The Bednars, the Johnsons, the Braggs and the Clarks live there.
The four wives in these homes converse easily in the military jargon of acronyms, but they find it hard to sleep at night. Most of the 20 Americans killed in the war so far have been Marines. There are nine children in the four houses, and the older ones constantly ask when Daddy is coming home.
The women take the children to the park in the afternoons, or for a swim in the Braggs' inflatable pool. They go for walks and watch as one of their 5-year-olds rides her bike without training wheels for the first time. They order pizzas and talk about diapers and the latest bumps and bruises. But not about their husbands.
The families arrived within weeks of each other last summer, the time of year when the Marines shift personnel from base to base and the neighborhood is thick with moving trucks. The war has thrown them together, an impromptu support system that augments their individual tonics for anxiety -- a chocolate supply, television in the wee hours, a journal, the kids. But, ultimately, each wife bears her burden alone.
"I have my rough evenings and my good evenings," said Kandis Bragg, 31. "For my kids' sake, I try to keep a positive outlook."
Capt. Phillip Bragg, 31, was her high school sweetheart. He has been gone two months. Their daughters, Alyssa, 4, and Katie, 2, collect rocks and shells from the beach to give to him when he comes home. They hope to fill an entire garbage can.
Kandis Bragg fills her days with routines that keep her mind off the news. Ballet classes for her girls, workouts for her.
"I keep a stash of Tootsie Rolls in the closet," she said. "I have a few Tootsie Rolls and go to the gym. Then I have a few more Tootsie Rolls. Chocolate makes me happy."
Television, with its wall-to-wall war coverage, has the opposite effect.
"We don't talk about W-A-R, or B-O-M-B-S or G-U-N-S," Bragg said. "When they ask when Daddy is going to be home, I tell them it may be some time, but that when he does, we are going to plan a fabulous vacation."
Still, unwanted information seeps in. At preschool, Alyssa is asked by one of her classmates whether her father, an artillery commander, is safe.
"She picked up that Daddy is fighting the bad guys who are coming to get us and hurt us," Bragg said. "I assured her that Daddy is safe. That Daddy is big and strong and brave.... How do you tell them that bombs are dropping all around Daddy?"
At Johnson's home next door, cable news is rarely shut off. Theirs is a family steeped in the military. Johnson's father, a retired naval officer who works as a civilian for the Defense Department, crawled from the rubble of the Pentagon after terrorists flew a plane into his wing of offices Sept. 11, 2001.
The first word from her 3-year-old son, Daniel, was the Marine salute, "Hoo-ah!" His newest G.I. Joe, a Desert Storm model, came equipped with a tiny Stinger missile. Daniel named the figure Capt. Johnson after his father, Whit, a commanding officer who oversees a mobile missile system. Daniel cries in frustration when he can't get the rocket to stay in Capt. Johnson's plastic hands.
"It goes over his shoulder like this because it's very heavy," his mom said, showing him. "See, this is how Daddy holds it.... Capt. Johnson is locked and loaded."
Whit Johnson, 34, enlisted in the Marine Corps straight out of high school. When Alicia married him, she knew the life she would inherit: constant moving, stretches of loneliness. And now this. Many of her old friends don't understand how she deals with it.
"He so completely loves the Marine Corps. He thrives on it," she said. "I could never ask him to get out. Hell, to him, would be a desk job."
Alicia Johnson, 32, is a Marine Key Volunteer coordinator, someone whom other spouses can turn to for information or comfort. Because of that, she tries to keep her own emotions at bay.
"I'm the one that people call when they're crying and having depression problems," she said. "I have to be there for them. I'm the cheerful cheerleader.... I can't be needy."
She sleeps some, she said, but grinds her teeth so much that it's painful to chew.
The few times Whit Johnson was able to call home, his 5-year-old daughter, Kaleigh, hugged the phone and wouldn't let go. His voice on a phone message left weeks ago has become a treasured lifeline, replayed by the kids nearly every day.
Hey, sorry I missed you. I'll try back later. Love you.
Whenever 19-month-old Madeleine came across one of her father's socks or shoes, she would waddle around, saying, "Dada, Dada, Dada."
So Alicia gathered her husband's things, put them in a closet and closed the door.
As the casualties mount, she finds herself simultaneously relieved if she hears that the latest to die were not Marines and horrified at herself for thinking that way. Her husband may be safe, but someone else's husband isn't.
"You get that feeling like when you're on the interstate speeding and police lights go on behind you, and then he speeds around you and pulls someone else over," Johnson said. "You know, the way your heart drops into your stomach?"
Two doors down, Jennifer Clark's stomach tightens more with each day of combat.
Capt. Trevor Clark, 30, a communications officer, went to Kuwait in November, six weeks after their daughter Roxanne was born. He has missed her hair growing in, her first laugh.
On Sunday morning, Jennifer pulled a batch of miniature blueberry muffins from the oven, filling her kitchen with the aroma of temptation. She ate one. She hasn't eaten much lately. And she no longer produces enough breast milk. Roxanne has switched to a bottle, and neither she nor her mother is happy about it.
Jennifer's brother is a Marine, as are her father-in-law and brother-in-law. She met her husband in high school. The two were best friends for 12 years before Jennifer knocked on Trevor's door one day and asked whether they could be something more. They were engaged soon after.
She was visiting family and friends in Virginia when President Bush gave Saddam Hussein 48 hours to step down. The 29-year-old decided to come home.
"I felt like I had to support them," she said of the friends in Virginia, who have known Trevor and her since college. "Every time I turned around, someone was asking me, 'Are you OK?' ... They're worried about him. But I have to keep saying, 'Don't worry. He won't be there long. He won't be in action.'
"Of course," she continued, "none of that may turn out to be true. But I have to put all my energy into telling them that everything's OK."
Here, the shared experience of separation means much can go unsaid.
"When the women get together, we don't talk about this," said Trisha Bednar, referring to the war. She is 22, the mother of three. Her daughter Aroura, 4, has cerebral palsy. Aroura has an infectious smile but cannot walk or talk. When she sits in her mother's lap and a photo of her father comes up on the computer, Aroura kisses the screen.
Jasmyn, 15 months, does walk. On a trip to a doctor on base last week, she went up to a Marine in uniform. "Daddy, Daddy," she said, arms outstretched. Her mother had a difficult time pulling her away.
Halie was born March 2 by emergency C-section. Second Lt. Stan Bednar, 23, who recruited Trisha into their high school's ROTC program in Alaska and later fell in love with her, was allowed to use a satellite phone to call his wife in the hospital.
"He kept asking if I was OK, but he had a hard time hearing me," Trisha Bednar said. "He asked me if the baby was OK, and then the line got real, real fuzzy. Then it just went dead."
Bednar's family in Alaska has encouraged her to return to wait out the war. She told them the cul-de-sac is her home. Her house has more toys than furniture, and the walls are mostly bare. But it's near Aroura's doctors and therapists, whom she visits several times a week.
When the first casualties were reported, her family and friends started calling, asking whether she knew anything more.
"I was really unhappy with them," Bednar said. "You have to keep your attention focused on what you have to do right here, and I have a lot to do with the kids. If I'm going to have a breakdown, it's best I do it when they're not awake."
During the day, Bednar writes in a journal, chronicling the baby's first weeks for her husband, a logistics officer, to read when he returns.
When the last of the children is put to bed, Bednar turns on the news. Some nights, she'll watch until 3 a.m. Three hours later, she's up again with the kids, a hard routine but one that has kept her mind busy and her emotions under control. It's the rhythm of life here, the terrible days of waiting on this curving slice of the home front.
"We're all in the same situation," Bragg said. "So if one of us is having a tough afternoon, we can go to the neighbor's and say, 'I'm having a rough time and need 15 minutes to myself. Can you watch the kids?'
"They know where that's coming from," she said. "You don't need to say anything more. Or explain why you suddenly break into tears."