by Brent C. Smith
Sarah sips her coffee without tasting it, the last of the week's ration burning her throat. The wall monitor next to the rickety metal kitchen table blinks the time in block white letters, 05:06, much too soon for her to be awake. Her shift at the factory won't begin until eight, but she's hasn't slept well in this house since Teddy left. Too empty. Too quiet. A sense of suspense that something is happening impossibly far away while time in her deteriorating row house stands still.
Below the clock, a line blinks in urgent red. "One new message." Below that, the message header from the Adjutant General's office, with the title "Re. Theodore J. Calhoun."
She scratches at the paint on the table where it's flaking away to bare metal and tries to remember Teddy's face as he boarded the transport four years ago. But all she can conjure up are memories of him as a boy--eating breakfast at this table, the paint hidden by a tablecloth since donated to the war effort. She remembers his fierce smile as he played Zero-G ball at the recreation center, and how solemnly he'd stood at his father's graveside as dirt thudded on the empty coffin.
He'd grown up almost without her noticing. Like his father, he'd enlisted at the first opportunity, determined to follow his hero, a man he barely remembered, to a distant planet to fight an enemy that few on Earth had ever seen.
She should've been prepared, but she'd forgotten youth's exuberance. The war had worn it out of her, worn it out of everyone left behind. Two generations of waiting and loss, husbands and wives, sons and daughters returning only as a name in an electronic communication, their bodies abandoned on some impossibly distant world.
Urgent messages only came to a house like this for one of two reasons, she knew. A commendation for some act of valor, news of a promotion maybe, a cause for pride and a quiet, uneasy celebration. Or, like the message she'd received twenty years ago, a short paragraph filled with words like "profound sorrow" and "loss," and vague details that did nothing to help a person comprehend why her husband would never return home.