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Snail Mail

Steven Fischer is a writer and medical student living in southern Wisconsin. When he's not cracking open a textbook (or a patient's thorax), he can be found exploring the northwoods by bike, boat, or boot. You can read more of his work at stevenbfischer.com.

There's a letter in his pocket.
I feel it as I lift his body up out of the mud and onto the transport. Above my head, the sky is still burning--the afterglow of EMPs and plasma cannons lingering like snowflakes--but down here in the dirt, the fighting's been over for days, and we're just busy collecting the dead.
The loading drone starts to pull him away before I can grab the letter. Its stubby pneumatic arms dart beneath mine and carry his body into the cargo hold. I lean inside, next to all the other corpses, and fish the letter out of his pocket before he's gone.
I figure if he made the effort to write it down--to actually find a pen and paper somewhere, then carry it with him all this time--someone should read it, at least.
I don't have a chance until the next morning. I'm bone-tired and starving by the time I reach my bunk, but I keep my eyes open just a few minutes longer. It's nothing special, really. Just the same sappy stuff we all put in our e-files. Only he decided to write it down.
Still, it's nice. Feels like I have a little piece of him with me.
I read it again the next night, and again the night after.
I'm still reading it by the time the war's over. I don't go through it word by word--I know them all by then--but I open it just to look at the ink and the signature on the bottom.
There's a picture in there, too. Him and some girl at a beach back on Earth. I suppose she's the one he wrote it to, but all it has at the top is a first name.
I read it as they fly us home, and on every break from cryo that we get along the way.
I read it by the light of Procyon and Persei, and a dozen other stars that I don't know the names of. I read it by the glow of the lamp above my bunk and dream it in my head when I'm frozen in the fugue.
And I think that it must have been nice to have someone worth writing to. Even if he knew he couldn't deliver it for decades. Even if he knew she couldn't wait for him that long.
It doesn't take me long to find her. Just run a query with the photo, and the terminal spits out her full name and address. They didn't have that tech when we'd left Earth, or at the very least, it wasn't so public. Hell, they didn't have most of the things the planet's grown used to.
The trip to New Denver takes an hour by vac tube. I watch the cornfields cruise by at a speed I can't fathom. Cornfields and prairie where I remember only ash. And I read the letter. The only piece of this planet that still feels familiar.
I recognize her the moment she opens the door. I was worried I wouldn't, but beneath the wrinkles and white hair, she's still the same girl. I tell her she doesn't know me, but I hand her the letter, and she invites me inside.
Was I a friend of his? she asks.
No, ma'am. Only time I ever saw him, he was already dead.
She nods like that somehow makes sense. Then she hands the letter right back without reading.
He's been dead sixty years, she says. No point in waking feelings she's buried.
She thanks me and sends me off with a hug. Besides, she says, it must mean more to you than to me by now.
I walk out the door with the letter in my pocket, and I read it, one more time, on a planet more alien than the one where I'd found it.
The End
This story was first published on Monday, May 29th, 2017

Author Comments

Very few things have remained constant throughout human history, but war, and loss, and a universal desire for belonging are among them. As someone who has spent too much of his life too far away from the people he loves and the place he calls home, this piece has a special place in my heart. I hope it makes you feel a little something as well.

- Steven Fischer
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