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Schrodinger's Message

Brent is a recent transplant to Portland, Maine where he pushes buttons as a vocation and as a creative outlet and is hoping to survive his first winter in the way north. He is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and can be found online at BrentCSmith.net.

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.
She lifts her finger to the screen and pauses over the button to open the message, but then folds her finger into a trembling palm. As long as the message remains unread, her son is alive. She moves her hand away and sips her cooling coffee, composing the message in her imagination.
Dear Mrs. Calhoun,
It is with (profound regret)(great honor) that I inform you of the (death)(promotion) of your son, Theodore J. Calhoun, 48417EIX, Infantry, during the recent actions on Denebis IV.
Your son performed valiantly during a key engagement with enemy forces, and was personally responsible for saving the lives of his regiment with his courageous actions. He has been (posthumously)(personally) awarded the Medal of Honor for his (sacrifice)(bravery) during this conflict.
I realize the (burden of sorrow)(upwelling of pride) that you must be feeling, and I am deeply (sorrowful)(proud) to be conveying this news to you. Your (son's body)(son) will return on the next returning transport through the Terran-Denebis wormhole.
Please accept my utmost (sympathy)(congratulations) in this time of (sorrow)(joy).
Eduardo G. Hernandez
Major General
Her coffee is cold now. The time reads 07:12. She should ready herself for her shift. Ten hours monitoring an assembly line littered with metal fittings for the war and then a slow shuffle in the winter chill to this house where she has lived alone for the last four years. Will her heart ever beat faster at the sight of a loved one passing through the threshold? Or will she continue to deteriorate in step with the house around her until she too is gone and there is no one to remember her life and her family?
Teddy has lived in her memory for the past four years. Her husband has endured there since she was young and hopeful and still eager to sample life's possibilities. There's a lonely contentment in living with memories and possibilities. A pale reflection of what she once dreamed her life would be, but a rock to cling to nonetheless.
She shuts off the monitor and rises to prepare for her shift. For today at least, her son will continue living.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, October 1st, 2014
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