“Shore Leave”

Published in Eclectic Flash Vol. 1 (September 2010).

Shore Leave

Across the airstrip, soldier’s feet applaud against the pavement while Sari runs toward them, her children’s hands in hers, to welcome Jack, her husband, back from the ruined land of her ancestors. She almost laughs, picturing Grandmother’s reaction to Emma in a skirt and cowboy boots at nine, how Jack cackled for days about the face Grandmother made. Sari’s right knee aches as her foot strikes the asphalt, but her legs will not slow and she doesn’t try to stop. The rock in her stomach tells her he’s there, and she pictures Jack’s grin so she can match it to his face, but features blur in all the camouflage and buzz-cuts. Sari’s son Adair runs ahead of her, his yells of “Papa” so excited and sharp that he sounds scared.

The men stride forward and Sari is the only woman—only civilian—as the stomping men surround her and move on. Her mind spins through the past few weeks—the mail she’s let pile up, none of it bearing a military insignia; the times she’s forgotten to plug in her cell phone because Jack usually reminds her; the names she’s neglected to record at the hospital, despite Post-It reminders from the doctors and receptionists—but none of this reveals a reason for Jack’s absence. The first coffin is unloaded from the plane and the blood leaves Sari’s face and settles wetly in her gut. She tells herself that Jack is one of the men—same height, same build—carrying the plain wooden box with a flag placed delicately over top, even as she pictures herself in all black, receiving a flag folded into a triangle from a man wearing the same uniform as her husband’s.

Her daughter’s touch startles Sari; the soft, clammy lines of Emma’s palm are not the dry, rough fabric she was imagining, and she jerks away from Emma as if burned. The soldiers are breaking rank now, jogging to their families, laughing and hugging and crying, as a uniformed man with a clipboard walks up to each wife who is frantic, confused, places a hand on her shoulder, makes a check on the list he carries. Sari swallows hard as she remembers the fading scent on the pillow next to hers, pictures the watch she has already wrapped and labeled for Jack’s thirty-fifth birthday, imagines the weight of the unfamiliar hand that will soon rest on her bicep. Emma looks up, not smiling anymore, asks where Papa is and all Sari can murmur is that she doesn’t know; she looks for her son’s ever-present smile and finds Adair halted beside her, grim, searching for a quick wink on the face of every passing man.

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