She thought of Tommy, his bright, flickering eyes, just like the star she stared at now.
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The Brightest Star
The gentle breeze lifter Emma's hair, then let it fall to her shoulders as she peered over the metal railing surrounding her second-floor balcony. Bouncing on her toes with anticipation, her gaze swept the street below; first one way, then the other. She glanced at her watch, but only a minute had passed since the last time she looked. The fragrance of fresh-made bread filled the air, reminding her of the preparations for today's homecoming. She smiled and bit her lower lip as she mentally clicked the items on the list. Baked lasagna; ready for the oven. Inch-thick steaks; seasoned and ready for the grill. And finally, two bottles of red wine, chilled. All of his favorite foods, all of it ready and waiting, she told herself.
Only one thing was missing; Tommy.
Emma stepped back into her apartment and stood in front of a mirror combing her trembling fingers through her wavy, blond hair. Tilting her head, she smiled as Jenny's soft cooing drifted out of the bedroom.
Emma returned to the sunlit balcony with her baby snuggled against her shoulder. She Glanced at her watch again, then looked both ways along the street. Emma turned to her daughter and said, "You're going to meet your daddy today, Jenny." Emma poked her finger gently into her daughters belly and watched her toothless smile dimple her supple cheeks. Emma turned back to the street and mumbled, "Where is he Jenny, huh?"
Emma wet her lips as a yellow taxi turned onto the street and made its way toward her. But instead of stopping, it accelerated past and disappeared under the trees lining the street. Emma sighed and thought about the taxi she watched a year ago; the one that took Tommy away.
The stars disappeared as dawn silvered the edges of drifting popcorn clouds. Emma and Tommy turned to each other and kissed.
"Let's look up at the sky every night while you're away, Tommy." She turned to him. "Find our star in the sky above you, and I'll do the same thing here. As we look up at it we'll know we're looking at our star together," she smiled, "just as if you were here." She turned her gaze to the greying sky, "But remember, the brightest star, the blue one that twinkles? That's our star."
"I'll remember." Tommy smiled and pulled Emma closer to him. "I'll look for it every night, no matter where I am."
Tommy and Emma had sat on their balcony every night during his two-week leave. They watched the stars together and talked about their future and their growing family. They had discovered a star, brighter and larger than most of the others. Telling herself that the star flickered like the light in Tommy's bright, blue eyes, Emma had claimed the star as theirs.
Because this would be Tommy's last morning home before leaving Emma, and their unborn baby, they woke before dawn to share the stars one last time. Sitting in the early morning light, Tommy laid his hand on Emma's swollen belly; the movement beneath his palms widened his eyes with amazement.
"Did you feel that?" Emma asked.
"Yes I did. That's incredible."
Now that the stars hid behind a pink and grey sky they kissed once more and Tommy went inside to put his uniform on and prepare to leave.
Emma stood alone on the balcony, her distant stare taking in the chain of dark storm clouds rising above the golden horizon. Tommy shrugged into his uniform jacket and stepped out onto the balcony and walked to Emma.
"Beautiful sunrise," he said.
Emma sighed. "I keep thinking about tomorrow's sunrise—you won't be here." She blinked and turned to him.
Tommy put his hand on Emma's swollen belly and looked at her. "I don't feel anything now," he said. He took his hand away. "Maybe he's still sleeping."
"He?" Emma looked at Tommy with raised eyebrows. "What makes you think it's a he? She smiled, "It may be a she."
"That's okay with me." His hand brushed Emma's cheek as he pushed blond hair behind her ear. "I can't picture myself teaching a son to fish, build campfires, or erect tree forts in the back yard." Tommy looked down the street to the empty intersection at the corner.
Playfulness lightened her voice as she spoke. "That's all well and good, but how will you feel when some boy comes to take your sixteen-year-old daughter on a date?"
Tommy smiled, wiggling his eyebrows. "Maybe learning to fish isn't such a bad thing after all."
The sound of a car engine growing louder ended their laughter. They turned and watched a taxi pull into a space along the curb below them. The driver honked the horn twice and waited.
Tommy sighed. "Well, I guess that's my ride." He reached out and pulled Emma into a hug, her belly pressed against him.
Emma leaned her head back, smiled, and brushed imaginary lint from Tommy's uniform, then tugged his lapel to smooth unseen wrinkles. She rubbed her pajama sleeve against the silver bar on his collar. "There," she said. "Nice and shiny."
She fought back the tears glistening her eyes and forced a smile. "A year without me...will you survive not seeing me?" She lowered her eyes wishing she could change the word. Survive is not a good choice of words, she told herself.
He gently lifted her chin with two fingers and kissed her lightly. "I'll be alright. I'll miss you, but the time will go by fast." He stepped back and put his hands on Emma's round belly. "You take care of him...or her. And write so I know how both of you are doing." He pulled her against him again and put his cheek next to hers and whispered, "I love you."
"I'll write every day." Emma inhaled the smell she found so attractive—his smell. Her voice wavered as she spoke, "I love you, too."
They kissed again, and then Tommy hefted his duffel bag over his shoulder and held his other hand out to Emma. Together they walked downstairs to the waiting cab. The driver took Tommy's bag and tossed it into the trunk, then got behind the wheel to give the couple a few minutes to say goodbye.
Emma could no longer hold back her tears. She swiped at them, only to have them replaced by more. Her body shook as she felt Tommy pull her to him. His warm breath caressed her cheek as he spoke.
"It'll be okay, I just know it. I have a lot to come home to." He leaned back and held her shoulders. "Come on, now. Give me a smile."
Emma's forced smile dripped tears as she leaned in and kissed him.
Tommy held her at arm's length again, bent his knees slightly and looked into her wet eyes. "Hey," he said softly, "give me a real smile, one that will last an entire year."
Emma's brown eyes focused deeply into his as a tentative smile wavered on her lips, then blossomed into a bright, steady smile. Tommy wiggled his eyebrows at her and smiled, making her laugh. "That's much better." Tommy pulled her to him and kissed her. "I love you," he said. He turned and walked to the cab.
Emma watched him walk away and called out, "I love you," but wasn't sure her words reached him.
Tommy slid into the back seat and pulled the door closed.
The driver turned to Tommy and said, "You shipping out?"
"Vietnam," Tommy said as he turned and looked out the back window.
The cabby looked past Tommy's shoulder. "That's tough, soldier."
Emma sat on the curb, warm tears dripping from her chin, her body shaking with sobs as the cab pulled out into traffic. She watched Tommy's face grow smaller in the rear window until the car disappeared around the corner.
"Maybe I have the date wrong," she said to Jenny, gently bouncing the baby on her hip. "I'm sure his letter said he would be home today." Her gaze lingered on Jenny as a smile broke across her face. "You don't understand a word I'm saying, do you? She kissed Jenny's forehead and turned toward the street corner and thought about Tommy's last letter.
It had arrived a week ago, and it was filled with words of excitement and anticipation of coming home. Over the last few months, Tommy's letters had changed. When he first arrived, over there, the letters had a positive tone. Emma never allowed herself to say the word Vietnam. She heard the word every night on the news, always followed by the names of the local boys who had been killed in action. Over there, sounded much safer to her.
His first letters had been filled with what his life was like; heat, humidity, soaking rains, and food that had been packed into cans years ago. He told her about the men he led into battle—his men. He worried about some of them, but said they were all brave and he felt lucky to be serving with them. But mostly his letters sounded positive. She knew that he was keeping the worst to himself, hoping she wouldn't worry too much. But she did anyway. How could she not?
She remembered his first letter after he was notified of Jenny's birth. She could almost feel his tears as she read his words. He wrote about how proud he was to be a father. He wrote about beginning a college fund so they could be sure Jenny would have the opportunity to receive a good education. His letters were filled with eagerness to return home, meet his daughter, and live together as a family.
But then they slowly began to change.
His letters lacked the enthusiasm he once felt for what he was doing—his mission, is how he put it. He complained about his superiors, saying they were more concerned with their careers than with the men. He wrote about coming home and never having to do anything like this again.
She had talked to her mother about the changes, but her mother explained that Tommy was probably just tired and missing home. But Emma thought it was something else. She believed it was a sign that something was very wrong. His resolve seemed to have faded, replaced by fear. Oh, he didn't write about fear, but Emma saw it in his words. All he wrote about was how much he longed to leave the war behind and come home to be part of a family again.
Squeaking car brakes pulled Emma from her thoughts. Without realizing it, she had begun to tremble. She ran her sweaty palms against her dress, then looked down and sighed. It's not him, she thought. Tommy would take a cab from the base when he was allowed to leave, and the car below her was a black sedan.
Jenny began squirming so Emma took her inside and laid her in a white, wicker bassinette, then pulled the thin blanket up over her bare legs. She jumped at the sound of a knock at the apartment door. She rubbed her daughter's chin with the tip of her finger and said. "That's your daddy, sweetheart. But I'm first. I've waited a year to hear that knock at the door. She stopped at the mirror and ran her hands through her hair, moistened her lips, then hurried at the sound of a second knock. A smile widened on her face.
Emma pulled the door open and said, "Welcome home, Tom.." Her stomach lurched, blood pulsed in her ears, her knees filled with cold. Her hand fell away from the doorknob as she backed away without taking her eyes away from the two uniformed men standing there.
"Mrs. Archer?" One of the men said as he took a step into the apartment.
Jenny backed further away. "No!" she said. Her shaking hands rose to cover her face. "No!" she repeated.
"Mrs. Archer, please, may we come in?"
"No, go away." A torrent of tears streamed from between her fingers. The bassinet bumped against the back of her legs as she moved further away from the men she knew had brought bad news.
"Please, Mrs. Archer, please, sit down." The officer spoke softly as he came forward and took her arm and eased her onto the sofa. He knelt in front of her and took her hands in his. "I'm sorry, I'm sorry." His gaze moved to the bassinet, and then quickly looked away and said, "I'm truly sorry."
The other officer sat next to Emma and spoke softly. "Is there someone you can call, someone who can come stay with you?" He put his hand on her quaking shoulder and asked again. "Do you have a priest or a minister we can call for you." Emma shook her head.
Emma sat alone on the balcony, the darkness complete. She held the letter the officer had given her yesterday—the last one Tommy had written but didn't have the time to mail. She had been able to read only half of it before tears clouded her eyes. She reached into the envelope and removed the letter. The pages shook as she held it in front of her eyes and read the last part of his letter, her tears spotted the paper.
One last mission and then I'll be leaving this terrible place. They are airlifting my platoon tomorrow on a routine mission, no trouble expected. Hard to believe that my last mission will be so easy, but I'm not complaining.
The letter continued.
The last year feels like it has been ten-years long, but it's just about over. I miss you and love you, and I can't wait to meet Jenny. I'm holding her picture now as I write to you.
It's difficult for me to imagine that in just one more week I'll be home with you and my daughter. I'll never leave again...never.
He had signed the letter with Tommy, followed by three X's.
Emma's shoulders sagged and tears spotted her dress as sobs shook her body. Her hand dropped heavily onto her lap. She raised her eyes to the night sky and focused on a blue, flickering star, the brightest one in the velvet heavens. Their star.
She thought of Tommy and his bright, blue eyes that flickered just like the star she stared at now.
Emma turned toward the open door at the sound of Jenny's soft cries. A sad smile creased her face, she sighed and straightened her back. She folded Tommy's letter and put it in her pocket, then wiped her tears with the back of her hand. She rose from the chair and turned toward the open door.
"I'm coming, Jenny. Don't worry baby. Mama's here."
She walked into the dark apartment, closing the door behind her.
Word count 2499. Entered in the Crazy Creative Colours Contest. November 4th - 11th, 2012