Emily could feel the package slipping from her grasp. NO, she thought. I’ll never be able to pick it up if I drop it. But she could gain no purchase on the box, not without dropping one of the other four she was carrying.
She bobbled, trying to balance it, but just as she felt it slipping irretrievably to her left, a hand reached forward to grab it and push it back to the top of her pile.
“Oh, thank you,” she said, turning to see who had come to her aid.
“No problem,” he responded, before she’d even finished speaking.
Her brown eyes widened, and so did the matching orbs she saw before her.
“I had no idea you were in town,” Emily said, unsure what else she could say. It had been all of 20 years since he’d left to join the Air Force, to learn to fly. His father had been determined that Matt become a lawyer, forcing their son to go to the U of I before sending him to law school at Notre Dame. As soon as the degree was in his hand, Matt headed to the recruiter’s office.
“I did what he wanted,” Matt had told his mother that day. “Now I’m doing what I want.”
That was the last she’d seen him. His father, for whom Matt had been named, refused to go to basic training graduation, wouldn’t talk to him on the phone, forced Emily to cut their conversations short, was too busy to visit him when he moved from base to base. After a few years, he’d stopped calling home.
Now, he stood there looking almost exactly as he had all those years ago, hair still dark, the soft waves barely showing up in the short cut he’d always worn. His eyes were bright, but the grin she’d seen when she’d first turned around had faded.
“Uh, yeah, yeah,” he said, dropping his gaze and mumbling.
“Are you living here now?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m staying with Brent Davis. You remember him? From my class in high school?”
“Can you two move ahead?” came a frazzled voice behind them.
“Sorry,” Emily responded, turning to shuffle a few feet ahead in the long pre-Christmas line at the post office. She turned back to Matt. “Yes, I remember Brent. He was at the house nearly every day.”
“I’m staying with him while I figure out where I’m going to live now.”
“Live now …?”
“I’m retired from the Air Force.”
“Retired,” Emily repeated quietly. Her son, retired? She noticed he was carrying packages, too. On his hand was a pale strip where a wedding ring might have been. Had he been married? What had happened? Did he have children?
“Retired,” she repeated. “Are you thinking about coming back home?”
“To Rockford?” he asked. “I don’t think so, but I’ll probably stay in the Midwest somewhere.”
She looked at him, wondered if he knew that his father had died a few years ago. She didn’t really want to tell him that in a line at the post office.
“What are your plans for Christmas?” she asked. “Would you like to come to the house for dinner? I’d love it if you’d join us. There are things,” she paused. “… things we should talk about.”
“I, uh,” he looked over her head. “You need to move up again,” he said, nodding toward the front.
She turned, moved a few feet closer to the counter, then turned back.
He was gone.
“Hey, lady, the line moved again,” said the stranger behind her. “Go forward.”