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Terri Branche stood silently on the tarmac, her arms tightly wrapped around herself for warmth. Shuffling her feet in order to regain feeling in her toes, Terri let out a huff, steam curling out of her mouth and into the chilly winter air. Licking her chapped lips, Terri cast her gaze down the runway, impatiently anticipating the arrival of the plane. The sky was dark with rain-filled clouds, and Terri cursed the weather, the dropping temperature. If she had a choice, the sun would be shining and the grass would be glowing. Everything would be healthy and new again.
But as Terri cast her gaze around the runway, her surroundings were the opposite of healthy. The grass lining the runways was a dead brown color, and the trees scattered on the edge of the tarmac resembled skeletons rattling in the wind.
It wasn’t fair. The world should be shiny and healthy and new, and everything should be glowing in greeting for the honorary guest about to arrive.
Terri pulled up the sleeve of her jacket to check the time. Ten minutes until the plane should arrive. Her heart thumped with anticipation, and Terri could hardly take the stress anymore. She had been waiting for this moment for months, and nothing could keep her from seeing the person she loved most in the world.
“Terri,” someone said suddenly, wrenching her attention away from her watch. “It’s here.”
Terri’s head snapped up, and she quickly focused on the plane that was making its way down the runway. Her heart skipped a beat, and suddenly Terri couldn’t breathe.
Feeling her mother wrap an arm around her elbow, Terri tore her gaze away from the plane and smiled down at her tearful mother.

“No tears,” Terri chided, fighting to keep her voice steady. “You know what he said. He wants us to greet him with smiles, not tears.”

Terri’s mother wiped a tear away just in time to have another fall. “I know,” she said with a small laugh. “I can’t help it.”

Terri turned back to the runway, her eyes following the plane as it gradually slowed down. Fighting to keep the tears back, she forced a smile on her face when all she wanted to do was break down sobbing. On her left side, Terri’s father placed a hand on her shoulder, his gaze trained on the plane and it coasted to a halt. Terri stood motionless, watching the plane and waiting for her husband to disembark.

Johnathan Branche had served in the military for ten years. Six months previously, John left Terri for the last time, promising that in six months, he would be coming home for good. Their goodbye was as tearful as always, but Terri let him go with the reassurance that he was going to return home in six months and never leave her again.
John hadn’t wanted a big crowd to meet him. Didn’t even want Terri to be there. But Terri had been stubborn, and in the end she had arrived at the airport for John’s arrival with her parents and two of her closet friends. A week before his scheduled arrival, Terri had called John to sort out the flight home, and he had insisted on no one meeting him at the airport.

“Don’t want...lots of people...lots of people mean...lots of tears.”

John’s voice faded in and out, and Terri cursed the distance between them and the static that prevented her from hearing her husband’s voice.

“I understand, but we all want to see you,” Terri said quietly. “We miss you.”

“No. Don’t want...” John’s voice was suddenly cut off and Terri heard heavy breathing and a soft noise of pain.

“John?” Terri asked, fearful. “You there?”

“Still here,” John said, his voice crackling. Terri refrained from asking him if he was okay, because she knew his answer was always going to be the same; ‘I’m fine.’’

“But you’re not here,” Terri said, her voice choked with tears.

“Of course...I am,” John said, his voice warm. “I never left. I’m always...with you.”

Terri covered her mouth with her hand, muffling the sob that threatened to escape her.

“Remember that,” John said. “I’m always...with you, no matter how...far apart we may be.”

“John...”

“I don’t want...anyone to be there.”

“I don’t care,” Terri said fiercely. “You can’t stop me.”

“Gotta be...strong.”

“I’ve been at that same airport for every plane you’ve been on. There is no way I’m going to miss this one.”

“You gotta promise...no crying. I don’t...I don’t like seeing...women cry. You gotta...welcome me home...with a smile.”

“John...”
“Promise...me.”

“I promise,” Terri said quietly. “No tears. But there’s no way I’m gonna let you return home with no one to welcome you.”

“Fine. I’ll see you...soon.”

“Promise?” Terri asked, her voice choked. “You better come home.”

“I...promise.”

“I love you,” Terri said, her voice softening. “I always have, and I always will.”

“I love you...too,” John managed. “Remember, I’m always...with you.”

Terri’s thoughts were abruptly cut off as her parents’ grip tightened, and her breath caught in her throat as she saw her husband for the first time in six months. Unable to hold back her tears, Terri slowly began to walk forward, her gaze not leaving her husband for a second.

Shaking uncontrollably, she blinked away her tears as she halted in front of him.

“Hey baby,” Terri said, reaching out. She placed a hand on the polished oak, her fingers ghosting over the gold plaque that read Captain Johnathan Branche. Allowing her tears to fall, Terri smiled, just as she had promised her husband she would when he returned home. “Welcome home.”





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