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The Return

The sad future of how we might cope when war comes home—or almost home.

How much do we really want to know about how war affects our peers and loved ones? And how much are we really willing to allow the state control that narrative? This week's Terraform takes a melancholy, chilling look at a too-plausible scenario for future veteran rehabilitation.


Sally Jenson from my daughter's after-care team stopped by to show me some new photographs of where my daughter is sleeping now that she's back from the war. I got to see several special pictures of Rachel's bathroom which I hadn't seen before, very private with marble tiling and an oil painting above the sink instead of a mirror, as well as pictures of the communal table where my daughter eats. The table looked nice, with bread baskets and pepper grinders, and a vase of fake violets in the center. Patriotic flags hung from the ceiling in every room. "What's with all the flags?" I asked. Sally said people like my daughter who returned from the war just liked flags.

The war didn't have an official name yet, though it had been going on for four years, because no one could agree on what to call it. All the suggestions sounded too sci-fi. In the current war, we were fighting against beings no one knew much about. They were apparently hovering somewhere nearby inside a fleet of tear-shaped transport ships. They would not communicate with us. It didn't feel safe, to have silent beings, hovering. "Aliens" seems like such an unrealistic word, so I refused to use it. Who knew what they were. The military had only wanted women, girls really, to volunteer for the mission.

Sally stacked the latest photographs into a pile. "Isn't that bathroom spacious?" she asked, taping at the photo of the bathroom. I told her the entire place looked great but why weren't there any people in the pictures. Specifically, why weren't there pictures of my daughter.

"Camera shy, I guess," Sally said, though Rachel never was. Then Sally opened her screen and asked me to rate my feelings toward the current war on a scale of 1 through 10, 10 being the highest and the most desirable score. Every day Sally asks me to rate the war in this way. These visits, and the scoring, are part of the initial two-month after-care protocol. After two months, I'm not sure what happens to you. I think that depends on how you've scored the war.

Last week I gave the current war a 4 because I was not feeling very positive that day and also it was Rachel's birthday. Such a low score had alarmed Sally. She glared at me then pulled out her stack of pictures and shuffled through them, then threw the pictures aside, then pulled out her screen to show me another video of where my daughter now lived, the close-ups of the cozy couches, the book shelves full of classics, the rugs. There weren't people in that video either.

Today I gave the war a 9. I mean, it was fine. It had become like background noise. Sally typed my answer into her screen and beamed. Her agency would compile my number with the satisfaction numbers of the other parents, then the final number would be released to the public on a weekly schedule. Sally said, "You can't imagine how important a mother's confidence is at this time. People are already acting like the war is over. But it isn't. It's nowhere near over."

"So when is it going to be over?" I asked.

"We need more recruits. You get that, right? So we cannot have negative nellies out there fanning the flames of pessimism. We cannot have any more 4's. Here's an idea: what if you and I agreed to tell a more hopeful and helpful story together? The sooner you start telling your hopeful story, the sooner your daughter is going to feel better."

I did not see the connection between any story I might tell, hopeful or not, and the health of my daughter. I told Sally this. She replied, "I'm trying to explain that your daughter was a hero. I mean, in my mind, she is a hero, still, despite whatever happened."

Before my daughter's reentry, several photographs and a video had surfaced on the net in the night. I was sleeping. Five minutes later, I was still asleep when those pictures and the video vanished. So I never saw the material myself and I can't find a copy or even a reference. The media in question concerned my daughter's team and what might have happened up there. A neighbor told me about a picture he thought he had glimpsed. "What were you doing on your screen at four in the morning?" I asked. It seemed a suspicious time to be awake. My neighbor said the person in the picture had resembled Rachel. At the same time, that person didn't look like her anymore.

"Okay, that makes no sense. Anyway they all wore helmets," I reminded him. "Why did you think that was my daughter?"

"She wasn't wearing a helmet," said my neighbor.

That helmetless girl in the picture had been doing a bad thing or several bad things. Unnecessary violences, my neighbor said vaguely.

"So what's the difference between a necessary and unnecessary violence?" I asked him. "What does a necessary violence look like?" It's not like I had an answer but I badgered my neighbor until he scurried into his home. I mean, those beings weren't even human. I don't know if they even had eyes. There were several follow-up news stories. The record of those stories disappeared within a day. Some artist made a recreation of the video they thought they saw. Those recreations went away as well. When I asked Sally about the vanished pictures and video and the stories, she told me it was already forgotten. "By who?" I asked. "Dust under the rug," she said.

I had wanted to visit Rachel immediately after re-entry, but it was agreed that she needed time to settle in. There were additional rumors. These rumors hinted at how interactions with an being might change a person's body and also their mind. Such rumors struck me as vague and fantastical. Sally agreed. "I consider all rumors, on principle, to be very stupid," she said, "especially when you and I have better things to do with our time." I was encouraged to use up my energy writing letters to my daughter, which Sally would deliver herself. Who writes actual letters anymore? I do now, I guess.

"So you've seen her?" I have asked Sally.

Sally said sure she had.

"And?"

"I've seen her," she said in that always gentle voice of hers.

That evening, I wrote my daughter four separate letters and left them on the cabinet in the foyer. I kept the letters breezy and upbeat, telling her about the pretty sunsets we've been having, like the sky is on fire, and how proud I was of her, because I assume up there she must have done some good. It took some courage to volunteer to go up in that ship no one had used very much. "Don't worry about writing back," I said, in case she wasn't capable of writing.

Sally visited the next day as scheduled. She sat across from me on the couch, only instead of pulling out new photographs of the place where my daughter was, she studied me like I could be hiding something. Also she studied my family room. "I am not hiding anything from you," I insisted, wondering whether someone seen me last night, when I may have broken down and damaged some furniture. I just wanted to hear Rachel's voice. I haven't heard her voice for years. Now the freezer door wouldn't shut and two of the dining room chairs were busted. This was not the story I was supposed to be telling. I may have forgotten, that morning, to put the flag outside. So I made a point, when Sally asked me for my rating, of giving the war a 10.

"Really, a 10? Are you serious?" Sally asked. "You've never given out a 10 before." I reminded Sally that my daughter had signed the paperwork as had I. "Do I look like a troublemaker to you?" I asked. Sally stared at me and said yes, that I looked like a troublemaker. Only once had I protested anything, a long time ago, when the frogs were dying, and the Endangered Species Act was about to be thrown out. And that was that.

"I'm not about to do anything stupid. I want my daughter back," I told Sally.

"Well, then, you better start acting like it. Because this is why I have to keep coming by. This is why—"

She glanced knowingly at the window.

I got the hint. I'm watched. Everybody is being watched.

They think the cameras are so small but they're actually pretty obvious.

When Sally left, I pulled the curtains shut.

The following morning, Sally told me not to shut the curtains.

The photographs Sally kept bringing over never showed any windows. "Why aren't there windows in the rooms?" I asked. Sally said of course there were windows, but if reflective glass were included in the pictures, the flash would make the exposure funny. She was talking like she knew something about photography and it turns out, in her youth, she dabbled with landscape photographs. "Wow," I said because nobody does that kind of thing anymore.

What I really want to know is whether there were any beautiful things about where my daughter went. I'm not expecting all three years to have been beautiful, especially after whatever happened, but I want to think that some part of it was nice. Like if Rachel could have looked out the window of the ship and seen the Earth growing very small, thereby putting everything into perspective. Or, if there weren't windows, then how about imagining an image of the Earth fading away while another part of the universe grew brighter. I had told Rachel she didn't have to go. She said, "Okay," then she went.

I asked Sally about the windows on the ship during her next visit. I had made sure that morning to hang up the flag outside my front door. Last night, I sat calmly on the edge of my bed and brushed my hair. Sally said of course there had been windows on the ship and that she bet my daughter saw some mind-blowing backdrops. "Can you ask her about that? About what she saw out the windows?" I asked. Sally opened up her screen and promised me she was writing down my question.

"Rating?" she asked before she left.

"Still a 10," I said.

Sally smiled proudly.

There was a meeting in the school cafeteria that night for the families whose daughters had gone up there. We sat at the lunch tables while Sally stood in the front of the room, where the lunch ladies usually handed out the trays. She began the meeting by asking for our questions, and one mother raised her hand, and Sally called her. It was all very orderly and civil. The mother asked when she was going to get to see her child again. Sally told us with a somber face that the first thing we had to do is prepare ourselves for some changes to have taken place. I raised my hand. Sally ignored me. I said, "What kind of changes?" Sally shook her head and said she can't start talking off the top of her head about changes without her files. She was acting hesitant and worried, as if our love for our children depended on the forms our children take. I don't think she understood our love. "You have to realize that people can change in a lot of different ways," she explained, "especially when they are far away from home and they are asked to make some difficult choices and do hard things."

After the meeting, Sally pulled me into the corner of the cafeteria near the compost bins. She said some returnees don't want to make contact with people from their old life. "I'm not just some person from my daughter's past," I told Sally. "I know you're not," she insisted, but then she asked me questions I don't think people should ask each other. Such as, did I actually want to know what happened to my daughter and those other people's daughters. Did I actually want to know what my daughter did and what she looked like now?

"Let's assume those pictures were real," Sally said.

"What pictures?"

"Those pictures of the girls without their helmets."

"Are you saying those pictures are real?"

"That isn't the correct question. I'm asking do you want to see those pictures?"

I began to sweat. Actually, my heart began heaving. The heat must have kicked on in the room. What if my love for my child resided in a particular part? In her goodness? In her kindness? In her knees or her eyes? What if that part was gone.

Sally laid her hand on my arm. "Some people feel they need to know everything bad that ever happened in order to live their lives," she said. "But you and I, we aren't like that, are we."

When I came home, there was the most gorgeous bird perched on one of the dead logs in the yard. It was tilting back its wild yellow head and singing a song that would be impossible for anybody to remember. I sat on the deck chair and listened to that bird for the longest time. I wonder why it chose my house out of all the places.

The next day when Sally came over, she said guess what, Rachel was feeling much better. Only yesterday she was playing table tennis in the garden. "So there's a garden?" I asked. Sally happened to have a photograph of the flowerbeds, which looked formal and somewhat antiquated. What a lot of rose bushes. I told Sally I always knew my daughter would be good at table tennis because of her quick reaction time, and Sally told me wasn't that the truth.

"By any chance was she drinking lemonade yesterday in the shade?" I asked. "How did you know about the lemonade?" Sally said with disbelief, eyebrows raised. "Because that's exactly what she was drinking. It's her favorite drink. How did you know!"

Yesterday, I asked a few questions about Sally's own childhood, had she ever held a living amphibian, had she ever climbed a real tree, then I asked if this was her dream job. "It sure is," she said after only one moment of hesitation. She showed me a second picture of the ping-pong table, this one taken from a new angle, with a chair, comfortable and empty, in the background. I placed my finger on that image of the chair. "Still camera shy," Sally said. Her smile looked sad, like it was not a real smile. I went into the kitchen and returned with a platter of ladyfingers that had turned stale because I didn't cover them overnight. Sally said, still smiling, "Oh my God, how did you know these were my favorite cookies," though I was the only one who ate them.