Alarms blare. It is the end. David knows it as much as he knows anything else. Below, glorious golden clouds meld in a blue atmosphere. So much like Earth. But his family won’t see the light of this star system for twelve years. They will grow old and die, and if he ever makes it back all that will be waiting is a grave. Assuming, of course, there is a planet to return to, and a way home.
The ship falls, and David with it. McLonsky’s blood bubbles and flutters around the cockpit in globules that have minds of their own.
This is it. The end. David closes his eyes, and he waits for his Maker’s embrace.
Kewj faft. (The end is coming.)
Vivakhakh kãlo bã. (Balls of fire.)
R̀ì̃. Lì̃pkha. Sà. Rẽ r̀a ka kewj. (Body. Metal. Life. It will all end.)
He unleashes the first scream of his life. A wailing, triumphant, horrific, pained shriek. Being floods into his infantile body, and he notices the sensation of being severed before there are towels and swaddles and big, pink figures that sound familiar but look alien. He squeezes his too-tiny hands, and he scrunches his too-tiny feet, because what else is there for him to do? But then, he is held against a bosom, and the warmth of his mother’s skin is so calming and loving that he can’t help but slow the cries, to give in to the sensation of comfort that permeates him so deeply and powerfully. A deeper voice is there, too, and when he looks up, he sees a bearded man with blue-green eyes and a kind smile.
It’s the smile he’ll hold onto, even when, in two years, that man leaves. How could he know that? Maybe that’s why he grips at his mother’s bosom harder, clenching her. Because she will be gone soon, too.
She sings him a song, so soft, so beautiful, in her ragged voice. It sounds like a pauper’s declaration of existence, a defiance of the world order. An inability to stay still. And as she sings to him, he closes his eyes and sleeps his first sleep, the first of many, the best of them all.
Zà nẽya. (You will see.)
Yãll rũ dir̀ ye yãll ye rũ dir̀. (This is the only way.)
Rẽ is lisor̀n , kì̃r̀d rẽ is sãfì̃. (It is sad, but it is necessary.)
She holds his hand in the hospital bed. When she does, she stares up at him just as he had at her only seven years prior. He doesn’t remember that. Though, sometimes a strange memory will lift him, and he will be encompassed by the revery of before, the impossibility of then. He is alive, so very alive, and that is what makes staring down at his bald mother so difficult. So unfair.
“You are going to grow up and be so smart,” she whispers to him. Her voice is strained, and her throat is thin, and her body is thin, and she holds his hand with a vice-like grip.
He should be here, but he is off somewhere else. Last David knew, he was trying his luck in Atlantic City, posing for pictures with real-estate moguls and getting handsy with the cocktail waitresses. That’s what Mom said, at least, in the privacy of her bedroom, drinking bottles of wine and scouring the old photo albums with crystal tears on her cheeks.
She squeezes his hand, brings him back to now, and David glances over his shoulder. The hospital seems empty, even though he can hear faint chatter and the occasional mechanical beeps of health and dying. He climbs into bed with her, and she almost pushes him away. But then, he is nestled beside her, his head on her bosom, her hands on his head, and she sings him a song.
Her voice unlocks something in his throat, and before he knows it, he is crying. The tears blubber free from his mouth and his eyes because it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair, it’s not fair. Donnie Anderson, his best and only friend in first grade, once told him that God existed because the world needed some good, but where is that God now? Where in the universe is His focus that it requires his mother die?
David holds his mother, and he cries, he wails, and she sings, and she kisses his sweaty forehead, and twenty-two days later, she dies in that hospital bed while the news plays on the dusty, wall-mounted TV.
Yãll rũ pam viviv bã. (Feed on his memories, children).
Pũdbĩ fàyd bã. (A crumb of terror).
Kẽp. Fi. (Yes, feed.)
He’s on a bus in Iceland. The world is achingly small and vastly huge. Yet, as he stares out at the snowcapped mountains, David wonders if the world is a microcosm of the universe, if the snowy planets and windswept gas giants are merely humongous examples of Earth’s sand strewn deserts and frozen-over ponds. It’s when he’s pondering these things that a woman gets on the bus.
She is a prism of regality. She is a sunbeam on a freezing tundra. She is she, in every way, in every reality, in every beauty. She is the inexorable answer to his soul, and David knows, as she glances over the almost-full bus, that she is his wife. He knows, when he stares into her eyes, that her laugh fills him with giddiness. He knows, when she approaches, that she is a buoyant drunk, that she will clasp her arm to his waist one of these ever-morning nights, basking under Iceland’s midnight sun, and it’s on one of those perfect mixtures of day and night that she will lean up on her tiptoes and wrap her arms around his neck. He will kiss her, and he will cry, because how can anything be this perfect? How can anything be this beautiful?
That night, they will make love, and the world will spill away into a mixture of pastel colors as he strokes her cheek, as he gazes upon the spiritual figure of her romance, as they reveal the barest bones of their bodies to each other, as the chatter of drunken men calling out for a second and third and fourth round pours through the open hotel window. But there is nothing except her, except for the honesty of her name that he calls out, except for the sweat that trickles from her skin, from the way she feels against him, from the way she begs, kiss me, kiss me, as if the end of the world is impending and the death of life is a certainty, and the only thing to do now is enjoy it while they can.
He knows all of this as she approaches the empty seat beside him and asks, “Do you mind if I sit here?”
He smiles, holding back tears, and says, “Please do.” Then, after a pause, “I’m David.”
“Hi, David. I’m Ava.”
Ke fàrl giltu chã vĩyf. (Do not let him wake.)
Ni parf is fàrl bẽzya. (Our drink is not yet complete).
Ni kẽkhẽẽ pantì̃ kej ku khemz. (Our children depend on his pain)
Her name is Nhi, and she is born at 9:37am on a Thursday. She comes into the world as every child does, and she stares up at him with wide eyes and a wisp of jet-black hair on her head. As Ava holds her against her bosom, David reaches a big finger out and Nhi grasps it with her tiny hand. She lays there against Ava, and David leans down toward his daughter’s head, and he whispers just soft enough so only she can hear his words.
“I won’t leave,” he whispers. “Never. I will never leave you.”
She believes him, he sees, because she has to.
But he does leave her. Twelve years later, when the opportunity arises to explore deep Space, he sits her and Ava down at the kitchen table. He tells them as plainly as he can why he wants to go, and he watches Nhi’s face break in two. Her frown is piercing, an accusation, and he takes it because he knew, going in, that she would be the one to break first. Ava sits on the other side of the table with her hands in her hair, and she looks so stunningly beautiful, with the kitchen light glowing behind her, that he almost decides to forgo the opportunity.
“How long will you be gone?” Nhi asks, her bottom lip trembling, her voice shaky.
“I don’t know,” he admits. “It’s a long way, but space flight has come a long way. It’s safer, faster.”
“What’s your mission length?” Ava asks. Her voice is low, grave.
“Six years,” David admits with reticence.
Nhi pushes out of her chair and runs to her room, her feet pattering against the hardwood floor. Ava stares at him from across the table.
He moves closer to her, and he takes her hand. She lets him, but she doesn’t hold his back, and that breaks his heart.
“She’ll be eighteen by the time you get back,” Ava says, chewing on the inside of her cheek. “You’ll miss everything.”
“And still you want to go?”
David strokes her thumb, rubbing her knuckles, gripping her, holding her. “Wouldn’t you?” he asks.
She pulls her hand away. “No.”
She gets out of her chair, too, and she walks away, to see Nhi.
He knocks on Nhi’s door. It’s late. Much too late. He has to be at the base at five the next morning, and it’s well past midnight. She’s still awake, lying in bed, her nightlight casting stars on the wall.
She lifts her head when he approaches, and David flicks on the light. She doesn’t say anything. No begging for him to stay, no desperate tears in an attempt to pull his heart in her direction. Instead, she crawls out from under the Winnie-the-Pooh sheets and flings her arms around his neck. She clings to him as hard as she can, digging her little nails into his flesh, and he holds her as long as she needs.
He will not come back from this moment. He knows that as he holds his daughter one final time, and so he holds her tighter and longer than he did before. It’s then that he does the only thing he wished he’d done the first time: he sings to her, that song he somehow remembers, that memory from the ether of infancy. He sings it in her ear in his gravelly, low voice. And he tells her how deeply and how honestly he loves her. How proud he is of her.
When she releases him and wipes her eyes, he tells her everything is going to be okay.
She believes him because she has to.
When he goes to Ava that night, she is sitting on the edge of the bed. In one hand is a makeup wipe. Mascara streaks her face. It’s as if she knows, too. He sits beside her, and he slips his hand into her free palm. They sit there together, and he thinks about that bus in Iceland. About that magical night. She leans her head against his shoulder, and she kisses his neck, and she begs him to stay. It’s the same word over and over again: Please. Please. Please. Please. Please. Please.
He is desperate to change this moment. He is desperate to hold her the way she wants to be held. But the next morning, he wakes before her, and he writes her one final letter. When he kisses it, his tears stain the paper, and he prays to return.
But he knows he won’t. It always ends the same way. In that spaceship, with McLonsky’s blood floating in the air. With him spiraling down to some alien world. And he sobs as he drives to the base, because he is just like his father, breaking the one promise a father shouldn’t for no discernable purpose other than selfishness.
He wrenches the wheel and spins around.
No is rẽ ke? (What is he doing?)
Yãll is fàrl zãjàgach. (These are not memories).
Dìr̀b kews… (That power…)
He throws the car into park, but he doesn’t turn it off. The engine continues to chug as he kicks open the driver’s door. He rushes to the front door, and he throws it open, and he screams at the top of his lungs, his voice scraping at his throat like a scalpel slicing through tissue paper.
They come sleepily blundering from their bedrooms, and Nhi is sprinting toward him before she can recognize that he is crying. She hugs him tight, and he falls to the ground with her in his arms, refusing to let her go. Not again. He can’t. Everything in the universe is trying to push him toward that car. Toward the base. But. He. Will. Not.
Susk yãll! (Stop this!)
“I’m not leaving,” he whispers to Nhi. “I promised. I’m not leaving.”
Chã kinniyr̀! (Kill him!)
He stands. Nhi clings to his neck, and Ava reaches for his face. She kisses him under the midnight moonlight, in the pale sliver of blue breaking through the vast darkness of Space. He kisses her back, even as a pain in the back of his head warns him to leave. Warns him that if he doesn’t get back in the car, he will die. This will be his end.
He kisses Ava and he strokes the tears away from her cheeks.
“I’m not going,” he whispers to her.
He scrunches his eyes closed, waiting for a death that must come, a death that is inevitable, a death that the cosmos itself has ordained.
But he holds Nhi tight enough so that, when he does open his eyes at that last second and gazes upon the insectoid horrors glaring down at him, beady eyes and all, his response is to maniacally laugh.