You are an astronaut spending your last few hours on Earth before a journey into space.
The chill of the beer washing into and around my mouth is consoling today. The scent of the burgers on the grill wafts over me like a memory from childhood, and I am saying a little prayer that I can keep this tranquil instant at the forefront of my mind for the duration.
I can see the children frolicking amongst each other on the swing set, but for some reason their laughter is muffled and distant. I suppose I should get accustomed to this now, because in a few hours everything will sound this way. They’re all so carefree, playing “make pretend” with their arms out like airplanes; their feet on the ground. They dreams big dreams that are so distant that they still dare to keep them without fear of repercussion or regret. To be so unfettered again… I wonder if I would have chosen another destination…
The sun is gently kissing the flesh of the shoulders slightly bare of cloth, and I can’t help but ponder the possibility that I may never feel this sensation, this way, in this place, ever again.
I cannot embark on this journey in such a negative state of mind. Shut it down, McBride. Unacceptable.
T minus ten hours until take-off. I’m due to the base in two very short hours. Two miniscule hours left on this planet with my body exposed to the sunshine and the fresh air before I suit up. Ten short hours until that type of exposure will mean the end of me, and my meager existence will cease. Ten microscopic moments in the history of the universe.
Should all plans go awry, and I have but these one hundred and twenty minutes left of my own time before unfortunate circumstances claim the energy that made me decide that space was my destiny, what will I have left behind?
Just a handful of regret and missed opportunities, with my name on a plaque in a museum somewhere.
Of course, I have these few beautiful, precious people who have gathered here in my honor today. They grill me burgers and congratulate me, but they have no idea how truly isolated I have had to remain through my entire adult life in order to make my childhood dreams come true. Twenty nine years, and I have fifteen people in my backyard.
“Thinking too hard again, bro?”
“Jesus Mark, you can’t just sneak up on me like that!”
“Dude, I’ve been standing here for five solid minutes while you’ve been acting like a space cadet. Oh! Get it? Space cadet?” He laughed heartily, obviously trying to evoke the same reaction from his visibly horrified brother.
“Yes. Yes, I get the joke.”
“Man, you have got to lighten up. I know that this is all surreal and stuff, but everything you have worked for since you were twelve years old is finally happening! Who goes to space camp and then actually gets to go to space? Nobody, that’s who! Nobody but you. Cheer up! We’re all here to celebrate your accomplishments, so stop looking at everyone like you’re facing a death sentence right now.”
“But what if I am?”
“You’re not, man. You’re just not.” He looked down at his feet, and then averted his gaze to the children on the swingset.
“You’re a lucky man, Mark. The kids are great.”
“Thanks man. We try really hard not to let them act like a bunch of morons.”
The brothers chuckled at the off-color remark, then slapped their right hands together and held on. As if on auto-pilot, they pulled one another in for some barbaric version of an embrace that had them pounding one another three times on the back, audible to those around them. Mark averted his gaze again, this time bolting into action.
“Callie! You cannot climb on top of the monkey bars! Get down from there before you break your neck!”
He was halfway across the backyard before I could even register what he was saying, let alone notice that his three year old daughter was flirting with an emergency room visit. With reflexes like that, maybe he should have been the astronaut in the family.
“Y’know, McBride, I never thought I’d say this, but you proved me wrong.”
She floated over in a cloud of fresh freesia, her hair resting gently on her arms, dancing with the breeze through every rhythmic step she took in his direction. Her eyes looked through him, and she fashioned her lips into that same smirk she used to give him on the elementary school bus.
“Oh really? I might actually agree with you for once. I never thought you’d say that either!”
“Yeah, yeah… You know I’m only mean because I love ya.” She playfully punched him in the bicep as she had always done when she said that, and his heart sank deep into his stomach as it always had when she said that; but this time her certainty wavered. She tried to cover it up with a forced cough, but the stumble was so obvious that a stranger could have noticed.
“Cat got your tongue, McBride?”
“No, no. I, um.”
“Here we go again…”
“Will you just shut up and let me get this out?”
She stepped back, startled by the most fluid and forceful sentence she had ever heard escape from the mouth of Isaac McBride. She did, however, shut up.
For the first time, she looked at him expecting to hear something other than a nervous stutter, and saw a man that she had known for her whole life but never really seen. It was like she could see him constructing the exact statement that he would release from his mouth: typing it into his brain; writing and rewriting it in his eyes.
It was Lorraina’s turn to feel her stomach sink. Did she even want to hear what he was going to say? He was literally leaving the planet in ten hours. Was it worth saying out loud? Unspoken and unhurt had worked so well for so long.
He had gradually outgrown the sleeves of his flannels from the nineties, but he still insisted on wearing them.
It wasn’t a mistake.
“The potato salad was great. Really.”
“Oh. Well… Thank you, I guess.”
“Yes. Um, no. I don’t know, that’s just not what I thought you were going to say.”
“Oh?” For the first time in twenty years, it was Isaac’s turn to be on the dealing end of a killer smirk. “What, exactly, is it that you thought I was going to say.”
She looked him dead in the eye with a gaze that could have blinded him. Her intent was intense and her minutes were few.
“I thought you were finally going to get up the nerve to tell me you loved me… I thought that maybe you wouldn’t leave the planet without calling it what it is, and admitting that the only thing keeping you from being with me for all of these years was this stupid fantasy of being a spaceman! I thought that maybe, just maybe, you would promise me that you would come back whole so I didn’t waste a lifetime loving a man that I could never have!”
She stared blankly at his face. She couldn’t look in his eye anymore. She zeroed in on his jawline and maintained her focus, waiting for something. Anything.
“You sure do know how to procrastinate, don’t you?”
Another reason she loved this moronic spaceman. He always knew how to break the tension, and he always knew how to make her laugh.
“I guess I could have waited a little longer if you weren’t climbing onto a rocket in a few hours.”
“Well then. I’m glad that I booked this flight off the planet, or I may have never known.”
He reached out to her, and slowly wrapped her up in a warm embrace.
“I will come home to you. I always have.”
Disclaimer: I wrote this story (start to finish) in two hours. If there wasn’t a 1000 word minimum I would have called it before the dialogue.
Created for https://reedsy.com/