Like the Prose: Challenge #6 – Write about a deep secret.
Sometimes, she thinks, the writers should have given her better lines. Like when they had that stupid argument about the kids’ beds. She wanted paired captain’s beds with desks at the ends, and he insisted stack up bunk beds were better because they’d have more floor space.
“But they’ll fight over who which of them gets the top bunk.”
“No, they won’t,” he’d argued, pointing out that their older son liked to stay up later, reading, and having the bottom bunk meant he could have a clip-on reading light, and the younger boy was a marathon sleeper, never got up in the night, so putting him up top wouldn’t disrupt anything.
She’d wanted to counter that he was a marathon sleeper now, but she’d ended up just yelling that since he knew so much more about their boys he should do whatever he thought was best.
It wasn’t the first such argument.
And it wasn’t that she didn’t love their boys, wasn’t madly, scandalously in love with her husband, but sometimes it felt like she was just playing house. Like this wasn’t really her life, that she was an actress playing a part and she’d wake up and walk into her real life as a foreign correspondent or a famous chef or… something.
She’d gone through all the counseling after Zachary was born and then again when the arrival of Jordan had sent her into an emotional tailspin, but post-partum depression couldn’t still be a thing after nine years, could it?
And really, Facebook is to blame.
Oklahoma? Her college editor had responded when she’d made the “friend request” a few days earlier. You’re living on a ranch in Oklahoma? And you’re married? I expected you to end up in New York, London, Paris. I thought you’d have published seven novels by now. But as long as you’re happy…
And that’s the thing. Feminism teaches that her life is her choice. That staying home and writing cooking blogs and raising two boys who are free thinkers and respectful of women is as valid as anything she might have done before (and there was a novel, actually, before she traded that life for this one).
And, really, that’s the secret she doesn’t share: that she’s happy. She’s so goddamned happy, and she feels fucking guilty for enjoying her life. Like she’s some horrible failure for not living up to other people’s expectations of what she should have been.
And so, she goes through periods where she wishes she had better writers handling her day-to-day dialogue.
And sometimes, she feels like she’s playing house.
Like the Prose: Challenge #5 – Have a friend tell you a true story. Use it to inspire a piece of fiction.
She’s never liked smoking the stuff. The taste, the smell, the way it makes her lungs feel tight and takes away her ability to draw breath – these are the things she associates with smoking pot. But she’s not a prude, and when the couple on the next blanket offers them some… enhanced… brownies she’s happy to take one in exchange for the beer her husband is offering in return.
She doesn’t tell them that she’s worried about her kids, but her husband knows. He’s been assuring her all day that they’re fine at home with her mother, that it’s okay to do something for herself for a change, that date night is important.
And he was so happy when he surprised her this morning with the tickets. His big grin had never been wider or more natural. He’d picked her up and swung her around giggling like a loon and kept spinning her in circles until she was giggling with him.
He was good at that.
At making her laugh so the anxiety stayed away.
That’s why it had to be a surprise.
* * *
“Maybe we should call home,” she says for the fifteenth time on their way to the arena. It’s only a ninety-minute drive, but they just don’t leave the kids that often. Mostly, they don’t have the opportunity. Sure, they can say that it’s because money’s tight – but honestly, when is it not? When is it ever not, for everyone, everywhere?
No, the real reason is that he’s working shifts and she’s working furiously on her novel, and there are four kids and her parents and his parents and church and social obligations, and all of that adds up and means that couple-time is relegated to those precious few moments when all four kids are asleep at the same time, and they’re lying in bed together in the dark.
Or, better, when they’re lying in bed together in the soft light of not-quite-dawn. She thinks of that time as their magic time, because the kids are still in bed, and they’re just them. Her hand drops to her belly, as she thinks of the way they spent that magic time a few mornings ago, and of the fact that in all the stress of having four kids she’s missed a pill here and there, and while she isn’t exactly trying for another kid – Jesus, but four is a lot to cope with – if it happens, it happens. They roll with the punches, she and her husband, her lover, her soulmate. It’s what they do.
* * *
The parking lot feels like it’s in orbit around the moon, for as far as they have to walk to get to the gates, and then they’re told they can’t bring chairs.
For a moment, she’s worried he’ll press the point. “Since when can you not have lawn chairs on the lawn?” he asks the guard.
But she notices the shake of his head and the dimpling of his cheeks that mean a smile is forthcoming. He’s being ironic.
All chivalry, he buys her a bottled water and tells her to wait while he treks back to their van to swap the chairs for a sleeping bag. He’s taller, he reminds her, and can walk faster.
She lets him do it.
The stench of other people’s pot makes the hike up the hillside to the top of the amphitheater feel more like she’s scaling Everest, and when she tells him that he says he’s way handsomer than any Sherpa and she agrees and tells him he has a nicer ass, too.
Laughing, they make it to where they’re supposed to be, glad they remembered to bring the binoculars. There are speakers, so they can hear everything. But without the binocs they might as well be at an ants’ concert.
They spread the sleeping bag on the soft grass, grateful that it’s been a cool, dry spring and there aren’t any mosquitoes. But they’ve forgotten how slick the material can be. They end up having to hunt down rocks to keep everything still.
But it doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter at all, because the music starts, and he’s got his arms around her and the stars are coming out overhead.
And when she’s eaten the brownies from the couple next to them, she stops worrying about the kids, at least for a while.
But in between songs, people are moving about, and at one point they get up to dance, and the rocks get kicked away. Clumsy, she falls to the ground, caught by her husband and the sleeping bag, but the impact sets the thing in motion.
They’re sliding, and people around them are glaring, but she’s not worried about what they think, because he’s laughing and she’s laughing with them, and their laughter only gets louder when the song being played reaches its chorus:
And I’m free
Yeah I’m free
She sings along with Tom Petty for a few verses, and she realizes free-falling isn’t so bad when you’re doing it hand-in-hand with the man you love.
Like the Prose: Challenge #4 – What do we think the world will be like in 2091? And as dystopias are so passé, don’t make this a dystopia. Is there any hope for the world? Where can we be in 72 years? Let’s make it a happy tale.
Curiosity Colony, Mars, 2091
It’s the scent of oranges that wakes her. Oranges and coffee; her two favorite aromas on this or any world. Resisting the urge to bury her head under the covers, Marin addresses the person she knows is responsible for at least one of the delightful smells.
“Doug?” she asks.
“Do I really smell oranges?”
“Shuttle from Earth arrived this morning. Ten cases offloaded into the café’s stasis-storage. Signed for by yours truly.”
“Well, ten cases, minus two. Figured you deserved a treat, it being your anniversary and all. Sit up, I’ll bring breakfast in bed.”
“Best boyfriend ever,” she says. She rolls to a sitting position and watches as he moves around their shared living space, arranging mugs and plates on a tray. “You’re overdressed though.”
“Someone had to be up to meet the shuttle. Governor Jones isn’t due back from Luna Colony until next month, so that someone was me. Besides, you’re gonna want to be up pretty soon anyway.”
“True enough.” She adjusts her position on the bed, making room for her partner and his tray. “Can you believe a year ago I was yelling at you about water rations?”
“And I was yelling back that a coffee bar was an unnecessary luxury on Mars.”
“And today Red Sands is the center of the colony’s social scene,” Marin said, picking up a section of orange and popping it in her mouth. “God, I’ve missed fresh fruit.”
“You gonna make orange juice with them?”
“I don’t know… it takes a lot of oranges to do that. They’ll go farther if I use them another way. Maybe a chocolate-orange mousse for a treat today.”
“Not really. The Santander’s chickens are providing me with enough eggs that I can do it, and the Derry’s dairy has more than enough cream and… ”
“Okay, okay, do you need me to help?”
“You could refill my coffee cup?”
“I could do that, but there’s a price.”
“After hours tonight… come for a ride with me. I have a surprise for you.”
“There you go being all nonverbal again.”
* * *
The party had gone well, Marin thought as she and her green-haired teenaged helper finished cleaning the café at the end of the day. “Krista,” she said to the younger woman. “A year ago when your family arrived here – ”
“You mean when they dragged me here against my will?” Krista interrupted.
” – yes that,” she couldn’t help but lace her tone with amusement. “I took you on mostly because I knew there was very little else you could do here.”
“Mars isn’t exactly the land of opportunity if you’re not into agriculture, social planning, or scientific research,” the other agreed.
“No. No, it’s not.”
“But since then, you’ve really become an asset. So I was wondering if you’d like to start hosting a teen night, now that there actually are other teenagers here? We don’t have to decide today… but… I think you’d be good at running it, and I trust you to do it.”
“You’d help me though, at least to get started?”
“As much as you want.”
“I… I’ll think about it. Thanks. Especially if you teach me how to make that mousse.”
Marin laughed and pushed a stray strand of her hair out of her face, “I’ll think about it.”
* * *
The problem with taking a romantic drive on Mars was that it wasn’t really romantic. You had to wear an e-suit, which did nothing for your figure, and made any makeup melt right off. You could sort of hold hands, but you couldn’t kiss, and if you didn’t remember to pick a secure channel, anyone on comms could eavesdrop on your conversation.
Fortunately, Marin thought as she climbed into Doug’s tricked out Mars-buggy (ever the optimist, he had a surfboard strapped to the back), the former Base Commander, and now Lieutenant Governor of Curiosity Colony was good at the details.
“Okay, Marin said, peering through her helmet at the man next to her. “What’s this surprise you’ve got planned.”
Doug drove them outside of the colony’s perimeter, and down to where the ‘viners (short for diviners – the nickname given to the team hunting for water) had been working most recently. Usually, there was a small dome where they could spend time outside of e-suits and a derrick or two. In this case, there was a deep excavation going on, right at the base of a mountain.
“We found a cave system, earlier, but hadn’t had a chance to explore it,” Doug explained. “The ‘viners chose it as their next target, and magic happened.” He steered the buggy into the mouth of the cave.
“Magic?” Marin asked.
The buggy kept going, inward, downward. Marin lost track of how far into the dark they’d gone, though, she noticed there were glow-markers every so often. Eventually the tunnel opened into a cavern. And the cavern, she realized was no longer rock, but…
“Sand. We’re on sand.”
“Mmhmm…” Doug said. He flipped a switch on the buggy’s controls, and the worklights in the cavern came on, illuminating lapping water.
“Oh, my god! You found it. You really found it!”
“The underground Martian sea. Mmhmm.”
“So when do you surf it?”
“Not for a while but… Listen, Marin, do you know what ‘anamnesis’ means?”
“Remembrance, I think? It’s why we take communion during Mass. In remembrance of Christ.”
“Right, but outside of religion, it’s… it’s remembrance of a meaningful, beloved thing. Surfing… surfing was freedom for me. My mother died when I was young. My dad was deployed a lot. I mean, he loved me, but he wasn’t around. So the ocean… the ocean was my family.”
“So you carry that board around to remember?”
“Mmhmm. Same way you brought your grandmother’s demitasse. You and me, Marin, we are FROM Earth but we’re OF Mars now. But our kids? They’ll be Martian kids. They’ll be FROM Mars and OF it.”
Marin reached her thickly-gloved hand out to cover his. “Our kids?”
“Well, don’t you think we’d make good looking children?”
Marin considered it. Doug was a good fifteen years older than she was – nearly fifty – but he was fit and she loved the way his blue eyes crinkled when he smiled. She hadn’t really considered having a family, but… why not?
“Yeah,” she said. “Yeah, I think we would.”
Dough leaned his head closer, until his faceplate was touching hers, and then he cut the comms, letting the touching glass transmit his voice. “I wouldn’t have yelled at you if I hadn’t been attracted, then. I’m in love with you now. Marry me, Marin.”
“You gonna teach me how to surf?”
“You gonna give me free coffee?”
“Yes to coffee?”
“Yes to marrying you. The coffee you pay for.”
It would have been the perfect moment for a kiss, Marin thought. Or a ring. Or both. But watching the gentle waves of the underground sea… that was pretty perfect, too.
Like the Prose: Challenge #3 – The most important short story the world requires. Or failing that, just write about the most important thing in your life.
“Aren’t you afraid he’ll turn on you?” they ask, when they find out she’s in a relationship with a synthetic lifeform. “I mean, can you really trust one of them?”
It doesn’t matter that Basil is an officer in the Space Fleet, or that he actually went through the space academy and earned his two degrees, rather than merely having the information uploaded into his neural net. It doesn’t matter that he plays the acoustic guitar, the violin, the piano, the French horn, and the Gemellian flute. It doesn’t matter that he’s published three volumes of poetry (under a pen name, of course) that were critically acclaimed and popularly adored.
They see Machine, and they’re afraid.
And the truth is, she’s afraid, too.
But not of him.
Never of him.
Outside their relationship, she’s afraid she isn’t really talented. That her latent telepathy is somehow making audiences think she’s a better actor than she really is.
She worries that the dark characters she tends to play, these evil dictators, serial killers, and literal madwomen, will affect her psyche. With every one, it gets a little harder to find her footing after the run of the play is over, and normal life has resumed.
Then, too, she isn’t always certain she’s cut out for normal life. She’s never really learned how to live in one place all the time, and even when she was on the ship with Basil, he was going on remote missions. Their time together is counted in days and hours, not in weeks, months, years, and she can’t imagine what it would be like if she… stopped.
But now she’s pregnant.
And okay, they used donor sperm, because Basil literally can’t sire children, but he’s the one who used the turkey baster and made her pregnant. They’d turned the lights down and played soft music in their quarters and tried to keep the clinical, technical aspects of artificial insemination to a bare minimum.
But she’s worried that their child will face bullying or bigotry because her father not only isn’t human, he isn’t even organic. And she’s afraid that same child will, one day, reject Basil and demand to know who the sperm donor is.
And she can’t bear to imagine the hurt on either face, either the one she hasn’t seen yet, or the one she sees every day.
Basil. Basil isn’t the most important thing in her life, but he’s the most important person other than her own self, and he knows her better than herself most of the time, and she doesn’t know how she’d survive in the universe without his calm rationality, or gentle guidance.
And that brings up a host of other fears.
She’s afraid she’ll never love him with the same devotion he offers her, that her fickle human heart can never be quite as steadfast.
She’s afraid she’ll lose his interest when he’s heard all her stories and learned all her secrets.
She’s afraid that when her age begins to show, and he retains his youthful appearance he won’t want to remain in their relationship, or she won’t. And she’s afraid he won’t be willing to let her go when it’s time for her life to end…
And she loves, him, she does. She’s loved him for more than half her life, and honestly can’t imagine sharing a life with anyone else.
She hears people whispering about how she’s got a taste for the exotic because her high school boyfriends (all two of them) were both aliens, and now she’s with a synthetic lifeform… and she wonders if maybe it’s true that she’s with him because she doesn’t know how to be with a normal human.
The Christian Bible has over three hundred variations of the phrase “Fear not,” in it. Parents and teachers and counselors are constantly telling us not to be afraid.
But she knows better.
She knows that her fear is what keeps her going. It keeps her motivated. It keeps her accountable. It’s her best friend, her worst enemy, her constant companion.
She’s afraid of what might happen if she stopped being afraid.
Like the Prose: Challenge #2 – Write the stupidest, dumbest, worstest story possible. Something even a 4-year-old would be like “dude… no! Just… no!”
Once upon a time there was a big little kitten who loved to chase butterflies. He wasn’t particularly good at it because he was overlarge for his young age, which made him kind of clumsy. This was great for the butterflies, because they always got away, but frustrating for the kitten, because he wanted to bring one of the pretty flying insects home to his mother. She loved pretty things. His brothers and sisters were always presenting her with birds and flowers and sometimes even field mice!
Imagine the kitten’s shock, then, when one day, a butterfly landed on his pink nose, and stayed there. It stayed there until the kitten nearly went cross-eyed from staring at it, except that his grandmother’s warning to him about making faces (“Your face’ll get stuck that way!”) rang through his wee furry head and made him blink and then reach up oh, so carefully with his front paws.
Well, more like…
And the butterfly was trapped between his paws.
He trotted home to his mother on three legs, holding the butterfly in one paw. The older cat would be so proud of her youngest kitten! Finally, he had a gift for her! Finally, he had done something grown up!
But his mother wasn’t happy or proud.
“Oh, Tommy,” she gurgled, “I know you meant well, son, but this butterfly is a rare creature, and nearly extinct. Didn’t you know?”
“No,” he purred back softly. “How could I? I’m just a little kitten.”
“Sometimes I forget how young you are, despite your size. Well, we have to call the Authorities, and make it right.”
The Authorities came – two big, brown, Rottweilers – and took the remains of the butterfly to be examined. “You’ll be called for a court date,” they said. “But it’s your first offense. The judge won’t be too harsh on you.”
For three days the big little kitten trembled and shivered, afraid to go outside. His mother tried to be supportive, but she was nervous, too. After all, she’d never had a child who was a criminal before!
Finally, they went to court. It wasn’t a full trial, just a hearing, where the kitten and his mother would speak in front of a judge.
“This doesn’t bode well,” Mama Cat said. “This is a kangaroo court.”
She wasn’t kidding; the judge was an actual kangaroo.
Before the judge could bang the gavel a woman with a briefcase came waltzing in. Well, not a woman. A Siamese cat. “Sorry, sorry,” she said. “I’m Matilda. I’m representing you. It’s my understanding that you’re a child and didn’t know the butterfly you killed was endangered?”
“Yes, that’s true,” Tommy’s mother said.
“That mitigates things. This judge may be a kangaroo, but she’s fair. Really. She never jumps to conclusions.”
“I’m not going to the pound, am I?” The big little kitten asked in a tiny voice.
“No, sweetie, that won’t happen,” his mother assured.
“It really won’t,” Matilda agreed. “Massive fine. Community service. But not the pound.”
The judge asked her bailiff – who happened to be her joey – to call the court to order – and then asked Matilda to present the kitten’s case.
Just as the Siamese was finishing her heartfelt plea for lenience, a Kookaburra burst into the courtrooms, feathers flying everywhere, and a butterfly net in his talons. He dropped the net in front of the judge.
“Stop! Stop! Don’t sent the puss to the pound.”
“Listen here, bird brain,” the judge said, “this is juvenile court. No one’s going to be locked up here.”
“Good because no one killed an endangered creature. Just a normal butterfly.”
“Oh?” asked the judge, her ears standing straight up.
“Oh?” asked Mama Cat and Matilda, both their hackles rising.
“Oh?” mewed the big little kitten, his tone hopeful.
“Oh, no. The species you killed was a nuisance variety. Blue wings with red speckles. The species that’s endangered has blue wings with red speckles and yellow stripes. No stripes, no crime. Just an accident. Actually, a favor. Let this kitten go!”
The judge banged her gavel and called for order.
“As there was no crime, I declare this hearing ended. Tommy Kitten be more careful about what you chase. Perhaps you should meet Little Rabbit FooFoo and hop through the forest instead of stalking innocents. You could do with a friend. Dismissed.”
“Whoop-de-doo!” shouted the Kookaburra. “Tie me kangaroo down, Jack!” He bowed to the two female cats and winked at the kitten before leaving with as much flutter as he arrived.
Mama cat ushered her kitten toward home.
As her services were now complete, she took the money and ran to Venezuela.
So, the folks at The Literal Challenge are doing a short story challenge in the month of June. As if 28 plays in 28 days wasn’t hard enough, we’re now being asked to write 30 stories in 30 days. Today, we were asked to submit “something” to test their fancy new submission engine – no more manually emailing Sebastian the moment we’ve typed “CURTAIN.” So I wrote a thing. It’s small. It’s silly. But I haven’t posted here since February so I thought I should also do a test to make sure everything still functioned. Oh, and, stay tuned, because my stories will be posted here.
Waiting for FedEx is like waiting for Godot, except the writing isn’t as good and everyone is carrying boxes that represent their personal issues… childhood trauma, relationship woes, body images – whatever.
The FedEx guy has been elevated to mythological proportions. He’s a superhero now. He doesn’t just sport a purple shirt, he’s got shiny tight pants and a cape, and he comes to take away the boxes of horrible, ugly, truths.
And if you’re lucky.
He brings you something pretty and shiny in exchange. True love. A new attitude. Awesome abs.
Or, maybe it’s just this week’s HomeChef delivery.
“Basil. The next time I decide I want pie at midnight, you’re getting it.” Zoe said to her fiancé as she returned to their bedroom with a slice of pumpkin and a stricken expression.
“What is wrong, dearest?”
“Apparently, Mom and Ed polished off the champagne from our engagement party.”
“Is that unusual? Is it not tradition that one must never leave a bottle unfinished.”
“Well, yes, that is the tradition, but typically you don’t do that and then get naked in the middle of the living room when you have guests in the house.”
“Your mother insisted just yesterday that we were not guests, but family.”
“Okay, but that was when she wanted me to set the table and you to help hang garland from all the arches.”
“I do not understand.”
“Let me put it this way… you know the song ‘I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus?'” Zoe waited for partner to nod. Then she continued. “Well, Mom wasn’t tickling Ed underneath his beard. She was… let’s just say I got a full-frontal view of Ed’s wedding tackle and I’m suddenly grateful to be committed to a man who doesn’t age.”
“Was there something about seeing your stepfather’s genitals that alarmed you, dearest?”
“Snow,” she answered, shuddering. “It was like… his… nether… hair was like barbarian snow at the bottom of his… oh, god, I can’t believe I’m even talking about this. You asked if I was alarmed? More like scarred for life!”
Basil had always found humor a bit difficult to navigate. It was such a subjective condition. What made someone laugh might offend another. Still, his partner’s flustered state made him chuckle, at first, and then laugh outright.
“It’s not funny!” Zoe protested.
“Dearest, you are judging your parents unfairly. While it is true that their behavior is a bit questionable while we are in the house, if they truly imbibed as much champagne as you implied it is likely that they simply got caught in the moment.” He gave her a few seconds to process. “And I might remind you that just last week you used the color of my skin to inspire a song while we were… similarly engaged. Or must I refresh your memory with a chorus of ‘Silver Balls?'”
Zoe stared at Basil for a long moment. Then she burst out laughing. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I just… I never expected to be the one who caught my mother in a compromising position. It’s more normal for a parent to walk in on their child.”
“Dearest,” Basil said in a reproachful tone. “As you have frequently observed, very little about our relationship is ‘normal.'”
“There you go being right again,” Zoe grumbled good-naturedly. “Well, at least I got pie.”
Much later that evening, Zoe nudged her partner. “Basil, promise me something?”
“Even if you decide to write an aging subroutine someday, swear to me you will never allow yourself to have a saggy old-man ass.”
For the second time that night, Basil was amused, but he managed to stifle the laughter, and all he said was, “I promise to try.”
We’ll fly to the sky on champagne
And shout to everyone in sight
That since the world began
No woman or a man
Has ever been as happy as we are tonight.
“The Night They Invented Champagne” is from the musical Gigi, and was written by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.
Harmony surveyed her underwater domain and used her tailfin to push herself backward so she could see the very top of her tree.
Oh, it wasn’t a decorated pine, like the dry-landers had. She’d always thought pine was what you did when you missed someone so much that your heart hurt, the way she did when Oskar wasn’t able to visit her for long stretches of time.
Rather, her Christmas tree was a living kelp plant she’d coaxed into the shape of a tall triangle, then adorned with shells and sea glass, and – with a bit of bribery – even a sea star at the top (actually a family of them that she fed well with krill and brine shrimp.)
Studying her work, Harmony moved a shell one level higher and replaced it with a piece of blue sea glass. Blue and red were her favorites, and they were also the rarest colors. She’d heard the humans on the beach make similar comments, which is why she was certain Oskar would appreciate her gift to him.
Oh, the thunder god she’d been in love with for half of forever didn’t really celebrate Christmas the way her kind did. Rather, he observed the winter solstice and the way it marked the end of the increasing darkness in his world. But he brought her gifts every time they met, and she was all too aware that she had little to offer.
A great boom that was more a feeling than a sound rocked Harmony’s cave, and she grinned. Gathering the woven bag that held the gift, she swam out of her home, and up to the surface.
Her lover, her Oskar, was waiting for her on an ice floe just big enough for two, and he was smiling. “Here you are, my breath-and-blood. Here you are. Here I am. Is full moon. Is solstice. You ask. I come.”
Harmony reached up and allowed the burly rainmaker to hoist her from the water. As always, their floating meeting place was covered in thick furs, and as her tail split into legs, he wrapped her in the warm pelts. “It’s a special day in my world,” she told him. “I brought you a gift.”
“You are gift,” he countered.
“That’s sweet, but I have a different gift, something to share with your loved ones. Hold out your hands.”
He did as she bade, and she poured out the contents of her bag – red and blue sea glass – letting the pieces flow over his fingers. “We decorate with this,” she explained. “I thought…”
But she never finished her thought because Oskar was laughing. “Red and blue…” he said. “My favorite. Red for the lightning fire and blue for the water. Is brilliant. Is us.”
Harmony smiled. “Yes,” she said. “Yes, it is.” Then she tickled Oskar under his beard. “You always sing for me. This time, it’s my turn.” And she launched into another chorus of her favorite holiday song: Jingle Shells.
“Tell me a story, Daddy?” Eleven-year-old Elizabeth was sprawled on the carpeted floor beneath the Christmas tree. When the family lived aboard her father’s spaceship, the Cousteau, they had a holographic tree that held virtual copies of all the real ornaments. But now they were in their house on Centaurus, so the whole tree was real, and she loved to lie beneath it and breath in the piney scent.
Basil glanced across the room at his wife, and the pair shared a look. They knew their daughter would soon be too old to ask for stories, but it was Christmas Eve, and even a synthetic lifeform was willing to indulge his daughter during the holidays.
Still, he hesitated. Seasonal tales were not really in his oeuvre, and he knew the night was special to the organic members of his family.
“Do you mind if the story comes from me?” his wife asked, saving the night for all of them. “I have a family story that might appeal to you, Lizzie-Bee.”
The little girl rolled over and sat up, smoothing out her brand-new dress as she did so. “That would be acceptable,” she said, sounding uncannily like her father.
“Alright then.” Zoe put down the tablet she’d been reading from and centered herself by taking a sip from her mug of tea. “This story takes place many years before you were born, or before I was born, or before Gramma Emily was born. It’s older than Grampere. It’s even older than Nonna. In fact, it’s from Nonna’s, Nonna’s, Nonna’s Nonna. Or even a few generations before that.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about family, and Christmas, and space.”
“I wanna hear that story.”
Zoe smiled at her daughter. “Alright then, let’s take a deep breath—” and she drew in an exaggerated one “—and begin.”
December 24th, 1968 –
They could have gone to mass at the local church, as they always did. St. Agnes had been the family’s parish of choice for decades. It was an old building, formidable gray stone on the outside, but once you were inside the vestibule it was all wood and warmth, and the bulletin boards were hilarious, reminding you that there was still time for a turkey raffle, or that the scout troops earned money if you ate at Burger King through the first of the year.
But Uncle Giovanni – Nonna’s brother – also known as Father Pescatore – had been back in town after being sent to serve elsewhere, and a private family mass seemed appropriate. So, they’d set up an altar on the ironing board, and prayed for the people, and the world leaders, and the pope, and the world, and then they’d said a special prayer for the astronauts in space.
We are now approaching lunar sunrise, and for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you.
“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.
And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.
And God saw the light, that it was good: and God divided the light from the darkness.”
They watched the newscast and heard these men of science read words of faith, and they saw the camera feed of the men in the giant aluminum can hurtling toward the gray surface of the moon.
And maybe they thought about the way God exists in each of us as a spark of divine self-gift, or maybe they just went through the ritual out of habit. But no matter what they thought, their eyes were riveted on their tiny television screen, and their thoughts were in the stars.
Christmas Eve – 2269
The family continued to grow and change, but the one thing they all shared was a fascination with space. They watched as the first lunar orbit became the first lunar landing. They watched as Mars became the first planet to be populated entirely by robots, and then the first to host human colonists.
As space travel became something accessible to everyone, part of the family embraced the unknown, and joined the first colonization missions to Betelgeuse and Centaurus.
The latter planet was destined to become the family’s new home. They were Harrises now, instead of Morellis, having married and bred and married and bred through the ages, and their faith was not so formal as it had been a century before on Earth, but when the first church was planted in Beach Haven, they joined their community for Christmas Eve services.
“And God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day.
And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters.
And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so.
And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.”
Christmas Eve – 2368
“I don’t think that’s much of a story,” Elizabeth said.
“That’s because it’s not finished yet,” Zoe explained. “We’re going out, sweetie.”
Basil had left his chair while she’d been speaking, and now he offered his daughter her coat. “It is cold out tonight. You must dress warmly.” He assisted the child in putting on her winter gear, then repeated the process with his wife.
Together, Basil and Zoe guided the young girl through the front door. “We’re not taking the flitter?”
“Nope. We’re walking.”
The night air was cold, but it was also clear, and each star seemed to shimmer more brightly than the last. As they walked toward the center of town, first along the coast road, then turning east, away from the water, the small family was joined by friends and neighbors, all making the same short journey.
Our Lady of the Sea and Stars was as gray as the old stone church on Earth, but it was built of titanium from the hulls of the first colony ship, and its surface shimmered like a more delicate version of the starlight.
Almost the entire community gathered inside, and there were many greetings exchanged with Captain Harris and Ambassador Harris and all the oldest relatives gushed over Elizabeth, cooing over her advanced age – “Eleven? Wow! Who said you could get so old?”
As they took their seats, the little girl nudged her mother. “Church? Seriously? The end of the story is church?”
The congregation hushed as Mother Celeste entered with the processional and took her place on the altar. “Welcome friends,” she began. “About a hundred years ago, the members of this community came together in this building for our first Christmas Eve. We were blessed, then, to be in a new home. Since that time, our community has grown. The founding families have been joined by newer additions. But we still gather here, to share the same words, and sing the same songs, that people of Earth have been sharing and singing for generations.”
She paused and scanned the rows of pews, apparently meeting the eyes of each person seated there. “Before we begin, I’d like to share with you some other words. Words that aren’t part of the Christmas tradition, but are attached to it. They were read four hundred years ago by a group of men who were on one of the first journeys to Earth’s moon, and they’re from the Book of Genesis.”
She nodded to an unseen media technician, and after a moment, scratchy audio filled the green-garlanded and candle-scented space.
“And God said, Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so.
And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called the Seas: and God saw that it was good.”
Elizabeth listened to the ages-old recording, and – at least for that moment in time – understood her mother’s message, and her father’s dedication to the Star Navy.
Later that night, with bedtime cocoa still staining her lips, she kissed each of her parents goodnight. “Merry Christmas,” she said. “I love you.”
Basil and Zoe replied that they loved her too, and would see her in the morning when they would discover what Santa might have brought.
“Did you know,” Basil asked, once he and Zoe were alone in front of their own crackling fire, “that the Apollo Eight recording would be shared?”
“I did,” Zoe admitted. “Mother Celeste is descended from one of the astronauts. She’s been waiting to share that audio clip since she moved here. She thinks her ancestor would have approved, and I think she’s right.”
“And the ironing board story?”
“Totally true,” she said, “I’ve heard Mom tell me about it only a thousand or so times.”
And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.
Notes: The audio clip from the Apollo 8 mission features the voices of William Anders, James Lovell, and Frank Borman. The mass on the ironing board was a memory shared by my mother earlier tonight. You see, my great-uncle Eugene died last night. He was a Franciscan priest, and he was old and sick, so his death is a release in many ways. I don’t have any specific memories of him, except that he was kind and funny, but I wanted to mark his passing and mom’s story gave me the idea.
Out of habit, Jane tossed her keys onto the small table in the entry of her house, forgetting that they might mar the antique surface as they slid across the top. This table, new to her, had been salvaged from her grandmother’s house just before her aunts and cousins had arrived to haggle over the remnants of the old woman’s life.
Grams, as she had called her grandmother for as long as she’d known how to talk, had called the piece of blonde furniture a telephone table, and indeed, it did have a small drawer just large enough to hold a few pencils, an address book, and a scratch pad, even though it hadn’t played host to an actual telephone in more years than Jane cared to count.
As her eyes adjusted to the darkness, Jane moved through her customary evening routine. Coat on the hook by the door, shoes at the edge of the bench, purse slung over its arm. She didn’t bother turning on any lights, but as she padded in stockinged feet across the cold tile floor, she did pause to plug the Christmas tree.
Barely five feet tall, the tree stood in the center of the bay window that gave Jane’s living room much of its charm. She’d meant to hire someone to hang outside lights on the window, but had never gotten around to it, so the tree was the lone representative of Christmas, save for the four empty stockings hanging from the mantle. One was hers, of course, and one would hold the dog’s annual treat, but the other two were for her parents, even though they had made it clear they weren’t doing Christmas that year.
“We can finally afford to bask on the beach in Mexico, Janie,” her mother had said. “You’re almost forty. You don’t need us to have a good holiday.”
Except she did.
Resisting the urge to curl up on the couch and call it a night, Jane went to put sneakers on and release her dog from his crate, accepting the happy sloppy kisses the aging Airedale offered. “Walkies?” she asked the curly-haired canine, who was absolutely on board with that suggestion. He cooperated while she put his harness on, but once the final snap had been clicked into place, he was a blur of frenetic energy once again. “Hang on, Winston,” she coaxed, but it was useless.
Just at the bottom of the porch stairs, Jane and Winston came to a sudden halt. “Sorry,” she said to the man she’d nearly crashed into. “Are you looking for an address?”
“Sort of,” he said. “I just moved into the house across the street, and my daughter – she’s ten – says I have to introduce myself to all the neighbors.”
Jane grinned. “Well, tell your daughter she’s very wise. I’m Jane, by the way, and this is Winston.”
“Oh, I’m Vince. Vincent really, but…”
“Welcome to the neighborhood, Vince.” She scanned the block. “Your daughter isn’t with you?”
“Ah, no,” he said. “She’s with her Mom, actually, until after the holiday. It’s just me this year.”
Something in his expression, in his posture, resonated with Jane. “Listen,” she said. “I’m alone this year, too, but I have a turkey breast I was going to heat. Why don’t you join me?”
“Seriously?” Vince seemed surprised by the offer.
“Well, my dog seems to like you, and Winston is an excellent judge of character.” It was true. The dog had plotzed on the sidewalk and was laying across both humans’ feet.
Vince reached down to give head fusses to the dog. “Well, who am I to argue with such a wise creature. What can I bring?”
“Salad? Cranberries? Whatever you like.”
“I can do that,” he said. “Around two on Christmas Day?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Jane agreed.
She continued on her walk and didn’t even complain when Winston had to pee on every signpost and fire hydrant, instead of just some of them. Maybe Vince would become a friend, and maybe he would just be a good neighbor, but either way, she’d have company for the holiday, and who knew? Maybe in a year or two she’d be hosting an annual gathering of Holiday Orphans.
After the walkies and dinner for both herself and Winston, Jane curled up on her couch with a book and a mug of tea. The lights on the other houses were reflected in her window, and for a change the silence of her house – punctuated only by the soothing sounds of her sleeping dog – felt cozy instead of constricting.