Longlisted for the 2020 Voyage YA Short Story Award
It is lonely up here on the moon. No, there is no cheese. Everything is rock, rock, rock. I watch the people from far away. I can see through cloud and star and sky. I watch the people while Father works. He is big and glorious and if it wasn’t for him—the people, the animals, all the beautiful living things on Earth—they would die.
“They must love you,” I tell him. “You are lucky.”
“They worshiped me once,” he explains. “But that was a long time ago. Now they think they can live without me.”
The people used to dance for Father. I remember. They held torches and showed the smooth skin of their bodies. Now they dance for the small contraption in their hand. They do not look up. Their eyes do not mirror the smatter of stars in the sky. Their eyes are empty.
“What is it that they hold?” I want to know. “What are those things that glow from their hands like a million tiny moons?”
“Never mind, Junior,” Father says. “It is not for you.”
I worry for Father. His light is dimming. His body is crumbling. It is a slow process. He says I must watch and learn. One day I will be big and glorious too. One day soon.
I watch the people dance.
I worry for them.
Tonight, Father takes a break from his work. He hides behind the sun where he can finally rest. Darkness floods Earth.
“Do they miss you,” I ask, “when they do not see you?”
“Hardly.” Father huffs. “They will have me back tomorrow.”
I cannot see the people on the days Father rests. The sun is a big fiery nuisance, blocking the sights. On these days I wish to burst into a thousand sparkling flecks of moon-dust and float away into the dark black nothingness.
“Do not get into any trouble now,” Father says, and he falls into a deep sleep.
I have no one to talk to. I wander from one crater to the next, kicking rocks, thinking all the time. What are the people doing now?
Father heaves and quakes. Violent dreams disturb his slumber. He is sick, but he does not know it. Or perhaps he does know. Perhaps he is too proud to say.
I crumble bits of silvery gray rock in my hands.
I am alone.
Father breathes a heavy sigh. Wisps of gas and dust blow hot from the cracks of his frail, ailing body. They swirl their way up and out into the stratosphere.
I wish to follow them. I thrust myself into the thick current of smoke and suddenly I am flying—catapulting up up up, piercing the invisible bubble, the stars a winking whir all around me.
Leaving everything behind.
I reach for the round, opaline white shape of him.
But there is no sound. Just the gaping void. The invisible force too strong.
I see Earth looming in the distance. The people with their dazzling lights. The oceans. The white peaks of the mountains. I lean into the powerful force pulling me along.
I do not resist.
Father shifts. A crescent slit of light like a sleepy eye too tired to rise.
Goodbye, Father. I am sorry.
I drift for what feels like an eternity, watching Father all the time. He does his job as he must, completing the cycles. My heart is heavy.
Will I ever be with him again?
Earth: a giant glittering globe.
Getting larger now. I am close.
I struggle to stay awake, the pressure too heavy.
I awaken with a violent jerk. I find myself plunging through the sky at light’s speed. Earth’s atmosphere is a heavy fist. Cruel. Unwelcoming.
I brace for impact. The ocean sucks me into its icy wet mouth and swallows.
Deeper and deeper I sink, everything blurry.
I catch a glimpse of him. In the slanted beams of soft white light piercing the murky waters. In the rippled image of his likeness illuminating the surface.
He is with me.
I lie face-first on a hard surface, the old familiar feeling of rock pressing against my body. How funny, I will tell Father, I dreamt I landed on Earth. And he will laugh his hoarse, gravelly laugh. What a silly boy you are, he’ll say, and I will be glad to be home.
I open my eyes.
I am lying on a beach, somewhere on Earth, my body immersed in the shallow water fringing the shoreline, sunken below the pebbled seabed.
These aren’t the rocks I know. These rocks are smooth. Wet.
Slowly I sit up, brushing off the stones that have stuck to my arms and legs. My body is smooth, too. Human-like.
Perhaps it is the mere result of cosmic synergy. Moon-Being Adapts Under Pressure to Survive Earth’s Atmosphere. An automated reaction, a survival response, built into the order of things. Nothing more.
Or perhaps it is Mother Earth’s doing. Exposing her soft heart.
I pull at my skin. It does not crumble. Instead it springs back. Warm and elastic.
I look around. Waves collide against large rocks protruding from the coast, the ocean spitting up its foamy frothy disdain. The tide coming and going, coming and going, washing up the words, You Don’t Belong Here.
The air is sticky hot. Across the sea, sailboats bobble in a frenzy, yanking at the thick ropes tying them to the harbor. Metal clanking, seagulls squawking, machines hammering. I shrink into myself, wishing to disappear.
“You know, it’s not safe to swim here.”
A human girl!
Standing before me, just a few feet away. So close I could reach out and touch her.
“I…” My mouth struggles to cooperate. “I did not know.”
Her body is slight, freckled. The knot of her belly button pokes though the netted material of her top.
I want so badly to touch her.
“Didn’t you see the sign?” She aims a finger in the distance. “It says no lifeguard on duty.”
“I did not see.”
She stands at the edge of the water, looming over me, her feet wide apart, unaware of her utter insignificance in the universe—hands on her hips, the waves smacking her legs, rigid and resisting, as if she too wasn’t made mostly of water.
I could tell her. I could give her the secrets to the whole universe like a key.
But no, that would hurt her.
“I thought nobody would be here,” she says.
“I am sorry.”
She shrugs. She sits beside me, stretching her legs into the water, the tiny follicles of her sun-kissed skin puckering.
“You ever just want to be alone?” she asks.
I want to tell her that I’ve been watching her for a long time. Her people. Her planet. The lights. The flocks of birds swirling in the skies, the planes soaring above them, the amoebas slinking along the depths of the deepest oceans. All the tiny granules of Earth. Yearning to be a part of it. For as long as I can remember.
“No,” I say, instead. “I am always alone. I want to be with people.”
She frowns. “Not me. I’ve got four older brothers and they’re all assholes.”
I watch her eyes. The artificial blue glow does not appear to have drained the life-force from within her. Not yet. Under the slant of her brow, her eyes are two meteorites. Deep-set. Brimming with cosmic energy.
“I feel like I know you,” I say.
“Well, I’ve never seen you before in my life.” She stares. “Holy shit. You’re like…really freaking pale.”
I glance at the opaline skin of my arms. “Pale.”
“Are you sick?”
“I do not think so.”
“Haven’t you ever heard of Vitamin D?”
“Dee.” I examine the ripples in her forehead, the tiny mole on her neck, the peaks and valleys of her collarbones, like the lunar highlands of home. “Dee,” I repeat, liking the way it sounds. “Dee, dee.”
“Yeah, you know, the sun?”
“Yes. I know him well.”
“Don’t think that you do.”
“He is a friend of Father’s.”
The sound of human laughter: A high-pitched, playful tinkling of infinite vibration.
“You’re super weird,” she says. “But I kind of like you.”
“I like you, too.”
“I’m Melanie,” she says. “And you are?”
The corners of my mouth slant upward, a mirror image of her smile.
We talk for a while—about the disappearing rainforest, the slashes in the ozone layer, the melting arctic. Her breathing becomes shallow.
“We’ve got to do something to help the pandas,” she says. “We’ve just got to.”
“Everything will die one day,” I say. “Even the sun, the stars—” a nauseous feeling rises in my stomach, the words churning up something bitter, “the Moon.”
“Well, that’s depressing. So, what are you saying, just turn the other way? Just let everything…die?” She fights to keep her mouth from crumbling.
“No. Not that.”
“Who cares I guess, right? We’re all going to die anyway, so let’s just not give a shit.” Her veins: rushing rivulets. Skin thin, almost translucent, threatening to tear like the fragile petals of a flower. “You know what I call someone who thinks like that? A coward.”
I work to gather the right words, carefully plucking each one so they land like feathers, gently before her. “We can control only what we can control, and only for the short while we live. Nothing more.”
“I can control what I do,” she says. “And I’m going to fight until I…” the words catching in her throat, “die.”
I take her hand. The tiny bones of it shift in my grasp.
“I guess I’m a coward, too,” she says.
“Death is the natural order of things.”
She pulls away, folding her arms into herself. As if that could protect her.
“What if there was nothing to be afraid of?” I ask. “What if death wasn’t the end at all? What if it were simply just another cycle? Like the phases of the moon.”
Her shoulders ease. “That would be something.”
I had not noticed the tide going out. The pool of seawater I had been sitting in all this time, that had been shielding the lower half of my body, no longer surrounds me.
A look of horror seizes Melanie’s face.
I look down at myself, wet and glistening and exposed.
My legs sprawled out. Melanie fixated on the space between them.
“Oh my GOD.” She gasps. “You’re…why are you…there’s nothing there!”
I snap my legs shut, my body trembling.
Cold, ruthless planet.
Father had warned me of you, but I had refused to believe it. How you snuff out all living things that could not survive the harshest conditions. How you kill off your foreign, your different, your unsightly. Destroying anything that can’t be neatly paired up and grouped together to your liking. Turning your back on the weak, the dying. Letting the grass overgrow to cover the bones.
Earth had not killed me right away, no. But she had ensured no parts of me would remain.
The truth hits like a single sharp stab to the chest at first, then everywhere, all at once—the violent force of it boring a hole through my body, leaving me emptier than ever.
Melanie draws her palms to her eyes to shield herself from the sight of me. “Oh my GOD!”
I desperately scan the sky, searching for the hint of his silhouette.
Father, where are you?
The sun beats down. Relentless.
I squeeze my eyes shut and pray for the blanket of soft white light to come. Envelop me, lift me up, carry me home. The squawk of the gulls above is a chorus of cackles, mocking.
Melanie stands up. She takes a step back. “I’ve got to get out of here.” She turns to run.
“Melanie, please.” I grab hold of her arm. “Don’t leave. I won’t hurt you. I won’t. I would never hurt any human.” Tears flow from my eyes, following the jagged border of my jawbone, slipping one by one into the sand. “I just want to go home.”
“Who are you?” Her eyes are two orbs—round and unblinking. Her mouth moves as if in slow motion. “What are you?”
I shrug. “What are any of us really? Specs of asteroid. A bit of moon-dust. Dark matter. Energy. It’s all the same.”
“Where did you come from? How did you get here?”
I point to the sky.
“How long have you,” she swallows, “been up there?”
“I’ve been there all along. But not in the way that you understand time.”
Her arms float down to her sides. Slowly she kneels beside me, her toes gripping the wet earth. “You’re not here to destroy our planet, are you?”
A single fat tear clings to the edge of my lashes. Carefully she wipes it with the pad of her thumb. I close my eyes. Her soft fingers linger, grazing the rugged terrain of my face.
“What happened to you?” she asks. “Where did all these craters come from? Did someone hurt you?”
“No. This is how I’ve always been. You’ve just never really looked.”
She touches the slope of my nose, the ridges of my forehead, her thumbs nestling in the deep hallows above my cheekbones.
“It’s all so beautiful,” she says.
Our eyes meet and lock.
“You are the one who is beautiful,” I say.
Her lips part. I lean into the warm breeze of her breath that streams from them.
“Why do you look so sad?” she asks.
“My father is dying.”
She nods. “Mine already did.”
A clenching in my heart. “And now?”
“The pain never really goes away. Life just goes on, I guess.” She shrugs. “But what do I know?”
We sit away from the shoreline, watching the sunset, listening to the roaring of the waves. She fusses with the long black strands waving about her face.
“I think about him every day,” she says.
Father emerges in the sky. He hangs low. Full, as glorious as ever.
“You have to cherish the time you’ve got.” She takes my hand. “Don’t think about the after, you know? Not yet. Who knows, maybe he’ll get better.”
Father shines his marvelous light.
“I’ve got to get home for dinner,” she says. “My brothers will be worried. You shouldn’t stay here. The tides are strong tonight.”
I nod. “You should go.”
She stands, hovering over me. “I can’t just leave you.” Her hand cups my shoulder. “Are you going to be okay?”
I look up at her. “We can control only what we can control. Such is the natural order of things.” I point to Father. “There. That’s him.”
She looks up at the sky. “I like to think my dad is up there too, shining down on me.” Her gaze mirrors the smatter of stars.
“He is up there, somewhere,” I say. “At least some form of him. He never really left.”
She shuts her eyes as the words nestle into her small body, filling some of the emptiness. Her fists soften. A smile spreads across the breadth of her face, her face glowing in the moonlight and I wonder, in all the universe, has there ever been a sight more dazzling?
“Will I ever see you again?” she asks. A wet film rims her eyes.
“If you’re looking, maybe you will.”
“I come here every afternoon,” she says. “I sit until the stars come out. I’ll be looking up, waving to you.”
Her words make a warm home inside my body, filling some of the emptiness.
“Goodbye, Junior,” she says. I watch her walk away, flip flops dangling in one hand, the sand sticking to her heels.
She turns back. “Yes?”
“I was wrong.”
“You could do it, if you really wanted to,” I say. “You could save the pandas. They’re worth saving.”
She offers one more glittering smile. A parting gift. “I will.”
I watch the sun fade away. I welcome the darkness.
Father beams his soft white glow. He paves a moonlit path before me to the ocean, to the horizon, beckoning to me.
My body feels heavy. The rising tide laps at my feet and I walk, descending into the water. Feeling weak and tired now. Knowing there’s not much time. Submerging myself completely. I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the ripple of waves that form around me as I move. Seeing how much I resemble him. A glowing figure of white light.
I walk out as far as my legs can take me then I lie back, letting my body bobble and float, gazing up at the glorious infinite. Knowing my place. Knowing that I must do whatever I can, for as long as I can. Knowing he needs me. Ready to go home.
I have much to tell you, Father.
There is still so much to hope for.