Absence

Author | Lucy Jones

Orion rises like a beast above me. I feel its heat from where I stand—a heavy breath on my cheek, my neck, meeting my skin, spreading a cold sweat across my body underneath the suit. The rush of pre-lift off—steam and blinking lights, engineers and mechanics running back and forth, the buzz of drills—becomes muffled. Orion stands stark against the sky; a giant, metal cocoon. For a second I forget about its purpose, and I forget about my training, and I forget about my family and this home planet and soft air and dirt and there is just me and the ship.
“You scared?” Robinson says from beside me, breaking me from my trance. 
I let a deep breath out from my lips. “Of course I am. I mean, I’ve been on the station, but this…” I shake my head. 
Robinson smiles. He’s the oldest of the crew, but only five or so years older than me. He has crooked teeth, a crooked smile, a smooth, bald head. He keeps a letter from his five year-old daughter in the inside pocket of his suit, and he showed it to me the first day of training, along with a picture of an alien that she drew. I liked him immediately.
“Just imagine where we’re gonna be.” He looks up and laughs like he’s just remembered.
“We’re going to another planet,” I say.
“Holy shit,” he says, still laughing, and puts a hand on my shoulder, “we’re going to another planet.”
Two hours later we are strapping in, me and Robinson and the other four. There are voices coming in over the radio, last minute preparations, checks and re-checks of engines. And then everyone but the crew leaves the ship, and the final doors are closed, and I hear Temper beside me, telling base she is ready to launch. And then the countdown—each number hits my chest and the whole ship rumbles, and when one comes my breath catches, and we are into the sky, into the clouds, out of the atmosphere, and it is not until everything becomes smooth and I hear Temper’s voice confirming launch success that the breath comes out, as laughter.

We are two and a half weeks into the mission and the Earth is almost hard to see. When we settle into open space I swear all I can feel is the loss of gravity, the weight lifted off me, as if my organs could drift up and out of my throat if they wanted to and rising out of bed is no longer the hardest task of the day but brushing my teeth is, when the toothpaste floats out and asks to be chased. And then I look out the window and see Earth even smaller than last night, although night here is only an idea and a myth and everything from Earth feels like a legend, like a religious belief, a thrown out hope for something that has no proof. Earth, just a speck. No more beating waves. No hurricanes. No wars. Just the quiet pound of the ship and the silence of my breath. Just a view packed with stars. Just a weightlessness that reaches my bones.
“This ain’t the space station,” Beckett says during lunch, in between bites of vacuum-packed chicken.
Urry looks up from Crime and Punishment and rolls her eyes at me. “We know, Al.”
“I’m just saying, when you wake up on the station it’s like, oh there’s Italy again, and hey Shanghai, nice to see you for the tenth time this week. Here its like…” he trails off. 
“Like nothing even exists there anymore,” Wasserman says from his seat. He has dark eyes and a stark jawline, and fingers used to wiring and pressing buttons. He doesn’t talk much. An engineer to rival most, but he has a reputation of making as much sound as space. 
Beckett snorts. “Jesus, Wasserman. You feeling a bit dark today, huh?”
Wasserman gives a small grin and shakes his head. 
I look up from my sandwich and study him. He has dark circles under his eyes, and always has. I wonder what keeps him up.
“I agree with Adel,” Urry says, and gets up to pour herself coffee. “I mean, at home I have a dog and a plant I never water. And a bathtub. Imagine having those things here. They just don’t fit. Earth things don’t fit here. So, yeah, it feels like they don’t exist anymore, in general.”
Beckett sighs. “And you, Anya?”
“I feel like I dreamt up everything,” I say with a mouthful of sandwich. “This morning I had a hard time remembering the point of swimming pools.”
Beckett groans and gets up from the table, and Urry grins. “I’m going to go take a nap and leave you all to stew in your darkness,” Beckett says, and leaves the room.
Urry pulls out a deck of cards. “You two up for spades?”
Wasserman is already winning by the third round, but he is quiet, with only a small smile.
“Jesus, who taught you how to play cards?” Urry says, frowning as he wins another hand. 
“My wife.”
“She must’ve been better than you, then. I’d be scared to go against her.”
He nods. “She was great. Master of the poker face.”
Urry puts a hand on his arm. He nods again, and lays down his cards. “I think I’m going to check on the controls. Thanks for the game,” he says, and gets up. He leaves the room, with his head down, and disappears into the ship.
“You’re pretty close with him, aren’t you?” Urry says after he’s gone.
I sigh. “Close is a stretch. We went to grad school together, and once we started training his wife would invite me for dinner now and then because she knew me already. She was the complete opposite of him, very outgoing. We’ve had a few in depth conversations on Mars terrain, me and him, but I wouldn’t say we’re very close.”
She raises her eyebrows. “He talks to you more than the rest of us, anyway,” she says. “You’re his favorite.”
I roll my eyes. 
“No, seriously,” she says. “Maybe he’d talk to you, get some grief off his plate. That’d cool Temper down for sure. She’s so antsy about crew mental states.”
I purse my lips. “Maybe so.”
The next morning, I find him in the common space, by the window, fiddling with a rubix cube. I sit down beside him and hand him a pack of strawberry ice cream. He takes it and smiles.
“This used to be my favorite,” he says.
We watch the window for a while—the edge of the ship standing out against the dark. 
“It’s really not what you think it’s going to be,” I say, and gesture to the miles of black in front of us. “I don’t even know what I expected, but it wasn’t this.”
He nods. “I feel like I’m forgetting things about home, things that have happened, things that I used to do.” He has a slight accent, left over from his German childhood, and it slips in between his words. I watch as he takes the wedding band off of his finger, holds it between his pointer and thumb, studying it, and then lets it go—it rises a few inches above his hand, and then stays there, turning. “It’s kind of comforting.”
We watch the ring flip against the background of black and stars. It looks like it belongs out there, an interstellar object floating aimlessly. 
“She was really good at spades, wasn’t she?” I say. “We would play after dinner, back at the beginning of training. And she made that one dinner, at Easter, I think—”
“Sauerkraut and sausage. My favorite.” He starts to smile, but then stops, as if he is not allowed. He falls back into silence. It seems easy for him.
“Do you talk to anyone back at home?”
He shakes his head. “I do not.” Before I can say anything, he adds, “I do not want to.”
I study him—there is something about the tension in his hands, the veins in his neck, the slickness of his hair that is unsettling. Maybe it is the stillness, how he seems ready to jump or run but at the moment seems frozen where he is, as he is. I find myself tensed, waiting for some sort of action from him. It doesn’t come. He does not move.
“She was very beautiful. Very kind,” I say. I am clasping my hands tightly together, as if praying for a response, for a reassurance. His jaw muscles twitch slightly. “She was always so open to me, and I’m thankful for that. I—”
He snatches the ring out of the air and closes his hand tightly around it, and then he stands quickly. With a short glance to me, he says, “I can’t, I just—I can’t,” and leaves the room. When the door hisses shut behind him I unwind my fingers—they have left red marks on my skin, and my palms are cold and wet. 

I dream about Wasserman in pieces, and the dreams are strung with theoretical equations and half-hearted attempts at screaming into space. In one dream his form changes—the quiet man at the table, the man at the window with the ring, and each time he appears his skin is a little bit darker, his eyes are a little bit brighter, and the dream ends with a heartbeat getting louder and louder until I wake up with a sharp breath. The ship is quiet, except for Temper snoring above me, and the bunks are dark. I look down at my watch, but then I realize it’s still on Earth time. 4:11 a.m. It means nothing here.
I sit up in bed and pull my hair back, and then slip out of the room, and down to the kitchen. Robinson is sitting at the table in sweatpants and a Yankees t-shirt, bent over a Sudoku book. He looks up at me when I come in.
“Couldn’t sleep either?”
I shake my head and zip up my jacket. “Weird dreams. Do you think space makes you have stranger dreams than normal?”
“Mmm, I don’t know,” he says, and puts down his pencil. “What did you dream about?”
I sit down across from him. “Um, nothing really. It was just very intense and unsettling.”
He leans back in his chair and rubs his hands across his head. “You know, I used to dream a lot about having hair, and once I dreamt I won the Guinness World record for longest hair. But obviously,” he points to his shiny, bald head, “that’s a record I will never break. Point is, it’s just a dream.” 
“Yeah,” I say, and give him a small smile.
“I’ll make you some coffee, little one.”
I punch his arm as he goes by. “Shut up, I’m twenty-nine.”
He laughs and turns to the coffee maker.
The dreams don’t leave me for the entire day. I see Wasserman twice, in passing, but he spends most of the day in the control room, or looking over reports and papers in his bunk. 
I call James in the afternoon. He is home with our dogs, making dinner. I tell him about the dreams.
“I always remember Adel being a weird guy. I mean, perfectly polite. But he was way too quiet.”
I groan. “Honey, that’s not making me feel better.”
His voice is crackling. “Anya, you’re not actually worried about him, are you? ‘Cause that was just a dream. He’s just sad about his wife, that’s all.”
I sigh. “I know. I know. I just… I have this weird feeling. But maybe he’s still handling his grief.”
“Ignore it, babe. Just focus on how you’re going to defeat the alternate life forms on Mars.”
I laugh and rub my temple. “I’ll try. How was your day?”
“Well, Artemis decided to forget she was house-trained today, so…”
I zone out of the conversation, and end up nodding into the receiver instead of replying. He is going on about the dogs and the traffic and the early-October chill and the assholes at work, but they go over my head and out of the window and into the black. There’s just me and the ship, the quiet clicks and hums, the slight vibrations, Beckett calling for dinner over the radio—
I hear my name coming through the phone, and I blink. 
“Anya? You there? Did the signal die?”
“Hey, sorry, the signal’s bad right now. I’ll call you tomorrow, okay?”
I run into Wasserman outside the kitchen, and he looks exhausted.
“Hey, I just wanted to apologize about earlier. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable, talking about Maggie. I thought you might need to talk about it.”
“I don’t need to talk about it,” he says. “It’s okay. I’m okay.”
I give him a small smile and nod, and he turns and goes into the kitchen.

It’s two weeks before I dream about him again, and until then I go on with this space life—meetings with Temper, reviewing touch down on Mars, looking over possible objects and areas to study, crackling conversations with a man I feel I loved in another life, trying to sleep while being keenly aware that I am almost hovering above my bed. I still feel like I could lose my organs, but this view of the stars is becoming familiar.
On the thirty-fifth day, I wake up sweating from the dream. This time, Wasserman goes from a dark body to a bird, which sails through the ship with ease, and keeps bringing me things where I sit, floating, in the middle of the room—there’s a card, and a blinking button, a NASA jacket with “Kane” written on it, with a tear through the fabric, right over the heart. This time, when I wake up, the edge of the sun is coming in through the small window, and for a second I think I’m back on Earth.
Wasserman is the only one in the kitchen when I walk in. He is at the table, reading a book, and he doesn’t acknowledge my entrance. I’m standing at the counter on the other side of the room when Temper comes in and sits across from him.
“Did you sleep any last night, Wasserman?”
“I did.”
Out of the corner of my eye I see her lean forward, and her voice gets lower. “I am asking as a friend, because I am worried about you, but I am also asking as your superior. I can’t have my best engineer sleep-deprived and under his game if something goes wrong here, and especially not when we touchdown. I need to be sure you are fit to complete this mission. If I’m not sure, I’ll have to step in.”
I turn my back to them and turn on the coffee maker, which starts to boil. When I turn back, Temper is getting up, and Wasserman is looking back at his book. I follow Temper out of the room, and as the kitchen door closes behind me, I call her name.
“Hey, Kane. What do you need?” she says as she turns around.
“I’m sorry, but I overheard your conversation with Adel, and I just wanted to make sure he’s doing alright.”
She sighs. “He just needs to sleep.”
“I think it’s his wife. He can hardly talk about her, and he bristles when she’s mentioned. I think he would sleep if he opened up, but for some reason he can’t—”
“I can’t do anything about it. I’ve tried, you’ve tried, Robinson has tried. I’m sure we all have.” She smooths her short hair back against her neck. “He’s one of those people who just can’t sort out their grief, I guess.”
“Do you know how she died?”
Her brows furrow. “You know, I actually don’t. I figured you would—the crew says you’re the closest to him.”
“I can’t even get out how she died. Maybe there’s something—” 
“I would let it go, Kane. He’s going to have to get through it on his own. He doesn’t want help, he’s proven that. I know you’re worried but try not to overthink it. He’ll get by.” She gives a small shrug. “We’re meeting in an hour to go over tomorrow’s walk,” she adds as she walks away. “Bring your suit for inspection.”
“Roger,” I say, but she is already gone. I remember my coffee, boiling in its pot in the silent room with Wasserman. I leave it be.

That night, I sit with Urry in the common space as she deals out the cards. She’s challenged me to a game of Go Fish.
“What’s up with you?” Urry asks as she plays her hand. “You’re so out of it.”
“Sorry. I can’t stop thinking about Adel.” I play a hand. “I know I’m being pushy.”
“I’m not arguing. He’s got a tough shell, though.” She pauses, and looks up at me. “Go talk to him. Really, go. I’m tired anyway.”
I leave the room and maneuver through the ship. I knock quietly on the door to the room before going in. Wasserman is standing by the bunk, his back to me, and he glances over his shoulder but doesn’t turn around. In the half-light of the room, he is mostly a silhouette.
“I’m sorry to bother you, Adel… I know you said you didn’t need to talk about your wife, but when my mother died, talking about it was the only way I got through it. But, it’s up to you, just letting you know I’m here.” For some reason it is hard to push the words out of my mouth. For some reason my heart is beating too fast, and my palms sweat.
He pulls his shirt off and reaches for another one, but then pauses. I can only see his back from here—in the changing light, the muscles of his shoulders are just lines and shadows. He is still and does not say anything to me for minutes.
“It was my fault.” His voice comes out hoarse and low. The hand holding the shirt drops to his side and I see his fist clench. “It was my fault.”
I take a hesitant step towards him, and the door shuts behind me. “Adel,” I say, “It wasn’t your fault.”
He turns around and looks at me, but I feel he is seeing right through me.
“I hadn’t been there for her, not in a while… the training, it was the damn training. She said she missed me, but I—I have a job, I have a duty, I…” He pauses. The ship creaks.
“She was going to leave me, she didn’t know I still needed her, she was going to…” he says through his fingers.
“Adel,” I whisper. He is still staring at something beyond me. The air between us is too clean and too sharp, too processed. My breaths come heavy and they ache in my chest. “Adel, what do you mean?”
He blinks, and he is seeing me. He takes a step forwards, and holds up his hands. “Don’t. Don’t start to think like that. I didn’t do anything. I heard you talking to Temper about me, and I’m just trying to open up, that’s all—”
I step back and put my hand on the door handle. 
“Anya, please,” he says, his voice straining. “Please, you knew Maggie. You knew us. You know me.”
“Do I?” I whisper.
His face becomes desperate, sunken, and the circles under his eyes are darker than ever. Now, the only think I can think about is my training—like I’m searching through a manual, trying to figure out how to deal with this, trying to figure out what to say, how to move, and all I come up with are exit plans or how to secure a spacesuit or maintain oxygen levels. He is staring at me like I am about to go out with no helmet. I am concentrating on the cool of the metal door and the distant creaks of the ship. 
“I wouldn’t…” he starts. “Don’t think like that. Please.”
I shake my head, and I keep shaking my head as I open the door and step back into the hallway. “I won’t think like that,” I say, but the words float up and away from me and I’m not sure if he catches them, and then I turn and shut the door behind me. 
That night, I just dream about blackness. There are no sounds, no people, no Orion. Just the black, as far as I can see, as far as I can reach.

In the morning I am wide awake, and I dress quickly and eat quickly before anyone else comes in the kitchen. I go to the west side of the ship, where the suits are stored. Here, there is just a small room and a door separating me from open space—I am a pull of a lever away from the rest of the universe. 
My suit sits between Beckett’s and Robinson’s, the helmet shining, the patches perfectly aligned, the white material spotless. I am trying not to think of him, so instead I brush my fingers over the breast-pocket patch that says “Anya Kane” and I remember the first spacewalk I did, three years ago, on the station. The lack of gravity—like I weighed nothing, meant nothing—somehow, it seemed to pull me, as if each of my limbs were weighted by stars and I just couldn’t see it, as if the dark, the absence of air, the pull of planets and asteroids were reaching for me, aching for me. I look at the suit now and wonder if the space out here will feel any different.
Beckett and Urry come in behind me, and Wasserman follows. He glances at me, and I turn my head. 
“Let’s get this show on the road!” Beckett says excitedly, and reaches for his suit. 
As Urry helps him into it, I feel Wasserman’s hand on my arm, and I turn around to look at him.
“I don’t like the way the conversation ended last night,” he says in a low voice, and steps closer to me. 
“Neither do I,” I hiss.
“Can we just talk about it later? After the walk?” His hand is still on my arm, and his grip is tight, his eyes are wide, his lips are dry. I have never seen him like this, so desperate, so alive.
I stare at him. “I don’t know what is going on with you, but whatever it is, I will not keep secrets.”
He opens his mouth to reply, but Urry is calling my name, and I turn to her. 
As I pull the helmet over my head, I watch him slip into his suit, his spotless suit, and smooth back his dark hair, and smile briefly at Urry as she leaves the room, but then my helmet seals with a hiss, and we are hooking on our cords and confirming that we are ready, and Beckett opens the door and then there is just the silence, and the almost-pull from the black, and we drift out into space.
“Alright, crew, let’s get this fixed as quick as possible. Beckett will move the cooling system cap, Kane will remove the system, and assist Wasserman with the repairs,” Temper says through the radio, breaking the silence.
“Roger,” we echo. “Moving in,” Beckett says. 
I follow Beckett along the side of the ship, holding tightly to the rails. I feel it again—the absence of gravity, but the pressure of something, right at my heels, the palms of my hands, the top of my head.
The job takes an hour and a half, which we spend panting into our helmets. Wasserman works beside me, at the other end of the system, and his and Beckett’s heavy breaths echo in my ear, but besides that, there is no sound but the occasional comment from Temper. When the system is back in and the cap is secured, Beckett gives a loud “wooo,” and Urry laughs through the radio.
“Nice work. Let’s reel it in,” Temper says. “Urry on stand-by.”
We maneuver back along the side of the ship, Beckett first, followed by Wasserman, and then me. I am still on the rails as they float into the room, and I am almost to the opening when my cord sticks, and jolts me to a stop five feet from the door.
“Shit,” I say, and tug at it. 
“What’s the problem, Kane?”
“My cord. The coil must be stuck.”
“Wasserman, sort it out.”
I watch him float to the door and reach towards the coil, but it is then that I see the tear in the cord, like a wire breaking out from its coating.
“We have a problem. Tear in the cord,” I say into the radio, and my heart thuds once, twice against my chest.
“Can you reach it?” Temper’s voice is a forced calm in my ear.
“No, I’d have to pull myself forwards with the cord.”
I stare at the ship, looming and white in front of me. It’s overwhelming from this angle, stretching far past what my helmet allows me to see, but if I drifted away, it would become smaller and smaller until it’s just a pinprick in the sky, like Earth, full of people and fears and things I have no use for out here. Out here, where it’s always night and the only sound is the pound of my blood and the rattling of my breath in the helmet.
I take a deep breath. I put both hands around the base of the cord at my belt. “If I pull forwards it could snap.”
“Anya, stay calm. Wasserman is going to throw you a new cord. Grab onto it, and they’ll reel you in.”
I look into the opening, where Wasserman stands, unmoving.
“Wasserman? Do you read?”
There is a second of silence that lasts too long, and I feel the cord tremble through my gloves, and I know he is staring, still and quiet, watching me, hearing my panicked breaths, with his hand on the coil but his body like a statue. An image of him appears—he’s standing in his backyard back in Houston, facing his wife, who is laughing and smiling. She is holding her hand out to him, but he is still and does not reach towards her. I almost laugh at this because I can’t remember if it is real or if I’ve made it up, but it is gone in an instant and I am back with the real image—Wasserman, unmoving, only feet but almost light years away. I can still hear his breathing in my radio, as if he is right there, over my shoulder. 
But then with what seems like great trouble he nods his head. “Roger that. Extending the cord.”
The cord goes out like a snake and I lean to catch it, and wrap it tightly around my wrist. “Secured. Please for the love of God bring me in.”
Beckett and Wasserman grab the cord and pull me in, and then I am in the air lock and the door is closed and when I take off my helmet my breaths are huge and slow. 
“Holy shit, Kane,” Beckett is saying, and he holds onto my arm. “You alright?”
I just nod until Robinson comes and takes the helmet from my hands, gets me out of the suit, and walks me up to the common space, where I slide into a chair and wait for my breathing to become normal.
Temper comes in, cursing under her breath, and turns to Beckett. “Get that cord and bring it to me. I cannot believe the equipment malfunctioned, today of all days.” She turns to Wasserman, who is standing at the edge of the room, leaning on the back of a chair.
“We’ll be quicker on the response next time, won’t we?” she says to him.
His face sinks. “Roger that,” he says quietly, and bows his head.
Eventually, the crew leaves, and I’m left in the same position. It’s not until Wasserman comes back in that I get up, and move to stand in front of the window.
“I’m sorry,” he says, and his voice is ragged.
I wrap my arms around myself. My hands feel small against my ribs, and my skin feels fragile. I can feel that is he trying to say more, but I hear nothing.
“Please leave,” I whisper to the window, and then again, louder, “Please. Leave.”
The door shuts after a moment, and I stay still. Outside, there are miles and miles of blackness, millions of stars, storms on foreign planets, an Earth I can’t remember. Here, there is a ring flipping over and over itself, the warm hum of Orion around me, and the weightlessness—in the rhythm of the ship and the rise of my chest, it empties me.


About the Author | Lucy Jones was a creative writing major in her arts high school in Birmingham, Alabama, so she has been writing non-fiction, poetry and fiction non-stop for about five years. She has always loved writing, especially fiction and short stories, and although she doesn't write as much in college, it's something that she can always go back to, to calm down and escape from the stress of school. She writes about a lot of different things, but whatever the subject and character, there's always a surreal twist to the story.