Most people who run away from their lives try to relocated in the Bahamas, not Mars. But, as my daddy told me, I’ve always been a dramatic.
I’m not stupid. This entire trip, from the first moment I thought to volunteer for the Space Explorer 27 when I was eighteen with frizzy hair, a dirty mouth, and a caffeine addiction, has always been an escape. So here I sit, my hands sweaty in my gloves, waiting to board. It smells like gasoline and desperation.
“Are you okay?” a girl with pink hair in the seat beside me asks. Her words force me from my thoughts. She’s wearing too much eye shadow, and I wonder if she knows there isn’t some sort of makeup refill station where we’re going.
“I’m fine,” I reply, smacking on a smile like a plastic glove. She, on the other hand, is pale and grips the sides of her chair.
Obviously, I want to say. But I don’t say anything. I don’t tell her what I’m thinking at all. Apparently, my vendetta against falsehood does not extend beyond the boundaries of my mind. Quiet, I run my thumb over my knuckles. We wait seated and uniformed and terrified in a line; me and the rest of us explorers. There’s a man who’s kid died last year. There’s a woman who never married. There’s an old man who talks with a constant lisp, and a man younger than me who checks his cell phone when he gets nervous. Then there’s the pink haired bubble gum girl. And then there’s me. These are the Explorers.
That’s what they call us.
Daring adventurers. Valiant heroes. Braving the darkness of eternity.
I know the truth.
We aren’t sacrificing by leaving the planet. I can see the question in everyone’s eyes when they see us. What sort of person leaves their planet forever? I’m not a scientist. None of us are. This isn’t the first batch of people to shoot off. We are Explorers 27.
But we’re not just explorers. We’re runaways.
At least I’m honest, though.
Self- honesty is the only thing I’ve got going for me. Not making an excuse for my behavior is my self-inflicted punishment. I will spend every waking moment rawly aware of exactly what I am doing and what I have done.
I shudder, and my throat is as dry as a sidewalk in the summer. Achingly dry. I remember skidding my knees on the ground as a kid on such a summer. My palms slammed into the concrete. Shouting? No, I didn’t shout. That was my mom. I was this little thing crumpled on the pavement like a discarded newspaper clipping. My blood dripped up my arms as I hugged those knees to my chest and whispered bad words Daddy taught me, and Mommy didn’t want me to say.
Shaky, little me stood and blinked away watery vision. Dust rose behind the retreating back of a blue pickup truck. Daddy’s truck.
I used to chew bubble gum in that truck. Me and Dad when he was trying to quit smoking. Together we blew bubbles. We’d roll down the windows and scream Green Day to the wind.
After that day on the sidewalk, I did not see the truck until I was seventeen. I spotted him, and I remember thinking he looked old. Arms crossed. Gritty. Leaning against that stubbornly running pickup. I made permanent nail marks in my textbook. He said he missed me. He had a place in Brooklyn. I could leave with him. Right now. Forget stupid kids who didn’t understand anything. Forget my pathetic attempts to finish school and get a job. Forget mom and her jerk boyfriends.
Forget all that and come home with Daddy. Daddy misses you. Daddy hasn’t been around for years.
And so I forgot. For a bit.
Does that make me a horrible person? This, right now, is not the first time I’ve run away. Not by a long shot. Distance, space, miles from the things I can’t handle, that is comfortable.
Traveling with Dad was good for a while if I didn’t think too hard. It was almost like him leaving never happened. “Let’s fly, Cherry-pop.” He winked and murdered the speed limit as if we were invincible.
Right then. Just at that moment, I swear we were.
I’m not sure what he wanted out of me, really. But I figured out the jist of it eventually.
I put space between us.
I did it again.
Back to Mom. Off to school. Off too… I don’t even remember at this point.
And now I’m here. In this waiting room. On the other side of the doors there’s a contained crowd with questions, and the shuttle; my home from now on. There is no further to go after this. I’ll never see their faces again; my mom’s screaming for Dad to come back, or my dad’s sweaty, red one as he stumbled, drunk, into his apartment and cast me a Cheshire grin. All gone.
Space would be comforting like it always was, I said to myself. A cushion. A buffer. My problems are impossibly insignificant in comparison to the size of the universe.
The door opens soundlessly and a rat-like man who still stutters around girls even though he has to be at least thirty-five, pokes his head in. “It’s time, folks.” I’m moving in a disjointed dream state, numb. One moment we are waiting, the next, we’re on the walkway in the hot sun. The suit is scratchy on my skin. Mom is in the crowd. I don’t look at her but I can practically feel her gaze. Is she crying? Should I care? Do I care? Yes, I care. The next moment, I note my feet are stepping over the border into the shuttle. Booted. Armored against elements I was not made to exist in.
Why is Mom even hear, I lament to myself? Wasn’t she the one who told me to let her live her life? So I am, I note bitterly. Giving her space. I think, perhaps, this isn’t what she had in mind. Maybe that’s why she’s here.
It is cool inside. All of us adventurers are going to breath this same air forever now. Inhale, exhale.
One after another, we file to our seats. The door still stands open. In this part of the shuttle, there are a number of seats, each with a window. Sitting down now is the hardest thing I have ever done.
But there I am, staring blankly out the window at the runway and the sun beating down on the concrete. The ground is hot just like was that summer. Except, this time, I am the one riding away.
Screwing my eyes shut, I grip the armrests. When I open my eyes, and my gaze flicks back outside, my heart suddenly bumbles into my throat.
Because there he is.
On the edge of the crowd, he stands waving his arms almost frantically. He is not deluded like the rest of everyone. He knows we are not adventurers. We’re runaways. He knows. Even from this distance, I can see the raw terror on his face. He doesn’t just look old. He is broken. Tired. Finished. Like that old truck that finally gave out. I stare at him in shock. He opens his mouth, hands cupped, and shouts something I can’t hear. But it doesn’t matter. I’m back to being seventeen again.
We can make ourselves a bit of space, yeah? You and me against the world, Cherry-pop.
All the oxygen rushes out of me to be replaced by waves of aching loneliness. Hurt. Hope? Anger.
My lip quivers. With a rush of fury that surprises even me, I bite down hard on my lip.
I could leave. Just like he did. He’ll know what it’s like. Every stinking day after this one. My victory. His punishment. The piece I never got. I get rush of vicious pleasure, and the shuttle charges up. Sweet victory. Sweet, sweet…
I clench my jaw. Who am I kidding? That isn’t victory, and it isn’t sweet. With each exhale, I am a little bit lighter. A little bit emptier.
It’s not too late.
I can run out there now. Back to him and smell the bubblegum in his pocket as he puts me together again.
I breath in. I could stop. I could change this. Right now.
For a moment like eternity, I hang on the edge, holding his desperate gaze. He wants me to come back, and he can’t come closer because of crowd control. But he tries. He tries.
He’s scrambling forward and falls. Hard, on his hands and knees on the hot concrete. But Dad is back on his feet in an instant, waving his hands again. They’re red. Red hands. Red knees.
Want some bubblegum?
Feet off the dashboard, kid.
Get us some space…
Daddy misses you.
There is Pink again, watching me. “You sure you’re okay?”
I pin her with my gaze like she’s a bug on a wall.
But my energy leaves me all at once, and I slump. This is victory. This is revenge. This is justice. What he deserved.
I look her in the eye. Honesty is my curse. My punishment. I am hollow. The words echo dully in my chest and clink against my ribs.
“No, I’m not okay.”
Slowly, I buckle my seat belt.
I don’t think I ever will be.