The Sweetness at the End
By Jenny Rae Rappaport
This is how it happens:
Tony and Ma are in their seats in the skimmer, strapped in and grinning at us. Daddy and I kiss them good bye; take a photo of them in their spacesuits for posterity, and wave at them. We stay behind at the Kennedy Space Center–there’s a viewing room that has live GPS tracking available for suborbital flights.
This is a huge thing for Ma. Positively, absolutely huge. She’s wanted to go to space since she was a little girl, and watched that old space shuttle explode on TV. The one with the teacher and all. Way before I got here, of course.
No one takes you to space when you’re old. Or if you take a medicine or two, here and there, because again–old. Old rules you out of almost everything fun. Money can overrule some of the old, but we don’t have that much money.
But then, Tony got his suborbital license. And no one regulates who you take up in a SubOrb plane; as long as you file your flight plan in advance, the government can’t really say anything. So Ma was going to get to go up as far as they would let her, all without having to pay anything to the expensive SubOrb tour companies. Tony had managed to snag the use of a plane from a guy he knew from training; otherwise, it would have still been way too expensive.
So there we are, Daddy and I, bumming around the viewing room. I’ve got one of those new sodas that are dispensed in round bubbles made of stiffened sugar; you can literally eat the can after you’re done with them. Beats the hell out of recycling it, any day. Daddy is tapping his fingers, as he stares at the GPS screen.
“They’ll be over Europe soon,” he says.
“Yeah,” I say.
We watch together, as they cross the Atlantic, swooping northeast, their flight path tracked in gold on the map in front of us. We’re one of the only flights today–Christmas is not a popular SubOrb day–so we have the viewing center mostly to ourselves. The fat couple to the left are clutching hands and praying, as a purple line streaks south over India. To my right, there’s a little old man, a cane across his lap, and his eyes fixed on the red line that’s near Australia.
I’m getting to the bottom of my soda bubble, almost to the part I love best, when I can eat the crunchy outside. I start slurping, ignoring Daddy’s silent looks; I never did have very good manners.
And then, our line stops moving over Spain. It hangs on the map, a golden thread from here to there, suspended in time. We stare at it, willing it to keep moving, to keep doing the grand jete it’s making over the rest of the continent.
But we know. You always know.
A man in a SubOrb uniform quietly touches Daddy on the elbow, and murmurs, “Sir, if you would join me down the hall.”
And that’s when my world explodes in pain.
Or maybe not. Maybe Tony and Ma are still out there, skimming through the atmosphere. And I’m not stuck at home with Daddy, wondering why half of my family has been ripped away.
Maybe it happens like this:
Maybe it’s Daddy and I on that flight instead. And it’s a present for me, not for Ma. Tony and Ma are the ones in the flight center, sipping their drinks–orange soda for Tony, iced tea for Ma–and crunching away on the taco-flavored corn chips from the vending machine. They’ve hugged us good-bye, placed a kiss on each cheek; Ma still holds with the old, old Italian ways, sometimes.
Daddy is holding my hand, as he whispers, “Isn’t this grand, Carolina? We’re going to go towards the stars.”
I can’t feel his hand through my suit, but I know that we are lost in the perfection of the stars together, as we soar through the sky, up, up, up…
But it doesn’t happen like that. I’m not supposed to think that. Dr. Li would kill me, if he knew that I was indulging in fantasies.
Although I’m not sure if your therapist is allowed to kill you.
And I’m also not sure that I’d mind being killed.
This is what really happens:
Daddy decides that work is for idiots. Or people who have whole families. Or something in that vein. He sits at home in his bathrobe, his feet encased in Ma’s pink, fuzzy bunny slippers. The combination itself is embarrassing–who wears lumberjack plaid and pink slippers?
He sits there, with a drink in his hand, and he cries. He doesn’t sip the drink. Just holds it, letting his hand warm the alcohol inside. He locks the liquor cabinet after he pours a new drink each morning; obviously, I’m not supposed to drown my sorrows that way.
Sometimes, he carries the drink to Tony’s room and sits. Sometimes, I catch him sitting on Ma’s side of the bed.
But I don’t get to sit.
Sitting is not allowed in Daddy’s world–not when your daughter could be picking up all the pieces of your life that you’ve conveniently allowed yourself to forget.
The grocery shopping isn’t the hard part. There’s plenty of companies online to choose from that offer free drone delivery. I’ve gotten good at unhooking the refrigerated case from the drone’s underbelly; I don’t have the patience to wait for the robotic arms to gently disengage it.
The cooking isn’t the hard part, either. I have Ma’s recipes for that, in all their incredibly catalogued detail. Never say that someone’s OCD isn’t good for something.
No, none of that is the hard part.
But the living–the constant, perpetual living–now, that’s the real hard part.
I am caught in an endless cycle of cooking and cleaning. I work around Daddy’s useless ass. I answer the bills in the mail; I deal with the calls that are never-ending after a death.
This is what should happen:
I should go back to school. I should finish my degree. I should switch my major from History to Aeronautics. There’s no point in learning about the kingdoms of sub-Saharan Africa–I can’t use that information to fly a plane. I should go to SubOrb, and beg for training. They owe me after everything.
The lawsuit is ridiculous. SubOrb’s side argues that Tony had taken the skimmer without permission; our side argues that they should have known that the third spanner bolt on the plane’s underside was loose. We pull maintenance records as evidence; we have the best experts testify on our behalf. Daddy even puts on real clothes.
We lose anyway.
This is what truly happens:
There is no lawsuit. We have no basis for one, Daddy’s lawyers say. They urge us to take the death settlement that SubOrb is offering on Tony’s behalf. Daddy agrees.
And we argue, standing in the lawyer’s office with its peeling paint and bookcases filled with ancient legal books. I don’t want to give in; giving in is losing. Giving in is admitting that my life must go on without Ma and Tony.
But Daddy is ready to give in. He tries to take me in his arms, to hold me like I’m a little girl still. But I stopped being a little girl years ago; any bit of me that still believed in childhood magic has been long lost. Blown away over the Pyrenees, like the bits of the SubOrb plane that they never found. Vaporized into nothingness.
“Carolina,” he says, reaching out a hand to me.
I shake him off; if I don’t have a mother or brother anymore, than I don’t need a father either.
“Send my half of the check to my address at school,” I say, before I leave.
Even I’m surprised that he actually does so.
I use the money to finish my History degree. Then, I switch tracks, doubling back and taking all the STEM courses that I missed the first time. I work and work and work and work; I’m surprised that there’s anything left of me, by the end of it all.
And then, I get my acceptance to the new Ph.D. program at MIT, the one that’s a pipeline-feeder into NASA.
Even Dr. Li is pleased.
It probably happens like this:
I let Daddy hug me when he finally sees me again, in the cold, sparse Family Emotion Area. He’s gotten gray over the years, worn more around the edges. He has glasses now–big tortoiseshell ones that obscure his eyes more than they reveal them. The replacement he’s found for Ma is next to him, all dolled-up in pink and yellow, like some Southern flower of fragility. I could crush her with all of the strength training I’ve been doing to prepare for my mission.
“We’re just so proud of you, Carrie!” she chirps.
“Carolina,” I say, disentangling myself from my father.
“And this is your baby brother!” she continues. The replacement points to a blob in the stroller next to her.
“We named him after your brother,” Daddy says. “George Anthony.”
I stare at the blob and the Ma-replacement and at Daddy himself. I stare and then, I sigh.
“Time’s up,” I say. I’m not wrong–the mission is truly time-sensitive and I’ve put off this meeting until the last possible moment. The rest of the crew has been saying good-bye to their families for weeks already. But I probably could wait with them some more; we’re not scheduled to isolate ourselves before launch for another hour.
“Thanks for coming,” I say instead.
And I walk away from them, before my heart bursts open, and I cry for all of the things that Daddy has done wrong.
If there is a God–and that’s a big if–then He has to have Ma and Tony up there with him. They’re probably waiting in the great big heavens, laughing at all of us down on Earth who still love them. Who haven’t remarried and replaced them. Who haven’t lost them over the years.
Who still believe that they’re out there, hanging by a golden thread over the Earth.
Who are waiting to get to the end of that soda bubble, in that long ago past, just waiting to crunch down on the sweetness at the end.
This is how it ends:
Evans double-checks my safety straps, before strapping himself in. We practice redundancy measures. Diallo radios Mission Control, letting them know that we’re ready to go, her voice measured and cool. Sanchez begins to fire the engines. I monitor my bank of computers, ready to jump in as the secondary pilot. Redundancy, after all.
And then, we launch.
The Gs hit us like the proverbial ton of bricks, but we’re used to that. Mission Control is like a gnat in our ears, as we achieve escape velocity.
“Godspeed,” they tell us.
We fly. We see the stars. We bicker and laugh with each other. We run out of instant mashed potatoes by the time we pass Mars.
The radio contact grows longer by the day. With each kilometer we travel, the delay grows between us and Mission Control. By the time we enter the Oort Cloud, we are essentially alone, floating in a sea of interstellar ice.
Diallo tells us stories from her childhood in Lagos; Sanchez keeps us entertained with what he remembers of his nephew’s idiot antics. Evans writes poetry that nobody will ever publish. I think of Ma and Tony as the stars come closer.
Finally, we are there. Grubbier and older, but the Alpha Centauri system doesn’t care about that. Our instruments are still as finely calibrated as ever, and we are ready for the final part of our mission. Measurements and data surround us; for the first time in long years, we are all excited again.
Sanchez and I take the skimmer closer to the surface of the stars, soaring past the twin pair and the tiny red dwarf of Alpha Centauri C. We collect astronomical data for weeks. We fly and we dip and we twirl through the universe.
And then, we crash.
This is really the end:
There is no mission to Alpha Centauri.
There is no mission to anywhere.
I get my history degree, parley it into a Ph.D., and become a research professor at a small college in the Midwest. I take trains everywhere.
Daddy never remarries.
But I do get married, eventually, to a sweet man from Minnesota. We have no children because I am too afraid of them dying.
I spend long hours sitting on my back porch, wrapped in a blanket against the wind. I watch the wild geese soar through the sky, and then I close my eyes and try to fly with them.
I am always stuck on the ground.
For my thirty-fifth birthday, my husband books a SubOrb tour package for me. As a way to ease back into life again, he says. I don’t believe him, but my current therapist–Dr. Li is long gone–urges me to do it.
We take the train down to Florida, and I sit at the window and count goose after flying goose.
I am surprisingly calm during the preflight checks. The spacesuit itself feels like a second skin. I have done this so many times in my mind that I feel overprepared. I manage to impress the pilot with my knowledge about the operations of the life support system–I’m trained in research after all.
I watch as my husband waves good bye to me, before the pilot starts to taxi the plane towards the runway.
I am filled with anticipation crossed with crushing fear. My lungs forget how to breathe. I am light-headed by the time we hit sub-orbit.
The stars streak by outside my window, brilliant against the black of the sky.
“They’re gorgeous, aren’t they?” he says. “I always like the moment when the blue turns to black.”
“You always liked everything about this,” I tell my brother, not daring to check the seat next to me.
“No, I don’t like the tourists. Some of them are pricks, Carolina. But the flying? That’s priceless.”
“You couldn’t wait to train for your license.”
“Look out the window,” Tony says. “Really look.”
And so I do, staring as the Earth arcs beneath us, all green and blue and golden with lights on the dark side. We swing over most of Europe, and race onwards, the frozen tundra disappearing beneath our plane. I laugh from the pure joy of it. For one infinitely long moment, everything is absolutely right with my world.
I throw myself into my husband’s arms when we land, kissing him as if we were giddy teenagers. I can’t explain the feeling that engulfs me; I’m not sure it’s important to even classify it. We make love that night like we are the only two people left on this planet.
It is exhilarating to feel alive again.
I name my son Tony. My first daughter gets Ma’s name. And my little one is Stella, after the stars that brought me back to life. She wants to be a SubOrb pilot when she grows up.
I am waiting to see her fly.
About the Author
Jenny Rae Rappaport is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing workshop, and holds a BA in Creative Writing from Carnegie Mellon University. Her work has previously appeared in Cast of Wonders and STRAEON. She lives in New Jersey with her family, where she divides her time between writing and herding small children.
About the Narrator
Diane Severson is a lyric soprano specializing in Early Music, especially Baroque and medieval music. She is a dedicated teacher of singing (taking her cues from her mentor the late Cornelius Reid and his long-time student and mentor in her own right Carol Baggott-Forte). She is the mother of a young multi-linguist and married to her very own Rocket Scientist.
Diane has been blogging on this and that since 2005 and has been involved in the SF Poetry Scene (yes, it’s a thing) since 2010. She has narrated for the StarShipSofa Podcast Magazine (StarShipSofa.com, part of the District of Wonders Network) since Tony C. Smith started running fiction and found out that she reads aloud to her husband. She quickly became his go-to-girl when he wanted poetry read. As a result of that affinity with poetry, and because she does her best work when she has a Cause (a budding superheroine?), she decided to become Science Fiction Poetry’s Spokesperson. She produces the sporadic podcast, which runs as part of StarShipSofa, called Poetry Planet and is a member of the Science Fiction Poetry Association for which she ran the 2012 Poetry Contest. She is a staff blogger for Amazing Stories Magazine (amazingstoriesmag.com) focusing on Science Fiction Poetry. She continues to narrate stories for StarShipSofa and other podcasts (notably PodCastle and Tales to Terrify) and has begun getting paying jobs as a voice actor.
The best place to find her is on the web because she tends to pick up and move to another country at the drop of a hat. She and her family currently reside in Paris.