6.3k words. Sci-fi, unreliable narrator, adventure.
“It’s not that big a deal to go to space, you know.”
“Swallow your food before you speak, Rohan.” I watched my husband reprimand our son, and then I turned my gaze to the son himself, twenty-seven years old in all his might, and still having a hard time keeping all the salad dressing inside his mouth. I wondered if it was my failure as a parent, to be unable to even train my child into being able to not feed his meal to his shirt, and to be so brutally unappreciative of his mother’s achievements.
These dinners were typically more silent than anything else. The sound of forks and spoons against plates was always loud until someone found something to talk about briefly, and just as that conversation would end, the silence would consume the group of us again. It wasn’t an uncomfortable silence, not to me at least. I just enjoyed being able to share this with my children and my husband once night a year, the smell of the food in the air and drinks before we sat down for dinner, reuniting as a family before everyone got busy in their daily duties again.
We weren’t by any means an unhappy family, it was just that I knew that the occasion for this dinner was an anniversary that was difficult for everyone to talk about. My family and I had always discussed the troubles we collectively came through when it came to my sobriety.
But we never discussed why I had a drinking problem in the first place. I had wondered why, but my husband, Yajur, had tiptoed around the topic for years, and after all this time I had let it be too because I figured it was because he had suffered the most because of it out of everyone. After all, the children had been too young to know just how bad it had been for me, and he bore the brunt of the whole thing – he had been the best husband anyone in my situation could have asked for.
This is why I had understood, all these years, why he was always a little extra sensitive about the whole our-mom-had-a-life-threatening-experience-in-space-and-came-back-slightly-traumatized situation. I didn’t blame him.
I took a breath and smirked as I asked, “Is it not?”
I turned to look at my daughters, who eyed their younger brother with looks which made me wonder how someone could be this disdainful, judgmental, and amused at the same time. Nikita and Mihika, twins, married with two children each. They were the achievements, I couldn’t help but think but immediately stopped myself, as I collected some more spaghetti onto my fork and waited for Rohan’s answer.
“Yeah, I mean,” he paused to shovel more food into his mouth, “I drove all the way from my place, and got all the groceries to actually make this feast of yours during a national lockdown, so,” he swallowed and became slightly more understandable, “I’m more of a hero than you are.”
He finished with the cheekiest grin on his face and shrugged at me, and I couldn’t help but shake my head endearingly. He was never the most sensitive of the lot, reminded me a lot of Elena actually, but I knew he never meant any harm.
Everyone at the table knew Yajur wouldn’t have appreciated the joke, though.
Nikita and Mihika just stared at their father, expectantly, waiting for him to do his signature nostril-flaring and passive-aggressive commenting at Rohan. They had a complicated relationship – Rohan was crude and easygoing, and my husband was proper and polite. It hadn’t been this way before I left, as far as I remembered. Yajur had always been fairly okay with how naughty Rohan used to be, but when I came back every remark and joke from Rohan seemed almost painful to him. I had been too preoccupied with myself at the time, and they seemed to still have a good relationship, so I never interfered with it.
I watched as Yajur put down his fork gently, straightening his posture and looking at Rohan with his eyebrows raised. Here it comes.
“Rohan, you know your mother went through an incredibly difficult time fifteen years ago. And you also know that I hate reprimanding you, especially because the three of you have come, without your kids, during such a difficult time. We have this dinner to celebrate your mum’s sobriety every year, and we are not going to be discussing the past anymore. You can either be okay with that, or I can show you to the door.”
You don’t have to be this mean about it, he was joking. I stayed quiet.
I wanted to change the subject because the slurping of soup and crunching of lettuce sounded awkward and hollow for the first time ever. It was uncomfortable, so I tried to think of something that could resume the conversation, but I was interrupted by Rohan clearing his throat and putting down his fork himself.
He looked hurt as I had expected him to, and I hated that expression on his face, but it was less that and more that he looked as if he was stopping himself from saying something worse. I was in agony for what felt like at least thirty minutes – it was probably less than a second.
He cleared his throat and said in a calm, but enraged voice, “Well, I would only be able to discuss the past if I had ever been told anything about it.”
I had expected something explosive, that would have no purpose other than to push Yajur’s buttons, but I didn’t expect this. I turned to the others sitting at the table in confusion, expecting them to be as oblivious as I was, but I was shocked to see that my daughters looked shocked in a completely different way. They looked as if something monumental and groundbreaking had been said, and the strangest part was that they looked as if they understood what he meant. And Yajur, he just seemed exasperated more than anything else. I watched him struggle around a reply for a second or two, and I sat there, waiting, confused.
“We are not doing this right now, Rohan. Especially not tonight.” He finally replied, and that was enough for me to understand that there was a whole conversation going on between four out of the five people seated at the table. The realization made me much more aware of just how tense that room had become, and made me also realize that I was the only one enjoying myself at this little party. Had it always been like this?
How clueless I was had my question flying out of my mouth, unsure and left out, much before I willed it to. “I’m sorry, what’s going on?”
Rohan took a breath, and I could tell that he was the type of angry where you surpass every explosive reaction and become dangerously calm. So when he did finally turn to me and answer my question, I became afraid of what his response might be.
“What’s going on, is that I’m sick of driving for over six hours to a dinner, where I have to celebrate my mother being sober when I don’t even know why she had been anything but. All I was ever told is that I had to “give you space,” he gestured quotation marks in the air resentfully, “because you needed to “figure yourself out”, and that you’ve been “confused about what happened”, but it’s been fifteen years, and I’m tired of pretending that you haven’t had enough time to stop being confused about how this damned secret has affected our entire family.”
He finished breathless and angry, and by the time he was done Yajur had interrupted with an angry roar of “Rohan!” – it evidently hadn’t stopped him, though.
I laughed but it sounded unsure, and I frowned and stared at Rohan trying to figure out what had gotten into him. No one was eating anymore. Everyone seemed to be frozen, and I had no idea what the hell was going on with him.
“Ro, my love, I think I might be able to answer your question if you just explain what you mean, I have no clue what you’re talking about, son. I know we don’t talk about it but I’ve told Yajur what happened all that time ago, so I’m sure he must have explained it when I came back.”
I understood now. I stared at him with the request for understanding in my eyes, trying to reach over to place my hand on top of his, but just as I reached across he jerked away from me. Ouch. “You were so young then honey, I’m sure you just don’t remember? We can talk about this, just calm do-”
Rohan let out a frustrated cry and interrupted me. I shut up, not wanting to make this any worse, but I didn’t know how to make it better either. What is going on?
“Okay, Ma. The point that you seem to be missing here is that I remember everything. It’d be hard not to because I’ve been looking for an explanation for the way you behaved all those years ago for a long, long time. And everything I just said is what we got as an explanation from Dad. So either you’re completely insane, or dad just made all this shit up because you guys have something to hide. So which is it? Hmm?”
He looked so troubled, so angry, so exhausted and I didn’t know how to tell him that I had no idea what he was talking about. What is he talking about? Confused? About what? What had I been figuring out? Where had he gotten all this from? Why had Yajur told them all this in the first place?
I turned to him helplessly, for an explanation or a reason, or a hope that he would tell me that this was a misunderstanding. But he simply looked down at his plate, and he looked like he was in agony.
I looked over at Mihika next, who was looking at Rohan as if she was murdering him for starting this conversation in the first place. She looked exhausted, and she was now leaning against the table with her hands supporting her head. Nikita looked between me and her father repeatedly – and I knew she may not have been the one that was asking the questions, but she was surely expecting the answers.
The room was completely silent. I could hear Rohan’s breathing slow down from the rapid breaths he had been taking before, and the whooshing of the fan above us. That’s it. Which is why I was startled out of my body when Mihika raised her head to start her sentence, but at the same time as Nikita took a breath to say something – she gestured for Mihika to go ahead.
I didn’t know whether or not I wanted anyone to say anything anymore. My thoughts felt so scattered, trying to look for a reason why Rohan would lie like this. Or maybe Yajur did tell the children all these things about me, but then I wanted to know the reason for that.
They’ve spent fifteen years, they’ve spent practically their whole lives, believing that there was no reason for my behaviour. It wasn’t a small thing – being an alcoholic is difficult, but having the experience I did and losing a friend the way I did is even more so – but the things I had done were inexcusable. Elena had been my partner. We had worked together almost our whole lives. She was the other half I found which even Yajur couldn’t be for me, and losing her had me feeling like I could not only turn away from my duties as a mother but become a vicious, disgusting human being.
I understood my children feeling the way they did. I can’t blame them, and after the things I did, magically accepting one day that I was sober and part of the family again would have had to be monumental. But they did, no questions asked, forgave me for all the behaviour in my past and before we knew it, it was a year later they began to celebrate the anniversary of my sobriety with this dinner. I thought at that moment everything had become okay. I thought I was forgiven. It was a shock to know things had been so different from how I had thought they were. And I didn’t blame them – they didn’t even know why I had been an alcoholic in the first place.
I turned to Mihika expectantly, waiting for what she had to say about the whole thing.
“Look, guys,” She turned towards Yajur, “Rohan isn’t wrong. Think about it the way we do, right? We were fifteen when mom left for that mission, or whatever it was, and we were told that in an absolutely ideal situation she only comes back after at least eight years. She came back in three and a half, I think four. The news said that the mission had failed and one of the people involved was dead, accepted,” Mihika must have seen me shift uncomfortably at the mention of Elena and turned to look at me. I didn’t know what she saw but she made her tone less confrontational immediately, “But we didn’t know anything other than that, did we? Next thing we know Mom is drinking and breaking things and- okay, we don’t need to get into the details of that part,” Yajur frowned and cleared his throat and Rohan was clenching his fists on the table, “But it had been so long, and-” She fully turned to me this time, with a pleading look in her eyes and reached over to hold my hand.
She took a breath, and I held mine. “Mom, you missed too much while you were gone, and we thought when you came back you’d be with us again. But you weren’t, and we would have understood if we knew why. But we didn’t and it’s been fifteen years and we still don’t. Everything Dad told us sounded like an excuse for you not being here, and he was just covering up for you. So it becomes a little hard to celebrate you being okay if you never told us that you weren’t.”
By the time she was finished and had removed her hand from over mine, I couldn’t see clearly because of the tears. I hastily wiped below my eyes and sniffed loudly. I could see the guilt on the twins’ faces and defiance on Rohan’s, and when I looked at Yajur this time he was looking right at me.
There had to be a way to explain this. He knew exactly what I had gone through. He knew exactly why I had been so broken when I came back. He had helped me, so I didn’t understand why he would hide that from our children. Why did he want them to believe that I didn’t want to be their mother? Why had he let them? I had never resented someone more at that moment, but I knew he would have had a reason. He’s my husband.
I turned to Yajur expectantly. There was not one sound at that moment, the ceiling fan had somehow disappeared, and I felt like I hadn’t breathed for the past hour. From the corner of my eye, I saw Rohan look defeated and sink backwards, Mihika and Nikita shifted back and rested their backs on the chair. We waited. He stared back at me, and I waited. He didn’t seem to want to say anything at that moment, and the silence was killing me, so I cleared my throat.
“Y-Yajur?” Stop sounding so weak. This was not my mistake. I cleared my throat again. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t tell them. You know what happened, I told you and so did my bosses. You were there for the whole thing, you came for Elena’s funeral. I don’t understand.”
I saw my children turn towards their father, baffled, and at that moment everyone knew that the only person that needed to speak until now, hadn’t. So we sat there.
It felt like it was after an eternity, but Yajur finally spoke. “Uhm…”
His voice broke, and he cleared his throat.
“Your boss, Sivan, he told me-” He shook his head at himself as if he was erasing his words off a paper. He looked up at the children. “Uh, Dr Sivan, her boss, he was the chairperson of the organization at the time, he was a friend of ours because of how high ranked your mom was before she left,” He explained and turned back to me. I haven’t thought about him in a long time.
“Sivan told me that when you came back, you’d be different. I knew that, I had read the news, and he had updated me on how everything went down when you were up there. I knew there’d be trauma, Rimaaya, you lost your best friend. She was like your sister- Hell, I was devastated when I heard. So I knew that we’d have a lot to deal with when you came home, and I was ready for it. I knew the five of us could get through it if you just came home.”
Yajur looked like he was torn between something. I didn’t know where he was going with this. This is getting overwhelming, very fast. I hadn’t thought about Elena for a long time. I missed her every day, no doubt, but even trying to recollect everything was taking me back to the panic and hysteria I had felt then. I was empty then. I took a breath. I need to hear this.
Yajur still looked conflicted. What could he possibly be thinking? I almost felt bad for him, he looked so troubled, but he had to explain. I watched him as he closed his eyes and whispered “Okay” to himself. He was preparing himself, I immediately realized. My heartbeat began to get faster and faster, and I waited.
“Okay.” He blinked away whatever tears had welled up in his eyes, and straightened his posture.
“When you landed on Saturn, you had one hour to collect your data and take off towards your craft where you had to dock again. You had twenty-four hours total to relay your data back to Home Base, here, and declare whether or not you’d be continuing your mission, and if the people here had to bring you home. Right?” Though Yajur sounded empathetic, he had a tone in his voice which made him sound like he was listing off facts to somehow prove me wrong.
I nodded, in a daze, and he nodded back at me, once. He looked around at the children and the girls nodded back at him, in a request for him to continue, and Rohan continued to stare at the table, expressionless.
I was growing more and more anxious by the minute. Can I afford to relive this? I felt parched suddenly. Whiskey. I clenched my fists, waiting for him to continue.
“Everything went well, you too were happy enough with what you collected, so you took off from Saturn, but there was an error in your lander’s course for the spacecraft. Right?” I nodded again, barely blinking. There were tears in my eyes again, and I reached down to pinch the side of my thigh to just stop them somehow. Shit. He took a breath and asked, “What happened next?”
What? Why would he do this to me? Is having fun, making me recollect this for our children, making me justify why I turned into an alcoholic in the first place? I could swear this was just him being cruel, for his own pleasure, but when I looked at him he looked as though he was in pain himself.
The children were turned towards me, and I had to tell them. I knew I did.
“Uh… We had…” I was suffocating. What was I supposed to do?
“Mom.” I looked at Nikita, and she softly smiled at me. “You can tell us.” I took some breaths, deep, in and out, and tried to collect myself.
“The lander was meant to go around the rings of Saturn. None of the space crafts or landers made by ISRO, or NASA, as a matter of fact, can currently endure that. The rings are-” My voice caught in my throat. It was barely above a whisper anyway, and I knew I had to collect myself somehow. I swallowed. “They’re only a kilometre thick, but they’re thousands of kilometres wide, and they’re made of ice and a lot of rock. No ship or rocket built can go through that yet, or even interact with it, so when we had been on our way to the surface of the planet we had gone around them.”
“But when we were on our way back to the spacecraft, there was some fault, or something, I don’t know how it happened I had checked, it was my job and I checked everything,” My voice wavered now, and I lost myself in the memory of that moment. “The route somehow altered and we were going through the rings. I thought we’d die, our chances were that we would, and the rings were brutal. The lander should have exploded or ruptured the screens, but it didn’t and we were lucky enough to make it to the edge, almost.”
I almost didn’t hear the sniff that came from directly opposite me, Yajur I’m sure, but I couldn’t be bothered to look up.
“Just as we were about to make it through, there was a flash. It was too bright, and I thought I had died but I opened my eyes and I was alive. The lander had exploded.” Nikita gasped, I think, or it was Mihika, and I continued. “When I looked around, I could only see black, and stars. There was a small crack in my leva-” I interrupted myself, “the glass that’s right in front of our faces?”
That was when I looked up, and my daughters nodded back at me. They looked devastated, and Yajur was looking down. He was crying. I teared up a little more. When I turned to Rohan, he was just looking at me. He looked invested, as if he was listening to something for the first time with this much concentration. I realized then that it was much more important to them, this story, and the explanation they were getting, than it was hard for me. I sniffed and wiped my tears again.
“Yeah, well, that glass was cracked. But it wasn’t breaking yet, because there was no air pressure to crack it more.” I smirked, “Lucky we were in space, I guess.”
“I wanted to know what happened to Elena. I looked down and there were cables, really strong cables, they were from the lander’s mechanisms, and they were tangled around me. I tried my-” I have to simplify this for them. “I tried the little boosters, that are on our wrists for minor air-supported motion boosts. They were full, still, but the cables around me were too tight. As far as I could estimate, I had around twenty hours, worst-case scenario, to tell Home Base about the situation. But for that, I’d have to get to the spacecraft, and I didn’t know where that was. I tried to look around my suit, to see where the cables that were tangled around me could be freed the best, but I just couldn’t move. I was getting frustrated, I was panicking, and I didn’t know what to do. But I knew if I let myself panic I wouldn’t able to think. I tried to turn, with the cables, and I could, so I saw that the cables were actually leading out from behind me were going back to some debris of the lander, not even twenty feet from me.” This is too hard. I closed my eyes as the sight I saw next filled my mind.
“I saw Elena tangled up in the cables too. She was stuck too, in the same cables I was just closer to the debris. But her eyes were closed. I thought she was dead. It was hard not to just give up and…” I opened my eyes and I knew to everyone else at that table I would have just been staring at the table in front of me, but I couldn’t see. Not because of the tears in my eyes. Because of the fact that I was there again, Elena in front of me, at the moment I thought I had lost her forever.
“I could have died there, just given up. But I knew I had to come home if I could. I used my cables to take myself towards her, like rope, and I was next to her. I couldn’t stop crying. That was when I realized how weak I had become. We hadn’t eaten for over twelve hours, I had suffered a major crash, and I had probably been unconscious for over an hour in the middle. The exhaustion I felt in the moment was one I felt down to my bones, and I cried there. I was begging Elena to wake up.”
I exhaled slowly. Tell the whole thing. You owe it to her, to tell your children that she saved your life.
“She woke up. As far as I could tell, I was crying for a little under three hours, and she woke up. She looked dead, even if she wasn’t. Her skin was pale and her lips were turning blue. I saw her wince and swallow, and open her eyes.” I smiled through my tears. “She told me she was going to die anyway. She told me to use her suit’s oxygen supply and flight power, those boosters on our wrists. I had asked her what for, we were stranded, but she had pointed right behind me.”
“The spacecraft had been right in front of me, as soon as I woke up, and I somehow didn’t see it. When she showed me, I could see that it was less than a kilometre away. I could make it, with my flight power, but I had to get rid of the debris and take Elena with me. But she didn’t let me.”
It felt like I was living through the whole thing, up there, all over again. At this point, I was crying properly, my voice was thick with tears and my words were becoming slightly unintelligible. I continued to stare down vacantly at the table. “She didn’t let me. She told me that she would die anyway. I didn’t listen, but she made me, and she told me I couldn’t get rid of the debris anyway, but it was small enough for us to carry it with us if we used both our flight power. We could reach the spacecraft. By the time she convinced me, I had around fifteen hours left. It was more than enough time. I-” I reached down and held my hand over my eyes, sobbing. I can’t believe I don’t have her anymore.
But I had reached too far in this story to not finish it, and I knew that. “I held onto her body so she was almost hugging me, I barely had the strength but she had become weak enough to not be able to move, and I spun us until we were wrapped in the cables and couldn’t be separated. And then I used her flight power, and mine, and boosted us up till the spacecraft. It took half an hour for me to keep stopping the supply and redirecting us so we were going on the right path to the craft. She had been encouraging me throughout.”
“I managed to enter with the debris and cut the cables off us,” I was sobbing entirely, and I felt like there was no air in my lungs. “She was dying, and I put her in the cryosleep so she could stay frozen until we got back home. We had fourteen hours, comfortable enough for Home Base to chart a way home. I told them Elena’s situation and they said it would take a year and a half to make it home. I got us home.”
I sniffed, collecting myself. Wiping my tears, I had a sip of water and looked back up at everyone.
Rohan looked at me with empathy and pity, for the first time in years, and the girls collected themselves too.
Rohan was the first to say something. “So this is why you were so sad when you came back?”
I nodded shamefully. I still didn’t know why Yajur hadn’t told them. They knew though, and I suddenly realized what had been so out of place all these years.
Rohan continued. “Where’s Elena now?”
I sniffed and responded, “She’s in the ICU of a hospital two states over.” And just as I said this, I saw Yajur shake his head, so sadly, and look down at his lap.
Rohan frowned back at me, in confusion, “How come you never go meet her? You guys were best friends, right? Even I remember meeting her, I think, once.”
I took a breath to respond, though I couldn’t think of an answer. “Well-”
“It’s because that’s not what happened, Rimaaya.”
Yajur’s voice had cut in before I could try to explain anything to Rohan. I frowned in confusion myself, and at this point, everyone was frowning at Yajur. What is he talking about?
“What do you mean, that’s not what happened?” I questioned him, beginning to grow angry at his behaviour. He had hidden this story, this tragedy, from his children about their mother for the past fifteen years, and now he had the audacity to tell me that I was lying about the most traumatizing experience of my life?
“When the lander exploded, Elena died. She was tangled up in the cables behind you, just as you said, but she had already died. You had no conversation with her up there. You went to her, and you realized she was dead, and you cried but… But she was already dead. You wrapped yourself in the cables with her, but it was her dead body.” He looked at me with so much pity in his eyes. And I couldn’t believe he would accuse me of such a thing. He wasn’t even there. How can he know what happened?
“N-No. You’re wrong, and it’s cruel for you to say this.” I was heartbroken, but my blood was boiling too. I began to shout. “In front of our children! I just told them something that you never had the guts to, Yajur! You hid it from them, and they villainized me for years! Because of you!” I banged my hand on the table, and I looked at the children, who now looked taken aback more than anything else. They looked back and forth between me and their father.
“I told you what I had gone through all those years ago! You know how much of a mess I was, and I can’t believe you’re doing this right now. Is this your idea of a practical joke? Why would you not tell them, Yajur, and then lie to top everything off!” I continued to yell.
“This is why I didn’t tell them, Rima!” I could see him trying to plead with me, but he wasn’t going to make me the bad person all over again. “Sivan told me that you thought she was alive! When they opened Elena’s cryo pod, she was dead! All the recordings, of both your microphones, every ship log and every log from your suits, it’s just you speaking the whole time! The mics that engaged, on both your suits, yours and Elena’s, have no input from Elena’s side. Even her mic only recorded you, and the cryo would have preserved her life if there was any to save. She was dead when you came back, she’s been dead this whole time. You used her body, her suit to save your own life, and no one blames you for that! You just seemed like you had created your own… version, of the whole thing, and we decided not to question it.”
I was breathing rapidly. He has no idea what he’s talking about. He continued, with a pleading look in his eyes, and he stood up to come around the table, I assumed. I held a hand up and stopped him where he was, and he sank back into his chair.
“I didn’t want to tell the kids something that wasn’t true, but if I told them the truth I didn’t want them to ever say it in front of you. They weren’t even proper teenagers yet, Rimaaya, so I decided to not tell them anything, even through your phase.” He took a breath, and he was tearing up. I couldn’t believe anything coming out of his mouth. What kind of an explanation was this? How could he invalidate my story, my experience, just to be able to justify his actions?
“I swear Rimaaya, call up the hospital you think she’s in, or call up her mother. I’ve kept all those numbers, I knew this day would come, call Sivan himself if you’d like, but she’s gone. And she was gone then. You made this- this fantasy up to cope with it, and I didn’t mind it because eventually, you coped with the explosion and the loss of your life’s work. I just didn’t want you to have to cope with her death too.”
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t see, and I couldn’t think. My breathing felt like it wasn’t in my control anymore. I made it up? She’s dead? She can’t be dead. I tried to think. I would prove myself, to my children and to my husband, because he was clearly deranged. He must have thought Sivan told him something, because Sivan was one of the most honourable and diligent people I knew. He wouldn’t lie. I had to ask. She’s dead?
I whispered when I finally spoke. “Give me your phone.”
Yajur hastily reached for his phone and handed it to me. I unlocked it and searched ‘Sivan’.
The line seemed to trill infinitely, almost mocking me, until I finally heard the deep voice I was expecting to. He didn’t wait for Yajur, or me, to say anything, and immediately picked up the phone and answered, “Hey Yajur. So she knows?”
I broke. I sobbed, and I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I managed to say his name somewhere in the middle, and all I heard after that was the sigh over the line, and Sivan sound so, so sad.
“I’m so sorry, Rimaaya.”