I'm coming back to Earth
“Mom? Mom? Are you there?”
I wait for the loading signal, tediously slow. The electromagnetic frequencies are already destabilizing the connection to Earth. I don’t have much time.
My mom’s voice crackled through the monitor. I don’t remember the last time I cried, but suddenly the monitor goes blurry as my eyes fill with tears and I gasp for air, struggling to make a sound. I force out a high-pitch whine as the tears start to fall.
“Baby, are you there?”
I imagine her in front of her computer in the kitchen, outdated with its keyboard and clunky monitor, with a cup of coffee. Excited to hear my voice. It’s morning in Cisco.
“Mom, I – I miss you.”
I wipe clumsily at the tears on my face with both my hands, watching the connection drop down a notch on the monitor.
“Baby, I can’t really hear you that well… is something going on?”
I had forgotten about the blaring alarms in the atrium, the shouting on the other monitors as the other cadets desperately tried to reach home, the commands yelled over the loudspeaker.
“Mom… th-there’s an asteroid.”
“What? Did you say an asteroid? Is everything –”
Her voice breaks up, coming in pieces of sounds.
“Yes, there’s an asteroid, and –”
“Are you ok? Baby, are you safe? Is it coming for you?”
I immediately hear the panic in her voice. I imagine that she’s standing up now, she’s leaning over her screen at home, she’s clicking and re-clicking the Wi-Fi signal even though I told her many times when I set it up on her computer that it doesn’t affect grams from space.
I’m so sorry mom. I’m so sorry. I was so stupid to never come home.
My mom used to always tell her friends that she knew the minute I graduated, I would never be on Earth again. What is it about us that makes us always fulfill our mother’s prophecies?
I had so many opportunities to come back to Earth. So many chances to send a gram during leave, or holidays when I could take the shuttle back to Earth. But every time I only pushed further away. During breaks at the colonization training program in Mars I would sign up for an exploratory mission on Callisto, or spend time in the lab fulfilling an extra credit. Every free day was an opportunity to get ahead for me. Besides, what was home?
When I first started studying for the exams, when everyone else in Cisco with a decent GPA was entering some local college and the rest were getting employed at the factory, I was holed up in the living room with a desk my mom cleaned for me every morning before I woke up. She would come sit on the foot of my bed with a cup of steaming coffee to wake me, letting me fall asleep a few times before she nudged me out of bed. She would sit down quietly on the couch researching different study guides for the exams and watching me out of the corner of her eye as I flipped through flashcards. She was always there. I never saw her, gathering flyers at the recruitment center for different training programs that started on Earth instead of Mars; I never saw the way she digitized all the pictures of spaceships and astronauts that I drew when I was little. I only saw the flyers she left on my desk and the pictures in the kitchen, and I only saw what I hated about Cisco and home.
In our dorms, I would join in with the other cadets – “yeah, my parents didn’t want me to leave either, why can’t they see the future isn’t on Earth?” Sure, she never wanted me to leave, but she never stopped me, either.
She also never told me about how dark and lonely the house seemed without me, how it was like living with a ghost. She never told me how she slept in my bed and smelled my pillow to remember what my hair smelled like – she used to tell me that the smell of the top of my head never changed from when I was a baby. I remember the car ride to the hair salon before my first interview, when she kept asking if I really had to shave my head, if maybe I couldn’t just wear it in a bun like some of the other cadets. With my hair went the last of that baby smell, the last of the self that needed her, and Earth, and her made up stories about faraway galaxies instead of the real ones I was about to explore.
During the first years of the training program, I came home maybe twice a year, whenever the zero gravity and physical training and rehydrated food became too much. When I thought of the good things at home, I always thought of my bed, the food my mom would cook, and my house. How was I so stupid to not realize how much she missed me? I missed such meaningless things – my couch! – and she was the one waiting and waiting for me just to come home just so she could rub my head and pull one of my baby blankets over me when I fell asleep doing research on the couch.
My mom always insisted I come with her everywhere during my weeklong breaks. If she was going to the grocery store or her book club, she always woke me up with a cup of coffee and brought me along, because there was always time in the car to tease out another story about training or ask me about another worry of hers about living in space. I used to laugh at some of her questions.
“No, mom, of course I haven’t seen the ISS control room, I’m only a cadet.”
“No, mom, that’s ridiculous – the droids gather the specimens, that would take us a million years to do.”
“No, my muscles feel fine, and yes I’m taking my supplements.”
She was just willing me to talk, willing me to fill in the hours I spent without her, the days and years on Mars and in space stations and typing code in front of screens that she couldn’t understand.
The next time I would come home and she would invite her friends for a coffee at home to meet me, and I would hear some passed-along, heavily retold version of some story I had told her. Her friends would ask, “Did you really save your friend by reminding them to seal the airlock that could have killed everyone?” I would be annoyed, because my mom was always repeating versions of stories she didn’t understand about my life in the stars.
I was so ignorant not to see how proud she was of me. Everyone else had children in Cisco who could come home on the weekends or still lived in their old bedrooms; who sent messages to their moms whenever they saw a funny license plate or whenever they got a good grade. My mom had a child who sent a gram from the station once a month even though I walked by the communal screens everyday. A child that would message home, all the way down to Earth in some distant time zone, saying that I wouldn’t make Thanksgiving break because I had gotten an internship studying a crater last minute. I never thought about my mom waking up to find a call missed hours ago on her consul and a message saying I wouldn’t be on the shuttle to Earth. But now I see her opening the garlic dill crackers that she had bought just for me because they’re my favorite snack that you can’t get on Mars and eating them so they wouldn’t go to waste.
I never knew that she didn’t wash the clothes I wore when I took my rare breaks at home. She would save them for a few days, saving that little part of me. She would put on an old sweatshirt from a band she didn’t know the name of and curl up on the couch where I had been researching just days before, imagining I was still home.
She was always so proud of me in a way that made me ache deep in my stomach. Everyone in Cisco knew about me, but no one in the training program knew about her. The other cadets would always talk about absent parents, or strict parents, or parents that didn’t understand their dreams of going to space. Everyone seemed to have a dad that didn’t put enough credits in their account because they had spent too much the month before, or a mom that couldn’t understand anything about their field of study in the program. When I didn’t go home on breaks and complained about everyone in Cisco having small town dreams, everyone assumed I was the same. When I complained about not having enough credits to afford a trip, everyone assumed my parents had put me on a budget.
But she wasn’t like them – I had a mother on Earth who was spending my college savings and her retirement on the training program, and who told exciting stories to her friends at the gym about her child on Mars, and who stayed up late worrying about what space was doing to her child’s bone density.
Why had I always been this way? I had always tried to do exactly the opposite of what everyone else in Cisco did. My mom would joke that I could never seem to get far enough away from home. She would talk about my adventurous spirit, and tell me not to worry about her, because she believed me when I said I was going to be the future. I didn’t have to stay home, I didn’t have to come home, because I was doing what I loved. She was fine, she’d say, don’t worry about me.
Why didn’t I?
The connection finally stabilizes, and I hear bits and pieces of my mom’s words come through, choppy like stormy waves.
“Mom? Mom, slow down, the connection’s not good.”
The station is bathed in the red neon of the emergency lights now – we’re running out of time fast.
“Baby, are you ok? Please answer me, is everything ok?”
“Mom, I’m fine.”
My voice breaks again. She still doesn’t know. The city alarm system for Cisco is in its tiny town center, miles away. It’s too early for her to check the news. She didn’t get my grams last night. She doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know.
“Mom, I’m fine, I’m fine.”
But I’m not fine. I want nothing except to be with her, to be safe, to feel her arms hug me tight, to have her listen to me and rock me as I cry and cry.
“Mom. The asteroid… is-is coming for Earth.”
Those were the last words my mom heard from me before it hit.
I never told her how much I loved her.
I never said goodbyes. Ever. I hated it. Life was too fast-paced, things were always changing, why say goodbye when you’ll see someone again?
I remember the first time my mom dropped me off for the shuttle to Mars. I had been yelling at her that morning, I had been stressed. She went out shopping last minute to get a few more things I needed for the packing list, but she had forgotten toothpaste and didn’t buy the right thermal socks. I remember her helping me zip the duffel and carry it to the car, she let me be grumpy, she didn’t expect a thank you when she gave me a bag of snacks.
She knew I didn’t like goodbyes either, so when we finally pulled up, a little late, when I only had two minutes left before I had to go through security, she just held me. She wrapped her arms around me, she smelled the top of my head, she rubbed my back up and down, and she cried, quietly, so I wouldn’t be embarrassed in front of the other cadets.
She stood by the car, wiping the tears clumsily off her face with both hands, voice caught in her throat, waiting until she saw the slick white shuttle lift off into the sky, headed to space.