TO THE MOON AND BACK • by S. Benjamin Elko Jr.

The view of Earth was breathtaking from the small window port. Brown, blue, green, and white, all swirling together in silent slow motion — the colors standing in lush contrast to the empty black of surrounding space. Thom took a shallow breath; the stale air tasted like tin. Emergency lights cast a dull red glow over bundles of wires and exposed piping. The creeping frost was oily and menacing. He closed his eyes. What he would give to smell the blooming lilacs that surrounded his childhood home once more. Fragrant and purple, their sweet scent attracting clouds of worker bees. His mother would be busy in her garden trimming back the lamb’s-ear and sage. He slowly exhaled, his breath fogging as it left his lips. Thom keyed his radio, “Ground Control?” There was a crackling pause.

“We’re still … the … it should … be done … utes.”

Thom bit back his frustration — there was no use in not staying calm. He had all the (remaining) time floating high above the world — and nowhere to go. “Understood.” The radio crackled but nothing came through. Though it was childish, he felt like a modern Icarus being punished after having flown too close to the sun. Thom floated towards the emergency hatch separating him from the rest of the ship… and the void beyond. Though he knew it was futile, Thom knocked a quick succession of taps against the frosted steel door and put his ear as close as he dared. Nothing. Alec was gone. He resisted the urge to punch the hatch — or scream — and took another shallow breath. This time the tin was tinged with ozone. It tasted like burnt lightning in his mouth, a tingle spreading along his gums. The radio sputtered to life.

“Thom … Control. We have a … your problem.” Thom waited, willing it to be something they could fix; knowing that it was not. “It appears … penetrated the outer …” He exhaled a heavy breath that he didn’t realize he had been holding. A chill colder than that merciless void began to seep deep into his bones despite the thermal gear he was wearing. “… communications … the Russians. They … in low orbit … out.” With the emergency suits on the other side of the hatch, Thom was rapidly running out of air and they all knew it. “We … your wife on …” He struggled to keep his breathing to a slow, deliberate pace despite the tumultuous emotions roiling through his mind. Ground Control must really think I’m going to die.

“Darling, are … there?” his wife’s voice came in as sweet as spring water. He let it wash over his uneasy mind, savoring every inflection. Thom closed his eyes and she was there.

They were on vacation in Barcelona three summers ago. On the wrought iron table there was café con leche and churros. Cinnamon and salt suffused the air. The sun was rising over the Balearic Sea and she was watching its pink and golden rays of light play over the swells, hands resting on her hips and head cocked slightly to the side. In a moment she would tell him that she was pregnant with their daughter. He said her name and she turned. The Spanish sun cast a halo around her head, causing her hair to ignite in deep reds and mahogany brown, but the whole vista behind her paled in comparison to the beauty of her smile. She took his breath away. The irony was not lost on him.

“I’m here,” he said, pacing his breathing. He could hear Sylvia playing in the background.

“What’s happening? Commander … tell me anything. He only … urgent that we talk …” Her words tumbled out in a rush.

“I’m alright,” he chose his words with care, “it’s just a minor problem.” He heard her gasp. “Ground Control is trying all options. They’re contacting Roscosmos.”

“… that bad?” she cut in. It pained him to hear the fear in her voice.

“Can I listen to Sylvia?” Dodging the question. “Don’t put her on. I just want to hear her.” There was a pause, then the sound of their daughter stacking blocks and humming tunelessly to herself reached his ear over the crackling. Tears floated from his eyes in icy trails to crystalize before his face. Spheres of prolactin and leu-enkephalin suspended in the air, never to reach the ground. “Thank you,” he whispered, “Darling. I have to go.”

“But Thom!” she frantically began.

“I love you both,” he cut her off, “I love you to the moon and back.” Thom felt flushed despite the chill. His fingers were tingling and the edges of the room began to grow dim. The Earth looked beautiful from up here.

“We love you too.”

Darkness swept Thom away.

He was floating high above the slowly spinning Earth. He looked down and could see everything in bright clarity. Busy cities overflowing with cars and people and a thousand little problems. Serene forests swaying silently in the wind. Barren deserts painted hundreds of different colors. Towering thunderheads rushing across the dun plains. A cornucopia of fish swimming in the oceans. A man proposing to his sweetheart. A newborn, red-faced and crying. Sunrise and sunset. He did not know how long he watched. He was warm. He was calm.

A buzzing sound began in his head, growing steadily louder. It grated and pulsed deep in his temples. He wanted it to stop — it was ruining the sanctity of the world rapidly unraveling before him. Suddenly, warm, rich oxygen broke over Thom, engulfing him. He gasped, sucking in a lungful of air and life flooded into his veins. His eyes slowly opened against a blinding light. A blurry, bulky shadow sharpened — then focused — into a man wearing an orange spacesuit with an outstretched hand. The voice seemed to roar in his ears.

“Major Thom?” It was heavily accented. “You’re coming home.”

S. Benjamin Elko Jr. writes in his apartment and, occasionally, his car.

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