By M.A. Dosser
2022 Science Fiction Short Story Contest- 3rd Place Winner
“Twelve years. Twelve long years. I was gone. What’d I expect?” the man murmured as Leila placed a fresh cooling salve on his forehead. Within moments, the ice blue coloring darkened to purple. He was burning up. Where was that medic?
Just a day ago this man, this Elias, had come into her inn. Dragged himself in was more accurate. She offered to call the medic immediately, but he refused and promised to pay. Pay big. She considered calling anyways, but, honestly, she needed the business. Her inn, Garden’s Edge, was meant to evoke antiquity, but it was really just an eyesore. Everyone but her called it “Arden’s Edge,” because the G fell off during a storm and no one had bothered to repair it. Either name fit well enough, she supposed. The timber front was worm-eaten and ruinously old. The walls looked more leaned together than anything else. Now she understood why everyone else built with carbon hyperfilaments. No worms there. Nor rotting nor swelling. At least it looked better than concrete, in some lights, she hoped. She got the occasional guest, but it had been a long dry spell. Then along came Elias.
“Annabel,” Elias said as his body went rigid. Leila felt a grip on her wrist that would have broken weaker bones, unexpected from this wisp of a man. He had entered the inn bowed, but stretched out on the table, his feet dangled off one end. Set deep into a hollowed face, his deep gray pupils were calm in the maelstrom of red veins running through the whites of his eyes. His skin had been burned so many times by the radiation of the sun, the color was nearly orange.
“Annabel,” he repeated.
“I’m sorry, sir. I’m Leila,” she said in as soothing a voice as she could. “The medic will be here soon.” Leila had waited until the morning to call, when he collapsed over his breakfast. If it was too late for him, she would never forgive herself for not calling sooner. But she knew. They both did. Too late was a long time ago.
“I know,” he said. “Can I tell you something, Leila? I apologize, but this needs out before it’s too late, and you’re the only person here.”
Leila had never heard a man’s last testimony, and it wasn’t something she particularly wanted to do. But was she supposed to say no? She nodded.
“First, I need you to swear upon the love you hold for that wife of yours.” Pictures of Leila and Chey littered the back of the bar. Chey worked out in the rim–an up-and-coming lawyer who was just finishing another rotation of pro-bono cases for the district courts. She should be home this time next week. Her first time back in Leila didn’t know how long. She should have been excited, but all Leila could think was why couldn’t it have been this week? She had been on comms with Chey all morning, peppering her with a thousand questions about what she should do. Chey was the one who knew how to mix salves and connect the med-pack wires for accurate read-outs. Leila just knew how to bandage. And call the medic.
“What am I swearing?”
“You won’t breathe a word of this until I’m gone. It won’t be long now.”
He finally said what she knew to be true. Maybe not. The medic had to be close. Maybe they could do something. Maybe they could work a miracle. But they had to get here first.
Again, instead of speaking, she nodded.
“It’s just for the two of us. Least, ‘til I’m gone. Then it’s for my Annabel too. And whoever else you want to tell. I’d prefer not her mother, but that’ll be up to you. Or Annabel.”
Lifting the purple gel pack, Leila gently dabbed at the moisture on his forehead. A moment passed in silence. Then another. Leila helped him sip a glass of water–straight from their well, another would-be attraction that was too archaic to appeal to the sanitation-obsessed people of this world. Grabbing a bowl of broth, she tried to help him eat, but a few spoonfuls were all he could manage. Another sip of water calmed his coughing fit. After that, there was nothing else she could think of to do. No further way to delay.
“All right,” she said. “I swear. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
‘I loved a woman from the time we were both barely tall enough to see the moons. I would have done anything for her. And I did. Anything and everything. Her name was Brooke, and there never was a more perfect woman in these worlds. Her hair a brown so dark it was nearly black. Her eyes the color of a burning forest on a moonless night. Her laugh a sweeter melody than those Debussy dreamed. What I remember most, though, was that wit. No one could ever forget it. Or escape it. It was quicker than a whip and sharper than one’s bite if you tried to talk to her before her morning coffee, which I, of course, foolishly always did.
My best friend loved her too. Finn was taller than I was. More handsome too. And better at basically everything, other than letting her know how he felt. I spoke my love, while Finn loved in silence. But I didn’t think I could propose until I had enough money. Even before her father would entertain the idea of me marrying his daughter, I’d have to prove I could support her lifestyle. My greatest fear was that Finn–whose father was a surgeon and he planned to be the same–would gather the courage before I could gather the funds. But passively fearing would do no one any good, so I joined a merchant ship, one that traveled from moon to moon, planet to planet, trading exotic fare. The payment was as great as the danger. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the work. My fellow crewmen and I just clicked, and I realized if I did this long enough, I could buy my own ship and make more money than I ever dreamed. And that was just what I did.
Months turned into years, and I amassed what I called a fortune. Others quibbled with the term. When I felt I had enough, sought Brooke’s father’s approval. He agreed, then I asked Brooke to come on a walk with me. I took her halfway up that narrow street, the one that clambered toward the mill, to show her what I made for us. There was a garden fence wrapping around the front–white picket like she loved. The walls artificially colored to look like sunbaked stones. She always preferred the natural look over the newer style. Outdoor stairs led to a terrace, with windows peeking into what could be the living room or den dotted along the way. It wasn’t grand. I knew that. I even told her so. But it was ours. And I told her that too.
I fell to one knee, shaking so badly I could barely fumble the ring out of the box. Her hands flew to her mouth, newly agape. Shock, surprise, even disgust, I couldn’t tell. Stuttering out words not nearly eloquent or poetic or just plain good enough for her, I wished I had practiced more. Or at all. I thought the moment would play out like a dream. It didn’t, but her reply, her single word answer, was all I could have asked for and more.
I loved her, and she loved me, so we were wed and merrily rang the bells. Merrily rang the next six years of our lives together. The best years of my life. We filled our home by the mill with my little girl, Annabel, and our son, Philip. Little Annabel’s favorite place to be was under the palm tree I planted near the gate to our house. She played there all the time, often performing what she called the jaw harp dance. Philip, though, he was a sickly babe. The medics said it could pass with age, but it only grew worse. Treatment after treatment. Hospital after hospital. It was never ending. He needed specialized care, more than we could afford. I told Brooke I needed to find more lucrative routes. The ones I had been taking were short enough I could be with my family more than I was away. They didn’t make as much, but I thought that they would be more than enough to support us. I was wrong. Not with Philip.
Brosin was far, too far for most traders in our system to bother with. Not to mention the route to Brosin was a little less than ideal. The systems between Scoreaux and Brosin were uninhabited. It was a long, long trip, without much in terms of a safety net. But Brosin merchants had more money than they had water. If I could make a run, I could make enough for Philip’s care. Even more if I chartered it as a regular route.
Brooke told me no. She had a bad feeling. We could find another way. But we both knew there wasn’t one, not even with Finn’s help, so I ignored her.
Oh, how I regret it.
A week later, I was rocketing through the void of space. A clip of Philip’s hair hung in a locket around my neck. Brooke gave it to me, said she wanted me to keep my family close. The engraving in the white gold about made me cry. I kept it tucked under my shirt. I wanted to always feel it, the kiss of the cold gold reminding me why I was doing this, even if I couldn’t see it.
To maximize profits, there were only three of us on the trip. Annabel decided she needed to rechristen the ship “the Palm Tree.” Not officially of course. Renaming ships takes time, but I said I’d file the paperwork when I got back. But it was important to her. She said that whenever she missed me, she’d go under her tree and it would feel like she was with me. Near broke my heart, it did. Leaving was tough, and my family didn’t make it any easier. Almost made me jealous of Jak and Manuel not having anyone, but only for a moment. A terrible moment.
Then, well, I left, with Jak to chart and Manuel to pilot. And we made it just fine. The trip there was easy. Manuel said he nearly fell asleep. He had no idea why people avoided the route. That asteroid belt was nothing, and all it took was awareness of Kelat’s orbit to avoid the gravity well. Jak knew it all. He marked it on the HUD so accurately, Manuel might as well have put it on autopilot. I only worked with the best.
We zipped from port to port so quickly, expediency bonuses kicked in. The haul just kept growing. The Palm Tree wouldn’t have been able to take off if we still used Earth’s metal currency. Instead, it all went in the data crypt, filling faster than I hoped. It was intoxicating really. I thought maybe I could go back to doing this forever. Even with the long travel lull between Scoreaux and Brosin, I can’t remember ever having as smooth a trip.
When we unloaded on Brosin, I gave the fellas a day off and headed to the market. Figured I should bring home some gifts. For Brooke, I found a reticulated diamond necklace to accentuate that long, slender neck of hers. I bought some quaint monsters made from stuffed cloth for Philip. The beasts of other worlds had a grip on his imagination. Annabel, however, she loved the animals of our world. Beasts and creatures long gone. Particularly creatures of myth. So, for her, I bought a stuffed gilded dragon.
The trip home, well, it didn’t go as planned. I think I know what happened, but there’s no use trying to assign blame now. The dead don’t care, so what’s the use in blaming them? The ship was going down hard, and the buffeting we took caused the push fields inside the ship to cease functionality. With no fields to simulate gravity, everything became much more difficult. Have you tried to move quickly without gravity? You’d think it’d be like punching under water, but it’s not. Swimming’s only what you associate the feeling with. Really, it’s just impossible to coordinate, so we never landed where we needed when we threw ourselves from one panel to the other. Then there was the air leak. Not a big one, but it was enough. I can’t describe the terror as the Palm Tree plummeted into the atmosphere of that moon.
Manuel handled her well enough, but he couldn’t keep us from crashing. Jak wasn’t strapped down right when we hit the ground. It wasn’t good. Neither Manuel nor I knew much about medicine. The Palm Tree had a small med bay, though. We rushed him there, trying our best not to injure him more than he already was, but the crackling of his bones punctuating each stride meant it likely didn’t matter. Our medical equipment may have kept him around longer, but it didn’t fix him. And I don’t know if longer was better or not.
After tending to Jak, I opened the airlock door, hoping to find someone or something that might be able to help. But no. The moon was completely uninhabited. Nothing between Scoreaux and Brosin, after all. At least, we didn’t think so. Luck smiled on us in at least one way, though all these years later, I wonder if it was luck at all. After getting my first look outside the Palm Tree, I was sure the crash had killed me and I was seeing heaven. It was beautiful. Directly outside the ship was a lush forest with trees heavy with fruits I had never seen. Nearby, a rushing river sang of fresh water. Behind our clump of trees towered a cliff of striking white stone. One hundred and fifty feet up or more. The place was a veritable Eden.
It wasn’t until the adrenaline wore off that I remembered. This Eden was in the middle of a stretch of space no one traversed. The Palm Tree was in no condition to fly. Neither was my navigator. They never would be again. We were stranded.
That didn’t stop me from trying to make contact though. I stood out there, day after day, week after week, month after month, signaling into the unknown. If I’m honest, it was selfish. I needed time away from the ship. Jak laid in the med bay, lingering in pain for nine months and more. Every time I looked at him, I thought of Philip. Months and months without money, without medicine, without me. I’d like to imagine his soul fluttered out of the cage of his body long before Jak’s did, minimizing his pain, but I didn’t know. I still don’t.
When Manuel and I buried Jak, I asked myself if this place had a name and wondered if it mattered. Someone on a planet far away had probably seen this moon, named it, claimed it as theirs, then moved on, looking for other things to discover, other things to name. That’s what people always did. And now Jak was under the dirt on someone’s moon. The planet had a name, so surely the moon did too. Once, while out gathering fruit with Manuel, I said we had to get back home. He agreed, not batting an eye. The ship was home. That moon was home. I hated it. But I lived there twice as long as I lived with Brooke by the mill. Home. The name stuck.
Time passed on Home like it did anywhere else. Days into weeks into months into years. Manuel and I had our routines. But one day, something changed, and I’m not sure what. Or why, really. Maybe it was the same food every day, maybe it was the frustrating failures every time we tried to fix the Palm Tree, or maybe it was the sixth-year anniversary of Jak’s passing. Whatever it was, it was too much for Manuel. He couldn’t take it. One night, I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep. I went outside to take a walk and saw him, standing up on the cliff’s edge. He wore only his underclothes and he stared straight down. I could have yelled, tried to stop him. But I didn’t say anything. The choice was his. I just watched, thinking about what would change if it was only me. But he didn’t do it. Not that night. He came back to the ship, walked right by me. We didn’t speak for three days. Then we didn’t speak ever again.
Every day I stood outside. The sun shone down, nearly unfiltered through the atmosphere onto my face. The burns grew worse and some waxy lumps developed on my chest. They’re still there, I’m sure you’ve noticed. But they didn’t matter. I was going to make it back. I would make it to Brooke and my little Annabel, and if by the love of God Philip was still alive, I’d make it to my Philip too. Home’s sun burned my skin. Home’s gravity bowed my body. Home itself broke me, but never forever. I kept Annabel’s gilded dragon near my bedside. I wouldn’t be like Manuel. I often took it out with me, clutching it to my chest. Shooting signals that no one would ever receive, distress calls no one would ever hear, from a man holding a golden lizard his daughter would one day hold.
It happened in the twelfth year. I had been alone for nearly six years. A ship named “The Most Lamentable Tragedy” landed on Home. The name came from the ship’s owner, who later told me that ships named things like “The Good Fortune” and “The Golden Goose” were almost three times as likely to crash as any others, so she had gone in the opposite direction. Maybe that’s why they only almost crashed.
Home–actually named O’Joma–was not their intended destination, Scoreaux had been. But after avoiding an unexpected storm of micrometeors, they had landed, hoping to regain their bearings. Seeing that ship land was the happiest I’d been since Brooke looked to me instead of Finn at the county fair. That had changed everything, and really that had been pure luck. Though, later, Brooke called that look fate, so maybe this was fate too.
Running like mad, I nearly flew to the ship’s landing site. I was long-haired, long-bearded, with skin that nearly crisped into an exoskeleton. I hadn’t spoken in so long my first words must have sounded like stones cracking. I gestured and signed my way through my tale. By the end, my voice, no longer dusty, shook like a drunk’s hand. Tears scalded my eyes. My palm throbbed against the gilded dragon, its golden spinal scales digging bloody divots into my palms. But they listened. Afterwards, they took me away from O’Joma, from Home.
The captain gave me clothes, food, and provided passage back to my planet. I offered to pay, but she refused. I tried aiding the crew, but with me on board, there was a baker’s dozen, each role covered and then some. So, instead I sat in my rooms, asking myself what I would do when I made it to my old home. What would be there? Twelve years. Brooke had lived her life half over since I had left. What would I have done in her place?
I didn’t call. Too nervous for what I would hear. I didn’t let anyone know I was coming either. The captain dropped me on a nearby station, and I shuttled down. Looking as I did, I didn’t think anyone would recognize me. And no one did.
I made it to our long street. The stones perpetually moist in the evening. The peeper frogs sang their nightly refrain. My heart beat like mad, foreshadowing calamity. I could taste my anxiety, like dried blood. Up the path, I saw the mill, then our lone palm tree, and it smelled like home. Not the moon, not O’Joma. My home.
The gate was closed and the lamps inside were lit. Silently, I made my way up the staircase, to the window outside the living room. Peering through the frosted glass, I first spied the furniture, far more elegant than anything we owned before. Shades of burgundy and synthetic mahogany. Shelves and shelves of books lined the walls. The fireplace taunted me, seemingly made of the same white stone as O’Joma’s cliff. But I didn’t dwell on it for long, I couldn’t, because then I saw them. Two seated, one standing. Annabel, the splitting image of her mother, only with my gray eyes. She reclined on a chaise, laughing. Her laugh, even muffled as it was, brought back the memories of afternoons in the garden, pretending to be a knight and princess. Twelve years later, it sounded the same. She looked to Finn. Finn. Why was he there? Why was he in my house? My home? With my family? Only a small cropping of gray spotted his temples, revealing the utter lack of stress in his life. His once slender frame had ballooned around the middle. His long surgeon fingers, barely more than bones draped with skin, splayed as he pantomimed a scene of sorts. Annabel shouted answers. When Finn started doing a rendition of the can-can, the laughter became raucous.
Then my eyes fell on her. Sitting in a rocking chair in the corner, smiling as wide as I had ever seen her. Her hair not yet shot with gray. Her figure exactly as I had dreamed it all those years. And in her lap, was that a baby boy? My baby boy? Philip had survived! But no. Time hadn’t frozen while I was gone. That wasn’t the same Brooke as twelve years ago. This was a later and loftier Brooke. Just look at Annabel, likely going to university soon. Time had moved on. Philip wouldn’t be a baby. He would be here, playing games with his family. No, Philip was gone. My poor son. That child wasn’t mine. Neither was the ring on Brooke’s finger. The one I had gotten her was white gold, matching the locket around my neck. The last thing she had given me. The last thing I had of my family.
Finn wore a ring as well. And when a timer dinged, he traipsed over and kissed Brooke on the head, then held her. He didn’t love in silence now. And neither did my family. They were happy. They were all happy. Had I made them feel that kind of joy? I was broken. Alone. My heart couldn’t take it. My chest was seized by invisible hands and wrenched apart. I shook and staggered with tears. A terrible cry nearly ripped from my throat, but I suppressed it. They couldn’t know. It would ruin them. All of them, but especially her.
I took one final glance. Not at Brooke or Finn, but at Annabel. She stood and, after consulting a slip of paper, began a dance I knew from her childhood. The jaw harp dance. It was too much. I quickly crept back to the gate, opening it to leave. But before I did, I placed Annabel’s gilded dragon under the palm tree. Maybe she still played there, even grown as she was. Maybe it made her like she was with me, even now. If so, maybe she would find the dragon and hold it, like I always hoped she would.’
“And then you came here?” Leila asked after helping Elias sip honeyed tea.
“And then I came here,” he replied, tears flowing soundlessly to his ears. “Hopped a shuttle to another world, then another. I had the money to go as far as I wanted. They didn’t need it anymore. I traveled on and on, so far I wouldn’t know how to get back if I tried. I couldn’t let my family know. I didn’t want to ruin their happiness. Brooke married another man, built a life with him. Coming back from the dead? It would only complicate everything. Wreck it. And for what?” He violently coughed as if to underscore his point, making his swollen lymph nodes even more evident. “I went until I knew. The pain had been my only companion, and it told me it was time. So I stopped, took a shuttle down, and came here.”
“To tell someone your story?”
“Yes. And now, well,” Elias said, his eyes starting to drift again. “Annabel. If anyone knows, it should be her.”
He only shook his head, fresh tears flowing. He looked away from the photos of Leila and Chey. He didn’t need to say more.
After a moment, he turned back to Leila. “Thank you for listening to me. You’re good people. But, if you don’t mind, I have one final request.” He swallowed hard. “Tell Annabel that I died loving her. That I died loving her mother. And her brother. Both of them. And that I loved Finn too. I’m glad he made them happy. I hold nothing against him. But let Annabel know I lived. That I chose not to ruin their happiness. Tell her I put the dragon there. Ask her if she held it. Then give her this.” Elias yanked the locket from around his neck and extended it toward Leila. The white gold shone in the dim lights of the backroom. It bore an engraving of a man and a girl sitting under a palm tree. After a moment, she took it.
“Thank you,” Elias said and pulled the data crypt from his pocket. “Take this too. For having to put up with me.”
“I couldn’t,” Leila started.
“In the locket,” Elias continued as if Leila hadn’t spoken, “is a lock of Philip’s hair and a picture of my family when they were still my family. It may give her comfort when she hears that I have lived and died, but not as she expected.”
Elias grew quiet. So did Leila. There was nothing else to say. Leila prepared him more broth. The medics arrived a short time later and took him to the hospital. Afterwards, when Leila called to check on him, he was gone. A dead man who lived was dead once more.
Leila sat in the parlor room. In one hand, she rolled the locket back and forth along her index and middle finger. In the other, she held her communicator. Chey was on the other end, having just heard Elias’s story.
“Babe, I’m so sorry you had to deal with that on your own,” Chey said.
“I wish you had been here.”
“Me too. But really, I just can’t believe he’d ask that.”
“What do you mean?” Leila asked.
“Rather than ruin his daughter’s life himself, he wants you to do it. To let that guilt hang on you.”
Leila stopped rolling the locket. “I don’t know if that’s what he meant.”
“Come on, Lei! He had a chance and didn’t take it. Then he changes his mind and wants you to be the one to say maybe he wouldn’t have died if his family had waited for him. That he wouldn’t have died if his heart weren’t so broken.”
“He never said that.” Chey’s pragmatism was great for court, but she hadn’t seen Elias lying there. Hadn’t heard his voice break when he said Philip’s name. Leila didn’t have to stop, overcome by coughing, only to soldier on, determined to finish the tale. It just wasn’t the same. “Plus, I don’t think it was a broken heart that killed him. I’m pretty sure it was cancer.” She shook her head. “It was different hearing him tell it.”
“Of course. Of course.” Chey said. “Wait. Did he even tell you his last name? Or where he’s from?”
Leila’s brow creased. “Elias… No. Just Elias. But he had a ship named the Palm Tree. I’m sure I could find that in a database.”
“So you not only have to deliver the message, possibly ruining whatever tenuous happiness that family has, but you also have to sleuth out where they are? That’s just not fair. And, honestly, I think it’s cruel for him to even ask.”
“He spent twelve years on a moon, basically baking alive, in an effort to save his son. Then came home to find his family had moved on. I don’t think he’s a bad guy.”
“Of course not! I can’t imagine what that must have been like for him. He lost everything, and I feel horrible about it. But that doesn’t mean his request is good. Good people, heck even great people, can do bad things.” There was a lull in the conversation. It all made sense. In a way, Chey was right, Leila knew it. Chey was always right, but Leila didn’t want her to be. Not this time.
“But, really,” Chey continued, “do what you think is best. I’ll help however I can.”
“Thanks. I’ll think on it.” Leila looked at the locket again. Rocking it so the light moved from the top of the palm tree to the base and back. “And, hey, I love you.”
“And I love you.”
Leila looked everywhere she could for an Elias with a ship called the Palm Tree, but a first name of a merchant and an unofficial ship’s title wasn’t much to go on. The hospital informed her that Elias had no identification on him, so they dubbed him John Doe. She turned to decades’ worth of marriage announcements around the system, looking for anything on an Elias and a Brooke then a Brooke and a Finn. But what system? How far had he hopped? She expanded the parameters. Including the systems with O’Joma, Brosin, and Scoreaux turned up nothing. She thought she was onto something when she got a hit on the “The Most Lamentable Tragedy,” but in the end, the vessel lived up to its name.
Still, she kept searching. Months passed. After feeling her resolve weaken, she drove a nail into a wooden column by the bar. She draped the locket on the protruding end. Despite its small size, its distinctive seal was the first thing she saw whenever she entered the parlor. The data crypt, left untouched, rested behind the bar.
She followed every lead, went through Elias’s story over and over, but she was at a loss. Then, finally, after Chey called in all of her favors and worked every connection, she acquired a list of addresses. Likely not all inclusive, but everyone on the list was between the ages of sixteen and twenty-two. All named Annabel. Leila’s nerves were ablaze as she typed out a message and sent it to each of them.
Then Leila sat back. She looked at the locket. “It won’t be long now,” she said. She hoped. It was all she could do. One of them had to be Elias’s daughter. And once she saw that message, she would come to Arden’s End, and… then what? Would Leila tell her everything? Chey had gotten into her head. Would it ruin Annabel’s happiness? Maybe. But maybe not. Leila would know what to do in the moment. She hoped. Looking at the locket, she knew.
Now, she only had to wait and see if Annabel would arrive.
About the author: M.A. Dosser is the co-founder and editor of Flash Point SF as well as a PhD candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. When he isn’t researching speculative fiction fandoms, he’s writing about heroic blueberries, raven knights, and long voyages in outer space. You can read more about his creative and scholarly work at maxdosser.com
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