When they talk about saving the world, people generally leave out how much paperwork is involved. None of the wily YA heroines she’d read about had ever joined the rebels and then immediately signed NDAs or wrote their living will. Maybe the authors skipped that part on purpose. She smiled at the thought of the heroine having to tell her two equally handsome and equally broody love interests that she was too busy to make out and cry; she, instead, had to visit her lawyer to sign consent forms.
Jane let her brain idle this way as Jonesy pointed to blank spaces on the papers and her hand initialed them. After so much repetition, they barely looked like letters you’d find in the English alphabet. More like some ancient Cthulhu language. She thought about telling Jonesy this, but when she glanced up to see his equally tired face, she decided against it. He always looked tired. Was it from being a lawyer? Or from being her lawyer?
“Hell, Jonesy, are we done?” Jane asked as Jonesy began shuffling papers into a neat pile. It was the most he’d moved since they’d started. He shook his head and she groaned.
Jonesy pulled one last page out of his briefcase and slid it towards her, his finger tapping the bottom of the page.
“This one is a full signature, not initialed. Should be easy enough. Just sign there and then have your therapist sign the bottom one.”
Jane froze. Her eyes crept over the page.
“Jane?” Jonesy asked.
Her eyes flicked to him, wide. The eye contact told him everything he needed to know. It was Jonesy’s turn to groan. He put his head in his hands in a very un-lawyer-like manner.
“Jane, please tell me you’ve been going to the mandatory therapy sessions.”
She bit her lip and looked at the ceiling. “I, uh, forgot?”
Jonesy heaved a sigh.
“Listen, me not going to therapy won’t stop me from going up, right?” she asked.
“It will,” he mumbled into his hands.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” she said, standing up and stretching, “The therapist is somewhere on the campus right? I’ll just pop in, give her the sitch, get this signed. Bing-bang-boom. Good to go.”
“You can’t ask a government employee to commit perjury, Jane.”
“What are y’all gonna do? Arrest me?” she said with a smirk.
Jonesy looked up, his fingers dragging at his cheeks. “I’ll walk you to her office.”
Of all the government lawyers she could have been assigned, Jane was glad she’d gotten Jonesy. Any other lawyer might’ve had a stick up their ass, but Jonesy was closer to her in age. He got it. That’s why he didn’t mind her calling him “Jonesy”, even if it was a name she’d made up for him. It’s why he called her Jane, even when he knew her legal name.
They passed a window, one of the few in the entire campus, and she looked out at the red sky. The fire still wasn’t contained. It’d been weeks. She wondered about the quality of the air filters on the campus. Not that it would matter after tomorrow. Not for her, anyway. Jonesy, though.
She stopped the thought in its tracks. Therapist. Paper. Sign.
Jonesy turned to face a little dead-end hallway. One door stood at the end. No nameplate. He gestured towards it.
“I’ll be back in my office. Feel free to text me if you get lost. I need that paper by six,” he said, then turned and left. Jane watched him walk down the long hallway, watched his head turn slightly as he passed the window. Then he disappeared around the corner.
Jane wasted no time. She walked up to the door and knocked hard three times. A muffled, “Come in!” sounded through the thick wood and Jane turned the knob.
A small woman, dark hair, copper skin, sat at a desk. There were windows here, but all the blinds were drawn. It left the room tinted a sickly pink, only dampened by the blue-light lamp in the far corner. The woman smiled and asked her to have a seat.
“So,” Jane started, still standing, “I need this paper signed.”
The woman held out her hand and Jane did her best to hand over the page without letting their fingers touch. As the woman read through the form, Jane brainstormed different names for her. She settled on Thelma. Thelma the Therapist.
“I’m afraid I can’t sign this,” Thelma said, holding out the paper for Jane to take back.
Jane left her hanging. “Sure you can, just write your name in cursive on the bottom line. Trust me, not hard, I’ve been doing it all day.”
Thelma gave her a look and lowered her hand with the paper.
“Listen, they won’t let me go up without it and I forgot okay?” Jane said, shrugging, “Not like anyone will know in five hundred years when I wake up with sudden-onset schizophrenia that you fibbed.”
“I’m sorry,” Thelma said, “But I can’t sign this without having provided services.”
This lady wasn’t budging. Sweat beaded at the back of her neck and she tried to itch it away.
“Okay, what if I, like, need Prozac? For my pre-cryonic-nap anxiety? That’s services, right?”
Thelma leaned back in her office chair and crossed her arms. Uh oh. No good. Bad body language. Then she smiled. Even worse.
Picking up a pen, Thelma tapped the paper. “I’ll tell you what,” she said, “I’ll sign this. Today. But you have to allow me to give services for as long as I see fit.”
Unlimited therapy? “That sounds awful, frankly.”
“It’s that or I don’t sign.”
Jane looked at the chair, then the door, then the pink-tinged blinds. She gave up and collapsed into the chair, defeated. Thelma stood and closed the door, then returned and began sifting through some folders. She picked one that had a pink sticky-note on it, flipped through it, and then set it in front of her.
“Call me Jane.”
Thelma paused. “Alright. Jane. How are you feeling on the eve of your five-hundred-year sleep?”
Jane gave her two thumbs up.
“Okay. Care to elaborate?”
“Listen, Jane. You’re not leaving until I sign this paper. And I won’t sign this paper until I feel service has been provided. You’re going to have to share your feelings,” Thelma said, tapping her pen, “Real ones, preferably.”
Jane sighed and blew a strand of hair that had fallen across her face. “Fine.”
“Let’s try that again. How are you feeling, Jane? Ready for tomorrow?”
Jane fidgeted. “As ready as I’ll ever be, I guess.”
Thelma was silent, keeping eye contact. Jane couldn’t keep up the staring contest. She looked away.
“Fine, fine,” Jane said, “I mean, it’s true though. How can anyone really be ready to go to sleep for five-hundred years in an orbital spaceship meant to save humanity? It’s not like there’s a lot of precedent for how I should be feeling.”
Thelma nodded. “That’s fair. It’s not something you can really wrap your head around. Five-hundred years is a long time.”
“Yeah. And, like. In space. If I wake up I’ll be five-hundred-and-twenty-four and everyone I know will be dead.”
Thelma’s eyebrows knitted together briefly. “If?”
“You don’t expect to wake up?”
Jane rolled her eyes and then shut them to keep Thelma out a moment. It’d been a long time since she’d let anyone know what she was thinking. A long time since anyone asked, either. She hadn’t been as guarded as she could’ve been.
“Well, you know,” she said, trying to cover the slip, “There’s always a chance. No one’s been asleep for that long and if we’re supposed to be the last of humanity, no one can really pilot us away from any space junk that decides it’s time to blow stuff up. One bit of space dust and psshhooo.” Jane made a mock explosion with her hands.
“That seems awfully cynical for someone who signed up to save humanity.”
Jane laughed. “Listen, Thelma-“
“Oh, sorry. I’ve been calling you Thelma in my head.”
“My name is-“
Jane stopped her, waving her hand and shaking her head, “Sorry, listen, I’m sure you’ve signed these papers for everyone else on the mission and therefore have heard every single orphan story there is to hear, right?”
Thelma looked at her warily but nodded.
“Okay, ‘cause I know in order to even sign up for this thing, you had to have no family. No ties back to Earth that would make you rethink your decision to save the world halfway through the program. So you’ve heard every orphan story, every tragedy in these people’s lives that makes them want to throw away their life to sleep in outer space, and not one of them was cynical?”
Thelma leaned back in her chair, gaze set on Jane. A humid silence filled the room, making each breath sticky and uncomfortable. Jane expected an answer, some sort of validation, but Thelma wasn’t giving it. She tried not to squirm and focused on the pink blinds.
After what felt like a year, Thelma spoke.
“Cynicality is not mutually exclusive with hope,” Thelma said, weaving her fingers together in front of her on the desk, “But the way you speak about the program makes it sound like you don’t think it’ll work. At all. Which is very strange, considering you signed up for it.”
Jane shifted in her chair. Was the pink brighter? It seemed hotter in the office and she wondered if the fire was threatening the campus. No fire alarms had gone off, though. She didn’t look at Thelma as she tugged at the collar of her shirt.
“Jane, why did you sign up for the program?”
Jane coughed and sat up straight, pulling at her collar. “Is it hot in here? I feel like it’s hot. You sure the fire isn’t on campus?”
Thelma shook her head slowly.
After a few seconds, Jane spat out the requisite answer: “To save humanity.”
“Don’t bullshit me, Aurora.”
Jane snapped her head back to face Thelma. It felt like the fire was here, in the room, on her skin, burning. How dare this therapist call her that? It was none of her business. None. This is why she’d skipped therapy.
“Don’t call me that,” she breathed, her jaw clenched tight.
“Please answer my question.”
The heat seemed to escape all at once. Jane stood up, explosive, feeling like steam rolled out of her pores as she yelled, “What the hell does it matter to you? To anyone? No one left on Earth cares about me! Or any of us! We are all alone and that’s just how it is now!”
Thelma didn’t bat an eyelash, only gently tilted her face upward to face Jane. “You feel alone?”
“Of course I do! We all do!” Jane yelled, throwing her hands up, “We’re all orphans! Not just us in the program, but all of us on Earth! Have you looked outside? How many people have died? How many names are scrolling on the obituary livestream right now?”
Jane began pacing, from one pink-rimmed window to the other, ignoring Thelma. She didn’t want to think about this. It took all of her willpower not to think about it on a daily basis, to allow herself to deaden the nerve endings that made her want to scream every time she thought about the deserts of Oregon or where Louisiana used to be. Her parents had shown her pictures of what life in New York City looked like back when her grandparents were kids. Crowds of people on busy streets, lights and cars and life. Now the city was drowned in the ocean, along with humanity. Life, and its end, had been reduced to names on a screen. Scrolling along the bottom of newscasts, scrolling down a livestream so people could get one last glimpse of their loved one’s name to prove they existed.
And the therapist had the audacity to question why she might want off the planet. There she sat, calm as a cucumber while Jane paced with increasing frequency with names burning into her skull. The names of her parents. Her friends. Her baby brother. White block letters burnt into the screen of her phone for only a few moments before being replaced countless others.
“You’re right. We are all orphans. Too soon.”
Jane stopped in her tracks, turning to look at Thelma. The therapist had turned to look at the window.
“I lost my parents too,” Thelma said, “They were trying to cross over the border to Canada. Both of them were old. Late forties. Both had escaped cancer and natural disasters for far longer than most.”
The heat in Jane’s palms began to cool.
“They were driving at night, taking turns and switching off. They were only fifteen minutes from the border when a drunk driver hit them. My mom was asleep. Dad wasn’t.”
Jane’s rage fizzled. She collapsed back into the chair, looking at her knees.
“You’re right. I’ve heard a lot of orphan stories. But they all affect people differently. I want to understand how it’s affected you.”
Jane stared at her hands. They were shaking. She realized the anger she’d felt, the heat in her body was a defense. A defense against fear. She didn’t want to talk about her mother’s cancer. She didn’t want to talk about her father and brother dying in the wildfire. She didn’t want to talk about her friends on the east coast, drowning last hurricane season. Her hands wouldn’t still. If she opened her mouth to speak, she knew her voice would crack.
Hands, soft and warm, grasped hers firmly. Jane looked up to see Thelma sitting on the desk now, legs hanging off the edge and body bent forward to look at her.
“Talk to me, Aurora.”
Jane flinched at her name. Aurora. Northern Lights. She’d never seen them. Neither had her parents. Too much smog. Blue skies and stars only appeared in old photos.
“I don’t,” she started, swallowing as her voice hitched up an octave, “I don’t want this world to be like it is. I don’t want it to get worse. I don’t want to die of cancer and I don’t want to die in a hurricane or a-a-a fire.”
“You want to die peacefully.”
Aurora nodded. “I don’t want it to hurt. I want it to be like falling asleep. I figured this was my best bet.”
Thelma’s hands squeezed hers. “But what if you don’t die? What if you wake up?”
“What if you wake up, Aurora? What will happen?”
“I guess I’ll see the Earth from space. That’d be neat.”
“I’d, uh, maybe see the Earth flourishing again. No smog. The climates would be re-established. I could use my agricultural biology degree to ease our food production.”
“Isn’t that something to look forward to?” Thelma asked.
“I can’t believe it’ll happen,” Aurora said, “Nothing ever goes right. Everyone always dies.”
“Yes. Everyone dies.”
Aurora looked up.
Thelma nodded, reaffirming her statement. “Everyone dies. And not everybody gets to choose how. You can’t outsmart death, Aurora. Using fake names, hoping you’ll die in your sleep- death doesn’t care about those things. Even if you don’t recognize the names in the obituaries, they’re still dead people.”
“But if I don’t know people’s names, it doesn’t hurt as much,” Aurora whispered, her cheeks suddenly wet.
Thelma was silent a moment. “Hurt lets us know we cared. Cared and hoped that the world might treat those we loved differently. Shoving the world away from you won’t stop you from hurting. It just stops you from hoping.”
Aurora let the tears go and with them the heat in her chest extinguished. Thelma pulled her into a hug and rubbed her back. When Aurora fended off the last of the hiccups, Thelma returned to her chair behind the desk and offered some tissues. Aurora accepted, noticing the dampness on Thelma’s shirt sleeve. Face dry, she looked up to see Thelma slide the paper over, signed. She held out a pen. Aurora took it and signed her last signature of the century.
Thelma stood and reached out her hand. “It was a pleasure knowing you, Aurora. If it’s any help, I hope you do wake up and find the Earth beautiful.”
“Thanks,” Aurora said, sniffing, shaking Thelma’s hand, “Um. I have a question, if it’s okay.”
“I can’t read your signature. What’s your name?”
Thelma smiled. “Alicia.”
Aurora stood in front of the cryo-pod, wringing her hands. Around her, her teammates said their goodbyes to any friends they had on video chat. She had no one to call. The cryo-pod was being primed by one of the scientists and he smiled at her from behind his hazmat suit. No germs would be traveling the five-hundred-year journey with her.
She turned to Jonesy, who also donned a hazmat suit, though with much less grace than the scientists. His hair seemed ruffled, his cheeks red with heat, and his eyes, as always, tired. Aurora smiled. Jonesy managed a smile back. Around them, video calls ended. Some with tears.
The scientist gave her the thumbs up and she nodded. Aurora turned back to look at her lawyer.
“One last question, Jonesy, before I go?”
He raised an eyebrow.
“What’s your name?”
He looked shocked but shook it off. The tired smile returned. “Dillan.”
“It was nice to know you, Dillan,” she said, “Try to get some sleep, yeah? Don’t have to worry about me anymore.”
“Never did, Aurora. Good luck.”
Aurora’s last thoughts before she slipped into cold sleep were of her family, and of the green Earth that awaited her when she awoke. Whether she died or not wasn’t up to her, but for the first time she hoped- hoped that she would live.
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Wow! Such a beautiful story! I loved the character voice of Jane/Aurora and seeing her character visibly shift in this story. Although it happened quickly, it felt natural and satisfying, not forced. Keep up the good work!
I want to read more. It's like it's on a cliffhanger and I need to know what happens
Hey, Cyndy! I'm in your critique circle! First off, I absolutely LOVE the names Aurora and Alicia! :D I like how you twisted a superhero story into something completely. The sense of humor in this story is perfect! Great job. :)