The Earth is the only known planet that can support life, or at least, as far as humans know, and it is for that reason that the moon loves it so much. Things don't grow on the moon, after all.
If only the humans were capable of loving the Earth just as much as the moon did.
And yet, humans were still beautiful to the moon, despite all of their flaws and secrets, because of their capacity to grow.
And when humans come to visit, well, the moon can’t help but take a special interest in them.
"It probably looks different down here than it does from up there,” says the man bagging up my groceries into my reusable grocery bag - orange juice, toothpaste, other items I’d grabbed at random - with a knowing look. “From up in space, I mean.”
“It is,” is all I can manage to say, for there are no words to describe the small moment of panic I feel whenever I look up at the sky, expecting to see all of infinity stretched out before me, only to find myself caught underneath the limited blue of Earth’s atmosphere. A feeling of being trapped, nowhere to run. Not that there were a lot of places for me to go in space, at least not without a rocket.
“Well then.” An awkward smile and an ill-timed wink as I hand over a twenty, and I try not to think about how no one smiles much up there in space, more or less offers winks. “Welcome home, space cadet.”
Taken back, I let out a weak ‘thank you, sir’, and leave the store, trying to gather up the loose strands of my thoughts. After three years spent living up there in outer space, Winterstown, Maine, is no longer what came to mind when I hear the word ‘home’. Even Earth didn’t really feel like home, either, and I had a feeling us humans weren’t even going to be able to call it home for much longer, either, hence my three years spent up on the moon, checking out the new ‘real estate’ and making sure it’s actually habitable for humans during an extended period of time.
Humans up on the moon by 2026, they said. All different kinds of humans, up on the moon together by 2026.
It’s really amazing what people can accomplish once they put their mind to it.
I look down at the contents in my bag and try to make some sense of them, trying to make sense of myself and why I do the things I do (conclusion: no signs of intelligent life. I don’t even drink orange juice with pulp in it).
Another conclusion, though much harder for me to swallow: My late-night grocery run stemmed from the same reason why I had chosen to fly in from Manchester instead of Portland, why I hadn’t used my phone since I got here, why I had made all of these questionable purchases.
I am trying to hide, and just like the lunar base I had called home for the past three years, there aren't a lot of places one can hide in Winterstown.
“There’s that,” a familiar voice with a thick Boston accent sang. “Also, people like to talk in small towns. Eyes everywhere, I swear. Geez, Louise.”
Enter: the ghost of my mother.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking. The ghost of my mother? I don’t even know where to begin with that one. Just blame it on the fact that I lived in confined quarters with the same three people for the past three years up on the moon. It’s what I do, at least.
“Honey, Dee, I’m telling you,” my mother continues, oblivious to my attempts to ignore her as I make my way across the street, no destination in mind, just the need to avoid one place in particular. “By morning, the entire town will have all the things on your store receipt memorized, like the way people obsess over a celebrity, you know. Let’s see, OJ, toothpaste, some oatmeal cakes, and, well, I don’t even know what this is…”
“My name is Delilah,” I say through gritted teeth, trying to appear as if I wasn’t talking to myself as we pass by a large group of teenagers huddled together on the street corner in tuxes and cocktail dresses, all of them too engrossed with their phones to pay much attention to my anyways. “And I thought I left you behind up there. And, I’m not a ce-ce...famous person.” Great, now my stutter is making a reappearance, too. I might as well just be in high school again.
“You’re sorta a celebrity, Dee,” my mother says as she floats above me, her large skirt ballooning up around her as she skillfully ignores my other two very-important points. “At least around here. Smartest kid in Winterstown, they used to say. Got it from your daddy, I suppose. Your brains, that is.” I didn’t disagree with that one; there was no attributing my high SAT scores and good grades to the woman who had driven over a bridge to avoid hitting a squirrel that turned out to be just a leaf.
I never really thought of myself as smart before, though. Just lucky.
“But really I knew it, your father knew it, they all knew it. We all knew you were going to be the first to get out of here and do something meaningful, something great. And look, you did!” she points out with a chuckle. “Only twenty-three years-old, and you’ve already accomplished a lot more than most people your age.”
“Right,” I say, trying to calm myself down. “It still does not mean I want to be famous.”
And I didn’t, not in the slightest. A year of dealing with the press before the official start of the mission was almost enough to make me quit before I’d even begun, and I’m certain they would be hounding me again soon enough once word gets out that I’ve returned.
Stumbling through questions, reporters and talk-show hosts telling me to take my time, letters from speech therapists all over the country, such an inspiration.
I was not an inspiration. And neither was my crewmate, Hugo Rivera, who’d been given the same treatment for being deaf, though I still had a lot of respect for him and I definitely don’t want to discount his experience as a deaf astronaut. I just wish more people could see past our handicaps, and treat our accomplishments with the same amount of reverence and respect.
And in my books, Carolyn Shinoda, the first Japanese-American woman sent to space who didn’t lose a single arm-wrestling contest in those three years spent in the lunar base, would always be a lot cooler than a geeky white girl with a stutter. Just saying.
“You don’t have much say in the matter, do you, Dee?” my mother says.
“No, I ssssssuppose not,” I agree, and with that being said, my mother disappears. Again, leaving another mother-sized hole in the air around me.
“Delilah Jones, there better be a really good reason why you’re hanging around this playground at this hour like some kind of a little gremlin.”
I nearly spit out the orange juice I’ve been forcing myself to drink, not being one to waste any money, just as my best friend Frank Chada plopped himself down to the swing next to me with a scowl.
“No, I think I’m just a gre-gremlin,” I say with a smile, waiting for Frank to stop pretending to be angry with me.
“Well, you look like one,” he tells me with a sniff. Then, “Oh, c’mere.”
An important note: my crew mates in space were not the hugging type. I think I received a total of twelve hugs over the course of three years. And Frank’s hug, well, it put all that time apart behind us, closing the gap between us, filling up all the loose holes in my head, in the air around me, in my eyes and heart.
“I missed you, so, so much, Delilah Jones,” Frank tells me with a fierce whisper as I take in his comfort, not wanting to let go until I absolutely had to.
“I missed you, too, Frank,” I tell him as we unfold our limbs, and I can tell he’s seen the apology in my eyes, a look that says I’m sorry I didn’t call, and I know he isn’t mad at me anymore, and I can’t believe how great it is to be able to not have to tell someone something because they already just know.
“I guess you haven’t stopped by your house yet.”
Okay. Sometimes he knows me a little too well.
“No, but I’ve ta-talked with my mother.”
“Hm.” Frank grabs the orange juice from my hands, takes a swig, and then promptly spits it right back out. “Pulp. Ugh. That’s nasty, Delilah Jones.”
I say with a sigh, “I know.”
“And how exactly is your mother? Still dead, I assume.”
“Still dead, though taking quite nicely to her life as a ghost.” I had told Frank in a video call around two years ago about the spirit of my mother visiting me in space, and he didn’t even blink an eye, further proving I do not deserve a friend like him.
“Good for her.” Another pause. “You should really stop by and go see him, I think.”
“I know,” I say again, but the words had just barely left my mouth before Frank’s grabbing me by the hand with a wicked grin as he turns to me and says:
“Let’s have some fun, shall we, Delilah Jones?”
“Let’s,” I say, and soon we’re off, racing into the night, past all of the familiar sights that match the scars on my body, past the streetlights that watched me grow up, leaving any thoughts of the father who was waiting for me at home behind.
“This is Ground Control to Major Tom, you’ve really made the grade…”
I suppose we should have predicted the lack of “fun” Winterstown has to offer, mostly because everything closes at eight o’clock, even on a Saturday night, but like we did as teenagers, Frank and I improvise and make our own fun.
Currently, our own fun takes the form of Frank trying to remember all of the lyrics to ‘Space Oddity’ while I make fun of his attempts, but it’s enough for me and it brings me back to a simpler time, a time before I knew the taste of freeze-dried space food.
“I swear, this song went back to the top of the charts for a month after you guys all left,” Frank is telling me as we walk and he hums the next lyrics quietly to himself, trying to remember. “Couldn’t go anywhere without hearing it.”
And even though it’s impossible to try to fit three years worth of stories and memories that weren’t shared through our monthly video calls, we were trying, trying so hard.
I tell him stories about Carolyn, the toughest out of us all, who cried during our viewing of Howl’s Moving Castle, and of Hugo, who taught us all how to swear using sign language, and of Oliver Hayes, who could do some amazing things with potatoes, even with our limited supplies.
And Frank tells me stories of his own, of how his father still falls for essential oil and protein powder scams, how his mother finally got her hands on the highly coveted Chada family recipe for panipuri, and how he nearly got in a fist fight with his younger sister’s chemistry teacher over a sexist comment he’d made on one of her lab reports.
“How is Shreya?” I ask, smiling at the image of Frank storming our old high school in Protective Older Brother Mode.
“Good, good, she’s good,” Frank says. “I was actually just dropping her off at the school, making sure she got there okay. Tonight’s homecoming.”
“Really? Already?” I ask in surprise, thinking about the group of well-dressed teenagers I’d crossed paths with earlier.
“Yep.” Frank suddenly stops walking and turns to face me, considering me carefully. “You never went to our homecoming dance senior year, did you? Too busy trying to become an astronaut?”
“It wo-worked out, didn’t it?” I ask, stuffing my hands in my pockets and staring right back at Frank with a raised eyebrow, not really sure what he’s trying to get at.
His serious expression vanishes and soon his trademark grin, sharp at the edges, reappears. “I guess it did, Delilah Jones. I just hope you won’t have to miss out on things, anymore, that’s all.”
“Me, too, Frank. Me, too.”
This is when my mother appears, hiding around the edge of the next building we pass, doing some kind of strange dance, and with a sudden jolt, I realize we’re nearing my childhood home, where my father still lives.
The sight of my mother dancing in the shadows brings me back to the moment she first appeared when we were in space, right in the middle of the first and only video call I’d had with my father while at the lunar base. She’d waltzed right back into my life, as if she’d never left it in the first place for the sake of a squirrel, and then proceeded to ask for my opinion on the latest book she’d read, one that I’d recommended to her right before she had died, as if we were just resuming a conversation from another time.
I really wish you hadn’t gone, I could hear my father say in one ear; in the other, my mother was talking about literary devices.
And now, in the present, I think about all of the times I’d missed with my mother, and all the times I was missing, even now, with my father.
This decision will affect you for the rest of your natural life, the representative from NASA tells me as I lean forward to sign the paper in front of me, not even bothering to give a second look back to my father seated behind me, who tells me in a quiet voice how proud he is of me, even though I’m leaving him alone to deal with the aftermath of my mother’s death, leaving him alone because I can’t stand to be in that house when it smelled like death and lilies and casserole dishes, can’t stand to be with his grief.
I’ve given up a lot to get to the point where I’m at right now: my privacy, the last of my childhood, my relationship with the only part of my family I had left and I realize, I don’t want to give anything up anymore.
In other words, there was no more room for me to run.
“I-I gotta go,” I tell Frank, and after a quick peck on a cheek and a promise to call him later, I’m running off again, this time, in the right direction, here on planet Earth, and I heard Frank singing as I leave him behind.
“I’m stepping through the door, and I’m floating in the most peculiar way…”
“Your hair,” says the man to his daughter, studying her through the light of the refrigerator door. “It’s gotten long.”
“I didn’t really trust my ccccrewmates with the scissors,” she tells him, and the moon thinks of how pretty her blonde hair looks washed in its light. “I usually had to do it my-myself.”
And it’s a step, a small step, a small step in the right direction, one small step, one giant leap for Jones-kind.
Earth is the only known planet that can support life (or at least, that’s what the humans think), and the moon continues to hold it close to its heart - no more room to run, but instead, more room to grow.
Welcome home, space cadet.