The phone rings.
And rings. I still my tapping foot and keep count. Five. Six. Seven.
“You’ve reached Theodore Tiller. Sorry I wasn’t able to take your call. Leave your number and a message, and I’ll call you back as soon as I can.”
Even over voicemail, even after the hundredth time I’ve heard those exact same words, his voice never fails to make my breath come just a little quicker.
The phone beeps and I take a deep breath. I already have my message for him prepared.
“Theo, please. I know you don’t want to talk to me, but just call me back. I…there’s so much I need to tell you and I can’t do it like this. Just…call me back.” My voice cracks. “Please.”
I blink away tears as I hang up. This message makes fifty. Fifty messages that I’ve sent, and fifty messages that have gone unreturned. “Please, Theo,” I whisper to my blank phone screen.
I rub the fringes of the rips in my jeans between my fingers as I lean back in my chair and stare at the ceiling. It’s sleek and grey and the exact same as every other surface on this ship. My own design. The last time I saw Theo was three days before I finalized the blueprints.
My ship was a tiny particle of dust floating through space, being overtaken by the lonely blackness, before I picked up the phone and dialed his number. From his refusal to answer me, I guess that’s all I am to Theo now. A tiny particle of dust, shooting aimlessly through an abyss of my own creation: the rift between us that no voicemail can do justice to fix.
I kick the table leg to send the chair spinning in a circle. You’ve reached Theodore Tiller. I have to call him, have to hear his voice.
“Just one more time today,” I promise the lifeless kitchen around me. One more time.
I dial his number.
The phone rings.
And rings. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.
“You’ve reached Theodore Tiller.”
A crumpled smile crosses my face. I watch the ceiling spin as I propel the chair in a lazy circle.
“Sorry I wasn’t able to take your—”
Theo’s voice cuts out. I frown and put my feet on the floor to stop the spinning.
That’s not part of the recording, I think, dumbfounded.
“Hello?” Theo repeats.
“Theo?” I breathe.
“Theo, are you there?”
“Briar?” he whispers.
A long breath escapes me. It carries both relief and dread, anticipation and that charged feeling just before the judge declares guilty.
“Theo. I know—what I said, what I did, but I have to tell you—”
“This can’t be happening.” His tone hardens. “If you wanted to tell me something, you should’ve left it in one of your fifty voicemails. I listened to them. All fifty.” I can almost see his face slowly fall, his blue eyes light with anguish. “What more do you want from me, Briar?”
“Please don’t hang up,” I beg. His voice is surreal after this many months. Husky, warm, but there’s a new tone to it. Something angry, but not red anger—blue, blue and orange like the beginnings of a flame. Warm, but cold.
Theo sighs. “I can’t—”
The phone fills with static and I wince. When it fades, I wait for Theo’s voice to come back, but I hear nothing except earsplitting silence.
Connection difficulties, red letters on the phone screen tell me. No outgoing calls at this time.
I wheel my chair to my worktable and tap the screen of the tablet that functions as my personal assistant. Again, my own design.
A smiley face—the kind I always see on stick figures—greets me. “Hello, Briar. What can I help you with?”
I almost hear the words in Theo’s voice.
“When will the phone connection be back up?” I ask.
The stick eyebrows crinkle together in concern. “I don’t know. Solar flares caused the issue, but they can be unpredictable. If there are no further complications I can have connection with Earth established within 48 hours.”
48 hours. Too long. Theo won’t answer another of my calls if it comes that late—he’ll think I hung up on him. He’ll never call me again.
“Is there any way to make it sooner?”
“I’m afraid not. You may still receive incoming calls, though they may be unstable.”
I mindlessly drum my fingers on my leg as I try to think. Instead of machines and wires and blueprints, Theo’s blue eyes fill my mind.
It was the two of us against the world. Theo Tiller and Briar Rose, best friends since forever, knew each other better than they knew themselves. Theo always took on a certain shyness around me, and I around him, but we never had to hide.
My mother died in my senior year of college. I had a presentation to give that next day—a presentation that determined my entire future. It wasn’t to my professors, but to a group of faceless and nameless machines of people. They sorted engineering applicants into two groups: the desirables who would make 150k every year and the down-on-their-luck college students struggling to pay back their student loans. These machines couldn’t care less that my mother had left this world—they only cared that I gave them the best and most original presentation of my life.
So I did. I zipped my grief away, into a pristine black pencil skirt and white blouse. I haven’t given a better presentation since that day.
When I returned to campus, the acceptance letter crumpled in my jacket pocket, the fact that I’d made the most prestigious engineering program in the country didn’t register. All I could think about was what I’d lost.
I sat down at a picnic table in the middle of the main courtyard and stared straight into the sun as it set. I didn’t notice Theo sit beside me.
“Hey,” he said softly.
I blinked. The sun had left a glowing mark behind my eyelids and it distorted Theo’s face when I looked directly at him.
“Rough day, huh?”
I looked down. My fingers traced my leg for any fringes to play with, but found nothing on the pencil skirt. I settled for fidgeting with the ends of my hair. “What makes you say that?”
“It’s been killing me to see everyone asking you about the presentation, you know. Like they don’t notice something’s going on. And you know what’s been killing me more?”
I glanced up at him. “What?”
“Watching you walk around like you’re fine.” His eyes held mine, but not like a trap or like an endless pool that I could drown in. It was a soft touch, a reassuring and strong hand to hold if I ever needed. “Whatever’s happening, Briar, you can tell me.”
And I did. I broke down and I told him everything. I told him about the faceless, heartless machines of people that chilled me to the core and I told him about the warmth of my mother that I would never feel again.
He pulled me close and held me for an eternity. I clung to him like a lifeline, and that’s what he became. A lifeline. My lifeline.
And I messed it all up.
We never officially started dating, but it was obvious in the way our dynamic shifted ever so subtly. Theo told me the little things he noticed: how my fingers always tapped against my knee or the table when I was deep in thought, how I always played with the fringes on my shorts and the edges of the rips in my jeans.
I never seemed to find the right time to tell him, but I noticed everything the same way he did. I saw the way he always had a candy wrapper in his pocket for when he would lose his bookmark, I heard him practicing on his guitar until the light was too dim for him to see the music. He only played one full song—a short one, one verse, that he wrote for me on our one-year anniversary.
Before I realize what I’m doing, I begin to hum the melody. I didn’t think it had stuck with me over the months, until now.
It sounded better in Theo’s voice. He wasn’t quite on key, but he had a good voice. He would never admit it to anyone, but he loved music.
His kindness soared far above anyone I could think of. Whenever we would be on our way to a nice restaurant on a night he decided to “treat me,” one man stood on the same corner with the same shopping cart, sleeping bag, and cardboard sign every day. Theo stopped and offered money every time.
When I drove by alone, I could never look at the man. I would fix my eyes on the road ahead and feel the hot shame rising to my face. Theo was always so much better than me. If he was a lifeline, I was an anchor. We balanced each other out, but he could be so much more without me dragging him down.
The shame I felt, looking at Theo’s kindness and generosity and seeing that I was nowhere close to measuring up, became too much. I couldn’t even focus on my work. Blueprints for my ship were halfway finished, due in the next week, and I hadn’t touched them for days. I couldn’t—I would never be anything, compared to Theo. He was the dreamer, and I was the voice of reality that kept his feet on solid ground.
He told me that it was a good thing. Who would keep me from floating away if you weren’t here?
I never voiced the thought, but I still wonder if Theo would be better off floating away. He would thrive anywhere he landed.
He would never know as long as I was holding him back, and I would never be free from that constant burden of not deserving him. He never made me feel like that, not on purpose—he said everything to convince me otherwise—but I knew it every time I drove past the man with the cardboard sign that I couldn’t bear to look at.
Theo was too good for me. He was my lifeline, and I was his anchor.
So I ended it. I didn’t explain my reasoning—I couldn’t possibly have explained it, and I’m not confident I can explain it now to him over the phone, but I have to try. I could see the anguish, the pain, the anger, the confusion, all muddled in Theo’s eyes, but all he told me was that I could come to him if I was ever in a tough spot.
I finished my blueprints, collaborated with NASA, and launched myself into orbit. I thought it would be good to get away, to turn myself into a speck of dust so far away that Theo wouldn’t even think of me.
But now I miss him. And I can’t leave things the way I ended them. I can’t let Theo stay up at night and wonder why I said what I did. I can’t let Theo think that this is his fault.
I tap my tablet screen again.
“Hello, Briar. What can I help you with?”
“Set a timer for 48 hours. Displayed on the big screen.”
The smiley face disappears, replaced by a digital clock ticking down from 48 hours.
I sigh and put my feet up on the worktable, leaning back in my chair. Unless, by some miracle, Theo decides to call me back, I have 48 more hours to go before I can try again.
My phone buzzes next to where my feet rest on the table. The noise makes me jump and I almost topple the chair.
I scramble to pick up the phone and press it to my ear, holding my breath. Waiting for Theo’s voice.
“Hey,” he says softly. The exact same word, the exact same tone, the exact same voice that started it all.
“You called back,” I whisper. A slight smile, part hope, part disbelief, tugs at my lips.
“What did you need to tell me?”
It all comes spilling out. My words trip over each other in their need to finally be confessed, to finally be heard. My eyes well with tears at some point, but I don’t care. Theo’s just on the other end of this phone, and he’s listening to every word I say with undivided attention. I know, not because I can see him right now, but because he’s Theo.
“I’m sorry,” I finally choke out. “I’m so sorry. I—”
“Briar,” he says quietly.
I manage to hold back the flood of apologies threatening to spill from my tongue. “I’m not asking for your forgiveness, or for us to go back to being…us, and pretend I never messed things up, but I miss you.”
My words hang suspended in midair, giving the atmosphere around me a buzz. I lean forward in my seat, anticipating and fearing his next words.
“Where are you right now?” Theo finally asks.
A choked laugh escapes me. “Space,” I say.
I imagine his smile. How I’ve missed that smile.
“Maybe…when you’re back on Earth…” Theo hesitates. “We could grab coffee? And talk?”
I’m paralyzed. He’s offering me a chance. A second chance.
“Yes. Yes, coffee would be…”
Coffee would be more than enough. Certainly more than I deserve, with the way I shattered his heart. Coffee would be worth more than everything I’ve sacrificed to get this ship off the ground.
“Coffee would be amazing,” I say.
“Just…let me know, okay?” A pause. “I’ve missed you, too.”
When Theo hangs up, I tap my tablet with an ecstatic grin on my face.
“Hello, Briar. What can I help you with?”
“Take us back to Earth.”