You’re five. You rub your eyes and head into the lit hallway, away from the dark corners and dancing shadows on your walls. Jacob told you a scary story about ghosts right before Grandma said it was bedtime. Now your eyes are watery, the house is quiet, and you’re afraid. A shadow on the outside balcony makes you jump, eyes wide in fear. But the shadow notices you and opens the glass door and steps into the light. It’s Grandpa. Can’t sleep? You shake your head. Come here, come sit with me a while. You walk to the door and take Grandpa’s hand. He guides you out and quietly shuts the door behind him. Wind tickles your hair against your face. Grandpa sets you on his lap. I’ve been looking at the moon. You don’t say anything, but look up. The moon is round, shining face staring down at you, cool light in the warm summer dark. Grandpa taps the contraption in front of you. Look through that eyepiece there. You bend down and close one eye and suddenly the moon is huge, huger than ever before, and every crevice and bump lurches out of the sky and into your face and you grin. You pull away and giggle. That’s a telescope, Amber. You ask him if the moon has mountains. He nods and you both take turns looking in the telescope. Then he moves it around and you look at stars and constellations. You lean your head against his chest while he points at the night sky and let yourself drift off into the stars.
You’re seven. Mommy and Daddy are fighting again. Jacob has locked his door and is hiding in his room. Your crying only adds to the noise and chaos of the house, so you go hide in your closet. You shut the closet door carefully, making sure not to get your fingers stuck in the folding door just like Mommy taught you. The dollhouse you never use fights you for floorspace as you sniff back tears. The shouting is muted now. You hope it’ll be over soon. Eyes adjusting to the dark of the closet, you look around, clothes softly flapping as you turn this way and that. There’s the dollhouse, all the dolls, dusty and forgotten, and some boxes from other toys you’d forgotten you had. You start going through them, looking for anything good, and see a sticker book. Glow-in-the-dark. You open the book and slide it under the closet door and wait. Your eyes are tired from all the crying. You rest your head on your knees. When two forevers have passed and the shouting is over, you pull the sticker book back inside and smile. Glow-in-the-dark stars. Glow-in-the-dark planets. Comets. Spaceships. You carefully peel away your favorites and stick them to the back of the closet door.
You’re ten. You’re in space camp. Mom argued against it, but Grandpa won. You’ve built a Mars colony in giant bubbles of plastic, you’ve watched movies about how spaceships work, you’ve eaten (drank?) Tang- it’s the best week ever. Every night you fight the clock, hoping time won’t pass so you can stay forever. On the last day you meet a real astronaut. Your chest bursts with questions but after six your group leader asks you to let other kids have a turn. The astronaut smiles kindly at you though and shakes your hand before he leaves. You tell him you have one more question. Sure, sweetheart. You ask him if it’s scary. If what’s scary? You blush and look at your feet. Space, you say, is being in space scary. He bites his lip and pauses like Dad does when he’s deciding whether to get off the couch or not after Mom calls his name. Yes, the astronaut says, Yes, being in space is scary. Your shoulders drop a little. But fear just means you don’t know something. And if you want to know space, you have to be a little afraid. And I think that’s worth it. The astronaut leaves, waving. You wave back.
You’re eleven. They’re fighting again. Jacob left the house, taking his overnight bag. You’re too young to walk to a friend’s house alone and you don’t have a cellphone. Dad’s cellphone is what they’re fighting over, so you sneak past them and grab Mom’s phone from the charger in the kitchen. You head out the backdoor and call Grandpa. Your voice cracks and you realize you’re trying not to cry. I’ll be right there, Amber. And he is. You pack your own overnight bag and head out the door, the two of them still shrieking at each other and paying you no mind. Grandpa’s truck is running at the curb and you hop in. He’s brought you a book about Saturn.
You’re thirteen. Dad’s gone and so is Jacob. There was a note on the counter this morning. Mom’s alternating between crying and screaming into her phone. You grab your overnight bag and call Grandpa and, for the first time, Mom realizes you’re leaving the house. Don’t you leave me too! She screams and you almost drop your phone in surprise. But Grandpa’s already outside. You tell her. She grabs your arm and drags you out, her nails biting into your sunburn. You tell her to stop, try to push her off, and that’s what Grandpa sees when you’re pulled out the door. He gets out of his truck. Mom’s anger has a new target. She spits and yells and shakes your arm and you try to pull away. Grandpa marches over and grabs Mom’s wrist. Her mouth stops. Let her go, Lily. Mom’s vice grip loosens, and you wiggle away. Grandpa lets go of her and offers you his hand. You take it. He turns back towards Mom to say, Call your lawyer and the police if you want to find them. Call your mom for comfort. But don’t call me for Amber. I’ll bring her back once you’ve sorted yourself out and calmed down. We walk down our front lawn and into his truck, the seats warm in the sun. Mom stares at the ground. You think she’s crying and feel sad for her. You rub your arm as Grandpa drives away.
You’re fifteen. You’re using the Night Sky app to see what stars you might be able to see from your backyard tonight. Light pollution means you’ll only see the brightest, ones you’ve already seen, but it’s worth checking. The backyard is quiet and you set to balancing the telescope’s tripod on the uneven ground. Grandpa bought you one with a level to make sure you could get it straight. You hear the backdoor open behind you.. Orange light floods the left half of the yard, marred only by her shadow. What are you looking at tonight? She finally asks. You shrug. She stays that way for what feels like too long, watching you set up and focus the telescope, your phone glowing with constellations. Then the door closes, the light disappears, and you’re left in the darkness of the backyard. Alone.
You’re seventeen. You’ve received your college acceptance letters. All the years in Mathletes, astronomy clubs, volunteer work for the non-profit that ran space camp- it’s added up to opportunities. You have your pick of colleges. You and Grandpa sit at the kitchen table, all your acceptance envelopes spread between the two of you. You oscillate between the college that’s cheaper and the college that wouldn’t be too far of a drive. Grandpa stops you and holds up one of the letters in his wrinkled hand. This is where they invented the first lightspeed engine. Silence. It’s far. The other side of the country. You have a full ride. But Grandpa would be here. He sees your wheels turning and slows them. If you want to go to space, you need to start believing in yourself more. You deserve this. He hands you the letter and you look over their programs and alumni. It’s a hotspot for NASA recruitment. You look up and he’s drinking his iced tea, shuffling all the other letters in a neat stack. Now. If you’ve made your decision, let’s go get some ice cream.
You’re twenty. You’re set to graduate in another year. You’ve already committed yourself to a Space Studies Master’s Program with a focus on Interplanetary Geology. A few recruiters have taken your name and interests. Right now you’re on a field trip with the astronomy club. Camping. There’s one of these trips every year and every year you invite Grandpa. This is the first he’s missed. You end up sharing a tent with a classmate instead, one who’s in your chemistry class. She’s nice and lends you her air mattress pump when yours takes a shit. In the evening everyone flows out onto the open field, telescopes under their arms and eyes upward. This area has almost no light pollution. Above you streams the Milky Way, purples and blues clouding around the bright stars. You park your telescope and set to gazing at some of the smaller star clusters you don’t get a chance to see on campus. Around you people laugh and joke and whisper. The night wears on and you end up on a blanket, looking up with heavy eyelids at the edges of the galaxy. A boy, some kid you recognize from one of your electives, asks to join you. You shrug. He lays down next to you. His breath is heavy. He smells a little skunky. His hand is warm and you don’t shrug away. The jokes have gone quiet. Everyone else is already making out, you’re sure. When he kisses your cheek and his hand wanders you try to be excited, but you’d rather look at the stars. So you do. He senses your lack of interest and wanders away. When you return to your tent your classmate is there. She looks surprised to see you. Not a fan of the makeout party? You laugh and shake your head. Me neither. Guys seem to think their dick is more exciting than the fucking Milky Way. Her name is Gilda.
You’re twenty-four. A real recruiter has approached you. You haven’t presented your master thesis yet, but they don’t care. They know you’ll pass. You know you’ll pass. They take your e-mail and, within a few days, you have a notification in your inbox from NASA Recruiting. You tell Gilda first, since she’s just gotten home from grocery shopping. She hugs you and both of you squeal in delight, jumping around the living room. Have you told your Grandpa yet? He was your next call. His phone only rings once. You tell him before he can even say hello. The line is silent. The smile fades from your face and Gilda watches with mounting concern. She loves Grandpa too. Then you hear a hiccup. And a sniff. You realize he’s crying. You blink back tears yourself, asking if he’s okay, asking if everything’s alright. His husky voice trembles, I’m so proud of you, Amber. I love you and I’m so, so proud of you. Tears of joy escape sporadically through the rest of the call. Gilda holds your hand.
You’re twenty-five. One of the higher-ups asks to see you in his office. You leave your lab and walk down the hall. In the office is your boss, HR, and a man you’ve passed in the parking lot once or twice. They’re looking for volunteers. You ask for what kind of mission. Colonization. The word hangs heavy in the air. There’s an Earth-like planet. Top-secret. Two-hundred and sixteen lightyears away. They drone on about the cell-suspension tests, the lightspeed engine, but you’re not there. You’re two-hundred and sixteen lightyears away on a new planet. You ask to think about it. They agree on the condition it remains top-secret. You go home, your mind a whirl of possibilities. Colonization. New stars! New Earth! First to step foot on an alien world! Gilda notices you’re distracted during dinner. Everything okay, hun? You shake your head. If you want to know space, you have to be a little afraid. You’re afraid.
You’re twenty-eight. You can’t make Grandma’s funeral. Mom is furious which, considering it’s one of her two emotions when interacting with you, is expected. Grandpa isn’t upset. For God’s sake, you’re in space! Does she think you can just beam down for a cup of coffee? Your year on the ISS is almost up, but Grandma’s cancer wouldn’t wait. Gilda streams the funeral for you from her phone. She sits next to Grandpa, holding his hand. You turn off your mic so you can cry. Your colleagues take turns rubbing your back or squeezing your shoulder. One floats over with a washcloth to wipe your face and you thank her. When the funeral’s over Gilda and Grandpa take turns talking to you and let you know that they’ll both still make the weekly call. The screen goes dark. You feel empty. You look out a window and try to soak in the starlight.
You’re thirty. The big Three-O. Mom is talking to you again and Grandpa is visiting. Gilda throws you a surprise birthday party. It’s really only Grandpa and a few of your and Gilda’s mutual friends from college. She doesn’t know anyone you work with anymore. Top Secret. She says she understands, but something about the way she talks about your job to your friends tells you that she doesn’t, not really. There’s a little jealousy, a little frustration. You know you could tell her. Spouses have been allowed to know since the project hit its halfway point, but you can’t bear to. You comfort yourself with the loophole that you never got married. Grandpa stops your ruminating by asking to see your setup. A beer in hand and a whiskey in his, you head up the stairs and out onto your balcony. You sit, three different strength telescopes before the both of you, and sip your drinks and look at the stars. The party downstairs is just noise now and you wrap yourself in Grandpa’s calm presence.
You’re thirty-four. They’ve given you the one-week warning. One week and the world would know about your mission to colonize the stars. One week and your secret would be out. You have one week to tell Gilda, to tell Grandpa, to try and explain. Instead you soak up your time with Gilda after work, which, at this point, is mostly getting your affairs in order. You take her to nice restaurants. You spend the mornings in bed. At work you write her into your will.
You’re thirty-four. You never told her. You wake up to her side of the bed empty and cold. You find her downstairs, sitting at the picture window in the living room. When were you going to tell me? You don’t know. You never knew. You didn’t want to. She’s crying. She’s getting mad. You get defensive. You both end up in a shouting match of pain, her phone waving wildly in her hand, screen still open to the news article with your face and all your coworker’s faces. “Heroes of the Nation”. “Bold Explorers”. The scene reminds you of the fight between your Mom and Dad, Mom waving the phone holding all Dad’s plans for leaving. When were you going to tell me?
You’re thirty-four. You have six months before launch and a boatload of money to “see the world”. Gilda’s staying with her sister. Your house is empty. You call Grandpa. He understands. He’s always understood. You ask if he’d like to see the world with you. Of course he says yes.
You’re thirty-five. Your last birthday on Earth. You’re in Greece with Grandpa and you’re sitting on the hotel balcony sipping champagne. The night sky is clear. He asks you to point in the direction you’ll be going. You point and name two stars and then tell him it’s a dim one between the two. It can only be seen when there’s no light pollution. He nods and stares there a while. You ask why he never got upset like Gilda and Mom did. I don’t have many more years left in me. We were on borrowed time anyhow. You hold his hand and look up at your future home. You want to stay here forever, holding his hand and staring at the stars. So you do. You hold on to that memory as they put you in the cell-suspension pod, as you get the last glimpse of Earth, as you fall into your two-hundred and sixteen year sleep into the stars. You hold Grandpa’s hand the whole way.
You’re two-hundred and fifty-one (thirty-five). You step out of your suspension pod and groggily look at the person pulling you out. They smile at you sweetly. Realizing you’re awake, you run through the ship, following the two dozen others that have just woken, looking for the door. Cool light and yellow ground beckons you from below the metal ramp. You take your first jubilant step onto alien earth and smile, naked and joyful, curling your toes and listening to others around you do the same. You look up into the new night sky.
You’re two-hundred and fifty-one (thirty-five). The stars are different. Wrong. And you realize you’re two-hundred and fifty-one years old and that everyone you’ve ever known, ever loved, lived and died under different stars while you were sleeping. Gilda. Grandpa. A quiet keening starts in the back of your throat and crescendos as you gaze upwards. The noise gets louder, more robust, and you realize everyone around you is mourning too. Your cries mingle in the alien sky, calling for their lost loved ones, their lost homes, their lost people, and you take comfort in the singularity of this grief. You reach out to the person closest to you. You hold their hand.