The movie had a predictable plot. Heroic, unappreciated kids fight off scary, bad aliens and save the world, cracking witty jokes along the way. Happily ever after ending. Maya watched it anyway. Afterward, she and Thom walked home. Not hand-in-hand — they were too old for that now. Maya broke the silence.
“I told you the movie was going to be bad.”
“It wasn’t bad.”
“Well, it wasn’t good.”
Maya pressed on laboriously. “And they got all the details wrong, too. You can’t walk around on a spaceship. There isn’t gravity.”
Thom didn’t respond. He was looking at the pizza place across the street. She hit him lightly on the shoulder.
“Hey. I said there isn’t gravity in space, so the movie was wrong.”
“It’s a movie. It’s not real.”
They walked on in silence for a bit, skipping over the crumbled and cracked parts of the sidewalk. Step on a crack, break your mother’s back, Maya thought sluggishly. On this stifling Monday, thoughts bumbled their lazy way through your mind like the airplanes that passed overhead every once in a while. Airplanes…
“I’m going to be a pilot someday,” she informed Thom.
“You’ve only told me a million times.”
She ignored him. “I just think it would be cool. Since there aren’t astronauts, pilot’s the closest you can get to the stars.” The moon was overhead, faint against the blue sky. Maya scrunched her nose up and bent her head back to look at it. Waning crescent tonight.
“Maybe there will be astronauts again someday. But why d’you want to be one, anyway? It’s scary.”
“It’s not scary. Don’t you think it would be fun to walk on the moon? It’s like… it’s like deep-sea diving. The only difference is that the first astronaut died, and the first deep-sea diver didn’t. So everyone’s just scared to go into space again.” Scaredy-cats. That was why Maya would be the first. Someday, she would be standing on the moon. Standing on that little crescent, looking down at all the tiny people on the Earth.
Thom wasn’t convinced. “It’s too dangerous. If you went into space you’d die. Like Yuri Gagarin.”
“Yuri Gagarin had a suit malfunction. If I went into space, I’d make sure my suit worked. I wouldn’t die.” Maya’s childish voice was high with disdain. Amateur.
“I would. And I’d make sure my rocket worked, too.”
Another silence as they crossed a street. Joining back up on the other sidewalk, Maya picked up where she’d left off. “Plus, I’d be famous. I’d be the most famous person in the world.”
“Really?” Thom perked up.
“Yup. And you’d be famous, too, cause you’re my twin.”
Thom frowned. “But then I’d only be famous because of you.”
“Still be famous.”
“Maybe I should be an astronaut. Then I’d be the most famous person in the world.”
It was Maya’s turn to frown. “No, I’m going to be the astronaut.”
Thom stopped. “Why can’t I?”
“Because I said so,” Maya told him, looking down her nose at her brother.
Thom didn’t argue. It was all a joke to him, anyway. Who cared what they were going to do in twenty years when they could be going to the new pizza place now?
When Maya was in fifth grade, she stole a yellow highlighter from school and used it to draw stars on her ceiling. 61 of them — one for each year since the first (and last) human spaceflight. Thom caught her on the 36th star.
“You’re going to be in trouble!” he sang. “Mom’s going to be so mad when she sees.”
Maya looked down from her perch on their bunk bed. Already, she was starting to regret her decision. Too late to back down now. “Doesn’t matter,” she said defiantly. “I don’t care.”
Thom grinned. “Sure.”
“It’s a symbolic thing. A space thing. Mom will understand.”
He scoffed. “Mom? She hates anything to do with outer space. Plus, you’re drawing on the ceiling.”
“I don’t get it,” Maya sighed. She lowered her cramping arm and capped the highlighter. “I tried to show her some of the pictures the satellites took last week and she got mad at me.”
“She doesn’t like seeing them. What can I say? Some people are just like that.”
Maya sank down onto her constellation bedspread. “I don’t think so. She told me once that she wanted to be a scientist. You know, in astrophysics. I think… Mom just doesn't want to pass down the same kind of dreams she had to me.”
“Because she never got to be an astrophysicist.”
Maya fixed her twin with a withering glare. “Why do you think? No one wanted to study space anymore, stupid.”
Maya stood on the edge of her bed and jumped. The few seconds of weightlessness stretched and slowed until she was flying, floating — really floating in a world of her own, and everything was silent and warm around her.
Then she landed, and the jarring impact on her knees brought her to her senses. She was still on Earth, and would be for years.
“I only got to 36,” she said ruefully. “Not much of a symbol yet.”
Her twin looked at her with clear brown eyes. “Give me that highlighter,” he said, nimbly climbing the bunk ladder.
“Why?” She echoed his earlier question.
“Just give it.”
She tossed it up to him.
“Thanks.” He uncapped it and fit it into his right hand more firmly. “How many stars are we trying to get to?”
Maya grinned. “61.”
Maya and Thom had their first major fight in the fall, just as the sun had begun to dwindle and weaken. A sign of things to come, but you never recognize harbingers in the moment. That was when they knew their days of 7 am movies and lunch at the pizza place were over. The movie theater had closed a few years back, anyway.
Maya had an internship at the local science museum and could escape the house on weekends. She and Thom didn’t speak to each other for days on end. Which was fine. Totally fine with Maya.
When Maya got home, seventeen years old and annoyed from being laughed off all day, she climbed into bed and stared up at the stars. 68 of them, ten to a row. And the last row - uncompleted.
She ignored her mother’s call to dinner and stayed there for the next two hours before drifting off to a star-filled sleep.
Maya dreamed. She dreamed of planets yet undiscovered and galaxies untraversed; her mind spun with the Earth through a year and she watched snow fall and melt on the sidewalk in a second; she dreamed of games of chance, dice throws, coin flips. Maya pushed the handle down and watched the neon lights of her spinning on the wheel; but before she could see where they clicked into place, she was whisked into outer space and saw her mother — no, the sun fading away into the never-ending black terror of space.
Just before Maya left for college, she and Thom added their 71st star. He was headed to Brown, and she to the Air Force Academy.
Maya looked Thom in the eyes. “Goodbye.”
Thom laughed at her, as he’d done so often over the course of their childhood. “Don’t be so dramatic. We’ll see each other in a few weeks.”
And then Maya was crying, and she didn’t know why. But Thom knew. It was that 71st star. It was the news that had come on the radio barely a week before: NASA would officially be shutting down. It was the movie she and Thom had seen yesterday, as a sort of farewell — Space Invaders III: Return of the Aliens. It was everything. But it was nothing, because she’d never told anyone but Thom and her mother about wanting to be an astronaut. Maya had never - could never have - done anything but dream.
It was a stormy day, and Maya was glad. It made the tears on her face blend in with the rain. Her aunt clung to her and wept openly, black veil patterning her face into little fleshy diamonds until when you stepped back and looked, it was an abstract study in palest white instead of a living, breathing human.
That’s exactly right, Maya thought. We’re none of us human anymore. People don’t feel this empty inside, like they’re made of hollowed-out wood.
And then: I wonder if hollow wood floats. It’s probably very light. I wouldn’t be surprised if this downpour washed a few pieces of it away. I wouldn't be surprised if it washed me away.
Maya looked at the sky. Clouds were covering the sun, but that was okay. Maya had never liked the sun anyway. Too brilliant, flashy, shallow. Too much like her mother.
So why was she crying?
Maybe it was because of the scar on her shin. At age five, she’d fallen from her bunk bed in a foolish attempt to fly with a makeshift parachute, hitting her leg in the railing as she went over. Mom had found her there, crying, and hugged her as she’d attempted to explain what she’d been doing. She could see her now. There, there, she’d said. I won’t tell Thom. It’ll be our little secret.
Maybe it was her smile; shallow, yes, but bright enough to lighten everything around her.
Maybe it was her presence. The fact that she was there, that she did everything she was supposed to do like take Maya to school, make her pizza every Friday, take pictures of her before prom (albeit only at Maya’s prompting). Maybe maybe maybe. Maya didn’t know. She would never know.
She would never know, and she could never ask because her mother wasn’t going to come home from this particular business trip. She could never do everything a girl ought to do with her mother, like see how much of her mom’s eyes, hair, face she’d inherited or talk about what her college major was going to be.
Maya held her hand out to Thom. They were too old not to go hand-in-hand now. He squeezed her hand, and she squeezed his. She could tell he was saying: I’ll never leave you like this, I’ll be alive for as long as you are and I’ll never leave you all alone in the world, I promise, I promise, I promise.
The day after the sky decided that it, like the rest of the world, wanted to erase Maya’s mother from memory, Maya wore scuffed pink socks. It was the only clean pair she had. Fitting, she thought. Pink for Jupiter’s bold stripes. Pink for the afterimage on your eyelids after you looked at the sun. Pink for the cancer that had put her mother in the ground.
The US Air Force Academy qualified Maya to be a pilot on April 12, 2036. It was a day so hot and muggy that all of the airplanes overhead seemed to be moving at half-speed. To celebrate, Thom used his savings to rent her a Cessna for two hours. They went up together — Thom and Maya. Maya and Thom.
Maya lifted off, the hum of the engines reverberating through the body of the plane. There was no moon that day, or that night. The sky was a flat sheet of blue — and if Maya went high enough, she could pierce the paper and see the stars. She could see the stars and pretend that she was flying among them up above the rest of the world, and look down from the crescent of the moon at all the tiny people on Earth.
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Sal and Miranda, Miranda and Sal (When You Reach Me By Rebecca Stead)
I'm Marcus the mailbox guy
I think I'm a mix of Jay, Marcus, and Julia.
I think I was mesmerized by the walking together but not holding hands scene. I mean, it just pulls and tugs and won't let go. I like how the dream builds into something real and how, through their dialogue, we can grasp the full meaning of everything. This was beautiful
Thank you so much!