My dad pulled me out of school after the first family was murdered.
We knew them really well.
My mom went to school with the man, whose wife taught my ballet classes and ran fundraisers at our school. And whose son I kissed, many times, in my bedroom, with the door open three inches, while our parents talked long into the night, over beer and wine and pot, about what was happening in the country. In the world. On other worlds.
Kids don’t care about politics. Horny teenagers care even less. But it was hard not to feel afraid every day that something was about to happen. Something bad.
My mother was right. There are monsters everywhere.
He won’t tell me where we’re going. He doesn’t give me a choice. He tells me to pack and when I ask him why we can’t go to the funeral to say goodbye to our dead friends, to my murdered boyfriend, he shouts at me that there’s no time.
“They’re coming,” he says.
And then he burns everything my mother owns. Every last trace of her connection to space travel. Her books, tablets, and awards. Decades of her work, her identity, reduced to ash and molten plastic. Then he goes after the rest of her connections. Photos of her family. My birth certificate. Their divorce papers.
I fight him over a family picture that hangs over the mantle. He rips it from my hands and tosses it in the fire with the rest.
I hit him—over and over again. Tell him I hate him, scream in his face that it’s all his fault and that I made the wrong choice.
He stares into the fire.
I call my mother from the road. My dad’s in the car, asleep in the backseat. I steal his phone and stay out of earshot.
“Come back and get me,” I cry.
“I can’t, sweetie. You need to stay with your dad.”
“He burned all your stuff—all of it—and he won’t tell me where we’re going.”
“He’s taking you somewhere safe.”
“Safe from what?!” I demand.
She sighs. “You can’t call me again. They might trace you.”
I grit my teeth to stop myself from screaming. “I hate you,” I choke out.
She sighs again and I want to hit her, too. From a million miles away.
“When you get where you’re going, you can reach out again. But not until then. I love you, Beck. Take care of your father, please. He needs you.”
“I NEED YOU!”
She hangs up.
I burst into tears and collapse onto the pavement. I don’t know how long I wait before my dad comes to get me. He carries me to the car, puts me in the backseat, and gets behind the wheel.
I stop crying. I wait for him to say something.
“Don’t make me choose,” I pleaded with them. Tears burned my eyes, as they sat there, brows furrowed with concern.
“We don’t love you any less,” she told me.
“It’s not about you,” he said.
“Your father and I just don’t love each other anymore.”
They made me choose.
I didn’t want to leave my home, my friends. My planet. Space was so far away, so dark, and cold. I’d had nightmares about it since I was little. Of monsters made of fire and molten rock coming down from the stars and snatching me from my bed and burning our house down.
The anger over what people like my mother were doing wasn’t new. That was happening before I was born. Sometimes I heard stories of people, the ones responsible for bringing us to the stars, being shot or kidnapped.
Mom knew everything about space travel. She’d already been on two interstellar missions, with plans for more. Her trips would last a few weeks, or months, and every time she left, I would cry because I was so afraid.
That she wouldn’t come back.
Five days of driving and four more walking. I haven’t said a word to him. I keep my face glued to my phone. I scroll through rows of dead messages. Swipe through photos of my dead friends. Run my thumb over the last text from my murdered boyfriend.
“When do I get to kiss you again?” he’d written.
“Never,” I’d replied. And then a row of kissy face emojis underneath.
To let him know I was kidding.
“Space isn’t scary,” my mother told me one night, when I was tucked between her and my snoring father in their bed—a bed they still shared, even though they’d stopped loving each other. “It’s dark and cold, yes. But it’s peaceful. Infinite. And beautiful.”
“Are there aliens?” I asked.
She laughed into my hair so it wouldn’t wake my dad up.
“I haven’t met any yet,” she said.
“What about monsters?” I felt stupid for asking. Ashamed of being afraid of something so childish.
She sighed and kissed my temple. “There are monsters everywhere, sweetie. Even on earth.”
I hugged her and tried not to cry. My dad had stopped snoring. I turned my head to see his back and shoulders. His breathing was shallow.
“Let’s get you to bed,” Mom said, giving me a gentle shove. She shuttled me to my room and tucked me back in, dimming my bedside light until the plastic stars on my ceiling started to glow.
She ran her thumb over my forehead, a trick she discovered for getting me to go to sleep when I was a baby.
“I changed my mind. I want to go with you.”
She smiled and took my hand. “You made the right choice, sweetie. Space isn’t scary, but it’s really hard up there. They have a lot of rules, for kids especially. It wouldn’t be much fun for you. Besides…” she brought her thumb back to my forehead, “your dad needs you.”
My eyes closed, dropping two hot tears onto my cheeks. “I need you.”
I fought it, but the rhythmic strumming of her thumb across my forehead rocked me further and further into space.
“I love you, Beck. And I’ll see you soon.”
The house is small, but comfortable. On a big piece of land in the middle of nowhere, Wyoming.
The silent treatment ends because we need to stay alive. We spend our days in the garden, growing our survival. We spend our evenings reading. He reads novels. Futuristic fiction classics that are no longer future. Or fiction.
I read journals. My mother’s. He kept them for me. I read all her notes about space travel, absorb her equations, her theories, memorize her charts and diagrams. I feel closer to her than I have in years. Like we're still connected, despite the infinite space—and silence—between us.
Dad doesn’t like it, but he doesn’t discourage me. It’s a risk to learn what she knows. It puts a target on my back, and his. If they ever manage to find us out here, they’ll kill us.
He kept her message from me at first.
Later he’d tell me it was because he didn’t want me to have to choose again. And then he’d admit that was a lie.
He just didn’t want me to go.
Sixteen years should have been enough time. For the hatred to dissipate. For the slaughter to subside. For hands to reach across the aisle. For a new order to find balance. For a planet to heal.
For a girl to grow up. For a father to say goodbye.
“I changed my mind,” I cry. “I want to stay with you.”
He holds me close and tells me I’m making the right choice. To go to my mother in the colonies, where it will be hard, but I’ll be safe.
But there is no right choice. There is no better life for me. No safer world.
There will always be monsters.
“But you need me more than she does,” I argue. “And it’s my birthday.”
He laughs softly. “It’s not your birthday until tomorrow.”
I hug him harder. “Don’t make me choose,” I beg. “Come with me. Please.”
“I can’t, sweetheart. There’s only room for one in there. And you’re the aerospace engineer, not me. I’d never make it off the ground.”
He pulls back and brings his hands to my face. “Besides, I’ve put on too much weight.”
I laugh through my tears. He’s never been thinner in his life. Neither have I. We’re losing ourselves to hunger. To work. To fear.
There’s nothing left to do now. But lose.
He drags his thumb over my forehead, and I close my eyes, dropping two hot tears onto my cheeks. “Tell your mother I love her,” he says.
I open my eyes and search his. “But you don’t love each other.”
He shrugs. “Just tell her anyway. For old time’s sake.”
His eyes well up and he presses his cracked lips to my forehead. “Happy sweet sixteen, Beck,” he says. He turns quickly and starts to walk away.
“No,” I say. “Not until tomorrow.”
He turns back. “Until tomorrow.” He smiles and blows me a kiss.
My chest aches as I watch him go. I tell myself he’ll make the journey back to Wyoming alone. But later I’ll admit to myself he doesn’t stand a chance.
“I love you, Dad,” I call out, my voice breaking in tandem with my heart.
“And I’ll see you soon.”
Today’s piece was inspired by an original story written by, which I had the pleasure of reading and remaking into something of my own. If you enjoyed today's offering, please consider sharing it. And stay tuned for the second half of our exchange on Wednesday via cross-post.
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