By Emma Wenninger
**This is the continuation of Part I
Martha knocked on Abby’s back door before sliding the glass open and stepping inside. It was six in the morning. She and Abby developed this routine shortly after becoming neighbors; they’d been relocated together. She would come and help Abby get Keenan ready. With Lamont home she thought it wasn’t necessary for her to be there, but after a few weeks Abby called her and told her she wanted Martha’s help. So Martha came, began making coffee in Abby’s Keurig. She padded up the stairs and knocked on the door to Keenan’s room, pushed softly inside. She started, gasped. Lamont was there, his back to her. But it wasn’t Lamont. It was Lamont. It was a shadow thing, with Lamont’s shape and body, but when she looked at it her eyes slipped off if it, it almost hurt to look at. She felt a sick, nightmare dread blossom in the pit of her stomach. She could see his hand was reaching down, hovering millimeters away from Keenan’s skin. he felt Abby’s arms around her waist, felt Abby pull her back, stumble, the two of them collapsed on the floor, her flank crashing into Abby’s hip. Abby put her hand over her mouth, stifling Martha’s scream. The two of them breathed, held each other, waited.
The door slid softly open. Lamont walked out. The real Lamont He looked down at them. “Morning, ladies,” he said.
“Morning,” Abby said. Her hand still covered Martha’s mouth, her palm ground into Martha’s teeth. Lamont turned, walked down the stairs.
Martha pushed Abby off her, ran into Keenan’s room. He was still asleep, peacefully even, unaware of the thing that had just been in his room. Abby slid in, her back against the wall.
“What the fuck?” Martha hissed. Abby shook her head.
“Come with me,” she said, taking Martha’s hand and pulling her back down the stairs to the kitchen. When she saw Martha glance around for a sign of Lamont, she said, “He’s not here.”
“What the fuck, Abby?”
Abby sat down at the table. “Have you seen anything odd, recently? With Matt?”
Martha sat down as well. The Keurig spluttered and choked behind her. She was silent. Abby seemed small, bewildered. She leaned in to whisper, and she nearly mouthed the words, “Anything you can’t explain?”
Martha felt her heart beat loudly in her chest and ears. She thought about the weight of Matt in the bed next door. She thought of him speaking in his sleep, a gibberish language, having a conversation with no one with words that meant nothing. She thought about looking at him, like she was watching at a three-dimensional image on a two dimensional surface, like the edges of him filled out the space he was supposed to occupy, but at a cost to some reality she had not known she was taking for granted. And then she felt angry, both at Abby’s strange line of questioning and at the questions it made her ask. “You need to tell me what’s going on right now. What was that thing? What was it doing to Keenan?”
Abby shook her head. “I don’t know,” she said. “I … this is going to sound crazy.” Martha waited. Abby continued: “The first week he came back, I know he wasn’t at the house. I know he was gone for two days. I know I know. But I don’t remember. I remember he was there. I remember we took Keenan to the park. But then another part of me also remembers doing those things alone. Or … when I try to remember what we did, I only remember Keenan, and I feel …. It feels like Lamont is there, but I don’t remember him.”
Martha knitted her brow, trying to understand. Abby got up, went to a drawer in the counter and pulled out a brown notebook. She sat down again and pressed ahead. “A few weeks ago, I started writing down when Lamont wasn’t home. I wrote down when he would leave, and when he would come back. Here.” She flipped to the most recent entries. “Friday, Lamont leaves. Then Monday morning, he’s back brushing his teeth in the bathroom. He was gone for the whole weekend, last weekend.”
Abby closed the book. “Martha, I remember we took Keenan to the movies on Saturday. I remember this. But when I think about it, he wasn’t there. I don’t remember him being there.”
“Did you maybe forget to write down when he came home on Saturday?”
“I don’t know.”
“That doesn’t explain that thing upstairs.”
She saw that Abby was about to cry. “I can’t explain it.” She said. “I can’t. But, when he does it, when he goes in and does that, he helps Keenan sleep. He sleeps for hours. And when he wakes up, he’s the best boy. And he asks for his dad. But Lamont isn’t here.”
They sat together for a few minutes, until they heard Keenan begin to wake up upstairs. Abby glanced at her. “Will you help me take him to school?”
Martha nodded. Abby looked visibly relieved. She got up, went back upstairs. Martha could hear her talking to Keenan, telling him to get dressed. She crossed her arms, stood, slid open the back door and stepped onto the porch. The sun was rising high and hot into the sky.
Martha tried to watch for Matt the way Abby did, but found no blips in her memories of him. She and Abby did not talk about Lamont again. She thought about emailing Chuck, asking for Matt’s medical records, the write up of his decompression at the holding facility, but realized she wouldn’t have access to that without Matt’s authorization, and she didn’t want to alarm him. The other returnees were slowly arriving home, and soon she was sent a link to the online support group and chat room setup for the first families. She did not click on it. Instead, she found the latest report on Amy Follino, who was now seven months pregnant. She was apparently having a girl. In the shower Martha stared down at her feet and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be pregnant. Matt seemed listless since returning, occupied. He slept like a stone. What Martha did notice was not forgetfulness or lapses in memory, but that whenever she entered a room Matt smiled at her, took her hand, and then got up and left. It was so natural that at first she didn’t register it. And then she realized she’d gone long stretches of time without seeing Matt at all, and she would get up and find him wherever he was, and he would look at her, hug her, and then shuffle out of the room.
She was told she and Matt had access to couples counseling, trauma counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, and sex therapists. It was recommended she write down any changes in Matt’s behavior in a private journal, that she seek out her concierge if her partner was unresponsive or in any way different after their return (different being defined by a list of variables and possibilities Martha had been wholly unprepared to anticipate). The problem, though, the meat of the issue was, in fact, that she didn’t mind when Matt was gone. It still felt like she was living alone, waiting for him to return, that nothing in her life had changed. And the thing she’d seen in Keenan’s room, Abby’s worries over Lamont, the eeriness she felt being around Matt now, if she were honest with herself she was happy when he wasn’t there. Her chest grew tight when she saw him enter a room. She took to sleeping in the house’s second bedroom, which was a guest room now but could be a kid’s room if they wanted that. Matt didn’t seem to notice her absence at all.
Finally, one night when Matt went to bed early and she got bored of a show she was watching, she decided to pull out her phone and text Chuck. He responded within minutes. Martha couldn’t help her smile. She got her purse and threw a jacket on, stepped out into the night.
Chuck was a pleasant looking, if slightly overweight man with a quick laugh and eyes hidden behind thick black frames. He reminded her of her first high school boyfriend. During the first year Matt was gone, she was required to check in with Chuck on a weekly basis. She also had to schedule conference calls with Matt through him, report to him if she was planning to take trips, or remodel her home. The members of the mission to build the station were all given a salary that was useless on Mars, but funded their families back on Earth. Their homes were government owned, their bills paid for, their insurance excellent. The idea, as they had explained it to her, was to phase out the concierges as more people moved to Mars. Chuck was contracted to be with Martha and Abby and a handful of the other first families for another three years, helping them and their returnees acclimate.
It was strictly forbidden for concierges to have personal relationships with their families beyond what was required of them in a professional capacity; concierges were “facilitators and friends,” and so could absolutely listen to someone cry or complain about their missing spouse or daughter, could donate to GoFundMe campaigns or participate in office fun runs, and concierges could even host something called “The Green Men Annual Charity Bar-B-Q,” where they dressed up in bright, neon green body suits, pasted cut-outs of green alien faces on the walls and hang up round, red paper lamps meant to look like Mars, but concierges certainly could not, and should never, take the wife of one of the first fifty out to a movie and then sleep with her in his one bedroom apartment downtown. Still. After it rained the light through his windows in the early morning would be soft and quiet.
She hadn’t texted or called him since Matt’s return. Martha had been hoping, even beyond hope, that when Matt came back she wouldn’t need Chuck anymore. That he’d been filling a space in her time and life that Matt would have occupied. They met at a dive bar on the outskirts of the city, and when she saw him sitting at the corner of the counter, scrolling idly through his phone, she felt warm and full of space, like going home to the house she grew up in. He saw her right away, waved her over. They ordered a round, and while they waited Martha reached out and wrapped her hand around his wrist.
“Things going well with your Martian?” he said.
“So far.” She watched his face as she said it. “What about yours?”
“Amy Follino’s baby.”
Chuck laughed. “Martha. If I knew anything about that I’d have probably tweeted about it already and gotten arrested. I wish.”
She leaned forward. “Please, I’m begging you. I just keep watching YouTube videos about her. Can you even imagine what that baby’s going to think when it’s born?”
“Probably, ‘It’s cold, put me back.’”
Chuck laughed. “I’m serious, though. How’s Matt?”
Martha rolled her eyes. She picked at the label of her beer. “I was hoping when he got back I’d be happy to see him, but. It’s different, it’s just different.”
“Yeah.” Chuck pushed his glasses up his nose.
“He’s acting weird. He doesn’t really talk to me anymore. Abby thinks something’s going on with Lamont, too.”
“Off the record, though. You’re not my concierge right now.”
“I’m a friend.”
She breathed in through her nose, then told him what she’d felt around Matt and Abby told her about Lamont, eliminating the creature in Keenan’s room because that would most likely bring on a federal investigation, and she knew Abby, who seemed so close to tears these days, would never forgive her. “Do you,” she unintentionally leaned in close to him, “know … have you heard anything from the program? Do you think it could be something that happened on the station?”
Chuck’s expression became thin. He didn’t answer her, but looked away, down at his glass. Martha felt a muscle in her chest pang just a little. She leaned back, chewing on her upper lip with her bottom teeth. Finally, he said, “As your friend.”
“As my friend.”
“There was a worry, a concern, about what being in space could do to you.”
Chuck looked at her. “Genetically.”
Martha let the word sit before her, settle down next to her bottle. Chuck started again. “As a friend, I can tell you what you can Google. Going into space can change your gene expression. There was a worry that if you come back from space your cell turnover could decrease, your production of bone marrow and red and white blood cells, basically that you were more susceptible to cancer, really. That’s what people were the most concerned about. And astronauts would come back with thin hair, they’d have lost weight. It’s that kind of stuff.”
“So, Matt and Lamont could have cancer?” It was an unsatisfying answer.
“Well.” She watched a series of thoughts run through Chuck’s mind. He landed on one. “Ok. That’s what genetic expression is. Your body’s ability to process the proteins that keep you alive. Your genes determine what proteins you have, what you work with, basically, during your lifetime. So they were worried if you go in space you put yourself under so much stress and pressure that you could get sick, decrease your body’s ability to maintain itself. Normal stuff. But.” He was tracing a fingernail along the grain of the wood. “There are some chat rooms and boards you can go on, really conspiracy theories, I promise, that would tell you that the stress and pressure changes your genes. Not your genetic expression. Your genes.”
“So there’s like, a three percent genetic difference between us and a banana, right? I mean, I have that wrong, but that’s the idea.”
“Apparently, if you go into space long enough, there could be up to a seven percent difference in your genes when you come back. You’d be a different species.”
Martha barked out a laugh. Chuck leaned back; he was smiling and shaking his head in agreement with her surprise.
“Again, all very Google-able,” he said.
She took a long sip from her beer. “That’s not possible. It literally can’t be possible.”
“I don’t know,” Chuck said. “I thought it was nuts when they told me about it. But what if, I don’t know, what if it’s like diamonds, you know? All it is is enough stress and pressure, and then coal becomes a diamond.”
“But not instantaneously. Coal doesn’t just go pop and you have a diamond.” Martha laughed again at the idea. “It’s hundreds of thousands of years of intense pressure. Like,” she mashed her fists together, trying to demonstrate what she meant.
“I know. I mean, it’s not true anyway.”
They talked about other things. When Chuck leaned in toward her in the parking lot, she deflected, hugged him good-bye. She wanted to go home with him, badly. But as they walked toward their cars, she found herself studying the line of his shoulders, and knew she wouldn’t be able to do it while Matt was back on Earth. When he was literally worlds away, it didn’t even feel illicit. What could he have done? What would anyone have said? If it were she, if she knew that Matt was sleeping with another member of the space station crew or if their places were reversed, she knew she would understand, would even be a little glad that he wasn’t alone. Chuck pulled away. “I thought…”
“I know.” They were silent for a few moments. She looked up at him. And surprised herself when she said, “I don’t love him, Chuck. I don’t. I know that. That is exactly one thing I am very sure of.” She thought about how she had gotten used to Matt’s absence. Had forgotten how he felt, how he smelled, how finally she had stopped missing him at all. Chuck nodded, but did not look at her. “But it’s all more…” she cast about for the appropriate word, but couldn’t think of one, and hated the one she landed on. “...complicated than I thought. And I thought it was going to be really fucking complicated.” She reached up to him, rested the backs of her fingers against his cheek. He leaned into her. “Give me some time, just a little time. Just to figure it all out.”
“Sure,” he said. He hugged her again, held her tight enough that she could feel his heart beating, next to hers but for a few layers of bone.
Matt was not in the bedroom when she got home. She wandered through the house, lightly calling for him, but he did not respond. She flicked on the kitchen light, but there was no sign of him having eaten. All the doors were locked.
She went out her backdoor and crossed the lawn. She could see Abby through the back window, watching TV, resting her chin on her fist. She knocked on the back door and slid it open. Abby looked around, saw her and got up. “Matt’s not at home,” she said.
Abby leaned her hip against the the couch. She crossed her arms.
Abby shook her head. “I didn’t hear him go out, but he’s gone.” Martha nodded, sat down at the table. “Do you want to order some food?” she said. Abby shrugged. Martha pulled out her phone, thumbed through a few food service apps. “If I got Chinese would you also eat Chinese?” Abby nodded. She came over to sit across from Martha. Martha reached out and tugged her hand from the envelope of her elbow, held it between her own two hands like a captured moth. She remembered Matt used to do this when he saw she was upset, as a way to draw her out when she’d folded into herself.
Martha tugged on Abby, and Abby looked at her; a fugue lifted from her eyes. “What do you want to eat?” Martha said softly. On the baby monitor, they heard Keenan wake, mumble, turn, and fall back asleep.
The next day, transmissions stopped coming from the station.
They switched frequencies, but there was nothing. The video monitors went down. The connection was deeply, heavily, dark.
The group chats lit up. The app crashed. Family members began posting on Facebook, Instagram, uploading live streams and YouTube videos. There was a rushed, harried press conference. Family members began arriving at NASA, waiting in tents outside the building for any hope, any promise that signal would be regained.
When some came forward to say their returnee had departed in the middle of the night, Darla called, asked if everything was alright. As soon as she heard Darla’s voice Martha began crying, surprising herself. She told Darla Matt hadn’t come home. Darla said she’d be there as quickly as she could.
When she arrived, Martha was glued to the television set, her computer open. Abby had come over. She was fielding calls from other first families, asking if she and Keenan were alright, if Lamont had gone. The website had crashed again and someone on the phone was telling Abby a group was planning on getting together and holding a vigil, another to storm Washington. On television, a far-right group had gathered on the steps of the capitol building, declaring this to be the final punishment before the end of the world.
“Turn all of this off,” Darla said. She picked up the remote, clicked the TV off, snapped Martha’s laptop shut.
“Hey!” Abby said, but Darla waved her away. Martha got up and ran to her, hugged her. They held each other for a few minutes. Darla ran her hand up and down Martha’s back and Martha felt embarrassed, ashamed, at how much she loved it, leaned into Darla’s body with hers. Darla seemed so much more sure-footed, and Martha was terrified, her fear sharpened into a spiky, crystalized point, because what she felt wasn’t fear for Matt but intense relief, a well of confusion and sadness.
“We’re all going to relax. We’re all going to sit down and wait for Matt and Lamont to come home. Have you been in contact with Chuck?” Martha nodded. He’d been singularly unhelpful, unable to tell her anything. They were worried extremist conspiracy groups were trying to tap the phone lines.
Darla began making food, which, though it was delicious, Martha could barely eat. She tried Matt’s phone once, twice, but it went straight to voicemail. They would occasionally turn the TV on to find no developments. They’d managed to train a satellite onto the space station and take pictures of it, but it looked eerily calm, a white tent casting no shadows. For a long time Martha sat folded into Darla’s arms on the couch, feeling Darla’s chest rise and fall as she breathed
Darla fell asleep in the living room and Abby and Keenan took the master bedroom upstairs. Martha went into the study and turned the computer there on. She went back through her social media until she found Amy Follino’s Facebook. She imagined what it must be like on that planet so far away. If Amy was scared, if she was nervous. If she knew signal had been cut, if she was staring out at the night sky trying to find Earth. If her baby would ever see an ocean, or if it would just be endless whirlpools of dust and dirt, the same faces over and over again. Martha tried to imagine what it would be like to have a body tucked there under her rib cage, if she would ever let it go once it was time, or if she would keep it there where she knew it would be safe forever.
She wandered back to the living room, where Darla was sleeping under a thin blanket. She pulled a heavier quilt over her. And as she slid the blanket across Darla’s still body, she felt him. Not a voice or a call, but his presence. He was outside. He was waiting for her.
She went to the backdoor, slid it open. The lawn was dark, but the moon was bright and full and it bathed everything in its milky light. Matt was standing in the lawn, and it wasn’t Matt who had come back, or the Matt who had left. It was Matt as she’d first known him. Younger and braver. His form faded and folded around the edges, as if she were looking at him through water. He was standing with his back to her looking up at the moon, but when he heard the door open he turned and faced her, and she felt something sharp and lonely slip quickly between her ribs, a knife meant to hit the sac of her lung. And though she wanted to scream, to cry, to hit him, she ran to him like she had when he’d returned from Mars. He opened his arms to her and did not stumble back this time when she crashed into him. He held her steady, his hand in her hair.
“Hey, bird,” he said after a few moments. She pulled away. She’d left dark tear stains on his shirt.
“I missed you,” she said. She pulled away from him, folded her arms across her chest. He let her go.
“I know you did,” he said. She let her gaze roam over his face. He looked so different, so much younger. “I’m going to go, soon. We all are.”
Martha nodded. She felt a thousand questions crash the shore of her tongue, but she couldn’t pick one that felt succinct enough, right enough. Finally, she said, “What happened, Matt? What’s going to happen?”
Matt straightened. “I don’t know, bird. But we heard them calling to us. Back there. They need us.”
Martha’s breath caught and escaped, quickly. She pressed her fingertips to her mouth. “If I need you, will you stay?” she asked. She wanted him to turn to her, to take her hand in his. She wanted him to tell her he had come home. His body now slid and slipped across her vision, she could not grasp the features of his face. Instead she saw other things, felt other things-- watched him walking toward her the first night they met. A dark party, a cup in his hand. She felt him lean his shoulder against hers in a crowded subway car. And here he was again, finally, and he was leaving. He shook his head, but his face was soft, his eyes, which she could not rightly see, she knew were full of gentle understanding.
“It’s going to be ok, bird,” he said. “It will be a while, but then it will be ok.”
“I’ll find you. Somewhere. I will.” And in it, right at the center of it, she heard him saying goodbye. She felt something open up inside of her, some long breath she’d been holding be released. She could already see that some essence of him was drawing up toward the bright and glittering moon. She shook her head. She knew he would not. This was the last time she would see him, ever. There would be no other time after this, no other meeting or parting between them. She grabbed hold of his hand, brought it to her mouth. “Just remember me, when you leave, wherever you’re going,” she said.
“That’s all you owe me.”
Matt nodded. She felt his hand slipping out of hers, and she thought of the many times his hand had touched her, in friendship, in love. She imagined she would know its touch even if she were suddenly plunged into darkness, even if she lived to be a thousand years old. If he reached out, and ran his fingertips across her cheek, she would know who it was, and she would know he had come home.
Abby was sitting up in the living room when she came inside. Keenan was asleep in her arms. Abby looked at her, and smiled, and when both saw that the other was crying, they started laughing, silently, desperately trying not to wake Keenan or Darla. Martha came and sat down cross legged in front of her friend, took Keenan’s little hand between her thumb and crooked forefinger. They stayed that way for a long time, as the sun rose, and when the gridded light illuminated the kitchen and living room, Martha sighed, laid down and stretched out onto the carpet, and tried to feel the earth spinning, and the distance between herself and the far, red planet, which burned somewhere close to the sun.