This story is by Nathan Brown and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Edie Reader is sitting in the kitchen with her youngest granddaughter Harper. She is about to answer a question Harper has just asked when she hears one of her sons in the dining room mention Mars.
“You know our mom was one of the only two people to see an Other Worlder in real life.”
Edie knows this is the build up. She’ll have to go out there soon.
They always want to ask her about the Other Worlder. Each holiday, her grandkids bring around a new boyfriend or girlfriend or fiancé, and ask Edie how it felt to be on Mars back in 2748. They want her to talk about the night she spoke to the Other Worlder and what the Other Worlder said. She doesn’t always go right for it when they ask, because that is only one of several memories she holds onto from the trip. She wants them to know everything she experienced. She wants them to know about the sun from Mars and how dim it was through the haze of the atmosphere. It looked like a faded freckle in the skin of the sky. She saw things differently up there.
Edie waits for them to ask her to come talk to them. She loves her entire family, and she’d never choose favorites, but the youngest grandchildren are the ones she spends the most time with. She likes to sit with them in the kitchen or living room during holidays and have them talk to her about all the things they’re learning in school. When they tell her some new piece of information they have gleaned from their few years of life, she shows amazement, not because she’s condescending but because she wants them to see the joy of discovery, how fascinating life can be. She did the same with their parents and older cousins. The youngest grandchildren ask her questions, too. They ask her about so much, and she tries to tell them as much as she can so that they’ll keep asking later on. She asks them questions so that they’ll learn to explain to others after she’s gone. She wants them to know that they can’t just stop at one experience. They have to seek it all out. They have to help others keep searching.
She already knew she was going to have to tell the story again this year. Her grandson Charlie has brought along a girl with him.
“Grandma, can you come in here?” one of the older grandchildren say.
“Just a minute,” she says.
Harper seems to have forgotten the question. Edie pats her plump ruddy cheek as she stands from the table. Harper’s coloring a yellow something on a piece of paper with a strong sense of purpose. Edie walks into the dining room where they are all sitting around her large dining table. There are so many children and grandchildren and friends of the family in there that many of them are also standing against the wall or in the door. Some of them have plates in their hands. Some of them are drinking coffee. Edie remembers them before they drank coffee. She remembers them as babies toddling around, tempted by the world of newness.
Her daughter Grace is sitting at the head of the table and she stands up and offers her seat to her mother. Grace came along with Edie to the doctor’s office a few weeks earlier when they told her that the cancer wasn’t going away. That it had spread across her entire breast. There was discussion of what to do, but Edie wasn’t really paying attention any longer. She knew then and she knows now that she’s not going to bother with any treatment. She wants to enjoy life while she can. She’s on the precipice of something new.
Grace holds onto the chair as Edie sits down. Edie smiles at Charlie and his guest. She doesn’t know if she’ll have another holiday like this. She wants to make it count. She wants the girl, or someone else who’s listening, to understand how interesting it all has been for her.
“First, let me tell you about the sun,” Edie says.
She describes how dull it was, just to be sure the girl knows. Then, she moves on.
The first night the astronauts slept in one of the caves. The opening to it was large enough that they could see the stars in the night sky. The stars were fire hot white and blinking like flashbulbs on a Christmas tree. You wouldn’t believe it was possible, but they were brilliant. Inside the cave, oxygen pumps and gravity strips and heaters helped the astronauts feel like they were on earth. There was no need for space suits. Edie was an astrobiologist whose job was to study life forms on Mars, if they found any. All the astronauts had been craving a taste of home that night, so they cracked open some pops and had a drink before going to bed. Edie fell asleep studying the stars.
The girl is interested now. Edie takes a moment to pause and get it all right. Then, she continues.
The Other Worlder stood over her in the nighttime. Edie woke up. She couldn’t tell if it had eyes, but she thought that it was looking down. From across the cave, another astronaut had woken up. He was fiddling with a video camera. He got it on just as the Other Worlder took a step closer to Edie’s pallet. The Other Worlder looked like a black sheet draped over a human form. It had stickish arms and a high-pitched voice when it spoke.
“What’s that?” it said.
It was pointing at the pop can on the ground beside Edie’s pallet. Edie leaned over, picked up the pop can, and passed it to the Other Worlder. The Other Worlder held the can in its left hand and studied it. The Other Worlder turned the can over and looked at the bottom. It reached out its other twiggish hand and played with the tab of the can. The tab came off.
“Oh my. I’m sorry,” it said.
“That’s okay,” Edie said, almost breathless.
“What’s it for? Did I break it?” the Other Worlder said.
“No,” Edie said. “It’s to open the drink. You can put a straw in it and it holds the straw, too.”
“A straw?” the Other World said in a squeaky giggle. She said the word a few more times, tasting it, perhaps, trying it out. “How fascinating!”
The Other Worlder handed the can back to Edie. Edie held the can where the Other Worlder had held it, and for a moment, she thought that they could share the entire universe with one another. Edie tried to speak. She tried to ask questions.
“I have to go now,” the Other Worlder said.
As quickly as that, it was leaving. Edie wanted to tell the Other Worlder to wait. She wanted to tell the Other Worlder there was more to her life than the pop can. She wanted to ask questions. It was her job to get answers, about Mars. It was her purpose to share knowledge. She blinked, though, and the Other Worlder was at the opening of the cave. She blinked again and the Other Worlder was gone.
“Holy hell,” the astronaut recording the scene said.
Despite all the technology they’d had on their flight to Mars, the video was grainy when they returned to earth and the audio didn’t work. It was clear that Edie was talking to something in the video, and for years, it was analyzed and tweaked in an attempt to gain something from the conversation. Edie was interviewed year after year, but nobody could figure out what the conversation about the pop can meant. They didn’t ask about anything else on Mars. They just wanted the Other Worlder, and when Edie couldn’t offer them any information other than the conversation, they gave up. She wanted them to ask more, but they didn’t.
Edie finishes her story. The girl smiles and nods and thanks Edie.
“You made it sound way more dramatic,” she says to Charlie.
A conversation breaks out about the Other Worlder’s fascination with the pop can. They all have their theories. Edie doesn’t know, though. They don’t ask her about anything else, so she excuses herself to the kitchen.
Harper’s drawing is finished. She has drawn a yellow orb.
“Sun, Grandma,” she says holding it up after she has finished.
The sun shines bright from the page, big and bold. She remembers why she’s come back to the kitchen. She remembers the Other Worlder and the questions she has that still need to be asked. She might not get the answers, but others can ask. If they learn how. She asks Harper about the sun and why it’s so big. She hopes Harper remembers her questions.