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Happy Holidays from Another World
A story of family, loss, and finding one's purpose by Dori Lumpkin
This story was nominated by Soft Star Magazine for the 2023 Pushcart Prize.
Dori Lumpkin is currently a graduate student seeking their Masters in English with a focus in Creative Writing at the University of South Alabama. They love all things speculative fiction, and strive towards making every piece they write all the more inclusive and accessible.
For my dad, and for everything he’s ever done for me.
• • •
Christmas Eve, Ten Years Ago
We built a small fire, me and my dad, my last Christmas Eve on Earth. We both knew it would be my last, but neither of us really wanted to say anything about it. We just sat, drinking chocolate with cayenne pepper, contemplating the fire and the stars. It was a beautiful night for stars, too — we never got any snow or anything, so no clouds, and our backyard was devoid enough of trees that they didn’t block my view. I had to choke down my excitement at the number of full constellations I could see. I didn’t want Dad to have to think about my trip, or about space at all, even though he was the one who inspired that love to begin with. If it wasn’t for him, I probably wouldn’t have gone anywhere that night. January first would have come and gone, and we’d have watched the launch of the Defiant together on television that morning like everyone else, commenting on the lucky bastard who got to go to space on the first day of the new year.
But because he had to teach me the stars, and because I had to be lucky enough to live almost next door to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, and I had to become an astronaut and had to have the right connections, the right mindset, the right intelligence, the right stuff, if you will, that lucky bastard had to be me.
I wouldn’t trade it for anything, though. As facetious as I’m being, I knew how lucky I was. I got to leave Earth behind, researching astrobiology and finding the next new Earth. Everyone was still too afraid to admit it out loud, but our home wouldn’t last much longer, and at this point, we’d have to take what we could get. I was an experiment. They were too afraid to send up an entire colony of researchers, so I volunteered to go alone,my ship set to return with my intel upon my death. It would be a lonely life, but it was a life I had volunteered for, and a life I couldn’t have been more excited to claim.
My dad cleared his throat, pulling my eyes from the stars back down to him. He had an eyebrow raised, as if he was waiting for me to answer a question he hadn’t asked yet. He was like that.
“What?” I took another sip of my cocoa, and he threw another stick on our fire. “Are you cold?” It was a crisp forty-five degrees out. He laughed. He grew up in North Dakota, where his winterchill averaged somewhere below zero almost every day. Huntsville was nothing to him.
“You all packed for your trip?” It was my turn to laugh. Ah yes, my trip. My quick winter vacation jaunt to the stars. That’s all it was. A nice little trip. And one I had to pack for, at that. “Not much I can bring along with me from here, Dad.” He knew that, though. My clothes had mostly been provided by the Center, as well as all my bathroom supplies, notebooks, pens, all of that. There were restrictions for bringing items into space, obviously, so there wasn’t much left for me to do on my own other than wait.
“Well,” he hesitated, shifting in his seat, “I hope you’ve still got enough room in your suitcase for a little Christmas present from me.” He pulled a small box out of his jacket pocket and tossed it over to me. “Don’t worry, I already made sure it was okay for space.” He wouldn’t meet my eyes, which is how I knew he was trying not to tear up. It had been like this with my sister for a while, she almost couldn’t look at me without crying, but Dad had remained relatively steadfast up until now. Looking at him, I could feel my own eyes start to burn. I decided to blame it on the smoke.
“You didn’t have to get me anything, Dad.” He shook his head as I examined the box. It was roughly five by five inches, covered in plain brown wrapping paper. He had written something on it, in his scrawling black handwriting that resembled mine so closely. “Do the stars gaze back? Now, that’s a question.” Neil Gaiman, Stardust. One of my favorite childhood fairytales. “It’s your last Christmas, Pip. Of course I did.”
I slipped my finger under the tape, methodically pulling up the paper. It didn’t take me long to unwrap the whole thing, which revealed a simple white box, and then to open that box, which gave way to a beautiful silver pocket watch resting on a bed of wine-colored velvet. But the face of the watch was entirely different from any watch I had seen before. It was lined with blues and oranges, representing the cosmos, and on the edge of the hour hand, there perched a tiny moon. The minute hand held a small sun, matching its counterpart perfectly. The outer rim was etched with very small, carefully drawn astronomical symbols instead of numbers. A Ptolemaic watch. I glanced up, and he was watching me, intently.
“Ah, it’s nothing. Just figured you’d want something up there to remind you of where you came from.”
My grandmother used to make her hot cocoa with milk, but my dad never quite caught on to that secret, so his was never quite as rich. He did put cinnamon and all his extra spices in it though, which I think I needed more than the milk. Either way, it warmed me going down and kept me tethered to Earth for the rest of the night. I looked up at the stars again, a soft, sad smile dancing across my lips. My watch ticked along faintly in the background.
Christmas Eve, Present
When I was little, we used to go to the ocean. Well. Not the ocean. The Gulf of Mexico. But I didn’t have any concept of that at the time — all large bodies of water were ocean. It was one of my favorite things, standing on the beach, looking out into the world and thinking that it was the biggest thing I had ever – or would ever – see in my entire life. I wasn’t stupid – I knew about outer space then, of course. I just never thought as an eight year old that I would actually make it there.
My dad and I would spend hours down there, long after my mom and sister had returned to our condo. We’d watch the stars appear one by one, racing to see who could identify constellations the fastest. He would always win, but I never minded because I always learned something new about the sky. Once it was fully night, or I got hungry, or cold, or tired, as children are wont to do, he would take my hand and lead me back up to our rooms, all the while telling me everything he knew about anything I asked.
It took me a while to understand, but eventually I realized why we went to the ocean so often, and why he loved it so much.
My father would never be an astronaut. He would never make it to the sky. He was content, don’t get me wrong. He made it as close as he could as an engineer. I mean, hell, he designed some of the parts that keep my little old Defiant running. But like me, he wanted to know everything. He understood that the expanse of the unexplored universe was the most inspiring thing to ever exist. And on land, on Earth, at least, the closest you could get to that same feeling was on the water.
It’s Christmas Eve now on the Defiant, and I miss the ocean terribly. I can’t help but laugh at myself, because I never even actually saw the ocean when I was on Earth, but still. You know what I mean. I think I miss my dad more, though. He passed this past year, and though I am very used to being alone, it takes a lot for me to admit that I am lonely. And I am.
I make my way over to the pseudo-kitchen area, where my water is now done heating up. I go through the motions, humming Andy Williams to myself as I combine the chocolate with the water. No cayenne pepper in space, sorry Dad, but it will do. Part of me expects for him to call at any moment, as he has every year since I left, but no. Not this time. I placate my grief by allowing myself to imagine how our conversation would go, if only just for a moment.
He would buzz in and ask how his favorite space cadet is doing, not yet acknowledging that it’s Christmas. I would roll my eyes and laugh, telling him that I’m fine, nothing has changed since we last spoke (which, in this theoretical conversation would have been about two weeks before). He would ask if I’ve made any great, grand discoveries destined to save the human race yet, and I would respond no, I’m sorry and I hate to disappoint, but the human race isn’t going to be saved by me. He would grow serious, then, and look at me with a concerning sort of intensity.
“You could never disappoint me, Pip. Not me, not anyone. Your name will be in history books forever, and for all the right reasons.” He would start to tear up, but catch himself. He would know that if he cries, I cry, and I hate it so much when the tears leave my face in their weird little bubbles.
“I love you so much.” I would say, with a careful breath.
“I love you too, kiddo. Merry Christmas.” And that would be just as much time as the two of us could spare. But it was always enough. Until it wasn’t enough. And it would never have been enough, even as I would have sat, satisfied with how it went and content with knowing that my father is fine and hasn’t forgotten about me.
I stop my self-indulgent fantasy, hating that horrible, gluttonous version of myself, wishing I could shake her and scream and tell her how fucking lucky she is, and she doesn’t even have a clue. But I can’t be too hard on myself. If you had told me eight months ago that I would be in this position, I would’ve slapped you. But here I am.
I take a sip from my almost-juice box of hot chocolate and grimace. It tastes nothing like home. But that’s the point, isn’t it? I’m not home. I never will be again, so the Defiant has to be home, because it’s all I’ve got. I can take comfort in the fact that my father designed it, I guess. That even now, countless miles away from my real home, my house is something my dad gave to me.
I remember my first Christmas away from Earth. I had talked to dad for an hour through the video chat setup. We had almost come to the end of our time when I caught a glimpse of the tree behind him, decorated and beautiful. That broke me. The memory of the scent of pine wafting through the house. Of staying up far too late making sure every ornament was perfectly placed. I cried. Oh, I cried.
“Pip, honey, c’mon,” my dad’s voice broke through the memories, pulling me back to him, “you can’t cry on Christmas, kiddo.” I laughed despite myself. We didn’t talk much longer after that. I didn’t tell him how lonely I was, or how desperately I sometimes wished to be able to come home. He knew. Without me having to say anything, he knew.
I take another sip of my sorry excuse for a hot cocoa and wipe at my face, pushing away any tears that might have made their way forward.
“Can’t cry on Christmas, Pip.” I whisper to myself, turning back to the rest of the Defiant and returning to work.
New Year’s Eve, Ten Years Ago
I spent the final night at the station. It was bittersweet all around, but we did have a lot of fun. They were hosting a sort-of New Years Eve party for those of us that had to work, which were many. The launch was scheduled for 11:00 AM the next day, which meant that I basically had to pull an all-nighter in order to be up early enough to be prepared. I didn’t mind, though. At the time I was still idealistic enough to be able to run on willpower and excitement alone.
It would be wrong of me to say that it wasn’t also a goodbye party, in a way. I watched my coworkers dance around Mission Control, drinking champagne and enjoying each others’ company, but the moment any of them stepped too close to me, it was like a light turned off. Sure, I got my obligatory congratulations and what you’re doing is unprecedented but all of it felt dull. Like none of them knew what to actually say to me. I remember thinking to myself, This is what it must feel like to be dying. Because wasn’t that what was happening? Wasn’t I leaving all of Earth behind, never to be seen again? Once I launched, I would mean nothing to some of these people; they’d just move on to whatever the next big project is, not necessarily forgetting about me, but allowing me to just become part of their glory. They worked on the Defiant! That was all that mattered. They could turn around and go home at the end of the day to their families and celebrate what a brilliant accomplishment they had all made together, and I was nothing more than the face of it. And to them, that was fine.
I suppose to me that was fine as well, it was just an entirely different thing to come to terms with. And maybe at the time I hadn’t fully come to terms with it. I wasn’t deluded enough to think that this party was entirely for me, of course. It was literally New Years Eve. Hundreds of people had worked so incredibly hard to make the dream of the Defiant become a reality. My father was one of them. Keeping that in mind, it was easy to slip out of Mission Control, unnoticed by the crowd, and find myself a quiet little spot down the hall. I promised my dad I would call him a few minutes before midnight, and I was cutting it close.
He picked up almost immediately, his face filling the screen of my phone. He had chosen to not come to the New Years Party, electing instead for a quiet night in. I didn’t blame him. I would’ve done the same, if I’d had the option. But I was stuck here, so I made do with what I had.
“Happy New Year’s Eve, Pip!” He grinned. He was somewhere outside, that much was obvious. I assumed probably the backyard, as I could see the faint light of the fire pit illuminating his face.
“Woo!” I couldn’t bring myself to be nearly as excited as he was. To tell you the truth, I was terrified. I didn’t even know if I would survive tomorrow, let alone a whole other year. “How’s your last night on Earth?” I could hear the laughter in his voice. He was so excited for me. So proud. I hoped I wouldn’t disappoint.
“Kinda sucks, to be honest. Wish I was there.”
He frowned, squinting his eyes at me. “The party kinda garbage?”
“I mean no, God knows these weird physicists know how to party. It just feels strange.” I sighed. He echoed it.
This time it was me who had to bite back a laugh. “No shit, I’m nervous. Tomorrow they’re gonna pack me into an insanely large rocket and shoot me into the sky, praying I don’t blow up along the way, and then just hope that nothing bad happens to me while I live out the rest of my life beyond human comprehension.” I paused, thinking about the fate I’d resigned myself to. “But also. I think it’s what I was meant to do, you know?”
He nodded. “I know, kid.”
I sat on the floor of the hallway, curling my arms around my knees. “But I’m also scared that I’m making a mistake.”
There they were. The words I couldn’t even admit to myself. I’d been working my ass off to get there, but what if I was better off somewhere else in the program? I had barely been able to think about it, let alone say it out loud.
“I don’t think so,” he responded, and his voice held all the certainty that I should’ve had, but didn’t. This should have been him. “I think that you’re making a big decision, and all big decisions are scary, but I’ve never known a single person on Earth to be more right for this mission than you are.” He smiled at me again. “Am I going to miss you? Obviously. You’re my oldest, and I love you. But you know what you’re doing. You’re meant to go far, kid. Farther than anyone else has gone before.”
“To boldly go, Dad, get the quote right.” I snorted. He laughed.
“Of course. To explore strange new worlds, seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Nerds in space, that’s what we were. Back in Mission Control, I could hear a countdown start, and then end almost as quickly. Behind my dad’s head on the little screen, I could see fireworks going off.
“Happy New Year!” he shouted. “It’s gonna be a great one, kiddo!” I took a deep, theoretically calming breath, nodding my head slowly. A form of self-assurance. Dad looked at me, lowering his voice. “Keep on boldly going, Pippa. You’re gonna be just fine.”
New Year’s Eve, Present
I look out at the stars through the window and I miss my dad. Somewhere in my ship, a small alarm is relentlessly beeping, reminding me that I need to sleep. But I can’t. Hard to sleep when you’re thinking about how big the universe is, and how small you are in comparison to it. My dad taught me that lesson. Sometimes when my troubles are getting the best of me, I look at the sky. And I think that if the world can create something so big, then it must mean that my problem isn’t actually that big a deal at all. His voice whispers somewhere in the back of my mind. The problem in my case, of course, is loneliness. It’s been ten years to the day since I took off. Seven months, nearly to the day, since I saw my father’s face for the last time. I call my sister sometimes, sure, but our conversations are clipped. We don’t know each other anymore. Dad was the glue that kept us together. She’s a district attorney now, but I can’t remember for which county, somewhere in Georgia. Shows how much I pay attention. If you’d asked me what I thought the hardest part of this all would be in the weeks leading up to takeoff, I probably would have said something trite, like, Oh, definitely the lack of seasoned food, or maybe even, I don’t know, probably no more running water? But no. It was neither of those things. It was looking out at space, being able to pick out Earth from a distance, and knowing that I’ll never be able to go there and hug my dad again.
My sister passed the bar eight years ago. They had a party for her and everything. It was like a mini graduation. For obvious reasons, I wasn’t there. Five years ago, she got married. I’m told it was a gorgeous event. Not something I’ll ever be able to do, again for obvious reasons. I never even wanted to get married. It wasn’t on my personal list of lifetime achievements, but now that I can’t… well… I’m not so sure. And then, of course, there’s Dad. Cancer took him in the end. I don’t like to talk about the details, so look them up yourself if you’re so morbidly curious, but I’m told he didn’t suffer much. My biggest regret is not being by his side at the end of it all.
One of my biggest worries (and it's a relatively egotistical one, so forgive me) is that this is where it ends for me. That I’m in space, and that’s it. That I’ll never find anything out here, and this was all pointless and that I’m stuck and have made the worst kind of mistake that I can never come back from. My sister can keep doing and climbing and going, and I’m? Just here. This is the sort of thought that I’ve had frequent panic attacks over. It certainly isn’t a pleasant thought, to suddenly consider your literal PhD incredibly useless. But the feeling usually passes.
The reason that I do what I do is to pave the way for others to discover more than I ever could. That’s the thought I use to ground myself, whenever I start to get worried about existing for no reason. Even if I live out the rest of my life and die an old woman at age ninety-seven without discovering anything in the endless expanse of space, I will have helped countless people by merely being the first one to agree to go on a mission like this. Tomorrow morning will be the tenth anniversary celebrating my launch, and in those ten years, I have done the unimaginable by simply continuing. Dad was right. I will be in the history books for all of the right reasons, and if not me, someone else will because of me. I will make it through this next year, and then another, and then another.
I don’t like to think that I’ll truly find absolutely nothing. I am an astrobiologist, after all. I believe, at the core of my soul, that it is egotistical of the human race to think that we are the only creatures that could possibly exist. I told my boss back on Earth that, at the very least, an amoeba would be nice. He countered with the hope that one day, they’ll find my grave on a far-off alien colony. I told him that he needed to stop taking his Star Trek theories into work. But the truth is, I’ve got a long fucking way to go. Years and years and years of research ahead of me, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I lay my watch on the table next to my lab equipment, letting it tick away. It’s been years since it was actually set to the correct adjustments, but that was fine. Out the window, the endless expanse of space winks at me, reminding me just how small I actually am. I smile, the muscles around my cheeks tense — not something they were used to. As long as I know that I am small, I can freely hold out the hope of seeing something bigger. An alarm goes off somewhere behind me. It’s midnight in Huntsville, Alabama.
“Happy New Year, Dad.”
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