Tom McMillan’s short story, Survivors, first-place winner of the Toronto Star’s 2012 short story contest

Tom McMillan grew up in Ponoka. After attending school for journalism he found work at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.

Tom McMillan grew up in Ponoka. After attending school for journalism he found work at the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons.

McMillan will be using his prize money to attend the prestigious Humber School for Writers correspondence program in creative writing.

Survivors

Dorothy imagines deep pulls from a stiff drink. Liquor doesn’t exist in the closed environment, so she propels out of sleeping quarters, unzipping herself from the wall-tethered sheets. When the others wake, she will tell them everything. Better to let them sleep. Yes, better.

Pushing off, floating through zero gravity, Dorothy tries remembering the way bourbon tastes. Tries and fails. She looks out through the module windows, staring down the blue-green planet below. They say that on a clear night in rural Texas, the International Space Station is visible as a dim star. But Dorothy doesn’t know anyone outside Dallas.

Thirty days. Columbia III will relieve them in 30 days.

Dorothy propels herself through the observatory in sharp, short thrusts, like a surfer fighting the tide. Calls to Earth were rare, the connection always feeble. At first, she thought she’d misunderstood. Thought one of their friends’ children drank a case of MGD and drove off a freeway. Maybe it was the neighbor’s kid, the one thrown off the debate team for using profanity.

It could happen. Things devolved quickly down there.

“I can’t take it, I’m losing my mind,” Duncan said from 220 miles below.

“You’ll be okay,” she replied.

“I should slit my wrists.”

“You won’t. You’ll survive.”

Dorothy Pouliet, the mission’s science officer, NASA’s unofficial favourite to be the first female astronaut on Mars, forces herself to prepare breakfast. She lifts a shiny pouch of scrambled eggs from the cupboard and injects it with hot water that was once the air. Somewhere below, she imagines, Duncan and her stepson are eating pancakes.

Except they weren’t. Of course not. The boy was dead.

Thirty days.

Slurping through a straw, Dorothy again wonders at the pledge. A memory a day for 30 days. Re-build Dunc’s sanity piece-by-piece. Day 1 in Cornell’s PhD program, her mentor said the key to solving any problem was to break it down, attack the small, simple parts. Stripped down, everything is simple. Complexity, now that’s the illusion.

When Captain Kenneth Jackson and the shuttle’s Russian flight engineer, Nicolai Mironov, wake, Dorothy tells them almost everything. They check their own family photographs then pat her hand. The Russian makes a pouch of coffee. The three astronauts Velcro their cups to meal trays and float in a semi-circle, talking, sipping, surrounded by an infinite silence.

“A month is 35,993 minutes,” Ken says. “A lifetime, really.”

“Grief is fruit,” Nicolai adds, mystic as always. “Time will rot it away.”

Next morning, Dorothy types this in an email that Houston will pull off the server and relay to Duncan: grief rots, everything will be okay. She tells him how, arriving for their first date, the boy met her on the front lawn waving a baseball mitt. The theatre was across town; there wasn’t time for catch. She doesn’t tell Duncan how the boy spat on the windshield when Dorothy refused, how the next day someone defecated on her porch.

Message sent, Dorothy looks out the closest window, watches the sun set for the eighth time. The station circles Earth 16 times every day. A sunrise every 90 minutes. Today is scheduled for unloading cargo, but she slides into her sleeping unit. Shouldn’t have started with that memory. Should have written about making pancakes, made a joke of never cooking the boy’s quite right. Lies are like cool water; you ease the toes first, then knees, hips and heart.

Dorothy’s fingers feel numb. Sweat trickles down her side.

The boy was arrogant. Duncan spoiled him.

Dorothy daydreams of torn seatbelts and blood-soaked steering wheels. Lucky the drunk killed only himself. She opens both eyes and checks her watch. It would be 5 p.m. in Dallas right now. Happy hour.

Twenty-nine days.

They write. She responds quicker than he does. Turns out Duncan named the boy after Martin Luther King Jr. Who knew? Dorothy wants to write about the time she caught the boy going through her underwear drawer. How the punk called Dorothy a liar and how her husband took the child’s side. Instead, she writes about the great lengths that boy went to fake illness. The falsified thermometers. The dire moans. Dorothy once caught him hovering over the toilet, knuckles deep in his throat.

“He was a gentle boy,” Duncan writes. “We failed him.”

At night, Dorothy drafts a mental list of things they haven’t written yet, things they’re not allowed to remember ever again. That the boy hated Dorothy. That he called astronauts pussies and deified his deadbeat mother. That Duncan ended every fight accusing Dorothy of resenting the boy, a perfect trump card because both knew it was true. That this friction lit the spark that fed the fire burning a hole through their marriage. That offered a chance to skip this mission, Dorothy declined.

A break, she’d thought. Space is quiet all over.

Kenneth says that seeing each other again will change everything. Nicolai says that what grief can tear, it can tend. Maybe that happens in Russia. Maybe that’s true if you have six children who love family hunting trips. But if you’re neurotic and proud, conflict drives you from the house to the lab, skipping dinners and avoiding basketball games to study moon rock’s chemical composition.

“We watched football games together,” she writes. “Cowboys versus Niners.”

“You never could agree on anything,” Duncan replies.

Dorothy floats to the window. She peeks out at the privately built spacecraft docked onside since its crew abandoned it in 2002. Some pop singer was going to fly the capsule home but he ran into tax troubles. It is a feat of engineering, a remarkable example of private design, but the astronauts just call it “Boy Band Capsule 1.” Like there will be others. Its green hull reminds Dorothy of a lake she can’t quite remember, the one from their first date when Duncan taught her to swim.

“Can’t believe you were scared of the water,” he said as they paddled. “Beautiful, no? It’s the glacial sediment that turns so emerald in color.”

Then he flipped the canoe.

There is no human instinct to doggy paddle. People can sink. They bonded when Duncan hauled Dorothy half-drowned back into the craft, draping himself across her shivering carcass. Duncan’s rumbling heartbeat reminded her of a train chugging across the Midwest. Dorothy already loved him — how would she not adore the pale son he’d produced?

NASA keeps the team busy with cleaning and maintenance. Repairing the space station’s oxygen generator system, for example. Days flicker by. Duncan grows slow responding, so she sends two memories. Then three. Then four. Dorothy ends each one by noting that she will be home soon, that they are survivors and that everything will be okay. She hits send and pictures these words sailing off into the abyss, or maybe to some colorless place where the boy’s soul snatches them and runs away.

Seventeen days.

Lunch. The astronauts make a game of imagining that first meal when they land. Kenneth wants filet mignon with salted chocolate truffles and a fish bowl of Johnny Walker. Nicolai wants borsht, Haagen-Dazs and enough vodka to pickle a corpse. Dorothy says garlic mashed potatoes and bacon-wrapped sausage, but that’s the boy’s favorite meal, not hers, and now some hibernating chest monster roars with pain and hunger.

Earth looks petite once you’re off it. Floating, she remembers sitting in The Keg parking lot before their first family meal, just the three of them. Dorothy couldn’t move, couldn’t hardly breathe, so Duncan sent the boy ahead, told him to find a seat by the window where they could keep an eye on him.

“He’s just a boy,” Duncan whispered when the door closed.

“We still need to pick a safe word or a signal.”

“Like what?”

“When I hum ‘Ring of Fire,’ it’s time to go home and put him to bed.”

“Johnny Cash?

“Or whatever. You pick.”

“My brave astronaut,” Dunc laughed, always teasing, “so eager to cut and run.”

Five days.

Duncan scolds in his emails, righteously listing Dorothy’s flaws, even though the child hated him too. Wasn’t that why the boy suggested she visit the Lone Star Motel? Might see something, he said. Dorothy saw many things, but it was the grunts that lingered through therapy and trial separation, through low-gravity training and orbital thrust. Now she wonders if that secret was a twisted teenager’s olive branch. Stepmother and stepson bonded by their demons.

Two o’clock in the afternoon. The astronauts gather for a teleconference with Houston. Usually, the voice provides project updates. Other times it reads current events like the U.S. invading Iraq or the Angels winning the pennant, and Kenneth jots the headlines down to discuss over dinner. This time the voice stammers. It says that Challenger III exploded four hours ago. No survivors.

The three astronauts react with silence. Dorothy pictures each crinkle of metal, each burst of flame converting oxygen into heat. Help isn’t coming. They aren’t going home. Not yet. When mission control ends transmission, she swims to the window and stares out at Texas, knowing there is no way to see their house from such distance. Later, they’re allowed to phone loved ones on the satellite link, using a closed channel. Ken and the Russian talk first. They each last 20 minutes each before pushing off from the comms platform teary-eyed but smiling. Dorothy runs on the treadmill for distraction. Finished, she floats through the module, picturing strong sips from a metal flask.

No one answers when she calls. Dorothy lets the line ring. Checks her watch. She thinks maybe he’s out getting groceries. Or maybe he took fresh flowers to the boy’s grave. Panic rolls out and she suddenly feels certain that Duncan’s having another affair, drowning his sorrow in the slender arms of that accountant or someone just like her. The machine comes on and Dorothy’s own cuckolded voice asks her to please leave a message.

“It’s the space station calling,” Dorothy says, pausing. “Remember when the boy woke a grizzly on that camping trip?”

0 days.

Mission Control says it could take 12 months readying a new shuttle.

They have food for six.

Dorothy thinks about this gap while she trains. Lack of gravity whittles away human bone density. Daily exercise is mandatory and their diet high vitamin, but she’s still lost 12 pounds. Heartbeat racing, Dorothy pedals the stationary bike, hearing Kenneth and the Russian whisper across the module. Words like “record,” and “years.” Words like “Dorothy,” “unstable” and “tears.”

“There is another option.” She stops pedalling. “Boy Band Capsule 1.”

Their argument stretches across the station. There is almost no friction in space, no interruptions, so the tension just floats around, bumping into walls, moving in nearly perpetual motion. NASA must be consulted. No one wants to lose more astronauts. No one wants to call that capsule their only hope.

“Wait longer and we’ll be too weak to fly it back,” Dorothy says, unclipping from the cycle. “Our window is closing.”

“That tin can is not a space shuttle,” Kenneth replies.

“Duncan hasn’t written in four days.”

“We’ll die.”

“We’ll live.”

“We’re already dead,” Nicolai tells the moon. “Just too proud to know it.”

18 days overdue.

The boy has departed. The husband is silent. Dorothy only now begins to appreciate the anger she feels for both of them. She can act or she can let their marriage become the light outside the window, the dim remainder of a collapsing star. I should feel sadder, Dorothy thinks. You were a lazy wife and absent mother, her conscience replies.

Houston decides. They will board Boy Band Shuttle 1, or TSGR-546 as it’s technically known. The capsule’s chassis design looks strangely foreign. Inside, NASA’s immaculate white has given way to blood red with gold trim. The interior is smaller than a luxury car and the black seats look worn, used. This fact, for some reason, sends fear whistling through Dorothy’s chest.

She types a memory before bed but stops halfway, deletes it.

Forget him. Forget his awful son.

They are gone, vanished, vamoosed.

Boy Band Capsule 1 is controlled by only a joystick and two black buttons. Houston can’t adjust its trajectory once the descent begins. There’s no manual override for the astronauts. They spacesuit up, escape through the docking port. The capsule’s control checklist takes two hours. Finished, Kenneth and Nicolai turn to Dorothy, who looks at the space station and sighs. Home, now, after 195 days, 16 hours and one missed funeral. Houston calls it a record.

Time bends. Travelling at more than 400 miles a second, the return trip still takes four hours. Dorothy grows bored until re-entry starts. The capsule trembles then shakes. Windows flame. Teeth clenched, choking on her own tongue, Dorothy wonders if this fear resembles what the boy felt as the SUV leapt off the interstate.

Foggy memories flash. The wedding the boy cried through. The day Dorothy taught him to saddle a horse. The sport teams and clothes and car insurance that an astronaut’s salary struggled to afford. That familiar chill of lying beside Dunc, bodies stiff with anger. And, yes, that night Dorothy drank Jim Beam and called the boy an orphan. “I resented you,” Dorothy whispers, though noise cannot escape her space suit. “Please forgive me everything.”

Their descent steepens. Her lungs fight for air. Terror ripples out and Dorothy pictures the future if they survive. Kenneth and Nicolai will greet their wives in bear hugs outside Base 1. A thin-faced NASA worker will say they’ve tried calling Duncan, truly, but had no answer. Dorothy will nod, find her car. For a moment on the freeway she will forget how to work the clutch. Traffic rules are arbitrary. She will imagine floating through the roof.

Dallas always feels dirtier after you’ve left it. Dorothy will spot Duncan’s station wagon outside the Lone Star Motel. She will idle a minute before driving to that nearby Chili’s and sipping whiskey shots in silence. A waiter will recognize her from television. Families will enter. They’ll order nachos and share desserts until her resolve crumbles.

Marriage is simple. Always drag your partner back into the canoe.

Complexity, now that’s the illusion.

The fleshy motel clerk won’t reveal Duncan’s room number, but only one key will be missing from the wall rack. Urgent, animal sounds will erupt inside Room 173. Can’t just kick down the door, though. What would come next? Screams, threats, tears. Dorothy knows how her stepson would react, no doubt, but that poor, ruined boy is dead.

Time for a fresh start, forward motion, Baby Capsule 2.

So Dorothy will buy daffodils from a street vendor. She will lean against the railing, straighten her wedding ring and begin humming “Ring of Fire.” It will be the closest thing to an olive branch she can muster.

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