You never expected to leave Earth this way. In fact, you protested the addition of the spaceport in the neighborhood, what was it—five years ago? Ten? Your memory is blurry. You know that you rallied alongside your neighbors, digi-signs burning over your heads, chants ringing in your ears. Earth is Enough and Our World Needs Us and Keep Your Sky, We Won’t Fly.
For weeks, you protested. As they carved the foundation. As the glass walls rose. Only when the ships began to arrive did you hang up your signs.
But you stayed true to the neighborhood, clung to the shuddering walls of your home on Maple, even as neighbors fled the daily booms of rocket engines that increased to hourly and semi-hourly, until you could hardly hear them anymore. And not just because of the earplugs, or the deafness they warned of. The engines joined the landscape, took the place of Mr. Redburn’s chihuahua, of Franklin’s trumpet practice, of the occasional thumping bass from a passing car.
The others sold. They took a loss, and the spaceport sprawl crushed once-cozy homes into dust. Mrs. Cane’s gardenias, demolished for a mechanic’s yard. Mr. Sanderson’s Florida-pink walls, ground down to make way for a supply garage. And down the street, Caroline, Sheila, and Fran would have fits if they learned that their homes—once barred to one another due to a decades-old rivalry, the source of which no one remembered and everyone was too proud to dissolve—had been combined into a single airship hangar.
Celia was the last to leave. She showed up at your door one day, proffered a greasy bag of banana chocolate chip muffins, and spit the words out like a confession: Ican’ttakeitI’mleavingI’msorry. She was gone before you could invite her in, before you could promise you held nothing against her. Before you could ask how you were the one who had somehow earned the role of priest.
For months it’s just been you, foam earplugs pushing at your canals. Phone silent, TV silent, street silent, the bare walls shuddering every ten minutes as ships depart.
They always take off. They never land.
You’d been thinking you might die here, like a stubborn old coot who refuses to evacuate from an oncoming hurricane, a volcano. Even with plenty of time, they won’t leave their homes. Won’t leave their lives. Do they know their lives are already gone?
You don’t know why that last stand always felt noble to you, an act the usual you—the person your friends expect you to be—would have called one of stupidity. Or selfishness. Imagine someone with the blessing of a family, throwing it all away, willy-nilly. Imagine making them grieve like that. With every disaster—more common, as common as the ships—you’ve tried to think of these holdouts with the disdain they deserve.
But even now, with your suitcase clutched in your hand, your own evacuation imminent, you cannot bring yourself to hate those who stayed to face down a wall of ash when they ought to have fled.
Perhaps they are the ones who hate you. Perhaps their ghosts watch you now, lined up on the streets as though awaiting a parade, disappointment plain in their dead eyes. We did not abandon our homes, they say, and neither should you.
They may be right. But you see now what your neighbors learned long ago, that the scientists on TV meant ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’ You stayed to watch as the time to profit over disaster faded into breaking even, taking a loss, until, in the end, you could only trade your two-bedroom home—the dream house you scrimped for years to afford, with its wraparound porch and its old-fashioned window boxes—for a single ticket. And you owe the company more, though how they’ll collect that debt remains a mystery.
They’ll find a way.
You take your time, walking to the glass-walled station you protested so hotly all those years ago. The sun scorches so hard you can practically feel your cells burn, the rays beating your skin in both directions as they reflect against the asphalt that was supposed to be specially made to repel the heat. Maybe it does. Maybe this hellscape could be worse.
The scientists always meant when. Not if. Maybe they even said as much. Your memory is blurry, and your own reaction lingers loudest—the scoff that tickled the back of your throat, the sardonic comments on the point of your tongue, the nods of your neighbors. Or their shifting eyes as they exchanged glances, reluctant to nay-say the supreme ruler of the neighborhood.
Perhaps you can see how you became the confessional priest, after all.
You haven’t seen a scientist on TV for—how long, now? Months? Years? Was it by your choice? Or was it by theirs?
You might be able to ask them, and soon. They might live next door to you in one of the spinning stations that orbit this dead neighborhood, the home you all used to share. You might be able to ask them why it was too big to understand, why you fought so hard not to, why those stubborn old people—not you, but almost you—stayed as their houses collapsed around them.
You might be able to ask, too, why they bothered to make the spaceport so beautiful when no one will be here to see it. Though perhaps it was not the scientists who built these crystalline walls, these glittering rainbow prisms. Perhaps it was someone else who understood.
To you, this place was once a death sentence to the way life used to be, a symbol of unacceptable change.
Now, with your suitcase rattling along the pavement, the handle burning in your palm, you see the station for what it is. A haven. A waypoint. A star encased in glass. And, one day soon—when the last ship has departed, when the romantic in you tries to pick out your neighborhood as you gaze at the planet from above, when none but a few stubborn souls remain to face the ash—a final monument to the soil.
© 2020 Kate Sheeran Swed
Newsletter subscribers often see brand new fiction first. Sign up for my list here to get a free short story collection, plus access to my VIP Library — it’s stuffed with free fiction and other goodies!