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Astronauts Can't Touch You

Carlie St. George is a Clarion West graduate whose fiction has appeared in Lightspeed, The Book Smugglers, and Strange Horizons, among other magazines. She is very fond of overanalyzing pop culture tropes, writing in the 2nd person, and engaging in egregious amounts of snark. She engages in at least two of these activities with some regularity at her blog: MyGeekBlasphemy.com.
Your whole world is the hospital room. Everything else is light years away. New York City, for instance: sometimes it moves closer, sometimes further. On 9/11, it was in your backyard, but today, today, it's Pluto, an inconceivable distance of darkness and dying stars. Who cares that aliens have landed, are turning skyscrapers into confetti? Who cares if the city's on fire? Nothing on Pluto can touch you.
Everyone outside this room is an astronaut, and you're never surprised when astronauts die.
They allow you to sit with the body for as long as you want. The nurses are distracted, frightened--New York City isn't Pluto, not to them, but then it's not San Francisco, either. There are so many cornfields standing between them and destruction, so much time for a counter-defense. There is always hope for rescue, and in the meantime, they have a job to do.
You're allowed to sit with the body. While you do, the nurses wait.
You were curled sideways in a blue recliner when your father went and left his body behind. You think you were dreaming about footprints. When you woke, his hand was already cool.
Did he wake, before he left you? Did he try to say something, to reach out? He had stared through you the night before, murmuring alien tongues you couldn't decipher. But maybe you were the alien to him; maybe his whole world was even smaller than yours, the length and width of his hospital bed. Maybe you were the astronaut on Pluto, and he was waving you goodbye--sure, even then, that you were the one leaving.
At a certain point, you just can't bear to stay in a world where you're the soul survivor.
Peter is only an astronaut outside the hospital room. Once he walks in and takes off his space helmet, once he wiggles his stethoscope out from under his bulky white suit, he's only a nurse again, tangible, someone you can touch. Peter gives you a hug without prompting and talks a little more about energy than you'd like, about molecules and space dust, about the death and return of things. He's trying to be helpful, you know. You're sure everyone will fail at being helpful the next few days.
The hospital provided you with a comfort basket upon signing a POLST form for your father's care. The basket comes with tea and water and grief literature. It does not, apparently, come with a space suit for your own use. You think you'll die, when you open the door and leave your father's body behind, but the oxygen stays stubbornly in your lungs as you float through the hospital corridor in zero G. You try not to think in specifics. You try not to imagine the nurses doing their work: struggling to lift the body, zipping it inside the bag, preparing him for launch.
Outside, there are astronauts everywhere. There is an astronaut in a wheelchair, waiting for her ride. There is an astronaut across the street, holding a vanilla ice cream cone. An astronaut impatiently waits for a parking spot while another sits in his car, texting secret astronaut messages.
You nearly float into a woman who's watching the news, holding her phone so close to her helmet that it's actually touching the glass. "God," she says, looking up at you. "Aliens, I mean, aliens. Can you believe it?"
Her voice is a little flat, so she probably can't believe it herself. Maybe that's why she's left a trail of dusty red boot prints across the asphalt behind her. If New York is Pluto and you're in California, is she somewhere on Mars? You don't know. You don't know how to define your world anymore.
My dad's dead, you don't say. MY DAD"S DEAD.
"I can believe it," you say and float past her. By comparison, aliens aren't so hard to accept.
Lewis is not an astronaut. That's important, but you're not sure why. He's angry that you drove home by yourself, but he doesn't yell at you because it takes a special kind of asshole to yell at someone whose father just died. He's hurt, though. He wanted to be at the hospital, doesn't understand why you sent him away. He's apparently spent the last twelve hours cooking. You won't eat any of his seven casseroles.
You watch the news together. Improbably, a ragtag team of unlikely heroes has blown up the mothership. Lewis says, "Thank God. Oh, thank God, it's all gonna be okay."
Maybe you scream, then. You're not sure. You can't breathe for a while, and things get blurry and dark. But you do remember how he keeps trying to hug you and how you keep pushing him away, because you can't touch his skin without feeling a layer of thin cloth between you. He can't see it, but you know what it is, the body bag he'll be in someday, when he eventually commands his own space mission, crew of one, destination nowhere. He can't see it, but it's all you can see.
"I'm right here," he keeps saying. "I'm right here."
But he won't be. He won't be.
Later that night you can't sleep. You extricate yourself from Lewis's arms and check the news on your computer. The death toll in New York is already in the tens of thousands. Every fifteen minutes it goes up, body bag after body bag... but still, it means nothing to you. The whole planet could be littered with dead astronauts and it wouldn't mean anything at all, because you can't touch them and they can't touch you.
...You can't touch them. They can't touch you.
By the time Lewis wakes up, you've almost finished making the space suit. There's a crack in the faceplate, but you cover it with duct tape. The helmet fits snugly over your hair.
You wish you could make Lewis an astronaut, but he's Lewis. He wears ties with cartoon characters on them, and cooks when he's anxious, and once made you not only a house but an entire gingerbread kingdom, just to make you laugh. You'd never be able to banish him to another world. He could never be so far away.
And yet... it hurts; it hurts to touch his skin. It hurts to remember one of you has to launch first.
Lewis tries to kiss you, but there's glass in the way. "This isn't healthy," he says. "Please don't shut me out."
But you need this right now, you need this to keep moving, one lumbering step in front of the other--and isn't that what all the comfort basket pamphlets said, that there's no wrong way to do this? There's no wrong way to grieve?
"My dad's dead," you say. It's the first time you've been able to say it out loud. "I can't lose him, I can't, and he's dead."
Lewis puts his arms around your spacesuit. You can only just barely feel his touch, and Christ, you're grateful; you're so fucking grateful for that.
"You won't lose me," Lewis says, and it's a lie; you know it is. But floating there, safe in your spacesuit on the other side of the universe from all the dead, you can almost make yourself believe it. You can almost pretend there's hope for rescue, after all.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 29th, 2017

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