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The Middle Ones

Dear Ellie, the letter probably would have started. Or should I say Dearest? I like Dearest, so let's pretend it said that.
Dearest Ellie,
First off, I'm sorry about the mess. You know how strict they are about meds on this damned ship, so this really was my only other choice. I hated to ruin the floor like that though; you know I did.
Next, I just wanted you to know that everything that I've ever told you in your entire life was based on a complete and utter lie.
Sorry again.
Seven years before I was born, the Earth, how you say... died. Kaput. Adios. Sayonara. See ya later, alligator. Croaked like Ames the bat did a couple months ago down in the animal ward.
That's how my dad used to say things--how you say and then a long list of the exact words that you would actually use to say it. He was originally from a country called France when Earth was still alive. I think it made him feel good to pretend like he still was an outsider here, a piece of the life that he had before it all went down.
That's one of the few things that I remember about him because he died when I was five. One minute he was fine and the next... kaput. Just like Earth, except a lot less all-encompassing.
"How are you doing, Ellie?" my therapist says. She was an ear and nose doctor on Earth, not a therapist. Here she does both.
"Fine," I say. Truthfully, she and this place make me itch. I want to leave the moment I sit down every week.
"Hmm," she frowns. Less than a minute and she's already unhappy with me. That might be a record.
"Are you sleeping?"
"I sleep."
"Last time, we spoke about some..." she looks down at her tablet, "highly irrational night terrors." Last time, I was so desperate to leave that I started talking.
"Just a few bad dreams," I say.
Her eyebrows turn down at me. They're so thin, like little pieces of string stuck to her face. I wonder how long ago she learned that term "highly irrational night terrors" and how long she's wanted to use it in conversation. I want to congratulate her on her therapist-y-ness.
"There's nothing to be afraid of up here," she says.
"I'm not afraid," I say. I'm frustrated. With this spaceship, with these people, with the mundane accumulation of everything that I call life, but she'd never understand that. To her, I should just be one thing: grateful.
The Earth is alive, the letter would have said. We all just tell you different so that you can bear the cross we've given you. It's an effort to be sensitive to your feelings or controlling of them. I haven't decided which one yet.
The Earth is not dead. Of course, it might as well be to you. You will live out the rest of your life on this ship. That part was always true.
"You know, your mother," says the therapist.
There it is. I was waiting for the conversation to take this turn. It always does. Your mother is damaged, disloyal, useless, grade-A crazy.
"Your mother lives her life worrying about what she can't control, Ellie. And she's a very sick person because of that," she says. "We'd hate for you to turn out like her."
I just nod my head yes. I'd rather not talk about my mother.
When the asteroid hit, both of my parents were scientists at the world labs back on Earth. They were smart, young, healthy, pretty much everything that a savior of humanity needed to be, which is, of course, why they were chosen to board the ship. The fact that they had a high genetic probability of giving birth to a girl didn't hurt either. I have no idea if they even wanted to have a baby. The promise to have me was a job requirement.
Since my dad died, my mom spends most of her days on the couch with a hot towel lying across her eyes. She says she gets headaches, but I think she just doesn't want to be bothered by anyone.
I understand why she shuts herself off though. I feel frustrated and trapped on this ship, and I've never even lived on a whole entire planet before. I won't judge her, even if everybody else wants me to. I'd never let her know how much I need her to snap out of it.
Have you ever heard the story of Rumpelstiltskin, the letter would have asked. I doubt you have. It was a children's fairy tale on Earth, but no one would have thought to bring that story up here, and I can't remember ever telling you.
It's about a young woman who makes a terrible mistake and promises her child's life to an evil elf in exchange for gold. She isn't heartless though; please don't think that. She just isn't prepared to think of anyone's happiness but her own.
It's not until years later, when the child is born, that she realizes what she has done. And then it's almost too late.
Luckily, she finds a way to win the baby's life back, and all is well in the end. But that's why it's a fairy tale, isn't it? In fairy tales, people have cute little opportunities like that to redeem themselves.
"Getting excited for university?" says the earandnose-apist. I decide to answer truthfully; it usually speeds up the process.
"I'm excited to go to another part of the ship every day," I say. Her string eyebrows confirm that was the wrong answer.
"Aren't you excited to study space botany? That's a very exciting profession." Her voice goes up an octave on the word very, like she's trying to convince a baby to use the toilet.
"I'm excited to study space botany in a different part of the ship every day," I answer. I know I could make this easier on myself, but she's just so, how you say... annoying. Smug. Arrogant. Able to make me feel the size of an insect.
"The rooms at university look just the same as the rest, Elliott," she says firmly.
"Yes," I say. "But I get to walk by the gym instead of the dining hall to get there!" I allow my voice to go up like hers. I feel like I'm being charmingly satirical, but her face tells me that I've gone too far.
"Ellie," she says sternly, "You are alive. That is a quality that most of the human race has been forced to forfeit. You should try showing your respect for their sacrifice instead of mocking it. Gratitude, loyalty, and commitment to your duty are the best way to do this."
She hit the nail on the head there. I am alive. In fact, my whole purpose on this ship is to be alive. I am the product of an entire world's hero complex, one of humanity's little repopulation beans. Just plant me, water me, throw me in a suffocating metal box, and let me thrriiiivvveeee.
"You understand, Elliott," she adjusts her body in her chair, "that you'll be ninety-three by the time this ship lands. Chances are that you won't even be alive to see the new planet."
"I'm very healthy," I say, "I've never missed a vitamin."
"Well maybe it would be a good idea if we focused on the life and duty that we have here, instead of fantasizing about things that we probably won't get to experience. You're graduating soon, moving on to your advanced studies. And then, we hope, children."
Her face lights up at the word children. That's all I am to her--a seat saver for the real knights of humanity, the ones who actually get to land. My body is a vessel, just like this ship.
Earth wasn't perfect, by any means, the letter would have said. There was disease, pollution, war. People could be cruel. But, it had a pulse, Ellie. It was alive, and it had a pulse. I want you to remember that because I never could.
Having children was not legal anymore, at least not for people like us. The overpopulation problem had produced birth restrictions for all but the wealthiest and the most powerful.
Go on the mission, they said. Have your baby, they said. Help conquer the frontiers of space; be a hero for your species. It was a chance to not only have you but also make sure that you were safe and healthy and meaningful. Who could blame us for our choice?
Except you, of course.
When the opportunity to use anymore therapist terms runs dry, I am finally released. I make my way back to our living quarters contemplating how long someone could live outside of the airlock. It'd probably be only a few seconds, but I'd never have to sit through one of those sessions again. I decide it might be better to just throw the therapist out instead.
The truth is that it isn't her fault that she's been damaged into boringness. After all, I never lost my entire planet. Earth was never mine to lose.
When I walk into our apartment, I don't even notice that she isn't on the couch. It's the smell that hits me first, like metal. A second later, I see the blood. That's when someone immediately ushers me outside.
We lie to you because we don't have the guts to tell you what you really are, Ellie. You're a time-waster before the real mission can start.
In many years, your children will be the first to colonize the second home of the human race. But you will be dead. You're the unfortunate casualty of the incredible persistence of mankind. It's a very long trip after all, and someone needed to be the middleman.
You were our gold, Elliott. We were just too narrow-minded to realize that you'd be the cost too. Your happiness for ours--that was the deal.
Not so nice of a trick in the end, huh?
Eighteen years after I was born, my mother, how you say... died. Kaput. Adios. Sayonara. See ya later, alligator. Her death was classified as an accident, which seems odd considering the knife cut both of her wrists.
She was dead for four hours before a neighbor found her. She didn't leave a letter. At least that's what they told me, and there's no proof to say otherwise.
And, really, who am I to question these things anyway?
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 26th, 2014

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