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Space Tears

Lora Kilpatrick lives in Oklahoma where she runs a violin studio. When she's not playing violin, reading, writing, or tending chickens, you can find her a couple thousand feet in the air flying vintage tailwheel airplanes.

Atomic explosions are beautiful from outer space. There's a bright, searing flash then a bulbous growth of angry clouds that flatten out like Portobello mushrooms.
I watch from a tiny window in the deserted storage bay. Children aren't allowed on the observation deck, including teenagers like me. The psychiatrists say watching the destruction of our planet will warp our fragile minds.
We've stopped spinning so the adults can watch the world burn uninterrupted, which means the artificial gravity is off. My butt stays glued to the bench thanks to some strong magnets, but my head still twirls. I've never been high before, not that I would call this state high. With all the drugs in my system, I thought I would at least feel a glimmer of euphoria. But I'm as detached as this station floating two hundred miles above the earth.
I don't hear the boy come up behind me until his magnets click onto the bench. I'm too subdued to be surprised.
"Rebecca," he says in greeting.
"Li Jun," I coolly reply.
I've never talked to him--I've been forbidden. When there are only two teenagers on a space station filled with adults and children, you tend to notice each other. It's unnerving to see the enemy here, but the corporation that funded this station doesn't care who we are as long as we can pay the ticket price. We're well represented: America, China, Russia, all pretending we're not rooting for sides and keeping score.
Li Jun doesn't look like the son of China's richest mogul. He's lanky, quiet, forgettable, with an old-fashioned pair of round-rimmed glasses always sliding down his nose.
In the darkness of night, North America is only discernable by the clusters of lights marking the biggest cities. New York, D.C., Atlanta. One by one they blink out, followed by the flash of the bombs detonating and the rising of scarlet clouds that slowly fade like embers into blackness.
Another explosion. Dallas, gone in a second. The blast has probably reached my father's oil fields. Our ranch house is crumbling into a pile of rubble. Flames engulf the tangled fields of wildflowers. My friends are vaporized, barely a gasp parting their lips. And my horses, Anteros and Apollo? Did they race to the western horizon? Nostrils flaring, blood boiling. One turn, one last look. A cloud of destruction mirrored in their glassy eyes and then....
I should have listened to daddy and put them down before we left. I had hoped all this hysteria was for nothing.
Thanks to the sedatives, I only feel a strange disappointment, as if I were watching a B-rated movie. The doctors mandated everyone under eighteen be drugged up over the next couple days so we don't dwell on the fact that everyone we know is dying.
"There is no need to worry," Li Jun says in English so perfect I cringe. "It will be quick."
I scoff. "My father says we will win the war."
"My father says we will win the war."
"We have bigger bombs."
"We have more advanced ones."
We don't speak again until North America rotates away. "Ah!" I point to a new flash. "I think that's Beijing."
He gives a hiccup of a gasp and his chest shutters as all of China lights up in a display of fireworks. And then the next thing I know, he's crying. At least I think he's crying. Space tears aren't exactly like earth tears. Liquid just pools up along the edges of his nose until little blobs come loose and float away.
I stare, horrified.
"You didn't take the sedatives?"
"I did. Then I spit them out after I left the infirmary. I wanted to... remember."
He hugs his knees to his chest, takes off those silly glasses, and dissolves into a full-fledged breakdown. Suddenly we're surrounded by droplets of tears, hovering in the zero-g like confused little raindrops. I watch, as in awe of him as I am the light show outside the window.
"My dog," he sobs, his head tucked into the little cave of his legs and chest. "I know everyone is dying, but I keep thinking about my dog."
His voice goes shrill at the end, like he's angry at himself. The world is dying and he's crying over a stupid pet.
"I keep thinking about my horses," I admit.
His tear-stained face pops up, forehead creases as if he's on the verge of asking me something. Then, seeing my uncontrollable look of utter boredom, his lips pull up in an embarrassed smile. "I'm sorry. I didn't come here to cry."
Ah, that's it. He's remembered my emotions are momentarily out of commission. I'm incapable of empathy. A few steps above a zombie. But as I poke one of his tear bubbles, I do feel something. Jealousy.
"I wish I could cry."
"It feels kind of funny."
"I can't wait," I say flatly.
"It will come. You'll have plenty of time to cry."
Plenty of time. Yeah. I've heard the scientists whispering too. Talk of nuclear winters that could delay return for decades. Long enough to know I may never go back. They're already discussing manipulating our DNA so our offspring can adapt to life in space. There's talk of wiping the adolescents' memories of earth so we won't go insane.
Wipe away Anteros and Apollo. The soft nuzzle of their noses. Galloping through the plains with the wind in your hair.
Maybe it's the drugs acting. Maybe I'm ravenous to feel something. Before I can tell myself no, I reach for Li Jun and pull him into a hug. He crumbles against me, one hand crushing my shoulder. My head fits snuggly into the space between his shoulders and head.
When the medicines wear off, I might regret this. I might avoid him for weeks. But for now, we lean against each other, surrounded by twinkling droplets, watching hundreds of supernova mushrooms blossom over the earth, waiting for tears.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, February 7th, 2020
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