Waking Up Normal
Mika asked once if it was just like waking up normal. I told her it was a lot like waking up but that I'd never known much about being normal. I'd crossed my eyes for that last part, hoping to get a laugh out of her. Instead, I'd gotten the look. It's the one I'm seeing more and more on recent homestands. The one that says—no matter how many chromosomes we share, no matter how much of me is her—she'll never get me.
Avoiding the look was the reason I'd lied to Mika in the first place, abandoning our principle tenant of parenthood in answering the question. Sasha and I believed in honesty—detailed honesty. This is sex. Your grandmother died; she's not going anywhere. We'd made a vow back when Mika was little more than a vague idea and a bulge beneath Sasha's t-shirt. Now she's something else entirely, and lies and jokes hold the possibility of smiles or laughter. The truth—and it seemed after all, the lies and the jokes—usually resulted in that look.
But how could I have explained that coming out of a cryo-sleep is a sensation all its own—equal parts the sharp panic of the unknown and the dull monotony of routine? What is panic to a four year old? Can a child really know routine when her father eases in and out of her life for years at a time? When Mika was giving me and my stupid joke the look, it was too late to tell her on a normal morning you don't wake up knowing some given portion of your life is now obsolete. On a normal morning, it hasn't been over a year since my last shave or solid meal.
I'm awake again and Mika's six, now. Now, she's eight. There's condensation beaded over the picture of her I have pinned in front of me—a reminder that parts of my life are out-of-date, not obsolete. I try to remember how old she really is. Twelve. Thirteen, maybe. I know it'll come eventually, that slowly it will all come back to me and I'll be able to recall information and walk easily through the ship on steady legs. For now, I stare at the picture of my daughter and wonder what she looks like.
In the picture, Mika's bleeding from a cut finger and Sasha's behind her, yelling for me to drop the camera and fix everything. The offending edge, the jagged metal lid of a tuna can, is on the ground between Mika's feet. She's six, smiling, and looking up at me; her reactions—like the photographer—a step behind her mother and the bloody finger. She's fourteen now, was almost thirteen when we left. I push at the door to my module. It opens with a hiss and I start my routine.
The company gives crewmembers an hour to gather themselves after waking from cryo-sleep. We're given the run of the ship and, with the exception of any activity that would cause damage to the ship or crew, the freedom to do as we please. Routine is encouraged. The company says the ability to latch onto a routine aids in coming out of the post-cryo-sleep haze. It's the repetition that's important, not the activities themselves. In training, they liken it to a basketball player's routine before taking a foul shot. It's an awfully hard foul that leaves a player feeling as dazed as I do stepping out of my module.
There's an engineer onboard who told me he jerks off right after he wakes up. Even on flight missions that are mostly spent in cryo-sleep, there's an excessively dull amount of down time and small talk. Comparing routines is standard practice. The engineer, Woodrell, does it right in his module; he keeps a clean-up rag and a bottle of moisturizer at his feet while he sleeps. He says it's to check his pipes, make sure everything's still in working order. He says after the long stints—the two or three year jumps—he's half-expecting a sputtering of dust. I told him I wasn't comfortable ejaculating before I was sure who the president was. Woodrell asked just what the hell the president had to do with it. I laughed and said I guess more than I liked to think.
My routine is simple. I take a shower, the water cold and bracing, and as I stand there I try to recreate the last time I said goodbye to Sasha and Mika. I try to remember all the little details, the clip in Mika's hair, the way Sasha doesn't cry when I leave anymore, but I can still see she'll miss me. From there, I build the world up around them, remembering what I left and imagining what will be there when I return.
There's a tech named Mercer sitting in the mess, staring at a bowl of cereal. Mercer's routine is to convince himself he's getting ready for the first day of high school. He's an awkward guy, tall and skinny, his body a mass of incongruous angles. He says when he comes out of the haze and realizes high school's over—that it's been over for him for a long time—the knot of nerves in his stomach slips away. He claims the feeling's so great he actually looks forward to cryo-sleep; I can't understand how anyone looks forward to losing big chunks of their lives one nap at a time.
"School's out," I say, sitting across from Mercer and pouring my own bowl of cereal. It's generic bran squares covered in cinnamon and kept fresh for us over the last year. Mercer doesn't answer, doesn't look up from his bowl.
"Are you all right?" I ask. Still nothing. He's not moving, not eating the cereal, just staring. "Mercer?"
He looks up suddenly, and I jump. It's the movement that gets me—the quickness of it, in the quiet mess—and at first I don't notice anything's wrong. Then I do notice and I can't take my eyes away.
Mercer's mouth bulges open, a fleshy yellow bulb where teeth, a tongue, and an opening should be. The polyp pulses, thick red veins visible just below its surface. It's big and presses Mercer's cheeks out so it looks like he's just had his wisdom teeth removed. As horrifying as it is, the bulge is the only thing about Mercer's face that looks alive. His eyes are vacant and his skin—pulled taut across those bulging cheeks—is gray and clammy.
"Mercer?" I say, again. But there's nothing from him. He's staring at me but there's no recognition in his eyes. There's nothing in his eyes. All there is, is the bulge and its pulsing. Blood starts to drip slowly from the corner of Mercer's mouth. I watch as it makes its way through his stubble, down his chin. Eventually, a drop falls and lands in the bowl of cereal. It's the last straw; I know I'll be sick if I don't finally look away.
The line of module doors from mine to Mercer's are all sealed shut. The hour is up. Our routines should be over, and we should be preparing for our return home. None of the doors should be closed. I rush to Woodrell's module, hoping to catch him wiping up with his clean-up rag, the awkwardness of it so much more preferable to what I know I'll find.
The window to his module is covered in yellow pulsing polyps. They're packed in, pressed firmly to the glass and obscuring my view of whatever is left of Woodrell. I reach for the latch but can't bring myself to open the door.
Then I lose it and double over, dry heaving. I retch, trying to force a year of nothing out of my body. I steady myself with my hand on the window of Woodrell's module but then I imagine I can feel the pulsing through the thick glass and quickly pull my hand away. That's when I notice at the end of the line, beside Mercer's module, is a third open door.
The ship's pilot, Hope Vincent, is loud and aggressive in a way that both comforts and agitates those around her. She and Woodrell once came to blows over an ice cream sandwich. Woodrell got a black eye; Vincent got a broken nose and an ice cream sandwich. After that, Woodrell said there wasn't anyone he'd rather have flying his bird. But Woodrell's probably dead now and when I reach the bridge Vincent's splayed on her back across the floor, wincing in pain. There's a collection of tiny yellow bulbs growing from her right eye and spreading towards her hairline. They dominate her small forehead like tiles on an awful mosaic.
"You're fine?" she says, startling me.
"I can't see them on you." The pain is right there, in her voice, and for a moment I can't say anything. There'd been a trail of liquid from Vincent's module to the bridge, though I hadn't needed to follow it to know where to find her. When I saw it was Vincent who'd made it out of her module I'd known exactly where she'd be. I can see the trail's source now, the burst husk of what had to have been a giant polyp on her wrist. The skin is ragged and drained. "You're fine."
"So far," I say. I look at myself for the first time since sitting across from Mercer. There's nothing on me. I'm disoriented and panicky but I'm fine. "I don't see any, yet."
"You'd feel them," she says. "Do you feel anything?"
"Shit hurts. You'd feel it," she says. "Sit. I need your help."
I step over Vincent and into the bridge, knowing there's nothing I can do in here to save her. I think of Mercer, probably still staring and bleeding in the mess and wonder if there'd been anything I could do to help him. According to the display, we're on schedule and will enter Earth's atmosphere in a little over two hours. There's another display I can pull up here, one that shows the location of each live crewmember onboard the ship. I don't pull up that display, dreading that Vincent's and mine are the only names that'll appear.
"Can you make it three hours?" I ask.
"Fuck three hours."
"We're not going back."
I close my eyes and try to go back to that moment saying goodbye to Mika and Sasha. Mika'd had music blasting in an earbud in one of her ears. I'd told her she needed both ears to hear me say goodbye. She'd given me the look. I couldn't blame her. Even I had no idea what I meant.
"You need to redirect us," Vincent says.
"Away. Far a-fucking-way."
"But I don't have it. I don't—"
"I don't feel anything. You said I'd feel it."
"I don't know what you feel but we aren't taking this back."
I stand without really knowing what I'm doing. I leave the cockpit untouched behind me. We're still heading home. The display ticks off the seconds as we hurtle towards Earth. The ship's designed and programmed to land itself, slowing as it enters the atmosphere and dives into the Atlantic. When we emerge the company will have a boat waiting for us. The boat will be full of doctors. Someone will know what to do.
"I'm sorry," I say, to Vincent maybe. She's weak and unable to climb into the cockpit and perform the manual overrides. She's weak and I underestimate her. As I step over her, trying to make my way out of the bridge, she grabs my legs and pulls me down.
She claws at me, breathing heavy and crawling on top of me. I try to shove her off but I'm afraid to touch her. I'm afraid of the ragged skin at her wrist and the pulsing knot of her forehead. She's so close I can smell her or the polyps or whatever it is. The smell is rotten and sweet and has me dry-heaving all over again. Vincent coughs a hacking destructive cough. In a strange show of manners she does it into the shoulder of her flight-suit and I find myself thankful for that.
"I can't fix this," I yell.
"It's not about fixing anymore."
"Someone there can help."
"No," she says, pulling her head back and slamming it down into my face. I feel it all give in at once, as her forehead makes contact. My nose gives in with a sickening crunch. The mass on her forehead gives in, releasing its liquid and sweet rotting smell. My world gives in as the blood and the liquid soak my face.
"Don't take this home," Vincent says, going limp on top of me.
I push her off and struggle to my feet. The gory mess drips from my face and my vision doubles. I struggle with what to do next, unable to think straight. In these kinds of situations I've been trained to do one thing and I cling to it, searching for some kind of order in all this wreckage.
The shower water hits me cold and bracing and I try to recreate that last time saying goodbye to Mika and Sasha. I'm heading home to them, bringing all of this with me. I stop myself before I can imagine the world I will arrive to. Instead, I spend the rest of my journey in the cold water searching for something growing just below the surface, waiting for it to hurt.