It was a perfect day for making memories. The poppies were in full bloom, rippling waves of blossoms that stretched to the horizon. A cheery sea of orange met a dome of pristine blue, just shy of infinity. Marissa trailed her fingers over the papery petals. A fragrant breeze teased her hair, long curls streamed in a blonde banner. Breathing deep, she drank it all in. She twirled and her black dress flared around her knees. She frowned.
Marissa spun again. Plum colored skirts swished against her ankles. Better. Zander loved purple. He said it was the color of dreams. R's were still hard for him — it came out as ‘dweams.’ A smile tugged her lips at the thought. Where was he? She made a show of searching, scanning the field with deliberate exaggeration. To her left she heard the chime of childish laughter. The tinkling harmony wafted through the air as a chubby toddler peered up at her, hidden amongst the flowers.
“A-ha! Gotcha!” Marissa raised her arms up over her head, waggling fingers. “I’m going to get you… Eat you all up!”
Zander squealed and fled, his dimpled knees pumping with effort. She stomped after him, as he zigzagged across the field. Marissa darted forward, snatched him up, and together they collapsed in a giggling, gasping, tangle of limbs and crushed flower petals.
Cheeks pink, the boy struggled to catch his breath. Wheezing. Something tickled the edge of Marissa’s mind. It clung, like walking through a spider web in the dark. She shivered and clutched her son in her arms.
Zander squirmed. “Ouch! Mommy, you’re squeezing me.”
The spider webs burned away, forgotten. “I’m sorry baby. I just love you so much.”
Marissa stretched onto her back, her bright hair fanned behind her across the grass. She pulled Zander close, smoothing down the cowlicks in his own dark hair — just like his father’s. Together mother and son stared up into a vast expanse of clear sky.
“Look at that cloud! It looks like a pony.” She pointed up at the cotton candy shapes that marched along in an airborne parade.
Zander gave her a serious look. “Oh no, Mommy. That’s a zebra. They had stripes.”
Marissa smiled as her son launched into an animated lecture on Old Earth animals. It was the kind of afternoon she wished would last forever.
Desi hesitated then pressed the keypad. The bulkhead slid open with a whir, and he sighed as he glanced around the cabin. It was all too tidy for a toddler’s bedroom. Toys were ordered in neat rows, clothes folded, bed made. There was a feeling, from the wardrobe to the teddy bears, that everything held its breath.
Marissa scrunched up on the narrow bunk, curls strewn across the pillow in a golden halo. She hadn’t changed out of the black dress she’d worn for the funeral. Desi cursed under his breath. She was plugged into the Virtual Reality Simulator.
“Computer. Display VR 1 on screen.” The wall panel shimmered. Wife and son — in miniature — romped across a field of orange flowers. His heart lurched as he watched. “End simulation.” His voice cracked and he swallowed hard.
Marissa’s eyes snapped open. She fixed an empty gaze upon her husband.
“Sweetheart!” He gestured to the screen. “This isn’t healthy.” Desi studied his wife’s blank face, desperate for a reaction. He wished she would scream or cry. Anything was better than the apathy. “I need you here — in the real world.”
For a long moment, Marissa continued to stare. When she spoke, her voice sounded wooden.
“You have a smudge on your uniform jacket.”
Desi glanced down.
Marissa had refused to watch as a stiff-backed ensign jettisoned the small coffin out the airlock. She had buried her face in Desi’s shoulder, unwilling to see their only child drift away, lost in the multitude of stars outside the viewport. He’d clenched his jaw and held her, struggling to remain stoic.
With a shake of his head, Desi banished the memory and looked down at his wife perched on the edge of Zander’s bunk. Unsaid words hovered between them, thickening into a tangible presence. Resentment burned in his chest. Ashamed, he struggled to squash it, but it rankled — checking out was a luxury he couldn't afford. Shedding his layers of self-discipline in front of the crew was unacceptable but protocol and procedure suffocated. It was supposed to be different in private. With her. Why did he always have to be the strong one?
Marissa stood, breaking the silence. “Give it to me. It’s going to stain.” She held out her hand. It was the most she'd said to him in days.
Desi shrugged out of his coat, but when she reached for it, he didn’t let go. For a long moment brown eyes bore into hazel, unblinking statues connected by a bridge of fabric.
Desi took a breath then opened his mouth to speak. His wife tugged the jacket out of his hand and left the room. He wasn’t sure which felt more alone — her absence or her company.
Marissa curled into a chair in the empty cabin. She glanced down as she tucked her feet under her, noticing the wrinkles in her trousers. A lifetime ago, such untidiness would have annoyed her, but she didn't have the energy to care anymore. She breathed in the quiet. Privacy on an exploratory vessel was the privilege of the Captain's family.
Shaking hands massaged her temples. She could feel a migraine coming on, stabbing behind her eyes, like fanged vipers trying to escape her brain. It happened all too frequently. Maybe she should schedule a health scan.
As if summoned by the thought, disjointed images flashed through her mind. White sheets. Pale skin. Wires and breathing tubes. Who was in Sickbay? A tickle of pins and needles scampered down her spine. Someone from the Science team? Engineering? She scrubbed sweaty palms on her pants as she wracked her brain.
Pain muddled her thoughts, making it hard to focus. Like a half-remembered dream, snatches of conversation drifted to the surface. Desi speaking to the doctor, his voice grave. Something about failing lungs and a high risk nanobot surgery.
Marissa's stomach clenched. No one was dying. Someone had died. She remembered going to the funeral. A cycle ago? A full rotation? She balled her fists against her eyes and tried to block out the fractured memory. Trying to make sense through the ache in her head was nauseating. She needed an escape, a distraction. Perhaps she'd take Zander to the zoo. He loved the novelty of the virtual creatures — extinct but not forgotten. It would be fun.
She reached behind her ear and thumbed on her data jack. Sinking into the simulation, she sighed as the room dissolved.
An alarm chimed from the console at Desi's left. Bold letters marched across the screen, “VR 1: Engaged.” He stifled a groan.
He’d spent eight cycles watching Marissa retreat deeper into the fantasy. The crew was starting to whisper in the corridors — “Capt’n’s wife spends more time jacked in, than in reality”. He was losing her, and everyone knew it. A tangle of guilt and desperation warred with duty.
Face flushed, Desi slammed a fist against the wall, the steel scraping his knuckles. Rage was easier than grief. Wasn’t it enough he’d lost a child? Did he have to lose her as well?
He stiffened his spine; it was time he put a stop to it.
“Computer. Delete and purge Zander Reyes from all virtual reality simulations.”
The cool, serene voice of the AI echoed in the silent bay. “Warning. Data is irretrievable after purging. Authorization required.”
Desi faltered, heart thumping hollow in his chest. He prayed he was doing the right thing. They’d have the hologram stills and their memories. It would have to be enough. Cradling his bleeding hand, he took a deep breath.
“Authorization: Captain Desmond Reyes, code 4726.”
The park was a riot of noise as Marissa hurried through the crowd. At the merry-go-round she searched each face that spun by. Whooping children clung to their rainbow-hued steeds, filling the air with squeals of laughter.
“Mommy! Look at me!” A chubby hand fluttered from atop a golden-maned unicorn. Disappointment thrummed through her when a plump, redheaded woman leaning against the fence waved back.
The hot sand scorched her bare feet. A seagull squawked, its cry fueling her sense of urgency. At the edge of the surf, a brown-haired toddler tottered in the surf collecting shells. A sudden wave toppled him. Marissa hurried forward, but a stranger swooped in and gathered the soggy, sandy child into his arms. The boy blew raspberries at her over the man’s shoulder. Blue eyes, not brown. Her knees trembled.
A gust rippled across the poppies, making them bob and dance. Marissa scanned in a slow circle, searching for what wasn’t there. The silence pressed down, oppressive. Storm clouds roiled in the distance, black and grey stallions thundering across the sky. Reality loomed, a dark threat smudging the horizon.
Not here. Zander would never be here again.
The wind stole her breath, whipped her hair in her eyes. A flash of lightning silhouetted her, casting a long, gnarled shadow across the ground. Hands twisted in the hem of her blouse, and she sank to her knees as rain lashed her face. A howl ripped from her throat, joining the fury of the storm. They raged in concert for an eternity.
The tempest stilled, holding its breath. The downpour became a drizzle, thunder faded to a muffled roar. A bubble of calm grew, holding back the turbulence. Marissa lifted her head and glanced around with red rimmed eyes.
In the eye of the hurricane the poppies had all turned purple.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: MM Schreier (website / Twitter / Facebook) is a classically trained vocalist who took up writing as therapy for a mid-life crisis. Whether contemporary or speculative fiction, favorite stories are rich in sensory details and weird twists. A firm believer that people are not always exclusively right- or left-brained, in addition to creative pursuits Schreier manages a robotics company and tutors maths and science to at-risk youth.