Brandilene watched the rockets arrive.
The first day of summer and the seasonal staff descended on the sterile cube that dangled in space. Captains and crews followed, towing fine fabrics and tacky trinkets to be weighed and measured and cataloged before being sent on their way, an elaborate assembly line conducted in a gleeful din.
The arrival like a cacophonous boardwalk was the most exciting thing to witness all year. And Brandilene should know. She and her parents were the only ones that never left. Full-time caretakers for a soulless place in a soulless void.
Outside, a homogenized line of vessels filed past. She counted each one. Through the window at the dock, a handsome face in a trading ship smiled at her.
Blushing, Brandilene scurried away to her hiding place in the wall. Because it was no more than a tiny cabinet, her parents never cleaned there, which made it the only place that felt like hers. With a rusted bobby pin, she etched a message into the steel: Brandilene was here.
That evening, the man appeared again, declaring goods to a pretty uniformed lady who asked him questions and giggled even before he answered.
“Age?” Another giggle.
“Thirty,” he said.
Same as Brandilene’s parents. Light years away for a five-year-old.
He leaned forward. “Have you ever seen the Outer Realm?”
“No,” the lady said, “I’ve only been to Earth.”
Brandilene envied them both. Born inside an empty eggshell, she’d never left the barren hallways, never dipped her toes in dirt. What was it like to breathe fresh air, to find someplace to call your own?
He must know. All summer, she peeked around corners as the far-flung stranger bartered his ship’s treasures.
August came, and one by one, the visitors departed.
At the dock, he turned back and grinned. “Will you watch me leave like you watched me arrive?”
It was the first time in three months he’d spoken to her.
Eyes downcast, Brandilene shrugged and kicked the floor. When she looked up again, he was gone.
The final ship every year shuttled the summer help back home. Brandilene stood at the window as the last sparks of life trickled from the station. Then she and her family were alone.
That winter, while her parents taught her to repair monitors and mop floors, Brandilene snuck glances at the sky and wondered where he was. When her chores were finished, and there was nothing else to do, she hid in the wall and dreamed. She imagined all the sights he beheld, all the lives he lived, all the ways his world was better than the vacant rest stop where ennui was her only playmate.
The summers bled together, new faces replacing the old. They all looked the same, and none looked like him.
As she waited, her legs stretched out, slowly at first and then in tiny bursts that happened overnight. When he returned, she nearly matched his height.
She was fifteen now. He was still thirty, incubated inside that steel womb, an immortal in her eyes.
Disembarking, he smiled at her. Smiled once. That was all. For the rest of summer, he passed her as if she was air outside his ship, scuttling along the vents.
Ten years for a smile. It was enough to buoy her through another decade.
She grew no more, but her face took on new dimensions. Thinner and older but glowing with keen wonderment. She no longer fit inside her hiding place, but she sometimes peeked her head into the cubbyhole just to check that her name was still there, covered in dust and otherwise forgotten.
Her parents groomed her to assume their place as caretaker. She would soon inherit a lifetime of scrubbing corners and inspecting monitors and waiting, always waiting. At least she was good at that.
When his ship boomeranged back, she was twenty-five. He never stopped being thirty. Thirty. A maddening number.
She lingered at the dock, eager he might notice how she’d changed.
And he did notice. All day and all night, he noticed. Brandilene had never slept inside a captain’s suite. It wasn’t what she expected, the cramped room with tissue paper walls hardly big enough to fit two.
“Do you remember me?” she asked him.
“Sure,” he said, but she knew he was lying. How could he remember a face that was so different each time he saw it?
In August, he departed, and Brandilene wished she could still hide in the wall. But she realized for the first time she couldn’t be like him. Always en route to another exotic locale, he wasn’t immortal. In his long sleep in a cool, white tube, he was forever hiding, trapped inside steel, a prisoner with clear windows instead of barred ones. Even when he got a taste of worlds beyond, he never remained somewhere long enough to savor the dirt beneath his boots. He had no home, and neither did she. Their lives were different and the same.
She was thirty-five when he returned next. Since they last parted, she had become the elder. Inside his suite, he held her close, but she just stared at the gray-tiled ceiling, thinking how strange it was to wear a dream you long ago outgrew.
“Come with me,” he said in August. “You could join the crew.”
Brandilene smiled. She could go with him and cheat aging. Even cheat the universe in a way. But she’d never sink her toes in the mud and belong there. She wouldn’t be immortal. She wouldn’t live at all.
She waved goodbye as he vanished into the sky.
On the last shuttle, Brandilene got a seat of her own. Before she left, she checked her message on the wall. It would be there long after she was not.
When the ship landed, Brandilene slipped off her shoes and walked across the earth. It felt warm beneath her feet.
It felt like home.
© Gwendolyn Kiste