Associate fiction editor Brenna Womer on today’s bonus story: There is discernible pleasure and vulnerability in Jamie Shrewsbury’s writing, which, in her short-short “Welcome Home,” is achingly simple, like the truth of two parallel lines, and resplendent with whimsy. The story highlights human inclinations toward hope and empathy and leaves the reader with the notion that, while there may not be protection in honoring passion, there is peace.
One of the parachutes landed in the lush, rolling hills of the English countryside. It was tiny. The blue and white logo contrasted against a field of creeping buttercups, which bowed to break the object’s fall. Attached to the parachute was a small metal box with a latched door on one side.
They were on holiday in Devon with their daughter Sophie at a nearby farm cottage. They enjoyed the quaintness of the countryside, the solitude of muted earth. Three-year-old Sophie could not control her timbre as she ran through endless fields with only the top of her head visible in a sea of green and yellow. She happened upon the scene of the flattened flowers with eager curiosity. Her tiny, jam-sticky hands lifted the box, shook it, and thrust it forward. She stood in awe as the parachute deployed and flew in the same direction of the wind, evoking her laughter and applause. When her parents called for her to retreat inside for the day, she took the box, too.
When asked about the origin of the box, Sophie could only answer that she found it in the flowers. Sophie’s mother spotted the latch and opened its door. This revealed a yellowed piece of paper, folded in half, with a hand-written letter inside. She called her husband into the room and read the letter aloud:
To Whomever This May Reach:
I accept the fact that there was a miscalculation made. It is rocket science, after all. Perhaps in some ways I consider myself extremely fortunate. Who else can view cosmic light reverberating in multiple dimensions whilst eating their breakfast? Send my family all the best.
-Commander A.T. White.
The mother could remember learning about the NASA organization in her United States History course at university. This was many years ago—and she vaguely recalled space missions and exploration. Names like Scott Kelly came to mind, but A.T. White was lost on her. With this, she activated her inner-chip:
SEARCH: Commander A.T. White
RESULTS: Commander Alexander Theodore White, Mission XT411, Lost in Orbit – All Transmissions Terminated, May 16, 2017.
“No,” she answered. She walked over to the window and looked out at the vast sky.
“Perhaps someone is playing an elaborate joke on us,” he said.
“Should we contact some sort of historian for verification? If it is real, it may be worth something,” she said, with her back still turned.
His muscles were beginning to atrophy now—the Interim Resistive Exercise Device had malfunctioned weeks before. There were fourteen vacuum-sealed metallic pouches remaining. He still attempted communication at least once a day, holding out hope that a new nearby satellite would pick up his signals. He spent most of his days staring at the void, wondering if his family was staring into it as well.
He promptly located pen and paper and began writing his first letter. This took him longer than usual, since his arm muscles were in a weakened state.
We have a problem. By my calculations, I’ve drifted farther into the darkness than any man has ever before. By the time this reaches you, I’ll be stardust. My faith is pushing me to send it anyway.
-Commander A.T. White.
He delicately folded the paper and placed it in the box. The vacuum port sucked it through a tube and out into space. He watched it drift away into the cosmos.
Useless machines surrounded him now: Wires, particle detectors, laboratories, ports and air-locked doors. The engine was still running. Microgravity whirled his body into fetal positions, and he fed on the oxygen that remained.
When only seven food pouches were left, he decided to write yet another letter.
Will I ever see your shades of green and yellow again? Your prodigious oceans? What do your poets know of loneliness? Please send help.
-Commander A.T. White.
It was all so futile now, all his years of training and study. He had no sympathy for himself. This was his dream, his religion. We began as universal particles, and we ended as such.
He composed his last letter with irrelevant calculations in mind. He wished he could shrink and shoot himself out of the ship and into the void. Would something he touched really make it back home to create his memorial centuries after his departure?
He pressed his bare hand on the cold window, and a tranquil air orbited his bones.
Jamie Shrewsbury lives in Ocean City, Maryland, and is a recent graduate from Salisbury University. She has previously been published in apt and decomP.