"What do you mean, she said she wasn’t coming?"
Caitlin tried to keep her voice level and hold back the sob. She was over-wrought, that was all. Wedding nerves. It had been such a whirlwind, so unexpected…and there had been so much guilt about leaving everyone. Why me, she thought? Why did I have to fall for a deep-spacer? They shouldn’t let them out on shore leave around normal people, especially the young, handsome ones like Jon!
‘Local Girl Heads for the Stars’ the headlines in the Townsville Gazette had read. Of course, Jon was originally a local boy, too. He had taken her with him to visit his parents and his older sister in the Townsville cemetery. Some of the people he’d grown up and gone to school with were in there, too. But the newspaper had simply referred to him as ‘from the starship Pathfinder’. The crew of the Pathfinder was his family now, of course, as he had explained to her carefully. As they would become her family, in time…
Caitlin forced her mind away from thoughts of leaving Earth. All the girls in town were mad with envy and she was marrying the man of her dreams. She should be happy. She gave a last sniff, and dabbed at her cheeks with the edge of her veil.
"I don’t understand, Mum. Why wouldn’t Nana come to the wedding?" she asked.
"I don’t know, sweetheart. She wouldn’t give me a reason. She’s a frail old lady, and she’s been getting worse again lately. Perhaps she just didn’t feel up to it," Mrs. Reives said with a sigh.
But it’s the last time I’ll ever see her, Caitlin wanted to scream. She didn’t though. The decision had been made, and her family had chosen to support her in it, but that didn’t mean the subject was any less tender.
"Come on Catie, everyone’s waiting," said her mother.
Caitlin nodded. She could hear the sounds of whispered conversation and shuffling feet out in the nave, and no doubt Jon was glancing at his watch. There was no time to try and change her grandmother’s mind, no time at all to spare at this end of the voyage. Pathfinder was leaving Earth in twenty-two hours, and Caitlin and Jon would have to catch a hypersonic plane, and then a semi-ballistic to get from Townsville to Florida.
Caitlin’s mother and her aunt hustled her out of the vestry, out the side door of the church and round to the main entrance, where her father waited. As she began the long march up the aisle on his arm Caitlin felt lost and confused. But when she looked up toward the altar and saw Jon standing there, nervous as a cat in his splendid dress uniform, with the ribbons of three deep space voyages gleaming on his breast, she was able to meet his smile with one of her own, and she knew she was doing the right thing. There could never be another love like this. Never.
At last the words were spoken, the rings exchanged. Jon put back the veil and held her face between his palms as he leaned down to taste her lips. It was a perfect kiss, soft, deep and resonant.
But at the short reception Caitlin had to confront once and for all the finality of her choice. Be strong, she told herself, it will just be harder on everyone if you turn into a sobbing mess. And she was strong, somehow. But once she and Jon were in the taxi on the way to the airport, she knew there was one more thing she had to do.
"Jon, I have to say goodbye to Nana. Please, lets stop at the nursing home; it’s almost on the way. Just for a few minutes."
Jon hesitated, looking worried.
"I promise it will only be a few minutes. Just to give her a hug and tell her I love her one last time. Please darling. I’ve been her favorite grandchild all my life; she’s spoiled me rotten. I can’t go without one last goodbye."
They piled out of the taxi in front of the nursing home, and Jon gave the cabbie a twenty to wait. Then Caitlin grabbed his hand and all but dragged him across the lawn, past the hibiscus and the bird of paradise and the palm trees, toward the reception area. It was a tranquil place, with low bungalows of gray brick and worn river pebbles merging into an artfully overgrown garden, and their youth and energy seemed out of place there.
As they hurried through the door, the receptionist looked up with an expression of dismay.
"Oh, Miss Reives, we were just about to call your mother…."
Caitlin didn’t bother to correct the name.
"What is it?" she asked. "Is something wrong? Is Nana sick?"
"I’m so sorry…it happened about an hour ago…She slipped away in her sleep. Martha had just popped in to make sure she was all right. She’d been unusually quiet all morning, you see. Didn’t eat her breakfast, just sat there staring into the distance...I’m sure it was very peaceful. Would you like to see her? She’s in the chapel."
Caitlin felt a childish flash of repugnance. I don’t want to look at a dead body, she thought.
"I…I’d rather not, if that’s all right. I’d rather not remember her…that way. But would it be OK if I visited her unit?" Caitlin turned to her husband. "I know it’s impossible for us to stay for the funeral, but I’d like to take something of hers to remember her by. Something small…a photograph perhaps. She’d like that."
"All right. You go and pick something out," Jon said. "I’ll wait in the taxi. I’ll call ahead and make sure everything’s OK for our connecting flight. But do be quick, sweetheart." He dropped a quick, gentle kiss on her cheek and then went outside. Caitlin took the key from the receptionist and walked swiftly along the passage to her grandmother’s room.
She stood for a few moments in the doorway. The room was full of Nana’s presence. Her face smiled down from the walls and her subtle spicy perfume still clung to the furnishings. How could you leave me without a last goodbye, Caitlin cried in her heart.
She looked around the room, at the lifetime of memorabilia that covered the mantelpiece, the walls and the side-tables. She knew immediately which photographs she’d take. She went to the wall and lifted down a large picture in a narrow wooden frame. Nana and Grandpa smiled out at her from the studio portrait. It was an old picture, taken just before Grandpa’s death. Caitlin had never really known him, she had been too young when he died, but it was a good picture of her grandmother, and she liked Grandpa’s cheerful, ugly face.
The other photograph was even older, an enlargement of a snapshot taken when Nana was a girl, before she’d been diagnosed with the neuromuscular disease. Nana and a young man were holding hands and smiling into the camera, with a turquoise ocean and a white swirl of sea birds in the background. Caitlin had always liked that one. Great-aunt Mary had always told her she looked like her grandmother as a girl, and in this snap she could see it, despite the quaint clothing and the grainy texture of the print.
It struck Caitlin for the first time that the man had a look of John about him, in the way he stood and the way he held his head. That made her smile.
She knelt down on the carpet and turned the photograph over to remove it from the heavy silver frame. As the back of the casing came off she was surprised to find a folded piece of paper and another photograph, cut by hand into the shape of a heart.
A wave of dizziness washed over her as she picked it up. It was a close-up of Nana and the man in the beach photo, kissing, their faces in profile.
She picked up the piece of paper and tried to unfold it. It was old and brittle, and it tore a little in her clumsy hands.
It took her a while to make sense of the several lines of text at the top. Eventually she realized the paper was a printout of a message radioed back to Earth from the Pathfinder. Below the header was the message.
"My cruel, brave, beloved Ginny," she read with a pounding heart.
"We are almost out of range, and are all sending our final messages back to Earth. I wanted my last message to be to you, dearest. I almost managed to hate you, for letting me leave thinking you no longer cared. But however much we both suffer, I know you made the right decision. You’re right, the ship doesn’t have the facilities for treatment or research that exist on Earth. Your decision was the only one to make. There is nothing more to say, except I love you, I will always love you… now and forever.
Caitlin heard the opening of the door, and a firm tread muffled on the thick carpet, but she stayed where she was on the floor, knees hugged to her chest and her face buried in her arms. She heard the whisper of his clothes as he crossed the room, and felt his presence beside her, but still she made no movement. Let him wait, let him suffer. As she must have suffered, these past four weeks.
But the silence dragged on and on, until even Caitlin could bear it no longer. She raised her head.
"How could you, Jon?" she demanded, her voice rasping on a dry sob. "How could you? You promised to love her forever…"
But the bitter words died on her lips when she looked up at him. He was staring at the photographs and the printout lying on the carpet. The skin of his face was fresh and unlined, almost as it was in the photograph, but his eyes were old, as old as time, as she read the passing parade of shock, horror, pain and regret in them. Last of all, despair clouded their brilliant blueness.
"No…oh no!" he whispered, shaking his head.
Then he reached down and picked up the heart-shaped cut-out. He looked at it for a moment, then crushed it in his fist. "Why, Ginny?" he asked the air in the room, "Why have you come back to rob me of my happiness again?"
He dropped the crumpled photograph on the floor, turned on his heel, and walked out.
Tracey is a 38 year old biologist living in Australia. Her goal is to do less science and more fiction.
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