Objects in Space

There are certain things that Abigail thinks about. Pins through the roadmap of her brain where her thoughts stop and rest and then cycle back around: 

gravity

the theory of relativity

pie crust

aliens

the heat-death of the universe

the Midwest

*     *     *

Eighteen years. The entirety of a lifespan. That’s how long Abigail has lived in the fifth-floor walk-up with her mother and older brother, Ben. A two-room apartment with a tiny kitchen that doubles as a living room, and a bathroom so cramped she can almost touch opposite walls just by stretching out her arms. Outside isn’t much better, the roads choked with cars and the sidewalks so pressed with bodies that it’s like an algal bloom: a red tide, that can blanket an entire coastal line with organisms. Getting caught up in the wave of bodies is inevitable, swarming behavior, like gravity, pulled towards center mass.

All these people, and none of them, are people that she really knows, not even in passing; no familiar face on the subway. None of them are her friends, friends like she’s only seen on TV and movies, hide-the-body friends or slay-the-evil-creature-together friends or attached-at-the-hip-and-share-a-brain friends. None of them are her father who disappeared when she was six. All these people, their elbows by her elbows, their knees by her knees, and sometimes she doesn’t even recognize them as being the same species. 

She imagines, in the Midwest, she can spin circles in the street and never touch another person—exponentially less people per capita. She imagines the Midwest as a sort of vastness, and in all that vastness are occasional pockets of civilization. Farms with livestock. Small towns where everyone knows everybody, with a street of shops, maybe one movie theater, and no real mall. A diner off the highway or in the middle of town with red plastic seats, waitresses in blue smock uniforms, a jukebox, and an overweight chef with sweat stains named Joe for Joe’s Diner who barks ORDER UP and has a gimlet stare. 

Or maybe what she’s thinking of is the 1950s.

Kansas or Wisconsin or Iowa or Minnesota. She imagines roads that stretch for eternity like the space between stars. She imagines dirt roads that go off into the wilderness. She imagines empty roads with no cars for miles but hers, a lonely dot of movement that could be seen from satellite, and two green seas of grass or corn or cotton on either side of her.

Four weeks before she’s supposed to start at City College, Ben moves home from Buffalo with a degree in communications and almost three years of bank work under his belt. He decides he wants to sell his piece of shit car.

Abigail thinks about adding about a quarter teaspoon more salt in her pie crust for Ben’s welcome home chocolate-pretzel pie.

She thinks about quitting her job.

She thinks about going to see a show at the Rose Center during the weekend.

She thinks about buying Ben’s piece of shit car.

*     *     *

Abigail was six when her father disappeared, but before that, earlier in that particular evening, her family went to the movies. They saw an old black-and-white sci-fi flick that featured aliens abducting people from a small town to presumably probe, experiment, and do other unspeakable things to them, but in an exciting third act twist, it was revealed that the aliens were actually taking people away from unfortunate situations and giving them a better life. 

What Abigail remembers from that night in high-definition snapshot is her brother buying his own ticket for the first time with money their parents had slipped him and him being immensely proud, scrawny chest puffing out whenever a theater worker passed, and walking five steps ahead and to left of the rest of the family. She remembers throwing popcorn at her father’s face, trying to get it between the open white lines of his teeth, her horrible aim ending up with her bringing small fingers, covered in oil and salt, straight to her father’s lips so he could have his first bite of popcorn from the lower half of the bag. She remembers catching her brother eating blue pop rocks and drinking soda at the same time and starting to cry because Ben had told her once that mixing pop rocks and soda could cause your stomach to explode and she was convinced that Ben was going to die. She remembers her mother pulling her into her lap to calm her down, the loud hushing from the rest of the theater, her father’s laughter.

When she woke up, her mother’s eyes were red and her face was tinged gray like she’d been transformed into one of the black-and-white characters from the film they’d seen earlier, and Abigail was told that her father was gone.

She remembers the four of them standing outside the theater after the movie ended, bright lights of the marquee contrasting with the darkness of the night. Trying to look up at the stars, she wondered if she could make out a falling star and maybe that falling star would actually be a spaceship, but only seeing dim pinpricks, flickering like a lightbulb just about to burn out.

She remembers her mother said, “You can’t see the stars from here. Too much light pollution. You have to go somewhere remote.”

“Like Antarctica,” said Ben, “but then you’d probably be eaten by polar bears.”

“Wrong end of the earth,” said her father. “Only penguins there. And you don’t have to go so far to see stars. There’re planetariums or driving upstate or outside the city. Some place with less people, and then you’ll truly see the sky.”

Her father wandered off then, looking for a better spot to stargaze.

Ben turned to her and said, “Dad was just being nice. The only thing polar bears like to eat more than penguins are babies like you.”

Abigail doesn’t remember much after that because she fell asleep in her mother’s arms and had a particularly vivid dream about running through snow while polar bears massacred a colony of penguins on either side of her while the sky shined and shined and shined.

When she woke up, her mother’s eyes were red and her face was tinged gray like she’d been transformed into one of the black-and-white characters from the film they’d seen earlier, and Abigail was told that her father was gone.

“Gone?”

“Disappeared,” said her mother. “We’re going to go look for him around the neighborhood. But if he doesn’t turn up, he’ll be declared missing.” She left to go talk with a group of men and women that Abigail recognized from passing in their apartment building. 

Abigail turned to Ben who was sitting on the opposite bed in their shared bedroom. His face was blotchy and red. His mouth was a crooked, downturned line.

“Gone?”

“He was abducted by aliens,” said Ben. “We’re never going to see him again.”

“Oh.” Abigail thought about the movie. “I wished they’d taken us too.”

Ben reached across their small room, grabbed her wrist tight, and said, “No, you don’t.”

“No, I don’t,” said Abigail.

*     *     *

She takes the subway to the city and watches a space show at the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space. 

Today, the instructor narrates an extrapolation of what the universe might look like, the sheer magnitude of space and quantity of cosmic phenomena incomprehensible to Abigail’s brain. He talks about black holes and gravity. He talks about the theory of relativity and time. He talks about the expansion of the universe and the way everything moves, orbits and rotations.

“Everything has spin,” the instructor says, “it’s the physics of the thing. It has to move, or it can’t exist.”

Abigail shivers all over. The instructor’s words vibrating in her shoulder blades and stomach, the tendons in her hands and the nerves in her feet. Almost in reflex, her body wants to move, wants to shift, shakes in anticipation of possibility. She wants to spin.

During the subway trip home, the amorphous pinpricks of her thoughts coalesce into something substantial. She can pull out of school; she hasn’t even paid tuition yet. She has savings from two years of working as many as hours as she possibly could. Her brother is selling his car for a low price because it’s honestly terrible. Her mother has always subscribed to a hands-off policy of parenting and a firm belief in “finding one’s self.” As Abigail’s body pulls from side to side, her hands gripping the metal pole rotating with each start and stop of the train, she decides to move to the Midwest.

*     *     *

She plots her initial course on colorful maps that open up and expand and expand.

She goes from New York to Pennsylvania to West Virginia. Once she navigates past Kentucky, she takes a hardline as straight west as she can manage. She goes through Kansas, marvels at the flatness of it, the grasslands, all the fields of green and gold wheat that seem to sway in time with the rotation of the earth, winter wheat being harvested, spring wheat still growing. Then she hooks right and curves up into South Dakota. She visits Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, stares for a long time at the unsmiling stone faces, and she likes the way the stars glitter through the trees. She drives down Highway 16, somewhere between Mount Rushmore and Rapid City, pulls into a small town and finds Rocks Fall Diner.

*     *     *

The seats are not red plastic. They’re wooden with dark blue cushioning. The waitress is actually a waiter, who introduces himself as Jim, and has no uniform except for a black apron with front pockets. “Better to hide stains and have easy access to necessary items,” says Jim when he catches her looking. The food is delicious and the scenery is beautiful and the people seem nice. Jim seems nice.

The diner is populated despite being positioned in the middle of nowhere. Abigail is remarkably curious about it. 

“We have a few regulars,” says Jim. He rocks back on the heels of his boots, thumbs in the pockets of his beat-up jeans. He looks about forty and squints through his glasses. “But we mostly serve tourists. People driving between the monument and Rapid City. Commuters.” 

The diner itself is the ground level of a compact, three-story building. Outside, there is a sign that says VACANCY in LED lights like a motel, the NO is extinguished, which is one of the reasons Abigail stopped there in the first place. The inside has wide windows, a row of booths, a handful of tables, a counter with stools, a kitchen where Abigail can hear a griddle sizzling, and a jukebox. Tacked onto the walls are framed yellowed newspapers that headline articles about mining accidents and old historical photos of the town, of the outside of mines, of dirt-covered miners looking stoic and worn.

“What’s with the décor?” asks Abigail.

“We used to be a mining town,” says Jim. “Basically a ghost town now, sells well with the tourists. This is my place, this diner. It’s a struggle now and then, but it’s good overall. Tourists like the eeriness of this place.” He waves at the walls. “Like looking at the dead.”

Abigail likes it too. Something settles in her blood, stardust in her bones seeping back into the dirt, and she decides to rent a room and get a job.

*     *     *

Mondays are cherry pie. Tuesdays are pecan. Then blueberry, boysenberry, peach, apple, and chocolate chip. Abigail makes pie crust in bulk and then moves on to a few different kinds of cookie dough. It goes pretty well and soon Abigail has been at Rocks Fall for eight months. 

Abigail takes up running, weaving through decaying houses, along dirt roads, past DANGER and BEWARE signs near the mines. She knows that gravity is the reason that she doesn’t float off the face of the earth. That it’s the force demonstrated by how two particles pull together, that it helped shape the universe. It’s a big deal; no getting around it. But sometimes, when she’s running, feet to ground, Abigail feels like there’s some other force different than gravity pulling on her body. When her feet hit the earth, Earth pushes back, and almost for a moment, with each stride she takes, Abigail can almost fly. Gravity is still there, keeping her tied down, but maybe there’s something else there too, from the earth, or maybe even from Abigail herself. Maybe some humans have their own force that pushes them away from center mass.

Maybe Abigail thinks too much.

But it’s usually during one of her runs when Ben calls her, or she calls Ben. They talk about the diner, Ben’s job at a local radio station, how their mom is doing, what the weather is like, what movie or television show they’ve seen. They talk at least twice a week, just to chat, and Abigail has never been so close with her brother. When she asks Ben about why he seems so different towards her now, Ben tells her it’s because three years of bank work traumatized him to where he had nightmares about getting stuck in a vault and dying alone and it forced him to sort out his priorities. Abigail being one of them.

“Is that a lie?” Abigail asks. “Because I can never tell when you’re lying. I believed Dad was abducted by aliens until I was ten and that Mr. Rogers was a Navy SEAL and had tattoos underneath his sweaters until last year.”

“Not a lie,” Ben says, a warmth to his voice. “I realized I wasn’t always the best brother, and I don’t want to look back at my life and wonder if maybe we could have been friends.”

“You should come visit me,” says Abigail. “I’ll take you stargazing. There’s not that much light pollution where I am. The view is amazing. We can identify constellations together.”

“You’re so freaking weird,” says Ben, a familiar refrain. But there’s laughter in his words and he doesn’t say no.

*     *     *

There is a customer in the last booth in the right corner. He has a receding hairline around his widow’s peak, curly gray hair, an oily face, and thin lips. He’s wearing a peach colored polo shirt and khaki pants. When Abigail greets him, his washed-out brown eyes lift slowly to her, stare, until he finally says, “Coffee and a slice of apple pie.” 

Usually, Abigail would try to make conversation with her customers, but not this one. His gaze burrows into her back, and he stays in that booth downing cups of coffee and eating his weight in pie until closing, looking like he’s at the verge of some sort of action, but never quite pushing past his inherent inertia. Abigail would try to have someone else serve him, but Jim’s been out with a cold for the past few days and there’s no one else.

She doesn’t feel unsafe, per se, with this customer, but she feels uneasy.

She brings the pie and the coffee over to the customer and lingers a moment to say, “Anything else I can get for you?”

When there’s only silence, Abigail turns to leave, but then feels the touch of fingertips resting softly on the top of her forearm, almost as if the individual grooves of the customer’s fingerprints catch against the cotton of Abigail’s shirtsleeve.

“Just the check, please,” says the customer.

Heat rushes up to her face, down her back and legs, and underneath her arms at her confusion. She thought he was going to say something different. She doesn’t know why. She tries very hard to move her arm away, but her brain can’t seem to connect with her body.

“Is everything okay, miss?” says the customer. 

You were old, then, she thinks. You look different than the photos. You’re supposed to be orbiting a different star with space aliens, she almost says, even though she realized a long time ago that gone meant left. She wonders if her eyes are tearing up, but she doesn’t quite know, can’t quite feel, whether it’s happening or not. Abigail is separating from her body.

Einstein has a quote that goes like this: “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”

Relativity is the moments of running that feel like over-too-soon dances in the rain, the eyeblink between nightfall and sunrise when she’s mapping the skies. Relativity is the minute it’s been since she’s met Jim and worked at Rocks Fall. Relativity is the geologic age that passed between Abigail falling asleep and waking up with her father gone—all rough new terrain, outer crust still cooling, and the next evolution of her family’s species, reshaped to something foreign beside her. Relativity is the bubble of infinity she exists in now, Earth pushing up on her feet to make her fly, gravity pulling down on her shoulders to keep her tethered, some man in front of her, the closest they will ever be from this moment on, but never able to make connection.

She falls back into her body and realizes that she doesn’t actually recognize the face before her. The eye color, she thinks, is different.

“I’m sorry?” says the customer.

“It’s okay,” says Abigail. She goes to get him the check.

*     *     *

Ben comes to visit three weeks later. He strolls into the diner with begging words about Wi-Fi on his lips, and without hesitation Jim says, “Wi-Fi? What’s that?” with the same curl of humor that probably urged him to the name the diner Rocks Fall in the first place. Abigail drags Ben upstairs before he can begin to cry and gives him her Wi-Fi password before pulling his phone out of his hands and signing them both up for a mine tour. That night, she takes him to the roof and plays a movie on her laptop, eating pizza, watching an open sky with stars so visible that they overlap one another, unable to tell the difference between a star that’s close and a star whose light is only arriving but has been dead for years, and they consume three different types of pie. She and Ben are bundled close under multiple blankets and pillows, everything positioned so they can still see the screen, and Abigail lets her body be pulled toward center mass.

Emily Davis lives and writes in South Carolina. She earned her MFA from USC Columbia where she also works as a first-year English instructor.