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Fiction: Red By Ekaterina Sedia

1.

Grandmother lingered in the doorway, the brown square of the family album cradled in her spotted arms. “Lena,” she called.

Lena turned, irritation setting her jaw. “Grandma. What?” She could do without the anxious small woman, her English heavily accented and reminding Lena of bleak weekends in her grandparents’ Brooklyn apartment. 

The old woman approached Lena in small mincing steps and offered the album on her extended arms, like a sacrifice. “You take,” she said. “You go away, you take all pictures with you. Like your grandfather and I did when we left Ukraine.”

“It’s not like that,” Lena said.

Grandmother shook her head, feeble yet vehement. “It is like that. Just like that. We didn’t know there would be a day when we can go back, so we took everything—and I cried and cried when I said farewell to my mama. I thought I could never return.”

“I know I can return. It’ll just be a while.”

“See?” The old woman smiled with her wrinkled lips. “Same as me.”

Lena sighed and took the album. “Thanks,” she said, hoping grandma would shut up now. It wasn’t at all like her grandmother’s harrowing escape from behind the iron curtain back in the eighties, Lena thought. There was always land and air and water, things one could not imagine oneself without. For her, it was just a spaceship and three men she spent the last month training with, and knowing that if anything failed, they would die. 

2.

Peter knew that there would be little sleep once they set out - too many things to do, too many menial tasks and buttons to push; he watches John flicking switches as if he knows what he’s doing. Everything is a chore.

Then there’s the noise. He thinks of the MRI they had to take before the fight, to make sure that none of the astronauts had any hidden tumors or problems, and - Peter suspected - to subject them to one more claustrophobic test. He prided himself at his quiet comfort inside the tube, when they turned it on and the machine shook and clanged, as if some small gremlin with a wrench was knocking on the outside of the tube. He had been sweating by the time they got him out.

There are plants they are growing in a greenhouse, and he checks on the hydroponics; he checks the water filtration system, he checks all the little lights and panels, and makes sure that the bulbs did not burn out anywhere. All this to distract himself.

In space, in zero gravity, one needs exercise. He avoids looking at the treadmill where Lena’s feet are pounding so heavily, her Velcro belt stretched between the treadmill’s arms keeping her in place. He gives up and looks—at her thick thighs and the hem of nylon shorts, at the way her sweat beads on her upper lip, round drops of it swelling up until they are too big to be held by adhesion and they fly off, to be absorbed into the recirculated air. Her T-shirt soaked with sweat flaps wetly against her chest, and he can see that her sport bra is black under the white T-shirt. He turns away and floats down the connecting passageway, to check on the hydroponics again. 

3.

John eyes the aluminum tube, soft, dull metallic gray - a gift from the Russians. All the cosmonauts’ rations are coming from the tubes, and John took them as a gag, really. Still, he cautiously squeezes out a thick golden worm that breaks off and starts to float away before John slurps it up. Lena is watching and she laughs.

John makes a face. “I think it’s supposed to be pineapple… something.”

Lena laughs more and takes the tube from him, tastes it, makes a face. They float, amiably, side by side. There is a narrow hallway of corrugated metal around them, and an awful blackness outside; they can feel it there even though there are no windows in the hallway to see. The fake pineapple tastes almost like sunshine, and they pass the tube back and forth, giggling like guilty children, until most of it is gone.

“Are we sure this is edible?” John asks, and she laughs.

“If it’s not we’ll find out soon enough,” Lena says and winds the flat, empty aluminum shell around her finger.

Peter floats into their field of vision. “Aren’t you going to share?” he says.

John and Lena trade a look.

“There wasn’t that much to begin with,” John says, just as Lena hands over the empty tube.

Peter sniffs, suspicious, black stubble peppering the creases of his neck. He squeezes the tube, tastes its aluminum neck with the tip of his tongue.

Children, John thinks. We are all petty smelly children. We’ve been here for months and we are so very bored in our confinement. Soon, we will be picking fights over something as trivial as an empty tube of food no one really wanted. “I have another one,” he says. “If you want. Only I don’t think it’s pineapple—I don’t know what any of them say.”

Peter waves his arm and tosses away the empty tube, and its soft metal curlicue arcs through the air, spilling tiny drops of gold as one end tumbles over the other. He turns and pulls himself away, grabbing at the corrugated walls.

“What’s gotten into him?” Lena says. 

4.

Thomas wards off boredom by talking to himself—sometimes singing. He takes care of the vegetables that grow all weird and unruly in zero gravity, unsure where to point their stems and roots, as there’s no up or down for them to aspire to.

“There you go, my green,” he tells them as he sticks the nozzle of the watering can into dry clumpy soil and trims off the dead leaves. He picks off the tiny green peppers—not yet fully grown but still good—and baby squashes. Pulls out the feeble yellow carrots out of the mulch and crunches one, clumps of substrate still clinging to it. “You’re so good and fresh, I could eat you up—well, I am eating you up.”

He takes the spade Velcroed by the polyurethane growing bins and pokes at the loose dry mulch, turning it over. “Here you go—breathe, breathe, make more vegetables. Or fruit, or whatever you would consider it.”

He turns around, thinking that he felt someone’s gaze on the back of his neck—and that was silly, he tells himself, how can one possibly feel something like that?—but when he turns around, there is Lena, watching him with a cautious look in her gray eyes.

“I’m not insane,” Thomas says, too quickly. “I’m just talking to myself.”

She smiles, then laughs. “I just wanted to pick some basil for dinner. Those rations are getting a bit repetitive.”

He nods and watched her long fingers pick off leaf after leaf after leaf. It’s not really fair, he thinks, that she is the only woman here—that she has to bear the burden of their attention and their interest, especially John, especially Peter, but especially Thomas. He thinks how it would be nicer if they were two and two, two couples, so that there wouldn’t be these constant nagging thoughts, although he wouldn’t like to be paired with Lena because she is so large and vaguely threatening.

She picks basil and then, after some thought, she plucks off two tomatoes—still too small and green to be picked. Thomas does not argue, just whispers to himself, “I’m so sorry.” 

5.

Lena wishes that after six months together, practically on top of each other, brushing past each other in the narrow convoluted hallways - the whole ship feels like it’s been thrown together out of spare parts and metal scrap, wires and insulation dangling in poisonous bright ribbons - that they should be able to talk, to really talk. They have to conserve water and they all smell, and it’s a little bit funny but mostly embarrassing, and Lena thinks that no, it really shouldn’t be - they all are like this, they all should be able to laugh it off; but she cannot help but notice that all three men keep great distances from each other and yet stay close to her. John and Peter are equidistant, and Thomas is muttering somewhere behind the curve of the corridor - talking to plants or lights on the control panel, who knows?

“You want to see my family album?” Lena asks, just to say something. 

They eat their vegetables, not bothering to make them into anything—just raw tomatoes and rolled up basil leaves. They look at the pictures, just to be polite at first. They look at the discolored fences and the small wooden cottages behind them, everything sepia-toned, and who can say whether it’s by design or accident. They look at the browned wrinkled women who all wear kerchiefs with roses, red on black—the only thing vivid in these photos. There are white chickens pecking at the dusty ground, and a giant, incongruous Ferris wheel on the background.

“Pripyat,” Lena explains. “My grandparents are from there.”

“It’s by Chernobyl,” Thomas says, floating further away from her as if afraid of radioactivity.

“Yes,” she answers. “There are some pictures we took when we went to visit Chernobyl a few years back.”

“They let you go there?”

“Yes.” 

6.

John cannot look away even though he had seen these images in the newspapers and TV, on the Internet so many times. It seems different now, considering that someone he knows actually went there and saw those things. That Lena went and saw them.

It took him a while to warm up to her—she is so large, he thinks, so unwieldy, and he immediately feels bad for thinking that way about a real person. He also feels guilty because she looks pretty good right now, and anyone would look pretty good after seven months in space, in close quarters. He knows Peter and Thomas are probably thinking the same thing. He sighs and pays attention to the pictures.

There are stems and blades of grass—green—pushing through the cement slabs of the ruined school building; the remnants of the school desks and blackboards still visible among the vegetation. Ghost town, broken windows, a small deer, its body almost hidden behind the half-ruined wall of a small cottage, looking with mild surprise into the camera; the cottage looks almost the same as the ones in the pictures of Lena’s forgotten Ukrainian ancestors. 

Later, when Peter and Thomas go and flick switches and tumblers on the control panels, when they run system checks, Lena says, “It’s so strange to have family from there, you know. I used to hate my grandmother because she was such a reminder.”

“Of what? Cold war? Nuclear disasters?”

She nods. “Of failure.”

He wants to ask what she means by that, but instead his hand takes her chin—he is a bit surprised at his hands not shaking, at this hypermasculine gesture coming so natural and smooth and strong—and she looks up, serious gray eyes surprised but not reluctant. 

He kisses her, tasting the green pungent tomato on her breath, and her lips open under his, tongue flicking against tongue, warm and tentative.

She pulls away and looks around before floating toward the exercise area. “Later,” she whispers.  

7. 

Peter does not sleep because of the noise, because of his restless blood—it feels dry in his veins, itching on his fingertips. He listens to the banging outside and to Thomas’ soft snoring nearby. He hears Velcro coming undone—John’s, he assumes. The three of them sleep side by side, Velcroed to the wall like three monstrous chrysalises. Where’s John going?

His ears feel like they are hyperextending in the dark—this is the only dark area in the ship, and Lena is not here, having traded darkness for privacy; she sleeps in the greenhouse, by the vegetable bins.

Peter follows John’s progress, the soft colliding noises, the small hollow rings of the corrugated metal meeting a foot or an elbow. John floats weightless but determined, working his way toward the vegetable bins.

Lena is awake: Peter thinks he can see the light reflecting off her open eyes, and he imagines pressing against her, putting his hands into the warmth of her sleeping bag. 

John thinks the same, apparently—Peter does not quite believe his eyes when he sees them kissing (teeth on the plump lower lip, not hard, not quite a bite, just a gentle depression) and then John crawls into her sleeping bag she unzips for him. Peter catches a glimpse of breasts, a whiff of fresh sweat, and watches the two of them sigh and dally, moving against each other, their eyes closed, their lips finding the other’s with a sort of sickening, helpless desperation—pathetic, like puppies, whining softly and nibbling.

Peter edges away and back into his own sleeping bag. He’d have to get one of those sometime. 

8.

Thomas blinks as Peter hisses and presses a cold wet washcloth against the swelling welt on his cheek.

“That bitch,” Peter says. “That fucking bitch.”

“You came on a bit strong,” Thomas says.

“I saw John the other night doing the same thing.”

“Maybe they arranged it in advance.”

Peter nods and hisses again. “What a bitch. She knows we’re going crazy here.”

“It’s not like she…” Thomas tries. “It’s not her responsibility.”

“Sure it is. She knows she’s the only cunt here. Either don’t put out, or put out for everyone equally. Otherwise, how’s that fair if Johnny gets laid and she’s holding out on us? What does she expect us to do, stand here holding our dicks?”

Thomas shakes his head and searches for words that would explain once and for all that he is not like Peter or even John, that he is a good person and does not welcome anyone’s confidences. Someone who did not talk about people like that. “She is a person,” he finally manages. 

Peter is already gone, and Thomas sees his voice extinguished against the dull gray metal of the corridor walls. 

He goes to sleep in his cocoon of a sleeping bag. He has stopped his ears with earplugs. He does not want to hear Velcro tearing, desperately clear against the muted nighttime clanging—first John and then Peter, and then all is normal again, only the normalcy is just an illusion, pregnant with possible terrors. He cannot sleep, lying awake and feeling his too-dry eyes burn in the darkness, scratchy and inflamed.  

9. 

Lena does not notice the change in Peter at first, and when she does it has already become irreversible, gone entirely systemic. He does not talk to her—has not since she slapped him when he ambushed her after the shower and put his hand on her thigh. He just grunts in her general direction, and he stares. Oh, how he stares—he stares like a wolf, Lena’s grandmother would say. Lena’s entire experience with wolves is reducible to what she had learned from Disney movies and Warner Bros. cartoons when she was little. And her grandmother’s stories—she used to scare Lena so much when she spoke of butter-yellow eyes that neither blinked nor looked away, just stared, sizing, like Peter has been doing for God knows how long before she noticed.

It was her fault for not paying attention, for being too preoccupied with the silent, illicit-feeing lovemaking John and she engaged in. She shivered when she thought of it, of the silence, of the secrecy, of two bodies squeezed into a single sleeping bag, of the sweat and the thrill.

And now, Peter. Peter who neglects the control board in order to follow her around, to the shower area to the exercise bikes to the greenhouse and the vegetable bins - round and round, on the closed loop of her daily trek, grinning all the while.  

10.

John spends most of the day tinkering with the solar arrays, making sure they are pointing the right way and properly aligned. Lena is away, in the greenhouse, and Thomas busies himself with the thermal controls - it has been getting warmer recently. John hums to himself as he works, and the normal noise of the spacecraft lulls him, like a familiar song.

He wonders idly where Peter is, just as he hears Thomas calling for him, calling John’s name in a voice strangely plaintive.

He moves along the labyrinthine corridors, his feet and hands pushing him along the familiar walls, past the greenhouse, toward the command module. His hands start shaking and the sweat soaks the back of his T-shirt before he enters the command module. And then, he sees- Peter, arm raised, as if suspended in amber, with only a dull glint of silvery metal to distract John, distract him from looking at Lena’s face—the whites of her eyes, the white teeth bared for a moment before the wrench in Peter’s hand descends. 

11.

There’s no point in stopping now, Peter thinks, his mind strangely calm and separate from his arm that rises and falls in a dull rhythm. There is a caving of bone and wet red thwacks, and the wrench is dulled to the dark red, with a clump of wispy brown hair clinging to it, and he wonders idly where did the hair come from in this wet red mess, and he thinks, She really deserved it. It was supposed to be fair, no one or everyone, not like it happened, not with them flaunting it like that.

Then there is someone grabbing at his arm and he swings, not to hurt but to chase away, like an annoying buzzing fly. There’s resistance and there isn’t, and he thinks idly that he will have to clean the control panel as it is slowly growing a glistening black hide.

He turns around to see Thomas’ his face white as a sheet, and John, his face red. The two of them are grabbing for him, awkwardly, bump into each other and float away. The conservation of momentum, Peter thinks, is a real bitch. He had to wedge himself against the control panel to have enough resistance not to float away at the rising and falling of his own hand. And now the panel behind him crackles as he swings the wrench in a wide arc, and now he can see only one face - red, down below. John lunges then, against Peter’s knees, and he smells smoke. 

12.

“It is futile,” Thomas says to himself. “The resistance is futile.”

He doesn’t know if anyone can hear him now, and still he clings to the greenhouse, to the faint green exhalation of moisture and oxygen - oxygen that supports burning after he is left alone and the fire extinguishers are exhausted, and the flames are licking through the seams between metal sheets like terrible tongues.

There’s popping of glass, and he regrets the plants more than he regrets himself or the others, he thinks of them frozen and dead after the temperature controls ceased to work, he thinks of the leaves, delicate and green, shattering like ice.

He thinks of the burned-out ship and whether it will reach its destination, and whether it is ever possible to arrive anywhere lying so far ahead, beyond an uncrossable desert.

Location

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