Nothing seemed real after thirteen years in space. The ground felt too mushy, the buildings too large, the people minuscule. This had been Ethan’s second successful mission, the first of which he only spent a few years at ISS so the transition wasn’t that rough, but this time was different.
Ethan watched as his comrades left the station, warm under their family’s embrace. He had been waiting nearly an hour for his beautiful wife Sharon and daughter Beth – the last time, Beth brought him a coffee mug she had painted in Mrs. Gella’s class and Sharon gave him unbelievable sex that night – but they never showed. Suddenly the space exhibition didn’t feel as extensive
It didn’t take long before the taxi arrived. Despite his insistence that Sharon would be there – he needed only be patient – Sergeant Blymh ushered the exhausted astronaut into the yellow cab and called it a day.
On the road, Ethan saw his girls’ faces in everything: they were in the bricks in the sidewalk, they were the faces on the billboards, and they were ripples in the water. Every sound was that of Willie Nelson – not only was he Sharon’s favorite singer, but he woke up to Always on My Mind every morning on the shuttle. It was another way he felt closer to his girls.
The only thing keeping him from going into full panic mode was their crumpled portrait in his pocket. He distinctly remembered taking the photograph during Beth’s seventh birthday party at Giggy’s Pizza – Sharon looked so goddamned beautiful even with a mouth full of pepperoni and his daughter was just as striking.
Suddenly Ethan felt a rise in his stomach: Beth was going to be twenty-one this year. After thirteen years, he wouldn’t be surprised if she didn’t even remember him; hell, she’d probably moved away.
“Don’t do this, Ethan,” he thought. “All I need is the driver to think I’m a big-ass cry baby.”
But he couldn’t stop. He imagined Sharon wrinkled and gray. Their corgi Vinnie was probably dust in the ground by now, and, shit, she could’ve sold the house and be living with a tight 20-something surging with stamina and a jawline for days.
What an idiot he was to think things could simply go back to normal after he returned, he thought. He pressed his head against the window and firmly shut his eyes, allowing the darkness to drown him. Obscurity was his only friend. He should have told the doctor during the post-exhibition physical of his night terrors and the depression, but all that was on his mind at the time was kissing his girls.
Ethan’s reservations disintegrated as the car came to a stop. The house looked just as he left it; the only difference was the addition of a purple Volkswagen, but his white Saturn was still parked in his spot.
He rang the doorbell three times to no avail; however, he let himself in with the key concealed under the second stepping stone in the front yard. Sharon should have moved their key to a better location, but Ethan was overjoyed that she kept it there throughout the years. Ethan never felt more welcome.
The interior of the house had been renovated, Ethan’s grandparents’ old furniture had been replaced with a modern leather love seat, and the wall was nearly nonexistent behind a massive plasma screen. He heard footsteps in the back. “Sharon?” Ethan called, heading down the hall near their room. “I’m… Oh –”
Sharon had her back turned, fixing Beth’s golden hair. Ethan could not believe his eyes. The last time he saw Beth, she was picking boogers out of her nose waving goodbye.
“Hello?” A voice piped from the bathroom. It was a man’s voice, and something about it felt familiar to Ethan.
Abruptly, Sharon and Beth turned around – their faces horrifyingly cracked, frosted glass. Tiny whispers and raucous whimpers filled the room. Blazing fingers and checkered tongues swiftly tore through the walls, shattering picture frames and setting fire to the floral wallpaper. Thick gobs of black bile dripped from the ceiling, covering the two women in obsidian vomit. Beth charged, narrowly missing Ethan, before shattering into a million pieces on the floor. Sharon emitted a blood-curdling shriek.
Ethan ran before Sharon could attack him. He whipped past Beth’s old room turned office, and hopped over the chic glass coffee table in the living room. He dodged spiraling silverware and planet mobiles in the kitchen. Burning candles exploded as he past them, covering his shirt in clumpy red and orange wax. Tattered scarves and jackets latched onto his hands and feet. The plasma television sparked and blipped, static scrolling the screen.
Hundreds of pages of Ethan’s graduate research blanketed the floor; one in particular – the third page of his dissertation – caught his eye. Etched in gold ink on the page was a peculiar symbol. He recognized it and had seen it somewhere, but couldn’t remember where.
A covered figure blocked the front door. Ethan tried to run for the back, but was once again met with the same shadowed being. He lunged at the dark entity, hoping this was all a twisted dream he was having in the taxi cab.
But suddenly time stopped. Boiling water droplets and broken pickle jars hung frozen in the air, fragments of their family portraits and knives merely props. Ethan’s short breaths stopped. His heart was in his throat as the figure approached him, its brown eyes cutting into Ethan’s own.
“You really shouldn’t have returned,” it croaked. “You don’t belong here. Or don’t you remember?” The entity dropped its cloak and stroked Ethan’s cheek. It had Ethan’s face. It was Ethan. “Let me help you.”
Ethan was released from time’s grip and he closed his eyes. He couldn’t dare look the monster in its face – his face. It didn’t take long for a wave of relaxation to wash over Ethan. He found solace imagining he was back on the shuttle, alongside Blymh and the others. He missed looking out onto the bright expanse, dreaming of being outside cuddled next to his girls stargazing, looking right back at himself in the shuttle years away. The heavy weight of anxiety and loneliness lifted off his body, Ethan embraced the darkness.
Moments pass and suddenly the lyrics of Always on My Mind graced Ethan’s ears, penetrating the thick silence. He opened his eyes and smiled.