We Are Here
Orph Both (University of Adelaide, Australia)
It was the starriest night of the year, the telly had said, and it was one of those warm, cloudless nights that felt lovely to touch. Dad announced after dinner that they were spending the night outside “as a family”, with a pointed look at Chloe and Ben. They roared and stamped their feet, and dashed off to collect their buckets from the garage so they could go find critters down at the creek. Pa rolled his eyes, but after the dishes were washed, he came outside with a bottle of red wine, two glasses, and a blanket in his hands. Dad set the little outside table for him and Pa, and then lifted the blanket and wrapped it around both of their shoulders because Pa wasn’t meant to lift his arms too much after his surgery.
Chloe and Ben ran down the dirt track to the edge of the garden, where the creek ran along the back fence. It wasn’t hot enough for it to dry up just yet. The water ran at a trickle that stretched into the neighbour’s backyard until it was all the way out of sight. The two settled on the dirt bank and peered into the water, which reflected the night above so clearly that Chloe had to look up.
Everyone in the whole entire world was out tonight. The sky was shimmering with lights: satellites drifted in the distance, aeroplanes flashed red lights in warning as they soared, and the hundreds of sky surfers alongside them sailed on their cosmoboards around and between everything else, all of them twinkling and shimmering like stars against the black sky. There had to be one million lights up there at least. Chloe found the Southern Cross, barely visible; it had an extra light next to each point tonight. She gasped out loud when the new stars—people! They must be—began to fall, but then caught themselves and zipped away to meet together in a huddle. Her heart ached in a way that she couldn’t place, because the scientists on the telly had promised that all humans would move up to Mars soon, but all those people up there got to be in space already, and she didn’t quite know how to want something so badly just yet.
“The tadpoles are gone,” Ben announced. Chloe looked down to where he was crouching on the bank.
She squinted into the water, but saw nothing moving among the algae. “No they’re not. They’re probably just hiding from you.”
“No, they’re all gone.” Ben stuck his hand into the water and wriggled his fingers—muck from the bottom lifted and floated through the water, but there were no tadpoles or critters at all.
Chloe shrugged. “They might be hibernating. I don’t think they like the heat.”
Ben rolled his eyes. “No, stupid. Tadpoles don’t hibernate, and that only happens in winter, anyway. Pa said that they’re all dying.”
Chloe scoffed. “They can’t be.” There were tadpoles and critters this time last year, before the cosmoboards existed, when the telly only talked about farmers in drought and she’d worn her favourite jumper with stripes on it. She’d ruined that jumper with creek water and Dad had to wash it five times to get the smell out.
“I’m gonna go and ask,” she said. Ben wrinkled his nose up at her and kept his hand in the water, but asked her to bring a torch back.
She ran back up to the veranda on her toes, and slowed down as she approached the house. Dad and Pa hadn’t noticed her just yet. They were sitting together and talking with very serious, adult voices. She stepped into the garden bed that ran alongside the veranda, balancing on her tippy-toes to keep quiet. She slid up close to the decking next to the lavender bush, and poked her head up to watch them.
“—fat lot that it’ll do for us.” Pa’s wine glass was empty, and his brow and mouth were pinched down. Dad filled up his glass close to the top, and filled up his own as well.
“Dr. Ellie Arroway didn’t die for us to not explore the cosmos, love,” Dad joked, but Pa didn’t laugh at all. He was staring up at the sky surfers with a twisted look on his face that made Chloe’s heart sink and her stomach twist up in knots.
Pa made a tch noise and picked up his wine glass. “‘Towards our Utopia! ’. Watch them try and sell the universe to billionaires as Paradise and dress up colonisation and commodification as progress. Watch them let the poor rot on the planet they destroyed—”
Dad squeezed Pa’s thigh. Chloe kept still and tried to keep her breathing even. “Not for a generation or four, love. You know they’re just trying to capitalise on a novelty—”
Pa shook his head. “Does that make it better? We’re not ready to spread our decay elsewhere. They’re abandoning their messes and convincing everyone of a brighter future when the rest of us have got no ticket out. They’re terraforming Mars while we’re stuck with Neo-Nazis in Parliament, every year getting hotter, and I still get deadnamed every fucking time I fly home for Christmas—”
Pa and Dad had a lot of feelings, which meant they often got angry at things. Pa got angry about things, and got silent and stormy. Dad got angry for Pa, explosive and protective and indignant, which always cooled and later became soothing words. Neither of them hid their feelings, and they always told Chloe and Ben to talk their feelings through instead of bottling them up. They never yelled at Ben when he cried over things that even he thought were silly, and never told Chloe off when she was clammed up with anger and refused to talk for a full hour. Dad and Pa always felt, but they always talked things out.
Pa had stopped talking though. He looked miserable and very small. He was slumping on the bench, in the exact way that he always told Chloe and Ben off for. Chloe wanted to march up and tell him off for it, wanted to fix him and get rid of the sick feeling that was balling up in her throat. She wondered why Dad didn’t say anything. He threaded his fingers through Pa’s and they sat in silence, Dad watching out over the sky with a blank expression that didn’t look right on his face. Pa pressed his face into Dad’s neck and shut his eyes. He never cuddled Dad like that. It was always gross, sappy looks and arm touches. She’d never seen him cling like he was now.
Dad shifted on the bench and the blanket slipped off his shoulder. Pa moved his head away to look up at him. They looked at each other for a bit, and then they kissed, and Pa grabbed Dad’s shirt a little bit as they did, right where his heart sat in his chest.
She must’ve been too loud when she made a bleurgh sound, because they broke apart and looked right down at where she was peeping over the deck. Dad punctured the moment with a loud laugh, all teeth and crinkled eyes. Pa rolled his eyes, sat back in his chair, and asked, “How long have you been there?” Chloe climbed out of the garden bed and padded up the stairs to join them.
“You don’t have to kiss anyone if you don’t want to, y’know,” Dad said.
“I’m never going to,” Chloe said with all certainty. Pa wore his fake-serious face, where he tried not to smile and his eyes were shining, while Dad nodded and looked solemn. “Boys are gross.”
Dad laughed and said, “Wise girl—they sure are!”
Pa scoffed and pushed up hard against Dad’s side with his shoulder, to shove him without hurting himself. But they were both smiling, so it was okay and the tension in Chloe’s throat eased a lot. But she couldn’t forget Pa’s look from before. Her stomach still hurt.
Chloe crawled into Dad’s lap and wiggled into place to look out at the garden. She tucked her head under his chin, and he rested his head on top of hers and hummed. A piece of his long, dark hair fell into her face, so she brushed it away and stuck her left hand out. Pa intertwined his fingers with hers and said, “Hiya, pup.”
“It’s really pretty tonight,” she said.
“Sure is, pup.”
Chloe stared hard into the distance. One person’s cosmoboard caught the light of another and it shot a beam across the sky that shone brilliantly for a single second and then dissolved into nothingness. She scrunched her toes and released them to gather her courage, then looked at Pa and asked, “Do you hate all those people up there?”
He blinked and looked a bit surprised, or guilty, or both.
He didn’t answer straight away, but stared off at the sky instead. After a time, he looked her in the eyes and said, “I don’t.” His words came out slow, like he was trying to find the right ones. “I think … there are things that humans do that aren’t very good, and I think a few people are making a lot of decisions for everyone else that might not be very useful right now.” Pa’s eyes were bright and very honest, and Chloe’s heart stopped pounding so hard. “But those folks up there … they’re just having fun, living their lives. They’re not the problem.”
Chloe couldn’t leave her feelings inside herself where they’d keep rattling around. She said, “I think … lots of things here on Earth are bad, but there’s a lot that’s good too—like us. If they send people up to space, they should only send the best and nicest people.” She sucked a breath deep into her chest and reached out with her other hand to squeeze both of her parents’ hands at once. “And I’m the best, and nicest, because I think people can all be good, even Ben.”
Pa nodded at her with a smile on his face, but he looked a bit strained and his eyes were a bit shiny under the veranda lights.
“I’ll go up and be nice and tell everyone else to be nice so we can show all the aliens out in space that humans can be really good,” Chloe said.
Dad shifted a bit underneath her, and squeezed her in a hug, but didn’t say anything. His shaky breath tickled the back of her neck.
Ben made his way up to the veranda. His green bucket only had little clumps of dirt inside. He put it on the floor next to the bench. “No tadpoles this year,” he announced, and sat down next to Pa.
“That’s a shame. I’m sorry, Ben,” he said, and shifted his arm gingerly so Ben could slide in next to him.
“It’s okay.” Ben yawned, and pressed his cheek against Pa’s shoulder. “Chloe and I will find different critters next year.”
The family sat together and watched the night sparkle from all the people. Ben gasped occasionally, and let out a little “wow!” whenever one of the sky surfers did a trick and left trails of light, or when they nearly collided with someone else. Dad and Pa made quiet noises of acknowledgement. Chloe thought they all looked so beautiful and effortless up there. The warm lump of want still sat heavy in her chest. She took a breath, and decided that if Pa said he didn’t hate those people even when he looked so sad watching them, she didn’t have to feel so guilty about watching them play among the stars and wishing that she could do it someday, too.
Orph Both is a recent First Class Creative Writing Honours graduate of the University of Adelaide, where their thesis ‘//Beyond_Binary:Hybrid_Subject’ focused on hybrid fictocritical life-writing. They are interested in cyborgs, trans stories, the environment, and acts of tenderness.