Helena dreamed of her teeth falling out again. She woke with the lingering panic of crumbled molars and sharp-edged enamel cutting against her tongue. In the cold of space, she expected nightmares about the endless abyss or burning up under the unprotected sun, not speaking around the remnants of her mother’s hard-earned smile.
With sleep no longer appealing, she got up and checked her messages. A new shipment of supplies was due in the middle of the day cycle. Command wanted an update on the excavation of B site. Her father rambled for ten minutes before his cat walked across the console and ended the feed. A host of ads and offers tempted the rest of her reading, a holdover from when she could have fresh fruit or pedicures. Thirty-six people lived on the moon. No company shipped to them and they were thin on services.
In her tiny bathroom, she programed the shower to shut off halfway through her one-minute allocation of water. She tossed her clothes behind the door, where they used to make Em crazy in their shared apartment off Dupont in DC. The impersonal, medical-quality soap slid over her brown skin before she flicked the switch for the water, counting through each second.
At ten seconds the soap was gone. At fifteen she cupped her hands into a well and poured the water over her face. Twenty seconds and she closed her eyes. What was it like to breathe fresh air? To feel the touch of another.
The water cut off five seconds early while she was still in the midst of walking hand in hand under spring-snow cherry blossoms. She jerked at the interruption and pounded on the wall with her fist, a wordless rage caught in her throat as she was denied her momentary escape.
At her workstation, her screen was stuck loading for half an hour, and when it came online, it wouldn’t respond to her touch. The shipment arrived. Helena bent her head close to the panel to monitor touchdown and felt a hot breath wisp across the back of her neck. She turned.
Jenkins was eating at his station, spreading debris in a five-foot arc.
“What?” Crumbs fell from his slack mouth as he looked genuinely confused.
Half an hour later, Jenkins complained of a headache, then dizziness and left before the end of his shift. Typical of his work ethic and their relative isolation. He was replaced by Martinez, the slim blonde scientist from Nevada who wanted to be friends. Their usual conversation was stunted when Martinez asked Helena to repeat her question, but Helena had said nothing at all.
Helena took her time walking through the narrow corridors of the base after her shift. Someone — maybe one of the first colonists — had tried painting familiar landscapes on the slate gray walls, but the paint pitted and peeled. In a common area, she read digital copies of Dr. Seuss for their bright pictures and short sentences. At dinner, the mess was empty, but she still felt like she was being watched.
When Helena thought about the Moon colonies she was promised as a child, she imagined bright, open glass domes filled with little dome houses and Astroturf lawns. Like the suburban neighborhoods she saw on television with her mom late at night when neither one of them could sleep because the gas was shut off again.
Colonists were meant to stay through the end of their contract. Helena’s was a five-year stretch, just the break she was looking for after Em packed up a single suitcase of clothes and headed West for some artist commune. Just twenty-three months in, Helena understood why so many colonists went home early, or got sent home.
Her mom’s mom used to talk about spirits that walked the halls of her childhood home, the sure and steady presence of the dead lingering among the living. Helena never put much stock in those stories; Grandma Pam was old, and things were different back then. When books fell off shelves or doors creaked, it was the settling of the house, nothing more.
In her three-by-three shower she had thirty seconds of peace, as the roar of the water washed out the moans of the metal base and the shuffle of footsteps that couldn’t be there. When she entered her main room, the bed was turned down, though she’d left it made. Had she carried the spirits with her as she launched from Earth? Perhaps there was something else with them on the lunar surface. Or maybe she was tired and it was time to go home.
KEELY CUTTS holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College and has work published in Front Porch Review, Crack the Spine and Inaccurate Realities. Originally from Florida, she now lives in suburban Philadelphia with her wife.