I looked over, resisting the urge to make a face. After all, Watney’d been through Hell and back—but god, did he fucking smell. He noticed me noticing and raised an eyebrow, a sly smile coming through his sweaty grimace like a phoenix crawling out of ashes. As the oldest—having beat out Vogel by a sliver of a month—Watney had a tendency to act as if he were a revered elder, adopting some sort of ‘dad’ persona around the others despite being the least ‘dad’ guy on board.
“Well?” he asked in that annoying ‘dad’ voice, trying to hide a wheeze. “How’s… ‘that’ been while I was gone? Are we at space babies—ouch—are we going to have our first space baby?”
“You shouldn’t talk so much,” I reminded sternly, ignoring the ‘space babies’ part. I tapped the crest on my breast to emphasize Dr. Christopher Beck. “I’m an MD, and as your doctor, I’ve got to remind you: your ribs are broken; you’re extremely malnourished; you’ve pulled several Gs; you’ve almost died half a million times; you still might die now; so you need to shut up and let me take care of you.”
He rolled his eyes and obligingly wriggled his eyebrows, a silent way of reiterating in a more subdued dad tone, well?
I couldn't help a light flush come to my cheeks at his knowing look. Watney had been one of the few people I’d confided into about my feelings for Johansson—Beth—but at the time, I’d only done it out of necessity, really. Vogel was more of an old soul and was way too busy with his own family to care for my trivial feelings. Martinez was too naively positive—yeah, his high school sweetheart marriage worked out, but I needed more grit than just ‘love at first sight is wicked, bro’. Commander Lewis was out of the question; she might’ve been my best shot on the ground, but relationships on board were already outlawed, so it wasn’t as if I needed to get my ass beat before we even hit Mars’ orbit. So Watney it was. At the time, it hadn’t meant much, but when I thought that he’d been wiped out, just like that—those night time talks became everything. My complaining about stupid shit like the age gap, the morality, the professional conducts… him listening to all of those things? Suddenly those petty memories became things I cherished.
Man, I guess I really missed my fake, shitty ‘dad’.
“…it’s good,” I replied after a moment’s thought. I ducked my face away to stare at his x-rays, which I’d already stared at long enough, and hastily switched topics. “You’ve broken one… huh. Two ribs, champ.”
“Yeah, I can fucking feel them, Mr. I have a medical degree. Forget about lil’ ol’ me for a second. Have you guys kissed yet?”
“I…” Deciding that at the very least, I owed honesty to him (since I’d left him behind on a non-sustainable planet and all), I shut my mouth and let the red colour on my face tell him the answer.
“For Christ’s sake, just get married already, you idiots. Life’s short. You might even die on Mars!”
“Mark…” I sighed sharply, turning back around after grabbing a pill bottle of high dosage painkillers from the cabinet. With a sarcastic smile, I jabbed a few down his throat, having missed his indignant spluttering. I never thought I’d miss his stupid grin or dumb jokes, but here I am.
“What about you?” I asked once he’d managed to choke them away. I whispered to him as if it were a secret—it was hardly a secret, seeing as his pseudo-death had opened a lot of doors into his private life—but my tone softened nonetheless. “Your girl back on Earth.”
Surprisingly, he was quiet. He’d always liked to show her off, talking about her in interviews and campaigns and Twitter and live-shows and even just privately to us. I hadn’t ever met her, but I felt like I knew her as a brother would through all the stories Mark had loved to tell. His eyes were downcast. Maybe he had had too much time by himself and got used to talking to himself in his own head, instead of other people, so I gave him a gentle nudge. Slowly, he sat up, his eyes turning outside to the tiny window by my bedside. The light of the sun passed over his skeletal face over and over, making him look freakishly old, and he had such deep set melancholy in his eyes that I began to worry that Mark had really died and left a shell in his place.
“I’m sorry man, but I can’t… think about that right now.” He gave me a wry, apologetic smile. “I’m psyched to be back with you guys, yeah, but… my emotions are still in wack.”
I waved him off. It was good enough that we got him back; I didn’t want to push him into anything he didn’t want to do. But his sunken expression stuck in my head, even after I left my quarters to give him some resting time.
“How is he?” Martinez asked eagerly, first, out of the group of people huddling outside my door conspicuously. I wanted to deliver a memorable line that’d make me look as impressive as when I’d reeled him back into the Hermes, but instead, I cried. I stood there, a grown ass man, and cried. It was too much relief, too much stress, too much emotion—my body blew a fuse. So I stood, cried, and nodded.
Beth had my arm immediately, rubbing my shoulder as I mopped up tears from my eyes. Immediately, my heart softened. After I thought that I’d lost one of my best friends, I’d thanked Mark’s spirit every day for ballsing me up and getting me to where I was with Beth—well, she was still ‘Johansson’ while we were in Commander Lewis’ company—but now, it looked like I could thank the guy himself.
“You should go in,” I told Martinez after stowing away my embarrassing sniffles. A smile broke out onto my face as I saw the relief on all of theirs. “Talk to him yourself. We got our boy back.”
Whether or not he was a shitty fake-dad to me didn’t matter; he was my friend. I definitely owed him a drink, if not my life. That much was for sure.
I realized too late that it would probably be a bad idea to scream right in the poor guy’s face, considering that he’d just gotten back from spending a mad couple alone on Mars. Watney didn’t seem too angry about it, though, grinning widely like he always used to and gave me a very slow and weak high-five.
“Martinez! I can’t believe I’d ever be happy to see you of all people.”
“Same goes for me, dude. I mean, your botany experiments—what are those, even? We take turns looking at leaves through a microscope. Everybody knows that bio’s a fake science. And you call yourself a scientist.”
“Talk dirty about me all you want after you’ve colonized Mars,” he replied smugly.
“True,” I agreed. “But the Cubs are down and the Yankees are pulling into the lead.”
“I know. You’ve made that abundantly clear, Martinez.”
Yeah. Things felt right again.
NASA shrinks had told me after the isolation trial—don’t get too attached to your crewmates. There’s a fine line between trusting your colleagues and becoming friends with them: trusting them means that you rely on somebody to watch your back, and becoming friends mean that you’re always looking over yours to watch theirs. People told me, “don’t marry your high school girlfriend because it’s not going to work out!”, and guess who’s got 15 years of a happy relationship plus beautiful kiddos? Me. People also told me, “don’t go back for Mark Watney!”, and guess who’s going to get court martialed as soon as I hit Earth’s orbit? Me, probably! But at least I’d brought Mark back to laugh at me during my trial.
So maybe it’s just me, in that I have an issue with doing what people tell me to do. “Issues in compliance with authority”, they say. I’m surprised NASA even let me touch a screw on the Hermes, much less go all the way to Mars.
Either way, I’m just happy that Watney’s back. Things were far too empty on the Hermes without him. I twisted the wedding band around my finger, the feeling of its familiar metal reminding me of something.
“My kids think you’re a hero for some reason. Man, are they wrong; but right now, I guess they’re kind of right. You should see the Bring Him Back campaign! You’re bigger than the Kardashians!”
“Seriously?!” he exclaimed, before wincing. I nodded, extending a hand to help him up into a more comfortable sitting position.
“Your follower count on Twitter is through the roof. You beat out everybody by like, 4 mil. Johannson’s jealous.”
He let out a wheezing, choppy sort of laugh, grimacing through a teary smile. “Looks like landing yourself on Mars alone has its perks after all.”
He suddenly made a motion to get up off the bed, forcing me to sit him back down. Although gravitational force was much weaker on the Hermes, it still felt like I was holding a pile of straw down.
“Whoa there, cowboy. Where do you think you’re going?” I asked.
“I’ve gotta… check something,” he forced through grit teeth. I shook my head, not even surprised that Watney of all people wanted to get up and do stuff a couple hours after being rescued from certain death.
“I know you waited 700 days for whatever it is, but Beck’s right. You seriously need to take a minute to rest. Nobody can bounce back that fast.”
“But, it’s…” He took a sharp breath before giving me a pleading look that was highly uncharacteristic of the boasting idiot we all loved so much. He’d shed at least 30 pounds since the last time I saw him, and the desperation in his eyes gave me a chill.
“When you guys didn’t know I was alive… were you sent anything about me?” he asked, in an almost probing sort of way. The question was abrupt and confused me. Why did he want to know that? Surely, NASA had given him a couple of data dumps even when he was hanging around in Schiaparelli.
“Uh…” I tried to think back, but it was such a long time ago—that, and the fact that I’d tried to block every emotion out at the time to deal with his ‘death’ made it hard for me to remember details. I shook my head hesitantly. “I don’t think so, but you could probably ask Johansson to check the logs. Didn’t you get data dumps in the rover?”
“Yeah, I did, but no videos could transmit. Just text files or e-mails. The thing is, I didn’t get any from… I just wanted to see if I got anything from my…”
He trailed off suddenly, his voice hoarse and cracking with emotion. I nodded sympathetically, my heart panging with unsung grief as the image of my wife’s face floated up to mind. My fingers moved back down to my ring instinctively. My kids’ face came to mind, too. Right now, they were growing up without a dad… my sweetheart was trying to raise them without her husband. I haven’t hugged my son in a near 2 years. What’d it be like to not even be able to talk to them at all? What’d it be like to go without seeing their faces for even longer?
I gave him Mark a careful pat on the shoulder.
“Don’t worry about it. I know how hard it is to miss the people you love. You’ll get to talk with her soon enough. Promise.”
“Yeah. I know,” he muttered distantly. “It’s just surreal… I still feel like this is just a dream, you know? Like I’m not really living it.”
I prodded him in the ribs gently, earning a hocking gasp of pain. Although a bit guilty, I smirked with relief after he glared at me, holding his side.
“This ain’t no dream, bud.”
Couldn’t have missed him cursing me out more.
“Vogel! Man, is it good to see you. If it isn’t my favourite crazy German chemist.”
Dr. Beck had confined Watney to the makeshift sickbay of his own quarters, not wanting to go through the issues of mobility when navigating the Hermes. It was understandable, of course. Now that Martinez had finished, it was now my turn to speak with our once-lost comrade.
“Very good to see you as well. You’ve cost us a lot of grief, dearest Watney.”
He grinned, looking down a bit bashfully. “Yeah, my bad. Maybe you shouldn’t have left me behind for dead on Mars, then.”
“To be fair—” I began apologetically, but he laughed me off before I could continue.
“I’m kidding, man. I’m kidding! Seriously! It was never your guys’ fault. And it all worked out—we’re all okay. Maybe it’s even better this way. NASA now knows what to do if a guy gets left behind on Mars for Ares IV, right?” He smiled again, and I found myself cracking a smile as well. Watney had always been the mediator, easing any tensions that came up between crewmates through his wisecracks. I also admired him for his raw intelligence and skill. He was—is quite a formidable man. Perhaps we hadn’t been as close as I would have liked, despite being the closest in age, but I was still eternally grateful that we were able to pull him back out from the MAV. The view of him floating into the airlock still seemed burnt into my retinas, and I was so distracted in my thoughts that I almost missed his question.
“My family? Oh. Yes. They are well, thank you for asking.” His polite question humbled me, though it reminded me of his own. What grief had they been through? What grief would I have been through if I had been told that one of my sons was lost, and that I could not even bury his body? I shivered. Sitting at his bedside, I asked very carefully, “and yours?”
“Beck won’t let me move from this fuckin’ shit ass room, so I haven’t been able to tap into any computers yet. I got some e-mails from my parents a couple sols—”
“Days?” I corrected good-humouredly. He blinked, confused, before nodding with a wry chuckle.
“Yeah, you’re right. A couple days back. I guess you never realize just how much you actually love somebody until you realize that you might never see them again.” He shifted, looking uncomfortable. Before I could inquire into his health, he spoke up. “Hey Vogel, can I ask you something?”
“Anything, mein Freund,” I replied agreeably, wishing to help him as much as I could now that he was back.
“Do you think… well, I feel like you’re the most mature one out of all of us, besides Commander Lewis—but I mean…?”
“You’re rambling,” I interjected patiently. I did not know where he wanted to go with this train of thought and merely watched curiously as he steadied his thoughts with a sharp breath.
“Okay. So. If you’d been in my place, and you and your wife weren’t married with kids… just dating, I guess… do you think that she’d still love you? And miss you? Or—” He swallowed thickly, emotion overcoming him in a way that I had not seen of Watney ever before. “—o-or, do you think that she’s moved on? Er, she would have moved on. Hypothetically.”
“Watney?” I replied, placing my hand on his knee firmly. I ran the words I wanted to say through German first before abandoning the process, deciding to speak directly from my heart, and not from my brain.
“I cannot answer that for you. You must ask her yourself… but if you’d like to hear my opinion, then I think very much that my wife Helena would still love me, yes. I don’t think she would have forgiven me enough to give up on me. And I think that your love would have a very difficult time… forgetting about you. You are quite the character.”
I handed him a tissue as tears streamed down his face.
“Would you like to hear the story of how I illegally made and detonated a bomb inside of a NASA spacecraft?” I asked, after his crying refused to cease. Talking about blowing stuff up had always worked to soothe my own children. Perking up almost immediately, the grin was restored to his face, further reminding me that the American Hero of Earth was sometimes a very simple minded… moron.
“I’ll trade you stories of how I blew up the Hab by accident. Twice! Beat that, Vogel.”
Although Watney stopped speaking of it, there was the underlying pain of fear in his voice. I like to think that I understood what he was currently feeling—the fear of coming back to a world that has moved on without you. Who would care? Who had pretended to care and moved on? Who would remember? Who would forget?
Yet I believe that Watney needn’t worry; the world had practically stopped spinning for him, and I am sure that whoever he wanted to wait for him still was.
“Whoa, whoa, broken ribs!”
I practically skidded to a stop in front of him. People were taking turns to talk with Watney alone, and I’d practically thrown Vogel aside to squeeze into the room. I could feel my eyes brimming with tears, so I stood awkwardly from a distance, holding my arms out in an air hug.
“I missed you so much!” I wailed. He winced at the shrillness and laughed, cringing again while he touched his chest gingerly. I apologized profusely but he waved me off, until I began to ramble, finally blurting out, “—and I’m so sorry for leaving you behind—”
“Hold up. I already told you, it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t any of your guys’ fault. My bio-mon blew and the storm was way too bad for you to help me, anyways. Lewis made the right call. It would’ve sucked worse if we’d all been stuck without the MAV. Besides, it all worked out; I’m here now, aren’t I? Better late than never!”
His kindness just made me want to cry more and I sank down into the seat next to his bedside, rubbing tears away with my sleeves. He ruffled my hair as I tried to suck back my embarrassingly loud hiccups.
“Hey, did you cry this much when you thought I’d died?” he joked. A laugh bubbled past a sob, coming out as a weird gurgle.
“No. I didn’t cry at all. I was relieved.”
“Actually?” he asked, sounding the tiniest bit hurt. I couldn’t help a burst of laughter, still amazed with his ability to make you smile, no matter how terrible you were feeling.
“Look, I’m crying because I’m happy. And you’ve got to get well soon so we can all watch your funeral with you! NASA sent us a recording of it. It makes you look like you’re kind of important.”
He rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “Wow, I’m glad you care for me so much, you big nerd.”
“Hey! This big nerd helped save your life,” I protested.
“To which I am eternally grateful. Thanks for your manuals about ASCII and hexadecimal, by the way. Also, your sketches for your superhero design are—”
“You looked at those?!” I yelped, feeling an explosion of an embarrassed blush hit my cheeks. I would have hit him if he didn’t look like he’d break if I did.
“Hey, a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. If that means snooping through your nerdy drawings, then that means snooping around.”
“You’re the worst, Watney!” I cried out, but I didn’t really mean it. “Snoop in your own stuff, or Chris’!”
I’d said his first name by accident and had an instant, terrifying moment of regret, before I saw Watney’s eyes light with understanding. The blush only grew and I leant forwards.
“Hey, Commander Lewis only just barely was okay with—”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Watney retorted. “The ship’s tiny and made out of metal. Did you think we didn’t notice you two sneaking around during unlogged hours? Did you think I just suddenly needed that many ear plugs for no reason—”
“O-okay!” I felt my face on fire and tried to fan it off. “Well, we hear what you say to your girlfriend, too!”
I didn’t expect his face to become so crestfallen after saying that, and immediately, a lump of concern formed in my throat. I hadn’t said anything wrong, unless… My brow furrowed together as I asked, more gently, “you are still in love with her… aren’t you?”
“Of course I am,” he said immediately, but it was distant, dazed. “Of course I do… she kept me alive. I don’t think I could’ve made it if I weren’t thinking about getting back home to her.”
“So why the long face?” I asked, confused. “If it were me, I’d be fighting everybody that dared to get in my way to talk to Chris.”
“I’m just scared…” He took a deep breath. “…about Schrödinger’s cat.”
“The… cat?” I asked, too surprised to even formulate a proper question. “I don’t know what you’re getting at.”
“You put the cat in a box with some poison gas in a jar and some radioactive material. The alpha particles that are randomly emitted from the radioactive metal has a 50/50 chance of breaking the jar and killing the cat. But the box is closed. You don’t know whether or not the cat’s alive or dead. It could be mewling up a storm… or it could’ve died the second you closed the lid.
So it’s both dead and alive. At this time, the box is closed. So the girl that I love… she either moved on without me, or is still waiting. Maybe she has gone off, married somebody else… Maybe she didn’t. Right now she’s done both. As soon as I open the box—as soon as I find out—I’ll determine the past, and only one future will exist in this timeline.
I’m scared that I’ll open it to a dead cat. I’ll open the box and find that she gave up on me.”
“You’re not making very much sense,” I said slowly after he’d finished his monologue, growing more concerned by the second. “Did Chris shoot you up on too many drugs? Are you high?”
“…maybe.” He groaned, rubbing his temples. “The gist of it is that I really don’t know what to do if she forgot about me. I wouldn’t blame her. But…”
“You open the box, but there’s nothing left for the two of you, because the cat’s already dead,” I finished for him. I felt like I was finally getting what he was trying to say. He nodded wearily.
“Mark,” I breathed, coming to a realization of the depth of his pain. Figuring that it wasn’t time to make fun of his vulnerability, I shook my head, putting my hand over his. “Hey. You want a woman’s intuition?”
He gave me a pained smile. “What, you’re a woman now? More like little girl’s intuition.”
“Shut up, I’m trying to be nice,” I snapped. I let go of his hand and smiled broadly. “You’re a real, respected, honoured hero of the whole wide world. You’re a good guy, period. Anybody who’d give you up is insane.”
“I wouldn’t blame her,” he muttered, as if he hadn’t heard me at all. “I was declared dead. I’d have given up on me, too.”
“No, you wouldn’t have,” I argued. “You didn’t give up. You made it back, didn’t you? You faced all the odds, and you won against freaking Mars. Are you telling me that one little video call scares you after all that you’ve been through?”
“Yeah,” he replied quietly, so honestly that I lost a grip on my words. He stared out the window, watching the sun’s light revolve. “Yeah. I’m terrified.” He looked back to me. “What if it were Beck? What if you weren’t sure if Beck loved you back? What if his love was in the box… and he both loved you and didn’t. Would you open the box only to find out that he didn’t?”
I took a second to compose my thoughts before standing. The chair slid against the floor as I dusted off my clothes.
“Well… he does love me back. I know that for sure. In your scenario, he both loves and doesn’t love me. But he still does, even if it’s only in some quantum plane.
I know, deep down, that you know how she feels, too. It’s not a box. You know. That’s what happens when you’re really in love. It goes past time and space. It defies physics, math, all of our known laws… love is different. You just know. You don’t need to be afraid of the box if she’s already waiting for you.”
I remembered something and perked up. “There are still some things in the archives for you from past data dumps. We didn’t open them out of respect, but… when you’re ready, I think you should have a look. You’ll get your answer soon.”
I smiled. “You’re welcome, Mark. But if I can offer some more women’s intuition… you should really get yourself groomed before trying to talk to your girlfriend, or she’ll leave you for real.”
I nearly collapsed with relief upon seeing him, but steeled my nerve. Stiffly, I walked up to him and sat. My knees felt like they’d been replaced with cotton balls.
He broke out with a toothy grin. “What, is that all that you got for me?” He looked much more mobile than when we’d first hauled him aboard, and I hoped that the medications were kicking in to help him out. Beck had told me about his condition, and although it was less than ideal, he was at least, still alive.
I couldn’t help a laugh. “Maybe it’s all you deserve, Watney. Are you resting well?”
“Yeah. I feel like shit, but at least I’m off of Mars.”
“Yes. At least you’re off of Mars.” I still found myself at a loss of words, which was embarrassing of me, the leader. Standing up rigidly, I nearly saluted him, but restrained myself. I needed to sort myself out more before talking to him. There’d be plenty of time to catch up, though. I was comforted by that fact.
“I’ll let you rest more, then. You’re probably exhausted.”
“Wait, Commander Lewis.”
“If you’re going to make another crack at my taste in music…” I began lightly, but he shook his head.
“Although I’d love to tell you that disco is god awful… it’s about those favours I asked of you.”
“Ah.” I sat back down slowly, the memories hauntingly clear in my head. I nodded, sensing a serious tone come over the conversation. “Yes, I remember. Why do you bring that up?”
“Um… you know, I asked you to talk to my parents if things went worst case scenario. But I also asked you to talk to…”
I expected him to continue, ‘girlfriend’ echoing in my mind clearly. It wasn’t taboo or anything. But he seemed to have trouble forming the word, and I raised my eyebrow expectantly.
“I would have done as you asked, if things had gone wrong. I promised you that much. But they didn’t, so why are you asking, Watney?”
“I’m just wondering… people keep telling me that I shouldn’t worry, but you’re the one I trust the most here, I think. You won’t lie to soften the blow.” He looked at me, dead square in the eye, and I felt a cold sweat trickle down my spine. “So, tell me the truth, Commander.
What right do I have to ask her to love me after I’ve hurt her so badly?”
Suddenly, I realized something about him. I had known all along that Watney was of incredible character, yes, but never had I known the full extent. I had known that he was highly intelligent, and extraordinarily capable, but never had I imagined that he could survive so long—on his own, to boot. Never had I imagined that he’d be brought down to haggard tears by the thought of a woman… but the innocent look in his eyes instantly made me admire him more than I already had. He was human. These were human emotions. Mark Watney stood to defy my expectations, but he was still a man.
“You… are an idiot,” I said slowly, startling him so much that his eyes widened. I smiled encouragingly. “You’re showing a lot of stupidity for somebody smart enough to live off of a dead planet for so long. Call her. You’ll never know until you try. And if she breaks your heart… well, you’ll survive. A broken heart’s better than getting your organs sucked out due to the vacuum of space, or starving to death, or dying of thirst…”
“So, what. If she breaks my heart, I lived through all that for nothing?” he asked, straining to keep his tone upbeat when it was clear that he was in pain. I shook my head.
“Not for nothing. You lived for yourself. So, as your friend, I’m telling you that you don’t have anything to worry about. And, as your commander, I feel obligated to command that you call your girlfriend immediately.”
“That’s a serious order, Watney.” But I was still smiling. Finally, he nodded. Slowly at first, and then a confident jerk of the chin.
“…okay. Will do, Commander. But seriously, can I ask something?”
“Anything at all.”
“Please never mention disco around me ever again.”
Pretty much everybody had told me that I was a moron for overthinking it. And they were right. What kind of guy stresses out this much over a chick when I’ve literally done what no man has ever done before?
Me, the nerdy botany loser: Dr. Mark R. Watney. That’s who. (And yes, the correct term’d be ‘whom’, but give me a break. I just got off of Mars.)
I’ve colonized a desolate planet, technically speaking. I survived for nearly 2 years on my own on Mars. I’ve officially become a space pirate. I probably have songs written about me and like, 4 wax statues. Maybe even a plaque on a wall of fame somewhere. Maybe several. I’m a fuckin’ cool dude!
And I’m worried that a girl won’t like me back.
I always wondered if I’d make it if I were really alone. I was by myself, physically, but I always had a faint feeling that I wasn’t totally on my own. I don’t like to close off all of my options. Maybe something’s out there, and whether it was God or karma or whatever; I always felt like I had something to keep me going. But I think it was usually just me missing things.
Man, I never thought that I would miss clouds so much. Missing pizza and baseball and sex and non-disco music and basic human interaction are givens, yeah, but clouds; those giant fluffy cotton balls that look like they’re suspended in the air with invisible rope; the wispy, barely there streaks of white against a blue sky…
I think I missed blue a lot. Green, too. Mars was a red desert for miles on end. I got sick of it pretty easily. The sky was red, too. And there weren’t any clouds on Mars, so I’d always see the stars, but they only reminded me of how far away I was from her. How far away she was from me.
I wasn’t a quitter. I treated the distance as a rope that I had to pull on to get myself there. I just hope that she didn’t ever look up into the stars to see them covered with clouds… and then move on without thinking about me.
Maybe that’s weak of me. Maybe I can deserve a little moment of weakness after having to shoulder my responsibilities for so long. Maybe I just want to go back to a time where I don’t have to constantly worry about dying; maybe I just want to go back to a time where I can hold her in my arms and not have to think about the next problem.
Schrödinger’s cat. If I never open the box, I’ll never know—but the cat will never die, and subsequently, the cat will never live. It’s all decided the moment I open the box.
I guess it’s about time that I do.
I called Beck back in to OD me on more painkillers and get me out of his ‘sickbay’. The pain still sucked, even in the 0G areas of the Hermes, but I had Beck and Vogel push and pull me into the main living space. It was brutal work, having my ass in Vogel’s face and Beck’s hands gripping me in places I never thought another man would touch me in as they tried to get me down the ladder safely. It was doubly as hard to have them cart me to a computer without such things as wheelchairs or stretchers. They settled for a ridiculous pseudo-bridal style of carrying me, which just about knocked the teensy shred of dignity I had left out the ballpark. NASA could build a ship that could fly all the way to Mars and back—several times, even—but they didn’t think of including a damn iPad. Figures.
“You good?” Beck asked after I’d finally eased myself into the chair. With shaky hands, I logged in. The logo flashed with a ‘Welcome, WATNEY, MARK”—the all-caps of my name had always been a bit aggressive, but was now welcomed indeed—and a whole folder of unopened data files greeted me. Pretty much all of them had sad titles like ‘GOODBYE 101128’ or ‘MISS YOU 013128’, but I ignored all of them.
“We’re not in range for video,” I muttered aloud, afraid to be left alone again, as silly as it sounded. I was just saying obvious things to prolong the ‘opening of the box’. “But live audio still works. Right? Radio waves?”
“It’ll be laggy, but yeah.” A hand hit my shoulder. I didn’t know whose it was, but it gave me comfort anyways. “You’ll be fine. Just go for it.”
“NASA is going to be pissed that I didn’t call them first.”
“NASA will be fine,” Vogel dismissed. “Call her.”
“Right… I can do this.” I took a deep breath. As I did, I heard Vogel and Beck’s footsteps recede, their low mutters converging into silence as they left to give me privacy. The only noise were the clicks and hums of the ship’s machinery to make sure that 6 little astronauts didn’t implode in space.
I missed trees a lot. Plants. I’d spent so much time working with them for my plant biology doctorate. I’d forgotten what fields looked like, having seen red deserts for so long. I spent so much time picking out just the right flowers for her.
I missed oceans. Water. Not having to worry about conserving each molecule; being able to watch the waves and tides with her.
I missed clouds. I missed being able to look up from her face and see clouds.
I missed the sky.
I missed my family.
Fuck, man. I missed her. It doesn’t matter if the cat’s dead or alive—I just need to see it.
I sent out a transmission request to [SURNAME] [NAME], closing my eyes, my hands clasped in prayer to plead with whatever was out there. I’d probably used up the last bit of my luck, but if there was anything left, I wanted to call it all in.
I miss her.
I miss him, I miss him, I miss him.
It was all you could seem to think about. It was like a constant beating with your heart, I miss him, and it never went away. The pain played the long game and in you it fucking remained. Some days it’d feel okay and then some days it’d hit you—Mark Watney is dead, remember?—and it’d just start again. A visceral, all over pain that ate away at your will to go on. Mark’s dead. He’s gone. What’s the point?
You weren’t a quitter. You had known the risks all along. Nobody had died on Mars yet, but you supposed Mark would’ve been happy to be declared the first. He was just… easy going like that. Unbelievable, idiotic, and somebody you’d hopelessly fallen in love with. He was worshipped around the globe, but only you knew what he looked like with spinach in his teeth, or deep circles under his eyes from binge-watching Star Trek. You were the only one who had known him enough to really love him. So even when you’d been told he was dead, you grit your teeth and lifted your chin up, moving on wordlessly. You knew that you weren’t a lot of things that he was—but at least you weren’t a quitter.
But that pain didn’t go away even when they told you “hey, turns out the guy’s actually alive!” It felt like it worsened. Now it felt like you were going to experience his death a second time. Would the pain double? Increase ten-fold? Would you quit then? Could you keep going if he’d made it only to die again?
You rooted for him. You hoped to the far reaches of the solar system and back that he’d be okay and prove you wrong. You hoped to #BringHimHome and you hoped to just see him again. You hoped to see him sneeze and yawn and smile and say ‘I love you’ one last time.
When NASA finally reached out to you to ask if you’d like to send him an e-mail, you hesitated. In fact, you hesitated for so long that you missed your chance entirely. Of course you wanted to say something to him, but you just couldn’t figure out what. Even now, as you had your eyes squeezed shut and fingers crossed, you couldn’t figure out what you would want to say to him if he were coming back.
Maybe that hesitation stemmed from the ‘if’. Were you a bad person if you didn’t believe that Mark was ‘definitely’ coming back? His parents were the ‘will’—he will come back. Everybody else was the he has to come back. Were you a bad girlfriend if you just thought of the if he comes back? The ‘if’ he just flat out… dies? Just like that. No more Mark Watney, after all that had happened. All he’d done.
If he really went out, for real this time, you wouldn’t have said goodbye to him. You’d said goodbye on launch day and you’d said goodbye during his transit to Mars—but those were never ‘Bye, never seeing you again!’ goodbyes. They were ‘See you soons’ and a ‘see you soon’ is not quite good enough when the love of your life kicks the bucket.
So this internal pain switches, from being an ‘I miss him’ to an ‘I hate myself’ to an ‘I hate him for almost dying’ and an ‘I hate myself for not being a better person when he’s almost dying’. It jumped back and forth. Whatever it was, it always hurt like hell.
It didn’t even seem to matter. Mark’s successful return to the Hermes had been announced practically a day ago, and you hadn’t gotten a peep. You hadn’t stepped more than a foot away from your computer, waiting. You expected him to be busy in correspondence with NASA or his parents, but the silence on your end made you feel as if he’d just… forgotten about you.
In a way, that might’ve hurt more.
But maybe that was for the best. He’d gotten this far using who-knows-what kind of methods; maybe forgetting about his loser girlfriend on Earth was a part of it. If so, he was still living because of that, and maybe you just had to accept it. After all, Mark was way more important than you. Even as an astronaut, he was famous—a hero—and you were… who, again? When he was dead, he was even more famous—and now what? He was practically a living legend for actually surviving this whole time. You didn’t even get the ‘who are you, again?’ question. You only got the ‘get out of the way, I’ve got to talk to Watney!’ demand.
I miss him, I miss him, I miss him.
Oh, fuck it. You weren’t a quitter.
When your computer suddenly blared with a loud ringtone, you practically fell out of your chair, scrambling to the keyboard. You could hardly see through your grogginess, but managed to find the accept button, and croaked out a pathetic “Hello?”
“Hey. Is your refrigerator running?”
The static made it hard for you to hear, but it had to be him. It had to be. You collapsed into a chair, looking at the pixelated wave conform to his voice.
“Y-yeah,” you responded weakly, stammering with nervousness but playing along, just in case this was a dream. “Yeah, it is. Why?”
“I’d tell you to go catch it, but I bet it could run faster.”
“Mark,” you said in a cautious tone, pinching at the skin of your arms to make sure you really weren’t dreaming this up. Because he couldn’t see you, you closed your eyes, clasping your hands together. “This is really you… right?”
Please, please, please…
A laugh. “Who else would it be?”
“Oh my g—okay. Wow, um. Wow! You’re alive…” You had no idea to do with this rush of emotions so you suddenly began to cry, babbling to your computer monitor like an idiot. Yu laughed and then cried more. “You’re alive! I—wow? Huh! You’re really…!”
“Yeah… I’m alive.”
“And you’re okay?!”
“Yeah, pretty much. How are you? I… haven’t heard from you.”
“Yeah, about that…” You sucked in all your tears, your emotional rollercoaster dropping you off to plummet from the middle of a loop-dee-loop, and suddenly you started to laugh again. “Yeah, sorry. Dick move on my part, right? I just didn’t know what to say, really. Are you mad at me for that?”
“…you didn’t throw out any of my things, right? Because then I’ll actually be mad at you.”
Despite the light-hearted tone, you could sense the deeper question behind it. Mark never liked to take things too seriously, and you knew that ‘throw out my things’ meant ‘gave up on me’.
“No,” you breathed truthfully. “All your ugly ties are still in the closet.”
“Good,” came the crackly response. “I would’ve definitely broken up with you if you got rid of my sweet Pluto tie.” Almost as an afterthought, you barely heard him mutter, “looks like the cat’s alive after all…”
“Hey Mark?” you said abruptly, fully aware that these calls couldn’t go on forever and that you would have to get to the point, even if you were afraid to.
I miss you, I miss you, I miss you…
“Yeah?” he replied softly. Despite the fact that the voice call feature made his voice seem disembodied, you could see his face all the same; ruggedly square with a crooked grin and some half-assed bad joke hiding in the gleam of his eyes. Your own filled with tears and the screen blurred as fat droplets rolled down your cheeks.
“Do you still love me?” she asked. Her voice lost a lot of its emotion because of the shit quality, but I felt like I could imagine it. She was probably crying; sitting; waiting. For whom? Me.
I was baffled. I had no idea how she could’ve gotten to that point. To that question of ‘do you still love me?’. How could I not?! How could I stop loving a thing—the person—that had been so good to me, even when I was without this love for so long?
“Do you still love me?” I asked back. The loaded question. My voice cracked on the last word because I knew I wouldn’t be able to handle it if she said no. But somehow, like Johansson had said… I think I knew what she was thinking.
Love transcends time and space. It travels faster than light. Unlike a photon, love doesn’t follow rules. Unlike a photon, love is the big picture. It’s always been the big one. It gives and it takes. It hurts and it heals.
Hands on the lid. You have the power to change the past from the future. Will the cat be alive? Or dead?
I think I knew what she was thinking. I felt it. I heard the cat meow.
“On 3?” one asked.
“On 3,” the other replied.
I love you.”
The words resonated through time and space and sweet, simple truth.