Ernestine made us a butternut squash soup with chunks of green apple and pear. She blended the ingredients with a hand mixer and simmered it while Sam and I cleared the table.
It was covered in old receipts, photographs, cords and clamps, playing cards, sheets of paper scrawled on with unsteady hands, and brown-ringed teacups. We asked her where it all went but she didn’t know anymore. She couldn’t remember much, but she remembered how to make the soup.
The produce came in a thick metal box with a clamp, and a button that defrosted the contents. Ernestine gets all her produce from an outpost near Ganymede, and her meat from a station on Io. Her freezer is all blocked up with maple sausage patties; she says they’re for me, that she remembers how much I like them. I’ve been allergic to the coloring agents for nearly a decade now.
Sam helps her take the pot off the stove and holds the bowls steady while she ladles them.
"Peachy, get us some bread why don’t you?" Ernestine asks. She does not look up at me.
I open the refrigerator. I see unopened mustard, a shampoo bottle, and two beers. “There’s nothing,” I tell her.
She shakes her head with grave disappointment. “Not there.” She takes a long time before speaking these days, gathering her wool and stitching it out. “There’s a lady down on Complex 5, by the fountain. She’s got a little bakery there. That’s where I get it.”
"What, you want me to go buy some now?"
Her head shakes when it nods. She has trouble holding it steady.
"My card’s on the coffee table," Sam says. He’s going into the dining room with the bowls.
"I have money, Samuel."
My hand is on the door. Complex 5 isn’t far, but it’s 16:30 UST, and everything closes early as shit on this station. It’s a glorified retirement community. I could go there and find out the sweet old lady who bakes the bread has been dead for a week. Our mom wouldn’t know.
I’m on the stoop when she says, “That’ll be fine, we’ll just need to get some bread later. To extend the leftovers.”
Ernestine locks her watery gaze on Sam, who smiles and taps the table with his fork. “Yes ma’am, we can’t have you slaving over a stove every time one of us wants to eat!”
His smile intensifies and pleads at me. So I sit down beside our mother. Her hand shakes the spoon through the surface of the soup and clinks all the way to the bottom of the bowl. But she makes it back up and takes a sip with no problem.
"The doctors have me on this nectar diet," she says, after she swallows. "Five days a week, just the nutrient juice. But I’m so pleased to have somebody to cook for."
"It’s wonderful, Mom."
And I’m not bullshitting her. I wouldn’t. The soup is delicious, tart and sweet like early fall on the surface of I-2367. They don’t grow apples like these so close to the sun. Not anymore. The old bird must’ve paid a small fortune for these, and then she went and pulped ‘em.
"Do they make lots of different flavors?" Sam asks.
My little brother is pale with seafoam green eyes. He’s not sturdy and tanned like my mother and me, like most of the people from the outer belt. His biological parents were energy farmers just outside of Sol, or so we heard. When he came to us, he was several months old and had been sleeping since his birth. When we woke him, he didn’t remember them.
Our mother is frowning. “No, they make about five or six flavors I think. Apple. Cran-Grape. Cinnamon Latte. Honey Peanut. Let’s see…Onion Chive.”
"Really?? Onion nectar?"
She waves her hand around. “Oh, and it’s this murky white color, it’s awful. And your piss looks like that, after you’ve had it.”
"Why would they make that?" Sam asks.
"They had to do a savory one," Ernestine says. "You can’t just have sweet all the time."
I say, “It would make you a baby. Only babies live on sweet things all the time.”
"Breast milk is very sweet," Ernestine whispers at him, to clarify.
"Okay, okay. Mom. Gross."
We eat a while and then I bring out the jug of wine. I got it at the duty-free shop on the way here. I pour a little extra into Mom’s (stemless) glass, hoping to loosen her.
Sam proposes a toast. We’re not the toasting kind of family, but Mom doesn’t remember that. She’s pleased as punch and the glass nearly flies from her hand. I have to push it back into her palm with my own cup, clink clink. I sip for a long time and stare at her. She takes tiny hummingbird slurps.
"Mom," Sam says. "What else do the doctors say?"
Our mother wipes her mouth after every bite or drink she takes. This is a new development, born out of her illness. That along with the sterling silver jewelry, heavy makeup, and the new glasses. She knows she is dissolving and so she’s putting a ton of effort into looking presentable. If the trajectory keeps up she’ll be a camera-ready corpse.
"It’s not so good," she says finally. She focuses on the soup bowl as if the bay leaves will tell her future.
"What about the lab on north Mars?" I ask. "The one I sent you the hologram about? Mom, did you look into it?"
She says wearily, “It’s all so much trouble.”
"I sent them a blood sample. It’s the same, Abril. Your doctors saw the scans, same as everybody. It’s nothing you can fix."
"But Mom. If you got involved in a study, you could at least get free treatment, and then, if nothing else happened, you could at least know that you’re helping other people-"
"She doesn’t want it," Sam says. "Abril, leave it be."
“I don’t want to go all the way out to…Mars, or whatever,” our mom says. I’m too busy fuming at Sam to interject. “I know you kids came all the way out here for a reason..,”
Sam’s hand shoots across the table and caresses her on the wrist. I’m right next to her but I don’t know what to do. Wrap and arm around those frail shoulders? Cup her tiny white head in my hands? I could rend my garments and cry with the best of them, but that’s not what would help her. She has to think it’s her own decision.
I can tell Sam is about to say some shit about how all we want is for her to be happy. I stand up and button my sweater. “Mom, we all saw the test results. We all know where this is going.”
Ernestine looks at me, then at something in the corner, to the left of my head. “I just want to stay here. It took so long to get the house perfect.”
“There’s shampoo in the fridge, Mom.”
She nods. “I know. I mean. I know it’s not gonna be good…for very long.”
“I’m here,” Sam says. “Abril has six weeks, and I — I can be here as long as you want.”
She sighs. Her eyes dart back and forth, those dark, slow brown eyes, as if she’s calculating something. “I won’t be dead that soon.”
“What’s coming,” I begin, “is gonna be painful. We’ve looked, we talked to the doctors — Sam and I — and we know that you don’t want that. We could take care of you. I have a spare room, I could set you up-”
“I don’t want to leave here.”
Our mother lives in a huge condo inside Tiangong-4, an Earth-based space station. She’s owned the property since before we were born. Her father died on it. His father purchased the unit; he came here from Earth. Tiangong-4 was launched when people still lived on the surface, years before the Great Expansion. The condo is our family heirloom, intermittent vacation home, distant in-law’s suite, inner-Milky Way outpost, and now our mother’s home.
But, being nearly as old as the Earthen dirt and just as historical, it’s worth trillions. And it’s doing us no good, sitting and rusting away, days of travel from where Sam and I live and work. On Tiangong, there’s no schools and no central business park. There’s no university or teaching hospital where I could get a job. There are no art galleries for Sam. They don’t export anything. All they import is geezers who want to spend their final days staring into the craters of the mother planet.
I unbutton my sweater and button it again. “Mom, if something happened to you out here, what would we do? It would take us so long to get out here…we wouldn’t get to say goodbye. You know?”
“I can’t stay out here forever!” I’m spitting a little when I speak. I need to be more like Ernestine, and wipe my mouth every few seconds.
“Your brother just said he can stay with me,” Ernestine says. And she continues to eat, a napkin at the ready in her right hand.
I look at Sam. He isn’t picking up on my signals. I don’t know why he won’t say something. I think my desperation is clear.
“Abril and I were thinking,” he finally says, very slowly, “that maybe it would be best if you uploaded.”
Tiangong Park is a story in four parts. This is part one.