Alison’s got herself a boyfriend. His name’s Charlie. He’s from that posh school on the other side of town, the one with the big iron gates and tall, redbrick tower. St. Bart’s, it’s called. Boys from there, they call them Bart-Boys. You can tell a Bart-Boy from a mile away because they don’t wear school uniforms like normal kids; they wear suits, proper suits like businessmen wear. When Naomi’s mum drives her to school—not St. Bart’s, obviously, because a) it’s a boy’s school, and b) it’s like super expensive, like you could buy the whole of Naomi’s house with what it costs to go to St. Bart’s—they always see a cluster of Bart-Boys waiting for the bus in front of the newsagent’s. Naomi’s mum inevitably does this little tut of approval and goes, “Don’t they look so smart!” And after that she kind of side-eyes Naomi, who rolls her eyes and tucks in her shirt.
Alison’s so pleased she’s got herself a Bart-Boy. She won’t stop going on about him at lunch break, about how he’s so nice and funny and sweet and did she say hot already? Because he’s, like, super hot.
“Did you kiss yet?” Tessa asks, because she’s got like zero tact.
Alison does this sly smile and ‘not-telling’ face, but then changes her mind because not telling isn’t any fun. She leans forward. “We’ve kissed, like, loads. Like, every day. Even… with tongues,” she says, and everyone—even Naomi—does this gasp/laugh/ew thing and looks at Alison with totally new respect.
Naomi’s never had a boyfriend. There’s Matt Jackson in Biology who sits at the back and throws screwed-up bits of paper at her, which Tessa says means he fancies her, but Naomi is pretty sure he just likes to be annoying. And anyway, it wouldn’t even matter if he fancied her because she’s totally not interested. Like, zero.
The problem is, Naomi isn’t interested in anyone at school. Even Pierce Taylor, who everyone fancies, just doesn’t make her feel excited like she wants to feel—like presumably Alison feels about Charlie. But Naomi isn’t jealous. Honestly, she isn’t. Because Naomi doesn’t want a Bart-Boy. Naomi wants a Moon-Boy.
Naomi’s always known about the Colony. It’s on the news every now and again—some kind of update about what plants they’ve managed to grow or what the population is now or what new gadgets are being flown out to make the Colonists’ lives easier. When she was small, it was a much bigger deal. Almost every night her dad’s shows were interrupted with the fanfare of ‘Breaking News!’ and images would flash across the screen of tiny people moving slowly about on vast rocky plains, wobbling around in clumsy suits and lit by bright white floodlights. Naomi’s dad would grouch and grumble whenever this happened—“Enough already about that stupid rock”—and stub his cigarette once, twice, thrice into the ashtray balanced on the arm of the sofa. Naomi said nothing. Her dad hated it when she answered back, so she didn’t want to show how happy she was that they were no longer watching some stupid gameshow. Instead she would stay very still, engulfed in the armchair in the corner of the room while her dad muttered and smoked and her mum moved around softly in the kitchen, and watch with wide eyes as the newsreaders talked excitedly about things she didn’t understand. The words rushed over her—terraforming, hydroponics, lunar regolith, radiation shielding—and inside her something would stir and twist as her mind rose out of their cramped living room with its paisley wallpaper and ugly brown carpet and upwards, out, into a vastness that had never occurred to her before.
People don’t talk about the Colony so much any more. It’s just kind of there in the background, something everyone knows about but which isn’t new and exciting any more. Not to most people anyway. But Naomi isn’t most people. The thought of the Colony still sets her heart fluttering in her ribcage, her imagination reeling. Even more so since she found that series called Colony Blues, which she downloaded breathlessly two summers ago from the Adult section of the LibraryCloud. There are like twenty books in the series, and she’s read them all at least five times. They’re kind of trashy, but she doesn’t care. The thing is, they excite her; they excite her in a way that none of the boys at school do. In the Colony, boys aren’t annoying like Matt Jackson, or up themselves like the rugby lads who strut around showing off their biceps, or leery like Peter Mammon who stares at like every girl ever from behind his glasses. In the Colony, boys are elegant creatures with enigmatic smiles that flit across their smooth, mournful faces. In the Colony, they say things like ‘meet me outside air lock 3’ and ‘let’s go for a spin in the h-craft’ and ‘what do you say we turn off the grav for a while’. The novels speak of their long, lithe, lunar bodies moving through the low gravity with a cat-like grace. Naomi shivers when she thinks of how a Moon-Boy would kiss. Better than Charlie the Bart-Boy, she bets.
Naomi’s mum found her reading one of the books once. She always comes into Naomi’s room without knocking, just bursts right in, which is so annoying. Naomi managed to flick the cover off in time but seeing the image vanish just made her mum suspicious. She snatched the pad out of Naomi’s hands before Naomi could do anything about it.
Her mum’s lips had gone very thin as she’d thumbed the cover back on. “I don’t want you reading this rubbish,” she’d said. “And you know how your father would feel about it.”
“Please don’t tell dad,” Naomi had said. Her cheeks were, like, so red.
Her mum deleted the book from the pad there and then. “And if I catch you reading a book like that again, I’ll tell your father, I swear.”
Naomi only reads Colony Blues at school now, during lunch break, and she always remembers to mute the covers.
One Monday near the end of October, Ms Fentiman, Naomi’s science teacher, announces that their next module will be about the Moon and the Colony. The class receive the news indifferently. Matt Jackson takes off his glasses and scratches the desk with one of the arms. Victor Hamblin gazes out the window. Lucy Taylor scribbles in her homework diary. Only Naomi sits up straighter, feeling her heartbeat accelerate. At last, something she knows about, something she cares about. Tessa, sitting beside her, gives her a nudge. She knows Naomi is interested in the Colony, though she doesn’t know just how obsessed Naomi really is. Naomi doesn’t want to tell her. Tessa is nice, super nice, but she also likes to tease, and Naomi doesn’t think she can bear to be teased about this.
Ms Fentiman is nice too. Naomi feels bad to see her face fall at the class’s reaction. But then Ms Fentiman musters herself. “How do you think you would feel,” Ms Fentiman asks, “if you were sent to the Colony in that first wave?”
“Pissed off,” says Matt Jackson immediately. The class gasp and snigger in appreciation.
Ms Fentiman raises her hands. “Now, settle down, everyone. Seriously though, Matt, why do you say that?”
“The Moon sucks,” Matt says. “It’s cold and you can’t go outside. It’s boring.”
“Got good v-decks on the Moon though,” says Victor.
“They’d have to,” snorts Matt. “Otherwise they’d all go crazy.”
“Loonies!” giggles Lucy, who fancies Matt and always makes it so obvious. Even Ms Fentiman must be able to tell.
“That’s an interesting point actually, Lucy,” says Ms Fentiman. “Do you know why that word means what it means?”
Lucy shrugs and glances at Matt with a little smile and a pout, as though her not knowing the answer is more likely to make him like her.
Naomi rolls her eyes. Lucy isn’t stupid but she makes out like she is, and that’s what’s stupid. Naomi raises her hand. “Because they thought the Moon sent people mad,” she says.
“Exactly. In the medieval times, people thought the changes in the Moon’s shape exerted influence on the sanity of people here on Earth. Can you tell me why that’s wrong?”
Naomi knows a lot about the Moon. She downloads every book about it she can find. “Because it doesn’t change shape,” Naomi said. “The light just hits it differently.”
“Very good. But what does the Moon affect? Alison, can you tell me?”
Naomi zones out as they talk about tides and magnetism. Maybe she’s a lunatic. The Moon has her in its thrall and is turning her crazy.
Alison claims to have made out with a quarterback at a frat party when she went to visit her older cousin in America last summer—before she met Charlie, of course. She’d drunk beer out of red cups and danced with college boys. In Naomi’s head, all the boys are wearing burgundy-and-white jackets with their names embroidered on the backs, like in the old movies her mum likes to watch, and all the girls are bright and brazen and their lips smiling scarlet slashes. But when she and Tessa press Alison for more detail, she will only give coy hints at what happened next. “Then he grabbed my hand and took me upstairs…” is where she always ends, leaving them suspended in horrified fascination.
Naomi tries to imagine meeting her Moon-Boy at a frat party in America, but the lights and pressed-up bodies of her imagination don’t seem right for him. She transplants him instead to a back porch, isolated, his melancholy face turned up to the stars—at the great white orb of his home. She’d find him out there, unexpectedly, when she went to get some air, to escape from the hot throb of the party. She wouldn’t spot him at first, but then he’d turn, and in turning he would coalesce out of the shadows, a being of moonlight. She would retreat at once, apologizing: “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to-” but he would interrupt with a “No. Please. Stay.” And then a look would pass between them, and in that look they would both recognize—despite their origins—a kindred spirit, a meeting of ways both pure chance and yet dictated long ago by a universal design bigger than either of them could ever conceive. Two orbits by fate aligning.
But no, it couldn’t happen like that, to Naomi’s disappointment. Because Colonists can’t just come back to Earth and walk around and go to parties like everyone else. The lower gravity makes their bodies different. Their bones are lighter, delicate. They grow taller like trees reaching for the light, their muscles stretched lean over long limbs. If they came back to Earth the gravity would be too strong, would injure them. They have to wear pressure suits, masking their slight forms and transforming lunar grace into clumsy stumbling.
Naomi had thought of a way around that, though. Her Moon-Boy wouldn’t come and live here; she would go to the Moon. Which would be cool, to be among those stars. She would be different from everyone else, of course. Shorter, stouter, like a pit bull among greyhounds. But that difference would be exactly what attracted her Moon-Boy to her. He would wrap his long arms around her and bend to kiss the top of her head. He would run his fingers over her muscles, marveling at her Earth-strength. He would-
But there her imagination shies away, leaving her suspended like Alison did—“And then he took me upstairs…”
To the Moon, Naomi thinks, and blushes.
Naomi’s doing really well in science class. She’s always liked science, she supposes—at least she doesn’t hate it, doesn’t dread going into the classroom like she does with Spanish. But this term she’s really acing it. For one assignment they have to make a poster about ‘the Colonist experience’. Naomi doesn’t even have to do any research. She chooses a huge piece of black paper to represent the vastness and darkness of space and populates it with star-shaped cut-outs full of pictures and descriptions of what it’s like to live on the Moon. She describes the shining silver domes mushrooming on the surface, sheltering the Colony from the cold. She describes the thick-wheeled buggies that bounce and skid over the cratered ground, carrying Colonists to and fro. And even, shyly, she describes the way the Colonists’ bodies differ from her own—taller, thinner, paler. More beautiful, she does not add.
Naomi gets the highest grade. She flushes as Ms Fentiman shows her poster to the class and asks her if it’s all right if she puts it up in the hallway so everyone can see.
“I guess so,” Naomi mumbles.
Alison nudges her when Ms Fentiman turns away. “Nerd,” she whispers.
“Stop it,” Naomi hisses, but she can’t help smiling. Of course she knows the most about the Moon. That’s why she’s destined to be with a Moon-Boy. If he were to walk into this classroom right now, he would look straight at her and he would sense her passion, her curiosity, and he would know that she was the girl for him. An Earth girl, but not Earth-bound like everyone else.
Then, at the start of December, as they file into their usual Tuesday science lesson, Ms Fentiman tells them that she has an announcement to make. She is holding back a smile as she says it and her hands pluck at the textbook on her desk. Naomi looks a question at Tessa and Alison and they raise their eyebrows in return. The mystery of the teacher’s excitement silences even Matt Jackson, and the whole class slides into their seats and turns wide eyes to the front.
“Class,” Ms Fentiman says. “I have something very exciting to tell you. In two weeks time, I have organized a trip to the science museum in London.”
Muttering from the class. Matt Jackson’s voice saying “Is that all?”
Ms Fentiman raises her hands. “Quiet, please. I’m not finished yet. The reason we are going to the science museum is that a special event is taking place there. The museum is hosting a visit from a Colonist family. They will give a talk on family life on the Moon.”
Gasps erupt around Naomi. “Woah!” says Victor. Rebecca whistles. Even Matt Jackson is impressed. “That’s… actually really cool, Miss.”
“Well, thank you, Matt.” Ms Fentiman clasps her hands. “This really is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I hope that you’re all as excited about it as I am.”
Tessa is whispering something in Naomi’s ear, but Naomi isn’t listening. Her heart is beating so loudly she can’t hear anything else.
A Colonist family.
It’s fate. She knows it is. Ms Fentiman hasn’t said who will be in the family but Naomi just knows that her Moon-Boy will be there. He can’t not be. Their orbits are going to collide. Finally.
“Naomi!” Tessa gives her a shove in the ribs.
Naomi blinks. Tessa is holding something out to her. A pile of letters.
“Take one and pass them on,” Tessa says. “Honestly Nomi, where are you?”
Naomi takes a letter from the top of the pile and passes the rest to Lucy at the next desk. She looks at it. At the bottom of the letter is a permission form. Naomi’s stomach twists when she sees it.
“Are you all right, Naomi?” Ms Fentiman asks. “I thought you would love this.”
“I do. I mean, I will,” says Naomi. “Sorry, Ms Fentiman. I’m really looking forward to it.” The smile she turns to Ms Fentiman is brittle as lunar surface crust.
She takes the letter home, tucked in the front pocket of her bag. Ms Fentiman needs it back, signed, by the end of the week if Naomi wants to go on the trip. Naomi really wants to go on the trip. She’s never wanted anything so badly in her entire life. Some trips she isn’t bothered about, not really, so she doesn’t even ask her parents to sign the form. It’s easier that way. But this time, she has to. If she can’t go, well, it just isn’t an option. If she can’t go, she’ll simply die.
She’ll ask her mum, she thinks. Her mum will be fine with it. It’s only the science museum and they’re not asking for any money, so it’s not as though it’s a big deal.
Her dad is in when she gets home, though. He’s sitting at the kitchen table with papers strewn around him, frowning as he scribbles over the columns of printed numbers. Naomi’s mum is moving around him, preparing tea, trying not to clatter the mugs.
Naomi hides the letter behind her back and goes upstairs instead. She sits on the edge of her bed and waits. After a while she hears a tread on the stairs. It isn’t her dad, whose steps are heavy and breathing sharp. It’s her mum, who always moves carefully, softly, as though trying to leave as little impression as possible. Naomi rushes to her rucksack and rifles in her pencil case, fishing out the black biro from among the gel pens. She waits until her mum is in her bedroom, then she peeps round the door.
Her mum puts her hand on her chest. “Naomi! Don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Sorry, Mum.” She holds the letter in front of her, crumpled in her hands.
Her mum notices. “What’s that?”
“A letter from school.”
She offers it to her mum and her mum reads it. She frowns a little, licks her lips. Naomi waits, twisting the biro between her fingers. Her palms are sweaty.
Then her mum hands the letter back to her. “You’d better ask your dad.”
“But why, mum?” She blurts it out before she can stop herself.
“He likes to know what’s going on.” Her mum won’t meet her eyes. Naomi thinks she might cry, which is stupid and babyish, she knows. But she really wants this. She needs this.
“I know, mum. But… I just really want to go.”
“I’m sure your dad will sign it for you.”
Her mum moves to pass her, to go out into the hallway and back downstairs. As her hand closes on the edge of the door, Naomi says “Mum.”
Her mum stops. Naomi can hear her breathing. Then her mum turns and almost rips the letter and the pen out of her hand. She leans the letter up against the wall and signs it, then shoves it hastily back at Naomi.
“Not a word to your father.”
“No, mum. I know. Thank you.”
But her mum has already gone, her steps soft on the stairs. Naomi looks at the letter. Her mum’s signature is wobbly and in some places the ink hasn’t come out properly, but it’s there. Naomi will have to fill in the other bits of the form, but that’s OK. It’s signed. She can go.
When Naomi daydreams about her Moon-Boy she can almost zone out the sounds of her parents arguing downstairs. Her dad’s voice, strained and low, like a taut bowstring; her mother’s shrill and defensive, thrumming with an undertone of fear. And sometimes, worst of all, an almost-silence in which there is a sound only half heard.
When she comes down for dinner she studiously avoids her parents’ faces, which she knows will be mottled with anger and puffy with tears. No false jollity is attempted. They eat their meals in silence.
On the Moon, they eat vegan diets produced from hygrospheres, great bubbles of transparent plastic full of green leaves and alight with moisture hanging glittering in the air. Plants hang from tiers chained to the roof, so that everywhere are leaves, tendrils, seedpods, even flowers. A soft fut-fut-fut of sprinklers is the constant rhythmic background, while the occasional caretaker tends the garden, serene and unhurried.
If Naomi had a Moon-Boy, a hygrosphere would be the perfect place for a midnight tryst. Among the earthy-smelling loam and hiss of sprinklers, dew forming on their faces.
“Here,” he’d say, removing the blindfold. “I thought it would remind you of home.” And he would kiss her hand as she gazed about and place a flower on it. Not a rose—her Moon-Boy would not be so conventional—but an orchid, rare and white. “For my Earth-flower.”
OK, but it wouldn’t be cheesy when he said it. It would be super sweet and also kind of sexy.
Alison won’t stop going on about how sweet and sexy Charlie is. Naomi and Tessa roll their eyes hard at one another when Alison goes off on one of her Charlie stories. It isn’t that they don’t believe her—the point with Alison’s stories isn’t whether they’re true or not. Naomi and Tessa have known her for long enough to understand this. This year, a new girl—Sarah—has started hanging out with them a bit, but she doesn’t get Alison at all. When Alison told her about the whole frat party thing, Sarah rolled her eyes and snorted.
“You’re such a liar,” Sarah drawled.
“I am not!” Alison looked more surprised than offended. No one called her a liar; it wasn’t done.
“Come on then. Tell us what happened upstairs.”
Alison kept her cool. “A lady doesn’t tell,” she smirked. But Naomi saw the fear in her eyes and stepped in.
“Yeah, come on, Sarah. Ladies don’t tell.”
Sarah huffed and stalked away, but Alison squeezed Naomi’s hand in gratitude.
Sarah caught up with Naomi later. “Why do you guys suck up to her like that? She’s such a fake.”
Sarah looked disgusted. “If that story is true, she’d tell you what happened, no question.”
“She’s my best friend,” Naomi snapped. “Leave off.”
But Naomi knows Alison had seen her tell that story, seen the fear in her eyes. The reason Naomi didn’t ask more is because she suspects Alison doesn’t know what had happened any more than she did. She doesn’t need to say it. That’s what friends are for. If Alison wants to use that story now to impress people, why shouldn’t she at least have that?
Naomi and Tessa wonder sometimes if they should tell someone about Alison and the frat party, but it was six months ago and in America. What could they do? But they don’t call her a liar. They do that much.
The morning of the visit, Naomi goes downstairs with her heart thundering in her chest. All night she tossed and turned and eventually fell into fitful, excited dreams of her Moon-Boy. It’s hard now to hide her churning thoughts as she sits opposite her mum and spoons bran flakes into her mouth. Her mum is watching her dad, who’s pacing about with a coffee in his hand reading the paper.
“Have you got your lunch?” her mum asks.
Naomi wonders if her mum’s forgotten about the trip today, but then her mum’s eyes dart to her dad and back again and Naomi realities that she hasn’t forgotten. It’s good to know that her mum remembered. Naomi gets the message though.
“OK,” she says, making sure she tucks her chair neatly under the table, “I’ll see you later.”
“See you later,” says her mum, relieved.
Naomi fidgets on the bus all the way to school and then fidgets on the coach all the way to London. Alison and Tessa sit together on the two seats in front of her so Naomi is stuck sitting next to Peter Mammon, who stares at her all the way. Every so often Alison and Tessa look pityingly back and Tessa mouths ‘sorry’ through the gap in the seats, but Naomi doesn’t mind. Usually she hates being anywhere near Peter, but today she isn’t thinking about him at all. She gazes out the window, her fingers twisting in her lap, her mind buzzing. Today, finally, today, she will meet her Moon-Boy. This is it, she thinks. This is what I’ve been waiting for.
She staggers off the coach in a daze and follows Alison and Tessa, still chattering and giggling, into the science museum. The foyer is cavernous and the class’s voices echo off the stone. A whale hologram soars and twists overhead. The boys point up at it, but Naomi only has eyes for the poster beside the information desk. A LUNAR FAMILY: TALK TODAY! AUDITORIUM.
Today! Naomi’s thoughts echo.
Ms Fentiman herds them into a tight circle. Other school groups have arrived too, and everywhere blazers and ties and grey pleated skirts are mingling. Ms Fentiman tries to keep their blue jumpers together in the throng.
“All right, class. Follow me!”
Naomi positions herself right behind Ms Fentiman as she leads the way to the auditorium. She doesn’t care if she looks like a nerd; she wants to get the best seat for the talk. Not that it really matters where she sits. She knows her Moon-Boy will see her wherever she ends up. She pictured it multiple times last night: the lights going up on stage, her Moon-Boy stepping forward to talk. But as he spoke, his eyes would alight upon her, sitting quietly among the gathered audience. Something about her would give him pause—the unpretentious prettiness of her face, the intensity of her gaze—and the look that would pass between them would communicate more than words ever could, and they would both, in that moment, know.
The auditorium is not as big as Naomi thinks it’s going to be. Soft red seats curve in a semi-circle round a small stage set with three chairs. The space fills with chattering as the school groups file in. Naomi holds her breath as a blue-shirted museum employee points Ms Fentiman towards a block of seats. Ms Fentiman steps aside and waves Naomi in.
Naomi sits, jittery with excitement. Their seats aren’t, like, right at the front but she’s close enough that she’ll be visible from the stage.
Tessa squeezes in next to her, Alison on her far side. “This is cool,” says Tessa, looking around.
“Yeah,” says Naomi, annoyed. Tessa is cheapening the moment using words like ‘cool’. It isn’t cool. It’s serious. But Tessa doesn’t know that and neither does Alison, who’s taking pictures on her phone and then tapping away with a small, secret smile on her face. Charlie, Naomi guesses. But still, she’s not jealous—especially not now, when she’s about to meet her Moon-Boy.
The lights dim. There’s a chorus of ‘ssssh’es and giggles. Then lights come up on the stage and a woman walks on, clad in a smart suit and skirt.
“Welcome,” she says, “Welcome, everyone, to a truly unique event here at the London Science Museum. We have a lot of people to thank for making this happen…” Naomi zones out as the woman speaks about funders and organizations. Her knee is jumping up and down like she can’t control it. Her stomach fizzes with nerves. “As you all know, we have some special guests here to speak to you this afternoon,” the woman finally says. “I would like to welcome the Ferguson family, all the way from the Colony.” The woman stands aside, clapping, and the audience joins in as a door opens on the left side of the stage and three figures walk in. Naomi’s breath catches.
“Weird,” Alison says, clapping.
Naomi would shoot her a look but she’s too busy staring. The figures are making their way onto the stage. They have to move slowly, clad as they are in bulky pressure suits. The suits are grey and mundane; they look like work overalls. The helmets are globular and entirely transparent. Through them she can see the family: a woman with a long nose and short-cropped ginger hair; a man, clean-shaven and smiling kindly at everyone; and, yes, oh yes, just like she knew there would be—a boy. A boy, his hair auburn, his face pale—though currently turned sideways to her as he makes his careful way up the steps behind his parents.
They each get to the woman on the stage and shake her hand. Then the mother steps to the front of the stage. “Thank you,” she says. “It’s such an honor to be here to share this talk with you all. We hope you’ll find it interesting.”
Naomi stops listening, because the Moon-Boy turns with his father and faces the front of the stage. Naomi can see his face now.
It’s not what she expected.
The Moon-Boy’s face is long and bony. There is a smattering of freckles across the tops of his cheeks. His eyes, which she’d always imagined to be dark and brooding, are light—green or gray or blue, she can’t tell from here—and rimmed with red. He looks a bit puffy, a bit ill. When he smiles hesitantly at the audience, his teeth are crooked and yellowing. He is tall, but not that much taller than the tallest boys in Naomi’s class. He is… normal. Bland. Boring. And as his eyes move across the audience, they slide over her. There is no hesitation, no catch, no recognition. To him, she is boring too. Just another face in the crowd.
It’s suddenly quite hard to breathe. Naomi forces air in and out her mouth as the presentation starts, holograms springing into life above the stage. She tries to concentrate, but whenever she looks at the Moon-Boy her stomach knots and her cheeks start to burn. She lets her eyes blur, blur out his plain, disappointing features, blur out the 3D photos of Moon-life that rotate and reform above the Colonists’ heads. She perks up again, briefly, when it’s the Moon-Boy’s turn to speak. But his voice is the same as his face: boring boring boring. His accent is a little strange but otherwise he sounds like Matt Jackson. She lets his words slide past her ears and slumps in her chair.
And then everyone is clapping. Naomi claps too, mechanically, as the Colonists wave and smile and leave the stage. Naomi looks away, unable to bear the Moon-Boy’s trundling gait as he follows his parents out through the door.
That night, Naomi can’t stop crying. Like she tries but she just can’t. She deletes her colony romances from her pad and she just cries. Her mum comes timidly knocking. “What’s wrong, love?” Naomi can’t answer: it’s too stupid, too humiliating. “Did something happen on the trip?” Naomi shakes her head, then nods, then shakes her head again. It doesn’t feel like something that happened on the trip. It feels like something broke inside her. Her heart, probably.
Her mum sits on the edge of the bed and gives her a hug. Naomi cries harder. She’s glad her dad isn’t home. Her dad doesn’t like her making too much noise.
Eventually her tears run out and her mum gives her a squeeze. “Is there anything I can do, love?”
“No, mum. It’s nothing.”
“It’s not nothing.”
“I’ll be fine, mum.”
Her lie turns out to be true after all. All the next week she goes to school on the bus like normal, and when she feels wobbly she just takes a deep breath and squeezes the tears back inside. She sits in science class and raises her hand and answers Ms Fentiman’s questions and she does her homework like she’s supposed to. She even gets a C in the weekly Spanish test, which is, like, quite a big deal for her. At lunch she listens to Alison talk about Charlie, and she and Tessa roll their eyes and laugh and nod and gasp in all the right places. But she does ask one more question of Alison, on Thursday, once Tessa has gone to hockey class and she and Alison are walking to the bus stop together.
“Is Charlie nice, Ali?”
Alison gives her a look. “Haven’t you been listening, Nomi?”
Naomi takes her arm, stops her. “I mean nice though, Ali. Is he nice.”
Alison frowns. “Of course he is,” she snaps, pulling her arm away.
Naomi’s offended for a moment. She thinks about spinning on her heel, flouncing off. Instead she draws Ali in and gives her a hug.
“What are you doing?” Ali asks, muffled into her shoulder. But Naomi feels her relax. After a moment, Ali mumbles, “He’s nice. I promise.”
Naomi steps back. “Can we meet him, Ali?”
Alison shrugs. “Sure. Only don’t say anything stupid to him, OK?”
The exchange lifts Naomi’s spirits. She feels a bit better as she sits on the bus, winding its way through the suburbs. Her steps feel a little lighter as she walks the short way from the bus stop to her front door. Her mum’s car is in the driveway but her dad’s isn’t. That makes her feel better too. But when she’s in the hallway taking off her shoes, she hears a small sound from the living room. She abandons her laces and tiptoes to the door. Her mum is sitting in the armchair, which is strange because she never sits in the living room any more, not really. The living room has always been her dad’s place. Naomi and her mum tend to move around it, alighting occasionally before returning once more into orbit.
Naomi’s mum has her head in her hands. She’s silent now. Maybe Naomi imagined the noise.
“Mum,” Naomi says. Her mum looks up, and Naomi sees the bruise that’s appearing on her face. Naomi goes cold. It was never on her face before. It’s like seeing something she’s always known was there, but which has never come to light. Like the other side of the Moon.
“Naomi,” her mum says, and her voice is so tired. “Naomi, go to bed.”
Naomi could go to bed. She could get under the covers and squeeze shut her eyes and paint over the sight of the bruise on her mother’s face with… what? Her Moon-Boy is gone; he never existed. Naomi is not going to the Colony, to flirt in the hygrospheres. She will not be taken on a ride in a h-craft. She won’t be treated to a romantic v-deck dinner. She is here, tethered to this moment, to the weight of it.
Naomi does not go to bed. She goes instead to her mum’s room, pulls out a holdall from the cupboard and begins to pack her mum’s things into it. Her mum comes in and stares. “What are you doing?” she whispers. Her gaze darts back over her shoulder, into the hallway, then back to Naomi.
Naomi doesn’t answer, but she keeps packing.
Naomi’s mum shakes her head. “No, no,” she says, but she starts to help Naomi anyway. She drags out the suitcase from under the bed, the one she bought three years ago for holidays which has never been used, and she starts to pack too. Naomi is silent. All the time her mum is shaking her head and saying “No, no,” but she keeps putting shirts and underwear and jewellery into the case. Naomi goes briefly to her own room, opens up her drawers and wardrobe and pulls stuff out. She doesn’t choose carefully, just heaps a load of clothes in her arms and stuffs them into the bag she uses for gym and the backpack she uses for school. She carries them through into her mum’s room. When her mum’s case is full her mum just stands and stares at it so Naomi goes over and zips it up and together they carry everything downstairs.
“Wait,” says her mum. She goes into the living room for a moment. When she comes out she is holding two passports and a checkbook, which she stuffs in the front pocket of the case.
Naomi takes the car key-card from the little row of hooks above the dresser. When she opens the door her mum hesitates on the threshold. Then she takes a breath and steps outside.
It is already dark and the air is bitterly cold. Shivering, they load the bags into the car boot. Her mum looks up at the neighbors’ lit windows and her chin wobbles.
“Mum,” Naomi says. “Come on.” Her mum does not move, but Naomi gets in the passenger seat and turns on the heat and waits. The icy glaze on the windscreen blurs, melts. Eventually the other door clicks and Naomi’s mum gets in. She puts the card in the ignition, pauses, looks over at Naomi. Her face is pale, the bruise lit ugly by the light on the dashboard.
“Ready?” her mum whispers.
“Ready,” Naomi says.
They drive in silence. This time in the evening, the roads around the suburbs are still busy with the tail end of the school-runs, parents steering station wagons crammed with kids. Naomi’s mum navigates them with her lips set in a tight line.
They take the motorway. The traffic thins. As the city retreats behind them the snow starts to fall. The flakes rush towards Naomi out of the darkness, flitting past the windows, like stars.
This story previously appeared in Black Static issue 78/79, March 2021.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Jess Hyslop is a British writer of fantasy, fabulism, and science fiction. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Cossmass Infinities, Interzone, and Black Static. Jess can be found online at www.jesshyslop.com. Offline, she resides in Oxford with a number of slowly decaying houseplants.