Next Year I’ll Be Home Again

Laura sighed as children shouted on the street, laughing and exclaiming as pirates, witches, ghosts, and tramps emerged from biodomes decorated with grinning pumpkins and dancing skeletons.

“Billy, I know it’s you!”

“Lookit, Patty is a princess again!”

“Did you see Charlie’s robot head? The eyes really light up!”

“Don’t bother with ol’ Mrs. Adams – she’s giving rock apples again.”

Laura smiled, imagining the boys hitching at the cuffs of the Synthetic Sock Boots their mothers would have made them wear under their costumes, happy to fulfill ancient Terran tradition but not happy enough to let them track red sand into the domes if clown shoes and goblin feet were pulled off after “tricks and treats.”

Laura, a fifth generation Martian, could hardly believe how little the traditions had changed. Even most of the old-timers had forgotten the roots of the rituals brought from the old green planet. Laura herself only knew because of her deep love of ancient history.

Laura was just grateful that with the superficialities of candy and decorations had come something more primal that did not care whether the sky was red or blue, but could not help but follow when her ancestors sowed the seeds of ancestral memory in the soils of a new world.

The shouts grew louder and the pinkish light began to fade to violet, and Laura felt impatience well up inside her.

Luckily, no children would be ringing at Laura’s alcove, bouncing in anticipation of a token gasp of fright at their plasticore masks. Their mothers would have told them, stay away from the Cassidy dome! You leave the lady in peace.

“He’ll be home soon.” Laura chewed nervously at her lower lip. She regarded her carefully set table, the two china plates and real silver knife and fork, the real glass glasses, the cotton napkins. There would be no plasticore, no crystal from the Trinity Crater Mine, no synthetic paper tonight. These were all real Terran antiques. A night like this deserved no less.

“Mother.”

Laura’s heart skipped a beat as she turned toward the familiar voice.

“I’m home.”

“Yes, darling.” Laura enveloped the boy in a tender embrace. “I’ve been waiting for you. You must be very hungry.”

“Yes, Mother.” Large brown eyes stared intently into her own, a smile of purest, sweetest innocence shining brightly on the apple-cheeked face. “I’m starved.”

Laura smiled joyously back. “I made your favorite – macaroni and cheese!”

“With real cheese?”

Laura laughed a sparkling laugh. “With real cheese, my darling.”

Dinner was over far too quickly. Laura felt a pang in her heart as she took her son’s hand and led him into the game room.

“Do you feel like a game of rummy?” she asked, holding up a pack of dog-eared cards and forcing a brightness into her voice that did not reach her heart. The chronometer on the wall ticked steadily on. Eight o’ clock already, the small voice in the back of her mind whispered.

“Boy, do I!”

The sight of her son already sitting at the play table, eyes shining expectantly, silenced the little voice. Laura laughed in delight as she dealt out the cards.

The game passed quickly, and they began another, and another, talking the whole time of crimson sandcastles and autogliders, Janey down the road and her ghost of Gale Crater, and Michael at Bio-11 who always wanted to play Moon Man. With each passing second, the chronometer’s ticking seemed to grow louder until Laura found herself fighting back tears, even as her beautiful boy told her the joke about the pit snake and the quarry trader, laughing so hard as he spoke that he could barely get out the words.

Laura felt her blood freeze as her son abruptly stopped talking. He put down his cards and looked quizzically into her eyes.

“Mother?”

“Y-y-yes?” Laura stammered.

“Mother, I feel strange.” He closed his eyes and raised a hand to his brow.

The tears began to fall as Laura turned toward the chronometer behind her. The gentle glow of the numbers confirmed what she already knew in her heart.

“It’s okay, my darling,” she whispered through the tears. “It’s just that it’s five minutes to midnight.”

“Oh.” The little hand fell away from the clammy brow. “It means I have to go, doesn’t it?”

Laura choked back a sob. “Yes, I’m afraid so.” Laura watched as her son’s face grew suddenly pale, his eyes dulling and his thick brown hair losing its luster. She glanced quickly at the chronometer once again. “In three minutes you have to leave.”

“But why?”

The plaintiveness of his cry was almost too much for her soul to bear. “You know why, my darling.” Her voice was almost inaudible.

The boy looked up at her with eyes suddenly sunken, the cheeks gaunt, the silver of his lume suit fading to gray before her very eyes.

“Yes…” His voice was suddenly weak. “I remember.”

Laura swiped ineffectually at her streaming eyes.

“It’s because I died.”

“Yes.”

“I can only come home once a year. Isn’t that right, Mother?”

Laura nodded her head quickly, afraid of what might happen if she let herself speak.

“Once a year,” the boy mused.

“Yes.”

“Because it’s Hallow Eve.”

“Because it’s Halloween,” Laura sobbed, reaching out for her son.

“It’s okay, Mother,” he said gently, allowing her arms to enfold him. “I’ll see you next year.”

“I know, my darling.” She held him tighter, hoping against hope that he would stay even one second past midnight, if only she held him tight enough.

“I have to go now, Mother.”

Laura tightened the circle of her arms.

“I love you, Mother.”

The chronometer chimed twelve. And he was gone.

Laura buried her face in her hands and cried.

“I love you, too, Bobby.”

Thank you, whoever or whatever planted that piece of the old green world in our Martian sand, Laura thought in the velvety darkness.

Only 686 days and he would be home again.

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