I used to think Alice would never leave me.
When we first met, I was working a low-end job, earning enough to keep me relatively well-off but nowhere near rich. Alice was in training to be an astronaut. I went to a bar one night. I wasn't looking to drown my sorrows, or find someone to sleep with to do the same. I just wanted maybe a little company, tempered by the effects of alcohol.
So I sat down at the counter and ordered a drink. A few minutes later, someone sat down next to me. She grinned and said, "Hi. My name's Alice."
"Claire," I said, smiling back.
"Do you like the stars, Claire?" she asked. I furrowed my brow, wondering if she was already suffering from the influence of some kind of drug. But before I could form a response, she had already gone on. "I'm going to see them someday, see them without the interference of the atmosphere. I'm going to be up there with them."
I turned fully toward her. "What the hell are you talking about?"
"I'm an astronaut. NASA's got a mission planned for us sometime next year." She tilted her head, considering. "Do you want to come home with me tonight?"
I didn't have to think for long. This woman might be crazy, but I knew then that I would never be free of her. I never really left.
Her mission didn't leave the next year, or the year after that. NASA had been suffering from budget cuts for a while, and we weren't exactly surprised. But eventually the day came when Alice came home, a light shining in here eyes, and told me, "It's finally happened, Claire! They're sending us up!"
I hadn't forgotten, of course. There was no way I would have been able to. Alice loved to talk about her work, and about her training, and many times I had listened - and joined - her rants about the government cutting NASA's budget. "Can you believe it," she'd say, "Space is the most important thing we could possibly be focusing on right now! Without it, we'll be stuck on this dry, polluted planet forever. We're /killing/ it, and refusing to go into space is the worst thing we could possibly do." I agreed with her. But even so, I had hoped, somewhere deep inside, that it wouldn't really happen. Going into space, of course, that we had to do. But not Alice, not my Alice.
But of course it was true, it would happen. This was Alice's dream, to touch the stars. And though I knew she loved me, I could never hold her back from them. So I let her go freely, a smile on my mouth and tears in my eyes.
I went to watch the rocket lift off, but we had to stand so far away that it hardly mattered. I might as well have watched it on television. I couldn't even make out Alice among the small figures climbing on board. When the rocket finally did leave the earth, it was incredibly loud, and bright, more so than I had ever expected. And it was beautiful.
Alice would be gone for many months, and interest in the space program spiked dramatically during the mission. I was called on a couple of interviews. Mostly they just wanted to know about Alice, and what I thought of the mission, and these answers I was happy enough to give. Alice would be watching the interviews, I knew, when she could find the time – watching them from up in space. I wanted to make her proud. But I hated the questions about our relationship. Everything we had was on display – Alice especially, but I was taped and recorded often enough that I had precious little privacy. Did I have to give them that, as well?
I wore away the time much the same as I had before Alice. I was a little lonely and a little sad, but they were feelings I could easily survive. But I missed her, every day, and I felt her absence. After a while, the sheets didn't even smell like her anymore.
Sometimes it felt like Alice would never come home to me. But finally the day came that the shuttle returned. They showed it on television, a tiny object hurtling through the air so fast it burned.
“You can see the fire caused by friction as the shuttle reenters the Earth's atmosphere – don't worry, there are layers of heat-resistant material underneath,” said the reporter to her audience, cheery and reassuring. It wasn't for several minutes that observers could finally tell that something had gone wrong, that more than the outer layers were burning.
“Oh my god. Oh my god,” the reporter was saying, over and over. But I was hardly listening, far too focused on that was happening in front of my eyes. The shuttle was falling apart.
I dreamed fever dreams that night, dreams where I saw Alice screaming and on fire and dreams where I was the one on fire and she looked at me sadly, unable to help. I took the next few days off of work and drove to the crash site, looking for something, anything of hers. The shuttle and most of the accompanying debris had already been removed, but I finally saw her badge, badly stained with soot and partially melted.
I took it home with me, and it still rests on the table by my bed.