It was Christmas but there was no joy aboard the Hermes. Chris went through all the required expectations for the day mechanically, fighting not to think back to last year when Mark had had the whole crew aching from belly laughs from his pranks. And how they’d found a way to steal a few minutes away from cameras and others to just be alone for a few minutes together.
This year there was no laughter, no pranks, no Christmas carols, no stolen kisses...no Mark. The memorial service had been held the week before and as the others had sniffled and cried throughout the ceremony, Chris hadn’t. He’d watched it with dry eyes and clenched fists, knowing that if he let go of the tight reins he had on his emotions there’d be no stopping his tears. His anger. The twisting dark feeling inside that happened every time he remembered loving Mark.
When everyone had finished making the Christmas Day recordings for their families they’d joined together to make one for Mark’s parents. Through tear-filled eyes they shared the laughs and memories they had had with Mark since leaving Earth. Chris had hid behind Martinez, hoping the camera lens wouldn’t notice his red rimmed eyes and faked smiles.
It was good, though, to remind himself that the Watney’s Christmases would never be the same. Chris bit his cheek as he remembered Mark telling him about the time he’d snuck down before sunrise on Christmas morning and opened all of his presents and thought he could be clever and rewrap them so his parents wouldn’t know. “Dad was not pleased.” Mark said with a sheepish grin. “My dad made me wait until after supper to re-open them. My brothers got to play with their toys all day and I had to sit and glare at all my presents waiting to be opened.”
At last they were done and Chris was free to disappear back to the medical bay. It had been his constant retreat for the past four weeks. A sanctuary where he could hide and not be afraid of others seeing what he was feeling.
He leaned against the hatch and closed his eyes. It was over. He’d been dreading it but it was finally over and now there were just an infinite more days to come. The sting of tears blinded him but he wiped them away with frustration as he walked over to his bunk. It took just a couple minutes of digging under the mattress to find the small box he’d concealed there nearly three years ago. It had been a trick worthy of a secret agent to sneak the box aboard the Hermes but he’d done it, because Mark was worth the risk.
The green and red wrapping paper was just as bright as the night he’d wrapped the package. Chris tore it away to reveal the small ring box that he’d picked it up from the jewelers weeks before the Ares III mission had launched.
The two platinum bands were still nestled in the black felt. His index finger shook as he stroked the curve of the smooth, cold metal. It had seemed so right, the day he’d conceived his plan, to propose to Mark on this day. After they’d safely returned from the Mars surface, their mission all but done. He’d wanted this day to celebrate that soon they could be together officially, for all to see. “Marry Me Christmas, Mark,” he’d planned to say to Mark when he gave him the present. It was silly and hokey and Mark would’ve loved it.
Chris sank down on the bunk. He’d never imagined that he would be going home and Mark would not. “It isn’t fair, Mark. God, how…” He curled into a ball on the regulation mattress, hugging the box to his chest. “I don’t know how I can keep doing this without you, Mark. I can’t keep pretending that everything is okay when nothing will be okay again.”
The sun was setting behind the Chryse Planitia. Mark watched it set, knowing he was wasting precious EVA minutes but he had stayed out knowing that which every day that passed Chris was getting farther and farther away.
“Merry Christmas, Chris,” he whispered as the white disk of the sun disappeared from the horizon. It wasn’t enough, everything he was doing. The fuck-up with the hydrazine had proved that he could die at any moment. There were double checks. No one pointing out obvious mistakes. He’d resented NASA bureaucrats for years but right now he’d give anything to know that someone had his back. A pencil pusher pointing out that he’d been making a bomb with every exhale as he’d tried to make water.
“I’m trying Chris, I’m doing the best I can. I’ll make it back.”
He didn’t let himself think about that Chris would likely have moved on by the time Mark made it back, if he made it back on the Ares IV. More likely he’d die here on the forsaken Acidalia Planita where no one would re-visit for centuries, if ever.
“Good job, Mark, great pep talk,” he muttered to himself as he entered the HAB airlock. “I just need to find a way to let Chris know that I’m here. That I’m okay. That I’m going to come home.”