14 Seconds: Short Fiction

14 seconds of oxygen left.

She pulled at the airlock handle again. It wouldn’t budge. She could feel the heat of the flames behind her and the ringing of the damned klaxon was boring into her skull and the handle wouldn’t budge, because of course it wouldn’t, and the klaxon wouldn’t shup up.

13 seconds of oxygen left.

When she was 12, she wanted to ride horses. She knew it was a cliché even then, but it didn’t deter her. She wasn’t the princess type, she didn’t dream of elegant gowns and fancy ballrooms and Prince Charmings, but horses? Absolutely. The more horses the better.

Not riding side saddle with a stiff back and “proper” air, though. That wasn’t her.

She wanted to ride horses because she wanted the wind in her hair and the ground to fall away behind her; to see the horizon in the distance and to race for it as fast as she could; to smell the open air and know it meant freedom. Freedom from dark places. From closets. From glaring eyes and dry leather belts clutched with drunken anger.

Instead of horses, she ended up riding rockets. Close enough. Same surge of power, same rush, same escape. But no open air.

She wrenched the crowbar from its mount next to the door. She had to get to an intact portion of the station.

12 seconds of oxygen left.

The first turn of the airlock’s manual release felt like an eternity.

For some reason, in that moment she forgave Paul.

11 seconds of oxygen left.

She almost pulled her shoulder from her socket on the second turn, but the effort was enough. She felt the manual seal give way.

Despite his age, Paul was a child, really. Always had been. She couldn’t see that at first. They met when they were young. She was 19, he was 22, and she saw possibility in him. Endless possibility. He was smart and creative and funny and it seemed like whatever curves life threw at him, he handled them with unperturbed ease. After losing both her mother and her brother in the space of a year, being able to weather such storms with natural casualness felt like a twisted kind of stability to her, one she needed in her life.

But it wasn’t stability at all. Paul remained unperturbed at life’s ups and downs because he wasn’t engaged with them in any meaningful way. The notion of responsibility was alien to him. A bother. A burden. He couldn’t even be bothered to replace burned out lightbulbs. He’d let a room stay dark until she got around to doing it, because just existing with the problem was easier than dealing with it. As they grew older together, his emotional immaturity became an anchor. At first, she blamed herself. Then she blamed him for it. Then she grew bitter.

Now, heat on her back and the airlock door panel blinking a warning at her, she just felt sorry for him.

The airlock door gave way.

10 seconds of oxygen left

Huge rush of air. Roaring. Yanked off her feet.

A dizzying spinning void and a speckled field of debris.

Reach out. Grab. Hold. Tether snapped, but got hold in time. Void pulling. Shoulder in agony. Dammit.

9 seconds of oxygen left.

Dammit! Dammit, dammit, dammit. The airlock had been ruptured in the collision and she had nowhere to go. All was ruin behind and in front.

This was not how things were supposed to end. Not for the mission, not for her life. She was supposed to do … more. What that more was she couldn’t exactly say, but she knew there was more. There had to be.

Behind her, back the way she had come, the sudden pull of vacuum had extinguished the flames.

8 seconds of oxygen left.

Once, at a state fair, she got on one of those rides that aren’t really rides, they’re torture devices for people not ready to be slung off the surface of the planet. That’s how her cousin Emma described them, at least. Didn’t feel that way to her. It was slingshot, really. They cranked a set of seats down to the ground, you got in, and then were sent slinging up towards the clouds – still attached to the bungee lines, of course – before being safely brought back down to Earth. To her, it felt like the hand of God reaching down to lift her, however briefly, to the heavens.

She knew then that some day she wanted to be among the stars.

She pushed herself off from the bulkhead, back towards the living module, but in her rush to get back inside her training failed her and she had pushed herself off from the bulkhead a little too hard. For a moment, she was a projectile.

7 seconds of oxygen left.

In the brief flash she saw when she slammed into the wall of the living module, she remembered that same feeling. He hit her once. He was blind drunk and in the throes of an emotional crisis, some drunken collapse of his self-esteem triggered by eighteen months of being out of work, but none of that mattered. Once was all it took. In the startling shock of that blow, she saw her future. Once becomes twice becomes three times becomes routine. She was not going to live that future. Not with a guy whose idea of doing laundry meant smelling the clothes piled next to his side of the bed to see what was still clean. Not when this other self lurked inside him. So she started the separation process that night.

When she left, she took the cat. She loved that cat.

6 seconds of oxygen left.

Pain. Her damn shoulder again. Everything was white.

5 seconds of oxygen left.

She lost a moment there, blinded by agony. Losing time is perhaps the worst kind of pain. The realization that there is a portion of your life you can’t get back, that it was wasted or forgotten or was lost in whatever fog you were in at the time – poof, gone. She had those days, grinding through school, trying to make relationships work despite both parties knowing there was nothing there but a warm body and complacency, or, for those two brief summers, the fog of alcohol meant to drown out the things she preferred not to think about. Two summers lost to her. Days that were now just a soup of fleeting images that didn’t add up to a meaningful narrative.

Moments. That’s all life is, really. A series of moments that hopefully add up to a story worth experiencing.

Johnson’s locker was hanging open. She could see his suit inside, untouched. Maybe a spare O2 tank, too? (She didn’t think about where Johnson himself was. Probably out in the endless black.) A spare tank would be great.

4 seconds of oxygen left

No tank.


The klaxon was still blaring.

3 seconds of oxygen left.

She pulled open her locker, knowing she wouldn’t find anything of use but doing it anyway, like the way someone looks in the refrigerator over and over as if new food would appear if you opened and closed the door enough times.

Once, when she was 8, she tried to take the juice jug out of the fridge on her own. It was too heavy for her. The sloshing juice threw it off balance and she dropped it. The pitcher shattered on the kitchen floor. She cut her feet running to tell her mother, leaving a trail of tiny, bloody footprints through the house.

2 seconds of oxygen left.

A few years after that came her fascination with horses, then her fascination with flying. Then Paul. Then her work. Then the stars.

A photo drifted out of her locker, barely lit by the red of the emergency lights.

1 second of oxygen left.

Reaching out for that photo took a thousand years. A series of slides. Still images. Instant photos. Her fingers cutting through the nothing. Hands that had become calloused in training so she could escape the confines of Earth’s gravity. The locker behind the photo still littered with the small number of things she was allowed to bring on the flight. The room itself, or what was left of it, a tiny oasis where she played cards and made jokes with Johnson and West, where she sipped at bitter coffee and wondered if her theoretical daughters, assuming she ever had any, would ever get to experience the simultaneous peace and dread of space. Years in that moment. Dad leaving. Mom’s illness. Nancy breaking her front tooth on the backyard swing. Wallace awkwardly kissing her in the fifth grade. The closet she hoped to forget. Paul’s eyes that night. The rumble of the rocket beneath her and the exhilaration that came from the silence that followed.

She grabbed the photo.

No oxygen left.

The picture was of a cat, his black and white fur like a little tuxedo, his eyes at once inviting and defiant.

She smiled.

No oxygen left.

Unclipped her helmet and visor.

Let them drift off.

No oxygen left.

Pushed herself out the opening and into the void beyond.

Looked at the photo one last time.

He was a good cat.

And the stars were beautiful.


1 Comment

  1. Siulau Darba

    Very interesting, thanks for sharing!


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