When Lusala was small his big sister went into space to explore and find new worlds for humanity. It’s been five years for her, fifty for him. But now, finally, Osumare was home, so very late. With everything that had happened, Lusala worried that her return would be too little to bridge the gulf that had grown between them.
Late Arrival is a science fiction examination of the price of space travel on those left behind that you will remember for years to come.
By Meyari McFarland
Lusala stood on the dock, staring up into clear blue skies that stretched forever. Blue above, blue below, both filled with dark horrors that made his knees tremble and his hands clench into fists. The chill of the light spring breeze felt too much like the cold of space, of vacuum, of bodies floating slowly turning as blood drifted like cabochon rubies scattered across black velvet.
Copper bloomed on his tongue. No. Not today. Not when Osumare was finally coming home. He wouldn’t let the memories overwhelm him today. He’d never told her how Mother and Father died. No matter what, he never would.
She’d gone so far and done so much. Osumare didn’t deserve the guilt for being gone when it was Lusala’s mistake that led to their deaths, to Ndidi’s injuries, to his own retirement from all space-based work. After overcoming everyone’s perceptions of her as African, as trans, as too-smart, too-determined, too-perfect, too-everything, Osumare could believe that the deaths were nothing more than happenstance. Lusala could give her that easily enough.
He could just hear the whine of a shuttle’s engines decelerating from planetary approach, way off over the water and so high that his eyes couldn’t pick out anything. No graceful swoop of vanes like the sails of an old wooden ship, no flicker of movement. Not a surprise when he’d left his glasses back on the bedside next to Ndidi. Lusala probably wouldn’t see the shuttle until it was at the end of the dock.
What would Osumare say?
His hands curled around the head of his cane. When she left Lusala’s hands had been small and soft, a child’s hands with pale palms and dark backs that looked as smooth as silk. Now his hands were gnarled, scarred from his long career of work in low orbit. His thick black dreads had long since turned into a white coat of fluff over his scalp and his skin hung loose over his bones. He’d lived entire lives while Osumare was gone.
She’d promised to come home on the first ship. And then the second. He’d stopped listening after the third promise after he was out of school, college, graduate school. Whatever she’d found on the other end of the universe was more interesting than coming home to visit.
He didn’t expect her to stay, not after he’d seen her excitement at the ship, the stars, the vastness of the universe that had always given Lusala nightmares. Staying was for people who enjoyed the tug of gravity, who liked the feel of dirt under their nails, the smell of leaves after a rainstorm.
No, Osumare was made for the exploration program where every planet was new, every sunset a wonder. So many messages, all of them raving of the new things she’d seen, places she’d gone, things she’d done. By the time he met Ndidi at the back of a tiny bar in the moon’s spaceport Lusala had reconciled himself to Osumare never spending more than a day or two on any planet, much less Earth.
Lusala was made for solid ground, a quiet life, Ndidi by his side as they tended their little garden, their tiny house, their many programs that monitored the sun, the stars, the shipping lanes for threats of all varieties. The shift from space to shore had been necessary after Ndidi’s accident but Lusala had never regretted it.
He found joy in the slow ever-changing drift of the seasons. They had planted an apple tree together after they bought the house on the edge of the lake, one that promised to give crisp green apples for pie, for butter, for eating fresh off the branch. It had been just two inches shorter than Lusala that first year. Now it stood twenty feet high and gave so many apples that their neighbors had to come help them pick.
“You forgot your glasses,” Ndidi called from the shore.
“Didn’t want to wake you,” Lusala called back.
He smiled as Ndidi slowly made his way up the dock, his heavy wheelchair making the dock bob under Lusala’s feet. The whine of the motor was a quieter counterpoint to the sound of Osumare’s ship coming closer. Lusala could hear it clearly now. The taste of lightning on his tongue was thick enough that Lusala turned to smile down into Ndidi’s jasper brown eyes so that he wouldn’t cry the instant he saw Osumare’s face.
Once upon a time Lusala had fought against getting glasses. He’d cried and pouted at their parents because Osumare wouldn’t recognize him if he had glasses when she got back. They’d won, of course, getting him thin-rimmed glasses that perched on Lusala’s broad nose like a delicate bird resting on an elephant’s broad brown back. They’d lasted three days before Lusala broke then wrestling with a neighbor boy.
All his glasses since had thick rims, solid and heavy enough to take the life that Lusala had chosen.
“You look tired,” Ndidi commented as Lusala settled his glasses in place.
“I didn’t sleep well,” Lusala allowed and smiled as Ndidi nodded.
Neither of them had slept well for months, not since Osumare sent her message that she was coming home at long last. Five years for her. Fifty-three for Lusala. The world had changed in her absence but not really. Not in the ways that mattered.
The sun still rose and set. Rain fell. Rich people ruled the space stations. Poor people lived on Earth and scraped by in their world that was changing so rapidly as the sea levels rose and temperatures shifted across the globe.
Someday soon Lusala and Ndidi’s house on the lake would be submerged. When they bought the land the shore was three hundred yards away down a gentle slope. Now the water lapped at their foundations and the dock jutted straight out from the basement door. Contractors would arrive tomorrow to break ground on the new foundation for the new house further up the hill where their garden grew.
“It’s here,” Ndidi murmured.
Lusala shut his eyes, hands tight around the head of his cane. Air rushed around the two of them, Lusala looking back, Ndidi looking forward. His legs trembled as the so-familiar hiss of stabilizers engaging. The water surged and slopped over the dock to wet Lusala’s toes, dampen Ndidi’s wheels.
The end of the dock, Osumare was parking the shuttle at the end of the dock so that she could walk from her shuttle straight into their house. Lusala laughed softly. Just like his dramatic big sister to make her true home obvious.
Ndidi reached up and put a hand over Lusala’s white knuckles. For years he’d avoided mentioning Ndidi in the messages he sent to Osumare. The administrators always said that it was best not to remind their family members of how much they were missing. It caused loneliness, depression. Suicide.
But Osumare had seen through him. She’d cocked her head, grinned and asked who Lusala had fallen in love with four years after he and Ndidi got married. For her it would have been a matter of months. It had been over a decade for Lusala. In that moment it hadn’t mattered that their lives passed at different speeds or that Lusala was now older than his big sister.
He spent an entire hour telling Osumare everything about Ndidi in the next message, sharing all the little things that had drawn them to share their lives. Ndidi’s honking laugh, the way he snored like a shuttle taking off just before Lusala’s alarm clock went off, the taste of mango and tangerine on Ndidi’s lips at their wedding.
She’d demanded pictures of the wedding and laughed and cried and smiled so broadly after he sent them on to her. He’d added pictures every time after that. Documenting their life together so that Osumare was part of it even if she was so far away became second nature.
They never got pictures back.
It was policy, not personal. The exploration program kept a tight grip on all images of other worlds. Still, Lusala had a few pictures of Osumare at work. She’d shown up in six separate images and three videos, dark skin shimmering under foreign suns as she did her job opening up new habitats for humanity’s second great age of colonization.
The dock shuddered as Osumare’s shuttle door thumped down on it. Lusala swallowed, shut his eyes and turned to face his so overdue sister.
It really was a beautiful shuttle. When she left shuttles had been as graceful as bricks flung through the air to crack your skull. Now, on her first trip home, the shuttle looked like origami worked large in golden parchment inscribed with scarlet kanji. He could see exactly what folds would be needed to transform a flat piece of paper into a shuttle like Osumare’s, four folds, maybe five for the divot at the back that was the engine cowling.
Boots appeared at the top of the ramp. Lusala laughed because he recognized them.
Osumare had whined and complained that she needed a good pair of boots before she went on the trip into space. Mother had glowered at extra cost while Father scolded Osumare for adding weight that wasn’t needed. The exploration program would provide her with boots, with clothes, with everything she needed. There was no need for Osumare to go out and buy a special pair of boots with heavy tread, bright pink canvas and laces as green as the grass around Lusala’s house.
She had won the battle, just as she’d won so many other battles.
Lusala had gone with Osumare on six different shopping trips, kicking his heels as she tried on boot after boot after boot. They’d march into a store, hand in hand, Osumare glaring down security guards who eyed them as if they were thieves, two African brothers even though by that time Osumare wore proper women’s clothes more often then not. Then she would strip off her boyish tennis shoes and ask for every single boot that wasn’t brown or green or black so that she could try them on. When none of them fit what she pictured in her head, Osumare had shaken her head, sighed and said that they might as well get a treat together before going home.
He had been fifteen before he realized that the hunt for boots was Osumare’s way of creating memories with her little brother, the little brother who would be grown long before she got home again.
And there were the boots at long last.
“Pink?” Ndidi asked so quietly that Lusala barely heard it over the thump of heavy bags being flung down onto the dock.
“She likes pink,” Lusala answered and then laughed as one bag became two, then three, each of them washed by cloudy lake water. Hopefully they were waterproof or Lusala would have to show Osumare where the clothes line was. Their drier couldn’t handle that much at once.
Osumare finally emerged from the shuttle, standing with one foot in the wash of water from the lake, the other on the final step of the ramp. The exploration program had given Osumare the hormones she’d wanted. Her square jaw had softened, her throat was more delicate though her arms were as big as ever. Lusala smiled at the cleavage just peeking between the buttons of Osumare’s shirt.
He’d giggled and then laughed as he kicked his heels the time she had borrowed one of Mother’s dresses, stuffing socks into the bodice so it sat correctly. It’d looked strange then but now it looked so right, so perfectly Osumare. This was what she had seen when she looked in the mirror and now, so much later, Lusala knew why she had fought so hard to go away.
Osumare didn’t glance Lusala’s way. Instead she looked back and up, one hand out as she smiled so brightly that Lusala’s heart clenched.
That smile used to point at him, back when they were both children. His very first memory was running across their parched front lawn, a weed-filled block of concrete hard grey dirt less than a yard across, into Osumare’s arms as she marched home from school, head held high in her boy’s uniform that she hated so much but wore because she had to if she was to get what she wanted.
His beautiful, bright sister, always three steps ahead of everyone else. She’d looked at their neighborhood, broken windows, rusting cars, police cruising through every half hour to search for someone to harass, and then taken to school as if it was a war that had to be won. Every grade had to be perfect. Every paper a masterpiece. Every class was another battle against the forces that wanted to declare her to be worthless, unwanted, unwelcome, wrong down to her very core.
It had worked. Osumare’s grades got her into the programs that led to space flight. They got her into the exclusive exploration program that so few managed to qualify for. Her grades opened doors for Lusala, too, giving him better chances at school, at training, at jobs later in life.
She had forged a path that blazed like a meteor, no, a comet circling round the sun. Not just for him but for so many others, too. There were worlds out there in the galaxy that had humans on them because of Osumare. Worlds that were mined for resources that had made Lusala’s life better, everyone’s lives better. Unlike Lusala with his careful choices and small joys, Osumare looked at the world and bent it to her desires.
“That’s it,” Osumare said to whoever it was above her. “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine. The dock’s strong.”
She reached both hands up and pulled out a little boy with pale Asian skin, dark African hair that curled in ringlets and a pout that would have made done Lusala proud when he was that age. Despite his narrow eyes, the little boy had Osumare’s nose, her broad lips, her round cheeks. Lusala’s breath caught. Ndidi gasped, smacking Lusala’s hip repeatedly as the little boy stared up the dock at them.
“They’re your uncles, Isao,” Osumare said. She patted the boy on the back, no more than three, he couldn’t be more than three years old, and sent him slowly toddling up the dock towards Lusala and Ndidi.
Another person came down the ramp, pale Asian like Isao but with a full rounded belly that promised a second child very, very soon. She frowned as she took Osumare’s hand but once lifted, hefted really, over the wash of water she smiled brightly. Not at Lusala or Ndidi or even little Isao but at Osumare.
And that was a smile that Lusala knew as well. It was one that had stretched his cheeks a thousand times over before Osumare had left. So much love, so much love…
“You never told me you had a wife,” Lusala called as Isao stopped a yard or so from him. “Or a son.”
“It was a surprise!” Osumare declared as she hefted bags and struggled to carry them all while at the same time supporting her wife’s careful waddle up the dock. “I told you I had a lot to tell you, didn’t I? Haruna and Isao were just two of the things I was saving up for you.”
Lusala laughed, nodded, carefully bent and offered a hand to Isao who stared at his fingers before gravely taking them. He turned, stepped aside for Ndidi to turn his wheelchair. Osumare’s cheeks went darker, then red, then she blushed so hard that he could see hints of red across her scalp where she’d shaved her hair off, probably for the ease of it.
“It was a surprise,” Lusala agreed. “But really, did you have to leave it to so late? Much longer and I would have missed the joke entirely.”
Osumare’s breath caught. Tears welled up in her eyes. She grinned and shrugged, nearly dropping one of the bags. Lusala’s eyes had tears, too, not that it appeared to matter to Haruna who glared at Lusala as if she’d rather be anywhere else.
“Took a while to convince Haruna I was serious,” Osumare explained through tears and laughter and that wrinkled nose that said Lusala was going to get a hug that made his back pop and crack and ache for days. “Besides, you know me, always late to the party.”
“True, true,” Lusala said. He leaned his cane against his hip so that he could wipe the tears of his cheeks. “Well, we kept the party waiting for you. You’re just in time to help us pick plums and I’m pretty sure that the apples will be ready in a day or two. Ndidi made a special cake, just for you. If we’d known, we’d have made even more for Haruna and Isao, too. But I suppose we should be glad we didn’t, yes? At least this way we can make it the right flavor.”
Osumare’s bags thumped down to the dock, shaking them all as it lurched. He leaned into her sudden hug, laughing with her as she murmured in his ear.
“Sorry I’m late, little brother.”
“Welcome home, big sister. Welcome home.”
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