Ben Crowder /writing

Earth Below

Published December 31, 2018 (blog post).

A long time ago, my dear child, there was a young boy named Xander. He loved all sorts of things—running, exploring, cooking, building contraptions—but more than anything else he loved his older sister, Marny.

Often, when Xander couldn’t sleep, he would steal into Marny’s room and together they would watch the stars through her window.

“I wish I could go up there,” she’d tell him. “Past the moon, past the belt, past the whole solar system. I wish the stars were waiting for me.”

Marny would show him books about rockets and physics, and she would spend entire afternoons and weekends drawing trajectories and coming up with ideas for how to make propellant without getting herself blown up.

“If they let me go up there,” she’d say, “it wouldn’t be long before you were way, way older than me.” Xander would ask her to tell him about the twin paradox again, because he knew that’s what she wanted him to ask.

“One twin stays on Earth. The other goes out into space on a ship at a really fast speed. When they come back, are they the same age?”

“Yeah,” Xander would say, knowing the right answer.

“No! Time dilation. The one on Earth is older—maybe even already dead. Going out to the stars means saying goodbye to everyone you know.”

That didn’t sound like such a great idea to Xander, but he put on a smile and pretended it was amazing.

While they orbited the massive oak in the backyard on its tall tire swings, she would tell him about all the new exoplanets astronomers had found lately. “If I ever find one,” she said, “I’ll name it Xander, after you.”

Down at the pond one spring afternoon, he was flicking stones into the water when he caught sight of her running wide-eyed toward him. “Faster than light!” Her cheeks were red. “They did it!” Xander got goosebumps.

Later that summer, their parents sent Marny to Florida for a two-week high school space camp. Xander missed her terribly. He hoped she missed him too.

She came back from camp gushing. She’d met dozens of astronauts and had had scads of conversations about wormholes and light sails and space elevators. She didn’t say anything about missing Xander.

What she talked about most of all was the newly discovered Cavalier system, just eleven light years away. “There are five planets, all close to Earth-size. All in the Goldilocks zone, too, and at least three look like they have breathable atmosphere. Incredible.”

“But the best of all”—she started jumping around the room every time she got to this part—“is the colony ship. They’re going to send humans on an honest-to-goodness colony ship to explore Cavalier and set up an outpost. Not just professional astronauts, either — they want normal people, too. I have a chance!”

Xander had no doubt that she’d do it, and that was when he realized she’d be leaving him. And not just for two weeks either. He wished space would just go away and leave his family alone and not try to steal his sister away from him.

Marny didn’t pay much attention to Xander over the next few months. She was always filling out paperwork or studying or exercising or chatting with astronauts and other applicants online. Whenever she did talk to Xander, it was always to say something like, “There’s no way they’ll choose me. I don’t have any special skills. I’m not near the top of the charts. I’m too young. It’s hopeless.” But she didn’t give up, sweet child. She didn’t give up.

Late in the summer, Xander was digging a big hole in the backyard when he heard a happy holler from inside the house. Marny ran out to him wearing a huge smile and waving a large white envelope. “I got in!”

Xander tried to be excited, for her sake, but that afternoon Marny wandered into his room and found him curled up on the bed, shaking with sobs. “I’ll miss you too,” she said, wiping away his tears, then her own. “More than you’ll ever know.”

The next month after that was a blur. Marny was always gone at medical exams or seminars or training. In the moments when she was home, she’d tell Xander all about their itinerary, the fast Holdaway engines, the artificial gravity, everything. Her eyes were brighter than he’d ever seen them before. He pretended to care, but inside he just wanted her to stop talking about it. He built several treehouses and started learning how to make flutes. He dug more holes. He hated space. He hated change.

One day in the early fall, things changed again.

Xander came inside looking for a bandaid after he fell from a treehouse and scraped up his knee. He found Marny slumped against the living room sofa, sobbing, clutching her phone. The doctor had just called with results from the last medical exam. Marny looked fine on the outside, but inside she had suddenly become so sick that it was a miracle she wasn’t already gone.

His parents took her to the hospital, where new doctors did more tests and confirmed the bleak prognosis. They had a hospice bed moved into the living room for her, and as they carried her to it, Xander watched the already dimming light in Marny’s eyes darken into a haunted look that punctured Xander and left him with nightmares.

He’d wanted her to stay home, but not like this.

In a room at 72° that somehow still felt colder than the vacuum of space, Marny lay in the hospice bed. All day, every day, she lay there, not moving, not speaking, just staring at the ceiling with an occasional tear or two sliding down her cheek. Xander sat next to her and tried to cheer her up by reading magazine articles about neutron stars and dark matter, but she only cried harder and begged him to stop.

The colony ship left for Cavalier, and Marny stayed in that bed. While Xander and the rest of the world watched passenger vids and counted down the days till landing, Marny refused to listen to any ship news. Instead, she buried herself in old books about ancient history, weakly regaling Xander with tales from Herodotus and Thucydides. He pretended to care.

The afternoon the ship landed on Cavalier, Xander ran into the living room and was on the cusp of telling Marny when she turned to him with a heavy, tired gaze. “My universe is dimming now,” she said.

He frowned. “I know, but—”

“No,” she said. “This is it. Right now.” She reached out to Xander and held his hand. “I’m sorry. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I wish I’d spent more time with you.”

Realization pushed him onto the bed. He hugged her and together they wept. Slowly, her jagged sobs began to fade, and her muscles went limp, and then, so quietly Xander almost didn’t notice, Marny’s star went dark.

“Bon voyage,” he whispered to her as he gently lay her body back down on the bed. A pain like a black hole opened up right in the middle of his heart. He sat next to her, staring at the carpet, until their parents came home from the store.

A few days later, at the burial, Xander watched the earth swallow up Marny’s coffin and he made a vow that someday he would leave Earth behind, that he would go to space. For Marny.

If it hadn’t been for Marny, your great grandfather Xander would never have led the Cavalene rescue mission, Cavalier would have been lost, Xander would never have met your great grandmother Sue, and we sure as the stars wouldn’t be sitting here right now.

And that, dear child, is why we honor Marny each year. On this day—her birthday—we look up toward Earth cradled in the sky and down at the world around us and we thank our God for Marny Russell.