I wrote a story for you! It’s a short one—the kids call it “flash fiction”—and it’s all yours. And guess what? I’ll have another one for you next Monday! But that’s way in the future. Let’s enjoy this one now. I hope you like it!
“The Captain Eats a Steak”
Captain Chuck Williams had been a Big Goddamn Hero. All the headlines had said so, and he had them in hand to prove it.
“I think you’re remembering that wrong,” Alyson said suddenly from behind him. “First of all, you were not the only one embarking on this little mission to the Red Planet. Second of all, Big Goddamn Heroes tend not to be the type of people who get their pilots killed right away.” She pointed to the jagged, screwdriver-shaped hole about an inch above the arch of her right eyebrow.
Chuck looked away before she could turn her head to indicate another not-so-clean hole. “That happened after. And I’m on my own now, so what difference does it make how I remember it?”
Alyson shrugged and plopped down beside Chuck on the couch. She sighed and tapped the tops of her legs in boredom. “How long do you think now? You’re finally delirious—that has to be somewhere near the end, right? Why did you have to bring me back, anyway? I hated you. You hated me. You could’ve at least thought of your wife or something.”
“Why would he think of me? He left me to rot on Earth so that the rest of the world would write about what a courageous pioneer he was to set off for Mars. If you ask me, I think he knew at least a little bit that he was leaving me for good.” Chuck looked up to see his wife leaning against the post of the doorway. She looked as if she’d just stepped off the set of a 1950s sitcom: pale green A-line dress, double string of pearls, large blonde curls, and soft pink lips. She was the picture of loving, warm hospitality—except her eyes. The look behind her eyes spoke the volumes of emotion those pink lips had never uttered in their life together. “For God’s sake, he’s even put me in this ridiculous June Cleaver getup. I hate A-line dresses and he knows it. What the hell is going through your head, Chuck?”
Chuck sighed and immediately regretted it. His body ached with cold and lack of oxygen. The tips of his fingers seemed like they’d always been blue, and his lips cracked and bled in dryness. “It’s a pretty dress, though,” he said.
His wife shook her head and turned away, mumbling, “That’s not the point.”
Alyson took the tablet from his hand and began scrolling through the results of his last search. “Hey, captain, I wonder what the headlines say about you now.” Her fingers slid and tapped across the screen quickly, and a smirk flitted across her face. “Maybe it’s something like this?” She turned the tablet to face him again. She’d opened a word processor and typed in all caps a series of headlines he’d rather not see:
FORMER SPACE HERO KILLS CRAZY CREWMAN TOO LATE
WHAT WENT WRONG: WILLIAMS LOSES CONTROL OF CREW AND SHIP
CAPTAIN CHUCK WILLIAMS ONLY SURVIVOR ON BOTCHED MISSION TO MARS, NOT FOR LONG
CHUCK WILLIAMS GASPS FOR BREATH, TALKS TO GHOSTS, IS CRAZY
She turned the screen away again, her smirk having grown wider. “What do you think? Too biased maybe? Well, I just fly things—flew things—I’m no journalist.” Her fingers slid and tapped again until she turned the tablet to face Chuck again. “Maybe this is better?” The headlines were the same, but she’d changed the font to what looked like Old English type.
Fire burned in his muscles as he pushed himself up and toward the door. Fire burned in his lungs as he tried to breathe. Fire burned in his brain as he tried to shake Alyson from his head. She was dead. She’d been the first to die. He was talking to a dead person. His wife was alive. He needed to talk to her.
She was in the mess hall, and the pots and pans were suddenly very heavy when he walked through the door.
“What are you doing?” he rasped.
She kept him behind her and never turned to look at him, but he knew how she looked: slightly pursed pink lips, narrowed eyes, stiff cheeks. “The hero is hungry. The hero is dying. The hero needs a steak.”
Chuck reached for her hands before she could turn on the stove. “No, you can’t do that. It’ll eat up my oxygen. You’re just going to kill me faster.”
When she turned to him, he realized how wrong he’d been about how her face looked. Tears rolled down her cheeks in rivulets, and her pale skin turned red in rage. “You’re already dead, Chuck. And you’re such an asshole for it. What will a steak do? Shave a few minutes off your life? You’re looking at minutes anyway. What difference does it make how long it takes at this point? Just eat your fucking steak and die already.”
She was no longer in an A-line dress. She was in dark jeans and a white T-shirt. The moccasins she always wore around the house replaced the white high heels he’d originally seen. Her hair was dyed black and pulled into a loose ponytail. Her makeup was gone and no longer concealed the lines that age had worried into her skin. Only the tears continued to fall.
He watched as she grilled the steak, skipping the salt and butter. Now and then she would sniff or clear her throat, but she didn’t say another word while she cooked. When she was done, she slapped the slab of meat onto a plate and slid it across the counter to where she expected him to sit and eat it. “There,” she said. “That’s the best you’re getting as a last meal. See you around, Chuck.”
Then she turned back toward the door and disappeared.
Chuck looked at the plate she’d prepared for him. For a moment, it looked like one of the dried nutrient bricks—charred and blackened—they’d stocked the ship with before leaving on the mission. Only for a moment. Then, the smell of perfectly cooked meat wafted into his nose, mouth and lungs, and he felt rejuvenated. He cut a slice of the meat and bit into it. For just a moment, the taste of carbon stained his mouth and tongue. Then, the juice from the meat filled his consciousness and warmed him even to the tips of his fingers. The warmth overtook him, and he felt a smile stretch across his face.
When he was finished, his wife appeared again to take away his plate. The tears were gone, now, and the A-line dress swished around her knees again. She took his head in her free hand and kissed his forehead. “Go to sleep now, Chuck.”
The Big Goddamn Hero closed his eyes and rested his head against the cold metal counter, listening to the clink of dishes in the sink. As he fell asleep, he wondered what tomorrow’s headline would look like.