Brandilynn sits on a bench at the mall, trying to decide what to do. She watches an astronaut sign autographs at a banquet table right next to Santa’s Winter Wonderland. A neon poster-board behind the astronaut, like the kind you find at PTA bake sales, invites people to COME MEET AN AMERICAN HERO! Santa, however, is the bigger draw with his two-story playhouse, artificial snow, glitter decorations, and free hot chocolate.

Mothers wearing yoga clothes and Apple watches drag their children past the astronaut and into Santa’s Wonderland, where a bored, high-school elf commemorates each visit with a picture to send to Grandma in Des Moines, Aunt Claire in Missoula, or perhaps Daddy and his new wife in Miami. The ignored astronaut sits sipping his Dr. Pepper and dreams of the one who got away, Mandy from high school who never wore panties under her dress.

He cups his ear whenever someone asks him something, making him contort his face in concentration like he’d just sucked on a lemon—this man who had once been to the moon and the wonders of our universe firsthand. Brandilynn had watched it on TV, and it messed with her for years. She was always ready to blast off. A whole life on stand-by, waiting at the ready.

He will have the answers, thinks Brandilynn, this wise, ancient astronaut. If she could muster the energy, she’d approach his table and ask him why her hands sometimes feel like they belong to someone else. She’d ask him what darkness tastes like? She’d hum along to “Joy to the World,” and sip bland hot chocolate. Or maybe she would fill a bottle with gasoline, stop it with a sock, and set fire to this entire ridiculous circus. Brandilynn is still trying to decide.


  1. Sarah Freligh

    Renuka, I’m stone in love with Brandilynn, who “was always read to blast off. A whole life on stand-by, waiting at the ready” — in only two phrases, I feel like I understand this girl, who she is and what she yearns for. And that she wants to approach the astronaut and “ask him why her hands sometimes feel like they belong to somebody else” is so very good and sets up perfectly the potentially incendiary ending here.

    I’m thinking that you can maybe be more specific about that “what to do” from the beginning–the astronaut or Santa–as a way of setting up the push/pull she’s feeling throughout. I love the details in the second graf, but wonder if you could “Brandilynn” them, that is, convey not only what she’s seeing but how she’s seeing them–in essence, conveying something about herself. Rather than the dip into the astronaut’s mind, what does she conjure up for him? How does she want him to be?

    This is going to be a good one!

  2. MaxieJane Frazier

    Hands down favorite line? “What darkness tastes like?” Asking why her hands feel like someone else’s is close behind. And the idea that this very human person, who just happened to be in a “place” that made him a witness to the universe, is wise because of this experience is worth exploring more. Brandilynn’s potential fiery rage is a mystery worth exploring?

  3. Catherine Parnell

    Brandilynne is awesome. A thought– delete “trying to decide what to do.” Dive right in and populate the scene so that the fiery end burns. Thank you!

  4. Mikki Aronoff

    Oh my, this is a beautiful slide downwards! Wanting to ask the astronaut why her hands feel like they do and what darkness feels like – wow! How has she become disassociated from herself, I wonder. I’m wanting to know more about how the blast off has affected her for years, and why it has done so. She definitely will be a space woman if she chooses the final option. Good story!

  5. Kathryn Kulpa

    Hi Renuka,
    I love the title and love Brandilynn just for the questions she asks. I suggest getting the astronaut right into the first sentence: “Brandilynn sits on a bench at the mall and watches an astronaut sign autographs at a banquet table…” As Catherine said, her trying to decide what to do reveals itself without needing to be said.

    One thing I especially like about this piece is the God’s-eye POV, how we get a little glimpse into what the different characters are thinking about, and how far apart they all are: the yoga moms, the bored high school elf, the “American Hero” who’s daydreaming of his own high school crush, and Brandilynn, who’s a bottle rocket waiting to explode. I feel like I might want to get just a little hint about why the astronaut’s takeoff had affected her so deeply all those years ago. Was that the future she wanted for herself? There’s a sense of deep rage and disappointment at what life has thrown her way, and while I don’t need all of that spelled out, one or two concrete details could really complete the picture.

  6. Kathryn Silver-Hajo

    Renuka–you chose the perfect setting for a story of rage and alienation–the mall! My favorite line: “A neon poster-board behind the astronaut… invites people to COME MEET AN AMERICAN HERO! Santa, however, is the bigger draw with his two-story playhouse, artificial snow, glitter decorations, and free hot chocolate.” Of course he is, lol.

    I love that Brandilynn thinks the astronaut will have the answers to the universe–cuz hey, he’s seen more of it than most people.

    I agree with the wonderful, spot-on comments and suggestions here, especially that it would be great to get a couple of brief hints about where all that rage and alienation are coming from, so we can understand her (maybe even empathize?) a little better. I think just a light touch–some musing or memory would do it.

    As for POV, I’m kinda on the fence. I also like what the other Kathryn calls the ‘Gods-eye POV,’–that was unusual and cool, but in such a short piece it might make more sense to focus a bit more tightly on Brandilynn.

    This is going to be a great story, Renuka! Sorry to be so late with my comments, but I’ve enjoyed being in workshop with you!

  7. Suzanne van de Velde

    Renuka — I can relate to how Brandilynn’s feeling, when your density makes you too earthbound and decisions are overwhelming (that’s most of the time for me, partly because of my ADD). She strikes me as someone who used to be much more animated, so yes, really do need you to peel back the layers — what brought her here, today?

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