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.