Eleventh Annual Popular Fiction Awards Science Fiction Winner: “The Twentieth of July”

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“The Twentieth of July” by C.R. Hodges, is the First Place winning story in the science fiction category for the Eleventh Annual Writer’s Digest Popular Fiction Awards. For complete coverage of this year’s awards, including an exclusive interview with the Grand Prize winner and a complete list of winners, check out the May/June 2016 issue of Writer’s Digest. And click here for more information about entering the Twelfth Annual Popular Fiction Awards.

In this bonus online exclusive, you can read Hodges’s winning entry.

The Twentieth of July

by C.R. Hodges

Peary Crater Colony, the Moon

July 20, 2043

I light two candles in the chapel before heading for the airlock, lugging the old telescope and a small trowel. It’s been three years since I’ve been outside on our anniversary. Last year Tina was sick from the chemo, and the year before I was convalescing from my hip replacement. I was hoping we’d make it to our seventy-fifth, but seventy-four will have to do.

It’s ironic that the moon cured my heart condition and gave her cancer. Ironic as all hell.

The lunar landscape is colorless in the naked sunshine. I consume most of my oxygen hiking a few kilometers along the crater rim. Even with the respirator on full, the air tastes like well-chewed bubblegum. I don’t get to bury Tina’s actual body, of course, the recycler claimed her months ago. I just have her wedding band and a few faded photographs.

A tear trickles down my face. I can’t wipe it away inside the helmet. I wouldn’t if I could. With a sigh, I pull the photographs from the utility pouch of my moonsuit.

Tina in a green sundress, worn over blue jeans. George + Tina carved in the ash tree. All of us on the rooftop in Texas, baby Michelle sitting on Tina’s lap while the boys pose, pointing skyward.

A tattered Polaroid of a crescent moon.

The oxygen reminder beeps. I bury our wedding rings and the photos beneath the regolith, the fine lunar dust settling all too readily in the vacuum. Facing the low sun, I override the autodimmers for a few seconds, letting the glare soak through my closed eyelids. Sweat washes the tears from my cheeks.

A text arrives on my display. It’s two minutes before my eyes clear enough to read it.

Happy Anniversary, Dad. Neil and his family came over for a barbecue. Everyone says hi. We miss you terribly. Love, Edwin.

“I miss you too,” I say, both to the voice-to-text converter and to Tina.

And to Michelle.

Instead of heading back, I set up the telescope, careful not to aim it directly at the sun. It’s dark on Earth, but I easily find the lights of Houston. Hopefully they’re not up on the damn roof.

The oxygen reminder is blaring so loud I can barely think, but still I hear Tina in my head. The moon will be full tonight, mister.

I have to think about it, the beeping a steady screech now, but she’s right. The moon will be full from the Earth, but the Earth is new from here. Waxing or waning? I sag down clumsily in my moonsuit and lie back on the warm surface. The air is growing ripe. I try to imagine the perfume she wore on our wedding night. I don’t succeed; it doesn’t matter.

The alarm goes silent. A half second later the display fades to black.

Waxing, Tina says, with that gentle laugh.

“Just like our love,” I say aloud, the response we always gave each other. Mostly gave each other. Even though I know from here, the Earth is waning.

I wish I had some pork rinds.

#

La Jolla, California

July 20, 2019

“Hey,” Tina says. “Wake up.”

I pull the pillow over my head. “It’s still dark. Lemme sleep.” “Do you know what day it is?”

“Duh.” Our anniversary. Not of our wedding, but of the day we met. And the anniversary of the day our daughter died. I roll over. Anniversaries suck.

“The moon is setting fast. C’mon, George.”

I lift my head. She is standing in front of the window, curtains open. A crescent moon is sliding down toward the calm waters of the Pacific. Waning, like our marriage. “I see it.”

“Come sit with me. On the balcony.”

“No.” I still have Michelle’s selfie, taken that fatal night. Goofing around on a goddamned roof with her drunken college friends.

Silhouetted against the window, Tina’s dress billows in the pre-dawn breeze. “I want to remember,” she says.

“I want to forget.” The call from the police. The trip to the morgue. All the fighting the past two years. The guilt.

Tina stands by my bed, arms crossed. I rub my eyes and sit up. She’s wearing a green sundress, faded and a little too tight. Oh.

“Do I need to fetch that baseball bat, mister?”

“I’ll make the coffee,” I say, but she is ahead of me, her dress swishing as she pads barefoot toward the kitchen.

We sit in adjacent lounge chairs, hand in hand, just inside the sliding glass door to the balcony. “Did you see the Lunar One announcement?” she asks, passing her tablet over to me. “They’re looking for volunteers.”

“For what?” I don’t read much. I don’t do much of anything.

“To colonize the moon. Some Norwegian wunderkind has invented a geothermal reactor that can generate power from the temperature gradient. They’re building a dome at the north pole of the moon, where the temperature is mild. Just like California, they say.”

“We’re too old.” Way too old. Besides being broken, my heart is a mess. All those pork rinds when I was a kid.

“No, they want eight senior citizens among the colonists.”

“Colonists?” I snort. A little coffee sloshes onto the Berber carpet.

“My company is sponsoring the research team. Our scientists have been working on new vanadium therapies, which —”

“— which don’t do jack.” I was part of their clinical trials, which failed the same year Michelle died.

“Which,” she says, her brown eyes boring like twin augers into mine, “combined with low gravity, may reverse heart disease. We have new data from the Space Station experiments.”

I dab the spilt coffee with a tissue while looking out over the ocean. The moon is rich in vanadium.

“We have nothing to lose, George.”

She’s right on that point. Here, I’ll be dead in three years, even with the new bio-stents. I squint at the article on the tablet. “What about Neil and Edwin? Says here it’s a one-way trip. We’ll never see them again.”

“They’ll be proud of their parents.” She squeezes my hand. “If we take the telescope, we’ll be able to see Houston on our anniversaries.”

“Fine. Submit the damn application.”

“I already did, and made a few calls. We’re accepted.” A pause. “Happy Anniversary.” She’s looking at me, a smile glued on her face, as still as a flag in the lunar vacuum.

“Thank you,” I say, as the moon slips beneath the waves.

#

Clear Lake, Texas

July 20, 1994

“What do you think, George?” Tina twirls into the living room, a bright green sundress poofing around her. It goes well with her auburn tresses, freshly curled.

“Hot,” I say, pulling her into my arms. She’s as tall as I am, even barefoot.

“Behave. Let’s get going.” But she kisses me, with a hint of tongue. She smells wonderful, of perfume and henna and the promise of sex.

“I told the sitter we might be late,” I whisper in her ear. “Very late.”

“Good. I have a surprise for you.”

Dinner at Gaido’s is magnificent, even though Tina makes me order grilled salmon. She pushes a dozen deep-fried shrimp around her plate and doesn’t touch the Chardonnay.

“I think I’m going to have to quit my job,” she finally says.

“Why? You just got that promotion.” Tina is vice president of a growing biotech firm. Her salary is double mine as a contract engineer — the recession killed off most of the good aerospace jobs.

She stares at her okra, hands clutching the wooden armrests, knuckles whitening. “I ...”

“What is it?” I’m worried now. Her face is pale.

Tina jumps up, knocking over her chair. “Excuse me.” She runs for the ladies’ room.

“Is your wife all right?” the waiter asks.

“We’re fine.” I hope.

She staggers back to the table, a water stain on the front of her dress. “Can we leave?”

I pay the tab — half a week’s salary, if we have to live on my paycheck alone — and

hustle out to the Saturn. Tina sits in the passenger seat, pretending to smile. “Are you okay?” I ask as I slide behind the wheel. I put the half empty bottle of wine, corked with a napkin, behind my seat, along with our barely-touched dinners.

“Yes. Splendid. Let’s park on the beach.” A smile, wry but genuine. “The telescope is in the trunk.”

The car phone rings. She answers as I back out. “Hello ... What? ... Lock them inside. We’re headed home.”

“What happened?” I ask.

“Neil and Edwin tried to crawl out onto the roof.” She chuckles. “Boys.”

“It’s all my fault. I’ve told them that sappy story so many times.” I step on the gas.

Our fault. It’s my story too.”

Two hours later, the boys tucked into bed, I offer her a glass of wine. “Not for the next nine months,” she says.

I almost drop the bottle, feeling stupid. “You’re pregnant?” Of course she’s pregnant.

“I’d kiss you, but I still taste a little of vomit. Wanna lie on the lawn and look at the moon, mister? It’s waxing.”

Just like our family. I kiss her anyway. “If it’s a girl, do we still have to name her Michael?”

“Michelle will do just fine.”

#

Houston, Texas

July 20, 1969

I am up on our roof before the sun goes down, my back against the dormer, my tennis shoes digging into the gentle slope. Grandpa’s binoculars and my radio are hooked onto a nail, for later on. And a bag of pork rinds, in case I need a snack.

The neighbors stroll by, pushing a baby carriage. I wave. Mrs. Henski looks terrified; Mr. Henski shouts, “It’s going to be some night, eh Georgie?”

“Yes, sir,” I say, beaming. As the sun settles below the horizon, I stare up at the crescent moon. It’s almost a quarter and waxing. I know right where the Sea of Tranquility — Tranquility Base now — is located.

“What are you doing up there?” A girl I recognize but can’t name is pedaling past our house. She’s my year, but she hangs out with the sixth graders. Her Stingray bike is a touch too small for her lanky legs. “Waiting,” I say.

“What for?” She’s wearing a green sundress, but that doesn’t seem to hinder her. The brakes squeal as she drops the bike neatly to the ground beside the ash tree.

“Neil,” I say. She won’t know what I mean and then she’ll leave me in peace.

“You can’t actually see the lunar module egress from here. They’re 238,900 miles away.” She crosses her bare arms. “Why not watch it on TV?”

So she knows her Apollo. “I have my radio.” It’s better this way. Just like listening to baseball is better than watching the Game of the Week. I can see Joe Morgan slide into third in a cloud of red dust much better in my head than on my parents’ black and white Zenith.

A smile, braces gleaming from the street light. “Cool. Can I come up and listen too?”

“You can’t climb a roof in a dress, silly.”

“Humpf.” She stomps back to her bike.

Girls. I shift over and lie back on the warm shingles. The gardenias surrounding the front porch are in bloom, their fragrance slightly stifling in the heat. The radio is playing country music, so I wait. Maybe Buzz is staring out his triangular window at Houston right now. At me.

The news comes back on. It’s almost time. I grab the binoculars. The moon is gorgeous, a brilliant white, with just a hint of blue from our sky. The night is quiet, the streets free of traffic. Everyone else in town is watching television.

“Hey.”

I almost drop the binoculars. It’s the girl in the green sundress, a Polaroid camera dangling from a lanyard around her wrist. “Hey,” I say.

“So how do I get up there?”

“The roof is dangerous. You might fall.”

“I have my blue jeans on.” A laugh as gentle as the evening breeze. She lifts the hem of her dress. “Either let me in the front door, mister, or I climb the tree.”

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