Apricot Preserves

I woke up, and Earth was gone.

Cryosleep is a misnomer. Cryogenic maybe, but sleep? Absolutely not. I woke up feeling like my head had been crammed in a vice for maybe seven years. Like the worst hangover ever. Where everything has been completely obliterated. And, in a way, it was.

Earth was gone.

I looked over at my twin sister, Sally, the only person I knew on the whole shuttle. She seemed to be doing better than I was. She was engaged in her goofy stretching thing where she imitates a cat. Arms up and over head, yawning outrageously, tongue curled. I threw a balled-up sock at her face. I missed.

The other passengers were in various stages of waking all up and down the ship. A flight attendant/RN was walking along the aisle passing out anti-nausea lollipops.

“The ship will be landing soon,” he said. “Please make sure your seat is in the upright and locked position and your seatbelt is securely fastened.”

I scooted to retrieve my sock and stuff it onto my foot. As I was doing so I made eye contact briefly with the young man across the aisle. He winked at me.

I tried not to blush. Or think too hard about the pamphlet entitled “The Dos and Don’ts of Population Growth on Centauri VI.”

Sally buckled in next to me.

“Making friends already, eh, Wren?” she asked.

“Shush,” I said and stuck the bright red lollipop into my mouth.


Centauri VI felt strangely familiar. Not the two suns—one beet-red, the other a sugar-dusted peach. Not the landscape of jagged peaks and purple-shadowed valleys. But the people. The buildings. The structure of it all. Conglomerations of people must be like crystals, formulaic in their growth.

I was given a job in the uniform department. The weighty responsibility of keeping everybody’s clothes clean. Sally, with her degree in library science, had obtained a position in the Archives.

“Funny,” she said, “for a place so young to have archives.”

“We probably need them more than anyone,” I said. “I’ll trade you spots any time you’d like.”

“Nice try,” she said.

We lived together, as most families did, in a two-bedroom unit. We were on the sixth floor in one of the masses of apartment buildings. One wall was made entirely of foot-thick plexiglass, through which we could watch the downtown stretching out toward the horizon.

And not think about the death of Earth. Or all the things we couldn’t take with us.

Sally and I had been on the last shuttle out. There would be no more shuttles. Earth was gone.


As it turned out, the young man from across the aisle, the mysterious winker, also ended up in the laundry department. I found out one day while pressing uniforms.

“Hey,” he said and smiled what might have been Centauri VI’s best smile. His eyes were violet pits full of promise.

“Uh,” I said.

“It’s nice to meet me,” he said.

“I haven’t,” I said.



“Ladybird, ladybird fly away home,” he said.

“I thought I had,” I said, gesturing about to all of this.

“Really?” Jebediah asked. “I get the feeling this place will never be home.”

I would have asked more but the floor manager was walking down the row and we bent our heads back to pressing uniforms. The hiss of the steam machines drowned out further conversation.


I had a mother once. I mean, most people have mothers of some sort at some time in their lives. But my mother was special. She wasn’t particularly beautiful or intelligent, which sounds like a horrible thing for a daughter to say, but it was the truth. Some people live normal lives and are normal human beings. But my mother was special, because she loved so fiercely it burned. She loved me and she loved Sally and she spent every waking moment making sure we knew that.

She had us when she was twenty-four. Which was how old we were when we took the shuttle that would never return. She would have been forty-eight then, if she were still alive.

But as with most mothers, there was an end to her life even if there wasn’t an end to her love.

Sally and I had a picture of her—the only picture we had, really—hanging above the mantelpiece.

“Why do we still have mantelpieces?” Sally asked. “No one has a fireplace. Not here anyway.”

“Tradition,” I said. “We keep what’s important.”

“How are mantelpieces important?” Sally asked.

“Where else would we put pictures?” I asked.


One day I visited Sally in the Archives. They were larger than I could have imagined, filling an entire downtown block. The air inside was like air nowhere else on Centauri. It held the weight of dust and sunshine, real sunshine from the sun, as if someone had bottled it up back on Earth and pumped it in through the ventilation ducts. And there was that same sacred silence, that hush that let you know you were walking through history.

Sally shared an office on the third floor.

“Dover is hardly ever here,” Sally said of her officemate, “so I basically have the place to myself.”

“I didn’t know you were into potted plants,” I said, pointing to the vibrant lavender something that was vining up the wall.

“Those are mandatory,” Sally said, “to improve internal air quality.”

Sally was called off to a meeting, so I spent the afternoon, my rare day off, wandering the stacks. I found a copy of Gulliver’s Travels and whiled away a few hours drifting out of myself.

Stories, it would seem, are also capable of traveling the vastness of space.


I wondered often about Earth. If there would have been a noise. If the few remaining souls—those communities too isolated or too stubborn to leave, those people who, for whatever reason, stuck around to keep the lights running—could have mustered up one final human scream. Or if it had ended in silence.

The sun, our eternal mother, had given us life and in the end, it would take it away.

Our mother died a week before we got on the shuttle. We didn’t even have time to bury her. Not that it much mattered. All the gravestones were gone. The marble mausoleums, the pyramids and the catacombs. All had been sucked into the void.


I got familiar with the laundry department. It was fairly new, having started only a few months after the colony itself. The section I worked in with Jebediah was a part of the most recent expansion.

There were thick plexi-glass windows through which we could people-watch while pressing suits. There was a break room where Jebediah and I would often trade lunches. My vegetable paste for his protein bar.

And as the weeks and then months passed, Jebediah and I became something like friends.

“What do you miss most about Earth?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I hadn’t thought about it. What do you miss most?”

“No fair,” he said. “I asked first.”

“Well, I’m thinking.”

“Fine.” Jebediah exhaled heavily. He ran a hand through his hair. He was a shortish man, about my height, thickly muscled and broad. But with enough charm and exuberance to make up for it. He often told me about his after-work romantic entanglements. Though I rarely had anything to exchange.

“I had a family,” Jebediah said. “A wife, a son, and another kid on the way.”

I looked at him, startled. I set down my half-finished tube.

“You never struck me as—” I let the sentence hang, unsure how to proceed.

“No, I know,” he said. “It was messy. I tried to convince my wife to come with, but she would have had to get an abortion. Pregnant women weren’t allowed on the shuttles. She refused, and she kept our son, too.”

“Wow,” I said.

“Yeah, wow,” he replied. “Anyway, I guess that’s what I miss most. Their faces. I have a photo, but it’s nearly worn down to nothing. And photos can only hold so much.”

“I know what you mean,” I said. We ate the rest of our lunch in silence.

It was only when walking home at the end of the day that I thought of my answer to Jebediah’s question, and then I was glad I hadn’t thought of it sooner.


We had an orchard growing up. Not big, just a few stunted apple trees, a mangy dogwood, a magnolia, and the apricot tree. Our strange little kingdom, Sally and I would run from tree to tree, pretending that there were monsters that would get us if we were touching a trunk. As if staying grounded, connected, could ward off any dangers.

And if our mother was up to it and we had the money and the tree was actually fruiting, then, every once in a while, we would have apricot preserves. Sitting in the kitchen while the huge pot of fruit and sugar simmered and simmered and simmered down to nothing. Our mother humming a tuneless melody. The smell of apricots drenching the air. And when at last we could try it, how was it possible that you could taste everything? The richness of the soil, the rough skin of the bark, the soft fuzz of the fruit itself, and all wrapped up together in my mother’s love.

It wasn’t much. It was small. I ached for it.


“I’m thinking of moving into my own apartment,” Sally told me. We had been on Centauri about a year. The sting of arrival starting to fade, no longer fresh off the shuttle, adjusting to the recycled air and the protein powder, the reconstituted water and breathing in our suits. Everything just a little more complicated, everyone just a little farther away.

“Oh,” I said. “Can you afford that?”

Alpha was setting juicily over the Sierras, I could make out the top of the archives just past 82nd Street. I had been promoted in the laundry department, a manager now, and rarely if ever saw Jebediah.

“I’m moving in with Paul,” Sally said. She looked down at her hands folded neatly in her lap. There was much she wasn’t saying, but I didn’t need to be her twin to figure it out. She and Paul had been together almost since we landed. He was her boss at the Archives.

“That’s great,” I said, and then hollowly, “that’s really great.”

“I hope you know,” Sally said, “it isn’t about you at all.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I think I’ve always known that.”

“I mean, I think this will be good for you, too,” Sally said. “Give you a chance to really start a life here.”

“I have a life,” I said.

“But a real life,” Sally said. “Where you actually dig in.”

“I think I need a permit for that.”

“Get a potted plant, then,” Sally said. “They’re really nice.”

“Sure.” And then because she was waiting for it: “I’m really, really happy for you.”


I asked Jebediah to lunch at a café near the laundry. We met around second noon, when Beta had reached its zenith.

“Long time no see,” Jebediah said. He wrapped me in a deep bear hug. Bears were dead I remembered. There was no longer such a thing as bears.

“Order whatever you’d like,” I said expansively. “My treat, as a manager.”

“That’s right,” Jebediah said and winked at me. “What’s the most expensive thing they can manage?”

“They have a faux-chicken tikka masala that’s almost as good as the real thing.”

“I don’t go in for those faux-dishes,” Jebediah said. “They make me too sad.”

“Fair,” I replied. “In that case, the Centauri Surprise is about as surprising as it sounds.”

We sat in silence while the food was being prepared. Outside, the stream of citizens moved past quietly. Streets on Centauri were almost noiseless, any sound cancelled by the flow of oxygen through our helmets.

“How is it now?” I asked. “A year in? Still not home?”

“Nope,” he said. “Definitely not home, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m seeing this woman. It’s going pretty well. All these new experiences I never would have had at home. It’s an adventure when I see it in the right frame of mind. My therapist is pretty good.”

He paused as our waiter set down our bowls, each a steaming soup of purple and rose.

“How are you doing?” Jebediah asked.

“I’m surviving,” I said. “My sister is moving out.”

“Will you be okay?” Jebediah asked. “I mean, money-wise?”

“Do you think I’d be footing the bill if not?”

“It could all be for show.”

“I’ll be okay,” I said. “It just . . . brought things into perspective, I guess.”

“What things?”

“Everyone seems to be moving,” I said, “or growing or whatever. Living their lives. I feel like I’m the only one not doing it. Like I’m all caught up in some web. I keep being drawn back.”

Jebediah nodded.

“It isn’t easy, Wren,” he said. “I still think about my family. Even though I know they’re dead. I know it, but I still sometimes think I can feel them, and their anger at me. But it doesn’t matter. We’re here now. And for whatever reason, they aren’t. That’s all there is to it.”

“I wish I could get myself to believe that,” I said.

We ate our food. The suns began their downward slump. Later I hugged Jebediah and let him go.

There had been a moment when I thought something might happen between us. A few late nights when I thought he might find me attractive and I might find him attractive. But the moments slipped by and I felt no regret. He was my friend and I was his.

We were friends on Centauri VI and that was odd enough as it was.


I went to visit Sally again at the Archives a few weeks after she had moved out.

“How is it without me?” Sally asked.

“Cleaner,” I said. I didn’t mention the picture of our mother that remained on the mantelpiece. I didn’t want to risk her remembering and asking to have it. I didn’t want to risk her remembering and not asking.

“How are things with Paul?” I asked instead.

“It’s different,” she said, “but I guess I’m used to adjusting. Things are good.”

“I’m glad,” I said. “Say, do you mind if I poke around here for a little bit?”

“I see,” Sally said. “You didn’t really come here for me.”


“Sure,” Sally answered. “I have a few things to finish up here and then we can go to lunch.”

I found my way into the far recesses of the Archives, past the shelves of literature in languages I couldn’t begin to recognize, past the masterpieces by long-dead artists, past the displays, detailed accounts that told of life on Earth. At last I found what I was looking for: a collection of cookbooks.

I reached out and pulled down a family-style recipe book that looked to be from near where I grew up. It was, at least, written in English. I leafed through to the index.

Pies, pastries, preserves.

I flipped to the section.

On fruit preserves, it read, the key is to balance the acidity with the sugar from both the fruit and what is added. Finding this balance is both an artform and a practicality.

I closed the book when the lump in my throat grew too large to swallow anymore.

It sounded like something my mother would have said.


The last time I saw my mother, the day she died, she was optimistic.

“I’m excited for you two,” she said. It was the longest sentence she had managed all day. Most of the time she slept. Some of the time she cried. I held her hand when I could and let it go when I couldn’t. Sally paced the room or the hallway. She had difficulty sitting still.

“It will be a great adventure,” I said. “Centauri VI, I have no idea what to expect.”

“Good,” my mother said. She blinked slowly at me like a cat. “Don’t expect.”

“I love you, Mom,” I said. It seemed like that was all I had been able to say on that last day. “You know how much I love you?”

She blinked at me again, unable to respond.

“To the stars and back,” I said.


Earth was gone.

I started growing a potted plant: little lavender leaves, bifurcated, attuned to the movement of the two suns. I watered it in the apartment by myself as I watched the downtown pulse and throb.

There would be no more shuttles. Earth was gone. Centauri VI grew.

I went to work at the laundry. Eventually I quit and got a job in the botanical gardens. I didn’t miss the smell of the detergent or the hiss of the ironing presses. I did miss Jebediah who I saw less and less frequently.

Earth was gone and I was named godmother of Paul and Sally’s first daughter. They named her after my mother. She grew up with two suns and two loving parents.

Earth was gone and the botanical gardens thrived, housing familiar plants alongside the strange. Apple trees next to Centaurian walnuts. I fell in love with the head gardener and we were married on the steps three months later.

Earth was gone and I had three children.

Earth was gone and I grew older.

I took our children to the Archives often. I took them back among the stacks. We read the books of long-dead authors. We looked at the paintings by long-dead painters. We breathed the air of a long-dead planet.

“It’s a balance,” I told them. “An artform and a practicality. To hold the sweet alongside the bitter.”

One day I turned forty-eight. It was the age my mother had been. The age she would always be. The age when everything had come to an end, at least for her.

I ran into Jebediah on that day, of all days. Our carts bumped against each other in the aisle of the grocery store. I looked up and there he was—once again, it seemed as always, winking.

We laughed and talked and told the stories that were important. As I was turning to go, he reached out and stopped me.

“I never did find out,” he said, “what you missed most about Earth.”

I paused for a moment, the taste of apricot rich on my tongue.

“It doesn’t really matter,” I said. “It turns out I brought it with me.”