Samantha Steiner

Planet Nine

For hours, I stare out the dirty window of the city bus. When I see the beach, I tug the silver cord and shove the double doors apart. 

Sand laid over with mist. No ocean or sun. I follow the dock to the sound of lapping water. At the end of the dock, the mist thickens into fog. I squint for the outline of Merritt Island on the horizon. Nothing. No one. 

I turn around. I turn again. I’m lost in a crystal ball. 

I walk back.

At the bus stop, I dig through my pockets. No money. 

* * *

Yesterday, before I boarded the bus, my husband chased me down our front hallway. I ran to the bathroom, closed myself in. From the other side, he held the knob sideways to keep the door from locking. 

* * *

The International Space Station, or ISS, is about the length of a football field. It orbits the Earth, passing from sunlight into shadow and back again. 

Sunlight, unmediated by atmosphere, boils whatever it touches. 

Shade, in the vacuum of space, leeches heat from all surfaces.

The ISS rotates as it orbits, exchanging heat for cold, cold for heat, a great celestial roasting spit.

* * *

I follow the sidewalk from bus stop to bus stop until I reach the city. Morning commuters rush in all directions. 

“Excuse me,” I say. My voice is raspy from yesterday.

“Please,” I say.

“Do you have a moment—?”

They avert their eyes and scurry. 

* * *

He forced his way into the bathroom. Shouldered me against a wall, pulled a knife from his pocket. He offered me a choice: he could slice across my throat from one side to the other, smooth and easy, or he could plunge the blade straight into the bones of my neck.

* * *

There is no gravity on the ISS. To sleep, astronauts climb into lockers and velcro themselves into place. They turn on fans to chase away their expelled breath, to keep their dreams from suffocating them. 

* * *

Sometimes, you lock yourself out of the house. Sometimes, you lock yourself inside. Either way, the door is locked, and someone is screaming for you. Sometimes the scream blasts from your own mouth. It bounces against the closed door and back at you. You swallow the fog of your own spent breath. You are not an astronaut.

* * *

I find a coffee shop. Customers stand back to let me pass. 

“May I have the bathroom key?” I ask the teenager behind the counter.

“I’m sorry, ma’am,” she answers in a prim, snarky voice. “The restroom is for customers only.”

Behind me are three feet of air. Then the line begins. Its growth is quick, silent, furious.

“I’m going to have to ask you to make room for the next customer,” the teenager says.

I close my eyes. 

“Ma’am?” the teenager asks.

* * *

Astronauts spend years on the ISS. They hold objects, let them go, watch them float in midair. Those astronauts return to Earth. They hold objects, let them go, watch them crash and shatter.

* * *

I open my eyes.

“Give me the bathroom key.” The words scrape my throat. “I’ll use the bathroom and leave, no trouble.”

Customers jostle against my three foot atmosphere. The line morphs into a crowd. 

“If you don’t give me the key,” I say. “I will scream.”

The teenager scratches the back of her head. Then she reaches under the counter and takes out a wooden brick. The key is attached. She holds the brick at eye level, drops it into my hand. She’s afraid of my touch.

I catch the key.

“Thanks,” I smile.

* * *

My husband eased his hand on my throat just enough to keep me breathing.

“Call a social worker!” I shouted. But there wasn’t enough air, so it came out in a whisper. 

He leaned so close, our foreheads almost touched. When he wasn’t strangling me against a wall, we were the same height. Now, though, I was looking up at the topography of his face. Empty riverbeds fanned out from his eyes. The peak of his nose was sun-scorched. His mouth: a slick, humid grotto. He disappeared months ago and came back looking like a new planet.

“You know,” he breathed. “You know I’m not calling anyone.”

“Love you,” I whispered, a plea.

A gust of wet air met my nostrils. The riverbeds filled. 

“Love you, too.”

* * *

On the ISS, there is no easy way to dispose of used toothpaste. If an astronaut spits, the contents bounce from one surface to the next, subdividing with each impact. The smallest particles linger in the air until someone steps into an eyeful of stinging spittle. 

After astronauts brush, they swallow. Toothpaste, saliva, a little of their own mucus. To save their eyes, they take this ugliness down their gullets and into their guts.

* * *

I toss the bathroom key over the counter. It lands at the snarky teen’s feet. While she kneels for the key,  I swipe a paper cup from the stack by the register. The people in line follow me with their eyes and say nothing. 

I take my cup to the table where they keep the milk and sugar, read the labels on the metal canisters. The snarky teen sees me now. She watches, too. So many eyes held in my orbit. Skim, Two Percent, Whole, Cream. I fill my paper cup with cream and leave.

* * *

Cream is what babies like. I have a baby at home. His father might be at work. Yesterday after the riverbeds filled, he hurried out of the bathroom. He would deal with me tomorrow, he told me, which is now today. 

I heard the lock click, the one on the hallway side of the door. He installed that lock when he came back from wherever he roasted his nose. Only he has the key. 

I waited for his footsteps to fade before I cranked the shower handle. Hot water, the hottest water. I faced myself in the medicine cabinet. The usual: eyelids like helmet visors, cheeks sagged low. After a minute, steam crept thick through my nostrils. I watched my reflection melt into fog.

* * *

There was a giant robotic arm fixed to the outside of the ISS. It was called Canada Arm, spelled Canadarm, named for the Canadian Space Agency where it was developed. 

The ISS is a modular home that builds itself room by room. Canadarm was its construction crane. After ninety missions, Canadarm retired to sunny Florida. Now there is a new robotic arm on the ISS, called Canadarm2. Canadarm3 is on its way.

* * *

I groped my way from the medicine cabinet to the shower, heart vibrating in my chest, pulse beating in my skin.

On late night TV while my husband was away, I saw a documentary about two women who accidentally drove their car into a river. The woman in the driver’s seat punched the dashboard window. That only wrecked her knuckles. The one in the passenger’s seat pulled a ballpoint from her purse and stabbed it through the side window and it broke easy, artificial sugar glass dissolving in the river.

I turned the shower from scalding to icy. 

In the shower, there is a frosted glass window.

Heat makes particles expand. Cold makes them contract. A shift between the two causes a molecular tug-of-war. I knew the shower’s temperature range couldn’t crack a window, but it might edge the glass toward self-destruct. 

* * *

One astronaut maneuvers Canadarm2 from inside the ISS. The rest go to the airlock and from there to space.

They wear suits with silver visors that transform their heads into pewter marbles. At the back of each helmet, there is a small pad, called a HAP, or Helmet Absorbency Pad. If a suit’s plumbing leaks, the HAP collects moisture, keeps water from globbing weightlessly into mouths and nostrils.

The astronauts tether themselves to the outside of the ISS and set to work. They swivel together on the roasting spit. Sun, shade, sweat, shiver, while Canadarm2 swings over them. If an astronaut tilts back their head, they can feel the HAP against their skull. It is soft. It is always soft. The moment it turns squishy, something is leaking. Then they will all fight panic.

* * *

Cream sloshes out of my cup as I walk. It leaks into the spaces between my fingers, accumulates in the half-healed cuts on my arm. Around these little milk swamps, dried blood flutters in bright flakes.

There is sidewalk. There is sidewalk and there is sidewalk and there is sidewalk. Somewhere at the end of that sidewalk is my baby. Somewhere past my baby is the water, and somewhere past the water is Merritt Island and the Kennedy Space Center, where the original Canadarm hovers over a crowd of children like an arcade claw machine. 

* * *

The most vulnerable part of an astronaut’s suit are the gloves. Thin enough to follow the movement of human fingers, they are the point of contact for lifting, carrying, manipulating. They wear away faster than any other part of the suit. 

At sundown and sunrise, the commander’s voice sizzles in the other astronauts’ headsets: “HAP and glove check.” 

Everyone stops work. 

Everyone tilts their head backwards. Soft, not squishy. 

Everyone retracts their silver visors, lifts hands to crystal ball helmets. A palm reading. They scour the terrain of their gloves for a dent, a spot, the beginning of a break. Wrists, knuckles, the crevices between fingers, flawless. They resume work.

* * *

With the cold water running, the steam eased into a mist. I turned off the shower, grabbed the plunger by the toilet, and carried it into the tub. 

The plunger’s bare wooden end broke through the window. Most of the glass landed outside, on the front porch. A few slabs grazed me on their way down into the tub. 

The window was a maw of glass teeth. Steam swooped away through the opening and joined the foggy sky.

* * *

Sometimes, you lock yourself out of the house. Sometimes, you lock yourself in. Sometimes, you break a window and find yourself locked in and out at the same time. You still hear the screaming, but now you don’t know where it’s coming from, inside or outside, if your mouth is open or shut.

* * *

I’m a few blocks from home when I stop walking. It’s sunset.

I set the cup of cream on the sidewalk. It’s halfway gone, I sloshed so much. 

“HAP and glove check,” I say.

I tilt my head back. Feel the cushion of unwashed hair at my neck. Soft, not squishy.

I lift my hands to my face. My palms are ragged, decomposing. My knuckles could be gashes. The spaces between my fingers reek of spoiled cream. 

Late at night while my husband was away, I watched a documentary on truck-driving thieves. After one of the drivers shook off the crowd that was chasing him, he said into his walkie-talkie, That’s a ten-four, good buddy. I have since used this line for all of my HAP and glove checks. 

I say it now, to no one in particular.

“That’s a ten-four, good buddy.” 

Then I pick up my cup of cream and keep walking.

* * *

I was poking out the glass teeth from the windowsill with the end of the plunger, doing my best to ignore the sounds of my baby crying and my husband scrambling down the stairs. I stood barefoot among the shattered glass.

I heard my husband unlock his side of the door. There was still the lock on my side. I tossed a towel over the sill. Then I put my head between the glass teeth. 

“Hey,” he said. As if we hadn’t been married six years, as if he hadn’t yet learned my name. “Just a minute. Just to talk. I won’t stop you. Promise.”

He was the kind of person who told the truth or ran away, mostly ran away. He didn’t lie.

I stepped out of the shower and opened the door.

My husband looked around the bathroom, saw me in my soggy clothes, exhaled. 

“Let’s go to the porch,” he said. 

* * *

Past Neptune, but still in our solar system, there are clusters of small planets moving together. Their orbits are thin, elliptical, angled toward the same stretch of darkness just beyond human surveillance. Scientists believe somewhere in that stretch of darkness is an object five to ten times the mass of Earth. They call it Planet Nine.

* * *

We sat in plastic lawn chairs. 

“You thirsty?” he asked.

“I’ll have a lemonade,” I said, as if he were a flight attendant. “Lots of ice.”

He went inside. I knew he was watching me through the window even as he prepared my drink. The cabinet door opened and slammed. The fridge door opened and slammed. The freezer door opened and slammed. The front door opened and closed gradually against its spring. He was holding my lemonade.

I wished he would let go of the drink in midair, abandon it to zero gravity so I could take it without touching him. But we didn’t have zero gravity. He held the lemonade out, and I took it. For a moment, our fingers brushed. 

* * *

I learned about Planet Nine the same way I learned about truck-driving thieves, punctured windows, and Canadarm: flipping through TV channels in the hours before sunrise while my husband was away. There was a station with a logo at the corner of the screen, something circular and clean. In the space between my breasts and knees, my baby flailed in zero gravity.

Where my husband was, I didn’t know. All I knew was the wash of screenlight on my face and the orbit of limbs thrashing deep inside me, crushing me. 

* * *

He plopped into the lawn chair next to mine.

“I’m not gonna pretend I’m a great dad—” 

“You sure as hell aren’t gonna pretend that,” I spat.

Can I finish?

“Sure. Make me laugh.”

“I’m not gonna pretend I’m a great dad. But you’re crossing a line.”

“Call a social worker,” I dared him again.

“Look at your son!” He was shouting now.

“I’ve seen him,” I said. 

The riverbeds around his eyes deepened.

“Wait,” he said. He stood, went into the house.

* * *

I squinted at the clean, circular logo on the TV screen, many nights, many months. 

“HAP and glove check,” I announced at sunrise.

I drove my neck backwards into the couch cushions. Soft, not squishy.

I held my hands before my face. The knuckles were bruising from repeated impact. My womb was bruising from repeated impact.

“That’s a ten-four, good buddy.”

* * *

I didn’t wait for my husband to come back. I set my lemonade on the porch floor and walked two blocks to the bus shelter. 

A bus pulled up. It was headed to the dock. I climbed the little stairs and helped myself to a seat.

“Ahem,” the driver said, tapping the coin slot. 

I dug through my pockets, pulled out a five. Handed it to the driver.

He pocketed it. 

“No change,” he said.

I took my seat. The sun was setting. 

“HAP and glove check,” I said.

The driver turned around to see if I was talking to him. Then he faced forward. 

I tilted my head back. The aluminum bus seat wasn’t soft, but it wasn’t squishy either.

I inspected my fingers. They were still cold and a little wet from the lemonade glass.

The bus passed our porch, where my husband sat with my baby in his arms. My baby, not his. Now his baby, not mine. A bruised, crying thing. My husband stared at me.

I waved like Canadarm, my hand fifty feet high. 

“Goodbye,” I said, though the window was closed. 

In my mouth: an accumulation of saliva, mucus, brine. I swallowed it. Astronaut toothpaste.

* * *

I walk down our street with my spoiled cup of cream. The glass from the bathroom window glistens under the porch light. My husband is home. 

* * *

Yesterday while my husband was upstairs, I sat on the couch with my baby in my lap. I watched the clean, circular logo at the bottom of the screen. 

I curled a fist, slammed it into my baby’s little shoulder. 

“Goodbye, Planet Nine,” I said.

My baby said nothing.

I continued. Purple grew at his shoulders, around his little skull.

Upstairs, a door opened. 

I could tell from the riverbeds around his eyes that he had seen. 

“AGAIN?” he screamed. “AGAIN?”

I ran for the bathroom. Dutifully, my husband chased me.

* * *

Sometimes, you leave your house without locking the door. Sometimes, even though you are outside, you are still inside. When this happens, you are no longer trapped. You are lost.

* * *

I pass the bus stop and come up the porch steps. Inside, the TV turns off. 

I place the spoiled cream on the porch. 

Through the window, I see my husband on the couch facing the blank TV. I can tell from the hunch of his shoulders that he hears me. In his lap, the baby starts to cry. His baby. Not my baby. My baby never cried with me.

I leave.

* * *

Before the riverbeds, before the scorched nose, before the grotto mouth, we lay in bed together. I cupped my hand around the back of his head and told him.

“Get rid of it,” he said. “We don’t need it.”

“But I want it.”

“Thought we agreed,” he said.

“I’m keeping it.”

Next morning, bed wide and empty as the moon. 

* * *

I slept on the moon. My baby slept on the couch, the floor, wherever. 

Until my husband came back. Riverbeds, scorched nose, grotto-mouth. I smacked him. We made love. 

He lifted my baby from the couch. 

“Do we need to call a doctor?” he said.

“No doctors.”

“What happened?” he said.

“You were right,” I said. “Wasn’t worth it.”

He chased me until I locked myself in the bathroom. Then he bought the second lock.

* * *

I walk back into town. Scrounge dinner from a garbage can, scrounge sleep from a park bench. The next day, I return to the coffee shop with the snarky teenager. Grab a paper cup, load it with cream, carry it down sidewalk and sidewalk and sidewalk. 

The old cup is gone from the lawn chair. I set the new cup in its place. 

* * *

In my mind, I follow the dock to Merritt Island. The dock ends in fog. I turn around. I turn around again. The dock is a pirate’s plank. I descend into a dream that chokes me.

* * *

The next day, the lawn chair is empty again. I set another cup in its place. I return to the coffee shop. The day after that, I fill another cup with cream and carry it down the familiar path. As I walk, the cream sloshes, tracing the sidewalk in a different kind of Milky Way.

* * *

Most days, I go to a shelter where gray-haired women hand me calories in foil wrappers. I spend afternoons on the dock munching space food, looking for Merritt Island. 

Maybe one day, I’ll walk the highway to Merritt Island. Maybe I’ll hitch a ride somewhere and get riverbeds, scorched nose, grotto-mouth. Maybe I’ll come back to the front porch and my husband will pretend he doesn’t hear me until I open the door and kiss him, kiss our baby and promise never, never again. 

Maybe. But until then, I orbit Planet Nine.

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Samantha Steiner is a writer and visual artist. Her awards include Best Microfiction by Pelekinesis Press, Featured Fiction Writer by Lammergeier Magazine, and Shortlisted Writer for Battery Pack by Neon Books. She has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Follow her on social media @Steiner_Reads.