“The Last Astronaut” by Simran Khalsa

The man on the moon does not care much for the dark side.

It’s the light side where he builds his house, curving up like a crater from the core, where he brushes off the dust from his old overalls when he’s done, where he plants his violets, and waits.

Seven thousand people could see him, could look up and wonder what’s changed, but the moon is long-forgotten about – an x on some centurial checklist. However, the man on the moon is content with this; being forgotten is the easiest thing he’s ever done.

Every day he goes outside, pocket telescope in hand,  and looks at the things around him. He watches the oceans of Earth and the storms of Venus and those shining speckled stars from great gorgeous galaxies. He gathers left-behind things – fallen satellites, rovers, even a family photo once – ambling towards them with large bouncing steps, white heavy boots landing softly in the stardust. It is not an exercise of joy, nor necessity, just something to do. Soon, the moon has memorized his every footprint.

Last Astronaut Illustration
illustration by Quentin Freeman

And then, at night, he waits by his rotary phone for a call. There’s always someone who hasn’t forgotten, after all. He chats with them, sipping on black coffee, eyelids heavy with the patience of old age. There’s a man in the desert, and an old woman on her deathbed, a hiker who lost one signal only to find another. He laughs at their jokes, gathers their confessions in glass jars, and assures them some things in this world are constant.

It rings in a bubbling sort of manner, and he picks up every time with hope of hearing a certain someone special’s serenade. It never is them, but he doesn’t mind; he has planets worth of patience, spanning all of space. He is fine with waiting.

The man on the moon waits for a very long time. He waits and waters his violets. He waits and reads his books. He waits and listens to his jars and remembers a laugh that sounded like honey, one that would warm up this entire house.

He waits. He waits. And then he forgets.

The man in the moon wonders what’s on the dark side of the moon.

The rotary phone rings, soft and clear with a tune you wouldn’t be able to place, but would swear you’d heard before, somewhere.

After a moment, it rings again, a little more insistent this time, pinging off the wall of jars, ricocheting around the dome until it lands, finally, in a jar of its own.

There is a jar on his table when he returns from his walk, lid the color of the cosmos closed tightly. He stares at it, and it stares back. Open me, it dares. Suddenly pained, he turns away from it, and goes to plant more violets out front – they’re looking quite wilted these days.

After the violets, he sits for hours, battling between a knowing and a feeling, between the pit in his stomach and the clear emptiness inside the cosmos jar. There is a something where nothing should be, and, every day, the jar challenges him again. And, every day, he heads out to explore the rest of his world instead. It carves out a home in the back of his mind. Some days, when he picks up his phone, he worries whatever voice is inside the jar will come out.

It never does.

One day, a decision is made: he will bury the jar on the dark side, the opposite side, so it cannot sting him anymore. It’s almost flawless, perfectly executed until that last, effervescent jump. That’s where it all goes wrong.

The jar forgets itself halfway up, enjoying the flight in his arms until it finally remembers its purpose. Open me, it dares. He does not listen. It sulks. It slips. It comes crashing down on dust.

He does not need to hear the confession it contains, for it’s already branded on his brain, carved into his soul in tiny white lettering.

Someone screams.

The man in the moon is down on his knees now, hands clasping at nothing but dust and space. Overwhelmed by a sudden desperation, and grasping for broken glass. It darts away: a twinkling tektite in reverse flight, soaring somewhere out of reach. Another stellar piece streaks past his left ear. Cosmic clouds all around him now: terrible and taunting. Too late. Too late. TOO LATE. Their voices are echoes of something that once was familiar – a honey-laugh that’s now far-faded into some singularity. They need not bother; he knows the astronomical truth of it all – she was lost the moment he turned away, nothing but a nebulous echo now

And then, they stop. They fly up with finality and never fall again: all-silent. He looks at the lid, now the only vestige of something that once was, and walks away.

Where there were hundreds of violets, one now remains.  The man in the moon takes out his silver scissors and snips away a stem. He inhales, and holds it up by it’s bloom, cold stem sliding between his index and middle fingers. Then he rises.

He ambles over the moon rocks with careful solemnity, moving as slowly as he breathes. A silent procession of one crosses the divide between sides. His large feet stop at the silver disk of cosmos, and the plot around it. The violets cannot grow here, instead they lie flat on their backs in the silver dirt – the only color anywhere. Each one a promise for a past unreachable.

Ignoring shaky hands and shaking dirt and that shadow of a something creeping up on him, the man in the moon lays down his last violet. When knees find rest in the dirt, he whispers a final apology to the last shred of secret lingering in the curve.

I know, it says. I love you too.