It’ll be 12 days this time, which means Ben can’t stay with Samson’s mother; she’s only free on the weekends, and anyways, he knows he won’t hear the end of it if he’s away for that long. It’s honestly a miracle that he has the self-restraint to refrain from bringing up the fact that her husband was in the military and was gone for much longer than 12 days at a time. Never mind the fact that man died before he even saw his first son hit the ripe old age of 8—no, it’s still his fault for leaving Ben alone and being a bad father.
Speaking of, school has been over for some time now, and the library hates to see unaccompanied minors enriching themselves, so Samson gets a move on. The car ride will give him time to formulate a more detailed excuse to give to the kid, too. The more time Ben spends at the library, the more questions he asks, and the more Samson gets pissed, because there is absolutely no way he can answer so what exactly was so bad about what Nixon did anyways? without 1. giving the kid an entire background in the U.S. government and 2. bursting an aneurysm.
He sends a quick omw! and Ben replies back almost immediately with Ok. CB: 650-891-2677, because for all his genius, he still has a flip phone and he hasn’t figured out how to stop sending his phone number with every message. Who would even call a seven year old back? Ben had the retro version of the snake game and the ability to take off-center selfies, and that was all he needed.
Said seven year old is now skipping up to his car, so Samson keeps his eyes trained straight ahead while he straps in his seatbelt very carefully. His backpack is almost as big as him, nearly pushing him off the seat with its bulk. He tries to pretend like he doesn’t check out books from the library, hides it in his bag and swaps out the covers with ones he already has so Samson doesn’t suspect anything. It’s not like he’s ever even banned books from their house, but he gets it. Every kid needs their little secret, so he’ll let him keep up the ruse unless he starts reading anime, in which case, Samson is coming into that room with a paper shredder.
“Good day at school?”
Ben shrugs. “Okay. Gerald took the metal part out of his sharpener and was running around chasing the girls with it. He said he’d stop if Lou kissed his cheek but the teachers stopped him before that happened.”
Samson winces. Rough, but what else could you expect out of a kid who was named Gerald?
“Did you think what Gerald did was okay?” He takes a right turn, towards his sister’s house. If he showed up when her husband was there, he would probably be able to guilt her into letting Ben stay with them. They didn’t even have to drop him off at school if they didn’t want to. His sister was a doctor; she could just write a note for him and call it in.
“I dunno. I didn’t really get why Gerald wanted to kiss Lou.” Samson spares a quick glance at Ben, who is squinting out the passenger side through his large glasses. He was due for an eye appointment a month ago, but he’s quite certain his power has changed, and they really didn’t have enough to cover another change.
“Because she isn’t pretty or because you don’t want to kiss anyone?” He’s read in some parenting books that these sorts of conversations make or break your kid. Apparently, you have to get it exactly right or your child will grow up to hate women or something.
Ben shrugs. “I dunno.”
“Well, what Gerald did was wrong. If you want someone to kiss you, you have to ask them. That’s called consent. Do you know that word? You need to ask someone for their consent.” That was a good speech. Concise but precise. Short but clear.
“Why didn’t Darcy ask Elizabeth if he could kiss her then? Was he wrong?”
“Fitzwilliam? What are we, in the 13th century?”
“I think it’s the 19th.”
“This is the 21st century, Ben.”
“I mean Darcy. He was born then.”
“He’s not dead yet? How old is this man? He hold a Guinness world record or something?”
“He’s not real, Dad.”
“Oh. Well, why didn’t you say so? Where’s this guy from?”
Ben sits up importantly. “He’s from this book called Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. My librarian said that it was a classic and tried to get me to read the kid’s version but I told her I wanted to read the normal one. Darcy is super cool. He’s super mean and unkind to everyone but—”
Samson pulls to the side and stops the car. “Hate to interrupt, kiddo, but I have some important news to tell you. I’m going to be out for a few days, so you’re staying with your Auntie Jillian, okay?”
Ben falls silent. He stares at the floor of the car before looking up. “How long?”
“Just 12 days. I’ll be back before you know I’m gone. And then you can tell me all about this Fitzwilliam fellow, alright? We’ll get ice cream at the little cafe downtown. The banana split sundae. And maybe you can ask Jill to find a movie adaptation of the pride thing for you. Sound good?”
Ben shakes his head. “I wanna go up with you.”
“Ah, but you know I can’t do that. It’s super dangerous. Space doesn’t scare me anymore because I’ve been there for so long, but for a little kid like you, it’d be way too much. One day, though, we’ll fly up together. But you have to be good and stay with Auntie Jillian for now. How does that sound?”
“Great! I’ll see you up there when I’m older!” Ben’s eyes shine so brightly under his glasses that Samson doesn’t doubt that for one second. “Where are you going this time?”
“Routine checks to the space station. That’s why it’s so short.” Samson pretends to yawn. “Yeah, I tried getting out of it but they said only experienced astronauts could go on this one.”
“Space rocks are super dangerous. You gotta be safe, dad. Darcy said—”
“Alright, bud,” Samson quickly interjects because he’s not about to subject himself to one of Ben’s going away speeches that are usually fraught with emotion and literary references. “You know the drill. Go to the house with the red car and tell Auntie Jillian you need to stay for a bit.”
Ben jumps out of the car, shouldering his too-big backpack with a bit of a struggle. He looks back quickly, eyes wide. “You’ll say hi to mama’s star for me, right? And bring something back from up there?”
Samson reaches out to ruffle his hair. “‘Course, bud.”
Ben trots down to Jill’s house. Once someone has opened the door (Jill’s husband, not Jill herself, thank god), Samson starts up the car and starts to make his way up to the space station.
It’s nearing sunset when he approaches. It’s a long drive from his town, more towards his ole hometown, for nostalgia’s sake and so people don’t see him there by chance. Nelly’s Space Station Diner (Open 24 Hours!) is a far cry from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that Ben is convinced he goes to every few months, but if you get drunk enough and squint, the cheap hanging planets and galaxy print wallpaper might almost convince you.
Look, he wasn’t trying to gaslight his own kid or anything like that; Ben had simply misheard the name the first time he had talked about it. Honestly, Samson hadn’t even known anything was wrong until Ben came to him after Googling it. He’d been so excited to find out his mother and father were real life astronauts who go to space and see the planets! and Samson just never had the heart to tell him otherwise. So what if he had to read up a little on how that poor little planet Pluto was kicked out of the big planet group or about the moon and the Apollo Challenger 15 or whatever it was called? Ben’s excitement made up for it. So once every two months, he takes the night shift alongside his usual day shift for a week or so and lets sleep become optional until he’s made enough money to keep them both afloat until he has to come in and repeat the entire cycle once again. And if that meant a little more respect from his kid and being able to tell Ben that his mother died in some cool space accident, not in a cold, vomit-stained hospital bed, then yes, he was going to lie until hell froze over.
Velma, the daughter of the late owner who was, surprise, surprise, named Nelly, is running around, directing the kitchen and bar with her grating voice when he walks in. That’s a surprise—she barely comes in to do actual work unless she’s bored. She doesn’t even spare him a greeting until he has his apron on and he’s behind the bar, polishing the glasses just so she doesn’t yell at him for doing nothing.
The bar doesn’t get many people until it hits 1 or 2, and even then, it’s only just the regulars, who 0rder the same drink they always do and sit in the dark alone. One of them is bound to explode soon; they haven’t had a bar fight in ages, and the old man who always orders gin and tonic has been shifty all night. Velma swings behind the bar to top off her drink—when did she even get that?—and only then does she notice Samson.
“Samson! What’re you doing behind that bar? They catch an 18 year old being allowed to serve alcohol at my bar, my license is revoked and your job is gone. You want that?”
Samson sighs. “I’m 23, Vel. Haven’t been 18 in a long, long time.”
“Seriously? Seems like just yesterday you were in high school and sweeping the floors, crying to me ’bout how your mama didn’t like it if you were out too late and you needed to ace your chemistry test so you couldn’t take the night shift.”
“How old is that kid of yours now? Must be paying his own bills by now.”
Samson scoffs out a laugh. “Yeah, close. He’s seven.”
“Seven! Bring him in here!” Velma points her finger at the bourbon in his hand. “We’ll throw him a rager.”
He’s saved from having to answer that when he hears an extremely loud thump right outside the bar. The patrons murmur excitedly and Velma gives him a look that clearly says go deal with it. There’s already a commotion outside, so at least that means he doesn’t have to clean off any blood from the seats this time. His blessings are small—he gets to deal with bloody bar fights outside rather than inside! his three months at college gave him just enough knowledge to answer Ben’s questions after his physics phase!—but he’s grateful for them anyway. He makes his way outside to find a crowd bunched up in a circle around something silently. That doesn’t bode well. If someone’s already knocked out, he’s the one who’ll have to call an ambulance and explain what went on. Then Velma will make him work overtime because he was “wasting his time” talking to the police.
“You work there?” a man in the crowd calls. “In the diner?”
Samson nods slowly. “Yeah, is everything alright?”
The crowd’s not surrounding a body. They’re surrounding a small crater, housing a grey rock the size of a basketball. Little pieces are scattered all around, so Samson kneels down to pick one up.
“What… what is this?”
“Meteorite,” a lady pipes up. “Just missed the diner. Saved your boss a lot of money from patching a hole in your roof. Pretty cool, eh?”
Samson blinks slowly. The piece in his hand feels hot. “A meteorite? Like, from space?”
The crowd titters.
“No, like, from up there?” Samson points up into the sky. The stars stare back, and the North star—termed Mama’s Star by Ben—winks at him.
“Yes, honey, from there. You skipped school or something?” The crowd’s having a good laugh at his expense; it’s the drunkards on their way home who find just about anything and everything funny if they look hard enough.
He looks down at the rock. “From space?” he whispers again. He knows he sounds stupid but he can’t help himself. A meteorite! From space! At Nelly’s Space Station Diner! After Ben asked him to bring something back from space? What were the odds!? He has to get the little piece back to Ben immediately. Ignoring the jeering from the crowd, he takes two steps back, then turns and tears back inside Nelly’s Space Station Diner.
“Vel,” he gasps out. “Look, I’m sorry—I can’t explain this—I really can’t—I have to go.”
“Your shift isn’t over.” Velma is blunt. “Finish your shift or you’re fired. You know the rules.”
He’s being stupid. This is stupid. He’s going to regret it. But somehow, he can’t bring himself to care. “Alright, well… then I’m putting in my two weeks! I’m quitting! Right now. I need to go, my kid’s waiting for me!” He tears off his apron and throws it over the counter.
Velma cries out with an angry Samson, you come back here right this instant! but he’s already starting up his car. He drives so recklessly that it’s almost a miracle he doesn’t die. Or maybe it is a miracle; Samson’s ready to believe anything at this point, after that meteorite hit. The little piece seems to thrum excitedly in his pocket as he runs yet another red. He’s at Jill’s and banging at her door in thirty minutes.
Jillian opens the door with such force that he almost thinks she’s going to him before she says, “Do you have any idea what the time is? First you drop off Ben without even warning me about it, and now this?”
Oh. Yeah, that was a bad move on his part, but he couldn’t deal with that right now.
“Jill, Jill, Jill, I’m sorry, but I have to talk to Ben.” He shoves past her as gracefully as possible and takes the stairs two at a time, turning left to the guest bedroom where he knows Ben is fast asleep. His small frame is turned away from him when he enters, but at his touch, he is startled awake.
“Daddy? What is it?” Ben looks at him, bleary-eyed. “Why are you home?”
Samson grips his hand tightly, trying not to hurt him. “Hey bud. Do you want me home? I mean, do you want me to stay home instead of leaving? Would you like that more? Do you want me home?”
“I want you home. Of course I want you home.” Ben gropes around for his glasses. “Can you turn on the light?”
“That was my last trip up, Ben. I told them I didn’t want to do it anymore. I got back a little souvenir from up there for you. Do you want to see it?”
Ben finds his glasses and flips on the light. His eyes widen when he sees the piece in Samson’s hands. “Is that real?”
“Real as your own two hands. You can touch it.”
Ben very gently touches the little piece. Samson doesn’t think he’s ever seen a kid be more gentle with something. Ben then moves it to the side of the bed. He puts his hand on Samson’s hands instead, holds it, then looks up at him.
“You mean it? You’ll stay?”
The meteorite rock looks like it’s glowing in the soft light of the lamp. He can still feel it thrumming in his hand, beating out a melody saying stay, stay, stay. Samson smiles.
“I mean it.”