Winter Holidays - Story 12 - The Darkness by Christine Makepeace

“What should we have for Christmas dinner, Gusev?”

“Ah, you know this twenty-fifth December thing is very American, yes?”

“Cut me a break and let’s attempt to celebrate. We can do something on your day, too.”

“Oh thank you, Michaels.”

He said it sarcastically, and I wondered why I even bothered engaging him anymore. We only spoke about work, and even then interactions were strained. Earlier in the week we’d attempted to fix the O2 regulators only to have it end in a shouting match. Apparently I was an unqualified embarrassment unfit for my responsibilities. Loneliness is a real field-leveler.

“There are very few options for food. You know this. Not until we get resupplied. I don’t see much cause for celebration.”

“If we waited for reasons to celebrate, we’d continue to sit here in silence. So let’s pretend this,” I read the can in my hands, “diced ham is a turkey dinner.”

Gusev laughed. His laugh never seemed good natured. I always heard derision in the guttural tone of his chuckle. But I was also massively paranoid and sleep deprived, so I tried to remember my impressions may not have been the most reliable.

“Again, very American choice. Turkey. My family, we didn’t eat meat during this time of year.”

“Oh, really? Is that like, a thing in Russia?” I said, genuinely interested.

“Yeah, no meat until after Christmas—which we celebrate in January.” He shot me a look as I pried open my ham. “My parents, they were very religious. Some old ways, people stopped paying attention to those things. But my family, my father, very traditional. We would pass a bowl of porridge around and say what we were grateful for as we ate. We had to acknowledge the gifts of the previous year. It was very important.”

It was the most he’d spoken to me in weeks, and the sound of another voice filling the hollow space was welcomed. I wanted him to continue not just to assuage my homesickness, but also because I found the cultural differences fascinating. When I was young, I dreamed of being an astronaut, working on the space station, and sharing my life with all these different, amazing minds.

That was before funding ran out, and people stopped caring about intergalactic pursuits. I suppose if I had known my lot in life would be sitting in a nearly abandoned cylinder in inner space with an equally disillusioned Russian man that I was sure hated me, I might have made other arrangements. Here we sat though, me with my ham, and Gusev with his glimmer of nostalgia warming the dank air.

“My mother,” I recalled, “she would make a big turkey dinner when I was younger. Everything laid out on the dining room table. It looked like a movie! Shiny cakes and glistening meats. I mean, it seems like a million years ago now, but back then, we had so much stuff. Food, toys, just… stuff. So weird how things change.” It was hard to remember the past without fixating on the present, how wasteful we all were. I nodded at Gusev, “Tell me more about your traditions.”

“Ah, we never had very much, even when I was small,” he shot me a pointed look. “Again, my father and mother, they always clung to old ways for comfort. My mother, she believed we would always be taken care of as long as we were obedient. So, on Christmas, it was very important for us to… to think about. To think of all the things we may have done… wrong.” He looked up at me, almost embarrassed, and though I didn’t totally understand it, I smiled at him with as much kindness as I could muster.

“I think it may sound silly now,” he said in lieu of continuing.

“No! It sounds so interesting! In my family we would fight over how many presents we could open on Christmas Eve. This is real. It sounds so, I dunno, just so real.”

“Well, it was real, of course. I lived it.”

“I know that,” I replied, forgetting how early conversations with Gusev often turned into extremely literal and frustrating affairs.

“No, it’s silly. You think it’s silly and old fashioned. Never mind.”

“Oh please!” I remember screeching, almost begging. “I wasn’t making fun, I promise. I’m genuinely enjoying this talk.” Anything to keep from sitting silently, trying not to think about what was left for me back home.

“Fine. I also miss my home,” he said, reading my thoughts. “So I’ll continue, but do not make jokes out of my beliefs.”

“I would never,” I vowed, clutching my hand to my chest.

“In your home, you would open presents—new things, yes? For us, we had to show true gratefulness for what we’d received throughout the year: food, clothing, medicine, good weather. We had to ask forgiveness for mistakes. It was a time of togetherness, yes. But also a time of contrition.”

Gusev looked sheepish, hesitant in a way I was unfamiliar with. He was a quiet man, but always bold. The expression on his face as he talked about mistakes and forgiveness was anything but bold.

“Like going to confession in church? Or like Santa? If you’re bad he’ll give you coal. Like that?” He nodded, and I was grateful for the common ground.

“Yes, sort of like Santa Claus. But he is, of course, not real.” It struck me as an odd thing to say, but I didn’t grab hold of it at the time. “When I was a boy, we talked about Grandfather Frost. You know of this?” I didn’t, so I shook my head no. “Ah, either way. My family and I, we didn’t talk about this Frost gentleman because, like Santa, he was a children’s tale. But there was something else.

“In Russian, the word means ‘shadow’, but I think it’s closer to ‘darkness’ in English. So on Christmas, if we were deemed ungrateful, The Darkness would come and punish us.”

It was like a punch to the stomach. Gusev’s face was a mix of caution and pride. It made me dizzy. “Well, that doesn’t sound like Santa at all,” I tried to joke.

“No, he is nothing like the cola commercial you worship. He is the embodiment of judgment, and he comes to ensure compliance. My family,” he leaned closer to me and I shivered, “we were many children. It’s important to remind such small minds, and small hands, how they should behave.”

I was speechless, sitting there holding my empty can of ham. The greasiness stuck to my tongue and I felt seasick.

“You,” he continued, “you cried and begged for pieces of shaped plastic and mountains of sugary food. And your mother and father just laid it in your lap—good or bad. There was no coal, no consequence. I know of people like you, Michaels. No weight to your failings. I know of your type.”

The anger pulsed off him in palpable waves, and I suddenly didn’t feel so stupid for thinking he hated me. I was dumbfounded—didn’t know what to say, because I mean, he wasn’t wrong. I’d never gotten coal. I’d never really been punished. Even the year I pushed my sister down the stairs there was a bike sitting under the tree, because kids will be kids, right? It was evident Gusev didn’t feel the same.

“Ah,” he said, breaking the silence that surely felt longer than it had been. “This makes you uncomfortable.”

“Well, yeah. A little,” I replied. I’d lost my filter somewhere back when he’d accused me of living without consequence.

“Apologies then. I’ll stop talking.”

“No, no. It’s fine.” I felt bad for some reason. “Sometimes it’s hard to understand different cultures.” I summoned a strained smile.

“Yes, I suppose. It was a nice change, talking about my memories. I got carried away, I think.”

I was trying to figure out something to say that would gracefully indicate my exit from the conversation when he began again.

“The Darkness, Michaels. It wasn’t meant to scare us. It was a reckoning. Do you know what I mean by that? The Darkness was a means to enforce value. If everything is plentiful, and nothing bad ever happens, how do you value anything? Even life. How do you value life, Michaels?”

The way he stared at me felt violent. I began to move away, and he grabbed my arm.

“The Darkness passes judgement without distractions. How do you know who you are if you’ve never been judged?”

I pulled my arm away and moved as swiftly as possible back to my quarters. I could still hear him talking even though I’d been the entirety of his audience.

“Fingers and toes,” he laughed. “The Darkness takes fingers and toes.” It was the most genuine laugh I’d heard in all the months we’d been together, just he and I.

For the first time since arriving on the station, the isolation felt profound and dangerous. It was nothing like the loneliness and homesickness that followed me around like a ghost. It had shape—form—a name.

I stared at the ceiling, thinking about my life and the choices that had gotten me to this point. Remembering how accomplished and proud I was when I’d been chosen for this “mission” made me feel stupid. Over and over I could hear Gusev telling me I’d never been judged, his eyes dressing me down for my unworthiness.

It was Christmas Day on Earth, and I was struggling not to cry. Not because I missed my mom, but because I was terrified. Shadows seemed to blossom in the corners of my room. I opened my eyes to see the darkness shift right in front of me. It slithered off, only to return again and hang heavily in front of my face.

Ideas had been planted like tainted seeds in my psyche. Not real though, just stories dribbling from between my colleague’s long-silent lips. But then why were they so heavy? Crushing. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t articulate my limbs because they were weighed down by sandbags. I imagined each thread that tethered me as another fabrication in the fabric of my life.

I could hear Gusev’s laugh in the distance, and it felt like miles separated us. When I was six, I pushed my sister down the stairs. When I was nine, I stole my best friend’s doll. Sixteen: I totaled my parent’s car and told them I swerved to avoid a cat; there was no cat. Twenty-two: I cheated on a placement test. Twenty-five: lied about my experience. Twenty-five: lied about my schooling. Twenty-five: lied, lied, lied.

And where had it gotten me but exactly where I’d always wanted to be: on the International Space Station learning all about foreign customs. How’s that for punishment?

I curled my fingers into fists, clenched my toes. There was a bang from somewhere deep inside the station, a groan. I felt it breathe the way an old house does. Settling, they used to call it. Whatever it was, Gusev welcomed it in. I was certain of that.

When you mix oil and water, plump blobs form in the liquid—they swirl and push against each other. That’s what populated the emptiness of my room. Thick globs of matter hung in the air—in my face—tickling my eyelashes like spider webs. The judgement vibrated, an eel displacing water, and it nipped at my fingertips.

I tried to scream but it dripped down my throat, filling my belly and burning me from within. It slowed my heart; the pumping stuttered and blood sat stagnant in my veins. My feet and hands stiffened.

Gusev was right, I thought as my arms went numb in my small corner of the station. We all needed to suffer for our sins, and I had my fair share. In the morning he would find me, stiff and culpable, and know he’d been right.

How can we know who we are if we never face The Darkness?

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Christine Makepeace is a writer living in the Pacific Northwest. Previous published works include a modern Gothic novel, essays on film, and most recently a piece of short fiction for Nonbinary Review’s Shirley Jackson collection. More credits can be found at christinemakepeace.com.

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