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art by Seth Alan Bareiss

Mama's Science

Shane D. Rhinewald is a communications professional by day and writes speculative fiction by night (except when there’s hockey on TV, of course). This is his third appearance in Daily Science Fiction. His other fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, Everyday Fiction, Big Pulp, Alt Hist, and many other venues.

At ten, Darcy considered her father the center of the universe, a constant like one of Newton's laws. She had just learned about basic physics in science class the day she returned home to find out that he had gone into the stars to seek other fortunes.
"He'll come back, right?" Darcy asked when she finally found the words, blinking through salty tears. Her teacher had said that gravity drew things together and figured it would do the same for them again. She whispered, "Earth needs the sun to orbit just like we need him to circle, right?"
Her mother pulled her close. "The sun? He ain't a star, darlin'. That man's a cheat, a liar, and a drunkard. He ain't nothing but a black hole."
"You didn't love him enough," Darcy whispered. She craned her neck to look at her mother. "It's your fault."
Seven years to the day after he had left, Darcy's father returned, none the richer but a little grayer, a little thinner.
"See," Darcy said to her mother the day she received his first video call. "Gravity. No matter how much you wanted him to stay away, even you couldn't stop it. That's just how the universe works."
"Gravity ain't always a good thing, darlin', and the universe ain't all just physics. Remember that."
Darcy took things slow with her father at first--a lunch here, a dinner there. Soon, her emotional walls folded, and with them gone, the friction holding their relationship back weakened. In a month, they reached terminal velocity, despite her mother's protests.
One night they went to the park to stare at the stars. Darcy felt ten again as her father cradled her in his arms and told her about all the places he'd been throughout the Milky Way.
"Why'd you come home?" she whispered, almost asleep.
He leaned close to her ear, his breath warm on her neck. "For you."
When Darcy's father abandoned her the second time, no tears sprang from her eyes. Instead, she broke everything in her bedroom, including the mirror he'd given her on her fifth birthday. She crunched the pieces of glass into dust with the heel of her shoe.
"He said he came back for me," Darcy said after, exhausted, slumped on her bed.
Her mother stood in the doorway, arms folded across her chest. "He's a selfish man."
"Say 'I told you so.' Gloat in it. I know you want to. You never loved him, and he proved you right today."
Her mother just shook her head. "Ain't no satisfaction in that."
On the day Darcy married Gavin, her mother stood in the back of the church with an arm raised and said, "I object."
After, with a ring on her finger and seven cups of champagne in her stomach, Darcy confronted her mother in the middle of the reception hall.
"Why would you try to ruin the best day of my life?" she said while violins screeched behind them.
"I'd rather ruin one day than see you ruin the whole thing."
"You've always hated Gavin. You're just jealous that I have him and now you have no one. Well, I love him, and that's that."
"I don't see what you see in him."
"The same thing you must have seen in my father. We're drawn together like magnets. It's physics."
Her mother stood there, trying her best to smile, while Darcy charged outside in her wedding dress to spit champagne and bile in the weeds.
Gavin left her four years later, with a baby in her arms and another in her belly. On the day he took to the stars, Darcy had nowhere to turn for help, and after a slight bit of hesitation, called her mother. They hashed out their differences over coffee, but their reconciliation proved brief, their new relationship fragile.
Gavin returned two years later, saying he'd done some soul searching and wanted to raise his two sons. Darcy's mother warned her to stay away from him lest those two boys grow up like their father, but Darcy desperately needed stability, her own star.
Gavin moved back in, and for a time, things seemed to work. Darcy wished her mother could see this perfect nuclear family she'd created and tell her that she'd finally figured out how the universe worked. Before she had the chance, Gavin disappeared without warning, not even a note.
When Darcy showed up on her mother's doorsteps with two toddlers in tow, her mother said nothing, just beckoned her daughter inside.
"I know you're dying to rub it in this time," Darcy said. "Tell me how Gavin's a black hole just like dad. Tell me how I've been a fool time after time. Tell me I know nothing of science."
Her mother shrugged. "I don't feel much like talking."
On the day her mother died, Darcy went to the hospital to stand over her bed. She clasped a weathered, clammy hand and wondered when her mother had gotten so old, so shrunken. Where had the years gone?
"They'll be taking her to the morgue shortly," the doctor said. "Sorry about your loss. Were you close?"
Darcy shook her head. "Not as close as we should have been. There's a lot left unsaid, unfortunately."
The doc offered a nod toward the bed. "Tell her now."
"Now? It's too late. She's gone."
"Gone? That's all relative. The universe is a bit more mysterious than you might think," he said with a smile before exiting the room.
Darcy watched him go and then bent over her mother's body. She brought the woman's hand to her lips, kissing it over and over. "Sorry, Mama. I tried looking everywhere else for what I needed but had it all along. It was you I orbited. It was always you."
The End
This story was first published on Monday, October 1st, 2012
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