What are we doing on this rock?” I asked, staring at the desolate wasteland.
“Do you remember your mother, child?” Papa rolled his shoulders forward as he spoke.
“What do you mean?” My childish excitement overpowered my desire to remain calm. “She kissed me goodbye before we left!”
“No, Angel.” A distant shadow seemed to flit through the disapproving stare that Papa always employed to frighten me into doing my homework. “Your real mother.”
“Ooo, like in the picture?”
“Yes, like the picture,” he said, producing a tattered photograph from his pocket. “This is your homeplanet!” He spread his arms over his head like a triumphal arch. “This is where you were born!”
“It’s bad here! Why’s it so bad?”
“Angel, this is what the war did to our planet. Your mother died here. She was a true hero…”
“Oh! A hero like you?”
“I am no hero, child!” Papa’s eyebrows furrowed. “But—by the end of the day I will be. Help me set up this gear, Angel.”
I unstrapped my backpack and handed it to my Papa. He told me he needed some time, so I went off to play in a crater. Even on this desolate world there were still plenty of critters in the dirt to play with. When I got bored I walked back to check on Papa. He had constructed a large, silver contraption from the gear we brought.
“What’s that, Papa?” The spindly device loomed over me like the horrible substitute teacher that always disciplined me in front of the whole class.
“A device,” Papa said. “It can undo time.”
“No, not really, but it can collect data throughout time. Any person that was near this spot has left a permanent trace. This machine travels back through time and collects data on those people. Genetic codes, body types, hair color, memories, everything. It can do everything I need…”
There were a lot of big words surrounding the explanation of this little machine, but I knew my Papa well.
“That’s a lot of stuff this can do! Will you use it to collect my real mother’s data?”
“Yes…then I’ll use the data to bring her back. You’ll get to see your real mother again. We’ll be together again!” Papa scooped me up in his arms.
It looked like tears were forming in his eyes, but I knew my Papa didn’t cry. The dusty planet must’ve been making his allergies go.
“What about my other mother? Susan?” I didn’t dare raise my voice above a whisper.
“She’s not your mother!” Papa set me back on my feet.
“But—but she takes care of me! I thought you loved her, Papa!” I fought to keep tears from forming in my eyes.
“I do, but she’s not your mother and she never will be. You need to understand that.”
A silence fell over us. It was several minutes before I dared speak again.
“Is that cheating?” A tremor shook my body as I let a singular sob out.
“What?” Papa’s brow furrowed again, but the hint of a smile played over his face.
“Did you cheat on my real mother by marrying Susan? Or—or is it cheating on Susan to run off with my real mother? You must know all the rules with that, and all the—stuff.”
Papa’s mouth hung open for a moment.
“Who’s been telling you about that kind of cheating? I’m going to talk to your principal about that.”
“I’m smarter than you think, Papa!”
“I know you are.” Papa flashed his trademark grin. “I’m not cheating anyone. I was the only one cheated. And—and you were cheated too. It’s just unfortunate. That’s all.”
“You’re good at cheating at poker!” I laughed, trying to brighten the mood.
“Angel! The poker games are our little secret, remember? Susan, err, none of your ‘caretakers’ need to know about that.” Papa gave me a friendly push.
“Papa, am I like my real mother?”
“Yes, you’re very much alike.”
“Then I don’t want her to be my momma!”
“What do you mean, child? Don’t be foolish!”
“My teacher says I work better with other people. She says I need them to keep my boundaries in check. She says I don’t work well with myself, so what would it be like to live with someone like me? It’d be bad!”
“Now, Angel. I’m sure that’s not what she meant—”
“I like Susan, Papa. I don’t want you to leave her. She helps me everyday. She’s my real mother, even if your machine says otherwise!”
“Angel, she’s not—” Papa began before stopping himself. A sudden wave of emotion seemed to take the glint from his eye. He heaved a deep sigh. “Ok, Angel. Are you wanting to go home?”
“Yes!” My face lit up. “I want to go on a picnic with you and Susan! I want to go swimming and ride my bike and eat sandwiches! Isn’t that what you want, Papa?”
“Well—yes Angel, it is.” Papa forced a smile and his eyes seemed to brighten again.
After I found an allergy pill in our bag for Papa, we boarded the shuttle. As we left the empty planet behind I watched the contraption my Papa had been building shrink into the distance. I’m not sure if it’s still there, but we never went back to check.