He hadn’t been back to his childhood home in six years, Pholin realized as he was walking through the blossoming fields of Denobula. It had been the day before he left for the academy, when he met his parents to say goodbye. He remembered the looks on their faces when he told them he’d be leaving for good. So much had changed since then…
“I should never have left…”, he grumbled to himself, watching the gravel move underneath him.
The planet’s three suns had just appeared from behind the clouds, casting their dawn shadows on the path to the residence. The relationship with his parents had always been shaky, but that day had been particularly bleak. Even though he’d been planning it for months, he’d barely told his parents he was about to leave. They’d always wanted him to continue the family tradition, never leaving the planet as they’d done for over ninety years. When he broke that tradition, as a young and naïve scientist, he’d scarred their relationship for life. On that day, he’d managed to disappoint them once more. Pholin had grown tired of life on Denobula and wanted to explore the galaxy like he did when he was younger.
“And look how that turned out…”, he exclaimed into the emptiness around him.
He’d missed the birth of his first grandson, he wasn’t there when his wife’s health declined, and he was thousands of light-years away from Federation space when he lost his mother and brother. Pholin felt like he’d turned into the person he hated most growing up, a person who was never there for his family, valuing his career more than his family. His father had been the captain of a submarine for over fifty years, exploring the vast depths of the Denobulan seas. His mother was the biologist on board, and his brother would later study to become its helmsman. It was anything but a part-time job. Pholin’s father especially would be away for months on end – leaving his children alone with his wives. He’d always hated his father for that.
“Yet I ended up exactly like him…”, barked the Denobulan.
Even though he’d never been close to his parents, Pholin shut down when he learnt there had been an accident on the submarine. His father, the captain, was the only one to escape the sinking ship alive. He lost his mother and his only brother. He’d just been promoted for the first time and started to dive into his work to deal with the pain. His career skyrocketed, while he barely sought therapy. He’d only opened up to a couple of friends but hadn’t shed any tears. He was always tired, always grumpy. He spent more and more time alone – working in his science lab. It wasn’t until the Columbia was decommissioned, that he seriously started to question his future. He more or less forced himself to go to therapy and moved back to his home planet to serve as Research Coordinator at the Miratha Research Centre. It was mostly a desk job, but it gave him some peace and quiet.
“Ah, there you are…”, he mumbled with a sense of nostalgia.
He looked up to see his parents’ home show up over the horizon, at the end of the lengthy trail. Enjoying the sight of the place he’d once called home, he couldn’t help turning his frown upside down. It wasn’t much more than a small cottage, with white walls and a thatched roof. The Denobulan approached the house, which seemed particularly messy for an abandoned home. Usually, his mother would tidy up the house before going on a mission – they had left the house last June before the accident, if he recalled correctly. He walked up the steps of the porch, seeing they hadn’t even bothered to clean up the dishes. A half-empty glass of Andorr-Loatac Ale was still on the wooden table.
“Well, I didn’t come here to clean up after them…”, he said with a smirk on his face.
Continuing his journey back to his childhood memories, he entered the abandoned house. He turned on the lights in the hallway and took off his shoes. Just because he hadn’t been back here in half a decade didn’t mean he could forget his manners, he thought. To his left was a gold-rimmed mirror, showing Pholin’s considerably… fuller body. It had grown into a small problem recently, having to replace his entire wardrobe for a larger size. Below the mirror stood a tiny hallway cabinet, which prominently featured one of his favourite childhood pictures. It showed him and his mum, on top of a nearby hill which had taken them three hours to climb. Pholin had been eleven years old for just over a week when his father took that, and he’d loved that picture ever since. It was just him and his mother hugging, their love so clear, nothing in their way. He missed her. A single tear managed to escape the Denobulan’s emotional defence systems. He knew continuing to explore his home would only trigger more memories, but there was something inside him with a raging need for nostalgia. He wasn’t quite sure why. Pholin opened the door to the living room.
“…”, there were so many words he wanted to say, but not a single one escaped his mouth.
“Pho! I’ve been waiting for you all day!”, she said, getting up and walking into the kitchen. “Would you like something to drink? The tea’s hot already!”
He was left speechless, seeing his mum standing right in front of him with the classic Denobulan smile on her face. He blinked, but she was still there.
“Oh, come on! Don’t be so shy, now.”
The woman approached him, seeing his worry, and went in for a hug. Pholin stood there, frozen, unsure how to process what was going on. She smelled like his mum, she talked like his mum, and she hugged like his mum – although it had been a few decades since they’d last hugged. But… this couldn’t really be her, right?
“You look so pale! Why don’t you sit down, sweetie?”
She accompanied him to the sofa, where Pholin sat down with his head in his hands. Thousands of possibilities were zooming through his mind. She could be an alien; this could be a trap he walked into. She could have survived, without anyone knowing. She could be a hologram, set up to scare him. She could-
“Have some tea, Pholin. I’m so happy to see you again!”, the woman said, chuckling. She sat down in her chair, which nobody was ever allowed to sit in when he was a little kid, and enjoyed her own cup of tea.
Pholin was still not quite sure where to begin, but he picked up the cup of tea from the table and took a sip. It was real tea, burning his tongue a little. He looked around the room, seeing some of his favourite childhood toys around him. His teddy bear was still leaning onto the potted plant, where he would always put it when he went to school so it could enjoy the view while he was gone. The painting he’d made in first grade was still hanging on the wall, even though it was excruciatingly hard to look at. It was supposed to represent his family, but they were nothing more than stick figures. He’d always wondered why they’d kept it up there. He looked back to his mother, looking deeply into her eyes, his own eyes tearing up.
“Wha-, why, how-”, he tried to speak. “Oh, my darling, you’re a scientist! You must know you’re dreaming, right?”, asked his mother in a worried tone.
He did not. Even though he’d been processing their loss for over a year, he’d never actually dreamt of them- except when he’d gone into hibernation in the middle of a mission, when he had experienced the accident on the submarine himself. He hadn’t ever spoken to his mother in a dream.
“So, you’re actually… dead?”, he said now having no control anymore over the tears flowing out of his eyes.
She nodded, with an understanding face, before getting up to comfort her son. She sat down on the sofa next to him and put her arm around him. Pholin felt like a child once more, crying in his mother’s arms. He let it all out.
“I’m so sorry I wasn’t there, mum. I should’ve been there!”, he said with a raised tone. “Don’t you dare speak like that, Pholin!”, she looked into his eyes. “It’s not your fault. There was nothing you could’ve done, Pholin.”
Of course, she was right, rationally. Even if Pholin had stayed to work on Denobula, he would’ve never set foot on that submarine. He’d always been afraid of the ocean, he never even dared swimming in it, let alone study the bottom of the sea in it. He could’ve never stopped the accident from happening. But his cries were not rational.
“But… I abandoned you!” cried the Denobulan turned baby. His mother sighed, “Darling, you only did what your father and I never dared to do. You chased your dreams!”. She chuckled. “Do you really think I liked exploring the exact same chuck of sea for years on end?”
“Why’d you do it then? You must’ve spent decades down there!”, Pholin said. “Because I never wanted things to change. I never dared to dream. Son, the step you took to enrol in Starfleet took courage, courage I never had. You should be proud of that.”
Even though he knew his mother was nothing more than the figment of his imagination, it felt like a massive relief to hear her say that. He had experienced guilt like never before, and there she was, saying it was alright.
“But-”, he managed to get out before being interrupted. “I wasn’t done yet, sweetie.”, she eyed him. “What you’re doing right now, isn’t helping you at all. You shouldn’t be doing this to yourself anymore.”
He rubbed his nose, sniffling. Pholin didn’t agree with her – himself? – at all. He had gone home to relax, to take some time off while dealing with his loss. He wanted peace and quiet. His job was inside his comfort zone, something he knew how to deal with on a daily basis. The base’s commander wouldn’t suddenly be kidnapped, and they wouldn’t be led into some trap by space kittens. There were no mysteries, only endless tranquility. He was just filing regular reports about geological findings other people were doing for him, with two feet on his desk in his office while doing it.
“Your job is exactly the same as before you left! The one you fled from! The only thing that’s changed is your uniform while doing it.”, his mum continued.
“But I was stressed out, mum! I literally passed out in the middle of a mission because I couldn’t sleep at night!”, he responded. “Now don’t get me wrong, darling, you definitely needed some time off. But it’s been seven months…”
Pholin hadn’t realised it had been that long…
He’d been posted to the Research Centre for a third of his total time in Starfleet, yet it felt like nothing interesting had happened at all. The only exciting thing that had happened was his husband’s promotion, to Petty Officer First Grade, on his birthday. In just one year, he had climbed his way up to be the First Officer of his maiden ship, and in six months, all he had done was sit behind his desk all day. Maybe, just maybe, she was right.
“Tell me, Pholin. What did you like more? Being promoted to Executive Officer on the Columbia, thousands of light-years away from Federation space? Or literally watching paint dry on your office walls?”, she asked rhetorically, trying to soothe him with a smile on her face.
Pholin chuckled and wiped his tears away. He couldn’t believe he was just having an argument with himself – and was losing it too.
“A part of dealing with loss, Pho, is moving on. I think it’s time for you to move on.”