Judy noticed her mom's forced cheerfulness when she picked her up from soccer practice.
She wouldn’t have noticed it at all if she hadn’t seen her mom get out of the car and dab a tissue at the corner of her eye and then throw the said tissue in the trash bin.
Maureen Robinson waited for her near the bleachers and when Judy reached her, she couldn’t help but see that her mom’s eyes were just slightly puffy.
Judy kissed her mom in greeting and dumped her bag in the backseat of the car.
Maureen was more talkative than usual on the way to pick up Penny from school. She was going on and on about how they should all just skip the home cooked meal tonight and have dinner out instead.
It wasn’t raining. Besides Judy must be tired from soccer to help with the cooking. And who wants to wash dishes anyway?
“We haven’t tried that new Korean place that opened. What do you think?”
What did Judy think? Well, it was Tuesday and they never ate out on school nights. Second, since when did Mom ever think about 'cooking' and 'tired' in the same sentence? And also, what the heck had upset her mom like this?
Judy risked a glance at her mom—a quick one that couldn’t really be considered staring. Her mom’s eyes were just a little bit red and her mascara a tiny bit smudged.
She had definitely been crying.
Judy looked away and out the window.
Mom rarely cried in front of them. The only times Judy ever saw her mother shed some tears was whenever dad had to leave again.
Dad left a month ago.
A sudden crippling fear gripped her. Dad wasn’t... injured, was he? It would be just like her mom to hide it from them if he was; she wouldn’t want them to worry. She could already hear Maureen’s efforts to assuage Judy’s fears: “He’ll be fine,” “He’ll be alright,” “Your dad’s been through worse,” or other words along those lines.
Judy snapped out of her thoughts. “Huh? Yeah, yeah. Korean’s great.”
Maureen glanced at her quickly. “Is something wrong? You seem distracted.”
Judy didn’t miss the irony in her question. Her own mother was just as distracted but was more worried about Judy.
Judy gnawed at the inside of her cheek. She could ask about Dad... or just mention him. Put out some feelers. “I just... I was thinking about Dad. I miss him. ”
As expected, her mother stiffened behind the wheel.
So, something had happened with her father, Judy concluded.
“You know he likes the Korean chicken,” she continued, waiting to see if her mother would say anything. “Maybe we could do a video call tonight. Make him jealous. I bet he’ll file for another leave as soon as he sees the chicken.”
Maureen finally smiled, but it seemed a little forced to Judy.
“We’ll see, honey. You know how it is over there. But I’m sure your father would want nothing more than to be with us right now.”
Judy nodded, turning her head away from her mother and to look out the window again. Something was off. She just hoped Dad wasn’t dying whenever her mother finally chose to break the news to them.
Judy didn’t tell Penny or Will about the incident in the car. She was her mother’s daughter in that regard. Her siblings didn’t need to know about it until it had reached a point wherein they should.
It just irked Judy a lot that her mother didn’t trust her enough with the secret.
Now, if Judy had told Penny what was happening, Penny would have been able to understand or at least not be totally surprised at the minute changes in their mother’s behavior
But Judy didn’t tell Penny any of that and so Penny was left to ponder over her mother one evening.
It would be a little cliché to start things with “it started out as a normal night.” But it did. It was just like any other night wherein they made their routine call to their father. Will spoke to him first, about his science project and getting in the Robotics Club. Judy went second and told John whatever it was Judy tells him all the time. When it was Penny’s turn, she excitedly narrated to her dad all about her assignment which she needed his help with.
“Explain it all to me again,” requested John over the phone.
Penny sighed, shaking her head slowly despite the fact that her dad wouldn’t see. “I need to write about unknown people in science and I wanted to write about Mom.”
“And why are you asking me instead of mom?”
“Because if I ask mom, she’s just going to downplay everything whereas you will give her the proper credit she deserves. I’ve already asked a bunch of her colleagues for testimonies and I saved the best for last.”
“I’m flattered. Alright, ask away.”
It didn’t take Penny long to interview her father. She already had the questions written down and a recorder ready. To be totally honest, she didn’t really need to interview Dad but it would be nice to know how Maureen Robinson was like as a wife (before Penny ever came along) and not just as a rocket scientist.
When they finished, Penny went to her parents’ bedroom to hand the phone over to her mother. Maureen was always the last one to talk to John. Judy jokingly called it Mom’s debriefing since Dad couldn’t say anything at all about what’s happening on his end, and so it was up to Mom to tell him all about her's.
Maureen was writing something on her whiteboard when Penny came in.
“Mom, it’s your turn,” Penny walked over to Maureen and held the phone out for her mother to reach.
Maureen paused mid-stroke, staring at the whiteboard. And then she looked at the phone in Penny's hand and then back up at Penny.
“I'm a little busy, honey. Can you tell your dad ‘good night’ for me?”
Penny frowned slightly. Mom had never failed to talk to Dad before. Even when she was hit with the flu that one time, she still willed enough energy to whisper ‘good night’ to John herself.
It was such an odd request that Penny needed to ask again just to make sure she heard her mother right. “Pardon?”
“I can’t talk to him right now. Tell him I’ll try tomorrow.”
Penny blinked. “Um… sure.”
“Thanks, sweetie!” and then without another look, Maureen went back to her whiteboard.
Penny started walking out the room, phone pressed against her ear. “Dad, she’s--"
“I heard, baby, it’s alright.” There was no mistaking the disappointment in her dad’s voice which only made Penny feel a little bad for being the bearer of bad news. “They must be working her hard, huh?”
Penny closed the door of her room behind her and plopped on the bed. “Tell me about it. They got her trying to build this hypothetical spaceship and mom's too excited not to take a break.”
John chuckled over the phone and Penny relaxed a little. She really didn’t want to end the call on a sad note.
“That’s your mother. Just… tell her not to work herself too hard, yeah?”
“Judy already does that everyday. But I’ll make my own contributions.”
“Thank you. Well, you should get some sleep. I love you.”
“You too, Daddy.” Penny made a kissing sound over the phone and then hung up.
She looked at the direction of her closed door again, the slight narrowing of her eyes the only sign she was deep in thought over her mother’s strange behavior.
After having decided what to do, she walked back out and into her parents' room.
Her mom was still on the whiteboard when Penny entered.
“Yeah?” Maureen encircled some number and then looked at Penny, smiling expectantly.
“So, I said goodbye to Dad.”
Wasn’t she going to ask how he was, Penny thought.
“He’s okay, by the way. Helped out with my homework.”
“That’s nice of him.”
“Uh huh. He also said to remind you to take a break from work sometime.”
And then Maureen made a face. It was a face she only usually reserved for times when she was annoyed.
Her lips formed a thin line and her eyes darted to the side. It wasn’t a complete eye roll but she was irritated, alright.
It was only a quick second before the corner of her lips curled up again and her eyes focused on Penny. “Thanks, honey. I’ll keep that in mind.”
Penny tried not to let her own confusion show on her face. Instead, she bid her mom good night and walked back to her room.
Mom failing to take Dad’s call wasn’t a one-off like Penny thought it would be. She took some of his next calls, sure, but not all of them. Their conversations over the phone were erratic and when her parents did talk, the duration of their calls seemed to get shorter and shorter until sometimes it would just be Maureen saying, “night” and then hanging up.
(Penny totally didn’t mean to eavesdrop. She just walks realllyyy slow.)
But even the terse “night”s seemed far and few in between lately, with the two of them talking through the kids more instead of to each other.
“It probably has something to do with their jobs,” said Judy with a nonchalant shrug of her shoulders when Penny brought it up one night while they were preparing dinner for three. “I mean, Dad got called back in to active duty and Mom works overtime one day every week now.”
Today happened to be that day of the week.
“Right, the colony program.”
Judy continued chopping the vegetables, acting like it was way more interesting than their parents’ current dynamics. “Besides, you never know. She might be talking to him without us knowing. Maybe they established their own schedule.”
Penny had to admit that that scenario did seem plausible.
“Mom eating dinner at the facility?” asked Will, coming down from his room. Penny couldn’t help but resonate with his tone of voice, the one that said he wasn’t surprised but also a tad bit disappointed.
That was also Penny’s cue to start working. With a small “yep,” she picked up the placemats and began to set the table.
Will joined her, taking the plates while she did the utensils next.
Judy sensed the same dampened mood from Will that Penny did and stopped working. She tried to say something positive. “Don’t worry. It's only temporary. Until she figures out the hiccup with that hypothetical ship she was telling us about.”
“I still don’t understand the point of doing work on something that’s hypothetical. I mean, it’s still going to be hypothetical tomorrow,” Penny stated, sitting on the high-stool in front of the island. She planted her elbows on the surface and rested her chin in her palms.
Will joined her. "Hey, do you think Dad’s gonna surprise us again this Christmas?”
“I doubt it,” said Judy under her breath.
Penny rolled her eyes. “Just because he missed Easter’s online celebrations doesn’t mean he’s gonna blow us off this Christmas. Besides, it’s not his fault his superiors won’t let him near stable internet connection.”
Judy scoffed. “All that military funding and they don’t have stable internet connection? I don’t believe it. Anyway,” she momentarily stopped what she was doing to look at each of her siblings in turn. “Mom’s not here which means we can finally do that horror movie night we’ve been dying to accomplish for forever. And I’m in a very generous mood tonight so I won’t tell mom you slept beyond your bedtime.”
Penny and Will wore matching grins.
Will hopped off the stool. “I’ll choose the movie!”
“No blood and gore, please, or I'll be throwing up my dinner!” Penny yelled after him. Then, she faced Judy and said in a low voice, “I know what you’re doing.”
Judy innocently looked at her and said, “Making dinner?”
“You’re trying to distract me from starting a fight with you about Dad.”
Judy sighed. Penny wouldn’t drop the subject so she might as well tell her what was up. “He’s not coming home this year.”
Penny made a skeptical face. “He said that to me too but he’s just kidding. He always comes home every year. Remember last year when he said he wasn’t but he did? He’s just gonna surprise us, that’s all.”
Judy shook her head. “You see the news, Penny. It’s not as bad here as it is there.”
“We don’t even know where there is,” Penny muttered.
“But we do know that he’s been ordered to go on assignment that’s off the books. And we know what that means.”
It means he might not make it back.
Penny shook her head. “I’m not giving up hope. You shouldn’t either.”
John didn’t show up for Christmas. Or for New Year’s. His nightly calls became weekly until they only heard from him for months at a time.
And Penny, despite saying that she had thick skin to her mother, wasn’t as unaffected as she claimed.
She didn’t let her mother return the watch she bought for her dad, though. She kept it right by her window sill where the sun would charge up the solar batteries it used; for some reason, Penny thought that as long as the watch kept ticking then maybe Dad would try to get back home.
But even home wasn’t like it used to be.
Perimeter fences had been set up 'cause break-ins were starting to get more and more frequent. The air was getting worse especially at night to the point that nobody even jogged anymore. Even Will and Penny couldn’t spend time with their friends outside of school ‘cause there were curfews for minors.
Mom no longer worked late nights all the time now that she finally figured out the math to her hypothetical spaceship. And Judy was still perfect Judy. And Will... well, sometimes it felt to Penny that she and Will were the only ones who noticed that their Dad was gone and the only ones who cared enough about it.
And then Dad called.
It was entirely unexpected but he asked to speak to Mom.
Maureen took the call in her study.
And then the kids heard her raise her voice through the wall.
Judy quickly offered to treat them all to ice cream.
Will was so distracted he didn’t even notice Penny was pulling him out the house.
Sitting in the car, parked outside Baskin-Robbins, each of them with a cup of ice cream in their hands, Judy broke the silence.
“Will, you’re not eating your ice cream.”
Will stared at the cup in his hands. The ice cream was beginning to melt.
“Because he doesn’t stress eat, Judy," said Penny a little icily. "Besides, he’s too worried about Mom and Dad to enjoy his ice cream. I love this flavor but even this can't comfort me right now.”
Will shared a small smile with Penny. It was nice to know that she knew exactly how he felt. He was just still in shock. Mom had never shouted like that before. In fact, Will had never heard his parents argue. He should have known they only argued where Will couldn't hear them. Except today.
Judy sighed. “Look, I’m just as upset as you guys are. But… this is Mom and Dad we’re talking about. I'm sure when we get back Mom will say that everything's fine.”
Penny scoffed. “Listen to yourself. Dad hasn’t been home in 2 years. He and Mom don’t talk. And now that they did, she screamed at him. You know what this means right?”
“Penny,” Judy said in warning, shaking her head subtly while her eyes darted at Will’s direction in the backseat.
Penny pressed her lips together in regret. The last thing she wanted was to make Will worry. But it was too late for that because Will finally spoke.
“What does it mean?” His ice cream cup had been abandoned in the empty seat beside him. “Are they getting a divorce?”
This time even Penny looked to Judy because if there was someone who would have an answer to that question it'd be her.
Judy opened her mouth a couple of times and then said, “I don’t know. I mean, we’re not blind. Mom hasn't been taking his calls and Dad has to talk through us just to tell her something." Finally voicing these details out made Judy feel a little bit better and before she knew it she was already listing down all the thing she's noticed about her parents. "He doesn't bother to write or even do video calls. It's just texts now or emails. Not even birthday cards. And have you noticed, Mom cried in Thanksgiving and she hasn’t worn her wedding ring since Christmas." Will's eyes widened and Judy hastily tried to repair the damage her thoughtless words created, "But that probably doesn’t mean anything. Maybe it just doesn’t fit her finger anymore.”
“Or maybe because the ring doesn’t mean anything anymore,” Penny said softly.
“Hey,” Judy scolded her. “There’s no use speculating. This is between Mom and Dad.”
“And we’re caught in the middle,” said Penny with a sad smile. Then she shook her head, having thought of something. “Well, if they are gonna get a divorce we need to look at this in a positive light.” She nodded at Will encouragingly.
Judy joined her. “Right. Mom always says there are good and bad things about a situation. We just have to see the pros more than the cons right now. And the good thing about getting a divorce is that maybe it’ll make Mom happy again.”
“Yeah! And another pro is we get to have two of everything. I mean, my friend Kayla has two houses. Two rooms. Two Christmases. That’s pretty neat.”
“Pro: it’s not gonna change anything. Dad's already left.”
“He'll come back,” Penny insisted.
“Oh, I know. I just meant that it’s not like we’ll adjust that much.”
“That's not a pro,” Will said suddenly. “That's a con. I don’t want Dad gone. I want Dad back!” His eyes welled up with tears and he stuffed his mouth with ice cream for something to do. Dad wasn’t supposed to be gone this long. He was supposed to come back and play baseball with Will. He was supposed to come through the doorway and give Mom those annoying kisses that they do everytime they reunite. They were all supposed to be together.
“So do I, Will,” Penny whispered.
When they got home Maureen was waiting for them in the living room, wringing her hands nervously. It didn’t look like she had been crying so her fight with John probably wasn’t that bad.
Penny wordlessly walked up to her mother and gave her a hug. Will followed next.
Judy stood watching them, giving her mother an encouraging look when they locked eyes.
When Maureen pulled away, she took each of Will’s and Penny’s hands.
“I'm so sorry you three had to hear that,” said Mom. “Your Dad and I haven’t been on the same page for a while but we’ve talked it through. It’s not gonna happen again.”
“Are you separating?” asked Penny, unable to help herself.
It took Maureen a few seconds before she shook her head. “Just know that your Dad and I love you three very much and we want what’s best for you. That much we agree on.”
“Can we even ask what you guys were fighting about?” Penny asked.
Maureen hesitated for a bit before finally saying, “Why don’t we go to the living room? There’s something I want to run by you.”
The kids settled themselves around the couch and Maureen stood, looking like she was about to do a big presentation.
And then she did.
About Alpha Centauri.
Judy should be happy.
They all passed the tests. They were all going to Alpha Centauri. They were finally leaving behind this mess of a world.
Penny cried over it. Will spent a long time shut up in his room. And Judy... well, Judy didn’t care.
At least she told herself she didn’t.
She came into this planet without a father, she didn’t need one in Alpha Centauri either.
And yet when her dad showed up a week later with his bags in hand saying he’s not gonna let them go to Alpha Centauri without him, when Penny and Will screamed in delight and crushed him in a long-overdue reunion hug, when Judy said “I’m glad you finally saw sense” and then walked out of the foyer to go to her room, she let the breath she’d been holding leave her and she sat on her bed, tears trickling down her cheeks because even if she said she didn’t care, she did anyway.
That didn’t mean she was gonna make it an easy way back for Dad though.
Location: Planet they never bothered to name
Penny watched the meeting between Hiroki, Naoko, and her mother adjourn. She sent an anxious look at Will and received an excited one in return before they both abandoned their post and ran to meet their mother.
Naoko and Hiroki spared the kids a smile before going on their way.
“So?” asked Will.
Maureen grasped his shoulder. “Naoko's agreed to pilot the Jupiter. She’s going to prepare and so should we.”
Will nodded, said, “I’ll go and see if I can patch the J4 radio to ours,” and ran off leaving Penny and Maureen alone.
“You okay?” Mom asked, noting the disconcerted look on Penny's face.
“I’m sorry,” Penny began. “I didn’t mean to eavesdrop on you and Dad. Well, actually I did but it’s still my fault I told Vijay who told his Dad and—"
Maureen shook her head and cut in, “You needed someone to talk to just like I needed to tell your father.” She wrapped her arms around her daughter. “Oh, sweetie, you must have been so scared.”
Penny nodded, holding on to her mother tightly. How long had she been dying for this hug right here? The hug that felt like it was the answer to all their problems.
“Hey, there’s a hug party and nobody invited me?”
Maureen and Penny laughed as John joined them, engulfing them both in his arms.
Penny extracted herself eventually. “I think I should go talk to Vijay. See you two later.”
It was only when she looked back that she noticed her dad hadn’t removed his arm off her mom's shoulder.
And her mom didn’t protest.
Will was heading back to the Hub with the necessary tools when he saw his parents idling outside by the Hub’s entrance.
He slowed his pace.
He saw his mom cup his dad's cheek and wince at the cut on his temple.
Their voices carried down the hall to Will.
“Babe, you should get that checked out by a doctor,” his mom was saying.
Will's eyes widened. Babe? Since when were his parents back on pet name terms?
“You’re a doctor.”
“You know what I mean.”
His dad chuckled. “I promise. As soon as Judy comes back.” His dad then pressed his own hand on the one Mom had on his cheek and turned his face towards it, planting a kiss on her palm.
Will could barely believe it.
He had hoped.
For a long time, he had hoped.
He took one last look at the tender moment they shared and then went back to the supply room
The UHF radio could wait five minutes.
Judy found her siblings outside the Jupiter 2. "Hey,” she called out to them, doing a quick jog to reach them. “Mom and Dad have news. They're calling a family meeting at the Hub.”
“You don’t think it’s gonna be bad news, is it?” asked Penny, getting up from the boulder she was using to sit.
“What could be worse than the planet dying and the fact that we've been living with a fake therapist?" Judy replied, “Naah. Maybe just some logistics stuff.”
Will smirked knowingly at his sisters, remembering what he saw happen between his parents earlier today.
Judy stared at him. “What’s with that face?”
“I know what it is.”
Penny raised a brow. “Dude, spill!”
Will glanced around before saying, “Mom and Dad are back together.”
“Really? I was gone for like a day!” said Judy, grinning.
Will nodded. “I heard Mom call him 'babe' earlier. And saw Dad kiss her hand. It was real sweet. The kind that used to make us barf but you know, I don’t mind it that much anymore.”
Penny shared the same earsplitting grin. “I knew it! No wonder they were so touchy." She put an arm around Will's shoulder. “I know exactly how you feel. I kind of miss their PDA.”
Judy laughed. “You say that now.” She cocked her head in the direction of their Jupiter. “Come on! And don’t forget to act surprised when they break the news.”
Location: Water Planet
Judy walked inside the Hub and sat beside Penny who was curled up in the couch writing something.
Penny eyed her. Her sister looked like she just saw something disgusting.
"What's wrong with you?"
“Ugh, I just walked in on Mom and Dad.”
Penny immediately cringed. She shut her eyes but that only proceeded to give her a mental image. Her eyes shot open. “Ew. Please say no more.”
“But I have to!" Judy turned to Penny, grabbing her hands. "You have to share in this knowledge.”
“No, I don’t," Penny shook her head vigorously. "Go tell Will about it.”
“I can hear you and I’m not interested either," said Will from his seat by the table. He got up and went to stand in front of his sisters, his arms folded in front of him. "Yesterday they were kissing in front of the food. The food!”
“At least that’s all you saw. Their door was wide open and Mom was on top of Dad—"
Penny pressed her hands to her ears. “Judy!”
“Relax. It's not going where you think it's going. Mom was only giving dad a back massage.” Judy grinned, pleased at having teased her siblings successfully.
“Oh, thank God!”
“That's what I said!” said Judy, laughing. “But I couldn’t even tell them to get a room because they already did and I was the intruder.”
“You know, it was sweet the first time and all. Like, I’m so glad they’re back together, but seriously, it’s like living with newlyweds," Penny complained.
Will scoffed at his sister. “You’ve never lived with newlyweds.”
“I watch movies! I don't live in a cave! Well, at least I didn't used to. Anyway, they're worse than before they broke up. It's like they're in their honeymoon phase all over again.”
“I was there for their honeymoon phase and I can confirm that this is exactly what it was like," said Judy.
“Thank you for backing me up on this even though I know you can’t possibly have remembered those days since you were three years old.”
Judy giggled, taking Penny's hand and getting up. “You know, we should go join them.”
“What? Right now? They might be, you know..." Penny's eyebrows went up and down to indicate "you know" and Judy shook her head.
“Then, we’ll stop them.”
“No, thanks," said Penny, pulling her hand back, too lazy to stop her parents from being their typical madly-in-love selves.
“Oh, come on! Since when have the three of us even bothered Mom and Dad in their room since we left Earth? Don’t you miss those days?”
“I do miss the dog-piles we used to do," said Will, a sentimental smile on his face.
Penny suddenly lit up and she smirked, thinking of something fun. “Hmm. You did say that mom was on top of dad giving him a massage. Think she'll need some help?" She got up and then sprinted out of the Hub. "Last one to Mom's room is gonna be on the bottom of the dog-pile!”