Published in Brain Mill Press’s Ab Terra 2020 Story Collection (January 2021)
I start talking to myself. This happens only after I build all the models, read and reread all the books, stare through the porthole at nothing for hours.
I tell myself it isn’t my fault. It isn’t like I intentionally call my voice forward. It’s a product of the boredom, just like the models and the dog-eared, ink-smudged pages of the books. My voice sounds croaky and raw, at first.
In this conversation with myself, things occur to me that have never occurred to me before. This is strange. I thought I already knew all the things I know but evidently, I don’t.
The first thing that occurs to me is that talking to myself is a better use of my time than building models and reading books. Unlike these activities, there’s no definite end to my speech, no finish line towards which my thoughts are travelling. And it turns out that talking is more exciting than thinking. My thoughts are so insignificant out here that they seem almost non-existent. Words, on the other hand, have a discrete reality. Their presence is evidenced by the fact that I can hear them as they leave my mouth. It’s comforting to be surrounded by something, even if that thing is invisible.
It then dawns on me that my time isn’t really mine to use. It doesn’t belong to me any more than my current trajectory through space-time does. Working backwards through all the memories that constitute my life, I can’t find any in which it felt like I was really in control of anything. It seems that I was the one being controlled, though by whom or what, I can’t say for sure.
I see myself boarding this ship, almost a year ago now. Sunlight glares off the polarized visor of my helmet, reflecting up into my squinting eyes. My jaw is firmly set and my right arm holds my helmet pinned against my side. I walk this way because I saw it in a movie once and I need to do something, anything, to distract myself from how afraid I actually am. I pretend that this is a story, that it’s not real, so I don’t have to think about how I may never see another human again.
I see this ship for the very first time. It is smaller than I thought it would be: a runty white egg with a single black porthole in one side, standing with its long side vertical atop three spindly legs. The hatch at the base hisses when it opens to let the ladder down, as if warning me not to enter. Inside, the air is cool and smells of new car.
It is several years before that and I see cornfields out the window of my eighteen-wheeler. The green stalks and golden ears sway in the late afternoon breeze. As the land dips below the road, I see the point where the fields meet the horizon. The ears will be picked, processed, and packaged before they are loaded onto rigs like the one I’m driving. Then we will deliver them to supermarkets where they will be stickered, sold, then eaten, and eventually turned into waste.
I see myself on a dock in the sun, an even younger me, lying back with the weight of someone else’s head on my stomach. She and I are lovers, each other’s firsts. The fingers of my right hand graze the water lazily. I have assignments to finish for school and jobs to apply for, but I ignore them for the moment. Running my other hand through her blonde hair, I feel comfortable and safe. Her head rolls to face me. “Don’t you just love wasted days like this?” I tell her I do.
I know much more about waste now. Waste is the stuff that leaks from my body. It is the chewed-up, the digested. It is the corn that I once deposited in porcelain bowls and then flushed away with gallons and gallons of water so I wouldn’t have to see or think about it again.
Of course, I don’t have a regular porcelain toilet in the ship, only an aluminum can roughly the diameter of a basketball. The waste collects in a tank and ejects automatically every few days. The waste I generate follows me in frozen islands leading all the way back to the place where I took off, like a trail of breadcrumbs leading home. Out here, waste is a noun, not an adjective. Out here, days are in such abundance that they cannot be wasted. I’m moving through space-time faster than the speed of light but I can’t seem to make my days any shorter.
Days are a terrestrial concept. If you aren’t bound to observe the movement of a single celestial body, then any unit of measurement for time will be arbitrary. But I still mark the passing of every twenty-four hours on Earth with a small tick mark on the July page of a pin-up calendar, tacked above the control panel beneath a small reading lamp. There are 342 tick marks on the page as of today. Pretty soon I’ll have to move on to another page.
The pin-up girl on the July page is pictured in a field, surrounded by daisies. The two-piece bathing suit she wears is electric green with little white polka dots. Hair the color of pinewood falls from her head, which is tilted back. Her mouth is agape, her eyes wide, as if she is laughing or in horrible pain. A flowery script beneath her reads: “Honey.”
Honey was almost certainly not the woman’s real name. Or maybe it was; some things are as they appear to be. The calendar itself cannot be more than a few years old, judging from the smell and feel of the glossy pages, but Honey looks plump and rosy and people just don’t look like that anymore.
A woman who may or may not have been named Honey opens her mouth and smiles for a photographer sometime in the latter half of the twentieth century. She tilts her head back and sunlight glints in her eyes. In the moment before she closes them, the photographer snaps his picture, capturing that glint, which travels 250 years through space-time to me, here, in this cockpit.
I look up through the porthole. I know it’s impossible for me to see, but somewhere out there, in a wholly unremarkable section of the universe, there’s a planet that I call Earth, orbiting a star that I call Sun. I imagine that I have a telescope that lets me see all the way home.
The telescope would be more like a tunnel, extending from Earth to my current location. I could travel back through it by following the trail of breadcrumbs I have left. It’s a tunnel of light and the image gets brighter and brighter the closer I get to the planet. As my vision stretches back along this tunnel, I see everything that has ever happened to the Earth.
I see molten rocks spewing from great chasms, burning and letting off acrid smoke and ash. Lava oozing across the surface of the young planet, forming mountains and valleys. Gases mix and mingle atop the solid crust, creating a bubble, an atmosphere, within which, water begins its slow and methodical renovation of the planet. Water adjusts its shape to fill the crevices and cracks left by the lava. Dark pendulous clouds drift in the air, shooting flashes of lightning to the ground. For a long time, the air, the water, the earth, and the fire are all that exist in the light of the Sun.
I see something sprout in one of the oceans. It is a living thing, meaning that it can die. And when it dies, something new arrives to take its place. This process of substitution continues, gradually accelerating. Bacteria begets algae begets everything else. And within this everything else, there are things that move of their own accord, called animals, and things that don’t, called plants and fungi. They spread across the land and water. They change into new things, killing and reproducing and dying.
And within all this chaos, Man arrives. He is born. He decides to order the chaos, to make it purposeful. He creates the illusion of control to prove to himself that his efforts are successful. He tells himself that he can own the light and time that surround him. He kills everything he comes across.
At this point, I’m so far through the tunnel that I’m almost on the ground. I see Man building cities that reach for the clouds, reorganizing Earth’s matter to support his needs. He learns that this reorganization is killing things too quickly. He has ruined this planet. He has turned it into waste. So, Man sends some of his own lightyears away through space-time to look for new planets, new places to call home. And it’s hopeless, as I know all too well, because out here, there is nothing.
I know that what I see through my tunnel of light is not entirely accurate. It is a reconstruction of events, a figment of my imagination created from some kind of collective memory that is flavored by both history and myth. The appearance of Man occurred so recently – relative to the age of the planet – that if I were to accurately recount the story of Earth, it would probably not be worth mentioning.
Staring up into the light above the pin-up calendar, I clear my head of all thought, letting words drip from my mouth. The domed reading lamp looks like the porch light that my wife promised she would always leave on for me.
I see the porch light flickering softly as I pull up in my rig, many years before I leave on this one-way trip to the stars. Gnats and moths orbit the dirty bulb, bashing into it and each other, drunk on light. Through the closed front door, I see the home that the porch light represents. There are coasters on the coffee table and clean towels hanging in the bathroom. The water boiler drones its one-note song from behind a cabinet. The air inside smells of us, like cardamom and chamomile. My wife sleeps alone, hugging a pillow that will soon be replaced by my body.
Returning my gaze to the porthole, I look out at the nothing once more. But this time, I don’t see nothing. I see that porch light, flickering by itself in the vast emptiness of space-time. I see it back at the end of my tunnel, all the way home along my trail of bread crumbs. It is unlikely that I will stand in its light ever again, but I see it. I see it somewhere out there on a planet I call Earth and I know that it is the only home I will ever know.