The Orphanage

I have a section in my drafts for what I call Orphans. These are passages and stories I write that take place in the Ilion ‘verse but don’t fit anywhere in particular. Most of them find a home in Travelogue or The Other Red Planet, but I have this one story that’s still homeless. Originally written for Odyssey II, it grew and grew until it was too bloated to fit. So I’ll put it here for now. The opening scene is from Travelogue, but the rest is fresh from the factory.

First things first:

Odyssey I

The word “flooded” when referring to light has joined “frigid” in the Shelter for Pet Words. These things are easy to miss, because when I’m choosing a word I don’t always remember if, when, or how many times I’ve used it before. I take in a dog and next thing I know, I’ve got a litter of puppies.

This is why we edit, folks.

Passages:

In “Fleas”
“Star Witness”
In “One of Those Days”
Removed “Terra Firma”
In “Sleeping Giant” and “Weight,” with the ripple effect of allowing me to delete or modify large portions of other passages, especially “Photosensitive.” “Photosensitive” was one of the first things I wrote and it shows. So it felt good to take an ax to it.

___________________________________________

The Longest Distance

“You haven’t even let me out of quarantine yet and you’re asking me to hop into space again?” I asked the suited representative. Instead of a flannel shirt, tie, and slacks, she was covered head to toe in yellow vinyl. Her name eluded me, just like the rest of the scientists, doctors, and security officers who‘ve been in and out of my house since my transfer from the Dane County Research Clinic.

“We’re doing our best to accommodate you, Erin. We even set you up with a home in Cold Lake as you requested.”

“This isn’t home. This is house arrest.”

“Well, I understand you’re frustrated. We’re working as fast as we can. We’ll release you from all restrictions as soon as the tests come back conclusive.”

I could tell she was making an effort to be conciliatory but she wasn’t doing a very good job of it. It didn’t help that her face was partially hidden behind two layers of plastic. I kept telling myself, she’s just the messenger, no need to pull that trigger, but my patience wore out.

“And when is that, exactly? Can you give me a date? How about April. I wouldn’t want to miss the thaw. Or how about next year? Because that’s how long it will take to find the alien microbe metropolis growing out of my humerus. No, wait, it’ll take forever because there’s NOTHING THERE.”

She shrugged as if to say not my problem and pulled the subject out of my grasp. “The Council thinks your experience would make you a valuable asset to the next mission, more so than any career astronaut.”

The Council rep, or whatever she was, wanted to retreat to safer ground. Too bad. I wanted to rip that breathing mask right off her face and make her take a nice big gulp of my dirty alien breath, but sanity prevailed. There was an opportunity here, if I could just cool my shit for a few minutes.

“Tell you what,” I said. “I’ll think about it. But first, no more working from home. No more escorts, cameras, hazard suits, needles, permission to leave the house, or any of that horse shit. I want to visit my family, wear plain clothes, and cook for Brian and Heather and the boys when they visit. I want to smell the snow on the trees when I hike Graves Trail. You get the idea. I won’t begin training until those conditions are met.”

And with that, I was a free woman. Well, for a few years, at least.

***

The trout weren’t biting. With a grumble I reeled in a naked hook and laid the rig next to the fly box on the floor of my girlfriend’s motorboat.

Jo put her book down; she had given up long before. She looked me up and down, saw me sweating in my windbreaker, which I wore in spite of the summer heat. I had my reasons.

“Erin, aren’t you hot in that?”

“A little.” I should have said not at all.

“Then why don’t you take it off?”

“Because I don’t…all right. I don’t actually have an excuse this time.” I pulled the sleeves off, starting with my right…

“Now that I think of it, I don’t think I’ve ever seen you take that coat off. I mean, it’s August. I don’t know how you –”

…then my left.

“Jesus, what happened to your arm?”

There it was, the point of no return, yet I still evaded the question of who I was and why my upper arm looked like it had turned itself inside out. “I had an accident at work, okay? But it’s a long story.”

“You know when you say ‘it’s a long story,’ you’re pretty much obligated to tell it, right? And besides, I thought you were a software engineer. Did your code fail catastrophically or something?”

“I’m an analytical engineer. Not the same thing.”

“So you had an analyzing accident.”

Unlike the trout in Cold Lake, I took the bait. “Ugh, fine. I couldn’t put it off forever.”

I knew what to do. I’d done this so many times before. I dug my phone out of my pocket and pulled up a photo. It was our first crew portrait taken on alien soil, the four of us standing in the newly erected habitat, exhausted and giddy. “You’ve seen this before, right?”

“Of course. It’s famous.”

“The one on the far right? That’s me.”

She grabbed my phone, almost dropped it. “Holy crap. That is you.”

I waited.

“And you never told me, why?”

“Because,” I began, ready to throw in any of a dozen excuses. Then I caught myself. If I was going to tell her anything, I might as well tell her everything. “Because when I’m with you, I can forget that I ever left home.”
***

I messaged my brother first. “I did it. I told her.”

“Well? How’d it go?”

“It felt like coming out.”

“Haha,” he replied. “Did you tell her the other part?”

The other part. The part where I was leaving Earth again. “One thing at a time, Brian.”

As it turned out, I never drummed up the courage to tell Jo the other part. She found out on her own.

***

There was no need to knock. The dogs had heard me pull up and were barking up a storm. It’s Erin! Did she bring Rush? Open the door, Jo. Open it! Poor bastards. If only they knew.

The barking stopped. The door swung wide and Jo stood barefoot on the icy tile floor without so much as shifting her weight. Only when a gust of wind blasted her face did she break eye contact with me. Her teeth were clenched; whether from cold or fury it didn’t matter. It hurt to see her like that.

“I understand if you’re angry,” I began, then stopped. I didn’t know how to proceed from there.

“Come in. I’m getting cold,” she said. “And take your boots off.”

I knew this was a no-shoe household. She knew I knew, but she told me anyway. Like I’d never been to her house before.

“Sit.” Jo gestured to a pair of wooden folding chairs tucked under the kitchen table. I hated those chairs. They were old, rickety things that I never trusted with my full weight. Whenever I stayed the night, we ate on the couch or in bed. Never at the table.

I picked the less wobbly of the two and sat. Jo took the other. For a few silent minutes I massaged the numb fingers of my left hand, a nervous habit of mine, while Jo waited for me to speak. I was going to tell her about all the sleep I’d lost agonizing over the kindest way to break the news. How I’d still be trapped behind an air shower if I hadn’t made that bargain with the Ilion International rep. Instead, I said, “I should have told you a long, long time ago.”

“I thought we had something,” she said, her voice cracking. “Was I just there to fill the gaps?”

That stung. “If that was all I wanted, I would’ve carried the lie to launch day and not regretted a thing. But you mean more than that to me. And, if I’m not mistaken, vice versa.”

She didn’t confirm or deny it, only blinked a tear loose.

“I’ve had friends,” I continued, “who claimed they could make long distance relationships work. Some of them were even right. But this is not going to be a long distance relationship. There’s no word for what this is.”

“I’ll still be here when you get back.” She was bargaining now. That wasn’t good. “It’s not like you’ll be gone forever, unless…you know.”

“For god’s sake, no,” I cried. “I could be the incarnation of sunshine and mountains and wildflowers and I still wouldn’t be worth waiting fifteen years for. Nobody’s worth that.”

“Not true.”

“You’ll get over me real fast, I promise. You’ll get married, have kids. Get a passport, a promotion. Sell your house and move to the Yukon, like you’ve always said you would. There’s a lot more you can do in fifteen years than sit in a folding chair writing love letters to the sky.”

“Okay, I see your point,” she said, sounding like herself again. “I have a life to live. But the house, I’m keeping.”

“Why?”

“So you’ll know where to find me when your shuttle lands.”

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