Warning lights blinked like a frenetic traffic signal. Alarm bells whistled and sang. Pulling on the steering column did nothing. The nose of the rocket took on a red glow as it split the atmosphere. The ground grew ever closer. Bits and pieces of the ship snapped off, dissolving like sugar cubes in hot tea. The astronaut put his helmet on and fumbled for the locking mechanism.
The red ball that had flirted with his hopes from ten thousand miles away now sought to swallow him whole.
Johnson made it two and a half blocks before he heard Dave shout, “Mr. Johnson! Come back!”
Dave threaded his way through pedestrians and street vendors. He mumbled about his job, muffled further by the cigarette between his lips.
Cars honked and drivers yelled as Dave ran into the street to catch up.
Johnson turned the next corner and ran as fast as he and “Oxy” could manage. At every corner, he turned; never seeking a path or knowing one.
He ducked into an alley and collapsed behind a dumpster, out of sight.
There in the distance the astronaut saw a speck, a faint red glow. His eyes could play tricks on him, giving hope where there was none.
He checked the scopes. It was there, shining red and somehow in his path. Had they known? Had they sent him there?
He tapped the fuel gauge. The needle didn’t move.
In his haste to lose Dave, he lost sight of everything familiar. He’d grown up in this city, but so much had changed. Hehad changed. The streets were wider and narrower. The buildings were older and newer.
He looked for something familiar, but hoped he wouldn’t find anything. At one intersection, he came to a park. Kids ran and played. Nannies looked on from park benches and discussed the latest gossip. He paused and watched them, breathing in their youth, breathing in their joy.
The astronaut woke up in a small rocket. His brain felt like static. He remembered a family gathering or party or something. How long ago was that? Hours? Days? The gauges and controls meant little to him. He’d seen them before but only in the way everyone from an earlier era had seen an airplane’s cockpit.
Something fell out of his hand. He reached down and picked it up: a locket. In it were pictures of his children. He closed the locket.
The rocket’s controls had been frozen. No way to steer, even if he knew how. No way to turn around. Nothing beyonda direction, a trajectory. They had sent him away, out into the infinite emptiness of space “for his own good.”
The children were gone, along with the nannies and mothers and their disapproval. Hours had streamed by while Johnson stood like a statue. Then with the creakiness of a long unused car, he drifted past the empty playground, then past the games of ultimate frisbee, and the midday joggers. He wandered down one path and up another until he’d left everyone behind. Mrs. Dinkle across the hall, Dave, his children, all the people, evencivilization faded away.
He walked up a slope toward a hill that overlooked the park. As he walked he pulled the oxygen tube from under his nose. He breathed heavily. He dropped “Oxy” and jiggled himself free from the tubes. At the top of the hill he huffed and puffed until he fell face down in the green grass. He spread his arms wide, brushing aside fear and guilt and the past. He justbreathed.
In and out…
In and out…
In and out.