Tagged: gaze

Driving Back from Spring Break 0

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Three days earlier I studied all night with a girlfriend for a physics exam and afterward drove four classmates 12 hours to San Diego for spring break. The entire trip the girls giggled and cackled behind me while a Korean kid sat silent up front. I decided we scared Jae. Although, being a confused immigrant might also explain his silence. Either way, he only said thanks when I dropped him off at his house. For that matter, Cindy told me how to find it.

The rest of the trip to Oceanside I drove in a blur on autopilot. All of the lights merged into a slow motion light show and I doubt I could even tell you about the trip. I arrived at the motel, went to bed, and slept nearly all Sunday despite my mother’s pleas to come to the beach. In the morning, I drove her north to Anaheim where we rode the teacups, stood in a long line for the bobsleds, and paddled a canoe. We ate dinner on the bayou, visited the pirates, posed with Mickey Mouse, and explored the Swiss Family Robinson tree house. Overall, mom had a great time and I played the sweet son. By nightfall, the sky exploded with fireworks and we headed back south. Mom slept pressed into the window missing the nuclear power plant, the Marines, and the moonlit beach. As the tail lights on the interstate blurred into red, I again drove like a drone.

Tuesday, I left mom in the room sadly wondering why I was heading back to college. I made Spring Break last only as long as a three-day weekend with an irritating baby. At the studio I planned to make a lot of cash in the remaining days of my break.

Before I left, Cindy called to say she wanted to ride back with me to school.

(more…)



Joann Jett Joined The Stage Band 3

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Behind the library, between the quad and the band room, the Stoners smoke packs of red Marlboro’s. For all practical purposes, this might as well be no man’s land. Only sand dirt seems to grow and the green soccer field starts 80 yards farther away. I imagine the area remained hidden before the school added the soccer field and a football arena. The area is the perfect place to hide and smoke.

I have never been back there. I only see it when I sprint over to the band room. I doubt I would ever hang out there. It is the end of April and school is winding down. Spring fever grabbed us a few weeks ago. The weekly ski trips to Mammoth ended in March, so we all need something to take our minds off school. Boredom fails to describe the feeling; I guess the warm days make us want to play hooky.

I am late for stage band. As I rush past the Stoners, a girl with punk black hair, torn jeans with a hole in her knee, and a bandanna around her neck carries a bass guitar case toward me. I swear she is Joann Jett come to life. She walks my way with attitude. I switch my trumpet case to my other hand and hold the door open for her. She smells like cigarettes as she slides into the band room.

(more…)



My Life Soon Ends 0

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Sunrise bounced through our plastic dome inching closer to my eyes on the pillow. I looked at the divergence of yellow and red light flaring through the bubble and then across the room. The sixth day of Shepard seemed it would shape up as a typical butterscotch day. I saw the sun’s reflection on the large dome of MaxPol. The sun woke me everyday, but the reflection wasn’t always there. Pioneers colonized Mars 160 years ago by surviving the solar flares in eco-domes with a limited atmosphere shielded from the neural damage of radiation. Those before me found a way to release water, and they invented calendars, fashions, and traditions. They built the central colony of MaxPol and spread out from there. I understood the privilege the pioneers gave me. Every person born last on Mars understood the sacrifice required for the next generation.

Maggie put on a white dress for the afternoon transformation ceremony. She transfixed me with her smile. I looked past her to the mirror as she added a garland of chamomile to her hair. She mirrors Aleren. In the reflection, my grey hair frames the wrinkles around my eyes. With her beauty, my life soon ends.

Maggie stood still in front of the mirror admiring her reflection. She finished up her hair and let her arms fall straight down. I stared too.

“You will make a beautiful bride.” She blushed at my comment. “After the transformation, you will meet your partner. Then you will make handsome babies.”

“And go like you,” she added.

“You must produce at least three children as a Last Born,” I reminded her. “There is no reason to rush.”

“And when those children are born, I will go.” She sighed.

“All Last Born villein must repay steerage,” I said. “And you are the last to repay.”

A generation of villein before, myself, and now my daughter Maggie all preordained to settle the debt.

“This planet requires too much,” Maggie said.

“It only seems that way because of all the work we must do.”

“No,” Maggie said. “Mars owns us until we die.”

Grandmother Viola agreed to the villein contract with the Interstellar Transport and Exploration Company in an attempt to escape Earth. She longed to reach past the stars and make her mark. With her signature, she agreed the next three generations of her brood would work as miners, scientists, and in my case, a Last Born. All Last Borns married after the transformation and raised a family. We taught the Martian traditions and prepared our children for the work. Some of our children work in the distant settlements of Mars or become apprenticed to a scientist here at MaxPol. In most cases, like my middle son Adam, we never see them again.

When Maggie reached the age of viability when the fears of death passed, roughly one sol, her mother walked out of our living pod to end her life. She birthed three children, as promised, and had nothing left to do. Aleren dressed in a white robe, weaved flowers through her hair, and slipped out of our pod onto the soil of Mars. Beyond the dome, the air was thin and Aleren had only a few precious minutes to reach the pedestal. I stood with my two boys and daughter watching her walk away. I was proud of Aleren despite the tears rolling down my cheek. When she finished walking, she raised her arms upward, and turned toward our window. Maggie rushed to the window while Adam held my leg and hid his face. Zach stood stoically next to me. She ended her life on Mars with no regrets.

Aleren dropped to her knees and her head began to swell. Seconds later, her white robe exploded upwards in the wind and she was gone. Aleren aged 16 sols, gave birth to three children, and completed her transformation.

After Aleren transformed, I continued teaching our children the Martian traditions and duties passed down by the pioneers. In time, they began to forget their mother despite the picture of her face in the hallway. When he turned 16, Zach apprenticed to a climatologist. Later, Adam went to the far colonies to work in the mines. Maggie was born last, roughly three sols after Adam, and never knew Aleren. I added two sols to my life due to Maggie’s learning difficulties. Looking at her today, you would never know she was slower than the rest. When she leaves our dome, I will have aged 27 sols, fathered three children, and will walk on the surface of Mars to join Aleren.

“Father, are you thinking?”

I shook off my melancholy. It struck me I should not upset her before the transformation ceremony.

“I was remembering your mother.”

“I only know what my brothers have told me,” Maggie paused. “Why did she leave us?”

“She realized her purpose,” I replied. “Her benediction and death allowed you to live.”

I needed Maggie to understand the gift Aleren gave her.

“I barely passed one sol,” Maggie said. “I never had a chance talk with her, learn from her, or gain her wisdom.”

“All Last Borns have one job; to ensure life goes on. She spoke to you often in your crib about the future.”

“A baby maker, you mean,” Maggie said. “Enough. It is time us breeders became naturalized freemen.”

“Your mother was very proud you would be a Last Born,” I said. “Your children will be citizens,” I paused to look her in the eyes. “The first generation of Free Martians.”

“And I will not be able to see it,” Maggie said.

I gave Maggie credit for grasping the gravity of her transformation. And it gave me pause; I would not see my family earn citizenship either. Zach and Adam would never be freemen, but at least they had the chance at a long life. I did have that comfort to fall back on. And Maggie would be the final Last Born. My grandchildren would decide the future for themselves and their children.

I placed my pressed white robe on my dressing table. After the transformation ceremony, I would come back alone and prepare for my passing. Maggie would be off to the breeder colony and will miss it. Just as well; Maggie didn’t remember Aleren’s passing and she wouldn’t remember mine.

Under the central dome, the transformation candidates stood on a transparent stage. Maggie embraced her friends and I could hear their laughter above me in my seat. All the Last Born fathers sat away from the rest. The audience cheered as the chancellery read the names of those moving on.

As a group, Maggie joined the Last Borns by holding her right hand equal to her head and reciting the vow. Each swore to build up the community, teach their children, and carry out their purpose. At the end, the chancellery invited the honored Last Borns to stand. We stood and the crowd cheered as the chancellery thanked us for completing our service.

Everyone became silent for the marriage partner epistle. Maggie gasped when the chancellery chose Charles, a tall, black-haired Last Born, for her partner. I imagined their handsome babies.

At the end of the ceremony, Maggie approached me with Charles walking a step behind dragging on her hand. She seemed assured. I tried to act casual but my happiness betrayed me. Tears welled in my eyes and I pulled her close.

“They made a good choice,” I said. “Your children will be strong.”

“Yes, I suppose.” Maggie took a furtive glance back at Charles. “He is as good as anyone.”

“I guess you two are off for your training?”

“Yes. We learn the private bits about each other,” Maggie said.

“Don’t practice too much.” I couldn’t help myself. Maggie punched my arm and Charles became scarlet.

“It looks like they want you to go.” I pushed Maggie and Charles toward the stage. “I am sure everything will be fine.”

Maggie wrapped herself around me dropping her head on my shoulder. She wept and pulled me closer. I rubbed her back and whispered, “You make me proud.”

“I love you too,” she said.

Maggie avoided an awkward goodbye. I stood with the other Last Borns watching her leave. Soon I stood alone with nothing left to do but return to my dorm.

I dressed in my transformation robe and reflected on my life. None of my children died, they each learned something from me, and there was nothing left to teach them. The last thing to do was complete my transformation. Before the ceremony, I transferred my credits to Maggie, uploaded my last words, recorded a congratulatory video for my grandchildren, and pressed my robe with an iron. I fingered the trim on the collar feeling the intricacy of the lace. Everything seemed in order.

At central day, an alarm sounded and a happy voice reminded me to proceed to my affirmation. This was it. I would perform the last part of my vow.

I climbed up to the airlock between our dorm and the outside dome. Across the complex other Last Borns also entered their airlocks. I counted as many as six other men. Not as many as in the past, but still a sizable number. I realized I had never spoken to any of them.

Over the speakers the Requiem Aeternam began to play in the airlock. I decided this was a fitting anthem for my end. I took a deep breath and let it out. The door opened and the atmosphere blew out the rupture in the dome. On Mars, I lived a total of 27 sols. On Earth, I would celebrate reaching the age of 50 years. For the first time I felt tired.

The final moment of my life I practiced sols ago with Aleren. We each let out our breath like we were coming up for a dive. We giggled when we had to breathe in. Now outside it was difficult. I felt the effects of the vacuum on my face and my lips tingled from the lack of oxygen. I failed to realize how hard it would be. Yet, I wanted to experience my death. The moisture in my eyes evaporated and my lungs started to freeze with my slow exhalation.

Aleren made roughly 40 steps before the wind scattered her across the surface and I wanted to walk as far as the platform. Yet, I had not counted on the difference in our age. My heart struggled under my exertion and I walked less than 20 steps. I managed to reach a small rise in the dirt. I climbed over it, dropped to my knees, and realized death was near. My eyes began to burn, so I closed them, and let the sun warm my face.

As I gave in to death, the ground under me opened and I dropped beneath the surface. I tumbled down and landed with a thud in a dark hole. I could see nothing but black; did somebody dig me a grave?

“Place him in the bateau and run to the compression chest,” a male voice said.

The taste of oxygen differed from the thin nitrogen and carbon dioxide of the surface. I took a shallow breath. It felt cool in my aching lungs. Around me I heard voices, but my eyes were blind. Nothing took shape.

“It may be too late,” said a female voice.

The transformation prepares us for the responsibility of ensuring life begins on Mars, I thought. Each Last Born teaches, scolds, counsels, and nurtures their children. I let out a final breathe.

“We must save him. He deserves to know the future.”

“Adam?” I thought I heard the voice of my middle son and realized it was a dream. His voice took me to my memory of all of us standing together for a portrait under the middle dome with the yellow sun shining behind us. I smiled thinking about them as my transformation ended. I knew Mars was a better place.



A Moment of Pure Truth 3

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Christopher stood over the maze of workday and eyed the sea. A thin fog cloud floated passed his perch on the 45th floor. On the docks, sea lions barked at tourists. East Bay traffic sought a faster path, ships hauled electronics in and almonds back out, and the blood-red sun sunk into late afternoon north of the Golden Gate.

In the conference room, five people sat in executive chairs around a table. Their faces reflected gloomy sullenness. They might as well said they intended two more hours of arguing and defensiveness. He crushed out his cigarette and flicked it into the wastebasket.

Across from a camera hunched a nervous man with a woman perched to the side wearing a mask. Christopher thought he could use some oxygen too. While the man told his story, the woman repeated what he said.

“Does she have to do that?”
“We need an accurate transcription,” said an attorney seated at the end.
“Isn’t the video enough?”
“I want to read it tonight.”

Christopher rocked forward. He ran his right hand through his gray hair and looked over at the man. “Forget the transcriber, Mr. Wells. The faster you answer, the faster we can get out of here.”

The nervous man explained his one-of-a-kind process. It required this and that and one thing or the other. It mattered little to those at the settlement conference. The questions rolled and the answers landed in a flat dud. Each person rubbed their eyes and wished for sleep.

Christopher turned to the window daydreaming of places far from this evening. He watched the sun drop into the ocean until the dying light filled the room.

~

Five hours over the vermilion bridge, he rolled down the fabric roof. Clammers walked along the beach carrying clam guns and pails. They smiled in the ocean air. Christopher breathed deep taking in a feeling of warm relief. The sea smelled sweet. Sentries of redwoods stood on the cliff and a lone tree marched out to the shore. He longed to join its rush to the sea. Away from him, he picked up the faint smell of skunk. Humboldt County Fog, he guessed. A guy in a beanie and a girl in flannel shirt smiled and waved.

He touched the dash. It felt solid although he still wore his virgin wool dress pants. He closed his eyes for a moment and opened them quick. A pair of 501’s and a wool cardigan replaced the virgin wool. He looked in the mirror and dark sunglasses reflected back. He settled into the car seat steering the wheel away from the sand.

The redwood forest rose above the ocean. Ferns and grass bunched up crowding the road. The path intruded on the stillness giving way to silence. Sentries of trees towered until only darkness touched the sky. The forest seemed to ignore his intrusion of their assembly. Christopher came to seek solace and the forest ignored him.

He slowed the car into a clearing. The tires crunched over cones, broken branches, and fronds. A hard thump echoed from the closing door. He regretted disrupting the surrounding cathedral.

He wandered over fallen trees and rocks. Over a ridge he scanned for the tree tops watching the breeze sway each branch. The trees reached a height beyond his imagination. He leaned against a trunk rounder than his height. He followed the ridges and cliffs of bark as high as he could see. It never ended. He guessed this tree stood stories tall long before his great-grandfather saw California.

The width of the tree circled around and Christopher stepped over ferns as he rounded it. A black ant carried a golden speck of pollen at the end of a mile long trek. It rushed to disappear under the surface of leaves going deep into the humus. Christopher looked around the clearing not seeing his starting point.

A beam of light surrounded a smaller tree with a pathway from the sky. Dust and insects crisscrossed the dancing light. Christopher stood in awe breathing in the serenity.

He walked away from the big tree to stand under the light shaft. The illuminated tree stood tall like the last one except for its pure white branches. His shoulders shuddered and every tree seemed to step back with appreciation and respect. He reached up stroking an albino cone of pure whiteness as a subtle spark passed through his hand twinkling in the light. He rubbed together his fingers feeling the soft white powder. A jolt of energy flashed from the tips and floated to his core. He felt alive and full of wisdom.

The light around the ghost tree grew brighter and he stood alone looking up. In the light glow, Christopher’s face expressed joy.

~

“Is that what a nervous break down looks like?” asked Mr. Wells.

Christopher jumped back from the table. The room grew larger and a crowd standing around him snapped to attention. The transcriber braced Christopher’s back. He sank into a chair confused by the way everyone stared. A hand pushed him a glass and he sipped the water allowing himself to return to the meeting.

Christopher surveyed the balcony. Stars touched the rooftops of the city and a helicopter searched over the bay. He stared outside while the others waited for him to say he felt alright. Christopher cleared his throat and everyone turned to him.

“Answers come at the strangest times,” he said.
“How do you mean?” Mr. Wells asked.
“All this means nothing. None of you should win.”
“But we are so close.”
“A settlement over a little slight?”

Christopher pushed himself away from the table. He stood for a moment before the people seated opposite him. He nodded, smiled, and looked up. They followed his gaze to the ceiling tiles where he saw his answer. The other people in the room only saw a crisscross pattern.

As they tried to understand the truth, Christopher gathered up his papers, turned away, and walked out the door.