Duds

It was of those January afternoons, where the light was fading, but hadn’t yet gone, and the sky wasn’t much more than a dull, warm gray, where everything was still and quiet, where a few snowflakes had begun to fall, feeling forgotten, a whisper of a coming storm, where Harris sat in his new spacesuit on the front porch, enjoying what would be his last beer and its accompanying cigarette. If he would miss anything after his trip, he had decided, it would be his front porch, and his chair, and getting to sit and watch the neighborhood and the fields.

His neighborhood was a fringe cul de sac at the edge of Mallory, Ohio, not much more than a few houses and a couple empty lots, circled around a little bubble of road that no one other than the people who lived there came down. Past the cul de sac on all sides were thick fields of snow; in the spring, summer, and early fall, they’d go from soft, thick white plains to lush waves of corn.

The only signal of civilization, other than the St. Joe’s steeple and Malone’s Depot, the three-story brown and red-brick department store, the tallest building in Mallory, peeking over the skeletal trees that grew through Mallory, was Pike’s Station, about two miles southeast of Harris’ home. If he leaned forward and peered around the corner of his porch, he could almost see the launchpad and its office, a structure that looked both naturally industrial and out of place in Mallory, like a marooned oil rig. He’d walked almost halfway there a few days ago, as a test, and had only fallen once.

He reached into the front pocket of his suit and pulled out, after a few clumsy attempts with the suit’s thick gloves, a crumpled pack of Blue Moon cigarettes and a chewed-up brown lighter. Harris flicked the striker for a good minute before getting a consistent flame, stuck a cigarette in his mouth, and brought it up. He inhaled, puffed, and put the package and the lighter back in the front pocket. He exhaled and felt himself sink into the suit and the chair.

The suit was a replica of the V22 EMU’s, which had been standard issue since 2056 for all Orion astronauts and colonists. Unlike earlier iterations, the V22’s were heavier, bulkier, meant for extended stays in space. As the Colonial Administration had expanded its reach, more and more of its expeditions lasted far longer, and took both astronauts and colonists alike to harsher and harsher cosmic corners. Right now, a hot spot was Trident Orbital, a recently-developed mining station just off Neptune. From what Harris had been reading online, the word was that the Administration planned to turn Trident into a kind of threshold settlement, a staging ground for extra-system exploration. In less than seventy years, they’d managed to get human beings settled in or near every planet in the system. Now was the time to invest in what they had, and start making preparations to one day go beyond Sol.

An alarm chirped, and a soft digital readout of the time in pale red numbers flashed 4:30 on his helmet. He sighed and, resting a hand on his cane and slowly standing up, made his way inside.

Harris stood at his kitchen table, taking inventory on his pack. It was a brown rucksack, something he’d had for years, taken on camping trips with friends and family and the like. Most of them were gone now – either moved from Mallory, or passed. He’d loaded it with dry goods – crackers, dried fruit, boxes of macaroni and cheese – and several big jugs of water. Just in case he got time to eat.

He was about to zip up the pack when he realized he’d forgotten something. Harris went down the hall from the kitchen into his room. He crouched, with effort and phantom pains in his knees, and pulled out a box of newspapers.

The Mallory Times had been discontinued years ago, but as a kid, he’d saved most of the editions. There were headlines like FIRST ORION LAUNCH FROM HONOLULU; TRAPPED ORION CREW RESCUED ON IO AFTER THREE WEEKS; ORION LAUNCHES COMMUNITY DEPOT BRAND.

Most of them were junk. Not junk, that wasn’t the right word… but he couldn’t take them with. He sifted through until he found one, a bit yellowed. The front page was an old digital photo of an empty field that read MALLORY SELECTED FOR REGIONAL SPACEPORT. The date in the upper right corner read October, 2024.

He picked up the paper and held it for a moment, skimming parts of the article.

thirty-third Midwestern station of its kind…

…a great opportunity for the small community…

…hope to let more and more from the Breadbasket, who some say have been overlooked in past exploration efforts, join in the noble pursuit of space travel…

…local testing begins in March of 2025…

He folded it, carefully, and went back into the kitchen and tucked it in the side of his pack. It was the closest thing he had to a ticket… but it wasn’t, and if anyone found him, he’d probably be taken into custody and returned to Earth. But at least it was something to read.

Something padded against his door.

Harris went over to and opened it. A plump tabby with huge eyes and big paws was staring up at him.

“She’s not home yet?”

The cat meowed, and wended his way between his legs and into his kitchen. He didn’t know the cat’s name, he just knew that he belonged to a woman about his age who lived across the cul de sac. She let him out every day, no matter the weather, and it didn’t really seem like the thing minded anyways, because he usually found a way into Harris’ house no matter what. He’d come home countless times over the past few years to find the cat laying in his armchair in the living room, or pawing through one of the cupboards. The best way to get him to sit still was feeding him. He liked macaroni the best, that put him right to sleep.

“I don’t have a lotta time,” he closed to door and headed to the cupboards. “I’m leaving soon, you know? So you’re gonna have to find your own way out.”

The cat stared at him from the scuffed linoleum floor. It licked its lips.

“Mhmm. Right.”

Harris got over to his fridge and opened the door. He’d made some macaroni earlier in the morning and hadn’t been able to finish it all. He took out the blue plastic bowl, stripped off the plastic wrap, and set it down. The cat looked at the food, then at him. He meowed.

“I’m not gonna microwave it, you don’t touch it until it’s cold anyway.”

The cat meowed again.

Harris stood for a moment, and then he sighed, and bent down, grabbed the bowl, and carried it over to the microwave. “Whaddyou think, thirty seconds? A minute?”

The cat didn’t respond, and he keyed in thirty seconds.

He went back over to the kitchen table and took a look at his inventory one more time. He wanted to make sure he had enough, just in case.

The microwave beeped, and he came over, took out the bowl of macaroni, and set it down where the cat was. He stared at it for a moment before flicking his tail, wandering over to Harris’ chair, hopping up, and curling into a ball. In a few moments he was asleep.

Harris watched him for a moment before going back to his pack. He stared at it for a minute or so before sighing, going over to the chair, picking up the cat – who groaned with kind of absent yawn – and sat down in the chair, reclining back. He closed his eyes for a moment.

Harris woke up with a start. He was reclined in his chair, with the cat curled on his lap in a warm puddle.

Someone knocked on the door.

He groaned, and carefully got up, and made his way to the door.

It was a blonde girl, short hair, freckles, in a black coat, plaid skirt, and boots. She was holding a neatly-wrapped little package the size of a shoebox under her arm. A ways behind her, parked in the curve of the cul de sac, was a long black car with a purple flag.

“Hey, Mr. Harris,” she said, a waver of surprise under her voice. She looked him up and down. “Going somewhere?”

“Not for a while.” He looked around her at the car. “You drive that thing everywhere?”

“What?” she followed his eyes and turned back around, shaking her head. “Oh. No. But we just finished with a burial, and we’re about to close-up for the weekend, so my Dad had me stop by to give you this.”

She offered the package. Harris took it.

“He said your Mom left it for you to have after everything. We shoulda gotten it to you earlier but I kept forgetting.” Her face flushed a bit. “Sorry.”

Harris waved a hand. He turned the package over. Shook it a bit.

“How’re your exams?” he didn’t look up.

The girl’s shoulders sagged, slight, but heavy. She sighed. “They suck.”

He laughed, and looked up at her. “I remember mine. No fun.” His fingers tapped on the box for a moment. “Where are you looking at getting placed?”

“I wanna get stationed at Saturn. Maybe the C-Ring, or Cassini Station.”

“Geology?”

“Xenobiology,” she said it quiet, like she was embarrassed.

Harris nodded. “Cassini Station is good for that – that’s where Brandford started his micro-terra project. They’ve got a good reputation.”

“I know,” she said, scratching the back of her neck. “I read all his books.”

Harris got the feeling he’d just tried to give advice to someone who already knew where they were going, what they were doing, and how to get there, more than he ever would. Nothing ever made him feel like an old man more than that.

He could feel his own face flush a bit. He coughed. “Well. Then you got nothin’ to worry about. Most kids don’t even bother studying for the exams now, and you’re doing extra reading? You’re set.”

“Yeah,” she said. She looked at him. His suit. Inside the house. “Are you gonna be back any time soon, Mr. Harris?”

He felt a lump. He didn’t expect a lump, but it was there, and he cleared his throat and shook his head. “I don’t think so. Maybe. But I don’t think so.”

She hugged him suddenly. Harris put his hands up, and the small push from the girl and the weight from the suit almost made him tip over. He steadied himself on the door frame with a gloved hand.

The girl said something to him, something he couldn’t quite make out, and even if he had, he wouldn’t have known what to say. So he hugged her back, tight.

“Okay,” she pulled away and sniffed. “It was nice seeing you.”

“You too.”

She headed down the walk to the long black car, and stopped for a moment to wave. He waved back. She got in and drove down the street towards the empty town.

With his rucksack cinched and the shoebox-gift in his hands, he left a note on the woman’s door, just a short sentence explaining where her cat was.

He wandered over to the edge of the field and stared out at Pike’s Station. The rucksack was awkward, his shoulders were already sore, and his knees hurt. He put the box under his arm and leaned on his cane a bit.

The black, skraggly outlines of barren trees and copses lined the left edge of the field, but for the most part, it was a totally flat plain, boasting nothing bigger than a few hundred humps of prairie grass that hunkered down across its space like sleeping golems.

At the other end of the field, a solid two miles or so away, was the thick, dark skeleton of Pike’s Station. Steam vented in fat clouds from a dozen smoke stacks and shafts along its body. Bulbs of light, like Christmas lights, dotted it. Some were the green, soft pulsings of the launchpad; others were the red glares atop the highest points, markers of warning to potential air and spacecraft; more than few were the warm amber of offices and dormitories for the live-in crew, administrative and maintenance, of the station; and there were dozens of white-yellows that were simply studded all across its bodice. Harris didn’t really know what they did, but they looked nice.

He stood there for a while, cold beginning to seep into his fingertips and toes. A few flakes tickled the tip of his nose and cheeks. His breath came in puffs as he stood at the edge of the field, with snow that was up to halfway above his shins.

He took the box from under his arm and ripped open the wrapping. The paper was old, pale blue and white, decorated with little winter swirls and penguins with scarves.

Harris took off the cover and set in on the ground. Inside was a yellow note. He picked it up and read:

Dear Harris,

I know you won’t be around long after I go. So I wanted to give you something to keep you warm on your trip. Malone sold it to me at a discount a couple weeks ago. Try it on, spaceman!

I love you.

-Mom

Underneath the note was a small, simple, black knit winter cap. On the front was the Orion logo, a boxy spaceship with engines whooshing behind it against orange, white, and blue shield, set on a background of stars. Harris picked it up and turned it over. He opened his helmet’s visor and pulled it down on his head. A little warmth trickled into his ears.

He stuffed the note in his breast pocket, set the box down, and looked back at his house. The cul de sac. St. Joe’s Steeple, the department store, sitting above the trees. He wished he could’ve said goodbye to someone before he left.

He turned back around and started, slow, into the field. And soon he was gone.

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