18 April 2010

Wish you were here.

My dreams are always vivid and strange, last night being no exception. So I thought I would put my sleep deprivation to good use and try writing a little one shot story about one.

I still wasn't quite sure why I was there. It had been suggested to me that I just show up and have a poke around. See if there was anything worth pilfering, I supposed. And by pilfering I mean offering the elderly and grieving parents a sum far below what the items were worth so that they could be sold at a price just above what they were worth. The idea never fails to make my skin crawl just a little, which is what I've used to justify myself as still being a good person. As long as I understand that this part of my job is wrong, my soul is still clean... if just carrying a bit of a patina.

He was an astronaut. An occupation that was once so life-consuming - sometimes terminally so - that it was considered a calling. But gone were the days of breaking through the atmosphere riding on a barely controlled explosion. Rather now with advances in quantum propulsion, carriers ranging from luxury to steerage sent their automated crafts floating up on clouds of paradoxes and singularities. However the old glory still remained even though they held no more status than commercial airline pilots of olde.

The sky was an unbroken blue, bordered by high, treed valley walls. A damp breeze set the surroundings a flutter ever so slightly as the gravel of the driveway crunched under my shoes. The house was white stucco with rounded walls and arches. Hanging plants, small rock gardens, and wall-hugging shrubbery were nestled into every spare gap. The smell of fresh cut grass hung in the air, but not a single clipping tarnished the velvety green blanket of lawn. A tall lithe flowering crab shone white in the sun, a black ribbon tied 'round its trunk rustling in the wind.

The funeral had been yesterday. Most of the denizens of the small town had come out on to Main Street to see the procession go through. Black confetti created moving shadows over the crowds, settling to litter the gutters. Shopkeepers wandered in and out of their shops, waiting for the telltale belch of black smoke to emerge from the stack at the crematorium. Today was clearing house for his elderly parents. He had been their sole support, and with him gone they had little choice but to follow. They could only hope to get enough income from their worldly possessions to make it a dignified termination.

As I suspected, entering the house, the place had been well picked over. Vultures - forgetting for a moment I was one of them. There were just a couple of people browsing the nearly empty shelves - a squirrely looking man in a threadbare jacket, and a greasy looking fellow trying to be dapper in a suit taken from his last acquisition. Thin lines of dust betrayed where couches and chairs had once been, and unbleached shadows outlined the shapes of keepsakes and forget-me-nots that had lined the shelves.

An elderly lady, the mother, wrung her hands worriedly as she felt her pocketed apron for what cash she'd made so far. I looked out the window and the old man, haggard and stooped, hair slicked back with pomade, stood with a leashed pug in the backyard. I walked over to one of the few shelves with anything left on it. A few framed pictures dotted the space. It was his portraits from completing his training - matted and sun-bleached in their creamy white frames. One close up of him, square cut hair and serious with his helmet in hand and the World flag behind him. Another standing in a tight blue space-suit, helmet under arm, eyes wide and turned upward to the sky. Finally, a group photo of his graduating class, with an old and obsolete rocket behind them.

'They say he burned up in the atmosphere.' A withered voice came from behind me. I started a little, and turned realizing it was the old lady. I looked at her, her eyes wide and worried and in shock. 'The ship broke up and he fell through the atmosphere with just his suit.' Tears gathered into the corners of her eyes.

Despite myself I felt my heart raise into my throat a little. I'd done enough of these that it shouldn't have bothered me. Perhaps it was something about the day. I was supposed to have the day off really, which had started out well enough. But after bad coffee, burned toast, and a heated argument, I was not only on the job but with a thin skin as well.

She fingered the cash in her pocket. I heard myself ask the question - the question that someone in my line of work should never ask - before I could stop myself. 'So, where are you at?' Dammit.

She glanced out at her husband in the yard. 'Enough.' She said. 'Enough to get it done quickly and plainly.' I swallowed the lump in my throat. I knew the way of the world, but rarely had to look it straight in the eye. The rising waters made this place too small for them. There was no one to take care of them anymore, no pensions or welfare for them to live off of, so it was time for them to go. The rest of us had a difficult enough time as it was making ends meet. Even still, I was having a tough time raising my eyes to hers.

'What do you want for the pictures?' I asked. Maybe quickly and plainly wasn't good enough. 'I'll give you $1,000 for them.' The old lady's jaw dropped ever so slightly before she regained composure. She nodded stiffly, tears spilling onto her cheeks. I pulled the money from my allowance, and placed it in her cold, bony withered hand, curling her fingers around it. She placed it in her apron, and handed me each portrait one by one, taking a moment with each one to say goodbye. I slipped them into my bag, and made my way to the door, stopping short of the threshold.

'How much do you want for the dog?'

As I left the house, bag laden with the final - but financially worthless - legacy of a largely unknown and unremarkable astronaut, and a wheezing pug, I looked back. The white stucco seemed dark, the flowering crab seemed withered, the black ribbon around it's trunk tattered. The sky was still blue from horizon to horizon, but the sun seemed to shine less brightly. All life had left that place, and it was now just a husk. I felt like I needed to go home.

A week later, unemployed, wheezing pug on my lap, bad coffee in hand, and burned toast nearly half finished, my husband brought the paper in. 'Do you know anything about this?' I scratched the pug behind the ears as I leaned over to read the headline.

The elderly parents of a deceased astronaut have failed to file their termination papers, and have disappeared. Their house was found empty save for dozens of copies of faded portraits of their son, and a postcard which read only 'Wish you were here.' This is the latest in a string of...

I smiled up at my husband, and took a sip of the inky black brew. 'Nope. Not a thing.'

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