Before This Decade Is Out

I.

The floor slants from the door down to the window, so that if the occupant is struck with a sudden compulsion to fly through glass and air, this room provides an adequate runway.

I lie flat against the wood, a cloudy gray-black marble between my fingers, and watch the little sphere roll from the tip of my finger down to the opposite wall without the slightest nudge. None of the other rooms slant this way. I’ve seen them. Those floors are all straight.

 

My purpose here is to sleep. They find me fascinating in this place, at night they do, when I’m not present enough to appreciate their attention. Those of us here, in this unit, will serve as the subject of numerous papers, perhaps as the highlight of upcoming conferences. I don’t mind the spotlight as long as they can match our affliction with something named. And cure it.

“You don’t need to stay in the clinic all day, you know. You’re not an inmate.” Ben hovers above me, a man of average height but built like a football player, thick everywhere, so that his body blocks out the light streaming in from the window. We always walk to the Tricycle Unit together.

I lift myself from the floor, brush the nonexistent dust from my jeans, and settle on the mattress. “The floor’s slanted,” I say, tidying the bed, patting the soft blue pillows. The building is brand new, state-of-the-art everything; even the elegantly molded turquoise toilets landed here from the future. And yet, the floor slants. Like this: Screen Shot 2015-12-17 at 11.16.31 PM.

“Yeah,” he says, “it does, doesn’t it?”

“Yours doesn’t. Not in your room.”

“Not that I can see.”

Ben observes me as I fold my pajamas and place them in a neat stack on the floor. None of us patients in the special ward are allowed furniture in our quarters other than the bed with no frame. There are no dressers with menacing corners, or closets with rods for hanging clothing or jewelry or ourselves. At nine pm every evening, we are left alone with soft edges and a night full of hours.

“Did you bring that marble with you?” Ben gestures at the little orb in the corner of the room, near the window.

“It was in Stan’s pocket. He’s letting me look after it.” I head toward where the mini sphere rests. The slant seems to have exerted itself, grown more awkward since the last time I made this journey. I lift the marble and place it on top of my pajamas. Later, the staff will come and remove it, along with my daytime clothing after I change for the night. Then they will return my garments in the morning, washed, folded, pressed, the marble again on top.

“I wasn’t exactly planning on staying very long,” I tell him.

I got that wrong. My days here have now been declared indefinite, so I want another room, a level room, just like everyone else.

The answer from the staff is, no, there are no other rooms.

 

Outside the Tricycle Unit, the hall is long and wide, a vibrant blue. They painted most of the space various shades of blue here, to remind us of gentler dreams, tranquility, and water, the sky on a clear day somewhere that is not here. Even the large window at the end of the hallway, the one with the ripply glass, is aqua-tinted. When I return to my own house, I will paint everything cobalt, like this hallway here, like my room with the floor with its own sense of direction.

Today Lily, Ben, and I—just the three of us—are standing outside the TU, waiting for the doors to swing open. Stan is not allowed to participate. And Raleigh and Samuel are in the hospital.

Those two have become rather passionate and single-minded about their own demise these days, hence our presence here, outside this room. Whenever one or two of us grows more insistent on the afterlife, another life, or no life at all, the vibrations emanate rapidly from one person to the next, eventually pushing each of us toward some unfathomable edge, and we begin to kick our restlessness around. Samuel and Raleigh started it this time, have lately been attempting new techniques in the middle of the night, bashing their brains against the glossy new walls that are not made of plaster, but of some sleek shiny material, blue until they turned it red. The rest of us bunch up our shoulders and walk around pushing our faces against the nonexistent wind while Stan whispers to himself, secrets perhaps, or stories, as he gently pets the smooth black marble he carries with him as he haunts these hallways.

 

My father had asked me who invented the Tricycle Unit. Stan says God invented it. God, a fifteenth-century knight from south Flanders, armored like a human tank, talks to Stan sometimes but, because of the strange echo emanating from the Divine Helmet (God would never condescend to lift the visor), the message Stan receives is often muffled, garbled, or incomprehensibly cruel. Sometimes God commands him to pour seven packets of sugar into his tea. Then Stan shakes all over, beating his fists against the side of his head as if he were knocking a wasp out of his ear. Stan, we all quickly discovered on our arrival, is certifiably insane, unlike the rest of us, who are simply tired and morbidly incurious. Stan shouldn’t be here, a problem with his paperwork, the doctors said. They are attempting to transfer him elsewhere. When that day will come, no one knows. In the meantime, we position him, this divine high-gain antenna, close to windows.

This is the first time only three of us will enter the Tricycle Unit. Once there were five, now three, soon to be two, then . . .

Lily and I fear the fast approaching day of Ben’s departure, this man who is almost well enough to think of his bed as a place as safe as his waking world. He is an aspiring migrant worker, wants to feel the earth in his hands, to sense the vibrancy of the ground beneath his soles. These are the things we say when we must talk about ourselves, talk of what we will do when we’ve left this place, not what brought us here. Ben, now in his early fifties, is determined to leave the business of building jets behind as well as the considerable paycheck it brings. But that’s about all you can do in this town, build jets or rockets, design jets or rockets, think about instruments on jets or rockets. There are also satellites, spacecraft, but he’s not interested in data. So when he goes in search of soil, he’ll need to go far.

As we wait for the doors to open, we watch Stan, down at the end of the hallway, standing perfectly still, his back to the huge window with its rippling glass, inhaling, chest puffed up, lips and cheeks sucked in. Should we remind him to breathe?

Ben leans down toward Lily and me and whispers, “Did you know Stan is a trained astronaut? A shuttle pilot for the Space Agency. All of six months ago, he was fine, you know, up there.” Ben touches his forehead with his fingertip. We discover things about each other this way, through other people, through strange telemetry.

“Where did he go? To the moon?” Lily, who is taller and younger than me but looks smaller and older, is leaning against the wall, her gray eyes drooping from unrest. I suppose all of us have eyes like that now. Her shirt is dark blue and so are her jeans. She blends into the background; if I squint, there’s nothing to her but her head, floating.

“He’s not an astronaut,” I tell him. “I have every astronaut’s autograph sitting in my room and there isn’t one item signed by Stanley Selkirk.”

“No,” Ben says, leaning in closer. “He trained. For years. But never went up.” “That drove him crazy?” Lily says. “Not making it into space?”

“Imagine,” I say.

She glances at Stan and turns back to us, shaking her head. Her pale hair, pale skin grow more translucent every time I look at her. “But maybe all that training at zero gravity did something to him.”

“No, no,” Ben says, “Stan flew one of those scramjets over at the Air Force base, at like Mach 10.”

“A scram what?”

“Scramjet,” I murmur, watching Stan at the end of the hallway, riveted, silent, like architectural punctuation. I step closer toward Stan, though he seems even farther away than before. I squint at him the way I did at Lily, the way I had reduced her to just a head. There’s no way to reduce Stan though. He’s standing there, a middle-aged man with a comb-over and rapidly expanding paunch, against that window, everything around him lit up. “The jets,” I say, “breathe oxygen from the atmosphere, no oxidizer. Just a cache of fuel on the aircraft for combustion and thrust.”

“Oh,” Lily whispers. “That sounds . . . umm . . . new.”

Ben’s impressed. “How did you know that?”

I shrug. I don’t need to divulge much about myself now. Ben’s leaving. Hardly any point.

“It’s very new,” I tell Lily. “Only three years ago, they flew the first unmanned test aircraft, and it tore itself apart.”
Ben’s huge hands gesture around in the air, poorly simulating the massive explosion, but his feeble attempt doesn’t matter because it’s an image that needs little imagination to get right.

Lily wants to know more—about the flight, not about Stan. “So did he fly around the world in eighty minutes or what?”

“No, of course not.” Ben sometimes forgets that we are not engineers. “It was a test flight, flew for a few seconds and landed.”

“Maybe he was terrified after that crash,” Lily said. “Maybe he didn’t want to fly the . . . um . . . scramblejet but was too afraid to tell someone.”

“Doubt it. They did lots of tests after that.”

“Still.”

“Still,” Ben says, sighing. We all turn to Stan, standing at the end of the hall, his back no longer to the window but to us, still not breathing.

“He sure can hold his breath for a long time,” says Lily. “Maybe he should have become a diver, not an astronaut.” She blinks several times, thinking hard, and pushes a strand of hair behind her ear. “Can you call them astronauts if they haven’t gone up into space yet?”

They both turn to me for an answer.

I don’t have that answer.

Lily is disturbed by what she knows now and walks toward the window to check on Stan.

Ben takes this opportunity to hand me a clipping that he removes carefully, discreetly, from his breast pocket. “It’s from this morning’s newspaper,” he adds. Something inside me tells me not to take it. But I do.

My eyes dart straight for the small print, avoiding the blare of the headlines:

Personnel from the Institute of Technology and the National Space Agency were stunned yesterday morning to find several of the Agency’s owned paintings missing from the Goodbye Mission X exhibition, a show commemorating the fifteen-year odyssey of the X spacecraft. The authorities believe the theft occurred between midnight and one AM on Thursday morning, during which both of the surveillance cameras malfunctioned. Among the twelve missing paintings, all but three are by the daughter of retired Director of Flight Operations for the mission, R. K. Jagannathan and his wife, geophysicist Janaki Jagannathan. The artist’s father expressed shock at the news of the theft and issued the following plea to the perpetrator: ‘These works are not only important records in our nation’s space and scientific history but also to the personal histories of all the team members involved in the success of Mission X. Kindly return the paintings immediately to the nearest authorities. No questions will be asked.’ Jagannathan also issued a reward to any person with information as to the whereabouts of the artwork, some of which were painted by his daughter when she was only fourteen.

I fold the clipping up into a perfect rectangle again and hand it back to him. “I hope those paintings were insured.”

He tilts his head and takes the article from me. “Do you still paint?”

“Nope.”

He is about to ask why, and I cannot answer this question. He’s about to ask a lot of other things too, some of which I have addressed many times before, with the doctors who have come before the doctors in this place and who had no idea what to do with me.

“You should tell them, the sleep therapists,” he says, his attempt at guiding me on a straight trajectory toward recovery.

“What happened? It could be significant.”

“What’s significant about it? It was a long time ago. The paintings weren’t even very good.”

Ben stares. “But your art—”

“It sort of gave up on me, I suppose. It happens. I don’t miss it, in case you’re wondering.” Before he can reply, I say, “I think I’m suffering from seizures. The doctors say that I’m not, but they could be wrong, couldn’t they?”

“Doesn’t it bother you that someone has stolen something of yours?”

“Look, they’re not mine. I mean, not anymore. They never were, actually. I don’t even know where the pieces are usually stored. They pulled them out just for this exhibit thing. It was eons ago.”

“You’re not upset? Not even a little? What about your dad?” He glances down at my hands, which have been shaking more and more every day.

“Why should I be upset? The mission is over. My father retired two months ago, and he’s got a long list of things he wants to do here on this planet. Finding out what’s wrong with me. For example.”

Sure, this is not entirely the truth. Three hours after he sent the final spacecraft commands, and the last remaining members of the flight operations team disbanded, my father showed up to his own retirement party at the newest hotel in town, tie and cummerbund in hand, well after the grand ballroom had filled with guests. It felt, for him, like just seconds ago that he had guided the spacecraft on its collision course with a target they’d been observing for years. The ending here was all about the fuel, fuel nearly depleted, propellant necessary for controlling the spacecraft’s trajectory and guiding the antenna in our direction, toward us, here on earth. I watched him before he entered the hotel ballroom. I was already on my third glass of Cabernet, and there he was, standing very still, eyes trained on the ground, as if awaiting the last few moments of real-time data. Even after he entered the party, this event solely in his honor, I could see it, could focus on it quite clearly from across the room, as he silently hid his fear, afraid of what might descend from the sky onto our heads, afraid something, somewhere up there, might not listen to the commands he was no longer there to give.

“Um,” I attempt again, staring down the hall at Stan and Lily, Lily who talks so softly, calmly to him, in soothing tones, unlike Stan’s knight-god, whose gleaming metal shell only serves to blind him, “seizures?”

Ben allows the subject of my paintings to drop for now and sweeps his hand to the side, waving away my self-diagnosis.

I cannot honestly believe it’s merely our circadian rhythms on the blink, just like that, pffft. But Ben’s stay in this lab has been longer than any of ours, so I turn to him for knowledge I don’t yet have.

He says, “Did you have a set bedtime when you were a child?”

“Of course not. Imagine all the things I would have missed.” I point to the light-blue speckled ceiling, a poor substitute for the sky.

“When did you usually go to bed when you were, say, ten years old?” “Two or three.”

“In the morning?”

“In the morning, yeah.”

“Wow. Sleep deprivation causes brain damage, you know?”

“I did sleep. Slept during class. Whenever.”

He whistles.

There’s something universally offensive about men whistling. “It was no big deal,” I say. “It’s not aberrant or anything.”

“Yeah, it is.” He folds his arms.

I fold my arms too.

We stand there like that for a minute until Ben’s gestures soften again.

“Did you live alone? When all this. . . ”

I nod. Yes, I did live alone before I was forced to move back in with my parents. Even my brother moved in temporarily, concerned about the situation, a strange reason for a reunion, but there we were, the four of us again, fighting over Edwin, our father’s latest telescope, an Aplanatic Schmidt-Cassegrain. Those nights, crowded on the balcony, shoulder to shoulder, I thought I would be fine.

“I see,” Ben says, assuming the role of doctor, which I don’t mind now. I’m not revealing much, and it is, for the first time, comforting to finally address the issue with someone who possesses some medical knowledge of our predicament but isn’t actually one of our physicians, someone I could almost call a friend for the short time our friendship will last. Neither one of us is the type to hang on to each other through online social networks, having enough trouble with our own neural networks. “And before your March episodes, you’ve never suffered from any type of automatic behavior during sleep? Violent or otherwise, right?”

Violent. They keep referring to it as sleep-related violence. That’s not what I would call it. I would call it: atypical somnambulistic recreation.

Nevertheless, this is what the doctors told me: “You need to recognize that your predicament has serious forensic implications. You are doing this to yourself; someone else is not doing it to you.”

This is what my father told me: “What you need is a physician with an engineer’s mind, none of that psychoanalytic mumbo-jumbo, none of those New-Agey sleep laboratories. Labs are for science, dammit. For precision.”

But then on the fourth consecutive night of my adventures in somnambulism, after I was forced to move back into my parents’ house, my family found me inexplicably unharnessed from a device that looks frighteningly like a lunatic’s restraint. The hospital had given it to me after my third episode, ensuring my family that this would protect me from any further nighttime injuries. But on that particular night, my unconscious endeavors took me out of my bedroom, down our spiral staircase, and straight to the kitchen shelf where our best cutlery is stored. The medical reports say that I carried the knife back up to the bedroom where I found my brother, another perpetually nocturnal creature like the rest of the family, who had heard some movement in my bedroom. When I walked in, he swung around to face me but instead of allowing him to help, I held the knife tight against my own throat, drawing a steady trickle of blood that dripped down my nightshirt. I murmured unintelligible sounds, syllables, then ran out of the room and hurled myself over the railings, where I crashed single-mindedly against our glass table. My arrival on the ground floor awoke me. Or perhaps it was my own screaming. But it was then that my family did finally give in. They were willing to try anything now. Even mumbo-jumbo.

What Ben fails to tell me until we hear the whirr of the Tricycle Unit doors is that it was my father who had handed him the news article. Yes, twenty minutes ago, in the clinic lobby.

That’s the way my father is these days, arriving and departing unannounced, ticking to his own personal clock. And now retired, he often floats around the house, a man making his way across an alien landscape in search of nuts and bolts and large pieces of metal—our oven now has no door, the hubcaps from my brother’s car are missing. I do fear he’ll propel himself into space or some destination equally as unlikely to guarantee his return.

“Hm, that’s funny,” my brother had said to me, not laughing, when I expressed my concern. “The rest of us were more concerned about your tendency for propulsion.”

 

II.

The doors to the Tricycle Unit swing open. These doors are automated, operated from somewhere within the building, but no one knows where or by whom. That’s how it happened the first time. The five of us, walking down this very corridor after Raleigh had been discharged from the emergency room for the second time. Samuel was with us too, and suddenly these doors opened in front of us. We stepped in to find five tricycles, all painted punchy colors, all of them different: pink, fire-engine red, bright blue, yellow, lime green—but large enough to fit an adult, even the bulky form of Ben. We eyed them suspiciously of course, but eventually—I can’t explain it—I gave in to the urge to climb on top of the seat of the red bike and pedal around. Soon the others followed and there we were, riding round and round the room, in a circle, laughing quietly from time to time, but otherwise quiet. We spent two hours like that, just pedaling. Some music none of us could identify, but also nothing we found the slightest bit objectionable, had piped in through the speakers hidden somewhere in the room. The next few times they offered the Tricycle Unit to us, the five of us would race into the room the minute the doors opened, charging in with an uninhibited sense of purpose to grab the color of our choice.

But today, for the first time, there are only three trikes. We look back at the door to see if Raleigh and Samuel might join us, their heads sutured and bandaged, spots of blood staining the cloth. But the doors close slowly behind us, leaving only Stan on the other side, shoulders to his ears, silent and still, paralyzed in permanent inhalation.

Today I rush to the green trike.

But Lily wants it. And so does Ben. This has never happened to us before, that the three of us all want the same color. None of us is willing to compromise. We stare at each other for a long time. This frightens me. Lots of things, I am finally willing to admit, have begun to frighten me lately too: boats, horses, planes, trains, cars, bicycles (the adult ones, the normal ones). The doctors have discerned that velocity’s potential has become an issue for me. This is why I, especially, fascinate the doctors so much when I’m in the Tricycle Unit. They haven’t told me explicitly, but I know. I know how some minds think. Even minds wrapped around what my mother calls the soft sciences.

I give in to Ben and Lily. They can fight it out over the green trike. I’ll take the pink one, though I hate pink.

I jump on my trike and start pedaling around the room as Lily and Ben’s voices rise.

“They don’t have the yellow bike today,” Lily says, “and that’s the one I want, the one I usually ride.”

“So what? The green bike is mine today. I got here before you did.”

“How do you figure?” Lily says, louder.

I pedal around them, around the empty room. The wheels on the hardwood floor make a soft spinning sound.
The room is taller than it is wide; it could fit an entire second story up there—and even that level would have high ceilings. The lighting is recessed, shining above us where even a ladder can’t reach. The blue ceiling tiles are so shiny, they’re reflective. When we look up, we sense ourselves, indistinct bodies, revolving. It isn’t an enormous space, not like a gym or a cafeteria, more like the size of a large dining room, a modern banquet hall. I imagine a group of people sitting at a lengthy table, eating, drinking, trike-less. An immense mirrored window sits at one end, and behind it is where we presume the doctors hide, watching. A tiny corner at the bottom of the glass has broken and fallen, one tiny shard. They missed it. So did I at first. One of us, given the right mood, could lunge for it. But right now we are not in that mood. We are on our trikes. Well, I am on my trike.

I continue to make my rounds about the room, making the largest possible elliptical sweeps around the arguing pair. Slowly, I close in on them, circling tighter and tighter until it only takes one or two rotations with my feet to maneuver around them.

“Hey!” Ben says. “What are you doing? Go away!”

But I don’t go away. I just turn and turn and turn.

Ben throws his hands up at the traffic and grudgingly heads for the blue tricycle instead.

Lily and Ben join in and soon we’re all pedaling our usual route, wide arcs around an empty room. The music finally starts to play. Something with accordions, light, airy. And we’re riding to the music. Until Ben stops his trike, turns the handlebars to the side, and pushes himself in the other direction. Clockwise.

“No,” I say, “wait.” I stop my tricycle as Ben whizzes past me. Then Lily halts and glances back at Ben, who is about to charge by her. “What are you doing?” I say. “We go counterclockwise. Remember?”

“Not today.”

I can’t tell if he’s smiling. Is he trying to be mean?

Lily begins to pedal again. She doesn’t care if Ben is pedaling the wrong direction. She’ll continue her way. So will I.
But Ben rams into me. Once. Then twice. Not on purpose. “I’m sorry,” he says.

“I’m sorry. Really.” His voice cracks, and he looks as if he’s about to cry. He is crying. And my eyes are burning too.
He wipes the back of his hand across his eyes. I don’t think he will be leaving after all. I’m glad about this, but only for a moment. What this really means is that Ben’s condition hasn’t improved. It also means I can’t have his room.

We unlock our wheels slowly, silently, and continue. We’re pedaling again.

But we are going faster than usual, and we keep running into each other. Lily and Ben each fall off their trikes two or three times, maybe more, we’re losing count. I’m going so fast, angling the handlebars too quickly to the left and I crumple on the floor as well. Ben is still weeping, but none of us can look each other in the eye because he has finally relented, given in to us, and we’re all riding in the same direction again. Counterclockwise. But that doesn’t fix the problem. We continue locking wheels and handlebars in our exhaustion, our bruised knuckles making it difficult to hold on tight enough now.

But we’re still moving. We’re not going to stop. Not me, and not them, not even when the invisible people cut us off from the accordions, not when the mysterious doors open to reveal Stan, eyes wide, lips blue. Combustion and thrust. We will keep going. Faster, faster, faster, faster . . . .

 

III.

My father sits on the edge of the bed in this room that tilts more and more with each passing moment. It is the room that makes him look different. Not only the odd angle of the bed, but the enormity of the space makes my father look so tiny here. Even if the staff had not removed the furniture, this room could easily have been divided into two smaller, but comfortably sized, sleeping quarters.

This side of the building faces away from the sun now, toward a grove of trees; the little natural light there is casts indistinct shadows across my father’s body. He blinks up at the video camera attached to the wall as if he were silently communicating with it. It must look like a room for interrogation to him, a cell carefully designed for pain, as he stares at the microphone suspended from the ceiling. His hand reaches out for the long row of electrode sockets near the bed, but doesn’t touch them.

He turns his eyes slowly away from all that is new to him here. “This place is odd,” he says. This comforts me. If I, too, can still fear a room like this, perhaps I’m not so crazy.

“Dad,” I say, moving closer to him. “What are you doing here? Is something wrong? I heard about the paintings. Why didn’t you call and tell me?”

He jerks his head, eyes back on the camera. “It’s terrible, isn’t it! Can you believe it?” Then he leans in close and says, “Is that thing going to record us?”

“It’s only on when I sleep.”

He pats my shoulder and whispers. “Let’s go outside. I need some air.” He eyes the camera. For the first time in his life he recoils from the realm of the mechanical, electrical, digital.

 

We stroll toward the woods for refuge from the light. Both my father and I have always been sensitive to the sun, its rays invariably lulling us into an overpowering state of drowsiness. We prefer the cold light of the moon in my family. If we could better tolerate daylight we would admire the clinic building set against the lush landscape of a forest grove, a glassy cube, shiny as a lens, reflecting the trees so vividly that the structure somehow fits, though really, it shouldn’t. Instead we will wait until nightfall and interpret specifics in the dark.

We sit for a long time on a bench at the edge of the grove, right before the world turns into nothing but forest.

There is hardly any point in looking each other in the eyes. He has always insisted we wear sunglasses designed by the Space Agency optometrist, who also develops lenses for astronauts. Our highly reflective eyewear blocks out a lot. If we look at one another, we only see ourselves.

The two of us are quiet, pensive. Is he thinking about the last night I spent at home? What would he remember most? When I was asleep and flying? Or when I was awake, and he was dreaming?

The last evening I spent at the house, I walked to the back room and found my father bent over the computer keyboard, clicking away with two fingers, elbows sticking out at his sides like airplane wings.

He waved his hand, beckoning feverishly, said, “Come here, come here. I need your help.”

I moved closer, looked over his shoulder, and tried to read the form he was filling out on the screen.

Papers and envelopes were strewn all over. A stack of brochures slid off the table, onto the floor. Different forms and various-sized envelopes littered the rug at his feet. My father’s eyes jerked from the keyboard, to the screen, back to the keyboard again. He typed eleven words per minute.

I poked at the envelopes, all with my name on them. “When did all of these arrive?” I asked.

“Hmmm? Oh, last month. I sent for them.”

“Don’t bother.”

“This program is perfect. They’ll love you. Don’t worry. Oh, and—don’t tell your mother about this, all right?”

“Why would I?”

He shrugged and continued typing. “Dammit!” he hissed.

I turned around and began to walk away, but Dad said, “Darling, wait.” I walked back and watched as he carefully hit the delete key, so methodically, as if he were trying to kill it. There was a time I thought only engineers could make the world this unnecessarily complicated. As a kid, when I’d wanted help with my algebra homework, he would begin with the early history of aircraft landing mechanisms, gradually bringing me up to speed on current technology, never leaving out what could, ultimately, go wrong.

“What is your social security number?” he said.

I told him.

He clicked out the nine numbers, slowly, very slowly.

Since my father retired, he has begun to apply for different positions and fellowships and grants for me. He talks to his friends, his acquaintances, anyone with connections, and says, “My daughter could do that.” Then he boots up the computer and requests an application. These days, he dreams for the both of us.

“Dad. Really.”

“Fellowship application,” he explained, as if I’d asked. “For the summer. Teaching science to French high school students. Your French is excellent. Wouldn’t you love to do that?”

No, but he would. “I’d love it. Thanks.”

 

“Dad,” I ask him again, “what are you doing here?”

I remove my sunglasses for a moment, but he still doesn’t look at me. He inhales and exhales, jerky little breaths. Finally, he murmurs so quietly that I need to move in close to hear him. “Do you believe . . .” he says, trailing off, resuming only after a long pause, “do you believe that your mother would ever think of . . . .”

I want to help him but I have no idea what he wants to say. What might my mother ever think of? Or never think of? Would she ever think of retiring early? No, definitely not. That’s it, isn’t it? That’s what he wants to know. But I have to be honest and tell him. Her projects still include more than appliance doors and car parts. She would never consider retiring right now.

He says: “Would she ever consider having an affair?”

Now it is my turn for lengthy silences. To not laugh. I put my sunglasses back on. “Dad.”

“But listen,” he says, turning to me at last, words tumbling from his lips. “See, we went to that talk, remember that talk, I wanted you to go but you couldn’t because, well, anyway, we went, your mother and I, and then she went up to him, and they started arguing! I mean, really arguing. Why? What could that mean? And then they were smiling. Sort of. And then she was laughing—this very odd laugh, giggly like a girl.”

Weird laughs emanating from physicists shouldn’t alarm anyone, but it’s true, my mother doesn’t have a girly laugh, not in the slightest, not even when she’s exhausted and her voice goes up an octave.

“. . . and now she’s in Cambridge . . . with him.”

Well.

I missed something. I’m sure I did. Something crucial. There it is, tracking loss, a power outage, failed downlink, data gap. Safe Mode. But in the end I give up trying to make sense of whatever is missing and attempt to fill the hard vacuum with what I know. “Dad, she’s in London for the meeting.”

“Yes, but she’s staying in Cambridge. With him.”

I should tell him to stop. Stop right now. If anyone will go mad in this family it’s going to be me.

“I’m telling you,” he says, “she should be staying with her sister but she’s not there. I phoned.”

“She’d be asleep!”

“Your mother doesn’t sleep!”

I turn away from him and close my eyes. My fingers push my sunglasses higher on the bridge of my nose until my eyelashes brush against the lenses. “Dad.” I turn back to him.

But he gestures for me to remain quiet. “I am going to fix all of this,” he says. “Somehow.”

I kick some soil loose near the bench and want to ask him how he thinks he will go about achieving such a thing. Even if she is having an affair with . . . someone, a highly unlikely prospect, what does my father know of that kind of love? My mother isn’t a satellite—at least, not in the way he might approach her.

If we keep our sunglasses on, soon it will be too dark out here to see a thing.

 

As we begin our walk toward the building, my father hugs me tight, then steps back and waves. “Next week, then?”

There is something I’ve been meaning to discuss with him, but the conversation earlier took an unexpected turn. I was not entirely agreeable about the proposal the doctors had made earlier this week, but after today, this very long day, my sensors point me in an entirely different direction.

“They want to put me to sleep.”

My father is about to remove his sunglasses but decides to leave them on. He doesn’t say anything because he doesn’t understand. Neither did I, in the beginning. He laughs. “So, they think you’re a dog now?”

“They want to put a bunch of us to sleep, just for a few months. They believe a type of hibernation might cure this—the problem.”

“You’re not a bear either.”

“Two people have already volunteered. The doctors say it’s experimental, totally new, but could really be effective.”

“So, you’re a lab rat then.”

“It would be like rebooting my brain.”

“You’re not a machine! You’re not an animal!”

I don’t tell him that I don’t feel entirely human either.

“I won’t let them,” he says.

“All of us are tired, so very tired. We sleep but never rest. We cry over tricycles.”

The trees are swaying more and more; it’s getting colder out here. The sun has already begun to set behind the shiny building.

He’s not going to argue with me anymore, not today. Nothing computes.

I walk him all the way back to his car. Before he steps in, I touch his shoulder and pull him back. “It’s been such a long time,” I say, removing my glasses, then pull the shades from my father’s face, “can I see my paintings now?”

 

IV.

Time: T minus two minutes.

My mother sits on one side of the bed, my father on the other. My brother said goodbye a few minutes ago and stepped outside, quietly shutting the door behind him. The staff granted me a new room, where I won’t fear falling, launched weightless through the window, into the night sky. It is a silent wing, far from foot traffic, the cafeteria trolleys, the Tricycle Room.

My father takes my hand in his, opens it, and plants his most valuable possession in the center of my palm. Something to weigh me down, he says, keep me grounded, wherever I might go. He curls my fingers tightly around it.

I can’t see it from my position here on my back, wires attached all over me, a marionette at rest, but I can feel it. I loosen my grip around it, weigh it in my palm as I’ve done a thousand times before, a shiny dimpled stone that came whizzing down from the sky out of nowhere, fifty-seven years ago, and bounced off the right thigh of a ten-year-old boy in the middle of a dreadfully boring summer before it came to a rather abrupt but decidedly determined halt. His father told him to give it to the local university. For science, the boy was told, for the greater good of mankind. But the boy swiped it from his father’s briefcase the night before it was to be delivered to the research facility, slipped the stone into his own satchel. Years later he traveled the world, gathered a few academic degrees, found a woman to love who loved him back, guided spacecraft on their 600-million-mile journeys, paced in hospital waiting rooms, twice, wondering, boy or girl?, all with this solid wonder tucked tightly in place, secure in the depth of his own pocket.

I rub my fingers, those shaky mechanisms I barely control now, over the small cavities and the bubbled surface and think of the odds of my holding this stone in my hand. Billions to one, he often told me.

I close my hand tightly around it again, dreaming now, only of stillness, of sleep, of stepping off this dizzying planet for just one brief shining moment.

The doctors enter the room. I can hear them shuffling their feet.

You’re go for launch.

###

Flight front coverA. A. Srinivasan’s short fiction has appeared in Triquarterly, The Indiana Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, West Branch, The Chattahoochee Review, and a Puschcart Prize anthology. She is a writer and translator based in California and Germany.

“Before This Decade Is Out” was originally published in Flight (TLR, Winter 2015)