This is Ground Control
Kingsley Kuchner doesn’t know why, but he’s carrying his helmet under his arm as he steps out of the bush and passes between the lots of the two houses to the pavement. Though he is unaware, the lights on the chest and arms of the spacesuit are flickering violently and in an array of colors. At the end of the street is the house. The one he grew up in. He walks up the center of the road.
“Hello!” he yells.
He hears children laughing. Men talking over a fire pit.
It is just as he’d read it would be.
There are children running across backyards and disappearing into the brush. A girl in a blue dress drifts back and forth on a swing tied to the thick limb of a tree on a front lawn. Boys smoke the cigarettes they’ve stolen from a father in an alley, away from prying eyes. In a tree at the side of the road a boy hides, watching, pretending to be an Indian lookout. The moon shines through the canopy of leaves above and it’s so bright on the road, casting shadows beneath the trees and roofs over the front porches, it feels almost like daytime. Families with small children, with grown up children, with elderly parents staring at the opposite wall, can be seen through front windows sitting at dining room tables, passing plates of food around, talking cheerfully. The sun hits his shoulders. It’s midday. His father, still a young man, pulls up and enters the house. The door slams and he exits. Over and over again over a two year period.
“Can anyone hear me?” Kingsley calls, sure no one will answer.
He enters a house. He walks across a living room rug to where a family sits. Their heads are bowed down as the father says grace. Kingsley, twinkling like a Christmas tree in the spacesuit, looks from face to face. He once knew these people, but now he can’t remember their names.
He closes the door gently and steps out onto the porch. Through the latticework he can see his childhood home. It’s unchanged. Seems newly painted. Behind him, the door opens and a boy in a red-checkered jacket runs out with a model airplane.
“Come on. Let’s go!” he says.
Kingsley watches the boy run down the walkway with the plane raised, turn across the front lawn and disappear around the house.
“I’m going out back to cut the grass!” he hears his father say.
“Alright dear,” says Kingsley’s mother skeptically.
Then, there’s a bang.
A different car pulls up and he sees his father hop out and climb the stairs again. He looks older, ragged, somehow. For a moment his father stares at the door like he doesn’t know how it works, then enters the house. The screen door crashes behind him and he spins around to look at it. Anxiety disfigures his face.
Kingsley lifts the helmet into the air and steps over the row of flowers lining the walkway. He crosses the lot and heads towards the front door, but then something catches his eye. At the back of the lot he sees himself as a young boy standing next to his older brother Michael who holds a bow and arrow. Michael, his back straight, pulls the arrow back expertly and takes aim at a soup can placed in the hollow of a tree. Everything stops for a moment, then Michael releases the arrow. It flies across the yard and lodges in the can. Young Kingsley looks at his older brother, amazed, and runs to the can. At the base of the tree, he yanks out the arrow and holds it up. The soup can is still attached. Kingsley, the spaceman, looks away and sees the washing hanging limply on the line at the back of the neighboring house, sees the world he had left behind. Things can be undone, he tells himself, and this is his chance. He turns back to the house determined.
At the front steps, he takes two at a time and pulls open the screen door. A portion of the spring grinds into the wood of the door and he hears the familiar rising metal sound as the spring is stretched farther. He looks up the stairs. He can hear drawers being open and closed. Small feet run down the hall.
He only needs to climb those stairs. Everything could be made right in just a minute, or two. And no one would notice.
Suddenly Kingsley is short of breath. He opens his mouth wide and inhales but he can’t get enough air. The flashing lights on the spacesuit seem to grow in intensity. He lifts the helmet up, places it over his head and fastens it securely to the base. He switches the oxygen ‘on’ in his suit and can feel it enter his lungs. Still, something feels wrong.
On the table at the bottom of the stairs he sees a book, ‘Nature Stories for Growing Minds.’ It’s a blue book, with golden writing that’s worn away from use. The sharpness of the corners has been dulled over time and the white beneath the blue shows through. With his gloved hands he paws through the pages. There is a story about a lost baby elephant. It is painted in watercolors. The style is realistic. He continues to pull back the pages, finding similar stories about other animals, with images painted in the same realistic manner. And then he finds it, the last story in the book, “The Remarkable, Unmistakable Mr Blue Jay.” He uses his diaphragm and tries to slow his breathing down. Then he remembers why he is there.
Very lightly Kingsley hears the dull thud of clothes pegs being tossed into a paint can. He moves down the hallway towards the kitchen and sees the door leading out to the backyard. A rock, placed between the edge of the door and the doorframe holds it open. Through the open door he sees his mother, in the fading light, shaking a bed sheet, then take its corners and fold it. He stands in the doorway and watches her, her small back to him. She looks so tiny, he thinks. She lays the folded sheet on a wooden chair next to her and takes a hold of a young boy’s shirt. She pulls off the clothes pegs, releases it. She tosses the clothes peg into the old paint can. He can hear the thunk sound. How many times had he seen her like this? How many times had he stood there, watching her?
He pressed a button on his chest. He can’t resist. “…Mother?” he whispered, as if he weren’t at that very moment in a memory, and his voice was seemingly amplified into the room and backyard.
She was still young, in her late twenties. Her ankles were thin and so were her wrists. Her fingers were straight, not destroyed by arthritis.
He heard a drawer slam upstairs and watched his mother to see if she’d heard. She continued removing and folding the clothing, tossing the used clothes pegs into the can, thunk, thunk, thunk.
“Mom…” he tried again.
The woman stretched her arms, seemingly in response, and began to remove the clothes pegs quicker. Kingsley watched a pair of socks fall onto the grass and dirt.
“Can’t you… hear me?” he said. “I’m standing here, right behind you. It’s Kingsley…”
She threw a handful of clothes pegs into the paint can.
He felt his frustration rising. “Mother!” he said louder and the speaker released high-pitched feedback. He scrambled to turn the volume down and noticed that the lights on the suit were illuminating the walls of the kitchen.
To his surprise, she stopped.
He stepped back and found himself holding his breath. A high-pitched hum was beginning to rise from somewhere within the chest of his suit.
He watched her turn around ever so slowly and squint. She looked towards the doorway, but didn’t focus on him.
“…Mom? Can you…”
She turned her head to the right just noticeably, as if straining to hear him, as if a great divide separated them.
After a moment she took a deep breath. “…Kingsley?” she said, almost inaudibly.
For a moment he couldn’t respond. He just looked at her.
“Mom. I’m right here! Can’t you see me?!”
“Kingsley?” she said slowly, hearing her own voice, and feeling almost certain that she was talking to herself. “…Listen to me.”
“I’m here. With you. I’m in the doorway.”
Her eyes darted around the doorframe and into the dark kitchen.
“Kingsley. It’s time, to go.”
He didn’t understand. “…What?”
He waited for what felt like ages. He was afraid to speak, afraid not to.
“…It’s time for you to go Kingsley.”
“But, I don’t wanna.”
She shook her head and he watched her turn back to the remaining clothes on the line.
“This isn’t a conversation,” she said over her shoulder.
“I’ve come back to fix things. To make everything all right! Everything’s wrong!” He thought about this. “Michael and I have grown up sad and lonely. …We have no one! I live alone! I’m a failure mom! I ruined everything…”
In response she simply shook her head. “Leave before…”
“But you’re my mother…” he mumbled.
She turned back and held a clothes peg, listening for his retreat down the hallway.
“No,” she said. “I’m not.”
“Yes. You are.”
He watched her yank Michael’s trousers off the line.
Just then the kitchen grew dark and he realized that his spacesuit had lost power. The hum faded. There was silence.
He turned around and looked through the house to the window in the front room. Martha, somehow, stood on the grass in that white dress, waiting. He turned back to his mother. She and the washing were gone. The wooden steps to the second floor creaked and Kingsley knew his mother was on the way up.
She’d be in Michael’s room shortly.
In the hallway, he felt the weight off his boots grow, as if they were filling with dirt, and then his shoulders. He lifted a boot to take a step and felt his leg strain. He sensed the adrenaline release into his blood stream. Outside the front door, to his surprise, he watched the street grow illuminated, as though it were midday. A thunderclap shook the house and a photo fell from its hook on the wall and disappeared behind the couch. An ornate plate, won at a summer fair, tipped over inside the china cabinet. And then the light faded and the world seemed darker than it had ever been. Kingsley, his limbs and torso beginning to shake, stumbled down the hall, struggling to raise his feet off the carpet. Standing on the porch, with his hand still on the screen door, the street was bathed in light once more and he watched as the front of the house to the right of theirs was struck by what looked like a meteor. Kingsley descended the steps and was enveloped in darkness. The embers of what had been the front of his neighbor’s house crackled in the ensuing near silence. Then, emanating from above, a deep hum, like that from a hummingbird as large as a school bus, enveloped him. He looked up and could make out each leaf and limb against the sudden brightness of a glowing white disc.
Martha stood by the side of the road looking up. Her mouth was open and he could see her white molars. He stumbled to her and grabbed her hand. A beam of light struck the grass nearby and began moving back and forth across the lawn, searching. They ran across the asphalt and over the grass of the house opposite and moved towards the backyard and the forest beyond. In the distance another disc appeared and a flock of birds flew noisily over them. A second later Kingsley heard a quick sucking sound and the cry of the birds stopped.
The ray of light struck Kingsley’s right leg as they entered the back yard. It changed its trajectory and rotated several times around Kingsley and Martha before locking on them. The edge of the forest burst into daylight and then exploded with a thunderclap. Martha screamed hysterically and froze as the light died away. “Come on Martha! This way!” Kingsley grabbed her wrist with both hands and pulled her in the opposite direction of the forest. But she couldn’t stop screaming. As they neared the house, just feet away, it lit up, and they could see the grains in the wooden siding. Kingsley and Martha stopped, turned around and scrambled towards the forest once more and the house exploded behind them in a thunderclap.
They had fallen. They were flooded in light. It was so bright everything around them dissolved into the darkness. Wood splinters and dust descended all around them. The brrrrr of the giant hummingbird above them shook their bodies, made them blink rapid fire. Kingsley turned to Martha. He could see the terror in her eyes. “I love you… I’m sorry I pulled you into all this... I’m no good.”
Martha closed her eyes and they both rose into the air.*