The children bowed their heads and whispered prayers into their pillows and sheets. She and I watched them silhouetted against the sunlight, the window clothed over by curtain then blanket then quilt, still shining orange bright.
Try to stay inside, the radio woman said, If you must go out cover your skin. Cover your eyes. Wet a towel and wrap it around your mouth. Breathe as you normally would.
But what was out there anymore? What work, what play, what people. Our dirt turning to powder then sand then steam. Our crops, wrinkled persimmons and papered lettuce, dried as wood beams, edible but burnt, juiceless.
And our well, a dead pit. I dreamed I heard our children’s voices yelling up from the ground, shrill screams crawling over the uneven stones, the severed rope, the forgotten bucket.
She said, We’ll find a way.
She said, We must.
And so we continued to pick the pruning plums, their meat dried as talcum. We sang to our children: songs of rain, of lake, of stars and night.
The sky used to hold pictures, she said, Drawn into the night, like pin pricks.
And evenings, bright and false but we still trusted clocks: I kissed her, our lips thirsty, fingers searching as we remembered water and constellations and grass staining our backs. Our mixed sweat, our mixed sighs and smiles, our thighs sticking together, chests falling and rising as we swallowed each other whole.
In the last dispatch the radio woman said, They propose escaping into space. They propose the underground. They know that this world will not fix itself and so we must abandon what we know of it.
We carried the half-sleeping children into our kitchen so that they could watch. Watch how these floorboards break, we said, Watch how easy the dirt crumbles underneath our toes. Watch us find a new home, a home where we can drink as much as we want, plant new seeds, draw our own stars on our own sky.
It was about filling holes in the atmosphere that we couldn’t even see. The men and women in white coats said it was the only way, that it could help the crops grow new and the tides swell again.
I told her this thinking she would be proud or happy or afraid.
She leaned against her front porch, her cigarette flashing the blank spot on her finger, a piece of gold we used to share, a piece of metal that ran through my hair, clinked against bed post.
She took a drag, blew out the smoke, said, When do you leave?
When we were younger, when the sky wasn’t pock marked with holes that let in the sun, we used to watch birds. She picked feathers from the grass, put them in her hair, tucked behind an ear. We went to museums and looked at skeletons. We said, Look how thin their bodies are. Look how hollow and fragile their bones.
When I learned to fly, she was the first one I took up. I pointed out the window and said, This is what they see. She held my hand and traced the mountains with her finger.
But after the tests, the needles poked just below her stomach, the test tubes we filled with ourselves, we forgot feathers and beaks, engines and wings. They said it had to do with the sky heating the trees, setting fire to the mountains, the sulfur sleeping in the dirt. It filled the air with poison, poison that said, The future is no place for children.
I said to her each night, I’m still here. I’ll be right here.
But I wondered that I was, that either of us were in that same bed.
The day that I was to fly up: I hadn’t told her that I wouldn’t be coming back. I hadn’t told her that the only way was to plug the hole with more fire, fire that had to be guided until the very end. I hadn’t told her that this may not work.
But we have to try something, they said.
Before I stepped into my plane, the men and women in white coats shook my hand. They said, You are a hero. You’re saving this world. You will be remembered.
As I made my ascent and armed the canisters filled with the chemicals that would heal our sky, I thought that I could make it all up to her, that I could fill in the gaps and the holes, the people I should have been for her. I remembered that she loved the feeling of being so far from earth, that she laughed when I brushed feathers against her skin, when I said, We can both be weightless. We can both float away from here.
Alvin Park lives and writes in San Diego. His work has been featured in The Rumpus, the Alice Blue Review, the Mojave River Review, and Wyvern Lit. He has a long way to go. Follow him on Twitter @Chipmnk.
Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center