The Spirit of Shackleton
When the police told me to start from the beginning, I explained that it had started on a Tuesday night in July, on the evening of the full moon. Of course, it must've really started much earlier than that—weeks, maybe months earlier—but that Tuesday night was the one that stuck in my brain. The cops nodded their approval and invited me to continue, which I did, just as soon as I'd crushed out my thirtieth cigarette of the day.
A medley of painkillers had done nothing to shift my headache, so I stood on the back patio, nursing a joint and a Scotch and hoped that would do the trick instead. The huge moon hung just above the hills like a balloon waiting to be popped and I found that while I stared at it and while I listened to the chirruping of the grasshopper orchestra playing on the prairie, my headache may not have been getting better, but at least it had stopped getting worse.
"You okay, Dad?" a little voice asked.
"Me? Yeah, I'm cool, Zander," I said, forcing a smile. As casually as possible, I let the joint drop to the ground and covered it with a tan sandal. "I'm cool. What makes you ask?"
"I thought I heard you and Mom fighting."
It surprised me to find I couldn't remember much of the specifics of the argument, even though its echoes were still fresh. I suspected the official cause was something to do with the faulty TiVo or the fact that the maid hadn't shown up for the last couple of days or that the maid had been the one who'd fucked up the TiVo in the first place. I couldn't remember. What I did remember was plummeting into a foul mood after I'd come off a conference call with the Mumbai office an hour earlier and this probably magnified whatever Melissa had done to piss me off. I would have asked for her opinion but she was so drunk that any real enquiry or apology would need to wait until morning, and by that time, it would no longer matter.
I sipped my drink and changed the subject. "Isn't it funny how we always see the same side of the moon?"
"Huh?" Zander asked.
"You know. The moon. It's always the same side that shines down on us. It's more obvious when it's as big as it is tonight. It's just weird, don't you think?" The dope, it seemed, was starting to take effect.
"It used to spin, Bryan," he said with a sigh, bored and calling me by my first name. "Like, years ago. But it's in synchronous rotation now that the Earth's gravity has slowed it down and stuff. And the moon's no bigger tonight than it was last night, it's just because it's so near the horizon that you have a focal reference instead of it being high in the sky surrounded by stars."
A minute passed while I kept my eyes dead ahead at what I now understood to be a regular sized moon.
"Nothing escapes gravity, Dad. Not even the moon."
"What age are you, Zander?"
"Nine-years-old," I said with a whistle. "How'd you get so clever?"
I looked down at my son and ruffled his hair. Ignoring this attention, the boy shrugged and took a hit from his asthma inhaler even though he hadn't been wheezing.
"I read up on it. It's part of my special project."
I took a moment to replay anything I may have already heard about this project and to decide if asking about it now would be an admission of ignorance. By the time I'd decided to keep my mouth shut on the matter and let Zander explain if he wanted, he had already given up and gone indoors.
The brief conversation went out of my head until the next morning at breakfast. Zander had just taken his baryta carbonica pill, something Melissa had recently prescribed to help with his bashfulness, and was about to leave for school when Rayne, our neighbor's eight-year-old kid, came into the kitchen. I've never liked Rayne, mostly because he's a boy with a girl's name. With the maid being MIA, I wondered who'd let the little sissy in.
"Good morning, Mrs. Carlyle," Rayne said to Melissa. He spun towards me like a mini maître d'. "Mr. Carlyle."
I nodded and scowled.
"Good morning, Rayne," Melissa drawled, making me think she was already drunk. "Are your parents still having their barbeque tonight?"
Rayne looked confused. "I think it's Ocean's parents who're having the party, Mrs. Carlyle." He gave himself a quick blast from his own inhaler, which was a different color than Zander's. I didn't know if this meant his asthma was more or less serious so I made a note to look into it later.
Melissa's head nodded in a wide circle and she waved her spoon at our guest. "Yes, of course. Tell them we're looking forward to it."
Appearing even more confused, Rayne walked over to Zander, who was loading up his bag with binders, books, his Omega-3-rich lunchbox, and his little plastic tray of medical supplies. The two of them began to whisper to each other, chattering excitedly, drifting in and out of earshot.
"I'm Captain," Zander insisted and his buddy nodded in agreement. "You guys are crew."
"You talking about your bassoon recital?" I tried, hoping I'd guessed the correct instrument.
Rayne started to giggle. I really hated that kid.
"Project stuff, Dad," Zander said, throwing his bag over his shoulder. "Don't sweat it. Can I have fifty bucks?"
As soon as I heard the door close and with my wallet fifty dollars lighter, I asked Melissa if she had any idea what this special project was all about. She stared through me for ages, still waving her spoon as she contemplated an answer.
"I think it's got something to do with . . ."
When it became clear that she had no intention of finishing her sentence, I retreated to my office where I spent an hour looking at internet pornography and then I phoned Mumbai and took my temper out on them.
Ocean's parents are the biggest hippies on Buena Vista Drive, and because the whole family is vegetarian, Darryl cooked peppers and potatoes on the barbeque and served it with tofu, falafel and hummus on the side. I'd have killed the cow myself if it meant I would have got a burger.
The conversation was pretty standard and within an hour, with the coyotes over the hill baying either their approval at the rising moon or their disappointment at the absence of meat, we'd squeezed the life from all the usual topics. Melissa had rhymed off the benefits of the new homeopathic meds she'd discovered on the internet. Rachel, a romance writer and Rayne's mom, had played some MP3s of Rayne's bassoon playing over the external B&O sound system. After a lot of cajoling from Darryl, Ocean had demonstrated her flexibility with a highly accomplished yoga routine and then, not even in a sweat, she'd gone off with the other kids to play Wii or whatever. That apart, we covered the same old PTA issues, our offspring's asthma, taxes, work, smog levels in the city and all the usual shit. I excused myself three times to take imaginary conference calls from Mumbai.
After a while, the two other men and I escaped to the far end of the garden, beyond the pool, and we all helped Darryl get through his stash of weed and whiskey. The women stayed at the table near the barbeque and while we waited in silence for Darryl to skin up, I could hear Melissa repeat her meds stories. I stared at the moon and tried to ignore her.
"Hey, Bryan," Rayne's old man, a fifty-something accountant called Garfield, said. "It's good to see our boys get on so well."
"Sure is, Gar," I agreed. Part of me hated to admit it, but it seemed Melissa's prescription of bar-c had very much helped Zander overcome his shyness and anxiety and he'd made friends with all the neighborhood kids. I remembered the conversation from breakfast. "Do you know anything about a special project they're working on?"
Garfield shook his head. "Should I?"
Darryl, toking deeply on his spliff, managed to wheeze, "I know."
We waited thirty seconds for him to exhale and continue.
"He's got Ocean involved in it, too," he explained. "I overheard her a couple of nights ago."
"Involved in what?" I asked, pissed that this doofus seemed to know more than me. "Overheard what? Is it school work?"
"Don't think so, dude. I think it's Zander's project."
If someone was ringleader, it was bound to be Zander. I'm Captain, he'd said that morning.
"So what is it?" I asked, sounding calmer than I was feeling.
But by this time, Darryl had taken another toke and passed the j on to Garfield and before he was in a position to continue, some commotion from the women's end of the garden disturbed us. Melissa and Rachel were leaning over the fence, looking into our yard, and they appeared to be in conversation with someone on the other side. A loud clank of metal finally perked my curiosity enough to abandon the guys and the dope and walk up the garden to find out what the hell was going on. When she saw me approach, Melissa came to meet me halfway.
"You've got some explaining to do, mister," she said. "Your son. . ."
"Our son what?"
"Your son tells me you gave him fifty bucks to buy scrap metal. What did you do that for? Do you have any idea the disease that's carried on metal?"
"You were there when I did it," I spat. "You handed me my wallet."
Sure enough, when I got to the fence and looked over, Rayne and Ocean were shuffling large strips of what looked like aluminum into our yard with help from Cambridge and Tuesday, the twin boy and girl from across the street. I could never remember which one was which. Zander, meanwhile, directed traffic up to the back fence.
"You said it was okay, Bryan," Zander shouted over to me.
A hand landed on my shoulder and when I saw its owner, I was faced with Darryl's puffed cheeks and pinking eyes.
"I overheard Ocean talking on her cell phone," he said. "They're building a spaceship."
Over the next few days, the construction of the spaceship continued to take shape at the far end of our yard and it wasn't long before my expectations were wrecked. Despite the arrival of large quantities of sheet metal, I still had an image of a box racer decorated with crayon drawn flags on cardboard wings. Instead, the framework reminded me of a cigar tube that had been squashed and fattened out.
"That's a rocket, Dad," Zander told me without looking at me after I'd explained my preconceptions. It was a Sunday and he was in the yard, dressed in a suit, focused on some blueprints on a clipboard. "We're not building a rocket. We're building a spaceship."
"Is there a difference?"
He scratched his head with the cartridge end of his asthma inhaler. "There's no cardboard in my plans."
"Y'know, Dad? We could really use another fifty bucks."
And while I didn't ever see the kids doing anything other than hammering a few random panels, gradually more and more detail was added to the construction until it became clear that there were actually two parts to it and the spaceship was poised on a platform that pointed towards the hills where the coyotes howled at night. Soon, even Melissa began to notice.
"I'm worried about how this project is affecting Zander's bassoon playing," she said once a door and porthole had appeared on the ship. "He and Rayne are supposed to be playing a recital for the community leaders' fund raiser and he hasn't prepared. Neither of them have. Ocean's been learning the sitar for nothing."
"The community leaders can kiss my ass," I said, not really knowing what I meant by that, but feeling I had to express outrage at something.
My outburst shocked Melissa enough to make her retreat to the bedroom with a blender full of margarita.
Two days later and as the finishing touches were being applied to the ship, a ten foot by five foot LED display unit perched itself on the far fence. A day after that, and the kids had it working.
73 hours, 00 minutes, 01 second.
73 hours, 00 minutes, 00 seconds.
72 hours, 59 minutes, 59 seconds.
Because it kept ticking down, it took me an embarrassingly long time to calculate when the red digits on the timer would reach zero but after I checked my working a couple of times, I came up with my answer: nine o'clock on Friday evening. By that time, the numbers had totally freaked me out but the only drugs I could find in the house were Zander's expired Ritalin from a couple of years ago when we suspected he had ADHD. If anything, they made me feel worse.
I didn't really sleep that night, and the next day when I phoned Mumbai I was fucking unbearable and a bit racist.
When there were twenty-eight hours left on the display, all the parents received an invitation to the launch, produced on homemade, organic paper, and printed in such a way that it looked like handwriting. Rachel thought the whole thing was a hoot—that was what she called it—and even Melissa had started to chill out about the idea.
"Our children have such imagination," she said.
"From what I hear," Darryl said, "it's all your Zander's handiwork. He's the brains behind the operation."
"They're all taking it so seriously." Gar leaned forward, swaying in everyone's face. "Aren't they? When was the last time they took something so seriously? I wish we could get Rayne to apply himself in his Japanese cookery class as much as this. He's really let that slip recently."
I've tasted the little brat's California rolls and, to be honest, I've never thought they were any good; certainly not restaurant quality.
Rachel hugged herself and smiled. "It's good to see them all getting along so well. I mean, it can't be easy for them, you know?"
Everyone nodded. I suspected I wasn't alone in not having the first clue what she meant.
When Friday morning arrived and I looked out into the yard, the only work being carried out on the spaceship was by one of the interchangeable twins who was polishing it up. Other than that, it looked finished. By the afternoon, the shine had been worked to such a level, it was like someone had laid a tubed mirror out on an angled sun lounger and whenever I peeked out from my office, the reflection from the sun fried my eyes and when I turned back indoors, everything was blue.
The kids—Zander, Rayne, Ocean, Tuesday and Cambridge—hustled towards Zander's room with a couple of hours to go. They were all dressed smartly in Armani with black ties and Ray Bans. Each of them, even Zander, had a silver case that they wheeled behind them. I was sure they'd all had haircuts since the last time I'd seen them. Melissa clasped her heart as they marched through the house.
"Adorable," she said. "Aren't they just so grown-up?"
The adults all arrived shortly after. I'd got a case of domestic beer—I dunno, it just seemed fitting—and we stood outside like a bunch of assholes and watched the countdown fall towards the inevitable while the sun did the same.
Seemingly, to mark every passing of five minutes, someone would say something like, "Isn't this exciting," or "I can't wait," or "It's just like New Year's takes forever to get to midnight then it's suddenly, like, three a.m." I didn't add to the collection of bon mots and instead made sure I got more than my share of the beer. When I collected up some empties, I noticed a hint of tequila from Melissa's cans.
0 hours, 6 minutes, 27 seconds.
In the moments leading up to the launch, the sun gave up the ghost and was replaced by a blushing moon that looked too big and heavy to creep any further up the sky. Then I remembered Zander's words from last Tuesday and realized my eyes were just playing tricks on me. Once the countdown had tripped over five minutes, the French doors slid open and the five figures emerged from the house to rapturous applause from the parents.
They were all dressed in foil suits, each with a badge sewn on the upper arm that had the words The Spirit Of Shackleton written around a drawing of the Earth and they wore what looked like cartoon fishbowls on their heads. Beneath the bowls, their new haircuts were covered by white hoods, making them all look uniform and asexual and as they walked to the spaceship and waved back at us, I noticed for the first time in months how young and small and childlike they all looked, how they were all kids, not even in double digits, and it made me a little ashamed and teary and frightened because they were all so fragile.
I presumed it was Zander who led the way up the ramp and opened the door, but it could've been any of them. Whoever it was took one last look back to us, saluted and then disappeared inside. Within a minute, the others had all followed suit.
"Hey, Bryan," Garfield said, raising his beer can to me. "You didn't buy them gas did you? I'm kinda expecting this sucker to take off!"
"You're thinking of a rocket," I whispered. "This is a spaceship."
No one heard me, though, as they were too busy roaring with laughter. Melissa, drunker than anyone else thanks to her tequila beer combo, watched the scene with one eye shut and a slurpy kind of liquid grin on her face. Gar high-fived with Darryl and then they crashed their beer cans together, sending up a geyser of suds. Rachel bounced up and down on the tips of her toes and clapped her hands just in front of her nose and mouth. Cambridge and Tuesday's folks, who had been making asses of themselves for the last hour, had brought novelty foam hands and were whooping like they were at a ballgame. I think I was the only one frozen to the spot, my mouth dried out and cold, my eyes glassing over.
0 hours, 0 minutes, 10 seconds.
"Ten!" everyone shouted.
0 hours, 0 minutes, 9 seconds.
And so it continued and I watched with an increasing sense of dread and a desire to run over to the timer and pull the plug, except from where I stood, I couldn't see a plug. I took some comfort from the fact that there was no steam or flames coming from the back of the ship.
0 hours, 0 minutes, 3 seconds.
0 hours, 0 minutes, 2 seconds.
0 hours, 0 minutes, 1 second.
The second it had taken to trip down from one had been the longest of my life but now I was looking at a line of flashing zeros and nothing had happened. Absolutely nothing.
0 hours, 0 minutes, 0 seconds.
I took one step towards Zander's spaceship.
Then it disappeared.
I don't mean there was a plume of smoke or steam or dry ice. I don't mean a canvas dropped in front of them. One instant they were there, the next we were all staring at an empty platform with a blinking display behind it. They fucking vanished. They were gone.
"Where. . ."
I had no idea who had spoken. Maybe it was one of the adults. Maybe it was all of them. Maybe it was me. Whoever had said it pretty much summed up everything we were all feeling and that one word was the cue for chaos.
The women pounced forward towards the ramp. Tuesday and Cambridge's mom, still wearing her foam hand, ran onto the platform where the spaceship had been just seconds earlier, looking down as though she was expecting to see a miniaturized version of them scuttling around. Melissa fell to the ground and for a moment I thought she was searching underneath the platform for a trap door or something, and perhaps to begin with, that was exactly what she was doing. By the time I got to her, she was howling and pounding the concrete slabs beneath her, screaming unintelligible garbage into the ground. Gar grabbed me by my shirt and shook me.
"Where are they, Carlyle?" he roared. "What the fuck have you done with our kids?"
I waited for a punch that didn't arrive and eventually he let go of my shirt, threw his arms round me and started crying on my shoulder. Some time later, someone—Ocean's mom, perhaps—called the cops and reported our kids missing, but by that time I had figured it out. They weren't missing and they weren't coming back and they would never be found. Zander had worked out a way to beat gravity. He was the Captain and the others were his crew. They'd abandoned us. In the sky, the moon, while shining brighter than it had ever done before, suddenly looked very small and very far away.
And so when they asked me to take it from the top, just one more time, that was what I told the cops. I started at the beginning and I finished at the end and every single word I said in between was true.
(previously appeared in the May edition of Menda City Review)