Goodbye, Grand Mother
by Ian Donnell Arbuckle
A blown kiss. “Hi, beauty. You look tired. Did you hear the news?” The Man doesn’t pause between ideas, shoving them out of the airlock a step ahead of him. They’re faster than the kiss.
The Woman is hunched heavy over a pad at the dining room table, an aching blue wash of light bleeding around her outline. She blows a strand of hair out of her eyes, adds a thumbprint to the corner of a document and sets the pad down.
“The news. It’s been all over the nets today.”
“I’ve been busy all day. I’m exhausted, lover one. We’ve only got until day after tomorrow to get this stuff in.”
The Man sneaks up behind the Woman and kisses her on the back of the neck, leaving no mark. She wipes the saliva off.
“Don’t worry about the taxes. There’s something more important.” He pushes on the pad, suspending its process. Exasperated eyes turn to him and miss. He is gazing out the kitchen window. The horizon coughs up every point of light brave enough to reach this far from home.
“You have to start on the right foot, darling,” she chides. “Dad’s will has covered for us so far, but it’s out now. If we don’t get the hang of it this year, we’ll slip even further next year, and the year after that, and we’ll end up buried under back taxes, and lose our home, birthing permit, and there’s no way you’ll handle your job...” He shuts her up with a kiss. He has chapped lips, and hasn’t shaved. The Woman pulls her whole head away before romance takes.
“It’s not important,” the Man says, meaning it.
“Okay, I’ll bite.”
“Ooo, yes. Please do.”
She doesn’t smile. “No. What’s the news?”
“That’s not news. No one’s lived there for centuries.” The Woman grabs her pad, scowls at the pain in her back and stands. She stretches like a cat.
“No one’s lived there, but it hasn’t been dead,” the husband protests. “They’re predicting a tectonic collapse, or something like that, before the week’s out.”
“Why does that matter?” The words run back and forth down the hallway ahead of their owners and into the living room. The Woman slips down onto her cushion, match-molded fibers cradling her perfectly. She waits for relaxation to assert itself and then lifts the pad in front of her eyes again. It wakes up, blue light back.
“Because it’s our home.”
“This is our home.”
A little bubble, a back yard, a few rooms, nice pictures of Grandma, Donnie, and pets they’ve never had.
“But it was built to look like Earth.”
“It was built to be comfortable. Shut up for a second.” She gives ham-handed acupuncture to the tax form and sighs. “We don’t get a rebate this year.”
“Earth was our home.” Nothing. “Is Donnie here?”
“He went to a friend’s house.”
“He didn’t say.”
Quiet. Millions of miles away, magma spills from a gaping, dirty wound; a plate, slower than a glacier, takes out the aggravation of billions of years on its neighbor; the sound of screaming slowed down to a grumble, a roar, a shout. The protests shoot up into the black and blackening sky, lodge themselves in the stratosphere and die.
The Man can hear them. He cocks his head, turns to find another window and gazes unfocused. He opens his mouth to sigh, to start a sentence, but only gets as far as the sigh...
“Don’t, honey. You were cloned and grown. Now come help me find our grocery receipts.”
She stands and stabs him with responsibility. Some time later, they go to bed without making love.
* * *
The Woman wakes up to a bed that doesn’t feel cold, thanks to the layer of tiny fibers that friction heat the mattress, but does feel empty. Her brain takes a few seconds to yawn through its checklist. Everything is dark. It shouldn’t be dark. There should be sun. There should be something else, someone else, another body.
She props herself up on her elbows, hair swinging half a pendulum to a stop. The Man sits a few feet from the bed, far more than a million miles away. He has a pad in his hand, and electrodes snake out from the machine to his temples.
“Honey.” Frustration hidden behind a sleep-smelling palm rubbed across her face. His eyes flick over to her, and for a full second they stand on either end of that bridge, staring. Then he turns back to the pad, and she shoots out her supports to fall back into the warmth of a bed to herself.
Comfort, yes, but it takes her quite some time to drift all the way down to sleep.
The Man falls even further, reading and listening to the words and thoughts of thousands of other men and women with quicker brains than his. The Earth will not last longer than tomorrow, or the day after. It managed to survive until a death of natural causes, though. No sacred Horsemen scour its face, no shining clouds herald the return of the Once and Ever King. It would be a foolish King who would make his way to Earth, now, riding on billows of poison and ash. Any Lord with such a steed would be welcome to whatever desolation he can grab.
The Man starts, opens his eyes from dreams about war on green hills burned brown. He pulls the trodes off, and coils them, deliberate as a drunkard. Gradually, his nose brings messages of wafting flavor to his brain. His stomach rumbles assent at the unspoken question, and the Man balances carefully to the kitchen.
“How late was I up last night?” instead of “Good morning, love.”
The Woman hands him a plate of potatoes. He starts to eat, standing.
“Donnie already left for school. You’re going to be late for work.”
“I don’t think I’ll work today. Earth could go at any minute.”
Sigh. “There will be a warning, lover one. These things don’t happen instantaneously.” And then, behind the chiding, “I wish you wouldn’t do this.”
“I just like to pay my respects.”
“Remember when you missed Dad’s funeral.”
A forkful of potatoes gives more than adequate excuse to not reply.
“You are going to finish the taxes today?”
“I’ll be on the nets until lunch.” He wipes his mouth and retreats.
The Woman scowls, lets it slowly melt into a deep breath, held, exhaled. That’s the problem with the Jovian breeding system, her brain says without words. Physiological compatibility is more important than psychological.
The government must be clairvoyant. Their mail slot dings with an official notice and spits out a sheet of etched diamond. The Woman retrieves it, reads, and feeds it to the recycler.
She works until lunch, tossing numbers, doing chores to relax. Donnie comes home to eat. His hair is the color of the Red Hurricane, and the blood Russian ships. Yesterday it was black.
“Food’s coming. Go get your Father.”
“Dad’s not at work?”
She shakes her head, and Donnie doesn’t really care enough to try an inquisition. He takes off his shoes and hunches to the living room, carrying himself like he knows he’ll take on the world, but he doesn’t know it won’t happen for another decade.
He slugs the Man on the arm. Eyes snap up, hollow from too many cathode rays. The Man takes a sip of water from a half-full glass near his elbow and knuckles away the focus from his eyes.
“Thanks. No work today?”
The Man cocks his head into a pause. “A holiday.”
“School wasn’t canceled. What’s the occasion?”
“The end of the world.”
A sniff from tiny nostrils. “You mean Earth, Yeah? Yeah, I heard about that. Some kids were talking about it at school today. Yeah. Mom says come to lunch.” Donnie turns away, job finished, and somewhere in there is satisfaction. The Man comes up behind him, in perfect position for a fatherly hand that doesn’t come.
“Don’t you care?”
“Never lived there.”
“Well, neither did I, but still.”
The little family rings the table and relaxes, good food in front, a car in their garage. The Woman’s face is small, drawn in light pencil downcast. Donnie hears a hundred unspoken words, an argument, fly between his Mom and Dad, and doesn’t interrupt the silence. He eats quick, pushes away from the table, pulls on his shoes and paints himself out of the picture.
The Man chews, completely absent, staring out the kitchen window. The Woman takes a bite, grinds a few unnecessary words into the food and swallows.
“There’s something I have to tell you.”
The Man wipes his mouth. Eyes still on the universe. He stands, turns, stops, turns. He replays the last few seconds in his brain, the auditory echo catching up. “What?”
“Are you listening?”
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
“We’ve been given the instruction.”
“What?” The Woman doesn’t bother to repeat. A smile surfaces from the Man’s face, a crocodile that she knew was there but couldn’t see beneath the film of algae. “Really?”
Quickening pace, and quick step: his hand is warm. She takes a shaky step away. The crocodile sinks. “What? What’s wrong, lover?”
“Tell me you’re going to work tomorrow.”
“No; please. This is important to me. Promise.”
When the words come out of his mouth, the softness rises between them. If the stars go out, it doesn’t matter.
* * *
Finality; dissatisfaction, but finality. The woman lifts her finger from the transmit button. Right now, electrons carry money straight from safety into governmental troughs. Against all logic, the loss feels heavy — everything in proportion to the zeroes.
The Woman lets a tonal sigh propel her back into her silhouette couch. Peace without thought. She smiles at the pictures on the mantelpiece, frowns at the thought of adding another, scowls at the skim of dust, jumps at the sound of the front door sliding open and closed.
She ignites a storm into the hallway on tired feet.
“Donnie! What are...” It’s not Donnie. It’s the Man, stargazing, jaw muscles creaking almost audibly. Lightning crackles the Woman’s teeth.
“What are you doing home.”
“It’s happening.” Distant. She knows, to the mile, how far away.
She slaps him.
His mouth works to form the words: “You slapped me.” Nothing comes out.
She has never touched him outside the brittle boundaries of prescribed affection. She left a mark. “Fine. This is jeopardizing your family. I can’t stop you. If a dirty planet means more to you than being the strength for us, I can’t stop you.” It’s not true, the Man knows. She could stop him. It wouldn’t take much more than another slap, the other cheek he turns to her as he looks away. The silence thickens, the air unwilling to shake sound through its emptiness. He hears words in between his ears; words he fears she will say. She says them.
“I’m filing for a transfer. You aren’t stable.”
He tries to blink, only gets halfway through. He rubs his eyelids. The words fade, so meaningless and dead now. He feels a rumble, and doesn’t hear the sound of trumpets calling Christ. He whirls, faster than he meant, stomps down the hallway and into the living room. The Woman stands in shock, stunned by her own words, and melting slowly. With one sweep, the pictures, archives of a lifetime, fall into the Man’s arms. He fumbles them straight, carries them — so light — to the back yard bubble.
The Woman flares. Her eyes moisten, boiling hot. She can’t see and doesn’t try to. She makes her way by memory to the washroom. Opens the medicine cabinet and only now wipes away the tears, for necessity’s sake. She finds the bottles of poison and spermicide, the applicator, long and straight and deadly boring. She brings the flood back and blurs out her hands as they rub all trace of him from out of her.
Sparks catch. The pictures start to crackle, blacken. The Man stares, evaporating emotion in the heat. His Mother-in-Law’s face stops smiling up at him, the lips reduced to carbon and energy. He follows a spark from her forehead to its reflection in the dome. It blinks out before it hits the top of the artificial sky. One less piece of light in a night that is dying, point by point.
“Goodbye, Grand mother.”
Copyright © 2004 by Ian Donnell Arbuckle