I don't know how long I stood there, watching the spot where he'd disappeared. It was as though I hoped that sheer will power could conjure back the bubble, make it grow again, turn into a ship, and disgorge Rann, and the day's events would never have happened.
"You should have gone with him, Hal," came my mother's voice behind me. Startled, I whirled around. She was looking at me sadly. "I heard what he said, Hal. Why didn't you go with him?"
I shook my head. "And make you drive alone all the way back to Las Vegas? You couldn't even find the Interstate from here," I said, trying to make light of the matter. My heart felt like a lump of lead in my chest. Her expression remained unchanged.
"Sooner or later you have to start doing what's best for you," she insisted. "You'd have been happier there. I know you too well, Hal. You don't belong here, any more than he does."
"Is this more of your New Age alternative existence stuff, Mom?" I sighed.
"No, it's not," she said indignantly. "It has nothing to do with that. This world is an ugly place, and you're a beautiful person. I know; I've lived with you for sixteen years. I'm saying that as your mother and as your friend, too." I didn't know what to say, so I fell back on the best nonverbal communication I knew: I put my arms around her and hugged her tightly.
"Thanks, Mom," I said. "I know you want the best for me. I just wish I knew what to do now."
The sun was sinking below the mountains, and I set to work taking down the canopy. "We should be ready to go in about five minutes," I said.
"Could we--stay for a little while?" she said hesitantly.
"Stay?" I asked in amazement, watching the sweat drip down her face. "For what?"
"I'd like to see the stars come out," she said in a small voice. "Or are these roads too dangerous to drive at night?"
"The roads aren't a problem," I assured her. "I've gone driving around on them at night more than once just for the fun of it. With my lights off."
So we stayed. I had my ground pad in the trunk; I tend to leave it there all the time, so I spread it out on the ground and we settled ourselves down with soft drinks and more wet rags for my mother. One after another we saw the stars break through the deepening blue dome overhead, both of us lost in thought and lost in time. It was almost completely dark when my mother finally broke the silence.
"I haven't seen the stars come out in over twenty years, Hal. Did you know that?" I turned to her, surprised. "It just was one of those things I never got around to doing," she continued. "When I was in college, some classmates and I used to drive out all the time to a place in the countryside where we could watch for shooting stars. One of us had a telescope, and we'd look at the planets when the conditions were right. I remember that's when I fell in love with Saturn. It looked so exciting, and so exotic, and so far away from Earth and all of its problems."
"And then everything just got so busy. I dropped out of school and went to work full-time to put your father through medical school, and then you were born, and we moved twice, and somehow there was just never time to drive out into the country and watch the stars."
"You dropped out of school?" My mother had actually never spoken to me about her college years, except that she'd met my father there.
She nodded. "He was so idealistic back then. He was going to become a doctor, and do research, and discover great cures. Real B-movie stuff, but we both believed in it then."
"What did you--what degree were you going for?" I asked.
"I played the flute," she said. "Pretty well, too."
"And you quit school for him?" I'd never thought of my mother as a musician; certainly I'd never heard her play, although she usually listened to real classical music rather than the laid-back New Age stuff one might have expected.
"We were very much in love back then," she said, staring up at the sky. "I don't know why he changed the way he did. It was as though medicine corrupted him, somehow. It impressed him so much to be around people who made vast amounts of money. They liked to boast about how they funded this lab or that institute, but that didn't stop them from driving sixty-thousand dollar sports cars--that was a lot of money back then--and living in million-dollar homes. They talked about how 'radicals' wanted to destroy the 'best health care system in the world,' and he actually believed that too. And as he slid, I didn't slide with him, and that just made him angrier with me. I didn't realize how much he was taking it out on you until that night, when--" Her voice broke.
"Yeah, " I said. "It's okay. It wasn't your fault. Hey, did you see that?" A spectacular streak of light had spread across half the sky before disappearing in a faint shower of sparks.
"Beautiful," she agreed.
"I wonder which star is Rann's," I said. "It's called Exor, wherever it is."
"Don't you know?" she asked, surprised. I shook my head. I was sorry now that I'd never had Rann point it out to me.
"Astronomy's not one of my strong forces," I said. "I know some of the theory, but couldn't for the life of me tell you which constellation is which just by looking at the sky." We sat there a little while longer, then reluctantly headed for home.
The drive back was a very quiet one. In fact, I don't think I've ever seen my mother, who's usually burbling along on just about every imaginable subject, quite so silent. "You know, Mom," I said hesitantly at one point, "you really shouldn't talk about anything you've seen today." I had visions of her calling the newspapers and giving interviews.
I needn't have worried. "Don't be silly," she exclaimed indignantly. "People would think I was totally bonkers if I did."
"Mother--" I began hesitantly, then stopped. Some things are better left unsaid, I suppose.
I slept in very late the next morning, something I almost never do. I didn't sleep, actually; it was more that I just couldn't concoct a reason to get out of bed. When I did finally drag myself into the bathroom it was after eleven, and I felt that much the worse for having had too much sleep.
It became all too evident to me over the next few weeks that our lives had changed course. One sign was the hole I felt inside with Rann's departure. I began to realize just how much a part of my life he'd become in two short weeks.
To be sure, we corresponded frequently via Internet mail, until the message "No DNS entry for host rp.gov.dt" became as much a part of my life as "Abort, Retry, Ignore?" had when I was first learning computers. Of course Rann had his own email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) so our messages didn't have to go through the Empress' mailbox any more. Not that we had anything particularly steamy to share with each other.
In fact, I quickly learned the sad truth: long-distance relationships just don't work. It wasn't that I didn't care about him, or vice versa; in fact, that was the problem. Always lingering in the background was the reality that I couldn't leave my mother here alone, and I couldn't ask Rann to give up his life on Deshtiris for the lunacy of Earth. After a while our messages diminished to a trickle, and it became harder and harder to bring myself to compose one.
That my mother had been profoundly affected as well became clear to me the day she asked me for a book on astronomy. "I thought you had lots of books on astrology," I said in surprise.
"No," she insisted, "I want something scientific. I want to know just what a light-year is, and why stars form, and how you travel faster than light." Well, I had no problem digging out a pretty good Asimov book that would cover the first two topics, though I myself hadn't a clue about the third one, and as far as I knew neither did anyone else on Earth.
I was altogether unprepared when she returned it after two days and besieged me with a long list of questions she'd compiled along the way. It was obvious that she'd actually read the book from cover to cover, too, and I had to really dig to answer some of them. In the course of trying to come up with accurate yet clear explanations for her I acquired a new respect for her intellect, which until now I hadn't taken at all seriously, much as I loved her.
Which is not to say that she'd abandoned her current philosophies. It was only a few days later that I returned home from the bookstore and walked into the living room to find her standing in the middle of the floor, hands on her head, facing away from the door, feet spread apart, and stark naked.
"Mother?!" I exclaimed. She had, to be sure, gone through a nudist phase the previous fall, but that had met an ignominious end when she absent-mindedly opened the front door to two Jehovah's Witnesses.
"Oh, hello, Hal," she said as though nothing at all was out of the ordinary. As she stepped forward and turned around I saw two small black stones where her feet had been. "Obsidian," she explained helpfully.
"And what does obsidian do?" I said wearily. "Regenerate your aura?"
"Now Hal," she said indignantly. "I know you don't accept any of this, but you can still show some respect for other peoples' beliefs. After all, I don't make fun of that weird Kwantung thing you told me about."
"That's 'quantum,' " I said.
"That's what I said," she agreed. I started to argue, and thought better of it. After all, I could imagine that such things as "action at a distance" and virtual particles popping in and out of existence might well sound like sorcery. I'd certainly never seen them with my own eyes.
"You're right," I apologized. "I'm sorry. I got carried away."
"Anyway," she explained, picking up the earlier thread, "obsidian is a grounding stone. It calms me and helps me organize my mental chaos. You really should try it, Hal. After all, obsidian is ruled by Saturn, you know."
"Thanks," I acknowledged, deciding to overlook the non sequitur. Admittedly my mental chaos could use some organization about now, but somehow I didn't think this was the path for me. "I'll consider it," I promised. "Anyway," I added, handing her the bag I'd carried in from the car, "I found you another good book on astronomy. This one has all the latest stuff on black holes and singularities, so I thought it might answer some of your questions."
We watched a movie together that night, something we used to do a lot. During the past two years I'd gotten out of the habit, though, becoming more wrapped up in physics Web sites and stacks of scientific journals. I'm not sure how we happened to choose it, but the film was Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time, in which H.G. Wells pursued Jack the Ripper into the future. I'll never forget the scene where Wells tried to persuade his quarry to return to Victorian England, telling him that they didn't belong in late twentieth-century America. In response, the Ripper began flipping television channels, moving from one horror to another. Even the rock video that appeared at one point was saturated with violence. To this day his reply sends chills down my spine.
"We don't belong here? On the contrary, Herbert; I belong here completely and utterly. I'm home!"
This page last updated 2/5/2010.|