TINGE Magazine - http://www.tingemagazine.org

Issue 0

The Brightness of Things

 · Fiction

“Maxine Whitshaw?” the man on the phone said after Max’s hello.

“Yes?” Max clenched her cell phone between her collarbone and the tip of her chin. At that moment, she was on a stepstool, looking for her father’s baton. The back of the cupboard over the fridge was a place no one ever put anything, so she’d waited to search here till nothing else offered up the stick. Of course, there it had been, hiding at the back.

“My name is Davis Smith, and I’m calling from Precise Aeronautics.”

Her phone in one hand, the baton in the other, she backed off the stool, staring at the stainless steel door of the enormous fridge her husband Ronnie had insisted on during the remodel. With three children under ten, thirty fingers between them, the front was a collage of smudgy handprints, with milk, peanut butter, and strawberry jam embellishments.

Davis Smith waited on the other line. Max tried to think why anyone from any aeronautic company would call her.

“Huh?” She put the baton on the granite counter top and pulled the phone away from her face, looking at number. A strange area code. Richmond, Virginia.

“You entered the lottery—“

Max shook her head, snorted. Phone spam. Telemarketers. Desperate people making money desperately. She hung up and slid the phone into her dress pocket. Picking up the baton, she twirled it a bit, remembering her father using it, but with much more gravitas. In front of an orchestra, raised in his hand, the room silent. And then down with a flourish. Waaah—the sounds of every instrument filling the air. Next to Max, her mother still, rapt as they both stared at Max’s father’s sleek black hair.

Max’s phone buzzed, and she pressed the button to silence it. After she gave her eldest child Hazel the baton (a potential prop for the school spring play), she’d get online and re-up her number for the No Call List.

But later, sitting at the computer, her phone buzzed again. And again, it was Davis Smith.

“Don’t hang up. I’m serious.”

“About what?” Max asked.

“About the lottery. No one believes me the first time. Mostly, it takes me four calls. I’ve resorted to texts.”

Max paused, clicked on the No Call List’s “submit.” The form zinged into the ether, she sat back in her chair and waited for Davis to finish. After she got rid of him, she was free and clear for what? Three years? She must have not re-upped when she was supposed to.

“Candygram,” she said. “Might work.”

“Candygram?” Davis asked. She imagined him writing down the suggestion.

“Stripper,” Max went on, sitting back in her computer chair. “Stripper singing telegram. Vienna Boys Choir. Something big, Davis.”

“This is big, Max.”

At the bottom of her computer, her email notification popped up. A message from Precise Aeronautics. Lottery winner, it reads. Space Shuttle.

“Who are you?” Max asks, leaning toward her computer, her elbows resting on the wood. Pages she should have been editing crinkled under her forearms.

Precise.

“I told you. I’m calling from Precise Aeronautics.” Davis was weary. “I’m calling to let you know you won the trip.”

“The trip.”

“To the moon.”

“I won a trip to the moon,” Max said flatly, but then something flashed in her memory. Something on a web site. A travel site. In order to join, she had to enter to win. She must have. All she’d really wanted to do was look at the photos of Portugal and Tanzania. The ocean. A safari. Anything but read other people’s bad writing. So she’d given out her email and her phone number. And voila! Davis called. Not that Precise would really send her. How could they? There would be regulations and things that she would fail. Probably the weight requirement (of course, she thought perhaps one weighed less on the moon. Or was it more? But in space? She’d be light as air). But here? On an Earth scale? She’d be done. Over. A goner. Total failure, as with so many endeavors. Just last night. That tomato sauce. And the baton? Hazel had wanted it this morning. Hadn’t Max needed to rush it to the school about fifteen minutes ago? Wasn’t the audition going on right now without a proper conductor’s baton?

“Look, I know this seems crazy. But our founder wants to make Precise Aeronautics moon missions accessible. For the people.”

“Mostly rich people,” Max said. She knew about Rupert Forsythe. Wacky, wild, crazy British loopster who already owned everything and now was expanding his empire off world. His dyed blonde wig-like mop. His crazy black eyebrows. A hip Groucho Marx.

“We are scheduling our first four flights. We estimate the first in five months. August 15th, to be precise. You will be on our third voyage.”

“I won,” Max said.

“I’ll say,” Davis said. Max could almost hear him wipe his brow. “Just think. One point four million people filled out the entry form. And you? One of four! Max, it’s a miracle.”

 

It turned out not being on the first voyage was the miracle. Crash landing, no survivors. Not even that flight’s lottery winner. Forsythe went back to the drawing board.

“We will have to postpone your take off,” Davis told her on one of his monthly calls. She’d already filled out all the forms (liability, for one. Clearly necessary), gone to the doctor (her weight was just fine), completed all the blood work and scans, taken the shots, and started a diet and exercise regime. In the coming months, she would head off to space camp to learn about anti-gravity and dehydrated food. All that was left was to tell her family.

“Not surprising.” Max sat at her desk, the computer screen open to a memoir about growing up in a cage. When she received the manuscript, Max wondered if she’d survive the reading, the author’s life a harrowing experience of survival. But the prose ached for verbs and detail. Confined, trapped, tortured, stuck strangely absent from the long narrative.

“You aren’t a writer,” the editor had told her once. “You’re a copyeditor. So stop suggesting stuff you shouldn’t. Your bailiwick? Commas. Semi-colons. Anachronisms. Number format. Come on, Max!”

“It’s all been figured out,” Davis told her. “Really. It had something to do with batteries. Simple.”

“How many people died?”

Davis was silent for a moment. “I know. But you don’t have to worry. Your family doesn’t have to worry.”

Max imagined that her husband Ronnie would not be worried. At all. In fact, he’d probably pack her moon case.

“Just let me know if it’s going to be real,” Max said. “You know, people do have lives. Going to the moon takes some time out of the schedule. People have responsibilities.”

“Do they?” Davis said, his voice heavy with too many phone calls.

“You’re right. Probably not. But let me know, okay?”

“Will do.” Davis hung up.

“Who was that?” Hazel asked. Max turned toward her office door. Her daughter stood there clutching her school backpack. She looked exactly as Max had as a child, except pretty. Dark hair, dark eyes, slight and small. But there was a sweet softness about the eyes and lips. That was Ronnie. And the boys were him exactly, no evidence of Max in their long bones, bright faces, thick dark blonde hair. Even though John and Ryan were only five and seven, everyone always noted they’d be “Lady killers.”

What a thing to say.

Max formed her lie and then said, “A man who has a job for me. But it keeps not happening.”

Hazel nodded. She understood about the vagaries of editing. The influx of work and then the spaces of nothing in Max’s life. Ronnie, on the other hand, was a constant working machine. Up at 5:30, home at 7:00. Golf (or so he said) on one or two weekend afternoons.

“Clients,” he had said when she first complained about having to drive the children to every activity and party and soccer match by herself. “You know the game.”

Max did know the game, and she hadn’t been thinking about investment banking.

“When will the job happen?” Hazel asked as they both walked down the hall toward the kitchen. John and Ryan still had another hour to sleep before Max had to wake them up. At nine years old, Hazel took the early bus, finally free from her brothers’ questions and demands.

“In a blue moon,” Max wanted to say but didn’t. “When the cows jump.”

She didn’t say that either.

“Soon, I hope,” Max said. “But don’t worry. I’ll tell you when it happens.”

When Hazel sat at the table, she turned to rummage through her backpack. “Here,” she said, holding out the baton. Max had made it to the final performance, the baton becoming Hazel’s witch wand.

Max took it, the wood smooth under her hand. She could almost feel the old music.

 

“I’ve arranged everything,” Max said, her duffle bag packed and by the front door.

“You’re shitting me, right?” Ronnie stood in front of the fireplace. “You think you’re going to the moon?”

“I am going to the moon,” Max said.

“What about the kids?”

“I told them already. Precise has a live feed they can watch from the computer. There’s a kind of Skype thing. I showed Hazel—“

“Shit!” Ronnie stomped around, pushing one hand through his blonde but graying hair. When they’d met in college, it had shone almost white. He’d been a Nordic dream god man to Max’s flirty gamin fake self-image. For a while, it had worked.

“They crashed the first time!” Ronnie shouted. “What am I supposed to do if that happens?”

“Shhh.” Max stood, glossing over the whole topic. “Stop it. Yes, they crashed. But not the second time. Things went perfectly.”

“Did you see them up there?” Ronnie waved his hands skyward. “In that moon house. What is that guy thinking? British nutjob, that’s what he is. God. Yes, that’s it! He thinks he’s God!”

Max picked up her duffle bag. The children were in bed. Betsy, the nanny, was coming at 6 am tomorrow morning, just before Ronnie left for work. Max had showed the children her photo online, a middle-aged woman with short gray hair and kind brown eyes.

In preparation, Max had posted a detailed schedule for the two weeks she’d be gone: school, classes, and parties. There were meals stacked like flat shiny astronauts in the freezer. Lasagna, mac and cheese, meatballs, vegetable soup. Betsy would have Max’s car and sleep in the guest room. Precise was picking up the cost.

“You’re really going to the moon, Mommy?” John had asked, his blue eyes wide as the Earth she would soon be looking down upon. Innocent, for now.

“I am, sweetie.”

“Can I come?”

By the time John was an adult, people like Forsythe would be running daily shuttles to the moon and the moon spas. Maybe even Mars. After all, NASA had just made it to Pluto. In a few years, Ronnie could golf on the scorched, oxygen-empty ground under a bubble. Maybe his game would improve.

Max put her hand on the door knob. Outside, a cab was waiting. “Look, you know you’re only upset that the schedule is rattled. Bottom line, it’s a relief. A break. Right?”

Ronnie stilled, watched her, his wide eyes John’s.

“I’ll be back in two weeks. A little less,” Max said, opening the door and stepping out onto the porch, the moonlight—no, it was streetlight—all around her.

 

 

Since all the space shuttle incidents and NASA folding up manned inter-moon and planetary missions, Max hadn’t bothered to keep up with the latest developments. Actually, she never really had. But she’d watched the news, seen the rockets go up, and the shuttles hurtle down. She’d seen them blow up a couple of times, shards and chunks tumbling toward the earth, black and smoking. The spectators pressing hands against agonized mouths, disbelief and then horror in their eyes.

But now things had changed. The shuttle was like a small powerful jet, beefy and thick, nose and body like a squat but powerful porpoise.

“Can it actually lift off?” A man next to her asked. He’d been on the chartered plane she’d boarded at LAX. Now they were in the California desert, the exact location a secret.

“Enough so that it can crash,” another man answered. “Jack.”

He held out his hand first to the other man (Mario) and then to Max.

They were sitting in a waiting like area, bags at their feet, looking out a window at a group of six other people walking down the tarmac, past the shining, stubby shuttle, toward the building in which they all sat. Max realized she was only one of two women. Two amongst seven. Something pinged in her. An alert. A siren. A siren.

Max introduced herself, her heart beating in her throat. She was going to the moon. With these people. Strangers. It was like the first day of school at a new school.

The door whooshed open, pulling in hot air. From another door, the instructor who had greeted Max initially and two other similarly-garbed people (one a woman) came in, carrying bags and clipboards. The room filled with noise, the stilted loudness of the first hour of an awkward cocktail party.

The woman walked around handing out the bags—which were actually backpacks—and one of the men passed out the clipboards. The first man—Marshall—stood at the front of the room and called for everyone’s attention.

“Thank you all for getting here on schedule. I know how hard that can be with other airlines,” Marshall said, giving the group a wink. There were polite laughs. “But this won’t be like any other airline that you’ve been on. After some training, you will be going to a place no one else flies to. Can’t fly to. And no one but Precise has a ground-breaking, state-of-the-art moon unit.”

Marshall looked around the room, wide eyed and waiting, but whatever he was waiting for didn’t happen.

“He must have named it ‘moon unit’” Jack whispered into Max’s ear. “Wants a pat on the back.”

Max turned a little to take in Jack. He smelled clean and rich, all the fibers on his body completely brand-spanking new. His underwear was probably new and the highest quality. He probably didn’t even buy it himself, Max thought. His wife. His butler. His maid. His housekeeper. Or, at least, Amazon. His hair was a rich dark brown, a cap on his perfectly featured head. He was what? Thirty? A specimen from the permanently rich, a lucky fellow whose college degree was just trimming.

She was only thirty-five, permanently middle-class, and mostly educated, but she knew where the name of their moon abode came from. But she didn’t have the energy to explain that the musician Frank Zappa’s named his daughter exactly that: Moon Unit.

Jack smiled when he noticed her gaze. His skin was like lightly browned butter. Obviously, he was not one of the lottery winners. No, Jack with his new clothes, shiny leather shoes, and perfect skin paid 1.2 million for his moon vacation.

“For these first few days, however,” Marshall continued. “You will be training on our space shuttle, The Vivant.”

Marshall turned toward the window, motioning with one sweeping arm the shuttle they’d all been staring at anyway.

Everyone clapped, as if forgetting, Max thought, the nine people who died on the other shuttle. The what was it called? As she clapped, she racked her brain. Oh, yeah. The Gift.

That keeps giving.

“So please follow Charlotte into the barracks. It’s unisex. Just like everything. Bathrooms included. The future is here at Precise.”

Max clumped behind the crowd, her backpack swinging on her arm. She looked at the clipboard and the list of names as they walked out of the building and across the tarmac: Jack, Anne, Steve, Thom, Mario, Bruce, Jorge, Xavier, Maxine. Just like in school. Off to learn something but at the back, the end, as usual.

 

Except, she was very good at moving around in the anti-gravity simulator, a large Quonset hut of joy on the edge of the training facility. She’d been a good swimmer and had even been on the diving team one year. Her back still arched. Her feet flexed. Bouncing was her specialty. But in her space suit and alone in air, every muscle moved in concert.

“You’re a mermaid!” Anne said.

Maxine turned round and round, one knee bent, pushing herself as she indeed had under water.

“Quite a spinner,” Jack said as he sailed by. Jorge gave her a dark glance as she spun away from her own air circle. He was “Whore-Hey.” At least, that’s how she remembered to say his name right. He zipped past her. Even without gravity, she could smell his aftershave, the kind that only a CIA operative could wear. Amber and ice.

Steve, Thom, Mario, and Xavier looked like arctic boy scouts in their white belted suits, all of them clumped together at one end of the simulator. They grabbed at each other, spun around, laughing, flinging each other in ever widening arcs. It was hard to believe they were, in order: A state senator, a social media company mega-millionaire, a tennis champion, and a movie star slash icon.

Only Bruce—corporate lawyer—seemed allergic to weightlessness, thundering and bumping around the tube like a broken bumblebee. “Uh,” he moaned. “Uh.”

The rest of them? A corps de ballet.

 

They slept for three nights in the barracks. They were heavy in their beds, back on Earth for another twelve hours. Anne spun under her stiff blankets, the sound a crackling ratchet amongst the male complement of snores. A best-selling advice columnist, Anne was more used to the Ritz and Four Seasons than boot camp bed rolls.

“I just want to get the hell out of here,” she whispered. The barracks may have been co-ed, but Max and Anne had segregated themselves at the far wall.

“Aren’t you scared we’ll crash?” Max asked. This after a panicked Skype with Ronnie and the children. She hadn’t shown it, answering their questions, showing off her fancy suit. But after the call ended, the shaking started, every system—those very ones she learned about in high school physiology—heaved in her body as if trying to escape. How dare she try to take them off planet!

“There are worse ways,” Anne said. And she would know. All those emails. All those letters. All that pain. “Anyway, the last one made it.”

“Two days is a long time on the moon,” Max whispered.

“It’s a long time anywhere,” Anne said.

“What are we going to do there?” Max asked. “Play cards? Charades? Write? Watch Netflix?”

Anne was silent, and for a second, Max thought she was crying. The terror had finally caught up with her, all her advice run out, even for herself. But the herky sound under the terrible blankets wasn’t crying. It was laughter, the sound Max finally fell asleep to.

 

After the fear that they would die on liftoff passed, the shuttle take off seemed almost normal. If she hadn’t been looking out the window, Max might have thought she was on the United Airlines Flight 930 to London, a redeye, only 36,000 feet above the earth, speeding over Greenland. The Vivant under her seated body whirred and chugged, the noise deafening, even with earplugs and a helmet. She felt the G-forces press her against the seat, but the pressure was like a large hand, constantly but patiently subduing her. It was like a constant take off, a flight manned by a novice pilot, hard and jerky but not death-defying.

And she was looking out the window, her face pressed against the quadruple paned but tiny glass porthole. She was hurtling, but above all land, up past that whisk of white, oxygen, the atmosphere, the earth below a swirling orb of blue and enormous cloud, just like in the posters.

You are here, a red arrow pointed to the planet.

But she wasn’t there. Not anymore. Not after the flare of sparks and heat as they passed through the thing that made them earthlings, the technology Forsythe paid billions for. Pop, and they were space creatures. Pop, and Max was untethered. Free.

 

As per the lecture at space camp, there was a surge. A rocket firing from the back of the shuttle, and then they were propelled toward the moon, fueled by an ion drive, whatever that really was. For the next three days—Marshall had outlined the trajectory on the Power Point—they would complete the 384 kilometer journey, achieve lunar orbit, and then land, a process that involved a portion of the shuttle detaching, like an escape pod from any number of sci fi movies. From the pod landing site, they would be picked up by the moon shuttle and taken to the moon unit where they would stay for two nights, though Max questioned the notion of night on the moon. Dark side, bright side? Where would they be in relation to the sun? Or the earth, for that matter? Obviously, she hadn’t been paying much attention. She decided to not worry about it because at this point, strung up in the deep dark space speckled with pinpricks of light and stars, there was very little she could do about anything.

Also, as soon as the seat belts sign was turned off (yes, really) and the cabin attendant went to check on the pilot and crew, Max understood what Anne’s plan for the next few days entailed.

The rustling sounds came from Anne’s sleeping cubicle. Then that laughter. Clearly, she and Xavier (the missing man at this point from the cabin) had taken off their helmets and suits, using the convenient openings in their compression skin suits, freeing important body parts for the activity at hand.

“What kind of club is this? The ten thousand mile high club?” Bruce asked as he bumped by, floating, sort of, as he grabbed from chair back to chair back. He wasn’t that heavy, Max thought. But he was resisting buoyancy, urging himself to ground even when there wasn’t any.

Max almost asked him what he meant, but then remembered sex in airplane bathrooms, occurring at a high cruising altitude. She and Ronnie had never had sex on an airplane, not even a grounded one. Or really any place other than a bed, usually their bed. Hazel had already been onboard when they got married, so they had rarely traveled together, save for those few months before Hazel’s birth. But from the moment of her daughter’s conception, Max had been queasy and wan, preferring to stay home rather than accompany Ronnie on his regular trips to New York and London, places they’d enjoyed. Before marriage. Before children. Before they stopped wanting to be together.

Anne’s low, guttural laugh had no gravity, filling the shuttle from floor to ceiling, though, of course, it was hard to know which was which at this point.

Bucket list, Max thought. Have sex in space.

Bucket list. Have sex on the moon.

Max floated to the observation platform, which was a stretch of a term, the space only as big as a normal rear airplane galley, but unlike the rest of the craft had two larger windows. Jack bobbed in front of one, staring down at the earth, taking photos with his phone. He turned when he noticed Max.

“Fancy a drink?”

Jack wasn’t British, so Max questioned the fancy. Also, she questioned drinking, though the space craft attendant had shown them the self-serve liquor vault as they boarded. “Isn’t one in space like ten on the ground?”

“We’re drunk without even having started.” Jack flipped the latch and switch for the vault. “Grey Goose?”

Despite the alcohol, it wasn’t Jack that was first. One tiny Grey Goose, and Max floated to the back of the shuttle, her eyes shut, the empty bottle clutched in her hand. She woke with Mario next to her, both of them wedged in his sleeping pod. His hands ran up and down her compression suited body, hers on his. And wow! Even covered with tight material, Mario was a star, the tennis victories written all over each muscle. His body radiated like a pulsar, his heartbeat a slow one two even as he panted in her drunken ear.

As she moaned into pleasure, she wished she were just a bit more conscious, wanting to remember her infidelity, at least enough to feel super guilty about it later. There was more panting and some groaning, and then nothing but space all around them.

 

In the hours before entering the moon’s orbit, there was Thom. She’d read a lot about him—hard not to when she spent a portion of every day on his company’s social media site—and though she’d never really imagined that all this pre-moon sex, she would have assumed this billionaire would be the one having it. Because he could.

But he was quiet in bed, pulling Max on top, their suits grinding away together. This time she was sober, and as he closed his eyes, grimacing in pleasure—or what substituted for it—Max watched him, her body going on without her thoughts. She’d gotten past the guilt and shame of infidelity after Mario (things seemed to happen faster in space) so she was not panged with that now. What she wondered as Thom pushed inside her was how had he been the one to make all that money? What choices had he made that she had not? And yet, here they were, together, in space. Sure she’d won her trip. Sure she was just a part-time copyeditor with three children living in the suburbs. In a failing marriage, or at least a disentangling one. But now? Here? She and Thom Buckingham were even.

They woke to the voice of the pilot, telling them to return to their seats.

“Man,” said Thom, his blue-green gaze on hers. How many times had she seen this face? None really. Only once in real life, here on this trip. Not that this trip was real.

“Yeah,” Max said, and then they floated out of the pod, clambered into their space suits and helmets, allowing the attendant to assist them. Back in their seats, all of them strapped in and locked down, the orbit and landing protocols began.

Xavier said, “One small step for man….” And then seemed to forget the rest. Next there were thrusters and trajectories. The cabin detached, and they plunged down, stars, space, and Max’s whole life flashing past her little window.

What was Hazel doing right now? Was she laughing? Were the boys in their bath? Had they eaten their broccoli at dinner? Was Ronnie coming home at night? Did he read them stories?

Something seemed to yank them up, Max’s breath jumping to the roof of her mouth. And then they settled, settled, settled, and clanged down. She opened her eyes, not realizing she’d jammed then shut and tight. Turning toward the window, she saw the white pocked pillowy surface of the moon.

“What’s all that damn mess out there?” Steve asked, his voice Southern and raspy. She hadn’t slept with him, yet. Maybe Anne had. All his fundamentalist preaching might be just a vote show.

“Space garbage. Leftover landing junk.”

“Maybe you should lobby for a recycling program, Steve,” Thom said.

In her headset, Max heard people sniggering. Thom was a notorious environmentalist. At least online. In reality, he had torn down an entire San Francisco block of historical houses and gardens to build his new twelve thousand square foot mansion that he shared with his neurosurgeon wife.

The attendant was up, releasing the seat locks, helping them out of their bindings. There was a clunk at the door. They all walked toward the back, carrying the few belongings they were allowed. In her spacesuit, Max felt like the Pillsbury doughboy. With her helmet, a goldfish. And yet, she kept hearing Hal’s voice saying, “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.”

But the moon shuttle’s door stayed open, and they all filed in, the attendants closing the doors, leaving the cabin behind at the moon landing site. Then they bounced off, heading to the moon unit. Climate controlled, gravity at almost normal (“You’ll feel like you’ve had a cleanse,” Marshall had said. “At least five pounds lighter!”), the moon unit would attempt to replicate the atmosphere on earth. They’d be back on ground, using their own bones and muscles to keep upright.

As she peered through the window, Max watched the shuttle bound and surge over the moon, past mounds and more junk, dipping down into a valley where she soon saw a building in the distance. At first, it seemed like an assortment of igloos, but as the shuttle barreled ever forward, she noted that each igloo was interconnected by tubes. As they rounded the first igloo, she saw there was a giant igloo in the center, all tubes leading toward the center. Out the other side of the shuttle, she noted a farm of solar panels, all gleaming silver in the harsh sunlight.

After a few moments, the shuttle slowed and another docking procedure ensued. Air hissed. Parts clanged together. A lurch. A stop. A lurch. A stop.

“Just what do you think you are doing, Dave?”

Then the attendants were up, freeing them from yet another set of restraints. Silently, in a row, they all walked toward the exit. At the rear, Max counted how many people she hadn’t slept with.

As if checking into a Four Seasons room with a personal concierge and once they’d taken off their spacesuits and hung them in a “coat room” near the entrance, they were led individually to their own private igloo. Or piece of an igloo.

“You’re going to love it up here,” the young man said. He was dressed as though this were a Carnival Cruise. Nautical epilates on his shoulders (gold and black). A white short-sleeve shirt, white pants, soft, velvety white shoes. “Forsythe has made the moon accessible.”

Some tag line, she thought, almost laughing. But then she realized it likely was the tag line.

After a tour of the accommodations, the young man in white left, the doors whooshing behind him. Max stared out her oval window, blinking into the glare of the moon, the darkness hovering over the white like an alternative. She dug through her bag to find the device Precise had given them, an iPad on steroids.

She clicked, and in what felt like longer (and how could it not be longer) Ronnie’s face was on her screen. He smiled, the screen wavered, stilled, and then he was back.

“Are you there?”

She nodded, unable to say a word. Instead, she picked up the device and walked it over to the window. Max heard Ronnie call for the kids, and then as she held the screen out toward the moon and the vast black of nothingness all around her, she heard their sounds of awe. What other sounds were possible?

After a minute, she gave them the same tour of her pod that she’d been given. More sounds of awe. But then she had to look at them, all three kids in front, their smiles, two gap-toothed, one not. But all beaming. Ronnie, in the back, smiling at her in a way he hadn’t for years. All of them were wide-eyed, open-mouthed as if breathless, starring at her as if she’d doing more than just enter a lottery.

She had to hang up, so she did, telling them she had to get to dinner. But what she did instead was lie back on the large but very hard bed and fall asleep.

 

At the large table, everyone, including Forsythe himself, who must have stayed on after the last flight. The artificial light that filled the room shone on his full head of over-dyed blonde hair that stuck up straight and was seemingly held to his head like a hat. His teeth were as white as the moon, and as he talked he waved one hand like a dancer. Or a conductor, his movements punctuating every sentence. Word, even.

Davis was young and lean, tight and trim like the young man who’d shown Max to her room. In fact, all the men seemed that way. When introduced to Max, he beamed, teeth as white as his boss’s.

Attendants buzzed the table, putting down plates filled with food that must have arrived on the latest shuttle. Bowls of vegetables, plates of sliced meats. Potatoes and rice and pasta. Max sat back in her chair, watching them all. Even off earth, they had more than the 99 percent. They were sitting on a rock with no air or water but living like they had them anyway.

The attendants made a show of popping corks, and Bruce whispered in her ear, “One on the moon is like twenty on Earth.”

When everyone had been served, Forsythe raised his glass. “To those of you who made—“

Bruce whispered, “Survived.”

“—the trip,” Forsythe continued. “May this adventure be the first of many and lead to a new colony for human kind.”

“Bet you’re glad he said human and not man.” Bruce bent over his glass, hiding his laughter. Clearly he was headed toward that twenty on Earth.

They all clinked glasses and started eating, Max finally hungry. She’d barely eaten on the shuttle ride, certain at first that she would die and then a little too busy to take much time out for a snack. Now, it was as if she was starving.

“One pound on the moon is twenty on Earth,” Bruce hiccupped, pouring himself another glass.

Across the table, Xavier was leaning toward Anne, whispering in her ear. Anne’s gaze bore into Max, so she turned her gaze to look at Thom leaning into Mario (that was a development). Jorge was taking considered and thorough glances at them all, in order. She wasn’t sure, but he seemed to be talking to himself—or into a recorder. Forsythe, the man of the hour and Time magazine’s man of the year, had a long rich arm around Davis, while listening to Steve expound on illegal moon immigration. Everyone else just drank. Except Jack, who like Anne, was staring at Max. She smiled back at him. He raised his glass.

Later, over a “pudding,” Forsythe walked the table, stopping to chat with each and every guest. He’d not buttoned his top shirt button, showing off his compression suit neckline. A real space cowboy.

“So you liking your journey with us, Mrs. Whitshaw?”

Max nodded. “Max, please. Thank you so much for the opportunity. It’s amazing.”

“A small word for all this,” Forsythe said, his hand moving again to the inner music that accompanied him. “Opportunity, that is.”

“Well, I mean, privilege, I guess.”

He smiled, beatific and lofty. “You’re a lovely part of our puzzle.”

Max sat up a bit, almost reaching out to grab him so he’d explain the word puzzle (no hand gesture with that) but Davis walked over, whispered in his ear, and Forsythe cleared his throat.

“I’m needed at control, my dear guests. I’ll see you tomorrow in the atrium. Please don’t hesitate to ask the staff for your every need.”

Max remembered a line from Jurassic Park: “’We spared no expense.’”

That hadn’t gone as planned, had it?

Then Davis whisked him away. Max sat back, looked at all these people, all of them powerful. But it would only take one solar wind or an alien blast or a surge of cosmic junk and they’d not be running from velociraptors gone wild, but be Sandra Bullock in Gravity. But no George Clooney ghost would save them. No, they’d float away, cracking into shards of ice. Gone. All this money, all this power. Poof!

 

“Why do you think I won the lottery?” she asked Jack later as he sat on the edge of her bed, pulling on his nifty space station pajamas.

Jack shrugged, a classic good boy shrug, the kind he’s learned growing up in Manhattan and the Hamptons. At Phillips Exeter Academy and then Harvard. And now, at his family’s investment firm, where he really didn’t need to work, the family fortune built on the backs of all the people who ever earned a dollar in the United States.

“He said I was part of a puzzle.”

Jack laughed, stood. “Aren’t we all?”

“Even here?”

“More here.”

“Well, it won’t last.”

Jack turned and looked at her, hands on his perfect hips. “Nothing does. Soon enough, we’ll be home. The moon will just be the moon again.”

But wasn’t the moon supposed to be the moon, Max wondered. Wasn’t home home?

 

The lack of gravity got to everyone. Standing, but not. Blood circulating, but more slowly. Up sometimes seemed down. Arms moved in ways that seemed a surprise. Max studied Steve’s hand for a time, thinking it was hers. Probably organ failure would be in the cards for anyone staying too long. Forsythe seemed to be floating. Around the bright atrium, his laughter like the clouds that were painted on the domed ceiling. In the corners, the guests were acting out a Roman orgy, feasting and kissing and walking off to their rooms in various couplings. Max felt her brain cease working, at least most of it. Beyond any jetlag she’d ever experienced, she felt drugged and then wondered if this were all just some bad LSD trip. In Jorge’s or Anne’s arms (wow, check that off the list), she found it hard to keep track of her own movements, her pleasure like the soundtrack from a TV show on in a faraway room.

Back in the dining area for their last meal, she finally saw it. The puzzle that she was a part of. Forsythe waved his hands, moving them all the way he wanted to. The true father of the mission, he put this person and that person and all the people at the table. They acted to his whim, this multi-billion dollar extravaganza, a Versailles in the middle of the moon’s desolation. Rome could burn and they would never feel it. As long as there were ions to fuel the shuttle and solar panels and exercise bikes, Forsythe might not ever have to go home and be among non-Forsythe organized humans again.

“Goodnight,” someone whispered to her later. A voice near her ear. Bruce? Steve? But the voice was familiar, old, known. She reached out to grab him—it was a him—but by the time her hand was out and searching, she was asleep.

 

In her seat, strapped down and encased in her suit, Max watched the pock-marked surface of the moon smooth into the distance, shining bright. Her heart beat in her throat, and she swallowed down what felt like brightness, the light pulsing in her chest. Turning a little, she saw the Earth in the far, two-days away distance. On that speck was all she could ever really do. Or be. Forsythe might think that there was life away from the planet, and maybe in some other century there would be. He could wave his magic wand, but there would be no magic. No music. But all they’d done these past days was bring all their earth shit up to the moon and deal with it. She’d been with the rich and the famous and the smart, and when it came down to all the nothing around them, they were nothing. No amount of sex—especially the kind Max barely remembered—could make them more human. More real. Nothing they’d done in the shuttle or moon unit was more than flailing. They were inconsequential. Specks. Dots. Periods. Commas. Apostrophes. Sand. Lint. Dust. Dust and more dust.

On the blue and white planet where they’d lived their whole lives, though, they were people. Connected. Whole and true and terribly broken. But whole and home.

Reaching over across the seats, she grabbed Bruce’s mitted hand, large and heavy and cumbersome. But solid. True. The real lottery of infinitesimal atmosphere, that tiny skin giving them all a chance.

Max squeezed Bruce as she stared through the darkness that stretched between the shuttle and earth; through the swirl of cloud, light blue, indigo, forest greens, browns of every shade, down through the sky to the ground, into her very house, into the brightness of things. All her precious gifts—her father’s baton tucked safely in her underwear drawer, her wedding ring in the clam shell on the bathroom counter, her coffee mug by her computer and manuscripts. Her people. Her husband and children, asleep in their beds. There she would be. There. That was the red arrow on the poster. There. She was there.


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