They relaxed in cushioned wicker chairs admiring the vast expanse of stars and galaxies above their heads. A breeze blew from the west, a relief from the brutal heat of the day. Sweat from a pitcher of sun tea pooled on the glass surface of the table next to them. A custom record player crafted from the leftovers of a giant coastal redwood hummed The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour in the background. Arthur looked over at his friend Douglas. Both of them had been sitting in silence for a few minutes, unsure of how to proceed with their conversation.
“I’m still not sure I completely understand,” Arthur said.
“I know it sounds bat shit crazy, but it’s real. And, I can’t turn back now,” Douglas said.
“I really want to support you, and tell you how cool all of this is and everything, but a part of me realizes you are condemning yourself to death.”
“We’re all going to die eventually, Arthur. I want it on my terms, or at least as close to my terms as possible.”
“But what about your friends and family”?
“You’re all I have left my friend, especially since Trisha died. You out of all the organisms in the universe should understand why I need to do this.”
“Well, why didn’t you ask me to come with you?”
“Because you do have a reason to stay. You have beautiful new grandchildren that need you here. And, someday maybe they can read about me in history books and you can tell them all of our stories.”
Arthur grabbed his glass of tea and looked up at the night sky. He felt uncomfortable with all of the different emotions swirling around inside. Douglas turned the volume up on the record player, sensing his friend needed some time to ponder. The lads from Liverpool were now singing about an infinite field of strawberries. Arthur reminisced about all the adventures they had been on through the years. None of it would have been possible without Douglas. This whole situation seemed like something out of a science fiction novel.
“I just can’t seem to bring myself to believe it. I mean, wanting to leave civilization behind and living off the land in a rain forest or some shit is one thing, but you’re suggesting that you’re going to leave it all behind and venture into fucking outer space,” Arthur said.
“It’s a fresh start,” Douglas said.
“How possible is it to even sustain life on Mars? You can’t even fucking breathe without a man made suit!”
“These people have been researching this shit forever, they have technology we’ve never imagined. Think about it Arty, this is a chance to literally and figuratively plant the seeds of life on a new world.”
“Well, when you say it like that, it sounds pretty damn cool.”
The breeze had picked up and a cluster of clouds appeared. Rain sprinkled their heads, refreshment. Douglas grabbed a large umbrella and stuck it through the middle of the table, a shield against the coming downpour.
“How long do we have left?” Arthur asked.
“It’s going to be a few months, maybe a year. We all have to go through training, and they want to try to accommodate as many types and ages of people as possible,” Douglas said.
“I can’t believe they seriously want anybody our age, seems like a risk.”
“I think they’re desperate. Probably figured there were enough people out there with the same attitude.”
The rain now slammed against the ground.
“Is there any way I will know if you made it or not? There has to be some sort of inter-planetary communication, right?” Arthur asked.
“That would make sense. I guess I’ll have to ask when I get there,” Douglas said.
“What are you going to do with all the shit you own?”
“Figured I’d let you take what you want, give the rest away to a charity or whatever.”
“I’ve always loved this cabin. I’ll keep an eye on it until you drag your ass back to Earth.”
“Whatever makes you feel better, brother.”
A layer of fog crept through the tress like a wayward phantom patrolling the surrounding forest. It descended from the mountains, and encircled them. The rainfall softened. Aromas from wildflowers, fungi, soil, and other plant life wafted through the air, filling their nostrils.
“I’m going to miss nights like this,” Douglas said.
“Yeah, me too,” Arthur said.
The next few months while Douglas was away for training, Arthur tended to his spacious cabin. It was a few miles outside of town and only a couple miles east of the coast. He would often show up while the sun was making its ascent into the sky, and begin to rummage through piles of personal effects collecting dust in various rooms of the house. Douglas had lived alone for years now, but he always had a tough time letting go. Arthur was amazed at the amount of random shit his friend had collected, and more impressively that all of it was organized into some kind of system. Arthur had been to this place more times than he could count over the years but realized he had never truly taken the time to look around, always too worried about something trivial. He started on the basement level in the guest room that he assumed had never been used for its intended purpose.
A couple of tall rectangular structures with multiple shelves each overflowed with binders bearing different labels with dates and locations. Arthur grabbed at one randomly, ‘September 2006 Glacier National Park.’ This had been almost forty years ago. They had driven all the way from Eureka to the northern border of Montana the summer after graduating high school. Douglas was obsessed with the camera his parents gave him as a graduation present. The pictures were in chronological order starting with their departure from the sunny California coast all the way through their thrilling drive along the edge of a mountain with minimal guardrails aptly named ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road.’ They frolicked through the snowy glacial fields at the peak of the park. Douglas had even saved pamphlets from the visitor center with facts about grizzly bears and mountain goats.
Arthur grasped other binders, some with only the year and ‘Misc.’ written on the edge. These pages not only held more photos, but also a plethora of other items like tickets from movies, concerts, and sporting events. He even stumbled across fliers from local shows they had gone to when they were a couple of rebellious youths. They were always more worried about getting wasted and gawking at girls with their ass cheeks peeking out the bottom of their shorts than actually listening to the bands with funny names. ‘Idaho Green and the Caps Lock Boys with special guests Savage Rabbit’ read one of the fliers he pulled out. It was bright pink with a crudely drawn rabbit, foaming at the edges of its mouth, and taking a bite out of the panhandle of Idaho. He remembered this disturbing little creature. A wave of memories flooded his mind’s eye. This is where Douglas met her. Both bands had wore crazy costumes and played up-tempo punk music, distorted and raw. He recalled wrestling tights, ski goggles, a Girl Scout uniform, a bright green suit, one very realistic gorilla costume, and one guy just in a pair of tight white underwear. Images from that night flashed in his brain. A rowdy mosh pit broke out in front of the stage and a robust man with a double Mohawk elbowed Arthur in the face. Douglas spent most of the night at the bar trying to convince a cute girl in a floral sundress that he was worthy of her time. He probably wasn’t, but determination was always one of his more endearing qualities. Arthur tucked the flier back into its sleeve making sure not to damage it.
Arthur eventually made his way to the other rooms in the house. One was filled with framed sports memorabilia of Douglas’ favorite teams, most of it Los Angeles Rams and their alma mater UCLA. Another room contained a large oak desk and proudly displayed his Ph.D. in Biology next to paintings romanticizing the wild landscapes of the western United States. Arthur rummaged through the desk drawers finding mostly hard copies of different scientific journals Douglas had been published in or edited, and unfinished research papers from years ago. One drawer contained a dozen notebooks with his handwriting in the pages. After reading a few lines, Arthur realized these weren’t diaries but instead a collection of fictional stories Douglas must have been composing in his spare time. There were also folders containing typed copies of the stories, easier to read than the chicken scratch in the notebooks. He spent a few days reading through them. It seemed that Douglas’ fascination with outer space was nothing new. Almost all of the stories had something to do with space travel, or aliens. He laughed wildly at some, and tried to hold back tears at others. Arthur enjoyed this glimpse into his friend’s mind. He wondered why Douglas had never mentioned any of this.
Arthur’s favorite room had always been the immaculate library Douglas spent years designing and constructing. It was one room with two levels, a small spiral staircase connecting the two. A leather recliner and matching couch sat facing large windows on the bottom level. Douglas and Arthur had exhausted weeks arranging all of his books together into genres and then alphabetical order by author. This led to the realization that Douglas did not have nearly as many books as one should have for a library of this size. They proceeded to scour all of the local bookstores for every book and author they had ever heard of and even more they had not. A few disputes took place near the end of the process, mostly about whether or not an over abundance of biographies and romantic novels would cause the collection to lose a certain level of literary merit.
At the end of each one of these days Arthur would sit down in the library and delve into a novel, taking occasional breaks to admire the pastels of the setting sun as it descended behind the trees. He had stumbled across The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and thought it fitting. It also delighted him that the main character and him shared a first name. Some nights, heavy gray clouds would roll in overhead and Arthur would open a window to flood the room with all the smells of the outside world. The steady rhythm of the rain splashing against the house was soothing as he turned each page, traversing the universe on a journey of his own.
The rocket’s initial ascent through Earth’s atmosphere had been intense and uncomfortable. Their bodies were propelled through the iron grip of gravity, trying its hardest to keep them from escaping. Douglas’ vision blurred and he was dizzy for quite some time after. Eventually he regained his sight and looked around the shuttle at the other people, all fashioned in the same style of space suit, a different number on the front and back of each one. His number was 42. A few children cried into their parent’s laps. Someone was using one of the complimentary vomit receptacles the crew had given them before takeoff. It was very quiet, and almost no one said a word. It was a collective silence, as if everyone now grasped the reality of what they had just done. Douglas rose from his seat, walked up to one of the observation windows, and sighed. The Earth was fading away from him. It looked like a shiny blue marble in the distance. He stood at the window and watched until it was just a tiny blue dot, no more distinguishable than the surrounding stars.
Eric Toennis is a Montana born writer that fled the Big Sky for the West Coast. He currently resides in Eugene, OR enjoying greener pastures. Eric spends his days writing fiction, essays, poetry, and contemplating the vast expanse of stars, planets, and galaxies above his head. He thinks sports are pretty neat too.
Cover art by Sara Dread