Photo by Katarina Stefanović
Tim Johnston on today’s new story: A conversation about “the real” is never something I want to get into, but I’m always pulled into the technicalities of the idea. I’ve mostly been affected through movies, whether it’s the whole premise behind “The Truman Show” or the deja vu cat in “The Matrix”—-these are the clues that let us know something’s not quite right, that something’s been changed, controlled, false. That was the late 90s and I got over it. But now, Brouckaert challenges me, again, to dispose of reality, to indulge my neurosis of what is real, what is zoo, and as I revisit the obsession I had when I was five, I still wonder if there are people in the house in that snow globe. And: aren’t they terribly sick of snow?
The Men Who Flew Away
There is no welcome party waiting for the three men from earth when they touch down on the planet they have been traveling so long to reach. They are greeted instead with a vacant asphalt lot cracked with weeds, penned by a square of battered buildings—a far cry from the landing zone filled with revelers they were told would anticipate their arrival.
The three men walk down from their ship, across the alien lot and down an alien street until they meet their first alien.
You there, says the first man. Are you part of the delegation?
The delegation? asks the alien.
We’re ambassadors of peace, says the second man. From earth.
Listen, buddy, I don’t know what you’re talking about, says the alien. It pulls a hood over its head and walks away.
The three men explore the new planet together. They find a cluster of buildings near the landing site, the sky-scraping structures not unlike the ones they knew on earth. They strap their survival packs tight around their waists and venture cautiously into the heart of it.
The first two men walk with their guard up, each keeping one hand on his pistol, but the third man begins to notice that this alien city doesn’t look so different.
He sees a red and white building that looks just like the pharmacy where he once filled prescriptions. He recognizes a squat building with a black awning and patio that looks similar to a restaurant where he and his wife once dined on Sunday afternoons. He spots a building that looks exactly the same as a bar all three men visited after their final training session at the space station across the city, sharing the last pitchers of beer they drank together before rocketing from earth.
The crosswalk symbols show a blue man walking and a bright red hand. A police car whirs by, sirens blaring. A few aliens stare at the men in their spacesuits. Most just keep walking.
This doesn’t seem so alien, the third man thinks. This doesn’t seem so strange.
The other two men stop at the window of a building that looks to the third man like a familiar fast-food restaurant. They all peer through the window, through their reflections at the aliens eating inside.
Funny, says the third man cautiously. This place doesn’t seem so different.
The first man probes the building’s wall with his fingers, bringing his eye to the brick to measure its slant.
No, he says, Something’s not right.
Like what, asks the third man. What do you mean?
I’m not sure, says the first man. Something’s just not right. I can feel it.
The second man presses his face to the window, staring hard at the red- and blue-striped wallpaper border that framed the room.
Something’s definitely not right, he says. Something is definitely very wrong.
When the three men pass a building that looks like a grocery store the third man used to frequent, he stops his crewmates and points to a newspaper rack just outside the automatic doors. The trio ventures cautiously toward the building and forms a huddle around the machine.
The date on the paper is the same date as indicated on their wristwatches.
The cities in the paper are the same cities they came from.
The newspaper is the same newspaper they read every day on earth.
We landed back home, says the third man, now confident in his suspicion. We’ve made a mistake. We must have gotten lost and circled the galaxy and now we’ve landed right back where we started.
It’s a trap, the other two men say. It’s an alien trap! They pull their pistols from their belts and survey the street for danger.
The third man urges them to wait, but already the other two men are walking away, back-to-back, pistols cocked at their chins, leading the retreat back to the ship.
The third man protests while the other two men prepare the vessel for an early departure.
I know this city, he says. I know that street.
They’re tricks, says the first man. Alien tricks!
They’re shapeshifters, says the second man. They’ve shapeshifted the whole damn place.
The three men had heard stories of hostile aliens encounters, but their superiors had believed this planet to be peaceful. The men were not trained for war.
Wait, says the third man. Even if this is a different planet, an alien planet, there’s not enough fuel in the ship to make it back home.
There will be enough, says the first man. There has to be enough.
I’d rather die out in space than at the hands of those freaks, says the second man.
The third man tries to argue, but his companions have already taken their seats in the cockpit.
We can’t risk any more time here, says the first man. Are you coming or not?
The third man has spent countless hours with these men in training and in travel. He has learned to trust them with his life, but this time he trusts his own intuition. He’s called this city home for much longer than the other two, who only relocated when training began. There is no other city that lights up like this city, that stings with salty air like this city, that thunders and rumbles beneath his feet like this city. From his very first step off the ship, the man felt in his bones the familiar thrum of home.
When the other two men turn to the controls, the third man slips down the stairs, leaving behind his survival pack and his pistol. He locks the hatch shut above him and jogs from the ship as its engines glow red and roar to life. He stands at the edge of the lot and feels the heat from takeoff slowly leave his cheeks as the ship soars above the star-scraping buildings, up above the iconic skyline, and away.
The abrupt departure of the man’s companions leaves him uneasy, but he grows more comfortable as he walks the familiar path toward home. The man has been flying for so many years, and a deep sense of relief settles over him as he spots familiar landmarks, the shops and buildings that were a part of his daily commute, his café, his market, his park along the water.
The city is almost exactly as the man remembers it. Occasionally he finds himself searching for a once-familiar building now boarded up or missing, transformed into something new, or he finds himself wanting to turn onto a street he doesn’t quite recall, but the man reminds himself again of how long it’s been since he’s walked this city. It’s only reasonable, he thinks, that these small changes and lapses of memory should happen over time.
The man takes the subway to his station and walks the three blocks to his apartment, arriving at the building as the sun rises. He enters, walks down the hall and stands in front of his door. His heart beats faster than when the ship first left earth, when he was shot into zero gravity for the very first time. The man takes a deep breath, and knocks.
A woman in a robe answers holding a mug of coffee. When she sees the man at the door, she drops the mug. It shatters between them.
The woman bursts into tears and throws her arms around him.
It’s you, she says. It’s really, really you.
After their tearful reunion, the man and his wife waste no time contacting the agency that organized his voyage. There is a meeting with the new commissioner, more tears and disbelief.
We thought you were lost, says the new commissioner. We lost all contact. Do you remember the static? The connection cutting out?
No, says the man. I guess I don’t remember that at all.
He’s had a tough time of it, says the woman.
He has, indeed, says the new commissioner.
I’m just happy to have him back, she says.
As are we, says the new commissioner, and it’s no small thing. The world will want to know.
Will they? the man asks. Will they care, do you think?
Of course they will, son says the new commissioner, gripping the man’s shoulder. You’re our returning hero.
In a matter of hours, the man has done interviews with the morning news and local radio shows, and the coverage is picked up by all the national programs. By the end of the morning, he is seen and heard on every television and radio station. His face is on the home page of every major website.
The mayor organizes a city-wide parade for that afternoon, and the man is honored as grand marshal. He rides with his wife at the end of the parade, and they wave dumbly to the thousands of people that line the streets.
At the end of the parade is a podium, and the man is asked to give a speech.
I don’t really know what to say, he says when he’s ushered onstage. I’ve never given a speech before.
Speech, speech! the people chant.
I’m happy to be home, the man says, but I guess I’m just not sure I deserve all this.
You do, you do! the people chant.
We set out from here years ago with a job to do, and we failed. We failed everyone.
You did what you had to do, the people chant. You came back home!
The men who flew away might seem foolish or crazy, says the man, but they were the ones who led us here safely. If I were as brave as they were, I could have kept them from leaving. If I were brave, they would be here today.
The man puts his hands on the sides of the podium and begins to cry.
It’s me, he says. I’m the one who left them behind.
After a few moments of silence, the new commissioner touches the man’s shoulder and escorts him off the stage.
The man’s debriefing with the new commissioner doesn’t last long.
He set out with the other two men as ambassadors of earth to a newly discovered planet. Each man brought gifts to deliver to the planet’s leaders, who were believed to be friendly. They were to dine with the planet’s dignitaries, expressing their planet’s desire to enter into a friendly partnership. The men weren’t agents or spies. They had no ulterior motives. Their pistols were only for their protection.
Some time during those years of travel the men lost radio contact with earth. The voices they thought were their superiors were really echoes of previous correspondences, Roger’s and Copy’s and Go’s the men had praised for their efficiency.
The ship followed the coordinates programmed into the mainframe. An error must have been made, and the ship looped back around while the men were sleeping. Coordinates were swapped, or there was a warp, a shift in the fabric of space. Somehow, the ship mistook home for their foreign destination, and, unknowingly, the men rocketed back toward earth.
The agency is sweeping the sky for the men who flew away, says the new commissioner. As of right now, we’ve found nothing.
What about the dignitaries? asks the man. Were there repercussions for our failure?
The new commissioner shakes his head.
We don’t hear from them anymore, he says. They no longer accept our calls.
The next two weeks are a whirlwind for the man. Though he and his wife hoped to spend time reconnecting after the parade and the debriefing, the man is whisked from talk show to talk show, then to speaking engagements across the country. He is asked to comment on the future of space travel, of intergalactic relations, the atrocities taking place on nearby planets—issues for which he has no answers.
If you could say anything to the men who flew away, the people ask, what would you say?
I’d say I hope they found their way somehow, the man responds. He imagines the men desperate, their reserves depleting. He imagines their shock at landing on a planet to refuel and realizing their error. Or worse: years later, landing at their now-unfriendly destination.
I don’t think we’ve heard the last of them, he says. I think that some day they’ll be here to speak for themselves.
At night, the man sleeps in hotels the agency has booked for him.
At the end of a long day of speaking, of shaking hands and taking pictures and signing autographs, he comes back to his room and locks the door behind him. He begins his ritual of lifting each item from its place, holding it up to the light and turning it, examining its sides. On one of his first nights on the road, the man came back to his room and was convinced his door was crooked, or if not the door then the hallway, and if not the hallway then the pattern on the carpet, and if not the pattern of the carpet then the pattern on the wallpaper that seemed in some way blemished, changed by some immeasurable shifting the man couldn’t quite name. The man tries to push away thoughts of his crewmates, of the incommunicable difference they couldn’t articulate at the fast-food restaurant, the thing they felt was wrong. The ritual becomes a compulsion: he examines the telephone, the nightstand drawers and the books inside. He examines the lamp and all of the towels and soaps and lotions in the bathroom. He slides his hand along every sheet on his bed, the pillow cases and the headboard.
When he’s finished, the man pulls his mattress from its frame and positions it in front of the sliding door that leads to the balcony. Thousands of miles away, his wife is waiting for him to return to his half of their bed after an unbearably long absence. For now, he draws the curtains from the window and falls asleep with the stars.
When the man finally arrives home, his wife sits in the living room and watches him probe their furniture and belongings, his hands sliding over them and under and around.
This picture, he says, holding an old photograph of the two of them.
Our first anniversary, she says. Fifteen years ago, almost to the day.
I’m sorry, the man says, sitting down with his head in his hands. It’s just so hard.
Don’t be sorry, his wife says. You’ve been through a lot.
Yes, he says. I guess I have.
At night the man and the woman get into bed together. They talk for some time. They make love, slowly and timidly. Afterward, the man stares at the ceiling.
What are you thinking? the woman asks.
Oh, nothing, says the man.
He begins to feel tired, more tired than he has felt in a long time, his weeks of travel finally taking their toll. The woman rests her head on the man’s chest. His eyelids flicker until the room goes gray, until the walls warp and shudder and eventually fade. The woman waits until she feels the man’s chest rise and fall evenly, until his breath becomes steady. She smoothes the man’s skin with her hands from his neck to his ankles, and when she’s sure he’s asleep, she slips herself inside.
Justin Brouckaert’s work has recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, The McNeese Review, Gigantic Sequins, and Stymie. He is a James Dickey Fellow in Fiction at the University of South Carolina. Find him at jjbrouckaert.tumblr.com or on Twitter @JJBrouckaert.