Short Story: “Grounded”

by P. Orin Zack

“Would you go see who that is, Pete?”

Peter Warren looked up from the Wikipedia entry on Conestoga wagons on his tablet and glanced towards the condo door. Judging from the anguish in her voice, his mother was still pretty stressed-out from dealing with the funeral last month. It was one thing to have an empty-coffin ceremony when the deceased was never found or mutilated beyond recognition, another thing entirely when she died on another planet. “Sure thing, mom.”

It was Daniel, Peter’s older brother, and for some reason he was grinning like a dirt-caked maniac. “Hey, tone it down, man” he breathed. “It’s bad enough you left in the middle of the funeral. Don’t go looking for trouble. Where’ve you been anyway? Mom’s been worried sick!”

Daniel closed his eyes briefly and took a deep breath. When he opened them, his expression had taken on a respectful somberness. “It’s me, mom,” he called into the apartment, “Daniel.”

Peter winced at the sound of glass shattering, and turned in time to see Mrs. Warren rounding the corner from her elder son’s old bedroom, which she’d converted to an art studio. “What was that?”

“Nothing irreplaceable,” she said as she approached, “I’ll clean it up later.” She slowed precipitously and stopped mere inches from Daniel, her face a dance of indecision. “I don’t know whether to be angry or relieved.”

He smiled cautiously. “Can I come in? I’m kind of tired and could use a hot drink.”

Relieved must have won, because she threw her arms around him. “Of course you can come in. How many times do I have to tell you? However far away you might go, you’re always welcome under my roof.” Spotting the dirty backpack he’d set beside the door, she added, “Put that in the bathroom and wash your face. I’ll have coffee waiting in the dining room.”

A few minutes later, Daniel slipped into the empty seat across from his mother, where she’d set his Aunt Angela’s old Mars Direct mug. The tethered ‘tin cans’ of the early colonization ships were spinning on its heat-activated video screen. He bent to watch the animation for a few seconds before lifting it and taking a sip. “Thanks. I’d almost forgotten how she’d gotten to Mars. The new ionic drive is cool, but pioneers like Aunt Angie made the crossing in true pioneer style.”

Mrs. Warren waited for him to set the mug down before speaking. When she did, it was with trepidation. “You’ll… you’ll have to forgive me, Daniel. After you bolted in the middle of her funeral, I wasn’t sure how you felt about her, whether you’d even want to talk about her. Anyway, I used that mug to break the ice, hoping that you’d give me some kind of clue.”

“Yeah, Daniel,” Peter said, “what happened? Why’d you leave like that?”

“And camping?” their mother asked. “As far as I know, you haven’t gone camping in forever. Well, at least since before you graduated high school.”

He bit his lip. “I, um… I kinda went to commune with my Aunt Angie. The funeral just didn’t seem right. She was a pioneer — an explorer. And here everyone was focused on everything about her but the one thing that made her so special, the fact that she was willing to say goodbye to everything and everyone she knew, family and friends, to take a one-way trip across space. So I got some gear together and spent the past few weeks trying to emulate her.”

“I don’t understand. What does living in the woods for a few weeks have to do with…?”

Daniel set his mug down and spread his hands. “It has everything to do with it, mom! The thing that made the Mars Direct missions so much different from keeping the space station manned for years was that they didn’t have the luxury of supply runs from home.” His eyes widened with excitement. “I mean, god, they manned that thing in shifts. Nobody stayed up there the whole time. Pioneers like Angie were really on their own. Sure they could bring some stuff with them, but to survive any length of time – and she was there for ten years – they had to know how to turn what they had and what they could find into what they needed. They were pioneers, mom.”

“Oh, I get it,” Peter said suddenly. “That’s what you were doing in the woods. Living off the land, like the settlers I’ve been reading about for my history paper.”

“Actually, Pete, it’s more like the people they displaced. They carried an awful lot of stuff in those wagons. Most of them were really city folk, after all.” He looked again at Mrs. Warren. “I mean, if her life meant anything, it was to prove that people are more important than things, that what he have up here,” and he tapped his head, “is so much more valuable than anything we can make, than any technology we invent.”

Mrs. Warren was weeping quietly, tears dripping into her smile. “That’s sweet. Angie would be proud of you.”

Daniel grinned, and glanced at his brother. “Not half as proud as she’s going to be. I’ve signed up to join the Mars colony!”

Her jaw dropped and she went pale. “You’re what?”

“I’m going to Mars.”

“But you’re only twenty-three!” She was livid. “And besides, I just lost my sister-in-law – your aunt — to that hellhole in space. You can’t seriously expect me to just sit here and let you waste your life like she did following someone else’s dream!”

“She did not waste her life,” Daniel said forcefully.

“But she’s dead.” Mrs. Warren slumped. “She dead, just like your father, and we never got a chance to pay our respects. Not really. I mean, how could we? She was millions of miles away! And now you expect me to look forward to doing the same for you someday? That’s a one-way trip. You don’t have the option of returning home. I’ll never see you again. I’ll…”

Peter sat frozen in fear, glancing nervously from one of them to the other.

Daniel reached across the table and gathered their mother’s shaking hands in his. “There’s a better way to look at this, mom,” he said gently. “I don’t for one second believe that Aunt Angie wasted her life. I’m as proud of her as I am of dad. They both gave their lives in the course of doing something that they fervently believed in. You know that. I know you do. You’ve told me countless times how proud you were of dad. Remember, he saved a dozen people that day. He didn’t waste his life; he gave it so that others could live.”

She nodded haltingly, a smile struggling to assert itself.

“His sister was a lot like him, you know. Only instead of saving people from danger, she spent her life giving the rest of us something to believe in, a dream that others could someday step into. Her life was just as much an adventure as it was a job. And you know what? I want to honor her dream. I want to honor it by following her into the future she saw so clearly that she was willing to say goodbye to all of us and live it, one day at a time. That’s why I decided to follow her to Mars.”

Peter had caught his breath, and was staring at the mug. “Daniel?” he said in the awkward silence.

He turned to look at the teenager. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. But if you’re really going to do this, can I ask a favor?”

“Sure. Just remember I can’t bring much, and I won’t be coming back.”

“You won’t have to. What I’d like… what I’d like you to do is to visit her grave, the real one, the one on Mars.”

He shrugged. “Sure, Pete. But why? What do you want me to do there?”

“Say a prayer. Yeah, I know we did that down here, and I know that her fellow colonists gave her a grand send-off as well, but there was still something missing.”

“But a prayer? Since when did you become religious?”

He chuckled. “I’m not. But then, the prayer I had in mind isn’t so much religious as it is appropriate. And it’s pretty short, so I’m pretty sure you’ll be able to remember it.”

Mrs. Warren had calmed down a lot, and was watching her son curiously. “What’s the prayer, then?”

“It’s the Balloonists Prayer, but I think it will work. It goes like this.

The winds have welcomed you with softness,
the sun has blessed you with his warm hands.
You have flown so high and so free,
that god has joined you in laughter,
and set you gently again,
into the loving arms of mother earth.

Do you think she’d like that?”

She broke into delighted laughter. “I do. I think she’d like it a lot, almost as much as I do. Thank you, Peter. And Daniel, you have my blessings. I’m proud of both of you.”



[Author’s Note: This and my other Mars-related short stories will also be available at starting in January 2010. If you’re interested in Mars, space flight, and the colonization of Mars, please click over and explore the site.]

Copyright 2009 by P. Orin Zack


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