The rehabilitation center is a squat, beige building on the outskirts of town. I turn off the truck's engine, and sit in the parking lot for a minute, trying to slow my breathing. It had seemed like such a good idea when I had gotten the call, but now...I think of the last time I saw her: after graduation, laughing hysterically, her eyeliner smearing down her cheeks, holding a bottle of cheap tequila. "C'mon June, join the party. Don't make my last memory of this place a downer." I had bowed my head, gone to her side, and taken a swig from the bottle; but as I looked up at her dilated eyes-already staring away from this place, looking ahead to the things she would see with her new angel's gaze-I had felt a hollowness settle in the pit of my stomach. Ten years, and I still haven't really gotten rid of that empty space; but I've patched it up, and moved on. And now it's all coming back.
I thump a hand against the steering wheel, and exhale violently. I can't do this right now-I need to get moving. I lower myself down from the truck's cab, and try to convince my legs that they're steady as I hold onto the handgrip. My breath curls in the fall air, and I fold my arms across my stomach as I trudge across the cracked asphalt, telling myself that I'm holding onto myself for warmth. I almost believe it.
Inside, the rehabilitation center is as bland as its exterior had promised-every detail carefully contrived to produce the minimum stimulation. I am ushered into a single person waiting room-tan carpet, rounded chairs, and a small, muted television set-and told to sit. Left alone, I pick up a year-old hunting magazine and try to interest myself in the latest shotgun accessories.
I've reread the same paragraph a half dozen times when the door opens again. I spit out the strand of hair I've been nibbling nervously-a habit I thought I'd left behind in high school-and stand too quickly. An orderly enters first, quiet and unobtrusive as a mouse, and then...
I want to say I hardly recognize her. I shouldn't be able to; she's changed so much. Always thin and bony, she's withered away almost to nothing. I can see her ribs through her TransCo tank top, and her wrists look like I could get my fingers around them, with room to spare. And her hair-whether worn all the way down her back or cropped jaw-length, Kinny always valued her glossy black hair above anything else. Now it's gone, shaved a fraction of an inch away from her skull. She looks like a barely mobile skeleton.
But I recognize those eyes. They're deeper than when I last saw them, and darker; but they still have a few sparkles of their old mischief. And her mouth, although now surrounded by deep grooves, still quirks into its old, lopsided smile at my shock.
"Hey, Junebug. Haven't seen you in a while."
As we drive home, I keep sneaking glances at her out of the corner of my eye. She'd been unusually silent through all the rounds of forms, liability waivers, and nurses' instructions. Now she's wedged herself into the passenger seat and is staring out into the darkness, watching fields whip by us. I've got a tape playing softly; I didn't even think about it, just picked something to fill the silence. But the song that rises from the speakers is one from my childhood-from our childhood-and I can't help but remember the two of us kneeling on a bed, maybe twelve or thirteen, listening to the song and lip syncing for all we were worth. I mouth the words to myself, savoring the way the taste has changed over the years-rounder, heavier.
River, take me home,
It's been twelve years since I seen my mother,
I've spent too long as the highway's daughter,
Need to get back to my own true lover,
So take me home, river,
Take me home.
I jump when Kinny speaks from the other side of the truck, eyes still fixed on the night.
"I'd almost forgotten what darkness looks like. It's beautiful; but I'm so scared of it. It was never with me before-I could always see everything."
I wait for her to say more, but she just hunkers closer to the window and refuses to talk for the rest of the ride.
The tape ends just as I pull into our driveway and kill the truck's engine. With the headlights gone, the only illumination is a welcoming yellow wedge spilling out from the kitchen window, and the city's distant, sickly glow to the north. I hop down from the cab-enjoying the solid crunch of gravel beneath my boots-and walk around to help Kinny out. I pretend not to notice how heavily she leans on me as we head up to the front door, or how her dancer's grace has gone clumsy and uncoordinated.
We make a good racket coming in, and Dave meets us before we've even gotten out of the front hall, thumbs hooked nervously in belt loops. Kinny hesitates, then holds out an unsteady hand.
"Kindra. Please, come on in. Do you need me to grab your bags from the car?"
She shakes her head. "No bags. I've got a couple of things in storage; I'll pick ‘em up tomorrow. Nice place, by the way."
I steer her into the kitchen, and put a chipped ceramic mug of coffee into her hands. She stares at it like it's an alien artifact, then slowly takes a sip. Eyes closed, she leans back in her chair.
"It's been way too long since I had a good cup of coffee."
I watch her from the sink, rubbing my ma??na, felling the hard nodule shift just beneath the skin of my forearm. It's a tic I've been meaning to break, but now isn't really the time to think about it.
"Dave and I, we already ate dinner, but there's still some chicken left in the fridge if you want some. You must be hungry."
"We'll get your sleeping arrangements set up in a little bit. You'll be on the couch-is that okay? We've got some warm blankets you can use; it can get cold here at night."
"Here are your medications. It's one of each kind, and then two of the blue ones, right? Or are you supposed to take two of the orange ones, too? Shit, where did I put that handout..."
I snap my mouth shut and face her. In the sudden silence, the muffled chatter of the television bleeds over from the living room. At the kitchen table Kinny smiles with her mouth, but her eyes are tired.
"You're fretting again. I'll be fine. Now, if you'd show me this couch of yours, I think we could all call it a night. It's been a long day."
I lie awake in bed, watching a square of moonlight creep slowly up the wall. I can hear Dave breathing at my back, and I can tell he's not sleeping either. After a while, he says softly, "Kindra seems...calmer than she used to be."
"And she looks like she's recovering nicely."
"Some pilots can't even walk for months."
"I'll go over tomorrow with the truck and pick up her stuff."
"She's going to be fine."
I wink, sharing a private joke with the wall, then wipe the moisture from my face and turn towards my husband.
The next morning, Kinny's still asleep on the couch when I head off to work, so I leave a note on the table. Working at J&J Agricultural Supply. Coffee's in the pot, laptop's on the table if you want it-password farmGurl88. Eat anything in the fridge. Back at six. Call me if you need anything-number is 44d08mz. Don't forget your meds.
I only pay half-attention all day, waiting for my ma??na to buzz, but it stays completely silent, and I assume Kinny's old self-reliance is still alive and well. When I get back to the house, though, I can tell something's wrong. All the lights are off, and the whole place is silent. I move from front hall to living room, a sense of panic growing within me. I breathe a sigh of relief when I find her sitting at the kitchen table, laptop open in front of her. But after a moment, the panic starts to return, slower and deeper; she's sitting completely rigid, not even turning to acknowledge my presence in the doorway. I circle around slowly, and see her staring straight ahead, her face tight and panicky. I lay a hand on her shoulder, and she jumps as though broken out of a trance. Her eyes fill with tears, and she gestures ineffectually to the laptop.
"I can't remember how to make it work. It won't...won't..."
Her face contorts, and her fists clench until her knuckles strain against the skin.
"It won't...won't...it won't...nebula. Shit!"
She screams the profanity, then collapses onto the table, sobbing. I hunch over her, trying to take her in my arms, but she's all strange angles and awkward protrusions. I finally manage to get her up and onto the couch, where she crashes immediately, exhausted. I watch her sleep for a minute, then retrieve my purse from the hall and dig out one of the half-dozen booklets I was given at the rehabilitation center.
Dave comes home to find me sitting on the floor, my back propped against the couch, with my laptop and a spread of multicolored pamphlets on the carpet in front of me. I hardly look up at him.
"‘Decommissioned pilots often manifest temporary aphasia in times of stress. Ask them to breathe deeply, and talk slowly. Don't rush them, or...'" I stop reading aloud, and check the computer screen.
"Aphasia. That's where you have trouble speaking, or replace words with other words. It's a side effect of the...‘sensory mistranslation'. Do you think I should call someone at the rehab center?"
Dave sits down gingerly, and puts an arm around my shoulders.
"It says it's temporary-I'm sure she'll be fine. Just let her sleep. C'mon, let's go into the kitchen, and you can tell me what happened."
Kinny has a physical therapy appointment the next day. Dave is hauling planks with the pickup, so I help her into the car and slide behind the wheel with a sigh. I hate being this low to the ground-it feels like I'm going to tear the undercarriage out on the slightest pothole. As I pull out of the driveway, Kinny sees my expression, and smiles.
"Still a fan of the big trucks, huh."
I nod. "‘Big trucks and big boys,' right?"
We both laugh together at our old joke. It feels nice, relaxed; like it used to.
"Damn; it really has been a while since then, hasn't it? We've got so much to catch up on. Are you still writing?"
I shake my head. "I kinda stopped after high school. No time. Or point, really-it's not like I could make a career out of it."
Kinny turns to face me. "That's a shame. You were really good."
"Hardly; but thank you, dear. What? Why're you giving me that look?"
She shakes her head. "Nothing."
I let the silence stretch out, watching her shift uncomfortably. Even after all these years, I still know how to read her. The thought reassures me.
Finally, she cracks. "It's just...sometimes, when I was all alone out there, I'd try composing poetry to pass the time. It's harder than I thought."
"It's tricky, isn't it. Can I hear some?"
She demurs, but I keep pushing her. It's an old pattern, one that we both fall into it almost without thinking. After a while of back and forth, she gives in.
"Alright, fine. It's awful, but...alright."
She fidgets with her seatbelt. I don't think I've ever seen her this nervous. Normally she'd be the one talking me into something-sneaking out at night, maybe, or talking to a boy. But then, that was before.
Closing her eyes, she takes a deep breath and begins to incant in a strange monotone I've never heard her use before:
I sing the dreams of them that sleep
In hearts of stars, and never wake,
Till final days, when all grows warm,
And planets die in blaze of sun.
I sing the hopes of distant moons
That pass like ghosts in distant skies,
That look upon far stranger lands
Than ever graced the minds of men.
I sing my words both soft and low,
But never cease, till all songs end,
I sing for filling up this void
And making photons leap and spin
Till all the universe is full to laughing
With waveform song and particles' swift dancing.
She opens her eyes, and stares at her shoes, blushing. "It was too hard to make it rhyme, so I just gave up after a while."
I'm speechless. "Kinny, that was amazing. How did you...I mean, how long have you been doing that?"
She blushes even deeper, and refuses to meet my eyes.
"I don't know-since I started piloting, more or less. You have a lot of time, and not much to do. Most pilots have some sort of hobby to keep themselves busy. And it's just so...empty out there. At least, it is at first."
"Wow. Just...wow. I honestly wouldn't have expected you to start writing poetry."
She gives me a half grin.
"Y'know, just because I slept through English, doesn't mean I didn't learn anything. Besides, you have access to a whole digital library when you're out there-one of the features they installed to keep you from completely losing it. I found some Wordsworth, and kind of just...went from there."
I shake my head, smiling. "God damn it, Kinny. We had a deal: you do science and math, and I do English. What am I supposed to do now you're all genius-y?"
She throws a wadded up paper napkin at me. "Well, for now you can drive me around and cook my meals. Once I'm normal again you're kind of screwed though."
"One more reason to take a baseball bat to your knees now."
"Abusing a cripple-nice. And a retired pilot, no less. As classy as always, Junebug."
We laugh all the way to the appointment.
Kinny stops laughing soon after we get there. The physical therapy is grueling-she looks like she's in agony. I sit in a corner of the room, taking notes, glad I'm not in her place.
The physical therapist is a perky, athletic blonde with a soothing voice. She works Kinny through a full set of tests, all the while narrating in a never-ending flow of encouragements, explanations, and technical terms.
"Today we'll be working on a little bit of everything. After so long disconnected from your body, we need to get everything fitting right again. We'll start with some general warm-ups, then move into strength training, endurance exercises, and a bit of fine motor control. Now, just let me know if this hurts."
Kinney hisses through her teeth as the woman bends her knee up to her chest.
"That's good. A little muscle stiffness is common; you've been doing a lot more activity since waking up than you have in quite a while. You're body's rebuilding a lot of muscle. How's this?"
She extends Kinny's leg, then rotates it outward. Kinny's entire body arches, and she makes a short, sharp sound in the back of her throat.
"Good. Good. Now, can you sit up and touch my hand?"
When we leave, three hours later, Kinny is soaked in sweat, brushing away tears, and barely standing. I have a list of simple exercises to do with her at home, which Kinny has already informed me she has no intention of doing.
"But your therapist said these would have you back almost to normal strength in just a few months."
"I don't care. That was absolute hell. I just want to go home and sleep for a week."
"She said they'll get easier. The first session is always supposed to be the hardest."
"I hope so; she nearly killed me in there. That woman is the devil in a sports bra."
"Alright. I guess we'll just...alright."
I look at her, worried. She glares at the glove compartment, before finally sighing loudly.
"You're going to keep giving me your mother voice until I give in, aren't you."
"What mother voice?"
"Never mind. I'll do the exercises. Just...talk normally, please."
Over breakfast the next morning, Kinny expresses the desire to visit her mother's grave.
"I guess it's time to go face it, huh."
I lay my hand over hers. "You don't have to. It'll wait till later, when you're feeling a bit stronger."
"Godammit, June. Don't baby me. If I say I'm ready now, I'm ready now."
Surprisingly, it's Dave who speaks into the awkward silence.
"She's right, June. If she thinks it's time, you have to respect that."
We stop for flowers on the way to the graveyard. I pull out my wallet, but Kinny insists on buying the dozen roses herself.
"TransCo's giving me a lifelong pension, and I haven't even gotten the opportunity to use it once yet. I'll get these."
The grave marker is a simple grey stone, hip high, with rounded corners. Kinny lays the roses on the grass in front of it, and runs her hands over the carved letters:
Jessica Eve Carter
Loving Mother, Faithful Wife, Cherished Daughter
Kinny lowers herself stiffly to the ground, and stares out along the rows of tombstones.
"It's funny; I never knew her middle name was Eve."
I sit down next to her and begin pulling out pieces of grass one by one, waiting for her to speak again.
"What happened to her?"
"Stroke, four years ago. Almost no warning."
"Four years ago. I would have been out...near Cygnus, I think."
I toss a handful of grass tips up into the air, and watch the breeze carry them off.
"What was it like, being out there?"
She looks up into the blue fall sky, scudded with a few wisps of cloud, but doesn't answer. After a moment, she speaks again.
"Do you think I was a bad daughter?"
"You were a bit difficult, but...well, we were teenagers. None of us were exactly angels."
"You always got on okay with your folks."
"Yeah, well; they were cool."
"It was more than that, though. You were a good kid; always did your homework, didn't drink, didn't party..."
"Unless you talked me into it."
"Yeah. I always kind of felt bad about bringing you down, y'know. I mean, I'd run away, and I'd wind up crashing on your couch. I'd go to a party, and you'd end up so drunk you couldn't stand. Most of the shit you got into in high school was my fault."
"Only halfway. I always went along with you, remember. You were my excuse to behave badly."
Kinny laughs, and wraps her arms around her knees. I tossed a few blades of grass at her.
"No, really. I always wanted to do those things, but I was afraid to. I had to keep pretending I was the good kid, the good student. When I was with you, I could tell myself I was just a follower, that I didn't want every drink and pill as badly as you did."
At that moment, my ma??na triggers. Red indicators run down the length of my forearm, and I quickly stroke the acceptance sequence with my little finger. My network appears in the air above my arm-looking it over, I see that Alan's HelloAll supergroup has dissolved into three separate social units. Lena has sided with the newly formed "Katy'sdids," but both Jacob and Chris have allied with the "Blue Takers." I look at the power distribution of the three groups, declare allegiance to the Blue Takers, and dismiss the graphic with another sequence.
I look up to see Kinny staring at me wide-eyed. "What was that?"
"Oh, it's fine. Alan built that supergroup pretty badly; we all knew that was coming for a while."
"No, I mean-what was that? Your arm just..."
It takes me a moment to realize what she's talking about. "Wait, you mean; you don't know about ma??nas?"
"Was that a...a ma??na? We were told about those in the rehab center, but they never really showed us what they did, just...was that inside your arm?"
"Yeah, it's a couple of chips just under your skin. I guess you wouldn't have one, would you. They only started coming out four or five years after you joined up with TransCo. We should get you one-they're really not that expensive, and they're absolutely amazing. I don't know how I survived without one."
"I just...that's...Jesus. I've been away too long."
"Yeah. Don't worry; we'll get you back up to speed soon enough. You do know who the president is, don't you?"
"Die in a hole, Junebug."
In the middle of the night I'm awakened by muffled noises from the kitchen. I lie still next to Dave's softly breathing form, listening, before padding softly out of our bedroom. I find Kinny sitting at the kitchen table, hands wrapped around a mug of tea. I sit down across from her, and she looks at me with eyes bruised from sleeplessness.
"Did I wake you? Sorry."
"Kinny, have you been sleeping?"
"Yes. No. Kind of."
I watch her, as she fidgets with the handle of the mug.
"When I sleep, it's like being back out there. I remember all of it."
I can't sit still any longer. A bubble of frustration swells in my chest, and I have to stand up. I cross the kitchen and hang my head over the sink.
"Goddamn it Kinny, talk to me. What's going on in your head? What was it like out there? We used to tell each other everything-why do you keep hiding these things from me?"
I find myself wiping moisture from my eyes. Behind me, I hear Kinny shift uncomfortably in the silence. Finally, she speaks.
"I'm not trying to hide anything from you, June. Really. I'm just not sure where to start. When you're piloting, you're...not yourself anymore. Everything that happened to me-it happened to a different me."
I snuffle. "I know. I remember the videos. You're...what do they call it? You're tied into the ship."
"The videos don't do it justice. You're not just tied in; you are the ship. Its hull is your skin, its sensors are your eyes and ears. You start to forget what your old body was like."
I turn back to the table and sit down again, a little shakily. "What is it like, to be out there?"
Kinny smiles a small, fragile smile I've never seen her use before. "It's like nothing else. Remember science class, learning about the vacuum of space, and how it's all just emptiness? Well, it's not. The ships, they're outfitted with a whole range of sensors; thermal sniffers, electromagnetic scopes, mass spectrometers. When you're tied in, you can see particles popping in and out of existence. You can hear fusion happening in the hearts of stars; you can feel waves of solar radiation. It feels like...like a summer breeze, but a thousand times stranger. June, I've seen things that our old science teachers would have killed to be able to see."
Her voice is stronger, surer, and when she looks at me I can see galaxies dancing in her eyes. "I've watched stars being born. I've danced through radiation left over from the big bang. I've felt photons kiss my silver skin, and flirted with gravity wells. Have you ever felt the pull of a black hole? It's almost like being in some boy's arms; the soft, strong grip draws you in, and you want to fall forever. And more; I've experienced things none of you humans even know about. There are places, way out into the Black, where space gets all...weird. Things start to fold, and tear, and...other places start to show through. And if you get closer into the center of the galaxy, you start to hear things. The stars there, they almost start to sing-there's music, but it's not like anything you've ever heard before. You don't even hear it, really, you feel it; it goes through you like a knife, and you just want to follow it wherever it leads you..."
She trails off, staring out into memories she can't even begin to verbalize. When she finally comes back down to earth her confidence has left her, and her voice is quiet and halting again.
"And now...I don't even recognize the world anymore. It seems like there's a sheet of plastic between me and everything else. I'm stuck back in this body that's been stored away in some cradle for the past ten years, and these senses are all dim, and nothing even works right anymore. June, I was an angel. I was a god. Now I'm a broken puppet, limping around and staring up at the stars."
I stare across the table at her, at her skeletal fingers rolling her mug from hand to hand, at her dark, dark eyes, shining like fragments of broken glass. My throat swells shut, and I have no words for her.
Dave has work early the next morning, and so Kinny and I share a late breakfast in silence. As I wash up afterwards, she tells me that she's going to re-sign with TransCo for another ten year tour. I freeze for a moment, hands clenching on the edge of a plate; then I breathe out slowly and continue washing.
In the silence that follows, I pray she knows: knows that I accept her decision, knows that I am willing to let her go, even though it will hurt me to do so. I pray she knows that I understand.
That night, Dave and I take her out to dinner, and the three of us stay out well past midnight laughing and drinking and remembering high school. The next morning I help her move her boxes-still hardly unpacked-back into storage, and drive her downtown. I walk her into the TransCo headquarters, and give her one last hug goodbye in the lobby. We exchange a few meaningless pleasantries, and then a nurse guides her through the big double doors, and she's gone. I stare at the place where she disappeared, and try to ignore the hole that's reopened in my chest.
Kinny, though-she never even looked back.
On the way home I put in the same tape I played when I picked Kinny up, and let the familiar words wash over me.
River, take me home,
It's been twelve years since I seen my mother,
I've spent too long as the highway's daughter,
Need to get back to my own true lover,
So take me home, river,
Take me home.
As I drive I watch the fields roll past, enjoying the sight of them stretched out lazily in the afternoon sun, lolling all the way out to the horizon.
Back to the land where I am from,
Back to the place where I belong,
Just take me home, river,
Take me home.
The house is quiet and empty when I get back. I drop my keys on the counter, and drift aimlessly from room to room. Finally, I end up on sitting on the edge of my bed, lights off, watching the daylight spill through the blinds, and paint the carpet a watery gold. After a long while, I reach into the bedside table, and pull out a pencil and a pad of paper.
I have a few poems that I've been thinking about. Maybe it's time to start writing them down again.