The Trials of Manhood (1987)
It wasn’t the alarm clock that woke Bill, but his dreams; long and tortured. The frantic whooping was a relief. Shaking, Bill rolled over and turned it off. It was 5:15, Saturday morning. The room was bathed in a dim gray light that sucked the color from everything in the room. Carefully extricating himself from the sheets, as not to disturb his wife, he crept from the bedroom, shutting the door behind him. She cried softly in her sleep, perhaps he had as well. The hall was dark, but Bill had no trouble making his way to his son’s room.
Joey had been up for nearly an hour already, watching TV and patiently waiting for the clock. To him, this was all part of some game, something to be happy about and anxious for. Bill opened the door and seeing Joey’s bright face peeking out from under his covers lifted some of the deadness from Bill’s spirit. Not enough, he remarked, glancing at the TV before shutting it off. Not nearly enough. The dreams still haunted him, threatening to overcome reality at any moment.
Joey could contain himself no longer. “Is it time to go?” he asked in a conspiratorial whisper, quivering with anticipation. Bill noted his packed bag in the corner and nodded. Joey jumped from the bed, fully dressed. Bill had to laugh, a genuine chuckle. It felt good, better than anything else had for the past few days. He couldn’t remember the last time he had laughed. Joey grabbed his bag and Bill did some last minute checks around the house. Darkness was dying, a blood red stain stretching across the horizon with a little orange thrown in. The sky was still a deep blue in the west, but that wouldn’t last much longer. Father and son loaded up the car, careful not to make too much noise; everyone else on the street was still asleep. Bill wondered how many were sleeping soundly and how many were thrashing around, behind those lifeless windows. How many were dreaming? A tug on his shirt brought Bill back to reality. He slammed the trunk lid down on their belongings, the car rocked on its shocks. Joey grinned, the edges almost touching his ears. At long last, he was deemed old enough to sit in the front passenger seat. Bill made sure Joey was secure in his seat belt then checked his own. A necessary act nowadays, who knows how many had turned to drink instead of dreaming? It seemed to Bill to be a very selfish thing to do considering how few of them were left. He turned the key and the engine hummed into life. With a roar they left suburbia behind.
Bill caught the old interstate about a mile from their subdivision. The buildings and houses turned to farms and Joey watched the monotonous scene with waning excitement. He soon fell asleep. Bill relaxed a bit and moved the car up to eighty five. The smooth cement raced under the tires with a soft hum, the pastoral scene was very soothing. There was no one else on the road. If only he had some music, then it would be perfect. He glanced at the radio sitting in the dashboard. The static would still be there. He knew it would. The TV broadcasts were still snowy and the aurora crackled across the sky last night, even this far south. Even if the white noise had vanished, Bill didn’t want to risk hearing that death shriek from the skies. Not again. Not ever again. He felt a tear running down his cheek and cursed silently. It had been almost perfect.
It took nearly three hours to reach the frontier. As if someone had thrown a huge switch, suddenly the farms turned into wild vegetation. Huge trees loomed over the highway, the shadows lying like tiger stripes on the road. Joey’s face was smashed against the window in eager fascination. Bill remembered seeing the frontier for the first time. Back when they still had the six-wheeler, back when it only took and hour and a half to reach the frontier and that was crawling along on a two lane stretch of bumpy asphalt. So much has changed since then, he thought with only a small amount of bitterness. The concrete ribbon ended in a small parking lot. One tiny shack sat at the edge of the woods, no other cars were around. They locked up the car, an unnecessary gesture for the land here was almost sacred. Even Joey’s normal unboundless rambunctiousness was deeply reserved in this shady haven. The door to the shack was unlocked and the inside was devoid of furniture except for a large table with a huge book resting upon it. The Book. For a moment, Bill had an urge to page through the yellowing pages, but instead he opened it to the last page. A list of names, in handwritten script, went halfway down the page then ended. Bill took out the traditional ball point pen kept there solely for this occasion and wrote with a flourish:
William P. Landry
Joey stood silently, his head about level with the book, and looked at Bill nervously. Bill handed the pen to the boy. Hesitantly, feeling the unfamiliar shape and weight of the instrument in his hand, Joey wrote underneath his father’s name in his juvenile script:
Joseph M. Landry #1
Bill blinked back the tears of pride. His first signature in the book was buried near the beginning of the book somewhere. Had it really been twenty-three years? It was hard to believe. They returned to car and unloaded the trunk. All of their necessities had been compressed into two backpacks which they donned before starting down the dirt path. The day was bright, despite the forest’s best efforts to dim it. Bill pointed out various types of flora and animals to Joey who absorbed everything with glee, not aware of his father’s occasional comment which made little sense. As the miles passed, the remarks grew few and far between. The immense sorrow he had been carrying for the last few days evaporated in the heat of the day and when Joey found the tree, he was actually happy again.
They sat together beneath the shady branches of the huge tree. Joey stared up in awe, his head lolling slowly back and forth, watching the light breeze rustle the branches. Bill examined it as a collector would inspect a fine work of art. The tree was ancient, centuries old. Barring accidents or human intervention, it would be here for centuries to come. Long sections of the trunk were knotted up, hiding old scars from fires. The things it must have witnessed, the thought boggled his mind. Joey handed him a small bundle and Bill put philosophy aside in respect for his growling stomach. The sandwiches were wrapped in foil and newspaper. Joey unwrapped his and the headline caught his eye. It was printed in tall black letters which took up the entire page. Forming the words soundlessly with his mouth, he gathered its meaning.
ESCAPE SHIPS FAIL
Bill ripped the paper from his hands and an icy glare stopped Joey’s queries deep in his throat. They finished lunch in silence.
The hike after lunch chipped the ice away and by late afternoon, both were in high spirits. After careful deliberation, they agreed to set camp on a grassy knoll surrounded by trees on three sides and overlooking a brook. Joey wandered around, collecting bits of firewood for kindling while Bill set up the tent. The sky was a deep purple by the time they were done. Dinner was eaten and they sat quietly around the campfire. Joey sat on a flat stone with a long stick, poking the flames every once in awhile, letting the bright orange sparks fly up to join the stars. Bill yawned and Joey’s eyes were heavy with sleep. It had been a long day and it wasn’t long before they crawled wearily into their tent.
Joey woke slowly, rising out of a deep slumber. It was very dark, but Bill was insistent. It was puzzling, not part of the plan. Rubbing his eyes, trying to work the grit out of them, he followed Bill out of the tent. The sky was clear and a thousand stars shone down on them, bathing everything in a faint bluish glow. Bill scanned the sky then pointed upwards.
“See that group of stars that looks like a ‘W’?” Joey looked up, following Bill’s direction. He nodded.
“That’s Cassiopeia,” Bill said quietly. Joey stood silently, watching his father, unsure what to say or do. Bill moved his hand slightly to the left.
“See that star there?” Joey nodded again. The star, though just a pinpoint of light, was incredibly bright, easily outshining all of the others in the night sky.
“That’s the sun,” whispered Bill. “Our home.” Joey stared into the incredibly brilliant white, more puzzled than before.
“Why is it so bright?” Bill didn’t answer. Joey gazed at the star until an unfamiliar sound fell into his ears. It took him several seconds to recognize. His father was crying, something beyond his comprehension. He thought about the excitement of the past few days. His mother was acting strangely, walking around the house like a zombie. The only time she had acknowledged his existence was when she yelled at him while the news was on. He remembered the newspaper and the TV, the man who was on instead of the normal cartoons. He remembered what he was talking about; the word he used over and over again. He remembered the chill it had given though he didn’t know why.
In his father’s tear-stained eyes, he saw the terrible explosion, he heard the death-screams of ten billion beings like himself, he felt the incredible void left behind on humanity’s sole extra-stellar colony, the nearly impossible task of living under the funeral pyre in the sky. He looked back at the beacon of death. It twinkled and blurred from the tears filling his eyes. Bill watched him, not offering comfort, not yet. At long last, Joey stopped. He looked at Bill, still a little boy, but somehow different. The playfully puzzled gaze was gone forever, replaced by the weary lifeless eyes of someone much older.
The two men re-entered the tent, to sleep troubled, bathed in the light of loneliness.