This story is part of 3 way write-off, or Duel, with Aaron Conaway, Danielle LaPaglia and myself. All of us used the same photo prompt you see below. It is courtesy of Icy Sedgwick. Read and comment, then go check out,
“Homesick” by Aaron Conaway
“Fade to Black” by Danielle LaPaglia
By Jason Warden
Michael Gideon looked at his watch, the second hand was just coming around the six and headed for home, it moved too fast, as if time itself were a force working against him, against them. And still, she was nowhere in sight.
They arrived a day early in order to snatch the choice spot. The bench was at the top of the hill and gave a clear view of the Gulf. Now, the boards dug in to his back. He had never been so uncomfortable. The wild flower he had picked earlier seemed heavy in his hand and he quickly looked away from it feeling the tears sting his eyes at the sight. What he saw instead didn’t help. The black smudge in the sky was still there.
Everything had been perfect; they had a front row seat to watch Man’s crowning achievement blast off on what would undoubtedly prove to be the most important mission in the history of space exploration. Forty-five nations and thirty-seven languages would venture out together. The world was watching. Once the ship left earth’s atmosphere, while her head was still skyward, he would drop to a knee and produce the ring he had saved and scrounged for, taking extra shifts whenever he could for the last six months. According to the associate at Kay’s, it was the best his Gap salary could buy.
They’d both trembled as it roared into the sky spreading its golden fire above the earth. Danni’s was from excitement. His came just from being with her. He watched, intermittently stealing glances at the sparkles in her eyes as it hurtled away. Flutters invaded his belly with each look
When it happened, his first thought was wormhole, but then the ship wasn’t disappearing in a flash of speed, it was collapsing in on itself. They both covered their mouths as the large orange external propellant tank split open and the world above them exploded against nothing. A lake of fire spilled from the tank and spread over the sky. The super heated shockwave swirled the leaves above their heads. In the shocked silence that followed the blaze slowly made its way back to earth. Neither spoke. The sight was beyond words. As the last pieces of the galactic transport fell, the transparent barrier above, moved. The clouds behind it swam in and out of focus as it did.
Before the last pieces had even completed their fall a face swam forward from the clear blue nothing. Michael and Danni both shook in terror. Their clear intake of breath was joined by others on the hill. The sound was unnaturally loud in the stillness. The face on the Nothing turned toward them as if selecting them, accusing them, damning them. Silence gathered like an electrical charge, even the rustling leaves on the trees stopped their chatter. Then words were inside his head and his mind reached out blindly for understanding.
“The trial is over. Gather children, gather to me.”
The face above radiated kindness, but beneath it a kind of sadness Michael had never felt first hand. His mother had given him the same look when she felt forced to punish. He never told her it was the look, not the punishment, which started him crying. Michael wiped at his eyes aware for the first time of the wetness there. The face vanished back into the nothing and Danni looked at Michael. Fear swam in her eyes. They both felt it, but also, irrationally, he felt relieved. The carnage below was devastating, but it also served as an affirmation of all he knew. Convinced he had just looked upon the face of God, he hesitantly smiled at her, but saw there was no reciprocal reaction waiting behind her fear.
“Do you know what this means? He. . . HE has come back.”
Her face changed, confusion replaced fear and she shook her head defiantly making him wonder if she had seen it at all. Then, as if it had always been there, a cord appeared behind her. The radiant, nearly transparent, light blue strand hung in the air just below her shoulder. In his peripheral vision, he saw another blink into existence next to his own shoulder. Finally, she spoke, it was a single word, but one more than was needed.
She was pointing over his shoulder, back toward the carnage. He turned away from her and saw what she had. Tiny bundles, the children, they were the first to curiously grasp the cords and now floated above the city streets. Each was drawn toward the smudge in the sky where the craft had met oblivion only minutes before. They seemed to vanish before reaching the spot. Then others, larger shapes lifted upward. This time a larger smile broke over his face. Michael was unaware his hand had gone up and hovered just below the cord when she called out.
He looked at her and lowered his hand, staring at it as if it were something alien. She was still pointing, he looked and the smile began to fade. Of the adults only a few had made it to the nothing, and they too, like the children vanished into it, but more, many more reached only a few hundred feet before the lifelines began to blacken. Then they were falling, many of them calling out. The impact of the bodies, even from a distance was audible; each one rang out like single kernels of corn popping over an open flame. He stood, looked back to Danni and held out his hand.
“Come with me.”
Danni took his hand. From his pocket, he took the ring and knelt.
“Spend eternity with me.”
She smiled, her first since the failed launch, but the single shake of her head cut Michael like slivers of glass and her words cauterized the wounds like the fire below.
“I can’t, the message wasn’t for me.”
He tried to protest, but she cut him off with a finger to his lips.
“Go. He’s waiting.”
“Danni please. It’s not too late.”
“It is though, I don’t want to end up like them.” She pointed again at the ones who had fallen. The flow of the upward and downward had slackened to only a trickle now as he assumed many questioned their faith. “Now go.”
“No! I’ll wait for you. Think about it. Please!”
Tears covered his face, but he saw that look, she was breaking. She brought her face to his and kissed him.
“I do love you. I’ll think. Alone. If I’m not back in ten minutes, promise me you’ll go.”
“But. . .”
He nodded and nearly collapsed as she released him. He prayed and cried in the dirt beside the bench, looking up only occasionally to check the time, but as the sobs began to abate, he made his way sniffling back onto the bench. Beside him, he saw the wildflower she had left behind and knew.
He broke his promise. It had been fifteen when his hand slipped around the cord. Light struck him from the inside out, as the line wrapped itself around his wrist and pulled him from the earth. Others around him also regained their courage and took hold. He looked down upon the grand landscape as he felt his body begin to lighten, and become insubstantial. His last vision with human eyes was of the girl on the bench, the wildflower in her hand, and the cord beside her neglected. Then he was gone, and clean white radiance replaced all thought. Still, some part of him waited for her, it always would.