WAITING FOR COLUMBUS
by Douglas I. Thompson
Inspired by Ray Bradbury
Author's note: I wrote the following tale while heavily under the influence of Ray Bradbury. I loved the way he used science fiction as a backdrop to tell human stories. His science was never the most important element in a story and his spacecraft were always rockets, never-elaborated-on vehicles used only to transport the characters into unfamiliar settings while grounding the tales in subject matter the reader could relate to. This is my homage to that great storyteller...
There was no turning back now, it was too late.
The packing was done, the house sold weeks ago to a smiling young couple from Vermont. Their lives in Houston were in the past. Now they sat in the rocket terminal, waiting for the captain to rush them off into space, where the future awaited them up among the stars. At first, there had been excitement and optimism between Richard and Virginia Beaumont, but that had melted away like the last snow of winter as the time to depart drew near.
"I think," Richard said, shifting nervously in his seat. "That once we get to the colony on Neptune, everything will be okay."
"Do you really think so?" his wife asked in a small voice. She did not look at her husband, choosing instead to peer into the darkness beyond the terminal window.
"Yes," he answered. "Yes I do. I just think we're getting a little homesick, that's all."
"Could be," Virginia said, sighing. She turned to Richard and reached out to take his hand. "It's just that...I don't know. Leaving everything behind, leaving Earth..." She smiled weakly. "I'm being foolish--"
"Don't be silly," Richard said. "I feel the same way at times, but everything will work out. You'll see."
The intercom chimed on with a metallic chink! and a pleasant voice informed them that flight 115 to Mars was ready for boarding. Several people around them stood up, bags in hand, and went to the gate. The Beaumonts watched them in silence.
Families talked anxiously as they stood in line, waiting for Columbus to sail them off to the New World. A father and son tossed a foam ball back and forth. Two lovers stood in an embrace while a little girl stood by, red-faced and giggling.
"See how happy they are?" Richard observed.
The line began moving as a uniformed agent opened the gate door. Richard and Virginia watched the passengers walk down the short ramp that led to the rocket. A few minutes later, the final boarding call for flight115 was announced over the intercom and then the door slid shut. Richard checked the Arrival/Departure screen and noticed that their flight, 241 to
Neptune, would be arriving soon.
"Won't be long now," he said, trying to smile.
"Do you think we'll ever get used to being so far away?" Virginia asked after a long silence. "I took pictures of every person and place that meant something to me, thinking that would be comfort enough. But now...I'm beginning to think those pictures will only make things worse."
Richard wiped a tear from her cheek. "We can always visit."
"But we haven't the money for visits."
"I'll work really hard and save up, so we can come back to visit every couple of years."
Virginia patted his hand and smiled. "You're a good man, Richard."
The intercom came on again: "Now boarding, flight 241 to Neptune. Gate 7. Now boarding."
"That's us," Richard said, rising to his feet. He offered his wife a hand up and then picked up his carry-on bag. Virginia stood and looked out the terminal window. Richard stepped up behind her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She leaned back, pressing her body against his and Richard kissed her on the cheek. As he did, Virginia began to cry.
And so did he.
Outside, the rain began to fall as though the heavens sympathized and wept for them as well.
"All passengers, flight 241 to Neptune," the metallic voice chimed overhead. "This is your final call for boarding."
"We'd better go, Virginia," Richard said, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief.
Virginia nodded and then they went down the ramp to Gate 7. A pretty flight attendant took their boarding passes. "Enjoy your flight."
The Beaumonts pretended to smile as they thanked her and entered the ship. Once they were seated, Virginia pressed her face to the window and looked out. The Houston skyline stood graciously against the gray sky, sparkling in the rain. Virginia thought about her childhood, playing in Hermann Park with her mother and father, or visiting the bones of a dinosaur in the Museum of Natural Science.
"It's funny," she mused, still looking out at the rain.
"What's that, Virginia?"
She pointed outside. "How we take things for granted."
"What do you mean?" Richard asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Like the rain," she said, a bittersweet smile playing at the corners of her mouth. "Or those trees, for instance. There aren't any trees on Neptune, you know."
"I never thought of that..."
"You see?" She paused. "And even that city. There's nothing like that out there. Not yet, anyway."
"And the sun?" Richard asked, slowly understanding.
"It's deep space," she replied. "They say the sun never shines on Neptune."
"Never shines..." Richard repeated, weighing the words on his tongue.
They felt the booster rockets kick on suddenly: loud, full of power; felt the heavy vibration as they warmed up.
"I'm going to miss it," Richard said, then leaned over and kissed her cheek.
Suddenly, Virginia no longer doubted their decision to travel to Neptune, to start a new life for themselves. The feelings they were having must have been similar to those who had first traveled to America, or those who had gone west, seeking their fortune in California. The rocket lurched up into the sky and they watched as the city disappeared beneath them, and then they were above the clouds.
Once the Earth had shrunk to the size of an office globe, Virginia turned to her husband, who looked very small and alone. "I didn't mean to kill your optimism, darling," she said. "Everything will turn out all right."
"Ah," Richard said. "Now our roles are reversed." He leaned over and gave her a kiss.
"You cheering me up."
"I think we cheered each other up."
Virginia smiled and kissed him back.
"I love you," Richard said, and took her hand.
"I love you, too, Richard."
The Beaumonts leaned back in their seats, smiling, and they didn't look out the window again until the Earth had sunk from sight.
Douglas I. Thompson once served as a machine gunner in an infantry company, and now spends his free time writing poetry and fiction. His poetry has appeared in remark and Cause & Effect magazines, as well as an upcoming edition of Thieves Jargon online. A work of his fiction will appear in Tabard Inn: Tales of Questionable Taste, early in 2008.