The Night Before Last

An lonely old lady living on the fringes of the abandoned Rocket City ventures back into the place that deprived her of her husband. Memories and possibilities await her.

    The sound of moon-silvered waves opened those eyes.

She watched from the arch the night things moving through the sky. Black shivers and flutters against cool star glow. And in her dreams she sung to them a very sad song about  the silence and things gone. 

    Outside, beyond dunes and now bone dry ravines, the wind brought sounds and smells from the south like a tide coming into a bay.

    She, whose eyes seemed younger than ten thousand nights, looked out over the land, her skin shining gold from the sun. And those eyes drifted, deep and green and night-piercing with the distance you see when watching someone awaken from a long, long dream..

    She put a finger to her lips and held it up. The slow wind was headed north past the fringes of the fallen city and out beyond the hills. Coming up behind the wind, following on like an imagined carnival, she could feel it, she could sense it. It was that time of year again and she flinched from a night spark at her back. Her thoughts changed from those she spent her days and nights within and glimpsed what comes to most people at least once in their life: the ghost of a once started and unfinished thought on some cool evening, years earlier. Like the warm feeling of walking into the life of someone new.

    Beyond the arch, the shadows and hollow shell of Rocket City miraged and dreamed itself into the old days - fast, silent cars cruised the Steel Mile Highway through the white marble and passed the gardens, cafés and homes where there slept dreamers, hearts beating to the night and its moon-cooled traffic. The lunar shore’s more distant marble was washed by the sun and sunk into the stars, the vague seas and valleys as dust dry as the land around the city. 

    Behind the western dome stood the great iron launch pad, empty of rockets, creaking red with wind whistling through its structure. If you stood in a certain position and looked right up its towering height you could aim it exactly at the moon by closing one eye. A little more imagination and you could launch it and its hundred anticipating eyes and hands above clouds of burning, billowing thunder, the power of ten million horses pulling it into the air. And the metal hulk would push, painfully slow, the white city away and, in two days, grab for the moon.

    The giant moon ships, though, ferried their last voyagers and adventurers a long time ago. The sons of captains and travelers left behind, a long way from the city and a lifetime from the moon. Here, now, stood just the empty shell of the magnificent Rocket City, the heart of the moon-obsessed old world and the home of the great captains.

   The old lady whose wide eyes were watching the night was married to one of those great captains. He had left for the moon almost fifty years ago on the last rocket. She watched him rise into the sky that night, an hour earlier aiming him for the moon from below the launch pad, and he pulled his passengers up through the hot, slow air on a flight that never returned. 

    She, her sadness now watered down and thinned to just loneliness, walked back into her home and waited for the approaching people to arrive.

    The shouting came about an hour later. 

    ‘Georgia! Georgia!’ they called out from the night. Excited voices drifted up the passageway that led to the arched entrance to her home.

    ‘Ceal, Robert, come in, come in, all of you, please.’ She ushered them in, the old friends and their children, tired from traveling.

    ‘Georgia,’ her closest friend since teenage years, Ceal, looked at those eyes and then around the room with its flowers and paintings of the city.  She sighed, knowing Georgia expected her question. ‘Why are you still here? Why don’t you come with us this time?’ 

    Georgia, approaching her seventieth year with youthful poise and eyes as young and wide as the day her captain left, looked down at the floor. ‘Ceal, you say this every year. You know I won’t leave’

    There was a silence. Chimes chimed.

    ‘I can’t believe it’s been a year,’ said Robert, he was the younger brother of Ceal.

    They all agreed, the moment saved.

    ‘The time flies so quickly,’ Ceal half grimaced, another inappropriate comment. ‘The kids have been looking forward to this for months, now. They write stories and draw pictures from what we tell them about when we lived there. Jim and Allen here remember last year’s visit very fondly.’ She looked over at them playing with the chimes. ‘They tell me they can’t wait to see the launch pad again and hear our stories. They play rocket captains all the time.’

    More silence.

    Ceal thought she kept making it tough for Georgia, putting her foot in it. But she wasn’t. Georgia, a long time ago, had known something must have gone terribly wrong and her husband, Tom Boseman, wasn’t coming back. She'd had it straight in her mind for some time now and the mention of ‘captains’, ‘rockets’ and such things to do with those days had long since washed over her. It would take a lot more to upset her now, with her painting and her pot making and her trips into the hills to pick flowers for her home. She kept telling Ceal not to worry, but she was an emotional and highly sensitive person. She must have thought that if it was her in Georgia’s shoes she would be hurt by every single reminder. Not so with Georgia Boseman. Not usually, anyway.

    This time she was going with them. The empty years meant nothing and it was time to see the place she used to love again.

    They talked another hour and slept another two. Morning was upon them before long, warm and dry with birds chirping them all awake with their playng out by the arch.

    With some food Georgia had prepared and a mix of quiet apprehension and young excitement they went off to the city. 

    They stood at the city limits an hour later, the morning hotting up the still white metropolis. The grey metal sidings of the Steel Mile Highway rose up from the dusty floor and pulled the old interstate road into the city, curving in, around and up into the marble and through the greenest of green trees. 

    All eyes were on the highway.

    ‘Let’s go,’ said Ceal. They walked up to the road and crossed over the change from concrete to steel with a running leap in a line, joined at the hands, ready for the heat of the sun-soaked highway underfoot to hit them. The children ran ahead, shouting and shrieking into the biggest playground ever.

    ‘After all these years,’ Ceal stopped and looked around, turning a full circle, ‘After all these years it still has that feel, that atmosphere,’ she looked at Robert and then Georgia, ‘You know, like it was the centre of the universe, the centre of the world. In those days,’ she sighed, ‘It was like nothing could go wrong,nothingever. You didn’t have to think about the future, you knew it was …’ She stopped and took Georgia’s hand. ‘Let’s go and see the park and the old houses.’

    The park was as they left it last year, thought Ceal. Right in the very middle of the grass was a circle of dry earth where they had made a fire in the evening. They had watched the sun go down and swore at the moon, half jokingly as it showed its ghost face. 

    Running along one side were the giant pylons that once brought in the power from the stations far out on the ocean, the power of the waves driving the city for as long as it lived. The tall, once gleaming towers were now worn to a dull grey from the sand blowing in from the coast. 

    Georgia strolled towards the south side of the park where they played as children, staring as she went at the grand statue of the first rocket to leave the city for the moon when she was just eight years old. ‘T101A’was carved in huge black figures. It stood, one hundred feet of shining steel, above a pedestal of twenty stone steps as white as the city buildings. She climbed slowly up, the midday sun forcing her to squint, until she reached the plaque. Silver, embossed. It showed the names of the great captains, from the first, the father of a childhood friend, to Tom Boseman. There should have been others listed, from the rescue rockets that followed, but they never returned and the city died. For a dozen years after the silence the world lost more people to the moon and found no answers. A dozen more were wasted in conjecture and consternation. And then it was all forgotten.

    Who could ever know the reason? Georgia thought to herself.  She turned around and looked at the Steel Mile Highway sweeping over the park into the heart of the city and followed an imaginary car speeding along its six broad lanes. 

    The others stood in the shadow of the now empty highway and waved her over. She waved back and walked over to Ceal who took her by the arm and shouted to the children to follow on. ‘Let’s go and see the old houses, there’s something I want to show you.’ Georgia looked at her friend, puzzled, but said nothing. And the children ran ahead under the highway, through its mammoth struts to a pathway taking them out of the park.

    The pale amber glow of sun against flush marble was a familiar sight to Georgia, stepping from one day to another, fifty years back. It was as if it was only the night before last when she was on her way to the Treasure Project Gardens or off to ride the monorail to the other side of town. She felt like visiting her friends, who were probably waiting for her with sweet, warm coffee and plenty of summer talk.

    A sign high above the road flashed a message, ‘WELCOME TO ROCKET CITY. THE TEMPERATURE IS 81°. EASTERLY BREEZE - 6 NOTTS’ It corrected itself every few seconds as the temperature or wind fluctuated. And ghost drivers of the invisible cars smiled and wheeled into the quiet city, visiting, working, passing through and coming home.

     Georgia reached her house with Ceal and the others full of fresh, bright memories, thinking and walking fifty years ago. 

    A single level structure raised twenty feet on a grassy embankment stretched into the distance. Up the embankment, with trails of orchids, ran steps leading up to the doors and a narrow pathway reached along the fronts, past the black, shining windows. Georgia looked but didn’t go up. She turned to see her old neighbours, Ceal and Robert at the top of the steps, they had just come from inside and Ceal was holding something.

    It was a small red book with a rose stem sticking out of its pages.

    Georgia climbed the steps to join them. 

    And each one became a different memory as she touched them, the warm stone sending up moments and feelings of another age. On the first step a monorail cab flashed by overhead into the heart of town. She stopped, looked up, startled. On the second she carried flowers for Ceal, picked from the hills out of town and on the third she squinted at the white glare of fire coming from the rocket above. She paused, her heart racing. On the fourth step she picked an orchid from the ground for Tom when he got back from his latest trip. She always gave him an orchid once he came home.This was usually followed by the promise of only one more mission.

    ‘Georgia,’ Ceal brought her back to now. She looked up. No rocket. There were no flowers in her hand. But there were still orchids growing around their homes, trails, up and down the long embankment waiting to be picked. Ceal handed her a diary, opened at a page in the middle and looked at her friend, ‘Remember?’

    Georgia read the first few lines and smiled. And for the rest of the afternoon they all sat on the edge of the embankment talking, eating and listening to Georgia read from the diary. She told them of the time when, more than half a century ago, she, Ceal and Robert had thrown a party and then walked around the edge of the city, beneath the monorail, taking in everything: the waterfall, the arena dome, the museum, the park and the monorail port. The children sat listening to Georgia talk of these places when they were alive with hundreds of people, thousands of people enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and the warm, amber evenings. She told them that, at the end of their six hour journey around the city, they sat below the rocket launch pad as the sun came up, watching the stars and rocket trails  dissolve into the flooded orange sky. ‘We knew these days couldn’t last forever.’

    ‘I remember that night so clearly,’ Robert looked at the falling sun, ‘Do you recall, Georgia, the following night we didn’t speak. We all stayed in our homes, quietly taking things in, absorbing that trip. I think we needed that quiet evening to take stock,’ he looked around the city, ‘ to appreciate our lives.’

    Georgia glanced over at Robert and his clenched hands. ‘Nothing lasts forever.’

    Both Ceal and Robert were a little surprised to hear Georgia say that, living as she did all these years. 

    As the night took over the children lay silent on the grass, drifting into sleep and not asking to go to the launch pad. Georgia, Robert and Ceal sat looking out at their city, remembering their own times, secret and shared. There was a lot of remembering to do, repressed for a long time now and they were letting it all out wondering silently, and maybe seriously, if they should stay here, if they should come home.

    They stared, drifted and closed their eyes, tired.

    Georgia and Ceal were asleep when Robert called them. They rubbed their eyes, bringing themselves back from their dreams. 

    ‘What is it?’ Ceal looked at Robert. He shook his head. High in the sky, amongst the stars, wavered and flickered a bright, bright light, far brighter than the stars. It moved slowly.

    Georgia shuddered.    

    Robert stood up. The children were still asleep.

    ‘Is it a shooting star?’ asked Ceal.

    No one responded.

    They watched the light grow brighter and move very slowly down the sky. There was total silence and the three looked at each other, now all standing. Ceal grabbed Georgia’s hand and Robert tilted his head from one side to the other, trying to discern the now fist-sized light. They held their breath, not taking their eyes off the object approaching.

    Georgia, tears in her eyes, reached down and pulled an orchid from a patch on the ground.

    She held it in her hands very, very tightly.                                                   

                                                              

The End

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