My watch digs needlepoint fingernails into my scalp as I clutch at a few strands of hair. I’ve tried and failed to get up out of this ass-sucking bean bag chair twice, but it has the power of quicksand on speed. I would’ve gone for another chair, but the hospital’s furniture is designed by some airhead grad student, and every bench, rocker and love seat is either fiberglass cylinders with a metal rod for a spine, a converted urinal, or shitty booby-trapped bean bags. Another low moan, like a dying animal, oozes out of the wall behind me, muffled and wet. I sink further into the bag, letting the sound of its insides sloshing around block out the bubbling wails next door.
“You’re going to get scoliosis.” Mom is rubbing the top of her ring finger with her thumb, popping the joint in and out of place. Her wedding ring is sitting on the Rolling Stone on the coffee table, another squat cylinder with dry erase markers in a little pocket on the side of the cylinder. The nurse told me I could draw something to express my feelings. Some kid’s already drawn a toilet, and that sums it up for me. Mom slipped her sandals off a while ago, and now her bare feet are squeaking on the linoleum floor. It’s like listening to a broken clock, with her cracking and popping and squeaking, but it helps me ignore the man in the other room.
“You shouldn’t blame him, you know.” My mother slips her wedding ring back on and flips open the magazine. “It’s not like he ever told you he was Schwarzenegger.”
I wonder if I should move to one of the urinals, but I already feel like shit and don’t want to act the part. I dig into my pants pocket, pulling out my phone. There’s a folder under the Text app that has every e-mail my dad ever texted me. He said he couldn’t mail me pictures because they took too long to send, and screwed up the measurements from the lab computers. The waves all got mixed up in the upper atmosphere, and the satellites didn’t always work and weren’t always pointing in the right direction. A ton of Dad’s texts ended up zipping to a little moon being twisted apart by Jupiter. He thought it was funny when that happened. I did too.
I opened the folder and scrolled down with my thumb, picking a text at random.
Matthew! Found Opportunity space rover. Solar panel sticking out of the dust. Thought it was residual boulder w/ unusual mineral striations. Instead found $30 million robot! Dug it up, tied it to belt, and wheeled it back to base. Opportunity tangled up in a knot and blind, but I think I can use some of her parts. Still no aliens. Will report to you first if spotted. Dad.
I sent him back a photo of a drawing I’d done of him, a huge G.I. Joe dude in a spacesuit dragging a tank with laser eyes by a rope slung over his shoulder: He stooped, planting his feet against the red ground. The robot’s laser eyes just missed his head, chipping off a chunk of his helmet. Dad was losing air fast, but he kept going. A couple green aliens with huge black eyes watched him from behind a boulder. Martians were always ready to strike, especially against big-time astronauts like Dad. I also drew about eighty million stars in the background, giant wads of blue and red and yellow scribbles, because Dad wanted to know what they looked like. He liked the picture, but said that Opportunity only had one laser, for looking at rocks. I thought a million-dollar robot on another planet was pretty lame if it had a radioactive superweapon on board and only used it to collect rocks, but my Dad was still a hero for finding it. He wasn’t in the picture of the twisted metal ball, but I knew who had found it.
Matthew. Lay flat on the biodome to watch the wind. Dust devil ripped reflector panels off local satellite dish. Visiting astronauts bounced off to repair it. One is 3-time marathon winner but we still outran him. We can outrun anybody. Got back before the wind started up again. You should see the wind flailing here. It howls and moans like it’s starving. If you stand in a funnel, you can even see the Sun.
I went to school the day after I got this text with a homemade gold medal, because my dad was the first black man in space and the first man to kick Angel Djobin’s ass in a marathon. Mom bought me a new pair of running shoes. I texted a photo of them to Dad.
“Matthew, don’t text your friends. Not now.” Mom hurls the magazine down with a smack and slips her sandals back on, stalking to the big glass window on the opposite wall. Shadow slouches in the attached hospital room. It should be bright inside, but the doctor says the patient doesn’t do well with bright light. I roll myself out of the bean bag, jumping up and down on the balls of my feet to hide the trembling in my knees.
My stomach still flops around like a dying snake, even after the doctor explains all the science to me, why the alien looks the way it does. It’s colder there; it needed more natural covering than a person on Earth. Less sunlight there; no use for a tan. Dark and dusty; you have to see and shield your eyes so they aren’t sliced open by bits of rock taking spinning at sixty miles per hour. Less gravity; no need for heavy bones.
The creature on the bed heaves and bucks like a sun-poisoned centipede, veins and muscles sharp as a roadmap against its pale, dry skin, which sheds whole flaking chunks on the mattress. Some of its wasp’s-nest hide is already rotting on the shiny linoleum floor. There are straps holding him down, tearing whole new hunks of yellow skin off its chest and legs.
The creature is tied down because most of its bones cracked like glass as soon as its feet hit solid ground just outside the exit ramp of a star-spangled space shuttle. It was a tangle of skinny limbs, bones sticking out of the skin every which way, dripping thick, black blood onto the tarmac. Mom and I both wore windbreakers and scarves, but the creature screamed about the heat and the light, though I couldn’t see how the thing saw any light under those pleated eyelids and rows of pale eyelashes. I thought it was wearing a coat until I saw the thick tufts of fur growing up its legs, arms and chest, pale and matted with tarry blood and red spit. Mom ran up to the alien and hid her face under her hood while the medics wrapped it in insulation foil that looked like garbage bags. I just sat down under a jet, twirling my phone in my hands while the ambulance arrived to take Dad away and the reporters shook the chain-link fence around the spaceport, trying to get a good picture of the ice cream sundae of a creature melting on the tarmac. All my friends were watching on the television. The first black man born in space coming home again.
“I should have told you,” Mom says. The glass squeals under her fingernails as she traces a line down the observation window. “He’s not what you expected, I know.”
Mom is beautiful, her skin the color of stained pine. Her hair looks like those wigs they use in commercials, a veil of melting volcanic rock. “You’re telling me that’s my father? You slept with that thing? He’s an alien!” My hand smacks against the glass, bruising my knuckles. Mom’s wedding ring socks me in the jaw as she slaps my face.
“Your father is a human being who wanted to have a child. He has done impossible things and lived his whole life on another planet. You should be happy. You wanted a superhero, didn’t you? Someone special? Someone your friends would never forget? Well, you certainly got that.”
She prowls back to the magazine table and gives it a vicious kick, sending the cylinder flying. Someone’s drawn a bad smiley face on this one, its chin drooping down because you can’t draw on a cylinder without holding it between your legs, pinned down like a pro wrestler. The creature in the next room gurgles again, one of its hands twitching. I wander over to one of the urinal chairs, plop down and hide my face behind my phone.
Mom’s hand warms my shoulder and I bite my cheek to keep from sobbing. I’d send a text if I knew my dad would answer. I tell myself he’s busy, burying a wrecked robot in the middle of the Martian desert, the dust-banded Sun glowing on his warm, brown skin.
I wanted to put this story on Tumblr because it’s being edited so often that I hate to keep spamming my friends with new versions, so I’m posting the story here so that it can be easily edited and viewed by all of my wonderful friends and their helpful red-ink suggestions. Tell me what you think: suggestions, problems, etc.!