This story is by Gayle Woodson and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
“If you’re just tuning in, the maiden voyage of the world’s first space cruise ship may have ended in tragedy. Lunar Loop was due to emerge from the dark side of the moon more than hour ago.”
Marian stared at her television, trying to come to grips with the reality that was unfolding onscreen. A clip recorded just days ago showed her famous son in his blue and white space suit. His voice rang out above the din of preparations for the launch. “This is only the beginning for leisure travel in space. We are on the threshold of boundless opportunities for mankind to see the wonders of the universe.” He winked at the camera. “Thanks, Mom. I couldn’t have done this without you.”
The commentary transitioned into a pre-emptive eulogy. “Lunar Loop was the culmination of Ivan Matson’s amazing career. His accomplishments are even more remarkable, considering the challenges he overcame. He was six years old when his father died. At the age of 13, a mountain lion attack left him in a coma for weeks. Yet he graduated from MIT when he was only 18. Some attribute his life-long fascination with space travel to a childhood in Roswell, New Mexico. Many still believe that a flying saucer crashed near there in 1947, and that the truth was covered up by the US Military. But listen to what Matson said in a recent interview.”
Ivan chuckled and rolled his bright blue eyes. “That Roswell conspiracy theory has quite a following. My hometown thrives on the tourist trade of alien mythology. But there was never any flying saucer. It was just a weather balloon. My interest in space travel is pure wander lust. That incredible night sky in New Mexico is what inspired me. The stars always call to me.”
Marian’s cellphone buzzed. Probably a reporter. She did not feel like talking, which is why she was at home, instead of at mission control.
They would have to be satisfied with interrogating Sally Bivens, the wife of Ivan’s copilot. Sally appeared on a split screen with a reporter who asked a stupid question. “Can you give us a sense of what it’s like, not knowing what has happened to your husband?”
Sally dabbed her eyes with a Kleenex. “I just know, somehow, that he is fine. I can feel it.” Her jaw wobbled for a second before she got her voice back. “This was my husband’s dream for so many years. He has tremendous faith in Ivan Matson. So do I.”
Marian switched the TV to a local channel that was airing an interview with Ty Barnett, one of Ivan’s school chums. Ty recalled the fateful mountain lion attack. “Yumi and I were climbing a steep trail. It’s one we hiked all the time.”
“Yumi. Is that what you called him?”
“Yeah. Weird nickname, I know, but it suited him. Anyway, he was a ways behind me, so I didn’t see exactly what happened. I just heard him yell and next thing I knew he was tumblin’ down the mountain like a rag doll. Then this cougar came outta nowhere, grabbed him by the neck, and dragged him off. Looked like a mama cat totin’ a kitten.”
“What was he like in school? Did you realize that he was a genius?”
“I think that whole trauma knocked some sense into him. He wasn’t that great a student before. You know, a dog-ate-my homework kind of a guy.”
Marian wandered into her son’s bedroom, which was just as it had been on the day he left for college. A smattering of junior high basketball and baseball trophies. A poster of the solar system. The telescope still sat by the window.
The doctors initially pronounced him to be brain dead. She did not believe them at first. After a week, she gave permission to pull the plug. They turned off the ventilator
He kept breathing.
She sat by his bed every day, talking to him, reading to him.
One day, his eyes opened. He spent hours staring at his hands, as if they were foreign objects. Every morning, a doctor would come around and ask the same questions. “What is your name? Do you know where you are? What year is it?”
He paid rapt attention to old movies on the television. In the middle of “Taxi Driver,” Marian laughed out loud when De Niro’s character glared into a mirror and said, “You lookin’ at me?”
Ivan sat up and gazed at her. For a moment, his mouth gaped, and his jaw flapped. Then his voice croaked. “You. . .” He mumbled a couple of unintelligible syllables and then uttered, “Me.”
Maran grabbed his hands, and sobbed as he laughed and repeated, again and again, “You. Me. You. Me.”
The very next morning, a doctor posed the usual question, “What is your name?”
He shouted his response. “You! Me!”
The nickname stuck. Yumi.
He did not fully recover until she took him home. They watched old family videos and pored through school yearbooks. Gradually, her son returned to her, but transformed in some ways. Grateful for his miraculous recovery, he vowed to be a better student.
She was thumbing through a photo album when she heard the television blare out breaking news. “We just had a transmission from Lunar Loop.”
Marian raced into the living room to see a grainy and ghostly image of Copilot Bivens. The audio was scratchy, but his report was intelligible. “Things were going like clockwork, but then we just started descending, as though something was pulling us down. Magnetism, gravity, who knows. Yumi made a controlled crash landing. At first everything went black. Then the lights flickered back on. I knew we were doomed. We had fallen from the slingshot orbit that was supposed to propel us back to earth. All that momentum and kinetic energy was just gone. But Matson kept calm. Said he knew what to do. He went EVA. Must have re-programmed the re-entry rockets.”
The newscaster stared silently down at his desk before looking back into the camera. “Ivan Watson did not reboard the spacecraft. He succeeded in saving Lunar Loop. But he will not be coming home to Earth.”
A spokesman from Ivan’s company provided a statement. “We have control of the craft and are guiding it home. We’ll determine exactly what happened when we review the black box. Ivan Matson was a visionary. He had foreseen the possibility of a crash. He had a plan, a back-up strategy. A plan to save others, but not himself.”
Marian closed her eyes and clenched her fists against her face. The grief was unbearable, but not a shock. She had always known that someday she would lose him. It had been a wise decision to stay at home. Better to bear the sorrow alone, rather than in view of millions of gawkers.
She walked outside to sit on the porch swing and stare up at the stars.
Big mistake. A reporter emerged from a camera van and sprinted across the lawn, clutching a microphone. “The world mourns with you in your loss. Would you please make some comment for our listeners?”
Marian thought for a moment before responding. “He achieved what he set out to do. I know that his soul will always be out there.”
The reporter prattled on. “Roswell will certainly give him a hero’s welcome when the recovery flight retrieves his body.”
A golden glow appeared on the horizon, the harbinger of the full moon.
Her chest ached, but it was comforting to know that there would be a recovery flight. It would be a relief to finally bury her son.
They would probably find his body. But they would not find a trace of a mother ship, left there long ago by a pilot who took a tiny reconnaissance craft to Earth.
She had suspected the truth for years before Yumi came clean with her. He had not killed her son. Ivan had died in the fall. The alien had simply taken over his body and reprogrammed his brain.
Marian did not completely understand the science but recalled his explanation. “I am essentially a program, written in molecular code, something like DNA. I’ve occupied so many creatures through the years—eagles, lizards, snakes, a lion . . . Think of me as a complex, benevolent virus.”
The full moon slowly emerged, a huge orange disc hovering over the edge of the earth.
Yumi’s ultimate goal had always been to escape. Becoming human was his only chance. It took years. But what are decades to one who has travelled the universe for millennia?
In his quest, he had morphed into her loving son and had left a valuable legacy for mankind.
Now he was finally free.
The craft that crashed near Roswell long ago was small and flimsy. There had been no need for a massive flying saucer.
After all, how much does a soul weigh?
At last report, twenty-one grams.