The big wooden front door opened, creaking and knocking on its journey to the wall, and Jackson looked into the darkened vestibule. A face that he did not recognize emerged. He had last seen Heather over a decade ago at a family reunion in Chicago, where she had started a fight with her boyfriend and caused a scene.
They were both high on something, you could see it in their eyes.
The woman who stood before him was statuesque, with a knowing gaze that made it difficult to hold eye contact for too long.
Could this really be the same Heather as the coked out girl from Chicago?
“Hi, Jackson, welcome home.”
She walked him into his childhood home, and as Jackson stepped across the threshold into the living room, he smelled his childhood in the place- weathered fabric, oiled wood, and the subtle scent of gas that crept from the pushbutton fireplace. They took a route past the kitchen, down the hallway, and made their way past the half-opened door of Jackson’s childhood bedroom. He could see boxes stacked up where his dresser had seemed like a permanent installation as a kid. Heather stopped in front of the sliding pocket door that led into his father’s study.
“Uncle Donald- your father, is asleep right now, but when he wakes up you’ll see that he’s very weak from all the pain, and he gets confused and angry at the drop of a hat. I just want you to be ready for what you’re going to see in here, it’s not the same man you saw- how long has it been since you’ve seen him?”
Jackson knew the answer, but hesitated before responding, “I saw him about ten or twelve years ago while he was speaking at a conference in New York. We had lunch together.”
Heather gave him a sad smile, then slid open the pocket door.
The study was dark, except for some blinking colored lights that stood out from the silhouette of a hospital bed, and a lamp on the desk in the corner, which illuminated a heap of giant binders full of white paper.
“I’ve been working remotely all week,” Heather said, “it’s been a lot easier to get work done if I’m not getting up to check on him every five minutes, so I try to be as close as possible to him at all times. I’ve got a ton of work to get done so I’m basically working around the clock. I should get back to it, you can take whatever bedroom you want, or if you’d like to be closer there’s the living room couch or even the loveseat in here, I could-”
“This is fine, I would like to be close to him,” Jackson stepped into the dim room and over to the little leather loveseat. “I’ll try not to distract you, and if I snore just throw something at me, I’m told that works sometimes.”
“By who? Wife, girlfriend, or other?”
“Mostly ex-girlfriend, but if I’m having a good week, other.” They both chuckled a little.
Jackson thought of the Heather from that family reunion all those years ago, and the dangerous looking man she had brought along with her. “Heather, are you still with that guy from Chicago, the one you brought to the-“”
“No. That was a very different time, Jackson, and a very different person.”
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me to ask, it’s really none-”
“It’s no problem, Jackson, really.”
In his bed, Donald Hartley shifted and muttered. Jackson and Heather gave each other teeth-baring, shrug-shouldered looks at the near-disturbance. Jackson laid down on the loveseat, surveyed the shadowy visage of his father in the high-end hospital bed, glanced over at Heather as she flipped open one of the huge binders and stared intently at its contents, and then sleep pulled him away from the world.
A sharp breeze found a keyhole to whip through, whistling as it diminished to a low cough. Jackson sat up and struggled to shake the sleep out of his head. His father was awake and in a furious state. The lights were on in the room now, and Jackson watched, unable to say anything, as the man who had once been a towering, imposing figure, flailed like a wrinkled piece of tinfoil on the bed. His joints had contorted into painful gnarls, his hair had started to come out in fat, grey clumps, and his eyes were sunken, black pits with pin pricks of grey light at the center. The pain was attacking him all over, and winning the battle. Then Jackson and his father met eyes for the first time in over a decade, and Donald ceased flailing just long enough for Jackson to fantasize that his presence had brought some healing force to his father’s pain-addled body and mind.
Donald pointed a twisted root of a hand at his son and screamed, “The god-damned house, did you see it?! The long stairs! The long. Sta– Oh, god, ahhhhhhhh!”
The terrible scream went on until Donald passed out from the pain. Jackson looked over to Heather, who was writing in one of the binders at quite a pace, not paying any attention to Donald.
“Is this normal?!” Jackson felt hot liquid churn in his belly as a rage began to take form.
Without looking up, Heather replied, “It is, I know it looks bad but it’s all part of this process.”
Then Donald was back awake. He let out a few grunts and growls, then tried to get something besides pain to control his speech.
“The Moon has a FACE on the back!” Donald Hartley passed out again. He was sweating like summer lemonade, and he breathed in great, strained bursts as his eyelids fluttered like a terrible flip book.
“How long has he been this bad?” Jackson asked.
“About a week, maybe a little more,” Heather said without looking up from her work. “The doctor said his body is well into the process of shutting down, so his mind will start to go too.”
Jackson watched his father breathe and twitch and mumble–firm in the clutches of the delirium of life’s twilight (death’s dawn?). He walked to the wall and flipped the overhead lights off, and Heather’s desk lamp and the little lights on the hospital bed once again became the sole light sources in the study. He checked his watch by the light at Heather’s desk: 3:15am.
“Should we bring him into the bedroom?”
“He seems to stay calmer in here, I think it’s all the stuff on the walls that gives him a visual reminder of who and where he is when he wakes up. He seems to have a few more lucid moments in here than when he was confined to the bedroom. Of course, that could just be a coincidence.” She flipped a thick stack of pages from the binder between her pointer and thumb, then licked her thumb and turned several single pages in precise repetition and seemed to reach her destination in the tome.
Jackson looked up at the walls of the study, the moon crept a few fingers of icy light across the familiar showroom.
The study was ornamented with the trophies of a life well-lived, of recognitions given and hard work that paid off. Framed covers and feature articles from ‘Scientific American’, ‘Popular Science’, ‘Air & Space’, and other similar publications heralded the greatest achievements of a man now poised on the threshold between worlds. There were large, elegantly penned certificates and degrees alongside awards of excellence and innovation from various universities, institutions, and governmental agencies. The room was a meticulously crafted summation of all of the things that made Donald Hartley the man he was: The Moon Man, as he had been fondly known in the small town of Colby.
In the Spring of 1968, Jackson’s father sat him down on a bench in the backyard of this very house, and explained that he was going to be working on some very important projects that would help astronauts get around much faster on the Moon. This also meant, his father had explained, that he would need to fly to Florida a few times a year, and that when he was gone he needed Jackson to be the man of the house. The following day at school, Jackson had spouted off about his father’s involvement with the development of what they were calling ‘The Moon Rover,” sending a horde of wide-eyed nine-year-olds home to their parents to relay the news that, “Jacksons dad is an astronaut!” “Jackson’s dad is driving a car on the moon!” Or more outlandish versions, including one which was brought to Donald’s attention when a parent approached him at Colby Elementary’s parent/teacher night inquiring about, “The Moon Gold.” Their son’s imagination had taken some creative liberty with Jackson’s information, and in the boy’s retelling, Donald had become a Moon Miner, unearthing (un- mooning?) ancient and invaluable metals from beneath the Moon’s crust, such as the aforementioned “Moon Gold.”
Now, the Moon Man lay dying.
Donald Hartley awoke several more times that night, as Jackson pulsed between waking and sleeping on the leather loveseat next to the big window that looked out into the backyard. Heather sat steadily working away in her binders, and barely looked up when Donald awoke in the night. The first three times he had emerged from sleep in a state of confusion, signaled by his heavy, panicked breathing which punctuated the darkness until Jackson turned on the light, giving Donald a moment to survey the room and regain his bearings physically and mentally. Only once did he cry out into the night, shortly after 5 a.m. By the time Jackson also awoke, his father was in the midst of a full-on rant.
“…With you. The ones that saw us, Tom, they saw us. We went back down and up the stairs to the field house, but they,” a sob escaped Donald’s throat, and a final, whispered phrase, “saw us.”
Heather scrawled away at her papers, and soon the only sounds in the room were Donald’s breathing and the sound of pen on paper. Jackson slipped into sleep.
He awoke to the smell of coffee and bacon. A plate and a mug had been set on the coffee table next to the loveseat, and there was still steam rising from the big mug and off of the bacon and eggs on the plate. Jackson sipped the black liquid gingerly to test the temperature before gulping deeply. He awaited the jolt from the caffeine as he lifted the plate of food and took a few bites of crispy bacon and well-made soft-scrambled eggs. The food was fantastic, and he was so consumed by quelling the hunger that had grown in his belly that he had almost forgotten his surroundings. He looked up at his father and was taken out of his savory-fueled fantasy land.
Donald Hartley was propped up in his hospital bed, staring out towards the backyard with an intense, unblinking stare. Jackson stepped between his father and the window in an attempt to break the stare and get Donald to focus on him, but his gaze stayed true, as if Jackson was not even in the room.
The Moon Man, the great and powerful mind that built a car that drove on the Moon, had lost his sanity. Without moving his eyes from their locked-in position, Donald began to speak.
“There’s a house on the coast with a staircase in the basement that goes on for miles, down into the earth. Then, without realizing it, the staircase turns itself over in your mind and you start walking up, up, up until you’re emerging from a spire in the castle on the Moon!” Donald Hartley smiled broadly then, and looked up at Jackson, “Isn’t that… isn’t that the most beautiful thing you’ve ever heard? It’s the most…the most beautiful place…”
The low growl that emerged from the old man then, a growl of concession to the pain, a growl of impatience with this world, sent a shiver across Jackson’s shoulders.
“Dad, just, please try to rest, I know you’re tired and confused-“
“Jackson!” He said, as if Jackson had just walked into the room for the first time, “You came all the way here just to see your old dad? You didn’t have to do that, I’m not much fun anymore.” Donald winced as the vice around his insides tightened another half-turn.
“Yea, Dad, I came, how are you feeling?”
“I feel like shit, Jackson!”
Jackson laughed a little, and allowed himself to hope that his father was entering a lucid state. “I got a new job last week, which is why I couldn’t come sooner.”
“I know that!” Donald snapped, “I got you the job, after all!”
“What do you mean?”
“I called George Kimble and asked him to hire you!”
Jackson had to let the name settle for a moment before it came to him. “Dad do you mean Mr. Kimble from the Colby Market?”
“Who else?! Jackson what’s gotten into you?!”
He could see his father was getting very worked up in this time warp, and he let it go.
“Sorry, Dad, why don’t you rest a little?”
Jackson hadn’t thought about Mr. Kimble or the Colby Market in a very, very long time. He did some quick math and decided it had been over twenty-five years since he was hired as a stock boy at the town market. Then Donald was looking at Jackson with fearful eyes.
“They took us out there into the back side, and we saw it, we all saw it. Those men that landed there never knew, but we did, we were the only one’s who knew, and we could never tell anyone, we can never tell anyone.” Donald began sobbing.
“Isn’t there something we can give him to make this stop?” Jackson asked Heather, who was still tending to her paperwork.
“Well it’s 9:30am, and he’s already taken his allowance of medication before noon, we can’t give him more unless you want to deal with a murder investigation.” She picked up a big stack of paper and tapped it vertically on the desk. “He’s dying, Jackson, this is just what the process looks like. Why don’t you go into town and get some fresh air, get some groceries, just take a break from this place.”
“What about you? You’ve been sitting over those papers since I got here last night, did you even sleep?”
“I get all the rest I need.” Heather licked a thumb and flipped a page in one of the massive binders.
“What are you working on?” Jackson asked, genuinely interested in what could keep her slaving away at the desk at such a rate.
“Jackson, it’s all very boring to someone who isn’t insane like me and enjoys this sort of thing. It’s accounting work, and it’s easier to get done when you know your cousin is out getting fresh air and bringing back groceries for lunch and dinner. I’ll keep an eye on him.” She removed her glasses and placed them on the tome, then cocked her head diagonally towards Jackson with raised eyebrows, “Bye, Jackson.”
Jackson had arrived the night before and entered Colby in darkness. Streetlights were scattered and inconsistently maintained along the main stretch of Route 39 that passed through the little town. Now, in the bright light of mid-morning, Jackson drove into the town of Colby, and it revealed itself to him.
As he made his way down Main Street, Jackson found comfort in the buildings from his childhood that still stood tall: The Colby Credit Union, The Colby Free Library, and Town Hall (one of the only buildings in Colby that didn’t bear its namesake). Then he passed by the huge paved parking lot that sprawled before a massive “Stop n’ Save” where the quaint little Colby Market had stood in his youth. He felt like a crater had opened up in his memory center.
Jackson pulled into the parking lot and found a spot, then made his way into the market, where he wandered for a very long time before emerging with four bags of groceries. He finished his tour of Colby in a fog, suspended between Deja Vu, nostalgia, and nightmarish disorientation, like a dream filled with strangers who wear your loved one’s faces.
By the time Jackson returned to the house, it was near dark.
How had day turned to dusk so soon?
Donald was significantly worse by the time he made his return to the study, and the ravings had turned into prolonged mumblings or clumsy whispers. Jackson stayed by his side, he held the old man’s hand and squeezed his shoulder in somber acceptance, until sleep consumed him near midnight.
Before he laid down for the night on the little leather loveseat, his father motioned for him to come close, and though what followed was fragmented and hard to understand, Jackson was used to his father’s speech patterns, and he understood most of what was said, and pieced the rest together.
His father said, “They’ll come for us on our death beds, the ones who saw us. They won’t come while our minds are sound and our lives are happy, they wouldn’t dare violate the rules. They’ll come in our twilight, with our minds breaking loose of their moorings and making voyage out into the sea of the unknowable. They’ll come and hear the secrets they need to make their world whole again.”
Donald died in the small hours of the night with one final, undramatic breath.
Jackson was shaken awake by Heather around 3am, and knew his father was gone before she even spoke, what else could have roused Heather out of her chair and away from her tomes?
They sat together next to the body of the Moon Man, and Heather offered him some words of comfort. Then she went to her binders and began packing them into a milk crate dutifully.
“Heather, what are you doing?”
“I’m so sorry, but I really must be going, I have to be back at the office in the morning, and it’s quite a long trip.”
“What do you mean? You’re leaving now?”
“My boss needs me back immediately.” She began walking towards the big wooden front door.
“Heather, are you sure you can’t–at least–can you stay a few days for the funeral?”
She smiled at him and stopped walking for a moment. “Jackson, I think my work here is done, I really need to report back to my boss with everything I’ve accomplished here.” She gave the stack of binders in the crate a small, indicative heft. “But it really was great to see you again, I can’t say I’ll see you soon, I think I’m going to be busy with this for the foreseeable future, but I hope we see each other again someday, you know, down the line.”
She opened the door, the creaking and whining began. She descended the steps and walked to the far side of her sedan and placed the crate in the backseat.
“Heather, it’s the middle of the night! You’re not even–”
She was looking at him across the roof of her sedan with her head cocked diagonally and her eyebrows raised.
“Bye, Jackson.” She got in the sedan, started the engine, and backed down the driveway.
Jackson stood alone in the misty April night, the full moon beaming down on the lawn, and watched the dirt kick up and blossom before the taillights that drew further and further from him, yet closer and closer together, until finally shifting left, becoming one, and darting off to the right. The light strobed as it passed the bars of the big iron fence before flicking off completely. Then Jackson looked up at the pale beast that had consumed his father in life and in death, and harbored secrets about the man who had showed him so many of the secrets of this world. His father’s delirious rants echoed in his mind.
The most beautiful place…on our death beds…they’ll come.
In the following days, Jackson made preparations for the funeral and cremation as per his father’s will. He called or wrote letters to all the relatives, friends, and colleagues that he was able to find in his father’s address books, and they came in droves. Close to two-hundred people attended over the course of two days and three services. At the final service, a woman arrived in black and locked eyes with Jackson. Jackson had dealt with many people over the last two days who greeted him fondly yet he did not recognize. Jackson went to her and thanked her for coming, and the woman embraced him and spoke.
“Jackson… do you remember me? I’m your Aunt Noreen. It’s been…a very long time.”
A very long time indeed. Jackson had last seen his Aunt at the same family reunion where Heather had made a scene. Noreen was the younger of Jackson’s two aunts on his father’s side, the other, aunt Jessica, was Heather’s mother, and had passed away shortly after Heather was born.
“Aunt Noreen, of course, it’s good to see you.”
“I didn’t receive your letter until two days prior to the funeral, I’m just glad I got it in time.”
“I’m sorry, I tried the numbers in dad’s address books and none of them worked, so I sent the letter. I’m sorry that you had to find out that way.”
“Oh, a letter isn’t such a bad way to deliver news of a death in the family, you did fine.” His Aunt gave him a sad smile that reminded him of the smile Heather had offered him in the hallway.
“Have you spoken to Heather at all?”
“Heather?!” She looked as if he had just asked her to stab herself in the chest, “Why would I have spoken to Heather, Jackson?”
He explained that Heather had been by his father’s side and helped care for him (though reflecting on the last few days, what exactly had she done to help?), and told his aunt about the work and the hurry.
“Jackson, that simply cannot be,” she scrunched her face up in confusion, “Heather is–she’s not well Jackson, she’s in a care facility upstate… she’s been there since she was nineteen… she killed a man in a car wreck and nearly killed herself. She sustained a traumatic brain injury and needs constant care just to stay alive, I highly doubt that she made the trip to Colby, especially all by herself.”
Jackson looked past his aunt and stared at the big walnut casket.
They’ll come…the secrets they need…
Jeff Conklin looks around a lot in New York City. He tries to go to work every day, but some days gets distracted on the way. He can be found in the bright corners of Central Park, writing about the dark corners of the world (spooky, right?). Jeff is pretty sure that when he was eleven he saw a ghost in an abandoned house. He is willing to admit that it could have been a homeless guy, but that would mean that the house wasn’t abandoned, and the guy wasn’t homeless. So, it would have just been a story about a guy in a house, which isn’t nearly as interesting.