Posts Tagged ‘Mike Murphy’

The Change

by Mike Murphy

It was the morning of the 12th when 34-year-old Simon Baker first noticed The Change.

He was sitting on the toilet in his cramped upstairs bathroom when he saw a sudden flash of yellow in the vanity mirror to his left. He leapt to his feet, thinking a bumblebee had gotten into the house. He and his wife, Loretta, had been having problems with them lately. What he saw in the mirror stopped him in his tracks. For nearly a minute, he stared at his reflection.

The yellow he had seen was his own hair.

But how? His hair had always been black. He had never dyed it. Whenever Wendy, his stylist, suggested putting various lotions and potions on it, he always politely declined. “As long as it stays on my head,” he’d say, “just cut it.”

He rubbed his eyes in disbelief and ran his fingers through his hair. Yup, definitely blond. Even the stubble on his face was blond. His arms, his chest. . . everywhere . . . blond. Frightened, he ran down the hall to the bedroom. “Honey!” he called.

Loretta grumbled and pulled the comforter over her head. “Let me sleep,” she pleaded. “I told you that I don’t have to be at work until ten this morning.”

“But, sweetheart –”

“Go take your shower. I’m not ready to face the world yet.”

“But it’s important!” Simon pleaded.

Loretta unhappily poked her head out from under the comforter. “What?”

“Is that all you have to say?” he asked incredulously.

“What, honey?” she replied, sitting up in bed.

“Look at me!” He gestured at his entire body with his hands.

Loretta did so. “Yeah?” she asked.

“Don’t you see?”

“Simon,” she answered, after a yawn, “I’m in no mood for games.”

“I’m a blond!” he exclaimed.

“You just noticed this?” his wife replied.

“Huh?”

“You’ve always had blond hair,” she returned. “Now let me sleep!” She settled down on the mattress and pulled the comforter back over her head.

“Loretta, please,” Simon pleaded.

“You’re talking to the dead,” she replied. “You’d better get ready for work.”

“But –”

“Go!” Loretta exclaimed, her right index finger jutting out from under the covers like The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Defeated, Simon gave up and shambled back to the bathroom. On the way there, he passed the series of pictures hanging on the wall, including the one from his and Loretta’s wedding day – when he had blond hair.

#

“I’m afraid you’re wrong,” Dr. Manderson said, opening Simon’s file and flipping to a certain page. “Look here,” he continued, pointing at a particular line. “Hair: Blond.”

“Are you saying I don’t know what color my own hair is?” Simon asked, squirming on the examining table.

“Are you saying my records have been wrong all these years?” Manderson countered.

Simon sighed. “I don’t know.”

“You’ve been a patient of mine since your twenties,” the doctor went on. “Don’t you think I would have noticed that mistake by now? Something simple like that. . . well . . . it’s Doctoring 101.”

“Can we assume for a moment that I’m right?” Simon asked.

“On a medical point?” Manderson replied.

Please?”

“OK,” the doc answered after a pause, “but just to play devil’s advocate.”

“What could cause something like this to happen?” Simon asked, gesturing at his hair.

“Nothing I’m aware of.”

“How about that alo. . . Oh, what is it called?” Simon fumbled. “A guy in the office had it.”

“Alopecia?” the doctor suggested.

“That’s it!”

“Alopecia makes your hair fall out,” Manderson explained, “not change color.”

#

The next morning, The Change had continued.

“Honey,” Simon began, stomping into the bedroom.

“What is it this morning, dear?” Loretta asked, completing her work outfit by putting on her earrings in front of their dresser mirror.

“My eyes,” Simon continued, pointing at them.

She paused and turned to her husband. “What about them?”

“What color are they?”

“More of this?” Loretta said, getting exasperated.

“Come on!”

“They’re blue,” she answered. Ready for work now, she took a few steps forward and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Blond hair and blue eyes,” she continued seductively, giving him a peck on the cheek. “What girl wouldn’t have fallen for you?”

“But have my eyes always been blue?”

Loretta sighed and released him. “Honey,” she said, “you have nothing to worry about but, if you are concerned, maybe you should go see the doctor.”

“I saw Manderson yesterday.”

“I wasn’t talking about him.”

“Then who. . . You mean Segal, don’t you?” Simon asked.

“He could help.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me upstairs!”

“If you say so.”

“And I refuse to visit a psychiatrist,” Simon said adamantly.

#

After Loretta left for work, Simon started poking around the house. In every picture he found of himself – even from the days before he and Loretta met – he had blue eyes, not, as he recalled, brown. Even on his driver’s license, it said “Eyes: Blue.”

He grabbed a Coke out of the fridge, sat down at the kitchen table, and tried to think about his problem like it wasn’t his problem. If one of his pals came to him and mentioned that he had this weird problem, what would he advise him?

It occurred to him that The Change must be happening overnight, while he slept. Everything was as he remembered before he fell asleep: He had black hair; he had brown eyes. If he just stayed awake. . .

But how long could he do that? One night, maybe.

It turned out to be less than that and, when he awoke, he was taller.

#

He went to his toolbox and got out the tape measure. Measuring his height with the cranky metal thing wasn’t easy, but his best guess was six-foot-three. No one in his family had ever been over six feet tall.

Even stranger, when he got dressed without giving another thought to his new-found height, he discovered that all of his clothes still fit! How could they? He bought them for someone five-foot-ten. Had they grown with him? The tags on the clothing proved him wrong. They were all in sizes he had never purchased. . . sizes that would have been swimming on the five-foot-ten him.

Maybe he did need to see Dr. Segal after all.

#

“It’s like looking in a mirror.”

From his tattered clothing, dirty appearance, and the bedroll he was sitting on while leaning against the drugstore’s outside red brick wall, Simon assumed the grizzled old man was homeless. He approached him carefully. The old guy noticed his cautious footsteps and, amused, motioned him over with a cupped hand. “I won’t bite ya!” he said with a chuckle.

“What did you say?” Simon asked, standing in front of him at what he deemed a safe distance. “Something about a mirror.”

“I looked like you once.”

Many years ago,” Simon added.

“Not as many as you’d think,” he continued. “Blond hair, blue eyes.” He looked Simon up and down. “I see she made you taller though,” he added.

“She?” a confused Simon inquired.

“The Mrs.,” the old man explained. “Loretta.”

“How can you –” Simon began, surprised.

“That is her name.”

“Who are you?” Simon asked.

The old man stood to face him. “Harold Dixon,” he answered, holding out his hand for Simon to shake. “I’m Loretta’s previous husband.”

#

Simon started laughing. “Did I say something funny?” Dixon asked, withdrawing his ignored hand.

“That’s a good trick.”

“Trick?”

“To get money out of me.”

“I don’t want your money,” Dixon told him.

“Right!” Simon replied with a chuckle. “And that bit about being her first husband. . .”

“I didn’t say first,” Dixon clarified, pointing at Simon. “I said I was her previous husband.”

“Oh,” Simon continued, amused. “How many husbands has she had?”

“I’m at least number 4, that I can prove,” he went on. “There may have been one or two more around the time of the American Revolution, but I couldn’t nail down those facts for certain.”

Simon laughed. “You are nuts!”

“I was married to your wife.”

“You’re more than twice her age.”

“I’m 37.”

“And I’m 18,” Simon replied sarcastically.

“Does she still have that heart-shaped birthmark on her left shoulder?” Dixon asked. Simon was shocked. How could anyone else know that? “She did this to me,” Dixon continued. “I displeased her, and she did this. I swear,” he went on, “I’m not much older than you.”

“Loretta’s never been married before.”

“She told you that too, huh?” Dixon continued. “She never admitted it to me either, but, once I started doing some research, I learned the truth.”

“Which is?” Simon asked, prompting the old man to speak.

“That’ll cost you a cup of coffee,” the old man said after a pause.

“I knew it!” Simon replied, starting to pace. “You are trying to get money out of me.”

“Not money. Coffee.”

“Which costs money.”

Shaking his head, Simon stopped pacing and turned to walk away. “Aren’t you the least bit curious?” Dixon called after him.

Simon stopped in his tracks and turned to face the old man. “About?” he asked.

“How I knew your wife’s name, for one. How could I guess a name like ‘Loretta?’” he inquired. “It’s not like she’s named ‘Mary.’”

“OK,” Simon responded, taking a few slow steps closer to Dixon. “You got me there.”

“And the birthmark?”

“Yes,” Simon replied. “That too.”

“There are some other things that you really ought to know. . . things that could save your life.” Dixon motioned at the doughnut shop across the street. “Coffee?”

#

Simon returned to the table carrying two large, black coffees. Dixon thanked him as he put one down in front of the old man. Simon didn’t really believe him, but he was curious to see how far Dixon would carry on this charade and to learn what was behind it.

It reminded him of the old joke where the man invites two Jehovah’s Witnesses into his home. He makes them a nice lunch and then asks them what they want to talk to him about. The two Witnesses look oddly at each other. One of them replies, “I don’t remember. We’ve never gotten this far before.”

“So,” Simon said, sitting down across from Dixon, a small circular table between them. “Spill it.”

“I asked you here,” Dixon began, “for some privacy too. I didn’t want to tell you what I need to tell you out in the open.”

“Very considerate,” Simon said, amused.

Dixon took a big swig from his cup, as though to steel himself. “Loretta’s. . . a succubus,” he said.

“Is she?” Simon replied, smiling.

“Yup,” Dixon continued. “A demon who thrives on the strength and souls of young men.”

“Uh huh,” Simon continued.

“Is the sex good?” Dixon asked nonchalantly after a beat.

Simon practically spat his coffee. “What?” he said incredulously.

“Is the sex good?” Dixon repeated.

“That’s none of your goddam business.”

Dixon chuckled. “Yeah,” he said wistfully, “it was good for us too.”

“Mr. Dixon –”

“Some of the best I ever had,” he continued wistfully, though Simon didn’t want to hear. “A strong woman. Insatiable. Every time we finished, I felt like I had been hit by a truck! That’s how she first gets to you – saps your energy. . . and your soul.” Simon began to rise. “She’s everything you ever wanted in a woman, isn’t she?” Dixon asked quickly.

“She is,” Simon answered, sitting back down.

“It’s like God Himself made her for you?”

“Damn right.”

“And now, she’s re-making you for herself – making you into what she wants – her ideal man: Blond hair, blue eyes, tall. Every morning, it’s something different, isn’t it? I call it The Change.”

“You’re quite a storyteller.”

“That’s when she’s best able to take your life force. . . when you’re asleep. You’re the most vulnerable then.” Dixon reached forward and grabbed Simon by the shoulder. “Think about it, man!” he stressed. “These changes you’ve been going through, what’s the common element?”

Simon shook his head. “You’ve lost me.”

“You’re not changing yourself, right?”

“Hell no!” he answered.

“Then all that’s left is. . .”

“Loretta?” Simon offered.

Dixon took a big drink. “She can assume any shape she wants – whatever her victim finds attractive.” He removed his hand from Simon’s shoulder. “She’s using you and, eventually, she’ll drain you dry.”

“Then how are you still around?” Simon asked.

“I recognized what she was doing. I ran, but not fast enough. She was able to take some of me permanently.” He touched a hand to his chest. “This is all that remains,” he sadly said.

“Why would she have stopped?”

“I don’t know,” the older man continued after a sigh and a swig. “Maybe she figured she might need me again. Maybe she had you in the on-deck circle and saw no reason to kill me. Why waste energy, right?”

“Or,” Simon went on, “maybe you’re full of it.”

“You can think that if you like,” Dixon said, peering down sadly at the table. “I felt an obligation to tell you, and I’ve done that.” He drained his cup, rose from his seat, leaned on the table, and continued. “If you wake up tomorrow a. . . a ‘changed man,’” he said, “don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“If what you’re saying has the slightest bit of truth to it,” Simon asked, looking up at Dixon, “and that’s a big if, what would you have me do?”

“Run!” Dixon answered, slamming a palm down on the table and speaking a bit too loudly. “Run fast and far. Forget how good the sex is and run. . . before you end up old before your time – like me.”

#

Simon was glad Loretta wasn’t home from the market yet. He quickly Googled “succubus” on his laptop. A lot of what Dixon had told him was there; some of it wasn’t. He was reading the Wikipedia entry when he heard his wife’s car in the driveway. He quickly shut down his computer and went to the front door to meet her.

#

The last of the groceries put away, Loretta asked Simon, “So, what did you do today?”

“Nothing much,” he replied, closing a cabinet door. “Just some errands. The drugstore, stuff like that.”

She seductively walked up to him and slung her arms around his neck. “Your nurse is right here,” she whispered. “I’ve even got the uniform. Remember?” She started planting several small kisses on his chest.

“N-Not tonight, honey,” Simon stammered.

“I thought you’d liked my nurse’s uniform,” Loretta went on, pretending to be hurt.

“Oh, I do, I do,” her husband continued, chuckling uneasily. “There are a lot of good memories in that outfit!”

“Then what?” she asked insistently.

“I’m. . . just not feeling too well.”

“What is it?”
“A cold coming on, I think,” he answered, throwing an errant sniffle in for good measure. “Achy and sniffly. Feeling. . . blah.”

“Anything I can do?” Loretta asked, concerned.

“Thanks, but I don’t think so,” Simon answered. “I’m gonna take a couple of aspirins and call it a night.”

#

Simon awoke with a start in the early morning light. He knew he’d had one of those can’t-get-away dreams. He wiped the beads of sweat from his brow and looked at the blankets-covered sleeping form of Loretta beside him.

His wife. His love. How could she be anything but the woman he had fallen for? Why did he allow himself to even think otherwise? He spooned into her, which always calmed him, and waited for sleep to return.

In an instant, he realized that something was very wrong. Loretta felt. . . different – hard and wrinkly. He boosted himself up on one elbow and slowly pulled the covers from her shoulder. “Honey?” he said, shaking her gently.

He had never screamed so loudly.

What he had been spooning to were the very dead remains of Harold Dixon.

All the “air” had been let out of him. He looked like one of those “Happy Birthday” balloons several days after the big event. His deflated face was contorted in the agony he must have felt at the moment of his death. Afraid to touch the man’s remains anymore, Simon kicked it from the bed with his bare feet. It landed with a squish on the hardwood floor.

Loretta walked calmly into the bedroom from the hall. She appraised the situation for a few seconds and looked pleased. “You really should delete your browsing history,” she said.

Simon sat up nervously, glancing alternately at Dixon’s corpse and his wife. “You mean

it’s. . . it’s. . .” he stammered.

“True?” Loretta suggested, walking toward their bed. “Yes.” She sat down on the corner of the mattress and reached out for him. Simon pressed himself against the wooden headboard. Loretta chuckled. “Are you afraid of me?” she asked.

“N-No.”

“You should be,” she said.

“Why did you. . .” Simon began, looking down at Dixon’s remains.

“Covering my tracks,” she explained. “When I saw what you were Googling, I knew you must have run into Harold. He was my only living ex-husband.”

“But you let him live.”

“Only because I had found you, and you could do whatever I needed. . . and more. . . better than he.” She sighed and added, “I’m not happy with what you did, sweetheart.” Her words visibly frightened Simon, who tried unsuccessfully to push back beyond the limits of the headboard. “But I’ll forgive you. . . this time.”

“Where. . . Where do we go from here?” he asked nervously.

“Just a few minor tweaks should be enough,” Loretta explained. “If I say ‘jump,’ I want you to say ‘how high?’”

“Of course,” Simon quickly answered.

“If I have some womanly needs to be satisfied, I’ll expect you to be there.”

“You got it.”

“You should know,” she went on, “that I don’t have anyone else lined up. If you’re not good to me, you’re gone. I won’t be as lenient as I was with Harold here.”

“Not to worry.”

“I prefer to make the changes overnight,” Loretta continued. “But I can make them while you’re awake too. I’ve made you handsomer, lover. I can also make you uglier.”

“I’m. . . I’m sure you can.”

“How would you like to be the size of a garden gnome, to be covered in warts, to be a hunchback?” She reached out and cupped his blond, stubbly chin in her palm. “You’re so pretty now. Don’t make me angry.” She stood quickly and, looking down at Dixon’s deflated remains, said, “Now get out of bed and clean this place up.”

#

There has been no trouble at the Baker house for many months. Simon believes that his eyes have become bluer and his hair blonder, but he can’t be sure. There’s no sense in asking anyone. He’s begun doing little things for his wife that he never did before, especially if she doesn’t seem too happy in the morning when she leaves for work.

Loretta doesn’t have to tell him to be good. The slightly stinky garment bag hanging in his closet, which holds the decomposing remains of Harold Dixon, is reminder enough.

END

Whisper My Name to the Stars

by Mike Murphy

 

 

I’ve been visiting the Commonwealth Pub in Boston – whenever I’m on Earth – for about six years. A space jockey’s life can be pretty hectic, especially since the Oporians arrived. They took some getting used to – with their two heads, six eyes, and all – but they opened new vistas to vacation-hungry Earthers in need of my kind of transport.

I quickly spotted the man who had called me a few days ago and set up this meeting: Professor Douglas Pierce. I knew it was him because he was so out of place. He was wearing a three-piece suit, which no one does anymore, with a red tie. He was nursing a drink and glancing around. I think he was trying to spot me.

I approached him slowly and asked, “Professor Pierce?”

“Yes?” he answered, looking up from his chair.

“Ray Whitfield.”

“Pleased to meet you,” he said. “Have a seat.” I sat down across from him, the small table between us. “Would you like a drink?” he asked me.

“No thanks,” I answered. “I never drink when I’m talking business.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he continued, holding up his glass reverently. “They make a gin and tonic here that is pure nectar.”

I chuckled and said, “I’ll take your word on that, Professor.”

“Please call me ‘Doug.’”

“OK, and I’m ‘Ray.’”

“I hear ‘Professor’ all day long from my students. It’s nice to hear my given name every once in a while.”

“If you don’t mind me cutting to the chase, I’ve had a long day,” I told him. “What’s on your mind?”

“I want to hire you.”

“What’s the destination?”

“The Wentek Cluster.”

“That’s pretty far away,” I said, telling him something he already knew. “Even at best speed, it’ll take about two weeks’ travel time.”

“Can you get me there?” he inquired.

“My ship can get anyone anywhere, but it won’t be cheap.”

“How much?” he asked. “Can you give me a ballpark?”

“I’d guess around. . . 30,000 new dollars.”

Deal,” he said quickly, surprising me. “When can we leave?”

“That’s a new area of space to us Earthers,” I continued. “I’ll need to get some travel permits and check my ship’s systems. We’ll be far from any repair docks.”

“How long will that take?”

“About a week,” I said.

“So we could arrive at the Cluster. . . three weeks from now?”

“Yeah,” I told him, “but you haven’t even seen my ship.”

“No need,” he added. “Your reputation precedes you.” He reached into his shirt pocket and removed his debit card. He scanned his thumbprint on the marker, and the tiny screen flickered on. He handed it to me. “I have more than enough for the trip.”

I quickly looked at the listed balance. “I never doubted you,” I said, handing him back his card.

“Then we have a deal?”

“We do.”

“You’ll get me a contract?” he asked.

“I don’t use anything like that,” I informed him, holding out my hand. “This is enough for me.” He had a firm handshake. “I’ll get started on the preliminary stuff in the morning,” I went on.

“Wonderful!” he said, taking a big, celebratory sip of his gin and tonic.

“How long will you want to stay at the Cluster?”

“Not long.”

“You’re the boss,” I confirmed. “I’ll need half the money before we leave and the other half upon our return to Earth.”

“You’ll have it.”

“Say,” I continued after a brief pause, “you’re a smart guy.”

“The University likes to think so,” he responded.

“You don’t believe what some people say about the Cluster, do you? About it being the

. . . gateway?”

“No,” Doug said. “There would have to be a Heaven for there to be a gateway from here to there.”

I was surprised. “You don’t believe in Heaven?”

“In my 55 years on this Earth, Ray,” he explained, “I haven’t seen one scrap of scientific evidence to verify its existence.” He threw back the rest of his gin and tonic. “Now,” he went on, “since we’re done discussing business, how about that drink?”

 

It was the Oporians who first introduced us to the Wentek Cluster. In their language, they call it “pruftar.” Roughly translated, it means “the gateway to the souls.”

Earth’s leading scientists have focused their most powerful equipment on the Cluster, with no results worth mentioning. Some religious people believe it’s an intrusion into our space of Heaven, while other people say that is ridiculous.

 

The licenses were secured, and Esther was ready to fly. That’s the name of my ship – after my late mother. Doug met me at Platform C of the Mayflower Space Port the following morning at 8:00 a.m. He had a suitcase with him and a satchel holding term papers to grade. “A teacher’s work is never done,” he told me.

I showed him to his quarters. He was surprised that I was the crew. He handed me his debit card. I pressed my thumb against the marker, and half of my fee was transferred to my account.

We lifted off at 8:14 a.m. The Boston skyline vanished, and the black of space enveloped us. A ship-wide diagnostic showed all systems were functioning fine.

If I suspected what was going to happen when we arrived at the Cluster and how it would still haunt me today, I would have turned Esther around and forfeited the thirty grand.

 

“I’m looking forward to seeing the Cluster close up,” I said. “I hear it’s beautiful.”

“I’ve heard the same thing,” Doug responded.

Esther is fully equipped for video and audio recording, you know.”

“Is she?”

“No extra charge.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.

 

The trip proved uneventful. Esther performed as I knew she would. We arrived at the Cluster right on schedule.

Its billing was absolutely correct. It was an incredibly beautiful sight that filled the view screen. The Cluster was composed of seven separate stars swirling about each other in a random cosmic dance. As each star moved, it left a pink trail behind it. The trails coalesced into a great pink cloud in the center. The swirling cloud reminded me of a painting, with the dancing stars serving as the picture frame. I focused Esther’s sensors on the Cluster. None of the information we received back made any sense.

 

“May I use the communications system?” Doug asked as we both admired the celestial show.

“Sure,” I responded. “One problem though: We’re pretty far from Earth. Any message will take a while to get there.”

“I don’t want to send a message to Earth,” my passenger said.

“No?”

“I want to send a message into the Cluster.”

I paused, trying to understand, but had to ask, “Why?”

Doug got a far-away look on his face. He was remembering something, something wonderful. “Ever been married?” he asked.

“Never,” I replied. “You?”

He nodded silently. “For more than twenty years. Karen was the joy of my life.”

“She died?”

“About seven years ago,” he answered, trying not to choke up.

I suddenly understood his motive behind this trip. “You believe what people say about the Cluster being a gateway to Heaven, don’t you?” I asked him.

“I’m not certain.”

“At the bar, you said you didn’t believe it.”

“Would you have brought me out here if you thought I was a religious kook?” he went on. “Can we fly Esther into that thing?”

“With the crazy sensor readings we’re getting, I can’t be sure,” I said. “It could be lethal.”

“I can’t let this opportunity pass!” he exclaimed. “If there’s any truth to. . .”

“There’s no harm in trying to contact her,” I told him. “We can go from there.”

 

 

 

Doug bent uneasily over the comm panel. His hands were quivering. He rubbed his eyes and squinted at the controls. He knew that this moment – right now – held the answer to his prayers or the dashing of his hopes. He shakily pressed a few buttons and turned some dials to focus the comm beacon at the Cluster.

At first, all that came out of the speakers was static. Then. . .

 

“This is Douglas Pierce,” he broadcast, spacing his words carefully. “I’m trying to reach my wife, Karen. If anyone can hear –”

A woman’s voice came on the speaker amid the undulating static. . . a voice that sounded familiar. “Is Ray with you?” she asked.

Doug was confused to have gotten a wrong number. “Yes,” he said, “he’s. . .  right here.” He looked up at me. “It’s. . . uhm. . . for you.”

I moved closer to the mike. “This is Ray Whitfield,” I said. “Who’s this?”

“You don’t recognize my voice?” she asked, sounding a little hurt.

Mom?

“That’s right!” Esther replied.

“Where. . . Where are you?” I asked nervously.

“In the Cluster.”

“Then it is a gateway!” Doug exclaimed.

“It is,” Esther told him.

“Fantastic!” Doug responded.

“Mom, I. . . I don’t know what to say,” I stuttered.

“Are you well?”

“I’m OK,” I assured her, “but I’ve gotta go. I have a customer here who’s –”

“Someone’s looking for Mrs. Pierce right now,” Esther said. “Hold on a minute.”

The static rose to a crescendo and then started to slowly fade. Doug hunched over the comm panel, his face hopeful, but ashen. When a new female voice came over the speaker, tears began pouring down his cheeks. “Doug?” she anxiously asked through the static. “Doug, are you there?”

“Karen?” Doug choked out. “Is that you?”

“It’s me,” she said.

Doug was straining to hear her. “Is there any way to clean up the signal?” he asked me.

“I’m afraid not,” I told him. “There’s all kinds of interference coming from the Cluster.”

“Are you still there, dear?” Karen asked anxiously.

“I’m here,” Doug answered, choking up even more. “God, I miss you!”

“I miss you too, sweetheart, but we need to talk fast.”

“Why?” he asked.

“The Cluster’s intrusion into normal space is accidental,” Karen explained. “The powers that be in here are working on a way to close it off as soon as possible.”

“Why do that?” I asked.

“They say the Cluster provides proof of an afterlife and that faith can’t have proof.” The static began worsening. “I don’t know how much longer we’ll be able to talk.”

“Karen,” Doug asked anxiously, “do you have any idea what would happen if we piloted this ship into the Cluster?”

“Doug, we –” I began.

“No,” the voice told him. “It could be very dangerous.”

“Does anyone there know?”

The static grew very loud. If she was still talking to us, Karen’s voice was overpowered by it. Doug began randomly pushing buttons on the panel. “Help me, Ray,” he pleaded. “Get her back!”

I tried a few tricks, to no avail. “No good,” I said. “It’s like the signal’s being jammed.”

“That’s it!” he agreed. “No communications. That must be the bigwigs’ first step.”

I put one hand gently on his shoulder. “I’m glad you got to talk with her again,” I told him.

“What are you saying?” Doug continued, spinning about to face me. “This isn’t the end.”

“What more is there to do?”

He paced the deck briefly. “Do you have a lifeboat on this ship?” he asked.

“Why?” I replied, not liking where the conversation was going.

“I could fly it into the Cluster.”

“We don’t know if Esther can make it,” I said. “What chance would a lifeboat have?”

“I’m not asking you to join me,” Doug went on. “If there’s a chance it might work. . .”

I remember our brief struggle, followed by the deck rising up to meet me from Doug’s impressive left hook.

 

I’m not sure how long I was out. When my head cleared, I frantically searched for Doug. I couldn’t find him anywhere, but the lifeboat was still in its hangar. It was then that I noticed one of the EVA suits was missing from the locker.

After a quick scan around Esther’s exterior, I found him. He was suited up and floating slowly towards the Cluster. There was no lifeline connecting him to the ship.

“Doug!” I screamed into the comm mike.

His voice came faintly through the static. “I’m here,” he said.

“Are you crazy?”

“Sorry I had to hit you, but you never would have let me do this.”

“You’ll be killed!”

“We soon find out,” he told me. “I can feel the Cluster’s gravitational pull.”

“I can still get you a lifeline.”

“Don’t you worry about me.”

The static worsened. “Doug!” I said urgently, working the comm panel.

I’m not sure he was copying me. The static drowned out parts of what he said. “I’m getting closer. . . beautiful. . . Ray. . . can’t believe. . .”

The static overpowered his comm line.

 

What happened next?

I can only tell you what I said at Senator Butler’s hearing a few weeks later concerning the sudden and – to him – unexplained disappearance of the Wentek Cluster: “I saw. . . I saw a hand reach out from it,” I testified. “A human hand! Also, the faintest bit of a face was visible. Doug grasped the hand, which pulled him inside. Seconds later, one by one, the stars that made up the Cluster. . . vanished. The pink trails that had gathered together in the middle of the dancing stars disappeared like water going down a drain.

“For about thirty minutes, I tried to contact Doug. No luck. I pulled up the video that had been recording as he made his spacewalk. I was able to focus on the face. The computer searched its data banks for a match. There was one: The picture that accompanied Karen Pierce’s obituary.”

 

I checked my bank balance yesterday. Doug had transferred the 15,000 new dollars I would have received for bringing him back to Earth into my account before we even reached the Cluster. He knew all along it would be – for him – a one-way trip.

I’ve been asked to appear on several talk shows, and I’ve turned them all down. There’s not much new I can offer. . . aside from this: A freeze frame of Doug’s face at the moment he touched his late wife’s hand.

He was smiling.

 

 

Author Bio: Mike has had over 150 audio plays produced in the U.S. and overseas. He’s won five Moondance International Film Festival awards in their TV pilot, audio play, short screenplay, and short story categories. His prose work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies. In 2015, his script “The Candy Man” was produced as a short film under the title DARK CHOCOLATE. In 2013, he won the inaugural Marion Thauer Brown Audio Drama Scriptwriting Competition.

Mike keeps a blog at audioauthor.blogspot.com.