October 11, 2021

The Capsule
by Orion Andersen (short, PG-13)
Cover image.
Image credit: Public Domain. More info.

Orion Andersen loves stories that capture the strange magic hidden of the mundane, prose meant to be read slowly and savored, images that arrange themselves into uncanny mosaics, and also dogs. If not writing, he's probably hiking through some misty woods or strolling on a grey beach.

~~~

It was an afternoon of ash and thunder, and Reginald had purposely left the big window turned on. He sat facing it, half asleep with his head in his hand, his eyes cracked just wide enough to catch another miracle should one come.

And one did.

A tiny patch of blue sky materialized and drifted through the grey. Reginald jerked his head up and focused his eyes with all the energy he had stored up over the last hour, out through the crystal pane at the black tree atop the dusty hill, from which hung the old tire swing, swaying in the ashy wind, a relic of a time lost forever.

Forever? It couldn't be. For every now and then, there was again a spot of blueness in the sky, sometimes hauntingly similar to the deep, rich blueness below which Reginald had spent the better part of his twelve years of life, living, breathing, playing. And sometimes, for just a fraction of a second, as the blueness interwove with the tree's barren branches, the hill was once again alive with tall grass, the tree had branches exploding with green, and the tire swing was new and fresh, and had clinging to it a small crowd of neighborhood children singing gleefully as the sweet summer winds kissed their necks and swept their long hair over their heads.

And then as quickly as it all came, the green evaporated, the grass vanished, the leaves shriveled and crumbled away, and the children faded like ghosts. The tire, however, kept on swinging. Back, and forth. Back, and forth.

Reginald dropped his head back into his lap. He had become an expert on letting himself drift halfway to sleep, keeping his eyes cracked open just enough to catch another miracle should one come . . .

Footsteps were coming into the foyer, and with them came the incessant noise pollution of the quantum entanglement radio. Years ago, there were few things Reginald loved more than to listen to his QER, to hear the wonderous stories that came from hundreds of lightyears around, to listen to the strange accents of Terran expats and sometimes the even stranger voices of non-humans imitating human-speech. But over the last year, he had grown to despise QERs; they brought only bad news and despair. He had suffered for long enough, sitting stone-still with his family clustered closely around their QER, letting the horrifying words creep into his blood: "Fluxfighters from across five major species overwhelmed. Regions of space ripped apart by raging magnetic storms. Lethal electric ash spreading to hundreds of star systems, once lush planets transformed into dark worlds with dry oceans and unbreathable atmospheres. Evacuations underway, and earth likely to be next." The footsteps stopped, and a hand touched his shoulder. He sat still, not looking up. The QER crackled and blarbed on.

"I thought I told you mom! I don't want to hear that stupid thing anymore!"

"Sorry," his mother said gently. "I just came to tell you that a capsule came just now, and it's addressed to you!"

At this Reginald raised his head and looked at his mother. She was smiling slightly. He stood and limped on half-sleeping legs, into the chrome-paneled living room, where all the windows had been turned off. His father and little twin brothers were sitting on the floor playing cards. Next to their pile of cards sat a silver capsule the size of a soup can.

"Reggie!" Teddy and Eddy squealed in unison.

Reginald's father gave a slight smile, "Come on now, hurry up and open this, we're dying to see what's inside." Reginald's heart pounded. Who would send him anything, especially at this time? He picked up the capsule and felt several things rattle inside. The label was marked with a row of jagged runes, a row of snake-like script, and a row of English. "Thomulaan Evacuee District 81, residence 2847." Thomulaan, he remembered, the nearest safe planet where most Terrans would relocate if they hadn't already. He began twisting the lid, twisting with all the strength he could muster, feeling the cold metal burn against his skin, and then it popped open. He let the things clatter out and plop onto the carpet.

A bottle cap, a rusty key, a zebra-striped feather, a dirt-smudged die, and a pressed dandelion, still a bright yellow-gold. And there was a hand-written note that landed softly on top.

Reginald slowly picked it up, recognized the cursive, and his heart skipped.

"Dear Reggie, I got letters from Tyler and Ixil saying that you're still on Earth! I hope you're doing okay, they're saying so many bad things on the news, I feel like I just want to disappear back into the good old days when we were really little and had nothing to worry about. I can only imagine what it must be like to be living right there watching the ash blow over everything.

"However bad you're feeling, I hope this will make you feel better. I got everyone in the gang to send me a little piece of earth that they saved, and now I'm sending them to you. That way, you can look at them and remember all the good times we had!

"I miss Earth a lot, but I miss you a lot more. I hope I'll get to see you soon!

"Hugs, Tally."

Reginald let his eyes move over the cursive a few more times for good measure, savoring every line, loop, edge, and dot. He could almost hear her musical voice.

"So, someone sent you junk?" asked Teddy, his eyes already drifting back to the playing cards.

"No," said Reginald. "These are treasure!" he picked up the rusty key. "Tyler and I found this in the lake one day when we were seven and we spent years trying to figure out what it would unlock! We tried it on everything!"

"And the neighbors complained about it," laughed his father.

"And this!" Reginald picked up the bottle cap. "This is from Ixil's collection! He loved root beer, remember?"

"Was he the fish?" asked Eddy.

"Hey, we don't say things like that!" said his mother. "Reggie's friend belonged on Earth just as much as you!"

"And this!" Reginald picked up the zebra-striped feather. "Sherrie and I found it when we were hiking through the ravine and we thought it was so cool! And this," he picked up the die, "Theo was always coming up with new games to play with it! Just with this and nothing else! And this . . ."

He gently touched the tip of his finger to the pressed dandelion and thought silently about Tally. She had pressed flowers many times. Now this was the last of hers on Earth, perhaps the last of any flower at all. He carefully tried to pick it up, pieces already began to flake off. He knew they would keep flaking off, and that the flower would lose more and more of itself, becoming dust blowing in the wind. Just as all things one day would.

* * *

They packed bags with only essentials and wore suits that would protect them long enough for their trip to the evacuation zone. Reginald stood by the door, holding in his hands the silver capsule.

"What're you doing with that?" asked his father.

"I'm just gonna go outside and say my last goodbyes."

Reginald walked out the door, into a world of billowing ash and thunder. The winds pounded on him viciously.

Summer-breeze, he thought.

Sun-bright lighting arced across the sky, lighting his way as he walked through the crumbling streets of boneyard neighborhoods.

Through the tides of time, he saw kids riding new bikes and bouncing balls and drawing with chalk.

He looked out to the ravine and saw that every shadow in every dust cloud was a majestic bird in mid-flight.

He hiked to the dry lakebed and imagined a treasure chest buried somewhere, one that would remain undiscovered and carry its mysteries forever, and he saw himself with all his friends standing at the edge of the water, skipping rocks, climbing trees, and building driftwood huts.

And then he arrived at the hill he loved, which was now covered in a new kind of green. They were all still there by the tree, swinging their hearts away, breathing the joys of life. It didn't matter if the tree fell, or if the winds eroded the entire hill away. It didn't matter if the mountains crumbled and the oceans vanished and Earth became grey, cratered, and lifeless like the moon. For they always would be there, together, in that distant place tucked safely away forever beneath the tides of time.

He reached down with his gloved hand and shoveled away enough dust and dirt to make a little hole. Then he let the capsule slide in.

There was thunder again, and ash poured in a torrent. In the distance, he could see the hazy outline of a passenger rocket taking off, flying through a small opening in the grey, into the ebony ocean of stars. They were shimmering, every one of them, like distant fiery gems.

He walked away from the hill, to his house, to the evacuation bus, to the spaceport, to the vessel that would take them away. Reginald let his head fall into his lap, and he sat there half-asleep, waiting for another miracle should one come.

Slowly, he raised his head back up and opened his eyes. He thought about his family, healthy and in one piece. He thought about his friends, who had evacuated early and were safe and sound, waiting for him. Somewhere up there, he would discover new place to call home. Perhaps it too would have ravine, or a lake, or a grassy hill. Or perhaps it would have something new.

He began to smile shyly.

There was no need to wait for a miracle when one had already come.







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Article © Orion Andersen. All rights reserved.


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The Capsule -- Orion Andersen
~ Orion Andersen loves stories that capture the strange magic hidden of the mundane, prose meant to be read slowly and savored, images that arrange themselves into uncanny mosaics, and also dogs. If not writing, he's probably hiking through some misty woods or strolling on a grey beach.