3) Unanswered Questions
Eric rolled over, slowly stretching his arms over his head, keeping his eyes firmly shut. That was, without a doubt, the best sleep he’d had in ages. He knew it was time to get up. NASA was designed for and run by engineers, which meant they follow structure. He’d trained over the years to wake at the same time every day. He peeked through his lids reluctantly, opening his eyes wide a moment later. He was surprised to see the sun, not only up, but shining in his window. It was already late afternoon, and he never woke up later than seven in the morning. Glancing at his watch, he discovered he wasn’t wearing it. Sighing, he searched his bedside table, but didn’t find anything there. Sitting up, he studied his alarm clock, noticing it wasn’t moving. It’d stopped. That was the problem with the mechanical clocks he preferred. He appreciated the beauty of their intricate design, but if you forgot to wind them, they ceased functioning.
Growling, he scooted to the edge of the bed and threw his legs over the side. He was surprised to discover he was nude. He always wore pajamas. Even when summer was at its hottest, he at least used shorts. Nothing seemed right this morning. Something was off.
Stopping to consider what day it was and what he’d done last night, his eyes popped open. “God damn!” The memories of his last moments flooded back in a rush. He’d died trillions of miles from Earth, with no hope of rescue, ripped apart by some unknown interplanetary force. How did he end up back in his home, completely naked with nary a scratch or other evidence of what he’d experienced?
There was no way anyone rescued him. They had no backup Spatial Displacement Units. NASA researched his destination and decided there was little risk in a flight lasting only a few minutes in an empty segment of space. So how the hell did he end up here, and who put him to bed, undressing him and removing all his things?
Shaking his head, he stood and surveyed the room. There was no medical equipment, none of his possessions, nothing to show he’d been to the hospital or carted in. The fact his alarm clock was off showed no one spent enough time here to notice it wasn’t working.
He switched on the lamp and recoiled, holding his hand in front of his face. “What kind of bulb is this, and why would I pay money for something so obnoxious?” He peeked at it, but couldn’t stand the light, so he shut it off. It didn’t add much illumination as there was plenty of sunlight. He massaged his temple before lowering his hand, scratching his hand on the stubble on his chin. “That’s at least twelve hours of growth, which provides some idea of how long I’ve been here. If someone dropped me off, I’ve been on my own that long. Now I need to determine what day and time it is.”
Standing and spinning in a slow circle, he scratched his head. “This makes no sense.” Speaking to himself when vexed was a habit he developed in the Air Force. Pilots frequently spoke to themselves to resolve problems. “What the heck could bring me back here?” He sat again to consider his situation.
“I’m clearly missing something. If I was saved, which isn’t even conceivable, there would be someone or something here. At the very least, I’d be under observation so they could analyze how I was responding. The implication is I wasn’t rescued, which doesn’t make sense. How else would I end up here? There’s got to be some explanation, I just need to determine what it is.”
“Damn! I’ve got to call NASA. They’ll be wondering where I am.” As he considered that, his teeth began to chatter. The heat was still turned down. Whenever he traveled to Cape Canaveral he cranked the heater down to reduce expenses. His Wi-Fi and computer would be unplugged to prevent electric surges from frying the electronics. The TV and other electronics would also be off to eliminate on the electrical drain they sucked out of his electric bill. He was a bit of a control freak about minor details.
Growling, he grabbed pants and a shirt and marched into the kitchen searching for caffeine. The polished wooden floors felt cold, and the ceramic tiles were even chillier. As he should have expected, the coffee maker was unplugged. He was more confused than ever. How had he arrived without someone taking the time to turn on the heat or changing anything? Wiping his finger along the counter, he discovered it coated in accumulated dust. Somehow he’d gotten into the house and into bed without anyone bothering to straighten up. The situation continued to get stranger.
Plugging the coffee pot back in, he searched for the grounds, forgetting he always froze the beans to keep them fresh when he left. Slapping his head, he glanced around for something to eat. He was starving, but remembered he rarely kept anything around which might spoil when he was away for long. It was a huge production preparing for the launch, and he was expected to head to Washington and New York City to promote NASA afterwards.
He’d tossed all the bread, fruits and vegetables, plus all the refrigerated products which might mold. That meant he was left with packaged meats, frozen foods and condiments. He normally hit the grocery store on the way back from the airport when he returned. He had random canned vegetables and beans, pasta and rice, but those weren’t exactly enticing combinations.
Sighing, he grabbed some frozen waffles, plugged in the toaster and depressing the plunger and headed for the bathroom. After relieving himself, he stepped to the washbasin to brush his teeth and examined himself in the mirror. As expected, he had a partial day’s beard, but didn’t bare any evidence of dirt, wear or having spent any extended time in bed. Deciding not to sweat about what he couldn’t answer, he brushed his teeth and washed his face. NASA’s Public Relations were ecstatic he was so dutiful about his teeth, since he had the brightest smile of anyone at NASA. It wouldn’t do having him representing the country on National TV with dull ivories. It also didn’t hurt with the ladies, who he shamelessly flirted with.
Returning to the kitchen, he took his lukewarm waffles, grabbed the cold syrup and a fork, sat down and dug in. Though he thought he was hungry, he had no idea just how much. He ate the entire box and was still famished. He found some old crackers in the cupboard, so he munched on them as he debated what to do.
“I need to call NASA, but without knowing what happened, I can’t explain what occurred. Hell, I might still be hallucinating! It’s amazingly detailed for a dream, but not as much as the ones I was having. I don’t even know what day it is, how much time has elapsed, or whether anyone knows about me. It’s possible someone stashed me here, but that seems unlikely.”
He glanced at the kitchen clock. It too was mechanical, an older German cuckoo whose weights were resting on the floor. The microwave wasn’t plugged in. Sighing in frustration, he decided to check the news.
Crossing the room, he knelt to plug the TV in. Handling the cord, he noted an odd sound within the wall. “Damn, likely some kind of termite. I’ll have to contact the exterminators…, once I locate my credit cards.” When he connected it, the buzzing in his head resumed. Turning it on, a jolt of pain flashed through his brain, leaving him reeling. Pulling back, he overcompensated and fell. The discomfort wasn’t overwhelming, but it surprised him. Still, it was uncomfortable enough he couldn’t remain where he was. Apparently he hadn’t escaped his trauma without injuries, after all. Standing, he found the further he got from the TV the better he felt. Taking refuge by the living room door, he started flipping through the channels, searching for a news program. Each time he changed the channel, another mild ache would flash through his temples making his jaw clench.
“… authorities are demanding an accounting from NASA, threatening a Congressional inquiry if they don’t get satisfactory answers.”
“Looks like I’m still in the news,” Eric reflected. “I’m glad I waited until I discovered what they’re saying about me before phoning NASA. They might not have a response now, but wait until I show up. They’ll all be royally pissed!”
The scene switched to NASA’s Press Secretary, Daniel Becket.
“We’re still determining what went wrong. Until we identify a specific cause, there’s no sense making any preliminary statements. We have a lot of data to parse through, though we don’t suspect anything happened on our end. We may not know until we can launch a follow-up probe.”
The camera returned to the reporter, who discussed how upset everyone was. It appeared that was the gist of the report. Eric still wasn’t sure how long it had been, but it was clear no one realized he was back. That changed things significantly. He couldn’t call the space agency and admit he was back without an explanation. It would take quite a bit to convince them what happened to him was real, even if he could explain it.
Holding his temple, he shut the television off. It was hard to think with the constant buzz in his head. As soon as the screen went black, his headache eased, but didn’t halt. He’d needed to have the TV examined. Apparently something happened and it was giving off some kind of radiation, which could be dangerous. He unplugged the set. An unstable component was a fire hazard. His pounding head abated, but he still heard scratching behind the wall and considered whether he might still be dreaming. Only everything was much too real, including his headache and the cold. He couldn’t remember experiencing dreams with physical sensations, but after the dreams he’d had, he couldn’t rule anything out.
Returning to his bedroom, he evaluated his situation as he finished dressing. A phone call wouldn’t work. He needed to talk to his bosses one-on-one for them to take him seriously. What’s more, if he called and informed them he was at his home, they’d undoubtedly panic and send a rescue team. That would alert the entire country he was still alive, which wasn’t a smart move. They had to calculate how to present this to the public, and an explanation to accomplish that. No, he’d need to travel on his own to Cape Canaveral. Only he had no money, credit cards or ID.
“I’ve got it,” he said, snapping his fingers. “I’ll call my sister, Leslie. She can loan me some cash so I can cover expenses and fly to Florida. I shouldn’t be recognized if I keep my face covered. I won’t need an ID because Frank knows me. I can think of some story to satisfy him. He’s a good friend so he won’t blab if I ask him to keep it quiet. Now all I need is to determine how to explain this to Leslie.”
“Well, putting it off won’t make it any easier!” He lifted his home phone and dialed—his cellphone, like his wallet, were still in Florida. It rang three times. He was about to hang up, assuming she was unavailable, when it was answered.
“Hallo?” a small voice asked.
“Becky, could I talk to your mother, please?” he asked. While he enjoyed spending time with his niece, he wanted to involve as few people as possible.
“Uncle Eric?” Becky Thomas asked in a hesitant voice. “Is that really you?”
“It is, but you can’t tell anyone about it y—”
“You’re alive?” she yelled, her voice raising a full octave. “Everyone’s talking about how you died. I cried all night. Mom had to—”
He was preparing to launch into some half-assed explanation when she was interrupted. There was a discussion in the background and he overheard his sister’s voice scolding her daughter about her decorum.
“But Uncle Eric’s alive!” Becky protested. There was no response for several moments before he heard a familiar voice.
“Eric?” Leslie asked, sounding as if she was speaking via Ouija board in a dark parlor late at night.
“Leslie, I can ex—”
“You damn fu…,” she began before catching herself. “How dare you scare us like that? I was devastated. I’ve been on the line all night making arrangements, talking to the press, and—”
“Which is why we can’t speak about this over the phone,” he stressed, speaking slowly and emphatically. “I’ll explain what I can, but I’ve got to get back to Florida. I seem to have … lost my wallet, so I need to borrow some money to—”
“What the hell are you talking about?” she demanded, her voice rising in pitch even above when she was screaming. “Where are you now?”
“I’m at my house. I need you to pick me up and give me a—”
“You stay right there! I want to see this with my own eyes. After getting you back from certain death, I’m not about to let you go gallivanting off. I want to make sure you’re in one piece and that I’m not hallucinating.”
“You’re not, Mom. I hear him too!”
“I’ll be there in twenty minutes. I was taking Becky to practice …”
A whine of “Mooommm!” rang out behind her.
“But she can miss a day.” There was a cheerful cry before she continued. “Hold on and don’t do anything. We’ll be right over.”
“Uh, could you bring some food?” Eric asked.
“Groceries? Like what kind?”
“Anything. There’s nothing here and I’m starving.”
“Don’t worry, I’ve got some leftovers. Becky, finish putting your stuff away. We’re leaving in a few minutes.”
“Thanks, Leslie, I appreciate it.”
The realization that he’d seriously underestimated the situation stuck him. His sister said she’d been fielding calls all night, both from family and the national media. It would be more difficult slipping away unnoticed than he’d hoped, but he couldn’t think of a better approach. As she just demonstrated, revealing this information over the phone invoked an overly dramatic response. Eric understood he needed a logical technique to broach the news.
“Are you sure this is smart?” Leslie asked, easing her minivan into a spot by the hanger.
“Mom, he needs to talk to his bosses in person,” Becky chided in an annoyed voice from the back seat. “He can’t do that unless he flies there.”
“He could always—”
“No, Mom,” she insisted in a no-nonsense tone of voice, “if he calls, they’ll panic. If he takes a regular flight, everyone will recognize him. This is his best choice.”
Eric smiled as he climbed out. “Thanks, Becky, I couldn’t have phrased it better myself.”
She beamed and hurried to trail him.
“Only because she’s echoing your exact words,” Leslie mumbled as she got out too, but she had trouble objecting to his ideas. She, like her daughter, thought the world of Eric. Despite being rocked by his disappearance and feeling betrayed when he’d reappeared, she trusted his judgment. She shrugged. “I still think this is a mistake.”
“And you can continue thinking it while you tell the guy inside what I suggested.”
She continued to protest as she took his spare keys. “I don’t—”
“Leslie, are you suggesting you won’t do this for me?” To drive the point home, he flashed her his best puppy-dog eyes. It was successful with the ladies, and it worked on her since they were kids.
Becky smiled. She was familiar with her mother and understood her uncle knew how to push her buttons.
“Eric, I’d do anything for you. You know better than to question whether I’ll do it. I just—”
“In which case you’d best hurry,” he said, turning her around and pushing her towards the building, slapping her ass to speed her progress.
She hurried inside, letting the steel door slam behind her.
Eric turned to his niece. “All right, we’ve got a few minutes before we can make an appearance. Are you missing anything because of this? Didn’t you have anything scheduled for today?”
Becky shrugged, shuffling her feet. “Only soccer … and gymnastics.”
“Sorry to interrupt your schedule. Couldn’t your mother have dropped you off?”
“Nah, Dad’s away on business, so he couldn’t take me. My soccer practice is later, so she’d have to wait to take me. Then she couldn’t pick me up on time, so she decided to bring me along.”
“Well, I always love seeing you,” he said, punching her lightly on the shoulder.
Becky wasn’t about to let it go at that. She flung herself against him, wrapping her arms tightly around him. Not having much choice, he hugged her back, lifting her up. “Damn, Uncle Eric, I thought for sure you were dead!”
“Yeah, sorry about that. It wasn’t my intention. And what’s with the language?”
Becky flashed him her best sneaky look. “Heck, if I’m not allowed to say it now, I never will be.”
He grinned. She realized he wouldn’t get angry for pulling a fast one on him. “It’s not the words, but your age. You’re not supposed to use those terms.”
“But if I don’t practice, how will I know how to say it when I’m older?” She flashed him a brilliant smile.
“Okay, you little scamp, I think the coast is clear. Knowing Jimmy, he’s already back in his office playing Doodle Jump.” Taking her hand, he led his niece around the side of the building, heading for his private plane, which his friend prepared for today’s flight.
Eric was correct. There wasn’t anyone outside to observe him. Since they reached the airplane before Leslie, he began preparing for takeoff. The plane, his pride and joy, was a King Air, a fast long-distance aircraft. He’d bought it at a government auction a friend tipped him off to. It was confiscated from a drug smuggling operation. They’d stripped off all the interior paneling, which he lovingly recreated by hand. As a test pilot, he loved it for its speed and control, which was handy for getting across the country fast with minimal delays.
“Anything I can help with?” Becky asked, leaning in to see what he was doing.
“Not at the moment, but when I’m ready, how about you start her up for me?”
“Can I really?” When he nodded, she danced in place. “Sure, I can do that.”
“I’m sure you can,” he said, checking the engines to ensure nothing came loose. “That’s why I asked.”
“I see you couldn’t wait to get underway,” Leslie said, approaching from the hanger.
“I get to start the plane, Mom!”
“Yeah, I didn’t want to hang around so long Jimmy or someone else might recognize me. The sooner I get off the ground, the less likely I’ll have a problem.”
“Are you almost ready?”
“I’m set,” he answered, closing the housing. He flashed his niece a thumbs up and backed away from the propeller. “Start it up, Becky!”
Her grin shone as bright as a spotlight as she started the engines.
He turned and kissed his sister. “Thanks a million. You saved my ass. I appreciate it.” He pulled back to address her directly. “This is no doubt going to take time to work out and identify what happened. I’ll undoubtedly have to explain to the entire world what the hell I did or didn’t do. We’re unlikely to talk until my name is plastered on every newspaper in the world. But as soon as this is over, I’ll take you, Becky and even Fredrick out to dinner as a thank you.”
“You don’t owe me anything, but I’m sure Becky would appreciate you making a big deal over her. Be careful. I expect a lot of people will feel personally betrayed when they discover the reports of your death weren’t real. Be prepared for some fallout.”
“I will,” Eric said, giving her a final kiss goodbye before backing up. “Say hello to your husband when you see him.” With that, he strode to the plane’s cab. Opening the door, he lifted his giggling niece out.
“Take care, cutie,” he said, kissing her on the cheek. “And remember, no telling your friends I’m alive until after we release it to the press, Okay?”
She nodded as her mother guided her away from the plane. Eric climbed in, waving as he taxied toward the runway. He had a long flight ahead of him, and a lot to consider on the way.