Thursday, December 3, 2015

12/3/15

Packed For Jack
By David Castlewitz



The old lady sat alone in the departure lounge, two suitcases at her feet. When she slipped off her shoes, Sam Jamieson saw holes in her dark stockings. A malformed big toenail poked through the cotton.
Sam stood close to the curved window looking down at the lounge, one hand on a cold railing. Those behind and beside him were workers on break and a few who'd slipped away from their assignments to watch the old lady.
"Is anyone going to help her?" Sam said to the men and women who'd gathered to gawk.
"You've got to do it, Sam."
He looked sideways at the curly haired young woman who'd spoken and now joined him at the railing. He remembered her pert demeanor, and all those blonde curls, as well as the lively gray eyes. But not her name. Lately, names escaped him. Too many years, he told himself. Soon, he'd be like that old lady in the empty lounge.
"Lynn," the young woman said. "Housekeeping. Red pod."
"Of course." Sam took hold of her extended hand. "You just got that promotion, right?" He remembered the dossier he'd reviewed. He recalled her employee number. Lynn, he repeated to himself, hoping he'd remember the name.
"We met at last month's banquet," Lynn said. "But I know you meet so many people. Must be hard to keep us all straight."
"Yes." He realized he'd muttered the word, so he tried to find something more to say. Like what? The population's whittling away, so new faces shouldn't be so hard to remember; new names shouldn't be difficult to recall. Most had come here as children. Some as babies. Lynn, he imagined from the look of her, must've been one of those noisy toddlers rushing through the gangways of the long range star cruiser that brought everyone here.
"Why aren't you at work?" Sam asked.
Lynn grinned. Such straight teeth. Bred that way? She shrugged and said, "Everyone's been talking about her. All day."
"Has it been that long?" Sam gazed at the old woman. Older than he. By ten or more years. A heavyset, elderly lady with a life's worth of possessions packed in those two gray bags at her feet.
"Don't turn me into the president," Lynn said, and smiled again.
"I think the president knows," Sam quipped. He looked at the throng behind them in the observation room, which had been designed for families to watch for newcomers or see off departing guests and family.
But no one ever arrived and no one ever left.
"Who's going to tell her?" Lynn asked.
"I guess that's the president's job," Sam said with a sigh. My job. To tell her about reality. Pull her mind from the limbo to which it had gone, as all minds seem to go... eventually.
He walked to the exit. Took the stairs. Not two or three at a time. This job wasn't something he wanted to do. But the old lady, like all the colonists, was his responsibility. Everything fell on his narrow shoulders. Lynn's promotion. Her cleaning crew's efficiency. His wife's comfort. The quality of the monthly banquets. The tempo and meaning of his quarterly speeches.
Everything.
Including this old lady with her bags packed.
He walked into the vast lounge. So empty and so unused. That saddened him. He strode across the tiled floor, footsteps heavy and loud. When he reached the woman sitting so patiently in the curvy comfortable chair near the big windows, he stopped, his hands behind his back.
"You shouldn't be here."
"I'm all packed and waiting for Jack," she said, lifting her round, wrinkled face.
Sam didn't ask, Who's Jack? What did it matter? A dead husband? A dead son.
The old lady said, "Jack's going back with me."
"What pod're you from?"
"Utah. Blue."
Sam nodded. One of the first pods they'd put up while the colonists lived in close quarters in the cruiser.
"I'm going back," the old lady said.
Sam looked away, so she wouldn't see how sad he'd become. He looked at the barren landscape beyond the big windows. This terminal and its lounge had been built when the colony was young and they'd hoped they were the forerunners of more settlers to come.
But no ships arrived. The cruiser that brought them failed to lift off and the crew that should've returned to Earth became just so many more pioneers.
No ships ever came from Earth. No messages, either. No one knew why.
"I don't want to hurt your feelings," the old lady said, "but I don't like it here. I want to go back. Jack said we could if I wanted to."
Sam nodded. "Jack was your husband?"
"Lover. We ran away together. Imagine that."
Must've been a hundred Earth years ago, Sam thought. His gaze shifted from the barren world beyond the lounge, a world they'd tried to make worth mining and exploiting; he looked at the old woman with tears on her sunken cheeks. Then he looked at the people in the observation deck, many of them standing with Lynn at the railing.
They cried as well. Like the old lady, they wanted to go home, too, Sam thought.
He extended his hand. Maybe the best thing to do was the worst he could do. He had the power.
He walked the old lady to the airlock. He key-code-opened the door. "Jack'll be along pretty soon," he said, and shut the door, leaving the smiling old woman and her packed bags on the other side of the thick glass. She waved to him and he unsealed the outer door, exposing the old woman to the airless world outside. She gasped, eyes wide, still with a smile on her bloodless lips, hands gripping her packed bags on either side of her.
When Sam walked across the lounge, the people in the observation deck applauded and cheered.


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After a long and successful career as a software developer and technical architect, I have turned to my first love: SF and fantasy. I have published several stories in Weirdyear, Farther Stars Than These, Fast Forward Festival, Encounters and other online as well as print magazines. Search the web and you’ll even find some of my earlier military history articles. My longer work can be found at
https://www.amazon.com/author/davidcastlewitz

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