Joined: 13 Sep 2009
Location: Rising from the ashes
|Posted: Sat Jun 18, 2011 9:15 pm Post subject: HM v2 Chapter 1
Dawn on the Last Day
This is the first day of my last days.
-Nine Inch Nails, Wish
The day began much like every other. As the aroma of coffee filtered into his senses, piercing the veil of vaguely dream-ridden dozing, Walter Steele grumbled himself awake.
Tiny beams of sunlight lanced over the distant hills and through his window, stinging his eyes. Walter snarled as a breeze carried fresh cheer into the room, forcing the lace window curtains to flap lazily. Somewhere in the distance, a rooster crowed from a barn roof, heralding the arrival of dawn.
With a grunt, he sat up and flung his legs over the side of the bed, sending his toes to search for his slippers. A faint clatter could be heard from the kitchen below, a noise that had become such commonplace for Walt that he hardly noticed anymore.
Upon finding his plaid slippers, he stood to his feet, his spine and joints crackling under the pressure like rice bubbles exposed to milk. He groaned. It was the same groan he gave every morning at this juncture; though admittedly, it had gradually become more pronounced over the steady march of time.
Faint smoke from bacon, searing on a pan in the kitchen below, began to mingle with the coffee in the air. Soon the eggs would be on and just after, breakfast would be waiting for him.
Walter scratched his ass as he shuffled across the shag carpet covering the bedroom. The flooring was a terrible olive-green color, and for some time now, Betty had been complaining that it needed to be retired for something more modern.
In fact, Betty seemed to complain about a lot these days. Along with the rest of her complaints, her squawks regarding the outdated carpeting had invariably fallen on apathetic ears.
Crossing the threshold into the bathroom, his slippers slid across cracked yellowed linoleum. He must have stood in front of the toilet for a decade, waiting for the rain to come. Finally, his muscles slowly eased up and offered blessed release. The sound of dribbling helped to mask over the incessant humming from downstairs. Jesus, he thought, Why must she constantly drone on like that?
Flushing, he turned to the sink to wash his hands. His fingers were thick and gnarled, but they were still good hands, strong and capable. He ran them through his sparse, white hair to flatten out the wild silver bed-head he’d developed over the course of his slumber.
Gazing into the mirror, he asked himself what he usually did at this point, My god, how did THIS happen?, disgusted by the droops, wrinkles, crow’s feet. At least he had aged in some semblance of respectability, unlike his wife, whom he figured might be mistaken for a Shar Pei someday soon.
No need to shave today, he mused as he ran his fingers across his bleached stubble.
He scratched at an itch on his snow covered chest, glad to see there was at least some muscle tone remaining there, though every inch of those muscles ached as usual.
Turning to the side, he inspected his ever expanding belly. Just a bit of extra baby fat. A few too many beers, maybe. But nothing too worrisome. More concerning was the hunch that had developed in his shoulders. It wouldn’t be long now before he was outright stooped.
“Walter,” called Betty from the base of the stairs. It was like clockwork. Walt briefly wondered if she always called for him at this particular moment because they had grown into a routine that followed the clock to the second, or if it was simply that he spent whatever time remaining before breakfast staring at himself in disdain.
He grumbled out the same answer he always gave, full well knowing she wouldn’t hear him from the bathroom, “Coming dear…”
Walter’s bones creaked as loudly as the stairs as he ambled his way down to the dining room. He winced when he saw Betty. At least she had become thin and wiry, rather than wide and rotund like so many other women her age. If a prune could smile it would’ve made a face much like the one she greeted him with.
“I made you some bacon, eggs, and toast dear,” she announced as a matter of course.
“I’m not blind yet,” he replied sourly as he glanced at the meal stationed before his seat at the table.
“And it’s a good thing too,” she retorted. He knew what she meant had nothing to do with the newspaper waiting for him next to his plate of food. It sounded as if she intended to have this conversation, no matter how badly he wished to avoid it.
He slumped down into his seat. The food did smell good, as usual. “You didn’t break any of the yolks this time. I’m impressed,” he muttered.
Betty slipped into her own chair across from him, a dry, brittle seat long overdue for a new coat of varnish. Her gaze strove to pierce the invisible shell of self-absorption that surrounded the man.
“Walter,” she said, her voice wavering with scantly contained emotion.
“Don’t start, Betty,” Walter growled as he devoured an egg, yolk juice dribbling from the side of his lip. Flipping through the paper, his body language made it clear he was more concerned with the news of the day than anything she had to complain about.
“No, Walt. I can’t leave this alone. Not today,” she stated with firm resolve.
“Hmph,” Walter just grunted in a low rumble. Rather than a response to her assertions, it conveyed interest in what his eyes had found on the page. “Did you see this picture here of Saddam’s statue being pulled over? Not so big now is he?”
He knew this blunt attempt at changing the subject would not derail Betty, of course. As with all the other complaints she served him, she would press on, whether he seemed to care or not. He really wished THIS particular concern would be left alone though.
“I just can’t understand why you need to do this,” she moaned as she slapped the table in frustration. Walt kept reading without a flinch. “I love you Walter! You know I love you.”
A silent pause hung in the air as Betty prayed for her words to wedge past his stone heart.
To her great surprise, her prayers were answered; though she suddenly worried she might regret it.
Walter’s eyes rolled then tiredly rounded to meet her stare. “I love you too, honey. You know love has nothing to do with it.”
“Why then? Why must you risk your neck like this? Why don’t you just let Dave do it?”
“You know why,” Walt sighed as he went back to reading the headlines, slowly masticating on a chunk of bacon.
“No, Walter, I don’t know why! I don’t see the point in all this foolishness!” As she spoke, Betty’s voice rose, wavering more and more with every word. “This could cost you your life!”
“My life?” Walter harrumphed. “What life? My life is already over Betty! All I have left is this!”
“What? Some quest for reward money? Some way to prove you still have ‘the right stuff?’ You’re eighty two years old Walt!” Betty exclaimed, exacerbated with her husband.
“Yes… No… I mean… Damnit Betty!” Walter shook a quivering fist. “I know how old I am and you know why I need this! I’ve spent twenty long ‘Golden’ years working to pull this off and what do I have to show for it? It’s not about the damned money! We’ve obviously got plenty of that!”
“HAD plenty…” Betty interjected, “Until you went and spent nearly every penny of it on this crusade of yours!”
“IT’S WHAT I LIVE FOR BETTY!” Walt shouted. Taking a deep breath and settling back into his seat, he lowered his tone in an almost equally dramatic fashion, “NASA spared no expense in training me. I was ready. I waited. And I waited. I prepared. And I waited. I prayed for them to call me up for a mission. They passed me up for each and every one. Before you knew it, Apollo was over and I was retired.”
“Oh get OVER it Walter!” Betty sputtered. “The past is just that, the past. And right here… right now? You have someone who loves you very much and who’s terrified that you’re going to get yourself killed. I don’t know how I could go on living without you Walter.” A tear slid down Betty’s cheek. She sniffled, shifting the thick spectacles on her nose.
“You worry too much my dear. Too too much,” Walter said, finalizing their conversation as he rose to his feet, stuffing an egg and a slice of bacon into a folded piece of toast. “Thanks for breakfast.”
He paused as he turned to leave. “I love you too. And I’ll be fine.”
As he strode out of the dining room, through an antique furnished living room and through the front door, slamming it behind him in a huff, Betty simply sat at the table and sobbed.
A quick glance inside the barn reassured Walter that his life would indeed very likely change forever by the end of this day.
There she was, covered in tarps, finally completed. All he needed now was the fuel. The night before, he’d loaded the aluminum barrels that would, if all went well, be filled with that last element by the end of this day. And if he could succeed at that task, he could be leaving by midnight.
Walt felt a surge of excitement at the thought. It wasn’t that he didn’t recognize the risks of course. Sure, he could die; probably would, really. But, to his way of thinking, it would be better to meet his end in pursuit of his dreams than to let those dreams perish. Without them, he was already finished.
Thank God for the X-prize reward if this works out. I’d have never convinced her to let me get this far if it hadn’t been for the government’s little contest to conduct the first private spaceflight. Indeed, if things worked out as hoped, he would more than make up for the money invested.
But as he had claimed at the breakfast table, it wasn’t about the money. Far more was at stake here, Walt considered. “Can’t put a price on the truth,” he muttered to himself.
As Walt left the barn and walked across the driveway, he glanced toward the open blue sky above.