Joshua Mayson squinted, trying
desperately to keep the sweat from rolling into his right eye.
His older sister, Sarah, had already knocked over the most cans
that morning, beating him by three. He concentrated, gazing at
the bright red soda can perched atop the grayed old fence post
about fifty feet away, the green waves of overgrown fields
swaying in a secret dance with the wind in the background
Too much was at stake, and he knew he
had to get it together, calm it down, and give the mission at hand
his undivided attention, like Grampa would say. This last shot with
the BB gun was key. If he missed, Sarah would not only seize his
entire comic book collection upon their return home, but also his
metallic blue BMX bike…the only thing in his life that really
mattered. The only thing in his life that he could still look at
and remember the happier days that seemed like a million and a half
years ago, back when they were still a big, happy family living in
the old house in the country. Not like it was now, with that stupid
apartment in the city and Dad's stupid job and his stupid
Sarah didn't care. Stupid Christine
liked her better than him, anyway. Not like Mom. Sarah was just a
baby when the divorce happened, so she was lucky, he guessed, in
that regard. She didn't have to miss it all like he did all the
time. It wasn't like Mom ever hugged her tight when a big ole
bumblebee stung her on the pinkie while helping Dad work on the
tractor. Nope. All Sarah knows is how to go to Macy's and stuff and
get all those dumb dresses and dolls and crap that Christine always
buys her all the time.
He paused a moment, wiping again at
the sweat that seemed bound and determined to dig into his aiming
eye and screw the whole thing up. There was no way he was going to
let her get her hands on that bike!He had to show her, right? He
had to show her that he was the big brother still…the first
born…the one who was there before and the one who--
"Atta boy, Josh." The ten year old
didn't have to look behind him to know his grandfather was there.
It was the raspy voice that gave it away. Raspy and rough, kind of
like a gravel road trying to whisper in your ear. "Hold it steady
until you're ready to execute your shot, son. Squeeze the trigger,
don't pull it…aiming as you inhale, then fire as you exhale." Josh
could imagine him standing there, the red hat with the NRA logo on
the front, and Grampa's limited wardrobe of pocket t-shirts and
well-worn dungarees with the cuffs rolled up about a few inches
overtop the beat up khaki steel toe boots he always had on. He
could picture the old man standing behind him, looking on with
those weird, grey-blue eyes of his, the permanent smirk on his face
momentarily screwed up into the shape of a proud grandfather's
smile, beaming ever onward.
He smiled too, feeling a little more
confident. Grampa was the most like him out of everybody he knew.
He remembered how it used to be, too, Josh figured…and was always
secretly talking to Mom on the phone or inviting her over for
lunches and dinners with Gramma and him even though Dad didn't want
him to. Grampa was so cool and tough. Way tougher than Dad. Dad
never killed anybody like Grampa did in those other good ole days
that he always talked about when Sarah and Gramma weren't
"Is this how you took out Charlie,
Grampa? Something like this?"
There was a light chuckle. "Not quite,
son. And don't make Grampa sorry he told you about stuff like
Charlie and the war, ok? Remember what I said, Joshie…when we talk
about those things, it's Top Secret. Me and you only kind of stuff.
You roger me on that one, soldier?"
"Roger Dodger, Grampa. Over and
"That's my boy," he said with a light
chuckle. "Go on now, Private Mayson. Show Grampa you got some
military mind-set in that noggin of yours."
"'Military mind-set?'", Another voice,
younger and exponentially more sarcastic. Dad! Dad was there with
them. "He's a little early for the recruitment drive, don't you
think, General, sir?"
"Don't get uppity, boy", Josh heard
Grampa fire back. "You can't blame an old soldier for hoping that
at least one of the males in his bloodline might actually have a
little bit of guts in 'em."
Crap. They were going to fight again.
He heard his father laugh, though...so maybe not.
"Jesus, Dad. I'm sorry if my
journalistic notions of travelling the world and dodging bullets or
the occasional corpse doesn't constitute as gutsy enough for an old
war-horse like yourself. But you should know that what I do for a
living, sir, is not all tea kettles and cocktail parties. I may not
wear the uniform like you did, but I find myself on a lot of front
lines just the same."
Josh blinked a few times, focusing
tighter onto his target, so much so that it felt like his eyeball
was going to jump out the socket and knock it off the post before
the BB ever got there. Dad and Grampa's voices began to trial off
into the background. They were always going at it. Even that one
time a few years ago at his birthday party in front of all his
friends and half the third grade.
He took in a fresh breath of air, just
like Grampa had shown him a million times before…wrapping his index
finger around the black plastic of the trigger as a tiny burst of
wind zipped on by, throwing his parted brown hair all out of whack
again, but he didn't care. He was there now. In that zone-thing
Grampa told him about in the barn. The young boy's heart quickened
with excitement as he began to apply the softest of pressure on the
trigger, letting his pent-up breath slowly escape from his lungs,
ignoring the little yellow butterfly flickering across his line of
This was it. That can was a goner. He
was going to keep his comics, the bike and watch Sarah squirm every
time she had to clean the cat poop out of the litter boxes. If only
he'd thought of making her eat it, too.
He tried not to, but he couldn't help
it. He closed his eye upon pulling the trigger the rest of the way,
gritting his teeth as he did so, but both green eyes popped wide
open with surprise, relief, and glee as he heard the pronounced
ding of the aluminum can, catching sight just as it was flung end
over end backwards from its defiant perch on the fence post,
landing softly in the weeds below.
"Yes!" He shouted, throwing his arms
and jumping up like a young lion cub trying to catch the sun in its
claws. His feet found their way back to the ground, seeing the
proud smile of his grandfather and the mixed disapproving/kind of
proud as well look from his father. Sarah was shooting him daggers
of hate from under the tree just behind them all there on the hill.
"Grampa! Grampa! Didja see that?! Didja see that awesome shot I
made?!" He ran over to the old man, trying not to knock his
grandfather down as he locked his little body into a tight hug
around his slightly protruding belly. "I totally killed that can",
he said in a hushed voice, hoping only Grampa could hear. "Just
like you and that Top Secret stuff!"
Grampa pulled him in a little tighter,
smiling proudly. "Not bad, Joshie…not bad at all." The older man
shot a glare over at his own son. "You keep on practicing and
shooting like that, my boy, and you'll be first in your class when
you go to sniper school like your ole Grampa did back in the
Josh's father matched the old man's
glare with one of his own. "You just can't stop yourself, can you,
The hug was over. Grampa patted Josh
on the head. "Don't be sore that your boy's a damn sight better
shot than you, David. He's got killer instinct like his
That got Josh's attention.
The old man grew an almost sinister
sneer on his lips, putting his arm around his grandson while
maintaining his glare toward the boy's father. "Let me tell you
something, Joshie, your daddy couldn't hit the broad side of a barn
if he were standing in it with a damned map to guide him. Lord
knows, I've tried to train him." Josh caught Grampa winking over at
Dad. "But your daddy just ain't the fighting kind. Ain't worth a
hill o'beans, that boy…not with a gun, leastways. But you…well,
there might be hope for the men in my gene pool yet."
It was too much. Josh erupted into
"Nice, sir. Reeeeal classy. It is such
a shame that I couldn't be more like you, I guess, and grow up to
pursue the art of war and quote unquote covert operations." They
all began to walk towards the big oak tree Sarah was standing
under, eager to get out of the late June sun beating down on
Grampa smiled a little wider, loving
every minute of ribbing his son in front of his own kids. "You mean
like both of your sisters?"
Now Sarah was laughing at him. Coming
up the other side of the hill was the silhouette of an older woman
carrying a pitcher and four glasses on a tray. The two kids ran
wide open at Mach speeds to greet their grandmother and refresh
themselves in the sweet, icy goodness of her incredible home-brewed
lemonade, leaving the two men alone for a few minutes as the shade
from the enormous oak tree reached down onto their faces, subtly
kissing them with the promise of a slightly cooler
The old man slapped his son gently on
"It's damn good to see you again,
David. It's been too long a time since the last visit."
David smiled, watching his kids swarm
around his mother like a couple of hummingbirds eager to get their
fix on the sultry promise of an icy sugar rush.
"You, too, sir. And thanks, for
busting my balls in front of the kids like that. These
get-togethers are always so much more fun when our underlying
father/son issues just kind of explode onto everyone like
His dad gently grabbed him by the
scruff of the neck. "Not a problem, boy. Maybe if you weren't away
all the time, your old man wouldn't have so much piss and vinegar
backed up in his system for you."
"And to think I had you pegged as a
hard ass all these years."
"Most candy-asses do."
They both stopped for a few minutes,
just out of earshot of the kids and their grandmother, busy pouring
them both gigantic sized glasses of lemonade. David motioned toward
her with his chin, his smile beginning to fade.
"So…how is she holding up?"
He looked over at his father. It
always impressed him how such a hardened, tough old bastard like
him could melt into the most docile of creatures at the very
mention of his mother. They had been husband and wife for the last
forty-two years of their lives, only having just met a few months
before during some incredibly secret "mission" that he could never
get either one of them to elaborate on. He was always a different
man around her. His gravelly voice wasn't quite as gravelly, and
his eyes always had blinders on to the rest of the world, no matter
what was going on around them at the time. She was his life and he
was hers. It was the kind of love novelists and Hollywood
screenplays always tried to guess at, but could never come
It was one of the reasons he left
Nicole, his own attempt at a wife, having been a witness to what
true love really is. It took him six years…admittedly six years too
damn long, but he knew (he guessed he always knew) that what they
had wasn't what he always wanted…needed. He wanted what these two
had. Everyone did, but so few were ever really lucky enough to get
a shot at it.
He wanted that purity of something
that defied description and explanation. He wanted to love a woman
so much that it killed him, even for a second, to not be with her,
and her likewise. After a few years, it was all he could do to keep
himself in the same zip code as Nicole. Josh and Sarah quickly
became the only reason he kept coming back from assignments…the
only reason he found himself looking for any kind of excuse not to
put himself on that front line in the thick of it all to cover the
story…to win that prize….that damned elusive Pulitzer. She was,
more often than not…an afterthought in the grander scheme of
things…and for the life of him, despite all the thought and
reflection he'd given the subject in all the times he'd find
himself willing…he could never quite pin point why.
Until now, seeing the way the old
general was gazing at his life-long bride.
"She's a tough old bird", he heard his
father say in a strangely hushed tone. "But I got a bad feeling
about this one, son." He coughed a little, turning away, trying to
hide the fact that there was a tear sliding down his war-blasted
tough guy cheeks, leaking from the very same eyes that had seen
death and dismemberment and a plethora of gruesome things in
war-torn lands and been privy to secrets to things that
logistically, made the matter of one simple female human life pale
in direct comparison. The exception, of course, being that wasn't
just some female of the human persuasion.
No, there was really only one term
that held true to the general's heart when it came to identifying
that particular woman, known to David Mayson as Mom, the kids as
Gramma, and to the world at large, Mary Ellen Coley Mayson.
"I worry that this ain't one she's
gonna walk away from like the others." The general looked away now,
trying to lose his gaze into the fields that had been in his family
for over a century there in Lunenburg County, just a stone's throw
from the North Carolina border in the Old Dominion of Virginia.
"The doctor said it's metastasized. The damn thing is all over the
place inside her. Stomach, liver, pancreas…a blasted mess."
David put his hand on his father's
shoulder in an effort to give him a bit of calm in this new storm.
It was weird for him to be doing so, because usually it was the
other way around.
"You okay, Dad?"
There was a minor pause in
conversation. The old Air Force general returned his gaze to his
wife and smiled past his pain. She was looking right back at
him…smiling just the same.
"We'd better get ourselves some of
your mother's lemonade before those two little hellions of yours
guzzle it all down," he said with a chuckle, beginning to walk back
toward the gathering ahead of them.
David grabbed his father's arm a bit
His father stopped, half-glancing over
his shoulder at his son. "Let go of my arm, boy." It was somewhat
in a threatening tone, but David didn't care. The old man needed to
slow it down a notch. Process. But there was his old military
instinct again, getting in the way of things, throwing up those
shields and defense mechanisms before any weakness could dare be
exploited and used to bring the old general down to the mercies of
being just a man.
Feeling the scared and obedient child
inside him, David saw the anger in his father's eyes and did just
that, promptly letting loose his grip on the general's arm,
watching the old soldier shrug it off, using his other hand to
smooth out the wrinkles to his sleeve and stomping on off, back
towards the rest of them. He kicked himself in the mental
hindquarters. He knew better than that. The old man was tough,
unyielding even in his weakest moments. He sure as hell wasn't
going to let a little thing like his wife dying put a nick in his
well-worn battle armor. Stupid move, Dave, he chided himself. Been
better off uncorking a live grenade and asking it how it felt. Dumb
He shook his head, catching his
mother's eyes and her somewhat worried smile as he followed in his
father's footsteps (the irony wasn't lost on him, by the way)
walking up the hill towards her and his own gigantic sized glass
her sweet, sweet lemonade. The general was gathering the little
troops up as he approached, filling their ears with the urgency of
a new mission in the coming evening hours handing each one an old
Mason jar with a hole-riddled lid. The same thing he did with his
own children thousands of days ago when they were all younger and
little bit more naïve about things like divorce and metastatic
cancer waiting for them just around the corner.
She said it with a smile, as he
happily walked over to her and wrapped his arms around his mother.
Immediately, he noticed it. She was thinner, although she was doing
her best to be clever and hide it under a slightly bulky blouse and
slacks. He wanted to hug her tighter, but was just a little scared
that he might break her if he tried, and that was not something he
wanted to try to explain to the general. At all.
He took a deep breath with his nose,
sucking in the fruitful aroma from her almost all white hair. No
matter how long he'd been gone, it was always his favorite thing to
do upon seeing her. Instantly, he found himself happy to see her
and hungry all at the same time.
"Your hair still smells like
strawberries." He let go, stepping back a bit to take her all in
with his eyes. "You look good, Mom", he lied. Now that he was
closer, he could see the pallor of her usually radiant skin, the
tired and dark half-circles under her hazel eyes…how much she was
struggling to hold up that plastic tray with the near empty pitcher
on it, the ice inside gently knocking into each other and the
glass, reminding him a bit of wind chimes on a front porch, but
There was the faintest sound of
thunder behind him, a sudden gust of wind rustling around and
letting the leaves of the mighty oak wrestle each other in a
"You shouldn't lie to your mother,
son", she said rather matter-of-factly, handing him the tray. "No
matter how good it makes her feel." He watched her close as she
slowly moved toward the tree. "It's been too long since your last
visit, you know. I seem to remember a promise you made to me about
He leaned down quickly to drop off the
tray onto the ground, rushing over to her as she tried to get
herself onto the grassy base of the big oak and have a seat.
"I know, and I'm really sorry, Mom. My
editor thought it would be better for the story if I stayed another
few days, maybe find some info on the under-aged child labor going
on down there in Argentina. Believe me, it completely was not my
She smiled, completely taking him off
He sat down next to her, forgetting
how good it felt just to allow himself to be comfortable for a
"Yeah, I think so. The story hits next
month. I can get you an advance copy if you want, you know."
"Not exactly my cup of tea, dear," she
said, squeezing his arm, "but thank you just the same, anyway. What
I really want to know is when am I going to see my son's name on
the Best-Seller List? That book you started to write in
college…where you trying to come up with this theory behind the
moon landings and why no one's been back…whatever happened to that
David shook his head.
"Jesus, Mom…the memory on you! That
thing was a beginner's poor attempt at novelization at best…slowly
but surely getting overwritten somewhere on my hard drive, I
"Pity", she muttered. "I always liked
The rumblings of thunder were getting
a little closer, and the air was beginning to cool in the
approaching storm. They'd have to be getting back to the house
soon, he surmised, if they were going to remain even the slightest
bit dry. Virginia thunderstorms had a way of appearing out of
nowhere and dropping about a billion gallons of water in the span
of ten minutes in between God's third overture of Hell and the
Apocalypse with some of the most incredibly violent weather he's
yet to match anywhere else on the planet.
"Yeah, well…you were the only one. If
it wasn't for the windfall of rejection letters I'd gotten from
publishers by trying to submit that thing, your son wouldn't be the
accomplished field journalist he is today for one of the world's
most prominent online news magazines."
"Oh," she mildly exclaimed as she
started to get up, letting him help her on the way. "Speaking of
online, that reminds me, I finally figured out how to put that site
of yours into my favorites on the computer. That nice boy that cuts
our grass did it for me the other day."
David laughed, kissing her on the
forehead and hugging her.
"You always were one to dodge the
issue at hand, weren't you, mother-dear? C'mon. We'd better beat it
to the house before we get drenched."
He felt her grab his arm a little
tighter, but it wasn't for support. David Mayson stopped his
forward motion, looking curiously at his mother.
"I don't have a lot of time, David,"
she said matter-of-factly. "This…," she coughed for a few seconds.
"I really hate this."
"What can I do?"
She slowly brought her weathered hazel
eyes up to look at him. "You can listen. I didn't ask you to come
all the way out here for dinner with your father and me," she said,
giving out a slight chuckle. "I can't even cook anymore, anyway.
Your poor father's got us living off of take out from Sheldon's and
heating up microwavable meals."
A flash lit up the sky in the corner
of their eyes, accompanied a few beats later by a low and rumbling
growl that permeated into their bones. They both turned toward the
sound and noticed the thickened lumps of purple, grey and black
that was eating away at the once cheerful summertime blue of the
sky. A long and sudden arc of light spit from in between the
boiling thunderheads. Time to go.
"We can talk about this in the house,
She didn't move.
"We need to go, Mother," he urged. "In
case you missed it, that storm is headed this way, as in, our
general direction and locale, further as in, where we --"
"I know the answer, David." There was
a slight pause as she coughed again. "I know why no one ever went
back to the moon."
He stopped, feeling his forehead
crumble into the wrinkles of wonderment and confusion. What the
hell was she talking about? What answer? And why in the hell was
she doing this now?
The tall grass around them in the
field was rippling in the wake of the strengthening wind. Lightning
was stabbing around the sky and the thunder was cracking now,
insisting he get himself and his mother the hell on out of there.
But he couldn't. At least he couldn't now. Not after that. She had
him and she knew it. He knew his mother. He knew she was once a
government agent way back in the day, and he knew this because that
was always how she led into the story about how she met his father.
When he was a kid growing up, space always fascinated him…the moon
landings in particular. It was the dominating call his whole life.
The history of it. The way a series of events like the Apollo
missions managed to drive an entire country…a world…toward the
brink of transcendence and achieving more than was thought to be
humanly possible. Entire fields of sciences and engineering rose
from nothing just to safely send three men to the moon and back,
and it always bothered him that after a fashion, the love affair
was just over, gone…abandoned without even so much as a poorly
attempted farewell party and recording just slightly above being a
footnote in the annals of history.
"This is no time to be talking about
that stupid book, Mom. We're about to get pummeled out here!" The
damn wind was making it hard to talk without almost shouting. He
had to get them to the house, and fast.
His mother smiled at him.
"You know I'm not talking about your
And then, as if on cue, the wind just
"I always wanted to tell you, but I
couldn't. I was afraid to share it with you. Afraid to share it
with anyone, really…except your father, of course. But he's known
for years, anyway. Hell, he was there."
He jumped as an ice cold single rain
drop smashed into his neck, slightly red and hot from the earlier
sun. "Known…what exactly?"
She reached out and took his hand,
smiling in that motherly way, feeling good that there was still
something left to pull out of her bag of mommy tricks to spark her
It felt good, feeling the coolness of
the gentle rain on her face and skin, glad that she could be out in
it maybe one more time before the curtain call, and happy that the
good lord saw fit to reign it in there at the last minute…maybe
letting life give her a sweet little kiss goodbye before death came
riding in on his horse in the coming hours. She knew it was close
to time, and for the first time she could remember, she was
actually eager for it, but not quite yet. There was still one
little loose end to finally tie up.
"For over forty years, David, Your
father and I have known the answer to your innocent little question
from childhood…why no one has ever gone back to the moon since '72.
Not Russia, not China, not us…not anyone. Why we left it and never
tried to go back."
Gently, she began to walk towards the
same house they'd lived in for as long as he could remember…a
quaint two story, light blue vinyl siding, flower beds, a tiny side
garden that occasionally granted a tomato or two and the two proud
porches, front and back, that father and son had labored together
to build one summer that felt like a million well-worn years ago.
This was home. There were lifetimes of memories here, recollections
of younger days gone by, fights with sisters, bad grades on report
cards, ice cream cakes for birthdays,Star Wars Christmas toys,
football on Sundays and fried chicken and potato salad on those
nasty hot August nights in the summer. There was life here…love. A
blind man could see it if he were inclined to pay enough
Setting all that aside, Mary Ellen
Coley Mayson began to gather the pieces of her story together in
her mind's eye, preparing to finally unshackle herself from decades
of lies and secrecy and threats and government propaganda and
self-conditioning and all the other things that had kept her, her
husband and a small collection of others so silent for so
She kissed her son on the cheek and
breathed in, best she could, shuddering a bit from the anticipation
of what she was about to unveil to him…and still soaking in the
sweet freshness of the rainy air, letting the wetness of it wash
over her old body with a youthful abandon, and perhaps, because of
or in spite it all…feeling alive again.
They walked hand in hand toward the
"And now, son… I'm going to tell