Friday, May 18, 2007

The moon called my name and I had to answer (rough draft)

(Sorry, this is longer than one page. It's 12.)

By Morgan Johnson

We had been friends for more than a dozen years, before the ship came between us. The Ship. We tried other names: the craft, the saucer, the UFO. But none of them stuck. Change is difficult. It's hard to change yourself, and even harder to change someone else.

The three of us─Maki, Scott and I─met in elementary school in Sarnia, in Ontario. It was grade two, and already the division between the sporty kids and the nerdy kids was becoming obvious. While other boys were chasing girls or playing football in the wet grassy fields that surrounded our school the three of us huddled in a cul-de-sac and pretended we were robots. It was the only place free from the pummeling winds. Maki always wanted to be Optimus Prime. Scott was often Megatron or Starscream. Me? I would take whatever role was needed for our little play: Soundwave, Bumblebee, or any of a myriad of other Transformers all memorized from after school cartoons.

We stayed friends. This is the surprising thing, I guess. Not so much the ship we built, but rather the relationship we had going into the project. When you've been together for that long, so much goes unsaid. So much can be assumed. We'd seen each other at our worst. We'd been playing Risk when we heard Scott's step-dad beating his mom. Dungeons and Dragons had been captivating us when Maki's sister almost died from an insulin crash. Gaming kept us together; it was clear. When I was at University in Michigan and had my breakdown, I told them during a marathon Halo 2 match. I told them through in-game chat.

Maybe the artificial worlds we toiled in were an insulation from the pain of the small town where we clearly didn't fit in. Maybe safely wrapped in layers of user interface and lighting effects we could speak the truth to each other. Other boys may have used beer or violence to achieve the same honesty. I don't know. I can't speak for other guys—I only know what I know.

When you have a friendship based on gaming, there is an unsteadiness that seeps in. Unlike most male groups, there is no alpha. Scott may kick ass in Street Fighter 2, but Maki was unstoppable in Super Mario Bros. Me? I was the Dungeon Master. The storyteller. I kept myself above and apart from their contests. I was never the best at any game, but I was the smartest at most of them. The fun for me was in discovering the patterns, the methods. I'd watch them play and speak up when I realized the how of it, the why of it. The actual performance of the games was uninteresting to me; I left that up to my friends.

We didn't even have a serious argument until we built the ship. The Ship.

I say that we built it, but that isn't true. It was Maki. It was all Maki. He'd been working on it for years, behind our backs. He had a lab in his barn that he never showed us, never showed anyone. In all my memories, I can never recall going in there until the day he revealed the prototype to us.

It had never seemed strange to us, the lab, the obsession with science. Maki's parents were optical physicists. I didn't know what that meant then, and I still don't, now. They did work for NASA, the rumor was. Or maybe for the CIA. They worked in America, that much everyone knew, somewhere across the Bluewater Bridge in Port Huron.


One night, after our first year of college but before the Ship, Maki and Scott and I were lying on the roof of Maki's folks' house. We were all in winter sleeping bags, zipped up and around so that only our faces peeked out. We were staring up at the stars and talking about comic books and movies, about girls and college classes. We all three of us were in jeans and hoodies, pasty-faced and cold.

Maki had been quiet all night. Then, during a pause in the conversation he said in a quiet and still voice, "The moon spoke to me last night."

Scott and I remained still, waiting for the punchline.

"It said that it had a mission for me. A dangerous mission."

Scott laughed nervously. I listened to my heart thud quicker and quicker in my chest.

"The moon told me I had to build something, and I started last night." Maki coughed and rustled in his bag.

No one spoke for minutes, so I broke the silence. "What do you think the human race will name the first planet we discover?" I asked. My voice was muffled and made distant by the covers.

Scott grimaced and opened a can of Jolt cola. "Probably something awful and corporate like 'Ford Planetoid brought to you by Bank of America in conjunction with Exxon.' But we'll just give it some crass new name like Planet Ford or Planet 2 or The New World."

Maki laughed. "I always wondered when I read science fiction stories about who named the planets. Like, if some explorers arrive at a desolate and uninhabited planet named BaaKuu-Oombaba 9 then that means someone at some point discovered the planet and gave it this crazy name."

"That is one fired astronomer," said Scott.


It was during the next summer, the summer after our sophomore year at college that Maki showed it to us. We had been watching cable at his house, which was a rare occurrence. His parents didn't like anyone being in the home when they weren't there, especially us. But on this day Maki didn't care.

"To hell with their rules. This is a thing I have to show you." He removed his glasses and wiped them on his Weezer shirt. "Grab a coke and meet me at the barn in five minutes." Scott and I looked and each other and shrugged. This was the most forceful we'd ever seen Maki. He was always quiet, passive. A nice guy, keeps mostly to himself, you might say.

When we finally roused ourselves and ambled outside, Maki was standing in front of the barn door. His folks had expanded the barn a few times before he was born, when they collected cars, and so they had turned their pole barn into a six-car garage. But now they carpooled to work in a hybrid so the garage-cum-barn was empty and there Maki had constructed his lab.

He was grinning ear to ear and blushing. "You are the first people I have shown this to." Maki laughed nervously, "But you won't be the last." He stood ramrod straight and made a saluting gesture to the two of us. In his hand was a garage door opener. He asked for a drum roll, and we complied by slapping our hands our jeans and hooting. "Taa daa!" Maki yelled as all the barn doors crept upwards at once.

The first thing I noticed was that Maki had knocked down all of the dividing walls his parents had put in, making the garage into one large space. Making it back into a barn, really. The second thing I saw was that the roof had been reinforced with a hexagonal dome, Buckminster Fuller-style. The third thing was the ship.

It looked like a bronze frisbee or the world's biggest penny. It was almost as wide as the barn and ten feet tall. It was round and tapered at the edges. I was speechless. It was floating half a foot off the ground.

Scott wasn't speechless. "It's a goddamn flying saucer!" He yelled, punctuating every word with a playful punch into Maki's shoulder. "Where'd you find it?"

"Find it?" Maki scoffed. "I built it."

And what do three young men─boys, really─do when they have a flying saucer? What would you do? We climbed in without caution. It was the kind of moment we'd spent our whole lives preparing for, steeping in science fiction as we had been. We knew a jetpack future was always right around the corner, and here was our proof. A section of the saucer whirred open before us and from above I knew that it must look like pac-man. Inside was a captain's seat and a couch and a small room. Whereas on the outside the saucer had been gleaming bronze, inside it was pure Maki: rough cut wood and duct tape, cast-off computer parts and furniture scavenged from the trash. Not far from the captain's seat I saw the mini-fridge I'd used in the dorms last year. It smelled of glue and sweat and old couches, of cigarettes and stale beer and plastic. It smelled like Scott's house, actually.

Scott took the lead, as always, and clambered into the pilot's seat. Maki and I sat on the edge of the moldy sofa behind him. "How does this work?" Scott asked while gripping two salvaged joysticks mounted on the chair arms. Maki showed him.

One button made the ship's hull transparent to us. One button made it opaque. One button lifted the ship to a height of a hundred feet; another brought it within inches of the ground. It was all very simple. "The ship is invisible to radar and we can make it mostly invisible, too, by hitting this active camouflage button." He spelled camouflage wrong, I noticed. "I haven't really taken it out before, so go easy on him. Okay, Scott?"

"Him?" Scott asked. "Him? Fuck that. This ship is a woman. It needs a woman's name." Scott tilted the controls forward and slowly steered the ship out of the barn. "Like Whitney or Ashley or Amber or Tiffany." He hit the ascent button and the ship noiselessly rose higher. "Something feminine."

The first thing we did with it, once we got the hang of the controls, was look for girls. We sailed over to America, to Port Huron, and looked for the popular hang-outs. It was almost nine at night by this time, and the sun was setting and casting warm shadows against the landscape. We found ourselves following the roads we knew, and even stopping at stoplights sometimes. We took turns piloting the ship, but Scott was the best at it by far. A lifelong obsession with flight simulators had trained him well, apparently.

The world looked different from the air, even from only a hundred feet up. Houses weren't doll-sized exactly, but the oddness of their shapes was plain. Houses look square from the front and from all sides, but from above they are complex and multi-faceted. They look like nothing so much as dirty molars in a never-ending mouth. And Maki wasn't kidding about the hundred feet limit─we stayed exactly one hundred feet above every car or house or tree. It made for a jostly ride of endless dips and jumps. "I'll fix this," Maki muttered, his face green and sweaty. "I'll fix this jostling."

We found girls everywhere we looked. At a strip mall. At a Starbucks. On the lakeshore or walking down neighborhood streets. Scott rejected them all in turn. "Too many." He'd say. "Too tall." Passing by a Hot Topic he broke into laughter, "Too goth. Too lame. Too young."

"Once we find girls, Scott," I asked, "what will we do?" I leaned forward on the couch so that my face was just above his shoulder. "Will we land this UFO and ask them to take us to their leader? Will we ask if they want to see a movie or go cruising?"

Scott's brow furrowed. "Fuck. You're right. We need a plan." He looked around at the inside of the ship. "And we need to spruce this place up. Make it more Sci-Fi and less basement-y."

"And then what?" Maki gasped, sweat beading on his upper lip, making him a cartoon cautioning against seasickness.

"And then, my friends, we prepare the probes."

"Take us back home." Maki demanded. "I'm going to be sick."

We went to work then on the interior of the craft. We watched old Sci-Fi films and took notes on the aesthetics. The cheeseball interiors of an Ed Wood flying saucer were appealing for their ease of implementation, while the organic designs of Farscape were comforting but impossible to reproduce. We watched Star Trek, Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica. We cleaned out the Science Fiction section at our local video store and watched the films in fast forward, pausing when a ship's décor was visible. We met before work in the morning and again in the evenings. For weeks we did nothing but work on the ship. You'd think we would grate and run on each other. You'd think tempers would flare and fights would erupt. But they didn't. We agreed on everything, somehow, and worked as happy as Smurfs.

I checked out Time/Life home repair books from my library job and we studied the methods revealed within, crowded around a workbench in Maki's barn. Scott and I took turns buying breakfast on our way to the workshop. I'd bring bagels, fruit, yogurt. Scott would bring donuts, McMuffins, cold pizza. Maki would have a pot of coffee ready by the time we got there, the scent of it filling the barn like the odor of potential labor.

Scott worked at a Home Depot store and shoplifted whatever he could. What he couldn't shoplift he mis-tagged and bought with his employee discount with the help of an underage cashier he was flirting with. "Everyone steals," he said, explaining away our objections. "My boss is building a deck on the back of his house and a pool all from lifted materiel. It's like why you get a job there, I guess."

We limited our use of the saucer as much as possible during this time. But we did still use it. While Scott and I redesigned the inside, Maki kept improving on the controls, the guts. We took the ship up to test this and it flew so smooth you'd think you were sitting still in someone's living room, watching the flight on television.

One afternoon, after getting the flooring complete we took a break from working on the ship and flew it up north, onto Lake Huron. The air was still and the sun was high above us. The day felt timeless and golden, a never-ending afternoon. We parked a foot above the water and opened the mouth of the ship. I sat and took off my boots and dipped my toes in the lake. Maki opened a brushed steel compartment on the wall and removed two rods and a tackle box. And so sitting on a perfect afternoon in a UFO we had built, we fished and swam. Drank beer and napped. It may have been the best afternoon of my life.

The next day, in the barn, Scott was very talkative. "We need a plan, guys. We have this amazing thing. This ship. We need a plan for what to use it for. I mean, if we're going to meet girls with this thing─get laid with it─we need a solid plan. We need to bring our A game."

"We could do something else with it," I suggested.

"We could explore. Go under water or to the moon or something." Maki's voice rose, he was almost begging.

"So what I'm thinking," Scott continued, "is that we need to look the part. If we have this sci-fi spacecraft with the sleek interior, it won't do anything for us if we roll up on some chicks and step out in our flannel and jeans and D&D t-shirts."

I looked down at my shirt. It said, "I roll twenties."

"We need props. We need costumes. We need spacesuits."

Maki looked at the floor, cupped his chin in his hand. "Spacesuits, eh? I can do that."

Within a week we had functioning spacesuits, good enough for the void─or so Maki said─and strange enough for Scott's plan. They were a deep green and slightly bulky. The material was slippery and shiny, like chrome or latex. Our boots and gloves and helmets and belts were a gleaming silver. Wearing the suits, we looked amazing.

"Where the hell is this from, Maki?" Scott ran his hand across his suit's slippery arm.

"It's leftover from my parents' work."

"NASA?" Scott asked?

"CIA." I said.

"Whatever. See if they fit." Maki tapped the seal between the suit and the helmet. "If this is loose, you'll die."

With the ship built and outfitted, and our suits made and fitted, all of our preparations were done. Still, we stalled. Scott kept finding reasons why he couldn't fly. He had a late shift. He had an early shift and needed some sleep. He really wanted to see a certain movie. Maki kept saying he needed to run more tests. Double check things. Run diagnostics. I never even had to give my excuses, but I prepared them anyway.

The summer was nearly over before we gathered our courage and gave it another shot. It was in August, I think, and the humidity was incredible. You could scoop an empty glass through the air, and by the time you moved it ten inches it'd be half-full of water. The evening was thick with the sound of katydids, crickets, tree frogs. All those beasties that are so shy during the day and such stars at night.

I was afraid that it'd be too hot in the suit. That it would be like sixth period in class, at the end of the school year when every muscle in your body is overheated and screaming "Nap!" at you. That I'd be a cat in a sunbeam, if I put the suit on. But of course Maki had planned for that.

"These suits are space-safe. And even though space is at best three degrees Kelvin, you get all that heat from the sun scorching you. All that radiation. Spacesuits get really, really hot when they face the sun and intensely cold when they don't. They're built to handle it though." He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and took a breath. "The original NASA suits used quickly moving water and gold plating to control the heat."

Scott interrupted Maki, "We don't need to know the history, man. Just tell us how to turn on the damn AC."

But he didn't need to. Maki was right, the suits kept us cool. We stayed a perfect sixty-three degrees, not too dry and not too moist. The suits felt bulky, and the helmets were a bit hard to see out of. But they were comfortable. I could've dozed off in one.

We suited up that night for the first time, and took the ship out. We flew silently and smoothly across the lake and into Port Huron. Our breathing was loud in the ship, or maybe just in our ears. We joked at first, cheering and hooting and bouncing with excitement. But once our voyage got underway we quieted down. Ran silent.

Just off I-94 we saw a girl on a ten-speed. She had long brown hair back in a pony-tail, a white t-shirt clung to her. She wore shorts so short they looked like underwear. She could've been our age, or a bit older. "Her," Scott said, pointing through the transparent floor. "Let's get that one."

We shot down the road, hidden in the darkness. If she had looked up at that point, she wouldn't have seen anything unusual, maybe a slight blurriness in the stars. Scott parked the ship at the next big intersection, over a traffic stop separating two lonely dirt roads only a mile away from a roaring highway, but they could've been a million miles away. There were streetlights on every corner, tiny buoys of light floating in that American night.

As the girl on the bike slowly pedaled towards us, Maki switched off whatever it was that made the ship mostly invisible and I turned on one of the outside lights. We were ten feet above the ground now and shiny as a penny in a sunbeam. As we'd discussed, I trained a light on the girl, as if she were a deer I guess. She stopped pedaling, and her mouth dropped open. She had braces.

Scott steered the ship ever so slowly forward and slid open the front door. We must've looked like a star fallen to earth trying to gobble her up. She didn't move. As the ship came within inches of her shins, I stepped forward and offered my silver-gloved hand, lifting her up into our cabin. Wide-eyed and agog, she complied.

Scott had explained the plan like this: hit them with wonder, startle them with the impossible. It will either make the girl awestruck and compliant, or she will run off terrified and "really, if a chicks scares that easy then she isn't worth my time." Once the girls were in the cabin, we'd make our move.

"The ship will give them permission," Scott said. "Everyone really just wants to get laid anyways," he'd said. "This just gives them a way to give in to their natural desires─like alcohol does." He'd said. "It's all about easing inhibitions."

It worked.

I don't know what Scott said to her or if he even said anything, but suddenly his helmet was open and they were kissing. And then his suit opened and she had his cock out, and in her mouth. Right there, in the cabin, on top of the driver's seat that we all had spent so much time making we watched Scott have sex with the bike girl. The braces girl. The pony-tail girl.

The ship wasn't large, and the cabin wasn't roomy by anyone's standards, so when Scott was there thrusting into that girl, his feet kept poking me. Her head bounced off Maki. It was awkward, is what I'm saying. The entire abduction couldn't have lasted more than fifteen minutes, but as I counted the bumps of sweaty feet against my shiny green suit, it seemed to go on forever.

And then the saucer opened and Scott was escorting the girl out. I heard him say, "Your help will be vital to our research" in a strange accent, while climbing back in and shutting the door. Holding her panties in his grinning mouth he steered the ship sharply upwards and killed the lights. "Now my friends, it's your turn." He was naked.

Maki tore off his helmet and flung it at Scott's head. "Home, Scott." Maki's face was red and tense. "Take. Me. Home."

"Yeah," My voice echoed loud in the helmet. "I need to get up early tomorrow." My stomach was tight and knotted and I felt warm inside the suit.

Back at the barn, Maki was screaming. "That's it! Never again, Scott. Never ever again." Maki never lost his temper, and seeing him screaming now was like seeing your mom cry, or like seeing a limping puppy. You just really wanted to make it better so he'd stop making that expression.

Scott shoved Maki to the ground and pointed two fingers at him. "What the hell is your problem. I thought this was the plan?" Scott was still naked. He turned and gave me a shrug. "We talked about this. This is why we built the ship."

Maki leapt up and punched Scott in the chest with a balled-up fist. "I built this! And this was your stupid plan!" Tears burst forth like a balloon exploding. "I never wanted to meet girls."

"What? Are you some kind of fag?" And at that final word Maki staggered as if struck, and switched off. His face became slack and his green eyes deadened. He walked stiffly from the garage and across the walk to his parents' house, while lightning bugs blinked around him.

Scott ran after him and bellowed, "Fine! I'll just use the ship without you!" But Maki wasn't listening.

The next day at work was a blur. I kept getting distracted, mis-shelving books. I took a two hour lunch by accident, and then ended up not even eating any of it. I went to Maki's that night, but his house was dark. I tried calling, but there was no answer.

Scott showed up shortly after, still wearing his retail vest. "Ready for round two?" He was grinning.

"Not really," I said.

"Well you better get ready."

We flew back to America, back to the backstreets and byways that had been abandoned since freeways cut through. We flew down roads, past parks. Across parking lots and fields. Sometime near two a.m. we found them. Two girls─women─standing behind a dingy bar. Scott lowered the ship and I hit them with the high-beam. Again they froze, and again we scooped them up.

One of the women was black─African-American─and was wearing jeans and a red silky top. She was smiling and dazed and very skinny. I guessed she must've been ten years older than us. The other woman was blond and heavier, but she had a real nice smile. She was wearing a button-down blouse and khakis.

Scott undid his helmet and his features looked alien, menacing in the dim sci-fi lighting. He stepped forward and ran a gloved hand against the black woman's cheek. She stared at the ship. Scott stared at her. I stared at Scott. And the other girl stared at me.

The blonde stepped towards me and lifted off my helmet. I hadn't had the seal fastened, so it lifted off easily. "Oh," she said in a breathy voice, "you're cute." She leaned forward and kissed me. It was the first time I'd kissed a girl. It was wet and warm and squishier than I expected. It reminded me of the first time I'd eaten squid, actually.

My stomach twisted about and I felt suddenly ill. Glancing over at Scott, I saw him already on top of the other girl, her shorts on the floor of the ship. The blond was watching them too, her eyes wide, she turned back to me and grinned and leaned in to kiss me again. She stuffed her tongue into my mouth, and I tasted oatmeal. I tasted cigarettes. I pushed her away. Said something like, "I can't do this." Or, "I don't want this."

I don't really remember. There was a weird humming outside the ship. Something loud and deep, like chimes, but also far away. The girl tried to grab me and pull me in for another kiss─she kept glancing across at Scott─but her hands slid without purchase on the suit. She said something, but the chimes were too loud. I couldn't hear her.

Then I was outside. I was walking away from the ship. Moonlight limned my arms, my face. I was glowing. The sound of the moon on my face chimed in the air. I had no idea what was happening. Then the sound faded and my vision cleared.

Back in the ship, Scott was making out with both the girls. I sat on the side of the road and listened to my iPod and waited for something else to happen.

Flying back to the barn, Scott couldn't contain his enthusiasm. "Two chicks at once, man! Two!" He gunned the ship forward, the acceleration pressed me back into the seat like a dentist's blanket. "I mean, I don't know why you pussied out, but I'm glad you did." He jumped up and down in his seat, laughing, and steered the ship upwards. The moon filled our field of vision and I shuddered.

"I don't think this is right," my voice was muffled.

"Naw man, we tested the ship for these speeds."

"No. This thing we're doing─the girls thing. It feels wrong. Dishonest. It's like . . . date rape or something."

"Fuck you."

"We need to think about this."

"Fuck you."

"I'm serious."

"Yeah?" Scott snarled. "Well I'm no rapist."

"Drop me off at home."

The next day there was a message from Scott on my machine. It said, "Maki's pissed. He said we're cut off. No more joyrides. He said he's taking the ship to the moon." He paused and I could hear his teeth gritting. "And I'm not a fucking rapist."

I avoided them for a week. I just worked at the library, went to movies by myself. I sat in diners and read. I didn't go out at night if I could avoid it. Every phone message for me, I deleted. There were no more chimes.

One week of intentional avoidance turned to two. Became three. The calls stopped. I'd be shelving books and absentmindedly making plans to hang out and play a new game with Scott, with Maki and I'd have to remind myself I didn't have any friends. Was it date rape? Was it wrong? It certainly didn't feel honest.

During all of our plans and work, I never thought of the consequences. I just enjoyed being with my friends.

Three weeks then became four. A month after our last flight in the ship, I went back to Maki's. I figured it'd been long enough. The barn was locked and dark, so I knocked on his front door. Maki's mom answered, she was wearing a green terrycloth bathrobe and severe black glasses.

"Yes?" She looked through me.

"Is Maki home?"

"Oh, no. He's been gone for a few days." She started to the close the door but I stepped forward and into the house.

"Where'd he go?"

She was flustered. "He left a note. It just said he was going away for a few days."

I ran to the barn.

We'd blacked over all the windows while we were working. We didn't want anyone to see what we were doing in the barn, but now it meant I couldn't see in. A brick from the driveway solved that. I peered in and saw that the barn was empty. No ship. Nothing. Every tool and piece of equipment was gone. The air smelled stale and musty, like it'd been empty for weeks.

I got back in the car and drove aimlessly, turning at every red light. Driving deeper and deeper into the country. Past gas stations and corn fields. Past forests and lakes, I drove and drove. I crested a short hill and the moon loomed large on the horizon, larger than it had any right to be. As I was staring at the craters and crevasses that crossed the face of the moon, the air shimmered before the car and I slammed on the brakes.

Light poured forth and blinded me. Through the fingers of my right hand, I saw a wide and flat copper colored disc. The light poured off it like honey from a spoon. A sliver of blackness split the craft open and yawned wide.

I found myself stepping forward.

A gloved hand reached out and I grasped it, feeling the strength in that hand.

I was pulled up and into the ship, dazed from the light. A suited figure stood before me and I saw myself reflected and backlit in his helmet. I looked like an angel.

Reaching forward, I undid the pressure seals on the helmet and removed it. I saw who it was, and smiled.

Outside, the moon began chiming away. Ringing out across the tops of trees, drowning out the growl of my car’s engine. The chiming grew louder and it sounded like words.

Maki leaned forward, and kissed me.

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