Phobos(Panic) - Deimos(Fear)
One of the bad things about moving to a smaller house is you have to give up all your Ray Bradbury books.
Their pages were yellow. The insides of the front covers originally monogrammed by some seven-year old kid, then signed in cursive ownership on the back flap by the young penman who left-handedly through Catholic school was assured he'd never master the art of script without learning to favor the right.
Away goes October, and Venus, and the Martians with the golden eyes and guns that shot bees.
Into the hopper at the library for thrift sales, destined to become those remaining items going for first a dollar, then fifty cents, a quarter, a dime. Fire hazard free if you'll get them out of here.
We think backward upon the days all books were new and want to protect the memories like eggs with fluffy pillows.
But the monogrammed Ray Bradbury books are gone along with the crushed brown oak leaves and the rocket launches on the horizon tracing golden threads to Mars.
Thus with them evaporate those once treasured desires, no longer held and felt in the heart, no longer the future of oval windows full of stars and boots scratched by the gravel of strange worlds.
Now they live in blurred dreams. Indistinct but present like the warmth on a seat just vacated. Now there are shapes in the clouds that must have been this way or that. Here the gleam of the sun from the metallic fin of a tall spacecraft. Here the humid remains of kiss on departure.
Would it be we were off to Mars with our robots and magic. Ah, the lives we would have lived. But now quietly uttering those farewells as those we love queue to board the craft, thus we are left behind, watching the tall ships ascend from a distance, steadying ourselves to once again bid goodbye, earthbound.
My eyes are bad in the dark. Age, and now the laser surgery have left me a bat with a failing magnetron, radarless in the night.
The others move cautiously, though more quickly in the blue white moonlight.
"You could read a newspaper," says George, the contractor by day. "Doesn't it need to be darker?"
Says Anne the realtor, "It doesn't need to be night. It's just easier to perceive subtle energies out of the glare of sunlight."
Anne has given us a psychic guarantee. This old place is haunted. The spirits are here and we will detect them. We will leave here tonight with a different world view. It the morning we will meet at the coffee shop downtown for a debrief and we will all have stories we can repeat around campfires for the rest of our lives.
I have the dual field meter I built from the kit on the Ramsay website. No electromagnetism will slip past my detection, and we all know the spirits manifest electromagnetically. I have an infrared thermometer gun I got at Home Depot. It's supposed to be used to detect insulation leaks in the house but now I will use it to detect leaks between the eleven dimensions of reality and the four Einsteinian dimensions.
I have unspoken theories about gravitons and quarks and gluons.
Maybe UFOs and the spirits of the dead are the same thing.
Maybe the Kennedys were killed by the CIA, and why the hell did WTC 7 come down in its own footprint like a controlled demolition when it wasn't even slightly damaged by the aircraft impact strikes?
Nothing is what it seems. I will experience the joy of knowing, finally, perhaps discovering one tiny answer to modern culture's great puzzles.
"Something touched my arm," says one of the women, Karen, the wife of the guy who runs that big chunk of Adobe. She owns the flower shop.
"That's good," said Anne. "Log it on your digital recorder. Log all personal experiences."
"Something touched my arm," said Karen again, quieter this time as she spoke into her recorder.
My EM field meter twitches and flashes the way it always does. The Home Depot thermometer says it's 57 degrees Fahrenheit. Then there's a big spike that lights up all the LEDs on the meter and a cold breeze that touches my cheek. The thermometer tells me the temp has gone down to 56.5F.
Then nothing else happens for three hours. It's two AM. Way past my bedtime and I'm no longer as interested in ghosts as I am in my finding repose.
Mostly by feel I fumble around the empty house, apologizing for the false alarms I cause the other ghost hunters while I locate Anne. "I'm going to head back up the hill," I tell her. "Thanks for the cool evening."
"Well, I hope you at least had some personal experiences."
"Oh, all the time," I say.
"And you'll come to the debrief tomorrow? At the Coffee Center on Main."
"Wouldn't miss it."
As I make my way to the door I bump shoulders with my friend Dan, the technologist from Intel. His body is rigid. Digital camera in hand, HD stereo, at half mast, filming nothing but the blackness where the wall meets the floor, recording nothing of the vaporous figure that first seems painted on the wall, then expands to three dimensions, smiles at us, then evaporates upward through the ceiling.
My EM meter flickers and dies back to quiescence. The temperature is stable.
"Wow. How about that?" I say to Dan, knowing he captured nothing in hyper resolution.
"That was pretty cool," I say.
"That thing. It sort of looked like a woman. Maybe in period dress, couldn't really see what she was wearing. I only saw the face."
"You're crazy. It's bullshit. A waste of time. Don't be crazy."
"Sure," I say. "No crazyness."
He walks away from me. In the darkness I can't see where.
"How was it?" asks the blonde haired girl when I get home. She's in bed reading a book. "The Snow Leopard" by Peter Matthesien. I bought it years ago and never read it. I thought it was about mountain climbing Nepal, but rather, it's about a man's conversion to Buddhism.
"You didn't miss anything."
"Seems to me like an excuse for middle-aged single people to meet and go home together."
"That's the cycling club," I say, putting away my EM meter, and getting out of my street clothes. "Notice I'm not in that one," I add for emphasis because every waking moment of life as a couple is a test.
"Did you see anything?"
As is always the case with supernatural experiences, I have to think about what to say.
"What's weird," I hear myself say, "is that we go into these things prepared to record and accept information as if we're scientists simply recording fact. But it's so Heisenberg. Like there's no way to squeeze out the subjectivity. Like if you made it totally objective, nothing would happen. If the tree falls in the forest when nobody's there, it not only doesn't make a sound, but it doesn't ever fall. Does that make any sense?"
She looks over the top of the book she's not reading.
"What did you see?"
"Well, some ghost sort of thing. I mean, there's always the one thing. It's like a physical law. All the data you take, all the experiences you have, you can explain everything away but one thing. It's always like that. You could be there for a week and you'd be able to explain away everything but one thing."
"So you saw a ghost?"
I shrug. I nod but I say, "I don't know what I saw," because anything else would be unpalatable to absorb and make me sound nuts. And I don't want to be nuts.
I put on my bed clothes. I say, "Like there are going to be hours of audio recordings and video recordings with nothing but our footsteps and whispers. And then the one thing happens and you aren't ready for it. It's why all UFO pictures are grainy and fleeting. It's like, supposed to be that way."
"Who was there?" she says.
"Anne and Karen and Dan. George. Some people I don't know. Another Karen and a Nancy. Some I forget the names."
"Lots of women."
"Don't worry. They're all married."
"Doesn't mean anything."
"You could come next time."
"I'd rather watch ice freeze."
"I can set up a camera in the refrigerator if you want."
"If a camera is watching the ice tray in the freezer, does the light go off when the door closes?"
"There's no light in the freezer. I'll use an infrared illuminator."
In the bathroom I brush my teeth. She goes back to reading about Peter Matthesien's conversion to Buddhism. When I get into bed she says, "So, was it a ghost?"
"There's always the one thing. Everything else you can explain away."
"You're impossible. I thought you liked ghost hunting."
"Me too," I say, wishing I could express my disappointment more effectively. Then content to keep it to myself.
"They have proof of life on Mars," says the other Karen, warming her hands on a double latte. I've yet to find out what she does during the day.
"Yeah. We know. The meteor they found in Antarctica," Dan says.
"No - not that," Karen says. "They have, like, stone faces and these statues and transparent tunnels that go underground. It's all in the pictures. You can see them on line. I can give you the link."
She turns to me. "I'm surprised you didn't know about this."
"I - um - why?" My coffee is done and now embarrassed I've unconsciously disappointed someone I go to the drip coffee counter for a refill hoping my absence will force a change in subject.
No such luck. "Because you're all over this stuff," she says when I get back to our table.
"Me? I'm pretty sure I never heard about transparent tunnels on Mars. Send me the link. I'll check it out. Did anyone see the show on Discovery where the guy goes to Chile to find aliens and his radios start bleeping strange noises?"
"Ok - let's get back on subject," says Anne. "Who got what last night? George, anything?"
George is beaming. He's been booting his laptop. "Listen to this," he says, turning it toward us and tapping the mouse button.
We hear the continuous exhalation of recorded nothingness. A bang in the distance and then a voice, Karen number one stubbing her toe on something in the darkness. After a few more seconds George says, "Let me play that again."
And again, nothing, Karen muttering an epithet, and a few more seconds of nothing.
"That was me," says Karen number one.
"Yeah. I know. Behind you. Underneath that sound there's another sound. Can't you hear it?"
He plays the recording once, twice, four more times.
Anne brightens. "Oh, I hear it. A man. Like he says, 'More chocolate, please.'"
"I thought it sounded like a woman saying, 'Martin fetch the horses,'" says George.
Dan and I look at each other. The women shrug. Nobody else can make out anything other than Karen's toe hitting something solid, then her cursing.
After an uncomfortable silence Karen number two says to me, "I saw that show on Discovery. I have it TiVoed. I love that guy. They went to Transylvania and found some real vampires."
I remember the show she's talking about, but because she could be talking about something else I say, "I think I saw that show but I don't think they actually found the vampires, did they? Though the part where the guy gets flung into the air is pretty cool."
"Yeah. That, too," says Karen. "I have it at home if anyone wants to come see it."
She gets no takers.
"Dan, did you have any experiences?" Anne asks.
"Nah," he says, staring at his shoes. He glances at me, then back at the ground. "Total waste of time."
"That's too bad," says Anne. "And how about you?" she taps my forearm for emphasis.
"The EM meter went wild a couple times. Felt some cold spots. That's about it though my intuition tells me there's something in there. I mean, I felt a sort of oppressive presence."
"Oooh. That's what I was going to say," says Karen number two. "Kind of ominous, but in a nice way."
I say, "Or it could have been mold."
"Ok, who's in for trying again next weekend? Saturday. We can do the mill this time," Anne asks. Everyone nods except Dan.
I have to run some errands. Hardware store for some halogen bulbs for the bathroom lights. I bid my goodbyes and leave them at the coffee place. As I get to my car Dan catches up and gets into the car parked next to mine.
"Thanks for not making fools of us," he says to me, opening his car door.
"No problem. But hey..." I struggle constructing a sentence I think won't offend him. It takes a little too long.
"It is ghost hunting, after all."
"It's bullshit," he says. "Dude. I thought we were here to get laid. These women are all nuts and they could all use a couple hours on the treadmill, if you know what I'm saying."
"Well..." I say, now not worrying about offending him. "Maybe you're in the wrong club."
"Exactly. You ride bikes. I heard the biking club is pretty happening. They're doing a century this weekend. I joined. Why don't you come with us?"
"To be honest, I like biking but I'm not in the market."
He smiles. "Fine. Better odds without ya."
He drives off. I went for my light bulbs.
Over lunch we had been discussing the improbability of the Tevatron creating a black hole that would suck the earth into singular nothingness when I changed the subject.
"I have a neighbor who's a Realtor. She gives ghost hunting tours of local haunted houses. Two nights ago I went along. Just for laughs."
"And..." Rick said.
"Maybe it was the reflection of some headlights or something."
"You're highly suggestive, you know."
"Meaning you went off and did that men-staring-at-goats thing like, what, five times? You came back and told me about blue wizards and green fireballs and ghosts of living people. If I didn't know you better I'd be avoiding you, which most people do."
"I can corroborate. There were witnesses."
"Who are all just as suggestable as you are. Why do you keep doing this to yourself?"
"Because I'm not smart enough to satisfy myself with anybody's explanations the way you can. You've got like what, twenty seven advanced degrees in physics? Someone says, 'What about the black holes at CERN?' and you launch into a half hour about GeV and quantum chromodynamics and muons and kaons and you talk yourself into being totally happy in the maze of logic you're holding together with snot and brittle masking tape."
"Hmph," he said.
"I know you well enough. You lose yourself in the math to keep yourself from thinking about the gaps in the logic."
"You're dinging me because I'm an atheist and there's no way I'm going to buy into your..."
"Childish flights of fancy? What does being an atheist have to do with ghosts?"
"When you dismiss the supernatural you do it top to bottom, my friend. There simply is only the natural, and those natural forces of which we know very little."
"Tell me where in the physics it says there can't be ghosts."
"Because even if they existed they can't be measured --"
"Bull. Says who? You think they don't exist so you don't try measuring. They pinged the EM meter."
I stuttered. Nothing intelligent passed from my brain to my lips. I remembered the EM meter flashing and bleeping when the apparition appeared, and the go silent when it was gone. But without any video evidence, or even a willing witness, what could I honestly say happened?
Rick continued. "If you can't repeat it, it's not science. Nothing supernatural nudged your EM meter because even if there were ghosts the massive body of recorded human history provides evidence that they affect exactly nothing. It's thousands of years of history versus your night in a house that needs a plumbing retrofit."
"All the world's great cultures admit the possibility of the supernatural. For instance -- organized religion."
"Things that happen exactly once with zero affect aren't things. Religion is not physics for reason. If you can't repeat it, it's of no consequence."
"Tell that to the guys at the south pole spending billions of taxpayer dollars looking for neutrinos."
"Look. We can't get into this argument," he glanced at his watch for emphasis. "There's no beer and I have to get back to work."
"Let me quote you, 'the world at the quantum scale is completely unlike the macroscopic world. All our biological intuition fails and we have only the math to fall back on.'"
"Don't try to argue ghosts fit inside Plank's constant. Don't even start."
"You, yourself told me nobody could intuit top and bottom and charm and strange quarks and gluons. What the hell does it mean to be more charm than strange?"
"I could show you the math. You'd understand it with a little coaching."
"So who's to say that ghosts aren't just artifacts of some form of matter being a bit heavier on the top side than the strange side?"
"That's... If you understood symmetry you'd realize what you're saying doesn't have any basis in our calculus." He wiped his mouth and tossed his napkin on the table. "I gotta get back to the office."
Because I had been doing all the talking I'd taken only one bite out of my chicken salad on rye. I wrapped it in my napkin and followed him out.
Rick said, "We need beers, old friend. Much beer. I sense an important theological discussion needs to happen."
"I would really like to not be crazy on this. Why don't you come with me next time? I'll give you all the instruments. You can do the physics."
His expression darkened, a mood I'd seen come over him many times. We stopped on the sidewalk before our cars.
"Look. I mean this as a friend, really. The thing with Dan dredged up some old crap for all of us - but you have to ask yourself: what is it in your life that's missing?"
"I'm just trying to find out what it's about," I say, reminding myself he's not trying to insult me. But it's hard to fight the feeling. "I'm looking for answers I can't get otherwise."
"But you're trying to disprove what you know is fact. There are no answers down that rabbit hole. You know that. But hey, it's okay. Go have fun. Fun is good. Just come back to us when you're done."
"Don't you ever get tired of having all the answers?" I say, trying not to sound as angry as I am.
"I don't have all the answers, buddy. Not even close. And I feel my losses, too. You don't have the market cornered on grief, so don't even go there."
"What if I can get some proof..." I say, instantly sorry for prolonging the conversation.
"Bring it Saturday. I'm eager to see it. Meanwhile, what time?"
"Happy hour starts at six. The blonde woman won't let me forget it."
"Love that gal. See you then."
In The Martian Chronicles Bradbury writes a man trying to escape Earth. It's the year 1999. He walks up to the rocket field near his home town in Ohio, grabs the galvanized fence weave in his fists and demands to go to Mars because the politics on Earth is all wrong. There's going to be nuclear war. He shakes the chain link. The guards see him an approach. They holster their guns when they get close.
This is not a terrorist.
As they're carrying him off to let him go a couple blocks from the field they remind him the first two expeditions have gone missing. The crews are probably dead.
No - the man insists. They've gone quiet because they don't want to come back. It's heaven up there. They've found the end of the rainbow.
It has to be better because it's up and out. Far away. Red and mysterious. Hanging in the void, replete with mountains and rivers all named for heroes of other races in unpronounceable languages.
Then the impact. The dull thud of engine start. Even the security people have to turn and watch. You never get tired of it.
They see the tall silver craft lifting off the pad, tracing a golden orange thread behind it as it arcs toward the setting sun, the arrow of a modern Icarus.
They let him go on 2nd Street and ask him please not to come back, at least not today. There won't be another launch for a couple days and they'd like some down time to play cards.
One of the guards retrieves the gray fedora that dropped from his head when they muscled him down the road. He holds in two fists as they head back to the rocket field.
And then on a breeze the words, "Hopes, all burned, ash in the ascension..."
It's as if his thoughts speak themselves into the air. Looks over to see a man on the opposite sidewalk squinting as the last traces of the rocket contrail merge with the evening clouds.
He says, "Someday.." and points toward the sky.
Says the other, "Never. It's better that way."
"What do you see?" A light touch on my arm in the blackness. My EM meter flickers. "It's detecting something." It's Karen.
"Nothing," I say.
"You were standing very still. Did you hear something?"
"Anne saw a black figure in the basement. We have the EVP on the recorder. It sounds like it's saying, 'more chocolate, please.'"
"A black shadow that asks for more chocolate."
She hesitates. "At least it's something."
"Can I ask you --? Why do you come out here with us? You act like you're not the least bit interested. It's a downer, if you don't mind my saying. It's bad energy."
"Same reason you're here. Looking for ghosts," I say to her.
"Doesn't seem like it. Seems like you want something else."
"Answers, then. Maybe I'm looking for some meaning."
"Come on. You're a big boy," she slaps at my bicep. "There are no answers here. This is about wandering around in the dark with a bunch of fun people who are into it. You should join your friend Dan in the cycling club. Your chances are better." She walks away in the dark.
I want to tell her she's wrong but I don't know which direction I should face to speak. And when I'm alone again the shadow reemerges from the corner and gathers itself into a visible white like a whirlwind picking up dust, or an old bulb flickering into luminescence.
Above us the red star glows in the night, and the great Martian canals begin to flow with lavender wine. Its cities gleam in the muted red sunlight. We see it better when it's dark. Then we claw at every light. We grasp empty black air to touch the light. We thirst for the light, to consume it, to infuse it with being.
I think to say, "Hello," to the shape that wants to be. I think to ask who it is.
Or is it the internal reflection of a car's headlamp careening off the surface of a droplet of saltwater on my eyelid?
These are the days of miracles and wonder. We can turn dust-like clouds of hazy energy into the dying electric pain that burns the gut, ignited by the glance of our lover as she turns to leave. The last light in her eye.
It's easier to see Mars in the dark. It's easier to remember that after the select crowd of mourners disbursed Dan and were I alone for a couple minutes on the church steps - and he said, "I held her in my arms."
For months I had monitored his hell and watched it track my own prior experience, never uttering the location of the terminus I reached. Things could always be different, but they weren't. Reappeared then: the shunts and multi-syllabic drugs and the ever-fallible human practitioners who in impotent attempt to mediate life and death dispense ineffective hopes -- but nothing that makes the disease disappear.
We penetrate the dark and lonely nothingness yearning for the light that must be.
"At least I held her in my arms. She was in my arms when it happened," said Dan.
"When it mattered, you were there," I told Dan, feeling we were just two of millions that year whose true love slipped through helpless arms. Anguish in dilution. Immense universal agony bisected over and over until the innumerable is made personal.
"I am so tired of losing her," Dan said, face in his hands, fighting to speak. "This can't be the end."
A cliche' hand to the shoulder. Rambling sentences. Words like river water over slippery stones. There is more. There have to be cities that gleam beneath the light of two circling moons.
I say to the the ghost in the corner, "I know you're there. We miss you."
"If I could only see her again," said Dan on the marble church stairs. He looked up, tear streaked.
I looked, too. Mars was up there.