It’s fine to be saved but what happens afterwards? The ship lands, thrusters smoldering on the tarmac, and the cameras rush in: Welcome home, Colonel. What are you going to do next? What do you have to say to all those taxpayers who sacrificed universal healthcare to finance your rescue? Are you happy?
You say thank you. They understand you want a little time with your family, pushing your kid on a swing while a beer thaws your fist. But the leaves change, frost fills the gutters and soon, the neighbors start to stare.
Why haven’t you shaved? Shouldn’t you be wearing a uniform, not that ratty bathrobe? Aren’t you going to go back and complete whatever mission you started, before your name clogged up the news?
Instead, your shirt collects spaghetti stains and, after a while, the reporters stop coming by. Schools stop inviting you to speak. Your kid throws away the plastic rocket you gave her — makes sure you see her do it — and you don’t say a thing.
Ed the butcher, who likes you because you let him cheat off your math homework in grade school and you only shoved him into his locker that one time, gave you a great big roast with a card that says Welcome back! God bless America! It sits, uncooked, in your refrigerator. After a while, it starts to smell the way you feel. You pay your kid five bucks to throw it out.
They make you see a therapist. They make you see three therapists. But no one can figure out why you can’t bear to see your wife naked unless the lights are on, let alone why sundown turns your stomach and flags fill you with laughter.
I just want to be left alone, you say, but that doesn’t feel right. Please don’t leave me, you tell your wife, her locks gilding the pillow where she sleeps, but that doesn’t feel right either. Even your daughter seems more like an alien, an echo, a foreign sprout placed on your plate by a waiter demanding a tip. Part of you wants to go back there, to that floaty tin can and rationed oxygen, that long nightmare in which hunger became almost soothing, like the ocean.
Thing is, you hate the ocean. Somebody said you should try living next to it because maybe some part of you is still thirsty, still drier than it should be, but no, all you want to do is beat the hell out of surfers and pelicans, maybe even capture a pelican and use it to bludgeon a surfer until both stop moving, then leave your license on the sand beside the corpses, just because.
You hate the color red but, even more than that, you hate orange for how sneaky it can be. You realize if angels existed, they’d probably wear orange and everybody would believe in them, and pray, and never be saved.
By the time men come to get you, your belly hangs past your belt, though your arms are broomsticks. Still, you fight. You think maybe they’re here to hurt your family, even though your family is with them and crying and telling you to just calm down and hold still.
Finally, you give up. You decide they must be taking you back. They’ve changed their minds and they’re going to fly you back and leave you there, and tell everybody that saving you was a mistake. You think about that as you lie in the back of the van, and when you cry, you don’t know whether it’s from sadness or relief.
But no, they say you’re being given another chance. See, it looks bad, you acting like this, so they’re giving you a job. There’s a new mission going to Saturn — you’ve seen it on the news — and they want you to tag along. But don’t worry. You won’t even have a job on the ship. Just let them shave your beard, stick you in a space suit, and photograph you standing beside the other astronauts, looking patriotic and aloof.
Everybody says this will be good for you. Don’t think, your latest therapist says. Don’t even try to feel. Just look. Listen. Breathe. That sounds like good advice but he has a bit of carrot stuck between his teeth.
They let you sleep the whole way there. Even though you’re not supposed to dream, you have nightmares: angels, again. This time, they’re cloaked in sundown, bloody as flame, swinging swords. They’re surrounding you, laughing like bullies in fifth grade gym. But then all of it turns to glass and shatters and you wake up in a cryobed with some spacejock holding a cup of tea.
When you look out the window, there they are: all those rings, like somebody dropped Saturn in the middle of a giant record.
Listen, Spacejock says, we’re not really going to Saturn. We’re going to Enceladus — that’s a moon, you know, named after a giant or something. He flexes. Turns out there’s life there but we aren’t ready to tell the world yet. But we decided to let you see it, as a kind of thank you. He sips the tea. Surprise.
You can’t think of anything to say but that’s all right because they’re already busy lowering the drill, flicking switches to make it French-kiss the ice. Then, geysers. Shards, gas plumes, bits of moon-guts. You laugh. You’re still laughing when they tuck you in a suit, slide you out an airlock, and inch you down via a titanium umbilical cord.
You can already see stingrays — or something like them — floating beneath the ice, drifting by the hole beneath your feet. Only they’re orange, not blue like you expected. You stop laughing. You choke. You want to tell Spacejock to haul you back up but you’re already sinking through the hole, and you know how disappointed everybody will be if you fail. So you keep quiet.
Besides, all you’ve got to do is dangle and turn your head, which is stuck inside a helmet with lights and a camera. No problem, you think. I’ve got this. So you dangle. You turn your head.
Then you realize they’re surrounding you, rippling at the edges like silk made from autumn. They seem friendly enough. Their eyes roll all the way around, like tiny fruits in a slot machine. You laugh. Then you take your helmet off.
It’s cold but you finally know you’re doing the right thing. You let go of your helmet with its buzzing transmitter, its air hose like a boxer’s mouth guard. You expect it to sink but it floats, spinning and blinking like a disco ball.
Your titanium umbilical cord shudders. They’re trying to haul you back up. You unplug yourself. With your helmet gone, you can’t talk to them so you wave and wave at the lights. You think real loud, as loud as you can: It’s all right. Everything’s all right now.
The ship’s still blinking its lights but you turn back to the stingrays. Then you realize they aren’t stingrays at all, aren’t even aliens. They’re angels. Goddamn angels, and they’re dancing around you, holding each other wing to tail. Their eyes are a garden, a lottery, and you’re finally ready to forgive these angels for everything they’ve done — all their sins, how they rhyme with nothing but themselves.
You decide to tell them so. You open your mouth. And when you do, they rush in.