Ephemeral: Final Chapter
33 Elpis Revolutions Later ...
“Grandma! Grandma!” cried little Sydney as she scampered across the grassy lawn in her bare feet toward the white-haired woman sitting on the bench by the fish pond.
The woman turned her clear green eyes on the child who carried a bedraggled assortment of red, purple, and yellow flowers in her small hands — flowers she recognized from her own flower beds. Oh, never mind, Clara thought to herself with a tolerant smile as her youngest grandchild – only six revolutions old – came near. If she can enjoy them, they’ve served their purpose.
“Grandma!” the girl said breathlessly. “I’m ready to say hi to Grandpa Alden now.”
Clara patted the child’s brunette curls. “Very well, then. Let's go to him.” With a slight creak in her old knees, she stood from the bench and held out her hand to Sydney. They walked in silence around the perimeter of the pond until they came to a grassy footpath that led up the orchard hill.
“Race you to the top, Grandma!” the child cried. Without a backward glance, she dashed up the hill as fast as her spindly little legs could carry her.
Clara counted to three. Then, with childlike pleasure herself, she pelted the ground and — to her granddaughter’s wonder — managed to rest her hand on the tree's rough brown bark first.
“I thought for sure I would beat you this time!” Sydney huffed and puffed, her cheeks pink from the effort.
Clara put her hands on her knees and sucked in deep breaths. “I’m sure you will after next Elpis-rising,” she said with a grin. “You’re getting bigger all the time. Did you know that?”
“Yep. Mom says the same thing.” Sydney turned and gazed on the green-gabled house, the red barn, and the gold fields below. Elpis had turned orange on the horizon and flared against the overhead clouds in brilliant pink hues. “It’s so beautiful! You can see everything from up here!”
“Your grandpa Aaric loved this spot too,” Clara said as she put her hand to the small of her back and up-righted herself again. “We used to come up here for Elpis settings and starlit dances.”
Sydney smiled. “Is that why he's still here? Because you both loved this spot so much?”
Clara’s eyes moistened. “Yes, dear. Come on. Elpis won’t wait forever. And your parents will wonder where we've gone.”
“Where is it again?” Sydney asked.
“Come over here,” Clara pointed at a squarish shadow on the ground. “You can see it from this angle.”
“Oh!” Sydney cooed as she pointed to the now-visible headstone standing about four feet high. “It's like magic!”
“It's photopetrium,” Clara smiled. “From the Silex quarry.”
Although he had never put on airs in life, Aaric had been most honored in his burial. Even in death, he brought the clans together. Agilis had donated the gravestone while a Silvan stone carver – Chaska's wife, actually – had engraved the epitaph and adorned the photopetrium with intertwining vines and flowers. When Elpis light hit it just right, the gravestone was nearly transparent. But from their current position, and with the great star making its downward journey, they could see the solid stone clearly.
“Can you read the words, Sydney?”
Sydney scrunched her eyebrows in concentration and read, “'Here lies the body of Aaric Joseph Alden, son of Thomas and Teresa Alden: a noble man of the Almitas clan, whose quiet strength, courage, and …'” Sydney turned questioning eyes to Clara.
“Marksmanship,” Clara supplied.
“'… marksmanship averted great disaster on our fair planet. All three tribes are unified in their honor of his unwavering commitment to justice and peace. He will be forever loved and remembered as the best husband, father, and grandfather who ever tamed a stallion or gave a pony ride.' I like the pony ride part the best!” Sydney announced. “I still remember them, you know. It's too bad about his horse-breaking accident.” She placed her limp bouquet on the grave next to the flowering bush with white trumpet flowers. “Look, Grandma! The white flowers are opening their petals!”
Clara smiled. “They always bloom best when it gets dark. Your grandpa asked me to plant them on his grave as a …” she swallowed hard. “ … a reminder. And a comfort.” Clara wiped her eye on her sleeve.
“Are you sad, Grandma?” Sydney asked, wrapping Clara’s bony hand in her small one.
“I wanted to grow even older with your grandfather,” Clara acknowledged. “But mostly, I’m thankful for the times we shared together. I know I’ll see him again someday.”
“Don’t go anywhere just yet!” Sydney said, grasping Clara’s hand tighter. “Promise?”
Clara was just about to reassure her when something streaked across the sky. Clara squinted.
Then she froze.
“Is that a shooting star, Grandma? I’ve never seen one so big and close before!”
Clara paled as the billowing object disappeared beyond the treeline. Oh, no ...
Clara, whispered that all-familiar voice. It's time.
“What is it?” Sydney asked. “Why is your mouth twitching like that, Grandma?”
Clara’s eyes glistened in the fading Elpis light. But I don’t want to go back! This is my home now!
Don't be afraid, Clara. I will be with you.
“Grandma? What's wrong? Why are you upset?”
Clara drew in a shaky breath, wiped her eyes dry, then knelt down to look into the face of her granddaughter. “Sydney, do you know where your name comes from?”
“From your sister, right?”
“Yes. And do you remember where my sister lives?”
“Earth!” Sydney said.
“That's right.” Clara kissed the little girl's forehead. “Well, Sydney. I haven’t seen my sister in a very long time. So long, in fact, that she probably won’t even recognize me. But before I left Earth, I promised I'd come back.”
“You mean … you mean, you’re going away?!” Sydney’s lip trembled and her clear, gray eyes — the same as her grandfather’s — threatened to storm.
Clara reached out and stroked the child's curly head. “It’s important to keep our promises, dear. Your grandfather believed that. He wanted me to see my sister.”
“But what about Mom and Uncle Ben and Aunt Christa and everyone else? We like seeing you too! It’s not fair!”
“Love rarely is, my dear.” Clara sniffed. “And I love you all so, so much. But I’ll tell you what. After I see my family on Earth and if I am able, I will try my very, very best to come back here.”
“Is …” little Sydney rubbed her tearful eyes with her fists. “Is that a promise, Grandma?”
Clara smiled. “Yes, that’s a promise. Now come here.” Clara wrapped her granddaughter in a bear hug and whispered into her ear, “I love you, Sydney. Please explain things to your parents for me.”
“Why can’t you tell them yourself?” Sydney asked.
“Because if I don’t board that shuttle which just landed, it will go back to Earth without me.”
“Do you know where it landed?”
Clara nodded. “Yes. It’s in a meadow — a very old one.” Clara kissed her granddaughter on the cheek. “Now get back to the house before your mother starts to worry.”
“Okay, grandma,” Sydney said as she trudged down the hill. Then she paused and looked over her shoulder. “You won’t forget me back on Earth, will you?”
Clara laughed and shook her head. “I certainly won't! I promise.”
Clara knew if she hesitated — if she lingered too long by Aaric’s grave-site, by the warm windows to her home, or by the pond now reflecting a billion stars in its still, dark surface – she wouldn't be able to go through with it. She also knew if she failed to board the ship, she’d forever regret it.
Clara hurried before she could change her mind. She didn’t even bother saddling her horse – a descendant of Nelly's. Soon she was flying across the fields by Elpis' fading rays. She rode hard for several degrees, gripping the sliding sides of her mount with her semi-arthritic knees and ankles. Even with the cool wind rushing past her, she broke into a sweat when she spied the black and white shuttle in the distance. It had truly been a lifetime since she'd last laid eyes on it.
“Whoa, girl!” Clara halted her horse and slipped to the ground with a grimace. Her legs felt like rubber from the ride. Her steed snorted indignantly at the great white and black beast sitting in the field with its metal ridged leg extending from its side. Clara slapped the animal on the rump, and the horse headed off in the direction of its own stable walls.
Clara slowly climbed the metal steps to the shuttle door. Her old eyes misted as she read the familiar writing emblazoned over the door: Ship #42: Promise. She sniffed at the memory of five young interstellar interns planning their summer research projects; oh, how differently their summer had gone – especially for Tristan, Darian, and Raven.
Clara tried to open the shuttle door, but it was locked. The little circular light above it shone red. Her fingers hovered over a key pad on the side of the door. I'm not sure I remember how to do this ... She pushed the largest button.
“Identify, please,” said a feminine robotic voice.
“Clara Leigh Alden.”
“Unauthorized.” The door remained locked.
Clara blinked. Oh! That’s right.
She bent toward the screen over the keypad and spoke again. “Clara Leigh Milton.”
“Please enter your identity number.”
Oh, shoot! It had been so long since she’d used her old identification, she doubted she could recall the digits. Her fingers punched in the first numbers that entered her mind. She held her breath.
“Vocation?” buzzed the computerized voice.
Whew! She felt so relieved at getting to the next stage, she failed to answer immediately.
“Vocation?” the voice repeated with the same exact inflection.
A dozen titles flew through Clara's mind: grandmother, mother, wife, friend, horsewoman, farmer, teacher, home chef, care-giver, landscaper, Elder, inter-tribal ambassador, heirloom-keeper. She had to furrow her brow to recall what she had been before coming to Elpis 7. Got it!
“Sociology grad student.”
Uh oh … Clara furrowed her brow and tried to do the math. I was doing graduate work, so I was out of college and that means I was at least twenty-two ...
“Age?” the shuttle repeated.
Clara wiped the sweat from her brow. “Twenty-four, then!”
“Authorized.” The circular light changed from red to green, and the door opened. Almost immediately, the shuttle rumbled to life and started doing its automated pre-flight checks. Clara stepped inside the beige interior and strapped on her harness only a couple degrees before the mechanical countdown to launch began. At liftoff, she let the tears flow freely as she left her beloved planet – a planet which was far more home to her now than the one she was flying to.
It would be a lonely ride back to Earth. After leaving Elpis 7’s atmosphere, the server bots —unhearing, unseeing, and cold — informed Clara she could move about the cabin in their vaguely human voices. Clara unfastened her harness and walked toward the porthole window at the rear of the shuttle. She put her fingers to the cool glass and traced the circle of Elpis 7 — a lovely blue-green jewel in the heavens growing ever smaller. Her heart ached for Aaric, for her children, for her grandchildren, her horses, and even for the muddy waterfowl which always made a mess of her garden.
Clara watched the planet until it shrunk smaller than the head of a pin and finally disappeared altogether. She'd never felt so alone. All the people who'd known her best would soon be light years away, and she doubted she would ever see them again.
But I still know you, Clara.
Touché, Clara conceded with a half-smile. She walked about the cabin, found the restroom, and splashed water on her face. She’d gained crow’s feet, age spots, and an abundance of snow white hair since the last time she’d used this mirror. But her green eyes still shone vibrantly. She opened a cabinet and found an extra navy blue space suit. Very uncomfortable, Clara remembered with a grimace. But she slid out of her old clothes and put it on. She accepted a glass of wine from the droids – possibly her last – and returned to her seat. Then she looked at her left hand and frowned. Darn it! I accidentally took the Almitian heirloom! I should have given it to Sydney!
“Attention, passengers,” announced the autopilot. “Approach to wormhole is immanent. Please refasten your harnesses. And thank you for flying with Vitae Transports.”
Clara quickly obeyed, then closed her eyes and clutched her armrests as the windows gleamed white from the streaming stars. Eventually, the stars slowed, and a new blue-green planet hovered in the shuttle window, growing larger by the second.
“Please don your helmets and turn your visors to opaque as we pass through Earth’s atmosphere. We will be landing in fifteen minutes.”
Clara tapped the opaque button to make her face invisible to any onlooker. This might prove helpful, she thought to herself. As long as I keep my helmet on, no one will want to shoot me.
The windows of the cabin went fiery orange. The turbulence threatened to knock her teeth from her jaws. And then, with one final thrust, the shuttle sailed through blue skies, and a gentle hum of atmospheric engines replaced the rockets' thunder. The shuttle touched down on the runway and finally slowed to a crawl as it found its way among the other aircraft at the airport.
“You are now free to move about the cabin,” announced the automated flight attendant. “Thank you again for choosing Vitae Transports for all your transcontinental and interstellar travel needs. Vitae Transports – a service of the Vitae Conglomerate where health and happiness are our business.”
Clara shook her head at the false advertising. Health and happiness – it's such a lie! I wonder if I'll live long enough to tell anyone.
The door on the side of the shuttle opened of its own accord.
Clara sat glued to her seat, her pulse throbbing in her ears.
A droid, scanning the cabin for litter, set its beam on her. “Please vacate the cabin for other passengers. And thank you again for flying with Vitae Transports – a service of the ...”
Clara wanted to kick the droid to the ground just for the pleasure of summoning an actual human to the scene. But she resisted temptation, unbuckled her harness, and trudged toward the shuttle door. Even with her opaque helmet visor down, she could still smell the fumes from the other aircraft and hear the near-deafening takeoffs. Well, Clara. We're here. No turning back now.
Clara descended the steps toward the loading dock and walked through the tunnel to the airport receiving bay. When she stepped into the actual building, she saw a small crowd gathered by the entrance — presumably the friends and family members of her former teammates. She winced as she saw Raven’s mother waving at her, another woman who looked like an older version of Aliyah, a slender woman holding a sign that said, “Welcome home, Tristan,” and a small gaggle of giggling college girls — presumably Darian’s fan club. And there, standing in the back with a relieved smile stood Sydney looking young and beautiful — exactly as Clara had left her.
The helmeted passenger swallowed hard and hope she wouldn't faint. She grasped the end of the checkout desk, drawing concerned glances from many in the crowd. Several stood on tip toes gazing at the tunnel entrance for the other passengers and, as time passed, started to murmur anxiously among themselves.
At the checkout desk, the thirty-something boarding agent in the dark blue business suit took out his handheld screen and started asking the standard questions: “Identity number?”
Thankful she’d recently punched them into a keypad, Clara recited the digits through her helmet; she was determined to keep it on for as long as possible.
Clara paused, recalling how giving the real answer had caused confusion earlier. “Clara Leigh Milton.”
“And your age?”
Here, Clara faltered. It seemed laughable to say she was only twenty-four; she couldn’t wear her helmet forever.
“Ma’am?” the agent asked, looking up at Clara for the first time since the interview started. “We need your age.”
It’s time, Clara.
“My age?” Clara repeated, her throat dry.
“Yes!” he said impatiently. “How old are you?”
Clara looked from the boarding agent to her sister and sighed. Then, with trembling hands, she slowly removed her helmet from her head, revealing her snowy white locks.
“How old am I?” Clara asked. “Now that’s an interesting question …”
Then she smiled faintly as the man shrieked in terror and hit the red alarm button affixed to the wall.
So What Do You Think?
What do you think about the ending? Want to know what happens to Clara when she returns to Earth? Any guesses regarding her fate? Let me know in the comments below! I’m off to work on the sequel …
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