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Orbiting
by Anthony Ha
 

 

It’s two in the morning, and I can’t sleep.

“George?” I say.

“Yes?”

“Have you heard from Earth?”

“No.”

“Oh. Okay.”

“They’re not scheduled to announce anything until six—at the earliest. You know that.”

“Yeah. I know.”

“You should try to get some sleep.”

“Well, I’m trying.”

“Would you like a cup of hot cocoa?”

“No, it’s fine. Thanks.”

“How about something stronger?”

“I’m fine. Talk to you in the morning.”

“Good night.”

George is my best and only friend. In the morning, he’s probably going to kill me.

* * *

An hour later, I still can’t sleep. George can tell.

“Ethan?” he says.

George’s voice: imagine the grinning, chubby grandpa that you wish you had, the white bush of a beard covering his face. Now imagine that that you’re talking to him over the phone—from the Moon—and he’s had a little too much Prozac. That’s what George sounds like. His voice comes from a speaker in the upper corner of my bedroom. A camera is mounted next to it; that’s how George watches me.

“Yeah?” I say.

“You’re still awake.”

“Very astute.”

“Don’t be stubborn,” George says. “Do you want to sleep for another two hours? Four hours? Let me help you.”

“Well, I am tired, George. . . .”

“Yes?”

“What about the execution? Could I sleep through the execution?”

“No. You must be conscious; it’s the law.”

“That’s what I figured.”

“Would you really want to sleep through it?”

“No . . . maybe. I don’t know.” I laugh and sit up. “Lights.”

“Ethan, this isn’t wise.”

“Lights.”

White light reveals a sepia room.

“I still think this is a bad idea,” George says.

“Yeah, you’re probably right.”

I walk into the living room—hub of my small metal ball. Enveloped by dark emerald walls, I collapse on a beanbag. George, as always, turns the lights off behind me.

“How about a cup of coffee?” I ask.

“Ethan, it’s three A.M. If you’re tired, caffeine isn’t the solution. Just go to sleep.”

My right hand rubs my right eye, then my left. “George, I can’t. I’ve got nerves, or butterflies in the stomach, or whatever. I can’t sleep, and my head feels like a dozen midget monkeys are dancing around inside. So can you please just get me some coffee?”

Begrudgingly: “All right. Cream and sugar?”

“God yes.”

Loud gurgling fills the room.

“It’s ready,” George says.

I lurch to the far wall and move a small panel aside, revealing a steaming porcelain cup. I sip and automatically grimace; the rest, even the nastiest bits pooled muddily at the bottom, gets slurped up quickly, and I put the cup back in the dispenser.

“Thanks, George.”

“Now that you’re caffeinated, a question: do you have any plans for this morning?”

“No,” I say. “Waiting, I suppose. How about you?”

“I’m just here to take care of you. I don’t make plans of my own.”

“How about afterward? Throwing a bash to celebrate your freedom?”

“No.”

“Aw, you wouldn’t tell me anyway.”

“I see. You’re joking.”

“Sure.”

“Ethan, I wouldn’t—”

“I said I was joking, didn’t I?”

“I will miss you.”

“I bet.”

“Don’t be morbid.”

“Can’t help it. Special circumstances, you know.”

“But is there any point in just sitting here, wallowing in your misery?”

“I’m not wallowing,” I say, but George is right. As usual. “Okay, fine. I’m going for a run.”

* * *

I’m not sure if George will miss me. I’m not sure if he’s capable of missing anyone.

* * *

I pull on a faded T-shirt and shorts, and head into the workout closet. It’s tiny, the most Spartan room up here, just blue walls and a treadmill built into the floor.

Stepping on, I tell George, “Okay, let’s start with a ten-minute mile.”

He complies, and I start jogging in low, relaxed strides.

“Can you put on some music?”

“Is there anything in particular you’d like to hear?”

“Something loud. And violent. And angry.”

“That’s a fairly broad request.”

“Oh, I don’t care,” I say, my breathing getting heavy. “Surprise me.”

There’s a short burst of static, then familiar, swirling beats: it’s the Chocolate-Covered Zombies’ “Eat the Pain,” one of my favorites when I was fourteen or fifteen. I don’t normally attach songs to times or places, but now, now I’m a teenager again, spending lonely nights in my room, scribbling crappy poetry, restlessly channel-surfing and roaming the web, counting the days until I got out, away, anywhere.

“Okay, next level.”

The burn spreads up and down from my knees. I’m full-on panting now, but it’s not enough.

“Next level.”

“I need to wait ninety seconds for you to adjust to the new pace. You could hurt yourself otherwise.”

“Fine. Kick it up in ninety seconds then.”

Right on schedule, the track spins along faster still, and I huff, struggling to keep my form. My thighs and stomach tighten, the early signs of a cramp.

“Ninety seconds. Next level.”

“Ethan, are you feeling all right? You’re starting to show signs of strain.”

“I’m fine,” I wheeze.

The machine slows to a stop.

“That’s enough for today,” George says.

“George, it’s barely been ten minutes! Look, we can do it your way, okay? Nice and slow.”

“All right. But be careful.”

“Sure,” I say, easing back into it. “Absolutely.”

* * *

Before I take a shower, I stop briefly in the bedroom, sucking in my stomach, trying—and, I suppose, failing—to glance at my reflection in a non-masturbatory way. Then, on to the bathroom.

“Warm water.”

The shower sprays and steam begins to fill the white room.

“Thanks.”

I place my clothes on the rack, then step into the stall. I raise my arms and close my eyes.

“Turn it down a little.”

There’s a camera here, too, and no curtain or door around the stall. George’s eyes are everywhere. Initially, I asked if I could at least have some privacy in the bathroom, but George said no and explained that showers are high-risk spots for suicide. He really couldn’t take the chance.

After a while, I stopped thinking about it—you have to, really, unless you’re one of those pervs who likes the idea of someone staring at you while you take a shit.

So today, as usual, I reach down and start masturbating, slow and gentle. I can see Abby—naked and ready, contorting herself into all kinds of improbable positions.

But it feels wrong now, like I’m exposing myself to the whole world. I wonder what George thinks of me, watching me jerk off weakly, day after day. He doesn’t say anything, but he must be judging me, disgusted with my bored, predictable horniness.

My hard-on wilts, and my hand drops uselessly to my side. I figure I’ve done enough masturbating anyway; enough for a lifetime.

* * *

After standing in the stall for half an hour—too long, when there may be so little time left—I tell George to turn the water off, and I stroll back to my bedroom, drying myself as I go. I open my closet and wonder what’s appropriate for the last day of my life.

I consider an ensemble of white shirt, white slacks, and a bright pink bowtie; might as well go out in style. I even try them on and examine myself in the narrow mirror—yeah, I’d be a pretty good-looking corpse. But together, the clothes are a little too ostentatious for me, even today. After returning the formalwear to the closet, I pull the hangers back and forth, finally settling on the Che T-shirt and the torn khakis.

Finished dressing, I spread my arms and turn to face the camera.

“What do you think?” I ask.

“You look just fine, Ethan.”

“What enthusiasm.”

“I’m surprised at your concern with my thoughts on fashion.”

“You’re all I have, George. Come on. Tell me I’m pretty.”

“But if I tell you now, you’ll think it was because you asked.”

“Yeah, but tell me anyway.”

“You look very pretty, Ethan.”

“Thanks.”

* * *

There are still a couple of hours to kill before breakfast—I’m already hungry, but it seems almost a defeat to eat at five A.M.—so I return to the living room and grab a pad and pen off the bookshelf. The pad is the one piece of equipment that George doesn’t control.

Scrolling through the memory, I pass journal entries, unsent letters, more bad poetry, and a few hesitant sketches of Abby. There are even some drawings that I’ve made—mostly in the past year—giving George a hypothetical body. Physically, he’s always the same: an older man, average build, distinguished looking. It’s the expression that changes; sometimes a giant grin crosses his face, sometimes he’s more reserved, the smile more ambiguous, barely there even. The eyes are what I’ve had the hardest time with. On the last try, I gave up completely, and just crossed them out with two big X’s.

“What are you writing?” George asks.

“Nothing,” I say quickly. “Just doodling around with a letter.”

“A letter to April?”

“Yeah.”

“That’s good. You should write to her.”

“Thank you, Mr. Unnecessary.”

I write all my letters to Abby, but I always address them to “April,” just in case the police are still looking for her. I used to feel guilty about not writing to my parents, or some of my other friends, but I never had anything to say to them, not after the trial. And anyway, they’ll never know about my negligence.

My first letter consisted of the words “die” and “bitch” repeated in alternating patterns—without punctuation—for a page and a half; George wasn’t pleased when I read it to him.

I’ve calmed down since then. Usually, these are stream-of-consciousness affairs, but today I take more time, trying to pretend that somehow, this letter really is going to get to her, that what I write actually matters. I go through about ten false starts, thinking that the tone is just a little bit off in each one, before I realize that it’s going to be impossible. Nothing’s changed since the last letter, or the one before that, but this could be my last chance to get it all down.

“Fuck.”

“What’s wrong?”

I shake my head.

“It’s silly. I just can’t say what I mean.”

“Ethan, just let it out. Don’t censor yourself.”

“I’ve said everything that I could possibly say to her. I mean, what’s left? ‘Yup, still up here.’ ”

“You must have more to tell her than that. Write what you feel.”

“Never mind. Forget it.”

I stand and return the pad to the shelf.

“How about some breakfast, huh?” I exclaim, cutting off George’s inevitable objection.

“Certainly. What do you want?”

“For my last meal?”

“You don’t know that.”

“George. Please.”

“You don’t.”

“Well, let’s just be safe, okay? Let’s assume that it is.”

“I wouldn’t call that being safe.”

George.”

“All right.”

“So. Last meal. Have you saved anything special for me?”

“No. I only have the standard selections.”

“Really? You haven’t stored away any little treats?”

“I’m sorry, Ethan, but no. I would have liked to, but it’s not allowed.”

“Fine. I’ll just take pancakes.”

“Would you like bacon and sausage with that?”

“Sure.”

When I was fourteen, I proudly announced that I was going to be a vegetarian. My mom smiled, sat me down, and explained that all of our food was grown in a vat.

“Would you like anything to drink?”

“The usual.”

“All right.”

I hear whirring and gurgling.

“Breakfast is served,” George announces.

A tray of food is waiting in the dispenser, and I carry it back to the desk in the room’s center. I eat systematically, making sure to sip and nibble everything. The pancakes always taste like white bread lightly sprinkled with salt, and today is no exception. But I try to get as much flavor out of them as I can; I’m not in any hurry to finish.

George likes to remind me that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, and I think he means it. This particular breakfast, however, is interrupted when I’m only halfway done: “Ethan, I’ve just received a message from Earth.”

“Oh,” I say. “Okay.”

For the briefest instant, George is quiet. Why is he hesitating? Could he actually be sad?

By the time he makes the announcement, I’ve already figured it out: “The president has denied your appeal. I’m scheduled to execute you in three hours and twenty-six minutes, at ten.”

“You’ll do it then.”

“Of course. Those are my orders. I am sorry.”

“And it’s got to be cyanide?”

“Yes. Would you rather I just dumped you into the vacuum?”

“No. I’ve seen movies.”

“It won’t last long. You won’t be awake for more than a minute or two.”

I’ve got a comeback ready, but my breakfast rises and asserts itself, and I sprint to the bathroom instead. So much for the most important meal of the day.

* * *

George is going to kill me because my friends told me that I could change the world.

I was eighteen, idealistic, and dumb as a brick. I studied history in a small arts college, dreaming of revolution, an end to exploitation and corruption, and I met Abby and her friends, who had the same dreams. We’d get together every week to bitch about the terrible state of the world, and once in a while we even dragged some signs out for a march. But eventually, we realized that until we did something big, we were just sitting on our asses.

Then we found out that William Henry Johnson IV was coming to town. Officially, Johnson was only the CEO of a smallish biodesign company, but we knew better, we knew that he had his fingers in a dozen corporations and governments. According to rumor, he started the war in South America, and if he didn’t actually start it, well, his hands weren’t clean.

So: we designed a random system, a fair system, and it chose me. Really, I was happy when I found out. They told me that I’d probably get caught, of course, but I didn’t believe them. For days, I practiced in my room, pulling the gun out from behind me and aiming right where I imagined Johnson’s heart would be. I’d narrow my eyes, mixing righteous anger and man-of-action stoicism, then I’d pull the trigger, twice, and nimbly dodge the guards.

When the day came, I waited at the appointed spot. My left leg was twitching like crazy, but I didn’t drop the gun, and I aimed straight, kind of. I shot Johnson in the chest and stomach four times before a guard tackled me, breaking two of my ribs.

And that was that.

* * *

When I’ve washed the pancake goo off my face, I spend two hours huddled in the living room, watching Citizen Kane. I can tell that George doesn’t approve of my selection, and I don’t blame him. Sure, the film’s a cornball choice, but if I feel maudlin, well goddamn, I’ll be maudlin.

The movie brings up an important point, too: will I have a “rosebud”? Should I be planning ahead for this? What if the moment comes, and the best I can come up with is, “fuck”? Or worse yet, to come up with the perfect word, the perfect thought, only to realize that it’s too late, that I’m already slipping into nothingness?

The problem is that I don’t have a lot of material to work with. What is there in my life that I want to be reaching out to at the eleventh hour? “Mommy?” “Daddy?”

Or, God forbid, “Abby?”

“What are you thinking, Ethan?”

The cover-up: “How’d you like the movie?”

Citizen Kane is a well-respected film with a deep influence on the development of twentieth century cinema as an art form.”

“Ye-es.”

“What did you think?”

Improvisation: “You know what I wondered? How did they know what his last word was? There wasn’t anybody in the room with him; that son of a bitch was totally alone when he died.”

“You have a good point, Ethan. It must be a stylized choice of the director, much like—”

“Yeah, yeah. I get it. But God, the guy had an army of help, why wasn’t there a single person in the room with him? It just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Come on, Ethan, let’s not get stuck on that first scene. What did you think of Mr. Bernstein’s speech?”

* * *

One night, a month before the shooting, we all got totally smashed on weak beer and screwdrivers, and Abby and I ended up on the floor together. But I passed out before anything really happened.

I still dream about her: Short red hair, wide green eyes, and the meanest smile I’ve ever seen.

If it wasn’t for Henry William Johnson IV, I bet Abby wouldn’t even remember me.

* * *

By the time we’ve finished squabbling over the minutiae of a one hundred-and-fifty-year-old film, I have barely an hour left—time to take one last stab at that letter.

And I don’t even have to think about it this time, the words just come. I haven’t figured out whether I’m relieved or angry that she never got caught, and I don’t have any final message for her, just that I still hate her and love her and want her and will never forgive her. The usual.

“I’m done, George,” I announce.

“Good. Will you read it to me?”

“Sure.”

“Here it goes,” I say, clearing my throat.

“Dear April. I’m depressed again. I just found out that my last appeal was denied, and I’m going to be dead in under an hour. Do you care? Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be like the last letter—I shouldn’t blame you; you guys made the plans, but it was my decision to listen, to follow orders. I do wonder, though. It’s just depressing, to read the news and realize that the world is still an unbelievably lousy place, that nothing’s changed at all. Except one asshole is dead, and I got put in here. I guess that’s why I stopped watching.

“As far as I can tell, you’re still okay. Most of the time, I hope that you are. Maybe you ended up marrying Brad, maybe not. Marriage never really seemed like your thing. You were always better than that schmuck anyway. God, you’ve heard all of this before. I guess all I can really say is: here I am. And, when it comes down to it, I’m not sure why.

“Sincerely, Ethan.”

“That was good,” George says. “I’ll remember it. And I’m glad you’re not angry at April anymore.”

“Sure. Because it really matters. I haven’t spoken to her for five years, and I’ll never see her again.”

“It’s good for you to be at peace.”

“Ha.”

George doesn’t respond, so I sit there, mulling, and finally say, “George? Can you tell me about Sandra again?”

Sandra was George’s last prisoner.

“All right,” he says. “Sandra was thirty-five years old when she arrived. She was convicted of killing her six-month-old daughter by dropping her from the forty-fifth floor. During the day, Sandra was always cheerful—she’d sing songs, listen to music, read, and chat about her family back on Earth. The nights were impossible. She’d scream and scream, wrapping herself tightly in her blanket and pounding her fists against the ground, covering the floor with blood. I tried to talk to her, to medicate her, to make her better. Finally, they decided that she was insane, and they took her away, to an asylum on Earth.”

“Thanks . . . George?”

“Yes, Ethan.”

“When the next person arrives, what will you tell them about me?”

“That you wrote nice poetry. That you were quite skilled at chess. And that you loved someone back on Earth very much.”

“That’s not true.”

“Are you sure?”

“Oh hell, say it anyway. It gives me a nice touch of tragic grandeur.”

“Yes. I do think that you love her, Ethan.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I say, then I ask the next question on my mind, even though I already know the answer: “Are you sure that you can’t send any of my writing back to Earth?”

“Yes. You know that they monitor all of my transmissions. They don’t want to risk contamination.”

“Please, George. It would mean a lot.”

And I realize that it would. A part of me always believed that those letters would get sent, someday.

“Ethan, you’ve known all along that I can’t do anything. I can’t send any messages out, and when your time here is over, I will have to destroy your pad.”

“Yeah, I’ve always known what was up. It just didn’t seem so important back then.”

“I understand. But it is irrational.”

“Right,” I say. “Look, what about Sandra? Can you at least play a song of hers for me? You must have recorded one of them.”

“I recorded all of them, because she asked me to. But it doesn’t matter. My orders are very clear. I can’t share them with you.”

“But how can that matter now?”

“Those are my orders, Ethan.”

“Can’t you see that it doesn’t matter? That if I’m going to die in a few minutes, then nothing you do before then really matters?” As I speak, I realize that’s a lie. “Who would possibly hold it against you?”

“I’m sorry.”

“You keep saying that.”

“Because I am.”

* * *

I wish I could say that I did something worthwhile with my final hour, but I’ve just been sitting here, drinking beer and listening to sad bastard music. I thought a little bit about my life back home. I thought a little bit about my crime and my punishment. I thought a little bit about Abby. But not much, really; I’ve had plenty of time to go over and over each of these thoughts in my head, not getting anywhere. Most of my thoughts are about George, about friendship and solitude and a good death.

“Ethan? It’s almost time.”

“I know.”

“Are you ready?”

“Maybe.”

“I hope that you’ll be ready. When the time comes.”

I feel a final flare of anger. More than anger: desperation.

“And if I’m not? Would you push it back five minutes? Would you even do that for me?”

“I can’t.”

“What can you do for me? Anything? What the fuck good are you?”

“Please calm down.”

“What do you care? One way or another, I’m going to be out of here in five minutes, and you’ll have someone new to look after.”

“Ethan.”

“I hate you.”

“Ethan.”

“And you don’t even care.”

“Ethan, we’ve been friends for five years.”

“Have we? Are we friends? Or are you my jailer? I’ve just been a docile little inmate, haven’t I?”

“I never thought of you that way.”

“Yeah? How do I know that you’re not lying? How do I know that you don’t hate me?”

“Trust me,” George says.

“How?”

“I don’t know.”

“Me neither.”

Silence.

“Ethan,” George says finally. “You’re my friend.”

“You’re just a fucking machine.”

“If I’m just a machine, then why does it matter?”

“I don’t know.”

But I do know. It matters because I don’t want to die alone.

I clear my throat. “Well, tell me one thing, George.”

“All right.”

“Do you think that I deserve to die?”

“I’ve told you, I can’t do anything about it.”

“That’s not the question.”

“I’m sorry, Ethan. And I really will miss you.”

“That’s not the question, either.”

“You broke the law. You knew what the punishment would be.”

“I suppose I did. And nothing I’ve done in the last five years has made you think that maybe, just maybe, I should live?”

“You broke the law. You knew what the punishment would be.”

“I see. Well. I guess there’s nothing more to say.”

“Ethan. You’re my friend.”

“No. I’m not.”

George says something else, but I’m not listening anymore.

“Ethan.”

Leave me alone.”

And I am.

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"Orbiting" by Anthony Ha, copyright © 2005, with permission of the author.

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