The Magnolia Comes Home

This story was written back in October of 2016, and is the first serious short story I ever wrote. It’s a bit rough.

It had been a rough night.

It was about midnight when I rolled into the bar. The old storm door creaked as I swung it open, and slammed shut with a bang when I let go. It was a dusty little place, just a few miles off the highway, way out in the middle of nowhere. My feet stuck to the floor ever so slightly as I walked in, the stale beer clinging to the bottom of my shoes.

It was empty, save for the bartender himself and a balding old man in the corner booth who looked like he had been chain smoking for hours. There was an old jukebox in the corner, the kind that used to be called a Nickelodeon by the old timers that were still alive to remember the term. It proudly displayed an “out of order” sign taped to the front.

The bartender wore a greasy black apron, and he leaned heavily on the bar as he polished a glass. I sat down and ordered myself a cheap shot of rum.The bartender poured me a shot of amber liquid out of something that looked like a glass pirate ship and dropped the glass, not unkindly, in front of me. I downed the shot in one quick gulp. It was awful. I must have made a face because the barman gave a quiet chuckle before going back to polishing his glass. I held my head in my hands.

For a few minutes, the only sound in the room was the gentle squeaking of fabric on glass as the bartender continued his Sisyphean task. I was about to ask for another shot, when the old man from the corner booth sat himself down rather heavily on the barstool next to mine.

“You look like you’ve had a rough night,” he said. “Lady troubles?”

I haplessly nodded, without turning to look at him.

“I can always tell,” he said. “Mike, get the me an’ the kid another shot, and none of that cheap crap. Get him that stuff from that foreign place I had last week. Indonesia Special, or something like that, you know the one.” The bartender’s name must have been Mike, because a few seconds later there was another shot glass in front of me.

It tasted a hell of a lot worse than the first shot. I gagged, violently. The bartender wore a shit-eating grin and the old man howled in laughter, bent over so far on his bar stool I thought he might fall off of it.

“Boy,” said the old man between great heaving laughs, “that stuff was damn near 200 proof and you just gulped it down without throwing up. You deserve a reward!” He put on a straight face for just long enough to eke out the words “Lemme buy you a drink!” before he was doubled over with laughter again. Maybe it was the alcohol, or maybe it was the old man’s affable nature, but I started grinning too, despite the fire burning in my stomach.

“I’m Jim,” the old guy said, and stuck  out his hand. I shook it. His hands were old, but his grip had a strength to it that suggested that Jim was, back in the day, quite strong. Jim insisted that I come sit with him and chat awhile, and I agreed, under the condition that he buy me no more drinks. He laughed, we each grabbed a tall glass of beer, and moved over to the booth in the corner. He pushed the overworked ashtray to one side and we started to talk as he lit up another cigarette.

Jim didn’t ask me about what he referred to as “lady troubles”. He didn’t even bring it up, in fact. Instead, we just started swapping stories. I told Jim about my work as a landscaper, and he told me about his time in the US Space Corps. It became apparent to me that Jim was more interested in talking than he was in listening. That was just fine with me, though, the man had been to space after all. His stories overruled mine by an order of magnitude.

Jim talked about weightlessness, and how he would throw pieces of candy through the air in perfectly straight lines into his crewmate’s mouth about 30 feet away. He talked about the view from his porthole window while he was 30 miles above the surface of Saturn. Jim told me about the vacuum you need to stick on your privates in space to piss correctly. I’d heard about that one ages ago, though, as had every 5th grade boy on Earth.

“Jim,” I said, “have you ever been in hyperspace?”

That was when Jim stopped smiling.

“Yeah,” he said, “I been to hyperspace. Traveled faster than th’ speed of light. Why?”

“I was wondering… Well, I had heard that when you go that fast, you see every color at once, but at the same time everything’s black.”

Jim thought for a while. “Yeah, I guess you could call it that. It’s kinda like… yer brain’s telling you that you’re seeing a rainbow, but your eyes have forgotten what a rainbow looks like. It’s less like seeing every color at once and more like seeing one color you’ve never seen before.”

He had a faraway look to him now, as though he was trying to remember something that he couldn’t name. He slowly waved a hand in the air, as if he was conducting an invisible orchestra, or searching for a word, but then dropped his his hand to the table and sighed. He looked me in the eyes.

“You’re young, aintcha? What do they teach kids in school today’s about hyperspace?” I was 32 years old, but I wasn’t going to argue with the guy. He must have been pushing ninety.

“Well,” I said, “from what I remember, about fifty years ago, a bunch of scientists did some experiments, and they figured out the trick to getting things to go faster than light. It was kind of like they could make ships slip into the space between spaces, or something. And then there was something about mirrors, and the curve of…” I paused for a moment, and then, “is it the curve of gravity? That’s what I’m thinking of, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense, I don’t think.”

Jim had been listening intently. “No,” he said, “but you were on the right track. Good enough.” He seemed, I thought, satisfied with my answer.

“Tell me son,” he said, “did they ever teach you about the USSC Magnolia?”

I racked my brains for a few moments, and then struck gold.

“That was the first ship that started the hyperspace experiments, right? The US Government and the United Nations used the results of the Magnolia’s experiments and developed engines that could push a ship faster than light. They even tried to get into hyperspace themselves, but failed, right?”

Jim’s voice was low, and as he spoke, he wore a thousand-yard stare.

“No, boy, that’s wrong.”

“Oh, I-I’m sorry,” I began to sputter, but he cut me off.

“You got most of the details right, son, but one thing was wrong: the Magnolia made it into hyperspace. It got there. It did.”

Jim’s fists were clenched, hard. Maybe it was the way that the light hit him, but he looked somehow older than before. He sat, staring about two inches to the left of my head, for about ten seconds. And then twenty seconds. Thirty. When the silence seemed poised to go on forever, I decided to take matters into my own hands.

“It did?” I prompted. This seemed to break whatever spell Jim was under. He sighed, unclenched his hands, and looked back at me.

“Kid, you only know half the story. The Magnolia made it into space. Everyone at the higher levels of the USSC knows about it. The history books lie, y’see, they don’t want you to know what the Magnolia’s crew found out.”

I was beginning to suspect that Jim was, perhaps, a nutter. Like a better dressed version of those homeless people who shout at you about lizard men on the streets of Los Angeles. But he didn’t look crazy, and I wanted to hear where he was going with this, so I let him continue.

“Kid,” he went on, “have you ever had a feeling, late at night, that if you opened up your blinds, or pushed the curtain away from the window next to your bed, you’d see a face staring back at you from the darkness?”

I nodded.

“Well, the crew of the Magnolia, they all got that feeling. All at once. There were twenty people on that ship, and each and every one of them felt like someone was watching them. Made the hairs rise on the backs of their necks. Made the backs of their hands itch. Felt like someone was walking over their grave.”

He paused to take a long drag of his cigarette. As the smoke rose towards the dirty light above the booth, I felt like I was sitting around a boy scout campfire, listening to scary stories. He exhaled slowly, letting the smoke billow out of his mouth like fog. He spoke slowly, as if each word was a weight, dragging him down.

“The viewports on the ship were closed. Heavy steel shutters, over the window, y’know. Hyperspace is bright as hell, and if you look at it for too long you start seeing spots. So of course, shutters down. Now, most’ve these guys were scientists. Top marks at MIT, and all that. Mankind’s finest, in terms of intellectual achievements. Smartest guys you’d ever see. Brave, too. You’d have to be brave to try and go faster than light itself in a flimsy metal tube.”

He paused to tap his cigarette on the ashtray.

“And yet,” Jim continued, “not a one of them had the nerve to open up those shutters.”

I shivered a little, though it wasn’t cold in the bar. I took a sip of my beer as he took another drag on his smoke. I looked around the bar while he paused. It was still empty. The bartender had gone to a back room, and I could hear the faintest clinking of glass on glass. Other than that, though, it was dead silent. I once again had to wonder just how hard my leg was being pulled by this old guy.

He took a big swig of his drink, and continued.

“It was the Captain’s job, they decided. The Captain would have to open the shutters and see what was outside. He wasn’t allowed to back out, what with him being the captain and all. His crew was scared, and he had to lead them. So, with everyone watching, he walked over to the viewport, and released the shutters.”

Jim’s hand trembled a little as he put his cigarette to his mouth. It was just a tiny twitch, but I saw it nonetheless.

“Kid,” he said, “imagine as if you’re blind. You can’t see a thing, but you have an idea of what things are supposed to look like. Imagine you’ve had the color blue described to you for your entire life, and then one day, you wake up, and you can see. And you run outside, and you look up at the sky, and you see the most beautiful shade of blue. It’s better than anything you could ever have imagined, all your preconceptions are just blown clear out the water by it. It’s incredible. You lie down on the ground and just look up at the sky, crying.”

“Ok,” I said, “so what did the captain see?”

Jim took another swig of beer.

“What he saw,” Jim said, “was a human being.”

“What, outside the ship?”

“Yup,” said Jim, “a human being, outside the ship, lookin’ in. But it was… perfect. It was like every person he’d ever seen was just a damaged copy of the thing outside the window, as if everything was made in the image of that one perfect being, but made badly. Flawed. Wrong. But that thing outside the window… it was just right. The captain, he knew in his soul that if he was ever made in the image of anything, he was made in the image of this thing, whatever it was. And as the captain looked it in the eyes, he knew it was looking back at him, looking inside of him, seeing everything there was. And then it was gone.”

The smoke from his cigarette had stopped now. He hadn’t taken a drag off of it in some time, and it had gone out.

“Did the crew see it too?” I asked. I knew that he was bullshitting me, he had to be, but something in the old man’s expression made my blood feel like icewater.

“Yep, crew saw the whole damn thing. The captain never asked them if they felt the same things that he had felt, because he knew. He only had to look them in the eyes, and he knew. We’d all seen it.”

Jim hung his head, and slumped forward slightly. The hanging light above the booth cast his face in shadow. I said nothing, and waited.

When he looked up at me, I could see his was crying. The tears were flowing from his eyes and he was making no move to stop them. To this day, I’m not sure if he even knew he was crying at all.

“Do you want to know the worst thing about it?” Jim asked, quietly.

I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.

“The worst thing,” he said, “the absolute worst thing…” He looked me dead in the eyes, tears pouring down his cheeks.

“When I saw its face, I knew it didn’t want us.”

I didn’t respond. Jim parked his elbows on the table, and put his head into his hands. He began mumbling to himself. Something about a cover-up, something about how he had failed, how we had all failed. My nerves were shot. I had heard enough.

I put some cash on the table, more than enough to pay for the drinks and leave a generous tip. I stood up, and I left the sad, drunk old man sitting there along, under the flickering light of an old dive bar.

Before going to bed that night, I logged onto the web, and looked up the public records surrounding the USSC Magnolia. There was a James Haddaway listed as an ensign on that ship. It struck me that I had never asked Jim what his last name was, but he was just about old enough to fit the bill. But it could have been a coincidence. I guess I’ll never know for sure, and I’m okay with that.

Before I went to bed that night, I closed the blinds.

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