I’ve been absent here because I just returned from a 5-day summer camp for middle school kids. It was lots of fun, I slept a little, and I killed my body for a couple of days–all for a good cause. Since I returned, I revised “Floating to the Ground,” and I am publishing it here in its entirety on this post. Enjoy! (My next goal is to revise and post a story I wrote many years ago.)
“Floating to the Ground”
by Christine Flower
I’m stuck here in this city in the sky – it’s my inescapable prison. I am here, and he’s deploying to land in three days. There’s nothing I can do about it, and it sucks.
Norman Pierce. I would do anything for him. He listens; he really hears me. He lets me in; he doesn’t try to hide anything from me. He makes me laugh. He calms me down when I can’t stop crying. He’s strong. He thinks about the future, and he thinks about other people besides himself all the time. He’s flawed too. He’s too serious sometimes, but he lives fiercely. Sometimes I have to throw something at him just to get him to lighten up a bit, but then it’s game on. He fights back until we laugh hysterically at ourselves. If he’s in a bad mood when I do that, then he just looks at me, and I back off—clearly he has other things on his mind.
Norman and I met four years ago in high school; we were just seventeen—it feels so long ago. Norman came to school as a new student on a Friday in April. Kind of weird, huh? He came from a place called Nevada, which is on land, nowhere near here. The Tower in his Confederation did what’s called Reassignment, and because his family’s names were on the list, they were forced to move.
Reassignment feels like punishment when you enjoy your life, but it can also bring an unexpected joy when your new life brings you people you come to love. That’s what happened with us. Our love was kept a secret from us, by us, until The Assignment was delivered about a month ago.
Norman and I live in a place called Ethereal; it’s really quite beautiful, even garden-like. Everything here considered flora was planted because this city is really a livable, hovering craft of sorts, enough to fairly comfortably hold about one-and-a-half million people. The city itself is open air; it kind of reminds me of a giant convertible. There are vines growing on trees, and the trees are everywhere, even inside some of our buildings. It feels tropical, but not excessively hot. A lot of people wish they lived here, but it’s not our choice where we get to live. When or if we ever move is up to officials in The Tower. The way The Tower system works is this: each city is connected to a metropolis, and each metropolis has a local government housed in its largest building called The Tower. The floating cities are not a part of any state, but instead are functions of the larger government called The Confederation. Any land states are also assigned to a Confederation. Each country has its own Confederation that answers to Earth’s government, The Dominion. We’re all used to this system because it’s all we’ve ever known, but sometimes life gives us a curveball—and when we want to leave, we can’t.
Norman is in the military for our Confederation (Confed. 7), and Confed. 7 requires that all males under 40 serve in the military. We, or should I say they, are supposed to feel free because they are given windows of choice about when they will serve: 18-22 years old, 23-26, 27-30, 31-35, or 36-39. Norman decided early on that he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible, so he chose the first window; he knew as a teenager that what he wanted most was to get married and start a family. Most guys choose one of the second through forth windows because they want to party with no responsibilities while they can.
Once you sign up for your window, you don’t know when The Assignment will come; all that you know is that it will fall within your age window. Norman got chosen for The Assignment twenty-eight days ago. I was mentally prepared for The Assignment to happen, but I still didn’t know how I’d feel when it came.
Twenty-eight days ago was like a death blow in a fight that I didn’t even know I was in. He came by to tell me in person.
“Can we talk?”
“What’s this about?” I started to panic inside. Norman never said it like that before.
“The Assignment came, and I have to leave Ethereal in thirty-five days. They’re sending me to a land state. A land state! I won’t even get to see you for at least a year.”
“Who else have you told, besides your mom?” My voice was getting a bit shaky at this point. I never expected him to have to go so far away. It didn’t seem real, like it was some kind of weird dream that you know you’re in, and it’s just a matter of waking yourself up. I kept thinking to myself, “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up!” But it didn’t work. The weird dream just continued.
Norman replied, “My sister, and that’s it. I’ve gotta still tell Steve, Derrick, and the other guys. Jon’s coming too. Same assignment.”
“Oh…” I couldn’t find more words. I’m sure my silence felt like carelessness, perhaps even coldness, but hearing, ‘I have to leave Ethereal in thirty-five days,’ stole every thought from my mind. I was knocked down and robbed blind. My eyes were quickly and uncontrollably filling, and the hot tears started falling like a sudden storm outside Ethereal. Why was I freaking out? We were just good friends, close friends. But I felt like my heart was about to get ripped from my still living body. I wasn’t supposed to feel…like this.
And then it happened. I glanced up, and he was looking right at me. It’s strange, as if in this whole time we’ve been friends, I had been holding my breath for this moment. It’s like we were gazing into each other’s souls. Silent and knowing. I don’t know how long it lasted; I just lost myself there. Thirty seconds, maybe a minute. Then Norman softly mouthed the words, “Me too.” It was almost unnecessary because I could sense him feeling the same way as me. There was nothing else to say then. It was like someone just delivered news of a death in the family. What else can you say in that moment when all you can do is feel? You’re just there: present, longing, and loving. And that was us in that moment. He took the edge of my right hand in his and pulled me in, placing my hand on his back. Then I wrapped my other arm around him. We held each other. My crying was like the drizzle that turned into a steady rain; he squeezed tighter. I have never felt safer, and I have never felt more broken. ~Marcia
It’s hard to know what to do when it feels like you’re living with an hourglass relentlessly reminding you that this measurement of life we call “time” is rapidly running out. After that moment when we knew how the other felt, it seemed like I had a thorn lodged in my skin, always tinging with the pain that shouted its presence because of Norman’s impending deployment; loving Norman was worth it, though. His leaving in less than a month meant that I would be alone, but it wasn’t the idea of being alone that harassed me; I hated the thought of life without him there sharing it with me. I knew that leaving under those circumstances was not the same as death, and I knew that deployment was temporary, but when you’re used to the regular company of your closest friend—and when you realize you love him—it just feels like too much.
To pass the time, we did whatever we could to prepare him for his deployment, and seemingly every conversation centered on The Assignment. Norman would be going to a land state called South California, and it’s supposed to be warm there most of the time. He would be able to pack one suitcase for his civilian clothes and other personal items, but that was all. Everything had to pass Confed. 7 inspections before leaving. No weapons, of course; no food; and only two pictures would be allowed from home.
“I can’t leave you, Marcia, but I can’t get out of this either.” Norman’s voice was starting to taper off, but gathered strength as if enlisting his own inner troops. His eyes were intense, almost productive, like he could accomplish anything by simply looking at it. His forehead and cheeks were no longer soft, but rather taut like a drum. Slowly the color of near rage was filling his face, and his lips pressed together like a body builder under the stress of a dead lift. He’s seriously considering how to get out of this, I thought.
Confed. 7 and its mother government, The Dominion, do not treat lightly potential dissenters. Anyone labeled a dissenter is seen as hating The Good, which is, in simple terms, the equivalent of hating human happiness, so we’re told. Don’t disrupt the “happiness,” Norman; we can’t afford the payment, if you do.
“Babe, you seem upset. Let’s go for a walk and talk.” That was the best I could offer at the time, and I thought a walk would be a good way to relieve some stress while we talked things out.
We walked side by side down a tree-lined sidewalk. “I can’t do this. I can’t leave you,” he said as he looked me in the eyes; he was resolute. Then we turned our eyes away and walked, looking out as if our future was in the distance, down past the buildings looming in our craft-framed horizon. I had to talk some sense into him.
“I don’t want you to go; it’s killing me too, but you have to go. You know you don’t have any other options, unless you like death or mysterious imprisonment on a floating city.”
After that, his laser-straight gaze was focused out there somewhere. Silence was our arbitrator in a disagreement we knew inside we really weren’t having. We continued walking like this for several minutes, hand in hand, gripping firmly because this wasn’t the place for nostalgia.
Norman finally broke the frustrated silence. “You’re right. If I tried anything, it would be suicide.”
“I don’t want to lose you…permanently,” I added, just to confirm my rationale, not only to him but to myself. “A year is better than forever.” It sounded so logical, so devoid of emotion, but everything in me was screaming. “At least we have DTC.” That wasn’t exactly comforting, but I was trying to look for some shard of good in all of this. DTC was the acronym for Direct Technology Communication. When we’re not face to face with someone, we use DTC, which is a device about the size of a thumb tip. It projects a life-size 3-D image of the person you’re talking to, and you can both see and hear the other person. Aside from the lack of touch and smell (since it’s just an image), it feels like the person you’re talking to is really next to you. It’s nice in theory, but there’s no real privacy. Not having privacy with DTC never bothered me until now; I guess I never felt like anything I said might upset anyone. My thinking was, “Why worry about it?” It sounded like a positive approach, but I guess it was a bit naïve.
In the past I never questioned Confed. 7, or The Dominion for that matter, because life had been generally pleasant for me up until then. I had a decent job, my flat was nice, I was educated and still taking classes so that I could get a better job, and my best friend lived near me. I didn’t have much of an opinion about anything political because none of that stuff ever seemed to affect me. But now I couldn’t stop questioning. Why did The Dominion get to define happiness for us? Why couldn’t citizens have different opinions from what the government considered acceptable? What was wrong with people who disagreed and never wanted to hurt anyone? This was the stuff of my bedtime. Instead of resting, I started thinking. I couldn’t stop thinking… ~Marcia
The other night a metal crashing sat me up suddenly in my bed. My heart was pounding, and I was gasping for air in the darkness. I couldn’t see anything except for a mixture of moonlight and the dim light of the street lamps from behind my grey curtains. I started breathing more slowly once I realized I had been sleeping; the noise was only in a dream, and I was in my room, instead of in some strange place. Immediately, I thought of Norman: I thought of us; I thought of this place, and I thought of his leaving, which was now only a week away. This was the fourth night in a row like this. It’s the same scenario each night—a crash wakes me up a bit disoriented and scared until I can remember that I’ve been sleeping; it’s of course dark, and then I think of him.
The clock said 3:07. I wondered if Norman was sleeping, or if he was disturbed at night too. I could have asked him sometime; it’s not like I didn’t have the opportunity. I was afraid. Maybe if I brought it up, then he might start his crazy ideas again of how he could (illegally) stay. It wasn’t worth it. So, I guess this was my little secret, for now.
This keeping-stuff-back seemed mutual though. I couldn’t explain what it was, but I knew Norman wasn’t telling me something. He didn’t seem upset or unhappy with me, but he wasn’t completely there when we were together. There was a freedom missing when he talked to me, like he was holding back. Just yesterday we were discussing what he was supposed to expect in his first couple months of The Assignment. It was all very typical: trainings, meetings, more trainings, and then the alternating flight practice (morning or evening, depending on the squadron’s routine). The more he spoke about it, the more his eyes looked like he was being involuntarily pulled away from me. It was like part of him was reaching for me, and yet another part of him wouldn’t look me in the eyes, as if deep inside himself he was pleading for my help without speaking. It was strange because Norman was never like this.
There were only two days left. Darkness was settling on me like a storm descending on land. Even though Norman was still with me, I was increasingly aching to be with him. He came over after work just so we could be together and talk. When I opened the door, it was so satisfying to kiss him because we didn’t have much longer together. We sat on the couch and started talking about The Assignment again briefly.
“I just met with my commander. There’s been a change. I couldn’t bring myself to telling you sooner.” That must have been why he seemed like he was keeping a part of himself from me, I thought.
“What do you mean, a change?” My voice shifted. I couldn’t shield him from my fear before it slipped out.
“Confed. 7 wants our squadron on a two-year assignment.”
“But I thought you had to serve within your age window?
“I do.” He slowly explained. “But, we have to start our service within that window. So, even though I’m twenty-one, I have to serve as long as my initial deployment needs me…even if it exceeds the end of my window of service that I signed up for.”
“But that’s not how it works” I whined. As I said it, I felt like a baby, but I was upset.
“It doesn’t matter how it has worked before. They change the rules, and we can’t question it.”
“I see…” I needed more time to process this, and I didn’t have time. I was upset and shocked and outraged. This wasn’t fair; they couldn’t just change the rules of service. Hearing this one was like the boxer’s blow to the head that sends him to the ground, finishing him off for the round. “And there’s nothing you can do? You can’t fight this? You can’t request permission to terminate your assignment when you turn twenty-two? You can’t change your assignment window?” I knew it was useless, but I had to ask.
“No, I already asked. ‘Orders are final. The good of the Confederation is final’ is all I was told. It was understood that there were no exceptions and no further questions were allowed. This isn’t what I want, Marcia. This isn’t what I planned for when I signed up.”
Norman quickly shifted the conversation to our future, after The Assignment. His eyes looked at the floor, focusing to the left and then quickly to the right. He said, “I think we should get married when I get back.” As he spoke, his eyes radiated, while his voice both invited and spoke with assurance. Even though he had recently seemed a bit closed off, his heart was completely open with me again in this moment. “No matter what happens, I don’t want to have to walk away from you ever again. Marcia, will you marry me, even though I don’t even have a ring to offer you?”
“Of course I want to marry you—YES! You’re my closest friend. I love you.” I was excited but depressed about the next couple of years. There was no question I wanted to marry him, but I was also scared for him and scared for me if I lost him.
“I love you too. I’ll have more than enough money to take care of us after The Assignment.” The surety of Confed. 7’s decision was like the closing of a chapter. My allegiance was to Norman, to my family, but not to my Confederation and not to The Dominion. ~Marcia
Today was the day.
That’s how it hit me. Finality. Norman was scheduled to leave at 4:00 p.m. Since this was his departure for The Assignment, he was allowed to have immediate family and up to five close friends attend The Ceremony of Service. His buddies came and talked to him before I got there; I was an hour late because my boss wouldn’t let me off in time. It worked out though; it gave us more alone time before he had to leave. The Ceremony of Service…what can I say? When people leave for The Assignment, Confed. 7 likes to show off, I mean, “showcase…the dedication, honor, and loyalty” of their citizens who are about to deploy. Since it is not a typical day-to-day military travel situation, it gets celebrated. There’s music, a large party, fireworks for night departures or fly-bys for day departures. Usually at least one dignitary from the Confederation attends The Ceremony of Service as well (The Minister of Service or The Commander of The Confederation). I guess this is all supposed to generate public support for the government and their mandatory military service. I wasn’t feeling celebratory or supportive.
I wore tan heels with Norman’s favorite dress: a sleeveless, dark green short gown with a hemline above my knees—I wanted to look good for him, and I also wore it to trick myself into feeling better; if I looked good, then I felt good, at least a little. The band played in the background: trumpet, trombone, percussion, and flute. First, they played “Anthem of Confederation Seven.” When I was a girl I loved that song; it always reminded me of summer picnics in the park with my family. Now it felt like a funeral dirge, regardless of its tempo. It was the sardonic reminder that Norman was owned; his life was on a short countdown to being held hostage.
Fortunately, the songs changed to popular tunes—it was a welcome distraction from the façade of celebration inflicted upon us.
“Are you nervous, Norman?” We were exactly forty minutes from take-off. I could hear other couples around us having similar conversations. I wondered how long each had been together, how many were married, and how many had the same reaction as us when they found out the service was now two years, instead of one.
“I don’t think nervous is the word. I’m angry, but I’m doing what I know to do. I smile when they need me to, say ‘Yes, Sir’ or ‘Yes, Ma’am’ when I’m expected to. How are you doing?”
“I guess I feel kind of the same way. I can’t believe that you’re leaving today. I don’t want this time we’ve had together to end. I want to be your wife; I want you to be my husband; I want us to live with privacy, with real security, with true happiness, not what Confed. 7 says will make us happy. I’m not excited that you’re leaving; I love you. But I don’t want you to talk about how to…change this.”
At that, the music shifted to, of all things, a slow love song. This didn’t help, but Norman went with it and lightened the mood a little bit by grabbing my hands and bringing me in for a dance twirl. I started laughing because I wasn’t expecting it; it was an unexpected moment of freedom. I love that about Norman. He’s thoughtful and caring, and on occasion he’s even spontaneous, sometimes playful.
When the song was over we kissed; he held me there until the loudspeaker blared, “Five minute warning for pre-departure boarding.” That immediately extinguished the mood. I looked at Norman and started wiping the tears that were coming against my will. “Two years,” escaped my lips before I even realized I wasn’t just thinking that to myself.” Shannon and Linda, Norman’s mom and sister, cut in and started hugging Norman, telling him how much they loved him and would miss him. Shannon apologized for both of them, for just jumping in between us. I felt a little pushed away, but I know them; I know they didn’t mean it. With about a minute and a half before he had to walk to the plane, Norman escaped from them, took my hands in his, looked me in the eyes and said, “I love you. I will be back,” and then he kissed me one more time. I couldn’t stop crying, no matter how much assurance he offered me. He was leaving.
“I love you so much, Norman. I already miss you. Contact me as soon as you arrive.”
Jon, his buddy also on The Assignment, was suddenly shaking Norman’s shoulder saying, “Come on. We have to go!” They had already given the final call, but we were so distracted that neither of us heard it. The after call hadn’t been given yet, but Jon didn’t want Norman to get in trouble before he even got on the plane.
“It’s time. I love you” were the last words Norman said to me before getting on that plane. I didn’t want to let go. And just like when we first knew we loved each other, all we could do was look into each other’s eyes, love with outstretched souls, and temporarily live there in that moment as he walked away. As soon as we had to look away, I ran. I ran through the crowd of people until I could find a somewhat secluded place to wipe the tears pooling under my eyes while I waited for the plane to take off.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please show your allegiance and happiness for the good of our servicemen and women as the plane prepares for take-off.” At that we were expected to wave to the plane as it taxied down the runway till take off, while the band played another round of “Anthem of Confederation Seven.” For seven long minutes, I stood up, clapped, cheered, and waved; then I quickly brushed off more tears as I walked away. ~Marcia
The restless nights continued, as well as my evening waking to sleep-created crashing sounds. I decided to get up and read to at least distract my mind from Norman until I could fall asleep again. I read about engines—it was a book that Norman gave me.
I read the book for about an hour before I started to get tired; I honestly don’t know how I lasted that long. I’m sure it didn’t help that my mind kept wandering back to him.
When I woke up the next morning, I felt hollowed out. I willed myself to school; I don’t remember what my professor said. In between moments of him talking about theories, I scrawled pebbles and other shapes that didn’t really look like anything. I yawned and blinked to try to stay awake; my notes were non-existent. Luckily it was just one class.
Later that afternoon, work dragged on. My boss was kind enough not to write me up when I forgot to file a report. I mentioned Norman to her a few weeks ago, and I told her about his deployment and the sudden decision of the Confederation to make his unit serve two years, instead of one. Everything that day seemed like a foggy haze of patchy memories; I even forgot to eat lunch.
My night improved around 6:00; Norman “visited” me (through DTC). It was great to look into his eyes again and hear his voice! I had this overwhelming desire to touch his shoulder, but I obviously couldn’t. He asked me how I was doing, already knowing the answer to that question. There was a longing in his eyes, but they were also strangely lit up with excitement. I guess the flight, a bit of sleep and some basic training in the day had been good to him. I could have spoken to Norman all night, but the military has limited DTC use, unlike here. After about twenty minutes, it was time to say goodnight. He said, “Marcia, I love you; I will be back—believe that. Then we’ll get married, start a family. It’s going to be okay.” He even wiped some tears from his eyes while I smeared my own.
I said, “I love you too, Babe,” and then we signed off. Bed seemed like the only livable place to be after that. I couldn’t handle any more emotion or any more thinking. My chest was aching. It felt like my heart had been ripped open, exposed, and was pulsating whenever I thought about him.
At 10:21 a metal crash woke me from my sleep again. It seemed like this subconscious nocturnal ritual would never stop. It was odd because I was still hearing something, but I didn’t know what. About two minutes later, my doorbell rang; when I opened it, it was Jon…Jon who was supposed to be on The Assignment with Norman. Although his eyes seemed opened in alertness, his eyes squinted as he said, “Come with me, quickly.” We started running down the stairs. My heart was pounding with questions and nervous excitement. When we got to bottom, he commanded me to “look up.” I couldn’t quite make out the shape in the dark, but I saw something floating to the ground. Jon shined a high-powered flashlight on it; it was a parachute with a landing pod. I felt confused, like I was still sleeping and nothing was coherent. Jon said, “It’s Norman. Go to him.”
“What?!” I ran to Norman, as he was stepping out of the pod. “What’s going on? How…?” I was crying and laughing, but still a little confused about what I was witnessing. “How are you here?”
“Come with us. Jon and some anti-Dominion citizens helped me arrange this. We can be together, but we have to leave now; there’s a borrowed plane waiting in Universal Park. We’re going to fly to the land state, Louisiana, where there’s an underground community that lives near an abandoned air force base; they’re expecting us.”
I had no doubt about what I needed to do that night. I loved Norman, and Ethereal no longer felt like home because of the widespread tentacles of The Dominion.
When we got on the plane the pilot said, “Welcome to the Underground.” Jon, Norman, and I secured ourselves for our immediate take off. Norman and I smiled at each other and squeezed each other’s hands when the pilot announced, “Prepare for take-off.”