Our Next-Door Neighbor
by Ari Armstrong, August 26, 2003
[A short work of fiction. Characters: Kara, the six-year-old, soon to be seven; Cindy, the three-year old; and Jody, the girls' mother.]
"Mommy, can I look, too?" Cindy asked.
Jody replied, "Yes, Cindy, you can look, too."
Cindy squirmed in her seat as she lifted her spoon, upside down, toward her mouth. Her small mouth enclosing on the large spoon, coupled with the awkward angle of approach, caused a large amount of the mushy material to fall from the spoon. Fortunately, Cindy was leaning over her high-chair tray. Kara sat unusually proper across the table, chewing very slowly, and looking very somber.
Jody said, "You know, Kara, the planet next door hasn't been this well positioned for viewing since before you could pronounce its name. And the weather tonight is perfect for it."
Kara's face turned suddenly to disappointment, Jody's to mild surprise.
"I wish Daddy was here to watch with us," Kara said.
Jody, her expression turning to soft understanding, said, "I know you do, sweetie. I wish Daddy were here tonight, too. But this is a busy harvest time, and you know how short of hands they are out at the farm. In a couple years, you can spend a little more time in the fields and help out at the packing shed."
Cindy, joyously unaware of the origins of the mashed vegetables on her plate, dropped another lump. This time the velocity carried the globulet off the tray entirely and it splat on the tiled floor. Jody assumed a wry smile and tried not to appear to notice.
Kara said, "Today Lindsey and I read about Percival Lowell. How could he believe such silly things? Ancient civilizations, huge canals..."
As Kara's voice wandered off, Jody pointed out, "Remember, dear, they didn't use to have high-resolution photographs taken by space probes so people could see neighboring planets clearly. And who knows? Perhaps he wasn't seeing the past, perhaps he was just seeing into the future a little bit."
Kara waited patiently to chew a bite of food, then noted, "Before I started reading about the solar system, I didn't know how old the planets are."
The trio finished dinner and eventually made their way to the patio. Cindy crawled behind the leaves of a bushy house plant and gave a little shriek as Kara said "boo." Jody ran her hand slowly down the shaft of a large patio telescope, a wisp of a smile on her face, and took a deep breath. She gently removed the cover from the eye piece.
Jody remarked, "I can remember when I was a little girl, and our next-door neighbor was closer than it had been since before the history of human civilization. That was back in... 2003. It seems like a lifetime ago."
Cindy inquired, "Mommy, what's cizhashun?"
Kara interjected, "She means before people could see into the sky."
Kara walked slowly from the plants to the telescope, then asked, "Mom, do you think someday I can go into space?"
"Sure you can, darling," her mother replied. "You just have to study your science and stay in shape. The universe is waiting for you, full of new frontiers. But just don't leave too soon: I'll miss you terribly."
Kara in mock sassiness said, "Well, gee, mom, I'll come home to visit," then, with a lighter tone, added, "I'll write to you every day, too."
"I know you will, sweetie," Jody answered gently.
Kara stood and looked pensively at the telescope. She had looked through it many times before, but that was before she took an interest in studying space.
Finally she asked deliberately, "Mom, can I look now?"
"Of course you can, dear! And take your time: we have all night," Jody replied.
Kara took her time, not noticing that Jody was looking at her wistfully, a tear streaming down her face. Kara's stern, studious face slowly softened as the coasts of North America appeared in the viewer. This was the first time she saw the sight with a full recognition of what North America is. She watched for a long time.
Cindy, having tired finally of playing in the plants, grabbed a wad of her mother's pants and asked, "Mommy, why are you sad?"
After half a dozen seconds Cindy's question registered with Kara. Slowly she turned her face away from the telescope, rotated on the stool, and sat up to face her mother squarly. She sat that way, perfectly still, for several more seconds.
She said, "Mommy's not sad, Cindy. She's just happy we have such great neighbors."