Goodbye, Nathan, Goodbye

It’s a young boy’s last chance to leave this doomed planet.

Rocket lifting off into space

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Everyone else got to go on migration, everybody. Why last time even John Balley got to go and John Balley’s father had said they’d never do it. They’d been final holdouts — live with Earth, die with Earth, that’s what his father had said — but still he got to go. The kids were all going now, there were only four left in Nathan’s class, and when John Balley left they shut down school for the whole day just to say goodbye.

It wasn’t really goodbye, Nathan told Momma when she asked if he was sad. They still have to drive to Florida.

But that night he messaged his Aunt Melinda and told her to look out for his friend — his name is John Balley and he’s eight years old but he isn’t tall like me — and Aunt Melinda said she would.

Nathan’s aunt had been part of the first migration. She’d moved before Nathan was born, but that didn’t mean he didn’t know her. I’m here for you, Nathan, I love you, she said on a heliocall, and just because I live on a different planet doesn’t mean you can’t come to me, then she asked how Nanny was feeling.

She’s okay I guess, and Aunt Melinda said, put your mother on please, but whenever Aunt Melinda called, Momma always told Nathan to say she wasn’t home.

Aunt Melinda was a reporter, which meant she got paid to tell people things, Nanny explaining that’s why they’d sent her, that while the colony needed scientists and farmers and people who worked with their hands, NASA also wanted somebody there who could share their stories. This made Aunt Melinda a celebrity of sorts, something Nathan thought was cool, but just made Momma mad. They get her opinion on everything, she said, who cares what she thinks about the flares? It’s not like she’s a solar expert.

But still, the Earth received a heliocast from Aunt Melinda once a week and they’d even hung up a poster with her picture on it at the planetarium down at LBL.

Why LBL was still called that, Nathan would never know. It used to stand for Land Between the Lakes, Nanny had said, stretching out her side, explaining how when she was a girl there’d been water, two whole lakes filled with so much water they had to dam it up — the government building the planetarium on a stretch of land between them — and when Nathan said, well there aren’t any lakes down there now, Nanny sighed, there used to be. Lake Kentucky was biggest in the state. We’d go swimming there, she told him, and when Nathan asked what’s swimming, Nanny brought up something else.

When I was a little girl, she said, the planetarium held light shows, and Nathan asked what kind.

Oh you know, turning up her heating pad, they’d play Pink Floyd or Beatles music and point colored lasers all around, and when Nathan said that sounds dumb, Nanny said I guess it was. But people weren’t so interested in actual astronomy those days.

He did not ask why they were interested now. He didn’t have to. They’d learned all about it in school. Miss Bell had handed out an infosheet printed on real paper. NASA wants y’all to bring this home to your families, she said, standing tall at the head of the class, and Nathan wondered if Aunt Melinda had wrote it.

“The effects of radioactivity from solar flares are far more complicated than scientists initially understood,” Nathan tripping over words like initially and effects. He knew what they meant but they were hard to sound out, and when he asked his teacher for help, she said it’s okay Nathan, you’ve got this. You know those words.

The infosheet also said only one migration was left, something Nathan did not know, and this made him even madder. His Aunt Melinda was an original colonist, first to board the USS Hope, the very first shuttle to go, Momma saying I’m sure the captain and crew were already on there, but when they showed the recording of people getting on it in class, she was the first person Nathan saw. Nathan had family in the colony, he should get to go. NASA didn’t like splitting families — that’s what Miss Bell had said — but John Balley got to go and his family didn’t know anybody there at all.

Nathan’s teacher was a never-leave, but not for the same reason John Balley’s dad used to be. If I go, she told Momma once, who would teach these children? But now almost all of Nathan’s class was gone and she didn’t seem that pleased with her decision.

The day the migration took off — the one John Balley was on — they sat in class and watched it, live from Kennedy Center, and when the rocket lifted, heading up straight in the air, Miss Bell began to cry.

It’s okay, he wanted to say, the man on TV said successful launch, but then he heard his teacher whisper, goodbye.

So that day Nathan went home and told Momma, if there’s only one migration left I think Miss Bell should be on it, and then Momma looked at Nanny and Nanny said, Miss Bell huh?

Sometimes older people, said Momma, well it’s hard for them to migrate, and Nathan thought Miss Bell isn’t old.

Still, his teacher would have to apply. Everybody did but them. John Balley’s father had gone down to the courthouse and signed on a line, filled out pages of applications and forms — but Nathan and Momma and Nanny, why they didn’t do a thing. A man in a uniform just brought their tickets to the house every year, coming up the drive in a long black car, and when she saw him, Nanny would look at Nathan and wink. See the USA in your Chevrolet, she’d say before she opened the door.

After the man left, Nanny would set the tickets on the table and at night, after she thought Nathan had gone to bed, she’d touch the edges. There was always a rim of dust around the sides, it formed as each migration passed, Nanny lifting all three the day after take off, leaving a square clean spot on the table where they’d been.

That night — the night after they watched John Balley leave at school — Nathan dreamt of tiny dust particles rising out of empty lakes, of clouds kicking up behind the army man’s car, coming in the windows, the windows of the house, and when he awoke the next morning he still felt it.

Are things, he messaged Aunt Melinda, on the colony clean?

It took five years to get there — that’s what Miss Bell had said — and you could either sleep or stay awake the whole time, and when she’d said that, John Balley had opened his eyes real wide, and Nathan said not the whole time-whole time, goober. She just means not everybody gets frozen in that tube, Miss Bell asking Nathan to please be quiet, saying it’s okay John, you’ll be fine, even giving John Balley a hug. The people who stay awake still get to sleep at night, it’s just some people want to go to bed and not wake up until they get there, letting John Balley know his father would decide, either way you’ll be okay. Still though, he looked a little scared, and it made Nathan feel bad that he thought this, but he thought it anyway: he thought if that were me, if I was the one who got to go, I wouldn’t be afraid.

It’s a hard trip Nathan, Momma told him, standing at the kitchen counter, mixing bread powders in a bowl.

Other kids go just fine.

It’s not you I’m worried about, she said, but when Nathan said, then who, Momma looked out the window and ignored him.

Momma was worried about everything. She was worried about the truck, the house, making-do, Nanny’s back. She even obsessed about his lessons, constantly asking Miss Bell, how’d he do today, as if any day at school were really that different from the next. All they talked about now was migration, migration and survival skills for any kid who stayed, Miss Bell telling Nathan, I know you want to go. The whole world, sweetheart, knows you want to go. But not everyone will get to and just in case you don’t, I need to make sure that you all have the information you need to live the best possible lives here, then she turned to the next student.

That night Nathan sent a message to Aunt Melinda saying if he didn’t get to migrate, could Miss Bell at least have his ticket, then Aunt Melinda heliocalled: Your mother, Nathan, she said. Get her on the line. Now. And don’t tell me she isn’t home.

It was the first time he’d ever seen Aunt Melinda mad, her face scrunched up just like Momma’s, and when Nathan left the room, he could still hear her in the hall. His teacher, she yelled, I got those for you. Then Momma said something muffled and Aunt Melinda calmed down a bit, I can try. But if I do this, she said, he’s coming with her. Unless you want him to die? How many times do I have to tell you? She’ll make the trip fine.

Die? Nathan didn’t want to die. Why would he die? That didn’t make any sense. But before he could ask, before he could barge in the room and say, why would I die, Nanny saw him in the hall. Nobody ever learned anything from eavesdropping, she told him, that they really wanted to know. Now put your oxygen mask on and we’ll go to the planetarium for a show.

But the whole drive down he was silent, putting pieces together he did not understand, different parts of multiple puzzles combining and shifting at once. Nanny, he asked, why doesn’t Momma want to migrate, and, actually I think she does, Nanny said, then Nathan was silent again. When they got there, the planetarium was almost empty. There used to be summertime star parties and lectures about the flares — like when Nathan was really little — but today there was just one man, only one other person in the whole place, and looking up at the ceiling, at the telescope in its dome, Nathan felt sick to his stomach. Nanny, he said, can we go home?

That night he dreamt of the dust again, clouds as big as their house, whooshing from the igniting shuttle, launching into space, of Momma and Nanny left standing on the ground. But when he went to school the next day, he forgot it.

Nathan, I can’t thank you enough, Miss Bell said. Of all the things, brushing her hand across the top of his head.

What, Nathan told her, did I do, and all Miss Bell said was you were you.

Who else would I be?

Exactly, and then Miss Bell smiled. Now class, if you could all turn your handbooks to chapter seven, “storing water and food in a fallout shelter,” then when Nathan got home, Momma asked, did Miss Bell seem particularly happy today, and Nathan said, yes, why actually she did.

They must have gotten her a ticket, that had to be it, the final launch window had just been moved up. Do you want him to die — whatever that’d meant — Aunt Melinda had come through.

In the weeks that followed, Miss Bell had a pep in her step and concentrated on her other students more. There were two girls and one other boy left in Nathan’s class and one of the girls was going, her father had gone down to the courthouse to sign, and when she said, I hope you’re coming with me Nathan, he told her, I do too.

But as the launch got closer Nathan noticed neither Momma nor Nanny looked like they were ready. I don’t believe this, he said. It’s the very last one Momma, my very last chance, Nanny in the dining room again with the tickets, not touching the edges but staring — sitting in her chair, bent at the waist, pushing her butt out all the way so that her eyes were on level with the table, folded completely into herself. Nanny, don’t that hurt your back?

But Nanny, she didn’t say a word. She didn’t even move. She just sat there, looking at those tickets.

Momma, his mother said, that’s not doing either one of us any good.

That night, Nathan did not dream of anything. Instead, he lay in his bed and watched out the window, looking at the darkness and what lay beyond. It was rolling. The earth, the space, the dust, the world — everything in the universe was moving oh so slowly while Nathan, he lay right here. He could hear them, Momma and Nanny; they were in the kitchen fighting, Nanny telling Momma, you have to, Momma saying, how could we, Nanny saying something back that Nathan could not understand, words he did not know, words that belonged on an infosheet, but no matter what they meant, he knew he had to go. Family does not leave family, Momma said, but Aunt Melinda had gone. Aunt Melinda had got to migrate and there wasn’t any reason anybody needed to be left behind, why at this point even Miss Bell had her ticket.

None of this makes any sense, he told Momma the next morning, I heard you and Nanny. Then Momma got this look on her face and reached out to hug Nathan tight. I’m sorry baby, she said. I’m sorry was all she said.

Nathan had not seen Momma pack. She must have done it while he was at school, as he sat in Miss Bell’s class and learned about vegetable canning and “emergency care of the sick and injured: chapter nine,” coming home every day to give Momma and Nanny evil looks, but still someone had packed. A suitcase had been ready all this time — and another one, too — and when they headed out the door for what Nathan thought was supposed to be the goodbye ceremony at school, well, Momma took those two suitcases out of the house and put them both in the truck.

What’s that, Nathan said, are we going, but he wouldn’t let himself get excited. There was something building inside him that would not, could not be excited: There weren’t enough bags and where on earth was Nanny?

Isn’t Nanny coming, he asked, and Momma said no.

Momma! Nathan ran in the house, Nanny where are you, screaming from room to room, then there she was at the computer, looking at pictures of children, kids laughing and playing in water. This, she told him, pulling Nathan in her lap, is swimming. Then Nanny cried.

She cried and cried until Nathan thought she would never stop, more water he was sure than Lake Kentucky had ever held, tears drenching his face, wetting his hair, Nanny, he said, it’s okay, but he knew it wasn’t. Nathan might be a kid but he wasn’t dumb: You’re not coming.

No, she said. I’m not.

Then Nathan, he put his hands around her neck and refused to let go. Even when Momma said, it’s time, he refused to let her go. He held and he cried and Momma had to pull and at one point Nanny said, it’s okay, baby you’re hurting my neck, but still he would not let go, Nanny reaching around, loosening his hands, releasing his fingers one by one, but still — Nathan did not want to go.

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Comments

  1. “Goodbye, Nathan, Goodbye” is a heartwrenching story in the style of some of the best American writers. Bell is to be commended. She does well in capturing a surreal event through a child’s eyes who is trying to understand a catastrophe that necessitates humanity’s “migration.” Reading it, we might begin to capture what it might mean to a child when a society is falling apart and the tough decision needs to be made: do we move or stay? Thank you, Terena Bell, for describing that for us.

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