"For Aging Kids Who Dream of Star Treks" by Jason Sanford

(Originally published in Tales of the Unanticipated, April 2002.)

 

Sheri Pemberton's never known why she can't grow up--why she's always looking fifteen. Her pimply face is continually on the verge of clearing up. Baby fat still tickles her stomach. Even her small breasts and hips merely hint of things to come which can never possibly come.

Over the last hundred years, Buddy Wallyn--her best friend from childhood--has grown old and bald and hunched into curves while she hasn't changed a bit. When she looks at him, all she sees now is an old man whose skin and bones are not much removed from death. When he looks at her, she knows he still sees the same-looking girl he's known since jr. high school.

This amazes her.

"You ever think about those space probes?" Buddy asks Sheri a half hour before he is to die. It's New Year's Eve and he and Sheri sit in the death gardens outside Huntsville Memorial Hospital. Even though Sheri opposed coming here, Buddy said it was what he wanted, so she helped him purchase a semi-private enclave with three walls of trimmed hedges, a giant water oak to one side, and assorted daisies and roses budding here and there. The enclave even came with a blue bird, trained to sit on a small branch and sing love to the world, but Sheri put her foot down at that and Buddy had the staff remove it.

"You just know some white guy thought up a sappy place like this," Sheri mutters.

"Sappy I can handle," Buddy says with a laugh, "long as it's peaceful sap." Sheri starts to argue, but keeps quiet because she shouldn't upset Buddy before he dies. That's the same reason she hasn't pointed out that they look to be the only black people in the place.

Buddy is still laughing at his comment, but then his laugh cuts off and he starts fidgeting with the voice synthesizer on his cancer-eaten throat. While Sheri helps him adjust the device she glances at the monitor on his wrist. It says he has twenty-eight minutes of life left.

"What about the space probes?" she asks, delicately rubbing Buddy's hand. His fingers are knobby with calcium deposits. They're also sweaty, like he's once again a nervous school kid afraid of her touch. Buddy looks at his counter, as if deciding how much life he can waste on chit-chat.

"Remember all those old probes?" he asks. "Voyager. Pioneer. I couldn't keep them out of my head last night. They just keep going. Maybe they're cold dead. Maybe they're still whirling and scanning."

He pauses, as if to figure out where his thoughts are going and what he's trying to know. "Is something that far away still part of my life?" he finally asks.

"I wouldn't know."

The sun is setting between two support arches of the glass-glazed roof. Buddy's skin sinks with each breath and his eyes are cloudy mucus between flaps that once were eyelids. This is Sheri's first time around old death. Because everyone sees her as fifteen, she prefers to hang around young people. Kids always give her ten or fifteen years before they begin aging into their thirties and forties. When that happens, she moves on.

She looks at the monitor on Buddy's wrist. It now reads twenty-five minutes left.

In a soft voice, Buddy says he going to stay focused as the clock hits 0:00, that he intends to be aware to the exact moment of his death. "It's like the final frontier," he mutters. Sheri gives a fifteen-year-old smile at that forgotten cliche.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 1

Buddy:

Is this thing recording?

First off, I choose the death option last month. The doctor said it was painless, that he'd just program the insert to the exact time I wanted to move on and that would be the end of me. I guess this beats waiting until face dissolves to the cancer and only machines can keep me alive.

Exact suicide. Sheri hates the idea. Me?  I think having thirty days to live will focus me more than waiting for the cancers to kick me off a few weeks later. I mean, you give people a vague sense of death and they can't get ready for it. This way it's cut and dry--you prepare for dying the way you prepare for everything else in life.

Which is why I'm recording this. The death counselor says I need to let go off my life. This is my way of letting go.

The funny thing, though, is that just like my life I've screwed up my death. I mean, I originally thought it would be nice to die after sunset, with the stars just coming up in the sky and all. But I didn't check the calendar and, of course, once that damn insert is in me I learn I'm dying on New Year's Eve. Now it's all I can think of. How only few more hours of life and I could have had another year added to my gravestone.

Guess I should have thought of that sooner.

Sheri tells me that dying in 2065 is no different from 2066, but what does she know? Hell, she may never die. She'll just sit there to the end, holding my hand, pretending that the last century don't do things between us.

Who is she to say there's no different between a 5 and a 6?

I read once that no one really dies until the last person who knew them also dies. How long will Sheri end up keeping me alive?

* * *

As teenagers growing up in Wetumpka, Buddy and Sheri ran home after school each day to watch Star Trek reruns at her grandparent's house. Sheri's grandpa had converted his patio into a walled-in den--the bricks on the floor sweat cool, the plywood walls thin and hot in summer and shiver cold in winter. A giant Magnavox sat in one side of the room and Buddy and Sheri sprawled before it on the floor and pretended they were watching a majestic theater screen.

"Where no man has gone before," Buddy always muttered to the opening music. He knew ever episode by heart and could mimic lines moments before they were spoken. "Jim, he's dead," Buddy'd say, and shit, that ensign would be.

If they'd seen an episode too many times, Buddy and Sheri would see who could nit-pick the best. Buddy loved the transporters and warp speed but thought the aliens were incredibly unimaginative. Sheri loved the Enterprise itself but hated how after 200 more years of human evolution captains were still sex crazed white men and Uhuru just a high-tech secretary.

Their dislikes combined so nicely while watching one episode where Captain Kirk made out with an orange alien princess with antennae.

"Oh, like that will work," Buddy said. "Genetically, he'd have a better chance mating with a ear of corn than with an alien from another planet."

"And the tits," Sheri countered. "Even zero gravity can't support all that."

Buddy laughed. "What would you know about support?" he asked. Sheri smiled, but mouthed a silent curse word at him. She was sixteen but her body hadn't changed at all in the last year. All of her friends had recently grown into nice butts and breasts. Sheri, though, was still flat both front and back.

As Kirk and the orange torpedo princess reached the show's discreet they're-going-to-fuck-offscreen fade out, a commercial for cross-your-heart bras came on. Sheri flushed red.

She looked at Buddy. He looked at her. They kissed. Groped. They stopped only when her grandpa's footsteps could be heard walking down the hall.

Later, after Star Trek was over, they walked along the packed gravel street towards Buddy's house. Dead leaves clogged the few storm drains that the city had bothered to install in the black section of town. Buddy reached for Sheri's hand.

"Don't," she said. His hand continued past hers as he pretended to grab at a leaf blowing in the wind before them.

"Friends?" he asked.

"No shit," Sheri said.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 2

Sheri:

In high school, my history teacher once spent fifteen minutes debating the racial identity of a woman in a photo from the late 1800's. "Her skin's fair, but she must have some black in her," this idiot white man said. "Just look at her nose."

I prayed to leave that room. I prayed for this to be a joke. I'm also lightskinned, like the woman in the photo, and I knew that people were also poring over all of me, searching for the clues that made me black.

Finally, the teacher closed his history book. "Guess she needs some sun on her," he said.

As if that'd clarify her blackness.

When Buddy and I were in high school, some cracker called his little brother a nigger. Buddy's father almost killed that white man. Months later, Buddy's mom said the fight meant things were getting better. In the old days, she said, Buddy's father would've been lynched for fighting back. Things were getting better.

Guess that's all I need to say on Buddy and me and race.

* * *

After high school, Buddy and Sheri went to Auburn University--Buddy studied mechanical engineering, Sheri archeology. They roomed together and split the cleaning and the groceries and even a beat-up car. Sheri would come home from digs throughout central Alabama with her clothes stiff from sweat, red clay, and sand to find Buddy cramming for some test or project. Between study and work they watched TV, ate pizzas, and went to the free movies at Langdon Hall.

When they graduated Buddy took a job with Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. "There's not a lot of black people up there," Sheri warned, but when Buddy was insistent on going she found a job there with the Tennessee Valley Authority. She dug test plots to look for archeology sites in the path of new powerlines and transmitter grids while Buddy worked on the life support system for the proposed space station.

They lived cheap in a trailer park. "Think of the benefits of a moveable home that ain't going nowhere," Buddy joked. As Sheri had warned, there weren't a lot of black people in Huntsville, but they still hooked up with enough. One woman they met was the only black dentist in town, and Buddy and Sheri made a point of doing regular six-month visits with her

Sheri especially liked the fact that the dentist's dental assistant was white. "Usually it's the other way around," she told Buddy. The assistant's name was Angela. She was in her mid-thirties, with a few gray hairs over a chubby face that seemed friendly until bad thoughts or ideas jumped frowns and creases across her cheeks. When Angela first found out Sheri was not Buddy's daughter, Sheri had watched with amusement as anger rained Angela's lips into quivers. Angela only calmed down when Buddy explained that Sheri was an old friend from back home and not his girlfriend.

On every visit, while Sheri read the old magazines in the waiting room, Buddy talked with Angela. On one visit, Buddy gave Angela a clapper-activated keychain. "It's so your keys are always found," he said, clapping hands and making the keychain chirp grasshopper squeaks. Angela smiled at Buddy.

After that visit, as they walked down the front steps, Buddy hugged Sheri hard and asked, "She's a nice woman, isn't she?"

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 3

Angela (excerpted from previously recorded journal entry):

I am what they call a white woman. I am of the race they call white. When people ask what I am--if there is any need to ask, since most only see the white woman they've been programmed to see--there is no longer any answer I want to give.

Stereotype time: I was born in central Alabama in the early '60s. My family lived at the end of a mile-long dirt road in a brown doublewide trailer. As a child, my brother and I chased each other across the tractor-tire-wide rows of cotton farmed by one Colonel Parker. I learned to shoot a rifle by age five. When I tell people outside the South these facts, there is such irony on their faces, such twisted smirks of "You're kidding, right?"

Truth: I remember the "Negroes only" and "Whites only" signs swinging rusty and cobwebbed over bathrooms and water fountains. I remember the marches and the protests, the police dogs sent against children. But all these memories run distant because they are of conversations and TV programs and sights I heard or saw while I was too young for them to really matter. In the '60s all I cared about were games of jump rope and jacks, building my doll house, or going with my brother to swimming holes in the summer.

The clubbings on bridges leading out of endless Selmas, the lynchings now forgotten by most--none of these are my sole memories of Alabama. Yes, I have visited the civil rights shrines and seen the grainy black and white newsreel images of the Birmingham fire hoses and dogs. But I have also walked through springtime forests of oaks, scrub, and pines, and practiced high school softball in the drenching August heat. Which is the true Alabama?

My gut slithers at the mix of sights, history, and disgust I feel for the home I love. Would I have been part of the hatred if I had been born but ten years earlier? Certainly. Would I have risen above it? I like to imagine myself of enough character to have done so, but the honest part of me nags any certainty away.

* * *

Sheri had no clue that Buddy and Angela were dating until one stupid day when Buddy saved the entire space station program.

Buddy had been doing an audit on the water treatment center for the space station. "We've got to recycle as much water as possible," he told Sherri when he got home from work. "That means we reuse the water from urine, sweat, even from an astronaut's breath."

Sheri nodded. She was grossed out and bored by this, but she still listened to show Buddy that she supported him.

"So they have all these numbers worked out--how big a treatment center we need, how much work it can do--all based on the number of astronauts we're gonna have. Anyway, my supervisor has all the data in, the bids are about to go out, and then I ask about the rats."

He waited for Sheri to respond. She didn't.

"We're gonna use rats for experiments. Seventy-five rats use the water of one person. They forgot to put that in their analysis."

Sheri yawned. She'd never known that space flight could be so boring. But Buddy was lit up, excited by his personal achievement.

"Nothing like a powerful man doing a powerful job," Buddy said, laughing. He pulled his shirt down, to show off a little chest hair. "Instant sex appeal, right?"

Sheri laughed. "Space-geek appeal. Makes me want you."

Buddy stared at her for a moment, as if trying to decide it she was serious. A year back they had flirted--yet again--with dating, but as always Sheri said no. She couldn't stand the hassles and stares from people when they saw what they thought was a fifteen-year-old girl kissing a man looking old enough to be her father.

Buddy sat down.

"Got someone I want you to meet," he said, pausing for effect. "She's white." Sheri was certain he said this last part merely to irritate her.

That evening he drove Sheri over to Angela's brick house, which was near the space center on a block dominated by new-style ranch houses. Angela was cordial as the door opened. She introduced her fat cats to Sheri--"Quin, Paulo, and Sojourner," she said, pointing one-two-three as the cats sat on the couch and meowed. Buddy lifted each one and lowered them to the ground, keeping a tight grip so their shifting fat so they wouldn't slip loose. They followed him to the kitchen where he opened several cans of gourmet cat food.

Sheri wandered around Angela's den with her. It was a very neat and tidy house, with plaster walls painted off white and paintings and furniture all placed at discreet distances from one another. One wall was plastered with pictures of Buddy--Buddy wearing shorts as he grilled in the backyard, Buddy wearing a Starfleet uniform with fake Spock ears at a Halloween party, Buddy making a model rocket. Every picture rested in a nice wood-color frame.

"I just found out about you two," Sheri said. "Congrats."

"He should have told you a while back," Angela said. "I kept bugging and hassling him to say something. Thought he'd rather break up than tell you."

"Yeah, Buddy's stubborn." Sheri sat on the couch and scooped one of Angela's just-fed cats into her lap. The cat jumped down immediately and ran away, its fat jiggling from side to side.

After eating, they all sat around and watched Star Trek Voyager. Angela made a big show of holding hands with Buddy and cuddling with him. Sheri sat in the easy chair with three fat cats in her lap.

The next week Angela called Sheri up at home. After some chit chat, she got to the point. It was about Buddy. She wanted to know where Sheri fit with him.

"I don't have to fit. We're just friends."

There was silence on the receiver as Angela paused for a long moment. Finally she said, "I love Buddy, but I don't know if he's ever gonna grow up. All he really cares about is Star Trek, going into space, and you."

"And that's bad?"

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 4

Buddy (from his journal entries):

September 8, 1966--the premier of Star Trek.

That's an early memory of mine. Sheri and I were six. When the network tried canceling the show, I personally wrote a postcard to try and keep it on the air.

October 1, 1072--Kung Fu.

I began meditating because of this show and believed I'd found a philosophy of life. "What would that be?" Sheri asked once. "Patience, young grasshopper," I said. "Patience."

January 23, 1977--Roots.

Sheri and I got so pissed off by Roots that one night we took our baseball bats and busted all the windows on our history teacher's van. "That shit never mentioned Kunta Kinte in history class," Sheri said. "He had it coming."

September 16, 1984--the premier of Miami Vice.

Sheri and I sat in our trailer in Auburn with that old Magnavox console from Sheri's grandpa straddling the sunken carpet line where the two halves of the double wide didn't quite line up. After the premier was over, I turned off the TV, and we had a moment of silence. "Now that was style," Sheri finally said. I nodded. We plugged in the Atari and played some Pac Man.

* * *

When Buddy decided he was ready to die, he had one month to prepare. As part of their services, the death garden provided a virtual mausoleum for all of its clients. Buddy was to record a history of his life and include as many pictures and images and words as he wanted.

"Consider it a means of letting go of your life," the death director said when Sheri and Buddy went to their preliminary meeting. "By reviewing your life you are able to put it in order, see what you've been, and then be ready to move on."

"And if your life sucked?" Sheri asked.

"Then accept the suckiness and let it go," the director said, smiling the perfectly bleached teeth of a recovering smoke addict. "Besides, this is for posterity. If a hundred years from now someone wants to know what life was like for a . . ."

"Overweight black space engineer," Buddy interjected. Sheri snickered.

"Then they will be able to learn from your life," the director finished, not the least put off.

Buddy and Sheri laughed all the way to Sheri's hotel, thinking about the things Buddy could include in his life history. "I've got an old video of Angela and I doing it in our Star Trek uniforms," Buddy joked. But two days later, after going through his journals and stuff, Buddy grew disgusted. He and Sheri were in the virtual mausoleum's editing and recording offices at the time.

"It's scary to think how my life centered on idiotic television shows," Buddy said. "All the years I've lived and all I've got are stupid TV dates."

"What do you mean?" Sheri asked.

Buddy waggled his fingers and his journal hovered above his writing display. Many of the dates were blank--just the date and nothing else. The dates that were filled in mostly contained Buddy's thoughts on different TV shows.

"Why all the blank entries?" Sheri asked.

"I used to like old dates. There's something about seeing those days and knowing I lived them. Like October 16, 1989. I lived that day but I can't remember what I did then. I used to think it was funny not being able to remember whole days of your life. Now I wonder why didn't I write anything about that day?"

Sheri's heart squeezed as Buddy closed his eyes--maybe the death insert malfunctioned and he was dying early. But she saw him breathing and remembered that dead eyes don't close on their own . . . they merely stare ahead, unmoving.

While Buddy rested his eyes, a white teenage boy and his family walked past the editing cubicle on their way to record someone else's virtual mausoleum. The family's heads were bowed in polite sorrow and respect, but the teenage boy caught Sheri's eyes. He smirked and mouthed "Wanna hook up later?"

"Fuck off!" Sheri said in a loud whisper before noticing that Buddy was watching her.

"That kid'd be quite a catch," Buddy said. "He's got more pimples than you."

She squeezed Buddy's hand.

"Dates aren't such a bad thing," she said. "You remember your wedding day, right? That was a good date."

Buddy smiled.

Buddy finally decided that for his virtual mausoleum he'd include some of his old journal excerpts, new recordings by him and Sheri, and some of Angela's old journals. "Angela would have liked that," he told Sheri. "It's like she's still a part of my life."

Sheri nodded. It did seem that way.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 5

Buddy:

It's become unfashionable to claim a race in this late year, but I am . . .who I raised myself to be. Who people see me as. Black. African American. Negro. A million names that can't be pegged to exact tones of skin or nuances or genetics or beliefs. But get me around white people and every time they'll go, damn, there's a black man among us. And shit if they won't be right.

The funny thing is that white people aren't even white--they just think they are. When the original "white" people immigrated to this country, to Alabama, they were German, English, French, and more. Whiteness was not discovered until slavery began supporting these United States.

In order to deprive a person of all dignity, respect, and life, one must make that person nonhuman. Or nonwhite, which to white people was the same thing. Their perverse idea of humanity mingled with and supported slavery and Jim Crow and the beliefs of everyone down to my high school guidance counselor. And Sheri. And even my lovely wife Angela.

But I need to let all this go before my passing.

* * *

Buddy and Angela were married a few weeks after what Buddy called the fake millennium. Buddy was a stickler for mathematical accuracy and to him 2001, not 2000, was the real millennium, so he made a big stink about not using the word millennium on their wedding announcement. This meant that when the next New Year's Eve rolled around and he tried to convince Angela to stay up with him to see this once in a millennium event, she refused to have anything to do with it.

"I saw it last year," she said.

Irritated, Buddy drove off to pick up some beer at Pak 'N Sak Liquors outside Huntsville. There he ran into Sheri, who was trying to buy some wine coolers. Sheri was arguing with the salesclerk about how her ID wasn't fake.

"She really is 40," Buddy said, placing his six-pack of Red Stripe on the counter. "We grew up together."

The salesclerk gave him an insolent "Thank you, sir," to Buddy's comment, obviously thinking it was a joke. However, Sheri smiled at Buddy for supporting her. In the end, the clerk refused to accept Sheri's ID and Buddy had to buy Sheri her wine coolers. As they walked out Buddy made a big show of handing the coolers back to Sheri, who opened one of the bottle and took a long drink while the clerk stared at her.

"You know, that guy's probably trying to decide if I'm your father or merely into pedophilia," Buddy said.

"Not funny," Sheri said.

"'Course it is," he chuckled. "Way things are going, you won't ever age and I'll die old and wrinkled and pissed as hell." He laughed again. "But live forever and you're still going to get carded every time you buy a beer."

Sheri had walked to the liquor store, so Buddy offered to drive her home. Once in his beat-up Mustang, Buddy flipped the key but nothing happened. He tried again. And again. On the ninth try the Mustang finally started.

"The starter's going bad," he said. "I keep meaning to put in the rebuilt one I bought."

Sheri nodded absently as the Mustang's headlights lit up rabbits dashing across the road before disappearing into the passing pine trees. Buddy slowed down for the turn into Sheri's trailer park and stopped before her green singlewide.

The Mustang's dash clock glowed 11:48 A.M. in a fuzzy green halo of light.

"It's good to celebrate the real millennium," Buddy said, "and not that fake shit we had last New Year's Eve. 2001 is the mathematically correct start of the 21st century."

"Is Angela's sleeping tonight?" Sheri asked. The last time Buddy had hung out at her place Angela had stormed over, kicked in her screen door and dragged Sheri across the carpet by her hair. Buddy had, irritatingly, gotten his processing nerves stuck and just stood there, gawking, as Angela screamed "You fucked him, didn't you? You fucked him."

"Yeah, she's asleep," Buddy said.

Buddy and Sheri walked onto the pine two-by-four porch attached to her trailer. Buddy popped the cap on a bottle of Red Stripe and pored it into a plastic glass.

"For friends," he toasted, whispering as if his wife was listening. Sheri saluted back with a raspberry wine cooler.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 6

Sheri:

What's it like to not age?

1) Irritating. I stopped doing archeology decades ago because the universities couldn't accept that my credentials were correct. That this kid standing before them had done all I said I'd done.

2) Dangerous. I started changing names and IDs a while back when I realized that there were people in the world who'd take me apart to try and learn why I didn't age. For a while I was a perky little street punk in New York named Shirley. After that, I dyed my hair blond and said I was Heidi from Minneapolis.

I still keep my original ID, but I'm seeing the time coming when it's gonna have to go. Irritating. Dangerous. Lonely. That's not dying. I'm a hundred and six years old and I look fifteen. Someday I'll come back, read this virtual mausoleum file of mine, and I'll probably still look fifteen.

Life is very simple when you don't age.

* * *

The real millennium passed without a hitch until Buddy tried to start his car to drive home. "And so the starter dies," he pronounced.

"Think it's the mathematically correct Y2K bug?" Sheri asked with a smirk.

Buddy ignored her and popped the hood.

Sheri looked up at the stars between the pine trees limbs as Buddy inspected his Mustang. She thought the car was so typical of Buddy. It wasn't one of the classic Mustang models nor one of the newer cherry-red makes. Instead, Buddy's Mustang was a early-'80s-worst-year model with a shimmy in every metal panel and the sunroof stuck half open. Buddy duct-taped plastic bags over the sunroof opening every now and then forgot it until the sun peeled the tape away. Next storm that hit, he'd curse and be retaping wet vinyl and metal in the rain. Sheri figured that the only reason Buddy kept the car was because it gave him an excuse to work on it all the time.

As Buddy guessed, tonight's repair was the starter. He grabbed the rebuilt starter from the car's back seat and unbolted the old one. Sheri held the new one in place as Buddy tightened the bolts one by one.

"Shit," Buddy said as his wrench clanked metal. "Shitie do. I just sheared the bolt."

Sheri shined the light in closer. "Think the starter will hold with just three bolts?" she asked.

"Guess so." Buddy looked at the sheared off bolt, then at his wrench. "I used the wrong torque wrench--this one's in foot pounds, not metrics. I picked up the wrong one and gave too much force."

"Are you sure you're a NASA engineer?" Sheri asked. Buddy said it happened all the time. A year back, one of their probes was following foot measurements when ground control inputted metric measurement, which caused the probe to slam right into Mars. Buddy told Sheri this as he tightened the other bolts on the starter and he shook his head at this mutual coincidence--both Mustang starter bolt and space probe failing for the same reason.

"'Course, that's just NASA's cover story," Buddy said about the Mars probe. "A hundred years from now--when we really get into space--we'll find that probe made first contact with some alien species."

"Uh huh."

"Try to start it now," he said.

She got in the front seat and twisted the key with the exact amount of force needed to turn the ignition without breaking the metal. The car started easy, although the starter rattled slightly.

As Buddy got into his car to leave, Angela drove up in her pickup.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 7

Buddy:

If anyone comes to this site wanting to know how to work a love triangle, just give it up. While mathematically a triangle is strong, in life they don't work. Life just refuses to go three ways. Get two, that's strong. Get one, that's strong. Three falls in on itself.

I wish Sheri and Angela had gotten along. I loved them both. Why couldn't they have liked each other? Have let me be friends with both?

What Angela and I had was special. I loved her more than anything. I feel that she came into my life just as I was ready to receive her.

But Sheri--she and I go on forever. Nothing will ever mess with the bond we have.

 

* * *

Buddy was sitting in his car--engine idling, his window rolled down so he could say goodbye to Sheri--when Angela pulled her pickup truck in behind him. It was 2:30 am. She sat in the truck's cab staring at Buddy and Sheri, her face lit dull red from the dash lights and gauges. Sheri panicked as she imagined Angela jumping out of the truck with a scream and dragging her by her hair again.

Instead, Angela simply rolled her power window down and motioned to Sheri to come over. Sheri stepped to the window, taking care to stay a few feet back so Angela couldn't slam the truck door into her or something.

"We were just celebrating the new year," Sheri said. "Nothing else."

Angela looked at her then glanced at Buddy, who was too scared to get out of his car or turn the engine off or anything.

"I know," she said. "It's just so hard, trying to get what I know to go into synch with my feelings."

Sheri knew what she meant. She knew that to Angela, she would always be a teenaged black girl. Angela was over forty and trying desperately to settle into a belated married life with Buddy. For her, Sheri was still fifteen and black. Truth was, someday Angela would be sixty and retiring and Sheri knew she would still be fifteen and black. When Angela turned eighty and mourned lost friends and family and tried hard not to fear death, Sheri would probably still be fifteen and black. Sheri knew that no matter how hard she tried, this is how Angela would always see her. It didn't matter that humanity had grown up enough to be flinging space probes to the universe. It didn't matter that Alabama had changed enough for Buddy and Angela to marry. Sheri looked fifteen and black and this was what the world saw her as. And to the world, fifteen-year-old girls did not hang out with forty-year-old men.

Without saying anything more, Angela drove away in her pickup. Buddy quickly following behind her in his Mustang.

When their cars were out of sight, Sheri walked inside her home and latched the trailer's aluminum door to its plywood frame.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 8

Sheri:

After Buddy elected for the death option, he and I spend every day together. Buddy says he doesn't want to spend his last month in the memories of his old house, so we rent a vacation condo near the hospital and spend our times traveling around the area.

The best days were when we'd go fishing. We'd sit in the shade next to the river while the willow trees above us whipped and bucked to the breeze and the red and white floats on our fishing lines bobbed to the ripples in the current. Sometimes the air grew so alive with newly dug plant smells and deep vegetation decay that I wanted to cry for the love of it all.

It was good to be back in Alabama. When Buddy is around, this is truly my home.

One day, after a big fish broke his line and swam away, Buddy said he had enjoyed growing up in Alabama. "It was a good place to live," he said.

I told him it was--especially when we were together.

"I wouldn't have had it any other way," he said.

* * *

Buddy has two minutes left to live. His eyes are closed in meditation, as if to calm himself from fear and regret. And even though Sheri hated Angela, Sheri also wishes she was still alive to be here with Buddy.

The last time Sheri saw Angela was shortly after Buddy's mathematically correct millennium. After seeing how being around Buddy was messing up his life with Angela, Sheri decided to make it easy for him by leaving Alabama.

She didn't see him for the next sixty years. They'd e-mail and occasionally talk by phone, but it wasn't until several years after Angela died--and Buddy found out he had a bad mix of cancers--that they agreed to get together.

They met at a hotel near Lookout Mountain in northern Alabama. As Sheri waited for Buddy to appear, she prepared herself for seeing him as an old man. Buddy was over a hundred, so she pictured him with speckled skin hanging loose from his bones, sunken eyes and chest, and thin lips that talked without seeming to move. Instead he showed up with more hair than she had ever seen him with, a clear tight face, and heft and swells to his legs and arms and body.

"Lookin' good," she said. Buddy smiled.

"Like they say, black don't crack. Nice to see you haven't changed."

Sheri slugged him gently in his arm.

Sheri had reserved a room for them, but first they went to dinner. As they waited for their waiter, she got a close up look at Buddy. His hair was newly transplanted and his skin recently tightened and cleansed of liver spots. Still, he looked good, like he was only sixty or seventy. Sheri told him so several times as they ate.

The restaurant specialized in old-fashioned southern foods so they ate country-fried steak and green beans and biscuits. None of the foods rang right in their mouths--the cook had obviously not been brought up eating them as a child--but they still enjoyed eating and talking. Sheri told Buddy how she'd worked as an undercover cop for a while, specializing in high schools gangs. Buddy talked about space and Angela. After retiring from NASA he'd sold hyper-expensive orbital tours to the mega rich. "Made a lot on commissions, but never enough to buy a trip myself." As for Angela, he still hadn't gotten over her death four years back. "We were together almost sixty years," he said. "You really get set in a pattern over sixty years."

When Sheri asked Buddy what he was doing now, he shrugged.

"Just coasting, I guess. I've been building some model rockets with the kids down the street. We built one that carried a small transmitter five miles straight up."

Sheri smiled. When the check came, she quickly paid it, adding a hefty tip for no reason. The waiter thanked them as they left and asked where Sheri and her grandfather would be going next.

Once in their room, Sheri waited on the bed as Buddy groomed and preened in the bathroom. He came out in an old black silk robe with a red Chinese dragon on the back.

"I found the robe in an vintage clothing store," he said, tasting the irony of an old robe looking new and hip to him and Sheri.

Buddy sat on the bed next to her and Sheri held his hand. When she stretched over to kiss him, he closed his eyes, smiled, and kept his eyes closed as Sheri reached under his robe with her fingers and stroked his chest. On their second kiss, he opened his eyes and asked her to stop.

"Why?" she asked.

"You know it's all fake, don't you? I got new hair put in, got my muscles tweaked, had them cover up all those skin blotches and stuff. It won't last. A few days and I'll look like a hundred-year old man again."

"I know," she said, and went to kiss him again.

Buddy pulled his robe tight and shook his head.

They spent the rest of the night sitting on the balcony, watching and naming the satellites and solar panels and spacecraft that lit up the night sky so much that the stars seemed to be hazy afterthoughts. Sheri would point out some glowing blur, she and Buddy would argue about what it was, then they'd look on their personal computers and see who was right. Around midnight they even chatted online with a bored astronaut working on a solar array pumping energy down to Atlanta.

Not once did they mention that Buddy was old, Sheri was young, and no matter what they did to ignore that, it was too big a difference to see past anymore.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 9

Angela (preciously recorded journal entry):

I love Alabama. I didn't realize this until I went north for a few years in the early '90s.

The truth is that there's enough racism around the country that everyone should know it doesn't exist within Alabama alone. Still, old images of my home continue to hover in people's preconceptions like new-dead ghosts which are desperate to be seen by those who once loved them. America needs a scapegoat--some forgotten attic crawlspace to store racial baggage in. The home I love has been chosen for this honor.

Americans thrive within their illusion of race. As a child, if anyone had dared to ask me what I was, I would have replied, "White." Now this myth disgusts me. What is white? It is a lie, a racial notion concocted so others can be called non-white. Buddy helped me see this. When people talk of protecting the white race, of teaching white kids about their heritage, I need dearly to laugh. When "white" people pass each other in the street, they don't acknowledge some deep bond between each other. There is no bond. There is no heritage to uphold.

But if I pass someone from Alabama, we'll stop and talk for hours.

Yes, I see Sheri as black. And yes, I see her as a kid. A black kid who Buddy might leave me for if he doesn't grow up.

And he won't grow up if Sheri doesn't leave.

Does feeling all this make me a bad person? A racist?

* * *

Buddy dies as the clock goes to zero. It's so simple. He asks Sheri to go to his house after he's gone, then she's holding his hand as his gaze withdraws--perhaps into meditation, perhaps into awareness as the counter slips to zero. She can't tell the difference between Buddy being alive and dead until he just isn't breathing anymore and his hand doesn't respond to the squeezes she makes.

Sheri places his hand across his stomach. Above his wrist, his life counter is stuck at 0:00, flashing the little words "reset? reset?"

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, link 10

Sheri:

Fuck this.

* * *

The first few hours after Buddy's death are numb and go by fast. The nurses and aides come and take his body away. They give Sheri his personal belongings in a small duffel bag, then return again with Buddy's ashes in a medium-sized plastic globe. It doesn't have an opening, and one nurse tells Sheri she has to crack it open--"Like an egg, honey," she mumbles--if Sheri want to transfer the ashes to another container or dump them into the ocean.

She carries Buddy and his belongings to her car. She ponders where he should be placed--in the trunk, back seat--but instead she places him in her lap and pulls out of the parking ramp. As she waits to exit onto the expressway, she flips through his belongings. There is a key pad with a hologram of the old space shuttle on it. She plugs the pad into her car and directs the car to take her to Buddy's home. 

It takes thirty minutes to get to Buddy's neighborhood. The last time Sheri was here the subdivision had been new and lacking any trees. Now, though, trees reach up a hundred feet from each yard and the ranch houses and brick ramblers sag and show the mismatched colors of sloppy repairs and repaintings.

Sheri stops at Buddy's house. Since the alarms don't go off when she opens the front door, she assumes Buddy programmed the house to recognize her. Other than a new off-white paint job and a reupholstered sofa, everything looks as she remembers it. Angela's cats are long gone and there is no one else since he and Angela never had any kids.

Buddy's workshop is in one of the bedrooms. Sheri taps the various Model rockets and satellites and space stations that hover near the ceiling. Along a large plastic desk rests the remnants of the little rockets he built with the neighborhood kids. A giant painting of an earthrise as seen from the moon adorns the back wall.

She finds the TV in a back room, right where Buddy told her it would be. It's the massive old Magnavox her grandfather had given them. The TV's wood varnish is cracked and the dials worn, but it is otherwise clean and well cared for. It is also the only piece of furniture in the room.

The walls around the TV are covered in photos. One wall shows pictures of Angela and Buddy--Angela and Buddy at the launch of a space rocket, Angela and Buddy on a Caribbean cruise, Angela and Buddy fishing. Another wall is filled with pictures Sheri sent Buddy over the years. The third wall is pasted with pictures from when Buddy and Sheri were kids and in college.

Sheri walks to the TV and turns the switch. It lights up even though the picture tube is gone. Instead, behind the glass, sits the globe holding Angela's cremated remains. Sheri reaches around the TV, pries open the back, and places Buddy's globe next to Angela's. She has to wrap an old shirt around its base to keep his ball from rolling to the side. She then sits before the TV and clicks the channels. The dim light behind the glass flickers and shimmers to the twisting motion.

* * *

The Buddy Wallyn virtual mausoleum, final link

Sheri:

Space, the final frontier. These are the missions of the Starship Enterprise. It's five year mission: To boldly go where no man has gone before.

Five years? Hell, what's five years, a century, or even more? We've all got plenty of time to wait.

I know I do.