«Houston, Texas, January 4, 2052 (Launch minus 15 days), 08:07 CST. Billy Jepler’s lips pursed in a mischievous grin. “If they begged you to join ...»
As I reached the door, I shouted back at him, “I believe in FarSpace, you know. We need a challenge bigger than ourselves. If we bring back proof that planets are habitable, people will settle the stars.” I shoved open the door and lurched out into the sunshine. In 1,714 steps, I reached Travis Park, a small patch of grassy lawn bordered by thick oak trees dangling with Spanish moss. The best antidote for blacking was anchoring myself in nature. If I could sit on the bench, curl my toes in the grass, and hear the birds’ joyful singing, the shakes and sweats would fade. I was managing. Even Dr. H said so.
For early January, the air was unusually hot and muggy, but the grass by the foot of the oak tree was like cool silk. A lively concert from the wrens poured from overhead. The little birds were musical number 67s, singing light into the sun.
It wasn’t like Billy to pressure me. We were friends. We went on long walks together.
He told me things he didn’t tell anyone except his wife, Beth. At NASA, Billy was a troubleshooter. He fixed snarls, bottlenecks, logjams, and complete impossibilities. Billy coaxed and conned, bargained and bartered, swapped and swindled, until he got what we needed.
Something was nagging me about Billy. I forced it out of my mind and looked out over the park, watching dogs tug on their leashes and squirrels tease them. At 8:52, my watch alarm beeped. I shut it off and headed to Dr. Hudson’s. Everyone on the FarSpace project meets with a shrink, even the bigs.
My regular appointment wasn’t for two weeks. But Dr. H’s secretary had called me the day before, asking if I could switch. She’d given me directions to the new office.
I liked Dr. H. He had gentle green eyes that lit up when he saw you. Even when he challenged me, I knew that he understood me. “Grant,” he’d said last time, “you’re a problem solver. You’re open; you let the solution come.” That was how I felt about smoothing code. In the zone, solutions come.
**** 08:59 CST.
The door was open when I arrived at Dr. H’s new office. The place was a small box, no windows, no room for a desk. Two beige upholstered chairs filled the room. Dr. H was sitting in one of them, and he nodded that I should take the other.
He was a short, energetic man. His face was like a number 4, full of sharp angles. His fingers were long 6s, stretched into gentle curls. When he was listening intently, he’d squint one eye and bob his head forward.
This new office had pictures on the walls: a white Texas longhorn lounging in a meadow of bluebells, a craggy mountain range of snow-covered peaks, a rough-hewn sailboat on a smooth river that I imagined was the Nile, and a mist-covered pond at sunrise. If he couldn’t have windows, at least he could have something to look at.
“Doc, how’d you get exiled to a closet?” “This is temporary.” He smiled warmly, leaned back in his chair, and clasped his hands behind his head. “I wish you were in charge, Grant. You’d change things that need to be changed.” “Not me.” “You sell yourself short. You could run this whole place. You know how to focus on the problem and come up with the best solution.” Dr. H had never said anything like that before.
“Billy said you had another date with Marsha.” I smiled at the memory. “Our fifth.” Dr. H grinned at me and I went on, “She’s smart and interesting. She’s not one of those people who fuss over things.” I thought for a moment. “She has this wavy red hair that sways like a dancer as she walks. She’s a gentle person and kind. I think she likes me. We talk for hours and she’s not upset by my phobias.
“Doc, last night on our date, she just sang. We were walking by the park, and she just started singing. A happy song, one I didn’t know. I’ve never been with someone who did that, but I liked it. She’s a 33, Doc.” “Grant, what do you think will come from these dates?” I felt uncomfortable with the question. “I really like her, Doc. When she smiles, her mouth twitches on the right side, like she’s winking at you. But she wouldn’t want me. I’m damaged goods.” “She’s gone on five dates with you and she doesn’t want you?” “Doc, who would marry someone with my phobias?” “Tell me this, Grant. If there was someone who would marry you and love you, what would she be like?” Now I was even more uncomfortable. I shifted in my chair. “It would be someone like her. Someone who listens and cares and who’s not a quitter.” “Think about it, Grant.” A sober look crossed Dr. H’s face. “You know I’d never lie to you. I need to interview you today in a way that won’t be comfortable for you.” “OK.” “ Tell me the first time you were afraid of heights or moving things.” I clenched the arms of my chair. I hated talking about this. Dr. H waited, his head tilted to the side.
Finally, I forced out the words. “It was my fifth birthday. My dad put me up in a tree.
He left me there five hours.” Suddenly, I couldn’t say anything. My mouth wouldn’t work. My brain couldn’t figure out how to speak. Deep breath, buddy. Five seconds in and five seconds out. Slow and steady.
Your feet are on the ground.
Dr. H sat patiently. I saw a glistening in his eye and felt warmth spread through me.
Something broke loose inside. “He was drunk and probably high, and he got mad because I’d thrown a stick and scratched his car. He grabbed me, threw me in the back of the car, and screeched down the block to the park. He yanked me from the car and shoved me up a tree.
‘I’m leaving you here, you reckless little brat,’ he screamed. ‘I hope you fall and break your neck. You climb down before I come back and I will break your neck.’” I took deep breaths. He’s not here. There’s no tree. It’s not going to happen. Five seconds in, five seconds out.
“How long did he treat you like this?” “Three years, eleven months, and one day.” “How often?” I squeezed the arms of the chair. There was no often about it. I never knew when he would explode from the haze of drunken highs. I tried to stay out of his sight.
“Grant, how often?” “I don’t remember. I’m not sure if once he left me up there overnight or if two or three times blurred into one.” “Not how many times. How often?” “Ten to fifteen times a week. When I got too big for the tree, he’d lock me in a closet or shove me in the trunk of the car. He’d scream at me, ‘If I die and don’t come back for you, it’s all your fault.’” I winced from the memory of his voice and felt the blackness looming, squeezing me like I was squeezing the chair. I took deep breaths. Letting go of the chair arms, I slid my fingers onto my pulse. The steady thumping of life soothed me.
“It always felt like the first time, when I was up in the tree. I was afraid I would fall and break my neck. I was afraid he’d forget me and never come back, that he’d die and never come back.” I shivered, focused on my pulse, and took deep steady breaths. “Twenty-nine days before my ninth birthday, I came home from school and found Mom and Dad dead on the living room sofa. They’d OD’d. The state made Aunt Clara and Uncle Ralph take me.” “When you’re afraid, what helps you feel better?” “My feet on the ground. Being out of doors. Hearing the birds sing and dogs bark. I love the sounds the wind makes, brushing the tall grasses, rustling through the trees, whisking papers along the street.” “If we gave you a sedative and you couldn’t feel or see anything and you came to on the FarSpace Galileo, what would happen?” In an instant, I was soaked with sweat. Uncontrollable shivers wrenched my arms and legs. Deep breaths. Five seconds in… I shut out everything but the steady pulse. I counted a lot of things, but I didn’t count my pulse, just felt the consistent, comforting throb. Selfsoothing, they call it. It helps me manage.
“No! I couldn’t do it.” The words rushed out, chased by the black panic. “There’s nothing underneath. You’re up there, and there’s no ground, no one to catch you. I’d black and come to and black again.” Dr. H stretched and then squinted one eye at me. “The Chinese have a word for anger that means ‘flames roaring from every orifice of the body.’ Have you ever been angry like that?” “No. I couldn’t…” “Ever known someone angry like that?” “My dad.” “Grant, did you ever think that if you got angry more you would black less?” “Can’t do that. It’s not safe. What if I get angry and he doesn’t come back to take me down?” Dr. H was quiet for a moment. I felt my pulse, the reassuring beat of life, steady, confident. I looked at the longhorn in the bluebells, took a long breath, and sighed.
“Grant, do you ever wish you didn’t have these fears?” “I am who I am. When I accepted that, I stopped blacking out so much. And I like what I’m good at. Computer code.” “Say more about that.” “When a problem grabs hold of me, I’m in the zone. All I can see is the knot that needs to be unsnarled.” I leaned back in the chair. “Numbers are safe, precise, trustworthy. But programs get bogged down. Someone writes ten steps when they need only four. They use seven subroutines when two will suffice. They plot three loops to double check when they could use one, and then they forget to clean up at the end of the code.” “What’s it like to fix that?” “Have you ever seen a carpenter plane a rough board? Then sand it smooth? I do that with numbers, rasp off the rough spots.” I sighed. “It’s a great feeling to streamline things, when there’s no jostling or bumping and each number’s in the best place to do the best job. It’s as smooth as a rose petal, and for a moment I touch perfection.” Dr. H fished in his coat pocket for a pen.
I jumped up from the chair, sweat streaming down my face. “Stop it, doc! We’re going up. The room’s moving. Stop it!” He looked at me, wide-eyed, and then reached in his pocket again. The room stopped moving.
I was as dizzy as a propeller. I bent over, heaving in huge draughts of air. I danced back and forth on my feet to keep the circulation going in my legs. I glanced at the picture of the mist over the lake and stretched my fingers. Finally, I collapsed into the chair.
“That was painful for you,” Dr. H said. “I’m sorry.” “This isn’t an office. It’s some kind of elevator.” I clenched my hands into fists and then tried to relax. Five seconds in, five seconds out. “What in the world are you doing?” “We had to know.” Was he trying to make me angry? I couldn’t go there.
Doc rose from his chair and handed me a NASA green card. “I need to take us back down.” I nodded and squeezed the green card. He reached in his pocket. The room moved soundlessly. I panted. Sweat soaked the back of my shirt. I almost ripped the green card into pieces. Then the room stopped moving. I sat and felt the steady throb beneath my two fingers until I could breathe without gasping for air.
Everyone gets a card at a shrink visit. Red was the worst—you couldn’t work on anything until they treated and cleared you. I knew three people who’d gone red. Two of them left the program. The third went through months of therapy, med tests, allergen scans, and a two-week survival course. At the end, he went green, and we could see he was better for everything he’d done.
If you went yellow, you could still work, but you had daily sessions and tests. If you went blue, you had to check in next month instead of in three months. Green meant that you were good to go.