After he returns from his tour of duty, Matthias notices differences everywhere he looks. Some barely discernible, but others too insidious to ignore. So much has changed, it seems impossible that it has been just two years.
He has no words to explain what he’s been through to those who’ve never been off-world. Soldiers from bygone eras experienced a similar problem, but this is worse. At least the men who fought in Vietnam, Korea, Iraq and Islamabad were dealing with adversaries their friends and families could visualize. The enemy might have been unseen on occasion, but at least they were human.
Matthias was sent into space to battle a foe so alien that not even a photograph would suffice — were such a thing possible. The enemy’s physical appearance barely touches at their strangeness. They inhabit dimensions beyond human comprehension. Even now, it hurts Matthias’s mind to think about them.
Still, he is fortunate. He completed his tour without serious injury. Unaltered. Many of his comrades weren’t so lucky. The enemy possesses terrible weapons that get inside a man’s head and change him. Wounded soldiers stopped fighting — or turned against their allies and had to be neutralized. Matthias lost track of the number of men from his unit who were jettisoned into space, screaming.
He first became aware of the constant, unfamiliar drag of gravity on his body after landing at Vladivostok Central Command. It insinuated its way into his muscles and bones during quarantine. It lingers still when he is transferred, first to Anchorage for debriefing, then finally to Moncton, where rounds of applause greet him when he crosses the terminal dressed in battle colours, per regulations. The war isn’t going well, so the upper echelons have turned the pageantry all the way up to remind people of the sacrifices their young men are making.
Though he’s been through this airport many times, he feels disoriented. At the bottom of the escalator he wants to turn left to retrieve his luggage but there’s a wall where he doesn’t expect to find one. To the right, a crowd gathers near the carousels. He sees Angie first. She jumps in the air and waves both arms to make sure he sees her. Their teenage children hold up “Welcome home” signs.
Angie’s lips feel unfamiliar against his. She hugs him so hard that, for a second, he can’t breathe. In that moment he wants to melt into her. The pronounced lines at the edges of her eyes and corners of her mouth show how hard the two years have been on her, no matter how much she’s prettied herself up. Her clothes are new to him but obviously not new. He suspects they’re the best she owns. She manages a smile that seems to contain a promise.
Greeting the kids is more awkward. With paternal discomfort he realizes Jenny is developing curves and Lincoln has undergone a growth spurt. It pains him that he might not have recognized his own son in a crowd, even though Angie sent pictures whenever she could. Jenny lets Matthias wrap his arms around her loosely and pat her back. He extends his hand to Linc and receives a tepid, brief shake in response. He needs a father around to show him how to assert himself, Matthias thinks.
Outside the jetport, his disorientation increases. Everything is out of proportion. The light is too bright, the sky too far above. Engine noise assails his ears and his limbs drag him down like dead weights.
They load his gear into the car and head north. When they reach Miramichi, Angie takes him on a tour to show him what’s changed while he was away. The downtown looks revitalized. Several businesses that years ago surrendered the battle against the mall are back and new ones have opened up in buildings that were empty most of Matthias’s life. The war is good for the economy, if nothing else.
They cross the Morrissey Bridge, which should have been demolished by now. It’s narrower than he remembers and the skimmer lanes in the centre of Route 11 have acquired an inexplicable but distinctive bluish tinge.
Gigantic trees obscure familiar roadside sights he remembers from frequent trips between Tracadie and Miramichi to deliver their goods to the market. Has it really only been two years? Or is this some relativistic trick? Surprise! Everything you left behind has aged a decade.
Can’t be. The war has been going on for nearly twenty years and countless soldiers have been deployed and rotated back home. Not even the global government could keep a secret that big.
Twenty years of fighting. The government swears it will be over within the next five years, but Matthias knows better. Their enemy is in it for the long haul. Time means nothing to them. His grandchildren will still be fighting them, assuming the enemy doesn’t attack the Earth first. The aliens are toying with them — his own theory but he believes it. They could destroy every Earthship out there. For some reason too foreign for humans to understand, they’ve simply decided not to.
After months of screaming through space at near-luminous speeds, Matthias finds their progress now excruciatingly slow. Even when there’s no traffic on the narrow, uneven road heading northeast toward Tracadie, Angie rarely ventures above forty miles per hour. He feels it would be faster to get out and walk.
Many people wave, though Matthias doesn’t recognize the vehicles or their drivers. Angie always waves back. From time to time, she takes her hand from the steering wheel and places it on his knee, giving him a reassuring squeeze or an affectionate stroke.
Matthias keeps a firm grip on the faux-leather strap above the passenger door, prepared for the roar of a rocket engine as the pilot initiates an escape manoeuvre. To feel the thrum of energy pulse through the vehicle as they accelerate to crushing speeds. To hear the screams of companions caught by alien weapons.
He answers the kids’ questions in the fewest possible words. Linc is especially curious about the gory details of battles Matthias was in. “Did you kill anyone?” he asks.
Remembering the soldiers he loaded into torpedo bays to be expelled into the void of space, he begrudgingly admits he has. More of his comrades than the enemy, probably, though he keeps this thought to himself. He feels like screaming, “Leave me alone.” He grips the strap more firmly.
They cross the Tabusintac River and the Big Tracadie River at Sheila. When Angie turns onto Route 150, Matthias feels like he’s home. After countless trillions of miles, he’s within minutes of where he was born. The place he returned to after agricultural college. The place he always returns to. The next turnoff should be Chemin Frigault, where he spent hours as a boy fishing for rainbow trout on the shores of Lac des Losier.
Just past a cluster of houses along the side of the highway, Angie flips on her turn signal and slows. Matthias doesn’t recognize the unpaved road she turns onto.
“Where are we going?”
“Home,” Angie says.
Matthias opens his mouth and closes it again. Perhaps this is a discussion they need to have without the children listening, though they’re hardly children anymore. Matthias is still coming to terms with how much Linc and Jenny have grown while he was away. He barely knows them. He should have been the one asking all the questions, not them.
Ahead on the left, he sees the familiar white two-story house that comes to mind whenever he hears the word “home.” The house his father built with his own hands. When Matthias was five, he helped his father enclose the front porch, passing nails and climbing down the ladder to retrieve tools.
But it’s in the wrong place. It was always a point of pride that he owned a lake house. Lac des Losier is prime real estate — something his father never would have predicted when he was struggling to save enough cash to buy another load of lumber or to hire a crew to help pour the basement. People from away spend money beyond Matthias’s wildest dreams for luxurious places on the lake they only skim to for a few months each summer.
So many questions fill his mind he barely knows where to begin. Maybe there was a flood and Angie rescued the house by moving it away from the lake. He dismisses that notion almost immediately — the cost would be prohibitive. Besides, the foundation looks exactly the same as it always did — pebble-rough and painted the distinctive shade of grey his father believed all basements should be.
The house had occupied nearly four tree-lined acres, much of that land taken up by the greenhouses that provide their income. The children had played in the small side yard as the family relaxed in the shade of maple trees on warm summer afternoons. A rough gravel beach and a small jetty had defined the front of the tract, with a view extending across open water that could by turns be placid as a looking glass or choppy as the roughest sea. Matthias can feel the place in his bones, as intimate a part of him as his DNA.
That house has been somehow transported into a community that looks like a Currier and Ives painting. There’s a small white church with an arched stained-glass window in the front and a tall steeple to one side. A schoolhouse that reminds him of the one where his great-great-grandmother taught. A country store, wood-stain brown with enormous plate glass windows and a set of antique gasoline pumps standing at arms out front. Two dozen family homes lining the road. Including, inexplicably, his own. Children playing in the open fields. Dilapidated cars and trucks parked in the driveways, with nary a skimmer in sight. The only thing missing is a blanket of snow.
Matthias feels like he’s been transported back in time.
Angie turns into the driveway as if she’s been doing the same thing for years. No explanations. No excuses. Not even a rueful shrug or a glance at the mirror to see if Linc and Jenny are paying attention.
Matthias continues holding the strap long after she has stopped the car and turned off the ignition. If he lets go he might drift off into space. His home — the anchor of his existence, the place he returned to in his dreams while away — is gone. No, not gone. Altered.
Everyone else is already out of the car. Linc has Matthias’s bags slung over his shoulder. They’re all looking at him. “Coming?”
He clears his throat. “Yeah.”
A quick scan of the street confirms what his gut tells him — the whole community is watching. The scene reminds him of an old 2D movie where everyone turns out to welcome the hero home.
Across the road, an elderly man raises his hand in a casual wave. Matthias stares for a few seconds, then nods. Apparently these are his neighbours now. He best make nice.
A cool breeze wafts through the varicoloured leaves adorning the maple and birch trees at the back of the property. That’s not right, either. It’s May. The leaves should be new and green, not orange and red and yellow.
The pressure of all that sky above overwhelms him. He needs to find a place to sit, preferably indoors. He wonders if all returning soldiers feel agoraphobic. They should have warned him.
A foot scuffles pebbles on the dirt road. Matthias looks around and realizes the neighbours are approaching — hesitantly, as if awaiting an invitation. He glances at Angie, who’s smiling and nodding. The pressure in his chest increases.
“Everyone wants to welcome you home,” she says. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”
“It is,” he says, forcing a smile. It’s getting harder to breathe. All these people — they’re sucking up his air.
One of the men seems familiar. Matthias searches his mind. “Of course,” he says. “You were out there with me.”
The man smiles at being recognized. He nods.
Matthias turns to another. “And you — you were there, too.”
His momentary relief fades. “But we put you ...” His voice trails off. He can’t translate the realization into words. Not here — not in front of his wife and children. They don’t need to know the terrible things he did. Necessary things, but horrible nonetheless.
More people surround him than seems possible. He gasps for air and tries to turn, to escape, to seek comfort in his wife’s welcoming embrace. Hands fall upon his shoulders. Propelled forward, he tilts his head back in search of oxygen. The blue sky has vanished. The air his desperate lungs pull in is stale and metallic.
When he looks down again, he understands where they’re taking him. He tries to dig his feet into the gravel to stop his forward motion, but there is no gravel — only metal grates and rivets.
The open port ahead is large enough to accept an ionization torpedo — or a man. The darkness within goes on forever. On the other side of the interlocked doors is only the vacuum of space.
He tries for one last glimpse of his family, but the hands are firm and unyielding. Inch by inch they impel him forward. His feet lift clear of the floor and in that moment he knows all is lost.
The apologetic murmurs of his comrades are meaningless sounds that barely register. Instead, he focuses on the alien voice that penetrates his mind. “Your trip home was our gift. You see, we’re already there. Always have been. Always will be. We mean you no harm. You should have left us alone.”
Matthias’s eyes bulge. He wants to blink, but his mind refuses to miss one second of what remains. The missile chamber walls are rough and cold against his flesh. He extends his arms to slow his forward motion, but the hands on his legs — so many hands — push him farther into the chamber.
The airlock door closes with a clang. It takes two seconds to prime the bay. He knows too well. He’s been on the other side. One. Two.
New Brunswick born Bev Vincent is the Edgar- and Stoker-nominated author of The Stephen King Illustrated Companion and The Road to the Dark Tower. He has published over sixty short stories (including appearances in Tesseracts 13, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Apex Magazine, Evolve and Evolve 2) and numerous essays, interviews and book reviews. He is a contributing editor with Cemetery Dance magazine.