By Beth Cato | June, 2020
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
The rumbling reminded Jess of her papa's ancient '73 Nova, with its deep shiver and shake through car, body, and bone. Not that she had a body or bones anymore, which only made the rumbling all the more impressive, really. But then, a rocket would need to be a lot more impressive than an old car if it was going to make it into space.
Space. She was going to space! When she was five, her cousin had pointed out the International Space Station arcing overhead one night, and she'd never wanted to look down ever again. She read every book she could on space and astronauts and constellations. Printed-out pictures of astronauts Christa McAuliffe, Mae C. Jemison, and Catherine Coleman had been tacked up on her bedroom wall.
Jess had died when she was nine, wearing her favorite t-shirt-- one depicting the space shuttle Challenger and Christa McAuliffe, with Christa's name in puffy raised letters. Jess was still wearing it now as she went to space in a fancy red sports car.
She'd never given much thought to the kind of heaven that held choirs of angels. Her heaven held sparkling stars and planets and comets, and that's why she'd been hanging out around NASA at Cape Canaveral for months. She didn't understand a lot of the scientific stuff people said and did around her, and she sure didn't get why a car was being sent to Mars-- with a super-old David Bowie song in constant replay-- but it was gonna to be a cool way to travel.
She bounced in the front bucket seat of the car, glad that it had no roof. "Mars. I'm going to Mars!"
"I was wondering how cognizant you were." The soft voice came from the dummy in the driver's seat.
Jess screamed and pushed herself against and through the passenger side door, only at the last second remembering to think herself into staying in the car. If she wasn't careful, she'd go super-ghosty and fall all the way through the rocket to the ground.
"How are you talking? You're just a big doll!" Jess waved an arm around. The limited lighting in the topmost chamber of the rocket was focused on the car, casting the sloped, windowless walls around her in shades of gray. She realized what just happened. "Wait. You can hear me? Can you see me?"
She craned closer to the dummy. It wore an awesome space suit that looked like something out a movie, not like the big bulky suits astronauts used to wear. The dummy's left arm leaned on the door, cool and casual, like how Dad used to be when he waited for food at a drive-through window.
"I can hear and see you, yes, though I am not actually the 'big doll.' We are simply sharing the same space right now." The dummy didn't move, faceplate still aimed forward to the darkened nose of the cone. "I thought our conversation might be easier for you if you spoke toward another humanoid figure."
Jess gripped one of her dreads and fidgeted with the bead at the end. "Then what are you?" She wondered if she should be scared, but she was excited more than anything. This thing could talk to her! See her! She hadn't talked with someone who could talk back in ages. Stories and movies had made it sound like ghosts were all over the place, but they really weren't. Most living people couldn't see ghosts, period, and the ones who could were kinda weird. There'd been one old lady in Jacksonville who screamed and pleaded for Jess to come haunt her apartment building because the neighbors had dogs that barked all night.
"I'm what you would call an alien being."
An alien! A real alien, like something Luke Skywalker would meet in the Cantina! Sudden yearning made Jess want to cry. Oh, if only she could tell her mom about this! Mom had loved movies about aliens. "You didn't come to destroy Earth or anything, did you?"
She heard something vaguely like laughter. "No. My people are librarians, and while we can be fierce, we primarily observe and record what we have seen."
Jess knew very well how fierce librarians could be. She'd been shushed more times than she could count. "Have you met any ghosts before?" she asked. The rumbling beneath them grew and grew.
"I have met a few in my 71 years on your world, but they were considerably more mature as specters."
"I'm not a baby. I've been a ghost for three years!" Jess said, rather indignant.
"By your measurements of time, I'm thousands of years in age." The voice-- neither feminine nor masculine-- spoke gently.
"Oh. I was just nine when I died, but I've been all over the place since then and seen a lot of things! I'm going to see Mars now. Are you going there, too?"
"To its proximity, yes, where I will then journey to the surface on my own. It's doubtful this craft will make a direct impact on Mars, and if it does, it may take billions of years."
She waited for more laughter or some indication of a joke. None came. The alien really meant billions of years. She squeezed the bead in her hand, suddenly frustrated. She wanted to understand more about this rocket ship and space and everything. She felt like she should understand more. If she was still alive, she'd almost be a teenager now.
The roaring intensified, so loud she couldn't even hear David Bowie singing anymore. A small screen in the dashboard said DON'T PANIC but Jess screeched and clung to the door.
"What are you doing?" the alien asked. Somehow, she could hear its voice as if there was no other noise at all.
"Holding on!" she yelled.
"You're a ghost. You have no need to hold on."
"What?" The rocket lurched upward. She thought of Challenger with a feeling of terror that was not diminished by the fact she was already dead.
She so desperately wanted this rocket to work.
Other kids would be watching this lift-off from home or school. They didn't need to see this rocket blow up like Challenger did way back in 1986, killing all the astronauts on board. She knew how she felt when she first watched a video of that online. Even though the disaster happened long before she was born, she'd been so full of horror and despair she couldn't even cry.
Jess wanted to reach the stars. She needed them. Needed them more than she had ever needed to breathe.
"You're a ghost." A trace of impatience tinted the voice. "You have no physical form. If you think you need to hang on to the car, then how do you expect to endure the vacuum of space? What do you think will happen when the fairing deploys when we're traveling at a thousand kilometers an hour?"
Jess felt stupid, like when her big sis used to beat her at all the puzzles on Wheel of Fortune. "But we're inside the rocket, in this car!" She risked waving an arm. It would have been nice if there were windows. The rocket must have blasted off, but she had no way to know how far they'd gone.
By the alien's profound silence, Jess knew she had said the wrong thing. She was suddenly so frustrated she wanted to stomp her feet and scream. She wanted to be as smart as everyone'd always said she was. She wanted to know what a fairing was, and telemetry, and payload, and all the words she'd heard as she waited to hitch her ride to Mars.
"Help me understand." Her voice quavered. The car and the cone around it shuddered and rocked. "I want to understand."
"How did you get here in the car?" it asked. She had an odd sense that the alien was thoughtfully considering her, and she wondered how she knew that.
"It was down on the ground for a long time, and then they loaded it the top of the rocket and then tilted everything upright." She talked fast. The rocket was angling forward; the car felt like it was driving up a hill. She didn't know how long they had until they busted out of the atmosphere.
"You never thought to fly? You already know you can go through walls and other objects."
"Fly?" she echoed. She could fly, all by herself? "Yeah, I can go through walls. Any cartoon or movie about ghosts shows that."
"I see. You've narrowly defined yourself by what you think a ghost should be."
She pressed her cheek against the leather seat and knew exactly how it should feel against her face, even though she had no face. "What should I be, then?"
"Perhaps think of yourself as a spirit instead. Not a ghost, not what you think a ghost should be. You've trapped yourself in a box of your own making."
She'd never really thought about it, but since she'd died Jess had acted the way a ghost should act-- kinda. She had haunted her family for a while but they were so logical they kept calling the electrician when she messed with the lights and blamed the cat whenever she moved things around, and her parents were just so mad at each other all the time. Jess's meddling accidentally made that even worse. And her sister was barely even home anymore, always out with friends and getting in trouble. Jess's bedroom had stayed exactly the same, with its lady astronaut posters and rumpled constellation bedspread and dirty socks on the floor, but it was the only thing that did.
So she left and travelled for months and months, all to get to Florida, to Cape Canaveral. Jess had always been good at maps so she didn't even get lost that much. She'd hitched rides in a few cars, too, but always felt weird, riding with strangers who couldn't see her.
Now she hitched a ride with another stranger, but this was different. She was different.
She felt... not ashamed by her own ignorance, but like she was older now and knew better.
"I'm a spirit," she said. Not a ghost. Not just a kid or a girl or any other label attached to her old body. She could fly, go through walls, talk with an alien. She could zoom into space in a red sports car.
"Any second now," the alien said. She had the odd impression that it gazed up and around, though the dummy driver remained in the exact same position.
That's when the roof above them blasted away to expose the black span of space ahead and the blue depths of the Atlantic Ocean far below.
Jess couldn't help it. Despite her growing awareness, she screamed a scream that once would have left her throat raw and awful. She clung to the seat with both arms. She felt no wind, no heat, yet she was very aware that Earth was far below, that her family was down there, so very far away, farther away with each passing second. She couldn't help but mouth the words good-bye, though she must have said them a hundred times over since she died, trying again and again to make her family hear her. Her farewell was final this time. She truly was going into space, and there was no roof, there was no air. This wasn't some cartoon. She knew a person really shouldn't be traveling to Mars in a red sports car.
But she wasn't a person anymore, was she?
She didn't look over at the dummy. It wasn't really the alien, anyway. "You're like me, aren't you? A spirit?"
"What happened just now?" Her voice sounded wobbly.
"The fairing cover deployed. The vehicle is now exposed to space for the rest of its journey."
She faced forward in the seat, her fingers tracing the letters on her shirt, keenly aware that she touched a memory and nothing that actually existed. This close to the illuminated side of Earth, she couldn't see stars, but she knew they were there, waiting. She sensed the alien's intense curiosity upon her.
"You didn't think I'd make it this far, did you?" she asked softly.
"In truth, I wasn't sure. Your kind relies heavily on labels, but I had no comprehension of how those labels could still define a soul after death. If you had believed that you, as a ghost, could not remain here in this car, that you could not exist in these circumstances..."
"I would have fallen all the way down, just like how I almost fell through the rocket when you surprised me. Because that's what ghosts do. Supposedly."
"Supposedly." Amusement. She read its emotions as she once read faces.
Jess didn't sit in the car anymore. She existed there. She had been deprived of so many of her senses for so long-- taste, touch, smell, anything beyond what she imagined herself to be-- that she was overwhelmed by the nothingness, by the everything, that suddenly filled her. The universe was huge and awesome and she was part of it. Part of a family again.
"I will help you." She sensed the alien's high regard of her. "You're an astonishing remnant of humanity. In a matter of ten minutes, you have opened up your sense of self. Other beings may have labored over this stage for centuries."
"I've grown up." She laughed and looked around. Words spoken by the scientists and engineers filtered through her mind again. "We're not even speaking right now, are we? There's no sound here." Indeed, she couldn't hear the radio now, or the roar of the engine.
"We're speaking as we need to, for now, as you continue to adapt." Warmth. Support. She couldn't think of her companion as just an alien. It was a like spirit.
"I have so much to learn." She felt like she'd been trying to read a book in a strange language for a really long time, and now the words were starting to make sense. She couldn't wait to dig in and start reading.
Jess gazed out over the black and red hood to the deep void beyond. Here on the brink of the heaven she'd yearned for all these years, she felt more alive than ever before.