The Bottomless Well

by Alex Sobel

I remember seeing it, like a birthday candle burned beyond the wick. That day, playing on the lawn, the sky became fire in front of me, the air catching, flames spreading across the clouds.

When I dream, it follows me. I jump over fences, slide through alleys, pivot sharply to avoid the fireball, but it always finds me. Sometimes I know I’m dreaming, know I’m safe.

Still, I run.

Mom was obsessively clean, so in the months after Dad died, it was unsettling to see dishes in the sink, beds unmade, dust gathered. For the first time since I could remember, the house looked messy. It looked lived-in.

It was a ship that crashed. Interstellar, origins unknown. I felt like I deserved to know why, but there was no explanation of purpose, no reason given.

I remember walking out of the funeral home, seeing my uncle Brock, his eyes tilted to the sky.

“I told him to come work with me,” he said, his voice thick, stringy. “I would have taken care of him. Once a baby brother, always one, you know? Should’ve been at my office in the Pointe, far away from the crash. Safe. Here.”

He didn’t look down at me. It was like he was talking to the aliens or the planet they came from or something beyond that. Not to me, not to the fatherless boy who was here on Earth.

The salvage operation was mostly fruitless. They recovered no bodies, just the exterior of the ship and scraps of a calcium-like material that must have functioned like bone. The only evidence was the destruction, the hole it left. And when the clean-up was finished not even six months later, there wasn’t even that.

Dad’s service was only vaguely religious. I never knew if he believed in heaven or if he thought there was nothing after. It’s possible he didn’t believe in anything, didn’t bother. He was the kind of person who participated in life because it was expected of him. Thanksgivings with extended family, grocery store trips, my tee ball games. All things someone told him to do, the basic requirements of living. So he obliged.

God was one more thing to deal with, another boss nipping away at his time and money.

There wasn’t a eulogy. Sometimes when I watch characters in movies give them, I wonder what I would have said, how I would have summed up a life. My father liked sitcoms and Tigers games. He made his own sausage. He once told me his most prized possession was a fishing rod he and his dad had crafted out of bamboo, told me once it was all he had left of his father.

Nothing I could say would seem like enough.

My favorite author wrote a book about the incident, a fictionalized version of the aliens’ journey. In the book, they’re desperate, fleeing from a planet without a future. The reason they haven’t sent anyone else to Earth is that there’s no planet left to send another ship. There’s no one left to come. They’re peaceful, their intentions pure.

Still, they die anyway.

Mom remarried last year. His name is Harvey. His personality is dry, but friendly. A whole room in his house is devoted to Beatles memorabilia. He’s an orthodontist. Whenever he makes a joke, he looks over at Mom to see if she’s smiling.

She always is.

They’re still searching, trying to trace the ship back to its origin, but it feels distant, like dropping a coin down a bottomless well, falling and falling into the darkness forever. And here we are, all waiting to hear the plop of it hitting the water, living our lives as if it’ll happen, as if we just need to wait a little longer.

A few billionaires have sent probes out into space with messages, bits of pop culture. One says, “We come in peace,” in a hundred different languages. Another plays “All You Need Is Love” as soon as it’s opened. Harvey was excited about that one, texted me a link to an article about it. He’s trying to be friends with me. I’m doing my best to let him.

The suit I rented for the wedding was boxy and at least a size too big. It was a hundred degrees out. The woman performing the ceremony pronounced Harvey’s last name wrong. Mom and I danced together to Fleetwood Mac.

It was a good day.

Mom’s selling the house, moving into Harvey’s place. Before the honeymoon, she told me to go to the house, take anything I wanted. “There’s nothing there I need,” she said, grabbing Harvey’s arm, pulling him closer.

The fishing rod was in one of Dad’s toolboxes. The reel was rusted, glued right to the bamboo. I delicately wrapped it in the emergency blanket from my trunk, put it on the passenger seat. I didn’t have a plan for it, but the important part was that it was coming with me, that I wasn’t leaving it behind.

I don’t think Dad was a believer, but I still hope there’s something after this. I hope there’s a heaven. I hope he got in. I hope he saw me take the fishing rod, preserve that little piece of him. I hope he’s proud of me.

Dad was here and then he wasn’t. I’ll miss him.

If I’d given a eulogy, that’s what I would have said.

Driving home from my Mom’s house, I thought about the billionaires’ space probes, traveling into the darkness. I wondered what it would be like if they found something, if there really was something out there waiting for us. I imagine the possibility of a planet, maybe a ship for the probe to meet, an end to the bottomless well. Maybe one day a probe will be opened, maybe “All You Need Is Love” will get its chance to play.

And just maybe there will be someone there to hear it.

Alex Sobel likes bothering his dogs when they’re trying to sleep and dislikes when people eat standing up. His writing has previously appeared in Electric Literature, The Saturday Evening Post Online, Stoneslide Corrective, and The Molotov Cocktail.
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