Publication Date: February 8, 2016
Genres: New Adult, Gay, LGBT, Science Fiction, Romance
Dead Rock, Texas, 2037Raleigh Williams made a promise to his brother before he died, that he’d scatter his ashes on Mars. Desperate to leave a life of bad memories behind and start over in the Martian colony, Raleigh fully intends to keep that promise. But his plans are thwarted when a meteor near-misses him in the desert, and Raleigh finds in its crater not debris or even a spacecraft, but a man covered in swirling scars and with no memory of who he is. At least he looks like a man—a man Raleigh can’t seem to keep his eyes off of—but whenever they touch it ignites a memory swap between them.
Raleigh agrees to help Meteor Man piece together his life through their cosmic connection. But the memory share goes both ways, and Raleigh becomes inexplicably entangled with a guy who is everything he needs—everything good that Raleigh is not—but might not even be human. As their minds and worlds collide, reality unravels and Raleigh must face a painful truth, one that could shatter his dreams of finding love, reaching Mars, and fulfilling his brother’s last wish.
“What's it?” I whisper and scan the night: scattered stars and what might be an airplane heading into Oldham. Bear's growls turn into sorry yelps, tail tucked between his legs, as the light of the plane blossoms into a fractal smear of burning blue.
A meteor? Electricity rips through the air, the hairs on my arms and neck standing stiff with static. There's a tang too, sweeter than the petro-chemical taint wafting down from the refineries. This smells like ozone and dry ice, like burning metal and fresh blown glass. Seconds later, God flicks on the floodlights and night becomes high noon. A sonic boom follows and I tumble to my knees, rendered blind and deaf as the pressure wave ripples across the scrub and tears through my mind.
I’m floating, borne on cresting waves of technicolor, wrapped in a nebula of neon. My thoughts scatter, my whole being atomized and cast in a myriad directions like that time I snapped Madison’s friendship bracelet and sent the beads skittering across the kitchen tiles. Only this time it's not beads, but numbers. Ones and zeroes bouncing through the firmament.
Memories race past me in a blur of snapshots. Some I recognize, most disintegrate as soon as I reach for them. Time expands, thick as taffy, pulling me apart, further away from myself until I can’t stretch any more and a scream rips from my throat as I snap back toward the center. An explosion, brighter than any Fourth of July fireworks, fills my vision and knocks me to the ground.
I wake up who knows how long later with Bear licking my face. Dizziness coils around my head and a rash of tingles coats my skin. What the hell just happened? I’m lying in the middle of a crater radiating outward in concentric ridges. I expect a rock, a piece of space junk or some chido intergalactic artifact to have fallen from the sky, but lying right beside me is the beat up body of a guy. He wasn’t there before the light show. I would’ve noticed someone sprawled butt naked in the scrub.
For several long moments I stare at the bloodied figure, the wind blasting sand over both of us. Bear moves first, sniffing and licking at the naked corpse. Still feeling frayed around the edges, I haul my ass out of the dirt. My heart's pounding hard enough to crack my ribs as I inch over to the body smeared charcoal and rust.
“Easy now.” I nudge Bear as he bashes his nose into the guy’s shoulder. A thick crust of blood gloms the side of his face from jaw to eyebrow. I brush away his hair to get a better look. He groans as I press two fingers against his neck in search of a pulse. Thank God he's still alive.
My feet lead me straight to the crater. Pain drills through the side of my skull, a screwdriver to the brain as a kaleidoscope of images form and fracture in my mind: Writing a final physics exam and not knowing all the answers, meeting my little sister's first boyfriend, struggling against the effects of zero gravity.
The mental storm ends when I blink. What’s happening to me? Withdrawal from the meds shouldn’t be like this, not this intense or disorientating. This is more like a bad acid trip. How can I remember something I've never done? Please don't let this be another episode.
Chilled despite the baking heat, I turn away from the crater and head back to the Interstate, the headache fading. McCauley's drought-slimmed cattle are ghost smudges in the dusk heat as Bear and I follow the trail of roadkill along the asphalt. The wind barrels across the land, dousing us in the stench of gasoline from the lonely pump-jacks studding the fields to the north. My scars burn as we approach the bone cross marking the spot where Weston met his maker.
First time I made the cuts right after West died, everyone thought I was trying to kill myself. I tried telling them it was Comanche tradition, a way of honoring the dead. All that got me was another prescription for meds I’m not sure I ever needed. They gave me the wrong cocktail too. Instead of the drugs making me happy, they made me crazy: make Daddy Sergeant Williams proud, throw sick bullets and score touchdowns, beat a kid's head in and get sent to juvie kind of crazy.
I brush bird shit off the bleached leg-bones of a coyote with the hem of my shirt and splash bourbon into the dried out grass. My brother chose suicide over standing up to our father. Hope Dad enjoys hunting down insurgents in the Middle East while his eldest son sits in an urn on the mantelpiece.
“Hi, West,” I whisper. “Here's to four years dead.”
I shake off the remnants of the dream as I tug on a clean t-shirt that Rosie must've forgotten in the dryer. It's shrunk and molds to my body. I hated playing football, but I don't mind what it do to my body, giving me arms and abs, and a decent amount of strength I've managed to maintain with a regimen of push-ups and sit-ups. I consider changing into something my size, but I liked the way Crow looked at me. Maybe he'll look at me like that again.
I head out back to the roadkill cemetery sprawled beneath a pair of mesquites. For once, Bear hasn't dug up the fresh body, leaving my armadillo to rot in peace. It'll take at least a month for the worms to strip the flesh off the bones. The coyote remains I got back in spring are almost ready to be boiled and bleached. They'll make a fine set of chimes.
Bear lopes up, tail wagging and tongue lolling. Crow follows. He's sprayed on a new black t-shirt, and it shows off his biceps as well as pale tattoos. They're like creeper winding from shoulders to wrists, with what I think might be roses dotted between wrist and elbow.
It's not a tattoo. They're scars.
“You're up early.” Giving Bear a pat, I reach for the hose and start soaking the graves.
“Couldn't sleep.” Crow squints up at the trees that don't provide much shade. “Why do you water the corpses?” He crouches down and steals sideways glances at me. I'm glad I stuck with this shirt.
“Maybe they'll sprout roots, and grow into bone trees. Maybe I'll turn this whole stretch into a skeleton orchard.”
“A roadkill garden.” He grins, and, as I continue to wet the ground, I'm painfully aware of our arms less than an inch away from touching. He smells good too. Beneath the layer of cheap motel soap and chemical cotton, he smells of something not from Dead Rock, of something the desert hasn't sandblasted and the sun hasn't fried to a crisp.
“Would be kinda neat, right?”
“Or macabre.” Crow drags a finger through the mud and hair falls into his face. Damn, he's fine, and probably straighter than a pole up a nun's butt in church.
“Doesn't mean it wouldn't be beautiful.”
Inhale. My heart slams juggernaut blows against my ribs. Exhale. I need to run, to clear my head, an endorphine rush. How do I stay in shape living on Dale's food? I run. One day, I might keep running right on down the Interstate and never come back. But not now, now I've got Crow trailing after me as I head up to the house.
“Wow, sweet.” Crow strides across my room to the aquarium. “I've never seen one like this before.” He traces the journey of a bloodfin tetra as it swims from bowl to bowl along the convoluted tubing. “Did you make all those?” He points at a cave structure replete with castle turrets.
“Took four jackrabbits to make that one.”
“Dude, you're an artist. Seriously.”
“It's fish tank decor.”
“Doesn't make it any less impressive.” He slides to the floor and leans against my bed, the glow from the aquarium casting MC Escher shadows across his face.
“I doubt it'll make me a billionaire.”
“Is that what you want?” He straightens his legs and folds his hands in his lap. I grab the tablet off my desk and connect it to my phone before settling opposite him with my back against the bookcase.
“I just need enough for MarsLife.”
“Hence the posters.” He looks around my room, gaze settling on the poster of Deshaun Brown, the fourth person to step foot on Mars. “What's so special about Brown?”
“There was tons of controversy when MarsLife announced he'd be one of the first astronauts going up. He came from the ghettos and no one thought he'd amount to much, but he worked hard and he did it. Highest scoring cadet in his class and he went to Mars.” And if he can do it, then maybe I can too.
“Why MarsLife? Why not college?” Crow asks.
“MarsLife doesn't care about your past. They're focused on the future, looking for the best and brightest to pave the way for the rest of humanity. They're holding open aptitude tests next month. If I can get the tuition together and pass the test, I might actually get to leave this dump.” If if if... too many variables. Too much riding on somebody else's opinion of me.
“You want to be an astronaut?” Crow raises a single eyebrow.
“Since I was six years old.”
“And you're set on Mars?”
“The Moon is boring.” An artificial paradise for the insanely rich. “Mars is the new frontier. The possibilities there are endless.” A new world, a new life, a new me.
ABOUT SUZANNE VAN ROOYEN
She currently lives in Sweden and is busy making friends with the ghosts of her Viking ancestors.
Although she has a Master’s degree in music, Suzanne prefers conjuring strange worlds and creating quirky characters.
When she grows up, she wants to be an elf – until then, she spends her time (when not writing) wall climbing, buying far too many books, and entertaining her shiba inu, Lego.