Literary Orphans

LAIKA by Matthew Guerruckey

Relaxation-Seamus Travers

Every morning Thurman Olson rose with the dawn and fried an egg and two sausage links in a small metal skillet—the same one that his mother had used for as long as he could remember. According to family legend, it was the same pan that Thurman’s grandfather, Eustis Olson, had carried across the plains after the Civil War. A framed photograph of Eustis, dressed in full Confederate regalia, still sat on the mantle of the fireplace in the main room of the Olson’s small farm house.

In Thurman’s memory, Eustis was a desiccated shell of the man in the photograph. A stroke had left Eustis paralyzed when Thurman was still a baby. To Thurman, his grandfather was a strange creature that lived in the attic, his face frozen in a permanent, silent scream. Eustis finally died in the summer of 1924, when Thurman was only four-years-old. Thurman was glad to have the strange man, with his restricted, moaning wails, gone from his home. That feeling of relief instilled a deep sense of shame in Thurman that would be with him his entire life.

After Eustis died, the farm passed to Thurman’s father, Arthur. Arthur Olson embraced modern farming techniques and business strategies that his father had shied away from. By the time the Depression hit, the Olson farm was the richest farm in Nebraska. Arthur was even able to expand in those lean years by buying the properties of his destitute neighbors. When World War II started, the Olson farm stretched out along 200 acres of rolling prairie land.

Thurman had neither his grandfather’s adventurous spirit nor his father’s ingenuity. After Arthur passed in the winter of ’49, Thurman began selling off the back acres to make the property more manageable. Thurman’s mother used her share of Arthur’s fortune to travel the world. Thurman loved his mother’s letters and postcards, and listened in wonder to stories of her travels, but her journeys had ignited no spark of curiosity inside of him. When Eugenia died in 1955, Thurman had her ashes scattered by the Egyptian pyramids, but he did not make the trip himself. He could never imagine himself anywhere but the flat grasslands that surrounded his hometown.

After Eugenia’s death, Thurman began selling land at an even faster rate, tired of the burdens of maintaining the property. By the beginning of 1958 he owned only the land that the house and the barn stood on. He kept a single acre set aside for his own personal garden, which he tended with intimate care.

Thurman kept the money from his inheritance and the land sales in a box underneath his bed, but he rarely spent it. He received regular updates on his investment portfolio from the New York offices of his accountant. The envelopes sat unopened in a neat stack on top of the television.

Every weekday, Thurman ate his lunch at the Weary Traveler Diner in the town of Nod, about three miles from the Olson farm. It was the only time in Thurman’s day when he was around other people. He sat in the same booth every day, with a regular group of good old boys, culled from the factories and farms that surrounded the town. Steve Nelson had been in the Pacific theater during World War II, and had some great, harrowing stories. Walter Baker could go on for hours about the encroaching threat of the Soviets. Walter had just begun to dig up his back acres to build what would one day be the largest bomb shelter in the county. Walter’s paranoia and bullheadedness ensured the project stayed a one-man operation. You never knew who might be a Red spy in disguise.

Thurman usually ordered a cup of coffee, some days with a sandwich, but he always made sure to tip the server over forty percent on the bill. He was especially generous to the beautiful young Jessie Lynn. She had gone to the teaching college in Lincoln for a few semesters before dropping out after her father passed. Whenever she worked she switched the radio over to the rock station and danced behind the counter. Thurman hoped that one day Jessie Lynn would notice his generosity and thank him for it. Then maybe she’d flash him the same bright smile she gave the young farmhands who came in for dinner at noon.

After dinner he came home and sat in the two-seater swing on the front porch until the sun went down. The gentle rocking set his mind to remembering the days he’d spent with his mother on that same swing.

Thurman ate a large supper each night, alone in the kitchen, where the family had always eaten their breakfasts. He never used the dining room—the large oak table just felt too empty. His favorite dish was chili, which he made from venison shot by his neighbor, Bill. He loaded it with spices, and ate until his stomach strained against his pants and sweat rolled down his ruddy cheeks. After supper he sat in his father’s rocking chair, listening to Hank Williams and smoking his pipe until he fell asleep.

That was life for Thurman Olson. He wasn’t lonely because he didn’t know that he should be. Some nights as he sat on the porch swing he wished that Jessie Lynn was swinging along beside him, but he didn’t know how it was that a man got a wife. Anyway, he enjoyed the quiet rush of the evening wind through the fields even more than his afternoon visits with her.

One night, as he lay in his father’s chair, wrapped in his mother’s prayer shawl, he became aware of a high-pitched whine. Thurman never fixed tea for himself, but he remembered his grandmother boiling it on the stove. He had always been afraid of the horrible wail it set off when it was ready. This sound was like that. He couldn’t tell where it was coming from, but it was somewhere far away.

The sound grew louder. The house vibrated with energy. Picture frames on the wall rattled and fell. Then, the sound was everywhere—above and below and on every side of the house. Thurman ducked and covered his head, but the piercing screech still overwhelmed his senses. Nightmare images came to his mind. Walter’s apocalyptic visions of mushroom clouds rising over Grand Island. His grandmother’s bedtime tales of a Rapture that would deliver believers into the Kingdom of Heaven.

Thurman scrambled, on his elbows and knees, toward the family Bible. As he reached up to where it sat on the bookshelf the sound reached its climax and a furious crash shook the house to its foundation. The thick book fell on his head, and he collapsed to the floor, unconscious.

When he woke he stood, rubbing the emerging lump on top of his head, and surveyed the damage. His mother’s pictures had fallen, but his grandfather’s portrait had not moved. Colonel Eustis Olson stood at attention, scowling at his cowering grandson. The china cabinet in the dining room had toppled. Blue and white porcelain gleamed on the floor, mixed with jagged shards of glass from the shattered frames. Something was burning. He sniffed the air like a bloodhound, and followed the scent to the kitchen. The back door of the house had rattled off its hinges, and a thin vapor of smoke leaked into the house from outside.

Thurman started down the back stairs, then froze in mid-step. Through the smoke, in place of his father’s tool shed, was a satellite, buried in the ground at a forty-five degree angle. The greater part of the spacecraft was a steel shaft flecked with burn marks. The end of the capsule came to a triangular point, which pointed into the night sky. The impact had sheared off one side of the satellite, revealing a metal door with a glass porthole.

For a moment, Thurman wondered if he was in the middle of a dream brought on by the impact of the Good Book on his skull. The acrid odor of burned metal convinced him otherwise. He approached the satellite with exaggerated tiptoe steps, expecting little green men to pop out at any moment.

There was writing on the capsule. Thurman couldn’t understand any of it, but the letters seemed earthbound. They were familiar English letters, but linked and twisted. Russian, he thought, as a chill shook his body. Last winter Walter had warned Thurman of the latest satellite that the Russkies has put into orbit. Walter said it was circling the globe taking pictures of U.S. Army bases, and its stated mission was to start World War III. Time passed without the nuclear holocaust that Walter had guaranteed, so Thurman had put the satellite out of his mind. Now here it was in front of him.

The back acres stretched out silent and black before him. The only sound was the sizzling hiss of steam coming from the capsule and the far-away yelp of dogs. There were no lights on at the Larson house—his nearest neighbors, half a mile down the road. They were either out of town or had managed to sleep through the impact.

The quiet was unsettling, but more disturbing was the feeling that he wasn’t alone after all. That somewhere someone was tracking this device. Thurman was sure that both the Russians and the Americans would be able to tell where the capsule had landed, and that would lead them to his home. There was no way of telling which side would be knocking on his door.

He’d have to find a way to disable whatever gizmos might still be sending information to the Commies, but he wasn’t even sure if the capsule was safe to touch. No man had ever been to space and back—who knew what kind of viruses and germs were floating around up there? He’d need some kind of protection before he went snooping around inside. He ran into the house and grabbed his mother’s apron and oven mitts from the kitchen, and a baseball bat. Armored in this way, he approached the craft step by careful step. He rose on his tiptoes to inspect the porthole, but he could see nothing through the dense, fogged glass. He said a prayer and brought the bat up over his head, and then slammed down on the door with the entire weight of his body. The impact sent shockwaves through the wood, into his arms and shoulders. His teeth rattled from the blow. He clamped his oven mitt clad hands to his jaw to steady them, as the door fell to the ground with a heavy clank.

The interior of the capsule smelled of rotting flesh. Thurman pulled his shirt over his nose as he raised his flashlight into the porthole. The light reflected a pair of black eyes sitting in a hideous, contorted face. Thurman swore words he’d never said aloud before and fell back, onto the ground. He took a moment to steady his racing heart, and then stood back up. In the capsule, strapped into a small compartment between two leather cushions, was the decomposing body of a small dog.

Thurman ran back into the house and rummaged through a stack of used newspapers by the back door. In Walter’s apocalyptic sermon, he had mentioned that the Russians were sending animals into space. Dogs they were training to launch nuclear warheads at strategic American targets. “See, a dog is your smartest animal,” Walter had said. “It’s a brilliant plan. Evil, yes. But brilliant.” After some digging, Thurman found an article on the launch of the craft, Sputnik 2 the Commies had called it, from two months before. The article included a photo of a bright-eyed pup strapped into machinery straight out of Buck Rogers. The Commies had named her Laika. It was to be a one-way trip for Laika—the Russians had given her only enough food to last ten days.

Thurman walked back outside, still holding the paper in his hand. Here, in his own backyard, was the first living creature to travel to outer space. He examined the dog’s compartment and found its food and water supply, just as the article had described. There was a panel filled with dials and lights, but each one had burned out. Thurman breathed a sigh of relief. The capsule may have launched with sensitive tracking data, but it had fallen to Earth a ruined piece of charcoal.

He still wasn’t sure what to do with the damned thing, but there was little he could do in the middle of the night. The satellite and its cargo would still be there when the sun came up. He wondered who he would tell first. If he should tell anyone at all. Maybe Jessie Lynn. Maybe the promise of something that she had never seen before would bring her out to the farm. Maybe after inspecting the wreckage and the charred monster inside her eyes would fall on the house and the fields, and maybe she would begin to picture a life there. Maybe.

Thurman went to his bedroom, traded his overalls for sleep clothes, and lay down. As he drifted into sleep he imagined the wonder on Jessie Lynn’s face, and the glorious colors that Walter Baker would turn when he learned that a genuine piece of Communist technology had landed in Seward County.

But Thurman didn’t sleep through the night. After an hour, he sat upright in bed, as awake as if it were midday. He tried to relax and fall back to rest, but he couldn’t. He worried what would happen to him when he reported the craft. Would they confiscate his home? Would they think he was a Commie agent? He was certain that Walter would. And what if the capsule contained some secret that he couldn’t even imagine—one worth killing for? He realized, for the first time, that there would be no one to bury him in the family plot.

And he thought of Laika, floating alone and unmourned in the endless black. What understanding did she have as she blasted off the surface of the planet and entered weightless space? How fast had her little heart beat at the end? Thurman shuddered and tried to push the lonely image from his mind.

After a torturous hour of tossing in bed he said aloud, “Damn it all, Thurman,” and threw off his covers. He dressed in a hurry, grabbed a sheet and a shovel, and walked outside, past the satellite to the garden at the edge of his property. He began to dig. When he had made a hole about three feet deep, he walked to the satellite and spread the sheet on the ground in front of it. Then he reached inside and pulled out the dog’s corpse. Her body was stiff with rigor mortis, but her fur was still soft. Most of the skin had receded from her face, revealing patchwork glimpses of muscle and bone underneath. Her tongue lolled from the side of her mouth in a fixed grin.

Thurman wrapped the sheet around the body and carried it to the fresh hole in the earth. He dropped Laika inside and replaced the dirt as the sun rose behind him. When he finished he thought he should say something in honor of the dog’s sacrifice, but he didn’t know how to pay proper tribute. He managed an embarrassed, “Good girl,” before walking back into the house.

Thurman’s morning routine that day was different than usual. Instead of fixing his eggs and sausage he dismantled the satellite. Instead of driving into Nod, he loaded those dismantled parts into the back of his truck and disposed of them in ditches and quarries and creek beds throughout the county. Then he came home and slept through the evening into the next morning.

A month later, at the diner, Walter found a story in the World-Herald that Sputnik 2 had fallen out of orbit and back to Earth. NASA believed that the capsule had burned up on reentry, killing its lone passenger—a dog named Laika.

Thurman remained silent as Walter began the wind-up to an afternoon’s worth of speechifying. He looked away from Walter’s beet-red face and saw Jessie Lynn standing at the far end of the bar, grasping the counter as if she were going to faint.

“That poor dog,” she said to nobody.

Thurman smiled and got up from the booth. As he passed Jessie Lynn he dropped her tip on the counter, a full 100% this time, and walked out the door.

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Matthew Guerruckey is the founding editor of the online literary magazine Drunk Monkeys and a fiction writer. His short fiction has previously appeared in The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, Connotation Press, Bartleby Snopes, and The Weekenders Magazine. Matthew lives in North Hollywood with his wife, poet SC Stuckey, and their cats Harrison and Lennon.

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–Art by Marta Bevacqua

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