The First One

by Herbert D. Kastle

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: The first man to return from beyond the Great Frontier may be welcomed. but will it be as a curiosity, rather than as a hero...?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

There was the usual welcoming crowd for a celebrity, and the usual speeches by the usual politicians who met him at the airport which had once been twenty miles outside of Croton, but which the growing city had since engulfed and placed well within its boundaries. But everything wasn’t usual. The crowd was quiet, and the mayor didn’t seem quite as at-ease as he’d been on his last big welcoming--for Corporal Berringer, one of the crew of the spaceship Washington, first to set Americans upon Mars. His Honor’s handclasp was somewhat moist and cold. His Honor’s eyes held a trace of remoteness.

Still, he was the honored home-comer, the successful returnee, the hometown boy who had made good in a big way, and they took the triumphal tour up Main Street to the new square and the grandstand. There he sat between the mayor and a nervous young coed chosen as homecoming queen, and looked out at the police and fire department bands, the National Guard, the boy scouts and girl scouts, the Elks and Masons. Several of the churches in town had shown indecision as to how to instruct their parishioners to treat him. But they had all come around. The tremendous national interest, the fact that he was the First One, had made them come around. It was obvious by now that they would have to adjust as they’d adjusted to all the other firsts taking place in these--as the newspapers had dubbed the start of the Twenty-first Century--the Galloping Twenties.

He was glad when the official greeting was over. He was a very tired man and he had come farther, traveled longer and over darker country, than any man who’d ever lived before. He wanted a meal at his own table, a kiss from his wife, a word from his son, and later to see some old friends and a relative or two. He didn’t want to talk about the journey. He wanted to forget the immediacy, the urgency, the terror; then perhaps he would talk.

Or would he? For he had very little to tell. He had traveled and he had returned and his voyage was very much like the voyages of the great mariners, from Columbus onward--long, dull periods of time passing, passing, and then the arrival.

The house had changed. He saw that as soon as the official car let him off at 45 Roosevelt Street. The change was, he knew, for the better. They had put a porch in front. They had rehabilitated, spruced up, almost rebuilt the entire outside and grounds. But he was sorry. He had wanted it to be as before.

The head of the American Legion and the chief of police, who had escorted him on this trip from the square, didn’t ask to go in with him. He was glad. He’d had enough of strangers. Not that he was through with strangers. There were dozens of them up and down the street, standing beside parked cars, looking at him. But when he looked back at them, their eyes dropped, they turned away, they began moving off. He was still too much the First One to have his gaze met.

He walked up what had once been a concrete path and was now an ornate flagstone path. He climbed the new porch and raised the ornamental knocker on the new door and heard the soft music sound within. He was surprised that he’d had to do this. He’d thought Edith would be watching at a window.

And perhaps she had been watching ... but she hadn’t opened the door.

The door opened; he looked at her. It hadn’t been too long and she hadn’t changed at all. She was still the small, slender girl he’d loved in high school, the small, slender woman he’d married twelve years ago. Ralphie was with her. They held onto each other as if seeking mutual support, the thirty-three-year old woman and ten-year-old boy. They looked at him, and then both moved forward, still together. He said, “It’s good to be home!”

Edith nodded and, still holding to Ralphie with one hand, put the other arm around him. He kissed her--her neck, her cheek--and all the old jokes came to mind, the jokes of travel-weary, battle-weary men, the and-then-I’ll-put-my-pack-aside jokes that spoke of terrible hunger. She was trembling, and even as her lips came up to touch his he felt the difference, and because of this difference he turned with urgency to Ralphie and picked him up and hugged him and said, because he could think of nothing else to say, “What a big fella, what a big fella.”

Ralphie stood in his arms as if his feet were still planted on the floor, and he didn’t look at his father but somewhere beyond him. “I didn’t grow much while you were gone, Dad, Mom says I don’t eat enough.”

So he put him down and told himself that it would all change, that everything would loosen up just as his commanding officer, General Carlisle, had said it would early this morning before he left Washington.

“Give it some time,” Carlisle had said. “You need the time; they need the time. And for the love of heaven, don’t be sensitive.”

Edith was leading him into the living room, her hand lying still in his, a cool, dead bird lying still in his. He sat down on the couch, she sat down beside him--but she had hesitated. He wasn’t being sensitive; she had hesitated. His wife had hesitated before sitting down beside him.

Carlisle had said his position was analogous to Columbus’, to Vasco De Gama’s, to Preshoff’s when the Russian returned from the Moon--but more so. Carlisle had said lots of things, but even Carlisle who had worked with him all the way, who had engineered the entire fantastic journey--even Carlisle the Nobel prize winner, the multi-degreed genius in uniform, had not actually spoken to him as one man to another.

The eyes. It always showed in their eyes.

He looked across the room at Ralphie, standing in the doorway, a boy already tall, already widening in the shoulders, already large of feature. It was like looking into the mirror and seeing himself twenty-five years ago. But Ralphie’s face was drawn, was worried in a way that few ten-year-old faces are.

“How’s it going in school?” he asked.

“Gee, Dad, it’s the second month of summer vacation.”

“Well, then, before summer vacation?”

“Pretty good.”

Edith said, “He made top forum the six-month period before vacation, and he made top forum the six-month period you went away, Hank.”

He nodded, remembering that, remembering everything, remembering the warmth of her farewell, the warmth of Ralphie’s farewell, their tears as he left for the experimental flight station in the Aleutians. They had feared for him, having read of the many launchings gone wrong even in continent-to-continent experimental flight.

They had been right to worry. He had suffered much after that blow-up. But now they should be rejoicing, because he had survived and made the long journey. Ralphie suddenly said, “I got to go, Dad. I promised Walt and the others I’d pitch. It’s Inter-Town Little League, you know. It’s Harmon, you know. I got to keep my word.” Without waiting for an answer, he waved his hand--it shook; a ten-year-old boy’s hand that shook--and ran from the room and from the house.

He and Edith sat beside each other, and he wanted badly to take her in his arms, and yet he didn’t want to oppress her. He stood up. “I’m very tired. I’d like to lie down a while.” Which wasn’t true, because he’d been lying down all the months of the way back.

She said, “Of course. How stupid of me, expecting you to sit around and make small talk and pick up just where you left off.”

He nodded. But that was exactly what he wanted to do--make small talk and pick up just where he’d left off. But they didn’t expect it of him; they wouldn’t let him; they felt he had changed too much.

She led him upstairs and along the foyer past Ralphie’s room and past the small guest room to their bedroom. This, too, had changed. It was newly painted and it had new furniture. He saw twin beds separated by an ornate little table with an ornate little lamp, and this looked more ominous a barrier to him than the twelve-foot concrete-and-barbed-wire fence around the experimental station.

“Which one is mine,” he asked, and tried to smile.

She also tried to smile. “The one near the window. You always liked the fresh air, the sunshine in the morning. You always said it helped you to get up on time when you were stationed at the base outside of town. You always said it reminded you--being able to see the sky--that you were going to go up in it, and that you were going to come down from it to this bed again.”

“Not this bed,” he murmured, and was a little sorry afterward.

“No, not this bed,” she said quickly. “Your lodge donated the bedroom set and I really didn’t know--” She waved her hand, her face white.

He was sure then that she had known, and that the beds and the barrier between them were her own choice, if only an unconscious choice. He went to the bed near the window, stripped off his Air Force blue jacket, began to take off his shirt, but then remembered that some arm scars still showed. He waited for her to leave the room.

She said, “Well then, rest up, dear,” and went out.

He took off his shirt and saw himself in the mirror on the opposite wall; and then took off his under-shirt. The body scars were faint, the scars running in long lines, one dissecting his chest, the other slicing diagonally across his upper abdomen to disappear under his trousers. There were several more on his back, and one on his right thigh. They’d been treated properly and would soon disappear. But she had never seen them.

Perhaps she never would. Perhaps pajamas and robes and dark rooms would keep them from her until they were gone.

Which was not what he’d considered at all important on leaving Walter Reed Hospital early this morning; which was something he found distasteful, something he felt beneath them both. And, at the same time, he began to understand that there would be many things, previously beneath them both, which would have to be considered. She had changed; Ralphie had changed; all the people he knew had probably changed--because they thought he had changed.

He was tired of thinking. He lay down and closed his eyes. He let himself taste bitterness, unhappiness, a loneliness he had never known before.

But sometime later, as he was dozing off, a sense of reassurance began filtering into his mind. After all, he was still Henry Devers, the same man who had left home eleven months ago, with a love for family and friends which was, if anything, stronger than before. Once he could communicate this, the strangeness would disappear and the First One would again become good old Hank. It was little enough to ask for--a return to old values, old relationships, the normalcies of the backwash instead of the freneticisms of the lime-light. It would certainly be granted to him.

He slept.

Dinner was at seven P.M. His mother came; his Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucille came. Together with Edith, Ralphie and himself, they made six, and ate in the dining room at the big table.

Before he’d become the First One, it would have been a noisy affair. His family had never been noted for a lack of ebullience, a lack of talkativeness, and Ralphie had always chosen mealtimes--especially with company present--to describe everything and anything that had happened to him during the day. And Edith herself had always chatted, especially with his mother, though they didn’t agree about much. Still, it had been good-natured; the general tone of their lives had been good-natured.

This wasn’t good-natured. Exactly what it was he wasn’t sure. “Stiff” was perhaps the word.

They began with grapefruit, Edith and Mother serving quickly, efficiently from the kitchen, then sitting down at the table. He looked at Mother as he raised his first spoonful of chilled fruit, and said, “Younger than ever.” It was nothing new; he’d said it many many times before, but his mother had always reacted with a bright smile and a quip something like, “Young for the Golden Age Center, you mean.” This time she burst into tears. It shocked him. But what shocked him even more was the fact that no one looked up, commented, made any attempt to comfort her; no one indicated in any way that a woman was sobbing at the table.

He was sitting directly across from Mother, and reached out and touched her left hand which lay limply beside the silverware. She didn’t move it--she hadn’t touched him once beyond that first, quick, strangely-cool embrace at the door--then a few seconds later she withdrew it and let it drop out of sight.

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