“…a skillful mainstream examination of a psychotic woman’s final descent into insanity.” —Publishers Weekly
“The Trajectory of Dreams is unsettling, beautifully written, and truly original. In Lela White, Nicole Wolverton has created one of the most haunting characters in contemporary fiction. This is a remarkable debut.” —Emily St. John Mandel, author of The Lola Quartet, The Singer’s Gun,and Last Night in Montreal
“This novel is a free dive into the bottomless ocean of insanity. With every chapter, every kick of the fins, you’re sucked in deeper as the darkness mounts and the pressure builds. And like the ocean, The Trajectory of Dreams gives up its secrets grudgingly, so you’ll continually be stunned as the protagonist, Lela, falls to her inevitable implosion.” —Mike Mullin, author of Ashfall and Ashen Winter
“Nicole Wolverton’s The Trajectory of Dreams leads readers into a seemingly orderly world that spirals into madness. Just when you think you understand—you hope you don’t!” —Jenny Wingfield, author of The Homecoming of Samuel Lake
“This is a psychological thriller of epic proportions. … 5 out of 5 stars for its crazy twists and exhilarating ending. This is a gripping, disquieting look at mental illness that will cause you to question how well you can truly know a person, especially those with something to hide.”
The Trajectory of Dreams
The Trajectory of Dreams
Published by Bitingduck Press
© 2013 Nicole Wolverton
All rights reserved
For information contact
Bitingduck Press, LLC
firstname.lastname@example.org “On Your Back I Trace the Letter A” by Ilya Kutik reprinted from Third Wave: The New Russian Poetry, edited by Kent Johnson and Stephen M. Ashby (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1992). © 1992, The University of Michigan Press, and used with permission. “You Will Hear Thunder,” Copyright ©Anna Akhmatova, translated by D. M. Thomas, Everyman’s Library Pocket Poets, 2006. Electronic reproduction is by permission of Johnson & Alcock, Ltd.
Breaking into an astronaut’s home took time. There were research and preparation to account for. An assassination plan in case the subject failed my testing. And even establishing a schedule and behavioral pattern for each astronaut could take weeks.
My investigation of Robert Jeffrey Meehan, Ph.D., was no exception.
It had taken five visits to his apartment building, logging his routine and determining his usual bedtime, before I felt comfortable enough to pick the lock on his door the first time.
During every visit I stood at the foot of his bed. Now I clocked each twitch of his leg, hitch in his breath, and the time at which he appeared to descend into REM sleep. I recorded everything on the polysomnography observation report attached to my clipboard.
Not for the first time, I wished for the equipment in the sleep lab at work—an EEG, EKG, nasal airflow sensor—but none of those were portable. Not exactly the kind of machines that lent to criminal trespass on the sly.
Even without them, though, no detail escaped my notice. I watched.
Always, I watched.
Meehan lay on his back, deep in sleep. He twisted his head to the side and smacked his lips. Nothing out of the ordinary; common sleep behavior.
Benjamin Franklin said he considered death as necessary as sleep: We shall rise refreshed in the morning. Meehan very well might, at that. Only death was inevitable—sleep was a luxury or a curse, a thing some people yearned for and went to great lengths to get. But the astronauts were different. Sleep was their gift. Their talent.
Meehan’s dark skin shined in the dim glow of the moon through the gap in the curtains hung across the window. The t-shirt he wore to bed bunched around his neck like waves lapping at the shore of his chin. His foot poked out from the bottom of the comforter, long toes slack.
The almost uncontrollable urge to run my fingers through the coarse hair at his ankle seized me, but doing so might wake him. The idea was to check for sleep disorders and ensure he could sleep on the shuttle during liftoff, not interfere.
I glanced at my watch. I’d been rooted to the same spot for over four hours.
I flipped to the final evaluation sheet and wrote:
I tucked the clipboard under my arm and picked up my camera.
Time for one last sweep of his apartment.
There was a pattern when it came to how astronauts lived. Not all, of course, but most. So many had been in the military, and it showed in the way they folded their socks and underwear. T-shirts were a precision operation, creased exactly and stacked in a drawer.
I raised the camera and took a shot of his nightstand. Meehan had never been in the military, so his living space was messier. A bowl with the remains of an orange lay on top of a stack of books. Mysteries, mostly. A worn copy of Crime and Punishment topped the pile, and at the bottom was an Amelia Earhart biography.
There were photographs, too. In one, a close-up shot, he stood with his arm around a slight woman with straight brown hair that fell to her clavicles, a soft chin on a thin face, and bony shoulders. If her eyes had been hazel instead of brown, almond-shaped instead of slanted, she could have been me.
A pile of still-smelly workout clothes moldered in a puddle in front of Meehan’s closet. True, he’d been to the gym just before returning home, but it was unsanitary to let them sit like that. My fingers crooked with wanting to pick them up and sort them for the washing machine.
At least his closet looked tidy. A row of pressed dress shirts hung in a row—white, light blue, and light pink—and his pants lined up as file folders in a drawer. Several NASA polo shirts lay beyond that. The camera’s click was almost silent.
But not silent enough.
Meehan twitched, and my heart stuttered. The movement was unlike the normal jerks he’d experienced during sleep: He was more alert. I should have known better—he was probably coming out of a sleep cycle.
I lowered the camera, each second passing in slow motion, and retrieved the clipboard from under my arm. Would he wake?
The assassination plan for Meehan was well thought out. NASA contracted the Forty Winks Sleep Lab to run sleep studies on all candidates for the shuttle program, so I had access to medical records. Meehan’s severe shellfish allergy wouldn’t keep him out of space. But if he didn’t pass my more personalized sleep observation (outside lab protocol), I planned to sneak powdered shrimp in the oatmeal he ate every morning. His phone would be incapacitated to prevent a call for help. He’d be dead within minutes.
It would look like a natural death, an unfortunate accident. Something that could happen to anyone.
Of course, the emergency plan was far different.
I fumbled with the autoinjector attached to the clipboard, hoping it wouldn’t come to that. The shot was my backup, but it wasn’t particularly artful or subtle. My nose wrinkled.
The word—kill—flopped around in my brain. It was precaution, not practice. The idea flooded my veins with an apprehension that prickled and stung. Maybe it should have gotten easier over the years, the idea that I might have to carry out an assassination plan one day. Every event planner had a plan B and a plan C, a worst-case scenario type of thing. Of course, none of those plans ended with a corpse.
Meehan jerked again and rolled away. Had his eyelashes fluttered? I held my breath and counted backward from thirty. The temperature in the room seemed to plummet by twenty degrees, which made my face all the hotter.
His hand floated back to scratch his hip, and he half-hummed, half-groaned.
If my stomach grumbled, he’d hear me. If he flopped over again, he’d see me.
I stood in front of his closet, as far away from the bedroom door as possible.
If I made a run for it, there was no doubt he’d catch me. He’d been a soccer star in high school, and I was just some skinny woman who’d never been athletic.
I could see it in my head. How wide his eyes would be when he saw me standing over his bed. The soft sniiiick the autoinjector would make when the needle entered his flesh. The way Meehan’s muscles would soften and go slack. The blank expression in his eyes when his heart stuttered and finally stopped.
NASA would delay the shuttle mission out of respect for his family, of course, but it ultimately would go on. They’d replace him, and I’d have to complete an additional observation.
For the good of the shuttle launch and the astronauts, I would kill him. Years prior, the shuttle program had languished on hiatus for forty-nine months—shut down after the last incident. It was my responsibility to ensure it never happened again.
Meehan rolled again, this time onto his stomach. His arms tightened around his pillow in a bear hug. Within seconds he snored. Not loud—it was more of a wispy grumble. Not the type indicative of obstructive sleep apnea.
All the while adrenaline roller-coastered through me, up the steep beginning incline and wailing around the curves and dips.
His breathing evened out and deepened. I tried to control my own, finally sucking in a quiet lungful of air.
I stepped closer, raising the autoinjector. All it would take was a quick jab. He stayed asleep, though, sinking deeper and deeper with each rise of his lungs. My feet moved of their own accord, carrying me around his bed and out his bedroom door.
Some animals are more equal than others. It was definitely true in my case. Years of creeping around, dealing with security systems, and digging into blue prints had left me with skills on par with any professional burglar. They were just animals, though. I was more. I had purpose.
The astronauts I’d studied had gone up and come down—safely. Without my vigilance, the time would come when they might not be so lucky. A disaster would happen again. We must study the past to predict the future.
I still remembered the last time in vivid detail. I’d been ten—just turned, in fact, several days prior.
The fireball and puffy cloud trail on the television screen in my elementary school hallway turned my fascination to stomach-churning terror, then back to serrated prickles of dread as the smoky streams from the space shuttle split apart, curling and expanding into antennae. A giant, roiling snail head in a sky so blue it hurt to look at.
A gravelly “major malfunction” oozed out of the speakers.
The picture went dead, thanks to a quick-thinking teacher, but not before the announcer intoned, “And our prayers are with the Constitution astronauts.”
I hope the astronauts were asleep, I’d thought, rubbing my eyes like I’d just woken myself. The hallway and everyone in it had been so clear. So vivid.
The astronauts had to have been asleep. God simply plucked them out of the shuttle, dreaming their dreams, and took them to Heaven. They hadn’t felt a thing. I was sure of it.
Every night I lay awake, fighting the pull of my eyelids, and stared at the ceiling while hoping this time the boosters would fall away. Praying this time the fiery rockets would fade to pinpricks of light as the shuttle disappeared into space.
Meehan’s living room was a tomb: silent and still. The knob of the door leading to the hallway was cool under my hand. It didn’t make a sound and neither did the door itself. Even when I relocked the deadbolt with the lock pick, the quiet was complete.
“Godspeed,” I whispered before padding down the corridor.
Meehan would never know I’d been watching over him, recording his sleep. He’d never know I ensured the safety of his mission by carrying out the job the universe had tasked me with.
He’d never know.
No living thing can exist without sleep. Not for long, anyway. As a certified polysomnographic technician, a woman of science, I understood clearly the importance of rest. Go without dreams, without the beautiful mechanism of circadian rhythms, and the body withers. The mind withers.
I was the lone exception.
Even after staying up all night to observe Meehan, my thoughts were shark’s tooth sharp. Not that I needed a razor focus to shelve books on my Saturday morning volunteer shift at the library down the street from my house.
Mrs. Gerhardt had sent me off with a cart full of returns. In the psychology section, I was hunting the spot for When She Was Bad: Violent Women and the Myth of Innocence when the librarian’s unmistakable shuffling echoed among the stacks.
She rounded the corner at a clip, which for her was the speed of an eighty year old arthritic, despite the fact that she couldn’t have been any older than sixty-five. “Bad ticker,” she’d once explained to me. “Nothing to worry about.”
It wasn’t like I didn’t understand the severity of having a heart condition. I’d spent time trying to guess what hers might be, whether it was something straightforward or something more complicated, like a congenital heart defect. I’d once caught her reading an article about tetralogy of Fallot, but there was no evidence one way or another.
“Now there’s an interesting book, Lela” she said, nodding to my hand.
“Living a secret life as an abnormal psychologist?” I asked. I slid the book into its place.
She leaned against the cart and sighed through lips the color of a fire engine, her signature. I’d never seen her without the lipstick. It made her pale skin even whiter.
The ends of her mouth turned up into a prim smile. “I’ve nearly adopted you, haven’t I?”
“I’m as normal as they come. You should know.”
“Hmph. At the very least, you’re one of the best volunteers I ever had. Well, you and your dad. Speaking of which, are you doing anything next week?”
“Next week?” I’d be starting my observation of the final astronaut for the upcoming Empire shuttle mission, but I couldn’t tell her that.
I pushed the cart into the aisle and shambled toward the front of the library. Mrs. Gerhardt followed, one hand gripping the end of the handle.
Her thin brows drew together. “Your father’s death?”
“No. I mean, am I supposed to do something? Is that normal?”
“Oh, well…some people mark the passage of a year, but it’s not about what you’re supposed to do. It’s about what you feel like doing. My mother passed twenty years ago, but my father and I still visit her grave every year on her birthday and lay flowers. My Edgar was cremated, of course, so there’s no grave for him, but I make his favorite dinner on our wedding anniversary.”
“Why do you take your mother flowers? It’s not like she needs them or knows you’re there.”
“We do those types of things because it makes us feel better. I miss her, and I miss my husband. Don’t you miss your parents?”
My eyes cut toward her, but I forced my head to stay put. “I miss Dad.”
And I did, although my astronaut observations were easier with him gone. When I returned from Meehan’s apartment that morning, there was no one but Nike to ask questions about where I’d been. No lies to invent. I still kept my bedroom closet door padlocked, but with no one to stumble on files and supplies, I didn’t have to.
“But not your mother?” she asked.
“Have I ever?”
“No, but you’re old enough to understand that people have reasons for the things they do. Maybe not good reasons or sane reasons, but there you go.”
I positioned the now-empty cart next to the circulation desk, and Mrs. Gerhardt edged behind it and shifted up onto a stool. I said, “Thirty-two is not some magical age at which I suddenly figure out why she abandoned us. And it’s not like I’m going to start caring about it, either.”
She patted my hand. Hers were cold. “No, of course not. But she was sick, your mo—”
“What do you know about it?” I asked. A tense static roared in my ears. Behind my lids, Dad’s face loomed, urging me to calm myself, to be pleasant.
No one likes a sour puss, Lela. I forced a tooth-crammed smile and turned to Mrs. Gerhardt.
Her entire body twitched. “Nothing. Just things your father said over the years.”
Keeping the smile in place, I said, “Maybe I will go to the cemetery. What do you say when you go? Is there something special I should do?”
“No, of course not. You do what feels right. In Mexico they remember those who have passed on the Day of the Dead, or some celebrate the memory of their dead on Halloween. You know, my mother used to say that Halloween is the day when the veil between living and dead is thinnest—it originated as a pagan celebration, you know. It was a common thing to leave an offering of some sort in case one of your ghosts came back, sort of like when you leave cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve.”
“I’m supposed to leave cookies out for Dad?” I asked. I hoped he didn’t want anything homemade.
Mrs. Gerhardt laughed. “No, that’s not what I mean.” The wrinkles in her face shook. “He was very proud of you, you know.”
She nodded. “You’re so driven. Even when you were a little girl, you knew exactly what you wanted. Everything was all about sleep. He was always worried about you, worried you were too serious for your own good.”
“There’s nothing wrong with knowing what you’re meant to do with your life.”
“Oh, I know,” she said. “And so did your dad. He talked about you so much, Lela. His daughter, the big scientist.” She smiled.
Maybe he’d been proud, but he hadn’t been happy. “Lela,” he said before he died, “almost everything about this life has been a pile of donkey crap.”
I hadn’t taken it personally, not even when he’d had an aneurysm that night.
“He never saw it coming,” the doctor had said.
Mrs. Gerhardt’s smile thinned. “He wouldn’t like you being alone so much of the time, though. I always thought you’d settle down with a nice boy after you put in your time at the lab.”
“I’m not alone,” I said. “I’ve got Nike. And you. I can’t really say I’m too motivated to get involved with anyone, especially since Mom ran off.”
“A cat and an old woman are not exactly scintillating company,” she said in a dry voice. “What about Trina? You could pal around together. Everyone needs friends.” She glanced up. “Speak of the devil.”
I could feel the woman’s presence behind me even before she said a word. It was like a fleet of crabs had crawled up my back, pinching at my skin.
Trina Shook had always reminded me of my mother: vicious and hateful with a veneer of goodness. It was more than just the faux little girl lilt of Trina’s voice. They also shared the same head of hair—dark blonde, parted over the left eye. Trina’s hung straight to her shoulders while my mother’s had curled around her face like snakes with broken necks.
“Hey, Mrs. Gerhardt! And Lela! Long time, no see!” she joked. Behind her eyes, the disgust lurked. It shone like a gemstone, some dark and terrible thing that only wanted to consume. A short chin belied the roundness of her face: she was all cheekbones and forehead
My mouth tightened, but I schooled my own face into a pleasant mask before turning around.
“How’s the reading coming, Trina?” Mrs. Gerhardt asked. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see her face twitch, like she was trying not to laugh.
“Oh, it’s naptime. We just finished reading the second book and serving snacks. Most of the kids are dead asleep already. I just wanted to say hello to my favorite cubicle-mate.” She hit me in the shoulder just a little too hard. She wasn’t heavy, by any means, but she was solidly built.
“That’s so nice,” I said, hoping my voice circled the approximation of perky. “What did you read today?”
I stared at the clock over her head and counted the time it took her to babble out the answer. Two hundred and forty seconds later, give or take, she was still talking. I was about to ask what she’d read next, but Mrs. Gerhardt butted in.
“I think I see Yolanda waving you back, Trina.”
“Oh! Well, see you on Monday. Or maybe later!” She waved over her shoulder, gave her hair a perky toss, and trotted back toward the children’s reading area.
“She sure does have a lot of spirit,” Mrs. Gerhardt said, chuckling.
I raised one eyebrow, frowning. “That’s one way to look at it.”
“Can’t really turn down a volunteer, now can I?”
“I’m on to you, lady,” I said, lowering my voice but attempting to mimic the teasing tone she always used. Dad would have liked that. He could have confessed to burglary in that kind of a voice, and people would have laughed and assumed he was kidding. “All this talk about Trina, me being friends with Trina. I don’t want anything to do with her. Keep it up, and I can’t be held responsible for my actions.”
She grinned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” She slid a paper across the desk. “Can you take that to Trina? I must help Mr. Charles with the Internet again.”
I rolled my eyes and bared my teeth at Mrs. Gerhardt, who was now walking away. If this was what my volunteer experience was going to be like from here on out, maybe I’d think about changing my hours. At least I was getting better at pretending to joke.
With the paper curled in my fist, I wandered toward the children’s section. It was hidden behind a low partition, the walls painted blue—probably in an effort to soothe the savage beasts it was meant to contain. Short bookshelves lined the walls. I hadn’t spent an inordinate amount of time there, even when I was a kid. I could still remember following Mrs. Gerhardt around the stacks in the adult section, my head barely reaching her shoulder. The first novel she ever demanded I read was Lord of the Flies, but only after I told her I had no interest in Little Women or books for little kids. That’d been a long time ago.
Trina and another volunteer sat together at the front of the children’s section, watching the kids. For all I knew, they’d been plotting to slash my tires. I was relatively certain they weren’t planning a sophisticated reading program. Neither could probably envision anyone, let alone younger people, having an interest in science or philosophy.
I waved the paper at Trina and folded my arms across the divider, resting my chin on my forearm.
A little girl in a yellow sweater curled up on a rubber mat with a book—something about bubbles—clutched tight against her chest. Her mouth puckered, the shine of saliva rich on the lips. She scrunched her face once before the outline of an eyeball beneath the lid shifted from side to side. Her body jerked in time before she woke with a gasp and stared at the ceiling. Probably not a great sleeper, although it was hard to tell from just a single observation.
A boy behind her scratched at his nose, lips puckering in his sleep. A moment later his entire body spasmed, as though he dreamed of hitting the ground after a long fall. That was supposed to indicate anxiety. He was young, maybe eight years old. I hoped he didn’t have a lot to be stressed out about at that age.
I watched them all, inspecting their dream cycles and noting their sleep disturbances. Not one of them seemed truly unable to sleep, something I found miraculous. Studies showed that hyperactive children often also had sleep problems—and judging by the yelling and running and fighting I’d seen during the reading hour over the years, well…still, the unconscious ballet tiptoed all around me while I wondered if any of them would one day join the space program.
Sleep patterns changed throughout a lifetime, so there was no way of catching someone with a disqualifying disorder early on. Too bad—it would have been so much easier to assassinate a child. Even with my skinny arms, it wouldn’t be hard to overpower one of them. No need for more complicated schemes.
All it would take was to catch one of them in the stairway or the bathroom, cut off air flow. Simple and beautiful.
Agitation burned my esophagus. Even though it’d be necessary if the universe demanded it, there was relief in not having to kill a child. I was a hero, not a monster.
“They’re so peaceful when they’re asleep, aren’t they?” Trina leaned next to me, smiling. Her black diamond eyes glittered. I hadn’t even seen her cross the room. “God, don’t you just want a half dozen of them? I haven’t told my boyfriend yet, but I want to start having kids as soon as we get married.”
I shuddered. “All that screaming and crying makes me crazy.”
“You’d be a good mother.” She paused, setting a doll on the counter, its lashes drifting to kiss its apple red cheeks. “You’re always so nice. And you always listen to what people are saying. Kids have a lot to say, you know?”
My fingers crept closer to the doll, poking at its hip with my nail. The pink dress belled out from the waist, ending in frayed lace at the hem. Rage burned in my stomach. How dare she make assumptions about me? She’d been my officemate for years, almost as long as I’d been employed at the Forty Winks Sleep Lab, but she hardly knew anything about me.
“Well, bless your heart,” I said. The cold air of the library hit my teeth; I smiled harder. “What do you like about children?”
Always keep them talking about themselves. That had been Dad’s motto.
“Just look at them!” Trina hissed. “Little angels. And the babies have that smell.”
“Yes, I would imagine the diapers…”
“No,” she said. Her pinched face morphed into a dreamy, dopey expression. “I mean, yeah. The diapers are rank, but there’s something about the way their skin smells. Like the air hasn’t had a chance to pollute them yet.”
“Pollute them? What do you mean?”
I imagined the oxygen and hydrogen molecules attacking a newborn, turning the skin against itself, setting the organs on their eventual path to decay. All living is dying. Not a second went by when some part of a human being wasn’t one step closer to the end. And at the end came sleep, deeper and more satisfying than anyone could ever imagine.
“Just that they’re so innocent and sweet at this age.”
Innocent. Right. When was anyone innocent?
I stood the doll upright, closing my own eyes when the doll’s popped open, the distinctive sllliccck of the lids pounding in my ears.
Nike’s puffy yellow tail bushed and shook, curling around the leg of the table in the front hallway when I walked in the door after my shift. He blinked up at me, his own form of Morse code. We’d always communicated this way.
“Yes, I know,” I said. “I’ll finish the report right now.”
After arriving home from my final observation at Meehan’s apartment, I’d arranged all the evidence on my bed and dove into a review. Of course, by the time I came up for air I’d only had enough time to shower, eat a quick breakfast, and leave for the library.
But anyone could have broken in, Nike fluttered. Seen your research.
“No one would dare, not while you’re here.” Agitation seared my stomach, blistering it to charcoal. He was right; I should have been more circumspect.
It was careless.
“I said I’d do it now. And everything was locked up in my closet. It was safe.”
He followed me into the kitchen like a magnet, my satellite. I filled his dish on the worn linoleum floor with milk and checked his food levels.
You seem disturbed.
“Mrs. Gerhardt is trying to set me up with Trina. She thinks I need to make friends. I’m trying out Dad’s trick, though—the whole thing about asking lots of questions and smiling for no reason. A rule of two questions minimum seems like a good idea, right? Trina might take it the wrong way, of course, like I really want to be friends. I’ll have to observe reaction to the questions. I may need to revise the number up or down.”
You’re a great mind doing important work. Trina would only interfere.
“It’s not like I’m going to suddenly start hanging out with her. It was just irritating. She kept looking at me, like she was picturing what my intestines looked like,” I said. The light streamed into the kitchen from the small window above the sink. I held my hand into the beam, swirling my fingers and casting shadows. Dust motes eddied on the breeze like insects fighting to the death. “And Mrs. Gerhardt kept going on and on about my dad. And then Mom.”
Nike glanced up from his milk, squinting through topaz marble eyes. A shudder traversed his lanky body.
I left him there, abandoning him for the quiet sanctity of my bedroom. The closet door was padlocked, the key hidden on my dresser, under the urn that no longer held my father’s ashes.
It took only a few moments to access the closet. The sick turbulence in my chest lifted, and a true smile crawled across my face. It was my proximity to the work itself. Somehow it always made everything less stressful.
Meehan’s file (royal blue in color, as were all the files for male astronauts. The female astronauts got blood red files) lay in the wire in-box on top of the filing cabinet wedged right inside the closet door. On the wall above the storage, I’d hung a to-do board. The interior of my closet was painted bright white, the landscape so clean that I could conduct autopsies if need be.
I drew a line through Meehan’s name with the dry-erase marker. He was the fifth astronaut to pass muster for this mission, which left just one. Of the other four I’d already approved, three were astronauts who’d flown before. It hadn’t taken much time to investigate the other, a woman with a strict schedule and the most elegant sleep I’d ever seen.
It was hard to explain Colonel Janet Markowitz. She was tall and willowy, yes, but even when she slept there was a grace about her. Every breath seemed choreographed to the subtle shiver of her eyes beneath her lids during REM cycles. I found myself waxing poetic while writing her final observation report, as though attempting to force the artistry I saw in her body through the nib of my pen. Even her house exuded a calm confidence.
The final astronaut to study was really a cosmonaut. The Russian space program had lent two of their people to NASA for upcoming missions: Zory Korchagin and Yuriy Amanov. I had files on them both, things I’d gleaned from various sources, but NASA hadn’t released official biographies yet. No photos, either, and my research had come up fruitless on that. Still, it wouldn’t take much effort to procure address information through the lab and begin my investigation of Korchagin. Amanov could wait—he wasn’t scheduled to fly for another six months.
I fanned out the photographs from the file before connecting my camera to the laptop and printing the pictures I’d taken that morning. Nike slinked into the room and settled on the desk amid a cloud of long, shedding fur and twitched his pink nose.
Nicely done, he blinked out.
“The new camera lens really helps with the low light conditions, don’t you think?” I asked.
Yes, and you were very thorough. Do you think there’s any significance to his choice of vitamins?
“I seriously doubt it,” I said. “Zinc is pretty common, particularly if he’s trying to ward off colds before the launch.”
Zinc deficiency can mean a few things. Impotence. Hair loss.
“Does it matter? It’s not any of my business whether Meehan can get an erection, and he has a full head of hair. Neither one of those things impact whether he can sleep during liftoff.”
Nike’s baleful glare made me turn away to again study the photographs I’d taken. There was nothing new in any of them—I hadn’t glossed over anything. After my printer stopped buzzing, I shuffled through the new photos as well.
I’d snapped close-ups of the photographs Meehan kept on a table in his living room. The first was of him with an older couple—his parents. Another included Meehan with his arm around the same woman from his bedside table frame, the two of them grinning into the camera. On second glance she didn’t look so much like me: she had the well-rested look of someone who sleeps ten hours each night.
A third picture had Meehan in a uniform of some sort with a cluster of little boys around him. His Boy Scout troop, perhaps. The background check I’d done indicated that he’d acted as a troop leader in his hometown.
“He’ll be fine if anything happens during liftoff,” I announced while pausing to scratch Nike behind the ears. Thin lines of darker yellow fur marred the top of his head and ran down his back. “A little messy, maybe, but he’s a sleeper.”
What will you ask your janitor friend to teach you this week?
“I’d like to know more about some of his cleaning chemicals. Maybe I can use them in an assassination plan. So far I’ve been unable to find out much about this Korchagin’s medical history, so the plan will have to be something more creative.”
You do notneed his expertise on the chemicals. You should break things off with him before your dalliances become too personal. What if he’s talking about you to someone?
I stacked the photographs and numbered each one in the back upper right corner, ignoring Nike. He was an elderly cat—he’d been my constant companion since he was a kitten. He’d grown a bit whiter through the face over the years, but his coat was still silky and bright, almost the color of maize. He could be cranky, especially when he thought something was interfering with my observations.
After flipping through the pictures again, I was positive there was nothing in any of them to change my mind about my final observation report. Meehan would sleep during liftoff. And Nike worried for no good reason.
A drift of bees vibrated behind my eyes, and my lids drooped. All at once the air inside my head expanded and contracted in waves. I’d slept for an hour, maybe three, four nights ago. I’d be good with another forty-five minute nap. But first I had to complete the investigation.
I sandwiched the photos into a white envelope and sealed it shut. Those went in the back of the folder. In front were the observation reports in chronological order, with the final report clipped to the inside of the file. I clicked out a label (Robert Jeffrey Meehan, Ph.D.: approved) and slid it into the clear plastic sleeve to attach to the top of the Pendaflex folder.
The file drawer slid open. My finger dragged along the files. I closed my eyes—the thwap thwap as each one popped off my short nail quieted the volcano in my stomach. All told, my files held the sleep history and surveillance notes on three dozen people or so who might one day die on the space shuttle if I didn’t carry out my observations to the universe’s satisfaction.
Most slept as if they’d bitten into a cursed apple like in a fairy tale. The rest were still acceptable, lacking any discernible sleep disorders.
Good, sound sleepers.
Blue sparkles shimmered, mashed into the creases of my mother’s closed eyelids, more saturated than the color on the rest of her skin. A light snore dribbled out of her. Her curly hair tangled across her face and dipped into the sockets of her deep-set eyes.
The thick smacking of Mom’s lips muted against the nubby couch. I cocked my head to the side. She rooted deeper under the blankets, the tip of her mauve turtleneck poking over the edge.
I hoped the shuttle astronauts slept better than Mom. Panic shot through my belly button, sizzling my spine and docking at the back of my neck. It made me feel like throwing up, but I’d gotten yelled at last time. I’d promised to make it to the toilet if it happened again.
Taking a deep breath, just the way Dad told me, the vinegar feeling in my throat backed down. I held my body stiff, imagining I was strapped into the shuttle, measuring the air in and out. Four-three-two-one-in, four-three-two-one-out. Just like sleep. It didn’t match to Mom’s snuffling, though.
She coughed, writhing as though I’d coated her in itching powder. I waited for the coughing to subside, then matched her breath for breath, grasping the hem of my shirt the way my mother clutched at the edge of the blanket.
The coarse fabric of an imagined astronaut suit rubbed across my shins. I didn’t know if they wore their helmets during takeoff, but the air would probably be hot with the gases fueling their ascent. Maybe it would smell like whatever the astronauts ate for breakfast.
A yawn, and then her lashes flapped against her cheek before drifting up to hide the eyeshadow. Her olive green eyes widened. My eyes went to the chip in her front tooth.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing.” The pattern from the couch cushion crimped the skin of her neck.
“How long you been standing there?”
She pushed off the arm of the couch, levering her thin torso to slump upright. She repositioned the glittery barrette in her hair. “You’re pulling a face like a lying liar. Jesus hates ugly liars.”
She didn’t need to know a thing. Everything I did was silly or stupid or trifling, so saying anything was useless.
“Are you just going to stand there and eyeball me?” Mom hissed. “Go get me a beer.”
When I returned she sat with her head in her hands, chanting over and over again: “Burn burn burn burn burn burn burn burn.”
“Mom?” I said. She glanced up, and I shoved the beer at her.
“I killed them all,” she hissed, a thin-lipped smile on her mouth. “I burned those astronauts up.”
I turned and fled to the safety of the kitchen.
fears many things, chief amongst them that something lurks in the dark. Her short stories have appeared in Black Heart Magazine, The Molotov Cocktail, and Penduline, among others. She also moderates “5 Minute Fiction,” a weekly international flash fiction challenge. The Trajectory of Dreams is her first novel. She resides in the Philadelphia area with her husband and small cadre of pets, and when she isn’t writing, you can find her on the Schuylkill River paddling with the Philadelphia Flying Phoenix women’s dragon boat team, sky diving over New Jersey, or digging around in her gardens. Visit her website at www.nicolewolverton.com.
When you write a book, you never really do it on your own. I’m super thankful to the following:
•Chase Nottingham, my critique partner. He’s an amazing writer, editor, and friend, and I’m grateful to have his eyes on everything I write.
•Randi Segal, Julie Zangara, Gilly Wright, and Suzanne Sanders, the first to look over this manuscript (and excellent women). There are others who read parts of this manuscript at various points, so thanks to all!
•Bitingduck Press. Thanks to my editor for working with me to shine up the story. Thanks to the editor-in-chief for seeing something in the manuscript.
•Everyone who contributed to research. Thanks to the Philadelphia Science Festival—because of PSF, I was able to attend talks by science writer Mary Roach and Guion Bluford, Jr., a retired astronaut from West Philly (and the first African-American in space, I might add), both of which were useful for the space travel parts of this novel. Mike White, an old friend from high school, helped with the arson research. I promise to only use the knowledge for good, Mike! Thanks, too, to everyone who answered my questions about sleep clinics and sleep research.
•Sarah Adamec, Kymberlie McGuire, and Christine Tremoulet. These Houstonites have always been really generous, letting me crash in their apartments and driving me around Houston over the years. Drinks are on me next time I’m in town! Tiaras are optional.
•Regency Café in Lansdowne, PA. I wrote a fair amount of Trajectory sitting in Regency, and their great coffee, excellent food, free-flowing wifi, and friendly staff made that possible.
Lastly, thanks to my mom for letting me read whatever I wanted as a kid. I’d like to think early exposure to Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury, abnormal psychology texts, and those weird Time-Life paranormal books made me the well-adjusted woman I am today. Ma, stop laughing.
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