By Tom Howard
The big house on top of the mountain looked as busy as an anthill someone had stirred with a stick. Family and friends arrived day or night, asking about Jimmy’s mama. She was in the hospital. They gave Jimmy and his little sister sorrowful looks, followed by a pat or hug as they moved on to console their dad. Aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends brought food and sympathy, unsure of what to do without an actual funeral to attend.
Jimmy stayed out of everyone’s way and tried to follow what was going on. Mama, the one who’d always taken care of them, had complained of a bad headache, and Dad had taken her to the hospital after she’d collapsed over the kitchen stove. She’d never come back. Their father looked pale and sat by himself staring into space when he wasn’t greeting company or staying at the hospital with mama.
Jimmy’s two older brothers, Jerry and Junior, worked the farm and let their visiting aunts take care of the younger kids. Jimmy, ten, watched out for his seven-year-old sister, Angie, and tried to explain words like “brain tumor” and “terminal” as best he could. They mostly stayed outside with their cousins, Stevie and Pete – kids their own ages – and away from the crowds and the crying.
Jimmy felt better when Living Grandma, Dad’s elderly mother, arrived. Dead Grandma, his mom’s mother, had passed away several years earlier. Angie didn’t remember her and had given the grandmothers their unfortunate nicknames when she was younger. Jimmy knew he was Living Grandma’s favorite. His quiet, studious nature didn’t seem to bother her as much as it did his older brothers, big boisterous farm boys who teased Jimmy for telling his wild stories and always having his nose in a book.
Jimmy and Angie had been born “late in life” which Jimmy understood meant they had old parents, older than most kids’ folks in their school. Grandma told him once that Dad had had a heart attack as a young man, and his doctor had prescribed having more children to keep him healthy. It seemed to work. Dad worked harder than anybody else in the county and never complained about his heart.
It hadn’t taken Grandma long to unpack, send Dad back to the hospital, and help the aunts in the kitchen. She greeted the family minister and sent the four younger children to the woodpile to fetch a good supply of wood for the big stove even though it was summer. Grandma was a big woman, stooped with decades of farm work and the bearing of twelve children, but she was always there to help when somebody needed it. Her steel gray hair had never felt a pair of scissors in her almost ninety years, and every night when she unbraided, combed, and put it back up, all the kids gathered in her room to watch the ceremony of Grandma unfurling her curtain of hair, so long that it touched the floor when she stood.
She didn’t allow playing cards, drinking, or cussing when she was in the house, and even Dad respected her wishes, sneaking a beer with the uncles behind the barn when she came to visit. Grandma didn’t discipline with a switch or a belt; she recited fire and brimstone Bible verses until the punished felt like crawling under a rock.
She corralled Jimmy as soon as she had a quiet moment and asked him to help her gather some apples from the orchard for a cobbler. Jimmy, half-heartedly on the lookout for pirates with his cousins in the tree house, handed off his wooden sword to Stevie and joined his grandma.
“I want some of those Bismarcks from the lower orchard,” she said. “They’re so big, one or two of them can make a cobbler.”
Jimmy, taking the burlap bag from her rough fingers, accompanied her. Usually he was a magpie around the old woman, feeling he could tell her anything and finding her a willing listener, but today he was quiet and withdrawn.
“Angels are watching over your mama,” she assured him, resting her hand on his thin shoulder for support as they took the wandering trail through the old apple trees. “God won’t give her more than she can bear.”
He stopped and looked at her, tears standing in his eyes. “Grandma, will God punish someone who’s done something really bad?”
Grandma looked surprised. “Your mama never did nothing bad in her entire life! She’s a good, God-fearing woman. Hardly misses a Sunday in church, that woman.”
Jimmy hung his head. “Not Mama. Me. I caused her to be sick.”
“Nonsense!” the old woman exclaimed. “She has a brain tumor, Jimmy. It can happen to anyone. Why would you even think you’d caused it?”
Jimmy’s tears ran down his face and made his nose run, and he quickly told Grandma the story of how Mama’d punished him for throwing a rock at Mikey Johnson and breaking out his front tooth. Angrier than he’d ever seen her, she’d not waited for his dad to spank him but had made him go get his own switch from the ash tree in the front yard. She’d used it on him good, all the time yelling about what a bad thing he’d done for hurting someone.
“I didn’t backtalk or even cry much, but when she’d finished and sent me to my room, I was so mad at her I prayed she’d feel as bad as I did.” He finished his confession, shaking with sobs. “It’s all my fault she’s dying, Grandma!”
Grandma hugged him to her bosom and let him cry. After a few minutes, she took out her linen handkerchief and made him blow his nose. “Jimmy Joseph,” she scolded lightly, “no one has the power to pray for someone to get hurt. The good Lord doesn’t work that way.”
Jimmy sniffed. “I didn’t pray to the Lord, Grandma.”
“Who did you pray to?” she asked, looking puzzled.
Living Grandma frowned but hugged Jimmy again. “That old witch? She doesn’t have any say so over anybody, dead or alive. You didn’t have anything to do with it. It is just your mama’s time, child. But next time, don’t pray to Imogene Rae Abernathy; pray to the Heavenly Father for a miracle to help someone! Yes, that’s what we need, a miracle.”
Jimmy’s eyes stung, but he still caught the worried look on his grandmother’s face before she put her arm through his and led him to the Bismarck tree. “I remember one year we got an apple twelve inches around off this tree,” she said. “Let’s see if we can find a couple of those.”
At supper, Jimmy sat picking at his food, seemingly worlds away from the dozen others around the big table. His grandma gave him worried looks but didn’t comment. Since Jimmy was always a quiet child – when he wasn’t leading the other cousins down the Yellow Brick Road or blasting battalions of attacking Martians – his behavior wasn’t unusual.
Several of the older cousins and his big brothers were excitedly telling Dad what they’d found off the county road on the south end of their forty acres.
“I don’t know how it’s staying up there,” said Junior. “It’s in pretty good shape for a junker.”
“They probably pushed it off the country road into the hollow,” said Jerry, taking another helping of Grandma’s cobbler. “Just like they do all the junkers. But this big red ’57 Buick got stuck in one of the pines growing in the valley, and now it’s just hanging in mid-air.”
“You guys stay away from it,” Dad told the younger kids. Turning to Jerry and Junior, he said, “You can saw a load of firewood down there in the next couple days and make sure you cut it down. I’ll talk to the sheriff about town people dumping their junk on our property. It’s a miracle it got stuck up there.”
Jimmy’s eyes lit up with a feverish gleam, but he didn’t say anything at the table. He asked to be excused and took Stevie with him for a hurried conversation, Angie and Pete tagging along as usual.
“You’re nuts!” repeated Stevie as the four children stood on the county road the next morning. They were looking down into a steep canyon filled with old pines. One of the large trees close to the road had a car nestled in the limbs. It looked like an oversized Christmas ornament, red and silver, tucked among the dark green branches.
“Just think,” said Jimmy. “It’ll make a perfect rocket ship! When we look out, we’ll see the whole world.”
“How will we get to it?” asked Pete, always the practical one.
Jimmy pointed to some long branches touching the side of the canyon. “We climb down there, go across on the limb, and then up to the car. It looks pretty sturdy.”
Stevie asked, “What about your dad? He said to stay out of it.”
“He’ll never find out,” said Jimmy, “and they’re cutting it down tomorrow so we’ll never get to use it if we don’t do it today. Don’t you see? It’s a miracle. Our miracle. We were meant to get up there and see if we can help—”
“I’m not going without Mr. Cranberry,” insisted Angie, looking at Jimmy defiantly.
“You can go home if you want to play with your invisible friend,” said Pete, never missing a chance to tease his cousin about her made up companion.
“Mr. Cranberry can come,” said Jimmy. “Let’s go.”
Without actually agreeing to climb into the Buick, Stevie followed the others down the sharp incline, using brush and small trees for support as they slid down the mossy embankment. Jimmy tested the pine branch he’d selected, using one above as a handrail while carefully side-stepping his way to the trunk. It was strong and he waited for the others, noticing Angie made Pete leave a space for Mr. Cranberry. Stevie, now begrudgingly committed, climbed up the copious branches toward the car.
“I can see why it didn’t fall down,” he called to the others. “They took out the engine and threw the car body into the gulley.”
“Cool,” said Jimmy. “Let’s see if we can get into it.” The rest of them clambered like monkeys up the tree trunk.
Surprisingly, only the rear window was broken out, and the big shiny car was almost level, wedged between two strong branches. Jimmy pressed against it, but it didn’t move. He slid in through the broken window, carefully brushing aside the safety glass, and moved to the driver’s seat. He bounced up and down, but the car hardly jiggled. “It’s okay!” he yelled. “And what a view!”
“You’re going to get us in so much trouble,” said Stevie, but Jimmy was already in another world, on a quest to right the wrongs of the universe.
The others took their usual places: Stevie in the passenger front seat, the little kids in the back. Whether they were flying imaginary jet planes or submarines, the four cousins sat in the same positions. Jimmy always drove because it was his creative imagination that turned the abandoned couch into an ocean liner or biplane.
“Okay, Co-pilot,” Jimmy said to Stevie with a feverish grin, “launch in one minute.”
“Roger, Captain,” said Stevie. He turned to the other two – three if you counted the invisible and silent Mr. Cranberry. “Prepare stations for blastoff.”
“Sir,” said Angela from her communications console behind the captain, “Space Command reports another ship missing from the Beta 4 spacegate. This one was a fully-loaded passenger ship.” She was a young and attractive lieutenant and the captain’s usual communications officer.
“Darn it!” said the captain. “That’s the third one this cycle! If this keeps up, they’ll kill off the entire quadrant. Co-pilot, set a course for the Beta 4 spacegate. Maximum waveshift.” The captain was also a young man, mature beyond his years, and a passionate officer who strongly believed in Space Command’s role as defenders of the universe.
“Roger, Captain,” said the co-pilot, turning to his navigation console. He busily flicked switches on his terminal. “Course laid in, sir.”
“Engaging waveshift engines,” reported the captain. He expertly turned the wheel and headed for the Beta 4 spacegate. “Engineering, give me all you’ve got. We have to arrive before more ships disappear.”
“Aye, sir,” said the ship’s engineer. “All systems report green. Projecting on main screen.” Although there was actually no need to show the captain the areas of the ship that were fully operational, the engineer loved putting a picture of the vessel on the screen at every opportunity.
The ship was relatively small, only having a crew of five, and sleek. Its pronounced red and silver lines enabled it to ride waveshifts efficiently and swiftly. Although designed for speed, it carried a full complement of weapons and scanning equipment. It was a typical Space Command patrol ship with an atypical crew, more dedicated and driven than most.
A green and yellow creature – looking like a twisted knot with eyes – jabbered loudly from the rear of the bridge where it was monitoring the ship’s internal systems, and Angela chirped something back at it before translating for the others. “Captain, Ensign Crxynx wants to know if we’re going to turn up missing, too, if we go into the Beta 4 spacegate.”
The captain looked at the alien crewman. “We just have to hope we’re better able to handle what we find in there than they were, Ensign.” Angela relayed the message.
The co-pilot turned from his forward position to study the captain. “What do you think is causing it, Captain?”
The captain frowned. “I hope I’m wrong, but I think it may be a Gorgon.”
“A Gorgon?” asked the engineer, placing an image of the alien on the forward screen, “but aren’t they mainly a nuisance to spaceships?” The blob on the screen looked small, a fleshy mass of tissue that pulsated and glistened. “They adhere to the hull and siphon off energy, right?”
“The small ones do,” agreed the captain, “but the larger ones aren’t satisfied to just hitch a ride for a snack. They like to grab their prey and slowly suck out their energy.”
“Patrol 147!” realized the co-pilot. “That happened to them, right?”
“I was the only survivor,” said the captain, “I was an ensign when we encountered the giant Gorgon in the Pacifica system. It had taken up residence within the spacegate itself and sucked the life out of passing ships. It eventually grew so large it was trapped within the spacegate.”
“How did you escape?” asked the engineer, wiping the image of the parasite from the main screen.
“Our captain tried everything she could, but it was too much for our little patrol ship. It drank up our laser blasts like a sponge, pulled us in, and tore our ship apart. The captain ordered us to abandon ship and set the vessel to self-destruct.”
“Wow,” said the engineer. “I heard about Patrol 147, but I didn’t know you were on it!”
“It’s not something I like to talk about,” said the captain. “Let’s just hope whatever’s grabbing ships on their way to Beta 4 isn’t a Gorgon.”
Ensign Crxynx chirped and Angela smiled. “He wants to go check the escape pods.”
“Good idea,” said the captain, returning to the helm as the small alien left the bridge. The other members of the crew returned to their own consoles, busy preparing for the possible danger that lay ahead.
Angela acknowledged an incoming message and relayed it to the others. “Space Command has temporarily restricted civilian passage through the Beta 4 spacegate. It’s the only entrance to that quadrant, so they don’t know how long they can keep it closed.”
“Estimated arrival in six decacycles,” offered the co-pilot.
“Very good,” said the captain. “Angela, please relay that to Space Command. All systems should be battle-ready when we arrive. The better prepared we are the better chance we have of defeating this monster.”
When Crxynx returned, he twittered and warbled for several minutes before Angela looked at the captain and said, “The escape pods are okay.”
The captain, having locked the wheel, was standing with the engineer. They were looking for any information on the mysterious space creature known as a Gorgon. “What kind of countermeasures can we employ?” he asked the engineer.
“Aside from your old patrol’s records,” answered the engineer, “there’s not a lot of information. For the smaller ones, spaceport mechanics use laser blades to remove them from the hulls, but it’s a tedious process.”
“This one will be tougher,” said the co-pilot. “It’s survived a long time if it’s big enough to grab passenger ships.”
The captain nodded and returned to his chair, aware they were entering Beta 4 space. He took over manual control and watched the beacons, already set to warn off civilian ships, as they approached the spacegate. On the large viewscreen, the co-pilot placed indicators showing several cargo vessels sitting in the sector, waiting for the gate to reopen.
“Launch a probe,” the captain ordered and the co-pilot pressed the appropriate buttons. A bright point of light filled the forward screen, grew smaller, and disappeared into the darkness.
“Probe entering the stargate,” announced the engineer. “Telemetry is coming through. Wait! Telemetry has stopped. The images we did get are on the screen.”
“What is that?” asked Angela, rising from her position to look at the writhing mass on the main screen. It was gray and spherical and covered in veins that pulsated in quivers and jerks. From the scale on the side of the screen, it was several times larger than the patrol vessel. The passenger liner was plainly visible, still intact, but firmly ensconced in the creature.
“That,” said the captain, “is a Gorgon. Our mission, people, is to destroy it, rescue the people on the liner, and restore this sector to good health. No matter the cost.”
“Weapons ready,” announced the co-pilot.
“Unable to reestablish telemetry,” said the engineer. “The probe is gone. Do you want me to launch another one, Captain?”
“No,” he said. “Prepare to enter the stargate.”
“Captain!” exclaimed the co-pilot, turning from his position to address his superior. “If we go in there, we’ll be killed!”
“If we don’t,” said the captain, “all those passengers will be tossed out into space when it cracks their ship open. Plot me a course, Co-pilot!”
Crxynx chirped and hopped about.
Angela barked at him and looked apologetically at the captain. “Sorry, sir. I’ve warned him about using that kind of language.”
“Co-pilot,” said the captain, “I want you to fire the laser blasters at those tendrils holding the passenger ship and get the beam as thin as possible. Engineer, make sure we have sufficient power to the weapons. Angela, see if you can contact the liner after we enter the spacegate. Everyone ready? Here we go.”
The ship shook as they entered the spacegate. The naturally occurring gates were invisible in normal space but allowed ships to travel quickly from one galaxy to another. In between the entry and exit points of these gates were tunnels of no-space, gray expanses of nothingness. The Gorgon had entered the tunnel, possibly on the hull of a ship, and been trapped in the no-space zone. There it somehow found enough sustenance to grow. As it grew, it was able to grab larger and larger ships.
The co-pilot focused and fired on the large tendrils holding the passenger liner to the belly of the Gorgon and announced, “I hit it! Bring her around again, Captain!”
The captain did and several bridge sirens went off and the ship shook. The engineer quickly silenced them with a worried look. “We’re exceeding maximum stress levels for the ship’s structure with turns like that, sir.”
Angela was talking animatedly at her panel, and Crxynx had turned to recheck his life support systems. Coming back around, the captain watched as the co-pilot expertly sliced another binding cable.
“Sir!” shouted Angela. “I’ve got the captain of the passenger liner on comms. He says their escape pods are all on the underside of their ship, the side toward the Gorgon!”
“Great,” said the captain.
“It gets worse,” said the engineer. “It’s throwing something at us. A mass has broken off from the creature and is headed this way!”
“Evasive maneuvers,” the captain warned and jerked the wheel hard left. The little patrol ship shivered and dipped, but the engineer shook his head.
“Brace yourselves for impact!” shouted the captain.
The ship took the hit badly, knocking Crxynx and Angela to the floor.
“It’s spitting at us?” inquired the co-pilot.
“Gross,” said the engineer.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” said Angela, taking her seat just as the lights went off.
“What happened?” asked the captain.
“It’s the spit,” said the engineer. “It’s eating into the hull.”
Crxynx sprang up and chattered excitedly.
“Captain,” translated Angela, “the ensign says he thinks he can help, but he needs to go outside.”
“He’d better hurry,” said the engineer, “before we lose power permanently. Backup systems are offline.”
The captain agreed and stopped himself from telling the ensign to take a spacesuit; the little alien didn’t need one.
“The passenger ship is almost free,” said the co-pilot. “Does it have any propulsion power, Angela?”
The young woman shook her head.
“We’ve got to get the Gorgon to come after us,” said the captain. “If we defeat it, we can come back for the passengers later; maybe use some of the ships waiting outside to help carry them.”
“How can we defeat it?” asked the co-pilot, firing at the creature to get its attention.
The captain looked at the red self-destruct button under the protective seal on his armrest. “Engineer!”
“Sorry, sir. I was checking on the ensign. He seems to have the acid spit under control.”
“How?” asked Angela.
The engineer grimaced. “I think he’s licking it up.”
The captain made a face and pointed at the self-destruct button. “This is attached to a self-contained gravity bomb near the propulsion unit?”
The engineer nodded.
“How long will it take you to load it aboard an escape pod with a…five minute timer?”
The young man’s face lit up. “Three minutes to get the module pulled and maybe two more to set up a timer.” He was already rising from his seat.
The captain turned to his communications officer. “Angela, tell the passenger ship to hold on and get Ensign Crxynx back inside if he’s done with his snack. Then, go help the engineer.”
“What about us?” asked the co-pilot. “That big ugly is coming this way.”
“We’ve got to keep that sucker busy for the next five minutes. Fire at will.”
The engineer and Angela raced from the room for the lower decks where the propulsion unit and life pods were located. The patrol ship bounced up and down as the creature whipped tendrils around it, and the co-pilot had trouble keeping his seat.
“Don’t let it grab us!” shouted the captain, steering the ship in tighter circles while ignoring the ship’s warning sirens. The ship dipped dramatically to the left, and the co-pilot flew from his seat and slammed into the wall. He cried out, his arm hanging at an unnatural angle, but managed to pull himself back to his station.
“Fire!” screamed the captain, and the co-pilot, obviously in pain, pushed buttons with his good hand.
After what seemed an eternity of the ship’s weaving and bouncing, the engineer and Angela returned to the bridge, carrying Crxynx between them.
Just then the ship nosedived, sending the captain painfully into the wheel, and the others pin-wheeling about the cabin. The engineer was stuck to the ceiling momentarily before gravity clicked back on, sending him crashing to the floor. Angela screamed, ducked a shower of broken glass, and grabbed the captain’s seat as she slid by.
“We’ve got to abandon ship!” shouted the engineer.
“No!” said the captain. “Launch the life pod.” Without waiting, he lurched to the engineer’s station and pressed the appropriate button himself.
The next few minutes were tense, and only the co-pilot’s moans filled the cabin as they waited for a tremendous explosion. Everyone stood, difficult because the floor was tilted at a forty-five degree angle, and peered out the front window at the agitated beast. The life pod, fired so close to the monster, sank deep into its flesh before exploding. Instead of being incinerated in a bright light, the creature began to deflate like a balloon, growing smaller and smaller as they watched.
In seconds, the creature was completely gone, and all that was left in the no-space corridor was the stranded passenger liner and the battered patrol ship.
The co-pilot held his broken arm close to his body and looked around the cabin. “Well, we’re still in one piece anyway.”
“And we destroyed the Gorgon,” said the captain proudly. “That’s the important thing.”
“Captain,” said Angela, bending over the small alien at her feet. “I don’t think the ensign made it. He absorbed all the acid off our hull, and I think it was too much for him.”
The captain joined her on the floor and nodded. Ensign Crxynx wasn’t breathing and his colors looked bad. His eyes were closed and he seemed bloated. “At least he died for a good—”
An incredible belch escaped from the alien and he moaned. Opening his eyes, he patted his belly area and chattered at Angela.
She rose, looking disgusted. “He wants to know what’s for dessert.”
A loud noise cut across the bridge. “You kids come out of there right now!” yelled Jimmy’s father. “Are any of you hurt?”
Jimmy opened his eyes and looked around. They were sprawled across the interior of the crumpled Buick. It had flipped over during its fall from high in the pine tree and was now right side up – crumpled and dented – and resting in the middle of a blackberry patch on the ground. The windshield was broken and so was Stevie’s right arm. Pete and Angie, giving each other worried glances, climbed out through the back window into Angie’s older brothers’ arms.
“Grandma called me at the hospital and told me she couldn’t find you anywhere,” Dad continued shouting down the valley as they slowly climbed up. “I ought to tan each and every one of you until you can’t sit down for a month!”
Instead of taking off his belt and doing the deed right then and there when they reached the top, Dad gathered them all in a group hug and started crying.
“What’s going on?” Stevie asked Jerry, carefully keeping his hurt arm out of reach.
Jerry smiled. “Dad got some great news at the hospital. Mom’s awake. The doctor’s say she’s had some kind of remission and her tumor’s shrinking.”
“It’s some kind of miracle,” said Junior. “Let’s get Dad and Stevie back down to the hospital. Jimmy, are you okay?”
Jimmy, not caring that his older brothers saw him, smiled as he wiped his tears. “I’m great,” he said, “just great.”
The hullabaloo around the big house on top of the mountain finally died down that summer. Mama came home, everyone signed Stevie’s cast, and all the company left. Living Grandma was the last to leave after giving Jimmy one last warning about praying to the wrong deity. Angie got a doll for her birthday and didn’t mention Mr. Cranberry after that summer. Jimmy thought she’d never forgiven him for having the bad manners to belch after helping them destroy the Gorgon.
Jimmy rarely thought of the old Buick, left to gather moss and rust quietly in the gulley, preferring to let his imagination take him to safer and less desperate locales. Besides, the spacegate to Beta 4 was clear now, his mother was better, and he had new adventures to dream.