“Did you know that you could fry people with a flashlight if you were on a spaceship that was travelling at the speed of light and you shined it out the windshield?” The words jumble together, cascading in a parade of nine-year old enthusiasm. Typical speed for Jarvis Blankenship. But that was the potency of new information, so it had to be shared. Which is why he had run into his sister’s room, red plastic flashlight in hand, turning it on and off at imaginary enemies.
“Why would you need a windshield in space, Jarvis?” his sister answers half heartedly, absently typing on the keyboard of her softly glowing computer. But the fourteen year old always seemed to be typing. “There is no wind in space”, she adds, never looking away from her screen.
Jarvis Blankenship purses his lips. He is of course, aware that there is no wind in space. He is learning all about space in one of his mother’s old books. But a windshield is necessary for this thought experiment and Zerelda is always such a pragmatist. No imagination, which is something you need to answer questions about the world. You need to tell stories to find answers; like the serious subject of what happens to a beam of light if you’re already travelling at the speed of light! Does the light get stuck inside the flash light? Does it spill out on the floor like syrup? These are important questions.
Seemingly on queue, Jarvis’ dad pops his head in the room. “There’s an Air-In-Space museum!” he shares, in his wide smiled, oh-so-glib fashion. “We went there on summer vacation, remember?”
Jarvis rolls his eyes. “That’s the Air and Space museum, dad.”
“Oh dad…” Zerelda sighs. This is even too much for her to remain her stoic self.
He chuckles as he walks to the door. “I know!” Car keys jingle, “I’ll be back with dinner!” Then, seeing its raining, “Don’t burn the house down!” The door closes and more chuckles can be heard as he heads to the car.
Jarvis and Zerelda look at each other. They do remember summer vacation. Two years ago, the family took a trip to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, in Washington, D.C. It was the last vacation the Blankenships would have together with their mother. It was when Dad started trying too hard to make them laugh; it was when Zerelda’s heart moved out of her room and went online; and it’s when Jarvis started reading so much, especially his mother’s journals and textbooks, that sometimes he’d forget to eat.
Jarvis looks at his sister. She is playing some game on her computer now, completely intent on her quarry. He doesn’t want to interrupt, but decides to push the frontier of their relationship, which hasn’t been exactly congenial recently. But he forges ahead.
“Do you think Mom is out there somewhere?” Jarvis looks down and to the side, where he’s nervously fiddling with her bedspread. Her room is dimly lit. The walls show trappings of an active life, posters, trophies, but the young woman at the desk now is very different from the girl on the walls.
“‘Hm? ‘There?’” Clack-clack-clackity-clack.
“You know, somewhere, that she can see us?”
“Because if so, maybe we could find a way…” Oh, how he wants to find a way so badly. “Maybe I could build a machine that could do it, I’ve been reading abou–”
The typing stops and Jarvis looks up in alarm.
Zerelda turns to Jarvis now, her face a tight frown of furrowed pain, “She died of cancer, Jarvis, cancer.” She spits the last word. He hated it too. Cancer. “You can’t talk to her and she’s never coming back.”
Jarvis, expecting this unsatisfactory answer, continues, “But how do you know?” Isn’t it important to know? He finds answers all the time, why not now?
“I just do.” Then a little quieter, “That’s just how it is, and there is nothing you or I, can do about it.” She turns back to her game. Clackity-click-click.
“But, she said she’d always be with us.” She had indeed said as much and Zerelda had been there. Their mother had said it while they were eating a cheese pizza at the dining room table one night after she had gotten sick. If his mother said she’d always be there, then she would be. Jarvis takes promises very seriously. Especially this one. And if he’s learned anything from his mother’s old science books, it’s that if something is there, you can experiment, measure the results, and know something, and he so wanted to know his mother again.
“That’s just what adults say, Jar, to make us feel better,” she grumbles as something flashes on her screen, then continues, “And they say it because the truth is, nothing lasts.” She quickly adds, “What they tell you and what is…”
She looks down at her hands now, no longer typing, “What do you mean… you could make a machine? To talk to mom?” There is a different timbre to her voice now: smaller, delicate.
“Well it’s just a hi-PO-the-sis,” Jarvis begins. He’s eager to use a new word. To sound grown up. To sound like science.
“Hypothesis?” Zerelda asks. There is a hint of a smile on her lips.
“Yeah, hypothesis.” He sits up straight and continues, “I read in a book that everything is energy, like light, and that energy never goes away, it just changes, like water changes into steam or a caterpillar into a butterfly!” Jarvis is quite animated now. Inspired by a new thought, he jumps up and closes the door to his sister’s room and with a quick motion turns out the lights.
“What the!” Zerelda seems irritated and nervous. “Hey! Jar!”
“Just wait”, he says. “Turn off your monitor, please?”
Seeing the serious look on his face, she sighs and does as she is asked. “Fine.”
There in the dark, as Zerelda’s eyes begin to adjust, Jarvis Blankenship presses his flashlight against the wall, and turns it on. Where the flashlight is pressed against the wall, the plastic red housing glows from the light inside.
“See, this was Mom. This was how she was before she died.” Sitting there, they both stare intently at the little glowing red point in the darkness.
Jarvis slowly begins to back up. As he does so, the little red glow bursts open into a brilliant white light on the wall. As he steps back further, that light begins to fill the room, over the posters and bookshelves, until it bathes the entire room, as well as Jarvis and Zerelda Blankenship, in brilliant luminescence.
“And this is Mom now.” Jarvis stands there in the middle of the room staring at the ceiling. He turns to look at his sister, and expecting to her to still be at her desk, is startled to see her beside him, her hand finds his. He can see the glimmer of tears in her eyes, just as he feels his own.
Moments later, with his impeccable timing, Jarvis’ dad opens the door. “Who wants cheese pizza?” They can see the confusion on his face, and seeing the flashlight and his children holding hands, he grins wide. “Room for me in this disco?” And he dances into the room.
While Jarvis and Zerelda stand there, laughing and groaning at their dad, Jarvis can’t help but consider that perhaps there were things he didn’t need to measure, label or completely understand for him to know they existed. Building an instrument to detect his mother is unnecessary, because he has his sister and father; the promise his mother made can still be detected through those who kept it inside, keeping her light within them, so it never goes away.