So… this is a bit of a break from my usual format. I wrote this short story several years ago as a re-imagining of my “coming out” experience – a way of explaining how it felt to have my very comfortable life as a closeted gay minister interrupted. At the time, I was reading lots of short stories by Steven Millhauser, Etgar Keret, and Shalom Auslander. If you know anything about these authors, you might not be too surprised by…
The Earth took his training wheels off only a few billion years ago. Before then, he obediently followed the other planets through their frenzied orbits, barely keeping out from under their feet. He wasn’t the typical middle child, quiet and demure. The Earth was curious and inquisitive, constantly asking questions like:
Why do I have to wear sunscreen?
What if I don’t want to eat my vegetables?
Are we there yet?
Despite the endless questions, the other planets liked the Earth. He was innocent, green, and good-natured. He never even made fun of Uranus… which was hard not to do. There were a few years during puberty, when his face erupted in a volcanic mess, that the Earth was a little moody, but that was all behind him now.
The Earth was settling – reluctantly – into middle-age. He was none too happy that his formerly tight pangaea was giving way to urban expansion. His rainforests were receding. His doctor was even nagging that his rising sea levels “might be cause for concern.”
In other words, the Earth wasn’t happy.
He worried that his life was moving in circles, never really getting anywhere. Parts of him felt like the days went on forever and the night would never end. He enjoyed his yearly commute around the sun, but how many times could he smile and make small talk with Venus as they passed? Sure, she was attractive. Saturn was dying to get his rings around her. Even Pluto, a shy planet with an obvious identity crisis, wanted to talk to her. But for all her charms, Venus wasn’t much of a conversationalist. The Earth needed more.
He wanted adventure.
One day, shortly after putting the finishing touches on an amazing sunset, the Earth heard some unsettling news. An asteroid was coming. The Earth wasn’t eavesdropping, of course, but it’s hard to ignore a few billion voices whispering in your ear. As soon as the asteroid was sighted, television reporters across the world began talking about “the catastrophic event,” “our pending extinction,” and “the violent end of life as we know it.”
And the Earth was listening.
News of the asteroid’s approach rocked the Earth to his core. The dinosaurs hadn’t done a very good job of warning him about the last asteroid, a surprise from the black that hit him like a cosmic car accident. One day he just turned around, saw the asteroid swerve into his orbit, and thought, “shit, this is going to hurt.” And it did. Bad.
“Whoever’s out there throwing rocks needs to stop,” he thought. “I’m too old for this.”
Unfortunately, the asteroid that was on its way wasn’t just a medium-sized rock meandering through the universe. It was bigger. Much bigger. A rock several times the size of Earth, the asteroid was technically a small planet that had broken free from its own solar system and achieved geologic independence. Apparently, when planets stop orbiting a single sun and start freelancing through the universe, they earn the slightly more sinister title of “asteroid.” Unencumbered by the obligations of orbit, the “asteroid” went wherever it wanted, aggressively barging its way through an otherwise orderly universe.
The asteroid was sighted on a Tuesday. Within a few weeks, it would become visible as a small speck in the Milky Way. The speck would grow as the asteroid approached, slowing filling the night sky. First the North Star would disappear. Then the Big Dipper would loose its handle. Within a few months, Orion, Scorpio, and all their twinkling friends would be hidden from view, eclipsed by the asteroid’s huge girth.
Several weeks before the Earth and the asteroid met, its gravity would pull the Earth’s oceans from their beds, gathering them together until they looked like a giant raindrop falling up into the sky.
Then, at the moment of impact, the Earth would shatter like a snowball, barely feeling a thing.
“It’s just obnoxious the way these asteroids think of no one but themselves,” the Earth ranted. “They go wherever they want and do whatever they want with no thought of who they’re inconveniencing or what they’re destroying. It’s not as if the stupid asteroid doesn’t know where I’m going to be 253 days, 3 hours, and 14 minutes from now.”
The Earth had a good point. His schedule was as regular as clockwork. In fact, his schedule was the basis for clockwork. Everyone always knew where the Earth was going to be several years before he got there. That’s the beauty – and monotony – of orbit. It leaves little room for variation.
If the asteroid knew where he was going to be and when he was going to be there, then why, the Earth wondered, did it insist on running into him?
The answer, of course, was that the asteroid was terribly inflexible. Concepts like “yield,” “stop,” and “turn” implied compromises that the asteroid, who was both terribly selfish and very hard headed, saw as signs of weakness.
In 253 days, 3 hours, and 14 minutes, the Earth and the asteroid would meet somewhere on the other side of the sun. The Earth couldn’t decide which he hated more – the anticipation of conflict, or conflict itself.
The Earth wondered how the people would deal with the approaching asteroid. He suspected they would recycle one of their Hollywood clichés and shoot a missile at it. The people, of course, had the same idea.
Within hours of the asteroid’s discovery, a swarm of satellites started buzzing. China talked to England. Mexico and Canada joined in a conference call with Australia. NASA turned its telescopes to the heavens and told everyone the end was near unless they acted fast.
The people acted fast. Their leaders pressed buttons and unlocked doors, uncovering weapons hidden long ago like eggs in the Easter grass.
“If we can split an atom,” the people thought, “surely we can split an asteroid.”
But given the choice between fight and flight, the Earth wasn’t sure picking a fight with the asteroid was the best idea. “Flight,” he thought, “might be a better option.”
Afraid for his own future, the Earth began to formulate a plan.
“If I start running now,” he thought, “I can just get out of the stupid asteroid’s way. I can be halfway across the solar system by the time it arrives. If I’m 186 million miles ahead of schedule, I won’t even have to brush shoulders with it when it passes!”
The Earth knew that speeding up would require everyone – including himself – to adapt to a new schedule. The change would be hard for the people. Traditionally, even slow changes that obviously needed to happen (like evolution and equality) had been difficult for them. But what choice did he have? Change was coming whether he (or they) liked it or not. He simply couldn’t continue on his current course and expect to survive.
And so, before the people could launch their missiles at the sky, the Earth took a deep breath and started speeding up. Faster and faster he ran. The faster he ran, the faster the days flew by, passing with quickening speed until a single week was little more than a blur of sunrises and sunsets.
He sped straight through summer and practically skipped fall. The long trip that usually took a lazy year to finish was done in a matter of weeks. Birds, confused by the strobing sunsets, flew south for the winter only to find their homes under several feet of snow. Children were equally surprised when spring break started three days before Christmas.
The children loved the new schedule. They had hardly finished one birthday before the next one began. Girls celebrated their sweet sixteen with Barbie Doll cakes and Dora the Explorer parties. Boys were old enough to buy beer before their voices changed.
The rapid succession of birthdays made parents worry that their babies were growing up too fast. Their concern, however, wasn’t only for their children. A woman in Iowa had just graduated from college, gotten married, and was expecting the birth of her first child when she became eligible for senior citizen discounts.
Anxiety levels also rose among college students who complained they didn’t have enough time to study for exams. Pulling an all-nighter was practically pointless. The sun came up before they could finish a second cup of coffee. And when fraternity boys partied all night on Friday with plans of sleeping late on Saturday, it was sometimes Monday morning before they woke up and wondered where the weekend had gone – which wasn’t very different from the way things had always been.
Even Santa’s elves were disgruntled. Unable to keep up with their new production schedule, the doll division threatened to strike.
The future was simply coming before the people were prepared for it. Before the Earth began his sprint toward safety, both the quick and the careful could order their lives because they knew what words like “next week,” “next month,” and “next year” meant. Like “one pound” and “four meters,” the meanings of “one minute” and “four days” were constant. This predictability not only sold thousands of calendars at Christmas, it also gave the people an illusion of control.
But now “tomorrow” was like a menstrual cycle — reliable, but unpredictable. The people always knew it was coming, but they didn’t know exactly when it would get there or how long it would stay.
Across the globe, petitions were signed asking the Earth to slow down. Concerned citizens gathered at community centers and organized anti-Earth demonstrations. Unlike the great protests of the past, however, the people marched without knowing where to go. Since City Hall couldn’t solve their problem, the people wandered aimlessly, hoping the Earth would hear them yell.
At a march in Oregon, an environmentalist who had once fought to save the rainforests led a group in chanting “stop the world, I wanna get off!” At a rally in Atlanta, a construction worker carried a shovel, but never followed through with his threats to dig a hole.
It didn’t take long, however, before the people realized that there wasn’t anything anybody could do to make the Earth slow down.
Activists couldn’t boycott anyone.
Armies couldn’t attack anyone.
Police couldn’t arrest anyone.
Lawyers couldn’t sue anyone.
Men couldn’t threaten anyone.
Women couldn’t manipulate anyone.
The AARP, whose membership had recently doubled, printed an informative pamphlet, but nobody had time to read it.
The Earth knew the people were frustrated, confused, and afraid… but it felt so good to finally control his own future.
The Earth felt it first in his North America. Then it spread to his Europe and across his Asia. This wasn’t one of those headaches he got from too much pressure along his tectonic plates. This headache was the direct result of 6 billion feet marching across his surface in angry unison. If they didn’t stop stomping soon, he would be forced to knock the people off balance. The Earth hadn’t been this upset since the invention of high-heeled shoes.
During what he considered the puberty of their race (generally referred to as “modernity”), the Earth felt the people had become disturbingly self-centered. Maybe he had a heart of stone, but the Earth was tired of being taken for granted. He was tired of letting ungrateful people walk all over him.
Wasn’t he always patient during their Thanksgiving Day Parade? Didn’t he suffer quietly through their New York City Marathon? He even allowed their military to practice their ridiculous advances and retreats at all hours of the day and night. His patience, however, was growing as thin as his ozone. The endless protest marches had to stop. They were not only irritating, they were insulting.
The Earth wasn’t deaf. He knew what the people were saying about him. He was listening when Greenpeace voted to take his name off their website. He noticed when Earth Day was cancelled and replaced with a symbolically violent tether-ball tournament. He tried to ignore preachers when they filled their Sunday Sermons with stories comparing him to somebody named “The Prodigal Son,” but he couldn’t. From pulpits across the globe they shouted that he was like an arrogant child who ran away from his father and leapt carelessly into the future. They said he “neglected his responsibility” and “denied his true calling.” They condemned him for “choosing a path other than the one assigned to him” and urged him to return to “the natural state of things.” They didn’t think the Earth realized how serious things had become.
The Earth was offended that the same people who invented oil-powered engines and artificial sweeteners dared to lecture him about “respecting creation” and “acting according to the laws of nature.”
Why, the Earth wondered, didn’t the people understand that he hadn’t broken away from his pre-determined path? He was still following the same circle around the same sun… he was simply doing it differently than he had before. And even if he had rushed into the future, he hadn’t done so carelessly. He had done so from necessity.
Self preservation and selfishness are two entirely different things.
Right in the middle of the evening news, the people looked up and saw it.
Fist the North Star Disappeared.
Then the Big Dipper lost its handle.
When a shadow fell across the sun, the people began to panic.
Some of them ran deep into underground cellars. Others herded themselves into churches to pray. Just as a few important people prepared to push important buttons and send missiles streaking into space (with little or no effect on the outrageous rock), a physicist scribbled something on her chalkboard. Out of the lines and numbers rose a wisp of chalky hope.
“But how is that possible,” the important people asked. “We already calculated that if the Earth is orbiting the sun at 29.77 km/s and the asteroid is traveling in a straight line at 56.2 km/s, then we should collide with it… 7 months ago?”
The director of the CIA stormed into the room, brushing the first flakes of a light summer snow off his jacket.
“So, you’re saying what?”
“The asteroid,” the physicist said, “is apparently going to miss the Earth by 186 million miles.”
“Well,” he stammered. “I’ll be damned.”
Before the asteroid arrived, the Earth’s path was familiar and frictionless. Every day he moved through space carried by his own momentum, hardly working to spin through the seasons. In the vacuum, there was little need for effort or exertion. Nothing worked against him. Trusting his instincts and inertia, the Earth took for granted that he would always coast easily through life.
But now, everything was different. As the asteroid came closer, the Earth felt his forward motion interrupted by a sideways force. For the first time since he settled into the routine of orbit, The Earth felt resistance… friction… gravity pulling him in a direction other than the one he had always known.
At first the asteroid’s gravitational pull was as indefinable as emotion – little more than an idea tugging at his corners. Like happiness, fear, and excitement, it could be felt more than it could be explained.
As the asteroid came closer, however, its gravity grew into something more concrete. The Earth’s oceans noticed it first. Suddenly disinterested with the moon, they found themselves attracted to the asteroid, drawn to its rugged strength. Like crazed fans, they crowded the beaches and fought for the best view of its approach.
Like a ball fighting to roll uphill, the Earth strained against the asteroid’s pull. But when he tried to move forward, the asteroid tugged him back. It didn’t matter how tightly he tried to hold to his orbit. The Earth was a movable object fighting an unstoppable force.
The Earth didn’t know what to do. He had already done everything he could to control his future, and was worn out with the effort. He couldn’t run any more.
Finally, after weeks (or was it months? or years?) of straining against the asteroid’s gravity, the Earth finally accepted what he could not change. He stopped fighting the invisible truth. Exhausted, he stopped running. For the first time since the asteroid was sighted, the Earth relaxed and let nature take its course.
And as the asteroid passed – only 186 million miles away – its gravity wrapped around the Earth’s middle, slowly pulling him away from the sun and into the deep, dark unknown. The predictable curve of the Earth’s orbit was straightened into an infinite line. Like a puppy led on an invisible leash, the Earth left his home and followed the asteroid into in the unknown of space.
When the asteroid was first sighted, the Earth tried to save himself. He chose to run – to avoid the asteroid rather than let it collide with him – and his plan worked. He hadn’t been destroyed by an impact. But despite his effort (or perhaps because of it), his path had been forever changed. Now, as the Earth followed the asteroid past stars he had never seen, he wondered which was better, change or annihilation? He didn’t yet know.
He noticed, however, that the people weren’t saying anything about what happened. They weren’t admiring the view or complaining about the cold. They were all strangely quiet.
The Earth thought he might like them better that way.