The Speed of Sound

Elizabeth Gonzalez

A new moon and a clear, cold Michigan night, the sky dead black and loaded with stars, so clear you could see the tendrils in the Milky Way dust—things were aligning, and Arthur Reel was prepared. He called the two neighbors across the road, who were kind enough to turn off their automatic lights whenever Arthur said he would be skywatching. Three a.m. found him perched in his rooftop observatory, sitting in his padded folding chair next to a telescope that was almost as big around as a basketball, waiting. He was there to watch Leo rise, Leo with its telltale sickle, the backward question mark, although to Arthur it would always be Hook’s hook—his son James had renamed it, along with most of the constellations. It had always puzzled James, made him indignant, in fact, how none of the constellations looked anything like the things they were named after, and who could argue?  Even with the aid of an illustrated chart, it was hard to make out a lion in Leo, and as for Aquarius, forget it.

Hook was a far better name, Arthur thought.

He’d come up almost grudgingly, girding himself for disappointment because the Leonids were notorious, peaking for just one hour, almost too far north to catch, and yet so spectacular that few amateur skywatchers could resist the temptation to at least show up, just in case. It had already been a good year: he’d seen a nice Capricornid shower in July. Then in September in Sky & Telescope, some French astronomer had predicted “a chance for a brief Leonid outburst in 2006.” A chance for people like Arthur, who missed the historic showers of 2001, when the meteors rained down at the incredible rate of 480 per hour. And as the date approached and the conditions fell in line one after another, he’d calmly made his plans to set his alarm and come up.

He’d just unscrewed the top of his Thermos when he saw something blaze straight out of Leo, a bright thing slipping almost too fast to follow across the sky. It left a trail, a pale streak with just the slightest arc, and Arthur stared, counting off seconds without meaning to—he’d heard the Leonids could hang in the air for minutes, they’re so bright—when he felt hot coffee on his leg. He jerked his leg and tried to right the Thermos, but the more he turned it, the more it poured, and he realized the floor was rotating, tipping up from the right until it was vertical, then beyond, overturned.

He dropped the Thermos and tried to stand, but pitched over instantly, getting bungled up in the chair. He turned over on his knees, made for the open trap in the floor, which was also rising, rotating sickly counterclockwise like everything else. Later he remembered clinging to the stair rail, then a hard fall. After that, rolling. He would recall later it felt exactly like rolling a plane.


For four years before college Arthur had served as an Air Force pilot. In his last assignment, he flew F-89 Scorpion fighter jets out of Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, 700 miles north of the Arctic Circle. The base ran strategic air defense along the Canadian border, the DEW line, distant early warning, guarding against Russian planes. Any plane entering radar range of Thule was greeted by an F-89, lofted within three minutes of the first blip on the radar. If it was deemed hostile, which never happened on Arthur’s watch, the orders were to come in at a ninety-degree angle and salvo the entire payload of 104 rockets at the target, because it was understood that if the F-89 missed the target on the first shot, she would never get a second. The newer planes were lighter, faster, more advanced; the F-89 was heavy, designed for a single purpose, no great maneuverer, not a plane you’d want in a dogfight. Unlike most planes, which lift off the runway when they reach a certain speed, the F-89 could make five hundred miles per hour on the ground and never bump a wheel. “You got to nudge her up,” the instructor at Moody, a kid from Georgia, had told him. “Otherwise, Lieutenant, what you got here is basically a very big, very heavy, very fast automobile.”

It was, in fact, an old bird even back then, but the F-89 was a fun plane to fly, Arthur would tell his kids, and perfectly good for the mission, as the odds of engaging anything were very low—particularly since any engagement was likely to set off World War III. The idea was deterrence, a visible presence, and for that the F-89 was well suited.

Usually after making contact and calling in the numbers, Arthur and his radop would fly over the mountains to burn off the fuel—it was that or dump it, since it wasn’t safe to land fully loaded—and they would turn on the music, military radio KOLD out of Thule, and do Aileron rolls and Immelmans, sometimes buzz the tankers on the lonely road to the bay.

The Air Force limited duty at Thule to one year, for a reason. Thule tended to make people alcoholics, whether they were genetically predisposed or not. Six months of daylight, followed by six months of night, unshakable cold, and nothing to do off duty besides sit in the club and drink. At Thule you couldn’t trust your own eyes; day was no longer day, night, no longer night. Even the compasses were wrong there, off by a full ninety degrees because the base was just west of magnetic north.

Arthur served an extra tour there, eighteen months in all. When he remembered Thule, what he remembered first was not the cold or the hardship, but the sky.  In Thule the sky and the water were both indigo, a shade of blue Arthur believed only existed in that place, the water just a shade darker, set off by white glaciers. You could always find Thule from the small lopsided one just east of the base in Baffin Bay. The sky was cloudless, and even in the heart of the dark season it never quite went black, but just turned darker blue, like ink. Arthur thought it must have been the snow, reflecting light from somewhere, maybe even the dim light from the stars.


Arthur awoke to a bright, empty room full of harsh sunlight. It poured in a solid block through a large window to his right, lighting up the sheets on his bed and the dingy white curtain hung alongside it. The sound of a television on low volume came from the other side of the curtain, some game show, people applauding, and he felt the uncomfortable sense of being intimate with a stranger, made worse when the stranger coughed and cleared his throat. Arthur noticed the coarseness of the sheets, the smell of his blue gown, something between petroleum and soap. A bad, metallic taste in his mouth. A curve of flesh under his right eye that wasn’t usually there, pushing up from his cheek, moving back and forth as he turned his head to try to look at it.

He remembered falling and realized he’d survived. Some kind of attack.

He turned his head toward the window and felt painful stiffness all the way down his neck. The aqua curtains on either side of the window were pulled back, giving Arthur a view, made hazy by streaks of dried-up rain, of a neighboring brick wall. Susannah had been here. She would have opened the curtains, frowned at the dirt and the view, reconsidering, then left them open for the light. Susannah had to have sunlight. This was determined light, mid-morning, he guessed. The sun lit up each drop of fluid that gathered and fell from the IV bag next to his bed, making it look precious.

He heard a creak, a whoosh; the curtain swayed. His wife appeared, purse tucked under her arm, a magazine in her hand. They looked at each other, surprised.

“How do you feel?” she asked, coming to his side, leaning down to give him an awkward kiss, just making contact with his hairline.

“What happened?”

“It wasn’t a stroke,” Susannah said. “They’re running tests but they don’t think it was a stroke. The doctor said it could be a mini-heart attack.”

“A what?”

“Sometimes you can have a slight blockage, I don’t know. Let me call the nurse and tell them you’re awake again.” She pulled a pager from the side of his bed and pushed a button, giving Arthur the impression she’d been here for a while.

“Again?” he said. “What time is it?”


Arthur sat forward instinctively—he’d lost an entire day. He needed something for his head, that was all. Some strong pill to kill the terrible ache radiating from behind his eyes, pushing on his teeth, his skull. “I’m fine,” he said. “I need ibuprofen.”

“You fell on concrete. Arthur, nobody said you could get up,” Susannah said, taking his forearm anyway as he moved his legs over the side of the bed.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” he said. He felt her watching him and was glad for the IV pole, which he used to steady himself. For a moment when his feet hit the clammy floor, it seemed like the room was shifting, and he was afraid it was happening again. He breathed deeply, pushing the pole around the end of the bed just as the nurse came in. Arthur made an awkward introduction of sorts and nodded toward the bathroom.

When he was back in bed, lightly sweating, nauseated from the effort, he began to sort out what day it was. Friday, six days from Thanksgiving. “Did you hear anything from James?” he asked, while the nurse pumped up his blood pressure cuff.

Susannah shook her head, eyes on the nurse. The light flashed off her glasses, shone through her hair, fine as cobwebbing. It was a little flat. He could tell she hadn’t showered, but she had carefully applied her makeup, here in the room, probably, using the makeup she always carried in her purse. Trying to keep things together.

The doctor came in shortly, a bit young and chipper for Arthur’s taste, though Susannah seemed to trust him. He was thinking vertigo, he said, a little mix-up of the inner ear that makes the body temporarily lose its ability to tell up from down. Still, he would need more tests tomorrow, and Arthur had a low-grade fever. The upshot was, Arthur was stuck there for the night. Just for observation, the doctor added on his way out, as if that made it any better.

Susannah would have to drive the twenty-five minutes home, and another twenty-five back with his cholesterol medicine and the various supplies he needed to get through the night.  Her entire evening would be eaten up in the car while he sat here being observed. Arthur apologized, urged her to take her time, eat dinner, call Carrie and Matthew and tell them he was fine. As she walked out, he thought to ask her to bring the Scientific American from his nightstand.

He watched the space she’d left, watched the curtain sway and settle, fighting down the frustration that welled up as soon as she left the room. A rush of tears, insistent as tiny fingers, prodded hidden spaces behind his eyes, deep in his head, spaces already tender and swollen. He blinked hard, took a slow, deliberate breath. Why now, of all times?  He knew it was a childish impulse, knew that at his age, he should be grateful it wasn’t something worse. But James was due in any day now, Wednesday night at the latest, for his first Thanksgiving home in six years, and that was where Arthur needed to be. Home.

James was nearing the end of his final tour as a Night Stalker, a special operations transport unit of the 160th Army Airborne Division out of Fort Campbell. His battalion flew specially configured MH-47E Chinooks equipped with long-range fuel tanks, multimode radar and infrared sensors—black, unmarked helicopters that could fly all but 150 miles per hour just a few feet off the ground or over the trees, in any conditions, dropping off and retrieving special ops troops on missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’d had mountain training, had done HALO jumps, had learned Arabic. Arthur and Susannah knew little more about their son’s service than that. Because of the sensitivity of his work, he disappeared for six or eight months at a time. Arthur never knew specifically where he was, what he was doing, or when he would resurface. When he came home—long, scraggly hair, beard grown out—he never told them what he’d done. Painful as it was to go without word for these long stretches, Arthur pointed out to Susannah that James was probably safer in his unit than he would have been in most others. It was definitely safer than the infantry. Every month that went by without news meant almost certainly that James was still accounted for. The Army knew where he was from mission to mission. They had results to track.

During his time in the 160th, James had been home five times. Two were in the first year. The last time was eighteen months ago. So when he’d called in September to say he had leave for Thanksgiving, possibly through Christmas, Arthur and Susannah were elated in the measured way they’d learned over the years, knowing that there were good odds, at least even odds, that those plans might change. His leave might be withdrawn at the last minute, as it had before, maybe even suspended right through April, when his tour ended.

But then he’d called again two weeks ago to give them the number of a flight from New York to Detroit, arriving Wednesday. He would probably make it in earlier, but that flight would be his fallback, he said. Susannah had missed that call; she’d gone to the grocery store, which was probably why James said what he did. After he read off his flight information, he’d hesitated, then said, “Dad—just between us—if anything ever happens to me, if they say afterward I was spying, or doing anything other than working for the Army, don’t believe it. Okay? Everything I’m doing is under orders of the Army.”

“Of course,” Arthur had said.

“Everything’s fine, I just—if anything happens, they’re going to tell you whatever suits the unit and the Army. They’re under no obligation to tell the truth, not even to you. You understand that, right, Dad?”

“Of course,” Arthur had said again, of course he knew that. That’s what they do. Still, it had unsettled him. Since that afternoon, he’d run many possible scenarios through his head, trying to imagine the set of circumstances that would lead James to tell him that at all, let alone then, when he was due home in two weeks. Stuck in bed, with nothing to do but watch the light creep across the wall, he ran through them again. Most likely, it was something James had been saving up to tell him, something they talked about in special ops, and he had just decided to say it then because Susannah wasn’t on the phone.

Arthur had never minded James’s secrecy. In fact, he found it almost comforting. He sensed that the details would prove more worrisome than the wondering, for one thing. And it was part of the Night Stalkers’ pledge, I guard my unit’s mission with secrecy, for my only true ally is the night and the element of surprise. And Arthur knew that following orders, following his training, gave James the best chance of making it home.

The next morning, after a bizarre test involving blurry glasses and a swivel chair that struck Arthur as disturbingly low-tech, his diagnosis was confirmed. A spell of vertigo, something Arthur could cure with a pill whenever he felt an attack coming on. Probably had something to do with the frostbite he’d suffered in his left ear at Thule. “I’d avoid roller coasters,” the doctor said, giving Arthur’s arm a little shake.  Arthur accepted this gesture gamely—good news is good news, after all—and agreed to come back for some tests early the next week.


That afternoon, Arthur went back out to his observatory. He climbed the spiral stairs deliberately, his hand a little tighter than usual on the rail. Susannah hated those stairs, so steep and winding, and they struck Arthur as twisted now, narrower than before, the gaps between treads wider.

He’d purchased the observatory, a nine-foot, fully wired dome unit, as a kit over the Internet three years ago, after he got his new Celestron CPC 800. He designed the platform for it himself, and built it into his garage roof, just under the peak on the north side. The dome was generous by home observatory standards, but still quite small, just big enough for two chairs, a running ledge for the equipment, and his scope, which was mounted to a cinder block column that ran down to the garage floor. The stable mount allowed him to get deep space images, the kinds he saw in magazines. The dome had retractable roof segments that afforded a full 360-degree view. With all the vanes open, on a clear night, the sky seemed so vast and so close overhead it was disorienting, as if you could fall up.

The Celestron was an automated scope. It relied on global positioning systems to lock in targets, the same systems Arthur had worked on in his job with Syncrotek, which designed the GPS technology for General Motors in Detroit. The Celestron used global positioning only to locate itself. From there, it located everything in the heavens with astonishing precision, deducing the location of each space object in relation to that single orienting point. The CPC 800 was a technological leap; older scopes, without that absolute starting position, could only point to the neighborhood of an object. Even they were an advance over pushing the telescope around by hand.

He flipped a switch and a gray light filled the room, just enough to work by but not enough to feel lit, the sort of dull, inadequate light found inside a ship or a plane. He never liked the feel of the observatory by day, even with the dome opened wide. The daytime sky looked small in it, daffy, even, and the room felt smaller somehow, too. It was a room made for a purpose, made for night.

The last time James was home, Arthur had brought him up after dinner. It was James’s first time in the observatory, and Arthur wanted to show him what the Celestron could do. It turned out to be a poor night for skywatching, cloudy and a waxing moon, and they weren’t up there half an hour when Arthur turned around to say something to James and saw that he’d fallen asleep sitting up, the side of his head tilted against the metal base of the scope. Arthur put off waking him. He powered down the scope, straightened his papers, and then just sat, watching James sleep, watching the clouds make their slow progress across the opening overhead.

I pledge to maintain my body, mind and equipment in a constant state of readiness for I am a member of the fastest deployable Task Force in the world—ready to move at a moment’s notice anytime, anywhere, arriving on target plus or minus thirty seconds. The pledge James took. Arthur wondered, not for the first time, whether he’d charmed James into the service with his stories about the scrambles, his tall tales of the planes. The F-22 Raptor: the pilot’s dream to fly. The SR-71 Blackbird ramjet that broke Mach 3.2, so fast that the cockpit smelled like a self-cleaning oven in flight. So fast that it couldn’t even be fueled up on the ground, because it leaked fuel all over the place until it reached speed, when it grew a full two inches and everything sealed. So fast that on its trial run, the tires exploded in their bays.

How many times—two, three?—he’d taken the family up to Wurtsmith in the years before it closed, eating picnic lunches in the parking lot, then standing by the fence, watching the F-16s come out of the hangars, shimmering in the fumes and the heat, the crews running through their checklists, the twenty-foot flames as the afterburners kicked in, the roar and the plane ascending, always rolling off to one side. The coordination, the precision timing. Arthur thought that the whole family enjoyed the trips, but James was always the last to leave the fence. And the last one awake on Arthur’s skywatching vigils, the one who never tired of deciphering the charts, back when they used the Meade and they had to find everything by hand.

Arthur pulled up his files from the night of his attack. He stopped at a frame and, in spite of the tender stiffness in his face, smiled.


Sunday afternoon, Carrie came with her family. Arthur assured them that he felt better than he looked, which was good because Arthur looked pretty bad. The right side of his face was bruised from his eye down to his jaw. His eye was swollen; two spots on his cheekbone were bright red. Carrie’s older daughter, Amanda, was afraid at first—she was only eight and very sensitive, Arthur thought. He let her touch his cheek, assured her it didn’t hurt. And then said, “But look what I got for that shiner,” and brought them all back to his study.

He showed them his photo, a bright fireball with a sky-long tail tracing all the way back to Leo. “The Hook,” Carrie said, touching it with her finger.

“Hook’s hook,” Arthur said, smiling, and then showed it to Amanda. “See it? And that,” he said proudly, “is one of the fastest meteors in the world. That meteor was traveling 44 miles per second,” he added. Before long he’d opened his display case, and was passing around his collection of mail-order meteorites, specks of dirt in little plastic boxes with somber labels, Shergotty (AEUC) Achondrite, Shergottite SNC Signature Meteorite, Fell: September 10, 1935; Location: Gaya, India.

“Does anybody verify these?” Carrie’s husband asked, frowning down at one of Arthur’s specks. “What do they go by, the composition?”

“That’s part of it,” Arthur said. “Although often after a big shower they’ll find scattered debris. Sometimes you can actually see them fall.”

“It looks like dirt,” Amanda said.

“That’s a shooting star, honey,” Carrie said.

“No, you’re right, Amanda, that’s just what it is,” Arthur said. “Shooting stars aren’t stars at all. They’re just ordinary rocks. In fact, these are big ones, these made it to the ground—most shooting stars are no bigger than a grain of sand. And yet you can see them from hundreds of miles away.  Know why?  Because they’re going so fast they blast the air into plasma and it phosphoresces. They’re going so fast they make light.”

Amanda looked puzzled, handed it back to him.

“How do you like that?” Arthur said, gazing at the bit of rock in his box. “A grain of sand.”


Monday morning, Arthur returned to the hospital for scans and more blood work. It was after lunch before he sat down with his doctor. This time, no tousling, no roller coaster jokes. They’d found spots in his scans, several in the region of his left ear. He showed Arthur an image of his head, with little fuzzy areas like mothballs. “Here,” he said, “and here.”

“So, what do we do?” Arthur said, catching himself in the medical “we” he’d adopted from the doctor, shaking his head.

“I’ve asked an oncologist, Dr. Bodner, to join us. She should be here in a few minutes.” Arthur blinked at him—first a kid, now a woman—not that he didn’t think a woman could do the job, but just the intimacy of it. He’d rather take it from a guy his own age, preferably one who was falling apart at roughly the same rate as Arthur. But the kid was assuring him she was the best, and Arthur was trying to pay attention. “Surgery may not be possible, given the locations,” the doctor said. “She’ll discuss your options.”

“Options,” Arthur said, choices to make.

“Either way, you’ll want to begin chemotherapy right away. I might expect as early as tomorrow. Unfortunately, Mr. Reel, this is a fast-moving cancer.” Arthur watched him fiddle with the flap of his coat pocket, pull out a pen. “I’ll let Dr. Bodner explain,” the kid said uneasily, checking his watch.

“What happens if I do nothing?” Arthur asked.


There’s one antidote to fear, and it’s training. You do the right thing over and over in practice, Arthur liked to tell his grandkids. Then, when the time comes and you’re in an emergency, you do the right thing without thinking.

By Wednesday afternoon, they’d had no word again from James, which was unusual even for him. Arthur and Susannah busied themselves through dinner—it was his last window, in New York, to make a call before boarding the commercial plane, his fallback flight. When the call didn’t come, Arthur had a giddy sense that James might ring the doorbell instead, might appear with his bags on the porch, wave goodbye to some stranger in a pickup truck. James’s plans had changed many times before, but he’d always called at some point to cancel or confirm.

“He probably lost his leave,” Arthur told Susannah, who was chopping onions and mushrooms for the stuffing. “He probably didn’t get a chance to tell us.”

At seven-thirty, Arthur said he would go meet the plane James had reserved, even though he thought it unlikely James would be on it. Susannah agreed, reluctantly, to stay home. “He’ll probably call while I’m on the road,” Arthur told her. “Just call me and I’ll turn around.”


Sitting in a little plastic chair, bolted in a line before a large bank of windows, Arthur reconsidered their last conversation, what James said. He’d probably lost someone in his unit; maybe someone was killed and he’d heard rumors afterward about differing accounts of the death, the official report given to the family. Probably one of his buddies talked to a wife, something like that. Stuff like that got around. Arthur had read stories of body laundering in special ops, bodies doctored to match stories told to the families.

Once Moscow Molly had said in a broadcast, “To the boys at Thule—the lights at the end of your runway are out.” And the guys in the tower looked out and they were. It was understood up there who the enemy was, where the boundaries were, what it meant if they were crossed.  And it wasn’t just the troops, back then, who were in a state of constant readiness—it was the country. People built bomb shelters, stored food, something the kids laughed about today. They couldn’t fathom it, didn’t realize there was a time when the cold war was very close to becoming a hot one.

James’s war was different.

Often when Arthur told people, usually in answer to a direct question, where James was or what he did, they’d do a little check, then recover with something like, “Oh, yes, that’s terrible, isn’t it?” And Arthur would realize they forgot we were at war.

But there’s no comparing then and now, Arthur often said. Things were slipping; he couldn’t necessarily relate to them the peculiar smell of brown Fels Nap soap, the way Lynn Fontaine said “I love you” and it sounded like she meant it, the hot chocolate in little hockey pucks. Lucky Green has gone to war. The queer satisfaction of field dressing a cigarette, pressing the paper into the earth, invisible.

For a while when he was a boy, Arthur had believed that all the sound on earth traveled forever into space, the result of misunderstanding something his father told him about radio transmissions. Some years later he’d realized his error, the difference between electromagnetic waves and sound, which is a pure compression wave, a clumsy thing, stuff bumping into the stuff next to it, which bumps into the stuff next to it. Not like light, part particle, part wave, which could travel two paths at once, could travel through space for a hundred million years to bounce off a patch of snow. Much as Arthur enjoyed reading about the new physics—god particles and quantum uncertainty and multiple universes—he had to admit that most of it had very little to do with life on the planet, which tumbled along, day into day, and traveled only one path, and petered out.

A woman around Carrie’s age walked toward him, took in his face, then looked hastily past him, trying to be polite. She sat in a row of chairs across from his, looking nonchalantly everywhere but at Arthur. He felt the need to explain his appearance, to tell her it’s okay, I just fell.

In the black space beyond the windows, practically obscured by the harsh airport lights, tiny blinking lights floated silently in the sky. Every so often a pair of them would line up with the runway, seeming to hover beyond it, then finally descend, the shadow of the plane spreading between them. There was a chance James was on his plane. He’d have a story to tell when he got off it, some crazy story about getting dropped on the tarmac, jumping out of an unmarked black Chinook. Something to explain where he was, why there wasn’t time to call.


The author would like to thank Frank Palermo, USAF, whose experiences contributed to the story.

The details! — from the insider’s view of the F-89 to the base at Thule to the smell of Fels nap soap to the way the daytime sky looked from the observatory — “daffy, even”– this story wowed me. But even better were the emotions — the father wondering about his son’s cryptic statement; wondering if he’d inspired his son to follow him skyward; and wondering, now, if he was coming back. The author broke my heart with the end — so beautifully elliptically handled.
—Gish Jen, 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Prize Judge

Selected for inclusion in New Stories from the Midwest 2012 (Indiana University Press), guest edited by Rosellen Brown.

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