By Jeff Robinson (3,225)
(published in ezine April 2002")

Dr. Jordan Hastings struggled with his luggage at the baggage claim area of the Kansas City airport. Despite its size, the airport was nearly empty this morning. Kansas City was not a major hub and there was little passenger traffic through the terminal early on a Wednesday morning. Taking the handle of the rolling suitcase and shouldering his carry-on bag, he turned and headed for the street, hoping his father would be there.

This is going to be a hard trip, he thought. Circumstances had compelled Jordan to take an unplanned vacation from the Los Alamos Labs, where he worked as a physicist, when he’d received calls that his father’s condition had worsened. Jordan wondered if his father would even remember to come pick him up at the airport. Maybe I should have just rented a car, he said to himself in an afterthought.

Jordan stepped out to the curb and scanned the street. There was almost no traffic. A few idle cabs sat nearby, waiting patiently for fares. Only one car sat in the pickup zone a hundred feet away. Sure enough, it was his father’s old brown pickup truck. Jordan walked toward the vehicle, hoping to catch his father’s eyes, but the old man just sat behind the wheel staring blankly ahead of him. Waiting for some sign of recognition, Jordan approached and stood next to the old weathered truck. His father, Warren, however, didn’t notice him. He simply continued to stare off into the distance, his mind a thousand miles away.

Sighing, Jordon noted the pickup was on its last legs. The tires were bald; the paint oxidized and thin. Bare metal showed in many places. Like the truck, his father had aged tremendously, since he’d last seen him. The once dark hair was now almost completely white and the once husky man was now thin and frail. The lines in his father’s face had deepened, giving the old man an almost mummified appearance. Dark circles were carved into his face, as if he’d never overcome the grief of his wife’s death.

It’s been three years, Jordon thought. He should be handling it better by now. Nonetheless, Warren Hastings seemed to be wasting away, unable to cope without his companion of more than thirty-five years.

Jordon tapped the hood of the truck and stepped over to open the passenger door. His father blinked and glanced at him. Seeing his son, he smiled feebly and straightened his back slightly.

“Hi, son,” the old man said. “Have a good flight?”

Smiling, Jordon lifted his bags and set them into the bed of the pickup and replied, “It was all right. Have you been waiting long?”

“No, not really. I was just sitting here, thinking,” said the father.

Thinking about mother, you mean, thought Jordon, finishing his father’s sentence. Without further comment, the old man started the truck and, with a few unglamorous rattles, they headed out of the airport to the old highway that led to the family farm. It was a good two-hour drive to the old place. Jordan hoped it would give him some time to talk to the old man to find out if things were as bad as his neighbors had reported. He didn’t want to think the old man was beginning to go senile. Putting him in a retirement home would destroy the old man’s pride and that was the only thing he seemed to have left.

The first hour of the trip passed without conversation. Jordan studied his father and waited for him to talk. The city was far behind them before Warren finally spoke.

“Look at that,” he said. “See it?”

Jordan glanced ahead where his father pointed. The old asphalt highway stretched far ahead of them across the flat featureless landscape. The air shimmered from the July heat even this early in the morning, but nothing struck Jordan’s eye. “What?” he asked. “I don’t see anything.”

“There on the road,” insisted his father. “Don’t you see it?”

Squinting, Jordan examined the road. There was nothing. No signs, no oncoming traffic, no objects on the pavement, just the shimmering reflection of heat on the road far ahead of them. “What are you talking about?”

“The water on the road, see?”

Blinking, Jordon saw the shining reflection at the edge of the roadway far in front of them. “You mean the mirage?” said Jordan. “It’s just a reflection from the heat. You know it’s not really water.”

“Hmph,” said the older Hastings. “How can you be so sure?”

Jordan blinked in surprise. “Dad, you know it’s just an illusion. See, as we get closer, the mirage fades and the road is dry. It’s just a reflection of light from the heat on the road.”

“I know, I know. That’s what everyone says. Heck, that’s what I told you when you were just a boy. But lately…lately I’ve been wondering. What’s if it’s not a reflection? What if we really are seeing water?”

Suddenly bothered, Jordan thought, Has he lost his mind? “How could it be water, Dad? It’s dry as a bone out here.” Indeed, the early summer bore every indication of the start of a drought. Much of the green that normally adorned this stretch of highway was a dull, dusty brown. “You’re the scientist,” said Warren. “Isn’t it true that once, thousands of years ago, all these flat plains were underwater? What if we’re seeing the water that used to be here, before it all died up?”

My God, thought Jordan. He’s serious.

“Think about it,” his father said. “What if mirages are ripples in time that open windows to scenes as things were years ago?” Jordan was speechless. He didn’t want to give credence to the idea by arguing against it. Perhaps his father was just kidding.

“What gave me the idea was an old article that I read. It was in one of those old science magazines you had as a kid. It told a story about a mirage in Italy years ago, just before World War Two. Remember?”

Jordan shook his head mutely.

“The article told about all sorts of mirages, all over the world. You know mirages occur at sea too, didn’t you?” Warren seemed animated now. What he was saying excited him. “Anyway, in Italy, at the southern tip of Sicily, there was a mirage that occurred sometimes. They say that, on rare evenings, when atmospheric conditions were just right, you could see a city in the distance. A tall majestic city with tall shiny spires of blue crystal and white stone that floats out at the edge of the horizon. They called it La Citta Signatore, the city of Dreams. Over the years, it became quite famous, but its appearance was as rare as sightings of the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot, so no one really believed it.

“Then, in the late thirties, it appeared every day for a week. As the word spread, more and more people came to see it. Crowds gathered along the beaches each night at sunset to glimpse the illusionary metropolis. They say the view of the city usually only lingered for a few minutes, but on the final night that week the vision lasted nearly a half hour. Thousands of people came to the shore and dozens of pictures were taken. It’s never appeared since.

“At the time, scientists said the city was an illusion caused by rare atmospheric thermal inversions, which caused images of light to skip and appear hundreds of miles away. They said the mirage was a city far over the horizon, but the witnesses say no city in Europe ever had a skyline like that.” Warren looked over and smiled at his son. “What gave me the idea about mirages being real was another article I read in National Geographic last year. It told of ruins someone found in the Mediterranean just south of Sicily. Far off the coast, deep underwater, archeologists discovered giant columns of stone, ruins of an ancient city that earthquakes sank beneath the sea long ago. The columns were of white stone and some had inlays of blue crystal that would have gleamed like glass in the sun.”

“I think what they found was La Citta Signatore,” he said emphatically.

“Dad,” said Jordan, “the first article was just a story, the second a coincidence. There are thousands of ruin sites all over the Mediterranean. It doesn’t mean the mirage was looking at them back through time.”

“Doesn’t it?” asked Warren. “Did I mention that the ruins were found just off the coast from where La Citta Signatore was seen? And have you ever heard of any other Mediterranean city that had blue crystal inlays in tall columns of white stone?”

Jordan’s eyes grew wide. Maybe he is going senile, he thought. He can’t distinguish reality from fantasy anymore.

Warren noticed the shocked look on Jordan’s face. “It was just an idea, son. Don’t look so worried.” He turned his attention back to the road for a moment and then added, “Still, don’t you think the idea’s fascinating? Doesn’t it excite you to think it could be true?”

Jordan relaxed a little. “Well, if you’re not serious, yes. It’s an unusual notion. But if it were true, we’d be seeing back in time a lot and we’d see more than just cities and water. If it were true, then why don’t mirages show other things?”

“Hmph,” grunted Warren again. “Who’s to say we don’t? If a mirage appeared out in the desert and opened to just a few years ago, then all you’d see would be desert on top of desert. No one would notice it. The same’s true with windows that open out at sea or most anywhere else. We’d only notice these windows when what’s shown is really different than the present, wouldn’t we?”

Jordan’s eyebrows furrowed with worry once again. “I suppose,” he muttered, not wanting to encourage the conversation further.

“The way I figure it, the larger the area, the further back the visions would appear. A huge desert might have mirages that go back tens of thousands of years. Small spots might only go back a months or years.”

“Think about it,” said Warren. “Haven’t you heard stories of people in the desert seeing mirages with more than just water? People have reported seeing oases with trees and birds in the water, where there was nothing but sand.”

“But those people were hallucinating,” insisted Jordan. “They just saw what they wanted to see.”

Turning his head and smiling wryly, Warren said, “Maybe.” Then he paused and added, “Then again, maybe they weren’t imagining anything at all.” Just then, they turned off the highway and onto an old dirt road that led to their farm.

Jordan had a lot of pleasant childhood memories of the old place. In his youth, it had been a real working farm. The crops it produced had made a decent living and paid for his first few years at college. After he’d grown and moved away, his folks had continued to work the fields with the help of hired hands, that is, until his mother had died. Since then, his father had laid off the workers and let the fields lie fallow. Since the farm’s loans were all paid off, his dad didn’t have to work, but it seemed just such a waste to let the farm go unused.

As they rounded a stand of trees, Jordan looked out at the family homestead and he gazed in shock at the sight of the farm. Instead of the green fields and meadows he remembered, all that lay before him was dead wasteland. Not only had the grass in the fields died, it looked as if it had been stripped away leaving nothing but barren earth.

“My God,” said Jordan. “What’s happened to the place?” The pickup truck kicked up dust from the unpaved road and enough was sucked back into the cab from the wake of the truck to make Jordan cough.

Warren didn’t seem to notice, he smiled broadly as he picked up speed to outrun the dust, hurrying toward the house. “I know it doesn’t look pretty, but I want to show you something,” he said.

Coughing Jordan gasped, “Show me? Show me what? Everything’s gone!” Indeed, the farm was dead. The grass along the fence lines was parched and dry. Where lush green crops had once grown, now only dust blew. Even the meadow of wild flowers that Dad had left untilled behind the house was nothing more than hard, bare dirt.

“What have you done, Dad?” Jordan said a lump growing in his throat. “Why did you let it all go? Was there a drought? Is there a problem with irrigation water?”

Warren pulled the pickup to an abrupt stop in front of the small farmhouse. The tires ground noisily in gravel and a cloud of choking dust billowed annoyingly around them as he clamored out of the truck. “Oh, no,” said Warren. “It took a lot of work to get the place this way. Before I let the hired help go, I had them build an earth dam back up near the property line and divert the creek toward the old Colson ranch. Then I blocked up the remaining irrigation ditches. But even after the water was gone, the grass in the fields still wouldn’t die. I had to go out and buy a couple hundred dollars of industrial herbicide to kill everything off, so the hardiest weeds would die. I poisoned the soil, so nothing could grow back.”

Jordan couldn’t believe his ears, but Warren spoke nonchalantly and climbed out of the cab and headed toward the house. Jordan grabbed his luggage from the truck and hurried to follow him. “But why, Dad?” he said. “Why?”

Warren stopped at the front door and looked back with deep sadness in his eyes. “Why, I did it for your mother,” he said, then he turned and walked inside.

Jordan followed slowly into the house, pausing once more to survey the devastation. Everything he remembered was gone. The barn was empty; the livestock and horses long gone. Its doors hung open, sagging on broken hinges. Dry dusty air blew through the structure, stirring dust that was as dry and as fine as talcum powder. All the trees along the old creek bed were dead and leafless. Broken branches littered the ground nearby. No sign of life was evident anywhere. No birds, not even any insects.

Storming into the house, Jordan hurried through the front door, ready to tie into the old man, but he paused when he found Warren sitting quietly at the kitchen table, staring out the window at the barren, lifeless fields. Jordan’s anger faded to pity as he watched his father. The frail old man seemed nearly as wasted as the land outside. After a moment, Jordan reflected, Maybe with Mom dead, he wants to die, too. Maybe he can’t stand the thought of anything living with her gone.

After a moment, his anger ebbed. Turning away slowly, Jordon took his suitcase back to his old room at the other end of the house. Except for the dust, it was almost exactly as he’d left it more than ten years before. He remembered that his mother had always left the spare room ready in case he ever came home to visit. But with his graduate studies and his new job at Los Alamos, he’d never returned, except for her funeral, that is. For a moment Jordan was lost in memories of life here on the farm. While he’d always been anxious to leave and had loved the excitement of college in the city, he’d always cherished his memories of home.

Shaking himself, he realized these were the same memories that trapped his father. Quickly putting his clothes away, he slowly worked his way back to the kitchen to confront his father, once more. As he entered the kitchen, his anger welled up at the sight of the empty, dusty kitchen. The house seemed as empty and lifeless as a tomb. Any feeling of “home” had been driven from this place.

“How could you do this, Dad?” he shouted. “You’ve destroyed everything.”

Warren simply gazed out the window and smiled. For a moment, Jordan thought he was being ignored. Then, without moving his gaze from the window, Warren said, “I told you. I did all this for your Mother.”

“Mother?” shouted Jordan. “How can you say that? She loved this place. Even when the farm barely paid for itself, she said she couldn’t bear to leave it because her whole life was here. She always claimed the city, despite its crowds of people, was too lifeless. If she weren’t already dead, what you’ve done here would kill her.”

Jordan’s face flushed with rage. He started to chastise his father more, but saw a tiny tear weaving its way down the old man’s face. Again, his anger abated, washed away by a wave of pity. He doesn’t understand, he thought. He’s finally lost his mind.

Kneeling down beside his father, Jordan held his arm. “Dad? Can you hear me?” His father continued to stare mutely out the window. “Dad, you need help. I’ll find a place for you to stay near where I work. Everything will be okay.”

Warren frowned and grew serious. “No,” he said softly.

Jordan’s hands tightened briefly on his father’s arm.

“I won’t leave. This is where your mother is,” the old man said.

Staring with horror, Jordan thought, He is crazy. He’s completely insane. Trying one last time, Jordan said, “Dad. Mom’s dead. The farm is gone. There’s nothing left for you here. Everything Mom would have loved about this place has died. I just don’t want you to die here, too.” His words seemed lost on the old man. There was no response and no reply.

So Jordan tried again. “I don’t know why you can’t see it,” he said. “All you’ve done is turn this place from a thriving farm to a desert.” Glancing out the window, he asked, “How can you even bear to look at this…this…”

Then his jaw dropped open and he stopped talking, for outside the window, the air across the dead flat ground outside shimmered in the noon July sun. The hot parched earth outside radiated heat like a furnace and the light outside flickered.

As he watched, for an instant, just a fleeting instant, the lifeless dirt vanished and Jordan looked out across the green meadow of grass his mother had so loved. Jordan watched motionless, as a tall young woman walked across the meadow with her arms outstretched to touch the top of all the wildflowers she passed. He recognized the housedress she always wore and saw her head tilt back with joy in the cool morning air. Then the image faded, as a hot breeze dispelled the scene. All he could see once more was dry, dead dirt and the wavering distortions of heat rising from the ground. Turning in shock, Jordan looked at his father. The old man smiled, but tears ran down his face.

“See?” said his father. “That’s what I wanted to show you?” He smiled gently at his son. “Do you understand why I did it now? Do you know what I meant when I said I did it for your mother?”

Jordan was speechless. “But…but…”

Warren patted his son on the arm. “Tell you what, son. Pull up a chair and get some lemonade from the fridge. We can talk while we watch.” Then he faced back toward the kitchen window and waited.

After a long while, Jordan stood, got two glasses from the cupboard and the pitcher of lemonade from the refrigerator. Then he moved a chair next to his father’s. In silence, they watched and waited for the midday heat to summon another mirage.


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