Culpability


by Heather Clitheroe

Banff doesn't change. Everywhere else does—so quickly that I feel bewildered and lost almost on a daily basis. But in Banff, the stores are still crammed with the moose-themed souvenirs and little bottles of maple syrup. The mountains surrounding the town are the same, and when I look at them, it's not limestone and calcareous shale, but memories of years ago. The ghosts of childhoods and ski trips, hot summers and damp autumn days. While Jaywant sleeps in, I sit alone in a booth in the hotel restaurant and watch the tourists taking pictures of the sunrise. They painstakingly crop out the parking lot and the bear-proof dumpsters, carefully editing out what they don't want to see. As if it's that easy.

It was my suggestion that we take a small trip and spend some time together before he has to go back to Paris for the inquest. He did not want to go. "People will recognize me," he said.

"But I got you a window seat on the train," I said. "And I booked a hotel room."

He made a face that I remember him making as a boy: wrinkling his forehead, his nose scrunched up. "I'm not sharing with my mother."

"You get your own," I told him, but I didn't add that it was adjoining.

He huffed and sighed. He agreed because I gave him the pained expression that is the weapon of all mothers everywhere. "You need to get away," I tell him. His doctors agree with me, but I do not say this. "It'll be good for you."

There's not much for him to do at my house besides shoveling the driveway. Also the sidewalks. He shovels at four in the morning, before anybody else is up. I wake up, hear the scraping of his shovel and know he hasn't slept at all. That it will be another bad day. I don't know what he does in the night, and I've told him over and over again that he should get up and go downstairs and watch television until he's tired, or make himself something to eat—I have carefully portioned leftovers into dishes so he can reheat them. Night after night, he goes to bed when I do. I hear nothing until a quarter to four, when the stairs squeak and the front closet door opens.

It is good for his arms and back to shovel. He is still building muscle back after such a long time in microgravity. But he also needs to get away from the news vans that come and spend the day on our street. Reporters stand on the curb and tell stories about him, their hurtful words hanging in the air. The closer we get to the inquest, the more they come around the house. I've heard some of them, talking into their cameras. "The tragedy on Mars," they say, and then they gesture to my front door.

As I drink my tea and watch the tourists, a reporter approaches my table. I can tell what she is before she starts talking, before she turns her phone to show me her identification. "Mrs. Dalvi, please excuse me for interrupting...my name is Jessie Aggarwal..." She is young, her long hair carefully styled so that it cascades down her shoulders. There is mehndi, fresh and dark, on her hands and wrists. This is, no doubt, deliberate: they have sent me somebody who they think I will respond to, who looks like I did when I was her age and wore my youth with pride.

I've been told not to talk to reporters. Not to anybody. Jaywant tells me not to, and the earnest young people at his lawyers' office say the same thing. It breaks my heart, this silence, because I am sure that when we finally get to the inquest it will all be made clear and he'll be absolved. I'm sure it will give him peace. If people could know—if they could just know—it would be better for Jaywant. My boy went to Mars and he is a hero. That is what people need to know.

The reporter sits down, uninvited. Takes my silence for permission. Licks her lips, and then begins to speak. "Mrs. Dalvi, first, I want to say that I think there's two sides to every story," she says. She lays her phone on the table between us. She notices me looking at it and makes a show of turning it off. If, indeed, that is what she has done. "Two sides," she repeats. "And I think only one side is being heard."

At the entrance of the restaurant, by the station where the dinner menus are stacked in teetering piles, I see Jaywant. He shuffles, his feet scuffing on the carpet. Still walking like an old man, cautious and distrustful of gravity. His back aches all the time, and he takes steaming baths for an hour or more, draining my hot water tank. He is nearsighted now, wears glasses that he ordered online. They are crooked because he doesn't want to come to the mall with me to have them adjusted. We tried pouring boiling water over the plastic and bending the earpieces ourselves, but it didn't work very well.

Jaywant sees me and I raise my hand, hoping he will see this reporter and know to turn around and go back to his room. But he nods his head and comes slouching over, sliding into the booth next to the her. "Hi, Mom," he says. "Who's this?" Eyes are puffy. By the way he rubs his chin, I know that he only slept late because he took pills. Still, he smiles a little at the young woman, and I hesitate. It gives me hope, to see him showing even a little bit of interest, and I wait too long to warn him. It gives her the opportunity to start talking, and she does.

* * *

Jessie is short for Jessica, she says. Named for a paternal grandmother. From Vancouver, but she lives in Calgary. She shows us pictures of her cat on her phone—it was never turned off. She tells us a comical story about her landlord and the endless renovations in her apartment, how he forgot to buy new locks and she slept with her couch dragged across the door for two nights last week. As she speaks, her hands move wide, gesturing gracefully. Jaywant drinks coffee and watches her over the rim of his cup. She speaks to me as in overly familiar terms, cheeky but polite, directing her patter to me. Jaywant begins to relax. His shoulders come down from that terrible hunch that he has adopted since he came back, the apologetic cringe that he wears even in his sleep.

"...and I'm in Banff for the week," Jessie says. "My friend got married on the weekend." She holds her hands out, turns them over to show us the mehndi for proof. "I thought I'd take a few extra days off. Change of scenery. Maybe I'll have a proper kitchen when I get back."

Jaywant makes a polite noise.

"It's a buffet," I remind him. "You have to help yourself." If he gets up to take a plate, I can tell this Jessie to leave us alone without doing it in front of him.

"I'm not really hungry, Mom," he says.

"You should try."

Jessie smiles prettily at him, her teeth flashing. "I'll join you," she says, ignoring my scowl, but Jaywant gives her a long look and then shrugs, putting his hands flat on the table to push himself up. The eyeglasses slide down his nose. I watch her follow Jaywant, shortening her long stride to match his slow step. Throwing her head back, laughing at something he's said, touching his arm.

A snake. Definitely a snake.

* * *

Perhaps I should be grateful that he came back with a full plate, that he ate because she did, balancing the fork carefully, bracing himself with the other hand. Jessie lets him sit down first. I watch silently. It's more than I've been able to get him to eat since he came back. She talks to him about a television show, something that was popular just before he left. I don't believe for a moment that it isn't a deliberate choice, this reminding him of something from before.

"Jaywant," I say, interrupting her. He turns his head slowly. Still dizzy. "Did you remember your pills?"

He sighs, spreads his arms slightly. He told me that in space, they did not shake their heads. They signalled with their hands, their shoulders. Now, sometimes, he points with his elbow. It's like watching a foreigner trying to communicate. "They're back in my room," he says.

"You should take them on time," I say. "It's important to follow the schedule."

He excuses himself and Jessie stands to let him slide out of the booth. We all hear his spine snapping and cracking as he straightens. I watch him shuffling away, turning his face as he crosses in front of a pair of tourists taking pictures of an elk on the hotel's driveway. Jessie sits back down. The leatherette seat squeaks softly. I lean forward as soon as he is out of earshot. I hiss at her. "You go now," I say. "Go away. Leave us alone."

She gives me a polite smile. "Mrs. Dalvi, I can appreciate that this is awkward..."

"You have no right," I say. "Are you recording this? All of this? I'll sue you."

"I don't think you will," she says. "You've got three mortgages on your home to pay for your son's lawyers. Courts in three countries are still considering whether or not to indict him. He goes to an inquest in two weeks. You've emptied your retirement account. Your credit cards are almost maxed out; you've exhausted your late husband's insurance policy." She ticks all of this off on her fingers. "He's got no income, and you're on pension." She pauses as the waitress comes with the bill, reaches for it smoothly before I can take it. "I think you'll find that I'm going to be the only friend you have in this, Mrs. Dalvi. We're prepared to pay handsomely. Right now, my network is spreading a rumour that he's in Vancouver to give you a chance at some privacy. That could change in a heartbeat, I promise you." Then she smiles again, and signs the bill to her room, adding on a generous tip and putting it down where I can see it. "Let's not keep Jay waiting, okay?"

"His name is Jaywant," I mutter.

* * *

We go to the gondola because it is too cold to walk outside and Jaywant will not be up to skiing for a very long time. I had planned for us to take the bus, to save money, but Jessie has a car and says she will drive us up. Jaywant looks relieved, says he thinks this will be a good idea. Somebody recognized him in the lobby, and a hotel worker stopped and stared until the manager noticed and came out from behind the desk to scold her. He apologized to me, saying that he would, of course, insist that his employee delete her photos.

Jessie pulls up out front and waves to us. A lovely big SUV. I have to help Jaywant step up into the front seat. Jaywant makes an uncomfortable noise as she corners tightly. "Are you all right?" Jessie asks, and he says calmly that he is fine, but the strained way he speaks tells me that he is feeling nauseous. He was always prone to carsickness as a child. In space, he was barely ill at all. The others were terribly sick; he cared for them all for days, round the clock, cleaning up vomit and diarrhea in zero gravity, never complaining. People forget that he did that.

"You should turn the heat down," I tell her, and to Jaywant, I say, "I'll open a window." I start to press buttons, but all I succeed in doing is locking and unlocking my door.

"Mom," he says curtly. "Stop it. I'm fine."

Jessie pays for our tickets before I can get my wallet out, and soon we are all clambering into the gondola car. I used to bring Jaywant here when he was a boy, when he had days off from school for teacher's conference. The enormous gears and wheels turn steadily, and we scramble to get in as a bored attendant holds the cabin door open for us. Jaywant sits beside Jessie, his back to the mountain slope. She must be a little younger than him, I think. They almost look like a couple, the way she laughs nervously as the car rises. She glances at me quickly before she leans into him.

He looks out the window, pushing his glasses up with a finger. The car rises smoothly through the trees, beginning the climb. I pull on my gloves, gesture to Jaywant to do the same, but his hands are back in his pockets. The little gondola cabin is silent. Close and intimate. I can hear the faint whistle of his breathing. We are in the shadow of another mountain—Rundle. Maybe. Jaywant would know; he learned the names of all the peaks as a child. I read interviews where he said that was why he became a geologist. It was why they selected him for the mission. It all started here.

Now he sighs and leans back, his long legs folded underneath the seat. I shuffle to one side so he can stretch. His knees have been giving him a lot of trouble. "Jaywant," I say. "Look at that." I point. We emerge from shadow into clear, bright sunshine. The snowy peaks around us are glowing, achingly white and clean. "See that? There's where you learned how to ski. Remember? And there's our hotel. Look at that."

Jessie looks, but she squeals in fright as the gondola cabin passes over the support, rattling and shaking. Jaywant lets her clutch his arm, but he doesn't turn his head. He is looking to the right, away from where I am pointing and towards the Goat Range. There is nothing out that way—no roads, no buildings. The mountains come together to form a valley. You can almost imagine that the ranges on either side are two arms, reaching down to cradle the ground and hold it close. I hoped that he would enjoy this and see that there is beauty to appreciate even now. That there are things for him here besides lawyers and speculation. He spent too long in space, too long alone on that slow trip home. When I look at him, though, I can't tell if he is happy or sad. His face is empty.

"Jaywant?" I say, but he is lost to me, drifting on his thoughts.

I remember when they brought me to Paris, to meetings with the psychologists and the doctors. They coached me on what to say to him. They knew he was listening. They ran diagnostics on all of the communications equipment remotely, found it all in working order. I role-played with a young man from Leeds before they let me try to talk to him. He took the part of Jaywant and tried to gently prepare me for the things he might say. Angry things, ugly things. Upsetting things. It was very strange, a white boy with a British accent calling me Mom, but he tried his best.

None of us were prepared for Jaywant's silence.

He stopped talking to us shortly after he sent back the video of the accident and gave his report. He lost his words, would only speak to the bodies sealed in the airlock. There were microphones and cameras all throughout the ship, and they picked up every sound he made, recorded every small noise. He turned the Dauntless and completed the navigational burn, pushing the ship back towards home while the crew floated together in the lock, tied together. Still in their suits, stained with red dirt and blood.

He brought them back up from the surface, my brave boy. Nobody would have faulted him if he left them behind on Mars. It was a risk they all accepted, all of them. It was a decent thing he did. I was very proud of him for doing it, bringing that comfort to their families. So was everybody else. But people are hungry for scandal, and when that tape of him leaked, it gave them the meal. His broken sobs, his apologies to the bodies. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. It was my fault. I should have been more careful. I'm sorry."

Later he talked to them like they were alive. He talked to them like they answered him. Laughed and argued. Then whispers. But never a word to Mission Control, or to me, even though we knew he could hear us. He only spoke to his crewmates, staring into the airlock, the glass fogged up by his breath.

Another ship met the Dauntless. Another crew took custody of him. There were more videos, more leaks to the media. He had not shaved in months. His face was gaunt; he barely ate. They told me he stopped washing. They transferred him off the ship, declared the Dauntless evidence and began their investigations.

Jaywant's crewmates were brought back home, buried with honours. They sent Jaywant to a psychiatric hospital. They made sure there were camera crews and reporters at the entrance, waiting to film my boy as they lifted him out of an ambulance and carried him up the steps on a stretcher. He was too weak to even try walking, his body wasted away from the long months of mourning.

* * *

There is still a coffee shop up here, at the top of the mountain. Nobody recognizes us as we get off the gondola—we look like a family. A young couple, a mother-in-law tagging along. I suggest that we could all sit and have tea. But Jaywant pushes the door open and goes out onto the observation deck to lean on the railing. The wind buffets him and lifts his hair.

Jessie takes this opportunity to talk to me, to open up a contract on her phone. "We'll pay for his lawyers, and give you an annuity. All you have to do is agree to an interview."

"Just one?" I say. "Is that all? How kind of you." She ignores my sarcasm.

"A series of interviews."

"No."

"We'll tell his story, Mrs. Dalvi." She looks over her shoulder at him. "We'll tell the truth about what happened. My editors are committed to it."

"I don't believe you." I truly don't. I already fell into this trap once, when the first footage of Jaywant played on the news. I talked to a reporter. It was just after my husband died, when I was reeling, mad with pain and grief. A stroke. The stress killed him, that's what the doctors said. I should never have said that to the reporters, but I meant for them to know that it was their unfairness that did it, the way they talked about Jaywant. That is not at all how they reported it. All of the sudden, the stories were about me. The mother who blamed her son. "You'll tell lies about him."

"It's the biggest story of the century," she said. "What could we say that isn't worse than everything that's been said already? About him? Or you? We don't want to tell that story. It's been done."

She gives me her phone, tells me to read the contract. One of those new devices, fitting easily in my hand, automatically adjusting the font so that the letters are large and crisp as it estimates my age. "I can't agree to this," I say. "No."

"We're talking about the best legal team money can buy, Mrs. Dalvi. Better than the lawyers you have."

"And what if he is indicted? Can your lawyers make it go away?"

"No," she admits. "But if they go ahead, we can make sure he doesn't go to prison. Isn't that what you want?"

"You'll make him sound like a crazy man. He's not."

"Let us show the world that he isn't," she says, dropping her voice and covering my hand with hers. "Let us help him. And you." I look down at her hand, at the patterns in her mehndi. The warmth of her fingers startle me; Jaywant will not touch me. He will not hug me, will not kiss my cheek. When I try to hold him, he pulls away.

I am suddenly a foolish old woman, blubbing to a reporter who could finish my boy with one story, one carelessly edited interview. Any chance at freedom he has, gone with one headline. Convicted by opinion pieces before he even gets to the courts. "He isn't responsible for any of what happened," I say, wiping my eyes. "It was an equipment failure. That drill could have hit him. He was lucky. He could have died, too. That's what he told me."

"If you sign the contract..." She lets her voice trail off.

"I have to ask Jaywant."

"You're his legal guardian," she says. "You still have power of attorney. We checked. The papers haven't been rescinded. His lawyers forgot to do that. Do you see why you want to deal with us instead?" She leans closer to me, drops her voice. "What else have they forgotten?"

I know the story I want the world to know. Even though it is none of their business. I want them to know that he left sealed letters for his father and me in case anything happened. I never opened mine. I was sorely tempted, during those months while I talked to him, telling an empty screen about the people that missed him and how much I loved him, hoping he would listen to me. I read to him. I held pictures up, brought his teddy bear and showed it to him. I told him to come back to me.

The company wanted the spaceship. They wanted the bodies, too, but they wanted their ship more. They were afraid he would crash it, drive it into the moon. Or that he would sail on past Earth without slowing. They were fearful for their ship, had to make sure they got it back. I only wanted my Jaywant.

I can tell the world what he told me before he left, that night before he went into quarantine. Two weeks before launch. I held one hand and his father held the other, and he told us not to worry. He was young and confident, speaking with courage and love. He smiled broadly at me. "I'm going to make history, Mom," he said. "It'll be epic. I'm responsible for all these people. You know? They're all looking to me."

"Do you know what you're doing?" I asked. I couldn't help myself. I thought of what he was like when he was younger. The reckless things he did. The risks he took. The poor choices. I thought of these things, even as the guilt burned in my chest. "Are you sure you know what to do?"

"I'm the best person for the job," he said. "Really."

"And you can do it?" I said. "You'll be careful. Right?"

"I promise you I will," he said.

I want the world to know that my boy kept all his promises. That he didn't take chances. Accidents happen. I want the people who send angry emails and leave vicious comments on news sites to understand this.

Jaywant is still at the edge of the observation deck, and I have a sudden, sick fear that he will throw himself off the edge, down the side of the mountain. But he would not do that to me, I think. He agreed to be released to my care. I made him promise he would not do anything stupid. "He's a good son," I say.

"Let me tell his story," she says. She watches me without blinking. "Let me help people believe him."

I press two fingers to the screen, sign the contract quickly, and Jessie smiles with triumph and squeezes my hand. "This isn't about the money," I tell her. My voice shakes. "None of this was his fault. I want the story to be the truth."

"I promise you, we'll do that," she says.

I want the truth. I want people to believe my boy. Because maybe then, I will believe him, too.




BIO: Heather Clitheroe's work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Kaleidotrope, and in Lightspeed's Women Destroy SF special issue. She is a past participant of the Banff Centre for the Arts' writing residency program and the Leighton Artists' Colony.