Russell glanced at each well-loved title with nostalgia as he plucked books from the shelf. Frontiers of Astronomy. Aristotle: On the Heavens. Theories of the Universe. He shoved them in the box on the desk, trying to jam them into the space between the bending cardboard and the stack of books he had already packed. One didn’t fit; he laid it inside the next empty box.
He cleared his throat. “Yes, dear?” Russell believed his wife loved him. She would have left him long ago if she didn’t.
“Switch on the television, would ya?” Irene’s voice was strong, carrying all the way from the upstairs bedroom. “Those boys are about to walk on the moon.”
Russell grunted. Watching the astronauts was about the only thing that could ruin his first month of retirement, but he knew better than to cross Irene. He switched on the television and sank into his brown leather armchair. Captain Kirk screamed at Spock, “How much longer can we maintain warp speed?” Russell changed the channel.
His eyes locked on the small screen, where an astronaut stood at the bottom of a ladder of a lunar module. The background was nothing but gray rock and fuzzy black sky. A quiet voice, presumably Armstrong’s, was describing the moon’s surface: “… appears to be, uh, very, very fine grained as you get close to it – it’s almost like a powder. The ground mass, uh, is very fine.”
Russell hated the hesitation in Armstrong’s voice. He hated Armstrong, too. Every atom in his aging body told him that this was wrong.
Still, the astronaut continued, “I’m going to step off the LM now.” Armstrong lowered himself off the ladder and took a few cautious steps, but Russell wasn’t watching. He was out of his chair, pushing past Irene, who had drifted into the doorway, rushing to the back door, forgetting his coat.
“Russ, it’s all right–”
“One small step for
And he was gone.
As he stepped outside into the heavy evening air and began walking up the street, he kept his eyes down. The moon would be up, a waxing crescent, and he didn’t want to see the footprints that Armstrong had left. Metal probes were one thing, but people? People destroyed things. People dug holes and built skyscrapers and poured concrete on everything they touched. That was why Russell had always loved the moon: it was out of reach.
In his 34 years of teaching, he had told his high school freshmen the same thing. Technology had provided humanity with an increasingly detailed understanding of the solar system, which he always took into account, but his message remained the same. “Why can’t we send people into space?” the students would ask. “Why are we stuck on Earth, Mr. D?” Year after year, he would give the same speech.
“The universe is bigger than anything you could possibly imagine. Bigger than the history of the world, bigger than the curiosity of the human race, bigger than life itself. There is no way for us to completely understand it. It is the most beautiful mystery that humanity will ever know. But if we went out there to answer our questions, we would leave a mess everywhere. It wouldn’t be beautiful anymore, or mysterious, and the intrigue would be gone. We’re better off here, on the planet that we’ve claimed for ourselves.”
It was late. Russell went back inside.
A few hours later, the doorbell rang. Russell was in bed, reading an Agatha Christie novel. It was about a murder on a train, and none of its characters gave a damn about the moon, which was precisely why he had chosen it. It was a wonderfully effective distraction from the rest of the world. He let his wife answer the door.
“Russ! Come down, would ya? You’ve got guests,” she hollered.
He got out of bed and pulled his pants on. Irene stood at the bottom of the stairs, beaming up at him. Next to her, just inside the front door, were six of his students. The two in front were David and Cynthia, his favorites.
David smiled. “Hey, Mr. D. We’re going to the park to look at the moon. We know you’re probably pretty bummed out right now …”
“We want you to come,” Cynthia interrupted.
Russell grinned. Nothing in the world made him happier than spending time with his students. “I’ll come.”
“Groovy!” David exclaimed.
The elderly teacher grabbed his coat, kissed Irene, and followed his students.
As they walked, he watched the moon, inspecting it carefully. It hung in the sky unobtrusively, inviting the gaze of billions of eyes. Russell couldn’t see any footprints, no matter how hard he squinted. He filled the silence with familiar words.
“The universe,” he began, “is bigger than anything you could possibly imagine. Bigger than the history of the world, bigger than the curiosity of the human race, bigger than life itself.” He paused, considering his next words. “It’s so big, in fact, that we’ll never see all of it, no matter how hard we try. Even if we sent a rocket to every moon of every planet in our galaxy, there would still be so much left to wonder about.”
Russell smiled, and so did his students. “I think that’s pretty beautiful.”
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.