Meteorite by Chelyen Davis


When Oakey told me they were moving the meteorite, I thought he must be joking. 

Gray-brown and knobby, smaller than my fist, the meteorite had sat proudly in a glass display case at the Bell County Museum and Historical Society for years. 

It had arrived in Bell County on August 3, 1983, soaring down into Mrs. Adeline Farley’s vegetable garden, cutting a swath through her laundry line. In the newspaper pictures afterward, you could see a line of Mr. Farley’s underwear, draped like abandoned surrender flags across the cabbage row. Behind that was a small crater where the tomatoes had been. Mrs. Farley was proud of her garden, but her dismay at its destruction couldn’t compete with her pride in her garden having been the scene of impact. TV crews from two counties came out to interview her. It was Mrs. Farley’s proudest day. 

The whole town was fascinated. We rarely saw anything from even out of state, much less outer space. When Randy Dearborn’s cousin came from Detroit we gawped over his accent, so you can just imagine how a meteorite knocked us slackjawed. Outer space, we told each other, in a reverent whisper. Return of the Jedi had come out that year and we all switched from cowboys and Indians to Jedis and storm troopers, even though there weren’t enough starring roles for us all. Candy Higgenbottom flat-out refused to play if she couldn’t be Leia, which I said then and say to this day wasn’t fair. 

When the meteorite arrived, we imagined this very rock floating beside the Millennium Falcon, which by association got us very close to being Luke or Han Solo. Our science teachers were thrilled. The meteorite was stored in the fire station’s garage, and every child in the county was taken to see it.

We crowded around, elbowing each other for a good look at this rock that didn’t look very different from a rock you’d find in the creek bottom. But Mrs. Statler, the teacher, insisted it was a real space object. It had been part of a much larger space rock, she said, which had mostly burned up on entering the atmosphere. We were lucky to see such a large one, she added. Mostly when people found meteorites, they were the size of pebbles. 

I stared at it the whole time we were at the fire station, and Mrs. Statler had to physically pull me away. I had made some fun of the Star Wars-obsessed boys, but once I laid eyes on it, it cast a spell on me too. I just couldn’t imagine how far it had traveled, to be here, in Bell County, in a box in front of me. I had never seen anything so exotic, so far removed from the dull, familiar things of home. 

My usual days were all the same. I ate oatmeal for breakfast with Mother and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch at school, with the kids I’d known all my life. I walked home from school, the same tree-lined streets to the big, rambling house that had been my own mother’s mother’s, and was now ours. Mother always said “is that you, Charlene?” when I came in, as if it could be anyone else, and I always said “Yes, mother,” and went into the kitchen and she gave me a plate with two shortbread cookies, and drank tea as her lipstick left a print on the glass. Every day. 

But the meteorite was new. I felt almost as if it had chosen us, chosen where to land. It was a gift, this variation in the routine. And it gave us a sign, that there were things outside Bell County. Sure, the meteorite was now stuck here with us. When a bat crash lands, you can usually toss it into the air and it’ll take off. It just needs to get oriented again, straighten up its sonar. Mother says don’t touch bats, they’re rabid, but I saw Oakey do it when we were twelve and he didn’t get sick. You couldn’t do that with the meteorite. But it had traveled. It had been somewhere else. 

Eventually the men at the fire station decided the novelty of hosting a meteorite—and a parade of the county’s school children—had worn off. The county decided the meteorite should be preserved in the county museum, as an important part of Bell County’s history. 

The shop teacher at the high school built it a special display case, with a pedestal inside covered in red velvet like you’d see downtown in the window of Hofheimer’s Jewelry. The museum director typed up a little information card to put in front of it. “Meteorite, 5 lbs. Landed in the garden of Mrs. Adeline Farley at 3 o’clock in the afternoon of August 3, 1983, destroying a laundry line and a tomato patch. Iron, copper, magnesium.” It was very official.

I knew that card by heart. The museum was in an old storefront downtown, two rooms of old photographs and tools from the county’s early industries of farming, timbering, and a bit of mining. The meteorite was proudly displayed near the front. I often stopped in just to take a look at it, enthroned on its velvet, to reassure myself it was still there, still a piece of space, still a message from the world that other things were out there. 

As the years passed, little else changed. I walked home from school, answered my mother’s questions, and ate my cookies. I saw all of the same people, and we grew taller, grew into our faces. 

We stopped playing Jedis and storm troopers, and stopped playing imaginary games altogether. The boys joined sports teams and the girls cheered or joined the band. Several of my friends did beauty pageants, but not me. “Charlene is too robust for pageantry,” Mother said. My pretty, fragile friends twirled in their sparkly gowns. Candy Higgenbottom did pageants, to no one’s surprise.

I visited the meteorite and when we filled out career cards at school, I wrote down that I wanted to study space. I couldn’t imagine actually going there—I couldn’t imagine going farther than Tennessee—but I could read about it, and tell other people about it. I could tell them it was infinite, ancient. 

“I’m not sure you have the aptitude for astronomy,” said Mr. Hicks, the guidance counselor. 

When we graduated, things shifted. My sparkly friends disappeared to college. But my mother felt she would have trouble making do without me there. “Charlene is such a help,” she told people. “Such a help. I don’t know how I’d do without her.”

I didn’t know how she’d do without me either. Eventually Mother stopped leaving the house entirely. Every morning she still got up, dressed, and put on her face, but slowly more and more errands fell to me, and more and more often she declined invitations from her friends, or urged them to come to her instead. 

I got a job at the museum, where I sat at the wooden front desk three days a week and answered questions if any visitor happened to wander in, which usually was by accident. I made sure all the brochures—highlighting historical sites in Bell County, some from neighboring counties were neatly stacked. I dusted the meteorite case. Inside it, in its glass cage, the meteorite sat, the same year after year. A piece of the world come to visit, a world I hadn’t seen. Maybe someday, the meteorite seemed to say. 

Then Oakey said they were moving it and I could have fallen over right there in shock. 

“But why?” I said. “Where?”

“To the school,” said Oakey. “So the kids can study it. Part of Vera’s big renovation.”

Oakey did the maintenance at the museum and covered the desk the other two days a week.

I knew Vera, the museum director, had been rooting through the collections in the basement, saying she wanted more local artifacts front and center. But she’d never said a word about the meteorite.

            As the days passed, Vera bustled around, getting old photographs blown up into poster boards, and shining up our collection of old arrowheads. She had me sorting through courthouse documents to build a Timeline of Prosperity, she called it.

“Charlene, we need to tell a new story,” she said when I asked, waving her manicured fingers as if to give wings to this new narrative. “The story of Bell County isn’t about this meteorite. That old rock’s not even from here. It’s about our forefathers, who fought through the wilderness to build farms and lives here in Bell County. It’s about the Indians who were here before, and the evolution of the economy into the vibrant place we live today.” 

I wouldn’t have called Bell County exactly vibrant. All my life we had limped along with an auto parts plant, and a cluster of fast food and discount department stores out by the highway, which did not run through Elk City. It was not a town people came to on purpose anymore. 

As the days passed, Vera bustled around, getting old photographs blown up into poster boards, and shining up our collection of old arrowheads. She had me sorting through courthouse documents to build a Timeline of Prosperity, she called it. 

So far Vera had left the meteorite alone. She planned a big reveal of the new museum displays, and until everything was ready, she was content to let it sit in the front window as it had done for the past twenty years. I dusted its case daily.

I could not imagine coming in and not seeing that rock. Something about its small, gray lumpenness reassured me. It had not changed in these past twenty years. It was the same as it had been when I first saw it at eight, when it was a new and exotic foreigner. I imagined that it longed to escape its glass cage, and be free again out in the world. I wondered what that would feel like—free to just walk out of the museum, out of Elk City. Maybe even out of Bell County.

Apart from one church mission trip to Knoxville, where we gave coats to tight-faced city children who made fun of our accents, I had never slept a night outside of Elk City. 

But a plan was forming in my mind. I could give the meteorite freedom. I could save it from being boxed up, stored in a school cabinet, in the dark where it could never see the sky from which it fell. I would set it free. 

I would steal it. 

I laughed out loud when this idea came to me, and Oakey looked up from where he was putting in a new light fixture for one of Vera’s displays. 

“You sick, Charlene?” he asked. “Sounds like you got a cough or something.”

“I’m fine, Oakey,” I said. “I feel good, in fact.”

He shook his head and went back to doing wiring he wasn’t trained for. 

I sat at the desk and thought about my plan. 

It would have to be at night, and not after my own shift, I decided. I would have to break in, even though I had a key, because if I used that key it would be obvious that it was an inside job. 

And then I would take the meteorite and we would go on the run. 

I had the car. It had been Mother’s car, and when she stopped driving I took it over, because there was no other way to get to the grocery store after it moved out to the highway. There was a bus but Mother said it was infested with germs and wouldn’t ride it. Once she stopped leaving the house I could have ridden the bus if I wanted, but I liked to drive. I liked the feel of the big Buick sedan gliding along, right at the speed limit, from home to work at the museum and back to the house. The meteorite and I would glide together onto the open road, to see what the world looked like. 

Mother would be a problem. I didn’t quite see how she would manage without me. But she still had visitors, ladies from church, so I knew someone would check on her. Perhaps they could bring her groceries now and then. Just because I did the cooking didn’t mean she couldn’t. 

We would just have to wait a few days after I liberated the meteorite, so no one would be suspicious. 

With my plan ready, I just had to time it right. I chose a Tuesday night, Tuesday being Oakey’s day at work and my day off. I told Mother we were out of sugar and I would have to go to the grocery store. 

“It’s nighttime, Charlene,” she said. “Ladies don’t go out alone after dark.”

“I don’t want you looking to sugar your tea and not having any,” I said, with my purse already on my shoulder. I sailed out the door while she was still arguing. 

In the car, I glided downtown, where the storefronts were dark and the sidewalks empty in the twilight. Seeing no one, I parked the car on the side street and walked, casually, down the alley that ran the length of the block, along the backs of the buildings. I took the trash out back here enough to recognize the museum from this side, and I knew that while Vera religiously locked up, the door was right by a window. 

I had never broken a window before. It felt surprisingly good, the give of the glass, the tinkle of it falling. Years of watching Matlock with Mother stood me in good stead here—I had thought to wear long sleeves, to protect my arm and hand from the glass as I reached in to unlock the knob. 

And just like that, I was inside, alone in the dark museum. 

It felt different, as if the air was holding its breath. But the smell was familiar, old wood and lemon Pledge, and I followed my flashlight to the front, where the meteorite sat, waiting for me. 

I knew from years of careful dusting that the glass case simply sat over it, unsecured on the meteorite’s velvet throne. I plucked it out and set the case back down. Then I stood in awe, cupping it in my hand. I was touching an actual meteorite, a thing from outer space, from so far away I could not truly imagine it, although I had spent the past twenty years trying. 

It looked less exotic without its velvet. I stroked it, something I’d never been able to do before. Its lumps and pockmarks felt smooth, burned that way by the flames of its arrival on Earth, I figured.  I held the meteorite and imagined wild plans about our future. We could go to Knoxville! Lexington! I would rent us a little apartment and find a job, maybe at another museum, and we would live there and answer to nobody. I’d buy cookies I liked and go out at night if I wanted and no one would say otherwise.

This seemed very daring. But I found I was having trouble picturing it. How would I even start to find an apartment to rent? How would I find a job? I hadn’t even applied for the job at the museum. Mother had heard it was open and told Vera I would take it. 

I sat down at my desk, still holding the meteorite, now warm from my skin. I concentrated very hard on imagining what it would be like. In my bedroom at home, the window glowed faintly from the streetlamp on the corner. Mother’s snores drifted down the hall from her room. In the summer the cicadas pulsed, deafening when you noticed it yet inaudible if you started thinking about something else. In the winter, the furnace ticked and hummed. 

In Knoxville or Lexington, I imagined, the sounds would be different. Traffic, probably. Maybe the lights would shine in my windows more brightly. No one would snore but me. 

No one would know when I came home to this apartment I imagined living in. No one would take the cookies I bought and put them on the plate for me. No one would be there at all. 

What would I do, if I could do anything at all? It suddenly seemed like an unimaginable freedom. 

What if the meteorite was daunted by the infinite vastness of space, too? What if it landed here because it wanted a home? What if its glass cage had been just the right amount of space for it, a safe and cozy shelter? 

Out on the street a car drove by, its headlights slicing through the windows of the museum front room where I sat, and I came back to earth, remembering what I was doing—breaking and entering, and larceny. 

What if someone had heard the glass break? What if someone had seen my light? What if they were waiting out back for me to come out, a sneak thief? I dropped the meteorite in my purse. It was all I could do not to run.

But no one waited at the back door. I closed it quietly behind me and walked as fast as I could back down the street, to where the car waited. 

I went to the grocery store even though we weren’t out of sugar, in case I needed an alibi for later. And then we glided home, the sugar and me and my secret. 

“Is that you, Charlene?” Mother called from the den, where Matlock paced the courtroom triumphantly. “Yes, Mother,” I said, and went to eat my cookies.

Chelyen Davis' fiction work has previously appeared in Appalachian Heritage, where it was awarded the 2016 Denny C. Plattner Award, and in Still: The Journal's 2014 fiction contest. Her non-fiction essays have appeared in the Bitter Southerner and other media outlets. A native of Southwest Virginia, she currently lives in Richmond, Virginia.

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