The gravity beam pressed down on Howard.
In the back of the limousine, he watched the countryside pass him by. He sat mesmerized by the low-angle sunlight shimmering off of a tin grain silo out in the distance. He let the light catch his eye directly and thought about the protons entering his body and their incredible journey across the vacuum of space. For the briefest of moments, Howard felt the intense weight being lifted. He closed his eyes and sighed.
“Hm?” It was his brother, Mark. He was sitting across from him and he’d heard Howard’s sigh from behind The New York Times that he was holding up between them. Mark was a state senator. He was twelve years Howard’s senior. This was his limo they were sitting in. He didn’t lower the newspaper when he continued to speak. “Everything alright over there?”
Mark had agreed to escort his brother to his destination so that Howard’s fiancee, Mary, wouldn’t have to do it on her own. They were taking him to a quiet place in upstate New York. They were going to commit him.
Howard still had his eyes closed when he answered his brother’s question.
“Too good to be true,” he muttered.
Mark coughed into his hand and turned the page. Next to him, Mary winced at her fiancee’s remark, but kept her eyes directed steadily out of the opposite window. She didn’t want to look at him.
Howard let his head rest against the window to feel the vibrations of the road and he felt the weight settle on him once again.
Howard’s brother and fiancee were taking him to an institution because he had tried to kill himself a few weeks before. He had failed, of course. He had been discovered by Mary, unconscious on the bathroom floor, a prescription bottle in his grasp. He had been rushed to the hospital and had his stomach pumped.
The reason Howard had tried to kill himself was this: Ever since he was a boy, he had been trapped by the gravity beam.
The gravity beam was a figment of Howard’s young imagination. He knew that. But it represented the ever-present sensation in his life that he carried more weight than can be borne.
Unlike a tractor beam, which Howard had first read about in an issue of Weird Tales as a boy, a gravity beam did not draw the target towards the beam’s source. Rather, it pushed down from above, applying steady, unrelenting weight.
It was the weight of pressure.
It was the weight of expectation.
Howard and Mark’s father was exceedingly wealthy. He was a petroleum man who had invested heavily in a newly developed synthetic material called polyethylene and as the Second World War had escalated across the Atlantic, the plastic had gained a foothold in the market place.
He made so much money, in fact, that when the war eventually came to American shores, he could have easily kept his oldest son from seeing combat. But he chose instead to send Mark, then eighteen, into the thick of it. It had been a calculated gamble. Until that point, Mark had been being raised to take over the family’s sizable business interests. But America’s entry into the campaign brought with it new opportunities. Nothing would galvanize a wealthy family’s status as an American dynasty faster than a Medal of Honor.
Their father knew this and had encouraged Mark to fight his hardest. And while he hadn’t earned a Medal of Honor, Mark had done as his father wished and distinguished himself in combat.
So plans had changed. Mark would now be the family’s entryway into the world of politics and the mantle of the family business would instead pass to Howard, still only a boy of ten. It was in that moment, when their father’s decision had been made, that the gravity beam had first been activated.
Their father had sat him down and explained exactly was now needed of him – what was expected of him. And all at once the weight of it pressed down on him.
A few days later, Howard returned home from school to find his father seated at the kitchen table. In front of him sat a stack of magazines and books – what amounted to Howard’s personal library. There were back issues of Astounding Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Captain Future as well as books by Jules Verne, H.P. Lovecraft, H.G. Wells, and others.
When Howard’s father saw him enter, he asked him to sit and then began to read from the King James Bible.
“When I was a child,’ he began. “I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.”
He closed the Bible and looked at his son.
“You’ve had enough of this nonsense,” he said, gesturing towards the stack on the table between them. “I have new books for you.”
Across the table, he slid two small, hard-covers. Howard picked them up and looked them over. The were Sun Szu’s The Art of War and Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends And Influence People.
Tears began to fill the boy’s eyes and his father said, “One day, you’ll thank me for this.”
Howard had tried to accept the change with an open mind. He read the books his father gave him three times each. And the following year, when he was moved to an Ivy League Prep School, he had committed himself to his studies and to building relationships with his peers.
But all the while, he felt the gravity beam intensify.
And it was because of this weight that Howard had written his first story. In ten pages of primitive science fiction, he unfurled an ambitious metaphor for his own experiences and frustrations with reality. He titled the story Trapped In a Gravity Beam.
Once he had finished, he mailed the typed original copy – the only copy – to his older brother.
The weeks passed and he heard nothing from Mark, in response to his story or otherwise. Eventually, the semester ended and Howard returned home. The evening he arrived, his father greeted him stiffly and asked if he’d join him in the parlor. There, standing before a roaring fire, he revealed the envelope that Howard had mailed to his brother, and withdrew from it the pages of the story.
“Mark told me you mailed this to him.”
In the presence of his father, Howard was profoundly intimidated. He found himself embarrassed by the story he had written. He looked down at his feet and said nothing.
Howard’s father removed a cigarette case from his jacket pocket and lit one. He dragged on it slowly, then exhaled through his nose.
“Look,” he said firmly, as if addressing an employee. “You know why we can’t have this, right?”
Howard didn’t answer. He couldn’t answer. He just kept staring at the floor.
“Son, look at me when I’m talking to you.”
Slowly, Howard raised his eyes. His father held the pages of the story out between them and asked again.
“You understand why we can’t have this, don’t you?”
Howard didn’t understand. He didn’t understand at all. But he wasn’t strong enough to resist. Instead, he swallowed hard and nodded. His father watched him carefully, and when he was satisfied that he had made his point, he leaned over and tossed the pages of the story into the fire.
Howard clenched his jaw and tried to fight back tears as he watched the papers blacken and curl in the flames. His father threw the butt of his cigarette into the fire as well and then coughed into his hand.
“So long as we’re clear,” he said and left young Howard alone in the parlor.
And as the boy watched the story burn, all he could feel was the strength of the gravity beam increase.
A week later, Howard returned to school and returned his focus to his studies. The days became weeks, the weeks semesters, the semesters years. Howard took physics and learned that gravity did not operate how he had envisioned it as a pre-teen. That it his gravity beam was, in fact, an impossibility. Still, with each passing day, he swore that he felt the effects of the beam more and more.
But despite that crushing weight, or perhaps because of it, Howard performed well at the prep school. He graduated near the top of his class. Then came the requisite university studies.
Howard, or rather Howard’s father, chose Princeton. Soon, he found himself walking the New Jersey campus, trapped in a prison only as wide as his shoulders.
It was here, in the fall of 1956, when Howard was twenty years old, that he met Mary.
She was nineteen. A sophomore at NYU studying anthropology. She wanted to study the indigenous tribes of South America. Howard found her absolutely fascinating.
For a while, the weight was lifted. Howard strode through the next year at Princeton, now quite happy with his life.
But then, in October of 1957, everything changed. The Soviet Union successfully placed a satellite in orbit around the Earth and Howard’s mind reeled with the implications. Brought suddenly back to mind were the short stories of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He now dreamed daily of fantastic worlds in distant galaxies.
It was all Howard could do to keep his attention on his classwork and Mary. He tried his best, but, as each year passed, and man’s achievements in space-travel escalated, holding back his enthusiasm became a massive endeavor. The weight once again settled back onto the young man. The gravity beam had found him again.
In time, Howard completed his Masters. He was summoned by his father and set to the task of becoming the new figurehead of the company.
Each day spent behind a desk or sitting in a shareholders meeting was also spent wondering how those around him were not struck with constant awe by the staggering triumphs of science. When his attorneys began to delve into the particularities of a merger negotiation, he wanted to stand up and shout at them, “Don’t you people know that they sent a man into space this week!? Aren’t you paying attention!?”
But he didn’t shout. He sat passively while his life was lived around him. He was under too much weight to struggle.
Then, in the summer of 1961, while Mary was carrying out graduate studies in Brazil, he had an idea. The last time he could remember being completely free of life’s weight was when he was writing a short story as a child.
So he wrote.
He wrote furiously, driven by some other cosmic force that stood in direct opposition to the gravity beam. And in a few months, the story was told of an alien world and the peoples that lived and died there. Their customs and traditions. Their fears. Their desires.
When Howard finally held the manuscript in his hand, he felt free of the gravity beam once again.
A few weeks later, Mary returned to the United States and Howard presented her with his work.
“This is what I was meant to do,” he told her.
She only smiled cautiously and promised to read it right away.
The next time they saw one another, a few days later, Howard could not contain himself and asked her immediately what she had thought.
“I think it’s really creative,” she said after what seemed like an impossibly long pause. “I just don’t…understand.”
“You don’t understand what? The story?”
“I mean, I don’t understand…why. I don’t know why you think you were meant to write…to write…stuff like this.”
In an instant the beam was reactivated and the sudden jolt of gravity sent Howard’s heart through the floor below him. He wanted to explain himself to Mary. He wanted everyone to understand him. But her confused eyes made him feel ashamed of himself. He sagged under the weight of it all. The subject was dropped.
One week later, Mary accompanied Howard on a trip to see his father and brother at the family’s vacation home in Maryland.
They arrived and found Mark and their father seated at the dining room table. In front of his father, Howard immediately noticed the manuscript he had given Mary ten days before. His father asked him to sit.
In his entire life, Howard had never heard his father raise his voice. Hearing him shout now as an old man was more than unsettling. Howard sat silently at the table while his father berated him.
“I thought we were done with this shit!” he screamed. And, “Have you lost your mind!?”
Howard sat through it all feeling the laser focus of the gravity beam smash him deeper and deeper into the ground below. He knew then that there was no escape.
After a few minutes, Howard’s father’s ranting cooled into a spiteful hiss.
“Or are you just stupid?,” he seethed. “If Mary hadn’t had the good sense to bring this to my attention, it could have ruined us.”
Mary was staring at the floor now. Mark was looking at him without emotion.
Howard’s father stared at him with absolute disgust.
“You’ve become a liability,” he said and left the room.
A few seconds later, Mark stood silently and followed.
Then Mary stood, touched Howard briefly on the shoulder and left the room herself.
Howard rose, walked upstairs, and swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills.
Now, in the backseat of the limousine, Howard watched as they entered an apple orchard. It was late afternoon now and in the sky the moon was clearly visible. Howard’s mind drifted to thoughts of tidal shifts and magnetic poles. Isaac Newton. The Theory of Gravity.
He was suddenly overwhelmed with disbelief. How were Mary and Mark were not struck dumb by the thoughts of such miracles?
And then he thought about how it was exactly this kind of thinking that had brought him to this place and he doubted himself again.
The limousine pulled to a stop. He looked out of his window and saw that they had arrived at the gates of the institution. He thought about what it would be like on the inside. Would they put him in a straight jacket? Would they lobotomize him?
Then he thought about how his entire life had been lived in a straight jacket.
He looked at his brother and at Mary but neither would look back at him. He thought about the two hundred dollars in his wallet and wondered how far it would carry him.
Howard looked up through the window once more at the moon floating out there in space.
Then he opened his door and he ran.
He ran like has had never run before, drawn on by some unseen force.
And with each lunging stride, he felt the effects of gravity beam weaken until, at last, he escaped.
Five years have passed. It’s January of 1967. Howard sits at his desk in a rotten tenement in Brooklyn. His hair is getting long now. Worn blankets cover his shoulders because his room has no heat.
The only light comes from two candles burning on his desk, set on either side of a typewriter.
Today, NASA launched the Saturn V vehicle. It’s all Howard can think about.
He warms his fingers over the candles so that he can continue typing.
The room around him is a chaos of discarded pages, stacked manuscripts, and responses from magazines and publishers – half of which have not even been opened.
He hasn’t spoken to any members of his family in five years. But he doesn’t even think about that.
Howard is hungry. He hasn’t eaten since yesterday. But that doesn’t matter.
He spent the last of his money today on a new typewriter ribbon and he doesn’t know when the Chinese place downstairs will let him wash dishes again. But that doesn’t matter either.
Because Howard has escaped the gravity beam forever and now he’s weightless.