The First One

: The First One

The first man to return from beyond the Great Frontier may be

welcomed ... but will it be as a curiosity, rather than as a


There was the usual welcoming crowd for a celebrity, and the usual

speeches by the usual politicians who met him at the airport which had

once been twenty miles outside of Croton, but which the growing city had

since engulfed and placed well within its
boundaries. But everything

wasn't usual. The crowd was quiet, and the mayor didn't seem quite as

at-ease as he'd been on his last big welcoming--for Corporal Berringer,

one of the crew of the spaceship Washington, first to set Americans

upon Mars. His Honor's handclasp was somewhat moist and cold. His

Honor's eyes held a trace of remoteness.

Still, he was the honored home-comer, the successful returnee, the

hometown boy who had made good in a big way, and they took the triumphal

tour up Main Street to the new square and the grandstand. There he sat

between the mayor and a nervous young coed chosen as homecoming queen,

and looked out at the police and fire department bands, the National

Guard, the boy scouts and girl scouts, the Elks and Masons. Several of

the churches in town had shown indecision as to how to instruct their

parishioners to treat him. But they had all come around. The tremendous

national interest, the fact that he was the First One, had made them

come around. It was obvious by now that they would have to adjust as

they'd adjusted to all the other firsts taking place in these--as the

newspapers had dubbed the start of the Twenty-first Century--the

Galloping Twenties.

He was glad when the official greeting was over. He was a very tired man

and he had come farther, traveled longer and over darker country, than

any man who'd ever lived before. He wanted a meal at his own table, a

kiss from his wife, a word from his son, and later to see some old

friends and a relative or two. He didn't want to talk about the journey.

He wanted to forget the immediacy, the urgency, the terror; then perhaps

he would talk.

Or would he? For he had very little to tell. He had traveled and he had

returned and his voyage was very much like the voyages of the great

mariners, from Columbus onward--long, dull periods of time passing,

passing, and then the arrival.

The house had changed. He saw that as soon as the official car let him

off at 45 Roosevelt Street. The change was, he knew, for the better.

They had put a porch in front. They had rehabilitated, spruced up,

almost rebuilt the entire outside and grounds. But he was sorry. He had

wanted it to be as before.

The head of the American Legion and the chief of police, who had

escorted him on this trip from the square, didn't ask to go in with him.

He was glad. He'd had enough of strangers. Not that he was through with

strangers. There were dozens of them up and down the street, standing

beside parked cars, looking at him. But when he looked back at them,

their eyes dropped, they turned away, they began moving off. He was

still too much the First One to have his gaze met.

He walked up what had once been a concrete path and was now an ornate

flagstone path. He climbed the new porch and raised the ornamental

knocker on the new door and heard the soft music sound within. He was

surprised that he'd had to do this. He'd thought Edith would be watching

at a window.

And perhaps she had been watching ... but she hadn't opened the door.

The door opened; he looked at her. It hadn't been too long and she

hadn't changed at all. She was still the small, slender girl he'd loved

in high school, the small, slender woman he'd married twelve years ago.

Ralphie was with her. They held onto each other as if seeking mutual

support, the thirty-three-year old woman and ten-year-old boy. They

looked at him, and then both moved forward, still together. He said,

"It's good to be home!"

Edith nodded and, still holding to Ralphie with one hand, put the other

arm around him. He kissed her--her neck, her cheek--and all the old

jokes came to mind, the jokes of travel-weary, battle-weary men, the

and-then-I'll-put-my-pack-aside jokes that spoke of terrible hunger.

She was trembling, and even as her lips came up to touch his he felt the

difference, and because of this difference he turned with urgency to

Ralphie and picked him up and hugged him and said, because he could

think of nothing else to say, "What a big fella, what a big fella."

Ralphie stood in his arms as if his feet were still planted on the

floor, and he didn't look at his father but somewhere beyond him. "I

didn't grow much while you were gone, Dad, Mom says I don't eat enough."

So he put him down and told himself that it would all change, that

everything would loosen up just as his commanding officer, General

Carlisle, had said it would early this morning before he left


"Give it some time," Carlisle had said. "You need the time; they need

the time. And for the love of heaven, don't be sensitive."

* * * * *

Edith was leading him into the living room, her hand lying still in his,

a cool, dead bird lying still in his. He sat down on the couch, she sat

down beside him--but she had hesitated. He wasn't being sensitive; she

had hesitated. His wife had hesitated before sitting down beside him.

Carlisle had said his position was analogous to Columbus', to Vasco De

Gama's, to Preshoff's when the Russian returned from the Moon--but more

so. Carlisle had said lots of things, but even Carlisle who had worked

with him all the way, who had engineered the entire fantastic

journey--even Carlisle the Nobel prize winner, the multi-degreed genius

in uniform, had not actually spoken to him as one man to another.

The eyes. It always showed in their eyes.

He looked across the room at Ralphie, standing in the doorway, a boy

already tall, already widening in the shoulders, already large of

feature. It was like looking into the mirror and seeing himself

twenty-five years ago. But Ralphie's face was drawn, was worried in a

way that few ten-year-old faces are.

"How's it going in school?" he asked.

"Gee, Dad, it's the second month of summer vacation."

"Well, then, before summer vacation?"

"Pretty good."

Edith said, "He made top forum the six-month period before vacation, and

he made top forum the six-month period you went away, Hank."

He nodded, remembering that, remembering everything, remembering the

warmth of her farewell, the warmth of Ralphie's farewell, their tears as

he left for the experimental flight station in the Aleutians. They had

feared for him, having read of the many launchings gone wrong even in

continent-to-continent experimental flight.

They had been right to worry. He had suffered much after that blow-up.

But now they should be rejoicing, because he had survived and made the

long journey. Ralphie suddenly said, "I got to go, Dad. I promised Walt

and the others I'd pitch. It's Inter-Town Little League, you know. It's

Harmon, you know. I got to keep my word." Without waiting for an answer,

he waved his hand--it shook; a ten-year-old boy's hand that shook--and

ran from the room and from the house.

He and Edith sat beside each other, and he wanted badly to take her in

his arms, and yet he didn't want to oppress her. He stood up. "I'm very

tired. I'd like to lie down a while." Which wasn't true, because he'd

been lying down all the months of the way back.

She said, "Of course. How stupid of me, expecting you to sit around and

make small talk and pick up just where you left off."

He nodded. But that was exactly what he wanted to do--make small talk

and pick up just where he'd left off. But they didn't expect it of him;

they wouldn't let him; they felt he had changed too much.

* * * * *

She led him upstairs and along the foyer past Ralphie's room and past

the small guest room to their bedroom. This, too, had changed. It was

newly painted and it had new furniture. He saw twin beds separated by an

ornate little table with an ornate little lamp, and this looked more

ominous a barrier to him than the twelve-foot concrete-and-barbed-wire

fence around the experimental station.

"Which one is mine," he asked, and tried to smile.

She also tried to smile. "The one near the window. You always liked the

fresh air, the sunshine in the morning. You always said it helped you

to get up on time when you were stationed at the base outside of town.

You always said it reminded you--being able to see the sky--that you

were going to go up in it, and that you were going to come down from it

to this bed again."

"Not this bed," he murmured, and was a little sorry afterward.

"No, not this bed," she said quickly. "Your lodge donated the bedroom

set and I really didn't know--" She waved her hand, her face white.

He was sure then that she had known, and that the beds and the barrier

between them were her own choice, if only an unconscious choice. He went

to the bed near the window, stripped off his Air Force blue jacket,

began to take off his shirt, but then remembered that some arm scars

still showed. He waited for her to leave the room.

She said, "Well then, rest up, dear," and went out.

He took off his shirt and saw himself in the mirror on the opposite

wall; and then took off his under-shirt. The body scars were faint, the

scars running in long lines, one dissecting his chest, the other slicing

diagonally across his upper abdomen to disappear under his trousers.

There were several more on his back, and one on his right thigh. They'd

been treated properly and would soon disappear. But she had never seen


Perhaps she never would. Perhaps pajamas and robes and dark rooms would

keep them from her until they were gone.

Which was not what he'd considered at all important on leaving Walter

Reed Hospital early this morning; which was something he found

distasteful, something he felt beneath them both. And, at the same time,

he began to understand that there would be many things, previously

beneath them both, which would have to be considered. She had changed;

Ralphie had changed; all the people he knew had probably

changed--because they thought he had changed.

He was tired of thinking. He lay down and closed his eyes. He let

himself taste bitterness, unhappiness, a loneliness he had never known


But sometime later, as he was dozing off, a sense of reassurance began

filtering into his mind. After all, he was still Henry Devers, the same

man who had left home eleven months ago, with a love for family and

friends which was, if anything, stronger than before. Once he could

communicate this, the strangeness would disappear and the First One

would again become good old Hank. It was little enough to ask for--a

return to old values, old relationships, the normalcies of the backwash

instead of the freneticisms of the lime-light. It would certainly be

granted to him.

He slept.

* * * * *

Dinner was at seven P.M. His mother came; his Uncle Joe and Aunt Lucille

came. Together with Edith, Ralphie and himself, they made six, and ate

in the dining room at the big table.

Before he'd become the First One, it would have been a noisy affair. His

family had never been noted for a lack of ebullience, a lack of

talkativeness, and Ralphie had always chosen mealtimes--especially with

company present--to describe everything and anything that had happened

to him during the day. And Edith herself had always chatted, especially

with his mother, though they didn't agree about much. Still, it had been

good-natured; the general tone of their lives had been good-natured.

This wasn't good-natured. Exactly what it was he wasn't sure. "Stiff"

was perhaps the word.

They began with grapefruit, Edith and Mother serving quickly,

efficiently from the kitchen, then sitting down at the table. He looked

at Mother as he raised his first spoonful of chilled fruit, and said,

"Younger than ever." It was nothing new; he'd said it many many times

before, but his mother had always reacted with a bright smile and a quip

something like, "Young for the Golden Age Center, you mean." This time

she burst into tears. It shocked him. But what shocked him even more was

the fact that no one looked up, commented, made any attempt to comfort

her; no one indicated in any way that a woman was sobbing at the table.

He was sitting directly across from Mother, and reached out and touched

her left hand which lay limply beside the silverware. She didn't move

it--she hadn't touched him once beyond that first, quick, strangely-cool

embrace at the door--then a few seconds later she withdrew it and let it

drop out of sight.

So there he was, Henry Devers, at home with the family. So there he was,

the hero returned, waiting to be treated as a human being.

The grapefruit shells were cleaned away and the soup served. Uncle Joe

began to talk. "The greatest little development of circular uniform

houses you ever did see," he boomed in his powerful salesman's voice.

"Still going like sixty. We'll sell out before--" At that point he

looked at Hank, and Hank nodded encouragement, desperately interested in

this normalcy, and Joe's voice died away. He looked down at his plate,

mumbled, "Soup's getting cold," and began to eat. His hand shook a

little; his ruddy face was not quite as ruddy as Hank remembered it.

Aunt Lucille made a few quavering statements about the Ladies' Tuesday

Garden Club, and Hank looked across the table to where she sat between

Joe and Mother--his wife and son bracketed him, and yet he felt

alone--and said, "I've missed fooling around with the lawn and the rose

bushes. Here it is August and I haven't had my hand to a mower or


Aunt Lucille smiled, if you could call it that--a pitiful twitching of

the lips--and nodded. She threw her eyes in his direction, and past him,

and then down to her plate. Mother, who was still sniffling, said, "I

have a dismal headache. I'm going to lie down in the guest room a

while." She touched his shoulder in passing--his affectionate, effusive

mother who would kiss stray dogs and strange children, who had often

irritated him with an excess of physical and verbal caresses--she barely

touched his shoulder and fled.

So now five of them sat at the table. The meat was served--thin, rare

slices of beef, the pink blood-juice oozing warmly from the center. He

cut into it and raised a forkful to his mouth, then glanced at Ralphie

and said, "Looks fresh enough to have been killed in the back yard."

Ralphie said, "Yeah, Dad." Aunt Lucille put down her knife and fork and

murmured something to her husband. Joe cleared his throat and said

Lucille was rapidly becoming a vegetarian and he guessed she was going

into the living room for a while. "She'll be back for dessert, of

course," he said, his laugh sounding forced.

Hank looked at Edith; Edith was busy with her plate. Hank looked at

Ralphie; Ralphie was busy with his plate. Hank looked at Joe; Joe was

chewing, gazing out over their heads to the kitchen. Hank looked at

Lucille; she was disappearing into the living room.

He brought his fist down on the table. The settings jumped; a glass

overturned, spilling water. He brought it down again and again. They

were all standing now. He sat there and pounded the table with his big

right fist--Henry Devers, who would never have thought of making such a

scene before, but who was now so sick and tired of being treated as the

First One, of being stood back from, looked at in awe of, felt in fear

of, that he could have smashed more than a table.

Edith said, "Hank!"

He said, voice hoarse, "Shut up. Go away. Let me eat alone. I'm sick of

the lot of you."

* * * * *

Mother and Joe returned a few minutes later where he sat forcing food

down his throat. Mother said, "Henry dear--" He didn't answer. She began

to cry, and he was glad she left the house then. He had never said

anything really bad to his mother. He was afraid this would have been

the time. Joe merely cleared his throat and mumbled something about

getting together again soon and "drop out and see the new development"

and he, too, was gone. Lucille never did manage to speak to him.

He finished his beef and waited. Soon Edith came in with the special

dessert she'd been preparing half the day--a magnificent English trifle.

She served him, and spooned out a portion for herself and Ralphie. She

hesitated near his chair, and when he made no comment she called the

boy. Then the three of them were sitting, facing the empty side of the

table. They ate the trifle. Ralphie finished first and got up and said,

"Hey, I promised--"

"You promised the boys you'd play baseball or football or handball or

something; anything to get away from your father."

Ralphie's head dropped and he muttered, "Aw, no, Dad."

Edith said, "He'll stay home, Hank. We'll spend an evening

together--talking, watching TV, playing Monopoly."

Ralphie said, "Gee, sure, Dad, if you want to."

Hank stood up. "The question is not whether I want to. You both know I

want to. The question is whether you want to."

They answered together that of course they wanted to. But their

eyes--his wife's and son's eyes--could not meet his, and so he said he

was going to his room because he was, after all, very tired and would in

all probability continue to be very tired for a long, long time and that

they shouldn't count on him for normal social life.

He fell asleep quickly, lying there in his clothes.

But he didn't sleep long. Edith shook him and he opened his eyes to a

lighted room. "Phil and Rhona are here." He blinked at her. She smiled,

and it seemed her old smile. "They're so anxious to see you, Hank. I

could barely keep Phil from coming up and waking you himself. They want

to go out and do the town. Please, Hank, say you will."

He sat up. "Phil," he muttered. "Phil and Rhona." They'd had wonderful

times together, from grammar school on. Phil and Rhona, their oldest and

closest friends. Perhaps this would begin his real homecoming.

Do the town? They'd paint it and then tear it down!

* * * * *

It didn't turn out that way. He was disappointed; but then again, he'd

also expected it. This entire first day at home had conditioned him to

expect nothing good. They went to the bowling alleys, and Phil sounded

very much the way he always had--soft spoken and full of laughter and

full of jokes. He patted Edith on the head the way he always had, and

clapped Hank on the shoulder (but not the way he always had--so much

more gently, almost remotely), and insisted they all drink more than was

good for them as he always had. And for once, Hank was ready to go along

on the drinking. For once, he matched Phil shot for shot, beer for beer.

They didn't bowl very long. At ten o'clock they crossed the road to

Manfred's Tavern, where Phil and the girls ordered sandwiches and coffee

and Hank went right on drinking. Edith said something to him, but he

merely smiled and waved his hand and gulped another ounce of nirvana.

There was dancing to a juke box in Manfred's Tavern. He'd been there

many times before, and he was sure several of the couples recognized

him. But except for a few abortive glances in his direction, it was as

if he were a stranger in a city halfway around the world.

At midnight, he was still drinking. The others wanted to leave, but he

said, "I haven't danced with my girl Rhona." His tongue was thick, his

mind was blurred, and yet he could read the strange expression on her

face--pretty Rhona, who'd always flirted with him, who'd made a ritual

of flirting with him. Pretty Rhona, who now looked as if she were going

to be sick.

"So let's rock," he said and stood up.

They were on the dance floor. He held her close, and hummed and chatted.

And through the alcoholic haze saw she was a stiff-smiled, stiff-bodied,

mechanical dancing doll.

The number finished; they walked back to the booth. Phil said,

"Beddy-bye time."

Hank said, "First one dance with my loving wife."

He and Edith danced. He didn't hold her close as he had Rhona. He waited

for her to come close on her own, and she did, and yet she didn't.

Because while she put herself against him, there was something in her

face--no, in her eyes; it always showed in the eyes--that made him know

she was trying to be the old Edith and not succeeding. This time when

the music ended, he was ready to go home.

They rode back to town along Route Nine, he and Edith in the rear of

Phil's car, Rhona driving because Phil had drunk just a little too much,

Phil singing and telling an occasional bad joke, and somehow not his old

self. No one was his old self. No one would ever be his old self with

the First One.

They turned left, to take the short cut along Hallowed Hill Road, and

Phil finished a story about a Martian and a Hollywood sex queen and

looked at his wife and then past her at the long, cast-iron fence

paralleling the road. "Hey," he said, pointing, "do you know why that's

the most popular place on earth?"

Rhona glanced to the left, and so did Hank and Edith. Rhona made a

little sound, and Edith seemed to stop breathing, but Phil went on a

while longer, not yet aware of his supposed faux pas.

"You know why?" he repeated, turning to the back seat, the laughter

rumbling up from his chest. "You know why, folks?"

Rhona said, "Did you notice Carl Braken and his wife at--"

Hank said, "No, Phil, why is it the most popular place on earth?"

Phil said, "Because people are--" And then he caught himself and waved

his hand and muttered, "I forgot the punch line."

"Because people are dying to get in," Hank said, and looked through the

window, past the iron fence, into the large cemetery at the fleeting


The car was filled with horrified silence when there should have been

nothing but laughter, or irritation at a too-old joke. "Maybe you should

let me out right here," Hank said. "I'm home--or that's what everyone

seems to think. Maybe I should lie down in an open grave. Maybe that

would satisfy people. Maybe that's the only way to act, like Dracula or

another monster from the movies."

Edith said, "Oh, Hank, don't, don't!"

The car raced along the road, crossed a macadam highway, went four

blocks and pulled to a stop. He didn't bother saying good night. He

didn't wait for Edith. He just got out and walked up the flagstone path

and entered the house.

* * * * *

"Hank," Edith whispered from the guest room doorway, "I'm so sorry--"

"There's nothing to be sorry about. It's just a matter of time. It'll

all work out in time."

"Yes," she said quickly, "that's it. I need a little time. We all need a

little time. Because it's so strange, Hank. Because it's so frightening.

I should have told you that the moment you walked in. I think I've hurt

you terribly, we've all hurt you terribly, by trying to hide that we're


"I'm going to stay in the guest room," he said, "for as long as

necessary. For good if need be."

"How could it be for good? How, Hank?"

That question was perhaps the first firm basis for hope he'd had since

returning. And there was something else; what Carlisle had told him,

even as Carlisle himself had reacted as all men did.

"There are others coming, Edith. Eight that I know of in the tanks right

now. My superior, Captain Davidson, who died at the same moment I

did--seven months ago next Wednesday--he's going to be next. He was

smashed up worse than I was, so it took a little longer, but he's almost

ready. And there'll be many more, Edith. The government is going to save

all they possibly can from now on. Every time a young and healthy man

loses his life by accident, by violence, and his body can be recovered,

he'll go into the tanks and they'll start the regenerative brain and

organ process--the process that made it all possible. So people have to

get used to us. And the old stories, the old terrors, the ugly old

superstitions have to die, because in time each place will have some of

us; because in time it'll be an ordinary thing."

Edith said, "Yes, and I'm so grateful that you're here, Hank. Please

believe that. Please be patient with me and Ralphie and--" She paused.

"There's one question."

He knew what the question was. It had been the first asked him by

everyone from the president of the United States on down.

"I saw nothing," he said. "It was as if I slept those six and a half

months--slept without dreaming."

She came to him and touched his face with her lips, and he was


Later, half asleep, he heard a dog howling, and remembered stories of

how they announced death and the presence of monsters. He shivered and

pulled the covers closer to him and luxuriated in being safe in his own