Forever Overhead

The Myth of Phaethon and his Chariot

For Robert Eppley, with love

Happy birthday. Your sixteenth is important. Maybe your first really public day. Your sixteenth is the chance for people to recognize that important things are happening to you.

You wake up in cold sweats again. It’s the second time it’s happened this week and the more it happens the more its bound to happen. It doesn’t help that your supply of Zolpidem is running out, or that on Sunday you’ll need to get up before dawn and thus should be sleeping consistently at progressively earlier times in order to accordingly adjust your circadian rhythms. You recall from the California state-certified 3-hour course for new drivers that driving while sleep deprived is worse than driving drunk, so you lie back down and begin to count sheep.

Sunday you get out of bed without ever having slept. It’s dark outside and will continue to be until you muster the semblance of courage and dignity that your father seems to think you posses. He went through this, you think, and so he should understand. But of course he doesn’t and you never really thought he would in the first place, so you finally leave your room only to return three more times just to make sure you didn’t forget anything.

The time comes and you get into the driver’s seat. Your mother and father wave from the porch wearing their Oakleys and smiling with brilliance. You should be excited they tell you; Other People’s Kids would jump at this opportunity. Little do other people’s kids know that the Sun chariot is nothing more than a glorified Prius. But you’re whining now and that’s exactly what you said you wouldn’t do.

You thank Zeus that at least it’s not a stick shift and buckle your seat belt, turn the on the car, put your foot on the break, push the gear into drive, flip on your headlights, move your foot to the gas pedal, and freeze up. Your parents are still outside, nodding along encouragingly. Mother has her iPhone 6+ in hand, no doubt sending photos to her sisters. Dad claps encouragingly, likely thinking to himself what the boys at the club are going to say about you. At a certain point you just have to do it and so thoughtlessly you ram your foot on the gas and wind up in the sky. Faster and faster the chariot goes, and suddenly it becomes enjoyable.

You yell, thrilled at the mountains that are flying past you and the light you are giving to the world. And now you’re moving faster than the 24 hours/cycle speed limit. Around and around the earth you go until you can’t go any faster and no longer want to anyway. But you don’t know how to stop. Cortisol floods your bloodstream and you clench the wheel harder. You glimpse a flash of lightning in the rear view and chuckle at the resemblance to Mario Kart. The lightning hits the chariot and the rubber of the tires fail to insulate you. The sky begins to fall in scattered bursts of candied light, and until the world turns black you can’t help but wonder what all this will do to the color of mother’s photos.