They knew exactly when it would happen. Not just the day and the hour, but the minute. The very second. Even before they knew it, it was still destined to happen at that precise moment because it had been—quite literally—written in the stars. Like god had wound up a big clock a million years ago and all people needed was to learn to tell time . . .
Mrs. Robbenault talked like this because she was excited. The whole town was excited. There were t-shirts for sale and signs in the store windows. Every morning they talked about it on the radio station that he listened to on his clock radio.
He slid his book out from his desk very quietly, held it in his lap, and read. The next thing he knew Mrs. Robbenault was calling his name, telling him it was time for P.E. The class was lined up and walking out the door. After P.E. they had Afternoon Snack and then it was Math.
He couldn’t get back to his book until the bus. Fantasy books were his favorite, and they usually came in series, which made it even better. Now he was reading the Chronicles of Prydain. Taran Wanderer was on a quest, seeking his father, and had just found a new land with a mysterious stranger. All of the sudden his seat-mate was yelling in his face that it was his stop.
He went in the side door, where the stairs went up into the kitchen. Everything was quiet. The door to the TV room was closed. A brown purse that was not his mom’s was sitting on the counter. Today’s newspaper was also there. The headline said in big letters: The Countdown Begins, and then in smaller letters, Area Prepares for Onslaught of Skygazers.
He was hungry. He wanted chips and salsa but he couldn’t get the jar of salsa open, so he just got the bag of Tostitos, sat at the counter, and took out his book. The door to the TV room opened and the nurse Molly came out. She was looking at a folder. When she looked up and saw him, she jumped. Closed the folder. Over her shoulder she called, “Hey guys, your little man is here!” and there was Mom, hurrying out of the TV room and asking him about his day. She got him some salsa.
Molly wrote in her folder and then got her brown purse. “OK, she said, “I’m heading out. Karen will be back for the disconnect and flush at eight. Call if you need anything.”
Mom said bye to Molly and then asked if he wanted to see Daddy. The TV room was dark even though it was bright outside. Daddy was on the gray couch. The pole was there, with a bag that looked like a water balloon hanging from it.
“Hey buddy.” His voice was hoarse and scratchy. “How was your day?”
There wasn’t much to say. It was the same as most days. His eyes fell to the book on the coffee table, The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkein. Daddy had read the Hobbit to him, and then the Lord of the Ring. They were more than halfway through this one although they hadn’t read in a while. Daddy’s head rolled to the side and he saw the book. At his hopeful look, Daddy closed his eyes.
“I’m sorry, boyo. I’m not up to reading right now. My voice is tired and my brain is tired too. How about some TV?”
So they watched an episode of Doctor Who. When Daddy couldn’t go to work anymore he had ordered the whole boxed set on Amazon. There were twenty-six seasons and each one had a different Doctor. They were on season sixteen. By the time the episode was over, Daddy was asleep.
It was mac and cheese again for dinner, but he and Mom didn’t eat at the table. He sat at the counter while Mom stood on the other side and ate part of an apple. She wasn’t very hungry, she said, and gave him the rest of the apple. He didn’t know what Daddy ate, or even if Daddy ate anymore.
The nurse Karen came at his bedtime. She said hello and went right into the TV room, snapping rubber gloves onto her hands. Mom went with him upstairs and helped him get his pajamas and his toothbrush. They had just started his nighttime book—it was called Call It Courage, and it was about a boy who gets stranded on an island —when they heard Karen calling out that she was taking off. Mom had to rush downstairs to talk to Karen and be with Daddy.
He didn’t want her to go. He didn’t want to be alone, in his room, in the dark. He wanted to read more about Taran but he knew he shouldn’t, so he just hugged the stuffed wolf that he’d gotten when they went to The Great Wolf Lodge two years ago. He’d named it Magi.
Sometime later he heard them coming upstairs. They were slow and their footsteps were shuffley. Daddy would be leaning on Mom’s shoulders and she would be helping him up the stairs. He could hear them pause at the top and then go down the hall to their room.
“OK,” Mom was saying, “Let’s just sit you here for a second and I’ll go around and pull the covers down on your side.” Then there was a loud crash and a thump. Mom screamed.
He was in the doorway to their bedroom and his heart was pounding so hard it was hurting his chest. Daddy was on the floor crying into the carpet. The lamp was down, too. Mom was crouched over Daddy, trying to lift him back up on to the bed. Daddy was so skinny now but he must still have been heavy.
This was happening. He was standing there, watching this, holding Magi.
Mom looked up and saw him.
“Oh sweetie.” Her voice was quivery. “Go back to bed, OK?”
He couldn’t move.
“You have to go to bed now, sweetie. Please? It’s fine. Just go to your room now and get in bed and go to sleep. OK? Please?”
Like there was any way in the world that was possible.
Mrs. Robbenault had changed the sign in her classroom to say Only 2 More Days!!
They learned about how in ancient times some people thought a dragon was eating the sun. Other people thought the sun was leaving because it was angry at them. People thought they needed to make loud noises and bang pots to scare the dragon away, or sing songs to encourage the sun to come back. Of course that is silly, but you can’t blame the people from ancient times for trying to explain why such a strange and terrifying thing was happening.
On the bus ride home he was reading. The mysterious stranger that Taran had met turned out to be his father, the man he had been searching for his whole life! But the man was old and sick and needed help, so Taran was harvesting his crops and repairing the cabin he lived in. It was a lot of work, but Taran was so happy to have found his father that he didn’t mind.
When he got home he went into the kitchen. Everything was quiet. There wasn’t a purse on the counter. He realized that the door to the TV room was open. It wasn’t usually open during the daytime. He held his breath and tiptoed to the doorway.
It was dark in there, so it took a minute for him to realize that the gray couch was gone. Instead, there was a little bed, just big enough for Daddy, with a blue blanket. Daddy’s eyes were closed. Mom was sitting in the big chair. She looked like she’d just woken up.
“Oh hey, sweetie. Come on in!”
Daddy’s eyes opened. “Yeah,” he said with his scratchy voice. “Come in. Tell us about your latest book.”
He realized he was still holding his book. He sat down on his mom’s lap to show them.
“It’s called Taran Wanderer, it’s the fourth book in the Prydain series. Taran is traveling the realm on a quest and he just found his father. He also has a magical pig.”
They talked about the series. Then they looked at the new bed and tried out the buttons on the railing that made the parts of the bed move. The Hospice people had brought it so Daddy didn’t have to go upstairs any more. Hospice was like a hospital but it was better because it was at home. Mom brought him a ginger ale and they were all three in there, together, for a while, until the nurse Melissa came and it was time to take vitals.
He read for the most of the next day, even though he was in school. Mrs. Robbenault didn’t stop him and his book had just taken a turn that he hadn’t expected. Despite Taran’s hard work, his father got sicker. Finally the man was dying, and he told the truth: Taran wasn’t really his son after all. He had just needed so much help, and Taran had come around looking for his father, so he let him believe. But now he wanted to be honest, to tell Taran how much he loved him and to thank him. And then he died. Taran was angry at the man for deceiving him, but he had come to love him too. The ground was too frozen to dig, so he built a cairn out of rocks for the body, shed a few tears, and continued on his quest.
When he got home from school there was no purse on the counter. It sounded like the shower was going. He was just about to get the Tostitos when he noticed that the door to the TV room was open again. Carefully, quietly he peeked in. The top part of the bed was raised so Daddy was sitting up, but his eyes were closed.
He went to the big chair and picked up The Two Towers. He opened up to the bookmark and tried to read it to himself, but the words were hard. It was much better when Daddy would read and do the voices.
Daddy was very still. There wasn’t any sound. Daddy’s teeth were pulled back from his gums like a skeleton and his skin was yellow. He was scared that Daddy wasn’t breathing. He was scared of how Daddy looked. It was like being in a room with something that wasn’t human. He was about to run upstairs and get Mom when Daddy woke up and smiled, and then he looked more like himself.
They talked about school, and he told Daddy about what had happened with Taran. He asked if maybe they could read a chapter of the Two Towers, but Daddy said he was too tired, which made no sense because he had just been sleeping.
“Maybe later tonight? Once we finish it we can watch the movie like we did with the Lord of the Ring.”
Daddy closed his eyes and took a deep breath in. He let it out and rolled his head so he was looking right at him. He looked incredibly sad.
“Buddy. I’m not going to be able to read to you anymore. We aren’t going to get through the book.”
This also made no sense. They only had ninety more pages.
“We aren’t going to finish Doctor Who either. There isn’t time. Remember what mommy and I talked to you about, after the chemo stopped working? It’s happening. I don’t want it to happen, but it’s going to. Do you understand?”
They looked at each other for a long time, and then he gave a tiny nod. This made the tears come spilling out of his eyes.
“When?” His voice sounded like a squeak.
“I don’t exactly know, but soon. I’m sorry. I love you so much.”
He hugged Daddy as hard as he could without hurting the wires that went into his shoulder. Daddy hugged him back a little with his arms that were so skinny. His throat felt like it had swelled up and he needed to cry so bad that he couldn’t cry at all.
Then Daddy fell back to sleep. He ran upstairs to his bedroom and shut the door and sat in bed with Magi, not reading or listening to the radio or doing anything. There wasn’t dinner that night which didn’t matter because he wasn’t hungry anyway. At some point he fell asleep, still in his clothes, with the light on.
The next day was the day.
He asked if he could stay home. A bunch of kids were staying home to experience the big event with their families, but Mom said no. It was too hard. There was too much going on, and he would be better off at school. He gave Daddy a kiss goodbye. Daddy was mostly asleep but he smiled a little and moved his head.
When he got off the bus he felt like he was moving very slowly, like gravity was working twice as hard on him. Other kids streamed past him, talking and laughing like everything was fine. He felt far away. It was like when Harry Potter had to walk alone into the land of the dead, or when young Will Staunton had to face down the forces of The Dark by himself, or when little Sam and Frodo had to travel all the way to Mordor.
They had homeroom and then English. He couldn’t listen. He hadn’t brought the next Prydain book with him and he didn’t care anyway. His mind was racing. It was like the time a mouse was in their house and they chased it around until Daddy trapped it under a bucket. Everyone else was excited but that only made it worse. All he could do was stare down at his desk and try not to move or make any sound.
And then it was time.
Mrs. Robbenault passed out their special glasses and gave them the safety talk one more time. They lined up and as they stepped outside, they put on their glasses. It made things very dark. They huddled at the edge of the playground where the view was clear. He looked straight up through his glasses and saw that the sun looked like the moon did when it was a crescent. There was a big round slice cut right out of it. They watched, and the crescent got smaller and smaller. It turned into a tiny dot and then it was gone. A teacher shouted that they could take their glasses off and look.
Above him was a giant black hole with pure white streaming out all around it. It looked the way screaming sounds, but everything was silent. He had to turn away. All the color was gone from the world. It was black and white and gray. Things were flat, like a picture from the newspaper. There were no shadows.
The cicadas started shrieking. Something that looked like a possum crept out of the bushes and looked at him with blank eyes.
Everyone was staring at the sky, like they were in a trance, even the teachers. No one seemed to realize how wrong this was.
He didn’t want to look back up but he did. The light was flying out of the blackness. It was clean white energy. A spirit. A ghost. A soul. Blasting and streaming and escaping out into space, forever. It could never go back. It was the most beautiful and horrible thing he had ever seen.
This shouldn’t be happening. People shouldn’t watch this.
A hand was squeezing his lungs so he couldn’t breathe. He realized his mouth was open but he wasn’t making a sound. Tears were going down his face but he wasn’t crying.
This was happening.
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