Alex called from the kitchen. "Dad, it's time."
"Didn't we just do this?" I looked up from the paper, sitting in my cracked and shiny leather recliner. We were three days into a mean cold snap, and the house was quiet, pulling itself close.
"It's been the appropriate number of days."
"Alright. I'm on my way." I dropped the paper on the floor and pushed myself up from the fleshy palm of the chair, chuckling at his use of words. I had said the same thing to him just a few years ago when trying to pry him away from his Legos or, later on, his PS3.
He stood in the kitchen by the back door. Heavy insulated boots, parka, knit cap, gloves, flannel-lined jeans. Thermals, too, I was sure. It was always frigid where he went, but with the current weather, this looked a little light. I stuffed my arms into my coat and shrugged it on. "You sure you don't want the survival suit?"
"Dad, we tried that once. I was nice and toasty but couldn't move. I can take a bit of cold. I just sorta freak if I can't move up there."
"OK." I wasn't buying it, but he'd been through enough of these, and at seventeen he was old enough now to make some decisions on his own. I wasn't going to be around forever. "Let's go."
Anne and I waited for the Leonids to arrive. Out here in the boonies we could view even the minor showers clearly so this one, on a new moon no less, promised to be spectacular. We had a blanket spread out on the fragile November grass and laid next to each other, arm in arm.
“Brr-willy, it’s cold tonight,” she said. “Tell me again how we’re made of stars.”
“Like I’ve said, we are not really made of stars, per se. Our atoms, the atoms that make up our bodies, that are the building blocks of life here on Earth, are the descendants of the big bang. They were created in that first glorious explosion that cooked for a billion years like some delicious space gumbo and finally served us up all the galaxies, stars, and planets. Those atoms from that space stuff are the relatives of our atoms, the ones that are in your body and mine and are in the flowers, oceans, and mountains are connected to those stars. So when we look up at the night sky, it’s like we’re looking at family. We are connected at a fundamental level to the universe.”
We were silent for a bit, just the wind hissing softly.
“Hold on a sec.” She jumped up and rushed to the house, blonde braids bouncing from beneath her cap. Moments later she returned with our sleeping bag.
“Oh, heavens,” I said. “I think I know how this ends.”
“Can’t help it. When you start talking sciencey, it does something to me.”
She unfurled the sleeping bag with a snap and let it drift to the blanket. Quickly she stepped out of her boots, slipped off her coat and slid between the covers. Pulling it up to her face, she said, “Well?”
Feigning resistance, I did the same with my boots and parka. The fit inside was delightfully snug, but we managed to have enough room to fling the rest of our clothes into scattered piles in the darkness. After some time scored with giggles and sighs, we felt the icy air on our faces and shoulders above the cover as we sweat and slid with each other below.
Eventually we rolled apart, steam rising from our skin. The Leonids were well on their way, radiant streaks marking random territories across the sky. Our breathing returned to normal. Anne draped an arm and a leg over me and kissed me. “I know how they feel,” she said.
The cold smacked me square in the face, like being hit with the back of a rusty shovel. Even so, the sky was worth it. Brutally clear and deep violet, a thick and manic scattering of stars across it, I squinted against biting wind. It brought sea air inland, rushing through the trees. We walked out to where the house lights no longer touched and waited.
"Yep." He looked skyward, slowly turning in place. He could see them minutes before I could and never said much once he did.
"No weakness or anything. Cough? Runny nose? Aches and pains?"
"Just the usual tiredness," he said, not stopping his search. "It's always like this the week before. I don't even have to check the calendar anymore. I just look at it to make sure."
I took a sideways step closer to him. The dry, frozen weeds cracked under my boots. There was no reason for me to join him in searching. My gaze simply drifted to him, to the ragged horizon of naked, beseeching trees, and back. By now I should be used to this, but I'm not.
"Jim." Anne gave me a shove. "We have to go now."
I rolled over. "Five more minutes."
"Jim." A punch to the middle of my back and an edge to her voice. "Now. It's time."
"Time..." -- oh, shit. I exploded out of bed, jumped into my jeans, dove into a sweatshirt, ran my feet into running shoes and grabbed the hospital bag. Anne took my hand and pulled herself off the bed. Smiling, she said, "He's right on time."
I kissed her on the cheek once she stood steadily. "Don't you mean 'she'?"
"Nope. This baby's a boy. We're going to make a houseful of boys."
"Good. I certainly enjoy the process."
She ran her fingers down my back. "That makes two of us."
We walked to the car. I looked at my watch. 3 a.m. Finally we were going to have this child. Five years of trying. Three miscarriages at two, three, and five months. Each time, a loss more devastating than the last. Each one confounding our doctors. There seemed to be no medical reason. Anne was always in excellent health. Ran the local 5Ks and did yoga. The babies were always fine. They just never made it. So I said no more trying. It's too much. It is not meant to be, I told her. We need to be good with that. We're done. We'll raise puppies. Or travel. No way can we do this again. Through eyes full of standing tears she always insisted, "I'm having a child."
She squeezed my hand. "Look!"
I followed her eyes. A meteor, a fireball, really, skipped across the sky, sparking with every bounce along the fluid glass of the atmosphere like a thrown stone on a calm pond. We could almost hear it, a whispered sizzle passing over us. "Pretty cool, huh?" she said. "I know how they feel."
After being admitted we had the intention of walking around the maternity ward in order to "speed things along", as the nurse said. We got a few doors down, shuffling along, Anne gripping my arm, before she said, "I've got to go back. He wants out."
What followed was a blur of green-smocked doctors and nurses. Calm but urgent orders given. Anne pushing and screaming, sweat matting her hair. Every syllable from every child-birth class pitched through the window. Of all the displays spitting out data, the only one I understood was the heart rate monitor. Both Anne's and the baby's were over a hundred and climbing. A nurse asked me to hold an oxygen mask to Anne. "Breathe," I said helplessly. She looked at me and tried to smile, her eyes starting to glass over. More oxygen. Someone barked into an intercom. Seconds later, a cart bristling with gauges and instruments and more nurses and doctors dressed in orange uniforms crashed through the door. I was asked to step aside.
"The baby is in some distress."
"What does that mean?"
No answer. Just our green doctor and some of the orange ones swirling as urgent cogs and wheels around Anne. Words of encouragement. A chrome implement slid between her legs. More encouragement. Anne's face contorted. A final scream. I saw the doctor pull back. Too long of a pause with everyone still. Then a cry. A newborn's cry. "You have a boy."
The nurses cleaned him up, wrapped him tightly in blankets and handed him to me. My first words to him: "Don't you ever scare me like that again."
After a while, Alex was taken to the nursery, and Anne slept. I called all friends and family and gave them the news. A nurse woke me in the cafeteria; I had fallen asleep in front of my half-eaten spaghetti. They wheeled a cot into Anne's room for me. I thanked them and shuffled up. The cot was against the wall, and Anne was still sleeping so I sat down on it as slowly and quietly as I could to keep it from creaking. "Come closer," she said in an exhausted voice. I pushed the cot next to her bed, and we held hands while gazing sleepily at the big TV on the wall beaming the X-Files. We dozed off again, this time together, our hands woven.
The next day the nurses brought Alex to us and left him for a while. Anne pulled open her gown. "Yow," she said as he latched on. "Good appetite." Another nurse did her normal fussing around Anne-pulse, blood pressure, all good. After they left, we simply sat in the quiet, watching our new boy, watching each other, floods of love coursing through us. Around us. The room did not seem part of any planet we knew, but had become the new one we had just formed. I know other young families feel this same way but it is different for each, every world unique. I don't think we said anything. We didn't have to.
Eventually, Alex popped off and slept. The nurse returned to take him back. She wheeled Anne to the nursery with Alex in her arms. We watched the nurse place him gently, still sleeping, into his crib. I pushed Anne back to the room. Halfway there she said, "My, I'm really lightheaded."
"Are you hungry? Need me to get you anything?"
"Jim," she said, her voice wavering, "I'm really dizzy."
I pushed her faster down the hall. "Nurse!"
"Jim, the light."
Running now. “Nurse! Help!”
“It is so bright here.”
And then she was gone.
The doctors called it an aneurysm. I just called it unfair. Not prosaic, but there it is. I spent weeks lost and riven.
My mom came to help for a while, but soon it was time for me to care for Alex myself. My bosses let me work from home three days a week, and Anne's friends would take turns watching him when I was at the office. Alex and I settled into a little routine for those first six months. Then he started to get sick.
He became jaundiced, then ashen. Eventually, he seemed always half-asleep yet gasping for air, as if he was being buried in sand grain by grain. Gripping my finger, he smiled weakly and held it as he fell asleep. I always pleaded with him, "Please wake up again. Please."
The doctors ran reams of tests. Specialists attended to him. His body, they said, was slowly losing the ability to process any oxygen. All his organs were perfect, just starved for air. He stayed in an oxygen tent most of the day, but after eight weeks of constant diagnosis, I met with them, and they admitted they had no cure. Alex had weeks left. No more than a month. He was in no pain, the doctors said. One day he will go to sleep and simply never wake up.
I did not want him dying in a hospital as his mother did. We stayed that last night together in his room, him in his little hyper-oxygenated cocoon, I in an uncomfortable chair, darkly chuckling at the cosmic one-two punch of having to bury the two people I love the most within a year.
As I checked Alex out of the hospital, the nurses and doctors who had helped us lined up all the way down the hall, and we hugged and cried and tried to be encouraging and strong. With him swaying in his car carrier, I walked across the parking lot to my car, the sky painfully blue and clear, the breezes shifting to the north. Locking his carrier into the car, I had the feeling that I was about to step into a room devoid of all light and direction, gambling that every step would land on something solid but knowing there would be one ready to send me into the void.
I slept on the floor next to him, holding his hand through the slats of the crib. He would wake me crying or babbling. I was grateful he woke at all. It meant another day. We'd have breakfast, and then I would talk. Talk more than I ever have in my life. I told him everything I could about his mom. How she'd smell like sun and wind after a jog. How she made the best grilled cheese sandwiches ever. How when the light hit her hair just right it held every color of the rainbow. How she loved to laugh out loud, even at my horrible jokes. How incredibly much she loved him.
After that we would go outside and discover trees and bugs and birds and wind and rain and clouds and dirt. At night I would tell him that when I was a kid there were only three channels on TV and explain the difference between the World Wide Web and the Internet. We listened to Bach, the Grateful Dead, and Miles Davis. We watched fires burn to nothing in the fireplace, and I pointed out to him the shifting shapes in the clouds of glowing coal. When he fell asleep, there was always the frozen moment when I thought he was gone. With his labored breathing, the time between his eyes closing and his next breath took forever. I'd then pick him up and place him in his crib, telling him I love him so. It was the only thing about me I told him. There would be time for that, I thought, as if putting it off until the next day would grant him an equal number of extra hours.
I woke one night as the wind delivered body punches to the house. Alex's frail body heaved with each ragged, hopeful breath. It was the fourth week now. It wouldn't be long. With as hard a time as he was having, I knew, this would be the night. I wrapped him in a couple of blankets and lifted him from the crib. As we walked to the back door, I whispered his farewells for him. "Goodbye, crib. Goodbye, bear. Goodbye, blanket. Goodbye, fireplace. Goodbye, music. Goodbye, kitchen. Goodbye, door."
The wind sounded like an endlessly crashing wave, a constant blast from an icy furnace. I turned my back to it and let it push me along with shuffling steps to where the house lights failed to reach. I lifted him to my face, the hood of my coat a calm dome for us both. Now he was fighting, his chest snapping with each breath, each one exhausting him, each one taking longer to come. Not even enough breath to cry. Just a few more, I knew, and I held him closer, my lips against his cheek. "I love you, my little boy." Then no more breaths.
I held him tighter, my tears on his face, his blanket, crying more than I did for Anne. How long it was for, I don't know, but the stars had fallen far by the time I looked up.
Four of them. At first I thought they were simply shooting stars, but then I noticed them turning left then right then left again and descending, as if they were on a specific flight plan, a landing pattern, it seemed, straight for me. About a hundred yards away they came together as one and sped up, a white frantic ball throwing orange sparks. I tried to run but couldn't. My feet seemed welded to the ground. I turned away, shielding Alex's body, bracing for an impact I knew would vaporize us both. It never came.
I straightened up and opened my eyes. A shimmering dome covered us. Watery patterns of white light undulated on a map of stars slowly rotating against it. No wind. Not a sound. I could not even hear my own breathing. I looked down at Alex, his eyes closed, at peace, the dome’s liquid reflections flowing over his face. A voice inside my head spoke to me, but I could not understand it. "What? Who are you? What do you want?" I tried to say, but my mouth made no sound. I kept listening and asking. Slowly, it made sense.
The child, it said. The child.
I felt my arms being pulled apart gently but firmly. All efforts against it were useless. Alex did not fall. He stayed suspended in space before me as my arms were placed at my sides. A corner of his blanket fell away. The light pulled Alex away. I tried to reach for him but couldn't. The dome shrunk as he drifted further into it. Along my back and legs I felt pressure, as if I was falling through a stack of mattresses. A low but melodic humming, a lullaby, rose in my mind. I told myself this was due to the fact that I was deep in some grief-fueled hallucination that any minute I'd be back in the biting wind, holding the corpse of my child.
Then the starred walls of the dome parted over me, crackling like a beaded curtain. The lullaby hum grew louder. Then, once my head was again out in the open, it stopped. Alex floated in a ball of milky light. I started to run after it, my cries caught in my throat. It compressed to a point and vanished. I sank to my knees then collapsed into the brittle, frozen weeds, the scent of cold rot the last thing I recall before gratefully losing consciousness.
Alex stopped his slow rotation. "Here they come."
I couldn't see them, not yet anyway, but he's never been wrong. The wind rose and fell, colder now. "All systems go?"
"All systems are go."
The four stars twirled like otters on their steep glide path. Sometimes they crossed each other’s sparking tails, weaving a momentary braid of light. Other times, like this night, they flew free-form patterns, understandable only to their own order. They appeared closer, their descent more severe, blues and reds chipping from their tails with every turn like a surfer ripping a cutback. Then they combined as one and made a sharp turn for us just above the deck.
Alex turned to face them. I took a few steps back, keeping his face in my sight. The wind and cold had reddened his cheeks but that was soon washed out by the crisp white from the oncoming light. He closed his eyes and opened his arms in welcome.
The beam engulfed him in a bright flash. Even though I knew it is going to happen, I winced and looked away. Once it dimmed, I saw him floating in a glowing ball - arms and legs limp, head back, as if he was asleep in a recliner. He was turned in the orb so that he pointed head-first and backwards. Then there was a short taxiing back the way they came followed by a thin blazing streak to where it all originated. I fought the urge to run after him even after all these years. I only ran the first time.
The brightness woke me. No dome as before, just a vertical beam about ten feet next to me. My joints were stiff and I brushed dead grass from my wet face as I worked myself to my knees. There, just out of range of the beam, something round and non-organic. The beam followed me as I crawled to it. It was a sphere about three feet in diameter. When the beam brushed against it, a smaller version of the dome's star map covered it. The map then changed to pictures, transforming rapidly, frames speeding by. Moon. Moon and Earth. Earth. North America and Atlantic Ocean. Eastern seaboard. Then a seamless zooming in until I saw a top-down picture of me looking down on the orb. My image had a pulsating amber ring around it. I gently tapped it.
Instantly, the beam and image vanished, and the sphere began to crumble, every piece flaking off like ash into the dry ground and dissolving to nothing. I saw Alex's blanket. He squirmed in it, wrapped more expertly than before. I lifted him and brought him to my face and kissed him on his warm cheeks. His warm cheeks. He wriggled an arm free and grabbed my nose and squealed. Then he laughed for the first time - a deep belly laugh, as if the joke was on me.
“Don’t you ever scare me like that again.”
I noticed a shadow moving across his face. The beam reappeared to my right and collapsed into roughly the size of a basketball, the same amber as the ring, then hovered in from of my face. It spoke to me as before.
“As children of stars and suffering it has been determined to intervene on the boy’s behalf. We know of him through the one who transported us. She is the part of the voice you hear. In future years you will know the truth of this through him. One day he will need neither you nor us. For now understand you must continue to pay attention as we will attend to him with each pass. The direction, name, and classification will change, yet our arrival and results will be the same. Bring him as today.”
The orb then snapped itself back into a thin bright beam and shot into the sky. Alex giggled and burped. I carried him inside where I kissed his healthy, rosy face, toes, and hands and fell asleep next to the crib of my soundly sleeping son, trying to make sense out of the night.
Alex faded again a few months later. Not waiting, I returned to the same spot in the field. They came, took him and returned him healed. This happened a few more times before I noticed the pattern of his sickness and their arrival. I kicked myself for not figuring it out sooner. Of course, I thought, that first one was during the Alpha Centaurids. The second during the Eta Aquarids. The third, the Perseids. Link those back to the Anne’s and my night with the Leonids, and again the Perseids on the way to the hospital.
With time, Alex became healthier, and the visits required less frequent but steady intervals. He always came back happier and somewhat exhausted, too, as if returning from a terrific birthday party or a day at the park. Only once did he ask me about it.
“Dad, other kids don’t take lightrides, do they?” He had taken to calling them that. He was seven, and we were at the kitchen table eating banana pancakes the morning after a lightride.
“No, not that I know of. There could be other boys or girls somewhere who do, but you are the only one I know.”
“Is it the only way to keep me better?”
“Yes. Is it becoming uncomfortable? Are you in pain?”
“No. It’s fine. It’s a little brr-willy, but I always feel good there. Like I’m being hugged. Are there more pancakes?”
“Of course." I got up and poured some more batter onto the warm griddle. As I cut in the bananas, I smiled to myself. I had not said nor heard “brr-willy” for years.
I watched the star fall and glide to where Alex previously stood. He was placed upright, the light steadying him until he opened his eyes and moved on his own. Then the light peeled away from him, stretched, and vanished.
“Well?” I said.
“Brr-willy as always, but I’m glad I didn’t wear the survival suit. We should just give that thing away.”
“How do you feel?”
“Good as new.” He had a huge grin. “Better than new.”
I gave him a hug. He hugged back, no small feat for a teenage boy regardless of his circumstances.
“By the way,” he said. “Mom says hi.”
We walked to the house. The wind had subsided. In a few hours the Geminids would peak. I intended to stay awake to watch.