by Jeffrey D. Schwartz
The boy’s father woke him in the middle of the night.
“Get dressed,” he said. “I have a surprise for you.”
The boy blinked, uncomprehending, and stared at his father’s face.
And then his father was gone, a shadow fading into more shadows. Just beyond his door, the boy could see the silhouetted stacks of boxes that crowded the living room. He listened to the knock of his father’s steps against the floorboards as he tiptoed around the boxes.
The boy’s voice was a hoarse croak.
The boy waited. He felt the heavy nighttime darkness pushing through the blinds of his bedroom window.
He got out of bed and turned on the light. The sudden illumination burned and made him rub his eyes.
And now his father was back, and the light was off again. In the renewed darkness the boy saw a red halo floating and pulsing across his vision, across the looming shadow of his father in the doorway.
“Keep the lights off.”
“Get dressed, okay? Something warm. Did your mother pack you a coat?”
It was the middle of August. The boy hadn’t worn a coat since May.
“Never mind,” his father said, “I have something. Now come on. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
His father drove, and the boy watched the empty streets rush by. He looked for things he would recognize—the white water tower with the American flag painted across the side, or the number 169 engine of the old Denver & Rio Grande Western railroad, the engine dark and shiny resting under a pavilion in front of the library—but the night made everything a black blur and the boy didn’t know where they were going.
At some point they crossed the Rio Grande and left Alamosa behind them. Soon there were only motels and gas stations, the loud bright lights from their signs spilling across the road, and then there wasn’t anything, just the road and the night and the boy and his father in the car.
“Where are we going?”
“I told you, it’s a surprise.”
“Why does it have to be a surprise?”
The boy’s father pressed a button above the rearview mirror and the moonroof opened a crack. Nighttime air flowed through the car. It smelled sweet, earthy, like the breath of trees and grasses and animals and the lingering heat of the day.
“We’ll be there soon,” said the boy’s father.
Every once and a while a car or a semi truck sped by in the opposite lane, only to disappear back into the night. The boy looked out the window and his vision scintillated with nameless shapes. The night itself was moving; it had its own light, and like a river or a lake the boy could see through it but not all the way through. It shifted, never staying the same for long.
“Are you still going to move?” the boy asked.
His father turned to look at him. The boy felt his stare but gazed at the floor.
“Yes, I’m still moving,” his father said. “This.…that isn’t what the surprise is.”
The boy’s head was heavy and he let it rest against the warm window. The rhythm of his breath created pale nebulas that expanded and contracted across the surface of the glass. The road curved and the darkness outside shifted yet again but he was no longer paying attention.
“Still awake?” his father asked after a while.
The boy was thinking about the time last year when his father had taken him to the fairgrounds to watch the fireworks. His mother had to work at the hospital and couldn’t go with them. This was over a year ago, back when his mother and father still lived together and the boy lived with them.
He and his father had spread a blanket across the green grass of the fairgrounds and watched the fireworks, and afterward, when they were walking back to the car, he’d asked his father, “How do fireworks…work?”
They were like rockets, his father explained. Inside the rockets there were shells filled with gunpowder and tiny spheres called stars that were filled with metallic compounds. When the gunpowder ignited, the stars exploded, and the heat from the explosion excited the electrons inside the metallic compounds. This only lasted a brief time, though, less than a second, and once the energy of the electrons diminished they gave off light.
Back in the car, as they waited to pull out of the parking lot, the boy’s father held up his hand.
“Put your hand against mine,” he said.
His father’s skin was dry and very warm. The boy traced the lines of his father’s palm and felt the hard joints between his knuckles and his fingertips.
“What you’re feeling,” his father said, “that’s just electrons. Like in the fireworks. When you touch my hand the electrons in your hand push against the electrons in my hand. That’s why things feel solid. But they’re not.”
The boy couldn’t sleep when they got home. He lay awake, listening to the distant pop of firecrackers in the neighborhoods, and the low hum of the television downstairs, and the garage door opening when his mother returned from the hospital, and then, finally, the silence of the night.
The boy had been asleep.
He peered through the window. They had come to a parking lot filled with cars and people. The boy glimpsed the people as darkened shapes moving in and out of the red glow of flashlights.
Outside, the boy listened to the sound of the other people talking. Voices carried but not words. He could hear excitement in the way they spoke. Something was about to happen and the boy wondered what it was.
His father pulled on a backpack and said, “Let’s go.”
The boy thought about reaching for his father’s hand but decided not to.
They left the parking lot and walked on a path fringed by trees. The only sound was the crunch of gravel beneath their shoes. The boy looked down at the gravel, dimly illuminated by his father’s red flashlight.
“Why is everyone’s flashlight red?”
“Red light makes it easier to see in the dark.”
“When I woke you up,” his father said, “and you turned on your light, what happened?
Could you see?”
“Not really. Not at first.”
“That’s because your eyes were dark adapted. They had adjusted to the low level of the light. Red light helps them stay that way. It has less energy than white light.”
The boy was about to ask why he needed to be able to see in the dark when they came to the end of the path and he realized where they were.
A wide sandy plain spread out before them, the sand silvery under the pallid light. In the distance, barely visible, the Great Sand Dunes climbed hundreds of feet into the sky.
“I’ve been here before,” he said, “on a field trip.”
“But you’ve never been here at night,” said the boy’s father.
It was hard walking in the sand. The boy wished he’d worn sandals, or no shoes at all so that he could flex his toes and feel the sand between them. The boy’s father was a step or two ahead. In the distance there were more red lights and moving in and out of them were people scattered across the plain at the base of the dunes. The boy thought he saw someone lying in a beach lounger when he stepped wrong and fell on his hands and knees. The sand was soft and fine and cool; it stuck to his hands.
The boy’s father turned and knelt next to him. “Are you okay?”
The boy stood. He said, “I’m fine,” and wiped his hands on his shorts.
They kept walking and soon there were no other people around them and the dunes that had seemed so far away were closer now, rising overhead. Without saying anything, the boy’s father stopped. He looked around. Then he clicked off the flashlight and unshouldered his backpack. He pulled out a blanket that he spread across the sand.
The boy sat next to his father on the blanket. They were only an arm’s length apart, but the boy couldn’t see his father’s face.
“Here,” his father said, and handed him a sweatshirt from the backpack. “I found it when I was packing. You must have left it behind one weekend.”
The boy tried to pull the sweatshirt over his head but the hole at the neck was too narrow and he couldn’t fit his arms into the sleeves. He yanked it off.
“It’s too small now.”
The boy’s father picked up the sweatshirt, looked at it and then at the boy. His father was silent and his silence joined the silence of the night. The boy heard the beating of his own heart and nothing else. He had never been anywhere so quiet.
“Are you cold?” asked his father.
“Are you sure? I might have another blanket back in the car. Or you could have my fleece.”
“I’m not cold,” the boy said. He hugged his legs to his chest and looked out across the wide, empty expanse they had crossed to get here.
“Lie down,” his father said after a while.
The boy looked at him and his father scooted down and rested his head on the blanket. His feet dangled off the blanket into the sand. The boy lay next to him.
“Now look up,” his father said.
The boy looked up. There were so many stars and they were so bright and close the boy’s breath caught in his chest. Arching across the sky like a giant backbone was a shimmery gauze that at first the boy mistook for clouds before he realized that these too were stars, so many stars and so far away they blurred into an incandescent mist. And all these stars floated in the deepest blackness the boy had ever known. He was dizzy. He felt as though he were falling upward into a giant ocean that hung suspended with perfect stillness in the sky.
“See that star?”
The boy's father scooted closer to him. The boy could feel the warmth of his father's body and smelled his cologne.
The boy looked up. How could he pick out one star from thousands? His vision darted from the stars that were bright and close to the stars that were faraway and faint, and then he became lost in the blackness between the stars and had to close his eyes. It was too much.
When the boy didn’t say anything, his father leaned his head in close and pointed.
“Okay, see that star, the one that looks kind of blue? It's that bright one straight overhead.”
The boy opened his eyes. He looked where his father was pointing and then tilted his head up to the sky. It took him a few seconds but soon his gaze found the bright blue star overhead.
“I see it,” the boy said.
“That’s called Vega. Now look down a little.”
His father pointed again. It was hard to know if they were looking at the same thing. The place in the sky where he pointed was hazy with those faint faraway stars. His father clasped the boy’s right arm and lifted it to a different part of the sky.
“That one,” his father said.
“I see it,” the boy said.
“That one’s called Albireo. Look at it with these.”
His father reached into the backpack and handed the boy a pair of binoculars. They were heavy in the boy’s hands. His father showed him how to look at the place in the sky you wanted to see first, and then without moving your head, hold the binoculars up to your eyes. Albireo showed as a fat blurry glare in the binoculars. The boy turned the focuser wheel. And then the star became two stars.
The boy thought maybe he wasn’t pointing the binoculars at the right place so he lowered them and felt their weight on his chest and looked at the star his father had showed him. Albireo, just below bright blue Vega. He put the binoculars to his eyes again and he saw the two stars. They were still there.
The binoculars seemed to make the stars smaller instead of bigger and brighter. They must have been very far away. One was white, or maybe a little bit golden, and it glittered in his eyes. Just below it was a smaller star, and it was blue. The stars were so close to each other their light seemed to reach out and join together. There was hardly any black between them.
The boy’s arms were shaking with the weight of the binoculars. He set them down.
“Did you see them?” his father asked. “Did you see the two stars?”
“I saw them. Are they far away?”
“Very far. Four hundred light-years. And the two stars are far away from each other, too.
They only look close. We think it takes them about one hundred thousand years to orbit each other.”
The boy looked at his father in the dark and then he looked up at the sky and found Albireo and he felt very small and everything else felt very big and far away.
There was a flash at the edge of the boy’s vision. He turned his head away from Albireo and looked out across the sky and saw nothing. He blinked and wondered about the flash. It wasn’t cloudy, the sky was still and clear, so it couldn’t be lightning—although it had reminded the boy of lighting, the quickness of it, the way it had shone brighter than everything else around it. But there had been no sound to accompany it, no crack of distant thunder. Silence held sway over the night.
And then it happened again, and this time when the boy saw it, it wasn’t at the edge of his vision. He saw a stroke of white light sweep across the sky only to disappear below the deep black ocean that floated above him.
“What was that?”
“Keep looking,” his father said, and the boy heard the excitement in his father’s voice and it made him excited, but he was anxious too and felt unprepared for what was happening.
Above him there was another swift gleaming flash, this one crisscrossing Albireo, and for an instant the small star was lost in a sparkling streak of light.
And now they began to come faster. Once per minute the stillness of the sky was shaken by another arcing light. They seemed to come from all directions and no direction at all, striping the sky with their fast fading glow, and every time the boy saw one, or heard his father call out, “Over there,” and turned to see the last glimmering instant before the streak disappeared in the night, he would feel a lurch in his tummy, a sharp burst euphoria he had only ever experienced when looking down from a great height.
And somehow the silence with which this all unfolded made it more strange and special and wondrous, as though they had entered a place where sound didn’t exist and all that mattered was what you could see.
The boy felt his father take his hand. He turned from the sky to look at his father. “Do you like it?” his father asked.
“I love it,” the boy said. “What is it?”
“A meteor shower. It’s called the Perseid meteor shower.”
“How did you know it was going to happen?”
“It happens every year around this time,” said the boy’s father. “I wanted you to see it. I wanted to show it to you.”
He explained that meteors were just specks of dust and ice from the trails of comets, and that meteor showers happened when these bits of dust and ice entered the earth’s atmosphere at terrific speeds and grew very hot and glowed in the night sky.
They watched the meteors falling for a long time. But it didn’t feel long. It didn’t feel like anything. One minute or one hour was the same. The boy was under a spell. He had become weightless, and his father was weightless too, and they drifted together up into the sky. The sky had become everything, the sky and the meteors and his small hand enclosed in his father’s hand. That was all there was.
Only when the meteors began to fall less often did the spell fade, and the boy and his father returned to the ground and felt the sky as something separate from them, something they looked at but were no longer a part of in the same way. The boy became aware of the passage of time. The time between meteors stretched longer and longer, and it reminded the boy of being underwater and having to hold his breath. When he felt he could wait no longer a meteor would appear, and he would release his breath and fill his lungs with new air.
“Will there be more?” the boy asked.
“Yes. There will be some more tomorrow. And maybe the night after that. But not as many as tonight.”
The sky was still for a long time. The boy wondered if there would be no more meteors tonight. He tried to recall what the last one had looked like and where in the sky it had been, but he couldn’t remember. He wished desperately for another meteor to appear in the sky.
“There’s a meteor shower that happens right after Christmas,” said the boy’s father. “It’s called the Quadrantids. We can try to watch it when you come up to Boulder to visit me.”
The boy didn’t say anything. He swallowed and it made his throat ache.
His father said, “And I’ll show you the school where I’ll be teaching. They have a huge old telescope, twenty-four inches across. It can see millions of light-years away.”
The boy tried to imagine a million light-years. He tried to imagine his father living far away, and only seeing him a few times a year and he wondered if he would forget what he looked like and what it was like to be together.
The boy searched the sky for meteors and saw none. Then he found Albireo and thought of those two stars.
“Can we stay a little longer?” asked the boy. “Okay,” his father said, “just a little while longer.”
Jeffrey D. Schwartz teaches creative writing at the University of Denver. He received his M.F.A. from Emerson College in Boston, and spent several years teaching at universities throughout New England. His work has previously been published in Beyond Imagination.