15. Homecoming

May 13, 2010

XR137! was standing at the edge of the park, watching the light drain from the sky. It reminded him of the farthest reaches of the universe. Hail Glglth, Queen of Darkness, last resting place of abandoned life! Planet Glglth, slowly spinning in eternal dusk, silent and chill. Both good and evil avoid her grasp. No evil ever coveted Glglth’s bleak wastes. Shunning even sunrise with its thin purple washing over the pitted surface of the frosty globe. Hail Glglth! Mistress of Infinite Night! Prudent, chaste, and free!

XR137! didn’t mind the winter here on planet Earth either, though it lacked the deep cold of space. Winter made it harder for him to move, that was true, but if he stayed perfectly still, the pain in his body would slowly lift. Even the pain that had settled in his lungs in the last few weeks was not as sharp, or as incapacitating.

And so XR137! stood at the edge of the park, perfectly still, his mind drawing in the image of a distant, exquisite coldness.

He opened his eyes and XJ0*3 was standing before him in a gray coat, her tentacles glowing but oddly silver in the descending night. Commander, again! he spoke with gratitude and awe. She had visited him earlier in the afternoon, that time she had been dressed in a brown coat and a gold and silver scarf. She had touched him on the chest next to his heart where an intolerable pain had been gathering, and her tentacles had been gold—like the tentacles that flowed around her head and glittered as if exuding sunlight—and her touch was unimaginably gentle. His pain had instantly disappeared.

And here she was again, only in silver, a starlit version of herself. This is yours, I believe, she said, and hanging in front of her on a ray of light was a red-and-black-check shawl. He took it, delicately, from her and began to wind it slowly around his neck and shoulders. XJ0*3 gleamed, smiled, and drifted off. He tried to follow her but couldn’t. His human legs would not move; he felt frozen to the spot. He sat down abruptly on sidewalk.

He fell back onto the pavement and looked up into the heavens, beyond the orange glow of the street lights. XR137! lifted the ends of the shawl up into the light. He felt blessed. Awash with love and grace.

When he was ten, he had gotten a new jacket for Christmas: it was bright red and black plaid and his mother had bought it for him. Every winter break, he and his mom would drive up to the farm for Christmas. Outside the city, at night, the sky was dark and velvety and there were millions of stars above, and the air was so cold it hurt to breathe it. The earth was white, crisp with snow and radiant with light.

Most of Meghan’s nine brothers and sisters would arrive with their families, and the farmhouse was packed. Those adults who hadn’t come in Winnebagos and trailers would share the bedrooms upstairs. All of the kids—Roger and his cousins—would sleep in sleeping bags in the front room where the Christmas tree stood. It was lively and it was loud. At night the tree was glorious, eight feet tall and densely covered in ornaments and lights. The lights were small and white, and blinked like stars and the ornaments shone with the many pinpoints of their light. Everyone would bring a new ornament to place on the tree, and this year Roger and his mom had brought two reindeers formed out of glass. Roger had fallen in love with them the moment saw them in the store. They had tiny tags on their hooves that said Made in Czechoslovakia.

The day after Christmas, everyone would pack up and head out except for Roger and his mom, who stayed until New Year’s Day. During the days after Christmas and before New Year’s, Roger spent most of his time indoors playing cards with his uncle. When he got bored, which was often, he tried to talk his mother and aunt into joining them in a game of Monopoly; those games went on for three or four days, but Roger usually won. At night though, after dinner, if it wasn’t snowing, they all went out for a walk. Roger would be bundled up in long johns and sweaters, and over it all he would wear his new jacket, which was big and wooly, and bright and clean. His uncle called it “a true hunter’s jacket,” and that made Roger feel proud and adult. The red and black plaid jacket was warmer than anything he had ever worn, and it had a matching hat with earflaps.

That winter, in the still cold air with the massive sky above, the Northern Lights shifted like a green haze above the earth, then cascaded in a smoky rainbow-colored curtain that wound miraculously throughout the starry night.

It was like that now, he thought. Above the ghastly streetlights of the Avenue, a misty veil of green was forming, congealing in the darkness, bright and mysterious with unearthly light. XR137! hugged his shawl close to his aching chest. No, it wasn’t the Northern Lights: it was a fountain of light, a galaxy of bodies rendered into a blaze, spirits that had melted into airy expressions of prismatic color. All the thickened light seemed to pour toward him, funneling itself into his chest, relieving him of pain and worry and sorrow. And then he understood. This was the true form of XJ0*3, and she was coming for him, freeing him of this human carcass that had become so battered and torn. He too was splendor, a swirling presence that was the essence of the universe, the essence of matter, and that was beyond emotions and thought. He reached up toward the brilliant foggy light and the light reached down to him.

Rose was closing up when she heard the ambulance. She hadn’t heard one in years. When her grandmother died, she had been the one to call 911, and then she had waited for what seemed like years until she’d heard the siren’s wail. For months after she had heard sirens everywhere. But that was almost twenty years ago, and she couldn’t remember having heard a siren so clearly since. Whoever it was, she thought as she locked the back door, she wished him—or her—well, and safe journey.

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