Two men in uniform sit in their patrol car, stopped at a red light.
"I had to look twice."
"So we’re robots, John, we don’t look twice."
"Speak for yourself."
"Oh, all the time."
"If they didn’t want us to blend in, then we wouldn’t be a secret."
Two men in uniform sit in their patrol car, stopped at a red light.
My name is Theodore Prami. I am sitting in the cab of my Chevrolet Silverado. Beyond the windshield is a sky full of stars overlooking a field of clean, white snow. On the radio, an address from the President is ending.
"Humanity will prevail," he says.
I shut off the radio, then the engine. I exhale. My breath forms a nebula in front of my face.
Ever the politician, he’s making impossible promises to improve morale.
I suppose everyone needs something to believe in to keep them going. Religion, revenge, redemption: it takes many forms, but for every human soul, there is a credo, an insistence on an idea upon which their entire reality is built. For me, that foundation has always been, and will continue to be, love. Because of that, I found Helena, my wife, my best friend, the kindest person I’ve ever met, and my colleague at the Yerkes Astronomical Observatory, here in Williams Bay, Wisconsin. She recently died of cancer.
I step out of my truck, walk around to the back, and climb into the bed, where the telescope is positioned. The irony is not lost on me: I have been fortunate enough to live a life where work and play coincide.
I reach into my breast pocket and retrieve a folded piece of paper. Upon it are coordinates that I’ve long since committed to memory. I reread them by the light of my cellular phone. They’re written in Helena’s small, neat script.
One night, nearly a year ago, while examining infrared images, Helena made a discovery that would change everything. Taken using a method we had pioneered that involved filming through the controlled release of energy during the decay of one of uranium’s isotopes, Helena noticed a pattern in the pictures. In each image, there was missing light. We examined the quadrant where the last image was taken and found it was caused by a comet.
Our process proved an immense success. Its purpose was to detect UEC’s (Unavoidable Earthbound Collisions) and it had. The precautions taken to protect us from exposure to the radioactivity were not as successful. Shortly after, Helena was diagnosed with an advanced form of leukemia.
I peer into the telescope, adjust a few knobs on the side, and there she is, the Helena Prami comet, heading directly for us. In six hours, it will crash into the Earth, causing catastrophic loss of life, but with its silver-blue tail streaking in the darkness, its beauty is undeniable.
The insurance claim is still under investigation.
Where work and play coincide, the disaster is also doubled.
Charlotte, or Charlie, as she was called by her family and friends, stood beside her bedroom window. Silent and thoughtful, wearing pjyamas and her hair down, Charlie looked out at the night as it held the house like a sleepy child, quietly and close in its folds, with the intent to unify the one with the other. Her parents were asleep in their room downstairs. Every third chirp of the crickets, her father could be counted on to snore once.
Charlie looked up at the stars. Some were white, others red, and there were those that constantly flickered between, equally as brilliant, no less inspiring. The maples, the firs, the oaks, and the pines, they sang with one voice in the shifting shadows cast by the still moon, sister to Midas, making equally silver all that she touched. Everywhere Charlie looked, she was greeted by beauty. When she turned her gaze inward, she found more of the same.
And so a stone swelled in her throat. When she swallowed, it sank and settled inside her heart. Then came a stabbing behind her eyes. They each bled a teardrop.
Love, if kept a secret, sours.
Charlie was done hiding that her Chris was really her Christine.
I met Sheryl in Alaska. It was during a climbing expedition that my parents gifted to me after my graduation from law school. I wasn’t an expert climber, but by then I wasn’t a novice either, having scaled somewhere new every vacation I’d had since my thirteenth birthday, each one progressively more difficult, each one increasingly more rewarding. My appreciation for the experience was on par with those more seasoned than I was.
We were at the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, which still boasts some of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever beheld. Against a grey morning sky, the Wrangell mountain range became a sweeping brush stroke of black paint across a clean, white, infinite canvas. On clearer days, the sunset soaked like blood into the snow, as though it was a towel. We were attempting the Mt. Bear expedition, one of the more remote climbs. The sky was blue, and the ceiling was limitless, so for the two guides that rounded out our party, who were already a couple, it must have been an opportunity to fall in love all over again.
That night, as we sat huddled around the fire in a well-sheltered relief shaped into the geology of the mountain, while I watched the ballet of shadows on Sheryl’s face in secret, Nancy took Tom’s hand, and told us the story of their meeting.
"We were in Toronto. It was a really mild December and, instead of snow, we got a few days in a row of rain. After that came this cold front that turned the streets into skating rinks. I was in my senior year of college, on my way to write my last final before winter vacation. I was running a little late, so I crossed the street when I shouldn’t have." Nancy smiled. "If Tom hadn’t pulled me back, the meat truck that skidded through the intersection might not have made its delivery of hamburgers on time." Beneath his beard, Tom smiled, too.
After that, I went to stand alone.
Above me, magnified by the cold air, the stars seemed nearer, brighter, and more plentiful than I had ever seen before.
At some point, I’m not sure when, Sheryl came to stand beside me.
She said nothing.
With the clouds beneath our feet, I think we both understood that it wasn’t where we stood, but with who, that mattered.
I asked Sheryl for her number when we got back to the bottom.
Summer, the girl, always loved summer, the season. It loved her, too. Born under the sign of the Lion, with hair as gold as its mane, she wore the sun in her bronze skin, absorbed over many hours spent out on the beach. Swimming, reading, or sipping the shoreline at dusk, she found herself most at ease when she, like the last of the sunlight, settled somewhere by the water out west, during the summer vacations spent at her family’s beach house.
It snowed once where she lived in Southern California. Six entire inches overnight. Summer remembered hearing on the radio that morning that the city was crippled due to its inability to handle the precipitation. Snow plows were citizens of New York City, foreign to Ventura.
But Summer, the girl, like summer, the season, was full of dreams. She loved the snow because it felt new and promising, like work after a long vacation. Little did she know that’s exactly what it was. She figured it out when she moved to Chicago.
The years have changed him. There are lines on his face that weren’t there when they met. On his forehead, wrinkles like rippling waves at high tide, causing the shore of his hairline to further recede. Beneath his chin, a life’s worth of sign-here’s, sagging the skin, hunching his back. The blue veins in his hands are frozen rivers that had once flowed molten beneath bronze armour. The woman that he married would not have recognized him now, nor could she have been capable of loving such a worthy man.
The years have changed her, too. The twins were the first to widen her hips, to lengthen her feet, and move her to tears. She grew larger with each child, six in all, proportional to her capacity to love each one. While rocking the babies to sleep each night, she thought of slow dancing with their father, a thing they still do, and will do, until their hips no longer allow it.
He embraces her from behind. She pushes her bifocals up the bridge of her nose, and turns to look out of the bedroom window. She sees their life mirrored in the sky, in the cooling sunset, and the starry twilight of a day worth living.
How did it come to this?
Up until pretty recently, six was my favourite number. I got used to counting it out when I was still a little boy, shooting daddy’s empty bottles off the crooked cattle fence. Learning to see life in multiples of six: that’s what it took for me to become the best shot in all of Alberta. Six, but someone’s giving me until the count of ten to come out from behind this bar I’m crouched behind, and I can’t help but think it’s a pretty generous offer.
The last poster I saw said I’m wanted across five counties for a dozen or so hold-ups, and for leaving half that many women as widows to mother bandits. I didn’t mean for the last part to happen. Every boy needs his daddy to set him straight, unless he’s a sorry son of a bitch, like mine used to be, in which case, good riddance, and you’re welcome as well.
It’s hard not to wonder how it might have been if daddy hadn’t drank the cows to death, but I guess it was my choice to keep the wrong red queen hidden up my sleeve; loaded die.
Now all that’s left is a bullet or a bough and four seconds to decide the difference.
I was thinking earlier. I remember the best time I had on family vacations was often the drive back home. We would all be tired after a day spent at the beach, swimming, eating, and not having to watch our backs, except to apply lotion. Mom would be asleep at the front of the van with her hat over her eyes, and my brother would be asleep beside me with his mouth open. My cheeks would be warm, retaining the sun better than the darkening sky. The radio would have something slow on, and my father would drive in silence alongside the sunset, thinking that I was asleep, too. That shade of orange, those soft rock songs: they are my portals back in time; the reset buttons that revert me to my own happiness. But then we all have a different way of framing the nebulous nature of beauty.
The raindrops fall softly on to the lake. They look like diamonds breaking a mirror, but sound like salt scattered on the sidewalk. This is a memory I will keep with me, to wrap myself in during winter. When the lake is frozen over, it will be molten in my mind.
I look into the camera and introduce the man sitting across from me. He is wearing a simple green t-shirt and khaki shorts. He is under thirty, tall, and made entirely of lean muscle.
"Donald Alexander is a world record holder. He has climbed the infamous two thousand foot Half Dome at Yosemite National Park here in California an astounding seventy-three times. To put that into perspective, legendary mountain climber Jonathan Dupont, who pioneered the route up El Capitan, stands a distant second at a more than respectable thirteen ascents. Worth mentioning, however, is a slight difference in the men’s techniques. Donald, unlike Dupont, prefers to climb without a rope." I turn towards him. "At one point, you were completing Half Dome once a month. Donald, yours is a record that will never be broken."
"I don’t think that’s true, David."
"Why is that?"
"I only moved out here when I was nineteen."
"If I was born around the area, I would have started sooner."
I feel like crying, but instead I start the interview.