Excerpt: Secret Geography

Miles above the surface. No plane, no zeppelin, no hot air balloon. Only two arms flickering in the ebb of evening light. He rises through tangles of clouds, gliding above serrated cliffs shaped like dinosaur bones. His eyes trace slender tributaries as they tumble off the horizon. His body slows. A breath of warm air cradles his torso. Flight is no longer the proper verb. He levitates now, surpassing the atmosphere, severing his connection with earth. At home among satellites and lunar dust, all nine years of him slip into physical silence—a dream texture, kind of ephemeral, though he has yet to discover that word.

*

If he’s up early enough, Arthur studies headlights as Dad heads off to work. Incandescent beams pour through spaceship curtains; a decorative treasure improvised from an old bed sheet and a shower rod. Sometimes, if he’s brave enough, he’ll even perch his chin on the windowsill and peer into the desert. Still tottering on the rim of a dream, he monitors the pick-up’s passage: the trail of dust, the rhythm of brake lights. The further the truck sinks into the mauve of dawn, the more his day begins.

In the isthmus of time before Mom wakes, the house belongs to him. He is free to roam, to interpret his new geography freely, even feelingly, without threat of parental hindrance. The morning transition from shadow to light diffuses the miasma of unfamiliar walls. It’s a sort of ghost-walk, a somnambulist’s voyage through a tropic of vampire fabric and macramé.

Later, at the kitchen table, daylight intensifies, warming the pages of picture books. Their content is devoid of dragons, fairies and cranky old gnomes. It is the ocean, the atmosphere, and the course of magma that thread his fantasies. He scans the pages of a particularly beloved selection, mouthing words like nebula, asteroid and meteorite.

“Morning,” a voice says, soft, drowsy, a decibel above a whisper. Arthur shifts away from his book to find Mom standing in the doorway. Strands of her hair dance under the influence of the air conditioner. For an increment of time that really wouldn’t qualify as an instant, the mechanics of Arthur’s face convey an expression that borders on surprised. A secret part of him wants to let her know how much he missed her, how much night and its wells of sleep suggested separation from her, though he dare not say it aloud.

“Hey.”

She crosses the room, squeezes his shoulders, kisses his forehead. “How’d you sleep?”

“Good.”

She smiles, rakes her fingers through his hair. Several steps further into the kitchen now. A yawn before fiddling with the coffee maker.

Arthur’s legs swing beneath his seat. He continues to flip through his book. Fingertips navigate the pictures and the text. A pause in the canyon of the spine. He must locate a parcel of information that will demonstrate growth and learning. Mom glances over. From her position, the outline of her son briefly appears to be that of a wise old owl.

“Hey, Mom, did you know that Earth gets a hundred tons heavier each day because of falling space dust?”

“No way.”

“Way.”

“News to me.” She swerves and deposits a soiled coffee filter in the trashcan. A reach across the counter. The flip of a dial on a small television set. The signal’s fuzzy. She adjusts the antenna. Particles stir in the air. “Sometimes I get impression it all ended up here.”

“Well if that were true, we’d be up to our necks in dust, which is gross since a lot of dust comes from dead skin cells.”

“Even space dust?”

“No, that’s different.”

Slightly dismayed by his inconsistency, he continues to browse for another morsel. “Hey, did you know that the sunlight hitting the Earth right now is thirty-thousand years old?”

“Really?” she says, opening the refrigerator. “For some reason I thought you told me that it only takes eight minutes for sunlight to reach us.”

“Well, that’s true too. But that’s after it leaves the sun. You see, when light is born—”

“Born?”

“—yeah, born in the core of the sun, it has to travel through all these atoms and takes thirty-thousand years to get here. Well, thirty-thousand years plus eight minutes.”

“Alright, Einstein, enough trivia. What are we going to do about breakfast?”

“Pancakes.”

“Had them yesterday.”

“Waffles.”

“Nice try.” She removes eggs and bacon from the refrigerator. “What you need is protein. Got to bulk up.”

Mom starts breakfast. A news broadcast grumbles beneath the crackle of frying bacon. Murders, mishaps and mishandlings. Monsters who will steal a child’s breathe as a souvenir. Villains who inflect dime-sized cavities over trivial debts. Ball bearings and ink-black smoke hurled through breastbones and kneecaps. The world breaks open. Pyroclastic flow over a tranquil horizon. A boy with a gun. A mistimed red light. Stay tuned for the weather.

Arthur stirs in his seat, unsettled by remote miseries. He catches the curiosity of his reflection smeared in a nearby window, the clarity of a boy too small for his age. Translucent, pitted against the desert, he locates his frailty, his numerous incapacities, though it’s unlikely he’d phrase it that way. Oceanic eyes and narrow shoulders. Shadowy depressions lining a slender bands of ribs, rigidly defined in angular light. He longs for his bedroom now, his posters, books and stash of toys. He craves auditory fragments of city traffic, successions of streetlights and the assurance that if one of his episodes should occur, the nearest hospital is only a ways away.

“Mom.”

“What’s up, baby?”

“When can we go home?”

“Haven’t we been over this before?” she asks, though she knows he knows the answer by now.

“So?”

“So, I don’t see the point in bringing it up.”

Mom turns from the stove and shovels breakfast onto Arthur’s plate. Human movements to displace a well-worn subject.

“But it’s taking forever.”

“Five days is hardly forever,” she laughs, though part of her is inclined to agree with this childish dilation of time. How long does it take to reconcile a dead woman’s house, to quarry value and dispose of waste? “Besides, all this isn’t exactly easy for Dad, you know. These things take time.”

“But he hasn’t even cried yet. Not even when he found out.”

“Some people express their feelings differently, kiddo. I’m pretty sure we’ve had this conversation too.”

“I’d cry if you died.”

“And I’d die if you died.”

“Would Dad—”

“This conversation’s is over.”

Mom places breakfast on the table, slides into a seat and begins her meal.

Silence.

Arthur senses a tiredness in the room. He tries to lose himself in the sound of the television as it oscillates between a detergent commercial and bursts of white noise. An urge to lurch back in time, several hundred seconds or so, consumes him. He wants to be noble again, selfless and compassionate. He wants to feel affection for this situation, to understand the mythology behind every doorknob, faucet and vase, as a good grandson should. But even for a boy growing into his tenth year, it’s difficult to force affection based on lineage alone. Aside from rumored visits when he was still so small he could only commit scents and the timbre of intimate voices to memory, she exists as an apocryphal memory, a myth passed around to satisfy a lapse in time.

He feels the tug of his deficiencies now, the missing geography obscured by a stain on a map. He wants to lift the blemishes from the parchment, to uncover unprecedented adore. If he were a superhero, he’d possess the ability to pull inaccessible objects into his orbit from a million miles away. He would redirect the trajectory of absent grandparents, skateboards and allergenic pets, lassoing the missing constellations that embellish a normal boy’s life. And once each strand was secure within his pull, he would translate their substance into a richness only he could comprehend.

An imperative broadcast via cathode ray tube:

“NASA officials expect several large pieces of a research satellite to withstand the searing temperatures of atmospheric re-entry and strike the Earth’s surfaces within the next twenty-four hours.” A news anchor’s voice infiltrates Arthur’s thoughts, pulling him back to the kitchen, the present, right here, right now. This is a pivotal redirection. The utmost attention is required. “Though scientists won’t be able to approximate the point of impact until roughly two hours before re-entry, they have identified a broad region between the Southern Canada and Central America.”

Arthur swallows a forkful of eggs, trying to conceal the elation oozing within. He begins to rise within his thought, harnessing an inner updraft. He conceives of something peculiar and jagged, small enough to wear around the neck or fit into a pocket. A talisman. A boy with a satellite around his neck. He relishes the thought, inhaling it deeply as he drifts away from a pair of eyes that, even in his absence, never leave him.

It’s moments like this, studying her child’s morning meditations, when Mom wants nothing more than to slip into his ocean and drown for a while. Sinking into that watery ingress, she articulates cherished history, polishing the subtle outlines of all that has past. Mismatched socks and untied shoelaces. Ghosts of former Band-Aids and wrists that were smaller. She wants to calculate the movements around his sternum, the flicker of his eyelashes, retracing the stutters of flesh that once shimmered within. Without realizing it, she’s falling into something primitive and brave; an acknowledgement of a heart beating outside of her own body. It’s something molecular, driving and smooth, an ablution to wash away a dream that’s vicious or a memory that’s jagged. For an increment of time that really wouldn’t qualify as an instant, she tries to see his bones.

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