9.1 / January 2014

Stargazer

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As my father took me to the pediatrician’s office to have my head checked, he talked about how islands are made, how magma bubbles up through the Earth’s skull, and hardens into a blob in the ocean, and eventually birds rest on it, drop seeds, and the waters bring microscopic animals, and the next thing you know you have people, hotels, and restaurants. In the office, the doctor, peered into my ears and eyes, pressed his fingers to my head, and recommended coming back if the headaches didn’t go away. He patted my shoulder and said it was probably a migraine. Kids get migraines. I sat in a cold chair in the lobby and looked at pictures of Mars in a National Geographic while the doctor spoke.

On the way back, my father explained how he met my mother. He was a flight instructor at the Allentown airport, and she a student. He laughed, recalling how he’d tried to impress her with aerobatic stunts: the barrel roll, the nosedive, the hammerhead stall. Then the story took on a serious tone: “When two people love each other, and they want to make a baby, well there is a bed involved, their bodies conjoin, and the man ejaculates.” I realized my father was describing sperm. What sperms do when they break into an egg.

“Something like the big bang happens,” he said. “But it is amazing for both the mom and dad.” I watched barren cornfields out the passenger window, trying to ignore the throbbing right side of my head.

“Millions of tiny blasting events,” my father said, still talking about sperm.

“Does it happen in your brain?”

“Sort of.” He kept driving. “It feels good, too. Bodily. But your minds should be linked.”

I imagined clear plastic tubes connecting a man and a woman’s head. Fluids mixing. I had examined sex magazines, ones my friend Ron kept. No tubes. I imagined tubes honeycombing scalped fields, taking all the rain and giving it to somewhere else. Tubes had kept my mother alive at the end. At least, that’s the story my father told me. Tubes hooking her nose and arms to machines. By then every breath, every word had come as a wheeze. She’d sounded as if there were a pillow over her face. “Keep watching the green blip,” she’d said. “That is my heart.”

We rounded a bend. The road was lined with sycamores. We passed a field I had seen thousands of times. Grass, birds, and the occasional deer. In my mind, I populated the field with people: A man threw a football to his son, and the son sprinted, made the catch, and threw it back. A mother played hide and seek with her son. The mother hid behind a stack of hay bales while her son searched, and I felt panicked for both the mom and the son, wishing I could give him a clue.

Then the field exploded, a sharp concussion, cloud of dirt flying up, and my father swerved the van into a ditch.

He patted my shoulder, my knee, and my forehead to make sure I wasn’t hurt. His hands shook. He rubbed the bald top of his head.

“We’re okay,” he said. We checked the van and my father declared it undamaged.
A pillar of smoke climbed from the center of the field.

“Should we call the police?” I said.

“Let’s have a look.”

My father stepped into the haze, his arm held over his mouth and nose, a leather driving glove on the other hand, reaching, and he disappeared for a second. He came back out and ran to the van.

“Oh, boy,” he said. “Oh, boy.” He opened the back door and pulled out a blue tarp. The rain extinguished the flames, the smoke cleared, and I saw a reflective piece of metal, shiny like aluminum foil before you crinkle it. It was heavy, but we dragged in onto the tarp. We used the tarp to pull the part into the back of the van. I could see my own fuzzy reflection in the piece.

“It’s a satellite, I think,” my father said. He gripped the steering wheel eagerly, and we backed out of the ditch. My head no longer hurt.

“I bet it’s worth a fortune,” my father said, looking at the thing in the rearview.

“It’s broken,” I said. It looked nothing like the boxy, kitchen-appliance-looking satellite parts I’d seen in National Geographic.

“To the right person it isn’t.” My father drove, his eyes like empty, brown mirrors.

*

We lifted the piece of satellite onto the worktable in the basement, where my mother used to sculpt clay. Her last project was an airplane. Its nose and part of a fuselage were visible, but the rest, the wings and tail, were blocky and unformed. I kept it covered in moist towels so that that clay would never dry out, changing its dressings every day, misting it with a spray bottle. My father lifted the sculpture aside.

“I can’t think of an explanation,” he said. “Imagine.”

“Should we call someone?” I held my hand over the mirror-like surface, and I felt a tingling sensation.

“My group is going to love this,” my father said. Friday nights he went stargazing with other pilots. “Look.”

We saw our blurred reflections.

“It’s a mirror,” he said. We looked longer. Our faces turned into paintings, and I opened my mouth wide. My father did the same, our reflections stretching, indistinguishable from each other. We waved to ourselves. My father tapped its surface.

Then he looked at me as though just waking from a dream and said, “How’s your head?”

“I feel fine,” I said. The tips of my fingers buzzed slightly. I was afraid that thinking about my headache would bring it back.

We watched the news after dinner: Nothing about a fallen satellite. I lay in bed, feeling my fingers. Special powers? I shook my fingers, snapped them, looking for sparks. Nothing. My father came in and started telling me a bedtime story, even though I was too old.

“When I was a kid,” he said, “I thought it was only a matter of time before any old plane could take you to the Moon.”

*

That weekend my father invited Sally from the stargazer’s club over for dinner.

“Tell me about school, Alex,” She said. She had thin lips that were not smeared in lipstick. My father told me she had been a bush pilot in Alaska, flying fishermen to remote territories. Now she gave lessons. She watched me earnestly, and there seemed to be a smile behind her eyes.

“Pretty boring.”

“I know what you mean,” she said. A small headache made my right eye twitch.

My father watched Sally as we ate. She was pretty, but not in the way that my mother was. Sally’s face was tan and creased. My mother’s face had been soft, her cheeks rosy.

“Where’s the mirror?” I asked. I felt betrayed by Sally’s strong-looking hands, her leather bomber jacket.

“Well, we don’t know for sure what it is,” Sally said.

“I took it to be tested for radiation,” my father said. “Turned up safe.”

“Sometimes objects that have floated around in space pick up a bunch of radiation,” Sally explained.

“So it could be anything,” my father said. “We got to thinking.”

You got to thinking could it be not of this world,” Sally said. She laughed, confident, like she laughed at scary things.

“We just can’t know,” my father said, and he and Sally shared a look that was the kind of look my mother and he would share when discussing grownup topics.

“My hand’s been tingling,” I said.

“From the cold?” said Sally. She flexed her own fingers.

“How’s the head?” My father put his hand on my forehead.

“Fine.”

“Let me see those hands,” Sally said. “They are freezing.”

“Take a hot shower,” my father ordered.

*

Sally had dinner with us Saturday as well. And Sunday morning I came downstairs, groggy. I had stayed up late shining a flashlight on my hand so that it cast shadows on the wall, making up powers it would one day develop: super-gripper, all-healer, tank-thrower. Sally was at the breakfast table, pouring coffee into my father’s mug, laughing and brave.

“Good morning, champ,” said my father.

“What’s she doing here?”

“Want some eggs?” Sally said, holding out a plate.

“No.”

My hand would one day shoot fire. It would store all the rain it touched, saving it up to later fill all the drought-starved rivers and lakes. It would heal wounds, raise the dead, but raising the dead was tricky because it would sap all of my energy and so I’d have to replenish it by sucking energy from the mirror.

*

That night I found my father staring into the mirror, murmuring to it. He turned to see me at the top of the basement stairs.

The night after that, I found him staring into the mirror again. He did not look up, but kept staring.

“It’s weird,” he said, when we were watching the news after dinner. My father’s eyes were on the TV, but focused on something else. “I feel things when I look into it.”

“Me too.”

“It’s not for kids.”

Wind lashed the outside world. Snow flurries danced in the lights outside our house.

“Maybe I just miss Mom,” he said. His eyes moistened.

I wanted to tell him about my hand, that I understood what the mirror was for. Knowledge was born in me when my mother passed, and now I figured things out for myself.

*

The next night, while my father slept, I looked into the mirror. I willed it to show me my mother. My blurry reflection vanished, and a moment later I heard my mother’s voice singing: “Fly up, fly up, you fallen angel.” It was a song she’d used to put me to sleep. The voice faded. The top right side of my head began a throb that shot down my arm and pulsed in the tips of my magic hand. I saw stars that seemed to swim on the surface like cells under a microscope. I willed my mother to sing again. She did not. The stars still swam, and I leaned against the worktable, dizzy.

*

The next evening, my father came home from work, threw off his coat, walked down to the basement, and did not return for hours. He came back up, his face gray, a zombie’s. He looked at me as if I were a visitor.

“I think I see things in the mirror,” he said. He said it to a spot above me.

“Planets. People.”

“My head hurts,” I said.

“Do you think there are people on Mars?”

“My hand.”

“Beings made of gas?”

“It goes away, but comes back.” I wiggled the fingers of my throbbing hand.

“It’s probably growing pains, right?” The way he asked scared me.

“Maybe.”

“Give it a day.” It was the answer he gave me when he didn’t know.

*

Headaches came, and sometimes they made me dizzy, but not so dizzy that I couldn’t fake my way through school. The teacher took it to be emotional strain. Maybe that was what it was. People got headaches for all sorts of reasons. Growing pains, dehydration, too much candy. I was afraid that it might be cancer, but I didn’t remember my mother having headaches.

One night, Sally and my father started arguing. I listened from the top of the stairs.

“You are acting strangely,” said Sally.

“I’m telling you, the mirror is special,” I heard my father set a glass down.

“I’m sick of it.”

“Then stop asking about it.”

“It doesn’t belong to us, Harold.”

“It belongs to me.”

“You need to pay attention to what is real,” Sally said, voice as firm as an air traffic contoller.

“What’s real?”

I saw him shouting the question to the night sky, or to a hospital bed.

*

One day at breakfast my father read the news about the mirror. A satellite had crashed, and NASA was still searching for parts. NASA strongly cautioned people against going near parts. It was Saturday morning. I reclined on the couch. The tingling of my hand had since reached my shoulder. When it warmed up, it was fine. I thought about growing and about how my father had hammered his thumb building me a tree fort and had gone to fly anyway, his thumb bandaged.

My father announced that he was going for a walk. “I’ll be back.”

I watched from the window as he carried the mirror to the tool shed.

Sally had stopped coming over. Without her there, I thought I could tell him I’d figured out the mirror. It cured my headaches.

He brought me a mug of hot chocolate and, without thinking, I reached for it with the tingling arm and dropped the mug on the floor.

My father prodded my arm thoroughly. He pinched it. Nothing. The arm felt dead. The throbbing in my head blinded me.

On the way to the hospital, my father talked about the space-mirror. His words faded in and out like a radio station.

“It was just a piece of satellite,” he said sadly. “NASA wants it back.”

We’d reached the interstate.

“You still with me, kiddo?”

I nodded. I thought about my mother: Bald, puffy around the eyes, and a sheen on her face people said was sweat but what I knew to be some other filth. Then she went. People in black suits closed the lid, lowered her into the ground.

My father held my left hand, and he squeezed it every few seconds, and those pulses of feeling were like another heart pumping to keep me awake, and the world outside glowed blue.

“Fly up, fly up, you fallen angel,” I mumbled.

“That’s right,” he said.

And then I started to drift. My father’s words became shouts, and I was floating over the surface of a snowy planet, immune to the freezing temperatures, and I could suck light from the sun with my magic hand and shine it from my palm.

I stayed three weeks in the hospital. My head was shaved, and a stapled cut ran from behind my right ear to the crown of my forehead. A doctor showed me the tumor they removed. It was a bloody glob the size of a golf ball. The doctor said, “This little bugger almost got you.” My father came to visit me in the hospital every day, telling me stories about the mirror.

When I was finally allowed home, I watched my father bury the mirror.

“I was kicked out of the stargazer’s club,” he said. We had the mirror in a black duffle bag.

“Sally won’t talk to me either.” My father jammed a digging bar into the ground. “They said that science was paramount. That it was wrong of me to keep this thing.” He nudged the bag with the toe of his boot. “But I think they just wanted it.”

Then he worked without speaking. Crows watched from the naked branches of sycamores. It felt good to flex my arm again. I felt empty when my father mentioned Sally. The space-mirror was empty, too, a useless hope. The dead field was the empty surface of a planet, and I wanted to never drive by it.
“It’s weird,” my father said, leaning on the digging bar. “I feel like Mom is still with us.” He had dug down about three feet.

“How?”

“It’s just a feeling.”

“She’s dead.”

My father nodded.

He pushed the duffle bag into the hole. “Remember this spot,” he said. “That tree.” He pointed to a giant oak. “And that tree,” he said, turning ninety degrees and pointing to another oak that had been split down the middle by lightning.

Driving home, my father told me, how, when he was little, he rescued a squirrel from a cat and kept it, feeding it milk from an eye-dropper. One day, his mother found out and made him let the squirrel go.

“Started thinking maybe the mirror was sent by your mother,” my father said. “Crazy, right?”

I wanted to jump out of the van, knowing that from then on I would be alone for the rest of my life.

“Why would she do that?”

“To keep us looking up,” he said.

Keep us looking up?


Cedric Synnestvedt is a writer, teacher, and musician currently living in Austin, Texas. Right now, he is working on polishing a collection of short stories, scraping together the beginnings of a novel, and trying to get his band back together after an MFA-induced hiatus.
9.1 / January 2014

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