Beating the Count

I was hit below the belt. I had been trying to remember to keep my hands up, but the match had gone into late rounds and I had begun to feel almost passive. When I was hit low, a plume of nausea swelled inside of me like some sickening realization. My arms dropped instinctively to my midsection and I doubled over. That’s when I caught the hook to the jaw. That’s what they told me happened, anyway.

Full disclosure, though, the blame is mine entirely. Protect yourself at all times – that’s what they always tell you, right? I simply failed to obey the most basic protocol of the game and paid for it. My opponent cheated, sure, but I allowed it to happen. Like they say, all’s fair in love in war. Sometimes it’s best to remember the clichés.

After the power punch, I was drifting through deep space, aware of nothing and void of sensation. I floated there for eternities, blissful in my vacuum, until I heard the booming sound of a voice.

“Two!”

“What happened to ‘One’?” was my first thought.

The black fog then began to dissipate in a thunderous churn and the dull roar of the crowd began to ring in my ears. I could hear that they were divided, many jeering the unscrupulous nature of the offense, while others simply shouted for me to stay down.

“Three!”

I opened my eyes then, stared up into the still blurry lights above, and made up my mind to stand. I tried to sit up, but my body resisted, claiming to be defeated. It was a tempting idea, and for a split second, I wanted to believe it.

“Four!”

No. I wasn’t going to buy it. I wasn’t going to be beat, not like that. I rolled to my side, groggy, and planted a glove on the canvas.

“Five!”

I heard my corner shouting at me then, commanding me to get on my feet, to carry on. They were screaming that I could still win the thing, telling me that I was ahead on the cards. Their voices battled against my own body, which was calling for me to admit defeat.

“Six!”

My legs began to kick out, trying to regain their power and certainty. I had my other glove on the mat, too, and worked to pull my knees under my torso. My head was pounding and my senses still in a haze.

“Seven!”

The sickness in my stomach was passing but my body still felt nearly inert. All of its power was being drawn from some, until then, unknown reservoir.

“Eight!”

I planted a foot on the canvas and began to stand. Nothing before in my life had ever been more difficult to do.

“Nine!”

I was up – dizzy, half-inflated, weak, but up. The referee gripped me by my wrists and held my arms up against my chest as if informing me of how to stand once the match continued.

“Do you want to keep going?” he was asking me.

I nodded and the fight continued. In the end, I dropped a narrow decision, the first loss of my career, but I learned two things from that experience. The first, to always protect myself, which I should have already known. The second thing I learned was how to stand up again, which can only be learned after you’ve been knocked down.

Published in: on September 15, 2011 at 10:24 pm  Leave a Comment  

Those Places We Did Seek

There was a point on the map. A destination.

They had chosen it together, the man and the woman.

The trip would be a long one. They both could see it. But they wanted to be at that chosen point and they thought they could get there together. They planned the route carefully. First her, curled over the map penciling in the lines, with him leaning over her, his hand on her’s when it became indecisive, showing her where he thought the lines should go. And then, when her hand became tired, she would rise and he would sit down and take up the task while she wrapped her arms around his neck and commented as she saw fit.

The route was selected thusly. And when it was finished, they both studied it together, hand in hand, and saw that it suited their desires.

Together, they purchased a vehicle. It was not perfect, but it was what they could afford and it was theirs.

With their mutual destination in mind, together they set off, following the lines they had drawn on the map as closely as they could. When the inevitable obstacles appeared, the two of them decided together how to best overcome them. Many obstacles were met and some of the lines on the map were erased and repositioned. New courses were substituted when they had to be.

The journey became long indeed and the pitfalls many. When the man would drive, the woman would navigate. And then they would trade. This is the way they went for a long time.

After some time, far from the beginning, yet still so far from the point on the map, the woman began to become unhappy. The journey was more difficult than she had envisioned and the miles wore at her like desert winds polishing a statue. She tried to explain this to the man, but he could not understand.

Instead of taking on more of the load, he neglected his turns. He would fail to concentrate on his navigation and would often sleep while she drove, forcing her to stomach the shift alone.

The man could not see how difficult the trip was becoming for the woman. He had slept through difficult legs and, for him, the drive was comfortable and care-free. He failed to do his part.

This went on for some time.

One day, when the man slept through a long, empty stretch of road approaching a landmark, the woman could take no more. She pulled the car over, reached into her wallet and found enough cash to buy the man’s half of the car. She shook him and when he woke, she pushed the cash into his hands and asked him to get out.

The man was surprised by this and deeply hurt, but he did as she asked and watched in misery as she sped away alone. He sat on the road’s shoulder and cried for a long time, unable to make sense of what had happened.

After a while, the man stood again. He briefly considered extending his thumb and asking for a ride to the landmark, but he knew that if he climbed into another car, the woman would not be able to find him if she changed her mind and came back. And so he decided to walk.

He remembered clearly the lines they had drawn together on the map and so he walked along them, past the landmark and then the next, hoping that she would find him and see how serious he was about reaching that destination.

The walking was hard.

Published in: on August 15, 2011 at 7:34 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Discovery: Part 6

“Wait, I’m confused,” Margot interrupted.

She was seated cross-legged on the edge of the throw rug with Sebastion the cat curled up asleep in her lap. Mark, who was sitting across from her on the couch, had burst unheeded into the lengthy history of his time at Princeton and the events that occurred there after he and Margot had listened to the indignant message left on the answering machine by Eliot Swan. She had followed him in to the kitchen twice over the past hour while he talked so that he could fetch first a glass of water and then, just a moment before her interruption, a bottle of Ballantine’s and a tumbler. She purposely timed her interjection now for both clarification of the story and to possibly postpone his night’s drinking. The news that the doctor had given to Mark the previous day, that she had overheard him confess to Deputy Daley only last night, still rung loudly in her ears. And while she had no desire to bring her knowledge of the situation to light, thinking that it would do more harm to Mark’s disposition than good, the idea of watching him drink himself to sleep again disturbed her in the wake of what she knew.

Mark had been reaching out to take the bottle by the neck and pour his first drink, licking the insides of his teeth in anticipation, but had paused as Margot spoke.

“About what exactly?” he asked, realizing that the inconsistency of his accounts up to this point confused even him.

“You’re saying Swan is gay?” she asked with the same tone of disbelief that she might have applied had she been asking if the man was immortal. She was still only twelve years old, and having spent the entirety of those twelve years living in southern Texas, her knowledge of homosexuality was limited mostly to the slurs the boys in the class called one another and a certain degree of urban legendry — the singer of this band is gay, the star of that movie is a lesbian. She had not yet developed a sense of it as a real thing, a thing that many people lived with as a day-to-day part of their lives. It inhabited the same distant and foreign category for her as Eskimos, sea pirates, and royalty.

“That’s what I’m saying, yes. But don’t start acting all disgusted.”

“I’m not!” she objected, honestly innocent of the charge.

“Okay, good. Don’t. Eliot had his faults but judging a man based on something like that is, uh, unbecoming.” He reached into the depths of his mind to locate a word to better disparage the potential intolerance, one that would demonstrate to his niece exactly how base he considered that manner of judgment. He found the words that he thought would make the most sincere impression. “It’s irrational.”

Margot, who had not thought to judge the man based on his sexual preference in the first place, had moved past the subject of bigotry in her mind and was now linking together the information that she had been fed from Mark’s accounts given over the proceeding forty-eight hours. She suddenly thought of Swan’s autobiography and a particular line flashed in her mind. The line, the real meaning of which had escaped her through two readings, described young Swan’s feelings of rejection by his peers after leaving college. Remembering this and taking a clue it gave about the time frame in which the community at large became aware of Swan’s homosexuality, she drew a conclusion.

“No one at Princeton ever knew he was gay, did they?”

Mark, who had been fussing internally about the impropriety of homophobia, was taken slightly aback. Margot had preempted the end of his story before he could tell it. He smiled at her cunning.

“I was just about to get to that,” he grinned. “The day after the kiss, I saw Eliot walking across campus with a few of his friends from the Ivy Club. I tried to have a word with him, just to make sure that he was alright after all of his drinking, and he snubbed me.”

“What do you mean he snubbed you?”

“I mean, he acted like I was a fan asking for an autograph. Practically ignored me.”

“Why?” Margot exclaimed. The urgency of her reply startled Sebastion from his drowsy sleep and he slunk away annoyed. Margot was confused now. In Mark’s account, Swan had claimed to love him only the night before. Mark sighed before he answered her question, knowing that he had spent many nights pondering it himself.

“It’s complicated, kiddo.” He leaned forward and propped his elbows on his knees as if he were going to engage the question with the full strength of his mind. “I think Eliot was confused. He had made a mistake about me and maybe he felt ashamed. Maybe he wanted to punish me for denying him.”

“Maybe he is an asshole,” Margot suggested, taking Mark completely by surprise and eliciting an arched eyebrow of disapproval, but no verbal chastisement. The eyebrow was enough, though, to make Margot back off from the force of her words.

“It took him an awful lot of vodka to do what he did,” Mark continued. “I think when he sobered up, he didn’t know if he had made the right decision – to reveal himself like that. I think he felt the need to distance himself from me, to protect himself.”

“But didn’t you work together?”

“Well, not for long. After Ryabchikov died, they promoted professor Kent to department head. He was a fine fellow, but I didn’t feel any strong desire to stick around as his assistant, so I spent a year in Europe researching observatories then moved back here and built this one.” He was gesturing to the room around them.

Margot was on a roll now of deduction. She put another piece of the story together in her mind.

“So, when you met Swan for lunch…” She stopped to let the lock tumblers in her mind connect. Mark leaned back onto the couch and crossed his arms, curious to see what conclusion she would come to and how accurate it would be. He noted that her Watson was beginning to outshine his Holmes. “He didn’t want to just hire you, did he?”

Mark sighed heavily and finally unscrewed the bottle on the table in front of him, eliciting a sulk from Margot. But for Mark, having this discussion with his young niece was going to require a drink. Or several. He poured a five count into his glass and faced the question.

“No, he wanted more,” he admitted, immediately replacing the words leaving his mouth with Scotch and swallowing it down. “By the time he came to Texas he was–” He wavered on how to properly phrase it, “Comfortable with himself.” He took another deep drink. “I guess he thought his confidence would convince me.”

“Convince you of what?” Margot asked, still struggling with the foreign language of implications surrounding homosexuality.

“That I was gay too, I guess.” Mark finished his drink.

Margot was finally beginning to see the entirety of her uncle’s dilemma. The man to whom Mark was now reaching out for help, the only man that could help, had been estranged in the most personal of ways possible. He had been a slighted suitor: a man in love, rejected. Even at twelve, Margot had already witnessed first hand the power given to the object of affection to devastate. Many boys had courted her, all of whom had been denied flat out. One boy, a wiry red-head named Alex, the first to present his feelings to her publicly, had been reduced to tears by Margot’s callous snub. She had felt terrible for making the boy cry and had resolved to find more careful ways to rebuff advances. Even after this, more than one had lost his temper at her answer and been transformed instantly into an enemy. And these boys, she knew full well, were not in love, were only infatuated with her. She knew this, not because she knew what romantic love was exactly, but because she knew enough to realize that a person would have to at least know a little bit about her before developing those types of attachments. Swan had known her uncle well. They had spent many nights side by side in pursuit of a mutual passion. Swan had respected her uncle for his intelligence and fierce, albeit unintentional, individuality. These were the building blocks upon which, as she had come to understand through the stories told in movies and literature, the foundation of romantic love was planted. She saw that if these boys who bared their hearts to her with no more than a crush hidden within were so deeply effected by rejection, then Swan’s reaction to a denial of deep and cultivated love might very well be enormous.

Mark didn’t seem to consider this possibility, seated on the couch across from her, beginning to showcase the glowing ruddiness

“You don’t think he’ll be –- I don’t know, angry?” Margot asked, careful not to allow to much of her personal doubt to show.

“I don’t think he would have called if that was the case.” Mark was pouring himself another drink — his third. “If he was interested in buying the damn thing he would have had a buyer get in touch with me.” He poured a quarter of the contents of the glass down his throat. “He knows why I put the ad in the Canadian magazines. He got the message. I want to talk to him. And he wants to talk to me too.”

This made sense to Margot. If Swan really was still upset about that three decades gone rejection, then his decision to contact Mark in person made little sense. In her comparison of Swan to one of her pubescent classmates, Margot had forgotten that Swan was a grown man with a well-mannered upbringing. The adolescent backlash she had experienced firsthand could not possibly represent the way an educated adult would act. She began to feel more comfortable with the idea that Swan might be an ally after all. Still, she thought, none of this means that Swan is still in possession of the replacement eye-piece in the first place. Had Mark not lost two himself? And who is to say that it was not long-since sold? Again, she took the thought to Mark.

“How do you know he still has it?” she challenged.

Mark stopped himself mid-sip, genuinely confused by the question. “Still has what?” he asked and finished his sip.

“The eye-piece!” Margot answered aggressively, annoyed that Mark’s drinking was already clouding his mind for the evening and remembering still the dangerous secret that she had learned eavesdropping and that he still believed to be keeping from her.

“Oohhhh!” Mark said, a dopey smile spreading across his chin. “Of course he still has it! I doubt he ever even used it. It’s probably still sitting in that damn, that damn — warehouse in New Jersey!”

“But how do you know?” Margot was now being antagonistic solely because she had become frustrated with her uncle’s oncoming inebriation. She felt the sudden urge to shake the man and yell at him, “Snap out of it! This is important!” but she knew how futile it would be.

Mark was either too far gone or too involved with his own though process or both to recognize Margot’s mounting frustration with him, because despite her newly adopted tone, he leaned forward again and began to pour himself a fourth drink.

“I just know what he said,” Mark assured her, screwing the bottle’s top back into place. He added, “Besides, I’ll call him in the morning, and we’ll know for sure, won’t we?”

Margot didn’t respond. She crossed her arms and glared at her uncle as he attacked his fourth glass of whiskey inside of forty-five minutes. After a moment, seeing that he had lost interest in the conversation and devoted himself to drinking the evening away, Margot rose and without a word walked into her room, snatching up Sebastion, who was watching them from a bookshelf perch, as she passed.

It took Mark seven drinks to find sleep that night. Margot did not remove his shoes or cover him with an afghan, nor would she ever again.

* * * *

For the second time in six weeks, Margot awoke to the sunlight and, after pulling herself out of bed, found herself entranced by her own reflection. Her physical appearance still struck her as foreign, alien. But she noticed something more now. Past her outward countenance, which seemed to Margot, lately, more that of a woman than a child, a thought that stirred a rich variety of emotion in her, Margot saw a new presence in her eyes.

When Margot first looked at her reflection after her parents’ deaths nearly two years previous, she had noticed a similar change. The person behind those eyes then had changed from the person who had been blithely enjoying a car ride a few days before. The eyes were older, yes, but there was more than that. The eyes, and the person hiding there behind them, had not only aged, but gained an element of bitterness, an understanding of pain. And now, waking this morning and standing disheveled before her dresser mirror, she saw that the understanding hidden in the green of her eyes had deepened. She had not yet had time to consider all that she had learned recently and this morning the thoughts pounced on her like a predator.

Mark’s tumor. Was it cancer? Would he die too? This thought was the first and most urgent of the barrage and thinking it struck her as the worst thing that she could imagine. But just when she had begun to wrestle down the notion, to take control of it, another thought made itself fully manifest. Her uncle, her only living relative that she was aware of, dying this way, within two years of her parents’ deaths, was a terrible thought, but the tragedy compounded when she realized that if this spot the doctor had discovered behind Mark’s nose really was a malignant and cancerous tumor, coming as a harbinger of the man’s death, it would almost certainly take him before his business with Swan was completed. He would die frustrated and having never achieved that one thing he had his whole life obsessed over. And what’s more, the man seemed to not accept this truth for himself. As far as she could read, outside of his conversation with Daley, Mark hadn’t reacted in any way to the news he had been handed by the doctor. He had simply continued to enact his plan to procure from his long-estranged friend the replacement eye-piece that he needed. What good the eye-piece would do to a man that was quite possibly dying, she could not figure. The night before, when they had returned home to find a message from Swan on the answering machine, she had been momentarily filled with elation, but as Mark unwound his complicated story of his history with the man, displaying his alcoholism, unaffected in the face of the possibly life-shattering news, as he told the tale, she felt the hope drain from her. She swallowed down the pain when she did, she saw her eyes darken and saw that person who hid behind them buckle a bit more against the sorrow.

Sebastion freed Margot from her trance by jumping up onto the dresser top between her and her reflection. He was purring loudly, expectant of his morning feeding. Margot shook her head and released a small, forced laugh. The cat circled the dresser top, flicking out his tail in a show of impatience.

“Hold your horses, Sebastion. I have to pee,” Margot said and headed towards the bathroom with the cat following her. As she closed the door to the bathroom behind her, she heard the phone in the living room ringing.

* * * *

When Margot entered the living room that morning, she found Mark, dressed as she expected, talking quietly on the telephone. When he noticed her enter, he not-so-nonchalantly cupped his hand over the receiver and turned his back slightly to her. Had Margot not been awake two night’s before to hear Mark confess the situation to Daley, this clumsy attempt for privacy would have immediately alerted her that something was seriously amiss. As things stood, though, she pretended not to notice the way Mark lowered his head behind his shoulders and quited his voice as she entered the room. She knew instantly that Mark was on the phone with the doctor in Houston, but thanks to his clandestine, but far too obvious behavior, she was unable to ascertain what manner of news Mark was currently receiving, if any. She passed through the room without a word, followed by the hungry cat, into the kitchen.

Returning to the living room a moment later, having lingered there for an extra moment until she heard the phone clicked back against its cradle, and carrying with her a bowl filled with oatmeal and bananas, Margot settled into her usual spot on the couch. Mark was standing by his stool, looking out the front window.

“Who was that?” said Margot, trying to be as casual as possible with the question.

“Huh?” said Mark. His obvious distraction would again have betrayed his attempted guile had Margot been unaware of a situation. It was difficult for her not to react to his body language.

On the phone she deadpanned.

“Oh,” said Mark, finally turning towards her, hands in his pockets. She saw when he turned that his face was more red than usual. She hoped desperately that this was not a sign of distress. “It was the hospital.” Mark finished, taking Margot by surprise. For a half second she thought that he was going to come out with it and reveal to her what she already knew, but instead he fell silent again. She had to look away from him before she spoke again to ensure that he would not read in her eyes what she knew.

“Is everything okay?” came her question, phrased as indifferently as she could manage. And again, Mark’s pause gave her reason to think that he would admit to her what he was hiding, but again he kept it to himself.

“Everything’s fine!” Mark said with a startling brightness. So confident were the words, that Margot found herself wanting to believe that it was true and that the doctor had called to say that the spot on the x-ray was only a false alarm, but Mark’s follow-up lie left her still suspicious of the truth. “They just wanted to follow up about my insurance.”

“I thought you didn’t have insurance?”

“I don’t,” he said flatly. “That was what they wanted to follow up about.”

“So they’re just going to send you a bill? How much did it cost?”

Mark shrugged. “I don’t know yet. I’ve got some money still, though,” he said, watching Sebastion saunter between them after having eaten his fill.

Margot nodded at Mark’s answer, spooning a heap of the lukewarm mush into her mouth, but secretly she wondered how true that was. If Mark did have money stored away, why had he not simply paid to have a replacement eye-piece made in the first place? Why wait this long without it and then jump through the hoops necessary to get in touch with a man who may or may not bear a serious grudge? The train of though brought her around to a change in topic. “Hey! Are you going to call Swan!?”

“I already did. About an hour ago.”

She paused with a spoon of oatmeal inches from her mouth and looked at him expectantly, hoping for some good news.

“He wasn’t up yet,” Mark said. Margot finished her bite.

“Di-you lea ‘a meh-age?” she asked with her mouth still full of food.

Mark cast a disapproving gaze in her.

“Of course I did,” he said after she had swallowed the bite. “I left it with his –- uh,” here he struggled for what he thought to be the proper word, but when he could not find one he settled lamely on “–man. I’m waiting for him to call me back.”

“Well, I’m sure he will. He sounded pretty serious la–“

As if cued, the phone on the end table next to Margot rang, startling her noticeably. She laughed at herself as she glanced across the room to Mark, who took in a released a deep preparatory breath and began to walk towards her. Margot inhaled deeply, bit her bottom lip and held the breath anxiously. When he reached the table to Margot’s left, Mark paused with his hand above the receiver and the two exchanged one more look before Mark answered.

“Hello?” Mark said tentatively into the mouthpiece. Margot looked up at her uncle with her breath still held.

“Oh. Hello, Trevor.”, said Mark, a touch of disappointment in his voice. Margot released her breath now and went back to eating her breakfast as she listened to one sporadic end of the telephone conversation.

“No, I was just expecting a call. No, it’s fine. Tomorrow? That shouldn’t be a problem. Alright. What time? Okay. I’ll be there. Right. See you tomorrow.” Mark hung up the phone.

Before Margot could even ask what the conversation had been about, Mark began to explain.

“That was Deputy Daley,” he said, crossing back to the window. “He needs me to head back to Houston tomorrow to meet with the insurance agent. The thinks they’ll just cut me a check right then.”

“That was easy,” said Margot.

“Wasn’t it, though?” Mark agreed with a smile. “Sometimes it’s nice to have a cop on your side.”

Margot was nodding as she scooped another spoon-load of the mush from the bowl. Mark watched her for a moment, considering whether of not to tell her about the conversation he had been having with the doctor when she had come into the living room a few moments before. On the one hand, he felt very strongly that the girl should be shielded from this type of talk, especially considering the tenuous nature of their future plans, which for Mark rested first on further visits to the doctor and then on an amiable understanding with Eliot Swan. On the other hand, though, the girl’s maturity and astuteness had not gone unnoticed by Mark and he knew that keeping things from her at this point was all but a losing battle. In the end, he decided to save that conversation for another time.

“I’m going to make myself a cup of coffee,” Mark said. “Do you need anything out of the kitchen?”

Margot seemed to consider the question carefully, as if Mark were traveling all the way into town and not just into the kitchen.

“Do we have any orange juice?” she asked after some thought.

“How about a glass of milk?” Mark responded, shaking his head.

Margot smacked her tongue against the roof of her mouth to illustrate how dry it was.

“Any port in a storm,” she said and beamed.

Mark looked at her and smiled, more impressed with the young woman by the minute.

“Ain’t that the truth,” he said, affecting a dullard’s drawl to compliment her wisdom, and walked into the kitchen.

In the kitchen, he set his kettle on the element to boil and was busy filling a glass with milk for Margot, when he heard the phone in the living room ring again. This time, he felt with an odd certainty that it was Swan on the line. Once again he prepped himself for the conversation that was about to take place and, with glass in hand, made his way to the phone.

* * * *

When Mark picked up the phone, he started to say, “Hello?” but stopped himself when he realized to whom he was likely about to be speaking.

“Victoria-Parrish Observatory.”

“Not for much longer, I hear.”

Although his voice had aged considerably, even more than the twenty or so years that had passed since they had last spoken, Mark was still able to recognize his old associate immediately.

“Hello, Eliot. It’s good to hear from you.”

“So,” Swan began, bypassing the pleasantries. “Imagine my surprise when I receive a call from my editor-in-chief informing me that some loon in Texas of all places has placed an ad in my magazine attempting to sell his telescope for -– how much was it?”

“Fifteen million dollars,” Mark said patiently. “What do you mean your magazine?”

“My magazine. As in, I own it. As in, I am the owner.” There was a brief pause on the line. “Did you not know that already?”

“I didn’t. How would I?”

“You were trying to reach me, though, yes?”

“Well, yes, actually,” Mark said, a bit surprised by how easily Swan had seen through his ruse. “But I didn’t know you owned the magazine. I just assumed you would read it when it was printed.”

Swan sighed. His tone was becoming bothered, as if he had no desire for the banter, but only to move directly to the point in the most direct possible way. This tactic did not suit Mark particularly, so he pretended not to notice Swan’s exasperation.

“So you’re in media now?” Mark asked coyly.

“Hardly. Look here, Parrish–” When he called Mark by his surname, he knew then that anger still existed in Eliot and that this entire affair would have to be handled most delicately. “Have you lost your mind? Do you have any desire to explain what possessed you to use this, this subterfuge to get my attention?”

“If you were me, Eliot, how would you have done it?”

There was a long pause this time in which Swan seemed to consider Mark’s point. After a while, he groaned in recognition.

“Alright. That’s fair, I suppose. But what in God’s name is the matter? Are you dying, Parrish?”

The question, although meant as a taunt, hit uncomfortably close to home for Mark, causing him to stutter his reply.

“I, I, uh,”

“God, man. You’re not actually dying are you?” Swan broke in, his tone still maintaining the note of hostility. It were as if he were now freshly angry that Mark would have the audacity to contact him with this kind of terrible news. If he did feel pity or sadness at the concept of Mark’s death, he was keeping the reaction cloistered. Mark, who had still not even Margot about the doctor’s findings, gave Swan the same treatment.

“No, of course not! You’re so melodramatic, Eliot.”

“Melodramatic, am I? So what, did you just want me to call you so that you could insult me?”

It was Mark’s turn to sigh under the frustration of the conversation. However, he thought to pull the phone from his ear and press it into his chest, and in doing so, eliciting a curious glance from Margot who was still sitting on the couch watching him talk.

“No, Eliot. Not at all,” Mark said when he replaced the receiver to his ear. He swallowed, and softened his tone before he continued. “The truth is –- well, I need your help, Eliot.”

“My help?”

“Yes.”

“Well, that’s not particularly specific, old fellow. What’s say we cut to the heart of it already?”

The embarrassment of what Mark would have to say was close to overwhelming, but he had been preparing himself for this moment since, seeing Margot’s intense interest in the science, he had made up his mind to pursue this last remaining avenue.

“Ryabchikov’s telescope –- it’s been, um, damaged.”

There was a small chuckle on the other end.

“So, it’s not for sale?” Swan was pouring on the sarcasm thickly.

“No it’s not.”

“Fifteen million did seem a touch high.”

“Mm.”

“So it’s damaged? What does this have to do with me? I’m not a–” and to emphasize his point, Swan struggled to even label the figure he was picturing, “Repair… person.”

“Yes. I realize that, Eliot. But I was hoping you still had a replacement piece you might be willing to part with.”

“A replacement?” Swan seemed to think about his catalogue of possessions, a process Mark could only imagine would be quite difficult. “I might,” he finally concluded. “Which part?”

“An eyepiece,” said Mark quietly.

“You’ve broken your eyepiece?” Swan almost shouted. Mark had expected this reaction. Certain mechanical parts of a large telescope were expected to wear out over time. Gears involved in the process of changing the large masses direction would diminish. Even the focusing mechanism, which would subtly shift the position of the eyepiece would eventually wear out. But an eyepiece itself, having no mechanical parts, was expected to last the lifetime of a telescope. Given the proper care, of course.

“That’s right.”

“Well, what about the replacement?” Swan asked, his voice the very pitch of derisiveness. He was referring, of course, to the replacement part that they both knew full well Ryabchikov had included in his bequest. Mark had no answer for the accusatory question. “The replacement too?” Swan said, shocked.

“Look Eliot, I’ve been running a public observatory here,” Mark lied. Swan would not likely know that it had been twenty years since he had closed the facility to the public and the explanation seemed to placate him.

“This,” Swan said in chiding tone, “Is what you get for putting your valuables in the hands of amateurs.”

Mark had no choice but to agree. “I can see your point.”

There was once again a long pause as Swan thought the situation over. When he did speak again, he seemed to have found his sympathy.

“And I suppose there is no one around to craft a replacement, correct?”

“Even if I had the specifications, which I don’t, the trade has been dead for decades.”

Swan sighed again, this time acknowledging

“I have to have my man in New Jersey locate the part. I can’t promise I have it.”

Mark knew for a fact that Swan was absolutely certain that he still had the part. He was the kind of man who would never misplace a thing. Fastidious to the very last.

“I understand,” said Mark, helplessly.

“I will call you again in a few days, once I’ve got it in my hands.”

“Okay. It was good to ta–”

Swan hung up.

Mark slowly set the receiver on the hook and looked down at Margot. She was watching him carefully, having listened to his end of the conversation. When the corners of Mark’s mouth began to raise into a smile, the girl balled her hands into fists pumped her elbows back forcefully.

“Yes!” she shouted.

* * * *

The routine by which Margot and Mark tended to live their mornings was now entirely disrupted. The barrage of phone calls, more than Margot had come to expect inside of an entire week, that had kept Mark at attention sucked away the usual rhythm of the their exchanges. But even if the phone had not rung even once, the converging events of the near future, the big reveal of Mark’s condition after his subsequent visit to the neurologist and the long hoped-for return to function of the great glass eye looming over them in the next room that was promised when Swan had left his belligerently appalled message on their machine the night before, haunted their separate and collective thoughts in such a way as to make normal life impossible, no matter how badly Mark wanted to fake it.

And so, for the remainder of that morning and well into the afternoon, the two moved around one another in their speech in a manner of that almost resembled two people at odds. No direct questions were asked and no internal thoughts were revealed. There was a general and continuous economy of surface-level exchanges presented in a veneer of giddy relief. If Mark was supposed to be perfectly healthy, a presence of strength and stability in his niece’s world, then he would damn well make sure that it was the part he would play. He had no time to feel sorry for himself, least of all now, standing on the verge of restoring his laboratory to working order and providing Margot with the work space she needed to nourish her interest. And, of course, he had no more deep-seated desire than to get his own eye back to the glass. In the two years that he had spent discouraged, his desire to discover ruined by thirty years of futility and disaster, Margot’s burning interest had been enough to reignite his own passion and encourage him to once again bite on the nail. It now seemed that Swan, despite their long-standing differences, was willing to help Mark to this end. He felt as though he had no right to wallow in pity. But, if the neurologist did give him dire news after their visit tomorrow, the knowledge that he would have no choice but to explain the situation to his niece lingered in his mind at all times, paling the joy of his conversation with Swan that might have otherwise shown with brilliance.

At the same time, Margot was experiencing a very similar plight. She knew full well how much retrieving the eyepiece meant to her uncle and how intensely comforting of must have been to him to have received a positive reaction from his old companion. She also knew that the man would be torn now, between that comfort and the dread and panic that comes with a shocking diagnosis. In this situation, Margot felt it of the utmost importance not to tip the balance of emotion in favor of fear and dismay. Therefore, she did her best to hide from Mark the fact that she was aware of his predicament. This proved to be not so difficult. Mark’s own distractedness was painfully noticeable and it took little effort for Margot to hide her feelings. Even if she had outwardly emoted, she thought, Mark would be hard pressed to notice in his current state. And in this way, the two delicately side-stepping on another’s feelings, the day passed.

It was that evening, just as the large summer sun was beginning to deepen its hue upon its final descent, Mark, already cracking the ice from the tray into the plastic freezer bin and refilling it with water to ensure an ample supply for that night, remembered an offer he had made to Margot a few days before.

“I was just thinking, kiddo. I was going to give you a rundown of the observatory before…” He trailed off and slid the water-filled ice tray into the freezer, thoughts of what had happened to interrupt the plan to show his niece his workspace filling his mind. An image of the doughy doctor squinting at the bean-sized grayish shadow resting behind his nose flashing before him.

“Before we got into that wreck?” Margot finished the sentence for him, reprieving him of the responsibility of any more thoughts of the day before yesterday.

Mark shook the negativity out his mind, but it had already left a stain when called to the anterior of his thoughts. He sighed deeply, knowing that he would need a drink sooner rather than later. He looked down to Margot with an apologetic expression on his face.

“Yes, before the wreck,” He said, not yet moving to the cabinet for a tumbler. “Still interested?”

Margot smiled. “Of course! I’ve only asked you a million times!”

“Okay then. Let’s go ahead and that then,” said Mark.

When Margot turned to leave through the kitchen door, Mark held back momentarily to pour himself a drink. Margot stopped in the kitchen door way and watched Mark as he fished in the cupboard for a glass. She was silent, but Mark felt her eyes on him nevertheless. He tried his best to ignore it, though, and continued to fill his glass with ice and had unscrewed the top of a fresh bottle of Cutty Sark when his shoulders suddenly sagged and he looked back to his niece. She was watching him intently, a black expression on her face. Their eyes met for a moment while the bottle in Mark’s hand hovered above its target. Mark’s eyes were soft and his lips pouted slightly. He looked to be wordlessly asking for forgiveness and understanding. The look lasted only a moment until Sebastion, suddenly hungry for attention, jumped from the window sill where he had been perched, stepped to the empty space of linoleum between the them, and began to twist on his back and purr loudly. Margot’s eyes turn downward to the cat and Mark poured his drink.

* * * *

In the presence of the telescope, towering above him like the blinded Polyphemus, all thoughts of cancer vanished from Mark’s mind. The machine’s very existence soothed him and the knowledge that soon he would be able to once again spend his evenings here on the platform at the narrowed end with his eye locked on the infinite. The great hulking thing stood motionless, aimed at the same coordinates Mark had been viewing on that night nearly two years before when he had heard to news of his brother and niece and lost control of himself. He ran his hand slowly along the steel body of the device, his breath shallow as he did so as if it were some beast that might be awakened.

“We’ll need to clean and lubricate her,” Mark said quietly. Margot, who was still on the floor below the metal platform, standing in the same spot where the eyepiece had met its ruin, was craning her neck up to see if she could make out to what Mark might be referring. Unable to see, from her lowered vantage point, the specific parts her uncle might be indicating, Margot loped up the four steel stairs of the platform to join him.

“Clean and lubricate what?” she said, looking around Mark’s shoulder to get a look at what he was doing.

“The drive,” he said, throwing an arm to out to indicate the system of colossal cogs, pistons, and arms on which the hulking mass rested.

As he gestured towards the drive, he kept his eyes on the body of the scope itself directly in front of him, ashamed to look down. The drive’s parts had become caked with dust and Mark realized that this irresponsible lapse in care had taken place because of his own childish sense of defeat. He had, for thirty years, thought of the telescope not as a tool, but of an extension of his own self. A part of his own body. Or, perhaps he and the telescope were both equal parts of the same larger sensory entity. The telescope was the eye, the organ that collected the light and channeled it to him. And he was the mind — he collected those images broadcast to him by the eye and made sense of them, reacted to them. This, he thought, would make the eyepiece, which translated those collected lights into a language that the mind could make sense of, the optic nerve. Yes, the had severed his optic nerve, and therefore lost his sight, but did the eye not still require care? Does a blind man not wince when sand is thrown into his eye? The machine, useless or not, was still a part of him and he felt a powerful disgrace for having neglected it.

“Well, why don’t we get started?” Margot said with earnest. “What do we need?”

“I have everything we need. It’s in that locker over by the door.” Mark had turned away from the telescope now, encouraged by his niece’s industriousness, and was motioning with his chin to the locker. He looked down at the mechanics of the drive and sighed. “I guess we might as well get at it.”

“Will you show me how it works when we finish?”

Mark hadn’t actually considered this yet. If they actually did finish the cleaning and maintenance of the drive and get the system into operational order, then he would be left with no reason not to change the bearing of the great thing. However, the idea of changing the coordinates, of capturing the light from another random patch of the universe, without being able to actually see the images that were entering through the large lens on the heavy end of the telescope was maddening. In the past, the changing of the telescope’s direction was for Mark an event that never failed to raise in him a child’s sense of excitement and anticipation. The thought that when he put his eye to the piece after settling the lens on a fresh corner of space, something wholly new and unobserved might be waiting for him there had never faded for him. Even after the years of frustration had ground him down, that first moment on new coordinates had never lost its magic. The telescope had been designed and built before electric parts had come into fashion and the drive’s mechanism was still manually operated. When Mark would turn those two wheels that changed the direction on the X and Y axes respectively, the feeling of excitement would build in him.

Tonight, after they had finished their cleaning, and after all of the parts of the drive were properly lubricated and ready again to be used, and after he demonstrated to Margot how to turn the large metal guiding wheels, and after the new coordinates had been assumed and they telescope looked up into that new, mysterious corner of the universe, nothing would happen. There would be no climactic moment. The blind eye would be turned in its socket but the mind would remain unable to see.

The thought sickened him slightly but he took heart knowing that somewhere thousands of miles away, sitting nearly forgotten in a warehouse, the donor organ waited to be retrieved and then the operation could be performed that would restore sight. For two years he had tried everything in his power to keep the thought of once again living that perfect moment when he first looked into an unexplored region out of his mind. But the specter of Ryabchikov, visiting him in his dreams, had haunted him relentlessly, seemingly telling him that giving up on his quest for discovery was not an option –- that he would have to swallow his pride and his years of disappointment and do what had to be done to continue his quest. And now, having finally mustered the courage, with the help of his niece, to re-launch his campaign to paint his name in the stars.

“Of course I will, kiddo,” Mark said, placing on hand affectionately on Margot’s shoulder. “Let’s get to work.”

* * * *

There was a whirring of some strange engine followed by loud, dramatic banging noises as Mark rested on his back in the tube. These noises were only the more dramatic against a backdrop of a more constant high-frequency pitch. A band of light climbed slowly up and down Mark’s body, making him imagine for a moment that he was trapped inside of a Xerox machine. He laughed at the thought.

“You’ll need to lie still, Mr. Parrish,” said the voice on the loudspeaker. It was Dr. Carns, the practice’s junior neurologist.

In a small room adjacent to the larger one containing the MRI which surrounded Mark, the doctor was leaning over a technician whose name Mark had already forgotten and speaking into a stationary microphone as he carefully reviewed the images that were displayed on the monitor. “We’ll be finished in just a few seconds,” he said.

That morning Mark had awoken very early, sliced some fruit for Margot, written a note, and left for Houston before she had emerged from her room. He had suspected that she would sleep in, having stayed up much later than she was accustomed while working in the observatory, and he was happy to be able to leave without having to lie to her again about the exact nature of his trip. It was true, he would be meeting with an insurance agent that afternoon and probably be collecting a check for the value of his totaled truck, but he had failed to mention that he would also be visiting this clinic for blood work and a scan. He felt as though there was no reason to involve her at this stage of the diagnosis. Obviously he knew that he would have no option but to level with the girl were the results to come back positive in ten days’ time. But for the time being, he would try his best to keep her blissfully ignorant. Things outside of these test results were looking up, after all.

He tried to lay as still as he could, but his head was spinning. The disorienting nature of the machine was augmented by the wooziness that he felt after having had a liter of blood drawn not an hour before. Ten days, he thought. Ten more days of not knowing what to think. The idea sickened him. Why did it have to happen now? Now, when he was on the brink of returning to his life’s work, when a discovery stood so proximal, just outside of his reach. He felt the sudden urge to weep, but when the tears started to build in him, he felt the clunks and vibrations of the tube suddenly cease. The high-frequency pitch that had rung in his ear for the thirty minutes he had been lying in his back began to die away. With a jerk, the bed underneath him began to move slowly in the direction of his feet, carrying his supine body out of the machine coffin and back into the offices of the neurologist. He choked back his oncoming tears and prepared to sit up.

When the stretcher portion of the machine had extended fully from the mouth, and Mark’s head was clear, he began to posture up. A wave of unexpected and focused nausea set upon him then and the doctor and the technician, who were reentering the room, rushed to his bedside to steady him.

“Whoa. Take it slow, Mr. Parrish,” said the doctor. “The MRI can make you pretty dizzy. Just lay back for a second.”

Mark did as the doctor instructed, easing back first onto his elbows and then completely onto his back again. He breathed in long steady streams through his nose and after a moment, the nausea passed. He opened his eyes and saw that the technician was holding out a paper cup of water. Mark rose slowly to a sitting position, took the water, and drank it greedily. When he had drained the cup, he handed it back to the technician.

“Maybe we should get you something to eat,” suggested the technician, a young man with a hairline well beyond his years.

“No. No, I’m fine,” said Mark, throwing his legs over the edge of the raised platform. He placed his right hand on the back of his neck and began to twist his head slowly in various directions. “I just –- I just had a really unsettling thought. Is there a phone around here I could use?”

“Sure,” said the doctor, exchanging a sideways glance with the balding technician. “There’s one in my office. Is everything alright, Mr. Parrish?”

“Everything is fine. I just need to call my niece.”

* * * *

That morning, a little after eleven, Margot Parrish had awakened to find herself alone in the observatory home in Victoria. Alone, that is, except for the cat who had roused her by purring loudly and alternating pushing his claw-tipped paws gently into her stomach. He had missed his regular feeding time by more than two hours and he was not shy about letting Margot know this. When she finally made her way from bed, she had gone about her normal routine. She had first visited the restroom, then, still in her pajamas, she had walked down the hall, through the living room, and into the kitchen. On the counter, she had found a note from Mark:

Morning, kiddo!

I had to head to Houston today to deal with the truck. You were up late, so I didn’t want to wake you. There’s some fruit cut up in the fridge. I’ll be home around four or five.

– Mark

She had read the note twice before the sense of outrage began to settle over her.

“He left without me!” Margot cried out loud. Sebastion, who was still waiting for her to open a can of food, tilted his head curiously.

In the nearly two years since Margot had come to live in Victoria with her uncle, this morning marked the only occasion that she could remember when he had left her alone without first consulting her about it. She had, in all previous instances, been invited to join Mark any time he left their home. She had only a few times opted to stay at home alone, and then only because of the novelty. Mark had, on those occasions, been outwardly concerned with leaving a girl Margot’s age alone by herself, saying that there was likely some law against it, but Margot had, as she always did, utilized her calm reason to convince Mark to leave without her. And on those occasions, three by Margot’s recollection, Mark had not only consulted her, but had only gone as far as Victoria, and had returned within the hour. Today, he had left her alone without even offering her a chance to come along and, on top of that, had left her alone pretty much all day. What’s more, Margot knew that Mark had left before she had awoken solely because he was afraid to face her –- afraid to share with her his fears and concerns. Although she could not say exactly why, she had found herself feeling deeply insulted after reading Mark’s note. She’d crumpled the lined yellow paper furiously and thrown it overhand pitch style towards the corner.

About an hour later, still wearing her pajamas, Margot sat on the center of the couch, here legs crossed around a newly opened bottle of Glen Livet. Behind her, on the back of the couch, Sebastion lay stretched out, his stomach full of cold cuts. Margot was sitting facing the television which she had turned on only a moment before sitting down. The program that had appeared slowly on the old screen as she took her seat and began to tear the foil around the cap of the bottle was a expose of the life of Diana the Princess of Wales. Margot paid the television no attention, as she prepared herself to act on her inexplicable impulse. Now, she took the bottle from between her legs, twisted the cap free, and slowly began to move the neck towards her mouth, her eyes clamped tightly shut.

The phone rang. Margot opened her eyes and saw that the bottle had almost reached her lips. Startled, she lowered the bottle slowly until it rested again between her crossed legs. She reached towards the phone with her left hand and answered just as the third ring began.

“Hello?”

“Margot?”

“Hello, Mark.”

“Is everything okay?”

Margot’s brow furrowed with an immense irritation. Supposing everything wasn’t okay? Supposing something had gone terribly wrong? She found herself wishing then that she had allowed the phone to continue ringing, had allowed the call to go the machine and let Mark be left in helpless worry in Houston.

“Everything’s fine, Mark.” Margot replied, no small amount of cynicism in her voice, her eyes steadily on the bottle resting in her lap.

“You sure?” Mark said. His voice sounded faint and distracted, as if he were falling asleep.

“Yes I’m sure,” Margot said defiantly. “Mark, why did you–“

“Okay,” Mark interrupted, “I just wanted to make sure you were okay. I’ll be home around five.”

“I know.”

Mark hung up. Margot stared blankly at the receiver in her hand for a few seconds until the dial tone struck up again. She slammed the receiver back down onto the cradle as hard as she could, causing Sebastion to leap distressed from his perch behind her and trot across the room where he watched her with a look of caution. Margot returned to her normal seated position, and after a moment, slammed her balled fists into the couch on either side of her.

“URRRGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHH!”

Sebastion lowered his head into a crouch with his ears pulled flat against his head. He watched Margot the way a wild animal might watch a recently erupted geyser, alert and perplexed. He saw a flush of color come into Margot’s face and a brim of frustrated tears formed around her eyes. When the girl suddenly lifted the bottle to her mouth and swigged back a long drag and finished gasping and sputtering, he decided he had seen enough and edged around the room into the kitchen.

Margot couldn’t believe how foul the Scotch tasted as she drank it. The harsh smoky, medicinal stuff burned her throat and the back of her nose when she swallowed and more than once she found herself on the verge of vomiting. She cried as she drank, but after about ten minutes and four or five struggling gulps, she felt the tension lift away from her. She felt aloof, removed from herself. She saw as her hands moved but felt them to be detached, independent of her. The drinking came more easily now too. Instead of gulping the liquor, she sipped carefully from the bottle and exhaled through her nose as she swallowed. She looked down at the bottle in her grasp and judged hazily that she must have drunk around a cup of the amber colored liquid now. She settled into her seat and looked around the room, enjoying the distorted perception that the alcohol was giving her.

Before long, she found herself fixated on the television. Not the television, exactly, but the woman’s face that kept appearing there. Margot had heard of Princess Di before. Over the last year and a half, her engagement and subsequent marriage to Prince Charles had made enough news that even in their relatively isolated household, the story had appeared more than once. At the time, Margot had a generally dismissive view of the subject, mentioning it only in the context of a banal pop culture reference. But now, seeing the princess on television, something about her grace and beauty hypnotized the girl. She watched transfixed as the announcer, a man with a stylized British accent, described the wardrobe of the princess, accompanied by images of Di herself standing next to the prince or waving to a crowd from a balcony, always splendidly dressed. Margot didn’t know how long she sat staring, mesmerized by the program, but before she knew it, the credits began to roll and the image on the screen was reduced to one side and a local news anchorman appeared on the opposite side describing quickly the gist of the evening’s stories.

Margot rose from her seat, set the bottle carefully on the coffee table, stood and, feeling the sudden reel in her step and walked unsteadily around the table and turned the television off. She stood for a moment with one hand on the television top steadying herself and then with a deep breath made her way back to her seat. As she reached forward to reclaim the bottle, she saw her reflection in the black convex of the television screen. Her hair hung down past her shoulders, long and uncombed. She sneered at the image when she thought of the elegance and style of the Diana. She sat back, sighed, and pulled long, steady swig from the bottle before setting it back down on the table. She stood again, still unsteady, and walked into the bathroom to find a pair of scissors.

* * * *

At about six that afternoon, Mark pulled the rental car into the parking space behind the observatory and killed the engine. He was terribly happy to be back at home, but he lingered in the driver’s seat for a while, listening as the motor’s cooling fan wheezed and watching his hands gripping the steering wheel.

He had left Houston about two hours before, after having met with the auto insurance agent. The agent had seemed to Mark to be unduly curt and even suspicious. He saw pretty immediately that if Trevor Daley had not also been there to expedite the process, curtailing the agent’s suspicions and providing the necessary police input on the situation, that the agent would have undoubtedly prolonged the case as much as possible. Again, Mark had counted himself lucky to have had met and to have been befriended by a person like Daley. Every attempt the agent made that afternoon to find a reason not write Mark a check then and there, Daley had been able to counter to the point that, by end of the first hour, the agent was ready to issue the payment just to escape the situation.

With the check issued –- for the underwhelming sum of four hundred and forty-five dollars -– and still several hours left before he had told Margot to expect him, Mark invited Trevor to a late lunch. He had initially agreed, which pleased Mark very much, as he wanted badly to discuss his misgivings about his experience with the MRI and the blood test with someone, but a radio call he had received as the two caravanned to a nearby diner derailed their plans and Mark found himself eating lunch alone with his thoughts. There at the counter of the drug store and sandwich shop, Mark had sat for two hours thinking about the possible outcomes of the tests and their respective likelihoods. He also thought about the way to best inform Margot about the results in each situation. He knew that that the longer he kept the information from her, the more upset she would be. He also thought about how intuitive the girl had become in recent months and realized that in the next ten days he would have to struggle to keep her from realizing that something in his world was amiss. It was a great convenience that Swan had called and reacted in, what seemed to him, a positive way to his request. It was, if nothing else, a great screen with which to distract Margot’s interests during this time of uncertainty. And just like that, after having spent the afternoon sitting idly on a stool, finishing his roast beef sandwich and Coca-Cola, his thoughts turned to Margot and the strange and daunting feeling that had overcome him that day and caused him the urgent need to call home and check after her safety. Thinking about it again, he could still not place where the feeling had come from or why. The more the he thought about it, the more he felt the feeling begin to creep back into him, until he had called over the waitress behind the counter, paid his check and left.

Mark got out of the car and, out of habit, peered up into the sky to look for signs of the evening’s cloud coverage. The sky was clear and Mark felt a pain of sadness knowing that he would not be able to spend the night in his observatory. He sighed heavily and entered the house through the back door which led into the kitchen.

When he entered, he had an instant and overwhelming feeling that something was not right.

“Margot?” he called out. “Hey, I’m home kiddo!” He waited for a response, but none came. He inched further into the kitchen and closed the door behind him. He looked around and at first glance, everything seemed to be in order, but as he was about to exit into the living room Sebastion darted between his legs and leapt onto the kitchen counter. Mark spun to look at the cat and when he did, he noticed that the door to the cabinet above the oven was ajar. His blood froze.

“Margot!” he yelled and rushed into the living room.

There he found the living room in typical order, but sitting on the coffee table, as obvious as a bullet wound, sat the quarter empty bottle of Scotch. Mark felt the air escape his lungs as he raised his hand to his mouth. His mind jammed with thousands of simultaneous and conflicting alarms. At the same instant, amongst those alarms, he felt confused as to how the bottle had made its way out the cabinet; violently angry that his niece had violated their trust; immensely disappointed in himself for his irresponsibility and failure as a guardian; hyper-alerted to the possible presence of a home intruder and sickened by what that might mean; a faint sense of admiration that Margot had been able to drink so much; and finally, insane with desperate worry for Margot’s well-being.

As quickly as he could move, he dashed through the living room, craning his neck as he went to look behind the couch, down the hall towards Margot’s room. When he reached her door, he burst through it without a split-second of hesitation.

“MARGOT!” he cried, but the room was empty.

His eyes shot around the room frantically but there was nothing to see aside from an unmade bed. The sense of sick desperation was building in him as if his own life, and not the life of his niece, was in danger. He turned and left Margot’s door open and rushed into the observatory at the end of the hall. Barreling through the door, he found this area, too, unoccupied. Still he called out and walked quickly in a circle around the room’s gigantic centerpiece, looking into every possible corner that a girl might fit. When he had made his way around to the door again, he felt his breathing begin to labor. The thought suddenly occurred to him that he might not find her here at all -– that someone might have taken her. He tried to clear his head as he slammed open the door to his own bedroom and again found nothing. Tensing himself for the worst possible outcome, he came finally to the bathroom, which he had passed when he had run through the hall the first time, because the light was off and the door was slightly open. When he opened the door though, one deep dread was replaced instantly by another. There was Margot, still in the building. But the condition he found her in baffled him.

Margot was laying in the empty bathtub unconscious. She was wearing her pajamas. The shower curtain and rod had been pulled down and was hanging around her at a disastrous angle. In her right hand, still threaded around her thumb and fingers, was a pair of scissors. Everywhere in the small room was hair. The sink across from the tub was covered in hair. The floor was covered. All over Margot’s pajamas clinging clumps of her hair. The hair on her head, though, had been cropped inches from the scalp with almost no regard to precision. Upon taking in the scene, Mark froze. For a brief second, Mark could not understand what he was seeing and could not react. He stood in the doorway frozen, his mouth hanging open in utter shock, his heart hammering in his chest like depth charges. But when Margot smacked her lips together, ran her tongue around her chapped lips and twisted in the tub into a more comfortable position, Mark saw plainly that the girl was unharmed and knew what had happened.

He walked slowly into the bathroom and fell to his knees at the edge of the tub. With one hand, he carefully took the scissors from the girl’s hand so that she would not accidentally hurt herself, and with the other he pulled the translucent plastic shower curtain away from her so that he could lift her easily from where she lay sprawled. He tossed the scissors into the sink behind him, slid one elbow under the girl’s knees and the other behind her back. With a deep grunt, he lifted himself to one knee and then stood, cradling the limp girl in his arms. Sensing she was unsteady, the otherwise inert figure through her outside arm around Mark’s neck, pulled him close, and moaned senselessly.

“Shhh,” whispered Mark as used his toe to pull open the bathroom door. “I’m just taking you to bed.”

Mark crossed the hall and used his knee to open the door to Margot’s room. He lumbered across the room and finally lowered the girl gently on to her own, still unmade, bed. Margot curled immediately into the fetal position and pulled arm fulls of comforter into her face and chest. Mark stood over her for a moment, still trying to catch his breath from the scare. After a time, he started to walk out of the room, but turned before he reached the door, returned to the bed side, and began to roll the girl’s limp frame around on the bed, checking her for signs of cuts or broken bones. He grabbed her by the chin and with his other hand checked her scalp for cuts or abrasions. Margot, meanwhile, held her arms outright and whined, struggling against the confusing affront. After Mark had rearranged Margot’s position on the bed several times and had inspected every area that didn’t embarrass him to inspect, he finally found his heart rate begin to settle. He pulled the comforter free from the grasp of stringy girl with the chaotically hewn hair and, after finding the corners, flipped it outward and spread it over his niece. The moment the comforter settled against her, though, Margot again grasped it wildly and twisted it against her frame. Mark shook his head and, between the relief that Margot was uninjured, her amusing drunken convulsions against the bed clothes, and her ridiculous new hair cut, he couldn’t help but smile. Mark raised his palm to his mouth, kissed it and then lowered it slowly until it pressed against Margot’s forehead. He turned again to leave.

“Mark?” Margot said weakly. Mark turned to find the girl’s eyes opened slightly. He could not tell if she was still asleep or not, and so he didn’t answer. He simply crossed his arms at his chest and stood silently watching her.

“What did they say Mark?” Margot said after a few seconds, her voice fading very quickly back into sleep.

“What did who say?” Mark asked, crouching down to the bedside, genuinely confused by what the girl might mean. “Margot?”

Margot rolled onto her stomach as she spoke again and because of this her already faint noises were almost entirely obscured, but Mark felt nearly certain that Margot had replied to his question. Her answer, Mark was sure, had been, “The doctors.”

* * * *

That night, for the first time in her young life, it had been Margot who had dreamed of the cosmos. In her dream, she found herself sitting on the top of a high, grassy hill. The warm night breeze blew lightly around her. Her bare toes dug into the cool, wet grass. Above her, the expanse of the Milky Way filled the entirety of the sky in every direction. Visibility was perfect, completely unobscured by ambient light or cloud coverage. Next to her on the hill, Sebastion was seated, his eyes also on the dome of lights above. Margot laid back against the gentle slope of the hill and let the universe fill every corner of her vision. At first, the lights moved in the slow, crawling pace from one edge of the sky to the other, the way they always had and always would. But as she watched, the movement of the stars increased in speed, slowly at first, but eventually the galaxy around her moved so quickly that the lights smeared, leaving long trails in their paths. Somehow, though, Margot knew that the rotation of the Earth on its axis had not sped, but the universe itself had decided to speed through its eternal cycle. She knew also, that this was just for her. She watched in consummate awe as the lights of all of the points of the universe flashed before her, until, the crushing beauty bringing tears to her eyes, she could take no more and looked away.

She awoke with a gasp in her bed. Her eyes burned as if they were filled with some fine dust, and her head pulsed like a beating heart, pumping fresh waves of pain with each beat. It was daylight again, and she looked around her bed confused. She could not remember how she had gotten in her bed and, trying, could not remember much of the previous evening. An image of the whiskey bottle flashed in Margot’s mind and with it came a violent turn of her stomach. She had to struggle not to vomit, but afterwards, she felt a keen sickness waiting just behind each breath. She cupped her face in her palms, lamenting her decision to spite Mark by drinking the liquor. She had already deduced that Mark had come home and, finding her a drunken mess, seen her to sleep. Above the sickness and throbbing pain, Margot felt an overpowering sense of shame gathering over her like a storm cell.

Margot realized that she could hear Mark talking in the living room, and tried to quiet her thoughts to listen to him. He was talking louder than normal and there was a combative quality to his voice that alarmed her right away. Still, she could not make out clearly what he was saying. She wondered to herself who he might be talking to. Surely no one had actually come to their home. He would be on the phone. Her first thought was that he might be arguing with the auto insurance agency. She knew that he had left the morning before to see to, amongst other things, the insurance settlement on the truck. She could not remember speaking to him about this after he returned, and thinking now, she deemed it highly unlikely that their conversation, if indeed that had had one last night, would have regarded the progress of the insurance claim. So it seemed possible, likely even, that the matter had not been resolved and that Mark was currently at odds with a stubborn member of an insurance staff. This notion was dismissed when Mark spoke loudly enough for Margot to be able to make out what he was saying.

“I have a child here. I can’t just fly up there!” Mark was hissing at someone. At Swan.

The certainty struck her before she even began to calculate the possibilities. She heard in his voice that Mark was speaking to someone that he knew very well. The familiarity shone through, even against the showing of temper. Margot pulled herself from bed to join Mark in the living room, to offer her moral support to his argument, but when she did, she noticed that her pillows and comforter were covered in hundreds of tiny black spots. Confused, she leaned close to bed to examine the spots in the sunlight. She saw right away that the spots were tiny hair clippings and for a moment she was bewildered. Then a jumbled recollection of the previous night entered her mind. Margot stiffened in place and her hands moved slowly from the sheets of the bed to her scalp.

Although in many ways, Margot Parrish was atypical of a girl on the verge of turning thirteen, her reflex upon realizing what she had done to her hair the night before was perfectly typical. The scream she released was not dampened by her nausea. Neither was it deadened by the throbbing in her head or the weakness of her body. Margot screamed a scream of pure, uninhibited shock. She was still screaming when Mark slammed through her door, his face twisted with fear.

“What is it?” said Mark, crossing the room in bounds and taking her by the shoulders and spinning her to face him. “What’s wrong?”

Margot looked at her uncle, still stunned by what she had found. She was completely overwhelmed by everything. The pain, the nausea, the shock, left her monosyllabic.

“My –- my hair.” she sputtered.

Mark released his grip on the girl’s shoulders and took a step back. He was panting as he looked her up and down. Eventually, he rested his hands on his hips and his face relaxed from its panic and, for a brief moment, it looked like he would laugh.

“Serves you right,” he said smartly. He turned and began to walk out of the room. Margot stood with her hands still grasping her mangled coiffure, her chest expanding and contracting wildly.

“What!” she screamed, watching Mark’s back disappear around the corner. Mark stopped, peeked his head around the corner again, shrugged, and continued back into the living room. Margot stood, incredulous to the point rage, but with no target with which to direct it. She was realizing that she had, after all, done this to herself. She lowered her hands to her sides, closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing. Somewhat more calm, she followed after Mark.

When she got into the living room, she found Mark exiting the kitchen holding a steaming cup of coffee. Margot stopped and tried to think of something to say, and to her surprise, Mark held the cup out to her. She looked at it, confused. He might as well have been handing her a chainsaw. She turned her confused gaze up to him for an explanation.

“You can’t have one without the other.” Mark said sternly and, seeing that girl still did not understand, added, “Trust me, it’ll help.”

Margot took the warm mug and looked into it dubiously. Wordlessly, she shuffled her way over to the couch and found a seat, taking extra care not to spill any of the puzzling black liquid tasked to her.

“We have to talk,” Mark announced.

This was no surprise to Margot. She recalled clearly now her decision to delve into Mark’s whiskey and remembered knowing, even then, that she would have to face a stern lecture as a result. She steeled herself now, the sense of anger and rebellion that had driven her forward the day before, having abandoned her now. She would be mindful not to trust that feeling too freely in the future –- she was not keen on being talked into a crime and then being left in the lurch when the punishments were being dispensed.

“We’ve got to fly to Canada tomorrow,” said Mark.

Staring up from her seat, both hands wrapped around her mug, Margot did not at first process her uncle’s bizarre statement. She had expected him to say something about his feelings of disappointment, so this sentence regarding international travel did not immediately register. When it did, she could only think of one thing to say.

“What?”

“Eliot wants to see me before he hands over the eyepiece. He’s making arrangements for us to leave tomorrow to visit him in the Northern Territories.”

Mark had explained the situation as clearly as he could, but when he saw that Margot, who was sitting on the couch with her mouth hanging open, could not grasp exactly why this was a necessity, something that she had said a few days before came into his mind.

“Any port in a storm, kiddo.”

* * * *

Published in: on July 31, 2011 at 3:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Inner Circle

Benjamin’s father, a Representitive for the State of Illinois, shot himself through the ear in 1933. Benjamin was twelve years old.

His mother raised him and his younger brothers alone,suffering the ordeal of their upbringing with an unwavering austerity and veiled bitterness. Of her late husband she never spoke, except to bless his name when he was mentioned by a visitor or store clerk. Benjamin though, who had been favored by his father amongst his brothers, thought often of the man.

His memories of his father were dominated by the afternoons spent at Tannen’s Barbershop. Often his father had brought him there to have his hair cut. Meanwhile, his father would sit around a card table and smoke cigars with the eight orten other men. These men, to whom Benjamin was regularly introduced, were always men of extraordinary position.

Son, this is your father’s friend Mr. Tucci. He works with the Union. It’s a pleasure to meet you sir. Judge Tate, pleased to meet you sir. Secretary Webster, how are you sir?

When, at the age of fourteen, Benjamin asked his mother why she never took him to Tannen’s to have his hair cut, she replied with a derisive laugh and told him simply that they didn’t belong there anymore and that those men had gotten what they had wanted from them. No more on the topic could be coaxed from her nor did he dare try. He had begun to understand then that those men were more than just figures of public importance, but men of savage and unwholesome power. As he grew, the forbidden place lingered always on the edges of his thoughts, as if it were calling to him. And he was frightened.

It was the spring of 1946, Benjamin returned home from his tour in the South Pacific, his body and mind scarred and hardened by the unspeakable things that he had experienced there. He came back a hero of his community, decorated for his valor, but sick in his heart from the things that he had done. With his own brothers, being six and eight years younger, Benjamin could no longer relate. His mother regarded him with with a steely reserve, seeing his father in him now. He felt alien and unwelcome in his childhood home. But the War had left him hard and callous, so the tragedy of this fizzled off of him like water dripped onto a hot skillet.

He knew another home, one that had been waiting for him always.

When he walked through the doors of Tannen’s, the men at that table turned their heads from their game to regard him. And as he approached the table, they murmured amongst themselves. Of course, he was recognized immediately, by most from his childhood and others from the pictures that had been posted in the town’s newspaper of the War hero returned.

Benjamin stopped a few feet from the table and looked each man, on by one, in the eyes.

“Can I play?”, he asked evenly.

The men around the table all turned to see how one heavyset man, whose back was against the shop’s far wall, would react. The man took a lit cigar from his mouth thoughtfully and nodded once to the man nearest Benjamin. An empty chair was fetched and Benjamin sat. And as the cards were dealt, silence settled over the room like a contract.

Published in: Uncategorized on July 12, 2011 at 4:40 am  Leave a Comment  

Das Gaspenst Im Der Maschine

Dietrich Müller, AKA Das Gaspenst, the cyber-terrorist and Germany’s public enemy number one, had eluded theBundeskriminalamt successfuly for eleven months after he released the catastrphic Versteinern Wurm that crippled the government’s digital infastructure. Eventually though, in a standoff at his bunker compound that ended with a firefight which saw him shot repeatedly and paralyzed from the neck down, Müller was captured.

The virus itself was a significant accomplishment in design, in that no solution for it was ever found. Once infected with the Wurm, a computer’s hardware itself became locked and all information contained therein was trapped, permanently inaccessible. And although the system could still be activated, and no data was actually lost, all functions became unresponsive. In essence, the infected machine wasn’t killed, but comatose, petrified.

After a recovery that left him immobile, Müller was tried and found guilty of multiple charges and sentenced to thirty years in the Justizvollzugsanstalt TegelThere he stayed, under the care of the prison doctors, until in March of 2021, when Müller was 35 years old, he was called upon by two dark-suited men. What these men described to Müller, as he sat staring at them blandly from his mechanized chair, struck him as a joke. What they said, essentially, was that the German government had broken through to the next plain of science. A human personality, they said, could now be effectively digitalized. A human mind, a human soul, a humanhimself, could could be downloaded into a robotic host. This process, which still required a volunteer to test, would theoretically prolong life indefinitely. Müller, they had decided, because of his tremendous technological accumen and miserable living conditions, made a perfect candidate. Once Müller became convinced that the men were in fact serious, he volunteered immediately.

The experiment proved a stunning success and not two months after being approached in prison, Müller found himself inhabiting a body made of latex, metal and carbon fiber. His new host felt no pain and never became tired. Information was also unlimited now to Müller, whose shell was equipped with a powerful wireless internet connection. He was still a prisoner, though. The scientists who had performed the procedure had installed in the cybernetic frame a mechanism which gave them remote control. But, his endless access to information made learning for Müller exponential, and soon he found his liberation. He isolated a programming misstep and was able to deactivate the remote control, at which time he escaped custody and dissapeared.

During the months that followed, Müller, known then only as Das Gaspenst, became a figure of utmost public distress, an arch villain of the free world. The cyber-terrorist, now manifest in his medium, inflicted upon the world’s population a wrath like some abysmal plague. He had become a gunless warlord, the god of chaos and destruction. There was nowhere then that his name was not spoken in fear and disgust. For almost a year, his power and insanity knew no limits.

Then a simple plan was proposed and after some debate, was put into effect: A ludicrously obvious trap, a publicly advertised, massive financial transaction poisoned with a copy of Müller’s own Versteinern Wurm. It was his own hubris, seeing himself now as omniscient, an untouchable diety of technology, that allowed Müller to step so easily into the ambush.

His physical frame was never located, but somewhere it remains, humming through its atomic power supply eternally. And there remains Müller, immobilized, enraged, insane with hate, trapped in the core of the machine.

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 4:39 am  Leave a Comment  

The Haze

It felt as though we had been driving for years.

The sun hung above and ahead of us as we pushed westward across the desert. Against the horizon before us, the short jagged line of sandstone hills rose up like a row of mangled teeth. Around us in all directions the wasteland stretched unrelenting, the ground twisted and bent in the heat haze, as if some mysterious, toxic vapor were venting from below the surface.

“Let me know when you see the sign for 85.” Hector said, his eyes steadily on the endless road ahead of us.

Somehow it felt as though he had told me this before, but I couldn’t remember when he had said it. I tried to remember, but could not. I looked at Hector. He was sitting upright and alert, his hands grasping the steering wheel with some kind of strange desperation. There were no sounds between us except for our breathing, labored against the heat. I leaned against the passenger door of the truck, feeling the vibration of the pavement in my chest and jaw. I looked out into the distance in the direction that must have been north and watched the oily steam-like lines rising from the baking sand and creosotes. Overhead, the sky loomed a near perfect white. It felt as though several hours passed like this.

Eventually, I turned my head back around to look again at Hector. He was seated in exactly the same way, his eyes focused on the vanishing point ahead of us with eerie determination. He seemed hypnotized by the road, in some kind of inexplicable and malevolent trance. I looked ahead and watched as the parallel edges of the greyish asphalt converged perpetually in the distance, in the perfect center of my vision. The sun hung motionless in the sky. I couldn’t say how much time had passed.

Was I supposed to be doing something?

Watching for something?

I leaned my head against the heated glass to my right and let my eyes close. Sleep came to me then, but in my dreams I saw only the highway stretched out ceaselessly before us and the blistered flats around us in all directions. And in the dream there was another thing. Something sinister, something I could not place, hid around us just beyond the horizon. I could feel its malignance pressing us, twisting us in its spell.

I awoke with a start, sweat boiling from my body. Hector was still in his tensed position, alert and wild-eyed. The knuckles of his hands were bleached with tension as he grasped at the wheel. Beads of sweat poured down his brow and neck. Ahead of us and above, the loathsome sun blasted us from its fixed position. I leaned against the passenger’s door, panting and dazed. In the distance, the chalky desert surface smeared and refracted in the heat radiation.

“Let me know when you see the sign for 85.” Hector said.

I couldn’t remember where I’d heard those words before.

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 4:37 am  Leave a Comment  

Or Trade It All For…

“Hey, wake up.”

It was Lily. She was leaning over my bed, talking in a loud whisper as she shook my shoulder. I raised myself up to my elbows.

“What time is it?”

“I don’t know. Listen, get dressed.”

“Wha- Why?”

“I need you to see something.”

Her voice was strangely serious, alarming. I rubbed the sleep from my eyes and, because I trusted her, threw back the covers and stood. In the moonlight through the open window I thought I saw her tremble. I wanted to ask more questions, to know what was going, but her eyes caught the light and I saw the pleading there. I got dressed quickly and quietly.

We climbed down the ivy-strangled lattice into the cool September night.

“Get your bike. We’re going back to my place.”

“My bike’s in the garage.”

She sighed with impatience. She knew that I couldn’t get my bike from the garage without potentially waking my parents. We’d have to walk the four blocks. Without a word, she let her bike fall to its side in the dewey grass of my yard.

She was silent during the walk, but I could tell that something had shaken her. I was afraid to ask.

Lily’s father had died in Afghanistan and her mother drank too much, so we didn’t have to exercise the same caution at her house as we did at mine. We entered through the front door and walked up the stairs to her room.

She turned on her lights and shut the door behind us. Her room looked the same as always, but on the floor in the center of the carpet sat a strange round box. It was white, about ten inches deep and about eighteen inches across. Lily sat on the floor next to it. I did the same.

I held my breath as she opened the lid. I could tell that whatever was in the round box made her terrbily nervous.

She removed the lid slowly and we both craned our heads over.

It was empty.

“Wow. Cool.”

I rolled my eyes and started to stand. I didn’t see the humor in her trick.

“No, Ben, look.”

Her eyes had grown large and wild. Very slowly, she reached into the box. She kept reaching until her entire arm disappeared into it and she was pressing her chest against the box’s edge.

I gaped.

She pulled her arm free and I stared, awe struck.

“I found it in the attic.”

Her expression was still deadly serious.

I didn’t ask – I leaned forward and pushed my hand into the box. It struck the bottom with too much force and jammed my fingers. I winced and withdrew my hand.

“Okay, how’d you do it?”

“I don’t know.”

I saw in her frightened eyes that she was serious. We sat together in silence for a long time staring at the mystery. After a while, she leaned forward on her knees and pushed both hands into the box. Her brow furrowed like she were trying to pick a lock.

“What’s down there?”

I was scared now. I could see her shoulders working and knew that her arms were busy searching.

“I can’t feel anything.”

She closed her eyes and I saw her swallow hard.

“I needed someone to be here, Ben.”

I sat, watching her stupidly.

“Be here for – ?”

Before I could finish, she pushed her head into the void and her whole body slid in after and vanished.

“LILY!!”, I screamed.

Panicked, I grabbed up the box.

It was empty.

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 4:36 am  Leave a Comment  

The Discovery: Part 5

On a pleasant September day in Princeton, New Jersey, Mark Parrish, beginning his second year of graduate studies, walked through Cannon Green with his mentor, Professor Evgeni Ryabchikov. The professor walked with both hands behind his back like a rabbi, explaining to Mark the history of the site in his rhythmic, Russian-tinted speech. Mark walked half a pace behind the diminutive old man, with his gnarled white beard and unfashionable brown blazer, and found himself only able to half listen. After spending the War years completing his Master’s degree at the University of Chicago — Mark was drafted in 1941 but was diagnosed with fallen arches and labeled 4-F, unfit for military service — Mark had returned home when his parents were asphyxiated by a gas leak. Mark’s thoughts now dwelled entirely on the subject of astronomy. The professor’s anecdote, a story that explained that the cannons buried nose-down in the courtyard were in this state to prevent prank theft at the hands of their Rutgers rivals, barely touched Mark’s perception. He was perpetually distracted by the art being drawn out of him in the nights spent in the Peyton Observatory, by the agonizing and profound possibilities of it all. Even now, at the age of twenty-six, the obsession that would define Mark’s life for naerly forty years had already rooted itself firmly into his psyche. All other interests, distractions as Mark regarded them, escaped like the tiny flotsam on the gel of one’s eye into the periphery of Mark’s vision, unable to be brought into focus, settling in their lack of importance, ignored in favor of the bigger picture beyond.

Ryabchikov noticed after walking a while that he was not getting through to his favorite pupil. He stopped near a bench and sat. Mark nearly walked past him, his mind clearly lost in space, but Ryabchikov reached out and caught him by the elbow, momentarily dragging the young man back into reality. He sat on the bench next to the professor. Around them, the sparse Saturday campus population milled casually. The April sun shone down and blasted away the fog and rain that had lingered over the campus for the past few months and the scent of hemlocks settled over the courtyard. A pair of girls, likely freshmen, clad in athletic garb, badminton rackets over their shoulders like rifles, walked past the bench talking gingerly to each other. Ryabchikov watched them as they passed, taking in their beauty and their general joie de vivre. As they walked away, he noticed that Mark, a man in the prime of his youth, had allowed them to pass unnoticed. He shook his head.

“So, what’s so wrong with those two?” he said, once again catching Mark daydreaming about the nighttime.

“Huh?” he replied, honestly having no idea what the old man was talking about. Ryabchikov nodded once in the direction of the retreating girls and Mark had to turn around on the bench to see them. He looked on for a while, until the turned a corner and disappeared from sight, and then he turned again to face his professor. “Nothing that I can see,” he said with a shrug.

Ryabchikov narrowed his eyes at the young man but decided that interfering in a student’s love life, even a student that had become a loyal companion like Mark Parrish, was probably ill-advised. He shrugged himself, physically suggesting that the topic be voided. The two men, one old and magnificently accomplished, the other young and infinitely promising, sat silently as the awkwardness of what had been suggested in the short exchange evaporated. By the time the professor spoke again, Mark had to, once again, pull himself away from celestial fantasies.

“Listen Mark,” Ryabchikov began, his Ural drawl thickening his speech like flour in gravy, “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Mark sensed that the conversation was about to veer into serious matters, so he focused, forcing the images of distant, swirling galaxies out of his mind. He straightened and met Ryabchikov’s eyes, demonstrating that the professor had his attention. Ryabchikov laced his fingers together and rested his elbows on his knees, a posture that Mark would eventually adopt.

“I’m sure you’ve heard that William is leaving us.”

William Hannity, a stocky British transplant, was Ryabchikov’s senior lab assistant. He had completed Princeton’s graduate program several years before under the tutelage of the professor, and had stayed on staff because of the professional distinction associated with working along side the venerated astrologer and physicist. Recently, though, William had been courted by the NSCA, which was the nation’s precursor to NASA, and, after some convincing, had decided to take a high-paying position with the agency. Mark had heard all of this only a few days before, but the news seemed almost trivial to him in that he assumed Ryabchikov would select either Thomas Russell or Sam Birnbaum, both of whom would receive their doctorates at this semester’s end, to replace him. The fact that Ryabchikov had broached this topic in this semi-private manner could mean only one thing, and Mark’s recognition showed immediately on his face in the form of a sincere and grateful smile. He, however, held his tongue in order to not appear presumptuous. The professor did not let him down, though.

“I’d like you to consider replacing him, Mark.”

Mark, displaying a humility that he only barely possessed, asked Ryabchikov why Russell or Birnbaum would not make a better candidate.

“Look,” Ryabchikov said, waving off Mark’s suggestion. “Those guys are talented scientists. There’s no doubt about it. But you, Mark, you’re special. I’ve known it since I saw you at work in Chicago.”

* * * *

What the elderly professor was referring to when he mentioned Chicago had occurred two years before in 1944 when Ryabchikov had come to the University of Chicago as a guest lecturer. At the time, Mark was a junior in the department of astronomy and astrophysics and during the lecture, he had interrupted repeatedly with tedious questions, to the aggravation of everyone involved. Everyone, that is, except Ryabchikov, the man to whom the questions were directed, who found the line of inquiry both insightful and refreshingly challenging. Mark, for his part, scribbled the professor’s answers down furiously and waited, focused and absolutely intrigued as the lesson continued.

Ryabchikov had actually become aware of Mark before the lecture took place. William Brighton, the University of Chicago’s senior professor of physics and aquaintance of Ryabchikov’s had welcomed in to town that day and the two had eaten lunch together. Over two plates of corned beef hash, Brighton had had mentioned that one of his students, a peculiar young man from Texas, had been developing a theory on partical expansion and the behavior of positrons across the void of space. Parrish, as Brighton referred to him, had apparently exhausted the professor’s patience.

“Whach out for this one, Evgeni.” Brighton had warned as they withdrew their respective wallets to pay for the other’s meal. “He’ll take the wind from your sails if you let him.”

The breif summary of this young man’s work of partical theory had intrigued Ryabchikov instead of alarming him. The scope of that type of study was advanced, of course, but more than that, an interest such as this displayed a curiosity for the mechanics of the universe that shone the strongest in those most gifted. Even if the young man’s theories amount to nothing, the old man reasoned to himself, his apparent thirst for the knowledge was to Ryabchikov a sign. This, as well as the discovery that this Parrish was majoring in Astronomy and not Physics, had intrigued the old man to Mark’s existance before the lecture ever began. Once the lecture did begin, it did not take long for Ryabchikov to realize to which student his colleague had been referring.

After the lecture had concluded Mark gathered his notes and was preparing to leave the amphitheater when, Ryabchikov, who was surrounded by a few members of the department’s faculty, shouldered through them and approached Mark’s seat in the front row and asked would he mind waiting here for a few moments while he finished his discussion with the Chicago staff. Mark was stunned and, as an answer, simply replaced himself in his seat. The professor nodded at him and returned to the cluster of men who were now all stealing glances at Mark from the corner of their eyes. After the third or forth time that this happened, Mark became self-conscious and began to mindlessly sort his notes as a distraction.

Before too long, and after a thorough shaking of every hand, Ryabchikov had dispersed the crowd and returned to the podium where he collected his own notes and stuffed them somewhat haphazardly into his faded leather briefcase. Afterwards, he reached into his vest pocket and found a pipe and a small pouch of tobacco and began to load one into the other. Mark watched from his seat as the old man finished the task and replaced the tobacco.

* * * *

“I would be honored, Professor Ryabchikov.” Mark was saying, seated on the bench in front of Whig Hall in the late summer of 1946.

Ryabchikov smiled, the creases of his ancient face shifting, directing outward from the center. He patted Mark once on the back with a laugh.

“Excellent, excellent!” he exclaimed. “That really is great news.” Ryabchikov rose from his seat with this and once again placed his arms behind back. Mark followed suit and the two men began to walk together again along the circular path that surrounded the Green. Mark was alight with excitement at the professor’s decision. For him, the opportunity to spend as much time as possible learning from Ryabchikov was an absolute priority, seconded only by maintaining high marks in the program’s other classes as to remain in good standing. However, only a moment after standing and following Ryabchikov, Mark found himself once again lost in thought. This time, though, it was not merely thoughts of hidden quasars begging to be identified and named, but of what this move could mean for his career in the long term. In the astrological community, he would now be identified not as a student of the great Russian astrophysicist but as a close associate, deserving of a role in his ongoing work. The offer was priceless, the honor acute. Mark walked a pace back wearing an absurd grin and when Ryabchikov spoke again, Mark had to ask him to repeat himself.

“There is something else,” the professor repeated, a somber tone entering his voice, “That I wish to speak to you about.”

Mark was, understandably, filled with concern. The problems facing Ryabchikov were, in Mark’s mind, now his own. He quickened his step so that he was now walking next to the old man, an action with metaphorical implications that did not occur to Mark at the time.

“What is it, professor?” Mark urged.

Ryabchikov stopped in place and turned to face Mark directly. Mark felt a wave of relief when he saw in the professor’s expression that what he was going to say was not likely to be a matter of life and death. It seemed, in fact, that whatever this new caveat was, the professor was excited about it.

“We’re going to have some new blood this week. A new student.” Ryabchikov said. And by his body language, Mark saw that this was a matter of some importance to him. But how so? The graduate program that the professor ran was, in most senses, like any other. Students would join or transfer out almost every semester. Since Mark had come the previous spring, there had been seven new graduate students joining them, while two had transferred away, another quit for personal reasons, and five who had left after graduation. That Ryabchikov had such a vested interested in this new student could mean only one thing: there was something very special about him. The conclusion that Mark had come to so quickly did not sit well. Pangs of jealousy had already begun to form, and the professor had not yet even verified his suspicion, although he would when he spoke again.

“His name is Eliot Swan,” Ryabchikov said distractedly, as if he were trying to accurately remember a host of details before he finished his thought.

Of course, Mark had already heard of the young scientific prodigy. Swan was famous in their field for having not only completed his Masters degree at the age of twenty-three, but for having already etched his name into the discoverer’s column more than once. Swan’s father, the physicist and entrepreneur, had won the Nobel Prize only the year before. The family itself was hugely influential in the scientific world, and now Ryabchikov had recruited their golden child. The wind that had so recently filled Mark’s sails after being offered the job of senior assistant to the professor was now sucked away. He felt as though he had been bloodlet. Ryabchikov was still talking about Swan, but for Mark the words were muted and faint. He was certain that this young challenger, this wunderkind, was intent on swooping in to Mark’s life to steal from him his rightful glory. Right away the bitterness swelled.

“Mark,” Ryabchikov had placed a hand on both of Mark’s shoulders and was looking up at him from his significant height disadvantage. “I need you to help me with this.”

Mark blinked at the old man confusedly.

“What do they say? Take him in your wings.” The old man’s pale blue eyes were locked on Mark, pleading with him to take part in this effort, to support him in what Mark knew to be in the best interest of their program. The resentment that Mark felt now, as irrational as it may have been, was so complete that he felt sick. Ryabchikov, who had gone so many steps out of his way to convince Mark to come to New Jersey and be a part of his team, had forsaken him for a younger, even more promising student after only a single year. He had been traded in for this year’s model before he had ever had a chance to showcase his skills.

This was, of course, not what Ryabchikov was doing and somewhere inside of the most logical pit of Mark’s mind, he knew it. This was the professor’s obligation –- to make the Princeton program the very best that it could be, to surround himself and all of those involved with the very best in the field. To this thought Mark grabbed hold desperately, the way a drowning man would cling to any piece of his destroyed ship that happened to float within reach though around him in all directions he sensed an endless and indifferent sea.

Mark steeled himself and nodded his head to acknowledge the professor’s request. The old man smiled, delighted to have forged this new union. He gave Mark’s shoulders a bracing and nodded his own head in approval before releasing him and turning to continue walking, leaving Mark standing in Cannon Green bewildered. Mark repeated to himself now that this situation was for the best and that he was only being selfish with his reaction.

* * * *

When classes began again the following Monday, William had already departed for Hampton, Virginia and the Langley Research Center. Mark fell very smoothly into his new role. He had, after all, spent more time in the observatory than anyone, including Ryabchikov himself, since his arrival the previous autumn. The first year graduate students, having only arrived a few weeks before, assumed that Mark, with his diminishing hair line and collected presence, was a member of the school’s faculty. He was perfectly at home in the position. Where before he had associated very little with the rest of the student body, even those in his program, and instead chose to spend his time either alone or with Ryabchikov, he now found himself taking a primary role in all discussions and being sought out for help and counsel. In the world of Ivy League science, where, due to his blue collar upbringing and average means, Mark had felt himself an outsider since arriving, he had achieved a certain level of popularity. And after a quarter of a century where this had never been the case, Mark found, with the impetuousness of his youth, found it thrilling.

This euphoria, extending from Mark’s sensation of his importance on campus, was interrupted shortly after it began when, six weeks after the fall semester had begun, Eliot Swan made his first appearance at Princeton.

Swan’s debut in the astronomy department garnered from the staff a reaction that one might expect from Catholics visiting a weeping statue. He stepped onto campus followed by a reporter who was jamming a microphone into his face and biting off questions as quickly as he could manage. Mark and professor Ryabchikov happened to be walking the campus together at this time and intercepted Swan. The reporter, deducing Ryabchikov’s position, insisted that he be allowed to take pictures of Swan’s arrival. The photograph, captioned “Physics Prodigy Eliot Swan and Princeton Astrology Professor E. Ryabchikov” and accompanying article “A New Generation of Discovery” appeared the following day in the Newark Star-Ledger. Mark, although present in both the photograph and throughout the interview, was not mentioned.

The five professors of astrophysics and astronomy, all of the program’s staff save Ryabchikov, fawned over the young man, forgetting their professional selves in the wake of Swan’s obvious charisma and genius. His family’s celebrity, his own premature accomplishments, his refined features and his incomparable style, with tailor-fitted suits worn with a vest but without a jacket and sleeves rolled up his elbows, propelled Swan instantly to the status of campus celebrity. The ultra-exclusive Ivy Club courted him almost immediately upon his arrival. At Princeton everything came as easily to Eliot Swan as in every other facet of his life. He was sanctified by his worldly position and his uncompromised genetics. And Mark Parrish, with his middle-class, suburban Texas origins had been given the absurd assignment of mentoring this curiosity of success, this golden child.

Mark took on this task with no small amount of indignation. Swan, in all of his glorious splendor, was nothing more to Mark than an interloper, a Johnny-come-lately arrived to poison the well of his position. At every opportunity in the first few days after his arrival, Mark answered Swan’s questions or comments with his best thousand yard stare, while, in his mind, he shouted and panicked. His fear was not that Swan would supplant him as the figure to whom the dozen young men enrolled in the Princeton Astronomy Doctorate Program directed their concerns, but rather that he would replace him as the student, in the eyes of professor Ryabchikov, best suited to carry on and perpetuate the old man’s legacy. During these first few tentative interactions between the two young men, Mark armored himself against this fear with his cold animus.

None of this should suggest that Eliot Swan was ever anything less than polite to Mark. Quite the contrary. Upon his arrival, Swan was informed by Ryabchikov, who, to Mark’s everlasting relief, had proved unflappable in the face of the young man’s glamour, that he would be learning the ropes of the program from his senior assistant, Mark Parrish. Swan had taken these instructions at face value and had, despite Mark’s acidic demeanor, gone dutifully about the business of humbling himself and following carefully the advice that managed to leak through Mark’s clenched teeth.

It was through this diplomatic approach that Swan was eventually able to demonstrate to Mark that he had no intentions of being a threat. Swan’s character was, at this stage in his life, such that the challenge of winning the acceptance of everyone he encountered, from those that he considered social equals and mental inferiors to those that had the opposite qualities, for few proved his superior in either category, was of utmost relevance. Had he not been blessed with a miraculously talented scientific and mathematical mind, Swan surely could have found equal or perhaps even greater success in the field of politics. But as things were, this ability was just another amongst many that he could draw upon in order to ensure that he would never be left on the outside of any situation he wished to inhabit. And although Mark resisted mightily, fueled by the only slightly irrational fear of the other man’s talent, he too eventually relented and by the time the year 1947 verged on the brink, Mark Parrish and Eliot Swan worked together neatly and efficiently, the tethers of mutual respect binding them. Evgeni Ryabchikov, who had stood to one side with his arms crossed behind his back while this drama had played itself out, swelled with a hidden pride at what he had accomplished.

* * * *

Had Eliot Swan been born without his fantastic gift for physics and had instead chosen that other path to which he would have been suited, that of politics, perhaps he would have learned at this early age one of that latter practice’s most fundamental rules: You can’t please of the people all of the time.

His relationship with Mark, which through months of shared effort and comradery had grown into an unlikely friendship given Mark’s initial resistance, was made a subject of fun by those less tactful members of the Ivy Club. Swan had tried at first to bridge the two worlds, introducing Mark to club members on campus, advising him on fashion, and offering up generous appraisals.

For Mark, who had since childhood found himself on the outside looking in, the very essence of the exclusive society that was Ivy Club seemed at once an affront to his self-defining nature and a foolish distraction that would only serve to his attention away from where he felt it belonged –- in the observatory. The practical truth that, as Dale Carnagie had put it in his sensationally popular book, winning friends and influencing people could potentially pay huge dividends later in Mark’s life, never occurred to him. The members of the Club, despite being, by and large, the sons of wealthy men, were not simpletons to be dismissed as inconsequential. Had Mark realized this and relaxed his rigid will enough to make a proper impression, things may have turned out very differently for him. However, as proved to be the case many times throughout his life, Mark’s stubbornness got the better of him.

For the members of the Ivy Club, who adored Eliot Swan for his charm, his breeding, his brilliance, his compliance, for just about every trait an exclusive club could expect of a member, Swan’s insistence that Mark Parrish was a student worthy of their consideration puzzled them. When Mark happened to accompanying Swan on campus when he was approached by a Club member, he never failed to treat that member with awkward disdain. That Swan seemed amused by the homely Texan’s quixotic posturing became amongst that circle a running joke, for which Swan was constantly ribbed. Swan, always the ambassador, treated these japes indifferently. After all, the teasing brought with it an element of humility that, being a man with few short-comings, Swan wore like a badge of honor. The comments about his inexplicable friendship with the dopey Parrish served to humanize Swan, a service for which Swan was actually grateful, and so he accepted them in good humor even as his friendship with Mark grew. It wasn’t until Swan had been a member in good standing for almost a year and had easily earned the respect of even the most elitist of the Club’s members, when an upstart took the joke too far, that he finally reacted.

The incident, which occurred at one of the eating club’s Roundtable Dinners, happened like this:

Terrence Ames, a freshman inductee of the Ivy Club and the son of the billionaire, stood in a corner of the room with Eliot Swan and two other Club older members. The four young men, cocktails in hand, were gathered in a tight circle. One of the four, a senior by the name of Ben Reeves, was telling a joke about lesbians. When he spit out the punch line, “No, but I have a girlfriend that attends Wisconsin!” all four burst into laughter. Jim Green, the other fellow present, slapped Ben on the back as they laughed.

“If pharmaceuticals don’t work out for you, Benny,” Jim was saying through his laughter, “I foresee great success in pornography!”

“Yes, Ben,” said Swan coyly, gesturing with his glass. “I hear there’s great riches to be had in gay smut!” This comment brought a fresh round of laughter and caused Ben, a strapping athletic type, to wag his finger at the much smaller Swan, playfully indicating his physical superiority. All of this, though, was in good fun.

Ames, seeing his opportunity to make an impression, cleared his throat.

“Speaking of gay,” he smirked, immediately gaining the undivided attention of the group. “Did you hear the one about Mark Parrish?”

Ames had heard the other guys making their comments about Swan’s friend, and had seen the way that Swan had laughed them off in good humor, and he figured that this would be a good chance to endear himself to the group in the same way. His introduction to the joke caused the Ben and Jim to react as he had planned. Eliot only rolled his eyes and sipped from his drink.

“So it seems,” Ames began, sensing the timing of the joke, “That in the small Texas town that Parrish calls home, the sheriff had received several complaints about his unusual behavior.” He paused here for effect and to take in the anticipatory grins of the group. Swan only stood by passively, his lips pursed as if were watching someone do something very foolish. Ames continued.

“Well this sheriff, being the big bad gunslinger type that he is, jumps on his horse and rides out to Parrish’s… house?”

“Cabin!” Ben suggested.

“Wagon!” shouted Jim. This was met with nods of approval from Ben and Ames.

“Oh, brother,” moaned Swan, again rolling his eyes.

“Okay, so he rides out to Parrish’s wagon. And when he gets there, he finds Parrish wearing a dress. The sheriff jumps of his horse and, with a Western bravado, pulls out both of his revolvers and levels them at Parrish.” Ames bent slightly at the knees, lowered his shoulders, and leveled his index fingers at hip level towards Swan. “Alright you varmint!” Ames proceeded in an affected Texan drawl. “I’m giving you one hour to blow this town!”

Jim and Ben sensed the punch line already and were actively holding back laughter. Swan, who was not in the least bit amused by the direction the conversation had taken, shook his head silently. Ames had stopped again for effect, but now switched his posture to emulate Mark’s character in the joke, knees buckled towards one another, hands raised above his head as in surrender.

“’But sheriff,’ says Parrish.” Ames pulled back his lips slightly so that he wore a toothy grin as he delivered the punch line. “’The whole town? I’ll need at least two hours!’”

Not surprisingly, Jim, Ben, and Ames all exploded into laughter. Ben was actually so amused by the joke that his faced grew bright red and tears formed at the corners of his eyes. The three men were all so caught up in the hilarity, that it wasn’t until nearly a full minute later, when the laughter had finally subsided, that they noticed that Swan was still staring silently at Ames, his face also red, but not from laughter. When Jim saw this and settled himself, coughing nervously into his fist.

“Aw come on, Eliot,” said Jim. “It’s a joke. That’s all.”

Ames, who apparently didn’t know when to quit, added, “What’s the matter, Swan? Don’t you get it?”

Swan’s teeth were grinding in his mouth. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been so angry. It wasn’t just that the joke had been directed at a man whom he respected, whom he considered a friend, it was that the joke had stuck too close to home for his taste. Swan felt that he needed to put him in his place.

“No. What I don’t get,” Swan said carefully, his eyes still focused sharply on the underclassman, who found himself shrinking under the scrutiny. “Is how all of the money and opportunity in the world can’t afford some people a modicum of class.”

Jim and Ben both squirmed at the sudden uncomfortableness of the situation, but instinctively they both knew that Swan was right, that the joke and their reaction to it, despite how much they agreed with the content, was an episode unbecoming to men in their position. Ben broke the silence that followed Swan’s attack by putting an arm around his shoulder.

“Come on, Eliot,” he said, feigning joviality. “Let’s go find some classier people to joke with.”

He had to use a touch of force to pull Swan out of his venomous stare and direct him again towards the merriment of the social event occurring in the rest of the hall. Jim turned to follow them, but before he did, he gave Ames an apologetic shrug. Ames was left standing alone, with his drink in his hand and all of the blood emptied from his face, mortified at the embarrassment.

No one in the Ivy Club said much about Mark in Swan’s presence after that.

* * * *

Of the previous incident, Mark would die unaware –- both of the jokes that were made at his expense and of Swan’s eventual indignant outburst. I suppose that if Mark gave the Ivy Club and its goings-on much thought, the idea that he had been a regular character in their bluer comedy might have seemed almost automatic. He was, after all, at least as far as he considered it, the very antithesis of their club’s model member. Social expertise, so prized by the representatives of university eating clubs was so ludicrously inane to Mark that the disciples of that creed were no better to him than occultist Caribbean or cannibal tribes of the South Pacific. The pursuit of another’s approval, and the coinciding self-denial that went along with it, was blasphemy of Mark’s faith. That faith, the only Mark had ever known, existed only in the communion between a being and the universe. Its church was a domed room, its oracles steel cylinders. There, in the presence of everything holy, there was no approval or disapproval. There was no social status. There was only that one perfect communion, in which a being sacrificed the only thing that could really count as valuable -– the minutes and hours that make up one’s life –- and waited submissively for the universe to reveal its secrets, if it so desired. And because of his trust in this cannon, Mark thought little of the world outside of the walls the school’s observatory, the world where petty human affairs played themselves out so pointlessly. He wanted, so badly, to be absolutely devout to this philosophy, and entirely rebuke everything that could not be seen through a telescope’s eyepiece, but Mark was a human, and flawed, and the drama of this world would not leave him to his solitude. In the fall of nineteen-eighty, a year so distant to him now that Mark had not once even considered it, the human comedy from which he would have successfully hidden for many, many years would come crashing back into his world, when he would meet his orphaned niece. But a funny thing happened that would make Mark, at that distant time, consider the possibility that the absurdity of our shallow, fallible existence is not, as he had tried so desperately to believe, separate or independent from the paths of the stars around us. When Margot would enter the stage of his life, which for the many years proceeding it had been cleared of both dialogue and cast, another event which took place in this much earlier act would be referenced on the script pages to follow. And the characters with whom Mark had performed this scene in the summer of nineteen forty-nine, would retake the stage, bringing with them into Mark’s late act a brazen and undeniable humanity.

* * * *

Things proceeded well for Evgeni Ryabchikov’s astrology program at Princeton University in the years that followed the Second World War.

There was, as the Soviet Union began to make rumblings of conflict, a very brief speculation by the United States Department of the Interior as to his loyalties, but these were marginalized quickly when it was demonstrated that he had left Russia in nineteen seventeen to escape the Revolution and had severed his ties at that time. This, coupled with his value as a scientific asset, was enough to convince the suspicious government that he was not a risk. Just to appease any who might still postulate about his patriotism, Ryabchikov traveled to Washington to testify before the Senate, decrying the Soviet stranglehold on his homeland. After this, he and his students were left in relative peace.

His two most promising pupils –- Mark Parrish, an obsessive astronomer with seemingly no loves outside of his work, and Eliot Swan, the brilliant second-generation scientist –- had, after a rocky start, fallen into a comfortable pattern of work. At the end of the most recent term, Parrish had completed his doctorate but had stayed on as Ryabchikov’s assistant. Swan had entered second and final year at Princeton.

This, Ryabchikov felt, was the approaching sunset of his life. He welcomed it like a man returning home after a lifetime of wandering. All of the arrangements had been made, all of his goals realized, and all of his joys experienced. He felt that life could be no more fully completed or mastered and so, reveling in satisfaction, he left his office one Friday evening in October of nineteen forty-nine, prepared to leave the world behind.

But, despite his well-earned self-satisfaction, the universe was not yet satisfied with him. The day following, a Saturday, something stirred the elderly man from his home. He called a driver and within half an hour, at about quarter to one in the morning, he found himself at the Peyton Observatory. Once there, he placed calls to Parrish and Swan, but only Swan answered. (Mark, through his tears the following day, would explain to Ryabchikov that he had gone for a walk and therefore not been at home to receive the call. It was a regret that would haunt him for many years.) When Swan arrived, the two men took redirected the telescope to coordinates that the elderly man provided, seeming to generate them internally, or entirely at random. Baffled by Ryabchikov’s actions, Swan remained silent and did as he was directed, entering new coordinates as they were explained to him, fetching the old Russian tea, and scribbling notes. That morning, an hour before dawn, Evgeni Ryabchikov, his eye to the glass, suddenly slapped both of his hands over his mouth. Swan, who was beginning to fade in the late hour, jumped from his seat at the Russian’s bidding and found himself looking through the eyepiece at what he instantly recognized as a comet.

For the next several weeks, the astronomy team of Princeton tracked Ryabchikov’s comet, discovering after some time that the rock’s trajectory suggested an ellipse. A speed and arch were determined, again by Ryabchikov, and fifty-one days after it was first sighted, it was determined to be a short term comet, which would pass within a proximity to Earth close enough to view with an amateur telescope every thirty-seven or thirty-eight years.

Asked many times by the scientific media how he knew where to look for this late discovery, Ryabchikov could only shrug. The truth was that he didn’t know. The force that had pulled him from his recliner in his home that night and urged him to the observatory, was a mysterious to him as all of those things that remained hidden in the universe, waiting agelessly to be discovered. His only explanation, which he shared with Eliot Swan as he gaped breathlessly into the telescope in the first moments after the comet’s identification, was that he felt as though the universe wanted to be discovered and that men like himself, and indeed Swan and Parrish, were given this talent so that the cosmos would have agents amongst humanity with which to reveal itself. This was not exactly what Ryabchikov said to Swan, but rather the meaning the young man gathered from what he did say. His exact words would have been lost, had Swan not repeated them drunkenly to Mark Parrish on a bitter December night later that year.

After the tumult of the discovery finally faded, and the still unnamed comet had passed at its closest to Earth, Ryabchikov settled himself down again into his recliner, intent on finishing what he had started the night when he had been roused by the galaxies. With thoughts that pleased him greatly -– a young woman he had once been married to named Ayna, a week as a young man when he and his father had hunted and shot a tiger that had been poaching his grandfather’s sheep, his first discovery through a telescope and of his most recent –- Ryabchikov poured himself a shot of cognac, drank it, and with immeasurable peace, died.

* * * *

Through the endless void of space, the comet crashed mindlessly. Around there was nothing for millions and millions of miles in all directions, save the thin veil of dust and ions left in its wake. The things that could had been witnessed, were a sentient being to have somehow traveled aboard this enormous, asymmetrical mountain of ice, dirt and ore, are unknowable. Its eons long voyage had gone unwitnessed, except perhaps in the brief moments when it happened to pass within a viewable range of some other rock that happened to be inhabited, confusing and awing those creatures existing there. If, before the Earth year of nineteen hundred and forty-nine, this lifeless, hurtling matter had been witnessed by a conscious being, that was also unknowable. And when it came within the view of a member of the most advanced simian species occupying that topaz orb in that aforementioned year, the comet could not speak on its own behalf and reveal its secrets to him. In all probability, the comet soared, after being witnessed, perhaps for the first time after millions of millions of years, wholly indifferent to the event. It thundered silently, ever forward, ever outward, ever onward, from the point, now lost forever, from which it had been originally set into motion. The year itself, designated arbitrarily by those primitive inhabitants of that wet world, would hold no relevance to the icy rocket. Eternity itself passed in front of the comet’s face at every microsecond. And every microsecond was in turn one billion eternities. The history of its travels, wherein for some hundreds of millions of years it might become trapped in an orbit after being pulled near enough to a star and in anther untold epoch’s vault unheeded in any random direction, was unwritten. Directions, existing in the infinite in the void of the universe, would also prove meaningless to a hypothetical hitchhiker on that celestial carriage. The always expanding space around would warp and negate those previously held points of reference. All that existed on the comet’s endless frozen passage was momentum. Its original momentum, sparked when in ages past it had been shattered free of some larger piece of matter, had been lost a million times over as it passed near a star or planet, slowed as its direction was reoriented, and then sling-shotted forward again with a renewed thrust. Its imaginary passenger, were he to live to experience indefinitely, would be able to segment the timeless journey by these moments alone, having no other gauge from which to calculate the experience. And in that randomly labeled moment when the comet passed within about fifty-five million miles of Earth, and was redirected by the mass of the various bodies of our solar system, the charge of the matter that made of the comet’s form changed.And seeing this, Evgeni Ryabchikov, who had only moments before been ready to allow his own charge to pass into the infinite, also felt renewed. He, acting as an agent of the universe, directed the eyes of the insignificant blue sphere’s populace towards the astral pilgrim. But after so many days, which to the rocketing comet was both all time and none at all, when the grip of the Earth’s gravity had been shrugged off by the comet’s new momentum, and Ryabchikov felt his life completed and vacated his organic frame, there was likely not a blink of recognition in that dead matter.

But who can say how much of this is absolute truth and how much of it is speculative hearsay? Are not all objects, and indeed all matter, made of the same components? And is it not conjectured by many of our species’ best minds that all of these components are so tightly interwoven that any change anywhere in the never-ending fabric of space is felt everywhere and through all time? That all matter, all neutrons and electrons, all quarks and antimatter, all neutrinos and all time that exists, has existed, and will ever exist, are in fact one in the same? If this is the case, as it may very well be, then perhaps those things that appear to us lifeless are in actuality only another phase of life. Do they not, at their very base, possess all of the same materials from which we are built? And when this possibility is considered, does it not also become feasible that when Ryabchikov laid his eyes on that seemingly lifeless matter barreling through space, that their charges were intermingled? And what of his entire charge when his life functions ended? If all energy everywhere vibrates in unison, with the same mysterious rhythms, is it then possible that the combination that was called Evgeni Ryabchikov continued, after his body’s passing, to experience that universal vibration? And then, if that transfer is indeed possible, could our charges, our specific combinations, have privilege to exist in the entirety of the universe, unheeded by time and distance?

The answers to these mysteries, like the ancient vistas viewable from aboard that ancient comet, are unknowable. I like to think, though, that when Ryabchikov passed away, he found himself in command of his energy, able to bound freely over the scope of the infinite. And furthermore, I have no doubt that he would choose, finding himself at this advantage, to circle and soar with that comet that had come to signal the end of his Earthly days, seeing for himself the wonders and miracles that it held secret, until all time and space was reborn.

* * * *

On the nineteenth of December of nineteen forty-nine, Mark Parrish found himself seated in a small office in the back of the New Martyr Orthodox Church of Trenton. To his right sat Eliot Swan. Across from the two young men, seated behind an expansive oak desk, a small man with large round glasses, who went by the name of Fillipov, was sorting papers carefully. Standing behind the lawyer, Bishop Vitsin, a massively broad and stern-faced man whose office the other three men were using for the reading of Evgeni Ryabchikov’s will, had one hand rested on small lawyer’s shoulder. It was not a threatening gesture, despite the bishop’s size and lawyer’s lack thereof, but one of solace. Although Mark and Eliot had only met these men a few hours before, when they arrived at the memorial service, it became automatically apparent that they were both longtime friends of their dearly departed professor. Mark sat numb, the suddenness of the previous four days catching up to him now as Fillipov prepared to recite his mentor’s dying wishes.

When Mark was informed by one of the astronomy program’s physics professors that Ryabchikov had passed away at his home over the weekend, he processed the information silently. Several other professors, knowing that Mark had been close to Ryabchikov, suggested, as they saw Mark continue to go about his work over the course of that Monday, that he take a day off to mourn. But something had been displaced in Mark with the news. The natural reaction of grief, or perhaps even bitter sadness considering the father figure that Ryabchikov had been to Mark after his actual father’s death a few years before, never surfaced. Instead, Mark faced the news with a sort of grimacing and hard-nosed acceptance. On the outside, he remained the stoic and hardworking devotee to astronomy that he had been before the news of the professor’s death reached him, and on the inside, his emotional state was too convoluted for him to understand. And instead of understanding, he opted to ignore these emotions. But when, that Thursday, he attended the memorial service in Trenton, he finally allowed himself to feel his own pain.

Eliot and Mark had decided to drive to Trenton together in Eliot’s Buick. On the way, there was little talking between them, except for a brief conversation in which Eliot had asked Mark if he had known that Ryabchikov had attended a church. When asked, Mark wanted badly to answer that he had, that he knew many things about the man that Eliot did not, that no one else did, but this way not the case. He was as stunned to learn that Ryabchikov had been a lifelong practicing Orthodox Christian as everyone else. Of course, the professor spoke rarely of himself and when he did, it was usually a story from his childhood or of actresses that he found attractive. Mostly, Ryabchikov spoke to Mark, Eliot and all of those at Princeton about astronomy. Because of this, Mark found himself caught with the mistaken impression that the man had been as one-dimensional and obsessed with the science as he himself. When, during the service, surrounded by many of the deceased friends, Mark heard the description of Ryabchikov as Bishop Vitsin had known him, as a passionate servant of God and member of the community, an awareness of his own foolishness washed over him. Ryabchikov’s perceived obsession with his craft had formed in Mark’s imagination, he now realized, due to two reasons. First, the man’s accolades. Mark had always simply assumed that any man who had been as successful in his field as Ryabchikov had been must be, as Mark himself endeavored so tirelessly to be, devoutly committed. The realization that Ryabchikov had in fact lived a storied life, in which astronomy was but one of his great passions, shook Mark, who only the one. The man’s life had been compartmentalized in a way that Mark’s would never be. At church, the man had concentrated on those things spiritual. While with his community, he had made that the center of his efforts and been the most upstanding and productive citizen he could be. And while at Princeton, his job, the had concentrated on being the professor. He had been, it now seemed, equally earnest in all endeavors, taking each task as seriously as the others. The other reason that Mark had always pictured his teacher to be as single-minded about the pursuit of astronomy has he himself was this: Mark needed him to be. He needed Ryabchikov to represent a happy and successful man who had utilized the fixation Mark now felt to a good end. And he needed to believe that Ryabchikov had needed him in the same way, another man with the shared symptom. He had thought that they had been kindred spirits, but now that felt so suddenly false. And Mark thought then that he had existed only to Ryabchikov as a character in but one portion of his life. He had spent so much time with Mark at Princeton, had encouraged him and inspired him because he was, after all, a teacher. That had been the man’s job and he had done it well. And it was this line of thought, this realization that perhaps the relationship between himself and the man they had all gathered here today to pay tribute had not been as mutual, as significant, as he’d always thought that brought forth his first tears since childhood.

Now, seated in the church’s back office, Mark had composed himself. He found himself embarrassed to have wept openly in front of Swan and wished now to be the model of composure so as to perhaps credit his emotional outburst during the ceremony to paying a proper respect to the departed. Swan had not cried. He had sat silently next to Mark while he sobbed, his face showing only the most subtle signs of dismay. Of course, Swan had not known Ryabchikov for as long as Mark had, but when, after the service had been completed, the two of them were approached by Fillipov and informed that they had been named beneficiaries in the deceased’s will, Mark realized immediately just how mistaken he had been in thinking that the professor had not found him to be an important part of his life, and he felt all the more foolish. And when he saw, upon arriving in the small wood-trimmed office, that he and Swan had been the only mourners out of amongst perhaps two hundred to be singled out for the reading of this will, he saw plainly just how infantile his selfish tears had been and he was ashamed of himself.

Swan was sitting next to him, his right leg crossed high above his left, smoking a cigarette thoughtfully as the lawyer began to read. Mark had his arms across his chest, numb to the situation, but vaguely curious. He knew that Ryabchikov had been a childless widower, and as he considered it, it seemed likely that any family, brothers or sisters, nieces or nephews, would still be living in Communist Russia. And considering the two nations’ strained relations as of late, he felt it highly dubious that Ryabchikov had been able to stay in touch with those he had left behind more thirty years before.

Through the cloud of these thoughts, Mark heard the bespectacled lawyer announce that Ryabchikov’s home, a comfortable, if not ordinary, two-story house outside of Trenton, was to be converted into an astronomy museum and learning center. This caused Mark to smile, despite the situation, and he turned his face into his shoulder so as to not seem entirely out of line. After another moment, in which Mark again drifted into his own thoughts, it was announced that half of Ryabchikov’s fortune, a staggeringly large sum of some three and a half million dollars, was to be left to the New Martyr Orthodox Church to be used, as he had phrased it in the will, “For all of those noble causes which the blessed Church deem critical.” At this, the Bishop smiled openly, taking no steps to hide it.

When the amount, which apparently represented Ryabchikov’s value in bonds, stock holdings, and personal savings, was read aloud, Mark could not help but gawk. The idea that the old man, who had lived so simply, had been so immensely valuable, had taken him aback. When he glanced at Swan, he saw that the surprise had registered on his face as well. They were both now listening intently to the reading. Of course, neither man felt a hint of greed. Swan had ample funds at his disposal, having been born into it, and Mark had respected the man so dearly that the idea of profiting from his death sickened him slightly. Still, as this circumstance proved to them both in that moment, it is physically impossible not to take an express interest when confronted with the idea of being presented with any part of a sum so great.

As it would turn out, the young men did not have long to wait. The remainder of Ryabchikov’s will was rather short and only featured two more endowments, one for the each of them.

“To Mr. Eliot Henry Swan, whose brilliance inspired me in my old age,” the will read. “I leave one of the two telescopes I purchased in Moscow in 1908, all of the replacement parts and tools associated with it, as well as the warehouse in which both telescopes are stored. Aside from the retail value of this instrument, which is sizable, it is my hope that you will find in it the intrinsic value that it had to me.”

After this section of the reading was finished, the two young men looked at one another, both knowing with certainty that Mark would be willed the other telescope. This, both men silently agreed, was a wonderful gift. Fillipov, the lawyer, paused to allow the men to acknowledge what had been read, removing his glasses and rubbing his eyes at the strain of the reading. When he set them back on his nose, he said, mostly directed toward himself, “Shall we continue?”

“To Mr. Mark Parrish, a man like a son to me,” the passage began, causing Mark to both elate and blush with embarrassment. “I leave the remaining telescope and all related equipment. It is my hope that with this tool, you will do as I have always suspected that you would and reach the greatest heights of our profession. Your determination and drive are nothing short of stirring, and it is my fondest wish for you to have every opportunity to succeed.”

The lawyer stopped here and turned over the page, causing Mark to believe that he had finished. He was overjoyed. Not by the gift of the telescope, although this pleased him tremendously, but by the words that Ryabchikov had endowed to him. He did not know it sitting there at that time, but those words would serve to motivate him for decades to come, pushing him forward in his pursuit for years in the face of maddening failure. Of course, Mark could not know that this would be his future. He, in this moment, was considering only his teacher’s praise. He was about to speak then, when the lawyer suddenly continued reading, now from a fresh page.

“To ensure this, I have also left you the remainder of my estate. At the time that I am writing this, this figure should be in the range of one and half million dollars. Use this money wisely, Mark, as I know you will.”

This is where the will ended. The lawyer flipped this final page, printed only with that paragraph over to ensure that he was not missing anything. Mark, meanwhile, had become quite lightheaded. Exactly how to react to what he had just heard escaped him. He felt vaguely as though the other men in the room were speaking to him directly now, but the cloud of his own thoughts, occupied by the benign voice of his departed mentor, had settled over him and the voices in the room around him were muted.

* * * *

Later that evening, having traveled back to Princeton with Swan in utter shock, Mark found himself seated on the stool at the viewing end of Peyton Hall’s main telescope. The observatory, and the entire building, was empty except for him and he had come here for that very reason. Swan, after arriving back at the school, had invited him to a small bar just off campus to, “Relish the bittersweet insanity of this life,” but Mark had refused. He needed solitude now –- to be wrapped in his armor of stars and feel the safety there. He was jarred by Ryabchikov’s will. More than that though, he was afraid. At the moment that the proclamation had been read, a few thoughts had occurred to him at once. The first, which brought him an indescribable level of happiness, had been the certainty that his mentor, the man whom he had reserved his deepest respect, had trusted him above all others. He had allowed this ecstasy to fulfill him at that moment, even as the other men in the room had congratulated him on his new found fortune. But while he reveled, a small black stain began to grow in the center of the perfect white succor. This second thought, growing in him from that point onward like a cancer had chased him into this hiding place now, in the secluded observation laboratory of an empty science building, was a toxic self-doubt. He realized, after his reverie, that the responsibility of meeting tremendous expectation now rested on him, and he bowed with insecurities.

Even though he was seated in the viewer’s seat, Mark was paying little attention to what he was seeing through the eyepiece. He had not bothered to record the coordinates which he was observing and even though he felt all the universe viewable from that room as familiar as his own bed, the tiny patch of space that he now watched could have been any. But Mark did not have it in him just then to take the task seriously. He needed the comfort of the view, of the routine. This was before Mark had learned to turn to liquor for solace. All he had was this work, and when he couldn’t work all he could think to do was go through the motions of it. And although here amongst the heavens he found a measure of peace, the malignant blight of his self-questioning had taken root.

Mark had been in the room alone for some time, how long he could not say, when Swan burst through the door. His suit, the same fitted black suit he had worn to Trenton that morning, was now creased and disheveled. His tie was loosed to the point of absurdity and his collar was open three buttons down. His hair, usually immaculate, had the same chaotic qualities of a police riot. His face was bright red and his eyes bloodshot.

When he entered the room, Mark got to his feet. Seeing this, Swan, expecting to have the room to himself for similar reasons, straightened. A large mischievous grin grew slowly on his drunken face and then suddenly, as if just realizing that he had forgotten something, he began to check his pockets urgently. After a moment, during which time Mark stood watching his associate silently, Swan found what he had been looking for in his jacket’s breast pocket and smiled again. He withdrew the flask from his jacket the way a child might present an exemplary report card to his father and then burst unexpectedly into song.

Drink! Drink! Drink! To eyes that are bright as stars when they’re shining on me!” Swan crooned, in his best impression of Mario Lanza, as he stumbled towards Mark, unscrewing the cap of the flask. Mark stood stiffly, not knowing what to make of his companion’s bizarre mood. When Swan had crossed the room, still singing at the top of his lungs, he wrapped one arm around Mark’s shoulder, pushed the flask into his hands and began swaying them both to the tempo of his song. Not knowing what else to do in this situation, Mark obediently took a pull of the drink, found it to be room temperature vodka, and nearly gagged.

“May those lips that are red and sweet, tonight with joy my own lips meet!” Swan let this line ring out and then, as it faded into the walls and space, he took his arm from Mark and turned to face him. “Why am I surprised to find you here?” he said, taking the flask back from Mark.

Mark turned from Swan, saying nothing, and looked through the slot around the edges of the telescope up into the starry night sky. Eliot Swan stepped forward and took a spot next to Mark and shared his small view of the megacosm.

“So,” he said, interrupting himself to take a swig, “You’re a wealthy man now, old fellow.” He tried to pass the flask back to Mark, but Mark waved it off. In truth, he thought that doing as his friend had done, drowning his melancholy, seemed like a terribly terrific idea, but he didn’t think he could stomach the warm vodka. Instead, to prove that he wasn’t being unfriendly with the refusal, he threw one of his own arms over Swan’s shoulder.

“Don’t remind me,” he said. After a lengthy quiet in which both men seemed to be working through their own thoughts, Mark spoke again. “How did he know, Eliot?”

“How’s ‘at?”

“Where to look. When to look. Didn’t you ever wonder?”

Swan made a low sound like a hum, then unscrewed the flask again and upended it. He held it to his mouth until it was emptied. When Mark had judged the flask to be about half-full and seeing Swan take all of the liquor at once surprised him. With the flask emptied, Swan carefully screwed the top back on and then, with some effort, slid it back into his jacket’s breast pocket. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve.

“When he called me,” he began, speaking slowly and taking great care to tell the story cohesively. “I thought he had gone crazy. I mean, it seemed insane. It was –- I don’t know, surprising. Did you ever knew, know, did you ever know him to work outside of his, uh, regular schedule?”

Mark shook his head at the question. Ryabchikov had been a stickler for consistency and Mark had been just as bewildered as Swan had apparently been to find that he had been compelled to leave his home and return to the school to work. Mark felt Swan slump slightly and, with the arm that he had around his shoulder, straightened him again.

“I asked him!” Swan was saying now, his tone like that of a man just remembering something. “When he found it, I asked him how he knew.” He began to slump again now and Mark strained to support his weight.

“What did he say?” Mark asked, really only trying to keep Swan awake now.

“He said,” Swan began, but bunched his brow when he tried to recall the exact words. “He said something, and I don’t understand it.”

Mark didn’t press him to finish. He only answered with a neutral, “Hm,” after which there was another long silence while they both, arm in arm, looked up into the stars.

“He said,” Swan announced suddenly, breaking the peaceful silence. It is those things that yet remain unseen that give us cause for sight.” He spoke the words slowly and carefully, making sure to correctly quote the man. When he finished, the words hung in the air like the fading note of a tuning fork.

Mark tried to wrap his mind around the meaning, but could not, not then at least. In fact, it would be another forty years before the meaning of the words yielded any revelations. So for the time being Mark simply chuckled.

Mark felt Swan growing heavy in his arm and began to shake him gently. He turned his face to find that Swan was crying now, apparently overpowered by the effects of the alcohol. He thought of the cot stashed in the room’s closet, used for researchers on overnight observations. Considering the hour, the distance to Swan’s apartment, and the man’s current condition, Mark decided the observatory would be the best place for Swan to sleep for the night.

“Why don’t you have a seat here, Eliot?” Mark suggested, indicating the stool. Swan, tears still rolling down his slender face, collapsed into the seat compliantly. “I’m going to set up a cot for you, buddy. I think you’ve had a long day.”

Mark crossed the room to the supply closet and pulled the string inside to light the uncovered bulb above. He saw the cot right away and wheeled it near the telescope as Swan watched groggily. He returned to the closet and looked amongst the shelves for a fresh set of linens, but gave after a minute or so when it became apparent that whoever had used the cot last had not thought to restock. Or perhaps, he thought, the used linens are still on the cot. He had forgotten to look as he had wheeled it across the large room’s marble floor. He clicked the light off again and shut the closet. Across the room, he found Swan standing again. He had unfolded the cot, which did in fact have linens, and removed his shoes and jacket. He was presently struggling to remove his tie. Mark walked to him and began to unwork the knot for him. Swan looked at him tenderly, pools of tears still clinging to his bottom eyelids.

“He wanted us to be… Partners,” Swan said hesitantly. “Thas why he sold us, I mean, that’s why he left us the telescopes. Why he left us both one.”

Mark was lightly amused by Swan’s drunken behavior, so he fed it.

“We are partners, Eliot. You know that. Now hold out your arms. Let’s get this shirt off of you before you ruin it.”

Swan blinked at the command as if he didn’t comprehend, so Mark took him by the wrists and pulled his arms forward.

“Hold them like that,” he ordered.

Mark worked the cuff buttons free quickly, then told Swan to untuck the shirt so that he could undo the buttons on the front. Swan attempted it but the result was less than perfect, pulling only the left side free of the belt. He was swaying noticeably now, so Mark untucked the shirt himself and began to work the buttons.

“I love you, Mark,” Swan said abruptly, almost shouting the words. Mark guffawed at the proclamation. He understood, of course. The emotional weight of the day, coupled with the booze, had left Swan comically sentimental. He would have to remember to remind Swan that he had said it tomorrow. But for now, he was only concerned with getting the man in the cot so he could get back to his viewing, back to his own thoughts.

“Aw shucks, Eliot,” Mark said, a dopey grin on his face as he fought back outright laughter and pulled the shirt over Swan’s shoulders. “I love you too.”

With his dress shirt off, Swan stood in his slacks, socks, and undershirt. His hair still crazed, his eyes puffy and reddened from the drinking and the tears. Mark took him by an elbow and lead him the few steps to the cot and then placed his hands on his shoulders to push him down onto it. When he did this, Swan reached forward suddenly, put his hands on Mark’s shoulders and pulled him close, kissing him passionately on the mouth.

Mark was too stunned to quickly react. He felt Swan’s lips pressed into his, his day old stubble scratching lightly against his chin. He breathed his after shave and tasted the vodka on his breath. And the truth was, Mark did love him. With his parents and now Ryabchikov gone, Swan was the only one left close enough to call a friend. And so the kiss did not disgust Mark. He did not feel the need to violently protest and, in a way, felt supremely happy that he was so cared for. But of physical pleasure, he felt none. The kiss failed to arouse in Mark any hints of lust or desire. And he knew instantly that he could never reciprocate Swan’s romantic love. He pushed him away gently.

“I think you need to call it a night, Eliot,” he said patiently, still half-dazed. Swan took a step back but stared directly at Mark with a look of pleading and expectation in his eyes. Mark, unable to look into the poor, confused eyes of his friend any longer, turned his attention back to the patch of stars above them. Swan, seeing that he had been refused, sank onto the cot bitterly, his eyes cast down in shame. After a moment, he slumped to his side and closed his eyes.

Mark stood in silence for a very long time. When he felt sure that Swan had fallen asleep, he pulled his legs up onto the cot so that he could sleep comfortably and left the observatory.

* * * *

On the fifteen minute walk from Peyton Hall back to his apartment, Mark thought about what had occurred since he had awakened that morning. He had gone to see his mentor and friend out of this world, been made a rich man in the process, and now discovered through an impulsive action the secret homosexuality of his closest remaining friend. It was all very disorienting.

Not that he begrudged Swan the kiss. He felt the better for having relieved the man, happy that this secret, certainly a source of personal shame, had been allowed to find the surface and present itself. He could only imagine the release that the admittance, as drunken as it may have been, must have provided for Swan. He saw Eliot trapped in all the country clubs and fraternities, dwelling within them his whole life, all the time afraid to reveal his true self in the face of certain apostasy. The thought saddened Mark and he felt an enriched caring for the man, now coupled with a new found empathy. He now saw that Swan, despite his ease at appearing otherwise, was every bit the outsider that he himself was. More so, even. Mark had heard stories of fairies taking severe beatings and being forced into the life of a pariah. Mark had always felt isolated, but it had never come with strong or violent opposition, only casual aloofness. And for this reason, Mark felt pangs of pity for his friend.

And Mark thought he understood, as he worked the situation over in his mind as he walked, how a person in Swan’s position could make the mistake of thinking him a homosexual. As even Ryabchikov had noticed, Mark’s interest in the opposite sex was virtually non-existent. He had, in his teens, feigned a more serious interest, thinking himself abnormal for not feeling as the other youngsters his age seemed to, but there had never been any real truth to it. He wasn’t a virgin. He had had a seven week long relationship in the tenth grade with a freshman girl named Joanne Kelter, urged onward almost entirely by the girl. She had not been particularly pretty and, in Mark, she found a warm and willing body on which to satiate her own blossoming curiosity. During the sexual episodes, Mark had felt painfully awkward and after the fifth time he had told her so. She had left his parent’s garage, where all five of their liaisons had taken place, in tears and had refused to speak to him after that. Soon after, the first rumors of his sexual preferences had begun to surface.

There had never been any truth to the rumors, though. The prospect of homosexual love was every bit as awkward to Mark as heterosexual. That is to say, all things related to sex had confounded him from the very beginning. The truth was that Mark had never developed a sexual appetite of any kind, illicit or otherwise. He realized that this was an unusual condition, seeing how the carnal drive seemed to control the minds of most people, but to him it was simply unnecessary. This removal from that most basic of human conditions created over time, for Mark, a barrier between himself and the rest of the world. Without a desire for sex and, if truth be told, romantic love, social interactions lose their weight. Mark was an intelligent enough man, and he adapted the best he could, but this obvious deviation from normalcy followed him consistently, leading him to eventually shut himself away from the world in his observatory.

He was actually thankful to Swan for the kiss, he had to admit to himself. Despite his lack of desire to explore homosexuality, his youth spent estranged to the normal path of heterosexual lust had left him curious that he might have urges he could not admit. And when Swan, a man he cared for more than any other remaining, had passionately kissed him and he had felt nothing, no satisfaction or compulsion to continue, he was glad to finally know the truth of the matter.

Marked put his hands into his pockets and stopped to look up at the spectacular starry dome of creation above before he entered his building for the night. And there, at the end of a profoundly confusing and exhausting day, in the magnificence of the visible universe, he felt as himself.

Published in: Uncategorized on June 2, 2011 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  

The Discovery: Part 4

When you’re eleven years old, even when you’re an especially brilliant eleven year old as the case was with Margot Page Parrish, there are certain aspects of human nature which, in your youthful naivety, you are simply unable to grasp. And so, it should come as no real surprise that when she finished Eliot Swan’s sprawling semi-autobiography, Margot was still unable to comprehend the man and his real meaning in the life of her uncle. Failing to make any sense of the him after the first reading, Margot simply turned back to the first page and immediately read the book again, spending more than three weeks dwelling in the life of this figure from her uncle‘s past. What she found after all was said and done was a person very much like the one that Mark had described to her during his tale of that awkward meeting in the fall of nineteen sixty-two: brilliant, articulate, and obviously self-absorbed. At the second completion of the volume, she sighed, shrugged her shoulders, and asked Mark to drive her into Victoria so that she could return the book to the library.

While Margot was reading Observations, Mark who had read the book himself years before hid in his room, afraid of what the girl might garner from it. After she finished the book for the second time and avoided displaying any signs of new understanding, Mark felt a very odd mix of emotion. He was initially very relieved that Margot hadn’t deduced of Swan what he thought she might, but this gave way quickly to a sort of nagging impatience for her to understand that which he could not bring himself to tell her. Several times in the days which came after, having bolstered his bravery with Scotch, Mark sat on the verge of disclosure, but his cowardice, or as he rationalized it, his discretion, got the better of him. In any case, neither Margot nor Mark made any mention of Swan’s character as they rode into town to return the book.

“When will the ads be posted?” Margot asked as they left the Victoria Public Library on a very warm June mid-morning.

Mark out of old habit was holding one hand above his like a salute, scanning the sky to take a survey of the weather conditions. He shrugged. “I’m not entirely sure, kiddo. I guess we’ll probably have to wait for the July issues to come out.” He looked down at his niece and smiled. “Are you getting impatient?”

“Yes!” gasped Margot with playful exasperation.

Mark laughed. “I know what you mean. It’s best not to think about it, though. No point in dwelling on something you can’t do anything about.” And then, taking his own cue, he changed the subject. “Well, we drove all the way into town and the day is still new, got anything you want to do while we’re here?”

They were approaching Mark’s truck and Margot stopped before getting in, realizing that they now had to determine a destination. She leaned against the still closed passenger’s side door, being careful to not touch the metal with her bare shoulders. She crossed her arms and thought it over.

“What about the Space Center?” she asked.

“Houston?” Mark asked, although he knew exactly what she meant. He had promised her several times that they would visit the Space Center in Houston, the visitors’ area of NASA’s mission control headquarters. Houston, from Victoria, was a two hour drive, more or less, and neither of the pair had been there since Mark had last gone to the City Hall and completed the paper work for Margot’s adoption nearly two years before. Traveling long distances was not generally one of Mark’s favorite activities, but when he looked down at his niece, who was using her best sympathetic look on him, and he thought of the times that he had told her that they would drive there during the summer, he couldn’t think of a good way to wrestle free from it. He sighed.

“Alright, alright.” He looked at his watch as Margot pumped both of her fists with excitement. “We’d better get a move on, though. They close at five, I think and we won’t get there until after noon. We’ll have to stop and get something to eat, too.”

“Well, what are we waiting for?” exclaimed Margot as she swung her door open and jumped into the truck. “Let’s go!”

* * * *

During the hours of the drive from Victoria to Houston along US-59, the two did little talking as both were lost in their own thoughts.

For Margot, the thoughts were less perplexing. She, for the time being, shoved aside the strains of the mystery of her uncle’s pain and struggle, and instead allowed her mind to be taken by thoughts that delighted her. Although she had spent the first ten years of her life living in Houston, it wasn’t until she met Mark twenty-one months before that she had developed her thirst for astronomy. The Space Center, before, had been nothing noteworthy for her. Now though, having read a myriad of works on the topic of stargazing, the site called to her like a siren. She fidgeted with bemused anticipation of the upcoming day’s activities.

Meanwhile, behind the wheel, Mark’s thoughts were altogether of a different quality. The approaching city reminded Mark sorely of his lost brother and of the changes that his death had affected onto his own life. Margot’s appearance in his existence was not unwelcome; he found her to be a pleasant, responsible young woman, but he could not help feel the distance that stood between them. She felt like a strange and wondrous planetoid to him, the trajectory of whose orbit caused her to pass close to his own, briefly altering his own gravitational pull, his tides and poles, to be observed for a short time with awe and curious academia, only to pass at some point out of the range of his scopes and once again float out into the darkness of space, conscious of their nearness, but always alien and separate. And this manner of thinking, this plaguing feeling of isolation, even in the face of actual everyday parenthood, disallowed Mark to feel real love of any kind, replacing it with only the dry respect he had for those bodies that floated in space, observable and amazing but, like his niece, original to others and never his own. This is not to say that he did not care about Margot, because he did very much, but he knew that the child with her independence would never need him to validate her being. Although she was close to him, she was another man’s child, named by another man, and would never be his the way he so urgently longed to have something of his own –- something that, without his effort, would remain always hidden from the world.

While Mark was thinking of these things, now approaching their destination at around noon that day, Margot suddenly pointed across his line of sight and out his driver’s side window.

“Sugar Land!” she squealed, somehow still capable of finding joy in seeing her home town, despite the association that it bore for Mark and, he thought, must bear for her as well. Mark let his morose thoughts fade and brought himself back into the reality of the cabin of his truck, speeding over the highway on that warm early summer day.

“Yep.”, he said. “We’re almost there.” They were driving by a sign now that told them that they were twenty-two miles from downtown Houston. “Twenty minutes.”

Margot settled back into her seat without another word and allowed her eyes to close in the warm sunlight. Mark stretched his neck from side to side and those thoughts that had taken him on the trip so far began to settle upon him again. But just as he began to lull, something in the rear view mirror caught his eye. On the horizon in the distance behind him, blue and red lights were throbbing.

“Margot,” he said suddenly, “Put on your seat belt!”

“Huh?”, alert now due to the urgency in his voice. “It’s already on, Ma-”

But before she could finish, the steering wheel jerked from Mark’s grip. Wide eyed and shocked, Mark and Margot looked at one another helplessly as the truck began to spin, in seemingly sickly slow motion, counterclockwise, veering across the center lane of the highway. As they turned a full circle, Mark caught a brief glimpse of the Trans Am that had tapped the truck’s back bumper flying off into the distance, brown Crown Victorias, their lights and sirens blazing, weaving around them as they spun. Mark, now helpless to regain control of his vehicle, tried to reach across the bench seat with his right hand to steady the flailing girl, but the centrifugal force of their spiral kept his arm pressed against the seat back.

“Margot!” was Mark’s last thought amidst the deafening screech of the brakes jamming the truck’s tires into the asphalt, the screams of the girl in the seat next to him, and the blaring of car horns before the guard rail came into view through the front windshield, and then all at once, as the last few seconds of their film became more and more disjointed, the truck stopped. The last few frames of consciousness, marked with scratched notes identifying them as the end of the reel, whipped through the projector and then there was whiteness for a instant before the bulb recognized the end of the film and died with a click and everything went black.

* * * *

As previously mentioned, Mark was not a religious man, nor was he otherwise romantic about the concept of death or a life thereafter, but when he found himself suspended in the darkness of oblivion, he could not help but think to himself that he had died and that this void, as cold and mute as space, but blank and starless, was his reward, filled with all of the things that he had used his life in discovering; that is to say, a vast emptiness. And for a time, time itself in this place as abstract and incomprehensible as death had been to him before, he lingered. But his mind soon gathered to him and the edges of his hell showed the hints of life again -– first redness, and then, gradually, flickers of white, swirling light. He at first, in his numb floating, mistook these faint trails of light for heavenly bodies, but soon enough he realized that he was, in fact, not dead after all and the rouge hems and sparkles of phosphorescence were his eyes again adjusting to the light of the day. And as he struggled to regain consciousness, he heard a voices talking in varying degrees of panic. Amongst these voices, two stood out. One was unmistakable: Margot was crying hysterically. The other was strangely familiar to him, speaking with assured confidence and poise. He tried to place it, but in his dull state, he could not.

When Mark did finally come to, he found himself laying on a stretcher in the back of a still ambulance. He tried to sit up, but a ruddy, moustached EMT gripped his shoulder and pressed him firmly back down.

“Whoa, fella. Take it easy. Let me get a look at you.” said the man, calmly. And then he shouted out of the open doors of the ambulance. “Hey Jer! This guy’s awake!”

Jer, a gaunt man with no hair on his face or head to speak of, climbed quickly into the ambulance and was immediately shining a light into Mark’s right eye.

“Just look at the light for me, okay? That’s great.” He moved to the other eye. “Do you feel any pain anywhere?”

This was the first thought Mark had of his own body and the pain that he might be feeling. His head had been rattled pretty badly, but now he was feeling more lucid. Lucid enough, at least, to survey the damage that the wreck had done to his frame. He moved his limbs one at a time, checking for limitations and responsiveness. Satisfied that he felt no signs of paralysis or fracture, told the medic so.

“I’m alright. I’m alright,” he insisted. And then he remembered Margot. He shot upright on the stretcher. “Where’s Margot?”, he demanded. “The little girl. Is she okay?”

She must have heard her name, because as he asked, Margot walked into his view through the ambulances open doors. Her cheeks were striped with tears, and one arm was hung loosely in a sling, but she was smiling.

“I was so scared that you were hurt, Mark!” she cried, and fresh tears boiled out of her eyes.

Mark was trying to scramble out of his seat and make his way out of the ambulance, but the two men held him fast. “Hold on!” the moustached man said firmly. “She’s alright, just stay right here while we look you over. You hit your head pretty good.”

Mark stopped struggling and allowed them to continue taking his blood pressure and heart rate, but he was still intent on his niece.

“Margot, your arm–”

“It’s okay! I dislocated my shoulder, but they fixed it. I’ve got to wear this sling for a few weeks.”

“There’s hardly a scratch on her,” the pale EMT was telling him. “She’s lucky. You, well, you’re just lucky you’ve got such a thick head.”

Mark actually allowed himself to chuckle at this. The tough humor and the sight of Margot, safe, calmed him immensely, and he sighed.

“That’s it,” the pale EMT continued, “Just take ‘er easy. Good man.” He padded the business end of his stethoscope around his back for a few more seconds, and then took the ear tips out and allowed the head piece to fall loosely around his neck. “I don’t think he’s too much worse for wear, Rick.”

Rick nodded once and scratched down some notes on a clip board.

“I’d still like you to come with us back to the hospital and have some X-rays,” he said after he slid the clip board back into the plastic cubby hanging from the ambulance’s wall.

“Great,” said Mark sarcastically. “How much is that going to cost me?”

The two paramedics exchanged glances.

“To be honest, a lot,” said Rick. “I mean, if you ride with us, anyway. And it doesn’t look like you’re going to be going anywhere in that truck.”

This was the first thought Mark had had of his truck. He groaned. From where he was positioned in the back of the ambulance, he couldn’t get a view of the scene of the crash. And after what the paramedic had said, he suddenly felt very happy that this was the case. He began to rub his temples with his thumbs, trying to work the stressors out.

“He can ride with me,” he heard the familiar voice from his earlier daze say. He looked up again and there, his hands on Margot’s shoulders, stood Deputy Daley. Mark recognized him instantly. “Howdy, Mr. Parrish.” Daley tipped his hat.

Margot, craned her head back and looked at the deputy and saw the smile there on his face. She did a double take at Mark who was also smiling.

“Wait…” she said suddenly, “Do you guys know each other?”

* * * *

The drive to the hospital wasn’t a long one, and on the way, Daley explained to Margot that today wasn’t the first time that he had responded to a call about a highway accident and found her on the scene. “I had to do some research to find your uncle after that,” he explained to the amazed girl. “I was afraid you weren’t going to have anyone at all, that you’d wind up an orphan. It was breaking my heart.”

“I didn’t even know you existed when the deputy called me,” Mark added, craning back so that he could look Margot, seated in the back of Daley’s patrol car per her own request.

There was a period of prolonged silence among them as the two men sitting up front allowed time for the girl in the back to process what they had told her. After a while, her gaze cast down at her feet, Margot broke the quiet.

“Thank you, Deputy Daley,” she muttered, her voice breaking as if fighting off tears.

“Well, it’s my pleasure. I have a daughter of my own, about six years older than you. I guess I was thinking about what if it had happened to her. And you know, my job isn’t exactly safe.”

Mark reached across the seat and clapped a hand on the deputy’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze, a wordless thanks. He could see small beads of sweat forming on Daley’s dark cheeks, the imagery of what he was discussing striking him too close to home. He gave a nervous laugh.

“Just trying to manage my, what do they call it? My karma,” he said, half joking, and then went silent again.

After another minute of the dead air, Mark sensed the need to bring about another subject and rid the small space the three of them were sharing of its mournful sentiment. He asked Daley about the car that had clipped them and caused their wreck. Brightly, the lawman explained that it was being driven by a man who had just robbed a grocery market and thought, foolishly, that he would be able to beat the police to the airport and escape internationally. “Drugs,” Daley explained, “Had everything to do with it.” And then, leaning back to pitch his voice at Margot, he added, “Let that be a lesson to you.” The poor delusional fellow had been captured when, a few miles after making contact with Mark’s truck, the two back tires on his Trans Am had blown out. He had spun out and slammed himself into a telephone pole. He had lived through the ordeal, albeit, with two legs shattered at the femur. When Daley saw how Mark shook his head with a blend of pity and contempt, he decided that it was high time to change the subject.

“So,” he said, glancing back towards Margot.

Margot, who was inspecting the interior of the cruiser’s suspect cage, leaned forward and laced her tiny fingers through the metal mesh that split the car. “Deputy Daley?” she asked, ready to supplant his question with her own, her voice sounding meek, almost embarrassed.

“Something on your mind, darlin’?”

“No, nothing,” she said, and slumped back into her seat, crossing her arms and staring out the window to her left at the passing scenery.

Daley and Mark looked at each other, curious and slightly concerned. After a second, Daley gave a small, helpless shrug, as if to say, “You can press her if you want, but I’m not going to do it.” Mark took the cue.

“Hey kiddo, what’s bothering you? Is your arm okay?”

“Oh, my arm’s fine. Just forget it. It’s stupid.”

Daley cocked his head back again and glanced at her through the partition.

“Okay,” he said playfully, “Now, I’m curious.”

Margot sighed, wishing she hadn’t begun to ask in the first place. She considered standing her ground and not finishing her question. What she was going to ask had seemed reasonable in her mind, but had made her feel childish as she began to form in into words.

“It’s just… I’ve never been in a police car before,” she said tentatively.

“I should hope not!” said Mark, eliciting a laugh from the deputy.

“Forget it!” Margot cried. The laughter, although meant to be harmless, had dissuaded her from braving the request. Her exclamation, meanwhile, had silenced the laughter in the front seats. The two men again shared confused looks. An idea came to Daley, though.

“Say, Margot?”

“Mm.”

“Do you want to hear the siren?”

This was, of course, what Margot was going to request. And while, on the one hand, Daley’s correct assumption that this was the source of her embarrassment caused her to feel even more predictable and sophomoric, she couldn’t help but feel a great pleasure that he had saved her from having to ask. She could now act casually about the suggestion.

“I guess,” she said, as flippantly as she could manage. “Why not?”

“Exactly,” said Daley as he flipped the switch and the fired up the howling alarm tone. And then with a devilish smile, “Why not?”

In the patrol car’s large rear view mirror Mark and Daley saw the small smile creep across Margot’s stern face, and they could not help but smile themselves, Mark especially. Something in him reveled at the Margot’s smile. It told him, that despite everything, despite her parent’s death and this unexpected reminder, despite his own stubborn misery, despite the accident which had so recently ruined her afternoon plans, and despite her own her own uncanny logic and maturity, somewhere inside his niece there still existed the soul of an innocent little girl. With this comfort surrounding Mark, the three of them raced toward the hospital amongst the cries of the siren. But, in truth, they were in no real hurry.

* * * *

“You never answered my question.”

Daley was sitting across from Margot in the waiting area of the hospital. She sat in the very same chair in which her uncle had been seated when he first introduced himself nearly two years ago. They were waiting here now for Mark to finish being X-rayed and otherwise looked over by the doctors. The statement caught Margot, who was reading a magazine, a bit off guard. She squinted at him over the magazine’s edge, trying to remember what question he could mean. He saw that she clearly had no idea what he was talking about, and clarified.

“What brings you folks to Houston?”

Margot sighed and set the magazine down on the table between them.

“We were going to go to the Space Center.” And as she said this Daley saw her bottom lip begin to tremble. He scrambled to find something to say to comfort the girl, but it was too late. The floodgates had opened. “It’s my fault!” she bawled. “I wanted to come to Houston. If I hadn’t asked him, we never would have had that crash. He would still have his truck!”

Daley was on one knee at the girl’s side now, offering her a handkerchief, which she took and wiped her eyes.

“Hey now, hey. It’s alright. Don’t worry about the truck. I looked into it. Your uncle had good insurance. He’ll get a new truck any day now.” Margot stopped sobbing and took the handkerchief away from her eyes, but her lip was still trembling, ready to trigger the tears again if Daley wasn’t careful. “And you’ll have a rental car in the meantime.” he said gently. “Don’t worry.”

“What if he had gotten killed?” she whimpered. “It would have been my fault.”

“Don’t say that!” Daley said, with sudden sharpness. He stood up now, dwarfing the seated girl, and placed his big, mitt-like hands on his hips. “Don’t ever say that. What happened to your parents, what happened today, none of it is your fault, Margot. These things, they just happen. God has his way of sorting the cards, and we don’t always like the hands we get, but it’s out of our control.”

The girl sobbed into the cloth for a moment longer, then after a while, quieted. Daley softened again, and playfully, he messed the girl’s hair.

“Hey,” he said, “Cheer up. Everything’s okay. Why don’t we go get a Coke while we’re waiting for Mark? He’ll probably be another few minutes.”

Margot looked up and smiled at the man who, to her knowledge, had no responsibility to care for her this way. She nodded, still too choked up to try to talk. Daley squatted again and put his left hand on her right shoulder. “Now promise me that you won’t go around thinking that any of this has been your fault.”

Again the girl nodded and Daley held out his big, brown hand and extended his pinky finger. “Swear?” he said and forced a laugh from the girl. His expression did not change a note. He affected a dead seriousness about the ritual of the pinky swear that, upon seeing it, caused Margot to straighten in her seat and take the oath with solemnity. “I swear,” she said as she laced her thin finger around the deputy’s and they shook.

“Okay then,” Daley said, standing, “Now let’s go find that Coke machine.”

* * * *

A few minutes turned out to be a few hours. Daley and Margot sat in the waiting area trying not to notice the light pouring in through the hospital’s frosted glass edifice slowly deepen in shade, the time elapse demonstrated there multiplying their shared concerns. So, it was to their mutual relief that at around five-thirty in the afternoon, Mark finally shuffled from the bowels of the hospital. He had an ice pack pressed to his temple, a file folder tucked under his arm, both eyes now noticeably blackened where his head had struck the steering wheel, but he looked otherwise alert, considering the events of the day. Margot pounced from her seat upon noticing him enter, and as she wrapped her lanky arms around his chest, she noticed a small flicker of serious worry in the man’s eyes. Before she could process it, it was gone.

“I’m so glad you’re okay!” she said, her words muffled by being spoken into his torso. Mark rubbed the girl’s back with his free hand.

“Sorry it took so long,” said Mark, sheepishly. “The doctors just wanted to be sure, you know?”

Daley, who had remained seated to allow Margot the opportunity to go to her uncle first, stood now, and Mark noticed him.

“Deputy, I… I didn’t expect you to wait around.”

Daley came around his chair and reached out to shake Mark’s hand, which Mark offered without hesitation. Daley removed his hat, and when he did, Mark noticed how the gray hairs had begun to spring up where only tight black kinks had been a few years before. If Mark had been asked how old the deputy was when they had first met, he would have guessed mid-thirties, but seeing him now, with only two years worth of damage done, he would not be able to guess any younger than the early forties, and likely closer to fifty.

“It’s my pleasure, Mr. Parrish.”

“Mark. Please.”

“Alright, Mark. It really was no problem. I’ve just been shooting the breeze with the young lady here.” Daley nodded at Margot, who was finally releasing her grasp of her uncle’s frame. “That’s one smart kid you’ve got yourself there.”

Mark was nodding. Didn’t he know it. The girl, only a fifth of his age, had kept him on his toes since the moment they had met. He had rarely met a person like her and not for many years. The gravity of the compliment, which in all actuality wasn’t a compliment at all as much as a statement of pure and simple truth, settled over Mark easily, and he put his hands on her shoulders the way he had seen Daley do at the scene of the accident.

“This one?” he joked, and gave the slight figured girl a small shake, as if to tease. “But seriously, Deputy, thank you for waiting with her. Poor thing.”

“Well, you can start making it up to me right now,” said the deputy. “First of all, just call me Trevor. If we’re going to be on a first name basis, it might as well go both ways.”

Mark laughed a bit. “Even when you’re on duty?”

“Oh, I’ve been off duty for a while now. I just haven’t had a chance to get home and change. I was riding home when I heard about your wreck over the radio.”

Mark looked down at his wristwatch and grimaced.

“You’re telling me that you’ve wasted six hours of your own time?”

“Wasted!” Trevor snorted. “Hell, that girl of yours practically taught me to speak Greek in that time.” He elbowed at Margot, who was getting bashful being mentioned in such a glowing light.

“Well, I can’t thank you enough. I wish there was something I could do to…”

“I’d like to do you one better,” Trevor interrupted. “That is, if you’ll let me.”

Mark tilted his head curiously. His immediate reaction was to resist anymore kindness from the man. He had spent so many years all but alone in his keep, only the stars and galaxies with which to commiserate, that genuine human compassion, when offered to him, struck Mark as foreign. But this man had done so much for him and Margot that refusing to at least humor his offer seemed like the apex of incivility. So he did the only thing he could do in the situation; he begged the question.

“Why don’t you and Margot come stay with me and the wife for the night?” Trevor asked in a manner that made the suggestion seem like the only possible course of action. Margot, who had been standing silently between the two men, looked over her shoulder suddenly, not hopefully, and profoundly curious as to how her uncle would react to this offer, which would take him well outside of his comfort zone, a place she knew he would not like to be. Mark, meanwhile, was at a loss for words. Seeing his impasse, the deputy took the chance to expand on his suggestion.

“Look, it’s just practical. You truck is smashed to bits. I don’t know if we can get you a rental car before the end of the day, even if we leave right now. Besides that, we have an extra room, so it’s no trouble. Kim, that’s my daughter, went off to an internship a few weeks back, so my wife would absolutely love to have mouths to feed and someone besides this old grouch to talk to.”

What the deputy was saying made perfect sense. Finding a way to get home this late in the day would be complicated at best. And then he thought about Margot and how thrilled she had been to have the chance to finally visit the Space Center and how that chance must now seem ruined to her, swept to the side in the light of the day’s obstacles. He knew, when he thought of this, that he would have to accept the deputy’s offer. And there was something else to. Something that had happened to him in the interior of the hospital only an hour or so before. Something that he would not be able to discuss with Margot, at least not yet, but felt a burning desire to share with someone. Daley, Mark had to admit to himself now, was the closest thing that he had to a friend outside of his still not twelve-year-old niece. He decided that he would accept the offer, as uncomfortable as it made him to sleep outside of his stronghold, for the sake of his niece and for the sake of discussion with an adult, who wouldn’t be so directly effected, the worry that had been sowed into his mind just now. He decided, after thinking it over, to allow the final judgment to fall to Margot. He looked at her now.

“What do you think, kiddo? We could go to the Space Center tomorrow instead.”

Margot crinkled her delicate brow and bit on her lip, trying to scan for cons to the situation, or perhaps puzzling as to how Mark had been so easily persuaded to do something that she knew that he could not possibly want to do. Unable to come to any conclusions regarding Mark’s motives, she voiced the only objection she could think of, allowing Mark an out if he so desired.

“What about Sebastion? Will he be okay?” she asked earnestly.

Mark beamed and began to laugh. He ruffled the girl’s hair with his palm. “I think Sebastion will be fine for a night. It wasn’t that long ago that he was living outside in a hurricane.”

Margot smiled now, content that Mark was sure with his decision. She took his left hand with both of hers and squeezed it. Mark smiled down at her for a moment, then saw the confused look on the deputy’s face, and was struck with another wave of laughter.

“Sebastion is the cat.” Mark explained through his guffaws.

Trevor was smiling now, happy to see Mark so jovial. He looked down and saw that Margot too was smiling, and he knew that he had made the right decision to offer them a place to stay and some company. He stuck his hat, which he had been holding in front of him with both hands like a courtier, onto his head and gave Mark’s bicep a solid clap.

“It’s settled then. I’m going to go call Karen and let her know what’s going on.”, he started to walk away and then stopped and turned around to the face the Parishes, “She’ll be so excited.” And then he walked around the corner to find a payphone.

Margot tugged on her uncle’s hand and he looked down to meet her eyes.

“Are you sure this is okay?” she asked sincerely.

Mark pulled her close and put his arm around her and squeezed her shoulders.

“Yeah, kiddo. Everything’s okay.”

But even as he said it, and though neither of them would say so, they both knew that it was a lie.

* * * *

They arrived at the Daley residence in Missouri City, a suburb of Houston, at about seven in the evening. It was a simple split-level setup with a single-car garage and in a quiet neighborhood. Trevor parked his police cruiser on the curb across the street from the house, and as the three exited the vehicle, they found Trevor’s wife waiting for them on the screened porch.

Karen Daley was a short, cocoa-skinned woman of about forty. When Mark was introduced, he could see that although she was now warmly plump, well-fed as his parents used to say, she must have been very striking in her youth. He introduced himself and paid her the compliment as he walked through the screen door, leaving off the details about how her prime had passed, and she giggled sweetly.

“Now tell me, Trevor,” she cooed, “Why hasn’t this smooth talker been around before?”

“Don’t be tricked, Mark,” warned Trevor as he walked into the house and took off his holster belt and hung it on a hat rack near the home’s entrance. “She’s just trying to butter you up so you’ll let her show you all of her photographs. You’ve got to resist.” He came forward from the door way and planted a kiss on his wife’s neck.

“Well, I think she’s already got me beat.”

“Yeah, the same damn thing happened to me,” Trevor laughed.

A creased brow and a halfhearted scowl came across Karen’s face and she play punched Trevor in the arm. “You watch that mouth, Mister. We’ve got children present.” Trevor pantomimed twisting a key into his mouth and ducked off through the living room and disappeared. Karen turned to Margot now and extended her hand. “Hello dear. What’s your name?”

Margot stepped from behind Mark where she had been standing and took the woman’s hand with an impromptu curtsey. “Margot Parrish, ma’am. Thank you for your hospitality.”

Karen pursed her lips and nodded at Mark with approval. “My, my. So polite.”

“I suppose I could take a lesson, huh?” Mark interjected. “We really do appreciate you doing this for us. Your husband has been such a, such a…”

“Such a what?” Daley challenged, coming out of the kitchen with a beer in each hand. He held one out for Mark, who took it, thankfully.

“Well, I was going to say something terrible,” Mark joked, “But now,” He indicated the beer that he had been handed. “How about, ‘such a true friend?’”

Karen rolled her eyes as the two men laughed together. “Well, I’m happy to have you,” she said, her eyes narrowing on her husband. “It sure beats sitting around with this old fool.”

“Well, I’ll drink to that,” said Trevor, who cracked his beer to emphasize. He nodded to Mark, who did the same.

“Come on, baby doll,” Karen said to Margot, holding her hand out to her side for her to take. “Let me show you around and then you can help me cook.” She looked over her shoulder as the two walked hand in hand into the house and shook her head. “I swear!” she said, closing the door behind her without expanding on the thought. The two men were left standing on the porch amongst the buzzing summer cicadas and intermittent chirping of the frogs. Daley shrugged his shoulders and held out his can, which Mark tapped with his own, and they drank.

“Say,” said Mark, wiping his mouth with his sleeve and tipping his head towards the front door. “I sure hope I’m not getting you in Dutch here.”

“Mmmm!” Daley was taking another mouthful of the beer as he answered, so his reply was incomprehensible. He shook his head vehemently while he swallowed to clarify. “Don’t worry about her,” he said after working the gulp down. “She just likes to give me a hard time.”

Daley motioned with his beer hand towards the end of the porch that was occupied by a rocking chair, a bench swing, and a small collapsible plastic table. Mark nodded and found a seat in the swing, knowing better than to take the only solo seat in a man’s domain. Trevor settled himself into the rocker with a groan.

They sat like this, quietly enjoying the lukewarm summer evening, sipping steadily on their beers, for sometime before another word was spoken. It was Daley.

“I’m awfully sorry about your truck, Mark.”

“What can you do?” Mark replied, evenly.

“Ain’t that the truth. Still, I wouldn’t worry. We’re already processing the insurance claim. I filled out the report myself and got a secretary to file your claim for you as a favor to me. We’ll go get you a rental in the morning.”

“I just can’t thank you enough, Trevor,” Mark said. He was seated forward now, his elbows on his knees, his beer clutched with both hands.

Daley didn’t look at him, knowing that it wasn’t necessary to add too much emotion to this situation. It was what it was. He had gone out of his way to help Mark because Mark had proved to be a good man the first time they had met and Trevor believed that a good man is worth helping out when they have a need. There was nothing more complex to it than that. And, maybe the men had become friends in the process. That wouldn’t bother Trevor either. There wasn’t exactly an abundance of educated, interesting guys who were overly interested in befriending a black deputy sheriff in south Texas in nineteen eighty-two. Even though this was never a factor into why he had decided to stick his neck out to help Mark, the thought had certainly crossed his mind.

“Say now,” Daley said after another piece of silence. “Are you folks going to the Space Center tomorrow?”

“I suppose so,” said Mark. He was motionless, still seated as he had been for several minutes now. His head was hanging down and he was looking at the planks that made up the porch. Daley couldn’t help but notice the despondence in his new friend’s voice. He twisted in his seat to face Mark and reached out and patted him on the back.

“Hey, cheer up man. Everything’s alright. You’re out a truck, but at least you got a clean bill of health.”

At this, Mark looked up and the look that Trevor saw in his eyes stopped him cold. The look was one of hopelessness and fear, and right away Trevor realized that something had happened at the hospital that day that Mark had decided not to share with him or with Margot. His mind stuttered thinking of a way to approach asking what had happened, but before he came up with anything, the front door opened and Karen poked her head out.

“Come on now, you two. Time to eat.”

Mark, who had turned to see what Karen was going to say, turned back to Trevor now, stood, and struck his chin out towards the door.

“Come on,” he said, with a sudden vigor in his voice that made the staggered Trevor realize just how easily the man could fake it. “I’ll tell you about it after dinner.”

* * * *

They sat together, the four of them, around a small but tasteful wooden dinette in the house’s modest dining room, with only Karen oblivious that something was amiss between them. She had prepared an Italian food platter, complete with bread crumb crusted pork cutlets, spaghetti in marinara, garlic bread, an oversized bowl of green salad with sweet iced tea to drink. After a short prayer, lead by Trevor, in which he asked God to bless them all with everlasting health, they ate. And even though no one, aside from the cook, was particularly hungry, in the wake of the dawning realization they all ate large portions with grateful fervor as to appease the kindhearted woman who had gone through the trouble to feed them. And although Mark had found the beer that Trevor had given him before the meal to be difficult to finish, his conscience warning him as he drank that the alcohol would be an odious disservice to himself, he found himself wishing for another drink as he ate. Anything to dull the thoughts that were racking his mind. Throughout the meal, he could not bear to make eye contact with Margot, but went out of his way to make small talk with Karen –- a distraction for the group’s thoughts.

“So, Karen,” Mark asked, rubbing a corner of toasted bread around his cleared plate to gather the meaty oils and tomato sauce, “Tell me about your photographs. Do you have a collection or are you a photographer?”

Photographer sounds so official!” Karen exclaimed with a laugh. “It’s just a hobby. Trevor exaggerates.”

“So you are a photographer, then!” Mark continued, making a show of soliciting the conversation from the sweetly embarrassed woman.

“I know she’s my wife, so I have to say it, but she’s really something, Mark.” Trevor was holding a fork full of salad a few inches from his mouth as he spoke. “Portraits.”

Mark gave the woman a look that said, “Is that right?” but continued to chew silently.

“Could we see them Mrs. Daley?” asked Margot unexpectedly. These were the first words she had said since they had sat down to eat. She had been sitting, eating quietly and politely, a blank expression on her face.

“I’ll tell you what, sweetheart, after we eat, why don’t you and I do the dishes, and then I’ll show you my stuff.”

“Oh please, you’re going to have to let me do the dishes.” Mark found himself saying.

Karen gave him a deadpanned look. “Not in this house you’re not.” And the matter was closed just like that. The rest of the meal was eaten quietly, with little conversation to speak of.

After the meal, as promised, the ladies excused themselves into the kitchen to do the dishes, and after grabbing a few more beers, Mark and Trevor stepped back out onto the porch and resumed their seats. But they did not talk. They sipped out of the cool cans, Trevor waiting for Mark to tell his story, Mark trying to decide if he should, and if so, how to tell it. Around nine thirty, Margot stepped out onto the porch, rubbing her eyes.

“Mark,” she said, her voice muted. “I think I’m going to go to sleep. Mrs. Daley is making a bed for me.”

Daley, despite having finished three beers since dinner, recognized the need to remove himself on their behalf.

“I’m going to go give her a hand with that,” he said, rising to his feet with the same groan that had signaled his sitting. He patted Mark on the shoulder has he lurched by. “I’ll be back out in a bit.” And he walked inside, closing the door behind him, assuming the two would need time to talk.

But they didn’t talk. Margot simply slid into the porch swing next to Mark, and with her tiptoes, began to rock them. Mark tried hard to think of the right thing to say, but nothing came to him. He didn’t know anything. And what he did know, he thought that telling her would be alarmist at best, selfish at worst. He tried to occupy himself with his beer. It was a few minutes before he noticed that the girl was crying. He set his beer on the table in front of him, and put his arm over Margot’s shoulder. All at once, she leaned into him and sobbed into his chest. Mark sat dumbly unable to find something comforting to say, either for her sake or his own. He was a scout that had been sent out to map the enemy’s position, and returned having seen his own forces grossly outnumbered. He blanched.

It wasn’t long before the girl’s sobbed quieted and she wiped her eyes. She pushed away from Mark gently, and began again rocking the swing, looking through the fine mesh of the porch’s screen barrier at the quarter Moon hanging in the clear night sky. Mark looked over at her and his breath escaped him. On the dewy eyes of his niece, he saw glowing lights of the cosmos reflected, shimmering in the thin film of tears as she blinked.

“Hey kiddo,” he said softly. “Let’s go to the Space Center tomorrow.”

Margot looked at him now and her expression changed rapidly from sadness, to confusion, to absolute affection. She threw her arms suddenly around Mark’s neck and hugged it tightly.

“Yes, please,” she whispered. Then she let his neck go, got to her feet, and walked back inside without another word. Not thirty seconds after Margot had gone in through the door, Trevor came out through, a fresh supply of cans in his arms. He walked over to his rocking chair and set a beer on the table carefully as he squatted and then settled himself. He pulled the tab on the can he had left in his hand, and it gasped like a man who had been holding his breath.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s talk about it.”

* * * *

What Mark Parrish told Deputy Sheriff Trevor Daley on that night was this:


The doctor who examined had examined him that day had gone through the normal motions. He had tested his pupil dilation, taken his blood pressure, checked his reflexes, and taken x-rays of his head and body. Mark had sat waiting on the slender examination room bed, with its layer of thick white paper crumpling under his weight, while the doctor had left to treat other patients while the x-rays processed. During this forty-five minutes, Mark had occupied himself by holding an ice pack that a nurse had given him against his forehead where swelling was taking place and trying to concoct a plan to make up the day’s ruined excursion to his niece who, he knew, had been eagerly anticipating the event.

When the doctor finally returned, he was examining a handful of large black and gray laminate sheets, flipping through them quickly as if they were gigantic flash cards. He did not immediately speak to Mark, seemingly too preoccupied with studying the x-ray prints.

“Give me the bad news first,” Mark had said, a joke to ease his own tension. The doctor had looked up from the sheets, appearing almost startled to have discovered that someone else was in the room. He walked, still without talking, to a light-box that was hung along the wall opposite from where Mark sat. The doctor pulled a drawstring switch at the bottom corner of the light-box, and when it flickered to fluorescent life, he began to slide the large film sheets, one after the other, up along the lit surface until they lodged into the top of the frame. Once he had hung all six of these sheets in place, he stood with his hand caressing his own chin and studied them. Mark, having never received and x-ray in his sixty years, stood from the examining table and came forward next to the doctor. Once he had reached the doctors side, the doughy young man stepped to the first sheet, which seemed to Mark to be a display of his stomach and hips. He moved his hand across the sheet, indicating the image as a whole.

“There doesn’t seem to be any damage to your vital organs,” the doctor began, having yet to look at Mark directly after reentering the room. He walked down the row of images, from left to right, until he reached the fourth, which showed Mark’s skull, photographed from the right profile. The young doctor leaned in close to this picture, squinting at the details which Mark found incomprehensible, but moved on to the fifth image, Mark’s skull from the left profile, without comment. This sheet received the same scrutiny, followed by the same lack of comment. At the sixth and final print, Mark’s skull rendered head on, the doctor took a less time examining the image. He took a step back and waved a hand towards the three images of Mark’s cranium. “No fractures or signs of concussion that I can make out,” he said, finally smiling.

“Well, if that’s the bad news, I can’t wait to hear the good news.” Mark couldn’t help himself. The doctor ignored his comment and was already writing notes to himself on a paper that was sitting on a thin steel box with a clip on the outside cover.

“I’m going to write you a prescription for some painkillers. You can fill it or not, it’s up to you,” the doctor was saying distractedly as he scribbled. Mark, meanwhile, was taking his turn examining the prints hanging back-lit in front of him. The strange negative images of the matter inside of his skull intrigued him. “Here you go, Mr. Parrish.” The doctor had come now to Mark’s side and was handing him a handful of papers. Mark took them from the doctor but he was still mesmerized by the x-rays. The doctor followed Mark’s line of sight, as one is want to do when finding someone staring intently. But now something on the image jumped out at him, something he had not noticed at first glance. Wordlessly, he nudged Mark to one side and moved his face very close to the image. His motions became rigid and reflexive as he pulled the sheet from the light-box and held it close to his eyes, still using the box as a back light. Mark was understandably concerned by this.

“What’s going on, doctor?” he asked, gaping.

The doctor didn’t respond right away. Instead, he moved back to the remaining images, and at numbers four and five, he looked very carefully, moving his index finger slowly around an area that would be an inch or so behind Mark’s nose. The doctor suddenly snatched these two images down as well, tucked all three of them together, and turned to walk towards the door.

“Doctor?” pleaded Mark, feeling frightened by the doctors rash behavior. The doctor stopped and turned to face Mark.

“Mr. Parrish, I think I need to get a second opinion. I need you to wait for me here.”

“A second opinion of what!” Mark found himself beginning to panic.

The doctor coughed nervously into his hand and shuffled his feet. “Well,” he said cautiously, “I think I’ve discovered a-– I mean, there is an area of discoloration that I can’t, um, readily identify.”

“A discolored area?” Mark gasped.

“I’m afraid so, Mr. Parrish.”

“And that’s bad.” Mark said, not asking.

“In my experience, yes. Things that I can’t identify are usually pretty bad.”

* * * *

“Jesus Christ,” muttered Daley when Mark had paused his story here to take a long drink from a fresh beer. It was now after two in the morning and both men were rounding their seventh beer. “Now what?”

“Well,” said Mark, “Now I wait. Doctor Peterson said he was going to call me after he talked to a neurologist. If the neurologist thinks there’s a problem, I have to go back for more tests. CAT scans and what have you.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Daley again, stunned by the enormity of the situation. And then a thought crossed his mind. “Wait, should you be drinking?”

“Probably not,” he said, and washed the words down with another swig.

As the two men talked, mutually humbled by the potential enormity of the doctor’s findings, Margot sat a room not ten feet away and listened to the muted conversation carefully through the mesh screen of the guest room’s open window frame. She had no way of knowing this, but she was doing the same thing that Kimberly Daley, Trevor’s recently departed daughter, had done many a night — listening to her parents discussions or her father review the details of a case with another officer. Although the Daleys had lived in this house for nearly five years, since Kim had begun high school, Trevor had never slept a night in his daughter’s room, which was now the guest room. Since Kim was, as can be expected, not forthcoming with the information, he had no way of knowing that one could eavesdrop so easily on his sanctuary, sitting on the room’s bed just beneath one of the front windows.

The conversation between the two men had begun slowly, few words being exchanged, and those that were passed so quietly that Margot strained to hear them, but by the time that Mark reached the climax of his story, he’d had several drinks and his words came through the window clearly, if perhaps a touch slurred.

Margot shuddered when she heard her uncle reveal that the doctor had found what she, even in her youthful innocence, could only assume was a tumor. She began crying alone there on the bed. She remembered the solace she had felt when Mark had come to in the back of the ambulance earlier that day and was overcome by bitterness with life, realizing that the reprieve might very well have been nothing more than a tease. That, like her parents, Mark too might be taken away from her.

Outside, through the noises of countless frogs and insects, the voices of the two men, which she had been following so closely, faded now into the dull hum, indistinguishable from the wildlife. Miserable and afraid, Margot fell asleep, alone on the bed of a person she had never met.

* * * *

Whatever forces move the stars through their soaring paths in the vast emptiness of the universe, that crushes planets into spheres inhabitable by this enigma called life, that fills the trenches ripped into the sphere’s surface through eons of inner tumult with water and cloaks the feeble surface with magnetized particles to guard it tirelessly from the onslaught of that universe’s indifferent assault, these forces chose that day to grant Mark and Margot Parrish what they deciphered as a tremendous measure of reparation.

The day they had awakened, both still silenced by the secret they both knew, stood between them like a hundred million light years. Mark, despite being crushed with worry, wanted now more than ever to do the things that he knew that Margot would want. So, after thanking Karen for her hospitality and being driven to a car rental agency by Trevor early the next morning, Mark and Margot went through the motions that they had laid out for the day, before the fates had come down upon them so cruelly. They spent the better part of the morning and afternoon at the Houston Space Center, watching films, examining the latest in space travel technology, and touring the grounds. Margot, to her credit, did not give the faintest sign that she had overheard Mark’s confession the night before. She knew full well how selfish it would be to add to his grief at this moment in his life, the continuation of his life’s work helplessly in the hands of a man he had not seen in years, with whom his relationship was strained, and now his life itself seemed hanging in the balance. She swallowed the painful reflexes that followed the thoughts as they crossed her mind all through the day and instead displayed amiable smiles and cheerful curiousness. She did not comment on Mark’s distraction and down-turned attitude — there was no need.

At about four that afternoon, the pair found their way back to the rental car, a navy blue Chevrolet Caprice, and spent the next few hours on the highway between Houston and the observatory on the outskirts of Victoria. Along the way, Margot tired her best to interrupt the tepid hush that choked the air between them, but Mark was listless in his participation, and about halfway through the trip, she gave up and sat with her head to the window, feeling the vibrations of the road in her teeth.

Shortly before seven that night, they arrived back home. When they walked in, Sebastion came to them immediately, meowing his displeasure at having been abandoned overnight. Even as Margot walked into the kitchen to find him something to eat, he pawed with the tips of his claws slightly extended at her jeans, coaxing her. Mark walked directly to his favorite seat on the couch, through the handful of medical papers and Space Center souvenir pamphlets down on the coffee table and collapsed back into his seat with a tremendous sigh.

After a moment, Margot returned from the kitchen, Sebastion apparently placated, and upon walking into living noticed the blinking red light on the answering machine that sat on the end table next to Mark indicating a new message. Mark was sitting with his head laid back on the couch’s cushion and a forearm thrown over his eyes. Without a word, Margot crossed the room and hit the button on the answering machine marked play.

Mark sat up when he heard her hit the button and uncovered his eyes. He looked at her and saw what she had done and tried to react, knowing that the message that was stored in the machine would almost certainly be from the pudgy doctor in regards to his x-ray results, but the message was playing before he could even say a word.

“Parrish,” said a voice that Margot did not recognize, but was so startlingly familiar to Mark that he was on his feet after the first word. “I would like very much to talk to you about this… advertisement you’ve placed.”

Now Margot was at rigid attention, her breath stopped by the unexpected contents of the recording.

“I hope that you have, well, some explanation,” the voice continued. Mark noticed right away how much older Eliot’s voice sounded. But it was him, unmistakably. The recorded voice from Mark’s past then spoke a phone number, and the message ended. There were no other new messages. Mark and Margot turned slowly to look at one another, and despite everything that had occurred in the previous day and all of the pain and doubt that it had placed into their private hearts, they could not help but rejoice. 

Published in: on April 28, 2011 at 1:15 pm  Comments (1)  

The Discovery: Part 3

The question that would have been “Why?!” and the exclamation that would have been “No!” rushed simultaneously up Margot’s throat, bottlenecking there, neither able to form into words. Mark, seeing the replies written on her expression, held up his free palm, preempting her.

 

“Ride into town with me,” he said, as if to soothe. “Give me a chance to explain.” And then, after a sip from his coffee, “From the beginning.”

 

Margot pursed her lips and stood silently to carry her plate into the kitchen to wash the dishes. She had not finished her food, but the suddenness of Mark’s claim had drained her of her appetite, and anyway, she was too anxious to hear Mark’s story now to continue eating. Sebastion, who had been curled on the stool near the window, uncoiled himself and slunk to the ground to follow Margot into the kitchen, as he often did. He found that she was often a pushover for table scraps, and so, as she commenced to sort the plates at the sink’s edge, he performed his ritual dance with her calves. He soon found that Margot was in no mood to provide the affection that he expected and he was pushed away abruptly with a not-too-gentle kick. As the girl turned back to the sink to work, Sebastion, with the sense of entitlement special amongst cats, walked back to his spot in the sun with a showing of pride, as if not to damage his dignity.

 

Mark noticed the cat walk back into the living room and leap back onto his perch. Feeling a small pang of guilt, knowing full well the cat had faced Margot’s derision because of the frustrations he himself had caused her, Mark rose from his seat, coffee in hand and came to the stool. There, he stroked the cat thoughtfully. “Sorry pal,” he was saying with his caress. “I didn’t think she’d take it out on you.” Mark drained his mug and walked into the kitchen where he planted on the sink next to his niece. She picked it up and washed it without turning or otherwise reacting. Mark wanted to put his hands on the girl’s shoulders, to comfort her, but he in his mind he thought that this would undermine her necessary role. Just give me a chance to explain, he thought, and hopefully you can make us both understand. He walked back into the living room without saying a word, found his keys in the dish on the end table, and returned to the kitchen jingling them, eager to start the journey, and thereby, the story.

 

Margot, who was drying the last of the forks, craned her head around now, hearing the nervous way that Mark fumbled with the keys.

 

“Are we in a hurry?” she asked, allowing a tint of disdain to enter her voice. She was feeling a bite of betrayal now. It was Mark who had guided her into her newfound passion for the stars, with his unique, challenging persuasion. Now, it seemed, he wanted to sell that part of their world out from under her, without consultation or approval, to leave her in the lurch of her passion.

 

Mark, who knew full well the reason for her tone, held his hands out palms upward and shrugged, pleading for a chance to explain himself.

 

“I don’t know. You tell me.”

 

The girl reminded herself, through her confusion, that she had felt certain only moments before that the two of them had silently agreed to figure the clues together, and decided that she had no choice but to give her uncle the benefit of the doubt. She dried her hands with the dish towel and hung it neatly over the oven’s handle.

 

“Alright,” she said. “Let’s go.”

 

 

* * * *

 

 

 

On the twenty minute ride into Victoria, Mark talked at a nearly manic clip, while Margot sat beside him, arms crossed, brow furrowed, searching his words for clues. Mark told her how his own parents had died after he had graduated from the University of Chicago, how he had feuded with her father, how Evgeni Ryabchikov had come to him and persuaded him to come with him and study at Princeton. He told her how the professor had been an unparalleled genius and that he had had hopes that Mark, with all of his potential, would become a fitting heir to his brilliant prestige. And how it had been Eliot Swan, another young man that Ryabchikov had recruited only months after bringing Mark to New Jersey, and not Mark, that had fulfilled the promise the old man had seen in them both. He told her how he had ached for the old man’s respect and toiled endlessly to match the accomplishments that seemed to come easily to Swan. Then he told her how Ryabchikov had died only months after he and Eliot had completed their doctorate programs, and had bequeathed large sums of money and the immensely valuable telescopes to them both. Finally, he told her how Swan had gone on to reach great heights in the field, publishing several highly regarded essays and making several discoveries before eventually taking his fortune and retreating to the life of a recluse somewhere in Canada, while Mark had spent his entire career in the futile pursuit of even a single menial discovery.

 

As he finished his feverish recount, he pulled his truck into the gravel parking lot in front of the post office. He killed the engine, symbolically adding a punctuation mark to the tale’s end, and sat with hands on the steering wheel waiting for Margot to respond. The pair sat in the truck’s cabin for a while in silence, the midmorning sun blasting them. Outside, the post office clientele filed in and out of the double doors, some carrying packages, some sorting letters distractedly.

 

“So you’re just going to give up, then?” Margot asked finally, crossing her arms and working her face once again into a pout.

 

“No ma’am,” came Mark’s reply. He tipped the rearview mirror towards himself and smoothed backed his thin hair. Looking into his own eyes in his reflection he then said, “I gave up twenty months ago. What I’m doing is just the opposite.”

 

Margot’s face contorted visibly in her frustrated lack of understanding. In her mind, Mark’s words and actions did not correlate, but she could see plainly that her uncle had something in mind, something that she would have to ask the right question to discover. She let her frustration come through noticeably in her next question.

 

“You think that selling your telescope is the opposite of giving up?” Her voice was incredulous now.

 

Mark continued to look into the mirror, choosing to ignore the derisiveness of Margot’s comment. He was looking into himself, silently hoping that his process would prove to be worthwhile. When, after another moment of silence, Margot released an annoyed groan, Mark looked at her with a small smile on his lips.

 

“Trust me, kiddo. When they see how much I’m asking, no one is going to be buying anything from me.”

 

Mark opened the driver’s door of the truck and got out, closing it behind him, and leaving Margot stunned and utterly confused. He was almost to the building entrance before Margot caught up to him, now alight with fresh questions. Mark was holding the door open for an elderly woman carrying a bundle of large Manila envelopes, as Margot stood behind him stammering over the beginnings of several questions that had suddenly crowded her mind. She finally settled on one and spit it out.

 

“Okay, so if you don’t want to sell it, why don’t we just get it fixed?”

 

The old woman with the bundle looked down at Margot’s enthusiasm curiously as she walked past the two, but continued on without pause. Mark gave her a polite nod for the courtesy and then turned to look down at his niece.

 

“Can’t afford it,” he replied quietly and abruptly, not wishing to have his financial affairs broadcast. He extended the hand that wasn’t holding the door towards Margot, palm up, and brought it around until it ushered her through the open doorway.

 

“After you.”

 

Now in the air-conditioned lobby, the pair took their place in the line to have their turn with one of two clerks. One was a small man about Mark’s age, who hunched over a pair of tiny circular glasses, the other a heavily built woman with a large perm and excessive make-up. Mark was watching them from the moment he walked in, sizing them up to see which of their services he would prefer to engage. His needs, he knew, would be a bit of a pain in the ass. Margot, meanwhile, was standing behind him quietly trying to connect the dots and fill in the missing pieces of their puzzle. By the time Margot decided that she would not be able to jump to the solution without asking more questions, Mark was next in line.

 

“I don’t get it, Mark,” Margot said at whisper. “If no one is going to buy it and you can’t afford to have it fixed, then why are we here? I mean, what good is this doing?”

 

Mark leaned down some to his niece’s height and, keeping his eyes on the counters to make sure he didn’t miss his signal to approach and hold up the line, said quietly to her, “I need to get someone’s attention.”

 

The clues fell into place for Margot instantly, like the tumblers on a combination lock after the final, proper turn of the dial.

 

“Swan!” Margot exclaimed, loud enough to get a start out of the solemn-looking, older Mexican fellow standing behind them in line, and threw her hands over her mouth in embarrassment. Mark, who was now being waved forward by the perm woman, flashed a smile of approval at his niece and motioned for her to wait for him on the bench near the wall of mail boxes.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

As it turned out, the post office didn’t have the information that Mark needed. Foreign addresses were not kept there, the large woman had informed Mark. He would have to try the public library, where they kept international phone books. He was, however, able to approximate the cost of postage, which he purchased before leaving the counter to explain to Margot, who was sitting cross-legged on the bench, that they would be making an additional stop.

 

Margot didn’t mind a bit. She was feeling high on the realization that the two of them were on a quest, a case, the successful completion of which would mean, she deduced, the reemergence of Mark’s former career, in which she now felt a longing to share. Just how Mark expected Swan to help remained unclear, but she sensed that reaching out to his former colleague had been difficult for Mark indeed and decided not to ask him more about his reasoning as they rode together to the library. Mark, however, was ready to volunteer the information. He had found the telling of his history to his niece to be thoroughly cathartic. He had begun to sweat out the poisons of his past and wasn’t ready to stop just yet.

 

“I haven’t seen Eliot in nearly twenty years,” Mark revealed as he pulled the truck onto North Navarro street. “He was in Texas, on a lecture tour I think, and he called me at the observatory and asked if I had time to have lunch with him. Catch up on old times.”

 

Margot was listening intently, hanging on the words, but did not interject or goad him when he paused. It became plain to her, from the somber quality that his voice had taken on and the mighty wrinkling of his forehead, that Mark was taking great pains in telling this story, as if it had been a memory he had repressed and that was only now being recalled. Realizing her uncle’s struggle, Margot simply waited for next words to form. It wasn’t until they were turning onto East Rio Grande a few minutes later that Mark spoke again.

 

“I’m afraid,” he said, quite haltingly now, “That I made a real ass of myself.”

 

After a pause, the trancelike effect of the remembering seemed to break or had at least been shaken off by Mark. He tried to smile again, to regain the confidence that he had displayed in his plan, but Margot saw plainly that he was a bit shaken by what he had recollected from his last meeting with the equivocal Eliot Swan. She did not make any motion to inquire, but instead reached across the bench seat and put one hand on Mark’s shoulder. Mark turned to meet her look.

 

“Like you said,” Margot counseled, “It was a long time ago. What’s the point of worrying about what happened way back then?”

 

Mark was nodded, reassuring himself.

 

“Besides, you still think he’ll help us. I mean, help you, right?”

 

She felt Mark square up his frame and saw his nodding become steadily more vehement as he considered her question.

 

“Yes. I am pretty certain that he will.” He stopped nodding after he said this and started shaking his head slowly, laughing quietly and bitterly to himself. “Hell, he was trying to help me then.”

 

Margot saw Mark flip the turn signal and realized that they were about to make a left on North Main Street, which meant that they would arrive at the public library in only a minute or two. She decided that it was a good time to restart her questions about their mission.

 

“So, let me get this straight,” she began. “You can’t find Swan’s phone number, right?”

 

Mark was nodding again, happy to be explaining himself, but happier still to have moved past the topic of that fateful lunch meeting all those years ago. “That’s right. No one can find it. I don’t even know if he still keeps a phone. He, um, ‘removed himself from the public eye’” he explained, quoting a passage from a magazine article he’d read about his old associate several years before. “He got to be very wealthy and, well, very respected.” He placed the emphasis on the last word in such a way that it came across as almost sarcastic, enough so, that Margot took notice. When Mark continued, though, she could couldn’t hear the tone in his words any longer, and thought perhaps that she had imagined it. “I guess he got sick of the attention,” Mark concluded as he jerked the column shifter into park in front of the glassy edifice of the Victoria Public Library.

 

“But,” said Mark as he unloosed his seat belt, “I’ll bet high stakes that Eliot still reads the same journals he always has.”

 

Margot saw the plan with clarity now and judged it to be fairly solid. When Swan came across the classified ad, he would no doubt be at the very least curious about Mark’s condition, even if not readily willing to lend a hand. It would be a foot in his door. Margot only hoped that her uncle was right and that the man he hadn’t seen in all these many years would still be friendly towards him and be eager to help him where he needed it. She decided not to present this worry to Mark. She judged that he had probably already considered the possibility that the effort might amount to no more than a snub from his former colleague.

 

Mark saw the wheels turning in his niece’s mind as the two exited the truck and thought that it was his turn to reassure her.

 

“Hey don’t worry, kiddo. Old Eliot will give me a call when he sees this.”

 

And with that statement, which in truth had placed more doubt in Mark than it had given comfort to his niece, the two walked into the library to do what could be done.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

Late one night in the fall of nineteen sixty-two, Mark Parrish, in a drunken haze, had been working at his station in the Victoria Parrish Observatory when he heard the phone ringing in the his home. He had found it to be curious because at this time the observatory had a separate line for business calls, the receiver for which was within his arm’s reach, so that he would not have to take his eye from his work in the happenstance that someone called. The ringing of the personal line had worried him immediately and he glanced down at his watch. It was after two-thirty in the morning, and in a small town like Victoria, there were precious few reasons to call a person’s home this late.

 

Sighing, Mark had climbed down the perforated steel steps of the viewing platform, drink in hand, and had made his way hurriedly down the hall and into his living space.

 

“Vitoria-Parrish Observatory,” Mark answered out of habit. He rarely received personal calls.

 

“Yes, Mark? Is that you old fellow?” came the voice on the other end. The affected Ivy League patterns of speech allowed Mark to recognize the voice instantly.

 

“Eliot?” Mark asked in a manner that was not exactly asking for a verification of the caller’s identity, but more so questioning the reason for the call.

 

“Yes it’s me! How the hell are you, pal?”

 

Mark coughed into his hand, feeling a bit cornered by the question. Physically, Mark was feeling fine and although no serious depression loomed over him during his daily routine. He was in his forties now, and the question made him squirm. He had not yet had his name written in annals of discovery, and he thought this question, coming from Eliot Swan, could only be in reference to his professional impotency, rather than his personal well-being. He might has well have been asked, “So, what’s the hold up, pal?” He felt immediately defensive, but forced himself to downplay his reaction as not to allow his contemporary the satisfaction.

 

“Oh, I’m passing the days,” Mark replied as casually as he could manage. “It’s awfully good to hear from you, Eliot.”

 

“Indeed. It’s been far too long, old fellow. What? Six years? Seven?”

 

Mark remembered exactly the date on which he had last spoken with Swan: six years before when the two had both been invited to the opening gala of the Ryabchikov Memorial Museum of Astronomy in Trenton, where they had been guests of honor. It was that night, after more than a reasonable share of champagne, that Mark had first felt the swell of competition growing between the two men.

 

“Something like that. But yes, too long,” Mark agreed reluctantly. “What’s on your mind?”

 

“Well, that’s just the thing. It seems that I’ve found myself in your neck of the woods.”

 

Mark gulped at his drink.

 

“You’re in Victoria?”

 

“Well, not precisely. Houston, to be exact. Doing a lecture at some college here. But I looked at a map just now and saw how close I was to you.” Mark could smell the gin on Swan’s breath through the wire.

 

“Well it’s still a few hours drive, actually. I wouldn’t really…”

 

Swan cut in, “Say, Mark. I didn’t wake you did I? I just realized the time.”

 

Again Mark felt the indignation rise in him. It might be late for the general class of folks, but Eliot knew that Mark was a devoted astronomer and the question implied that he was afraid the he had caught him asleep on his watch. The fact that he had received the call on his private line occurred to Mark, and he felt certain that Swan was attempting to undermine his professionalism, to suggest that he was nothing more than an amateur. The insult was cutting. Eliot must have sensed that he had made himself too obvious with his connotation, because before Mark could reply, he was back-pedaling.

 

“What am I saying?” Eliot was saying with a contrived sounding laugh. “Sleeping? Of course you weren’t sleeping! In fact, I no doubt interrupted your work.”

 

“Well, in fact you did,” Mark said, glad that Swan had admitted the absurdity of the question before Mark would be forced to actually answer it. He suddenly realized that perhaps he was being too sensitive. Was it not possible that Swan had simply spoken without thinking? Mark tried to shake loose of his insecurities and armor himself with magnanimity. “But it’s nothing to worry yourself over. I can always spare a few minutes for an old friend.”

 

“Well, I do apologize for that. I remember how you hated being dragged away from your work. Ever the tradesman, Parrish.”

 

Swan’s drunkenness became more and more obvious as the conversation continued and his air of malice faded. Mark allowed his guard to drop a little as Swan continued.

 

“Well, look Mark. I’m out here in, um, Houston and I was wondering if you might be free for a late lunch tomorrow.”

 

“In Houston?”

 

“No! Don’t be silly, old fellow. I’ll come to you, of course. I’ll make arrangements for a car in the morning. What, say three-o-clock?”

 

Mark was a bit bemused by the unexpectedness of this. He had thought for some years that Swan, a few years his junior, had always looked at him with a blend of envy and contempt. The envy mutual, both holding a special place in the world of their esteemed professor, the contempt singular, built against Mark’s many failures in the wake of the professor’s generosity and trust. Swan’s phone call at this late hour and invitation began to evaporate that idea, though, and Mark was left feeling a touch embarrassed that he had projected those emotions on to a man that had once been one of his closest associates. Bygones, he decided, should be just that, and he took another slug, finishing his glass.

 

“Sure, three sounds fine.”

 

“Terrific! You’ll have to pick a place, I’m afraid. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

 

Mark considered the duty carefully and was torn between catering to Swan’s pretenses and choosing the setting based on his personal comfort level. L’Astrance, the only two-star restaurant in Victoria or Marge’s Steak House, which was the eatery equivalent to a six-pack of beer. He decided on the former, succumbing again to his insecurities. He told Swan about the place and started to give him directions, but was cut off again.

 

“Don’t worry about the directions, old fellow. I’ll trust my driver to find it. Say, I’ve got a knock on my door. I’m going to see to that. But I’ll see you tomorrow!” He was speaking so quickly now that Mark hadn’t the time to get a word in. “L’Astrance! Au revoir!Swan proclaimed, then hung up before Mark could respond. Mark stood in his living room looking at the telephone in his hand, dumbfounded.

 

Au revoir,” he said into the dead line and then slowly hung up. He scratched his head and looked down into his hand and saw his empty glass there. The thought of the bottle he had left sitting on the viewing platform and then thought of another glass that he had left empty -– the glass lens of the viewfinder where his eye belonged. He shrugged to himself, then walked back out of his living room, down the hall, and into the observatory to fill both glasses and to continue the night’s vigil. He did not discover anything that night.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

At this point in his life, the dreams that had begun to plague Mark a decade or so before had been very successfully subdued by his careful diet of whiskey in the evenings, but tonight, having been jarred by the reintroduction of Eliot Swan into his thoughts, the dreams came to him forcefully. While the dreams that stirred him out of his sleep on this night were not the traumatic hauntings that would become so commonplace in the months after he adopted his niece eighteen years later, the were none the less blistering in their realism and aura of implied failure, permeated at the edges with whispers of the presence of Evgeni Ryabchikov. His dreams twisted his sleeping body on his bed like a crocodile attempting to drown him after having locked its jaws over his mind.

 

By noon, Mark was showered and shaved, but by no means rested. He knew that he had slept, the shards of the dreams still glittering like shattered glass in his memory, but his body did not feel the effects of it. He felt tired and reduced, both excited and hesitant over the concept of seeing his erstwhile comrade. In front of a mirror, Mark dressed and redressed himself several times, his vanity wishing him to appear blithe in the company of Eliot Swan. Eventually, he settled on a simple grey suit with a powder blue tie and black suede shoes. He smoothed his jacket in the mirror and checked his watch. It was twenty minutes after noon now. Anxious, Mark decided to drive into town and spend the early afternoon at the bookstore rather than rattle nervously around his home until the appointed time. He ran a comb through his hair, slid it into his jacket pocket, picked up his keys, and walked out the back door.

 

He sighed when he took in the sight of his car, a 1951 Dodge Coronet. The eleven year old car had seen better days — more than a decade’s worth of better days, actually. Never before had Mark looked at his vehicle with such scrutiny. After all, the mechanics had said the car was in great running order, and it still had less than fifty thousand miles, but weather had taken its toll on the sedan’s exterior, turning the once pearl paint to a dingy yellow. Mark looked down at his suit, new and neatly pressed. The suit was one of four that he had purchased a year or so before when he had been briefly inspired to present a more professional veneer to his student tours, but had never actually worn, deciding instead to save the wardrobe for special occasions. If he couldn’t be comfortable in his own damn home, he had reasoned to himself, where could he be? Still, the glaring contrast between the freshness of the suit and the tired appearance of his old Dodge suddenly dismayed him. He looked at his watch once again and nodded to himself. Yes, he thought, I have time.

 

Pecos Bill’s was a Cadillac dealership nestled off of Shepeley Road about two miles north of the Victoria-Parrish Observatory, and therefore, on the way into town for Mark. He found himself pulling into the lot a few minutes after one in the afternoon. He was greeted by a fast talking, barrel-chested man who called himself Big Rick and did he have a beauty for Mark. By two-twenty in the afternoon, Mark was pulling out of Pecos Bill’s behind the wheel of a brand new 1963 convertible Cadillac Coupe Deville, powder blue to match the tie that he was wearing, a touch that Big Rick had found especially tasteful. The transaction had cost Mark more than he would have liked, but he was comforted by the confidence that the combination of the new car and new suit brought to him. Besides, Mark justified to himself, he rarely spent large amounts of money and lived largely off of the interest in his bank account.

 

When he arrived at the restaurant, around quarter of three, Mark parked his car on the street about half a block away on the opposite side of the street and waited. It wasn’t long before a black Lincoln pulled up in front of the restaurant and a man in a driver’s hat got out and opened the back door on the curb side. Mark started the engine and crept up the block until he was parallel with the Lincoln. He called out to Swan, who was stepping out of the car and checking his watch.

 

Swan looked up, saw Mark in the Cadillac, smiled broadly, and began to make his way around the Lincoln to meet Mark in the street. He was stunned by Eliot’s appearance. Always a fairly short and thin man, he had always carried his slight frame well. Now, at about forty years old, he was no exception. He was wearing a black suit and a black tie, cut tapered at the waist in the European style, black patent leather shoes, silver-rimmed glasses, and a large silver watch and tie clip. His hair, also jet black, was combed pristinely into an executive’s contour. His face was shaved perfectly against his angular jaw. He didn’t look as if he’d aged a day since Mark had seen him last. As he stepped across the street, Mark debated stepping out of the car to greet him, but Swan’s gait was so brisk that he was upon him before he could make up his mind. Instead, Mark leaned his left arm over the door and extended his left hand and the pair shook hands briskly trading genuinely glad smiles. After they shook hands, Swan took a single step backwards and ran his sights over the length of the car, whistling slowly as he did.

 

“I’ll say Mark, that’s a fine machine you’ve got yourself there.”

 

“You like? I picked her up a few weeks back,” Mark replied coolly, but in fact his ears burned with the thrill of the adulation.

 

Swan nodded approvingly. “Well, if you were trying to make me jealous…” he said with a laugh. Mark laughed as well, but the joking comment struck close enough to the truth of the thing to make him squirm a bit in his seat.

 

“Well look, I’m going to find a place to park. I’ll meet you at the entrance.”

 

“Fine, fine. It sure is great to see you, Mark,” said Swan brightly as he turned around and walked back to the opposite curb.

 

Mark was still smiling as he pulled the Cadillac forward to find a space, but as soon as he was ahead enough of the restaurant to feel sure that he was out of any possible line of sight, his smile melted away into a scowl.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

You bought a Cadillac?” Margot asked her uncle, astonished.

 

Mark looked took his eyes out of the phone book he was flipping through and looked across the table at her.

 

“It surprises you that much?” he retorted, although he was not surprised in the least by her reaction. He knew as well as she that it was a action not usually within the boundaries of his sensibility.

 

“No. I mean, well, yes,” she said, careful to keep her voice muted in the grand hush of the library’s afternoon. She was still using the story he was telling to search for the clues that might appear. “Did you buy it just to impress Swan?”

 

“Yes and no, I guess. You see, to me, at least back then, Eliot represented the, er, legitimate scientific community at large. I suppose I just didn’t want to be seen as a failure.”

 

“That’s so strange,” Margot said. She had her elbows propped on the table and her chin resting in her palms, regarding Mark the way one might regard a stage play, carefully listening to a character’s lines to decipher his motives.

 

“Well, if it makes you feel any better about it, I sold the damn thing a week later,” muttered Mark, his eyes and left index finger again searching the listings. In the libraries periodicals section, they had found copies of Astronomy and The Griffith Observer and were able to find mailing addresses listed in them, but Mark was not satisfied with that and had asked for the Canadian listings to search for a few more obscure journals’ information, ones that he imagined that Swan would take seriously. Now, after a moment of scanning, his left hand came to a stop and he moved his face closer to the page, squinting, and with his right hand, he picked up a pen and jotted the address he had found onto a legal pad. When he had finished this, he began to turn the pages again with his left hand and with his right he absentmindedly made a flourishing motion in the air as if he were trying to shoo an idea out of his thoughts and added, mumbling, “Midlife crisis.”

 

For Margot, the revealing details of Mark’s account were incredible. The man, always so stoic and even, was exposing episodes of pettiness that she would have not, in a million years, believed he was capable of only a few days before. Even when drunk, which she had seen often, Mark was never paltry in his behavior. He had had his character flaws, his dryness bordering on lack of emotion, his general antisocial nature, his drinking, but since she had found him walking out of the observatory this morning, he had seemed like an altogether different person. He still spoke like her uncle, with his flippant, dismissive comments, and his body language was unchanged, but the nature of the things he was willing to discuss, to divulge, was altogether different. The day had taken on the quality of a confessional, or at least what she imagined a confessional to be like from limited gleanings of books and movies. How many Hail Marys, she wondered, should a priest assign for the sin of vanity? As she lost herself in the thought, Mark flipped the seven inch thick phone book shut with a small thud. When Margot looked up, Mark was pushing a folded sheet of paper across the table to her.

 

“Will you go make me a few copies of this while I fill out these checks?” he asked, standing to fish change out of his hip pocket.

 

“Sure” she said, amiably and accepted his handful of change in both of hers.

 

“Thanks, kiddo. Six copies ought to do it.”

 

He was already filling out the checks as she shuffled away from the table and over to the Xerox machine in the corner. Here, she heaped the change onto an edge and, looking over her shoulder to make sure Mark wasn’t watching her, opened the letter and read it.

 

For Sale:

 

1.8 meter 1904 Russian Artisan Professional Observatory Telescope, based on French Deloncle design.

 

Once property of famed astronomer Evgeni Ryabchikov.

 

Only 6 examples known to exist and only 2 examples known to exist outside of the Soviet Union.

 

Extremely rare.

 

Will entertain offers starting at $15 million USD, depending on conditions.

 

Contact:

 

Mark Parrish

Victoria-Parrish Observatory

104 Observatory Way

Victoria, Texas 77901

 

(361)370-1123

 

 

Although the contents of the letter did not surprise Margot, she still found herself grappling with the reality of the situation. Fifteen million dollars was a lot of money, sure, but what exactly was the value of the telescope? Supposing someone did call and actually want to buy it at that price, would Mark consider selling it? She wondered what price he put on his dream and if the number written on the paper in her hand was actually that price or an arbitrary number he knew to be unrealistic. Margot, even with her advanced intellect and learning, found now that the world of seven figure finance was outside of her comprehension. She decided after some thought that it was best to push it out of her mind. She laid the vexing classified face down on the glass surface, lowered the plastic lid, dropped several coins into the hulking photocopier, clicked the LCD counter up to 6 and hit print.

 

When Margot walked back to the table where she and Mark had been sitting, Mark was copying addresses from the legal pad onto five envelopes that he had arranged in front of him symmetrically.

 

“Have a problem with the copier?” he asked, leaning close to the legal pad to make sure that was copying the address carefully.

 

“No problem.”

 

“Good. I can’t stand those god-awful things.”

 

“I read the letter, though.”

 

Here Marks pen halted briefly, and Margot thought for a moment that he was going to become angered. But if anger did come over him, he let it pass him and continued again to write.

 

“Hm,” he said, “Find any typos?”

 

“Nope.” She set the stack of fresh copies on the phone book and reseated herself across from her uncle. “Finish your story.”

 

 

* * * *

 

 

Mon ami et moi allons avoir une bouteille de sherry pour commencer,” Swan was saying to the waiter after they had been seated in a corner of the small, bistro-like restaurant. When he finished, the waiter, a squat man with an obvious hairpiece only blinked at him.

 

“I’m sorry sir,” said the squat man, abashedly, “But I’m afraid that I don’t speak French.”

 

Swan made a show of his pantomimed reply, mouthing Oh elaborately, and waving a hand broadly over the dining room before he spoke.

 

“My apologies!” he said, not without a bit of sarcasm. “It’s just that the décor here is so authentic that for a moment I thought I was sitting in a bistro on the Champs Elysees.” Swan winked at Mark as if to include him on the fun, but Mark only coughed into his hand, embarrassed by the interaction. Swan seemed to realize that Mark was not fond of this game, so he himself straightened in his chair and took a more serious tone, letting the waiter off the hook. “A bottle of sherry to start, if you please.” And then gingerly to Mark, “What say, Parrish, a bit of sherry? We’ve got cause to celebrate, after all.”

 

“That sounds fine,” Mark said evenly.

 

“Grand! Bring us the foie gras as well, my good fellow.”

 

“Very good, sir,” said the waiter before giving a stiff bow and vanishing into the kitchen.

 

Swan flapped his napkin free of its starched fold and began to tuck it into his lap.

 

“I suppose you’re right, Mark. I didn’t mean to razz him. It’s just seeing you again, it brings me back to Princeton. Ivy Club and all of those old jokers.”

 

Mark’s ears burned. He couldn’t tell now if Swan’s condescending was deliberate or just an accidental product of his nature. Eliot Swan was, of course, the son of a Nobel Laureate, William Allen Swan, noted physicist and entrepreneur. He had been raised in a household of fortune, always receiving the things he needed to advance — the proper tutors, the proper affiliations. He was American royalty, and as such, his tendency to belittle his surroundings came to him almost unconsciously, a tic of his upbringing. Mark, on the other hand, had had no such benefit. His father was an engineer for a Texas crude oil concern. A position of some prominence and certainly well above the poverty line, but marred with the stigma caused by its association with blue collar labor and the new money culture of the Lone Star state. Mark’s path through school involved no special treatment. Although an academically gifted child, Valedictorian of his high school graduating class, he was utterly without the social aptitude of those country club youths which Swan represented. This is not to say that Mark was without the tools, the wit, and confidence to reach those positions, but he was not raised in a manner that emphasized their importance. And now, Swan’s casual reference to the highly exclusive Princeton social circle brought into focus for Mark the gap that had always stood between the two of them, even as Ryabchikov, his arms metaphorically around each of their shoulders, had looked to bridge it.

 

“I wasn’t a member,” Mark said, as nonchalantly as possible.

 

“What’s that?” asked Swan, who was now studying the menu.

 

“The Ivy Club. I was never a member.”

 

Swan set the menu down now and adjusted his glasses, a confused look setting in on his face. “Is that right?” he asked. Swan took his glasses off and began to clean them with a handkerchief he pulled out his lapel pocket. His tone seemed truly puzzled. “It’s just that we spent so much time together back then.”

 

“In the lab.”

 

“Well, yes, in the lab. But..” Swan chuckled now, remembering an anecdote. “Not always in the lab, though. Remember Thelonious Monk? At Minton’s?”

 

The induced memory dulled Mark’s building spite, rounded off its dagger edge, and sheathed it. On that night, in either nineteen forty seven or eight, Mark had come to Payton Hall around sunset to begin a night’s work, only to find Swan, then only twenty six, waiting for him in the observatory. Ryabchikov had been called out of town that week for a lecture, leaving the two graduate students in charge. Swan had other things on his mind that night, though. As soon as Mark walked in the door, Swan set into him with a fast and convincing explanation as to why it was absolutely imperative that the two young men excuse themselves from their evening routine and take in a jazz show in New York. Jazz, which at the time was as mysterious and exotic to Mark as anything could be, prompted a feeling of danger. Although Mark was already past thirty, the giddy rush intoxicated him and he eventually agreed. That night, rapt in the discordant keystrokes of Monk’s piano and the grip of a few strong drinks, Mark had taken a joint that was handed to him and, for the first and only time in his life, felt the warm crackling of a marijuana high. And although he spent the latest part of the evening puking in an alley behind the club, the experience was altogether exceptional for Mark.

 

“Yes, I remember.” Mark said after a time, smiling despite himself.

 

“I remember it fondly, Mark,” said Swan, with a surprising note of tenderness. “I have to admit, back then, you made me awfully jealous.”

 

Mark was stunned. He had made Swan jealous? The concept seemed so far fetched as to be a complete impossibility. This young man who had everything — the family, the money, the talent, and damn it all, the luck -– what could possibly make him jealous of a quiet, bookish Texan? All of the things that Mark had ever hoped to accomplish, Swan had accomplished before they had even parted ways. Mark had been playing catch up since before he had even met Swan and so this ludicrous claim, even delivered as honestly as it had been, struck Mark as egregious to the point of insult. For the third time in only a few minutes of seeing Swan, Mark found himself swallowing a pang of animosity. He would not, he decided, give Swan the satisfaction.

 

“Jealous of me?” Mark replied casually. “I find that a little hard to believe.”

 

As he spoke, the waiter reappeared with their bottle and offered it to Swan. Swan, made a vague hand gesture as if he were shooing the waiter away but kept his eyes on Mark. Mark nodded at the waiter and again the squat man vanished into the background leaving the two men alone.

 

“Oh, come off it, Parrish.” said Swan. Anger had appeared so suddenly in his tone that Mark found himself on his heels. He, after all, was the one who had been being insulted. But Swan’s features softened as he continued and he smiled. “Everyone saw how Evgeni treated you. The golden boy.”

 

Mark had to laugh out loud now. This whole time, these years that had passed, the two of them had harbored identical resentments towards one another. Mark was bitterly envious of Swan’s place in the old man’s world, and all the while Swan had felt the same way. And now that he looked at it, with these admissions airing themselves in the open, why did he ever think that way in the first place? Ryabchikov had brought Swan in only months after recruiting him, sure. Swan was wealthy, well-liked amongst his peers, and, even at that young age, astoundingly accomplished –- but had Ryabchikov ever shown signs of favoritism? If it had occurred, Mark couldn’t recall it.

 

“Well, are you going to tell me what’s so funny?” Swan said, impatience now the defining quality of his speech.

 

Mark quieted his laughter but couldn’t withdraw the beaming smile that it had left. “Eliot,” said Mark, pulling the cork out of the bottle of sherry, “I think that I’ve had the wrong idea about you.” Mark poured them each a quarter tulip and passed one across the table. “Here’s to clearing the air, eh?”

 

Swan, who had been sitting with a look of doubtful skepticism on his face, seemed to lighten at this. He accepted the glass and lifted it slightly.

 

“I’ll drink to that.” he said and smiled.

 

As they sipped, a tiny young woman set a pair of saucers in front of each of them and as she stepped away, the waiter from before approached with a silver serving tray, which he sat between them.

 

“Foie gras,” he said quietly, expecting a sadistic retort from Swan.

 

Swan, though, had had his fun and was ready to take the waiter seriously, or at least to do so for Mark’s sake.

 

“Ah, just the man I wanted to see!” Swan said, now with no hint of sarcasm. “I was eyeing your duck l’orange. What do you think?”

 

The waiter looked at Mark before responding, making sure that he wasn’t walking into some manner of trap. Mark, who could not have promised the man either way what Swan would do next, only raised both eyebrows and tilted his head to say, “Who’ve got me, buddy.” The waiter, left with no choice, braved a response.

 

“Sir, it is one of our most popular dishes.” And when he saw Swan nodding his head, interested, he added, “In fact, the food critic for the Houston Chronicle, Josh Snelling, ordered it just last week. The review was, umm, favorable.”

 

“I suppose I’ll have that, then.” Swan closed his menu and handed it to the man. “Have you had a chance to decide, Mark?”

 

Mark held his menu out to the waiter without ever opening it.

 

“Steak. Your best cut. Medium rare.”

 

The waiter accepted Mark’s menu and asked, “The filet mingnon, sir?”

 

“Mm. You’d better make it rare, then.”

 

“Very good, gentleman.” said the waiter, who then, in a flourish of practiced confidence, snatched the lid from the silver, foie gras serving tray, and bowed.

 

“Bon appetit!” And he was gone.

 

The meal from then on went rather smoothly, the two old companions reveling in shared joviality, reminiscing of times past. They discussed old friends, their work and Swan’s reason for traveling to Texas, to lecture at Rice and simultaneously promote his newly released book, Observations: A Young Astronomer’s Life in Space. The bottle of brandy that was brought was drained almost before the entrees were served and a bottle cognac was brought out to replace it. It wasn’t until their check was presented and the two men were edging on drunk before the communication took a sour turn.

 

“Let me get this,” said Mark, reaching for the small, leather folder that contained the check, a wistful smile worn across his face.

 

“Please Mark,” Swan countered, placing his hand over Mark’s. “I invited you out. I’d feel terribly course if I suggested a meeting with someone and then allowed him to pay.” And when he saw Mark wavering on the decision, he added, “I insist.”

 

Mark, too warm from memories and liquor to put up too much of an argument, relented quickly.

 

“Okay, okay. But next time, I want to treat. Honestly, we shouldn’t wait so long before we do this again. It’s been great seeing you.”

 

Swan, who was selecting an American Express card from his wallet, straightened noticeably at this remark.

 

“Actually Mark, you’ve struck close to my ulterior motive.”

 

This interested Mark. He had, of course, been curious as to Swan’s motivation, having gone this long thinking the two were at odds, but the suggestion of an ‘ulterior motive’ intrigued him now greatly. Surely whatever bad blood had existed between them had been quashed. And, at least from where Mark sat, Swan seemed in no need of a favor. The effects of this new development were sobering and he felt his giddy high begin to fade.

 

“Okay, I’ll bite,” Mark said, a bit rattled after trying unsuccessfully to untangle the riddle on his own. “What was your real reason for calling me?”

 

Seemingly aloof to Mark’s subtle shift in disposition, Swan continued, speaking earnestly about his idea.

 

“The thing is this, old fellow: My career has become something of a whirlwind. I’ve simply got too much on my plate to stay at the observatory night after night and map.”

 

“Hm,” Mark grunted, slugging his last corner of brandy and pouring another glass.

 

“Look, I won’t tiptoe around it. I want you to manage my observatory when I can’t be there, which is often.” He paused and finished his own brandy, holding his glass out to Mark, who still had his hand around the bottle’s throat.

Come work with me, Mark.”

 

Mark stared at the man across from him blankly for a moment and then, noticing the glass held out to him, poured a five count of the brandy. As he did, he spoke.

 

“Come work for you, you mean.”

 

“Semantics, Mark.”

 

“I have an observatory, Eliot. Why in God’s name would I want to move back to New Jersey and be someone’s assistant?” Mark was struggling to hide the venom in his tone.

 

“You’re misunderstanding me, Mark. I don’t want you to be anyone’s assistant. I want you to manage my observatory. I have a staff of ten. They’d be your assistants.”

 

“I have an observatory, Eliot,” Mark repeated, stubbornly.

 

Swan continued unheeded. “I have modern equipment, Mark — digital equipment. You’re breaking my heart holing yourself up with that relic…”

 

For the first time during their meeting, Mark felt truly and overtly insulted. An attack on his work and his telescope was, to Mark, the most severe affront possible. He felt blood coursing to his face and it took all of his control not to shout as he interrupted.

 

“That relic was good enough for Evgeni!” Mark hissed.

 

“That’s exactly my point!” replied Swan, excitedly. “Evgeni was ancient before we even met him.” Mark was furious now, but still avoided an outburst. He only leered at Swan, gritting his teeth against his torrent of insults. “Good God, man. Do you think he was using that old artifact when he discovered the Legacy?” Mark’s fists clinched involuntarily. “Of course not! I was there, Mark. He was looking at a digital readout! The radio telescope!”

 

Mark wanted to silence Swan with a passionate defense of his actions, but, for the life of him, he could not think of a logical way to combat Swan’s reason. Evgeni had used the radio telescope when he discovered the Legacy comet. And, even though Swan didn’t say it, they both knew that the Legacy was the only thing that the old Russian had discovered in nearly two decades before that, since the new technology in astronomy had become available. Unable to reply, or understand fully why his spirit rejected the offer so thoroughly and automatically, Mark only sat and seethed. Swan went on.

 

“Just think about it, Mark. What we could do if we worked together. We both know how much talent you have. How much skill. Do you think that I’ve had so much more success because I have more talent? I just embraced technology and you didn’t. It’s as simple as that.”

 

“I like what I do, Eliot.”

 

“And you’d be doing the same damn thing with me!”

 

“I have my own observatory.” Mark said again, unable to think of anything else to say.

 

“Oh, for God’s sake man! It’s not like I’m suggesting you burn it to the ground!”

 

Swan’s words were honest, Mark knew that much. And even though he found them deeply insulting, there was a absolute logic in them that he could not deny. He had, after all, found absolutely no success in his career. And yes, he had bullheadedly stuck to the traditional methods of observation in spite of the whole of the community advancing around him. But somehow, someway, it felt right to him. He couldn’t explain to Swan why it was, or even explain it to himself, really. The telescope had been a gift from his professor, the man who had shown him the real nature of the game, who had guided him into his calling with patience and care. He felt sure that when Ryabchikov had left the telescope to him, he had meant for him to use it. There was a purity to the practice that could not be duplicated in other methods. His naked eye to the glass was somehow more natural than the translation of a digital readout. But all of this, Mark could not explain to Swan, as it wasn’t coherent in his own mind, but rather a sort of feeling, an instinct. His train of thought was interrupted by Swan reaching across the table and putting his hands gently on Mark’s balled fists.

 

“Mark, don’t be insulted. I need your help. You’re the best astronomer I know.”

 

Swan’s gentleness now calmed Mark momentarily, but the sting of the insults did not reduce. He felt ready to scream, to cry. The benevolence that Swan used to ebb his biting words was powerful, though, and Mark contained himself still. Swan looked him in the eyes and squeezed his fists gently.

 

“It’s time, Mark. Don’t waste the rest of your life alone in that museum. I want you by my side.”

 

Mark couldn’t bear to look into Swan’s eyes any longer and cast his gaze down at his lap. As they sat this way, silent and in mutual anticipation of what would happen next, the waiter arrived to collect the check holder. As he approached, Swan withdrew his hands abruptly and straightened in his chair, taking on his usual look of haughty indifference –- a show for the stranger. His manner now far more formal, he spoke again to Mark.

 

“If it’s important to you, Mark, I’ll hire a man to manage your work in your absence.”

 

This offer, or perhaps the manner in which it was delivered, allowed Mark to make up his mind once and for all on the subject. He glared at Swan. The waiter ducked in quietly not wishing to disrupt the conversation, withdrew the check from the center of the table and turned to leave. But as he stepped away, Mark reached out suddenly and grabbed a hold of his elbow.

 

“One second,” said Mark, holding out his palm to take back the check. The waiter placed it in his hand with no hesitation. Mark, still eying Swan sourly, took his wallet from his jacket pocket and withdrew three one hundred dollar bills. He opened the leather booklet, saw that he had overestimated the price of the meal by around seventy five dollars, still inserted all three bills, removed Swan’s charge card and handed the check holder back to the waiter.

 

“The change is yours,” he said to the man, still eyeballing Swan.

 

The waiter, who knew the price of the meal and had seen the amount that Mark had inserted, bowed graciously.

 

“Thank you very much, sir.” Then he wisely vanished into the restaurant’s kitchen.

 

Mark reached across the table and set the plastic card in front of Swan, who was looking bewildered. Swan looked down at the card for a moment, but made no move to pick it up. Mark rose to his feet and, with both hands now grasping the edges of the table, leaned over close to Swan.

 

“I don’t need your goddamned charity,” he fumed and then straightened and smoothed his jacket and hair. “Great to see you, Swan.”

 

As he walked out of the restaurant, he heard Swan calling behind him.

 

“Mark, wait! Mark…”

 

About a minute later, seated behind the driver’s wheel of his newly purchased Cadillac in the temperate, Texas autumn afternoon, Mark began to cry. He gripped the steering wheel until the blood drained from his hands and when he couldn’t grip any longer, he began to punch the steering wheel and shout incoherently. When the anger had finally passed out of him, his face streaked with sticky reflective lines, he started the engine and pulled off towards home, the words that Swan had said, that had wounded him so badly to hear, still ringing in his ears.

 

 

* * * *

 

 

“He wanted you to abandon the observatory?” Margot asked, sheepishly.

 

They were standing in line now at the library. Mark had carefully addressed the envelopes, sealed the letter copies and corresponding checks into each one, and affixed the proper postage as he told Margot the story of what occurred on that day nearly two decades before. Now, they waited in the queue behind a few of the older folks that frequented the library on weekdays, waiting to add the stack of letters to the libraries outgoing mail.

 

“He was trying to do me a favor, I think. He just, he just went about it in a way that upset me. I’ve thought about what happened a lot since then. I really don’t think that he was trying to insult me.”

 

“You told him to take a hike,” Margot said. It was not a question, but Mark reacted as if it were.

 

“I don’t know. I mean, I guess I did. But, well, I think he understood.”

 

Margot eyed Mark suspiciously. She knew that there was something about the story that he was omitting. Maybe it wasn’t something that had happened during that meal, but some important detail was being left out and she knew it. But she also knew better than to challenge on this outright.

 

“And you think that he’ll still help you, even though you walked out on him before and you haven’t talked to him for twenty years.” Again, she was not asking, but simply confirming the clues out loud to herself.

 

“I’m pretty sure that he will.”, Mark said, lost in thought.

 

“Are you going to take a job at his observatory? Like he offered you?” The thought had just then occurred to Margot. The idea that Mark might leave Texas, that they both might leave Texas, to work for this man that Mark had just effectively vilified, repulsed her. She had come to think of the Victoria-Parrish Observatory as her home, despite the uselessness of the gigantic, ancient telescope. If this was his plan, she didn’t think that she would be able to accept it. There must be another way.

 

“Hey, can I check out a book while we’re here?” she asked Mark, an idea now formed in her mind.

 

“Sure, kiddo,” said Mark, still somewhere else in his mind.

 

Margot bolted off, leaving Mark standing in line alone. He was thinking about Swan, about what he would say when and if he talked to him again. How he would swallow his pride and how he would humble himself by asking for the man’s help. It wasn’t long before Margot was back, clutching a book against her chest like a football. Mark, too wrapped up in his own contemplations, did not notice her. It wasn’t until they moved to the front of the line and greeted Mrs. Church, the fat librarian, and Margot slid the book onto the counter between them, that he noticed what she had selected. He looked at the cover of the book, confounded, and then down at Margot, who cast her glance down to the floor.

 

“Will this be it for you today, Mr. Parrish?” asked Mrs. Church, unaware of the drama that had taken place between the two.

 

“Yes. Um, no. I’m sorry,” Mark shook his head to clear it, as if he had been punched and was trying to regain steady himself. “Would you add these to your outgoing mail, Mrs. Church?”

 

“Of course, Mr. Parrish,” said the plump woman, smiling brightly.

 

Mark handed the woman the letters as well as his library card, then turned his attention back to preteen girl who had just thrown him so completely off kilter. He wanted to tell her that she couldn’t check that book out, that he forbid it, but there was no way he could do that now, not reasonably anyway. He shook his head again, astonished at the way the girl had so seamlessly found a solution to his purposely incomplete storytelling. And once again he realized that he must have subconsciously offered her this path. He cursed himself under his breath.

 

Mrs. Church handed Mark the book, and thanked her and then silently handed it to Margot. Together, they walked out into the booming southern sun. Margot still clutched the copy of Observations: A Young Astronomer’s Life in Space by Eliot Swan to her chest, protecting it as if it were the Rosetta stone.

Published in: on April 11, 2011 at 1:42 pm  Comments (3)