ON A COOL October night, Kip is balled up in the middle of the king-size bed, covers pulled over his head. This is Leilas way of sleeping when she gets in first and waits for him, but the position is not natural to Kip. He is 38, still hard-muscled from workouts in the gym. Stretched out, his length of six feet, two inches, places his head at the top and his heels at the very bottom of the bed. Now, curled up inside his soft, dark cavern, he tries to feel his bigness and strength. They are lost to him.
The hour is still early, yet he must sleep. Tomorrow will be his first day back at the office. He lies on his left side, making a tight S. In the quiet under the down comforter, he can hear his own breathing, not much else. The enclosed space gives each breath a bellows-like whooshing sound to complement the whooshing of blood in his veins. He becomes aware of his shallow breathing and endeavors to deepen it, but the changes in rhythm and effort make him doubly aware of his beating heart. Its power reverberates throughout his body.
The effort to keep his mind blank is exhausting but does not lead him into sleep. He opens his eyes. The absence of light is complete under the thick, tightly drawn covers, but theres always something to be seen. He looks into the dark. Thousands of tiny white specks dance about like atoms at boiling point. Intermittently, in the middle of their bright dance, pulsing flows shove them aside, like muddy disgorgements from sewage pipes, rushing rhythmically with every beat of his heart.
In time, his breath and blood warm the air inside his self-made tent. He rolls onto his back and throws the covers off his face, escaping the pitch black with its boiling atomic particles and flowing phantoms of blood. The moonlight casts the room in grainy relief, a surprising amount of natural light. The bedroom is on the second floor and has two large windows, bordered only with decorative swagsLeilas touches. Theyve always left the windows uncovered because they live in a wooded suburb, very private. Quiet.
He knows he will not be going to sleep. He gets up.
At the window on the front of the house he stops to look out. Near the mailbox, a glimmer catches his eye, a single gentle swing in a sudden breeze. The realtor came by that morning to post the for sale sign. The outdoor lights are off but everything can be seen in the moonlight: the driveway, the rock garden, a patch of lawn, the outlines of branches, and in the distance, the porch light of their nearest neighbor. The sky is shot with stars but lacking the moon.
He goes to the back of the house, to the master bath. It has a small bay window with a ledge to rest his elbows upon while gazing out. Low in the sky, the enormous moon bathes the large backyard in a silver shimmer, bright enough to cast shadows from the surrounding trees. The realtor told him to leave the swing set up, it will help to make the sale. He turns. He needs to tell Leila what the realtor said today.
Kip moves back to the bedroom. On the bed is a lump of covers, head invisible. He draws and releases the next breath without noticing it, and the corners of his mouth turn upward. Shes climbed in while he was in the bathroom, and now, maybe, he can go to sleep.
Leila, he whispers when hes pushed up behind her, his head still outside, hers inside. Theres not a sound, but the bed is warm. Are you asleep already?
Always, Leila has been nearly soundless in the way she sleeps, a kitten without the purr.
Are you all right, Leila?
Fine. Just fine. The voice is barely audible under the covers yet so familiar in the dark. The tone is gentle and sweet, full of contentment. At rest.
But he must know. Youre sure?
Yes, dont worry.
And the kids?
I checked on them.
Dont be sorry.
I cant sleep.
You need your rest.
Tomorrow How can I?
Youll get through it. They just want to help.
Leila has always believed in the goodness of people and he tries to be more like her, to believe in their goodness too.
He lapses into silence. They both lie on their left sides but her head is still covered, and he tries to hear her breathing, to gain a complete image of her buried under the covers without lifting them. An edge of the pillow she sleeps on is sticking out and he pushes his face into it, smelling her hair, her skin, drawing up the warmth. Her power should be enough to pull him down into her deep well, a dreamless limbo, an obliteration of consciousness.
Minutes or hours pass. He may have fallen when he senses something behind him, a sound or a movement near the bedroom door. Theyre in the habit of leaving the door open in case one of the children calls out.
Kip turns onto his back and props himself up on his elbows. The small silhouette in the doorframe belongs to Jonathan, their six-year-old.
Whats doin buddy?
The silhouette takes a single step in, then another.
Come here. Come on! Kip pats the bed on his right. Leila is on his left.
The small figure is up beside the bed now. A fist rubs an eye. I cant sleep.
Youve been asleep. Your mom saw you.
I dont want to sleep.
A choking sound jars the stillness. Come here bud. It came from Kips throat.
He holds the covers up, and the boy climbs into the bed. Kip slides his right arm under the small, bony shoulders and pulls him in tight. They snuggle close.
Did you see the moon Jon-o? The boys room has a window on the backyard.
Its huge. I touched it.
Kip gently places his lips on top of the head, feeling the silky softness, smelling the snips and snails. His lips move across his sons hair as he talks. It seems close enough to touch, but its thousands of miles away.
Closer than Zorq?
How far away is Zorq?
Oh, at least a million light years.
Jon thinks a while, imagining life on Zorq, the fascinating aliens his father has conjured so many evenings at bedtime.
I forget, Dad.
Do the Zorquians have cars?
Shh, now Jonathan, says Leila, thinking of Kip.
She always uses their sons full name when shes serious. Kip takes in a deep breath and says, They dont need cars. They dematerialize and rematerialize at their destination.
Oh yeah, I remember.
They just have to think of where they want to go.
They blink, and when they open their eyes, theyre somewhere else.
Right. Like magic.
We did that.
Now, now, says Leila. She rolls over onto her back and exposes her face.
Well, we did, insists Jon-o.
It was instantaneous, the man said. Others agreed.
Kip turns his head to the left and brings Leilas profile into view. He can feel the length of her right leg along the length of his left leg and his left hand reaches for her right. The fingers are slender and cool and they intertwine with his and press in restrained urgency. He turns his face up, and the three of them lie on their backs, looking into the invisible ceiling.
Minutes pass. Why is it so light? says another voice at the door.
In the frame now is a taller silhouette, the outline of their eight-year-old, Isabelle.
You cant sleep? says Kip.
Youre so dark over there. Its like Im on the stage again.
Her words take him back to springtime, the recital, her pale pink tights and pure white tutu, her long, dark hair pulled tight and slick into the bun that Leila made. Come here, sweetheart, he says.
She doesnt move. Not really the stage, she muses. Its that other light. Thats what it is! The light that came for us.
No, says Kip. Come here if you cant sleep.
But Daddy. I dont want to sleep.
There it is, that choking sound again, coming from a body not his own. Come here. He feels it in his throat. Theres plenty of room! Isnt there, Leila?
Plenty, she says.
Theyve done this before and like to joke about it. This is why we stopped at twotheres no more room in the bed! On nights like this.
Isabelle is at the bedside.
Izza lizard, says the boy.
Jon wonton, says the girl, and they both giggle. Their sweet sounds play together, bubbling like fresh, clear water.
Here, says Kip, scooping the boy up. Get between me and Mom. Leila, scoot a little. Here Izza. Jons bony knees dig into his chest on the way over, but the rearrangement is accomplished and Isabelle climbs in beside him on the right, her long hair brushing his face before she lies down. Jon is on his left and then Leila. Each of Kips arms is under the pajama-clad shoulders of a child, his left fingers cupping Leilas shoulder.
They, four, stare into the invisible ceiling with no beginning or end. Kip tries to slow his breathing, but the wetness on his cheeks turns into trembling that quickly becomes shaking.
Youre not going to ask us again, are you Daddy? says Izza.
Im sorry, says Kip. He wants to know about their day. Over and over again.
I love the summer, says Jon. I never want summer to end.
Theres nothing to be sorry about. Leila speaks over Jonathan in her comforting voice, because she wants so much for Kip to feel better. If he could feel better he would, just for her, not for himself.
I dont have to ask you again. Ella told me all about your day. Ella is the mother of Ben and Riley. The friends.
They were late, says Jon. We had to wait for them in the parking lot.
Only a few minutes, says Leila. Patience does not come easily
Patience, waiting, stages, change, little people. They want their day to begin sooner than now, yet they have their whole lives to look forward to. Impatient. Their whole lives ahead
I wish you couldve come, says Izza. We had so much fun! I made a sandcastle with Riley.
I wish Im sorry, I had to work.
Dont be sorry. The comforting.
The waves were gi-normous! says the boy, using his favorite new word. Me and Ben ran in, but Mom called us back.
On the way home, the girl begins.
We just blinked, Dad. Thats all.
Jon was being annoying, Daddy. Her favorite grownup word.
But you didnt look, you didnt see
They didnt, Kip! They were playing and arguing and laughing in the back. Only me.
What about the light, Mommy?
I just blinked anyway.
It was a light, wonton.
But you, Leila.
Dont worry, darling. Im sure they didnt see a thing.
Just for a flash of a second when it jumped the median.
Jumped and it was too late, but so fast, so fast.
Instantaneous they said.
No, Kip. No pain.
Kips heart is racing again and his eyes are closed tight against it. Hes heard their answers countless times in a blur of endless nights. He wants to know.
Now he doesnt.
Hes ashamed for asking again because it does nothing to ease his mind. Always the tears come, the choking, the shaking, and afterward, a blank exhaustion that can never be blank enough.
After a time, the night becomes still once more. He closes his eyes to look for the bright, dancing specks of light, the dust of the universe. If he looks hard enough into his closed eyelids he can pass right through the frantic specks and out to the other side.
He keeps trying.
Minutes pass, hours, days and nights pass.
A voice emerges from the void, steady and deep with truth.
I miss you. His.
Followed by three others.
I miss you too, Dad.
I miss you, Daddy.
I miss you Kip my darling.
Lying on his back, he gathers up the Isabelle pillow and the Jonathan pillow and the Leila pillow and squeezes them tight against his chest and face, breathing his family deeply into his lungs to capture their dwindling particles of skin and hair, sucking in the tear-drenched linens. Maybe he can suffocate.
But then Leila says, No, Kip, like she always does.
Because I love you.
But youre gone.
Im here with you.
This is not the truth. She is not here, but he can go there.
He starts to tell her this again, but she interrupts. You cant, because you know what I would want. It is the voice she uses when she is very sure, and none of them, not Jonathan, not Isabelle, not even Kip, can contradict.
Her words, theirs, have found him out. He opens his eyes and the dancing specks rush in, condense, and explode.
This is the truth.
He allows for some air, still resisting.
I cant. Tomorrow, and the next day. How can I?
You will, says Leila.
For you, I will
For yourself. She waits a moment to let him know this before adding, in her comforting voice, Now get some sleep.
And it becomes like any other night in the time when they had nothing but any other nights.
I love you so much, he says. A new stream of tears is flowing, but his chest is calm.
Daddy, dont cry! I love you.
I love you, Dad.
He holds them tighter because the hours grow short, and the light has changed in the way that signals the other side of the dead of night. In the morning, he will have to let them go.
Goodnight, darling, says Leila.
Copyright 2013 V.S. Kemanis
From story collection Dust of the Universe, tales of family, by V.S. Kemanis, available in e-book.