When you come back

Ten years ago we watched the violent pink light of a rocket disappear into a crimson sky from the creaky porch of our parents’ home. We knew then that you’d be leaving us soon. That the blazing trail of a rocket was the only path for you to take. As the sun began to set, the sky morphed into a palette of pink hues—clouds like shards of silver glass dividing the Earth into thousands of pieces. Our eyes followed the hot wisps of tea evaporating from our cups in some kind of knowledgeable silence and we waited until night fell.

You showed me your space suit, and I laughed at how the thin, lithe body of a boy became something resembling a marshmallow. I joked about you roasting yourself on the tail end of a rocket. You kept the suit hung on the back of your bedroom door. The eerie outline of a spaceman hanging one foot above the ground. I could hear you sneaking out of the house most nights; the soft thud of the helmet on the back of your door was something you had overlooked. The distant rev of a car engine lulled me back to sleep. In the early hours of the morning you would tiptoe back inside and I would awaken again to the thump of the helmet, followed by the faint groan of your bed under the weight of your imminent sleep.

*

We always talked of flying didn’t we? Even before I discovered you weren’t born of this Earth. When we were young, the only concern when planning our birthday parties was if the dress-up theme would favour fairy wings and a Superman cape. While the other children played pass-the-parcel and fought over lolly bags, we were jumping off couches and trying to defy gravity using wings made out of cardboard and masking tape.

It was our birthday yesterday, and while you were celebrating your thirtieth in a starred sky, I spent mine with Mum in the countryside. We bumped into our old neighbours from the house with the flaky red shutters. Mum spoke of you as though you had never left. How your hair was still hazel, eyes the deepest shade of blue. I laughed about your inventions still taking up all the space in the garage. But then I went back to the house and I ran my finger along the thick line of dust on your windowsill, white specks falling on to your navy carpet. And I remembered you weren’t home.

*

I wonder if you miss the seasons wherever you are. The dampness of autumn or the cloudless skies of a hot summer. Your pet goldfish died in spring, and I remember you saying it was your least favourite season. You lifted it out of the tank with your hands and asked me what we should do. As we walked to the creek at the back of the house, you kissed the small golden scales of that lifeless creature that had lived at your bedside for just six weeks. Crouching by the creek bed, we watched the leaves dance in the ripples of September water. And you wouldn’t open your hand. An opaque tail hung limply from the side of your fist. Each time I told you to let it go, the tighter you squeezed your fingers. With the sun’s slow departure, came the first glimpse of planets in a dulling cerulean sky. Under the shudders of breath, you explained the saucepan to me, traced the outline of the constellation with your finger. Once you had forgotten the goldfish inside your fist, its tiny body fell into the creek and was consumed by the reflection of night.

*

I think it is winter when I miss you most. The smell of a log fire reminds me of the woodiness of your clothes after helping Dad with the bonfires in the paddocks. The smoke of your hair, ash on your skin. I would tease you when your eyes began to water from standing too close to the flames.

We had a bonfire last month. Uncle Henry came to help. It began as just a fire for the branches and scraps around the paddocks, but as soon as we started tearing away at the property, the more we realised the house needed emptying too. We started in your room, carried out boxes of old textbooks, clothes and videocassettes, amongst other things. Outside, we stood for a few moments by your first car. Studied the caved-in driver’s side before setting it alight. It only reminded Mum of the nights by your hospital bed, a bandage wound around your head, tubes attached to your skin. And she couldn’t remember why we had decided to keep the car when Dad had spent so many hours removing the remains of that shattered tree.

Your car burned out to form a skeleton. The four of us dismembered the remains, dragged it to the bonfire fuelled by your belongings and hoped for ash. In the early morning all that survived was the hard cover of an astronomy book and the lifeless uniform of a spaceman that the flames just couldn’t break through.

*

You missed the excitement of your early twenties. I made up for your absence by experiencing enough for the both of us. Absorbed in my own skin, I became fascinated by its changes, the overwhelming sensation of fat morphing and stretching clothes. I embraced the night and discovered a love of neon lights and objects that glowed. There were more parties to go to than I had time for. Too many people to acquaint and spaces to be seen in. I consumed enough for the both of us. My pupils contracting faster than the speed of light.

I wanted to tell you about the boy on the soccer team who wrote me letters every week and said that I was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen. I wanted to tell you that he would grow up to be the man I would marry, and our children would become stargazers just like you. But I also knew you would have thought the word beautiful meaningless, a common adjective that people use to describe many things. You would never have called a night sky something as inadequate as beautiful.

I sat by your bedside for the weeks following, even as my bones itched for dancing and moonlight and the luminescence of new love. I stayed with you, tracing the silhouette of your body, searching for a stronger word than beautiful.

*

You and I spent many nights out in the paddocks. Remember the night you dragged me outside to look at the moon in the rain? Droplets hit the tin roof of the shed and we ignored Dad’s faint callings, telling us to come inside before the lightning struck. You opened up an umbrella above our heads while a crescent moon blushed above.

‘The crescent moon is my favourite kind,’ you said, ‘a full moon is too complete. I like filling in the gaps.’ It was then I realised you liked imagining the world yourself, and before long, I noticed my mind dreaming up my own versions of reality too.

*

The day you met me outside the school gates crying was the day I loved you most. We were ten and it was our first day at the new school in the city.

‘I told you not to talk about the galaxies,’ I said, even before asking what you were crying about.

‘I was telling the boys in my class about black holes,’ you said, ‘and that one day we will be able to build them ourselves.’ You were holding a cardboard box prototype of a space helmet. I took it from you and put it on.

‘James… kshhhh… We have a problem.’ You giggled and told me to give it back.

‘Don’t talk to anyone about space again,’ I said. ‘Not if you want to make friends.’ You nodded and I poked you in the ribs. We took the bus back into the country and you told me about the dozens of dead animals floating in space from initial explorations the whole way home. We bypassed Dad in the back paddocks herding the sheep to where the grass was long, and we declined a fresh batch of lemonade that Mum had made for our return. Without saying another word, we walked straight to your room, shut the door and closed the curtains. Lying on our backs on the carpet, we looked up at your ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars and moons and planets. And I said, ‘Promise you’ll come back.’

*

Sometimes I drive back home, leaving the kids, the husband and our dog, and I stand at the edge of the creek bed searching for the golden tail of a goldfish. Once the sun sets, I look into the water, past its starry reflection. I imagine that black holes exist, and that perhaps the creek is a mirror to you, that maybe if I jumped into it I would come out on your side. But I would be searching for the boy that once lived in the house by the creek, with brown hair and deep blue eyes, warming his marshmallow body on the tail end of a rocket ship. And you wouldn’t know me at all. Not anymore.

Image: Sweetie187

Elsie Mellor PhotoElsie Mellor is a piano teacher and writer from Victoria. She prefers the old Romantic’s approach of holding a well-loved book and writing by hand, and is currently penning her first novel.

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