Summer drew quickly to an end, and by the time that the children knew things would at last return to normal, the summer had developed rapidly into a frenzy of do-this and do-that.
As the Sun Machine’s month-long descent from the heavens began, they, the children of Lexington street, gathered together and wandered the desolate roads in hope of finding meaning in all their time. And when the day finally arrived when that endless adventure was to draw to an end, the children were ready.
Walking the city streets they never spoke of what would happen after the lights went out. They never thought about that which lay beyond those very weeks. They reached inside of themselves and felt for the parts that they had never reached before. It was childhood, and it was painless. For every one mile that the Sun Machine fell towards them they fell two more in love with what they had. And for every shout their parents let out the children would turn and shout back, “I only have a few days left!” and that they’d be home in time for dinner if only their parents let them free now.
Celebrations were held across the American city of Venice using every last drop of the townspeople's’ remaining splendor and ecstasy. But the naive nature of those children led them aside. They were different. The future loomed before each one of them like the lip of the Grand Canyon.
But on the day of the descension what was left was only the damp and dreary ball of light in the sky that was the “restored” sun, and the Sun Machine, which darkened its reactor to let the eyes cool on the blurry sight of its rugged and charred body.
It set down to the sound of amusement and curiosity, like an early moving picture.
Standing in the back of the crowd Daro Jean couldn’t see anything but only heard the voices of the people who towered above his four-foot-nine-inch figure.
“Is that really the Sun? It’s stunning…” said an adult standing next to him.
Another responded, “Are you joking? Have you seen pictures of how it was before the Sun Machine? That hardly looks any different.”
Daro spoke up saying, “Excuse me? What was the Sun Machine doing up there?”
“Something about fixing the sun. I don’t know. Nobody knows. It was so long ago, real-” he was interrupted by the shushing of another adult and the ominous silence that fell as It came within view and set down just feet away from Daro’s curios eyes.
He climbed up on his own tiptoes and tried to see, like an East Berliner over the wall, but failed; so he pushed his way between the legs of the monstrous crowd, ignoring its startled and confused glares until finally he reached the front of the circle where he stepped into the open air and found himself a little too far out.
An arm reached out and with a mighty tug pulled Daro back, away from the machine.
“Get back here, Daro that thing is landing. Don’t you want to live to see what’s inside?” Ms. Halter said loudly. Daro’s stare fixed itself on the little feet of the Machine as it touched down and hissed like an angered cat, opening its doors to reveal a blinding array of white light. The rounded metal feet buried themselves in the soft grass, shuddering under the weight of the machine.
For a breathless moment there was silence as the Machine stopped its humming and hissing.
The crowd looked on nervously, but nothing seemed to happen at all. Until from its rounded door out stepped a silhouetted figure into the darkened light, casting his roasted shadow upon the faces of the crowds who greeted him.
He smiled and and glanced around before stepping out onto the grass. The delicate tickling felt like eternity had finally found its end, and lay in the soft green blades of the earth. He looked off into the city, perhaps because he heard the distantly familiar sound of the flipping pages of a book, or the soft humming of a lawnmower cutting grass as easily as butter on a hot day. Or maybe it was even the sound of Daro tapping his feet upon the ground curiously in the quiet murmur of the crowd. Perhaps he heard the wind-like sound of car tires moving on distant tarmac, or the flicking of playing cards in the pub down the street as they pierced the cool ocean-breeze air, or a barge in the harbor blowing its horn as it departed, sending waves lapping upon the sandy shores.
In his eyes were images of the galaxies, but not just that. More. A star. His pupils concealed it in a labyrinth of darkness, letting only a glimmer peek out from behind his bronze irides, which shone out, blazing veins of copper speckled by tin.
The man’s bare feet stood out against his bright white pants, which were stained with splotches of oil and grit. Above them a gray tank top trimmed the bulging muscles of his arms, chest and gut. Top of all was a smile, like that of a blind man finally seeing the light of the room he had lived in his whole life, striking out from the astronaut’s chiseled jaw. More stepped out behind him, echoing his wonderment.
Each one of them was differently reborn into the world. The next man stepped out and immediately appeared nervous behind his veil of middle-length hair, which concealed his eyes. But a smile still shone on his face. One by one, three more of the astronauts stepped into the grass and gazed out into the crowd seeing the glowing faces of the people they served.
Daro stood still, not quite as awe-struck as one might expect. At the age of eight he saw these people as gods of sorts. Star men who didn’t truly belong to earth. But as long as he had been alive, the Sun Machine was all that he had known.
And now to see their normal faces and their normal smiles and nothing different or special about them was a call to reality.
Off above, Daro heard the familiar sound of a spacecraft leaving the atmosphere. Among the soft roaring he thought he heard the sound of a superhero cape being shredded in the engines.
The first space man stepped up to the microphone beside him and spoke out to the crowd. “Ladies and gentlemen here on Earth,” he started, his voice ripe with excitement, and the word earth rolling off his tongue with so much meaning. “We thank you for coming out here tonight for our return and for all the support and that you showed to us in our thirty-five-year mission to stabilize the sun and provide light for the world.” The crowd applauded. “We’ve seen things you would not believe. Solar flares off the surface of our sun, and the intergalactic winds scattering dust across the furthest reaches of our vision.
“We have been farther from home than any other human in history,” he continued, “and now we return. So we ask of you one last thing. Bear with us over the next few months as we get ready to once again become a functioning part of the earthen society that we have missed so very much. Thank you.” A childlike curiosity filled his eyes, but also a homesick nostalgia. Like a lost piece of youth had found its way and was resurfacing then upon its arrival back home.
A hand fell upon Daro’s shoulder and he looked up.
“Daro, c’mon! Let's go find mom and dad. They want us back for dinner,”
“Hank! You scared me. I thought it was Ms. Halter again.” He sighed. “Hank?”
His brother’s young and cheerful smile had faded away and for a moment Daro thought he saw Hank roll his eyes in the same way Robby from down the block sometimes did when he thought something was too childish. It was the same look that Robby had given last month as Hank drew a maze on the ground in baby blue chalk.
The chalk was washed away the next morning.
The streetlamps lit up and their golden glow set the pale faces of the two brothers on fire with brilliance, and the brick and fake brick houses around them all seemed to fade off into the distance separating the street where they walked from the rest of the world.
The moon above them barely shone, illuminated by a dying filament.
“Hank, the Sun Machine will come back up again right? I mean, it feels like summer should never end…” Daro trailed off.
Hank looked at his younger brother and sighed. “I don’t think things will be the same. God doesn’t care about your feelings. Just cause it feels that way doesn’t mean anything.’
“Well maybe it will go on forever.”
“Maybe.” Hank’s words hollowed out as they travelled through the air.
Their house had been a normal house in the 1990s - about fifty years ago. It had bland white plastic side-panelling from the past remodel and most importantly, a wide-open porch. Here the two Jean brothers spent much of their time in the space between outside and in. It was a separate world where one's mind need not be worried with decisions and their imaginations could run wild.
That’s how youth was.
“Hey Hank wanna eat dinner out here tonight?” Daro’s chiming voice echoed off of the solid face of their house. It was eight o’clock. A little late for dinner.
Hank shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. I am gonna go watch TV for a while.”
“What’re you gonna watch?”
“Whatever is on.” Daro knew he was too young. He was after all, eight, and still in elementary school. Hank was grown up. Hank could make his own decisions. Hank was twelve going on thirteen and he was an individual. Or at least a self-described one.
They opened the screen door and then the hardwood one, knocking twice first so that their parents knew they were coming in. From the door they smelled the sweet incense of summer and the peculiar fragrance of fresh bread wafting in chunks through the house. Their noses perked up and they forgot for just one minute about the Sun Machine and about the astronaut’s perfectly chiseled jaw and about how summer was about to come to an end. And more importantly, Hank forgot he was twelve going on thirteen and ran right into the kitchen.
“Come on, Hank. Daro go set the table please.”
And the magic was broken.
“But dad I don’t wanna.”
Winking mischievously to his wife, their father looked into the eyes of the two boys and said, “If you eat all your food and are good I will bring you out to the yard and show you something special I found.”
Immediately they were silenced and the table was set, every last detail tailored to their father’s liking, held in suspense for just what he could have hiding in the yard.
Dinner went by as slowly as it could, like a senior with a back cramp crossing the street in the high noon heat. It never seemed to end.
The taste of summer sweet corn and fresh bread were major details turned minor by excitement. They sat around the mahogany table and said grace briefly and silently, thanking the Sun Machine for its work in those years of never ending summer.
Somewhere off they still heard the hissing of its pressurized doors once again feeling the real air of earth. Daro quieted the voice inside himself that was screaming at those men not to come down. The voice wanted summer to last forever. But another part of Daro knew that at some point summer must come to an end. Some older-than-eight-year-old part of him.
When dinner was finished he pushed away all those thoughts and looked at his brother, who looked back at him, communicating as clearly as glass that it was time to go. Both of them abruptly excused themselves, bussed their dishes, and ran to their father’s side, begging him to stand.
Outside, they walked to the far corner of the yard where there stood a small, hardly-noticeable shrubbery surrounded by much larger ones like a dwarven person among giants. Yet in its branches the boys could clearly see the juicy, sweet, gratifying, mystifying, and plump shapes of several ripe blueberries.
“Dad it’s a blueberry bush!” Daro ran up and plucked the finest of the bunch and popped it into his mouth.
It was like the whole summer bundled up together. His grandfather’s raspy voice in the grainy texture, and the smooth new sidewalk in the liquid between seeds, and the hot July sun in the warm skin, and in the end the Sun Machine. In the sweet, sweet end. And then came the memory of it all, just wrapped up so neatly in that last bit of taste and flavor, forever resting.
Hank said nothing and grabbed at the far branch of the small bush eating his own blueberry.
Their father watched and smiled. “I found it on the side of the road about a month ago. It's been here for a while but I hid it. I figured now that you guys are excited about it you wouldn’t mind taking care of it for a bit while I work.
“It’s a big responsibility. You have to water it once a day, and you can’t eat every berry you see. You need to remember to share them with me and your mother and each other, of course.”
“Hey, dad? Who gets to be in charge of the plant?” inquired Hank, breaking his silence.
“Well I thought you could both be-” their dad was interrupted by a sudden groaning sound from the two boys.
“I think I should be in charge. I have more time and watch TV less!” said Daro.
Hank scoffed. “Yeah but you’re EIGHT and I am TWELVE I am clearly wiser and smarter than you.” He thought for a second. “Besides, you can be in charge of watering the plant and I will deal with the rest. Yeah?”
Thinking about it for a minute, Daro stepped back. He picked another berry and thought about it, nodding his head.
That night was a hot one, filled with visions and thoughts of the calm ocean breezes just miles away, and of the sun-bleached swimsuits that were now too small.
Daro rolled restlessly like a flea ridden dog. All that he had known was changing now. Off in the distance he might have heard the sigh of his friends, all thinking the same thoughts, or the distinct sound of the freewheel on his bicycle clicking faster and faster as he sped down the never ending hill above his house. Then he heard a knock on the door.
“Hey, Daro. I heard you rustling around. Are you sleeping alright in there?” his dad asked, carrying an old pillow from the basement under his arm.
Sitting up, Daro replied, “No,” then looked at his feet. “Could you tell me a story?”
Seating himself on the bed, his father thought of a story from his childhood, staring off into the wall picturing himself back home for just a second.
“Well when I was younger, about your age, the Sun Machine went up because the sun was stressed, and I felt just like you do now. The real golden-yellow light of the real sun, the glorious hours of noon with it high in the sky, the nostalgic ones when it just scraped the horizon, and the emotional taste of a warm summer blueberry were all that I knew.
“I valued every night I spent with every friend that summer. And right as school started the Sun Machine rose and I was left to wonder if I would ever have a summer like that again.”
Now leaned back and relaxed, Daro asked, “Dad did you ride your bike down the hill?”
He smiled. “Yes. I did that. I played monopoly on a picnic table in an open field, I kicked a soccer ball around and I didn't care how bad I was, and I played catch with my dad, and I thought it couldn’t end. It wouldn’t.
“My father would always tell me this story about a cowboy named Rough Rob. He lived out west with his horses, right near where we live now and he ran a ranch. He loved his horses, and he loved his job. And every day Rough Rob would go out and he would rope cattle and chase them around the then open fields of California.
“One day Rough Rob went and lost all his money and his ranch in a drought. All his cattle died off and he was left with a ranch that nobody would buy. So do you know what Rough Rob did then? He went off and became a writer.
“He wrote all about those days and about his roping and his cattle and his horses. Especially those horses, because they were like friends to him. They were best friends. He wrote himself a place where he could always remember those days.”
Nodding his head he turned back towards Daro and saw that he slept soundly, and wondered if the child had heard it all or simply dozed off midway through. Then he realized it didn’t matter, and kissed Daro’s forehead as slipped another pillow under the boy’s head, walking out of the room quietly and closed the door, careful not to wake him.
Then Daro’s father looked out of the window at the sky, and seeing the moon he went outside for a better look.
In the dim moonlight he was able to see much more of the sky. The Milky way shone brightly blanketing the dark sky in a somewhat burgundy cloud. So there might be some upsides to it all, he thought, watching the lighted wingtips of a spacecraft wink at him.
He winked back.