Today we are featuring Inklings Book Contest 2019 finalist, Calvin Ray! Calvin finished 8th grade this past school year. We asked him what he likes best about his story and he said, “The childish point of view.” The story he submitted is called “Tonight They Sweep The Heavens”
Tonight They Sweep the Heavens
by Calvin Ray
My fourth grade science report is on Lepidophyma flavimaculatum, the Yellow-spotted Tropical Night Lizard. I finished today, even though I’m not finishing the school year. Mom says there are bigger fish to fry, but the best way to fry fish is to wait for them to simmer a little. And keeping busy helps pass the time.
But honestly, it was a waste. I hate science. And my parents don’t care about my grades anymore. They don’t care about anything anymore. They think I shouldn’t either. They say things like “It’s okay to cry” or “You’ll get through it” or “It’s all part of life.” They read ornate books and came to the conclusion that I was in the first stage of grief called denial, but it’s not really the first stage because they all get mixed up and repeated. They spew out a bunch of ways to “help me through my personal struggle” or “find acceptance in a world of uncertainty.” They say there are rules for living life.
But they don’t have rules about death.
You know why?
They don’t know what happens after death.
But I do.
Well, sort of.
We arrive at church before I know it. My hands seem afraid to unbuckle my seatbelt. Because once I’m inside, Mom says— or the books say— I’ll realize, and the air will catch in my throat and I won’t trust myself to walk because my knees want to collapse and I can’t cry yet but I will soon and nothing matters because she’s dead.
My little sister Aria, is dead.
And maybe they’re right.
I open one of the big church doors, covered with golden diamonds and swirly, expensive door knockers too high for anyone to reach. It’s heavy, and I have to push with my shoulder and it makes this scraping sound, but I make it in and the door makes a loud click when I let go.
Everyone is so quiet.
I’ve never been in a funeral. There are so many people, and they’re all wearing black, even though black was Aria’s very least favorite color. Mine too. I like orange.
I wait for my parents, who find it a lot harder to climb four stairs. They don’t make much noise.
They are holding hands.
Lots of kids are hugging their parents or crying or looking at their feet because they think they should be crying. No one looks at us as we enter. Shadowy clothes. Hiding faces. A baby screams, only to be muffled by her mother.
I think we’re late; it seems right for the mourning family to be first there. We sit at the very front as the pastor approaches the podium and begins. I think he was waiting for us. How considerate.
He clears his throat— I think he’s forgotten what he’s supposed to say— but then says “May God bless the body of Aria Rivera.”
I think that’s very rude. Why would you bless someone’s body after they’ve left it.
And next he’s talking about death. Which is silly. He’s never died.
At the end, we stand and everyone floods us. Mom’s crying and Dad is cradling her hand, saying it’s not her fault. Most people I know I’ve seen before but can’t remember them at all. Some people I do remember like my very own Aunty Dara, completely ignore me to hug Mom and tell her it’ll be alright, which, by the way, I already told her. Dad says thank you tersely to everyone. I say, “It’s okay.”
We get home. Silence. Stillness. Like when you pause movies. I sit on the couch watching my parents sit on the couch. It’s an old couch, and the tan brown color has faded over the years like a memory.
I finally say, “What’s for dinner?”
Dad gets up to change out of his black suit and Mom says, “Oh, yes. Dinner,” as if she’d forgotten.
We end up having microwave pizza, which gets all soggy and the cheese falls off. Mom only has a slice, and it takes her a while. Dad doesn’t take any.
It’s starting to get dark, so I slip out before it’s passed bedtime. Just to make sure.
The books were wrong.
She’s waiting for me.
I’m laying on the grass even though it makes my arms all itchy. Because here I can look up at the stars and, if I turn my head left, down at my little sister. She turns towards me and smiles, her top left tooth missing and her eyes sparkling like the sun reflected in glass. She looks up, smiling. I do too, at all the little beads hanging from the sky, tiny miracles, far, far away.
“It’s much nicer up there,” she says softly. I sigh.
She stands up suddenly, leaving me alone on the ground.
“That’s the bell.” She hugs me and runs up to the stars, her golden hair floating behind her in endless streams, pulsing with the rhythm of a heartbeat.
I wish I could run like that.
The stars don’t look as miraculous from my bedroom.
I put my PJs on in the dark. Not the polka dot ones. The “Just because I’m in my PJs doesn’t mean I’m ready for bed” ones. I pull the flimsy PJ shirt over my head, and look up out the window.
I hate disappointment.
There’s a black wire grid outside my window so that when you open the window flies or starlight can’t get in. And there’s a big tree in the backyard that’s great for climbing has been growing at this house for centuries, and it’s right up to my bedroom, casting thin, climbing shadows, sometimes even tapping the glass when it’s windy.
But it’s silent tonight. Like my whole world. Like Aria accidentally hit a mute button when she left. Somewhere far off there are cars honking and people cheering and sodas fizzing and dogs panting and humpback whales exploding in song, but my world is utterly still.
“Don’t worry,” says Aria. “Dad’s never good at the silent game.”
Usually when I get hurt, Mom is the one to rush and ask me what happened and if I’m okay and where it hurts and gets an ice pack and makes sure I hold it on there forever.
But this time, it was Dad.
I was crying, holding the back of my head, curled into a ball, when Dad jumped out of bed, made an awful ruckus in his bedroom which is right above the kitchen and even when he was coming down the carpeted stairs, which was quite a feat, especially for Dad.
He reached the kitchen and saw me bawling my eyes out and sort of panicked. At first he almost exploded into his own ball, with his baggy t-shirt flouncing on the ground and his black-slippered feet tucked out like he always said ruined your knees, and he said, “Oh, Ken, it’s alright. She’s in a better place,” and patted me on the head, right where it hurts. I howled louder. “That’s right. That’s right. Get it all out,” he said, now slamming his palm into my dusty-colored hair like a pinball button that wouldn’t work.
“OW!!” I screamed, and then I think I started shouting “My head! My head! My head!” and I collapsed once more into sobs.
Dad took his hand off my head, which now felt like it had caved in, and said, “What happened?”
What happened was I had woken up around 7:00 and since I knew Dad usually woke me up at that time, I got out of bed, hoping to hear something, like Dad snoring or a bird singing or even just the wind.
But there was no noise, so I went downstairs, turned on the CD player and started playing Newsies. Aria and I have the whole thing memorized.
I sing the lyrics in my head:
They say folks is dyin’ to get ‘ere, me, I’m dyin’ to get away…
They act like Santa Fe is perfect. We’ve been there. After we saw Newsies live. But everyone was smoking and we had to hold our breath half the time.
Don’t ya know that we’s a family.
Would I let ya down? No way!
Just hold on, kid, ‘til that train makes
“Carrying the Banner” played next, which reminded me I should eat breakfast.
And that was when I decided to get the cereal, the cereal on the very tippity-top shelf. I have to climb up the lower shelves to get to it.
Dad figures the rest out.
He asks me if I’m okay. I shout, “NO!” so he gets the ice pack and presses it against my head. It doesn’t help. But after I’ve calmed down, he gets me Cheerios. He even pours the milk for me.
Then he disappears back upstairs.
The Cheerios are surprisingly bland and I worry that I went to all that trouble for the regular Cheerios. But no. I check the box and it says Honey Nut along the top and has the bee illustration smiling at me, snapping his fingers and pointing at the red-orange bowl above. It’s nice to have someone smiling at me.
The doorbell rings. I shout, “I’ll get it!” before remembering Mom’s asleep. I pull up a chair to peek through the eyehole, then put it back to unlock the door.
Aunty Dara comes in. I admit she looks a bit grim, but usually she wears colorful flowery dresses and even sometimes a pretty sun hat when she goes out.
“Are your parents home?” she asks.
I smile, saying, “They’re asleep.”
She says, “Oh!” distantly, then bends down to hug me and starts crying. I hug her back saying, “It’s okay,” but she keeps crying. Dad comes down. I realize now how tired he looks. Aunty Dara straightens and wipes away distraught tears. She doesn’t need to. More will come. “I can’t believe she’s gone,” she says, hugging Dad. Dad just pats her shoulder.
“How’s my sister?” she asked.
She’s the one who’s gone forever.
“She was hit pretty hard.”
Which is inaccurate, if you compare that to how hard Aria was hit. She was hit so hard the life flew right out of her.
Mom enters on cue.
“Dara,” she says softly. “I didn’t realize you were coming.”
“Anything for you,” says Aunty Dara and Mom almost smiles.
I took a step back.
“How long will you stay?” asks Mom.
“Forever,” she whispers.
Aria notices the extra car in the driveway while we play tag. She runs through the gate and tries closing it, but I catch the gate and push it back open. She yells, “T!” but I tag her anyway.
“Not fair,” she says.
“You can’t say ‘T’ unless you have a reason.” She isn’t panting, but I’m dying. I sit down, pulling out the Jelly Bellies I sneaked out to her from my pocket and offering them to her. She loves Jelly Bellies. We both do. She takes one and I take one.
“I do. Who’s come to visit?”
“Well,” I started. “I don’t think she quite remembers I exist.”
Aria makes a face. “Well, at least she’s trying.”
I sigh. It feels like all the muscles on my chest got twisted up into a swirl. “But she’s just going to keep trying.”
Aria sits next to me. The sky is almost done turning orangey-pink, but we get to catch the end. I take one of the cinnamon Jelly Bellies. That’s my favorite.
“I love the sunset.”
“Even after Heaven?”
She doesn’t reply. We just watch the sun disappear.
She takes a look at the Jelly Bellies and says, “I better go,” and runs back up.
When I get downstairs, Aunty Dara’s knitting. She has knit us mittens and beanies and scarves before. They are itchy though. Once I asked her why she was knitting, and she said, “Because that’s what I do best.”
Which isn’t true. Her hugs are much better. And so is her ice cream cake.
“Morning,” she says.
She helps me get the cereal so I don’t fall on my face. Frosted Mini Wheats. She pours two bowls, adding milk to one. She places the bigger one in front of me with a spoon, and the dry one she starts eating from, one square at a time. Eventually, she sits down across from me and says, “How have you been?”
“Alright, I guess,” I say.
“Still doing the drama club?”
“Well, uh, my parents decided not to take me to school anymore.” I look up at her. “Since they don’t have to take her.”
I realize I’m saying her like the adults. Avoiding eye contact, avoiding volume, avoiding saying her name.
But she doesn’t know. Her only sibling is my mother and she is fully alive. She is spending time with her. They are fearless. They are together.
I still see Aria, I have to remind myself.
My voice sounds crackled and soft and Aunty Dara reaches across the cedar table to squeeze my hand.
And then, I decide.
“Hey, Aunty Dara, did you know that Aria’s not really gone forever.”
I look up at her.
“I saw her last night. I brought her Jelly Bellies.”
She smiles, but she’s crying and she says, “Bless your soul,” which is silly because she should’ve said that to Aria. Or maybe she is. Maybe she needs a living form to put with her and I am substitutable.
And that– not my sister’s death or my parent’s neglect or my forgotten science project– is what makes me start to cry.
Aunty Dara eats all the Jelly Bellies.
It is around noon, and that convinces Mom to go to the grocery store. Which is good. Because even if I have to with her, it’s a mom thing. A before thing. An alive thing.
Mom’s on a mission. Shopping can really bring someone back to life.
But after we get through the checkout, she looks at the receipt and sighs. Mom looks down, shoves the receipt in her purse and marches ahead of me out the door. But she makes sure to look both directions and hold my hand when we cross. It’s her way of fixing it.
I don’t remember her last words. I remember the random dark stripe in the scorched asphalt and the chip in the sturdy street sign, but I can’t remember what really matters. She was hit too fast she didn’t have any time to say she loved me or to even tell me to tell Mom she loved her.
And it didn’t make a POW! noise like in the comic books all zigzag underlined. It made a sickening thunk and then the old man driver got out and started freaking out and asking if she was okay, which is silly because she couldn’t hear when she was dead.
And I couldn’t hear him either. I could hear my heartbeat. I could hear my breath slowing down and then speeding up but it didn’t matter if I was breathing. It didn’t prove anything.
Because she was dead.
She was gone forever.
And the air caught in my throat and I didn’t trust myself to walk because my knees wanted to collapse and I couldn’t cry yet but I would soon and nothing matters.
Because she’s dead.
I can’t sleep.
I can’t sleep.
I can’t sleep.
Everything seems to echo through the house. And the clocks are all ticking at different rates. I stick my face straight into my pillow, but then it’s hard to breathe. So I turn over. Then I turn over again. And then I kick off the covers because I’m hot, but the fan is on high so I turn over and curl into a ball, which is not an easy position to fall asleep in. So I get up. I leave behind my bed and step out into the hallway. Dark. I used to be terrified of being alone and uncovered this late when even the lights were hiding. But the stars can guide you. They’ll always be right outside the window.
But then I realize what I haven’t heard, what all the unsynchronized ticking has hidden. And I see a light on barely in the kitchen. I go down to investigate, although I know I shouldn’t. I tiptoe on the carpeted stairs.
My mother is at the kitchen table, crying under the fancy, orange, half-dome lamp we had gotten a few years ago when Dad was always out on business trips but we got a lot of money from it. Money brought us light, but light didn’t help us see.
I stay in the darkness, struck by the irony of a spot of light, a spot of hope centered around something so despairing. Someone, I remind myself.
I hold my breath and step into the light, plunging into an ocean of regrets. She looks at me and half smiles, but it falters and she turns away to heave another sob onto the old, wooden table.
“She’s gone!” I hear. I sigh.
“Of course she not gone,” I huff. “She just went up to Heaven, which isn’t that far off if you think about it.”
She takes a deep breath. “Oh, Ken. You’re the best.”
There is a moment. There is an eternity.
“We’re ready to move on, you think so?”
I stumble for words. “You’d better ask Dad.”
I inhale coming summer air as I go out to sit on the porch, expecting her to be there already. The sun is starting to set. I move down to the grass so I can look up at the stars.
“Sorry I’m late. They put on a production of Les Miserables.” She says it perfectly. Too perfectly for an eight-year-old. I almost glare at her, but I don’t. I glare at the grass.
“Ken,” she said.
I don’t look at her, because her face will be all blurry anyway. “You don’t have to come down here every night. I know you’d… I know you’d rather be up there, you know.”
But I can’t speak because something’s rising in my throat and I don’t want to let it out. I close my mouth and wait for her to say “Aww! Thanks for understanding” or even “You’re right.”
But she says, “It’s okay.”
I look up at her, but she’s gazing at the stars. “Tonight they sweep the heavens. They’d have kicked us out anyhow.”
She smiles at me, and I smile back through tears.
She looks back up. “So all that stardust can reach you.”
I turn and sob into her shoulder. A happy sob. Because the books are all lying. They don’t know what happens after death but I do. I do. I do!
“I love you,” she says.
I step into the office and realize how chaotic my desk is. Papers overflowing their folders and pencil mugs stuffed with sticky notes and paper clips and basically anything that’s not a pencil. One of the drawers doesn’t close completely and my wastebasket needs to be emptied several times. I sigh, push the mess aside, and start working.
Here I am, a thirty year old man, who still remembers everything on his fourth grade yellow lizard report but nothing of the fine script legal agreement he just read. I sigh and read it again.
My parents always said I sighed to much. I sigh again, remembering my parents. I never wanted an office job.
I reached the last word again and restart.
I turn. “Yes?”
“So glad I didn’t miss you. To my office, please.” His eyes light up, but his smile seems plastic.
“What is it, Simon?”
“Let’s keep this private.”
His office is enclosed. He lines his desk with pictures of his kids and one of those Hawaiian wooden trinkets like from Finding Nemo.
He scratches his chin. “Sit down.”
Of course he keeps the big fancy comfy swivel chair on his side, which is backed up to the window while I sit on a black wooden stool with the sun in my eyes.
All that stardust.
“We’ve been noticing you’re slowing down at work.”
I blink a couple times, scrunch my forehead and say, “Who’s ‘we’?”
“Oh, you know.” But I don’t know. I don’t know where he’s going or where I’m going or where I am or why I’m here or who I am or what I’m supposed to know.
The stool is just tall enough so he’s towering over me, but the sun slips right over his shoulder to blind me. I look down. Meeting his eyes would even be hard if the shades were closed.
“I’m sorry, but I’ve got to get—”
“With all due respect,” he says slowly, mocking me, “this is more important.”
I don’t know how I manage to say, “Of course, sir.”
He nods, smirking, as if it’s my white flag.
“As I said, you’re getting older. You’re getting slower. You’re getting a bit… lost. And—”
“Oh, please sir! I— I need this job. I need the money.”
“I need money too, and so I’ll give you a week to find something else.”
He makes it sound like a gift.
“You’re firing me?”
“This place never suited you.”
I step out to the porch.
Maybe my head is a great place to be stuck in. Maybe I should stop living this life and live there instead.
I close my eyes and let time sweep over me and then I open them and it’s dark. I check my watch. Almost ten.
“Passed your bedtime,” says a voice.
I jump out of my skin and turn. It takes a moment to place the voice. I slowly look up.
“Aria! Don’t scare me like that!”
She rolls her eyes. Sigh.
“You do sigh too much.”
She smiles at me.
I smile back.
“Why’d you come down tonight? After all these years?”
She looks up.
“Tonight they sweep the heavens. They would have kicked me out anyway.”
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