When we were ten, lying on the grass and dreaming animals out of clouds, Eli said that the only reason we stayed on the ground was because we wanted to. That if we let go – really let go – we would fly off the earth and into the sky. He said that if we were very quiet, we could feel it.
I did. Underneath my shoulder blades first, then down my back, and finally my legs. It felt like TV static. I was barely holding onto the earth. The clouds overhead swam by. I could float up to them. Nothing was holding me down.
I was so dizzy, I almost fainted.
In science class when we were thirteen, we studied the earth’s crust. It’s flimsy and moveable, hence the mountains and new continents every millions of years. Underneath, there are miles of molten rock, like syrup. Eli said later, over trays of formaldehyde rats, that nothing kept the earth’s crust from peeling up, if it wanted to. Pieces could crack off and go flying into the sun or to Venus or black holes.
I had studied the model, and I agreed that nothing pinned it down. What if I wanted to stay here, but my section of crust decided it’d had enough and was ready to fly?
From then on, I had dreams (mostly good) in which I left the earth behind, sitting on a magic carpet of dirt, and flew through space.
Gravity made no sense to Eli. Gravity was the earth’s desire to hold onto you. I tried to explain, having had AP physics classes, but Eli had C level English and pottery, and he threw me vases and built me clay icebergs with little penguins looking up and they cluttered my room, along with the poems he wrote about them.
I told him he’d never graduate if he didn’t understand gravity. He said he understood it perfectly. He had his hand under my shirt at the time, and so I didn’t argue.
On a ledge just off the cliff trail, where we’d scuttled down, displacing rocks with our butts and sneakers, we shared his big army jacket and watched gulls fighting over territory. The moon came up at last, huge and white, and Eli kissed my face and told me the space between the stars was dead space, and if you fell off the earth into space, you had to be careful to avoid it. Stick to the stars, he said. Stay close to them.
I asked him, Like lampposts? And he said yes, that you should stay in the pools of starlight. Unless you were very brave, but hardly anyone’s that brave.
I told him I was, and the moon showed his lopsided smile before he kissed me again, saying, Sure you are, kid.
Eli said nothing at all before he walked onto the tracks and let the 12:20 to Old Saybrook scatter his body like an exploding star. They found a knuckle, bits of bone, splinters for a mile. I walked the tracks myself for six months afterwards, hopeful and terrified I’d find a piece of him.
One night, crying into the lawn in the shadows of our house, I wiped my nose on the sleeve of my sweatshirt and decided I wouldn’t waste my time like this any longer. I had college apps to finish filling out, a sweet dog, friends who’d always thought Eli was weird. I couldn’t waste my time anymore on a dead boy, someone who hadn’t even cared enough about me to say he was leaving.
The house was dark except for my bedroom window. It was far after midnight; I couldn't fall asleep anymore before two or three, at least. My parents had taken to letting me do this, or any strange thing. I was grieving. It was the grieving process. It was another step, this crying in the backyard or walking the tracks until dawn.
I got to my feet, weary of it all finally, weary of Eli’s ghost in my mind. My knees through my jeans were cold and wet, my shoes damp. The shadows were gray and black, the underside of the old oak a dark nothingness.
After a moment, I relaxed. The ghost in my mind. I started for the house.
Dani, are you there?
I stopped breathing. From that nothingness, flat black, no sense of depth, again: Dani. Dani.
I stepped towards the tree. Closer. Listening, listening. Another step; I reached a hand at the shadow, eyes watering.
Come here, Dani.
I ran for the house, didn’t stop until I’d pounded through the kitchen and hall and into my own room, thrown myself on the bed, and sat there staring at my white, white reflection in the window.
When I fell asleep, hours later, it was the same old dream. Lifting off from the earth, a hill of shivering dirt beneath me, hand on an old oak tree to steady myself.
I’d made a decision, and his ghost was banished. I counted up the years: twelve. And he hadn’t even left me a note.
Applications went out, I ate dinner at a normal time with my family, I studied, I stayed away from the beach, the tracks, and the backyard. I put his pottery in boxes, wrapped in towels, and cried when my dad said that maybe it’d be worth something someday, now that Eli was –
It was a stupid thing to say, yes, and his red face and stuttering words knew it. For the first time in a month, I left the house to walk.
It was snowing on the beach, with tiny flakes dissolving into the ocean. I wondered if the fish came up to snatch at them, realizing then that they had nothing in their mouths but more water. I put my tongue out, and the stars shed their particulates, washing down on me cold and crisp. I shivered in my coat, toes scrunching against the sand that had crept in my shoes.
I wasn’t lost anymore; I was just uncomfortable. I wanted to go home.
I came to the tunnel beneath the tracks, remembering what we’d done there, once. Only a year ago. Kept warm, that’s what we’d done last winter. Kept warm beneath the train tracks.
When I walked into the tunnel, the darkness was absolute, the moonlight snuffed out. I walked on, slowly, a hand out so I wouldn't bump against the stone wall. The parking lot was on the other side. I waited for sand and gravel to turn to asphalt beneath my feet.
But he stopped me.
There, in the darkness. Dani, is that you?
I paused, muscles tensed.
I stared into the blackness, trying to see what was there. Maybe it was a trick. Or a bum. Or a kid I knew from school.
Dani, are you brave?
I put a hand out, feeling for the wall. Instead of cold stones, nothing at all enveloped me, not even air. A terrible absence of everything brushed around my fingertips, curled and waited.
Dani, are you brave enough? Come here.
Eli, I whispered. I put up my other hand, both arms stretched out, and no wall before or next to me. I couldn’t see anything.
Are you ready to fly?
My heart pounded, that familiar static feeling creeping up my legs, my back, tickling the back of my neck. I could let go if I wanted to. I closed my eyes, imagining us on that summer day, our sneakers touching as we lie next to each other. I reached for his hand, shivering at the shadow of something brushing against my fingers, reaching for me.
I wanted to fly. To him. With him.
I stepped into the blackness, the nothingness, and outside, snow fell and stars were bright and oceans cold, and under the train tracks, I lost my breath and, at the last moment, I remembered what he’d said: Stay in the pools of light. Stick to the stars.
But it was too late, and I couldn’t breathe anymore. Too late, and I fell into dead space.