A bastard chill struck a prophecy of a coming autumn as Astron Puffin sat on a fallen tree deep in the woods. He was looking down at his small but thick hands. He turned them slowly before him, and it was hard to imagine that those were the same hands used to crush their throats. But he had to do it, he rationalized, or their fate could have been much worse.
He remembered the day the strange men had come to his cabbage farm in their protective suits and told him they were there to shut everything down. They went into the house and destroyed all the pipes and cut all the wires. He remembered how they talked about the jail maximus and how it was burning and how all the lions were escaping from the zoo. There was so much chaos. Everything was falling apart. Then they just kept coming back and taking his wife and daughter behind closed doors — locked closed doors. He tried to shake the sounds of the thumping walls and their cries from his head.
Astron yelled out in the silence — hoping the bad vibes would shoot out of his soul like an exorcism. He looked up and the trees looked down. He saw the mustard-stained blue sky interwoven with the scraggly branches. And then the ship appeared again, to do its analyzing of a world it could no longer save. Astron watched the red-glowing disc hover slowly and silently above. There were quick, bright flashes — like old time flashcubes on those cameras that used film. He wondered if the visitors, these immortal observers, would suck him up again into the belly of their craft. He half-hoped they had never returned him to Earth as he bowed his head and waited to become weightless. But then, just as they had smoothly and silently appeared, they vanished. A crow berated him from a nearby branch, and then it too flew away. Perhaps every other living being in the universe had given up hope on man.
Astron suddenly remembered and reached into his pocket and pulled out Gracelyn’s drawing. It might give him a sense of purpose and peace, he thought, as he carefully unfolded it and then held it before his eyes. He would go to her again, he decided, even if she still rejected him as a friend, or a guardian. If the strange men in the protective suits ever came back, it would be better if she wasn’t alone — it would be better if he wasn’t alone as well.
Gracelyn was in a sleepy daze on the old living room couch when the knocking started. She had been halfway dreaming of meandering through the throngs of people on the streets of Paris during the French Revolution — or maybe it was merely a conscious memory. She darted straight up and listened as the knocking became more persistent, trying to figure out where exactly it was coming from. Her head turned toward the front door and she got up and stood before it. Dead and gone loneliness floated in the morning gray-gold cloud filtering into the foyer from brightening spaces throughout. She watched as the door rattled slightly with each pound of someone’s fist.
“Who is it!?” she said, a threatening tone in her voice.
The knocking stopped and there was a brief silence before he spoke.
“Astron Puffin. From the school.”
“I’m not going to class today. I don’t feel well…. So, you can’t force me to go. I’ll make up my work later.”
“I’m not here to make you go to school.”
“Then what do you want?”
“I can protect you,” Astron offered.
“Protect me from what?”
“You know what. The things of this new world.”
Gracelyn paused for a moment, thought about it. “I don’t need your protection. I’m very capable of taking care of myself.”
“You’re a young girl… Alone.”
“And I’ve done just fine for myself, haven’t I.”
“You’ve been lucky.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it,” Gracelyn snapped. “I’m smart. I’m resourceful. I’m strong. Probably stronger than you.”
“Do we have to talk through the door like this?” Astron looked about the grounds around him, thinking he felt something, someone in the air. “I’d rather be inside if it’s all the same to you.”
Gracelyn moved toward the door, stood on her tiptoes, and brushed aside the curtain that covered a small window. She looked out at him. Astron smiled. Then she unlocked the door and let him in.
Astron looked around the old farmhouse as she led him to the living room. He pulled off his knit cap with the long point that hung over to one side of his head, a puffy ball on the tip.
“You can sit there,” the girl said, pointing to the couch. “I don’t have much, but would you like an apple?”
Astron nodded. “I can’t believe you live in this big old house by yourself,” he said to her as she trailed off to the kitchen.
“Why can’t you believe it?” she asked as she returned to the room and presented him the apple. He took it, rubbed it against his shirt, and bit into it.
“All the space. All the memories,” he said as he chewed the apple, a bit of juice leaking from his mouth. “I couldn’t wrap my head around it.”
She sat down on the couch, but as far away from his as she could be. “I’m used to it. I’ve been doing it for a long time.”
“How long?” he wanted to know.
She pressed her lips tightly together and considered the question. “A lot longer than you could imagine.”
“Why don’t you like me?” Astron asked point blank.
She looked at him, puzzled by what he said. “It’s not a matter if I like you or not. It’s a matter of survival. I barely know you… And why are you being so forceful about this friendship thing, or whatever it is you’re searching for.”
“You let me in… So, you must trust me, at least a little bit.”
“Have you been here before?”
Astron looked at her but didn’t immediately answer.
“You have, haven’t you?”
“No,” Astron assured her. “I haven’t.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out her drawing. He unfolded it, laid it out on the table before them and tried to smooth it out with his hands.
“Why do you have my drawing?” Gracelyn asked. “Why did you take it?”
“I like it. It brings me some sort of peace… It helped me find you. Here.”
Gracelyn stood up, angry. “You had no right to take that! It was for my art class, and I was going to be graded on it. Now I’ll fail! I’ll fail because of you!” She snatched her drawing from the table. “And now look at it. You’ve made a mess of it! I’ll probably have to do another.”
“You’re all alone at that school, don’t you realize that?” Astron blurted out, raising his voice to her for the very first time. “There is no school anymore. There are no other students or teachers or anyone. It’s an empty building full of ghosts.”
Gracelyn looked at him, her eyes wide and on the verge of being wet. “I want you to leave.”
Astron sighed, clasped his thick hands against his thighs, and got up. “I’m sorry to have bothered you,” he breathed. He turned back to her before he got to the door. “If you need anything, you can come find me. Even if you don’t want to.”
“I won’t need you… For anything.”
“I’ll be at the school if you change your mind.”
Astron tugged on the front door and went out. She went to the open doorway and watched him walk away. He threw the apple off to his left side, like he was skipping a stone across an unmuddied lake, before a bright light appeared in the sky, and in half of a blink of an eye, he suddenly vanished.
TO BE CONTINUED