The Pillars of Creation
Words By Walter Thompson, Art By Alyssa Menold
No one’s told the bus driver about Dad, so we still get dropped off near the old house, at the corner of Myrtle and Patterson. We don’t mind. Nat and Ben get amped up on the drive out from school, squealing and shouting with their friends, bouncing on the worn leather benches. They need the walk, just shy of two miles, to settle into the cool dark side of their afternoon, so that Mom gets them when they’re at their lowest low, needing a hug and a Coke and two hours of ESPN. The whole way, they run circles around each other: pushing and yanking, pelting pinecones, kicking shins. Edward stays ten yards behind them, never looking up, as if the twins are tugging him along with an invisible string. He puts on his headphones and stares at the asphalt as he goes. The headphones aren’t hooked up to anything; he just tucks the end of the cord under his belt. He takes the “noise-canceling” thing more seriously than other people because his world is full of more noises than theirs.
I walk behind all my brothers and watch. If one of them veers off the shoulder, I shout. Edward hears me despite his headphones and corrects his course in an instant. The twins yell back that I’m not their Mom, then make a dramatic show of obeying me anyway. It takes us two hours to get from the drop-off to Aunt Ally’s. As we get close, I feel a hardness in my stomach, and I wish we could turn right around and start walking again.
Aunt Ally owns the house, but she doesn’t take care of it. The white paint is peeling off the siding, revealing an older, rust-colored surface. Sometimes, when Nat and Ben have gone inside after the walk, Edward will peel a bit of the newer paint off and smile at me.
Inside the house is dark, like always. In the winter, when the light from outside is low and dusty, walking in feels like walking into a faded photograph. Aunt Ally is a nurse. Mom calls her a workaholic, but everyone on earth works harder than Mom. No one ever married Ally because she weighs close to three hundred pounds. She’s a subscriber to twenty-two different magazines. I’ve counted. She’s never thrown a single issue away. Nat and Ben like to tear the magazines up or draw dicks in them with Sharpies (except Sports Illustrated, which they thumb through viciously). Edward reads them all. Sometimes I take a Cosmo into the bathroom and read the sex tips. It’s the same kind of stuff in every issue. Fifty-six percent of married men like getting oral sex standing up. If your boyfriend is humming happily during the daytime, he might be cheating. Surprise him tonight by licking peanut butter off his man bits. I think of Owen and smile, try to imagine us sitting in his bed with the magazine, reading and laughing together, but the images only hang in my head for so long because they’re bright and unreal.
Mom doesn’t get up from the couch when we come into the living room. She’s under a blanket watching Wheel of Fortune. “Hey Mom,” bark Nat and Ben, letting their backpacks drop from their shoulders like anchors. Mom smiles at them and asks about their days. Ben says good, jumps right into a story, while Nat scooches next to her and kisses her on the cheek.
Edward heads straight to his room. He’s the only one of us who gets a whole bedroom to himself. The twins sleep in the basement, I sleep with Aunt Ally, and Mom sleeps on the couch. To other people it would seem unfair, but we all worry about Edward, want him to be safe and happy, and his room keeps him that way. Later, long after dark, Mom will get her time alone with him. She’ll finally peel the blanket off her knees and move quiet as a ghost to the back hallway, tap softly on his door with a, “Sweetie, may I come in?” I assume that Edward can smell the booze on her breath. I wonder if he knows what it is, how bad Mom has gotten, but then I get mad at myself for caring.
Once Nat and Ben are settled in their places on the couch and the bean bag, I head into the kitchen to scan the fridge. The handle of Jack sits in the middle of the kitchen counter. Since Christmas, it’s been the centerpiece, just as it was at the old house. When Dad was alive, the new bottle would arrive every Monday after work, in a wrinkled brown bag tucked under his arm. He’d take his first sip just before dinner and let out a sound of heavy relief, like an airplane landing. As the week went by, we’d all watch the gold-brown whiskey dwindle, bit by bit, until it was gone. Empty before Friday meant a long weekend. When Dad died we expected the Jack to die with him. But instead it passed to Mom, like she was the new guy taking over Dad’s job, except she started before we got home and needed two handles a week instead of one.
“Do we need groceries?” I call out to Mom. Some days, that’s as much as we talk. She uses up her love on her three boys, but I don’t feel angry about it. It’s all she’s got left in the tank.
Owen and Dad were born on the same day: August 20th, 1978. Their families lived a block apart, and they grew up as much like twins as Nat and Ben. Except they were opposites. Dad was short and thick, full of electric kindness that would spread like a current to everyone around him. Owen was lanky and nervous. The only person he would talk to was Dad. When they got to junior high and some kids—four of them, at least, maybe more—started picking on Owen during gym, Dad kicked the shit out of all of them. Broke one kid’s kneecap. At least that’s the way Owen tells it.
Dad’s wake wasn’t the first time Owen kissed me. He’d kissed me all the time when I was a kid, when he’d come over for barbecues with a present for each of us in the cab of his truck. But the wake was the first time he kissed me. We were sitting together at the bottom of the stairs, each with a little plastic plate balanced on our knees. His plate was empty, but mine wasn’t. A pile of tater tots sat clumped next to a glop of ketchup. Owen had tears in his eyes. He’d cried the most of anyone, even more than Mom.
We sat and told stories about Dad. Mine were about the times Dad had driven me to Hanging Rock. A weekend of camping, just him and me. I told Owen about the time we saw a fourteen-point buck, how Dad had ached for his gun and said he’d have let me do the shooting, so I’d make the newspaper. Owen laughed and said he’d only heard that one about a thousand times. Then he started talking about when Dad had finally started working for himself, having saved enough to buy his own flatbed, hire his own crew, all the rest of it. How he’d taken Owen on without even a thought, even though Owen had a criminal record. I told him of course Dad had. That’s the kind of guy he was. I looked at Owen’s eyes until he looked up at mine.
“He loved you,” I said. Owen nodded, sniffed. I thought he was going to break apart, so I touched his shoulder as gently as I could. “Do you want a tater tot?” I asked.
He shook his head.
“You sure? I’ve lost my appetite.”
And that was when he kissed me.
Aunt Ally’s backyard butts up against a muddy creek. In April, after everything thaws out and the rain stops, we start going out and splashing around. Nat and Ben do, at least. I sit on a crappy little folding chair on the bank and let the sun wash over me, while Edward pokes around in the bushes on the other side. “What are you looking for?” I call to him.
“You’ll see when I find it,” he says.
When she has days off, Ally comes down to the creek with us. She wears a black one-piece that squeezes so tight against her thighs that I’m certain she can’t feel her feet. Her skin is as white as the moon. She looks at me and sighs. “I had a body like you, if you can believe that,” she says.
“Sure I can believe it,” I say.
“Enjoy it while it lasts,” she says. She slaps her belly and laughs. “This is a real human body. Nothing glamorous about it.”
“Hey,” shouts Nat from the opposite bank. “Nothing glamorous about this either!” He and Ben turn and drop their shorts. Ally unleashes a long howl of laughter.
Once, Mom made a solid living, just like Ally. She sold herbal supplements, driving all around the Triangle, knocking on every door in every subdivision. She had a way with housewives. Aunt Ally pays for all our food now. When she and I are sitting on the bank together, flexing our toes into the sunbeams, I feel an urge to thank her for all that she’s done for me and the boys. But I can’t say it out loud. It would just be another case of pushing Mom out of the picture, making her even more useless, when she’s already faded so much.
The new warmth in the air changes me, revs me up, and I start sneaking out to Owen’s more often than just Fridays. Ally usually works the graveyard shift, so it’s easy. The window in her and my bedroom doesn’t have a screen—all I need to do is open it and slide off into the night. It takes me twenty minutes to make it to Owen’s trailer. When I’m really wound up, I take off my shoes and start running barefoot along the empty streets, and I’m there in ten. Every night, I find him sitting in his ratty green armchair, drinking a beer and watching something stupid and meaningless on the television. The first few times I came over on an off-day, he made the same joke: “Is it my birthday or something?” But I didn’t laugh. I just wrapped my legs around his waist and put my hands under his shirt. Owen still reacts the same way, every time—he clenches his stomach and sucks in a breath, then relaxes, sets his beer down, tucks a strand of hair behind my ear, smiles, and kisses me. We don’t need to talk.
At first, Owen was a drug, a way to feel better. Just like Mom drinking Dad’s whiskey, or the twins turning their crazy dials all the way up. But now he’s a helicopter, lifting me out and away from everyone else. We’d only been seeing each other for a month when he told me he loved me. He’d said he’d never let the words out so soon, that it was scary as much as it was beautiful. That’s Owen.
Most nights I have to make it back by five, which is the earliest that Aunt Ally might come home from her shift. The danger is activating the neighbor’s floodlight, which shines right into Edward’s room. I inch along the side of the house, touching my back to the siding and its patches of peeling paint, until I reach the window. Sometimes I wonder if it would be easier to make up a story for Edward, just in case. Something that would reassure him enough to keep my secret from Mom, like a job or a favor I’m doing in the dead of night for someone in need. But I haven’t come up with anything that he would believe. The kid lives in his own head, sure, but he knows bullshit when he hears it.
Edward’s been on a space kick, so I’ve been checking out NASA picture books from the school library and showing them to him on the bus. He flips through each one quickly, barely taking a second per page, then puts the book away and starts drawing what he’s seen. One cloudy Wednesday, the twins are unusually quiet; they hang over the back of Edward’s seat and watch him draw.
“Looks like dicks,” Ben says after the pencil strokes start to take shape.
“Yes,” says Nat. “You draw a mean erection, baby bro.”
I roll my eyes. “Don’t you guys ever think about anything else?”
“We’re just acting out our pre-pubescent urges,” Nat says, beaming. “It’s in our nature.”
“The Pillars of Creation,” Edward says, keeping his eye on the drawing. “Clusters of gas in the Eagle nebula, remnants of an interstellar shock wave.”
“Cool,” says Ben.
“The Hubble telescope discovered them in 1995,” Edward says. “Each one is over four light years in length.”
“Those are some pretty big dicks,” Nat says, loud enough so that most of the bus hears him. The driver glowers at Nat in the big round mirror and shouts that he’ll pull over and leave his punk ass on the side of the road.
I don’t sleep at night. At school, it’s hard to stay awake. I start buying Rockstars from a ninth grader who sells them out of his backpack, at below retail price. There’s a line of kids at the bus circle every morning, waiting for him. “My uncle gets them straight from the factory,” he lies. I buy one for the morning and one for the afternoon. Nat and Ben like to linger around and ask me to buy them one, but I tell them that they’re already insane enough without all that caffeine in the mix. “Have a good day, hypocrite!” they say before darting off on the path toward their school. Gatlin High and Gatlin Middle are separated only by the athletic fields. It feels like I’ve spent my whole life here, in the cold, echoey cinderblock buildings. At Gatlin Middle, I was a dream student, always raising my hand and thanking the teachers after class was over. But somewhere along the way I stopped caring. Last year, I bombed the SAT on purpose. It was three months before Dad died, so I didn’t have an excuse. I told Mom and Dad my score as soon as I got it. “Guess I’m not going to the Ivy League,” I said with a shrug.
“Ah, who cares,” said Dad. “You’re smarter than anyone I know, that’s for sure.”
“Can’t you take it again?” said Mom.
I’m on track to graduate, at least. Years ago I realized that if you show up, you get a C. In the halls, the other seniors are strangers whose names I happen to know. I overhear them talking about prom, where they’re going to college, the big bash happening in Ocean Isle Beach after graduation. It’s weird to think that they have lives, families, dreams. In my mind, they’re flat characters, empty vessels. I can’t see why they should matter to me.
In class, I pretend to take notes by making lists of what we need at home. Toilet paper, frozen pizza, toothpaste. I think about Owen—his smile, boyish and shy, like he’s embarrassed to be smiling. His smells—sawdust and tar on work days, astringent piney cologne if he’s had a shower. I imagine myself in his arms or lying naked on his bed. Since November, he’s been taking Polaroids of me. First with all my clothes, making faces at him, then in just my underwear, then without anything. Each time I take off something new and let him snap the picture, it’s like I’m releasing some responsibility, some ugly burden. It feels incredible; better, even than when he’s inside me. Owen flaps each Polaroid in the air so that it will develop faster. Then, once the image of my body becomes clear, he whistles and tells me I’m beautiful. “I’ll keep this in my pocket at work,” he tells me, flashing a wicked half-smile.
At school, when it feels like my soul is being sucked dry by boredom, I imagine that Owen is looking at one of my pictures right at that moment, and a surge of something like lightning runs down my body. A couple of times, it’s been so intense that I’ve had to go to the bathroom and touch myself, just to be able to breathe again.
Owen knows that I’ll be done with school soon. I wonder what he thinks is going to happen to me. My plan is to look for work at the mall in Raleigh in the summer, but I don’t tell him that. Just in case he’s got a better idea wrapped tight like a present, and he’s waiting for the right moment to give it to me.
I don’t want to ask him why he went to jail. I don’t want to upset him. I’ve got what my Dad told me, and that’s enough. “A bullshit misunderstanding,” he’d said. From the kitchen, Mom had scoffed.
The first week of May, Edward wanders off from the creek while the rest of us aren’t looking. Ben is the first to notice. He runs up to me and Ally, who are both reading O the Oprah magazine on the shore, with panic in his eyes.
“He can’t have gone far,” Ally says, easing herself up from her chair.
“Should we tell Mom?” Ben asks.
“No,” Ally and I say in unison. Mom would break if she thought she’d lost him, even for a second.
We fan out in all directions, each of us calling Edward’s name. I head across the pasture on the other side of the creek. A tingling in the back of my mind tells me I am going the right way. Edward and I have always shared something that we couldn’t name, a mutual intuition for what the other needs. Maybe it’s because I was always Dad’s favorite and he was always Mom’s. I’m halfway across the pasture before I realize that I left my flip-flops back at the creek—the grass is dry and sharp under my toes. Fifty feet ahead, the pasture rolls downward and ends at a wall of dark trees.
The woods are quiet and dreamy, the perfect place for Edward. I walk forward under the low-hanging branches, keeping my gaze trained at the ground to look for poison ivy. Leaves of three, let them be, Dad said on the camping trips. I find my brother’s hiding place in a clearing where yellow flowers have sprouted up from the pine needles. Hanging eight feet above the ground, suspended on crossbeams between two dead oaks, is a rotty old treehouse with plywood for walls and a canvas tarp for a roof. I step up on the footholds that snake up one of the tree trunks and peer inside the entrance.
Edward is sitting there with his headphones on, his knees tucked up against his stomach. He’s drawing in a sketchpad. When my head throws a shadow into the space, Edward startles and gasps.
“It’s just me, Ed,” I say.
He breathes out, looks at me, and smiles.
I climb into the treehouse and settle down next to him. The air smells stale and musty, like a wet dog. No one except for us has been in here for a long time.
“What are you thinking, running off like that?” I say. “Do you know how much that scares us?” In my words, I can hear the same rises and falls, the same flavors, as Dad used to use.
Edward stares at his sketchpad.
“Sorry,” I say. I reach out to touch him, already knowing that he’s going to recoil and scoot away from me. And he does.
I let the silence return. After almost thirty seconds, he begins scratching his pencil against the paper in soft, thick loops. Edward was the only one of us who was woken up by the sound of Dad’s accident. He walked into the living room and dialed 9-1-1. Then, I assume, he went outside. The truck hopped the curb a block away from home and ended up upside down in the Wendy’s parking lot. It was seven minutes before the ambulance woke the rest of us, and we found Edward sitting on the front stoop, waiting. Mom and I walked down the street together, telling the boys to wait at the house until we knew it was safe.
It’s possible that Edward saw Dad’s body. Seven minutes was enough time to walk to the end of Myrtle, take a good look, and come back. He wouldn’t know how to talk about it if he had, so there’s no way I’ll ever know. Thinking about the possibility makes me feel like something is pulling me down, swallowing me up.
Once I can sense that Edward is comfortable, I ask him what he’s drawing.
He shrugs. “The usual,” he says. “Space explosions. Supernovae.”
“Oh yeah. The Pillars of the Universe.”
“Creation,” he says. “But I’m not drawing that. This is about a fearless cosmonaut.”
“I’m telling you, bud, you could turn that stuff into a comic.”
“I know. But it’s hard to be a comic book artist in today’s economy.”
I laugh. “How do you know that?”
He stops moving his pencil and gazes at me like I’m his age and he’s mine. I let him sit there for a while, drawing quietly, before sitting up and saying that we better head home.
Back at the creek, the others are unsurprised to see us walking up, Edward’s hand in mine. When Edward tells Nat and Ben about the treehouse, they demand the details and go busting out across the pasture. Within a few days, the twins have made the treehouse their base of operations, and Edward is back in his room, drawing.
Owen has been saying all along that he goes to the Indian casino on Saturdays, that I shouldn’t bother to come over because he won’t be there. But the week after Edward finds the treehouse, I forget. I’m already walking down the gravel lane of the trailer park at ten after eleven, whistling some nonsense tune, before I realize my mistake. Since I’ve come all this way, I decide to try to get into Owen’s place anyways. Maybe I can surprise him. Crawl naked under the covers and wait for him to stumble home. The thought of Owen, his scratchy beard and rough hands and breath rich with beer, makes me speed up from a walk to a trot. Approaching the trailer, I see the orange glow of the living room lamp still on through the window. The door is locked. I feel my jeans for my Balance Rewards card and find it in my back pocket. The card slips under the knob lock with ease and the door clicks open.
The living room and the kitchen are the same as ever, just no Owen. Blankets tossed over the armchair and the sofa. CD cases stacked unevenly next to the stereo: George Jones, Waylon, Willie. The suggestion of weed marinating the air. I turn off the lamp and go into the bedroom.
I feel her presence before I walk through the door. It’s like being in a car going over a bump—that quick weightlessness, your heart dropping like a stone. I push the door open quietly and see that the closet light is on. It’s illuminating the room and the girl asleep on the bed in a soft, off-pink glow. I recognize her right away. Leanna Something, from a grade above me. She’d joined the Air Force after graduation, but certain people had seen her back around town. She’s so deep asleep that her mouth is drooped open. A few strands of her hair, long and curly, stick to left side of her mouth. She’s wearing a green tank-top but no pants, and the hot, stale air of the trailer has made her push the covers off her in her sleep. Her bush, a little nest of black between her pale thighs, moves faintly up and down with each breath she takes.
Owen keeps his polaroid camera in the top drawer of his dresser, along with his condoms and his socks. I retrieve it quietly, click the latch that turns it on and pops the flashbulb. The sound is harsh and loud, but Leanna Something doesn’t stir. I aim it toward the bed, frame her in the tiny viewfinder, and press the button. The camera whines, flashes brilliantly, then sighs out the photo. Leanna moans in her sleep, turns her back to me. I pull the photo out of the camera and set it on Owen’s pillow. When I leave, the image is still just an unresolved square of white.
On my walk home, the moon creeps like a knife from under a clump of clouds. It hangs there, laughing at me, until I reach the house. From the backyard, I can see the blue of the TV burning from the living room, meaning that Mom is still on the couch and probably passed out. I think for a second of just walking in through the back, letting the door slam into the counter so that she’ll wake up, sitting down and talking to her, as if Owen was just another boyfriend. As if she was just another Mom. Instead, I crawl back through Aunt Ally’s window, disturbing no one.
Graduation sneaks up on me. I forget about it until two weeks beforehand, when my English teacher starts yammering about famous commencement speeches. Everyone in the class except for me has ordered their cap and gown. Embarrassed, I knock quietly on the door of the school counselor during lunch.
Miss Courtney, as she insists she be called, is a short woman with big glasses and a perm. In ninth grade, during my eating disorder, she was pretty nice, even though she didn’t know enough to help me. She smiles when I enter and asks me how things are at home.
“Fine,” I say.
“Edward told me you moved to your Aunt’s house?”
“Edward talks to you?” I ask, unable to stop the heat from entering my voice. “I thought you were the high school counselor.”
“Sure I am,” she says. “But I’m not going to turn a kid away.” For some reason, she’s smirking at me, and I’m ready to walk out. But then I think of Miss Courtney calling Mom, saying she’s “concerned,” and I take a deep breath.
“I forgot to order a cap and gown.”
“Oh,” she says. “Well, they announced the deadline several times.”
“I was, whatever, distracted. By schoolwork.”
“Oh, it’s okay.” She stands and opens a closet behind her desk. There are several bright sweaters hanging there, along with a long black robe wrapped in dry cleaner plastic.
“I always keep one loaner,” she says, handing the robe across the desk. “Granted, it’s my size, so it’ll be loose as heck, and probably won’t go below your knees.”
After the last day of school, Nat and Ben march through the house, stomping their Vans against the carpet. “We’re mother-fricking eighth graders!” they shout. Ben pauses in the middle of the living room and starts humping the air, chanting a word with each thrust. “Seven-grades-down-five-to-go.” Mom and I, sitting on the couch with Edward between us, can’t help but laugh. Mom looks like she’s just gotten out of the shower: her hair is dark and damp, her cheeks are flushed pink. There’s an easiness in her face, too, that hasn’t been there lately.
I recognize the sound of Owen’s truck pulling into the driveway. The doorbell trills a minute later, and the twins make growling noises as they rush to answer it.
“Uncle Owen!” they cry from the mud room.
Mom and I rise from the couch together. I notice her glance at her reflection in the blank TV screen and lightly brush her hair with her fingers. When we reach them, Owen is already on the floor wrestling with Nat, with Ben circling them and asking for a turn.
“Owen,” Mom says.
Groaning, Owen shrugs Nat from his shoulder. My brother lands on the floor with a thud and a laugh. “God damn,” Owen says, pink-faced and smiling. “These two knuckleheads have grown.”
I can smell stale beer. He looks at me and smiles. I look at the floor.
“To what do we owe the pleasure?” Mom asks.
“Wanted to see how y’all were getting on,” he says, using a voice that sounds far too enthusiastic for him. “And to deliver your eldest her graduation present.”
He draws an envelope from his back pocket and holds it out to me. Mom crosses her arms. I look into his eyes, so green it almost hurts, and say thanks, taking the gift from him and walking into the living room without another word. I can feel my mother’s gaze following me as I go. Edward is there, fixed in concentration on his sketch pad. I watch him draw. What begins as a series of circles and lines slowly transforms into a man in a space suit. In the mud room, Owen and Mom talk for several seconds in low voices. Then the door closes, and Owen’s truck fires up and rolls away.
When Mom comes into the room, she stares at me for a long time. Tears dew in the corners of my eyes. I wipe them away before they can seize control.
Mom’s face is cold and angry. “What did he get you?” she asks in a flat voice.
The envelope sits unopened on my lap. “I don’t know.”
“Probably money, by the look of it.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Ed, can you leave us alone for a minute?”
My brother looks up at Mom like he’s coming out of a dream. “Is everything okay?” he asks.
“I just need to speak to your sister. It’s girl stuff.”
He frowns, as if this doesn’t even begin to qualify as an acceptable excuse, but stands up and walks to his room anyway.
Mom sits on the couch, as far from me as she can. From the corner of my eye, I see her shake her head. “Were you eighteen yet? When it started?”
“None of your business,” I hear myself blurt out, like a child.
“I assume you had no idea.”
“No idea of what?”
Mom laughs. “Well,” she says. “I was the one who was dumb enough to think that Owen had changed. Shouldn’t have let him near you.”
“Wouldn’t have stopped me,” I say, but I know right away that the words are a lie. Of course she could have stopped me.
We sit on the couch for five minutes, neither of us talking. Then Mom stands up suddenly, like the couch was hurting her. She looks around the room, avoiding my eyes.
“It’s nice out,” she says. “Why don’t we have a picnic.”
Mom calls Ally at the hospital, tells her to make up an excuse to leave. She arrives an hour later, her arms full of supplies: charcoal, paper plates, hot dogs, and buns. We don’t have a proper picnic blanket, so Nat and Ben lay their old Star Wars sheets out on the dirt of the creekside. Ally connects her boom box to an extension cord and blasts her power tunes: Aerosmith, Journey, Van Halen. We eat and watch the sun go down. Mom makes herself Lynchburg Lemonades and offers me one, which I take a few sips of before tossing. Edward finishes his cosmonaut and begins work on a cluster of moons. Ally drinks five Smirnoff Ices before heading inside to “rest her eyes.”
When the sky turns a dull peach, Edward looks up from his drawing and says, “We should show Mom the treehouse.”
“Yes!” say Nat and Ben, waist-deep in the water. “Let’s all sleep out there tonight!”
Mom sighs and says that sounds ridiculous. The twins splash out of the water and pull her up from the sheet, teasing and cajoling. Mom picks up her drink and shrugs, and we all walk across the creek and climb our way into the pasture. Halfway to the woods, Mom takes my hand. I almost jump with surprise. She squeezes it and apologizes for forgetting about graduation. “It’s whatever,” I tell her. Lightning bugs begin to rise from the tall grass as we walk, and Nat tries to catch them with his mouth.
The woods are painted gray, still and hushed. Nobody speaks. The ice tinkles in Mom’s Lynchburg Lemonade. By the time we get there, it’s so dark that the treehouse could be a natural thing, a joint that has sprouted from one of the trunks of the oaks and fused them together.
Ben steps forward and slaps his hand on one tree trunk, then the other. “Here we are, Ed,” he says. “The Pillars of Creation!”
We climb up carefully. The air inside is drier than it was before, not as rotten. Nat and Ben have lined the floor with old towels and stocked the place with Cokes. Out of nowhere, Mom produces a fleece blanket and wraps it around Edward and herself. We all let some silence pass, knowing that it will make Edward comfortable.
After a few minutes, he starts talking, describing his latest drawings. He tells us that the universe is dying, eating itself from the inside out. But it’s not too late for the all the star systems to come together as one.
“How does it end?” I ask.
“Be patient,” he says. “We’re getting there.”
I relax and close my eyes, let my head fall onto my mother’s shoulder. Outside, in the woods, darkness falls completely, but no one brings up the subject of going back home.
Edward tells us how, deep inside the Pillars of Creation, gas and dust are slowly bonding to create new stars.