God in the Sky

by An Owomoyela

“God in the Sky” first appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction in March, 2011.

Three hours after the light flared into the sky,‭ ‬I finally got in touch with Dad.‭ ‬We were frantic,‭ ‬both talking at once:‭ ‬he said‭ “‬But we don’t know anything yet‭” ‬while I was saying‭ “‬There are already theories on the internet‭;” ‬I said‭ “‬This isn’t the dark ages,‭ ‬this isn’t an omen‭” ‬when he started laughing,‭ ‬saying‭ “‬People are lining up at church already.‭” ‬That was Tuesday.

Two hours after that,‭ ‬when I’d reached my grandfather,‭ ‬we spoke in similar breathless terms.‭ ‬After he’d invited me to his ranch home,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬just before he hung up,‭ ‬he said words I’d only heard before in pop politics.
‎‏

Allahu akbar.
‎‏

#

Seventy minutes on the interstate took me to my grandfather’s.‭ ‬The light in the sky was indistinct‭ –‬ in daylight you could mistake it for a smudge of cloud,‭ ‬except it was too perfectly round and looked farther away than the blue sky.‭ ‬I pulled in on the gravel road,‭ ‬handling my car like the horses my mother loved to ride,‭ ‬and when I got it lined up by his old Chevy he was waiting for me on the wood porch with a grin that went up to his eyes.‭ ‬He was‭ ‬78.‭ ‬His salt-and-pepper hair was giving way to salt and his dark face was laced with wrinkles,‭ ‬but he trotted down and opened my door for me.‭ ‬When we hugged,‭ ‬it felt like life took nothing out of him except the fat from his middle age and weight from his step.

“‏You can help me sort the lentils,‭” ‬he said.
‎‏
We both glanced up before we went in.

“‏Your father called,‭” ‬my grandfather said,‭ ‬kicking off his sandals to walk barefoot on the red carpet.‭ “‬He said you called him.‭ ‬What a kick.‭ ‬I think everyone in this family has called everyone else,‭ ‬but no one’s heard a peep from your mother.‭ ‬Have you talked to her‭?”

“She’s working on an education initiative in Monrovia,‎” ‏I said.‭ “‬Their networks went down.‭ ‬I got a really short email this morning to let me know she was alive,‭ ‬but other than that…‭”

“She’s probably out there,‎ ‏annoyed that she knows we’re worried,‭” ‬my grandfather said.‭ “‬She was always too independent for anyone,‭ ‬your mother.‭ ‬That’s why Paul couldn’t hang on to her.‭ ‬Come on.‭”

We headed into the kitchen to commit what my mother used to call atrocities against American cuisine:‎ ‏pizza topped with lentils and caramelized onions,‭ ‬rice on the side,‭ ‬bottles of peach homebrew pulled out from his fridge,‭ ‬and frozen grapes for dessert.

“‏I found,‭” ‬he said,‭ ‬when we’d put the lentils on to simmer and retreated to his patio to watch the empty stable yard,‭ “‬my old telescope hiding up in the attic,‭ ‬put away with your dad’s old schoolbooks.‭ ‬We should bring it down.‭”

“We should,‎” ‏I agreed,‭ ‬though neither of us got up from our conversation until we went back in for our food.
‎‏

My grandfather talked with his hands.‭ ‬He used to say‭ “‬If you cut off my hands,‭ ‬I’d go mute‭!” ‬Today all his gestures tended toward the sky,‭ ‬toward the pale half-dollar sitting opposite the moon.‭ ‬Over pizza,‭ ‬I finally asked.

“‏Are you converting to Islam‭?”

That surprised him.‎ ‏I reminded him of what he’d said on the phone,‭ ‬and he laughed.‭ “‬Oh,‭ ‬that.‭ ‬I don’t know.‭ ‬I was in a state.‭ ‬I don’t know why I said it.‭ ‬I never really thought about converting back.‭”

“Back‎?”

“You didn’t think I was agnostic as a boy in Egypt,‎ ‏did you‭?” ‬he chided.‭ “‬I came over here and I decided to be American through and through.‭ ‬First that meant being Christian and owning a business.‭ ‬Then everyone became agnostic and I did too.‭”

I laughed.‎ “‏You go with whatever religion’s in vogue‭?”

He feigned offense.‎ “‏I’m easily convinced by articulate people.‭”

“And you’re meeting a lot of articulate Muslims here on the ranch‎?”

My grandfather gave me an annoyed look.‎ ‏That one wasn’t feigned.‭ “‬No,‭ ‬of course not.‭ ‬As I said,‭ ‬I was in a state.‭ ‬It was a thing from childhood.‭” ‬At that,‭ ‬the annoyance faded.‭ “‬It’s an old man thing,‭ ‬Katri.‭ ‬One day you’ll get old and start reminiscing too.‭”

He tossed a grape at me.‎ ‏I ducked to catch it in my mouth,‭ ‬but it hit my chin and bounced off.‭ ‬My grandfather hopped to his feet.

“‏I’m going to pull down that telescope,‭” ‬he said.‭ “‬Then you’ll have to stay until the sun goes down.‭”

“I’ll drink all your beer and have to stay all night,‎” ‏I told him.

“‏I’ll convert back to Islam just for you,‭” ‬he called from the door.‭ “‬To keep the evils of homebrew out of your hands.‭” ‬And with that he vanished inside the house,‭ ‬and I was left wondering why the jibe turned sour in my ears.

#
‎‏

We had to clean both lenses of the telescope,‭ ‬and setting it up took us until the sun was down.‭ ‬The base had to be screwed together,‭ ‬and most of the screws had gone missing.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬we found the screwdriver behind his entertainment center around the time the last colors of sunset were fading from the sky‭ –‬ it’d probably been there since he’d put the TV hutch together.
‎‏

Always a gentleman,‭ ‬my grandfather made me take the first look.‭ ‬Though he also made me look at the light before anything else.
‎‏

I don’t know what I expected‭; ‬more powerful telescopes than this had already failed to reveal anything.‭ ‬Through the lens,‭ ‬the object was just diffuse light,‭ ‬like a flashlight shining through paper.‭ ‬I let out a breath and stepped back to let my grandfather see.

“‏It’s a bit of a disappointment.‭”

“Only you would say that about the most…‎” ‏He waved at the night sky,‭ ‬taking the telescope.‭ “‬What would you call it‭? ‬Miraculous‭? ‬Terrifying‭? ‬Only you would say that about the most interesting thing up there.‭” ‬He adjusted the focus.‭ “‬What do you suppose it is‭?”

I leaned back.‎ “‏Something new,‭ ‬probably,‭” ‬I said.‭ “‬Something no one’s invented a word for,‭ ‬yet.‭”

He laughed.‎ “‏Well,‭ ‬what good is that‭? ‬All the important things in life‭ –‬ love,‭ ‬birth,‭ ‬death,‭ ‬family ‭–‬ all those have had names for thousands and thousands of years.‭ ‬All these new things like virtual economies and carbon offsets‭?‬ Those are only important in the day-to-day.‭”

“Yeah,‎ ‏we live day to day,‭” ‬I pointed out.‭ “‬Life’s day to day.‭”

“Katrina,‎” ‏he said,‭ ‬looking at me.‭ “‬You just remember that whatever happens out there is nothing compared to what happens down here,‭” ‬he said,‭ ‬and patted his chest just above his heart.

“‏All right,‭ ‬gramps,‭” ‬I said.‭ “‬I’ll make a motivational poster with the light and that quote.‭”

“Good.‎” ‏He grinned.‭ “‬Market it.‭ ‬That’s my granddaughter,‭ ‬off to be an entrepreneur‭! ‬I want a share in your profits.‭”

I chuckled.‎ “‏Of course you do.‭”

It wasn’t late,‎ ‏but by then I was missing my bed and my girlfriend,‭ ‬and I’d had time to sober off the beer.‭ ‬I excused myself,‭ ‬and my grandfather walked me to the door.‭ ‬He kissed me on the cheek.‭ “‬Give Josey a kiss for me‭!”

I laughed and told him I would.

#

MAYOR CALLS NIGHT-SKY OBJECT‭ “‬GOD,‭” ‬read the headline in the paper the next day.‭ ‬The bold pull quote said MAYOR MCMAHON OF SAN ANGELO,‭ ‬TEXAS,‭ ‬CAUSED AN UPROAR SATURDAY BY SAYING‭ “‬THIS LIGHT IS CERTAIN PROOF OF GOD‭; ‬IT MAY BE GOD IN HIS GLORY.‭”

I read it when Josey put her laptop down on the kitchen table in front of me.‎ ‏It was only seven and we were both up,‭ ‬both in robes,‭ ‬her with the morning’s first cup of coffee and me with a phone to my ear.‭ ‬Josey turned back to the window after handing off the laptop,‭ ‬her powder-blue robe looking softer in the early-morning light.

“‏Yeah,‭” ‬I said into the mouthpiece,‭ ‬like I’d been saying any time my advisor let me get a word in edgewise.‭ “‬No.‭ ‬Yeah,‭ ‬I understand.‭ ‬Yeah.‭ ‬I hope so too.‭ ‬Okay.‭” ‬I counted on him running out of things to explain after a while,‭ ‬and after a while,‭ ‬he did.‭ ‬We hung up.‭ “‬The research office is going on hiatus,‭” ‬I told Josey,‭ ‬who looked back with the sort of bleary-eyed tired interest I used to get from my grandfather’s old dog.‭ “‬The other assistant bailed.‭ ‬He doesn’t know if this is what he wants to be doing.‭ ‬Said he wanted to spend time with his mother.‭”

“Because the world is ending,‎” ‏Josey said.

“‏Something like that.‭ ‬Dr.‭ ‬Greene says he’ll find something for me to do,‭ ‬keep me paid,‭ ‬but who knows‭ ‬what.‭ ‬Maybe loan me out to another department.‭ ‬Rain gagues in the Chihuahuan,‭ ‬or something.‭ ‬Trapping and tagging snipes.‭”

Josey rolled the mug between her hands,‎ ‏watching the reflections in the coffee,‭ ‬then shook her head.‭ “‬Here.‭” ‬She sashayed up to the table and slipped into the chair beside me.‭ “‬I thought you’d be interested.‭ ‬There’s a science section.‭ ‬They say in twenty years…‭”

She reached across to click a link,‎ ‏calling up some Flash page blinking with layman’s statistics.‭ ‬I put away the phone and took a look at it‭ –‬ most of it was the same stuff I’d been reading for days‭; ‬how the light had appeared,‭ ‬how many people had called it in to NASA,‭ ‬but there was some information I hadn’t seen before.‭ ‬I read through most of it with detached interest until something gave me pause.‭ “‬Whoa.‭”

“Nelly‎?” ‏Josey said.‭ ‬I grabbed a stray envelope and looked across the table for a writing implement,‭ ‬but nothing was in evidence.‭ “‬Yeah.‭ ‬In twenty years‭? ‬It’s supposed to fill the night sky.‭”

The way she said that,‎ ‏it was almost a question.‭ ‬Like maybe she hadn’t read that right.‭ ‬I frowned at the screen.‭ “‬You have a pencil‭?”

“I hid a few in your robe pockets,‎” ‏Josey said.‭ ‬I looked down and rummaged in one:‭ ‬sure enough,‭ ‬there were a pair of golf pencils waiting for me.‭ ‬Josey leaned over,‭ ‬brushing hair off her shoulder.‭ “‬What is it‭?”

“Arc seconds,‎” ‏I said,‭ ‬and started a line of calculations.‭ ‬Josey rested her chin on my shoulder,‭ ‬hanging on the movement of the lead.‭ ‬I finished the calculation and re-read it before answering.‭ “‬Okay.‭ ‬Yeah,‭ ‬if it keeps growing the way it is.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬the Earth turns,‭ ‬it’s gonna rise and set,‭ ‬but the math’s right.‭ ‬Horizon to horizon.‭”

Josey pulled away and looked down into her mug,‎ ‏running her thumb around and around the circumference.‭ “‬What happens to us then‭?”

I paused in the middle of putting the pencil back.‎ “‏What makes you think anything will happen‭?”

Josey shrugged and mumbled something indistinct.
‎‏

I drummed the pencil against the table.‭ “‬Actually,‭ ‬what makes you think that’s gonna happen‭?”

“What,‎ ‏the news‭?” ‬she asked.

“‏Josey,‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬turning on my chair to tilt my head at her.‭ “‬Name one thing in the universe that just grows and keeps growing forever.‭ ‬I mean,‭ ‬other than the‭ ‬universe.‭” ‬I dug the pencilpoint into the envelope.‭ “‬It flared already,‭ ‬and now it’s slowed down.‭ ‬Stars explode and then they collapse again.‭ ‬You get things like gamma bursts flashing up,‭ ‬making a lot of noise,‭ ‬and then they vanish.‭ ‬It’s not gonna keep growing‭; ‬it’s not gonna fill the night sky.‭”
Josey shrugged.‎ ‏She raised her cup and downed the rest of the coffee in a go,‭ ‬setting it down hard and giving me a defiant look at the face I’d pulled.
‎”‏Your lab isn’t happening.‭ ‬I don’t have class until this afternoon.‭ ‬You know what‭? ‬Let’s go back to bed.‭”

I rolled my neck.‎ “‏Josey…‭”

“Just snuggle‎!” ‏Josey protested,‭ ‬and pushed her laptop closed.‭ ‬I closed my eyes.‭ “‬The world might be ending.‭”

“It’s not ending.‎”

“Just come be with me,‎” ‏Josey said.
‎‏

I opened my eyes again.‭ “‬It’s not God and it’s not gonna end the world,‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬but I got up and followed Josey into the bedroom anyway.

#
‎‏

I usually tried to make it out to my grandfather’s ranch once a month or so,‭ ‬but I drove up later that day.‭ ‬A two-hour round trip wasn’t bad,‭ ‬with my lab cancelled and me with nothing else to do.‭ ‬Not as bad as the half-hour spent waiting for a gas pump,‭ ‬or the clogged street in front of the grocery store where everyone was buying water and canned food.‭ ‬My grandfather and I followed form from last time,‭ ‬sitting out back and watching the sky after we’d eaten,‭ ‬waiting for it to get dark enough to look through the telescope again.‭ ‬Except for the almost-imperceptible growth,‭ ‬the light looked the same as it had the day before,‭ ‬and the day before that.

“‏Everything up there seems little,‭” ‬my grandfather said,‭ ‬blocking the light with his thumb.‭ “‬See there‭?” ‬He waggled his thumb at me.‭ “‬Only as big as the deck lamp.‭”

I snorted.‎ “‏It’s a lot further away,‭ ‬gramps.‭”

“And how far would that be‎? ‏Hmm‭?” ‬He tilted his head at me,‭ ‬smile roguish.‭ “‬You being the expert.‭”

I stared at him for longer than I should have.‎ ‏He was joking,‭ ‬though it struck me that he was right.‭ ‬I was the first generation on my father’s side to go into science.‭ ‬My grandfather had come from Egypt and gone into business,‭ ‬and my father went into history and taught.‭ ‬I was the authority.
‎‏

I put my drink aside and pulled him up from his chair.‭ “‬Here.‭ ‬Look at this.‭”

I pulled him to the spot on the patio which gave us the best view of the night sky,‎ ‏uncut by trees or the line of the roof.

“‏Things look smaller away,‭ ‬the further away they are,‭ ‬right‭?”

“Yes‎; ‏I know that,‭” ‬he said.‭ ‬I searched among the stars for a certain speck,‭ ‬and pointed up toward it.

“‏You could line up twenty-two Earths in a row,‭ ‬and that’s how wide across Jupiter is,‭” ‬I told him.‭ “‬And look.‭ ‬Up there,‭ ‬in the sky,‭ ‬it’s only that big.‭ ‬Okay‭?”

He nodded.‎  “‏Very far away,‭” ‬he agreed.
‎‏

I searched out another point in the night sky and guided him to it,‭ ‬describing the line through a constellation until I knew he saw the same thing I did.‭

“‬Jupiter orbits the Sun.‭ ‬Think Jupiter’s big compared to the Earth‭? ‬The Sun’s five Jupiters across.‭ ‬And all of our planets and their orbits describe a solar system that make the sun look like a marble in a kiddie pool,‭ ‬and the space between solar systems makes those solar systems look like…‭ ‬I don’t know.‭” ‬I was running out of metaphor.‭ “‬The galaxy is big,‭ ‬gramps.‭ ‬We don’t have words for how big it is.‭ ‬But that pinprick,‭ ‬right there‭? ‬That’s not a star.‭ ‬It’s a galaxy.‭”

I heard him take a breath.
‎‏

I shivered,‭ ‬and looped my arm through the crook of his elbow.‭ ‬I’d never had a sense of agoraphobia until taking astronomy classes in undergrad,‭ ‬but the universe yawned open on every side of the Earth.‭ ‬It seemed designed for something bigger.‭ ‬All the planets and all the stars were grains of sand scattered in an ocean,‭ ‬and that halfdollar light was supposed to fill the night sky.

“‏We can calculate how far away that galaxy is,‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬and my voice was soft enough I didn’t know if he’d hear it.‭ “‬But we can’t work out that light.‭ ‬Sometimes we can tell how close a star in a galaxy is,‭ ‬but we can’t see stars in that.‭ ‬Or we can tell how redshifted a galaxy is,‭ ‬more red the further away,‭ ‬but that light’s not redshifted at all,‭ ‬not that we can tell.‭ ‬That means maybe it’s not part of our expanding universe.‭ ‬It’s not something…‭”

I trailed off.
‎‏

We turned.‭ ‬The light was small,‭ ‬but far larger than the stars.

“‏The worst thing is,‭ ‬we’ve seen galaxies pass in front of it,‭” ‬I said.‭ “‬The light is farther away than that galaxy.‭” ‬I pointed back to the speck that looked like a star.‭ “‬And it’s still that big in the sky.‭”

I leaned into my grandfather,‎ ‏and he held onto my arm.‭ ‬our fingers were tight.

“‏I’m wondering what the Koran would say,‭” ‬my grandfather murmured.

“‏It’s just something new,‭” ‬I said.‭ “‬It’s something scientific.‭ ‬Like a nova.‭ ‬You don’t go to the Koran for that,‭ ‬you build a better telescope.‭”

My grandfather exhaled,‎ ‏then patted my hand.‭ ‬He was still watching the light.‭ ‬He was probably thinking about the Koran,‭ ‬still,‭ ‬just like all those people had rushed to church on Tuesday morning.
‎‏

Mayor McMahon had said it.‭ ‬This was the thing people were calling God.

#

“‏I’m going to go see her,‭” ‬Dad said over the phone.
‎‏

Her in this case was Mom.‭ ‬Mom,‭ ‬at this time,‭ ‬was still in Monrovia.‭ ‬Monrovia,‭ ‬at the moment,‭ ‬was still trapped in communications brownouts.
‎‏

I was pretty sure dad had gone insane.

“‏News is still coming out of Liberia,‭” ‬I said.‭ “‬We’d know if anything horrible happened.‭”

“That’s not the point,‎” ‏Dad said.
‎‏

I was pretty sure the world had gone insane.
‎‏

Outside the window,‭ ‬my next-door neighbor was cleaning out the shed I’d never seen him use.‭ ‬A rusted-out lawnmower and cans of old paint were scattered on his brown lawn,‭ ‬and earlier I’d seen him carrying a box labeled‭ “‬EMERGENCY GENERATOR.‭”

“I never did speak to your mother as much as I should have after the divorce,‎” ‏Dad went on.‭ “‬We promised each other we’d still be a part of each other’s lives,‭ ‬and we haven’t been fulfilling that promise.‭”

“That doesn’t mean you just hop on the first transatlantic flight,‎” ‏I argued.

“‏Maybe it should,‭” ‬Dad said.‭ “‬Say what you will,‭ ‬but this thing‭–”

“Dad.‎”

“–this thing has put everything in perspective.‎ ‏There’s enough we don’t have control over.‭ ‬This,‭ ‬I do.‭”

Or maybe everyone’s just going to use that light as an excuse to panic,‭ ‬I thought.‭ ‬It was like Y2K all over again,‭ ‬except along with stocking up on emergency candles and nonperishable food,‭ ‬everyone dropped what they were doing and went to visit everyone they knew.‭ “‬Dad,‭ ‬you have a job,‭ ‬and projects,‭ ‬and you can’t just‭–”

“I’m packing.‎”

“You can’t‎–”
“Don’t tell me what I can’t do.‎”

I dug my knuckles into the bridge of my nose.‎ “‏Dad.‭ ‬You can’t just pack up and‭ ‬move to Liberia.‭”

“They say that thing in the sky can’t exist,‎ ‏too,‭” ‬Dad countered.‭ “‬Maybe‭ ‘‬can’t‭’ ‬doesn’t mean what we used to think it did.‭”

“Dad,‎ ‏that’s not even remotely the same thing.‭”

Dad didn’t care.

“‏Look,‭ ‬people are on the news taking loans out for domestic flights,‭” ‬I tried.‭ “‬An international‭–”

“So I’ll have to pay a little more,‎” ‏he said.‭ ‬This from a man who’d haggled for a week on the price of my car.‭ “‬I’ll manage.‭ ‬Maybe I’ll get a one-way ticket and wait for things to calm down.‭”

“Okay,‎” ‏I said.‭ “‬Right.‭ ‬And things will calm down,‭ ‬because nothing is‭ ‬happening.‭

“Katrina,‎” ‏he said,‭ ‬with the tone he used when Mom harried him too hard.

‏That’s when I knew I’d lost the argument.
‎‏

I was lying face-down on the bed when Josey came home,‭ ‬and when she joined me I rolled straightaway into her arms and told her the whole thing,‭ ‬or what I thought was the whole thing.‭ ‬My research partner was off having a crisis of academia,‭ ‬and Dad was off to Africa.‭ ‬And my grandfather might convert to Islam.‭ “‬Because of what‭? ‬Because there’s a bit of the universe we don’t understand.‭ ‬If people knew how many things we didn’t understand,‭ ‬we’d never get anything done.‭”

Josey listened and made comforting noises until I stopped talking.‎ ‏Then she pursed her lips,‭ ‬considered,‭ ‬and said‭ “‬Do you need me to stay around for a bit‭?”

I stared at Josey the way people must have stared at that light when it flared into the sky.‎ “‏What do you mean,‭ ‘‬stay‭’?”

“I mean‎ ‏stay,‭ ‬stay,‭” ‬Josey said.‭ “‬I thought‭ –‬ you know.‭ ‬I know the world isn’t ending,‭ ‬but with everything going on‭–”

“You’re leaving‎?” ‏I asked.

“‏I’m coming back,‭” ‬she said,‭ ‬with a look of reproach.‭ “‬But I want to see my family in Tennessee.‭ ‬That’s all right,‭ ‬isn’t it‭? ‬Just for a week or so‭? ‬You’ve got your grandpa so close by.‭”

I fought off the strangling feeling in my throat.‎ “‏Just a week‭?” ‬I said,‭ ‬because I couldn’t tell her it wasn’t okay.‭ ‬Everyone was going home to see their families.‭ ‬I just wanted to stay there,‭ ‬to complete my research,‭ ‬to leave the light to astronomers.‭  ‬Every day some organization put up another grant,‭ ‬another contest,‭ ‬another prize‭; ‬we’d figure it out because science figured things out,‭ ‬because science,‭ ‬as much as nature,‭ ‬abhorred a vacuum.
‎‏

Josey leaned over and kissed me on the forehead,‭ ‬and I felt small beside her mass.‭ ‬I wanted that mass to stay right where I could hang onto it,‭ ‬a planet embracing its sun’s gravity.‭ “‬I’ll bring you back some real channel catfish.‭”

#
‎‏

I showed up at my grandfather’s house with a backpack in the front passenger seat,‭ ‬the radio tuned to NPR,‭ ‬and a tension in my jaw I couldn’t relax through gum or massage or willpower.‭ ‬I hadn’t even called first‭; ‬my grandfather wasn’t out front waiting for me,‭ ‬and it took a minute before he opened the door.‭ ‬I just stood there and pounded,‭ ‬smelling the crisp night,‭ ‬feeling the breezes on the back of my neck,‭ ‬trying not to scream at the slowly growing light in the sky.
‎‏

When the door opened I stood there for a moment with my fist raised.‭ ‬My grandfather and I both looked at each other,‭ ‬surprised‭; ‬I suppose I’d thought that he had disappeared,‭ ‬too.‭ ‬But he was there,‭ ‬he laughed,‭ ‬he ushered me inside.‭ “‬Come to stay the night‭?”

“Can I‎?”

He took my backpack,‎ ‏closing the door behind me.
‎‏

I was drifting toward the living room when I heard voices talking.‭ ‬I hesitated‭ –‬ I thought he had someone over ‭–‬ but it was only one voice,‭ ‬and it wasn’t pitched like a conversation,‭ ‬it was pitched like a lecture.‭ ‬I turned back to him.

“‏What is that‭?”

“Hmm‎?” ‏My grandfather looked genuinely surprised.‭ “‬Oh,‭ ‬that‭? ‬It’s one of those internet radio stations.‭ ‬I don’t know if it’s any good yet.‭ ‬Well.‭” ‬He laughed as he took my backpack,‭ ‬tucking it into the hall closet between a pair of dusty boots and the old telescope.‭ “‬I’ve been listening to it all evening.‭ ‬I didn’t realize how far my Arabic’s slipped.‭”

I could feel my face fall,‎ ‏and when he straightened up again I wrapped my arms around him.‭ ‬He hugged back,‭ ‬but not for long before he ducked his head to nudge my forehead with his own.‭ “‬What’s wrong‭?”

“I don’t know,‎” ‏I said.‭ “‬Dad’s going to Liberia.‭ ‬Don’t ask me how he booked a flight to Liberia.‭ ‬I still haven’t talked to Mom.‭ ‬Our lab shut down.‭ ‬Even Josey’s gone.‭ ‬I know,‭ ‬I sound fourteen,‭ ‬but everyone is leaving me…‭”

My grandfather showed his palms.‎ “‏I’m not going anywhere,‭ ‬Katrina.‭”

“You’re going‎–” ‏I bit off the end of the sentence.‭ ‬How stupid was it to finish the thought,‭ ‬You’re going back to Islam‭?

He reached over,‎ ‏rubbing my shoulder.‭ “‬Come on,‭” ‬he said.‭ “‬Come have some coffee and we’ll talk about this.‭”

I put myself together and motioned for him to go on into the kitchen.‎ ‏I followed him,‭ ‬taking a seat at the counter and kicking my heels against the rung of the stool.‭ ‬Childish,‭ ‬yes,‭ ‬but it helped.
‎‏

I watched my grandfather go through the motions of making coffee just as he always had:‭ ‬adding in cardamom and cinnamon to the burr grinder,‭ ‬pouring the beans without bothering to measure them.‭ ‬It was the same.‭ ‬He was the same as he’d been when I was a child,‭ ‬when we’d lived in the city,‭ ‬when he’d made that coffee every morning before school and enticed me to drink some.‭ ‬It’ll start off your day right,‭ ‬Katri.

“‏Will you be going on the Hajj‭?” ‬I asked.‭ ‬It was the only sensible question about Islam I knew enough to ask,‭ ‬aside from‭ ‬What about me and Josey‭?‬,‭ ‬and I wasn’t ready to ask that yet.

‎‏He shook his head.‭ “‬I don’t know.‭ ‬I don’t think I should jump in with both feet,‭ ‬do you‭? ‬It wouldn’t be right to go on the Hajj only to think in the middle,‭ ‘‬oh,‭ ‬no,‭ ‬this isn’t right for me.‭'”

“But you never thought Islam was right for you before,‎ ‏did you‭?” ‬I pressed.‭ “‬Christianity either.‭ ‬And you raised me and Dad outside of the church.‭ ‬Any church.‭”

My grandfather breathed out through his mouth,‎ ‏turning to pour the coffee.‭ “‬I never in my life felt terribly religious.‭ ‬But this light,‭” ‬he said‭; “‬it’s probably the sort of thing that changes things forever‭–”

“No‎!” ‏I jumped at the sound of my own voice.‭ “‬Man probably did this at the first eclipse,‭ ‬too.‭ ‬They looked up and saw something eating the sun and they thought it was the end of the world.‭ ‬But it wasn’t.‭ ‬We don’t understand everything.‭ ‬So what‭! ‬We’ll learn.‭ ‬And the world will keep changing and we’ll learn to deal with that,‭ ‬but everyone is acting like it’s the end of the world‭!”

My grandfather looked at me.‎ ‏Then he looked down into his coffee.‭ ‬I was reminded of Josey‭; ‬of her asking,‭ ‬What happens to us then‭?

I wanted to know what was happening to us now.

‎”‏Katri,‭” ‬he said,‭ ‬after a moment.‭ “‬These things everyone is doing.‭ ‬They’re important.‭”

I started to object,‎ ‏but he didn’t let me.

“‏So what do you want everyone to do,‭ ‬when the world changes up around them.‭ ‬Hm‭? ‬Dig their heels in like you’re doing‭?”

“I’m not‎–” ‏I said.‭ ‬And then,‭ “‬I’m just not panicking.‭”

“You’re dealing with the light very well,‎” ‏he conceded,‭ ‬and drank from his mug.
‎‏

The light.
‎‏

But the light,‭ ‬for all that it had sent Dad to Liberia and Josey to Tennessee,‭ ‬hadn’t sent me seventy minutes down the interstate to drink coffee in my grandfather’s kitchen.‭ ‬That had been Josey,‭ ‬it had been Dad,‭ ‬it had been the people buying gas and generators like they’d need to dig in tomorrow for a white night sky‭ – ‬maybe ‭– ‬in twenty years.

“‏You think I’m acting fourteen,‭ ‬don’t you‭?”

My grandfather set his coffee down.‎ “‏No‭! ‬No,‭ ‬I just think you’re in over your head.‭” ‬He gestured,‭ ‬trying to paint an entire world with his hands.‭ “‬If God gives you a reason to remember what’s important in life,‭ ‬take it.‭ ‬That’s all.‭ ‬And if everyone else takes it,‭ ‬that’s wonderful.‭ ‬No one has to act like the world’s on fire.‭”

I studied his face for any hint of rapture.‎ “‏Do you think it’s God,‭ ‬then‭?”

No rapture.‎ ‏Just a smile,‭ ‬expanding across his face.‭ “‬I meet a lot of articulate agnostics out here on the ranch,‭ ‬Katri,‭” ‬he jibed.‭ “‬So no‭; ‬I think a very un-Islamic thing.‭ ‬I think God is what we make of Him.‭”

#
‎‏

We went out back to the patio.‭ ‬My grandfather carried the telescope despite my attempts to help,‭ ‬and he set it up in the corner with the best view.‭ ‬He let me take the first look,‭ ‬straight at the unexplained God in the sky.

“‏Has it changed at all‭?” ‬my grandfather asked.
‎‏

I squinted through the lens.‭ ‬The light was as inscrutable as ever.

“‏I wonder what we look like from that far away,‭” ‬I said,‭ ‬pulling away.‭ “‬If they could even see the light from our galaxy.‭ ‬Or maybe you could see the light from our universe.‭ ‬From the big bang.‭” ‬I shook my head to keep myself from shaking,‭ ‬but the shiver was gone in a moment anyway.‭ “‬I wonder if the big bang looked like that.‭”

My grandfather put his hand on my back,‎ ‏rubbing slow circles and meaningless patterns.‭ “‬Think we’ll find out what it is‭?”

“Give it twenty years,‎” ‏I answered.‭ ‬Two decades,‭ ‬and it would have filled the night sky or faded away.‭ ‬Or just sat there,‭ ‬letting the world learn how to deal with it.

“‏Hmm,‭” ‬my grandfather agreed.
‎‏

We watched for a few more minutes in silence before he turned to go back inside.‭ ‬After a while,‭ ‬I followed him.‭ ‬The light stayed behind,‭ ‬waiting in the cold night sky.

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