Tonight, there is a muscle twitch at the corner of my left eye. I should be limp and relaxed, my back falling into the mattress. Sleep should come without effort. Instead, I squinch my lids down tight. That’s when the red lights flash a warning. The harder I squeeze, the brighter the sparks dance until my head starts to ache.
I give up. I blink my eyes open until I am staring into the dark. What’s outside of me is different with all the shadows, lapping and overlapping, eating each other up.
It’s hard to recognize what I know is in the room: the six drawers of my maple wood dresser, the little table with a record player and albums, the stuffed animal basket with paws sticking up in the air or dangling over the side. On the dresser is a display case with the Ichimatsu doll Grandpa bought me, the tiny brocaded kimono sleeves extended to each side, the painted eyes in a powdered white face staring out. Because the doll never blinks, she watches everything, including me—a bumpy mess of blankets in the night. If I were a good girl, she’d tell me, there would be no problems. I would be asleep and dreaming.
What I see is a dim fuzziness like Channel 7’s reception with Walter Cronkite on the news saying: “It’s a war out there.” Was it only a few hours ago that Mom put her knitting down in her lap, watching scenes of army trucks and soldiers? I know Mom is worried about my big brother, Rodney. Rodney, who is stationed in Saigon.
I don’t usually think about these things except when I’m stretched out, when it’s night, when the day passes like a newsreel against the ceiling. I’ll see Mr. Denton at the blackboard, spearing a circle with a quick diagonal line, explaining about the Earth’s axis. This afternoon, my teacher threw chalk at me because he thought I was falling asleep, my cheek pillowed on my arm. The sun slanting in through the tall windows had felt so good, bathing the desk in a strong yellow light.
“You’re in third grade! Why on earth would you need a flashlight? You can’t possibly be afraid of the dark,” Mom lectured me right before kissing me good night. The bulky silver cylinder protruded from under the pillow. I heard the batteries rattling as Mom shook the flashlight the same way as Mr. Denton would slap his pointer into his hand during a spelling bee. Mom’s words rang in my head: “No more Twilight Zone for you!”
But I couldn’t say anything to defend myself, so I smashed my lips together. My mother doesn’t know I have to do an extra two-page report on the solar system. Just me. Mr. Denton said my deadline was this Friday.
I’m relieved that Rod Serling’s monotone voice never narrates my dreams—before and after, that I never see the E=mc2 fly by like a road sign, never hear a ticking clock in the dark.
During the day, the sun makes busy colors and shapes. It’s at night when space blurs, grows cold and empty. There’s no one here to answer my questions. All I can think about is that time at sunset, a hill against my back, the round curve of the earth rotating the light out of the sky.
Underneath the bed, just behind the slippers and shoes I’ll wear for school tomorrow, is the World Book Encyclopedia—just Volume S for the solar system. The print is tiny and I think that the people who wrote it are probably as old as Grandpa. He bought it for one hundred dollars—a lot of money—right after the family got out of camp, because “as Japanese, he’d learned nobody could take your education away from you.”
I’m not sure what Grandpa means. When I read the World Book Encyclopedia, there’s a voice I hear inside my head like Rod Serling’s telling me, teasing me, scaring me before that week’s show begins. The encyclopedia said a star came close to the sun and pulled out great masses of gas from it. When these cooled, they became small solid bodies, then drew together to form the planets.
I didn’t know a book could be so wrong. I thought old books would be the smartest. But Mr. Denton wrote all over my last science paper about “Our Earth” in bright red ink. At first, he circled words—like “moon” and “pulled out of the earth.” But then question marks appeared in the margins. Next to my last paragraph, Mr. Denton wrote “wrong” and “why are you making things up?”
I rub my nose with the back of my hand, remembering how the covers smell of mildew, lined up on two whole shelves of the bookcase next to the basement stairs. Inside the encyclopedia are little black and white illustrations of men looking through huge telescopes. The size of the machines makes me nervous; I hunch down as little shivers spread across my back and shoulders.
When Grandpa was well, he’d sit on our porch. His bony old finger would point out all the stars. Sometimes, a faint, falling light would streak across the sky. The way I figured it, outer space was endless. That’s where we must go when we die.
In the “G” volume, Rodney had stuck strips of notebook paper in the Gettysburg Address. He’d written smart-aleck comments like “fourscore, threescore, twoscore, a dollar, all for Dunlop—stand up and holler.” When I opened the “S” volume, a folded multiple-choice exam with a big red “F” on it slid out from between the sticky pages. Across the top were the underlined words: “See me.” Rodney’s bedroom is in the basement.
After dinner, my math and spelling books sprawled out on the kitchen table. Mom usually drilled me, checking my homework when I’m done. I flipped through the thick yellow pages of the encyclopedia with its definitions and diagrams of orbits and rotations. In the bottom corner, Rodney’s black pen had drawn in two heads. A heavily penciled arrow pierced them both: the feather vanes notched out of the left side, the gruesome point sticking out of the right. The words “always smiling” were printed underneath. The binding creaked as I ran my palm along the inside spine to keep the pages from flipping up.
I clasp my hands together behind my head. Rodney and I used to always fight when he was at home. When I was really little and Mom sent me downstairs for a jar of Plum Nut Jelly, Rodney would jump out at me. He’d wait flattened against the wall, just beyond the reach of the dim light until I turned the corner. The sudden weight of his hands landing on my shoulders, his mouth opening, showing me the cave of his tongue, froze my breath. And then I’d be running, Rodney’s donkey hee-haw chasing after me. Most of the time, I’d stumble—barking my shins on the stairs, trying to escape. Mom, standing next to the kitchen sink, chopping up nappa with a big long knife, never asked, “What’s going on down there?” And I never tattled.
But I’ve always had dreams of being chased in the dark. All winter, I had nightmares of a polar bear who hibernated below the frozen crust under my feet. Snowy mounds tremble. Earth breaks open, clods rolling away from the small patch of the back that appears, struggling up until finally the front legs pull free with a jerk. Then the bear yawns, breath ballooning out in quick clouds. The wet nose, snuffling with snot, shakes from side-to-side. When the beast stands on hind legs, white belly fur blots out everything else. A massive paw swings at me. Right before the blow lands, I wake up. If my mother asks, I shake my head and tell her: “I don’t have that dream anymore.”
In school, Mr. Denton is constantly telling the class that they should ask lots of questions—about the sun’s corona; about oxygen and vacuums and pressure. Would a human being explode or freeze to death in outer space? What I wanted to know was why my parents never told me Rodney wasn’t doing well, that his highest grades were mostly C’s. That’s why my brother didn’t go to college. That’s why when he turned eighteen, a special letter came in the mail.
One night, my parents thought I was sleeping, lying still like someone dead, as they came into my room to check on me. If I sneaked a peek, I knew the hallway light would be behind them—that my mother and father would only be silhouettes.
Ever since Rodney left for boot camp, dark circles have grown under Mom’s eyes. Her hair isn’t the shiny black that she used to wear long. Maybe because it’s pulled back, there’s more white at the sides. Maybe it’s because Mom stopped asking me to pull the white ones out. I used to be paid one penny for every ten white hairs. It’s only through walls in a muted voice that I’ll hear Dad talking about Rodney, like I’m eavesdropping on a secret.
There are two types of black in my bedroom. There’s the stuffy pitch black of the closet with the smell of moth balls in the suitcases. And the imagined black in the part of the room I can’t see. I cover my face with just the sheet, smoothing it down so that I can stroke the bump of my nose. Everything bad that’s happened to me has happened in the dark. My nosebleed that left sticky swipes all over my pillow and the gagging feel of thick clots in the back of my throat. The phone call about Grandpa’s heart attack.
My blankets are so heavy, but there’s a knot inside of me. I can’t get warm. In The Princess and the Pea, the princess had been so sensitive she could feel a tiny lump beneath twenty mattresses. About ten inches separate me and the bed frame from the floor.
Rubbing my eyes doesn’t help; the inside of my head feels full. There’s no way I’ll ever fall asleep. I start to sneak up on Volume “S” hidden under the bed. I start slow by dangling my arms over the side, just in case Mom or Dad might surprise me. But my nightgown sleeves won’t let me extend my arms far enough. I’m halfway standing on my head and stretching as far as I can reach, trying hard not to make a sound. My finger brushes a corner of the book. Mom turns on the faucet in the kitchen. I let out a breath—Mom’s probably getting the coffee pot ready for breakfast. Maybe even making tuna fish for lunch.
As I grab hold, I’m nearly falling out of the bed. But my parents haven’t heard a sound. Nobody but me knows that I’m wide awake. I fold the encyclopedia against my chest.
The cool hardwood floor sticks to my feet as I slowly make my way to the window. When I draw the curtains back, the full moon shines so brightly, I blink. Across the open sky are tiny pinpricks of the stars. I can see the swing set and slide that I hardly ever play on anymore. The shadows of the chains and poles look like the jumbled pick-up sticks of some giant.
The World Book Encyclopedia opens slowly. I stand the book on its spine. The yellow painted edges reflect the moon’s glow. My hands break open the book’s rectangle until I have two halves spread before me. Eyes following the words my index finger points to, I read about Pluto flung so far away and hovering on the edge of the sun’s gravitational pull.
I turn a page, searching for more about Pluto’s moons. When I turn another, the oranges and reds of the sun’s churning surface shock me. I almost slam the encyclopedia shut.
Mr. Denton would call the picture an illustration, an example of perspective and size. A million earths could fit inside the sun. The planet could never survive so close to that heat, the boiling gases of hydrogen and helium rising up in a flaring corona.
In the living room, a voice on the television cuts off in mid-sentence. A lock turns, and the door chain rattles into place. My parents are finally going to bed.
I can’t help but see the neighborhood and school—Mom, Dad, and even Rodney—orange red flames flaying the whole planet, everything I know burning, burning, burning down to embers, glowing red, the blackened char to ash, breaking apart, scattering into darkest space. I breathe deeply, trying to still my hands.
There’s a part of me that wants to sweep the glass case off the dresser, freeing the Ichimatsu doll that I’ve never touched. But I don’t. The edge of my nightgown collapses into folds as I sink to my knees. The encyclopedia is so heavy.
It’s hard to hold in the words: eventually, even the sun will burn out.