The sky was black and frothy with stars. I lugged my telescope onto the front lawn, settling its three legs into the ground. The grass was dry as paper, prickling under my bare feet. I pressed my eye to the rim of the telescope and pointed my gaze skyward. The constellations were spattered across a moonless tarp, glinting like a mouth of teeth. Mentally, I traced their lines, seeing their shapes as clearly as though they’d been chalked onto a black slate: Draco, Hercules, Norma, Cassiopeia. I chanted their names under my breath.
Around me, the night was hushed and solemn. The cornfields rustled out for miles. The crickets were quiet and grim. Bobby and Grandee were asleep in the farmhouse. I jotted the placements of the constellations onto my star-map, plotting them as I assumed an astronomer would, though I had no experience. Their dots winked at me from the paper.
I started stargazing after my brother, Bobby, crashed his fighter jet and woke up brain-damaged. I think I wanted to live outside of this world, to funnel my attention into something larger than myself. As Bobby relearned talking, and my grandfather grew too weary of the world to even leave the house, I devoured all the astronomy books I could find. In the face of the boundless universe, it hardly mattered if my big brother couldn’t tie his shoes anymore, or if he cried all the time, or if he was never going to get better. I felt inconsequential in a way that once would have frightened me, but was now a comfort.
As I peered into the telescope, something lanced across my vision, as thin and bright as the edge of a coin. I rubbed my eyes and stared. Something like a spit of lightning struck the cornfield, then retracted back into the sky, leaving only silence and darkness in its wake. I wrinkled my brow and straightened up. The streak had certainly touched down in the cornfield. The tang of ozone tinged the air. A thrill of excitement raced up my spine.
“Sal?” The resonant baritone came from behind me.
I felt myself stiffen all over, my shoulders creeping toward my head. “Go back into the house, Bobby,” I said.
I forced myself to turn around. Bobby was wearing his old college tee-shirt and a pair of plaid pajama bottoms, the legs too short. His blond hair was pancaked to his cheek, his eyes puffy with sleep. He didn’t have any shoes on.
“Go back to bed,” I told him. “I’ll be right in.”
His lips parted in confusion. Bobby used to have an intelligent face, always funneled into a book, but now, it was as empty as a baby’s. He didn’t even know how to read anymore. I couldn’t look at him any longer, so I pointed my eyes at my feet, which were scabbed over and powdered with grime.
Bobby waddled down the porch steps, his hands outstretched. He had chapped, calloused hands, leathered with false maturity. “Don’t go, Sal.” His eyes were empty and his mouth was open. He didn’t look like my brother anymore.
I wanted to shake him, to revert him to the way he was before. Of course, I had no right to be angry with my brother--none of this was his fault. Bobby was a hero--all the papers said so. The brain-damage was only further proof he had been braver than I could ever be, even if he had lost himself in the process. My anger charred into sickening guilt.
“Fine, you can come with me,” I told him. “I’ve just got to check something out.”
The two of us walked into the cornfield. I pushed through the cornstalks, Bobby bumbling along behind me, occasionally making confused squalling noises. The further we moved into the belly of the field, the more restless he became. No doubt he feared getting lost. Eventually, he stalled and refused to go any further, planting himself mulishly into the ground. His bottom lip wobbled.
“Don’t cry, you big baby,” I muttered, stretching onto my toes to lay a hand on his shoulder. The seams of his shirt were puckered from the strain of containing him. His college logo smirked out from his chest. “Come on, bro. Just a bit more.”
Suddenly, we were deposited into a vast clearing. The corn had been erased, leaving a perfect circle of dirt that hadn’t been there yesterday. An uneasy feeling took root in my stomach; the tangerine dawn became foreboding. My heart began to thunder in my chest. Somewhere in the distance, a dog howled. My hand tightened instinctually around Bobby’s, searching for some long-gone sense of safety in his presence. It was like squeezing a dead fish.
“What is it?” Bobby asked suddenly, loudly. His voice expanded in ripples. “Sal?” His voice was too large for the emptiness.
“Bobby,” I hissed. “Bobby, sh--”
“What is it?” Bobby repeated. He stamped the dirt down with his foot.
“Come on, Bobby, be quiet.”
The flattened dirt of the circle bored into me like an omniscient eye.
“Who did it? What is it? Why--”
“Bobby, shut up!” I yelled.
Bobby lapsed into shocked silence, his mouth opening and closing wordlessly. I swallowed, abashed. In all of my irritation, I had never resorted to shouting at my brother before. It was too cruel. Bobby never would have yelled at me, had our positions been reversed.
Bobby’s eyes swam with tears; he looked as if I’d smacked him.
“Bobby, I’m sorry,” I said. “Please don’t--”
It was too late. Bobby detached from my hand and plunged into the corn like a man on fire, limbs flailing, tears sluicing down the cleft in his chin. As I gave chase, corn stalks slapped my arms and face with welting force. I kept my eyes trained on Bobby’s retreating form.
Then, with a cold sensation, I found myself back in the circle. The space was patterned with our footsteps now. Bobby stopped in its center and slumped to his knees. I crossed to him, feeling vulnerable in the blankness of the circle, and laid a hand on his shoulder. The gesture felt foreign to me--I wasn’t the maternal sort.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I didn’t mean it, Bobby.”
Bobby just looked at me. “Why am I crying?” he asked. Tears leaked from his eyes and down his face.
My brother’s crying spells didn’t have any logic; his tears persisted long after the inciting incident was forgotten. The brain-damage affected his control over his emotions, the doctors had explained. To me, however, his tantrums seemed to be an expression of grief; perhaps part of Bobby had some inkling of what he had lost. Before his accident, I’d never seen him cry--he’d always been the stoic one. After my mother died, Grandee cried for days. Bobby didn’t cry once.
I willed myself to see Bobby in the stranger sitting in front of me. “It’s okay, bro,” I told him. “It’ll all be okay.” I clenched my jaw, rolled my eyes skyward, and rubbed my hand in small circles across his back. Around us, the corn shuffled and sighed.
The circle had lost much of its eeriness; instead, I felt a strange sense of safety. This circle had come from something bigger than myself, as big, perhaps, as the night sky. My head was filled with the bright, inexplicable light that had forked across the sky, seemingly in defiance of nature. I felt as if I wasn't alone.
Eventually, I managed to haul Bobby to his feet. For a moment, he rocked in place, swaggering like an inebriated pirate. Tears made tinsel stripes down his cheeks. “Grandee?”
“Yeah, yeah, we’re gonna get Grandee,” I said. I wrapped my hand around his forearm, which throbbed with ropey veins, and pulled him back the way we had come.
Bobby and I came out of the cornfield in silence. I tried to swallow the hope that had swallowed me whole. The farmhouse loomed up before us, its hazy windows staring out like a blind man’s eyes. My telescope was still planted into the lawn, its cycloptic eye ogling at the stars.
I took the porch steps two at a time, knocking the screen door open. The inside of the farmhouse was dim and unclean. Dust motes wafted through the air on shafts of starlight. The silence was complete, aside from the ticks of the grandfather clock, which wriggled in the air like koi fish in a pond. The family portraits on the mantle were turned toward the wall, showing only the backs of the frames. Grandee’s door was closed, rags shoved into the crack to expunge any light.
I knocked twice. “Grandee? It’s Sal.”
A shuffling came from within. The door was unlocked; I turned the handle and let myself inside.
The room was almost pitch black, garbage bags taped over the windows. The air was permeated with the smell of sweat and alcohol, and I had to resist gagging. Grandee slumped in his bed, his ancient face turned toward the ceiling as smoke trailed from his mouth. He was small and narrow-shouldered, his face wrinkled as a prune. His white hair, which grazed his shoulders, shone in the darkness.
“Do you need money?” he asked. A sea of empty bottles winked at his feet.
“What? No. It’s just--”
“Did the boy get into trouble?”
Grandee stopped calling Bobby by name after the accident; as far as he was concerned, Bobby died in that plane. I didn’t argue with him.
“He didn’t get into trouble, no,” I said. “I found something in the cornfield. This circle. It just appeared--”
Grandee laughed, a harsh, abrasive sound. “A crop circle? As in, aliens?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.” I felt as if my hope were a neon sign, flashing in the darkness. I squirmed with embarrassment. “There was this light--”
“Lightning,” Grandee grunted.
“No, it was something else, I promise!”
“You’re thirteen years old, Sal. Too old for this. Shut the door on your way out.” Grandee propelled a blip of smoke in my direction.
In the next room, Bobby was singing tunelessly. I stood in the doorway a long time, watching Grandee suck smoke into his lungs and spout it from his lips like some ancient, cracked fountain. He didn’t look at me, though he knew I was there. Eventually, I closed the door.
My heart pounded. If Grandee didn’t believe me, I had to show him. I had to bring them back.
Bobby was sitting on the kitchen floor, a colander balanced on his head.
“Come on,” I told him. My brain sparked, electrocuted by desperation. I snatched a box of candles and a pack of matches from a kitchen drawer.
“What’s wrong?” asked Bobby, his voice echoing mournfully within the colander.
“We’re going to get them to come back.”
“The aliens, Bobby!” I stormed down the porch steps and onto the lawn. The grass crunched audibly beneath my feet. I ripped the matchbox open with my teeth and began to lay the candles out on the grass. I felt as if there were a hand squeezing around my windpipe, fingers tightening and tightening.
Bobby trailed me like a bungling satellite, flapping his hands. “What’s wrong?” he asked, over and over.
“Sh,” I told him.
Finally, the formation was finished. I lit each candle, then stepped back to admire my handiwork, spread out in large, sprawling letters across the lawn: S.O.S. Surely, they would come now. They wouldn’t leave me if I needed help so desperately. I had to believe there was some benevolence in their hearts.
Bobby goggled at me as if I’d lost my mind. The candlelight threw an orange cast over his face, rendering his eyes as black sockets.
“I’m asking them for help,” I told him. “So they’ll come back. They’ll have no choice.”
“Yes, Bobby,” I said, trying to conjure up our mother’s soothing tone. “Help.”
“I can help.” His face was utterly sincere.
“No, you can’t.”
“Sorry,” he said quietly.
“It’s not your fault,” I told him. “You were just too brave, Bobby. That’s the only reason this happened to you.”
“You don’t remember, but you were the bravest there ever was.”
“Brave,” he marveled.
“When your plane went down, you made sure the other pilot got out. You went back into the fire and pulled him out yourself. That’s how brave you were.”
Bobby smiled an uncomprehending smile. It was enough.
My S.O.S. burned in the grass like a dying sun. I laid on my back in its center, my face turned to the stars. I closed my eyes and allowed them to imprint themselves on the backs of my eyelids. After a few minutes had passed, I felt Bobby lie down next to me, his shoulder brushing up against mine. I turned my head to look at him. His eyes drank in the stars.
Long minutes passed; Bobby closed his eyes and drifted into sleep. I was wide awake, my eyes funneled into the stars as I waited. I traced the constellations with my eyes, naming them silently: Cygnus, Apus, Corona Borealis. Somewhere among them lay my companions. The candles burned down and began to sputter, their skinny flames snapping with the slightest breeze. One by one, they dissipated into smoke. My certainty ebbed away. Sunrise bled into the sky, traitorous reds and oranges.
Something acidic crept up my throat. The aliens weren’t coming, I realized. My face boiled with disappointment. I stared at Bobby’s sleeping form, profiled in the milky darkness. Asleep, he looked like himself again, as if he would wake up at any moment and offer to make me pancakes, just as he used to. I could imagine Bobby would come downstairs singing at the top of his voice, and Grandee’s face would be buried in the morning paper, and we would smile and say “good morning” to one another, like a family.
Most of the candles were unlit now, and the sight of Bobby like this, so ordinary, was almost too much to bear. I swallowed hard, then reached over and shook his shoulder.
“Wake up,” I told him.
“Huh?” His eyes opened, and he squinted at me in the brightening morning.
“They’re not coming.”
“The aliens.” I swallowed. “They’re not gonna show.”
The hem of the sky bloomed into a kaleidoscope of colors, all of them horrendously beautiful. I fixed my eyes on the last shred of night sky, which cowered at the edge of the horizon. Only one candle still burned, its skinny flame spitting skyward. I leaned down and blew it out; its birthday-candle scent wafted upward and dissipated.
New-morning hush hung over the cornfields, fresh and membranous. I stood, dusted off the backs of my legs, and prepared to head back to the farmhouse.
“It’s okay, Sal,” said Bobby, his large hand encasing my shoulder. “Don’t be sad.”
I let out a deep breath. “It was stupid, anyway.”
Just then, something white streaked across the corner of my vision. I turned my head to the horizon. Shoots of light unfurled onto the cornfield, anchoring to the ground like the tripod of my telescope. They sizzled against the rising sun, creating a dome above our heads. Bobby gaped. A wild grin stretched across my face.
“What is it?” Bobby asked.
“Just look,” I told him.
A moment later, the lights had gone, sucked back into the belly of the sky. Silence expanded in the air. Even the wind seemed to stand still. I took a deep breath.
“Let’s go,” I said to Bobby, turning to smile up at him. “I’ll make us pancakes.”
I walked back into the farmhouse with Bobby beside me. The stars had blinked from view. Only the new day remained behind, innocent and wondering.