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Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

by shukyou (主教)

(mirrors http://s2b2.livejournal.com/348802.html)

When the aliens come, we will have to explain Elvis.

When the aliens come — and they will come, because they’re out there, because in an infinite universe it’s more probable they’re there than they’re not — we’ll have to explain a lot of things. It’ll start with the big stuff, like language, biology, geography, technology. But then it’ll start to get more specific. We’ll have to explain all the stupid, random things we do, like why red means stop and green means go, and why pancakes are for breakfast instead of dinner, and why the deaths of people we’ve never met can leave us in pieces.

I wasn’t thinking this as I sat next to Jack in his living room, watching on his family television while the ABC Evening News showed the tens of thousands of people gathered outside his home, enough that they had to call out the Tennessee National Guard to keep order. His mom and three older sisters were crying on the couch, and Jack was obviously trying to look all of the man that his ten years of age would let him be, but the look on his face said was not unmoved by this tragedy.

What I was thinking was that I wanted to be playing spacemen and Martians, treating his backyard like the lunar setting of an epic battle. That was how I understood everything at that age. All stories, all real stories, were the same: Two different sides met, they realized their differences, and they fought until one or both of them were dead. There was no chance for reconciliation, just a pure battle for strength and dominance. The universe was a series of conflicts replicating themselves large and small, and the only solution was to point your index finger like a ray gun and shoot, shoot, shoot.

It was August, and daylight stretched far into the night, so we could have been outside right then, making pew! pew! noises at one another from behind trees. Jack’s house was the biggest on the block, and even though his backyard had fallen into utter disrepair since his dad had the accident at the factory, I liked its wildness. The high grasses around my knees were surely a good approximation of what it was like to walk on Jupiter, stalking through its cloudy terrain to find the evil Neptunians. We traded off about that, who was the heroic American spaceman and who was the slimy horror from beyond the stars. It didn’t really matter, since like as not, we’d both go down in blazes of melodramatic glory.

But it was Jack’s house, so it was Jack’s choice, so we sat and watched the news. “He was so young!” wept Jack’s mom, Mrs. Gregorcyk, who in retrospect was probably around forty-two herself, same as Elvis had been. His sisters wailed and nodded in agreement, like never had such a great tragedy befallen them. They sure hadn’t been like this when Mr. Gregorcyk had come home from the hospital after the accident barely able to feed himself or finish a sentence. He stayed in his bedroom all the time, and I didn’t see him much.

I played with the laces on my shoes as I pondered that statement. When you’re ten, forty-two might as well be how old mountains are.

We watched until the broadcast ended, at which point Mrs. Gregorcyk declared that there was nothing to be done for it but vanilla ice cream. We all got bowls with extra scoops in them, and Jack and I took ours out to his treehouse to eat. It was a massive thing, some ten thousand feet above the earth, or so it seemed, and it often doubled as Mission Control or Intergalactic Mothership as needed. I sat next to him on the edge and let my legs dangle over the side, looking at the ground far below my feet. He crossed his beneath him and looked like he might be doing his best impression of a doodlebug, pulling into an armored sphere.

“So what’s so great about Elvis?” I finally asked.

To my great surprise, Jack shrugged. “I dunno,” he said, sticking his spoon in the side of his mouth as he talked; it bent his words into close approximations of themselves. “You like his music, don’t you?”

“Sure, I guess,” I said. I didn’t dislike his music, and as far as I knew, that made me a fan.

“Well, now he’s not going to make anymore,” Jack said. “So they’re sad about that.”

It was the answer not to the question I’d asked, but to the one I’d been trying to ask, which was one of Jack’s skills. Even at ten I realized it, probably because already I was getting good at keeping my words away from what I meant. He could see right through me.

“So, you like his music?” I asked.

Jack shook his head. “Not really.”

“Then–” I screwed up my mouth to one side. “Then why are you sad?”

“I dunno,” Jack said again, spoon still stuck at the corner of his mouth. In the growing twilight it gave him an alien profile, the short-tusked, baby-faced invader from Alpha Centauri, with his death ray glasses perched on the bridge of his nose and the last pink of a sunburn fading from his plump, freckled cheeks. “Sometimes things are just sad.”

It made sense, in the mean, arbitrary way I was learning that the universe worked. My mother dragged us to First Presbyterian every week where Pastor Stevenson liked to talk about how everything happened for a reason and God was in control of everything. The way I saw it, God had about as much chance of being real as aliens did, but the way my mother scolded me for my interest in science fiction led me to conclude that I could only choose to believe in one of them. Aliens it was.

Jack pulled the spoon out of his mouth and looked at it. “I heard a rumor,” he said, addressing the spoon as much as me, “that he kissed boys.”

I didn’t want the rest of my ice cream. I wanted to fall out of the treehouse and go plummeting to the ground below, where I would explode upon impact and join Elvis, wherever he was now. “No he didn’t,” I said, with all the authority of someone confidently making shit up. “He was married.”

“You don’t have to be married to kiss someone,” Jack pointed out, which was pretty solid argumentation, so far as debates for ten-year-olds went. “But one of Betty’s friends says her boyfriend said it’s true.”

Jack’s middle sister was quite the budding socialite and gossip queen, with her pink-painted fingers on the pulse of all celebrity news, which meant that from her — or at least her network — it was as good as true. “Wow,” I said, trying to incorporate that information into my worldview. Three hours ago, I hadn’t really cared about Elvis one way or another at all; now I was wondering if I had indeed somehow missed the age of a god walking amongst men. “Wow,” I said again, hoping I sounded cool.

Jack put the spoon down and turned to me. “What do you think it’s like?” he asked.

I shrugged. “Probably just kind of like … kissing a girl,” I ventured, as though I’d ever done that.

“You think?” asked Jack. He was leaning in a little closer now. I hoped he wasn’t going to push me out of the treehouse; I wanted any final, fatal descent to be of my own choosing.

“Well, yeah.” I shrugged and held on a little tighter to the edge, just in case. “Y’know, they’ve got … mouths, and stuff, too.”

“What if there’s a beard, though?” asked Jack.

Hadn’t thought about that. “Elvis didn’t have a beard,” I said.

The wide-eyed look on his face said that I had scored a direct center-mass hit with my astronaut ray gun of pure logic. “Maybe we should try it and find out,” he said, leaning closer still. My hands gripped the edge so tight I felt sure my knuckles would burst the skin.

That was how I had my first kiss: a treehouse, evening creeping in all around us, the summer of 1977, the night Elvis died. Jack touched his lips to mine with a pressure that was so tender, I was half-certain I’d imagined it — so I leaned in for more, blowing past tenderness for contact. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t imagining this. I wanted to be able to swear on a stack of Bibles about every detail, from the way our noses bumped together to the vanilla ice cream I could taste on his lips as I parted mine. I think we both wanted to be confident, calm, authoritative, but we each settled for just being there with one another.

We stayed up there with one another until it became dark enough that my mother called Mrs. Gregorcyk to wonder what had become of me, and Mrs. Gregorcyk came out to the backyard to tell us both it was time to come in now. We didn’t say anything to one another until we were back on the ground, and even then it was only perfunctory good-byes before I hopped on my bike and headed home. What was there to say? Like death, there was only everything before it and everything after, and no return trip between the two.

Sometimes things are just sad; sometimes things are the best things in the world. Maybe aliens understand the why of it. All I know is that I didn’t then and haven’t learned since.

~*~

When the aliens come, we’ll probably have to explain a lot of things, depending on how different we are. We don’t know what they’re going to be like, after all, or what they’ll be primed to understand. Maybe we’ll have to explain our family structures, or maybe we’ll have to explain the concept of being different, individual, disconnected people. Maybe we’ll have to explain grief, or maybe we’ll have to explain death itself.

I was thinking about this instead of my calculus homework when Jack showed up. “Liberace died,” he said, ahead of anything else, like saying hello, or asking if he could come in, or explaining why he was here in my dorm room on a Wednesday night in February.

“No shit,” I said, closing my notebook. The problems hadn’t been getting done before, and they surely weren’t getting done now.

“No shit.” Jack took off his coat and hung it on the peg by the door, and it was then I realized he was soaking wet. “Bus driver had the radio tuned to the news. Heard it on the way up.” He raked his fingers back through his hair, squeezing out drops of rain on my welcome mat. He had a haircut that my parents would never have let sit on my head, long enough that it covered his ears, and it had obviously taken on a fair amount of water on the half-mile walk to the dorm from the nearest bus stop. “Like he got sick from eating too much watermelon? Or not enough? I don’t know, the reception wasn’t good.”

“No shit,” I said again, because I wasn’t really sure what I was supposed to say. On the one hand, I didn’t know the guy. On the other, Liberace didn’t seem like the kind of person who did something as mundane as dying. Death was for people who wore less glitter.

“Yeah.” Jack looked at me and nodded. “Dad, too.”

Time travel is based on relativity, which is something we’re going to have to take into account if we engage in interstellar travel, much less faster-than-light travel. So while Jack most likely lived the following portion of time in a matter of seconds, for me an entire year elapsed as I put the pieces together in slow motion. Nothing about those two words made sense, and then everything about them made sense, and then I would have given anything for them to stop making sense again.

“Shit,” I said, which is technically the opposite of no shit, but conveys much the same sentiment. “Sit down.”

He took me up on my offer on the only other sit-worthy place in the room, which was my unmade bed. My army-green father would’ve tanned my hide for leaving it like that, but I figured Jack wasn’t liable to snitch on me. Closer now, I could see his eyes were red with the effort of failing to keep from crying. I could imagine him on the ride up, tucked into the back corner of the bus, trying to make sure no one saw.

I took a deep breath, trying to think of what to say at a time like this. “How’s your mom?” was the best I could get, and it seemed solid.

“She’s good, she’s — to tell you the truth, I think she’s relieved–” He barely made it through the last word, though, before his throat closed up and he buried his face in his hands. I made a move toward him, but at the sound of my chair’s squeaking, he held up his palm and shook his head. So I sat back and waited.

I couldn’t blame her for being relieved; Mr. Gregorcyk had been dying for years, a little more gone every time I saw him. I could see that Jack didn’t want to blame her either, but he did, and he hated her for it as much as he hated himself for it. It was written in the lines of his shoulders, in the sound of his breath as he tried to wrestle it back into the service of speech. Maybe we’ll have to explain that to the aliens too, the concept of sound-based communication, the art of shaping percussion and vibration into meaning. Maybe we’ll have to explain body language, facial expressions, hand gestures. Who knows how aliens talk.

At last, Jack raked his hands away from his face and gave his cheeks a couple gentle, fortifying slaps. “Anyway, Mary’s headed home tomorrow, and Betty and Anna are already there, which is why….” He made a sweeping hand gesture, presumably to indicate both my room and his presence in it.

I didn’t insult his journey by suggesting that he could have shared the information with me over the phone, saving himself the trip. “I’ll drive you back in the morning,” I told him.

“Really?”

“Sure. It’s not a problem.” My obnoxiously perfect attendance records in my Thursday physics and literature classes could suffer a single blow. “I’d just be heading back there this weekend anyway, right?”

Jack grabbed a wad of fabric from his back pocket and blew his nose. It was more oil rag than actual handkerchief; he’d been working in his uncle’s garage part-time since he turned fifteen and full-time since graduating high school, and was a proper grease monkey now. His sisters were all married and producing kids of their own now, so he’d been living with his parents, helping his mom take care of his dad. For as close as we still were, we felt further apart all the time.

We didn’t know how to handle one another, I realized as I tried to settle him in. I offered him my bed, but he insisted on taking the floor instead of displacing me. I didn’t know what to say and neither did he, so I put on the radio. The college station was more inclined toward local acts and underground demos, but the DJ on shift that night must’ve been a fan, because he mentioned Liberace a few times in a way that wasn’t joking or unkind, but sounded almost sad. A great performer gone, he said like he meant it. I like to think he did.

My grandfather took me to a museum once and I learned the word orrery, which is mechanical heliocentric model of the solar system. The sun stays in the middle and gears send the planets spinning around it the same way inertia and gravity do to the real ones. I was rapt; I could have spent all day watching the little balls do their mathematical circle dance. At least, I could have until I realized that no matter how close they got, the planets could never stay together. That was when I started crying and my grandfather hurried me away to placate me with ice cream.

I hadn’t felt like that since then, not until I looked down from my bed at Jack on the floor and saw him staring back at me. Here we were, in transit again. Conjunction, even though that relies on perception, a single observer to say, yes, you are close when you used to be far. To someone else — an alien, perhaps — we might still seem light-years away.

So I reached for him, as though to catch him in his arc through the sky, and he reached back, grabbing my arm the way a planet’s gravity snags moons. With a yank I drew him up onto the bed and on top of me. I didn’t explain and he didn’t ask. This was breaking the machine, snapping its gears and bending its arms until, literally, worlds collided. He kissed me like a meteor and I let the impact resonate through my limbs as I cratered.

I wasn’t thinking about aliens then, or Jack’s dead father, or my dead grandfather, or Liberace, or even Elvis. My world was Jack and the way his body felt on top of mine. He was larger than I was, broader, handsomer, better, and I was caught in him, Ganymede orbiting Jupiter. As he kissed me I could feel the stubble on his jaw, which only made me want to kiss him harder. Who knew if this was like kissing girls? Not me, surely. I didn’t even know if it was like kissing boys. I only knew that it was like kissing Jack, only ten years better now.

We moved clumsily against one another, fumbling with clothes until Jack’s shirt was off and his pants were undone, and my own pajamas were pushed up and down, revealing my body chest to knee. When we were bare enough, we came back together, skin to skin. Jack took his hand and grabbed my cock with it, looming over me as he began to stroke me off. I felt exposed, like I wanted to grab his discarded shirt and hide my face with it so I couldn’t see the moment he began to register his disapproval.

But there was no disapproval there, only a sly grin I had missed, and deep blue eyes that were trained on me. He shifted so more of his weight was to one of my sides, turning so he could see and feel me at once. As he stroked me off, he leaned in and pressed kisses against my ear. I felt as though he was working up the nerve to say something, but what was there to say? I had nothing and I needed nothing. I just gasped and bit my lip as his fingertips rubbed along the sensitive underside of my dick, then came back up to circle around the underside of its head, just where my foreskin pulled back. Whatever roughness working in a garage had given him, he was nothing but tender here, seeking out the spots I didn’t know I liked the most.

At last, it was too much for me to be the sole center of attention, so I turned on my side until we were facing one another and reached down to take his cock in my hand as well. It was a bit of an awkward arrangement — limbs, joints, organs — but I was determined to make it work. The pleasure would be mine, but not mine alone.

When my fingertips reached his erection, Jack laughed and moaned at the same time. We should put that sound on deep-space probes and fire them into the night; it would surely convince any passers-by that humans are capable of joy and love. It was so wonderful that I did it again, closing my grip tighter, feeling all of him tense and shiver against me.

I kissed him again, then, taking control. Despite my aching hardness, I nudged him over toward his back, until he was in my orbit, and I directed his catch and spin. He felt taut, ready to snap, so I kissed at his lips and jaw as I moved my hand up and down his cock. Whatever teasing was involved there was unintentional; I had him and I wanted him to know I had him. He had always been the brave one. Now it was my turn.

It wasn’t long before I realized the correct solution to our particular arrangement and took both our cocks in my hand, easing mine free from where his fingers had gone loose around my erection. He didn’t resist the takeover, but let it happen, his arm falling to his side until he could take the bedsheet in a fist so tight it resembled a kind of rictus. Together I moved against us, using pressure as much as friction, doing what felt good to me and hoping it felt good to Jack as well. From the way he moaned, I was all but certain it did.

“Henry,” he murmured, as though calling for me in a dream. “I can’t, I’m going to–”

“It’s okay,” I told him, pressing my lips to his. “I know.”

Only a few more strokes and he was coming, spilling all over his chest and belly. The sight itself was lovely, if messy, but the thought associated with it — I had made Jack do that — overwhelmed my senses, pushing me over the edge too. I bit my lower lip to keep quiet as I came as well, adding my own seed to the mess. It wasn’t the first time my hand had brought me to climax in this bed while thinking of Jack, but it was certain the first time Jack himself had been there to stop my come from staining the sheets. It looked better on him anyway.

At last, I collapsed next to him and pulled his face to mine. We didn’t kiss again, though; instead, we pressed our foreheads together and concentrated on breathing. I reached for the blanket and pulled it over both of us, and that was how we fell asleep: half-clothed, tangled, sticky, and with a thousand things unspoken. I even remember hoping as I fell asleep that we’d just die together right there, despite the shame it would bring on both our families when we were discovered like that. What would we care? Whatever our consciousnesses were, they would have gone on to wherever those things travel, and our energy would be released from us to join the cosmos again. We, at least, would be all right.

~*~

When the aliens come, I would do anything, sell anything, say anything, have sex with anyone to be at the front of that communication line, but I still wouldn’t want to be the one to explain the 1990s. It’s not high on the priority list, of course — not as high as explaining the concept of time, or solar years, or calendar counts, or why ten-, hundred-, and thousand-year blocks are thought to hold unique unifying properties — but it will come up eventually. I don’t even know how I’d explain it to other humans, much less interstellar visitors. Some days I don’t know how I explain it to myself.

Two hundred funerals, give or take, I’d sat through dry-eyed over the past decade, and that day I was curled up in front of the television, blubbering my eyes out over a dead princess.

That was how Jack found me when he got home. He took one look at me over the bags in his arms and sighed. “Oh, honey,” he said, “I tried to get back before you woke up and turned on the news.”

“She was so young!” I wailed through a wad of tissues pushed up against my face. She was six years older than I, and I had been calling myself a dirty old man every since my thirtieth birthday the previous month. But young seemed younger on a princess.

“Yeah, Mom’s a wreck,” Jack said as he unloaded groceries into the fridge. After nearly a decade of stony silence, Mrs. Gregorcyk — now Mrs. Timberlane, still Jack’s mother — had been making efforts to reach out to her estranged and only son, despite how much he’d broken her heart and ruined her life and all the things she’d said when he’d come out. Many subjects were still too fraught to broach, but celebrity news was safe territory, and celebrity death seemingly even more so.

I took a deep breath and let it out in a moan as I flopped back on the couch. Television anchors were now chatting over scenes of gathered mourners, out with flowers and teddy bears to mark the passing of the People’s Princess. It seemed like every five minutes someone would point out that she technically shouldn’t be called Princess Diana, and then they’d go right back to doing it. I hope the aliens already understand the concept of hereditary titles, or they’re going to be in for a bit of a ride on that one.

One of those funerals had been my own father’s, and I didn’t think it was a coincidence that the Former Mrs. Gregorcyk had reached out to Jack not long after. He’d always been the bold one, bold enough to explain exactly why, and in so many words, he was leaving his perfectly fucking good job at the fucking garage and moving halfway across the fucking country to follow his fucking boyfriend. His dramatic reenactment of the conversation had been the first time either of us had said the word boyfriend aloud. It had been a dramatic day on a lot of fronts.

I myself had simply taken the job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory straight out of college and let the silence do the talking. The irony did not pass me that I spent most of my days listening for radio signals from space, yet couldn’t be bothered to phone my own home. The long distance charges weren’t even comparable.

Jack came over with two deep tumblers of mimosa that were mostly orange-juice-tinted champagne and sat behind me on the couch. I curled up under his arm and drew a blanket over my legs, then nestled the glass between two hands under my nose like it was a cup of cocoa on a cold winter’s eve. If the aliens came from a planet with predictable rotation and revolution cycles, they would likely already understand the concept of seasons; if they didn’t, it was anyone’s guess. He played with my dark hair and got me a tissue when my breath started getting snotty again. “Thanks,” I said, tossing it afterward onto the floor with its fallen compatriots.

What was there to love about a princess? I hadn’t known her personally, of course. I knew a couple drag queens who walked riffs on her look, and of course we were all grateful for the work she’d put into AIDS charities. So many awful straight people in the world, and then one of the good ones had to up and die.

I reached for the remote and hit the mute button; the extended mourning went on silently, without noticing I was gone. I sighed deeply and shut my eyes. “Is this stupid?” I said, using a floppy hand gesture to indicate my general entire personhood.

Jack bent down and pressed a kiss into my hair. “No,” he said, then kissed me again, making a deliberate smacking sound. Moving to the Bay Area had been a revelation. The first time he’d kissed me in public I’d nearly died. The first time we held hands on a sidewalk, we’d both been so giddy that we’d misjudged a crosswalk and nearly gotten mown down by a car. We weren’t in a proverbial Kansas anymore.

Even so, it nagged at me. I downed more of my drink, then sat up and turned to face him. “Am I broken?” I asked.

In that way he had, Jack took a few good, solid seconds to consider that before answering, weighing the question no matter how much I wanted him to instantly respond in the negative. “What makes you say that?”

At other times, there would have been other answers. I spent hours thinking about all the conversations that would be necessary for interstellar understanding. I sometimes wandered around the apartment looking at familiar objects and trying to imagine what I would think of them if I didn’t know already what they were. I wanted to kiss only one person for the rest of my life and it was the man next to me, my best friend turned even better friend. But this was a different kind of broken, something deeper and more fundamental. I took in a deep breath and let it out through pursed lips. “I think, maybe, my brain doesn’t work right sometimes? That I got some wires crossed.”

“Because of this?” asked Jack, pointing to the TV. They’d cut to commercial, but the talking bear hawking fabric softener wouldn’t conceal for long the great act of global mourning to which he was referring.

I nodded and pointed to my face, where tears were still flowing unbidden down my cheeks. I wasn’t even wholly aware that I was crying, I just was. Some things you can’t explain even to yourself, even about yourself.

Jack chuckled under his breath. “Honestly? I think that’s one of the most normal things about you.”

That was so romantic it made me cry even more. I melted back into him, and he opened his arms to receive me: not an impact, but a perfect controlled landing. He stroked my hair and I buried my face in his shirt, enjoying the scent of him.

After a moment, he asked, “How would you explain a princess?”

Sonar works not by constant observation, but by single moments that check and define the landscape, revealing the world through reflections, never knowing what it’ll find until echoes come crashing back down around it. We’d had many moments like that through our relationship, but somehow the most terrifying had been for me the day Jack had caught me staring at a spoon and I had finally told him in return what it is that goes through my head when I look at almost anything for too long. I had been prepared to find an echo of the end then, or at least an reflected-back admonition to stop behaving like a ten-year-old and deal with the more immediate world. Instead, he’d thought about it for a moment, then picked up a dish towel and asked, If I’m an alien, how would you tell me about this?

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “first establish a lot of base-level knowledge: biological life, sentience, humans, sexual reproduction, male versus female, parent versus offspring, heredity.”

Jack nodded. “Got it.”

“And then second-tier concepts, mostly about social organization: man versus woman, parent versus child, family, family roles, nation-states, hierarchy, government.” I chewed my lip for a moment as I thought of any I’d missed that would be critical to establishing the concept of a princess. “Possibly wealth, but only as a further explanatory tangent on hierarchy.”

“Heterosexuality?” asked Jack.

I made the appropriate disgusted noise in the back of my throat, and we both chuckled. “Only when I get to the Disney part of the explanation.”

“Understood.” Jack stroked my cheek, despite how I hadn’t yet gotten to the shaving part of the morning routine. “All right, base knowledge in place. Now, what’s a princess?”

Shutting my eyes, I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “A princess is the daughter — that got covered in family roles — of a family that controls a country, or the wife of a son of a family that controls a country. That controls a country or part of a country,” I amended, though nuancing the particulars of a constitutional monarchy could wait. “The family controls the country, because humans have decided at some point that this country belongs to the family. Oh! Property, ownership, add those to the second-tier list.”

“You’d say that the country belongs to the family?” asked Jack.

“Yes, but…” I drummed my fingers on his thigh as I pondered the bigger picture. “The family belongs to the country as well.”

“Doesn’t seem the same as owning a country, though. Again, talking aliens here. Owning stuff versus owning people.”

He had a point. “Then … shift definition of belonging. Not ownership, but inclusivity. People in the country have families, but they also consider the princess part of their family experience too. They get to see her in the same way they get to see the people they’re closest to, only her life is more … okay, I was going to say magical, but I’ll also save that for the Disney part of the explanation.”

“More exciting, though,” Jack offered.

“More interesting, at least,” I agreed. “But also less complicated. The people, from a distance, see the good parts of the princess’ life. They get to live her life, a little, by watching her have it. They get to see an idea made real. A princess is a story that also happens to be a real person. And this is difficult for humans, because we have control over how stories end. We don’t have control over how people end.” There were exceptions to this, of course — murder, execution, suicide, assisted suicide — but that was content for a different lecture. Even Disney didn’t linger on character death longer than strictly necessary. That, at least, we had in common.

“And?” said Jack, prodding me onward.

“And…” I watched the mourners pass silently on the television, strangers hugging one another, weeping on the shoulders of people they otherwise wouldn’t give the time of day, laying down wreaths and lighting candles the marking the passing of a woman most of them had only seen from a distance. I let myself concentrate on my breathing for a moment, the air in and out of my lungs that helped tell me I was still alive. “And it’s easier to be sad about stories.”

That wasn’t an appropriate distillation of the concept and we both knew it. That had gone far too far off the rails, especially from the core element. But that was all right. I would have time, probably, to refine the concept before the aliens came. I could stop and take the concept apart a little further, separating the essential from the incidental. I could distinguish a princess from that princess. I would have time. We would all have time.

After a little bit, Jack reached for the remote and turned the volume on again, and together we curled up on the couch together and cried all morning. We cried when they showed pictures of her sons. We cried when they showed lines of mourners gathering at embassies all around the world. We cried when various celebrities talked about how much she’d meant to them. We cried when they played the footage from her wedding. We cried when they played the reels from her divorce. Holding tight to one another, we sank into the gentle release of uncomplicated grief, and when we were at last drained dry of tears, we felt as free and insubstantial as the long dark distances between stars, the steady, silent nothing that keeps everything from the burden of having to be equally everywhere at once.

~*~

Or maybe we won’t have to explain any of this to the aliens at all, when they come, and they will come, because in an infinite universe everything that can happen does. Maybe they’ll beat us to the punch, saying, look, we know, we understand, it’s all right; we understand you even more than you understand yourselves, and it’s all right. An advanced civilization, after all, surely could have advanced empathy as the fuel that propels them out into the long night. They’ll reach out to us, and it will be all right. In an infinite universe where everything that can happen does, we’ll at long last no longer be alone.

Until then, we’ve still got each other. And we’ve got Elvis.

Read this piece’s entry on the Shousetsu Bang*Bang wiki.

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