The sound of the front door opening and closing yanks them both from sleep and they are out of the bed, pulling on the sweatpants and jeans pooled on the floor, faster than their bodies can wake. They are the kind of men who don’t keep up with tasks of simple cleanliness, even now, in parenthood. They let dirty clothes fall anywhere but the hamper, leave shorn facial hair to clump in the clamshell sink, scrub off their plates but don’t rinse out the kitchen’s basin so that smears of sauces and crumbs gather and harden into pasty sludge.
Their living room, with its vaulted ceiling and long bay window that runs the entire length of the back deck, is ominous in the dark, shadows dribbling down the walls like the dark spittle of a monster. They can see a familiar glow through the front door side light, which eases their pungent fear just-so: Colum can’t be far. When they throw open the door, they see him standing at the end of the front walk, raising and lowering the flag on the mailbox over and over, the rusty hinge squealing a funereal song into the night. They run to him, wintry air stinging their bare arms like so many bee stings, pebbles biting at the soles of their feet. Later, unable to sleep, they will pick at the stones that have attached to their flesh as they sit on the edge of their bed, neither willing to say the words they’re both thinking: what will we do?
But for now, they wrap their bodies around their son, whose cowlick is lit up by a circle of light that glows like a sodium light, sending a ring of illumination up into the sky from his scalp. They barely register that his skin is wet: his chest damp beneath his nightshirt from sweat, his lower body from the urine they can both smell, its sour ammonia gathering in their nostrils. They do not say a word about this, this carryover from Colum’s abusive birthmother who couldn’t handle his condition and tried to both beat it out of him and force it away via isolation, locking him in a tiny bedroom for eight, ten hours a day, leaving him nowhere to go to the bathroom except on himself.
They hardly notice because of the other thing, a new horror: the tiny tug of his little body upward, toward the sky, toward whatever distant heavenly body is yearning for him, calling their son home.
“I understand your frustration,” their family therapist says. “But there’s just so much about celestialism we don’t understand.”
Her name is Anne-Marie, and she is a good therapist. She listens, nodding, never scribbles down notes in their presence. She doesn’t hmm or click her tongue or uncross and recross her legs. They like her long, red hair, like something out of a fairy tale, and her matching leather boots that ride high up her calves. She doesn’t look like you’d expect, and this scores her bonus points in their book. It doesn’t hurt that she takes Medicaid, for which they’re eligible until Colum is eighteen because he’s adopted. She meets with them once a week. Colum mostly sits on the floor, squished between a microfiber sofa where they sit and a low coffee table on which she lets him mess around with a Lego set. It’s meant to become a castle, but Colum and her other patients turn the pieces into avant-garde art instead.
Anne-Marie doesn’t appear bothered by their need to rehash, to replay, to reconvene on this same point every time Colum has an incident. That’s what they call them: incidents. His night terrors. His escapes, even though they lock the door, triple-bolted. Now this tugging, this invisible pull, this unseen antagonist in a heavenly tug-of-war. They mention adding a fourth lock now, a slide bolt too high for Colum to reach.
“It doesn’t hurt to try. But just know he’ll probably become agitated.”
“If he’s stuck inside.”
“Yes.” Anne-Marie nods. Her hair wavers. “His urge to have nothing between him and the stars will only increase with time.”
They look down at Colum, who is now building an Escher-like staircase out of the Legos. The corona on the back of his head—they refuse to call it a halo-like everyone else does—is hardly noticeable in the light, only the slightest discoloration in his already wispy blond hair through which the peach of his scalp is visible. Right now, he otherwise looks like any other five-year-old boy, picking up pieces, holding them close to his face as if examining something through a microscope, then setting them into his surrealist stairwell one after the other.
They talk, briefly, about strategies going forward. Keeping lights on in the house will do little good, which they point out makes no sense: the stars are always in the sky, made invisible only by their own. Why should the sun’s blare lessen Colum’s desire to ascend any more than their own manufactured light?
“I don’t know what to tell you,” Anne-Marie says. “I’m just telling you what has and hasn’t worked with others.”
She tells them about the couple who constantly travel, moving west across the globe to chase the sun. They both nod, having read about the pair of uber-rich celebrity types who can afford to be on a private jet at any and all hours of the day. They wonder what those parents thought when their little girl was born, when she first illuminated the neonatal ward with the telling ring around her cowlicky infant hair. Whether they, too, thought about dumping her off into the arms of CPS or leaving her at the doorstep of a church, Victorian style. So many children, Anne-Marie told them during one of their early sessions, have been left behind, new parents not wanting to deal with this particular form of the unknown and unexpected.
“No one asks for this,” she’d said. They had both nodded, unsure what to say: in a way, they had asked for this. They’d known, when they decided they wanted a child and, after much mulling and hemming and hawing, agreed that adoption was the best course of action, that there was a decent chance they’d find themselves considering a child with celestialism. So many were getting left behind, cast off like stray animals parents couldn’t afford to feed, and so when their case worker suggested Colum, who loved stuffed animals and tactile toys, they were willing to overlook—and noted that their caseworker overlooked—the ring of light that appeared on the crown of his head when the sun set.
Their session ends as they all do: five minutes of coaxing Colum away from the Legos. Despite his age, he never speaks, as though using his voice is painful, even though specialists and doctors have asserted over and over that there’s no sign of developmental delay or physical inability. He never complains or throws tantrums. He has never made shrieking demands for anything that has not been offered to him. Even his yearnings for the sky, or the pull of whatever it is that wants him up there, he buries inside, silently suffering whatever it is that ravages him with a stoic, stony strength that should be admirable in a child but strikes them both with a terrible fear, a rotting hurt that they can’t excise.
One of them had dreamt of being a painter, showing at the Whitney and Guggenheim and Sotheby’s. Instead, he teaches art appreciation classes at a community college that at least compensates him with good health insurance and a robust retirement package. Next year, he will even be eligible for a sabbatical, and before Colum, he’d settled on a number of possible artist colonies for a several months’ stay.
The other works in accounting by day but used to spend weekends playing in an adult volleyball league. He’d been good enough to play in college if he’d wanted to, probably division II, although that would have meant playing against the big west coast schools, getting clobbered by Long Beach and Hawai’i and UCLA as well because there weren’t enough programs for the two tiers to be separated. He didn’t like the idea of being a punching bag for the real talents, so he abandoned that part of his adolescent self in favor of a steady income working in corporate taxation, living his athletic dreams vicariously with other graduates who are starting to feel the effects of aging through hangovers that last two days and the need to swallow down anti-inflammatories the morning after tournaments to alleviate the aches in their knees and hitting arms.
They talked about these things in the months leading up to their foray into the world of adoption, hours-long conversations that wandered and twisted and looped back on themselves, starting in the early evening and settling into the deep hours of the night, both of their heads pulsing, vision gone slightly blurry like they were stoned as they tried to disentangle their feelings about children. They discussed the subject while they were dating, but mostly in that getting-to-know-you, laughing-about-the-distant-possibility-of-children way, and then the topic slowly became more serious, more concrete as they marched into engagement and then, finally, marriage, the ceremony for which had lasted about six minutes and taken place in the generous backyard of the house they’d already bought. They both understood that their deepest dreams had not come true by the age they thought they would—they were thirty and thirty-two when they tied the knot—and both had accepted that reality required a certain recalibration of expectation, of hope, and that choosing to become fathers would require yet another click on that dial, another adjustment of their vision of the future, a new set of spectacles through which to see that which they saw on the horizon.
And now, they both rush out of bed again, this time shocked awake by another new development: the noise of Colum moaning, a terrible sound like the howl of an injured wolf. As they scramble down the hall, they each briefly feel the pinging pain of regret, a silent wish to spool time back to before, or at least to the moment when they first saw that little corona on their not-quite-yet-son, when maybe, just maybe, they might be able to say no, no thank you. We’re not ready for that. It’s not right for us. Or: it’s too much for us. But they both scrub the thought away, though it leaves a stain on the experience of hearing their son’s voice for the first time, one that neither will acknowledge or ever be able to completely remove.
Colum is splayed in the foyer, arms askew like a dead body splattered from a long fall. In the dark, they can see that the new lock has done its work: his little arms have not been able to reach and unhook it. But as a result, he has loosed a terrible animal sound that makes them both think of blood and a severed cord. They crowd around him, pressing their hands to his back and legs, looking for signs of life. His chest rises and falls against the hardwood, and at their touch, he twitches, feet kicking like he’s suffering a spasm. He has wet himself again, the smell tart. They smother him down, whisper sweetnesses in his ears. This only animates him further, the moans that broke their sleep sirening out of his mouth like an undulating series of warnings. They gather him in their arms and feel it, the hard, devastating tug, powerful and dragging even though they’re inside. They flick on the overhead light, but this does nothing: Colum’s body heaves with something that wants to drag him away. For now, though, it is not as powerful as their desire for him to stay, and they hold him long enough for the feeling to recede, at least for the time being, for this night, long enough for the world to tick into day, when Colum is still here, still theirs, still on the ground. For the noises in his throat to gurgle to a stop, his silence for once a welcome reprieve.
They affix glow-in-the-dark stars to his bedroom ceiling. Colum watches, bouncing on the bed and clapping, as they climb onto chairs from the kitchen and affix them to the popcorn ceiling, bits of vermiculite crumbling into their hair and mouths. They know this is nothing, but they must do something. When they admitted this feeling to Anne-Marie she nodded and suggested they might as well; assuaging their helplessness in whatever tiny way they can is healthy, necessary. They read about parents strapping ankle weights around their children’s spindly legs; about powerful LED overhead lights left on at all hours; about lashing growing kids with leashes as if they were dogs staked to front yards; about moon-shaped bedside lamps; about excessive doses of melatonin, cough syrup, Benadryl, Dimetapp.
The stars, they agree, are the right choice, even if they do nothing. At least they are a gesture, some motion. Anne-Marie nodded at this. She didn’t mention what they were thinking: that the tug of the sky is a sign that Colum’s condition is speeding along. That his incidents will only get worse. She had little to say about his moans, refusing to consider them speech.
That night, they lay in a heap, Colum in the center, all of them snug under his comforter—that’s another thing: weighted blankets, heaps of them, an endless mountain of pressing, compressing fabric—and they stare up at the neon glow, the stars in their swirling patterns, not meant to mimic any constellations that appear in the night sky but shapes of their own making. They whisper to Colum and point, creating names and creatures. Colum releases his voiceless laughter. He curls against them, his body bready and warm, child sweat sweet in their noses. Eventually, he is asleep, and they both lay there, unmoving but entirely awake, wondering if they have achieved something miraculous. Colum sleeps through the night, and they take their turns zoning in and out of consciousness, neither ever quite fully in slumber, both of their brains ticking and fearful, ready for any sign that the sky has flexed its muscles to try to take their son.
As children, they both dreamt of being astronauts, the kind of amorphous, ambitious hope that youngsters project onto the future. They both loved Neil Armstrong, John Glenn, Buzz Aldrin. One of them wrote a report about Sally Ride in fifth grade, the other Christa McAuliffe in sixth. The Challenger explosion traumatized both of them. Like so many dreams, their hopes of catapulting up into the stars faded as they grew older and more realistic. They were like so many other children with desires to ascend, to reach, to explore the unknown, the shimmer and shine of the great beyond becoming a simmering mystery no more desirable than the surprises at ground level.
And then, of course, came celestialism, the first celestials bursting into the atmosphere when they were in college, the coverage horrifying. Suddenly, their dreams of flight were knives, spears, puncture wounds that seeped tainted hope, stripped down to the startling horror of the unknown.
Of course, the stars do not last. Of course, a few nights later, they are awoken by the noise of Colum pounding on the front door. The night is a whip of wind and lashing rain that spatters the sidelight and roof, tympanic drumming that his screeches cut through like clean, sharp blades. The noise is all the more terrible for being incoherent, incomprehensible. If only they could hear words from their son’s mouth to balance the shrieking. They find Colum tugging at his ears, doubled over in frustration, fingers clawing at the lobes and surrounding skin. In the morning, they see scaley red streaks that extend down his cheeks. They take him to Urgent Care, where the intake nurse tuts and shakes her head but hands over a clipboard and tells them to fill in everything. Leaving out family medical history plunges something cold and sharp into both of their guts, and they whisper, voices rickety, that he’s adopted.
The nurse practitioner applies an iodine ointment. Colum is calm, smiling, his little feet whacking against the crinkly paper dangling off the exam table. She smiles back, whispers that he’s doing great, that he’s so brave. At the end, she tells them that her nephew was the same way. At first, they think she means the celestialism, but then she adds, “He started talking, eventually. And he’s fine now.”
They don’t say anything to that. Just nod and follow her out to where Cheryl here will take your insurance and payment information.
The support group, recommended by Anne-Marie, meets in a small community center. The ceilings are low, the lights too bright, the carpet a muted purple-beige thin as putting green. The air smells of burnt coffee. Nearly two dozen people sit on squealing folding chairs. The group is led by a woman in her fifties named Charlene, whose son, she says by way of introduction, was among the first diagnosed with celestialism. Her voice is even, strong, and she doesn’t hesitate when she describes the day he eventually disappeared into the sky. She is the first person they’ve met whose child has actually succumbed, rocketing up into the gathering arms of the night—it always happens, they know, in the dark—and she talks about the loss with a tiny pinch of pride, as though her son has accomplished something. Or maybe it’s her who’s met an achievement, able to speak through her grief, her unimaginable loss.
The rest of the group is a mix: some who have seen someone ascend, others, like them, navigating life with someone they are desperate not to let go of. Each person introduces themselves and shares a small bit about their situation, the tip of a large, jagged iceberg. Some cry. Others won’t make eye contact, staring at the floor or ceiling. Others keep scanning the entire group, their heads swiveling as if they’re part of a well-timed sprinkler system. When it is their turn, they each give their names. They look at Colum and talk about his difficulties, how much it hurts to see him hurt, to know things are worsening and that there is nothing to be done: no cancer or diabetes or rheumatism that can be treated with insulin or methotrexate or clofarabine. Charlene nods, understanding. Hellos are mumbled around them in a sideways, painful chorus. When the session is finally over, twilight is starting to drip through the windows. They drive home in silence, Colum in the back seat. They both glance at him, taking in the angelic calm of his face, the way he turns just-so toward the window, his eyes wide but relaxed, his gaze up toward the pastel clouds catching the sunset and sending it shimmering out in pink and purple.
“It looks like a bruise/”
“All of it. The whole thing. The entire sky looks hurt.”
Neither will say so, but they would both just like Colum to speak.
His howls in the night are almost insulting. When the light on the crown of his head burns brightest, when the tugging call of something far away in the dark is its hardest, when his voice careens from his throat in animal moans, they clench their teeth. Their jaws ache. These moments do not count. They are not what they have wished for.
They ask him questions all the time. What do you want for breakfast? What do you want to wear today? Which park would you like to go to? Did you pick up your toys? What sounds good for a snack? What was your favorite thing about the movie? Did you like the book? Will you eat your vegetables? Did you brush your teeth? What should we watch tonight?
Will you sleep?
How can we help?
What can we do?
Will you use your words?
Colum used to nod in response, shake his head, cross his arms. Now, he shrieks or cries or stomps his feet, the barbaric sounds that come from his throat at night seeping into daylight, and they’re both tempted to shriek back, to scream rageful language at their little boy. The corona on his head seems to glow brighter, though they both know this is a trick of the imagination, of angles, of light, of shadow, of their warping, frustrated, terrified minds. Of their tired eyes. Of their exhausted bodies. Of their slouching uncertainty. Of their scrubbed, unpleasant future.
In the periods when they are alone, when Colum falls asleep at night, they whisper to one another.
“If only he would say one thing.”
“You think that would be enough?”
“It would be something, at least.”
“You’re right. It would.”
“But he won’t.”
“It’s not that he can’t.”
In desperation, they sink into each other, their bodies a brief, shared heaven, their commingling the only thing that gives them respite, even when it is interrupted by the noises of Colum’s fluttering attempts at escape.
In the short calm after a rare bout of uninterrupted sex, one of them says, “What if we tried something different? Something no one’s done?”
“I’m sure everyone’s tried everything.”
“Maybe. But maybe not.”
The next night, they don’t get Colum ready for bed. Instead, they ask him to put on his shoes. If this interruption of routine bothers Colum, he doesn’t show it, trekking to his room, the back of his head spotlighting the hallway like he’s a lone adventurer disappearing down a catacomb’s tunnel. They drive through the evening gloom, Colum looking out the windows. They keep glancing back, wondering if the invisible switch that seems to flip at night will do so, Colum suddenly desperate and clawing to get out; they’ve checked three times that the child lock is engaged. But he’s moony and grinning, staring out at the stars, drooling a little bit. The light from his head reflects off every glassy surface.
The park is closed, but there’s no gate. They push any fears about being caught by a park ranger or suburban police officer deep into their bowels, where they’re swallowed up by all the other, bigger terrors swirling there. Colum waits patiently as they get out of the car and then unbuckle his car seat. They walk with him between them, each of them holding one of his hands, probably too tight, ready to clamp down with all the power in their fingers should he suddenly seize toward the sky. It’s a risk, they know, one whose reward is fuzzy, indistinct. Perhaps nonexistent.
The only noise is the clop of their feet as they cross the parking lot, their footsteps going swishy when they move onto the wizened path that wends through a field and toward the trees. Even the bugs are silent. The air is crisp, fat with the apple scent of coming spring rain. Colum’s head gives off a beacon of light, alerting anyone who might want to know about their presence, whiting out the stars like an eraser. When they reach the trees, pine, and maple gathered in hugging branches, the light creates zig-zag shadows and bright, lurching shapes.
They have no particular destination, so when the trail forks—they’ve been to this park but never down these wooded paths—they choose a random direction. No one speaks. Colum’s breathing is even, his little feet working hard to keep pace with their strides, which quicken naturally but then slow when both realize how fast they’re moving. Where are they going? When will they stop? What are they after? What is their hope? They imagine a sudden turn around, the light extinguishing itself, their son saying their names, saying his wants and needs, saying anything with human language attached.
Periodically, a nocturnal creature skitters through the underbrush nearby, startling Colum. Each time their hearts leap, his jerky confusion mimicking the way his body lunges for the door, for the sky. They take sharp breaths, squeeze his hands. He squeezes back. But each time everything goes quiet again, his body calm.
The woods open up into a clearing with a precise view of the night sky. They’ve chosen a cloudless evening, and the stars are a dizzying array. Colum stops and looks up, his light flaring backward like a gossamer gown, igniting the grass and the path they’ve taken. They wonder and worry, but he doesn’t move. His little body doesn’t try to defy gravity. All he does is stare, up, up, up.
It is, they admit to themselves, a beautiful view. They can see the brightness of the North Star, the curved angle of the Big Dipper, Orion, and Gemini. They whisper these names to Colum, kneeling on either side of him, hands no longer clutching his but grasping at his nightshirt, a billowing parachute of fabric. But their fingers are alert, ready to snatch and save. Colum nods at everything they say, his eyes following their pointing hands. They know he doesn’t really know, doesn’t really understand the stars, that they’re really just more suns, that they’re ultimately the same as the thing that keeps him anchored to the ground, just far away. They don’t mention that some of what they see is of the past, already dead and gone, that it simply takes so long for light to travel through the expanse above them that life is able to outrun death in this one terrible way. That one day, the light that is already gone will wink out, the vision of the sky finally catching up to the reality of distance.
They stay that way for a long time. Neither speaks. They both have so much and so little to say. This night feels so important and so immaterial, a moment so big and so tiny at the same time.
Each imagines that maybe, somehow, something will crack in Colum. That he will say something, anything, and that this unrattling of his silence will transform the rest of him. They both know this is ridiculous, but so is the fact that this boy, their child, yearns for the sky and is yearned for. Why leave when he has what he needs here?
But they both understand the desire to disappear, to move from one thing to another. Daily, the art instructor wonders about his lost sense of wonder and creation; the more appreciation he teaches, the less he finds in himself. He buys paints and canvases but then lets them languish, unused, blank and dry and barren. Every time he has an idea, it sparks like a firework and then fizzles back to darkness, hidden away in some recess in his brain to which he has no access. The accountant has vivid dreams of being on the volleyball court, but when he approaches the line to serve his arm goes noodly, all strength gone, the muscle memory of timing the jump and his swing vanished like a piece of his brain has been carefully excised. During his front-row rotations, his feet will not cooperate, refusing to set on his approach so that his leaps to attack become hitchy and robotic. He wakes feeling sour, gruesome, his youthful athleticism sunken to the bottom of a terrible black ocean, weighted by deep-sea pressure.
Perhaps this is why, when they feel something change in Colum’s body, the way it suddenly lightens as if gravity has released him from its clutch, they each hesitate for just a second. Not long enough to actually let their son float away; they’re both quick to grab at the fabric but not quick enough for neither to notice the other’s slip, the slight pause. They glance at one another for a single moment before giving their attention to their son, who, despite whatever is happening in his body, looks as serene as he ever has, eyes sleepy-hooded, mouth slightly agape, little bits of spittle gathered in the corners. He does not howl or growl or hiss. Instead, he giggles at the tightness of their hands clutched at his shirt, and he whacks at their fingers, not the rending swipes of a wild animal desperate for escape but the playful slap of a child inventing a game out of nothing. The sound of his laughter echoes into the trees, engulfing the quiet. They laugh with him, slapping his hands in return with their free fingers, always cognizant of the way their other hand holds him, shackles Colum to the place he belongs. By silent agreement, they slap and slap, willing to keep up the game for however long Colum wants, for however long it takes for his body to give up, not forever, because they know there is no forever, no way to keep him here permanently. They know their son will not suddenly speak, that this is, and will not be, a miracle. They know that someday he will slip away from them, their grip never quite strong enough to hold him down. They know he will rise to the heavens that he yearns for, the stars that seek him out.
But for one quiet moment in the dark of the night, the only light their son’s glimmering crown, they are at ease about this. As their fingers meet his, they accept this tether, this momentary breath, this dewy laughter that fills them with light, pushing away the impending emptiness and deep, assailing dark.