The day was deathly still.
The summer sky was ablaze with color, awash with silent splendor. Thick, gray-white flakes drifted down from above, blanketing the earth. Andrew made his ponderous way up the slope, between the trees, marveling at the sight he never thought he'd live to see.
He was all alone. His sneakers crunching through the snowdrifts and his breath rasping from his narrow chest the only sounds in the tomblike stillness.
This was his moment.
The brittle day had the same haunting-hallowed feel of Easter mass at St. Marks. A sacred silence. Reverence in the face of the unspeakably profound.
This had been his secret dream, his heart's burning desire.
It was snowing.
"Now blow out your candles and make a wish, sweetie. But don't tell - "
"Snow! I wish it would snow, Mom!" five-year-old Andrew squealed.
The proud parents regarded their son fondly. "You know we don't get snow here, big guy," his father replied, laughing and ruffling the boy's hair. "But as soon as you're old enough, we'll take you on a skiing trip up north. You'll see plenty snow then."
"Of course. Now, what say we open some presents?"
When Andrew got sick two years later, he knew he'd never get his wish. He couldn't make out the words of the whispered conversations between his parents and the doctors, but he didn't need to. He could read his doom in his parent's eyes as they fussed ceaselessly at his hospital bedside, assuring him he was going to be just fine.
Andrew knew he was dying. Mortality is a concept not easily grasped by the 7-year-old mind, but reality is a cruel teacher and despite his age, the situation allowed for neither ignorance nor denial.
He heard it in his mother's over-bright voice. He saw it in his father's face as he turned away, unable to meet his son's eyes, and in the pitying stares of the nurses as they did just the opposite, ogling him like some exotic caged creature on the verge of extinction.
He sensed it in the steady drip-drip of the leaky faucet in the bathroom across the hall late at night and in the incessant insectile buzz of the overhead fluorescents.
Most of all, he felt it in his every small movement and labored breath as his body steadily failed, shutting down like a piece of overused machinery, unable to continue.
Yes, despite all assurances to the contrary, Andrew knew he was dying.
"Mom, what's. . ." Andrew squinted, concentrating on pronouncing the big word, "loo-kee-mee-ya?"
"Oh, sweetie," she wiped her brimming eyes and forced a note of false cheer into her voice. "It's a problem with your bone marrow. It happens to little kids sometimes. But don't worry, the doctors know what they're doing. They're going to fix you up, good as new."
"But Mom, that machine they put me in, it makes me feel lousy. Real sick, you know? And tired all the time. So tir- " he was interrupted by a savage yawn that illustrated the point. "I wish they'd just leave me alone."
His mother cast about for the right words, as if explaining radiation treatment for endstage terminal leukemia to your dying son was merely a matter of eloquence and delivery. "Look, Andy, you need to trust them. They know what they're doing. It's like. . ." What was it like? "You remember the forest fires last year, right?"
"Yeah!" Andrew's eyes lit up at the memory. He'd watched the evening news with his parents, captivated by the aerial footage of acres going up in flames, unaware at the time of his cancerously tainted blood, soon to raze his world to the ground just as the fires seemed set to do to the surrounding countryside. "That was cool! And scary."
"It sure was," his mother agreed. "But, remember what your father told you? That the seeds of the Redwood trees need heat to germinate? If there were no fires, there'd be no new trees. We wouldn't have our beautiful forests."
"So. . . destroying things can be good?" Andrew asked after some careful consideration.
"Yes, sweetie. Sometimes destroying things can be good. That's what the doctors are doing to you, they're burning away the bad cells so new, healthy ones can grow. I know it hurts, but it's helping you, Andy. I promise."
"'kay, mom," he muttered, eyelids growing suddenly heavy and slipping closed, as they so often did lately.
She watched her sleeping son, biting her lip to hold back the flood of tears that threatened to overwhelm her, heart full to bursting with love for her precious, vulnerable child.
Desperate, terrifying, helpless love.
"Mommy?" Andrew mumbled, just as she was about to leave.
"Yes, sweetie, I'm still here."
"I wish. . . I wish I wasn't gonna die before you and daddy."
She broke then. Anguish streamed down her face and choked back the reflexive words of reassurance she wanted so desperately to offer, but could not. It didn't matter. The inevitable course of reality isn't altered by futile denial and false hope. Words cannot change what is.
Even so, she would still have told him not to think such things, that it wasn't going to happen, but by the time she felt able to speak, her son had gone back to sleep.
Andrew was finally released from the hospital just before Christmas. The small family tried bravely to rekindle the festive atmosphere of holidays gone by, but knowing it would likely be the boy's last Christmas was a crushing burden. The radiation therapy had not been successful. Andrew had been given less than a year to live.
Caught between frantic desperation to make the occasion a special one and the pervasive pall of anguish that invaded and settled in like an unwelcome houseguest, his parents did the best they could.
Their actions were inherently selfish, for they were merely creating memories, and for whom are those intended but the living? The survivors? The dead do not remember.
Fortunately, they remained blissfully ignorant of this. Such awareness would have been devastating. Introspection is like a surgical blade: useful when applied with proper skill but deadly when wielded with reckless abandon.
Denial can be a sanctuary for sanity. Sometimes secrets are necessary for survival. And sometimes, the most important secrets are the ones we keep from ourselves.
As the new year dawned, the strain began to take its toll. Andrew's parents argued bitterly. They fought about everything – money, politics, his work and her lack thereof, the inevitable call for him to leave on assignment that all career military personnel are liable for, and her blunt insistence that it amounted to abandoning his family in their hour of greatest need.
They fought with each other because they couldn't confront the true enemy – the cancerous mutations in their son's bone marrow and his relentless descent, day after dreadful day, unto death.
"Why do you have to go, Todd? Why now, for chrissake?"
"Listen, Beth, it's not like I've got a choice. You know how it is. We've just gone to DEFCON 4 - "
"Tell them no! Tell them your son is dying, goddammit! Isn't that a valid reason?" A pause. A shaky intake of breath. "We need you here. I need you here. I can't - "
"Honey, I need you to be strong. You've gotta trust me. I have to go, but it won't be for long. This is serious. If the Chinese - "
"Fuck the Chinese! And fuck you, Todd, mister serve and protect! You're a coward, running off to save the country because you're too shit scared to stay here and deal with reality!" she motioned vaguely with her hand, leaving no doubt who the 'reality' was.
Unobserved from the shadows of the doorway, Andrew silently retreated, leaving his parents to their bickering. The sound of his mother's sobbing followed him down to the basement before he shut the heavy oak door softly behind him.
Then there was only the resounding scream of silence.
The next morning, Andrew's father left in a military Jeep for the nearby airforce base. He would not see his son alive again.
Andrew now paused between the trees, halfway up the hill at the far end of the property. He marveled at the soft, susurrant whisper of the falling snow, the only disturbance in the unearthly silence that reigned. He thought about the difficult months that had followed his father's departure.
Andrew had taken to spending more and more time in the basement, among his father's old tools and the various odds and ends that families tend to accumulate and store away, like squirrels saving for a winter that'll never come.
He found the musty smell refreshing. The dust and disrepair that abounded in his subterranean hideout were comforting reminders that he wasn't alone. That all things eventually decay and fade away. That nothing lasts forever, nor is it meant to.
At only 8 years old, he couldn't articulate this notion, of course, and perhaps that's why he felt it so powerfully. The truly profound is always diminished when put into words. Unspoken and unrecognized, this fascination with destruction – the same he had felt at the sight of the forest fires years ago – had become Andrew's secret passion.
He felt safe in the basement, protected from the absurdly normal world outside in which he'd concluded he had neither place nor part. The moldy damp provided sweet relief from the heat as spring gave way to sweltering summer, soothed his fevered thoughts. Embraced him.
Had he been older and cursed with greater self-awareness, Andrew might have likened his affinity with the basement sanctuary to a primal longing for the safety of the womb.
Or, perhaps, a tomb.
Andrew's need for retreat was exacerbated by his mother's increasingly erratic behavior. She was often short with him, snapping at him for no reason and then immediately bursting into tears and apologizing, hugging him tight. She slept more and more, as if her dreams were a refuge from the harsh reality of life with a dying son and without a dutiful husband, but the anguished moans she let loose whilst asleep gave truth to the lie.
When not sleeping or staring blankly out into middle-distance, she was glued to the television set, hungrily absorbing the ever-darker news from abroad.
"Mommy, what's a. . ." Andrew furrowed his brow, concentrating hard. "Noo-coo-la 'splosion?" he finished carefully, motioning with his head to the TV where the breathless news anchor was talking about 'the ever-increasing threat of the new Sino-Japanese alliance' and 'unheeded calls for nuclear disarmament.'
"Nuclear, sweetie," she corrected absently, eyes never leaving the screen. "It's a kind of bomb. A big one."
"Is there going to be one here?"
She turned to face him as if only just becoming aware of his presence. "No, of course not. It's just talk, Andy. Your father's gone off to make sure nothing bad happens. He'll keep us safe."
Yes, sweetie, I promise." She leaned over and rested a soothing hand on his barren brow. "There's nothing to worry about, okay?"
Perhaps it was the sudden, unexpected display of warmth, a glimpse of his mother of old. Perhaps it was the same hollow reassurances, empty and meaningless - more promises that could never be kept. Perhaps it was his sudden urge to shock, to be heard, to matter. Perhaps it was all of these things. Or none at all.
Whatever the reason, Andrew pulled away from his mother, sprang to his feet, and yelled, "Liar! I wish it would happen! I wish the world would burn!"
He turned and stalked off to the basement on pale, wasted legs, slamming the door behind him.
The rapport resounded with the ring of finality.
The trees thinned out now as Andrew approached the top of the hill, summer snowflakes decorating his bare head and face. He tilted his head back and stuck out his tongue to catch them as he'd seen a thousand children do on a thousand TV movies.
They tasted like ash.
He was shaky and out of breath when at last he reached his destination. He didn't think he'd have the energy to return home, but it didn't matter. There was no home to return to.
Everything was gone.
"I did this," he whispered to the silence, to the blazing sky and the burning horizon.
I did this.
Had Andrew not been in the basement at the time of the flash, he would have been vaporized instantly like every living thing for miles. As it was, he'd clawed his way up from the debris, dusty and disheveled but none the worse for wear, to find his every wish had been suddenly, miraculously granted.
I wish it would snow!
I wish they'd leave me alone.
I wish I wasn't gonna die before you and daddy.
I wish the world would burn!
"I did this." Andrew stood there, beneath the ash snowing down, staring, awestruck, at the blazing ruins of the city in the distance. Beyond the horizon, a towering pillar of cloud extended proudly to the heavens, lauding over the destruction it had wrought. Andrew raised himself to his full height and did the same.
Sometimes destroying things can be good.
He surrendered once more to memory; to bitter-sweet recollections of times gone by, lost forever. They belonged to him now, and him alone, for memories are the domain of the living, and he remained, the sole survivor.
Standing atop the hill as the world around him burned, Andrew thought about forest fires.