A Sea of Stars - Ch. 10 - Memories

    core all that we       made
      know and all         from
       that   we    the places that we
      are      is       have seen
                       and     the
                     people     that

The morning began just like any other. Lillian awoke to the sounds and smells of frying bacon and the delicious aroma of homemade pancakes. She jumped out of bed–Mom’s cooking! she thought to herself–and threw herself out of her door. She was in such a rush that she nearly collided with her father just outside the door, jumping aside bare centimeters from impact.

“Whoa there little one,” he said, playfully lifting her off the floor so she couldn’t keep running for the kitchen. “What’s the rush?”

“Breakfast!” she cried out. “Mom’s cooking breakfast!”

“Is that what I smell?” he smiled a lopsided, mysterious smile. “And here I thought perhaps she was trying to burn the house down.”

“I heard that,” a voice drifted out of the kitchen ahead.

Lillian squirmed, trying to get free. “Aw, put me down,” she said, somewhere between pleaded demanding.

“First,” he said, setting her lightly on the ground but keeping a firm hold on her arms, “you have to answer a question.”

Lillian stopped squirming. Not that it was doing a bit of good anyways, she thought. She waited for her father’s question. She knew that it would be some sort of question relating to what she’d been studying in school, or what she’d been reading about on her own time.

“Name the planets,” he said without a moment’s hesitation. “In order of mass.”

“That’s not a question,” she said, a touch of triumph leaking into her voice.

He chuckled. “How right you are. But you won’t get away that easily. Fine, what are the names of the planets, ordered by mass?”

“That’s easy,” she said. She loved learning about the planets. They was just so much to know about them. And every day they learned more as more and more people left the cradle of their birth and headed out into the darkness. “Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury.”

“And the dwarf planets?”

“I answered your question!” she cried out. The smell of bacon coming from the kitchen was maddening.

“All right, all right. You did at that.” He released the grip on her arms. Before he could say another word, she’d dashed off to the kitchen.

She was completely correct in her guess. Her mother was standing over the stove, just finishing up a batch of her famous honeyed buttermilk pancakes. There were plates of bacon and eggs on the table, along with toast and jam. It was quite a breakfast.

“Lilly dear,” she said without turning from the stove. Lillian had always suspected that she must have eyes on the back, the way she could tell when she walked into the room without even looking. “Could you set the table?”

“Yes mum.” She scooted up and gave her mother a hug before heading to the cabinets. At first her mother looked surprised, but then she set down her spatula and wrapped her daughter in a hug of her own.

“And to what do I owe the hug?” she asked, her voice light.

“Breakfast! It all smells so delicious.” She dashed off and started grabbing plates and silverware for everyone.

And it was delicious. She almost couldn’t tear herself away when she heard the sound of the school bus stopping at the next house up the street.

“You’re going to be late for school,” her mother chided.

“Never!” Lillian cried. She jumped up and took her dishes to the sink. They were already mostly clean, so it was an easy matter to finish rinsing them and stick them in the dish washer. Then she ran off to grab her book bag from her room. She’d already backed it the night before. She stopped back in the kitchen before heading out to the bus.

She peeked into the door once more"It was a lovely breakfast mother. Thank you."

“You’re quite welcome, he mother said after her. “Have a lovely day at school.”

But she was already gone.

That afternoon when she the bus was stopping at her neighbor’s house a few blocks down the street, Lillian had her first experience with those cold chills running down her spine that she would later trust with her life. At first she couldn’t place it, but looking ahead to her own house she thought she might have a reason. A pair of police cars were parked in the driveway and there was a third car–an old fashioned black sedan–parked mostly off the street and partially in the yard.

Something was wrong.

The bus was achingly slow for the last block to her house. It almost got to the point where she was going to ask the bus driver to just stop and let her out. She could run home faster than the bus driver was driving. But she didn’t. She was patient. Her father always said that patience was a virtue worth treasuring. But it was so hard.

Finally the bus pulled to a stop in front of her house. It had stopped awkwardly; the black car was where the bus driver normally parked. He didn’t say a word to her as she walked down the aisle and stepped down the stairs onto the sidewalk. No-one did. For the first time in Lillian’s memory, the bus was completely silent.

When she set was completely out of the door, she heard a faint murmur of conversation starting back up. Then the door closed and the bus drove off, leaving her standing there.

She didn’t see a sign of anyone outside or in any of the front windows. Where was everyone? Normally when father had visitors over, they met in the front room, but the curtains were pulled back. She could see inside. No-one.

She stepped up onto the front porch and let herself in. The house was eerily silent. She knew that there had to be people here–there were all those vehicles outside–but for all she could tell, she was completely alone in the house.

Then she heard a scream coming from upstairs. It wasn’t a scream of terror, she thought, it didn’t sound anything like the screams in those horror movies that dad let me watch (I had to promise not to tell mom). More like a scream of frustration. Like when the boys at school were playing their games and couldn’t quite beat a level. Only much more intense. And it sounded like her father.

She rushed up the stairs, calling out. “Dad?”

There was the sound of a door opening and her father was standing at the top of the stairs. He looked like he’d been crying. She kept running, right into his outstretched arms. He picked her up off the floor and held her tight. “Oh Lillian, dear Lillian,” he kept saying over and over.

“Dad? What’s happening?”

He didn’t answer at first, so she tried to look around him. He’d been in the bedroom, but he’d partially closed the door behind himself. She couldn’t see past it.

“Daddy?” she whispered.

“It’s going to be all right,” he whispered back. “Somehow. Somehow it’s all going to be all right.”

“What is daddy? What’s happening?”

“It’s your mother.” Somehow she knew what was coming, even before he finished. “There was an accident at work.”

She could barely speak. “What happened?”

“We’re not sure. The plant supervisors are saying it was an accident. The news is saying that it was a terrorist attack. All we know for sure is that one of the reactors has already melted and the other is leaking badly.”

But none of that mattered. She didn’t care what happened to the buildings. “What happened to mommy?”

“She was in the reactor that melted down. They say there’s no way that she could have…” His voice cracked and Lillian could see the tears starting down his face. “They say there’s no way she could have survived. But they won’t know until they can get a robotics teams in there. There’s too much radiation.”

Lillian could feel her own tears beginning to flow as well. For the longest time, they stood there. Her father holding her in his arms, not saying a thing.

The funeral felt like something out of a bad movie. It was cold and rainy, with a perfectly depressing overcast sky and a cool breeze blowing in from the ocean. They had managed to recover her body, but the radiation had done its work all too well. Lillian’s father had gone in to confirm that it was her, but he’d refused to take Lillian with him. She was too young to see such things, he’d said.

People talked about how wonderful her mother was, but Lillian didn’t hear much of it. She knew her mother had been wonderful. She saw it every day. So why did she have to die? It just wasn’t fair.

They sang in the church. She’d gone with her mother every Sunday and stood beside her while she sang along with everyone. They were singing her mother’s favorite hymns. Her father only rarely came along. She knew that her parents hadn’t always agreed about everything; religion had been one of those things.

It was drizzling when they took her out to the cemetery. It was a peaceful place. Her mother’s family had lived in the town for generations and they had a special part of the cemetery all to themselves. Her mother’s tombstone was there already, half carved. The other half had her father’s name on it. She looked up at him and squeezed his hand tight. He pulled her closer. There was a tiger lily on top of the tombstone. Her mother had loved tiger lilies. So much that she’d named her daughter after them. Lillian could feel the tears threatening again. She buried her face in her father’s side.

The weeks after the funeral were long and slow. She’d never been particularly close to any of her classmates at school, but now even those she’d used to have lunch with were avoiding her. They just didn’t know what to say to her. She kept up with her schoolwork, and answered questions when asked, but even the teachers seemed to be avoiding calling on her.

At home wasn’t much better. Her father had stopped shaving the day after the funeral and now had the beginnings of a rather unkempt looking beard. He usually found the energy to take a shower each morning and put on fresh clothes, but the dirty clothes and dishes were piling up; along with the pizza boxes–a new one each night.

Lillian kept to herself at home and read. She snuck into her parent’s bedroom while her father was sleeping on the couch downstairs and took several of her mother’s favorite books. She took them down to her own room and stashed them on the bottommost shelf of her bookcase. And one at a time, she devoured all of them. All of the books that her mother had tirelessly read to her, night after night since before she could remember. She thought she knew them all by heart, but she read them anyways.

A month to the day after the funeral, everything changed. Her father had sunk particularly low and hadn’t even been out of his room in two days as far as Lillian could tell. She’d taken to doing the dishes and laundry herself, but they were running low on dish soap and laundry detergent.

Then the doorbell rang.

For a moment, Lillian expected that her father would come down to answer it, but she knew in her heart that he was just going to ignore it. Ignore it like he’d ignored all of their neighbors calling for the first week or two after the funeral. Like he’d ignored even started ignoring the pizza deliveries that he’d apparently set up ahead of time.

So Lillian went to the door instead.

When she unlocked it and looked outside, there was a tall man in a fine dark suit standing there. He looked down at her and smiled. “Hello there Lillian. Remember me?”

She shook her head. She wasn’t supposed to talk to strangers.

“Well I remember you. And I have something to tell your father.”

It didn’t look like he was going to just go away if she ignored him. “He’s busy,” she said.

“I’m sure he is.” He smirked at that. Lillian wasn’t sure that she likes him very much. Or like him at all, she decided when he pushed her lightly aside and stepped into the house. “I’ll just go up and tell him myself, why don’t I.”

Lillian tried to protest, but he was much bigger than her and held her at bay without even paying much attention to her. He went up the stairs and directly to her parent’s–her father’s room and banged on the door. Lillian followed after him, trying to think of any way to get him to go away. She knew that her father wouldn’t come out. He hadn’t out in days.

But she was surprised. After a moment, her father did come to the door. He looked haggard and worn out and–although she didn’t want to admit–he looked old.

“John,” he said to the stranger. “What do you want?”

The corners of his mouth were drawn down in a frown, looking at her father’s sad state of affairs. “I think we have something.”

Her father perked up immediately. “You know who’s responsible.”

“Not yet, but we have a lead. We were about to send a team out to check it out.” He looks her father up and down and shook his head. “Thought you could use some time away from the house.”

He didn’t look happy exactly, but some of the energy that Lillian was accustomed to was coming back into his face. “Father?” she said. Both men turned to stare at her. They hadn’t realized that she was standing there. “What’s going on?”

“Nothing Lillian. Nothing.” He seemed distracted. “Why don’t you get a bag and we’ll take you over to the Henderson’s for the evening? You’d like that wouldn’t you?”

The Henderson’s were an elderly couple that lived just a few houses down. When her father and mother had wanted some time to themselves, they would send Lillian over to visit the Henderson’s. It was fun enough to visit, but right now she just wanted answers. “Daddy, something’s going on…”

His look turned sad again. He turned back and forth from his daughter to the man in the suit. Finally, he sighed. He walked over to Lillian and got down on his knees so he could look her in the eyes.

“My friend here thinks that he might have some information about what happened to your mother. I need to go with him. Can you be a good girl and spend the night over at the Henderson’s? I promise I’ll be home before you know it.”

“Will it bring mommy back?” she asked, suddenly hopeful as she hadn’t been for entirely too long.

He looked at her for a second and the pulled her tight. “No. No it won’t.” He held her for a minute more, there on the landing, and then stood. “Pack your stuff?” he asked.

Lillian turned to go. As she went back down the stairs, she heard her father’s friend comment, “She’s a good kid. You’re going to have to tell her some time.”

“I know…” she heard her father’s reply. “But not today.” If he said any more, she didn’t hear it.