Jack held his son close to him, rumpling the sleeves of his little black suit. Children should not have to wear little black suits, he thought, but one of the last things Carol did before she died was scrupulously arrange Jack and Ben’s funeral attire.
“It’s my damn party,” she’d said.
It’s entirely possible that the whole thing was a joke, but then again, maybe not. Who knows what people think of when they know they’re in their last days. Jack sure as hell didn’t. Maybe she just wanted it to feel proper. Ben just stared blankly forward, leaning into his father’s side, small mouth slightly open, twisting his earlobe.
His tics had gotten worse. There was getting to be routine of them. The earlobe of his right ear would be pinched between Ben’s thumb and forefinger, twisted until it could turn no further, then released with an almost imperceptible flap. He would also rake the golden hairs on the back of his neck with his fingernails, flattening and separating the locks down to the nape over and and over again until the hair was listless and greasy. He’d click his little teeth, chomping them together rhythmically, blink twice instead of once, and it was all getting worse. The actions were still absent-minded, but more urgent, and whenever Jack suggested that maybe Ben didn’t have to do them, he’d taken it as a dark and horrible affront.
They were sat on the moist grass in the garden, the seats of their trousers damp and cold, but neither of them made to move. The service was long over, the night had set in and the sitting room was now a sombre junkyard of paper plates, half-empty wine glasses, crumbs and a snoring friend of the family. Stories had been swapped, hands had been placed lovingly on Jack’s shoulder. Carol’s friends had said that her spirit was still amongst them, that part of her soul would always be with them. All of Jack’s friends were scientists, and they didn’t know what to say. After all, she wasn’t mixed in with the detritus of the wake, there were no crumbs of her scattered across the paper plates and even the stories had seemed empty, supplied on request, devoid of a throbbing heartbeat. Jack didn’t know where Carol was. She’d simply been scooped out of his life, and he was still lamely looking for her, a dog waiting by the front door for an owner who would never return.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
Jack blinked and turned to his son, who was looking up at him, with the same blank, unfeeling expression. Ben hadn’t cried yet. Jack didn’t know if that was a bad sign, an indication of social problems to come. Little Ben had been distant throughout. When are we going to the funeral, he’d ask. Jack would tell him and he’d nod, OK, then return to playing with his space rocket, one hand crumpling his ear.
“I’m sorry?” Jack responded.
“Do you believe in ghosts?”
In his heart, no. Of course not. Don’t be silly, Ben. He couldn’t say that, could he? Should he though? He didn’t want his son to believe stuff and nonsense about spirits or Watching Over Us. But then again, how do you tell a boy that his mother is gone, without even the slightest trace. Then his job kicked in, and he looked up.
“I do,” he said. “In a way.” Ben looked at him, furrowing his eyebrows slightly, waiting for an explanation. Jack brushed his hair out of his eyes and pointed up to the lightpricked sky.
“Some of those stars are millions of lightyears away,” he said, squeezing his son by the arm. “Millions, which means that the light they give off, like we get from the sun, we can only see that after the light’s travelled all the way here.”
Ben was twiddling his ear lobe still, but he was following. Maybe.
“Which means that the light we can see, is actually millions of years old. It’s brand new to us, but the place it set off from, lightyears away, millions of years have passed, see? In fact, some of the stars up there that we can see, aren’t even there.”
Ben was slowly sliding his nails through the hair on his neck. Stay with me, buddy.
“The stars will have died millions of years ago, collapsed, gone supernova maybe. Or maybe they’re a black hole in space and there’s actually nothing there. But what we see,” he said with a little smile. “We see them when they’re still alive. We see them still there, still with us in the sky. So yes, I believe in ghosts. They’re above us now.”
Ben nodded. “That makes sense,” he said, meaning every word. “How long before we can travel lightyears, you reckon?”
Jack racked his brain, trying to remember the projections that his superiors has outlined at the last AGM.
“Errrrm,” he moaned. “Oh gosh. There’s all sorts of new technology in the works, buddy. Ion-propulsion stuff, I think. The boys say that we might be able to travel even faster than lightspeed soon, maybe in thirty years?”
“Ok,” said Ben. He nodded his head, and closed his mouth. Jack recognised this expression. Ben had set his mind on something.
“Anything you need to talk about, buddy?” he asked. Ben simply looked at him, showing no concern, no confusion, nothing but simplicity of thought.
“No. I’ve got it.”
Exactly thirty years later, there will be a rocket and it will be travelling faster than light.
“How many lightyears should we go out?” the navigator will ask. “Ten? Twenty?”
“Thirty-one” the captain will reply.
Thirty-one lightyears from Earth, the captain will sit alone in the observation quarter. He will stare out of the liquid crystal precision viewfinder and he will see our world. Our planet. He will zoom further, picking out an individual country, then further and further. Regions, cities, streets. And finally he will find a garden, where a father brushes the hair out of his eyes, picks up his golden-haired son and they sit down to dinner outside with a beautiful woman, bright and lively. The captain shall look at the three of them, happy and whole, with a smile on his face, his hand absent-mindedly playing with his earlobe.