Sam jiggles the stones in her pockets.
When I ask why she needs them on this trip, she says, “They’re not stones, Dad. They’re bits from space.”
She believes she possesses meteorites. I don’t want to disillusion her; real meteorites are not cheap.
At eight, she still sits in her booster seat. Someday, I hope she’ll weigh enough to outgrow it.
My ex-wife can’t know about this three-hour journey. “It’s irresponsible to feed her obsession,” she’d have said. “Remember, Sam has a hospital appointment tomorrow.”
Sam’s big ‘C’ — the demon illness — presses on my mind. When she begs to see Asteroid Crater, I’m unable to refuse.
“A long time ago, a magical asteroid crashed and made this huuuge crater. Can we go touch star dust? Please, please?”
She’s learned about Asteroid Crater at school.
I pat her bald head and frown. She’s scratching her head and I wish I could stop the itch. Her skin, desert arid with alarming red striations, drinks up lotion faster than we can apply.
Sam passes on nuggets. “The asteroid was small,” she says, “only one hundred feet wide.”
“Only?” I laugh.
“My teacher says that’s tiny for space.” Her eyes are dark pools in a thin face. “It hit the ground and made a big bowl. Know why?”
“Because it was suuupernatural. Bam!”
“And all the mammoths died.”
She talks about death without fear.
At our destination, she leaps out of the car, shouting, “Let’s go inside the crater!”
“Hold on!” Large signs prohibit walking and hiking along the rim or into the crater. When I suggest we check out the Information Center, her face turns a mutinous red and she crosses her arms. Distancing herself from me, she walks into the Center.
Inside the large, modern facility, she’s somewhat mollified by the illustrated story of the sixty-thousand-year-old crater’s history and geography.
“Millions of tons of rock were scooped out in seconds,” I read from a computer screen as I adjust her hat.
“Wow!” Her eyes are wide.
The deep bowl stretches over a mile in diameter, the rim rising high. Is it the composition of other-worldly matter that keeps the crater well preserved?
“Dad!” She’s leaning on a window sill, looking out. Her breathing’s heavy and I wonder if this exertion is too much. “I wish I could hold some rocks.”
Could she? “Stay here, enjoy the view. Be right back.”
The Center houses conference rooms, a lab, a cafeteria, even a movie theater screening documentaries.
I ask the man at the counter if it’s possible to go into the crater for a few minutes. “My daughter thinks it’s magical.”
“No,” he’s curt. “Others have compromised the crater in the past. No one goes in. But, you can take our guided tour outside the rim.” He checks the time. “They leave in ten minutes.”
I buy tickets hoping to satisfy Sam. Studying them, I walk back. “There’s a tour soon, Sam,” I say.
No response. No Sam.
A ripple of hot anger surges. She’s defied me. Running outside the Center, I scan the rim for a small figure in pink shorts, white shirt and white hat. I shift my eyes to the inside of the crater — no sign of any human.
I dash back inside, shouting, “Sam, where are you?”
Other visitors cluster, whisper.
“Problem?” the man at the counter asks.
“I think my daughter’s gone into the crater. She was here minutes ago.”
In seconds, a group of employees leaves in full-search mode. When I try to follow, I receive a terse order, “Wait inside.”
I picture my ex-wife’s furious face: nostrils flaring, color pale, voice quiet.
What can I tell her? That our daughter’s lost? How can anyone find a tiny eight-year-old in this expanse created by supernatural forces?
“Dad, Dad, look what I found!” Sam bumps into me. She holds out her arms, a couple of small stones resting in the middle of muddy hands; her face, arms, legs, clothes are all streaked with dirt.
“Where did you go?” Concern explodes as loud anger.
Her lips quiver, tears gather. “I was there,” she points to a room with a sign that reads Play Pen. She extends her palms again. “Look, meteorites.”
I pull her slender body into a rough, tight hug.
“Where’s your hat?” I ask, patting the dust off her clothes, and her arms. “And, you must return those.”
She shrugs. “They let me play in there. And honest, they gave me these.”
“They did? We must thank them, then.”
She sleeps on the way home, face innocent, hands clutching her little meteorites. I want to apologize: for letting her believe in star dust, for yelling at her, for not providing her with a stable home and for her illness.
I peek at her, wish I could straighten her lolling head. My breath catches and I press the brakes.
The red striations on her head are fading and I see the fuzz of emerging hair.
Sudha Balagopal’s fiction has appeared in Dime Show Review, Lost Balloon, Jellyfish Review and Right Hand Pointing among other journals. She is the author of a novel, A New Dawn, and two short story collections, There are Seven Notes and Missing and Other Stories. More at www.sudhabalagopal.com
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