A Silent Flash of Cold White Light
Once, four years from now, a father and a mother and their daughter (who will then be five years old, for she was born one year ago today) will move into a beautiful and brand new house, a house among many beautiful and brand new houses, all the same size and shape and color and all of which will still smell of wet paint and fresh-laid carpet, in suburban Virginia, just outside of Washington, DC. The neighborhood will be called Stanton Hills, and many families will move there all at once. They will come from Anacostia and Arlington and Western College Park, and the families will be happy, and their children will play in the streets in the late summer light, sometimes catching fireflies in their hands.
Many of them will be librarians, like the girl’s mother, and many of them professors, like her father. He will teach physics at Georgetown University, he will drive an old Volvo, and in the evenings he will work on crystal radios and restored Ford Mustangs. The mother will work at American University, and she will read books at home and hike all through the woods behind their house. The little girl will be a lonesome child, and she will love to ride her bicycle up and down and up and down and up and down the street all by herself, but her parents will love her for her loneliness, and they will watch her, smiling, as she rides. The little girl will love the birds and squirrels and all the animals that live around her in Stanton Hills, and sometimes she will speak to them, but only in a language that she alone can speak and only when she knows that no one else can see.
One day, as she is riding her bicycle down the street, a car will turn a corner quickly and strike the little girl, who will not be looking at the car but at a pair of cardinals that will have alighted in the grass of a neighbor’s fresh-mown lawn. The girl will fall, she will hit her head against the pavement, and she will die.
Her father will see her on the ground through the haze of evening, and he will run to her, and her mother will collapse from grief before she reaches the front door. An ambulance will come, and police cars, and neighbors will lift their blinds and stand about in their identical yards, all of their arms crossed, all of them watching.
The mother and the father will arrange a funeral. Their family and their friends and their neighbors will attend it, and everyone will wear dark clothing and somber faces, for they will all have known the little girl on the bicycle and her mother and her father. The mother’s friends will wipe silent tears from her eyes and from their own, and the father’s friends will shake his hand and grip his shoulder tightly. In their living room, a recent photo of their daughter will stand quietly on a brass easel, and when the guests all leave, the mother will cover the food in tinfoil and place it in the icebox.
Days will pass, and weeks, and the father will neglect his radios and his cars, and the mother will spend all her time indoors. Neither of them will speak much to each other. But then, finally, the father, who teaches physics, will have a dream, and he will begin to take equipment from the labs at school and bring it home. Slowly he will fill their garage in Stanton Hills with old computers and magnets and laboratory tools, and the father will work tirelessly, all night sometimes, building, building, and then he will tell the mother what he has built.
“I have made a machine,” he will say to her, “a machine that can cure us of our grief.”
“How?” the mother will ask.
“My machine can take us back in time,” the father will reply. “Back to when our daughter was alive, or farther, if we want. We cannot prevent her death, for we cannot change the past, but we can again see her alive.”
“How does it work?” the mother will say, and the father will explain the principles of hyper-gravity and frame-dragging, of quantum relativity, time dilation, and transmissive tangents, and when he is done, the mother will say, “I will do it. I will test the machine. And I will go beyond that day, beyond this year, back to the year that our daughter was born. I will see her live all five years again. And then I will come back to you.”
“I will stay, then,” the father will say, “to bring you back to me.”
That night, the mother will not sleep, for she will be excited and afraid, and the next evening, in their garage, the mother will lie upon a table in a glass-enclosed room. She will wear a set of winding wires about her body. The mother and the father will hold hands and utter prayers, and when the prayers are done, the mother will look at the father and she will laugh. He will say to her, “Take pictures,” and she will say, “I promise.”
The father will walk outside the room of glass to program the computers and to wear protective shields across his eyes, and then a great vibration will shake the earth around the house, and in a silent flash of cold white light, the mother will disappear from the table. And this is how she will begin her journey in reverse, moving back through time to one year ago today.
Now, be still and close your eyes, for she is moving through this moment, and in a quiet instance, you might just hear her voice, the hope that now resides again within the laughter of her heart.
Listen close: she is going to her daughter.
Will Donnelly’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Hobart, [PANK], decomP magazinE, and elsewhere, and he’s a fiction editor for Juked. He has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and a PhD from the University of Houston, and he teaches creative writing at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
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