Monday, February 09, 2009

The Day the World Turned Upside Down - 7

Tom drifted to the bedroom like a ghost and lay back down with Annie. He shut his eyes and held her, hoping to escape from nightmare into dream. And after some time he did.

He was in the house where he grew up, a split-level ranch in Wilmington, Delaware. But he wasn't. It was then but it was now; it was there but somewhere else. It was his home but it was someone else's. He was a child but he was a man.

He was late for school.

He looked out the picture window to the front yard and the road and saw the yellow tail of his school bus disappear behind the trees.

"Mom!" he called out. "Mom! I need a ride to school!"

He tried to gather his books and notebooks from the chair beside the door, but one or two kept sliding to the floor. As he picked one up, two more would fall. The pile grew and grew, hopelessly unsteady; books kept falling off the teetering top and landing awfully, faces open, pages folded, pages pressed into the dust. They kept falling, falling; he'd pick them up but they kept falling.

Finally, he replaced the last book without incident. There were now way too many to fit into his backpack. He knew his mom was coming and she'd scold him if he wasn't ready. Panicking, he stuck as many in as he could. He envisioned the complications that would occur in each class if he turned up without texts; he furiously tried to calculate which ones would bring him the most grief and recrimination if he left them home. So now he had to empty his backpack and start again.

His mom was there. He perceived her stern presence before he saw her. When he turned around she was standing on the ceiling, upside down. Right away he remembered she was dead; in fact, in his waking life she'd died about a year ago. He realized this is what it meant to be dead: you walked upside down. They could not speak to each other. He detected an air of impatience and mild scorn in her, emotions familiar from childhood. But she also seemed to be preparing him for some momentous journey. She wanted to advise him. He found that the only way he could communicate with her was by drawing hats. He drew a bowler in blue ballpoint on a piece of blue-lined notebook paper. She followed each line he made like she was reading. Someday she'd say something in return, a message that was all he'd ever need to know.

Tom awoke in a jolt of noise and pain again - and darkness - and wondered whether consciousness was worth the trouble. Blood pooled between his nose and mouth and some familiar but forbidding surface. Still, he began to realize that something new had just occurred, something important. What was it? They had been upside down. Now what? He felt the same, strange, suffocating weight as he had felt before. The mattress. Annie, where's Annie? Suddenly there she was beside him, kneeling. She pulled him by the arm. He slid out and struggled to his knees to face her. The entire room seemed to shake and heave. He held her by the arms to fix himself in time and space. Now what?

"Baby!" she said. Tom observed blood streaming down her chin onto her shirt. "Baby! We're back on the floor! We're on the floor!"

"What do you mean?"

"I mean it's over! We're back!"

"We're back on the floor?"

"We're back!"

"It's over?"

"It's over!"

They held each other for a minute, trembling. They were back on the floor and so were the dressers and the broken mirror, the books and lamps and clothes. No scene of devastation ever made someone as happy. Of course there would be things to fix. Things in their world and the world outside. But at least they could live lives like this, feet planted on the ground and sky above.

He perceived a faint whistling and thought it might be in his head. It grew louder.

"Honey, do you hear that?" Annie said.

"Yeah. I'm glad it's not just me."

"Where's it coming from?"

"I don't know. Outside?"

"What is it? A siren?"

"I don't know. Let me go look."

He staggered to the window and saw the grass below, the trees and houses and the road. He lifted the window and leaned out. The whistling seemed to come from everywhere. He noticed something else, something disconcerting: the afternoon light was dimming perceptibly. Too fast for the sunset. He looked up, expecting to see a storm expanding through the sky. Instead he saw a uniformly dull and darkening gray. As he stared longer, the expanse resolved into discrete points. Some grew larger, some remained the same. Something like a shooting star struck somewhere past the line of trees. And another, then another. Something tore through the roof across the way, leaving a smoking hole. A ball of fire crashed into the lawn, shot dirt in every direction, bounced fifty feet into the air and came to a rest, aflame, between the houses. It was a car. For on the the day the world turned upside down, the world turned right-side up again, and everything that had departed now returned.