LEARNING TO FLY – SOLSTICE NIGHT

A dozen beeswax candles cast warm light and soft shadow across the room. Scents of cinnamon and other warm spices mix with those of pine boughs scattered with purple-berried holly and ivy on the tables and shelves. All power is off until six a.m., except for necessary civil buildings like hospitals and the cop cote.

Nik loves this time of year, loves the traditions and warm feelings because everyone on Gaia is of one accord. Everyone’s looking forward to the new year and longer, sunny days.  Everyone gets another chance to start over and make the coming year better than the last.  The only holiday better than Winter Solstice is the celebration of Ships’ Landing on Mar 5, the day they all arrived on Gaia.

From a deep-cushioned chair she stares at a photograph of her mother’s parents as though their one-dimensional images could tell her all about her family’s mystery. Silver-haired Granna Perrin played classical piano in the parlor when they lived with her in the high-ceilinged house with the sliding double doors and flowered carpets. Mom’s tummy was big with Liz, and they had run away from Dad.

Granna was sweet to Nik, but she sent her and Mom back to Dad anyway. Aunt Marge didn’t try to stop him either, even though Nik could tell she wanted to. When she was little, Nik could tell when people tried to hide something.  Granna and Aunt Marge knew something Mom didn’t, but Nik couldn’t figure it out. She wasn’t three years old.  Whatever it was, it made her afraid.

She’s not afraid now. She wants to know everything, and Kev’s going to help her.

He’s got to.

Nik cooked dinner earlier, and her mom and Liz come sweeping in from the kitchen where they were singing the innumerable stanzas from “Ten Months of the Year” while clearing up. “We’d better get going if we want to be there when they light the fire,” Mom says.

“Have you got your list?”

“Yeah.” Just in case, Nik shoves a hand in her front pocket to finger the slip of paper before springing from the chair. She wrote down all her regrets from the past year and will throw it into Redfree’s civic bonfire along with everyone else. Her family’s followed the tradition every Winter Solstice Night she can remember. Except Dad hasn’t joined them since Nik was eight.

They’re shoving into warm coats when Mom hails Dad, “We’re leaving, Paul.” He’s in his office with the door open a crack, probably reading the paper, and doesn’t answer.
Mom has to park four blocks away from the square, but the walk and singing traditional Solstice songs warms them up. Nik hangs with Mom and Liz among the crowds of town folk to toss her list in with the logs and other flammable throw-aways gathered and saved the past year. The pile rises well above her head.

The three of them have barely stepped back, when the crowd in front of the courthouse parts and four orange-costumed men carrying burning pine torches march through and deploy to four corners of the square. They step forward together to light the pile and, as the flames catch, the whole crowd hushes with expectation. The flames grow, and bottles of beer and soda are raised high, catching the firelight. Some folk jump up and down, cheering, including a few with erupting beer bottles—they don’t seem to mind getting sloshed with suds. A young woman stumbles and falls, laughing, against her guy, splashing beer on him and the stone blocks of the square.

Nik’s mom pulls them further away from the fire, which has become so hot they open their coats. Her eyes sparkle in the firelight, and a bemused grin lights her face. “I used to be like that,” she says, grinning at the young couple.

“Like her?” Liz quips from the other side of their mom. She’s snuggled close, holding Mom’s arm.

“I know it’s hard to believe,” Mom says, “but I was that young once. I had a fun, too, with plenty fellows before I met your father.” She looks different smiling in the firelight. Her face is flushed, seems lit from within and glows with youthful energy.

“Was that on Aquarion?”Nik asks.

“Mm.” Her face closes down. There it is again. Any mention of that planet or of her family and she folds in on herself like a glove pushed into the dark corner of a coat pocket. She won’t budge from there, either. Nik has tried.

“I’m gonna see if I can find Kev,” Nik says.

“We’ll go have tea at Millie’s.” Mom buttons up her coat as they turn away from the hot flames.

“And look at books,” Liz says, grinning.Book shops are about the only places you can look at a real paper book, its pages soaked in protective preservative.

“Meet us there by . . . ” Mom checks her watch, “twenty-one hundred. That’s forty-five minutes, which should be plenty. Your father will worry if we’re not home by then. And don’t be late.” She catches Nik’s eyes. “There will be too many people wandering around drinking tonight, and nothing but bonfires to light the way.”

“I know, Mom, don’t worry.”

What an enthusiastic crowd, including soldiers from the base, clustering around small bonfires drinking beer or hot chocolate or kafe, or strolling from bar to bar, from shop to shop and anywhere in between. Laughter. “Happy Solstice!” Kids screaming and chasing one another around and through the safe forest of adult legs. Something about flickering fires in the no-electric dark excites everyone.

A voice rises louder than the rest and fades as she moves on by. Those old enough, or young enough, will try to stay up to watch the sun rise and, if past years are any indication, tomorrow The “Redfree Herald” will run an article under Local Interest noting the number of incapacitated persons found strewn on benches and lawns across town.

Nik runs into several people she knows and says, hi, but it’s difficult to find one special person. Morgan could find Kev in a flash, but they left him at home because of the crowds and so many other dogs that are already getting underfoot and leaving piles of unwelcome messages in the damp grass and well-traveled sidewalks. She is almost ready to give up when she has that feeling on the back of her neck, the one that says somebody’s eyes are on her. The eyes don’t feel like Kev’s.

“Hi there, hon.”

He’s tall and dark and smells like cigs and stale beer and is at her side and in her space.  She backs off a step, takes her hands out of her pockets. “Hon yourself. I don’t know you, and I don’t think I want to.”

He wears a twisted smile and what looks like an expensive black leather jacket. “Don’t be unkind. We have a mutual acquaintance. In fact, this mutual and I are having a—”

“Excuse me.” Kev takes her by the crook of her elbow. “Say goodbye, Kenny. Or not.”

She lets Kev pull her away.

“Bye Hons.  See ya later.” She’s sure that’s what he says as Kev walks her across Central.

“You know him?” she asks. Kev has let go of her arm.

“Wish I didn’t. He’s on the track team.”

“Yuck.”

“Double yuck.” Kev stops beneath a bare poplar, its shadow bobbing in the bonfire light, and looks around. “Shoot. Now Bo is gone. Can’t keep track of people in this crowd.”

“Tell me about it. I spent fifteen minutes looking for you. Isn’t Max here?”

“His dad had to run the bar, and Max had to babysit his little sister.”

Maybe Max’s mom is like Kev’s, and has to ask. “What about his mom?”

“She passed on years ago.”

“Bum.”

“Yeah.”

“Listen. I have to ask you something.” She hooks her thumbs in her trouser pockets, coat shoved back behind her elbows. “It’s important.”

“Sure.”

She has to look up at him, a little, not down like before, just last year? The fire lights the left side of his face, lending a chestnut glow to his thick hair. His eyes gleam turquoise and expectant. She’d forgotten how focused he could get, never before realized how hot, how yen it was when what he focused on was her, as though she were the only person that mattered in the whole world. Wake up, turb. “You have to help me learn more about Mom’s family.”

“We’ve tried before.  I don’t see why it’s so important.  Maybe—”

“It’s important to me, Kev. There’s something I never told you. I never told anybody.”

He shifts he feet and appears to shrink a little. “Ah, well.  Here I thought—”

“This thing happened when we were five. Did you tell me everything when you were five?”

“Probably. Even the boring stuff, I expect.”

He’s got an innocent half-smile on his face. Did the stuff with his mom start that early or doesn’t he remember it?  Impossible. His memory is as good as hers.

“This isn’t boring,” she says. “Sometimes I could make myself forget it for a while, but the memory always came back. It happened soon after we learned of Granna Perrin’s death. Remember how upset Mom was, banging pots and yelling at us?”

“How could I forget. She even talked back to your dad.”

“Yeah, one of the few times I’ve ever seen her mad. I’ve wondered if the whole thing had something to do with Dad’s being in the military. I heard her yell at him—the gods-damned military—is what she said. I never heard her cuss before.

“Aunt Marge was the only one who could calm her down. Then she’d just cry.” Nik folds her arms across her chest, turns her face down, and blinks moisture from her eyes. Kev steps closer. His hand is hesitant on her arm—he’s going to hold her.

I’m not weak. I don’t need that! She pushes her arms down and her head up. Kev has to step back.

“Two men came to see Mom. No one ever came to our house except Dad’s family, certainly not two strange men. She must have known them because she let them in. I was watching from the kitchen and saw her put her head on one man’s shoulder. They didn’t know I saw them because I was supposed to be reading on the back porch. Mom never said a word about those two. Not even to Dad when he came home. But she stopped being angry and crying so much.

“I think they were from her family, or at least from Aquarion. Don’t you see? It’s all connected. Granda’s death during the war, Granna’s disappearance and death, and those men. And Mom won’t talk about it. She’s afraid to. It’s my family, and I have to know.”

“It sounds a bit strange, but there could be a simple explanation. You know how parents are. They never think you’re old enough to hear anything really important.”

“It’s not that. She would say so if that’s what it was.”

“I still don’t see what I can do to help.”

“I’ve been on Gaia’s Family Records site, and there’s a block on the Perrins. You can break it.”

He blinks at her for a few seconds.

“That’s not legal.”

“It’s my family. It should be.”

“If there’s a block, our government has a reason for putting it there.”

“They don’t have the right.”

“They do. The Council gave them the right.”

She fists her hands. “Kev. You owe me. You said so. For everything we’ve been to each other. Please.”

His face is twisted. “Don’t do this to me, Nik. I’ll do anything you want. Anything legal.”

She was afraid of this. After all she’s done for him. “You’re scared! That’s all. When I really need you . . . you, snark!”

She spins and runs off into the crowd. Her last image of him—standing there with a crumpled face and injured eyes.

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