From the cliff, it looked like an enormous pecan shell. As they climbed down the rocks, Marcus could better see the soggy outline of each broken plank. Below them was a wooden hull, flipped on its side.
The old water had worn a smooth stone grotto into the cliff set. It also left pieces of a ship there.
Most of the planks came loose with a tug. Marcus removed four pieces and laid them beside one another on the stone at their feet.
“This ship,” Colin said, “was a model ship.”
“How do you mean?” Marcus rearranged the boards into a square, brought together the corners. “It was a battleship or something.”
“Someone built it like a battleship. Someone built this thing to look exactly like a Roman battleship. See, these are the oarlocks, below deck, because warriors didn’t row. Slaves did.”
“Help me with this.” Marcus and Colin lifted the metal framing for one of the oarlocks out of the sand. They set it against a board. Marcus gathered more wood. He built a lean-to. From either side of the structure, he extended two small rectangular boxes. He scraped dead lichen and moss off the rocks with his finger nails and sprinkled it in the boxes.
“Fine thing we made,” Colin said, after a moment.
“I’m moving in.”
“What if it rains? What if the water comes back?”
“I won’t sleep here then.”
They got inside together. There was just room for two, shoulder to shoulder.
“We could make it bigger,” Colin said.
“Yeah, but most of what’s left of the wood is pretty rotten, or was no good to begin with.”
“Should we name it?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Because what if there’s another meteor?”
“Or what if it rains?”
“What if the wood goes bad?”
“We shouldn’t name it.”
“It will just be a thing that’s here.”
Colin was on his stomach. Marcus was on his back. He could see the sky through the cracks between the propped together boards. It was blue as a shark’s tooth.
Marcus flew the letter as a flag from the top of the lean-to, daring it to rain. Each time he came back and it was still there, he felt justified reading it again. The letter did not blow away. The rain had not come. The letter was always there, waiting for him. As if it weren’t done with him. So he reread it. What did it mean to say, “Sometimes things just change…”?
Marcus’s father had converted the kitchen table into a workstation. It was the only table big enough to hold oceanic maps, astronomical charts. He could stand in front of it, look over every aspect of them, and then go outside to see how the sky looked, how the horizon looked, how things matched.
Marcus was leaving, would have kept going, but his father stopped him.
“Marcus, they say it was an oil-tanker.” The man was rail-thin. His clothes were covered with smears of what looked like soot, a black powder or rubbing. “They don’t know why, but there was a small explosion in one of the engines. The tanker sank and just pumped out oil, more and more oil and that’s why all the sea creatures are dying, washing up on shore, all the birds.”
“There’s no oil anywhere,” Marcus said.
“What does it matter if you can’t see it? It’s poison. And it’s everywhere.”
Even the air tasted better in the lean-to. Marcus spent long hours there. Inside, it smelled like bread. The outside of the structure had hardened in the sun, but the inside was still soggy and soft. Marcus traced images into the soft wood with his fingernails. He drew a moon on one side of him, a sun on the other. He made little plus signs for stars. They didn’t line up with anything, but they were always there.
Then he found a patch of fire-red lichen and scraped it loose, collected it in his fingernails and palm. He smeared it into the lines he’d carved. Now he had a fire-red and constant sky.
The hardwood floor of Marcus’s house was scuffed and worn. His father brought home a waist-high telescope, positioned it at the living room window. He found a chair with wheels that could move him from the charts to the telescope without him having to stand up. He still went to work with the firemen, but when he was at home, he wheeled from table to telescope and only occasionally went outside.
“The stars don’t stop moving.” Marcus’s father was at the telescope. He sat back in his chair and looked at his son. “There is always something else to see.”
There were black arcs, motion marks, drawn by the rolling chair’s wheels, between the table and the telescope. Here was a kind of constellation of his father’s movement. Streaks of mud and something black like soot traced a scattered path from the kitchen door to the back of the house where the bedrooms were.
“You have to fight the urge to see easy patterns,” his father said. “It can trip you up, thinking the stars are held up there like a net. Do you know what most of those are really?”
“Correct. There was a library fire today. Can you imagine?”
“Won’t fires help it rain?”
“I don’t know if it’s that simple.” Marcus’s father set his eye back to the telescope lens. “Whoever it was that thought he saw the meteor first, probably thought it was a star. Big as it might have been, he probably just drew it right into the net.”
Marcus pulled the letter down from the rot-wood flagpole. He climbed into the lean-to with it. His drawing had been altered.
Marcus lifted the two logs that were the center of the roof. He leaned them against the rock wall of the grotto, several feet from what had been the lean-to. Then he took down the rest of the logs. He stacked them and made a small wall. He sat against it and faced out, looked over the two rectangular boxes scattered with lichen.
“You killed our lean-to.” Colin found Marcus sitting in its frame, reading the letter again. “Try this.” He held out his taped up bottle.
“Everything in here,” Marcus said, “she thinks ‘just’ happened. But she book-ended it with ‘I still love you,’ see?” Marcus held out the letter. Colin set the bottle in the sand and sat beside Marcus.
“Yeah, I see.” He didn’t have to look.
“So there’s all this motion in between the idea, right?” Marcus held out the letter again. He’d circled certain phrases, certain words, “just,” and connected them in lines of black ink. “But the feeling doesn’t actually change, it only moves a little bit on the page. What she fails to get across in the writing, she communicates visually. ‘I still love you’ even though I don’t understand all this change that I can’t stop from happening…”
“I don’t think she’s writing poetry, Marcus.” It was near dark. “You made a little person out of my star boobs.”
The planks of what had been the roof stood neatly beside one another, behind Colin and Marcus. Upright, they wore the cartoon breasts like a face. They held together the fire-red constant sky, a wild-eyed wooden man leaning, and an imperfect set of star boobs.
“Things aren’t going to get better,” Marcus said.
“That’s dumb.” Colin drank from the taped up bottle.
“You’re dumb.” Marcus drank from the taped up bottle. “What’s in it?”
“I’m not totally sure. This and that. Remember when I hit you with that piece of hail?”
“Remember how mad you were?”
“It was a dick move.”
“I don’t even know why I did it.”
“Because I was walking away from you.”
“I don’t think that’s right…”
“It is. I don’t remember why exactly, but I was walking away from you while you were trying to tell me something. I just remember being mad and then my head went hard and I fell over and I thought a falling piece had landed on me and I remember thinking it was about time, it was going to happen sooner or later.”
“But I threw it.”
After a moment, Colin took the letter from Marcus, as if to read it. He folded it into a paper airplane then folded the airplane into a small square.
“What are you doing?” Marcus reached for the note but Colin stood up and held it out of reach.
“You’ve got to stop it with this thing. It’s going in my pocket, not as an airplane, but as a potential airplane. And I’ll airplane it if you come after it. I’ll airplane it if you ask about it. I’ll airplane it if you think about it.”
“You’ll give it back.” Marcus stood up to face his friend.
“When you’re actually ready for it.”
“How much did it cost to go hot air ballooning?”
“Give it back.”
“A couple hundred.”
“Right, and this is free. So let me hold onto it. Try it like you did the balloon. Go for a little while without looking at it. And if it doesn’t work, I’ll give you back your star map.”
Marcus landed the first punch on Colin’s ribs. The bottle fell. It cracked in the tape, but held its shape. The second punch landed on his forearm, which he held out to protect his face. Colin held his breath and jumped forward with both arms spread to force Marcus down. They fell together, onto the stone, where they took a moment to breathe.
“Here’s the fucking letter,” Colin said.
“These are the kinds of things you do when you’re a young man.” Marcus’s father had his eye at the telescope. “But I’m not going to pretend I like it.”
Marcus watched his father from the entrance to the hallway.
“What are you looking at right now?”
“I mean pockets of space. I’m just…estimating. Copying down pockets of space between the moon and distinct stars. An inch here now. Later, half an inch. Look.” Marcus’s father sat back in his chair. He handed Marcus a scrap of paper covered in plus signs and a small circle. “See? Here and here. The big ones. That circle’s our moon.” He held his pointer finger on one, stretched his thumb to a small circle. “That’s about, an inch and a half. This star, it’s a bright one. It’s close. After a few weeks, I’ll have taken enough down to track its movement relative to the moon.”
“I’m not sure. Not for much. This,” he took the paper from Marcus, brought his eye back to the telescope, “this is more like a reminder. A way of watching these things drift. For some reason, it’s comforting to think about.”
“But you don’t really know what you’re doing…what you’re looking for.”
“Drift,” he said.
“Drift is comforting?”
Marcus’s father looked at him for a moment then wrote something on a pad at his lap.
“I’m talking about space. I’m talking about looking at pockets of space.”
Marcus took down one of the respirators as he went out the backdoor. He sat in the patches of tall grass in their backyard and put on the mask. To the rhythm of each mechanical breath, he counted stars until he finally lost track. He focused on his breathing. The night happened around him. There was a dark animal moving along the top of the fence in front of him. He couldn’t hear it. Nearby, a tree moved, leaves fell. There were no sounds, only his robotic breathing. His ribs hurt and his arms. His knuckles too. He focused on his breath, on each steady repetition.