across the universe
Dominic; 15 years old
On warm, autumn days in town, Dominic leans his bare neck against the cool brick outside Aurora’s school and listens to the afternoon as it settles over the few cars that splash along the streets and the narrow strip of garden that lies just above the subway station. In moments where the main street is especially still, he can feel the train below his feet, hurtling beneath the sidewalk.
He slides his fifty cent notebook from the confines of his backpack, the metal spirals catching on the fraying thread which lines the edge of the zipper. He flips through the thin pages before finding the page dated today, October 11. His rough fingers run across the inked pages like spiders, rereading, redrawing diagrams in his mind. Imagining he is the professor, scoring his work accordingly.
He flips back a page and relives today’s lecture. Time slows. When Dominic stands here, he becomes absorbed in the words sprawled across the pages, illustrating the answers so vividly to everything he is curious about. Few things bring him more joy than this.
That voice is one of those things.
Aurora ambles down the paved steps of the school’s entrance, her backpack bouncing up and down against her back as she skips along. The air is warm, and she no longer wears her sweater over the blue linen dress which he laid out for her this morning. Her light brown hair escapes her loose braids in tendrils which brush against her freckled cheeks. Dominic slips his notebook back into his bag. In another half second, his hands brace Aurora underneath her arms as he swings her up above him, spinning her around one, two, three times. She is laughing now, a pure contagious laugh which easily draws a smile upon Dominic’s always-serious face.
All too soon, he is setting her steadily back down to the pavement. He bends down and sweeps her hair back from her ears as she catches her breath, a smile still splitting her flushed cheeks.
“How was school, Little-bit?”
She slips off her backpack and pulls a small sheet of paper from a folder, handing it to him.
“I drew this for you.”
Dominic is kneeling on the pavement now. She is growing so quickly; he now has to tilt his head up slightly to meet her eyes when he does this. He focuses his eyes on the paper in his hands for a few moments. She’s drawn a type of dinosaur, it’s neck extending up past the plants below as it munches on the leaves of a towering tree. The scene around is colored with the precision of a child much older than the one shifting her feet nervously in front of him: twisting jurassic cypresses, flocks of distant winged creatures beside a winding river.
He meets her eyes after carefully examining her work. She wrings her hands adorably in anticipation.
“It’s a brachiosaurus,” the word is still foreign on her tongue. “They weighed 80 tons.”
He nods along intently as she explains the length of the skeleton, and the arrangement of the bones.
“It’s beautiful. Best dinosaur I ever saw.”
A blush creeps up her cheeks and she smiles. She watches in excitement as he carefully slides the picture into the clear plastic covering of his black binder, before slipping it gently into his backpack. He then laces his fingers through Aurora’s and leads her towards Charter street. They pass the tall-windowed houses and stores which line the roads, past the flower market and bookstore. Turn left at the corner of Bennet and Pollasky, with its three iron benches that Aurora always runs her small fingers across as they pass by.
She has to take two steps to Dominic’s one, and soon she is lifted into his arms and set onto his waist, her legs dangling on his each side.
He spins himself in a circle in the middle of the sidewalk, Aurora giggling as he presses a soft kiss to her forehead.
“How big is the universe?”
He smiles, his face tilted up towards the clouded, humid sky.
“The observable universe is about 46 billion light years in diameter, but the whole universe could be anywhere around 250 times as large.”
Aurora tilts her head up, a comfortable silence settling over the two as she stares up at the sky.
"Wow,” she sighs gently.
She flops her head against his shoulder, which tenses and relaxes underneath her chin with each step he takes.
After a few moments, she is shifting in his arms once again.
“How do we know?”
“Know what, Little-bit?”
“How big the ovserb- obserba...”
“Sound it out.”
“That’s it, now what’s your question?”
“How do we know how big the ob-serv-a-ble universe is?”
Dominic chuckles. Aurora can feel the rumble of his chest against her own, and she looks up to meet his gaze.
He reaches the hand that doesn’t secure her against his waist to sweep her hair behind her ear. He smiles as she leans against it. In this moment, Dominic wonders if it’s possible to love someone too much. If it’s possible for love to outstrip the limits of one’s body.
He points to the cloud-covered sun, then extends his fingers, trailing his hand across the expanse of the sky. “The most redshifted light we can detect in the observable Universe means that light has reached us from galaxies that are about 13.8 billion years old. But over those 13.8 billion years, the Universe has been expanding a lot, very rapidly. Astronomers have worked out that the galaxies right on the edge of the observable Universe, whose light has taken 13.8 billion years to reach us, is now probably about 46.5 billion light years away.”
He watches Aurora from the corner of his eye, while navigating the busy streets. She stares dreamily at the sky above, her eyes alight with wonder.
It is in this moment, with her tiny form pressed tightly against his chest, her eyes staring thoughtfully up at the sky, that he decides he will do anything to protect that innocent wonder. Whatever it takes.
Eventually, she leans her head against his shoulder again, sighing lightly as Dominic runs a gentle hand down the length of her back and back up again. Her head doesn’t leave the curve of his neck.
“Do you love me?”
He smiles, a warm, contagious smile that she doesn’t see, but can feel, as it courses through his entire body all the way to his hands, which grasp her a little tighter.
“To the edge of the universe and back.”
Aurora; 8 years old
As soon as Dominic opens the front door and gently sets Aurora to her feet, she can hear the familiar sounds of the group home, the pounding of dozens of little feet upstairs, the shouting of some of the older boys, who play hockey with a few busted hockey sticks and a tennis ball until Miss Amy shouts at them to pipe down. Miss Amy, who stirs pasta noodles over the stove as her dark curls escape her messy bun in lose tendrils, humming Fly Me to the Moon and bobbing her head along.
Miss Amy is young to be a house director; her muscles seem to always ache, and the worn rooms of the group home seem to always be filled with the coughs and cries of young children, but she wouldn’t give her job up for the world, much less the certainty or ease of settling down, which eventually disappear anyway.
“Why, Miss Aurora is that you?” She shouts from the kitchen. “I swear, I just saw you two days ago, and you’re a half a foot taller!”
Miss Amy turns the stove to low, wiping her hands on her apron and ambling through the doorway to the mud room, where Aurora has just slid off her shoes. She kneels in front of her, sweeping a thumb against one of her freckled cheeks.
“You’re more beautiful, too. Each time I see you.”
Her smile is contagious, and soon Aurora is blushing, latching onto Dominic’s pant leg and burying her face inside. His hand meets the back of her little head.
“What do you say, Little-bit?”
“Thank you, Miss Amy.”
“Of course, sweet girl, are you joining us for dinner?”
Aurora can’t remember the last time her mother left their house next door for longer than a few minutes, let alone turned on the stove and cooked.
Dominic cuts into the silence, though, before she has to answer. “If that’s alright, Miss Amy.”
She stands to her feet. “Of course. You never need to ask.”
The familiar voice of Junie Evans fills the front room as the young girl stumbles down the wooden stairs, hopping over the last couple steps and onto the landing.
Her light blond hair lays haphazardly against her lavender dress, which is wrinkled from playing. Aurora smiles, then looks up to Dominic with pleading eyes.
A smile teases his lips as his hand rests against the length of her small back. “Go ahead and play, Little-bit. I need to talk with Miss Amy. If you can’t see the house, you’re too far, understand?”
She nods hastily, she and Junie giggling in excitement as they run barefoot towards the yard and the wooded area behind the brick homes which line their street. Just before the screen door shuts behind them, she catches the words mother and sick.
⋯ ⋯ ⋯
“You can’t fall off the log, because we’re surrounded by hot lava!”
Aurora nods affirmatively, her arms out stretched as she steps, one foot in front of the other.
“Do you see anything out there, solider?” Junie shouts from behind her.
Aurora narrows her eyes, scanning the trees surrounding them before her breath catches.
Both girls drop down and cling to the log they’ve found refuge on.
“What do you see?”
Aurora looks back to the wooded area.
“A man on the enemy’s side was watching us through the trees! His arrow just missed us, we have to move!”
“We can’t! The lava, remember?”
Aurora thinks for a moment before reaching beside her, pulling out two imaginary oars and tossing one to her playmate.
“We have to row us back to home base. We don’t have much time before they find us!”
The pair continues like this until they hear Miss Amy shout at them to wash up for dinner. Junie helps Aurora off the log, their hands clasped tightly together as they giggle the whole way to the house.
Once they reach the back door, Junie is off like a bullet to wash up upstairs, while Dominic lifts Aurora in his arms and carries her to the downstairs washroom, scrubbing the dirt off of her hands and arms.
Dinner passes by in bustle of nonstop chatter and laughter, and as soon as Dominic and Aurora are finished cleaning up, and Aurora is finished saying goodbye, he is carrying her next door to get her ready for bed.
Her house is as silent and immaculate as usual. Everything is in its rightful place except Aurora, it seems, who’s heart is lost somewhere in the chaotic mess of Miss Amy’s group home next door.
Dominic carries her up the stairs in the silence of the dark house, passing by her mother’s room on the second floor, which she knows is occupied by the dim light which escapes the space underneath the door.
Once they reach the third floor, he gently sets her down on her feet and grasps her hand, leading her to the door at the end of the short hallway.
Aurora’s room is rather small, with a metal railed bed pushed up against the window, which sits parallel to the window of Dominic’s room in the neighboring home. The walls are plastered with her drawings, and her desk is littered with coloring pencils and watercolors.
Dominic sets Aurora down on her soft white comforter before switching on the string lights which line the ceiling and disappearing into her attached bathroom. He draws her bath. The sound of running water fills her ears before he emerges again, smiling lightly at her as he passes.
Hardly ever does Dominic show his teeth when he smiles. His eyes always smile too, though, and that’s what matters. The smiling of the eyes gives away much more than the lips, Aurora thinks.
Mother used to tell her that the eyes are the windows to the soul, but Aurora was too shy to look too closely.
“What’s on your mind, Little-bit?” Dominic interrupts her train of thought, as he slides her closet open and pulls out a white night dress. He folds it over his arm, turning to face her and leaning against the wall.
“Nothing,” she smiles, a blush creeping up the back of her neck. He raises an eyebrow in disbelief, but Aurora is sliding off her bed and starting towards the bathroom before he can question her any further. He follows behind her, folding the dress gently and setting it on the sink, before shutting off the water and testing the temperature with his hand. Once he is satisfied, he stands and quickly dries his hand with a towel. He leans down to press a soft kiss against her forehead, then her nose, before walking out and shutting the door behind him.
Aurora’s smile drops as soon as she is alone in the bathroom. She slides off her pale blue dress and steps carefully into the tub, one foot, then the next. She isn’t quite sure what schizophrenia is, but ever since her Mother got medicine to treat it, Dominic has run her bath.
She hums softly to herself as she runs her fingers through the suds in the water and rinses the shampoo out of her hair. The song is one her mother used to sing to her before bed, back when they lived in New York. Back when her father was still alive.
Images of broken light
which dance before me like a million eyes,
they call me on and on...
Once all the soap is free from her hair, Aurora emerges from the water and towels her hair dry, listening to the groan of the water as it drains out from the tub. She slides the night dress over her form, shivering as the soft fabric brushes against her cool skin.
She switches off the bathroom light and shuts the door softly behind her. Dominic sits on her bed, a brush in his hand and an empty space beside him. He pats the space, and Aurora climbs up onto to the bed, her back towards him.
As gentle as always, he draws the brush through the damp strands of her hair. The autumn breeze rattles her window as the city prepares to sleep.
“Dominic?” Aurora murmurs after a few minutes.
“Is my mother still sick?”
He halts his movements for a moment so short, she hardly catches it.
“Yeah, Little-bit, she’s still sick.” The brush continues its course through her long, soft brown hair.
“Is she going to die?” Aurora asks, softer this time. As though death himself might hear and take her away, just like he took Daddy.
“It’s not that kind of sick, baby.”
Dominic runs the brush through the last section of her hair, then gathers it all together and runs it through twice more, before letting her hair spread across her back. He sets the brush atop her night stand and lifts Aurora by her waist and into his lap, where she rests her head against his warm chest and listens to the steady beating of his heart. He begins to slowly rock her back and forth, her tiny frame wrapped in his arms as he runs his fingers through her hair, gently unraveling the waves. His chest vibrates underneath her ear as he lightly hums a song she doesn’t recognize.
“You won’t leave, will you, Dom?”
His lips curve up into a soft smile, adoration beaming from his soft brown eyes.
“Leave you?” he shakes his head, “Never.”
He wraps an arm around her stomach, bracing her against his chest as he shifts to lay down, still running his gentle fingers through the length of her hair.
As Dominic’s soft touch lulls her to sleep, she imagines that her room is the cabin of a rocket ship. She imagines her classmates’ teasing, her father’s death, her mother’s absence, all lost to the vast expanse of interstellar space as Dominic holds her in his strong arms. She isn’t scared, she isn’t upset; she is soaring. Traveling twice the speed of Halley’s comet. She imagines staring out the window to see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter zooming past as they take off beyond this solar system, through to another galaxy.
Across the universe.