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Calvera

Rachel Barber currently works as a case manager for homeless individuals in Phoenix, Arizona. Having studied Music and English at Gettysburg College, she enjoys playing her French horn and writing flash fiction in her spare time.
It's a neutron star, he says to me, eyes always up at the night sky. We know they exist by what they emit.
Nebulas and pulsars and white dwarfs and neutron stars--Emitt only ever speaks of lights in space. Looking out from the front stoop, where he sits on the rock of the steps, he takes in the universe one blink at a time. Then he pops it back out at you in words.
Sometimes by what they take in, too, he says. If it's a binary system.
I scratch my head at that, the hair a fuzz against my palm. I have one more night in Grantham--tomorrow is Japan. Yeah, Emitt, I guess so.
A neutron star in its binary system may absorb matter from its partner star. That's what he means to say, which I know because he's said it a thousand times before. Every night, actually, when he sets himself down on the stone and stargazes for an hour or two, peering up at the deep blue like it's all brand-new.
I've spotted the glow myself. Spurred by the neutron's fierce gravitational field, the material streams from the lighter star to its smaller, but denser, neighbor. It runs right to the neutron's magnetic poles, boiling so hot in the action of accretion that the matter spouts X-rays out into space--X-rays we can "see" hundreds and thousands of light years away, on Earth. Stick an X-ray detector on a satellite and boom! You have a picture from thousands of years ago of the interaction between two stars. Brilliant!
I want to tell him I'm heading out tomorrow, moving to the other side of the globe for deployment. My eyes hit the round top of his head. Yeah, Emitt, you saw a lot at NASA.
He laughs; it's not quite a wheeze. I SEE a lot at NASA. It's not like I don't drive down to Washington every morning.
His scalp is checkered with age spots. I've been told--no, I know--that they're caused by the sun. Ultraviolet radiation is always poisonous, lashing out at your skin no matter your age, but get past a certain point and the body can't take it anymore. His condition makes things worse, and I know the brown patches will keep growing. I'm not Emitt's doctor, and never could be, but they teach the army physicians about all the maladies now, even the interplanetary ones. Why don't we go inside? You should rest. Lie down.
What? And miss Calvera? I want to see him myself. Emitt grins, the glint of a gold tooth showing. The bandit!
Calvera--named for a thief in the old western The Magnificent Seven--is Earth's nearest neutron star, and you can't see it via the naked eye. Emitt used to tell me that. Like any of the other facts packed away in his head, he would draw out figures and details on Calvera at unlikely moments--when I was replacing the kitchen cabinet door he'd pulled too roughly from its hinges, or when I first walked into the living room, past the brown sofa chair where he sat with his charts, and announced to him that I'd enlisted. He nodded, not looking at me, but at the patterns of the kitchen tiles, or at the lights twirling across his computer screens. You know, Calvera is only a few miles wide, but so dense that a teaspoon of its surface weighs one hundred million metric tons. It was forged from a supernova, Alex, out of excess dust and gas. The blast was too small to make a black hole, but the universe got a neutron star out of the deal. What do you make of that?
I didn't speak.
That was all after the Eris mission, after Emitt went up with a team to the edge of the solar system, as far away from Earth as he could get, and then back. But it was before the symptoms started cropping up. Before the members of the team--every one of them--came down with the newly termed Eridian Cancer. Before the unnatural aging took their bodies and minds and before Tabitha, the nurse, had to move into our house. Emitt told me that NASA had played with time a bit when they sent him and the others up. Light speeds and time dilations and, It's all safe, Alex. I'll be back before you know it. You can find data on Eridian Cancer now in Astronomy for Dummies just as well as in a med class at Johns Hopkins. My father is forty-three years old with liver spots the size of golf balls and a mind so crumbling he can't tell whether he lives in Grantham or on Jupiter.
Now he says, eyes glued to the sky, I think I can see Calvera--I daresay brighter than the sun.
I stand up, brushing my pants off. Jeans today, but they'll be camo tomorrow, and I wonder if I'll really disappear to Emitt or if he'll still see me sitting by his side each summer evening. Or if he knows I've been sitting on the stoop at all. I'm leaving in the morning, I tell him, for Japan. I won't be back for six months.
Emitt's stare holds fast to the deep overhead. You might think the starlight would make his gaze gleam, but I never catch a sparkle in his eyes, and I wonder--all the time--how something so dense can be so empty.
The screen door shrieks as I open it.
Five hundred fifty-seven years. It takes Eris five hundred fifty-seven years to orbit the sun. We made the trip there and back in less than one.
Emitt starts humming the theme song to that old western, The Magnificent Seven, but the door slam chokes the end of the line.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

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