Mirabeau couldn’t sleep, so he stole his father’s binoculars and went out into the early dawn where, perched in the bed of his father’s truck, the boy could see Mrs. Walthrop inside her bedroom, naked. In the daytime he knew Walthrop as the kind old lady who smelled of rotting flowers and sometimes made him snickerdoodles. But in the drowsy haze of morning, she was a dangerous creature. Her body was a strange topography of mounds and valleys and folds. Mirabeau was eleven years old. The world seemed on the cusp of revealing all of its secrets.
Mirabeau P. Sloane—the P for Patrick, what his mother called him; Beau to his father; Dicknuts to most of the boys at Duncan Morrow Junior High School, back in Nebraska. He’d been called other things, too. Odd. Slow. A Distraction When He Makes That Horrific Guttural Retching Noise. These were documented in files by his teachers and explained to his mother. “Good lord, Patrick,” she’d said to him once after returning from another parent-teacher conference. “Why can’t you behave? I raise you so bad you can’t but act a fool in public, get me in trouble?”
The truth was Mirabeau had no idea how he’d been acting a fool. There were so many things that didn’t make sense to him. Like people. How people went about doing peoplish things.
What he’d learned so far in sixth grade was that among other things people liked to do—talk, eat, laugh—they enjoyed inflicting pain and mortification on one another for no clear reason. Case in point: Grady Mack, a large boy who’d chosen Mirabeau for a de-pantsing last autumn. One moment Mirabeau was standing near his locker with a piece of Laffy Taffy; the next, his penis flopped for all of Morrow Junior High to see. In an attempt to reciprocate the act, to join in on this odd human fellowship of making each other miserable, Mirabeau had put a mechanical pencil into Grady Mack’s stomach lining.
Now he lived in Texas with his father.
It was 8:05. Soon a school bus would rattle down the street. Mirabeau would watch it go on toward campus, watch its brake lights throb. The boy knew he was meant to be on it. Mirabeau’s father was too busy with his own sadness to care. No, it was just Mirabeau and Mrs. Walthrop’s white mass, a body promising to make sense of the world.
In Nebraska, Mirabeau knew he’d be trudging through snow right now, layers of wool over him. Here the weather was indecisive. Morning frost melted and gave way to afternoon temperatures that allowed for Mirabeau to go around in an undershirt. He’d spent all of January wandering behind liquor stores and Laundromats, finding dead squirrels, beer cans. He went down to a creek that ran on the west side of town—the poor side—and had once spent an entire afternoon tracking a nutria that, once cornered, bit the snot out of his elbow. Mirabeau had had to go to the ER for a rabies shot. He still had the little moons of marks where the animal’s teeth had struck.
But such shiftlessness was old news to him now.
One week ago a space shuttle had fallen out of the sky. The debris field was spread over all of east Texas. That morning Mirabeau had been looking in on Mrs. Walthrop. With binoculars trained upward, he saw tracers, debris curlicuing in orange and red flare. Smoke streaked like pen smudges. Later there was talk of heavier items falling from the sky. A man down the block found runway gear in his aboveground pool. A woman’s car windshield had been crushed by a twisted bit of the fuselage. People panicked. They wondered what would fall next. Even Mirabeau’s father, who spent most of his time in bed, had moved into the living room to watch the CNN coverage.
Mirabeau had stood behind the couch, eating a peanut-butter-Vidalia-onion-ice-cream sandwich, his favorite. The bread began to separate; the ice cream was melting. He did his best to hurry—hovering just behind his father, eyes on the television—but a dollop of melted chocolate dropped from the sandwich onto his father’s scalp. The man was too rapt in the disaster footage to do more than run his hand through it.
“They dead?” Mirabeau asked.
In response his father looked at him meanly before bursting into tears and locking himself in the bathroom.
“Shit yeah they’re dead,” Tug Edstrom responded when Mirabeau asked the same question. Tug was two years older and home-schooled, which meant he learned of the suffering of Christ and stole things from Walgreen’s. He rode his bicycle listlessly through town. Tug was enormous and the bike was too small for him, but he stayed in perpetual motion, speaking as he cut lazy figure eights in the drugstore parking lot. “Who taught you how to think, the Retard Commission? You reckon if you were in a spaceship and it blew up you’d be able to fly to fucking safety?”
Mirabeau shrugged. He had no answer to either of Tug’s questions. It was a sad thing to consider. “They had parachutes,” he said, unsure of his own logic.
Tug made another circle around him. He rolled his eyes. “Yeah, and now those parachutes are about this big.” He held his index finger and thumb so close together Mirabeau couldn’t see any space between them. “Size of your pee-hole. Blammo! All blown the shit up.”
The sky had turned an odd, wonderful red, as if it were still ablaze. The town felt empty. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, people had been told to stay indoors. This was now a hundred square mile crime scene; anybody pocketing or hiding debris would be arrested. Black cars and white vans crisscrossed four different counties, racing from one nowhere town to the next. The cars were driven by governmental authorities, Tug told Mirabeau. They interrogated children, poultry farmers, poor folks in trailers.
“But they ain’t here over no astronauts,” Tug said. “My daddy told me their real reason.”
“What is it?”
Tug quit pedaling. He let his bare feet come to rest on the asphalt. He leaned over the handlebars. “To collect my old man’s guns.” Tug nodded gravely. Mirabeau had been to the Edstrom house only a handful of times. He knew it sat at the end of a gravel road, and that half the roof was corrugated tin; he knew the rooms smelled of burned ketchup and that the walls held dozens of American flags (Tug’s brother was in Afghanistan). He also knew that Tug’s father spent most of his time outside in what he called The Supply Cabinet. The boys weren’t allowed near it, though once, after the man had spent the day drinking Coors and watching the Aggies lose, he’d taken the pair down into the shelter. Inside were hundreds of guns and knives and boxes labeled MRE. Tug’s father had taken a rifle off the wall, drew back on the chamber. “This here’s a Kalashnikov,” he told Mirabeau. “Your daddy have one of these?” The boy shrugged. Tug’s father snorted. “Doubtful,” he said. “All I’ve got to say about that is when the Day of Reckoning is at hand, there will be two types of citizens: those who have unfettered access to Kalashnikov’s, and those who do not. And who’ll have egg on their faces then, I ask.”
Tug began pedaling again. He said, “They’ve been after him for sometime. Hell, he doesn’t even think there was any spaceship. That’s just their cover story; it’s their way to have all us god-fearing people looking up at the sky so they can swoop in and take from us what is rightfully ours. Is what my daddy says.”
Mirabeau didn’t think this was a likely story, but he didn’t want to argue. The notion of friendship was new and foreign, and he supposed there was a fine line between having a sleepover and putting a Bic pencil inside somebody’s large intestines. He’d heard so much about sleepovers. He wanted to host one.
Anyway, he didn’t care about the government, or guns, or even space shuttles. What was most pressing was his father, who was looking more and more like an unshaven skeleton.
Mirabeau’s father had been a maintenance worker for the small college in town until a professor claimed he’d stolen items from the professor’s office. Six astronomy textbooks, which, despite Mirabeau’s father’s claims of innocence, sat out on the coffee table at home. His father had always liked the subject. He liked science fiction movies in which earthlings traveled vast distances to unoccupied planets and created new civilizations, only to bicker and steal and ultimately learn the real trouble with earth was the human heart itself.
The night he’d been fired he came home late with alcohol on his breath and told Mirabeau to get in the truck. They’d driven aimlessly through the hills of the piney woods and then out beyond acreage of cut timber—the moon shining on smoking stumps and untenanted backhoes—and eventually up to where the college’s observatory and satellite station was located. Mirabeau stayed near the truck while his father tried to jump the fence. It took the man a number of tries. “Are we supposed to be here?” the boy finally asked as his father fell face-first into the dirt on the other side. The man ignored him; he got to his knees and pulled a pair of wire cutters from his jacket and did away with the padlock.
That night, Mirabeau’s father fixed a large telescope onto the moon and told the boy to look through the viewfinder. He moved it to the bizarre green and yellows of Saturn’s rings, to the places where darkness was only interrupted by bright declaratory points of light.
“You see that, Beau?” his father said, gently jostling the telescope into focus. “That’s Alpha Centauri, our closest star-neighbor, four-and-a-half light years from earth. What you’re seeing right now,” he said, “is light excreted five years ago.”
It was all too clear to the boy that his father had been breaking into the observatory for some time, coming out here alone to stare up into the night sky. The thought made the boy sad. There was something in his father’s voice that lead Mirabeau to believe that the old man wanted more than anything to be up there, to leave this world and start anew in a place where the people were green, or had extra eyes, or spoke through mucus membranes. Anywhere that would make him feel more at home.
“Isn’t it miraculous?” his father asked.
Mirabeau lied and said it was. All he could see were landscapes of cold, dead plains.
Nine days after the shuttle explosion, Mirabeau woke early and snuck into the back room where his father snored like a man hoping for sleep to never end. The boy opened the top drawer of the bureau and pulled the binoculars out of their case and went out to the truck. He peered in on Mrs. Walthrop’s room. The woman was there, her body as alien to him as anything happening in the county. All around Mirabeau the forest service was finding smoldering remains, smoky dashes of burnt brush. Governmental authorities parked outside houses and spent hours inside.
Mrs. Walthrop might as well have fallen from the sky. He watched her apply deodorant, slip on a pair of ocher panties. He watched her tuck her breasts inside an old bra that’d been hanging on the doorknob. The school bus came and didn’t brake for Mirabeau’s home. His attention turned to it; he let his binoculars drop to his chest and gazed at the silhouettes of boys and girls his age behind the dark windows. He understood that these were children he would never know.
Tug rode by that afternoon. He made a sweeping arch in the road before putting down his kickstand.
“I found something,” he said. “You gotta see this.”
The two times Mirabeau had ridden with Tug he’d had to feel the older boy’s sweaty neck and the gelatinous way his flesh moved as he pedaled. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation to know firsthand. Still, the look on Tug’s face was of high concern.
Mirabeau let himself onto the pegs and draped his arms around Tug’s shoulders. They moved down Pecan Street and past the college and across the main road to where the streets were in need of repaving. Tug had strong shoulders. He worked with a grunt. They ditched the bike in a lawn of a house rented by college-looking kids. Mirabeau followed Tug through a pasture, then into the woods, then down a steep hill toward the creek where he’d been bitten by the nutria. Here the February sun, which had coaxed flowers into an early bloom and mosquitoes into a dizzying anger, gave way to the sickly smell of rotten underbrush. Mirabeau forgot about his mother and Nebraska; he forgot about his father. He followed Tug, whose flat feet navigated the steep banks of the creek with a goat’s brilliance.
In the stagnant water lay a torn-wide canister. Around it, circular orbs gleamed like pearls with diameters larger than silver dollars.
“What are they?” Mirabeau asked.
“What are you, the world’s dumbest dumbass?” Tug said, wiping sweat from the light hair growing on his lip. “They’re Petri dishes, Mirabeau.”
Mirabeau picked one up. It held a clear liquid.
“Big deal,” he said.
“Big deal?” Tug dropped three of them into a purse he’d made out of the bottom of his shirt. “These things come falling down out of space filled with alien goop. They’re worth about a million bucks a piece, is what big deal.”
Mirabeau examined the one in his hands. The dish looked half-filled with piss. Nothing swam in its liquid, so far as he could tell. He shook it to make sure.
“You can have them,” he said, and dropped the dish back into the mud.
Tug rushed to pick it up. He gave Mirabeau a wild-eyed look. “Sheeit. I can’t take them all with me. That’s how you get caught. We’ve got to divide them up, hide them, wait for things to settle. Then we’ll sell them on eBay and retire to the Kasbah.” Tug held three of them out for Mirabeau, who looked them over again before putting them in his pockets.
At home, his father was awake. Mirabeau spotted his hairy shoulders pacing the kitchen. He had the phone to his ear.
“No, Regina. I’m not belittling your beautician career. I know you…that’s what I’m saying…no…no…No, Charlie doesn’t have anything to do with this…Yes…That’s right…You’ve told me Charlie is twice the man I…He can’t stay here…I know he’s my son, Regina; I was there during consummation if you’re…Of course he’s going to school. What kind of a fath…Because, he can’t. He can’t stay here. I don’t think it’s a good envir…Because…no…don’t bring Charlie into this. I don’t want to talk to Char…Yes, Charlie? Hi. Listen. I need to speak to Regina; it’s a private mat…It’s about Beau, yes. Well, no. That’s the…as I was telling Regina, I don’t think this is the right…what I’m trying…what I’m try…what I’m trying to say is that he needs to move back to Nebraska.”
Mirabeau slipped past the kitchen and into his father’s bedroom. He opened the second drawer—the junk drawer, where the old man kept pocketknives and coins flattened by trains and a little pamphlet titled We Are Not Alone. The boy pulled the Petri dishes from his pockets and slipped them underneath the layer of junk. On the ride back from the creek, he’d decided to keep them, to give them to his father. To hell with Tug and eBay. The Kasbah sounded cruddy. They were a gift now. Summer would come. The governmental agents would disappear. Years would pass—who knew?—and then one day his dad would find them and know that they were from his son. And he would finally have his own piece of the universe. It would be his. It would make him happy.
Mirabeau could hear his voice from the kitchen.
“Can you put Regina back on? She’s on? Right now? I’m speaking to both of you, is that…I see. Yes, Regina, that’s what I’m trying to explain. I don’t feel I can provide the kind home that…No…of course he’s in school…Yes, he has friends. I don’t know their names. Some fat kid on a bike. I’m not in the right headspace to take care of…Headspace. Headspace, Charlie. Yes, it’s a word. I’m not in the right…There are plenty of words you don’t know, Charlie, you dolt. Listen to me. Will you…I’m saying…What? What? I know he’s your husband, Regina. I was your husband, too, once, or don’t you…I can call him whatever I wa…his feelings? His feelings! Okay, you’re right. Charlie, I’m sorry I called you a dolt. Can we move on? As I was saying, I can’t do it. I simply cannot. I’m in a strange…Are you crying, Charlie? I said I was…that’s right: I’m not in a very good place right now, headspacewise. That’s all there is to it. Mirabeau doesn’t…I’m saying he can’t…You have to come pick him up, Regina. Hello? Regina? Hello?”
It is the fantasy of every eleven-year-old to never go to school. Inside the bright and sterile confines of their classrooms, they feel certain they’re missing out on life and its pleasures, which are being doled out in unjustly portions to their parents, who don’t know how blessed they are, who use their time paying bills and running to the dry cleaners. Beyond the walls of the school, time is slipping by while people ignore the chance for the miraculous in favor of the mundane.
Mirabeau felt this way at Duncan Morrow. But now that he was living on the other side of the fantasy—now that he was free to roam as he pleased—he felt otherwise. He missed school. It was a sentiment he would never share with another living creature for fear that its utterance would somehow instantly undo his freedom. As soon as he said the word miss and school, he would suddenly be inside one, at a desk, the teacher asking him for the angles to an isosceles triangle. But the missing remained.
At eleven years old, with the firsts of hormonal changes beginning, Mirabeau was also learning what true loneliness felt like.
He guessed this new loneliness had something to do with how fast everything moved. It was March, suddenly. Save for a short sound bite on the news, people had begun to forget about the space shuttle. Temperatures rose. The man with the aboveground pool moved to Florida. Tug Edstrom’s father shot himself in the foot.
The shot was non-fatal but required the amputation of two toes. There was going to be an investigation into The Supply Cabinet and its contents. For three nights, Tug had had to stay with Mirabeau and his father. It was Mirabeau’s first time to host a sleepover.
As it turned out, sleepovers weren’t as fun as he’d always assumed them to be. For one, your new bedmate could snore like a full-grown man who’d swallowed a buzz saw. And Mirabeau’s father explained to the boy that, as a guest, Tug was in command of activities. If Mirabeau wanted to climb a tree but Tug wanted to play Red Dead Redemption for twelve straight hours, the Xbox won out.
There were some positives. Mirabeau’s father began to shower and dress in slacks. He tried to appear normal. He cooked the boys Hamburger Helper, watched television with them. During the day, when Tug’s mother arrived for school lessons (she always appeared in nice clothes, with her hair coiffed, though her eyes were puffy and gave away the shock and anxiety of her husband’s possible pending jail time), Mirabeau’s father acted as though Mirabeau, too, were home schooled. He thanked her for letting the boy sit in on their lessons, and offered to pay her for her time.
On the third night, Tug turned Mirabeau’s small TV to a scrambled cable channel and slapped its side, hoping to clear the picture.
“Think I can make out a tit,” he said.
“Between the blue and orange waves.”
“That’s no tit.”
“You wouldn’t know a tit from a watermelon,” Tug said. He slapped the television a few more times but gave up when it went to static. He sighed. He looked around Mirabeau’s bedroom. “Jesus, this place is boring. Don’t you have a computer or something? Some place where I can see a tit?”
“Dad has one,” Mirabeau said. He was trying to make a noose out of his old Tae Kwon Do belt. “It’s in his bedroom, but there’s no internet. It’s got Minesweeper.”
Tug looked at him. “For fuck’s sake. Minesweeper? I’d rather play with my thumbs.” They were quiet for a while. Then Tug’s face brightened. “Just thought of something,” he said. “The dishes.”
Mirabeau shrugged, though he knew what Tug meant.
“The fucking Petri dishes.” Tug stood up. He was excited, flushed in the cheeks. “Where are they?”
Mirabeau tightened the knot on his makeshift noose and thought about how if he’d taken Tae Kwon Do seriously he would’ve been able to diffuse this situation with a simple roundhouse-kick. “I’ve done away with them,” he muttered.
Tug’s face drooped. “What’s that mean?”
“It means you can’t have them. They’re gone. You might as well forget—” The wind came out of his lungs before he could finish. Tug had Mirabeau on the floor. The boy’s shoulders were pinned beneath Edstrom’s giant knees.
“You gay-wad,” Tug said. “You dumb retard. Those were my meal tickets! Those were my way out of here!” He had his fingers in Mirabeau’s mouth, his nostrils. He was doing serious business, and though Mirabeau couldn’t be certain, it sounded as if he were about to cry. “You shithead,” Tug said. “You fuck everything up. Everything.”
Mirabeau was able to get Tug’s hands away from his face. “You ain’t getting them,” he coughed. “You ain’t. You ain’t.”
“Then I’ll have to kill you, Dicknuts.”
Tug’s weight came down on Mirabeau like a tidal wave. He had his large hands around the boy’s throat. Mirabeau felt his wind going. He felt blackness coming on. He forced Tug’s paw away from his throat long enough to let out a gurgled, shrill cry: “I got tits!”
“I can show you tits,” Mirabeau gasped.
“I don’t want to see yours.”
“I mean real ones,” Mirabeau said. Tug’s weight lessened, though he kept his knees on Mirabeau’s shoulders. The circulation in Mirabeau’s hands had been cut-off; he couldn’t feel his fingers. “Real live ones,” he said.
Tug collapsed on the floor next to him. Mirabeau sat up and shook his hands and reached for his throat. Tug was staring at him, eyeing his move. “Bullshit,” the boy said.
“I’ll trade you,” Mirabeau said. He considered what he was saying. Mrs. Walthrop had been his own discovery, and while most mornings left him more confused than ever, he still held hope that his view through the binoculars would lead him to understanding what it was that confused him. On the other hand, he wanted the Petri dishes for his father, who, despite the showers and clean shirts and dinners, still had a distraught look in his eyes. “We’ll trade,” he said again.
Tug agreed. He asked Mirabeau to show him what he promised. Mirabeau explained that they’d have to stay up all night. Tug looked skeptical—for a moment Mirabeau braced himself for another attack—but finally nodded.
The boys stayed up. They drank orange soda. They played video games. They put an old ventriloquist doll Mirabeau had been given for his seventh birthday on trial, found him guilty, then hanged him from the bedpost using the noose Mirabeau had fashioned. They drank RC Cola and ate pizza. They found some old GI Joe’s in the closet and melted their legs with a cigarette lighter Tug had stolen from Walgreen’s. “Ahhhhhh!” the GI Joe’s screamed, their feet curling and letting off putrid black smoke. They watched a movie, then another. The night turned gray. Mirabeau worried that if Mrs. Walthrop wasn’t there in the morning, he would lose his friend. Tug’s eyes began to close. Mirabeau nudged him, told him to stay awake. When the time was right, Mirabeau snuck into his father’s room and stole the binoculars.
They went out into the morning. Mirabeau helped Tug into the back of the truck.
“All right,” Tug said. “Time to pay up.”
Mirabeau fixed the binoculars to the bedroom window next door. He adjusted the view, waited. The room was empty, dark. Tug sighed. Then she appeared, fresh from the shower, a towel around her waist. “There,” Mirabeau said. “She’s there.”
Tug snatched the binoculars from him. Mirabeau guided his aim. Tug looked on for a while. His mouth dropped open. Mirabeau asked for the binoculars. Tug shrugged him away with an elbow.
“Miraculous,” Tug whispered.
Mirabeau had assumed the crunching of leaves nearby was the sound of a cat at play or a dog circling a place to do its business, and so it was too late to react when a man appeared in his periphery. He came from around the back of the Walthrop’s house, in between the two properties, wearing a floppy hat and carrying a rake. Mirabeau felt the blood drain from his cheeks.
“Boys?” the man said. “Boys.”
Tug dropped the binoculars. They smashed against the bed of the truck with a loud crack. Then Tug tried to flee, but his foot caught the tailgate, and he toppled over the rear bumper onto the driveway. He stood, knees bloodied, his right palm scraped white. He looked at Mirabeau, then at Mr. Walthrop, before loafing across the lawn toward his bicycle. He was gone before Mirabeau could move.
Walthrop looked confused, though not angry. He came toward Mirabeau, stopped short, peeked into his own bedroom window. His face appeared unable to form itself into one particular expression. He was confused at what he saw, then recognizant, then alarmed.
His face changed again. “My wife,” he said, looking up at Mirabeau. “I’ve known her since she was a girl. We won’t be together much longer.” He looked back at the window. Mirabeau wanted nothing more than to leave, to get away. It wouldn’t be the last time he’d feel this way. In some months, when Charlie comes to pick him up and drive him back to Nebraska. Or at the beginning of the next school year, when the boy will expect his reputation as Dicknuts to precede him, only to find nobody remembers the de-pantsing or the Bic pencil incident or that Mirabeau ever went to school with them at all. And there will be the years his father’s sadness will be a thing culled only from memory—a new wife, a baby daughter—and, oddly, feel to Patrick nostalgic and cloying in an inaccurate but indulgent way. His father’s new wife will require a new house, and most of the furniture Patrick remembered would disappear in a garage sale, including the Petri dishes—10 cents each. There will be Patrick’s own wife and family, his own battle with depression, his own troubles. He’ll be unable to recall what he knew just then, which was that nobody felt at home in the world. Everybody was filled with desire and longing. His father wanted to move to a different planet. Tug’s own was waiting for the end times. The space shuttle explosion had injected the town with a cause to feel alive and terrified and filmed and important. But it hadn’t lead to anything new. It hadn’t shifted anybody’s lives in a way that would last. It was already a footnote in history.
Mr. Walthrop smiled at the boy. “Can I see your binoculars?” he asked.