Each year as the summer finally dies away, replaced by the hollow autumn winds, an old man and his wife make their way over Vatican Hill to a small grave near the Tiber River. There they host a feast, dining on bread and water, as they mourn the only daughter they know. Hers is a modest grave, adorned with weeds and anthills, but they ignore this. They eat in silence.
When the sun sets, giving way to moonlight and mosquitoes, they depart for home, feeling as vacant as they had the day that soldier knocked on their front door nine years ago. And as the first star appears in the hazy sky, diluted by centuries of pollution, so does a young man appear in the darkness.
He takes his post by her grave, legs crossed in the dirt. He wastes no tears, for he knows she will not take them. He wastes no words, for he knows she will not hear him. There is nothing he can say that will make her forgive him. He sits by her grave in silence.
They are young. He is ten, and she thirteen. They are not really friends, though; she teaches him what he does not learn in school. He teaches her what she has forgotten with time. They have an understanding. They attend the same church.
She has in her hand a gun, an old model, but a gun nonetheless. He's never seen one before. Not where he's from.
She whispers, "Don't be afraid. I'll protect you."
"From what?" he inquires, looking at her like one looks at the Basilica. She is silent. Her empire dress billows in the soft breeze, and in the dying sunset, the light billows around her head like a halo.
"I will go far away soon," she says, looking off into the distance.
He wasn't worried. After all, she often went places, but she always came back.
A bit older now. He thirteen, and she is sixteen. To the dismay of her parents, this is her first visit home. A fancy gun hangs at her hip, and she is no longer dressed in pretty colors.
"What do you do there?" he asks her. He is curious. She is not in good spirits, but when she talks about where she goes, it's almost as if she's happy again.
"I fly," she says. "Far, far away. Guess how far?"
The farthest he's been is to the Vatican. "Sicily," he challenges. Way at the tip of Italy.
"Farther," says she, a hint of a boast on her lips.
"America," he breathes. The Pope has never been to America, not these days. These days he never left more than his balcony.
"Farther." Now she almost smiles.
"The sun!" he shouts, and he catches her off guard because her scowl comes back.
"No, not quite the sun. Not yet," she says, thinking. "I've been to the moon though. I'm still learning."
"You really flew to the moon?" he asks, his breath hitched. "All the way? In a big spaceship?"
"I flew the spaceship," she says.
"I won't teach you until you memorize all those terms."
"I'm sorry; I'm studying, I promise."
"Ceres is not a planet!"
A sigh. "Fine. Just get it right next time."
She brings him back unscarred but changed forever. In his heart, a fire was lit, and it illuminates his whole being like a star.
The Father is not pleased. They hadn't, naturally, told him where they had gone. He never would have allowed it.
"Irresponsible, dangerous, reckless-"
He hides behind her. She is unimpressed.
"He's only a child; you could have killed him!"
In the end, he is sent to his room and she is sent off. They meet in secret, and she teaches him what he does not learn in school.
After he becomes an adult, he does not see her for years. He makes a name for himself, as a pupil under Father. He is happy, for a time, and so are the people who listen to him. He is young still, and charismatic, and (or so he fancies himself) easy on the eyes. This does not last long.
He sees her in the back of the chapel, cool as ever. Her halo is gone. So is she by the time he works up the nerve to talk to her.
"Solange! Solange! Don't ignore me! I know you're listening."
"You're really annoying, you know."
"I know. Where do you keep going?"
"That's a lie. Your parents barely see you. I talked to them at Mass."
"Damn traitors." Sigh. "I told them not to tell anyone."
"They didn't. But they know me."
She stares at him. It's unnerving; for the first time, he is the subject of her ire. "I'm sorry."
The church is on fire. He feels every ember embedded forever in his soul; the crying children and the helicopter wings and this burning sensation seared in his heart – they will never leave his nightmares.
He doesn't attend her funeral. Instead, he lies on his stiff cot contemplating where he will go from here. When they release him, Father is waiting. Father takes one look at him and cries. It is the first time he has seen Father cry.
One by one, the children he has grown to love come to hug him, welcoming him home. They are sad, but they do not understand what has happened. He tells them to protect each other. He does not tell them they will never see him again.
That night, he departs under guise of fog and darkness. No one sees him off, but that's okay.
He will take their soot-stained, terror-stricken, crying faces to his grave.
He hides a golden rosary under his shirt. Its weight anchors him to the Earth, reminds him of what he has done and what he cannot do. It reminds him of his need for money, and his guilt, and his reluctance to part with the valuable relic. It reminds me of years long past, during the final breaths of his dying childhood.
He sees an employee wanted ad on a rotting pole. It's sketchy, but so is everything these days.
Things quickly turn sour, though he can't say he didn't expect it.
He follows the blonde girl when she tells him to.
"I'm Colette," she says shooting their ex-coworker in the face point-blank.
"The name's Rhodes. I—"
"You said you knew how to fly?"
"Yes, ma'am. Though I haven't flown in—"
She kicks down the door and quickly kills the pilot. When the room is cleared, she turns around to face him. "Then fly."
He hasn't flown for ages, but the minute he sits down on that chair, a chair similar to the one he'd learned to fly in, his reflexes set in. He doesn't know what he's doing and if he's doing it correctly, but the ship is flying where he wants it to go. In the background, he hears screams and dying, but he focuses on where he is and where he needs to be.
And for every mistake he makes, every jerk of the steering wheel that sends his passengers sprawling, he hears a familiar derisive snort and a sharp reprimand. It's almost as if he's happy again.
He doubts he will visit her again. Time flies, and he doesn't know when he will return to Earth next. Surely she wouldn't miss him. Surely he won't miss her.
Loss is a complicated thing.
When he closes his eyes, he can remember sitting under that termite-infested oak tree, overlooking the river and her single, modest grave.
He is right. His nightmares never go away.