Baby loves fireworks best of all. He lifts his eyes, all filled with galaxies, to the night and coos as light bursts in an array of flaming colors, and booms shake the world.
He's a happy baby, living a life filled with trips to duck ponds to feed the waddlers bits of sandwich, a cribful of plush toys, and warm evenings on southern porches, rocking in his mother's large, comforting arms.
On the wood paneled walls hang family photos. Him in fat, frilly outfits, an elder sister with a wide bucktooth smile and Harry Potter glasses, his pretty mama in her wedding dress, and a somber man all in navy, with a funny hat and brass buttons in rows on his pressed jacket.
Baby has never seen the man and his funny hat but at night, while he rocks in her arms, Mama holds that picture and talks and talks and talks about him. Sometimes she cries.
The first night fireworks burst into Baby's life, the man in the funny hat appears. Sister- two pigtails and a flag on her shirt- screeches and jumps into his arms while baby watches, eating cheerios placidly from his high chair. Mama cries in the man's embrace. When he turns toward the high chair, Baby considers crying along with his mama.
It's late, he's tired, and rather scared of the newcomer, but then the man lifts him high and Baby can't help but squeal with laughter because he's flying.
Long after burgers cease to sizzle and soda goes flat in large red Dixie cups, the little family sweats languidly in lawn chairs in their driveway. Mama's arms hug the man as she perches on his lap, and Baby hangs over the edge of his stroller in excitement. Mosquitoes whine, a lighter snicks to life and Baby babbles with joy as Sister's sparklers paint her name in the night. When their grocery bag of two for one fireworks is empty, and only the acrid smell of sulfur lingers on, they stare into the sky and wait for color to pierce the stars.
When he's bigger, the boy receives a package from Auntie, who lives far away. It's large and nearly as tall as him, and his mama says it's a telescope. In his yard- green grass wet and cold beneath his bare feet- he shivers in his thin pjs and gazes through the lens at the universe, so vast and bright and beautiful. He wonders if they have fireworks in space, where night reigns eternal.
He hears stories of scary ghosts while huddled together with his cub scout troop, swathed in shadows that flicker from flashlights onto tent walls. He doesn't really believe those stories. Night is where his telescope lives, and fireworks burst and Mama reads stories, and his daddy comes home on leave. He has never been afraid of the dark, but sleeps with it tucked in his arms like a stuffed animal while moonbeams kiss his freckled forehead and dreams dance through his head.
He sees something that reminds him very much of fireworks when he visits the shooting range late at night, hanging off his daddy's free hand while in the other, the man chugs a beer. In the soldier's drunken grasp, sparks fly as bullets fire at little bulls-eye targets, hitting dead center.
He wears a pair of earphones on his small head to block out the noise- boom boom boom. The gun is heavy and warm when his daddy hands it to him and his fingers fumble to pull the trigger. He hits dust. Over and over again. A tear drips down his nose. These aren't like fireworks, he decides. But he comes back to the shooting range.
He smiles at the girl who joins him each night to stargaze. She loves the constellations as much as he does, and he's sure galaxies appear in her eyes when he looks just right. Her smile makes rabbits dance inside his stomach, and he wonders if there's room in the driveway next Fourth of July for someone new. Someone who likes fireworks and clarity and the crispness the night air lends as much as he does. He wraps his jacket, warm from his skin around her shoulders, and sneaks the opportunity to touch her soft hair. She smells like cinnamon.
The firework display isn't well funded this year. He doesn't watch the end of it. The girl leaves early to attend a barbecue. Sis leaves to visit her boyfriend in Connecticut. Mama sits and smiles at Dad's side during the nightly church service in her Sunday dress, but her handbag is clutched in a death grip in her lap.
It is an accident. He isn't meant to see them like this. His throat is dry and the kitchen in their new house is right next to the den. Dad has his finger on the trigger and liquor harsh on his breath when Mama comes in to see what the commotion was about. It clatters to the ground when she tells him it's over. He doesn't get his glass of water that night. He texts the girl and she texts back while shouting seeps through the floorboards.
Mama's going to the doctor next Tuesday. The girl and he are going to be dropped off at the movies to gorge on popcorn and wear little 3D glasses for two hours of absolute, salty, bliss. When, halfway in, he shyly moves her soft, silky hair to the side and captures her cinnamon lips in his, he discovers fireworks of a very different sort. That night, gazing up at the stars through his telescope, the universe is no longer the most beautiful thing in his world.
Around the dining room table, slamming the noises of chewing and utensils scraping against plates to a halt, Mama announces the lump the doctor found in her breast. Sundress fitting neatly across plump shoulders, hair pinned up in careful curls, her smile is almost ever present. She's not smiling now. She looks scared. In the past, he'd believed nothing could ever happen to her. But now, suddenly in the shocked silence of the room, that reassurance is decimated. She needed to go to a special clinic out of state for treatment. Immediately. Amidst anger, fear, and denial, he lovingly packs up his expensive telescope, and places it in the yard sale pile to raise money for Mama and her treatment.
Thunder cracks through his heart when Mama finally disentangles herself from his desperate hugs. He waves at nothing, face pressed against the cold glass of his window pane, straining past the pouring rain to catch glimpses of her car rumbling down the driveway. He doesn't know when she'll be back. If. Up in his room, face illuminated by the blue-ish light of his phone, he sits, alone but for the girl on the other end, whose words keep him from stumbling downstairs for a drink.
Late, late, when the rain has grown to a steady roar, Sis creeps in, and wraps her arms around him. She smells clean, like lavender- fresh from the shower. Neither say a word, but rock gently back and forth as her tears stain his shirt, and his shoulders shake compulsively. They stay like that for a long time, in his small room, while lightning flashes and thunder rumbles around them in God's very own firework display.
It's her birthday tonight. The girl with stars in her eyes and a smile that makes his heart race. He saves up what little money he earns after giving most of it away for mama, and buys the pretty bracelet she admired in the jewelry case. He hopes she'll like it. The man who sold it swears it's real silver, and it has little seashells dangling from it. On his roof, after spending more time staring at her than at the stars, he gets up the courage to fish the little box from his pocket. He's shaking a bit when he clasps his gift on her wrist.
Mama comes back with just two months left. The death sentence reigns over the house, bathing it in silence and darkness. Dinner- Sis prepared Mama's favorite, little peas and carrots and mashed potatoes and ketchup laden meatloaf- sits cold and uneaten on their plates. He can't swallow without the lump in his throat choking him. He doesn't want a world without Mama.
It's either school or work. He chooses work, needing the instant money, and it's a choice he lives with every day. The girl heads to college in California. Their texts grow distant as he strains to keep from losing her too. And abruptly they stop, and for long months he wonders if she even remembers him. In the darkest of nights he sits, gun and drink in hand, and wonders if he's better off pulling the trigger.
When she finally returns to their little town, tan and smiling with diploma clutched in hand, she's still wearing his gift. He locks up the gun cabinet so he can tackle her in hugs.
His mama likes yellow roses. They remind her of her youth, and she grows them in her little patch of garden. Early summer, the air grows heavy with their sweet scent. She holds them proudly in a bouquet as he wheels her down the aisle. Mama's a fighter, and the doctors hope that with a new, experimental treatment, she'll recover. Promises, promises.
Tonight, freed from thoughts of death by the enchanting light of the moon, they'll watch Sis and her husband exchange vows.
She's beautiful, wearing Mama's old lace wedding gown with some of those yellow roses twisted in her dark hair, and he has never been more proud of his big sister. At his side, the girl sits in a lavender dress, and never once during the ceremony does her hand leave his. Sis tosses her bouquet over her shoulder and she rises- wrist glittering with his seashell bracelet- and catches it.
Mama liked yellow roses. He places one on her casket as he passes by it. His shoulders shake in his freshly pressed suit as he buries his head in his hands. He doesn't see the stars that night. The world is overcast and harsh and utterly empty without her. It will never be beautiful again.
He doesn't know yet that, silently sleeping inside the woman hugging him close, life blooms anew.
He holds his tiny pink daughter in his arms with such love and fear when his exhausted wife finally relinquishes her to take a shower. She's so light and warm and new that he's afraid he'll mess up and drop her. She smells faintly of cinnamon when he rests his stubbly cheek against her soft, fresh one. His eyes droop with weariness. She didn't decide to make her appearance on the world until midnight.
Outside, fireworks explode as a new year rolls in, and above them, the stars twinkle, but tucked in his arms, she shines brightest.