Years Later

"The stars are beautiful," Allie said. She nestled closer to the wonderful man she was sitting with and laid her head on his shoulder.

"Just wait," her date, the gorgeous and respectable Lon Hammond, said. "It will look like a flower exploded in the sky in just a few minutes."

It was the Fourth of July, and Allie couldn't remember one in which she was so happy. Just days before, Lon had proposed to her. She had accepted the ring with trembling hands, knowing that its circular shape denoted so much more than simple expense---it espoused a life together, something infinite, a love so grand and neverending that Allie felt her heart might burst with joy and leave her dead before she could even marry him. It hadn't happened, of course, and in another moment her mother had glided across the dance floor and held her daughter's arm up for the entire club to see. Lon had run up onstage, stopped the music, and proudly announced to the assembled that he and Allie were betrothed. Allie's father had stood to one side, his mustache twitching, happy for his daughter and for Lon, whom he liked well.

It was easy to see why, too, and Allie knew in her heart that her father didn't like Lon just for his fortune, even if her mother did. Lon was the best sort of fellow, a gentleman who would hold the door open for a lady just as soon as he would crack a joke that would make her laugh herself silly. His chivalrousness, always close at hand in public places, was eclipsed only by the easygoing manner that he reverted to when in private. He knew how to put on a show, and well, but he also seemed to know that behind closed doors such a show has no real use. He would make a fine husband, perhaps an even better father, and Allie knew that her response had been the right one.

Still…

Always, at moments like these, marveling at her good fortune to have found a good man in good public standing with a fine job and an even better demeanor, she would think almost unwillingly of something which should have been years over. Once or twice Lon had seen the dark shadow that would pass over her face as she thought of this, and she would have to make up an excuse as to what it was that had been troubling her---a math problem, perhaps, or a joke that she didn't quite get. Lon never became suspicious. Thank God.

It was not a math problem, or a joke, or anything of the sort that caused her face to slump so. It was thinking of the boy, the boy whose name she could hardly sometimes remember, the boy who she hadn't seen in five years or more, after that one awful, dizzying, traumatizing night at the carnival. What had his name been? Nick? Nelson?

"Noah," she said softly. Lon, now excited like a little boy at the prospect of the fireworks, didn't notice.

She thought of Noah every once in a while, in a passing sort of way like one may think of a childhood friend who moved away very young, or a radio show that you couldn't remember the theme song to. Noah. Noah Calhoun, that had been his full name, and if only the memory of him wasn't so inextricably bound in the awfulness of the accident, she felt she could probably move on and forget him entirely.

She sighed. Yes, she thought of him often, but always only in passing, and only in a way that Lon never caught on to. Not that there was anything to catch on to, but just the same Lon probably wouldn't appreciate her thinking of another man, even if she had only known this one for less than half an hour. As she always did, she tried and succeeded in pushing Noah out of her mind, emptying her thoughts of questions of his whereabouts and if he had ever recovered from his terrible fall from the ferris wheel. Then Lon was saying, "Look, sweety, look!" and she gazed up to the sky, and it was lit up in so many colors, red, blue, green, purple, silver, the fireworks crackling like dry sticks on the forest floor, the earth shaking with the thunder of the explosions, and Lon gripped tighter around her waist and she pulled even closer to him, and in another thirty seconds she didn't remember that she had thought of Noah at all.

Several hours down south, the same night sky gazed down upon the patio of an intensive care home. All about, people were strewn amongst the tables and chairs, some in wheelchairs, some using walkers, some only sitting down with no visible ailments but with blank stares on their faces. Everybody looked up, anticipating Seabrook's own fireworks display, which was infinitely less grand than Charleston's, which Allie gazed upon miles away at that very moment.

Amongst these chairs was a bed, the type that folds up and down with the touch of a button and also has wheels for easy transport. The sheets had been stripped from the bed---it was an awful warm night, even for July---and on top of the mattress lay a pitiful form, a crushed specter that seemed less than human, occasionally offering a twitch or a grunt, such indications more often than not signaling a bowel movement that needed tending to.

Next to this bed sat the father of this poor wretch. Mr Calhoun reached over and gripped one of the waxen hands of his son's all-but-lifeless body. The respirator, a terrible, awful thing that clanked and groaned even more than Noah did, breathed out a steady stream of exhaust and whirrs as it sat encapsulating Noah's chest. Mr. Calhoun squeezed Noah's hand. "Noah," he said, "it's almost time for the show."

Noah rolled his head in the direction of Mr. Calhoun's voice, and Mr. Calhoun knew that his son couldn't really see him. The doctor, all those years ago, had said Noah would survive, but he didn't say that Noah's cognizance would deteriorate rapidly over time; indeed, most of the doctors and nurses in residence had been surprised as how quickly Noah had slipped into a vegetative state, first not talking, then needing to be force-fed three meals a day, culminating with the staff having to check his diaper every few hours to make sure that the poor soul hadn't soiled himself. Noah had become a zombie, something worse than a zombie, even; damn-near catatonic.

"Noah," Mr. Calhoun said, gripping his hand. "Noah, Noah, Noah. Is there anything at all that will ever wake you up and bring you back to me and to this world?"

Noah only wheezed, a line of drool dribbling from his mouth to the bed. Mr. Calhoun let go of Noah's hand, where it stayed in the exact same position, unmoving, a cheap imitation of real life. Mr. Calhoun placed his hands in his head and wailed. Overhead, Seabrook's pitiful display of second-rate fireworks shot up into the night sky, reflecting off the eyes of Noah Calhoun, eyes that couldn't see the bright colors as they lit up and then fell to the earth.