020. Part of my 100 Songs Challenge.
Inspired By: Bittersweet Symphony, The Verve
Disclaimer: I don't own HM or the song. Obviously.
A/N: This oneshot takes place over the course of many years. There are multiple timeskips, but they're pretty easy to figure out without me telling you. So… Enjoy~~
"What do you think happens when you die?"
The question catches Galen off guard. He flips himself over and props himself up on his elbows, staring down at Nina in disbelief. She blinks up at him, upside-down face framed by messy brown curls, her expression one of innocent curiosity.
"What are you thinking about stuff like that for?" Galen demands, glaring at her. She purses her lips and raises an eyebrow, which looks quite humorous from an upside-down angle.
"Oh, come on," she says. "You can't honestly say you've never thought about it."
"Can too," Galen mutters, though this is untrue.
"Just answer the question, Galen."
The sandy-haired boy flops back down with a sigh, wondering how to put his thoughts into words without sounding too silly. Finally, he says: "You know that cliché version of Heaven, with the Pearly Gates and the angels playing harps and all your dead family members there waiting for you? As stupid as it sounds, I still kinda believe in that." He pauses for a moment, as if considering plenty of less pleasant afterlives. "I guess I'm just overly optimistic."
Nina is silent, which he takes to be good sign. He always feels like an idiot when she laughs at him.
"Fair enough," she finally murmurs. She extends a hand up into the air, reaching toward the diamond-dusted darkness of the night sky. "You know what I think, though? I think that when you die, your spirit drifts up into the sky and you become a star, watching over the universe."
Galen's brow furrows; a comical expression for a twelve-year-old kid. "Nina," he says slowly. "You know that a star is just a ball of gas, right?"
She reaches back and smacks him upside the head.
"Oww, what was that for!?"
"I didn't question you, dimwit. So don't you go questioning me! I'm allowed to believe whatever I want!"
"Fine, geez. Just don't hit me anymore!"
"Maybe you shouldn't have given me a reason to!"
Their parents laugh at them sometimes – tell them they're just like an old married couple and that they're sure to end up together someday. Galen and Nina are thoroughly embarrassed by this. They're friends, is all. Nobody seems to understand how a boy and a girl can be just friends.
(They've made a promise, you see, to be "just friends" forever.)
Their bickering trails off into nothingness, annoyance snatched away by the tranquil silence of nighttime. It's always peaceful by the Goddess Pond, of course, but at night when the crickets sing and the crystal flowers glow with a soft, blue-tinged light… At night it is truly lovely.
"You know what I want?" Nina says quietly. "I want a telescope – the biggest telescope in the world. That way I can look up and see all of my ancestors and thank them properly for watching over me."
This time, Galen keeps his comments to himself. There is something hauntingly beautiful about Nina's vision of the afterlife, and he'll allow her to ponder it in peace. The two friends lay by the bank of the Goddess Pond, silent and pensive, and sink slowly into the sounds of the night.
Galen thinks that he'd like to buy her that telescope, if he could.
Every time he receives his allowance (just a few cents, but it's something) he deposits it in a shoebox beneath his bed. He saves up for a whole year, and the sound of each coin being added to the box is like sharp, metallic music to his ears.
But then his father loses his job at the factory, and money gets tight. Galen doesn't really notice it until the day his mother goes without supper, and lies and says she's not hungry, that they should eat their food before it gets cold.
Galen is proud when he presents the shoebox full of saved allowance and sees his mother's overjoyed, smiling eyes. He has helped his family. For once, he is the man of the household.
He glances out the window and sees Nina standing in his front yard, staring up at the stars.
He whispers his apology, but there's no one there to hear it.
It's confusing, he thinks, being this age. Everything's awkward, from speaking (everyone laughs when his voice cracks) to walking (he trips over his own feet more often than not) to interacting (girls are interesting now, and he's not sure if he likes it). He and Nina are still close, of course, but sometimes he tries to joke with her, like he does with his guy friends, and she looks at him in pure disgust. He feels less than her sometimes. As if she's better than him and knows it. His pal Henry tells him this is completely normal.
"Women, they're in control," Henry says with frustrated scowl. "They know how to make us feel like dolts without saying a single word. You just gotta learn how to please 'em, Gale. Don't give 'em any reason to scorn you."
Easier said than done.
Besides, Nina's not like the other girls. She doesn't giggle and bat her eyelashes when the boys pass by. She still races in the schoolyard and gets in the occasional scuffle and climbs trees like she did as a kid. She still scrapes her knees and wears pants whenever she's allowed and knows all sorts of things that most girls don't. She's not "girlfriend material," his friends say. Too smart and quick-witted. Too wild. Too free.
So Nina hasn't changed, not really.
Which makes Galen wonder why things feel so different.
One afternoon, he and his guy friends head out to the neighboring town to have a bit of fun (nothing to do in the Valley, unless you like fishing or digging for old fossils). They meet up with a group of pretty gals, one for each of them, and head off to the theatre to see the latest action-packed western.
Halfway through the film, Galen's date (whose name he doesn't even know) reaches over and grabs his hand, bold as can be. She's blushing like mad in the hazy semidarkness of the theatre, and can tell that she expects him to make the next move, put an arm around her shoulder or something of the like.
But all Galen can think of is how wrong her hand feels within his own. And then, like a bolt of lightning, something jolts through his mind and awakens him to the truth. That something is a face, beautiful and untamed and smudged with dirt, smiling down at him triumphantly.
Suddenly, Galen understands why being with Nina has seemed so different.
He gets out of his seat, ignoring the protests of his affronted date, and walks out of the theatre as if in a trance. He hears his friends calling his name, but it doesn't matter, because there's someone he has to see and it can't wait another minute. He walks out of town. He walks along the river. He walks all the way back to the Valley alone, as the sun sets behind him and stretches his shadow long and lean.
By the time he gets home he's exhausted, but he keeps going, toward the Goddess Pond and the Sprite Tree, where he knows she'll be waiting for the first stars to appear.
She peers down through the branches, and there are leaves and bits of twig stuck in her brown curls. "Oh, it's you," she says, and grins. "I thought you were out on the town."
"Nina, I want to break our promise," Galen says breathlessly, trying not to stammer or blush.
She stares at him, suddenly serious, and then climbs down slowly until she's standing before him in all her hidden glory.
"You mean… the promise?" she asks, eyes narrowed, and again it's like she's on some high pedestal and he's just an insect, begging for his life to be spared.
"… Yeah." He's staring at his feet. "The promise."
Nina snorts derisively, and it is possibly the most unladylike and wonderful sound he has ever heard. "It's about time," she grumbles.
She grabs him by the collar and pulls him down into a kiss, bold as can be, and the whole world snaps into focus.
Galen's got his first job, working as a paper boy and delivering the news to all of the Valley's inhabitants. It's a tough job – he's got to wake up near the crack of dawn most every day – but it pays well, so he's not complaining. He's saving up again, you see. He'll buy that telescope if it kills him, just to catch a glimpse of Nina's amazed, grateful smile when she sees it for the first time.
Living in the boonies has plenty of drawbacks, one of them being that you never know what's happening in the outside world, not really. News by way of paper takes a while to travel all the way to Forget-Me-Not, and there's only one radio in the entire Valley (which, for some odd reason, only works on alternating Tuesdays). It's like living in a vacuum, he thinks. Or maybe the Valley's simply stuck in the fabric of time, cut off from the rest of the world, like in one of those "science fiction" novels that Nina always reads.
Now that he's a paper boy, with some time on his hands as he rides from the farm to the villa and back again, he's taken to skimming the headlines religiously. Most of the time it's nothing interesting. Occasionally it's something gruesome. Sometimes it's something unfortunate.
But one day, the headlines become somehow more… urgent.
WALL ST. IN PANIC AS STOCKS PLUMMET
BANKERS FAIL TO HALT MARKET CRASH
Galen thinks little of it at first. The papers are always yelling at him about "the economy", and none of it ever has anything to do with him. He's just a small town paper boy, after all – nobody's ever taken the time to teach him about debts and income tax.
But as the days drag on and the headlines grow more and more desperate, Galen begins to wonder if something in the world has gone completely, horribly wrong. Later that year, when most everyone in the Valley is out of work and the bread line in the nearby town is three blocks long, he finally decides to teach himself a bit about money – how to earn it, how to spend it, and most of all… how to keep it.
Unfortunately, his family is hungry, and Galen has more than enough money for groceries in a box beneath his bed.
"Sorry, Nina," he whispers, and tucks a stray curl behind her ear as she sleeps. "Maybe next year."
It's not the best time to be getting hitched, that's for sure. No matter what the politicians say, things aren't a whole lot better than they were a few years before. Most of the Valley's men have steady jobs thanks to the railway they're laying a couple of miles north, but it's still tough putting food on the table.
"You should wait," his mother tells him, "until we have more money. And then we could have a beautiful wedding for you two, and invite the entire family…"
But he tells her no. Now is the right time. Because something is changing in the world, slowly and surely. No one else has been paying much attention to it (they're too distracted by their own problems to take notice of anyone else's), but Nina has. She says there's something being set in motion, across the sea and far away, and that it will affect them all in the end, so they had better get married while they still have the chance.
Nina's usually right about these things.
It's a small ceremony, nothing spectacular, and there are far more things borrowed than blue, but it's wonderful all the same. Most of the Valley's residents are attending, dressed in their Sunday best or as close to it as they can get. Galen stands at the altar, nervously adjusting his tie (why did he have to tie it so tight?), reciting his vows over and over in his mind and oh god what happens if he messes them up and what if they're rushing into this a bit too quickly and what is marriage like, really, after ten or twenty or even fifty years?
But then the music begins to play, and Nina walks down the aisle, and he realizes that none of it matters at all. Because today he's marrying the girl he's always loved, and he couldn't ask for anything more.
(At the reception, as they go to cut the first slice of cake, Nina grins wickedly and starts the most infamous food fight the Valley has ever known.)
He'd meant to buy her a telescope as a wedding gift, he really had. But they need a home of their own – a place to start a new chapter in their lives – and new homes don't come cheap. He throws his life savings into building a little cottage down by the river, in the midst of a copse of sentient trees. In the summer, he knows, the trees will sway and melt in the hot sun and cast flickering sun shadows through the windows. When autumn begins again the trees will send waves of red-gold and brittle brown down upon the house, and he'll rake the leaves into piles for their children to jump in. In this tiny house he can see their future, and he couldn't be happier.
"Now this is a place to grow old in," Nina says, smiling. It's a quaint little place, of course, with whitewashed walls and a path of stepping stones and a bench ideal for sitting and reading. He's added a lot of things that he knew she'd love, like the flowerbox beneath the kitchen window.
But one thing is still missing.
"I'm sorry, Nina," he says apologetically, putting his arms around her and holding her tightly to him. "I keep meaning to buy you that telescope, but it always seems like there's something else that needs buying…"
She shoots him that incredulous look that he hasn't seen since they were kids. "A telescope? You're still set on buying me one of those things?" She laughs quietly. "Don't beat yourself up over something like that, Galen. I'd much rather have a lovely house like this than a silly old telescope."
But the strange thing about Nina, Galen thinks, is that he can never tell when she's lying.
The other wives are crying, their tear-stained faces twisted into grotesque, bloated masks of grief. They clutch desperately at their uniformed husbands in one last attempt to make them stay, as if somehow a few tears will reverse the sweeping tides of war.
Nina is dry-eyed.
She'll cry later, of course, when she's alone in the house they've lived in for only a few short years. She'll sit in the empty living room, watching the dust drifting through cold sunlight, wallowing in the intense silence, and cry until her tears refuse to flow. Despite what people may think, she has her weaknesses too.
But for now she'll be strong. For him.
Galen looks nervous in his uniform. The stiff military fabric, starched with severity, is somehow wrong on him, and he seems like a lost, wide-eyed little boy, abandoned and alone in an unfamiliar place.
When they were young he was always horrid at the schoolyard scuffles that the other boys loved so much, instead preferring to hang back and cheer on his pals. So what, Nina wonders with a leaden heart, will he do in the midst of a battlefield? He's a grown man, she thinks. He can take care of himself. But there's a tiny voice in the back of her mind nagging at her. 'He's not cut out for this,' the voice says. 'If… When he comes back, he'll be a changed man.'
And she can't deny the truth in what the voice says.
The military transport vehicle has just arrived, engine roaring as it traverses the slick country roads, and cold-eyed men are piling out, yelling to the new recruits that it's time to disembark. Wives and children are being pulled away from their husbands and fathers, tearful hugs and kisses are being exchanged, choked goodbyes are being whispered.
Nina looks Galen in the eye for a moment - dark brown staring deep into bright, wary blue. She leans in and kisses him on the cheek.
"Give 'em hell," Nina murmurs.
And in that moment she looks more like a soldier than he does, with beautiful fury raging behind her eyes.
He's dodging bullets left and right, breath coming in short, anxious bursts. The familiar frenzied, panicked feeling of a battle is setting in, and he's seeking somewhere – anywhere – where he can stop to reload his gun, to rest his aching feet, to pray to whatever god might be listening to help him get through this in one piece.
Conway is shouting something to him, but he can't hear over the roar of the tanks and the whine of incoming planes. Lynn is gesturing wildly to a bombed out old house across the field, his tired face smeared with dirt and blood, and together they make a beeline for it, leaping over barbed wire and undergrowth.
They're almost through the door when an enemy plane careens by overhead and drops an explosive right on top of them.
The building explodes, sending the three of them flying backward. Galen slams into the ground, struggles to regain his breath, and feels as if his leg has been set on fire. The pain is excruciating – he can hear someone shouting in agony and realizes, distantly, that it is his own voice.
The last thought that crosses his mind before he blacks out is that there are too many clouds this evening.
He can't see the stars.
Galen walks with a pronounced limp now. The shrapnel in his leg, they say, has lodged itself in so far that there's no hope of removing it.
Oddly enough, he hardly seems to mind. He's not the innocent young man he was when he left, just as Nina anticipated. He's seen things, things no man should ever have to see, and even a year after returning he still awakens in a cold sweat in the middle of the night with the names of his fallen comrades on his lips.
Galen's taken up quiet hobbies these days. Whittling, in particular, and bonsai trimming. Such activities calm the tempestuous waves of emotions that constantly buffet his fragile soul. When he has something small and delicate to concentrate upon, he forgets the terrible memories that plague him, and is able to be at peace, at least for a time.
Nina leaves him alone when he wishes to be. He needs time, she knows, to meet his troubles face to face and vanquish them. But she misses the Galen she once knew, who would climb up to the rooftop and watch the stars with her, or surprise her and take her out to the jazz club for a night of dancing, or try his hardest to ease her housework burden by cooking dinner (though it was almost always burnt). She misses his easy laughter, and the way his eyes crinkle warmly when he smiles. She misses the nights when they would stay up by candlelight and read old romantic poetry to each other, competing to see who could be the most over-the-top.
That Galen is gone.
But Nina knows that she will learn to love his new self as well, after everything's said and done.
He tries to make a telescope, out of spare parts he finds lying around. It shouldn't be too difficult, he thinks. A lens here, a few mirrors there. Simple. He needs something to with his hands anyway; it keeps his mind off of other things.
He takes the telescope outside once he's finished, and positions it towards the pinpricks of light that burn brightly in the dark, hazy purple of the night sky.
Galen looks into the telescope, and sees only shadow.
For the first time since returning from the war, he breaks down and cries.
For Nina's 86th birthday, Galen waits until night has fallen, and then leads his wife down the well-worn path towards the Goddess Pond. Neither of them are very quick on their feet anymore – together they suffer from more aches, pains, and rheumatism than they care to admit – but what's the rush? When you get old, time flows much differently from when you're young. The passage of time can fluctuate easily from lethargic to lightning quick, and one just has to take it in stride.
Getting old isn't easy, no, but Galen and Nina are good sports about the whole affair.
In Galen's eyes, though, Nina hasn't changed at all. If she could, he knows she would still be exploring the treetops and searching for buried treasure and racing against all the boys in the Valley like she did in her younger years. It can be strange, he thinks, to look at Nina. Because when he looks at her he sees not only his lovely wife, but also a gray-haired, middle-aged woman, a gorgeous young lady, a spirited adolescent, and an adventurous child. She is, in a sense, a timeless person, as her past selves refuse to fade away into obscurity, instead combining to create who she is today.
And Galen is proud, because he can call her his wife.
"Where are we headed on such a beautiful evening?" Nina asks as they walk, face creased into a smile. Their arms are linked together, which means far more than holding hands ever could. "To our secret fort?"
Galen chuckles quietly and shakes his head. "No, my dear. Better than that, if you can imagine."
"Better? Well, you have indeed piqued my interest!" Nina exclaims, laughing.
They emerge along the bank of the Goddess Pond, where so many years ago they had lay and stargazed, pondering upon an unfathomable afterlife. The crystal flowers are glowing dimly tonight, spreading their blue-green light across the earth, and somewhere the last cricket of the evening is chirping slow and mournful. The Sprite Tree spreads its network of branches above their heads, and the leaves whisper secrets as a cool breeze gusts past.
Along the bank of the Pond is a telescope – old-fashioned in design but brand new, cast in gleaming bronze and brass.
She runs a wrinkled hand along it tenderly, almost lovingly, and then turns back to stare at her husband in pure amazement. "I… I can't believe it," she whispers. "I never thought you actually meant to…" She trails off, and smiles the most lovely smile he has ever seen. "Galen, thank you for this. It means so much to me."
But he simply shakes his head. "No, don't thank me," he says. "Do you know how many years I've been wanting to give this gift to you? Now go on - look through it!"
Nina looks through the eye of the telescope and sees not tiny diamonds glittering far away in the cold depths of space but beautiful spacescapes of stars and planets, distant nebulas and clusters, all in picturesque detail right before her eyes. Soon enough, there are tears rolling down Nina's cheeks, and she dabs at them with her handkerchief.
"I can see them," she says quietly, but her emotions are on her sleeve at this moment and she's happier than he's ever glimpsed her. "My ancestors. I can see their stars."
He hadn't known she still believe in such things. But then she motions him closer, and tells him to look at one star in particular. As he peers through the telescope and sees the true up-and-close beauty of a star, Galen thinks that maybe, just maybe, Nina's idea of the afterlife isn't so silly after all. Maybe a star can be whatever you wish it to be. Right then and there, Galen cannot imagine a better fate than to spend his afterlife guarding the universe from high above, keeping safe those that he might leave behind.
Galen and Nina watch the stars until the first warm rays of sunlight paint the mountaintops in gold, and return home with their arms linked once more.
Jill is headed down to her favorite fishing spot, pole and tackle box in hand, when she sees a sleek bronze telescope by the side of the path. Confused, she moves closer to inspect it.
There is a note attached to the telescope, which simply says, "FREE," in shaky handwriting. Jill glances up and down the path. No one lives in this part of the Valley except for Galen and Ni… No, she reminds herself. Just Galen.
She wonders why in the world Galen would have such an exquisite-looking telescope. And why would he just leave it at the side of the path for anyone to take? Jill frowns at the note, perplexed.
She notices something written under, "FREE," that she hadn't noticed before.
Two simple words.
Galen sighs and tugs at his scraggly white beard. He places a small bouquet of Forget-Me-Nots on Nina's grave.
"Stars are bright tonight, aren't they my dear?" he murmurs.
And sometimes he thinks he hears an answer, echoing from far away.