You're earning your stripes, you're counting your stars
You're winding your barely-working watch
You're lucky to be on the lam like you are
You're lucky you've already been caught
-The New Pornographers, Unguided
What can you do? She's gone. Of course you knew it'd always happen, and some part of you that sounds rather like your daughter says it probably should have happened long ago. But no matter. She's gone, and it hurts. It's a bit of a good hurt, though.
She's doing the only thing she's ever wanted to do. You know because you saw her, one night when the world was being saved, and she was happy. Happier than you've ever seen her. So how could you be upset?
It's just where she is that bothers you sometimes. Well, all the time. Mainly because you don't actually know.
You wish that when she called, she'd tell you where she's been. And then you could go and buy a map, maybe put pushpins in, mark off where she's been. You could tell her about the time you were in Germany, about the time you and your outfit marched on Düsseldorf at the end of the war. You've never told her about that. Maybe you never will. You think about that thought, and your heart breaks a bit. You don't really know who it's breaking for.
So you sit alone at your newspaper stand, sipping the thermos of tea your daughter made for you in a fit of holiday inspired goodwill. You added a little extra goodwill from the tiny bottle in your coat you keep hidden from her. Lucky for you, she never washes your coat. Apparently you're not so infirm that you can't do your own washing-up. Oh well.
You're feeling a bit melancholy tonight. Maybe it's that you put a bit too much of the goodwill in your tea, but maybe it's that the streets are empty and it's Christmas Eve. This never used to happen. It's strange how everyone seems to be convinced aliens exist, but only when they're not around. You know that says something about human nature, but you can't for the life of you figure out what it could possibly be.
You know better. You've seen him. And she's with him.
She says he's wonderful, but you think of him as great. Great in the sense that Alexander was great, that Catherine was great. Great and terrible and good and intangibly beyond. You don't envy her trying to follow that.
Aliens or no, the soldier in you keeps you at your post.
You shake your head slightly when the street fills with the sound of delighted laughter. Somehow, impossibly, ten or fifteen people are standing in the center of the street. There's one woman, barely more than a girl, whose eyes are shining as she twirls around in the street. The man with her is smiling at her as she spins, looking at her in wonder and soaking up her joy and enthusiasm. She bounds over to him and throws her arms around him in thanks. He disentangles himself and looks around, saying something to the girl. He notices you, and you switch on a tiny television set you keep in the stand, trying to make it seem like you haven't been watching them this whole time.
The man walks over to your stand, friendly grin on his face, the girl following just behind. "Hello there! Sorry, er, obvious question, but where's everybody gone?" He asks you,
It is a fairly obvious question, if you don't know what's going on. "They're scared," you say, chuckling slightly. The empty streets seem almost silly, now that you're telling someone about them.
Perhaps they're from out of town. His accent, though. Perhaps they've lived abroad?
"Right, yes. Scared of what?"
"Where have you been living? London at Christmas? Not safe, is it?" Definitely abroad.
"Why?" The man leans forward with a questioning frown.
"Well, it's them, up above." You gesture up at the sky for the man's benefit, and your eyes can't help but follow your hand. You've always loved the stars. After all, you're the one that taught your granddaughter to love them. "Christmas before last we had that big bloody spaceship, everyone standing on the roof. And then last year, that Christmas star electrocuting all over the place, draining the Thames..."
The girl, looking around, says in an awed voice, "This place is amazing." Her eyes dart all over the street, from the pavement, to the windows, the shop decorations, the trash bins. You're reminded of the first time you brought your granddaughter to Harrod's. She was five, and you were amused at how she went mute, staring at the displays and the lights like she had just taken the first steps on an alien planet.
"And this year, Lord knows what. So everybody's scarpered, gone to the country." You look over to the television set. The station's set at the news. Below the broadcaster, the headline reads 'Her Majesty to Spend Christmas at Buckingham Palace'. Despite what you've just told the man, it can't all that bad if Her Majesty is staying. Even though you know it's all been designed to keep the people calm over the holiday, you can't help that bubble of pride. What a woman. Despite everything, still standing tall. That's what you've always wanted to do, the man you've always wanted to be. Once, a long time ago in Düsseldorf, you might have fancied yourself that man, but it's been a long time. A long time since you were young, a long time since you were the young man who thought that he could become a hero if he simply pretended to be one long and hard enough. In retrospect, you realized everyone else was doing the same thing. Pretending is hard, but it's a habit you've really never figured out how to break.
A proud smile crosses your face, and you make a brief show of patting the television affectionately. "All except me...and Her Majesty." The three of you watch as the broadcaster reiterates the headline almost verbatim.
You stare at the picture of Buckingham Palace on the television screen as you address the man. "God bless her!" Your eyes moisten and your voice cracks as you bless Her Majesty, and you're momentarily embarrassed. You're not really given to overt displays of patriotism. In your mind, patriotism is a bit like religion, something deeply personal you celebrate inside, deep where no one can see. Like everyone else in your generation, you've spent most of your life listening to people reciting the common platitudes to each other. You've never really taken part in it.
The man smiles at you, and for a second you think that this man might actually understand. He might just be able to see past the hollow words and feel the emotion, the honesty in your voice. To you, they're not just words. Never just words. "We stand vigil," you say.
"Well, between you and me," The man says briskly, leaning forward slightly, "I think her Majesty's got it right." You grin at him, delighted to meet someone with some common sense. "Far as I know, this year, nothing to worry about-" And then they're gone.
You're not quite sure how to react. By some random chance, every time one of the massive alien things happened, you've been away or otherwise indisposed. As a result, you have no idea what to do when fifteen people suddenly disappear in the middle of the street.
Lord, it's quiet out here.
You debate leaving your stand and finding a policeman; there's got to be someone out there tonight. Maybe others have disappeared. The soldier in you refuses bluntly to leave your post, and the coward in you wants to stay where there's relative safety and a battery-powered telly. Resigned to staying put, you flip through the channels, looking for people talking about sudden disappearances. Nothing. Odd.
And then you see a hooded figure walking down the street, toward your newspaper stand. As the figure slowly approaches, it becomes clear that it's a smallish person, bundled in a purple anorak that's just big enough to look slightly ridiculous. You're wary, but not nervous. Not exactly.
When the figure gets closer, you're able to make out its gender. It's a youngish girl, younger than the girl with the childlike eyes, but somehow older-looking. Not sadder, exactly. More lonely. It's hardly surprising. She is alone in an empty city on Christmas Eve.
When the two of you make eye contact, you're briefly reminded of your granddaughter again. Seems like she's never far from your mind. For some bizarre reason, you remember the first time your granddaughter split up with a boyfriend. She was seventeen, madly in love, and completely devastated. The boy had evidently said some cruel things to her, sending her into a rage that ended with a broken wrist, a trip to hospital, and a week off from school. At one point, she came to your house, looking for tea and sympathy as much as she was looking for something to do while off school. You took her up to the hill behind your house, where the two of you used to watch stars when she was little and you taught her how to use the telescope. When you hugged her, she cried like you'd never heard her cry before. You never asked what he said to her. You were too afraid of what you might do. But after that, the two of you started watching the stars again.
The girl reaches your stand, and you smile warmly at her. She pulls the hood of her anorak off her head and smiles back, and you realize that she's a bit older than you thought she was. She asks you, "D'you know if the bus is running tonight?"
"Sorry, love, I don't know. There's a stop down there," you say, gesturing down the street in the general direction of where she was walking, "But you can wait here, if you like. It's a bit warmer."
"I'm not cold," she says, but she doesn't make any effort to leave.
"So, the bus, eh? Going to see family on Christmas?" You know you're prying, and quite transparently at that, but your concern far outweighs your sense of politeness.
The girl's eyes widen as she quickly evaluates the situation. You find it odd how obvious her emotions are on her face, how you can practically see her thought processes flashing behind her eyes. Her face changes, slightly, imperceptibly, as if she's opening a door, and all of a sudden you can see an intense sort of resigned sadness mixed with guilt. "That'd be nice. But no. I'm seeing friends."
"Friends? Well, that's all right too, I suppose."
There's not much else you can think of to say to a complete stranger fifty years your junior, so the conversation comes to a halt. You look back over at the television, while she pretends to reads the front page of one of the newspapers laying in a neat pile on the counter.
After a while, you offer lamely, "My granddaughter-she's a bit older than you-but she's away from home this year. Gone traveling."
The girl looks up at you. "Where's she gone?"
"Oh, everywhere, anywhere, I can't keep track. I'm just waiting here, keeping myself busy until she comes home."
"Keeping busy," the girl laughs, a sharp and harsh breath of air. You watch her breath condense and float away, slowly dissolving. It's a bit mesmerizing. "It's all you really can do," she continues, her voice dark and bitter.
"While you wait," you murmur.
"While we wait."
She abruptly grins, a bright, flashing, blindingly insincere grin, "Thing is, you know she'll be back. I don't think he'll ever want to see me." She ends with a desperate little chuckle.
Like when your granddaughter broke up with her boyfriend, you don't ask what happened. You know all too well how utterly unimportant the whys and hows are in the grand scheme of human emotions. All you do is say one thing.
"Have you tried looking?"
And by the look on her face, you know she hasn't, can't believe how impossibly simple a solution that is. You grin at her, and for the first time, she actually grins back, her old-looking eyes filled with hope. She throws her head back and grins up at the sky.
"Thanks," she says to you, still staring at the stars. "Happy Christmas."
A/N: I know it's August and this is a Christmas story, but I don't particularly care. I'm such a rebel. B-)
I know nobody'll actually listen to this, but in case you're curious, here's a link to Unguided: watch?v=TtOTPI0vqiE
Note to the wise: It's a LONG song; skip to about 3 minutes in and you'll hear the bit that I quoted.