Shortly after they'd moved to the farm, Johnny called Eric outside one night. It was mid-August, and the night sky was dark that far out from Washington. It was an absolutely clear night. A flood of stars sparkled above, virtually covering the tops of the trees.
Johnny pointed out the constellations he knew. Eric knew only one, the Big Dipper. Both could see it pointing in its vast reach to the north, past Annapolis, past Baltimore. They sat down together in the swing and stopped their work of unpacking boxes, so that they could enjoy the night.
On Sunday, two days after Johnny's death, Eric walked out of the house in the morning for some chore or other. Its purpose escaped him, but he found himself staring at the dull winter sky. It had no interest for him. It appeared ugly, like a scab formed over the open wound of night, he thought. He was impatient for the comfort of the living room in the quiet of the night, lit only by the small night light, where he'd last talked to Johnny alive.
That day, or maybe the night before, Tona told him some more bad news. Johnny's youngest brother, Buddy, had suffered a massive heart attack on Friday night when he'd heard the news of Johnny's death. He was down at a hospital in Knoxville, where they'd taken him from Morristown. He was not expected to live. She was the only member of the family available to nurse him. They'd have to leave for home very soon. Eric, Tona and Don talked. They agreed to wait until Tuesday, and then Tona and Don would leave.
Tuesday came, the parting was painful, and then Eric was alone. Throughout January, even before Johnny had been hospitalized, he'd imagined himself alone like this. He'd imagined himself alone with the stars at night, when he could find Johnny up against the night sky as a new, secret constellation that only Eric could know. He had not imagined the depth of the loneliness he would feel.
Eric continued his chores during the day. There was much to do to straighten up the house. There was all the paraphernalia of the sick room to put away. Beyond that, there was the process of moving in that had been put on hold months before, as Johnny grew weaker. There were numerous accounts to close, papers to sign, numbers to call, all the bureaucratic chores of death.
Late that night, Eric went to walk Shiki outside before turning in. It was the only time of day when Eric could find some relief.
Outside, it was cold under a cloudy sky; the stars were nowhere to be seen. As he walked Shiki about the yard, it began to snow: big, dry flakes slowly floating down. He put his arms out and up, as if to draw the flakes into himself. The flakes felt warm, as if they were enveloping him.
It's Johnny's love, Eric thought. He's there, spread out among the stars, pouring his love down in me. He died for me, he thought. He didn't just die, he made a sign of his death, he used his death to tell me he'd understood what I'd said, that it's okay to let go, he'd understand. That was how much he loved me, he died for me. He literally died for me.
It continued to snow. Shiki finished her business and came back to Eric. They went inside. Eric sat down next to the soft light of the paper lantern and stared at it, searching again for the feeling of warmth that seemed to be growing colder and more distant.