He pulls into the diner’s carpark just after midnight. Back stiff and eyes heavy from staring through a windscreen more splattered bug than glass. There is no one else there.

He parks and then sits there for a long time, a hand on the steering wheel, chewing his lip. Now and then he glances at his phone, and in its bleaching light his face is zombie-white and gaunt. Eventually, he takes a deep breath and steps out.

The air is familiar and nuzzles as if alive and curious. Pieces of styrofoam and paper and dry grass skitter across the asphalt in a slow and endless migration. Nothing has changed, he thinks. But then he looks up into the sky – surely there should be more stars, this far from the city – and remembers that everything has changed.

Because now, there are the lights.

Here, as everywhere, they look like a slow cloud of motes, neon-bright and swirling and so far up that even the dragontail clouds of the stratosphere stream past below them. They look farther away here then they do in the city and that, he supposes, makes sense, because the city is where they are. And that is where they linger eerily, a swarm of mute and incandescent observers no one understands.

The diner door creaks at precisely the point it did when he was young. The counter unchanged also except now amidst the flaking Formica are little naked patches of plywood smoothed and darkened with age. He half expects the people to be the same too, but the skinny blonde who approaches is new. She is diminutive and stained and quivering with some thin energy as if she were desperately trying to repress laughter. An arched eyebrow is all the greeting he gets.

‘Two,’ he says.

She gestures to the empty booths, hands him a menu, and walks away.

Of course he goes to their booth. The faux-rubber creaks beneath him as he slides in. The chrome trim of the table, cold at first, but warming up with touch. It all feels the same. He can’t tell if it’s changed or not. Perhaps that is the point of places like this, he thinks. To look like they have always looked this way, even when they haven’t.

He waits and fidgets. Every time a car passes he watches it go. After a while the waitress appears by his side.

‘What’ll it be?’ she says.

He looks her up and down.

‘Is Tran here?’

‘Who? No.’

‘Mike?’

‘Dunno. No.’

‘Coffee,’ he says.

She takes the menu and clops away.

He turns back to the window. In its ghostly reflected otherworld is a hollow version himself and the fluorescent interior of the diner. A man comes out of the back and peeks at him and then retreats. He can hear them talking in the kitchen. They are talking about him, he is sure, but he cannot hear what they have to say.

Then she arrives.

At first, he does not know it is her. He sees a little figure in a dark jersey with its arms wrapped around itself trotting across the carpark. Then she steps into the light leaking through the windows and sees him and smiles. He stands up. After a moment he sits down again, and waves back.

She doesn’t come in straight away. She stands, staring up at the sky, and he knows she is looking at the lights. When she does she slides in opposite him and they stare at each other for a long time. Older, he thinks, and harder-faced than when he knew her. But her eyes are the same and so is the little twitchy smile and machine-gun blinking before she speaks.

‘You came,’ she says.

‘Yeah.’

‘You drink coffee now?’

He looks at the cup.

‘No. I don’t know why I ordered that.’

The waitress comes over and drops a menu on the table and wanders off.

‘Wait,’ she says. ‘I want food.’

The waitress slouches back.

‘What do you want?’

‘Eggs,’ says the man. ‘Scrambled. Two sausages, bacon, toast, a glass of orange juice.’

The waitress looks at him and then at her.

‘And you?’

‘That was for me,’ she says. ‘He’ll have an English muffin. Beans, sausages, two eggs over medium.’

‘Hold the muffin,’ says the man.

‘Diet?’

‘Don’t I look it?’

She looks him up and down and pouts.

‘Yeah, you do.’

The waitress wanders off.

‘You’re paying,’ she says.

‘Sure.’

She smiles.

‘You haven’t changed.’

Neither has she, he thinks, but he doesn’t need to say it. He knows that she knows what he is thinking.

#

She is gone when he wakes up. He rolls over and buries his nose in the pillow. In that soft morning darkness the whole world is her scent and he lies like that for a while. But soon enough it is not enough, and so he showers and shaves and wanders out into the cutting heat of the motel’s parking lot. He realizes that he has no idea what he is going to do, so he drives. Down the main road – it is only fifteen minutes to the outskirts of town – and then out into the brush. The land slopes away on either side, studded with bushes tougher than sinew, all the way to the brown horizon. He passes an old water tower and remembers throwing stones at it. He passes a gorge and remembers playing with a dog in the water at the bottom. He has not thought of the dog for a long time and his heart quickens and he pulls over and sits in the shade of his car, watching the slicing shadows lengthen, until finally it is dusk and he decides to go back.

It is just past sunset when he returns. There are more lights on the strip and more bars than when he was younger and over one shuttered facade are a luminous pair of women’s legs, flicking up and down and up again, juddering electric seduction. He slows down in front of it, wondering what it used to be. An instant later the door flies open and a woman clops out in a black negligee and heels.

‘Hey,’ she says. ‘Come on in. Happy hour.’

She does not sound like she wants him to come in. He looks up at her and smiles.

‘Hi Rita.’ he says.

She stares at him. Round-faced and bluish in the neon light. Thin blonde hair wafting in the breeze. Then she grins.

‘Holy shit. Atomic Ben.’

‘Hi.’

‘Jesus. You got thin.’

‘I did.’

She raises her eyebrows.

‘You comin’ in, then?’

He wants to say no, but before he can, she speaks again.

‘Listen, we all know there’s only one reason you’d come back. So just come in and lets us get a drink and talk about how wrinkled we got, OK?’ She winks. ‘I could use a drink, and someone to buy me it.’

There is no one else inside except for the man behind the bar and three younger girls, and he does not recognize any of them. Rita points him over to a booth and wanders over with some beers. She has tattoos now, he notices, three on her neck and one on her forearm, a chessboard and a heart and a swordfish woven around an anchor. A couple of men wander in and the girls flock to them and soon one of them is on the pole, upside-down and legs wide, her hair hanging down like the fairy roots of some flying plant.

‘How’s she been since I left?’

Rita finishes her beer in one long chug and goes and gets two more.

‘I’m driving,’ he says.

‘You’ll need it if you want me to answer.’

‘That bad, huh?’

‘Up and down main street, sometimes,’ she says. ‘Hollering and swearing at each other. One time she got out of the car and just ran. He chased her down, just outside the pharmacy. She knocked him out cold.’

He chuckles.

‘Yeah, that sounds about right.’

‘You really came back, just for her?’ she says.

He nods.

‘But she’s so weird.’

‘I know.’

‘You know what we used to call you two, right?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Remember what we used to call her?’

‘I remember.’

‘Didn’t it ever bother you?’

‘No. I mean, I know she’s weird. Or was. But still.’

Rita peers at him and her smile fades.

‘You love her,’ she says.

‘It’s not love,’ he says. ‘It’s something else. I don’t know what it is.’

Rita finishes her beer and leans over and finishes the other one too. Then she pats him on the shoulder.

‘The longer I live, Bennie, the more I think no one really knows what love is,’ she says. ‘So how the hell would you know what it’s not?’

#

He picks her up the next day after she has finished work. She comes careening out of the supermarket, still in her stripy uniform, arms wrapped around herself. She sees him and waves and comes cantering across the street, but when she gets to his car she stops, one hand on the door handle, the other hooking an imaginary lock of hair behind her ear. She stares at the lights for a long time, and he does not disturb her.

Eventually she gets in, smelling of cigarettes and work. But her lipstick is fresh, and before she speaks she fishes a small bottle out of her bag and sprays herself on the neck with it. The car will smell of her for days now, he thinks.

‘Out,’ she says.

‘Out where?’

She leans the chair back and closes her eyes.

‘Wherever.’

He drives for an hour while she sleeps, into the wilderness and along long straight roads with no end. Eventually she wakes with a start and looks at him wild-haired and wild-eyed.

‘Where are we?’ she asks.

‘Outside town.’

She pulls her seat upright.

‘Where’re we going?’

‘The canyon.’

‘At night?’

‘We don’t have to go in.’

She rests her head on her arm and stares out the window. There is nothing to be seen but the blurred dark of the desert. Then a billboard – Morley’s Motel – half tilted over and patched with rust.

‘Do you know about Morley’s?’ she says.

‘What about it?’

‘There used to be a coven of witches living there.’

‘Oh yeah?’

She shuffles upright and cricks her neck.

‘Yeah. They worshipped this three-legged goat.’

He chuckles.

‘Go on.’

‘On Tuesdays they’d suckle at its teat, and they thought they were communing with the dark lord. But they didn’t know that their goat had a dark secret too.’

‘Which was?’

She leans into his ear.

‘He was a boy goat. There was no teat.’

Ben laughs so hard he grows dizzy and has to pull over for a while. She laughs too and for a long golden moment there is nothing in their universes but each other’s amusement. Eventually he pulls back out onto the lightless road.

‘Did you know Rita works at that strip bar?’ he says.

‘How would you know?’

‘I saw her yesterday.’

Silence.

‘I was just passing by, and she called me in.’

‘Passing by?’

‘Seriously.’

‘Right.’

‘Seriously. She looks kind of messed up.’

‘Everyone’s messed up around here.’

He glances at her but she does not look at him or speak again. After a while, he says:

‘How’re the kids?’

‘They’re fine. They’ll be fine.’ More silence. And then: ‘You’ll pop in from time to time, right? To see if they’re ok?’

‘Yeah, I don’t think giving me access to your kids is high on Victor’s list of priorities, Jen.’

He feels something on his arm and when he looks down it is her hand, dirty, varnish flaking. Her touch is electric. He looks up and she is looking right at him and he eases up on the accelerator so he does not have to look away.

‘There are ways,’ she says. ‘Keep tabs on them?’

‘Why?’

‘Just – do it?’

‘Alright. I guess. I’ll try.’

‘Pull over.’

‘Right here?’

‘Yeah.’

He does. She wraps her jersey around herself again and he sees that it is the same one from the night before and there are holes in it. He offers her his coat and she takes it with a smile. Then she climbs out and clambers onto the hood and up on to the roof of the car. When he joins her she is sitting cross-legged and puffing a cigarette and watching the lights. They move in eddies and flows, starting and stopping without rhythm or reason. As he watches one long tentacle seems to extend towards them, and then effervesce away.

‘They just keep getting weirder,’ he says.

‘They’re not so weird,’ she says.

‘No?’

‘They’re just four-dimensional manifestations of n-dimensional objects.’

‘Oh yeah, duh, of course.’

She nudges him with her shoulder.

‘Yeah. Duh.’

‘And why are they swarming over our heads?’

‘Because they’ve come to pick up their agents.’

‘Agents?’

‘Yes. See, as n-dimensional creatures – the creatures who built it – they can’t really understand the subjective experiences of four-dimensional ones. So they created agents – that’s what they call the human bodies they inhabit while they’re here – to live in the same continua, to see gather evidence on what it feels like to be creatures like that. And now they’ve come back for us.’

‘Us?’

She looks at him unsmiling and he can barely see her face in the dark.

‘Yeah,’ she says. ‘I’m one of them.’

It takes him a long time to see the mischief in her, longer than usual. But he finds it nonetheless.

‘Nice. What does n-dimensional mean, anyway?’

‘You think I’m joking.’

‘Yeah, I think you’re joking.’

‘I’m not joking.’

He looks at her. She waits a heartbeat, long enough for doubt, and then she laughs too.

‘Loser,’ she says.

She puts her arm around him and for another eternal instant there is nothing but her face and the desert and the lights and the wind and it too smells of her.

‘You,’ she says eventually, ‘You’d better take me home. Victor’ll be getting worried.’

He nods.

They drive back in silence, and she holds his forearm all the way. When they get to her house the front door is open and the porch lights are all on and there is a bicycle on the unmowed grass.

She sighs and gets out.

‘Hey,’ he says.

‘Yeah?’

‘Why did you call me?’

She glances up at the lights and shrugs.

‘I wanted to see you.’

‘After twelve years? You just wanted to see me?’

‘Yeah. I just wanted to see you.’

He expects her to say something else but she doesn’t. Instead she blows him a kiss, grabs the bike, and heads inside. A curtain in the house twitches and someone looks out at him, but he does not wait to see who it is. He drives back to the motel, pulls up, and turns off the engine. Then he breathes deep, and there is enough of her perfume left that when he closes his eyes he can imagine she is still there with him.

#

Ben wakes to the sound of something thudding against his door. He is about to put his eye to the peephole when it flies open and smacks him hard on his face. Someone staggers through – a flailing man, heavy and stinking of booze and sweat. They fall and wrestle about on the floor like hogs. Eventually he frees himself and looks down and realizes that the denim-clad wreck shivering on the carpet is Victor.

‘What the hell, man?’ Ben says, rubbing his chin. ‘What the hell?’

‘Is she?’ says Victor. Speaking seems an infinite drag and he moves his unshaven jaw slowly, two or three times, before anything comes out. ‘She?’

‘What?’

‘Where? Where is she?’

He gets up. Bigger than Ben, but wasted. There are little red pockmarks like leech-bites on his forearms and his neck and his shins.

‘She’s not here,’ says Ben.

Victor glares at him for a bit. Then he drops to his hands and knees and looks under the bed. After that he trundles over to the cupboard and stares at it too. Finally he makes his way over to the toilet. Ben watches him glare at the tiles and the floor and in the sink as if Jen might be hiding in the depths of the plumbing.

He turns back to Ben.

‘What’ve you done? Shit. Brain shit.’

‘You’re wasted,’ says Ben, ‘Jesus, man, it’s not even nine am.’

‘Fuck you. Where she?’

‘I don’t know. What’re you on?’

‘Fuck you.’

‘Alright. Get out.’

Victor growls and sits up.

‘You saw her last night.’

‘I did.’

‘You fucked her.’

‘I did not.’

‘Liar.’

‘I didn’t.’

‘I c’n smell her in here. She was here.’

‘Yeah. But I never touched her.’

‘She stayed the night? And, and you never?’ Victor hiccoughs. ‘Liar.’

‘I didn’t touch her. Even if I’d tried she wouldn’t have let me.’

‘What? Why?’

‘Why?’ Ben licks his lips and breathes through his nose, once, hard. ‘Because she loves you, man.’

Victor stares up at him, pouting like a fish. Then he curls up, and sobs.

‘Then she’s gone,’ he says. ‘Oh God, she’s gone. She’s gone.’

‘I dropped her off last night.’

‘She’s gone. She’s gone. I came home and her stuff. Was packed.’

‘What?’

‘She’s gone.’

Victor heaves himself up onto the bed and fumbles about in his trousers. Then he pulls out a flask and takes a swig and holds it out. Ben flinches.

‘What is that, turpentine?’ he says. ‘No thanks. What did you say about Jen packing her things?’

Victor takes another swig, whimpering.

‘She packed her things. Left a note.’

‘Saying?’

‘Ah. I won’t be back. It said – I won’t be back for you.’

‘Are you sure she’s not just at work?’

‘Fuck you, alright? Fuck you. Why’d you come back? You. Shoulda stayed. Gone. I’ve got kids now, man. I don’t…I don’t even…’

Victor gets up and walks over to Ben. For a moment Ben thinks he is about to hug him, but he punches him in the face instead. The door to the room is still open and someone appears in it briefly and gawps at the two of them. A few moments later, the police arrive, and soon Victor is on the floor next to Ben, spasming under the impact of 50,000 volts.

#

When Ben wakes up he throws up all over the policemen, and so they send him to hospital. He is concussed, the doctor tells him.

‘Who did this?’ he asks.

‘Victor Wong,’ says Ben.

The doctor is bloated and leather-faced and his overalls are flecked with orange stains at the wrist. He chuckles when Ben speaks, as if he had expected him to say what he says. As if it was the way things should be.

‘Can’t let you out right now. He thumped you but good. Officer Gamage has some questions for you, but you call me if he gets in your face, alright?’

‘Alright.’

The doctor leaves and the Gamage enters. Tall and tight-lipped and his silver hair shorn into prickly stubble. He paces up and down the room for a few moments without speaking. When Ben clears his throat he holds his hand up.

‘Hear that?’ he says.

‘What?’

‘Exactly.’ He stops at the foot of the bed. ‘I’m not hearing you telling me where Jennifer is.’

‘I don’t know where she is.’

Gamage paces slowly round the bed and pulls up a chair and up close Ben can see that even though it is cool and dry his face is covered in a thin film of sweat.

‘You sure?’

‘Yes, I’m sure.’

‘But you were with her last night.’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘She wanted to talk. We drove out of town and watched the lights.’

Gamage licks his lips.

‘That all you do?’

‘Yes, officer, that’s all we did.’

‘That’s not what Victor thinks.’

‘Victor’s fucked up.’

‘Yeah, sure, Victor’s fucked up.’ Gamage pauses. ‘What’re you doing here, Ben?’

‘She asked me to come visit.’

‘After twelve years?’

‘Yeah.’

‘Just like that.’

‘Just like that. You know what she’s like.’

‘Yeah, I do.’ Gamage narrows his eyes. ‘And what you’re like.’

‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

He makes a great show of getting up and stretching. Then he ambles towards the door, hand to his lips, head bowed.

‘You said you were watching the lights?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What time?’

‘About midnight, I guess. One-ish. I had her home by one thirty.’

‘You know they’re gone, right?’

‘What are? The lights?’

‘Yeah.’

‘What do you mean, they’re gone?’

‘Gone, as in gone. As in they’re not there anymore.’

‘Why?’

‘How should I know?’

‘Well, look, it’s all on my GPS. It’ll show you where I was. And my hotel has tape; I’m sure they’ll have -‘

‘Don’t you worry, I’ll be looking into all that. Don’t go anywhere.’

‘I need to be back -’

‘You’re a suspect in the disappearance of Jennifer Wong. You’re not going anywhere.’

Ben sits up.

‘Disappearance? Wait, how do you know she’s disappeared?’

‘Twelve years, she keeps the same schedule. Then you turn up, and poof, she’s gone. Tell me that doesn’t sound suspicious.’

‘Jesus, Charlie, it’s me. You know me. I’m from here.’

‘No, you aren’t.’ Gamage fixes his eyes on him. ‘You never were, and neither was she. That’s why you two are such trouble.’

He leaves before Ben can say anymore. When he is gone Ben lies in whitewashed limbo listening to the machines beep and the flat tap of footsteps outside. After a while the doctor returns and shines lights in his eyes and clicks his fingers in his face. Then he says he’s good to go.

It is dark when he comes out. He remembers his car is back at the hotel and his phone is dead, so he wanders out onto the road and back to the hotel, half on the asphalt, half on powdery soil the color of milk tea. He stares at the sky most of the time and thinks how empty it looks without the lights. Cars drive past and he catches glimpses of their insides and the people chatting or staring or fiddling with their phones seem far away and alien and part of a world he seems to remember being part of too, once. But he cannot be sure. When he gets to the hotel, Victor is sitting by the entrance, hands in his pocket, chin on his chest. He gets up when Ben approaches.

‘Back off, man,’ says Ben. ‘I’ll call the cops again.’

‘No, wait!’ Victor holds out his hand and in his palm is a chocolate bar. ‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I…I was freaked out. I’m sorry.’

Ben looks at the chocolate and at Victor’s ruined face. The instant he does, Victor begins to cry again.

‘I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘I don’t know where she is. I’m sorry.’

Ben takes the bar. It is warm and soft in his hand.

‘Thanks.’

‘I’m sorry.’

‘It’s fine. I’m fine.’

‘You really don’t know where she is?’

‘I didn’t see her after that morning.’

‘I waited and waited but…you really didn’t touch her?’

‘No. She wouldn’t have let me. She loved you, man.’

He wants to add that he never knew why. That the absurdity of it all was beyond him. That she shouldn’t have, she should have loved him, and everyone knew it. But he is too tired to be cruel and in any case, he cannot be sure that any of it is true.

‘Yeah,’ says Victor eventually, eyes brimming. ‘I never figured out why, though.’

#

They find her body two days later. Out in the desert, in the middle of a stone circle. It is suicide, they say, and an elaborate one at that. Ben reads this all later, when he can think of it without setting his chest on fire. The forensics team call it a bizarre case and reconstruct her last hours. She spent time preparing her spot and writing notes – one for Victor, one each for her children. Then at about sunup she lay down in the middle of it all and, staring up at the lights – at least, Ben is sure she did – slit her wrists with a scalpel. When they find her the bloodstains on the ground are long and dark and someone says it looks like she was shooting black lightning from her fingertips.

Gamage calls Ben to tell him some of this and when he is done he just waits on the other end of the line. Ben does not know what to say so after awhile he says, ‘Anything else?’

‘No,’ says Gamage. ‘I’m sorry this happened, Ben.’

‘Thanks,’ says Ben, and hangs up.

He drives around for hours that day, beneath a sun scorching the world white, into a sunset that lasts forever. Finally the world subsides into cold and dark and still he can’t bring himself to stop. He cruises past endless expanses of shrub and up and around mesas once mountains but now just smooth nubs scarred by rain and time gushing past as endless and vast as the Amazon. He does not mean to but he drives to where it happened. He comes across the stones and they are still just as she must have laid them out. The patch of sand within them has been swept clean. There is no sign of her anywhere.

He walks around the circle and steps in on a gust of cold air. His memory working so furiously now that he can feel the pressure on his temples. Recalling her every expression from that night, every movement of her body. He looks and looks but there is nothing there but her as she has always seemed to him. Curling smoke from her cigarette into the air. Laughing so hard her stomach cramps up and she has to curl up on the seat like she’d been punched. Fizzing with life and humor and that fat streak of melancholy that ran through her like obsidian against gold.

He sits down and she is there with him. She has challenged him to a game of rhinoceros and they are back to back on his bed in the hotel. Her trying to push him off and muttering curses so foul that sometimes they both just crumple into laughter. Eventually he pushes back and she flops over onto the floor. The next instant she is on her feet and striding over to the bathroom. She does not return for a while, and when Ben eventually finds her, she crying in the mirror.

‘Shit, sorry,’ he says, and backs off. Then: ‘Did I hurt you?’

‘No, you didn’t.’

She makes no effort to stop. He stands there for a few moments, torn, and then he steps forward. Putting his arms around her shoulders – so sharp, so familiar – and awkwardly holding her to him. She leans into him and continues crying. Great body-shaking gasps. Grief like he has never seen before, and now, even in memory, so intense that he cannot stand the thought of it.

‘I’m sorry,’ she says. ‘Thanks for coming, Ben.’

‘Of course.’

She touches his cheek, her eyes flicking over his face and her gaze so fierce he can almost feel it on his skin. Whatever she is looking for she seems to find, for a moment later she flashes her little upside-down smile and nods.

‘I’m ready to go home now,’ she says, wiping her eyes.

He thinks of what must have happened next, after he dropped her off, but it does not make sense. He sits amidst the brush and cries for a while. When he is done he is so tired he cannot think of anything but getting back home, and it is a relief.

He is just in bed when his phone buzzes. It is Victor.

Funeral tomorrow , it says. Her parents don’t want you there_._

#

That night he dreams of her. They are out in the scrub. The moon is fat and limp on the horizon. Behind him, crowded over his old lawn, is a mass of people, and they are holding things. Little glowing hearts and golden cups and books. All clutched in their underformed little hands. All of them still and faceless and shimmering slightly in the wind.

She isn’t far away and he sees her clearest of all. He walks towards her through a dusty maze of things – a tricycle, a pen – but the people on the lawn start shuffling back. Slowly at first, but faster as he draws near. Then he starts to jog and they wail and drop their things and flee into the night.

She turns and walks away too. He sees that beyond are more people, all like her – diamond-bright and tranquil. He stops and lets her be folded into their midst – welcomed, he is certain, into some happiness he could never begin to give her, or even fathom.

The moon sets.

#

He wakes early the next day with the drab dawn oozing through the blinds. For a few moments he does not remember anything, and then memory returns like a flood of ice. The absence of her now so different to the absence of her before. He had long immured himself to her being somewhere else, but that will not help now that she is nowhere.

He has tied his tie and put on his suit before he realizes that he has decided to go to the funeral. Victor is on the floor outside the church when he gets there and there is a gaggle of people about him. Some are weeping and some are holding him and one red-faced man is bellowing at him with his finger in his face and one raw knuckle held up to his mouth. Victor sits up when he sees Ben and everyone else pauses and looks over too. He recognizes them all, and they him, but no one says anything. They just pause from their ruckus and watch him enter the church. When he glances back from the doorway they are all still staring.

Her parents are inside and watch him expressionlessly as he walks down the aisle. The floorboards are scuffed, the velvet on the benches discolored, and farther he goes the more he hates it. This ragged and fraying shack. These empty people who loved all the wrong things about her. His vision narrows. His breath shortens.

They are whispering now.

Down by the altar is the coffin and it is draped with flowers and they are all pink. He wants to scream that she hated pink and never wanted to be buried in a coffin. How could they not know this. How could they not know something as simple as how she wished to be dead? Her parents glare at him and he stares back until they look away. Then he takes the final leaden steps up to the altar and looks into the coffin.

In the midst of the silvery plush is a body. A dried-up thing, caked in makeup, reclining like some ancient doll on display. It looks like her, but the longer he stares, the less he recognizes. And yet when he touches her cool face and presses his lips to her cheek he almost expects her to jump up and punch him on the shoulder and dissolve into laughter. But when he opens his eyes she is still there. He searches his grief for some sense but all he can think of are things that never were and things that will now not come to pass. Of how an entire world in which he would have wandered endlessly and without complaint is now gone. He tries to think of something to say, but there is nothing. There is only her and him looking at her and the tick-tock of the world grinding slowly on past them.

‘I’m sorry, Jen,’ he says.

They all stare at him as he turns and walks out. He wants them to say something, one lacerating rant to blow them all away. But they do not say anything or even come close and eventually he makes it to his car. Then he drives three blocks and pulls over and weeps, curled up against the window, palms up, until he can barely see and barely breathe. And though he feels better afterward he realizes that from now on it will not be a matter of looking for answers, but learning to live without them.

He drives on and after a few hours night falls and the sky looks naked without the lights. He pulls into a motel and pops open his glove compartment. A small sheet torn from a notepad flutters out. He does not see what it says but he sees the handwriting and he immediately forgets what he was looking for.

He picks the paper up, trembling, and holds it up to the light.

I wasn’t joking. – Alien Jen

He holds the note to his chest and looks up. More tears now. And he realizes that all this time he’d been staring at the lights, he’d forgotten about the stars.