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shooting stars.. .

11:04 a.m.., Monday, Nov. 01, 2004


It made a slight "whooshing" sound, a noise Garry couldn't identify; then a thud, and a slight resonance as the web of his chair vibrated against the thin metal of the lawn chair he'd dragged out past the porch only a few minutes before. The ice in his glass made some noise too, although Garry couldn't be sure if it was from the original shock or his reaction to it. He knew something had landed, heavy, as if the foot of King Kong had set down only a few feet away. His first thought was that someone had thrown something, either intentionally or otherwise. Next, he considered the possibility that there might be another thud. No telling how close it might be, especially if someone were aiming at him. He jumped up out of his chair, knocking it over in the process, and ran for the house. Along the way, it occurred to him that perhaps something had fallen from an airplane. He dropped his glass into the grass, realizing it would only slop its contents all over his hand. What he didn't know of course, was that being in the house wouldn't make him any safer.

- - -

It was the spring of 2003, in the Chicago suburb of Park Forest. Just after midnight, a meteor shower had dropped several thousand celestial specimens on the small community. It was the most densely populated area ever to have been hit by so many meteorites. Irate citizens had called the police after several homes were hit. Not Garry though, his house had been spared. It was his yard that had suffered.

As he read the morning paper, it occurred to him, that in all of his twenty nine years, he'd never once had an occasion to call the police. He looked up from where he was sitting; barefoot, in his pajamas, at the kitchen table. The same one he'd sat at his entire life. His eyes stopped on the telephone. It was a brown rotary job, and had been sitting there on the kitchen counter since before he'd been born. But it still worked, so he'd never bothered to replace it. Even if it meant having to wait for the operator for assistance sometimes. He wondered if there was anyone he should call. The hole in his yard wasn't as big as he'd been hoping. Not after he'd heard the guy on the radio the night before say that collectors had descended on the community in hopes of finding something special, and were willing to pay by the pound. This was after he'd parked himself safely in the bathtub with his radio, the one he'd bought for jogging, and was still certain he would use one day.

- - -

Garry frowned. Deeply. The telephone sat patiently, waiting for him to make up his mind. The article in the paper said that he should call his insurance company if there was any damage, but other than that, there wasn't much to be done. Garry knew differently. After only twelve hours, the bidding wars had already started. He knew that those that had the best stories were getting the best prices. He'd also noticed another number, a museum; Chicago Field Museum, to be exact. They were asking people for specimens. He looked at the name, Chhaya Maharajapuram. Indian, he thought. An image of Ajitabh came to mind, his lab partner in college. Nice guy, but awfully head strong. He wondered about this Chhaya. If the man might be paying more than the collectors for space rocks that hadn't plowed through someone's roof and landed in their potato salad. He wondered if he might come dig it out too. Garry wasn't much for getting his hands dirty.

- - -

Since the meteorite had waited till the end of the week to drill a hole in his back yard, Garry found that he had all week-end to decide what to do with it. The local news reports continued with stories of outrageous tales. Someone had felt a "tingling" sensation just before a small rock from outer space crashed through their skylight and embedded itself in the their pillow, only inches from their face. Another man had got up to pee in the middle of the night and had been standing before the bowl ready to fire, when something close to the size of a marble came shooting through the ceiling, dove into the cool blue water and vanished, splashing him slightly.

Garry knew that his own little piece of history wasn't newsworthy, just as he knew he wouldn't be getting much, if any, money for it. The hole in his backyard had turned out to be so small he couldn't even get his fist into it. He figured anything more than a couple bucks and a pat on the back, would be pure gravy. But he'd never been a hound for money. For Garry, life itself hadn't had the same impact since he'd received a telephone call from his Uncle John eight years earlier, during his junior year of college. Garry's parents had flown out to visit relatives in California, and had been two among a throng of patrons at a Baskin Robbins that was situated very near the end of runway three of Sacramento International Airport. A small commuter plane had trouble lifting off, and had plowed into the small ice-cream parlor, killing all those inside. Fortunately for Garry, his older sister had already married and was able to assist with the rest of his tuition. He'd graduated on schedule, and had landed a job as a lab technician at the city water treatment facility.

- - -

By the time Monday rolled around, Garry had made up his mind. He called the Field Museum before leaving for work, and was told somebody would stop by that evening.

As he drove to work, it occurred to him that he'd not had anyone over to the house since Patricia had left him. Two years had passed since then. Two years. Garry had trouble believing that fact, even though Eugena reminded him of it ever time they met for lunch. It troubled him that his sister always came alone. Never with her husband, never with the kids. Three of them. Nephews and nieces he'd not seen since the youngest was in diapers. He never asked her about it though. She was a very smart lady, everyone always said so. If she had a reason, it had to be a good one. Garry trusted her with his life.

As he parked in his customary spot, Garry thought about the woman on the phone. The way she'd told him someone would be out to see him. She'd had an accent, very slight. Garry hadn't thought about it at the time, but there in the parking lot, he wondered if perhaps she were Asian. He smiled at the thought. It had been pleasant to talk with a woman, if only for a few minutes. At the treatment plant, everyone was male. Garry liked that aspect of his job. It made it easier to concentrate on what he was supposed to be doing, which was making sure the water was safe before it was sent out to the general populace.

- - -

Garry was glad he'd taken another shower when he'd come home, because when he opened the door to greet his guest, it turned out to be a woman. Not Asian, but perhaps middle-eastern. She took a step back when he opened the door, and reached to push a strand of long black hair from her face.

"Hello, Mr. Fedorov?" She smiled as she said it, lifting her arm in a gentle arc, offering her hand up to him. "My name is Chhaya Maharajapuram, from the Field Museum?"

Garry tried, but failed to remove his eyes from hers, to look to where he was extending his own clumsy appendage.

Their fingertips met, danced in mid-air for just a moment, then stopped. For that instant, they were frozen together, lost in time. But then, he felt her move against him, her skin, soft and warm, pliant, as she slipped her hand into his palm. The smallness of it caused the muscles in his chest to spasm as he tried to make himself breathe normally. He lowered his eyes, just enough to look at her hand in his. He was struck by the color difference. Hers a dusky brown, nearly ginger, the tiny lines across her joints slightly darker, as if toasted a bit longer. His in contrast was a mix of pale pink and whites, with little black hairs sprouting from the backsides of his fingers, intruding on her femininity. It made him nauseous for a moment. He drew in a deep breath.

"Nice to meet you," he said softly, exhaling slowly, trying to recover. This made him grit his teeth. He hated sounding too formal. "Doctor, is it?"

She nodded slightly and smiled again. "You were expecting a man, right?"

He nodded, her teeth had begun to blind him. Soft and tingly, yet bright white with the promise of youth, even though she had to be very nearly the same age as he. He let his eyes drift lower, but only long enough to take her all in. Blue jeans, a maroon tunic open at the throat, curves everywhere. Very little jewelry for an Indian woman.

He took another deep breath, suddenly over-aware of his own appearance. His slight paunch, the haphazard shave, his sunken eyes. His nose.

He exhaled loudly. "Would you like to come in?"

Her face clouded, and instantly he regretted his question.

"It's in the back yard, right?" She tried to smile, but clearly he'd crossed some line.

"Uh, yeah," he answered, trying to remember if it was possible to get to the back yard without going through the house.

"You have a gate?" Her voice was strong again, her smile back in place.

He did have a gate, on the far side of the garage. Just past the rose bushes his mother had planted when she'd moved in with his father after their wedding.

"I do," he whispered, and then waited for her to take the first step.

- - -

"It's a chondrite," she announced, turning to look over at him.

Garry liked how the dirt looked dusting her knuckles. Nearly matching her skin color. He nodded, sitting safely a few feet away in his lawn chair. "How big?" He asked.

She held it out for him to look at. "I think, nearly three hundred grams." She rubbed something from her forehead with the back of her free hand.

"I should have dug it up before you got here," he said again, looking at the small pile of dirt next to the hole.

"Not a problem," she replied. "It's my living after all."

He nodded, and wondered if he should just give the thing to her. "About three hundred grams," he repeated, nodding to himself.

She nodded back. "About a half pound?"

He nodded again. He knew. It annoyed him slightly that she assumed he wouldn't. He multiplied in his head. He'd heard that some people were getting anywhere from five to twenty five dollars a gram. But, he also knew those prices were reserved for those whose rocks came with a far more fetching story. He wondered how he could possibly barter with the woman. He couldn't even look at her for more than a few seconds.

- - -

Garry watched as she stood for a few minutes brushing dirt from the porous surface of the dark rock. He sat quietly, patient, wondering how things might proceed.

When she shifted her weight suddenly onto her opposite foot, Garry realized he should offer her a seat. As he tried to get up, his chair squeaked, causing her to turn to look at him. Those eyes again. This time reflecting sunlight. Little bits of gold crowding her deep amber irises. Garry tried to swallow, but found his adams' apple sticking awkwardly to its core.

"Would you like something to drink?" he asked.

Her eyes narrowed a bit, little lines forming across her forehead where she would have wrinkles several years into her future.

Garry moved several paces toward the house. "Please sit." He gestured towards his chair while at the same time raising his brow so she would know it was a question, not the desperate pleadings of a man longing for a lengthier conversation with a pretty girl.

She raised a single brow, an involuntary gesture to be sure, but convincing nonetheless.

- - -

Inside the house, Garry felt his face begin to flush. He'd guessed correctly that her culture would make it difficult for her to say no to someone offering hospitality, especially a man. He'd won that little battle, but he didn't feel good about it.

- - -

As he stepped gingerly across the grass, a full glass of water in each hand, he wondered once again if he should give the rock to her, free of charge. After all, what good could possibly come of taking money from an attractive woman? Especially now that she was sitting in his lawn chair.

"Would you like to move out of the sun?" He gestured behind him to the porch, to the small metal table, painted white, to the little matching chairs. She looked him in the eyes a moment, computing he assumed, assessing her chances of walking out of there with her precious space rock. Until that moment, it had not occurred to him that she might place any real value on the thing at all. What was another rock to a geologist after all?

- - -

"Have you ever thought about time?" she asked, "real time?"

Garry planted both elbows on the table and rubbed his eyes. Staring at her made him slightly dizzy. With the two of them now sitting across from one another, he felt he had to be careful in how he phrased things. "Real time?"

"Yeah," she said, smirking slightly. Once again he was reminded of his old lab partner. Whenever the guy knew something he knew that Garry did not, he got that little smile on his face, and twisted his head a little to the side in that way Indians did. Like this woman, Chhaya, was doing now. He shrugged. There were worse things than watching her talk.

"Imagine, this rock?" she held it up again, looking across the top of it, into Garry's eyes. "Imagine this meteorite, flying through space." She paused again, obviously relishing the words that were to come next. "For ten million years." Her eyes darkened then, as her mind left them both far behind.

Garry looked at the rock, this time with new appreciation. "Ten million years?"

She blinked, clearly forcing her mind back to the task at hand. She pushed the rock towards him. "Yep, look closer, you can see the universe expanding."

Garry tried to suppress a chuckle, but only half succeeded. "Expanding huh?"

"Can you imagine ten million years, Mr. Fedorov?"

He took the rock from her and looked closer. With the dirt rubbed clear, he could see that it was made mostly of some metallic substance, something that must have melted as it tore it's way through the stratosphere above them. He looked at her again. "And then, it just stopped." He turned and pointed with his free hand at the hole in his yard. "Right there."

She smiled again. "You see, this is not just an ordinary rock?"

Garry nodded.

She paused to let him think it over some more, then resumed. "You are not from here either, are you?" Her voice sounded a shade nervous.

"My grandparents came here from Russia," he mumbled, not turning to look at her as he said it. His mind was the one now wandering, trying to imagine the distance a rock could travel in ten million years.

"So, time is relative?" she murmured, a hint of playfulness darting across her eyes.

Garry turned back to look at her. He'd not expected a pun from one who on the outside appeared so serious. "I suppose you could say that," he replied, realizing while he spoke, that she already had.

She was smiling again, but this time her face was more relaxed.

"You have no dot," he said, gesturing towards his own forehead.

"No," she agreed. "But not because I am without a husband."

"No?"

"It's because I live here, in America. Because I went to school in St. Lois, and then here, in Chicago. It is because in my heart, I know who I am, even if others do not."

Garry sniffed a moment. The pollen blowing past was threatening to make him sneeze. "So, who are you then?"

The woman sat back into the arms of her chair. Without the rock in her hand as an anchor, she appeared able to float away at a moments notice.

"In Hindi, my name means, Shadow." She smiled again, waiting for the questions to follow. None came. She moved her face, slightly, enough to cause her to have to shift her eyes to look at him.

"I know about the name stuff," he told her. It was true, his lab partner had made a big deal out of explaining it all. First and last names were not something that existed in India. "I knew a guy, Ajitabh?"

"One who conquers the sky," she interrupted. "Not proper for a girl. Maharajapuram is my hometown." She said it harshly, as if she'd never been back.

"Your last name?" he asked.

She nodded. "If you wish."

Garry nodded at the hole again. "There isn't enough dirt to fill it in."

He turned to look at her, wondering if she thought him dense. Her face was flushed and she was biting her lip, trying to suppress a laugh.

Garry smiled, suddenly feeling at ease. "I suppose you've never sat in your back yard, naked but for your underpants, a mixed drink in one hand, and a two cookies in the other." He smiled again, looking past her, to the fence that surrounded his back yard. "And then, had like this, rock, fall out of the sky, almost killing you?"

She smiled broadly, and almost giggled. "You're a bit old to be relaxing outdoors in your underpants, don't you think?"

"It was midnight remember, and it goes way back. Imagine if you will, the Fedorov's, before they came to this country, too ingrained to buy swimming trunks, lined up along the banks of the Volga, drinking Vodka."

She looked away. He knew he was bordering on embarrassing her again. He warned himself, but continued speaking, as if his mouth was his grandmothers, old and wizened, never able to be still. "Made it easier to piss on the fire."

She lowered her head, he half expected her to rise from her chair and make a hasty exit. He wondered, if he refused to sell her the rock, might she come back another day?

"In India," she said, without lifting her head to look at him, "the women are left to attend to the fire."

Garry wasn't sure what she meant, but he laughed out loud anyway. "A girl could get in trouble that way."

She looked up at him, her hair was cascading down around her face. For a moment, Garry worried she might have been drinking a little herself before she arrived.

"You are a man of science, Mr. Fedorov?" Her voice held the promise of suggestion, if only he could answer correctly.

"Yes, Mizz Maharajapuram, I am indeed."

"You know what free radicals are?"

Garry racked his brain. Free radicals had something to do with atoms, electrons, neutrons, something like that.

She nodded, seemingly in sympathy. "Those snarky little atoms with the odd number of electrons that roam haphazardly about the body trying to find a steady state?" She seemed to be enjoying herself. "Grabbing hold of the first unbalanced atom that happens to pass by, perhaps?" Her voice had taken on a bit of cynicism.

"Perhaps," Garry agreed.

"Once formed, they can force a chain reaction, which means cancer, of course.. ." She frowned at him, but only out of respect for the dead, he assumed. "How long do you suppose," she continued, "they roam about, you know, before hooking up with some indiscriminant normal atom?"

"Ten million years?" he asked as innocently as he could muster, spreading his lips wide.

She laughed this time, full out, nearly disrupting her glass of water.

Garry laughed with her, his mouth wide open, his own thick patch of hair jiggling with each new burst. He wasn't clear on what she thought was so funny, but was more than willing to go along for the ride.

She stopped laughing suddenly and looked at him. Her eyes dark, her jaw muscles clenching. "Are you gonna give me the rock or not?"

He looked at her a moment, her question still ringing around in his head. "You know, the last time a woman asked me that, I wound up on a bus to Detroit."

She furrowed her brows, a look so impossibly cute, Garry had to bite his tongue to keep from screaming. "Perhaps you've not been here long enough. Sometimes, in the good ole USA, people refer to diamonds as rocks." He said it with mock sincerity, and then watched as she digested.

"It was a demand for a proposal of marriage?"

Garry clapped his hands together. "My, but aren't you as sharp as a space needle."

"You didn't answer," she whispered, her head bobbing back and forth again, reminding him of a snake charmer.

"You play flute?" he asked, knowing he was running out of time.

"You play chess?" she countered.

"I do," he whispered. "I do indeed."

- - -

Garry wasn't sure why, but when she rolled down the window of her car to say good-bye to him, he was overwhelmed with the feeling that he was supposed to kiss her. But that was just fantasy. She was married, beautiful, so far beyond reach that he could easily lose himself in time, or space even, if he wasn't careful.

He watched her drive away, knowing the rock would be safe, tucked away in a museum that he could visit anytime he wished. He had a standing invitation after all.


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