By Steve Finegan
“Oh Susie Q/Oh Susie Q/Oh Susie Q Baby I love you/Susie Q” — Dale Hawkins
Night after night that early spring, Robby went to bed and lay there, hands behind his head, eyes wide and fixed on the window, feeling like he was going to bust right out of his skin. His dad told him he was thirteen and “percolating,” whatever that meant. But if it meant he was restless, yeah, he was restless, and all worked up about … well, he liked to think it was Becky Maguire.
Becky was a really great girlfriend. After all, she liked Robby a lot, and she was super popular with the most popular eighth-graders at both Alameda and Madeleine, and even with the kids at Beaumont. Cute, that’s what all his friends called her. And she was cute, with her long blonde hair and sky-blue eyes, and her great bod—he’d seen her in her tiny tangerine bikini at the Grant High School swimming pool last summer. And she was a great kisser; he’d discovered that behind the building at Wilshire Park. He’d be crazy not to like her. Crazy not to want her to be his girlfriend forever. Crazy not to jump in front of a charging rhino to save her. Right?
Robby sighed. He was sprawled on his bed beneath his big dormer window, in the middle of a pool of pale moonlight. No music after nine, that was the rule, so the old portable Philips hi-fi, with its locked-and-loaded stack of forty-fives, was silent and growing cold. In the quiet, Robby lazed in the moon’s molten-silver light. It shimmered on his arms and hands as if from the inside out, and cast his shadow—grown giant and lumpy like a zonked-out Hulk—on the far wall of his third-floor attic bedroom. Yeah, blonde and blue-eyed Becky was a great girlfriend, but sometimes, like now, it was easy to forget she even existed.
He just couldn’t keep his mind on her. She kept getting crowded out by the image of another girl, a girl he dreamed about for the first time on Christmas Eve, a girl he couldn’t recall ever meeting—a girl with no name. He’d been dreaming about her night and day ever since.
She had perfect hair, the color of the deepest dark chocolate, to the middle of her back; perfect hazel-green eyes with long, curling lashes; a perfect little arc of faded summer freckles across the bridge of her flawless nose; a perfect mouth—soft, full, and inviting; a perfect body with long, graceful arms and legs and everything else; and she glided and swayed like perfection itself in Robby’s music-fueled daydreams to the sound of John Fogerty singing “Susie Q.”
Robby saw her now, standing with her back to him at the top of the public stairs above Deadman’s Hill, the steepest street in the neighborhood, on a warm, moonlit midsummer night. As if aware of his staring eyes, the girl slowly turned and gazed down at him, her heart-shaped face tilted to one side, her dark hair spilling to her shoulder like a shimmering waterfall.
“Hi,” she said. Her voice was like honey, and slightly husky—sexy. A perfect voice. “Remember me?”
That question always drove Robby crazy because, dreaming and waking, he felt he should know the girl; he just couldn’t quite place her—not for the life of him—no matter how hard he banged his head against his bedroom wall. Still, he kept half-expecting to run into her in the hallway at Alameda School or at Madeleine or in Grant Park and have it all come back to him in a flash, only to find out that the drop-dead-gorgeous girl with no name already had a studly boyfriend and would think Robby was a sick perv if she knew he dreamed about her all the time. And how was he supposed to answer her question, anyway?
Yes … Something told him she’d know he was lying.
No … Lame.
Maybe … Lamer.
Lucky for Robby he never had to answer before she said, “It’s okay. I’ve changed since last time. Ask me, and I’ll come down to you.”
His answer was a thought, a wish: Oh, yes, come down to me!
Smiling, she moved down the stairs, her hips rolling gently under her shimmering black dress, her hand surfing the banister rail.
In his imagination, Robby reached out for the girl, but before she came near, he always drifted back to reality. Damn!
There was something else about this girl with no name, something he couldn’t quite make out because it was concealed in the deepest depths of her wide, piercing eyes, something both wild and wise, and regal like a princess or a queen or … He wasn’t sure. Whatever it was, it made her so much more than the grand total of all her perfections. It made her … But Robby didn’t know what to call what it made her, because that something was always just out of reach, just like the girl herself, and that troubled him more than anything else.
Robby sighed and looked out the window, his face bathed in moonlight through silvered glass. Up there in the clear night sky, at the beginning of a sweet-smelling, cherry-blossomed spring, hung a full moon so swollen and heavy it seemed ready to fall like a ripe apple and land with a plop in the middle of Alameda Street.
Quietly humming “Susie Q” he reached over and plucked the white frosted glass Christmas ornament off the small table next to his bed. He’d found it—little more than the size of a golf ball—at the top of Deadman’s Hill on Christmas Eve and had kept it as a good luck charm. He held up the little orb by its hook, studying its pale shimmering glow in the light of its bigger twin hanging up in the sky. Trouble was, the longer he gazed at it, the more the thing reminded him that he couldn’t remember who the girl with no name really was—if she was anyone at all, that is.
Frustrated, he carefully returned the ornament to the table, before he did something stupid like throw it against the wall, then reached out and circled the moon with his fingers to pluck it down. But it stayed put. Robby’s chest heaved and he sighed long and loud. Yeah, Becky was a great girlfriend.
Becky Maguire lived “below the hill,” just a few blocks from Madeleine, where Robby went to Mass on Sundays with his mom, dad, and dickhead of a brother, Bill. The shortest route to Becky’s house on foot was to take the public stairs—four flights of concrete steps set between hill-hugging houses on the wooded side of Alameda Ridge and known to everyone as the Stairs—from the top of Deadman’s Hill down to Twenty-Fourth and walk the few blocks to Siskiyou Street.
In the tidy front yard of the corner house across the street from the bottom of the Stairs stood a weathered sundial of greenish bronze. At its center was a crescent man-in-the-moon face surrounded by stars. On his forays down to Pixie Market to stock up on Hostess cupcakes and Milky Way candy bars, and especially on his walks to Madeleine for Saturday catechism class, as far back as he could remember, Robby had been stopping to admire and play with this ancient relic. He didn’t know whose house it was. Whoever lived there didn’t have any kids at Alameda or Madeleine, and never once had anyone come out to say hi or tell him to scram; although a frowning old lady (his friend Jeff Fahrland, aka Fartland, would have called her a “geritolic”) had once watched him for a few minutes from behind the glare of the front window.
One evening that spring, as Robby walked to Becky’s, he saw a man standing in the yard gazing at the sundial—a strange bear of a man with folded arms, like a mutant Mr. Clean in a TV commercial, showing off a couple of gold finger rings that flashed like fallen stars in the fading sunset glow.
He was olive-skinned, sporting a thick black mustache so long its drooping ends met under his double chins. Atop his head sat a crumpled green felt hat that did nothing to hide a head of black, glistening hair as thick and long as his mustache. He wore a paisley shirt open to the middle of his hairy chest, faded red corduroy pants, and scuffed up Beatle Boots that looked like he’d bought them back in 1965.
Robby suddenly found himself standing and staring. The man’s dark eyes, bright in his moon-round face gazed back from under a single shelf-like eyebrow as black as the rest of his hair, as black as the hot tar the city crews used to patch the asphalt on Alameda Street. Even from twenty feet away, Robby’s nose crinkled at the potent combo of Brylcreem hair paste (a little dab al do ya) and English Leather cologne. He had a pretty strong hunch the man didn’t go with the house.
“Hey, boy!” gruffed the man.
Blushing, Robby dropped his gaze to the rain-splotched tops of his desert boots and hurried on his way.
“Boy, wait!” He had an oily accent like a villain in a James Bond movie, only his voice was more rumbly and there was laughter behind it. “Boy, you stop; we talk.”
Fat friggin’ chance! Robby didn’t stop and didn’t turn his head to look back.
What the…? He knows my name! (Even though it had come out sounding like Ribby.) Robby stopped and turned. “H-how do you know my name?”
The man lifted his hat, combed pudgy fingers through his hair, and bowed. “My name Milosh. I come from far away, just for you. Is important we talk, you and me.”
Robby shook his head like he did when his mom tried to serve him raw onions. “My name,” he insisted, “how do you know it?”
“Is long story to shout. Come closer.”
Robby didn’t budge. “What kind of name is Milosh?”
“Is Romany name,” the man said proudly.
Robby scrunched up his face. “You mean Romanian?”
The man frowned. “No. No Romanian—Gypsy.”
“Okay, Tim put you up to this, didn’t he?” Robby looked around, waiting for Jeff and Tim and the others, even Fartland, to burst from the bushes laughing their asses off. But all was quiet. Too quiet. “You guys can come out now!” he shouted.
Milosh stood gazing at him with wide eyes, the whites showing all around. “No one to come out,” he said. “No one put Milosh up to nothing. Milosh had dream—special dream. Milosh learn name of boy, Robby. Milosh know just what to do and how to do it.”
I’ll bet you do. This guy is nuts if he thinks I’m that stupid. Still, he had to ask: “A dream?”
“Yes, dream. You come here, I tell you dream, so I no have to shout no more.”
Robby was backing up, getting ready to turn and run all the way to Becky’s.
The man frowned. “You no trust Milosh. No believe in dream. Fine. Then I no call down moon girl for you when time come.”
“Moon girl?” Robby paused. Then, against his better judgment, he began inching back along the sidewalk, toward the corner and the strange man standing beside the sundial, wondering all the while why the lady who lived in the house hadn’t come out by now to see what was going on in her front yard. This guy was obviously no neighborhood kid. Why hadn’t she called the cops or something? “What are you talking about?” he asked, doing his best to sound like his favorite bad ass, Steve McQueen.
“In dream,” said Milosh, nodding, “boy want moon girl and moon girl want boy, so Milosh call down moon girl when time is ripe. I can do. Is gift. But first Milosh fix things with boy so he no forget this time.”
“What are you talking about?” said Robby, forgetting to sound like McQueen as he moved into the yard, into the zone that no longer smelled of spring but only of Brylcreem and English Leather.
“Milosh talking about that,” said the man, pointing a fat finger at the sky above the rooftops on the other side of Twenty-Fourth.
“Wow!” breathed Robby. When had the sun gone down? Hadn’t he just hit the bottom of the Stairs and crossed the street? Now it was dark. A few bright stars twinkled overhead. A narrow crescent moon hung low in the sky, casting faint beams of silver light in their direction. Milosh was pointing at the moon, and now he pointed at Robby.
“See how she caress you.”
Robby looked down and, yes, his Sir Jac and his jeans and especially his hands, seemed to shimmer faintly in what was hardly any moonlight at all. And there, a ghostly shape thrust across the moon-kissed grass, was his shadow. And beyond … That’s why the cops weren’t here—the house was dark, no one was home. Robby looked around. What the…? All the houses and yards up and down the street were dark. Suddenly he reached into his pocket and pulled out the little Christmas ornament he always carried there and held it up by its hook; it gleamed so silvery white it looked moon-dusted.
“You see moon dust on Milosh?” asked the man, as if reading Robby’s mind. His thick eyebrow arched quizzically. “You see shadow of Milosh?”
“No,” stammered Robby, his face prickling with goose bumps as he slipped the ornament back into his pocket. Too weird.
“That is sign,” said Milosh.
“What kind of sign?”
“Sign that you one lucky boy.”
“Lucky, how?” asked Robby.
“Just you wait and see.” A moment later, Milosh was at the door of a curbside car, colorless in the darkness, but clearly a VW Bug. Inside, on the back seat, a small dog barked like it would never shut up. Milosh opened the door and the volume went up on the barking. Yet it was happy barking, and the instant the big man flipped the seat forward, the dog bounded out of the back and onto the parking strip, where it bounced up and down on its hind legs, pawing with short forelegs on the man’s corduroy pants. A wiener dog!
“Noshi, no jump. Milosh busy now. Must play for Robby tonight.” Noshi ran leaping up to Robby, bounced off his knee, then scampered away to run in circles around the yard, like a speedy little patch of midnight in the evening darkness.
“Um, play? For me?” asked Robby, his heart skipping excitedly in spite of his doubts about Milosh and his dream. What the hell is happening to me? Have I gone nuts? Did someone slip me some peyote when I wasn’t looking?
“You have twin, maybe? Of course for you,” said Milosh, rummaging in the back of the car. “Ah, so, here we are …” Aided by the scant moonlight and his own faint shimmer, Robby could see Milosh turn to face him holding a violin in one hand and a bow in the other. “I play this very fine now just for you, and her, and soon you be together.”
Robby opened his mouth to speak, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask why the hell he’d want that to happen, because he had a sneaking suspicion he did want that very thing. “And she is … the moon?” was all he said.
“In manner of speaking,” said Milosh, returning to the front yard with the sundial and Noshi at its center. “Is mystery though, so you no think too much or you get big headache.”
Robby took a deep breath, his heart fluttering in his throat like a trapped bird. “What’s her name?” His words came out sounding hoarse and strained, scared even.
Milosh flourished the violin, stuck it under his chin, and ran the bow across one shining string, producing a steady, sweet note. He grunted and began plucking strings and turning knobs, while Robby waited nervously for an answer. When he was done, Milosh glanced sidelong at Robby.
“Her name? Her name, Robby, is Selene … or will be soon.”
“Selene,” repeated Robby, barely registering anything but the name. He let go of the reins then and let his imagination run wild like Noshi. He saw in his mind’s eye the perfect girl with no name, standing at the top of the Stairs under a glimmering midsummer moon in a sky full of stars. “Selene,” he repeated.
Milosh nodded and began to play.
Smiling a crazy smile that showed his large white teeth, Milosh danced around the sundial, bow and fingers flying, and now Noshi sat panting, tail wagging, watching his master with night-shining eyes even as Robby stood, barely breathing, also watching the gypsy play.
Something about Milosh’s bright-eyed, smiling face and dancing feet reminded Robby of a wild bear tottering around on a mountaintop. And as for the music he played! Robby, in all his life, had never heard anything like it. He guessed it must be gypsy music, but it didn’t sound like what he thought gypsy music should sound like. It was almost impossible to describe, except that it started small and got bigger and bigger. At first it made Robby think of flitting sparrows and the hidden things, like worms and ants and mice, scurrying around in some far-away forest; and then the music swelled and moved out of the forest and onto a moonlit crossroad, where it danced to the far-off howling of wolves; and then, suddenly, it leapt, like a falcon, straight up into a night sky overflowing with wild running stars and galaxies, and it soared up to Orion’s Belt and from there to the outer limits of the universe before slowly falling back, only stopping to dance with the moon before finally returning to earth to make a home inside Robby.
The playing of Milosh that night took hold of Robby like no other music he’d ever heard. It moved down deep in his belly and high up in his chest. It stung his eyes and burned his throat, it made him laugh and cry at the same time, and for an instant, it made clear the message communicated in the depths of the wild-wise eyes of the girl who now had a name: Selene. But then Milosh drew his last shimmering note, and it all vanished, lost again, just beyond reach.
The moment he finished making his incredible music, Milosh bowed low. Then, while Robby was still in a daze, he hurriedly packed his violin and a sleepy Noshi into his tiny VW and drove off into the night with a wave. He vanished out of sight just as the streetlight sputtered on, as did the house and yard lights up and down the street, scattering the faint silvery moonlight like so much faerie dust, and making Robby’s shadow jump out like a black cardboard cutout.
Ten minutes later, Robby crossed Regents Drive, his head still reeling from Milosh’s hypnotic music. But when it’d ended in that long, shimmering note, the moon had stayed put up in the sky, and the girl from Robby’s dreams, a girl named Selene, had not appeared.
Figures! thought Robby. He was nuts, and I was nuts to believe him, even a little.
Milosh was nuts maybe, but how had he blacked out all the lights on two or maybe more blocks? More important, how had he known Robby? Known his name? Known about a craving that had been something of a secret even to Robby, until Milosh had connected the girl with no name to the moon and given her a name?
“Selene,” whispered Robby, suddenly remembering he’d heard the moon called by that name on the O’Neills’ radio on Christmas Eve, just after he’d found his good luck charm and just before Amy O’Neill had basically stomped all over his heart.
He sighed and stopped walking. He didn’t feel like seeing Becky tonight. In fact he didn’t feel so great—a little shaky and … just not right. Like crap actually. He turned, re-crossed Regents Drive, and headed back up Twenty-Fourth toward the Stairs and Alameda Street and home.
During the next week and a half, Robby’s chance meeting with Milosh faded in his mind. After all he was busy: there was hanging out with Becky, of course, which involved ice-skating at Lloyd Center mall and loafing on the Maguires’ family-room couch with Becky’s head on his shoulder, watching Leave it to Beaver reruns on TV; but also there was memorizing the Periodic Table of Elements for science class, plus a book report to write on The Red Badge of Courage; and softballs to hit over the fence onto Klickitat Street from the asphalt diamond behind the portables at Alameda School; and a trip to Yaw’s Drive-In with Mom and Bill, which ended with Robby’s zit-head of a brother getting grounded when a carload of his friends rolled past, bare moons shoved out front and rear windows, and Bill laughed so hard a pack of Old Gold cigarettes dropped out of his jacket pocket onto the bench seat next to Mom; and, last but definitely not least, a Friday night party at Mitch’s, where Becky and Robby made out on the basement La-Z-Boy until he wound up with a sore mouth and her wad of Doublemint gum tucked under his tongue.
Eventually, Robby became convinced the entire encounter with Milosh had been nothing but a dream, and a weird sort of waking dream at that. As for the front yard with the sundial, he went out of his way to go around it on his walks to and from the store and Becky’s house, going so far as to walk down Deadman’s Hill and Regents Drive to Twenty-Fourth.
By the end of that week and a half, Robby had given Becky a silvery-looking ID bracelet with his initials engraved on it, bought out of his allowance from the Lloyd Center Woolworth’s, so now they were officially going together. He should’ve been the happiest guy at Alameda School, but he wasn’t.
He daydreamed about Selene at his desk as Mrs. Smolenski droned on and on about one thing or another and the clock loudly ticked down the minutes to three. And that wasn’t the only time of day he thought about the mysterious girl. Despite his best intentions, Robby flunked his science quiz and landed a C-minus on his book report, because instead of doing his homework, he played his “Susie Q” forty-five till his dad yelled for him to “knock off that noise!” Asleep, he dreamed about Selene in technicolor, even if she still didn’t make it all the way down the Stairs and into his waiting arms before he woke up in a sweat.
One warm, clear night, as he lay in bed sleepily squinting at the full moon through his open window, feeling the sweet breeze, sensing the kiss of pale light on his arms and hands and bare chest—the same light that cast his shadow, grown giant, on the far wall—he dreamed, or thought he dreamed, he heard Milosh’s incredible violin music soaring and plunging somewhere in the night. Suddenly he saw a moonbeam streak through the shimmering spring air, and his heart raced with both excitement and more than a little fear.
Wide-awake, Robby sat up and stared out the window, trying to pinpoint the place where he thought the beam had landed. Close by for sure. It seemed to have come down somewhere just on the other side of the ridge; yes, somewhere below the hill near the front yard with the sundial.
The next morning, Robby took the Stairs on his way to school. He didn’t cross the street, but stared hard at the front yard with the sundial. Everything seemed to be as he last saw it—no smoking crater or burned grass or sparkling silver beam stuck upright in the ground—just a sundial.
“What am I, crazy or something?” he said out loud. There and then, he made a pledge to forget about the imaginary girl, Selene, and pay attention to his real girlfriend, and to his grades, which had tanked since the start of the year and were swirling around the toilet bowl. His mom and dad had already threatened to ground him if he didn’t salvage them, and soon.
After school, Robby walked with Jeff Fartland to Pixie Market where the two of them sat on the steps in the cement wall next to the store, devouring Hostess cupcakes, while Robby kept an eye on the tiny Safeway parking lot across the street for any sign of Becky. They’d made a date to meet there so they could walk to her house and do their homework together.
Fartland had earned his nickname by being able to cut the cheese at will, and he pretty much worked his will whenever he had a chance. So it was no surprise to Robby when the lamebrain suddenly stopped stuffing his face, flashed a crooked grin from under a thick brown sweep of raggedy hair, and said, “Dig this, man.” Then he rolled up on one haunch and farted long and loud, using some kind of painful (from the weird look on his face) rocking motion to make it sound something like a slide trombone playing Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Robby cracked up, and Fartland, encouraged, kept a lid on his own laugher and strained harder, his face turning redder and redder until, finally, he snorted twin jets of cream filling halfway to the street. That did it for both of them. Staggering around the sidewalk, howling so hard he had to clutch his aching belly, Robby nearly collided head-on with a girl. He hadn’t even heard her come up, but there she was, standing in front of him in her Catholic-school plaid skirt and white knee-high socks.
He sobered up instantly.
Or a girl who looked just like her, right down to the perfect little arc of faded summer freckles across her flawless nose—a girl out of his dreams, and now that he’d seen her, definitely not someone he knew, not a chance, although the feeling that he knew her from somewhere made Robby squirm like he had an itch he couldn’t scratch.
“Excuse me,” he said, blushing, all trace of laughter gone from his voice.
Fartland wasn’t as quick on the uptake and continued rolling against the wall, yucking it up, while two creamy white snot wads dangled from his nose. “Are … you … lookin’… at these … wicked boogers!” he gasped.
The girl ignored Fartland. Her hazel-green eyes were fixed on Robby, like she expected him to say more. But he only stared at the tiny flecks of sun-glinted gold floating in her irises.
And then she was gone, walking up the street past Pixie. Robby was too stunned to follow. He stood in the middle of the sidewalk and stared after her, rubbing his eyes, taking a second and even a third look as she crossed Fremont and headed up Twenty-Fourth, presenting him with a shimmering cascade of shoulder-length hair the color of the deepest dark chocolate against the background of her navy blue sweater.
“Hey, take a picture, it’ll last longer,” said Fartland at last, wiping his nose on his jacket sleeve.
“Shut up!” Robby said, his cheeks on fire.
“Bummer she kissed you off, man. Bummer and a half.”
“I said shut up!”
“What’s your problem?” cried Fartland.
“Hey, there’s Becky. Better stuff your eyes back in your head, Dino.”
Fartland barely made sense half the time and never knew when to shut up, but he was right: blonde, blue-eyed Becky—how did she manage to get a tan so early in the year—stood gazing at Robby from the edge of the Safeway parking lot. The moment he made eye contact, she shifted her load of books like it was a ton of bricks she was about to drop on her big toe. Robby’s cue. Abandoning Fartland without a word, he dodged across the street and lifted the books from her hands in a single practiced move that allowed him to glance up Twenty-Fourth, but Selene was gone.
He’d only recognized her from his dreams, and yet she’d been so real in her Madeleine School uniform—so real his nose still tingled from the smell of her, as if she were walking inside an invisible cloud of fantastic smells, like fresh-cut summer grass and sun-drenched Saturday afternoons and the first day of Boy Scout summer camp at Spirit Lake, and lots of other great stuff. Who the hell smelled that good? No way did she go to Madeleine! No way! In that instant, Robby thought about Milosh and the falling moonbeam he’d seen the night before. Naw. That was nuts! Forget it! But how else was he supposed to explain who the girl was and what she was doing here today.
Next time Robby would talk to her, find out about her. Next time.
But there was no next time, not the next day or the next week. After a few weeks, Robby was about ready to give up hope of ever seeing Selene again. He even started to believe he had somehow conjured her out of thin air, until he remembered that Fartland had seen her, too, and told him, “Hey, take a picture, it’ll last longer.” But that didn’t mean anything if his imagination had latched on to a real girl and made up all the rest, which it probably had. Maybe he needed to ask his mom and dad if he should see a shrink.
He fell into what his mom called a “blue funk,” which was just another way of saying he was bummed out beyond belief. It didn’t help that he’d stopped dreaming about Selene gliding down to him from the top of the Stairs. Although one night, the worst one, he had a vivid dream in which he saved Becky Maguire from a charging black rhino and, weighed down by her books, was carried over a cliff by the beast. He fell and fell, with sharp rocks rushing up to meet him. A split second before he was squashed to bloody pulp, he woke up in a pool of cold sweat, feeling haunted and trapped.
Then one clear night, with a sweet breeze blowing in through the open window, Robby again imagined he heard the faintest trace of violin music, and he quickly looked out to see the full moon appear through skimming clouds. Squinting at it from his bed, Robby saw a moonbeam plunge to earth, and his spirits soared.
Robby had been warming his spot by Pixie Market for over an hour, nervously fidgeting and squirming until his butt was sore, but he had no intention of giving up and going home, not now. I’ll stay here until I die and rot, he thought, and in that moment, he saw her walking toward him up the sidewalk in her school uniform.
As she drew even with him, eyes gazing straight ahead, he wiped both sweaty palms on his Levi’s, took a deep breath, and rose to meet her.
“Hi.” His voice broke and he cleared his throat.
She stopped and looked at him with hazel-green eyes as mysterious and deep as the Pacific Ocean, and the corners of her lips quirked up in a smile. “Hi.”
That voice! Honey sweet and husky. The sexiest voice he’d ever heard. This had to be Selene. He took a chance: “I … I’ve been waiting for you,” he said, still not sure what to do with his hands. He shifted from foot to foot.
Her gaze and smile were steady, and Robby could tell she wasn’t nervous or embarrassed, not one little bit. She looked like a princess or a queen who’d granted him an audience. Shaken, Robby did his best to keep his face from flushing any brighter. No such luck. He was suddenly aware of his own clumsy hands, and of the zit on his chin, and of his hair. Was it too short? Did he even look normal? As casually as he could, he trimmed his bangs with the back of his hand and tried to look cool.
The girl laughed. “You didn’t have to wait. You could’ve talked to me last time.”
“I thought … I mean …” He hesitated. “Selene?”
She laughed again. “Yes, it’s me.”
“Selene.” This time he spoke her name in a way that made it sound rock solid and real.
She gave a little nod. “Are you just going to stand there like you did last time, or are you going to walk with me?”
“Absolutely, I’ll walk you home!”
The girl smiled at this.
“Robby!” The call came from across the street and he cringed. For chrissake! I can’t catch a break. Becky was standing on the edge of the curb by Safeway, and that load of books looked as if it was about to come crashing down on her toe.
“Decide now, Robby,” said Selene. Her voice was dead serious. She began to walk up the sidewalk past Pixie Market.
Robby stood for a moment, staring back and forth between Becky and Selene, his mouth opening and closing like a stunned fish. “Ah …”
Selene was nearing the light at Fremont, and Robby knew he couldn’t let her cross that street without him. He swallowed the golf-ball-sized lump in his throat. “Becky, I gotta go.”
“What?” His girlfriend stuck out her lower lip and gazed after Selene. “Who is that?”
“Robby! Come back here!”
“I said I gotta go!”
“Robby, if you go, I’ll … I’ll break up with you!”
Without another word or a glance back, Robby turned away from Becky and his past and raced up the sidewalk. He caught up with Selene just as she stepped into the crosswalk at Fremont. A wave of relief swept through him when he reached out to touch her elbow and she stopped.
Selene waited until they were on the other side of the street before she spoke again.
“I’m happy to be with you,” she said at last.
Robby didn’t answer right away. For one thing, he was tingling all over like he’d outgrown his skin. For another, he didn’t want to ruin the moment now by saying something stupid. Last of all, he still wasn’t sure what to make of the girl. A part of him believed that, although she was strange and beautiful and had wild-wise eyes, she was just an ordinary girl who’d somehow gotten tangled up in his dream world. His mom always told him that he walked around with his head in the clouds, and he never argued the point.
At last he found his tongue. “I was thinking I was never going to see you again. I’m glad … um …”
“So am I,” she said, making it clear he didn’t have to finish. In a few more steps they were at the corner by the house with the sundial in the front yard; she stopped and turned to look at him.
“Left or right?” he asked.
She smiled then, but it looked like a sad smile. “Robby … I don’t have a home here.”
And just like that he realized the impossible was happening. “So … Milosh …”
“Didn’t lie,” she finished. “But you already knew that …” She tapped his chest. “Right here.”
“He called you moon girl.” Those last two words seemed to stick on the way out.
“The Moon,” said Selene. “But not exactly; it’s still up there.” Robby must’ve been staring at her with his jaw unhinged, because she added, “It’s complicated.”
He nodded and looked down, uncertain what to say, even if he could get any words out past his heart, which had taken up residence in his mouth.
“You know, we met like this on Christmas Eve.” The girl dropped this bombshell with a sudden bright lilt to her voice.
Robby was about to kick at a crack in the sidewalk; instead he raised his head. “We …We did?” Okay, at least he could talk.
“I was in my Diana phase that night.”
“Vulnerable—well, sort of vulnerable. You just don’t remember, is all. You shared your mom’s cookies with me. You wanted to be my knight in shining armor. Actually, you were my knight in shining armor.”
“How come I don’t remember?” asked Robby.
“Something to do with me … Moonlight, I mean. Slippery. Hard to hold on to. Just ask your friend Fartland …” She put a hand to her mouth and giggled. “He doesn’t remember me.”
Robby didn’t care about Fartland and his motor mouth. Bummer, my ass! I knew something happened on Christmas Eve! I knew it! He remembered how good he’d felt walking home from Wilshire Park that night. Like he could do anything, and that included asking Becky Maguire for her phone number when he ran into her walking up to Amy’s house. Twenty feet tall at least, that’s how he’d felt.
“But don’t worry,” said Selene. “Milosh fixed it so you won’t forget this time. Becky will, though.”
“That’s good,” mumbled Robby.
“That you haven’t completely blown it with your girlfriend?”
Was she teasing? Maybe not. “No! That’s not what I meant.”
“Robby,” said Selene, suddenly serious. “I know how you feel about me. I feel the same way about you and have since …” She paused then finished with a shrug: “… for a long, long time. So, let’s not play games. Okay?”
Robby felt a surge of heat flood his cheeks. He nodded, and this time he did kick at that crack in the sidewalk. He did it mostly to buy time while he struggled to control his incredible buzz. He thought of Milosh’s vibrating violin strings, of the man’s gypsy music that had moved down deep in his belly and high up in his chest, that had stung his eyes and burned his throat, that had made him laugh and cry at the same time—that had opened his eyes and heart. For a moment, anyway. That was how Robby felt now, even if he wasn’t laughing or crying, but just standing there like a moron.
“So what now?” he said, and the quiver in his voice was no surprise.
Selene sighed. “Tonight I have to go back … you know …”
His heart fell. “That soon!”
“’Fraid so. And just to add insult to injury, our time’s up for now.”
He made a time-out T with both hands. “Whoa! Wait a minute …”
“Shhhh!” said Selene, placing a finger to her lips. She glanced up and blinked as if the daylight hurt her beautiful eyes. Her smile faded and suddenly her face took on a look that was all queen and no princess, and her voice lost whatever girlishness there was about it and took on weight—weight and years, as if she might be ages older than anyone else alive. And so she was, he thought, if she was really moonlight come down to earth as a human girl. “Listen carefully,” she said. “At midnight tonight, climb the Stairs. I will be waiting at the top. I will come to you then. Now go and do not look back whatever you do.”
“But why do we have to wait?” asked Robby.
This time her smiled looked forced, but she sounded like a girl again: “Let’s just say it’s not my time of day.”
She stopped him with a shake of her head. “Don’t worry. I’ll be there. Tonight. Now promise you won’t look back.”
“Ah, come on …”
“Promise!” she demanded.
Robby dragged himself away from her and across the street. At the bottom of the Stairs, he came close to spinning around and pleading with her to stay with him now. If their time together was going to be so short, shouldn’t they make the most of it? But his fear of losing her was greater. He didn’t look back.
After eleven-thirty that night, Robby crept down from the attic in his street clothes. The house on Alameda was old. It creaked and groaned all the louder because he needed it to be quiet. He knew his mom and dad were in bed, but were they asleep? Reaching the banister across from their room, he turned and started down the stairs.
“Bill?” his dad called out.
Robby stared at his brother’s bedroom door, praying he wouldn’t make an appearance. He didn’t. Bill the zit slept like the dead, and he’d had baseball practice at Grant, followed by lots of homework. He’d been nodding off over his meatloaf at dinner.
Bill, is that you? Dad again.
Robby sucked in a silent ribbon of air. His heart was racing. If Dad caught him sneaking out, he’d be skinned alive. “No, it’s me, Dad.”
“Robby? What’re you doing up?”
“Ah, I’m starving.”
“Okay, but clean up after yourself.”
Robby ran the whole way to the top of Deadman’s Hill with his stomach doing nervous back flips.
Selene wasn’t there.
He reminded himself he was a few minutes early, but it didn’t help. He was starting to panic when he remembered what she’d said about climbing the stairs to meet her. He loped down Deadman’s, turned hard right at the bottom onto Ridgewood Drive, and made his way back along the sidewalk that ran parallel with Alameda Ridge above.
Across from the house with the sundial in the front yard, under the glare of the streetlight, he stopped and gazed at his shadow poised on the first steps of the Stairs as if it were ready to race out ahead of him. He guessed it must be just about midnight.
Robby began to climb the Stairs. There were seventy-five steps to the top; he’d counted every one of them. Tonight, he didn’t count as he flew up the steps two and three at a time. He stopped, chest heaving, on the third and last landing, looking up the flight of stairs that came out on top of Deadman’s Hill. The air was warm; the night above the leafy canopy was clear and full of stars; and riding high in the sky was the full moon, turning the world a ghost-pale white.
Robby felt a seizing in his chest at the sight of his dream come true: Selene was there beneath the marble-white moon with her back turned toward him. He was about to leap up that last flight of stairs when she slowly turned and gazed down at him, her heart-shaped face tilted to one side, her dark hair shimmering. She was perfect!
“You came,” she said. Her voice was like honey, slightly husky—sexy. A perfect voice. “Now ask me for what it is your heart desires.”
He was barely able to speak. “Will you come down to me?” he managed.
Smiling, she moved down the stairs, her hips rolling gently under her long, shimmering black dress—a dress made of moonlight and silken shadow.
This time when Robby reached out for her, he wasn’t dreaming and Selene didn’t disappear. She glided down the steps and into his arms, and he felt her body pressed against his through the strange material of her dress. He smelled her blossom-sweet hair, satin soft against his cheek, and the two of them melted together as if they were made for each other. At last, she looked up at him with glistening wild-wise eyes, eyes that might have been a million years old, eyes that might have looked down on the creation of Adam and Eve, and she kissed him.
When she finally drew back, Robby had lost track of time and had to remind himself over and over that this wasn’t a dream. But even though he held Selene in his arms, there was still something about her that was out of reach, and he knew always would be. To tell the truth, he could only imagine how much greater and older and wiser she was compared to him—a goddess, according to the old fuddy-duddy with the British accent who broadcast Selene’s name, one of many owned by the moon, from the O’Neills’ radio on Christmas Eve. And for all Robby knew, she might even be dangerous, whatever she was. He trembled at the thought.
Gazing up at Robby with shining eyes that seemed to see through everything, including him, Selene spoke like a girl again: “I love you, you know.”
The impact of those words was electric and blew away his fears: Robby was twenty feet tall again, just like on Christmas Eve, but weak-kneed and giddy at the same time, so giddy he didn’t quite catch what Selene said next; it was the ache in her voice, like a cloud blotting out the light of the moon, that grabbed him.
“What’d you say?” he asked.
“I said I can’t stay any longer.”
He groaned, suddenly reduced to his ordinary five-foot-ten, and still weak in the knees. “But we’ve only just …”
“I know,” she said. “It was foolish of me to come, but I couldn’t help myself. Love’s like that.” She tilted her head until her moonlit hair draped her shoulder. “Do you regret tonight?”
Robby shook his head and tried to sound cool: “What’s there to regret?” But he hurt. Bad. Behind his eyes and deep down in his chest, he hurt. He was doing his best to fight down the tears that threatened to well up and spill over when he heard Milosh’s soaring, happy-sad music drifting up the stairs from the yard with the sundial. “Is that …?”
She nodded. “My ride home.”
All his phony coolness drained away with the blood in his face. “Will you ever come back?”
Her lips parted revealing perfect white teeth and the most beautiful smile Robby had ever seen. She threw her arms around his neck and squeezed. “Would you like that?” The cloud was gone; her voice was bright again.
“Will you?” He didn’t try to hide his urgency.
“Hey, it’s your turn to come to me this time.” She laughed. Her face was inches away; her breath smelled incredibly sweet.
“When? Can Milosh give me a ride, too?” Robby was dead serious.
“I don’t think so.” Selene’s eyes shone and her lips brushed his again. “I’m breaking rules that shouldn’t be broken. I can’t ask you to spend your entire life chasing after me. There are other girls—Becky, for instance. Or maybe even Amy. That crush can’t be entirely burned out.”
“Quit making fun of me! I don’t care about them!”
“You don’t know what you’re asking—”
“You said I was your knight.” interrupted Robby, and moved by a sudden urge he couldn’t resist, he dropped down on one knee and gazed up at her with hot tears welling up. “Give me a chance to prove it. Let me go with you.”
“What about your family?”
“Take me with you,” he insisted.
The night had been quiet until then, unnaturally quiet, but now from behind an engine thrummed, and the sound of fat tires on warm asphalt, then a pair of bright headlights turned the corner from Alameda Street onto Deadman’s. In the instant before the car completed its turn and headed down the hill, Robby saw, through tear-bleared eyes, those lights pass right through Selene, revealing little more than a shimmering smear of filmy mist that by some fluke of nature seemed to have billowed up in the shape of a girl. Then the car was gone, and she was standing before him, solid and real as a moment before.
Her depthless eyes searched his until he blinked and climbed to his feet.
“Do I sound stupid?” he said, dragging his arm across his face.
She shook her head. “No. Yet, you cannot come.” Her voice had changed again, grown deeper, more powerful. Maybe she knew what he’d just seen in those passing headlights. “But if you are willing, I can take something of you with me, to be with me always, for all time.”
Robby hesitated, but only for the time it took to look into the girl’s wide, shining eyes and know that he wouldn’t turn her down, no matter what she asked for. Then he swallowed and said, “What something?”
“A reflection of your earthly being,” she said, “which you will come to miss in time, for its loss will make you different, but it will also remind you of me and, perhaps, in your desire to reunite with it and me, you will be inspired to do great deeds one day, as you were last Christmas Eve, my knight, when you offered to bring me a feast fit for a princess.”
He didn’t understand. “What is it I can give you?”
“If you consent, you will find out soon enough.”
“If any part of me can be with you, that’s what I want.”
But he wasn’t as sure as he sounded.
As if reading his mind, Selene said, “The part of you I take with me will live forever. It will never grow old, never fade, and never die …” Suddenly she stopped. Robby’d heard the catch in her throat; he felt her warm fingers touch his tingling cheek and linger there. It was a moment before she said, “But it won’t be you, and I’m afraid we can never be together again … not like this.”
What? “No, wait a minute—”
She stopped him with a touch of her finger to his lips. “Never like this again—unless …” Robby held his breath. Then she shook her head as if rejecting some thought. “No,” she said. “I can promise you nothing.” She glanced up at the full moon and a smile dimpled her cheeks. “Except pleasant dreams, those I can promise you. “And I will still creep in through your bedroom window on nights like this, just as I always have.” Her smile faded. “But that is not the same, is it?”
Robby shook his head. No, it was not the same, not by a long shot. He wanted to tell her that, and a lot more. He wanted to talk her into staying, and if that didn’t work, he wanted to stomp around and demand that she stay and never leave … Milosh’s music was picking up now, coming in rapid bursts and rushes up the stairs from below the hill. But then who was Robby to argue with a goddess?
“So,” said Selene. “Do you wish to grant me this great gift, Robby?”
“Yes,” he whispered, and he meant it.
“Thank you,” she said. Her eyes flashed and her lips met his in a long, lingering kiss. In the end, she caressed his face and asked, “Was I worth waiting for?”
Barely able to speak past the lump in his throat, Robby nodded, then lowered his head and mumbled, “I love you.”
Selene lifted his chin with her finger and gazed at him with eyes he would never forget. “And I love you, Robby, and always will. Now go home.”
He didn’t want to, but what choice did he have? He left her there, with Milosh’s violin music soaring up and up like giant thunderheads behind him, and climbed the stairs. At the top he turned and looked back, but Selene was gone. He believed in that moment that she’d taken his heart with her, or at least a piece of it.
Later that night, Robby sat on the edge of his bed in the moonlight, tears rolling down, holding his “Susie Q” forty-five with half a mind to put it on the turntable, and wondered how he would ever live without Selene. At last he flopped back and looked across the room. His bed, grown giant, was projected in stark black and white on the far wall, but his own huge shadow was nowhere to be seen.
Robby put down the record, got up, and moved around the room waving his arms, but he cast no shadow on the wall or the floor or the ceiling. None at all. What the…? For a moment he panicked, then he remembered Selene’s words: “… it will make you different,” she’d said.
He sat down and switched on the table lamp beside his bed. His trembling hand cast a shadow on the floor, but it vanished when he turned off the lamp. So, that was what he’d given and she’d taken: his shadow by the light of the moon, by Selene’s light, was with her now and would be for all time. He wondered what his parents, his friends, the world would say if they saw this. They’d think he was a freak, a mutant. And they’d be right!
Oh my God!
He gaped at the vacant wall. I should have asked. I should have known better. I’m not even sure she was re … Then suddenly he realized what the loss of his shadow meant—to look at the vacant wall on moonlit nights, to have the whole world able to see the empty place where his shadow should be, was proof that Selene hadn’t been a dream.
For Robby was certain of one thing: that he’d wake up someday soon, maybe even tomorrow, and doubt that he’d ever been with her, had ever held her, or kissed her, that it had ever gone beyond a waking or sleeping dream. Hell, that notion had already wormed its way into the back of his mind and nearly come out of his mouth a second ago. He might remember, but he wouldn’t believe. The loss of his shadow by the light of the moon was proof that he’d been with the girl of his dreams on the Stairs and that she was an immortal who loved him, and had taken something of him to be with her, forever. She’d given him no reason to expect more, and yet … in a weird sort of way, she had. At the very least, she’d promised him pleasant dreams.
Robby lay back on his bed, hands behind his head, and gazed at the far wall where his missing shadow should have loomed like a giant zonked-out Hulk. In the last couple of minutes his tears had dried up, replaced by a kind of soaring sensation that made his skin tingle and his head swim, like he was climbing a wind-swept mountain peak … or riding a rocket to the … “Selene,” he whispered. He imagined he could actually feel her in the ghost-pale light, softly caressing and kissing his face, his neck, his bare arms. He smiled and held that thought. Then he rolled onto his side and looked at the glimmering Christmas ornament resting in its place on the bedside table—right beside a model of the Apollo Lunar Lander he’d bought on impulse at Vic’s Hobby Shop back in January with the last of his Christmas spending money. My ride. He reached for the spindly lander and lifted it with a steady hand into the silver light flooding in through his big dormer window; and pretending it was fueled by Milosh’s music, he carefully maneuvered his little ship to land on the sailing full moon, just like he’d read the Apollo 11 astronauts would do it come July. As he began his descent to the surface, he concentrated in silence for a minute or two before he started humming “Susie Q” under his breath.
Epilogue: Robby never made it to the moon. The Apollo program ended long before he was ready to go, and the Space Shuttle fell far short of his dreams and aspirations. But he did work with great passion in the aerospace industry for several decades, and around the turn of the century, he parleyed his passion and experience into a business venture that made a lot of money. An intensely private man, Robby remains unmarried and currently is free to devote his time, energy, and considerable wealth to the development of vehicles and systems designed to take human beings back to the moon and far beyond. A life-extension expert, he’s staying in shape, hoping he can get up there before it’s too late.