Come Find Me(6)

As if I intended to stick around any later than graduation. “Let’s not make any long-term plans,” I said.

He looked relieved.

But now we’re still cramped in a two-bedroom, one-bathroom ranch, when there’s a sprawling house with land and an observatory just a handful of miles down the road. He’ll cave. I know it. The sting will pass. But in the meantime, that house can’t sell.

“Okay, well, call if you need anything. Or if you go to the Albertsons’ house.”

“Will do,” I say. We do that awkward dance where he can’t decide whether to pat my head or my shoulder and I hold up my hand to try to wave him off with a halfhearted goodbye before he gets started. Too late. He goes for the top of my head today, patting it twice, like I’m a puppy.

    I’m trying to cut him some slack. He’s doing me an enormous favor—yet another technicality, if we’re keeping track. There was a brief discussion back in December about whether it would be in my best interest to live with my father.

It would not have been.

The things worth knowing about my father could be tallied on one hand: he gave up parental rights when I was just a baby; he currently lives in Germany with a new wife; I hadn’t seen him in over seven years by the time he showed up in December.

Though Joe was listed as guardian in my mother’s will, he still had to agree to the responsibility. There was another option, if it proved too much for Joe. My father and his new wife (Betty? Betsy? I’m still not sure) came to visit after Joe called, to offer their brief and awkward condolences, and to sit down with Joe and discuss what was to happen to me. I heard them talking it over at night, in the living room. A list of pros and cons, of which I was the subject.

It would only be another year and a half, I told Joe the next day, desperate to tip the scales. A year and a half until I was eighteen, off to college, out of his hair. We could make it work, I promised.

Joe pretended he hadn’t been thinking it over. He said, Of course, Kennedy, it’s not even a question. But come on. The walls here are not as thick as he would like to imagine.

    He’s twenty-nine. I’ve thrown his life into chaos. He’s missed all the nuance of the first sixteen years of parenting. So. I’m trying.

* * *

I retreat to the cramped space that used to be Joe’s TV room but now fits my bed, desk, dresser, and boxes. The only décor in here is a framed picture on the windowsill beside my bed, a photo from last fall: me and Elliot and my mom at the top of a lighthouse, my hair blowing in Elliot’s face, Elliot trying to push me away, my mom laughing. The last photo I have of all of us together, when we went with her on a long-weekend work conference.

The photo was taken by my mom’s colleague-slash-new-boyfriend, Will. The outing had been Will’s idea—I don’t think he was expecting us to be there. Honestly, at the time I would’ve preferred to spend the last day at the hotel pool, but my mom insisted, and so there we were.

Two hundred and twelve steps to the top, with my mom talking about the history of the place, and Elliot reciting facts about the construction, Will correcting them both, and me trying to tune them all out, my hands on the cold, spiraling concrete walls as I counted in my head, my mother’s voice echoing through the stairwell.

I wish I could focus on her words, remember them. But all I have in my memory now is the tone of her voice, over the count I was keeping. Elliot was probably listening, and not just because he thought he was supposed to. He was probably actually interested, as he was in all things new to him. For two people who shared so many physical traits, we were so different at the core. My mother used to joke, I swear I raised them the same. Elliot used to joke, I locked her in the closet whenever you were away. Which is a lie. He would never. But that was just like Elliot, taking the blame for setting the bar a little too high for my life.

    Other than this picture, my clothes, and my computer, I haven’t really gotten around to unpacking or making myself comfortable. Like I said, I’m an optimist.

I’ve got the radio telescope data pulled up on the computer now, but right away I can see something’s wrong. And not the good type of wrong, which would make it seem like the telescope was picking up something other than background noise. Instead, this is the type of wrong that makes me think something is broken.

Usually, the radio telescope is set to monitor frequencies where signals can be transmitted through space. The readout typically looks like one of those medical heart monitors, almost a flat line, but with little peaks and valleys.

Today, it’s nonexistent. Not even background noise. It takes me a second to realize that the radio telescope didn’t register the right frequency channel. It’s set to something different, or else it’s pulling in some interference, I think.

Elliot built the dish and made the program, so I have to drag the scale around for a bit before I finally find the data set where there’s actual activity, and at first my heart jumps, seeing a section of the readout—it looks like a repeating pattern of pulses: a quick spike, then a longer pause, over and over again, like a signal, or a message.

I lean closer to the screen, until I can see my own reflection in the monitor: openmouthed, wide-eyed. But then I realize there’s a serious mistake somewhere, either with the program, or with the radio telescope itself. Because this potential activity is registering where no frequency should exist. The program is displaying what would be a typical radio signal range, except it’s negative.

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