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Though You're Many Years Away

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They walk down to the shoreline in the sunset light, swinging Etta between them, one-two-three-wheeeee! while the others follow at a gentler pace. Etta’s grieving too, Peter knows—as much as a three-year-old can. But she’s also beyond excited at the prospect of coloring, and balloons, and fire…and in this she reflects and memorializes her grandfather more than any ritual could.

Astrid had found the sky lantern kits in Chinatown. “You write wishes on them, or letters, and then you light them so that the hot air takes them…up…” She’d trailed off, her dark eyes brimming, and Peter had folded her into a hug, not trusting his own voice to thank her. “It’s scientific,” Astrid rasped into his shoulder, and it had made them both smile.

They’d kept the story simple, for Etta’s sake. Olivia subscribed to no particular faith, and Peter didn’t think he could lapse any further from his mother’s Irish-Catholic precepts. And though Walter wasn’t dead, to the best of their understanding, the place he’d gone to was as far away and inaccessible as any heaven. If there was a heaven, Walter had certainly earned it, Peter thought. They’d all made more than enough circuits through various hells to redeem anyone.

Now, on the pebbled lake beach, they spread out a little to find flatter rocks to write on. It’s a tiny bit unnerving to Peter, to see Nina dressed in jeans and a cardigan—all black—but Etta isn’t remotely intimidated, distributing colored markers as if she is conducting a board meeting. “Do you want orange? Because, your hair?” she asks Nina seriously, and the older woman considers for several long seconds before nodding and accepting the felt-tip with a more tender smile than Peter has ever seen her display.

Long fingers of light shimmer on the water as they inscribe the delicate tissue paper. Their thoughts, their messages to Walter, are private, but Peter is surprised to notice Broyles out of the corner of his eye, composing paragraph after paragraph. Further down the beach, Nina thinks for a long moment, sweeps pen across paper with brisk purpose, then presses a brief lipstick kiss to the paper and folds the lantern around it. Beside Peter, Olivia swipes a hand across her face, her elegant, jittery fingers forever betraying her heart; he rubs a gentle circle on her back and is rewarded with one of her quick, stunning smiles.

Dusk is fully upon them before Etta finishes her masterpiece. She’s refused all help, but now she approaches her parents with an uncertain expression and holds up her lantern. She has written all the words she knows:

ETTA
WALTER
MAMA
DADY
ETTA
WALTER
ETTA
LOVE
ETTA

There’s also a drawing that is recognizably her and her grandfather, holding hands. Around them, the paper is saturated with ink, polka-dotted with blobs and swirls and stripes of color. “These are bubbles,” Etta explains, pointing. “These are hearts, and these are candy.” She frowns, the beginnings of what Olivia fondly calls her Bishop Worry Line appearing between her eyebrows. “Do you think Grandpa will get it?”

Peter isn’t sure whether she means will Walter receive the message? or will he understand it if he does? But he realizes that it doesn’t matter: the right answer to both questions is yes.

“Sweetheart, he is going to love it,” he says. Olivia cups Etta’s cheek with one hand, smoothes her thumb over Etta’s forehead crease until it softens and their baby girl smiles, reassured.

Astrid’s borrowed a ridiculously long-necked blowtorch from the lab. “Acetylene!” she reads from the canister label, in a gruff, Walter-y voice, and Peter laughs. They kneel together at the water’s edge, shaking open the paper balloons and lighting each tiny candle wick so that, one by one, the lanterns blossom with hot air and rise, glowing, over the lake. When the last one floats from his hands, Peter stands up and lifts Etta onto to his shoulders, to see.

“Look, sweetheart, there they go,” he whispers, squeezing her pink-socked ankle. “There they go!” Above them the stars are coming out, one and another and then faster than you can count, firing blue-white, palest yellow, the occasional twinkle of red. The golden lanterns drift among them, merging with the darkening sky until they’re indistinguishable from the stars that shine down upon the lake, a glimmering universe of light.