“It sure makes you humble,” he said among the cooking odors of wieners, warm buns, rich butter. “Step up,” he invited the various stars in the sky. “Who’ll be the first to buy?”
“Sam,” said Elma.
Earth changed in the black sky.
It caught fire.
Part of it seemed to come apart in a million pieces, as if a gigantic jigsaw had exploded. It burned with an unholy dripping glare for a minute, three times normal size, then dwindled.
“What was that?” Sam looked at the green fire in the sky.
“Earth,” said Elma, holding her hands together.
“That can’t be Earth, that’s not Earth! No, that ain’t Earth! It can’t be.”
“You mean it couldn’t be Earth,” said Elma, looking at him. “That just isn’t Earth. No, that’s not Earth; is that what you mean?”
“Not Earth—oh no, it couldn’t be,” he wailed.
He stood there, his hands at his sides, his mouth open, his eyes wide and dull, not moving.
“Sam.” She called his name. For the first time in days her eyes were bright. “Sam?”
He looked up at the sky.
“Well,” she said. She glanced around for a minute or so in silence. Then briskly she flapped a wet towel over her arm. “Switch on more lights, turn up the music, open the doors, There’ll be another batch of customers along in about a million years. Gotta be ready, yes, sir.”
Sam did not move.
“What a swell spot for a hot-dog stand,” she said. She reached over and picked a toothpick out of a jar and put it between her front teeth. “Let you in on a little secret, Sam,” she whispered, leaning toward him. “This looks like it’s going to be an off season.”
November 2005: THE WATCHERS
They all came out and looked at the sky that night. They left their suppers or their washing up or their dressing for the show and they came out upon their now-not-quite-as-new porches and watched the green star of Earth there. It was a move without conscious effort; they all did it, to help them understand the news they had heard on the radio a moment before. There was Earth and there the coming war, and there hundreds of thousands of mothers or grandmothers or fathers or brothers or aunts or uncles or cousins. They stood on the porches and tried to believe in the existence of Earth, much as they had once tried to believe in the existence of Mars; it was a problem reversed. To all intents and purposes, Earth now was dead; they had been away from it for three or four years. Space was an anesthetic; seventy million miles of space numbed you, put memory to sleep, depopulated Earth, erased the past, and allowed these people here to go on with their work. But now, tonight, the dead were risen, Earth was reinhabited, memory awoke, a million names were spoken: What was so-and-so doing tonight on Earth? What about this one and that one? The people on the porches glanced sidewise at each other’s faces.
At nine o’clock Earth seemed to explode, catch fire, and burn.
The people on the porches put up their hands as if to beat the fire out.
By midnight the fire was extinguished. Earth was still there. There was a sigh, like an autumn wind, from the porches.
“We haven’t heard from Harry for a long time.”
“He’s all right.”
“We should send a message to Mother.”
“She’s all right.”
“Now, don’t worry.”
“Will she be all right, do you think?”
“Of course, of course; now come to bed.”
But nobody moved. Late dinners were carried out onto the night lawns and set upon collapsible tables, and they picked at these slowly until two o’clock and the light-radio message flashed from Earth. They could read the great Morse-code flashes which flickered like a distant firefly:
AUSTRALIAN CONTINENT ATOMIZED IN PREMATURE
EXPLOSION OF ATOMIC STOCKPILE. LOS ANGELES,
LONDON BOMBED. WAR. COME HOME. COME HOME.
They stood up from their tables.
COME HOME. COME HOME. COME HOME.
“Have you heard from your brother Ted this year?”
“You know. With mail rates five bucks a letter to Earth, I don’t write much.”