As the stars came out for the last time, Azzie watched her little brother scraping in the dirt. He looked determined to dig all the way from Alabama to China with a six inch stick. The last light of the sun was cutting its way through the pine trees behind the apartments and shining on Johnny’s chubby face, making him look a little like the copper Buddha on Mama’s altar.
Azzie brushed her long straight black hair out of her face. She was eleven years old, a little tall for her age, with tea-brown skin and slightly slanted eyes. She had been watching a legion of ants carry a beetle down into their colony – they’d had to enlarge the opening to get it down into their tunnels – but now they had all disappeared below. Azzie watched the stars come out one by one. It would be time to go in soon.
Today was Papa’s birthday. He had been dead three years, but it was still his birthday. Johnny was too little to understand, and Mama acted like she didn’t want to remember. But Azzie was eleven, and she would never, never forget. She wrote Happy Birthday Papa in the dust with a stick.
A car arrived in the parking lot behind her. She was surprised, since all the neighbors were home from work by now. A tall woman rose out of the car; she had a great broad-rimmed green hat and a long green dress. She walked slowly up the sidewalk towards them, grinning, holding a basket. Grandma?
“Grandma!” cried Azzie, and jumped up. She ran over to her.
“Hello, Azalea Jade,” said Grandma, wrapping her in a bony hug. Her gray-blue eyes and pale skin shone under her woven hat. “Hello, love. How are you?”
“I’m good, Grandma,” said Azzie.
“That’s marvelous. Johnny! Grandma’s here!”
Johnny squinted up from his hole. “Gramma hole,” he said, and went back to work.
“That certainly is a splendid hole,” said Grandma, stepping up to it through the grass. “You’ve done some fine digging there. What have y’all been up to today, Azalea Jade?”
“Nothing, Grandma,” said Azzie. “It’s summer.”
“Excellent work,” said Grandma. “Summer is the best time to do nothing.”
“Grandma, look: Johnny dug this hole, and I have been watching ants.”
“Fine activities for a hot day like this one,” said Grandma. “A lot more productive, certainly, than my afternoon. I went to the grocery store. But perhaps now I can get some more important work done. Let’s us go inside and see your momma.”
“Come on, Johnny,” said Azzie. Johnny left his stick carefully beside his hole -- all of four inches deep -- and followed them into the apartment building. Grandma led the way up the three flights of stairs to their mother’s apartment.
As they came into the living room, their mother looked up from the sofa, startled. She squinted at Grandma, clutching a stack of snapshots to her chest, looking almost as if she didn’t recognize her. Then she smiled a little and said, “Hello Ursula.”
“Good evening, Ngoc,” said Grandma. “I tried to call to tell you I was coming, but I didn’t get an answer. I just wanted to drop off some things; I hope I’m not intruding.”
“No problem,” said Mama. “Sorry I did not answer the phone. I was in the shower.” With her free hand she began moving candles, incense burners, and more pictures off the living room table. Grandma bent quickly to snatch one before she could move them all away. Grandma looked carefully at the picture, and Mama froze, glaring at her.
Grandma smiled softly at Mama and handed her the picture. “So you did remember his birthday,” she said.
She must have been looking at pictures of Papa! Azzie wanted to see, too, but Mama looked so angry she decided to keep quiet.
Johnny decided otherwise. “Birthday cake,” he said.
“Yes, I remember,” said Mama. She took the picture and put it with the others on top of a bookshelf, turning her back on Grandma.
“Maybe you should share it with the children,” Grandma said, almost whispering. But Azzie could see that Grandma’s bony hands were squeezing the handle of her basket so hard that her knuckles had turned white.
“They are too young,” said Mama. Azzie could hear that she was still angry. “Tea?” Still not looking at Grandma, she walked away to the kitchen.
“I shouldn’t stay long, I see,” said Grandma. Was there a little anger in her voice, now? She put the basket on the table. “Anyway, I have some presents for the children.”
“Happy birthday cake,” said Johnny. “Candle!”
Grandma smiled, and her face creased into a thousand beautiful crinkles. She took off her hat and sat on the floor, and put her basket in her lap. Azzie and Johnny sat next to her.
“It’s not a birthday for y’all,” she said. “No cake. But I have presents for you two anyway.” She put her hand under the white cloth covering the top of the basket and brought out a fireman’s hat. It was not a new one; its yellow paint was chipped and there was a notch in the back. “The little boy who had this before doesn’t need it anymore,” she said to Johnny. “He wants you to have it now.”
Johnny smiled and put it on. Then he made loud fire engine noises and headed for the kitchen.
“And for you, Azalea Jade.” She pulled out a teddy bear. It was a large one, burgundy, old like the fire helmet, with big button eyes and a small smiling mouth.
“I hope you’re not too old for teddy bears,” said Grandma.
“Oh no,” said Azzie. “It’s beautiful.”
“I know it’s not a new one,” said Grandma. “But I fixed it up a little, and I think it will last a good long time.”
Azzie heard Mama scold Johnny and tell him to be quiet. The fire engine noises moved further back towards the bedrooms.
“Whose bear was this, Grandma?” asked Azzie. “Was it...”
Grandma reached out and smoothed Azzie’s hair. “They were your daddy’s,” she whispered. “I think he’d want you to have them.”
Suddenly the bear felt warm in her arms. She thought she should say something properly thankful, but she couldn’t think of anything. Finally, she mumbled, “It’s wonderful.”
Grandma dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Well, I think I should go,” she said. “You’re a good girl, Azalea Jade; I’m mighty proud of you. I’ll see you soon.” She got up, lifted the empty basket, and stepped to the door. “Give Johnny a hug for me.”
“Okay,” said Azzie. She was surprised to see her go so quickly. Grandma closed the door behind her.
Azzie stared at the bear for a while. Papa must have owned this bear when he was growing up on the farm, just ten miles out of town. When Grandpa died, they couldn’t stay on the farm anymore, so Grandma moved to an apartment and Papa went into the Marines. He met Mama while he was a guard at the US embassy in Vietnam. Azzie was born there, on the other side of the world. When she was four they moved to the US, and Papa worked at the base outside of town. Then, when Mama was pregnant with Johnny, the war came, and Papa was called away. He would never be coming back. But his bear was still here, in her arms, soft and very real.
Azzie stood up and went into the kitchen. Mama was making dinner -- rice and spices wrapped in leaves. It smelled wonderful.
“Mama,” said Azzie. “Grandma’s gone.”
“Yes,” said Mama. “She gave you presents?”
“Yes,” said Azzie. “Johnny got the fireman’s hat, and I got Papa’s old bear.” Azzie held up the bear.
Mama’s hands stopped moving. “That’s Papa’s bear?” she said.
“Yes,” said Azzie. Mama looked surprised, and a little sad. Not angry. So Azzie plunged ahead. “Why aren’t we celebrating Papa’s birthday?”
Now Mama looked angry. “Did your Grandma tell you it was his birthday?”
“No,” said Azzie.
“Don’t lie,” said Mama.
“I’m not lying,” said Azzie. “She didn’t tell me. I remembered it.”
“Don’t lie,” said Mama.
“I’m not lying!” said Azzie.
Mama squinted at her, as if trying to see through her. “Give me the bear,” she said.
“What?” said Azzie. “What do you mean?”
“Give me the bear. You can’t have it.”
“Grandma gave this to me!” cried Azzie. She squeezed it close to her.
Suddenly Mama’s face was twisted, angry, smeared with tears. She reached out with hands covered with rice and pulp and grabbed Azzie’s arms. “Papa’s gone,” she shouted. “You go too!” She wrenched the bear away from Azzie, dragged her across the living room, threw open the sliding glass door to the porch, and shoved her outside. “Stay out!” she said, slamming the door, locking it, and yanking the curtains across. And Azzie was outside in the hot night, alone.
Azzie didn’t scream or shout. She sat down on the concrete by the iron railing and buried her face in her hands. After a while she looked up at the stars, leaning her head against the railing, listening to the crickets chirping fast in the heat.
She didn’t understand what was wrong with her mother. No matter how bad Azzie had been, she’d never been locked out on the porch before. How long would she have to stay out, she wondered? Would she miss dinner?
Maybe she’d miss more than dinner. She’d never seen her mother so angry. Maybe she’d be out here all night. Why? Just for asking a question? Just for having a bear?
Azzie looked down at the ground, two stories down. The streetlight by the parking lot spilled yellow light over the dark grass. Beyond the light, the grass rose up in a small hill; on the other side of that, there was a wall of trees. Azzie knew that Grandma’s apartment was in the next complex, right through those trees. It was a twenty minute walk, which is why Grandma usually drove to their apartment, but there was a good path. Azzie knew that Grandma would give her dinner, and she could explain why her mother was so angry.
Normally Azzie would never think of leaving without asking. But Azzie figured that if her mother was going to treat her like this, she didn’t owe her anything.
Azzie took down the clothesline that was stretched across the porch, and piled up the wet clothes on the concrete. She knew her mother would have to wash the clothes again, but it served her right. She tied the clothesline around the railing and carefully pulled herself over. Holding on tight to the line with both hands, she slid onto the porch below. The neighbor here -- a young man who lived alone -- was out. Now she was out of clothesline, but she wasn’t far from the ground. She climbed over the railing and dropped into the grass. She fell as she landed, but wasn’t hurt. The family on the ground floor was having dinner, and not looking outside. She ran for the woods.
It was very dark under the trees, and the crickets were strangely loud. She found the path quickly -- she’d played in these woods often enough. There was no moon, but the sky swam with stars, and after a few minutes she found she could see the path just fine as it picked its way through the dim silver trees.
She wondered if anyone else was out in the woods tonight. Then she tried not to think about that. Very soon she’d be at Grandma’s apartment. Then everything would be fine. Thinking of Grandma reminded her of how her mother had acted, and she forgot all about being afraid. She started to run along the path.
Then she came to the clearing, where the trees opened out into a grassy, mossy area. Tonight the starlight filled the clearing and made everything ash gray. The crickets’ chirping filled her ears, and the smell of grass and the press of the heat was dizzying.
That’s when the stars went out.
They blazed red and were gone. The whole sky was utterly black.
Azzie screamed. The cricket chirping seemed louder and closer in the complete darkness. She tried to stop, and stumbled to her knees.
Was it the end of the world?
For a few seconds nothing happened, and Azzie simply sat there in the darkness, completely dumbfounded. Then she saw something even more amazing, the most beautiful thing she had ever seen.
Slowly, like a new dawn, the Earth filled the sky. Overhead, a translucent azure ocean blue swept from horizon to horizon, smeared and spattered with tiny white clouds. Earth’s continents hung there, as if painted on the sky, sage and olive green, ruddy brown and sandy yellow. To Azzie’s right, the sky was darker, and the continents were edged with lights. Something in her mind clicked, and she recognized Australia directly above her, upside down, and New Zealand a little above it to the left. Below Australia was the Indonesian archipelago, and just above the trees, southeast Asia -- and Vietnam. Azzie stared at it. It was a deep, textured green. Dragging her eyes away, she saw that the continent in half-darkness was Africa.
The light of the Earth overhead lit the forest around her with a soft turquoise glow. The crickets chirped on, oblivious.
Carefully she got to her feet. Should she go on to Grandma’s, or go home? She would go home. Her mother would forget about being angry, and Azzie would forget about it too, for now. This was more important than anything else. She wanted to be home. She turned around, and gasped.
There was firelight through the trees. Something big was burning, right where her apartment ought to be. She started running. How could a fire have started? Did it have something to do with the sky? It was as bright as early dusk; she could see the path clearly, and ran as fast as she could. She had to get back. Her mother and Johnny had to be all right. As the trees parted in front of her, she could see more and more -- the walls partially caved in, the flames wrapping out of the windows and up the roof, one side of the building slumping already. She began to sob as she ran. It was too much.
At last, heart hammering and breathing hard, she reached the grass and stopped. Here at the top of the little hill, she could see people milling around the burning building, but no fire trucks. Where were they? Half of the building was gone already; and -- oddly enough -- there seemed to be some kind of pit where that half had stood. What could it mean?
Then she saw -- very clearly in the Earth light -- a darkness rise up, blooming around the burning building, like a black ball rising out of the ground. It engulfed the building, snuffing out the light of the fire. Then, quite suddenly, it was gone. The building was gone too, gone completely. Now there was just one huge pit where the building had been.
Azzie opened her mouth to scream, but something warm and rubbery slapped over her mouth, and a terribly strong arm wound round her waist. She got the merest glimpse of three huge yellow eyes and a mouthful of black teeth, and then everything went dark.