People said it was a freak storm, lightning that raked from earth to sky. People said a missile test from White Sands had lost its way and crashed in the pine forest to unleash government-funded hell. People said the mountains gave birth to a daytime star that flared until the old Sol dimmed and shadows were cast to every degree of the compass.
For Shepherd it was a series of disconnected images: June’s eyes erased by a blaze of light, particles of One Man Army’s flesh fleeing his bones like sand driven before a windstorm, a blue van mired in melting tar, Behemoth imploding as gravity increased a thousand-fold in a space defined by his mass.
Shepherd was two atoms become one, he was the sun; he was a god in flight and the apotheosis of power. He was Hyperion.
Six months later, Shepherd and Nicholas sat on the rear deck, watching Sierra Blanca change from white to gold to purple in the setting sunlight. Summer on the cusp of fall, the pine forest drowsing in afternoon heat, and fireflies that danced through the darkening trees. Shepherd with his left hand sunk in the melting ice of a beer cooler.
In the kitchen, behind the double glass doors, a Joni Mitchell song was playing on the radio. One of June’s friends had played “A Case of You” on the autoharp at the memorial service. After the insurance agent settled on “Act of God-Lightning Strike” the cabin had been rebuilt, even lovelier than before, though the bearskin rug and the player piano and June’s books were all forever lost.
He couldn’t stop seeing her eyes, the way they’d glowed as they’d reflected his transformation, the way they’d burned when he couldn’t control what he’d unleashed. He drank and drank and drank but couldn’t stop seeing. Or forget that he knew the vector of his fate.
After a while, something about the muffled music, the failing light, and the way the moon hung low over the mountain made Shepherd pose the questions that had pressed his heart for so long.
He spoke quietly, without looking away from the view. “What if I just took you back to Rt. 54 and dropped you off where I found you?”
Nicholas sighed. “You could…but you probably shouldn’t. Dr. Cosmos was right; the universe doesn’t play games. You’d live, but it’d probably hurt.”
“Who are you, Nicholas?” Reaching for another beer. Shepherd’s heart was breaking, again. He was Hyperion. He'd been handed the reins to the chariot of the sun. He couldn't deny there was glory in it...but even more horror. He wished that burst of light that had taken June and the house and half the mountain had taken him as well. “And why me?”
Nicholas didn’t answer at first. He sipped lemonade until he was sucking air through the straw. Then he put the glass down, picked up a grocery bag stashed under his chair, and set it in his lap. He said, “Because that’s your fate, Shep. And I’m fate’s tool. Please don’t be angry with me. I’m no more to blame than the hammer that drives the nail.”
After a while Shepherd said, “Did you do what they say you did?” Somehow this hurt the most. “Did you…what did he say? Mentally dominate me?”
“There have been times when I may have...encouraged you...to look the other way. When I was setting things up. But in the future? Never, Shep. Everything you do, you do out of love.”
Shepherd swigged from his can of Schlitz and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. Then his eyes. His voice was ragged. “That might be easier if I could forget what hasn’t happened yet.”
Nicholas nodded. “I know. That's why I made this.”
He reached into the bag for his latest creation, the top hat that would someday belong to Dr. Cosmos. When he put it on his head, the hat slid down to his ears, so he had to tilt it back to see. He held out his hand.
“Are you ready?”
Shepherd nodded. He closed his eyes.
…and entered into the dream of the rest of his life.