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The comet crossed our Earth's path in the early Spring. People assembled in their streets and yards; they lay in lawn chairs wrapped in blankets and jackets, damp from the dew, tired and half dreaming the image that burned across the horizon.
A class of second-graders gathered sleepily in the playground overhanging the highway. Children clung to their parents, struggling to stay awake for the event they'd been preparing for so long. Each child wore a tinfoil comet cut-out on his shirt. They'd read books about comets, heard songs about comets, wrote poems about comets, and even baked comet cookies. It was overwhelming that the time was so close.
Across town at Green Orchard Nursing Home, the residents were helped out into the yard. They were stately and dignified as they settled into the wicker patio furniture in the pale beginnings of daylight. They gazed with faded eyes at the distant skyline as the morning stars pinpricked white against the uniform blue.
One woman could remember the last time the comet had passed the Earth. She had been only seven years old, and it had been so spectacular. She folded her hands on the thick burgundy blanket on her lap and her skin could almost be heard to rustle, as the leaves rustled in the gentle wind.
There was a supernatural stillness to the event. Everyone was filled with early morning memories. With little prodding, soft voices would have broken the spiritual quiet and filled the air with deliciously sweet memories.
But no one prodded, and the silence kept the night clear. The city and the sky blended. House lights became stars, and stars-windows. Bells rang to remind people that tonight was special. The world awoke at this ungodly hour. The Earth itself seemed to yawn and stretch, as thousands of people stepped out into the darkness.
The second-grade teacher opened a Tupperware container full of comet cookies shaped like tadpoles. She passed them out to the children who reached into the box with dirty, sandy hands. Their tiny sneakers carried them lightly across the yard. Their excitement mounted with each bite of the sugar cookies. The yellow and white frosting melted into sweet syrup in their mouths. Cookies in hand, they scattered over the playground. Some climbed to the top of the jungle gym to be closer to the sky. Some clung to the fence, staring down at the highway as cars passed below, their headlights fitting previews of what was to come.
At Green Orchard, someone broke the silence by saying it was almost time. The residents stirred in their seats. They mumbled to each other about the chill in the air, the affects it would have on their arthritis, and finally, the comet.
At 4:15 a.m. the comet crossed the sky.
The second graders cheered and laughed. Wasn't it amazing? Have you ever seen anything so wonderful? A ball of fire: it burned forever, brilliant white. Angels trailing gowns and harp music, diamonds as they'd always imagined them, ice and heat at once, the most exciting thing they'd ever seen. It was Superman come to life - all of their fantasies in one sphere of light.
Outside of Green Orchard, the comet arched across the sky. No one spoke for a very long time. As the sky began to lighten, a feeling of disappointment settled over them. All at once, they felt very old.
"When I first saw it," the rustling woman said, "it was so much more spectacular than that."
But it wasn't the comet that had changed.
Slowly, in groups, they went up the path lined with crocus and scented like Spring, like earth and water and a young girl's perfume. They went into the comfortably solid and sterile home. Some were sad, some were regretful and all felt a dull ache of loneliness.
The children were packed off in mini-vans and station wagons, too excited to sleep any more that morning. The teacher closed the Tupperware container, put it under her arm, and drove off into the morning light.
The empty playground was silhouetted against the lightening city skyline. A ghost of a memory drifted giggling into the open. She swung on the swings, her hair trailing behind her like a comet's tail.
At Green Orchard the rustling woman giggled in her sleep as she saw the comet fly past her one more time, as a little girl. 1