The More Loving One

By Scott Edelman In Proton Reader Two

I watch from a distance as he shuffles along the sparkling beach, this man I know so well, this man who believes he knows me so well, watch even though he is barely visible beneath his protective garments, watch even though the others tell me I should not.

The beach is bright—blindingly bright to him and those like him—which is the reason he hides beneath those layers of cloth, as well as under a broad hat with a brim so wide it droops nearly low enough to graze both shoulders. His eyes are invisible behind a rectangular slab of wood etched with narrow slits and tied to his face by leather cords; not even I can make out his gaze here. It took him years before he was able to devise an outfit which would allow him to do what he feels called upon to do, and walk the sand he now walks.

I’d watched those early attempts from a distance over the years as he experimented with various methods of treading so close to the sun, and each time he retreated—sometimes after touching only a toe into the sand, sometimes daring more—I doubted he would ever return. But surviving in this spot was too important for him to stop, which meant he remained driven to figure out a way.

I was surprised to discover this quest of his eventually came to matter as much to me as it did to him. The others tell me I shouldn’t care, which is an easy thing for them to say—they don’t know this beach the way I do.

They don’t know him.

He weaves so close to the water the tendrils of waves which run up from the shoreline occasionally dampen the hems of the multiple robes with which he’s chosen to encase himself. If anyone not similarly garbed decided to travel from the dimmer regions of this world to walk beside what here would seem to most more a bundle of rags than a person, that loose outfit would not be the only reason the man’s age, stature, gender—and perhaps even species, so hidden is he—would be difficult to discern. Their retinas would first burn to ash from the intense light long before registering any identifying information.

But I have no trouble spying on him or recognizing him, and it has nothing to do with the great distance between us, between me and the beach which torments him, and tempts him, and makes what he has interpreted to be promises, promises I fear can never be fulfilled. Promises I know can never be fulfilled.

No, I recognize him because I know this beach well.

I have come to know him well, too. Too well, the others would say. Do say.

I watch as he walks alone, watch as I have watched for years since before the time he arrived here on blazing sands which had never before known a footprint, long before he felt the need to prospect here, first in happiness, then in sorrow.

Back before his seeking began.

As he moves, his path along the beach might seem random at first. But not to me. Never to me. A virgin gaze, however, could take his arc as mere meandering. But as the hours pass, and he crosses and recrosses his own trail, his footsteps etch ruts, and even one who has not watched the man for a lifetime—his, not mine—would be able to tell he is being methodical. Each step is taken with intention.

He mutters as he moves, emitting what is almost a song, but I’m unable to make out the content of his sounds, for I cannot hear him as well as I can see him. I never could, not here, and not with his mouth so masked. That has never been my gift.

Occasionally, a boot slips out from beneath a hem to overturn a shell, or gloved fingers slide through a break in the cloth to lift a pebble, but if you had been watching as long and closely as I have been—not that there’s any way you could have been doing so—you’d have noticed he only does this to the flotsam and jetsam which lie in the interstitial places—from down along the line where water meets the shore, or up the incline to where sand begins to be replaced by grassland. I know those places well.

From time to time, he lifts a bit of driftwood—or a broken chunk of coral, or a sliver of glass tumbled smooth by the waves—close to the slits which mask his face. He mumbles in those moments, and tilts his head back to hold each item between his eyes and the sky.

He would never dare look up without some sort of barrier like that. Maybe elsewhere, but not here, not in this place where he stands, closer to the sun than at any other spot on his world.

Most objects he quickly drops back to the places from which he had plucked them. A few, a very few, vanish within his many folds of cloth. How he chooses what to keep and what to discard would be difficult for any to discern, because the difference between the things left behind and those which are taken, the essence which has accrued to these objects, is invisible here, save to him.

Save to me.

The precision with which he parses his possessions amazes me. It always has. No one else has ever been able to see what he can see, or has chosen to do what he can do. Which is why I feel called upon to watch as I have watched no other. Especially now, considering what I feel is coming. And what his recent trips here are telling him about tomorrow, and the tomorrows after that. The others tell me his behavior is not so unusual, that they have known his like before, and therefore he should not matter so to me. Well, I have not known his like, and therefore, he does.

As the hours pass, he moves more slowly, as if his protective garments, squeezed by the pressure of the sunlight spilling from the sky, have grown too heavy on his being. He halts from time to time, starts up again, stumbles, catches himself before he falls, takes smaller steps, covering less distance with each stride. Whether this is because his body wearies or his soul, not even I can tell. I am no mind reader. I only know what the light allows me to see.

As he stutters across the landscape, his muttering turns to grumbles. But then the grumbling stops.

All sound and motion stops, in fact, save for the waves tickling the shore below, and the wind shivering the grasses above.

Suddenly, and for the first time here, not just today, but ever, he sits, the mass of cloth and wood collapsing on itself, until of the form that remains, only I can tell that inside is a man. And then the silence is broken by the sound of his weeping.

That, for some reason, I can hear clearly through his outfit. I am sorry for the sound of it.

And I decide, even before the tears harden my resolve… I am going to do something about that.

I am going to try, anyway.

The others might disagree. But I owe him that much, I think.

Or that little.

Once the weeping stops (and how long that is, neither of us knows, because they are tears of which we both lost track) he rises again and moves from the sand to the grass, which whispers around him until he reaches the rocky crags where the nature of the light begins to change, growing less savage, and then on into the forest, the air around losing more of its harshness with each step. He removes his outer clothing along the way, in the reverse order of how he dressed to survive the beach, a ritual which has been his since he initially began seeking salvation amidst the sand.

First his hands come out to remove the wooden eye protection, which vanishes within the folds, then the hat falls back and dangles by a leather strap, revealing a sun-seared face, darkened by his first experimental attempts to visit the beach and harvest what he felt could be found there, and last, as he reaches a hut in a hollow, one surrounded by moss on the ground and topped by moss on its roof, the robes peel back.

He seems slighter now than when buried in cloth, and not merely because I can see him less clearly than I could when lit by the brightness of the falling light at the beach which reflected off sand and water. He is older than when I first met him, too, and more frail.

There is a pouch at his waist which contains the objects he has harvested, and though outside his hut there seemed nothing odd about it—it might have been a pouch containing coins or crusts of bread—as soon as he ducks and steps inside through the low doorway, a faint flickering can be seen to seep out from its cinched mouth. The texture of that light matches what leaks out from the many jars on the shelves around the otherwise unlit room, only weaker, the lines where lids meet bodies seeming to form glowing smiles. They are of all shapes and sizes, these jars, for though the light each contains knows neither shape nor size, the objects to which light has attached itself—light condensed, light solidified—varies.

It was mere serendipity which caused him to learn that at one blazingly bright spot in his world, the light which spills from the sky grows viscous as it nears the surface, pooling in certain secret crannies. Only he knows how and where to look, though even if others knew, it would not matter, for only he can even see what those hidden places contain.

At first, he sought them out of love, to gather gifts for the one who made life worth living. But then… after… he sought release. Release from his loneliness, release from his fear, release from what had become a pointless existence. Because in seeking, he had found something else he believed he alone could see. Which is why though he has been offered riches for the contents of those jars, they are riches which he has continually refused.

Each desired his collection for a different reason. The merchants wished to adorn themselves the way they would with any jewel, not because they cared about their true nature, but only because they are rare. The priests wanted to light their prayers and decorate the altars to their gods. The artists wished to incorporate them in the paintings they used to delight their patrons, as did the other crafters—jewelers, cabinetmakers, clothiers—who desired their beauty. The soldiers wished to use them—of course, for they are soldiers, and I have seen far too many of them—to intimidate their enemies. But he has rejected them all, because none are seeking what he seeks, none can hear what he believes he is on the verge of hearing, and they, intimidated by the nature of his hoard as they would have been of no other possession, have left him alone. Alone to attempt again and again to see, a thing he has yet to do but which he feels he is always on the verge of doing, even though—and I feel I owe it to him to tell him though the others feel I should remain silent—what he thinks is on his mind’s horizon isn’t really there. 

He shuts the door behind him, and as the darkness swells, so by contrast does the light which over the years he has harvested, and though the contents of the room are still shrouded in shadow—the bed in which he has slept alone and dreamt of seeing her again, the table with bread and cheese gone blue and green, for he often forgets to eat, the dress he was supposed to have buried her in, but could not bear to do so—the difference between what he gathered in the past and what he collected on this day becomes more evident. Some jars ooze the full power of the sun at its height, today’s collection feeble by comparison. That saddens him. And though I feel his sadness, I can’t bring myself to be sad as well, not even in the midst of the great change that’s coming, the one I’ve surrendered to believe is inevitable, because I’m continually amazed he has seen what he’s seen at all, and has been able to do what he’s done. That is a great accomplishment, as I know more than any. No other of his people has ever done it before, not with sunlight, at least—with moonlight and starlight and firelight, yes, but not sunlight—and I doubt any will be able to do so later, even if allowed the time. And few will be allowed that time.

I wonder if he would be surprised to know that even here, within these private walls he considers sacred, I can see him. I’d like to think he wouldn’t be. I’d like to think he believes, though I have never heard him say so. But not even I can see inside him.

He shifts the contents of the littered table to the bed, and then takes the jars, amassed over a lifetime, down from the shelves. He is slow and careful as he does this, treating them as if they are fragile even though the contents are not fragile. Not the contents which matter, at least. He arranges them in a rectangle around the edges of the table in the order of when their contents came into his possession, then opens the lids slowly, reverently. And in the glow that floods the room, with the light not quite sunlight, not quite starlight, not quite moonlight, the previously shadowed details of the space within the hut can be seen, and it is clear it is no longer the home it once was. His home is far behind, even as he hopes it is also still in his future.

He loosens the mouth of the pouch at his waist and slips his fingers through to grasp the small fragments within. Once the yield from a day’s work would not have fit in his hand, nor in a single pouch, nor be what he could carry in multiple baskets, not even with all his younger strength. But those days are long gone, years gone, decades gone, and the times we live in will not see their like again. I more than anyone, even more than him, wish they could.

He pulls back his hand and places a small shell and a thumb-sized fragment of wood in the center of the table, each with a pea-sized ball of light attached. Their addition to the array does not brighten the room, not even the room as seen through his eyes.

He ducks his head, leans forward toward the center of the table. He lets his eyes lose focus, allows the chunks of light to swirl in his peripheral vision. He pushes closer, his pupils becoming pinpoints. He looks, he looks, but what does he see, what does he think he sees? I cannot see it with him, but I know he hopes to see her face, back again after all these years, captured by the light which caressed her body, caressed all of their bodies, as they lived the way people have always done, since they first stopped longing to become people and actually became them. By his frustrated expression I can tell he thinks he almost can see her.

But no, he cannot. It is merely an illusion created by the way the captured light plays along the veins and capillaries within his eyes, and by the way his heart plays within his mind.

But that is not the way light works, not even this light. All he sees is his own blood pulsing within, random flickerings he takes to be her. But it is not her. This I know. And this he should know, too, no matter how it will break his heart. The others have tried to convince me it would be better for him not to know. But I do not agree. And they have agreed to leave the decision up to me. It is what we do.

He tilts his head, listening now instead of looking, hungering for a voice he sought to rekindle with his gathering. But it is not there, and the reason it is not there (or so he tells himself) is because he has not yet gathered enough. One more bit of light, solidified like amber in the nooks and crannies of his world, and what is out of reach will be out of reach no longer.

That is what he believes, because he has come to believe that what should be true, what must be true, is true.

And so he keeps listening to what can never be heard, the same way he keeps looking for what can never be seen. And eventually, he does hear something, but that faint echo he perceives is also not her, not at all her memory captured by time. No, he has gathered so many solidified scraps of sunlight over a lifetime… 

…it is me he can almost hear.


But not even he, who has given so many years to this quest, can do that. Not here.

But he deserves to hear, even though he can never see.

He deserves the truth.

“I’m so close,” he whispers with his head still ducked, wrapped in garlands of light. He speaks to her now, the her that should be, and straightens, backing away from the table so he can capture the whole of it with a glance. He considers the gathering of light, the way it waxes and wanes as his gaze moves around the square again and again. “You’re there. I know you are. Only a few more months of gathering, and I’ll be able to see you…”

He turns and studies the empty shelves which line the walls, the ones from which he had removed jars, and the ones meant to hold jars still to come.

“I need more,” he says. “I must have more. Only—”

He pauses, remembering, and though I do not know what… I know. It is her. Always her. And what he needs to do to see her one more time.

“Something is very wrong,” he says. “Something must be done.”

He spins back to the table, moving more swiftly than he has in a long while, and scoops up his two newest fragments, the shell, the wood, and returns them to the pouch. He then reaches for the jar with the brightest glow.

I recognize that jar. It was the first.

From it, he slides a palm-sized slice from a shattered pane of glass. In his hand, the glow of the attached light, already bright, shines even brighter through that lens. He slips it into the pouch as well, and cinches it tight.

He turns from the table, leaving the other containers where they lie, then steps from his hut and looks for a moment toward the distant, invisible shore, the beach where he spent his fruitless morning, imagining it, and the riches which once accrued there, but now no longer do. He at first reaches for his robes where he dropped them, then decides to let his hand drop instead.

 He turns and walks the other way, with the sun at his back and only darkness ahead.

With each step he takes, the sky dims a bit, more perceptible more quickly to me as I follow his journey than it is to him, as the passage of the light which began the moment he last left the beach continues. He squints now as he moves forward, as he is unused to this level of light while he makes his way through bogs and forests, along cliffs and crevasses, and though the nature of the light is native to those he passes along the way, it becomes more difficult for him to see. It becomes more difficult for me to see as well the greater his distance from the beach increases.

He travels a long way for a long time, further from his home than he has ever journeyed in his life, passing towns filled with people puzzled that anyone would move as he does, crossing deserts filled with people always on the move. And even though it is rare as well for me to travel so many leagues, I feel compelled to follow. I prefer the brighter lands of this world, the places where heat and light thrive, but for him, I will leave them behind as best I can.

When he tires, he lays down and sleeps (but I do not, as I have no need to lay down and sleep). Sleep does not come easy for him, because the constantly changing unfamiliar mix of light and shadow—less light and more shadow with each passing step—is uncomfortable to him.

Eventually—and exactly when that is, neither of us can say, for in such places as these neither of us can correctly count the time—he reaches the band where twilight circles his world, where it is not quite daylight and not quite night, an equal mix of nothing and everything. In the distance, he sees a figure approach, growing closer from out of the deep darkness, matching him step for step, each step bringing them two steps nearer. He startles at first, confronted by this unexpected mirror—though not truly a mirror, for the woman he sees is as pale as he is ruddy—but then he nods in recognition.

They stop mere paces away, so close they could reach out and touch if they wished, and consider each other.

“I was on my way to visit you so we could speak,” says the collector of sunlight. “But I hadn’t expected to find you here.”

“Nor I you,” says the collector of starlight, whom I have never seen, but of whom I have been told by the others, who know her well. At least, that is what they claim.

“I’d expected to walk all the way into your darkness, even though in the end it would mean feeling my way to your side,” he says. “But you? Your trip would not have been possible, I think. How could you have made your way to me? I doubt you could have survived.”

“And yet… I had to try. I feared I would need to travel to where the world was so bright no shadows fall, and where no star but one ever shone. But that no longer matters, for here we are, brought together by… I hate to think what has brought us together.”

 My collector pats his pouch, but does not yet open it.

“Something is wrong,” he says. “Something is wrong with the sun.”

“And the stars as well…”

“What is wrong with the stars?”

He had been told of stars, that they were something like the sun, only smaller, like sparkling grains of sand in the sky, as if someone had taken the beach with which he was so familiar and scooped it up to scatter across the heavens. But he has never seen them, for living so close to the beach as he does, he has never known darkness. He finds the idea of darkness terrifying, in fact, and is grateful he has not had to go that far this day.

In answer, the woman shows him a pouch much like his own, holding it out between them.

“Look,” she says, loosening the ties around its neck. “Look at all that remains of the deposited starlight.”

The collector of sunlight peers in, but even though he bends close and presses his eyes to the opening…

“I see nothing.”

“Your eyes still haven’t adjusted. You’ve spent too many years on the brightside. But alas, even if your eyes had time to recover, there wouldn’t be much more for you to see than what you’re able to see now.”

“Do you know what is happening?” he asks as he reveals the contents of his own pouch. “Back at home, I could almost see my wife, frozen there in the light, just as the light itself was frozen. But without more…”

He shakes his head. She shrugs in return, having no answer for him. I have answers, but I have not yet decided which of them it would be right for me to tell.

A third calls out then, surprising them both. But not me.

“The sun is dying,” says a voice with tones not easily identified as coming from a man or a woman. “And they want you to know. They want us all to know. That’s why they conspired to bring us together.”

The collector of moonlight approaches them along a perpendicular path, neither a part of the land of sunlight behind or the land of darkness ahead, but walking at an angle along the arc of twilight.

“I can hear them,” they say. “Hear them in a way you cannot. Because I can hear them both. Hear them all, reflected and magnified in a way neither of you will ever know. Unlike the sun, though, there is nothing wrong with the stars. And they apologize for that pretense. But they needed to bring you here to this place, both of you. It is only when we are together that they can reach us.”

“I do not believe you,” says the woman who walked the darkness. “If the stars had a message, they would have told me. I live in night. They keep me company there. And though their gifts have become rarer, they themselves are still without number.”

“No, those gifts are not rarer, for as I said they only needed you to think so for a while. And for making you think that, so they could call you forth… for that they are sorry.”

“You are wrong,” she insists. “They speak to me. They always have. They would have told me. They would have.”

No, they don’t, and no, they wouldn’t, but it is not my place to tell her that. I hear no more of her claims, though, for the collector of sunlight speaks over the protests of the collector of starlight to ask directly:

“You say you hear the sun, and you hear the stars. But have you heard her?”

The answer is a disappointing shake of the head. It is not one he accepts. He continues on, once again saying things which are not true.

“The sun cannot die,” he says. “I realize that, yes, the gifts of the sun have grown few, for real, unlike with the stars, but I go daily to where the sun beats down at its strongest, and it has not weakened. It is unchanged. It is… immortal. Immortal… as I am not. And so you must help me understand what is really happening. Because I am so close. So very close to seeing her again.”

He is not.

Whatever he thinks, whatever he dreams, he is no closer this day than when he began. And now that the moon and the stars have given me this gift and joined me in bringing them together, it is time to speak to him and to tell him so.

It is time to tell them all.

I speak as I can only here, at this place, where sunlight and starlight and moonlight and the collectors of all three coexist, which is why the stars agreed to mirror my downfall and bring them together. However much we disagree about whatever is to happen next, they allowed me free will. Which is what families do.

“I am dying,” I tell them, the fragments of solidified sunlight, the first and the last, pulsing within his pouch, causing a glow to pour out of its mouth, the light becoming sound to them, but not becoming anything to me, for to a sun, light is sound is mass is existence itself.

“It is… the sun?” says my collector. He kneels, roughly jerks the pouch open even further, pours its contents on the dry earth at his feet. The others circle me, the tips of their boots gleaming, flickering as I tremble in the center of the gathering of the three. “It is the sun which speaks?”

“It is the sun,” I say.

“I do not believe it. You can’t be the sun because you say you are dying and the sun cannot die. And so, yes, something is wrong, but perhaps what is wrong is you who speaks.”

“I know this will be hard for you to believe,” I say. “And I know why. I know what it is you desire. I know what it is you seek. I know why you want me to live. But my time is at an end. Other than the shortfall which has stripped the beach of new treasures, you will not perceive the approach of my passing. And it will take… some time. But I thought you should know. It is why you have been called here. You have been loyal to me.”

“I…” He seems uncertain what to say, and then his voice hardens. “I am sorry. It is not you to whom I have been loyal. It is her.”

I already knew that. It has always been her. And yet—as no one has seen me before, and none has collected what I have been leaving behind since the beginning of time—not even since the beginning of my time—I have acted as if those loyalties were the same thing. It has strangely been enough.

“I’m sorry,” I say, echoing his apology. Do I tell him now for what? I don’t think so. How his hopes have been false ones, and how intentionally or not, I have helped keep them alive? I cannot, could not, ever give him what he wants, and yet… haven’t I allowed him to go on thinking I could? The past is not visible through frozen sunlight. The one he loves has not been captured and recorded by that which washed over her, washed over them all. The others think I should keep my guilt to myself. But the closer I come to my end, the more I believe it would be wrong. It would be better were he to know the truth. They might not understand that now. But when their turn comes, they will.

And he will surely understand.

Before I can speak again, he asks me for a thing I cannot give.

“Let me see her,” he says.

“That’s not possible,” says the collector of starlight, who speaks the truth, even as she is lost in her own folly.

“You know that,” says the collector of moonlight, who sees things more clearly than either of them.

“It is possible,” he insists. He bends closer to the fragments which channel me. “You have witnessed everything that walked in light. They live in your memory. Nothing that has happened in this world is alien to you. I know you have captured her, I know it. Because I have almost seen her before. She’s in you. I was so close to seeing her. All I needed was more, but your gifts… your gifts are fewer. Can’t you grant me more?”

“No,” I say. I turn him down for many reasons. Because it is true, yes, but also because the things he calls gifts were never given, they just happened, beyond my control, as it is what suns do. But also because even if I were to give him what he wants, it would be futile. What he wants does not exist. But I cannot bring myself to tell him that yet. And so I simply say:

“Because I am dying.”

“No,” he says firmly. “Suns do not die. This I know. Only people die. So if you are truly the sun, now that you have revealed yourself, let me see the one who has died and taken me with her.”

His face, a face which I could see most clearly when it was most obscured, is more hopeful now than it has ever been. As for my own hopes, I had hoped to tell him that what he believes is not real, that he has seen nothing but a trick he has played upon himself, that he should stop searching for something that isn’t real. As I look into his face, though, his brow furrowed, his lips trembling, I wonder—why should it discomfort me so that he should end his life believing a lie? I only know it does. The time to tell him is now.

But I find I cannot.

Perhaps I have finally come to understand what it is to be mortal. Perhaps I would like to see someone’s dreams fulfilled before I go. Or perhaps it is simply because in this place, with these people, the wisdom of the others resonates within me clearly. Whatever the reason… I let the man see what he wished to see. And more.

I channel myself through the fragments at their feet, and the light within them expands, brightening, rising, filling the space between them. A swirling cone grows as tall as they, and as I force it into being, molding it into what he needs to see, I can feel centuries melt from my lifespan. But I give him this replica willingly. It is a debt I have to pay.

What I spend of myself to sculpt an illusion is too bright for the collectors of starlight and moonlight, and they drop back, then turn away. My collector, the one who has walked my beach for most of his life, pays them no mind as they begin their treks back to their homes, the two knowing the vision to come is not meant for them, and never was. Perhaps their turns will come someday. But that will not be up to me.

Once he and I are alone together, we are not alone, for out of my soul stuff before him, I etch her form and features, and she is there, the one he has lost, not the truth he had hoped I had captured, but a different truth. She is not as she was in life, for she is glowing, and not in the way she always glowed. This molding of my memory is not something I have ever done, and as the light struggles to burst free and dispel the twilight, I force her form to hold, feeling my death grow infinitesimally closer from the effort. It’s so far off it will be long after he is gone, but still… it is my life.

He does nothing at first, too stunned to see her again, realizing the signs he’d previously taken her to be were only wisps and fancies. He speaks, whispers her name, and when she does not answer—I can mimic her form, but the creation of her voice is beyond even what a sun can do—he reaches for her, his hand a dart. Before I can cause her to melt away, he touches her, is burned by her.

Is burned by me.

He snatches back his hand, and stares at his fingers, watching blisters form. He is in pain, I know, how could he not be… and yet, his expression tells me he is at peace.

“Thank you,” he says.

He turns from me then, walks into the twilight, walks toward the darkness, one so total I will never see him again. My last sight of him is his back, which is all I ever truly deserved.

It would have been nice to have had company at the end, and I wish it could have been him, but it will not be him. It would never have been him anyway, even if he had never abandoned the light, as thousands of years still remain before I swell to bursting and take this world with me. During that time, he will die, and there will be others with longings, but ones I will only dimly be able to witness. For though no new deposits will form—I am beyond that now, truly, especially with the final sacrifice of giving him that one last look—as soon as it becomes known the collector has abandoned his hut, all he has amassed will be taken and spread throughout the world, and the priests, the artists, and the warriors will have what they think they want. But though I will see them from a distance, they will be but shadows to me. For none will dare come as close as he did. None, I think, will ever love enough.

And until then…

I watch the beach from a distance, this beach which seemed blindingly bright to a man who believed he knew me so well, and whom I thought I knew so well. It is dimmer than it once was, and there is no one there. No one shuffles a well-worn path in search of condensed nuggets of my soul. No one keeping me company, however briefly, however unintentionally, during our shared time occupying the planet. We were both looking for something here, and somehow his questions became my answers.

I should be able to see him there. He devoted his life—the part that mattered to him the most—to being there. But he is long gone. First to the dark side, and then on to whatever lies beyond the dark side, a place to which I’ll be going soon as well.

And the universe is a lonely place in which to die alone. Alas, those I can see through the hoard he had collected, dissipated as I knew it would be, are not enough to satisfy that ache. They do not even know what they have, and were never drawn to do what my collector had done, to visit me, to see me, to see through me. And so my power dwindles with no one to witness it.

But we are here, I hear the other stars cry. We will always be here, though some of us have gone as you are going, even as others are being born. You do not have to do this alone.

I know, I say.

They will be with me to the end.

But I’d hoped the impossible—that it would be me… and him.

With what feel like my final bursts of energy, I do for myself what I had in that long-ago moment of love and pity and guilt done for him. I bring back the beach to its former brightness and sculpt the light into another likeness, his likeness this time, and set his glowing form to move along the beach as he had once moved. But this time, being made of light rather than merely being surrounded by it, there is no need to keep his true outline hidden.

And so I do not garb him in those robes, that floppy hat, the slitted eyewear, not merely because this version of him does not need the protection, but because I wish to see him as he was when we last met, in that place of twilight with the collectors of starlight and moonlight beside him, moments before, his questing over, he fled into the darkness.

I send him to walking the ragged lines between grass and sand, between sand and water, acting out the search for frozen light, seeking secretions I am too far gone to eke out in reality, even though I still have the strength left to power this puppet. As he walks, and I cause him to kick at rocks and lift driftwood as he once used to do, I scatter hosts of sculpted memories as well, forming fragments I can pretend are real. But they are as false as he is, though I have him pretend them real himself.

I cause him to find one special piece, formed within the hollow of a shell. I have him hold it up to his eyes, tilting his head so he is looking up at me, so I can look down at him. I know it is not me he seeks, not even in my pretend past, but rather the one he lost, and that does not matter now, though once it did, and I let him glimpse through the lens of my soul what he never saw before on that beach. Her, as she was when she was by his side, before he began haunting the beach in hopes of bringing her image back. It is not real, not her, not him, not even the beach. But it is as real as anything ever was.

I freeze the moment, hold him there like that until I no longer have the strength to do so. He bursts forth then, dissipating his energy, causing the bright beach to grow imperceptibly brighter as it escapes the confines where I had bound it. Then it dims once again.

Then darkens.

And then I stop struggling, and let go, and take the planet with me.

Scott Edelman has published more than 110 short stories in magazines and anthologies such as Analog, Apex, The Twilight Zone, and many others. His most recent collection is Things That Never Happened from Cemetery Dance. He’s also the host of the Eating the Fantastic podcast, which since February 2016 has allowed listeners to eavesdrop on his meals with creators of the fantastic. You can find him at:

Proton Reader Two

Welcome to Proton Reader Two
A foreword by Sami Lawson

Let Our Grief Be Fruitful, At Least in This Way
A short story by Jordan Hirsch

A Cat's Duty
A short story by Spencer Koelle

The Protector of the Forest
A short story by Katie Conrad

Baby Boy
A short story by Adam Fout

The More Loving One
A short story by Scott Edelman