Nico's grandfather had died on Halloween, sitting in the front room in his reclining chair with a book about flowers open on his lap and a rubber Frankenstein mask over his head.
His grandfather had stayed behind to hand out candy while Nico, his younger sister, and his mother went trick or treating in the neighborhood. When they had returned home the old man --who had loved God and science in equal measure, and who had given Nico a revolving globe of the moon that was his most prized possession-- was unresponsive, and Nico and his sister were sent to their rooms.
From his bedroom window Nico had watched as an ambulance pulled up their long driveway, its spinning lights carving up the darkness and splashing off the windows of neighboring homes. Nico saw small groups of costumed children and huddled adults gathered in yards and standing out along the road by the mailbox. It was a long time after the cart was wheeled out to the driveway, loaded, and driven away --the ambulance's lights no longer flashing-- before Nico's mother came to his room. She had changed into a robe and slippers, and sat down at Nico's little desk and absentmindedly spun his moon globe with her long index finger.
She told Nico that his grandfather had died. Peacefully, she said. He was mad about you, she said. You were the apple of his eye. Nico did not say anything. His imagination was whirling in a hundred directions, just as it did when he was excited, confused, or frightened. His mother eventually got up, kissed him on the top of the head, and said, "You're a big boy," which pleased him in some way he didn't understand.
The next day, despite the coming and going of many people, the house seemed almost unbearably silent. The visitors tended to congregate in the kitchen, talking in hushed tones to Nico's mother. Each time Nico would creep down to the kitchen there would be more plastic- and foil-wrapped plates and casseroles lining the counter. Later, after everyone had finally gone, his mother had Nico move all the food to the back porch, which was unheated. And there it sat.
His grandfather's funeral, which was held several days later, was the first that Nico had ever attended, and he had sat through it in a sort of trance, not understanding a word that was said. Even when people were clearly talking about his grandfather Nico didn't recognize the man they were talking about.
That night, alone in his room, he sat at his desk in the almost dark, the only illumination provided by the moonlight through his window and his little night light. His fingers explored every inch of the beautifully contoured and cratered surface of his moon globe. He imagined his grandfather up there now, wandering with a pack of his dead dogs and looking for frogs or salamanders. Surely, Nico thought, some of those who went to heaven were allowed to visit the moon. It must be so close.
But now it was late. It was Christmas Eve, and the moon in the sky looked like an abandoned boat in a big, dark sea filled with bobbing stars. The dogs had been put to bed, and Nico had sat with them for a time, stroking their bellies and finding something comforting that he did not yet recognize as trust in their eyes.
Afterwards he trudged back to the house through the snow, lunging occasionally in an attempt to either lose himself in his shadow --to merge with it-- or to shake free of it. He couldn't do either. On the back porch the plates and casseroles, still untouched, were exactly where he had left them almost two months earlier.
His mother was at the kitchen table, sitting as she so often did at night, smoking a cigarette and staring at a piece of paper on which most of what she had written had been crossed out. She was wearing her robe and slippers, and as Nico passed by she reached for his hand and brushed it briefly against her cheek.
Nico's sister was in bed, and he changed into his pajamas. As he was brushing his teeth in the only bathroom in the house, which was located between his mother's bedroom and the room where his grandfather had lived after he came to stay with them when Nico was very young, Nico heard his mother's voice from the front room. It was his mother's angry voice, which he had not heard often over the last two years.
The toothbrush still in his mouth, Nico moved to the doorway between the bathroom hall and the front room, which was dark. As he craned his head around the corner he could see his mother in the front entry, blocking the half open front door and shouting. She was shouting at Santa Claus, who was standing on the front step, his glasses fogged over and puffs of his breath swirling in the porch light.
"You must be out of your mind," Nico's mother said. "The kids are asleep and there's no way I'm letting you in this house." And with that she slammed the door.
As he usually did when confronted with something troubling or inexplicable, Nico sat at his bedroom window for a long time that night, his moon cradled in his arms, thinking until he ceased to think and began to imagine. It wasn't hard to do.
And the next morning, when he came down the stairs to discover that Santa Claus had indeed arrived after all, he was able to dismiss the previous night as nothing but a dream.