He was on his feet, turning in a graceful circle, feeling the newness in him in a thousand tiny ways and trying to think, what was it? And then the first impact: the pain was gone. For the last thirty years he'd worn pain like a sewn-in straitjacket, every day and every day and every day, until he had forgotten what being without it was like, and now it was as though he'd entered a beautifully appointed new club and the valet had said, May I take your coat, sir? and lifted it smoothly from his shoulders. He felt like replying, You might as well keep it, I don't need it, it's SUMMER, for crying out loud, I don't even know why I was wearing the damn thing in the first place--
And there was a face he knew. It was a face, he realized, that had been there the whole time, simply waiting for Ray to take notice. Not the way he'd last seen him, with the face in broken lines and the hair white and the owlish glasses and the bow tie, but the dark-haired young man with the fox-lipped grin who carried a pencil with him at all times because, hey, you never know, right?
"Chuck?" he murmured. "Chuck, you fourteen-year-old kid, is that really you?"
"Ray, you nutty maroon, is that you?"
And they laughed and met and hollered and embraced and bashed each other on the back almost as though they hadn't seen each other in ten years, but of course it couldn't have been that long, they were both young and strong and in fighting trim and it was the first real day of summer, and Chuck was in high spirits. "Come on, Ray, I've been waiting for you! There's so much to do!"
But something that was niggling at the back of Ray's head made him stop. "Chuck," he said slowly, "I know what you're going to think, but didn't you... I mean, weren't you..."
"Dead?" said Chuck shortly, like a pellet from a paint gun, and laughed. "Yeah, but I got over it."
Ray turned. "But then, doesn't that mean...?"
Chuck turned him around by one shoulder. "Ray," he said, more gently now, "you can go back there if you want, and see the chrysalis you left behind, the old snakeskin you just shed. But it's not going to make you feel any better or change anything that's happened. Take my advice. Just walk away and don't look back."
And at first they walked slowly together, these two young men, with nothing much to say to each other at first because it was a fine bright hot summer day and there was so much to see. Ray thought he'd never really been able to see before, not colors like this, not even when he was young -- so sweetly saturated he thought he'd drown in them.
And the smells! The impossible green scent of fresh-cut grass fountaining up from behind the push mower, the mysterious cross-pollinations of spices from five continents wafting from the kitchen window, the secret full ripe juicy nectarine smell of the young woman passing by -- everything, everything ambrosial and astonishing. He couldn't be dead now, because he'd never really been alive, not like this.
"Chuck," he said, almost to himself. "If we're dead, then... then what is this?"
"This? This is Green Town. Maybe we'll go out to the far end of town, past the ravine, and see the Elliotts. We could walk out to the place where the Dark Carnival is visiting. Later we'll fly to Mars and see Mr. Aaa." He shrugged. "Or if you like, we could drop in at the House of Usher, or go to Oz... it's really up to you."
"So all these things are real?"
"They always were real, Ray. You know that."
Ray smiled. "Yeah, come to think of it. But... if I'm dead, then..." He raised a hand and looked at it curiously.
Chuck laughed again, slapped him on the shoulder. "Conservation of mass, man! Don't you remember your high school chemistry? Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, only transformed. Yesterday your body was filled with something that talked and thought and loved and told stories. You don't stop being you just because you left the body behind." Then a puckish grin crossed his mouth. "Speaking of leaving a body behind..." he murmured, then he suddenly tapped Ray, yelled, "TAG, you're it!" and tore off, literally so fast he left dust clouds in his wake.
Ray laughed -- and ran. For such a long time he hadn't even been able to walk, and now he RAN -- faster than wind, faster than sound, faster even than Douglas tearing around Green Town in the Royal Crown Cream-Sponge Para Litefoot tennis shoes he'd sweet-talked Mr. Sanderson into letting him take from the store. Lightning stood still to watch him pass. He skimmed the earth, jumped whole city blocks, running riotously after Chuck, who was yelling "BEEP BEEP!" back at him and giggling like a lunatic.
It might have been five minutes or five thousand years -- who could tell? -- before Ray put on a sudden burst of speed and lunged at Chuck, and the two went rolling end over teakettle and came to a sudden stop under an apple tree, laughing long and helplessly at their own silliness.
"Aw, man," said Ray, sitting up on his elbows after a while. "Who else is here?"
"Oh, everybody," said Chuck. "You'll see them. Ted showed up for me when I was ready. He's probably even written a poem for you... well, assuming he's stopped shouting at Hollywood for screwing up his Lorax. You know how he is. Bob Heinlein's around here somewhere... just follow the storm of gorgeous creatures and you'll probably find him in the eye of it. And Forry's been here a while, gathering signatures." He smiled. "Shakespeare's here, and Poe, and Lovecraft, and Yeats, and Sam Clemens. Maggie's here, too -- your mom and dad, your family -- everybody, really, everybody. You don't ever lose people here, Ray; you find them again."
"So this is heaven, then."
"I don't know what else you'd want to call it."
Ray leaned back in the shade of the tree, just drinking in the scent of ripening summer apple. He was eager to see everyone, especially Maggie, but it occurred to him that there was, at last, plenty of time to enjoy whatever the present moment brought him. "What have you been doing with yourself, Chuck?" he asked. "Since last we parted, and all."
"Amazing things," said Chuck softly. "Amazing things. Remember how I used to say that animation is life? Forget it. I didn't know what I was talking about. Ahh, the things I want to show you, Ray! The things you'll see!"
"And the places you'll go! You're starting to sound like Ted," Ray chuckled.
"The poetry does kind of rub off on you after a while," Chuck admitted.
"So Ted is still writing. I always wondered if I'd be able to keep writing here."
"Like anything would stop you. And the things you write... well, you can see for yourself." Chuck gestured at his immediate surroundings.
Ray looked up, through the branches of the tree, and through and past those branches he saw four very forlorn pairs of eyes staring back at him. "This may be a stupid thing to ask, if I'm in heaven," he said. "But... did I make the best of my life? Did I do everything I was supposed to do?"
Chuck was silent for a long time, pensive. "You were always the one who was good with words," he said. "I was always better with pictures. Here." And he reached around the side of the tree and brought out a sketchpad, pulled the pencil from his pocket and began to draw, swiftly and with ease.
"Ever wonder why they named you Ray?" he asked, as he began to draw a campfire in the darkness, and on the page it began to flicker of its own accord, to glow and to throw out coals and hundreds of sparks. "Because your job was to open the shutters and let the light in so other people could see it for themselves. And I think you did that, Ray, many times over." The campfire grew. It became a huge burning conflagration of a book that would guard the other sparks, and keep them from being blown out for a long, long time to come.
Now a young man with the huge, expressive eyes Chuck so loved to draw was walking along a nearby path, and saw the fire, and sat down to warm himself at it. By its light he looked up, and he saw the stars -- really saw them, for the first time, and wondered. And the spark that was in the young man grew, warmed by the fire and the other sparks into lights that would beat back the darkness -- never extinguish it, no, because Ray knew as well as anyone that Man needs to have a little darkness -- but send it to a place where it could only come forth when it was bidden. And the world glowed a little brighter every day.
Ray sat and looked through the window Chuck had drawn for him. "Was it enough?" he asked finally. "Will it last?"
"That remains to be seen," said Chuck, "for both of us. But I think it will." He turned the paper toward Ray. "Here," he said. "Make a wish and blow."
And Ray took a deep breath and made the same wish he'd always wished, and blew with all his might, and the paper fire blazed up mightily and the sparks danced and glowed, filled and roused with the influx of his spirit.
"That oughtta hold it for a while," he said. "Now. To Mars?"
Chuck put the sketchbook aside, rose to his feet. "Hell, why not. To Mars!"
And because they felt like it, they spread wide Icarus wings and flew -- straight up, up, past clouds and air into the silken firmament of space, into the domain where may be found the golden apples of the sun, and it was the finest and fairest of summer days, with a party waiting for them on the planet just next door.
--for Ray Douglas Bradbury, 1920-2012
and with a hat tip to Chuck Jones, 1912-2002
and with a hat tip to Chuck Jones, 1912-2002