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Neil Armstrong lies dead in the Sea of Tranquility. Ten seconds after taking one giant leap for mankind, a blood vessel explodes in Neil’s brain, a saccular aneurysm, pouring blood into the subarachnoid space. Neil is dead before he hits the lunar dust. His face plant is caught live on TV. Millions gasp. A few nervously laugh. Most are stunned into silence.
Walter Cronkite faces the camera. Tears taint his eyes. Searching for the right words, he turns to his script, but the words are not there.
“Jesus,” he utters.
He looks off camera. Then back.
A moment passes. Then another.
Finally, he speaks. Not perfect. But enough. A nation exhales.
The next day, on camera, Buzz Aldrin buries Neil Armstrong. Ol’ Neil now lies three feet deep in the lunar soil, beneath the American flag, and 20 feet from the lunar module.
“Man o’ man,” says Buzz. “What a cluster-fuck.”
The world gasps, again. Many laugh. More smile.
I watch Neil die while lying on my living room floor — just a ten year-old boy in love with all things space. For days and then weeks, I watch the reports: ABC. CBS. NBC. I read the newspapers and magazines: The Milwaukee Journal. The Tribune. Time. Newsweek. I can’t stop.
By the time school starts, I am 15 pounds lighter. Fevers come. Go. The itch won’t go away.
“He’s just in a funk,” my dad tells everyone. “It’s a phase. It will pass.”
My “funk” continues throughout the year, and the next, and so on. My grades slide — then plummet. Eventually, somehow, I graduate from school, but I drift from job to job. Two years there. Six months there. I don’t date. I try to get better, but it’s hard.
Sometimes, at night, I walk over to the lake and stare at the black water.
I’m 60 now. Sunday night is movie night. I always go alone. It’s okay. But tonight, the 50th anniversary of Neil’s death, I’m back at the lake. No one ever stands near me.
The moon hangs above the trees. It’s lovely, but I don’t stare long. Instead, I close my eyes. I listen to the creak of the trees and the rustle of the leaves. The whispers.
At my feet, snakes slither.
No one else ever hears them.
Or sees them.
The air is thick and moist. I picture a line of storms coming. A half-mile west, cars roll down Highway 50, a winding road cutting through the Chequamegon National Forest.
Tonight, I let my mind run free. I breathe. I exhale. I even smile. I imagine a world where Neil returns, where he doesn’t die. I dream of me: I am young and fearless. I can see the possibilities, maybe…
After a while, I open my eyes and look toward the moon.
The smile fades. Neil is still dead.
It’s just me.
The black water.
And the snakes slithering up my legs.