Max was floating in sleep, but now weight began to press against his body. He felt his arms become heavy. Then his shoulders. He wanted to stay light, to keep drifting. But it was too late. Max was waking up to the rhythmical thumping on the window downstairs.
PUM-pum-pum-pum, PUM-pum-pum-pum, PUM-pum -
His eyes popped open. MILKY WAY! OH, NO - I FORGOT HER AGAIN! Scrambling from bed, he gripped the railing tight so he wouldn't tumble down the stairs in his grogginess. Thankfully, he reached the front door before his mom woke up.
When the cat was left outside, she pawed insistently on the window beside the front door. It was Max's job to be sure she was in before he went to bed. But tonight, for the third time this week, he had forgotten. The second time, his mother - who was not exactly happy about getting up in the morning, let alone in the middle of the night - told Max, ``The next night that cat wakes me up by pounding the window, you'll be home all weekend stacking next winter's wood.''
Now, as Max carefully creaked the door open, he expected a rush of white fluff to dart inside, screech to a halt on the carpet, and start to lick her fur. But this time the white fluff leaped inside, huddled around Max's ankles, and meowed with a deep, disturbing moan.
MAX pulled the furry body up to his chest. "Hey, Milk, what's the prob-lem?" As he turned to close the door, something across the valley caught his eye. Framed by the huge black pine trees that stood in pools of gray snow, a hot, yellowy-orange glow hovered over the horizon. FIRE!
Max dropped the cat, grabbed his jacket, pulled on his boots, and flew outside to get a good look. But as he stumbled into the frozen-quiet winter air, the entire northern sky shook with green and gold flashes.
The sight paralyzed him. EXPLOSION? He remembered the power plant. Yes, it was just beyond the ridge. He tried to calm down and gather his thoughts - SHOULD I WAKE MOM? NO! CALL 911 FIRST. Just as strength returned to his legs, the sky went suddenly black. The whole world wilted into a still, black-and-white picture. It seemed to Max that something had just sucked all the life out of everything around him.
After a moment, he waved his arm to be sure that at least he was still alive. As he did, the sky lit up with another flash of green. And then another, near the treetops. Soon, the lights accelerated into a frightening dance: First yellowy-white vibrations over the ridge, then greenish-yellow lightning so huge and so near that Max felt dizzy looking at it. ``Oh, noooo,'' he cried out loud. ``Not UFOs! Not here ... in Hallowell.''
Time stopped as he looked away from the sky and turned toward Mr. Rosiello's house. There was no moon, but the strange, fluttering, yellow-green light illuminated Max's way. Somewhere, way in the back of his mind, he watched himself as though it were all a movie. And in the movie-watching part of him, he was thinking, WITH ALL OUR MIDNIGHT OUTINGS, YOU'D THINK MR. ROSIELLO WOULD HAVE MENTIONED SOMETHING LIKE THIS.
Suddenly beneath his fear, a single hope pumped: MAYBE THIS IS ALL MR. ROSIELLO'S DOING!! After all, his old Italian neighbor had recently retired from being the State of Maine's fireworks expert.
Although Max couldn't feel his numb legs running underneath him, it seemed he was at his neighbor's instantly. Banging on the glass storm door, he called, ``Mr. Rosiello! Mr. Rosiello! It's me, Max!''
AN eternity passed before the wooden door inside finally opened, and Mr. Rosiello stood in his rumpled pajamas behind the glass. The warm air inside condensed in clouds on the cold glass, and through it Max searched for a smile or an expression that said, ``Gotcha, Max!'' But instead, he saw a dazed old man. As soon as Mr. Rosiello opened the storm door, a gush of words filled Max's mouth.
``Mr. Rosiello! You can't imagine! I was all alone in the front yard when I saw it... At first I thought it was a fire, but then it looked like the power plant blew.... Now, now I don't know what to think..... Come and see! I don't think it's UFOs, but....''
As Max's words continued to spill out, Mr. Rosiello groped for his parka on a nearby hook and stumbled to the steps where he sat down to put his boots on.
Not quite conscious, he couldn't make out what the boy was so worked up about. WHAT'S COME OVER HIM? the old man wondered. I DON'T REMEMBER MAKING PLANS FOR ANOTHER MIDNIGHT OUTING ... NOT WITHOUT A FULL MOON.... But when he felt Max tugging at his parka, he willingly trudged along behind - right through the frozen flower bed, under the drooping branches of the white pines, and out into the yard that faced a snow-blanketed field. When he looked up, the vision jolted him wide awake.
``La luce! Mama mia! The lights!'' His eyes stopped blinking and drank in the vast heavens. ``I have never seen it,'' he whispered. ``Never seen it. And after all these years, here it is at my door.''
The flashes had blended into a veil of golden light that hung across the heavens and extended down to the pasture. Tinged with red and green, soft folds appeared as the veil shimmered like a gauze curtain blowing in a gentle breeze.
``It's the aurora borealis, Max. The northern lights.... At last.''
But then the gently waving folds burst into a feverish commotion. Soon, patches of luminous, pulsating light accompanied pink and green spears that lanced the sky in all directions - one or two aimed right at Max and Mr. Rosiello! Only slightly comforted by the calm presence of his old friend, Max blurted out, ``See what I mean? It's beautiful ... but it's terrible! It's so huge, I feel like it's going to swallow us up.''
``Let it,'' Mr. Rosiello whispered slowly without pulling his eyes from the sky.
Startled, Max examined Mr. Rosiello's face. He seemed oddly distant. As close as he stood to Max, Mr. Rosiello seemed closer to the sky. The fluttering lights reflected in his eyes. On the outside, he was as still as a statue. But on the inside, Mr. Rosiello was dancing with the northern lights. A few minutes later, he let out a long, low whistle that sounded like the wind. ``I have read what Eskimos say. They say the lights make a swishing sound. And if you whistle back, they'll come nearer,'' he said.
Max looked up at the sky. It appeared softer now. Its pulsating, transparent clouds seemed to breathe light - brightening and dimming, inhaling and exhaling.
So Max inhaled and exhaled - by whistling. As he whistled, he let the terrifying lights engulf him. He felt that he was being lifted up out of himself. It wasn't frightening, after all. He was part of the grandness of the universe.
Out of the corner of his eye, Mr. Rosiello watched Max. His lips spread into a smile and he whispered in Italian, HOW IS IT THAT A BOY CAN GIVE AN OLD MAN HIS SECRET WISH?