A Story from the Stars
He tried to remember the first time he had seen her face. It was January of freshman year – Jason had finally gotten him to go to a party on a dare. He wasn’t much of a party guy – his kind of party involved staying up all night in the computer science lounge. He sauntered from group to group looking for familiar faces, waiting for the hour he’d promise to stay to pass so he could go back to writing the next generation of friendly AI. When there was finally someone he knew with whom to chat, he extricated himself awkwardly after a few minutes saying he had to get back to Jason. He felt uncomfortable around these people he thought he knew who held shot glasses nonchalantly like he held coffee mugs.
Then he met her – he could remember it now only fuzzily, because at the time she was simply Jason’s new girlfriend, and he was struck only by her black xkcd t-shirt, which read “Just Shy – Not Antisocial (You can talk to me!)” in round white letters and the playful fire in her eye that stood out from the hard lines of her smile. Jason introduced them; they spoke a few awkward pleasantries and exchanged laughs about Randall Monroe, and then Jason pulled her away to meet his other friends. He didn’t think much of it at the time, and continued to squeeze past groups of strangers while checking his watch.
He’d seen her a few times after that, but he’d never really paid attention to her until the Grand Canyon trip. It was Thanksgiving vacation, and Jason had convinced him to ditch going home and join him and a few friends on their expedition. It ended up being just him, Jason, her, and two of Jason’s huge rugby teammates whom he barely knew.
They climbed hard for the whole day, and when the sun began to dim they put up their tents and ate marshmallows over the miserable crackle that they scraped together out of twigs and tumbleweed. He crawled into his sleeping bag dead tired only to find himself unable to sleep, filled with an inexplicable sense of mourning. It had been long since he’d been here – that was in his childhood – that time before true sentience where ignorance was really allowed to be bliss.
He crept out of the tent and slowly traced spirals around it, entranced by the stars who traced even slower spirals in the heavens above him. He was surprised by footsteps behind him – it was her – he smiled and put a finger to his lips – the others were sleeping. She smiled her hard smile back, took his hand, and led him down into the valley bemused.
That night they sat across from each other and she told her about how, every year before her father passed away, he’d bring her to this valley and walk beneath the stars with her, whispered to the stars with her, and they’d whispered their stories back. The stars tell the saddest and most wonderful stories, she said, for when people have nowhere else to turn, they whisper their stories to the stars, who would never forget them. After her father’s passing, she’d always walked beneath them alone to feel less lonely. She asked him to whisper her his story – for she knew that he must also have a shadow in his heart to be unable to sleep and to need to wander under the firmament after such a tiring day.
He poured his heart out to her – suffering he barely remembered, hatred he kept from thinking about out of mental self-defense. He told her about Jacob, who’d bullied him for years in high school, because he was the scrawniest nerd on the block, and because Jacob’s father was an alcoholic and his was a successful businessman. He told her about the Friday afternoon when Jacob and his friends had assaulted him after school, two blocks from home, had pulled and dragged him into the sketchy clearing in the woods where condoms and weed turned up every so often. They’d pushed him on the huge boulder in the center of the clearing and kicked and punched him where nobody would see the bruises. Because he wouldn’t beg.
She shed tears for him and the stars whispered their comforts.
But he continued to talk because his story was only half over – he described the hundred and two ways he took his own cowardly revenge. He told everyone Jacob was beaten by his parents every night. A year later, one day as the school bell ended, he snuck into the boy’s locker room while Jacob was changing and stole his wallet. He slipped out of back gym entrance and ran as fast as he had ever run in his life with his delicious prize in his pocket. He took the shortcut behind the temple through the woods and took a detour to that place where they had humiliated him. He had scrabbled under the dirt beneath the boulder and buried the wallet – wads of cash and all – like a body.
This time she did not cry for him and he looked up at her utterly vulnerable for he had been staring down at the sandy barren earth, he looked up at her with all the willpower he could muster and asked if the stars could forgive his crime and she said no and he broke down and sobbed like he hadn’t done since childhood and he realized finally how lost and wandering he had been for so many years. She sighed for him, but they were both run dry of words so they sat in silence having each found a friend of the heart, drunken in their shared wanderlust. The hard lines of her cheeks and the dancing fire in her eyes imprinted themselves on his memory forever.
After that night they didn’t have a real conversation for many weeks, for she was still his best friend’s girlfriend and he was still confused and lost though now at least he had reason to live.
After this the memories blurred – he could barely remember the times she had come to him, lonely and unfulfilled, looking for something more than games of chance. He remembered fighting with Jason, but no longer when or how – but Jason broke up with her and with him and Jason and she were barely bothered by it although it pained him immensely. He couldn’t even remember how they had come together, how the hard lines of her cheeks and the dancing fire in her eyes were suddenly here to stay, but remembered only a iridescent happiness not of this world.
The minutes and hours blurred into months and years and decades in his memory, though he had cherished every one of those minutes. The lines of her cheeks softened, and the fire in her eyes burned ever brighter, whirled ever faster, and though he was a terrible artist he knew he would have been able to draw those eyes from memory.
He remembered the last time he had seen her face very distinctly. The leaves had yet to orange and the halls of MIT were still empty for summer vacation. They woke up early that morning to pick up her mother, who was flying in to visit them and Jeffrey, who had just learned to say “no”, after vacation from Hawaii. She was driving because he had stayed up most of the night coding, and he fought to keep himself awake. It seemed like a dream, he had been thinking, and he stared dazedly at her face, so full of life even as its lines had hardened again with age, and then – darkness.
The doctors said a drunk driver had bust the red light, straight into the side of their lunchbox of a Prius. He was lucky to be alive, they said. He’d suffered permanent head damage from the accident.
What they said after, he couldn’t remember.
Never see her face again.
That soft button nose framed by poignant lines that numbered the decades she’d suffered.
Those eyes that glinted like stars and would whisper stories to him across the room at a dinner party, but these were funny stories, not sad stories.
Even now when he summoned all his will he could still see those stars.
As he woke up now beside her, he smelled her fragrance that had had become the primitive smell by which he measured all other smells. Careful not to disturb her, he ran his fingers along her cheeks, remembering. Her faint, steady breath brushed along his hand like fatigue, and suddenly he cried from his unseeing eyes and thanked the nameless force for allowing him to have stolen the hard lines of her cheeks and the fire in her eyes from the rest of the world.