Synopsis: A night of stargazing leads to a painful walk down memory lane.
Most of the time, I try not to think about that night. Even now, 20 years later, it’s still painful. Tonight though, the memories beg to be heard. The moonlight and the stars beckon.
I take a worn blanket and a flashlight from the hall closet. Molly bounds ahead of me, tail wagging. When we reach the back field, I carefully lay the blanket flat and lie down. Only then do I look to the nighttime sky. It’s clear, and the constellations are on full display. The crickets and frogs provide a soundtrack for the evening’s main event. Molly settles on the blanket next to me and rests her head on my stomach. She closes her eyes as I scratch behind her ears.
I trace Orion with my other hand, connecting the dots with my finger, and I think about all the people who’ve looked up at these same stars throughout time and around the globe. I think about James.
I’m a world away from the south side of Chicago, but in an instant I’m there, 16 again, huddling to stay warm in the backseat of Roddy’s beat-up car.
A cough wracked my chest. I reached a gloved hand into my pocket to make sure I’d grabbed cough drops. I opened one, crinkling paper drowned out by the radio, and popped it in my mouth. The menthol was soothing.
A light snow was falling, giving the run-down neighborhoods we drove through the illusion of being fresh and clean.
We were on our way to Adler Planetarium where James’ brother Roddy was a part-time janitor. He was planning to sneak us in to see a show about the constellations. There was apparently some high-profile government scientist introducing the show and talking at intermission. I didn’t care about him; I just wanted to see the stars.
James turned to me. In the glow of the streetlights, I could see the excitement in his eyes.
“This is gonna be so fly!”
My nerves must have shown on my face. I didn’t want anything on my record that could take away my chances of earning scholarships. I’d seen what life could be like for the kids in my neighborhood who never got out; James and I both wanted a different future.
“Relax. We’re gonna sneak in right after it starts. There’s seats in back they never sell. Nobody’ll know. You got another lozenge? My throat’s scratchy.”
I handed him one. Feeling the beginnings of a hole in my pocket, I handed him the rest.
“Hang onto them for me?”
The rest of the trip, we quizzed each other about the constellations we were headed to see on the planetarium’s domed screen. We were science nerds, but our knowledge of the galaxy was limited to what we’d gleaned from schoolbooks. As city kids, neither of us had ever had a chance to really see stars.
When Roddy had started working at Adler, James and I had pestered him to get us inside. It was finally going to happen. This show wasn’t quite the same as seeing the stars in person, but it was still going to be awesome.
Roddy interrupted our chatter, and I realized we’d stopped. The snow had stopped too, but the wind was cold. James pulled up his hood; I wished I’d worn a hoodie or brought a hat.
“You guys follow me. The night janitor’s gonna go out back for a smoke. When he does, we’ll sneak in after him. He promised to leave the door unlocked after his break but doesn’t wanna risk being caught. Chicken.”
Roddy didn’t wait for a response before heading off. James was right behind him. My nerves were acting up again as I scanned the front of the building. The dome looked bigger than it had online. Were those security guards? They wouldn’t have them outside the building though, would they? Roddy would have known about that.
I jogged to catch up to the guys as we rounded the curve toward the back. When we reached an opening, Roddy paused and held his finger to his lips. James and I inched forward for a better look.
An old man in a parka stood at the top of a flight of stairs. The night janitor. He finished his cigarette and turned toward the door. Roddy held his hand up for us to wait.
When the janitor had gone back inside, the door made an audible click. Roddy started up the stairs. I followed and James was behind me.
My throat hurt again; I stopped as I reached in my pocket for another lozenge before remembering James had them. I spun to face him, hands outstretched.
“Gimme one of those cough drops.”
From my vantage point, I saw a man’s shape come out of the darkness behind James.
“What are you kids up to? Stop right there! Hands in the air. NOW!”
James was reaching into his pocket for my cough drop as he turned to face the speaker.
The security guard didn’t hesitate. There was a popping sound and James fell to his knees before collapsing at the foot of the stairs. The new snow around his body turned red; a lozenge lay on the ground by his outstretched hand.
My best friend, dead at 16, never got to see the constellations. The guard, there because of the government speaker, later testified he thought James was reaching for a gun. Kid in a hoodie at night reaching into his pocket, and all that.
20 years later, a thousand miles away, Molly licks salty tears off my cheeks.
I look up at the same stars that were over our heads that night, unseen. I think about the untold tragedies and countless joys they’ve witnessed. James’ death seems insignificant in that light, but it will never be insignificant to me.
As a shooting star blazes across the night sky, I close my eyes and make a wish.
Author’s Note: This was my entry into round one of the YeahWrite Super Challenge #8. My prompts were to write a story using no more than 1,000 words featuring an assigned action and object.
Action: Breaking into a planetarium
Object: Throat lozenge
I’m thrilled to have made it to round two and will be spending this coming weekend writing to an entirely new set of prompts.
Thanks for stopping by to read my story!