By Ian Campbell
All the stars are closer tonight than they were last night. Than they were a few minutes ago. Some are bright enough that I can’t look directly at them. It’s not a trick of the light. Or some atmospheric phenomenon. The stars are closer. Close enough to touch, but I don’t reach out. It’s not the time for that.
There’s no one else outside when this happens, just empty lawns along the block in all directions. No one ever sees them get closer. They only see the stars as they are meant to be, distant and cold and untouchable.
I stand in the yard. Watch the stars get brighter until I need to cover my eyes with my hand. There is the sense of growing heat on my skin, as though I were standing in the midday sun—but that might be my imagination, so I ignore it. I can see light around my fingers, and I wonder what I must look like. Me standing there, covering my face, head towards the sky. Someone staring from their living room window and shaking their head as if in confirmation that I am, in fact, as weird as they thought. Maybe more than they thought.
The light is gone and there is only dark at the edges of my hand. The drone of streetlights warming up. Suburban wildlife moving in the shadows of SUVs and uniformly shaped hedges. In the air, dinner smells mingle like the open-air market we visited in some country when I was a boy. A rare trip where we felt a family, having only each other in a place of the exotic and the unknown.
When I uncover my eyes, the stars are where they are supposed to be in the sky. I don’t know enough about astronomy to know for sure if they are. I take it on faith that they are and turn back towards the house. The house sits on a corner lot. It’s not as nice as some of the others on the block, but the lawn spreads out like a field, bigger than the others around it. Room enough to run for a catch. Not that I’ve ever done that. The lawn is the only thing that distinguishes the house from all the others on the block. Most are bigger and nicer, but that doesn’t bug me.
I lay on the grass. Summer days that pink my skin. The sun arching across the sky, the stars dim behind it. Always are there stars if you know where to look. Deeper in the blackness of space than the star at the center of our own galaxy. When I lay there, the grass pokes at my skin through my clothes. The urge to itch is intense, makes me squirm, but I stop myself from scratching. Let the feeling overwhelm until I can barely breathe or think. Where the sensation is everything. To the point I can no longer hold off and then I lose control. My nails drag across my skin until it’s red, close to bleeding, until it hurts, and the feeling disappears.
It’s greener in front of my house. The others around us are forever under siege by concrete. This is the only home I’ve ever known. One that I’ve explored countless times. Until I could close my eyes and tell you of every corner, crack, and creak of the whole.
I was lost once. Lost to my mother and father, though I heard them call for me, heard the panic in their voices as my name carried out over the yard and into the street, mixed with the voices of neighbors who came out to see what was wrong. Then I heard my name in a half-dozen voices. A chorus calling out to me. And still I did not come.
A boy from down the street—he moved away years ago—saw my feet sticking out from behind a bush and called out. I remember the anger on my father’s face and how it seemed to spread onto the faces of the others as they looked at me. As though his anger gave them license to feel the same. He carried me into the house, away from everyone except my mother, who followed along behind him, saying nothing. Her eyes on the ground, though I stared at her, hoping she would feel me. My mind willing her to look at me, but her head stayed down until she moved away from us to do something in the kitchen. The sounds of pots being moved around as my father carried me upstairs, his muscles tense. Where it hurt but was as close to a hug as I would ever get, both love and punishment. So that his hands would sting less later, only the words he yelled causing any real pain. The tone sharper than any hit that night.
It bugs my father, the faults of our home, though I have never asked him about it. But I’ve seen the way he looks at it. The way he stares at it when he gets home, before he goes inside. As though he might stay in the car and drive away. Letting the disappointment fade in the rearview as he fumbles through the radio stations, whistling a song that isn’t playing. Instead he pulls the keys out of the ignition and comes inside, his eyes flicking to the sides with each step as though an escape might present itself. It never does, and I always hear the door open, the weight of him taking hold of the house like a second gravity.
Like our house, I disappoint my father all the time. Our dog, sweet and innocent and old, disappoints him, too. We often share in the disappointment together, standing side-by-side as my father rattles on and on about the two of us. My mother standing in the doorway to the kitchen. Sometimes she nods, but I don’t think she agrees with him. She usually finds me later to place her hand on my shoulder and to tell me that I’m not a disappointment. Always in a whisper and her eyes flit about as though she expects him to jump out from behind a corner, face full of rage. The look of someone betrayed come to seek revenge. Even when we can hear him laugh at something on the television elsewhere in the house, she whispers. When she’s done, she always says, “Don’t tell him.” Her voice trailing off.
She never finishes the thought. What I shouldn’t tell him. I know how it ends and she knows that I know so it’s enough to keep her from saying the whole of the thing. That she doesn’t ever want me to tell him that she talks to me after. As if saying it aloud would make it hurt less for me. My mother can’t shield me from the pain of knowing that she would rather I feel like a disappointment in front of my father than to let him know that she secretly talks to me afterwards to tell me I am not.
Tonight, I stand outside the house and want the bright lights to come back. The stars to get closer. Maybe I can reach out and finally take hold of them. Maybe it’s time. Half of me imagines the things from beyond that await me if I did touch the stars. The other half of me doesn’t care if the answer is simply that I burn up in the burst of radiation. Even that would be better than to walk back into the house. To turn my back on the stars. But I do walk inside. The air stuffy and thick around me. My father sits at a chair in the kitchen. There are papers spread out on the table, a cigarette burning on a plate next to him. By the sink, my mother is drying the dishes with a yellow towel, frayed at the edges but still the color of the sun.
She’s wearing an apron to keep the water from splashing onto her dress, which blossoms with different flowers in an endless loop around her waist and legs. I remember, years ago, when she laid the pattern down on the table and I moved my fingers over the black spaces between the flowers, the material soft on the tips of my skin. I tried to go from one side to the other without touching any of them. The type of game that comes easy when you’re a child. I would return my finger to the beginning of the print if I touched a flower, sometimes even if I wasn’t sure I had touched one. It felt wrong to complete the journey if I wasn’t sure. It felt like cheating. Eventually, she brushed my hand away and told me to go play somewhere else. She spent the next several evenings making the dress. A smile on her face the whole time.
My father was different on those nights. He was nicer, even to the dog. He would look up from the tv and ask me how it was looking, and I would go and look and then give him a detailed report. As I spoke, he listened and nodded and sometimes closed his eyes as if trying to imagine it. Sometimes he would stop and ask me a question about it, as if gain more clarity of the picture in his mind. He would always end the exchange by telling us that he loved “this” and would spread his arms wide, sweeping them over us. Even over the dog on the floor, his eyes watching the movements from between his paws. My father would wink at me and then go back to the television. When she finished the dress, I had the urge to rip it in half. To have her start again. To keep going those moments when things seemed different. When things were happier and there lived in the house a hope. The look on her face as she held it up, the flowers cast in alternating hues of light and shadow from the bright bulb of the lamp by the sewing machine, stopped me.
Tonight wasn’t the first night the stars got closer. They’ve come closer before. Many times before. Five years ago, I was eleven and looking out of my bedroom window, the town lights like their own constellations, and saw the stars blink off. They were there one moment, but then they were gone the next. Only deep darkness remained. Almost black, except for the flare coming from the lights of the town below. And then they were back, in the space of a few heartbeats. But they were closer, much closer. The surprise of this caused me to step back and I tripped on my feet.
My head missed the dresser, but my back hit the floor with all my weight, and I felt the wind squeezed out of me. I cried out when I got my breath back, my voice high and choked. By the time my father opened the door, light spilling in from behind him bright enough to hurt my eyes, the stars were back to where they always were. After he saw that I was okay, aside from the tears, he stared at me, his face in shadow. He didn’t say I was a disappointment then. He didn’t have to. His silence was enough, and then he walked away without a word. I listened to his steps down the hall. Watched his shadow move in front of the light until it was gone. My mother, a small voice that felt a universe way, asked him if I was okay. There was no reply and then television noise drifted over the house. I moved over to the window, but the stars remained where they were, and I went to bed with the sound of my father’s laughter trailing in through the cracked door.
Sometime, in the middle of the night, I felt a weight at the foot of my bed. Half of my brain was still dreaming. Still thinking of the stars. My mother’s voice in the dark. She loved me. Her hand resting on my foot, which was covered by the thick blanket. The touch felt removed from me. The sensation lessened by more than just the material between us. It didn’t comfort me the way I knew it should and I pretended to be asleep until she finally stood up and left. I looked out the window when I was sure she was gone, the stars high in the night sky, billions of miles away. Out of reach. No longer close.
That was the first time I noticed the stars, but there were more nights. Many more. Times when they would blink off, as on that first night, but the effect became less jarring each time. Sometimes they would appear as if they were further away. There were fewer stars in the sky in those moments. This would happen, and I would have time to think the world had shrunk. When I looked up at the moon, though, it was the same size as it had always been, so I would discard the idea. Later, when I wasn’t thinking about it, I would find something was smaller than it was before. A sock that I had to throw away because it barely came to my arch. The table, by the front door, that began to tilt when you put your keys on it. One of its four legs now slightly smaller than the others. There was the time I felt a sting on my arm as I let it rest on the desk in my room. Upon inspecting the spot of pain, I saw a tiny, pink eraser sticking out of my skin. The number two etched on the side of the pencil, now the size of a penny, when I pulled it out. Small drops of blood I had to wipe away. I was convinced the dog was slightly smaller, but I couldn’t ask, and he couldn’t tell me anyway. Something in his eyes, when we would stare at each other, him at the foot of my bed resting his face between his front paws, me sitting against the headboard. We carried that secret together. Holding it with someone else made me feel better. I felt less alone. The secret findings an array of scattered stars but still able to make something whole. A constellation. An understanding that the universe was doing something I didn’t understand.
I wondered if others saw it. I carried that small sock and its pair to school, not wanting to leave it at home to be found among my things. The questions that might come. Misunderstandings that would have to be dealt with. Pain I didn’t want. I walked through the halls of the school with the sock in my backpack like I was hiding contraband. Eyes on me as I moved past the other kids, ones that hardly talked to me, looks that lingered as though they knew.
In the middle of class, I asked to use the restroom and walked out, the teacher barely bothering to write the slip before I moved into the empty hallway. White like some alien landscape incapable of sustaining life upon its surface. Classrooms like distant worlds seen through shatter-proof glass windows. I felt the pull of gravity as I passed each one, almost drawn into their orbit. Occasionally, someone looked up and our eyes met before they flicked away, and I glanced off and towards the next class and then the next. My steps carrying me zigzag until I reached the bathroom.
I pulled the socks out and held them up to the light coming from the frosted glass blocking off the world outside. Something in seeing them in contrast, their different sizes, helped me to feel not alone and not crazy. A question I asked myself always after the stars left. When I was by myself, once again. Just another speck of dust traveling the length of galaxies before eventually being annihilated by the heat of some immense star whose gravity is impossible to escape. Its pull enough to direct the flow of planets. Of the universe itself. Where oblivion is the only thing that matters. The only thing that’s inevitable in the cosmic dance. The socks, proof of what only I could see, held firm within my hands so that I no longer wanted to throw them away.
A boy entered, as I held them up to the light, and looked at me. Someone from class. A boy who called me weird when I walked by him. His anger like the heat of radiation, though I had never spoken a word to him. He followed me. The bathroom too far away for that not to be the case. He glanced at the socks and asked if I was about to fuck them. His hit came fast, and I almost threw up, right on him, but only spittle came, and it splatted on the ground as I worked for air. He came at me again as I felt close to passing out and I held the socks towards him as though that would stop him. Instead he grabbed them and shoved them into my mouth, and I wished the stars were there, but it was just he and I and then he was gone, and then it was just me. The taste of salt and iron in my mouth as I pulled the socks out and wiped the tears from my eyes. And then I threw them away and washed my face off in the sink. I lifted my shirt, the bruise already forming. It matched the ones already there.
Even the stars aren’t always there when I need them.
I am standing in front of my house now. All the lights inside are off. I don’t know how I got here. The stars were closer again, I remember that. It hadn’t happened for a long while. A part of me thought it would never happen again. Like an old friend I worried had forgotten about me. Seeing them filled me with excitement. Then there were papers on the table, dishes drying on the rack. I was excited, anxious, couldn’t stay still. I never told them about the stars before. I was always just a disappointment, so I thought it wasn’t worth sharing. Not until tonight. The stars were close again and I needed my parents to know. But they didn’t get excited when I told them about the stars. They just looked at me, neither speaking a word until my father stood up. He towered over me, though I was sure I was already taller than him. He took my arm, the first time he had touched me in some time, and his grip was strong, as though it would never let go. It hurt, and the pain grew as his hand turned white, his nails starting to dig into my skin, but only just so. Only enough to hurt, but not enough to leave anything in such a visible spot. That was always the trick. As he held my arm, I thought to hug him but then the look on his face told me what it always told me, and I knew they needed to see the stars for themselves. That I wasn’t enough for them. That my truth, could never be their truth. Not until they saw the stars with their own eyes.
And then the stars were there with me. With us. In the house. No longer in the sky, in space, where they belonged. My parents saw them get closer and brighter and we burned together as a family. I didn’t see disappointment in his eyes anymore. And my mother grew taller and bigger as she took me in her arms. Showed my father that she did not think I was a disappointment. And the dog loped around, sniffing the air, and wagging its tail, moving as if he were young again.
Now, I’m on the grass. Alone. The stars back in the sky. I want to stay here, on the lawn, the moisture clinging to my pants. To wait for the stars to get closer in the sky. Maybe when they come again, I can go with them. So that I don’t have to go back inside to the darkened house. The pair on the kitchen floor, their arms outspread.
I touched her cooling face, placed my hand upon it as I laid down next to her. I couldn’t look into her eyes, unblinking and greying. They were no longer her eyes. No longer her skin I touched. She was gone, like the stars. Maybe with the stars. I stood up and my father was below me. He never seemed so small as when I stood over him. The tiles of the floor underneath his body faded and worn. Making him even smaller. I felt scared at this change. At how quickly he switched from something I feared to something so inconsequential. Space dust. In his lighter hair, I saw the years that had passed. That time reflected even in the wrinkles of my own hands as I held them out above him—splashes of red I washed off after—as though readying a prayer. But I spoke no words and I turned and walked towards the door, taking care to step over the old dog, no longer tired and in pain. At rest upon the deep, frayed carpet. I left the door open as I moved outside, my eyes already on the stars, ready to touch them.
I lay upon the grass with the world pressing upwards against me. As if offering me to the sky. Night air, cold on my face, as gravity lets go of me and I float towards the upper reaches of the atmosphere and into space. Where the stars wait for me.
About Ian Campbell
Ian Campbell is a writer and has a BA in English, with a Creative Writing emphasis, from Cal State East Bay. Currently, he is reviewing MFA programs. Ian is a Case Manager and works with adults with developmental disabilities. Sometimes his sense of humor is so dry that he has to go back and explain things to those that have actually believed something he has just said in jest. This reflects more upon himself than it does upon them, he assures you.