(with thanks to FreeVerseRevolution for featuring me this month)
We sat on the wall, our legs dangling and kicking the crumbling brick, in the searing heat of a midsummer sun. Our thighs gently simmered through our jeans against the smooth white-topped slabs beneath us. In front, using handfuls of small pebbles, we idly threw into the shadow canopy of The Dead Tree – very much alive in a mushroom cloud of green, but with a crucifix nailed into the bark and a rotten cuddly toy strapped to the base. A memorial to the young boy found there five years ago and barely glanced at by the townspeople who’d pledged to remember him forever.
Behind us the ground fell away two storeys or more into a car park. Something about the closeness of the ground at our feet and the empty space behind made me uneasy, as though the entire floor could flip like a pedal bin and hurl us backwards. I didn’t even dare look over my shoulder but I could hear the small puddle of drunks dancing in the strange little bubble they always occupied day after day, never venturing beyond the cracked white lines of a single specific parking space.
My stones were falling well short. I couldn’t put any weight behind them for fear of overbalancing. Next to me she leaned back, ramming her heels into the wall beneath her for support, and sent missiles flying. At least one had bounced off the exposed, gnarled roots with a satisfyingly muffled crack.
She’d bought a telescope a few months back. Since she never slept, it made sense to her to make the most of her time. She hated sleeping anyway even before the insomnia arrived, seeing it as a gift rather than a curse. Coffee and cheap nasty speed got her through her days, and curiosity got her through the rest. Most nights I wouldn’t sleep either, mostly out of jealousy at the midnight hours we spent a hundred yards or so apart. Our apartment blocks faced each other, our bedrooms meeting almost eye to eye, and in the small hours I would peer through my curtains and see the reflection of the Moon shining in the lens as her telescope swept back and forth across the stars.
One night, whilst quietly spying on her, I trod on one of my curtains and brought it down. Her night eye instantly trained on me, like a sentry’s rifle overlooking a suspicious noise and I froze. Minutes passed before I realised, with the curtain wrapped over my thin shoulders like a boy pretending to be an Emperor, that I was naked and exposed from the bellybutton down. I covered myself and slunk backwards a few paces into the darkness of my room. The lens remained on me for a moment before slowly dropping to point at the ground. She never mentioned this, and I never asked the question I wanted to ask most of all.
As we sat, I noticed her staring down at the wall either side of her and smiling.
“Look”, she said.
“Little red spiders. Everywhere.”
I looked down. I couldn’t see them at first, but as my eye focused they appeared in tens, then hundreds. All swarming around seemingly in circles, without going anywhere, never bumping into each other or venturing out of their little bubbles. She pressed her thumb down and then lifted it up, looking intently at a single red spot near the tip of her nail. She showed it to me, before wiping it on her thigh and looking up into a deep blue sky.
“You know, I have this weird theory…”
She sighed and then continued, ignoring me.
“…this theory that when people die they actually become a star. See, I know this is going to sound like some pantheist, New Age bullshit but, the longer you stare at the night sky the more stars you see. It’s like they appear before your eyes, being created from the souls of people who have just left.”
She eyed another pebble between her fingers and threw it into the shadow now beginning to encroach at our feet as the sun tipped into the afternoon began its slow descent.
“Just like that… You’re gone and then you are hurled up, blasting a tiny hole in the black sky.”
I looked down at the little red spiders busying themselves near my hand. The drunks rose to a chorus behind, and we heard the scuffing of stumbling shoes, the clink of bottles falling over. She looked over her shoulder and laughed. One of them had fallen out from the white lines, and was crawling back in on his stomach. In a space where the spiders weren’t dancing, she placed a finger, like an enormous totem to the little critters, and looked at me.
“When I’m looking up at the sky I’ll stare at the stars. One by one, ten by twenty, they flood in. And then, when the entire Universe is busy in front of me, I’ll ignore the light and look for the dark. I look for the spaces where stars don’t appear. The untouched patches of the Universe where we might end up being blasted into. Before another star, another person, takes our place.”
She looked down at her finger, lifting it up slowly.
“If we pretend these little dudes are all stars, we might end up in this… gap… just… here.”
I remembered something I had read ages ago in the back end of a dull Science class. Long before she had exploded into my life in a torrent of fresh mint smiles, loud heavy metal and painful nipple tweaks whenever I flirted too much. Staring at a star chart on the wall, I looked at the chaotic order of everything, the shapes and the swirls, systems flung out centrifugally, black holes massing and swallowing, but everything seeming to make terrifying sense within its own unbalanced rules.
Looking at her, I thought about our friendship and the words thrown in and out, some that could’ve built us up to something more and some that destroyed us for hours and days. How some moments were torn apart at the time like stars before a black hole, only to emerge as dust, gathering again into cherished memories like new planets. I thought about the shambling drunks dancing and bumping in their little space, the tiny red spiders spinning pointlessly on their own, and the cold still life of the tree forever pierced by this memory that it didn’t wish for nor deserve. I thought about how I preferred the idea of being one of her stars, rather than being the squashed red remains under her thumb.
She was looking down at her shoes; we’d both made little piles of dust where we had been kicking. I decided to ask her the other question I’d had on my mind for a while. But before I could speak, as if reading my mind from earlier, she answered the first one.
“Speaking of small things…”
She smiled, looking up at me, deep brown eyes glinting.
“…I’ve seen your cock.”
My mind emptied of everything, like an airlock opening creating an instant vacuum. All I could do was laugh, buying time to think of a suitably witty response to salvage something from the dust.
I had nothing. The moment passed.
‘Yeah,’ I replied, slowly glowing red. ‘I know…’