A Place in Space
"Count all the stars in the sky," said his sister. Instead of babysitting her little brother as she had been instructed to do, but putting him outside like a cat. "And don't come inside until you do."
Malory, called Mal to avoid gender confusion, thought that was a legitimate enough task, not knowing that upstairs her boyfriend waited, and he settled himself on the back lawn. The dark spaces between leaves formed clumsy stars on the trees, but the real McCoys were static in the sky and much smaller His youthful eyes were not very sharp and he had a feeling that he was confusing airplanes for stars despite his glasses. But he had other problems. The headlights from the road curved around the house and bathed the yard in white light, making him jump. Fat slugs glistened wetly in the grass and he squealed whenever his hand happened to brush one. His nerves left him tired and he ran back to the house as soon as he was finished. He found the backdoor locked and only when it became clear that he would not cease knocking did his sister thump down the stairs, blaspheming and rubbing at the hickies on her neck.
"Count them again," she said.
He returned to the flattened place he's made in the grass. He was quivering so hard he couldn't see straight, never mind count heavenly bodies that may or may not have been airplanes.
Then another boy stepped onto the lawn. He was the type of child who, in horror movie, uttered cryptic messages and placed his family in even greater danger. A modern day Will-o-the-Wisp, he was the character that led victims, relieved to have survived the climax, into the the hands of the serial killer's brother, sister, or mother. And at that moment he wore the expression one of those children would wore, a look of emotionless detachment that would have stayed the same even if he had been watching some get hacked to bloody bits rather than a boy stargazing.
"Hello?" The strange boy gave him no more acknowledgement than a simple turn of the head. Even in the dark it was easy to see his eyes were colorless. All of him was. But the glassy look only made him seem more alert; like he had his eyes fixed on some distant prize.
"I'm Mal." He received no answer, which was as good as a question, and offered a response to the silence. "My sister told me to count all the stars. I already did but she told me to do it again, and I don't really feel like it."
The other boy showed interest at the word star, if almost showing a facial expression can be called that, but even then it took him a long while to speak. And even then his tone was as indifferent as his face. "Don't you think she just wants you out of the house?"
He gave what might have been a shrug and commenced his walk across the yard. The light of the moon gave him a sickly glow and he cast no shadow. Most likely the same would have occurred had he gone out during high noon.
Mal followed him. He was very bored after all and the boy intrigued him. It was like he had his own gravitational pull. "Where are you going?"
He gestured vaguely to a point that seemed to have more to do with the height of the place than any scenic location. His finger was aimed toward the Shenandoah hills where the trees sprouted new leaves during the daytime and appeared to be covered by black polyps at night.
"I picnic there sometimes in the fall. It's really pretty and on the other side there's an autumn festival with hayrides and apple bobbing."
"Will you take me there?" He asked it so quickly he almost interrupted Mal, but there might have been a trace of reluctance if you listened hard enough and had a good imagination.
Mal hesitated. "I don't know. It's really dark and really late."
"If it's your sister you're worried about, she won't notice you're gone." He stepped closer and for the first time Mal could see the long scars that lined his hands and arms. They seemed almost too big for him, like he'd somehow shrunk after they'd been received, and they reminded Mal of the rings of Saturn, if a little more jagged.
"Well, OK," said Mal, half feeling like he was giving into peer pressure and half not given the odd request. He stepped ahead of the other boy and led him through s short cut to the hills. A neighbor's fence gate led straight to the woods. It had always bothered Mal that behind the well manicured lawns, the whitewashed houses, and their equally Caucasian families there was a world of debris and deep dark shadows with hungry teeth.
But the stars were still visible and the other boy couldn't stop looking at them. They set his eyes afire despite their distance, but he still wore the face of someone who'd been sad so long the thrill had worn off.
Mal followed his gaze and saw nothing but an opportunity to impress. He repeated a fact he'd heard that was probably more embellishment than trivia. "Did you know that half the stars you see died before their light reaches the earth?"
"That's not true."
"When a star goes away. "The other boy used the term goes away much in the same way a mother who's child's dog got hit by a car says Fido ran away. "It takes its light with it."
"What takes its place?" Asked Mal, imagining a gaping hole in the sky.
"Darkness," he said and pointed a frail but unwavering hand to the spaces between the stars. "Darkness is always fighting for all the place in space."
Mal laughed at the rhyme alone, not pondering the idea that darkness could be alive and fighting. The woods did not take well to his laughter and the sticky leaves shuddered over themselves, and the vines sprawled across the forest floor began to curl around the trunks of young saplings (murder by proxy), and the canopy creaked with the weight of some beast overhead.
The other boy took no notice, a side effect of knowing he had nothing to fear, but Mal heard and saw all, and became anxious. Feeling embarrassed, he reached out to take his companions hand because even though he was no older than Mal, or at least didn't look it, there was a certain brightness and authority to him that had not been maimed when he received his scars.
But the other boy pulled away. "Just lead me to the hill top," he said, a hint of irritation in his voice.
Mal whimpered. "I'm scared."
He did nothing to soothe his fears, sympathize with them, or say anything at all really. Mal was forced to miserably leave on and the boy followed, his only other move to stroke his scars fitfully.
The land began to slope upwards, the climb ahead of him making Mal realize how tired he was.
"I want to go home."
"I guess we have something in common then," said the other boy almost too softly to hear.
"Do you live on top of the hill?" The prospects of a safe house even if it was someone even if it was someone else's would have made Mal feel a thousand times better. But he was too distracted by what lie ahead of him to hear the answer he didn't receive. Instead he asked another question.
"Can darkness lose its place in space too?"
The last leg of the journey gave Mal an idea of what living darkness was. Gloom so black and cold they could have been formed from the nebulas that birth stars. They consumed the area so entirely that he was sure there was nothing behind the shadows but more of their kind. Worse, they took forms that glared menacingly at anyone who might want to take the meager place they'd scratched out on earth. Those forms were neither canine nor feline nor even reptilian or avian, but it helped Mal if he imagined that they were and saw a neighborhood dog among the shadows.
"That dog bit me once," he related the story in fervent whisper, though the darkness would hear no matter how low his voice was. "It was the worst thing ever to get rabies shots."
"The worst thing ever is to be stabbed in the chest." The other boy said. "And have it miss your heart. The worst thing ever is to fall and know where you're going to land but not when. The worst thing ever is to be watched and not helped and end up in a place where people only care if they can use or hurt you."
It might have been the tone he said it in or the growling shadows or even the words themselves but Mal could not control himself anymore. He started to cry. Fat tears stuck to his glasses and rolled down his flushed cheeks and he desperately needed to blow his nose. He'd begun to hiccup and was afraid he'd never stop. Just like the darkness would never end and how someone could fall forever and ever and ever.
The boy pushed him roughly forward. "Didn't you hear? You're all you've got in space."
"I'm not in space."
"I know. You're in the place I ended up." he pushed him again. "Lead me."
Mal trudged on, sniffling and pushing away rough branches and spindly limbs with newly budded thorns until his arms were as scoured as his follower's. He never got a scratch. But somehow Mal was sure that if he, and not a tree, was to punch him in the eye the black circle would stay. Presumably for all eternity.
"Has anyone hurt you?"
"It depends on what you mean by hurt. There are three kinds of abuse. Emotional, physical, and uh, the other one." He averted his eyes like he was saying a dirty cuss or perhaps what he was talking about was just too personal. "I've experienced two of the three."
"Oh." Mal had thought that maybe he could have threatened the other boy into letting him go home. But the way he'd talked about pain, like it was the worst thing anyone could conceive, made him change his mind.
Mal found himself exhausted of all his questions but the stupid ones that would not be answered (Do your parents know you're out this late? Do you have any siblings? What's your name?) and then they were there. The rest of the hills and the abandoned autumn festival site lay sprawled out beneath them. Little white houses and ribbony black roads wound their way around the lesser hills but the real sight was the waning moon. To Mal it was nothing impressive but the other boy looked up at it with his first real emotion on his face. Awe. It didn't matter that he'd already seen eclipses and perigees, this plain moon was all it took to send the strange stoic boy into what could only be called supernova.
"Do you see that space there?" He pointed to what appeared to Mal as nothing more than a black spot. "That's where I used to shine. I even had a couple of planets and everything." His face took on a nostalgic quality. He knew that those planets and their moons were long gone by then, but he would give anything to have his spot back. And all it took was a little moonlight and lots of luck. He turned to Mal and said the same words he'd cried when he found the darkness stalking him, knife in hand, and when he'd fallen past his own kind, and when he'd been cornered in alleyway by people with the intent to hurt and foul. You were on your own in space, but that didn't him from saying, "Help me!"
Though Mal hadn't been told what help he needed Mal knew anyway. He scoured the earth for a patch of silver moonlight, no matter how small. The shadows hissed as they were disturbed. And that was the problem. There were too many shadows and too many trees. There was no moonlight to be found.
The other boy realized that at the same time Mal did. He uttered a hoarse cry and sank to the ground because, though he was no human, he had the expectations of a child. He was sure that that night was the night the moonlight would be the kind to take him away. And to find there was no moonlight to speak of…it was devastating.
Mal was trying to imagine how many times this same scenario might have happened when an idea struck him. Taking his glasses in hand, he pointed them up at the waning moon. A single light reflected off of them to focus on the boy's forehead.
He jerked and turned his eyes to the heavens. They were the size of dinner plates, but that didn't help him notice that blood had begun to well up in the scars he'd received when trying to fend off the darkness's knife.
It was Mal who pointed it out. "Look at you! You're bleeding!"
He looked at the blossoming red stain on his chest. Just inches away from his heart. "Yeah. I guess I am."
Not only did the paths that darkness cut bleed, but the wounds he'd suffered from the hands of people on earth began to show human reactions. Bruises appeared on his arms from where he'd been jostled and bumped about on the streets and a trickle of red ran down his leg from some hidden lesion on his abdomen, thigh, or groin.
But the injuries healed as quickly as they had come and emitted a dull flash of light before disappearing completely. He let out a deep sigh, relief visible on his face. The pain he had spoken of plagued him no more and the few human emotions he knew were replaced by one otherworldly joy so powerful it made the stars glow. And so he began to shine and Mal could only watch in amazement as he made his ascent into the sky.
He waved. "Bye Mal!" He couldn't say it had been nice knowing him, but he'd certainly helped him out.
Mal waved back, stupefied by the change that had come over the boy. But could you blame him? Darkness may make a fallen star, or even a black hole, but a rising star will never have a problem finding a place in space.
When Mal got back home his sister didn't ask him where he'd been. she didn't even ask him about the stars.
"Get upstairs," she said, pulling her bathrobe tighter about herself. "If mom and dad come home and find you out of bed they'll whoop us raw."
Mal didn't mind that she referred to him as a partner in crime. But he didn't go to sleep once in his room. After much counting he concluded, airplanes or not, that there was definitely another star in the sky.