Stars by Jeff Fearnside

Steve never meant to lose Linda in the forest. It was just that he was so excited to reach the high alpine lake that he ran up the mountain like a billy goat and left her behind. Once he turned to check on her while standing on the trunk of a massive Douglas fir that had uprooted over the trail, and she hadn’t been more than twenty yards back. He then scrambled up a steep incline littered with scree and in five minutes turned to look again. At least it seemed like five minutes. She wasn’t in sight, but as he was almost to the lake, he simply kept going and waited for her on a boulder by the edge of the clear water.When another five minutes or so passed and she still hadn’t arrived, he became worried and backtracked to find her about halfway up the steep section, where he offered her a hand. She pushed past him and after reaching the top fell against the nearest pine, gulping from her water bottle.

“You bastard!” she screamed when he tried to wrap an arm around her waist. She dropped the water bottle and beat at his chest. He tried to stop her, but she wrenched out of his grasp and turned away. At first he thought she was laughing. Quickly, though, he realized she was crying, and only then did he understand what he had done.

“Why did you leave me?” she finally asked, her normally smooth, pale face blotched red.

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” he said.

“How could it not be on purpose? I don’t understand how you can just go racing ahead like that.”

“I thought you were right behind me.”

“I lost the trail! And then I couldn’t see you anymore, and I started calling, but you never came back.”

Steve hadn’t heard her calling. He must have been farther ahead than he had thought.

“Where did you get lost?” he asked.

“The trail stopped at that big log! It was too high to climb over with my pack on, but when I tried to go around, it was so dense in there, and, and…” She started crying again, and when she turned to him her pupils seemed entirely to fill her eyes. “It’s just like you to do something like this. You’re always doing something that shows you don’t really care about me.”

He knew she was talking about the upstairs neighbors again, and it irritated him that she would use a situation like this to bring it up. After all, he couldn’t control what went on above them. But he felt so guilty about leaving her on the mountain that he resisted the urge to argue.

“I promise I’ll always be there for you,” he said. This time she let him touch her, stroke the heat off her face. “I promise I’ll never leave.”

***

They pitched their two-person dome tent on the far side of the lake in a grassy flat near the head of an outlet stream, trickling low now that it was August. All winter long snow packed the surrounding bowl; they had discovered this by accident when as newcomers to Idaho they tried to hike this trail last October, only to find it blocked with drifts three feet high. But the beauty of the area had impressed them, and they had resolved to come back. By setting up so near the water now, away from the bowl’s high granite walls, they enjoyed an unobstructed view of the sky. The lake mirrored the sunset’s orange and aquamarine almost perfectly, though the occasional black fly or late-feeding cutthroat disturbed the surface, bent the reflection in oscillating waves of light.

Best of all was the silence around them: no creaking floorboards, no mysterious thuds or shuddering bangs, only the swish of pines and snap of the tent’s rain flap in the breeze.

Steve opened a can of beans and skewered two plump Italian sausages on a stick while Linda prepared a fire on a gravelly patch of earth. First she dug a hole, which she rimmed with large rocks and filled with small twigs, then larger ones, and then finally well-seasoned deadwood they had scavenged from the forest. Despite the altitude, it took only two match strikes before the stack caught the flame. Linda looked pleased.

“Who says a man stole fire from the gods?” she asked.

While they waited for it to settle into a good cooking temperature, Steve opened a bottle of burgundy with the corkscrew on his Swiss Army knife and, after allowing the wine to breathe for a few minutes, filled two tin cups halfway, handing one to her and holding up his in the gesture of a toast.

“Here’s to making it,” he said. Afterward, he wasn’t sure if he meant it as congratulations for scaling the mountain, as he had intended, or a prayer for the future. She hesitated and then drank without smiling.

A half-moon peeked over the ridge across the lake, astounding Steve with its brightness so early in the evening. Like Linda, he had grown up in Ohio, just west of Cleveland in Rocky River, and the hazy orange glow of city lights that hung over the night sky even in the suburbs obliterated most of the stars. But here in the Rocky Mountains, more than eight thousand feet up, miles from any other human, let alone a city, the moon and stars were brighter than he’d ever seen with his naked eyes. Not even the pulsing halo of the campfire could chase them away.

Something flashed overhead, a vapor trail of light, and then vanished.

“Did you see that?” he asked.

“Huh?” She was poking the fire with a moss-covered pine bough, watching the dried strands of vegetation contract in the heat.

“I just saw a firefly.”

As a kid he had captured lightning bugs in old peanut butter jars on countless humid summer nights. When he was a little older, he simply caught them and let them go, keeping track of the numbers, always pushing to set a new record. Later, he would lie on his back in the grass and watch the sky until his mom called him in, then, pretending to go to bed, he would peer through his Sears catalogue telescope at the stars winking on and off—the effect of swirling, invisible atmospherics.

“You saw a spark from the fire,” Linda said, matching his excitement with dull evenness. “It was your mind playing tricks on you.”

He shifted on the ground. “Why,” he said, “are you always trying to tell me what I’m thinking?”

“How many fireflies have you seen since we moved here?”

“I suppose if I wait I’ll get the answer.”

“Zero. There aren’t any fireflies out west.”

As soon as she said it, he knew she was right. Because he hadn’t seen one, it never occurred to him that he hadn’t. “Well, why didn’t you just tell me up front?” he asked, annoyed at his own ignorance. “Why did you have to beat around the bush?”

“I didn’t do it on purpose,” she said slowly, looking him right in the eyes.

***

They had met three years ago at Peabody’s Down Under, in the flats section of Cleveland by the Cuyahoga, the river that had caught on fire. He was finishing his law degree at Case Western Reserve University, she working as a receptionist in her father’s oncologist’s office. Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown was playing that night, and the club was full but not packed. Drinking a Rolling Rock out of the bottle at a side table, Steve was hypnotized by the tall woman with the swirling gypsy skirt out on the nearly empty dance floor, eyes closed, body swaying in a fluid, sensual manner. He liked that she didn’t appear aggressive, desperate, like the women who danced here on rock and roll nights. He liked that she was there for the blues.

The lanky Brown put down his guitar and picked up his fiddle for a version of “Baby Take It Easy.” Despite the switch to a more up-tempo tune, the young woman barely altered her rhythm, swaying at half time to the music, her arms above her head like charmed snakes. Steve left his beer to join her, forcing himself to keep it slow, though he didn’t feel comfortable with this, his eyes locked on her. Her eyes opened briefly, saw him, and then retreated behind closed lids, a slight smile warming her mouth. After Brown picked up his guitar again and launched into an old T-Bone Walker tune, she opened her eyes for good, watching Steve’s. At the break he offered to buy her a beer, and she let him order a Coke. He introduced himself and asked what her name was.

“Linda,” she said. “Linda Dowling.”

She was from Willoughby Hills, on the East Side of Cleveland, and they joked about the schism. The working class Poles, Slavs, and Hunks who made up the West Side looked at the East Siders with their urban brownstones and country homes as snobs, while the East Siders couldn’t hide their pleasure in having the Museum District and grand Severance Hall on their bank of the Cuyahoga. The flats was where the two groups met and mingled. It was where Steve first touched Linda, on her cheek with the back of his hand; where, when he strayed near her mouth, she slowly closed her lips around his fingers and lightly bit them.

***

Steve held his hands toward the fire and then leaned back against the log behind him, taking another sip of wine.

“Aren’t you going to cook our food?” Linda asked.

“The fire’s not ready.”

“I’m starving.”

“If I put the sausages on now they’ll just be burned on the outside and raw on the inside.”

“I like them burned.”

Steve took a long drink from his cup. “All right,” he said, slowly pulling himself up and pouring the beans into his aluminum Boy Scout cooking pot, which he hung on a stand with a rotating arm that swung out over the fire. He then circled the yellow flames until he found a nook of amber coals, pulled his log closer to that spot, and sat back down, holding out the skewered sausages. Linda placed her mossy stick by the fire, rooted through her backpack until she found a can of cashews, which she popped open and began devouring.

The spice of sausages mixed with the sweetness of burning pine pitch, and Steve began growing hungry, too. The beans were nearly bubbling over. He swung the pot away from the heat, flipped the meat, and moved it closer to the fire. When it was done, he fitted each sausage into a bun and ladled the beans onto tin plates while she refilled their cups with wine. As soon as he handed her a plate, she took a bite of her sandwich and immediately began huffing in and out, her mouth wide open, moving the food around with her tongue. Before taking another bite, she forcefully blew on it, but still neither of them spoke. Steve looked up. The stars were streaked across the sky like jewels, a giant string of jewels that had broken open. That’s what he eventually told Linda, just to restart the conversation.

She watched a spark kick up from the fire and sail dizzily away on the updraft before winking out of sight.

“Did you know fireflies are cannibals?” she asked, right before taking a big bite of beans. He waited for her to finish chewing and swallow. “Those flashes, the ones you didn’t see earlier?” she continued, ignoring his sour look. “Only the females do that. It’s an attraction thing, and it’s also part of a caste system—so many blinks tells what caste they’re in, so they can attract a mate from the same social order. Here’s the wild part: sometimes when a female is really hungry, she’ll blink the wrong number of times to attract a male from a different caste.”

“So?”

“Then whammo! She eats him.”

“And the moral of this story is?”

She set her plate down, and the ironic look on her face disappeared.

“The moral of this story is, don’t let your female go hungry.”

After a short pause, he laughed, genuine guffaws from the stomach. He set his own plate down and moved next to her, putting his arm around her shoulders and pulling her close, locking his free hand into one of hers. She placed her head on his chest and snuggled into his wool knit sweater, tucking her legs up under her and stroking his legs with her long fingers.

They had whiled away hours like this when they had first moved to Boise. Even though Steve had worked just as much then, it had seemed that he had more time—something about the freshness of being in a new place, of not feeling the accumulated pressures of the intervening year hanging over him. His volunteer work for the Sierra Club, the pro bono legal advice and hours spent maintaining hiking trails, was more than gratifying, it was necessary for maintaining a balance in his life. But he was beginning to miss the balance of her flesh.

They hadn’t slept together the first night they met, hadn’t even gone home with each other. But Steve had remembered her name, the bold way she had announced it to him, a stranger in a club, and the next day he called to invite her for a coffee at the Arabica, the one in Lakewood, on the West Side. They made love a week later and were proud they had waited that long; both said they knew it was inevitable from the first night. Everything felt right, especially when they discovered early on that they each wanted to move west—west of the Mississippi west, the West of mythic mountains, craggy canyons, and wide-open deserts, a place to stir the blood and imagination, away from the East’s thoughtless shopping malls and tangle of interstate highways like varicose veins.

Linda had wanted finally to put her environmental science degree from Oberlin to use. She fondly thought of her family’s many ski vacations in Sun Valley, and after weighing her needs for culture and nature—nature winning—pitched the notion of Idaho to Steve.

“Why not? We can’t even keep the most beloved home football team in America from leaving town,” he had said, still angry at the loss of the original Browns. He would miss old Municipal Stadium and new Jacobs Field, the renovated downtown and historic neighborhoods, the good restaurants and even better music scene, but he looked forward to other possibilities. They did their research, and after Steve graduated from law school, studied for his bar exams, and passed, he soon found a job in Idaho’s capital with a firm that handled the banking interests of such Western giants as Albertson’s and Boise Cascade—not what he’d had in mind, but it would do for now. Linda cashed in on a tip from one of her father’s Sun Valley connections and landed a job as an interpretive specialist with State Parks and Rec.

They were still in their late twenties, with no children and none on the way. They rented a turn-of-the century apartment with twelve-foot-high ceilings, a brass chandelier, and hardwood floors, located near the trendy Co-op where they shopped. They bought a Jeep Cherokee and season’s passes to ski at Bogus Basin, hiked and camped on the weekends whenever they could. Now they were looking to buy a house in the foothills. Somewhere in there they got engaged. They had become official Boise North Siders.

***

Still enmeshed with Linda by the fire, Steve groped for the bottle of burgundy, but it was empty, so he untangled himself from her to pull another bottle from his backpack and open it. This time he didn’t bother letting the wine breathe, just filled their tin cups to the rim. They both drank to make space before bringing their cups together in another toast, a dull tink followed by Linda’s noisy sipping, interrupted when Steve began patting the air.

“Wait, wait, wait! It’s your turn to make a toast.”

“I’m no good at that kind of thing,” she protested.

“You’re supposed to take turns. That’s the way it’s done.”

“Who says? You do it.”

She fell silent, and Steve couldn’t tell if she was waiting for him say something clever or trying to think of something herself. What would she say? East is east, west is west, and never the twain shall meet. He didn’t know where that came from. To new neighbors. That was more her style. She held her cup in both hands as if to warm it, swirling the dark liquid inside.

“They’re shooting stars!” he exclaimed.

“To shooting stars!” she said, lifting her head, then her cup. The jocularity in her voice held an edge of tipsiness.

He straightened his body and pointed his free arm to the blackness beyond the orange glow that surrounded them like an egg. “That thing I thought was a firefly earlier? It was a shooting star. I just saw another one.”

“So there you have it,” she said.

At the end of the lake, with the high granite cliffs spread around him, Steve felt as if he were sitting in the end zone of Municipal Stadium, a cavernous, windy place that had bolstered the shores of Lake Erie before it was torn down, wide open to the sleet and swirling snow dismissed as “lake effects” by the locals, where anything could happen on any given weekend during football season. Only now the show wasn’t just down on the field—the level lake—but up in the curvature of the sky. It fit snugly over the bowl like a bubble, reminding Steve of the planetarium he had visited as a schoolboy. But the stars were even brighter than those pin-dots of light that mechanically shifted and blinked as the planetarium simulated the changing seasons or points of view from the different hemispheres.

He had been working a lot lately. Two thousand billable hours a year. Who designed that system? That was forty billable hours a week alone. He had to work sixty real hours a week just to meet his quota. No doubt this put a strain on his relationship with Linda, but she was working, too—and anyway, they were going to need the money when they finally bought a house. They were well-off but hardly rich; he had student loans to pay, and housing in Boise wasn’t cheap, not on the North Side. For the most part, he liked his job. He only occasionally thought of his old Sears telescope and field trips to the planetarium, only briefly wondered if he wouldn’t be better off teaching astronomy at some small college, where he imagined the sole pressure would be to publish a scholarly article every now and then.

But that was the kid in him still lying on his back in the grass, thinking of all that blackness between the lights—dark matter, the shadow stuff that makes up most of the universe. He took another swallow of wine. His face felt hot. He decided he must be sitting too close to the fire, so he scooted back, holding his cup away from his body to keep from spilling, which worked until he bumped into Linda.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m too hot.”

“I think you’re drunk.”

“It takes one to know one,” he said in a playful, sing-song voice.

A gust of wind shook the tent behind them and bent the frame diagonally, though the stakes held firm. Linda took off the scrunchy from her ponytail and shook her head, her straight brown hair swishing around her shoulders like a stage curtain suddenly opened. When she stopped, wild strands of hair latticed her face.

***

Steve tried to drain the bottle of burgundy by adding more to each cup, and when they both couldn’t hold another drop, he held the bottle up against the firelight, assessing it with one eye closed. He then tipped it to his mouth, finishing it off, before idly tossing it into the glowing embers.

“Hey!” Linda said sharply.

“I’m sorry. Did you want the last swallow?”

“I mean the bottle.”

“I said I’m sorry. I should’ve asked you.”

“Dig it out.”

He drank enough from his cup so that he could set it down without spilling.

“What are you talking about?”

“It’s going to explode if you leave it in there.”

He looked toward the fire and finally understood what she meant. When he looked back to her, she was frozen, her eyebrows raised and shoulders slightly shrugged, both hands held up in her “There you have it” gesture. His only motion was to settle more comfortably against the log.

“I’ve never seen one do that,” he said. “Besides, I like watching the glass melt.” In the morning when it had cooled he would pick it from the ashes. He was a “pack in, pack out” kind of guy. She should know that.

She reached for the stick she’d been burning earlier and tossed it onto Steve’s lap. He picked it up and gently set it beside him, wiping motes of charcoal from his jeans while shaking his head. The wind must have loosened a tie on the rain flap because a free end now repeatedly smacked against the tent.

“If it bothers you that much, dig it out yourself,” he said.

“Why should I always have to do everything?” She was suddenly furious. “Why can’t you just be there for me for once?”

He breathed deeply, in and then out, trying to dispel the familiar sensation in the pit of his stomach, a tension, an acidic energy that put him on the defensive. “Aren’t I here with you now? Aren’t I here even though I have a pile of work waiting on my desk at the office?”

“That’s my point. With you it’s always work, work, work, rush, rush, rush. Then you sleep like a peaceful, innocent baby all night long.”

“It’s not my fault I’m not as sensitive as you are.” He held up a hand. “Yes, sensitive. You want me to toss and turn and worry and fret like you do, but I don’t want to. I don’t want to hear everything you do.”

“No, you don’t. That’s the problem. Why would you want to see things from my point of view? Why should you actually have to work at a relationship?”

“They’re just people, for crying out loud, people trying to live their lives. It’s an old apartment, and we’re not even going to be there much longer.” He grunted and threw a pebble into the fire.

When they had first seen their apartment, they were charmed, but while they knew there would be the inevitable problems associated with an aging building, they never expected the seemingly indestructible claw-footed bathtub to leak or the beautiful maple floorboards to crack and squeak so much. They were early-to-bed, early-to-rise types. Steve slept like a rock, but Linda stayed up all night, listening to the upstairs neighbors walking all over them. The neighbors were a younger couple, in their late teens or early twenties, who worked evenings and kept odd hours. When they came home, Linda could chart their progress through the main front door, up the stairwell, and from room to room in their apartment. She had told Steve this and asked him to have a talk with them about it. He did, and then he came back and made his report.

“I don’t know what to say, honey,” he said. “They’re aware of the situation and do the best they can. They even take off their shoes as soon as they’re in the door.”

“And you believed them?”

“Why shouldn’t I believe them?”

“Because they’re keeping me awake all night long.”

“Honey, we can’t expect the whole world to keep the same hours we do.”

“It’s like a herd of elephants above us.”

The thing that got him the most was that she then began waking him in the middle of the night. The last time was last Thursday. He had been dreaming about work again—something about blowing up a couple thousand balloons so that his firm’s main partner could pop them all at once for one of his clients—when she shoved him hard. For some reason, it fit with what was going on in the dream.

“It’s the goddamned circus,” she said.

“I’m going as fast as I can,” he responded sleepily.

“It’s about time.” When he rolled over and began breathing deeply, she gave him another shove.

“Aren’t you going to talk to them? You just said you would.”

“The neighbors? I already did.”

“And a lot of good it did! Steve, it’s three in the fucking morning. They both get off work at midnight. What are they still doing up?”

“They need to wind down, for Christ’s sake.” He was awake and cranked up himself now. That ball in his stomach—it felt like somebody had punched him. “You know, I was asleep. Talk about being rude.”

“They’re making way more noise than two people who are supposedly trying to be quiet. What do they do, anyway? They’re not in college, they’re just working at some restaurant or bar—not that there’s anything wrong with that if you’re doing something else besides partying all night long. At least when you waited tables, you were working to get ahead in the world.”

The rain flap was really beating the tent now, but Steve continued to stare into the fire. The flames were hypnotic. He felt he could see things in them. He loved Linda, but she was such a delicate thing, a ceramic figure that needed to be handled lightly. No, she was more like an opera diva, a strong, stubborn woman with nerves of glass who could shatter herself if she hit the wrong note. Who always had to be right. What would it be when they were married and living in their new home in the foothills—the sound of crickets? Flecks of wayward sand against the windows? The house itself settling around them?

“We’ll find our own place soon, and this will all be over,” he said quietly.

“You just don’t get it,” she said, her eyes dark chips of granite in a pale moon face. “This isn’t about them. This isn’t about them at all.”

A gunshot erupted from the fire, and Steve felt something whiz by his head while chunks of flaming wood and a shower of smaller sparks blew into the air, a fountain suddenly and forcefully turned on, a terrifying and beautiful arc over them. He leaped to his feet with a yell. Linda was more precise.

“Jesus Christ!” she screamed, patting at her shirt while wildly looking around her. “Shit!”

Steve was numb. He watched Linda, still steadily swearing, jump toward the tent and begin brushing off smoky embers that were burning holes in the nylon shell. He knew he should join her, knew this was a hazard that needed his attention. But the explosion had blown the fire in a sunburst pattern from the pit she had built, and in the matted-down earth around it cinders glowed like stars fallen from the sky—scores of them, some glowing brightly, some dully, whole constellations flickering and sparking in the breeze. He couldn’t resist entering this scene.

“I told you it would explode, I told you,” Linda huffed, stopping her work briefly when she saw he wasn’t putting out any fires. “Steve, what are you doing? Steve!”

He wasn’t listening to her, didn’t even turn around. In a moment he would. For now, he carefully moved through spiral galaxies, spidery nebulae, the dark matter between them.

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