The glass floor was slightly smudged with footprints, but Maria still pressed her cheek to it, blonde hair spilling around her head as she gazed down at the stars and earth beneath them. Shadow stared at her, questioning. She gasped and tapped her nail to the glass, the sound echoing throughout the ship.
“Ursa Minor, Shadow! Come see!” Maria called, and Shadow lowered himself to the floor beside her to see what she was pointing at. A glitter of the dust floating through space caught his eye, and although he was unsure what to make of where she kept pointing, the curious light in her eyes was enough to bring a soft smile to his face.
“Okay, and if you look right next to it, you can see why it’s regarded as an asterism. The starfield of Ursa Minor is just a bunch of named stars, so that’s why it’s called the Little Dipper,” Maria explained, pushing herself upright. Her handprint was imprinted on the glass by the fog of her breath. She began to rummage through her satchel, fishing out a large book with pink and green sticky notes littering the margins.
“It’s somewhere here. I’ll show you.” She flipped through the pages, licking her thumb every few to get a better grip on the corners. “Oh, see, found it. Polaris is the biggest star- that’s the North Star, Shadow.”
Shadow nodded along with her explanation, his eyes resting on her finger as it traced the words in the book. He slid himself over to her side, and she tilted the book to give him a better view.
“Polaris was used by sailors to find their way at sea, kinda like a compass,” she said, moving to face the asterism. Maria pointed at each individual star, stating their scientific names off the top of her head. “So right now, according to the North Star, we’re heading that way. I’d assume at this point it’s June, because Ursa Minor is best seen then.”
“You certainly know your stuff, Maria,” Shadow said, nodding his head. She shut her book with a loud thunk, blowing air back into Shadow’s face. He shook it off, running his hands through his hair.
Maria abruptly broke into a coughing fit, her chest contracting, bringing up an arm to bury her face in her elbow. Shadow cast his gaze to the floor. “Thanks! It’s just a topic of interest to me, honestly,” she managed out between coughs, shoving the book back into her satchel. She weakly stood from the floor, offering her hand to Shadow. He took it, and she pulled him to his feet. He kept a hold of her hand as she led him across the ship.
Every day it seemed she had something new to share, pointing out every starfield known to her, thumbing through books, and Shadow always nodded and asked questions whenever Maria became caught up in her stars. Her toe-tapping enthusiasm, her stumbling over words, her unbridled joy always made him want to learn more. Every star she pointed to brought more glimmer to her eyes. Maria’s mind was like an infinity, and she held the world– Shadow’s world– in the palm of her hands. Yet they were stuck here. Above the earth, floating inevitably on the existence of the ship.
Shadow didn’t like to think about why Maria was here. Stuck forever, in time. He didn’t like to think about why she constantly coughed, hooked up to an oxygen concentrator, her satchel with her favorite books resting beside her. Or how she smelled too clean, like linoleum. He never liked the paleness of her skin, how deathly she looked. So he merely held her hand tighter. She always reciprocated, no matter how weak her grip was.
“I see you two are enjoying yourself,” a voice commented, and the two turned to see Maria’s grandfather at the doorway. Maria’s face lit up, and she dragged Shadow over to bury her head in Gerald’s stomach. He wrapped a hand around her back and patted Shadow’s head with the other. Gerald looked down at Maria with a solemn look in his eyes. “Maria, it’s time to do your albuterol.”
Maria shook her head and whined, “No, I wanna keep looking at the stars! With Shadow!”
Gerald let out a guttural laugh, and Maria’s head shook with the force of it. He ran his hands through her golden hair, a soft look on his face. Gerald took Maria’s hand gently, leading her and Shadow in a chain succession to a bench overlooking the Earth. He rested his hand on her waist, carefully leading her down onto the bench to avoid straining her back or diaphragm. Shadow took a seat to her right, and Gerald did the same to her left.
The hue of the starry sky, expansive and limitless, reflected off of Maria’s dull blue eyes. Shadow could see the stars captured in them, and he turned his gaze away in guilt. Even stars lose their light when they exhaust all their energy.
“Now Maria, my dearest, you are truly the light of my life. My bright and shining sun,” Gerald began, running his hands through her hair, mingling with the curls and highlights. She nodded, gazing at him intently. “Would it make you feel better if I bought the machine here so you could stay with Shadow? We must keep you healthy, after all.”
Maria seemed to perk up at that. Gerald angled himself towards him and Shadow nodded, sliding closer to Maria. Without a word, Gerald stood and headed towards Maria’s room.
The air was quiet, gravity dwelling. Nobody spoke. From the corner of his eye, Shadow saw Maria rummage through her bag. Clearing her throat, she pulled out a thick book. Fewer sticky notes detailed the margins. She opened the book to a page marked by a single yellow sticky note that stood out among the pink ones. Her fingers shook slightly as she ran them along the words.
“Shadow…” Maria started, her voice a tenacious waver. Shadow kept his gaze fixed on the floor, but he could still see her leg bouncing anxiously. “Shadow… do you know how stars die?”
He did. The answer dwelled inside his mind and stuck there, because Maria told him once, and anything Maria said Shadow would absorb like a sponge. “I do, Maria.”
“Once there’s no fuel left, the star collapses and the outer layers explode as a ‘supernova’. What’s left over after a supernova explosion is a ‘neutron star’ – the collapsed core of the star – or, if there’s sufficient mass, a black hole,” Maria explained. Her words were familiar. Like a black hole, they pulled him in. “Shadow, when I die–”
He didn’t voice it. He’d never lie to her.
“I wouldn’t lie to you Maria. You’re making me sad. Maria, I don’t want to talk about it. I’m sorry- I know… you gotta get that off your chest, but…” he trailed off, his glare boring into the ground.
“It’s only a matter of time.”
The repetition of breathing and beeping of a heart monitor had Shadow sitting alert, legs spread and wringing his hands. He kept his stare on the tiled floor of the medic room and tried his best to tune out Maria’s coughing and wheezing.
When he finally did glance up at Maria, she was looking at him, her eyes less dull. It was almost funny. Only when she was about to collapse did her eyes shine. They were as blue as the morning sky. Except when you’re in space, all you know is night.
“Shadow,” she called, but he didn’t respond. He didn’t know what to say. Anything said could be his last.
“Shadow, why aren’t you talking to me? Did I upset you?” Maria said, voice muffled by the respirator she was hooked up to. Her words came out in pants, breaths reflected by clouds in the mask. It was like she told him once. Sometimes we can’t see stars, because they’re hiding behind the clouds. Shadow wanted to see her star. Her smile. But he didn’t look up, and the clouds didn’t go away.
The door opened and Gerald came in. His shoes clacked against the tile and stopped in front of Shadow. “I brought you some food.” Gerald said, placing the tray on the nightstand beside his chair. “Thank you for keeping her company.” Shadow didn’t bother to indulge himself, despite the growl of his stomach.
Though Gerald looked down at him pensively, he failed to see how Shadow’s eyes welled up with tears that threatened to spill. Gerald left without another word.
“Shadow… is my satchel there? Can you read me… uh… something? Whatever’s good.”
Reaching for her satchel, Shadow flipped through every loose page and sticky note, trying to find the most indented and ripped one. He pulled out a book with shaky hands, the cover reading Written in the Stars. “Is this okay?”
“Yes! I love Alison Davies… Can you read me the Leo section?” Maria asked. “It’s highlighted with a yellow tab.” She settled back into her blankets, pulling the thin cover up to her chin. She looked so small. Shadow turned back to the book, grating his fingers alongside the folded edges worn down by time itself. There was more than one yellow tab.
When darkness envelops your vision– for a blink, for an eternity, for as long as time may seem– it’s scary. But sometimes the darkness isn’t complete, like when it’s blotchy and not quite there, when its permanence is undetermined, when a longing for death is met with everything but exactly that. Maria wiped at her eyes, but the splotches wouldn’t go away.
They did eventually, but only when Gerald brought her food and in her sleep.
Maria hadn’t seen Shadow in a while. She missed him, even though he’d been more quiet than usual. He was her moon– waxing and waning but never remaining.
Without him, it was lonely.
Shadow spent his days hooked up in a room that wasn’t Maria’s. Sometimes Gerald came and tapped his knees to test his reflexes, and when he kicked back, Gerald would write something on a clipboard. Always analyzing, always indifferent to everything around him. It made Shadow worry and miss Maria more.
He tried to pull her out of his thoughts. But when Gerald ran a flashlight across his vision to check his pupils, it was suffice to say they didn’t dilate anymore.
The ship was colder than usual. The Sun had faded, and her existence had been whittled down to nothing but a collapsed core of a once radiant star. But as theories said, the Sun had swallowed the Earth and other planets before it died.
Shadow received lots of condolence letters.
Empty words, because the tests still continued. Gerald still knocked his knees, hit his elbows, and tried to get his eyes to dilate. They had started doing it again– a bit of star reflecting in them. Gerald still scribbled away at his clipboard.
“Touch,” Gerald said, holding out a pin. Shadow flexed his pinky once, twice before pricking it. A small drop of blood bubbled on the tip, and Gerald pulled the skin back before watching the wound instantly close. He reached right for the clipboard, and once again nothing but empty words filled Shadow’s space.
The stars had faded. Grief was strange. It pulled at his gut like a black hole. Maria really pushed him to relate everything to space when she still held the world in her palms.
When the sun is gone, orbit isn’t natural. Life dies. Shadow no longer revolved his life around Maria’s rays of hope. He had lost his compass. His Polaris.
Gerald looked up from the clipboard with an odd expression. He offered his latexed hand to Shadow, hoisting him from the exam table. As he was led down the starless linoleum hallway, Shadow wished that the hand encompassing his was smaller and daintier and thinner and colder and Maria’s.
By Lyndsay Metts