So, here’s something I haven’t worked on in a while…
(Note: This is a thoroughly unedited first draft, fresh off the page – if it’s even remotely coherent, consider that a bonus)
There was a part of me that didn’t believe she was real. Or at least, that she wasn’t real the way I remembered her from before. That everything that had happened, it couldn’t be the way I remembered it. It was like that for all of us. The survivors. After a while what you remembered started to get jumbled up with all the stories. Starlight, Moon, they became cartoon characters on lunchboxes.
I didn’t even know their real names. Moon, of course, we all found out about later. We watched her on the news, in interviews, on the pages of celebrity gossip mags. We saw her latest LA apartment on ‘Cribs’ or whatever it was that week. Some of us even went to her shows. Just to remember something.
I mean, those of us that wanted to remember.
Sometimes I wondered about that myself. Why it was so important to me. Even the parts that… Well, the nightmares I guess. That’s something we all have. You don’t even have to ask. You can just see it. The ones that were there, even for a moment… None of us left without scars.
And I can’t explain why, for all that, I still needed to remember. To be sure. Even about the awful parts. The parts that…
I don’t know. It was just there, always in the back of my head. This idea that it mattered. Maybe it was because everywhere I looked I saw her story, being retold in ways that I couldn’t even recognise. Those cartoons, the “Survivor Stories,” those awful interviews that Moon did, and all of it just… Twisting the story. It was like I couldn’t even recognise it anymore. And I just wanted it to stop. I just wanted to be able to remember it as something real. Not a… A way to sell action figures.
I wanted people to know the truth. Or, as close to the truth as any story can be. Which I guess is why I’m telling you this.
All of which to say that when I saw her standing there at the door to the cafe, all five-six of her in a grey sweater and blue jeans, I’m sure you can understand why the first words out of my mouth, as embarrassing as this sounds, were
And she looks at me in this way that’s part surprised and part guilty, which maybe was because of the pieces of a coffee mug scattered at my feet.
“Cathy?” she says, and the surprise in her voice is like an echo of mine. “Is that really you?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, after, smiling as we picked up shards of broken china together, “I just didn’t think that there were any of you left.” And I guess I didn’t really expect her to say something like that, but it sort of flew right past me at the time. I was too caught up in how real she was, just right there in front of me, her dark hair a little mussed by the wind, kind of ordinary looking but pretty, like when you see someone and for a fleeting moment you want to ask what foundation they’re using. But she could have been any of a hundred girls I’d passed in the street, if I didn’t remember that face. Even with ten years passed, I couldn’t forget her. I mean, how could anyone?
“I’m so glad. I didn’t think any of you made it.”
There’s something sad about the way she said it, but I understood that. And then she paused for a moment, turning a shard of pottery over in her hands, the edges razor sharp.
“Are there… Are there any others?”
And she said it without really looking at me. Almost like she didn’t want to know the answer. And I guess I kind of understood that too.
“Maybe?” I said. “We… We never really kept in touch.”
It was mostly true.
“I saw your reply, but I didn’t really connect it up, you know?” she said. It was strange, the way we were talking like two old friends reconnecting. Like this was… I don’t know… Just ordinary. I think maybe she neeeded that.
She sat in one of our least uncomfortable comfy chairs while I finished closing up the shop. Technically we were supposed to stay open for another half hour, but it was a dead night anyway. She’d been the first person to walk through the door in over an hour. I honestly can’t remember what the deal was. Probably a hockey game.
“So, you saw the message already. What else can I tell you?” she said. “I mean, normally this would be where I’d try to explain how it all works, but… I guess you don’t really need to know about any of that, right?”
“Right,” I nodded.
She took in a breath, and for a moment she just held it there. Like she was daring herself to let it go.
“Honestly,” she said, “I didn’t even want to do this. But… We don’t really have any other choice. I’m sure you’ve seen a little of how bad it’s getting, even out here.”
“LA,” I said, trying not to think of the images I’d seen. The haunting drone footage of empty streets. She nodded.
“It’s not just what happened there.”
“No, you’re right. Even here,” I waved a hand as if to encompass our tiny little town, and maybe even all of Minnesota surrounding us, “we’ve been seeing stuff happening. It’s like before, isn’t it?”
It was strange, how I handed really acknowledged that to anyone before that moment. There had been murmurings, of course. Whispers throughout the town. The bad dreams. Movements in the shadows. The thing that Wilkes swore blind had followed his truck down a ten mile stretch of empty road, doing an easy eighty miles an hour. Whatever it was that left those claw marks in Jesse’s arm, though most people figured it for a wolf and tried to ignore his stories about something six foot tall that oozed like tar. The little girl who’d gone missing. And I’d known exactly what it was, but… But for some reason I still couldn’t say it. Not until she walked in that door.
She shook her head.
“No. It’s worse than before. We’re not just hunting them this time.”
“What do you need from me?”
She begins to talk, telling me what’s happening. What’s going to happen. It sounds mechanical, rehearsed. Just the details, simple and to the point. When and where. Most of it I knew already, from her e-mails. And for a moment I looked at her and it struck me how tired she was. It hung off her in layers. The back to back red-eye flights kind of tired hiding under some smartly done mascara and what must have been gallons of coffee. The bloodshot eyes. The dark circles that still showed through, faintly. But it wasn’t just that. Underneath there was another kind of tired.
Then she was done talking, and there was this awkward silence as I fiddled with a washcloth, and she stared at the notice board pinned to the far wall, like she wasn’t really seeing anything at all.
“To be honest, I didn’t really expect you to turn up in person,” I said.
“I had to be sure it was really you,” she said, with a distracted kind of smile. “Look, I’m sorry that I can’t talk more right now. I know you’ve probably got a lot of questions. Hell, I’d love to know what happened to you in all the time since… Well, yeah. Anyway, I… I don’t really have a lot of time. This is just a stopover really.”
“No, I understand,” I said. And just like that, she got up to go. She walked back into my life, bringing all of darkness and light and chaos back with her, and now she was getting up to go. And I just sort of nodded.
“I’ll see you there?” she said.
“Yeah. Of course. I promise.”
And she was walking towards the door, and that washcloth was pulled so tight around my fingers that it hurt, when I finally found my voice again.
“Hey,” I said. “When’d you eat last?”
She paused for a moment, and then just sort of shrugged like it wasn’t that important.
“No, I mean it,” I said, stepping out from behind the counter again. “Starlight, you look like you’re dead on your feet. Come on, I’ll make you dinner. Have a drink with me. You need it.”
She turned and smiled.
“I’m sure I do, but I really don’t have time.”
“Like hell,” I said. “No, you don’t get to do this. You don’t get to walk back into my life and then just walk right out again like… Like you don’t matter to me. Do you have any idea… Any idea how long I’ve been waiting for this?”
And there it was. The truth of why I hadn’t spoken up before, about what was happening, about all the signs and exactly where I knew they were pointing.
Not because I was afraid.
Not because I wanted to forget.
But because I missed it.
I honestly couldn’t tell you why exactly she said yes. Maybe she just needed it as much as I did. To talk. To let it all out. Maybe she was just tired. Maybe she really did just need a good meal and a beer.
We made it back to my house with the sun already down, and David’s truck limping on it’s last legs. I kept meaning to do something about that, but there never seemed to be time to get it into the shop, you know? And David, my husband, well he was up North, flying cargo out in Alaska. We’d talked about moving up there so he wouldn’t be away from the kids for so long, but he hated the idea of us having to face living in that kind of a place. And besides, we’d hardly have gotten that much more time with him anyway. So we just made the most of the times when he was with us.
I thanked the babysitter and sent her on home. If little Charlene recognised the woman standing there with me, she didn’t show it. Lord, if she’d known who it was really was. But then, if she knew about me…
And then for a while we didn’t really talk much, because she was really was hungry enough to eat a horse, and after we were done eating there were beers out on the deck. It was a warm autumn evening, before the weather really started to turn. Warm enough that I could hardly see why she had that sweater on, but I didn’t say anything about it at the time.
Besides, I wanted to let her talk. And at first she didn’t say too much. We were both just looking up at the stars.
“Starlight,” I said, feeling kind of thoughtful. “Was that… Did you choose that name?”
She shook her head.
“Loretta… Sunshine. She chose for all of us. Poor Moon hated it, but… Well I guess they just kind of stuck.” A shrug. “I’m sorry, we were kids. It just felt right at the time.”
She took another sip of her beer.
“But I’d really prefer if you’d just call me Gail for now.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I never knew your real name.”
And she turned to look at me then, and in the moonlight I could see something in her eyes… Like the kind of real, deep sadness that you find when something smacks you hard in the chest and leaves you shaking on your feet. And for a moment I thought I’d said something. Then she blinked and it was gone.
“Yeah, I guess I never really…”
She stared down at the bottle in her hand.
“It never really seemed like our place to ask,” I said. “All of us, we just… We trusted you. That was enough. I think maybe it was easier to think of you as Starlight. It was more… Magical. We were kids. We needed that.”
“You’re right. It just… It never really hit me before. How I never really talked to any of you. There’s so much you didn’t know. So much I didn’t tell you. And I’m sure Moon never said much to anyone, and Sunshine…”
For a moment, her thoughts went somewhere else, and I could tell that the last thing she needed was me interrupting her. I knew that look, what it meant. And, well, everyone knew about Sunshine. Or at least, we thought we did.
Then she knocked back the rest of the bottle and reached for another from the cooler. For a while we both just sat there drinking, looking at the stars.
“Starlight… Gail,” I said, catching myself. “I promise I’m not trying to be nosy or nothing, but… I do want to know. What happened to you. You tell me it’s bad and I believe you, but… I think it’s more than that. I mean, come on, you disappeared for ten years, and then a few weeks back you show up out of nowhere all over the TV screens, and everything that happened in LA… I mean we do get the news out here you know…”
For a moment I was just kind of fumbling around for words, and she’s still staring off into the darkness.
“I just… What happened to you?” I said, feeling stupid.
And for a while I almost figured she was ignoring me or something. Until she turned towards me with this look in her eyes, like when someone’s maybe an inch away from tears.
And then she told me everything.