by Dylan Ward
On an icy Christmas morning Hunter is frozen in front of the Orion SpaceProbe. It gleams black in the winter light, like a mystical entity electrifying the speechless boy. When he breaks free from his awestruck shock, Hunter splashes through shreds of wrapping paper and rams into the bathrobe-frame of his father to hug him. He squeezes for a long time until it becomes embarrassing and his mother’s hand gently pries him away.
Each night at full dark, with a fierce compulsion, Hunter hefts the telescope outside to the nearby field against bone-chilling air, against his mother’s objections. Red-cheeked, his breath pluming in the weak light from the back porch, he views the heavens. The ethereal beauty of the cosmos reveals itself through the eyepiece: the craters of the moon, Saturn’s rings, Jupiter’s cloud belts, the Andromeda galaxy. A wondrous gasp escapes him at the sight of Orion’s Sword and the celestial river of Eridanus.
“What’s the most dangerous star?” Liam’s lips curl into a smirk.
Hunter glances up from his book. “Huh?”
“–dad.” Sliding away from the chair, Hunter clutches the book close.
“Funny, dad,” his sister, Angie, says.
Ellie regards her son as he ambles away from the kitchen. “All this interest in space, Liam. It might be too much?”
Liam gives her a questioning look. Ellie’s eyebrows lift.
“He’s ten. It’s good to have healthy interests.” Liam shrugs and winks at her over the edge of his beer.
Across the room, Hunter leans close to the computer, scrolling through otherworldly images on the screen. His lips move in silence, reading with intense seriousness.
When he dreams he dreams of space. He sees visions of undiscovered planets in brilliant luminescence, dazzling spheres painted in effervescent colors. Hunter longs for it, lost in fantastical tales of interplanetary travel and hours spent playing with his toy spaceships. In his memory, he sees the Virginia Air and Space Center and NASA exhibitions at museums, all those beguiling astronautic tools and gadgets. His eyes open when he recalls the disturbing appearance of the unmoving space suit, its mirrored face shield watching him back.
At the school library, Mrs. McGillis has new selections of books about space each week. She reserves them at her desk and reveals them to Hunter in a neat stack, saying softly, “For you, dear.”
Hunter’s face flushes, eyes alight at the masses of new discoveries. His pulse soars with wild imagination at the blue sunsets of Mars, the breakneck winds on Neptune, the glacial mountains of Pluto. He is surprised into wonder by the ancient days –– the Egyptian’s astronomical alignments to build those towering pyramids, the fearless Vikings navigating uncharted high-seas under the stars, the Mayan’s shadow-casting devices tracking the passage of time.
And the countless stars. How they outnumber every grain of sand on Earth’s beaches. Hunter considers this and ponders the fathomless depths of space.
He flinches when he learns space is cold.
In his bedroom is a prized collection of sky atlas books. Each night Ellie finds Hunter sound asleep, an open book cradled across his naked chest. With motherly affection, she replaces it to the shelf, leaving her boy undisturbed. Among the bookshelf, glossy National Geographic magazines and pullout posters fill the slim cracks, stuffed between the timeworn spines of astronomy books. Sometimes Hunter pulls them out and lines them along the floor, surrounding himself in his own private universe.
On warm evenings when gardenias and honeysuckle perfume the air, Hunter waits in the cool grass, underneath fluttering bats and fireflies winking green, like tiny electrons. Dying sunlight pinks the sky and shimmers through Hunter’s eyes until the dome of earth deepens, light diminishing, and the stars materialize. Hunter observes the trajectory of the bone-colored moon rising. With exploratory swipes of his fingers he searches and traces the orderly structured designs of constellations. If he’s lucky, he sees a shooting star.
But lately something nags him, about other things, darker things. And he begins to wonder at them. How something unknown is stealing pieces from the Milky Way. Of the prehistoric rock hurtling from deep space across earth’s atmosphere; all those fearsome dinosaurs succumbing to their death. He thinks about the awful Challenger Space Shuttle’s explosion, reverberating and smoking through the January morning sky.
There’s the horror of what happens if an astronaut becomes untethered and floats away, devoured into that limitless vacuum. And the infinite blackness of yawning holes that bend and swallow light. To what abysmal end do they lead?
In the starlight Hunter grapples with the immeasurable universe before him: cold and soundless and airless.
Wisps of stars float above, shifting like a terrible phantasm. Hunter shivers.
At Jonah’s for a sleepover, the boys sneak downstairs late that night, pillows in arms, sleeping bags dragging at their feet. They stretch out close to the TV and crinkle open moon pies and slurp cream sodas. Halfway through the movie a sickening thrill swells within Hunter. The inky alien monster creeping through the shafts of the lonely spaceship makes him tremble. Breathing hard, he twists away to hide his fear from Jonah, who hunches forward, grinning, his teeth shining in the TV’s glow. Hunter thinks he shouldn’t be afraid if Jonah isn’t afraid.
“That was awesome,” Jonah whispers.
“Yeah,” Hunter says. He hesitates when Jonah shuts off the TV, sinking the room into darkness.
Cocooned inside the sleeping bag Hunter sweats, a dreadful feeling rising, and his mouth dries. After a while he hears strange, whispery sounds. When he lifts the flap for some air, something is slinking along the edges of the room in the shadows.
By the time Hunter gets back home he buries the Orion SpaceProbe deep in the back of his closet. Before he slides the door shut, he can’t help but look at the telescope. It appears like something inhuman waiting in the recesses. The glint from the bedroom light along its black exterior vanishes in the narrowing gap of the closet door closing.
When Liam peers in later, he sees his son wide awake, eyes straining upward at the bedroom light.
“Time for sleep.” Liam cuts off the light.
Hunter is conscious and wary of the abrupt darkness. Feeling unnerved and edgy, ready to explode with anxiety, he stumbles out of bed, flicks the light switch, and checks his room.
Every night after this is the same –– after the door closes, the light floods the bedroom again, eliminating every dark corner. Hunter keeps the blinds shut to conceal the pitch-black outside. Through the long night, he busies himself by reading chapter books, the thicker the better. Nothing about space. Sometimes he does gentle yoga, calming his breathing. He tries meditating once but closing his eyes spooks him. He calculates intricate math problems, penciling and scratching and erasing in his notebook. Sometimes he doodles indeterminate shapes and labyrinthine spirals.
Hunter counts his steps, recites state capitals, names of presidents, working his mind in feverish pace, ignoring the increasing worry of invisible cracks in the window. He can’t open the blinds. Whenever exhaustion consumes him, he sits against the wall, chin to his knees, and stays there for a while, blank and numb. To fight sleep, he sneaks into the hall bathroom to splash his face and sip cool water.
His sister catches him one time. “What the hell are you doing?” Angie asks. She stands at her bedroom door, squinting groggy eyes against the glaring bathroom light.
“Nothing,” Hunter tells her.
Angie frowns. “Well, quit it. I can hear you pacing.” Fading through her dark doorway, she says quietly, “You’ll wake the dead.”
Hunter hastens to his room, blood rushing through his chest.
He comes downstairs another night, stomach-sick, head throbbing, and finds his mother reading, his father working on his laptop.
“What’s wrong?” Liam asks.
Hunter’s eyes sweep toward his mother and he leans over his father with a vulnerable expression. “I can’t sleep,” he mumbles.
Ellie closes her book. “I’m sorry, baby.” She holds out her hand.
When Hunter comes forward, Ellie smiles and Hunter curls up beside her and rests his head on her soft stomach. Ellie rakes his hair and this comforts and relaxes him until he’s nearly asleep. She takes his hand and walks with him back upstairs.
“Good night, baby…” His mother’s voice trails away with the soft click of the door closing.
Hunter awakens to a state of grim apprehension. He thinks of the sun, its warmth, wishing there was no night. Then he remembers the extreme coldness of shadows in space and his breath quickens. The 3D glow-in-the-dark solar system above him shifts and spins like ghostly orbs. He stares too long at them and the glow-in-the-dark stars sprinkled across the ceiling begins to blur. Inexplicably, all of it lurches at him with a violence that frightens him. He clambers to the top of his bunk bed and rips them off the ceiling, bending back fingernails. One of them bleeds.
The next evening Hunter lugs a trash bag down the back stairs stuffed with his astronomy books, the National Geographic magazines, his posters, the glow-in-the-dark stars. In the rain he hoists the trash bag into the metal dumpster behind the house. The lid clangs shut.
Coming back through the kitchen, dripping rainwater, Hunter peels off his shoes and socks. His mother is in the dining room, paperwork spread across the table, her back to him. He almost sneaks past her when her soft voice stops him at the bottom step.
“What are you doing?” Ellie asks.
Hunter looks up at her, hair plastered to his forehead, teeth clattering. Ellie assesses the round slump of his shoulders.
Their eyes meet and Ellie holds his gaze.
“I’m sorry, mom,” Hunter murmurs. He bounds up the stairs two at a time, like jumping across the surface of the moon.
On the class trip to the planetarium the butterflies in Hunter’s stomach erupt into screams. He runs out, fainting in the hallway. When Ellie comes to get him, the teacher offers ineffectual assurance. The class gawks, dumbfounded.
In the car, Hunter presses his head against the glass of the passenger window in gloomy quiet. He avoids the dust across the dashboard that looks like a trillion stars in the afternoon sun.
Ellie is cognizant of his colorless, haggard features, his eyes red and ringed and heavy. She sees his chewed nails. One of them is rimmed with dried blood. Her forehead creases.
“No!” Hunter screams.
His stunned family looks at him as if he has three heads. But they reassure him about the star watch party, reminding him how they look forward to it all year. Liam even gets the telescope from Hunter’s closet and sets in the back of the car.
They arrive early to the nature park and they set out a blanket and a picnic dinner in a sunny clearing. Ellie and Liam sip wine and cuddle, gazing skyward. In the gloaming, Hunter panics, his heart thudding, muscles full of adrenaline. The stars emerge and thicken, billions of them, high above the dark shapes of trees. Hunter shrinks from them, nauseous, curling into a fetal position.
“Mom?” Angie touches her mother’s arm.
Ellie glances distractedly toward her son. As Hunter buries his face and shudders, Ellie makes a sound and loosens herself from Liam. She holds Hunter and rocks with him, sobbing into his hair.
“I don’t understand. You’ve always loved this stuff.” Liam searches the bare walls and ceiling, the half empty bookshelf in Hunter’s bedroom. He turns to his son, scrutinizing the blue veins bifurcating the side of his translucent temple, uneasy at the deepening circles around Hunter’s eyes. “What’s got you all worried?”
There’s a tightness in his throat and Hunter shakes his head, unsteady breaths escaping him. “I just don’t like it anymore.”
Liam gives Hunter a warm kiss to his forehead, noting his son’s tremors under the sheets. “It’s okay,” he whispers.
At the door, a faint tug of affection holds Liam and he waits before casually turning off the light.
The door widens, Liam backlit from the hall light. “Yeah, kiddo?”
There’s a weighty pause before Hunter speaks from the shadows, “What’s out there?”
The dark silhouette of Liam’s head turns toward the closed blinds. He is quiet for a time. “I don’t know,” he says. “It’s just space. Nothing to worry about.”
Hunter eyes the wraith of moonlight pressing against the blinds.
“It’s been there forever, kiddo.”
Pulling up the sheets, Hunter’s breath heats his freezing hands. Liam can dimly see his son working over a conundrum.
“But, what’s out there, daddy? What’s out there in all that empty space?”
“No one really knows.” Liam lowers his voice. “Close your eyes, buddy. Try to sleep. Okay?”
Hunter whimpers as his father closes the bedroom door, trapping him in the darkness, the cold moonlight slipping in.
About the Author:
Dylan Ward lives and writes various things in North Carolina. His fiction has appeared in One Person’s Trash. When not writing, he is usually reading something thrilling with a strong cup of coffee, pondering the mysteries of the world. He has a long way to go.