Answer the Question

Matthew Mehan

Little stars flickered behind the big ones. George had seen the big ones all his life, but this was almost too much. He’d read somewhere and remembered dimly that there were maybe seven—or was it nine—layers of stars to be seen in the night sky, and here, under this indigo dome ringed with pine trees, he fancied he could guess at maybe five, six layers.

“I see seven layers of stars,” he whispered to his sister. She, too, recalled dimly something perhaps their father had told them about Greek—or maybe Egyptian—astronomers seeing multiple layers of stars. She waved an unseen mosquito away from her ear. She rustled her windbreaker by moving her head to tell her brother that she’d looked over at him or nodded or something. “Incredible.”

“How long do I have to keep looking up?” asked Charlotte.

“Just keep staring and eventually you’ll see one, but just keep looking. If you look away, that will be exactly when the thing will go shooting by and we’ll miss it.”

“The thing?” she chided. “You mean the star, don’t you?”

“No,” and again dim memories of school, or Mom, or Dad, began to churn. “That’s not what they are. They’re pieces of asteroid and space dust that skip off the atmosphere and—”

“Okay, whatever.” She had raised her voice, which echoed louder than she’d wanted, bouncing softly against the pines here and there across the bay. Charlotte dug her nails just a little into her hand. She had hoped that the cool air, the calm stars, the smooth black lake, and the two of them alone, lying on the pier, would get them talking the way she figured brothers and sisters talked in other times and places. “I just blew it,” she thought to herself. “Classic. He’s gonna clam up like always and say something snitty. I always do that. We don’t ever talk like good people do.” And just as she was about to relinquish the moment to melodrama, George replied:

“Burn any books today, cavegirl?”

“Oh c’mon, don’t,” she whimpered. “I’m sorry, okay? Please don’t—” she trailed off.

“What?” he asked, but he knew. He knew what she meant; he even fancied he’d caught the little noise her fists had made when they started to unclench. He knew exactly why she was upset. He always played dumb right about now, and he had welcomed the excuse to pull back. He had felt himself seduced into conversation by the stars and the smell of pine on the gentle breeze, which he could hear beyond the lakefront, moving in the dark of the woods, long before he could feel it on his face. He sensed Charlotte’s uncharacteristic quiet, and welcomed the intoxicating effect of the moment as a challenge to his willpower. Could he resist being intimate? He felt up to the task, so he repeated, “What, what’s up, Charlotte?”

But the tone was too chipper, and Charlotte caught it. “Just say ‘I forgive you’,” she thought desperately. This was his way, and she knew it. He never accepted an apology. To forgive her—and she was, admittedly, a brat—was to come toward her, and she sensed now that he was receding like a tide. She’d given him the means to kill the moment, and he’d done it with gusto. She let out a little sigh.

“Charlotte, do you think we’re close?”

“Crap!” he thought to himself. He had no idea where that had come from. He debated whether he could try to trick himself into thinking that he’d not really said anything.

“I dunno,” she said, almost glumly, and turned to look over at him.

“Keep looking!” he grunted, without ever taking his eyes off his section of the night sky. She snapped her attention back to hers.

“Well, don’t you think it’s weird that neither of us has ever seen a shooting star?”

“Weird how?” George replied. But again he knew.

“Weird, as in sad.”

“Hmm.”

George had a long history of being cheated out of seeing shooting stars. At a Cubs game one had streaked bright enough to be seen from the bleachers, and he simply missed it. Again, on a drive to Milwaukee, the whole family had seen it. It was the same with lightning. What was particularly galling to George was that it was never clearly a missed opportunity. He wasn’t buying a hot dog at the game; he wasn’t asleep in the car. He was right there, wide awake, and had simply picked the wrong spot to look at in the sky when someone gasped, “Shooting star!” He swung from almost sad, to almost mad, then, perceiving that he might seem affected by the conversation, said, “See anything yet?”

Charlotte scooted a little closer to George and patted his hand, which lay pressed against the wooden boards of the pier, palm down. George kept his eyes on the stars, letting the little ones blur out of view in favor of the big ones, but he managed an awkward smile. His eyes began to tear from the wind. He considered using this chance to look at Charlotte with glistening eyes. “Liar,” he indicted himself silently. He turned away and wiped his eyes, using his shifting about as an excuse to move an imperceptible hair away from his sister, who’d begun to say something.

“Why’d you ask? Do you think we’re close?” She turned to see why he was facing away from her and from the stars. Neither of them knew how to answer the question. They both turned their heads upward without word or sign. Just as they did, a bright, tiny line skimmed across the sky before them, and was gone. George listened to the breeze making its way through the woods and noticed again the little stars he’d never seen before tonight.

“I dunno, Charlotte.” But he knew.