This story is by Ryan Freeman and won an Honorable Mention in our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Ryan Freeman is a writer/reader by vocation, legal professional/manager by occupation, and runner/photographer by avocation. Ryan lives in Utah with his wife and is currently working on his first novel. You can find Ryan online on Twitter (@illusorycountry) and Instagram (@illusorycountry).
“Not that it matters anymore,” Michele said as if she were not alone. “But it is so nice out tonight.”
It was a clear night, without clouds or moon, and to avoid tripping on the rocky path, Michele pointed the flashlight at the ground ahead as she walked. As she hiked up the trail, the cold breeze that blew down the small canyon chilled the skin on her bare arms. On any other night, the black pitch in the canyon, the rustling leaves, and the scurrying sound of creatures in the brush along the trail would have frightened her. But that night, there was nothing to fear; she was calm, breathing in the crisp spring evening air.
Six months earlier, she hiked on a similar trail, but that evening she was not alone. She had met Brittany at a poetry open-mic in a cafe on Center Street. Apart from studying astronomy in college, pursuing a Masters of Science degree in Astrophysics, Michele’s interests revolved around her religion and poetry. Meeting Brittany seemed like a cosmic coincidence or divine intervention (she had forgotten how to tell the two apart), something like the Theia Impact, a collision of two nursery planetary objects in the early solar system to create the earth and moon, an unimaginably violent event without which life would not have been able to thrive.
“Do you want to sit down here?” Brittany asked Michele as they reached a small clearing next to the trail. The valley below, where they lived with five hundred thousand other little human beings, had disappeared behind one of the canyon walls. Michele felt so remote, isolated with Brittany.
“I’ve never been up here,” Michele admitted. Brittany smiled. She hadn’t either.
Sitting next to Brittany, Michele’s heart began to beat fast. From the moment she saw Brittany with her sharp eyes and dark eyebrows, Michele knew that Brittany was like her, a hidden pariah engrained in a religious culture that would not accept her nature (what was the difference between nature and culture again?). It was after Brittany stood at the microphone and read a poem named “Cherry and Sherry,” about a teenage girl coming to age sexually, Michele overcame her shy disposition and approached Brittany.
“The sky is beautiful,” Brittany said after they sat down on a small boulder in the clearing. The setting sun bathed the world in a pinkish-blue and orange hue. As Michele and Brittany pressed together on the boulder, Michael could smell the sweat and the light fragrance of soap coming from Brittany. Michele did not know if Brittany felt the same attraction; like the gravity of two stars rotating and dancing around each other, they threw each other into unpredictable orbits. Michele never mentioned her sexuality to anyone; having been raised to consider anything besides sex between husband and wife as sinful, as something to be ashamed of and controlled, she kept her biological desires secret. The moment Brittany leaned in and her lips made contact with Michele’s, her body twitched in an eruption of feeling, a blissful shutter. By the time she lost her balance, it was too late. Their lips separated and Michele fell, landing on her back in the grass behind the bolder. “Shit,” Brittany said, rushing to help Michele up. “Are you okay?”
Two miles up the canyon, the trail turned to a dirt road. Walking along, Michele tried not to think about the day Brittany left. They had been dating for three months when Brittany told Michele.
“I’m thinking about moving to California,” she said on a Sunday morning in Brittany’s apartment as she made tea. “I mean. I am going to California, moving to a place just outside LA with a friend next month.”
Michele crinkled her forehead in confusion and wanted to know why.
“I can’t stand it here,” Brittany said, pouring the hot water from the kettle into the two mugs. “I can’t take all of the judgment and pressure and shitty people. And I never told you about my sister-in-law, did I?” she asked, handing the mug of tea to Michele. “Last year when I came out to my family, she stopped letting me see her kids. I used to babysit my nieces all the time, and now she thinks I’m going to molest them or make them gay. I don’t know.”
Michele told Brittany that people would come around. They had to.
“You don’t get it now,” Brittany said as she sipped the tea in her mug. “This is new to you. I know. But once the people and things that you love begin to reject who you are, you’ll see.”
Brittany was right that Michele did not understand then, but now she did. The day Brittany moved, both Michele and Brittany cried in a last embrace, knowing that they might not see each other again, and if they did, it would be different—they would be different.
After Brittany left, Michele never felt more alone. She even considered leaving her graduate program to follow Brittany to Los Angeles, but she knew that she couldn’t do it. Most of all, she wanted to talk to someone, but no one would understand. No one knew but Brittany knew that she was gay. No one could know, especially those at church, who made up the majority of her social life away from Brittany. No one could ever know about her secret life with Brittany, not even her brother. Although the two of them had been closer than most siblings since their father left them to care for their schizophrenic mother, recently, he had become a recluse, distant from her as he pursued his career in photography, traveling on the weekends to take photographs instead of visiting her. He would not understand, and she could not lose him any more than she had already. It was just her, and she thought that was okay.
Reaching the meadow, Michele marched out into the center. Flax and Phlox wildflowers freckled the grassy area in pink and blue. Laying back on the ground, she stared up to the sky. Michele admired the specks of light in the black. Since she was a little girl, the stars had seemed magical to her. They were inconceivably old, and the light they shone was a remnant of the past, having traveled so far it could not remember what its source looked like when it left. In high school, Michele joined the astronomy club. She memorized and mapped constellations on the weekends. Then going to college, there was only one option: she would major in astronomy and work the rest of her life gazing at the stars, her distant companions.
Through the years, Michele found that relationships with stars and planets were much simpler than relationships with people. Other people acted unpredictably, they hid behind facades, and they hurt each other. She had tried to fit in with others. Although she felt a deep devotion to and faith in her religion, something she refused to deny no matter the pain it caused her, Michele struggled to connect with other members of her church. What made her so different?
She considered that people could be classified as different celestial bodies. Some individuals were stars, brightening the others that revolved around them, holding them in communities. Then there were the black holes, hidden narcissists and sociopaths, that sucked in and destroyed those close to them, yet casted their influence outward, holding galaxies together. A few, like Brittany, were nebulas. They floated in the vacuum, massive, yet formless, waiting to create star clusters of their sea of colors. The variety of human beings was as diverse in size, scale, and composition as all the cosmic objects in the universe. At least that made sense to Michele.
What did not make sense was her place in the heavens. Where did she fit in the universe of lonely crowds of light? So distant from others, she knew that no one could see her. She was too dim, like a decaying black dwarf star, isolated in the void. The only way to be noticed would be to become a nova, to erupt and become a flash of lingering light that would again dim to nothing, but for a moment would be bright enough for those closest to her to see, and maybe even admire. But to do so, something would have to die. Energy is transformed, moved, never spontaneously created.
In a remote meadow, high in the mountains, Michele laid under the stars, calculating, planning, understanding what she would have to do to transform into light that could reach through her void to others. It was frightening, but the most worthwhile acts always were. It was only her solitary state that calmed her in the night air as she realized what she had to do.