Chapter 1: Only If For A Night
noun; a partial or total absence of light.
noun; a yearning desire.
noun; perhaps, maybe, possibly.
My body was bruised and I was set alight,
But you came over me like some holy rite,
And although I was burning,
You’re the only light.
– Florence and the Machine (Only If For A Night)
The world was dark before he was born.
It happened years ago – back when students still attempted questions on how long the sun would be around for and no one believed nuclear fusion energy was achievable and scientists laughed at the thought of being alive when the sun turned into a red giant, then a black hole, and then sucked the world into oblivion. Of course, the joke was on them. It didn’t happen like that, but it happened while they were still alive.
It took eight minutes and a half, like everyone said it would and no one believed it would. The world kept turning, the birds kept singing. Warmth kept filling the bones of every human lucky enough to be awake to see the light for the last time. Eight minutes and a half.
Then it went black.
No one knew what happened. Here’s what they did know: they couldn’t see. Temperatures dropped instantaneously, averaging at a stone cold zero degrees Celsius. Within a week the top layer of every ocean and river and lake had frozen solid, that single layer of ice insulating the water within and preventing the rest of it from freezing. Photosynthesis halted immediately, most plants died within the first few weeks. Science in the areas of nuclear and geothermal energy escalated rapidly, millions upon millions of dollars poured into developing these sorts of powered habitats.
Over half the human population was wiped out.
Jean’s ancestors, his mother tells him, were lucky to be living in Iceland. They already had up to eighty percent of their energy produced from geothermal sources and were able to survive the first dreadful months above ground. Jean didn’t think it was lucky. He was eighteen and had never seen the sun. He had never seen the moon, never seen a star. That wasn’t lucky.
At first things were a mess – this is what the history books tell him. Things are usually messy when people are plunged headfirst into change. They don’t like change. Of course, the sun, the stars, and the moon – their disappearance was a change on the grander scale of things.
Destruction occurred around every corner. Darkness was a catalyst for trouble, so it seemed. No one could see you breaking and entering, robbing a store, murdering your rival, rampaging the streets. It was a free for all, until the military got involved. They created units within subdivisions within districts, each with their own duty of care and protection, each with their own promise of new life, each with fear of the unknown.
But everyone was afraid of the unknown back then. Everything was the unknown. The earth they knew and loved was no longer a comfort, a reliable home. It was strange, it was new, it was cold, and it was dark.
Jean’s grandparents grew up in the Era of Solutions.
The earth was like a new specimen, so naturally, the humans studied it. They began to understand how it worked without sunlight, without moonlight, without starlight. They began to understand how to protect themselves, how to feed themselves, how to see again.
The Era of Solutions was also known as the Era of Shame. Humans are prideful creatures. They were ashamed to start again, ashamed to call themselves primitive. But their shame built a better future, a future in darkness.
They created underground bunker settlements, taking advantage of geothermic energy to keep warm. There were minimal light sources inside; light was incredibly dim and rare. Because the sun had been gone for so long, humanity had adapted. They had become accustomed to the darkness. The eyes of the generation following the Era of Solutions could see better in the darkness, than in light. So light was scarce.
Children raised in Jean’s era – the Era of Peace and Sustainability – were taught to stay underground, where they knew it was safe and warm. Of course, no one could stop them from climbing up out of the chimneys, soot stained and lungs full of smoke, dripping from steam to see the sky. There wasn’t much to see, it was always dark outside. Silhouettes of run down buildings and large trees that survived due to slow metabolism and substantial sugar stores loomed in the distance. There was a forest of large oak trees surrounding the settlement Jean and his family lived within.
As for food, the Era of Solutions had determined the technology necessary to grow plants without the need of an actual sun. Yes, it was expensive, but by then the earth’s population was less than a third of what it used to be.
Things had changed.
As Jean sat in the darkness of a common room in the underground colony, nose buried in a book about history BC, AD and now WL – Without Light – he wished things hadn’t changed.
He couldn’t remember how many books he had read about history; how many paintings he’d viewed with strokes of yellow and orange and red spreading light across a canvas; how many images he had seen that people had taken with cameras of sunsets and stars. Eyes fluttering shut, Jean leaned his head back against a wall and breathed out the longing that had built up in his chest.
There were physical pains and then there were other pains, and then there was the space behind his eyes that he could see when he closed them, something liminal and vertiginous. In the blackness there he could see images of light – but he was never sure if they were real. Were they there, somewhere deep in his mind? Or were they things he had seen in books? A crescent moon, lopsided and silvery on a dark navy backdrop he knew as the sky. It sat like a crooked grin that his childhood friend Connie would give him just before suggesting they climb up to see the world outside again. A blanket of stars that someone had lain across the sky, like glitter, dancing and winking and teasing him from so far away. If he just reached out his arm, could he dip his fingers into their dazzling, inky waters? A sunset, splaying its rays like fingers in all directions, amber and bronze and canary yellow and coral, threaded with lavender and dark sea green. It stretched out so far, fading in the distance where he couldn’t see it anymore, but knew that it continued anyway.
He squeezed his eyes shut tightly and the images faded away.
That was all he would ever know.
A sigh parted his lips as he tilted his head to the side and cracked one eye open to search for the one who had called his name. A figure ran towards him in the dark and he could see white teeth visible through a smile – his best friend, Connie. He sat up at the table when the other boy sunk onto the chair next to him.
“How’d you know it was me?” Jean asked.
“You’re the only person I know who reads alone in the common room,” Connie replied, picking up the history book that Jean had been reading previously. His face twisted into aversion and he placed the book back down on the table. “I was going to ask if you wanted to come out walking with me and the others, but you seem like you’re having a great time here on your own!” Connie knocked on the cover of the book, grinning at Jean. Rolling his eyes, Jean pulled the book out from Connie’s grip and got up from the table.
“Shut up,” he mumbled, walking away from the other boy.
“So that’s a yes? You’ll meet us at the entrance?”
“Yeah,” Jean called as he continued walking, book tucked under his arm. He figured his legs could use some stretching, after being curled underneath him for a few hours. Before heading over to the entrance, he stopped at the compartment his family resided in. He needed to grab a jacket.
If there were two things Jean could count on in his life, they were the inherent darkness and the crippling cold of the world above. These days, no one ever felt truly warm. Perhaps an illusion of it, being underground near the geothermal stations, yes, but warmth that gripped your flesh and seeped into your bones? That was unheard of.
“Didn’t expect you back till later, sweetheart,” his mother commented as he entered the home. She stood in the darkness, cooking something, he expected. He walked by her to place a kiss on her cold cheek before he ran up the stairs.
“Connie invited me to go outside with him.”
There was no need to see her face to know the way she looked when she said his name. As he leaped up the last stair, he could see her in his mind, hip leaning against the counter, arms crossed, brow pulled down in a soft frown tied together with worry for her only son. He could hear it in her tone. That was one of the benefits, he guessed, of being born in darkness; he didn’t need to have vision in order to see.
Pushing away the image of his mother with her light curls framing her worried features, Jean searched for the jacket he saved for when he went outside. Everyone had one – heavy duty, extra insulation, worked in a similar fashion to the way wet suits used to before people stopped wearing them, stopped needing them. He shrugged the large jacket over his thin shoulders and pulled on his boots, before stomping back down to the first floor.
His mother still stood in the position he figured she would be in. When he finally met her eyes, her gaze softened. She reached out her arms in his direction. With a sigh, Jean moved forward, clumsy and heavy in his jacket. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him tightly. Even with shoes on, she barely made it to his shoulder. He awkwardly lifted his arms to try and snake them around her small waist.
“I’m not going to die, you know,” he mumbled into her blonde hair. She sniffled into his shoulder, squeezed him once more before pushing him out at arms length to look at him.
“You’ve got your jacket, good,” she commented, patting him down, “Your boots, your gloves – do you have your gloves, Jean? You’ll need them baby, you know you will.”
He continued to stare at her while she made a fuss.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she sighed.
“I just want you to be safe.”
Apparently satisfied with that conversation, she raised her hand to touch his cheek lightly, before turning back to her previous activity. Jean stood in their grim excuse for a kitchen and smiled at her before he made his way out the door again, briefly wondering if Connie got the same talk from his father about going outside. He smiled lightly to himself as he began to head towards the entrance. Of course Connie would get the same talk; his father was part of the military.
Stomping his way through the multitude of corridors, he found himself feeling a little nauseous. It wasn’t that he hadn’t been outside, or that he was worried of freezing to death like everyone expected them to whenever they left the safety of the underground. No, it was more like… excitement. Anticipation. Longing. The air underground was stale and musty, breathed too often – but out there it was fresh and new and different. Out there he was one step closer to what the world used to be like and he couldn’t wait to see it again, what little he could see within the dark.
As he walked he noticed how the air changed. It was crisp out here, far away from the compartments that the people lived in. The world outside pressed down, wanting in. Jean pressed on, forward, wanting out. His feet ended up moving on their own accord – past the large metal walls where great entrances had been carved in for the military to move their trucks, past the dim red lights that signaled to others the zone ahead was a danger, past the soldier on duty who merely nodded at him as he walked on. Before he knew it he was standing at the bottom of a 50-foot long ladder, reaching straight up as if straining for the outside just as Jean was. He couldn’t help but stand and stare at its enormity for a moment.
“You comin’, Kirschtein, or you gonna wait down there till we come back?” Naturally, up fifty feet, Connie leaned over a railing set to protect people – not encourage them to lean over – and grinned down at his friend. Jean reciprocated the smile and began the ascent, step by step, rung by rung, until he, too, was standing on top of the metal wall staring at a group of smiling faces.
“Nice of you to join us,” Sasha piped up, her hand reaching out, gesturing for Jean to take it. As he slipped his larger hand into her own, he couldn’t help but notice how much smaller she looked when wearing that oversized jacket to keep her warm.
“Everyone ready?” Connie asked.
Following a murmur of agreement, and a playful no that no one payed attention to, Connie nodded to one of the larger guys that Jean only knew vaguely as Reiner. The bulky blonde gripped at a metal door, smaller than the ones Jean passed on his way here, and heaved it open.
The air outside was like a slap in the face.
Sasha gripped at Jean’s hand as the wind howled at them, desperate to get inside. She giggled and bounced up and down, seemingly unaffected by the breath of life that had suddenly forced its way in through Jean’s lips, down his throat and even up his nose. He heard someone whoop, but couldn’t see whom – not because of the darkness, but because the draft of wind had forced him to close his eyes so they didn’t dry out.
Suddenly, he was pulled forward, towards the icy air outside. For a moment he panicked. The wind was too strong, too wild. His heart lunged into his throat and the tip of his nose was already numb – then it was still.
He stood, hand still gripping Sasha’s own, eyes closed, feeling the air, the chill of the atmosphere as it crept its way in, seeping through his skin, sinking into his bones. He feared that, if he opened his eyes, he might see frost decorating his hands, spiraling over him in fractured swirls and jagged flourishes of thin ice – beautiful and deadly.
“You okay, Jean?” Sasha spoke up, voice soft and contrasting to the harsh air. “C’mon, open your eyes.”
So he did.
It wasn’t any different to when his eyes were closed. In fact, he had to blink multiple times to make sure he had actually opened his eyes. The darkness consumed the land around them, gripped at Sasha and Connie and Reiner and all the others and probably even Jean. Suppressing a sigh, he wondered what else he had expected.
“That’s it, Jean,” Sasha said, smiling up at him, “You always get nervous when we step out, huh?”
“Can’t help it,” he replied.
Crunching footsteps turned both their attention to Connie, who was making his way over. “Eyes adjusted to the dark yet?” he asked, stopping next to Jean who shook his head.
“You know how he is,” Sasha spoke for Jean, “The stepping out gets him freaked.”
Rolling his eyes in an affectionate manner, Connie placed an arm around Jean’s shoulders, gesturing Sasha to do the same. Together the three of them began walking in the dark, closer to the voices of the others who had wandered and spread out around the area. “Well, now that you’re here, Jean, Sash, why don’t we…” The boy trailed off, looking around, then breaking their chain to step aside and pick up something white and fluffy off the ground. “Why don’t we have a snow skirmish?”
Immediately Sasha squealed a loud no! and began running in the opposite direction. Jean, whose reflexes were apparently not as good, stood still at the suggestion and took a snowball to the chest. With a yelp at the sudden attack, he sprung into action, heaving a handful of the white, crumbling ice into his palm and throwing it at whoever happened to walk past him at the time. Of course, it turned out to be Reiner, and Jean learned that the boy had a very strong overarm throw.
So the group continued to play like children in the snow. Nobody mentioned that the snow they were throwing around wasn’t actually snow, or that they would probably get in trouble if anyone associated with the military walked out right now and saw what they were doing with precious resources. The crisp white, feather-light ice that covered the ground was in fact oxygen that had frozen in the upper atmosphere and fallen back down to the ground as snow. The military had a whole sector dedicated to harvesting the snow, in order to manually heat it to the point of being breathable again for use underground.
Screams and squeals, yelps and wails, laughter and mirth rang out in the wide-open space above the earth. Those in their compartments underneath might have heard the merriment taking place above, as the teenagers had no intention of holding back in the same way they would have had to underground.
And so, when fatigue had caught up with them and their breaths came in short, rapid puffs of air that smudged the darkness around them with grey, they gathered back nearer to the entrance, laying down side by side in a large circle on the cold and hard ground. There were enough of them so that they were pushed together, warmth from each others bodies overcoming the cold around them.
There was a collective peace about them, apart from their breathing which was loud enough to cut through the atmosphere in such an open place. Jean wondered if perhaps they were admiring the sky in the same way he was.
It was a black sky, plain and constant, stretching out for miles and miles and miles above them. It was the same as it had been last year, the same as it would be the next. Next to him, Sasha reached out a hand towards it, fingers stretching as far as they could. A smile graced his features.
“Can you see them, Jean?” she asked him in a barely-there whisper. Had she meant to say it at all?
“See what?” he replied, looking over at the brunette laying beside him. Her eyes were closed. His smile faded into a frown and, confused, he looked back towards the sky. “See what, Sash?” he pressed. What could she see that he couldn’t? The silence that dragged on as he waited for an answer was agonizing.
Distress struck him briefly, eyes flittering back and forth, searching the skies for these unseen stars.
Looking back over at Sasha he noticed her closed eyes once again and it dawned on him that he most likely wasn’t the only one to dream of the light that used to be. Facing the sky again, Jean shut his eyes, and there they were. Stars.
“Yeah,” he breathed, answering her initial question, “I can see them.”
She laughed in his ear, sitting up and leaning over him to prod Connie, who lay on his other side. “What about you, Con? Can you imagine what the stars would look like?”
“I literally could not care less what the stars looked like, because in the dark I don’t have to deal with your ugly ass face,” he replied, clearly impressed by his own ability to transform his answer into an insult. Sasha threw her head back in bold laughter, unaffected, and Jean opened his eyes with a smile pulling at the corner of his lips.
They stared into the darkness as Connie began to explain how it was physically impossible for the light to return. Sasha countered that people used to think it was physically impossible for it to disappear in the first place. The two disputed back and forth, Jean only speaking up when one of them needed a statistic or back up.
“It would be nice to get a tan again, though,” Sasha sighed, leaning back down onto the ground.
“Sasha, we can barely tell what colour your skin is now, so it doesn’t even matter if you have a tan or not,” Connie retorted.
“Yeah, but Connie –”
“Both of you are big babies,” he sighed, as if the statement was a proven fact. “We literally have not seen any light in the last two centuries, so you might as well give up – holy shit –”
As if some higher power wanted to prove Connie wrong, the clear, dark sky suddenly split, lit up in a blaze of light. The group, never having been exposed to something so brilliant, had to cover their eyes. As Jean’s arm rose to shield his eyes, Connie’s head turned into the cold earth and Sasha shrieked at the sudden flash.
A livid crack had appeared in the continuity of things, as though someone had torn through the thick, velvet veil of the heavens, exposing the world. The tear made it’s way across the sky, cutting through the obscurity with it’s radiance, leaving behind it a glowing trail that faded and faded as it went.
Jean was desperate to see it, but if he moved his arm from his eyes the vivid light felt like a knife driven straight through to his brain. There was a dazzling stripe in the space behind his eyes that wouldn’t fade no matter how much he blinked.
The light fell and fell for what seemed like eons, but in reality was a mere few seconds. It landed the same way it had first carved through the sky, in a blaze of light so intense that Jean was left blinking, blind and trembling, even though his eyes were covered by the thickness of his jacket.
The cool air was tense with a deep fear that stretched over the teenagers who sat curled into balls and burrowed into each others sides. Hesitantly, Jean moved his arm from his eyes and stared out into the distance.
There was nothing.
Almost all at once profanities and shrieks of panic, words of fear and shuddering breaths were released into the space around them. Beside him, Connie scrambled to his feet and pulled Sasha up with him.
“We gotta – we gotta go. Now.” He gripped at Sasha’s jacket and began to march back to the entrance, the rest following behind him, murmuring. Sasha tried to resist, heaving back.
“But, what was that?” she asked as she broke free, stumbling back to where Jean was still seated. “Was it light, Connie? Was it light?” Her voice broke nervously as she asked, “Was it the sun?”
“Sash, Jean, c’mon.” With all the patience an eighteen year old boy could muster, Connie stepped forward to grab Sasha’s hand and lead her gently back towards the entrance. “We have to go tell someone.”
Jean turned to look back at them. Everywhere he looked the lustrous stripe hovered over his vision. He couldn’t bring himself to move; what if it happened again? What if the light came back? This was all he had ever hoped for, all he had ever wanted. His dreams were filled with images of something that could have or might have been light – could, might, possibly, maybe, perhaps – and now he had been given a chance to glimpse it! It had slid across the sky, just out of his reach, ablaze and glorious and wonderful, and he wasn’t even able to see it fully. Damn his eyes. Damn the darkness for making them that way.
“Jean, c’mon, let’s go!”
Squeezing his eyes shut, just to see the stripe once again, he hefted himself up from the earth and followed his friends back into the underground.
There and then gone.
As he climbed back down the ladder inside, he wondered if that was how humanity had felt all those years ago when the natural light first disappeared. There and then gone.
Once they were back underground, the teenagers spread in a flourish of running feet and shedding heavy-duty jackets and whispers of visions of light. Jean had run after Sasha and Connie who were going to find Connie’s father.
They stormed into the military compartment, Sasha and Connie breathless with news and Jean breathless in awe. The torrent of speech that flooded the ears of those on duty was enough to drown any man, yet when Connie’s father stepped into the room the three became silent, standing tall.
“What brings you kids here?” he asked, voice bleeding with authority and strength. Connie stepped forward to explain to his father what had happened. At some point during their account, the three had been offered a seat and were squished onto a couch together when the officer held up a hand to silence them. The same hand then fell to rub at his temples, as though it was difficult to absorb this information. “You are telling me,” he spoke slowly and gruffly, “That you saw light fall onto the earth?”
“Yes, sir,” Connie answered instantly. His father sighed deeply.
“Well, Connie, I appreciate you kids coming to let me know, but now it’s my job to inform you that just because the sun disappeared does not mean that we aren’t still floating around in space.” He stared sharply at each of them. “This means that earth will often experience asteroids, meteors, call them what you will. They still exist in the great unknown.”
“But, dad, it fell right on –”
“Connie, you listen to me when I’m speaking to you,” the officer scolded.
“These objects may come into our atmosphere and land on our earth, but by the time they reach the land they will be out cold, do you understand? There is no natural light accessible out there for us now.”
“But it fell on the earth, sir,” Jean spoke up, instantly earning looks of caution from both his friends. The officer pointedly looked at him; it wasn’t an encouragement to keep going, but he hadn’t been reprimanded yet. “Shouldn’t we – I mean, it’s light, you know? Shouldn’t we be out there, looking for it?”
“We have made it this far without light, Kirschtein, we certainly are no longer in need of it.”
“Have you seen a meteor before, sir?” Jean asked, not waiting for an answer before continuing, “It was – it was beautiful, sir, unlike anything I’ve ever seen and I think it’s worth –”
“Did you look directly at it?”
Jean was tempted to tell him the truth, to insist yes, I looked at it, and it’s burned into my vision and I want to see it again, but Connie frowned at him and shook his head lightly. Discouraged, Jean looked the officer in the eyes.
“No, sir,” he answered.
“Good. Light is bad for eyes like yours that have experienced only darkness. I suggest you all make your way home and forget about this incident, because that piece of shit rock from the sky is probably stone cold in a ditch right now. It certainly doesn’t care about you.” As the officer stood up, so did the three. Connie thanked him for his time before leading the way out into the corridors. They stood outside the door, silent.
“Glad that’s over,” Connie said, grinning at the other two and elbowing Jean in the side. Pushing away his arm, Jean agreed half-heartedly. “It was kind of cool though,” Connie continued, eyes darting back towards the door as if hoping his father wouldn’t hear. Sasha laughed gently, before linking arms with him and prompting him to begin walking. “We’ll see you tomorrow, huh, Jean?” Connie called as he walked away with Sasha. Jean raised a hand in goodbye, before turning to make his way to his compartment.
His mother greeted him warmly, asked him if he was hungry, if he had fun outside, whether or not he was cold – he should have taken his gloves. His father ruffled his hair as he walked past them and towards the stairs. The digital, twenty-four hour clock that was built into the wall blinked 2300. Everywhere he looked the gleaming stripe plastered itself over his vision. He fell asleep with a ribbon of glossy silver light fluttering through his mind and a longing for its light in his eyes.
Jean was seated, once again, on the cold dirt up above, in the world outside. The darkness was different this time – it was the same inky black that seemed to go on forever, but this time it held promise. Anticipation swelled in his stomach and his heart hammered against his chest. Any minute now, any second now.
When the glaring streak ripped through the sky this time, he was ready. Eyes wide open, drinking in the white-hot beam as it strained closer and closer and closer and closer and Jean sucked in a sharp breath when he realized the ray was reaching out towards him.
It was a hand, he noticed. A silver, glimmering hand, stretching out to Jean and asking him to take hold of it.
Without a second though he raised his arm and, leaning forward, reached for it. But he was leaning and still not touching it, for the light was too far. It was… It was teasing him. One second it shone bright, right at his fingertips, then the next it swirled away in streams of white threaded with gold. So Jean got to his feet and he ran towards the light, chasing the tail that danced ahead of him. After a while he noticed he wasn’t getting any closer, in fact, the light was melting slowly into the darkness around it.
Wait, he thought, attempting to run faster despite the crippling fatigue in his legs that was making them feel heavy. Wait for me, he called. But the light could not hear him. It faded into the dark, winking at him once last time before disappearing and leaving him surrounded by nothing.
Wait for me.
Jean awoke on the furthest side of his bed, arm outstretched as if reaching for something that wasn’t there. It was strange that even though he had been consumed by darkness all his life, one event could leave him so consumed by light. Flexing his fingers, he retracted his arm and curled it by his side. He let his eyes slide shut easily, hoping to see the imprint that the light had left on the inside of his eyelids. Disappointment welled in his chest when he found it was no longer there, when he found that clenching his eyes as tight as he could did not bring it back. Sighing heavily and running a hand through his two-toned hair, he despairingly stared at the complete and utter lack of light within his room and a longing overcame the disappointment that had settled in his chest. A longing that crawled under his skin and to the tips of his toes and compelled him to get out of his bed.
He had to find Connie and Sasha.
Pulling on a pair of clothes he hoped he hadn’t worn yesterday, Jean padded down the stairs and through the empty kitchen. The clock read 0900, indicating that both his parents would be working. Just as he was about to exit the compartment, his stomach growled at him. Turning on his heel, he quickly rummaged through the kitchen to find his bottle of vitamins.
Every year, the local doctor of each underground settlement would prescribe a specific style of tablet to every person that would be filled with all the necessary supplements for that individual to survive. Food wasn’t necessary when you had a super pill, although it was still encouraged. Inhaling two vitamins with a mouthful of water, he finally made it out the door.
Connie and Sasha, as expected, were in a common room with a group of some of the people who had climbed outside the day before and witnessed the light. They greeted Jean gladly when they noticed him making his way over. He wasted no time in telling them what was on his mind.
“We should go see the light,” he blurted out. The group stared at him incredulously. Connie’s eyebrows had climbed so far up his forehead Jean thought they had become part of his hairline.
“I don’t know if you remember what my dad said,” Connie started, breathing in deeply as though he was preparing to talk to a stubborn child, “But that light is going to be out. There is no point.”
“But get this, I had a dream about –”
“Oh, you had a dream,” Connie interrupted, deadpan. Sasha giggled, but hit his arm all the same.
“Let the boy speak,” she said.
“Well, I – I just want to go see it. I think that it still has a chance of being alight.” Although Sasha was smiling up at him from where she sat, he could tell that she was just as convinced as Connie. “Guys, c’mon,” he pressed, hands gesturing in the direction of the entrance, “Why not?” Yesterday, Sasha had been just as excited about the light as he had. She had seen the stars behind her eyes. Didn’t she want to see them out in front of her?
“It’s a really dumb idea, Jean,” Connie sighed, “I don’t wanna rain on your parade, but you’re going to go out there and search through miles and miles of dirt and snow and friggin’ cold just for a rock that might still be glowing? I don’t think so. Not to mention it’s bad for your health, or whatever.” Making a disappointed whine, Jean turned to Sasha with the hope that she would at least back him up. This time, she simply shrugged her shoulders.
“I’m sorry, Jean, but Connie’s right.” She pushed Connie when he exclaimed a loud yeah! “Even if you don’t want to listen to him, listen to his dad. Being that high on the military ladder has got to count for something, right?”
“I guess,” Jean mumbled in agreement, “I just wanted to, you know… I wanted to see a star.”
Sasha smiled sadly at him, and then she stood and took hold of his hand. “I know, Jean,” she murmured, leading him away from the group. “What do you say we visit the library and check out some of those books on space? We can look at all the stars and suns that you want!”
He couldn’t help but smile.
They spent half the day studying the solar system and the galaxies, exclaiming at pictures of stars that they had already seen before. Although Jean appreciated the gesture, none of the images made him feel the same sense of awe that the light outside did. None of them left an imprint on his mind, on his heart.
When he came home again in the evening, he explained to his mother that he was very tired and didn’t feel so well and needed to head to bed. She fussed, made him tea, and ran her hands through his hair in a comforting manner while he sat in bed drinking it. He fell into a restless sleep thinking about how pathetic he was.
Sometime during his slumber, when there was no noise downstairs and no hint of rest in his body, Jean found himself lying on his back staring at the blank, empty ceiling of his room. It reminded him of the night sky outside and he figured that if he were to see that sky right now, it would look identical. He lifted his arm up and with his index finger traced the path of the blaze of light, starting in one corner of the ceiling and moving down to the other in a fluid motion. If he thought hard enough, he could almost see the light as it traveled diagonally across the sky. The imprint in his mind was gone, but if he just thought…
Sitting up suddenly, Jean licked at his lips and swung his legs over the side of his bed. Before he knew it he had pulled on his boots, pulled on his oversized jacket and was creeping down the concrete stairs, past the clock that read 0200, towards the front door. Only as he walked through the corridors of the settlement, towards the entrance, did the gravity of what he was about to do hit him. He stumbled over his own feet, walking faster as to not loose heart. Every bone in his body screamed it wasn’t safe. The echo of the officer’s words bounced in his head. It was almost enough for him to just turn back and slide into bed and forget about this whole ordeal. But his problem lay in the fact that he couldn’t forget. Every time he closed his eyes we was desperate to see the light, he couldn’t just forget its brilliance.
Now, as he snuck past the guard on duty, who was most likely asleep, he could imagine the streak of light once again motioning him forward. He tried not to think as he climbed the ladder; tried to only visualize the light beckoning him. Before he knew it he was facing the metal door that separated the settlement from the outside. Swallowing audibly, he placed his hand on the lock, hissing at its chill.
That was all it took.
He breathed deeply and shut his eyes.
The air that grazed his face was so strong and so, so sweet.
Chapter 2: Stars From My Eyes
noun; the state of undergoing pain, distress, or hardship.
noun; doing something despite difficulty, opposition or delay in achieving success.
noun; a feeling of great excitement, happiness or elation.
A falling star fell from your heart and landed in my eyes,
I screamed aloud as it tore through them,
And now it’s left me blind.
– Florence and the Machine (Cosmic Love)
There was a sort of eerie charm surrounding this world of darkness.
The trees, for instance, stood grand and haunting. They were merely shadows of what they used to be, what with their leaves hanging limp, strangely still in the cold – except for when a sudden gust of wind jostled them about. Only then did they appear to hold the slightest hint of life. Foliage surrounding the trees was overgrown, stiff and dry, reaching out and crackling with every light breeze. Nature was what most missed the light, it seemed, not humankind; they had adapted, they had moved on. But mother nature’s dried out throat still held savage and raw cries for the sun, for a time when it’s beams had nurtured her and upheld her. The wind was her mournful sigh.
Jean found himself grieving with her as he trod along, snow and dirt and dried up vegetation crunching under his heavy boots. After he had overcome the strength of the wind at the entrance and actually managed to step out, he found the touch like a cool comfort. It gently pulled him along; at first it lead him closer to the forest of large, dead oak trees, and then once he found himself among the ominous trees, further and further into the ghost-like, chilling embrace of the woodland. He lamented the complete lack of colour. Everything out here was a deep green or navy blue or thundercloud grey, all smudged with a black haze he knew as darkness.
The older books in the library painted pictures of things called flowers – blossoms and daisies and roses. The images were there, filed away in his mind – or at least filed away in the part that longed for something more and dreamed of a better place.
Then there was the rational part of his mind. The part that noticed how hard it was to breathe because the oxygen was so thin; if he found it difficult to breathe, then what about the lovely little flowers? It was the part that absorbed the darkness and indicated that if there were light around here he would see it. That same part sent goose bumps over his skin, rising and falling in a wave of fear when his ears perceived a sound that wasn’t his. It was dangerous out here said logic, said his mother, said the military, said the whole earth.
Yet, for some unknown reason, Jean kept putting one foot in front of the other. The hopeful part of his mind tempted him with ethereal images from another time, another place – one where there were flowers and the air smelled sweet and the light shone down onto the earth and it flourished.
If this was his chance to grip that illusion and make it a reality, he couldn’t turn back… he just couldn’t. And so he wandered through the trees, in a straight line that he hoped was taking him further in; he could never be quite sure. Every tree looked the same in the dark, with their large limbs craning overhead. The sun wouldn’t come up, he knew, so Jean had no clue how long he had been wandering for. If the dull ache in his calves was any indication, it had been a while.
At some point he had given up trying to walk carefully around the trees and arid shrubbery, too frustrated to care about how they were crumpled under his heel. God only knew how far from the settlement he had travelled and he hadn’t even found a thing. His eyes were heavy, as were his limbs, when he paused in his meandering and sat down on the ground, stretching his legs out in front of him.
Leaning down onto the cold ground, Jean sighed heavily. There was something blocking his breath, he found, as he lay and tried to breathe steadily. Something caught in his throat, shaking the air inside him when he huffed it out through his lips. He knew what it was and tried to ignore it, sighing once more, but before he could stop himself it was wrenched from his throat – a rough, dismal sob, that echoed through the emptiness of the forest.
Crying aloud in anger as he slammed his fists on the ground, this is what he wondered: perhaps, he should have listened. Perhaps Connie and Sasha and their military official parents knew better than he did. Perhaps his bed, in his home, with his family, was where he should have stayed. It hurt to think like this. It hurt to accept what he thought, for sure, couldn’t be the truth.
There was nothing.
Jean lay on the ground for a few more minutes, before heaving himself up and brushing himself off. Beginning the trek back from where he came, he swallowed his pride and held his head up high, hoping that the path back home would be easy to find despite his exhaustion.
Later, after ambling for a time unknown, Jean began to notice a sort of blurriness to his vision; it was as though someone had wiped a dirty cloth on the clear surface of his eyes, smudging them with a murky grey. No matter how much he blinked, the smear seemed to stain the distance. Bringing the palm of his hands to his eyes, he pressed into his sockets and attempted to rub away the smudges. When that didn’t work, he clamped his eyes shut and continued marching on; it wasn’t as though doing that changed the scenery drastically. Opening his eyes once again, he found that the blur had increased. With a groan he realized that it was most likely fatigue – most of his body ached now and he had to have been missing for at least a couple of hours. His mother would be anxious when he arrived home tired out of his mind. That thought fuelled him to walk faster, tripping over roots and stumbling over his own feet as he continued to try and rub the fuzziness away.
Time passed and he began to wonder if the haze ahead was a search party. He had probably been gone for far longer than he realized. His mother had most likely already found his empty bed, gone to Connie and Sasha who would have told her his longing to see the light outside, which would have prompted them to find the General and fuck, everyone would be in a craze if they knew he was out here. Jean stumbled towards them in a stupor – they didn’t need to bring so much light and waste such a precious resource for him!
He froze, feet solid and still on the earth, heart hammering forcefully against his chest.
They wouldn’t, the rational part of his mind chanted. The common people didn’t have access to that much light and there was no way the military would get involved if he hadn’t even been missing for more than twenty-four hours. His fingers began to tremble, ever so slightly. If it wasn’t them – if the rational part of his mind recognized that it couldn’t be them, then who?
His body broke out in minute tremors as he stood, rooted to the spot. This is where the figurative part of his mind stood alert – light, light, light – and compelled him forward with enticements of what could be in the beyond – light, light, light – and forced his feet to start moving once again, leaving the breath within him behind – light, light, light. The horizon glowed with a shimmering shade of silver and as Jean walked closer and closer it grew brighter and brighter, till there was no mistake of what it could be. The stuttering beat of his heart hummed light, light, light.
There was a smile pulling at his lips as he pushed on. Despite the anxiety twisting in his stomach like a knot, despite the hands at his sides that had curled into tight fists so that he could feel the moisture beading on his palms, despite how hard he had to concentrate to keep his knees from buckling under the weight of his body – there was a smile on his face.
How long had he waited for this? How far had he dreamed? How much had he yearned for the smallest hint?
A mix of fear and excitement swelled in his chest and propelled him forward faster; the feeling surged through his veins and crawled over his skin. Suddenly, he was running, aching legs forgotten, body covered in a layer of goose bumps that rose in anticipation. Fuck the military – fuck Connie’s dad and all those other military officials and scientists and teachers who said it wasn’t possible.
Jean Kirschtein was going to find the light.
He began to notice, as he ran, a dull pain in his eyes. The closer he came to the glow of light in the distance, the more he had to squint his eyes shut. It hurt, he realized. And not the kind of pain he felt earlier when the thought of giving up had nearly swallowed him whole – a physical pain, a pain that had his hands curling into fists to rub at his eyes in hopes of relieving them even a little. It didn’t. He had to slow down because he couldn’t see, what with the dryness of his eyes and the sharp pain whenever he looked directly at the light.
It was uncomfortable, unpleasant, and the pain intensified the closer he got.
It was the darkness, he supposed. Living in the darkness all his life, never having seen even an allusion of light, had forced his eyes to evolved into something more feline – better and heightened in the dark. Now, as he struggled to look ahead at the light, he became less aware of his surroundings. If the darkness enhanced his eyesight, then the light surely weakened it. His ears perceived only a low hum; his breath was ragged from weariness; his sense of smell was dull. He was aware of nothing except the glowing light ahead.
Yes, it hurt, every time he blinked a blanket of fire was spread over his eyes, but Jean had never felt something like this before and no matter how much damage it did, he wanted to experience it. He wanted to feel the heat on his eyes, on his skin, he longed for it. So he walked closer and closer, until he was standing at the edge of a clearing. Here, the light was so bright he was left blinking rapidly, so much so that he barely even had his eyes open at all. He stood staring, breathing in light, breathing out awe and laughing aloud to himself disbelief.
He found it.
The light sat directly in the heart of a small clearing, barely large enough to hold a small compartment, surrounded by the same tall, lifeless trees and wilting shrubbery Jean had seen everywhere else. Its impact must have been strong, he noticed, as it was situated in the centre of what appeared to be a shallow, but wide, crater in the ground. There was no thin layer of oxygen snow surrounding the lustrous orb and the ground around it appeared damp.
Admiring it with burning eyes until he gathered enough confidence, Jean took a hesitant step towards it. Nothing happened, except the intensity on his eyes seemed to increase, pushing through to the back of his head and causing it to throb in slow, dull aches. If he wanted to get closer, he would simply have to withstand it. It was a small price to pay, he thought, for the opportunity to experience something he had yearned for all his life.
Step by step, he got closer to the border of the great pit in the ground, where the light washed its slightly slanting walls in streaks of silver and gold and copper, covered by the cloud of blazing white that had drawn him here in the first place.
A few more steps and Jean found himself seated at the edge of the crater, eyes glued to the effervescent orb of light way out in the middle of it. It pulsed in waves of dim light, bright light, dim light, bright light and Jean couldn’t look away, spellbound. His eyes stung; they were so dry that every time he blinked the friction seared the space behind his eyelids, where the image of the light was stamped in splotches of purple and yellow and green. Yet, he couldn’t – wouldn’t – tear them away. If this was his only chance, if this was real, he had to drink it all in now – every last gorgeous, agonizing drop of it. Before this, he had been parched; but now, he had never felt so full and satisfied.
How long had he been sitting there? The idea of time, of family, of settlement, of safety – these were distant memories, threads of what used to be, tied to the tips of his fingers and coaxing him home. But the light was so much stronger than the taught string of his life, and it was there, right there.
The more he stared, really, really stared, at the brilliant glow, the more it came to his attention that he could make out shapes. At first, they were just lines of nothing, stretching out in different directions with no meaning. Then he started to notice sharp curves and smooth arches, but not before he rubbed at his eyes to make sure they weren’t faltering. He wouldn’t have been surprised.
So he stared.
He stared and stared and stared, till he could no longer blink out of pain and the crater’s surroundings were absorbed by the darkness and all he could see was the light and the shapes it held. The soft arcs that melted into long and lean sweeps, curled around large bends, gripping with slim and sturdy strokes. In his slightly delusional state, he allowed himself to connect the shapes as another being. A neck that lead to lean arms, curled around a pair of knees and gripping with wiry fingers.
He stared and stared and stared, till his eyes began to water out of a necessity to keep functioning and looking at the bright light hurt less and less with every passing moment. Perhaps he was hallucinating, but he could imagine a mop of dark hair, framing the contours of a face – eyes like his, a nose, even plump lips – and he smiled, going as far as visualising collarbones and elbows.
Blinking languidly, due to a dull ache that resonated through his head every time he did so, Jean smiled softly and leaned his head on a hand that was situated on his knee.
It was a person he envisioned – a boy. A young boy curled up into a foetal position, sitting upright, surrounded in a blaze of light. Jean wondered if, maybe, he was seeing himself.
Then the boy looked up.
With a blatant cry of agony, Jean’s arms sprung up to cradle his head as he curled in on himself, eyes watering more than ever as he clenched them shut, hissing through his teeth to prevent himself from screaming aloud. It was too fucking bright. His eyes had barely adjusted to the blazing ball of light when all of a sudden –
All of a sudden what?
Had it exploded? Was it still there?
Any futile attempt at opening his eyes had him clamping them shut again rapidly, gritting his teeth and clenching his jaw in hopes of taking his mind away from the searing pain in his eyes. But he had to look. He had to look. He had just found the light. What if it disappeared?
Straining more than he ever had in all eighteen years of his pathetic, yearning life, Jean pried his eyes open into thin slits. What if he had to start from the beginning, if he had to sit and stare until his weak eyes adjusted to the rich light once more? Jean breathed in deeply, hands reaching up to rub at his face, at his aching eyes.
Of course he would.
As it happened, his eyes were slightly more prepared this time and Jean didn’t have to wait for what seemed like eons to open his eyes fully again. They had, naturally, begun to dry out once more, but he blinked vigorously and managed to prevent them from withering completely. It still took a while, like he had expected, for his eyes to adjust again. When he could finally look at the brilliance ahead of him, all he saw was a vivid glow. No shapes. No features. No boy. But as he sat and his eyes habituated, the curves melted into view again, right at the heart of the light; they were followed by body parts and floppy hair and, this time, two dark eyes, wide and earthy and contrasting against the glossy light.
Jean was taken aback, a frown evident on his face as his eyes examined the person sitting in the centre of the crater, bathed in glorious light and gazing right back at him. The discomfort in his eyes did not disappear, but instead was overlooked for something new: an overwhelming sense of wonder at the splendour of this glowing boy. He would have endured anything, anything, for a single glimpse at someone so beautiful.
The first thing that struck him was the multitude of shimmering stars dappled on the skin of his face. They were everywhere, golden and clustered together over his nose, lining up along his brow, dripping down to pool in the philtrum above his lips. Jean’s heart wavered and his eyes stung with tears that threatened to spill.
“Stars,” he breathed, a grin pulling at his trembling lips. Every breath that he exhaled shook with exhilaration. Oh, how he had dreamed and imagined and read and studied and craved their glittering whirls of light. He laughed breathless joy at his discovery.
The stars continued over the boy’s body, trickling down his neck and gathering on his shoulders, crawling their way down his arms to the very tips of his fingers.
A moment ago, the only thing that fuelled Jean on was the mere thought of such scintillance… Now here it was, twinkling out in front of him. Stars. How had he found so many of them? They were ethereal, just like the boy who held them on his skin.
After his stinging, ochre eyes swept over every inch of the boy’s skin, admiring each individual star, Jean noticed that he was unclothed. Alarmed, his eyes widened, then shut quickly when that proved unpleasant, and then tentatively opened again to find the umber brown gaze of the boy still on him.
The illuminated eyes were just as beautiful as the stars, Jean decided. All his life he had dreamed of stars and suns and moons – and he had found the stars – but these eyes were something he had never known he desired to see. They weren’t like anything found within the pages of books in the library. They were rich and held a sort of darkness Jean found tempting, rather than consuming; like the coffee he found his parents drinking in the morning, lavish and bronzed with light foamy edges, smooth and gleaming with a sheen of light as though someone had polished the surface.
As he stared into the whirlpool of the mesmerizing eyes, reminiscent of a great void in space, drawing Jean in, his mind slowly thawed from its previous state of numb and frozen shock. The wind gently caressed his bare arms and his hair stood on end. Drawing his knees up to his chest and wrapping his arms around them, mirroring the boy in the light, he noticed his oversized jacket cast on the ground next to him and wondered why the boy wasn’t cold with his bare skin, sitting on the cold earth.
The realization hit him almost as hard at the light had when he had first seen it in its pure and unapologetic glory. His jacket was on the ground beside him. Not on him. A panic rose sharply in his throat and his first thought was mum is going to kill me. He promptly wondered why he wasn’t already frozen and dead. Only then did he notice.
He was warm.
The air caught in his throat as it dawned on him. This feeling on his pale skin, something he hadn’t ever truly felt before, something he could only grasp an illusion of – warmth. A tide of goose bumps inched over his skin, prompting him to smile feebly. Warmth. Not some desperate attempt at it with underground geothermal stations or extra heavy-duty coats with three layers. Not a yearning dream where sunbeams reached down to touch his face and he felt nothing, but a legitimate warmth that had spread across his body when he had been too busy blinking pain out of his dry eyes and unthinkingly pulled off his life-saving jacket and made him sweat. He was sweating, holy shit.
Looking back at the boy, he laughed aloud, not before recoiling at the brilliant light again. His frenzied laughter echoed through the forest, amplified by the crater he sat on the border of.
Jean Kirschtein had found the light. He had seen a star – fuck that, he had seen a galaxy on the skin of this blazing boy. He had felt the warmth. He was sweating.
His laughter softened as he continued to look at the boy, eyes now partially accustomed to the lush glow. And as he stared, his smile softened into something pleased and lopsided. He had never felt so good in his woeful eighteen years. Even the thought that he might be actually dead had crossed his mind briefly – he had never known a feeling like this, so clearly it wasn’t meant for this world and he was dead, dreaming about boys with bronze, sun tanned skin that was speckled with golden stars and phantom feelings of warmth washing over him.
But it had to be real. It had to be. The pain he had endured for this glimmer of hope, that was real at least. If that was real, so was this. He breathed out relief and blinked at the boy, content and relaxed.
And then the boy blinked back at him.
Jean raised a brow in curiosity.
“You just gonna keep staring at me?” the boy spoke up suddenly.
Hit with an unexpected bolt of astonishment and disbelief, Jean jerked far too quickly and found his feet slipping on the edge of the crater, stumbling on the loose stone and damp earth and his body experienced a pull down onto the ground with a hard grunt. With an arm wrapped around his head to protect himself, and his stinging eyes, he rolled down the vaguely sloped walls of the shallow pit with a clenched jaw and his heart in his throat. When he landed, he wheezed a string of creative profanities and curled up into a ball, concentrating on breathing slowly. Someone whispered a soft whoa behind him.
A moment of silence followed, in which Jean attempted to lie completely still, hoping that the pangs of pain over his body and slow roasting of his eyes would die down.
“Are you okay?”
Rasping out a quiet yeah, Jean nodded his head slowly from where he was lying on the ground. “I just need,” he puffed, “I need a minute.” It did indeed take him a minute, a few of them, before he was able to heave himself up off the ground, turning his head to see if the light was still there – he stopped himself in that thought, he had to see if the boy was still there. The boy and the light, they were the same thing, weren’t they? After he managed to sit upright, he crawled backwards so that he was sitting at the foot of the crater’s wall, directly facing the lustrous sphere of light that held the boy.
The boy stared at Jean, and he stared right back.
“So,” he breathed out, nervously, “What, uh, what are you?” The boy frowned, tilted his head to the side in confusion, like he thought Jean should know because it was the simplest thing in the world.
“I’m a star,” he said, pointing towards the sky in explanation. When he looked up, however, and noticed the endless inky black sky above them his face fell. “Where are the rest of them?” he asked, looking back at Jean, “Where are the other stars?” This time, it was Jean’s turn to be puzzled. There never were any other stars.
After pausing for a moment, he gestured with a hand in the general direction of the boy, and answered with a small smile, “Looks like you stole them all.” Apparently the boy didn’t understand the humour, frown deepening, and Jean’s smile faltered. “The stars, I mean,” he attempted to clarify, “They’re all on your skin.”
A smile parted the plump lips of the boy and his smile was like a beam, or perhaps more like a knife, cutting straight through Jean’s eyes. He had to squint them in order to look at the light radiating off the star.
“These aren’t stars,” he huffed, amusement hanging on the edge of his voice, “They’re freckles. You’ve never seen freckles before?” He raised a brow, one of his cheeks dimpling as his smile rose in a corner, crooked. Jean muttered a soft oh, before raising a hand in front of his face to search for freckles on his own pale skin. As it happened, he too had little stars on his arms, scattered scarcely as opposed to the boy’s multitude of freckles. He had never noticed them till now; it had been too dark to make them out.
“So – so you’re a star,” Jean repeated. It had never occurred to him that stars could be – well, could be people. The books never depicted them so; they were always described as flaming hot globes of gas, not beings. The boy nodded in response to Jean. Not knowing what else to say, the two sat in silence.
They were the mirror image of each other, but perhaps inverted – one sat bathed in light, yet enclosed in an unaccustomed darkness; the other was consumed by darkness, yet surrounded by a dearly longed for light. Polar opposites. Jean’s eyes had started to wander about the crater and clearing, too embarrassed to look directly at the light now that he knew it was another person.
“Marco,” the boy spoke up again. His voice was quiet and smooth, soft like the glow of his light. He wasn’t looking at Jean when he turned to stare at him once again; apparently the star had become relatively interested in his bare knees.
“Marco?” Jean asked; the boy looked up now. “That your name?”
“Oh – oh, okay,” Jean raised an arm to scratch at the back of his head. He had never had to introduce himself to anyone back in the settlement; it was a fairly small place and everyone already knew each other. “Well, I’m – I’m Jean. Jean Kirschtein.”
“S’a funny name,” Marco commented.
Jean frowned, offended, “You can’t say that, you’re a – you’re a star. With a name.”
“All stars have names.”
It was true. They always had names in the books Jean read. He had been bested by someone who was not even of this world. “Touché,” he sighed.
“So, what are you, Jean?” Marco asked him. Jean screwed his nose up and grinned broadly. Now that was something he never thought he would have to answer.
“I’m Jean,” he answered, with a huff of laughter.
“No – I mean, what are you?” Marco repeated, rolling his eyes, “I’m a star and you’re a… what? You’re a forest sprite?” The laughter that trickled from Jean’s lips couldn’t be helped; he had never heard something so absurd. Marco looked pleased with himself, smiling brightly – Jean couldn’t know if it was out of joy or just because he was a star, and everything he did shone brilliantly – as the noise echoed through the clearing. “Seriously, a sprite? You just appeared out of no where from the trees.”
“No, I’m not a sprite,” Jean replied, staring down at his hands, unable to control his brazen grin. “I’m just,” he paused to wave his hand in the air vaguely, “I’m just a human.”
“Just a human,” Marco echoed and Jean nodded solemnly, as though being a human was such a miserable thing. He knew one thing for sure: it was worse than being a star. At least Marco got to look at light. The thought that the star sitting in front of him might have actually seen the sun had his heart pounding against his ribcage, resonating through his bones; Jean was insanely jealous.
“Where did you come from, Marco?” Jean asked suddenly, wondering if maybe he could inquire about the sun.
“Well, I – I thought –” Marco’s lips parted in an inaudible sigh as he looked directly above them into the dark sky, exposing his throat which Jean noticed also was peppered with stars – freckles, whatever. “I thought I came from there,” he unwrapped an arm from around his knees to point up into the abyss of the heavens, “But there’s nothing there.” Marco stared at the sky for a while and Jean let him. He figured Marco felt like him when he had first seen the haze of light in the distance – confused, curious, perhaps even excited. As he looked back down, the star’s dark eyes sought Jean’s own with a sombre look. “Where has it gone? The light?”
Rubbing at his slowly frying eyes, Jean huffed humourlessly and a sad smile pulled up the corners of his lips. All those library books borrowed, kept too long and read twice, three times, till they had scribbles in the margins and the librarian would stop letting him take them home. All that information absorbed and retained for dreams where another world existed and it shone with all the possibilities inscribed on the pages of those old books. All that knowledge of history and how they came to be in this dark and cold world – and he had to share it with a star.
One day, he had thought, one day all this reading would prove rewarding. But not in this way.
So Jean recounted the story he had read about the The Last Day of Light, along with the fear and confusion that came with it. He lowered himself slowly onto the sloped wall of the crater so he could stare at the unlit sky, the black cloak of endless darkness, and described the complete and utter mess the world had been without the light. The Era of Bedlam, of Solutions, of Peace and Sustainability – he described every last drop of detail puddled in his mind.
Then, when the story of the world had reached the present time, Jean told Marco of his longing. Of his dreams that featured glittering stars like him; of his visions that painted rays of sunlight over the horizons; of his imagination, not strong enough to create an image of light quite as magnificent as Marco was.
Looking back at Marco proved difficult again. After staring at the dark sky while telling his story, his eyes seared at the rediscovered brilliance radiating from the star. A tear crawled its way down his cheek as he looked at Marco, who was trembling slightly where he sat. The corners of his mouth were drawn down and his lower lip stuck out faintly, like a rose petal Jean had seen once in a book.
“Are you cold, Marco?” he asked, indicating to his quivering shoulders.
“I’m sad,” Marco whispered back with an unsteady voice.
Of course he was upset. The lights in the sky were probably his brothers and sisters, or his friends at least. Knowing that they had all just vanished one day was grave news, especially since Jean couldn’t tell him where they went.
With his brow knitting together in an expression of understanding, Jean hefted himself up off the ground and attempted to clamber back up the inclination he was previously leaning again.
“Wait,” Marco called, “Where are you going?”
With his back turned to the light, facing the dark expanse of the forest, it was hard for Jean to make out his surroundings. His eyes had attempted to adjust to the brightness, so now all he could see was white wherever he looked. Still, he managed to pat the ground around him, till his hands gripped on a large lump of material he knew as his jacket. A small smile lit up his face and he squinted his eyes in preparation for turning back towards the light. Although it was less painful this time, he was right to squint. It still wasn’t pleasant. But it was worth it, all the same.
“Here.” Clambering back down into the hollow crater, a little more gracefully this time, Jean stepped hesitantly towards Marco. “It’s my jacket, but you can put it on, since you’re – well, since you don’t actually have any clothes on,” he explained, reaching out the arm that held the item of clothing, the jacket held by the very tips of his fingers and his face turned slightly away due to the intensity of light and heat in this meter-wide vicinity around Marco. Jean wondered if this was what it would feel like working inside the core of the settlement, at the geothermal station – wave after wave of intense heat, rolling over your skin.
“What do I do with it?” the star asked him. Jean could hear the bewilderment in his voice. It was endearing and also very frightening – he had never once in his life expected to have to teach the light how to dress itself.
“You – you put it on.”
Jean stepped away from Marco; the rustling and crackling sound of multiple insulated layers resonated behind him as he walked over to his previous position and sat down with his eyes closed in hopes of providing the boy with as much privacy as he could out here in the middle of a crater, in the middle of a clearing, in the middle of nowhere.
“You done?” he called after a moment. The sound of a zip split through the quiet.
“I think so,” Marco answered meekly.
When Jean cracked an eye open slightly, he had to laugh aloud. At least he had put it on correctly. The jacket, however, sat stiffly on the star, who now stood with his arms out by his sides. It hung low enough to cover most of him, or at least the parts that needed to be covered (unless stars didn’t have those?), but Marco’s legs stuck out like two rays of light.
“Well, I mean,” Jean snorted, struggling to hold in his laughter, “At least it fits, right?”
“You’re the one who made me wear it, so you can’t laugh!”
“I’m sorry Marco, you look –”
“Did you head that?”
Jean instantly stopped laughing. A smile still lingered hesitantly on his face as he scanned as much of the surrounding area as he could. There really wasn’t much to see when most of his vision was whitewashed from staring at Marco too long. “Hear what?”
Marco frowned, raising his hand in a hushing manner. He had been staring into the distance somewhere behind Jean, lips parted, eyes narrowed in concentration, stars on his skin glittering prettily.
“Marco, don’t worry, there’s nothing out –” And then Jean heard it too. A faint, faraway echo that wouldn’t have been audible any other time in history except this one, because of the lack of noise pollution in the atmosphere during this era. The air was crystal clear, free of noise, free of light, and so anything travelled far and fast. With a nauseating feeling rising up in his body, Jean began to climb back up out of the crater. “Marco, get down,” he whispered. Making his way to the edge of the clearing, the light behind him appeared to follow. “I said, get down!” Jean hissed imploringly, crouching as he turned back to Marco with a frantic look on his face.
“You’re leaving,” Marco replied, “Please don’t leave me here.”
“Can’t you hear them? They’re calling my name!” As if on cue, another voice bellowed out through the forest: Jean!With a whine, Jean turned back to Marco, insides pinching as he was met with the star’s distraught face. “I gotta go,” he told him, “I gotta go now, Marco, or else they’ll come here and find you.”
“Please,” Marco insisted, shaking his head furiously, padding to the edge of his crater with bare feet, “Don’t.” Jean growled at him, arm raised, hand extended out with his palm flat in a warning sign to stop.
“Stop it. Don’t come any closer,” he pleaded, “I saw your light from miles away, Marco. What if they see it too?”
“I don’t care, just don’t leave me here alone!”
“What are you so scared of?” Jean taunted.
Silence followed the question as Marco flinched at the harshness in Jean’s voice. His brow was still pulled together, now less of a frown and more of a look of despair. With his shoulders slumped in the stiff, heavy-duty jacket, and his eyes downcast so that his eyelashes fanned out across his cheeks, contrasting against his shining skin, he answered meekly.
“I’m scared of the dark.”
Then it was Jean’s turn to be silenced. That, he understood. Darkness was no friend of Marco’s, like it was no friend of his. The darkness consumed and absorbed every ounce of sunlight and stardust, enchantment and prosperity; it represented the sombreness of silence, the absence of courage, of dreams. It was everything that Marco wasn’t.
“Marco, I –”
Another voice crawled its way through the trees to their clearing.
“I have to go,” Jean breathed, fingers fiddling the hem of his t-shirt nervously. “But I’ll – I’ll be back, okay?” he promised, “Don’t worry, I’ve been in the dark all my life. It’s not that bad.” Marco looked up at him, a different sort of anxiety framing his features. Or was that pity?
“That’s really sad, Jean,” Marco said quietly.
It was what it was. With a great gulp of air, Jean stomped through a bramble of dry leaves and thorns, as though heading back into the real world was going to be like being immersed in water. Well, essentially it would be like drowning – a sort of drowning he knew all too well and he had just left Marco to experience also. Darkness.
Oh, how every bone in his body ached to turn around, to go back to the light. He had barely walked half a mile when the cold had curled its icy fingers around his bare arms, his neck, caressed his cheeks, sunk its claws into his skin and bled through to his very bones. The light had imprinted itself into his vision, so wherever he looked, there was a sheen of bright white over the shadows around him. It made it hard to see further away, but he could still hear his name being called and he followed his ears rather than his eyes. Now that he had turned away, now that he was stumbling over roots and dead foliage because he couldn’t see, it hit him how eager he was to go back. The darkness was too much – if he just turned back now, he would be back within the warmth and golden light Marco radiated in no time. If he just –
Sasha? What was Sasha doing all the way out here? Opening his mouth to ask was not an option at this point, what with his teeth chattering so fast that perhaps they might fuse the hinges of his jaw together and then his mouth would be rigid for the rest of his life. What a thought. She wasted no time in throwing her arms around Jean. Other times he would have wriggled out of her embrace, but this attack of affection was all he had for warmth in that moment, so he simply relaxed in her arms until someone came along with an extra heavy-duty, heavy-duty jacket. This one had at least twice the amount of insulation. Jean looked three times his usual width. Despite his gratefulness, his first thought was it’s not as warm as Marco.
Still, he didn’t regret giving his jacket to Marco. The thought of how strange he looked wearing it placed a shaky smile on his face.
“Where’ve you been?” Sasha asked him, poking her head through a bunch of medics who had surrounded him and were checking his temperature and heart rate and asking him questions like what date did the Last Day of Light occur? “We’ve been looking for you everywhere! Well, not really, there’s only so much we can do out here. You’re lucky Connie and his dad didn’t find you first, they are both so angry, I can’t wait to see what excuse you give them!”
She was forced aside when someone told her to stop talking so much and to let Jean rest, he was currently experiencing hypothermia. After a few more questions – things like where had his jacket gone, how long did he think he had been out here, was he here on his own – two more shapes entered the vicinity turned miniature medial station. Jean swore aloud when he noticed it was Connie and his military official father.
“Fuck indeed, son,” the officer barked, “And also, what the fuck where you thinking?”
“Dad, please,” Connie spoke up softly.
“The day that I warn you not to step outside the settlement and go looking for a piece of shit that wasn’t worth your time, what do you decide to do? You go and fucking look for it. Why? Are you better than the rest of us, Kirschtein? Perhaps higher up on the military ladder than me?” With a growl, the officer’s hand rose to rub at his face, then through his short-cropped hair. He was quiet for a moment; someone suggested they began the hike back to the settlement to talk business underground, where it was safe and warm. The officer silenced them with a look, before pointing his glare back at Jean. “So,” he resumed, “Did you find what you wanted?”
I did, officer. That piece of shit rock? It’s the most beautiful thing you would have ever had the honour of laying your eyes on. After years upon years of dreaming of a possibility, of reaching into the darkness for something you thought wasn’t there – I found it. And fuck if he wasn’t the most gorgeous thing. With stars on his skin. Stars on the skin of a star. Imagine that.
Perhaps in another life, where Jean wasn’t quite so afraid of Connie’s father and his power; where he was courageous and determined; where his jaw wasn’t probably frozen into place. Maybe then he would have voiced those thoughts, attempted to describe the warmth, and the glorious, horrible burning in his eyes when he looked at the light.
But that was another life. And this was Jean’s life.
“No, sir,” Jean said, as firmly as he could. The officer raised an eyebrow. For a moment, Jean risked looking beyond the official and into the distance where he thought Marco would be. When he looked back up, Connie’s father had also turned around to stare in the same place Jean had been looking. Fear gripped his throat and he must have squeaked, because the officer turned back to attention. “You were right,” Jean continued, “There’s nothing.” In that moment he prayed to every, and any, known deity out in the ether that Marco wouldn’t hear his next works. “There’s no such thing as light.”
Connie’s father smirked. He didn’t need to say I told you so, the words were written all over his face – in the folds of his skin, the sharp line of his nose, the curled corner of his lips. “Pack up,” he hollered to those standing around him, still sneering at Jean, “We’re heading home.”
Jean had been ushered into the medical compartment of the settlement as soon as they had entered safety once again. His family had been notified and his mother wasted no time in rushing to his bedside as though perhaps he were dying and not just experiencing a common case of hypothermia, typical for those who spent time up above. A nurse commented on his quivering fingers and his dry eyes, which was noticeable because of the lack of blinking he was currently doing. She then brought out an incredibly dim light and began a PERRLAto check for problems with his eyes or head trauma, remarking that the reason Jean’s pupils weren’t reacting correctly was probably due to shock.
He didn’t have the heart to tell her the light didn’t bother him in the slightest after what he had seen.
His mother had taken him home after a few hours. Now he lay in his own bed and counted each of his breaths consciously, one after another, as his chest rose and the stale air gathered in his lungs, poised for a moment till it hurt, then blew out in a torrent. The thoughts in his mind followed a similar pattern; his mind gathered and held them until they ached, then the pull of his heart drew them apart and sent them rushing down through his nerves with such vigour that he had to laugh aloud to himself, alone in his room.
The thoughts went as follows: Jean fucking Kirschtein had found the light. His eyes were most likely damaged from the intensely burnished cloud of light he had been staring at for the better part of the night, but he found it. Nothing would stop the electricity buzzing through his veins at that thought. The light had been a boy – a star – his age, perhaps, with dark hair and even darker eyes, but glowing silvery skin speckled with flecks of gold.
But then there was his last thought.
This thought was the worst, because he was reminded of it every time he blinked.
In the endless void behind his eyes – the same one that previously held promises of winking stars and vivid moonshine, of sunsets with colours unimagined and the saccharine fragrance of flowers represented in a floating cloud of purple and burgundy air – he saw Marco’s face painted in fervent maroons, haloed by florescent yellows, dusted in a sickly shade of green. The light of his face was dulled when Jean kept his eyes open long enough and stared into the darkness of his room, but as soon as he shut his eyes, as if an unseen hand were rubbing the grimy back of his eyes with a cloth, the image brightened, flared, and the blinding light shone through.
A bruise, indented into his mind – Marco’s pleading, frantic, dangerously beautiful, glowing face.
“I’ll go back,” Jean whispered to the dark. That look was not what he wanted to remember the light by, not when there were so many other marvellous things about the encounter. The brilliance of the light, the crippling ache in his eyes, the shock when the star first spoke, the laughter and conversation that followed, the dazzling smile Marco had given him. Those were the things he wanted to remember, the things that made wondering out in the cold for hours on end worth it.
“I will, Marco,” he breathed into the swamping silence of his home, “I’ll go back.”
Jean shut his eyes and Marco stared back at him, heartbroken and sombre.
He would go back to see the light again.
If you’re reading this, thank you dearly for stopping by, and I hope you enjoyed reading chapter two just as much as I loved writing it. Tune in next fortnight to watch friendship blossom before your very eyes, in spite of the darkness. :)))))))))))
(wow so cheesy wow)
Chapter 3: Taste of a Heavenly Rush
noun; the capacity to accept delay, problems, or suffering without becoming anxious.
noun; the act of forgiving; state of being forgiven.
noun; a feeling of amazement and admiration, caused by something beautiful or remarkable.
I was looking for a breath of life,
A little touch of heavenly light,
But all the choirs in my head sang no.
To get a dream of life again,
A little vision of the sun in the end,
But all the choirs in my head sang no.
– Florence and the Machine (Breath of Life)
Curious things began to happen to him. Things like the rapid increase of his heart rate whenever anyone brought out even the dimmest light; this was accompanied by a mischievous, irrepressible grin that he had to turn away to hide. The people in the settlement had no idea. That rare sight of an illuminated source meant nothing to Jean and what he had seen couldn’t compare. More often than not he would wake up drenched in sweat. Sweat. He had never sweated a day in his life before he found the star and discovered its warmth – now he was simply dreaming of it and the mere thought of the glorious and luxurious feeling, like a soft coat wrapped around his shoulders, made him sweat out of anticipation and desire. His fingers had begun to shake whenever he read books about space. Sasha noticed it first, his trembling digits as they stretched out to caress the worn pages of whatever he had in his hands at the time. He had laughed it off as a side effect of his “shock” – that’s what the nurses were calling it whenever his mother asked them about another symptom he had from that night: headaches, quivering limbs, blurred vision, the sweating, the increased need to read books about stars and aloof grins as he stared into distance at the table while they ate.
Not satisfied with their explanation, he had even tried to read about his symptoms to diagnose himself in hopes of calming his fretting mother. The results: hypoglycaemia, extreme fatigue, generalized anxiety. Another less medical, and more informal, book he had read suggested he was in love. Jean had scoffed at the idea. The “shock” proposition sounded more likely than that.
Perhaps to them, to the nurses, to his mother and his friends, that’s all it was and all it could be: shock. A medical condition in which the organs and tissues within his body weren’t receiving an adequate flow of blood, damaging his systems and depriving his lowly mortal body of necessary functions. And in some way they were right. The radiant, gleaming face of Marco, with his twinkling stars and spellbinding, abyss eyes, had stunned him. It had struck Jean, like a bolt of lightning right at his core, and then it spiralled out of control across his body in brilliant silver branches. Jean was dumbstruck, senseless, out of his body and somewhere deep inside the forest where Marco probably sat alone and scared.
So, no, it wasn’t shock. It was that longing again. The same one he had come to know fondly after eighteen years. It was desperation to feel the burning pain in his eyes. It was a vivid, unabashed, passionate desire to experience the unknown once again with Marco.
Now he understood how it could be mistaken for love.
It had been a multitude of days since he had found the light. His mother told him it was only three, but to Jean it felt like more, like decades, centuries – far too long, either way. There was only so much he could do with his mother fussing over him unnecessarily. She had even taken time away from work, teaching at the school, to take care of his every need and ensure he wasn’t dying of “shock”. Jean loved her dearly, he did, but fuck, he just wanted to see the light again.
He promised Marco he would go back. He promised.
But, despite the very limbs attached to his body that quivered with excitement every time he thought about it, he managed to be patient. That was another thing he discovered about living in the dark; things took time to learn when you couldn’t really see them. In this era, patience wasn’t a virtue any longer – it was a requirement. So Jean sat in bed and read. He ate the food when it was delivered to him, accepted the company when it was given to him, stared at the ceiling when companionship wasn’t an option. Connie had only come to see him once, as he was too busy working his new military job. Sasha, on the other hand, visited him so incessantly that his mother had banned her from the house for the next few days. She was very solemn during that last visit; she had even brought him a picture of a flower that she cut out of a book, as though he were dying. At least she made him smile. His mother was pleased to see him grinning at someone, rather than at his imagination.
Today was one of the days he had decided to sit and stare into the darkness.
It occurred to him, while he sat and thought, that Marco was most likely doing the very same thing right now. Guilt turned his whole stomach sour at the thought of how he left the bright star shining with no one to admire or appreciate him. The nauseating feeling spread throughout his organs and rose like a flame in his throat; he suddenly felt overcome with sickness. Jean had spent eighteen years enveloped in the deceitful embrace of darkness; when you live in the dark for that long, you begin… you begin to embrace it. You understand that it accepts, it heals, it allows. But you also realize it devours. Marco didn’t have this same knowledge of the darkness – he had no idea what it was capable of and Jean had left him out there all alone and fuck he had made a mistake.
He needed to go back. But this time, he needed a plan.
Jean took a deep breath. “Ma!” he called, and then waited.
Within minutes she had climbed the stairs, sat on the side of his bed and begun carding her fingers through his short, tawny hair. As if the feline attribute of his eyes weren’t enough, he leaned into the touch like a cat and most likely would have started to hum if he weren’t currently on a mission.
“Ma, no,” he attempted feebly, swatting at her hand half-heartedly, “That’s not why I called you here.” Smiling at him, she ran her fingers through his hair one last time, before sitting back.
“What is it sweetie? Would you like some more tea?” she asked, picking up the mug he had discarded onto the floor from his previous cup of wonderful leaf water. It was her cure for everything, he had discovered over the past three days he spent bedridden. Jean shook his head, thanking her.
“Do we have any light in the house?”
His mother frowned, taken aback by the question. After realizing that her son was being quite genuine, she turned her head as she thought, looking at the ground in consideration. “Well,” she breathed, brow raising as she looked back over to him, “Not that I know of. There’s the clock in the kitchen and the kitchen light, but that’s all. Why do you ask, Jean?”
Jean shrugged. “Just wondering,” he told her.
“Is it all these books you’ve been reading?” she asked him seriously, gesturing to the stacks of books on light and space and the solar system. He couldn’t help but grin, and he hoped she wouldn’t find it suspicious. Instead, she smiled with him. “Well, if you would like, we can go downstairs and have a look?”
“Okay,” he agreed, “Thanks.”
Her smile softened and she reached out her hand again to touch his cheek. “Anything for you, sweetie,” she spoke quietly, “Let’s go.”
It took him a minute to pry himself from the comfort of his bed, but once he was standing he managed to follow his mother down the stairs like a duckling. Inside his parent’s bedroom, he helped her push aside their large bed, before his mother knelt down and felt the floor for something. Her fingers gripped a small metal hook in the ground and she pulled up what appeared to be a small wooden trap door, carved into the concrete ground. Jean was surprised to see a small set of stairs leading further underground. This was the first time he had been given the opportunity to go downstairs. “Come on,” his mother smiled, motioning him to follow as she made her way down.
What he discovered lived under his parent’s bedroom was a small basement, filled with bags upon cardboard boxes upon large wooden chests. There was barely any room to move.
“We’re never going to find anything in here,” Jean complained, sneezing when the dust intruded his nose. It was hard to see dust in the dark, but if he got down on one knee and blew at the surface of a box, he would be able to notice a puff of grey swirling up into the air. “Why are there so many boxes?” His mother responded with a cough, before she pulled a cardboard box towards her and opened it.
“You said you wanted some light, so I figured this would be our best bet,” she explained, a hand running through her own blonde hair as she looked around the room, while the other hand rested on the box she opened. “I forgot how many boxes there were, though, so this could take a while.” Jean reached into the box and pulled out a small metal tube, cool smooth to the touch, with a button on one end and a glass plane on the other. Noticing the artefact he had discovered, his mother exclaimed a delicate oh! and smiled, “Or we might not be here for very long – you found it!”
Jean raised a single eyebrow as he looked up at his mother, holding the metal tube. “What is it?”
“It’s light!” She smiled at him, pushing away the box she opened previously. “I’m not sure if it will still work, it was my great grandfathers. A torch, my father told me, that’s what they called them.” Jean studied the cylinder curiously. “If you want to turn it on, you press that button, but don’t press –”
Too excited to listen to everything his mother wanted to say, Jean pressed the button before she could warn him not to. The beam of light that shone from the device was sudden and hard on their eyes, and his mother shouted his name scoldingly as she took the torch from his hands and turned it back off.
“I’m sorry!” he exclaimed, “I didn’t know it would do that.”
“Well, you should have listened.” With a great sigh, she shook her head and handed the tool back to him. “Jean, listen to me now, okay?” He nodded his head sincerely. “I’m trusting you’ll be responsible with this light. There is a reason we don’t allow bright lights in the settlement, you know that, right? It’s not good for your eyes.” Reaching out to touch his face again, she smiled. “You’ll take care of it and, more importantly, yourself – promise?”
“I promise, ma,” he murmured, looking down at the torch in his hand.
“Good,” she breathed, dusting her clothes off as she made towards the stairs again. “I don’t know why great grandpa needed a torch, they had the sun back then.”
Jean followed her up the stairs, quiet as he thought. “Sometimes people want more than they should,” he spoke up, “We’re selfish like that.” He, of all people, was selfish like that. That much he knew.
“Well, look at that, you’ve gone and grown up behind my back!”
Rolling his eyes, but grinning albeit, he helped his mother close the trapdoor in the ground and push the bed back into place. “Thanks, ma,” he said, leaning down to place a quick kiss on her cheek.
“Anytime, sweetie. You going back to bed now?”
They walked together down the hallway and Jean shook his head. “I think I’m gonna go see Connie, show him the torch,” he told her, adding the word responsibly to his statement before she could interrupt, “I haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Alright, but you be back in time for dinner.”
After he grabbed his jacket – the new one his mother had bought him after he “lost” the other one – and pulled on his boots and let his mother fuss over him for a minute, he was out the door and heading towards Connie’s compartment briskly. Yes, it was true, he hadn’t seen him in two days – years in the timeline of friends – but his real agenda was a little different.
When he had come back from discovering the star last time the nurse who checked his eyes said they weren’t responding correctly due to shock; Jean knew better. He couldn’t make the same mistakes this time; he had to come back in the same condition that he left.
Rapping his knuckles on Connie’s front door, Jean fidgeted for the few seconds he was made to wait outside. When the door was opened he was greeted with the same wide, toothy grin that reminded him of a quarter cycle moon he had seen in a book. He replicated the grin and stepped inside the compartment, then promptly wasted no time in sitting Connie down and explaining his situation.
“So,” Connie spoke up after a few minutes of staring at Jean in confusion as he proposed his requirement, “You need a pair of glasses – of sunglasses?”
“Yeah,” Jean nodded firmly. Connie blinked at him, silenced again briefly.
“Okay,” the other boy breathed, shrugging his shoulders, “Why not, I guess. I have a pair. I don’t understand why you would need them, it’s dark enough already, but you can have them. Sash and I found them a while ago. You’re lucky you need them, we were going to pop the lenses and just use the frames.”
“Thanks Con, I really appreciate this.”
“No worries, you just better hope my dad doesn’t find out,” Connie laughed. Jean’s skin prickled with panic and he tensed, swallowing audibly.
“Connie, please,” he pleaded, fingers gripping at his own knee, “You can’t tell him, okay?”
“Calm down, Jean, I was kidding. What are you going to do with them anyway?”
“It doesn’t matter, it’s not important. For science, whatever.” Jean could pinpoint the exact moment his best friend turned from willing into doubtful. Connie’s jaw hardened, his brow pulled down in a frown. “Connie, please, you just have to trust me. Okay?” Another moment of silence followed and the question hung in the air like a noose that could, at any given moment, tighten and destroy any hint of hope Jean had.
Confused at his friend’s defensiveness, Connie simply shrugged his shoulders. “Okay,” he promised, frown deepening into a look of disappointment, “No one knows but me.” The boy couldn’t understand why his very best friend couldn’t trust him.
“Thank you,” Jean breathed, “Thank you so much.”
He left Connie’s house that day with a heightened sense of hope, a pair of dusty sunglasses with a crack in one lens, and another look of sadness etched onto his mind. Yet another person he let down. Attempting to push away his own displeasure in himself, Jean hurried back to his compartment. He had acquired two out of three things he needed before he could go about finding the star again. The last necessity, he owned himself. It consisted of a pair of jeans and a shirt for Marco to wear, so he wouldn’t look so dumb in Jean’s oversized, heavy-duty jacket.
Greeting his mother as he entered his compartment, Jean made a beeline straight for his room upstairs to pack a bag that would hold all these objects for easy transport. Once finished he began to read a book; he ate dinner with his family; he discussed work options with his father; he went upstairs to bed.
And then, once he was sure everyone was asleep, he pulled on his boots again.
All the same, he trudged onward, deeper into the forest, searching for that similar haze in the distance that would indicate he was close. The past three days had lead up to this. The white wash painted over his vision lasted a day and was enough to encourage him for that same length of time. The longing fuelled him on for another day, then anticipation for one more.
And now he was on his way again. His skin prickled with delight and he tripped over a root in his blind excitement; he grinned despite himself and squinted into the distance.
There it was.
The lustre of the star coated the forest around it in brilliant, shimmering gold light, reaching out to Jean’s eyes as he sped up and scrambled towards the mist of light up ahead. It was just as beautiful as he remembered it, just as shocking, just as breathtaking. Slightly dimmer than he recalled, but he figured that was just fatigue. A hint of dread nudged at him, from the faraway corners of his mind, reminding him of the pain and causing him to breath out shakily. He didn’t slow down. It was worth it, he told himself. It was worth it.
The closer he got to the light, the more he found himself blinking – his body was already reacting to the severity of the radiance, despite it not being quite as severe as last time. Pulling the backpack off of his shoulders, Jean fumbled with it until he opened the zipper and reached in to find the pair of sunglasses he had acquired from Connie. His fingers curled around their cool, plastic frames and he pulled them out of the bag, before shouldering the strap once more and pulling open the temples open. The rusted hinges creaked with age and lack of use.
Holding the sunglasses in his hand, he continued towards the light. Yes, the brightness increased a little more with every step that he took, but he couldn’t use his weapon just yet. He needed to wait until it was worse. As he walked, he raised a hand in an attempt to block out the centre of the light where it was most intense. When he was practically walking with his eyes closed, tears leaking from their crinkled corners, stumbling more often than not, Jean slipped the sunglasses over his eyes and tucked them behind his ears.
When he looked towards the light at first, he was squinting, afraid of what effect the tinted lenses would have on his sight. Surprisingly, his idea had worked. The light was not as harsh and direct, there was less glare and he could even see the outline of the trees better with the muted brightness. He smiled, encouraged by his success, and pushed on, closer to the clearing. Emerging through the barrier of dried up blackberry brambles into the clearing, Jean sensed there was something wrong.
The crater was still there, large and shallow, filled with the liquid gold that flowed from the star who sat in the middle of it. Yes, that was Marco, Jean noted. He was still seated in the heart of the crater, in the same way Jean had found him last time; light was radiating off of him in waves that could be felt from the edge of the clearing.
Then what felt so off?
With a look of pure confusion, Jean’s hand rose to grip one of the arms of the sunglasses sitting on his nose. Pulling them off, he found that the light was not nearly as bright as he expected. The breath left his lungs and his stomach pinched; his chest tightened in a way that made him feel hollow, empty and flimsy enough to be blown away by the slightest breeze. What had happened?
“Marco?” he called, eyebrows pulling together in a frown as he stepped towards the edge of the crater.
The boy looked up at Jean.
It was as though someone delivered a punch to his stomach; his mouth opened in an inaudible gasp and he slipped on the loose stone at the edge of the crater, causing him to slide down to the foot of the low wall, teetering off balance for a moment before standing upright and staring back at Marco. Despite the light being dimmer, it still appeared to be warm; such a warmth, in fact, that Jean was forced to pull off his life saving, heavy-duty jacket and drop it on the ground next to his backpack. He could feel the beads of sweat roll down his spine.
Marco had given him that look before. When he had left last time, it had been the same unhappy eyes and small, downturned lips as the star begged him to stay. Connie had also given it to him earlier that day. It was disappointment. The boy’s gorgeous brown eyes were plagued with such sadness, that Jean was paralysed with shame at what he had done. Such sorrow, that Jean could feel it washing over him; this wasn’t the light of sunshine and twinkling stars… It was a light that had been left too long in the darkness, a light that had begun to absorb that same inky black of the infinite night sky into its veins.
“Oh God, Marco, what’ve I done?”
The miserable, brown eyes met his own.
“You said there was no such thing as light,” Marco spoke up.
And suddenly, as though gravity had shifted, Jean was sucked back three days ago to when he had been found wandering around in the woods. When he had told Connie’s father the biggest, dumbest lie in the world. There was nothing he regretted more.
“Oh, Marco,” Jean breathed, lifting a hand to run through his hair, rub at his face. His cheeks were damp, stained with tears he didn’t realize had been falling – from the light, or from his remorse, he could not tell. There was a thin layer of sweat over his skin, formed due to the intensity of the heat around him. “Oh, fuck,” he whispered, wiping at his cheeks with his palms, his fingers, the backs of his hands. Sucking in a shuddering breath, Jean groaned in distress at his own stupidity. “I fucked up, I fucked up, I fucked up,” he whimpered to himself as he attempted to wipe away the fresh wave of tears that spilled from his eyes, “God, it hurts.”
Despite the extreme surge of guilt that came with a new set of tears, the pressure inside his head and ache just behind his eyes could not be overlooked. Marco’s light had dimmed drastically – because of his foolish actions – but it still was more powerful than anything Jean was used to. He sighed heavily as he held his head in his hands and clamped his eyes shut in hopes of relieving them.
A silence fell over the glade during which Jean’s chest tightened with heartache.
“Jean?” Marco’s soft voice cut through the stillness. “Are you okay?”
In spite of himself, in spite of Marco, of the suffering Jean put him through, in spite of the ache surging through his blood in that moment, his lips parted and he laughed with incredulity into the emptiness, loud and manic. After barking out one last huff of laughter, Jean breathed in deeply. “It just – fuck – it hurts so much to look at you, Marco.”
The return of the silence was like a slap in the face and Jean instantly knew he had said the wrong thing. Marco’s light around him flickered, like a weak candle in the wind, as though he needed more of an indication that he had made a mistake.
“Oh, shit, oh no,” Jean continued, “No, no, no, Marco, it’s not you!” The star looked back at him blankly, the corners of his lips pulling up in a grim smile, a broken one that faded quickly, as though he wanted to believe him, but couldn’t. “I can’t help it!” Jean pressed, “I – I’ve been in the darkness for so long that I can’t, I mean, I don’t know how to deal with how bright and b – beautiful you are. I’ve never seen anything like you before, Marco, so it’s new and a little bit difficult.” He turned and scrambled around on the ground beside him for the sunglasses. “But, look, I brought these sunglasses,” as he spoke he pushed them back onto the bridge of his nose and the shade of grey that passed over his vision was a comfort, “and now I can look at you a little better, huh, Marco?”
A real smile sneaked its way onto Marco’s lips at that. Blink and you would have missed it, but it was there all the same. Jean sighed in relief.
“You did that for me?” Marco asked gently.
“Of course!” Jean exclaimed. “I’m sorry, Marco, I’m so, so sorry.” Pulling his backpack closer to him, he begun to pull out the jeans and soft cotton flannelette shirt he had brought with him. The small metal cylinder his mother had entrusted him with rolled out too. “I got you some clothes, too,” he explained, crawling closer to Marco despite the heat that clung to his skin, “So you won’t look so dumb in my jacket.” Placing the clothes next to the star, he dropped the torch on top of them too. “I even brought you a torch, so that you won’t be scared when I’m not here.”
His mortal body wasn’t designed to withstand such a heat like Marco was currently producing – or, perhaps it was, but humanity hadn’t needed to tolerate any sort of warmth in the last few centuries – so he shuffled backwards and sat with his legs crossed, as close as he could without sweating profusely.
Marco smiled at him, boldly and honestly for the first time that night and Jean’s heart swelled. “Thank you, Jean.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Jean watched as the star reached out his starry fingers – freckles, he had to remind himself – and gripped at the cool metal torch.
“No one has ever done something like this for me,” Marco admitted.
“Betcha no one has ever left you out in the dark on your own, either, huh?”
“I really am sorry, you know…”
“So, no one has ever gotten you a gift? In all the time you’ve been alive and experienced all this light in a constant state of wonder and shit, and I’m the first person to give you a shirt?” Marco scoffed, but couldn’t hide his smile.
“Something like that,” he answered, “You overestimate my experience, though.”
“Marco, you’re a star. You’ve already got twice as much experience as I do with light,” Jean replied.
“You never got the chance,” Marco whispered, solemnly. “You’d have loved the sun, Jean.”
Jean dropped his gaze to where his fingers were fiddling with the hem of his shirt. If the sun was anything like this star he had discovered, then – his heart ached at the thought.
“I’ve read about it,” he said softly and listened as the words echoed in the clearing; they bounced back to him and he realized how pathetic he sounded. He started to chew at the inside of his cheek. Here he was sitting in front of this majestic celestial being and all he could bring to the table was the inside of science books that had tattooed themselves on the walls of his mind and a torch which would never compare to the brightness of something real. Drawing in a breath he began to say something, but paused – would Marco think him naïve? Would he laugh? The breath that held the question lingered in his lungs, pushing for freedom, so he gave in and breathed out his desire to understand. “Tell me,” he whispered, voice breaking in impatience, “Tell me about it – about the light. Out there.”
Marco smiled at him. The star had never come across someone so willing to learn, so eager for knowledge. His zeal was endearing and Marco was glad to share about the world he knew.
“Well,” he started, pausing to gather his thoughts, “The sun is… it’s kind of like me. Although, much, much bigger and brighter. A huge, blazing sphere of heat and light and goodness and if my light hurts your eyes, I’m not sure you could stand the sun.”
“I’d try,” Jean interrupted and Marco laughed at him.
“You’d go blind,” he countered.
“I don’t care. If it’s anything like you…”
Jean’s eyes shone so bright with reverence that Marco forgot momentarily that he was just a boy. His eyes were golden – as though he had captured the sun itself within them, or perhaps melted solid amber and gold into a liquid with which he filled the depth of his eyes.
“Your eyes.” The words slipped out before the star could stop them. Jean frowned, confused. “They look like the sun,” Marco continued, “Very burnished, very molten. Like gold.” The boy sitting across from him laughed and it was Marco’s turn to be confused.
“My eyes aren’t gold,” Jean explained, “They’re dark, like black or something.” Both perplexed and incredulous, the star shook his head at him.
“Have you seen your eyes, Jean?”
“Well, yeah,” he answered, weakly, “We have mirrors, obviously. But, I mean, it’s always dark, so my hair looks brown and my eyes look brown. I just always assumed they were.”
“They’re not,” Marco told him, half laughing. “Your eyes look like gold and, well, so does your hair. It’s kind of like a halo.” He couldn’t believe that this boy, desperate for light, had never known he held it within him. Jean stared at him as he ran a hand through his hair, like that would help him see it. “You’ve got a lot of the light in you, Jean, you just can’t see it.”
At first the boy continued to stare, confused and slightly disappointed that he never realized. Then a smile slowly broke the line of his lips, reflecting the one Marco was giving him. Laughter broke the quiet around them as Jean tried to take in this new information. He lifted his arms up to look at them, to see them with the light Marco shone around him. To him they were just arms, just limbs, but as he looked he noticed the stars – the freckles – that were illuminated by Marco’s radiance. There were veins that ran along the length of them, like bioluminescence, liquid light flowing through his body. On the pale skin there was a bruise that he had acquired from his last trip into the woods.
“What’s that?” Marco asked suddenly. Jean tore his attention away from his skin and looked out into the forest, suddenly filled with fear that they had found him again.
“What do you hear?” he asked.
“No, that,” Marco pointed to Jean’s arm, “On your skin, the cloud of purple. What is it?”
“That?” Jean breathed, relieved, “It’s a bruise.”
“No, it’s not.”
“Oh? Enlighten me.”
“It looks like a nebula! Like dark Orion.”
The bruise on Jean’s forearm had blossomed the day after he was returned home following his first trek in the woods. In Marco’s light he could see the smattering of deep, imperial purple, like the heart of a cloud, solid yet soft. It dissolved into a lighter purple, mixed with cloudy colours, like a bright light was shining from behind it, painting its edges in fading olive green and muted yellow. The mark featured even darker navy patches and was highlighted with lilac streaks.
Jean couldn’t help but smile as he looked at it. All the books he had read had described the Orion nebula as a stellar nursery, where new stars were born. He had seen stunning images of it that no doubt would have fallen short of its glory. And now here it was, blooming upon his arm. His own piece of space.
“It’s beautiful,” he heard Marco say, “Just like I remember it.”
“You think?” Jean asked, gently grazing the tips of his fingers over it. He briefly wondered what it would be like to brush his fingers over the constellations on Marco’s skin, but was then promptly hit with a wave of embarrassment that translated into a light coating of pink over his cheeks.
“Jean! Your cheeks!” Marco leaned forward, staring in wonder. The colour deepened, spread down his neck, and if he could see the rest of his body, probably over his shoulders and chest. Now that Marco’s dark eyes were on him, he couldn’t help it and the blush spread like wildfire. “How are you doing that? It’s gorgeous! Jean, you’re glowing!”
“Marco…” Jean mumbled bashfully, a futile attempt at stopping the torrent of compliments. The star’s face split into an almighty grin; Jean flinched, turning away slightly at the suddenly increased brightness and ducking his head in an attempt at hiding his flushed face.
“It’s like the Rosette nebula – but on your cheeks! It’s brilliant!”
“Marco, stop, you’re making it worse,” Jean appealed weakly, an uncontrollable smile on his face as he tried to hide his face in his shoulder.
“Worse? Ha!” Marco laughed incredulously, “It might be more magnificent than the actual nebula. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
“I’m just blushing,” Jean retorted quietly, hands reaching up to cover his face.
“Don’t do that,” Marco chided. Jean split apart two of his fingers to look at Marco through the gap. “You’re beautiful, Jean.”
Huffing out soft laughter, Jean rubbed at his face before running his hands through his hair again. Bringing his knees up to his chest in a similar manner to the star, he wrapped his arms around his knees and rested his head on them, still smiling shyly. Never, not once in the woeful span of his life, had he dreamed of this – that in the presence of the purest light, he would be the one being admired and wondered at.
“Just blushing,” he repeated in a mumble.
A few moments passed as Marco appreciated the fading blush on Jean’s cheeks.
“I can’t believe it,” the star spoke up after a while.
“You’ve never seen the sun, the galaxies – I don’t believe it. You hold so much of them within you.” Jean was silenced once again, filled with wonder and amazement and gratitude that he could be here right now, experiencing this. “You’re not just a human, Jean,” Marco murmured.
No one had ever said something like that to him.
He didn’t realize he had been holding his breath until his chest began to hurt and he was forced to exhale deeply.
“Thank you, Marco.”
The star smiled at him, gentle and shimmering, full of light.
They spent the next few hours attempting to find new similarities between Jean and space. Jean couldn’t recall a time when he had blushed more. By the time he had gotten up to leave, his shirt was damp with sweat, as were his palms and forehead. Sitting close to Marco was nice, but incredibly warm according to his body. As he turned around to pull on his large jacket, he heard the star shuffling behind him. When he had turned around again, Marco stood in the red flannelette shirt and blue jeans that Jean had brought him, and was gripping the torch in one hand. Jean grinned.
“Suits you,” he gestured with his hand to the clothes that hung to Marco’s frame. The two shared a smile, before Jean pulled the backpack onto his shoulders and clambered up the small slope of the crater and towards the edge of the clearing, towards the settlement.
“I’m sorry that it hurts to look at me,” Marco called, when Jean had reached the blackberry brambles he had climbed through previously, where the glade ended and the forest began, “If – if I could turn it off, I would.” Jean frowned at him, simultaneously surprised and furious that Marco would even suggest that. He opened his mouth to reply, but the star bet him to it; “You’ll still come visit me, won’t you?”
The words in Jean’s mouth came out as a sigh instead. How could he not come back? He had tried to stay away for three days and still ended up here. Staring at Marco, with his sunglasses still perched on the bridge of his nose, he attempted to visualise what he would do without the star. For the first time in his life, his imagination was coated with the same black of the sky. Darkness. Obscurity. Nothing.
“Of course,” he responded eventually. Marco’s light visibly intensified when he smiled at the answer. “I’d go through that pain a thousand times over if it meant I could look at you. You… You’re beautiful, Marco.”
Jean wasn’t sure if the tint from his sunglasses was affecting his vision, but he thought that Marco’s light turned a light shade of pink.
Another fortnight, another chapter. Thank you to everyone who reads this little story of mine and leaves a comment or even a kudos; you guys are the reason I write. :) You are all stars in my eyes
Chapter 4: Kiss Your Eyes, Kiss Your Palms
noun; something that provides resistance, delay, or obstruction.
noun; the action of inflicting something unpleasant or painful on someone or something.
noun; a declaration or assurance that one will do something or that a particular thing will happen.
Say my name and every colour illuminates;
We are shining and we will never be afraid again.
– Florence and the Machine (Spectrum)
William Blake had said that some are born to sweet delight and some are born to endless night. It just so happened that Jean was born to this so-called endless night and Marco, well, he must have done something impressive in his past life to deserve being born in the sweet delight of a star.
Jean used to be insanely jealous of those in the history books, born in the sweet delight of the sun. The books he read were like crutches that carried him around and upheld his hopes and dreams and imagination.
As he pulled on his boots, laced them up a little tighter, he smiled to himself in the darkness of his bedroom. He wasn’t like that anymore. A peace had settled over his heart, taming the wild, raging desire for something more than this endless night; bringing back to life the ghost that had walked the never-ending corridors of the settlement, that had blended in with the great shadow of his life. While he shrugged on his jacket, zipped it up to the top and ran a hand through his hair, he laughed softly. They should be jealous of him.
Slipping the pair of rusty, but now newly polished, sunglasses into his pocket, Jean padded down the concrete stairs as quietly as he could, while wearing boots. A giddy smile pulled at his lips as he reached the ground floor of his home. This would be fifth time he would get to see Marco.
He had been visiting quite regularly, making sure to leave a few days in between each visit so that no one got too suspicious. The same sleeping act, followed by the same sneak out and trek through the grand, lifeless forest had almost become like a routine for Jean. Now, instead of longing for his next shift at the library to borrow another book on space that he had probably read before, he spent his days quivering with anticipation for the time when he could drink in the deliciously satisfying light of the star he had befriended.
With a light tug in the space behind his navel, a sign of excitement that was quite often accompanied by a sliver of fear, Jean reached out and gripped the doorhandle to pull it open, when someone cleared their throat behind him. The sliver of fear tore open and roared to life inside him. Any feeling of elation that was coursing through his veins quickly dissolved into something more like acid and he wondered if he would throw up in that instant. He turned slowly, teeth sinking into his lower lip as his fingers curled his hands into fists, an attempt at gripping the distress that swelled inside him.
His mother sat on the lounge prettily, with a mug in her hand and her legs drawn up alongside her, smiling evenly at her only child. Jean wondered if William Blake believed in being born into endless back luck. On top of this shitty situation, for some reason, his body decided that now was the right time to freeze up. So he stood, fists by his side, gnawing on his lower lip, staring at his mother with a look of pure guilt. He had never been good at lying.
“Jean, honey,” she began with a soft voice, delicate and sickly sweet, as though she were afraid he might run away if she spoke with too much conviction, “Where are you going at this hour?”
Breathing out deeply through his nose, Jean’s hands unfurled themselves and instead fiddled with the zip of his jacket until it was off his shoulders again. Manoeuvring his way around the furniture, he found himself sitting on the armchair opposite his mother, lips pursed as his mind fumbled for an excuse – any excuse – to please his prying mother.
Moments passed, moments that turned into minutes and would have escalated into hours at the rate his brain was working. There was not one thing he could think of that would throw her off his trail. There was also the problem that his mind was quite full of disappointment at not being able to see Marco tonight, accompanied with a yearning for his warmth and bright, smiling face as Jean told another stupid joke. He stared at the ground and cursed himself.
“Jean,” his mother spoke again, as calm as before, but now with a hint of urgency. “Look at me.”
So, at a loss of words and ideas and everything that wasn’t Marco, Jean looked up and met her eyes. They were soft and wide and framed by a set of thick lashes, like a doe. In the darkness they appeared brown, black even, void of colour – but he knew they weren’t. He knew they were filled to the brim with molten amber, just like his. Just how Marco had described a few nights ago. In the silence that stretched between them, she sighed, her shoulders falling and her brow creasing slightly, worry etched into the crinkles.
“I just want to know what’s happening,” she whispered, her fingers gripping the handle of the mug tighter, “I’m – I’m worried about you. I’ve been worried ever since you came back from above the week before last and had to stay in bed for all those days. You were different after that. What are you – what’s going on?”
All he could do was swallow his own guilt and break their eye contact to look down at the floor in shame. For the past week or so he had been selfish – so, so selfish. It wasn’t as though he had just realized it now, he knew it before too. He could see it in the way that Sasha’s lips pursed after she said that’s fine when he told her he couldn’t hang out; he could hear it in his father’s voice after he dismissed the idea of getting a job with the science department in their settlement; he could feel it when avoiding general questions about what he had been up to lately. But he couldn’t help it. Fuck, he even knew that was a selfish thing to say. After being deprived for so long, after years and years and pitiful years of longing for a single glimpse of something more… surely he deserved to be a little selfish.
With a growl that started low in his throat, but eventually escaped his lips in the form of a frustrated groan, Jean ran his hands over his face and through his hair. Why had this had to happen now?
“Sweetie, please, I – I just want to help you,” his mother told him beseechingly, her legs coming out from under her so she could lean forward and place her mug on the coffee table while sitting on the edge of the lounge seat. “I love you so much, Jean, you’re my little baby, I just want –”
“Ma, please,” Jean breathed, leaning back into the armchair. This was it. This was the one chance he had to tell her something good enough to believe, to satisfy her concerned, motherly heart. Huffing out a short breath as preparation, he looked over at her again. “I’m –” I’m attending night classes at the school to catch up on Physics so I can get a job with the science department and make dad happy. “No, I – I’ve –” I’ve been meeting up with Connie and we’ve been going above again. I know you said you didn’t want me to go up anymore, but we like the rush. “Ma, I just – I – fuck,” he took a deep breath.
The confused look on his mother’s face pinched his heart, but so did the thought of having to reveal Marco to everyone. A multitude of pathetic excuses were caught in his throat, stuck between his own inherent selfishness and desire to lift his mother’s burden. With a gulp of air that pushed away the indecisiveness in his body, he looked directly at her and blurted out the only thought that had been on his mind all this time.
“I’ve found something.”
His mother said nothing for a moment and in the quiet Jean wondered whether he truly said anything at all. But then she sat back on the lounge, calmly leaning into the soft cushions, and tilted her head slightly.
“Found what?” she asked.
It was as though every bit of selfishness he had holed up in himself for the past two weeks pushed at his lungs, begging for freedom; every last drop of light that he had seen flashed itself in front of his eyes; every emotion he had felt upon discovering the star burst in goose bumps all over his body. And he grinned broadly into the darkness.
His mother found herself smiling too, a slight quirk of the lips, despite her confusion. She had tried to stay cool and collected, wanted to be fair in the sight of her boy, but seeing him smile like that made her happy. He had never been one for grand emotions and displays of affection; it was nice seeing him vehement about something.
“Oh, ma,” he sighed breathlessly, as though he had just been laughing and had nothing else to breathe in his lungs. “You wouldn’t – I don’t know where to start – you wouldn’t believe –” Jean turned away, grinning down at his hands where his fingers were laced together on his lap. His smile faded slightly when he looked back up at her apologetically. “I can’t tell you what it is, but I – I know that it’s not bad,” he explained, hoping to satisfy her curiosity and calm her worry, “I know that I’m excited… and I, well, I shake when I think about it and sometimes I feel ill, but it’s a good ill, you know? Like I’m sick with anticipation and fear and delight. I have something to look forward to now and it takes up all of my thoughts and – and it feels like every part of my body is filled with light and air and I just – I wanna burst with happiness and exhilaration. And I can’t wait –” to see him again. Jean breathed out shakily, smiling like an idiot and probably blushing like one too. “It’s – it’s amazing, that’s what it is.”
His skin buzzed in elation and relief, like there was a live wire running through him instead of blood. He had broken his own promise to himself that he wouldn’t tell anyone about Marco, but fuck it had felt so good to talk about him. To share how good he felt when basking in the warmth and light of the star. As he looked at his mother he could see that she was satisfied too. She smiled back at him, all pleased and comforted. Then her smile widened, crinkles by her eyes deepening as she turned her head to the side and covered her mouth to hide a giggle. Jean was frowning when she looked back up at him, amusement twisted into the curve of her lips.
“So you’ve fallen in love?” she asked, laughter laced into the tone of her voice. The look on Jean’s face melted into blank confusion. After he stared at her for a solid couple of minutes, she pushed herself off the lounge and picked up her mug before stepping over to him. Leaning down, she placed a cool hand to his cheek. “Alright sweetie,” she smiled at him softly, “Just be responsible.” With that, she turned to place her mug in the kitchen, before making her way down the hallway to her room.
As he stared down the dark hallway that lead to his parent’s room with a frown, it occurred to him that he was quite free to leave the house. A huff of laughter broke the silence in the room as Jean began to smile again.
If he’d had known it was that easy, he would have told her earlier without having to suffer. Pulling his jacket onto his shoulders, he turned and made his way over to the front door. Before he opened it he look a moment to look back inside his house. Then he stepped out into the corridors of the settlement. Love, he scoffed in his mind.
Walking through the settlement was usually the easiest part of plan: sneak out to see Marco. Everyone was usually asleep by 0200 and if they weren’t, at least they were in their homes. The guard on duty at the ladder that lead to the manual door Jean escaped through was more often than not preoccupied or sleeping. In this day and age, people weren’t exactly begging to be released into the above world of cold and ice and death. The darkness was the least of their worries.
But apparently today was not his day. Just as he turned into the corridor that would lead him to the fifty-foot wall that protected their settlement, the cool, metallic walls of their underground haven echoed with soft voices. With a supressed groan of frustration stuck in his throat, Jean attempted to turn around and hide when –
Couldn’t he catch a break? He was cold, a little tired and a whole lot irritated, and he just wanted to bask in the warmth and light that Marco radiated; wanted to see his dumb starry – freckled, whatever – face smile at him. For fucks sake.
“It is Jean,” another voice bounced off the wall.
“Jean, what are you doing down here at this time?”
Playing it as cool as possible, Jean turned to face Connie and Sasha with his hands shoved in his pockets and his jaw clenched. “Could ask the same thing of you two,” he replied. Sasha smiled at him and bounced up to him to link their arms together.
“We were heading down towards the basement to do some sort of categorizing or something rather. Connie forgot to do it today and his boss got angry at him,” Sasha explained. Connie stood to the side and nodded in agreement. “You wanna come along?” she asked. Half tempted to say yes because of how little time they had spent together in the past two weeks, Jean whined – a noise he had hoped only occurred in his mind, but clearly had not, if Connie’s face was any indication. He had come this far tonight; he couldn’t just give up on Marco now.
“Look, I’d like to but –”
“But you don’t have time for your buddies anymore. It’s cool, we get it.” Connie shrugged his shoulders. Jean had the feeling he didn’t get it. Sasha shot a stern look in Connie’s direction, to which he responded with a what? The awkward silence that followed was something Jean wished to never experience again with his best friends. Swearing that he would spend some time with both of them tomorrow, he attempted to inch out of Sasha’s grip on his arm.
“Listen – I’m, uh, heading home, so,” he lied as best he could, “I better get going.” With a small smile directed at both of his friends, he proceeded to walk away from them.
“Jean,” Connie called out. Jean turned back to look at them, their faces a mixture of confusion, sadness and annoyance – they knew he was lying. “Your complex is in the other direction.”
For the second time that night Jean was heaved out of his comfort zone, out of his depth, and out of his mind. No one spoke, but there were knife-sharp stares digging into his skull and a tension so hot that it gave Marco’s warmth a run for its money.
“Jean, what are you doing?” Sasha asked after a while, “What’s going on?”
The questions took him back half an hour ago, to his own home, sitting in the lounge room with his mother. He had managed to get out of that one by telling the truth, but he couldn’t tell his best friends that he was sick with anticipation or that he wanted to burst with happiness. Connie would laugh, he knew that much. His throat had dried out with the pressure of answering the rather simple question. He could lie – he could lie and then his friends would never trust him again, or worse, they’d follow him to see what he was doing. That couldn’t happen. The prize for the previous conversation with his mother was that he was allowed to be selfish for a little while longer.
Her words rang in his ears: so you’ve fallen in love?
Looking up at their expectant faces, Jean took a deep breath. “I’ve fallen in love,” he blurted out, already reddening with the thought of admitting something so… so…
Sharply, he turned around and marched promptly away from Connie and Sasha. He needed to get away from his family. He needed to get away from his friends. He needed to get away from his thoughts.
As he briskly walked towards the exit, he heard the words what the fuck echo behind him.
Jean felt full of awe sitting next to Marco.
(Yes, next to Marco. They had inched closer and closer every time Jean paid a visit, habitually getting his human body used to the heat that radiated from the star. Now, he was able to sit right beside him, almost touching, without feeling like he was right down next to the generators that ran the settlement.)
The downside was he also felt incredibly insignificant. After what Marco had seen and experienced, what was Jean compared to him? Yet, Marco always listened. Listened to the stupid facts that Jean had stowed away in his brain; listened to the boring stories he would recall, about Connie and Sasha, about his mother, about his job in the library; listened to him complain about how futile he thought his life was. It was nice to feel wanted. Even though he usually felt like he had nothing to offer in the light of Marco, he always felt appreciated – every little, pointless, wonderful bit of him was wonderful to Marco. His humanity, his raw emotion, his dreams and imagination, his lack of experience with space and all things light related.
“So, yeah,” Jean breathed out as a conclusion to his explanation on the lack of excitement in his life. His hand rose up to scratch at the back of his head, “I’ve never seen a star before.”
Marco raised an eyebrow playfully, spreading his arms wide in a motion that radiated here I am.
“Aside from you, I mean.” Jean rolled his eyes at Marco’s sarcastic face. “I know what they look like, but I’ve just… never seen one. In real life.” Of course, he had seen them scattered on the pages of books he read, millions like dust on the dark velvet of the night sky. Darkness didn’t seem so frightening and consuming when it was illumination with all those sparkling stars, a multitude of miniature Marcos. The thought alone brought a smile to his face.
Marco lowered his arms so they rested behind him, where he could lean back on them and tilt his head slightly to look at Jean with his bright, seemingly infinite eyes. He seemed so human sitting there, less than two feet away from Jean. What gave him away was his dazzling light, the fact that Jean was incredibly warm, and the way he stared as though his eyes were a telescope and Jean’s soul was the universe, deep and complex and intricate and so very worthy of his time. “Ignoring your, now, biased opinion, tell me,” Marco prompted, “What do you think the stars look like when they’re in the sky?”
Jean huffed out the beginning of a laugh, until he realized the star was being quite serious. Then he blinked in thought as he stared out into the darkness surrounding the clearing. There so many words he could use to describe his idea of stars. His whole life he had floated in a sea of imagination, scooping up each image into the palm of his hand to admire it whenever he wanted. Gleaming, silvery, alive, sparkling, delicate, enticing – the list in his mind went on. The struggle now lay in which word he should share with Marco. How could he put all of what he felt into one, flimsy word that could never amount to magnificence of the stars?
His eyes landed back on Marco and Jean scrunched up his nose in thought. The freckles on Marco’s face appeared to wink at him and he smiled back at them as a look of confusion passed over his friend’s face. Perhaps there was no need to use words.
“I think they look,” Jean whispered, raising a hand, stretching out his fingers to reach for the illuminated freckles that decorated Marco and his features like splattered paint, “Something like – ow, fuck, that hurt!”
His hand rapidly curled into a fist, clenching around the finger that had barely touched Marco’s cheek as if he could squeeze the pain out. “What the fuck, Marco?” Involuntarily, his body had already begun to shift further away from the star, in fear of the threat it now presented. With anger pulling down his brow, he lifted his finger to his mouth, pressing the cool of his tongue over the fingertip that was burning.
“I didn’t – I swear, that wasn’t me,” Marco stressed, eyes reflecting the bewilderment he felt, “I would never –”
“You burnt me!” Jean exclaimed, shock sending micro tremors throughout his body. “Fuck!” he hissed once more, unwrapping his fingers from around the single wounded one and breathing out another string of profanities when there was nothing on his fingers. Neither a scratch, nor a blister, as he had expected, considering the pain searing through his hand and up his arm – not a single mark. “Marco, what…?” Jean breathed, unable to finish the sentence. His mind had been cleared of questions to ask in favour of a heavy confusion that settled in his stomach. He concentrated on not being sick instead.
It appeared that physical pain was not the only thing on the agenda this evening. Around him, the light began to dim. When he looked over at Marco, the star had shifted so he was sitting with his legs drawn up to his chest again, the way Jean had first found him. It was hard to see his face now, for he was staring downward, but Jean could tell he was troubled. Groaning low in his throat, he knew he shouldn’t have been so quick to blame Marco for the spark that he felt on his fingertip. That had been a stupid thing to do, he realized.
“Oh, Marco, no, don’t do that!” Jean pleaded, gaze softening as he shuffled closer towards Marco; he hadn’t realized he had moved so far away. “Please, look,” he begged when the light around him flickered gently, “Look at me Marco.” Moving as close as he could without touching the star, he ducked his head, hoping to reach low enough to meet Marco’s eyes. The star sniffled and his dark brown eyes darted up to meet Jean’s own.
“Hey,” Jean breathed out in relief, offering a small, guilty smile, “I’m sorry. Maybe it was just one of those electric shock things that you get, you know? Like when two people are really charged or something?”
“I would never do that, Jean,” Marco tells him quietly, “Never. Not to you.”
“Believe me, Marco, I know.”
Despite this reassurance, a cloud of shame still hovered over Jean’s heart. This was the second time since meeting Marco that he had been the cause of weakening his light. Somehow, he had to make it better.
“Marco.” The star looked up, a soft smile lighting up his face. Though the idea probably wouldn’t work, that smile made it easier. Made it tempting, in fact. “I’m gonna try again,” Jean said, hand already reaching through the space between them, towards Marco’s glowing face. Marco stiffened and breathed in sharply.
“I don’t know,” he bit his lip, “What if –”
“Just lemme,” Jean persisted, leaning forward so his hand hovered over the freckled skin of Marco’s cheek. He sucked in a shaky breath and held it there, swirling in his lungs, when he surged an inch closer and pressed his hand to the soft skin just under it.
A moment – a single second, split down to the millionth – and he felt a star beneath his fingers. A star with skin every bit as smooth and silky as the velvet of the night sky, with sweet warmth that seeped into his fingertips and tickled his bones. A moment, so, so brief, that it might not have happened at all. Touching Marco was similar to the sensation of touching something so white hot, that your nerve endings became completely numb for a few seconds of shock and it felt like you touched something cold – but then your nerves sent impulses around your body and you began to realize that was not the case.
Jean pulled away in a blur of hard, deep breaths through his nose as he gritted his teeth together and clenched his eyes shut to stop the tears that stung behind his vision. A cry escaped his throat as he tried to breath steadily, clenching his hand into a fist and cradling it against his chest as he curled around it.
“Oh, God, oh no,” Marco’s voice was a lot closer than expected. Jean must not have had time to crawl away this time, overcome by the agonizing, imaginary flames licking at his palm. “Jean! Jean, are you okay? What’s happening? Jean, please talk to me, I don’t know what to do!”
In the aching haze of trying to steady his breathing and squeeze his fist so that he wouldn’t feel the pain anymore, he managed to look up at Marco, amber eyes ablaze with distress and frustration. He could see Marco’s hands, poised, ready to reach out and help Jean, but evidently divided within himself. The star couldn’t touch Jean – that much was clear.
“I’m so sorry, Jean, I’m so sorry,” he continued, “I didn’t mean to! You know I wouldn’t –” Marco’s voice broke in a weak sob that tore at Jean’s heart, perhaps more than the physical pain spreading through his fingers. “Please tell me you’re okay, please, please, what would I do without you?”
“Calm down,” Jean hissed through gritted teeth, a jaw clenched so hard he was afraid he might lose his molars, “I need – I just need a minute, okay?” Marco nodded obediently, worry visible in all corners of this shimmering face. The light around them was dangerously dim. “Not your fault, you know that,” Jean told him, still holding his fist to his chest, but breathing a little easier now.
Marco smiled at him sadly and shrugged his shoulders. “I guess,” he said.
Tentatively, Jean pulled his hand away from his body and unfolded his fingers gently. They ached from being clenched so tight, but apart from that there was nothing to indicate he had been burned. “Holy shit,” he muttered, staring in disbelief.
He looked up at Marco and found they shared the same look – baffled and surprised. The silence around them was tense, filled to the brim with perplexity when Jean suddenly exclaimed, “What the fuck! Why can’t I touch you?”
Marco was quiet for a moment.
“Didn’t mean to get you all fired up,” he replied, cautiously.
“Dammit, Marco, we don’t have time for jokes!” There was a small smile on his face.
His mother was worryingly pensive around him. She stared at him across the dinner table, when she walked past the library with a trail of young children waddling after her in the dark, even when she thought he’s wasn’t looking. It was as though she thought the longer and harder she stared, the quicker Jean would tell her who he was in “love” with. Jean didn’t know how to tell her that he was not in love with anyone. Especially not when she caught him sneaking out another night and he turned into an outline of skin filled to the brim with stutters and half-hearted excuses.
After that he couldn’t help it. He went red whenever she talked to him. It didn’t help his case.
He hadn’t spoken to Connie in a while. The times when they were in the same room, or across the hall from each other, and Jean tried to confront him, he got completely ignored. Purposefully ignored. And it hurt.
Every single day of this woeful life of his, since the very beginning of the darkness – after which they were pulled through a black hole, deeper and deeper into the endless night – every single day, Connie had been by his side. Losing him would have been akin to loosing a limb.
To make matters worse, Sasha was upset with him because of the lack of time they had spent together recently. The only thing he could think of that was worse than loosing his best friend, was loosing two best friends. (Or loosing Marco, his mind supplied. He pushed that thought back and paid it no attention.)
At least with his two best friends the dreariness of his life was bearable, was masked by the laughter and dreams and camaraderie that came with friendship. Despite the grimness of the settlement, there was always something to smile about with Sasha and Connie. Now, since both of them were disappointed and upset with him, the darkness intensified.
Everywhere he walked it was bleak. On his way to work at the library he was swallowed by the rich darkness that surrounded the books; at home, in his own room, he stewed in the heavy black; even when he went to visit Marco, he couldn’t enjoy the walks through the woods any longer. Previously, he had grown to like the pale trees, with their skeleton branches and curled, dried leaves, and the sound of crumpled foliage under the sole of his boot that echoed throughout the infinity – had began to see their charm and magic. But after the star explained he was ashamed and frustrated that he had allowed himself to hurt Jean like that – no matter how accidental, no matter how much Jean told him it was all right, no matter the fact that Jean had no marks or ailments to show for his struggle – Jean couldn’t enjoy the ghostly frame of the trees anymore. Marco was scared to sit too close to him and that was all he thought about.
It didn’t just hurt; it dragged him down again. Down to the bottomless chasm of self-pity and wallowing in his misfortunes – a place he didn’t want to be. A place he escaped when he had found Marco. A place he thought was full of the golden warmth and light he had found with the star. He had just managed to glue together the bits of his life and now they were falling apart again.
Jean was back where he had started.
If it could speak, he knew it would say I told you so.
Spinning sharply on his heel, Jean drew a deep breath as he faced his witness. Far too many people had seen Jean heading out late recently. He had begun to develop that nifty lying trick.
“Where you headed?” It was Connie, stomping his way towards Jean with his hands in his pockets and his shoulders slumped, unimpressed.
“So now I’m interesting enough for you?” Jean replied. It surprised him that Connie wanted to talk, but that was not what he had intended to say. He was merely keen to get to Marco and rid himself of a few burdens. Marco was good at listening, even from a distance.
Connie replied with a roll of his eyes and a huff. “You wanna hang out?”
“Do you know what the time is?” Jean asked.
“Do you? You’re the one going up there at two in the morning.” At Jean’s silence, Connie grinned in victory. He had a point, but that did not mean Jean was about to launch into Stars and the Solar System: 101 – although, he did desperately want to tell someone about Marco. A small smile appeared on his face at the thought of telling Connie every detail about this amazing boy he had befriended.
“Huh,” Connie huffed, noticing the smile. “You really are ditching me for a girl.” Jean tripped.
“I have been your friend since we were in diapers, Jean, and you can’t even tell me about a girl?”
“It’s not –”
“I just don’t know what I’m more angry about – the fact that you didn’t tell me, or the fact that you have literally replaced your best friends with someone else.” They had stopped just outside the corridor that lead to the outer wall Jean would have to climb. His brow was drawn up in a frown. “I’ve tried to ask you about it and Sash and I still ask you to come do things with us all the time, but you’re always too busy. When won’t you be busy?” Connie paused to take a breath, run his hand over his head. “I don’t want to be part of a friendship where I’m doing all the giving, okay? This –” he gestured between the two of them, “Is a two way thing. If you’re not involved, it’s not going to work. That’s what friendship is: more than one person. Not me. Not Sash. All of us.”
“Connie, if you’d just listen –”
“I don’t want to hear dumb excuse number seventeen, okay? You’re a shit liar.” With a sigh, Connie stepped back. Jean wasn’t too sure what he could say to calm his friend. “I’m gonna go home. I’ll see you around. Maybe.”
With that, his best friend turned and walked back the way they came. Jean stood and watched till Connie disappeared around a corner, then leaned on the wall of the hallway and sunk down to the floor.
“Not those exact words,” Jean sighed. He was lying on the ground staring up at the sky. There were no stars to look at on the inky blue of the sky, but if Jean stared at Marco’s face long enough, then turned back to the plain, navy sky he could see the imprints of Marco’s freckles scattered on the velvet backdrop. The pattern of the phantom stars he saw changed sometimes. If Marco was smiling when he last saw them, then their pattern curved in a semi-circle and Jean could almost see the features of Marco’s face etched into the sky. If he was frowning, he could see a multitude pooling in a specific spot where his eyebrows would have knit together. No matter what face Marco made, they were beautiful.
“How long have you two been friends,” Marco prompted once more.
“A long time.”
“No really, how long?”
“’Bout eighteen years. My whole life.”
“Well,” Marco breathed, “I don’t want to make you seem insignificant, okay? But, I’ve lived a lot longer than eighteen years. I’ve been around long enough to have seen stars come and go – planets even.” Jean grinned at the idea. “I know that eighteen years seems like a long time, but there’s so much more time and so many more people and friends to make and things to see. And yeah, you’re in the dark, but if you wanna see the other side of the world, I’ll come with you, light it up for you!”
Jean laughed aloud and sat up to face the star. “You’re too kind.”
“What I’m saying, Jean, is that things change. You discover new things and you grow. Always. Always, always, always growing – every second. One broken friendship won’t damage you forever. You’ll meet someone new.”
In the silence that followed, Jean took the time to drink in Marco’s face: the corners of his mouth were curled up a little, lips parted slightly; his eyes were bright and crinkled at the edges from his smile and his brow was pulled up in a look that resembled empathy. After Jean memorized it all, he looked towards the sky – towards the darkness – and it was lit up with the freckles from Marco’s face, mimicking the look he had been giving Jean.
“Already have,” he mumbled skyward, to which Marco called a soft what? Jean looked back over at Marco. “I already have found a new friend,” he said. When one of Marco’s eyebrows rose, Jean rolled his eyes fondly. “You, Marco.” The star’s other eyebrow rose also, changing his face into a look of surprise. Jean grinned; he would have liked to see that one recreated with freckle stars in the sky, but he decided that real life was better.
“That’s an honour,” Marco murmured shyly. “Don’t think any stars have ever been friends with humans before.”
“I just wish that I could, I don’t know, show you how much you mean to me,” Jean spoke softly, eyes on the floor. If he was bad at lying, he was even worse when it came to the pure truth. “I wish that I could hug you right now.” They were seated on opposite sides of the shallow crater, at Marco’s request. “That would be nice, you know?”
“If – if it makes you feel any better, I wish I could hug you right now.”
“Can’t we just try, Marco? There has to be a way!” Jean insisted.
“No, Jean,” Marco said, with a rebuking edge, “I don’t want to hurt you again. I don’t want to see you in pain and know it’s my fault.”
“You know I won’t give up, don’t you, Marco?” Jean asked him. The star shook his head as if telling Jean not to. “You know that, right?” Marco sighs his name, exasperatedly. “I would –” Jean held his breath, weighing the words that lingered on his tongue, “I’d suffer forever, if it meant I could touch you.”
Marco’s uncertain face split into a smile. “You’d do that for me?” he asks.
“Oh, Marco,” Jean laughs, but it’s humourless. Instead of joy, it echoes surrender; giving up to something he knows is inevitable – like war, like death, like love. The list of things Jean wouldn’t do for Marco is empty, non-existent.
When Jean got up to leave, he was warmer than usual. The light around them was tinted with a light shade of pink, like the faded skin of a peach or the colour of bubble-gum. Jean had come to know this as the way Marco blushed. It was nice enough seeing the physical blush on his cheeks, but being surrounded in it was twice as endearing.
He left with his heart thumping, a smile on his face, and the worries of tomorrow forgotten.
That is, they were forgotten, until he suddenly heard footsteps resonating out in the middle of the forest. When he froze, every possibility of something terrible happening ran through his mind: a singular search party, the General, his mother. Who on earth would risk their very life to come out and find him in the cold darkness?
As he staggered onwards, goosebumps broke out over his skin in dread and his throat tightened, making it harder to breathe than it already was. His struggling breath swirled around him in puffs of grey that stood out against the blank world around him. He had to find the person who was out here before they found him, or worse, before they found his star. The consequences, the excuses, the lies – these things were the last thing on his mind; all he could remember now was promising Marco that he wouldn’t give up on him. And he would keep that promise. He just needed a little more time.
A figure appeared on the horizon, only visible because of the clouds of breath coming seemingly from nowhere. The closer Jean got, the more his eyes adjusted and made out the limbs of a person, clad in a heavy-duty jacket and stumbling around blindly, tripping over dried and clinging roots, just like he was.
Oh, he knew that voice. As he squinted into the distance he realized that he knew that stance too, that walk. First, he couldn’t believe that Connie would have followed him all the way out here and, second, he couldn’t believe that Connie would have followed him all the way out here.
“Jean!” Ah, the tone of recognition. Jean began to walk towards his best friend swiftly. The relief on Connie’s face was enough to tone down the anger in Jean at being followed. “I’m so glad I found you! I think I’ve been wandering around here for about an hour.”
“You shouldn’t have been out here in the first place,” Jean retorted.
Connie at least had the decency to look sheepish. “I just wanted to know who you were ditching me for.”
At that, Jean’s mind went blank. All the lying he had been doing the past couple of weeks was not enough to prepare him for answering a question like that. Out here, Jean was vulnerable and he knew it – out here, it was just him and Marco and he didn’t have to hide anything. But now Connie was here and, fuck, what was he going to do?
“I, uh –”
Connie spoke before Jean could say anything. He was relieved until he processed the exclamation.
“Woah, what’s that?”
At first Jean frowned. Then, he noticed where Connie was staring and spun around so quickly his neck hurt. When he realized what Connie had seen, his heart sank and his whole stomach turned sour. Jean had grown accustomed to Marco’s light, but to Connie, who had never seen anything like it before the time Marco fell out of the sky, it stood out like a beacon – he was the moth and Marco was the flame. Jean knew what that was like.
The light in the distance was hazy and white, like a cloud or the spray of perfume, and it was beautiful. Of course Connie must have seen it.
With a dry mouth, Jean tried to speak up. “Oh, that’s – that must be,” his breath hitched, “I must have, um, must’ve –” How was he supposed to get out of this one? He could feel his hands trembling in fear; after being so successfully subtle for this long, the thought of losing his light was – it was a torturous thought. He couldn’t let it happen, he couldn’t, he needed to be selfish for just a little longer, just a little while more and then – his heavy breathing came to an abrupt pause. “I forgot my torch,” he breathed out, a smile of relief accompanied by a tense and nervous laugh, “I should probably go get it.”
“Oh, okay, c’mon then,” Connie said, as he begun to walk towards Jean.
“No!” Jean exclaimed, covering up his unease with a softer, “No, it’s fine.” Connie’s eyebrow rose in a look of incredulity. “You’ve been walking heaps, just sit here and I’ll go grab it real quick and then we can head back to the settlement, okay?” With a deep breath Connie nodded his head in exasperation and agreement and took a seat on the cold ground.
Without a moment of hesitation, Jean turned and ran towards Marco.
When he made it to the clearing for the second time that night, this time out of breath due to the lack of real, breathable oxygen outside and knees weak from a mix of relief and anxiety, Marco lit up – as though his usual setting was only medium and he had turned the light setting up a few notches. Another time Jean would have melted in happiness at the broad grin on Marco’s face, and the bright welcome back, but now he was far too scared.
“You’re back so soon!” The star joked, as he started to stand. Jean waved his hands in a flurried sign that was supposed to mean stop, before he lifted a single finger to his lips; shh... A look of confusion settled itself onto Marco’s lovely and bright features.
Give me the torch, Jean mouthed, gesturing for Marco to hand it over. At this, Marco frowned, clutched the small, metal tube to his chest and shook his head.
“I’m still scared of the dark, Jean,” he whispered, “What’s going on?”
“Please, Marco,” Jean insisted, “I can’t let them find you, you know that.” Stumbling down into the crater, Jean stepped towards Marco with his hand out for the torch; the star recoiled slowly. “Marco, you’ll be okay, I promise,” Jean attempted to calm him, “I’ll come back. I’ll come back, I promise. Just stay down and hand me the torch. Please. I can’t lose you over something like this.”
“But Jean –”
“Here, Marco, take this.” Fiddling around in the pocket of his heavy-duty jacket, Jean pulled out a pen. It was the only thing he had right now.
“But I don’t want that, Jean,” Marco said, “I’m – I’m scared. Without you.” Jean bit his lip to stop a sigh of fondness that had swelled in his chest.
“I know,” Jean murmured, eyelids sliding shut as he ran his hands over his face. It was nice to be wanted. Less nice that he couldn’t be where he wanted, but that was the price of selfishness. “It’s not much, but it’ll keep you safe for now, until I’m back. Okay?” Stepping forward once more, he held out the pen to Marco who gingerly took it out of his fingers, grasping the furthest end, then replaced it with the torch. “I’ll come back. You know I’ll come back, right?”
“Yeah,” Marco sighed, gripping the pen. Jean found that his heart hurt again, because Marco still looked scared and unconvinced and he knew that wrapping his arms around the star would make it at least a little bit better. Hesitating, he then turns to walk away, but not before whispering I’ll come back again.
Running as fast as his legs would carry him, Jean made his way back to where he had left Connie, praying to all the known deities that he was still there. When he found him in the same position he left him in, the sigh of relief could not be helped.
“Here it is,” he said, offering a smile. Connie didn’t look impressed, but appeared to be won over for the moment. Jean shot a look back into the distance as they began to walk towards to the settlement, but doesn’t see anything. He hopes with all his heart that Marco will be okay, that Marco will forgive him, that the stupid fucking pen will keep him safe.
“C’mon,” Connie’s voice brings Jean back to the present, “We should get back before dad finds out I’ve disappeared.”
My most sincere apologies to everyone that this chapter is late! I try to always post on the weekends - usually Saturday night - but I just didn’t get around to it this weekend... I’ve entered exam time, so the next chapter may be a week later than usual, but I’ll try my best to keep it on time!
Thanks again for reading. I appreciate and love you all so very much! x
Chapter 5: Some Dreaming State
“Do not look at yourself with disgust, you are a gift to this earth. You are beautiful, you are a light, an energy, an essence. You are nature herself.” -- Heidi Pickett
Felt it in my fist, in my feet,
In the hollows of my eyelids,
Shaking through my skull,
Through my spine,
And down through my ribs.
– Florence and the Machine (Blinding)
When he finally got to touch Marco, it was nothing like he imagined it to be. There was no pain on his fingers, no fire in his veins, no thunder in his ears or lightning over his eyes. For once, in the few weeks Jean had known the star, there was no need to squint his eyes, nor shield them with his hand – everything was clear, all sharp edges and solid colours.
Marco stood in front of him, as beautiful as always. His skin was pure and perfect and the colour of milky coffee. Freckles dappled every last inch of him and they glimmered like crystals in light; like stars, far away, gleaming spheres of scalding fire and searing brilliance. With his eyes closed he looked so serene, so calm, the opposite of what Jean felt looking at him.
Jean felt alive – so very alive. His eyes were wide open, to take everything in and not miss a single second. Nerves ran over his body in shivers and fear buzzed in his ears at being so close to Marco; but exhilaration overcame his restlessness. It fluttered around his heart like a kaleidoscope of migrating butterflies through his ribcage, as though it was a playground.
But watching Marco, peaceful and still, made him easy; he was Jean’s halcyon.
A haven, that gathered him in his arms and let him breathe out the burdens of his life; a hidden cave, full of jewels and riches and treasures that passed all understanding, which only he was allowed to witness; a forest of tranquillity, where a red chested robin sat on the branch of a birch tree and whistled. All these glorious things, all these reasons to fall in love with a star that made you adore the oxygen in your lungs and relieved you of the fear of life – and Jean had been the one blessed with that honour.
That is what it was to touch Marco: satisfying, something to be treasured, a privilege.
These thoughts of his, these emotions that filled every corner of his body, from the backs of his knees to the knuckles of his fingers, they were replicated in the physical too.
Wherever Jean placed his hands, Marco’s skin appeared translucent, like a smudge left behind. His handprint, over Marco’s cheek, was clearly visible, as though someone had traced the pattern of it onto the skin of the star and then shone a torch from behind. A golden print was visible, with curls like the leaf of a fern and flecks like spots on the sides of a fawn. It glittered and glowed. Marco opened his eyes to look down at his body, stained with golden light in the shapes of palms and the tips of fingers.
There was another handprint over Marco’s ribs, which trailed into wild swirls of sparkling gold that Jean had drawn with his fingers once he had realized he could draw over the skin and patterns would emerge. Mottled gold lines appeared between the freckles on Marco’s shoulder as Jean played a phantom game of join the dots with the little stars.
The same thing occurred on Jean, it seemed, wherever Marco placed his hands. He had a smudge just under his left eye, where Marco had brushed his knuckles tentatively; a swiped arc along his jaw, where Marco had grazed his thumb, which dissolved into multiple streaks of shimmering gold down Jean’s neck.
In the blackness around them – the complete and utter lack of light, as though everything else in the word was made of ebony black, with a strong and threatening presence – Jean could see his reflection staring back at him, just beyond Marco, like he was staring into a mirror. He could see the golden prints left behind by Marco on his pale skin and whatever breath he had in him left his body.
Not once had he ever thought that he, Jean Kirschtein, would look… beautiful.
It was the glowing glitter trails on his skin, that lit up his features and set fire to his amber eyes, and for a moment – a brief, fractured moment in time – Jean thought he, too, looked like a star.
Without warning and without reason, the consuming presence of the inky black nothingness around them began to absorb the light that shone from Marco. The tendrils crawled over his body, dimming the brightness shining all around him.
Jean wanted to reach out and take hold of the star, to call out his name at least, but he was stuck – frozen to the spot and doomed to stare as Marco slowly dissolved into the intense darkness. There was nothing he could do but watch as the image of Marco faded.
Before he disappeared, Marco reached out an arm. His hand landed gently on Jean’s chest, just over his heart, and that was the last thing Jean saw before darkness clouded the rest of his vision and he woke.
When his body rose to consciousness, Jean could still feel the heat and weight of Marco’s hand over his chest. He thought that the gold pattern might be visible still, perhaps seared into his skin, breaking to bonds of the dream world and this real one. As he looked down at his chest, there was nothing he could see. But sight was only one of a few senses; it didn’t matter that he couldn’t see because he could most definitely feel – and the feeling was so real, he could have traced out the exact place where Marco’s fingers lay on his chest.
Groaning, Jean turned over in his bed to laze on his back and stare at the blank ceiling. One hand rested under his head and the other over his heart, where Marco’s hand would have been. Gradually, his fingers curled into a fist over his heart, feeling as his heartbeat reverberated through his body. It was a similar beat to one he had heard before, one of longing and desire – he used to wake up to it every morning, but that hadn’t happened ever since he found Marco. Now the heavy tune of his heart thrummed again for another craving.
Jean wanted to feel Marco under the tips of his very fingers. With the same tips that stung when he remembered what happened the last time he tried to touch Marco; the same tips that tingled with desire whenever he thought of touching the star again.
The last time he was this determined about something, he ended up wandering around the empty forest for hours and getting hypothermia – but he also found Marco and that had been worth all the discomfort. So in the presence of the darkness and all the known divinities, Jean promised he would find a way to hold Marco’s hand, without hurting either of them.
He would, he would, he would.
On his way to see Marco at the end of that week, Jean wondered what he could tell Marco to convince him to try one more time? What ideas could his mind construct? A list of things compiled itself on its own accord, scratched into the surface of Jean’s brain just like every other piece of information he had ever read. I read in a book that… he could say. Or I need to habitually get used to the heat, so if we keep trying… The list was there, ready for the taking, or reading, and all he had to do was deliver a convincing speech to the star himself.
No big deal.
And yet, the moment his eyes picked up the haze of Marco’s light in the distance, a longing to feel the warmth had overcome his systematic mind and he ran towards the star.
When he stumbled into the clearing, Jean was out of breath; his heart not only ached from running so fast, but from being greeted with Marco’s broad smile when he exclaimed, “Jean!”
In that moment he was both there, with Marco, and far away, in a place where everything was consumingly dark, and golden patterns danced upon his body – a dream. Jean was both overwhelmed and confused at the sudden rush of want to place his hands all over Marco and see the beautiful golden glitter on his skin. A noise of restraint tumbled from his lips, a whine of sorts, compelled by his breathlessness and desperation.
“I –” The words were still there, inscribed on the walls of his mind, but he couldn’t read them now; they were clouded over with the yearning to brush his fingers over Marco’s freckles and see molten gold appear in their wake.
“Jean?” Marco asked softly, eyes wide with concern, brow furrowed endearingly. “Are you okay?”
At that, Jean could only laugh nervously. “I’m fine, I –” he drew in a sharp breath, but settled for a whispered, “Yeah.”
“Good! I thought of something we could do today, since you said you’ve never done it before.”
As Jean slid down the slight inclination of the crater walls, Marco patted the ground next to him. Jean visibly showed Marco his confusion through a frown. The past couple of times they had met, Marco asked Jean to sit further away from him again, so they wouldn’t touch and he wouldn’t hurt Jean. The light around him was slightly rosy as Marco blushed.
“I know what I said,” he told Jean sheepishly, “But I think this will be nicer if we’re closer together.”
Jean couldn’t stop the smile on his face; he would have taken any excuse to sit close to the star. Marco was sitting towards the edge of the crater and Jean was surprised once again when he leaned back on the slope of the crater walls, so he could look up at the sky. Sitting down next to the star, Jean could feel the heat seep in through his jacket and he had to pull it off in order to sit comfortably next to Marco. It was like sitting a little too close to a radiator, or having your large Golden Retriever fall asleep on you during summer.
(Jean had never known what summer was like; this earth was always too cold, it was always snowing. Most of the animals had also been wiped out during the first few months. The thought of them was nice, though.)
Before leaning down, his eyes caught sight of Marco staring up at the infinite night sky. The desire to reach out and rest his hand on his cheek made his arm ache; if only just to brush his thumb over the swell of Marco’s lower lip, or trail his fingers over the sharpness of his jaw. He swallowed heavily and turned away, leaning down, so he too was watching the sky.
It occurred to him that Marco was looking up at his home – or at least where he had come from. Is that what he wanted Jean to see?
A silence settled over the two.
In that time it struck Jean how alive the sky was. In all the eighteen years of his life, not once had he seen the sky as anything other than vast, plain, dark and wretched.
Once, he had read a book about an artist – Vincent Van Gogh. The artist had told Jean, off the pages of the book, that the sky was not just dark and black and without character. Jean had scoffed at the thought. The sky was nothing but an empty limit on his dreams, a constant reminder that there was no light and where there was no light, no hope for humanity. Things would go on as they were.
Now, as he lay here beside Marco, he saw what Van Gogh saw; he finally understood. With the light gleaming from Marco and making everything clearer, Jean could see the beauty. The endless sky was a dark, navy blue; yet, different shades were smudged throughout the infinity. A dark and steely smear was highlighted by an electric indigo; this dissolved into a deep, almost black, colour – like that of a blackberry – which was enhanced by a gunmetal blue. The wind was almost visible too, in it’s own misty azure – wisps of forgotten clouds trailed along the never-ending velvet backdrop, searching for their homes.
Everywhere we look, the complex magic of nature blazes before our eyes. It seems to me there's so much more to the world than the average eye is allowed to see. I believe, if you look hard, there are more wonders in this universe than you could ever have dreamt of.
That’s what Van Gogh had said. Jean never believed him until now. Of course, the artist was talking about a brighter time – a far away time, where flowers bloomed and butterflies existed and stars lit up the night sky. But that didn’t mean Jean’s own world wasn’t wonderful – it, too, was beautiful in it’s own way.
Turning his head and feeling the cool earth against his temple, Jean looked over at Marco and found he was already staring at him. His eyes were soft, lids heavy, as though he were sleepy – Jean wondered, could a star be tired? Marco smiled at him and Jean smiled back.
For the first time he was thankful for the darkness, he was happy in the darkness.
“Marco,” Jean said gently.
“What are we doing?”
“Oh,” the star blurted, as though he had forgotten the reason they had started night watching in the first place. His eyes lit up with excitement as he turned towards the sky again. “Watch,” he told Jean in a whisper.
Marco raised his forearm, hand uncurling and fingers reaching outward, to the sky. His hand shone a little brighter, and then a single, tiny orb of light detached itself from his fingers and rose upwards, like the sky was calling it home.
Jean sat up, breath coming a little harder now that he was feeling a mix of alarm and awe. He had seen this image before, this miniature spotlight on a midnight background, flickering like a candle, yet gleaming with the strength of a fire. In the books – he had seen it in the books: clusters of them, constellations of them, newborn ones and decaying ones and each time the image took his breath away and his whole life he had wanted to see one, his whole life he had dreamed with his friends about these as if they were myths and now –
“It’s beautiful,” he murmured, as though a loud noise might frighten it.
“It’s a star,” Marco informed him.
Jean’s own arm began to rise towards the sky, fingers stretching out in an attempt to reach the little ball of gorgeous white light. The small star began to flicker more now, its light fading as it slowed and floated gently back down to the earth. It appeared to dissolve in the darkness, leaving only tiny specks of light, like dust, to drift down delicately and settle tenderly on Jean’s cheek. Warmth caressed his skin before the light completely disappeared.
When he turned to Marco, Jean’s face harboured the biggest grin it could manage before he unintentionally split his lips in half. He knew he looked like an idiot. His hair would be messy from running here, his cheeks flushed with elation, and with that grin – he must have looked crazy. But Marco said nothing if he did look insane, only looked at Jean with his head tilted to the side gently, features etched with admiration, as though Jean’s smile was the brighter one, he was the star.
Raising his hand skyward once more, Marco created another small sphere of light, followed by another and another. The sky above them was soon littered with replica stars, hovering a few feet above them and twinkling their light for a moment, before melting away into the darkness.
Jean lay back down onto the slope of the crater and watched each star fade, little sparks, like dust, floating back down to them on the ground.
Marco had shut his eyes, but his hand was still raised, lazy and relaxed. Every time the light separated from his own glow to make a new star, his fingers swayed; other than that, the action of creating the stars was peaceful.
Taking a moment to tear his eyes away from the dozens of stars in the sky, falling like raindrops onto his face, Jean turned towards Marco. The star almost looked like he had in Jean’s dream. For a second, Jean was tempted to just reach out and drag his fingertips over the curve of Marco’s cheek – his fingers ached with a desire to do so. If he could somehow figure out a way to trace Marco’s scalding skin, perhaps his touch could express what his words could not.
Jean had never met someone so kind, so gentle, so selfless.
His mother, like many mothers, had softness about her. She was tender in the way that she cared for her son, quiet in the way that she spoke, always raising her words and not her voice. His father committed hours upon hours to his science department, studying their new world and understanding it, in order to improve it. He had sacrificed so much time of his own life to attempt to improve the lives of others. His best friends were the embodiment of kindness and joy and laughter to Jean.
Yet, in all the time he had spent on this earth, Jean had never dreamed of meeting anyone like Marco.
Marco, his mind sighed. Marco, who used the power of his own light, to create stars for Jean; Marco, who told him tales of the realm above – of suns and moons and galaxies, of things Jean had never seen before; Marco, who each and every day, sat patiently waiting for Jean to return to him and hadn’t once complained. Jean smiled at the star lying beside him. Marco was everything Jean knew he wasn’t. He was gracious where Jean was indifferent; tender-hearted, clever and open and miles away from the land of cynicism, limitations and shyness in which Jean resided.
Marco was the light and Jean was the darkness. The light always lit up the darkness, Jean knew, but what could the darkness do for the light? There was nothing it could do, nothing except consume, consume, consume in its selfish nature and that made Jean furious. There was nothing he could give back? Nothing?
When Marco realized something was wrong and felt the frustration in the air around him, he opened his eyes and turned to look at Jean, whom he found already staring at him with a deep crease in his brow where he was frowning.
“Jean?” he queried, “Are you okay?”
Jean took his time to answer, annoyance within him swelling as he fought for the right words. How could he tell him? How could he explain that he wasn’t worthy to be here, next to Marco, that the star shouldn’t waste his time on someone like Jean – but that he was so incredibly grateful for it anyway? Where were the right words?
“I just – I want – I –” He could feel his eyes stinging, a sensation Jean knew as tears begging for release, and he had to blink them away, to run the back of his curled fist over his eyes to wipe away the anger. “I wanna hold your hand, Marco,” he told the star heatedly. “I’m just, I’m so fucking useless. I can’t even do that.” Sucking in a shuddering breath, shaken by tears, Jean turned away to stare at the sky again.
Marco sat up hastily. Jean could hear him breath harshly, taking in sharp breaths often, as though he wanted to say something, but had nowhere to start.
“How dare you?” he asked, soft and threatening – a far away thunderstorm. Jean was compelled to look over at him. “How dare you say something like that about yourself?”
Jean didn’t know what he had expected, but this quiet and harsh anger was worse than any loud voice of vehemence. It was frightening, it was sincere, and it shook him to his core. A small seed of shame was planted in him at the strength behind Marco’s words; it was as though he was a child again, in a time where he didn’t exactly know what he had done wrong, but he felt bad for it all the same.
The ferocity in Marco’s eyes made him shiver.
“You don’t get it, do you, Jean?” The star frowned down at Jean, then added with a disbelieving scoff, “You can’t see.”
Marco stared at him, softer now, eyelashes dipping with what could only be understanding. His eyes were clouded with gentleness and incredulity and the light of a thousand solar systems. Shifting his body, Marco ended up with his left arm holding his weight beside Jean’s head, body leaning slightly over him so that he could look downwards at Jean. Somehow, Jean felt both inferior and safe.
“I’ve told you before that me and my brothers and sisters have run our fingers through dust from countless stars and galaxies,” Marco started, “That we’ve seen the beginning and the end of a universe.” His lips parted with a sigh, head tilted and eyes suddenly tender. “But there are stars that look at humanity in awe of the constellation of their bones and the cosmos in their eyes.” He paused, to look down, to look away from Jean’s amber gaze. “I would know,” he said, “’Cause I’m one of them.”
Jean smiled at the confession. His heart beat a little faster as he slowly sat up, settling his body so he was the arc under Marco’s curve towards him. Like this, he had to tilt his head up a little to truly face the star. The hand at his side trembled with the want to reach up and tip Marco’s chin back up, to pull him out of the embarrassment he felt, depicted by the peach coloured light around them.
“Don’t say bad things about yourself, okay?” Marco continued. “You’re a gift to this earth. You’re beautiful; you’re a light, an energy, an essence.” As he spoke his lashes fluttered against his cheeks, before he slowly looked back at Jean. “I’ve seen a lot of things, Jean, but you? You’re really something.”
Jean could feel the last of the Marco-made stars sprinkling delicate specks of light onto his skin.
It occurred to him, while he stared at Marco, mere inches away from his face, that perhaps the darkness did offer something to the light. It was a small gift, and often overlooked, but it was there.
After all, stars could not shine without the darkness.
His hand moved without him noticing. It followed a path that it had yearned for, reaching up until it fell perfectly onto the side of Marco’s face.
Jean did not feel any heat, any pain. Perhaps, it was only in his mind that the world suddenly moved like molasses. While in his head, this moment stretched on for a blissful eternity, the real world continued as usual – everything happened in the split second before the nerves in his hand would recognise the danger Marco presented.
For Jean, the infinite second was more than enough time to graze his thumb just under Marco’s eye, to feel the tenderness of the soft skin there. There was enough time for him to drag his thumb from the freckle on Marco’s eyelid to each, individual freckle in the cluster of them on his cheek; enough time to hear the hitch in Marco’s breath when Jean brushed his thumb over the star’s lips to rest on the swell of his bottom lip.
And if there weren’t time, he would have made it.
When his hand began to feel the intense heat of the star, Jean didn’t waste the fractal of a second he had been blessed with. His body shifted as he leaned into Marco.
Their lips met gently at first. Jean was reminded of the dainty kisses he received from the dust of the stars Marco had made earlier. He felt Marco fingers curl around the wrist of the hand Jean had pressed to his jaw firmly, despite the tingling sensation that felt like a warning.
Then Marco pressed down harder, smiled against Jean’s lips at the hum of surprise he had made. Marco kissed Jean the only way he knew, the same way he did everything: ardently, with his whole heart, and every last drop of gentleness poured into it. His lips were soft and warm, just like one would expect a star to be.
Jean couldn’t deny the intensity that was present also – a reminder that inside, Marco was a being of blazing light and searing heat. He matched Marco’s fervour with everything he had, conveying all the gratitude and love and words that he didn’t know how to say through the kiss. Of course, amidst all his feelings was the desperate hunger and desire to feel Marco beneath the tips of his fingers, and now his own lips, that compelled Jean to kiss him a little deeper. Marco purred in delight when Jean nudged his lips open with his tongue.
Although it may have felt like it, a second could not last forever.
Time caught up with Jean when he suddenly became incredibly aware of the feeling of flames licking at his face. He had passed his limit, had held on a little too long. Now, while his heart fluttered in his chest and his stomach knotted itself with pleasure, his skin also prickled with fear of the oncoming pain. His lips may have felt good and warm, but his hand trembled in agony and the flesh felt like it was melting off his face.
The kiss was, simultaneously, the best and worst thing to happen to him.
A scream curled itself in his throat and pushed forward, but the only thing that left his lips was a soft whine when Marco brushed his thumb over his wrist – a stroke of a fire on his arm that he wanted to feel again and again. The blistering pain crawled over his skin, and it was torturous to experience, but the thought of not kissing Marco appeared a far worse prospect.
There was a pressure in his head; somewhere, a phantom being was blowing a high-pitched whistle and it got louder and more intense with each second Jean kept his lips on Marco’s. His whole body trembled and he could feel a bead of sweat slide down the side of his face, another along the curve of his spine.
Then his head was spinning, spinning at miles a second, it seemed, and his body involuntarily shook with distress. The nerves on his body were slowly numbing and the only thing he could feel was Marco’s lips, hot, scorching against his own. He could feel them; really, truly feel them.
While his overwhelmed body began to shut down, the beating of Jean’s fragile human heart deepened with exhilaration and delight at finally, finally touching Marco. The warmth of those lips was the last thing he felt, before he was consumed by the same darkness that used to plague his life.
Hoorah!!! I'm back!!!
I apologize once again for the lateness of this chapter - but my exams are over, which means there will be more time for me to focus on writing. I hope that this chapter is worth the wait. Thank you to all of you who are still sticking around, I appreciate you all. :)))))))
Much love. xx