Lost But Not Alone
The stars look much, much different when you realize this might be the last time you see them.
That was all I could think when I looked up in the sky. They seemed to twinkle just as brightly, even though there were less of them than ever before. Despite their shine the world grew dimmer and darker with each passing moment, as one by one the stragglers began to go out. All I could do was sit here, on the hood of my car, away from anyone who could come find me, though I doubt anyone wanted to. Anyone who had friends and family was with them, clinging to the connections that made them human, while the people who felt lost and alone went out to try to find that same humanity with each other.
Then there were those like me, too new to the area for friends and too cast aside for family, with little desire to reach out in my final moments for the withered embrace of someone I don’t know and whose only desire for me is to feel the touch of a human being one more time before our visible universe goes silence for what my mind can only assume is eternity. I was fully aware that I could just as easily understand the concept of that eternity as I could my own looming nonexistence, but at this point, with a bottle of vodka barely opened in my hand, I had accepted that my own understanding didn’t matter in the face of the inevitable.
“Alright.” I said to the darkness. “You win.”
“Didn’t figure anyone else would be out here right now.”
I turned to look over my shoulder at an older woman who approached with her hands shoved into her jacket pockets. There was a bike tossed to the side of the road behind her, and for the life of me I couldn’t begin to comprehend why she would bike all the way out here. This was in the foothills, after all, and in this specific little cliff people could catch a glimpse of the whole city. I’d only happened upon it after deciding to explore the area that hadn’t been filled with houses yet.
Of course, she may just not have a car, and she may have wanted to come out here for some semblance of peace in the nature that edged their way out of the mountains as though it hadn’t been there to begin with.
“Mind if I sit with you?” She asked. I shrugged noncommittally.
“Go ahead.” I finally said after she stared at me for a moment, clearly needing permission one way or the other. I looked at her as she sat next to me, and offered her the vodka. This certainly wasn’t how I expected the night to go, but I wasn’t going to deny this woman company under the increasingly starless sky. She took the bottle from my hand and looked at the label, raising an eyebrow.
“Ketel One.” She said with an approving tone. “I guess if there’s any night to splurge it’s this one.” She took off the cap and put the bottle to her lips, knocking her head back and drowning whatever sorrow she may have had with the sweet burn of my fifty five dollar alcohol.
“Figured I might as well.” I took back the bottle when it was offered and copied her, relishing in the feeling of liquid fire moving its way down my throat and throughout my body. I shook my head at the sensation, and brief flashbacks of taking my first shot at the sleaziest dive bar in my hometown popped through my head. For a few minutes the two of us sat in silence, and just as I had begun to believe we would end that way, she spoke.
“My name is Charlie.” There was a pause. “. . .Charlotte, technically. But I’ve never felt like much of a Charlotte. Always preferred Charlie. More fun.”
“I’m Jason.” I offered back, not looking at her. I focused my eyes on the sky again. We’d lost five more, and there weren’t many left. “Just Jason.”
“What’re you doing out here alone then? Don’t you want to be with your family? Or your friends? Why’re you up in the hills getting drunk alone?”
“Why are you?” If I were a better person, I’d probably have felt bad about saying that to her, but I wasn’t a better person. I had the sinking suspicion she probably wasn’t either.
“Fair enough.” She relented, proving my suspicions right. “I suppose you’ve got just as much a reason as I do to be out here.” She looked up at the sky, matching my vigilance on the disappearing lights that once felt so permanent. “You know, those things are light-years away. So whatever is causing them to go out, it’s already been on its way here. They’ve been gone for millions of years and we never even knew.” I nodded, and she looked back down.
“I didn’t really want to be alone, you know.” Charlie said, looking back up at me. I looked over at her to see her staring at my face. “All my friends are with their families of course. I’m not going to impose on that.”
“What about your family?”
“Gone.” She said simply. I hesitated, unsure what to say, and hoping perhaps the uncomfortable would simply eat itself away with no trace of its existence. However, after a moment, she carried on. “I’m an only child, and my parents are long since dead and buried. Their siblings all live a long ways away, not that I’ve heard much from them in years.”
“Nope.” I nodded, waiting to see if she would continue. “My good for nothing husband ran off years ago with the girl who’s car kept ‘breaking down’ conveniently close enough to the end of his shift that he’d ‘stay late to help her’.” I passed her the vodka again, and watched it go down her throat. “No kids either. Not anymore.” She looked back up at the sky. “Now what about you?”
“What do you mean?” I raised an eyebrow. “What about me?”
“I’ve told you why I’m up here, Jason. Now what about you.”
“I didn’t ask you why you were up here. Why should I?”
“Just throw an old woman a bone, kid.” She rolled her eyes. “It’s the end of the world. It’s not like I’m going to tell your mother. Now why aren’t you with her?” I frowned, watching her. She stared back with intensity I hadn’t expected, and I sighed.
“Fine.” I relented. “You win.” She settled back, seeming to get herself comfortable. I smirked. “It’s not much of a story, but yeah, you can’t tell my mom. She’s not really involved with me anymore.”
“No.” I pulled up my phone, clicking it on and showing off the handful of goodbye texts I’d gotten from friends back home. “She’s not interested in having a gay son so she decided she’d rather have no son at all. No dad either. He decided when I was pretty young that he wasn’t fully interested in having a son either.” I frowned, vaguely remembering the pictures I’d seen of him with my younger half-brother on social media. “...Or at least not me.”
The silence that hung in the air was deafening, and after a few minutes I began to wish she would start talking again. I almost opened my mouth, ready to say something even though I didn’t have anything to say at all. Maybe beg her to start talking? Was that what I was about to do?
Fortunately, the choice was taken from me when her voice finally broke through the air again.
“Jason is a good name. It was my son’s name. Before he died.” I picked at my sleeve. “We lost him to a car accident when he was five. He was too young, but at least he didn’t have to find out that eventually all the lights can go out. So why aren’t you with your friends, Jason.”
“I just moved here.” I shrugged. “Literally. I moved here maybe a week ago, and I had taken vacation to settle in.” I chuckled, finding the humor in my own situation. “I was actually supposed to start tomorrow.” I raised the bottle to the sky, and then downed a swig. “Obviously, that’s not happening anymore. As you can see, I am far, far from my hometown, with no friends near me and not a family member to my name.” I looked at her. “Happy now?”
“I’m not the one that you’re mad at, kid.” She sneered, but paused to take a deep breath. “Listen, I get that you’re angry. You’ve got every right to be. I’m pretty angry too.” She clasped her hands together and rubbed her face. “I already have a life behind me, but what do I have to show for it? I’m divorced from a husband who cheated on me, my only child died twenty years ago, and I have a masters in English with no job because my own job didn’t need me anymore.” I watched her in stunned silence as she rubbed her hands on her face, and I realized she was rubbing away tears, refusing to let them get anymore than halfway down her cheeks. In the increasing darkness they became harder to see, and I looked up to realize that in the time we’d sat here, whether it had been minutes or hours, all that was left was the moon and north star, guiding forlorn travelers to nothing as its own brightness began to dim.
“I was studying English.” I finally said, trying to break the tension. I hardly knew Charlie but I knew I didn’t want her to die crying. She seemed like a sweet woman, and even if she wasn’t, I couldn’t think of anyone I believed deserved to die while wallowing in sadness. Even my own mother. However, I was completely unsure of what to say. I almost had to laugh. An English major who was completely lost for words. “I wanted to be a teacher. Were you a teacher?”
“I wanted to be one too.” She said, a small smile appearing on her face. A sad smile, but a smile all the same. My shoulders slowly released the tension I hadn’t realized was building within them. “I didn’t end up doing it. Too scared, of course. There’s no money in it. I became an office secretary instead, back before all the computer stuff really started taking off, though we already had a computer in our office. Really big one too.” She laughed. “Now that I think back on it, it would probably look like a monster if you put it next to the stuff we have now.” She wiped away a few stray tears as her face began to dry.
“My mom always told me that too.” I shuffled a little closer to her. “That there’s no money in teaching, I mean. She wanted me to become a computer engineer, and I almost did it. I figured out real quick that it wasn’t for me though.” I chuckled a bit, more lighthearted this time. “I really just liked playing video games. That’s as close as I got.” There was a more comfortable silence, and she smiled, reaching up and pushing a lock of my hair with a tenderness I wasn’t used to.
“I came here to die tonight, Jason.” She said. I felt a chill go up my spine, suddenly realizing my own facade of nihilism was nothing compared to genuine hopelessness. “I know that’s what’s going to happen tonight no matter what, but I wasn’t going to let the stars take me alone. If I was going out alone it was on my own terms.”
“I’m glad you’re here.” I blurted out before I even realized I had something to say. We stared at each other, and then up at the sky. The north star remained, however dimly, and the moon itself was beginning to fade, triggering the disappearance of the sun. It would all be over soon.
“Do you…” She started, and shifted. “You and my son, you’re so… He would’ve been you’re age. Do you mind if…” She hesitated.
“Can I pretend you’re my mother tonight.” I said, knowing what she wanted to ask, and knowing that if she wasn’t going to impose on her friends, she certainly wasn’t going to ask a total stranger to be her dead son so she would be able to express her love for him one last time before everything was over.
“Of course.” She said, and reached over to hug me as the darkness crept in around us, moving towards our bodies like the death it carried was merely a breeze. I heard her whisper and soft ‘thank you’ in my ear as I held her tight, watching as the moon and final star went out.
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