The Star Counter
https://hottubastronaut.com/ My story "The Star Counter" out now.
12:09 PM - 14 Aug 2017
The Star Counter by Steve Carr
One moment it was there, then the next moment it was gone. Staring into the mesmerizing blackness of space, Jake blinked hard several times thinking his eyes were deceiving him. The star he had just seen had suddenly vanished. Where there had been a glimmering pinpoint of white light, there was now nothing other than darkness surrounded by other flickering stars. He knew nothing about astronomy so he had no idea what galaxy or constellation he was looking at. He had simply laid down in the tall prairie grass and with his hands behind his head as a pillow he began counting the stars. The star that had disappeared was insignificant to him, but now that it was gone, and in such an abrupt manner, it left him feeling anxious and unsettled.
He stood up and brushed bits of grass and dirt from the back of his shirt and jeans and turned toward the distant glowing light in the windows of the house where he lived. Leaving behind the imprint of his body in the flattened grass, he walked toward home, occasionally glancing up at the emptiness where the star had been. Once in the patch of bare earth that encircled the house like a dirt moat, he took one last look at the sky and found it difficult to locate the same void among the clusters of stars.
He went into the house through the back, letting the screen door slam behind him.
“Where have you been?” his wife said, looking up from the newspaper spread out in front of her on the kitchen table.
“Just out stargazing,” Jake said.
“There’s better ways to spend your time,” she said. “Did you take care of the horses?”
“Did it earlier,” he said. He went to the kitchen sink and turned on the faucet. As he bent down to put his mouth to the flowing water he glanced up at the star freckled sky through the open window.
Out on the prairie a coyote’s bark reverberated in the darkness.
Water dripped from his chin as he raised his head and turned off the faucet. Large drops of water continued to drop from it, making plopping noises as they hit the porcelain washbasin. He turned and leaned back against the sink. His wife was reading.
“Anything new in the paper?” he asked.
“I was looking at the obituaries. Merle Calloway died,” she said without looking up.
“That’s a shame,” he said. “He was a good ol’ boy.”
“He’s been sick a long time,” she said. “Did you ever go by and see him?”
“Thought about it a few times, but never did,” he said.
She turned the page of the paper. Black newsprint covered her fingertips.
The sound of it crinkling as the page was turned was like fingernails on a chalkboard. “I’m going to bed,” he said. He kissed her on the top of the head, and left the kitchen thinking how her gray hair smelled like the color gray
In the bedroom he put his cowboy boots by his side of the bed and tossed his pants and shirt in the basket for dirty clothes. Looking at his reflection in the dresser mirror he tried to remember when his belly had gotten so big. A hot breeze filled with the aromas of prairie grass and the promise of rain blew in through the open window as he got into bed.
* * *
Awakened in the middle of the night by the rumble of thunder, Jake stealthily pushed aside the sheet that was covering him and sat up on the edge of the bed. The scent of rain being carried from somewhere out in the prairie had filled the room. The sheer baby blue curtains hanging over the window were gently floating inward. He looked back at his wife who was sleeping on her side, facing away from him, then got up and left the room.
He turned on the light in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of orange juice and sat down at the table. With one hand he removed the lid from the bottle and with the other hand he turned the pages of the newspaper. Putting his mouth to the bottle’s opening he tilted his head back and took a long drink while glancing at the names in the obituaries. He didn’t feel the need to read what was written about them. He had known them.
Janet Biedenbach died in the nursing home in Rapid City. She was the mother of four children, two of them, her sons, had passed away already. Her estranged daughters were not at her bedside when she passed away, but her eldest granddaughter was. Janet had taught school in Wall for many years before retiring.
Richard Lakley was killed instantly in a head on crash on I-91 near Wasta. He had been out drinking just before the collision. He was married to Sue who worked in one of the souvenir shops in Wall Drug Store and was the father of two young boys. He was a lineman for the electric company. He was the catcher for Wall’s men’s softball team.
Merle Calloway died at home after a long struggle with cancer with his wife and three adult children at his bedside. He was a retired park ranger and had worked at the Badlands National Park for twenty years. On Sundays he served as preacher for New Underwood’s Trinity Baptist Church.
Jake took another drink of orange juice.
His wife appeared in the kitchen doorway. “What are you doing up?” she said.
He turned the page of the newspaper. “Just having a little juice.”
Her fluffy yellow slippers made a whoosh whoosh sound on the floor as she crossed the kitchen and opened the inside door and stood at the screen door. The breeze played with the thin material of her pink cotton nightgown. “The rain may pass us by,” she said.
“That’s too bad,” he said. “The ground is really dry.”
* * *
The breeze brushed the tops of the blades of the prairie grass bending them forward then back again, causing rippling waves of grass across the nighttime landscape. Jake laid in a nest of grass staring up at the sparkling stars. When a grasshopper landed on his chest he captured it in the palms of his cupped hands and chuckled as it crawled about, tickling his skin. After opening his hands, the grasshopper remained still for several moments before jumping into the grass.
Raising his arm and pointing toward the stars he began counting them. Like the night before and the many nights before that, it wasn’t as easy as he thought it should be. It taxed his ability to concentrate. While counting he continued to search for the location of the empty place left by the star that had vanished the night before. At last tired and frustrated he lowered his arm and lay still, listening to the whispering of the breeze in the grass. He thought about Merle, Janet and Richard and felt a heaviness in his heart he had never felt before.
He stood up and looked toward the light in the windows of his home and thought about his wife.
In that moment he was there, in the next one he had vanished.