September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Joe P. Squance
On our last day of camp, Breckin takes us on a night hike to show us the big dumb stars. He leads us by flashlight to a wide bowl of dirt and tells us it was once a pond. He says, When I was a kid, I used to fish in this pond with my grandpa. He looks around; even with his hand over the lens of the flashlight we can see his wet eyes. I lived in a fractious household, he tells us. Very unstable, very chaotic. All week, he’s been revealing his vulnerabilities even though we’re only in sixth grade. We hate it. My grandpa would bring me out here before dawn, in the pitch dark. We wouldn’t say anything to each other. Just sit in the cold grass and fish. I loved it. We hear him breathing, hear the bristles of his facial hair rub against his collar. Have a seat, he says, and we do.
We sit in a ring, facing each other. All week, all we’ve wanted to do is go home, but now that the last night has arrived we’re feeling anxious about things being over. We’ve ridiculed Breckin savagely behind his back—for his hairstyle that is no style at all; for his embarrassing shorts and tall socks; for his deep and endless enthusiasm about the natural world, which we find pathetic and sad. We’ve dreamed up elaborate backstories for how he’d ended up a naturalist at a ramshackle camp in the least interesting corner of Cold Springs, Ohio, and even though we’ve kept them all private—even from each other—we intuitively understand that each is a story of a thousand humiliations and failed worldly challenges. Sitting now in the ghost of a dead pond, all of us reduced to our most basic shapes, our pooled feelings about him twinkle in the dark like a quasar.
Breckin walks the circle, dropping a single Wint-O-Green Lifesaver into each of our open palms. As he walks, he explains that when we put the Lifesavers in our mouths and chew, the grinding between our teeth will create sparks of light. The light, he says, is a product of destruction, created from the act of breaking down the static electrical charges and mashing them back together again. We move our palms to our mouths but he says, Not now. Wait. And he looks up at the night sky, a mess of sprayed milk.
We’ve caressed stag antlers and coyote pelts, poked the skeletons of mice curled up inside of owl pellets. We’ve dipped our cupped hands into the famous spring and brought the coldness to our lips to taste its iron. But we’ve glimpsed nothing so fascinating this week as the churning nebula of chemicals and impulses expanding inside of us. Breckin asks us to look at the stars, and we dutifully do, but our minds are compelled by the bodies down here. We astral project to Orion’s belt, slingshot around it and return, trailing fire, into ourselves.
That’s Bellatrix, Breckin is telling us. That’s Meissa and Rigel. That’s Alnilam, Mintaka and Alnitak. He is in an awe that we accept as true. He says, The light from these stars takes hundreds of years to reach us; looking at them is like rocketing back in time. We know all this already and are not impressed. In three weeks, the school year will be over and we will change in ways we can’t begin to comprehend. We know that our parents and teachers, exhausted by a world we can’t even really see, will be useless to help us. We have sensed, or are sensing, that our last best hope lies with sad, depressing Breckin, who is looking at the night sky like a big dope. We are sitting right here, we think at him. Marvel at us and explain.
He tells us all the stars in Orion are blue giants except for one, and we can hear that he’s working up to a big dramatic finish––we get the feeling that he’s been through this routine before. We can feel the Lifesavers in our palms threatening to dissolve into nothing and we sigh a big collective sigh, but now Breckin has stopped his talking and is looking directly at me. Through the murk his eyes glitter and I understand that it wasn’t us who sighed, it was only me. I’m in my body now; it feels long and loose, like an outfit that doesn’t quite fit.
Breckin thinks. He’s still a while. Then he says, My grandpa showed me these stars. He named them for me. When I look at them, I see us—him and I—sitting on the banks of this pond, together. I’m eleven years old and he’s still alive and the world is terrible and wonderful at once. He glances up. That’s what I see when I look. That’s the time machine. Maybe when you look up, years from now, you’ll see this. He swallows. Then he smiles.
He holds up his own Lifesaver and we hold up ours. Like communion, he says, and he laughs. We all laugh except that I don’t. Something has shifted away from me, only I can’t quite identify what it is or how it happened or what to do about it. I’m alone on Orion’s left shoulder, a throbbing red supergiant.
Breckin puts the Lifesaver in his mouth and we do the same. We bare our teeth and grind. Our mouths are filled with sparks. We are young and beautiful and damaged, and the infinite expanse of our lives stretches out blackly in front of us, a blank to be filled. We will break apart a thousand times and come together better or worse, and this is just the natural order of things. I want to say I understand, but the light from that star doesn’t reach me for many years.
Joe P. Squance’s stories have appeared in Best Microfiction 2019, Atticus Review, Cease Cows, Everyday Fiction, Fiction Southeast, Lost Balloon, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere, and he has written essays for Salon, Entropy, and Runner’s World. He currently teaches ELA at a small Montessori High School in Oxford, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and their young daughter. Find him lurking on Twitter @joesquance.