Starlight Memories — Rachael Kelley

I miss everything about that old house.

There was no concrete or stone to separate the packed dirt road from the overgrown front lawn in those days. As soon as the surface under my bare toes changed from gritty path to the blanket that hugged and seemed to swallow my foot whole, blades of grass tickling me up to my shins, I knew I was home. When you wanted to go in, you never had to knock. The door was always open, the aged knob always twisted a little to the left, so the keyhole was on a slant. It never bothered me. Mom said it never bothered her, either, but dad was always talking about getting it fixed.

He never did.

I miss the back porch, which, like the doorknob, was always leaning a little to the right. Mom said the foundation had been damaged during a storm, that the ground had grown spongy and the wood sank farther down than it should have, but I didn’t believe her. Whenever she told the story, she shifted the weight of her body to her left hip, gaze fixed on some lost memory in a past I could not see. Her amber eyes softened, like the mud beneath the porch (or so she believed), but within seconds and a few quick blinks she returned to the present.

I miss how the breeze used to search for unlatched windows or unlocked doors, whistling its soft, quiet howl whenever it found one. It was a tune played day and night, a song that never failed to fill my heart with great ease, like it was singing to me an endless lullaby no matter how high the sun was or how many stars hung in the sky.

I miss the spigot on the side of the house, the one we used to fill up buckets to dump on each other when the summer’s heat got to be too much. We used it to water the garden in the back, too, but that wasn’t my favorite part. The water that splashed from our buckets and leaked from the tap left a kind of corroded artwork along the white siding that lined our house. Splotches of rust, some as big as my fist but most the size of dripping wax, covered a good portion of the surrounding area. It was another thing dad hated, but mom loved. I loved it, too. It made me feel like the house was alive, like it was decorating itself with the iron-rich water that grew darker as each layer was added.

I miss the first summer night when, as my half-conscious being fought fatigue’s drag on my eyelids, I followed dad barefoot across the cool tiles of the kitchen, wondering why he had stirred me at such a time. My curiosity sparked when the back door creaked open, and, suddenly wide awake, I slipped through the door after him. He never said a word, only led me to the middle of the yard in silence. When he laid down in the grass, tipped with dew from the night, I mirrored him, eyes shining under the brilliant sky. I looked up. The sky was endless. The blue of day had faded, allowing me for the first time to truly peer through the atmosphere and into the depths of the universe. It stretched, and I stretched with it, but I couldn’t see where it had begun or where it would end.

It was forever.

And I, a tiny speck lying on the surface of some object floating in the midst of all this, felt about as big as the tiniest freckle on dad’s left cheek, the one right beside his eye. The one that was swallowed up in folds of skin when he smiled. Here I was, one small person, engulfed by the universe that was decorated with an infinite amount of stars. Dad reached for my hand and squeezed it. I saw his hand, a silhouette against the sky, lift upwards with one finger stretched out.

“There,” he whispered. “Did you see it?”

I had. A brilliant ball of white, a streak of blue tailing it like a flame as it traveled the length of the sky. My eyes got even wider. The light disappeared, but when I closed my eyes, I could still see it, a glowing stripe that had burned into my vision. It was amazing. Dad squeezed my hand again, sharing with me a lopsided smile as we turned to look at each other. I shivered, perhaps from the cold of the night. But maybe not.

He drew me closer.

There are so many things I miss about that house. But it’s a memory sealed in the past, locked away somewhere far behind me.

I didn’t understand why we left, at first. I remember seeing mom with a screwdriver and a bucket of white paint one day, phone in hand. I asked her why, but my answer was hidden in those far away amber eyes. I watched her quietly. She hung up the phone, and a few minutes later, a neighbor knocked on the front door. He had brought the mower, he said. She told him to go ahead, she would pay him after.

I followed her to the side of the house. She opened the can, and in violent, jerky strokes, began to paint over the rusted masterpiece that surrounded the water spout. My eyes were big, shocked as I watched the tears begin to roll down her cheeks, stippling her dark gray shirt like the rust had the siding. When she had finished, there was nothing. No art, no rust, no anything. Everything that had once been was covered in a layer of thick white paint, never again to see screaming children throwing buckets of water or a fresh bowl of tomatoes carried in through the back door. It was a piece of history now, buried deep behind a wall of pain.

I was terrified. I had never seen her like this. Mom darted from room to room, shouting about windows that wouldn’t close all the way and the damn slanted porch and crooked doorknob. Her eyes had turned red and watery, a wild fear replacing the distant stare I had seen so many times before. I couldn’t break my trance, though she had taught me never to stare, but I don’t think she even realized. This wasn’t my mom anymore.

She was a stranger. A stranger with a shattered heart.

It was a hard thing to see, my mom tearing apart herself just to cover up all the things she loved about the house. When I was younger, I never understood. I knew why she was sad, and I was too. It’s a brokenness that still lives inside both of us. But as I rest on this porch, which is perfectly leveled, just like every doorknob and window in our house, overlooking the sidewalk that borders our front lawn and the garden now watered by sprinkler heads, I finally have realized that why I miss that old house so much.

The old house lives on in my memory, and that’s the only place where he is still here.

I miss how welcoming he was, the way his red beard rubbed lightly against my neck whenever he hugged me close. I miss how the left corner of his mouth was always drawn up a little higher than his right when he smiled wide, and how, even though he hated it, his right leg dragged a little more than his left, his hand a little slower in response. I miss how he used to whistle through the gap between his teeth, low and slow no matter what he was doing. I could always tell when he was coming up the stairs to say goodnight, or when he was passing through the hall between the kitchen and the front door. I miss the freckles on his skin, which seemed to cover his entire body, lining his arms and legs like constellations. I tried to count them, once. I never finished. Some days, I wish I had.

The scars his absence left behind never quite healed. They are an open wound and will always be. Maybe I don’t miss that old house. It’s just down the street, anyway, and I never find myself wanting to go visit it. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to see how it has changed. Maybe it’s because I don’t want to see the new family, the complete family, living inside, making memories where we used to.

Perhaps I don’t miss that old house at all. Maybe, all I miss is him. But some days, he still is here. Sometimes, when the lack of his presence is too painful to sleep, I slide out the back door and into the night. Alone, I lay down in the middle of our finely clipped lawn, breathing in the cool air deeply. As the coldness begins to seep into my bones, I am taken back to that night under the stars with him. The night of forever, the night that ended too quickly.

But one thing remains. I look up, and I am again swallowed into the infinite expanse of the universe, where I am nothing and everything all in the same moment. I look at the stars. I close my eyes, and I can still see the meteor streaking across the sky. I open my eyes, and he is still here. In the starlight, he exists with me, because it is the one thing that has remained unchanged. He lives in the sky, a part of the endless dance of the milky way, chasing down constellations until the end of time.

Memories are like starlight. The light we see from stars is light from hundreds or thousands of years ago, ancient history revealed by the absence of day. Although the star might have disappeared in its present, it still exists to us in the form of light.

Memories, though they are locked in time, exist in our minds forever.

I close my eyes, and I see his light.

I close my eyes.

He is still here.