Flash Fiction by Riley Tao & Bridget Larsen
The stars seem farther here. The closest star in the Northern Hemisphere is more than fifty trillion kilometers away from home. But the closest star in Australia’s skies, Proxima Centauri, is more than twenty percent closer.
Twenty percent might not seem like a lot, but it’s the difference between an A+ and a C+, between stargazing and studying Saturday night, between Wow, I never knew that! and Who cares? If twenty percent of the stars in the sky vanished, I wonder how many people would notice.
Mia would notice. She notices too much, notices the difference between Love you, Mia and We won’t see much of each other after this, huh? She could name every star in the southern skies.
But America’s skies are alien. Lying on this grassy, dewy hill, if I close my eyes, I can almost pretend I’m home. But when I look at the stars and try to name the constellations, they’re upside-down, or blended up, or just plain wrong, and I’m reminded that the sun I see rising is just barely setting for her.
My phone flares to life. I look away to protect my night vision, but I know from the ringtone that Mia is calling. A tiny, warped copy of her smiling face stares at me from every predawn dewdrop, and my vision goes blurry.
The gleaming pinpricks swim together, and for a moment, I see Crux in the swirls of light. I rub my eyes, two stars spilling from my cheeks. As they fall I see Carina, winking at me before joining the false starscape. I squeeze my eyes shut, sending a storm of incandescent sparks across my eyes that come ablaze in the darkness: Hydra, Lupus, Corvus, Norma, all haunting me.
My phone’s light dies, and the stars in the dewdrops vanish.
Proxima Centauri burns on the other side of the planet, and I wonder if Mia is sitting under the same stars I’m searching for. Rubbing my forehead, I pick up my phone. An enterprising earthworm has already started to crawl across its screen. I try to lift it off as gently as I can, but it writhes out of my grasp, leaving a fifth of its body behind. I dumbly stare at its fallen form until my phone buzzes again, shaking me out of my stupor.
Slowly, the worm stirs back to life.
I call her back, and she picks up immediately. Heya, Mia, I say. Sorry about that. I… I just missed you.
She laughs. No worries, no worries! Long time no see, Ellie! What’s college like?
The campus is beautiful, and their observatories are amazing. It’s everything I hoped for. I just wish I could share it with you.
Yeah. Me too.
Oh, does the sunrise look any different there?
It has all of the colors it should, but it doesn’t feel the same. I’d send you a picture, but it’s all overexposed. I wish I had my equipment with me.
Hey. If you took it all with you, then we wouldn’t be here tonight.
The image shakes as Mia picks up the phone and connects it to the massive telescope the two of us built when we were younger. She pats its flank twice. I spent two weeks figuring out how to hook my phone up to this ol’ thing, but it was worth it. She taps her phone, and her face disappears, replaced by LOADING TELESCOPE FEED. I swallow nervously. CONNECTION ESTABLISHED.
And suddenly, my phone is something more. It hurts to look at after watching the darkened skies for so long. I squint as it forms a window, cutting through ten thousand kilometers of earth just to show me a tiny slice of starry sky, real and crisp and just as I remember. Reverently, I reach to touch it—but the illusion is shattered, and I touch warm glass, not cool air.
I take in a shuddering breath, look at the shard of our sky, and cast my gaze upwards once more. The American skies are fading now, pink and orange fingers brushing the twisted stars away. I return to my phone, smiling faintly, wiping the fog of my breath off the screen. You were right. It was worth it.
If twenty percent of the sky went dark, we’d find new constellations in its remains.
The stars seem further here, but I know they haven’t changed. They’re hidden by the bulk of the world, but if I look through the earth and hold them in my mind, I think I can still find them.
Bridget Larsen is a college student whose artistic interests oscillate between prose, poetry, programming, puzzles, and producing weird sounds (only occasionally on instruments). She spends most of her free time playing video games and going down informational rabbit holes until 4am, after which she realizes that she totally had an assignment due, whoops.
Riley Tao (they/them) is a student at the University of Chicago. Their work has previously been published in Reckoning Literary Magazine, and has upcoming publications in Cast of Wonders and Protean Magazine. Some of their work can be found online at rileyriles.wordpress.com.