Mairead Willis is a poetry and fiction writer from Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in Caveat Lector and is forthcoming in Quarryman. She is currently pursuing an MA in Creative Writing at University College Cork.
Speaking of Stars
It was eleven o’clock on Sunday night. Most of the resort staff had finished their shifts hours ago, and the guests had cleared out of the lounge and headed up to their rooms. It was Nora’s turn to close the kitchen. She picked up a few glasses and ran them through the industrial sanitizer. As she was putting them back in the cupboard, the screen door to the backyard swung open. Paul, the grounds assistant, walked in and leaned his bare elbows on the counter. Paul was Nora’s friend, sort of. She liked him the way she liked fish in tanks or penguins at the zoo or most people: He was charming, as long as he kept his distance. Lately, though, he had been trying to escape his habitat by suggesting they stargaze together.
“So how about it?” he asked.
“I’d love to, but I can’t. Someone has to keep an eye on things down here.”
“What if I told you that Dillon and Sara are in the backyard as we speak?” He wiggled his eyebrows. It had dawned on the summer staff around the end of July that any ill-advised coupling at the Rose Ridge Ranch and Resort would have no consequences after the season was over, and they lost no time pairing up. The online therapist who chatted with Nora when she could scrape the cash together wrote that it was cynical to put it that way, and that close quarters made people fall in love.
Nora rolled her eyes. “I would ask why they didn’t pick a better spot, and also how uncomfortable you made them on your way here.”
“Don’t worry about it. The point is, if another kid shits in a bathtub, if a raccoon builds a throne out of garbage, they’ll take care of it.”
She thought about it. She was trying to be healthy, and according to her therapist, that meant doing things she didn’t want to do. “Is there anywhere we can go that’s not already taken?”
“Don’t worry. We’ll definitely find something.”
Because Nora liked the snuffling sounds the horses made, they started with the empty arena by the pastures.
“Oh,” Wanda, a concierge, disentangled herself from one of the prep cooks (Nora thought his name was Daniel) and adjusted her sweater. “Nora, Paul, hey, what’s up?” She gave them a hostile smile. Probably Daniel, having decided not to bother with them, remained where he lay on the edge of the circle cast by Nora’s flashlight.
Paul glanced at Nora and took a step back. “We were just looking for a place to see the stars,” he said.
“That’s great!” Wanda said, “Dave and I were just checking them out, they’re gorgeous.”
“We’ll see you later.” Nora grabbed Paul by the arm and steered him up the hill behind the arena. In a few minutes, they were stomping through currant and chokecherry.
“Where are we going?” Paul asked.
“Water tower. I don’t think anyone will be up there.”
They came upon the squat, gray column after clearing the top of the hill. She had found it her first summer, when stargazing was still new. “Let’s lie down here,” she said.
Paul took a long look around. Mountain mahogany clogged the base of the tower. He tried and failed to uproot one of the plants, then settled for stomping on it. They lay down.
The view was magnificent. Once their eyes adjusted, they could see that the sky was clogged with stars. Nora glanced over at Paul. I hope he’s not a talker.
Paul cleared his throat. “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Nora winced. She had, of course, and so had he. It was neither of their first summers at the ranch.
“I always forget how amazing it is,” she lied. She shifted away from him and tried to focus on the sky, but the silence was ruined. She couldn’t leave him suffering there, waiting for her to deliver her half of the script. “Did you know that some of these stars are already gone? They’re so far away that by the time the light gets here, they wink out.”
He nodded eagerly. “It just makes me feel so small, but not in a scary way. I feel like a part of everything, of the whole universe, you know?”
This conversation, in this spot, had been so mind-blowing the first time. Nora tried not to think about it. She wondered if Paul was recycling content, too, or if he meant what he was saying. He was waiting for her to speak. She should bring up “The Ancients” and their advanced understanding of the cosmos. But maybe she wasn’t giving Paul enough credit. He was a nice guy, good with the guests. Maybe he would want to know what she really thought.
Paul rolled toward her and laced his fingers through hers. “You’re so beautiful.”
I don’t care about you, Norah wanted to say, doesn’t that matter?
Instead she reached out and traced his face from his ear to the tip of his chin. She kissed him for the sake of equilibrium, pouring out her heat until the night hung again in cold and perfect balance.
© 2019 Mairead Willis