“I think we’re in Hazen,” said Jamie. He‘d climbed out of the bush they’ve landed in, and was now standing beside Dan. He pulled the beanie down so that it completely covered his ears. “A chillier Hazen, but still Hazen. We’re even in the same street.”
“That’s funny,” Dan evenly said. It was all he could do to pretend that he still had a semblance of composure. “This ain’t Hazen. Even in my dreams it’s never like that — oh,” he cut himself off, a grave, startled expression befalling his features. “Oh no. Jamie, I think I know what happened.”
“You touched something that I told you not to touch?”
Jamie stared at his friend dumbfoundedly. Then, he cackled. “Did you hit your head on that bush or something?”
“I’m serious!” Dan called out. His voice echoed in the dark, narrow alley they were standing in, and they could hear the patter and clatter of few rats running off behind the dumpsters. “We must’ve fallen off the roof on our way down. Or up. Whichever. This is the afterlife.”
“It’s pretty dark for eternal accommodation,” Jamie noted, glancing around him.
“We must be in limbo.”
“Dan,” Jamie huffed, “we’re not dead.”
“Then how can you possibly explain this?” Dan said, kicking a stray soda can that lay on the pavement. His eyes have grown used enough to the dark to distinguish rock from oblivion, although he was seeing everything on a depressing scale of greys. “There’s no light, no buzz, no nothing. Jamie, this isn’t possible.”
“It must be related to that star, or whatever it was,” Jamie said. He stalked off down the alley to investigate, but not far enough to go out of earshot. “It must’ve taken out all the power in the city.”
“And threw us on the bushes?”
“I don’t know,” replied Jamie. “Do I look like an expert on shooting stars to you?”
“I’m telling you, we’re dead,” Dan said, picking up Jamie’s trail. “I should’ve known I’d die before seeing an actual physical star. Figures. It’s just my luck.”
“We should see if we can find anyone who knows what’s going on.” Jamie broke out of the alley into a street that although wider, was just as dark and empty. “Where is everybody?”
“In the world of the living?”
Jamie paused. “Give me your hand.”
“Give me,” Jamie said, “your hand.”
Dan held out his unoccupied hand, narrowing his eyes at Jamie inquiringly. “What exactly— ow! what the—“
“There you go,” Jamie grinned, having just pinched Dan’s palm hard enough to squeeze the life out of his friend’s unfortunate nerves. “As long as it hurts, it means you’re alive. Now cut the crap and help me figure this out.”
“I can’t believe you’ve just attacked me!” exclaimed Dan, shaking his palm. “Me! Your best friend! Your partner in crime! Your—“
“I feel like I might just commit a crime in a second,” Jamie said dryly. Dan was about to reply when he noticed someone behind Jamie — a girl, wearing a dark dress and briskly walking in the direction opposite them, her heels clicking against the pavement. Dan jogged up to her. “Hey! Excuse me, Miss, Ma’am, can you help us?”
The girl turned to him. When she spoke, her voice was gravelly — a smoker, Dan guessed. “Are you lost or something?”
“Kind of,” he said at the same time Jamie said, “not exactly.”
She looked between the two boys in confusion.
“Do you know anything about the blackout that’s just happened?” tried Dan.
“The black…out,” Dan repeated, his voice trailing. “You didn’t notice all the power suddenly going out all at once? It’s dead dark in here.”
“I’m sorry, but I have no idea what you’re talking about,” said the girl, taking a step back from them. “Have you been drinking or something? I don’t want any trouble.”
“What? No,” said Dan, frowning. “You seriously haven’t noticed any of that just now?”
“I’m really not sure… nothing’s happened,” she stammered. “I’m sorry, but I really have to go. Maybe you should lay off of whatever you’ve been taking.”
Dan let out a protesting squawk, but the girl was already walking away from them.
“We haven’t been drinking!” he called after her, which only resulted in her picking up her pace and disappearing around a street-corner. Dan turned a disbelieving face to Jamie, who grimaced sympathetically.
“Maybe we’re not in Hazen after all,” Jamie suggested.
“The streets really are the same, though,” Dan said, looking around them. And then it dawned on him, and he smacked himself in the forehead. “I’m such an idiot!”
“That’s an understatement,” Jamie agreed. “But I don’t see how it’s relevant.”
“Jay— it’s magic.”
“Magic,” repeated that.
“This is the best day of my life!” Dan exclaimed. He started back toward the alley they’ve come from, newfound enthusiasm embedded in his step. “Do you think we could see the stars from up there?”
“Hold up,” Jamie said, catching Dan’s sleeve as that turned. “Where are you going?”
“Back on that rooftop,” Dan replied. “Don’t you see, Jamie? This is exactly what we’ve wanted. With all the electricity’s gone, we might have a shot at catching that meteor shower.”
“We,” Jamie said, “need to find a way to get back home.”
Dan laughed, before realising Jamie was serious. “You’ve gotta be kidding me, Jay.”
Jamie shook his head, intent in his eyes. “I’m really not. If you’re right, and this really is some… magic trick, then we have no idea where we are. This might not be the same city we know. Who knows what could happen?”
“Of course it isn’t the same,” Dan said, huffing another laugh. “It’s better.”
“It’s different,” Jamie insisted. “We shouldn’t get involved in here. Best case scenario is we get lost. Worst case scenario? We walk somewhere we shouldn’t and screw ourselves over.”
“Jay, don’t be like that,” Dan said. “What does our Hazen already have that you’re gonna miss? Tremors and filth?”
“The apartment, for one.”
“That apartment’s falling apart,” said Dan. “We could find a better one.”
“With what money?” Jamie’s voice tinged incredulous. “I don’t know about you, but I hardly have anything on me.”
“I’ve got, like, fifty bucks,” Dan said, changing course and now heading toward the street’s interjection, where it opened up to a wider pathway with visible skies. “I could find a place to sleep with that money.”
“That’s not my point, and you know it,” Jamie callously chastised, following suit.
“Please, do humour me,” replied Dan. He walked halfway down the street and then stopped, looking up.
It wasn’t what he saw, but rather the lack of it, that made his knuckles tighten white around the drained star he was holding. Overhead, the sky was as smooth as oil; sleek and dark, the moon that had hanged up there in their Hazen gone.
Jamie followed Dan’s gaze, and then paused. When he spoke, his voice held a softer hue than before. “Are you ready to go home now?”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Dan muttered. As if jolted out of his stupefaction, he glanced all around him, once, twice, before craning his neck toward the sky again. “There’s nothing—where are the stars?”
“Gone?” shrugged Jamie. “Maybe they were ever just a fairytale.”
Dan shot him a venomous glare and pulled the rock out of his pocket, holding it up. “What’s this, then? Our Hazen has stars.”
Jamie sighed, knowing what would come next.
“We have to get back.”
“There we go,” he muttered to himself. Then, louder, he said, “I totally agree.”
“Okay, alright,” Dan nodded, then circled himself again. “How did you say we were going to do that?”
“I didn’t,” Jamie said. “But my guess would be to use that star, since it’s what brought us here in the first place.”
“It’s got no juice anymore,” said Dan, flipping the star, smooth and cold to the touch, in his hand. It gave off no sensation; no heat, no light, no… magic. Dan didn’t know what magic felt like, but he was pretty sure it didn’t feel like absolutely nothing. “D’you think we can find someplace to fix it?”
“What, like a magic repair shop?”
Dan shrugged. He wandered off, peering into darkened windows in search of a miracle, scouring the walls for clues. Jamie looked about the street in hopes of finding someone of whom they could ask for help, but it was oddly vacant.
“Where could we even find something like that?” Jamie said. “If we’re in some… parallel Hazen, then it could just as well be that there’s no magic around here. And even if there is, it could take us hours, days, maybe even weeks before we figure out where—“
“Found it,” Dan called, making Jamie halt. He approached his friend, and saw him standing in front of an old stucco building wall, looking at a colourful pamphlet. Jamie was taken aback — it stood out against the filthy, grey wall to which it was attached, if only because it glowed in neon colours.
Actually glowed. It was the first thing they’ve come across since crashing here that emitted any sort of light; against the merciless shadows and greys all around them, it should’ve been impossible to miss. And yet, it wasn’t until they’d looked directly at it that they’ve noticed it.
“This screams magic to me,” noted Dan.
“No kidding,” said Jamie. Framing the pamphlet were countless bright-yellow stars-stickers; and at the center of it, in neon-red brushstrokes, was written The Polaris Café. Under that, in smaller, purple letters, was added, the only place in town where you can see the stars. Magic consultation. At the very bottom of the page an address was scribbled.
“Jackpot,” Dan muttered, tearing the pamphlet off the wall.
“Best coffee in town,” said a low voice behind them. Dan and Jamie both yelped and jumped back, turning to face their sudden companion; an old, bearded man was standing not a foot’s distance from them, slightly hunched, with his hands clasped behind his back.
“Where did you pop up from?” shrieked Dan, not without his dignity.
“You two look like you’re rather lost,” said the old man. “I take it that you’re not from around here?”
“Not exactly,” said Jamie.
Dan gestured with the pamphlet. “You know if this place is legit?”
“Depends on what you’re looking for,” shrugged the old man.
The man quirked an eyebrow at him, and Jamie smacked Dan on the back of his head. “Please excuse my friend’s manners. He was born on a bus.”
“As a matter of fact, I was not—“
“What he’s trying to say is — could you please tell us what you know about the place?” Jamie continued with a friendly smile, pretending he was unaware of the scorching glare Dan shot him. “We need some real help.”
“You look like it, kid,” said the old man, nodding his head gravely. “Lovely girl, the one who owns the place. Makes exquisite coffee, right around the corner.”
“I’d die for a cappuccino right about now,” mused Dan.
“What do you mean, right around the corner?” Jamie interrupted. The old man, in response, turned and gestured his head toward the interjection from which they’ve emerged. Right at the corner, facing both street and alley, a small establishment was stationed; bold, neon-purple letters protruded from the wall over its beaten-looking wooden door, reading, The Polaris Café.
Both boys straightened in surprise.
“That wasn’t there before,” Dan said. He turned back to the old man, only to realise he was nowhere to be seen. “Where did he go?”
“This is getting weirder and weirder,” Jamie muttered, pulling his beanie down against his ears. “Let’s go.”
“At least we can safely assume there’s magic involved,” Dan said as he followed Jamie’s step toward the café. A soft yellow light, one unlike anything Dan has seen before, poured out of the windows, washing over the pavement outside the café. They could now see the street’s eerie resemblance to that which resided in their own Hazen, down to the trashcans and street-lamps — none of which, of course, were currently alight.
After climbing the three stone steps leading up to the café’s door, Dan pushed it open to be welcomed by the tinkle of a bell over his head and a surge of light dazzling his eyes. When his vision adjusted, he fell still, fingers letting loose their hold on the door behind him. If it weren’t for Jamie catching it, then it would’ve slammed shut.
The establishment was small and compact, with five tables lining the murky marble grounds and a bar standing by the far wall, which held an opening covered by a colourful bead curtain. The hunched old man they’ve spoken to was the only other costumer, occupying a table by the window, nursing a cup of coffee and reading a newspaper. Oh, and there were stars hanging from the ceiling.
They dangled from thin, translucent strings, swaying softly in the air above them. If Dan reached out on his tiptoes, he would be able to touch them; but he found himself fixed in his place, observing, his mind going empty. They were stars much alike the one in his pocket, steadily illuminating a warm, gentle aura that reached the very corners of the room — no shadow could sneak in from the dark and grey city they’ve left behind them, and no buzz chased from the city they’ve left before that. Pressing his fingertips against the wall, just to make sure, Dan was met with no tremors.
“Welcome to The Polaris Café!” greeted a cheerful voice, pulling Dan back into the present. His gaze fell on a girl.
She didn’t look much older than him — short and slim, with curly, straw-coloured hair tied at the nape of her neck and and a white apron tied at her hips, over a washed-out green dress. She smiled at them kindly, holding a notepad. “May I show you to a table?”
Dan blinked at her. “Sure, I guess.”
She led them to a table at the back of the room, next to a curtained window. While they sat down, she arranged their cutlery with practiced ease. “Not from around here, are you?”
“Why does everyone keep assuming that?” said Dan. The girl lifted surprised
jade-coloured eyes to him, before her expression softened.
“You’ve got that air about you,” she said. “Both of you. Like you don’t belong.”
Dan did a double take and opened his mouth to respond, but the girl continued before he could. “What would you like to order?”
“Actually,” intervened Jamie, leaning forward against the table, “we’re not here to eat.”
“Ah,” the girl said, lowering her notepad. “I see. In that case, I’ll be with you in a minute. Would you like something to drink in the meantime?”
“I heard you make killer coffee,” said Dan, and the girl laughed.
“You could say that,” she said. “Not much of a drinker?”
“Nah,” said Dan. “A cappuccino would be nice. ”
She scribbled it down on her notepad and turned to Jamie. “Just black coffee for me,” he said, and she nodded and scribbled that down too.
“My name’s Aiu,” she said, shoving the pen into the notepad’s metal hoops, and the notepad into her apron’s pocket. “I’ll be your waitress today. Please enjoy your stay.”
And she walked off. Dan watched after her as she disappeared behind the beaded curtain, then whipped his head back to Jamie. “You’re seeing this too, right?”
“The stars just casually hanging from the ceiling?” said Jamie, leaning back in his chair. He pulled the curtain to peek outside. “I guess that pamphlet wasn’t lying. I think this whole place is magic.”
Dan frowned. “How come?”
Jamie gestured faintly with the curtain he was still holding. “Take a look.”
Dan pulled the curtain on his side to see the street; for a moment, he didn’t understand what Jamie was talking about, but then the realisation hit him and he glanced over his shoulder at the entrance — the one all the way across the room. When he peeked back out of the window, he still saw the edge of the three stone steps they’d climbed on their way to the door, washed over with a soft yellow light that wasn’t coming from this particular window. “Are we even in Hazen anymore?”
“It’s interesting that you’ve noticed,” came Aiu’s voice, and both boys simultaneously dropped their hold on the curtain and whipped their head to her. Aiu was standing next to their table with a tray balanced on one hand, putting down the ordered mugs of coffee in front of them. When she was done, she straightened and gave them a kind smile. “But then again, those who look for loopholes always find them.”
“Where are we?” said Dan, his hand instinctively reaching out for the warmth of his mug.
“The Polaris Café, of course,” replied Aiu, folding the tray under her arm. “Please, enjoy your coffee; I’ll be with you as soon as I’m finished with another costumer.”
Dan gingerly sipped his coffee. He kept his eyes on Aiu’s back as she retreated, put the tray on the bar and bypassed it, before disappearing behind the beaded curtain. When he gave the room a once over, he noticed that the old man was once again nowhere in sight, leaving behind an empty coffee mug and a folded newspaper.
With a decisive push of the chair, Dan abandoned his cappuccino — which was every bit as good as it’d been made up to be — and got up.
“Where are you—“ Jamie cut himself off with a sigh when Dan crossed the room towards the old man’s abandoned table. “Dan.”
“Aren’t you curious?” Dan said, picking up the newspaper. With a swift motion he unfolded it, and pulled the paper closer to his face. Jamie, across the room, hit his head against the curtained window with a groan.
“Would you look at that,” Dan called out. “Did you know, Jay, that this Hazen had working lights a few months ago?”
“Really?” Jamie couldn’t help the intrigue that’s slipped into his voice.
“Aha,” replied Dan. “Turns out some lunatic brought it down. Apparently he messed the whole system up so thoroughly that they’ve only now started fixing it.”
“Looks like you might have a doppelgänger, then,” huffed Jamie, blowing over his coffee and stifling a smirk at Dan’s noise of disgust.
“Ew, no, they’ve got that guy’s mugshot here. He’s even uglier than you, Jay.”
“Thanks,” Jamie dryly said. Dan grinned up at him, and suddenly cringed when a clatter came from behind the beaded curtain. He quickly discarded the newspaper to the old man’s table and skittered back to his own, grabbing his mug as he sat down. Jamie snickered and half-choked on a sip of his own coffee. “Real smooth, Danny.”
Dan shot him a flat glare and sipped his cold cappuccino, dawning a neutral expression and acting for all the world as if he were the most innocent person to have ever lived. Jamie rolled his eyes, leaned back in his seat and gestured his head in greeting at Aiu’s oncoming figure.
“How are you enjoying your coffee?” she asked as soon as she reached them, her voice sweet. Jamie smiled at her as Dan ducked his head, ever so slightly.
“It’s great,” said the former. “Really is something else.”
“Definitely,” nodded Dan, steadily slurping his coffee. As soon as his mug was empty, he cleared his throat, and looked up at Aiu. “So, about that business.”
“Yes, of course,” she said, clasping her hands together. “Please, come with me.”
The two boys discarded their empty mugs and got up to follow her. Dan noticed, after a brief glance, that the newspaper was no longer on the old man’s table, even though he hasn’t seen the latter leave. Taking the newspaper’s place were a few crumpled dollars.
They followed Aiu as she disappeared behind the beaded curtain. Dan was almost surprised to see that there was an actual kitchen in there — nothing fancy or advanced, but it was clean and cozy, and contained three different coffee machines. Not far from the entrance from which they’ve just emerged stood a swirly, metal staircase, the railings of which were decorated with wild vines. Dan halted to look at an open, pink flower that grew out of the end of one of them, but a tug at his sleeve pulled his attention back to their host, who’s started climbing the steps.
“Come,” she said. “It’s not going to fall apart.”
“Didn’t think it was,” mumbled Dan, but followed. The stairs were rusty under his soles and creaked as he stepped on them, none too reassuringly; he simply hastened his pace and clutched onto the railing at his side.
The top of the stairs cleared out into a single room. It was medium-sized and mostly empty, furnished only with a coat-hanger lined with dresses, a neatly-made bed and a low tea-table, two cushions resting on the ground on either side of it. Looking up, Dan saw that the ceiling was made of glass, exhibiting the dull darkness of Hazen’s sky.
Aiu sat down on the cushion closer to the bed and gestured for the boys to take their place opposite her. Dan and Jamie both sat cross-legged on different pillows, and a moment of silence flickered between the three of them.
“So,” opened Aiu. Her back was completely straight, her palms resting in her lap. There was a gleam to her eyes that Dan couldn’t place. “How can I help you two tonight?”
“You’ve probably already gathered that we’re lost,” Dan said, fidgeting with his own fingers under the table-line. “We didn’t mean to get here. To this Hazen. And we don’t know how to get back home.”
She quirked an eyebrow at him. “This Hazen?”
Jamie quickly explained their situation to her. When he was done, she let out an understanding sigh and leaned forward. “Can I see this star you’re talking about?”
Dan and Jamie exchanged glances, before Dan reluctantly pulled the rock out of his pocket and put it on the table between them. Aiu leaned even closer, tilting her head, but didn’t move her hands to touch it. “I see.”
“You see? What are you seeing?” asked Dan, rather hurriedly. Aiu’s eyes flicked up to him, and she straightened once again.
“This is probably just one big misunderstanding,” she said, her voice soft. “This star right here must’ve overheard the wishes of your heart, and misinterpreted them.”
Dan’s brow creased. “What do you mean, overheard?”
“It is conscious, you know,” she said with a smile. “You can’t have possibly thought it was a mere object.”
Dan inhaled, and Jamie had the time to roll his eyes before his friend exclaimed, “I told you so!”
“Excuse me for seeing a rock and not immediately assuming it has feelings,” retorted Jamie, leaning his arms back against the floor. “My mistake.”
“Wait, but how does that help us?” Dan turned his attention back to Aiu. “Can it reverse what it’s done?”
“Not quite,” she replied. “It’s expended itself rather thoroughly, preforming what is has for you. There’s no telling how long it would take for it to come back to itself; it’s completely plausible that it might never recover.”
“So you’re saying we’re stuck?” asked Jamie.
“Generally, yes,” she said, a sad curve to her smile. She watched as the boys exchanged another look, simultaneously landing their eyes back on her. “Do you not like it here?”
“It’s not that,” Dan sighed. “It’s just that… I mean, you’ve said it yourself. We don’t belong in here.”
“And there you do?”
Dan fell silent.
“It’s our home,” Jamie said instead. “We’ve got an apartment, and jobs, and memories there.”
Aiu frowned, tilting her head. “And what of it?”
“You can get an apartment here,” she said. “You can even get the same one, if it really is the same city. Get new jobs, make new memories. It can’t be all that different if it’s completely the same, can it?”
“But it isn’t,” said Dan. “The same. It isn’t the same. It’s too dark in here.”
The crease in Aiu’s forehead smoothed. “It’s not going to stay like that forever.”
Dan looked her dead in the eye, unconsciously leaning forward against the table. “And how do you know that?”
She shrugged. “They’re going to fix the lights.”
Dan huffed a laugh and leaned back again. “It’s not the lights that are the problem, sweetheart. I hate the lights.” He gestured at the glass ceiling with his hand, tipping his chin to face the black. “But at least back home I know we have stars.”
A flicker of sudden, honest understanding passed through her features, and Dan didn’t know what to make of it.
“You can try to undo it manually,” she finally said. “Clear the misunderstanding.”
Dan blinked at her. “Clear the misunderstanding?”
“Find the source of all this,” she clarified, gesturing around. “And show the star what it is that you actually want. The wish granted, by its nature, should change its trajectory.”
“It must know that we want to get back home,” said Dan. “I’ve carried it with me since we got here.”
“But do you, really?” she asked, eyebrows perking. Dan ducked his head. “You can’t lie to it. That’s all I can tell you.”
She climbed to her feet, and the two boys begrudgingly did the same, turning to leave.
“Now that that’s settled,” she said from behind them, and they looked back to her, momentarily puzzled; “let’s discuss methods of payment.”
A minute silence hovered over the room, before Jamie pointed at Dan. “He’s got fifty bucks.”
In Case of Finding a Shooting Star, Please Return to Owner © Michal Rotko