Dan was sitting on the front steps to the Polaris, forearms leaning against his knees as he glared at the drained star in his hand. “C’mon, buddy,” he muttered. “Perform me a miracle.”
“Do you reckon it can hear you?” Jamie said from where he was standing on the pavement, opposite of Dan. The lights from the café had them casting long shadows on the ground, slightly askew to where they should’ve fallen.
“We’re in this mess in the first place because it can,” Dan replied without looking up from the star. It was almost as if he thought that if he’d look at it long enough, an achievement of determination would be unlocked and confetti would drop from the sky, along with two bus tickets home. “It overheard our wishes, whatever that means. Or, actually, maybe it can’t hear anything, since it did such a lousy job.” He glared at the starless sky overhead.
Jamie rested his hand on his hip and tilted his head, thoughtfully regarding the star. “Maybe it overheard us in the literal sense.”
Dan gave him an inquiring look.
“Think about it,” reasoned Jamie. “What’s different about this Hazen?”
“S’dark,” realised Dan. “There’s no electricity. No buzz.”
“Exactly,” said Jamie. “So maybe all we have to do is turn the lights back on. Aiu said that the wish’s trajectory will change, once it realises we’ve never wanted any of this in the first place.”
“We prove the star wrong,” said Dan. “And what, it’s going to send us back to our Hazen after that?”
Jamie shrugged. “It would have no reason to keep us here,” he said. “Same Hazen, same difference. Only question is, how exactly are we going to do that?”
A mischievous glint passed through Dan’s shadowed eyes. “We plug the power source back in.”
“If it were that simple, I think the authorities would’ve done that already,” Jamie dryly remarked. “We can’t just restore the entire city’s power supply in a single night.”
“Jay, as always, you lack faith in me,” Dan said, shaking his head in self grievance. Jamie narrowed his eyes at him.
“What are you planning?”
Dan smirked up at him and climbed to his feet, shoving the star into his jacket’s pocket in the same motion.
“I did not think we were going to scale another building anytime soon!” Jamie exclaimed as the winds almost blew him off of the side of the building. With the hand that wasn’t holding onto the darkened window-sill, he clutched at his beanie, which kept threatening to skedaddle into the deep, dark oblivion down below. “Do me a favour, Danny, and next time you get us doing potentially life-threatening activities — check the weather!”
“Stop being a wussy and focus!” Dan yelled back, voice slamming against the wind, hair mussed up in all directions and eyes blazing. His fingers were white against the stone shelf he held onto for dear life, as was his face. Just the tip of his nose reddened from the blood-rush. “We’re almost there, anyway.”
“Speak for yourself!” Jamie glared at him from half a storey below. Dan dared a glance downward and quickly lifted his eyes back to the wall in front of him, trying to stifle his snicker. “I can hear you laughing, you asshole. Don’t come to my funeral if I fall and die.”
“Will do,” replied Dan, pulling himself up and over the ledge. “Or won’t, I guess. Anyway, Jay, you’re perfectly fine. Just a tiny bit more.”
Dan pulled his legs up and crawled forward to fully accommodate his body on the rooftop, rising to a low crouch and pausing to catch his breath. The winds blew back his hair, and his jacket had been previously barely zipped up to prevent it doing the same. Running his hands through his locks, Dan lifted his eyes to the sky, suppressing the vague sense of deja-vu that washed over him.
From somewhere not far below him, Jamie let out a string of curses that had Dan whirling around. Jamie’s right hand was clutching the ledge, and not much else — leaving his body to dangle over the several-storey fall.
Dan immediately flattened against the rooftop’s concrete, reaching out to pull Jamie up. Jamie grabbed his arm with his free hand, which has presumably slipped, with a knuckle-white grip. “Hey, buddy, I gotcha,” Dan said, catching hold of both of his friend’s arms and heaving him up. “I gotcha.”
Several heaves, a few additional curses and many a huff later, they both ended up lying flat on their backs at the secure mercy of the rooftop.
“Now, pray tell,” Jamie said after having gathered his breath, “why did we do that?”
Dan took that as his cue to climb to his feet and look about the rooftop, before finding what he was looking for — a large, reinforced box, entangled with wires that stretched from this building to those adjacent — and starting toward it. “For my grand plan.”
“Which you haven’t explained yet,” said Jamie, footsteps following.
Dan fished out a star from his jacket’s left pocket and turned around to show Jamie, who, at the sight, stopped in his tracks. “Where did you get that?”
Dan grinned; the steady light emanating from the star sharpened his features to give the gesture a wicked quality. “I burrowed it from a certain little coffee shop.”
Jamie facepalmed softly. “Dan.”
“You’ll thank me in a minute,” said that, not even bothering to conceal the glee in his voice. “I just need to figure out how to…”
He crouched in front of the box and started fiddling with the wires.
“Do you want to get electrocuted?” Jamie said, warily eyeing the scene.
“The power’s down, in case you haven’t noticed,” replied Dan, putting the luminous star on top of the box. “Okay, little guy, I need you do something for me.”
Jamie joined Dan in crouching in front of the box, back straight whereas Dan was expectantly leaning forward, both their faces framed by the steady light. Out here, without the company of the countless other stars of the Polaris, it was apparent that it wasn’t nearly as bright as their drained star had been upon its discovery. That star was still safely tucked away in Dan’s jacket, as dark as the night.
“Maybe it’s a fake,” Jamie said after a few moments.
“It’s just needs a little motivation,” said Dan, dropping to sit on the concrete, arms wrapping loosely around his knees. He narrowed his eyes thoughtfully, resting his chin on one kneecap.
“Okay, little guy,” he eventually told the star. “I haven’t introduced myself. My name’s Dan. This here,” he tilted his head in Jamie’s direction, “is Jamie. I know that it looks like we kidnapped you—“
Jamie cleared his throat.
“—like I kidnapped you,” he amended, “but it’s all for a good cause. D’you wanna save this city, little guy? You could be a hero.”
Jamie leaned closer to Dan and, quietly, said, “that hardly sounds convincing.”
“I know what I’m doing,” Dan replied, just as quiet.
“You have no idea what you’re doing.”
Dan paused for a brief moment. “Fine, you’re right. But I have a hunch.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow
“I mean,” Dan said, “everybody’s righteous these days, right?”
“Everybody pretends,” Jamie said. Dan made a face and turned back to the star in front of them.
“So, what do you say, little guy?” Dan asked it. A thin silence befell the air, holding, before Dan dropped his head with a faint sigh.
Jamie, noticing Dan’s distress, shuffled closer to the box. When he spoke, his voice was clean and soft. “We just want to go home.”
Dan pulled the drained star out of his pocket and held it up for this star to see. “Your brother’s a bit tired,” he said. “We’re trying to convince him to get us back home, but he isn’t hearing us right now. But, if you help us light this city up, he might be able to see that.”
Another thin silence occupied the space between them.
And then the star flickered — for a split second, his light draining and then replenished — and the tension sizzled away. Both Dan and Jamie quietly exhaled.
“Just tap into this,” Dan said, tugging at the tangle of wires on which the star was resting. “Power it up. This and all the wires in the city. Borrow them your light; like a spark for a fire. Just for a little while.”
The star’s light pulsed faintly in a measure akin to hesitation. Jamie, once again, leaned toward Dan.
“It could,” he quietly said. Both their eyes flicked to the drained star in Dan’s palm.
“I know,” replied Dan. Another pulse from the little star caught their attention, and Jamie grimaced.
“We don’t want to force your hand,” he gently said. “If you don’t want to. Doing this could dry you up, and we can’t be sure you’ll fully recover if something goes wrong.”
The star pulsed again, this time more intensely, and the sudden shift in its light drew their attention to the way it’d reflected off of the string that was still attached to it.
“Did you cut it off?” Jamie hissed, reaching forward to examine the string.
“What do you take me for?” Dan replied, offended. “I unhooked it from the ceiling.”
“Dan.” Jamie’s intonation suddenly pitched. “Look at this.”
He held up the string, careful not to jostle the star itself. Attached to the end of it was a small square of worn-out cardboard, with something written on it in clean, round cursive. Jamie held it to the light and read out loud. “In case of finding me, please return to owner.”
Both boys blanched.
“We’re officially star-kidnappers,” Jamie said flatly.
“It wants us to take it back to the Polaris,” Dan realised, regret filling his voice. He rubbed his forehead. “Aw, man. I feel like a shitty human being now.”
“You did steal it.”
“Yeah, but I fully intended to return it, later,” Dan said, brow creasing at the implications. “Somehow.”
The star pulsed again, once, twice, and Dan tilted his head at it. “What?”
“I think it agrees,” Jamie said, voice slow with uncertainty. “Little guy,” he prompted, adopting the nickname Dan’s given it, “do you want to help us?”
The star pulsed intensely.
“But we’re leaving,” Jamie said. “We won’t be able to get back to the Polaris.”
The star pulsed faintly, and the boys narrowed their eyes at it, unsure of how to interpret it. Then, Dan felt something pointedly heating up against his torso; he frowned and looked down, patting himself until his hand stopped on the seams of his jacket’s pocket.
“What’s wrong?” Jamie asked when Dan handed him the drained star.
“My pocket’s burning up,” he muttered, pulling out the heat-source. He belatedly realised it was the Polaris’ poster — the one he had ripped off the wall in the alley. He unfolded it and immediately noticed that the address was emitting an almost-dazzling, neon-purple light.
His brow creased further and he looked up to the little star. “We already know where it is, little guy.”
“The address changed,” Jamie said.
“What? That’s—“ Dan looked down again, and — okay, granted, he hadn’t paid attention to the actual address printed on it back in the alley, so he couldn’t exactly confirm Jamie’s claim; but Jamie’s certainty had him vaguely recalling an eight instead of a two and a street name that certainly hadn’t begun with a w. “That’s impossible.”
“Good morning,” Jamie wryly said. “Trust me. It’s different. It makes sense, actually.”
“The way the Polaris popped out of nowhere,” Jamie explained, flattening his palm against the concrete under him for balance. “And the view from the window. I don’t think it’s strictly in this city.”
“What, like a pocket dimension sorta thing?”
“So we could take the little guy back to his home after we get back to ours,” said Dan, a hint of relief invading his tone. The two turned their attentions back to the star in question, who’s been holding steady between then and now. “You ready, buddy?”
The star gave a definitive flicker, and the boys braced themselves, inching away from the mess of wires.
Something crackled in the air around them, and they stilled. The hairs at the back of Dan’s neck bristled, and he felt his shoulders involuntarily tensing; for a long, hollow second, everything around them held still.
And then the world exploded with light.
Dan was seeing stars. By all accounts, he couldn’t make sense of them.
They were white, and dotty, and dense in seemingly random patterns in the sky, burning bright against its dark background. His eyes hurt, dazzled but compulsorily wide, fixated on the display above him.
And below him.
He couldn’t tell up from down. Up there, the world was burning up; and down here, it buzzed with electricity, a familiar heartbeat. He blinked a couple of times, expecting his vision to clear or for him to wake up, but the light didn’t fade away. Never mind that his plan has worked — which, on its own merit, was a miracle; never mind that he was currently in a parallel freak-Hazen. He was standing on a rooftop, and he was looking at the sky, and the sky looked, for the first time in his life, as if someone had sprinkled shimmering Tipp-Ex on it while having a breakdown.
Dan took a staggering step back and craned his neck even higher, taking in the picture. There were darkened spaces, margined by highways of stars; some of them flickered faintly, and others swayed, as if slightly drunk. They were mostly fixed in place and huddled together in a view that, even though it wasn’t possible, Dan could’ve sworn he’s seen before.
“It’s Hazen,” Jamie said from beside him.
Hands grabbed his shoulders and turned him around, ushering him a few steps forward. “Look down.”
He looked up again. “What the hell?”
“For a second, it looked like the stars, didn’t it?” Jamie said. With a shallow sigh, he let go of Dan’s shoulders and sat down on the ledge, letting his boots dangle over the city. His head was slightly cocked upward. “But there are no stars in Hazen.”
Dan sat down next to him, mimicking his friend’s posture and position. “Except for those misplaced.”
Jamie hummed and pulled off his beanie. The wind mussed up his hair, blew it away from his face. Dan barely felt its force anymore, only registering a faint sense of haze. With his eyes above the horizon, and a clear view of both the streets and the sky, up by down, it was almost laughably obvious: every dot of electricity was reflected as a mock star. A few buildings over, a rooftop’s light flickered and died down. Above it, on the same spot, at the same time, a star turned off.
“Maybe, here, it’s always been like that,” Dan eventually said. Jamie looked to him, inquiry clear in his features over the blazing city-lights. Dan huffed a laugh that was supposed to be bitter, but came out sincerely amused. He leaned back, flattened his palm on the concrete behind him, and felt the buzz. “No stars left for us.” He fell quiet for a moment. “Don’t know what I expected.”
“A miracle?” suggested Jamie. Dan shrugged lazily.
“A reverie,” he said. They lifted their heads simultaneously, abandoning the city-lights in favour of their reflections, and for a moment, Dan allowed the context to trickle away from his perception. Just for a moment, he wasn’t a runaway looking to go back home; sitting on a foreign rooftop in a city that wasn’t, really, his own; bitter about the tricks the universe kept feeding him. No. For this moment, he was just a guy — sitting against cold concrete, wild wind hitting his face, and overzealous eyes fixed on a sky full of stars.
He studied them; and while he did, he forgot what he’d been looking for in the first place.
“I want to go home,” he whispered. It should’ve been lost in the wind, but for some reason — maybe simply because Jamie was looking for him to say it — he’d heard him. When Dan pulled his eyes back down, his friend was looking at him, outstretching him a star.
Dan picked up the drained thing and tensed for a chill that didn’t come. The star was warm in his hand, fitting snugly against the shape of his palm. Something that felt too rough to be the smooth metal of the star was digging into the skin between his fingers; when he turned it over, a square of cardboard dangled into the air from a thin, translucent string.
He picked up the cardboard with his free hand and brought it up. Although the handwriting was messier, crooked and scribbled on the surface with what looked like a thick, white sharpie, the message was a familiar one. “In case of finding me,” Dan read, “please return to owner.”
Jamie leaned closer to take his own look at the scribbles. “Was that there the whole time?”
“No,” said Dan. He flipped the cardboard, checking to see if anything was written on the other side. When he saw there was nothing else, he frowned, and flipped it back to read the scribbles again.
When he spoke, his voice was distracted. “Mama said it was simple.”
Dan looked straight ahead, eyes tracing the line of the horizon. It was edged with the tops of buildings; like a fold in the world, it bent the pattern of the reflecting lights, mirror-image gradually growing away from the source the farther from the horizon one got. “Halfway between the end of the horizon and Morning Star, there’s a dot. Find the dot, and from there, you can reach the center.”
Jamie followed Dan’s gaze, his brow creasing. “You said nobody’s ever found it before.”
“Yeah,” replied Dan. “It sounds easy, doesn’t it? Right in between two spots. Morning Star is somewhere…” his voice trailed, tinging confused. “I actually don’t know. Somewhere fixed, that’s for sure. The trouble is the horizon.”
“Because it has no end,” said Jamie. Dan laughed.
“No—no, that’s what they want you to think,” he huffed with a smile, eyes dropping halfway. “No, it ends. Everything does. The thing is— the thing is, that it keeps running away.”
“It doesn’t want to be found,” Jamie said.
“That’s right,” said Dan. He turned his eyes to Jamie; for once, he felt relaxed. His hold over the star was loose, his shoulders slumped. His eyelids downturned, and then his friend thought that, perhaps, he wasn’t so much relaxed as he was simply tired.
It’s been kind of a long night.
“We have to give it back, now,” Jamie said, voice quiet. At some point, the wind has gone down. “Don’t we?”
“Yeah,” sighed Dan. He shoved the star into his jacket’s pocket. “But first thing’s first.”
They looked back to the star they’ve left behind, exchanged a weary look, and climbed up to their feet. Jamie was the first to reach the little star; he picked it up, and turned to Dan. “What about Hazen?”
Dan glanced over his shoulder at the downpour of lights. He could feel the electricity vibrating through the stones; the incessant, low buzz might as well has never been gone. “What about it?”
“You think we should go back?”
“Honestly?” Dan shoved his hands into his pockets — in one, there was a star; in the other, a crumpled poster. “I don’t think we can.”
Jamie glanced over the rooftop at the city brimming with lights. Despite the bright sky, the view was familiar. It was the same view they’ve always looked at, with the same patterns of alleys and highways, the same scents and sounds. It was one and the same with their hometown; if they tried, he bet they could find their apartment, like Aiu’d said, maybe even rent it out.
Truth be told, neither of them wanted that. Because they knew what Aiu had; they had no place in here, not really. Maybe, once upon a time, they had. And maybe, once upon a time, they will again; but right now?
Right now, both of them needed something this city couldn’t give them.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Jamie said. He looked through his pockets, found his wallet, and handed something out to Dan.
“Gee, thanks,” Dan wryly replied, shoving the seven bucks into his poster-pocket. Jamie ducked his head, but Dan caught his cheeky smile.
“What? When you’re right, you’re right.”
In Case of Finding a Shooting Star, Please Return to Owner © Michal Rotko