Hannah lies on her back and watches the stars bounce. She wonders how strong of a telescope it would take to see pieces of her father floating through space. Dustin grunts as he moves on top of her. She’s not not having a good time. Not exactly. She just wishes he would hurry up.
Finally, after the bobbing constellations are seasick, Dustin lets loose a long groan and slumps to the side. Hannah pulls her underwear up from her ankles.
“Wow,” Dustin pants. “That was amazing.” He glances at her for affirmation.
She stands and brushes off her dress. The rubbing grass definitely left a stain. She marches across the golf course barefoot towards The Development, her tennis shoes dangling from her right hand.
Dustin scrambles after her. “Hey, Hannah. Hey, wait up.”
“You don’t have to walk me home,” Hannah tells him.
“I want to,” he says.
“This doesn’t mean we’re dating, or that I like you. It was just sex.”
“Okay,” Dustin smiles.
He reaches for her hand. She transfers her sneakers to her left one before he can hold it. His arm hangs limply, occasionally bumping hers. She adds a gap between them.
“So…” Dustin begins.
“My dad was on the rocket. The one going to Mars.”
Dustin stumbles on the edge of the sand pit. “The one… um…”
“The one that exploded.”
“Oh.” He’s quiet for a moment. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It was two years ago.”
They continue on in silence.
The sun has nearly bleached the night sky when Hannah opens the front door.
Her mother is sitting at the kitchen table, bent over her morning Sudoku puzzle. She looks up at Hannah then glances at the kitchen timer. It blinks seven minutes. Her mouth is making swishing noises.
Every morning, for twenty minutes, her mother gargles olive oil to pull out bad bacteria. Hannah tried it once but the olive oil tasted the way green looks. She prefers regular mouthwash that burns when it’s working. Hannah stares at her mother, waiting to see if she’ll spit out the oil. She doesn’t. Hannah turns and walks up the stairs, knowing her mother is looking at the green stain on the back of her yellow dress. Good.
Hannah gently closes the door to her room. A poster hangs on the back with a piglet in an astronaut suit floating by a crescent moon and the words “REACH FOR THE MOON. EVEN IF YOU MISS, YOU’LL LAND AMONG THE STARS.” There is a handwritten note in thick, black sharpie underneath.
“HAM,” it reads, which stands for Hannah Alberta Miller, “I’ll miss you oodles. Your dad’s gonna be out of this world! Love ya, Dad.”
A calendar hangs next to the poster. Tomorrow is circled in red pen.
Hannah closes her blinds and crawls into bed, still in her soiled dress. She falls asleep to the tune of songbirds.
When Hannah comes downstairs at 4 PM, her mother is gone. There is a sandwich entombed in Saran Wrap on the counter. Hannah walks past it and pours a bowl of cereal. She hears a tap.
Dustin is peering through the window. He waves.
She looks around the room at the bounty of cow themed decorations, at the posed cookbooks, at the brown leak from the fridge. Anywhere but the window.
The pecking grows more insistent. "Hey, Hannah! Hannah. Hey."
Hannah grumbles and goes to the front door. She opens it slightly.
Dustin's head pops into view. "Hannah. Hi."
“What, are you stalking me?”
Dustin's cheeks look like a red algae bloom. “Uh, no. I just thought, um, maybe you’d want to hang out today?”
“I have plans.”
“Oh, okay.” He doesn’t leave.
Hannah chews on her bottom lip. She sighs. “Are you squeamish?”
“Are you allergic to bees?”
“No. Probably. I don’t know. I’ve never been stung.”
“Fine. Give me half an hour.”
Hannah, carrying a backpack, breezes past Dustin. He jumps to his feet.
She nods at his bike. “Leave it. We’re going in the woods.”
Dustin walks beside Hannah. She keeps her hands looped through the straps of her bag in case he tries to hold her hand again.
They walk through the maze of streets named after flowers and trees and nuts and cut across fanatically manicured lawns. They follow the dirt paths scratched into the woods on the edge of The Development. Eventually the dirt paths run out and they are faced with untamed forest.
There is a small stream burbling at a thirty-degree angle to them. Hannah pushes onward, walking parallel to the stream. Dustin trails after her. Thorny blackberry bushes snag their clothing. Hannah pushes low hanging branches out of her path. She releases one as she passes and it almost hits Dustin.
“Hey,” he calls. “Why did you ask if I was allergic to bees?”
Hannah gestures to the nature surrounding them. “Cause there are bees. Duh.”
Hannah moves deeper into the woods, keeping the stream at her side. She pushes logs with the toe of her boot, digs through the detritus on the forest floor and scans the pebbles on the shore of the stream.
“What are we looking for?” Dustin whispers in her ear.
Hannah jumps. “I said you could come. I never said you could talk.”
“Whatever,” he pouts. He throws a rock like a Frisbee over the stream. It sinks with a splash. After a few more failed rock skipping attempts, Dustin says, “This boring. I’m going to…”
Hannah grins at him. “Shut up. Look.” She takes a tissue out of her bag and picks up a white stick. She displays it proudly.
His eyes grow wide. “Is that… human?”
“What? No. It’s a femur, probably from a raccoon or a possum. I would have to look at my books to know for sure.” She wraps the bone in a second tissue then puts it in her backpack. “Look around the area for other bones. That one had teeth marks on it so they’re probably scattered but we’ll find what we can.”
Dustin’s nose is wrinkled. “We came out here to look for bones?”
“Yeah. I do it every Saturday.” She blinks at him. "You're welcome for inviting you."
He nods and hits his palm with his fist like a baseball player loosening his glove. “Cool, cool. No judgment. I might head back though. Not really a bone guy…”
“Don’t go.” Hannah flinches at the whine in her voice. “I don’t always find something and today I found something almost immediately. You must be my good luck charm.”
He looks unconvinced and his feet are pointing away from her.
She grasps the edge of her shirt in one hand and in a single motion, pulls it over her head and drops it on the ground. She learned that from a movie. She realizes she’s wearing a ratty sports bra but a glance at Dustin tells her it’s of no consequence. She adopts the husky voice of an old timey jazz singer. “Do you feel it?” she rasps.
“Feel what?” He’s practically drooling.
He’s slobbering on her face while his hands scramble over her body, searching for a foothold. "God," he breathes into her neck. "You're so... complex."
Her shoulders shake.
He pulls back. “Are you alright?”
She’s laughing. “I’m fine. It’s just… I mean, you’re so easy.”
He steps back from her. “What?”
“Are you feeling lucky? I mean, come one. You really think your life is a porno?”
She picks up her shirt and brushes off the leaves that cling to it. “I’m not going to have sex with you,” she says as she puts it back on.
He looks like a caveman. She half expects him to scratch his head and armpit at the same time.
“I didn’t expect you too?” He's trying to keep up.
Hannah rolls her eyes. “God, Dustin, you’re so simple.”
He squints at her like she’s suddenly gone blurry. “I don’t… understand what’s happening.”
“We’re not going to have sex, Dustin! I’m not interested in having sex with you!”
“I don’t… is this about your dad?”
Hannah freezes. “Excuse me?”
“You. Picking up bones. Cause your dad’s in pieces?”
He’s wrong, of course. Hannah has been collecting bones since way before the accident. She’s wanted to be a paleontologist since she was little. He didn’t know this but the look on his face, like he had just rubbed one stick against another and discovered something amazing, makes her want to smack him. He doesn’t know her. He doesn’t know anything about her.
“My dad’s not in pieces. He got vaporized instantly. He’s space dust. That’s the only reason I slept with you. Because your name’s Dust In and my dad’s dust. And you’re so pathetic, you’d fuck anything in a horizontal position. Even Spooky Hannah Miller.”
It’s not true. The “Dust” connection just came to her. She had slept with him because he had a nice smile and because he had turned it towards her.
Dustin throws his hands up. “I thought you were worth getting to know, Hannah, but I was wrong. You’re bitter all the way through.”
He stalks back towards civilization. Hannah watches him until the crisscross of branches swallow his receding form.
She returns to her scavenging. She spends several hours combing the ground, eating granola bars and occasionally squatting behind a tree to pee. She comes up empty handed. The light grows dimmer. Hannah uses a flashlight for a bit but the cloud of moths it draws causes her to give up. She finds a clearing in the woods from which to watch the sunset.
When the sun is tucked into bed, the stars are visible again. People always talk about how brilliant the stars look, but Hannah knows she’s looking at stale light. By the time it reaches her eyes, it’s been traveling through space for millions of years.
She thinks of that poster he wrote on for her, that stupid poster with the pig that didn’t make any sense. The stars are so much further away than the moon. If you reach for the moon and miss, you won’t land among the stars. You’ll plummet back to Earth and die a fiery death as you burn up in the atmosphere.
From down here, the silhouettes of the trees seem to skim the sky. She remembers when she was very little and she would ask for ice cream. Beg for ice cream, really. “Ice cream?” her dad would growl. “You want ice cream?” And he would slide his forearms under her shoulders and lift her up and swing her, shouting, “Yeah, when pigs fly!” Then he would set her down, gently, as if afraid she would spill, and say, “Okay, HAM, let’s go get ice cream.” Because she, Hannah Alberta Miller, was his HAM.
If you reach for the moon and miss and you fall back down, you won’t land among the stars. You’ll become a star. That’s what shooting stars are. Space junk burning as it falls.
“Dad?” Hannah calls to nowhere in particular. “Dad, if you’re there, send a shooting star.”
She holds her breath. She holds her breath until she nearly passes out. Her gaze sweeps the sky. She wants to shake it, to shake the night sky until a shooting star spills out. Today, the date circled in red on her calendar, was the expected date of his return from the mission of the Mars fly by. Her lungs burn and her eyes water and she is forced to gasp for air and there is no shooting star. There is no shooting star because her dad isn’t here, he isn’t anywhere, he’s gone.
At thirteen, she had hugged her dad before his ascent, knowing she wouldn’t be able to hug him again for two years. They told her he was dead. She saw the footage on the news. She had attended the funeral for the empty box. She knew he was dead. But today, he was supposed to be back.
"You left me!" she screams. "You left me and I hate you IhateyouIhateyouIHATEyou!"
There is no reply. Only the disapproving whispers of the leaves. He’s not coming back, not ever, and there are no shooting stars, only regular stars with old light and she’s in the woods alone.
So Hannah cries. For the first time in two years, she cries. She dry heaves and shrieks and claws at the ground. She cries because she is alone. She cries because she’ll never be anyone’s HAM again. And she cries because the vast expanse of space should make her feel tiny to the point of obsolescence, but it doesn’t because she knows that she was the most important thing in the universe to someone. And he would be so disappointed in her.
She cries until she is shriveled dry. Then she cries a little more.
And at the end, when she has poured herself empty, she stops.
Hannah lies shuddering on the ground. She does hate him. She'll hate him forever. Because he went into the stars and left her here alone. And she'll love him, love him until the end of time, until the last of those stars in the sky burns itself into nothing. And even then, she'll love him.
Hannah stands and brushes the dirt from her clothes. “I’m going to hug Mom,” she says to no one specific. Her mother will probably be asleep. Hannah thinks she won’t mind being woken up.
“I’m sorry I called the pig stupid. He’s not stupid.”
The leaves refrain from comment.
She turns on the flashlight. The moths flagellate themselves to get closer to Mecca. She locates the stream and turns in the direction of home.
She glances skyward. Still no shooting star. So Hannah Alberta Miller shrugs and, with her bag of bones on her back, makes her way out of the forest.