“What are stars made of?” A boy with scrapes all over his knees, dirt on his hands, and a chipped tooth stares up at the sky while on the damp grass, eyes reflecting the twinkling stars.
An older man with bright, intelligent eyes and immaculate fingernails and meticulously trimmed facial hair turns to look at the boy while stretched out on a blanket. “Hmmm. Before I give my answer, why do you want to know?”
The boy refuses to divert his heavenly gaze and, after a long pause, answers, “I don’t know. They are just so far away and mysterious. It’s like I’ll never be able to touch them or play with them or anything. So I was just wondering what they are. What they really are.”
Daddy smiles excitedly, “Well, you certainly won’t be touching them or playing with them, son! They are giant balls of fire and gas and all kinds of different elements creating massive amounts of energy. You wouldn’t ever be able to truly touch one.”
Daddy inspects Son a little bit closer. Something has changed in his eyes. After humming a tune to himself he turns his eyes back to the starry sky, “They are beautiful, though, aren’t they?” Then he looks back to Son.
The light is back in his eyes. “Yeah, they sure are.” Son smiles ever so slightly.
“Son, can I tell you a story far older than me about the stars?”
Son sat up and stared at Daddy with a sudden speed and ferocity, “YES, PLEASE!”
Daddy chuckled, then cleared his throat with a quiet cough.
“Once, in a time before we humans colonized other planets, we told stories of the stars. We named them, even the ones we had no right to name or claim. Even before we understood what stars truly are, like you asked about, we knew they were something special and mysterious and magical.
There is a story that claims that each star was the soul of a person that had died but wanted to stay close to their friends and family. And the stories tell us that when those stars disappear, as they do from time to time, it is because the last living person that remembered them when they were alive had finally died. And so did their memory, their star. Their soul passed away for good.”
Daddy’s eyes begin to moisten as he continues, “There are great warriors up there, Son. And mighty mothers. And despicable fathers. And sons and daughters taken away too soon.”
Son tilted his head, blinking twice quickly and furrowing his eyebrows, “Daddy, I thought you said the stars were just flames and gas? Why do you seem so sad?”
Daddy sniffles, just a little, wipes a tear from one eye and tears his gaze from the stars and sees Son staring at him, looking both concerned and confused and maybe a little bit happy. “I’m sorry, Son, I do love those old stories. They get to me sometimes. Forgive me for getting emotional.”
Son plops down back on the grass and looks back to the stars. A brief moment passes before Son speaks up again, “Is it because you miss them, Daddy?”
Son continues to look up towards the stars but now his eyes have a thin veil of tears forming around them.
Daddy squeezes his eyes shut as one and then another tear falls. He squeezes his eyes even tighter as more tears start to flow. He tries to talk but chokes on his own words. He clenches his right hand into a fist and pounds it on the grass, quickly recoiling from the dewy turf, bringing it back to rest safely on his blanket.
“Yes,” Daddy finally gets the word out, “every day, Son. I miss them so much and it hurts so much.”
“I miss them, too.”
The wind blows gently between the two. Other than that there is silence. Daddy continues to sob in short nearly-silent gasps for air as tears roll imperceptibly down his cheeks and drop to the blanket off the tips of his ear lobes.
“I have one more question.”
Daddy’s eyes open wide now. His heart begins to race and he thinks to himself, No. Has he figured it out? No, no, no. We haven’t had nearly enough time. Please don’t let him ask that question. Please. Whatever gods might be out there still, please hear me. Don’t let him ask what I think he is going to ask me.
Son takes the pregnant silence as an affirmative to ask his question. “Why don’t you ever visit them, then?”
Oh, God. Why? Why did he have to ask? This isn’t fair. It’s not fair! “Son, can we talk about something else?” Daddy looks as if he is in a full panic now and the tears are flowing without ceasing now. He rubs his eyes to try and make them stop but the sobs and gasps are impossible to cover up now.
Son sits up and crawls closer, concern in his eyes behind the heartbreak and tears. “No, Daddy. I have to know!” He is yelling now. Any semblance of peace and silence has gone. “Why don’t you ever visit THEM? What did they do wrong, Daddy? I don’t understand!”
I have to tell him. It’s over. There is no going back.
Daddy takes a deep breath through his nose and exhales through his mouth. He moves his hands away from his eyes and opens them. His son is now kneeling on the blanket, hunched over him. He shifts over and sits up, turning to look right into his son’s bloodshot eyes. He takes a moment to take in how messy his son is and how much he has always loved that about him despite his own need for cleanliness and organization. He was too afraid to get dirty and messy. Not his son, though.
“Son, it’s because you and your mother and your sisters are all dead. And you aren’t real. None of this is real, Son. I was able to download your personality and memories but…” He catches his breath for a moment. I have to finish this. “But, the rest of them, well, they were dead before I had the chance. I love you, Son. You tried to save them when our quarters caught on fire. And, in a way, you did. I...I got to say goodbye and tell them I loved them one last time. Because I sat and watched and didn’t know what to do as you ran in to save them. So, when they said you were still alive I did everything I could to save who you are.”
Daddy reaches over and grabs his son’s dirty hands. They are covered in soot and they are burned and blackened. “Look at yourself, Son. You aren’t just dirty and messy from playing outside.”
Son looks at his hands held by his daddy’s hands. He looks up at his daddy, “Why? Why didn’t you save them?”
“I am so sorry. To each of you.” Daddy closes his eyes for a few moments.
When he opens his eyes he is lying in his bed, his pillow soaked with tears and sheets soaked with sweat. He sits up and places his face in his palms. He doesn’t cry. He can’t cry anymore. He wishes he could but it’s like his body has forgotten how.
Over some sort of intercom someone calls, “Captain Doran, you are requested on deck.”
Doran sighs and stands up. He goes to put on his uniform but stops and stares out his window. The first thing he sees is his own reflection. He sees a man who has lost the brightness in his eyes, who stopped caring about being immaculately shaven and clean. He sees a man who has accomplished so much, even becoming a captain of his very own ship. He sees a man who no longer cares about anything or anyone and does whatever it takes to get his job done. He sees a man whom he hates entirely.
Then, he smiles.
He looks out beyond his reflection and sees the name inscribed on the ship he captains, “Julian.” Named after his son.
He looks out even further into the vastness of space, looking at the stars. He chuckles, “Julian always loved the stars. How I wish he could see this.”