I used to love watching the stars.
When the summer nights were warm and the cicadas chirped in the bushes, Mama would set up folding lawn chairs for us in the backyard. We would lean back and watch the stars stretching on for miles and miles, the hundreds, thousands, millions of them twinkling in the sky above us.
“That’s Sirius A,” she says, pointing to a glowing dot that looked just like all the other. “And that one is Polaris.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I whine. “They’re just stars. They aren’t important.”
“Not important?” The little crease forms between her brows. “Violet, the stars are watching over you. They’re keeping you safe.”
“Safe from what?”
“The world. Everything. The stars have guided people from the beginning of time. They’ll do the same for you.”
As I grew older, I would complain about how it was too hot out or the mosquitos were eating me alive. I would say it was silly; the stars didn’t change from year to year. Eventually, I stopped stargazing with her altogether in favor of going to sleepovers and parties where everyone was a bit too drunk and the music was a bit too loud. But I would smile, lying to Mama and telling her that yes, the parties were fun and no, I didn’t want to stay home and stare at the stars. I knew that deep down, I loved those nights. Missed them even. If I could turn back time, I would. I would cherish every moment we spent in the backyard, staring at the twinkling stars. But I know I’ll never watch the stars again.
Because I can’t look at them without remembering her.
She met him one night at the bar. Right before they closed for the night. That’s all I know from the story. It was an instant connection, she would say. Love at first sight. A spark lighting up a room. It was not even two months before he was always at our house. They were always together, not like I cared at the time. He would go everywhere with her, never leaving her side, honoring her every wish. They did everything together, watched movies, went on walks. They seemed like the perfect couple. But Mama never went stargazing after he showed up.
“He’s a nice person. Just give it a chance.” Mama pleads with me. Her hair is already done up, her makeup flawless.
“I’m going to Lily’s.” It’s a lie, but I would do anything to get away from him.
“What’s your issue with him?”
I shrug, not certain of it myself. Something about him just rubs me the wrong way. Once, I caught him standing in her bedroom doorway when I was sneaking home at three a.m. Not doing anything, just staring at Mama as she slept, not moving a muscle. He didn’t see me: when he turned, I was gone, tucked away in the safety of my room. “I don’t like him.”
“Please just give it a-” Mama calls after me, but I’m already brushing past her, jumping down the stairs two at a time. I hope I can get out of the door before he gets there, but no such luck. He’s leaning against the doorframe and from his expression, it’s evident he heard the whole conversation.
“I promise I’m a nice person.” He chuckles and I find myself shrinking back, trying to get away.
“I’m sure you are,” I mutter viciously. His eyes narrow at my comment and I notice, not for the first time, the twisting scar that makes its way up the side of his wrist, disappearing into his sleeve. He notices me staring and smoothly tucks his hand behind his back. “Please let me through.”
Even as I sprint down the road, away from home, chest heaving, legs aching, doing anything I can to get away from him, I can still feel his eyes burning into my back.
She promised me the stars would keep me safe. And they did. At least they kept that promise. But they didn’t keep her safe.
“Why do you love the stars so much?” Ten-year-old me leans back in the chair.
“I told you already,” Mama says. “They’re comforting to look at. The stars are a reminder that we aren’t alone. They’re here with us, protecting us.”
“They’re so far away though.”
“But the light from the stars gives life to us. They might look distant, but they’re always there, forever and ever, keeping watch over us.”
But she was wrong. The stars are distant. Despite being thousands of degrees, the stars are cold. Twinkling in the night sky, laughing down at us. They’re not watching over us. They’re not protecting us. The stars are too far away for that. They were too distant to save her.
The door is wide open when I get home, both cars in the driveway, Mama's and his. I expect Mama to be sitting in the living room, but it’s empty, a still steaming cup of coffee sitting on her desk.
“Mama?” I call. “Are you home?” There’s no response. “Hello?”
I hear the floorboards above me creak and I sprint up the stairs, leaning my head against the locked door to Mama’s bedroom. “Mama?” I rap on the door. “Are you in there?”
That’s when I hear a scream.
Every single waking moment, every heartbeat, every breath, his voice whispers. He’s always just around the corner, always ready to pounce. His face haunts my dreams. It follows me everywhere I go. He’s in my dreams, kneeling next to her body. I can feel him breathing down my neck, his breath rancid against my cold skin. His clammy hands glide over my skin, even as I try to scramble away. I see him walking down the street toward me, knife gripped in his hand, but when I open my mouth to scream, he’s gone. I can’t think, can’t breathe without seeing his face and how he got away with it.
That’s why I’ve decided to kill him.
“I don’t know what you mean. It couldn't have been Mr. Bowman.”
“It was him,” I insist, my voice trembling. “I heard his voice and-” my voice breaks off as I remember. The footsteps. The scream.
“Mr. Bowman was at the bar when the murder happened.” The officer frowns. “He has an alibi.”
“I know it was him.” I don’t sound so sure anymore.
The officer sighs. “I think that’s all for today. Thank you for your time, Miss Middleton.”
I want to protest, but I’m led out of the room, into the waiting arms of my aunt.
It wasn’t hard to find out where he was. A quick search on the internet and a few cups of coffee later, I have a phone number. Henry Bowman. The sight of his face is enough to spark the anger inside of me.
My hands shake as I dial the number.
“Hello? This is Stella’s Bar and Dining.”
I almost drop the phone in surprise. “Oh, hi.”
“Can I help you with anything?”
I take a deep breath. “Is there someone named Henry Bowman there?”
The girl on the other side sounds confused for a moment. “Yes,” she says hesitantly. “Do you know him?”
“He’s my-” I don’t know what to say to that. My enemy? The man who was almost my father? “My uncle. I wanted to stop in and surprise him. Do you know when he’s working?” I wince at my straightforwardness.
“Oh.” The girl sounds surprised. “Well, he has the evening shift most days of the week.”
“Is there anything else?”
“Nope. That’s it.”
“Well, uh,” the girl says. “Have fun.” I hear the click as she hangs up. I lean against the wall, my body trembling as I breathe out a sigh. I’m doing this.
No one’s figured it out. The police have given up on the case, calling it a dead end. It was probably a serial killer, they say. Impossible to determine. One witness, but the suspect has a solid alibi. Couldn’t be witness either, alibi there too. No fingerprints on the knife blade. An unidentified person entered the house, stabbed one occupant, disappeared before the police arrived.
But I know it was him.
Ordering a bus ticket is easy. All I have to do is swipe Aunt Christine’s credit card, punch in some numbers, then, done. I’m set on this. I’m going to kill him.
Red and blue light up the world, flashing through the darkness. Almost as red as the scarlet blood staining the floor of Mama’s bedroom.
A warm blanket wrapped around my shoulders. Calm voices, faces asking me questions as I sit there, staring straight ahead, cold seeping through my bones, freezing me until I’m certain my skin has turned to ice.
The bus ride goes by fast as I stare out the window, my hand never leaving the switchblade tucked into my pocket. My thoughts churn in my mind as I wonder whether I’ve truly gone crazy. I’m going to kill someone. The thought is so ludicrous I almost burst into laughter.
Still, I keep going. I keep going until I’m standing in front of Stella’s Bar and Dining. I keep going until I catch a glimpse of him.
He looks exactly the same. Same charming smile, same handsome face. He’s the same monster that I see every night in my dreams. I watch as he talks to the people at the bar, an easy smile slipping onto his face. I stand, staring through the window as he says something to the other man working at the bar, then slips out into the alleyway. Only then, do I move, peering around the corner, my gaze never leaving him.
He’s on the phone, talking to someone, hand tucked into his pocket. “Yeah, babe, I’m heading home,” he says. “Uh-huh. Yeah. Love you too.” I watch him as he rubs his hands together before going back inside. I watch him as he slips out again, shrugging on a coat as he heads toward me. I shrink back against the doorway of the bar as he crosses the street, heading away from the town center.
I follow him, keeping a few paces behind as the shops become fewer and fewer, replaced by houses and gardens. When he stops, I stop. When he picks up his pace, I pick up mine. The entire time, I turn the knife over and over in my pocket. I’m tempted to charge after him, stab him right here and now, but it’s broad daylight. After what seems like forever, he stops in front of a white colonial house. He mutters something to himself as he unlocks the front door, shutting it behind him.
I slip into the house through the unlocked backdoor. The house is well lived in, dishes piled in the sink, drawings hanging on the walls. I hunt through the rooms, but there’s no sign of him. I creep up the stairs, the knife clenched in my hand as I burst into a room, my eyes widening in surprise.
It’s a little girl’s room, the walls decorated with pink, dolls and stuffed animals thrown across the bed. I immediately feel sick, my stomach dropping with dread. Not her. He can’t do the same to her.
I hear voices and scan the room wildly, looking for a place to hide. At last, I squeeze under the bed. Dust and cobwebs tickle my face as I do so and I scrunch up my face, trying not to sneeze. The voices grow louder and I hear the pattering of shoes and a little girl runs into the room. She’s barely seven, the look of pure childhood innocence on her face. She doesn’t notice me under the bed as she grabs a wrapped package, running down the stairs into his arms.
“Did you get this?” she gasps.
“I did,” he says, smiling down at her. I have to grit my teeth at the sound of his voice, forcing myself not to move. “Do you like it?”
“I love it! Thank you so much!” the little girl cries.
“Glad you do, Dorothy.” He ruffles her hair. “I can’t wait.” The words send chills down my spine.
“For what?” Dorothy sounds confused. “What are you waiting for?”
Henry pauses. I can tell he didn’t mean to say that in front of her. “Nothing, honey. Go outside and play, will you?”
Under the bed is the only hiding place I can think of. I curse myself for not running when I had the chance. But it’s too late now; his footsteps are growing closer and closer, each squeak of the floorboards sending fear spiking down my spine.
“Where are you?” He croons, his voice sickeningly sweet. “Violet, come out, wherever you are.”
I tense, curling further under the bed, praying he’ll leave. Please go away. Please make him go away. Someone, anyone-
Dorothy and her mother have dinner with Henry, neither of them suspecting his intentions. They chat joyously about everything and nothing, school, work, the weather. My arms go numb and I wince, shifting my weight, feeling pins and needles prick up my skin.
At last, I hear the jangling of keys. “I’m gonna take Dorothy for ice cream,” the mother calls. “You want to come?”
“I’m good.” He smiles at her. “Have fun.”
“Will do.” I want to spring out and warn her, tell her what he’s going to do, but I don’t move. If I get this through, it won’t matter anyway.
When I finally move, it’s dark out. I roll out from under the bed, brushing off the cobwebs. I shake out my arms and legs as the blood rushes back into my limbs.
He’s standing in the kitchen, rinsing off the dishes, humming something to himself. He looks so innocent that I almost feel bad, for a split second. I take a step back, uncertain of what to do, but the floorboards creak and he freezes. He spins around, his eyes widening as he catches sight of me.
“Why?” My voice is shaking, from fear or anger, I’m not sure. “Why her?”
He starts to say something, but his eyes wander to my hand where its clutched around the switchblade. “You’ve come to kill me, haven’t you?” He asks, faintly amused
I can only nod, my teeth gritted together.
He takes a step forward and I stumble backward, fear pulsing in my head. “I wouldn’t, Vi,” he snarls. “Put down the knife. Be a good little girl.”
I shake my head violently, my hand still tightened around the handle.
“You know, Vi,” he sneers at me. “You never liked me, did you?”
I don’t know how to respond. I’m barely breathing as he takes another step closer to me. My hand trembles by my side, the knife close to slipping out of my grasp.
“It was such a shame that she had to die,” he whispers. “Such a shame. If only she could see you now-”
My hand flies up so fast I don’t register moving it. One moment he’s looming over me, his lip curled up. The next moment he’s doubled over, gasping in pain, dark blood flowing the wound in his abdomen.
“You’re gonna be sorry,” he chokes out as he collapses to the ground.
“You killed my mother,” I breathe. “I’m not sorry.” As I see his crumpled form, the pool of scarlet on the floor, and the stillness of his chest, I finally let myself smile.
Their backyard isn’t the same as mine, but it’s close enough. I stumble out of the backdoor, sinking to my knees in the soft grass. The sirens wail in the distance, growing louder and louder, but I don’t move. I don’t try to run. I stare up at the stars, seemingly not so cold anymore. I can finally watch them again.