As Chris Hardesty tumbled to the hard, unforgiving earth, he contemplated his choices, and how they had led him from a life ease, literally spent gazing at the stars with his high powered telescope, bought with somebody else's hard-earned grant money, to this. Seemingly in slow motion, he plummeted face up, admiring the beauty of the stars one final time.

Three weeks ago, he'd been confined to his tiny workspace, searching tirelessly for, oh who was he kidding? He'd spent his time daydreaming about the night sky and its secrets. He knew he would likely never make the type of discovery that scientists like himself had always dreamed of making. The type of discovery that got your name in the paper and featured articles in magazines was a once in a lifetime event for a teeny tiny percentage of men and women in his line of work. No, he had become an astronomer because he liked space and he hoped to earn a living doing not much of anything. He had not, however, foreseen the inherent loneliness and stagnant boredom that were his constant, and only, companions. That particular detail had made him vulnerable, ripe even, for the events that followed.

Dmitri and Chris had been best friends all through high school. They'd drifted apart after graduation, as many friends do. The day Dmitri walked back into Chris's life had seemed like an answered prayer. They had bumped into each other at a local coffee shop, and instantly reverted back to their old selves, carefree and

laughing. That very night, Chris took Dmitri to see his prize, his only lover, his telescope. He proudly explained the difference between infrared, x-ray, ultraviolet, gamma ray, and radio telescopes. He glanced at his friend, basking in his knowledge and hoping he had made a stellar impression.

Horrified and more than a little humiliated, Chris noticed that Dmitri's eyes had begun to glaze over. He was obviously bored out of his skull. Desperate, he glanced around the cramped little room, trying to find something, anything, with which to gain Dmitri's admiration and interest. An idea came to mind and he jumped on it, feeling absolutely no guilt about the deception.

“You wouldn't believe the stuff I've seen out there,” he hinted slyly. Dmitri's eyes widened and Chris felt a rush of gratification.

“What have you seen, Chris?” Dmitri had been obsessed with the possibilities of alien life forms and UFOs since before they had even met. Chris used this knowledge of his friend without remorse.

Playing coy now, enjoying the rapt attention he was getting, he hedged. “Aw, you'd never believe it anyway. Nobody ever does. Too many hoaxes out there.”

Dmitri's eyes were wide and as round as the moon. “Tell me Chris! I got to know! What have you seen? You know I've always believed!”

“Well...” Chris scratched his chin, “we've known each other a long time. I guess it's okay to confide in you.”

Chris knew he was getting a little carried away telling stories, but it was like he couldn't help himself. He'd never been what you'd call an interesting person, and by the time he was finished spinning his tales of seeing mysterious objects flying in impossible maneuvers, his cheeks were flushed and he was panting a little. It was nearly as exciting as touching a woman, he thought to himself. And just as new to him.

“This is amazing! Fantastic! Who knew you'd be the one to get to discover alien life and try to make contact!” Dmitri gushed.

“Uh... contact?” Chris stammered. “What, uh, what do you mean contact?”

“Oh, come on, Chris! Surely you've thought about it! What we do is we wait, and when you see something flying around out there, you check to see what it is. If it's a space craft, you got to try and make contact!” Dmitri was excited and waving his arms around as he practically shouted. “You got to do this man! How can you not?”

Feeling like he'd tried to catch a fish but had hung a whale, it was all he could do to hide his anxiety. How on earth would he explain things when they never saw anything? In the six or so years he'd been watching the stars, he hadn't seen anything more exciting than a meteor shower.

The very next night, just as he'd promised, Dmitri showed up at the observatory. It was easy enough to get him in and settled. Chris tried to choke back his anger that this seemingly harmless lie had grown into a ruse that he had to figure out how to keep up. He'd just wanted someone to be impressed by him; to finally feel valued and important. This was quickly becoming too much. Too much work, too much hassle, but, he sighed to himself, too hard to back out of with any dignity. He let Dmitri hang around and even showed him some interesting constellations and distant planets. He knew it wouldn't be enough. His friend was impatiently stalking the room, growing more and more determined that they would indeed do what no one else had done before. It was ludicrous, really, Chris thought. He'd always known he was the more intelligent of the two, but really. How could Dmitri think it was so simple, so easy, if no one had done it before? He scoffed silently, already resenting his old friend. He would have to come up with something, however, to save face, if nothing else. Being caught in a lie was too degrading.

The first night had ended uneventfully, which Chris had expected and Dmitri lamented. He wasn't to be discouraged, to Chris's dismay. He declared he would be back the next night and the next -over and over until they found their quarry. “Uh, don't you have a job to get to, Dmitri?”

Dmitri laughed. “Nope! I'm on disability, my friend. Accident with a big rig. Messed up my back and they had to pay up, plus I got to file for benefits. I can be here anytime you are!” Fortunately, Dmitri had turned to walk away and didn't see his friend's face as it fell. Even more fortunately, he didn't see Chris's eyes as they began to burn with hatred.

Every night was the same, with one exception. Every night, Dmitri showed up, ridiculously optimistic, and every morning he left, undeterred. The only thing that changed night to night was Chris's own desperation. He had to stop this. It had gone for far too long as it was, but he didn't know how to get out without facing the dreaded ridicule that would be his due if he confessed his lie. How could he get Dmitri to stop coming without admitting his humiliation? He was absently gazing through his favorite telescope when it finally came to him.

He has a bad back! Chris flushed. He'd nearly blurted that aloud. If his back started bothering him enough, surely he'd give up and go home! He grunted quietly as he realized he didn't know how to make that matter. How could he get Dmitri's back to bother him enough to stay at home? He would have to think on it.

The first night of the third week of Dmitri's presence in Chris's sanctuary, it finally came to him. It was a perfect plan and, even better, could be implemented without further delay.

“Dmitri! Dmitri, come here! Be quick!” Chris shouted, waving his 'friend' over.

'What is it? What'd you see?” Dmitri rushed to his side.

“Damn, it was just there!” Chris lamented. “I saw one. Gone now though.” He glanced slyly at Dmitri, and yep, he was hooked.

“Seriously! Dude! This is it! This is so cool! But, now what? Do we wait for it to come back?”

“Nah, we can't afford to wait! We have to get out there! We have to grab their attention now!” Chris grabbed his flashlight and ran out the door into the night, Dmitri on his heels.

“Where you going, man? I can't run too much. Hey! Slow down,” Dmitri gasped.

Triumphant, knowing this would do the trick, Chris kept running. He ran through the empty field, jumped a skinny little stream, and headed for higher ground. This should get him, thought Chris peevishly.

He kept up the fast pace, and glancing back, saw Dmitri fall further and further behind. “Just stop running,” Chris muttered under his breath. Dmitri didn't give up though. He jogged along, trying to hold his lower back as he ran. “Let's see how you climb,” Chris sniggered.

Chris turned to the steeply rising path that took hikers to a great look out spot. The cliff jutted out sharply on the southern side and had a sheer drop off of over a hundred feet, maybe more. He'd gone up here a time or two, and knew the best route to tire Dmitri the most. The path was a little precarious there, and he would have to get close to the drop off along one side, but he knew he could do it, and, more importantly, Dmitri couldn't. He'd stop. He'd have to.

Glancing behind him, Chris cursed. Dmitri had slowed but was still coming, obviously determined to be there when Chris did whatever Dmitri thought he was climbing up here to do to 'make contact'. What a gimp! The climbing had gotten tougher and steeper and Chris spent most of his time looking back to check Dmitri's progress, rather than watching his own step. That, Chris would later contemplate, would be his literal downfall.

He was near to the top of the rise, the wind whipping around him, pushing his unfashionably shaggy hair into his eyes. Damn it! Dmitri was pretty far behind but he was still climbing, stopping every few steps to arch his back in pain. Chris shook his head in wonder at his naive old friend's passion and stupidity. He spun on his heel to put more distance between them, but instead of rocky ground, his foot felt the dizzying nothingness of empty air. He waggled his arms, trying in vain to regain his balance and step back, but it was too late. Chris pitched forward, sailing headlong off the cliff.

The hundred or so feet felt like a thousand. It went by slow enough that he had time to consider his impending death and fear the pain. His plain brown eyes shimmered with unshed tears, reflecting the twinkling light of the beautiful stars that he watched as he fell.

April 29, 2020 15:27

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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