When I was little, my sister and would climb out our bedroom window. We didn't sneak out every night, only the ones when the yelling and screaming was the worst. We'd jump out, first Rayne – plop – and then me – plop. We would scramble up the stack of palettes siting next to her window and reach out to the roof. Then, we'd camp out on the roof until we couldn't hear the yelling anymore.
One night I was crying. Dad had come home tipsy and only gotten worse. I had left my drawing pad and colored pens on the floor. He slipped on them. He would have slipped anyway, but now he had someone to blame. “Ashlyn!” he screamed. I came running. Only, I shouldn't have. The notebook and pencils came hurdling at my face. One of the colored pencils gouged my left cheek. I ran away. I couldn't cry there. I couldn't cry in front of him. He only would have roared louder and maybe even bitten my head off. Instead, I ran to Rayne. She always knew what to do.
Out we went. The rooftop was the safest place in our trailer house. We laid down and stared up. Rayne pointed to the starts. “Do you know what that one's called?” she asked me gently. I shook my head, still sniffling. “That's Monsieur Puppy-Face.” I giggled. Then, the rest of the night we stayed up on the roof. We pointed to different constellations and named them. It was the longest night we spent on the roof, but it wasn't the worst we'd endured. Somehow we forgot that our parents were beneath us shrieking horrible things at each other. It was like another world.
* * * * *
Bang. My apartment door slams open. Loud voices and pounding music blast through my once silent sanctuary. Stilettos click against my cheap, imitation hardwood floors. They click – click – clicked over to the light switch. When the lights flicker on, I blink my eyes against the blinding lights. Then, the footsteps come nearer and nearer. I don't look up, though. Instead, I stay safely hidden in my little cocoon on my green, second-hand couch that feels scratchy against my skin. But, the irritating feeling was better than the person standing over me. I don't need to look. I already know who it is.
“Ashlyn!” my sister shouts at me in-between puffs on her cigarette. “Get off your sorry a–”
“Go away,” I tell her in a raspy voice for lack of use.
This time I look up at her. Trashy, I think. So, so trashy. She smells like cigarette smoke mixed with cheep perfume, and her vibrant red dress covers almost nothing. It shows every curve and stretch of skin of her perfect figure. I bet if she squatted down the skirt would show a lot more. But, Rayne doesn't care. She hasn't cared for a long time. It's hard watching my childhood hero self-destruct. But, I guess I'm no different.
“Fine,” her voice booms out, “You've successfully pushed away the only person who gives a crap about you. Except maybe the bill-collectors. He's gone, Ashyln. Move on.”
Then, she click – clacked away. She clips my unfolded basket of laundry on her way out. She howls, screaming every profane word she can think of, as she holds her broken stiletto. Over her incessant yelling, her worthless, good-for-nothing boyfriend calls out to her. Rayne only cusses him out, too. When she finally hobbles out, she slams my door shut behind her. I can still hear her tirade all the way down the sidewalk.
You would say she needs an attitude adjustment. I could almost see you looking up from your newspaper and glancing at her over your reading glasses. Nonchalantly, you'd pass your judgment, and then, you'd continue read your paper like nothing ever happened. The thought makes me smile.
Rayne wouldn't know what to do with you. Truthfully, I didn't either when I first met you. But, I knew you were special. And, somehow you made this lifeless twenty-year-old feel special, too.
* * * * *
“Extraordinary! Simple extraordinary,” you announced in-between heaping mouthfuls.
Then, you smiled. A big, mischievous grin that made me believe you. I always believed you. Your stories as wild yet they always had an air of truth. Maybe you really had been to Africa and fallen in love with a princess that stole all your scavenged jewels. And, maybe you did rescue a young boy from an untamed tiger. Again, I said an air of truth. While you always did cast yourself as the hero and exaggerated the details, I believed you. So, I smiled back at you, and you winked.
I know that their was nothing particularly special about scrambled eggs and sausage with jam and toast. I knew it then, too, but I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe I'd done something spectacular. I wanted to believe that I was more than a round girl in an apron with dark, frizzy hair sticking out in every direction. With a ruddy complexion and mud brown eyes, I wasn't exactly oozing confidence. Somehow, you knew. That's why you claimed I was more. I didn't know then, though.
“Do you want to go outside?” I asked, raising my voice above the sounds of the running water.
“How 'bout goin' for a walk?” you answered.
I didn't know what to say. Soap suds dripped down my arms as I held a dripping pan in mid-air. Opening and closing my mouth, all I could muster was a faint, “Ummm … ”
You laughed out right. You laughed so hard you wiped tears from your eyes. Apparently, my response was more dumb than you'd hoped for. Finally, you cut the tension with a playful, “Gotcha there.” I managed a weak laugh. You got me. I was completely speechless.
How was I supposed to respond to a question like that when you were paralyzed and sitting across form me in a wheelchair? You didn't keep me wondering for long, though.
“Come on, Little Lady,” you chided jokingly. “Where's your sense of humor?”
After that day, the nickname stuck. I didn't mind. No one had ever given me a nickname before then. No one had cared enough. When you called me little lady, I felt special. Like I meant something to someone. Like you were my dad teasing me with a silly endearment. I know it came naturally to you. I know you needed someone to care about almost as much as I needed someone to care for me. But, I wasn't used to being loved, and I cherished it.
I'm being sappy, and you'd tease me unendingly about it, but I had to tell you. The thing is I haven't been able to stop thinking about you. People talk to me and tell me what I should do, but I don't hear them. I just stare off into space and let my mind wander. It always comes back to you.
“It's beautiful today, isn't it?” you ask me from across the room. You'd been staring out the window for the last hour or so consumed in thought. From experience, I knew not to disturb you. Your thoughts were your own. While I often wondered what you were seeing, I never asked. Not anymore. Instead, I buried myself in a book. So, when you asked me such a trivial question in the middle of the book's most suspenseful part, I simply nodded my head and murmured a lame, “Uh – huh.”
You began a low chuckle that quickly escalated into a rumbling belly-laugh and ended in a coughing fit. Hurriedly, I jumped to my feet and ran to your side with your inhaler in hand. You refused it, though. Control you always said. Since the deterioration of your leg muscles, you never wanted to lose control over your body, agian. Parkinson’s disease could never steal from you again. But, inevitably, it did.
“Kids these days,” you wheezed out between labored breathes, “Always gotta have some distraction to separate you from the real world.”
You search my face with eyes filled with mirth, and finally I looked out the window. When surprise lit across my features, you knew you had me. Watching the dark clouds rumble across the sky, I didn't want to look at you. I'd know it was going to storm all day, my phone had told me, but I had forgotten. I couldn't let you see that, though. I needed a witty comeback that Rayne would spit out in a heartbeat. But, I wasn't Rayne. While my sister could charm a cat with her smile and convince a tiger to give her its stripes with her cunning words, I couldn't. I was just Ashyln. It was stupid. I shouldn't have cared so much. It was only a joke.
And, yet, it bothered me because all I could come up with was “Well, its a good book.” I felt dumber than ever, but you smiled such a warm smile that every cold, haunting thought gripping my heart melted away.
“And, by good, you mean exciting with lots of impossible plot twists and a love triangle thrown in the mix even though everybody already knows who everyone'll end up with anyway,” you teased me with a wink.
“Oh, but this one's different,” I insist, animating every fiber of my being. “It is a good book. You should read it.”
“You wouldn't know a good book if it smacked you across the face!” you returned. I rolled my eyes in response, and you continued arguing your position until I gave in.
I miss that. I miss being with you everyday. I miss you. I miss your smile, you graying hair, your nickname for me. I miss all of it, all of you. You warned me, though. You told me you had to go soon. You kissed the top of my head. And, you whispered in my ear that I was the best home nurse you had ever had. That I was a true friend. That you loved me. But, I didn't listen. I didn't cry. I didn't believe you would actually die.
My life revolved around you. You were the father I never had, and everyday I spent with you was purposeful. You made me important, and now you are gone. I don't know what to do.
For days, I've laid in bed. There is no reason to get-up. I just stare out the window. Instead of seeing spring flowers blooming and humming birds flitting about, I watch sirens blaze across the streets and graffiti sweep the forgotten buildings around me. And, I miss you. When I glance around my apartment, my eyes land on my still unfolded laundry. I zone out on the unassuming, everyday load of laundry until I slip into a restless sleep.
A warm hand closes around mine. I don't see the person's face, but I know it's you. Who else would tilt their head back and watch the stars? No one else has time. Time. It's so elusive. Even here I can feel it slipping away, just beyond my grasp. I try to reach out. I reach and reach and reach, but I cannot catch it. I cannot stop time. I cannot save you. And, it kills me.
It's your voice. Your wonderful, splendid voice is full of warmth and life. Once again, you save me. You catch my hand, and you squeeze. I cannot reach you, but you can reach me. I want to follow you. I want to be with you. I want to drown in your laugh because I don't want to live without it.
“Let me come,” I plead.
Still, you stare up at the night sky, not glancing at me. “Look at the stars, Little Lady,” you answer instead.
But, I can't. Tears sting my eyes and blur my vision. “I'm scared,” I whisper.
“I know,” your voice fills the void of space around us, and yet, it is soft at the same moment. “You should be. You are alive. And, you are beautiful for it. You are a star, my Little Lady, don't let your fear take away your light.”
Now you look at me, all of me. I see you and the life you lived and the stories your scars tell. I see you and you see me, but it's the last time. Our time is gone. We both know it must end. As I stand to leave, I see a tall, slender woman walk towards you. She smiles and cries at the same time, and then, you start crying, too. You embrace and laugh and kiss. Then, she takes your arm, and you stand. On your own solid, sturdy feet again, I watch you leave. I watch you regain all that the years have cost you. And, for the last time for a long time, I watch you wink at me.
Now, I must let you go. I must wake-up. I am a star, and I must not burn out.
And, I don't.
I wake-up. Slowly, I unearth myself from under my covers and step onto the cool linoleum. The laundry beckons to me, and I listen. Like any other day, I fold each shirt and towel that seemed so unimportant only hours before. Suddenly, I'm done. I accomplished almost nothing, but it was something. I smile. When I stand up, I close my eyes. Look at the stars. I see them. I see them all, and I’m not afraid anymore. I want to shine now. I know I can. But, most important of all, I know you are still shinning. You are brighter than any other star.