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General

Across the sea of space, the stars are other suns.

~ Carl Sagan

A big blank void, some would say. But how could you see such a beautiful expanse and call it that? It's a velvety blanket over the earth, splattered and speckled with brilliant balls of light. The stars—they shine brighter than anything on earth. It's a serene feeling; like all the weight is lifted off your shoulders and you finally take flight, letting yourself float in the tranquillity of the big wide universe. You're one with the stars and take part in the astronomical workings of the universe. Nothing could take this from you.

I wish, I wish, to be beautiful like you.

Rhea reached out towards the stars, wishing with all her heart she could be one of them. Take me, she thought, let me be one of you. It felt right within her grasp if she could just reach—

A hard tug on her dress brought her tumbling back into another body. "What were you thinking going so close to the edge?! You could have fallen!" the boy yelled. Rhea blinked at him, slowly coming back to herself from her journey in space. She could hear the words but she didn't understand. She was only admiring the stars, was that so wrong?

She slowly moved off the boy and looked at him blankly. "Uhm," he fumbled and stood up, "Are you lost? Not a lot of people come this deep in the forest." Rhea shook her head once, still staring curiously at the boy. He was young, young like she was supposed to feel. There was a certain brightness to his eyes that Rhea remembered from her own. Before, when things made more sense in her life.

He awkwardly shuffled around for a moment before reaching out a hand, "Sorry about pulling you that hard. You just kind of worried me, you know?" Rhea dropped her eyes to the boy's extending arm, contemplating. Rhea didn't know if she should trust this boy. The one who brought her back to earth, who didn't let her stay with the stars. She didn't want to be back in this miserable place.

But she supposed she had to. She took the boy's hand and pulled herself up from the forest floor, her white dress now soiled with mud and green stains of grass. She lifted her eyes to the other-worldly sky once more before walking away, promising to be back. One day, she will be there. One day.

"You could say thank you, you know? I did just save you from falling off the cliff to your ultimate demise," the boy said. Rhea glanced behind her to see that he was following, noisily crunching on fallen twigs and leaves. "Also, miss, you're barefoot! You're going to get blisters, for god sake!" Rhea kept walking, hoping the boy would eventually leave once they made it out of the forest. "Hey!" he said in annoyance, "I'm talking to you, you know?"

She continued to ignore his babble as they walked on for nearly an hour before finally seeing the trees give way to a path. "Oh! We're back to the track. How'd you know to get here? It seemed like every tree was the same in there," he said, pointing back to the eerie forest. Rhea raised an eyebrow, mouth slightly lifting without her permission. The boy startled and crossed his arms, "Yeah, yeah. I was the one lost this entire time. Thanks for leading me back. Stop looking so amused, at least I said thanks, didn't I? Unlike someone." He pointedly looked at Rhea here and she felt like she could laugh at this moment. Just a little bit maybe, but she offered a minuscule smile and hoped it conveyed her thanks.

Now, the boy will leave. She knew he was probably lost when he started following her in the forest so she let him tag along but now he had to go home and Rhea felt a small mass of loneliness settle within her. She ignored it and watched the boy curiously watching her.

"You look like you walked out of a horror movie. At least let me make sure you get back home safely." Rhea tilted her head and didn't bother looking down at herself. She knew she looked wrecked but what could she do about that? Maybe go down by the river later. In the meantime, the boy seemed to be a gentleman and Rhea didn't know what to do about that.

"Don't look at me like that. I just saw you almost walk to your death! I need to make sure you don't have a death wish." Rhea rolled her eyes, lips pulled up anyway. She shook her head at the boy, biting her lips in hesitation when his face fell. "Oh. Can I at least have your name?" Rhea shrugged. The boy looked at her strangely, "Okay. Uh, you do actually have a place to return to, right?"

Rhea flinched, words like salt on a gaping wound. A place to return to, he said. Her eyes instinctively raised to the sky, looking a little more empty now that they were closer to the city. She wished, once more, that she could belong up there.

"Miss?"

Worried orbs captured her attention and she shrugged again, remembering his previous question. She looked away, avoiding the boy's eyes. She didn't want to see his reaction, but why should she care about what this boy thought of her?

"Do you... want to come to my place? My mom can help. She's a nurse, so you can get your feet wrapped up properly." Rhea looked at him in disbelief. Why would someone ever bring a stranger to their home? This boy was crazy. "Um, you don't have to, but maybe you could use some dinner, you know? We have steak and noodles. Consider it, you know? Aren't you hungry?"

She was. Very much so, in fact. She didn't realize until the sound of steak almost made her drool. "Yea?" the boy asked, looking hopeful at whatever expression appeared in her. Rhea shrugged again but then nodded. He brightened up and clapped his hands together in delight. "Great! I'll give you a piggyback ride, I can't see you walking barefoot anymore. That's torture! Come on." Rhea hesitated for just a moment before deciding what the hell and climbed aboard.

"You're worryingly light," the boy said, easily lifting her up and walking at a normal pace. Rhea didn't know how to respond to that, mostly because she couldn't shrug without looking like an idiot, so she just ignored it. She didn't eat much these days. Couldn't. Not without throwing up everything they scarfed down her throat. She didn't like their forced cheerfulness when they slid a tray full of food her way. She didn't like them telling her to eat more when she pushed the tray away from her after a couple bites. She didn't like them "subtly" monitoring her to make sure she ate everything. She didn't like their forced words of comfort when she inevitably puked. She didn't like anything there. But somehow, the awkward offer of food from the babbling boy had her hungry and willing within seconds.

It didn't take long to reach his home, despite the slow walk. The boy had talked the whole way through and when she thinks back at it, she should've found it annoying. Instead, the boy's chatter made her feel at ease so she had closed her eyes and let the words wash over her. Next thing she knew, the steady rocking stopped and she was by the door.

"You alright with me setting you down for a moment?" Rhea nodded against the top of his head and the boy carefully let her back on the ground. He fumbled with his pockets but just as he got his key out, the door opened to reveal a woman who had to be in her 50s, yet glowed with beauty. "Zander." So that was his name. Despite having no filter, the boy had yet to tell her his name since the moment they met. She had to admit though, Zander seemed very fitting for a strange boy.

"Hey, mom. Uhm. This is... I actually don't know her name, but she's not a serial killer or anything in case you were wondering. I know her clothes and hair can seem a little misleading but that's mostly my fault because she needed to get off me and rolled on the mud. Um! I mean, because we fell when I pulled her. I didn't hurt her! At least I hope so, you know? She didn't seem hurt? Well, her feet are pretty bruised up but that's because she not wearing any—"

He stopped suddenly and Rhea looked at his mom to see an eyebrow raised. "Yeah, I'll shut up now. But, mom, she has nowhere to go and she's hungry. She's also really nice. I was lost in the forest and she helped me. And her feet! So I—"

"Zander. I got it, son. Stop embarrassing yourself." She turned to Rhea and smiled. "What's your name, sweety?" Rhea shrugged, not knowing how to answer, and fidgeted under the gaze of the older woman. "Okay," the woman said, dragging out the word. Rhea thought that maybe this wasn't the greatest idea. Zander may have been crazy to invite a stranger for dinner but that didn't mean his mom was too.

Just as she was going to leave, Zander's mom stepped back and opened the door wider. "Well, come in. It's a little chilly out tonight." Rhea wondered if this was a good idea but mentally shrugged because it wasn't like she had many options. Who was she to turn down kindness?

Zander led Rhea to the kitchen. She silently looked around in curiosity, taking in the marble counters and sandalwood painted cabinets. It was surprisingly small but Rhea liked it anyway. There was a relaxing and homey feeling to it. Zander's mom handed her a plate full of warm food. "I'm going to go start on a bath for you," she informed, smiling warmly at Rhea. She didn't protest, a bath sounding heavenly. Zander ushered her to the dining room and sat her down gently. He didn't say anything for the first time since she met the boy. Just silently watched her eat.

The first bite of steak almost brought tears to her eyes. She remembered the last meal she had with her family. It wasn't steak—that would be an interesting coincidence. However, the events leading up to this moment of warm and delicious food made her feel at home; safe. It caught her off guard. She hadn't felt safe since her family died. Not even at the police station where they flocked and surrounded her.

No, it was here, in the softly lit dining room within a cozy house, with a boy whose heart was filled with kindness. It was here that she finally felt at ease for the first time in two weeks.

She didn't cry, but it was a damn near thing.

There was a lot of food on her plate. Normally, it wouldn't be too hard to completely lick it clean, but her life hadn't been very normal the past couple weeks, had it? So she ate a couple bites of steak, shoved a few fork fulls of noodles in her mouth, and then just stopped and stared at her food guiltily. Zander seemed to notice after a couple minutes. "What's wrong?"

Rhea didn't want to offend him or his mom. They had been so kind and thoughtful and generally one in a million, and here she was wasting their food. She should just shove it down her throat but she wasn't particularly fond of puking either. "Oh, darling." A soft voice pulled her out of her thoughts. She looked up to see Zander's mom holding up a fluffy towel. "Don't worry about eating everything on there. Just make sure you've had your fill, okay? The bath is ready if you are." Rhea nodded and tried to convey her thanks in a small smile.

The bath relaxed her magnificently. She came out feeling hazy and without a care in the world. There was an inviting cup of hot chocolate waiting for her on the dining table. "Zander likes to have hot chocolate after a good bath on days where he's particularly sad. Thought it might work for you too." Rhea stared at her in surprise, her generosity frankly amazing, before nodding in a hopefully grateful manner. It didn't feel like enough though because she hadn't felt this elated in so long. She involuntarily opened her mouth to say something, anything.

But her voice died in her throat and reality all but crashed into her peaceful moment with a force so great there were tears prickling at the corner of her eyes. Her hands started to shake. What was she doing? This happy little moment was amazing but what happened when it was over? It certainly won't make her problems magically go away. God, she wished it was that easy.

Zander and his mom, who actually froze in anticipation when she opened her mouth seemed to immediately sense her foul mood. Zander's mom enveloped her in a hug and although it didn't completely quell the panic within her, she calmed down enough to stop shaking. "I don't exactly know why you're wandering alone at night, but I know you're lost. Listen carefully and try to stay calm while I explain what I'm going to do, okay?"

Rhea nodded, pretty much knowing her next words. She didn't know what compelled her to run earlier that day but she had to go back. She knew that, at least. "I'm going to call the police, and maybe I can get an explanation then. Is that alright?"

Rhea nodded, not bothering to show how much she hated that idea. Zander's mom left but he immediately sat by Rhea and threw a comforting arm on her shoulders. "It's going to be okay. We'll make sure you'll be taken care of." Rhea didn't know what to do because Zander thought the best of her when she was not deserving of it. She was just causing problems for everyone. There was no good reason for running away either. The family was nice. More than nice. She needed space, but running away was not a choice she should've made.

When the police came, it was a familiar face. "Rhea," Cassandra said in a relieved tone, "We've been worried about you." Rhea ducked her head in embarrassment, hoping to convey that she didn't mean to; that it was an impulsive decision and she didn't know what she was doing. "Rhea, huh?" Zander said with an affectionate grin. "Fits you perfectly." Rhea felt her cheeks heat up at the compliment.

For the first time since her parents died, a wide grin spread on her face. God, she wanted to speak so badly. She wanted to thank him for pulling her back from that cliff, for sticking with her even when he didn't need to, for carrying her to his house, for caring for her in a way that touched her cold heart. She wasn't ready though. One day, she thought, maybe she will be. But it wasn't today.

Cassandra started telling Zander and his mom about the arson. How Rhea's dad's business partner was jealous and decided to burn down their house. How Rhea's mom threw her out the window right before the roof collapsed on her. How Rhea hasn't spoken a word since screaming for her parents. Psychological muteness is what they called it. They told them how she's been with a foster family for the past week and that she wasn't doing well. That the foster family exhausted their options and came to the station to find help. How she slipped away while they tried to come up with ways to fix her. Because she was broken and no one knew what to do.

Zander and his mom were surprisingly quiet as Cassandra went on, but Zander was staring at Rhea like he wanted to hug her and never let go. Rhea thought it might be something she wouldn't be against.

When it was time to leave, Zander's mom gave a warm, snug hug, "You are welcome to come here anytime, Rhea." Zander gave her the same heartfelt hug, "My mom isn't just saying things, you know. Don't be a stranger." Rhea fixed her gaze on Zander, who doesn't look away despite the shy demeanour. She wondered if he got what she was trying to get across and then she remembered his uncanny perceptive nature. She left then, knowing things weren't okay yet, but they would be. One step at a time. Till then, she would hold onto Zander's hand to keep her from falling off the cliff.

I promise.

××× a few years later ×××

It feels magical. Maybe not as enthralling as it was when her mother held Rhea in her arms in the backyard and whispered the most amazing stories, but it was a start. She could still hear the awe in her mother's voice as she went on and on. The stars are beautiful, Rhea. Beautiful like you," she used to say. Rhea never believed her. How could she ever be compared to something that, though was born from clouds of dust, emerged looking stunning in the night sky?

"I wish, I wish, to be beautiful like you," Rhea muttered in the quiet of the night, eyes twinkling as it reflected the ethereal sight before her.

"What a silly wish," Zander whispered, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, "No star in this entire universe could compare to you."

July 25, 2020 03:22

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