The Million-Year-Old Light of the Hand-Shaped Constellation
The first-place story from our 2014 Genre Fiction Contest.
I LIVE FAR ENOUGH AWAY FROM ANYONE else that at night the city is just a dull orange discolouration of the sky behind the mountains. At night I can carry my folding cot out into the desert, lace my fingers behind my head and not worry while I look for the answers. There are more stars here than there is darkness and the answers are always hiding, somewhere above.
That night the moon was new. Every few seconds a meteor would burn as it moved through the atmosphere. I couldn’t get Rachael Price and her pained expression out of my mind. I’d scanned the sky for nearly an hour before finally spotting, off to the southwest, a constellation shaped like a hand. Rachael, I remembered, wouldn’t stop wiping her hand on her pajama bottoms. Every few seconds her eyes would dart to look at something behind me. The million-year-old light of the constellation shimmered. I knew where I’d find Jessa.
I sprinted back to my trailer, dressed and made the two hour drive through the desert and over the mountains, back into the city where Jessa Laguna used to live.
IT WAS DARK when I reached the city limits but the stars were long gone. I exited the freeway and drove north past the airplane graveyard where the government had left hundreds of its decommissioned bombers to decay in perfect rows. Once, when I was a boy, I’d read that it will take over four billion years for all traces of human civilization to completely decompose. I parked on Loma Linda and crept down the garbage truck alley towards Kenny Price’s house.
The house was dark. I crossed the yard and stood in front of Rachael’s bedroom window. Two nights before I’d coaxed the little girl to open it and speak to me, her little body framed by the pale curtains. So she wouldn’t be afraid, I’d turned on my penlight and tucked it in my collar right behind my head, telling her that I was an angel sent down from heaven to help her daddy not be worried anymore. I’d suspected Kenny, but had no proof. Rachael kept wiping her hand on her thigh, repeating that she didn’t know what was wrong, and her eyes would dart to the right.
Kneeling to Rachael’s height, I turned around and followed her gaze. Across the street was an abandoned construction site. The city had ceased to grow in this direction. I walked over, crossing a heavily overgrown lot until I came upon a drainage pipe. At its entrance were chalk drawings on the corrugated steel, flowers and cats. I turned on my penlight and crawled inside, over the garbage. I was halfway down when I saw a patch of blonde hair.
It was Jessa. Badly decomposed, but I still recognized her. There was a hole in her chest. Rachael, while exploring this secret place of hers, must have blindly sunk her hand into her mother’s body. She was still trying to wipe it off. Small white bugs rose into the air, filling the pipe. I breathed in a few as I crawled backwards.
I’VE BEEN DOING THIS for a long time. Finding people who’ve disappeared is the only thing I’ve ever been good at. It’s easy. The answers are always shining down on me. With all those eyes in the city, it’s just as easy for someone to disappear there as it is for someone to disappear where I live. I was able to do it once.
People pay me money to find their loved ones. A week earlier, I’d driven into the city and a leathery woman asked me to sit. She handed me a picture of a blond woman wearing a long white sundress. My stomach fell. It was her.
“I haven’t seen Jessa for almost a month,” the woman said. “Help me. She’s always had troubles.”
I brought the photograph closer. It was her. But when I’d met this woman three years earlier she’d told me her name was Amber. The cheeks and hips of the woman in the picture were full. She was smiling. I’d spent eleven days with Amber and she did not smile once. When I knew her, her cheeks were thin and her clothes were dirty. Amber hurt exactly the same way I hurt. It was the first time in my life I’d ever felt a connection with anyone. I’d brought her to the desert with me. She saw the same constellations I saw. On the eleventh day she was gone.
I coughed. “What kind of troubles?”
“When she was young, she got bad into drugs. Would hurt herself or disappear. But last year she found the church. God brought her back to us. I’m so afraid something bad happened again.”
After those eleven days, I spent an entire year looking for Amber but I could never find one single answer up there. Not one.
CAREFULLY, I BROKE A WINDOW and unlocked Kenny Price’s back door. Jessa had lived here briefly, I’d learned. They’d had a baby but, eventually, the hurt became too much. It drove Jessa away. She gave up her rights to her daughter.
After that, Jessa had failed to kill herself with pills and then grew to depend on the Bible. Right with god, she wanted her daughter back. When Kenny Price said no, Jessa had threatened to kidnap Rachael. One night, she tried it. Kenny strangled Jessa and hid her body in that pipe. I don’t think Rachael knew who it was she’d touched in the dark.
I groaned. Amber hurt like I hurt.
In the hallway I heard the sound of rubbing fabric. Rachael was standing there at her door, wiping her hand on her hip. I put the penlight behind my head and turned it on. Pain was on the little girl’s face. She looked like Amber. I picked her up and put her in bed. Then I kissed her right hand.
“All clean now,” I whispered.
She kept rubbing her hand.
“Go to sleep. I have something very important to do. Okay?”
I turned off the penlight and opened the door at the end of the hall. There was Kenny Price’s silhouette on the bed. I shut the door behind me and unfolded my knife.
IT WAS NEARLY MORNING. I carried Rachael towards my trailer. I didn’t know what was going to happen after all this. Only one or two stars were out. No answers anywhere. My heart was beating.
“Where are we?” Rachael murmured. “Where is everyone?”
I put her down on the ground. The grass came up to her chin. I tucked the penlight behind my head and turned it on. Who knows how long this illusion will last?
“Everyone is very far away, Rachael.”
I pointed towards the orange discolouration.
“They’re over there. We’re safe from all the bad people here. Safe from the hurt.”
“We’re in Heaven?” Rachael asked, touching my hair and looking at the light.