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Twinkleby Aspen Gainer, Paul J. Willet, and JD Stoffel
“I’d like to go to space,” Katarina told her friend Tomas, tentative but confident. She turned the phrase over in her mind, testing the shape of the words in her mouth.
People laughed at her when she talked about going, but it felt more and more right each time. Even Tomas doubted her, writing it off as one of ‘Kat’s weird, wishy-washy ideas’ that would never pan out.
To be honest, Katarina even laughed at herself. Every time she thought about space travel as a real thing–not just a Heinlein-Asimov-Bradbury fuelled frenzy of excitement–after the awed giggles bubbled up through her tight chest and out of her upturned lips, she would shake her head just like her friends and tell herself why she’d never go.
“You’re too fat,” she’d say to the pink, blobby girl who lived in the mirror. She envisioned her reflection trying to squeeze into a spacesuit, coaxing and yanking an imaginary helmet over her chubby cheeks in the idle hope those cheeks wouldn’t trip up this one small step for Kat-kind.
“You’re too stupid,” she’d trace in the dust on her dresser while getting ready for bed. Even at night when she dreamed it was about her unsuitability for space travel. She’d find herself in a classroom, deep in a maze somewhere in NASA, and the man at the whiteboard would tell her she could fly whenever she wanted…after she solved the math problem on the page in front of her. Lost in space even in her dream, she doodled and doodled until the hand was just a skeleton and the paper had long since disintegrated.
Katarina knew she’d never go. She was nothing, no one, completely unworthy of these dreams. She was the night shift girl, the alcoholic’s daughter, not the Bondar-Lightyear-infinity-and-beyond type. Katarina Yosefa was tied irreparably to the gravid Earth, forever unable to ascend. She was not made of the right, light stuff.
But her heart was there anyway, buoyant beyond all sagacity, beyond the sky, beyond atmosphere and into the deep, vast nothingness–the emptiness that should have terrified her but reassured her instead.
Up there in the vast black space, she left here behind, left her behind. No heavy, cold blue-water world with all of its fluid, flexing pain. Up there she could lose herself in the searing-hot sun and empty darkness. She could drift in nothingness, alone and apart from everything she had ever known about life, about humanity, about feeling.
In space, there was nothing, her few friends told her, but for Katarina there was everything. Anything. The black, vast emptiness was potential, creation; she could build her own world and a life that came from within her.
Tomas, who never laughed at her, rang her doorbell one night for coffee. He hadn’t heard from her in more than a week, and while this was not unusual, it suddenly made him uneasy. There was no answer so he went in. The empty house chilled his skin.
The house was overflowing with an oppressive silence as Tomas crept through the downstairs rooms. Katarina had never allowed him to come in and had never said why. Tomas had been curious, but had always respected her wishes. Trespassing now felt like a betrayal.
Everything seemed to be in place and in order, but decorated from a period half a lifetime past. The main room was arranged around a low table serving as an altar, holding only a single, framed picture of a young woman. She stood next to a small airplane, one arm draped across the propeller, the other on her hip. Her head was thrown back with laughter and her expression was one of undiluted triumph.
On the couch and floor were scattered a multitude of empty liquor bottles. Tomas carefully picked his way around them in the gloom.
Creeping up the stairs, Tomas could see four doors leading off from the landing. The one directly in front of him led to a bathroom, dominated by a claw-foot bathtub. Mismatched towels lay in a pile under the freestanding sink.
Testing the door on the far left, Tomas found it locked. The middle door was ajar and swung open easily at his touch.
Inside, the dim light showed little, but the smell was revolting. As Tomas’ eyes adjusted he could see chaos, garbage and litter mixed with weeks’ worth of discarded clothing. The outline of someone was sprawled across the bed, far too large to be Katarina.
Had Kat’s father finally drunk himself into a grave he had pursued for years? Tomas was seized by fear and indecision, trying to think of what he should do and how he could explain his presence here. When the body suddenly convulsed with a snore and collapsed back into unconsciousness, Tomas thought his heart would burst.
Backing out, Tomas turned to the final door. This must be Katarina’s room. It was clean but cluttered, the dresser top covered in books about Mars and space travel and galaxies. The window was open, thin curtains fluttering with the breeze. Scraps of paper covered the bed, pages filled with doodles of alien landscapes and strangely beautiful ships of the night. The ceiling was covered with phosphorescent stars and moons only faintly glowing a pale and sickly shade of green, their energy from today’s sunlight nearly spent.
“Katarina?” he softly called. There was no answer, but a light behind him caught his eye. He spun, but saw nothing.
“Katarina?” he called again, a touch louder. Again, no sound could be heard but for the rustling curtains, but this time Tomas saw a short, faint increase in the light from the dim stars on the ceiling, as gentle as a sigh.
“Katarina? Where are you?” Tomas asked the emptiness more urgently. “Talk to me, I’m worried about you. What’s going on? Kat?” With each invocation of her name, a wave of light rippled across the plastic constellations, each swell of photons successively brighter.
Tomas stood still in the middle of the room, silent. The stars’ glow settled to a dim, almost imperceptible green. Taking a breath, Tomas intoned, “Katarina Perry.”
The stars flared once again, brighter now. Tomas had to squint with the sudden change of light, but as his eyes adjusted, he saw the mirror sitting atop the dresser.
Like the dresser, dust coated the reflective surface, except where it had been unsettled by a fingertip. Tomas knew the handwriting. Katarina had scrawled a message in the dust.
Tomas watched the motes of dust floating in the green. The light now looked less sickly, more lively. He set a hand on one of the books, this one featuring glorious swirls of galaxies on the cover. No dust there.
“Where are you, Kat?” Tomas muttered, fingering the hardcover. He turned to the open window, considered the possibility she had climbed out and down to the yard below.
No, that was not very likely. Katarina, despite her lively spirits about going to space, did not change altitude lightly.
Still, Tomas moved to the window and peered down. No, the yard looked the same as always, a baked brown field of grass washed gray by the starry field above. Tomas looked up–
“She said she had to go,” said a voice from behind Tomas. He spun to see Kat’s father slumped in the doorway.
The big man’s eyes did not focus on any one thing, did not look at Tomas. “My Katarina,” he said. “She always said she would go…”
“Where did she go?”
Mr. Perry’s eyes focused on Tomas, and he blinked. “She…” He pointed up toward the ceiling. “She made it.”
Tomas glanced at the glowing constellation of plastic stars and moons. “I don’t understand.” Tears prickled at the edges of his vision.
“She told me,” said Mr. Perry, his voice thick, not with sleep now, nor alcohol, but sadness. “Katarina wants you to come and find her.”
Kat’s father heaved himself off the door frame and reached for the ceiling. He plucked off a star, handed it to Tomas.
Tomas held the star in his hand, its glow soft but steady.
Mr. Perry sank to the floor and wept, with Tomas sitting beside him.
It took a few days for the two of them to clean up the house. Trash bags by the dozen made their way to the curb, most clinking with bottles both empty and full. Tomas, in those days, had his first real conversations with Mr. Perry, who told him of Kat’s excitement in the week preceding her departure.
“She believed,” Mr. Perry confided. “My Kat believed, and she did it.”
They stayed in touch, even as Tomas attended university, up until Mr. Perry’s death years later. Kat’s father attended Tomas’ graduation.
Now Tomas sat in the cockpit of the shuttle, parallel to the ground and stuck a plastic star on the monitor.
“I’ll find you, Kat,” he promised.
The star glowed brighter.
So that is that! This has been a rather entertaining and intriguing challenge. I look forward to seeing other endings to more stories. If you feel up to it, go check out the challenge and write an ending! Or at least read the completed stories as they arrive over the next week.
I am thinking about writing another ending, if I can find the right story. Stay tuned for that…