“Some of you may have noticed that the thirty first sector of the gamma system is now devoid of stars. Rumors have spread that they are somehow being ‘eaten’. Rest assured that nothing is eating those stars.” A hand went up in the back of the classroom. Mr. Morrow sighed; Cody was the most troublesome student he had seen in ten years of teaching fifth grade. “Yes Cody?”
“If they aren’t being eaten where’d they go?”
“We’re not sure Cody.”
“Then how do you know they’re not being eaten?” he persisted.
Lily didn’t pay attention to the somewhat confused and confusing explanation Mr. Morrow gave. In fact, she hadn’t paid attention to anything that had been said; nothing seemed to interest her anymore. With relief she realized that the bell had rung. Class was over.
“Lily.” Mr. Morrow’s voice stopped her escape. She turned reluctantly; it would not do to disobey her teacher.
“Yes Mr. Morrow.” Her small voice was barely audible in the stillness.
“Lily, how are you doing?”
“Lily, you didn’t do your homework all this week. I’m worried about your grades.”
“I forgot, it won’t happen again.”
“Can I go now?” she asked abruptly.
He sighed in resignation, “Yes. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Lily practically ran out of the classroom and right into Scott. He reached out an arm to steady her.
“Hey Lily. Where’s the fire?” Scott was a sixth grader and he had been trying to befriend her for weeks, but his attempt at a joke sounded hollow even to his own ears. Something was wrong, deeply wrong, he wanted to help but he didn’t know how.
“Let me go.”
“Okay, okay.” He released her arm, which, to tell the truth, he had not really been holding, just barely touching. “Why are you always running Lily?”
“Why are you always asking questions?”
“Because I want to help you.”
“Whatever.” Lily ran before Scott could call out to her again. She hated it when people asked her questions. Why couldn’t they just all mind their own business? Running into her house she went up to her room and shut the door. No one would bother her in here. Not that she would be bothered anywhere in the house, her parents had been gone an awful lot lately. They were scientists with NASA’s newly refitted Star Watch corps. They monitored stars and tried to figure out ways to save them. When Lily had seemed curious about their jobs Mr. and Mrs. Trendle had bought her a telescope and told her that she could help them by watching the stars every night that they were not home. Lily loved her telescope; it kept her mind off other things. She hadn’t been able to look into it for the last several nights; she couldn’t wait for the chance tonight.
Mr. and Mrs. Trendle were very worried about their daughter. She no longer played Joolot with the other children and her wrist com. was never on. She locked herself away in her room and seemed to want nothing to do with the outside world. They had bought her the telescope in the hopes that it might help her heal and give her an interest in life again. So far it had only given her an interest in stars.
Lily’s parents were not home by nightfall, but Lily was used to that. She climbed into her room tower with her telescope. She loved this part of her room. Her parents had recently given her an anti-grav generator, while it didn’t really take away gravity it gave her the feeling that she was floating with her beloved stars. She flipped the switch that would activate both the generator and the space mural created by moving lights. She reached for her star chart journal before settling down before the scope. Her parents encouraged her to keep detailed notes and she never forgot. She scanned the night sky, occasionally marking a change in her journal or on a map. Suddenly she stopped and rescanned an area. A large section of space had gone black since the last time she had been here. She glanced at her chart to confirm her suspicions; yes, this section of space had been crowded with stars only a few nights ago. She read the coordinates: gamma system, sector thirty-one. Why did that sound so familiar? Her small brow furrowed in concentration. She pressed a small hand over her eyes to touch both temples. If only she could remember. Hadn’t Mr. Morrow been talking about that today? And the kids at school had said something about a star eater. If only she had paid more attention. Moving back to her scope she was startled by a door slamming. She jumped up; maybe her parents would know what was going on. She shot down the stairs, catching her father just as he had finished taking off his coat.
“Daddy! Daddy!” she stopped short, he seemed so tired. She leaned to look past him at her mother, she looked tired too. “What’s wrong?” she asked in a solemn voice.
“Nothing honey, we just had a long day.” Her mother smiled at her.
“Mommy, Daddy, I was looking through my scope and I saw that some of the stars were gone, lots of stars. Why?”
Lily’s mom glanced at her dad before answering. “We don’t know honey.”
“Go on to bed now, okay?” her father gently turned her toward the stairs. Lily went, but late that night she heard whispering downstairs and she crept down to listen. Her parents were in the living room and, as she hid on the stairs, she could hear their worried conversation.
“What are we going to do Ted? We can’t even begin to explain what has happened, how do we know it won’t happen to us?”
“Shh. Don’t wake Lily.” Ted Trendle reached out a hand and stroked his wife’s hair in reassurance. “We’ll think of something Sarah, I know we will.”
“But that, that horrible emptiness, that void.”
Something about that conversation struck Lily, she had never heard her mother so frightened, she was usually in control. And the way she had said that word, void, like it was some disease. Lily went to bed, but she took that word with her.
Night after night Lily was drawn to the empty spot in her telescope. The void, her parents had called it. It seemed to call to her, she felt as though she understood it. And she knew why, she had a void inside of her too. One she tried very hard not to show to anyone else. It was a big empty hole left in her when her best friend had died. The old natives at the reservation had said that something was killing the stars and that the universe wept at their deaths, and at the emptiness they had left behind. If that were true Lily knew how the universe felt. Marianne had been dead for almost a year. She had gone to a therapist and everyone thought she was over it - that she understood. But she didn’t. And she was afraid, afraid to let anyone else get close. She didn’t want to get hurt again, and she didn’t want to forget Mari.
And so she “communed” with the void, night after night, barely noticing anything else. Scott and Mr. Morrow kept asking her if she was all right. Scott had even offered to walk her home a couple times, but she never let him. One thing she did notice, her parents seemed less worried now. Apparently they had isolated the cause of this phenomenon and determined that it would not continue to spread. While they still spent all their time studying sector thirty-one of the gamma system they were no longer scared. Instead, they were trying to determine when stars would come back to the system and if they could ‘help’ the process.
Lily didn’t think it was fair of them interfere. The universe missed the dead stars. It wanted to remember them with the emptiness. Not forget them with new stars. New stars might seem nicer to everyone else, but it wouldn’t be the same. And maybe the universe didn’t want to find new stars, then it might just lose them again and it would have to cry all over. Lily thought she knew how the universe must feel. She decided that she would go see the elders on the reservation about it.
When she got there only grandmother Ilia was there, that wasn’t her real name, but Lily couldn’t say her real one. When Lily asked her about the stars coming back grandmother Ilia said that the stars would come back one day, when their time had come. Lily said that was wrong, it shouldn’t forget the old stars. But grandmother Ilia said that you didn’t have to forget the old to accept the new. Lily thought that maybe when the universe was ready for some new stars she would miss its company.
Two weeks later she was looking in her telescope when a faint, flickering light appeared. In a few minutes it was shinning bright and strong as if it had always been there. At first Lily was upset, but then she thought of how sad the emptiness had looked. With that one star near the middle the void was suddenly gone completely. She thought that if the star had appeared at the edge of the space it might not have been noticed. Lily ran down to tell her parents what she had seen. They didn’t believe her, but then they got a call from NASA, they had to come right away and figure out why that star had appeared. Apparently they thought it should have taken a long time before new stars came. Lily thought that was silly, shouldn’t the universe get to decide for itself when it would let new stars in, not some stuffy scientists?
The next day Lily shared her discovery with grandmother Ilia. Grandmother Ilia said that the universe was happy now and would weep no longer. The time for mourning the lost was over. Lily thought about this all the way home. Maybe Grandmother Ilia was right, maybe there was a time for being lonely and a time to move on for her too. Maybe she could be happy and make new friends without forgetting Mari. She would always miss Mari, but if the universe could move on shouldn’t she?
The next day she smiled at Mr. Morrow and played at recess. After school Scott offered to walk her home and she let him, on one condition - that they stop by grandmother Ilia first. It turned out that Scott already knew grandmother Ilia, Lily shouldn’t have been surprised, Scott was just the sort of person grandmother Ilia would like. They spent almost an hour there and Lily smiled and laughed as she talked to Scott. When they left grandmother Ilia watched them with a knowing smile. Lily’s parents were still baffled, and a little upset by the sudden appearance of that star. But Lily knew, it was simply time to fill the void.