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Whenever I am alone, I count the stares. There are stars everywhere, in the night sky, in my room, scattered along my cheeks and nose. But when I love to count the stars most is when it’s late at night and my mom still hasn’t come home from work. I sneak out to the field next to my house and lie down on an old quilt. I try to find my star, the star that has always been mine. I try to find the star that is always where it should be.
Sometimes I fall asleep out there, after I find my star. I curl up on the blanket and wait for my mom’s car lights to show up. But she works late and usually comes home at eleven. That’s when I wait and wait, and tell myself about the stars and the planets out there to protect all of us.
Every time I fall asleep out in the field, I have the most wonderful dreams. Dreams about Dad coming and talking to me, asking me to take care of my mom and brother. Or dreams about memories. Memory Dreams, Grayson likes to call them. But he can’t have the memory dreams I do. Because he doesn’t remember Dad.
“Helen!” I heard my mom yell in the morning. I rubbed my eyes and yawned. Good thing it’s Saturday.
“It’s ok, Mom, I’m over here.” I sat up and waved my arm up over the tall yellow grass. I could hear her slow, steady steps. I remembered what I dreamt last night. That Dad came back and said he made it. But I know he didn’t. Because he still wasn’t here.
“Hi honey.” My mom said, sitting next to me. She combed through my hair with her fingers. She was wearing jeans and a long, smooth, gray wrap. Her hair was in a messy bun and her makeup was perfect, as always.
“Mom, do I have to go to Aunt Kim’s today?” I asked. Her house was the one place I could never find my star. It was nowhere. Not in the kitchen, not in her cluttered living room, and defiantly not in the room my family used whenever we visited.
“You know that she loves seeing you.” My mom sighed. I knew she was always sad around Aunt Kim, like I was. She talked too much about Dad.
“Ok.” I said, looking out at the old farm house. The people who lived there had been really close family friends since we moved here. They didn’t use this field anymore, they gave it to my dad, but after he died, they said we could keep it.
I sat up and stretched out my arms. It was a pretty day, with a cool breeze that reminded me of the ocean. I walked back to my house, leaving my mom there. I know she liked it there, the same reason I did. It was the only time she could be alone. And she needed to be alone today. At least once.
I say Grayson swinging on an old swing set by our house. It was rusty, the blue paint chipping. It looked strangely in place there.
I gave Grayson a little push as I walked by. He giggles his little 4 year old giggle and kept swinging. I smiled. That’s the thing I loved so much about little Grayson, his laugh and giggles made you happy. Really happy.
Our house was a mess, or at least the kitchen was. There were dirty dishes in the sink that I would do after I got dressed and food on the counter. I walked past it into the living room then downstairs into my bedroom.
There is only a little window at the top of my room that lets light in, the rest is just dark. I placed glow in the dark stars everywhere, on the ceiling, on the walls, on my desk and dresser, even. I walked over to my chair and pulled the clothes that were on it onto my bed, and then put them on.
They were fancy, for me. There was a black skirt that went down to my knees and a green blouse with little frills. I walked over to the mirror in my room and brushed out my curly hair. I pulled almost all of it into a ponytail in the back of my head, leaving a few curls in front. Then I changed again into black pants. I looked better, more casual. I didn’t need to dress up for a family reunion.
After I finished doing the dishes, I called Grayson inside so he could put on the shirt Aunt Kim had gotten him. It was cute, a red, short sleeve tee with two white stripes going across. I helped Grayson brush his hair and teeth.
Mom came inside and changed. I sat down in my living room to read, “The Help” that Aunt Kim gave me for Christmas. Aunt Kim always read great books, and then gave them to Dad, and then he would give some of them to me.
“Helen, time to go. Do you have your jacket?” My mom called from the bathroom where she was reapplying her mascara. I slid my bookmark into place and pulled on my black jacket.
“Yeah mom,” I said, then walked into Grayson’s room. He was looking out his window, at the old farm house.
“Ready to go, Grays?” I asked. He shook his head.
“No. My tumb hurts.” He whined, then sat down and picked up his stuffed dinosaur. “And Henry don’t want me to go.” I sat down next to him and picked up his race car bag.
“Do you want to bring Henry with you?” I asked. Grayson nodded, but didn’t put the dinosaur in the bag. Instead he ran off to the car and waited by the door. I sighed and picked up Grayson’s bag and my book.
“Helen, are you coming?”
“Yeah Mom.” I trudged outside and helped Grayson into his car seat. I sat in the front seat and turned on the radio. Nothing interesting was on, but the radio stations played awful music anyway. I leaned back in my chair and looked outside as my mom drove. I saw the cows and the horses fly by, even the little preschool that Grayson was in.
It’s a 2 hour drive to Aunt Kim’s house in the big city. Whenever we visit her, we go to an ice cream store near her house. Mom said she didn’t feel up to ice cream right now and that I could take Grayson inside. So I did. Mom is always like this after a long drive. I was ok with it, and I think Grayson was too.
“I want Oreo.” Grayson said as we stepped inside. I loved the smell of the ice cream shop, smelling like happiness and days where only good things happen.
“Two small Oreo ice cream cones.” I said, paying the person at front. Grayson and I walked out eating our ice cream, and back into the car. Mom was calling Aunt Kim and got off the phone when we came in.
I had finished my ice cream come by the time we were parked outside Aunt Kim’s house. It was big and yellow, with two stories. Two other cars where there, my Uncle Bobby’s and my Grandmas. I took Grayson’s hand as we walked up to her door and knocked.
“Helen! How nice to see you.” My Grandma said, opening the door. She knelt down next to Grayson and gave him a big hug, which made him laugh. “Wow, you’ve gotten big.” She said to him, which made him laugh even more.
“Grandma, Moms in the car. She said she needed to talk to you.” I said, looking around at the old wall paper I had seen many times before.
“Ok, well tell Kim I am stepping out for a minute.” She said, walking out the door. I took Grayson’s hand again and led him into the kitchen where everyone was. There was My Uncle Bobby, who was my dad’s brother, my aunt Susan and my cousins Rachel and Forest. Aunt Kim was in the middle, cutting out a piece of cake for Grandpa who was sitting next to Uncle Bobby.
“Hello, Helen.” Aunt Kim said, giving me a big hug, then hugging Grayson. “So glad to see you again. Would you like some cake?”
“Cake!” Grayson yelled, making everyone laugh.
“Um, a little piece for Grayson, ok.” I said.
“Ok.” Kim cut out a piece as I led Grayson to a chair by the table next to Forest, who was a few years older than him.
“Hi Fowest.” He said as he climbed into his chair.
“Hi Grays. Wanna see the new car I got?” He asked, digging something out of his pocket.
“Yes.” Grayson said, putting a piece of cake in his mouth. I walked off; knowing that someone would make sure Grayson would be ok. But I also had the feeling Aunt Kim wanted to talk to me. I walked over to her and we stood silently for a while, watching Forest show off his toy car and Rachel talk about what she wanted for her 16th birthday.
“Helen, would you come with me for a second?” Aunt Kim asked me. I nodded and followed behind her. Aunt Kim always reminded me of an old lady, the kind who would bake cookies for all the neighborhood children. When she turned 40, she started looking a little like one too. She had wrinkles under her eyes and on her hands, and her hair was grayish.
I followed Aunt Kim into her room where she told me to sit down while she looked for something. She shifted around boxes of papers and clothes. She pulled out a little packet and sat down next to me. She gave me a hug and I could almost feel how old she was getting.
“I miss my little brother so much, Helen.” She said. I could tell she was crying, but the crying where tears slide down your cheeks. “I loved him so much.” She said, pulling away.
“I know.” I said quietly. I felt like Aunt Kim took it the worst when she found out about his accident three years ago. Exactly three years ago.
“I found this a few days ago. I wanted to share it with you.” She took a picture out of the package she was holding and showed it to me. It was of my mom and dad holding a little baby. My dad was looking at the baby, and I felt my through tighten. He was looking at me. “You can have it if you want.” I shook my head. I know that it needed to be my star in Aunt Kim’s house.
After that was just family stuff, lots of hugs, lots of crying, and a few smiles here and there. I couldn’t speak, and that tight feeling in my throat wouldn’t go away. It stayed there the whole time. I couldn’t stop thinking about the picture, about the story my dad would tell me about the day I was born.
On the ride home, Grayson fell asleep in his car seat. I thought about the story my dad told me the last birthday he was here, my thirteenth birthday. How he was looking outside of the hospital while my mother was giving birth to me. How he saw a star that was so bright that he concluded that the star was happy I was here.
My mom and I always joked that it was just a satellite, but I know it wasn’t that. It couldn’t have been. It must have been the same star, my star. The star I found the night I found out about dad.
I remember when mom got the phone call about dad, I ran out into the field, staying there for hours. When the stars showed up I counted them all, like I did every night. But there was something different. There was another star.