Sleeping Stars

August 17, 2011
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Piles of boxes plaster the walls of my bomb shelter. I’m told the door is from an old submarine, and that there’s an escape route, the exit hidden behind a few overflowing trashcans. When I walk through the thin hallway—with my arms bent, I can touch both sides—I’m always afraid of what I’ll find. Every time, I slow down until my head twists around the corner towards the eerie light, until I’m able to realize I’m the only thing alive down here. My breath softens, a silent inhale, and I notice the box of baby clothes, the pictures of me as a toddler, the old sequined watermelon purse I loved to play with. I want to reminisce, remember the old smells and hear the old laughter, but I know I’m only down here to drop off a picture. Once I’m done, I leave through the always-open door, my footsteps echoing as I run down the cold, grey hallway.

It wasn’t always like this. I used to come down here with my friends, showing off the bomb shelter like it wasn’t a storage unit. We used to play games in the never changing room, feel safe in its unbreakable walls. We didn’t care about the secret passageway or the things it could bring in; we didn’t care about the crickets too dead to make noise, or the ominous hum of the humidifier, daring to stop and drop us in the silence. We only cared about having our childish fun.

I remember when my friend, sister, and I found the sleeping bags. We were young, my friend and I, eleven or twelve at the most, and my sister was two years younger. The bags were dark blues and greens, rolled to take up the least amount of space as possible. We opened three of them, and laid them out around the small room, fighting over which space was ours. When we were all finally settled, our minds transported us into a made-up war zone, where the bombs were falling like rain.

“Haley, dear,” I said, watching my sister, “are you alright?” She was huddled on top of her sleeping bag, eyes closed and rocking.
“Scared.” She didn’t open her eyes, working hard to pretend.
“It’ll be alright,” I said. She kept rocking.
“I miss mom and dad,” my friend Paige said. She was our sister now, bonded to us by the orphanage and the constant boom shivering through the walls.
“I do too.”
“Haley, stop rocking, you’re scaring us. Everything’s fine.”
She didn’t respond.
Suddenly, the footsteps rang out upstairs.
“Someone’s there. Quiet,” I whispered, though I knew it was just my mom, bustling around the kitchen. My sister’s eyes jerked awake and stared at me, pupils wide like a forest, darkened by night. I don’t think she’ll ever understand how convincing her acting was, how much her eyes made me believe we were all in jeopardy. Momentarily, I tricked myself into thinking that the soldiers were invading and the bombs were falling and Paige was my sister and I was an orphan.
Quickly, though, I was back to reality.

Now, at fourteen, my feet walk me into the bomb shelter to store a framed photograph. I’m around three in the picture, smiling like I’m the sun, like there’s nothing bad on the earth so far below me. After I drop the picture on a used CD holder, I spot the sleeping bags. They’re practically hidden behind the boxes, wrapped up tight like they’re trying to trap the memories.
I walk up to them. Even though I know I have to be upstairs and away from this mess, something tells me to stay, and find a way to turn war into a game, to make happiness out of the depression. I don’t listen, though, and my mind brings my body back through the old submarine door and down the cold, grey hallway.
Running without looking behind me, I can only see what’s next. The two steps to my dad’s crowded workroom, the white coat hangers, and the glimpse of the garage door cover my view, but thoughts of the sleeping bags are always somewhere, stuck in the empty spaces like stars in the black.

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