NORTH STAR • by Suzanne Conboy-Hill

“Come on, prezzie time.” Stella’s mother slapped a hat on Stella’s head and held out a tube of sunblock, “You’ll need it to go outside.”

“I won’t because I’m not going outside.”

“Please, just stop grumping, see if you can’t crack a smile?”

Stella crossed her legs in front of her on the bed and then folded her body on top of them.

“Come on, Stella, it’ll be fab.”

“I hate this place.”

“You don’t want your presents then?”

Stella’s foot beat a rhythm in the air like the tail of an irritated cat, “Not fair.” Presents were all that was left of a proper Christmas. One that was cold and you could switch on your Christmas lights in the middle of the day, walk down the street at half past three in the afternoon and see everyone else’s trees twinkling through their curtains. Australia was stupid, it didn’t deserve to have Christmas. She crossed her arms over her head and hugged her ears.

“Why did we have to come here?”

“It’s where your dad and me are from.”

“It’s not where I’m from.”

“You don’t know that; what if it is? What if your birth family’s here, wouldn’t that be a thing?”

Stella thrust out a pair of raw-pastry arms and puffed an escaped strand of near-silver hair in her mother’s direction, “Because obviously, I’m a natural beach babe, said nobody ever.” She retracted her arms and her mother waited, letting the heat of the moment dissipate before baiting a new hook, “There’s a package that looks like it’s from Mrs M.”

“Ursi?” Stella groaned, raised her head and leaned it back against the wall; now she’d have to give in, drag herself outside to where summer was ruining Christmas by being in the same place at the same time. She groaned again; was that even legal?

A few minutes later, hat rammed low over her forehead, sunglasses crammed like black bottle bottoms onto her face and a scowl leaking out from underneath, Stella scuffed onto the patio and slumped into a lounger near the table with the presents on it. The table was draped in red cloth with Ho Ho Ho printed along the white edging, and some flickering fairy lights, strung among the gifts, battled with the glare.

Stella rolled her eyes — Ursi would hate it. Her house was squat and dark all year, looking more like a derelict hovel than a home, but from the beginning of Advent right through to Twelfth Night there were lanterns among the tangled shrubbery, her front path was covered in frosty sparkles, and the windows glowed like hot honey. Most kids stayed away though, freaked by Ursi’s bright white hair and eyes that looked like they went all the way down to the bottom of the Arctic ocean. They called her a witch but Stella liked her so they called her a witch too which made Stella feel a kind of kinship. Ursi said Stella had an ‘old soul’ and they got on.

Hearing about the package tied an unexpected knot in Stella’s stomach, driving her eventually to get up from the lounger and mosey over to the table. She trailed a desultory finger over the gifts: several bore tags with her name on them; some large and boxy, others small and boxy, and a big thing that had ears individually wrapped in shiny red foil. But the one that drew her, that stood out from the rest, was a small package done up in bright white paper that had a blue tinge to it, making it look like a slab of ice. She picked it up; she didn’t expect it to be cold but she was disappointed nonetheless to find it was warm. Her name was clearly printed on the front.

“When did you give her our address?” she said, turning it over in her hands. The FROM label was a join-the-dots puzzle; a box with string flying off one corner and U.M scribbled in the centre. She squinted at it.

“I thought you told her.” Stella’s mother squinted at the label too.

“I didn’t see her before we left — you never see her in the summer.” Stella found the edge of the wrapping and pulled it open. There was a box inside which she set down on the table and opened. In it was an old iPhone, slightly battered looking but with all its bits and pieces. She switched it on; it said Hi, and it loaded a screen with just one app showing.

“What’s that?” Stella’s mother leaned in to take a look.

“It’s that astronomy app, the one that shows you all the constellations and the space station and stuff.” Stella thumbed it, tilted it up at the sky without thinking. Her mother tilted it down again, “Best try it tonight,” she said.

Stella looked back at the downturned screen, it was barely in shadow but the display was astonishingly bright and clear – digitally penetrating the patio, the top soil, the earth’s crust and core, the ice and the tundra of the north, to show the night sky on the other side of the world arcing across it. She peered closer, shaded the screen a little; one of the stars was pulsing – the North Star, the beacon to homecoming sailors.

Stella pressed it, it expanded to fill the screen and kept expanding with dizzying acceleration; larger and larger, the world encompassed within the screen and the screen bearing down on hot suns, cold suns, comets and planets; then just one sun and one planet.

It plunged through the blue atmosphere, past snowflakes the size of islands, skimming the frozen waves, swooping alongside singing glaciers, and racing through glittering valleys, stopping only when it arrived at a small house, drifted deep into the snow but with a crisp clearing out at the front. There were lanterns all the way along the frosted path, and its windows glowed the colour of hot honey.

Suzanne Conboy-Hill is a past psychologist; Lascaux Short Fiction, Flash Fiction Chronicles, Mash Stories, and Pen2Paper Finalist; and Best of the Net nominee. Her stories — some SF, some speculative, and some based in grim realism — have been published by Zouch Magazine, Grievous Angel, Full of Crow, Fine Linen, and the Lascaux 2014 anthology amongst others. She lives in the UK with the obligatory cohort of cats. This is her website

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 average 3.6 stars • 21 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

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  • I was swept away with Stella, plunging through the atmosphere. From the start, the vivid writing pulls the reader into Stella and her world. Satisfying endings can be a challenge in flash fiction — this one delivers. Also, I want that app.

  • Lots of room for the reader to ‘read’ into this story. Nice.

    This sentence stopped me cold: “They called her a witch but Stella liked her so they called her a witch too which made Stella feel a kind of kinship.” Linchpin for the story in my eye. Could a comma after ‘but’ and ‘too’ make it flow better? Should it be split into multiple sentences?

    Thanks for the story!

    • Yep, it was and it was the last one I wrote too. It pulled some strands together, for me so I’m very pleased it gave you that linchpin feeling. As to commas, I do that thing of spending all morning putting one in and all afternoon taking it out again. This must have been the afternoon version!

  • Michael Stang

    They always taught me it’s not what you write but how. “and eyes that looked like they went all the way down to the bottom of the Arctic ocean” I am going to be thinking about this for a while. Love your style.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    The final two paragraphs were lovely, and spoke beautifully, I think, to anyone who’s been far from home on a holiday.

    The rest of it made me nuts. After this line I found it difficult to maintain the right attitude:

    “Stella crossed her legs in front of her on the bed and then folded her body on top of them.”

    The story made me spend too much time puzzling over clues. Is Stella an albino or suffering from ichthyosis or another seriously disabling skin disease? Is that why she was given up for adoption? If she has such a condition, which even in a latitude of dim sunlight would require enormous effort to get through daily life, why would her adoptive parents move to a place like Australia, where the kid would practically need a hazmat suit? Even if it’s their own native home?

    Why don’t they know where Stella’s birth parents came from? If Stella was born in (presumably) the UK, wouldn’t some basic info be in the system? And why would her (adoptive) mom bring up Stella’s birth family, especially at holiday time, especially when Stella’s already feeling very much dislocated? Feels like rubbing salt into wounds.

    It felt to me as though the writer tried to cram too much information into a story whose basic themes–loneliness, love, kinship–were so beautifully explored in those ending paragraphs. No vote.

    • I share your views. I took Stella to be an stellar alien that misses snow. The “prezzies” word stalled me. I regret that I simply didn’t understand it to make its reading memorable (for the right reasons.)

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        “Prezzies” UK slang for presents. But even though I knew that, it was a really disconcerting opening.

        • JAZZ

          I’m sorry, Sarah, but what could possibly be disconcerting about an innocent slang word ….. that you knew…?

      • JAZZ

        As my distinguished Lit.Prof. would say…when in doubt, read it again…try and connect the dots. If that doesn’t work….turn the page or put it aside…

        • He/she would be more distinguished if he/she advised, “If a reader is in doubt, rewrite it:” 🙂

          • JAZZ

            A writer cannot possibly be responsible for all readers comphrehension skills. If, as you say, the “reader is in doubt” there could be many reasons why: not enough exposure to complex writing, limited formal education, a negative attitude and a refusal on the part of the reader to stretch oneself or, simply, to just ask.
            Using your argument, why in hell’s name didn’t Joyce just spell it out for we mortal undergrads.

        • LOL. I’ve seen her get her bitch on before. See my reply.

          “Either. Or. Neither noir.”

          • JAZZ

            I read the comment you sent to Disqus that showed up in my e-mail. Am I the bitch you were referring to…?

    • Sarah, when you said ‘Ursi’ put bears in your head, I thought that was an Americanism for some kind of lumbering interference to your thinking and completely missed my own clue! Bears indeed – Ursa Minor, in fact.

      • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

        Paul got it…

  • MPmcgurty

    I loved many things about this story. Stella and her disgruntlement with Christmas in Australia. Pockets of lovely language, especially lyrical and brilliant when describing Ursi’s gift and its ability to bring Stella back home. A good story at its heart. Still, I had to work really hard to get to those parts. I don’t mind that Stella’s condition wasn’t revealed, but the references to Stella’s arms, legs, and feet distracted me quite a bit through the first of the story.

    I’m wondering if this is part of a larger mystery-fantasy story. A young girl with a skin condition, a birth family about which no one knows anything, and an odd older friend, Ursi, who sends a magical gift without knowing their new address – and they’ve never seen Ursi in the summer. The length of this piece tested my capacity to sympathize with Stella instead of cringing at her attitude.

    • Vicki Doronina

      I wonder if Ursi is the birth mother. She never comes out of the house during the summer because she has the same skin condition. And that’s why the adoptive parents moved as far away as possible.

      • MPmcgurty

        Ah ha. Good one. Now if we can get Suzanne to write that story! 🙂

      • S Conroy

        That crossed my mind too with the birth mother, though I couldn’t think of how it would tie in with the story. But you’ve filled in that blank nicely. With a few hints thrown in it would be a pretty nice plot.

    • No, this is as big as it gets – written especially for EDF’s invitational in record time. I like the idea of a short story though, iron out some of the bumps in the road, and I’m glad you liked some of the pockets 🙂

  • I found the writing in general to be good in this story, with moments of brilliance and moments of “huh?” interspersed. Some of the alliteration seemed forced (black bottle bottoms), and some words just didn’t quite fit (scuffed onto the patio). But the imagery was beautiful through most of the story.

    Yeah, there are a lot of unanswered questions and things that didn’t quite make sense, But I got the overall feeling of the story, and I kinda liked it.

    Thanks for sharing.

  • JAZZ

    I didn’t get too hung up looking for clues – unnecessary detective work isn’t always necessary throughout a literary critique. Your story was very good; your ending excellent.

  • S Conroy

    I found it hard to sink into this one, but did enjoy the ending a lot.

  • Lovely exploration of homesickness and friendship, with a great teenage voice – I could easily picture Stella and her ‘It’s so UNFAIR’ grumpiness at all the non-Christmassy sunshine 🙂

  • Lisa Walpole Finch

    I was right there with Stella as well. I think the writer captures Stella’s sense of injustice perfectly. I love the relationship she has with Ursi as well. Lovely, lyrical writing. Well done.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    “Moments of brilliance interspersed with moments of ‘Huh?’ ” I think Scott summed it up for me. I didn’t get the feeling Stella was somehow hypersensitive to sunlight, more that Australian parents are very aware (over-aware?) of the long-term effects of UV exposure and take precautions accordingly. Sarah’s comment on bears was interesting. Two stars in the constellation of the Great Bear (Ursa Major) are pointers to the North Star (the sailors’ beacon) and are only visible in the northern hemisphere. Maybe the author could let me know if I’m reading too much into this.

    • S Conroy

      Ah, nice idea.

    • Pretty much yep all the way, Paul! Always gratifying but of course that doesn’t detract from the stories other people have found in it. The thing about EDF is it brings you face to face with the fact that – hey, not everyone thinks as you do and whatever you thought you wrote may become something else entirely when a reader wraps their thinking gear around it 🙂

  • Walter Giersbach

    Well done, Suzanne. The story resonated since I spent Christmas in Los Angeles as a 13-year-old without friends.

    • We have May temperatures in the UK at the moment, in the south anyway. Even though we never get snow we somehow still expect it and temperatures at least have the decency to drop to single figures. What I’d do if we had 12 hours of bright sunlight all day too, I really don’t know. Misery!

  • Rose Gardener

    Delightful descriptions all the way through, from hot honey windows to the dizzying speed of travel as the App did it’s work. Descriptions that moved the story along instead of interrupting it. Good job!

  • Oonah V Joslin

    We’re on the same blue wavelength you and I 🙂 I loved it.

  • Chris Antenen

    I had to read this twice and think another pass wouldn’t hurt. The last three paragraphs gave me the same pleasant–but so much more intense–sensation I have with Google Earth, my eyes swiftly zeroing in on the expanse of green on the flat land where I grew up–our house gone, replaced with a grassy field. I think I’d get dizzy if I had to take the same kind of journey to the North Star.

    However, I had a lot of trouble with the setting. I get the Australian summer in our December, but the pile of presents in the middle(?) of the day, on a table outside. Where’s Dad? Where’s Christmas? I guess I want to know more–or less.

    I have a cat that is no more than three feet away from me at all times if she has a say in it, but I couldn’t imagine a human foot beating a rhythm like the ‘tail of an irritated cat.’ The other motions described were right on, but I didn’t like my own obsession for stopping to check every time. A big thing with ears wrapped in foil–what does that mean and how did it add to the story? Was the ‘near-silver hair’ a clue?

    Overall, I liked the tone, the theme, the excellent writing, but I had the feeling of too much detail in parts of the story and not enough in others.

    And about that reading aloud thing–if a writer or a reader stumbles on some part of the story while editing–a word, a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph–I like to think of it as something to examine. It may or may not need to be rewritten or omitted. “Logic is logic. That’s all I say.”

    Agree totally with Cathryn about the ending. Exquisitely written.