I straightened from the telescope and looked at the night sky with naked eyes. A silver blaze streaked across the firmament as the Perseids meteor shower played out above me. Twenty years, I’d never missed it. Some years I’d had to travel to ensure a clear view, but not this year.
My cell phone rang and I knew without looking it would be my twin sister, Mia. We talked nearly constantly during the Perseids.
“Mike,” she said, “do you think it watches us too?”
“Yes,” I said.
We’d been fifteen that first time we saw it, when my father drove my mother, Mia, and me from Los Angeles to Utah to camp in the desert. We had a tent, but Mia and I chose to sleep outside.
We lay side-by-side under a sky glittering with more stars than I’d ever known existed, and watched the heavens cartwheel over our heads. It was the Earth’s canopy I’d always known but, away from the dust, pollution, and city lights, the sky was astounding. The Milky Way stood out as bold as a highway. I imagined it touching down just over the hill near us, and I wondered where I might end up if I could set foot on it and journey that celestial road.
“A shooting star!” Mia said. I looked where she pointed and saw it just before it disappeared.
We searched the sky, looking for another. “There.”
We started counting. When we hit ten we were both grinning, competing to see who could spot the greatest number, unaware that we were watching the Perseids. As we neared fifty my excitement shifted, in that way that heightened emotions sometimes do; laughter to hysteria, joy to tears. Excitement to fear.
The more meteors I saw, the less familiar the sky felt. The pinpoints of light revealed themselves for what they really were, the planets and stars of an immense galaxy.
I glimpsed the face of infinity that night; a hollow, terrifying vastness. Knowledge I’d accepted since childhood dilated into a transcendent understanding that my world was nothing more than a grain of sand on an infinite beach. My anchor to Earth fell away. I became a part of that immensity, frightened, hurtling through a moving, living universe.
I felt Mia beside me.
That was years ago, long before I got my PhD in astronomy, before I focused more on my research at the University than I did on my wife and children. Mia did better. Not only did she never try to divide her loyalties by marrying, she became an astrophysicist, researching under grants I couldn’t dream of attaining.
I hung up and put my eye back to the telescope. Suddenly I was spinning, whirling, flying as the stars pulled me into them. I jerked back so hard I fell to the sand.
The pull had grown every year. It happened at other times, too, but always strongest at the Perseids. This time it nearly took me, like that first time; as if the universe had invited me when I was too young and too afraid, and had cycled slowly over the years back to that starting point.
Worse, I wanted to go now.
Afraid of being alone with that sky, I packed my equipment. My hands shook. I started the car and called Mia.
“I think it tried to take me.”
“I felt it, too. It wants us back.”
To have someone truly understand sparked so many emotions they swelled my heart to the point of pain. “I’m getting out of here for awhile,” I said.
“Okay. I’ll do the same. Call me when you get home.”
I drove from the hills outside Tucson back to the city.
Gayle jumped when the door opened. She had a movie on, a bowl of popcorn in front of her. The kids were in bed.
“What are you doing home?”
For someone jealous of my time with the stars, she didn’t seem glad to have me back. August was always hard for us. I’d never known how to tell her about the pull of the stars, so I never tried.
“Just taking a break.” I pulled my phone from my pocket without thinking.
Her face tightened. “Sure, why don’t you tell your sister why you’re home instead of me.” She turned back to her movie.
I thumbed Mia’s avatar and the phone rang. With Mia I didn’t need to start at the beginning. I didn’t need to wonder if she’d believe me. I walked into the kitchen to talk in private.
“What did Gayle say?”
“Mike, do you think you can keep from going back out to your site?”
“No. How about you?”
She paused. “I never left.” Paused again. “I’m scared, Mike. I think this is it. I should have gone home too, but I couldn’t.”
I thought of Gayle in the next room, my children upstairs. I knew I should feel more torn.
“If you go, you’re not going alone. Can you hold on until I get back out there?”
“I don’t think so.”
My heart pounded. “Don’t look up, Mia. Wait for me. I can get there from here.” The Milky Way wouldn’t be visible from the city, but I knew it well.
I went back into the living room and placed my hands on Gayle’s shoulders. I kissed the top of her head. “I love you all.”
She patted my hand without looking. “I know you do,” she said absently, still mired in resentments, still not understanding.
I walked outside for the last time.
I couldn’t know if this was happening to others, too, or if Mia and I were pioneers. Maybe, if we’re all “star-stuff,” we were just going home. All I knew was that I wouldn’t resist when the spinning took me. I’d meet Mia and fall into the stars and wait for my feet to touch that celestial road. This time I would follow where it led.
Liz Colter lives in rural Colorado and spends her time off with her husband, dogs, horses and writing. Her stories can be found published or upcoming in Galaxy’s Edge Magazine, Pseudopod and Daily Science Fiction, as well as her international contest winning story in Writers of the Future. A complete list of her published works and updates on her novels can be found at her website, www.lizcolter.com.