Copyright © Patrick Winters, 2019
All rights reserved
The pages were faded, yellowed, even a little torn in spots, but the stars were as bright as ever. The ink of the photos still held a sheen that kept them vibrant, as though they'd just been printed yesterday. When Sydney turned the pages under the right light it even made the stars look like they were twinkling. She thought that was neat, real neat, and that she'd put another page to the test. While her mommy held onto the binding for her, she flipped a full-page picture of Hercules back and forth, setting the ancient hero to dancing (though his constellation sure didn't look anything like he did in the Disney movie). It made her giggle, and her mommy giggled along with her.
It had been one of her mommy's good days, and the stars and the laughter made it better for both of them.
They'd plopped down on the living room floor nearly half an hour ago, though it sure didn't seem like it had been that long. Sydney was nestled in her mommy's lap, Hayley Ransom's long, slender legs stretching out to either side, her feet wiggling and bobbing to the songs of the Bubbleguppies that had been playing on the unwatched television. Hayley had hunched over her tiny daughter in all that time, sometimes resting her chin on her head as they perused her old book.
Her husband, Will, was busy in the adjoining kitchen, humming a Winery Dogs song over the bubbling of pots and his rattling of drawers. It was 'Ghetti Night in the Ransom household—spaghetti, to the uninitiated. It had been all that Sydney could pronounce of the word, back when she'd first tried it as a toddler, and the name and the dish had been a staple ever since. Some things just lasted like that.
"We'll be ready to eat in about ten minutes," Will called over his shoulder. There was a clattering of plates as he found the ones he'd been searching for up in a cabinet. "That is, if this sauce doesn't explode all over the kitchen."
Hayley turned around and smiled. "Well, if it does, we can just sop it up from the walls with the garlic bread . . ."
Will screeched to a stop, realization dawning on his face. He finished setting the table in a flash and bolted to the oven. He slipped on a mitt, whispering: "Crap, crap, crap, crap . . .”
He reached in and pulled out the tray of bread. He sighed and set it down on the counter, wiping his mittened hand across his brow. "Thought I'd almost burned them."
"No problem, babe," Hayley said, turning around again. "If they are burnt, the wall-sauce will hide the taste."
"Thanks for the faith, Daisy. Round up the munchkin and we're just about set."
Sydney started tugging at her mommy's sleeve; spaghetti sure sounded good, but this moment with her mommy was better. Way better. And she didn't want to let it go so easily. So she asked a question that she had asked many times before, but whose answer she never got tired of hearing. Especially when her mommy told it.
"Why did old people do this with stars, mommy? Why'd they make . . . constipations?"
She mispronounced the word on purpose, to make her mommy laugh. Her mommy had the sweetest, nicest laugh in the world. No one could top it.
"Constellations," Hayley corrected through her chuckling. "And those old people did it for a lot of reasons."
Sydney leaned against her mother, settling her head into the crook of her shoulder and looking up into her face as she started in with the words. It was a pretty face—one of the prettiest Sydney had ever seen. It bore the wear and hardship of the last year—the dark circles under her crystal blue eyes gradually gaining ground, the paled skin tightened around the smooth slope of her cheeks—but it kept its beauty, in spite of it all. And when her mommy talked about the stars, it made her all the lovelier; when she talked about the stars, those blue eyes churned like oceans and her brows arched with the rising of a passion.
"All sorts of cultures have used the stars, for centuries and centuries. They put their heroes and myths up into the sky so they could look up and remember them. To tell their story. To always remind others of what made them all so special." Hayley flipped to a page with a photo taken from outer space, a sky of pinpoints hanging over the curve of the earth and the navy seas of the great big globe half-hidden beneath a layer of wispy clouds. "You could also tell the passing of time with them, if you really knew your stuff. People made calendars based on how often they appeared. Measuring up what had passed and what lay ahead for the future. And they did it so that they could find their way in their travels across the world. Those shining stars just sit up there, and if you know what and where they are, they can guide you. 'God's lighthouses.' That's what my mommy used to call them. 'Put up there to lead you through the dark and to lead you home.' She loved the stars, too. She gave me this book."
Hayley went quiet for a moment, smiling at a memory all her own. Then she looked down to her daughter, her smile growing.
"Pretty cool, huh?"
Sydney nodded, setting her hand across her mommy's, their fingers fiddling as one with the corner of a page. "Very cool."
A pot rattled along the stove as Will Ransom set it across a different burner. "Okay, signore. Dinner is served."
Hayley gave her daughter a pat on the bottom. "Alright. Up and at 'em! Let's ea—"
Sydney stood, and as her mommy got to one knee, her face knotted up with a look of nausea. Hayley gave a grunt, and her throat rattled as she tried to clear it. Then she started coughing, her gasps instantly thick and rough. Hayley tried to stand and teetered, holding one hand out for balance and setting the other to her knee, gripping at her pants as she fought back the coming fit. It didn't help, and the coughs burst out of her in painful rushes.
"Hayley?" Will probed, stepping into the living room with a worrisome look. Her mommy flipped her hand out to him, shooing him away as she shook her head, insisting all was well. She gave standing another go, but her knees buckled as soon as she was up.
Will was across the room in a flash, his arms around her and helping her up. "Come on, Daisy. It'll be alright," he said as he helped her into the kitchen.
They went to the sink, her mommy leaning over it and her daddy standing beside her, set to help if she tumbled again. Sydney stayed where she stood, digging her sock-covered toes into the carpet and holding the old astronomy book in her hands. Her chin sank closer to her chest as she heard something wet hit the metal of the sink amidst her mommy's coughs.
After about a minute, the fit passed and her mommy lifted her head up. She was wiping at her mouth and pulling strands of auburn hair from her face. Her daddy ran the sink for a quick moment and then shut it off.
"Come on, Daisy," he said softly. He set an arm around his wife and gently pulled her from the sink. She let him lead her along, setting a hand over her mouth as he helped her out of the kitchen. "Let's go upstairs for a bit. I'll get the meds."
Sydney stepped aside as they passed her and made their way to the stairs. She tried to give her mommy the smallest of reassuring smiles, but Hayley's eyes were focused on the floor.
"You go ahead and start eating, munchkin," her daddy said back to her. His voice was light, calming—forced. "We'll be right back down once we get mommy settled. Dig in."
Sydney watched as they climbed the stairs, cautiously, step by slow step. Her mommy looked back at her once, their eyes meeting for the briefest moment, and then they shot back down. They looked wet. The two of them disappeared upstairs, her daddy's voice becoming a muffled whisper beyond the ceiling.
Sydney stood there for a minute, letting that sad, heavy feeling settle into her chest. Then she went into the kitchen, setting the astronomy book on the edge of an armchair as she trudged along. She pulled out her chair at the table and hauled herself up, not so much easing into it as sinking. She grabbed a fork and started weaving it through the spaghetti noodles on the plate her daddy had made for her. She pushed it about and let the saucy strands dance in the air, but she couldn't bring herself to eat.
It had been a good day . . .
For much of Sydney's short life, the only thing that'd ever made going to sleep okay come bedtime were the stories her parents would tell her, before she drifted off into slumber. She loved them, and she loved how her mommy and daddy told them. They recited the classics, of course—Goodnight Moon, Cinderella, and Where the Wild Things Are being among her favorites. But her absolute favorite was the story of when her mommy and daddy met. And although she knew it didn't happen exactly the way her daddy told it (because he was always the one to tell it, with extra input from her mommy), she loved how magical he made it sound.
"This is a story about how the greatest things in your life can begin in the simplest of ways," her daddy would always start the story. "And it all happened one summer day, long ago . . ."
"Not that long ago," her mommy might interject, and quite pointedly.
"Okay, sorta long ago in the sorta far-off kingdom of Chicago. And it was beautiful out that day. The sun was high and warm, the sky was clear and bright, and merchants wandered the streets, selling Coneys and Cokes to the peasants of the kingdom. And most people were very happy that day. But there was one poor fella who felt downright bad, and that man was your daddy.
"He didn't care much for the warmth of the sun, or look up to appreciate the bright sky, and he was kinda broke at the time, so he couldn't really afford a delicious Coney. You see, your daddy was real sad, and he didn't know what could possibly make him happy again. He'd started wandering the kingdom that day, thinking about all the troubles he'd been having lately. His roommate was a nasty troll who smelled like sweaty feet, and it had started lying around all day, eating everything in sight and belching all the time!"
Sydney had always laughed at this, scrunching her nose up as she pictured the terrible troll.
"But that wasn't all," her daddy would continue. "A greedy landlord was demanding gold from your daddy—gold that he just didn't have anymore, because he'd been fired from his job as a servant to the Burger King. And to top it all off, the woman he thought he'd fallen in love with had betrayed him, not long before."
"Turns out she was a goblin in disguise!" her mommy would cut in. "With warts and slime all over her!"
"Ain't that the truth," her daddy would agree. "But the point is, all of these things had left your daddy feeling really, really sad, and he wasn't sure what he was gonna do about any of it. So, he visited the beautiful Oz Park, where he walked around, and tried to sort out his problems. Eventually, he sat down on a bench, too tired to walk any further or think anymore. And when he looked down at his feet, he saw a flower growing up from the concrete. It was a daisy.
"Well, your daddy picked it from the ground and held it in his hands, thinking of all his hopes and all his dreams as he looked at it. Finally, he made a wish: that somehow, someway, he could find his happiness again. And then, just as the wind started to pick up, he let the daisy go. The wind carried it off, and your daddy watched it go sailing off—until it landed on the ground, beside a picnic blanket. And sitting on that blanket was the loveliest maiden your daddy had ever seen: your mommy."
"She'd come to the park to bask in the day and do her studies for her astrophysics class," her mommy would elaborate. "But little did she know that greater things waited in her future . . ."
"So, feeling he had nothing to lose and everything to gain, the mopey young lad got up and went to greet the fair lady."
"And he asked her if he could sit and talk with her," her mommy would say, her lips turning up into a grin.
"And, proving that magical things can happen, she said yes." At about this point, her mommy and daddy would often hold each other's hands as they neared the end of the tale. "The two ended up talking through the whole afternoon, and it was only the first of many wonderful days and nights they had together."
"And every time they met, your daddy would bring your mommy a little bundle of daisies . . ."
". . . to always remember that wonderful day he first laid eyes on her and found his happiness again. From that day on, your mommy was his magical Daisy."
"And a few years later, they were married, they moved out into a lovely country home, and had a precious daughter, who was the light of their lives."
Then, as one, her mommy and daddy would say "The end" and give Sydney their goodnight kisses. And that always made going to sleep so much easier.
Just before they drove to the hospital, Sydney had picked a fine bunch of daisies growing by the side of their house. Only the biggest and the brightest of the bunch would suffice.
Once she had them, she'd tied a bit of yellow ribbon from one of her craft boxes around their stems, binding them tightly together. She'd held onto the little gift all the way into town, her hands cupping them in her lap, protecting them along the bumpy country roads.
Her daddy pulled into a parking spot at the top of the garage complex just as six o'clock came around. From up here they had a gorgeous view of the sunset, the thin lip of the sun close to clearing the horizon, casting a swath of orange through the sky that transitioned to a smooth violet and then gradually to black, letting the stars shine through as the seconds ticked by. Breathtaking as it was, neither Sydney nor her daddy stopped to admire it; they just clasped hands and made their way down into the hospital, each slow and quiet.
Sydney hadn't ever liked the hospital, even before her mommy started staying there. She hated how clean the place smelled—that weird antiseptic tinge in the air that burned her nose a bit, every single time. And she hated to see all the people in their rooms, stuck in their bed-sheets all day and night, coughing and sneezing, or making no noise at all. It seemed so wrong and such a shame, to have to be cooped up in there all the time like they were. Like her mommy was.
She didn't care much for the elevators in the hospital, either. They shook and squeaked every time she and her daddy rode them to the fourth floor, just as they did tonight. She held fast to her daddy's hand as she watched the floor numbers changing. Each tick that took them further up managed to make her feel a little more down.
The doors finally opened and they stepped out into a too-quiet hall, the lights overhead dimmed just a tad at this time of the evening. Sydney could see Dr. Bryant down the hall, standing by the nurse's station and scribbling out some paperwork. Dr. Bryant had been the one looking after her mommy for quite some time now.
"Hey, munchkin," her daddy said, holding Sydney back. He turned her around towards a seat along the wall of the hall. "Why don't you wait here for just a little bit while I check in with Dr. Bryant?"
Sydney gave a nod and plopped down, setting the daisies onto her knee.
She was used to being left out of the talks with Dr. Bryant. In a way, she didn't like it, because it made her feel like a little baby being left out of "grown-up" things. On the other hand she appreciated it, because she didn't know if she could take hearing about how badly her mommy was getting. And judging by how serious Dr. Bryant always looked lately, her mommy was doing pretty badly.
Sydney watched as her daddy stepped up to Dr. Bryant down the hall. She gave him a meager smile as she said hello, but as they started talking more quietly to each other, the smile disappeared completely. Her daddy said little, nodding his head a lot and looking like he was asking the occasional question. Whenever Dr. Bryant answered, Sydney saw her daddy's shoulders slump further down, until they both stopped talking. Her daddy was looking at his feet and shaking his head.
He turned and walked back, saying nothing else to Dr. Bryant, who looked to Sydney, giving a wave and a small smile before returning to her papers. Her daddy stepped up to her, giving a little smile of his own. That was another thing Sydney had gotten used to: people smiling when they really didn't mean it.
"Okey-doke, Syd the Kid," he said, holding his hand out to her. "Let's see mommy real quick. We can't stay too long tonight, but we'll come back tomorrow."
They walked back the way they'd came, past the elevator and down a little ways, then into her mommy's room. It was kind of dark in there, the little bedside lamp and the little faces and doohickeys of machines casting their glows through the dimness. The window across the room had the curtains pulled back, giving her mommy a perfect view of the starry night, the sun now gone and a blanket of blue-back stretching along the Iowa fields. Sydney could just make out Crux, shining brightly in the south.
Her mommy smiled when she saw them. It was weak, but at least Sydney could tell she meant it, and that made it strong enough.
"Hey, there," Hayley said, her sweet voice now bearing a creak in the vowels. "There are my two sweethearts."
She held a thin arm out, her hand reaching for Sydney's. Sydney accepted it, her daddy sitting down in the chair beside the bed and lifting her onto his knee while she held onto her mommy.
She turned her mother's palm over and set the daisies into it gingerly. "I brought these for you, mommy."
"Oh, thank you, sweetie! I love them."
A pained look came across her mommy's face and she eased back into her bed, Sydney still holding onto the tips of her fingers. Her mommy tried to scoot up some, but she had a hard time of it.
Sydney would never ever say it out loud, but her mommy had started to remind her of those weird gray aliens from those old science fiction movies she sometimes saw on TV. Really pale and bony-thin. She hated to think it—hated herself to think it—but that's what came to mind. And it made her want to cry, so very much.
Maybe her mommy saw that sadness in her, because she looked at her and said: "Hey, where's that pretty smile I love so much?"
Sydney gave her one, with some effort, but only because her mommy wanted her to.
"There," Hayley said, smiling herself. "You have a beautiful smile. It's a great thing to share, sugar, and you shouldn't let anything take it away."
"Okay," Sydney said. Just one word, but spoken with all the severity of an oath. And then, just because it was true: "I love you, mommy."
"And I love you, sweetie." Her mommy pointed towards the window. "Those stars are really twinkling tonight, aren't they?"
"Yeah," Sydney nodded. "They sure are."
Hayley went quiet for a moment, looking towards her husband, the two speaking to one another without a word. Then she turned back to her daughter.
"And you know what mommy always really loved about the stars?"
Sydney shook her head.
"It's that even in the cloudiest sky or the dreariest day—even when they're not there to see—you know they're still there. And you will see them again, once things clear up. I think that's pretty nice, don't you?"
Sydney thought about that a bit, and she gave a nod. "Yeah, really nice."
Her mommy shut her eyes, her head leaning across her shoulder as she heaved a sigh through her nose. She lay there like that for a moment, completely quiet, her throat bobbing up and down lightly as she breathed steadily.
Then she turned back to her daughter. Her smile came back, and it was still true, and maybe even a little bit stronger.
"So, how was school today?"
The funeral went well, or as well as funerals could go, as Will Ransom supposed. It didn't seem the right way to describe such an event, but the day hadn't been too taxing, as he had imagined it would be for all this time. And at this point, he would take that as a blessing.
The wake had been filled nearly to the brim. Family from both his and Hayley's sides had come, quite a few of them driving in from out of state. His parents had looked after Sydney while he, Hayley's folks, and her older sister, Paige, greeted and thanked the visitors for coming.
A good number of Hayley's co-workers had come to give their condolences, too. Will had remembered meeting most of them, some only once or twice before, at Christmas parties and the like; others he couldn't recall for the life of him. Nevertheless, he was glad they were there. He managed to keep it together as they told their stories of Hayley, of how inspirational and kind she always was. But he'd broken when Gloria Busey and Adam Jacobs announced that there would be a tree planted and a plaque set up at the observatory, to commemorate Hayley and all of her work there. That'd meant a great deal to him; he knew it would've meant even more to Hayley.
At the cemetery, he'd held as tightly to Sydney as she'd held onto him. She wept—they both did—but she didn't carry on like he would've expected. They were quiet tears; no less sorrowful than the wailing kind, but somehow more resigned. And when all was said and done, and when she went to place a small bundle of daisies on her mother's headstone, her hand had been steady. He figured he shouldn't have been so surprised by that. His baby girl had had to do an awful lot of growing up lately, and all in all, she had taken it in stride. He knew he'd have to try and keep a little of that same strength for himself.
Once a quick lunch with family had finished up, he and Sydney had been more than ready to go back home. They'd spent the rest of the afternoon and evening lying in bed, just watching TV together and trying to ward off the new silence of their home. As night started to fall, they'd both went to sleep. But when Will awoke just shy of midnight, Sydney wasn't laying there beside him.
He got up and checked to see if she'd gone to her own bedroom, but when he peeked his head in, she wasn't there. And she wasn't in her bathroom, either.
He went downstairs, calling for her as he looked in the living room and the kitchen. Still, she was nowhere in sight. Then, just as he started to feel worried, he noticed something peculiar out of the corner of his eye: there was a bright white-blue glow beyond the kitchen window looking out into their backyard.
He peered through the glass, coming to realize that it was his little girl out there. She was sitting cross-legged in the grass, the glowing thing lying in her lap.
Relieved, but still a bit uncertain, Will went to the back porch and out into the cool night. The sky was clear, the moon lighting up the stripped fields and the hills on the distant horizon, a countless multitude of stars and satellites on display in every direction of the blue-black heavens.
The grass was soft against his bare feet as he stepped over to his daughter.
"Hey, munchkin," he said, opting to sit right on down beside her, rather than ask her to come back inside. "What's up, sweetie?"
Sydney's wide eyes reflected the light of the tablet in her lap, igniting their loveliness and their sadness, alike. She looked up at him, sniffling a tad and scooting closer to him. She laid her head on his shoulder, and he wrapped his arm around her.
"I wanted to do this. For mommy. See?"
She laid her tablet across their knees, letting him have a look at what was on it. What he saw made him smile, and it managed to make his heart feel lighter.
His incredible daughter had taken a picture of the night sky with the device. Then she'd drawn across the photo, forming thin white lines that arched and streaked across the screen, tracing from one star to another. She'd made her very own constellation out of them, and he could tell what it was meant to be, judging by the big circle in the center and the lines branching out of it.
She'd drawn a daisy.
And when he looked up above, he could actually see it up there. Every star, standing out against the dark. A precious flower growing out of the universe and looking down on them.
"I thought she'd like it," Sydney said. She set her hand in his, and he leaned down and kissed the top of her head. "This way mommy will always be there, if we just look up."
"Oh, munchkin," he whispered, kissing the top of her head. "She'd love it. She'd love it so very much. But only half as much as she loved you."
Father and daughter hugged one another, letting their tears fall and feeling a love that held them fast like gravity. And though they'd lost a mother and a wife, they managed to feel thankful, because they still had the stars.
And stars were proof that things could still shine, still guide, and still be beautiful, long after they were gone.