Killing Nighttime by Brad McLelland
“Let’s find a star,” Beebee says. “Find me a star, Jake.”
We’re lying on the old trampoline, gazing at the dark summer sky, our shoes and socks kicked off in the grass and our blue jeans rolled up to our knees. I look across the night and find the faint outline of a dying constellation?the Big Dipper, although I can’t be sure anymore?and raise my index finger to trace it.
Beebee cups her hand like a C, puts the constellation in the middle, a palm telescope. She holds it there a moment then lets her hand fall back down. Her finger grazes the black canvas, finds the frayed threads and the dry-rot holes, and plucks at them one by one. Static crackles as her hand rubs at the surface, a far-away sound that reminds me of the old days when she and I would jump on the trampoline for hours, giggling and poking and shocking each other in mid-bounce, two small sparks of electricity dancing in the warm air.
“The Big Dipper,” I say.
“No,” she says. “The Big Dipper’s been gone for years.” Her face is blurry in the dark, the frames of her glasses dulled to a nearly invisible gray, her pale hair fanned back and sticking to the canvas like cobwebs. “Besides, that one’s almost gone anyway. See?”
I try to find the constellation again, but she’s right in that it’s nearly vanished. “Sorry, sis, I don’t see any others,” I say.
I’ve heard of the old ones—Andromeda, Hydra, Leo Minor, Pegasus—and have occasionally seen their names in science books, but I don’t know what they look like, nor have I ever tried to find them. I wouldn’t know if they were still alive anyway. I’ve lived in the city so long, the constellations are lost to me, like the ponds and woods and fields that surround this place, our family’s place, which is lost to me too, even now. With our folks gone, we have only the crumbling homestead, and the old trampoline in the high, undisturbed grass, to remind ourselves of something we’ve already forgotten.
“What about that one?” Beebee points to some gray dot in the northeast.
“I’m sure it’s already named,” I say.
She grumbles. “Why wouldn’t it? You can buy them for a buck ninety-five these days. They’ve got stores for them. Naming conventions, eBay auctions, catalogs. They’ve taken every last one.”
“There’s one left. Surely.”
“Find it,” she says. “Just try.”
I do. I start from the west, work my eyes east, then move to the south and skim slowly upward. I see a few stars up there, but every last one has the fading sick shimmer of the Already Named.
“I’m sorry, they’re all taken.”
“Let’s just rename one then.”
“We can’t, we’re not allowed,” I say.
“Christ, isn’t it our sky too?”
“Not anymore. They’re all taken, sis.”
“That’s not fair.”
“It shouldn’t matter, should it?”
She says nothing to that. We lie on the trampoline in silence.
It was our favorite pastime growing up: killing nighttime on this old trampoline. Our family had kept it well protected over the years, covering the springs with tarp and rolling it under the carport during the rainy seasons. But when our folks died the dry rot took advantage of the absence, and the canvas now feels on the verge of ripping under our weight, just as my memories of the woods and pastures have collapsed under the pressures of our fat, fast city life a hundred miles away.
“So when do you think they knew?” Beebee asks.
“What we’re doing up there in the sky.”
“I don’t believe that,” I say.
“All those stars burning out because of us?”
“How could we be? We’re not doing that.”
“They say dying stars turn into supernovas, and those are even brighter. So why isn’t it bright up there if all those stars are blinking out?”
I shift. The old springs creak around our bodies. “I don’t know, sis.”
Beebee sits up. “I don’t care.” I can hear the groan of the black fabric beneath her hands. “I still want to name one. Let’s find the last one and name it together.”
“No. Let’s just enjoy this.”
“Why can’t we have one, just between us?”
“Because we can’t take what’s not ours.”
“They belong to everybody,” Beebee says.
“Please. Enjoy this.”
“It’s just so unfair.”
“It’s only the sky.”
“No, it’s everything. Don’t you see?”
“Stop it,” I say.
But her finger’s in the air and she’s pointing at a star, a blotch of tiny, dismal luminescence straight above. “I’m going to name that one. Right there,” she says.
I try to grab her hand, but she’s got the name on her tongue and she’s yelling it to the night before I can put my hand over her mouth.
“Jake. I’m naming that star Jake.”
“Stop” I shout. “Please, let’s just keep it like it was.”
But it’s done. I look up at the star. It’s already dying. The wounds have been made and the star grows darker and darker until nothing but the faintest circle of indigo fills the space where it was. In time, even the indigo will diminish and the nighttime in its place will turn to black like everything else.
“Look what you did,” I say. “You killed it.”
Her face looks pale in the dark. She can’t speak; she can only stare and see the big black wound she’s just made with her need, her hunger to take and scratch out something.
We wait another moment before slipping off the trampoline and back into our socks and shoes. We don’t speak. The summer sky is black all around. I look around the yard, but I can’t see what it was like, when things were younger, when you could still make out the hints of shiny dew on the spears of the bermuda grass in the nighttime. It’s too dark to see those things.