One of the games Ari liked to play was collecting moments. When she thought back about her life it was a sea of hazy memory-liquid with the occasional glowing moment-fish standing out. The important moments, yes, but also the defining ones. And the ones she remembered for no reason but because they were funny or sad or just really obvious at the time.
Like the moment that she had the best piece of fried chicken in her entire life. Or the moment she realized that the concept of sunlight killing vampires came from the movies and not old historical vampire lore. These moments were bright and shiny when she looked back at them, but the game was to identify them as they actually happened. It was a way to live in the here and now. To pay attention, the way Uncle Jacob always said she should.
For example, Ari found it very easy to identify the moment that her eleventh birthday party officially became the worst part of her entire life. It happened with the utterance of these words:
“Do you want to go play spin the bottle?”
Mazie Larken said them. Mazie Larken, who had more friends than anyone else in Mrs. Mithers’s class, had a different nice handbag every month, and got at least 100% on every spelling test depending on whether or not there was extra credit. Spin the bottle. Spin the bottle. It was so junior, a word which to Ari had the specific meaning of “things kids do when they’re trying to act like adults.”
It also struck Ari as entirely too heteronormative. Heteronormative meant something like “assuming that no one is gay,” and was one of madre’s words. The kind of word that Ari had mostly learned not to use when she was standing more than four feet away from madre. It made other kids think she was a freak, and it made adults look at her like she was a phytoplankten under a microscope that had suddenly learned to juggle.
She watched the kids who had said yes gathering together and whispering their plans to sneak upstairs and play. Ari didn’t want to play spin the bottle, of course. She didn’t want to sit in a circle and be forced to kiss random boys. She didn’t know if she wanted to kiss boys at all. Or girls. Or anyone. It was a stupid game for stupid people. But it was her birthday, and she sure wished that Mazie had actually asked her. Not that she would ever admit it.
But Mazie hadn’t asked her. Mazie didn’t even look at Ari as she and Ella McGuire walked around to the other kids at the party and spread the conspiracy to hushed giggles and nods. Ari just overheard. Maybe Mazie didn’t know it was her party. Or maybe she did and just didn’t care.
Ari watched the group as it gathered and trickled upstairs. She realized they would probably end up in her room. It was the most obviously kid friendly and had the biggest open stretch of floor. A sick feeling blossomed in her stomach. Maybe it could be cured by the application of more cake. As she turned to walk away, she saw Stefan’s face among the small crowd of would-be-bottlers. Her stomach did something entirely different but no less uncomfortable. He looked in her direction as she saw him. He was grinning. She quickly turned away so he wouldn’t think she was looking and rushed through the door.
Ari floated around the party after that, trying not to think, not paying attention to much of anything. There was man in the backyard who looked kind of like a stage magician and kind of like a mime doing magic tricks. He seemed to have lost his deck of cards, and none of it was very impressive. There were a lot of snacks on trays all over the house, including the little crispy duck things that were Ari’s particular favorites. She kept eating them just to have some kind of sensation, but right now they just tasted salty and oily and the sharp crackers cut the sides of her mouth. Through it all she could hear the bottle. Spinning and spinning, glass scraping against the finished wood of her bedroom floor. She couldn’t really hear it. Not with the fleshy vibration detectors attached to the sides of her head. But she heard it nonethless.
There wasn’t anyone there to talk to or hang out with. Various kids came over to her and said hi, sometimes at the urging of their parents and sometimes actually with their parents in tow. Her father checked in on her periodically, sometimes with parents and/or their children along for formal introductions. At one point he and another father spent twenty minutes negotiating the exact time their two daughters could meet and study together, all the while completely ignoring those same daughters standing three feet away.
“So this is your party?” said the other girl, who had rich, dark hair and was very pretty.
“Yes,” said Ari.
“It’s pretty cool.”
Ari shrugged. “I guess so.”
“The snacks are good,” said the girl.
“I like the duck,” said Ari. The girl nodded, and they lapsed back into silence.
But Ari was tired of silence. She was tired of not talking to anyone at her own party.
“It’s not really my party,” she said. “It’s my birthday. But it’s really my dad’s party. It always is.” She glanced up to see if daddy had heard that, but he was engrossed in his conversation.
“Oh god, I so know what you mean,” said the other girl, visibly relaxing. “It’s like, really? You have to use your daughter’s birthday to, I don’t know, spread your business or something?”
Ari laughed. “I’m used to it, I guess. But it’d be nice if I knew the people at my own birthday.”
The girl nodded with enthusiasm. “Yeah, that sucks. I haven’t seen you before. Sixth grade?”
“Yes,” said Ari. “I’m new.”
“Yeah, but I thought I’d met all the new kids,” said the girl. Ari shrugged, while the girl said, “I’m Sandara.”
“I’m Ariana. Ari, though.”
“Thanks,” said Ari. “I love your hair. I wish mine was that thick and shiny.”
“It’s cause I’m Indian,” said Sandara. Then, in an affected aren’t-I-a-princess tone, she added, “We’re just born like this.” Both girls giggled.
“Well I think it’s very pretty,” said Ari.
“Thanks,” said Sandara. “I like your bow. It’s cute.”
Ari blushed. “Madre…my mom, tied it in. She likes to do that. For parties.”
“Well it’s cute. So how are you liking St. Vincent’s?”
“St. Vincent’s?” Sandara asked again. “How are you liking it? I think it kind of sucks, but I guess there are worse ones.”
“St. Vincent’s?” Ari asked.
“Yeah. You know, the school? Our school, that we go to?”
“I don’t go to St. Vincent’s. I go to Cherrywood.”
“Oh jeez,” said Sandara. “Seriously?”
“Yes,” said Ari.
“So, like, our dad’s are making us a study session…”
“And we don’t even going to the same school,” Ari finished.
Sandra rolled her eyes, and Ari shook her head in disbelief. Then both girls laughed.
“It’s not even surprising,” said Ari. “That’s the kind of thing daddy does.”
“Mine too,” said Sandara.
Ari’s father, who seemed very tall in situations like this, turned away during a pause in his conversation and looked down at the two girls.
“Are you two getting along?” he said to Ari. “That’s great. I’m glad to see that.” He turned back to the man he was talking to. Ari saw that he had his tablet out, and his personal calendar/organizer app running. “Sam, I really think this could work. Maybe…”
“And…they’re off,” said Sandra. Ari burst into giggles.
At the same time, she felt a tightness in her chest. Do it! a voice yelled in her head. It had the refined accent and self-confident tone of Lulu, her earthworm-royalty friend from back in Summerfax. Just do it, you dumb girl!
“Sandara,” she said, and to her ears she sounded far too serious.
Sandara perked up. “Yeah?”
“Do you want to, maybe…”
“Sandra!” a voice came from behind them, and they both turned to look. A black girl with blonde braids that danced around as she moved walked quickly towards them.
“Tanisha,” said Sandara. “What’s up?
“You’ve got to see what this boy is doing upstairs. He’s doing these magic tricks, and it’s amazing. You have to come see.” She grabbed Sandra by the hand and pulled her towards the door.
A few steps away Sandara looked back at Ari. “Do you want to come?”
“No,” Ari said before she could stop herself. “You go ahead.”
Sandra gave Ari a slightly confused look, then shrugged and turned back around to follow Tanisha through the oak-molded doorway and towards the stairs.
Why did you do that? Lulu’s voice chided at her.
“I couldn’t,” Ari said out loud to no one. No one was listening. “She probably didn’t want me butting in, anyway.” She could almost see Lulu shaking her tiny, pronged face in disappointment. But Lulu wasn’t here. Not really. Lulu wasn’t here and Ari couldn’t just follow off after someone she just met and try to force her companionship on the girl. As much as she wanted to, the thought of running after Sandara made her stomach queasy and the blood in her arteries turn cold.
She stood there in that same spot for a few very long minutes afterwards. She forgot that daddy was still there, still trying to build her a manufactured social life out of business associations and table scraps, until he spoke to her again.
“Where’s your friend, dear?” he asked. His voice made her jump.
“I don’t know,” she said. And she really didn’t.
She thought about getting another piece of cake, but she couldn’t face it. She didn’t want to run into Sandara again. Or Stefan. Or Mazie. Or anyone. She just wanted to be alone. She hadn’t been in this house long in to discover all of its nooks and secrets the way she had in the Summerfax house. There she would have retreated to the crawlspace behind the kitchen stairs, or hidden enclave underneath the large cedar tree out back that blocked out all the light. Here in Blarn the only place for hidden solitude was the attic. And it was dark and full of dusty webs and perfectly mundane spiders that never wanted to join her in conversation.
But she did know the pattern of her father’s parties. There would be one room in the house where no one would go. Ari marched up the stairs—sneaking to avoid any of the kids who might still be up there—and headed straight for the second floor guest bedroom. The bed was full of coats. Everyone’s coats, jackets, purses, and anything else they didn’t want to lug around the house were piled on top of the bed. There were enough guests that the pile rose several feet above the mattress. Ari walked around to the other side of the bed and flopped onto the floor. From here, even if someone walked into the room for some reason they wouldn’t still her. It was a high bed, and she was a small girl. She could sit here for as long as she wanted. Away from everyone. All alone.
In Uncle Jacob’s room. That’s what they would have called it. That’s what they called the equivalent room in the old house. Other people stayed there, of course. It was the guest room. Sometimes her grandparents used it, or daddy’s brother, Uncle Frank, or one of madre’s artist friends when they came to visit. But it was always Uncle Jacob’s room.
Sometimes, when he was visiting, madre sent Ari up to fetch Uncle Jacob to tell him that dinner was ready, or that it was time to put on Proper Clothes so they could go out to some function or other. On several of those occasions Ari walked into his room to find him sitting cross legged on the bed, his eyes closed, a wisp of a smile and a peaceful look on his face. The more she thought about those times the stranger it seemed to her. One day she finally asked him what he was doing.
“Paying attention,” he said.
“What do you mean?”
“It’s like this, munchkin,” he said, patting the bed so she could hop up and sit next to him. “Most of the time we don’t pay attention. We’re always running around and jabbering inside our own heads. So sometimes I like to just take some time out and listen.”
He smiled. “To everything.” Something about the way he said that word made it seem magical. Everything. Plump with whispers and secrets and possibilities. So she tried to join him. To sit there, unmoving, breathing, and just pay attention.
She did it right there in the bedroom, even though they were supposed to be getting ready for a fancy Luminary’s Club gathering. And she did it later, too. Before she went to bed, some nights. Or during particularly mind-numbing social studies classes when the teachers droned on about battles of this and signings of that which, according to madre, were mostly lies anyway. In those quiet moments she made the effort to hush her movements and her monologue, and just pay attention. There was only one problem.
She was terrible. She couldn’t sit still. She couldn’t stop the lively and perpetual Marrakech night market that took place in her head. There was just too much world to explore. Both out there in the grassy fields and in the cavernous reaches of her own brain. She wanted to pay attention. She wanted to see all of those things she might be missing. But how could she ever stop thinking? To stop weaving stories out of the half-remembered threads of her dreams? She had never really desired this.
Until now. Right there, sitting on the carpeted floor of what should have been Uncle Jacob’s room, inhaling the aroma of new paint and dozens of designer leather coats, she didn’t want to think. She didn’t want to be. She wanted to fade into the walls and become nothing more than an irregularity in the pastel wallpaper. After a little while, even the wanting dulled, and she couldn’t feel anything at all. Nothing ran through her mind. There was just her body, and her breathing, and the feel of the carpet where her skirt bunched and her exposed legs made contact with the floor. For the first time in her life, Ari paid attention. That is when she noticed the most interesting thing she had ever seen.
Once she noticed it, she was confused that she hadn’t seen it before. She didn’t understand it, of course. How could she have? It didn’t make any sense. It didn’t even make the kind of sense that Hobdob her grass goblin friend made. The kind that seemed obvious to Ari but confused everyone else when she gave them a perfectly clear and simple explanation. No, this was something altogether more bizarre. But there it was. She could see it, clear as day. She could see it even though it was day, and that was even stranger.
Well, she couldn’t exactly see it. Not with her eyes, the eyes that were covered in a thin membrane of flesh while she slept, and sometimes got crusted over so that she had to wash them out with water when she first woke up before she could open them properly. But she could see it all the same. Just like Hobdob.
The door to the coat room burst open and smacked against the far wall. In her heightened state of attention, she was fully aware of every feature of the boy who walked in. She saw his 63 inches of height, tall for his age. She saw the charge of energy that informed the way he traipsed across the ground. She saw the bright white teeth that glowed against the 65% dark chocolate complexion of his skin. She saw all of this, but she barely noticed.
“Ari,” said Stefan as he bounded into the room. “I was looking for you. It’s your birthday, right? I wanted to give you your present.”
Ari barely registered the fact that Stefan not only appeared to know she existed, but had actively sought her out. A few minutes ago it would have seemed very important.
“Do you see that?” Ari asked him.
“I wanted to show you something,” he said. “I nicked these cards, and…wait. See what?”
“The stars!” she said, her voice bright in her ears. “Can you see the stars? They’re everywhere.”
And they were. Right through the ceiling of Uncle Jacob’s room, and through the attic beyond it, and through the blanket of blue daysky that covered the earth, she could see straight to the stars. When she looked left, and right, and down, all around her, it was like the ground and the people and the earth weren’t even there. There was just a giant nest of stars, so dense and bright and beautiful that it brought tears to her eyes.
It didn’t look like the night sky above Blarn or Summerfax. It didn’t even look like the rich tapestry of light Ari saw when madre and Uncle Jacob took her to the mountains. It was more like the images in astronomy books; lustrous clouds of luminescence, rich reds and greens and blues all intermingled like a sand painting. Only those were only pictures. Memories. These were alive.
Stefan’s face broke into a grin. “I see them,” he said. He stretched out his arms and twirled around. “I can feel them running through my fingers.”
He thinks I’m playing a game, she thought. Then the truth flooded into her like a breath of oxygen after having her head under water for a long time. I am playing a game! It didn’t mean it wasn’t real.
Stefan made a cup with his hands, jumped as high as he could, and scooped up a cupful of star stuff. He didn’t know where they were. She could tell he couldn’t see them. Not like she could, so impossibly bright she could barely stand it. But it didn’t matter; they were everywhere. He reached his hands out to pour his cupfull of stars into hers. She giggled and caught them. She looked back to the hole his scooping had left to watch the stream of stars flood in and replace them.
But they didn’t. The place where Stefan gathered in stars let a hole. She could see right through it. A nest of stars. That had been her first thought when she saw it, and now she knew why. It really was a nest. A great, huge, impossible nest, wrapped around the entirety of the visible universe. And there was something inside of it.
“What’s up?” Stefan asked. “Why did you stop?”
“Can you see that?” she asked.
“What is it? What are you seeing?”
“I’m not quite sure.” She climbed up onto the bed, on top of the coats. She strained her neck to get a better look.
“Oh my god,” she gasped.
It was both inside of the nest and outside of it. Something bright and hot and enormous. Brighter and more massive than all of the stars put together. How in the world had she not seen it before? But she saw it now. Everywhere she looked, even when she closed her eyes, she saw it.
And in that moment it saw her too.