The following story received honorable mention in the 2017 Idaho Writers’ Guild short fiction contest. I would like to offer my thanks to those people who helped proofread and give feedback on this piece. I know it is a difficult topic to read about, especially for those of you whose lives have been touched by suicide.
Wishing Upon A Star
Hot dry air surrounded Becky and Sarah as they sprayed each other with the hose. Even soaking wet there was no escaping it; August was a force to be reckoned with. Around them dust filled the air, making everything a little hazy; harvest was in full-swing. Ripe wheat perfumed the air so that the entire valley smelled faintly of baking bread. Overhead the sun’s relentless heat reinforced the notion that they were nearer hell than heaven.
The girls were opposites of each other. Sarah was fair, Becky was dark. Sarah was timid, Becky was bold. Sarah was a follower, Becky was eager to lead. At seven, Sarah adored Becky and envied all eleven of her glorious years.
“Damn it, you two! Quit dinking off with the hose and wash those lambs.”
Sarah’s head snapped to attention at the sounds of her mother’s voice, wet hair flinging water droplets as she did so. Becky showed no fear what-so-ever of the woman fuming on the porch. But then, Becky was her cousin; she was older, wiser, and had the benefit of being able to go home when things got tough. Sarah was home.
“Yes, Mom.” Sarah scrambled to collect a bottle of Wool-lite lying in the grass.
Lanoline from the fleeces coated every inch of their copper skin, leaving it soft and supple. After finishing with the sheep, the girls remained in their swimming suits. Following Becky’s lead, Sarah headed toward the irrigation pond for a swim. It was sneaky, it was dangerous, and it was fun. Time with Becky was like that. Entire afternoons could magically disappear, but today it wasn’t just an afternoon; Becky was going to spend the night.
Later, as the girls made their way back though the hayfield heading for the house, Becky laid out the plan for their evening entertainment. “There’s gunna be a meteor shower tonight. Shooting stars; hundreds of them. We’ll sleep outside and watch.”
That night, it couldn’t get dark fast enough for Sarah. As the sun set, the girls trudged into the yard, dragging Hello Kitty sleeping bags and Strawberry Short-Cake pillows behind them. When Sarah’s mom turned out the porch light and went to bed they were finally able to catch a glimpse of the show they’d been waiting for.
Sarah was a bundle enthusiasm. “We should wish on them! There’s so many. We could have everything we ever wanted.”
“Won’t work,” Becky replied.
“Why not?” Sarah couldn’t fathom how Becky could find fault in her logic; everyone knew you were supposed to wish on shooting stars.
“Well, it will work, but not right away,” Becky said. “We learned about stars in school.”
Sarah, eager for an explanation, hung on Becky’s every word.
“The stars are farther away than you think. See that star there?” Becky pointed to a big bright one overheard, the Dog Star, Sirius. “It’d take an astronaut seven years in a spaceship to reach that star. Wishes are pretty fast, but it’d still take seven years for the wish to get there and another seven years to get back here. If you wish for something stupid like a bike or a doll, it’ll take fourteen years for it to come true. In fourteen years, I’m not gunna to want a stupid bike; I’ll want a car. Whatever you wish for has to be something you’ll still want in fourteen years.”
The magnitude of this revelation sunk in as the girls lay, silently staring up at the sky, contemplating the perfect wish. Another star blazed across the heavens and Sarah said, “I’m ready. I know what I want.”
“There’s one more thing,” Becky said. “You can’t never tell a wish. It has to be a secret or it won’t come true.”
Sarah nodded solemnly. “I won’t never tell.”
There was no giggling or girl talk that night. Two small heads, with bright eyes, stared into the inky sky, silently wishing. Sarah never learned what Becky wished for, but she only had one wish and she wished it on every star to pass overhead that night. She was still wishing it when her mother shook her into wakefulness the following morning.
“Get up and feed the sheep.” Her mother added a swift kick. No, not a kick, more of a nudge, but more than a nudge, it was harder. That was the tricky thing with her mother, Sarah was never sure if it was on purpose. But, of one thing Sarah was sure, it generally left a bruise.
Aunt Maggie picked up Becky after breakfast and Sarah was left alone with her mother. She didn’t mind when her mom yelled at her for dragging in grass clippings with the sleeping bags. She didn’t mind when she had to vacuum them up or wash the sleeping bags. She didn’t mind hoisting the sodden sleeping bags up and over the close line. She didn’t mind doing her chores or washing the dishes. She didn’t mind being sent to bed early. She had her wish. Now, all she had to do was wait.
Seven years passed and Sarah had forgotten about the wish. She had other things to think about. Like the doctor standing in front of her in the exam room while her mother ranted and raved.
“She’s nothing but a hussy; never wants to go to church anymore. She even talks back. And I’ve caught her with him, twice.”
Doc Higgins looked as if his patience was wearing thin. “Sarah, your mom and I are going to step outside. While we’re out there, I want you to undress, put on this gown, and lay back on the table. You can cover yourself with the blanket, and then I’ll be back with the nurse.”
Sarah waited until the Doc Higgins and her mom were outside and the door to the exam room was shut before shimmying off the table and beginning to disrobe. She’d never done this before and was terrified. Naked and a bundle of nerves, she climbed back onto the exam table and put her feet in the stirrups. Then she listened. In the hall, her mother was revealing a sexual history that would make a sailor squirm.
Looking grim, Doc Higgins entered the room, followed by her mother and a nurse. All of them gave her disapproving stares. Sarah wanted to disappear.
Doc Higgins was no longer kind. He pulled away the blanket and began to examine her breasts. “How did you get these bruises?”
Sarah looked from Doc Higgins to her mother, not sure how to respond.
“I bet he did it. That Bruce kid is nothing but trouble.”
“Did the boy do this to you?” Doc Higgins asked.
Sarah caught a quick glance from her mother and decided it would be best to lie. “No, I fell off my horse.”
Doc Higgins hmmed as he resumed his examination. “Do you like horses?”
“Yes,” Sarah replied.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Doc Higgins asked.
That was a stupid question, Sarah thought. “A horse trainer.” The doctor was fishing between her legs now and she very much wanted to snap her knees shut.
“You’re going to feel a little pressure,” Doc Higgins said. Sarah felt a lot of pressure and then the doctor swore. “Christ Almighty!”
Sarah involuntarily jumped and wondered what had went wrong with whatever he was doing between her legs.
“She’s a virgin.” Doc Higgins shook his finger at her mother. “This girl’s a virgin. She hasn’t been with anyone, so you couldn’t possibly have caught her in the act a dozen times with half as many boys.”
Sarah breathed a sigh of relief, but knew she would pay for this when she got home. And even if Doc Higgins believed her, no one at church or school would. Her mom had already seen to that, she had a reputation now.
Seven more years passed in a blur, but before the end of them, Sarah remembered her wish. Holding Jim Jr. on her hip and gently rubbing her belly, trying to sooth the furious kicking contained within, Sarah looked up at the stars. One wish, she thought, I’ve waited fourteen years for one wish, and it could come true any day now. For Sarah, tomorrow wouldn’t be soon enough.
Jim Jr. fussed, wanting to be put down, already eager to avoid the ruckus and discomfort of an obnoxious sibling, and the child had yet to be born. Even with the sun down it was still over eighty degrees, so Sarah was more than happy to relinquish her hold on the sweaty boy. Smiling at his innocence, she watched as he stacked rocks in the gravel parking lot with all the skill and determination a four-year-old can muster. Behind her the church door swung open, the sounds of praise and worship filling the parking lot. So did big Jim’s voice as he stormed her way, gravel crunching under his feet.
“What the hell are you doing out here? You said you were taking him to the cry room.”
“Sorry Jim,” Sarah said. “The air conditioner is broke and it’s so stuffy in there; he was fussy. I thought the cooler air out here might calm him.”
“You’re making me look bad.” Jim grabbed Sarah by the arm and turned her toward the church. “What will people say when they learn you’ve been skipping services to stand in the parking lot? They’ll say my dad isn’t fit to be pastor, that’s what. At least try to appear respectable. If you aren’t going to listen to the service, get the doughnuts ready in the fellowship hall.”
As they walked toward the church Jim Jr. left his pile of rocks and ran after Sarah. He was a clingy boy who wouldn’t leave her side. Big Jim caught him, causing the child to squeal. Sarah was never sure if it was squeals of joy or fear.
Downstairs, in the fellowship hall, Sarah made a point of smiling warmly at the new family that just moved into town. They had three boys; 22, 20, and 19, all home from college for the summer. As she poured coffee and cleared tables, Sarah caught snippets of conversation and realized that smiling had been a mistake. Hushed whispers filled the room and conversations stopped whenever she got to close.
“You keep an eye on your boys. That woman’s a harlot.”
“She’s a home wrecker; seduced Pastor Mike’s son on the eve of his wedding. Ruined his life, but he’s making the best of it.”
“Oh, yes, they’re married now. But, it’s just terrible what she did.”
The words cut like a knife. She had ruined so many lives, her mother’s, Jim’s, her own. She had brought shame on the entire church and they wouldn’t let her forget it. After the parishioners had gone, Jim talked with the elders while Sarah took out the trash. It wasn’t a chore she usually did, but she wanted an excuse to leave the sanctuary and cry in private. She had been fighting back memories all night and could no longer contain the flood of emotions.
Five years ago, Officer Mitchell picked her up hitch-hiking out of town. Battered and bloody, Sarah sat silently staring at a white wall covered in a hodgepodge of wanted posters, fliers for lost dogs, and lists of government regulations. A box fan hummed in a window producing an almost meditative sound. Her cutoffs and tee shirt were ripped to the point that they barely contained her. Seated at a cluttered desk beside her, Officer Mitchell called her mom, letting the woman know where Sarah was. Sarah continued to sit in silence when her mother arrived. Anything she said would make the situation worse.
“She’s in rough shape and she’s not talking,” Officer Mitchell said. “I know it’s a long drive, but I suggest taking her into the hospital for an exam. We can’t press charges if we don’t know who did it and she won’t give us a name.”
“What do you mean who did it?” her mother protested. “She was out street walking; has been sneaking out doing it for months. Why aren’t you booking her?”
“She’s underage. What I’ve got on my hands is assault and rape,” Office Mitchell said.
“Rape?” her mother scoffed. “You can’t rape the willing. It breaks my heart the way she runs around and causes trouble in this town.”
“We had Doc Higgins swab her and run a rape kit at the after-hours clinic, but if the perp isn’t in our databases there is nothing we can do without a name.”
“Doc Higgins is an alcoholic bastard that hasn’t been to church since his wife left him.”
Sarah’s mother grabbed her by the wrist and dragged her out to the car. There was no reason for them to talk on the way home. Sarah’s mother knew where she had been and who she was with. Just hours before Sarah’s mother dropped her off at the church for a counseling session with Pastor Mike’s son, Jim. And Sarah knew that Doc Higgins knew the truth; until that night, she had been a virgin.
Eight months later Sarah found herself in Pastor Mike’s living room, saying her vows as Becky sat behind her and whispered, “Jezebel.” It would have been sooner but, by the time Sarah confided to Becky that was pregnant, Jim was married. It was then that a rift between the girls began. Sarah longed for the days before Jim, when she and Becky were still friends.
The smell of refuse filled the air as Sarah leaned against the big blue dumpster. Jim walked up behind her, grabbing her by the arm, brining her back to the present. “Quit your blubbering and get in the car. I’m ready to go.”
“Stop it Jim, you’re hurtin’ me.”
“I’m not hurtin’ you,” Jim said. “You just bruise easy.”
She bruised easy, it was true. It was something her mother said almost daily when Sarah was growing up. It was why she always wore long sleeves and pants. If people saw the bruises they’d think she had done something to deserve them, or worse, that she had been abused. But things would get better soon, Sarah reasoned. Any day now she’d get her wish.
But the wish did not come and seven more years passed. Since the stars were moving when she wished on them, maybe the wish had to chase them down? That would take it longer to get there and back. It was a silly notion, Sarah knew, but it was all she had. And now that she was rid of Jim, maybe, just maybe, she’d finally have a chance to get her wish.
“You alright?” Martin asked.
Sarah pulled her gaze away from the stars raised on her divorce papers where they had been notarized and looked across the mahogany desk at her lawyer. It was a new beginning and Sarah had never felt better.
“I’m fine. I’m just glad it’s over. But I need to hurry back, Becky is watching the kids. Jim Jr. and Matt can be a handful.” Folding the papers and slipping them into her purse, Sarah headed for the door, smiling as she went.
Pulling into the gravel driveway, Sarah could see Becky on the deck of her double-wide, sipping iced tea in the shade of a yellow umbrella. The kids were splashing in a blue plastic pool in the yard and spraying each other with the hose. Becky pushed her sun glasses up as Sarah slumped into a chair beside her.
“Did you go though with it?”
“Yes,” Sarah said. “I signed the papers and Martin notarized them. Jim signed earlier, so all that’s left is for it to be recorded.”
“Then this is the last time, you’ll set foot on my property,” Becky said. “Aaron has a reputation to maintain. As long as you were with Jim and part of the church it was alright, but we don’t want our kids influenced by your lifestyle.”
Sarah was shocked. “My lifestyle?”
“Everyone knows you’ve had herpes. Without Jim there at night, who knows how many men you’ll be dragging home. It’s not something we want our kids exposed to.”
“I got herpes from Jim,” Sarah protested. “That’s why I filed for divorce. I was afraid of what else he might bring home.”
“Sarah, listen to yourself; the man is a youth pastor. I know people can be bitter about a divorce, but at least try thinking of the kids. And try to turn your life around. You’re breaking your mother’s heart, the way you run around on Jim and now all these lies.”
Sarah was furious. “Come on kids. Grab your clothes, we need to go.” This was not how she had expected her new life to begin. But there was still the wish and, now at least, it had a chance.
After twenty-eight years of waiting Sarah finally gave up on her wish. Sitting alone in the dark, Sarah watched the Persiede meteor shower and thought about how naive she had been that night when she was seven.
The evening was hot, even for August. A sweltering breeze ruffled the leaves. The smell of baking bread wafted to her from the fields, mixing with the sulfur smells of wildfires, whose flames were fanned by the scorching winds. It was hell, she thought, this is hell.
The wind had cleared away enough smoke enough to see the stars. It was too hot for clothes, so Sarah stripped to her skin, took a lawn chair off the deck, and set it in the middle of the backyard. From here she had an exceptional view of the sky and, thanks to a six-foot tall privacy fence, none of her neighbors had a view her. Blond hair danced about her shoulders as she sipped a glass of merlot, listening to the crickets chirrup and the coyotes yip. Overhead the stars issued false promises as they streaked across the sky.
She was a pariah, ostracized by her family and shunned by the community. Her kids, Jim Jr. and Matt, had gone to live with their father, preferring live in a Christian household. They were teenage boys, so Sarah knew what they preferred were enormous TVs, cell phones, and video game consoles.
Despite being known as a hussy, she’d not been on a date once in the seven years since her divorce. Everywhere she went her reputation preceded her. She was a harlot, a liar, a deviant, a heathen, an outcast. But most of all, she thought, she was unloved. And she was lonely, oh, so very lonely.
No one in her family had sent her wedding invitations. They claimed it was bad luck to have a divorcee at a wedding. She’d even been asked to leave a funeral, though Sarah never could figure out how her presence made the situation any worse for the deceased. There was no mention of where she would spend Christmas or Thanksgiving; it was presumed she would be spending them alone.
A lonesome existence gives a person time to think and Sarah let her mind wander through the muddle of her memories. Her father taught to shoot when she was little. He took her and Becky out with the .22’s and let them shoot gophers in the pasture. Sarah hadn’t spoken to Becky in seven years and, at her mother’s insistence, hadn’t spoken to her father in three.
Taking a single shell out of the box, Sarah slid it into the chamber of her .22. Her father had always insisted on only giving her one shell at a time. “Make it count,” he always said.
As Sarah slid the bolt closed she realized this was the only one that counted. She’d ruined her life, her parents’ lives, her children’s lives, and her ex-husband’s life. She’d always made everyone miserable. It was time to put an end to their misery, and hers.
Placing the butt of the rifle on the ground between her knees, Sarah held it in place as she rested her chin over the barrel. Then she pulled the trigger.
Sarah didn’t have friends or lovers. Her relatives had long since abandoned her, so she wasn’t missed right away. When she didn’t return to work after her vacation, her boss called and left a message. He called again sometime later to let her know that she was fired. Not that it mattered; by that time she was bloated and sporting maggots. It was Office Mitchell who found her body. Her neighbors had put in a call complaining about the smell.
For years people often wondered why she never left a note. The truth is, she had; they just didn’t know where to look. Sarah etched her last words on thousands of stars over the years. The words floated, memorialized, in the dust of asteroids. It was her only wish.
“The only thing I want is to be loved.”