Dark Night, Bright Stars

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Talya’s perspective
“Oedipus, we’re flying too close to the sun,” I whispered to the clouds below us.

Maya turned a magazine page beside me. “His name was Icarus, and I assure you that the plane won’t melt.”

I ignored my overly pragmatic sister and breathed onto the thick window glass. If we were in a car, the cold outside would make my breath fog up the glass. But we’re inside a safe, warm, comfortable airplane, as my sister loved to remind me, and my breath wasn’t visible.

I shifted restlessly in the cramped seat and wondered how much longer I’d be stuck sitting here while the plane glided through the winds.

“Two more hours,” Maya responded to my unasked question. She could always read my thoughts, and as much as I tried to return the favor, I could never manage it. Whenever I complained about the imbalance, she would only give me a lopsided smile, pat my hair, and say, “Older sister privileges.”

So then I tried to get a little sister or brother, but I didn’t realize that in order to do so, my mom had to get remarried. If I had considered that beforehand, maybe I wouldn’t have begged so much.

“Do you think he’ll be nice?” I asked, referring to our soon-to-be stepfather.

If I’d really wanted to learn to read Maya’s mind, I could have paid attention to the details, like the way her mouth tightened and her back tensed at my question, or the way she absolutely refused to look me in the eyes when she answered. But I was ten, and it never occurred to me that such obvious signs could reveal so much.

“Oh, I’m sure he’ll be great,” she replied. I did notice that Maya seemed to turn those magazine pages without reading the articles, but considering she was five years older than me, perhaps she simply read quicker than I could.

Maya’s answer didn’t satisfy me, but I couldn’t articulate why, so I returned to the window. The sun was setting, liquefying the clouds into molten gold and transforming the plane’s wings into blindingly bright forces. The neon yellow sun seemed to chase the navy-gray night away, even as it sunk below the golden lake. The edges of the sun’s reach were a delicate purple, somehow transforming the clashing colors into a seamless masterpiece.

I stared intently at the sun, knowing that just as I saw it set into darkness, my mother was already seeing the star-studded night sky.

“Mommy will be there when we land, right?” I kept my eyes glued to the sunset, just as Maya kept her eyes glued to the magazine.

“Yeah. She just had a business meeting in New York, so she left early.”

“If we’re living in New York, does that mean Mommy won’t have to leave on business trips anymore?”

Maya sighed, though I didn’t think it was because of my endless stream of questions for once. I turned to look at her and saw her gazing at the sunset with an expression I couldn’t read. She looked sad, but not quite; worried, but not quite; and there was a sparkle of anger too, but not quite. I couldn’t fathom what her sigh might mean with that face.

“Hopefully not,” Maya answered, as I turned back to the window.

That was one good thing at least. Which was not to say that a stepdad was a bad thing, but it wasn’t really a good thing either.

Maya’s perspective
For once I didn’t mind Talya’s parade of questions. Reassuring her felt somewhat like reassuring myself, and I desperately needed the comfort. I was certainly used to this coping mechanism. After all, I didn’t notice Mom and Dad’s poor marriage; I had a baby sister to watch. And I didn’t mind their divorce much either, as I had a baby sister to watch. Now, with Mom moving across the country to get remarried, I studied the twilight sky and thought, thank God I have a baby sister to watch.

Not that I expected Talya to need much care. She was at an age where I didn’t anticipate a difficult transition. Hopefully, she would love her new school and classmates, she’d get along great with the stepfather, and she and Mom would form the tight bond they’d never had the opportunity to develop before, when Mom was trying to be a single mom while managing a corporation.

Hopefully.

In terms of my own future, I just wanted to coexist tension-free until I could escape to college. Two years, I told myself. Two years, and you can go live in Australia or something. The thought was not particularly appealing, but it was preferable to the idea of staying put near the family. I may have told Talya that the stepdad would be nice, but she was still young and cute enough for it to be true. I, on the other hand, was a teenager, and enough dads had trouble with their own teenage daughters, let alone someone else’s. No matter how hard I tried, I could not envision a future where I was truly accepted into this new family unit. I had told Mom of my worries. I also protested making me transfer schools for eleventh grade, and I even argued that transplanting me like this would affect my college opportunities. But all my complaints were ignored; I was not allowed to live full-time with my dad in my hometown, attend a nearby boarding school, or arrange any situation besides “one big family in New York.” If only Mom could realize that this family wasn’t mine.

But I behaved as best I could, helping Talya pack her things and telling her wonderful stories about all the Broadway shows we’d see. A small grin touched my face as I stared into the darkening sky, thinking that we probably spent more time singing Broadway tunes than packing. But that’s what sisters do, right? They sing together.

Talya and I continued to stare at the sky in silence, together but apart. Or maybe that’s just what I felt. Maybe Talya didn’t even realize that I gazed out the window with her. She certainly didn’t seem to notice the gradual transformation from evening into night. Though I was painfully aware of the impending darkness, Talya audibly gulped when the last traces of sun rays dipped below the horizon.

“Half an hour left,” I murmured to the night.

Talya turned and looked at me with wide, accusing eyes. I suppose I had read her mind again.

Ladies and gentlemen, we have almost arrived at our destination,” announced the flight attendant a moment later. “Please buckle your seatbelts, put up your tray tables, and return your seats to the upright position. We will be landing shortly.”

I obeyed the instructions, and Talya continued to stare out the window, both of us in the silence. My hands shook as I placed my magazine back in my bag, knowing that where I next opened my bag would be “home.” Or something close enough, for the rest of high school at least.

The plane dropped low enough for us to see the first shimmers of New York City lights. Though the lights almost seemed friendly, I knew these twinkling beacons could not care less about our arrival. What’s one more tired, poor refugee to a city with more office lights than there are stars in the sky?

“Twinkle, twinkle, little star,” whispered Talya to the clouds. “How I wonder where you are.”

She had been reciting random lines to the clouds the entire flight. At first I had found it annoying, but now it provided some measure of comfort, for some reason.

Talya added her own line to the nursery rhyme. “Home,” she whispered, “we’re home.” Her voice wavered with uncertainty.

The plane landed, the lights turned on, and every passenger shot up to be the first one off the flight.

I dallied. “It never hurts to let other people go first,” I explained to Talya. She responded with a skeptical look that told me she knew politeness was not my real reasoning.

The plane emptied, and I stepped out into the aisle.

“Wait, Maya!” Talya called. She stood by her seat, shifting from foot to foot, her eyes wavering between me and the floor.

“Talya,” I cooed. “We have to get off the plane. Mom’s waiting for us.”

Talya met my gaze and said firmly, “Maya, you’re not leaving me, right? Even if Mommy leaves with her new husband and Daddy leaves since he’s not in New York, you’ll never leave me, right?”

My heart melted at the sight of my baby sister standing so uncertainly in this new territory, yet so confident of my faithfulness to her. I clasped her hand tightly in my own.

“Yes, Talya, of course. I will always, always be with you.”

“Good,” she replied as we walked down the aisle and off the plane. “I don’t think you could survive without me. You sulk too much.”

My lopsided grin stole across my face, and we walked into the light-filled night.

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