“Why are we out here, Astro?” I asked in a hissing whisper.
“Shh.” He raised a finger to his lips, then pointed ahead in one swift motion. “It’s right up ahead. I promise.”
Normally, I would be angry with him for patronizing me, but right then I was busy with an anxious clench in my chest. Nervous, I glanced back in the direction of the sleeping car. It was too far behind to see.
“Where are we going?” There was the sense again, of danger. An alarm flared in my mind, sparking and screaming, and it was constantly getting harder to push away. “Astro?”
It was hard to imagine why I trusted him. Every possible reason that a slick guy in a leather jacket would drag his girlfriend through the forest late at night started going through my head. And how well did I know him, really? Had it been months or weeks since the day we met? At that moment, weeks felt like the right answer.
“Astro, answer me,” I pleaded. “Why are you taking me here?”
“I want to teach you something,” he replied. “It’s something I’ve tried to teach some other girls. Maybe you’ll be the first to really learn.”
I swallowed. A hard ball found its way down my throat and lodged itself uncomfortably in my gut. If I screamed now, would anyone hear me? The last town we had passed on the highway was a fifteen-minute drive away, at sixty miles per hour. That would make for a long run.
“And what would that be?” All of my worries bubbled up in my voice.
“What would what be?” he replied, a little sarcastic.
“The thing that you want to teach me?” There was venom in my words.
“You’ll see,” he replied, distracted.
Since it was impossible to see his face in the dark, I invented an expression for him. In my mind, he was smirking, the way he did when he saw me laughing. His eyebrows were close together, one higher than the other. A sinister sparkle danced across his eyes.
“We’re almost there,” he told me enthusiastically. I nodded, although I knew he couldn’t see me. I could hardly see the hands in front of my face.
Why had I agreed to this?It dawned upon me that I had willingly followed him into the woods. Then, it had been like an impulse. Now, not so much. I started thinking of specific horror stories. The little tidbits that pop up on the internet sometimes, the amber alerts, the notifications on the news that what we are about to show is graphic, so turn away if you don’t wish to see it. Even the movies from health class made their way to the front of my brain.
“How do you know the way back here?” I asked suddenly. “Neither of us has a flashlight.”
He paused for only a second, then continued at a pace even quicker than before. “Let’s just say I’ve been here a lot of times,” he finally replied.
It was as though he’d thrown a boulder down my throat and into my stomach. But still, I didn’t stop following him. If, by some slight chance, he had good intentions, then it wouldn’t make much sense to run away. And if his intentions were not so sunny, then it also wouldn’t be much use to run away.
“You’re awfully quiet,” he informed me between breaths. “You deep in thought?”
I shook my head to prevent a smile. “Yeah. That.” Deep in thought.
“We’re almost there.”
He told me this before. “How much longer, Astro?” I asked in a guttural, whiny voice. Little bits of anxiety bubbled and popped as I spoke.
Keeping up with his stride had taken enough breath out me me that I couldn’t respond. So now, not only was I vulnerable, I was physically weak. A perfect pairing.
Up ahead, the trees were more sparse. Moonbeams were cast across the forest floor. It was the one place with light we had come across since Astro shut off the glowing eyes of his car a quarter of an hour ago.
Astro suddenly came to a stop, and, with a jolt, I did the same. Hovering in midair, between our lips, were dancing, flirting little particles, lit up eerily by the bluish light of the moon. It was like being surrounded by a million luminescent fairies, or like being suspended in space and watching the galaxies pass by. For a moment, I forgot how scared I was. Even looking directly into Astro’s black eyes and seeing the whole world inside of them for one moment, it was as though there was nothing to be afraid of.
Then I remembered. My heart sank and took my face with it.
“Are you alright?” he asked, with a look of concern.
I wasn’t sure how to answer him, so I refrained from saying anything. The quiet of the forest wrapped around us and filled my lungs as I breathed.
he pressed his hand against my cheek. I believed that it would begin now, that everything was downhill from here.
“Astro,” I murmured, pleading. Everything about me was pathetic. I shook under his fingers.
He wiped away a tear. I hadn’t realized there were tears to wipe away.
Drawing his hand back to his side, he whispered, “Look up.”
I obliged. And if I had thought before that some dust was anything like watching the universe in its entirety, I was wrong. This was.
It seemed like everything that was beautiful was thrown up into the sky. From the one small circle where no branches blocked the view of the heavens, I could see uncountable stars, in big strings like playful children, flirting in the deep black that filled the voids between them.
“My mom told me that if I ever liked someone, really liked someone, that I should bring her here,” Astro said, breaking the stillness and reminding me to breathe. “And if she can appreciate it, then I should teach her how to count them.”
When I didn’t respond, he continued. “Most people are too afraid to even come all the way back here. Those that have made it, get bored. That’s why I’ve never been with anyone for very long.”
Finally, I broke away from the view to look at him. He was telling the truth.
I could see it in the way he stopped trying to look cool for a second, the way there were creases in his forehead.
He smiled, waiting for me to say something, anything. His eyes were hopeful, and glittered spectacularly underneath the light of infinity.
“Teach me,” I said. “I want to know how to count them.”
There was so much gratitude in his expression then. That was not the face of someone who would take me somewhere and leave me for the vultures. And, as much as he was thankful for me, I was thankful for him. For once.
He took my hand and showed me his secrets. For every one of my questions, he had an answer. For every lock of mystery I could not open, his words were the key. He held his arms around me, and we lay there, underneath the hole in the trees, until the sunlight replaced the moon. And every day, I revisit that place and that day, and Astro and the stars and the whole universe, because I know that if I forget I will lose the thing that makes me different, that makes me better. And, to this day, all I’ve ever wanted to be is better––for Astro, and for the sake of every star that I’ve counted in the sky.
Everywhere I go now, I look up. There are so many amazing things to see when you have your open, and I intend to keep mine wide for as long as I live. To date, I have found numerous story ideas, innumerable ten-minute best friends at the coffee shop, and various thoughts and ideas that never would have come to me if not for that one act, forever ago. Everything is different now, and to think I would never have felt this way if Astro hadn’t looked up and thought the stars were beautiful, too.