In a Flash
By Sarah Jayne, age 21, County Durham, England
The August meteor showers were at first a liquid crumple in the sky, a pulling back as of a large fish sucking against the water's surface.
"Will the world end?" I asked.
"No, Effie." My older sister Cara smiled, stroking my head. But I quaked even as she placed her arm around me, as the waft of smoky burgers and the animated babble of voices filled the night air.
I batted her away as I glimpsed the first meteor, white crayon scrawl, gone with a wink. The iciness of the night made me wiggle, and then jump, any inhibitions quickly dissolved, like the meteors my chin tipped towards.
The crowd watched the mute fireworks to the percussion of my stamping feet, as I swung and swam gleefully in the night, the alien lights above our familiar hill recalling within my seven year-old form an ancient hoodoo-bop.
"Effie," Cara laughed. "Stop it!"
"She's just a child," Cara's boyfriend said, as he materialised behind her, arms enveloping her.
"Brandon!" Cara squealed, the sharp the cold had pinched into her face softening.
I might have found his statement odd, had I considered it. Just a child. Insignificant and small. A deliberate division placed between them and youth, them and me; a crimson flag planted there on that hill.
And the faceless people like poplar trees and the flashes in the dark above all expanded before me; the village Green became vaster in the night. A child, Brandon had said so. And she hadn't said anything.
Cara kissed Brandon boldly then, more boldly than I had ever seen her kiss him before.
"Cara and I caught a fish," I said, "a big fish yesterday. It was teatime, but the river had saved it for us." I pretended to watch the meteors.
Cara glanced at me agitatedly.
I began to sing, nonsensical and disjointed words - a snatch of Elvis, things that came to me - but my words did not leave snail trails of light in the air. They simply drifted away, and were gone, and then gone.
Cara felt the tip of Brandon's tongue and it shone silver in the night, a cold and slippery thing, but when she pulled back from him she had a look of quiet accomplishment.
I tugged Cara's coat sleeve. "Let's go somewhere else."
She flashed a look at me. "Stop being such an attention-seeker."
So I strayed from the swelling body of people, found the clutch of trees that formed an 'O', where it was darker still and all soil because no grass grew here. The hush earth was full and deep-smelling.
I could watch the meteors from here on my own. I pretended the bursts were the beginning of the world and the faraway figures were clay men, rising up from the earth, their awe at the sky the rapture of a newborn.
"I wish Cara would come."
There were footsteps.
I scrabbled to my feet.
For a while there was simply darkness. The meteors were sparse and fleeting, and the spaces of gloom in-between perilous - threatening eyelessness and doubt, mislaying one's place in the sky and then catching only the train of a meteor, like the back of some magnificent, wayward bride.
"Hey Effie." A male voice.
Brandon stepped into the circle of trees. His too-big, too-solid frame filled the enclosing, an adult in a child's clubhouse. He stooped, even though there was no ceiling, as though the weight of the sky was heavier here. The trees around him seemed to contract and contort.
"Hi," I murmured, half turning away, remembering his recent indifference.
Only the white of one of his eyes was fully visible to me in a pale crescent. "Do you know that if you make a wish on a star now, it'll come true?"
An agitation in the corner of his mouth.
By no means did I wish to share any of my wishes with Brandon; after exchanging tongues with my sister, such impartings seemed trivial. Regardless, I was drawn closer by the surreptitious whisper of his voice.
"There aren't any stars anymore," I said finally, pulling back.
"Do you know what I wish?" He didn't seem to hear me. He moved closer.
"You shouldn't tell me," I said. "Or it won't come true."
He smiled then, flashing a chipped tooth that made his mouth seem sharp. "Of course, you're right. Then I'll show you."
I noticed how his hand obscured mine as he took it. Noticed how the sound of his fly unzipping was a fip, the sound of a fishing hook as it streaks down the centre of a river.
I knew it was her; shoulders sloped, looking down, hair a wilted red now - but the blond threads were pushing through and she hadn't lost the ability to look remote in a crowd. When she came to Penny's she stopped abruptly at the door.
She scanned the diner and when she saw me I held up a hand. She looked at me with wide extra-terrestrial eyes, and I didn't place my hand back down again as I had a very real fear that she might turn and run, a tawny vision lost to the trees.
I had been to the circle of trees where she'd last been seen so habitually I knew the twist and flush of them in every kind of light. I had gone there on each anniversary of her disappearance, as though it were a fairy ring, and the sacred hour and stellar alignments might conspire to spirit me away, a shadow slip moving past the earth, to the place that she had been borne.
And now here she was, walking inside the diner and taking the seat opposite me with a new shape in her face and a quiet strangeness in her walk that were foreign to me and took me aback so profoundly that I was at a loss for words.
Her movements were flitting, insect-like; her eyes stirred from my face to the bare table top and back again at odd intervals, resting and then trembling and then taking off again. I recalled an acquaintance at a party that hadn't seen me in a year. She had snuck looks at me when she thought I wasn't looking, attempting to pin down what had moved in my face.
Firmly, slowly, I followed her eyes and pinned down her gaze.
"I ordered you some rum and raisin ice cream," I smiled and she smiled back, shyly. I cursed myself mentally; she wasn't a child anymore. "You don't like it, I'm sorry - I'll have the waitress order you something else."
"Cara," she finally spoke. Her mouth seemed small. "I've missed you so much."
"Effie." I paused. "Why did you leave, Effie?"
"I'm sorry." She smiled again, more broadly now, and it seemed in that moment she became more solid. She really hadn't changed at all.
"No, no. No apologies. We know - I know what happened," I floundered. "Just - you should have told someone. About him, what he did. I needed to know. It would have spared so much heartache."
She appeared troubled, and she wrung her hands; they moved ceaselessly, like agitated mice, very small and very white in the dimly-lit corner of the diner.
"I suppose ... I felt partially responsible." She looked at me. Her face was round and freckled and it glowed fitfully despite the fact that her mouth was a hard line. "That night, the night of the meteor shower ... I was so angry with you. I had been excited and had wanted it to be my night. But you were so pre-occupied with ... I guess I thought that everything that happened that night was meant to be."
"Because of the fallen stars."
"That I'd wished for ... it. Even if it was just to get back at you." She sighed. "I blamed you. I didn't see him as the monster, and didn't for a long time after it."
"Nor did I," I said, and, my hand slightly trembling, I placed a golden ring on the table. "Six years of wedded bliss. Baby boy and a four-by-four ... When I found out, I blamed you. Even though nobody could find you. Presumed dead. I was furious that you hadn't told me. At first I felt that you'd taken it all away from me. Then I was angry that you'd allowed me to live with him in my life."
Our eyes connected. We laughed with the quietness of people whose Pangaea had rift a millennia ago. The tragedy of floating away on a splintered shard of ice and not watching the sharks since her eyes were still black with the crack her lost continent would have, must have, started. Whether by the stamping of feet or an uneven kiss.
We laughed until there were tears in our eyes and then when we stopped a strange silence seeped in.
"I remember the fish we caught," I said. "It was beautiful and rainbow-coloured."
"I had wished for you to come and find me on the night of the meteor shower."
Effie smiled coyly, never fully given to outward expressions of sentimentality.
She swallowed a spoonful of ice cream. She held her spoon thoughtfully, as though she might write with it.
We left the diner sprightly, shoes clapping erratically against the cobblestones, light - even though our bags were weighted down with the gone minutes of a hundred unsent letters, each written in a flash of perfect feeling.