Aunty Morgan stood between the crowd and the flames and waited for us all to quiet down. She had a long wait.
Behind me, about half the grownups were chatting with each other, and the other half was trying to shush them. The cousins were just as bad. Off to my left, Magda and Jessie were giggling about something while Jordan looked uncomfortable being set between two girls. On my right, Kinsey and Maya were playing thumb war. I couldn’t see what the boys on the far side of them were doing, but judging by the way Uncle Jonas and Aunty Vita kept shushing them, it was probably something Mama would call inappropriate.
I snuck a glance at Aunty Morgan.
She scared me. She’d always scared me. Not in a monster kind of way, but in a teacher kind of way. She wasn’t ever mean, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that she wasn’t exactly nice either. Just then, the light from bonfire behind her shone through her dark hair and drowned her face in shadows.
She noticed me looking and smiled.
My jaw snapped shut. I hadn't realized my mouth was open. I quickly looked down at my feet, face burning. The dew from the field was starting to soak into my shoes. Any moment and it would get to my socks and then my feet would be wet. Absently, I scratched my arm. The special robes Mama had made for me were warm, but the thick material was itchy. I glanced over at all my cousins. They, too, were wearing the special robes. Most of them Mama had made for them to for their first run. I wondered if theirs had started out itchy too, and if they’d gotten used to it over time.
Someone placed a hand on my shoulder. “You scared, Em?”
I looked up and nodded. “Yes, Mama.”
My mother smiled. Light from the fire made shadows dance across her face, too. On her, though, it was comforting. “Don’t worry, honey. Everyone’s nervous their first run. You’ll be fine. Your dad and I will be cheering for you.”
I nodded again. She straightened the pins in my hair, then kissed my forehead. "Don’t worry about actually catching one,” she whispered. “It doesn't matter. I’ll still love you the same. It’s all just for fun.”
Before I could say anything, she stepped back a bit and stood beside my dad.
I turned in time to catch the net Nika had just thrown to me. There were about a dozen of them piled up in her arms. “Here,” she said. “This one’s yours. Uncle Rodney says not to break it, ‘cause it took him forever to make.”
I looked down at the net. It was just a long stick with a loop at the end, with some cloth webbing hanging from the loop.
“Why?” I said. “It looks easy enough to me.”
She shrugged. “That’s what I said. He told me that if that was how I felt, I could make them all for next year.” She grinned at me, her teeth nearly glowing in the night. “I wouldn’t say anything, if I were you.”
She walked on, handing out nets to the rest of the cousins. Watching her go my stomach began to churn. Nika was ancient, almost seventeen, and she’d never caught anything. Not even a dead one that hit dirt. Now that she was old, she couldn’t join in the run anymore. She had to go stand with the rest of the grownups and watch us.
Which was fine, really. In fact, Dad had told me once that catching wasn’t the important bit of the run- it was all just tradition. So long as we ran at all, then things were okay.
Right. Just tradition.
I looked up. Stars dotted the sky.
“Twinkle twinkle little star. . . “
Morgan clapped to get our attention. Around me, the noise died down.
“Alright everyone,” Morgan said. “You’ve all got your nets? Good. Rules.”
The older kids groaned in unison. She waited for them to finish before going on.
“I know you older lot know them, but we’ve got some new players this year and I've got to make everything official. Rule one: no- and I can’t stress this enough, no trampling. No shoving, no tripping people, Jason.
Rule two. If you do manage to catch anything, you bring it right back here, understand? No dallying, no running around to try and catch another, and no showing off- you come back. Third rule,” she smiled; I could tell by the way the shadows moved. “Have fun. You all ready?”
“Yes!” Everyone shouted, even the grownups.
Morgan turned towards the bonfire and raised her hands to the sky. There was a funny fizzy feeling in the air that got into my eyes and tickled my nose.
One of the stars shot across the night, leaving a streak of light behind it. Then another, and another. A few fizzed out into darkness before getting properly unstuck from the sky, but a bunch of them were coming to the ground, heading for our field.
Morgan turned and shouted at all of us. "Go, go!"
And the run began.
It took us younger kids a second to get started: we were just staring. The stars looked so pretty.
Dad nudged me from behind. "Go on, Em! Hurry!"
I staggered forward, then broke into a run. The older kids were already well into the field, nets held up above their heads. The stars were still up and behind us: we'd have to go to where they'd land and try to catch them there. The important thing about catching stars, see, is to get them before they hit the dirt. As soon as they hit the dirt, they just turn into rocks.
It took forever for the stars to get close. A forever filled with running and net-waving and screaming and wondering whether or not the cousins were having as hard a time getting through the grass as I was. Probably not: most of them were bigger than me.
One star shot off, away from the others. It was swerving left while all the other ones kept going straight.
I stopped running and looked all the way up. There were twenty of us out there chasing stars, and only maybe a dozen stars falling. All the cousins were running to where the big group of stars would land, none of them were even looking at the little one going left.
“Over here!” I shrieked. I started running towards where the star was heading.
It felt like ages before the star got to the field. It was going so slow compared to the other. I looked over to where all the other stars had fallen already. The stars over there were hopping like fish, and all the cousins were running around trying to get them before they touched the ground. I could hear them laughing.
I looked up at my star, and saw it heading straight for me.
It zoomed across the field, eventually catching up to me and crackling just above my head. I could feel the heat it gave off singeing some of my hair. Then, just when I was sure it was going to land, I stuck my net out in front of it.
Instead of landing in the net or crashing to the ground, the ball of light leapt back up a few feet into the air and swerved off to the left.
“Hey!” I shouted, running after it. “You’re not supposed to do that!”
The star didn't listen. It kept on flying, and I went after it.
Sometimes the star would dart suddenly to the side. Sometimes it would start flying backwards, almost running me over. Always, it was just out of net reach.
Then, just when I thought I was about to catch it, I tripped. I stepped into one of the dips around the hill and fell face-first into the dirt. When I pushed myself up again, it was just in time to see the tail end of the star shooting across the field, getting smaller and smaller.
It was the last straw. My chest hurt- even breathing through my nose made it feel like I was swallowing glass. One of my shoes was gone, lost somewhere in the field. My arms were all scratched up, my robes were full of foxtails and pricklies, and (I soon noticed), the net had snapped in half when I fell. It was too much.
I started to cry.
It's dead, I thought. It's dead by now. I'll never find the shell in the dark. . .
"Hey," said someone behind me. Probably a cousin. “What are you doing?”
I didn’t answer. I couldn’t; I was crying too hard.
The cousin kneeled down next to me and tapped my shoulder. I couldn’t see who it was through all the tears.
"Aren’t we going to play anymore? I thought we were having fun-"
"I couldn’t catch the star! I tried and I tried and I couldn't."
The cousin patted my shoulder again. “Please don’t cry,” he said. “I'm sorry, I thought it was a game.”
I sniffed and snorted and wiped my eyes, then turned to see which of my cousins it was.
It wasn't a cousin. None of my cousins were wearing white. None of my cousins had yellowy skin and silvery hair. None of my cousins could glow in the dark.
“Oh,” I said.
"Hi." His hair floated around his head, like the way mine did when I was under water.
"You. You're the star."
He nodded. His eyes didn't have the inside-circley bit like they were supposed to. Instead, all they had was white light that went away when he blinked. "Yes."
"But you're supposed to be dead! You fell, you hit the dirt."
He titled his head like Magda's dog did sometimes when it was confused. "No I didn't."
I grabbed the part of the net with the hoop and jammed it over the top of his head.
"I caught you!" I said. "I caught a falling star!"
He blinked, and then moved the mesh so it wasn’t on his nose.
“Yes.” he said slowly. “You did. Why did you want to catch me?”
"Not you-you," I said. "Any star would have been good." I pulled the net off of his head. "C'mon, we gotta go see my Aunty Morgan now. Where's your shell? She'll want to see it."
"Shell?" he did the head tilting thing again.
"Your shell. There's always a shell. It's the bit of you that hits the ground."
His eyes sparked and he crossed his arms. "I told you, I didn't hit the ground."
"But the stars always hit the ground. It's part of falling."
He wrinkled his nose. "No. We actually don't fall that often. I'm just here because I was bored and I heard somebody calling me."
I scoffed. “Stars fall all the time! Every year we have a run, and every year we find your shells.” I remembered the run last year, and the year before, and the year before that. How exciting it had all seemed then, holding onto the edge of my mother’s robe and watching as my cousins melted into the dark, fire falling from the sky. Nobody had ever caught anything still alive, but everyone celebrated all the same.
He shrugged. “They weren't any stars I knew, then. Sometimes meteors come down, though. They’re rocks, y’see. Flying rocks.”
He raised his hand and made swooping, flying motions with it. “Yeah. They float around in the dark stuff and burn up when they fall. Maybe that's what you're thinking of?”
“But- but. . . “ I tried to wrap my mind around it. It wasn’t the flying rocks bit, there were stranger things in the world. Magda had told me about fish made of plastic-y jelly stuff and swam around without brains, and Mama had confirmed it. If that was true, then I could handle flying rocks.
“But Aunty Morgan told us they were stars! Everyone says they are. She gets them down from the sky, and they fly around, and everyone tries to catch them. That’s how it goes.”
“Sorry,” he said. “They’re rocks. That's why you find the shells.”
We stood together in awkward silence.
"So," he said eventually. "What now?"
"I'm supposed to take you to Aunty Morgan. "
"I don't know. Maybe she wants to meet you?"
We tromped off through the field together.
"So," I said. "You're really a star. Like, a real one, not a pretend rock one."
"Well, we got a star too. It's called the sun. Magda told me."
He nodded. "Sol? I saw him passing through. Seemed nice enough, but struck me as kind of lazy. I'm brighter," he added proudly.
"Yup. You just can't tell 'cause I'm all . . . wispy right now. Back home, I'm brighter."
"What are stars usually made of?"
"Yes, but what's under the fire?"
"More fire. We're fire all the way through."
"Fine then, don't tell me. See if I care."
Mama and Dad were waiting for me back at the camp.
"Ma, Da, look, I-"
"Don't worry," said Mama. She gave me a hug. "You did great."
"Nobody gets one their first try," said Dad.
"But I did-"
They didn't listen. They wrapped their arms around my shoulders and ushered me over to congratulate my cousins. Nobody paid any attention to the star boy, though a few told me I'd done well for my age and how I was such a big girl.
"But I did catch a-"
"Why can't they see you?"
"I don't know," he said.
We were the last ones back. Most of the uncles were setting up the picnic tables while most of the aunts were setting up the food. Everyone else was talking to each other and congratulating Jacob and Kinsey for catching their very first stars.
"They're not stars," he said, crossing his arms. "I'm a star, and I'm much better than any stupid rock." To prove it, he kicked at a rock next to us. His foot went right through it.
"Maybe Morgan can see you," I said. "Maya says she can see a lot of stuff other people can't."
He scowled, but followed me when I left.
Morgan was with Aunty Vita and Chloe, setting out the plates.
"Aunty," I said, going up to tug her sleeve.
"Hang on, Emry. I'm busy. "
I tugged harder. "Aunty I caught a star and nobody will listen to me and everyone says Kinsey and Jacob caught a star but my star says they're not really stars they're just rocks that were falling and now nobody can see him and nobody's listening to me and Aunty are you listening Aunty Morgan-"
"Emry, I said hold on, I'm-" She turned around and saw the star boy.
"Oh," she said, taking a step backward. She grabbed onto the edge of the table with one hand, and pulled me back with the other. "Oh my."
"See?" I said. "He's a real star, not one of the fakey rock kinds. Right?"
He nodded. "Yep."
"Emry," she said. I cringed. her voice was all choked up, like she was trying hard not to be mad. "Come with me."
Before I could say anything, she grabbed my wrist and pulled me out of the party. We went off a ways and climbed up the small hill there.
When we got there, she turned me around and made me look her in the eyes. "Emry," she said slowly. "What did you do?"
"I was just running to catch a star and I saw that one all by itself and nobody else was going for it so I got the net and I waited and then I ran and then I lost my shoe and then I tripped and my net broke but it was okay because he came back-"
"Stop. Just, stop."
She rubbed her head.
"Am I going to get into trouble?"
She sighed. "No, Em. You're not in trouble. You just scared me a little, is all. You're fine. You and your friend are fine. Hey!" she called to the star boy who'd been at the base of the hill, waiting for us. "Get up here, you!"
Morgan squinted at him when he came up. "You're not one of mine," she said.
He shrugged. "I heard you calling."
She crossed her arms and let one hand up to hold her chin. "Hmm." she said. "And you can see it, Emry?"
"Interesting." She took a deep breath. "Alright, then." She crouched down to my level. "Now, Em, this next part is very, very important, understand?"
She pointed at the star. "I want you to name it."
"You mean you don't already have an name?"
He shook his head. "I don't think so, no. Never really saw the point in them."
"Oh. Uh, um. . . "
"Take your time," said Morgan. "This isn't something you should just jump into-"
I looked at the star boy. "How about Benny?"
"Benny?" said Morgan. "I don't know if-"
"Ben-nee. Benny." said the star. "Benny. I think I like it."
Morgan looked a little put out, though I couldn't figure why. "Well, I suppose it's a good a name as any. You have to say it, though, Em. Say it's its name."
"Benny, your name is Benny."
As soon as I said it, I stopped feeling tired. All the aches and scrapes and ickiness were gone. In fact. . .
I giggled and hopped lightly from foot to foot.
I felt great. I could do the whole run all over again, and then maybe another one after that! I was right about to tell Aunty Morgan when the fizzing came back. It was like someone had gone inside my head- not into the mushy gray bit, but the space just behind it where all the thoughts were- and pushed. The thought space was pushed and shoved and stretched until my head felt twice as open as it had before.
There was an odd niggling in the back of my new thoughtspace. I followed it and found the other end stuck to Benny, like someone had attached an invisible string between us.
Benny blinked a few times, then stared at Morgan and me. "Oh," he said. "I can tell you apart, now. Before you just kind of looked like meat blobs."
Morgan smiled. "Yes," she said. "The binding goes both ways."
I let my new, wide-open thoughtspace brush against hers. I couldn't see what she was thinking (there was a fuzzy wall in the way of that I knew I'd never be able to break down), but I could almost see the gist of it.
She was excited. I could feel her bubbling underneath the calmness. She was so happy about me and Benny being friends, but I couldn't tell why.
Huh. I tried following the string and trying it on Benny.
The fuzzy wall between us was a lot thinner than the one between Morgan and me. Most of his thoughts were big and twisty and put me in the mind of explosions and things that were either very very big, or very very small. Some, though, were much more normal.
He just felt mild and curious about everything.
He'd never realized how interesting the world was and was slightly irritated that he'd never taken the time to properly look at all those rocks floating around. . . Maybe there were rocks back home as interesting as this one, and he hadn't even noticed. . . was worried about Sol. Would he get mad that Benny was wandering around in his territory? Probably not, Sol seemed too lazy to get particularly worked up, but still. . . and weren't these meat blobs nice after all? Especially now that he could tell them apart. . . strange presence in his mind-
I was suddenly kicked out.
"Quit it," he said. "It's rude to do that without asking first."
"Aunty," I said. "What do we do now?"
She placed a hand on each of our shoulders. "Now we go back to the party. We stuff our faces- Yes, you too, Benny. You should be a little more physical now. I'll talk to your parents, Em, and explain about Benny. Then we'll find Benny a spare sleeping bag and get some shut eye." She ushered us down the hill.
"Tomorrow you'll both come to my house and I'll teach you how things like this work. You don't know it, yet, but what you did tonight is kind of important. Don't worry, though. I'll teach you everything."
"Just like school, only harder and more fun."
I thought this over. "Well, that's alright, then."
I always wanted to know everything.
Together, the three of us went down the hill, towards the fires.