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Stars on the Ceiling

The stars on the ceiling don’t glow much anymore. They haven’t since Miss Jessie left, or maybe it just seems like that. Either way, Nolan still looks at them as he lies awake. Mama Caswell swiped all his comics, and she won’t let him share a room with Lexie anymore. She never explained why either. Mama Caswell doesn’t talk much except to yell at the kids when they’re doing something wrong and to tell them they should be grateful they’re not in a group home. Nolan has never been in a group home so he doesn’t know what to think about it. 

All he knows is that he misses sharing a room with Lexie, and it’s hard to fall asleep without her or his comic books. The light sneaks in through the thin curtains. An old fan sputters and pushes around the warm air. The clock by his bed reads eight o’clock, the time Mama Caswell wants all the kids in bed no matter how old they are. He tries telling himself the stories Lexie tells him, but it isn’t the same. Instead, he counts the stars. One, two, three, four…he stops. A noise, something faint, interrupts his count. It’s a tapping sound, steady, insistent, like his heartbeat… or maybe the syllables of his name: No – Lan, No – Lan. He gets out bed, sits down next to the wall where he thinks the noise is coming from. If Mama Caswell came in and saw him, he’d get a spanking, but he decides to risk it. 

The tapping is louder now, and he realizes that Lexie’s room is on the other side of the wall. He taps back to let her know he’s there. The tapping stops. Nolan waits for some kind of response, realizes he’s been holding his breath. His palm presses against the wall, the plaster grooves warm under his fingers. After a minute, he sighs and stands up, ready to hop back into bed. That’s when he hears the noise…this time a voice. He follows the sound into his closet, where in the very back he finds a vent. 

“Nolan,” the voice says. “It’s me.”

He smiles and tells her it’s him. Her voice, barely a whisper, sounds far away and warbly – maybe because of the fan in her room – but he knows it’s Lexie. He tells her that he can’t sleep. 

“Tell me a story,” he says. “Please.”

From the vent he hears muffled sounds, like maybe she’s getting more comfortable. Then her voice comes through again. It’s hard to tell exactly what she’s saying, but he hears a story about a boy and girl who run away and live in an abandoned house, where they sleep in the same room, read comics together, cook hotdogs and marshmallows in the fireplace, fall asleep staring at the real stars through a hole in the roof that lets in the cool, night air. Her gentle words – whatever they are – lull him to sleep. And in his peaceful dreams, he won’t hear the footsteps enter the room next to his; he won’t hear the muffled cries of the girl he loves like a sister, the girl who loves him like a brother – the girl who will make all the same choices again the next day.

John Abbott is a writer, musician, and English instructor who lives with his wife and daughter in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is currently at work on his fifth novel.