Neutron Star

The universe is crashing down on her and all she can do is lie there, eyes dazzling with broken stars. A wave of asteroids pummels her, shards of icy rock plunge into her torso. Hazy shadows filter in and obscure one side of her face, the moon sees all. A tall, haunting figure stands at the foot of her bed each night, it steals the sand from her sleep. Morpheus has forsaken her. Cielo’s face falls away for a moment as she thinks back to the time she almost did it, let it take her. Back then, she’d birthed dense planets of sorrow. Tonight, a well of loneliness sits in her chest, no one comes to retrieve her gifts. Tonight, Cielo stares at the ceiling, searching for slivers of light. She navigates the splintering debris to November, a year ago.  

The sugar pumpkin sitting on Theo’s desk is starting to rot, its flesh tinged with age lines, its spooky, toothy smile sagging at the corners. Cielo looks at it and frowns—a Halloween reminder, a reminder of what Theo did.

They hang their coats and sit on the couch. Theo fidgets and avoids eye contact.

“You want some water?” he asks Cielo.

“Yeah, sure.” A cool breeze rides her words, each syllable covered in vapor.

Cielo looks at the comic books on Theo’s shelf. She smiles. She’d gotten him into reading a few. She’s especially proud of introducing him to Saga.

“Here.” Theo hands her a beer mug full of water. She chugs it down and exhales—small, dewy drops suspend in the air.

She hesitates before she says, “I’ve got to take the next pill within two days. A short silence follows. “You’ll sleep over tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, I’ll be there,” Theo replies, a tingling lingers on his lips.

Cielo lets out a heavy sigh and small cumulus clouds begin to take shape.

“You okay?” Theo intercepts her thought spiral.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” Her shoulders begin to shake, a sob traveling through her venous network.

Theo’s forehead crinkles, sparks crawl along the newly formed trenches. He wraps his arms around her. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too.”

Hail begins to fall over them.

Cielo’s mind comes back to present day. A hollowing hunger urges her out of bed. She wonders why every feeling is amplified tonight. The earth continues to turn without regard for her exhaustion. Dawn breaks and a cat begins to meow, the eerie silence broken. Cielo gets up, a profound ache makes her movements methodical and slow.

“Hazel, it’s too early. Let me sleep.” Hazel meows in response and rubs against her legs. Cielo trudges out of her room and into the kitchen to refill the cat’s food bowl. The cold floor reminds her she’s still alive.

“Good morning,” says a groggy voice.

She stiffens, it’s her mother’s boyfriend. Cielo is older than him.

“Morning,” she replies without enthusiasm.

“Cielo, que haces despierta tan temprano?” her mother calls out.

“The cat woke me up again,” she lies because her mental state is none of her mother’s business.

A black hole twists, it threatens to consume them whole. She wants to let her frustration loose on them, but she knows better. She knows nothing would change. Things have been this way since she was eight. She pours cat food into the bowl; it tinkles against the stainless steel. Cielo grabs the broom next and sweeps up the stray cat litter. Some sticks to her feet and she’s suddenly transported to a Miami beach.

Sand runs through her small toes, warm and grainy. An invigorating scent of salt surfs on the warm breeze. It tousles her short, brown hair lifting it like a kite. A rainbow kite reaches for the sky; her father is holding on to the string. Everyone is smiling.

Cielo’s eyes refocus on the dull, yellow wallpaper of the kitchen. This is her life, and there isn’t much she can do to change it.

“What are you doing awake?”

She wants to embarrass her mom, a little payback for this forced circumstance.

“Alejandro felt sick,” her mother  responds.

“Again?” Cielo exclaims. “Is he going to go to therapy this time?”

“No, he just needs someone to talk to. He has me.”

Cielo rolls her eyes. She goes back to her room, her witness to despair, and decides to sage it.

She takes a deep breath. “Fuck. I’m okay. I have some control.” Cielo opens her window and leaves her door cracked open.

She sets the bundle of sage on fire, breathing life into the cinders that lie along the edges.

“I will stay grounded. This is not forever, it’s temporary.” She gracefully lifts the bundle, up and down, setting intentions with every stroke. She paints every corner of her room and the closet.

Cielo sits on her bed and inhales the white tendrils of smoke. She watches as they lift and twirl, dancing with her aura. The smoke twists into the past, and she’s a child again.

The odor of a lit cigarette sends Cielo toward her mother’s room. She’s ready to complain about the neighbors again. They’re constantly smoking indoors, and the stench of nicotine invades their apartment each time. She walks down the hall to tell her mom, but she’s met with a stranger, his arm around her mother’s waist.

“Ma, what’s happening?”

“Todo está bien. Go back to your room.”

Eleven-year-old Cielo watches as her mother enters her room with the tall, thin man. Disoriented, her mother almost falls over and he catches her. He looks at Cielo before he closes the door and says, “Your mother is okay. The lord is watching over her.” The smell of alcohol on his breath wafts over, and she wrinkles her nose in disgust. She’s seen the tall, thin man before. He works at the church by their apartment building.

Cielo hears her mother’s burdened groans, she sounds frightened. Then, a smacking sound two minutes later. Her protests stop. Cielo runs to the end of the hall and stares into the dark—a tunnel with no end in sight. The slice of light beneath her mother’s bedroom door glows blue. The TV is on. She whispers to herself, “Nothing happened. Monsters aren’t real. It’s just all the Goosebumps.” She hears the doorknob squeak and a tall figure with yellow eyes emerges. It smiles at Cielo. She quickly turns away and runs, holding her breath until she reaches her room. She grabs an uncapped pen and hides under her covers, making sure they’re not hanging over the sides of the bed. Her breath comes out in zigzags, like little lightning bolts.

The sound of thunder crashing wakes Cielo. The waltzing smoke had lulled her to sleep. “Fuck fuck fuck! I can’t be late again!” She climbs out of bed and puts her uniform on, a melancholy-gray polo and navy-blue pants. She runs a brush through her long, brown hair and it frizzes up. Cielo slides her feet into her sneakers and simultaneously pulls her coat on. Her hair stands on end when it touches her coat.

She makes it to the train station, but the One train is delayed. “Of fucking course!” she mutters to herself. Cielo looks up at the darkening sky full of clouds. Seagulls soar overhead. For a moment, she feels peace. The Hudson River below moves to and fro; Cielo is mesmerized by the simplicity of this fleeting existence, the opportunity to just be. A loud horn shatters her peace and announces the arrival of her train to retail hell.  

“You people don’t know what the hell you’re doing! I ordered black pens and you sent me blue!” It’s only nine a.m. and the severely unhinged are already in the store. Cielo walks over to her register and hooks a walkie to her pants. She gives her co-worker a look of sympathy.

Asia excuses herself and walks over to Cielo. “Yo, I don’t know how much longer I can do this. I’m gonna flip on this old lady.”

“You get off in three hours. Just three more. You’re almost free!”

“Alright, I’m going. But if she disrespects me one more time, I’m gonna need you to hold me back.”

Cielo snickers and starts to count the money in her register.

From her peripheral, she sees her manager approach. “Cielo, we need a Mas Account get me three also push the paper and offer the items at your register and don’t forget to greet everyone and answer the phone and when you don’t have any customers clean the registers top to bottom! And if this customer calls— ” Cielo drones out her manager’s usual lack of people skills, freedom on her mind. Time doesn’t come, but a feeling does.

She sees red behind her eyelids. She can feel the sun’s rays on her browning skin. All around her, a whooshing sound, a soft touch. It effortlessly carries her. This is one of her favorite things in this whole, twisted world: floating. And she feels safe, she feels tranquil. This is home, this feeling is home.

“Did you hear what I said?” her manager asks.

“Yes! I got everything!” Cielo feigns enthusiasm. The manager walks away and heads upstairs to torture more employees.

Her manager is a real bitch. This store would be nothing without the cashiers.

“No! I don’t want to re-order the pens! I want to speak to a manager. You people don’t know what you’re doing.”

Asia, head cashier, takes a deep breath, does a 360 spin, and says, “Yes, what do you need?”

“You’re the manager?” The customer looks mortified.

Cielo stifles a laugh. This is a game they play when the manager is too busy to notice.

She looks over at Lee, the coworker she’s crushing on—her curly hair is teal now. Lee looks at Cielo, wide-eyed, mouth agape. This is the most entertaining part of their monotonous day.

“She’s insane!” Cielo reads off her lips.

“I know!” Cielo mouths back. Tiny, wet clouds glide toward Lee.

Her eyes linger on Lee’s face for a second too long and Lee smiles shyly. Her lips are almost the same pink as her high school crush’s.

All-American Rejects and Fall Out Boy posters adorn the walls of her best friend’s room. An Avril Lavigne 2006 calendar hangs over a desk. They’re sitting on the bottom bunk, behind the blankets they tucked in all around them. It’s their own secret hideaway.

“Do you want to…to try?” Cielo asks.

“Yeah,” Becca responds.

Cielo’s eyes fixate on her pink lips. A familiar peppermint scent fills her nostrils. She closes her eyes, leans in; a soft, warm feeling envelops her. She pulls away and lets out a small sigh. A warm breeze flutters past Becca’s hair. They smile, light in their eyes. Everything is right in the world.

A jarring slam brings her back. A customer set three reams of recycled paper down onto the counter. Cielo rings them up. The entitled customer leaves with new pens. More customers come in and out. Cielo goes through the motions: “Hi, how are you? Would you like a bag today? Just to let you know, we have a special for paper going on …”

Three o’clock comes and the world halts. Cielo is left spinning. Her head throbs in pain, her legs beg for rest. She clocks out and sits in the break room. The harsh, industrial lights are dizzying; they pull her back to a year ago.

She studies the exposed bulbs hanging from the ceiling, the edges of her vision are spotted with blue. Cielo sits on the far side of a booth, across from a man with curly hair. Her bottom lip is swollen and red from nervous biting. An awful dread fills her stomach.

“It was me who initiated. I kissed her. But I immediately stopped!” Theo explains.

“You what? Why? I—” He doesn’t want to deal with this. He gets up for their beers.

Cielo doesn’t know what to do. The levee is breaking, the blood will come rushing soon.

He comes back and sets a Bella Artois down in front of her.

“Really? A Bella? Don’t you think?”

“How will things get better if you keep accusing me!”

“It’s her fucking NAME!”

“I—no, it’s just a beer.”

“And she’s just your drummer’s cousin!”

Back home, after work, Cielo stares at her ceiling. It’s one of those nights again. Miniature tornados twist above Cielo’s head, threatening to descend and engulf her. The dark figure stands before her bed, reminding her it’s always waiting, always inviting. This time, she chooses to submit to the void. She grabs her phone and plays her Bell Jar playlist on Spotify. At the first stroke of piano keys, she collapses into herself. She goes supernova.

Candescent light emits from her core and she rises above her bed. Her long, brown hair sticks up in all directions, a static shock travels through her body. She can feel her body warming rapidly. The heat travels to her fingers and toes, sparks flitter from the tips. Eyes closed; she thinks the strange sensation she feels is nothing but that: a feeling. She gives herself permission to think of it all: the child that never was, the cheating, the tumultuous childhood, her desire for love and connection. She opens her eyes: blurry windowpanes. Her chest stops heaving, her shoulders no longer shake. A new breath flows through her—one of resilience and hope—and she becomes a neutron star.

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