the warmth of the stars
“You’re freezing.” Her hand flies out to catch mine, transferring its warmth to my tingling fingers as we huddle together at the top of the hill, a carpet of dark grass sprawled out beneath us. Places like these are meant for such a scene, with the glow of a clear, bright moon bathing us lovers in its pale light.
I ask her to teach me how she does that—transfer heat from the tips of her fingers, channeling energy into my shaking body until the icy blanket of my skin starts to thaw from the inside out.
She throws her head back and lets out a clear, almost musical sound, like the ringing of a bell. I don’t understand what I’ve said to have caused this, but I want to do it again. We cuddle closer, brushing shoulders and hips as we sit on our hilltop, just a little closer to the stars than everyone else.
We tell each other secrets, but she doesn’t seem to care for mine.
“Sometimes, I think my mom and dad have nothing in common.”
“It’s a time-honored tradition for my family to abandon its children at birth.”
“I don’t know if I really belong at this school. Everyone around me seems so much smarter.”
“I only think in colors, not words or abstract thoughts.”
“I’ve never been confident in the way my body looks.”
“Under all of this, I’m just an amorphous mass of tentacles.”
She stands abruptly, and my once-toasty hands begin to feel numb again.
“What’s the matter?” I ask.
“You. You don’t take any of this seriously. You don’t take me seriously.”
“I feel the same way,” I admit after a pause. “You might be better off finding someone who’s human.”
At this, she bounces her head from side to side in a gesture I’ve come to understand as negative. “You know, sometimes you just take it too far.”
She stalks off. I watch her head disappear below the crest of our grassy hill, but I don’t follow. Part of me aches for her, for the one human connection I’ve managed to forge since I left home. For all the quiet stories we’ve shared. For the artless gestures that spring from her hands, the unfamiliar words that tumble from her lips. Her warmth, most of all.
But part of me is relieved that she is finally gone. Tonight, the stars are too beautiful to share.
I wait until her figure vanishes from my sight, sliding into her car like a shadow, man and machine, rumbling off together into the night. I turn my face to the sky.
I run my fingers gracelessly through my hair, working my way backwards until I find the part of me she could never reach—the zipper. Firmly grasping the little tab, I begin to pull. It’s sluggish and sticky from disuse over the months, and my skin aches where I manage to split it apart. Eventually, it falls into a groove and travels smoothly down my back, and for a moment, my body is engulfed by a powerful chill. It’s not a lonely cold, though, but a refreshing one. I realize that I’ve never felt the night air like this, cool and inviting, against my bare skin before.
From the hollow pockets inside my arms and legs I pull my many ropy limbs, and mercifully, the tingling sensation in the tips of my touch-pads begins to dissipate. Perhaps it wasn’t from the temperature after all—I’ve just been cooped up inside for too long. I stretch one out in every direction, sighing with satisfaction.
My body had been extremely defined—not in that it had a lot of visible muscle, but in that it had a single shape that never faltered. The upright, quadri-limbed, spinal shish kebab structure of a person. No body that breached custom would have flown under the radar quite as easily as my human outerwear. For the first time in months, I let my physical form melt out of its restrictive bounds, resuming my shapeless, nebulous design.
At last, I peel back my mask, and almost instantly, it feels as if I’m seeing the universe for the very first time. Since I left home, I’ve had to look at this world through just two eyes, but now I soak up the night with all twenty. I relish the swirling colors of the stars, the sky’s infinite blackness, and the moon’s dazzling glare.
I fall back onto the grass where she and I once lay. The coldness that plagued my person-shaped form is gone—I am ablaze with content. In all this time concealing myself, I had forgotten what it felt like to be in my own presence. The grass tickles my velvety skin as it mollifies around each blade, my body melting until I am contoured to perfect comfort where I lie.
All the while, I stare directly into the sky, searching. I scan the dome-shaped blanket of stars for the reason I ventured beyond the city limits with her. The reason I felt bold enough to shed my human body, to roll it down to the foot of my hill where it sits like a pile of laundry. Waiting for the night to pass me by.
And I catch sight of it, at last. Floating 6,742 light years above my head, beyond the moon, beyond the visible stars, is the ghost of a distant planet, reflecting the light of its gargantuan red suns. It’s scarcely a pinprick of light in the star-dotted expanse, but it’s so bright to my numerous, sensitive eyes. My pupils dilate, the darkness fighting its way into my irises like twenty simultaneous supernovas.
This is only night in eight years that I will catch a glimpse of home.