By Rachel Cronin
Culture Editor Rachel Cronin kicks off Strathclyde Telegraph’s first ever Flash Fiction February with short story ‘Stargazing’.
I woke up cold and confused. The air was sharp and wet, sitting like a second skin on my exposed face. My toes were frozen against each other, but my stomach and heart were warm and safe in the layers of jumpers and jackets wrapped around them. I wriggled upright up in my sleeping bag, a worm rearing out of damp soil. My friends were dark shapes, expanding and retracting in unison, sleepy breathing oozing warm mist into our freezing tent. I hadn’t slept much- I never did sleep well in a bed that wasn’t mine- and although it was July, I’d silently decided it was far too cold for camping.
It was black outside when my bare feet squished themselves into the icy sand, the bigger blades of grass spiking the soles. We learned in school that sand was tiny shards of glass and rock, ground down by pressure and ocean and waves and feet. I envisioned picking out shards of it later, blood seeping through the cracks in my skin. I was so focused on the sharp sensation of the glass-sand that when I looked out at the sky and the sea I had to swallow a gasp.
It was a blanket, that shade of black that sucks into itself and swallows everything else. The stars were a series of bright white punctures in the night sky, dotted everywhere I could see, and further out where I couldn’t. It was the first time I saw the world as a circle, as something I was inside of, that had edges and an end and another world beyond it. I could see but not name hundreds of constellations, and in my half-dream I swore I could make out faint lines connecting them, each a faint wisp of a silver hair.
In the darkness of the early morning, I hadn’t noticed that there was one less shadowy sleeping bag lump in our tent’s pile of bodies. When I ventured further out into the morning air, I found her huddled up on the camping chair I’d borrowed (without asking) from my parents’ shed.
She was perched upright, hugging her knees, gazing and gazing as I had been. I felt a twang in my ribs, guilty of intruding on this private moment between her and the stars. Stood behind her and frozen in my teenage awkwardness, I went to retreat back to the tent when she turned around. Her eyes were full of nothing and empty of everything. I glimpsed that hollow universe in her face for less than a second, before she turned her head away from mine and back to the stars.
Silently, I took two steps to our right, picked up another camping chair and placed it with a thud next to hers. The tiny shards of glass ground against each other, making a twinkling sound as I sank into the fabric. We sat in silence, staring out at an expanding sea which got bigger and bigger the longer we looked. The moon cast a white glow over the dark water, sea air hushing like far off comets. It was still, the tide far out, but we heard the hissing tumble of waves against shore. I preferred the sea this way- distant, quietly present, only noticeable when you squint your eyes and concentrate. I wondered if she felt the same. At some point during our silent stargazing, although I didn’t know when, I found myself fighting the urge to turn my head and look at her.
The sun had begun to rise now, the pink-peach-cream-gold-white watercolour streaking across the skyline, and I found myself thinking I didn’t want the day to start. It was one of those quiet moments that feels like the edge of something. Eventually, I couldn’t help myself from turning my head, from filling my eyes and lungs with her.
I looked at her looking out into the Everything. I looked at her looking at the glass-sand and the blanket sky and the far-off sea that hushed like far off comets and I knew she could see everything I could. Her head turned to mine and we looked at each other and then we were grinning at each other’s grins and how the world was asleep but we were awake and we were the only ones in this on-the-edge-of-something moment that could fill your lungs and eyes to bursting.
‘Pretty cool view.’
‘Yeah. Pretty cool.’
First published by Lemon Peel Press in 2022.