There was something under my bed, I was sure of it.
It shuffled and shifted, clawing at the wooden frames and murmuring ever so faintly in the dark. Once, after losing my quilted blanket to a tug-of-war match with it, I ran downstairs and woke up Mummy and her boyfriend. With a flashlight that shone like a little moon, Mummy searched the shadowy space beneath the bed and uncovered a broken toy-rocket, an empty packet of cookies and my crumpled blanket. The floorboards below were loose and damp and I told her how they sometimes creaked when the wind was still, but she didn’t check them.
Annoyed, she locked me in the attic room with that thing.
It’s hard to sleep if your blanket is constantly stolen, so on most nights I stayed up, looking out of the window into the inky-blue sky, glimmering with stars. The air was moist and chilly and I shivered, hugging my pillow to my chest. I could spell “crescent” and “gibbous” correctly and I had a book of constellations that Daddy gifted me last birthday before he left, so the night sky stretched out enticingly before me, like a puzzle to be solved.
Pluto was no longer a planet, which made me rather sad. My classmates thought it was weird that I was hung-up over a “stupid planet” but I suppose they never knew what it felt to be left out of games or have your own family pretend that you weren’t ever there, which is what happened with Daddy. Mummy even took down the family photographs where he was in the frame and I was afraid she’d throw out the book too, so I carried it with me when I went to school.
Soon enough, I was so immersed in mapping Canis Major and Cassiopeia and Cygnus the Swan with my sleep-deprived eyes, that I didn’t mind the presence that sometimes joined me. He- I decided on a whim to think of him as a boy because I didn’t really know what boys were like and the thing looked nothing like the girls from school, although now I cannot remember what he looked like, except as a vague whitish shadow that sometimes glowed- he helped me identify the constellations and explained why the moon wore a different face each night and said that his home was in a star system far away, one that our eyes could not see, a place he could never return to.
“Why?” I asked, curious, offering him a cookie. I sneakily got him cookies and milk every other night. When he licked the milk, he sort of glowed and became more solid-ish. It was all very exciting.
He said his spaceship was destroyed when it landed on earth and all crewmates but him, perished because of something to do with the radiation. I didn’t exactly get it, but it sounded like he’d have died too, had it not been for the warmth of my blanket and that safe space of dust and darkness beneath my bed, like the gap between stars.
On my next birthday, Mummy invited some of my classmates over, but no one showed up. I didn’t mind as long as Daddy turned up. I was sort of hoping that he might sneak in from the window when Mummy was baking. I even kept an eye out for him when we curled up on the threadbare sofa and watched a show about the solar system on Discovery Channel. Apart from the chocolate cake with frosting that looked like tiny stars, I didn’t get any other present. Daddy had promised me a book on the moon and I couldn’t tell Mummy about it because she got sadder whenever Daddy was brought up.
Later I told Po (we were discussing Apollo 11 and he nodded gleefully at the second syllable, and that’s how the name stuck) about how I wished to go to the moon like Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, rather than to the beach over the holidays, and when Mummy and I returned, suntanned and laden with sea shells, I found a brass handheld telescope sitting on my dusty bed.
For one delightful moment I thought it must’ve been Daddy who came to the house when we’d been gone and had helped himself to all the cookies, but I noticed my missing blanket that I’d neatly folded before we left and was a little disappointed. Then, I started fiddling with the telescope and realized just how powerful its lens was, pinpointing my eyes to the farthest reaches of space, and I felt a rush of gratitude and affection for Po. I was crying even during dinner and Mummy thought I just missed the sea.
Together, each night Po and I wandered among the stars and followed golden-white comets as they streaked from one galaxy to another. I quickly got bored of the moon and her grey shadows and instead was mystified by the iridescent colors that danced on Saturn’s many rings and the glimmering mountains of ice on one of Jupiter’s moons. But Po guided me to distant stars and galaxies that had numbers instead of names, where clouds of gas and lava swirled deliciously in bewitching patterns, where his home lay, a home he dearly missed and longed to return to.
Whenever his home was mentioned, he sort of dimmed, like a star snuffed out. It was a cue for me to get another cookie. At times, he worried that his home may no longer be there as he explained that it took a long time for light from distant galaxies to reach us and when we looked up at the night sky, we saw the universe not as it is but as it had once been. I tried to cheer him up, saying that when I was old enough and got better at math, we’d build a spaceship together and find out for ourselves. To this he’d give a sad nod and patiently teach me how to map the stars. We filled the backs of my notebooks with a dozen charts.
He wasn’t completely hopeless though because he told me once, that after he died, his spirit would soar among those vast stretches of black emptiness, till he found his way home and how if I looked through my telescope carefully, I’d see a new star in one of those distant galaxies, shining brightly than the rest, because he’d remember me and light a beacon.
Even with the cookies, he must’ve known he wouldn’t last long, because barely a week after he said that, he died.
I’d knitted a new blanket for him, as I was tired of sharing and going cold each night, but when I crawled under the bed to surprise him, there lay a pool of milky-white water. I screamed and ran down to fetch Mummy but by the time she came up, there was nothing left but a dark wet stain, as though the universe had soaked it up. She blamed me for spilling water and shut the door.
It never struck me before just how lonely the universe was.
The stain is still there, like an ugly shadow and maybe because it is under my bed no one tried really hard to scrub it clean. I searched the sky each night for his star but there were so many, it was hard to tell them apart, without Po to guide me. In vain, I reread our star-charts and tried to plot new ones, till the math made my head dizzy (Po was the one who did the calculations) and tears blurred my vision.
I asked questions in school about lightspeed and quasars and blackholes, that annoyed my classmates and teachers, but I was determined to not give up. I repeatedly cleaned the glass of the telescope and bought new notebooks that I quickly filled with more maps and equations. By then Mummy had a new boyfriend who got me a library membership and my head was crammed with the names of scientists and astronomers that I found very difficult to pronounce.
Po’s departure had left in my heart a gaping hole, that swallowed everything I put in it.
On sleepless nights, I gazed into the sky imagining how long it would take for a spirit, without a body or a spaceship, to sail from earth, through the silent ocean that glittered darkly with stars and moons, to follow the curve of faraway light-beams, looking for home. I dreamed of building a spaceship that could travel faster than light, putting on an astronaut’s suit and following Po, in a cat-and-mouse chase among the constellations.
It was all that kept me alive, kept me glowing.
Then one night, while fiddling with the brass knobs of the telescope to adjust the distance, I finally saw it. The star, Po’s star, tucked away in a distant galaxy that hadn’t yet been named or numbered- a beacon beckoning to me.