Fiction: The Stargazer

James Bates
- James Bates


Phillip adjusted the lens on his telescope and peered through it.

"Where are you, my little lovely?" he whispered, not wanting to disturb the nighttime quiet of the meadow he was in. "Where's my sweet girl?"

Phillip had left his apartment that morning and driven to Trout Creek State Park, a hundred miles south of Minneapolis. The park was located in the last remnants of the Big Woods, the name given to the vast forests that used to cover that part of the state before logging and farming practices took over and the land was cleared. Now, just a few places remained untouched and populated with the oak and maple trees that were once common in the area. There were no cities nor towns anywhere nearby, only farms and farmland and the occasional wood lot. Lots of open spaces. Lots of night time darkness. It was a perfect place for looking at the sky.

Phillip was set up in a secluded clearing about half a mile from the campground, and he focused his concentration as he looked deeper into the darkness of outer space, out beyond the lazy W of Cassiopeia. Where are you, my sweetheart? You're not hiding from me are you, you naughty girl? Then, just past the upper right hand line of the W and near to Aldebaran, he found her and let out a silent cheer. There she was. His own special star, located about twelve light years from earth, perhaps far away to some, but close by galactic standards. Besides, the distance was no matter because the star was extra special to Phillip. He even had a name for her. He called her Emily, and he adored her.

"Hi, Emily," he said, smiling. "I was finally able to get back again to see you again"

"I'm so glad, Phillip. I wondered where you were. It's good to see you."

"I've missed you."

"I've missed you, too."

Oh, man, he was so happy. All he wanted to do was spend the rest of the night talking to Emily, but then a voice behind him broke into their conversation, "Hey there, buddy, what'cha doin'?"

Phillip felt a catch in his throat and his heart begin racing. He recognized that voice. It was Tommy Anderson, the bully from grade school who'd made his life back then a living hell. Tommy and his thuggy gang of hangers-on had pushed him around for years, knocking books out of his hands, spitting in his milk, holding him down on the bathroom floor and wiping their filthy hands all over his face, and that was just for starters. The list went on and on and after all these years Phillip figured he was finally done with the creep. How'd he find him here?

"I'm not doing anything," Phillip answered with what he hoped was an authoritarian voice. He turned, using his body to shield his telescope. He'd learned over those long ago grade school years to show Tommy and his gang he wasn't afraid of them (even though he was). He stood up as tall as his skinny, five foot nine inch frame would let him, adjusted his wire rimmed glasses, and asked, suspiciously, "By the way, what are you doing here?"

Tommy took a step toward him, "What am I doin' here? I'll tell ya' what I'm doin' here, retard. I'm here to get me a brand new telescope, that's what I'm doin' here." The big bully laughed and reached out his hand. Instinctively Phillip batted it away.

"Oh, no, you don't," he spread his arms, blocking Tommy's path. "In fact, why don't you just get out of here right now and leave me alone?" Phillip raised his voice to make his point.

Tommy was taken aback. "Well, well, well. Little Philly Baby has finally grown some balls, I see." He stepped closer. "No matter," he reached again. "I'll just..."

Phillip's telescope was his prized possession. "No, you don't," he yelled. “Get away from me."

Phillip made a move to push Tommy out of the way and then gasped, not believing what he was seeing. Or not seeing, as was the case, because there was nothing there. All that was left was thin air and the grassy clearing where the telescope was set up. He was all alone. Tommy Anderson had disappeared. The bully was nowhere to be seen.

Phillip breathed a sigh of relief and wiped his brow. Man, that was close. He turned and patted his telescope, giving himself a pep talk, "It's okay now. We're safe. Tommy's gone." Then he had a horrible thought and bent to look through the eyepiece. Relief flooded through him as he realized she was still there.

"Hi Emily,” he greeted her, feeling himself calming down after the confrontation.

"Hi Phillip," she said. "I was watching. My, my, my, you were quite the tiger back there with that Tommy fella', sticking up for yourself and all. I'm really impressed."

Phillip grinned. "Thanks a lot. You know I would have done anything to protect you."

She giggled, "I can see that. I'm very proud of you. You're my hero."

No one had ever come close to telling him that before and Phillip was beside himself with joy. In fact, now seemed like the right time to tell Emily what had been in his heart for so long, ever since the beginning of the summer when they'd first found each other and gotten together. "Emily, I have something to tell you."

"What is it, Phillip? Nothing's wrong, is it? You sound so serious. I don't like bad things." She paused and then said, "I hope it's something good." She smiled coyly at him.

He started sweating. A nervous, but happy kind of perspiration. "Well, I think it's something good."

"Tell me then."

"Okay." He took a deep breath and exhaled to calm down. Then he said, "I just want you to know that this summer has been the happiest of my life."

"Mine, too."

"That's good to hear, because I want you to know I've never met anyone like you."

"I've never met anyone like you either."

Phillip couldn't tell for sure, but it seemed that his beloved star was suddenly shining even brighter, as if she was smiling at him.

"Okay, then, here it is." He took another deep breath and let it out before saying, "Emily, I love you. You've made me the happiest guy not only in the whole world but in our entire solar system. The whole universe even. I want us to stay together forever. Can we do that?"

"Wow, that's quite the declaration, Phillip. And here's what I have to say..." Emily paused as Phillip waited, afraid to breathe. His entire future hung on her response. Fortunately, he wasn't disappointed. After a moment Emily smiled and said, "Oh, Phillip, I love you, too. Of course we can stay together. I'll always be here for you."

He started breathing again, his breath coming in glorious waves. Phillip, who'd been a lonely introvert his entire life, felt the world opening up in front of his very eyes, like the universe suddenly had become accessible and not some dark and foreboding place where he had to fear people and stay on the lookout for bullies like Tommy Anderson. No, instead, it was full of light and stars and planets and constellations; a place full of love, and he and Emily were right in the middle of it.

With a shaking voice he said, "I'll never leave you."

Emily replied with words he'd cherish for the rest of his life, "That's good, because I'm never going away."

It was the best night of Phillip's life.

Earlier that day, he had parked his car at the campsite he'd requested at the check-in booth at the park's entrance and driven to the far end of the campground where he'd set up his tent. He'd stowed away his sleeping bag along with a few supplies, then sat at a nearby picnic table and taken a moment to enjoy the peace and serenity of the woods. He loved being among the stately trees in the old forest and he especially enjoyed having the company of the occasional red-headed woodpecker that flew high through the canopy above him. He breathed a sigh of contentment as well as relief. He felt better than he had in a month.

Phillip was coming off a recent, bad psychotic episode, the worst in a long while. He'd been admitted to the psychiatric ward of the Hennepin County Medical Center where they'd taken scrupulous care of him, which really meant getting his meds re-adjusted along with the admonishment to make sure he stayed on his pill taking regime. When they let him go home he was ready for the next step of his recovery: to show the doctors he could return to work as a stock boy at one of the huge big box stores in Minneapolis and manage his day to day schedule without any relapses. He had diligently applied himself and was soon able to prove to his doctors that he could be responsible for getting up in the morning and getting himself out the door to go to work and then doing his job and then coming home. This camping trip outing was a reward for doing all that was expected of him, and he was ecstatic to regain his freedom. Plus, he loved stargazing.

Phillip had discovered looking at the night sky at an early age, something he had done with his father until his old man had left home for good.

"Look up there," Phillip remembered his dad saying the first time they'd gone stargazing together."There's the Big Dipper. See how it looks like a soup ladle?"

Even though he had no idea what a ladle was, five year old Phillip liked being with his father. "Yeah, Dad, I see it. It looks cool."

The few times they'd gone out at night and watched the stars together were among the happiest in Phillip's young life. The fact that his father was smoking weed and drinking whiskey the entire time they were outside didn't register until years later.

After his dad left home, Phillips mother pretty much lost it and escalated her own drinking and drug taking. Phillip ended up going to live with his aunt, Aunt Julie, who was only marginally better at raising Phillip than either his father or mother had been. The one constant he had during that time was the night sky; someplace he could escape to, be himself and not have to think about how lonely he was.

Phillip was able to find ways to thrive growing up under his aunt's so called care. Even though he was withdrawn and didn't have many friends, he was intelligent, liked to learn things and didn't mind being by himself. He liked the stars because they gave him a place to go where he could be out of the way of his aunt when she was drinking and partying with her friends.

In short, Phillip figured out how to survive. "Keep your head down and don't look anyone in the eye" was his motto. And it worked, except for those psychotic episodes, the first one happening when he was ten and then about every five years so afterwards. He'd hear voices or have visions, sometimes both, and they frightened him. He was medicated accordingly.

During high school he'd gotten a job as a stock boy, and after he graduated he continued working there, the same big box store where he was still working. His needs were almost non-existent. He rented an efficiency apartment near the store, bought an old car and got on with living. Living and stargazing.

There was a park near to his apartment far enough away from the city lights where he was able to continue his self taught education about the night sky, absorbing information from books and online in glorious detail. He learned where the constellations were located and what they looked like and where the stars and planets were on any given night at any given time of year. He became an expert and could easily have advanced in college except he had no desire. He didn't really enjoy being around people all that much. No, just give him the stars and the night sky and he was happy.

Then earlier that summer he'd gone on a stargazing camping trip to Trout Lily Park. He'd found a secluded clearing and set up his treasured telescope. After looking at the sky for over an hour he happened to focus out past Cassiopeia and there he'd meet Emily, twelve light years away, and his life had changed for the better.

Thinking about her brought him back to the present. He peered through the telescope and saw her in all of her bright loveliness. She said to him, "Hey there, big boy. Where'd you go? You're so quiet."

"Oh, sorry about that." Nervously, Phillip shuffled his feet making sure not to jitter the telescope. "I was just thinking about how great this summer has been and how happy I am that we've met."

"I am, too."

"I'm super glad to hear that."

"I love it when you and I can be together."

"I feel so close to you."

"I feel close to you, too."

"That's good." Phillip paused, thinking and making sure he had the words right before continuing, "I always want to be honest with you."

"Oh, Phillip, please do. You can tell me anything."

Phillip could see Emily twinkling happily and it gave him the courage to go on. "Okay. That's good to hear, because I have to tell you about something. I had a little episode at work last month."

Emily was concerned, "Oh, my darling. What happened?"

He liked that Emily cared so much about his life. He'd grown up essentially on his own even after he'd gone to live with his less than stable aunt. He'd never had anyone he could open up to and express his feelings. Not until now.

"It's kind of embarrassing."

"What is it? You can tell me," Emily said, softly. Phillip could almost feel her caressing his shoulder with her voice. It felt nice.

So he told her.

"Well, I was in the store stocking the shelves in aisle seven when I heard some noises. I stopped and listened and then realized they were voices. I looked around, searching for where they were coming from. Then I found them. I couldn't believe it at first, but there it was, happening right before my eyes."

"What was it?" Emily's concerned voice touched his heart. Oh, my goodness, how he loved her.

"The boxes of cereal had started speaking to me. The Wheaties and the Raisin Bran and the Crispix and the Rice Krispies were all talking, trying to get my attention. I knew I shouldn't, but I started talking back to them."

"Really? Why'd you do that?"

"Oh, I guess I was lonely," he said, shuffling his feet, embarrassed at his show of emotion. But what the heck. He loved Emily. She was his girlfriend. He could tell her anything because she not only listened but was sympathetic, like no one ever had been in his entire life. "Sometimes I just miss you so much."

"Oh, that's too bad, my love."

"My boss called the hospital and they sent an ambulance for me. That's where I've been since the last time I saw you."

"Oh, I'm so sorry."

"It's okay, I'm doing good, now." He sighed and then smiled as he perked up, "Plus, I always feel better when I'm with you."

"You're so sweet. I feel the same way when I'm with you. Always remember that."

Phillip couldn't remember ever being so happy. "I'm so glad I came to the park to see you tonight. I've missed talking to you."

"Me, too," Emily said. "I've really missed you, too."

"So, tell me," Phillip said, "What have you..."

He was going to ask what she'd been doing with herself since they'd last seen each other, but he never got a chance. A voice behind him came out of the darkness and commanded, "Hey, there, buddy. What are you doing here?"

Startled, Phillip turned into the beam of a blinding flashlight. He instinctively raised his hands and blurted out the first thing that came into his mind, "I'm not doing anything. Nothing wrong anyway. I'm just stargazing." He tried to peer around the intense light as he shielded his eyes, thinking that maybe this was some kind of thug like that Tommy Anderson coming to give him a hard time. He asked, "Anyway, who are you?"

The voice identified itself, "I'm Warden Roberts, Department of Natural Resources. Linda Roberts. We need to talk."

Oh, oh. Phillip glanced up into the sky, searching for Emily. The authorities. Now what?

"What's the matter, warden?" he asked, worried.

"I had a call back at the office from a Dr. Leon Sands. Do you know him?"

"Um, yes."

"How do you know him?"

Phillip glanced up again and found Emily. Just seeing her made him feel better. "Better tell her the truth," she said.

Phillip tried to sound confident as he answered the warden, "He's my shrink. I mean my psychiatrist. Why?"

"He called us at headquarters looking for you." Warden Roberts pointed arbitrarily over her shoulder in the direction of the campground. "He's worried about you. Something about whether or not you're taking your medication?"

"Oh."

"I have to follow up and check. I have the safety of the other campers to consider."

"I understand," Phillip said, his voice quiet, embarrassed to be causing such a scene.

"Listen, I want you to come back to headquarters with me and I want you to call him. Based on what he says, it will determine whether or not you get to stay here for the weekend or have to leave. He mentioned something about sending an ambulance?"

Phillip put his hands up in a placating manner. "Okay, okay. I'll come along." He looked up at Emily before turning back to the warden, "Please let me stay."

"Look buddy, you seem harmless enough. I don't mind if you keep camping here, but that'll be up to your doctor." She made a  hurry up motion. "Let's go."

An hour later Phillip was back at the clearing. The stars had shifted a little in the time he'd been away and he was eager to get back to watching them. The first thing he did, however, was to look for Emily. Thankfully, she was waiting for him.

"Hi, there," he said."I'm back."

"I can see that. Hi. Good to see you. How'd it go?"

"Not bad. Dr. Sands just wanted to check up on me."

"What'd you tell him?"

"I told him I was fine," Phillip smiled. "Having the time of my life, in fact."

Emily was shocked, "You told him about me?"

Phillip told the truth, "No. I wasn't sure he'd understand."

"I'm pretty sure he wouldn't," she agreed. Emily paused and then asked, "So, what's he want you to do? Can you stay here?"

Phillip grinned, "Thankfully, yes, I can stay. I'm supposed to go and see him after I'm done with my shift at the store on Monday. He wants to check my meds. He thinks he might have to make an adjustment."

"Why is that?"

"I told him about seeing Tommy."

"Oh, my."

They were quiet for a few moments. Then Phillip asked, changing the subject and kind of joking, something new for him, "So how were you when I was gone? Did you miss me?"

Emily's voice cheered him up, "You bet I did. I'm so glad you're back."

"Me, too."

She was silent for a moment and then asked, "I was wondering...are you thinking about telling Doctor Sands about me?"

That was a good question and Phillip didn't immediately respond. After a minute or two, he said, "You know, Emily, I've thought about it, I really have, but I don't think so. I don't think I'll tell him about you. And us. Not now, anyway."

"Why?"

"I'm not sure he'd understand."

She smiled and said, "Yes, I agree. I'm sure you're probably right."

"I think maybe for now you and I being together will be our little secret. Are you okay with that?"

"Yes, dear, I am," Emily said.

Phillip smiled. He loved it when she talked to him affectionately. "Good," he said.

Phillip gazing lovingly into the eyepiece of his telescope, happier than he'd ever been. He'd have the rest of the night to spend with Emily and tomorrow night, too. And if Tommy showed up, Phillip was positive he could handle the big bully. After all, he was in love, and his love made him invincible. He could be the man he always wanted to be. Just ask Emily.


Bio: Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in many online and print publications. His collection of short stories, Resilience, is scheduled to be published in 2020 by Bridge House Publishing. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.

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