Sheila lay back beside him under the star-studded sky, closed her eyes, and thought about photons. And not just any old photons; the ones she’d come to think of as her photons. The ones that had traveled trillions of miles from her favorite star to impale themselves on her retina and deliver their tiny message: ‘Here I am.’ She marveled at their stamina: for hundreds of years they’d flown in a perfectly straight line if you ignored gravitational lensing, never resting -- never even slowing down! -- avoiding all obstacles until, right at the very end of their epic journey, they hit... her eyelids! Abruptly, she opened her eyes.
“Hey! Cut it out! Is that all you ever think about?”
Rowan withdrew his hand.
“But I thought you liked me...” he said.
‘So did I, once upon a time,’ she thought, sadly.
“... and it’s been weeks since the last time we... you know.”
The plaintive tone around the edges of his voice grated on her nerves. She wondered what words he’d been planning to use before resorting to telepathy: ‘...had sex’? ‘...been intimate’? ‘...made love’? No, knowing him it was probably ‘...F-bombed’. Had they ever really made love? Or been truly intimate, for that matter? The feeling of detachment took her by surprise. What was wrong with her this evening?
“I thought you liked me, Sheil,” he repeated, fishing for reassurance.
“Um...” she said, her feelings in sudden turmoil. If only that last time could be the last time. She couldn’t take much more of the snort he always gave as he crossed the finish line. ‘Like a rutting stag claiming its mate,’ she thought. Perhaps all men did that? God, she hoped not! She didn’t have much experience of men -- Rowan was her first and, so far, her only -- but she knew she couldn’t handle a lifetime of snorting. And she hated being called ‘Sheil.’ ‘What’s wrong? Two syllables one too many for you?’ she thought.
“Look, Sheil, there’s our star,” he said, struggling to regroup.
Early in their relationship -- back in the romantic era -- they’d picked out a personal star from amongst the myriad. She’d long since forgotten which one it was.
“Mmm...” she said, thinking about photons again. She felt she understood them perfectly. That wave/particle business? She totally got it; that was her! At good times, she felt herself spread out across the Universe, a ripple in the space-time continuum. And now? Now she was as tightly wound as a grain of sand.
‘Time to cut bait,’ said a voice inside her head, startling her and sending a shot of adrenaline coursing around her body. Over the years, she’d learned to listen to that voice; it seldom steered her wrong. But what could she say? And was this the right moment to say it... whatever it turned out to be? She was new to this.
How about: ’I think we should start seeing other people?’ Untrue; she didn’t want to see anybody, ever again. Tears prickled her eyelids.
‘It’s not you, it’s me?’ Untrue also; it was him, all right. Oh, where was a good cliché when you needed one? Inside her head, Paul Simon began to sing:
‘There must be fifty ways to leave your lover.
You just slip out the back, Jack;
Make a new plan, Stan.
You just gotta go, Ro,
And let me be free.’
“What are you thinking about?” he asked.
“Photons,” she lied. ‘Coward!’ she thought.
“You see Cassiopeia up there...”
“The constellation, dummy! There, in the northeast,” she pointed. “That ‘W’-shaped ast... group of stars.” Instantly regretting ‘dummy’, she swerved to avoid compounding the error by saying ‘asterism’, the word she had lined up in her mind, all ready to go.
“What about it?” He sounded hurt.
“Well, the star in the middle is called Cassiopeia Gamma, and it’s about 550 light-years away.”
“So that means when we look at it, we’re linked by an unbroken stream of photons three thousand, two hundred and thirty-three trillion miles long; and the ones reaching us tonight started their journey around the year 1470.”
“Cool! Then you and I can see the same photons.”
“No, not unless you get inside my head and share my optic nerve.”
“It’s not your head I want to get into,” he said, carelessly sealing his own fate.
‘No,’ she thought. ‘That’s the problem. That’s always been the problem.’
“Come on, Sheil; let’s fool around.”
That did it. Like a collapsing wave function, she suddenly knew exactly where she was and what she needed to say.
“You know, Ro, some of those stars we’re looking at don’t exist anymore.”
“They’ve died, Ro. A long time ago, some of them.”
“Then how come we can still see them?”
“You just haven’t got the message yet. That stream of photons? It’s draining itself onto your retina like water down a rat-hole and closing your eyes won’t stop it. When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
“So, which are the dead ones?”
“That’s hard to tell, but there’s one I’m sure of.”
Lying beside her, he was suddenly very still.
“Which one’s that?”
“Our star, Ro. Our star is dead.”
(c) Andrew Ball