Moon Ate the Dark Challenge: Heidi Stauff/Celestial Beings

How could I not publish a short story inspired by the prompt?!

Luna traced her finger down the long crack in the cement stoop they were sitting on. It ran under her feet like a fault line and disappeared under the toe of Sam’s dark Van shoe beside her—something a teenage skater would more likely wear than a married father approaching his forties—but somehow they always looked right on him.

A ladybug was caught upside down on its back in the crack beside Sam’s foot. It pedaled the air wildly, stranded by its own gravity. Luna slowly pulled one of Sam’s shoelaces undone and dangled it over the ladybug like a lifeline but it couldn’t catch hold, continuing to grope aimlessly for the leverage to right itself again. Crickets sang in the field across the street and frogs croaked to each other from a stream somewhere.

She was drunk. She suspected Sam was too. The bottle of Johnny Walker Red she brought him sat half empty between them on the step. Twilight was settling over the historic Virginia neighborhood. She should really go home.

Her phone vibrated against her thigh in her pocket. She silenced it and took another swig of scotch.

“Was that Matt again?” Sam asked, raking his fingers through his dark hair, only for it to fall forward again.

“Probably. Who cares,” she mumbled. Her head was starting to swim, sending her stomach lurching. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

She got up and stumbled into his house, the screen door slamming on its hinges behind her. She barely made it to the little powder room off the entryway before the stinging liquid purged out of her into the toilet. She found some mouthwash in one of the tiny drawers. She swished it in her mouth as she looked at herself in the dimly lit mirror. Her face was flushed. Her eyes shiny. She smoothed down her wild, curly hair. Her phone vibrated again in her pocket. She silenced it without looking.

She peeked out the doorway. Sam was still sitting on the front porch. He had put an old boombox in the window and she could hear Pink Floyd’s, Dark Side of the Moon playing. It was his favorite album—one he blasted after last call at the bar he owned and she worked at as a waitress. It became their ritual; he mopped then cashed out the register while she ran the glasses through the washer, both of them singing over the din of machinery and music.

All that you touch
All that you see
All that you taste
All you feel.
All that you love

It was the best part of her day: when their time together was only interrupted by their own laughter and singing.

They joked back and forth before the lunch crowd came in, but it was splintered by other employees, vendors, and customers.  She sat at the bar to slice lemons and limes while he stocked the liquor, lingering there as long as she dared so she could talk to him. She was a musician and sang in a local band. Sam was a writer. They both grew up as damaged goods from dysfunctional Evangelical homes. They bonded through their struggle to hold on to the remnants of their faith while remaining true to their art.  She gave him songs to critique and he let her read his stories. They debated philosophy and theology. Argued about God and freewill—whether we really had any choice or if the universe was designed by an evil puppet master.  He told her she was clever and funny, that she reminded him of the writer: Lorrie Moore. She told him he talked like an old poet: drawing wistful analogies from the most unlikely of subjects.

Once lunch started they couldn’t talk, so they made fun of the lyrics to the piped in pop music, challenging each other to rewrite them into hit Contemporary Christian songs—the cheesy soundtrack of their youth. Everytime she picked up a drink order, she sang to him her version of what song was playing: That’s what I like about you (Jesus) You really know how to make my soul dance.

Sam sang back to her as he mixed her drink: Keep on whispering in my ear (Holy Spirit). Tell me the things God wants me to hear. Because it’s you, (Jesus) it’s what I like about you.

Her businessmen customers smiled curiously back at her in their stiff suits as she dropped off their Bloody Marys, her eyes leaking from laughing. It felt wicked and blasphemous but also so freeing—to sing out the things she always thought were so wrong with the Church she grew up in but never had the courage to say out loud. Sam became a mentor, freeing her from the restraint she put on her art, banishing the false guilt she carried around her whole life about expressing herself honestly. He made her born again.

When Sam’s wife, Jess, came in, she was always friendly in her petite southern way, insisting Luna hang out sometime after work with them, since Sam and her got along so well. Sam continued in his normal joking manner, but Luna felt Jess’s dark eyes on her, traveling over her body when she thought Luna didn’t notice, silently assessing her threat level.

That’s how Luna ended up here, alone with Sam on their night off. Jess told her to come over and keep Sam and their four-year-old daughter, Eliana, company while she worked closing shift at the bar.They just love you,” Jess said, squeezing Luna’s arm with her petite manicured fingers and smiling with her white Chiclet-teeth.

Luna paused by Eliana’s room on her way to the kitchen to get some water to flush the alcohol out of her system. Eliana was asleep, her stuffed Lamby in her arms, her small face a pale moon inside her dark hair. Luna loved that kid. Had since the moment she met her when Sam brought her to the bar. Luna was prepping to open when Eliana climbed up on a barstool, all blue eyes and dark long hair—a small replica of Sam. She ate cherries from the garnish tray and launched questions at Luna: “Are you a mommy? Why not? Why are you a singer? What do you sing about? Do you believe in God? Luna taught her how to make a Shirley Temple and made up silly rhyming songs with Eliana’s name in it to make her giggle. If Luna and Matt ever had a little girl, Luna hoped she’d turn out like Eliana.

Eliana was so excited when Luna came over; Sam could hardly get her to bed. She insisted Luna read her Goodnight Moon four times before agreeing to go to sleep. “Goodnight Moon. Goodnight Eliana,” Luna whispered, tucking her in.

 “I wuv you Miss Woo-na,” Eliana said, her voice croaking with tiredness.

Something twisted in Luna’s throat as she looked in at Eliana sleeping. Luna’s phone vibrated angrily in her pocket again, startling her. She silenced it and softly closed Eliana’s door.

Matt threw her keys and purse out the door into the front yard when Luna left for Sam’s. He didn’t believe her anymore—that nothing was going on with Sam. Matt played drums in Luna’s band. Sam offered them a gig at the bar one Friday night and Matt stormed off the set halfway through. “I’m not an idiot, Luna. I see how the man looks at you!”

Even though nothing had ever happened between her and Sam—had even been spoken of between them—Luna’s protest rang hollow in her own ears. “We are just friends, Matt! For Christ’s sake, he’s married and has a kid!”

“If you have to go to him—just go—but don’t bother coming back,” Matt said, slamming the front door, leaving her to pick the strewn contents of her purse out of the dirt.

She knew she should go back and bang on the door, convince Matt he was wrong—that Sam meant nothing to her, but she couldn’t resist the force that dragged her to her car, down the road, across town—to Sam sitting on his front porch waiting for her.

“You ok?” Sam asked when she sat back down beside him on the stoop.

“I’m sorry. I feel like an idiot for puking in your nice powder room. I’m sure Jess will be pleased.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Jess doesn’t care and you’re not an idiot.”

“Why doesn’t she care, Sam?” Luna asked. The alcohol steadied her. Liquid courage— Matt called it whenever he handed her a shot before she got on-stage. “I’m not talking about the damn powder room either, Sam. Why doesn’t she care I’m here…with you?”

Sam sighed and looked at her. She could feel his breath on her bare shoulder. “I don’t know, Luna. I really don’t know.” His blue eyes searched hers, moments too long.

“Keep your enemies closer?” Luna asked, studying his reaction.

“Perhaps,” he said, looking back at her. His eyes traveled over her face. Lingered on her mouth.

Her breath caught in the back of her throat and she turned away. “I think Matt kicked me out.”

Sam took a swig of scotch and looked up at the sky. “It’s a full moon tonight,” he said, pointing his bottle towards it sitting in the sky like a fat, round pearl. “You know, I read this article. They think the moon is what causes earthquakes. Like the one in Indonesia in 2004 that created that massive Tsunami that swallowed up all those thousands of poor people.”

“Really?” Luna asked. She stared at the crack under their feet while moths ticked against the porch light above them. The ladybug had stopped moving in the crack. Luna took the bottle from Sam and drank some. His fingers brushed against hers, sending sparks up her arm. She let the liquor burn down her throat and drip down her chin, absorbing into her jacket like tears.

Sam continued, staring at the moon, “This whole time, we were worried the sun would destroy the planet, burn us all up with its toxic rays, or go out like a bad light bulb and leave us to starve and die in the dark. But it’s the moon we should worry about…that long slow pull that tears us apart. Leaves us all cracked and in pieces.” He leaned back and turned up the boombox. “I love this part,” he said. He looked at her. Wiped a drop of scotch off her chin with the cuff of his sleeve.

The song Eclipse by Pink Floyd was playing. Luna knew the words—hearing it so many times with Sam after closing down the bar—but had never really thought about what they meant.

And all you create
And all you destroy
And all that you do
And all that you say
And all that you eat
And everyone you meet
And all that you slight
And everyone you fight
And all that is now
And all that is gone
And all that’s to come
And everything under the sun is in tune
But the sun is eclipsed by the moon

“Pretty depressing,” Luna smirked, “Even for Floyd. Let’s just go ahead and blow our fucking brains out and be done with it.”

He laughed hard and loud, like he always did when she swore or said something off-color. She did it often around him, reveling in the power she had to make him smile.

She took a deep breath. Her stomach clenched like a knot. She had to find out what was going on between them. Like a dog on a bone—Matt called her that when she was drunk and wouldn’t drop a subject they were fighting about. “Just let it go,” he’d say, rolling over in bed and pulling the pillow over his head. Eventually, she’d stop needling him when she got no response and drop off to sleep. But she couldn’t let this one go. That need to know dragged her down dangerous, deep places with slippery edges—caverns she was afraid to see the bottom of.  Yet still, she persisted. Matt said she had a self-destructive nature, that she had to create excitement if there was none.

“Why did you marry Jess?” Luna asked Sam, bracing herself for his response.

He sighed and looked at the sky. “I don’t know.”

“How can you not know?” Luna said. Her words came out more clipped than she intended.

“She sat in front of me in class. I don’t know. She had sexy shoulders.”

“So you married somebody because they had sexy shoulders. Got it. Makes perfect sense. That’s some soul-mate criteria.”

“Why are you with Matt?” Sam turned to look at her, his blue eyes searching hers until she had to turn away from the intensity.

“I don’t know. He was in the band. He is hot on the drums. We connected over music.” She shrugged and wrapped her arms around her knees.The night air had turned crisp and she shivered. Sam took his jacket off and put it over her shoulders. It was still warm from his body heat—smelled like his cologne. She pulled it around her.

“Jess wasn’t an artist,” Sam said, scuffing the toe of his shoe against the step. “She was just a normal person. I liked that.”

“But she doesn’t even read your writing! Doesn’t that mean something?” Luna felt herself slipping further into the abyss, but couldn’t find a foothold to stop herself now. “Don’t you want somebody who understands that part of you?”

Sam looked up at the sky, twisting the bottle in his hands. “Two artists can’t be together, Luna. Like, you and I? We’d destroy each other. We would be like two magnets. There is that initial pull and attraction, but when magnets actually touch they repel each other. They drive each other apart. When you are an artist you take up all the air in a room. A Sun doesn’t need another Sun. We would just combust. We need something that reflects us. Jess is my gravity. She grounds me so I don’t spin off into the atmosphere and burn away. Every Sun needs a Moon. It’s the nature of the universe. It’s how you and I are made.”

Luna turned her head away from him and laid it on her arm so he couldn’t see her face. She blinked back the sting in her eyes. Her throat closed in on itself and she felt like she couldn’t breathe. “You don’t make any sense. You don’t make any damn sense,” she whispered.

Luna could feel his body shift towards hers.The heat of him radiated through her layers of clothing. He started to speak but then stopped—uncertain. Luna turned her face back towards him.

He was leaning forward, his elbows resting on his knees. His head hung down and he clenched one fist inside his other hand. His face was eclipsed by shadows. His hair hid his eyes. “There’s one thing I always wanted,” he said in a tight voice, “to look back and say I was faithful to my wife. No matter what happened. At least I could look back before I kicked off this planet and say that—I was faithful.”

Luna got up, slowly shrugged out of his coat, letting it fall to the concrete between them. She groped for her keys in her purse, stumbling. “I have to go.”

Sam stood up. “You’re in no shape to drive. Stay with me.”

“I can’t. I can’t wake up on your couch in the morning with your family staring at me.”

“That’s stupid. Don’t worry about Jess. She won’t care. Where will you spend the night if Matt kicked you out?”

“My car? I don’t know. Somewhere,” she said. Her mind screamed, Away from you Away from you. She had to get away from his intense blue eyes that made her throat constrict so she couldn’t breathe, those awful things he said about them both being Suns when all he wanted was a Moon. She had to get far from Eliana saying she loved her and from Jess with her smiling mouth and watchful, dark eyes.

“Please don’t go. Luna, please. It’s dangerous out there. Don’t sleep in your car. I want you to stay.” His eyes pleaded with her. She stumbled away from him and he grabbed her hand. She felt as if her skin would burn up against his. He had never touched her before.

She pulled her hand away from him. Her voice trembled as she spoke. “You and I, Sam? We are the same. We are made of the same damn thing. All that pretty poetry that comes out of your mouth? That’s fucking bullshit and you know it. You’re just too scared to admit it.” She dug in her purse and found the keys to the bar he gave her. She pressed them into his hand and walked away, before she broke in front of him.

He called after her as she got in her car and started the engine, “Luna, please. Don’t do this.”

She could see him in her rearview mirror as she pulled out. He was standing under a street lamp.  His face—the features she thought she knew so well—all lost under the shadow of the street lamp’s luminescence. He was just a glowing silhouette—some fallen celestial creature clutching an empty bottle that glinted in the moonlight.

Pink Floyd drifted after her from the porch. She rolled up her window and drove away, sobbing into her steering wheel. Sam shrunk smaller and smaller in her rearview, until he was completely swallowed by the darkness, leaving only the moon hanging cold and alone above the road where he once stood—until that too was consumed by the dark, tree-lined horizon behind her.

Ultimately ending up in Atlanta, Heidi Stauff’s creative impulses followed many paths. She delivered middle-class, white-girl, angst to tens and twenties of Generation-Xers through the now defunct rock-band, Belljar. She designed hundreds of dresses for Disney-bound little girls. She birthed two babies she now homeschools, lost and then found her faith again and writes about all of it in her free time–which is usually after midnight with a glass or three of wine. She blogs at ThroughSinaiSand

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