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Grade
10

“The whole point of me throwing you out of that building was that it was supposed to be just me! I didn’t nearly die just for you to also nearly die, you know.”

Star blinks up at me with eyes far brighter and far blanker than the flames behind me. “Sorry boss,” they say. But there is no tone of apology in their voice. No emotion at all, just a straight, simple current of nothing.

I close my eyes, swallow down the last mites of adrenaline from our near deaths, Try to soothe the frizzy, frayed edges of my nerves, so wired that they’re practically sparking at the tips. It’s too easy, sometimes, to forget that Star was never a normal child, that they never learned how to truly be a kid, hardly learned how to even be human. “It’s okay,” I say as calmly as I can, “It’s not your fault.”

“You’re upset,” Star says.

“I’m not- I am not-” I take a breath, recalibrate. “I am. You’re not wrong. But I’m not upset at you, okay?”

“You seem upset at me.”

“I promise I’m not.”

Star is silent for a lingering second, unblinking. For all their sincere doe eyes and cherub pink cheeks and butterfly lashes, it only takes a beat longer to realize that there’s something fundamentally off about them. A stillness that no normal human child could ever possess. A stiffness that even a grown man couldn’t maintain.

It isn’t their fault. There’s no such thing as a faulted child in this world; only faulty parents. Only faulty upbringings.

The thought always stings a little bit, no matter how much I recognize I’ve changed since then. There’s been many a night when I’ve lain awake, thinking about Star, thinking about Leia, thinking about how the former is my redemption for the latter.

It wasn’t Leia’s fault, either. It was mine. A faulty parent, a faulty upbringing.

“Hey,” I say, reaching out to cup a hand around Star’s shoulder. “Don’t look at me like that. I promise I’m not mad at you, okay? You did well. You saved me from that first bullet.”

“You almost died anyway,” Star states, straight-faced.

Oh Star. “Byproduct of the occupation. There’s no avoiding near-deaths in our field.”

“I didn’t listen to you, though,” Star says, like they’re giving a status report. “You almost had to sacrifice yourself to save my life.”

“And I would do it again. You have more life left to give than I do, anyway.”

“Logically, you have more experience than I do. Therefore, you would be the better candidate for prolonged continuance-”

“Don’t say that.” I lean back against the wall of the alley, push a strand of hair out of my face. It’s been a while since I got a haircut. “What matters now is that we’re both alive, alright?”

Next to me, Star mimics my stance down to a tee. A lock of their black hair flops against their nose, and, with a practiced look in my direction, they flick it away with a flip of their wrist.

On the topic of haircuts, Star might need one, too.

“Why do you always try to save me before you save yourself?” Star asks, startling me out of the quiet post-mission reverie I always find myself falling into.

Star so rarely asks questions, especially the kind that questions something I’m doing. I prefer not to think about it. It’s just another one of their deviations from the normal framework of a child.

“It seems inefficient,” they say.

“Why inefficient?”

“If you just left me behind,” Star says, “You would be a lot faster on your own. A lot more stealthy and efficient.”

I shake my head. “I would never leave you.”

“Why not?”

I open an eye to take in Star’s tiny silhouette, slouched against the wall next to me. For once, their dark eyes aren’t on me, but rather, pinned on the wall opposite our outstretched legs. They are still, so still, still as a statue, still as a corpse.

Why not? Why wouldn’t I ever leave Star behind? There’s a million answers to that, too many answers to that, and in that instant, they flood me like I’ve just cracked the lid on Pandora’s box.

Because, Star.

Because you’re just a child. Because you were never allowed to truly be a child. Because I love you for being the way you are, even though you are like no one- adult or child- that I have ever known. Because you’re broken and you do not know it. Because you are a product of the monstrosities of our time, innocent despite. Because you are a blank slate and you have entrusted me with the paintbrush. Because you don’t deserve any of this, and I’m trying to do the best I can for you.

And on a more selfish level? The reason I could not leave you even if I tried?

Because with you at my side, I am able to face the ghosts of my past. Because you are nothing like my little daughter and yet everything like her. Because I wronged her, I faulted her, I failed her, and I will not let myself fail you. Because you do not know it, but because you bring me the pieces of my broken heart with every time you look at me like I am someone to be admired, someone who deserves to look the future in the face.

Because you may not be of my blood and you may not know who your blood is, but you are as dear to me as she was. And I care about you, as I once cared for her.

I don’t say any of this to Star. I don’t know how to. Maybe one day, when they are older and smoke and ash are no longer the landmarks of their everyday life, one day, when they have learned how to wield the paintbrush for themselves, I’ll figure out how to. But for now, all I say is,

“Just know that I won’t. I promise, okay?”

Star looks at me then, and there are glimmers of their namesake etched into their eyes. The dark expanse of their pupils shines brighter and purer than even the real deal. “You promise,” they echo.

“Yes,” I say, and then smile. Slinging an arm around their tiny, fragile shoulder, I look up to the coiled constellation embedded into one corner of the scarf of the night sky.

Star follows my gaze, and when their eyes catch on what I’m looking at, one end of their mouth tilts up. It’s the very same one they were looking up at the day I found them in that abandoned playground, at the top of a yellow slide, alone and forgotten.

I didn’t know the name of that constellation then. I still don’t.

It doesn’t matter.

“I promise.”

State
IL
Zip Code
60047