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Twinkle Twinkle

By Matthew Keeley
(Illustration by Maria Korolov based on image via Pixabay.)

The sunlight panel beams on from the corner of the room to wake me. But I’ve been listening to the wind pummel the house for hours. I don’t move. Just lie a while longer, listening to Mum creaking around downstairs and Philip vrooming toys along the floor next door. I should have packed those last night.

I shift my legs from under the covers and press my feet onto the cold floorboards. When I arrive in the dim kitchen, there’s synthetic heat from the grill and Mum is cracking eggs in a bowl. I touch her stooped back.

“Real ones,” I whisper.

She turns to me, trying to smile. “Our last breakfast here should be special.”

“Yes…”

“Mummy! Mummy!” Philip thuds in and tugs at my trousers. “Can I see one?” He points up towards the counter. I hand him an empty eggshell and he presses it between his soft little fingers.

“Be a while before you see eggs like these again, honey.”

While we eat, Mum chants rhymes to Philip.

“Do the one about the little star, Granny.”

She laughs and sings and I don’t know how she is able to act so happy for him. When she becomes blurry behind almost-tears, I look away to the final boxes piled by the front door, rubbing my eyes quickly with the butts of my palms. Clothes and medication and bedsheets are already packed in the truck. These last boxes have everything else we gathered yesterday; everything that couldn’t be replaced and that I couldn’t stand to leave: wedding photographs, Philip’s baby blanket, shells from the last beach we ever saw. Mum reaches to rub my hand and I reach to touch Philip with the other. He chews and swings his legs the same as every other dark morning and I wonder if he even remembers what is happening today.

When we know we can’t hold onto the hours any longer, we wash dishes for the last time, gather the last things from bedrooms, then zip up our thermocoats and pull gloves on. Philip squats on the stairs to squeeze his stiff feet into boots and I help with his mittens and scarf.

I cram the leftover toys into crevices in boxes between ancient diaries and spare protein packs and Mum shuffles around the house, waving at sensors to power lights and electrics down, as if the house is closing its eyes. Then I pull the door open to an angry bite of freezing air. We lift the last boxes and cases to the truck, Mum taking the lighter ones, and I buckle Philip into his seat. I hear Mum clicking the front door locked behind her and I know we should say some goodbye, thank the house in the permanent half-shadow, remember everything important that happened here. But I pull my scarf tighter over my mouth to suffocate the idea. Can’t fall apart yet.

In the truck, a final check of documents while the windows defrost.

“Don’t worry,” Mum says, clutching the papers – real ones, not electronic – between gloved fingers beside me. “Tickets out of here safe and sound.” I hear the thickness in her throat for the first time and push the ignition.

“Meili Launch Port,” I command, and the truck juts forward, crunching through crusted snow towards the motorway. I lay my head back to stop myself from looking in the mirror at the house vanishing behind me.

Dull lampposts lead the way. They’re always on now in this slate, sunless sky. The truck skids on an icy curve, just for a second, and the crates and cases shudder in the back seat beside Philip. I look over my shoulder, watching him whoosh his rocket in loops, humming Mum’s nursery rhyme about a diamond in the sky. Beside me, Mum rearranges the bags at her feet and grips the emigration papers tighter. The radio fills the silent space with temperature updates, old music, and army announcements calling for anyone still left to book their evacuation.

As the truck ascends a slow hill, we see the tip of the space shuttle peeping above the misty horizon ahead, glowing like a lighthouse.

“Look, Philip. Just like yours,” Mum says.

Further along the road, a queue of red brake lights forms, pulling us towards huge entrance gates. A man with a glass visor and white and silver overalls approaches the truck. Mum thrusts the wad of papers towards him at the window with a shaking hand but he barely looks, scanning the truck’s licence plate instead and directing us into the enormous parking bays. I switch off the auto-drive and grip the wheel, steering us in the direction of the official’s pointed glove.

When we stop in our space, someone new begins unloading the truck, attaching microchipped labels to our boxes and bags. I know I should hand over the truck keys now, but can’t yet, and shove them into my coat pocket. Mum lifts Philip. He’s too big for her to carry, but I let her for now, and she reaches for me too, looping my arm with her other bony hand.

Inside the vast, echoing terminal, silent hours in check-in rows shiver by. It’s almost all couples and single travellers in front of us. Most families with kids already evacuated months ago. Philip has found one of the few other little boys and they play hide and seek around adults’ legs. The boy is here with his parents and grandparents who stand further back in the queue and I don’t want to look at them.

When the woman in front of us moves off towards security doors beyond the emigration desk, it’s our turn to step forward. One officer scans our documents while another asks final boarding questions. Mum has pulled Philip back over and he stares through the glass ceiling, holding his rocket up in mittened hands, matching its shape to the real thing looming over us.

“Clear to proceed,” one of the men says. “Separate now.”

Philip clings to Mum. He has remembered.

“It’s alright, honey,” I say, forcing smiles. “It’s time for what we talked about. Say goodbye to Granny.”

“But why can’t she come?” he splutters.

The stones in my throat stop me from speaking.

“Told you already, darling,” Mum answers, kneeling down in front of him, her voice finally cracking apart like a glacier. “I’m too old. Look around at all the grannies and grandpas.” She takes off her gloves and rubs his pink face in each wrinkled hand. “We stay here now. Don’t need us out there. You go off.” She nods up and his tears dribble down.

The floor vibrates and I don’t know if it’s the shuttle engines or the shriek of my heart. I hear the grandparents behind us sob. Mum stands with a groan and touches my back one last time. I pull the truck keys from my coat pocket and give them to her.

“Move along,” the man at the desk calls, and Mum lets go. She walks back to join all the other white-haired family members waving from a distance. The tide pulls us to the shuttle, away from earth’s cold shore to the twinkling little stars.

Matthew Keeley is a writer and teacher from Glasgow, Scotland. He writes in various genres and his paranormal coming-of-age novel, The Stone in My Pocket, was published by The Conrad Press in 2021.