By Allison Stein
I hope this short story inspires you to find faith in yourself. Enjoy!
What Do I Have Left?
Moonlight flickers between cornstalks like the wispy dress of a ghost. I clench my jaw and refuse to be afraid.
Aunt Ashley always tells me I have an overactive imagination. She says so spitefully, as if she is jealous that I can see galaxies she is blind to. I hate the way she brushes off my fear and recites her personal mantra, “Live for the moment.” That’s easy for her to say. She isn’t haunted by the past; she can’t hear the reverberations that torture my memory.
I cringe as suppressed grudges resurface. I imagine the lucid waters of my father’s eyes, the way they sparkled back when he used to smile. How could he give up on me? During the most vulnerable moments of my life, only days after my mother slipped out of this world and into another, he hugged me one last time. “I can’t hold on anymore,” he whispered. Whenever his words wash over me, I have to fight not to drown.
Blinking away tears, I force myself to revel in the music of rustling corn husks. The rhythm reminds me of footsteps. “Maybe that customer’s around here,” I mutter to the numbing wind. “Maybe I’ll find that lost man Aunt Ashley sent me to find, and I can stop working at the corn maze for the day, and she can stop worrying about that muffled voicemail on the company phone.”
Before I dare listen for the wind’s response, a shooting star ignites the iridescence of nightfall. I scarcely notice: The days of turning wishes to reality are gone. In fact, I don’t so much as look up at the radiant constellations until my flashlight dims—the batteries dying at last—and I discover myself buried under suffocating darkness.
Suddenly, all that matters is the cadence of my breathing: All that matters is getting out. Propelled by legs moving faster than my mind, I round the corner and pray for an escape.
His arm brushes mine, and I am paralyzed with fear. A burgundy scarf shields his eyes and mouth. His face looks as hard as my heart.
“Y-You’re lost.” The words are stuck in my throat. “You’re the one who sent the voicemail asking for help.”
He manages a wry smile. “I’m no more lost than you are.”
Slowly, my heartbeat steadies. I scrutinize the cowering man in front of me. His wrinkled hands are stained with loneliness. He’s human, too.
As soon as he sees the terror drain from my face, the man steps closer. Together, we watch portals of moonbeams melt into the amber ground. No longer am I afraid. This stranger’s raspy tone gives a voice to my silenced soul.
All at once, I feel his stare bore into my mind. “How have your parents been?” he asks guiltily.
I swallow hard. “I like to think they’re happier than I am.”
He puts his hand on my shoulder. His jacket smells like the lemon-scented detergent Mom always used. As I struggle to keep my eyes from welling up, the customer’s gaze once again penetrates the boundaries of my memory. “How long’s your mom been gone now?”
I choke on my own response. How can this stranger know the secret I have so closely guarded? Instinct tells me to run, but under my angry disbelief, I am relieved that someone understands, that someone tastes the melancholy entangled in my heartstrings. Reluctantly, I let him know that it’s been 3 years—but it feels like 30.
The man nods in empathy. “And your dad? Where is he these days?”
I shrug. “He wanted to get out. He’s in Europe for all I know.”
“So far away?”
“He told me he needed to find a purpose,” I reply briskly. “I guess I wasn’t enough.”
The man looks down. “He couldn’t hold on anymore, huh?”
Goosebumps blemish my skin. I fumble with words. Fighting to grasp my old composure, I have no time to brace myself for the stranger’s confession.
His voice is crisp and callous. “I shouldn’t have asked you those questions,” he tells me. “I already knew the answers. You see, I’ve been keeping in touch with your father.”
Helplessness is replaced with hope. “Where is he?” I can’t help asking. “Does he miss me?”
“He would have to be a cold man not to miss you,” the stranger replies. The way he speaks under his breath, I wonder whether he is answering me or communicating with some invisible ghost of another world. I watch as a strange calmness spreads over his face. “Come on,” he says. “We need to get out now.”
Following his conscience like a compass, he maneuvers through the maze—left, right, right, left, right—in the effortless rhythm only a seasoned navigator could champion.
“A-Aren’t you supposed to be lost?” I barely manage to spit the fearful words out.
Ignoring me, the stranger walks with his head down and his steps measured—as if he is under a spell.
“Tell me what’s happening,” I plead. “Tell me what’s going to happen.”
The stranger shakes his head. “You don’t need to know. You just need to believe.”
He is mocking me, I decide; he must be mocking me. Never have I been so indignant. The bitter question comes crashing out: “What do I have left to believe in?”
“Yourself.” His faith echoes over the shadows of midnight. “Believe in yourself.” With that, the man turns away, looks up to the blanket of nightfall sheltering us. The minute he winks at the skyline, a second shooting star steals my breath. “What are you waiting for?” he asks. “Aren’t you going to make a wish?”
Still wrestling for words, I can only watch as the stranger unties the scarf hiding his face and reveals the crystal constellations glistening in his periwinkle eyes. I never knew how much I missed my father’s smile, the way his dimples crease, the way his breath freezes in the autumn air as he tells me he loves me.