Over the next six days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2023 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “A Roll of the Dice.” This, the fifth of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Julieta Gil-Marin’s story, “Stars Meeting Eyes.”
The cold night air had begun seeping into Noah’s bones. After days of walking alone with his food almost gone, the strong winds seemed to rattle his very soul. The sand picked up by small dust devils and whirlwinds had scratched his face until it turned pink and raw. His exposed hands weren’t much better off, having started to crack in the dry air and unrelenting sun.
Noah had first begun his journey with a head held high and a hand clasped around his only personal possessions, but the desert was no place for a kid. As he loosely fiddled with the items in his hand, turning them over themselves, he looked forward at the path before him.
If he kept walking before calling it a night, he could make it to a small town. The dim lights in the pitch black mantle covering the landscape held promises. They held a hope for a good night’s sleep and maybe some pitying help from old and kind mothers and fathers. On the other hand, the town could also lead to someone finding out who he was, and Mom had told him to avoid that at all costs.
Noah stopped in his tracks, raising a small hand to wipe his sweat stained hair to the side, flinching at the rough jacket on his sensitive skin. He then looked up at a shadow that partially covered the moon, being crowned with a halo for as long as the boy didn’t blink or move.
The halo on the figure settled on top of long waves of wispy, midnight hair. The figure was a woman, a familiar one, with skin that was as black as the night before him. The dress-like garment she wore blended in with her skin, leaving a mystery of when the cloth finished and she started. The blurry edges around the silhouette didn’t stop where feet should be, in fact they sunk into the ground causing the space below her to form an ink-like smear of pure darkness. It was as if all light and color were absorbed by the figure. As if the universe had cut her out of its picture, leaving an empty space of nothing.
But when Noah looked up at her, he saw something in spite of the darkness that shrouded the figure. Noah could see her eyes which were bright and white. They were stars shining a spotlight of warmth on him.
“Should I go?” Noah asked, a cry threatening to come up if he hadn’t been so brief.
He opened his hand and let the items drop. Once they started falling, he kept his gaze on the woman, hoping that the number rolled would be six or more.
Once the dice touched the ground, Noah felt a small smile bubble up from within him.
But that smile was rapidly overshadowed by a frown.
“Sorry. You need to leave.” He said curtly as he picked up his dice and started walking towards the town, not sparing a glance at the strange figure.
Back home, he used to see a young boy. The boy also liked soccer, popsicles on the roof, and cardboard swords. They used to play together all the time when Noah was bored at home. Every time he recounted their adventures to Mom, she would chuckle and ruffle his hair. She would say that he had a great imagination and Noah would laugh as she covered him with hugs and kisses.
But the boy was long gone. He wouldn’t know what to do when Noah was running out of food or water. He wouldn’t know what to do when Noah felt about to give up on walking. He wouldn’t know what to do when Noah threw up as he crossed rivers. But the woman did. So, little by little, the boy stopped visiting and the woman took over.
But every time he saw her, Noah felt his chest tighten.
Back home, Mom had warned him about seeing things. She told him that the desert played tricks on people and sometimes one could see things that weren’t really there. But Noah had always been able to see things Mom wasn’t able to, so how could he know when it was the desert playing tricks on him and when it was just his mind?
Noah let out a cough as sand was blown into his face. But he had made it.
As he walked around a neighborhood, he noticed kids’ toys sprawled out on a dry lawn and sharp gravel. He walked cautiously, taking his time before he confronted a tall, wooden door. He took a deep breath and reached out to ring the doorbell.
After some minutes of shuffling on the other side, a middle aged woman and man opened the door. They were wearing matching pajamas and both held questions in their eyes which were framed by wrinkles. They were like trophies attesting to decades worth of smiles which helped Noah drop his shoulders slightly.
Don’t talk to them, just communicate with them in other ways, Mom had said.
Noah gave a small, tired smile. He put his thumb next to his mouth and rose his pinky, signaling he needed water.
“Oh honey,” the woman said horrified, drinking in his scratched skin, chapped lips, and tired eyes, “Are you okay?”
Recognizing the question, Noah opened his mouth to respond, but quickly snapped it shut and shrugged.
“Come in, come in,” the man said hurriedly as he held the door open and Noah pushed in under the man’s arm.
After water, chicken soup, and a much needed bath, Noah ended up sitting on a soft couch while the couple stood in front of him. Finding the springs on the couch strong and sturdy, he began slightly bouncing on them and fighting off a giggle. Once he noticed the creased brows and pursed lips on the adults though, he stopped.
“Where are your parents, sweetie?” The woman knelt next to him, reaching out to place her hand on his. A shot of pain quickly ran through Noah and he took back his newly bandaged hand with a hiss.
The woman’s eyes shot open, “Oh my God, I’m so sorry!” She attempted to reach out again, but stopped herself.
“Do you live around here?” The man asked, rattling off the name of their neighborhood as well as surrounding places.
Noah stared back at them blankly.
“Can you speak?” The woman asked, her lips twisting into a frown.
Eventually Noah stood up and went to his bag which the man had left next to the door after the sand that fell out of it seemed never ending. He went through the small pockets, feeling as the couple’s eyes bore at the back of his neck. Finally, he found a small slip of paper and handed it to the woman.
Aunt Lola, it read, followed by an address.
“Son, that’s an hour from here by car…” the man breathed. “How did you get all the way here?”
Silence. The three of them continued staring at each other with confusion.
“Alright,” the woman clapped her hands, “We’ll get you there tomorrow.”
The man sent her a look but didn’t speak. Noah nodded, certain they had gotten the message, and took back the slip placing it snuggly in the pocket. This time, he held on to his bag.
A few minutes later full of unanswered questions, the man and woman let out a shared sigh. After more silent arguing, they agreed to place snacks in Noah’s bag so he would follow them to a bedroom.
The bedroom was organized and spotless. The bed was made, the desk was cleared, and everything else had been meticulously placed throughout the room to try and make it look less empty. There weren’t any personal items nor decorations in the room of grays and blues, but the lights gave everything a warm glow. Noah left his bag next to the night stand, stray sand speckling the otherwise spotless floor.
Once Noah laid down on the bed, the man came up to him. His eyes were watery, though Noah wasn’t quite sure why.
The man looked down at Noah’s bandaged hands where blood had started to seep through and gulped, “We’ll get you home, kid. I promise.”
At those unfamiliar words, Noah saw the shadowy woman appear on the corner of his room. She seemed to reach out gently to him, as if wanting to comfort him. Following the boy’s gaze, the man turned to look at the corner and he felt a shiver go down his spine. He quickly shook it off and turned off the lights. He smiled one more time before he left Noah in the dark.
“I’m not sure if I can stay,” Noah confessed to the empty room, knowing the shadow was listening, “They seem nice… but I don’t know.”
Don’t stay anywhere for too long. Don’t trust anyone for too long, Mom had said.
Noah bit his lip and reached over the edge of the bed to access his bag. He took his dice out, turning them over as he considered the options. “Do I leave?”
He rolled the dice.
The shadow moved from the corner until she made it next to Noah. As one of the dice spun like a top on one of its corners, it seemed as if a soft gust of wind made it finally stop.
Noah sighed and turned to look at the figure, “I probably should.”
He began to pack his dice and put on his shoes when he stopped. He looked at the door, uncertainty bleeding into his face. He then looked at the window next to the bed, but it seemed to be locked. The figure stood idly, as if afraid to move if it meant Noah would tell it to leave again. Noah glanced at the woman, his eyes narrowing.
“I still see you. But I’m not in the desert anymore.”
The figure shrugged.
Noah reached out to the figure, attempting to touch her arm, but his hand fell through and he could see his skin through her essence which now seemed more like smoke instead of ink. He took back his hand and looked at it, thinking. “Fine, you can come with me.” The figure seemed to grow taller, squaring its shoulders. Noah looked into her star eyes, which seemed brighter than before, and felt understanding pass through him. Cautiously, he reached out again. “I don’t think I’m scared anymore.”
Just then, a click echoed around the room. Noah looked around nervously, until his eyes landed on the window. It was unlocked.
Noah looked at the woman again, but she hadn’t seemed to move.
Everything happens for a reason, Noah, Mom had said.
Noah got on the bed and opened the window. He pushed his bag out and then shimmied his way through. The shadow was already waiting on the other side.
“What should I call you anyways?” Noah asked as he wiped the dirt off of his borrowed clothes. “My last friend was named Teo, but I’m guessing you won’t want that name.”
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They had walked for hours now. The sparse houses had become hotels and tall apartment buildings while the night sounds shifted from being animals to being blaring horns and shouts. The streets were ridden with holes and trash which made Noah gag when a particularly bad smell wafted up with the hot air.
After walking far enough from the couple’s house, Noah had found a gas station which he had entered and stayed in the bathroom while he slept. Eventually, he got woken up by a man cleaning the toilets, but he had rested enough for his legs to gain new strength and his mind to find new distractions.
Tired from his earlier journey in the desert, however, he had slept more than he would have liked. As he walked the streets, the moon had come out once more. But this time he didn’t feel alone at all. In part because of the city noises, and in part because the shadow woman hadn’t left his side since the night before. Though she wasn’t as fun as his past friend, the woman brought him the comfort of something oddly familiar to him.
He had begun the habit of talking to her, telling her everything about home, about his Aunt Lola, and about how his legs felt like they were about to fall off again. Every once in a while a person walked on the streets with him. Sometimes it was an officer, other times a man with his eyes hidden under a hat, once it was an old man yelling at nothing in particular. Every time someone passed, Noah stopped talking to the shadow woman and hid as best he could. Once each of the people finally left, Noah was able to breathe again.
One time, after having hid, Noah suddenly felt something on his head. He looked up and saw the shadow woman pass her hand over his hair, but after a blink she took her hand back and stood over him.
Noah blinked again, staring at the woman with hooded eyes, “I’m not in the desert.”
As they continued walking, they passed through an alleyway. On either side there were high fences and garbage cans lining the edges of the path. There was a barren tree half way down the alley, its leaves on the ground. Beside the normal city noises, it was quiet. Noah had also grown quiet as the night went on, starting to feel his bag weighing him down and his feet hard to lift up.
Just then, a loud noise traveled throughout the alley. Noah and the woman stopped, both unsure of what it had been. But after the second time, Noah cringed: it had been a bark.
His eyes widening by the second, the boy frantically looked at his surroundings. Eventually, he saw a large, four legged silhouette on the other end of the alley. Noah felt some of his fear disappear when he realized the dog had no leash nor person following behind it, but it was quickly replaced by a different kind of fear once the dog barreled towards him.
A shriek escaped the boy’s throat as he began running. Everytime he looked behind himself, he saw the dog gaining ground and getting closer to biting his ankles. Feeling his feet start to trip over themselves, Noah threw himself at the tree. He quickly climbed far enough so that the dog wouldn’t reach him.
“Nice dog,” He cried, tears running down his face, “Nice doggy.”
But the dog kept barking and snapping its jaws in Noah’s direction.
Through his blurry vision, Noah saw the dog below the tree, its eyes honed in on him. The shadow woman stood close by, her shoulders tense and her hands over her face. Noah closed his eyes again, hoping for the moment to pass. But the dog didn’t leave.
“Leave me alone,” Noah sniffled, feeling a lump in his throat, “You can’t be the reason they get me. I need to get to my aunt.”
The dog kept barking.
As Noah shifted in the tree, he felt something dig into his leg. Reaching down to see what it was, he realized it was the outline of his dice through his pocket. He took them out and stared at them.
It’s a roll of the dice, Mom had said.
After taking a deep breath and wiping his tears away, Noah whispered “Do I stay here?” He then dropped the dice and saw them tumble on the floor.
“No,” he breathed, and felt his heart start to quicken again. Looking down he saw the dog had laid down, still barking sporadically but it was no longer in full attention. He looked towards the woman but she hadn’t moved.
Noah took a steading breath and felt his grip on the tree start to loosen. Finally, he let himself drop. He began running, hearing the dog not far behind. He saw the shadow woman next to him, seeing her blurred edges solidify in pulses. As he continued running, he started to feel his lungs about to burst. But his feet didn’t stop moving and his legs didn’t start buckling.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw smokey tendrils come out of the woman, like hands. Still facing forward, he suddenly heard a metal crash. Quickly turning his head, he realized a trash can had been toppled over and food had been uncovered. The dog had quieted down, too busy working on the feast in front of it. Noah noticed the shadow lady wasn’t far from the culprit of the noise, but in an effort to not test his luck, Noah kept running some more before he finally stopped to wonder what had happened at the alley.
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Noah wasn’t sure how to read a map, but he was sure how to read his mom’s directions. As he traced his fingers over the red line marking the map, he realized he was almost at his destination. Putting it back in his bag, he reached for a granola bar from the couple, only to be met by an empty pocket.
“Oh.” Noah clenched his hand around nothing, grimacing as his stomach let out a groan.
He closed his eyes in an effort to push away his needs: he wasn’t far from his aunt’s house anymore. Once he got there he would be in the Nice Place. That’s what Mom had called it. It wasn’t back home, which was the Tough Place, it was the Nice Place.
Starting to get nervous, Noah took out his dice and started rattling them in his hands. He knew he was close now, but trouble could come at any moment.
Stay alert, Mom had said.
The shadow woman stayed next to him, but Noah didn’t speak to her. He wasn’t sure what to make of her anymore. She was like his past friend, but she was also different. There was something off putting in the streak of luck he had been able to garner and the familiarity in her eyes which he couldn’t fully recognize. But all his worries disappeared when Noah looked up towards the end of the street.
The building was framed by a growth of bright flowers and plants. The paint job had started to peel, but it was a vivid red that continued to be bright despite the years it had gone through. There were steps leading up to the building, like a pedestal raising up the door and windows of the house. Inside, Noah could see lights turned on, illuminating a familiar face though not so familiar hair. But there was no doubt the woman in the window looked like Mom. There was no doubt that the woman in the window was Aunt Lola.
“Are you lost, kid?” A gruff voice called out, followed by a wall of skin and bone that separated him from his aunt.
Noah frowned and tried to go towards the house, but the man shoved him away. “Where are you from, kid?”
Noah began to feel himself shake, frustrated at the man who wouldn’t let him pass. He tried again, but this time the man pushed him even harder. Noah felt his foot slip and then a flash of white invaded his mind as his head met the ground.
Noah finally looked at the man before him. Many things could be said about him, but all that Noah cared about were his eyes. There was darkness in them, an Evil. Perhaps it was the Evil he had been avoiding, perhaps it was an Evil with different roots. It didn’t matter though, Noah couldn’t afford meeting Evil. Not when he was so close to the Nice Place.
The man continued making aggressive jabs at Noah, taking a step forward everytime Noah crawled back. With each new question and new shout from the man, Noah saw the house grow further away from him. His heart had started hammering against his chest and he felt a tension run through his body. Next to him, he could see his shadow friend’s edges become sharper and her star eyes held desperation.
Noah found himself able to stand up, but still unable to shake off the man with Evil in his eyes. Noah kept feeling a tug at his hand, but that only made him clench it harder. In it were his only possessions that truly mattered and he would never forgive himself if he lost them.
But soon the window of his aunt’s house was no longer in sight and the tugging at his hand felt stronger. Looking down, Noah saw a shadow over his hand that seemed to try to pry it open. Noah shook his head, shutting his eyes tight, but the shadow kept pulling his fingers open and the man kept getting closer.
He couldn’t let go of the dice though. He couldn’t!
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“Come here, Noah,” Mom had said. Noah had been watching TV in the other room, but quickly turned it off when he heard something different in his mom’s voice. Sure enough, Mom was crying. It wasn’t a single tear running down her cheek either, it was a sob that rocked her entire body. Her eyes were red and her face was contorted into an expression Noah had never seen before.
Right away, Noah knew she wasn’t crying because of her boyfriend. She wasn’t crying because she finally found the broken cup he had tried to hide. She wasn’t crying because someone else had gotten killed. She wasn’t crying because they had run out of food again. She wasn’t crying because of the local men with Evil eyes that walked outside their home. She wasn’t crying for any of those reasons… it must have been something worse.
She reached out to Noah and he sunk into her arms. After some moments, she was able to compose herself, “Listen, love, you’re going to have to be strong now, okay?”
Noah had looked at her, unsure of how to respond, but he didn’t have to since she began to softly speak through her tears and wavering voice.
“We live in a tough place, yeah? You’ve heard the loud noises at night and news once it’s daytime. It’s a tough place here, but not too far away there is a nice place. That place will let you have a nice childhood and a nice future. It will give you more opportunities and–” another sob shook her.
The next hours were full of her explaining what he must and mustn’t do. “Don’t talk to them, just communicate with them in other ways. You have to keep moving anyway, so don’t stay anywhere for too long. Don’t trust anyone for too long. You have to stay alert and sometimes trust in the fact that everything happens for a reason. Noah…” She had wildly looked around the room until her eyes landed on two dice at the top of a shelf.
After she got them, she placed them in Noah’s hands, cupping her own under his, “Noah, this is going to be hard. It’s like a roll of the dice. Sometimes, we have to take risks… But I believe in you, and soon I’ll see you in the Nice Place, okay? You’re such a smart boy, such a kind boy, and I need you to get out of here. I’ll always be with you.”
She had planted a kiss on each of the dice.
Mom had talked for even longer until she finally took him to someone so he could cross the river. As Noah saw her face shrink with the distance between them, he saw the stars from the sky above reflect onto her eyes. Her tears accentuated the starlight even more, until Noah could only see her silhouette and imagined stars in her eyes.
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Stars in her eyes.
Noah opened his eyes and began to really look at the shadow woman. He knew that hair, that dress, those hands, that touch… He looked down at his hand and saw that the shadow was no longer trying to force it open. Instead, the shadow woman stared at him silently: stars meeting eyes.
I’ll always be with you, Mom had said.
Noah took a breath and let go. He rolled the dice.
Even before the dice hit the ground, he saw the shadow woman grow. Her dress began to expand into a thunder cloud around her and her hair stood like spikes on her head. The edges around her which had always been blurry or pulsing were now solid lines; lines that pushed out into a third dimension. But the biggest change was her eyes. What once were white stars that shone with comfort and familiarity suddenly became red and radiated rage and wrath.
The man’s Evil eyes had widened, becoming pools of white with fearful blue in the middle. It seemed as if all the city noises died down, only leaving a thundering heartbeat and a violent wind between the man and Noah.
Noah stared at the man and followed the man’s line of sight to what brought him so much fear.
The man was looking right at the shadow.
Noah felt a sudden push to leave the area but he didn’t respond to it until he glanced down at his dice:
The man shrieked. The shadow roared.