Photo by Greg Rakozy on Unsplash

Over the next ten days we will be publishing the ten finalists from the 2024 Voorheesville Short Story Contest. The theme of this year’s contest was “But There’s a Catch.” This, the second of our ten finalist stories, made it to the final round of judging with our guest judge, Laurin Jefferson. Today, enjoy Brianna Hillmann’s story, “Stargaze.”

Detective Polaris always wanted to be the leader or one to stand out, but of course he wasn’t careful about what he wished for. 

The Saturns were like any other family in Stargaze, Pluto and Callisto had grown up in the town, walked down the aisle and sang their vows at the old community center, and bought a house just inside the district lines for their children to go to Stargaze Elementary, Middle and High School. It always seemed like nobody ever left the town, those who seemed to have left always coming back one way or another. To the folks of Stargaze this was normal, people  never left because they had all they needed in the simple town. So, on a Saturday afternoon when the town was silent, except for the whisper of the wind, it was quite unusual for a foreign mailman to come up to the Saturns’ door and knock. 

Bella Saturns, an only child, answered the door for her parents. Bella barely finished turning the knob and pulling when the unknown mailman thrusted the letter into Bella’s arms. Then, before Bella could get any words out to form a swirling amount of questions in her head the mailman was walking away. Bella almost ran into the door as she rushed after the figure, forgetting her shoes and coat by the door in her rush. She had managed to catch up with the man just as he turned the corner, fumbling her words into a mixture of a greeting and a scolding when she turned the corner as well. Bella found herself in an unknown alley that left her squinting to see her hand. She did not find the mysterious mailman in this alley however, thinking oddly of his sudden disappearance. Bella could not ponder on the absurdity for more than a few seconds before the harsh gravel under her feet and the chill in the air made itself known. Goosebumps littered her arms and legs, her feet ached, and now she had to walk home, while trying to remember the path that would take her there. 

It had almost been 20 minutes since Bella answered the door and ran out, leaving her parents to worry. When they saw her approaching they quickly carried her inside the house. Callisto and Pluto fussed over her until Bella was warm and cozy under a blanket. Then like she was telling a bedtime story, launched into the tale of the disappearing mailman and the letter. Pluto, overtaken by curiosity, took the letter Bella had offered out and ripped the envelope open. Inside was a smaller envelope and the letter itself. Callisto took the letter and read it aloud. 

To whomever this may concern, 

My name is Professor Stella and I have written to you with fantastic news! 

If you are receiving this letter that means you have been selected to go on a special stargazing extravaganza on a nearby island. You will be housed in an all inclusive hotel that will provide your every meal! You will also be awarded 1,000 dollars, and exclusive privileges and tours of the Island. This vacation will last a week and in order to receive this, all you must do is contribute an hour of your time each day to an experiment I am performing. If you refuse the experiment during your stay you will be expected to pay back your expenses of the trip and an extra fee so think carefully!   ~Professor Stella 

As Callisto read the sign off of the letter, her daughter started to bounce around the couch leaving her blanket to fall on the floor. Bella couldn’t contain her excitement at the prospect of a vacation, as she had never left the town before. Bella had always loved the night sky so this vacation was her dream come true. Callisto and Pluto were less inclined to believe the offer, it sounded too good to be true. Bella had gone to bed with a smile across her face when her parents finally sat down to check the offer and its contents out, while doubt could be seen written in the lines of worry on their faces. 

In the morning Bella had woken up to her parents at the kitchen table hunched over the family computer asleep. Only later after coffee was made and what was left of breakfast were crumbs did Bella learn of the offer’s validation and the clear yes from her parents that they would go. There was also another surprise that greeted her, as she hurried up to her room. They were leaving in less than an hour! Bella shoved her 8 favorite summer outfits into a pink duffle bag along with a bathing suit and pjs. She left her parents to do the rest of the packing as she was shooed out of the house to pick up snacks at the local store. With 5 minutes to spare Bella had made it back with snacks in hand, taking her spot in the back seat of their family car to drive to the docking station where a ferry would take them to their vacation destination. 

The journey to the island was pleasant, the family happy to take in the scenery, too excited to do anything else. Finally,  the boat had anchored ashore the beautiful island they had yet to hear the name of. The Saturns stepped off the ferry and were immediately greeted by Celeste, their tour guide and trip coordinator for the duration of their stay. Celeste had finished explaining the last of the hotel’s facilities and perks when Professor Stella came up to greet the family. The professor explained the part of the experiment the Saturns would take part in for an hour each day, listing out the requirements of the trial, while showing them to the laboratory they were working in. At the front desk in the lab, all of them signed contracts to keep the tests secret and have other legal matters squared away before the family was allowed to enjoy their vacation. Pluto and Callisto seemed to have reservations about all the paperwork required and the lack of explanation as to the actual tests or research before being convinced that it would be safe and nothing to worry about by Professor Stella. While Professor Stella was assuring Bella’s parents, Celeste was in a conversation with Bella. Celeste had a funny look to her when Bella was talking to her about her love of stars and her eagerness to help in the experiment. A mix of a sorrowful and regretful look passed through her eyes, while a smile was still plastered on her face. Bella thought that she must have rejected being a test subject first, now having to sit back while she has her dream vacation and let Celeste shift the conversation to her school and the pool back at the hotel. 

The first test was scheduled for the day after they arrived. The three were separated into different rooms and told to drink a concoction. After drinking the entirety of the solution, each one was monitored for the rest of the hour to make sure the liquid had taken effect. At the hour mark, the family was thanked, given instructions for emergencies and rushed out the door. This same procedure was repeated until the last day where they were put in a room all together. 

The Saturns were said to have returned to Stargaze after their week away but their house was sold and stuff auctioned away. This type of thing occurred every two to three years, a mysterious mailman, a family gone for a week, and back but not really there. By a stroke of luck the Police Chief’s family, the Hunter’s, had just disappeared, leaving Detective Polaris to fill the role of Chief. PolI looked into the mirror, and despite everything, it was still me. 

Polaris thought because he had no family to distract him he would be the one perfect for this job and in the town’s eyes he was. He went to the schools talking with the kids, went to community events and solved the various small crimes that happened in Stargaze. The only case he could not crack was the disappearing families. He had put it off at first, reasoning that if he found the families he would be out of his new job. After a while though, the mystery had gotten to him. He opened the files Chief Hunter had done on the case to find a letter and documentation of a strange mailman always showing up before a disappearance. Nobody really paid attention to the disappearances, somehow knowing that the families were there, as reported by Hunter. But how? Hunter had a theory relating the various constellations that could only be seen on an Island called Galaxy and Stargaze. These constellations seem to have new stars that appear when the constellation is discovered. In one report the new constellation named Saturns, was said to contain three stars that seemed to have just appeared. The report of every new constellation was marked by Chief Hunter. The names of the new constellations seemed to match the families that were missing, which seemed odd to Polaris but Saturns, Hunter, and many other of the family names were not strange names for constellations. Polaris read further into the files to find the same professor that wrote the reports about the new constellations, also wrote the letter supposedly given to all the missing families.  Polaris found all of this evidence rather strange, and because of the multiple occurrences of matching names and relative dates thought that the new constellations and the missing families could not be a coincidence. He had gathered everything in the case file and scavenged for any additional evidence for the case before putting all in a box to be sent to the government police, so he could get help on this case. He had just finished addressing the box and writing a note explaining the case when someone knocked on his office door. He thought about ignoring it, as it came at a mysterious time, but soon thought better of it and walked over to the door. He did not make it to the handle when he noticed a note on the floor. Whoever knocked, must have slid the note under the door so as to not disturb Chief Polaris’ work. Polaris, with growing curiosity, opened the note up to see a singular phrase, one that once read had a blinding light shoot out from it enveloping him and the box of evidence, only leaving the note undamaged behind. On the note with black ink, so black it looked as though it was sucking the light out of the room, was scribbled you will be the brightest of them all.

About Brianna Hillmann 452 Articles

Brianna Hillmann is a junior at Clayton A.Bouton High School.