FICTION: The Silent Vanishing of a Star by Adam Lock

Newton thought the effects of gravity were instant, no matter the incredible distances involved. Einstein thought differently; he described gravity as waves, in the same way light moves in waves. The Sun’s light takes 8 minutes, 20 seconds to reach Earth, the same amount of time it takes the effects of its gravity to reach us.

This led Einstein to consider a thought experiment: If the Sun were to blink out of existence right now, what would happen? His theory suggests here on Earth, we’d not only see the Sun, but continue to feel its effects for a further 8 minutes, 20 seconds. For this short time we’d have no idea…

…her gaze, emanating from the photograph like waves of light expanding greater distances with each passing year, fed his guilt like the sun does the inner workings of a plant.

It was time to tell her.

The framed photograph of Lily on Falmouth beach had stood on three different dining tables over the years. Whenever he looked at it, it all came back to him: the wind blowing across the beach, the sensation of feet sinking in sand, the sound and sight of the grey English sea. There she was, leaning into the wind, her face downturned but smiling, her long brown hair blowing across her face. There was the flapping of her long dress enveloping the contours of her legs, a white blouse, long green coat, one half blown across her chest. But the mass of the photograph, its epicentre, was in her eyes, not directed at the camera, but skidding just above it, towards Jacob. Her dark eyes gave her away. Anyone could see Lily’s nakedness in the photograph, could see how much she was in love with him.

He sat at the table, next to the photograph. The nausea and cold sweat returned, crawling its way up and out of his shirt collar, spreading across his shoulders and closing around his throat. His memories twisted between time spent with Lily and Maria like competing vines vying for sunlight. The year he’d had with Maria was his alone. Now, he couldn’t understand how he’d ever justified it. But he had once. He’d even revelled in it; it was the vulgarity that drove him on, lifting him above the banality of life. That he could have both women so close together in time was extravagant. There were men who had no one, and he was lying with two women on the same day, sometimes on the same night.

He closed his eyes, imagined what his time with Lily would be like if it was unblemished, clean, simple. Now he was older, now they were both older, this was important. He wanted it all to be for something, for their time together to mean as much as he knew Lily thought it did.

Next to the photograph of Lily stood a photograph of Grace, their daughter, now a woman. Grace had been captured talking with someone out of shot, her face open, her smile wide, her eyes laughing. Grace, all Lily, shone with an openness, the same unrelenting warmth and joy her mother possessed, and which he could never match. He looked from one photograph to the other. They were the same age, might have been the same person if not for the fashions evident in each photograph. He’d not once wished for Grace to be less like Lily and more like him; he was glad Grace was all her mother.

Two women, each connected to him in different ways.

The third woman, Maria, came to mind at different times. These thoughts had become more frequent, more painful, disorientating. With Maria, it was all his desire, all his need — she wanted him too, but not in the way he needed her. During his time with Maria, he’d glimpsed Lily’s world. In the photograph, Lily’s eyes fell upon him with a weight he couldn’t match. It was an imbalance — an imbalance of feeling he thought every couple must know. The weight of love between them, the scales that weight feeling, fell down on her side. It was all there in the photograph, all there in her eyes, her smile, the eagerness of her limbs moving towards him.

He wanted to destroy the photograph.

‘What are you doing sitting at the table?’ Lily rested her hands on his shoulders, leaned over him, kissing the top of his head.

‘You look so much alike,’ he said, nodding at one photograph and then the other.

She didn’t say anything, only squeezed his shoulders. He wanted her to move from behind him, for her to take away the heaviness pushing down on his shoulders.

‘I need to tell you something,’ he said, looking more closely at her photograph.

Her hands lifted from his shoulders.

He waited, before saying, ‘There was someone else.’ Only when he said it did he acknowledge how long he’d wanted to tell her.

‘Someone else?’

‘Long time ago. I ended it.’ He wanted her to move so he could see her. ‘I’ve always regretted it.’

Lily moved from behind him, to her chair on the other side of the dining table. She sat, rested her elbows on the table and held her head, her fingers covering her eyes.

‘It’s been on my mind for some time. And I wanted to tell you. Wanted to—’

‘To what?’ she said, one eyebrow raised at him. ‘To make yourself feel better?’

Lily’s photograph was gaining mass all the time, was a star vibrating towards collapse.

He found himself calculating how long they had left together, how long he had to make it right. A decade at least. Ten years. Ten years together. Ten winters, ten springs… He wanted to destroy the photograph, to begin again, to explain how they would live their final decade.

He watched her lean backwards in her chair, her chest expanding with a long, deep breath. She was still the woman in the photograph, even more so now he’d told her.

‘Maria?’ she said.

His finger, stroking his bottom lip, stopped moving. ‘You knew?’

She sneered, shaking her head. ‘Jesus Christ Jacob. I knew you wouldn’t keep it to yourself.’

He felt the cold sweat return, rising up his back, falling across his shoulders. ‘To myself?’

Lily reached for the photograph. ‘You remember giving it to me? A birthday present.’

He sat upright in his chair. ‘You didn’t want it in a frame.’

‘You found it in my drawer.’

He nodded, noticing a lightness in her eyes. ‘But you look so happy in it. So…’

‘In love,’ she sighed, taking another deep breath. ‘I know, you’ve said, many times. Falmouth. Our first holiday.’

He couldn’t see the photograph, but knew every inch of it anyway. ‘Falmouth,’ he said, trying to smile.

‘It’s not Falmouth,’ she said.

‘It is.’ He reached for the photograph, taking it from her. ‘Look. You’re looking at me — behind the camera. Us, together, on the beach.’ Again he saw in the photograph how much she loved him, how eager she was to reach him, to be beside him.

‘It’s Newquay. And it’s not you behind the camera.’

He recalled the look on her face when he gave her the framed photograph: embarrassment, guilt maybe. At the time, he couldn’t understand why it upset her, why he had to convince her to keep it.

He returned the frame to the dining table. ‘It’s not me?’

She didn’t reply.

‘It’s not me you’re looking at? In the photo?’

She shook her head.

With a quick movement, he prodded the frame, knocking it over. He stood, shoving his chair backwards.

Lily didn’t move, only stared at the frame lying on the table.

He stood in front of the patio doors, looking out onto the garden. In a low voice, he asked, ‘Then who is it?’

‘It was taken before we met.’

He turned his head enough to see her in the corner of his eye, abstract, a haze of blonde hair, cream jumper, grey trousers, red shoes. A memory, dredged from deep inside his mind drawn to the surface: Lily speaking about a boyfriend. He recalled the sensations of jealousy, the helplessness of it, the powerlessness. It had been the only time she’d ever spoken about him. Until now.

‘When you gave it to me, and explained how in love you thought I looked, I couldn’t tell you the truth.’

‘Why tell me now?’

She was quiet, and he could sense her thinking, weighing her response.

Finally, she said, ‘I wish you hadn’t told me. I knew about you and her. And it made me angry. Of course it did.’ She stopped talking and he heard her stand, move closer to him. ‘I contacted him. He’d already written to me, a few times over the years. I only wanted to see him. Talk to him.’

He walked back and forth, eventually falling into his chair. He watched her look out onto the garden, the way he had done moments before. Without looking at him, she said, ‘He was married too. It was only the once.’

His stomach hardened, his chest spasmed with sharp pointed breaths, a convulsion of red flickering lights strobing behind his eyes. Lily, naked, legs open, beneath a man. Another man’s cock, fucking her. And her beneath him, writhing, her ankles crossed above the small of his back, wanting him closer, deeper. Her fingers in his hair, cupping his skull, white knuckled, frantic. Lily, wet with another man’s sperm, it falling from her, onto his sheets, in his bed, in his house. Another man’s seed, swimming through her. Snatching the frame, he threw it against the wall. It splintered in two, the glass shattering. He thumped the table.

Lily jumped at the sound, but remained were she was, staring out of the patio doors.

‘You fucked him?’

Without hesitation, her voice even, she spoke to the window, ‘When I found out about you and her, I wanted to leave.’ Outside, the clouds shifted left to right, bathing the garden and the patio doors in warm light. She crossed her arms, looked up at the sky. ‘But I had Grace. Had no money, no job.’

‘You fucked him to get back at me?’

She shook her head. ‘No Jacob.’ She turned to look at him. ‘You hurt me. I’ll never forgive you for that.’ She sat at the table across from him. ‘But I blamed myself too. Can you believe that? When you and her were over, and you looked so down, I blamed myself.’ Smiling with her mouth but not her eyes, she looked at the framed photograph of Grace.

‘You loved him?’

‘He was older — he said it wouldn’t work. When he ended it I was heartbroken. And then I met you. You were good to me. And there was Grace.’ She looked up from the photograph. ‘He found me, a week before I had Grace, told me he’d made a mistake and wanted to be with me. I told him it was too late.’

Jacob looked at the photograph on the floor, covered in broken glass. Lily’s gaze, all those years ago, was never his, but belonged to another man. Not until this moment did he understand how much he needed another person to look at him in that way. He was evaporating, becoming a ghost, the weight of Lily’s love no longer anchoring him. The world had shifted, arranging itself according to different laws, the past altering, funnelling to a new reality.

At least there was Grace. He looked at her photograph. At least there was Grace.

‘Jacob, there’s something else.’

He saw in her a twisting anguish he’d not seen in anyone before. His thoughts trailed behind hers as he read the downturned corners of her eyes, the firmness of her closed lips, the curling of her fingers into fists.

She looked across the table at the photograph of Grace.

His gaze followed hers. Grace — all Lily.

There was a moment in which he was conscious of sliding from ignorance to understanding; he saw the adjustment as colours, a metallic grey shifting to an intense white yellow. The truth had been making its way to him for years, riding upon waves of light, upon waves of gravity. It was dazzling, like the silent vanishing of a star. He looked again at the photograph of Grace and knew…

…the Sun was no longer there. Oblivious to the end of the world, we’d go about our lives not knowing the truth about our star.

Einstein explained how this time between the event itself and our awareness of it, is exaggerated the further away we are. So much so, the night sky is a graveyard, a history book of stars that have burned through their fuel, dying long ago. The night sky is a photograph — an ancient photograph.

Adam Lock

Adam wakes far too early in the Black Country, UK, to write, before teaching in a secondary school. Adam has been published on STORGY once before, and can also be found on Fictive Dream, The Fiction Pool, The Vending Machine Press, Occulum, Flash Fiction Magazine and others.

You can find links to these stories and others at adamlock.net. He’s also active on Twitter @dazedcharacter.

If you enjoyed The Silent Vanishing of a Star, leave a comment and let Adam know.

You can read Adam’s previously published story; ‘In The Beginning Ihere

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