Variable Stars

The train rattled overhead on rails of air as light floated around her never close enough to touch but near enough to light every inch of the pier. It was almost the time of night when people would flood onto the pier to enjoy the dark night sky filled with the floating lights and grab food from the stalls and drink until they threw up into the water below that was as black as the sky above. But before they came, Beth would enjoy the empty stage. She would bound and leap and spin with her arms out so she resembled a top. She soaked in the openness and fresh ocean air while she could.

She laid down on the broad, wooden planks and stared up at the floating lights. They were the reason everyone came. At least at first that was the case. No one knew what they were or where they came from. They just showed up over the water one night. They came from across the ocean and never went as far as the shore making the pier the only area people could see them up close.

Beth watched the lights as they floated sporadically through the air. One hovered over her and she reached out to touch it, but it simply floated out of reach. It was impossible to catch one. Any time they got close, they would float away. Scientists speculate they are made of light without anything holding them together. It was just a theory of course, but it was accepted after someone attempted to capture one in a lead-lined steel box and it passed through as if the box were immaterial. Beth wasn’t sure if there was a reason they floated across the ocean every night. She didn’t really care. She liked them.

“You alright over there?” a voice called out.

She lifted her head off the dock and looked over to see a young man opening a stall for the night.

“Just fine,” she called back and returned to looking at the lights.

“You’re a little early for the party,” he said.

“I’m not here for the party.”

“Really?”

She sighed and got up. The train was overhead again and it had the first batch of tourists, which meant it was time to go.

“Really,” she said as she approached his stand. She looked over the menu and small trinkets he had hanging above the counter.

“They say the lights help you find the person you spend the rest of your life with.”

“That’s what they tell the tourists. At least, before this place became just another club. Might as well stay in the city and leave this place alone. You can get just as drunk there without the pricey ticket home.”

He smiled. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around. You local?”

“Walking distance if that’s what you mean,” she said and started toward the shore.

“That’s a yes then. Hey, why don’t you stick around?”

“Cause I came for the lights, not the party like everyone else.”

“What if I told you they were ghosts?”

She stopped and turned around. “I’ve heard just about every theory. Including that one.”

“Maybe you haven’t heard this one.”

She walked back to the stand. He finished putting the last of the decorations up and turned on his deep fryer. Funnel cakes were classic and sold well, especially to the intoxicated.

“I’m listening.”

“Okay,” he got serious, “I’ve worked here for a while now and have heard stories-”

“I’ve heard the stories too,” she said, ready to leave again.

“So have I, but I’ve also seen some things. Things that supplement some stories and debunk others. A few that I’ve never heard before and I’ve never told.”

“Go on.” She leaned on the counter ready to hear him out.

“About a month ago, I saw some guy talking to one. He was a little intoxicated, but he talked to one of the lights like it was an actual person.”

“So you saw a drunk guy talking to the air. Nothing special. I’ve seen it before.”

“At first I thought nothing of it, but then it happened again about a week later. This time it was a girl talking to one of them. She was dead sober and talking this thing up like it was the most attractive man she’d ever seen. It was only for a minute, but when the light floated away she seemed disappointed.” He held up his hands inviting her opinion.

“Maybe she was actually talking to a guy that you couldn’t make him out with everyone around.”

“It was the end of the night with only a handful of people still here. No one was within twenty feet of her.”

“Were you drunk then?”

“I mean, I had one while shutting up shop. Not enough to make me delusional.”

People were starting to walk toward them from the station. Beth stood up ready to leave when they got further down the pier.

“Maybe you are. I don’t know you.”

“True, but take my word that I’m not.”

“Okay, what’s your theory then?”

“No one knows what the lights are. They can’t be touched, but maybe they can be talked to. Maybe they are people. Dead or alien, I don’t know. My theory is maybe the tourist tagline isn’t far from the truth. Maybe the lights are actual people but each of them can only be seen by a specific person.”

“Well, it’s not completely nuts.”

He smiled at her again and raised his eyebrows as if asking her to refute the theory. A couple made their way past them and Beth took that as her sign to leave.

“I’ll give it some thought,” she said and turned to leave.

“Hold on. Let me give you this.” He turned back and fiddled with something then turned around with a funnel cake complete with powdered sugar. “For hearing me out. Most people aren’t interested in the lights these days.”

“Thanks, uh…”

“Justin.”

“Thanks Justin.” She took the funnel cake and tore off a piece. It melted in her mouth.

“Stop by tomorrow. I’d like to hear your thoughts.”

“Maybe,” she said, and walked away as another couple came up to the stall to buy from him.

Beth walked toward the end of the pier but stopped before the shore. She ate the funnel cake while turning over Justin’s theory. It seemed just as plausible as anything else she’d heard, but it was new, which made her a little excited. She thought through every possible way to debunk the theory as the night passed by and kept going back to his story about a person talking to one of the lights. She wanted to see it for herself so she broke her routine and walked the pier looking for anyone conversing with any of the lights. She looked all night but found no such interaction.

Sunlight was peeking over the horizon and the crowds were thinning out when she finally saw a young girl talking to one of the light. She couldn’t make out what they were saying, but there was no doubt they were conversing, or at least the girl was seeming to have a conversation with it. Beth tried to get closer but the light started drifting away. She followed it until it faded away in the sunlight. All around her, the floating lights were fading into nothing. Disappearing as the sun rose. She looked around at the empty pier. No one was around as she slowly became translucent, then vanished.

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