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Fiction in response to Sustainable Cities and Communities
November 2018

City Stars

By Caroline Sun

I awoke to the sound of a howl, unearthly and screeching. My eyes snapped open and I sucked in a long, panicked breath. Where was I? My quick gaze registered the unfamiliar room, the crisp white blankets, the empty walls. Where were my favorite boyband posters, my bookshelf? Something tight seized my stomach, and I had to force myself not to scream.


Then slowly, suddenly, reality settled back in and forcefully shoved the haze of sleep away from my dream-addled state. Newly focused, I spotted a pile of boxes shoved haphazardly into a corner. The rough cardboard was labelled with thick black Sharpie letters spelling out “MY ROOM!!”.


I remembered—I had just moved. Only yesterday had I said goodbye to my parents and their big blue country house, my little brother and his wide blue eyes. A car honked outside, the noise a sharp intrusion on my reminiscence that sends me to my feet. I sighed, annoyed. It hasn’t even been a day, and already I missed the quiet clarity of the mountain valley air, the bell-like chirps of the meadowlarks in the mornings. This new realization brought with it a burst of sorrow, a lonely spark that was nevertheless quickly extinguished by a torrent of excitement. I may have left the crystal streams and ancient trees behind, but standing before me now were skyscrapers, tall and majestic. Now, I was in the city.


* * *


“Apples, bananas, the freshest fruits you’ll find in New York City!” Unsure, I smiled nervously at the vendor, and declined politely. He turned away without a second glance, already hawking his wares to other passerbys. Baffled, I shook my head and continued on. I was so unused to all this yelling and shoving. There were more people on this street than I think I had ever seen in my life. The crowd itself seemed to be alive, a pulsing, throbbing mass, swelling across the asphalt until nothing could be seen but a million bobbing heads, spreading out in all directions.


And then, there were the cars. The streets of New York City seemed to emit every sound imaginable to mankind, from honks to squeals to bangs. Drivers’ heads popped out of windows, mouths flapping with shouted obscenities to each other. Drive faster, drive slower, that’s a red light, hurry it up now, whatsa matter wi’you, go go GO. I found myself wondering, were people always this bad-tempered?


It seemed that everyone had somewhere they had to be, rushing around with their heads down. Always some phantom goal, always running towards it but never reaching it, never stopping. Never stopping. Did no one ever want to stop, stand back and just enjoy the present? To pause and notice the beauty around you, to watch the rising sun or the twinkling stars? I had a sinking feeling that, really, I knew all the answers to the questions I was asking. What a weird place I had found myself in.


* * *


It was almost nighttime. I had whiled the day away at the office building where I would be working. As each minute passed by, I realized just how different my life was going to be.

Never before had I really left the countryside, the safety of my mother’s arms and my father’s smiles. My childhood had been warm summer days in golden meadows, laughter as I rolled down snowy winter hills. And then there was my learning. I had heard stories of kids in the cities who hated learning, who had terrible things like grades and homework. But for me, education had always been something to look forward to. It meant days outside on my father’s shoulders, pointing out trees and plants. It meant cold nights spent cuddling with my mother, reading stories of animals and magic. When I was old enough, I went to a small college a few hours away from home, in a small suburban town. The days there were spent in comfort, with new friends and a sudden thirst that filled me with delight. I hungered for something new, something larger than the country life I had lived so far. I wanted to see people, to have an “iPhone."

And here I am now, walking back to my apartment in New York City, with a college degree in business and a passion for the city. To be honest, however, the city was much different than what I had expected. I wasn’t sure yet if this was good or bad.

My thoughts were interrupted by a group of rowdy boys that shoved past me. I opened my mouth in surprise and indignation, only to stop at the sight of them. They laughed raucously and shouted incoherently, words slurred and eyes glazed over. I heard the clink of glass bottles. And then, they turned the corner and were gone.

Still shocked and a little frightened, I leaned up against the wall of a nearby shop, breathing hard. As I worked to calm myself, I heard a rattling cough beside me. Concerned, I glanced into the niche between the shop and a next-door restaurant, where I thought the cough had come from. A gaunt face peered up at me from a pile of dirty rag-like blankets, eyes wide and bloodshot. Matted hair hung across the old woman’s face, and she coughed again. Startled, I stumbled back, away from the sick woman lying in the alleyway. A few passersby grunted at my presence, pushing past with annoyed words. How could they not see the old woman? How could they not care?

I was shaking now, from confusion or shock or fear, I didn’t know. I staggered across the sidewalk, eyes locked on my apartment building. It was just a few blocks away. I could make it.

Whistles and catcalls filled the busy night air, just loud enough to be heard across the noise of traffic. The shouts of more drunk party-goers echoed around me, even the occasional whine of a police siren. Someone in the crowd grabbed me, but I yanked my arm away without even looking to see who it was. With every turn I saw an emaciated face staring out of the shadows, shoulders limp and bony, hand held out pitifully for mercy. Why? Why could I not bring myself to look at them? Why did I turn away? Why did no one else seem to care?

I filled my mind with questions, pretending that they would drown out the noise, pretending that all I saw wasn’t real, pretending that I was back home in a green meadow with nothing for miles but the wind, the birds, and me.

It seemed like an eternity before I was finally at my apartment building. It was funny. Just a few moments before, I had felt so much panic and confusion; now I just felt empty. Soundless, I rode the elevator up to my apartment and unlocked the door. Without bothering to take off my shoes, I flung myself onto the rickety bed. I peered out the window and up into the black, black sky, hoping to see something familiar, hoping to see the stars as I knew them, hoping that Orion, Gemini, and all the other constellations would be twinkling down at me, watching over me.


The sky remained dark and blank, like the bottomless nothingness of an old well. A great sorrow filled me, that not even the stars were there for me tonight. Even my tears were absent; I felt dry and empty. I turned away from the window and fell asleep, lost and alone.

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