Once upon a time, in the darkest corner of the deepest basement in Staten Island, far from where most of the humans had settled after the fall of mankind, there lived a little girl who sang with the stars. Her name was Onyx, and she had never seen sunlight. She’d never seen the Manhattan skyline, not even when the electric lights had blazoned the billboards in gold and green and crimson. Even when the solar roads had twinkled pearl and mint and carnelian to tell the shepherds of the endless levvy trains to stop and go, fast and slow, open and close, even then her eyes had been darkened.
Her big cousin Emerald had seen it all. He’d seen sunsets and stars and driverless cars, and he’d seen the afterbirth on his cousin’s head the day she’d been born. He’d seen her curving ivory ears and her pallid yellow cheeks and most of all he’d seen the ice, ice blue of her sightless eyes. And though Emerald was not a man of many words, he’d known, since that very moment, that it would be his job to show the world to his little cousin. After all, he was all she had left.
He’d buried her mother, his aunt, under a pile of blankets. It was the best he could do for her. He’d already buried a cousin and a father this week, with his aunt’s help, and he’d tended to his aunt during the ardour of childbirth. He’d been so relieved when the baby was out that he hadn’t even noticed the life that trickled slowly out of his aunt, out the door, down the steps, until the baby cried for her mother and her mother hadn’t noticed.
Few fifteen year old boys could raise a baby. Probably none could have done it after the end of the world. But Emerald didn’t let that stop him. He could stay in the apartment, of course. Nor any of the other apartments in the building. How many corpses could a fifteen year old boy be expected to deal with on his own, after all? So he hiked it down to the little shop at the corner. He brought sleeping bags and pillows and clothes enough for them both, and he ran through the store’s supply of powdered formula and bottled water. When he’d gone through every brand Mr. Forster (rest in peace, Jesus bless him) carried, even the ones made for bigger kids, he moved on to the next store and the next, and there were enough convenience stores in the empty city to get through Onyx’s first few months of life.
Well, as you know, it wasn’t so very much an empty city, and by the time Onyx was three months old, Emerald was all too aware of the fact. He’d seen a lot of strange characters pass through his little corner of the island. There was a man who went singing through Silver Lake, so he stopped taking Onyx there. Instead, he told her stories about the squirrels who chattered in the trees and the rushing of the water when it rained. He saw a little red-head boy, lost and pale, who wouldn’t come when he called. He’d seen a red mop of hair obscuring a little boy’s head a few days later, face down in a pile of garbage – he hadn’t been brave enough to look and see if it was the same boy. Blessed Mother forbid. But he hadn’t gone to the candy store again. Instead, he told his little cousin stories about the sweets that used to be there, sparkling cherry gummies, melting chocolate, and pastel rock candies.
Another day he’d seen a lanky white man, driving a recreational vehicle – the kind people went camping out west in, the kind you were supposed to see the world in. The man had a scraggly beard and a cheerful demeanor, but Emerald ran like lightning when the man asked to hold his ‘baby sister.’
And that was when Emerald had taken Onyx underground.
It was warm in the dark, and Emerald learned all the safe paths to places with food and warm blankets and clothes Onyx could grow into. And as she grew, Onyx learned to be quiet, quiet, lest the monsters of the city come to take her away. Emerald filled her head with as much of the beauty of the world as he could remember, but he fenced it around with monsters and predators and parasites, so she wouldn’t be temping to venture off and taste it all for herself.
“Tell me about the farms again,” she whispered, her five-year old forehead buried in his twenty-year old neck. He fed her hot roasted chestnuts and told her about cows and horses and made the sounds for her.
“Tell me about the ocean,” she murmured, rubbing together her eight-year old hands. And he spun tales of holidays by the sea, of hermit crabs and sea weed, of tossing about on the waves, of the smells of salt and taffy. Then he wrapped an aluminum thermos of hot water in a blanket and tucked it into her bed and kissed her cheek.
“Tell me about the stars.”
He’d told her at least a thousand times in her ten years of living. He’d told her about tiny bursts of light that looked like glitter on a tutu, like sprinkles on a cupcake. How could she know any of these things? She couldn’t, didn’t. But she loved them anyway. Like frost on a windowsill.
“I want to see them for myself.”
“You can’t,” he said firmly. “It’s not safe to go out at night. During the day, when it’s quiet, I’ll take you down to see the deer again.”
Of course she hadn’t seen the deer, but she said she felt them. She said she could smell their fur, feel the pounding of their hooves on the crumbling concrete. She said… she said she could feel their spirits. Emerald had shivered when she said that. He’d almost believed she really could.
“They won’t be out tomorrow. And I don’t want to see the deer. I don’t want to see the day. I want to see the night. I want to sing with the stars.”
Emerald laughed. “The stars don’t sing.”
“Yes, they do.”
“No, they don’t. You say the stupidest things. Go back to bed.”
“Fine.” She stomped her feet. “Fine then. I didn’t want to tell you, but now I have to. Aslan told me that I have to go out tonight, and I have to take you with me.”
Horror dropped into his stomach, ice cold. “Who told you?”
“Aslan. Just like Lucy in the story about Caspian. Aslan told Lucy to go and if they’d only listened to her then everything would be okay.”
Ten years of careful nurturing unspooled in front of him. Of course she’d grown delusional. He’d done his best, of course. He’d kept her safe, kept her fed. He hadn’t thought being underground, being alone would matter. She was blind, anyway, what did it matter how often she’d seen the sun? But she’d been lonely – he should have staked out to find friends for her.
“Onyx… shit, honey, Aslan isn’t real. It’s just a story. Look, I promise I’ll take you out tomorrow and… I don’t know. We’ll find some people. You’re just lonely.”
“Emerald.” She pressed together her cute little mouth and glowered at him. “Stop being an ass. I’m not lonely, I’m not stupid, and if we don’t listen to Aslan, something very bad is going to happen to us.”
He sighed. “Shit. Fine. Get your coat. It’s cold as hell out there.”
“I’ve already got our coats together, and I packed our things.”
“Well, aren’t you fancy. I suppose you know where we’re going?”
“Somewhere there are stars. A million-billion stars. Aslan said to find the million stars and he’d make sure we were safe.”
“Right. Do you have a plan B?”
“The plan B, smart ass, is for you to trust me.”
The tunnels in Manhattan are ancient, going back hundreds of years to when the city was young and men built with bricks and stone. But the subway tunnels in Staten Island were state of the art. Steel and mirror, solar panels, heated seats running on power that had kept functioning long after the last servicemen had fallen asleep in his midnight bunker. They were comfortable there. On a night like tonight the wind outside whipped mercilessly, and Emerald was loathe to surface. But Onyx urged him on. When they stepped out into the night, it was already black. No stars marked the sky at all.
“There,” he said. “The stars. You happy now, cuz?”
“Liar,” she said. There’s not a star in sight. I can’t hear a single song.”
“Now, I told you. The stars don’t sing.”
“Even if that were true, cousin of mine, I can feel how thick the air is. Storm coming in. I bet every last thing I own there aren’t any stars out here.”
He sighed. “True, kid. But you feel that storm you just mentioned? I bet everything I own that it’s bringing snow and sleet and a mess of wind, and if we don’t get you back down where it’s warm, you’re gonna get sick. And if we get too far from home, I don’t know how I’m gonna keep you warm. We could die out here, kid.”
“My whole life you’ve been protecting me from death, Emerald. Now it’s my turn to protect you.”
She took his hand, smiled up at him with her glowing, sightless eyes, and led him east.”
They walked for an hour until they reached the bridge. She led him up the hill.
“Hey, come on, stop it. You feel the water, don’t you? Come on, honey, we’ve gone far enough. Can you feel the stars now?”
“A few of them. There are a few of them here, aren’t there?”
He looked around and was surprised to see that there were. A smattering of them, even though he could still feel the rushing of the wind.
She put her hands up. “I feel it on my fingers, Emerald! Stardust!”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s great, baby.”
“It’s like sprinkles on a cupcake, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, kid. Like glitter on a tutu. Let’s go home.” His fingers were growing numb, and the numbness was tugging at his heart now, too. The sprinkling in the air was the beginning of the falling snow.
“No. There are only a few stars here. Aslan said to go where there were a million-billion. We’re on the right track. I can feel it. We have to go that way.”
And she pointed, as he knew she would toward the bridge.
“No, dammit! We’re going home now. That’s the fucking bridge! I didn’t raise you up so you could throw both our lives away into some stupid blizzard! Come on, baby, let’s get home, and I promise, I swear I’ll take you to see the stars the second winter starts melting.”
“It has to be tonight, Emerald. It has to. Aslan said no.”
“No. Fuck that. You’re imagining shit, kid. We’re going home.”
She pulled away from him. “What are you going to do, throw me over your shoulder?”
“Are you even serious? You know I can’t carry you anymore.”
“Well I’m going that way.” She pointed again. “With or without. In the story, Lucy had to go on her own, even if everybody disagreed with her. The sooner the better.”
“Fine. Then go on your own.”
He stomped away, glancing back at least twice a second so he could run to her as soon as she got scared. But she was walking forward, twice as fast and without turning her head even the tiniest. As she made her way toward the bridge, his heart lept. What if she slipped into the water? Soon his feet wouldn’t carry him any farther from her. He saw her grab the railing — how cold her fingers must be! — and slowly make her way across the bridge.
He swore under his breath and started running toward her. He ran and ran until he caught up with her, calling her name loudly, stupidly. Mother of God, what if someone found them out tonight? Sad luck to survive the storm only to be caught by some kind of crazy murderer. His foot trembled as he stepped forward onto the old bridge. It creaked and groaned in the wind. It had been frightening when he was a child, now ten years later, riddled with rust, grown over with weeds and dotted with nests of birds and bees and spiders and God knew what else, it was terrifying. When he reached his cousin, he found that she was sobbing, but still walking steadfastly forward, forward into the wind. She wouldn’t even look at him at first, she was so angry, but as the night grew colder, she drew close to him, and he wrapped his wool poncho around them both. They walked quickly at first, then slower and slower as their limbs seemed to freeze over.
Then, as they neared the end of the bridge, the wind died. The air slowly warmed. Only a little, not above freezing, but gently warmed so that they could move again. And as they stepped foot, arm in arm, on the Brooklyn side of the bridge, the Hudson lapping softly against her banks, Emerald looked into the sky and saw a million-billion stars. They seemed to be singing.
He woke to warmth and the sound of gentle laughter. He was in a house. A proper little house, with a bed and a wallpapered room. A dancing fire warmed the room, and unlit candles stood on the night table beside him. That was Onyx’s laughter, for sure. He sat straight up and leapt out of the bed, out of the room. His bare feet brushed soft pink carpet. Was this heaven?
His cousin sat on a plush brown couch and next to her a tall man, muscular, head shaved down to a soft down of black with just a little brown that shone through.
“Who are you?” Emerald roared. “Don’t touch her!”
Onyx laughed again. “I found him. I found Aslan, Emerald. I told you he called me. Only he isn’t a lion, he’s a star.”
He stared. “What?”
The man stood, bowed to him. “I am not a star. I am a messenger. A Messenger-Star-3000.” He showed his open wrist to Emerald. Tattooed in black on the skin, well, simulskin, apparently, were the letters MSNG*3000. “My people and I were recharging last night when I received word about the fire. We tried our best to evacuate the island, but I fear many like you were afraid to leave the tunnels.
“I don’t understand.”
“We sensed the smoke before it reached you, but we were unable to stop the blaze. I fear most of the island is a loss. If it weren’t for the snow, and the wind blowing it away from the city, the whole city may have been lost. Your sister heard my voice, and she followed. Had she not… well, if you don’t believe me, I’ll take you to the edge of the bridge myself.”
“Cousin,” he corrected.
“See, stupid?” Onyx said. “If you hadn’t listened to me, we’d’ve both died in the fire. And now my star is going to take us to meet some friends, even some little girls just my age.”
“I don’t trust him, Onyx. Come on, let’s go see for ourselves.”
She smiled. “We will, I promise. But first I want to sing with my star.”