Free Extract: Body of Stars by Laura Maylene Walter

Posted on December 15, 2020 in Extract, Fantasy with tags Extract, body of stars, laura maylene walter

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One

From the time of my birth my brother Miles read me like a map, tracing my patterns of freckles and birthmarks to see my future and to learn something of his own. In those early years, my body was as much his as it was mine. To share meant letting him lift the back of my tank top or sweater so he could search my skin for a hint of what was to come. I never complained because I believed we were the same, that the predictions marked on my body were part of him, too. We were partners working in a discipline that required practice. He’d approach me at the breakfast table or in the upstairs hallway and ask if he could examine me again, as if my markings might have shifted—a phenomenon we both knew wasn’t possible. At least not yet.

When I was too old for Miles to see me shirtless, he studied my arms, focusing on the constellation of moles near my left elbow. “You’re lucky,” he told me. “You know what will happen.”

It was true. I did, as a girl, have this blueprint of my life imprinted on my skin. At sleepovers my friends and I stripped to our underwear to read our own futures. We lingered over our lower backs, the place for love and romance. “You’ll fall in love more than once,” Marie told Cassandra, and Cassandra in turn studied Marie’s back and said, with wonder, “You’ll live with a woman,” which none of us at that age understood. All we knew was that our lives were speckled in advance on our skin, as it had been for our mothers, as it was for our sisters, while our brothers and fathers were left in the dark.

Over the years Miles memorized me, every inch, and documented my marks in his notebook. That notebook was thick, with unlined pages and a pale blue cover. Sometimes I’d sneak into his room and flip through it, the little dots of ink pressed so hard into the pages they made a series of bumps, like a book for the blind. I was nearly sixteen, and the childhood markings my brother recorded would soon be outdated when I matured to my adult markings. Then, I knew, he’d want to study the revised map my body had produced.

That summer and early autumn leading up to my sixteenth birthday was a time of uncertainty, of risk and wonder. All around me, other girls were entering puberty, and before long I joined them. My hips widened, and I grew taller and gained some weight. I understood these changes ex‐ tended beyond my physical body. Soon, everything would change—my predictions, my expectations, my future. My entire life.

We kept our household copy of Mapping the Future: An Interpretive Guide to Women and Girls—an ancient, leather‐bound edition that had been in our family for generations—on the living room mantel, but Miles often claimed it for himself. My brother’s interest in interpretation seemed to me another one of his quirks, like how he was left‐handed or disliked chocolate. Interpretation was a female art, and for Miles to spend hours studying pat‐ terns and predictions seemed a bewildering choice. His love of interpretation was an obsession, a wildness, a force swelling beyond his control. Watching Miles cultivate a skill he was not meant to have, not meant to love in the first place, was a lesson all on its own.

We spent so much time together then. In August, a heat wave drove us into our basement, that shadowy space with the dirt floor and beams furred with cobwebs. We slipped past stacks of boxes to a tight spot under the kitchen where we could hear snatches of our mother’s disembodied voice from above. When we were younger, Miles and I would hide there to eavesdrop on our parents, but on this occasion we were motivated by little more than heat and boredom. We sat on the floor and leaned against the concrete walls, letting the coolness sink into our skin. Much later, I’d recall that afternoon as a dark point in the evolution of our relationship, the start of a chasm yawning open between us. But at the time, we were merely try‐ ing to fill a few empty hours.

“Let’s play Did You Know,” I suggested. The game was our own invention, created on a long‐ago summer afternoon much like this one, but we hadn’t played it in ages.

Miles rooted in his pocket for a coin. “Call it,” he told me, and the coin turned over itself in the dim basement light. Heads or stars. I called heads, but when he caught the coin against his arm and lifted his fingers, it faced stars up. A sly expression crossed his face. My brother was nearly eighteen but could still look impish, like a twelve‐year‐old boy just coming into his own.

“Ladies first,” he said.

Going first was a disadvantage, but I was ready. I turned to write my answer in the dirt behind me, where he wouldn’t be able to see it.

“Did you know,” I began, “there’s a chance the upper school might make gym class coed, like it is in the lower schools?”

He looked amused. “I don’t think so, Celeste.”

“Just listen. Cassandra’s mother is on the school board, which met last night.” When crafting a lie in this game, it helped to mix some truth into the matter. I went on to explain that a board member was advocating for mixed‐gender physical education to help girls and boys view each other as equals. Combining curricula could also save money.

As I spoke, my brother studied me with one side of his mouth twisted, a sign of his uncertainty. “If that’s true,” he said, “you wouldn’t have waited until now to tell me.”

“Saving information for the game is a good strategy. You taught me that yourself.” A sense of calm washed over me, an understanding that I could go on lying for as long as it took to win. “Besides, nothing’s settled. It’s just an idea someone suggested at the meeting.”

Miles rolled the coin between his palms. I could tell the implications of coed gym were flashing through his mind—how girls newly matured into their adult markings, and thus at the height of their beauty, would be thrust into closer contact with boys at school. But if this was the allure of my story, it was also its downfall.

“Lie,” Miles said at last. “Parents would complain about their changeling daughters being so close to boys during physical activity.”

Before I could try once more to convince him, Miles crawled around me to peer at the answer in the dirt. Lie, I’d scrawled in looping cursive.

“My point,” Miles said. “But that was a good round, Celeste. You almost got me.”

I waited as he wiped clean my answer and replaced it with his own. Once he’d finished, he settled cross‐legged before me, dust battering his knees and shins.

“Did you know,” he said, “that Mom and Dad tried to have another baby after you?”

I worked to keep my face impassive.

“I know what you’re thinking—that’s impossible, because Mom’s markings showed she’d only have two children.” Miles lowered his voice. “Here’s the thing. They thought maybe the markings left something out, or were unclear. Maybe they indicated a minimum of two children. You know how these things can go. For a time, they even thought she was pregnant. Mom started showing and everything.” He mimed the arc of a belly over his own flat stomach.

I watched him closely, trying to understand why he would bother with such a blatant lie—was he testing me?

“This was when you were around three years old,” he continued, “so I was five. I remember it, but barely. They were thrilled. That’s what always comes back to me, this sense of excitement about a third baby. That they wanted more than just you and me.”

A muscle in my cheek twitched, but I held my ground. I would not reveal that I was starting to believe his story could be true.

“But it wasn’t meant to be,” Miles went on. “For a long time, I thought I’d dreamed it. It was outrageous, to think Mom and Dad would believe they could have another child. Then I started to wonder what happened to the pregnancy. Was it a miscarriage? Or maybe it was one of those pregnancies that aren’t real. Imaginary pregnancy, I think it’s called.”

“Phantom pregnancy,” I said. “They’re rare.”

“In any case, I never asked about it. I assumed they wouldn’t admit they believed something so foolish in the first place.”

“You’re right that it’s a ridiculous thing to believe.”

Miles held my gaze. “This is the deepest kind of truth, Celeste—what seems impossible, what we keep secret. I never mentioned it because I re‐ member how upset Mom and Dad were after it fell apart. They wanted that third baby, even and maybe especially because it wasn’t fated, and look what happened.”

I let the silence stretch between us. It was untrue, it had to be, and yet I hesitated to give my answer. Miles was a master at this game. He wouldn’t propose a scenario so preposterous without thinking it through.

“Time to answer,” he said. “Truth or lie?”

I bit the inside of my cheek. Everything in me wanted to say Lie, but I couldn’t form the word. I was imagining our parents delighting in the possibility of a third child. I imagined them heartbroken when it didn’t work out, when they resigned themselves to Miles and me.

“Lie,” I said, finally. The word tasted wrong in my mouth.
Miles looked at me steadily. “Are you sure?”
Weak sunlight fell from one of the basement windows and illuminated the dust drifting through the air. When Miles turned a certain way he looked anointed, the dust motes ringing his head like an ethereal crown.

From above, our mother called for us.

“Miles? Celeste?” Her voice had the quality of being underwater. She tapped something on the kitchen floor to get our attention, the legs of a stool, maybe, or else her own foot. “Come up here.”

I rose and brushed dirt from my shorts, eager to escape both the game and my brother’s scrutiny. A rift had opened between us, the narrowest of fissures that could nonetheless widen under pressure. For Miles to suggest that our parents had defied the facts of fate struck me as sacrilege. Lying for the sake of the game was one thing, but to construct such a shocking detail seemed cruel. It almost didn’t matter whether his story was true or false; my distress stemmed from the fact that I couldn’t tell the difference.

Perhaps I didn’t know Miles, not fully. And if that was so, then I couldn’t stand for him to be present when I discovered what he’d written in the dirt. I’d return to the basement later, on my own, when I could confirm his truth or lie in private.

My mother had a novel propped open on the kitchen counter, a thick paperback she was reading as she sliced grapes into a bowl of fruit salad. She glanced up as we came in.

“You two are filthy.” She put down the knife. “Go clean up. But first, will you bring me Mapping the Future? It’s not on the mantel.”

“It’s in my room,” Miles said. “I’ll get it.”

He slipped from the kitchen, but I stayed behind and studied my mother as she leaned over her novel, her eyes flicking from one page to the next. She wore a teal sleeveless shirt faintly stained with cooking grease, and her hair was pulled back in a clip missing two teeth on one side. A few tendrils escaped and trailed down the side of her neck. When I saw my mother in disarray like this I felt anxious, like I was watching her descend into entropy. She’d had a career in education before marrying and having children, all of which had been outlined in her markings—a future she both embraced and couldn’t escape.

“Why do you need Mapping the Future?” I asked.
My mother turned another page. “A character in this novel has a marking for vitality in old age. I have a variation of that pattern, so I’d like to look up both versions and compare them.”

That marking was on the back of my mother’s left thigh. I remembered staring at it as a young child when we were together in a changing room: a line of four moles intersected by two more. It was a lovely prediction to have.

“Miles studies Mapping the Future more than any of us,” I said, “but he’s getting too old to still be so wrapped up in interpretation. Maybe it’s time for him to consider what he’ll be for real.”

“It’s hard for boys.” My mother turned a page of her book. “Imagine not having the future outlined on your body. I’d feel naked without it, wouldn’t you?”

It was easy to forget how lost my brother was as a boy, how he was forced to grasp what he could of the future from me. Our mother’s markings were the spaced‐out, long‐view type, which meant they were too broad to offer much insight into Miles’s life. He appeared as a lone dot in the markings on her stomach: the classic triangular cluster denoting family, then a separate cluster showing my father and two children, a boy and a girl.

My juvenile markings offered more detail surrounding my brother. The five moles arranged in a diamond‐like constellation on my shoulder blade had prophesized my severe case of the flu at age eight. That pattern indicated that Miles would get sick, too, which he did, despite our parents’ efforts to quarantine me. And the cluster of career markings on my right hip suggested that Miles and I might one day work together.

I struggled to see how our future careers could align since I was interested in studying psychology and Miles decidedly was not, but he didn’t seem fazed by this. He also chose to overlook the lone outlier marking in my career pattern, the type of mark that offered a rare contradiction—it indicated that I might, in fact, end up working alone. We’d know more once I passed to my adult predictions, but until then, my brother held out hope that this pattern might align with what he most wanted for his own future, which was to become a professional interpreter. His dream was impractical, nearly impossible, and yet he pursued it.

Another impossibility, and one I could not shake: that what he’d told me in the basement could be true. I looked at my mother and tried to picture her belly swelling against her shirt. Maybe Miles and I were two siblings shadowed by the absence of a third.

“Have you ever wanted something that’s not in your markings?” I asked. “Something you weren’t fated for, I mean.”

She slid a bookmark into her novel and looked at me, surprised. “Of course, Celeste. I’m only human.”

I studied her, searching for a sign that what she wanted was a child beyond me. But I detected nothing.

Miles reentered the kitchen and placed Mapping the Future on the counter. Heavy dark leather, gold text with a filigree design on the cover—a thing weighted with the gravity of truth and time. Our mother gave the text a pat, as if relieved to be reunited with an old companion.

“Thanks,” she said. “Now go and clean yourselves up, both of you. You’ve dredged up enough of a mess for one day.”

Miles and I did not return to our game that afternoon. Instead, we passed the hours in a humid summertime blur: we listened to the radio, we let ice pops drip onto our wrists, we sprawled on the living room floor in front of the fan. Eventually, Miles retreated to his room. I sat by the living room window, watching the sky darken to a deep cobalt. Shadows fell on the other houses in the neighborhood, making them appear desolate and gray, as if they’d aged decades in an instant.

All the while, I remained aware of the unfinished game, my brother’s response languishing in the basement. Truth or lie. I pictured his answer as a living thing waiting in the falling light, calling for my return. Asking me to bear witness.

My descent into the basement that evening was the first step toward everything else—I can see that now—but at the time, I was simply inching forward in the dark, uncertain and on my own.

At the bottom of the basement stairs, I paused to allow my eyes to adjust. I thought of Miles as I waited, and how he’d grown unknowable dur‐ ing our game. For the first time, I understood he was capable of keeping a real secret, something that carried far more significance than anything we expressed in a game, and I worried what that could mean. There in the cool draft of the underground, an unnamed anxiety stirred to life inside me— alarm for my brother and what else he might one day hide from me.

The basement was lit by a lone, buzzing bulb, its weak illumination barely reaching the corner where earlier we’d sat coated in dust. I crept in that direction, my senses wired and alert. Finally, under the cover of cobwebs, I arrived at the word etched in the dirt. Miles had written his answer in all capitals, a message foretelling his impending deception as well as my own.

LIE, the answer read.
My first glimpse of the truth.

 

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Releasing 18th March 2021 in Ebook, Audiobook and Hardback.

 

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