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Before the Lights Go Out

Six less than last week. I lay on the grass next to Sam, holding her hand. We're both silently counting in our heads. She's slower at counting than I am, but she always finishes with a higher number. She says it's because she's an optimist. I tell her it's because she flunked third grade math.
It's early October, the time of year when you still get caught off-guard by the nighttime chill. Neither of us have a jacket and Sam is wearing short sleeves for some reason. She pulls me closer for warmth. It's not all bad I guess. I try to say something, but she stops me.
I'm not done counting yet."
We lay there for a few more minutes, the cold sinks its teeth in deeper. We both have school the next morning.
"4,269. What did you get?"
I tell her and she smiles. I say that it's not a competition, but we both know I'm secretly jealous. Fourteen stars could mean two extra weeks of being together. She pulls me closer and I try not to feel scared.
August. A warm nighttime breeze blows through our hair, tangling together our loose strands. Sam was right, I shouldn't have grown my hair out. I thought it would make me look scholarly but she told me I look like a teenager with a wannabe garage band. Her words, not mine. She's right, but I haven't admitted it yet.
Sam is really showing now. Her belly pokes out just far enough that I can see a bit of skin between her belt and T-shirt. Sometimes I'll poke the fleshy patch with my finger just to watch her squirm. She says it's bad for the baby, but I can't see it doing much harm other than giving him an early-developed sense of humor.
I haven't given her my count yet. Is this one of the nights when we'll see one of them blink out while we watch? The night sky still looks alive, despite everything.
Sam mindlessly tries to work out our knotted-together hair, but keeps her eyes up. Almost five years and she's still finished her count first. Five years and I've still never had a higher count than her. I think she adds twenty every time, just to mess with me.
It feels weird to finish on such a round number. I count them again quickly, just to make sure. Same answer. Sam and I have been doing this for so long that I can count groups of stars all at once, ten at a time if I want to.
I feel bad for the city-folk. They hadn't even had 1,600 stars in their sky before they started to go out. Now our sky was starting to look like theirs. It left a bitter taste in my mouth.
Sam is still inside, dealing with Nat. He's been having nightmares ever since I accidently left the news on while he played in the family room. God knows what he heard, but it was more than a nervous eight-year-old could handle.
Sam came back inside and told me the number. Part of me wanted to go out there and count with her, but some days I needed an excuse not to. I would call Nat or put on an old movie from the days when they still tried to distract people.
I smiled, it was the same number as yesterday. I knew better than to take that as a good sign, I knew it meant that she'd miscounted, but I felt comforted nonetheless; like I'd stolen an extra day from whoever was in charge of my days. Sam sat next to me on the couch.
"I hate this movie."
I say I hate it too, but as soon as the TV is off my heart sinks. Sam looks at me like there's something she wants me to say. We sit in silence for a long time.
Seven left. Sam and I agree on that. We've agreed on every count for months.
The cities are a mess. I haven't heard from Nat in three days. I should be more scared for him, but it's hard. In one week it won't matter. In one week the only star that's ever really mattered, the one I've so selfishly depended on my whole life, will be gone. Why does ours have to be the last one? Isn't it a regular star like any other? It feels unfair that we have to be last, that we have to wait.
We'd watched it happening all these years; the stars going out, one by one. It didn't matter how many millions of light years away, it was there one day and gone the next. It was like watching an apartment building from the outside as each inhabitant turned their light off for the night, only to never see them come back on again.
Sam has been in bed all morning. I pull her dark hair, tickle her soft tummy. She laughs, but doesn't get up.
No one knows what it will look like, no one knows what it will feel like.
I try to enjoy these last warm rays, but they feel cheap and purposeless. Sam is out of bed. She smiles at me.
The hours fade. No sign of any change, but we feel it coming.
Sam and I go outside and lay in the grass.
Our one and only star begins to settle behind the mountains. It quickly becomes cold. We forgot our jackets again.
Sam pulls me close, and I'm not scared.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, March 19th, 2019
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