|AMID A CROWD OF STARS
by K.V. Wylie
When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
How many loved your moments of glad
And bending down beside the glowing
--"When You Are Old," William Butler Yeats
Two weeks after I got here, the empty cottage beside mine was rented. Surprising as tourist season hadn't started yet. It was too cool, the wind too severe for swimming in the waves that were sometimes gentle but most often engulfing.
I had a dog, one of those big, lopsided ones that pound around like floppy bears, rescued from a kennel after my divorce when I found that a single woman alone in a house was liable to start hearing all sorts of disquieting noises after dark. The sounds hadn't gone away despite Arthur's arrival. Finally I realized the noises were shadows in my head, the chatter of children now grown, friends' voices from dinners of years ago, and footsteps of a man who'd chosen the aircar over the house in the settlement. So Arthur and I came here to my sister's bungalow by the water.
After a short but memorable encounter with a crab, and with his tail rather worse for wear, Arthur decided that no one should go near the shore. I was no longer allowed to walk where the sand became moist and dark brown and where the smooth white rocks, best for skipping across the top of the waves, lay buried like oysters in the drift. His means were gentle and insistent, head butting against my thighs until I moved back towards dry, grey sand that blew against the house and formed dunes as high as the porch. It didn't take long for Arthur to pull the same stunt with the new tenant next door.
I saw the man first from the kitchen window. He was farther down the shore, towards the trees and away from where the gulls circled overhead. The birds were attracted to what washed up in the undertow, the matted kelp and the silvery patches of dead fish caught within it. He stood away from the rotting seaweed at that line where the water lapped, his bare feet sinking deep into each swirl of water, his bearing graceful yet burdened, a tall man leaning lightly into the wind but shoulders stiff as if they'd been holding the same posture for a thousand years.
He turned a half-second before Arthur foundered into him. He was awfully thin but stronger than he looked for he withstood the impact.
Arthur nudged him, whining. The man looked at him for a moment, then smiled and stroked Arthur's head.
I went out onto the porch, called for Arthur (who ignored me, he usually did), and called out again to apologize.
"No need," the man said with a gentle, faint accent I couldn't place. He came a few paces towards the house. "Is he afraid of the water?"
"No," I said. "He's afraid of crabs. One got the best of him recently."
Another smile touched features I would later describe to my sister as windblown, the face of a man who had weathered too many storms. Yet he was handsome, something about the blue eyes that were startling even at a distance and the stately way grey creased his hair.
My subconscious mind had given him the once-over and noted a lack of wedding ring before my conscious mind realized it. Patting down my hair, I threw a dismayed glance at the old sweatshirt and jeans I had on. I hadn't been expecting to see anybody on the beach. But he wasn't looking at me. He was still petting Arthur and murmuring something idly, probably good dog or one of those half-dozen things you say to other people's pets.
"I'm Tia," I said.
"Leonard," he replied.
"Are you here on a holiday?"
"I'm on leave," he said. "Which I suppose is the same thing."
Leave? What did that mean? Where did people go on leave from? The only things that came to mind were jails and mental hospitals. I drew back a step.
An aircar flew overhead with a soft drone. It was high above the clouds from the sound of it, but Leonard looked up. He scanned the sky before chuckling. "I keep forgetting how little you can see when you're on a planet."
It finally sunk in. Leave. Planet. He was from a military unit, Starfleet I guessed though he didn't look the type. My brother had been in the reserves. He and his unit were, well, burly. Hulking guys. And not a lot going on upstairs.
Most people were unaware of Starfleet except as a vague navy in space. The popular newsfeeds had better things to report on, though I remembered hearing about one ship years ago.
"You're on shore leave?" I asked." Have you ever heard of the Enterprise?"
"I've heard something about her," Leonard said.
"There was a captain. He was very young," I said, racking my brains as I tried to recall more of the article. "My sister thought he was gorgeous."
"Just your sister?" Leonard asked.
I was being teased. "I never saw the actual story," I said quickly. "She told me. What's the name of your ship?"
He hesitated. "The Adele. It's a freighter."
Working on a freighter must pay well, I thought. Leonard had rented the cottage with the largest strip of private beach. I patted my hair down again, then felt foolish. I had just gotten out of a bad relationship.
"I hope you enjoy your leave, Leonard." I called Arthur again in my I-really-mean-it voice.
"Thank you," Leonard said. He turned back towards the shoreline as Arthur ambled up.
After I shut the door, I waited a few minutes before risking a discreet peek out. Leonard had walked down to the trees, following the shoreline, his steps unhurried.
In the week following I saw very little of my neighbour, a glimpse of him down the beach one day, changing his porch light another. Once I saw him watching the water as if he could see under the waves, his scrutiny so intense that I got my binoculars, but there was nothing there beyond the surf and a gull or two. Whatever he was looking at had nothing to do with the view.
A storm blew in on the weekend, a night gale that grounded the birds and threatened to tear the roof off the house. Sand and stones hit the siding with each blast. Lightning over the water turned the night sky an eerie, jaundiced yellow.
I huddled with Arthur, stroking his soft ears and whispering, "It's all right," though he was fine. I was the frightened one.
The storm eased by morning. When I let Arthur out, I could smell ozone and salt. A heavy mist billowed over the beach. Arthur disappeared into it and I was going to leave him to his canine sense to find his way back when I heard Leonard talking to him. I wrapped myself in a cape and went out.
Leonard stood near a pile of fresh debris, black-wet seaweed with pieces of wood entangled in it, brought up by the violent water. He been outside for a while; his jacket was sodden.
"Are you expecting company?" I asked. "If they're coming across the water, they won't be coming today. Not even the native fishermen will be out in this."
"I'm not expecting anyone," he said, so softly I barely heard him.
"Come in and I'll make some coffee."
"I set the timer on my machine. Mine's probably already made. Why don't you have a cup with me?"
We went into his cottage and I was taken aback for two reasons. Though this was a high-end cottage, I wasn't prepared for the sunken living room, fireplace, winding stairs to the second level, or the wall of media playthings. The second thing that startled me was how clean it all was. There didn't even seem to be any dust. In fact, nothing looked like it had been used.
"Is something wrong?" Leonard asked as I looked around.
"It seems a shame not to enjoy this with someone. And I thought that navy guys were partiers on leave. The floor should be covered in beer cartons," I said. "My brother used to go wild."
"Is he still in the service?"
"No, he left when he got married. Now he sells parts for flyers."
Leonard put together a tray with coffee and breakfast rolls, moving from countertop to table to cooler, laying his hands on what he wanted without really looking, his retrieval, his touch as precise as a long habit. This is here. That is there. I imagined he always laid his kitchen out so.
"I haven't heard a peep out of you. No music, no nothing," I said. "You've been a very quiet neighbour."
Leonard chuckled. "Quiet is not my reputation." He led the way into the living room. The carpet was plush under my feet. The couch covering felt like velvet.
"This should be a honeymoon cabin," I said. "Did you know it was this beautiful when you rented it?"
"I assumed the agent was exaggerating," he said. "The beach was what I wanted."
"Did you grow up near an ocean?"
"No." He didn't offer anything more.
He poured out the coffee and offered me a roll. It wasn't until I was settling back on the sofa with a mug and plate that I noticed an array of photovids on an end table. Leonard appeared in some of them, a blonde man appeared in a few others, and a young girl with very blue eyes smiled from a vid at one end. Most of the pictures were of Vulcans though.
I peered more closely. Actually, the vids were of only one Vulcan, an elegantly poised man looking sedately into the camera and wearing a Starfleet uniform.
Leonard followed the direction of my gaze. "Shipmates," he offered.
Only two shipmates, I thought, and one in particular.
"The girl is your daughter?" I asked. "She looks like you."
"Yes, she's my daughter. Do you have any children?"
"Two boys and two girls. Three are married. One owns a restaurant, two are teachers, and one is still finding herself," I said.
"No, but I'm hopeful." I wanted to ask if he any grandchildren, but it felt like prying even though he had just asked me the same question. There was an aura of inaccessibility around him, almost Vulcanish if I had to describe it. I wondered again about that Vulcan in the pictures.
"What do you do on the Adele?" I asked.
He looked at me for a moment, uncomprehending. Caught in a lie, I thought. I'd seen the look on my children's faces often enough. Yet he really had a Starfleet connection. The vids proved that.
"Oh yeah. That ship," he said at last, realizing he'd been caught. "I'm still somewhat in Starfleet," he said. "On reserve status. Semi-retired but not actively serving."
"What did you do on the ship?"
Arthur howled outside. Leonard got up to let him in. I took the opportunity to scoot closer to the pictures.
"That's that captain!" I said suddenly, recognizing the blonde man.
Leonard looked amused. "Is he the captain in the article that only your sister had seen?"
And now I'd been caught. I smiled ruefully. "Ok, I admit it, but it wasn't as if I was so taken with him that I kept the article or anything. I only read it once. Or twice." Then it hit me. "You were on the Enterprise!"
Leonard returned to his chair. Arthur sat beside him and laid a bearish head on his knees.
"Is it a military secret? Is that why you said it was another ship?"
"It's not a military secret. I served on four ships during my career in Starfleet, not just the famous one."
Something was twigging me about the Vulcan. Then I remembered. The youngest captain in the fleet. The first Vulcan in Starfleet. Famous indeed! And Leonard had been close to them, close enough to call them friends and travel all over the galaxy with them. I'd never been off Earth.
"What's it like up there?" I asked. "You know, outer space?"
Leonard paused for a second before saying, "Infinite." Sadness touched his eyes, darkening the blue.
I thought of my brother. His fiancé had made him choose: the reserves or her. She couldn't take his long absences. "It's a hard life," I said. "It kills marriages. You can't leave your spouse behind for years."
Leonard shot me a sideways glance. I'd been speaking about my brother, but Leonard must have thought I'd meant him.
"I suppose it is hard up there," Leonard said. "It can end marriages even between people who are working right beside each other." He finished his coffee and set the mug on a table. "The universe is full of death and separation." Then, in a kind voice, he added, "It's part of life on earth as well."
I knew he was referring to me. A white strip of skin still marked the place on my finger where my wedding band had been. There hadn't been enough sun yet to tan over it.
"I've been married," he said. "Twice."
"You're one up on me."
Arthur whined. Leonard chuckled. "I think he wants a roll. Is he allowed?"
"Yes, he eats anything."
Leonard gave Arthur a treat before putting the dishes back on the tray. I looked at the photovids again.
I felt kind of stupid for not figuring it out before. All those pictures of one Vulcan. One particular Vulcan.
"I'm afraid you're going to get a new neighbour and it might not be so quiet for you anymore," Leonard said as he went to the kitchen. "I only rented this place for a week."
"Today. I'm nearly packed, just the pictures, and my ride's coming soon." He put the dishes into the cycler. "You'll likely get your party animals playing music all night."
His teasing was gentle but infectious and I smiled. "Good luck then, Leonard," I said as I reached out a hand to shake his.
"You too, Tia," he said.
I called Arthur and we left. A little while later, an aircar landed briefly for him. Then it zoomed up into the sky and disappeared in the clouds.
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