My Song to the Stars
It was a song he had never heard before. Howie had been lying in his bed, eyes closed and trying to fall asleep, when he heard the first notes. There were no words, just a melody that repeated itself after a while. Unable to quell his curiosity, Howie got out of bed and walked over to the window. It was opened just a few inches, and his mother had strictly forbidden him to open it further. After all, his room was on the second floor, and he might hurt himself if he fell out. Not that Howie understood how that could happen; he was such a tiny bear cub that he could barely reach the windowsill, even if he stood on his tip-toes. Climbing up there would be impossible.
He pressed his round, fuzzy brown ear against the opening and held his breath, listening hard. Yes, he could hear it more clearly now. There was no way to tell where it came from, and when he reached as tall as he could to peer out, he couldn't see anyone. The sun had almost set, but there was still some light from streetlamps. He looked around again, brushing a tuft of long, brown hair out of his eyes, but he saw nothing and nobody. It might be someone next door singing, but he doubted it. The neighbours were an elderly lion man and his wife, and he couldn't believe that any of them had such a beautiful singing voice.
Because it was beautiful. A clear, high-pitched voice that sang a haunting tune. Howie sighed to himself as he stood back down on his feet, his toes aching with the strain. Now that he had heard it for a while, he thought that it sounded sad. A song that someone would sing who had just been crying. Or was about to. He sniffled a little, and wiped his nose on his pyjama sleeve. Then the song stopped, as suddenly as it had begun. Howie tried to look out again, but his toes were too sore to lift him high enough this time.
Instead he went back to bed and crawled in between his sheets, after a short wait to see if the song started up again. He thought about it as he began to feel drowsy. Why would someone who felt so sad sing so beautifully? When he was sad, he usually cried, or went to his mother for a hug and some comfort. But he never sang. The song stayed with him while he fell asleep.
The next morning, Howie's head soon filled up with other things. Even though he still thought about the song while he brushed his teeth, it started fading from his mind while he picked out his clothes for the day. That was a big moment of his day; it wasn't too long ago that he had finally learned to dress himself, and it always made him proud when he could do things without his mother's help. He put on a pair of light yellow shorts and a sky blue t-shirt, then checked his reflection in the mirror. The little bear boy in there grinned back at him, blue eyes glittering happily, and they both made thumbs-up. These clothes looked good against Howie's short, dense brown fur.
Just then the call came from downstairs that breakfast was ready, and so Howie hurried to put on a pair of socks. He walked down the stairs, since he had strict orders not to run inside the house, and he mostly tried to be a good boy. His mother smiled warmly at him as they met at the kitchen table, and she set out orange juice and a bowl of porridge for him. He was still too little to cook, or to even reach the top of the stove, but he knew he would learn that, too, some day.
After breakfast, he took off out of the house. Late summer was the best time to play outside. The older kids, who could sometimes be quite scary, had just started their new school year, and now the little ones could run free. Now Howie was suddenly one of the oldest, as he still had a full year before he started school.
The park with its playground lay just a minute's walk away from his house, a minute that usually turned into five because he was a kid. And kids don't walk in straight lines unless someone makes them. He paused to look at flowers, to jump in a puddle of water, to pet a neighbourhood cat. Anything that caught his attention.
It was still early, so the playground was nearly empty. There was only one other morning person among the kids he knew, and so it was no surprise to him that it was Jenni who sat on a tyre swing, rocking lazily back and forth. She was a cat girl, with white fur that had orange patterns down her back and her arms, short light brown hair and large green eyes. Though he would never admit it to anyone, Howie thought she was really pretty. Not pretty in the way that made him want to kiss her, but pretty in the way that made him feel proud to have her as a friend. They waved and grinned at each other, then Howie hopped up onto the swing beside hers, and they exchanged their usual greeting.
"Yeah," she shrugged. "You?"
They sat there quietly for a little while, each pondering the perfect conversation they had just had, then Jenni was the one who couldn't stand it any longer. She hopped off her swing and pounced him, sending them both crashing to the ground in a heap of snarling and growling fur. As always, it ended with Howie pinned down.
"Gotcha, teddy bear!"
"Don't call me that," Howie whined. "I keep tellin' ya."
"But you are a teddy bear." She nuzzled his brown-furred arm. "Mmm, so soft."
"Hey!" he protested, snatching his arm away. "I'm not a toy!"
"You are as long as I sit on ya."
"Then get off!"
"Nope," she giggled, and proceeded to run her fingers through his long hair. "This is the only thing that doesn't look like a teddy's s'posed to. Won't you let me cut it?"
"No!" With a rush of panic, Howie managed to throw off his friend. "I like my hair!"
"But it makes you look like a girl."
"Does not! Boys can have long hair, too."
"Yeah, but since you're so little and cute, you kinda look..."
This time it was Jenni's turn to get pounced, but the end result was the same. Pinned down again, Howie cursed his size. He had always been small and slender, almost scrawny, and even though Jenni wasn't more than a couple of inches taller than him, she was a lot stronger. She pinched his round cheeks, the only part of him that wasn't skinny, and laughed as he squirmed to get away. In the end she let him up, giving him a brief hug to stop his pouting.
"Don't be mad, Howie. Please?"
"I won't if you say I don't look like a girl."
"What's wrong with that? Don't you like girls?"
"Yeah... well, guess I do, but... I don' wanna be one."
"All right, you don' look like a girl." They smiled at each other, but then a glint of malice shone through in Jenni's eyes. "But you're still a teddy bear. A cute li'l teddy bear."
She took off at a run, and Howie gave chase. For the rest of that morning the two of them played at the park, and as the sun rose higher they were joined by other kids. They were the only ones old enough to play outdoors without supervision, though, and under the eyes of watchful parents or nannies or babysitters the games soon got boring. So the two of them decided to go somewhere else after lunch.
As they walked towards Howie's house, Jenni started singing. It was some kind of poppy tune that Howie didn't care much for, especially not the sappy love lyrics. But it brought back the memory of the song he had heard last night. It definitely hadn't been Jenni singing. The cat girl didn't have a bad voice, but it was nowhere near as beautiful.
"Did you hear something last night?" he asked. Jenni lived close to him, so maybe... "Outside, I mean?"
"You know I can't go out at night. Mom would ground me for years an' years."
"Yeah, but I heard it through my window. Somebody was singing."
"Well, I heard nothin'. Mom won't let me have my window open, she thinks I'll get too cold."
"Yeah, its kinda sucks. But parents, you know?" She shrugged. "Never let you do nothin'."
"So who was singing?"
"I don't know. If I did, I wouldn't ask. I just thought, maybe you knew."
"Was it a boy or a girl?"
"Duuno. A girl, I think, maybe. It was kind of a sad song, I think."
"Maybe she was in love with you," Jenni giggled. "You know, like a sere... uhm, what's they called? Serenate or something."
"Yeah, that's it!" She patted his shoulder and giggled again. "You got a secret admiring."
Howie sighed and rolled his eyes. What was it with girls? They could take anything and turn it into being all about love. Even serious things, like comic books and stuff like that. A shudder went through him as he recalled one time, when Jenni had told him that his favourite Wolf Star hero was 'cute'. She was okay, usually, but from time to time she just mushed up.
Howie's mother had made soup and sandwiches, and invited Jenni to eat with them. She declined, though, and headed for her own house. Still thinking about the song, Howie sat down and bit into a ham and tomato sandwich.
"Mommy, did you hear someone sing last night?" he asked through a mouthful. "Outside, I mean?"
"Outside?" He nodded. "No, I don't think so. When was this?"
"After I went to bed. I heard someone sing, but I couldn't see nobody."
"Anybody, dear. Otherwise you have a double negation."
"And you're not supposed to be up after bedtime," she winked, and he had to hide his blush by sipping some celery soup. "Well, maybe we can listen tonight and see if we hear it again."
They did listen for the song, after she had tucked him in that evening. Howie hadn't dared to tell her that it had been almost all dark last night, way after bedtime. So he pretended to agree when she said it was probably a radio somewhere. Either that, or he had dreamt it. In the end she kissed him good night and left, turning off the light before she closed his door. Howie lay awake for a long time and listened as hard as he could, but he was fighting a losing battle against sleep. The afternoon had been a busy one, when he and Jenni had played up at the edge of the forest with a couple of other kids their age. They weren't allowed to go deep in among the trees, but they could still play all kinds of games there.
Howie yawned, and when he did he found that his eyes were closed. Funny, he couldn't remember shutting his lids. Maybe it had all been a dream, after all. He turned over to lie on his side, then yawned again as he got ready to sleep. That was when he heard it again. That soft, wonderfully clear voice that sang its wordless tune. It was the same melody, he was sure of it. Wasting no time, he tossed off his blankets and dashed to the window.
This time he could follow the melody, how it rose and fell and how it shifted in pace. It pulled at him, tugged at his heart until he could feel tears burn his eyes, threatening to fall. He stood there listening for as long as it lasted, often holding his breath to hear better. When it finally ended, he could feel his lower lip quivering. As quickly as he could, he hurried back to bed and pulled up the blankets. For several minutes he fought against his tears, and in the end he managed not to cry.
Howie spent most of the next day alone. He and Jenni had time for their usual greeting and wrestling match, and to play with a ball for a little while on his lawn. But after that, she had to follow her mother to visit her cousins. Not feeling like searching for other playmates, Howie mostly wandered around the nearest neighbourhood, searching for someone who looked like they might be singing at night. The tune stayed in his mind, and from time to time he hummed some of it. One more listen, he thought, and he would know it by heart.
There was one thing that caught his eye that afternoon. A couple of houses down the street, a 'For Sale' sign that had been hanging there for what seemed like forever, had been replaced with one that said 'Sold'. Howie walked past the house a couple of times, but he couldn't see anyone. Maybe they hadn't moved in yet, because there was no car in the driveway. The third time he strolled by, however, a panda man opened the door. He smiled at Howie as he threw a tied-up plastic bag in the garbage can, and the bear boy gave him a shy wave back.
That was all Howie managed to discover, and it wasn't really anything. The panda man couldn't have been the singer, that much Howie knew for sure.
The mystery still unsolved, he headed back home, and spent the rest of the time before dinner playing video games. He had just won a fantastic battle together with the Wolf Star crew, when the smells of dinner reached his nose. Shutting the game and the TV off, he left the living room and walked into the kitchen. His mother was just finishing a pasta sauce that usually made Howie's mouth water, but this day his mind was elsewhere. Video games hadn't chased the song out of his head, and when he set the table for them, he knew that his mother would notice.
"Is something wrong, honey?" she asked as they sat down to eat. "You look kind of sad."
"It's nothin', really." He smiled at her, but he could see that she wasn't convinced. "Really, mom, I'm okay."
"Did you miss Jenni today?"
"Uh-huh," he nodded, glad of finding an easy way out. "It's kinda boring when she's not around."
They ate their spaghetti, talking as they always did about nothing special, then Howie helped her with the washing-up. Small as he was, he had to sit on the counter in order to reach the sink and rinse the dishes.
It was still a couple of hours until bedtime, but Howie was starting to feel fidgety. Would he hear the song again tonight? Part of him hoped so, but he was also getting a bit scared of it. When he heard it, even inside his mind as he had during the day, it made him sad in a way that almost hurt. Thankfully, he was distracted when his mother suggested that he should take an early bath, then he could stay up a bit longer if he wanted to. If he wanted? What kid could possibly say no to that?
So he ran into the bathroom, and had already tossed his clothes into the hamper by the time his mother started filling the tub. They kept talking while she washed his short brown fur, which looked so much like hers, but he had to keep quiet and hold his breath while she poured shampoo into his long hair. Once he was clean, she let the water out and rinsed him with the showerhead. Being towel-dried tickled, and as always it made him giggle. When the two of them sat down in front of the TV, though, Howie dressed in clean pyjamas, he couldn't keep the thoughts of the song away.
"Are you sure you're okay, honey? You're really quiet today."
"Yeah, I'm fine."
"Are you thinking of daddy?"
"Yeah..." It was kind of a lie, and he felt bad for it. He hadn't really thought about his father that day, at least not in the way that she meant. The sad way. "I miss him."
"So do I, sweetie." She opened her arms to him, and he climbed into her lap for a long hug. "So do I."
Howie got an extra long cuddle that night, before his mother tucked him in and kissed him good night. While he adored the attention, he was also anxious for her to leave before the song began again. He had a plan now, one he had thought up while they watched TV. It was a bold one, he knew, and it could get him into heaps of trouble. Maybe even earn him a spanking, he thought to himself, swallowing a sudden lump in his throat.
But he had to know, had to find out who was singing. What would happen once he knew, he had no idea. The knowledge was all that mattered. He was not the least bit tired, but he stayed in bed in case his mother came in to check on him. It always worried her when he was sad, and he felt a sting of conscience when he thought about how he was going to disobey her rules.
Time ticked by, and when Howie felt certain that the song would start soon, he hopped out of bed and took off his pyjamas. As quietly as he could he put on underwear, socks, a shirt and a pair of long pants, then sneaked his door open. There was no light coming from his mother's room, so he tip-toed downstairs and put on his sandals. He was no good at tying knots yet, and he didn't want to waste a lot of time getting into his usual sports shoes. When he was done he went into the kitchen and brought a chair out into the hall. He climbed up on it and fetched the door key, then took the time to return the chair before he unlocked the door and let himself out.
It was still warm, but Howie couldn't hold back a shiver as he locked the door and sneaked off into the night. He had never before been this disobedient, and it was both exciting and scary. There was no song to be heard, but he was happy to wait for a while, not quite ready to leave the front yard yet.
Then he heard it.
The first clear notes, louder now that he was outdoors, forming that familiar melody. He hummed along quietly while he tried to locate the source. It came from... He swallowed, suddenly wishing he was back in his safe and cosy bed. It came from the forest. Gathering all his courage, Howie started walking through the back yard and up the hill that separated his house from the forest. The song was much clearer now, and it was so beautiful that he could no longer keep humming along. All he could do was listen and walk, with uncried tears brimming his eyes.
He saw the singer as soon as he cleared the top of the hill. A little bit away, on the park lawn leading up to the forest, sat a small figure, no bigger than he. By the moonlight, and some light coming from streetlamps, he could see black and white fur on a slender body. He had been wrong; this was not a girl singing, it was a boy. A panda boy who looked to be Howie's own age. It must be the son of the man who had greeted Howie earlier that day.
For a little while, Howie wasn't sure what to do. Now that the mystery was solved, shouldn't he just sneak back home and go to bed? No! He shook his head. That wouldn't be possible. He still needed to know why the song was so sad. So he took a couple of steps closer, then closer still. The panda boy was leaning back, watching the stars as he sang his wordless melody. Not wanting to scare the boy, Howie stopped a few metres from him, then coughed.
Immediately, the song ended in a gasp, and the panda boy leapt to his feet. He looked around, shivering with fear, until their eyes met. The two boys looked each other up and down in silence, then Howie smiled, and the boy smiled back. He had a slightly rounded face, just like Howie, and his eyes were a deep dark brown that almost seemed black in the lack of light. His smile was a friendly one. A couple of seconds later, they were sitting next to each other on the grass. The silence stretched out, while the panda boy seemed to be searching for words, just like Howie. It all felt slightly unreal, and in the end Howie knew he had to say something.
"I... I heard your song," he whispered, as if too loud a noise would bring reality back down onto them. "Both last night and the night before."
"It's... it's really beautiful."
"Anytime." With that, the silence was back, and it seemed to be growing as if to push the two of them apart. But Howie didn't want to go just yet. "Uhm... my name's Howie. What's yours?"
"Jai," the panda boy said in a low voice, and Howie found himself thinking that even his speaking voice was nothing short of beautiful. High and clear, and even his whisper sounded like a song. "My name's Jai. I live back there."
"I know," Howie said, looking back the way Jai had pointed. "I saw your dad earlier today."
"Yeah, he told me he'd seen a boy my age. He said I'll soon make new friends."
"You already have, I hope."
"Wow," Jai said, and a hint of a smile crept onto his lips, then widened until it escaped as a giggle. "Hehe, I just moved in, you don't even know me yet."
"I still wanna be your friend."
They sat in silence for a while, but this time it wasn't awkward. It felt, Howie thought, like that kind of silence you can have with really good friends. Where neither had to say things to make sure they were really there. He and Jenni sometimes had these moments, but with the cat girl's impatient nature they were preciously few. With Jai it felt as if they could sit there for hours without saying anything, or at least until parents came to look for them. This time it was Jai who broke the silence.
"I gotta go soon, or dad will come looking for me."
"He knows you're out?" Howie's eyes widened. "I hadda sneak out, my mom would never let me out when it's dark."
"Well, dad knows I like to sing at night, so he lets me."
"What is that song? It feels so sad."
"I guess it kinda is," Jai said, lowering his head. "It's my song to the stars."
"The stars?" Howie asked, looking up at the night sky. He couldn't see that many stars because of the city lights. "Why do you sing for the stars?"
"Because my mother is there," Jai whispered, raising his eyes to look up at the nightsky. "At least I like to think that she is. And so I sing for her."
"Is she..." Howie felt a knot in his stomach. "Is she dead?"
"Yes. A couple of months ago. It was..." Jai fell silent, and when Howie turned to look at him there were tears running down his white-furred cheeks. "It was a crash. A car crash."
"Oh." Howie thought for a few seconds, then put his arm around the panda boy's shoulders. Jai leaned against him, crying quietly. "Do you... do you think my dad is there, too?"
"Your... your dad?"
"Yeah. He died about a year ago." Howie found that he was shivering now, and it had nothing to do with the cooling night air. "He was... he was really ill. I still... I still miss him."
They sat there for a little while, both boys crying now. Howie felt a thin arm find its way behind his back, until a hand rested on his hip. He pressed his head against Jai, and without saying anything they hugged each other tight. It had been some time since Howie had cried for his father; he usually tried his best not to cry at all, because he didn't want to worry his mother. But now the tears flowed freely. Both boys shivered with sobs for a few minutes, before they broke the hug and leaned back. Jai managed a weak smile, and stroked Howie's cheek.
"I'm sure your dad is up there, too. Flying among the stars just like my mom."
"Maybe they know each other by now."
"I hope so. Maybe they're friends, too."
"C-can I..." Howie's voice broke, and he had to fight back fresh tears before he could start over. "Can I sing with you? Please? I wanna sing for him."
"Sure." Jai smiled again, and Howie found that he liked that smile. He wanted to see more of it. "I'll start, and you can join in. Do you know the melody?"
"Yeah, I think so."
Jai started singing, and it was a while before Howie could join in. He almost lost himself in the sadness and the beauty of the song, but he did manage to find his voice. They sang the whole song three times through, even though Howie felt that his quite ordinary boy soprano almost ruined the beauty of it all. Of Jai's amazingly clear voice. When they reached the end for the third time, they stopped as if on cue. Both had tears running down their cheeks, but they didn't really cry.
"You have a nice voice," Jai whispered. "I really like it."
"It's noting like yours. You're so... you sing so beautifully."
"Thanks." Jai got to his feet, and reached out with a hand to help Howie up. "I gotta go now. Will I see you tomorrow?"
"Yeah. I could come over to your house, if you wanna come out and play."
"Sure." They grinned at each other as Jai took both Howie's hands in his. "Thank you, my friend."
"Thanks for singing with me, Jai. I loved your song to the stars."
"Our song to the stars, Howie." With a sudden giggle, Jai leaned in and kissed him on the lips. Before Howie could react, the panda boy had turned around and started walking towards his house. "See you tomorrow."
Howie watched him until he was out of sight, then he stood there on the grass for a while longer. His mind was puzzled. He had just been kissed, by a boy, and his thoughts kept spinning round and round. What broke the spell eventually was the need to get back home before he was found out, and he started walking homewards at a brisk pace. Every now and then he licked his lips, savouring the flavour of Jai's lips. He tasted nice. And he smelled nice, too, Howie thought as he sniffed his hands.
Back home he managed to sneak inside and put the key away, then quietly make his way upstairs. But it wasn't until he was back in his pyjamas and had tucked himself in beneath his blankets that he finally relaxed. He had made it, had solved the mystery of the night singer without getting caught. And he had made a new friend! A slightly weird friend, he thought, and giggled as he tasted his lips again, but a good friend nevertheless. Tomorrow they would play, and hopefully Jai would make friends with Jenni as well. And maybe, if he explained it all to her without really mentioning his nightly adventure, his mother would let him out to sing for the stars again. For his dad and for Jai's mom.
And maybe, just maybe, Howie thought as he began to drift off into sleep, a smile still on his lips, he would get another kiss.