12/20/2012 02:44 pm ET

Teen Fiction: 'To Catch A Star'

This is a regular column featuring original poetry and fiction by and for teens, provided by Figment, the online community writing site for young readers and writers.

By Anande Sjöden

When Ava was six and Caleb was eight, he taught her a game called "Hurtling Through Space." The way it went was this: they started off running flat out until their throats were on fire and they could hardly breathe, and then they tipped their heads back and spun in circles. Round and round they went, watching the sky wheel above them until they collapsed on the lawn, so stunned and dizzy that they had to grab fistfuls of grass to keep themselves from flying off the face of the earth.

Under their backs, the ground hummed with energy. "Do you feel us spinning?" Caleb panted.

Ava nodded. She felt it. It was the first time she truly believed the whole planet was flying through space.

Caleb was always thinking about things like that. He was always looking upward, always moving as fast as possible. His favorite word was infinite. After dark, though the practice was forbidden, he liked to coast down their road on his skateboard at a breakneck speed. "The moon follows me," he said once, and Ava believed it was true.

Caleb's eyes were sky-colored, and his hair was black as night. His mother babysat while Ava's taught summer school, so she was at his house every day from June to August. She chased after him, always begging him to slow down; he wore out two pairs of sneakers every summer without fail.

The most treasured memory of all her childhood was of a night when she and Caleb were alone under the sky. He'd beckoned her into the field behind the house, where they did Hurtling Through Space again and again until Ava threw up her dinner. Caleb wiped her mouth with the edge of his tee-shirt, and then trampled down a patch of tall grass so she could rest. They crouched there in a little nest, surrounded by the trill of crickets and frogs. The air was heady with ripening blackberries and the tang of their sweat. Overhead stretched the glittering ribbon of the Milky Way.

Caleb held Ava's hand, though her fingers were hot with the pounding of her blood. "Look up and wait," he said, stretching out on his back in the prickly grass. Ava had never seen him so still. She cuddled next to him, her cheek against the sharp bone of his shoulder.

That was the night he told her about shooting stars. They saw three of them at intervals, burning trails across the sky. "Will they come to earth?" Ava asked. Caleb said no, they wouldn't. Shooting stars never stopped moving -- if he could catch one and ride on its back, he'd explore the universe forever.

"Can I ride it too?" asked Ava.

She thought he'd say no without considering the matter, but he was in a benevolent mood. "Yes," he said, "if you can catch it."

Ava thought about that for the rest of the night. As terrified as she was of being cut off from her planet, there was something attractive in the idea of flying with Caleb through infinite space. They would travel at the same speed, witness all the same wonders. He could have no other possible companion.

Ever afterward, the memory of that night shone at the back of her mind, reassuring as a pole star. She oriented herself by it through all the confusing years afterward -- when she was eight, and Caleb, tired of being taunted and called Ava's Boyfriend, stopped slowing down for her in games of tag. When she was 10, and he went the whole winter without speaking to her -- except once, when she was in his way at the beverage coolers in the 7 Eleven, and he said, "Excuse me." Just that, not, "Excuse me, Ava," or even "Hey." She smiled, but this gaze slid away from her as if he didn't remember who she was.

In eighth grade, she started running cross country. Come summer, she was determined to impress him. The first morning of vacation, she got up in the chilly dawn and warmed up in her front yard. As soon as Caleb came jogging up the road, she loped out to meet him. She couldn't keep up - not even after a year of running -- but before he left her behind, she saw him glance back with a grin that she took for approval.

There was a long space of nothing after that. Then one afternoon in the fall of 10th grade, he stopped at the edge of her yard. He worked shifts at the corner store after school, and looked cuter than anyone had any business to, wearing a polyester apron. "They're doing these seminars every Tuesday at the planetarium?" he said, shaking back his hair and looking at her with an eyebrow raised, as if it were a question. "They're free?"

Ava leaned on her rake, wondering why he thought she'd be interested. This was the first time he'd spoken to her in months.

She shrugged, noncommittal, but that Tuesday she was there, and every Tuesday afterward. Over the next five weeks she learned a lot about planets and constellations. It was the sort of stuff Caleb had memorized from books by the time he was ten, yet he kept showing up. Twice he sat next to Ava in the dark. The first time, they ignored each other entirely, but the second time he used his arm rest, and about halfway through, Ava used hers. She stared at the fake-star ceiling while the speaker swept his laser pointer around, and she thought of nothing but the fact that her arm was touching Caleb's. She could feel him, warm through his sweatshirt. His shoulder pressed her when he breathed.
She spent the rest of the week trying to figure out if it had meant anything. Her feelings swung like a pendulum. By next Tuesday -- the last one -- she was so on edge, she couldn't bring herself to show up.

A few days later at the corner store, Caleb smiled distantly as he rang up her 99 cent bottle of Dasani. "Have a nice day," he said, handing her a penny. A lump of words was wedged in the back of her throat. It might have dissolved if he'd spoken her name, but he didn't. She could almost believe he'd forgotten it.

She tried to convince herself that she'd forgotten him, too; that a summer night of stargazing when you were six didn't mean anything. But whenever the sky was clear and the moon was full, she sat on her porch with a blanket, waiting for him to coast by on his skateboard. The moon didn't follow him anymore, but her eyes did.

When he was 19, he got accepted to spend three months at an observatory in Canada. Ava found out in the usual way -- by listening to her mother's end of a telephone conversation. That was it, then. No more summers at home. I knew it would end, she said to herself. With Caleb, there's no such thing as infinite.

The night before he left, he showed up at her back door. She was babysitting the Cassidy kids –- the living room was in pandemonium. “There's a meteor shower tonight,” he said. “Want to watch?”

They spread blankets on the lawn. The kids had to wrestle each other awhile before they were ready to collapse on their backs and look up at the sky. When the first streaks of fire blazed through the dark, they all gasped.

“Will they crash into us?” they asked. Us meaning Earth, to which they suddenly felt a profound connection.

“No," said Caleb. "They're just rocks, burning up in Earth's atmosphere. There's nothing left by the time they reach the ground.” Then he saw the look on Ava's face, and said, "What's the matter?"

"Do you remember when I was six, and we lay in the grass?” she whispered, feeling a pang for that long ago night. “Do you remember what you told me?'

He gazed upward for so long without speaking that she went on to think of other things. Finally he said, "That if you could catch a star, you could come with me."

Relief and hurt mingled in her eyes. “Why did you act like you'd forgotten?”

He drew a long breath and let it out slowly. There were some things even Caleb didn't know.

In the dark, his hand found hers. Twining their fingers together, he whispered, "I won't pretend anymore."

They watched the sky awhile, until the littlest Cassidy said longingly, “I want to go in space."

Ava felt Caleb's shoulder tense, felt him shift with his old restless eagerness. “We are in space," he said. "Do you want to feel it?”

"YES!" said all the kids at once.

He looked at Ava with his eyebrows raised. Gave her hand a tug. "For old times' sake?"

She nodded. Smiling, they got up to begin the game.