‘All these years, and I’m still afraid of the dark,’ she admits quietly, avoiding his gaze. ‘I know that I shouldn’t be, but it’s not like there’s a switch to turn it off. The human mind just isn’t that simple.’
‘Are you afraid right now?’ he asks.
She brushes a strand of silver-grey hair away from her face, and adjusts her woollen shawl so that it’s wrapped tightly around her slightly-hunched shoulders. ‘No, of course not. I’m with you. It’s hard to be irrational when there’s someone so calm ruining it for you.’
A smile bursts on his wrinkled old face and she thinks that he looks a lot like he did when they first met. ‘What makes you think I’m always so calm?’ he asks curiously.
‘For the past forty-five years, I’ve never seen you truly afraid. No matter how bad things get, you never panic or lose composure. Unless my parents came to visit, then you’d start sweating and fussing like an old maid.’
‘I don’t know,’ he rubs his chin. ‘I was afraid on our wedding day.’
‘That’s different,’ she declares. ‘That was tradition. It’s a sacred and routine part of getting married to panic beforehand and accidentally sit on your future mother-in-law.’
He lies back on the blanket spread across the grass and looks up at the moonless night. ‘I have fears too, Evie. And sometimes I panic. But I’ve found that there’s very little to fear about the dark when you have such cheerful companions twinkling above you.’
She shifts uncomfortably on the blanket, her legs aching beneath her. It had been laborious to walk up the sloping hill to get to their old lookout, but she needed to see it. Just one more time. ‘Do you really not remember my fear of the dark?’
He looks at her for a long moment. ‘No.’
‘What about the time the power went out, so you lit all those candles and played your accordion for me?’ he shakes his head. ‘You must remember! You stood too close to the candles and your accordion caught fire,’ her eyes sparkle as she recounts the incident. He doesn’t have the heart to tell her that he can’t remember that either. ‘You put it out with my grandmother’s quilt, remember?’
‘Of course, darling,’ he looks away.
She nods and looks away as well. She doesn’t need to see his eyes to know they are full of pain and frustration from the effort of trying to remember. She knows that he can’t. After a moment or two, he picks up another blanket and lays it across her lap before passing her a thermos full of hot tea. She takes a sip and smiles because he remembered to add honey for her. Just like he always had.
‘Do you know why I’m never afraid?’ he asks, gazing up at the sky brimming with stars. ‘Because even in the very heart of darkness, when all is still and quiet, I look up to the stars for comfort. I always have.’
‘They’ve done very little for me.’ Her voice is full of bitterness.
‘And yet, they have guided and inspired me my entire life.’ He takes her hand in his and for a second her image flashes before his eyes, but not as she is now; how she looked before they grew old, and before she got sick. Soft auburn curls. That fierce spirit shining in her eyes. The emerald ring she always wore. Did he buy it for her? Or had she been wearing it when they first met?
‘Focus, darling. Remember what the doctor said. You have to focus on what you’re trying to say and your mind won’t wander off for a walk as often.’
‘Of course, dear,’ he looks at the beautiful woman with all her curls, and it breaks his heart to see them hanging so lifelessly, turned silver over the years. ‘The stars,’ he says suddenly, ‘they remind me of campfires. And that makes me think that maybe, no matter how improbable, there might be other people gathered around them. Maybe they’re sharing stories with friends and family. Or maybe not. But when I look up at them I can hear their laughter and feel the warmth of their fires. It makes me feel a little less alone.’
He smiles as he wraps a hand around hers and glances into her watery blue eyes. She coughs and looks away. The pain in her chest makes it hard to breathe. ‘You’ve never feared the dark,’ she manages to say, ‘but you’re afraid of loneliness, aren’t you?’
‘There’re far worse things in this world than darkness, Evie.’
‘I don’t care, I hate it,’ her voice breaks. ‘Give me anything over that cold endless blackout.’
‘What do you fear more than the dark?’
She looks at the sky and the fields. She looks at the town lights twinkling merrily down in the valley. ‘Leaving you all alone.’
‘Evie, listen to me,’ she tries to brush his hand away, but he won’t let her. He takes her chin in his hand and gently lifts it until their eyes meet. ‘The stars mean something different to everyone, Evie. They can be a guide, or tell a story. Some people can read the future in them. And others study them to try and uncover the universe’s secrets. To me though, they have one simple message; that home can be anywhere, as long as you’re with the one you love the most.’
‘I want you to have that. Always,’ her hand shakes beneath his. ‘But I can’t give that to you for much longer.’
‘My love,’ he wraps an arm around her, ‘you will always be with me, because I will always have the stars. And when I look up at them, I will always see you. I’ll smile and wave, and maybe even blow you a kiss, if you’re lucky. You will still keep me company, and guide me when I’m lost, and scold me when I leave the dishes in the sink. You are the smartest, bravest, most beautiful woman I have ever known. And it’ll take more than death to take you down.’
‘There’s one thing you’re forgetting, my dear,’ she leans her head onto his shoulder as they look out at the starry night. ‘What will you do when the sky is black and there are no stars?’
He thinks for a moment, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth. ‘Then I will make my own and hang them up myself.’