A Distant Flickering (Flash Fiction)

An old flatbed truck rolled down a dirt lane. Dust rose behind it and settled like a fog over the surrounding wheat fields. The sun buried itself over the horizon, its day done. Atop a sloping hill, the truck stopped and two men, one young and one younger still, hopped out. Together, they climbed into the back. As the light faded from the sky, they chatted and laughed and embraced their young years with cigarettes and snuck beer.

Darkness came fully and revealed the infinite heavens above the two brothers. Lying in the bed of the truck, they gazed up while the stars peered down.

“Beer tastes like piss,” said the younger brother.

“The hell you know?” said the older in feigned disgust. “It’s your first time having any.”

The younger rolled his eyes, finished his can of Miller Lite, and tossed it over the side. “Mountain Dew tastes better is all I’m sayin’.”

The older glared but let the chance to insult slide by. He took cautious pulls from his cigarette, proud in his ability to do so without coughing. His younger brother couldn’t stomach it. “Look at all them stars,” he said.

The younger burped. “How many you think there are?”

The older shook his head in slow silence. The question was weighted with the effects of cheap alcohol; it felt as though he were being asked the meaning of life itself. “Hell if I know.”

“Teacher said there’s billions and billions,” said the younger. “Said there are more stars than there are grains of sand in the whole world.”

“That’s bullshit,” said the older.

“That’s what he said,” said the younger. He groped in the darkness for another can of beer that tasted like piss. He was discovering that drinking it was almost as fun as complaining about it.

“How can that even be? There’s a lot of stars, but there’s a helluva lot more sand on the beach.”

“That’s what teacher said,” repeated the younger.

“How could they even know? What’d they do, send someone out to count all the sand?”

The younger shrugged and opened another beer. He sat up and put the can to his lips. Miller Lite leaked onto his shirt.

“Stupid bullshit,” said the older.

The summer air was warm and still. Crickets chirped their songs in a conundrum of trying to stay in hiding while searching for a mate. The night sky fulfilled itself. Stars banded together to make diamond dust; those closest took on a commanding brightness. The universe spoke in its perpetual silence.

“I wonder why some of them flicker,” said the younger one.

“Dunno,” said the older. With his cigarette finished, he began on another beer. The can was carefully balanced on his chest. “Makes ‘em look warbly.”

“I think it makes ‘em look scared,” said the younger.

“Scared? What do stars have to be scared about?”

The younger brother sighed and felt a slight tremble of emotion pass through his body. The alcohol had stirred his young heart. “Teacher said that stars, all of ‘em, are far. Really far. So far that if you got in a car and drove as fast as you could, you’d never get to another one in your life. They’re all just up there and scattered apart and alone.”

“Ain’t nothin’ scary about being alone. They ain’t even alone. Hell, there’s billions, right?”

“Yeah,” said the younger without conviction. “Yeah. But it makes me wonder, ya know?”

“Wonder what?”

The younger stared at the sky and felt lost in all that is and was and will ever be. “I wonder sometimes if stars are like how Aunt Cindy says people in the city are. There’s millions and millions of them, but they never get to say hello to each other. They’re all there together but they’re all there alone too. Each one just looks at the other in silence and wonders what they’re like and where they’re from and where they’re going. And even though they look so close, they’re still forever apart.”

The older brother rolled his head and stared. The heat of the summer night hung over the truck like a blanket. In the distance rested the soft glow of town and home. He strained his eyes but could barely see the young man beside him in the moonless dark. He thought on his brother’s words, and only one conclusion came to mind.

“Brother,” he said with a snicker, “you’re drunk on Miller Lite.”

Together, the two brothers began laughing. The crickets chirped around them, and the stars above sent their flickering light.

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