The Trouble with Shooting Stars
It’s easier being yourself at night. When the only eyes on you belong to the stars and the sky wraps you up in its darkness like a big, soft blanket. The nighttime is special because the world opens wide and not even the moon cares what you look like or who you are.
I used to like the sun, but not anymore.
I wiggle my fingers under my mask, scratching my cheek. My skin is sweaty and soft underneath the plastic, like the jiggly clams Uncle Mike makes every Christmas Eve. It’s not a pretty, lacy mask. It’s a hard white shell that covers the right half of my face, and Mom says I can’t take it off, even if the tight Velcro straps give me headaches.
When I was seven Mom, Dad, and I took the Staten Island Ferry into the city to see The Phantom of the Opera. He had to wear a mask like mine. An ugly, uncomfortable mask that covered half his face. But maybe it’s better
we have to wear these masks. Maybe people would be scared of me, too, if they saw what I looked like without it. People usually dislike anything that’s not normal. But most people never see me way up here in my tree. They’re so busy looking ahead, they forget to look up.
I adjust the sketch pad splayed out in front of me and take up my pencil. Mom and Dad used to be fine with me sitting on the little wooden platform Papa Ranieri built into the tree outside my window. It’s the best place for drawing because it’s one of the tallest points in the neighborhood. The perfect spot to see all the interesting things happening on my street. But ever since the accident, they’ve said I can’t be out here. It’s too dangerous in my current condition. But I don’t think it’s any scarier than when I’d sit up here before.
Mom and Dad didn’t always treat me like a porcelain doll. Bianchinis are rough-and-tumble—made from tough stuff. Before the car crash, falling off my bike or a twisted ankle from soccer were nothing. They became stories of heroism told at Sunday dinners. The old Luna didn’t have time to cry over minor injuries. She was too busy having fun.
But sitting in my tree is worth whatever danger my parents now think exists. From one side of the platform, the entire cul-de-sac is on full display. On the other side, I can peer into the recently sold house next door. It’s quiet
and calm. A place where I investigate the neighbors without them knowing I’m snooping.
The streetlamps glow softly, like little planets all lined up in their own solar system. If you squint hard enough, you can see the top of One World Trade Center over the trees and houses, even though I live all the way on the north shore of Staten Island, a great big rock at the bottom of Manhattan. Kind of like how Sicily sits all the way at the bottom of Italy, always being kicked by the giant boot.
A gust of cold wind whistles through the trees and whips up the pages in my sketch pad. I wrap myself tighter in my rainbow comforter and take a sip from my mug of chamomile tea.
Chamomile was my aunt Marie’s favorite. Before she passed away, she’d invite Mom and me over for tea Fridays after school. She’d drink Earl Grey on Friday afternoons, but chamomile at night when she couldn’t sleep because she said it calmed her stomach. I started drinking it when sleeping became hard after the accident. So far it hasn’t done much of anything except make me think of Aunt Marie.
I push aside my pencils and sketch pad and look through the binoculars Dad got me for sleepaway camp in the Catskills last year. Light fills up the third window on the third floor of the tall house across the street.
I count out loud: “One, two, three . . .”
Mr. Anderson shimmies into view, dancing in his undies. I laugh so hard tears form in the corners of my eyes and my sides begin to ache. I bury my face into my comforter to muffle it. Mr. Anderson’s dance is the one thing that makes me laugh nowadays.
I inhale the lavender scent of my freshly washed comforter, then sit up straight and bring the binoculars back to my eyes. It wasn’t until after Dad and I got into the car accident, when I didn’t want to sleep, that I noticed how different the world is at night. Even boring old Tompkinsville.
It’s as if parents make their kids go to bed early so we don’t realize all the awesome things that happen once the moon rises. It’s like a secret you learn when you become an adult. A mysterious other world that’s one giant riddle filled with the shadows of passing cars and a chorus of crickets and the hush of whispered conversations. It’s bigger too—more room to stretch out, to explore, to draw. Once you learn all this, going to bed at nine p.m. is impossible. Not happening.
I don’t spend every night in my tree sketching the world. Drawing used to come easy, but now I can’t hold on to a pencil or a piece of charcoal for too long without feeling jolts of pain in my left hand. When drawing isn’t an option, I toss and turn in bed. Or I sneak downstairs
to watch horror movies, eating toast dripping with butter and brown sugar. Still other nights I actually get more than a few hours of restless sleep. But those are rare. It’s not like back before the accident, when Mom would have to shake me awake from the middle of a good dream.
A bang echoes down the street, and a dog barks. Maybe it’s a bunch of raccoons making a new home inside the Perigos’ garage. Or maybe it’s a burglar trying to get into the Kim family’s house while they’re out of town. I scan the empty driveways until the Jamesons’ security light catches my eye.
I drop my binoculars, and they thump against my chest.
Cecilia Jameson knocks over the trash can as she sneaks out of her house. Her room’s over the garage, and it’s a careful slide down the sloped roof and a short jump from there into the shrubs.
A red car idles out front, and Cecilia scurries across her now well-lit driveway and into the passenger seat. The car peels down the street and takes a sharp left out of the neighborhood. It’s not fair that she gets to leave. She could be going somewhere incredible, like a late-night diner that serves disco fries or a secret slumber party at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Jealousy lodges in my throat, and I slurp down some more of my tea.
The security light goes out again. I lean through my
window to check the time on my alarm clock. Only ten thirty. I stifle a yawn and pull my comforter around me. The neon-bright diamonds of color almost glow under the moonlight. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Granny Ranieri bought it for me. She thought it would look nice with my blue walls and dark canopy bed. She said it’d be like sleeping under a rainbow. That it would help me heal. I trace the diamonds with my fingers. Feathers poke out in some places, pricking my skin.
Ten thirty. Only ten thirty.
I stretch my legs out across the platform and wriggle my sock-covered toes. Usually the nights go fast when I stay up drawing. There’s so much to get down in my sketch pad that light will be rising over the tops of houses before I even finish my tea. But tonight I’m restless. My mask feels like a face-prison, and sketching is making my hand cramp up.
I stare into my mug. The bloated bag of tea leaves pokes out of the milky brown slurry like an iceberg. I press down on it with my pinkie, and more tea spurts out. My stomach turns. There’s nothing worse than cold tea. All the sugar sits at the bottom like sand and crunches between your teeth.
Another gust of wind bursts through the leaves, too strong for my comforter. With a sigh I start moving my stuff back into my bedroom. It’s always around November
that the nights get too cold and the wind forces me inside, ruining all my sketching plans. At least sneaking downstairs to watch horror movies is a good plan B.
A loud beeping cuts through the neighborhood.
A large white truck backs into the driveway next door. Weird since the other family living there moved out only last week. Someone’s moving in. In the middle of the night.
I press my trusty binoculars to my face. In large black lettering on the side of the truck reads:
LE SPAZZATRICI, SAPIENTI-FAMILY-OWNED BUSINESS, ESTABLISHED AT THE BEGINNING OF TIME, STELLE, ITALY.
“Spazzatrici?” The word feels strange on my tongue, but not entirely unfamiliar. Like a story your mom would read every night before bed, or a song your choir teacher taught you for Christmas Mass. I pick up one of my pencils and write the word onto the left corner of one of my blank pages in large, looping cursive.
I don’t know much Italian. They teach Spanish, Latin, and French at Saint Mary’s Catholic School, and I chose French because I want to live in Paris and work at the Louvre when I’m older. Mom and Dad know a little more Italian than me, but aren’t at all fluent. Mostly words they say I’m not allowed to repeat. Nonna Bianchini tried to teach me, but I’ve already forgotten a lot of it. I reach inside my bedroom window for the laptop I left on the
bench, so I can look up the word, but it’s not in there.
I lean over the tree platform to get a better look at the van. Painted underneath the large black lettering is a swooping, dizzying constellation of fireflies glittering in a purple-blue night’s sky. They glow just like stars.
I blink twice, then readjust the binoculars. The fireflies move across the side of the van. Twinkling and zipping between the black letters.
The hairs on my neck prickle.
It must be a trompe l’oeil. I’ve seen those before in the city. The ones painted on walls to look 3-D and go on forever. Definitely an optical illusion of some kind. A very cool one.
A short man with a thick mess of black hair, olive skin, and a round face jumps down from the truck and surveys his parking job, hands on hips. The passenger door slams shut, and an equally petite woman appears at his side. Bringing up the rear are a young boy about the same height as his mother and a little girl with a long black braid trailing her back like a cat’s tail.
The man wraps his arm around his wife and kisses the side of her head before moving to the rear of the truck and unlatching the door.
“We’re so early,” the boy says when his dad is out of earshot. I readjust so I’m lying on my belly and lean even farther out over the tree to spy on the new neighbors.
“Why couldn’t we have stayed at home longer?”
I raise my eyebrows.
“Oh, hush.” His mom opens the driver’s door. “There’s much to prepare before winter, Alessandro,” she says, rustling about in the back seat of the truck before retrieving a hot-pink backpack. “Go help your papa unpack the equipment.” She pats him on the head and sends him on his way. The woman turns to the little girl and hands her the backpack. “Just like I taught you. Do you need my help this time?” She smiles. Her Italian accent is heavy, like my Nonna Bianchini’s.
The little girl shakes her head and unzips the backpack, retrieving what looks like a dollhouse-size wooden china cabinet, which she clutches to her heart. She runs through the front door, and the empty house blinks with light. The girl hurries down a hallway and reappears in the dining room’s lit windows toward the back.
She stands in the middle of the big room before heading to a wall and disappearing from view. My binoculars remain trained on the spot where she vanishes. The freezing air blows under my mask and chills the sweat on my cheek.
What is she doing? I crane my neck to try to find her.
She pops back into view. The girl grins, rubs her hands together, and closes her eyes. Tossing her shoulders back, she snaps her fingers and the dollhouse china cabinet falls
apart into several different pieces. I hold my breath, the pressure growing in my chest. Cabinets don’t break apart on their own.
She moves her hands through the air, wiggling her fingers as if conducting an orchestra. Her head bobs up and down to a melody I can’t hear. The girl breathes deeply and stomps her left foot on the ground and, in the blink of an eye, the cabinet’s two left feet grow. She stomps her right foot and the cabinet’s two right feet grow. The binoculars are pressed so hard against my skin that they’re digging into my cheek.
The cold breeze turns warm, and the air feels different. Lighter. The sound of cars fades to a hush. The streetlamps flicker until they go completely dark. It’s as if the entire night has shifted to make room for the girl’s performance. She flicks her wrists and stretches out her arms. The cabinet’s platform expands and positions itself atop the feet. She moves her arms again, and soon the cabinet’s sides grow seven feet tall and pop onto the platform.
The girl pushes her hands together, and the tiny drawers spring to regular size and begin to assemble themselves as if being put together by ghosts. Finally, the drawers slide into the cabinet and the doors screw themselves onto golden hinges and carefully close themselves.
My stomach drops like it does when you jump off a swing. I lean farther over the wooden platform, and it
groans as I move. I take a deep breath and grip on to its edge for support. I have to get a closer look.
What was once a china cabinet fit for a dollhouse now towers over the little girl. Her eyes snap open, and she claps her hands together. She runs back through the house and out the front door. “I did it, Mama! Alessandro, Papa, I did it!”
“Oh, Chiara. What a good job,” her mom says. The boy, Alessandro, and her papa pause their work to congratulate the girl.
My heart beats wildly in my ears. I quickly grab my sketchbook and scribble down “Stelle, Italy,” and the kids’ names—Alessandro and Chiara—underneath “spazzatrici,” and put my binoculars back up to my eyes.
Chiara runs back inside, pink backpack in hand. She opens it and retrieves a small table. She places it in the center of the dining room. Again she takes a step back and squares her shoulders. This time she keeps her eyes open while snapping her fingers. The table falls apart, and she begins her performance once more. The pieces grow large. The table starts rebuilding itself on its own. The once tiny piece of furniture that fit comfortably inside her little hands is now a regular-size table, standing tall in the room.
Three sharp knocks echo from the other side of my bedroom door.
Panic rushes up to my chest.
I scurry through my window on hands and knees, losing my balance on the window bench and falling to the floor with a thud. Tea splatters everywhere.
“Great,” I mutter, sopping up the tea with a dirty T-shirt.
“Luna?” my mom says as she opens my bedroom door. Her thick blond hair is tied up in a messy bun; her dark-brown roots are nearly an inch long. Mom hasn’t gone to see Janet, her hairdresser and Tailee’s mom, in a couple of months. She looks down at me, eyebrows raised. “What are you doing on the floor?” she asks, moving farther into my room. “And why is the window halfway open? Were you outside again—and on that platform after we told you not to? You catching a cold would not be good for your recovery.”
“I fell off my window bench.” I stagger up to my feet, pulling the comforter around my shoulders.
“You shouldn’t be awake to begin with.” She presses her forefinger and thumb into her eyelids and shakes her head. “You need to rest. Sleep will help you heal.”
Everyone says Mom and I look alike—all the Ranieri side of the family. We both have curly hair, big brown eyes, and freckled tawny skin. The only part of me that looks Bianchini is my big nose. But that was before the accident. I don’t look like much of anyone now. Not even myself.
“I couldn’t sleep.” I pick up the mug and scramble to my feet. “Mom, there are some seriously weird people moving into the house next door. In the middle of the night.”
“You’re spying on the neighbors? Again, Luna? You know that’s an invasion of people’s privacy.”
“I wasn’t spying.” I shake my head. “I was investigating. And anyway, this is different. They’re like wizards or something.” I bounce onto the window bench and pull the curtains back farther. “Come on. Come look.” I hold the binoculars out to her. Mom hesitates in the doorway. “Seriously. The girl did this magical spell to make tiny furniture grow to full size. I swear on my grave.”
“Luna Andrea Marie Bianchini, don’t you go swearing on your grave. You know how that makes me feel.”
“Sorry.” I tap at the window with my fingernail. “But you’ve got to come look. Please? After you look I’ll get into bed. Promise.”
Mom rolls her eyes, but she steps out from the doorway. “Let’s see.” She grabs the binoculars and peers down at the house.
My heart pounds against my chest as I watch her expectantly.
“I see a white truck in the driveway.” She lowers the binoculars and gives me that look only moms are capable of. “No wizards. No magic growing furniture.
They probably moved in this afternoon and are finishing unpacking now.”
“What?” I snatch the binoculars from her hands and stare out the window. A few lights shine in the windows, but the house looks quiet. The truck parked outside doesn’t say anything about spazzatrici on it. There are no fireflies dancing on its side. There’s nothing on it at all. “No, that’s not right.” I shake my head, curls bouncing back and forth across my face. “I saw them. I saw the little girl make the cabinet grow. The truck had all this writing and a really real trompe l’oeil on the side.” The words fly out of my mouth in a jumble, each one stumbling over the last. “I know what I saw, Mom.”
“You probably fell asleep, sweetheart,” Mom says. “You must have dreamed it.”
“No, I know I didn’t dream this.”
Mom reaches beyond me and shuts the window, locking the gold clasp at the top. She closes the curtains. “Luna, it was just a dream.”
“I’d know if it was a dream.” Mom ushers me off the window bench and toward my bed.
She rubs my shoulders. “Seeing things that aren’t there wouldn’t be good, Luna. Maybe you’re just overtired. Or the medication is causing you to have lucid dreams. I’ll call Dr. Tucker tomorrow.”
“I know what I saw,” I whisper.
“Please,” Mom says, her shoulders slumping forward. Little horseshoe-shaped shadows are bruised into the skin under her eyes. “No more sitting outside in your tree tonight. Or on the window bench. Just get into bed and try to get some sleep. We all need some rest.” She smiles that tired half smile she gives when her mind is elsewhere. “I know it’s hard, Luna, but please.”
“Okay.” I look over at the window once more, before climbing into bed and letting Mom tuck the rainbow comforter around my body. “I’ll try. For you.”
“That’s all I ask.”
“Hm?” She brushes the curls from my forehead and kisses me.
“Do you know what the word ‘spazzatrici’ means?”
“It’s pronounced spa-tsa-tree-chee,” she says, sounding out the syllables. “It means ‘sweepers.’ Try saying it slower.”
“Spaz-za-tree-chee,” I say again.
“The word was on the truck next door.”
“Okay, Luna,” Mom says with that tone in her voice that means she doesn’t believe me. “Don’t forget to say your prayers.”
I haven’t done much praying lately. Ever since the car crash, talking to God feels uncomfortable. I used to say my prayers every single night and go to Mass at school once a
week. But even with all that praying, God still didn’t stop my dad and me from getting into a car wreck.
Mom walks to the door and shuts off the light. “And don’t forget Jean.”
I turn Jean Valjean, my sleep turtle, on, and the stars carved into his shell illuminate across my bedroom ceiling in soft whites, greens, blues, and purples. My cousin Rocco says I’m too old to have a night-light, much less one that’s also a stuffed animal. But I can’t give Jean up. He’s been with me since I was little, and he’s stuck with me through everything. Having him around is extra comfort and makes the tossing and turning a little less difficult.
“I love you, Luna,” Mom says from the doorway.
“I love you too.”
She closes the door.
“Spazzatrici,” I mumble. “Sweepers. What in the world could they be sweeping?”
My toes touch the floor just as she turns off the light in the hallway. I scurry across the room and push back my curtains. The lights are still out in the house next door.
Maybe it was a hallucination. It has been weeks since I slept through the night.
I grab my sketch pad and pencils and head back toward my bed when a small flicker of light catches my eye. I pull the curtains back an inch and peer out from behind them.
All alone in the vast and quiet darkness is a single firefly floating near the window across from mine.
My breath catches in my throat, and I leap onto my bed, turning Jean Valjean off and my bedside lamp on. “Sorry, Jean. I know I promised Mom I’d sleep. But it’ll have to wait just a little longer.”
I hurry back to my window bench and pick up a pencil. Underneath “spazzatrici,” I begin to draw a big house filled with little furniture and a small girl at the center of it all.