The Astronomer’s Mistress

a short story by Red Lagoe

Thomas Parks stood before his wife with a gift cradled against his chest. Wrapped in simple brown paper with keen precision to each fold, the framed photograph would shame the decades worth of presents that came before. A delicate black ribbon with silver stars, tied into a symmetrical bow, completed the package. For my Marilyn—it read on the tag in black ink.

Marilyn had told him that if he didn’t start getting things right soon, it would all be over. Empty threats, considering they had been together for forty years. However, he wanted to make her happy, so this time he made an effort. A real effort. The vacuum with the dual-powered suction thingy that he bought her five years ago couldn’t compare. Neither could the lightweight engraved hatchet that read “Sweetie’s Chopper”—for helping with the woodcutting. Their marriage spiraled into a seemingly unescapable pit that year, but they climbed out stronger than ever. This year he planned well—a gift from his heart, crafted with only her love in mind.

The fireplace light flickered across her aging, still-gorgeous face as she released a deep sigh, as if contemplating whether or not she wanted to open it. Earlier, he had taken her to the Lakeside Bistro to watch the sunset over the water at Dillon’s Point, bundled in their winter flannels.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” he had asked her, drinking in the reds and purples of the setting sun.

Attention to her happiness throughout the day was impeccable. Thomas knew that this day and this gift would bury all the others in infamy, and rekindle the starry-eyed wonder that used to spark in Marilyn’s eyes when she looked at him.

While she began to tug on the star-speckled black bow, he smiled. As the paper bloomed open, Thomas shifted with excitement for her reaction. The packaging fell to the floor and Marilyn held the frame in her hands, examining the photograph.

“It’s a rose,” Thomas said with a proud grin. “Roses are your favorite.”

Marilyn stared, frozen in the moment, waiting for an explanation.

“It’s the Rosette Nebula. I’ve been imaging it for you. I know you get upset when I spend too much time out in my observatory, but I’ve been picking you a rose.” His confidence faded with each passing second. “You see, it’s a cloud of gas over five thousand light years away where stars are forming. Look at the shape. It’s like a rose.”

Marilyn appeared unfazed, staring at the photograph while Thomas waited for her to say something—anything—but she didn’t move. Tears welled within her eyes and the reflection of the fireplace in her watery gaze burned his heart.

“Sweetie, are you alright?” Thomas placed a gentle hand on her arm, wondering if his gift was so spectacular that it brought his wife to tears. The pink chiffon robe adorning her body slid beneath his fingers as she tugged away from his touch.

“This present is not for me.” The words slipped spitefully between Marilyn’s tight lips.

“Of course it is. I spent hours on that for you.”

“You spent hours with her again, didn’t you?”

“With who?” Thomas asked, puzzled by the accusation and laughing at the notion of having an affair at his age.

In a swift outburst, Marilyn tossed the Rosette Nebula image into the fireplace and the glass shattered against the brick.

“What are you doing?” he shouted, shocked by her eruption. Pushing by her, he fumbled his arthritic fingers around the handle of the fire poker, pulled it from its holder, and jabbed at the photograph at the back of the fireplace, frantic to save his work. Once he caught the frame on the hook of the poker, he pulled it out—still burning—and dropped it onto the hearth. The photograph warped and bubbled, and bits of hot red ash fizzled at his feet.

Dumbfounded by his wife’s actions, Thomas stared at her contempt-ridden face for a moment, and—to keep from raising his voice—stormed out of the house to the backyard. To his sanctuary.

Mumbling under his breath, he cussed her out as he unlatched the roof of the observatory shed, then rolled it back to expose the stars. The constellation of Orion sparkled high in the January sky. Goosebumps invaded his flesh and he slid his arms into the warmth of his fleece jacket before taking a seat by his telescope.

Hours had been spent in the observatory creating that image—contending with clouds and atmospheric disturbances for weeks. Thomas had stacked hundreds of images, taken on several different days, dealing with cooling issues and alignment problems. If only she understood how much work he put into her Rosette image, perhaps she’d be more appreciative.

“What does she mean it’s not for her?” he uttered to himself, then looked to the stars for peace.

Leaning back in his seat, he gazed through the open roof. The stars were his haven—his constant through life. The dazzling and brilliant lights pulled his thoughts away, calming him. The light reached out to him from light years away and caressed his soul. His sky was always there for him, even when Marilyn was not. As his heart rate and blood pressure returned to normalcy, he relaxed within the walls of his observatory, beneath his stars, and let his petty problems melt away—until he heard the sound of the storm door slamming shut.

Thomas stepped outside into the blackness of the night, but there was nothing but starlight above and a faint yellow glow coming from the house windows.

“Marilyn?” he called out. “You OK?”

There was no response other than the crepitation of a branch in the woods—not enough to cause him pause. Living on land that bordered a national park, it was not uncommon to have deer or an occasional bear on his property.

Thomas mumbled more spiteful sentiments under his breath and marched toward the house to check on her, unsure why he cared enough to do so.

“Thomas, dear?” she called out as he reached the front porch, but her voice was not coming from the house. The soft broken words came from the trees behind him. Marilyn’s pink chiffon robe was easy to spot against the blackness of the tree line to the forest.

“What on earth are you doing over there?” he asked.

The darkness of night concealed the rest of her body from sight. All he could see was that light pink robe as it flowed into the woods.

“Thomas?” she called for him again in the distance.

He marched to the edge of the tree line, and the pink robe faded as it drew deeper into the dense dark forest.

“I’m right here!” he yelled. “Are you going senile?” He stomped into the woods and let his next words trail off into an undiscernible murmur. “You old bat.”

Following the ghostly movement of her robe in the distance, Thomas strained to keep sight of it, but lost it. He pulled his red LED flashlight from his pocket and aimed it in the direction that he had last seen her. The faint crimson glow of his astronomer’s flashlight—red in color to protect his view of the dark sky—revealed nothing but crowded trees and forest floor shrubbery.

“Marilyn? Dang it! Where are you?”

The sound of movement—dead soggy leaves—startled him, and a swift shine of his red light illuminated the bare branches and tangles of underbrush, but no Marilyn.

Thomas’s heart began to race as he took careful footsteps over fallen twigs and brush, wondering where his wife was going. Wondering if she really was having some issues with early senility.

“Marilyn? Follow my voice if you can hear me!”

As he shone his light ahead of himself, he spotted a dark patch on the ground. The splotch of blackness about the size of a bear caused him pause. The brush crunched behind him and he whipped his head around, shining the red light in the sound’s direction, but found nothing. Thomas shifted his gaze back to the bear-like mass, but it hadn’t moved.

A closer investigation of the dark patch of ground did not reveal a sleeping bear, but a mound of dirt, several feet tall. Beside it, a shallow uneven trench dug into the earth. Worried that Marilyn may have stumbled into it, he edged closer.

“Sweetie?” he whispered.

Another foot closer exposed a shovel sticking out of the mound—his shovel.

“What the h-”

A sudden sharp blast to his lower back sent him to his knees. A rush of heat flooded his spine, and spiky needle-like pain sparked like fireworks across his body. He dropped face-first to the ground. The flashlight fell still with its red light skimming across the surface of the wet leaves near his face. Then a swift thwack of an object landed near his face—a hatchet covered in blood, lodged into the ground within the column of red light. Engraved on the handle was “Sweetie’s Chopper.” Vision tunneled to darkness as dainty loafers stepped into his view.

“Marilyn?” he barely muttered her name before passing out.

***

Thomas’s vision blurred into focus to reveal the bright unmistakable stars of Orion. Assuming he had fallen asleep in his observatory, he sighed in relief that the nightmare was over. But that peaceful, ephemeral thought ended as his eyes adjusted to see tree branches snaking black, jagged interruptions in the sky. Unable to shift his shoulders between the tall dirt walls entrapping him, Thomas realized he was at the bottom of the trench.

An attempt to push himself up failed. Star-studded black ribbon—the same ribbon he had purchased two days earlier to wrap Marilyn’s gift—bound his hands. He tried to get to his feet, but his legs were unresponsive to his commands. The warmth of his own blood escaping his body and absorbing into the back of his shirt made him sick to his stomach.

A pink chiffon robe floated into view up above, blocking the stars. Marilyn held the robe in one hand, four feet above him, with Thomas’s shovel in the other hand.

“Marilyn,” he dribbled out her name, and a piercing pain shot down his neck.

The robe drifted softly down on the cold air into the pit, reminding him of the first time she slipped it on. The pink chiffon robe that—even at his age—made him want to be intimate. Two years ago he had bought it for her. For her—but she had argued otherwise. It landed over his tied hands.

“I told you that you had one more chance to get it right,” she said, standing at the edge of the pit.

“I worked hard on that picture for you.” Thomas had difficulty speaking as his strength escaped him, absorbing into the earth with his blood.

“That was not for me,” she said. “You love the stars. I asked for one thing that’s for me, and you couldn’t do it.”

Thomas couldn’t see her face through the darkness, but he could hear her pain.

“Even today—our anniversary—you couldn’t stop looking at the sky. The sunset captivated you more than I could ever.” She pointed up and her voice rattled. “You have spent more time with her over the last forty years than you have with me.”

“I-” Thomas fought to speak, but the words were caught in his throat.

“I warned you.” She dropped the hatchet into the hole, and it made a hefty thud into the wet ground beside his body.

Sparks shot through the nerve endings in his spine and down into his fingertips as he realized that he should have loved her better. He should have loved her more. With saliva strung between his lips, he forced out the only words he could manage—the only words that mattered.

“I love you, Marilyn.”

“But you love her more.” She gestured to the sky one more time as she dumped a pile of dirt onto his belly. “You always have.” The cold, damp earth weighed heavily on his gut, and he could not muster the strength to move his arms out from under it. Beneath the dirt, his fingers played with the soft chiffon.

He looked back to the sky as Marilyn got on her hands and knees to push mounds of dirt into his grave. She cried aloud—her voice interrupted by the sound of the wet thuds of earth landing onto him. Guttural sobs from above, then another wet thud.

Thomas wanted to go to her—comfort her. The sound of her weeping and the sound of the dirtfall blended in a sorrowful, pulsing song. As the dirt piled onto him, his body lost sensation, and he could no longer palpate that soft chiffon with his fingertips.

Questions and unfinished business raced through his mind and heart. A desire to fight for his life, and to fight for his wife’s love, coursed through him, but his body betrayed him. Defenseless, he locked his eyes on the glorious light shining from the stars, Betelgeuse, Rigel, and Sirius. The starlight penetrated his heart and whispered to him that he’d be alright. It traveled across the galaxy just for Thomas, to comfort him in his last moment, so he listened.

“Look at me!” Marilyn said as she dumped more dirt onto him, this time concealing his mouth and nose.

Paralyzed and losing life, Thomas pulled in scant amounts of oxygen through his one exposed nostril.

“Look at me,” she said with desperation.

Thomas could not break his fixated gaze. The sparkling gems against the blackness of the night shone on him with more love than he could ever reciprocate. Peripheral vision lost sight of Marilyn, and her voice was silenced by a static. With a content heart, he looked to his love—the stars—one last time, and his vision went black.

***

By Red Lagoe: Author bio here

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