Lost Beyond the Lights

In  by December 10, 2021

“Wake up, Paola, it’s time.”

My daughter shifts in her bed in a way that reminds me of when she was a child, but she has children of her own now—the oldest a teenager already. How did so many years pass so quickly? Tonight, my own childhood seems close enough to touch, the echoes of another night just like this one rippling through time to connect with this very moment.

“Despierta, ya es hora,” I hear my own father’s voice, waking me all those years ago for the same reason, though unlike Paola I was just a boy then, barely ten years old.

“What time is it?” she asks, back in the present.

“Nearly three in the morning,” I say. “Time to go see the comet. Help me wake the kids. We have to get going if we’re going to beat the dawn.”

She gets up and I give her a moment to dress. Then together we go to her children’s rooms and wake them one by one. Sebastián, the sixteen-year-old, wakes easily and manages to get himself ready, but the twins, Miguel and Mariana, don’t truly wake completely. They’re just barely alert enough for us to help them dress. This again reminds me of when their mother was little. Once they’re ready, we take them to the car, where all three kids fall back asleep.

“Might as well let them get some rest,” I say. “We’ll still have to drive for a while if we’re going to see anything.”

I notice Paola looking up into the sky.

“Which direction do we have to look in?”

I laugh. “Don’t bother trying here. The lights of Santiago are too bright to let us see much of anything. That’s why we have to drive out of the city. In the darkness of the countryside, we’ll see more clearly.”

We get in the car and Paola falls asleep like the children. I look at her and remember how excited she would get about new experiences when she was a girl. I couldn’t have gone without her tonight. She’s a grown woman but she’s still my girl and like any parent I want to see the wonder on her face, just as much as I want to see my grandchildren delight in this rare opportunity.

I switch the car from self-driving to manual and take control of our journey. As I drive, I think about the last time Halley’s Comet paid a visit. We were living in Santiago then too, so my father also had to drive us out of the city so that we could see past the glare of electric lighting. It was a much shorter drive in those days though. I’ll have to go much farther due to the city’s growth in the decades since.

As I drive, I can’t help but wonder how the wildlife has fared with this increase in brightness. Not only has the growth of the city encroached on habitats, but near the city there is no true night left either. How do the animals hide from predators? How do they make their way through life blinded by our selfish need to see at all hours?

It’s not long before I pass the area known as Lo Barnechea, at the foot of the Andes. I think back to that night again, my father telling me that just as we could see the comet from Earth, you could see La Cordillera de los Andes from space. It was to this very place that he brought us. But back then the area was rural and teeming with life. Now it’s built up like the rest of Santiago and it’s hard to mesh with the memories I have of that night. So, I keep going.

I’ve reached the age where memory is an elusive thing. But somehow my memories of the first time I saw the comet are fresh as the night air. I remember walking through a field so dark you could only see the small circle of light cast by my father’s flashlight. But then the clouds cleared and suddenly the sky above came to life. A city kid through-and-through, I stood in awe. I’d never seen so many stars. The full Milky Way was on display as if specifically for us. And then my father had pointed out the comet, hanging in the sky as if someone had nailed it up there.

My father had brought along an old pair of binoculars. My brothers and I took turns looking through them. Though we could see the comet without them, the binoculars brought it even closer so that you could make out the details and almost imagine that you could see its movement.

We’d learned about Halley’s Comet in school that year. How it passed by Earth every seventy-five years or so. How it was named after Edmond Halley, a British astronomer. There’d even been an awful song written and performed by some one-hit-wonder that had played over and over on the radio. Every school kid knew the words and sang it ad nauseum, me included. But seeing the comet—actually seeing it in real life—had been a completely different thing. There are few moments in life when you realize you’re living through something you’ll remember forever, but for me, that night, I just knew.

When we’d all had a turn at the binoculars, we lay back in the grass and watched the sky for a long time. I remember telling my brother, “We could still be alive when it comes back again. If I am, I’ll come back here with my kids and grandkids so they can see it too.”

I think about that now as I drive further from Lo Barnechea. The location will have to be different this time, but my younger self would let that slide since the aim remains the same.

With the glow of the city finally fading behind us, I figure we’ve gone far enough. I can’t keep driving forever, after all, or the sun will rise and the moment will be lost. I pull the car off the road and park in what looks like a valley, surrounded by smallish hills that help block some of the city light. It seems like a good spot.

“Paola,” I say, shaking my daughter awake. “We’re here.”

She helps me wake the children and then the five of us head for one of the hills, looking for a higher spot from which we might better see the wonders of the night sky. There’s some cloud cover for now but it’s supposed to clear up soon, so I’m not too concerned. I carry with me my telescope—a piece of equipment my father would have envied. On a clear night, Halley’s Comet is visible with the naked eye, but with these old eyes I don’t want to take any chances.

We reach the top of the small hill and still can’t see much, but I can feel the steady breeze and can already see the clouds above begin to part. I turn now to Paola and the kids. I want to see their faces when the stars are revealed. Paola is pointing her flashlight at the ground so as not to ruin the effect, but I can still make out her smile as she looks at me, then switches it off.

The clouds part but the sky is filled with an unexpected brightness. Far off in the distance I see sky adverts. Glowing, orbiting billboards projected into the night sky. There are half a dozen visible from this spot. Ads for shoes, smart-home systems, a discount on lab-grown meat that boasts of its superior flavour. I raise my telescope and strain to see past the adverts.

Around them I can just make out the faint glow of a scattering of the brightest stars, but that’s it. And just at the edge of the shoe advert, there’s a smudge that could possibly be Halley’s Comet, but it’s too hard to see.

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“Where’s the comet, abuelito?” asks Mariana.

“Let me try, Papá,” Paola says, handing me the flashlight to take the telescope. She searches the sky with her younger eyes.

I take a moment to look at my grandchildren. They huddle together against the biting chill of the night and the little ones yawn. They’re bored. This wasn’t what I wanted.

“I don’t see anything,” Sebastián says. “Can we go home now? I’m tired.”

Paola lowers the telescope and looks at me, her expression sad.

“Maybe we just need to drive a little further out,” she suggests.

I shake my head. “I thought this far out of Santiago we might get a spot of clear sky, but it looks like we can never get far enough away to be free of those damn adverts.”

Like most people, I’d heard about the light-pollution problem but I hadn’t given it much thought until now. In the city it didn’t matter. The light made the night easier to get around in. But now, it hits home just how bad things have gotten.

Chile was once a paradise for astronomers. They’d come from all over the world to study the wonders of space. But in recent years several of our famed observatories have shut down. I’d read the news reports but they hadn’t affected me. Not until this very moment.

“We could drive halfway to San Pedro de Atacama and it wouldn’t make a difference,” I tell Paola. “I doubt even the desert is free of these eyesores.”

“Let’s go home then,” says Miguel. “I’m cold.”

The kids turn and begin walking back toward the car. Paola takes the flashlight back from me and returns the telescope.

Lo siento Papá,” she says. “I know you wanted to see the comet again. I’m so sorry.”

She turns and follows the kids, shining the light toward them.

I raise the telescope to the sky one last time, but still can’t see much of anything besides the adverts. Paola’s sadness is misplaced though. I did want to see the comet once more, but my real reason for coming was so that they could see it. After all, I have my memories and can see it clearly there any time I want to.

But they will never have that. They will never know what was lost behind bright lights.

Copyright © 2021 P. A. Cornell.

Feature image credit:

Depositphotos

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P. A Cornell

P.A. Cornell is a Chilean-Canadian speculative fiction writer. She currently lives in Canada, but was living in Santiago, Chile during the mid-80s where late one night her father took her to the outskirts of the city to see Halley's Comet, an event that over thirty years later would inspire "Lost Beyond the Lights". A member of the SFWA and graduate of the Odyssey workshop, her short fiction has appeared in several professional anthologies and genre magazines. For a full bibliography and social media links, visit pacornell.com.

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