Stone and Starlight
by Wendy Nikel
Wendy Nikel is a speculative fiction author with a degree in elementary education, a fondness for road trips, and a terrible habit of forgetting where she’s left her cup of tea. Her short fiction has been published by Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nature, and elsewhere. Her time travel novella series, beginning with The Continuum, is available from World Weaver Press. For more info, visit wendynikel.com
originally published at Amazing Stories, Issue #5, August 2019
“Where do we stand for the Bucket List Thingy?”
Alita looked up from her book, into the blinding desert sun. A man with snow-white whiskers stumbled over, wearing a Hawaiian shirt and a giant sunhat and waving a card-sized device over his head. Behind him, one of Alita’s fellow rangers sat in the enclosed buggy that had obviously carried them out to her station. A trail of identical glass-domed buggies kicked up dust as they parked behind the first, and a trail of tourists balked at the heat as they emerged from the climate-controlled vehicles.
Alita grabbed a faded brochure from the wooden display board she’d been leaning against to use as a bookmark.
“Welcome to Delicate Arch,” she recited, gesturing to the iconic scene behind her, “one of the most famous geological features in the world.”
“Could you just skip to the Bucket List part?” a red-faced woman near the back of the group asked. “We’ve got five other Adventures to hit this weekend.”
Alita wiped the sweat from her neck. It was over a hundred degrees out today; she didn’t blame them for wanting to get back into air-conditioning.
Still, she thought as she gestured the group onward, it wasn’t exactly what she’d anticipated when she’d become a ranger. When she was fifteen, she’d traveled here with her mom and together they’d hiked the rocky trail up to this exact spot. They’d sat in the shade with a picnic, drinking from their canteens and breathing in earth’s majesty as the daylight waned and stars filled the sky. It was one of the last trips they’d taken together, before her life had become consumed by the stresses of SATs and final exams and job applications, before Mom’s hip surgery had put an end to her hiking days.
Back then, the stars had seemed so endless, the possibilities so vast.
As the tourists scurried to form a line, Alita glanced back at the buggies’ exhaust wavering overhead like mirages against the sky.
“Ma’am?” The man with the Hawaiian shirt tapped his watch.
“Right.” She turned to the phonebooth-like box constructed before the sandstone icon. “Step inside and insert your Bucket List card into the slot there. It’ll flash three times before it takes your photo and logs the Adventure into your—”
“We know how it works.” The man elbowed her aside. Once in the booth, he glanced at the screen, then took off his hat so it didn’t block the view of the arch and inserted his card. Three seconds later he emerged, donned his hat, and smirked at the others. “You all better hurry up. There’s an iced tea back at the gift shop with my name on it.”
A few people grumbled. Others rolled their eyes. The next group entered the box.
“Can I have a brochure?” a woman with aviator sunglasses asked.
“Absolutely. They contain maps, historical information, and—”
The woman unfolded it and waved it in front of her face as a makeshift fan. Alita bit her tongue.
Beside her, a pair of couples had swapped Bucket List cards and now scrolled through the images of one another’s Adventures.
“The Tower of Pisa! Isn’t that lovely? Frank, look at Hank and Julie’s picture. Didn’t it turn out nicely?”
“Picture perfect,” Frank said. “Remember our trip there, Risa?”
“How could I forget?”
The woman named Julie frowned. “I didn’t see it on your card.”
Risa laughed. “This was before we bought Bucket Lists. Remember those days?”
“Hardly. So much easier to keep track of now.”
Someone shouted from the front of the line. A family of four had squeezed themselves into the booth and, from the looks of it, were having trouble with the electronic reader. The dad wasn’t making things any better by trying to force his card in. “What’s wrong with this piece of—”
“Let’s have a look,” Alita intervened, faking a cheery smile.
One look at his card and she knew exactly what had happened. A corner of the plastic had broken off and, unless she was mistaken, had lodged itself in the reader.
“Apologies for the inconvenience,” she announced. “We’ll get a technician out here to service the machine.”
“But we drove all the way out here!”
“You’re welcome to wait,” Alita said.
“In this heat?” the dad who’d broken the machine complained. “You’ve gotta be kidding. Let’s go, kids.”
“But dad,” his son whined. “We just got here.”
“I didn’t get my Bucket List picture yet.” Tears rolled down his little girl’s cheeks.
“I have a digital camera here,” Alita offered. “I could take your picture and send it to you.”
“Forget it.” The dad grabbed his daughter’s hand and pulled her away. “This is nothing but a tourist trap. We’ll get a refund.”
Grumbling and complaining, the tourists retreated to their buggies without so much as a backward glance at the lonely arch. Alita watched until the vehicles disappeared over the rocks’ edge in a snake of dust.
Only then did she call in the report on her walkie-talkie.
“Better close up for the day,” her boss said. “I’ll cancel the final group and send someone to pick you up.”
The sun was just beginning to sink over the brilliant orange stones. At Alita’s feet lay the brochure she’d given the woman with the aviator glasses. The image on the front showed the arch beneath a starlit sky.
The Bucket List booth wasn’t set up for nighttime photography; when was the last time someone had seen it like that?
“Don’t worry about it,” Alita said into the walkie. “I’ll walk back.”
“Walk? Are you sure?”
She clicked off the walkie, dusted off the discarded brochure, and, laying her book aside, she wandered out past the Bucket List booth. Rocks crunched beneath her feet and the arch towered overhead. She inhaled deeply and smiled. There was just enough daylight left to read the brochure and then, when all was still, she’d sit and watch the stars fill the sky.