The next time you wish on a star, we suspect you’ll think about Nikki Braziel’s magnificent story of family secrets and generational love that reaches across the distances. ~ Julian and Fran, December 17, 2023
by Nikki Braziel
When Valencia Dover unlocked the door of the Starwash Laundromat, the crescent moon charm dangling from her mother’s key ring clinked against the pull plate. A week of unventilated scent rushed out: bleach and fabric softener, harsh and comforting, as her mother had been.
Valencia had been trying to escape that fragrance since she was fifteen years old.
She stumbled over the threshold, scuffing her red-and-black combat boots on the epoxy floor, then inhaled. The laundromat smelled like home. The same odor had been grafted to the bones of her grandfather and mother. Even Daphna’s ashes, in their scattering urn, had an aroma of lemon verbena.
Valencia shut the door before another breath could escape, and hiccupped. Her lungs caught. Sticky inhale and exhale. Huffing, then gasping, she sank to the floor, hyperventilating.
There is no one left to find you if you fall, she thought, and willed herself to breathe steadily. Get up.
From the back of the door, she removed a sign, written in Sharpie on a box of Celestial dryer sheets. Closed Until Further Notice. Her mother had left orbit: died of a brain aneurism.
The moment Valencia turned on the lights, illuminating the cloud chandeliers, Steve stepped inside. His uniform, a field of glittering constellations embroidered on cerulean denim, read Free Pickup and Delivery in an arc across the back.
“Sleeping in the van again?” Valencia said.
“The fishermen of Port Constance have run aground twice.” Steve knelt like he was speaking to a child, though Valencia was twenty-three. “If the Starwash can’t keep the night sky shining, your customers will have no choice but to go elsewhere.”
“Let them.” Valencia turned off the laundromat lights.
Steve powered on the headlamp he wore night and day. Its beam illuminated a portrait in the entrance—a silver woman standing cliffside over frothy waters—entitled A Star Keeper. Daphna had often stood below the picture, tilting a hand mirror as she assessed her resemblance to the woman.
Around the canvas, watercolors featured fishing villages and sailing vessels. Interspersed, shadowboxes displayed seashells Daphna had collected.
“Why don’t you take that with you?” Valencia waved at the artwork. “There are prettier places than Port Constance.” She had never been. One more mother-daughter trip for which they had run out of time.
Steve squinted, his peach-blossom eyelashes invisible and the tissue under his eyes swollen, as if he, too, had been crying. He had been driving for the Starwash all his life and was Daphna’s oldest friend. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
“I didn’t lose her, Steve. She isn’t misplaced in the hamper.”
Steve blinked. “You used to play hide-and-seek in that hamper.” Then he consulted his clipboard, scanning the columns with his finger and then pointing. “Five of Orion’s lights are dark. I dropped that load off two weeks ago.”
“It hasn’t been three hours since the funeral.”
“The fishermen haven’t stopped sailing.”
Valencia’s family washed the stars. Most mortals would never see them up close. Even astronauts stared from light-years away. Valencia had held their humming forms, heard their energy singing, and felt the soft pink pinpricks they left on human fingers.
But the day-to-day work was monotonous: fixing chemical agents, taking stock, repairing machines. Valencia had told her mother in clear terms: she wasn’t going to be the third generation saddled with Grandpa Herald’s idea. She had fought to get away—the study abroad programs, the gap year volunteer applications. And now, in the midst of her grief, the future she had rejected was wrapping around her like clothing line.
“Letting the laundry pile up won’t bring your mother back,” Steve said. “Do the job she would have done. I’ll come back this evening.”