Aurelia sank to her knees beside the river in a town that had never seen the sun, and scooped twinkling water into her hands. She was trying to find her again, the girl with hair so black it blotted out the moon. The moon, reduced to a useless orb when they met. No need for any other warmth or light, because the girl had been enough. Aurelia would find her, even if she risked bursting the seams stitching her fragile heart together. 

Aurelia had used cheap thread the first time she mended her heart, when it had broken months ago, after she’d left home and after the girl had been taken from her. Aurelia couldn’t afford the silver string needed to truly mend a heart. Who could, working as a waitress in a town with only one movie theatre and no decent johnny keke anywhere? Nobody.

“I don’t care,” she whispered into the night. 

Behind her, the pink neon glow pierced the mist, making it impossible to see the River Stars cupped in her hands. She dropped the River Stars back into the water, letting the sparkling liquid run from her hands like a stream of brilliant glitter. Auggie insisted on always keeping the sign of the all-night diner turned on, but now Aurelia darkened the lights with a flick of her wrist. She needed ink-black darkness to see the River Stars, and she needed the stars to find the girl’s name. 

Here, in Ozama, everyone had nicknames to ward the spirits from coming in and stealing you away, drowning you at the bottom of the river and keeping you there as a bloated, shiny treasure. You couldn’t give anyone your true name until they’d been accepted by your family. Aurelia was Lia to everyone else. Even to the girl, since Aurelia’s parents had not given her leave to love freely either. 

It was a neat little trick their universe had played: you could only be with someone, or free them from a punishment, with their parents’ blessing or with their name. Aurelia had neither. She only knew the girl’s nickname, Consuelo—the one her parents had given her, the one Aurelia refused to say—but she would need her true name if they were to be together. And they had to be together. They just had to. 

Aurelia scooped up another pool of water. In her palms swam a million tiny lights, stars, memories of times long past. Of people long gone. She searched for the familiar shine of the girl’s eyes. The scent of her perfume from that pink crystal bottle—the one she’d spritzed on after a shower, her skin still dewy from the steam. 


There it was. 

Gingerly, slowly, Aurelia brushed the other stars out of her hand so they landed with a soft ping into the shining water below her. She brought the lonely star up to her face and scrutinized it. With one finger she tapped the surface of the droplet at the center of her palm and a rush of warmth overtook her. 

A memory in a kitchen: a pot with asopao sat on the stove and the air smelled of garlic and chicken broth. A hand entwined with someone else’s. A dark, freckled hand and one as white as milk. But not her hand, and not those girls. 

Aurelia gently placed the River Star back and let her exhausted body sink into the red mud of the riverbank beneath her. It was no easy chore to sift through the memories of everyone who had ever come to the River Stars for help. She’d been back here every night for two months since the girl’s parents had taken her away, but there were thousands of memories, and Aurelia hurt thinking of what heartbreak had brought so many others to this muddy, cold riverbank. But she had to be sure before she asked the River Stars for help—because she had to be ready to give it something of herself in return. Until then, she would keep searching the hard way. 

Behind her the diner employees complained about the electric company and customers yelled about their uncooked burgers. Aurelia wasn’t sure what would happen if Auggie, her boss, caught her out there. Maybe he’d fire her. But she didn’t care, because she was leaving this town as soon as she could. It was the thing everyone old enough to know the truth about Ozama said, but Aurelia meant it—she couldn’t stand this place any longer. The whispers from the old people going to church in the morning as she held the girl’s hand sent bugs swarming around them, their glances like thorns. Aurelia had been falling in love so deeply that it hardly mattered to her at the time, but she knew this was no place to keep on loving like that. Ozama was no place to plant a dream and help it grow, only to watch everyone else try to uproot it like some stubborn weed.


Aurelia was getting out, but not before she had the girl’s true name. The River Stars were her only hope of finding it—of finding her.

“I have to go,” the girl’d said in a voice like honey. A voice like what Aurelia imagined the sun on your back and your toes in cool grass would feel like. 

“You don’t. We can leave Ozama together. I’ll convince your parents if you’d just give me a chance.”

The girl shook her head, her dark hair falling into her eyes, her mouth turned down like the bow of a violin.

“You know they won’t. What makes you think they’ll give their blessing for us to be together, truly? My parents are taking me away from here and locking me up somewhere. To some boxed-up place, with no light and no goodness.”

To a prison, Aurelia knew, but wouldn’t say the word out loud, the same way the girl couldn’t. It was ingrained in them, not to speak about things for fear of making them true. That’s why the name her parents had forced the girl to take felt wrong on Aurelia’s tongue. She knew the girl hated it, too, so she’d called her “girl” since they met. It fit better anyway: she was her girl. They belonged to one another. 

It was the worst kind of cruelty to be at the mercy of parents who still thought with brains stuck fifty years back. But Aurelia had made a choice. She’d left her parents’ side, cut the red cord that connected her heart to theirs with the crystal scissors they kept in their bright yellow kitchen. Her mother had screamed, her father had cursed.

“You can still accept me, still keep me as family,” Aurelia had pleaded, but she knew. She knew as well as they did that they would never break from tradition and from what the others expected of them. Aurelia knew that once she broke that thread, her parents would disown her.

She had cut it anyway. 

“I love a girl,” she’d said through tears hotter than her sheets on a summer night. “I love a girl and I know that hurts you, but that hurt comes from an awful place. Mine comes from my heart.”

She’d turned, suitcase in hand, and left her parents’ home that night without looking back. She could hear her father yelling about her never being worth a damn, her mother praying that God have mercy on her and not condemn her soul to the flames below.

Aurelia hadn’t let herself cry that night, but later, as she woke in the small greasy room above the diner that Auggie had let her move into, the loneliness had enveloped her. It was still dark as she let the tears roll down her cheeks and make her skin fertile for the wrinkles and sorrow she’d sow as an old woman. It was always dark. But the sacrifice, leaving her family, had afforded her more than just despair, it afforded her one gesture of kindness from the River Stars and a path forward. It’s how she could search its waters to begin with. The River Stars gave nothing without a price. Not everyone could search the river’s water, but the River Stars tasted the sacrifice on her skin and permitted her to wade among them. Now she would use that kindness to find the girl and lace their heart strings together. With gold thread, even if she had to steal from the moon to get it. 

Picking herself up, Aurelia made her way back to work. The lights flickered on as she stepped into the diner. Auggie narrowed his eyes at her, probably preparing to blame her for the outage—which was just as well, since it was her doing. 

“If you used some of that”—Auggie gestured angrily toward her—“stuff you can do for the diner we’d be covered in cash.” 

“You would be covered in cash, Auggie. Not me.” Aurelia shrugged. 

“Ungrateful.” Auggie turned around and pressed more burgers against the steaming grill, their hisses drowning out the rest of his words. 

Aurelia climbed the narrow stairs to her room above the diner, completely spent. She pushed aside a curtain of moths, their wings fluttering at the brush of her fingertips, and fell on her bed, vowing to return to the River Stars tomorrow. 

That night she dreamt of hair. Of long, spiraling tendrils. They fell down the girl’s back, wrapped around her waist, and then her wrists. The hair was alive, like a thousand black snakes. Aurelia ran to the girl, calling her true name as if she knew it. She screamed it until her throat was raw. When she reached the girl and dared to put one hand on her shoulder, the snakes hissed and bit. The girl turned around and dissolved into stars.

Aurelia startled awake. She grabbed a pen from her bedside crate and wrote on her hand. Dreams of hair mean death. It was important to keep track. They should not reach a certain number, those kinds of dreams. 

Aurelia shimmied out of the jeans and T-shirt she’d fallen asleep in and pulled on the light blue-and-white dress that made up her work uniform. She tied her apron on and went down to work. The hum of Elvis, or Buddy Holly or Johnny Cash, vibrated throughout the diner. Auggie always put one of them on, but Aurelia could never keep them straight. They blended into one mass of melting vanilla ice cream at the end of the day. 

“You’re late, again,” sang Auggie. 

Aurelia snapped her fingers and pointed at the clock, its hands winding backward as she did. 

“Not late. Check again.” She smiled. Auggie looked at the clock, and Aurelia was, indeed, not late. 

He kicked the stove and hot grease danced through the air, right toward his face. 

Aurelia hitched an eyebrow and it swerved, going back on the burgers where it belonged. 

“Thanks, kid,” Auggie said. 

Auggie was the only thing keeping her afloat till she left, and although sometimes it seemed they didn’t get along, it’s just how they were. The truth was, Aurelia liked him, very much. 

The diner was busier than usual, patrons talking so loudly there was no room for the thoughts in her own head. Aurelia shook them out and put them into a jar in the meantime. The headache that had been coming on subsided, and she went back to cutting up tomatoes until she lost count of how many she’d sliced. 

As she worked, the girl came to her mind again and again. She thought of the last time their fingers intertwined, of how warm her skin had felt against hers. For just a moment, without thinking, she closed her eyes, letting her mind transport her back to that moment. To happiness. 

“Crap,” a sliver of bright red appeared across Aurelia’s finger. 

The kitchen door swung open with a bang and Auggie appeared, glancing over. “Don’t get any on the tomatoes.”

Aurelia wiped the blood on her apron and the red turned to pink, a pink the same shade as the girl’s lips. She closed her eyes and thought of her again, her mind filling up with more thoughts than she’d dumped out moments before. But her jar was full and Auggie was giving her the side-eye that meant he knew her mind was elsewhere. 

“Come outside. Hurry up,” he instructed.

Outside the night sky was electric blue, piercing a heavy fog. Auggie liked to change the color of the diner’s sign, and, it seemed sometimes, to light up all of Ozama. The drone of people talking disappeared and in its place something rumbled above them. 

“Look up,” Auggie said, and Aurelia did. 

A wisp of clouds trailed a tiny plane. It was writing something, the smoke coming out in a thick purple mist. 

Come home. 

Aurelia bit her lip. More words appeared.

We miss you. 

Aurelia rubbed her eyes.

Love, papa. 

Aurelia had tried her hardest not to think about her parents since she’d left two months ago, but now here they were. Memories flooded back to her, threatening to overtake her: hot chocolate on cold winter nights, whispered lullabies, laughter around the dinner table. Aurelia’s knees buckled with the weight of her sadness, with her instinct to run home. The cheap thread around her heart tugged in every direction, and for a moment, she worried it would fall apart. But she dug her feet into the muddy ground, remembering why she was here in the first place. This was their mistake, their choice, their loss. Not hers. 

She whispered no as her broken heart gave a regretful I’m sorry. She wiped the tears from her cheeks with one wet hand and erased the words from the sky with the other, leaving only a smudge of purple against the electric blue night. 

When she went to bed that night, Aurelia found herself walking through a tunnel. Dark, cold, wet. The only sound was the echoing plop of water, trickling like a leaky faucet. She was alone, but something pulled her forward. 

A light. 

The light threaded its way through the air toward the end of the tunnel. Aurelia looked down and saw the thread of light was coming from her chest. From her heart. 

She began to run, trying to keep up with the pace of her heart as it struck out like a thousand church bells. She remembered the girl—her smile, the way her nose crinkled when she smelled something, the way moonlight would bounce off her hair and make strands of auburn visible. No. No. She didn’t want to think about her hair again. 

Aurelia was at almost at the end of the tunnel when she felt something brush against the back of her neck. Her breath echoed, so loud it was the only thing she could hear. Something grazed her arms, but when she looked down there was nothing there. She reached the end of the tunnel and threw her arms up to shield her face. The light had grown and it blotted out the darkness with its brilliance. 

The girl. Her face a blossoming flower, her hair swimming around her and enveloping everything. Indeed, it stretched out, above and below Aurelia until she realized that the tunnel was made completely of dark tendrils of hair. 

“No, please!” she screamed. 

The girl opened her mouth. 

She is north,” the girl whispered, just before her eyes turned up and rolled back into her head. 

Aurelia woke, drenched in sweat. Her room was so hot that the beads of sweat floated up and became a mist above her bed. 

“She is north,” repeated Aurelia. Could it mean North was the girl’s true name? 

Aurelia scrambled out of her bed and rifled through her backpack until she found a small notebook. She is North, she wrote quickly before she forgot. 

Aurelia put the notebook down and threw her head back, letting it land with a thunk against the wooden post next to her bed. The room shook and the cloud of condensation fell like rain, soaking everything. 

She’d tried a few times, guessed her name out of the blue. But was this the River Stars’ hint? She is north? It was the closest she’d gotten to a clue, but she was still no closer to the girl’s name. 

If she could not learn it, she wouldn’t be able to set her free. She needed her to be free, even if she didn’t, in the end, choose to be with Aurelia. 

“You’re late,” came a muffled yell from below. 

Shit. Aurelia got up from the floor and walked, head bent, to her closet. The attic above the diner wasn’t very big, and she could never stand fully upright. She shrugged into her uniform, her skin and hair still wet. Water splashed out from her sneakers as she put them on and walked down to the diner. 

The diner was packed and everyone was eating pancakes. 

“Why are they all eating pancakes?” 

Auggie didn’t look up from the batter he was mixing. “Life’s full of mysteries. For example, why aren’t you working?” 

“Fine.” Aurelia put her apron on and smiled at a waiter who rushed past her with a pile of dirty dishes in each arm. 

“I need you on strawberry duty.” Auggie pointed at a table on the other side of the kitchen. A pile of strawberries, some as big as her head, sat waiting to be washed and cut. 

The knife cut cleanly into the squishy red flesh of each fruit as Aurelia thought. Did the girl go somewhere to the north? What did that matter, though, when just finding her wouldn’t be enough? She needed her name. She needed her name so that she’d be free to choose her own fate. Aurelia had to ensure to make that part of her deal with the River Stars, that no matter what, if she found her name, the girl would be free. Her name wasn’t North, maybe Norte? She tried to think of all the ways she could be above her. 


“No!” she screamed.  

North could mean heaven. North could mean she’d died. Aurelia held on to the counter to steady herself, her thoughts spooling like thread on a loom. 

Auggie ran over. “What, what?” Panic laced his words. 

“Oh,” Aurelia said, still lost in the fog of her thoughts, “It’s … it’s just…” 

“Her again.” Auggie nodded. She’d told him about the girl once, over hot cocoas. It was his condition for hiring Aurelia: no secrets. 

“You see this?” Auggie pointed to his chest and the outline of his heart in bright red neon showed through his greasy, once-white shirt. “It’s a bad heart. Don’t scare me, kid.” 

“Sorry,” she gutted out as Auggie walked away.  

The rest of her work shift was spent thinking of the girl, of what north could mean. 

When she climbed the stairs to her room again, she was no closer to her name than she’d been before her awful nightmare. Auggie had changed the diner lights back to pink from the deep purple and siren blue of the past two nights, and a glow like the blush on the girl’s cheeks seeped into her room. Her pillow was still wet when she lay down, and she pounded it with both fists so the water shot out the window. 

Inside the nook where her bed was shoved, Aurelia looked up at the wooden boards above her head and began to write North in the dust. She wrote it until, with one finger still tracing the letter O, she fell into a fitful sleep. 

“Lia,” the girl said on the other side of her consciousness, “how long is it going to take you?” 

Aurelia sat by the river, her knees deep in the red clay mud, face-to-face with the girl. “I’m trying. I miss you, I miss you so much and I’m trying.” She brought her hand behind the girl’s ear and let her fingers weave through her hair. 

 “It’ll be too late soon.” A tear more brilliant than a star ran down the girl’s face and fell to the mud below. Aurelia watched the tear become bigger and bigger until they were both floating within it. 

She looked back up at the girl and smiled. The girl whispered, I love you, and Aurelia’s heart burst. Her hand remained in the girl’s hair, and she brought her closer. Closing her eyes, she took in the scent of her perfume, of her sweat, and then of blood. 

Aurelia opened her eyes and the girl returned her smile. But as she did, she revealed a gaping black hole where her mouth should have been, a tongue pink and slithering over teethless gums. 

Aurelia let go of her and screamed herself awake. 

She gasped for air as her eyes flew open. She’d had two dreams and now a third: two of hair and one of teeth. Aurelia shuddered, thinking of the girl in prison. Dreams of death come in threes—was death coming for her? Had it already come? 

I have to ask the River Stars. Asking the River Stars for answers meant giving something in return. Hadn’t she already given enough?  

Aurelia threw her black jacket on over her long nightgown and all but flew down the stairs. She took the back door into the night, avoiding Auggie, who seemed to never sleep. He was typing away on a giant calculator, grease-covered receipts floating like feathers all around him.

Sliding beside the river, she brought her face close to the water. The anger rolled off her and caused steam to rise from its glittering surface. 

“I gave up my family for her. I cut my ties with them and left everything behind, hoping you’d lead me to her name. I’ve been out here almost every night for months and all I have to show for it are these dreams. These dreams I know are meant to signify death. If she dies I will drain you of every last drop, of every last star, I will burn you alive.” 

The river shuddered horribly and Aurelia crawled back on her hands, her anger making room for fear. 

On the surface of the water the words She is North appeared in glittering white letters. Aurelia’s anger bubbled to the surface again. She wiped away the message with one thrashing hand, nearly falling into the deep, dark, water.

“That came to me in my dream. She is North means nothing to me. I need more. Please. Please. She doesn’t deserve an early death. I have to take her away from that place.” 

The river shuddered again and another message appeared. 

More means a higher price.

Aurelia shook her head. What else did she have to give? The only things left were the girl herself and her own life. She would give up neither. 

“What could I possibly have that you want?” she spit out. 

The River Stars swayed back and forth, creating a cool breeze. Another message rose to the water’s surface. 

A memory. 

Her body trembled. A memory for the girl’s name. A memory, like the countless others swirling below the surface. Just a memory. She had plenty to spare. It could be anything, a horrible memory even. She’d give one of those gladly. She thought of her old life, her small school where nobody understood her, of the paperback books she’d escape into when her parents nagged her about her future, of the long nights under a muted moon, wishing for someone to love. 

Maybe she could give up the moment she left her home, she thought bitterly, or her parents. Now that they weren’t in her life, it might hurt less to not remember them at all. The thought made Aurelia sad about the person she’d become, but sometimes life gave you no choice. 

“Can I choose which memory?” Aurelia asked. 


That complicated things. But it didn’t matter. No memory was worth losing her. Nothing was. 

“Take a memory. Just please tell me her name.” 

The River Stars began to churn. The waters rose and took the form of dancers made of water and light. Tears spilled from Aurelia’s eyes at the beauty of it, but they also burned. She watched her tears as they ran tracks down the length of her coat, down the muddy riverbank, and into the water until they became part of the water. 

“Wait,” Aurelia choked out. “Wait. You have to promise me something in return, and the original bargain stands. If I give this to you, the girl is free. With…” the next words burned in her throat, “with or without me. You make sure she gets free.” 

The River Stars sang out, a haunting echo like nothing Aurelia had ever heard, all for one word: Yes. A surge of anticipation took hold of Aurelia’s fragile heart.  

One of the figures came toward her, shimmering and brilliant as a thousand stars. Spirals of water danced around her head like living curls, and she whispered into Aurelia’s ear. Finally, finally, finally, Aurelia thought. 

Her name is Sol. 

Aurelia cried out and fell to her knees. Her body shook, relief and happiness flooding through her like a violent storm. And love. So much love and light and warmth that she could barely stand. 

Aurelia sat like that until the River Stars faded slightly and the dull grey sheen of a new day in Ozama began. A steady stream of people began to flow in and out of the diner as Aurelia, in a daze, made her way to her room. There, she slept more soundly than she had in a long time. She would go to her tonight. She would tell the girl—she would tell Sol—that she had the key to her freedom. To their life together. Her true name.

The floor beneath Aurelia shook and she woke with a start. 

“Late,” she muttered to herself, dressing quickly. 

“You look happy for once,” Auggie said gruffly as he handed a stack of menus over. “Those are covered in syrup. Clean ’em up.” 

Aurelia nodded and went to the big sink in the kitchen. She felt light. Happy. Happier than she’d felt in a long time. 

“Did you find her?” Auggie asked as he grabbed a rag from above her head and wiped his sweaty forehead. 

Aurelia’s heart skipped. “What?” 

“Did you find her? The girl you’ve been looking for and driving us all bananas about for months? Is that why you look so happy?”

“Girl? I…” Aurelia started, then looked down at her hands. “I don’t know.” 

Auggie shrugged. “Kids are weird.” He went back to the front of the kitchen and Aurelia walked to the bathroom, fog following her as she went. 

She looked at the mirror and tried to remember. Remember something. It was there in the back of her mind, the reason her heart felt so full. But she couldn’t reach it. 

The only thing she could remember was a word. Just one word that she held in her hands. She looked at the mirror again and whispered the one thing she had left. 


{ Edited by Alexa Wejko. }