Chapter 1: [STAR] Leaping, Falling, Landing.
Sweat ran down my spine, and the pristine white dress shirt clung to the moisture as it trickled down my hidden skin. I wriggled in discomfort, pressing my back into the standard-issue desk chair that my position at Joja had awarded me. A standard-issue chair, a standard-issue desk, a standard-issue cubicle… and a standard-issue life. While my parents were proud that I had been presented with such a stable life, as they had come from much less, I couldn't help but feel my soul wear down at the monotony of it all. I sighed and looked away from the bright monitor on the desk that still had mind-numbing documents that needed to be looked over before the end of the day.
The documents came in a never-ending stream that overflowed flawlessly whenever I finished just one document from the stack of twenty I received. I somehow doubted how they all could be so important, as they all dealt with putting numbers into pre-defined boxes by looking up a few company records… But the monotony helped me do more in less time, I guess. At the end of the day I woke up from the merciful daze I placed myself in to see most of my work finished, with only a few documents waiting for me at the start of my next day.
My vision blurred slightly as I scanned heads of my co-workers, all diligently typing away at their monitors as I had just done: completely unaware of the world around them. I scoffed, shaking my head at the fact that I shared office space with all the other Joja employees. The incessant tapping of keyboards and the buzzing of portable fans irked me to no end, now that I wasn't off living more exciting fantasies in my head. From the many bodies in the warm room (the former the cause for the latter), I could easily pick out the figure of my twin, currently building a pyramid out of paperclips on her desk. Blue-grey eyes shot up towards the large window where the higher-ups could watch us as we worked our souls away. They were more preoccupied with the ongoing soccer game than us 'worker-ants' as they drank alcoholic beverages and chatted away. A pizza was left half-eaten on the large mahogany table that proved to be a centerpiece for the boss's large and lavish office.
The large clock on the wall blared to life as the hour turned, and I saw my coworkers tilt their heads slightly, methodically taking in the numbers that registered on the electric clock with a lazy blink before their heads dipped again. There was one more hour to finish what I could do of my work, and then I would leave. My eyes drifted down to the top drawer on my desk, and my heart thundered in my ears as I thought about the weight that hidden letter had inside of it. It had been sitting in that drawer for the better part of the week, and as the last hour of work dwindled away I would always slide open the compartment to stare at the white envelope. What was written in it would change the course of my entire future. My stable and foreseeable future could vanish as soon as I dropped it through the chute outside of the boss's office. The thought had stayed my hand more than once. Work was pretty hard to come by in the city, especially if you didn't have the exact experience that an employer was looking for. Even with that, there were others in such a big city which also met the criteria – and whoever got the job was simply… more. More charismatic, more relaxed, more focused or more willing… Getting a job at Joja had been easy. Easy, and stable. It's too bad that an easy job was never a wanted one.
With my sister and I living together, we split the rent of the small two-bedroom apartment we lived in (which was on the eighteenth floor of some concrete and uncaring complex). Some months I worried that the landlord would start bearing down and kick us and Miso (who was breaking the building code anyway) out as we scraped together money to replace that which my impulsive sister spent. It was times like those that we were both incredibly happy I was such a penny-pinching individual... but it also meant that we wouldn't be able to afford rent if I stayed in-between jobs for too long.
"The work day is over, Joja asks that you work even harder tomorrow."
People stood up and grabbed their things mechanically as the automated message sounded. I glared at the clock, cursing it for speeding up when I needed it to slow down the most. My coworkers had already started filing out, the whirr of fans being silenced as workstations were abandoned for the night. Jumping from my seat, I rushed to collect my things: my jacket, which I hastily threw across my shoulders, and my purse that was stuffed into the bottom drawer of the desk. After slinging it over one shoulder, I straightened my ponytail as my foot nudged the empty drawer shut. My hand hesitated on the top drawer, which had yet to be closed from an hour of pondering my decision. Said decision had yet to be decided.
A row of lights flickered off, followed by another. The last row, the one above the two exits as well as my row of cubicles, was still on to help the stragglers see in the dark warehouse. I guided the strap of my purse to rest higher on my shoulder, fidgeting in my shoes as my hand hovered over the resignation letter. With an exasperated sigh, my fingers wrapped around the envelope. I slammed the drawer shut as I forced my arms through the sleeves of my jacket while I marched towards the stairs that would lead me to the head office.
As I approached the door of his office, I could hear the loud laughter of the boss and his associates from inside. Walking passed the door I scanned the familiar metal plate that hung on it which read 'Do not disturb under any circumstances. If you have any concerns, inquiries, or other things to discuss, please see my secretary Brad to your right'. It was an eyesore, but almost everything at Joja was. 'Brad' the secretary greeted me a few steps away from the door: the name plate was screwed in above three shiny handles with the labels 'concerns', 'inquiries', and 'resignations' on similar metal plates.
"Why, hello Brad. Another day doing very exciting work, huh? Yeah, me too." I greeted Brad politely as I pulled on the handle under 'resignations'. The grayscale wall opened up as a gleaming metal chute was revealed. A second of hesitation flashed through my being as I lifted the letter over the gaping orifice with the intention of dropping it into the metal coffin below. The ivory paper slipped through my fingers as I sealed my fate, and my breath caught in my throat at the finality of the letter's inescapable destination. The sound of the weight hitting against the metal and gliding further away from me conjured a stronger sense of dread as I thought about how I would explain my unemployment to my sibling. An icy hand ensnared my heart as a shiver wracked through my body, physically alerting me to my absolute need to snatch the letter back from the sneering metal jaws. My mind bent around the thought for merely a second before the sound of something landing on the other side of the thick wall shattered my instincts, and I realized I could no longer change my decision. The hand that held my heart bore down with a crushing grip.
Joja was a huge corporation with no shortage of applicants looking for a stable income. Despite the absurd hours and having no room to advance to any likeable position in the business, it was still alluring to the young adults that milled around with no real plan for life other than to not turn out like their parents. I mean, even our own parents pushed us to get jobs at the company so that we wouldn't end up like them. For that reason, the second you quit (you never really heard stories about people getting fired) you were done with Joja: a replacement wasn't hard to find and in the morning a stranger would be working at what was once the standard cubicle of a former employee.
This was it. Now that the letter was on the other side of the wall in front of me, I was out of a job.
I felt a tiny tear rip its way through my heart as I thought about the look on my parents' faces when I eventually told them that I quit what they considered to be the 'dream job' they had wanted when they were searching for work. Slumping my shoulders, I walked back towards the staircase without even a nod to Brad the Nameplate Secretary.
I paused as I passed the heavy mahogany door of the head office. The light that sprawled out from underneath the wood bathed the darkened hallway with an amber sheen. Muted voices trickled through the cracks and drew me closer and I couldn't help but press the side of my face against the cool wooden frame.
"–letter, Mr. Joja. From an 'S. Drop'?"
"Which chute did it come out of, Robert?"
"The third one."
"Hmph. That's the second one tonight! Make sure you deal with that, Janet."
Their attention turned away from my resignation, and so I removed my ear from the door and plodded down the smooth linoleum steps. The row of lights overhead had yet to be turned off, probably because the boss and his associates were still in – and planning to be for a while – and I took a moment to look over each and every cubicle that stretched out in front of me. Who else had decided that this monotonous work was too tiring to continue?
It was then that I realized that out of the hundreds of cubicles on the floor I worked on, I could only remember a handful of names without glancing at the plastic name plates that sat atop each desk. And out of those I could only recognise the back of my sister's head when I looked up from my desk. Five years at this job. Five. And everyone else was simply a being in the crowd: a hazy figure I could recall was there, but nothing more. No face. No name. No story. Just mindless worker ants trying to provide for their monarch without getting any recognition for it.
I only realized I had been walking down the row of cubicles when my own plastic nameplate caught my eye. The cheap sticker letters peeled off the material, refusing to stick to the plastic again after falling off so many times before. In the morning, a new name would be plastered over the old one. That thought would've made me a little melancholic about leaving the place I had worked at since I completed high school, but as I straightened the nameplate on the desk and the chain attached to the flimsy plastic clinked against the metal surface it shuffled across, the feeling vanished.
Everything at Joja was chained down. The monitor, the stapler, the pencil, the small fans at every desk, the folder in the second drawer (which contained the essential Joja motto recited at the beginning of each day). Even the paperclips were chained to the desk (how my twin managed to get some freed from their imprisonment to build her tower was a mystery for another day), which is something that I realized would be completely ridiculous to say out loud.
I let out another sigh, running my fingers down the sleek metal desk that I've finally been freed from for one last time. The heeled shoes I wore echoed loudly in the empty room as I left, closing the door firmly shut behind me as I stepped out into the warm wind of winter's end.
The walk to the apartment complex was pleasant. Thoughts of the future and what it now holds had, for once, been far from my mind. They returned, however, the second my key slid into the lock on the worn wooden door. The decision to quit that stable job at Joja suddenly had real implications on not only my life, but my sister's as well. Not to mention poor Miso, the orange tabby that had my younger twin wrapped around her cute little paws since we were stressing out over exams and who we were sitting with at lunch. It was a world that seemed so far away right now: when it had been our parents stressing over how to provide for us. Now that we were the ones trying to make ends meet, there was nothing but headache after headache. Hardships always seemed to come in pairs, although maybe it only became a hardship when multiple things were failing.
The lock suddenly clicked and the key twisted itself in the slot before the door swung open with a loud moan and my sister's blue-grey eyes peered out at me from inside our apartment. The confusion that scrunched up her face lifted as soon as her eyes met mine, and a wide smile spread itself across her face.
"Hey sis! I thought it was you. You're home a little earlier than normal, so supper'll be a little while yet!"
She bounced away, her black hair trailing after her wildly as she flicked the strands behind her shoulders. Her natural brown colour was starting to creep back in at the roots, and she would probably dye it black again tonight after supper – if the bottle I saw in the bathroom this morning was any indication.
She had been saving up over the summer and dyed it at the beginning of our senior year, giving Mom and Dad quite the shock when she came down the stairs for the first day of school. I had known she was up to something over the summer – not spending her earnings from her summer job right away was always a dead giveaway – but when I walked in on her dyeing her hair in the bathroom after Mom and Dad had gone to bed, she gave me those puppy dog eyes of hers and I didn't say a word as I helped her get her roots. It was a little weird, and a little sudden, but that was Dew.
People didn't even recognize her as my twin the first day back (as she had gotten her way despite Mom's fervent demands to wash the colour out), and for the first couple of weeks it was nice finally not having Dew's name come up in conversation when I talked to anyone that knew her. The constant 'Are you guys twins?!' had been exhausting... especially after years of hearing the same thing. But the lack of the question kind of lost its novelty after a while – it was weird not being recognized as her twin the instant we stood beside each other. And sure, we still passed for sisters (who were in the same grade, so the question soon became 'who got pushed ahead?' or 'who was held back?'), but there was something special about being recognized as Dew's twin... some sort of connection my teenage-self thought I had lost because of it. It was foolish, now that I think back on it. And the relationships I got into because of that feeling of uncertainty were even more so. But those things were long in the past.
"Did you even check to see who it was through the peephole? I've been telling you to check before you swing the door open, Dew!" She gave no indication of hearing me as I called after her, so I merely shook my head and muttered to myself as I slipped off my shoes and neatly lined them against the wall, "Well, at least she's locking the door now."
Shrugging off my jacket and hanging it on the crooked coat hanger in the corner of the entryway, I felt the tension leave my body as the smell of Dew's cooking wafted through the apartment. I took a moment to close – and lock – the door before I ventured deeper into the home I shared with Dew. To be honest, we never really spent too much time at home. We usually left for work early and never came back until it was dark out, and holidays were few and far between. Whenever we did get some time off, we would either end up sleeping the entire day or doing some shopping at the nearby mall. I padded over to the couch, throwing my purse down and scratching Miso's head as it perked up at the shift in the cushions. "Hey Miso. You been keeping an eye on things while we were gone?"
"Mreeeow…" The orange tabby pressed her face against my fingers, and I chuckled as I crouched down to scratch her favourite spot – just underneath the jaw. Loud vibrations ran down my fingers as her purring intensified.
"Awh, now that's a good kitty! I'll have Dew feed you a treat or two after supper." She merely blinked happily as a response to my voice before she untangled herself from my hand and curled up on top of my purse.
"Hey Star, do you know where we put the can opener? Can you check the cabinet by the couch? One of the drawers?" My sister's voice called out from the kitchen, and I walked to the cabinet in question (where we kept some of the fancier dishes we had for when Mom and Dad came to visit) and started peering in the drawers that riddled the wooden furniture.
"Isn't it in the drawer left of the stove? Third drawer to the left, in the middle?" I called back to her over my shoulder, and I could hear her opening and closing a few drawers before she found the one I meant.
"Ah, right you are, sister!"
"This is why I put away the dishes, Dew! You would put everything in weird places. I mean, why would it even be out here?" But, she had already turned her attention back to the task at hand and tuned out everything around her as she hummed a lively tune to herself (although it was loud enough for me to hear it a few doors down in the living room). Shaking my head once more with a small smile tugging at the corners of my mouth as I bobbed my head along to her tune (as she frequently hummed it while she was cooking), I turned back to the drawers. The one I had opened squeaked loudly in resistance as I started closing it. But the squeaking stopped suddenly as I noticed a letter peeking up at me: the only thing that had been placed in the compartment. The elegant scrawl of ink that reminded me of the last time I had seen Grandpa. Picking it up from the darkness of the drawer, the light that burned in the corner of the living room illuminated the words on the envelope:
Star and Dew,
Open for a new start
–Love, Poppy Drop
'Poppy Drop' was the nickname Dew had given our grandpa when we were really young. Mom and Dad talked about how Grandpa's face always lit up jovially whenever it came from her mouth, his cheeks reddening as a wide smile spread itself across his face and refused to fall for the entire day. We didn't see him too often: Mom and Dad always had work and couldn't afford a vacation to Grandpa's house a few hours from the city – a small town that I always failed to remember the name of. The one time we did go was pretty much to see him before he passed, as he had been very sick for quite some time. We didn't stay for very long: all I could remember is the long drive there, and the long drive back…
The letter I held in my hand had been given to me and Dew that day. Mom and Dad took it from us when we left Grandpa's room, and we didn't see it again until our high school graduation where they told us to follow Grandpa's instructions on the front when we needed to. We both had to agree to open it: that was what Dad made us promise. Dew wanted to open it right away, but I wanted to hold onto it for later. I ended up forgetting about the envelope, and it had probably been sitting in the same drawer for five years – when we moved the cabinet from home into the apartment with us.
Maybe now would be a good time to open it.
A fresh start was something I sorely needed, and although I heard that Dew took after Grandpa a lot in impulsivity (among other things) I was sure that Grandpa wouldn't leave us anything too outrageous.
"Hey, I've got something to tell you, Star." Her voice startled me, and I quickly spun around to see Dew scratching Miso's ear absent-mindedly as she stared at me. Something told me that whatever she had to say would be something she thought I wouldn't approve of. The way her blue-grey gaze kept dropping to the floor before meeting mine again was enough to tell me something important was on her mind.
"I've… got something to tell you as well." A moment of silence passed as we both waited for the other to speak. Figuring that whatever she had to say wouldn't be nearly as bad as the fact I had quit my job on a spur-of-the-moment decision, so I broke the silence by telling her to speak first.
"Okay… Yeah, sure. Uh… So I know you like planning things and stuff… But I, uh…" She locked eyes with me, "I quit Joja today."
Well, this wasn't what I expected. But, Dew had a way of always doing the unexpected. A part of me wanted to scold her for a rash decision like that, and that we should've discussed major events like these together – if not because we were roommates who paid rent, the fact that we were sisters should've been reason enough... but since I also made the same rash decision today, I was silenced quite efficiently. Almost too efficiently, as Dew started panicking at my lack of words.
"I know, I know! I should've told you and I know that we might have it rough for a little while so uh, I'll try my best to not buy all of the cute plushies I've been seeing in stores lately – I've been saving up, really! So um... even though I think stuffed animals are making a comeback, which I'm more than happy about, I can still um... uh, pay at least another month's rent and um,–!"
"So, you've quit, quit?" Dew sometimes meant different things than the words she uses when she's nervous, but the clarification was more to calm her down from her nervous rambling than anything. She didn't seem to mean anything else by 'I quit' judging by the look on her face.
"Yeah… I passed in my resignation earlier today." She fidgeted, focusing her attention on Miso as she spoke, wiggling her finger at the aging cat so that she could lazily try and grab hold of them without moving too much from her seat atop my purse.
"That's… fine." I spoke slowly. Although I was still trying to process the next step we needed to take now.
"That's… fine?" Dew still sounded wary about my easy acceptance of her news.
Dew says she had a month's worth of rent saved up. I had about two months of rent money squirreled away, although I had initially hoped to use some of that for the leaky faucet in the bathroom… I suppose I could live with the soggy towels on the bathroom floor for a little longer while we found new jobs. Two months could be the maximum time we could spend looking for a job, the other months of rent saved up would have to go to food and other needs (as we would be spending a lot more time at home, being unemployed and all). But, this could work out okay.
"Yeah. That's okay. I quit too." It was a simple admittance, as my mind had already declared the statement a non-issue, and already moved onto the next item on the agenda while Dew gaped at me, "Remember the letter we got from Grandpa before he passed? I want to open it."
I waved the letter I still held in my hand at her before I turned and closed the squeaky drawer. When I turned back around, I could hear Miso mewling for Dew's attention before I saw that she was still frozen in place. With a shrug, I also moved onto the next topic: telling Mom and Dad.
"Oh, and we should tell Mom and Dad about our new unemployment situation, sooner rather than later, although after getting another job would be best. We can stay unemployed for about two months with the amount we have saved up combined, so we should start searching right away to spare our reserves for–"
"Oh thank god! There's the Star Drop I know and love! I was terrified for a moment then, because you normally give me months in advance to any life changes you're planning to go through, so I was shocked when you sprung this on me! I mean… You haven't talked about quitting, right? I don't think you have. Well, If you have, I don't remember you saying so, so that means that you've only mentioned it once or twice, and that means that this is far too spontaneous for you – I mean, not that that's a bad thing, I think it's a very good thin–" She was rambling again, so I cut her off by reminding her of her body's necessity for air.
"Dew. Take a breath." She filled her lungs, and as she did so I reminded her about the letter from grandpa by waving it through the air once more.
"Sure, let's open it." She stepped closer to me as I flipped over the envelope, and as she reached my side she spoke again when I started to open the letter by undoing the seal stamped on the back, "By the way, I call dibs on not telling Mom and Dad."
With a roll of my eyes, I pulled out the folded letter Grandpa had wrote us and checked the corners of the empty envelope before passing it to Dew to hold onto as I unfolded the paper. Lines of Grandpa's flowery cursive bloomed on the page. Dew let out a frustrated sigh at the sight and walked away to place the empty envelope on the counter, "You know I'm terrible at reading cursive. Read out Poppy Drop's letter while I check on supper!"
I nodded, even though she couldn't see it.
"Dear Star and Dew,
If you're reading this, you must be in dire need of a change.
The same thing happened to me, a long time ago. I'd lost sight of what mattered most in life… real connections with other people and with nature. So I dropped everything and moved to the place I truly belonged.
I've enclosed the deed to that place, my pride and joy: Snowdrop Farm. Named after your grandmother's favourite flower, if you can't remember. The fact that our family name, 'Drop', shared part of my farm's name has always tickled my friend Lewis's funny bone. It tickles mine, too. It's located in Stardew Valley, on the southern coast. If that name seems familiar to you, it's because your father named you after that very same valley! It's the perfect place to start your new life.
This was my most precious gift of all, and now it's yours. I know you'll honour the family name, my darling girls.
Love, Poppy Drop"
Folding the letter in half, just as it had been for about twenty years since it was placed in the envelope, I noticed a little note on the back of the letter.
"P.S. If Lewis is still alive, say hi to the old guy for me, will ya?"
The other papers folded with the letter were, like it claimed, the deed to a lot of land in Stardew Valley. Dew had walked out of the kitchen by this point, and a silence had come over both of us at our late grandpa's gift while Miso purred loudly, happily unaware of the looks we were exchanging. After a second, I was furiously shaking my head at the excitement that twinkled within Dew's eyes.
"No way, Dew."
"But Poppy Drop–!"
"Our parents will disown us."
"No they won't, c'mon Staaaaaaar!" She crept closer, flashing me those puppy dog eyes that she knew would make me give in eventually.
"We wouldn't be any good at that kind of stuff. We've lived in the city our whole lives–"
"But you're really good at making plants grow–" She gestured to all of the houseplants that decorated the otherwise barren apartment.
"That's a completely different thing from–"
"And animals really seem to like me!"
"Mreooow." Miso's agreement with that statement was wholeheartedly not appreciated, and I rescinded my previous offer to get Dew to give her the treats we had hidden away with a heated glare sent to the fluff ball.
"Animals?! Look, we're not going to just be able to jump right into that kind of lifestyle–!"
"But Staaaaaaaaar!" I sighed, knowing that I was about to give into her wishes as she placed her hands on my shoulders and gave them a gentle squeeze.
"We'd have to leave Miso behind."
Our beloved (but traitorous) cat was getting on in her years, and she never did well with traveling to begin with. She's been with us for over six years, and we couldn't put her through another move. Not when the first – and last – one had ended up in her being sick for well over a month after. And while Dew looked crestfallen at the thought, she didn't back off of the idea like I thought she would. Instead, she pleaded with me, her eyes glossy and round as her lips pulled into a pout that would make a blind man's heart ache. I was immensely proud of myself that I withstood her for a full five seconds before I caved with a sigh.
"Ugh… Fine. We can go live on Grandpa's farm and see how that turns out." Dew jumped with joy, but I held her down by her shoulders before she could zip around the apartment coming up with a new tune about working on a farm as well as starting to pack right away (while somehow also trying to keep cooking supper at the same time), "But if it doesn't look like we can make it at the end of the year, we're coming back to the city. So that means that we have to keep some of our savings un-spent, you got it?"
She ran off, turning the corner and tripping over every plush she had in her room in her excitement to start packing for our move.
Needless to say, the call I made to our parents that night was quite the long one.