“Astronaut,” Tabitha Bell said quietly, but firmly. “I’m going to be an astronaut.”
“Me, too!” I called out, surprising everyone, including myself.
“That’s wonderful, Mr. Berman,” Miss McIntire said, jotting a note in her book. “I’m sure you’ll both succeed.”
Tabitha turned around in her seat. She narrowed her grass-green eyes at me, sizing up my very soul. The youngest of six, I was not used to being noticed so intently. I instinctively pushed myself against the back of my seat. My flinch made the corners of Tabitha’s mouth twitch upwards. “Bring it on,” she said with one sharp nod.
We were nine years old, and the competition had begun.
The sun has risen and set 2,563 times since that day, and the two of us have spoken exactly 238 words. That’s, like, less than a five-minute conversation. And those words were spread out over years. 224 of them were during our sixth grade science project where we got stuck on the same team, two of them came from an accidental brush in the hall in eighth grade that required a mumbled “Oops, sorry,” and the rest resulted from a request to pass a beaker of liquid hydrogen in AP Chem sophomore year. In the beginning I tried to be friendly, but she’s never given me the time of day. Literally. I once asked her the time because my watch had stopped and she wouldn’t tell me. Stuff like this used to drive me crazy, but now it’s the end of our junior year and I’m used to it.
Since we’re in every honors class together, I spend a lot of time staring at the back of her head (even in high school we still sit alphabetically). Honors English is about to start when Tabitha walks in and heads to her desk. It takes me a few seconds to realize that instead of sitting down, she’s standing next to my desk. In fact, she’s actually talking to me. This does not happen. I blink and sit up straighter.
“How could you not have told me about this?” she demands, waving an orange flyer in my face. “That’s not fair!”
Okay, so just because Tabitha and I don’t talk, that’s not to say we aren’t aware of each other. We always know what grades the other receives, what extracurriculars the other is involved in, what accolades or awards we earn, how many laps around the field we can do before getting winded. Getting into NASA requires being in peak physical condition, an advanced degree in something like astrophysics or aeronautical engineering, and that most mysterious of qualifications—the “Right Stuff.” Without saying a word, we push each other to be our best in every area. We “bring it on” every day. When I sit down to a test, I see Tabitha’s face in my mind, her eyes challenging me to beat her score. Before, I never cared much about grades; I just enjoyed learning for its own sake. Because of her, I now have straight A’s and am pretty sure I can get a scholarship to college, which my family never could have afforded otherwise. Instead of practicing quadratic equations alone in my room, I’m the treasurer of the junior class. And I owe all that to her.
The thing is, sometime over these same 2,563 days I probably should have told Tabitha I don’t actually want to BE an astronaut. I get carsick on any road that isn’t perfectly straight. I almost fainted from fear on the Care Bears roller coaster at the county fair when I was seven. The likelihood of me becoming an astronaut and zooming into space at thousands of miles per hour and then floating around at Zero Gravity is zilch. I know I should tell her that she doesn’t have to worry about me taking her spot at MIT, but honestly, our wordless competition has made my life so much better and I don’t want it to stop.
So now she’s waiting for me to form words, and I can’t seem to answer. Because here’s the thing. Even though she annoys the you-know-what out of me, I still repeat Tabitha’s name to myself in bed at night. And it’s not because the melody of it (Tabitha Bell…Tabitha Bell) lulls me to gentle slumber. It’s because I’m madly in love with her.
My feelings began in fifth grade, when she made a diorama of the Pantheon in Rome complete with statues of all the gods modeled out of Ivory soap. Then in seventh grade, when she constructed a wave pool in science class to show how all matter behaves both like a wave and like a particle, my heart started to flutter. Anyone who would try to explain quantum mechanics to seventh graders is a special girl for sure. But then last year she won the high school speech competition by talking for an hour about the existential meaning of Sisyphus pushing his rock up the hill every day. And that did it. From that moment on, I was hers. Or she was mine. Or something like that. Not that she knows, of course, considering how, you know, we don’t talk at all.
“Peter?” she demands, all golden eyes and honey-brown hair and tank top. How am I supposed to ignore all that and just answer her?
I stall by glancing at the flyer. It’s for the big Star Party the local astronomy club is hosting out in the desert next weekend. This year they’re running an all-night Messier Marathon. My name is listed at the bottom as the Youth Advisor.
“I found this on the community board at the rec center,” she says accusingly. “Why didn’t you tell me you were involved with this?”
I finally find my voice. “It’s not a secret,” I tell her. “You know I’m into astronomy.”
She stares at me like I have two heads. “No, I don’t.”
This surprises me. Perhaps she hasn’t been paying quite as much attention to me as I’ve been paying to her all these years. I don’t know what to say, so I stare down at the flyer. When I look back up, she inexplicably has a tear in the corner of her eye. It glistens on her lower lashes like a diamond. I redden and resist the strong urge to dab at it. She blinks quickly and it’s gone. Her eyes narrow and she asks, “Can you tell me how much hydrogen gas the sun transforms into helium per second?”
Tabitha tosses her book bag around the back of her seat and sits down, still facing me. “Well, I can. I know the exact orbits of the planets and the names of Jupiter’s moons. But you know what?”
I shake my head. This conversation is very weird.
She exhales loudly and says, “I’ve never seen them. Any of them. I’ve never looked through a telescope in my life.” She picks up the flyer and waves it at me. “When I saw your name on this I realized how stupid I’d been to ignore basic observational astronomy. Clearly you knew enough to study it. How can I expect to get into NASA if I don’t know the difference between Cassiopeia and Andromeda? If I’ve never seen the Ring Nebula with my own eyes?”
Without waiting for an answer, she does something she’s never done before. She touches me. Or, more accurately, she clutches my arm in a death grip. “You’re taking me with you. I’m going to do that marathon, or whatever it is, and it’s going on my college application.”
I don’t want her to know the effect her touch is having so I blurt out, “You don’t even know what the marathon is?”
Her grip tightens in response. I can’t help but squirm. “Okay, okay, I’ll tell you. Charles Messier was a French astronomer at the turn of the nineteenth century. He made this list of deep-sky objects, you know, galaxies, nebula, star clusters. He was trying to find comets, and kept coming across these other things. So he started keeping a chart so other astronomers wouldn’t confuse them with comets. For a few days in March each year, all 110 objects are visible sometime between dusk and dawn. So the idea of the Marathon is to find and identify all 110 objects on the list.”
“Fine. Then that’s what I’ll do.”
“Um, doing the marathon is really hard. Most people don’t get everything. A good goal for a beginner would be a dozen or so.”
Her grip tightens even more. “You don’t think I can do it?”
I fear my circulation is being cut off. She’s getting harder to love. “Look, finding deep-sky objects that are millions of light years away is hard enough. But going from one to the other in a race against the dawn, well, that takes a lot of practice, that’s all. I’ve never done it, and I’ve been studying the sky since, well, for a long time.” I might not want to fly in outer space, but I love looking at it. I recently took a picture of the Copernicus Impact Crater on the moon that is SO COOL that I hung it up inside my locker.
Tabitha releases my arm and I have to shake it to restore feeling in my hand.
She blows her hair out of her eyes. “I’ll just practice then.”
I point to the flyer. “It’s in four days.”
“Then that gives me three nights to practice,” she replies matter-of-factly.
I want to tell her that even if she had three months it might not be enough time. Instead I ask, “Do you want me to help you?” Even as the words are out of my mouth, I know they are a mistake. Tabitha and I don’t help each other. To admit we needed help was unthinkable. She glares at me and whips around in her seat, her long hair actually skimming my nose.
I know she’s only talking to me now because she needs something from me, but I can live with that.
After all, her hair smells like strawberries.
I gently place my telescope in the back of the purple VW van Tabitha borrowed from her uncle for the trip. My eyes land on the big box next to it and almost pop out of my head. “You’ve got to be kidding me! That’s what you’re bringing?”
Tabitha shuts the back of the van—barely missing my fingers—and puts her hands on her hips. “What’s wrong with it? It’s a top of the line computerized telescope.”
“Exactly!” I reply, following her around the side of the van. “You can’t do the Messier Marathon with a GoTo! That’s cheating!”
She climbs into the driver’s seat and closes the door. I hurry around to the other side and slide in. I’m not sure how she became the one organizing this trip, but I should have expected as much. The ancient van groans and sputters, but finally starts. She pulls away from the curb in front of my house, the clutch grinding into second gear. It’s going to be a long five hours.