“Where is it?” she says, rummaging into its depths. She makes a big show of turning it upside down and shaking it. “It’s got to be here somewhere!”
I snatch the knapsack. “What are you looking for?”
“The kitchen sink! You have everything else, so I figure it’s got to be here.”
“Wow, I didn’t know you had such an outstanding sense of humor.” I carefully replace my supplies. “I hope you’re as prepared as I am, or you’re going to be mighty cold and hungry tonight.”
She grabs the Field Guide. “At least I’ll have good reading.”
I grab it back. “Not if you don’t have a flashlight.”
“Of course I have a flashlight.” She reaches into her bag and holds up a small white plastic flashlight with a picture of Hello Kitty on it.
“You’re kidding me. Do you know how dark it’s going to get out here? Darker than you’ve ever seen in your life. That thing doesn’t look strong enough to shine more than three feet.”
She frowns and turns it around in her hand. Then she grabs my red-bulbed flashlight before I can stuff it back in my bag. “I’ll just use this one, then. You don’t need two.”
“As a matter of fact, I do. The red one is so you don’t ruin your night vision. I’ll use it to consult my charts once it gets dark.”
“You mean, we’ll use that one,” she says, “to consult our charts.”
I look up, surprised. “I thought you didn’t want my help.”
Her eyes darken. “Fine,” she says, her voice clipped. “You’re right.” She turns on her heel and marches toward the tent marked BREAK STATION. I watch as she strikes up a conversation with a young couple setting up a huge coffee machine. Well, that probably could have gone better. I didn’t say I wouldn’t help her. I just thought she didn’t want me to. She didn’t have to storm off like that. She can be so annoying.
I busy myself by setting up my scope. I want to make sure it’s completely cooled down by the time twilight arrives. I align the scope’s finder and then calibrate my eyepiece. Tabitha still hasn’t returned by the time I’m done, so I grab one of my sandwiches and wander around greeting people I know from the club. A big group of kids—mostly made up of Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts—ask for help setting up their telescopes. It’s fun seeing all the different types. The troop leaders show me their plan of attack for the night and I make a few tweaks to it. By the time I get back to our blanket, probably another fifty people have arrived and their varying scopes are glinting in the last of the sun. It’s such a big space that everyone has allowed a sizable distance between themselves and their neighbors. Tabitha is lying on her belly reading my Peterson’s Guide. Why does her butt have to be so cute? It’s hard to stay annoyed at a butt like that.
I tap her shoulder lightly. “Hey.”
“Hey,” she replies, not glancing up from the page.
“Um, sorry about before,” I say, plopping down into one of the chairs. “I’m happy to help. You just never, um, asked before.” I almost add how in order to ask me, she would have had to talk to me, but I don’t want to start another fight.
“Maybe not,” she admits. “But I’m asking now. I may be a little out of my league here. I mean, I don’t know M30 from M29!”
I laugh. “That’s easy. M29 is an open cluster, while M30 is a globular?—”
She rests her hand on my ankle and says, “I’m serious.”
I may never wash my ankle again. “Okay, we’ll do it together,” I manage to choke out.
Her shoulders visibly relax and she smiles, releasing her hand. “Cool. I was afraid you’d say no. I thought maybe you’d want to keep it off my college apps.”
I can feel the memory of each individual finger imprinted on my leg. I wish she’d touch me again. I clear my throat and say, “No worries. I already have those other Observing Programs under my belt. I can share this one.”
“That’s right,” she says with mock seriousness. “You’re already a Sky Puppy. What can beat that?” She pops open a can of Coke (my Coke) and takes a long swig.
I pretend to be insulted. “Hey, the Sky Puppy has a long and honored past.”
She laughs. “Maybe I should try to get my pin.”
I pop open another of the Cokes. “Too late. You can only do it before you’re ten years old.”
“So I guess this is my only chance to get a pin in anything,” she says, suddenly serious.
“Nah, there are lots of others.”
She shakes her head, but doesn’t reply. I wonder again why she’s never studied astronomy before. It just seems like a strange subject to have overlooked by someone who wants to fly through space. I lean back to check out the sky. The sun has turned the horizon a deep orange-pink, which normally I would stop to admire. But now it’s time to get focused. “There it is,” I announce, eagerly pushing myself out of the chair. I can see others around me getting down to work, too.
“M74? Where? You can see it already?” Tabitha cranes her neck in all directions. “That wasn’t so hard. One down, a hundred and nine to go!”
I laugh. “Not M74. Just the North Star. I need to use it to make the final alignments on my scope.” A few minutes later, whoops and yelps fills the air. “Here we go!” I call to Tabitha. “Grab the logbook!”
“M74 this time?” she asks.
“Yup!” I swing around to the west until I find Aries. I follow it down into Pisces until I have the general area. Then I get behind the scope. I’ve found M74 before, but not at this time of year. It’s a lot closer to the horizon now, which makes it even harder to find than usual. “Got it! Come look!”
Tabitha leans against my arm as she closes one eye and peers through the eyepiece. “That’s it?” she asks, sounding a bit disappointed. “It just looks like a blob of stars.”
I smile, using a pencil from my pocket to make a check on the first line of my log. “You’d look like a blob of stars at forty million light-years away.”
“Wow. Our eyes just absorbed protons that are forty million years old. How cool is that?”
“No time to dwell on that now. Gotta find M77. That one’s over sixty million light-years away. Wanna give it a try?”
She shakes her head. “It would take me too long. We’d get too far behind.”
That’s probably true. “Okay, I’ll find this one, but you’ll do the next one. That one’s so easy we won’t even need the scope.” Once I find Delta Cetus, the closest star to M77, it only takes a minute to find the spiral galaxy. I show it to Tabitha, who admits it looks slightly less like a blob than the first one.
“At this rate, we’ll be done before midnight,” she says, and dramatically crosses it off on our list.
“Sorry, doesn’t work that way.”
“I know, I know,” she says, rolling her eyes. “As the earth rotates, different objects come and go from view all night, blah blah blah.”
“You’re a fast learner,” I tease.
“So true, so true. So what’s the next one?” She looks down at the list. “M31, Andromeda Galaxy. You expect me to find that on my own?”
I stand as close as I dare (which is to say, close enough to smell her hair, but not close enough to feel it), and point out the five stars that form the W shape of Cassiopeia. Then I gently lift her arm. “Make a fist.”
She looks doubtful, but does it. “Now move your fist so it’s directly under the lower part of the W and hold it there.” I get distracted for a second by the graceful way her sleeve slips down toward her shoulder, and I freeze up.
“Um, arm getting tired here,” she says impatiently.
“Sorry.” I hand her the binoculars. “Now look right below your fist and scan the area for a bright blob with faint light coming off both sides.”
It takes a while for her to coordinate looking through the binoculars without moving her fist out of position. Standing so close to her as darkness falls all around us is kind of making me breathless. Then I hear a sharp intake of breath from her. “I think I found it! Does it look kinda like a flying saucer?”
I smile, proud of her. “Yup, that’s it. Congratulations. You now know how to find Andromeda and Cassiopeia! You’re on your way!”
She lowers her fist and the binoculars, and beams at me. For a few long seconds neither of us moves. My heart starts beating crazily. The stars are coming out in full force now. I’ve never had a more romantic moment. Should I kiss her? “What are you waiting for?” she says.
She does want me to kiss her! What if my lips don’t line up right with hers? What if we bang noses? She’s waiting. I hope for the best, pucker slightly, and lean in closer. The binoculars whack me on the forehead as she lifts them to her eyes. “Well?” she says, seemingly unaware she just wounded me. “Aren’t you going to show me more stuff?”
Thoroughly humiliated, I rub my forehead. What are you waiting for clearly didn’t mean the same thing to her as it did to me. Did she know I was trying to kiss her? Is that why she moved the binoculars? Should I be humiliated? Before I can apologize, she cries, “Oh, no! Look at that huge cloud!”
I follow her gaze, but the sky—almost totally dark now—looks perfectly clear to me. “What cloud?”
“That long one!” She waves her arm in an arc clear across the sky. “Is it going to mess everything up?” Her eyes search mine in a panic.
I’d laugh, but my mood is kind of low right now. “That’s not a cloud. That’s the Milky Way. You’re looking at the edge of our galaxy.”
“Huh?” She bends her neck back and stares. “I’m sure I would have noticed that before.”
“You have to be somewhere like this, far away from any city lights. A few hundred years ago everyone on Earth could see it.” I swallow my wounded pride and say, “C’mon, we’ve got to keep moving down the list.”