Chapter 21: Stargazing

The kids emerged from the water like wet dogs, energetic and soaked, with sand coating their wet feet and scraps of weeds pasted onto their damp skin to form spidery green tattoos.
They took hot showers, the boys and girls separated by a wall in adjacent group showers, dim rooms tiled in brown ceramic. The narrow, high-set windows fogged up as hot water rained down from the rusted shower heads and the steam rose to the ceiling.
Myra scrubbed the sticky lake residue from her face and shut her eyes under the cascade. So much blood on her hands, but they’d all go home tomorrow. She opened her eyes to watch the girls rinsing clean, feeling the same sensations as her. Washing away the remains of a day best selectively forgotten.
They dressed in clean clothes and met up at the mess hall. The kids cozied up on pillows on the floor. Alex sat with them while Myra heated milk over the stove. She poured packets of cocoa powder into mugs and rummaged through the kitchen cupboards.
Ten minutes later, they were all sipping hot chocolate with mini marshmallows.
Caitlin braided Zoey’s wet hair. Grace and Aldo took up coloring. Cassie and Percy whispered to each other. Joey talked Luke into playing Battleship. Myra chewed a tiny marshmallow and pretended not to notice Alex eyeing her.
No surprise that it didn’t work. He scooched over next to her and said softly, “What are we doing tonight?”
She glanced at him and then pointedly studied the gooey marshmallows bobbing in her cooling, half-drunk cocoa. “Stargazing, I was thinking,” she said. “It’ll be warm tonight, probably clear skies.”
“Yeah?” he murmured. “Show me Vega again?”
“I’ll show the kids,” she said. “The big dipper, north star, that sort of thing.”
“Cool,” he said. “They’ll never get lost again.”
She almost smiled. “Right.”
It stayed light forever this far north in August. They ate a light dinner and played card games as the sun shone for hours like a guest overstaying its welcome. But when it finally began to slide down toward the horizon, the light softening from white to yellow to orange, Myra readied the kids for a night outdoors. She had them change out of shorts into jeans and cover bare arms with sweatshirts. Even a hot summer day became a chilly night.
To imbue an extra layer of adventure, she guided them into the woods. They hiked a short ways in the blue twilight until they reached a grassy clearing. They lay on their backs in a ten-pointed star, all their heads meeting in the center, their feet pointing out toward the shadowy trees. The night chorus was performing, the ambient music of crickets and frogs vying for attention.
They all stared up at the glittery specks that were becoming visible in the indigo sky. Even with the last vestiges of light clinging on, out here in the middle of nothing except trees and crickets and children, the density of stars took her breath away.
Luke was pulling up grass next to her. He would pluck up a handful of blades and then let them fall. They rained down in a soft tickle onto her hand. She felt for his hand and squeezed it. He squeezed back.
“See the white stripe in the sky?” she asked.
Luke’s fingers wiggled. “No, where?” he said.
Myra raised her free arm and gestured in a wide arc. “There, all the way across.”
“Oh yeah,” Luke said. “I saw that. The scar.”
“Yeah, you can tell the sky was ripped and it healed wrong.”
Myra studied the mottled streak.
“Oh yeah, you’re right,” she said.
“What tore it?” Luke asked. A moment later he answered himself. “A plane, maybe. Or a really sharp bird’s beak. Like a woodpecker.” His fingers were still and warm, curled around her hand. “The sky must be thinner than a tree trunk.”
“How else could the stars shine through?” she said.
His silence was agreement.

Half the group was hugely impatient and the other half was falling asleep when Myra pointed up toward the black sky and said, “See that line of five stars, with the brightest star at the end on the left?”
“I see it,” Joey said quickly, and others voiced their assent too.
“And then it’s crossed with another kind of wavy line of another half-dozen stars?”
“That’s Cygnus the swan. He’s flying. The first line is his body and the second is his outstretched wings.”
“Is the super bright star his eye?” Caitlin asked.
“That would make sense,” Myra said, “but no. He’s facing the other direction, so it’s actually his…his tushy. The other end’s his eye.”
“Ha ha!” Luke said. “The swan has a sparkly butt.”
The kids laughed.
“That bright star?” Myra said. “That’s Deneb. Guess how far away it is.”
“A hundred miles,” Aldo said.
“A thousand miles,” Grace said.
“A million miles,” Zoey said.
“A million billion and five miles,” Joey said.
Myra did some math in her head, then found herself saying, “You’re right, Joey.” She explained, “It’s thousands of light years away. Which is quadrillions of miles. And a million billion is one quadrillion. So maybe your guess is a smidge low.”
Everyone gasped at the incomprehensible distance plus the fact that Joey was right about something.
“But it looks so close,” Alex murmured from across the circle.
“Sure, to look at,” Myra said, “but the light you see has been traveling through space for millennia.” She watched Deneb’s ancient twinkle and said, “The star itself is unreachable.”
After another half-hour of observations including Pegasus, Pisces, and Polaris, everyone’s eyelids were feeling heavy and the nighttime chill was creeping up. They heaved themselves up from the dewy grass to retreat to their cabins. Alex carried a sleeping Grace and they all walked under the starry sky to bed.
They sent the boys into their cabin, and Myra held the door open for Alex as he made sure Grace’s feet didn’t knock against the door frame. He laid her down on the bed, unzipped her sleeping bag, and draped it over her like a blanket.
The other girls were kicking off their shoes and sitting cross-legged on each other’s beds. Alex came up close to Myra and murmured, “Meet later?”
Breathing shallowly, staring at the gritty concrete floor, she whispered, “Fine.”
He brushed his hand over the small of her back. “Good. The dock?”
“Okay,” she said.
His hand ghosted away and he left the cabin.
Myra got the girls settled in, albeit still in mixed-up beds, and sat on the edge of her mattress. They were all so tuckered out from the late night that within a few minutes, she heard a quartet of slow deep breathing. She stood, tiptoed across the room, and slipped out the door.
She worked her way down the hill in the dark, keeping her footing on the slick grass, and reached the deserted dock. She stood on the creaking planks for a while, then sat down when he still didn’t come. The cool breeze was raising the fine hair on her forearms, but the back of her neck felt clammy, so she tied back her hair in a ponytail. The wind was icy on her sweaty neck.
When he still didn’t show, she eventually lay on her back to watch the stars without craning her neck. She stared at Corona Borealis, the northern crown, a tiny U of seven stars. Alphecca blazed in the center, the jewel in the crown, made of white-hot fusing gas clouds dozens of lightyears away that tonight looked like a tiny bright opal. It winked at her in a long-distance, time-delayed flirtation. She winked back and steeled herself to wait 150 years for an honest reply.