Read Every Soul a Star Online

Authors: Wendy Mass

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BOOK: Every Soul a Star
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I wave goodbye to them as I follow Mr. Silver to the bus. He tosses my duffel into the open compartment underneath. Good thing I don’t have anything breakable in there. He’s still checking people in, and tells me to go find a seat anywhere I like. I step onto the bus and feel a blast of air conditioning hit my face. The aisle isn’t very wide, and I have to be careful not to jostle anyone on my way down. Whacking an old guy with my elbow wouldn’t be a good start to the trip. I catch bits and pieces of words that make no sense to me. Words like
Baily’s Beads, Corona, Shadow Bands, Diamond Ring.
Is someone proposing on the trip? I look where the voice is coming from, but it’s an old man in thick glasses. He doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to get married any time soon.

Most of the back of the bus is empty. I settle into the window seat in the very last row and flip open the folder. I only get two paragraphs into the first article when I sense movement toward my end of the bus. An old woman in a pink sweat suit is heading determinedly down the aisle.
Please don’t sit here,
I silently beg. I’m sure she’s a nice enough lady, but I really don’t want to have to make small talk with a stranger for fourteen hours.
Please be heading for the bathroom.

So of course she sits down next to me. She looks even older than the rest, with the brightest white hair I’ve ever seen. You could see her hair from space, I bet. I can’t imagine why she would have walked all the way down the aisle when there were plenty of open seats up front. She smiles at me, so I smile back. I hope she can’t sense my disappointment at not getting to sit alone. She settles into her seat, lifts a huge container of red licorice out of her enormous pocketbook, and offers me a piece.

“Um, thanks,” I say, peeling one off the top.

“What’s that you’re reading?” she asks, tilting her head toward my folder.

I glance down at my lap. “Some articles about eclipses. I’m, uh, trying to learn stuff before we get there.”

She nibbles at her licorice and says, “You don’t need to read any articles. You got a living, breathing eclipse expert right here.”

I nod. “I know. He’s my science teacher at school.”

She laughs and then starts coughing. It goes on so long I start to worry. I wonder if resuscitating old people is on my list of official responsibilities. I move my licorice to the other side of me so she doesn’t cough on it.

“Not Silver,” she says. “Me! This is my sixth eclipse. I’ve traveled the world for ’em. Saved all my money to do it, too. Worth every penny and then some. I’ve got almost half an hour of totality—that’s total darkness, you know—under my belt. If I
wore
a belt, that is. Never could understand the fascination with belts. Let’s tie something really tight around our waists. Cut off our circulation. That’s smart! The things people do for fashion. Doesn’t make any kind of sense.”

When I’m pretty sure she’s done ranting about belts, I say, “Well, I don’t know why women wear belts, but guys need them or else our pants would fall down.”

Her brows rise under her white hair. “Is that so? I never knew that.”

I nod.

“So what can I tell you about eclipses in exchange for that tidbit of knowledge?”

The bus is starting to pull out of the lot now, and I can see Mom and Mike standing by the car, watching. The windows are tinted and I know they can’t see me, but my hand goes up to wave anyway. Yesterday if someone had told me I’d be here now, talking about belts and eclipses with a little old lady in a pink sweat suit while eating licorice, I’d have thought they were crazy. But here I am.

“Well,” I say, swallowing the last bit of licorice, “I’ve only read a little bit so far, so I don’t really know what to ask.” She looks disappointed, so I think for a second. “But I guess you could tell me why people would spend their life savings to see it get dark for a few minutes. It’s dark for, like, twelve hours a day anyway.”

She laughs again and I’m afraid it’s going to turn into another coughing fit. Fortunately, she catches her breath. “Only a poet can truly describe an eclipse, and I’m sorry to say I’m not a very good one. But comparing what you see during an eclipse to the darkness at night is like comparing an ocean to a teardrop. Do you see what I mean?”

I shake my head.

“Well, it’s the same thing, what makes up a teardrop and the ocean, but completely different in magnitude. Yes, it gets dark during an eclipse, and the stars come out in the daytime, and that’s all well and good,” she explains. “But it’s what the SUN does that makes it so special. At night, it’s dark because the sun is shining on the other side of the earth, right?”

I know I’m supposed to say yes, but hey, I failed seventh grade science. I nod, figuring that is the safest answer.

She continues. “During an eclipse, it’s dark, see, but the sun is still there, right in front of you. Only it’s not, because the moon is completely covering it. So all you can see is this perfect circle of white streamers billowing out at you. And it changes everything around you. It changes you, too, on the inside.” She lowers her voice. “Some religious folk even say it’s the Eye of God. Could be, but all I know is it’s something to marvel at for sure.” She wipes a tear away from her face and I look away, totally clueless as to what to do.

While she fishes around in her bag, probably for a tissue, I become aware of a clacking sound. It seems to be coming from under the bus. Probably just something in the storage bins rattling around. Hopefully.

Mr. Silver’s booming voice suddenly fills the air. “Hello, everyone!” I peer over the seat in front of me and see him standing at the front of the bus, gripping the top of the seat for balance. He’s holding a cordless microphone and is wearing a hat that I can only describe as a big stuffed sun. If the kids at school could see him now!

He tips his hat to the group and people laugh. He says, “Hello and welcome to the Eclipse Tour. I recognize some faces from our trip to Tibet a few years back, and many new faces, too. Whether this is your first eclipse or your tenth, I know this will be an experience you’ll never forget. Unlike the other trips, this one won’t include much sightseeing or fancy meals or visits to local museums. You won’t have to pack up your belongings each day to travel to the next location. This is a quieter trip, but no less extraordinary. We’ll set up camp and explore the heavens under one of the darkest skies in the states. We’ll learn how to tell Andromeda from the Great Bear. We’ll search for faint fuzzies—those distant deep sky objects—with a variety of telescopes and binoculars. And during the day we’ll search for intelligent life on other planets, we’ll walk a labyrinth, and contemplate the beauty of nature from a kayak in the middle of a pristine lake. And then what happens at the end?”

He pauses here, and cups his hand over his ear. In unison, everyone (except me) shouts, “The eclipse!”

“That’s right!” he says, laughing. “We’re going to be on the only spot of American soil to witness all of nature holding its breath. Of course we’ll be holding our breath along with it!”

Everyone cheers.

“Raise your hands if this is your first eclipse.”

I raise my hand a few inches, even though no one can see me in the back row. About half the group raises their hands, too. This makes me feel better. I’m not the only clueless one.

“A special welcome to the newbies!” Mr. Silver calls out. “Where are you all from?”

Voices call out from all over the bus. “New York City! Memphis! Dallas! Seattle!”

I’m shocked. All these people came together in MY hometown to take a fourteen-hour bus ride?

“Who can tell me why they call a total solar eclipse Nature’s Greatest Coincidence?” Mr. Silver grins as hands shoot up all around the bus. We’re barely out of town and already I feel like I’m back at school, not knowing the correct answers.

Mr. Silver calls on a lady in the front and waves her up to the microphone. He places the sun hat on her head and says, “Whoever has the hat, has our attention, folks.” She giggles, adjusting it on her head. Then she says, “The only reason we can see an eclipse is because the moon and the sun happen to look the exact same size from earth. But really, the moon is 400 times smaller. It’s just that coincidentally, the sun is 400 times as far away as the moon, so they look the same size to us. If the moon were even a few miles smaller across, it wouldn’t hide the face of the sun when it passed in front of it.”

Mr. Silver lifts the hat off her head and puts it back on his own. “Thank you for that concise over-view, uh —”

“Rebecca,” the woman says, leaning into the mike.

“Thank you, Rebecca!” Everyone claps and Rebecca makes a little curtsy before carefully making her way back to her seat.

I still hear that clacking sound. Every once and a while a quick
hiss
joins in. Pink Sweat Suit Lady doesn’t seem to notice. Although she’s so old she could be hard of hearing. None of the other adults notice either so I guess it’s just a normal bus noise and I’m being paranoid.

“I’m going to let you all relax in a minute, but I just want to introduce my assistant on this trip—Jack Rosten. Where are ya, Jack?”

My face burns when I hear my name. “Uh, I’m back here,” I say, lifting my hand.

“Stand up, Jack,” Mr. Silver booms. “Let everyone see who ya are.”

I stand up awkwardly in my seat, and the folder goes flying onto the head of the person in front of me. Very coordinated.

“Jack here is going to be my right-hand man. Anything you need and I’m not around, you can ask him. Right, Jack?”

I smile weakly as everyone cranes their necks to look at me. The last time I was the center of attention like this was when I was a stalk of broccoli in the third grade play and forgot my one line. It was something about how broccoli is an important antioxidant or some-thing like that. The whole audience stared at me until finally the carrot stepped forward to deliver her line about carrots being good for the eyes.

“Pssst, I think you can sit down now,” whispers Pink Sweat Suit Lady, tugging gently on my sleeve.

I quickly sit. The guy in front of me slips my folder through the seats and I take it.

“I didn’t know you were such an important figure,” she says, offering me another piece of licorice. I’m too shaken up to take it. How am I supposed to be this guy’s right-hand man when I don’t know anything about anything? I’m starting to think I made a big mistake. At least at summer school all I’d have to do is sit there.

Mr. Silver is talking again. “Now everyone lean back and enjoy the countryside. We’ll stop for lunch in a few hours.”

The chatter picks up again and then eventually people either drift off to sleep or start reading. It doesn’t take long for corn and wheat fields to replace the strip malls and office buildings. I bury myself in reading the articles. All the words I had heard when I first got on the bus are explained in there. I guess it sounds interesting, but I honestly still don’t see what the big deal is. I take out my sketchpad and a thin charcoal pencil and start drawing. Mr. Silver becomes a tall, thin alien in a sun-hat. Instead of standing in front of a bus, the alien is at the front of a spaceship. A pudgy wizard in a high pointy hat stands next to him. I’m the wizard.

I thought Pink Sweat Suit Lady was sleeping, but she leans over and looks at my picture before I have time to jerk it away. “Remarkable likeness,” she jokes. “You must really be interested in outer space.”

I shake my head. “Why would you say that?”

She scrunches her brows at me. “Well, besides the fact that you’re the assistant eclipse tour leader, you’re drawing pictures of aliens.”

Okay, so she has a point. How can I explain that I never really thought of my aliens as living on other worlds, like they could possibly exist? I just think of them in some alternate reality, the same as wizards and monsters.

“My name’s Stella,” she says, extending a frail hand.

I reach out to shake it, afraid to hurt her. Her shake is surprisingly strong and firm.

“My son and his wife are up front,” she tells me. “His wife doesn’t like it when I’m in the way too much. So I try to stay out of the way. You know that old saying, ‘your daughter’s your daughter all of your life, your son is your son till he gets a wife’?”

I shake my head.

“Yeah, well, it’s true. So be good to your momma while you’re young.” Then she pulls two long knitting needles out of her bag. A skinny red scarf is attached, clearly a work in progress. Stella starts knitting so quickly I can barely see the tips of the needles darting in and out of the yarn. I close my eyes and wonder again how I got here.

I must have fallen asleep, but the clanking and hissing awakens me. Most people are sleeping, too. Stella isn’t in her seat. I see the restroom door says occupied, so she must be there. I lift up the armrest between our seats and slide out. We’re going pretty fast, and it’s hard to keep my balance, but I manage to make it to the front without too many “sorry’s” and “excuse me’s.”

I kneel next to Mr. Silver, who is going through some papers. “I think there’s something wrong with the bus,” I whisper, so as not to alarm anyone nearby.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

“There’s a clanking and a hissing.”

“Can you describe the clanking and the hissing?”

“Well, the clanking sort of sounds like a clank, and the hiss is well, a hissing sound.”

“I was kidding, Jack,” Mr. Silver says, laying his papers on the empty seat next to him. “Lighten up, kid, or it’s going to be a long two weeks.”

Sometimes I’m not sure when people are joking. One of my many deficiencies.

“We’re going to pull off for lunch soon, and I’ll have the driver check it out then, okay?”

I nod. I’m starting to get a little nauseated facing backward, so I make my way down to my seat. Stella is back, her face buried in a book. As I get closer I realize with horror that it’s MY book she’s holding. Not the short story book—my sketch pad! I never, ever let anyone look through it. My first reaction is to grab it from her hands, and it takes a lot of self-control not to. I watch her expression as she turns each page slowly. She almost looks, well,
pleased.

BOOK: Every Soul a Star
12.85Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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