Every Soul a Star Read online

  I find the Dipper again, and move very slowly this time until I hit the next fairly bright star.

  “That’s it!” she says.

  Everyone claps. Phew, that wasn’t so bad. I move to sit down, but she says, “Not so fast. You still need to figure out which way is north. First, find the North Star again.”

  I start to move the pen, but she takes it from my hand and turns it off. “Find it without this.”

  I’m about to say I can’t, but then I realize that I can. I can actually pick out one star out of what looks like a zillion. I go through the routine again. “Okay, I have it.”

  “Good. So now wherever you’re standing, imagine a line pointing from you to Polaris. That line points north. It can also tell your latitude. If directly over your head is always ninety degrees, where would you say the star is right now?”

  I panic for a second. I only barely squeaked by in math this year. I crane my neck to look directly overhead, and then slowly lower it to the horizon in front of me. The North Star appears to be right in the middle, maybe a little higher, at around 48 degrees. I tell Ally this, and she says, “That’s exactly right! If the North Star was directly overhead, you’d be at the North Pole. If it was really near the ground, or the horizon, you’d be standing near the equator. Now don’t you feel better knowing you’ll always know where you are?”

  I nod. More clapping ensues, and then I sit back down on my log. Ally talks for a few more minutes, tracing the shape of the Summer Triangle with her laser pointer. She says how each star of the triangle is in a different constellation and how one of them, Deneb, is so powerful that it gives out more light in a single night than our sun does in a century. She knows so much about things that I never gave a second thought to. But if Mr. Silver says it’s okay, I’m going to be able to teach her something now. When she’s done talking, her dad steps up beside her and says, “Far be it for me to rain on anyone’s parade, but the National Weather Center has issued a warning of a strong storm headed our way in a few days. It’s already soaked half the Northwest. It should be here and gone well before the eclipse though, so that’s good news. But everyone be careful on the paths, the mud gets slippery in the rain. And those of you in tents might want to make friends real quick with someone in a cabin or an RV.”

  The lecture breaks up, and all the red flashlights make the air seem otherworldly. I promise one of the t-shirt guys he can have my other bed if or when the storm comes. I want to tell Ally what a great job she did, but there are too many people around her. Mr. Silver hands me my very own red flashlight and we head up toward the hilltop where his experiment will take place. It takes about ten minutes to get there, and we spend the time with him talking and me listening and thinking how dark it is. I don’t mind the dark. I’ve spent a lot of time in my treehouse late at night, but this kind of dark is totally different. Thankfully we’ve switched over to our regular flashlights, and that makes it much easier to see.

  “Now we’ll have a two-day window to do this, starting at ten pm the first night, eleven the second. Each team is assigned a block of time since the transit could happen any time during those two days. I’m not even going to consider the possibility of rain, so you set your mind to clear skies.”

  “Sure thing,” I promise, wondering how I’m going to mention Ally.

  We get to the top of the hill where his telescope is all ready and waiting. He pulls the silver waterproof cover off and stands back to admire it. “It’s a beauty, ain’t it?”

  “Um, sure. It’s really something.”

  He checks the small computer attached to the side of the telescope and then fiddles with some other piece of equipment, which I assume is the special camera. “Now, Jack, I don’t expect you to understand all of this. All you’ll have to do is read me the data as it comes up, that’s all I ask.”

  “No problem,” I say, more confidently than I feel. “Um, can I ask a favor?”

  “Go ahead,” he says, busy adjusting something in the viewfinder.

  “Ally, the girl who gave the lecture tonight, is it okay if she hangs out with us during, you know, the experiment? She knows a lot about this stuff. I’m sure she wouldn’t get in the way or anything.”

  He looks up with a mischievous grin. “You like this girl?”

  How do I answer that question? It’s not like a beautiful girl like Ally would be interested in me as anything more than a friend. I’m grateful that she wants to be my friend at all. I decide not to answer. “So can she come?”

  “That’s fine,” he says. “But you can’t get distracted. We’re both going to need to focus all our attention on what we’re doing, because time is going to move quickly.”

  “I won’t, I promise.” I’m so relieved he said yes. Now I can’t wait to tell Ally.

  He surprises me by saying, “Do you want to see Saturn?”

  Before tonight I would have said that’s okay. But after Ally’s talk, I’m curious. He takes a few minutes to set it up, then steps aside and says, “Okay. All yours.”

  Saturn, all mine? A very strange thought.

  “Don’t jostle the scope or else I’ll have to find it again.”

  Careful not to touch anything, I peer into the eyepiece and see the strangest sight. A little yellowish ball in the sky, with a series of perfect rings around it. My first thought is that it looks fake, like a drawing of Saturn, or a sticker on the end of the telescope. I actually step away and check the lens just to make sure Mr. Silver isn’t pulling a trick on me. But no, it really looks like that. I can’t tear myself away from the eyepiece. That planet can float in a bathtub? Too soon it starts drifting out of my field of view. When it’s gone, I step back, too awed to say anything. I look up at the tiny points of light above me and can’t believe the planet I was just looking at is among them. I had no idea telescopes were so powerful, that it could single out one dot of light like that and bring it so close. It was like magic.

  Mr. Silver laughs. “I bet you won’t forget Saturn in your next model of the solar system!”

  I shake my head. I won’t forget Saturn, period.

  Rustling leaves and crunching branches make us both turn around. “Mr. Silver?” a woman’s voice asks. It’s Ally’s mom.

  As she gets closer I see her expression is serious. “This fax came for you at the office.” She hands him a piece of paper. “I thought you’d want to see it right away.”

  His brows knit as he begins to read. Then he lets out a small gasp and a groan. His arm with the paper in it drops to his side. “Can you get me a car to the airport tonight?”

  Mrs. Summers nods. “We’ll work something out. Come down to the office when you’re ready.” In a softer voice she says, “I hope everything’s going to be all right,” then hurries back down the hill.

  I watch the exchange, wide-eyed.

  Mr. Silver is wearing a pained expression when he turns back to me. “My wife is six months pregnant and had a scare. She’s in the hospital. She said not to worry, but I have to go make sure she’s okay. This is our first baby.” He paces back and forth, pulling at his hair. He used to do that in class, too, whenever someone (often me) gave an answer that was unfathomable to him. I didn’t even know his wife was pregnant. I didn’t even know he HAD a wife. I glance at his left hand, and sure enough, there’s a gold wedding band. I’ve really got to start being more perceptive. My stomach twists at the thought of him leaving.

  “Well, it can’t be helped,” he says. “I’ll have to cancel the experiment. I hope I can make it back for the eclipse.”

  I gape at him. “Cancel it? How can you cancel it?”

  “I’ll call the lead scientist in Hawaii. He’ll have to get someone else.”

  “But you told me all the data points are programmed into your computer. You said it took weeks. How can someone else catch up?”

  He puts his hand to his head. “You’re right of course, they can’t. He starts pacing again. Then with what sounds like regret, he says, “Greg Daniels knows ho