Every Soul a Star Read online

  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.

  I clear my throat. Or I try to. It comes out more like a gargle.

  She looks up, then hoists herself out of her seat so I can squeeze by. “Well, my young friend. You are quite talented.”

  I don’t answer, I just take the pad from her hands and sit. She picks up her needles again.

  A few minutes later, the bus pulls off the highway and into a McDonald’s restaurant that says WE WELCOME BUSES on a big sign out front. The bus clanks and hisses to a stop. Everyone files out, and I’m the last one off. I linger to watch the bus driver unscrew a panel in the back, right under my seat. He tinkers in there for a few minutes and then goes back into the bus. He returns with a full toolkit. I want to watch, but the smell of hamburgers wafts through the air, and my stomach growls in response. I’m no match for the pull of the burger.

  When I get inside the restaurant I immediately flash back to the middle school cafeteria. I always hated walking in and not knowing where I should sit. Last year I wound up sitting with a few other kids who didn’t have a place to sit. It was better than sitting alone, but it’s tiring pretending I wouldn’t rather be asked to sit somewhere. I get in line behind the young family with the little boy. The father recognizes me from the bus and puts out his hand.

  “Hi, Jack,” he says warmly. “I’m David. This is my wife Hayley and our son, Pete. It’s our first eclipse.”

  “Mine too,” I say, shaking all their hands, even Pete’s.

  “How did you wind up here?” he asks as Hayley orders their meal.

  I almost tell him it was this or summer school, but instead I just say, “Mr. Silver is my science teacher. He invited me.”

  “Wow,” David says. “I can’t imagine having someone like him as a teacher. What’s he like in the classroom?”

  I shrug. “Just like a teacher I guess. Talks a lot . . . gives tests . . . chalk on his pants.”

  David glances admiringly over toward where Mr. Silver is eating with a group of eclipse chasers. “Really? He’s so famous and all, I would have thought he’d be really amazing.”

  “Huh? Famous?”

  “Well, he leads these eclipse tours all over the world. They always fill up years ahead of time. Plus he’s written a book on backyard astronomy that many people believe is the best around. So I’d say he’s pretty famous.” He picks up the tray and says, “See you later.”

  I’m speechless.

  “Welcome to McDonald’s, may I take your order?”


  The teenage girl pops her gum and says, “Welcome to Mc —”

  “I got it,” I reply, and order the first thing my eyes land on, a double cheeseburger Mighty Kids Meal. While I wait for the food I stare across the restaurant at Mr. Silver. I might not listen much in class, but I’m pretty sure he never told us he wrote books. The people at his table are hanging onto his every word. I’m still staring as the bus driver hurries in and whispers something in Mr. Silver’s ear. He stands and follows him out. I ask the girl to make my order to-go, and she puts it in a bag.

  I hurry out after them. The driver is now under the bus, with only his legs sticking out. Mr. Silver sees me and says, “There he is, the hero of the day.”


  “I knew bringing you along would pay off. I just didn’t realize how soon! The driver has to replace a faulty