“Using a computerized telescope isn’t cheating,” she insists, reaching behind her to pull a bag of pretzels out from the stash of healthy food she packed. She offers me some. I shake my head and pull out a Charleston Chew instead. I had frozen it in preparation for the drive, and it’s still cold.
“You’ll never pass the NASA physical if you eat like that,” she says.
“That won’t be for, like, years from now.”
She shrugs. “Suit yourself.”
I take a big bite off the end and take my time chewing. I don’t want to antagonize her. But as much as the two of us have wanted to get ahead, we’ve never cheated. At least I haven’t. I didn’t even bring my equatorial mount because using the setting circles feels like cheating.
“Tabitha,” I say as gently as possible, “don’t you think it’s cheating if you plug in the coordinates of each item on the list, and then wait for your telescope to “go to” them? Where’s the challenge in that? How are you learning your way around the night sky?”
Instead of answering, she empties her bag of pretzels into her mouth, which I have to admit is impressive. Even the way she chomps on pretzels—crumbs and salt dotting her lips—is sexy. She swallows and says, “I’ve been doing some reading. The point of the Messier Marathon isn’t to learn the night sky; the point is simply to see all 110 objects. How you find them doesn’t matter.”
Technically, she’s right.
“Plus,” she adds, “I only had three days to prepare. If someone had told me about this earlier, I would have been able to learn the major constellations and then maybe I’d have a chance with a regular scope. But since no one told me, I had to rent this one.”
By sheer force of will—and the fact that I can see the outline of her bra through her thin white T-shirt—I don’t answer. Instead, I say, “Why don’t I just go over how things are going to work when we get there?”
“Oh, so now you’re going to help me?”
I gnaw hard on my Charleston Chew so I don’t say something I’ll regret. Focus on the bra strap, focus on the bra strap. I gulp down half of my water bottle. “If you’d rather do it all on your own, be my guest.”
“No, I want your help.” She glances fleetingly in my direction. Our eyes meet for a second and even though she drives me crazy, my heart skips a beat.
So I explain how I’ve made a chart of when each object will rise and set, and how we have to find them in this precise order, or we’ll miss them. I explain how the club chose this location because it has the clearest line of sight in all directions. Some objects will be very close to the horizon, and even a small hill could block out a whole galaxy. The fastest-setting objects—the spiral galaxies M77, M74, and M33, will be fighting the twilight, so they’ll be really hard to see. And in the morning M30 will be the biggest challenge because it’ll be practically dawn and it’s only one degree above the horizon.
“We’ll just use my scope,” she says confidently when I’ve finished my little lesson.
I shake my head. “Nope. We can’t use yours during twilight. We’ll have to do those early ones the old-fashioned way.”
She glances over again. This time she looks almost impressed.
“I got my Messier Certificate a few years ago,” I explain. “That means I’ve seen all the objects on the list. Never in one night, though.”
“So why do you want to do this, if you’ve already seen them all?”
Her question takes me by surprise. “Well, to be honest, it’s the only thing I haven’t done before.”
“Huh? Doing the Messier Marathon is the only thing you haven’t done before?” Her voice takes on a teasing tone, and for a second I feel naked.
I hurry to answer before my cheeks grow any hotter. “I mean, astronomy-wise of course. I’ve gone through all the observing programs that the Amateur Astronomy Association offers.” I start ticking them off on my fingers. “I got my Sky Puppy pin when I was ten, my Lunar Club pin at eleven, my?—”
She starts laughing. “I’m sorry, your Sky Puppy pin?”
I cross my arms over my chest. “Hey, don’t knock the Sky Puppy. It took me a year to earn that one. You have to be able to point out fifteen constellations and find five deep-sky objects like the ones we’ll be seeing tonight. Plus you have to be able to tell stories—like myths—about two of the constellations and how they got up in the sky. That’s hard when you’re just a kid.”
“I’m sure it is,” she says in mock seriousness.
I guzzle some more water and change the subject. “You brought everything I told you to, right? It gets really cold out there at night. Especially when you’re mostly standing still.”
She pushes her sunglasses up onto her head. “I know it gets cold at night, Peter. I’ve lived here eight years.”
“Eight years, two months, three days.” Wait, did I say that out loud? I sink down in my seat. Please don’t let me have said that out loud, please don’t let me have said that out loud. For a minute I think I’ve escaped, then the van swerves and I grab the side of the door.
“Why would you remember that?” she asks almost suspiciously.
I can’t look at her. “Um, I just remember how long it’s been since our, you know, competition started.”
“Our competition?” she repeats.
Now I turn to stare, a tingly feeling creeping up my spine. “The whole ‘bring it on’ thing?”
Her brows furrow. “You mean, like the movie?”
She really doesn’t remember. My mind races to all the things I’ve done over the past eight years because I thought I had to keep up with her. I can’t believe it was completely one-sided. How could I have thought that someone like Tabitha would ever really care what I was doing? I’m such an idiot! I shiver even though it’s warm in the van. A small choking sound escapes my throat.
“Hey, don’t choke, dude,” Tabitha says, handing me the water bottle I’d put on the seat next to me. “I’m just busting you! Of course we’re in a competition. If it wasn’t for you, I’d have seen that cheerleading movie. Or maybe even have been a cheerleader. Or had a boyfriend. Or gone to parties. Or, like, done a single thing just for fun.”
Relief floods through me, literally warming me up again. When my heart rate returns to normal, I say, “So just to get this straight, you’re blaming me for all the things you didn’t get to do? And to think I’ve been crediting you for all the things I have been able to do!”
She shrugs. “As my dad always says, that’s what makes horse races.”
“What does that even mean?”
“You know, if everyone thought the same way, they’d all bet on the same horse and where’s the fun in that? Tonight will prove which one of us really has what it takes. Which of us belongs in the stars, and which on the ground.”
“Does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t we both get what we want?”
“Have you ever heard of two people from the same high school becoming astronauts?”
I scan my memory and shake my head.
She continues, her hands gripping the wheel so tight her knuckles whiten. “It’s still harder for a woman. Did you know Judith Rosner got a perfect score on her SATs? That’s what it’s going to take for me.”
This was probably as good a time as any to tell her she didn’t have to worry about me taking her spot since I’m not planning on being an astronaut, but she’s not done talking.
“Hey, listen. I only half meant it about resenting you for making me miss things. Just knowing you were trying to achieve the same thing made me work so much harder. It was worth missing a few stupid parties. So seriously, thank you for always breathing down my neck.” She laughs. “And I mean that literally. Sometimes I could actually feel your breath on my neck in class.”
I redden again. Darn that alphabetical order!
“One more year,” she says, her usual look of determination on her face. “Then we’ll go our separate ways. Me to MIT, you to, well, anywhere else!” She grins at me.
I grin back. If I tell her the truth now, she might not work so hard. I wouldn’t want her to lose her focus senior year. So I lean back and enjoy the ride.
Two hours later, we pull into the makeshift parking lot that is full of cars from states as far as Illinois. Our 31 degree latitude is worth driving for. Up north they wouldn’t get to see everything.
“Hurry,” Tabitha says, jumping out of the van. “We need to get a good spot!”
“I really don’t think we need to worry.” I wave my arm at the miles of open space.
But she already has her metal cart set up and is yanking at her scope.
“Hang on,” I tell her, reaching over to help. “You have to be really gentle with these things. If a lens slips out of place, you’re out of luck.”
She steps back, and I push the scope back into the van. “Let’s set up our station first, then get the scopes, okay?”
She salutes me. “Whatever you say.”
“That’s what I like to hear,” I reply, swinging my backpack onto my shoulders. I stick the waterproof blanket and my sleeping bag under one arm, the two beach chairs under the other, and trudge after her. After making a wide circle, she plops down her stuff. “Here looks good to me.”
We spread out the blanket and arrange the chairs. Reaching into my backpack, I line up a gray hooded sweatshirt, a battery-operated alarm clock, a bottle of Tylenol, four bottles of water, four cans of Coke, long underwear, four peanut butter/jelly/fluff sandwiches, a regular flashlight, a red-bulbed flashlight, extra C, AA, and AAA batteries, an assortment of eyepieces, a dew cap for the scope, a wool hat, my Marathon Observer’s Logbook, my well-worn copy of Peterson’s Field Guide to Stars and Planets, laminated sky charts, an extra pair of socks, my cell phone that probably wouldn’t get a signal anyway, a foldable tripod, a pair of fingerless gloves, the digital single-lens reflex camera I’d spent a year of lawn-mowing money on, four granola bars, four apples, and a thermos to fill with hot chocolate later. I’m double-checking my battery supply when I notice Tabitha watching me. Suddenly, she grabs my now-empty backpack and starts frantically searching through it.