Libration

Fiction by Jenni Moody

The house is cool. Quiet. Calm. Billie leaves the door open behind her, ready to run out again if her dad is awake. She can make out the shape of the furniture, but the details are blurry without her glasses. She knows enough from memory to step out of the way of the coffee table, around the squeaking floorboards, to put her hand out to tell her body just where the sofa reaches.

Upstairs her sister, Jean, is fast asleep with her stuffed animals. The nightlight in her room a faint and tiny star. She couldn’t have slept through all of the yelling. Not Jean who calls out into the hallway every time Billie comes in late at night from a party. Jean with her child’s smile. The one Billie is here to save.

She pauses at the bottom of the stairs, listening. The summer crickets are at their loudest. A car passes. The headlights sweep around the room, and when they hit her face she ducks away. Her hand grips the smooth knob of the stair railing. Her bare feet arched against the hardwood floor, ready to run.

*

The planetarium is slightly dingy. Spider webs hang between the Styrofoam planets in a display case. An old woman sits behind a counter by the door. She takes a long time to count back the change from the twenty dollar bill that Jean’s father gave for admission.

There’s a group of schoolchildren sitting in the best seats. They’re a year older than Jean, and from a different school. They all wear matching shirts that say Chesterfield Academy. The private school. The kids have a map of the moon taped to clipboards. Their small hands hold pencils with spoons taped to the top so that they won’t be accidentally stolen. One boy smiles at Jean, and she turns her body so that her father cannot see her wave back.

She has a marble and a rubberband and a small plastic pony with purple hair in the pocket of her dress, but she doesn’t take them out to play with them. Billie warned her not to fidget. But Billie isn’t here with them. She’s gone out to a party, and their dad was pretty mad about it. The rubberband stretches, pops, stretches between her thumb and middle finger, hidden in the soft pocket of her hand-me-down dress.

Jean and her father sit together on one of the old benches. She counts the number of people there. Just under twenty. Across from her there are some men. When Jean goes back up to the counter to pick up a free star chart she passes them, the smoke of campfire lingering in their clothes.

“Did you skin it yourself?”

A man with a bright orange hunter’s cap spits a dark liquid into his soda bottle. “Yeah. Hung her up in the back yard.”

Jean sits down again beside her father and spreads the star chart across her lap. She can hear every word they say, as if they had cupped their hands up to her ear.

“What about the foal?”

The man’s bottom lip is puffed out with chewing tobacco. It makes his words muffled and heavy. “I’ll get her next season.”

It is a game she and her father play. They sit across the room from some people who are obvious newbies, and they don’t speak for the first few minutes. They listen to the people on the other side of the planetarium, to find out what secrets people reveal when they think no one is listening.

*

Billie’s hand sweats. She wipes it on her pajama bottoms. Her dry throat aches, her mind fizzing a bit at the edges. But she doesn’t have time to get some water. He could wake up any moment. She takes one step onto the stairs. She waits. She listens. Glass shifts in the garbage can in the kitchen and makes a clink. She thinks she knows the type of glass by the heavy smell in the room. Dark green bottles with thick bottoms, the rim stained red with wine.

But they were at the planetarium until at least 9 p.m. That’s how late they ran when Billie was a kid. He must have started drinking right when they got home.

A high whine and water running through the pipes stops her. He must be awake. She runs back to the front door, bumping into the sofa along the way. It grunts as its wooden feet scoot across the hardwood floor. She crouches down on the front step and puts her head between her knees. Counting her breathing, measuring it, congratulating each slow exhale.

Her red Mustang sits by the front curb. There’s a streak of white on the front bumper. Her mother’s the one who put it there.

Billie considers running up to one of the doors, ringing the doorbell, and asking the person to call the police. All along the quiet street the front porch lights stay off. No windows lit by lamps or the blue glow of television. It’s
3 a.m. on a Saturday. This is a gated community, a place where engineers and businessmen and even an astronaut have come to retire. People who have paid to not be part of these kinds of situations. Billie wonders if the police would just throw her out of the gates to the community.

Her breathing steadies.

“I’ll just be in there for a minute,” she thinks.

She stands up and steps back into the house. Her hand lingers on the front door, making sure it will stay open when she lets go.

Jean.

The keys. Her glasses. Her phone.

She walks into her father’s house silently, feeling for the first time like a thief, even though it is a name he has called her before.

*

“You little thief.”

Jean holds the glossy star chart on her lap. She picked it up from the table by the front door. But she hadn’t stolen it. The lady behind the counter had nodded to her, told her it was alright to take it back to her seat. She looks up at her father, wondering if he is making a joke.

“Put it back.”

His voice is not unkind. But it is stern, and Jean does not argue. She travels the stars one last time, her fingers rubbing over the small, glow-in-the-dark paint that traces the constellations. She hopes that it will rub off on her fingers.

She folds the map together. Spoons and bears and sisters all bending into each other.

Maybe Billie has an old star map she doesn’t want now that she’s older.

The lady at the desk gives Jean a smile and presses a sticker onto her t-shirt before she can protest. It is a star. Jean sits beside her father, swinging her feet, hoping that when the lights go off her star will be visible.

*

Billie makes it to the top of the stairs without too much noise. She peeks around the corner, and the door to her father’s bedroom is shut. Her hand rests on her throat, as if it could shield her windpipe. There has been no time yet for mirrors, but by the ache of her skin she will have to wear a scarf around her neck to her classes tomorrow. Not an hour ago his hands were on her neck, his rage filled the house.

Just like your mother. Sneaking in late at night.

The hallway floor is full of squeaking boards, all the way down to her bedroom at the far end. She steps and the floor groans, as if tired of all of this late night moving about.

Billie waits in the hallway, ready to run down the stairs and out of the house forever. She’s waiting for the sound of the door unlatching, for his stumbling forward with his fists against the wall. But his door stays shut.

And so does the one with the glow-in-the-dark star sticker on the doorknob.

*

The show starts. The lights dim slowly, a rapid dusk falling. On the dome the stars appear. Only a few at first, but then more and more step out of the dark. Stars that can’t be seen from the city. A woman gives a tour of the constellations with a laser pointer. Beginning at the North Star, she works her way around the sky, using the red beam to draw the swoop of a bear’s back and the belt hanging from Orion’s hips.

When the sky has been mapped out, the slideshow begins, and the woman guides her audience across the moon. The kids with the clipboards stare in awe, and then scribble on their maps as the woman names the seas. Jean pulls the head of her plastic pony out of her pocket to take a peek at the slideshow.

Jean thinks of the moon as an emotional journey. Maybe in the future there will be a tour you can take through all of the romantically named areas.

The Ocean of Storms, where you face your fears.

From there into the Sea of Vapors, where the past comes to settle its score.

And then into the Sea of Serenity, and finally the Lake of Sleep.