Libration

*

Billie’s father does not wake up.

She steps into her bedroom and stands in the dark.

Broken glass lies scattered across the floor. She leans into the room and picks up her shoes. She shakes them to make sure there are no slivers of glass inside and runs her hand into the toes to be sure. Then she slips them on and steps into the room.

Her glasses have fallen onto the floor, but they are not broken. She puts them on and looks around, measuring what she can and cannot take.

There’s a sound in her closet. A soft knock. Billie steps into the closet, presses her ear against the wall. Knock knock knock.

It’s Jean in her bedroom. They haven’t talked to each other through the walls like this since before their mother left. Back when the fighting between their parents was so bad that they couldn’t risk running through the hallway to the other’s room.

They don’t have a code. The knocks don’t correspond to letters of the alphabet or phrases. But because they are sisters, they know what the knocks mean.

I’m here. I’m okay. Are you there?

Billie listens to Jean’s raps on the wall, the knuckles of her first two fingers readying a reply.

*

The children in the planetarium begin to pick on each other. They shift in their seats, hitting one another on the head with their pencils. The woman with the laser pointer tells the tech guy to bring up the lights, and she places a tin cooking pan on the floor.

“I’ll need some volunteers,” she says.

Jean jumps to her feet. There’s a tug at the back of her t-shirt, pulling her back down onto the seat. Her father lets go of her t-shirt and gives her head a pat.

The children race to the woman, and she hands them each a rock. They stand over the cooking pan and one by one drop their rock. On impact, white strands of flour bounce out and stretch across the top layer of brown cinnamon. Jean listens to the soft sounds of impact. The thuds sound like heavy footfalls. The woman calls these rays of debris ejecta. A teenage girl slumps over in a fit of giggles, and her friend smiles beside her, her cheeks reddening. The woman only has a few rocks left. The children begin to fight over who can drop them into the pan.

The woman holds the rocks out to Jean. “Why don’t we let someone else have a try?”

Her father swipes at the back of her shirt, but Jean sprints forward to clutch at the rocks. She’s careful not to look back at her father’s eyes as she raises her hand and lets the first rock fall. But the pebble only makes a small spray. She tries again, raising her hand high above her head and letting another rock go. A puff of white flour flies across the pan. But it isn’t enough. The last rock Jean throws. It bounces off of the corner of the pan with a twang, the rock flying into a faraway corner.

Jean runs back to her seat as the adults in the audience laugh. She draws her feet up to her chest, tucks her head in between her arms. She wishes Billie were here to tell her it’s all right. To make everybody else be quiet.

Beside Jean her father laughs in deep, thunderous roars.

*

It is hard to walk away. She picks up her backpack full of college textbooks. She opens a duffel bag and begins to stuff clothing in it, hangers and all. There’s a laundry bag in the closet from her brief stay in the dorm before her father stopped paying. She opens the bag and begins to fill it with shoes, jewelry, hats, stuffed animals.

Billie shoves her phone and her car keys in her purse, and then lifts the shoulder strap over her head. Everything else she can leave behind.

She turns to look around the room. Jean stands in the doorway, her stuffed rabbit in the crook of her arm, covered to her toes in her Disney princess nightgown. Billie shoulders her backpack, swings her purse over to the side so she has room to run, and picks up Jean.

Jean wraps her tiny arms around Billie’s neck. “Don’t go.”

Billie walks down the hallway, into Jean’s room. She picks up Jean’s school backpack and throws clothes inside. Jean’s forehead is warm against her neck, and she remembers holding Jean when she was a baby. When their mother stopped getting up at night to feed her. Reading stories about sailing away from monsters in an enchanted boat, and swearing not to step onto that boat without her little sister.

Jean stretches out her arms, sleepwalking through their morning routine of putting on her backpack. Billie stands in the doorway with Jean balanced on her hip. Three. Two. One.

Ready.

Run.

*

The lecturer tells everyone to give the kids a big round of applause, then the kids are sent back to their seats.

One of the men across from Jean raises his hand. The lecturer points at him, and he leans forward.

“What about the other side of the moon? You know, the dark side?” He starts to hum some Pink Floyd.

The lecturer looks tired, like this has happened before. Or maybe it happens every weekend. But the lecturer has a strategy for dealing with these types of questions.

“Does anyone know why we only see one face of the moon?”

One of the kids sitting on the front row raises his hand.

“Because of the tides?”

The lecturer nods, smiles. And describes how the moon is tidally locked, how it does not turn in its orbit like Earth does.

The kid looks confident that this is the end of the discussion, but the lecturer asks another question.

“So how much of the moon can we see?”

The kid raises his hand again. “59 percent”

“So if we can only see one side of the moon, then why can we see 59 percent, instead of just 50 percent?”

The kid shakes his head. He hasn’t gotten that far yet.

“It’s because of something called libration. The moon has a slight wobble, and this allows us to see just a little bit more of the sides that are usually hidden.”

The lecturer turns to the Pink Floyd guy, ready for his retort.

But he doesn’t hear the kid’s answer. He’s too busy looking at the photograph on the projector screen of a crater called Pythagoras. A grin spreads across the man’s face.

“What’s that jerk so happy about?” her father whispers.

Jean sees it.

In the center of Pythagoras, there is the outline of a man. His body splayed out as if it were the chalk outline of a crime scene. Beside him lies his dog.

Jean knows the man and his dog aren’t real, their images just the shadows and light giving a shape meaning. Like shapes in clouds. The face of Jesus in toasted bread.

The man across the room turns to look at Jean’s father. And from the cold look in the man’s eyes, Jean knows that he has heard her father’s whisper.