Libration

*

At the door to her sister’s bedroom Billie listens. There’s no sound in the house, no stream of light into the hallway from her father’s door. She takes a deep breath.

She runs down the hallway, down the stairs, to the front door. It doesn’t matter now if he wakes up.

She’s almost to the front door when Jean freaks out. She struggles in Billie’s arms, pushing against Billie’s chest, trying to get free. When Billie holds her tighter, Jean starts screaming. She hits Billie in the neck, and Billie stumbles back, her arms opening. Jean hits the floor with a heavy thud and then runs off, up the stairs, her backpack bouncing.

“Jean!” Billie whisper-calls.

There is the sound of a bedroom door opening. The upstairs hall lamp turns on, filling the corner of the living room.

*

Outside the planetarium, people stand staring up at the dark sky. The tech guy from the planetarium show has his personal telescope out on the grass field. He’s trying to focus in on the moon, but the weather is against him. There’s a line forming behind him, waiting to look through the eyepiece.

The teacher hands out ice cream to the kids from a red and white cooler. The kids try to manage eating their fudgesicles and avoid getting tagged by their classmates who have already finished eating.

The teacher tries to call the kids over to wipe off their sticky hands, but they’re in full play mode. Jean and her father stand in line to look through the telescope. The tech guy has finally calibrated everything.

The kids playing tag use the line for the telescope. They weave in and out of the adults, hiding behind legs, feinting in and out of the line while being chased.

The boy who knew all of the answers during the planetarium show stands beside a tree. He smiles and beckons her over. When Jean’s father leans down to look through the telescope’s lens, Jean runs to the tree. She doesn’t stop until she’s behind it, out of sight.

*

“Jean!”

Billie can see Jean’s tiny feet poking out from the top of the stairs. If she can just get Jean to come back down they’ll have enough time.

“Please Jean, please.”

She moves forward. There is a crash from upstairs, the sound of the floorboards creaking.

The sound of his footsteps on the stairs freezes her.

Jean’s voice is full of trust. “Dad!”

Then there is the slap of his hand against the wall, steadying himself as he comes down the stairs.

Billie runs.

She locks the car as soon as she’s inside. By the time the living-room light turns on she has started the car and shifted it into drive. When he stands on the front porch, his white hair sticking up like a madman’s, she is pulling away from the curb. He stands there on the front step, holding Jean in his arms.

Billie hits the steering wheel. “No!”

She wants to roll down her window, to shout at Jean to run and get in the car. But she remembers the day her mother left, and how Jean wouldn’t even hug her goodbye.

There is a look in her father’s eyes that she has only seen once before. As Billie drives away she looks in her rearview mirror and watches as he closes the door and turns off the front porch light.

*

The boy hands Jean a fudgesicle. They sit together behind the giant tree. It’s evening, but the moon is full and glowing. Her hands grow sticky, the thick chocolaty ice melting in little streams. The boy pulls a star chart out of his pocket—the same one that Jean’s father made her put back.

He holds out the map as if to bargain. “Want to kiss?”

Jean shrugs her shoulders.

“Haven’t you ever kissed anyone before?” he asks.

“No, ‘cause I’m a lady.”

The boy leans in and kisses her cheek before Jean can turn away. His lips are warm and sticky, and Jean rubs her cheek where he touched it. He tosses the star chart on the ground and then runs back to the group near the planetarium. There’s still half of the fudgesicle left, but Jean doesn’t feel like eating it anymore.

She covers the popsicle stick and the small bit of ice cream left on it with a leaf, and picks up the map. Pressed between two fingers, held at a corner, because her hands are dirty and sticky.

Her father is waiting for her.

She’s afraid he will take away the star chart again, or make her give it back to the planetarium lady.

He kneels down, face to face with Jean. He pulls a tiny paper packet from his wallet and tears off one of the ends. It is one of the moist wipes that they get when they go to eat ice cream together on Sundays. The cloth from the packet is warm, and her father uses it to wipe away the stickiness of the fudgesicle on her hands, and a streak she didn’t know was on her face.

Her father picks her up, and she wraps her arms around his neck. They walk past a school bus, the boy who gave her the map watching her through the window. He tries to pull the top part of the window down so he can lean out and yell something, but he presses at the latches over and over and they don’t give way. Jean spreads the star map behind her father’s back as he carries her to the car. In the darkness, the tiny stars begin to glow. The dirt of the forest beneath her fingernails, and the warmth of the boy’s kiss still on her cheek.

Jenni Moody holds an MFA from the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She’s lived in a dry cabin in Alaska and a small town in Japan, and was once chased by a family of bears through the Yukon at midnight. She collects stamps (inked, not licked) and writes in the company of her partner and her two black cats in Huntsville, Alabama. Her website is jennimoody.com.