by Rita Kasperek
It was a fine night for stargazing. The purple-black sky above Death Valley throbbed with stars, hundreds of them, overlaid with a deep velvet silence.
“I’m scared,” Beth whispered. She popped her gum.
“People experience this maybe once, twice, in a lifetime,” Lenny said. “Try to enjoy it.”
“Leonard...” Beth called him Leonard. Only his mother called him Leonard. “Let’s go back and watch ‘Survivor.’ Or eat. I could eat a horse.”
“I’m going to show you Cassiopeia.” He loved saying the name. It had a baroque quality to it, like the Brandenburg Concertos.
Beth insinuated her arm around his. She was a big-boned girl, pretty, with a practical heart and a mediocre mind, a combination that alternately disappointed Lenny and made him feel superior. He met her at a San Francisco community college, where she had already spent three years, after dropping out of high school and obtaining her GED. He was teaching science while earning his master’s degree. Eventually, if everything went as planned, he would earn a Ph.D. in physics. Beth figured she would major in management. Or English.
She had initiated the relationship by offering to cook dinner for him. He was a dreamy, awkward sort of man, unused to attention from women. Tall and thin, he had a hooked nose that threatened by its very gravity to tip him over like a bird-toy that dips its beak into a water tumbler. He accepted her invitation, with few reservations and, with even fewer qualms, allowed her to seduce him. He was surprised at how tender they were together.
It was her suggestion to spend a weekend, the anniversary of their first meeting, in Death Valley, “the farthest place we can find,” as she put it. Initially he refused. He was planning on breaking up with her, at some point. He didn’t want to mislead her.
“It’s not like I’m asking you to marry me,” Beth argued, laughing at him.
And so he agreed.
On the first day they drove through miles of alien-looking terrain with evil-sounding names like Devil’s Cornfield and Desolation Canyon. Beth insisted they stop at Badwater first so she could say that she stood at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere. She coaxed a German tourist into taking their picture in front of a sign indicating that the land was 282 feet below sea level. Then they walked on the alkaline plain, its white surface broken into interlocking pieces like a huge mosaic. Beth carved their initials into the crusted saltpan.
“It’s like being on the moon,” she said. “Only on the moon you don’t get sunburned,” she added, dabbing lotion on his face in short, quick motions.
She hadn’t wanted to go out at night. Lenny insisted. Although the spring sky was not as good as autumn’s for stargazing, the remote and treeless desert provided a spectacular backdrop that would, Lenny thought, impress her.
“Nobody else is out here,” Beth complained. “What if something happens?”
“Nothing will happen. Nobody’s out here. Now, could you be quiet? I can’t focus.”
Lenny switched on his penlight to read the star chart he had brought with him. Beth clung to him so tightly that he could barely move.
“Leonard, what’s that?” She jerked his arm; he nearly dropped the chart, the penlight, everything.
“Over there.” She stabbed her finger at darkness. He pointed the penlight at the spot, and located faint tracks in the sand.
“Looks like a kangaroo rat,” he said.
“There are rats here? Ick!” She looked so girlish, it broke his heart.
“Not like city rats.”
“Oh.” She sounded let down.
“Come here.” He held out his star chart and switched his penlight on it. “Today is March 5,” he said, “so I’m going to adjust the chart to that date. Now, what time is it?” Beth gently turned his wrist so they could read his watch. He loved her for doing things like that.
“Nine-thirty,” they said together.
“Your face is sunburned. You’ve got a Rudolph the Reindeer nose!”
He adjusted the chart, irritated. “This gives us an idea of how the stars are laid out tonight.”
“Wouldn’t it be better,” she said, scuffing at the sand with the toe of her shoe, “to just look at them?”
He ignored her, busying himself with the sky. He used to be able to identify constellations and planets and, for a brief period, could reasonably discuss more obscure things like supernovae and variables and binaries. Now, he could barely read a basic chart. He consulted the stars again. The Big Dipper hovered slightly north and west of them. He could make out the Pleiades, a cluster of light that twinkled off and on again like a distant motel sign. To the left of that was Orion, unbelievably clear and bright, the three stars that formed the belt glittering like a chain of lit firecrackers. From there he might be able to detect—
“Jesus!” he yelled.
Beth had crept behind him and trapped him in a hug.
“Cut it out.”
She squeezed him. “You’re so serious,” she said, “you’re cute.”
He pointed to the sky. “Look at the tip of the ladle on the Big Dipper and follow it down.” His finger traced the air for her benefit. “See that orangish star there, kind of faint?”
She fiddled with the zipper on her jacket.
“That’s the North Star,” he explained. “The Big Dipper and North Star are sort of your guideposts. You can depend on seeing them in any sky, no matter what time of year. Once you find them, you can find other things—”
“Like Cassiopeia,” Beth said.
“What does it mean, anyway? Cassiopeia.”
“It’s a constellation,” he said, eager to impress his knowledge upon her. “Actually, it was named after the wife of a king.”
“Yeah?” Her voice took on a more interested tone. “Which king?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “But she was the mother of Andromeda.”
“Oh.” She played with her jacket zipper some more. “I’m cold.” She snuggled against his shoulder. “Let’s make out,” she whispered. Her breath tickled like a feather against his ear. He could smell the spearmint gum she always chewed. This stirred him more than he could say.
“Cut it out.”
She shivered. “There’s something out there.”
“Beth, I want to show you something.”
“Waiting. Watching. I can feel it.”
“Cassiopeia looks like this.” To demonstrate, he tucked the star chart under his armpit and held the penlight between his teeth. He neglected to switch off the penlight and its beam shot into Beth’s eye. He was, after all, an awkward man. He held up his hands, forming a “V” with the tips of his thumbs and extended his index fingers, pointing them down into an “M” shape.
“That looks like an upside-down W,” said Beth, shielding her eyes from the penlight.
“Well, itth a right-thide up M.”
Beth shrugged. “It could be an upside-down W,” she said. “Or even a sideways E.”
“Well, it’th not.” These kinds of comments drove him crazy.
He took the penlight out of his mouth and consulted the star chart again.
“You know, I heard once that even if stars die, we can still see them. It takes so long for the light to travel to get here, that it’s still moving even after its source is gone. It’s like...like...” He struggled for an explanation she would be able to understand. “It’s like something has happened, but time hasn’t caught up with itself.”
“Do you think there are animals out here? Big animals, like wolves?” She moved close, so close he felt her heat.
“Wolves are extinct here,” he told her.
“Stars can die pretty violently, you know.”
“Maybe there’s one left.”
“They explode as a supernova. In fact, one exploded about fifteen years ago. It was so bright that it was visible to the naked—”
“I could get a rock—” She ducked to the ground, scrabbled about, and popped up again, presumably with a rock of adequate size. She massaged it in her palm, expertly gauging its weight. “This’ll do it. Now we’re okay. We’re safe.”
“—eye. Betelgeuse may already have gone supernova, but we won’t know for another—”
“Isn’t there a movie called Beetlejuice?”
Lenny wondered how he would be able to get into the same bed that night with someone so stupid.
She laughed softly, as if she had read his mind. “You are so cute.”
Clouds began to drift from the edges of the sky. In a few minutes they would lose everything. He searched, following the Big Dipper to the North Star and moving left until he could make out the distinct lines of Cassiopeia. He gazed lovingly at the crooked W (or M, he thought with annoyance).
“This is really something, you know,” he said. “You should really pay more attention to this.” Maybe, he thought, he would break up with her as soon as they got home.
Beth tossed her rock from one hand to another. “Something moved,” she said, and pelted her rock into the dark.
Orion’s belt dimmed under the gathering clouds.
“You know what the lady at the front desk told me?” Beth scooped up another stone. “She told me a little European boy got lost out here last summer.”
“My father gave me a telescope. I was eight or nine. We used to look at the stars from my backyard.”
“She said the kid died of exposure.”
“It’s the one thing we used to do together. I couldn’t play ball or fish or hunt. None of the typical guy things. It’s the one thing we could do.”
“They found him with his tennis shoes melted to the rocks.”
“The little boy! Melted to the rocks.”
“I hate to say this,“ Lenny said, “but I think that lady was pulling your leg.”
Beth threw her rock into a clump of mesquite. “It’s no more outrageous than dead stars. Or black holes. Collapsed stars that just suck everything into it? Give me a break.”
She did this sometimes. Just when he thought she never understood a thing he said, she threw his words back at him and made them sound foolish and unimportant. As if she and only she had a pulse on life.
“Astrophysicists have proven the existence of black holes. Reverberation-mapping campaigns have revolutionized our understanding—”
The wind picked up. The sand made a shushing sound as it blew through the scrub. She turned to button his jacket. “It makes you wonder,“ she said, adjusting the collar to fit snugly under his chin.
“Why a little boy was left to wander around this place by himself.”
“That lady was just pulling your leg,” Lenny said. The touch of her fingers lingered thrillingly at his throat. “They scare people so the rangers don’t have to go looking for some idiot who is dumb enough to get lost in the desert.”
“He must’ve been so frightened,” she said, as if she hadn’t heard him, “and his parents were off fooling with a camcorder or something.” She fished on the ground for more rocks.
“That reminds me—”
“Some people shouldn’t be allowed to breed.”
“We should go to Badwater again tomorrow. Take some more photos. We can’t trust those tourists to have gotten a good picture.”
“Sometimes,” Beth said, “sometimes, you are so dense, I could kill you.” Poised in the moonlight, with those rocks in her hand, she looked fierce, dangerous.
“Cut it out,” he said helplessly.
She fired off a pellet the size of a peachstone. “What I really need is a gun.”
Clouds shifted and parted. Cassiopeia tightened into an N, widened back into an M and then dissolved into a few broken lines.
“You missed it. Nothing left, now.”
“I didn’t miss anything,” she replied. Off soared another rock, this one large as a potato.
Lenny thought about the stars that had died years and years ago while their light survived, traveling toward him through space, outrunning a death that hadn’t found any of them yet.
“Someday I’m going to have a baby,” Beth said. Her voice was decisive and came from a completely instinctual place, a place that Lenny didn’t have but knew about and could only feel outside of, like a secret clubhouse with an undisclosed password. She aimed carefully and leveled another stone at a threat only she could detect.
He cried out, suddenly afraid in a primal, ancient sort of way. “You’re not going to leave, are you?”
She merely laughed.
Even now, Lenny thought, the light he was watching could be dead. He searched the sky for doomed stars and dead light, waiting for a past event to catch up to him, but the clouds closed upon the sky like stage curtains. The moon would rise soon, behind those clouds, beyond those stars. He watched and listened as Beth moved nearby, protecting them both from all of the unseen predators.
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