Tabitha couldn’t believe it.
She was 10 years old washed up. A failure. Never going to win anything again.
How had this happened?
She flopped down on the purple blanket that covered her single bed under the window that she loved. It was her second favorite view to the world. Tabitha looked up at the big maple tree that shaded her room in shades of green and brown. She listened to the crows, calling to each other outside.
At least they were happy.
She’d been so sure her experiment was awesome. But it wasn’t.
How could Danny have won? Danny’s experiment was stupid. At least Tabitha thought so. Some dumb slingshot thing. Anyone could make a slingshot and trace the arc of a walnut flying through the air and crashing to the playground.
Not everyone could build a working rocket and do the same.
Everyone knew Tabitha was the smartest girl in class. Her teacher just sighed and smiled and said, “You can’t win every year Tabitha, and besides you won second place. Aren’t you proud of that?”
“You should be proud,” her papa said when he walked her home from school. “You put in a lot of work.”
Tabitha kicked her heels on the purple blanket and looked up at Neil deGrasse Tyson, looming overhead. And the poster of the Crab Nebula.
Ever since she was 5 years old, Tabitha had loved the stars. She dreamed about the stars. She begged her parents to let her set a blanket out at night and stargaze. They had, laying on the red striped blanket with her, letting her point out the constellations as she learned them, year by year.
Her eighth birthday gift was a telescope. Her father hadn’t gotten a new car even though the old car kept breaking down. Tabitha heard her parents whispering about it. She knew they’d gotten her the telescope instead. Her father had insisted.
“I can fix this car forever,” he had said.
Tabitha knew she should feel bad about it but she didn’t want to. She didn’t care. The stars were so amazing, and she knew her parents loved them too.
Her mother was a school teacher. Not at Tabitha’s school, though. Her mother taught high school math. Algebra and trigonometry. Some calculus for the really smart math kids. Tabitha was a really smart math kid, but was only studying geometry.
Tabitha wondered if she’d have her mama for a teacher someday. Her mama was a really great teacher. She helped Tabitha with her homework all the time.
Her papa had wanted to be a scientist, but he said there just wasn’t the money for it. Not the money for the school he needed. So he fixed cars and said that was a good enough job for him.
He was a mechanical engineer, he liked to say, and would laugh, drinking his orange juice on Sunday mornings. His one day of rest.
Papa always came home from work greasy, smelling of peppermints and car oil. He’d clean himself up at the big kitchen sink, scrubbing his hands with the rough white powder soap and a little brush until the dark oil around his fingernails was gone. Then he would sweep Tabitha up and swing her around in a big hug.
She always helped him make dinner. But not today. This afternoon Tabitha was too upset to make dinner. She told him she had too much homework, and had gone straight to her room.
Tabitha was too upset for the ritual of turning the oven on to heat. Of getting the chicken breasts out of the refrigerator. Of picking lettuces from the pocket-sized garden her mother kept outside.
She couldn’t believe it. Her rocket ship was the best. It was supposed to shoot straight up, and then make a sweeping arc, all the way out to the grass field. She had plotted the trajectory. She knew she had all the math right. She double checked it with her mother. Triple checked it.
But something went wrong and she didn’t know what.
Oh well. Maybe her teacher was right. Maybe she just couldn’t win every time. She huffed out a sigh and stared at the maple tree again.
Then something rumbled.
The ceiling of her room started to shake. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s face crinkled up with worry as the poster slowly unpeeled itself from the wall.
Tabitha looked around. Earthquake? They were in West Virginia. There shouldn’t be an earthquake.
“What’s happening?” she whispered.
She sat up on the bed.
The bed wasn’t shaking. That was strange too. Just the ceiling and the walls. Usually if something strange would happen her parents would call out to her. She knew her papa was home.
And her mama should be home from school too. Or maybe today was tutoring day. Tabitha couldn’t remember. The shaking continued.
She wasn’t scared though. It was kind of exciting.
And suddenly, her poster of the Crab Nebula split open and a blue, three fingered hand shot through and grabbed her, pulling her through.
“Where am I?” Tabitha said, eyes huge with wonder. She looked around. They were floating.
It was black. It was cold.
But there was something else…
There were twinkles. A million, a billion, a gazillion twinkles. Different colors winking in and out in a giant swirl all around her.
The Crab Nebula.
Tabitha took a gasp of cold air.
It was paler than the photograph. But beautiful all the same.
Tabitha knew she shouldn’t be able to breathe. She should be dead by now. Flash frozen. But she wasn’t.
“How?” she said.
“We’re in-between,” a voice said.
Tabitha turned her head. There was a figure near her. Kind of a blue, triangular shaped being. With a squarish head, and a long snake-like arms with three little finger-like appendages on the ends.
Appendages. Tabitha had learned that word last month. She was glad she got to use it.
“Wh-where?” she asked.
“In. Between.” The figure’s voice was patient. Tabitha couldn’t figure out where it was speaking from. There was a slash near the bottom of the square-shaped head, under a weird cluster of slight protuberances – another favorite word. But the slash didn’t seem to be moving much.
Maybe the thing was speaking inside her head? She needed to pay better attention. Gather more data points.
“I don’t understand,” Tabitha said, looking down at her blue sneakers and purple socks, looking down at were there should have been ground. But there was just space. It was so weird. It didn’t feel like she was floating.
“Why am I here?” she asked, thinking maybe a different question would help.
“We heard you,” the figure said. Definitely inside her head.
“You heard me? You mean complaining in my room.” She didn’t think she’d been talking out loud.
The figure shook its block-like head. “No. No we heard you singing. Singing to us. Weren’t you singing to us?”
Tabitha didn’t know what to say. She had sung every night. Every night that she could see the stars. Every time it was clear, whether she was outside or not, she sang her little starlight song.
It was her own song. Not even her parents knew the song. It was the song she sang only to the stars. It didn’t even have words. It was just a strange melody. Something Tabitha had heard somewhere, maybe. She didn’t know where it came from.
“I’ve been singing for years,” she said.
“It took us time to pinpoint exactly where you were,” the being said. “When we finally did, we came through. We wanted to meet you. We wanted to meet the being so intelligent to have discovered and sung a that song we wrote. How did you figure it out?”
“How did I? I. I. I have no idea,” Tabitha blurted. “I just knew that song. From when I was really little. And…I think I dreamed about you. No. That’s not right. I dreamed about the stars but I didn’t dream about you. I didn’t know you were there.”
“We’ve always been here,” the being said. “Now we would like to enroll you in our school. If you’re not too old for such things. A being as wise as you.”
Tabitha shook her head in wonder. “A school in the stars. How can we do that?”
“Come with me,” the being said, and the three appendages grabbed Tabitha’s hand again and yanked.
Pop! And she was in a space. This time it was clear she was floating. She could feel the weightlessness in her stomach, and the edges of her skin felt like they did when a breeze tickled the hairs on her arms.
The space was like a giant orb. A crystal ball. A big round glass vase. She looked more closely, moving –floating– nearer to one of the edges.
No. No, it wasn’t round. There were triangular shapes. Like in geometry. A bunch of triangles put together in a big sphere. Just like her mom talked about. That guy with the weird name. Buckminster Fuller. A Buckie dome, her mother would say.
The being waited, like it had all the time in the world.
Tabitha saw what looked like screens lighting up in some of the triangles and strange symbols sneaking across and then disappearing. Blue, purple, yellow, red. And there were other beings, too, racing around, or clumped together. They looked like the one still floating before her, but smaller.
“Are they children?” Tabitha asked.
The being tilted at square block-like head. “You might call them so. We call them ‘the young’. They don’t have as much experience. But that does not mean they are not very wise. Some of them hold the wisdom of the ages. Others barely know a thing about what makes the universe expand or die or turn. But they are very good at other things, like singing. Just like you.”
“Oh,” Tabitha said, hoping the being didn’t mean that if she could sing, she didn’t know about other things.
“Would you like to sing today”
“My Star song?”
“Whatever you wish.”
The being let Tabitha over to a small grouping of the small blue ones. They looked up at her. She could see now that the protuberances were clusters of eyes all over the top part of the block, kind of like a fly’s eyes, and the fissures in their faces lower down, were turned upwards. She supposed that the slashes were some sort of mouth, and those were smiles.
Tabitha took a breath. She wasn’t sure she could sing for anyone else. She never had before. Just talked. And did math. And studied stars. And skateboarded in the park on Saturdays.
The being just nodded, waiting.
Tabitha tried to remember the song, now that she was in the middle of this strange place. Now that the Crab Nebula was all around her, she tried to remember how it felt to look at something so distant. And to want it with all her heart.
She took a big breath. It smelled like roses and ice. How does it smell that way? she wondered, hoping there was a way to find out someday.
And she began to sing. Wavering at first, before her voice found its way. She closed her eyes and let it come, just like it would in her bedroom, or in the backyard on a summer night.
When the song had poured from her and the melody was through, Tabitha opened her eyes. All the beings that had once been moving around, or clustered in a clump, now floated, arms stretched outward, liquid seeping from their multiple eyes, floating outward into the space around them.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to make you cry.”
The being who had led her here shook itself a little and rose once more.
“No young one. These are beautiful tears. We love these tears. These tears water the rivers of song that flow between the stars. They let the stars know who they are.”
“Who the stars are?” Tabitha asked.
The being nodded. “And you are here now, and we would like for you to stay.”
Tabitha’s heart hurt.
Her stomach hurt too, like she’d eaten something really, really bad. She wanted to curl over, and she knew her father always told her when she felt like that she needed to take a bigger breath.
So she did.
“I can’t. I can’t stay.” she said. “But is there any way…”
The being just waited.
“Is there any way I can come back?”
The being nodded. “We will always be here. And we will always know exactly where you are.”
The being took Tabitha’s wrist into tap its hand.
She was back in her room. The Neil deGrasse Tyson poster still had one corner curled down and the Crab Nebula looked even brighter than before.
The maple tree still shook its leaves and from downstairs she smelled chicken baking. And tomato sauce. And she could hear her father singing and her mother’s laugh.
“Well,” she said to Neil deGrasse Tyson. “Maybe I didn’t need that prize. Maybe I just got something better.”
She just hoped it was real, and wondered what she could do to make it happen again.
“Maybe I can figure out the code inside the song…”
Tabitha smiled. This would be the coolest experiment ever.
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