Madeleine always found Cassiopeia first.
Her eyes knew where to go. To the right, over her shoulder. And there, dangling just above the eastern horizon, was the familiar zigzag of five bright stars. The queen on her throne.
From there, her eyes tracked northwest to Cepheus, the upside-down pentagon. Another step northwest to Draco. She followed the dragon’s curving tail of stars to its head—a squashed square—then hopped east to Lyra. She picked out Vega, shining boldly in the southwest corner of Lyra’s glittering rhombus. She drew a line from Vega to Deneb to Altair. The three stars of the Summer Triangle.
That brought her high overhead, to what she’d driven so far to see. The Milky Way, in all its summer glory. Bright, hazy, complex. The clearest view she’d had in years. She wrapped her arms around herself and opened her eyes as wide as she could, trying to take it all in at once.
You’re wrong, Drew.
It wasn’t crazy to drive two hours out into the middle of nowhere to see something she’d seen before. A dark site like this—an obscure little regional park on the edge of flat farmland with near-zero light pollution and stunning horizon-to-horizon views—was worth every mile. Only the darkest skies can reveal the brightest details. Why had she waited so long to drive out here?
She unfolded her favorite stargazing chair—the low-slung canvas one that held her at the perfect upward angle—and place it in the meadow’s tall grasses. She’d brought her telescope—a nine-inch catadioptric perfect for deep-sky viewing—but she left it in her Jeep. Tonight, she wanted to take in the whole view. She zipped up her sweatshirt and folded her arms against the cool humidity of the late August night, and settled in for a long gaze.
She had to drink it up while she could. Soon her beloved summer constellations would shift west and give way to the crystal cold constellations of winter. And the Earth would turn away from the bright bulging center of the galaxy to its less impressive outer arm.
That’s what Drew didn’t get. A two-hour drive was nothing to be able to look into the heart of a galaxy. To glimpse the mysteries of the universe. Clusters, nebulae, black holes, other solar systems. Who knew what all was possible? How could that not be inspiring? Or at least interesting?
She took a deep, mind-quieting breath and tuned in to the breeze whispering through the grasses and wildflowers, smelling of warm, wet earth mingled with the bug spray she’d sprayed on to keep away mosquitoes. Bullfrogs croaked in the distance.
She absently twisted a ring around her finger as her eyes, in soft focus, traced the Milky Way’s familiar shape. It’s dense clusters, it’s wispy edges. And the Great Rift, the dark gap that cut across it from Sagittarius to Cygnus the Swan. Her eyes caught on the emptiness there. She knew it was just dense clouds of cosmic dust built up over eons blotting out the starlight there, but always looked to her like something had ripped the Milky Way in two, leaving behind a scar.
Leaving behind silence.
“Have you thought anymore about a date?” asked Drew.
“I haven’t even had my coffee yet.” She popped a Morning Sunrise coffee pod into the coffee maker.
“I didn’t hear you come in last night,” said Drew. “When did you get home?”
“Around 3:30, I think.”
Drew’s eyebrows rose. “I’m surprised you’re upright.”
Madeleine yawned as she poured water into the coffee maker. “I’m fine.”
Drew pulled on his suit jacket. “You should go back to bed. You’ve got nothing going on today. Might as well enjoy it.”
Madeleine hit the Brew button.
“Probably the last stargazing night you’ll get in, before school starts,” he continued.
Madeleine slipped a mug into place under the coffee maker’s spout. “I’ve still got two weeks. And the Perseids are peaking.”
“Is that the shooting stars thing? Didn’t you see that last night?”
“Meteor shower,” said Madeleine. “No, best viewing is just before dawn. One night next week, I think, I’ll wake up around two a.m. and drive out to a dark site to catch the Perseids. I loved the site I went to last night …”
Madeleine trailed off. Drew slung his computer bag over his shoulder and slipped his phone into his pocket. “I’m showing the Marshall Avenue property tonight. So I’ll be home late.”
The coffee machine churned behind Madeleine.
“Oh, and the price just dropped again on the Avon house. I always said they were asking too much.” Drew snorted. “We should look at it again.”
Madeleine leaned against the counter. “That house is huge. We don’t need that much space.”
“We will once we have kids.”
Madeleine swallowed. “And it needs so much work.”
“Which means we can make it look anyway we want.”
Madeleine fiddled with her ring. “I’m not really good at that sort of thing.”
“I’ve already talked to a remodeler about taking out that wall to the dining room, opening up the kitchen. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“You want to buy a house, then tear it apart?”
“It’s an investment, Mad.” Drew pulled his aviators on. “Try to come up with a date today, okay?”
The coffee machine beeped. Madeleine turned and grabbed her steaming cup of Morning Sunrise.
Madeleine did have something to do. Today was the day the school janitor unlocked the main doors so teachers could start getting their classrooms in order. At the end of every school year, teachers had to box up everything their classroom and store it so the janitors could do whatever it was they did during the summer that required empty classrooms, thereby forcing Madeleine to deconstruct and reconstruct her teaching career in an endless loop.
She got to the school around 10:00 am, her second cup of coffee in her thermos. She unlocked her classroom door and was hit with the smell of industrial cleaning chemicals. Holding her breath, she cranked open her windows and clicked on the fan she’d known she’d need. Fresh air began to circulate. She unlocked the storage closet at the back of her classroom and hauled out her Black Sharpie-labeled curriculum files. General Science—Freshmen. Astronomy Fall/Spring—Juniors. Physics—Seniors.
It wasn’t what she’d pictured for herself, as she’d gazed up into the night sky as a kid, imagining what she’d be when she grew up. But after four years of college and two years of graduate school, her student loan statements read like a horror novel. A lost fellowship to one PhD program, then another, and a doctorate in astrophysics just seemed too far out of reach.
“This is good,” Drew had said when she lost out on the second fellowship, just a few months after they’d started dating. He liked plans. For the evening, the weekend, the future. The more practical, the better. Madeleine had just lost hers. “Now you can get a job. Make some money.”
She didn’t mind teaching. When she saw students excited, or at least interested, she got excited. That’s what made it worth it, and helped her not dwell on the students who didn’t care.
She piled the curriculum books and notes up the window ledge next to her desk to be reorganized later. She hung her solar system mobile next to her classroom door, and was tacking up posters of Hubble wonders onto her walls when Jack, the math teacher from across the hall, came in.
“Having a good summer?” he asked.
“Busy.” Then he started in on his usual long list of complaints, from large class sizes to cuts in the afterschool math tutoring program to eliminating chess club. Madeleine, used to his rants, just nodded along.
“Sorry about Astronomy club,” said Jack.
Madeleine’s head snapped up from the box she was rifling through. “What about Astronomy club?”
“They cut that too.”
Madeleine dropped the papers she was holding.
“You didn’t know? It was in the email Sue sent out in July.”
Madeleine remembered seeing an email from her principal at some point, but she hadn’t bothered to read it. Sue’s emails were full of administrative minutia that Madeleine had little interest in.
“It’s too bad,” said Jack. “Those kids in your club last year couldn’t stop talking about that … what was it called?”
“Iridium flare,” sighed Madeleine, twisting the ring around her finger.
“How’d you know that was going to happen?” Drew had asked her, the first time she’d showed him one.
She’d just shrugged at him, and enjoyed the surprise on his face for a while before she admitted there was a website with timetables that tracked the location of the class of mirrored satellites that, when the sun hit them at just the right angle, made them flare up for a few seconds. The site listed where and when to see the flares.
She immediately regretted telling him. The look of wonder on his face faded, and in time so did his interest in going stargazing with her. It just wasn’t his thing. It was too … quiet. Madeleine understood. Football wasn’t her thing, and Drew spent every fall weekend on that. It was okay for two people to have different interests.
“You really impressed the kids with that one,” said Jack.
Madeleine managed a half-smile. “Yeah, finding iridium flares are always a highlight of Astronomy club.” Her half-smile flipped to a frown. “Or were.”
Jack gave Madeleine a little wave. “Well, enjoy your last days of freedom. See you in the hallways in September.”
“Yeah, see you around.” She leaned against her desk and stared off into space.
“Did you come up with a date today?” asked Drew as he opened up the boxes of Chinese food Madeleine had left out for him. When Madeleine said nothing, he shook his head. “Come on, Mad. We’ve been engaged for over a year now. It’s time to move forward on this.”
Madeleine clenched her jaw. “I’m just not a big party person. You know me. The idea of a big wedding gives me hives. Couldn’t it just be something small? Under the stars, maybe?”
Drew’s eyebrows rose and he popped a cream cheese wonton in his mouth. “My parents have seventy people on their guest list. You and your mom haven’t even made up a guest list yet. So small and under the stars isn’t going to work.”
Madeleine fiddled with her ring as she watched Drew fumble with lo mein noodles.
“And we need to book that cruise for our honeymoon as soon as possible,” said Drew. “The Mediterranean one, I think. It’s the best value.”
Madeleine dropped her hands in her lap. “I’m going to try to catch the Perseids tonight.”
Drew looked up from his lo mein. “Tonight? You were just out last night.”
“Yeah, but you’re right. School’s starting soon. I’ll sleep on the couch so I don’t wake you up when I go.”
Drew shrugged and spooned sesame chicken onto his plate. “Okay.”
“I might not get back before you leave for work.”
Drew wrinkled his nose. “This sesame chicken is dry.”
This time of night, Cassiopeia glittered high overhead.
Madeleine smiled up at familiar old queen, the first constellation she’d ever found, with the map of the night sky she’d gotten for her eighth birthday. She’d never forgotten the thrill she’d felt the moment she spotted those five zigzaging stars.
“Cassiopeia always bragged about how beautiful she was,” Madeleine had told Drew, thinking if the stars didn’t interest him maybe the stories would. “Poseidon put her in the sky, but placed her so that she’s always facing upside down. So what Cassiopeia thought would be an honor turned out to be a punishment. She never saw it coming.”
The stories hadn’t interested him much, either. So she’d stopped telling them. And she’d never told him about Madeleine the Brave, her secret story, made up long ago, about a little girl so cunning and brave that the gods immortalized her in the night sky. She knew what feet-on-the-ground Drew would say.
There is no Madeleine the Brave.
Madeleine gazed at the beautiful upside-down queen. Forever stuck that way.
She never saw it coming.
Madeleine twisted the ring around her finger and forced herself to think. She needed to settle on a date. Summer was her favorite season, but for some reason she didn’t want to get married then. Maybe winter. Crystal cold winter, dominated by Orion, the big looming guy in the sky.
Madeleine paused her twisting and looked down at the constellation of diamonds on the ring. Three of them, one big one flanked by two smaller ones. Like Vega with its pals Altair and Deneb, in a Summer Line instead of a Summer Triangle.
She slipped the ring off her finger and held it up before her. It was a nice ring. Just a little uncomfortable. Like that night Drew had knelt down and pulled it out of his suit jacket. She’d met him for dinner at his favorite restaurant after he’d sold the Chatsworth Avenue property. Up until that moment, she’d just thought he was all fired up because of the sale. The yes had come from her throat, like a croak. The same yes she’d croaked out when she’d accepted the teaching job.
“We’re so lucky to have someone of your caliber, Madeleine,” her principal had said to her.
“And think of how easy it’ll be once we have kids,” Drew had said to her that night, his mouth full of prime rib. “You have the summers off. We’ll save so much daycare money.”
Madeleine closed her palm around the ring, feeling its faceted edges press into her skin. She searched the night sky for familiar shapes, recognizable paths. Her eyes caught on the jagged scar of the Great Rift. If only she could brush away all the cosmic dust so she could see the starlight she knew was behind it. Then the Milky Way would no longer have a streak of emptiness marring it. It could shine brighter than ever.
She held up the ring up again, at arms length. At this angle, the three diamonds spanned the distance across the Great Rift. Like three twinkling stepping stones. One, two, three.
Madeleine the Brave.
Madeleine stood up, the ring in her closed fist. With a deep breath, she dropped back and raised her arm. Then she stepped forward and threw the ring, flinging it as hard and as high as she could. It flew through the air, up and up and up, into the starry night. Madeleine laughed and spread her arms wide.
A shooting star shot across the sky, followed by another. The Perseids. It was time. Still laughing, Madeleine sat down and prepared to be amazed.