“No problem. Wes is a little pissed about your blowing off the book club, though.”
I shrug. I feel bad about blowing off Wes, but he hasn’t exactly been friendly since Erin’s accident. Everyone in school knows that the Irish mob moved Erin, and, because I’m the last remaining connection Erin has to Bellmont, people are afraid to be around me. Wes has been distant. I don’t blame him.
“I’d like to take you somewhere once basketball season is over,” Russ says. “Somewhere special.”
“It’s a surprise.”
“Does it have anything to do with Erin?”
“No. It has to do with the cosmos. I think you’ll like it.”
I’m surprised he brought up outer space, because it’s been a while since he’s mentioned the cosmos. “Do you think that Erin will contact me?”
“Yeah, I do. Eventually.”
“Why hasn’t she contacted me yet?”
“Don’t know. We don’t get to know why a lot in life. My therapist told me that.”
“Are you better now?”
Russ looks up at the gray sky.
“I mean, you don’t call yourself Boy21 anymore,” I say. “You don’t talk about your parents flying around outer space in a rocket ship. You don’t talk about leaving the planet. And you stopped wearing crazy costumes.”
“I wouldn’t say I’m better. I’d say I don’t need to hide right now.”
“Because things are going so well with basketball?”
“Because I’m moving on.”
“So it was all just a game. The outer-space stuff. You just made it up to keep people from asking you questions about what happened?”
“Sort of like you pretending that you don’t talk?”
“That’s not the same thing. I didn’t lie to people. It was hard for me to talk—too hard.”
“Maybe so. And it was hard for me to be an Earthling too. You’ve been talking a lot more lately. More than you did when I met you, anyway. Does that mean you’re better?”
I think about what he’s implying, and maybe he’s right. Maybe we were both playing roles just to get by.
“So what happened to your parents?” I ask.
“What happened to your mom?”
I’m not ready to talk about that, and it seems like Russ isn’t either, because we sit on my roof silently for a long time before his grandfather pulls up in front of my home and Russ says, “To be continued.”
I remain on the roof for a few more hours, and then I lie in bed looking up at the weird green glow of the galaxy Russ gave me.
THE TEAM LOSES THE STATE CHAMPIONSHIP game by one point. I hear Terrell missed the last shot. Russ—and everyone else—mourns the loss for a few weeks, students walking around the hallways with their heads down, teachers frowning, the entire school seeming depressed. But then life goes on and Russ remembers that he wants to show me something.
About a month or so after the big loss, on a Saturday, Russ and Mr. Allen pick me up.
“You ready for your surprise?” Russ asks.
I climb into the back of the Cadillac and watch Bellmont’s ugliness slide across the window past my reflection.
Russ reads directions off a piece of paper and his grandfather makes the necessary turns.
After an hour or so of highway driving, we’re on a road with many trees, passing horses and cows even. I see cornstalks, fields of plants I can’t identify, long stretches where there are no houses or streetlights or anything man-made at all.
I’ve never been to a place like this before, and it makes me sit up and swivel my head right and left so I don’t miss anything.
The wind coming in through the window is warm and full of scents that seem so alive it almost hurts to breathe it all in.
“Manure,” Mr. Allen says as we drive through an awful smell.
“What’s that?” I say.
“Cow shit,” Russ says.
“Fertilizer,” Mr. Allen says. “Helps the crops grow.”
Even the manure smell is okay with me, because it’s unlike anything I’ve experienced before—different than the smell of Bellmont’s sewer system. To be clear, I don’t like the manure smell, but I like being in the countryside.
We take a bumpy dirt road through the woods and I get a little nervous, because if we break down out here, there’s nothing around for miles.
But then I spot what looks like a gas station. A sign outside reads STAR WATCHER’S PARADISE! There’s actually an exclamation point, which makes this place seem extra exciting. We pull up to the gas pump. Mr. Allen fills the tank and I follow Russ inside, where there’s a worn wooden floor and a few aisles of food and camping supplies. A large red-faced man sits behind the counter.
“Howdy,” he says, and shows us his pink palm.
“We have a reservation,” Russ says. “It’s under Allen.”
“Sure thing! You picked a beautiful night. No clouds at all. Your eyes are in for a feast!”
“We’ve been checking the weather all week,” Russ says.
“How’s viewing station number twelve sound?”
“Fine,” Russ says.
Mr. Allen enters the store and stands next to us.
The man writes something down on a piece of paper and then hands us each a brochure. “These are our viewing rules. Unless it’s an emergency, do not turn your car on until first light. You must pull the blackout shades in your station if you have a light on inside. Absolutely no flashlights or lights of any kind may be used outside of your station. Once the sun goes down, library voices are mandatory, which means you need to whisper. You’ll be asked to leave if you hoot and holler. Other than that, just enjoy the show. I’ll need you each to sign the rules brochure to verify that you agree to the terms.”
Mr. Allen gives the man a credit card. We all sign the papers, receive complimentary star charts, and then get back into the car.
“What is this place?” I say. “What’s the show?”
“You’ll see,” Russ answers.
We drive down the dirt road and pass numbered wooden signs marking unpaved driveways that bend and disappear into the woods.
When we find number twelve, Mr. Allen makes a left and we drive on a dirt road so narrow, branches whack the car. “I better not see any scratches on my Cadillac, or someone named Russ is going to be waxing and buffing all day tomorrow,” says Mr. Allen.
The road curves off to the right and then we come upon a strange-looking structure that sort of looks like a cross between a tree house and a lighthouse. It’s an eight-sided tower that rises up and out of the woods. A huge bucket sits on top. The building reminds me of that piece in chess that looks like a castle.
“Well, I’ll be,” Mr. Allen says, but he’s smiling.
“Come on,” Russ says.
We enter through a door on the ground and then climb a spiral staircase to the center of a room with four beds and two windows that have heavy curtains—the blackout shades, I assume. There’s a small bathroom too. Just a sink and a toilet—no shower.
Russ keeps climbing and I follow until we have to push up what looks like a trapdoor in the ceiling. It opens to the sky and we climb onto a viewing deck that has a tall wooden railing, so that it seems like we’re standing in a gigantic wooden cup. The floor is covered with what feels like a wrestling mat. My feet sink an inch or so into it.
“This is where we’ll sleep tonight,” Russ says. “The beds inside are for the old man.”
I look around and see nothing but new green leaves of early spring trees and the tops of the dozen or so other viewing towers, which are spaced maybe one hundred yards apart and form a circle.
“This is amazing,” I say.
“What have I been telling you?” Russ says. “There’s more to the world than Bellmont, right?”
We race down the steps and carry the cooler and other supplies up into the sleeping room.
It takes Mr. Allen a long time to climb the steps, but when he reaches the top, he looks around and says, “I’ve never seen so many trees.”
“Who knew that you could drive two hours and be somewhere like this?” I say.
Russ smiles proudly.
We eat the tuna fish sandwiches Mrs. Allen packed for us and drink root beer as the sunset shoots fire across the treetops.
“I don’t want to be climbing steps in the dark, so I’m going to settle in downstairs with my book. You two have fun, and don’t get too close to the edge, you hear?” Mr. Allen says, and then he disappears into the hatch.
It’s getting cooler up here; there’s a stiff breeze and the trees are making a lot of noise.
“Do you hear the leaves hissing?” I say.
“Cool, huh? Almost time for ‘library voices,’ ” Russ says, making air quotes. “I bet sound really carries up here.”
We both lie down on our backs and my shoulder blades sink into the mat.
“This place is truly awesome,” I say. “Thanks for bringing me.”
He nods and then we watch the western sky glow an orange-pink.
We lie there in silence for fifteen minutes or so, and then, out of nowhere, Russ says, “Tell me what happened to your mother and I’ll tell you what happened to my parents.”
“Because that’s what friends do—they talk to each other and listen.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I’m not supposed to talk about it.”
“Don’t you trust me?” Russ asks.
“Well, then. Just me and trees around.”
“Is that why you brought me out here?”
“It’s part of the reason. And I’d prefer to talk before the show begins.”
“We look at stars on my roof all the time.”
“This is different. You’ll see,” he says. “Let’s talk about what happened to our parents. I really think it might help. I talk to my therapist all the time. You should probably be talking to a therapist too.”
“I’ve been talking to Mr. Gore.”
“That’s good. Talk to me.”
“It’s a depressing story.”
“I don’t know.”
“We’ll use library voices, so it won’t really count anyway.”
I smile. Library voices. I want to know Russ’s story, and I don’t really care anymore about keeping Pop’s secrets, especially since Erin’s gone missing. Maybe that’s why the bad stuff happens in neighborhoods like mine, because no one talks. But even so, I’m surprised when I hear myself using the library voice—when I hear myself telling the story for the first time.
I tell Russ about how my grandfather stole money from the thugs he worked for so he could take my grandmother back to Ireland. She had terminal cancer and wanted to die in her homeland. They were born in County Cork—we still have family there—but they were always too poor to make the trip back. I’ve never been to Ireland, but returning before she died was very important to my grandmother. So, out of desperation and grief, Pop stole the money and took her, thinking they’d be safe once they were out of America. The only problem—the rest of his family was still in Bellmont. My pop underestimated the ruthlessness of his coworkers. The thugs Pop worked for took me to get to my grandfather—to get him to come back from Ireland.