Silas was already starting a fire, one foot on that slate ring as he poked kindling under some logs. Laurel wrapped the blanket she’d brought around herself and sat down in one of the patio chairs. Their dad was at the telescope—which was the size of a small cannon—finding the right bearings to view Saturn. I’d guessed right—it was the piece of equipment that had been covered the last time I’d been up here. “Sure looks pretty tonight!” he said. “Who wants to look?”
Silas added another log to the fire and nodded at me. “West?”
Glen showed me how to look through the eyepiece, and I tried to remember the last time my dad had spent any downtime with me and my siblings. I honestly couldn’t recall. I’d hardly even seen him this summer, outside of Sundays. “It’s in the upper right corner. See it?” he asked. “It’s just tiny.” For a moment, with Mr. Hart standing so close behind me, I missed my dad so deeply that I almost wanted to just go home and be with my own family. Dad probably isn’t even home, I told myself, and leaned forward to see the sky.
Even with this state-of-the-art telescope, Saturn was the size of a pencil eraser with one tiny ring decorating its golden body. All I could see was blackness and this miniscule ochre planet as if it were a fly that had landed on a window. Unexpected excitement welled up in me like devotion, like impetuosity. For a moment, I thought I might start to cry.
“Oh my gosh!” I said, my voice rising in pitch. “I can even see its ring!”
“There’s actually rings A through G, plus the Phoebe Ring, the Pallene Ring—” started Mr. Hart, but Silas said, “Dad, we know, we know,” from over by the fire.
“How far away?” I breathed, still unable to tear myself away from the eyepiece.
“About 750 million miles. It’s ten times the size of earth.”
I couldn’t say anything, only stared, wondering at something so ancient, so otherworldly yet somehow still part of this world. I hadn’t known it would hit me like this: it was like a surprise kiss or like a revival. Like a baptism, I thought, though I didn’t know where the idea had come from. “Laurel, come look,” I said, my voice breathless.
She looked for a second as if she were going to argue, but instead, she stood up, the blanket around her shoulders, and walked over to me and her dad and looked into the eyepiece.
“Glen!” I heard Teresa yell up the stairwell. “Telephone!”
He left, and it was the three of us.
Then Laurel walked back over to the fire pit, the bottom of her blanket dragging behind her like a royal robe. I followed her and sat between her and Silas, who had finished poking at the logs and was strumming lightly on his guitar. When he noticed my goosebumps, he took off his sweatshirt and offered it to me.
“I’m okay,” I said.
“It’s fine, really.”
“Just take it, West.” His voice was firm, kind, soft, powerful. For the first time with him, I liked being told what to do.
I pulled it on over my head. It smelled like his sandalwood cologne and the bonfire, and it was huge on me and very warm. “Thanks,” I muttered, getting that lightheaded feeling again. Damn cologne.
“So?” I prompted, talking louder than needed as I tried to clear my head from my Saturn high and rediscover my place in the universe. “What are you thinking?” I realized I probably sounded either dorky or like a teacher, but I let it go.
My question was for Laurel, but Silas answered. “I think of Genesis,” he said, strumming a sweet little sequence of chords. “How a tight little compact sentence summarizes all this—‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ God chose that as His opening line? I like the later poetry: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ Now, that’s what I’d have led with.”
If Dad talked about the Bible that way, I thought, maybe I’d pay more attention in church. I barely had time to admire this answer, before Laurel said, blunt as a stubby finger, “I think about death.”
Silas and I both looked at her, but Laurel stared only at the orange flickering flame. “I’m seventeen. Seems like I only blinked and here I am. I’m speeding like a rocket toward death. I’m spiraling toward the end of now and the start of infinity. It’s a countdown. But to what? Can’t giftwrap eternity.”
Who were these people? I was silent.
“What if I made up God?” Laurel whispered.
Silas shifted in discomfort and inhaled deeply, frustrated. “Laurel, no.”
“What if I did?” she persisted. “What if I invented the whole idea?” A tear formed at the corner of her left eye. “What if I’m dreaming right now—dreaming of you both and the sky and of God? What if the truth is—”
But Silas did the very last thing I would have expected him to do. His strumming changed; then he interrupted his sister and started to sing.
On a hill far away stood an old rugged cross,
the emblem of suffering and shame;
and I love that old cross where the dearest and best
for a world of lost sinners was slain.
Laurel bit her lip, and that tear finally fell. “You know it, don’t you, West?” Silas asked quietly, his eyes looking serious, black pools of tar with tiny fires in them. I gulped and, not daring to refuse, cautiously joined him as we sang:
So I’ll cherish the old rugged cross,
till my trophies at last I lay down;
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
and exchange it someday for a crown.
It had to be larger picture—I’d have never joined in if Saturn hadn’t been bearing down on us where we sat exposed to the whole universe, while the clean, warm, intoxicating scent of sandalwood and those lemony magnolias soaked into my skin.
And his eyes.
A flush crept up my neck, and it made me feel guilty. And silly. Elliot. Beth.
Laurel watched the flames as we sang, and when we were done, the night seemed terribly quiet, as if there was a hole in the night the shape of our voices. Laurel whispered, “That makes a lot of sense. Thank you. Maybe I should just get some rest.” Neither Silas nor I were fooled for a moment—there had been no cure, only a pause. She got up and left us, the train of her blanket following her all the way to the door, leaving me with her brother, a minstrel whose songs sounded like sanity to her and gravity to me.