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                                                              DAVIE

 

It’s crazy early when I awake. And for a change, rock music isn’t blaring from my alarm clock, jolting me awake like a Taser. My room, my private observatory, is comforting. On my door there’s a sign: “Davie’s Crypt.” My buddy Carl’s idea. He says it’s always nighttime in here. He’s right. It’s perfectly opaque and silent. A kind of paradise. And to add to the paradise factor, now I’m totally free. Yeah. Winter break is here, and it’s a beautiful thing. No seven-thirty Spanish class with Mrs. Azzario. That in itself is a huge relief. Math and science, no problem; but my language skills, well, they’re kind of nonexistent—like the presence of light inside my room. Since morning is hours away, I can lie still and stare at nothing—just drink in the total blackness of my room. No demands here. No homework. No tests. No pretests or retests. The entire universe is off-limits as I bask in my personal inky black hole.

            My walls and ceiling, of course, are black. And no, my parents did not have a fit about the paint job, not at all. They’re not, to put it mildly, easily impressed. But when I painted scaled and accurate constellations on my ceiling, they actually took notice. To be honest, I impressed myself with my over-the-top cleverness in using a luminescent white paint from the garage. It was left over after a drive-by handyman painted our house number on the curb last fall.

          Oh, I should clarify. I come by my eccentricities honestly. Genetically. My parents, Professor Wyatt and Professor Wyatt, are these world-renowned astronomers. It’s a highly contagious profession when it comes down to it. Telescopes and stars tend to be highly addictive. Especially when you get to see the moon through a lens at age three. Really, it if wasn’t for daytime stuff like cycling, snowboarding, and skiing, I’d go nocturnal—work at an observatory all night long. Just one small reality check on that: right now, I’m a freshman in high school. But hey, I keep my goal in sight. After all, tomorrow’s my birthday and I turn fifteen.

       The almanac, according to my grandpa John, another Professor Wyatt, predicts that this year I could be moody, defiant, and a general pain in the butt. Problem is—my parents aren’t around enough to make that possible. They have speaking engagements all over the world. They travel constantly. So for me, the classic rebellion routine is pretty limited. The windows of opportunity to enrage them are few. I did get to go with them last summer to New Zealand, possibly the coolest place on planet Earth. Got their attention briefly in my attempt to follow a wombat. Disappeared for half a day. Loved the kookaburras and the koalas. And it was entirely awesome being off my parents’ radar. But on Earth, even exotic places are kind of limited compared to what I observe through my telescope. Okay, so there’s nothing out there furry and adorable. But galaxy hopping, visiting the great nebula in Orion, heading far beyond the Milky Way—let’s be real; that’s traveling.

            Right now my eyes are aching from overuse. They’re probably as red as Mars, as dry as Jupiter. I stayed up almost all night checking out the constellations of the Winter Hexagon. Talk about drama. The myths about the stars are intense. Take the story of Auriga, the charioteer of the sky. That’s one of my favorites. It tells about a wounded warrior who won’t give up, so he builds a chariot to take him across the sky. Makes me think of my older brother, Richie. He made it back from the war in Iraq minus his left leg and now works at the VA as a physical therapist. He says there are plenty of soldiers who have it a lot worse. That’s Auriga for you. One tough piece of star.

            Tonight I forced myself to stay up because I had to check out the moon. Tomorrow marks the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. Before I dozed off, the full moon filled the sky like a mime in whiteface makeup. Large and ghostly. Now, having gotten maybe an hour of sleep, the sane part of me wants to pull the comforter over my head. Instead I flick on the small nightlight. Here it is. My new Celestron SkyProdigy 130 computerized Newtonian auto-alignment telescope. Already I feel a smile breaking through. I can’t help it. An undeniable guilt-gift, that’s a given. But anyone would pull an all-nighter for this beauty. The big silver bow is still attached to the high-tech altazimuth mount. It’s almost an acceptable replacement for my absentee parents, Harriet and George. You never know; although they’re in Sydney, Australia, I may be able to get them into focus with this awesome lens.

            Not to worry. I’m not entirely an orphan. Thankfully, my dad’s dad lives with us. Grandpa is a retired geology professor, a loyal Badger from the U of W, the University of Wisconsin. We connect. Hiking, fishing, and camping, we spend a lot of time together. In many ways, he’s actually raising me. He’s a real scholar, for sure, but he wears jeans and speaks in reasonably short sentences. If I have anything less than an A on a report card, he doesn’t hold it a safe distance away like it’s radioactive. Like him, I have fun solving problems, such as we did last weekend when we set up a rain barrel to collect melting snow from the roof. This will provide water for the birdbaths adjacent to each of twelve birdhouses Grandpa has designed as a hobby. Each one is totally different. There’s a log cabin, a Zen retreat, a fairy castle—to name a few. In the spring he’ll sell them and donate the profits to a wildlife fund.

Now Grandpa may be hard of hearing, but he’s cool about it; he sports bright blue hearing aids and owns Bluetooth wireless headphones. He likes Adele and Coldplay. And, by contrast to Harriet and George, he’s practical, enjoys fishing, and can fix anything. Even breakfast. I admire that in a scientist. Don’t get me wrong; my folks are well-meaning and kind of charming in a geeky kind of way. Speaking of which, there’s a borderline embarrassing note attached to the telescope below the ribbon.

Dear Davie,

Happy birthday! Enjoy the Celestron! Know that we love you very much. Unfortunately, the observatory needs our appearance and lecture for their holiday fundraiser. So many budget cuts this year. We’ll miss you but expect you’ll have a terrific ice-fishing trip with Grandpa. It’ll take his mind off the dreadful sand-mining problem for a little while at least. Hugs to your cousins and to Carl. PS: Please no snowboarding on Mrs. Carter’s property. Remember what happened last year.

Love, Mom and Dad   

            Oh yeah, that. Mrs. Carter. In March, snowboarding, I pretty much took out her storage shed. It was kind of shaky to begin with. Hit a brutal patch of ice on the ridge of two crazy-perfect hills. They run parallel, created by some higher power for snowboarders. Great for 180s and other tricks. Anyway, I picked myself up amid crushed and broken plywood without injury—to myself, that is. Yeah, sometimes it happens. You crash and burn. Of course, Grandpa and I rebuilt the shed. Luckily Mrs. Carter stills smiles and waves at me.

        Speaking of crash and burn, judging by the flash of light through my window, I’d say a small meteor just landed on the lawn. Something has tripped the outside sensor lights; they’re on full blast. It’s steady daylight out there. Honestly, I feel invaded, jolted like a mole at sunrise. Something’s up. I peer out. Nothing unusual—until I look down. I jump back, startled. Rewind. Double-take. Major no way. I have visitors.

       On the ground directly below, two midsize chunky animals show their faces. Their black-and-white-striped masks stare up at me. Even from the second floor, I can make out their small, comical ears. Thanks to Grandpa, I know my badgers. These two have the typical wide bodies, wedge-shaped and low to the ground. They have thick necks like those of wrestlers. In a funny kind of way, they remind me of furry hamburgers on wheels. They wobble more than waddle. Amble more than accelerate. Then too, from up here, they look like silver Lotus sports cars with racing stripes. Badgers for sure. Unlike minks, they’re one lucky part of the Mustelid family that isn’t bred to make fur coats. Thankfully, it’s now illegal to hunt them in Wisconsin.

       I triple-check. Yeah, they’re real all right. But I haven’t a clue what on earth these badgers are doing. Here, I mean. Wildlife newsflash: they’re notoriously shy of humans. I’m puzzled. They’re waiting—looks like—patiently. Hardworking and nocturnal, they should be hunting for food. This is dinnertime. It’s weird, so totally out of character. There isn’t a lazy bone in a badger body. Grandpa calls them the blue-collar night shift. Says they can dig through asphalt. Tunnel for miles. Bottom line, badgers want to be left alone to forage for food and work construction.

       I squint and press my nose up against the glass. Sure enough, the strange couple appears to be searching. Their small, dark eyes lock onto mine, emitting beams of green light right through the glass. For a moment, I’m frozen. I feel my eyes widen. My pupils must be pinpoints. But try as I might, I cannot blink. My eyelids simply will not close, as if a powerful force is holding them open. Before my eyes, colors of every kind appear in tiny squares like digital errors on a television screen. The colors are scrambling. Geometric shapes appear. Circles, ovals, triangles. As in a kaleidoscope, patterns morph from one to another. Finally, images flash and disappear: Jagged cliffs. A giant archway. A portal. I wonder if the badgers are sending a message, a call for help. Somehow, I feel their minds are reaching out to me. The connection is strangely powerful.

       Suddenly I’m released. Free to blink. To rub my eyes. The green light is gone. The two badgers remain. I flip the lock and push up the double hung window a few inches. I hear their voices. No words, thank goodness. No words. Instead the badgers start to make sounds—a remarkable orchestra of expressive noises. First a purr. Then a chitter. A pleading whine follows, a low growl, a staccato bark. But I’m not prepared for what follows: a scream—a painful scream of distress almost human in pitch. My chest aches. I feel it. I feel their hurt. I do.

         I'm freaked. I break loose and run out of the bedroom. On instinct, I stumble into the dark bathroom and crouch by the narrow window. I can’t believe I’m hiding. Or maybe spying. My breath fogs the pane. Darn these old windows. The metal lock jabs me in the face as I reposition. Warily, I look out—only to draw my head back like a startled terrier. The badgers know exactly where I am. Together they adjust their heads toward me, looking like a security camera.

         My heart pounding, I run barefoot down the hall, stubbing my toe on the metal doorstop. I hop in pain but try not to awaken Grandpa. His room is directly under mine. I limp back to my bedroom window. Instinctively the badgers redirect their heads in my direction. Somehow I manage to pull on some socks from the many littering my carpet. They’re mismatched and inside out. Insignificant. I grope for my slippers, my sneakers, anything. I grab a golf club leaning in the corner and sweep it one-handed under the bed. I retrieve ancient Spider-Man slippers covered in dust bunnies. Way too small. A second swipe uncovers my hiking boots, which I pull on untied, laces hanging. When I rub the foggy glass, instead of cold I feel a warm sensation in the palm of my hand. I rub it. Hold my fingers on it. I have no idea where this heat is coming from. Utterly confused, I feel my forehead which, hello, is cool. Now I feel pretty stupid, so I throw up my hands.

       The momentum is a bummer. Accidentally, my ring smacks the pane really hard. I watch as the badgers dash for the woods. I suppose something else may have frightened them, but right now, I’ll assume the wild look on my face makes me the prime candidate. I scared them away. Damn. All I know is that I feel an unexplainable sense of loss; a powerful disappointment. All I manage to do, though, is stand here panting, collecting my thoughts. Then, zoom. In the hope the badgers didn’t go far, I race like a madman down the stairs. With a turn of the lock, I catapult straight out the mudroom door.

          I head to the backyard. Careful to avoid their sharp-pointed spines, I search along the dense hawthorn bushes. A potential hiding place catches my eye. I drop to all fours as the sensor lights suddenly flick off. So much for timing. I rise to my feet in the frustrating darkness. To reactivate the sensor, I flail my arms like a crazed monkey. It works. Beams of light allow me to scan the tough groundcover of low-lying juniper. These gnarly things are ankle-breakers. I avoid stepping in. Instead I reach forward and lift a spindly patch that snaps back with a vengeance, daring me to look further. I don’t bother.

      Rather, with intense curiosity, I edge around beneath my window. There it is, five yards ahead: the circle of glimmering ice. I pause. Badger tracks are everywhere. Their unmistakable paw prints lead to and from the woods. Wondering if they’re watching me, I close my eyes and wait. Strange—the tingling sensation in my palm is increasing from warm to hot. Yet, at the same time, I feel myself shivering almost uncontrollably. My earlobes are freezing. I listen but hear nothing. Then, as my palm begins to burn, I open my eyes and walk forward. Clutching and opening my hand repeatedly makes no difference. The feeling, though uncomfortable, is bearable. I hold my palm up to my face. Touch it with my fingers. The skin is tender, and I can barely discern the outline of a bruise. Forget it. I have no time for it now. The circle of ice, roughly four feet in diameter, captures my focus. Intrigued by what looks like writing, I move closer and forget my burning palm. The badgers have my full attention. I’m awed by what they’ve left behind.

       Carved in the circle is a design both strange and familiar: a spiral. My eyes study the shape, follow its motion. Compelled, I kneel and press my palm down on the ice. Instantly, I feel relief. Then, ever so slowly, I trace the coiled shape while soothing ice crystals melt against my hand. I marvel at this bizarre calling card, this engraving apparently carved by badger claws. As hypnotic as the entrance to a labyrinth, this spiral lures me. It beckons me—summons me like the invisible, the inevitable, pull of the moon.

 

Chapter one introduces the main character and narrator of the story: Davie Wyatt.

He is about to celebrate his fifteenth birthday, December 21st. The Winter Solstice--when the sun stops in its path.