Home > All the Birds in the Sky(6)

All the Birds in the Sky(6)
Charlie Jane Anders

Walking to the bus stop, Laurence had a nervous moment. He was going on a big trip on his own, nobody knew where he was, and he only had fifty dollars in his pocket, plus a fake Roman coin. What if someone jumped out from behind the Dumpsters by the strip mall and attacked Laurence? What if someone dragged him into their truck and drove him hundreds of miles before changing his name to Darryl and forcing him to live as their homeschooled son? Laurence had seen a TV movie about this.

But then Laurence remembered the wilderness weekends, and the fact that he’d found fresh water and edible roots, and even scared off this one chipmunk that had seemed intent on fighting him for the trail mix. He’d hated every second, but if he could survive that, then he could handle taking a bus into Cambridge and figuring out how to get to the launch site. He was Laurence of Ellenburg, and he was unflappable. Laurence had just figured out that “unflappable” did not have anything to do with whether people could mess up your clothing, and now he used that word as much as he could.

“I am unflappable,” Laurence told the bus driver. Who shrugged, as if he’d thought so too, once upon a time, until someone had flapped him.

Laurence had packed a bunch of supplies, but he’d only brought one book, a slender paperback about the last great interplanetary war. Laurence finished that book in an hour, and then he had nothing to do but stare out the window. The trees along the highway seemed to slow down as the bus passed alongside them, then sped up again. A kind of time dilation.

The bus arrived in Boston, and then Laurence had to find the T station. He walked into Chinatown, where there were people selling stuff on the street and restaurants with enormous fish tanks in their windows, as though the fish wanted to inspect potential customers before they would be allowed in.

And then Laurence was crossing the water and the Museum of Science was gleaming in the morning sun, opening its steel-and-glass arms to him and brandishing its Planetarium.

It wasn’t until Laurence reached the MIT campus and he was standing in front of the Legal Sea Foods, trying to make sense of the map of coded buildings, that he realized he had no idea how to find where this rocket launch was happening.

Laurence had imagined he would arrive at MIT and it would look like a bigger version of Murchison Elementary School, with front steps and a bulletin board where people posted upcoming activities. Laurence couldn’t even get into the first couple buildings he tried. He did find a board where people had posted notices for lectures, and dating advice, and the Ig Nobel Awards. But no mention of how to watch the big launch.

Laurence ended up in Au Bon Pain, eating a corn muffin and feeling like a dope. If he could get on the internet, maybe he could figure out what to do next, but his parents wouldn’t let him have a phone yet, much less a laptop. The café was playing mournful oldies: Janet Jackson saying she got so lonely, Britney Spears confessing she did it again. He cooled each sip of hot chocolate with a long breath, while he tried to strategize.

Laurence’s book was gone. The one he’d been reading on the bus. He had put it on the table near his muffin, and now it was gone. No, wait—it was in the hands of a woman in her twenties, with long brown braids, a wide face, and a red sweater that was so fuzzy it practically had hair. She had callused hands and work boots. She was turning Laurence’s book over and over in her hands. “Sorry,” she said. “I remember this book. I read it like three times in high school. This is the one with the binary star system that goes to war with the AIs who live in the asteroid belt. Right?”

“Um, yeah,” Laurence said.

“Good choice.” Now she was checking out Laurence’s wrist. “Hey. That’s a two-second time machine, isn’t it?”

“Um, yeah,” Laurence said.

“Cool. I have one too.” She showed him. It looked about the same as Laurence’s, except it was a little smaller and it had a calculator. “It took me ages to figure out those diagrams online. It’s like a little test of engineering skill and moxie and stuff, and in the end you get a little device with a thousand uses. Mind if I sit down? I’m standing over you and it makes me feel like an authority figure.”

Laurence said that was okay. He was having a hard time contributing to this conversation. The woman sat in front of him and the remains of his muffin. Now that he was at eye level with her, she was sort of pretty. She had a cute nose and round chin. She reminded him of a Social Studies teacher he’d had a crush on last year.

“I’m Isobel,” said the woman. “I’m a rocket scientist.” It turned out she’d shown up for the big rocket launch, but it was delayed because of some last-minute problems and weather and stuff. “It’ll probably be in a few days. You know how these things go.”

“Oh.” Laurence looked into his hot-chocolate foam. So that was it. He wasn’t going to get to see anything. Somehow he’d let himself believe that if he saw a rocket blast off, something that had been right in front of him and was now free of our planet’s gravity, he would be set free, too. He could go back to school and it wouldn’t matter because he’d been connected to something that was in outer space.

Now he was just going to be the freak who ditched school for nothing. He looked at the cover of the paperback, which had a painting of a lumpy spaceship and a naked woman with eyes for breasts.

He didn’t start to cry or anything, but he kind of wanted to. The paperback cover said: “THEY WENt TO THE ENDS OF THE UNIVERSE—TO STOP A GALACTIC DISASTER!”

“Drat,” Laurence said. “Thanks for letting me know.”

“No problem,” Isobel said. She told him more about the rocket launch and just how revolutionary this new design was, stuff he already knew, and then she noticed he was looking miserable. “Hey, don’t worry. It’s just delayed a few days.”

“Yeah, but,” Laurence said, “I won’t be able to be here then.”

“Oh.”

“I will be otherwise occupied. I have a prior engagement.” Laurence stammered a little. He kneaded the edge of the table, so the skin on his hot chocolate grew ridges.

“You must be a busy man,” Isobel said. “It sounds as though you have a packed schedule.”

“Actually,” Laurence said. “Every day is the same as every other day. Except for today.” And now he did start to cry. Goddamn it.

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