Featured Story: The Comet
Updated: Mar 16, 2021
In 1986, students crowd Chicago’s Adler Planetarium. Matt is excited to see Halley's Comet up close—he’ll encounter a bully and the girl of his dreams first.
My hiccups started as soon as I saw the banner draped over the entrance:
Adler Planetarium Celebrates the 1986 Visit of Halley’s Comet!
The Sunny D I’d chugged on the bus, combined with the bubbles of excitement rushing from belly to brain, had overwhelmed my digestive system. My classmates, though, looked bored—too cool for this science stuff. But I couldn’t hide my inner geek: I was finally going to see it. The comet! And not as a smear inching across the night sky over my house, but up close, through the largest aperture telescope in the Midwest.
Comet chatter was everywhere: at school, on TV, in the small talk at Mom and Dad’s dinner parties. I’d been collecting obscure astronomy knowledge since I was old enough to read a Highlights Magazine, and it was finally coming in handy.
This was my time to shine.
My class filed off the bus, marched through the lobby, and joined the other rowdy teens filling the planetarium. I stumbled on the blue, star-speckled carpet because my eyes were glued to the night-sky dome arching overhead. Sinking into the nearest open seat, my gaze never wavered. I was afraid if I looked away, I’d miss something.
“Didya know no one can agree on how to say—hic—Halley’s name? ‘Cause it’s spelled so many different ways—hic—in the astronomy records. Most people, like on the newscasts, say—hic—HAY-lee or HAW-lee. But—hic—they’re all wrong. It’s HAL-lee… Hic!”
I didn’t look, or care, who was sitting next to me, listening to my nerdy babble. When I finally did glance around, my stomach plummeted.
The Konger was seated directly to my left.
Real name: Donny Dunkirk.
He’d held the high score on the Donkey Kong machine at Sal’s Pizzeria since middle school, and the nickname had stuck.
Making my life hell was his second-favorite hobby; it had been ever since I refused to let him copy my French homework Freshman year. Eyes full of stars and comets, I’d been too distracted to steer clear of him today as I usually did. I stifled my hiccups and avoided doing anything—like existing or breathing—that might annoy him.
I tried to clamp my lips over the hiccups, but they snuck out with a humiliating squeak.
I braced myself for a punch to my left shoulder, but The Konger was not the person who noticed my hiccups.
The head directly in front of me swiveled, and a pair of golden irises (the exact shade of fossilized amber) stared me down. The eyes belonged to a girl. Head tilted, she studied me like I was an insect caught in her net.
She disappeared for a moment, leaning forward to rummage in her backpack before returning with a tin of Sucrets. She flipped it open with her thumb.
“These always help me. The cough drop forces you to keep your mouth closed and breath through your nose and the menthol soothes your esophagus. Try it.”
Her halo of curly brown hair, the slight smile on her rosy lips, and her impressive hiccup remedy knowledge were impossible to resist.
I grabbed a drop, fingers scrabbling against the tin, and nodded my thanks. I was afraid to open my mouth. Another spasm, or something even more humiliating—like words—might escape.
My seizing insides began to relax as the drop dissolved on my tongue. I relaxed into my seat as the lights dimmed and the program began.
“The appearance of what we now call Halley’s Comet was first recorded in 240 BC…”
I studied her silhouette, desperate to know her name. Not even the droning voiceover mispronouncing Halley could distract me.
“’Scuse me,” I whispered.
“The cough drop worked, thanks,” I tried again, a shade louder.
The Konger elbowed me, knocking something inside me loose again.
I thought maybe the hiccup would get her attention, as it had before, but she was entranced. When a closeup of the comet blazed over our heads, a trail of glorious interstellar fire, so was I. My head tipped back, my mouth fell open, and I forgot everything else. Even those amber eyes.
* * *
When the comet presentation concluded, a projection of Orion filled the screen and the resident astronomer picked up a microphone to tell us all about constellations, most of which I already knew. I tuned her out and focused on the curls spilling over the seat in front of me.
Sliding a hand into my backpack, I retrieved my graphing notebook and a blue Bic.
Hi, my name is Matt, I scribbled.
Where do you go to school?
Can I have your phone number?
P.S. So smart about the cough drop. It worked. Thanks!
I folded the paper and tucked the ends so that it formed its own envelope and reached over her shoulder to drop it into her lap. The paper rustled as she opened my note. After a pause, she leaned her head toward the girl next to her. They began whispering, giggling. A few agonizing minutes later she stretched a hand back over her shoulder, refolded note suspended between two fingers. I reached for it, a goofy grin already spreading across my face, but The Konger got there first. His joystick-honed reflexes were faster. He closed a meaty fist around it, crumpling the paper into a sad little ball and tossing it into the dark recesses of the theater.
The lights came on and hundreds of bleary-eyed high schoolers staggered to their feet. The Konger shoved past me into the aisle, laughing. By the time I’d regained my balance, the girl was gone. I searched the crowd for brown curls as I fought my way toward the spot where I thought the note had landed. But the flow of exiting teenagers was too swift. I was pulled outside by their undertow, defeated.
By the time I trudged onto the school bus, only one open seat remained. In the back row, The Konger patted the empty spot next to him, grinning.
* * *
Everything I knew about lock-picking I learned from MacGyver. My mom always told me watching too much TV would rot my brain and ruin my eyesight, but she had no idea how many valuable life skills could be learned there.
After dinner that night, pockets packed with paper clips, a Swiss Army knife, and my student ID, I snuck into the garage. Only a week into driver’s ed, I was nervous driving the quiet Tuesday night streets of the city. I found street parking near the columned bulk of Soldier Field, executing a very sloppy parallel park and leaving my mom’s Buick with its rear end angled into traffic.
Once on foot I ran, past the aquarium and onto the narrow peninsula that held the planetarium like an egg cupped in a spoon. Chilly wind off Lake Michigan buffeted my face, but I ducked my head and kept going. Dodging security guards, I located a red metal service door on the backside of the Adler that looked promising. Jiggling my smallest knife blade in the keyhole while sliding my ID into the door crack, I heard the lock pop open. Just like on TV.
Winding through the hallways, I found my way into the theatre. It was dark, but the illuminated face of my Casio calculator watch gave enough light to search the floor where The Konger had tossed my note. But it was gone. The planetarium had already been swept clean.
A clatter from the hallway had me diving behind the seats, hiding there until the room fell quiet.
Peeking into the hallway to ensure the coast was clear, I crept along the wall, trying to find where the trash cans were emptied.
Inside the janitor’s closet, a Tina Yothers look-alike held the door open with an elbow as she retrieved a feather duster hanging on the wall. When she let go of the door and slouched toward the telescope exhibit, I caught the door and darted inside.
I wasted no time, pulling the nearest trash cart toward me and pawing past sandwich baggies, receipts, soda cups, and cigarette butts before I spied a hint of mint green: my graphing paper! The crumpled ball was tacked to the side of the bin with a wad of grape Hubba Bubba, the smell wafting up as I pulled the note free. Pulse throbbing in my fingertips, I smoothed the paper and read the looping cursive written below my jagged, all-caps handwriting:
I’m glad the cough drop helped.
I go to East Leyden High. What about you?
My number is 451-3220. I hope you’ll call.
P.S. I’m Halley. HAL-lee. Like the comet.
By Cayce Osborne
Cayce is a writer/graphic designer from Madison, WI. She currently works in science communication at the University of Wisconsin. Her work has been published in Exposition Review, Typehouse Magazine, Defenestration, Fudoki Magazine, Write Ahead the Future Looms, two anthologies from Scribes Divided Publishing, and elsewhere. She has pieces forthcoming in 18thWall Productions' Pizza Parties & Poltergeists anthology, on the Manawaker Studio’s Flash Fiction Podcast, and elsewhere.