A little later Ethel came out into the moonlight and shut the trailer door behind her. She looked rumpled and beaten, her hair straggling damply on her shoulders and her eyes puffed and red from crying. The gin she'd had hadn't helped any either.
She stood for a while without moving, then she looked up at the sky and said something I'm not likely to forget.
"Why couldn't You give the kid a break?" she said, not railing or anything but loud enough for us to hear. "You, up there--what's another lousy one-eyed mutt to You?"
Doc and I looked at each other in the half-dark of our own trailer. "She's done it, Roy," Doc said.
I knew what he meant and wished I didn't. Ethel had finally told the kid that Charlie wasn't coming back, not ever.
That's why I was worried about Joey when I came home the next evening and found him watching the sky instead of the palmetto flats. It meant he'd given up waiting for Charlie. And the quiet way the kid spoke of moving the stars around worried me more, because it sounded outright crazy.
Not that you could blame him for going off his head. It was tough enough to be pinned to a wheelchair without being able to wiggle so much as a toe. But to lose his dog in the bargain....
I was on my third beer when Doc Shull rolled in with a big package under his arm. Doc was stone sober, which surprised me, and he was hot and tired from a shopping trip to Tampa, which surprised me more. It was when he ripped the paper off his package, though, that I thought he'd lost his mind.
"Books for Joey," Doc said. "Ethel and I agreed this morning that the boy needs another interest to occupy his time now, and since he can't go to school I'm going to teach him here."
He went on to explain that Ethel hadn't had the heart the night before, desperate as she was, to tell the kid the whole truth. She'd told him instead, quoting an imaginary customer at the Sea Shell Diner, that a tourist car with Michigan license plates had picked Charlie up on the highway and taken him away. It was a good enough story. Joey still didn't know that Charlie was dead, but his waiting was over because no dog could be expected to find his way home from Michigan.
"We've got to give the boy another interest," Doc said, putting away the books and puncturing another beer can. "Joey has a remarkable talent for concentration--most handicapped children have--that could be the end of him if it isn't diverted into safe channels."
I thought the kid had cracked up already and said so.
"Moving stars?" Doc said when I told him. "Good Lord, Roy--"
Ethel Pond knocked just then, interrupting him. She came in and had a beer with us and talked to Doc about his plan for educating Joey at home. But she couldn't tell us anything more about the kid's new fixation than we already knew. When she asked him why he stared up at the sky like that he'd say only that he wants something to remember Charlie by.
It was about nine o'clock, when Ethel went home to cook supper. Doc and I knocked off our cribbage game and went outside with our folding chairs to get some air. It was then that the first star moved.
It moved all of a sudden, the way any shooting star does, and shot across the sky in a curving, blue-white streak of fire. I didn't pay much attention, but Doc nearly choked on his beer.
"Roy," he said, "that was Sirius! It moved!"
I didn't see anything serious about it and said so. You can see a dozen or so stars zip across the sky on any clear night if you're in the mood to look up.
"Not serious, you fool," Doc said. "The star Sirius--the Dog Star, it's called--it moved a good sixty degrees, then stopped dead!"
I sat up and took notice then, partly because the star really had stopped instead of burning out the way a falling star seems to do, partly because anything that excites Doc Shull that much is something to think about.
We watched the star like two cats at a mouse-hole, but it didn't move again. After a while a smaller one did, though, and later in the night a whole procession of them streaked across the sky and fell into place around the first one, forming a pattern that didn't make any sense to us. They stopped moving around midnight and we went to bed, but neither of us got to sleep right away.
"Maybe we ought to look for another interest in life ourselves instead of drumming up one for Joey," Doc said. He meant it as a joke but it had a shaky sound; "Something besides getting beered up every night, for instance."
"You think we've got the d.t.'s from drinking beer?" I asked.
Doc laughed at that, sounding more like his old self. "No, Roy. No two people ever had instantaneous and identical hallucinations."
"Look," I said. "I know this sounds crazy but maybe Joey--"
Doc wasn't amused any more. "Don't be a fool, Roy. If those stars really moved you can be sure of two things--Joey had nothing to do with it, and the papers will explain everything tomorrow."
He was wrong on one count at least.
The papers next day were packed with scareheads three inches high but none of them explained anything. The radio commentators quoted every authority they could reach, and astronomers were going crazy everywhere. It just couldn't happen, they said.
Doc and I went over the news column by column that night and I learned more about the stars than I'd learned in a lifetime. Doc, as I've said before, is an educated man, and what he couldn't recall offhand about astronomy the newspapers quoted by chapter and verse. They ran interviews with astronomers at Harvard Observatory and Mount Wilson and Lick and Flagstaff and God knows where else, but nobody could explain why all of those stars would change position then stop.
It set me back on my heels to learn that Sirius was twice as big as the Sun and more than twice as heavy, that it was three times as hot and had a little dark companion that was more solid than lead but didn't give off enough light to be seen with the naked eye. This little companion--astronomers called it the "Pup" because Sirius was the Dog Star--hadn't moved, which puzzled the astronomers no end. I suggested to Doc, only half joking, that maybe the Pup had stayed put because it wasn't bright enough to suit Joey's taste, but Doc called me down sharp.
"Don't joke about Joey," he said sternly. "Getting back to Sirius--it's so far away that its light needs eight and a half years to reach us. That means it started moving when Joey was only eighteen months old. The speed of light is a universal constant, Roy, and astronomers say it can't be changed."
"They said the stars couldn't be tossed around like pool balls, too," I pointed out. "I'm not saying that Joey really moved those damn stars, Doc, but if he did he could have moved the light along with them, couldn't he?"
But Doc wouldn't argue the point. "I'm going out for air," he said.
I trailed along, but we didn't get farther than Joey's wheelchair.
There he sat, tense and absorbed, staring up at the night sky. Doc and I followed his gaze, the way you do automatically when somebody on the street ahead of you cranes his neck at something. We looked up just in time to see the stars start moving again.
The first one to go was a big white one that slanted across the sky like a Roman candle fireball--zip, like that--and stopped dead beside the group that had collected around Sirius.
Doc said, "There went Altair," and his voice sounded like he had just run a mile.
That was only the beginning. During the next hour forty or fifty more stars flashed across the sky and joined the group that had moved the night before. The pattern they made still didn't look like anything in particular.
I left Doc shaking his head at the sky and went over to give Joey, who had called it a night and was hand-rolling his wheelchair toward the Pond trailer, a boost up the entrance ramp. I pushed him inside where Doc couldn't hear, then I asked him how things were going.
"Slow, Roy," he said. "I've got 'most a hundred to go, yet."
"Then you're really moving those stars up there?"
He looked surprised. "Sure, it's not so hard once you know how."
The odds were even that he was pulling my leg, but I went ahead anyway and asked another question.
"I can't make head or tail of it, Joey," I said. "What're you making up there?"
He gave me a very small smile.
"You'll know when I'm through," he said.
I told Doc about that after we'd bunked in, but he said I should not encourage the kid in his crazy thinking. "Joey's heard everybody talking about those stars moving, the radio newscasters blared about it, so he's excited too. But he's got a lot more imagination than most people, because he's a cripple, and he could go off on a crazy tangent because he's upset about Charlie. The thing to do is give him a logical explanation instead of letting him think his fantasy is a fact."
Doc was taking all this so hard--because it was upsetting things he'd taken for granted as being facts all his life, like those astronomers who were going nuts in droves all over the world. I didn't realize how upset Doc really was, though, till he woke me up at about 4:00 A.M.
"I can't sleep for thinking about those stars," he said, sitting on the edge of my bunk. "Roy, I'm scared."
That from Doc was something I'd never expected to hear. It startled me wide enough awake to sit up in the dark and listen while he unloaded his worries.
"I'm afraid," Doc said, "because what is happening up there isn't right or natural. It just can't be, yet it is."
It was so quiet when he paused that I could hear the blood swishing in my ears. Finally Doc said, "Roy, the galaxy we live in is as delicately balanced as a fine watch. If that balance is upset too far our world will be affected drastically."
Ordinarily I wouldn't have argued with Doc on his own ground, but I could see he was painting a mental picture of the whole universe crashing together like a Fourth of July fireworks display and I was afraid to let him go on.
"The trouble with you educated people," I said, "is that you think your experts have got everything figured out, that there's nothing in the world their slide-rules can't pin down. Well, I'm an illiterate mugg, but I know that your astronomers can measure the stars till they're blue in the face and they'll never learn who put those stars there. So how do they know that whoever put them there won't move them again? I've always heard that if a man had faith enough he could move mountains. Well, if a man has the faith in himself that Joey's got maybe he could move stars, too."
Doc sat quiet for a minute.
"'There are more things, Horatio....'" he began, then laughed. "A line worn threadbare by three hundred years of repetition but as apt tonight as ever, Roy. Do you really believe Joey is moving those stars?"
"Why not?" I came back. "It's as good an answer as any the experts have come up with."
Doc got up and went back to his own bunk. "Maybe you're right. We'll find out tomorrow."
And we did. Doc did, rather, while I was hard at work hauling red snappers up from the bottom of the Gulf.
I got home a little earlier than usual that night, just before it got really dark. Joey was sitting as usual all alone in his wheelchair. In the gloom I could see a stack of books on the grass beside him, books Doc had given him to study. The thing that stopped me was that Joey was staring at his feet as if they were the first ones he'd ever seen, and he had the same look of intense concentration on his face that I'd seen when he was watching the stars.
I didn't know what to say to him, thinking maybe I'd better not mention the stars. But Joey spoke first.
"Roy," he said, without taking his eyes off his toes, "did you know that Doc is an awfully wise man?"
I said I'd always thought so, but why?
"Doc said this morning that I ought not to move any more stars," the kid said. "He says I ought to concentrate instead on learning how to walk again so I can go to Michigan and find Charlie."
For a minute I was mad enough to brain Doc Shull if he'd been handy. Anybody that would pull a gag like that on a crippled, helpless kid....
"Doc says that if I can do what I've been doing to the stars then it ought to be easy to move my own feet," Joey said. "And he's right, Roy. So I'm not going to move any more stars. I'm going to move my feet."
He looked up at me with his small, solemn smile. "It took me a whole day to learn how to move that first star, Roy, but I could do this after only a couple of hours. Look...."
And he wiggled the toes on both feet.
It's a pity things don't happen in life like they do in books, because a first-class story could be made out of Joey Pond's knack for moving things by looking at them. In a book Joey might have saved the world or destroyed it, depending on which line would interest the most readers and bring the writer the fattest check, but of course it didn't really turn out either way. It ended in what Doc Shull called an anticlimax, leaving everybody happy enough except a few astronomers who like mysteries anyway or they wouldn't be astronomers in the first place.
The stars that had been moved stayed where they were, but the pattern they had started was never finished. That unfinished pattern won't ever go away, in case you've wondered about it--it's up there in the sky where you can see it any clear night--but it will never be finished because Joey Pond lost interest in it when he learned to walk again.
Walking was a slow business with Joey at first because his legs had got thin and weak--partially atrophied muscles, Doc said--and it took time to make them round and strong again. But in a couple of weeks he was stumping around on crutches and after that he never went near his wheelchair again.
Ethel sent him to school at Sarasota by bus and before summer vacation time came around he was playing softball and fishing in the Gulf with a gang of other kids on Sundays.
School opened up a whole new world to Joey and he fitted himself into the routine as neat as if he'd been doing it all his life. He learned a lot there and he forgot a lot that he'd learned for himself by being alone. Before we realized what was happening he was just like any other ten-year-old, full of curiosity and the devil, with no more power to move things by staring at them than anybody else had.
I think he actually forgot about those stars along with other things that had meant so much to him when he was tied to his wheelchair and couldn't do anything but wait and think.
For instance, a scrubby little terrier followed him home from Twin Palms one day and Ethel let him keep it. He fed the pup and washed it and named it Dugan, and after that he never said anything more about going to Michigan to find Charlie. It was only natural, of course, because kids--normal kids--forget their pain quickly. It's a sort of defense mechanism, Doc says, against the disappointments of this life.
When school opened again in the fall Ethel sold her trailer and got a job in Tampa where Joey could walk to school instead of going by bus. When they were gone the Twin Palms trailer court was so lonesome and dead that Doc and I pulled out and went down to the Lake Okechobee country for the sugar cane season. We never heard from Ethel and Joey again.
We've moved several times since; we're out in the San Joaquin Valley just now, with the celery croppers. But everywhere we go we're reminded of them. Every time we look up at a clear night sky we see what Doc calls the Joey Pond Stellar Monument, which is nothing but a funny sort of pattern roughed in with a hundred or so stars of all sizes and colors.
The body of it is so sketchy that you'd never make out what it's supposed to be unless you knew already what you were looking for. To us the head of a dog is fairly plain. If you know enough to fill in the gaps you can see it was meant to be a big shaggy dog with only one eye.
Doc says that footloose migratories like him and me forget old associations as quick as kids do--and for the same good reason--so I'm not especially interested now in where Ethel and Joey Pond are or how they're doing. But there's one thing I'll always wonder about, now that there's no way of ever knowing for sure.
I wish I'd asked Joey or Ethel, before they moved away, how Charlie lost that other eye.
LET 'EM BREATHE SPACE!.
By Lester Del Rey
Eighteen men and two women in the closed world of a space ship for five months can only spell tension and trouble--but in this case, the atmosphere was literally poisoned.
Five months out from Earth, we were half-way to Saturn and three-quarters of the way to murder. At least, I was. I was sick of the feuding, the worries and the pettiness of the other nineteen aboard. My stomach heaved at the bad food, the eternal smell of people, and the constant sound of nagging and complaints. For ten lead pennies, I'd have gotten out into space and tried walking back to Earth. Sometimes I thought about doing it without the pennies.
But I knew I wasn't that tough, in spite of what I looked. I'd been built to play fullback, and my questionable brunet beauty had been roughed up by the explosion years before as thoroughly as dock fighting on all the planets could have done. But sometimes I figured all that meant was that there was more of me to hurt, and that I'd had more experience screaming when the anodyne ran out.
Anyhow, whole-wheat pancakes made with sourdough for the ninth "morning" running was too damned much! I felt my stomach heave over again, took one whiff of the imitation maple syrup, and shoved the mess back fast while I got up faster.
It was a mistake. Phil Riggs, our scrawny, half-pint meteorologist, grinned nastily and reached for the plate. "'Smatter, Paul? Don't you like your breakfast? It's good for you--whole wheat contains bran. The staff of life. Man, after that diet of bleached paste...."
There's one guy like that in every bunch. The cook was mad at us for griping about his coffee, so our group of scientists on this cockeyed Saturn Expedition were getting whole wheat flour as punishment, while Captain Muller probably sat in his cabin chuckling about it. In our agreement, there was a clause that we could go over Muller's head on such things with a unanimous petition--but Riggs had spiked that. The idiot liked bran in his flour, even for pancakes!
Or else he was putting on a good act for the fun of watching the rest of us suffer.