The annual Perseid meteor shower is at its peak in the wee hours of tomorrow’s morning. According to the experts, it’s supposed to be an excellent year for watching comet debris plow through the earth’s atmosphere. So go outside some time after midnight, look up, and bask in how little (or how big) you are. And don’t bother trying to record the event on your cell phone, either; just go out and behold. In other words, enjoy the moment.
Key scenes in my novel Canis Major center around the Perseid meteor shower. I use shooting stars as a metaphor for how helpless and vulnerable we are to forces over which we have no control.
The excerpt you are about to read takes place a year before the rest of the plot. When we visit these characters a year later, the meteor shower takes on a whole new meaning.
Thanks and Enjoy!
Later that evening, Russell showed up at Pete’s house carrying two swollen tear-shaped grocery bags. Together, they rushed upstairs to stash the junk in Pete’s room before coming back down for a proper dinner. Pete’s mother didn’t approve of her son eating junk food, and had she seen the contents of those plastic bags, she would have confiscated their goods at once and chopped up celery and carrot sticks as a substitute.
But Lady Luck was on their side and Sarah was none the wiser. Up in Pete’s room after dinner, they had their fill of nougat, high-fructose corn syrup, and Yellow #5. Russell knocked back Coke after Coke like it was water, but Pete wasn’t used to consuming such large quantities of sugar at once. At some point during his second can of Mountain Dew, his hands began to shake like a fresh off the wagon alcoholic’s.
Laughing, Russell said to the lightweight, “Whoa, slow down there, buddy. I don’t want you shaking a screw loose. Hey, I’ve got an idea: Wanna play Jenga?”
Pete hid his smile behind his shirt sleeve. “Up yours, Whitford.”
Russell pointed to the bug collection. “If you’re not up for that, we could drop a couple of those beetles over there into your empty cans and make you a pair of maracas. I’ll go home, get my guitar, and then we can jam out. It’d be easy for you. All you’d have to do is try to stay still.”
Pete snorted back laughter.
Russell decided to open the floodgates. “Do you know ‘Sympathy for the Devil’?”
At that, Pete exploded in a fit of unrestrained laughter and doubled over in his chair. As he went down, he pulled his arms to his stomach. His face went maroon; he gasped for air.
“Jesus. It wasn’t that funny.”
Pete slapped his knee. Eventually, he found his breath and his face faded to its normal olive hue. Every few seconds, though, a snicker would start up his throat and he would try, unsuccessfully, to suppress it.
Once he was relatively sure he could speak without erupting into spastic giggles, Pete said haltingly, “You’re insane, Rusty.”
“I know,” was Russell’s cool reply behind a tilted Coca-Cola can.
Russell crushed the empty can with his hand and went to the wastebasket next to the desk to throw it away. Lingering there, he looked at the bookshelf, then craned his head sideways and ran an index finger across the leather spines. Finding the one he was searching for (or the one that happened to catch his eye), he pulled it from the shelf and sat down at the desk. He switched on the study lamp and began thumbing the gilded pages of a large celestial atlas.
“I knew you’d have something like this,” Russell said, glancing behind him while keeping a mindful eye on the pages’ keen edges. “I’ve always been into constellations—all things Greek and Roman, really—but I’ve never actually taken the time out to sit down and study them.”
“That’s too bad,” Pete said, slinking over to the desk. “Constellations are easy. You’d be surprised how quickly you get the hang of them. My dad showed me the basics when I was little, and I caught on fast. For you, it’d be…” Pete snapped his fingers to illustrate.
“You’re probably right, since I dig Roman and Greek mythology and all—don’t look at me that way.”
“I see you smiling. You want to call me a nerd, don’t you?
Russell smiled. “Call me a nerd, I don’t care. If you want to know the truth, I got hooked on the stuff in fourth grade, when our teacher showed us the planets on the overhead projector. We were supposed to memorize them for some test; the test was easy, blah-blah-blah.…So a week goes by and we’re done with the planets—goodbye, so long, sayonara—and I raise my hand to ask when we were going to get back to them. There had to more to them than just names. Needless to say, she gets all bitchy at me, accuses me of causing a distraction and whatnot. She writes me a slip and I’m off to the principal’s office. Principal calls my mom, and that night after dinner, my dad comes stomping up to my room. I thought he was going to yell at me, but—”
Pete nodded. “Go on.”
“But he didn’t. He just came into my room carrying a book about the solar system he’d picked up on his way home. Apparently my mom had called his office. He just throws it on the bed, smiles at me, and says, ‘Don’t interrupt your teacher while she’s doing her job.’”
“That’s it. That was my first taste of Roman and Greek mythology—mostly Roman, since the planets are known by their Roman god counterparts. You knew that.”
“You see, I liked the names: Pluto, Saturn, Neptune…” Russell rolled his eyes. “Christ, I am a nerd! It was the names that got me hooked. The weight of them. The importance. It just kind of took off from there.”
“I hear you. I was the same way. Different story, though. I won’t bore you with it.”
“Thank you,” Russell said.
Russell laughed. “I know you know all about that. Look at all of those books up there about stars and junk.” He raised his eyebrows.
“Did I see one about Big Foot as well, Pete?”
Pete shrugged. “What can I say? I need to know.”
“I hear you, man. I’m the same way. It’s great to keep an open mind about shit. The worst thing you can do to your spirit is shut it off from new possibilities. It stagnates if you do that. Fucks up the creative process.”
“Now that’s something I don’t know about.”
“What? The creative process?”
“Yeah. I’m just not that type of person.”
“Sure you are. Everybody’s creative to some degree.”
“How do you figure?”
“Listen—actually, it’s kinda hard to explain.” Russell broke away from the conversation, feeling Pete’s uneasiness beginning to sprout inside his own stomach. It was a feeling he hated, like a swallowed stone sitting heavily in his gut, indissovable by anything other than time. For the briefest moment, Russell contemplated why his best friend had to be the way he was.
Russell stared penetratingly at the large book on the desk, as if the answers to those kinds of mysteries were hidden cryptically within the text. “A-ha!” he blurted out, momentarily forgetting about the boulder in his belly. “Here’s the dude I was looking for. He’s the only one I know, other than the Big Dipper. I’d recognize that son of a bitch anywhere.”
Pete peered over his shoulder. “What? Orion? Big deal—everybody knows that one.”
In mock grandeur, Russell proclaimed, “Yes, mighty Orion!” Leaning closer to read the caption: “The Hunter. Oh, man, I dig that. Orion the Hunter. He’d kick the Big Dipper’s ass any day.”
“Ursa Major,” Pete corrected.
“I’ll explain later.”
Pete was smiling again, which prompted Russell to carry on in a cajoling, sophomoric way. “Orion the Hunter will fuck you up! Best believe it. He’ll steal your girlfriend and bang your
“Stop it!” Pete managed to get out between peals of laughter. “You’re killing me!”
“And look at those hips,” Russell lisped. “Girl, if I only had hips like that!”
“Stop it! Oww, oww…cramp—”
Pete jacknifed at the waist and fell to the floor with a hollow thud. Holding his stomach and laughing maniacally, he curled into the fetal position.
“What cramp? Are you on your period?” Russell asked in his regular voice. “Stop laughing! It wasn’t that funny.”
While waiting for Pete to recuperate, Russell rattled off random questions about constellations. When Pete was able to speak again, he tried his best to keep up with Russell’s queries, but he wasn’t exactly an expert on the subject. Russell made it even more difficult by throwing in ridiculous questions masked as serious ones—questions like “Why don’t any of the constellations have dicks?” and perhaps the most difficult one to answer of all: “Why don’t they look like what they are supposed to look like?”
That last one was a doozie, because Russell was right. Most constellations didn’t look like their names.
“I guess people had better imaginations back then,” was all Pete could come up with.
And Russell had to be Russell: he had to be difficult. “You see, I don’t buy that—not at all. I could come up with better constellations if I wanted to. It’s just make believe.”
“Fine. Go right ahead. See if anybody acknowledges them.” Pete grabbed the book from the desk and riffled through the pages. “The thing is, these guys have been around for thousands of years. People are kind of fond of them.”
Russell sighed. “Christ, Pete, I know that. I was talking about for myself. There’s no rule saying I have to follow what a bunch of dead guys decided five thousand years ago. Their bullshit lines don’t have to mean shit to me if I don’t want them to. Where’s your entrepreneurial spirit, Petey?”
Russell stood from the chair and commenced making wide, sweeping gestures, really hamming it up. He hooked his arm around Pete’s neck and pulled him close. “This is a time for boldness, my friend. A time to strike out on our own and do our own thing. We’ll draw our own lines, we’ll connect our own dots—that is, after all, all we’re talking about: connecting dots—and millennia from now people will look up at the sky and see the images we saw thousands of years before. And they’ll realize what perverts we were, because all of their constellations will have huge cocks and enormous tits.”
“Man, you’re no fun.”
“Come on…you can’t change constellations.”
“Tradition shmadition,” Russell said.
“So am I. If it makes you feel any better, I’ll keep Orion.”
“You don’t even know what you’re talking about,” Pete said, shimmying out of Russell’s headlock.
“No, because if you keep Orion, you also have to keep Taurus, Lepus, Canis Major, Canis Minor, and so on.”
“It’s a long story.”
“How about the Reader’s Digest version?”
“It’s in the book you were just looking at.”
“You mean the one you stole from me.”
“It’s my book!”
“Are you going to tell me the story or not?”
“Why should I?” Pete asked.
“After all I do for you—you owe me.”
“What exactly have you ever done for me?”
“Lots. I’ve entertained you.”
“And that’s enough. Go on. Tell me the story. You know you want to.”
Pete plopped down on the mattress. Russell dragged his chair to the foot of the bed and sat backwards in it, resting his forearm on the chair’s back and his chin on his wrist.
“All right,” Pete began. “This is how it goes, and this will prove that you can’t just go around changing constellations willy-nilly. I mean, you could if you wanted to, but all you would be doing is screwing up the mythology surrounding them—seeing how interconnected everything is. And since you already told me you’re into the whole Greco-Roman mystique thing, I’m sure you can appreciate how complicated and twisted these stories get and how there are at least five different versions for the same event. Hell, it gets so confusing sometimes even I have trouble keeping things straight.”
“Tell it slowly then. And try not to use any of your sciencey mumbo-jumbo, either.”
“Fine,” Pete said, laying back and sliding his hands underneath his head.
“Here’s one version of the Orion myth. It also happens to be my favorite. It’s in this book, which you can borrow if you want. It goes like this—and this is simplified now: Orion was Poseidon’s son with Euryale, one of Medusa’s sisters. He grew up to become this great hunter, a fact he bragged about constantly. Also, he was huge. I mean, physically, he was a giant. He was probably a colossal prick. You know the type: I can kill this, I can kill that, I could kill you if I wanted to, but I won’t. You know more hunters than I do, so you know what kind of person Orion was, which was a nobody, because he never existed. He was an archetype, a vestige of late hunter-gatherer culture and imagination. Anyway, back to the story. Eventually, Orion fell in love with the goddess Artemis, or Artemis fell in love with Orion—it doesn’t matter which—and Apollo, Artemis’s twin brother, wasn’t too happy about it. Apollo hated Orion for some reason. Maybe he thought Orion would corrupt his sister. Artemis was supposed be this virgin goddess of the wilderness and the hunt—along with about a dozen other things. She was also an excellent shot with the bow and arrow. One day Apollo took advantage of this gift by leading her to the shore of a great sea and, pointing at a little fleck floating on the water near the horizon, betting her she couldn’t hit it. Of course, Artemis accepted his challenge. She leaned back, fired her arrow, and sure enough, Orion comes tumbling ashore with an arrow shaft buried deep in his humongous head. After Artemis mourned him, she placed him in the sky with the stars.”
“So basically Apollo tricked her?”
“Yes. He was jealous. Or maybe he just hated Orion and wanted him dead. Who knows.”
“That son of a bitch. And to think, I named my dog Apollo.”
“No,” Pete said, “you named your dog Apollo because he’s a Great Dane.”
“Aren’t Great Danes called ‘The Apollo of Dogs’?”
“Yes,” Russell said, looking away. “But I didn’t think you knew that.”
“Don’t be embarrassed. I know lots of stuff—lots of stuff. It’s not like I‘ll think any less of you for failing to give your dog an original name.”
“Hey! What did I tell you? I like Greek names. It’s a total coincidence that the name I chose happens to be a moniker for the breed. Like I knew that when I was nine.”
“It’s the truth!”
“Anyway,” Pete said, bringing the conversation back to the start, “that’s one story about Orion.”
“Tell another one. That last one ended kind of lame.”
“Newsflash, Rusty: They all end with him being put up in the night sky.”
“I know, but let’s hear another one anyway.”
“Okay. See if you like this one better. So, Orion brags on and on about how great of a hunter he is. One day, Gaea, or Mother Earth, decides she’s had enough of him destroying her creatures and sends a giant scorpion to kill him. Orion fights the scorpion, but the scorpion can’t be killed. Its armor is stronger than any mortal’s weapon—Gaea made it that way. Eventually, Orion grows tired and gets stung. He dies from the venom, and Artemis—yes, the same Artemis from the last story—memorializes him by placing him in the heavens. She hangs him on the opposite side of the sky from Scorpius, so he can never be stung again. And that is why you’ll never see Orion and Scorpius at the same time in the night sky. As Orion sets, Scorpius rises.”
“You see,” Russell said, “that’s the better story. It’s more poetic, more ironic. Orion the Bad-Ass gets taken out by a scorpion. Nature conquers over Man. That other one was just plain murder with a little jealousy thrown in. You can get that on any soap opera any day of the week. But neither story explains how the constellations are connected—besides Orion and Scorpius, that is.”
Sitting up, Pete removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “That’s where things get complicated. Orion is still doing his hunting in the sky.”
Pete opened the atlas to a two page panorama of the heavens and showed it to Russell. Illustrations had been drawn over the stick figure constellations to flesh them out. In one corner Orion stood cockily, holding what appeared to be a lion’s head in one outstretched hand and a club above his head in the other.
“Funny,” was all Russell said.
“Well, I always thought Orion held a bow.”
“What do you mean?”
“See that arc of stars there.” Russell traced it with his finger, “It looks like a bow to me. And I thought that arm held way over his head was supposed to be him reaching for an arrow from his quiver. But that picture has him holding a lion’s head and a club.”
“That lion’s head is supposed to be his shield, but that’s not the point. Look around him. He’s holding a shield because he’s about to do battle with Taurus, the bull. See that devil’s fork of stars. Those are Taurus’s horns.
“Good luck killing a bull with a club.”
“That’s not the point!”
Russell laughed. “You’re always so serious—I’m sorry, you were saying…”
“As I was saying, Orion fights the bull with the help of these two guys: Canis Major and Canis Minor. Big dog, little dog.”
“What? Canis Minor only gets two stars? Poor little fucker. He’s just a line.”
“Yeah, but check out Canis Major.”
“He’s more impressive,” Russell said.
“Yeah, and he’s really easy to find when you’re stargazing, too. All you have to do is locate Orion, then look below and to the left of his feet and you’ll see Sirius, the brightest star in the sky. Sirius is the Big Dog’s nose. See that triangle of stars further down? Those are his hind legs and tail. Connect it all up and you get Canis Major.
“The coolest part is Sirius. They used to call it—and I guess they still do—the Dog Star. ‘Sirius’ is Greek for ‘scorching.’ They named it that on account of its brightness. Back before modern science, the Greeks and Egyptians believed that when Sirius rose with the sun in the summer months it added extra heat to the planet and caused droughts and plagues. They even blamed it on the occasional flood, if you can believe that. They didn’t know any better. I guess we don’t either, because I can’t go three days in July or August without somebody bringing up the Dog Days of Summer.”
“Yeah, why is that?” Russell already knew the answer, but he wanted to hear Pete say it. He seemed to be having such a good time explaining all of this to him.
“Because Sirius rises with the sun during this time of the year, and Sirius is part of Canis Major. Hence the Dog Days. Traditionally, it is the hottest time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In other countries, outbreaks of tropical diseases like malaria and West Nile Virus occur in the summer. Here we don’t have it so bad, but the Dog Days are still a time when you don’t feel like doing a whole lot. You feel lazy, spent, fatigued, just plain dog tired—pardon the pun. It’s especially bad in the South. I tell you, Rusty, we get it the worst—maybe not as bad as people in Africa, but people up north have no idea what we go through year after year after year. The truth, though, is that what we experience during July and August isn’t Sirius’s fault. The star is way too far away to provide any significant heat to our planet.”
Russell couldn’t help himself. Pete had forgotten the best part.
“What about rabies?”
Pete shifted his gaze to Russell’s right, toward the window. “Oh, yeah. A long time ago people noticed that animals caught rabid more frequently when Sirius rose with the sun. It was mostly dogs they were concerned about, since back then dogs had to actually earn their keep by herding and protecting livestock—not like today. It’s a total coincidence, though, but you’re right. That’s probably the most accurate etymology of the term.
“Pete, what did I tell you about those sciencey words?”
“‘Etymology’ isn’t a science word.”
“Jesus, you’re easy. I was kidding.”
Pete didn’t laugh. “Anyway, Canis Major and Canis Minor are Orion’s dogs. Artemis placed them in the heavens to help Orion with his hunting—I forgot to tell you that part. The big dog, the one under Orion’s feet, could be construed as hunting Lepus, the hare, as seen here.” Pete traced the constellation next to Canis Major.
“Dude, the picture is already drawn for me. I can see it.”
“Can you now? Can you really?”
“You do sarcasm no justice, Pete. My advice is leave it to the professionals.”
“Or they’re about to help Orion take on Taurus.”
“Two dogs and a guy with a baseball bat are going to take on a bull.”
“He’s got a shield, too.” Pete turned away with a demure grin.
“Okay, two dogs and a guy with a baseball bat and a shield are going to take on a full-sized bull.”
“Do I need to remind you that this is all make believe?”
“Do I need to remind you how easy you are?”
“I still think he’d have a better chance against that bull if he had a bow and arrow.”
“Because Sagittarius is the archer.”
Growing bored with the conversation, Russell glanced at his watch and announced, “It’s only ten. If this shower doesn’t get going for another four hours, what do you want to do until then?”
“I’ve got that covered.” Pete said, reaching under his bed and pulling out a marble chess board and clinking purple felt sack. He dropped the heavy stone slab onto the bed and dumped the white and black carved rocks on top of it. Their combined weight formed a crater in the blue bedspread. Setting up the pieces, he asked, “Wanna play?”
They didn’t use a timer, but the matches went fast, which was a godsend. Long matches tended to draw time out, and Pete was anxious to get to the meteor shower as it was.
This was Pete’s first time playing Russell at chess, and he found his friend to be both a proficient and challenging opponent. He lost track of how many matches they played and who won them, but if he had to guess, he’d say that he won at least half, which meant that Russell won half, too. The only other person who could beat him like that was his father.
Little was said as they sat in concentration, focusing on their strategies. Pete noticed that Russell always protected his knights, sacrificing his rooks and bishops instead. The matches that Russell took were won with a clever maneuvering and positioning of his knights and queen. He appeared not to care about his other pieces, throwing them to the wolves early on in the matches.
After their last match, which ended in a stalemate, Russell looked at his watch for the first time in hours and said,
“It’s one thirty. Think they’ve started yet?”
“They started hours ago.”
“Shit, man. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because they don’t really get going until two or so.”
“Listen,” Pete said, gathering the chess pieces, “when we go downstairs, be quiet. My dad hates being woken up in the middle of the night.”
Russell scrunched his eyebrows together.
“Why can’t we just go out the window?”
Pete stared back, equally confused.
“Because we’re upstairs, Rusty.”
“I know,” Russell said, nodding toward the dormer. “I was thinking maybe we could go out the window and sit on the roof.”
Pete’s shoulders sank. “I don’t know…”
Russell threw an arm over Pete’s sagging shoulders and guided him to the window.
“Relax, it’s easy. I’ve done this hundreds of times.”
Walking under the slanted eave, they ducked their heads and crawled onto the dais. Spider webs and dust bunnies billowed up from the depths. “Jesus, Pete. You really need to dust up here,” Russell remarked, cranking the handle that pivoted the squeaky window on its central hinge. “And get your parents to buy you a new window, too. This one ain’t cutting it.”
Once Russell got the window all the way open, he slid onto the roof, stood, and scanned the heavens. After letting a few minutes pass, he stuck his head inside the house. “You coming, Pete?”
Pete still knelt in the box-like compartment, accumulating the courage needed to do what he feared most. He wasn’t exactly scared of heights (he had no trouble flying in airplanes or looking out skyscraper windows), but open heights were different. The feeling of safety a pane of glass provided at thirty thousand feet (or even thirty feet) was as undeniable as it was illusory.
Backing out the window—feet first and on his stomach—a flutter of butterflies beat their flimsy wings against the walls of Pete’s guts, making him regret ever consenting to Russell’s suicide mission. He inhaled deeply, and was about to pull his legs back inside, when his knees scraped shingle. Then Russell had him by the ankles and was pulling the rest of his body out.
Pete lay face down on the roof above his room. Russell rolled him over and propped him against the dormer. “Now where are these meteors you were telling me about?”
Pete looked up to the felt-black sky. Thousands of pin pricks of light peeked through the dark firmament. To most people, these dots appear as randomly cast as a shotgun blast in a barn door. But, to Pete, there was sense in the disorder. He drew lines from point to point, forming the time-tested constellations that he and countless other generations before him had relied upon for comfort and wonderment. The first one he conjured was serpentine Draco. Then he turned his head to the left and made out the zigzag of Cassiopeia. Craning his head up and to the north, he at last found the guy he was searching for.
Pete pointed and said, “There. Look over there by Perseus.”
Russell, who now straddled the dormer’s peak, gazed down at Pete’s upside-down face below. “Which one’s Perseus?”
“Just look up, Bonehead.”
Russell did as he was told, but all he saw was a scattershot of stars. His knowledge of the constellations was worse than he had thought. The only ones he knew by heart were the Big Dipper and Orion, so he looked around for those. The first one popped out immediately. There was no mistaking that big, celestial spoon. From his view, it was upside down, but that all depended on how he looked at it. If he turned around one hundred and eighty degrees, the spoon would be right side up. The second constellation, Orion, he had a more difficult time finding.
Two meteors flashed in the sky, one crisscrossing the other.
“There!” Pete said, “Did you see that?”
“Yeah,” Russell replied. “That was pretty boss.”
“Never mind. It’s a seventies thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
“You were barely born—”
“Yeah yeah yeah…hey, look! There goes another one!”
This time, the meteor left a long, slowly fading white trail as it tore through the sky.
“That must have been a big one,” Pete said.
Russell stood silently on the dormer’s roof. Something was gnawing at him. Eventually, he broke down and asked,
“Why can’t I see Orion?”
Pete looked up at him and replied, “You can’t see Orion in the summer. I told you that earlier. He’s a winter constellation.”
They remained on the roof for close to an hour and a half. During that time, Russell freely strolled the sloped surface, confident he wouldn’t fall. As for Pete, he never moved from where Russell had propped him against the dormer.
It was a good year for the Perseids. The Earth pushed through a particularly dense area of comet debris, and, for a while, the meteors rained down at the pace of a soft spring drizzle. Pete counted one hundred and ninety-seven before announcing that—caffeine-high aside—if he didn’t get inside soon, he would fall asleep right where he sat.
Russell didn’t bother counting the raining stars. Numbers had never meant much to him anyway. What mattered was the grandness of what Pete had showed him, and that he was fortunate enough to recognize beauty when he saw it.
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