Chapter 8:

The Astronomy Club

Galaktika Gamble: Stolen Light

Life with my grandpa didn't seem to change too much from how life was when my dad was around. Much like my dad, he wasn't very social with us. He would talk with me from time to time, but once Neil was in the room, he seemed quite uncomfortable. Each time someone died around Neil, it was apparent that my grandpa was becoming more and more afraid of him. He just being in the same room as him seemed to put him on edge with anxiety. My grandpa wasn't a fan of the rumors that spread around to the public either. People knew that Neil lived with us, and my grandpa didn't want our family to have a bad reputation. Neil easily picked up on this though, so he usually stayed by himself. Within a few months of living with my grandpa, it was almost like Neil had made himself a stranger. At home, we would talk from time to time if I made an effort to speak first, but in public he acted as if he didn't even know me or didn't want to know me. I wasn't too happy about it since I felt like all the hard work my mom and I had done to keep Neil from completely distancing himself over the years was starting to become meaningless, but I suppose it was only a matter of time.

Though I hate to admit it, there were some benefits to Neil distancing himself from me more. Classmates seemed more interested in becoming my friend, which made me feel pretty special. I know a lot of them only seemed interested in me since my grandpa had a lot of money, but it still made me feel....normal. Being normal was something I craved deep down for most of my life and I finally started to experience it. I got invited to hang out with my friends more often too, since they knew I wouldn't ask for Neil to join us. Having a break away from the anxiety of death possibly being around every corner was like a breath of fresh air for me. However, nothing gave me as much peace and happiness as the club I joined in high school. Not only were the members some of the kindest people I had ever met, but they didn't seem interested in knowing me for shallow reasons. At first, I was very hesitant about it, but I'm so glad I joined. It all started on my first day of high school. I was walking down the hallway when I bumped into John.

John: Hey, Ivan! How was your summer break?! It's been forever since I've seen you!!

John had weird humor sometimes, yet it never failed to make me laugh.

Ivan: Dude, we just saw each other yesterday. We've been hanging out for almost the entire summer hahaha..

John: I know, I don't have to say it. I know you missed me too!

John placed his arm on my shoulder and laughed.

John: It's been so long since I've seen you, I didn't realize that you were so short! Jeez, you're supposed to grow over the break, now everyone will think you're a middle schooler lost in the high school building! Hahaha! I'm sure you'll catch up sometime soon though!

I chuckled and carefully pushed his arm off me. Though his jokes were in good fun, I couldn't help but think about how far I had come. For some reason, a part of me never pictured myself becoming a high schooler, even though logically it made sense and reality proved it.

Ivan: It feels weird being in high school already..time sure does fly.

John: Doesn't it though? Feels like just yesterday we met in our second grade class.

Remembering meeting him in second grade, for some reason Sally crossed my mind. Sally and I had gone to class together, and we had met him together. I wondered what Sally would've been like if she had the chance to grow up and go to high school like us. Though I didn't speak about these thoughts out loud, it seemed John picked up some sad vibes off me and changed the subject.

John: Can I see your schedule? It would really suck to have class with a bunch of strangers!

Ivan: Yeah, sure.

I reached into my pocket and unfolded my printed out schedule before handing it to him. He grabbed his schedule out of his bag to compare.

John: Hey! We have science and math together! That's great, because I think both of those subjects are boring as fuck! Promise to keep me awake?

Ivan: Yeah, I can do that.

John: Thanks, dude! I'll do the same for you if you're having sleep problems. I'll give you my famous kick in the leg like usual. Anyway, I'm going to go look for my first class so I'm not late. See you later!

John gave me back my schedule before patting my back and heading off to find his class. Looking down the hall, I saw Neil staring at his locker quietly. It seemed as if he were deep in thought, not noticing the other students walking around him in an avoidant way. I walked over to him quickly, ignoring the shocked gazes that followed me.

Ivan: You okay?

Neil: Yeah.

Ivan: Are you going to put your bag in your locker?

Neil continued to stare quietly at the locker for a bit before answering me.

Neil: I don't need one. The less time I spend bumping into people to get to my locker, the less chance there will be of another injury or fatality.

Ivan: I suppose that's true, but that's a lot of stuff to carry at once. Are you sure?

Neil: Yeah. Now it's best you go to your class and I'll go to mine. We can talk at home. Stay away from me in school.

Ivan: Well...Okay then.

Neil walked away with his backpack slung over one shoulder, throwing the slip of paper with his locker number in the trash. I looked around as everyone who had been watching tried to act as if they didn't see anything, even though they obviously watched it as if it were a new season to their favorite TV show. I always found it irritating when they did that, but there wasn't much I could do about it. Trying to ignore them, I decided I should look for my own locker. Once I had found it, I placed a few of my extra supplies in there. As I shut the locker door, I realized someone had been standing behind it and my anxiety increased tenfold at that moment.

Ela: Hello! You're Ivan Voronkov, yes?


The girl reached up and covered my mouth gently.

Ela: Try not to yell in the halls, you'll get in trouble. Haha..

I didn't hear or see anyone walk up, so she really scared the hell out of me. After she removed her hand, I took a moment to calm my breathing and smiled at her nervously before replying to her question.

Ivan: Yes, I am. How did you know?

Ela: One of the richest kids around, constantly seen with the kid that has the worst luck in all of Arizona? Who in Pinetop-Lakeside hasn't heard of you?

I laughed nervously. Despite our different reputations and Neil's attempt to stay away from me in public, it seemed some people still grouped us together.

Ivan: Even if everyone has heard of me somehow, I didn't think it would be easy for people to know what I look like if they've never met me.

Ela: It's not hard to tell after hearing all the murmurs with what just happened a minute ago. Besides, lots of girls talk about how you're such a cutie! Adding all these clues together, it wasn't hard to figure it out!

I blushed. I had never heard any girls say something like that. Then again, I usually didn't hang out around girls, so maybe that was why. I laughed nervously and looked away.

Ivan: If that's true, then that's a bit of a confidence booster I guess haha..

The girl gave me an amused look and bit her lip to keep herself from giggling.

Ela: Anyway, enough about that. My name is Ela Tessay. I'm a sophomore and the main recruiter for the Astronomy Club. I just came over here to invite you to our club before anyone else gets to you first. Our club called dibs! Hahaha.

Ivan: Oh, that sounds interesting. Are there any requirements? I'm not sure how this stuff works.

Ela glanced at her watch before reaching into her purse and grabbing a folded piece of light blue paper. She smiled as she handed it to me.

Ela: You're clueless because you're a freshman, but give it a day or two and you'll see how things work around here. It's really not too different from middle school, so I'm sure you'll do fine. You can read more about our club here! We don't have enough time to discuss this in-depth since class will start soon, but feel free to find me at lunch break or after school if you have questions! Do you need help finding your class?

Ivan: That would be a big help honestly! I have no idea where I'm going.

I laughed nervously and slipped the paper in my pocket. Something about her enthusiasm and smile seemed a bit strange(maybe even suspicious) to me, but I shrugged it off as me just being nervous due to my first day in a new place.

Ela: Can I see your schedule?

I handed her my schedule and glanced around the hallway as she looked at it. I noticed a few people looking at us and mumbling.

Ela: Your first class is with Mrs. Gregory. Follow me.

I followed her down the hall, looking at all the "welcome back" signs on the walls. Some of the colors were so bright it was painful to look at.

Ivan: Is the school always this colorful? It feels like I went down a few grades, not up.

Ela: Nope, not usually. Just on “welcome week” and homecoming weeks haha!

Ela stopped at a classroom and turned to me.

Ela: Here's your class! Remember to find me at lunch or after school when you make your decision! Good luck, freshman!

Before I could thank her for the help, she laughed and walked away. Looking at the desks around the classroom, I picked a desk at the back and sat down. I pulled out the blue paper from my pocket and unfolded it, reading the contents inside. At the very top in big, bubbly letters were the words, "Thank you for considering the Astronomy Club". As I read through the list of activities that the club took part in, I couldn't help but wonder if she tried to get to me before other clubs in hopes of having my grandpa help pay for some of their field trips, but I tried not to think about that much and thought about the positives that could come out of joining. As I was lost in thought, a familiar voice spoke to me.

Zack: Already invited to a club? You sure are lucky!

I looked up and saw Zack, sitting in the desk next to me. Like usual, his books were placed exactly where he wanted them to be. He even had the ruler out on his desk to make sure.

Ivan: Oh, yeah..this haha. She just handed it to me and said to tell her my decision later.

Zack: I was talking with some of the older band kids last week, usually clubs start trying to find new members after a week or two.

Ivan: You met them last week?

Zack: Yeah, I'm in marching band so we had band camp. Can I see that paper? If it's okay?

Ivan: Oh..uh, sure.

I handed him the paper. As he was reading it, I wondered what it must be like for kids that take part in extra things like band or sports. It seemed like those things would take a lot of time away from home for practices..and being away from home as much as possible sounded nice.

Zack: This club sounds pretty interesting! Can I go with you later when you decide what you want to do? I have a few questions I'd like to ask them.

Ivan: I don't mind at all haha.

Zack: Thank you!

Ivan: No problem.

Once class had started, the teacher went over her syllabus for the semester. I tried to pay attention, but for some reason I couldn't stop overthinking about the pros and cons of the club, and even more than that, the strange vibe that girl gave off. She seemed really nice, but something seemed..odd. As the day went on and my classes passed by, I found myself obsessing over it. A part of me felt like I should be careful and say no to the club, yet another part of me was curious and wanted to figure out why they would want me in the club so bad. When lunch break came around, I looked for Zack and found him walking around the hallways confused.

Ivan: Zack! You want to come find Ela with me? I think I'm going to go find her to ask some questions now!

Zack: Yeah, sure! I was just trying to figure out where my locker is.

Ivan: You still haven't found it?

Zack: No, the crowd was too big earlier. It's okay though. Let's go!

We decided to go to the cafeteria first since we felt it might be more likely to find Ela there due to most of the students being there during lunch. However, even after searching the place thoroughly we couldn't find her. We did find John though, sitting at a table with all the athletic kids. As soon as he saw Zack was with me, he grabbed me and spoke quietly.

John: What the hell dude? How did you get Zack to follow you around? He usually sticks to himself! Spill the beans and help your friend out!

Ivan: It wasn't that hard, he's just interested in the Astronomy Club and we are looking for Ela to ask some questions.

Suddenly John's face went pale, but he started to laugh it off nervously. Looking at the kids that were sitting with him, they appeared to be awkwardly silent.

Ivan: Is something wrong?

John: No man, you do you hahaha. I just...uh...haha...

John held his head back and covered his eyes with his hand for a moment while laughing. After a pause, he shook his head and pat my back.

John: Oh, who am I kidding! You've handled the worst life can throw at you before. You can handle this! Good luck man!

Zack and I exchanged an awkward glance before looking back at John, wondering what the hell he could be talking about. Then one of the guys at John's table spoke up.

Aaron: Ela will talk your ear off. You'll get annoyed in like 5 minutes, guaranteed.

Kyle: Fuck that man, that's not even her main problem. Ela is a fierce girl, if you don't accept her club invitation willingly she'll probably force you to accept it by crushing your skull with those fat thighs of hers. Assuming you don't die of suffocation first.

Ivan: Uh...I may not know her, but isn't that a bit degrading?

Kyle: I had no idea John's best friend would be a pure boy, with how bad his mouth and humor can be I would've figured you'd be the same.

John: Oh shut the fuck up Kyle, I'm not that bad!

Kyle: Yeah right!

As John and Kyle started to argue lightly, a girl at the table waved me over and spoke quietly.

Abby: I'm sorry for my boyfriend's behavior. He's a bit of a pervert but I promise he means well. If you want to find her, she usually hangs out by the big tree next to the Gym. Good luck, you'll need it.

I thanked her before heading toward the exit. As Zack and I left the cafeteria, I could hear the guys at the table shouting out "Good luck, Pure Boy" and "Don't die" with a roar of laughter. I couldn't help but wonder why that girl would date Kyle if she had to apologize for his actions, but I figured there had to be something she saw in him that made him worth it to her.

Zack: I used to think John was a little cute but now I'm not so sure...

Ivan: John usually isn't like that. If you hang out with him one-on-one he's actually very supportive and great to talk to. There's a reason he's been one of my best friends all these years. He's always been there to help me and wishes the best for me. You two would probably get along great, you just have to ask him to hang out away from people that influence his behavior negatively.

Suddenly I registered what he just said.

Ivan: Wait a minute.. Did you say he was cute?

Zack: N-No! I didn't say that!

Zack gave me the most terrified look I had ever seen him have before. He looked as if he stopped breathing for a moment.

Ivan: It's okay if you did. I don't judge over shit like that haha. Come on, let's go find Ela.

Though he seemed a bit surprised, he took a deep breath and followed me. After a moment he appeared to calm down a bit, but he still seemed like he had something he wanted to say.

Zack: You won't tell him, right?

Ivan: Your secret is safe with me. If you think he's cute though, give him another chance and talk to him. I'm sure he'd have a lot more fun hanging out with you than those guys.

Zack: You think so?

Ivan: Yeah, I'm positive.

Our short conversation came to a halt as I heard someone yelling at us from a short distance away.

Ela: Ivan! You came after all! I knew you would!

I laughed nervously as we approached Ela and her small group hanging out by the tree. Everything the boys in the cafeteria were saying started to repeat in my mind, but I tried my best to remain calm and tell myself that they were probably wrong.

Ivan: Hey! I brought my friend Zack cause he seemed pretty interested as well. Is that okay?

Ela: Of course! The more the merrier!

Zack: I read the paper you gave Ivan and I noticed there's quite a few trips planned out? Is it required to go on all of them?

Ela: No, it's not required but it would definitely be nice for everyone to show up! We just like to enjoy things as a group, you know? We are a pretty small group so if one or two don't show it feels like there's a hole in our boat of friendship.

Zack: I see, I was just wondering because I'm really interested but my schedule is already packed due to marching band. Do you think that would be okay?

Ela: Of course it's okay! We would miss you, but after marching season is over you could spend a lot of time with us then!

Zack: Alright then! I'll join.

Ela squealed with delight. Then she looked at me with one of the most professional puppy-eyed looks I had ever seen.

Ela: What about you Ivan? Will you join?

Ivan: Uh... well...I do have one concern..

Ela: What is it?

Ivan: How do you guys pay for your trips? It seems like a lot of trips..

Ela: Oh! We like to camp a lot and everyone brings their own stuff, so that's not too expensive haha. Members pay their own way, but if they are short for a trip or two then we dip into the money we've earned from fundraising. I know, fundraising seems pretty boring but it can actually be fun when we are all working together! I think only one time the teacher in charge of our club paid for a member, but that was only after that member's house burned down so they didn't have any money to spend on stuff that wasn't necessary. It was so sad! We just wanted them to have a fun trip away from all that stress, you know? Why do you ask?

Remembering what one of the boys said earlier, I noticed that they were right about her talking a lot. However, I didn't find it annoying. I just wasn't sure how to process so much information at once. It was hard knowing which part of her reply I should answer to, if I answered to the extra stuff at all, but I decided to just stay on the original topic.

Ivan: No particular reason, I was just wondering. I guess I'm wondering why you went out of your way to find me to join your club. That's all.

One of the people in Ela's group spoke up. I would later come to find out that this person was the president of the club.

Brian: If you're worried about the possibility of us using you for money, that won't happen. And if anyone does try to do something like that, you can report it to me immediately and we will figure out how to handle the situation. You're also free to leave the club at any time, should you decide you don't like it.

Hearing this was a huge relief.

Ela: Ohhhh were you suspicious of that? That's not why I invited you at all! I just thought you seemed like the type of guy that might like astronomy! If you're not interested that's fine haha. Or are you upset that I didn't invite Neil too? You can invite him if you want! I'm sure he would like it too!

Her happy attitude seemed a bit forced, but she didn't seem like she would be mad at me if I rejected her offer, like those boys suggested she would be. Considering that Zack had joined and I could leave at any time if I wanted, I couldn't see many cons to joining.

Ivan: I'll join.

Ela: Wait..really?! You'll join?!

Ivan: Of course, I just said that haha..

She squealed again and jumped around happily, hugging one of her friends with excitement. Her friend quietly pat her on the head without a word.

Ivan: However, I don't believe Neil will join...I'll ask though.

Ela: Okay! Thank you for joining though! I'm so happy!

I wondered why she would be so happy at me joining, but I suppose it wasn't a bad thing. Her happiness was strangely contagious and left everyone in the group laughing or smiling like an idiot, including me.

Ela: You guys are going to have so much fun! Just you wait! We'll have some paperwork ready for you tomorrow!

I thought about it for the rest of the day. Though I didn't know anyone in the club except Zack, it was exciting to think about the friends I might make in the club. By the end of the school day, I felt so happy at the new possibilities that I probably would've had a skip in my step all the way home if people weren't watching me. Instead, I calmly grabbed my bag and met up with Neil outside of the school to walk home together like usual. After a moment of walking in silence, Neil smiled and spoke up.

Neil: You sure seem to be in a good mood. Something good happen?

Ivan: I joined the Astronomy Club! They said you could join too if you want.

Neil: Oh, that's cool. I appreciate that offer but it's not happening. We've already discussed this plenty of times. The fewer people around me, the better.

Ivan: Yeah, I know.

Neil: Besides, astronomy seems kinda boring. What are you going to do? Stare at the sky for five hours? I'd get the same entertainment from watching paint dry. I hope you have fun though.

Ivan: Haha I'm sure I will!

Though I had a good feeling about some friends I might make in the club, I still had a bit of confusion deep down. Something about Ela seemed strange, but I wasn't sure how to pinpoint it. However, looking back on it, I'm so glad I shrugged off those feelings. Though it was short, those few years were some of the best years of my life...and it all started on that day.