by Belinda Roddie
Rick's devotion to Pluto staying a planet was both oddly admirable and terrifying at the same time. 2006 had been a difficult year for him, and nearly eleven years later, he still had not let up in his unrelenting zeal. He had posters of Pluto in his office; his son had built him a model of the solar system, with Pluto's small girth plainly seen in the spinning papier-mâché; he drank his coffee out of a mug with Pluto's beaming rocky face on it - strange heart shape on its surface and all. It was a crusade he was unwilling to surrender: He wanted the little dwarf planet that could to be promoted back to a very non-dwarf planet.
The debate had started again in the lunch room, after a lengthy conversation about the discovery of seven Earth-sized planets around a smaller star, one that thankfully had not been diverted despite its length and detail. I was sitting with Annabel, one of our senior research associates, who was sipping cold coffee from a thermos and discussing the latest laboratory results with Teresa, one of our seasoned research specialists. It was a warm March day, and the whirring and clicking of the microwave reminded me of an old computer attempting to reboot after a blue screen of death. Rick was, as usual, situated at a smaller table in the corner, picking out his lunch items one by one and arranging them in the pattern that would make him less anxious.
"They say Tim will be back in town soon," remarked Annabel, in between mouthfuls of iced caramel mocha. "How long has it been, six weeks?"
"Wait," Teresa interjected. "Tim the research associate, or Tim the astrophysicist?"
"Huh. Where was he again? Missouri?"
"University of Minnesota. Worked at the Institute of Astrophysics."
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see that Rick's ears had perked up beneath his shaggy black curls. He had set down his now half-eaten sandwich - a fluffernutter, his favorite - and was listening intently.
"And what was he teaching here?" asked Teresa. "Last time I checked, he was more focused on computing."
"Nah, he's over that. 'Massive star watch,' he called it. He's been keeping track of stars like WR-104 - you know, the one people panicked about a few years back? Tim's fascinated with supernovae."
"Did he just look at stars?" Rick piped up all of a sudden, in his high, nasal lilt. "Or did he also look at planets?"
At this, Annabel slurped her coffee. Teresa laughed. I folded my hands across the table and exhaled, wishing that I hadn't left my lunch at home.
"Rick, please," I said. "This is not about Pluto."
I swore that his eyes darkened at my words. "It should always be about Pluto," he growled.
I pointed at his unfinished fluffernutter. "Why don't you finish your lunch and see if you can finish that laboratory report before the end of the day? I'm sure Nigel would love to see it on his desk tomorrow morning."
Rick grumbled through a reluctant mouthful of marshmallow and peanut butter. I couldn't understand his words, but he was probably muttering about "demotion" and "no respect" and "what about Pluto's moons?" or something. I stood up and habitually rubbed the bridge of my nose. Annabel was talking to Teresa again.
"I think we ought to welcome Tim back with a party," she was suggesting. "Nothing fancy, maybe a happy hour or a small potluck. I could make him a cake. A pinwheel-style cake. Like WR-104. Wouldn't that be lovely?"
"Make it a Pluto cake!" Rick suddenly shouted from his corner.
"And that's my cue to leave," I said, before heading back to my office and closing the door.
Rick didn't let up about Pluto for the rest of the day, which was to be expected. By one o'clock, he had already slipped three printed articles under my door about the continuing scientific debate about the dwarf planet's status. A half hour later, he sent me a link to the New Horizons webpage on the NASA website, with the subject line of the email being: "sheer beauty." I had seen it before and consequently ignored it. At three o'clock, I stepped out of the laboratory after a short venture inside and found Rick loudly arguing with Jeremy, the janitor, about the whole thing. Jeremy, apparently, was more knowledgeable about astronomy than I thought. He agreed with Pluto's demotion. That obviously made my fellow researcher mad.
I let it go after a while. Some days, Rick would calm down, settling others' nerves. One research specialist who didn't stick around for long had accused him of being autistic, which we all took umbrage with. An interest in one subject didn't necessarily point to autism at all, and even if it did, what did it matter? Rick was a diligent worker - an excellent scientist who had contributed vastly to research that revolved around a wide array of topics, from laboratory studies on microbes to collecting data on Mars. He had never worked at NASA himself, though he always wished he had, but he was nonetheless a man with a lot of experience under his belt. I wouldn't have been surprised if one day, he wished us all goodbye and went to work with Elon Musk so he could journey to Pluto himself.
I knew what Rick did after work, of course, because I had once been to his place. He had invited me over for dinner one evening after hearing about my rather dramatic break-up with my long-term girlfriend; he was sympathetic, and I appreciated it. I arrived at his condo and smelled onion and spinach in the air. Rick's wife, Janice, was cooking a chicken and linguine dish that I absolutely adored. Rick had chosen a Cabernet to drink with it; apparently, he was also quite the wine snob.
Our dinner conversation had actually veered through many subjects, including a discussion on genetically modified organisms and a question-and-answer session about Janice's job working with LGBTQ+ youth at a homeless shelter. As Janice excused herself to take her estrogen, Rick and I sat quietly for a while and ate, the creamy spinach-laden pasta settling nicely in my stomach.
"Did you see the New Horizons pictures?" Rick finally asked, grinning. I knew this would happen eventually. The photos had only just been shared.
I swallowed. "Yeah. They're beautiful."
"There's a heart on Pluto," sighed Rick. "Imagine that. 7.5 billion kilometers away, and Pluto sends us a heart. Isn't that magnificent?"
"I didn't notice."
"Rick notices everything about Pluto," Janice chuckled, returning to the dinner table. She squeezed Rick's hand. "Not going to rant about its dwarf status again, are you?"
"Don't tempt me," Rick replied, snickering. He set down his fork and reached for his wine. His dark fingers trembled beneath Janice's grip.
"I'm always the Charon to your Styx, Ricky," his wife cooed. "Remember that."
I raised my eyebrow at that. On a surface level, her comment made sense; Charon and Styx were two moons that orbited Pluto. But it also resonated on a deeper, more literary level. Like Rick, I had done my studying of Pluto, and we were both familiar with the mythology behind it as well. Pluto, Roman god of the underworld. The river Styx, where all the dead traveled by ferry to reach the kingdom of the dead. Charon - or Kharon - the ferryman himself.
Rick was the Styx, and Janice was the ferryman. And so she rowed forward, spurred on by the ripples in her husband's river, forever directed by his path and current.
I closed my eyes as I took a large sip of wine, and at that moment, I was light years away.
This week's prompt was provided by Jocelyn Roddie.