On a chilly, late-September afternoon, Isabel Santiago finds herself falling in love with her only daughter all over again. Her heart swells protectively, overcome with affection in the same way it was when she first held her- the tiniest little thing in her first minutes and hours of life, staring quietly through indescribably dark eyes.
Now, giggling, laughing fully, a tad overexcited by the whole day, Amy’s little hands are interlaced in her older brother’s, and her feet, adorned with her smartest black shoes (her choice), are on top of his. Grinning down at her, sixteen-year old Luis walks her over a glowing star trail on the planetarium floor, with each large step talking in a voice as deep as he can muster. This voice isn’t unfamiliar, one Isabel heard him reading parts of her Look Inside Space book in when she’d asked him to put her to bed only a few weeks ago, her daughter looking up at him in total awe as talked about the gravity on Jupiter and the alien clouds of red and orange that fill its skies.
Set on studying physics at college since childhood, he didn’t need to be asked twice to help his parents out when Amy requested the planetarium for her sixth birthday party, even making sure her prized tunic, a long, navy shirt covered in white stars, was freshly washed and ironed for her this morning. He’d left it perfectly folded at the end of her bed, ready to be slotted on over those dinky little leggings she’s had since she was four.
Isabel smiles inadvertently, watching them momentarily, then snaps out of it, a maternal instinct niggling at her to check on the other children. Most of them, perhaps half, remain sat at the long table where their lunch- if that’s what you can call the endless plates of chips, candy, tiny sandwiches and vegetable sticks adorning the table- is set out, while the rest have drifted into the other sections of the function room, chasing each other, pointing at the colourful solar system gleaming brightly against navy walls.
A quick headcount begins promisingly- 16, 17, 18, 19 children, all in the function room, their chatter a wholesome, happy noise in the room. Her eyes scan the room for the twentieth, trying to figure out who’s missing.
In a guttural punch, she realises.
“Amy, Mija,” she tries to keep the panic out of her voice as she hurries over to her daughter, “have you seen Jake?”
“He said he wanted to try the star maze, but I told him wait til after lunch,” she explains authoritatively- the maturity in her tone, as per usual, vastly contrasts the youthful peep in its pitch. “Because on the schedule,” she continues matter-of-factly, despite horrendously mispronouncing that last word, “it says the star maze is last.”
“It does, my love, you’re right,” Isabel responds soothingly, before shooting Luis a panicked look.
“I’ll go,” he reassures his mother, picking up Amy. “Here we go, rocket,” he smiles, swinging his sister briefly before placing her back on the ground. Amy smiles at his nickname for her, but almost immediately she seems concerned again, clearly thinking about Jake.
“Jake won’t listen to Luis,” she says practically, her face briefly turning into that aged concern that astounds Isabel every day- never, in her twenty years as a parent, has she known a child who thinks as hard as her daughter. “I’ll help!”
Isabel opens her mouth to object, but her daughter’s already bolting for the door, and as simple as that, their plans are made for them.
“Wait here, supervise, tell your father I’m with Amy,” she says quickly to Luis, patting his shoulder as she hurries past him to follow Amy, who’s already out of the function room.
The atrium outside the function room is busy, the overarching walls glowing pink and purple, dotted with white specks, illuminating a slow crowd of people just entering the building, some gazing at the ceiling, some buying tickets, some looking intently at their maps.
Briefly, she catches a flash of Amy’s starred tunic as she darts out of the crowd on the other side of the room and into the kids area, where she can only assume the star maze must be- Amy’s the one who sat up memorising the map and their scheduled activities, not her.
Eventually, she reaches the entrance to the kids zone, only a few families inside, pretty quiet for a Sunday afternoon. She’s about to call for Amy, but her eyes spot her across the room, wandering quietly along the hall, observing her surroundings carefully, intently.
Out of nowhere- well, out from a small bundle of big, squishy building blocks- Jake jumps behind Amy, tugging, and Isabel inwardly thanks a higher power that he’s safe and well and still in the building. A new friend of Amy’s, she’s never quite sure how to deal with him. She begins to make her way over to them, keeping her eyes on them over the crowds of people in case they move.
He pulls on one of Amy’s pigtails, hard, a wide beam with plenty of missing teeth becoming visible as she turns round, clearly a little shocked, irritated by him. Isabel tuts to herself seeing him teasing Amy, a protective instinct developed from watching her grow up with her brothers. Amy turns to him, and he’s chatting away excitedly, and her irritated expression is abandoned, swapped out with girlish intrigue.
A particularly slow family passes in front of Isabel, blocking her view, and with that, she’s lost sight of Amy and Jake. Irritation and panic fleetingly sets in again as she hurries down the hall, past miniature play areas, looking eagerly for them.
Familiar laughter makes her stop as she comes to the end of the room, but she can’t seem to figure out where it’s coming from; it sounds as if it’s above her, childish giggles in the air so infectious she almost finds herself smiling in response.
Her eyes travel upwards, and then, with some awe, she sees her daughter.
The sight leaves her speechless, filled with tremendous warmth; leaning against the ridges of the wall, Amy has clambered high up the wall, presumably having followed Jake, who balances himself on a lowered ridge, perhaps a piece of piping, slightly lowered from the ceiling, a leg on either side of it. He chatters excitedly, eyes wide, gesticulating wildly, his face sincerely expressive. Amy watches in silence, totally drawn in.
They’re only a few metres off the ground, but in this nook of the wall, the soft pink and blue lights manage to dance over their amazed faces, soft, sequential white dots appearing and disappearing over them as it does over the rest of the room. Two children lost in the stars.
Isabel can’t bring herself to stop them, not yet, astounded that anyone could convince her daughter, good as gold, to attempt a feat like this. Eventually, though, Amy catches her eye, shock washing over her, clambering down quickly, Jake following her. He gives Isabel a caring, wide smile before he follows her daughter back to the function room, no hint of irony or cheekiness; just sheer happiness.
This moment, that smile, is one she will recall in years to come.
Inside Luis Santiago’s school bag, currently sat by the doorway to this function room- sitting patiently should he find time to study in the middle of leading his little sister’s 7th birthday party- is a small fact sheet he created on chaos theory. It’d be a lie to say he’s especially proud of it; it was put together hastily, between and after more highly prioritised tasks.
At this moment in time, however, the concept of chaos is being entirely redefined for him.
Children run around with so much energy he’s almost scared, purely by the sheer quantity of them.
Almost as soon as Amy’s sixth birthday ended, she’d started planning her seventh, handing Luis, beautifully written in her best handwriting, all her favourite games from the afternoon and a guest list. At the top of the guest list, above even little Kylie’s name, was him, the kid who’d spent the whole afternoon last time running around like a lunatic: Jake.
Luis held onto those lists, and with the booking made early, everything had seemed set to be the same at the planetarium the second time round- until his mother fell pregnant with baby number seven, a boy, Daniel, who, at ten weeks old, keeps both his parents behind this year. The responsibility, then, fell on him, Rafael, and Hugo, the only ones around to help, with the oldest, Julian, already back at college, and Marco, at four, just a little too young to be involved.
Hugo has to be here, at nineteen being the only one of them legally able to supervise the kids. Raf, only fifteen, had agreed the second he’d caught a sniff of the thirty bucks Luis had offered him to come and help out.
However, Luis seems to be the only one of them slightly concerned at the craziness of these children, Hugo largely unbothered, flirting with the young female tour guide when he can- embarrassingly so, Luis thinks- and Raf rather amused, cheering on whoever Amy’s playing against just to wind her up.
At present, this would happen to be Jake Peralta, midway through a balloon race, captaining the team opposing Amy’s.
Luis has been watching on anxiously for the last half an hour or so, anxious that the guide’s concern currently stretches about as far as the distance between her and Hugo, while these kids run rampant.
“HA!” Jake’s loud voice is undeniable, triumphant, when Amy’s balloon pops. He giggles, a grin revealing a couple of missing teeth, his eyes lit up excitedly. “I win!”
Luis looks to Amy concernedly, worried she’ll get upset while she celebrates her birthday, but she seems relatively unaffected, grinning back at Jake.
“That doesn’t mean you win, Jake,” she explains in her little voice, her inflections manoeuvred perfectly in that way she does to make herself sound older, “it’s whoever wins the most games.” She folds her arms defensively. “I won pin the ring on Saturn, and you won this, so it’s a tie.”
“What’s next, Rocket?” Luis steps in, sensing that defensive tone in her, crouching down to her height and adjusting her petite starry tunic- the same outfit choice as the year prior- from where it’s got caught in her leggings from playing the game.
“Moon rocks relay,” she says without hesitation, perking up at the opportunity to answer a question.
“Alright,” he smiles, looking over to see their guide. She’s disappeared- as has Hugo. “We’ll set it up,” he smiles. “Raf?”
“Right,” Rafael perks up, smiling at his little sister and hurriedly grabbing the games box the guide has left behind, setting it up as quickly as he can.
“Okay, Ames, you stand nice and still so the others follow, and we’ll start.”
Amy stands politely still, smiling admiringly up at her brother, back totally straight and hands behind her back, just the way she’s learnt at school. Jake stands next to her, rocking up and down on the balls of his feet, his excited eyes travelling between her and Luis and the game Raf is setting up behind them. He bites his lower lip in a visible effort to remain calm, disordered, gapped teeth noticeable as he chews his lip.
“Alright, everyone, so, uh,” Luis tries, not used to addressing more than one or two people at once, let alone a crowd of kids, “who wants another game?”
This catches their attention, and soon enough he’s got a small group of keen little faces looking up at him.
“Good! Okay,” he continues, relieved by the ease of their response, “in this game we need two teams, so two captains-”
“Me and Amy,” Jake says with some certainty. Luis looks at Amy, who nods assuredly in reply.
“Okay, so each team gets a bucket of balls- oh, moon rocks,” Luis explains, correcting himself after a pointed look from his sister, “and you all take turns to shoot and score it into the net. Like basketball. Each team member has to move further and further back, so the last players have to throw the moon rock really far- if you’re better at ball games try and be towards the back of the line…” he finds himself trailing off as the kids organise themselves excitedly, their chatter overwhelming the volume of his own voice.
Amy and Jake have, of course, hurried to the back of each line, insisting everyone step in front of them, chatting away competitively. What interests Luis about their friendship, he thinks, is the way she seems to revel in his competition, not as easily wound up by him as she always has been by her brothers. She’s found her equal, he realises as he watches them, in this overexcited, messy-haired, toothy child, who seems to be consistently getting into trouble.
As the game kicks off, they both watch their team members eagerly, cheering them on, totally fixated on the game. Only occasionally does one of them spin around to talk to the other, some competitive jibe or joke. Luis catches his sister roll her eyes several times as Jake chatters at her, beaming through that toothy, childish smirk that never seems to leave his face.
Eventually, it comes to their turn, and, finding himself hyperaware of the competitiveness between the pair, Luis watches them fixatedly.
They both miss their first few shots, and understandably so- the hoop is on the other side of the room. Neither of them stop, though, fiercely competitive- and then it happens.
Amy’s ball lands in the hoop and she practically screams with joy, her team cheering loudly as she fist-pumps triumphantly, dancing around on the spot.
Luis watches her fondly for a moment as Raf hands out candy to her and her team, but quickly picks up on the utterly crestfallen expression that holds Jake’s face. It spurs complete sympathy within him, recognising at only a glance that total childlike heartbreak.
Sure enough, when Luis approaches him, there are tears in his eyes, stood still as he watches Amy celebrate.
“Hey, buddy, y’okay? Ready for some lunch?”
“I wanna go home,” Jake only says, his voice cracking as he replies, a tear falling over his cheek. Luis’ chest swells for the kid, giving him a pat on the back.
Luis doesn’t see him cry, not properly, until Karen arrives to pick him up, and he runs into her arms into the tightest bear hug he’s ever witnessed.
Under the soft, occasional lights of the cinematic screen in front of them, Isabel runs her hand soothingly over the back of one Jacob Peralta, whom she holds in her arms.
He doesn’t seem hugely fussed about watching the space show projected onto the huge screen in front of the other kids, sat on small benches and watching in awe as their guide talks them through the galaxy. It’s fair enough- it’s his third time here.
In fact, he’s not even facing them, his head resting on her shoulder, clinging onto her tightly- too much blue cake will do this to a kid.
Luckily, she’s in her element- children have always been Isabel’s specialty. Which is perhaps why she has seven of them.
Eight, if you count her currently-late time of the month and the overwhelming maternal instinct she’s felt over the last few weeks, typical to each of her pregnancies, an outpouring of love escaping her as though her body is demonstrating, early, that it’s ready for more. A test waits for her at home in her dresser. Pregnancy heightens her sensitivity, always has done, and as of late, she’s not been able to keep herself from treating little Jake as one of her own.
His father left. She couldn’t say she didn’t see it coming- Karen and Roger had never been perfect, no couple is, but there’d always been something not quite right. Since then, Amy’s called at his house a lot more often- Isabel has a feeling he’s not coming to theirs as frequently because he doesn’t want to leave his mother alone.
She rubs her hand over his back, her mind travelling away as her eyes remain on the projected stars and planets in front of her; wondering about Luis in his first month at college, wondering whether she should be grateful for her boys and the way they’ve practically adopted Jake, wondering whether she should be concerned for him instead. Perhaps both.
A tap at her leg draws her attention back into the room. It’s Amy, looking up expectantly at her.
“Is he okay?” She asks in a whisper.
“Yes, Mija, he’s okay. Just a tummy ache,” she smiles across at her daughter, who continues, nevertheless, to watch on expectantly. That same maturity remains in her face, emphasised every day by her ever-increasing height. Much to Jake’s dismay, she’s just that little bit taller than him. “Don’t worry. Go watch the show.”
“I’ll watch it here,” Amy responds simply, clambering up onto the bench where her mother sits. She glances at her back, getting a closer look at Jake. “He’s asleep,” she informs her mother quietly.
In the darkness, Isabel almost jumps when she feels a hand on her shoulder, turning round quickly. Her chest fills with warmth when she sees her daughter gently interlacing her fingers in those of the boy sleeping on her chest.
“He tried really hard, today, I think, today,” Amy murmurs thoughtfully, briefly looking at him before redirecting her gaze to the space show in front of them- she doesn’t take her hand from his, however, quite firm in her choice.
“He did,” Isabel agrees, thinking about how well-behaved he’s been all morning. He’s not been quiet, not by any means- he never is- but he’s followed the guides, only lost the group once, and, particularly after last year, made sure he was on Amy’s team during the games; Isabel could swear she even heard talk of a truce.
“He had a tummy ache at school, the other day, too.”
“Yeah.” She looks back at her. “He ate loads of gummy worms on a bet and threw up. I told him he had it coming,” she admits, her voice half-regretful and half-matter-of-fact.
Gently, Isabel feels her daughter squeeze the hand she holds on her shoulder.
“I think, this time, instead…” Her face scrunches up in thought, dark eyes focused on her friend. “I’ll make him a get better card.”
Warmth floods Isabel’s heart in a tide of admiration, fondness, and love for her daughter. Maybe it’s the potential- almost certain- pregnancy. Maybe she just adores the friendship these two have, will hopefully always have.
“That’s a wonderful idea, Mija.”
Amy smiles at her, before her eyes return to her friend.
She doesn’t stop holding his hand for the entire space show, not even when he momentarily wakes up, shifting position slightly where she holds him.
Only when the show eventually comes to an end and the lights come on does Amy pull her fingers from his. Any doubts residing in Isabel’s head about whether he’d really been awake, aware of her, completely disappear when she watches him immediately attach himself to Amy after he wakes up, grinning, laughing, talking to her about his dream.
She’s too old for the tunic now.
In the reflective glass walls of the dark observatory, lit only by the dotted glowing stars above, Amy observes her new dress carefully. It’s black, long-sleeved, floating around her bare knees- totally plain, apart from a little crescent moon on the breast pocket, which, to her absolute delight, glows in the dark.
Julian sent it as a birthday present, all the way from grad school- it’s easily her favourite present, up against the glow-in-the-dark stars Luis sent from college, the science set from Hugo and his girlfriend, and even the huge set of Babysitter’s Club books gifted from her still-at-home family. A little guilt hits her as she considers these other presents- they were all just as good, she decides contentedly, thinking warmly of the little card signed by her parents, Raf, and all her little brothers- even the newly-arrived Edgar, a tiny scrawl in the corner. She’ll treasure it forever.
The Milky Way Walk has always been her favourite part of the tour, and she knows it off by heart now- first, you get to see the Big Bang, lights shooting all over the floor, and as you follow the information guides on the wall, you can see the first stars, exploding in bursts of colour on the ceiling. Then it’s planets, and galaxies, and milky ways, and by the time you’ve reached the end of the walk you’ve watched the earth form, and the timeline of humans’ space exploration!
Amy’s heart warms at the thought of it, stood here, waiting patiently amongst the other children for the guide to begin the walk. She stands at the very front of the group, at the guide’s feet, bubbling over with excitement. Everyone chats excitedly, a hubbub of children’s voices- one sticking out from the rest:
“And that’s when the rebellion happened, and there was the Galactic Civil War! Mom got me a comic which had this super cool picture of one of the ships…”
Amy rolls her eyes. He’s not stopped blabbing about Star Wars since he walked through the doors. Over the last couple of months it’s become so deeply ingrained in his life that it’s essentially now a whole new facet of his personality, every other sentence containing phrases like jedi, or death star, or light saber.
“Ssh,” she finds herself hushing him almost instinctively- he ignores her, obviously, used to her authoritative approach towards him in their day-to-day lives.
“Okay, everyone- I think that’s all of us! If you’ll follow me,” their tour guide pipes up, and Amy actually has to stop herself from yelling with excitement.
The guide, a young man, opens the doors and the cluster of children follows him eagerly, Amy still at the front of the pack. “If we all stop here, I’d like you guys to look up,” the guide asks, and Amy feels her heart jump in her chest- this is one of her favourite moments, even though it’s at the very start. Her eyes go straight to the ceiling, where projected lights explode into a shooting kaleidoscope of colour and trickle over the walls.
“There’s an explosion just like that in The Empire Strikes Back, with a ship,” Jake’s already murmuring behind her, “do you remember, Ames? D’you remember?” He’s prodding her shoulder with his finger, whispering urgently behind her.
“Jake, ssh!” She spins around, desperation in her voice as she urges him to quieten down. “Stop with the Star Wars, okay?”
“Hey, why?” His face falls. “It’s way more cooler than this stuff.”
“It’s ‘way cooler’, or ‘more cool’, not ‘way more cooler’,” she corrects him in a whisper, ignoring him as he rolls his eyes, “and besides, you’re wrong. This stuff is actually real.”
“So what? Real doesn’t mean it’s fun,” he insists, fidgeting as he bops on and off the balls of his feet. The group has moved on, Amy’s mother glancing over at them concernedly from ahead.
“Does too!” She retorts. “See that?” She points up at the lights flying around the ceiling. “That’s still happening now, everything’s all going out still. I read it. It’s expanding.”
“Huh?” His tone remains indignant, but it’s open- he’s interested.
“Look, c’mon,” Amy tuts, dragging him over to the display by his arm. “Do you know about the periodic table?”
“Yeah,” he says, obviously lying.
“Well, the elements on that came from this. Luis showed me. They make up everything.”
There’s a small pause.
He takes a moment to consider this, his face deep in thought.
“Could I go?”
“What, to space?”
“Uh-huh.” He’s lost in the interactive elements of the wall, fiddling with lights and flaps and reading the information inside. He’s always been easily distracted.
“Sure, if you become an astronaut.”
“What about…” he thinks out loud, “what about as a space pilot?” He gasps. “Or a jedi!”
“Jake, they’re not…” she starts to correct him, tell him off for the Star Wars reference, but he’s not paying attention, and, for the most part, he’s actually intrigued and enjoying what she’s saying. This feeling, of him enjoying what she knows and listening to her, roots itself deep in her chest. She’d rather do anything than let it go. “Sure, like a jedi.”
“Cool,” Jake grins. “What about these?”
“Oh!” She can’t help but beam at his asking her a question. “Those are different types of star,” she says proudly.
“I like this one.”
“That’s a red giant.”
“Red giant,” he repeats quietly. “C’mon, let’s follow them.” He starts off down a small passageway leading out of the walk.
“Jake! We need to follow the guide,” she urges, but he’s already disappeared.
An anxious wrench in her stomach, desperate not to break the rules, tells her not to- but she follows him nonetheless. When she catches up with him, he’s tracing the stars on the walls with his fingers, following them carefully and noting each name, occasionally turning back to ask her about them. This relaxes her; breaking the rules is not something with which she is familiar, but these stars, this planetarium, are her place, proof that she knows things too.
“What?” A little embarrassment fills her tummy when she hears the caution in her voice.
“Is this the shuttle replica?!”
It is, she thinks, and they’re definitely not supposed to use it- but he’s already running towards it, and she knows he won’t listen if she tells him no.
So instead, she follows, making no objections whatsoever.
Quietly, so as not to attract the attention of a passing guide or stranger, she tiptoes past a group of people and opens the door to the space shuttle replica.
The door flies open so hard she almost jumps.
“C’mon, you can be my second in command.”
“Huh?” His face falls.
“I’m…” she pauses, “I’m not coming up unless I get to be captain. Deal?”
He chews his lip for a second, then throws out his hand.
Happily, she slides her hand into his, and climbs in.
“So- college plans?”
For two reasons, Rafael would actually rather melt into the floor than answer this question. First off- he doesn’t know, okay? At present, his interests are comprised of the following: his boyfriend, Oliver, watching TV, and working at Oliver’s dad’s bar downtown. Academia isn’t exactly on the table.
Secondly, he’s been trying desperately, all morning, to watch his sister and her friend Jake, under strict instruction from both his mother and his older brother Luis, visiting from college. After last year’s missing-kids-in-the-space-shuttle-replica incident, during which, at one point, it seemed that the police were about to be called, this is hardly a surprise; together, these kids are an absolute liability.
Thankfully, right now, they’re chatting happily at the lunch table. They’re surrounded by other kids, but Raf hasn’t seen them talk to anyone except each other for at least a solid fifteen minutes- which, as any member of the Santiago clan will know- is quite a feat for a kid as easily distracted as Jake.
“I’m not sure,” he finds himself replying to the man stood in front of him, the parent of one of Amy’s friends, relaying the same sentences he does to any other adult who asks him this as if on autopilot- “I think I’ll take a year out, save some money, travel a little, figure out where I want to go.”
“Good for you,” is the ever-so-slightly-patronising response this man gives him, before a brusque pat on the back.
Raf looks urgently across the room at his mother, a cry for help- she dashes over as quickly as she can, not needing to be told twice.
“Steve,” she interrupts, stealing this father’s attention, “I have to show you some of the pictures we got of your sweet daughter on the Milky Way Walk…”
Within seconds, she’s guiding him away, and Raf can inhale a deep breath, recalibrate after the mindless interrogation that’s filled his last ten minutes. Even now, after the birth of her seventh (and, she swears, last) son, Edgar, Raf finds himself in complete awe of his mother’s ability as a maternal figure.
“Hey,” Luis approaches him, a plastic cup filled with lemonade balanaced in his hand. “Y’okay?”
“Yeah,” Raf smiles at his older brother, and means it, genuinely glad that he’s got him here helping with the party. Hugo is around here somewhere, too- being a part of Amy’s planetarium birthday parties has become something of an honour within the family. This year, she’s even allowed seven-year old Marco to join in, who’s currently sat at the table amongst her friends, happily munching on a homemade sandwich.
“How’s Amy-and-Jake duty?” Luis asks, his gaze following Raf’s.
“Surprisingly uneventful,” he replies, “they’ve just been talking the whole afternoon.”
“I have to say, I was expecting something more exciting, after the last few incidents,” Raf grins, and Luis chuckles in agreement. “I can’t believe they managed to find the replica by themselves last year.”
“This could sound wildly premature, but,” Luis says slowly, “d’you kinda hope they’ll end up in love with each other?”
“He’d be all scrappy and disorganised, drive her insane…”
“And she’d be totally uptight and adorable.”
“They’d definitely be cute together,” Luis smiles.
“Wanna bet on it?” Raf grins. “Ten bucks says they get together next year.”
“Are you serious? They’re ten years old,” Luis says indignantly. “I’ll bet on fourteen.”
“Fourteen? Are you kidding? Look at them!”
He gestures over to them, where Amy is giggling hysterically at a face Jake is pulling, clearly an impression or a joke meant just for the two of them. Her cheeks are bright red, dimples forming, emphasised by how far back her long dark hair has been pulled.
“I’m sticking with it. I think Amy’s too stubborn for it to be any earlier,” Luis says proudly.
“Too stubborn for what?” asks an inquisitive Hugo, appearing next to Luis, clearly unentertained by his duty as Snacks Manager, instead resorting to speaking to his brothers.
“We’re betting on when Amy and Jake will end up together,” Raf says casually- “I’ve got ten bucks on eleven. Luis has ten on fourteen.”
“Hey! I never bet any money,” Luis replies.
“I want thirty bucks on twelve,” Hugo says easily, without hesitation, looking over at his younger sister.
“Thirty?!” Raf can’t keep the shock out of his voice.
“Yeah,” Hugo replies, through a mouthful of chips. “Wait, is there a limit?”
“No way, not if we’re talking this much money.”
“I’m thinking we put this on the Santiago family email chain,” Luis beams. “Get everyone to put money into the pot.”
Raf and Hugo both laugh at this, but all of them are clearly excited by it- Amy and Jake are inseparable, and Jake spends almost all his time at their house. It’s only a matter of time, Raf thinks, looking at them as they smile toothily at each other, having now completely abandoned their food.
“Yes,” Raf enthuses, chuckling a little, “that’s an incredible idea.”
As Hugo and Luis continue chatting, he watches his little sister, playfully nudging the curly-haired, wide-smiled boy sat in front of her, a huge beam on her face, as if she’ll burst into giggles again any second. He thinks about this boy, who is somehow able, single-handedly, to melt the heart of the most stubborn and strong-willed Santiago he knows. He thinks about his bet, and if there’s a shot in hell that they’ll be an item this time next year.
No doubt about it, he thinks- he’s got this one in the bag.
“Another successful year, Mija?”
“Another successful year, mom,” Amy agrees, leaning into her mother’s torso in response to her warm hand against her shoulder.
They’re stood outside the planetarium, next to two huge bags full of her presents from her friends, watching the last few kids go and get picked up. That autumnal chill with which Amy so strongly associates her birthday is in the air, and darkness is creeping into the sky, just a little too early- combined with the red and orange leaves that skim the ground and skip over her feet, it’s the perfect end to a perfect day.
Her mother smiles down at her with those dark, kind Santiago eyes and runs a hand through her hair. Amy’s exhausted heart swells with joy; it’s been an amazing day, filled with all her favourite activities- aside from the new worksheets they get to use now they’re all a little older, which she happens to love anyway.
“I’m going to go and say goodbye to Elisa’s mom,” Isabel explains to her daughter, giving her a final pat on the back and heading off into the parking lot, leaving Amy stood by the entrance with her presents.
Normally, she wouldn’t bother looking at her presents before she’s allowed to open them, knowing that she’d only have to fight temptation if she did, but today, slipping open the slits of the bags carefully, she can’t resist but to take a sneak peek.
Shiny, sparkly, and patterned wrapping paper decorates presents of all different shapes and sizes, each with a label or a birthday card taped onto the front. Taking in each one carefully, Amy notes how well they’ve been wrapped, and tries to analyse the handwriting, see if she recognises any of them as belonging to her friends.
Jake’s voice startles her. She jumps away from the presents.
“I wasn’t going to open them,” she says quickly, as if on autopilot, deathly afraid of getting into trouble.
“I know, dummy,” Jake chirps dismissively. “Here’s mine, by the way.”
He opens out his hands and presents her with the scruffiest-looking present she’s ever seen- ‘present’ being a loosely-used term, of course, given that there’s no way in hell she’d be able to tell exactly what it is that’s inside; the wrapping paper (red, with little white rockets, for the record) juts out in several different directions, bits of tape plastered around the sides so it’s virtually impossible to open.
“I picked it myself,” he says proudly after a moment of her observing it carefully. She looks over at him and finds herself smiling.
It’s not perfectly wrapped- in fact, it’s a total mess. It’s ten times smaller than any of her other presents, and weighs virtually nothing. It’s completely him, and she already loves it, no matter what’s inside.
“I want to open it,” she murmurs softly. “Really badly.”
“You do?” He grins. “It’s not that great.”
“Yeah,” she says, giving in to the smile he’s evoked from her. “But I’m not allowed yet.” Despite this, she doesn’t move, fixated on the present in her hands.
“No, no, that’s not true,” Jake corrects her after a second- “you’re not allowed to open the ones in the bags. You only just got this one now. And, my mom got you a bigger present anyway so you could definitely open my one if you wanted.”
“D’you think?” Amy asks quietly, glancing around the parking lot for a moment, worried she’ll see her mother.
“One-hundred percent. No diggity no doubt.”
She won’t deny the slight thrill in what she thinks could be breaking the rules, even though she’s almost certain that her mother wouldn’t mind.
In a slight struggle against the seemingly endless tape Jake’s used on this thing, she finds herself putting a good amount of strength into opening it, tugging at the paper and biting at the tape in an effort to get it open. To her surprise, as Jake watches on, he’s not as much amused as he seems interested, as if apprehensive of her response to the gift. Eventually, she makes a hole in the paper, and manages to pull it open.
Inside is a small book, and a little card.
“I got everything with my allowance,” he says proudly, “even the wrapping.”
In a little wriggle she pulls the book from the paper- it’s a sudoku puzzle book, an adult one, just like the ones she’s seen on the magazine racks in the store. The pages are crisp- the smell of new paper wafts upwards as she flicks through it, observing the hundreds of puzzles it offers.
“Jake, this is great!” She grins over at him excitedly, and she swears for a moment she sees him blush, a proud smile on his face.
Carefully, she takes the card, a little note, covered in his familiar scrawls of handwriting.
happy birthday! Your planetairium parties are my favorite part of the year, and even though you can be annoying, youre fun and smart and pretty too. Im glad youre my friend. Ummmmmmm. I dont know what else to write so I found you some space jokes!
How do you organise a party in space? You planet!
What ’s an astronaut ’s favourite key? The space bar!
Why did the sun go to school? To get brighter!
What music do planets like? Neptunes!
Where do you pay for parking in space? The parking meteor!
There’s only one spelling mistake.
This is the first thing she notices when she’s reading it- and it’s a pretty spectacular revelation for the work of someone like Jake. He’s even drawn, in pencil, lines for himself to write on so that his sentences stay straight. The handwriting is in scrawls, yes, but the neatest scrawls she’s ever seen.
She must be staring at this note for a little while, because eventually his voice comes, tinged with a worried concern at her lack of response.
“D’you like it?”
She’s bubbling over with excitement and fondness for her best friend, and she knows she won’t admit it tomorrow- so, in reply, she simply turns to him and pulls him into a short hug.
“I love it. Thank you, Jake,” she says into his shoulder.
That autumnal breeze comes once more- but this time, it doesn’t affect her, warm in her friend’s arms. They pull away after a moment or two.
She’s not sure where it comes from, but she moves in on instinct, and presses a little kiss against his cheek.
He freezes up, clearly completely uncertain of how to respond. Confidently, she feels herself smiling at him.
For just a second, they look at each other, and she sees the glimmer of a smile grace his lips, his eyes surprised and excited and shocked.
“I’ve gotta meet my mom,” he says quickly. “Seeya!”
And with that, he’s bolted, running off into the parking lot to meet his mom.
All Amy can do is smile.
“Julian, you’re lying.” Luis snaps at his older brother.
For the first time in history, every member of the Santiago clan is attending Amy’s birthday party. Lined up against the wall, watching their little sister, are Julian, Hugo, Luis, Raf, and even Marco, who, at nine years old, quite clearly just wants to hang out with his older brothers. Little Daniel, now five, runs around in the play area, while the youngest, Edgar, remains asleep in his stroller, clearly uninterested in his first invitation to Amy’s birthday. Even Victor’s here, a recent promotion meaning he’s able to attend Amy’s party for the first time since she was five.
It’s rare, nowadays, that the whole family is brought together- Julian, at twenty-six, is settled into his life as a lawyer in New York. Hugo, at twenty-four, is engaged. Luis, twenty-two, is scouting out grad schools. At twenty, Raf spends most of his time travelling. However, as of late, within the family there seems to be one particularly unifying force, stronger than any plate of Isabel’s cooking or game of cops and robbers.
Namely, the relationship between Amy and Jake.
“I swear! She whispered something in his ear, literally a second ago!” Julian insists, watching his little sister intently.
After Isabel caught Amy giving Jake a peck on the cheek last year, the obsession with the bet blown itself out of proportion.
“Whatever, it’s not like ear-whispering even counts as anything, anyway,” Hugo mutters dismissively. “Our bets only count on the specific things we’ve listed. A kiss, a hug, calling each other boyfriend and girlfriend, all that stuff. If it’s on the email chain, it counts.”
“Woah, woah, woah!” Raf interrupts, “if a kiss counts, then where are my winnings for last year?! I was the one who bet they’d get together at her 11th.”
This creates a dismissive hubbub of disagreement, mutters of no way and whatever creating a wall of Santiago-sound.
“A kiss on the cheek isn’t the same thing as an actual kiss,” Luis says straightforwardly. “And they didn’t get together.”
“Luis?” Marco tugs at his older brother’s shirt sleeve. “How much do I get if they kiss today?”
“Well, you only had two bucks to bet, little man, so not too much.” Luis explains. Marco looks slightly put out, though the blow is seemingly softened by the endearing nickname. “Hey, why don’t you go play? I’ll add a dollar or two to your bet and tell you if you win.”
Marco grins, baring a set of slightly wonky, gapped teeth, then dashes off to play with the others.
In the crowd of kids, all chatting and walking around the exhibits, Jake and Amy have split apart- Amy’s explaining the constellations to a girl in her class and Jake is giggling with an excited Daniel, who’s pulling on the sleeves of his shirt then running away and hiding. Jake plays along happily, feigning shock whenever Daniel ‘reappears’.
“This is futile,” Julian mutters, “they’re not even talking! Jake’s just playing with Daniel. Maybe I should-” He moves forward, clearly about to pull his five-year-old brother away from Jake, but Raf pulls him back.
“I’ve tried, but he’s obsessed with Jake,” Raf explains, rolling his eyes. “I think this year could be a bust.”
“Nothing yet?” Victor’s voice, despite discussing something rather trivial, somehow retains its authority and command as he approaches them.
“Nothing,” Hugo affirms.
“Your grandmother placed a bet this morning,” he offers, raising his eyebrows. “Forty bucks on Amy opening Jake’s present last.”
This evokes another small chorus of uhm-ing and ah-ing.
“Man, that’s a good one,” Luis remarks.
“She still hasn’t let go of that note he gave her last year,” Hugo adds.
“Is that the one on her desk?” Raf asks, in response to which he receives several nods.
They stay this way, chattering and discussing their little Amy, who isn’t so little any more, watching her and Jake. There’s nothing, all afternoon, aside from an occasional glance or a smile. Luis has to be reminded, repeatedly, that these glances do not count as anything involved in their bet. It’s not until the final moments of the party that there seems to be any hope.
“Wait, look!” Victor shushes his sons and points at his daughter, completely unashamed of his intense involvement in this bet.
As Jake walks out, he hands Amy a little gift and a card, incredibly neatly wrapped. He stops in front of her- they seem to be talking, because Amy’s face lights up, animated by the laughter he elicits from her.
A call, Karen’s voice, comes for Jake from outside the main door.
He pauses, turning to Amy.
But there’s no hug, no kiss, no mutter of boyfriend or girlfriend.
Instead, they share a shy smile, and with that, he’s gone.
Victor and his sons descend into frustrated chaos, cursing the bet and all its mega-specific conditions. All apart from Marco, that is, who ends up spotting the movement that becomes part of the bet, the movement that becomes the tell-tale sign that Amy’s got a crush.
Looking down at the gift Jake’s given her as she puts it away, she can’t seem to wipe the smile off her face.
Stood in the doorway, she watches Karen’s car pull out of the parking lot, and, still smiling, tucks her hair behind both of her ears.
That evening, every single member of the Santiago family argues over placing a bet on next year’s double tuck.
The anxiety and hurt gnawing in Amy’s tummy is only exacerbated when she’s faced, visually, with the reality of her thirteenth birthday, walking through the doors and only seeing one person- and all seven of her brothers- waiting inside.
When she found out that Lola Norton’s birthday party was the same day as hers, and she realised that pretty much everyone she’d invited would go there instead, she’d been able to kid herself that it was okay. She’d have her brothers, and whichever friends wanted to come.
So what? The exhibits would feel a little quieter. The Milky Way Walk wouldn’t need explaining to anyone. Only she’d want to visit the replica. It’s not a big deal.
But right here, right now, she could cry.
This is partially due to humiliation, and partially due to the love swelling within her for her family. Her brothers are all waiting happily in the atrium, smiling at her in a way that she just hates, because they know, they all know that she’s going to be alone. And they pity her. Her throat swells awkwardly, painfully, and she’d rather do anything else, but she’s practically certain she’s about to start crying.
“Is it just us?” She manages.
“So far, yes,” Luis says softly, smiling a little apologetically at his sister. “We can wait, though- there’s still time for people to arrive.”
“No, it’s okay,” she murmurs, “I’d rather just start and enjoy my day with you guys.” She smiles back at her older brother, who in turn pulls her into a brief embrace.
A loud clattering from the main entrance, however, startles Amy out of her skin.
Pulling away from Luis, she turns to see Jake, who’s dragging a huge box through the entrance by himself. Hugo and Raf dash over to help him as soon as they spot him.
“Hey! Sorry I’m later than I said I’d be, uh, oh-” he exclaims cheerfully, pausing as he stumbles a little, the weight of the box behind him lifted. “I didn’t really think about getting this thing out of mom’s car and into here by myself.”
“Is that for me?”
“No, Amy, I just thought I’d bring this massive box here for fun.”
He grins over at Amy, cheeks bright red with exhaustion, and instantaneously, her mood is lifted, joy seeping through her. At full force, she throws herself over him, pulling him into a huge hug.
“Woah, okay,” he mumbles into her neck. The unfamiliar reverberation of his newly broken voice an odd sensation against her, but she doesn’t care.
“We’ve got the whole place to ourselves,” Amy says excitedly.
“D’you want your present?”
Amy glances back at her family, all of whom nod back at her. Excitement bubbles over in her tummy- this is the first time she’s ever been allowed to open a present before the party’s ended.
She digs her fingers into the wrapping paper, and tears it off in long strips, to reveal a big, official-looking white box.
“Oh my god! Jake! This is incredible!”
In front of her is an official National Geographic telescope, one of the expensive ones- she’d know- with a little card wedged onto the top.
“You like it?”
“I love it,” she says, and part of her wants to cry again, purely from the overwhelming love for her best friend. Instead, she gives him another brief hug.
“So we have this place to ourselves?”
“I was thinking we go to the replica first.”
“Sounds like a plan!”
They start off, the rest of the world having totally disappeared around them.
“Woah! Hey!” Julian interjects. “Where’re you guys going?”
“C’mon, Julian,” Amy pleads, “I’m thirteen, not six. Can’t we go by ourselves?”
His eyes dart between the two of them- quickly, he looks back at the rest of the family, all of whom seem to give him a firm nod, a knowing look.
“Go,” he smiles.
And with that, they’re gone, running through the lilacs and blues of the starry hallways, straight back to their favourite place.
“This is so awesome, having it all to ourselves,” Jake enthuses, clambering up into the replica.
“I know, right?”
“M’lady?” Jake offers her his hand, which, without hesitation, she takes, and he pulls her into the shuttle.
“Remember when we stayed here all afternoon and my mom almost called the police?” Amy says quietly, observing the interior of the shuttle, the flashing buttons and levers, as if it were yesterday.
“Duh,” Jake replies, kicking back as he relaxes into one of the seats.
“I think the planetarium is a pretty cool place for a birthday party,” Amy says quietly, more to herself than anyone else, as if reassuring herself that this is okay, this is good- it’s not Lola Norton’s pool party, but it’s hers, and it’s perfect.
“Are you kidding? Your party is like, my favourite day of the year.”
Amy just laughs.
“What about your birthday?”
“Eh,” Jake says dismissively, “I have to split it between mom and dad.”
“Same thing, pretty much.”
Amy sits herself down in the chair next to him, so they’re both facing the window, behind which is a screen covered in stars, glowing softly so that you might just believe you’re flying.
“So, my birthday is the best day of the year,” Amy chuckles, looking over at him.
“Totally,” Jake laughs, staring right back at her. “I get to spend the whole day with you.”
Words of gratitude fill Amy’s mind when they don’t look away from each other- despite the cool room she can feel her cheeks start to burn. He doesn’t seem so jeeringly confident, staring over at her like this. Then again, she doesn’t feel like such a smartass, and probably doesn’t look it, either.
The wait is painfully slow as they move towards each other, and then her nose bumps against his, and her heart’s racing in her chest so hard she’s almost embarrassed, because surely he can hear it-
And then he’s kissing her.
To anyone else, it might not seem like anything special, a simple pressing of lips against each other- but for Amy’s first kiss, it’s the moon, the stars, and the sun, all at once, butterflies soaring wildly in her stomach, fizzing and popping all at once. Her toes curl in the ends of her converse.
They stay this way forever, or so it might seem- because when a tiny gasp comes from the door of the shuttle, and Amy pulls away in shock, she feels dizzy, only then realising that she’s been holding her breath.
“Amy and Jake KISSED!” Daniel beams, laughing in disbelief.
“Daniel, no-” Amy starts, but her brother is already sprinting down the hall back towards the entrance.
Eventually, she turns back to Jake, who, though a little shocked, seems relatively unfazed, only able to offer one observation:
“Well, I mean, he’s not wrong.”
With her fingers buried deep in the tousled, curly hair of Jake Peralta, tugging softly as he pulls her closer by the waist, deepening their kiss, Amy Santiago finds herself immensely thankful that Jake is the only person she invited to her birthday party this year.
She’s pretty sure one of the staff members has seen them making out in basically every part of the planetarium- namely, a teenage boy with an odd look of confusion and disgust on his face- but something tells her they don’t care, used to her birthday parties and not willing to lose an annual customer of the party booking fee.
The space show comes to an end, and the lights come up, bringing them into harsh view. Amy pulls away hurriedly, trying not to giggle when she sees a smudge of sparkly lip gloss on the corner of Jake’s mouth. She knew that stuff was a bad idea.
“C’mon, let’s go to the replica,” she says, grabbing his hand and pulling him out of the mini-cinema before any staff members can say anything.
“Uh, Ames,” Jake’s voice comes, a little uncertain, as he follows her down the hallway. “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” she replies happily.
“Is this a date?”
“No, stupid, it’s my birthday party.”
“But, uh- and I’m not complaining, but- it’s just us.”
“Yeah, because you’re the only person I wanted to come.”
“Yeah,” she says, stopping in the middle of the hallway, the beginnings of doubt creeping into her system. “Why, is that bad?”
“No, no way,” Jake replies, “it’s just…”
“Well, we kissed last year.”
“Yeah, I know, I was there,” she says when he doesn’t explain himself.
“We haven’t kissed since then!”
“Well… no! It was too awkward,” Amy says, brows furrowed, as if it all makes perfect sense to her. “My brother interrupted us.”
“Sure, but then we never even talked about it!”
“I kind of figured the planetarium was our kissing place,” Amy shrugs, “it’s just us, and we know it so well, and nobody we know comes here. Plus, it’s my birthday.” She starts to walk to the replica again.
“Huh… I guess so,” Jake reasons, following her down the hallway.
With ease, they clamber into the shuttle, which feels a hell of a lot smaller since their first adventure here aged nine.
“Is Kylie okay with it just being me invited today?” Jake asks after a little while, once they’ve settled into their usual seats, watching the stars.
“Yeah,” Amy says casually. “She actually wanted me to just invite you.”
“What?! She hates me!”
“Does not,” Amy rolls her eyes.
“She’s banned me from being on your team in the homeroom quiz.”
“That’s because you suck at trivia.”
“She’s always looking at me like I’m about to do something weird to you.”
“I think she’s just protective,” Amy shrugs.
Amy looks at him as if to say seriously? And then, realising he really doesn’t see it, she resigns a little.
“She’s had to listen to me blab about how much I like you for a year, so yeah, I’d say so.” She says it simply, but her heart’s pounding in her chest.
He just looks at her, his eyes softening into something she can’t quite describe, dark and intent and far beyond his years.
“Maybe… we could make every place our kissing place.”
“Huh?” Amy looks at him oddly.
“That was meant to be a lot smoother,” he half-laughs. “I was trying to ask you if you wanted to date me.”
“Really?” Her voice is small.
“Yeah,” he says, a shot of panic injected into his tone at her slight response, “only if that’s okay. I promise I’ll stop making fun of your binders. Mostly.”
“I don’t care about the binders,” she laughs, leaning forward and kissing him sweetly.
“Is that a yes?”
“That’s a yes.”
“You want me to give you a tour?!”
Jake looks back at Amy, eyes wide, hoping he seems marginally unprepared rather than the truth: completely and totally panicked.
“But I don’t know this place half as well as you.”
“Jake, are you kidding? It’s our ninth year here for my birthday.” She half-laughs at his attempts to wriggle out of it. “Just wing it, I bet you know this place way better than you think.”
“Uh, right…” Jake straightens himself up a little, and looks around the atrium, hoping for a signpost, but only seeing a few tall hallways, all lit up perfectly with the familiar cool-toned swirls and glowing stars which he’s so used to. “Okay, okay, okay. Cool. Let’s do this.”
He offers her his arm, into which she slips her own, smiling softly over at him.
“Just down this way,” he begins, choosing a hallway at random, “you’ll find the… uh… superstar magic trail… walk… path.”
Amy snorts, and even though he knows it’s because he looks like an ass, he doesn’t care, his chest swelling at the glorious sound of her laughter.
“This amazing path shows us just how much space has to offer! You’ve got your… uh, big shiny bastards…”
“Supernova,” Amy says quietly, a smile still plastered onto her face.
“If you’d please refrain from interrupting your tour guide,” he says smoothly, and immediately she’s giggling again. “Next up are the big scary boomers, named after the generation which tore apart our economy. I learnt that in history. Much like baby boomers, these stars enjoy complaining about the younger stars and hanging around in space lookin’ all old until they fizzle out and become… small scary boomers.”
“Right, sure,” Amy nods along.
“Quick science lesson,” he adds, “these are only even here because of something we call the big bang theory-”
“Woah, did you just say something correct?”
“- which is a heavily overrated TV show that I can’t convince my mom to stop watching.”
“There it is.”
“What’s really exciting about all this is, as you can see,” he explains, as they walk under the constellations, “the stars sometimes make fun shapes for total nerds to get excited over.” He grins.
Amy shoves him in the ribs, hard, but her smirk doesn’t fade.
“You’ve got your Little Dipper, the Big Bear, your Parrot-”
“and… uh… wait! Oh my god, I know that one!”
“The Ursa Minor! That’s your favourite, right?!”
“Yeah,” Amy replies quietly, her whole face spreading out into a beam. “I can’t believe you remembered that.”
“Are you kidding? You showed me on your thirteenth birthday, after-”
“After we kissed for the first time, yeah, I remember,” she says, her smile not faltering, not for a second. “D’you really not know what half this stuff is?”
“Well, no,” he replies, as if it’s obvious- “Every single year we’ve been here I’ve spent my time trying to get your attention.”
She doesn’t reply to this, instead cupping his cheek with a warm hand and giving him a long, soft kiss.
“I want more of this tour.”
“If less than five minutes of it gets me parrots, ‘big boomers’, and a reference to a sitcom, then I definitely want more.”
“Works with me,” he says, starting to walk again, “although I have to admit, I thought you’d be more impressed that I remembered your favourite constellation.”
“Oh trust me, I am. Your reward for that is waiting at the back of the space show in the form of a long makeout session,” she grins, “but only if I get the rest of this tour.”
Jake looks at her for a minute, eyes wide, almost in disbelief that a girl this incredible would want him- but mostly in anticipation of the fact that he’s going to spend the rest of his day doing his favourite thing: kissing her.
“Okay, let’s get moving!”
She laughs as he moves on briskly.
“So what’s next, planetarium expert?”
“Get yourself excited, because it’s time to see a replica of a super big tin can that somehow got shot into space.”
“The space shuttle?!”
“Hey, Nigel,” Amy replies, waving at the planetarium’s manager as she enters for her birthday for the tenth year in a row. “I hope Debra’s feeling a little better!”
Nigel smiles warmly, his eyes crinkling slightly in that way Amy loves, as she walks past, hand in hand with her boyfriend.
“His wife. She got the flu a few weeks back.”
“Right,” Jake grins, watching his girlfriend admiringly.
“Okay, so, where first?” Amy asks when they finally come to a stop in the middle of the atrium, looking round at the hallways on offer.
“Ah, actually,” Jake pulls at her arm, “I’ve actually got us access to a kind of special exhibit this year.”
“What do you mean? They don’t have special exhibits,” she says matter-of-factly.
“They do today. C’mon,” he says, guiding her towards the front of the building.
“What, are we leaving? I told you, we don’t have to come here for a tenth time, I’m totally happy to go somewhere else,” she urges, though she sounds a little put out.
“Don’t be stupid,” he says, stopping in his tracks, “as if I’d want to be anywhere but here.”
She grins at this, tucking her hair behind her ears- exactly how he knows he’s said the right thing.
“Alright, fine,” she gives in, “I trust you.”
“Come this way.”
They walk towards the ticket office, then straight past it, into a small hallway Amy doesn’t recognise- which is when she realises where they are.
“This is for staff only!”
“Jake, seriously, just be careful, they already let us get away with so much here…”
Jake clicks open the door to the staff room, and Amy half expects to see a room filled with confused or disapproving faces- but instead, she sees complete darkness. Except, that is, for a narrow path on the floor, illuminated by white fairy lights.
“What is this?” She asks quietly as they step inside.
Jake stays quiet as they begin to follow the path. They only walk a few meters before he stops her. Amy doesn’t bother asking what’s going on, now completely engrossed in the white-blue dimly lighting their faces.
All at once, fairy lights of hundreds of different colours illuminate the room in waves, an explosion of colour and light. It’s incredible, almost impossible that there should be this many lights in one room- if not a huge fire hazard, anyway. It’s at this point she realises they’re in the staff room- the brief waves of light reveal small, stocky couches, a mini fridge, and a little coffee table, all of which are now adorned in lights, sequentially taped along their surfaces.
“Jake, this is beautiful. Did you do this?”
He nods, but he seems preoccupied, looking anxiously around the room for something else.
“Now!” He almost jumps, pointing upwards.
Always a fan of doing as she’s told, Amy looks up.
Across the ceiling, in amongst the waves of colour from the fairy lights, are a set of glow in the dark stars, which spell out, quite simply: P R O M ?
Hand still in Jake’s, sweetness bubbles in Amy’s lungs, spilling over until she finds herself giggling, partially in disbelief of the sheer effort this must have taken him for something so cliché, and partially from complete, unhindered happiness.
She must be laughing for just a second too long, because when she turns back to look at Jake he looks a little concerned.
“No, no, of course I’ll go to prom with you,” she smiles, pressing kisses over his lips and his jaw appreciatively. “Cheeseball.”
“Oh thank god,” he laughs relievedly, “I won’t lie, your giggling kind of freaked me out.”
“I’m just… I’m really happy,” she says, “and I love you. So much.”
Inwardly she prays, as she looks up at him, that he’ll know that this love isn’t just romantic, or new- it’s everything from his friendship, to his bad habits, to that wide, toothy smile, to the time that he lost the moon rocks relay aged seven.
When he smiles softly back at her, she knows he does.
“I love you too.”
“Is everything okay? Is it Holt?”
Jake looks over from the driver’s seat to Amy’s phone, buzzing repeatedly on the dashboard.
“Nope,” she says, checking her phone, rolling her eyes and putting it back. “It’s John, again.”
“Y’know, for a landlord, he’s like… exceedingly creepy.”
“Right?! He never leaves us alone! Always complaining about the noise. I just don’t get it,” she says, looking sadly at her phone. “I’m such a good tenant. I was voted Most Respectful in my college dorm!”
“I remember the email announcement,” Jake smirks.
“Just ignore him. We’re almost at your parents’.” With his free hand, he gives her wrist a small squeeze. She smiles back appreciatively.
Outside, the landscape of Amy’s hometown shifts fast into autumnal reds and oranges that can only mean one thing; her birthday. A new school year. A new start. Although in the eight years since she left home this place has changed, in some places, beyond recognition, some parts make her feel like she’s travelled through time. This road does just that, making it feel almost impossible that she’s been dating the boy- no, the man- sat next to her, for just over twelve years.
Every building reminds her of something different, somewhere different, spurring memories of school, and her brothers, and Jake.
That is, right until their car takes the wrong turn.
“Jake, where are you going?”
“I thought we could make a little detour,” he says, smiling quickly over at her.
“As long as we’re not late.”
“We won’t be late, I promise.”
For a good ten minutes, she’s got absolutely no clue where he’s going. And then, when they turn a corner of woodland and come onto a large clearing, she spots a dome-shaped roof and old grey building that she hasn’t seen in almost ten years.
“Oh my god.” Her voice escapes her in a whisper, overcome with nostalgia for this place, one so important, so meaningful, and yet somehow shoved into the back of her mind like a grocery list.
“C’mon,” Jake says hurriedly when he’s parked the car.
“It’s okay, you don’t need to rush,” Amy reassures him, “I know I said we couldn’t be late, but I don’t think it’ll matter that much, y’know, if we’re here…”
Jake rocks up and down on the balls of his feet as he waits for her to get out of the car and follow him to the entrance.
“This is crazy. I can’t believe it’s still here,” she reminisces gently. “Weird to think that this was the location upon which one of the most competitive Santiago betting pools relied.”
Jake laughs wholly, evidently reminded of Mrs Santiago fist-pumping the air when, aged fourteen, he and Amy told her they were dating. Only after a few triumphant phone calls and celebratory dances did she explain to them that she’d won $270.
“It’s a special place,” he admits.
“Definitely.” She follows him towards the entrance, but the whole place looks starkly empty- no cars in the parking lot, no lights on inside. “Is it even open?”
“How d’you know?”
“You… why’d you check?”
“Amy!” Jake stops in his tracks and turns to her, smiling widely. “Just trust me, okay?” She nods, and he presses a quick kiss against her lips.
As he walks through the entrance doors, Amy can’t help but think about how far they’ve come, how different this sight is in comparison to seeing him come and go from this planetarium aged seven, aged thirteen, aged sixteen. And yet, at the same time, watching the tall, handsome man her best friend has become, something remains entirely the same.
The atrium is pitch black as they walk in, and for a moment Amy panics- but then all the lights come on at once, the exact same pinks and blues, dotted with stars, that she knew so well growing up. It’s like the building has woken up for them, come back to life.
“C’mon,” Jake says quietly, taking her hand and walking towards the first hallway, one Amy remembers as the Milky Way Walk, ending with all the constellations you could hope to see splayed over the ceiling. Something young within her jolts with excitement.
It’s like a dream, just a little surreal- she can’t help but wonder why the lights come alive as they walk, lighting up one by one as she and Jake walk down the hallway, as if they’re bringing it back to life. She hasn’t seen one staff member, one visitor. For now, though, she can’t make herself care too much, the beauty of this old room eclipsing her curiosity.
Finally, they reach the end of the hallway- the actual planetarium ceiling, one of her favourite parts, with all the constellations.
“Huh?” Amy looks over at her boyfriend.
“That’s your favourite,” he says, pointing up.
She looks up, and sure enough, her favourite constellation is shining bright against a background of deep blue. What makes her do a double take, however, is the fact that this appears to be the only constellation visible on the ceiling.
It’s at this exact moment that she realises this is Jake’s doing.
“What’s going on?” She asks quietly, turning back to him, but he’s gone.
Well, not quite- he’s down on one knee, holding a small black box in his palm.
Her heart is racing now, at a thousand miles an hour.
“Amy, you’re the most incredible girl, the most incredible woman, that I’ve ever known. Being friends with you, being in a relationship with you…” He’s looking at her sincerely, his dark eyes full and hopeful. Carefully, he lifts the box in his hand- “… it’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
“Jake…” Amy can’t wipe the smile off her face, completely in awe, and not just because the love stirred within her feels identical to the way it did when he kissed her for the first time in the space shuttle replica, or when he asked her to prom, or when he sent her a birthday present at college wrapped in rocket wrapping paper.
On the ceiling, the stars that form Ursa Minor start to move, until they no longer form the constellation- then, eventually, more stars join them, flooding the ceiling into formation, until they form four words:
Will you marry me?
Eventually, her eyes fall back to him, and the gorgeous, sparkling ring he holds in his hand. Part of her wants to laugh at how serious he looks, at how cheesy this son of a bitch is. Part of her wants to cry, overwhelmed with just how in love with him she really is. Part of her wants to jump up and down for joy. Instead, she simply replies.
She says it quietly, but within seconds he’s scooped her up into his arms, and he’s kissing her, and holding her, and their joyous laughter is mingling, free and happy and completely full of love.
“As if I’d ever say no,” she murmurs into his ear as he holds her. If it’s possible, he pulls her tighter.
A faint click echoes from across the room, and the lights around them switch on, bright, whites and blues and purples bringing them back to the real world, illuminating other figures around them. As soon as Amy turns to these figures, she realises exactly who they are.
“Congratulations, Rocket,” Luis says, stepping forward, quickly rubbing a tear from his cheek and pulling his little sister into a tight hug.
The rest of her brothers and her parents all stand to the side, beaming happily.
There’s music, and there’s champagne, and there’s people gazing at the ring, remarking that it resembles, rather well, the stars glimmering in the ceiling. There’s laughter, and there’s teasing, and there’s tight embraces. There’s a family dinner and a newly engaged- though not-so-newly in love- couple driving away at the end of the night.
Then, at the end of it all, family members driven home and washing up complete, there’s a content, nostalgic whisper to her husband, as Isabel Santiago falls asleep.