by Lee Budar-Danoff
Nico noticed the little girl as she pressed herself against the glass window of his antique store. She stared with intent but when he smiled, she didn’t smile back.
He returned to his work but looked up over the wire-rim of his glasses as the bell above the door tinkled. The little girl strode in, black braid swishing behind her, followed by a frazzled woman.
“Annie, wait,” the woman said, but the girl ignored her. Instead she stopped at the end of the counter to focus on the project in front of Nico.
“It’s an orrery,” Nico said. “A model of the solar system.”
Annie ignored him too. She tapped a finger to her cheek over and over.
“Your daughter?” he asked the woman.
She nodded. “She loves solar system kits, but once she’s built them, she gets upset and gives them back to me. I thought she might use her birthday money to choose one for herself. But she can’t afford an antique.”
While they talked, Annie shifted from foot to foot and spoke to herself in a sing-song voice.
“It’s wrong, it’s all wrong. Missing planets, missing planets, missing planets.”
Nico nodded. “This orrery only shows the inner planets. I have another,” he pointed, “a grand orrery that includes all the planets. Even Pluto.”
Annie didn’t meet his eyes, but turned her attention to the larger model. Nico thought the brass gears and planets of calcite, jasper and sodalite would thrill her. But soon she was tapping her cheek again.
“Missing planets, Annie, always missing planets.”
Her distress worried Nico. “She knows a lot about astronomy?” he asked.
“Oh yes, she reads about it, watches videos. It’s her favorite topic. Her father got her started. He teaches astronomy.”
Nico pushed up from his stool and hobbled to the grand orrery.
“Annie, can you show me where the missing planets should be?”
Nico blinked when she indicated the space where the asteroid belt belonged between Mars and Jupiter.
“Yes, Annie, there’s an old theory of a missing planet, which some call Phaeton. But there isn’t enough mass there to make up a planet.”
Annie insisted, pointing there, and other places. “There, there, there. Annie knows.”
Her mother took her hand. “We should go, and let this man work.”
Tears filled Annie’s eyes.
“As long as she doesn’t touch anything breakable, you’re welcome to stay. I’m almost finished.”
Nico returned to the counter and twisted the red jasper sphere that represented Mars onto its brass arm. He cranked the mechanism but the movement of the planets around the sun was still off. Sure that his calculations were right, he checked his math.
A small finger pointed. “Wrong, wrong, wrong.”
“Annie, don’t. I’m sorry, she’s smart, but her social skills are a work in progress.”
Nico frowned. “She’s good at math?”
Annie herself nodded. “Good at math, so good, good, good.”
She took a pencil from the counter and wrote on Nico’s paper. Each number and sign were precise, written in careful rows and columns. Nico adjusted the calibration of the brass gears after she was finished and cranked the orrery. Each planet rotated around the sun in perfect relation to each other.
“Thank you, Annie,” he said, awe in his voice. “But I don’t understand,” he said to the mother.
She smiled, though her eyes drooped. “She’s an autistic savant. I’m doing my best to support her. But Annie’s father, he didn’t understand either. Got upset when she corrected papers he’d already graded.” She stroked Annie’s cheek.
Nico noted the lack of a wedding ring on the mother’s finger. Annie cranked the machine and spun around in time with the planets.
“You know, I think Annie’s birthday money might be just enough to buy this orrery.”
The mother gasped and shook her head, but Annie dug into the pocket of her purple jeans and handed Nico a crumpled twenty dollar bill.
“Buy, buy, buy.”
Nico took the money and found a box with a lid to hold the orrery.
“Parts? Annie needs parts, brass parts, planet parts.”
The counter was littered with spare pieces. “Go ahead,” said Nico. “Take what you need.”
Annie added new gears and an arm, and a black tourmaline sphere as a new planet past Mars. “Better, better, better!”
“Thank you,” said the mother, shaking his hand. She gave him a card. “My number, in case you change your mind.”
“I won’t. She should have it. Happy Birthday, Annie.” Nico waved them off. Annie smiled and her eyes almost met his before she skipped out, box clutched to her chest.
After closing time, Nico headed upstairs to his apartment. He opened a beer, popped a meal in the microwave, and turned the TV to the news.
“…Scientists confirm that our sun has captured a rogue planet. While its current orbit is erratic, it’s projected to settle into a new orbit somewhere between Mars and Jupiter…”
Dinner forgotten, Nico swirled the beer in his bottle. As the foam grew and bubbles popped, he recalled Annie’s smile, and her talent. How amazing, that such a young girl not only determined the future orbit of the rogue planet, but predicted its arrival. Her father should’ve been proud of her ability. Damn his ego. Annie deserved better. Someone who believed in her.
Nico recalled Annie had mentioned missing planets. Plural. He pulled out his cellphone, and Annie’s mother’s card. His heart beat hard; he breathed deep to calm down, and called her.
“Ms. Nelson? This is Nico DiMello, from the antique store.”
“Oh, hi,” she said, her tone shaky. “Did you see the news? Quite the coincidence.” She uttered a forced laugh.
“It was no coincidence,” he said. “Your daughter is remarkable.” He cleared his throat. “I wondered if Annie might like to come back some time and help me fix my grand orrery.”
Nico listened as Ms. Nelson repeated the question. Through the phone, he heard Annie’s response.
“Fix, fix, fix, show him more planets. Yes, Annie will!”
Lee Budar-Danoff sails, plays guitar, and writes when she isn’t reading. Lee volunteers as Municipal Liaison for National Novel Writing Month and is an alum of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. Her stories have been published by Diabolical Plots and Every Day Fiction. A former history teacher, Lee spends that energy raising three children with her husband in Maryland. Lee is found on Twitter: @punahougirl84
Lee Budar-Danoff writes, … “Our family visited a museum and the kids were attracted by an orrery. My youngest son, who is not autistic but does have ADHD, is quite crazy for science and getting it right. I later read an article about autistic savants. After receiving a prompt about a toy with unique properties, the ideas came together and became Annie’s Planets.”