by Jared Millet
Orion had not yet set when Tom squeezed through his bedroom window. The thin snow-ice crunched under his weight when he lowered himself to the ground. He pulled his backpack behind him, careful not to let its contents clink, then reached back inside for a two-foot cardboard cylinder with a plastic nosecone and plywood fins.
No one watched him but the trees, black pillars on a sleeping, white landscape. Mars burned in the south, Viking red, with baleful Saturn nearby. He tightened his shoulder straps so his backpack wouldn’t slide, then dashed across the yard in the sharp morning air, counting on speed more than silence not to wake his parents. He had ninety minutes to complete his mission. He’d prefer that no one found out, but once he’d done what he had to it wouldn’t matter.
Planning was everything, his grandfather taught him. Think through every contingency while being flexible enough to cope with the unexpected. Tom’s grandfather had known better than most, since he’d laid plans for men to walk on a whiter, colder plain than this, two hundred thousand miles distant with a shining blue planet in the sky.
Behind the patch of trees was a gully with a floor of ice. Tom had played there every winter and hadn’t slipped once since the time he broke his arm in junior high. The gully kept him from view of the neighbors’ houses and led, winding for a mile, to a field near the farm co-op. In spring the field was for softball, but in summer the grass was too high for anything but endless games of tag. In winter, his grandfather would take him there on cloudless nights to gaze at eternity through a polished lens.
That old man with the telescope and mug of coffee had also been a strong man, tall and proud in the hot Florida sun. In Tom’s earliest memory, the wind carried salt spray and the tang of sea-grass, but his young eyes were only for the giant, gleaming needle farther up the shore. The countdown rang through the air, and Tom’s grandfather lifted him into his lap and covered his toddler’s ears. The rumble rattled the young boy’s bones, but his grandfather’s hands held him steady as the shining rocket pierced the heavens to thunder like the roar of God.
It was a small god they prayed to in the chapel on Sunday, a god small enough to comfort Tom’s weeping mother while he sat in the back and nodded at condolences from people he barely knew. The service wasn’t for his grandfather, but for the family. As far as Tom knew, his grandfather hadn’t set foot in a church more than twice in his life. His God measured time by eons, His word was the voice of mathematics, and His church the infinite sky.
The sky was starting to blur when Tom reached the empty field. The backpack was secure, but he carefully tossed the rocket ahead of him so he could climb the ditch with both hands, trusting that the snow wouldn’t damage its fins. Before pulling himself out, he scanned the surroundings to make sure he was alone. The air was perfectly still, but wisps of cloud reflected the lights of the stirring town.
Tom had been nodding off in class when the news came. It was a frosty January, and the overcranked school heater would have put anyone to sleep. He was only marking time until the Shuttle launch on TV. It was odd for anyone to care, but this time some teacher from New Hampshire was going into space so all the students got to watch. Challenger’s lift-off was still some minutes away when the secretary called him to the office and told him that his grandfather had passed.
At the service, Tom’s aunts and uncles clucked about how lucky it was that his grandfather hadn’t had to witness the disaster, how it would have broken his heart. Tom clenched his jaw but said nothing. His grandfather had seen the fire on Apollo 1; he’d gone days without sleep to bring the men on Apollo 13 home. He knew the risks of space flight, and he’d have been the last to flinch away.
Tom tried not to think about that. Instead, he focused on the mission.
The day before, he’d cleared the snow from the rise that served as the pitcher’s mound. From his backpack he pulled a plastic tripod and affixed the metal blast-plate and the rod that would guide the launch. He slid the cardboard rocket into place and, hands shaking, popped off the nose. He’d removed the bulky parachute before leaving home, for there would be no return from this voyage and he had to make room for the passenger.
It had been easy to steal the ashes. The family knew how close Tom had been to his grandfather, so they trusted him implicitly. While they said their prayers and offered remembrances, Tom scraped the old man into a freezer bag and replaced him with leavings from his fireplace.
He didn’t quite fit in the rocket, despite how tightly Tom packed him, so part of him ended up scattered on the launch pad. With the model engine Tom was using, the rocket would reach an altitude of a thousand feet, and then a charge would blow it open and send his grandfather into the wind. It wasn’t the same as going into space, but it was better than sitting on a shelf.
The countdown this time was silent, as Tom caressed the igniter with his thumb. The blast would be more of a whistle than a roar. A morning breeze tickled the ice that had formed on his cheek. Fires of sunlight warmed the horizon, but the stars remained for a few minutes more, waiting to welcome their earth-bound brother in 3… 2… 1…
This story is copyright 2012 Jared Millet.
It was performed on March 20, 2012, at the Hoover Public Library Flash Fiction Night, sponsored by the Hoover Library Write Club.