Nathaniel stood on the hill behind his house. He could see the launch pad crawling with people the size of ants, running around a shining silver rocket pointed into the red-grey skies. He could hear his mother calling him from the ramshackle two room house they shared with her boyfriend Hack and four dogs. Calling was probably not the right word. It was more of a screech. Nathaniel wondered if he would still hear her over the rocket’s engines, or if it would be powerful enough to drown her cries.
He knew he wouldn’t be able to wait long enough to find out. Some days the rocket launches were early enough in the afternoon he could sneak away to watch them. The flames and exhaust reflecting in the bright blue of his eyes, mixing with all of his dreams and wonder. But today the launch had been delayed, and now his mother was ready to be fed.
He pushed himself up out of the dirt and brushed the red dust from his worn cotton trousers absentmindedly, never taking his eyes off the scurrying little forms and the giant machine reflecting the setting sun.
Tomorrow, he thought as he scratched his sandy blonde head and kicked a rock with his bare feet. He turned his gaze from the rocket to the house with a sigh, finally forcing himself down the hill.
The house was really more of a shack. It had been one of several storage sheds for a stellar operations unit when the area was first settled. But those pioneers had moved on, and the squatters had moved in. Nathaniel didn’t think of himself as a squatter. He was just a boy. It wasn’t his choice to come here. Hack was here first and his mom chose to bring them to Hack. But that didn’t matter at school or anywhere else he went.
Last week he had been eating his crackers at lunch time and watching the other kids play when a group of boys ran past kicking red dirt in his lunch bag and face, shoving him onto his side. “Move over squatter!” They were townies, with real houses, real lunches and real shoes.
One of the boys stomped on his bare foot as they passed, laughing like the wild dogs that ran the streets at night. Nathaniel winced and drew it up underneath himself as he sat back up, dusting off what he could of his meager meal.
It didn’t hurt. It didn’t matter. It was just another day, the same as all the rest.
“NAAAAAAAAAAATE!” The screech was bursting from every crack in the peeling, used-to-be white walls. Nathaniel pictured her lungs filling just a bit more every day until all at once the whole place caved in on her when she called for him.
Then he instantly wiped the image from his mind. He didn’t feel guilty, he just didn’t want to waste energy on useless imaginings or revenge.
Nathaniel believed in God, and God took care of revenge. Nate took care of making dinner for Hack and his mom and tending the dogs. Then he was free to crawl in bed and dream about what might have gone wrong at the launch pad. Someday, he thought, they will call on me for answers.
“Where the hell have you been?” Her forehead was dripping with sweat. It crawled down from her greasy black hair and made it’s way over several facial ravines to her eyes, where she wiped it away. “I’ve been hollerin’ for you for at least half an hour. Were you up there on the hill again rocket dreamin’?” She was shaped like a giant toad, no neck, bulbous body, only her legs weren’t nearly strong enough to launch her into the air, and she lacked the skill to catch her own food even if it flew right past her face.
“Yes Ma’am,” he didn’t look at her. He reached for the cooler door and pulled it open, wondering where Hack was with the food.
Hack wasn’t so bad. He had a regular job at the plant and brought home something to eat every night. Sometimes Nathaniel could tell he’d stopped at the bar first. On those nights the smell of him would seep through the house like a tangy fog, filling his nostrils and gagging him. But even when he drank his wages, he still made sure to bring something for Nathaniel and his mother for dinner, even if it was pulled from a trash bin.
“Why the hell do you do that? You know we don’t got nothin’ till Hack’s home.” Her breathing had evened out and her tone was irritated, but more tolerable. “Quit wasting the ‘lectricity.” She roughly patted one of the four tiny dogs curled around her on the moldy brown sofa and changed the channel on the television.
At least she isn’t yelling anymore. Nathaniel thought.
And she was right. There wasn’t anything there. So he closed the cooler door and walked over to the television when he heard the newscaster’s deep and serious voice.
“President Howelson has called for a halt to all space exploration. In a shocking speech to Congress today, he approached the delegates and proposed that the money from the Interstellar Exploration Programs be turned toward cleaning and restoring our own planet instead of any future searches for more suitable landscapes on which to live.”
Nathaniel’s heart dropped. The news man continued with his story but all Nathaniel could hear were the words echoing in his brain over and over again: a halt to all space exploration.
“No,” he whispered.
“Howelson received overwhelming support in Congress, which quickly voted to back his proposal. Preparations for the next three rocket launches are complete and production on any further ships will cease immediately. ”
Click. The channel changed again.
“Don’t just stand there. I’m starving. Go check the bottom cupboard, we can’t wait for Hack. I think there’s a tin of beans left there. Go!”
She jabbed at him with the remote and he took a few steps back to the one kitchen cupboard. He reached in without thinking, knowing exactly where the tin was and pulled it out. A can opener lay on the drainboard. He fitted it over the lip of the tin, trying to wrap his brain around what he’d just heard.
Hack walked in. He was tall and thin, more like a stick drawing than a real man. He smelled normal. Nathaniel would have felt relief if he’d been able to process anything other than the end of his dreams.
“Here boy.” Hack tossed him a plastic bag. “Good eatin’ tonight!”
He shuffled over to the couch and leaned in to give Nathaniel’s mother a kiss. Nathaniel always looked away when Hack walked towards his mother. When he was unfortunate enough to forget this ritual he always saw much more of their mouths than he cared to.
But Nathaniel didn’t remember anything that night. Not pulling the cold chicken thighs out of the bag one piece at a time and put them on the bent pan on the stove with the tin of beans and a stale biscuit – the best food they’d had in weeks. He didn’t remember cleaning up the dishes and his mother yelling at him not to be so wasteful and give her the food he’d pushed around on his plate. He didn’t remember shuffling to bed or Hack telling him a dirty joke he’d heard at work. All he could recall about that night was that it was the first time he’d cried since he was five years old and the traveling preacher told him God would take all his troubles and sorrows and haul them up to heaven someday and make everything alright.
The next morning he woke before the sun, sweating and feeling like he hadn’t slept at all. He’d had fitful dreams about the rockets exploding, taking all the little ant people with them in a huge ball of fire. The heat was so intense, so real, he couldn’t stand it. In his dream he put his arm up to shield his face until his forearm felt singed.
He looked out the crack in the wall by his pallet on the floor of the second room and could see a blue light forming over the other squatters’ shacks. That’s what they all were this morning: squatters, with no hope of escape. And he felt more like one of them than he ever had before.
He had to get out.
He rolled off his pallet on the floor and crawled on all fours to the box of his things under the window. He pulled out a small knapsack he’d found in a dumpster behind the school one day and the only other clothes he owned. He stuffed the clothes in the bag and sifted carefully past newspaper clippings he’d picked up about the Space Exploration Program and about the hope of finding a planet where the air was clean and the water plentiful. He fingered a silver coin he’d been saving for his birthday to buy an ice cream cone in town and shoved it in the bottom of the bag. He didn’t know why, he wasn’t going to buy anything now, there was no reason to. But he still felt he didn’t want to leave it behind.
Finally, his hand found it – an apple. He’d saved this for his birthday, too. He’d found it just lying in the street one morning on the way to school. It had obviously fallen out of someone else’s lunch or grocery bag, but there was no one on the long dusty road from the squatter’s village to town. He had no way of knowing who it belonged to and so he took it as a sign from God and tucked it in his bag.
It was bright red, a beautiful shining thing. Most likely grown in a factory somewhere under synthetic lights with hydroponically engineered dwarf trees. He’d read about all the processes for creating produce that had been instituted since traditional agricultural methods had failed. They fascinated him. But he had also read about children who used to climb trees to pick their own fruit that grew wild across the land. That thought kept his mind busy for days. He wanted nothing more than to be able to go somewhere where apple trees grew, climb one and pick his dinner for himself.
As he stood and walked past his mother’s bed where she snored loudly next to Hack, he hesitated for just a moment. He looked at Hack and his mom intertwined with the dogs and his stomach turned. One of the small dogs sat up and stared at him with wide brown eyes. It growled a bit. Nathaniel was afraid it would bark and give him away. But he stood quietly, head down, and eventually the little furball ducked its head back onto his mother’s fleshy white arm and he tip toed on. He wasn’t sure he’d miss any of them if his plan worked.
The air was thick and the walk was long. He could tell that if he were to be in school today they would not be allowed recess out of doors. The air was heavy and tasted of metal, which meant that when the sun came up it would bake anything alive like a bug under a magnifying lens.
Nathaniel had seen a boy doing that once in the play yard. He ventured to ask why. The boy just shrugged and said, “Why not?”
Ahead of him the sun was rising red. It tinted the whole world and especially the great glowing rocket. It was shining now, like a giant metallic apple.
Nathaniel had never walked this far before in his life, or this fast. He knew the crews got up early. He’d seen the little men scurrying around in their trucks and suits. He wondered if they would be so quick to move now that they knew their days were numbered. No one would be tracking their progress anymore or their output, determining their usefulness. Would they sleep in? Search for new work in the papers? He prayed they would.
But it wasn’t necessary. By the time he reached the fence line it was still quite early and only a few groundsmen were out. He found a spot he could easily slide under, pulling his knapsack after him, and he stood, dusting himself off the same way he had done every day of his life. Only today, he was staring up at a rocket only a few hundred yards away.
He started to walk towards it, barely aware of the launch pad coming to life around him. He was taking in the scaffolds, the boosters, the sheer size of it all. He’d never dreamed it was so big. It towered so high above him that his neck ached as he looked up to the top.
As if by design, an alarm went off somewhere at the base of the control tower at the opposite end of the pad. The crew and their trucks all scurried towards it like a dog being called home for supper. None of them seemed to notice the little boy, the same color as the red dirt that covered the ground and permanent machinery. He slipped past them all in their hurry, like a dusty ghost, walked straight up to a ladder and began to climb.
Nathaniel had never been afraid of heights. But he’d also never had an occasion to really test his resolve. He put one hand above another, one foot above another, all the while gazing up at the tip of the gleaming silver dart, it’s nose looming above him in the poisoned air.
As he got higher and higher he wondered if this was what climbing a tree would feel like. Gravity seemed to be letting go its hold on him. He felt all the screaming his mother had lodged in his brain slip away, all the shoves and jeers from school fell to their deaths on the pad below. He grinned, wide and toothy, and kept moving upward.
Eventually he grew tired. His arms and legs started to tingle and ache, but he kept going. He wanted to get as high as possible. He never wanted to stop. But the ladder came to an end some fifty feet from the nose of the massive rocket. Before him, Nathaniel could now see a window and a handle, flush with the smooth shining metal. He reached up and tugged on the latch until it popped open. He pulled himself onto a black rubber mat, pressing his face into the cool petroleum smell of it until he could haul his legs in behind himself. Suddenly aware of how high he was, Nathaniel scurried further in away from the edge and pulled on a cord that ran from the floor to the outermost part of the door, snapping it shut.
Elated, successful, transformed, he peered out the small, round portal. The sun was halfway up the sky now and before him lay the burnt red landscape he’d become so accustomed to living in. The air was still tinged red. There was nothing for miles but red dirt and the little dots of homes, shacks and businesses. The town was easy to spot because the buildings were larger and closer together. A road snaked between them all, just a slightly lighter color red than the earth surrounding it. He marveled at the vastness before him.
So much red.
He pulled his knapsack around and pried it open. His hand quickly found the apple first, then the coin. He looked at them both then whispered:
“Heads I eat it now, tales I save it for later.”
He flipped the coin and caught it, slapping it to his opposite wrist. Heads.
He stuck the coin back in his knapsack and looked at the apple smiling. He said a prayer before pressing it to his open teeth and taking a bite.
“Thank you God.”
To his great delight, the floor began to tremble, the world outside shook. A sweet drip of juice shuddered it’s way down his chin and onto his worn brown shirt. Nathaniel’s first instinct was to crouch down on the clean rubber mat and hold his apple and knees close to his face. But he didn’t want to take his eyes from the port hole. So he stood with his legs spread apart, one hand on a gleaming silver pipe, one on the apple, and took another bite.
A vision from his dreams the night before entered his mind. For a moment he froze in terror, wondering if flames would envelop him at any moment now. But then he remembered the preacher’s words: “Everyone has to die sometime! We’re all dyin’ while we’re living! Might as well make it good!” Nathaniel could think of no better place to live or die than in a rocket. You’re on your way to the heavens either way.
He breathed a sigh of relief. It would only be a few more moments. He took another bite, eagerly chewing and sucking at the juices, trying to see what the ground crew was doing. He’d know how much longer he had by their movements. But the angle was wrong, he was too high.
A yellow light went on over his head. A beep sounded behind him. He turned for the first time and looked at the space he was in. It was a narrow passage lined in rubber with pipes and computers from floor to ceiling running the entire length of the rocket’s cone. At the opposite end was a matching window and small hatch door. Directly in the middle of the walkway was another handle, flush with the floor, and the outline of another hatch. He wondered if real astronauts were down there pushing buttons and calling commands. He wondered if they would come up and find him here. He said another prayer.
“Please, God, no.”
The rumbling sounds became louder and the vibrations more intense. The light above him turned from yellow to green and he took another bite of the apple, holding on more tightly to his pipe.
His stomach lurched and he suddenly felt hands shoving him to the floor, forcing him to let go of the pipe. Only there was no one with him in the chamber. He couldn’t see the red earth outside anymore, but he could see the red air through the window above. He clutched his apple to his chest and found another pipe to grab as he lay on his back and watched the air turn from dirty brown-red to light brown, then blue. The same color as his eyes.
The color was amazing, but the force was too much. He closed his eyes tight and curled up in a ball, his forehead touching the rough fabric covering his bent knees. He stayed like that for what felt like an hour, afraid his unprepared frame might explode. But just when he thought he couldn’t take anymore, the intensity started to lift. His body, in fact, started to lift off the floor. He opened his eyes and saw his apple floating just in front of him. He grabbed it with wonder and turned it around to see the glistening white insides were just starting to turn brown. He took another bite and turned towards the porthole using a pipe to pull his weightless body around.
Black. A black like he’d never seen before, dotted all over with pure white light. Large and small points, all around him, in every direction he pushed his gaze, white sparkling points on a pitch black background.
He bit his apple again and grinned. A strange feeling flooded his chest and he couldn’t contain it. It spilled out of his eyes and nose and even his mouth as he sobbed openly.