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The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy by Daryl Gregory 

Writing 'Rocket Boy'

This is the first story I wrote after a long break from short fiction. I'd had very little time for writing for several years. Our kids were being born, my wife was getting tenure, and we had a mortgage for the first time, which meant I really needed to work full time. What writing time I had I put into a novel that failed to sell. 

Meanwhile, this story was brewing. Several of the ideas and scenes were in my head for years. But I didn't sit down to write it until I realized what the ending had to be.

When I was sixteen, my best friend, Stevie, built his own spaceship. In a certain light, at a certain angle, it was beautiful: A rough cylinder over twenty feet tall, balanced on four thrusters, braced by stubby delta wings. The body and wings were warped plywood. The thrusters were four 50-gallon steel drums, painted black, rimmed in aluminum foil. Later, police determined that Stevie had packed one of the drums with plastic milk jugs full of hydrogen peroxide distilled down to hydrogen monoxide—homemade rocket fuel. People heard the explosion as far away as Boone, five miles west.

I was a lot closer. At the edge of the field, maybe fifty yards away, both arms resting on the rail of a chain link fence. The fence stopped some of the bigger shrapnel, and that’s probably the only reason I’m alive. I carry my piss around in a bag now, and I stump around on crutches. But otherwise I’m fine. It’s just a body, after all. It’s not me.

That’s what Stevie was always saying, anyway. I try to keep that in mind.

The block where Stevie and I grew up looked the same as it always did: parallel trains of ranch homes parked under old pines and mountainous weeping willows. Some houses had gotten new paint, and a few back porches had become glassed-in family rooms, but nothing essential had changed. They were still just Masonite boxcars with small windows and big shutters.

The real estate agent didn’t want to sell me a house here. She kept trying to show me the new “developments,” two-story houses on tiny, treeless lots on the north side of town where there used to be only cornfields. But I wanted to live here, on my block, preferably in the same house I grew up in. Stevie and I had grown up side by side, in houses so similar that our families could have swapped without having to buy new furniture.

My old home, however, wasn’t for sale. My parents left it years ago, while I was at college, and moved to Arizona. The current owners had torn out the hedges and fenced the yard, but hadn’t changed much else. They parked a tow truck in front of the house at night. Months ago I’d had the agent make inquiries, but they didn’t want to move, even at 25% over market value.

My second choice opened up all on its own. It was on the other side of Stevie’s house, well within the hundred-yard range I required for my project. The owners had been the Klingerman’s, people I’d barely known. They didn’t have children, but they did keep little yippy dogs, terriers or something.

Stevie’s parents, the Spero’s, still lived in the same house. My new bedroom window faced the window to Stevie’s old room. The drapes were light blue now instead of Spider-Man red. My first night in the house, sleeping on the floor because the furniture hadn’t arrived, I could hear their new baby squalling.

On summer nights, Stevie would shimmy out of his bedroom window, cut across the back yards, and hiss through my window screen to come sneak out with him. We were twelve, thirteen when he started doing this. If my parents were both asleep, and if I could work up the courage, I’d go with him.

He was the same age as me, but ten pounds lighter, a skinny kid with pale, lank hair, thin lips, and translucent skin. Even by moonlight you could make out the blue vein that ran from his temple to his jaw.

The park was five blocks away, the quarry less than a mile. We’d dodge headlights the whole way, pretending every car was a cop out to bring us in. We’d dive into a ditch, and then he’d look at me and say, Oh man oh man that was so close. We were scared of getting caught, especially by Stevie’s dad. Mr. Spero scared me more than anyone else I knew.

But we went anyway. We built a fort in the trees beside the quarry. We talked about aliens and spaceships, but we didn’t know anything about real rockets, or real stars and planets. It was all Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica.

The summer after seventh grade, we started making movies; really, one long movie with dozens of unconnected scenes. My dad had gotten a video camera for Christmas. It was a big, bulky thing, though we didn’t think so at the time. Since it was my dad’s camera, I was the Cameraman and Director. Stevie was in charge of Story and Special Effects.

Most of the effects required fishing tackle. We strung ten-pound test line between the trees and glued hooks to the tops of the models. Stevie would pull the ships from twenty feet away, reeling them in with a fishing rod. I would lie on my back, a cassette deck held up close to the mike to provide background music, and videotape the ships as they jerked overhead. We wanted to get the stars behind them, like the opening scene in Star Wars. The stars never came out on the tape.

We staged improbable space battles: a two-foot wide Millennium Falcon versus an eight-inch U.S.S. Enterprise, a couple of T.I.E. fighters vs. a Japanese Zero and an Apollo 11 rocket. We stuffed firecrackers into exhaust ports and turrets and blew them apart. We doused the models with gasoline, lit them (ignorant of the impossibility of fire in space), then yanked off the escape pods with fishing line.

After Stevie died, the papers made a lot of this obsession with spaceships and explosives and fire. The Signs Were There, if someone had Only Paid Attention. Bullshit. Of course we were obsessed with spaceships and things that go bang. We were American boys in Bumblefuck, Iowa.

“Timmy?”

“Hi, Mrs. Spero. It’s just Tim, now.” She stood on her front porch, holding something that looked like a toy walkie-talkie—a baby monitor. The baby was somewhere inside; I didn’t hear it crying.

“You’re moving in?” She sounded surprised and happy. I’d seen her look out her front window a half dozen times since the Atlas truck pulled up an hour ago. Time enough to prepare that happily-surprised voice. To remind herself not to look at the aluminum crutches.

I nodded toward the two guys carrying a dresser into the house and managed a smile. “Sort of. Most of the furniture’s going into the back bedroom until I can get the carpets taken out and the floors refinished.”

She stepped off the porch and walked toward the driveway, moving slowly, as if unspooling a safety line behind her. The baby monitor’s red LED pulsed every few seconds.

Mrs. Spero had been one of the young moms, the hot moms, a fit-looking woman who pulled her hair into a ponytail when she worked and wore sleeveless shirts in the summer. Even before I hit thirteen I started watching whenever she reached to a high shelf, waiting for a glimpse of white bra and curve of skin.

She was in her late forties now, and though still attractive she looked worn out. Her face was puffy, and she’d gained weight in her hips. Her eyes seemed to have sunk a fraction further into her skull. Had the new baby done this, or had the transformation started earlier?

I told her my folks had gotten the Christmas card with the birth announcement inside. “William Ray. That’s nice. He’s what, eight months old?”

She smiled, surprised. “Next Tuesday. We call him Will. You have a good memory.”

She asked about my family. I told her my parents were looking forward to retiring in a few years. My older brother was still in grad school. My sister was in Maine, with a kid of her own.

The monitor’s read-out rose and fell. I couldn’t help looking at it.

She told me about my house and the neighborhood. Mr. Klingerman had died of a stroke, and Mrs. Klingerman

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