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.
The Continuing Adventures of Rocket Boy
by Daryl Gregory
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.
“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 moved into a home. She didn’t know what happened to their dogs. We talked about the new people on the street, and the few changes in town.
“So, where are you working?” she asked.
“Right here. In the house. I’ll be telecommuting.”
“Oh. Right at home. Working on a computer, I guess?”
“I analyze quality control data for a parts manufacturer.” Nine times out of ten, this is as far as I have to go to explain my job.
“Well, that sounds…” She searched for a word. “You were always a smart one, Tim.” She glanced at the monitor, then back at her house. “I better get back.”
“Can I listen?”
She looked blank for a moment, then smiled. “Sure.”
I held the monitor to my ear. The baby seemed to be sound asleep, each deep breath loud and fuzzed by static.
“I can hear the ocean,” I said, and she laughed. I looked at the back of the device and noted the brand name. “This thing’s amazing. You can hear everything.”
“Almost too much. Every little breath.”
“I bet. Well, tell Mr. Spero that I’ll be here all the time,” I said. “If he ever needs anything.”
Stevie made bigger and bigger models out of painted plywood and pieces from other models. He blew them apart with M-80s that could rip open a mailbox. I wouldn’t give him my dad’s video camera anymore, but he stole a Super-8 camera and a projector from the school A-V room and switched to film. He couldn’t do sound anymore, but he didn’t mind. Video is a cold medium, he told me.
One night the summer after freshman year, we were coming back through the yards at 3 AM. Stevie had the camera, and I was pulling a wagon full of props and models. We came around the corner of the house and saw Mr. Spero. He was sitting in a lawn chair under Stevie’s window, a plastic tumbler in his hand. I dropped the wagon handle, but before I could take off he told me to stand there, and I was too afraid to move. He made Stevie drop his pants, right there in front of me. Told him to put his hands against the side of the house. Stevie was already crying. Mr. Spero stood up, unlooped his belt, and folded it in half. He held it by the buckle, and slapped it against Stevie’s thighs. The boy yelped, and started bawling.
I’ll give you something to cry about, Mr. Spero said.
Sometime during the beating I ran to the back door of my house, not even bothering to sneak, and ran into my bedroom. My mom tried to get me to tell her what was going on, and I blubbered something about Stevie and his dad.
A few minutes later, Mr. Spero was at our front door. My dad went to the door barefoot in his robe, and then he called me in to the living room.
Did you sneak out? he asked me.
Don’t do it again, he said.
And that was it.
I stood there for a moment, stunned, and then ran out of the room. But I didn’t go far. I ducked into the bathroom and put my ear to the wall above the sink. Mr. Spero kept talking, in a low, spiteful voice. My dad didn’t say much.
When Mr. Spero finally left I heard Dad say to Mom, That man’s the southbound end of a northbound horse. I was fourteen, and thought that was the wittiest thing my father had ever said.
And then I started wondering. How long had Mr. Spero been sitting there in the dark, waiting for us?
The baby monitor Mrs. Spero used broadcast at 43 kilohertz. I bought a scanner in Des Moines and tuned in to Radio William. I listened to him whenever he was on. The format was pretty regular: he cried, he breathed, he jabbered in his private language. I learned to differentiate the various cries, from hunger to anger. He had a special kind of yelp when he wanted to be picked up after his nap. Mrs. Spero would come to retrieve him, speaking to him in her calm way, and when she leaned into his crib it was like she was speaking into my ear. At night I would lie in bed and try to time my breaths to his, but he was too fast, like a rabbit.
Mr. Spero was a background noise, a distant rumbling that occasionally resolved into words. I listened for any change of tone, waiting for the flat contempt he’d used with Stevie. That first week I watched him leave for work in the morning, and come home in the afternoon. He looked the same: pale skin and thin lips, hair combed back on his forehead in a mini-pompadour. Only the hair color had changed, from sandy brown to white.
I unpacked, and shopped on the Internet. Most of the sites encouraged homeowners to be paranoid: about their babysitters, their housecleaners, or anyone coming within twenty feet of their front door. I was amazed at the range of equipment available. I put together a complete package for less than two thousand dollars: cameras, digital switcher, software, antennas, cables, everything.
UPS delivered it in pieces over the next couple of weeks. I played with my new toys, and I listened to Radio William.
All Stevie’s movies—our movies—were part of a long saga called The NovaWeapon Chronicles. The plot was impossible to explain, even to ourselves, and changed depending on whatever special effects were available. We shot parts of the story over and over when we changed our minds or got better models. There were large gaps in the story that we never filled in.
Most of the “chapters” had to do with Rocket Boy, played by Stevie in black snow pants and a mesh shirt. Rocket Boy was the only kid our age (twelve, fourteen, sixteen) who could pilot his own starfighter in the Counter-Revolutionary StarForce, which we’d called the “Rebel Alliance” until some kids said we just copied fromStar Wars. In the later chapters Rocket Boy became the strong silent type; once we’d switched to film we couldn’t record dialogue anymore. Stevie would act out Rocket Boy working on his warp engines, or at the controls reacting to unseen laser shots, or gazing meaningfully into the distance. I appeared in various roles, from Flight Commander to Alien Overlord. My younger brother was drafted into playing ensigns, lackey aliens, and especially corpses. Stevie said Hitchcock used Bosco for the shower scene in Psycho, but we found out that Karo Syrup was cheaper, and looked just as good. On black and white film, Karo looked more realistic than real blood.
For the action shots, Stevie’s stunt double was a G.I. Joe with life-like hair and Kung Fu grip. We dressed up the action figure (never a doll), inserted him into scale models, and then punished him in various ways. One day during summer vacation—this was the year before Stevie died, in 1991—we threw the Joe off the side of the quarry about fifty times. It was ninety-degrees and ninety-percent humidity, and I was losing interest in the Chronicles. But there was nothing else to do, and Stevie swore it was a critical scene that he needed me to film. Rocket Boy’s starfighter had been hit, and his escape pod had burned up in reentry (or something), and Rocket Boy was supposed to parachute the rest of the way down. So Stevie stood at the top of the cliff with a handkerchief bunched around Joe, and I was at the bottom of the pit with the Super-8 shooting up into the sun. There was no wind down there and no shade and sweat was pouring off me.
And the fucking handkerchief would not come open. Joe just crashed into the rocks, over and over. And every time he hit, Stevie yelled down, Did you get it? Did you get it? Like there was anything to get.
After two hours Joe’s face was looking like he’d been in a knife fight. I climbed out of the hole with the camera hanging from a strap around my neck, yelling that it was his turn to sit in the pit and broil.
Stevie was pulling on his shirt. His pale skin had turned bright pink, but before he tugged down the shirt I saw a dark stripe on his chest.
What the hell is that? I said.
This? He lifted his shirt. A long, thin welt, like a snake wending its way from his collarbone to his navel. That’s nothing.
What did he use on you?
Stevie shrugged. One of my cables.
Holy shit, I said. That had to kill.
He shrugged. Not really. Pain’s just a signal from the equipment. Like a telephone ring. It only has to hurt if you decide it should hurt.
He’d been talking like this all summer. The body is a machine, the mind is a pilot.
Yeah, I said, you’re a regular man of steel.
I’ll prove it to you, he said. Punch me.
Oh you don’t want me to punch you, I said.
This is an ugly thing that Stevie brought out in me. I was bigger than him, stronger than him. I could put him in unbreakable headlocks, manhandle him into closets, make him cry if I wanted. I didn’t do it often, but I liked knowing I could.
So he tried to slap me and I knocked his hand away. Come on, come on, he said, and kept slapping. I fended him off, and flicked a few shots at his chin. He started swinging wildly, and I pushed his arms away, and then his fist connected with my lip. That pissed me off. So I socked him in the side of the head.
He spun away from me, a hand over his ear. See? he said. His eyes were welling with tears, but he made himself laugh. Okay, good, he said.
He charged at me again, throwing crazy punches, a tantrum, going for velocity and damage and not even trying to protect himself. You could only fight like this with your brother, or your best friend.
We went on like that for a while, until I was straddled on top of him, my fist raised. But I couldn’t hit him while he was flat on the ground, bleeding, and smiling at me.
He dabbed at his nose, and held up his red hand. Sprung a leak, he said.
Sure, I said, and it doesn’t hurt a bit.
Why’d you start crying then?
He shoved me off him. Nobody has total control, he said condescendingly. Too many systems are on automatic. But I’m working on it.
I don’t remember what I said at that point. Some crack.
Stevie shook his head and pulled up his shirt. You think this is me. This, he said, running a finger down the bruise, is hull damage.
He grinned. The pilot, he said, is intact. He pointed at his eye. Behind there. Can you see me? Hey man, I’m waving at you.
“It must be hard to do this again,” I said. We were in her back yard, sitting on the same green wrought-iron patio furniture they’d always had.
“You mean, at my age.” She was breastfeeding William, holding him close with a blanket draped over her shoulder and covering her breast, but he was a big guy, and kept yanking off the blanket. I kept looking away.
“It’s all right. You know, I didn’t breastfeed Steven. Back then, formula was supposed to be better. You were a formula baby, too.” She glanced up at me. “I never would have planned on this. But it happened, and I wouldn’t trade him back.”
“Of course not.”
“Still, it’ll be good to get away.” Mr. Spero was going to a convention over the weekend, and she was taking William to her sister’s house in Cedar Falls. “Thank you for watching the house, by the way.”
“Not a problem. That’s what neighbors are for.”
The baby’s head lolled sideways, eyes half closed. He looked drunk. She dabbed the thin milk from the corner of his lips, and he smiled. Then she did something to her bra, and deftly buttoned her shirt. All with one hand.
“Do you still have any of Stevie’s movies?” I asked. She didn’t look up. “You know, the videos, or the film cans?”
She shook her head slightly, still not looking at me. “I don’t think so. I’m sure they’re gone.”
“We gave a lot of stuff away, after. Boxes and boxes.”
The car pulled up behind me, the engine loud against the side of the house. I turned around, putting a smile on my face.
Mr. Spero stepped out of the car, his suit coat over one arm. “Well look what the cat dragged in.” He said it lightly, a little chuckle behind it.
“Hello, Mr. Spero.”
“Claire told me you’d moved in. I couldn’t believe it.” He draped his jacket over the back of one of the patio chairs. His shoes were still shiny, his bright yellow tie still cinched, as if important clients might ring the bell at any moment. “Now where’s my boy?”
He took the child from Mrs. Spero and turned to me. “He’s a big one, isn’t he? What a monster!”
It was true. He looked like he’d be much bigger than Stevie, more solid.
“Careful, I just fed him,” Mrs. Spero said. “I need to go turn on the oven.” She disappeared into the house, and Mr. Spero jiggled the boy in his arms.
“So what brings you back to our little town, Timmy? It can’t be the job prospects.”
“I work over the internet,” I said. “My office can be anywhere.”
“The internet? I thought you guys all went out of business.” The baby started to fuss, and Mr. Spero sat down where Claire had been. “There we go, there we go.” He patted his back, and the baby twisted his head back and forth, knuckles crammed into a slobbering mouth.
“So why come back here?” Mr. Spero said. “I’d think that someone in your situation would want to be near family.”
“Situation?” I kept my face blank. I waited for him to glance at the crutches leaning against my chair, or the bulge under my shirt from the flange and colostomy bag. Just glance.
He stared at me over the top of the baby, and huffed. “Never mind. No one could ever tell you what to do. Or your dad, either.” The baby pushed up on his legs and grabbed one of his father’s ears, and Mr. Spero shook his head back and forth playfully.
“I like this town,” I lied. “And somebody has to come back. To watch over the neighborhood. Make sure it stays a nice place to raise kids.”
“So you sit in your room and type on your computer. That’s a hell of a job.”
“I analyze quality control data for a parts manufacturer.”
The baby grabbed an eyebrow, and Mr. Spero said “Ouch!” and pulled his face away. He held the baby’s hands, and the boy stood shakily. Mr. Spero bounced his legs, and the baby went up and down, grunting: hyuh-hyuh-hyuh.
“I try to explain catastrophic failure,” I said. “Like when a tire blows out, or an O-ring disintegrates on lift-off.”
“Really,” Mr. Spero said. The baby grinned madly. Mr. Spero chuckled and bounced him higher.
“Estimating catastrophe time is a different problem, statistically, than estimating gradual wear—you get a Weibull distribution rather than a normal curve. We do test-to-failure runs, and just try to grind a part into dust. Everything fails eventually. My job is to figure out why some things fall apart too soon. I sort through all the variables and find out which ones contributed to failure.”
He ignored me. William looked ecstatic.
“A lot of the time, it’s because of some flaw from early in the manufacturing process, like a hairline crack in the seal, say.”
The baby’s head dropped forward, and a mouthful of grey fluid dumped onto Mr. Spero’s shirt. William grinned, ready to play.
“Damn it! Claire! Claire!” He thrust the baby away from him, dangling it in the air. The child spit up again, spattering the floor, and started to howl.
Claire rushed out of the house, a towel already in her hand. “Were you throwing him around? You know what he’s like after—”
“Christ, Claire, can you just get him off me?”
She took the baby from him and Mr. Spero grabbed the towel from her. He dabbed at his chest. “I’m too fucking old for this,” he said.
I held up my arms. “Here, let me take him.”
Mr. Spero threw down the towel and stomped into the house, already unbuttoning his shirt.
She shook her head. “I need to clean him up,” she said. “Maybe you could come back after…”
“Naw, I’ve got to get going anyway,” I said. “And you’ve got to pack. Enjoy your trip. I’ll take care of things here.”
I said that he was my best friend. That’s a lie. Sophomore year, I stopped making night runs with him, I stopped helping with the movies. I barely talked to him at school. I’d gotten onto the soccer team, and I had a group of good friends, some of them seniors. I had a girlfriend. What the hell did I need Stevie for?
He never stopped pestering me. I remember when he stopped me in the hall to tell me he’d spent spring break building a full-size starfighter out of silver-painted plywood.
See? He flipped open his notebook to his storyboards. He showed me a cartoon of a stick figure climbing into the hatch of a starfighter. The ship was maybe three times taller than the pilot, and drawn in much more detail.
You built this?
It’s almost done, he said. He flipped pages. Now, he said, we switch from live-action to the models.
The panels showed the launch, then a far shot of the starfighter rising through the clouds, then a closer shot of the ship outlined against black space.
Look, he said. It’s all there. It’s a two-stage rocket.
God, he could be so pathetic. I don’t remember any bruises on him that day, though at some point I’d stopped looking. It was easier to stop worrying about Stevie in the winter. With our windows closed we couldn’t hear Mr. Spero shouting at him.
I took the book from him. Jagged pen strokes showed the starfighter exploding. What’s this? Lasers or something?
The NovaWeapon, he said. It hits his ship.
In the next panel, Rocket Boy ejects. The last picture showed him in close-up—the stick figure filled up most of the frame, anyway—floating in space.
He can’t eject into space, I said. He doesn’t have a space suit. He’d die in ten seconds.
We’ll make a suit, Stevie said.
I tossed the notebook back to him. Don’t be a fucking retard, I said.
Even in the dark, I could tell that there was nothing left of Stevie’s old bedroom. The shelves crammed full of plastic models were gone. The paneling and wallpaper had been pulled down, the walls painted glossy white and trimmed in pastel blue. The bed was gone too, replaced by a crib. The bed frame had been blond wood, with panels in the headboard where Stevie kept his paperbacks, videotapes, Super-8 cassettes, and cans of developed film. Had they really given everything away?
I toured the rest of the house in the dark, not wanting to turn on the lights and alert the neighbors. The basement had been divided into rooms and partially finished, but the other rooms looked pretty much as I remembered. The main difference was that every trace of Stevie, except for a few pictures, had been removed.
It took me most of Friday night and part of Saturday to install the cameras and mikes and routers. I needed spots that were high up, with wide angles. The finished rooms in the basement were easy, because the drop ceiling tiles could be pushed out of the way. The upstairs rooms were harder. These ranches didn’t have much of an attic, just crawl spaces above the house and garage that you accessed through little square holes. The work was draining: hours balanced on the beams trying not to put a leg through the insulation and plaster. I was used to working one-legged, but after a half hour I was sweating and trembling from exertion, and itching like mad from the insulation. I had to take a lot of breaks.
I ran power from the light fixtures, drilled down through the plaster ceiling, and popped the little fish-eyes into them. Each camera was about as big as a fifty-cent piece, and most of that was above the ceiling. The lenses themselves were smaller than a dime. I wired the circuit boards on the backs of the cameras to the digital switcher, which was broadcasting at 2.4 gigahertz. I put the antenna next to the wall facing my house. According to the specs I didn’t need the antenna—I should have been able to pick up the cam signals from 700 feet away. But if there’s anything my day job has taught me, it’s that spec-writers lie.
Only three cameras came on without a hitch. The others had cabling problems of one type or another, and I had to spend another two hours crawling around in the attic. Last, I had to vacuum all the plaster that had dropped onto the floors. The house would be cleaner than they’d left it.
By Saturday night I had everything working. I could sit at my desk and tab through most of the rooms in the house from my PC.
I went in again Sunday morning, and this time I actually watered the plants. Then I went room by room and searched every closet, trunk, and suitcase, looking for anything of Stevie’s. I spent a lot of time in the storage room, going through Rubbermaid containers filled with Christmas decorations, photo albums, and old clothes. Under the basement workbench, hidden behind a toolbox, I found two new Jim Beam bottles, one empty, the other down to a couple brown inches, with a plastic cup over the neck. I put them back exactly as I’d found them.
Except for one box of grade school papers, there was nothing of Stevie’s in the house.
It wasn’t until nearly noon that I remembered the attic space above the garage. I had no idea when the Spero’s were coming back. But I had to check it out.
I left my crutches on the floor of the garage and hauled and hopped my way up the stepladder to the square hole. I pushed aside the lid and groped above my head until I found the string for the light.
The junk was half-familiar, stuff that could have come from my own family. A box for a plastic Christmas tree, a rotary fan, a set of kitchen chairs I remembered, taped together boxes with pictures of toaster ovens and car stereos and power tools. I stumped deeper into darkness, toward a stack of cardboard boxes. The seams were thickly taped.
I used my keys to poke and saw through the tape. The first box I opened contained a metal box, like a typewriter case. “Ames H.S. Library” was stenciled on the side. I flipped the metal clasps and pulled off the top.
It was the Super-8 film projector. There was even a spool of film on the arm.
I knew it. I knew they hadn’t thrown it away.
I worked my way through the other boxes, unfolding the cardboard flaps and hauling things into the light. It was all there: the notebooks, the videotapes, the film cans. Even the models—two boxes filled with nothing but plastic spaceships and props.
I’ll pay you, he said.
He was standing under my window, in broad daylight. He wore black cargo pants, shiny black combat boots. He even had on dark eye shadow. He looked like a dork.
Why don’t you come to the front door like everybody else, I said to him. And then: How much?
Ten bucks. It’s the last scene. The last time I’ll ever ask you. All you have to do is hold the camera.
I’m not going to sneak out of my window for ten bucks.
Twenty bucks. Come on, you know you have to see this.
It was a Saturday afternoon, and I didn’t have anything else to do. I went out through the back door, though I made sure nobody saw me.
First, give me the twenty, I said.
He looked annoyed. You’re going to take the money?
I held out my hand. I didn’t want it—I just wanted to see if he had it. And if he’d really pay me.
He handed me two tens, and I stuffed them in my pocket. All right, I said. You’ve hired a camera man.
My house became a studio. The bedroom office was already wired to receive the video broadcasts from my cameras. In the living room I moved the couch to face the large blank wall, and set up the projector on the end table. I pushed the TV and VCR into the corner, so I could watch the videos without leaving the couch. I spent my nights moving between the two rooms, watching whatever I was in the mood for.
That first Sunday, before the Spero’s had even returned, I watched the first tape. Stevie had numbered the videotapes and film cans, so I was able to place them in order. Chapter One of the NovaWeapon Chronicles featured a twelve-year-old Stevie and Timmy, and interminable scenes of plastic models being jerked along on fishing line.
I expected it to be worse than I remembered. But it was worse even than that.
I started watching with the idea that I would capture the interesting or well-done bits and edit them into something coherent. But the videos were almost unwatchable. Often the screen was so dark I couldn’t tell what was happening, and most of the time I couldn’t remember what we’d intended. I was the only person on the planet who could possibly appreciate the NovaWeapon Chronicles, and I was fast-forwarding through hours of it.
The stream of images from next door, however, never stopped flowing, and those never bored me. Even when I was working, I kept a window open on my desktop that I could maximize whenever something caught my eye: Mrs. Spero mopping the kitchen, barefoot. Mr. Spero slipping into the basement and back in less than a minute, like a magic trick. I’d never been that interested in webcams, or reality shows, but this was riveting.
I could follow them from room to room, with a few exceptions. I hadn’t put cameras outside, or in the garage. And I hadn’t put any in the master bedroom or bathroom. I didn’t want to be able to see the Spero’s naked, or having sex, because I knew I’d watch. Still, it was a small house. I’d like to say that I shut down the window the first time I saw Mrs. Spero walk from the bathroom to the bedroom with a towel around her waist. I never even reached for the mouse.
I found the televised William even more fascinating than the audio-only version. When he slept, he abandoned himself totally: jaw slack, arms thrown to the side. When he cried, he threw his entire body into it. I admired his focus. Sometimes when he was crawling toward a certain toy, or reaching toward the airplanes that dangled above his bed, I could see him thinking.
I was surprised that when he cried in the middle of the night, it was mostly Mr. Spero who got up to hold him. He picked up William without a word, and walked around the house like a sleepwalker, letting the boy cry himself out. After work, he threw William around like he had on the patio that day. He rarely changed diapers or bathed the child, but he did get on the floor and play with him.
Had he been like this with Stevie, at first? Before Stevie crossed him for the first time, at the wrong time? Perhaps he liked his children better when they were small and helpless and compliant.
I waited for that moment when Mr. or Mrs. Spero would look up at the ceiling, squint at the discolored plaster, and go get the stepladder. But no one looked at the ceilings except William. Sometimes he’d be on his back, staring straight up at the camera, and I’d pretend that he knew. That some baby instinct told him I was up there, looking down on him. I’d wave at the screen. Hiya, Will. What are you thinking about, down there?
We walked out to the quarry, Stevie lugging the camera and a gym bag. The starfighter was set up on the field on the other side of the pit. It was twenty-two feet tall, sitting nose up like the shuttle before launch. The body was primer gray, with the red and black Counter-Revolutionary StarForce logos on each stubby wing. The foil rims around the thrusters glinted like hammered metal.
Holy cow, I said. You really did it.
It was only when we moved around the side that I could see that the back was unfinished. The cylindrical body was hollow, the two ends held together with crosshatched strips of unpainted wood.
The back doesn’t matter, he said. We’ll only film it from the front.
On the grass behind the ship were paint cans and stacks of cloth and empty milk jugs. One huge cardboard box overflowed with crumpled brown plastic containers. Stevie had been out here a lot.
I helped him lift his dad’s extension ladder out of the grass, and we propped it up against the side of the ship. The structure shuddered and swayed.
I climbed up, excited despite myself. Stevie had managed to make a curved clear hatch out of two sheets of Plexiglas. It fastened to a wooden crossbar with big hinges, so you could swing it open and closed. There was a little platform in there, with a metal folding chair on its back, so Stevie could sit with his face to the sky. The flight stick was a black broom handle, the instrument panel a slab of wood with painted-on controls labeled in the alien alphabet we’d made up in eighth grade.
A car battery sat next to the chair, close to where Stevie’s head would be. The red and black clamps of jumper cables lay next to the battery, unattached. The cable disappeared through a hole in the platform.
What’s the battery for?
Special effects, he said.
Even with work and hours spent watching William, I skimmed through the dozens of taped chapters in a week. I promised myself I’d take more time with the Super-8 footage.
The films required more of a ritual. Before viewing each reel I spooled through it by hand, reconnecting the sections where the splices had broken. Stevie had sometimes used real splicing tape, but more often he’d used Scotch tape that had yellowed and split. The Bell and Howell projector was touchy. I learned how to thread the film with a loop of slack to stop it from stuttering. I learned how to replace the lamps, ordered over the Internet from a warehouse in Oregon.
The filmed chapters were much better than the tapes. Shorter, for one. The film cost money to develop, so we couldn’t let things just run on and on. And Stevie had edited down even the short scenes. His technique matured from reel to reel: he paid attention to time of day and the location of props, he showed exterior shots before jumping to the interior, and he cut cleanly between characters. Scenes had rhythm.
And I realized that Stevie was right: Video was a cold medium. It’s too specific: all harsh colors and wind noise and tinny dialogue. Better to reduce to shades of gray and silence, and develop slowly in darkness. I don’t know where the warmth comes from. Maybe something in the act of projection: the lamp blasting each frame onto the screen, suffusing it with light, reconstituting each tree and person and building in photons.
I took my time. I watched only one reel a night, though I allowed myself to watch it multiple times. After all, there was no reason to hurry. There was no final reel. Once there’d been a Super-8 cassette, undeveloped, pulled from the wreckage of the camera. Maybe it still existed. Maybe the police still had it, or the Spero’s, hidden in some niche I hadn’t found. Or maybe they’d burned it, and no one would ever see it.
It didn’t matter. I knew how the story ended.
Perhaps that was part of the attraction of my little cameras. Channel William, his ongoing saga broadcast live to my PC, was never in re-runs. Some nights I slept on the futon in the office, so I could check on him just by opening my eyes. I’d long since stopped feeling like a voyeur. I felt like I was in the house with them, intangible and invisible. The family ghost.
I climbed down the ladder, shaking my head at how much work he’d put in. The whole structure swayed with my weight.
Is that thing going to hold you? I asked.
It doesn’t have to stay up long, he said. This is the last scene I need to film.
How can this be the last scene? What about ejecting into space, the whole space suit thing? How can you have him ejecting before you even launch?
Don’t be a fucking retard, he said, in the same snotty tone I’d used. This is the last scene I need to film. I already finished the other stuff. Nobody films in sequence. I’ll put it all back together in the editing room.
You mean your basement.
He rolled his eyes.
So what did you make the space suit out of? I asked.
There is no space suit.
And when he ejects, what? Suffocates? Explodes in the vacuum?
Stevie didn’t answer.
Really? Rocket Boy dies?
What do you care? he said finally.
I started laughing. Come on, five years of the NovaWeapon chronicles and they just shoot him out of the sky and he dies? That’s like killing off Luke Skywalker.
Obi-wan died, he said, and came back in the sequels.
Only as a ghost. Ghosts don’t count.
Stevie ignored me. He pulled off his t-shirt and squatted to open the gym bag. His back was covered with bruises so blue they were almost black.
Holy shit, I said.
He pulled the black mesh shirt out of the bag. Don’t worry about it, he said. Just hull damage, right? He pulled on the shirt, and he was Rocket Boy again.
There were any number of things I could have said or done. New ones still occur to me.
Listen, Stevie said. I want a long shot—an establishing shot. He handed me the notebook, page open to the storyboards.
Just like that, he said. Stand over there by the fence. Film me getting into the rocket, and closing the hatch. Make sure you get me moving inside the cockpit, so they know it’s not a model. Just keep filming until I tell you to stop, got it? Don’t turn off the camera.
Obi-Wan was only a supporting character, I said, and started walking across the field.
The night I should have been paying the most attention, I was in bed, in the next room. I didn’t even have the scanner on. The screams came through the computer speakers in the office.
I don’t know how long they’d been going on before they woke me. Maybe only seconds. Maybe minutes. I bolted out of bed and stumble-hopped down the hall without my crutches. I swiveled the monitor to face me.
The baby was on the floor, shrieking. Mr. Spero stood over him, dressed only in pajama bottoms, his fists on his hips.
William had never made a sound like this before. It was a screech, as if he’d been cut or burnt.
Mr. Spero abruptly squatted, grabbed the baby under the armpits, and carried him out of the room. William was still screaming. I switched to the hall camera, but Mr. Spero walked straight into the master bedroom and I lost him again.
Fuck. I clicked through the camera views, but I couldn’t see a thing. But I could still hear William. That piercing cry was being picked up by all the microphones.
I rushed back to the bedroom and pulled on a pair of sweats and a t-shirt that pulled down over flange and bag. I grabbed my crutches and lurched outside, bare toes scuffing the pavement as I crossed the two driveways.
I mashed the doorbell, then without waiting for an answer, banged on the wooden door and yelled. “Open the door! Now! Open the door!”
No one answered. I could still hear William screaming. I twisted the doorknob, but it was locked. “Mr. Spero! Where are you? Where’s the baby?”
The door flew open. Mr. Spero’s skin under his robe was fish white. “What the hell do you want?” he said, shocked.
I pushed forward, and got inside the frame of the door. “Show me the baby.”
“Get the hell out of my house!”
“Show me William.”
He started to close the door, but I lunged forward, got another leg inside. Mr. Spero raised his right fist.
“What are you going to do, Mr. Spero. Hit me?”
I wanted it. Local Man Hits Crippled Neighbor. I wasn’t worried about being hurt—this body’s only a vehicle, after all.
He slammed the door back against the wall. “Get out of my fucking house.”
“Not until you show me the baby.”
Mrs. Spero came into the room, wearing the green nightgown, holding William on her shoulder. He was quiet now.
She frowned at me. “Tim? It’s two a.m.”
“I know, I just—”
I couldn’t say, what was he doing on the floor? Did Mr. Spero drop him? Throw him on the ground?
“I heard him screaming.”
“Babies do that,” Mr. Spero said.
I ignored him, and looked only at Mrs. Spero. “He’s all right? Are you sure?”
She turned slightly, so I could see William’s face. His eyes were screwed up tight, and he was sobbing, but he didn’t look bruised or hurt.
“Is he all right?”
“He had a stomach cramp,” she said. “He’s fine.”
My memory is a series of still images, squared off by the viewfinder.
Stevie on the first rung of the ladder, knee raised, hands gripping the rails.
Higher, a dark look over his shoulder—not toward me, but toward some point in the distance, perhaps the enemy troops flying in.
At the top, the lid of the cockpit open like a beetle’s wing, and Stevie gazing into the crowded compartment.
From my desk I watched her place the baby in his crib. He had fallen asleep in her arms, and barely stirred as she laid him on the mattress. Mr. and Mrs. Spero exchanged only a few words, then disappeared into their bedroom.
I sat in front of the PC for an hour, watching and listening. William’s face was dimly lit from his nightlight. The house was absolutely still except for the sound of his breathing.
I went into the living room, too wired to sleep myself. I picked up the can of film I’d set aside for tomorrow night’s viewing. It was the last can from Stevie’s boxes, the last reel before the never-developed Last Reel.
I checked the film, going slow because it was heavily edited, spliced every dozen frames. He’d worked hard on this one. Eventually I threaded it into the projector and flicked on the lamp.
No sound except the clack of sprockets in the brittle film. The titles came up: a hand-stenciled sign. “The NovaWeapon Chronicles.” Flick, and the sign changed. “Final Chapter.”
I frowned. So far, Stevie had never made a chapter that spanned two reels. The movie couldn’t be complete without the scene I’d filmed.
The screen flashed—sun glare on the lens—and out of the white a tiny silhouette plummeted out of the sky. The camera cut to another angle: the same figure, still far away, falling and tumbling, arms and legs outstretched. Then another cut, and another, each shot from a slightly different angle, and the figure fell closer and closer.
I saw a flash of rocks in the background. It was the quarry. I remembered filming it, shooting up from the bottom of the pit, staring into the sun.
And then there were new images, things that Stevie had filmed himself.
I finished the reel, rewound it, watched it again.
A dark shape in the Plexiglas bubble like the pupil of an eye, his hand lifted in a StarForce salute.
I answered the door still wearing the sweats and t-shirt I’d pulled on the night before.
She held a squirming William on one hip. She turned toward the door as it opened, and smiled in a way that seemed rehearsed.
“Tim, I wanted—are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” My eyes felt raw. I probably looked like hell.
She paused, and then nodded. William pulled at her shoulders. “I’d like to talk about last night.”
She smiled again, nervous. “Let’s not do this on the front step. This boy is heavy.”
William bent backwards over her arm, sure that it was impossible for his mother to drop him. He looked fine. Absolutely fine.
Mrs. Spero had never come into my yard before, much less my house. I glanced behind me. The drapes were pulled, and the room was dim. The box full of films and tapes sat in plain sight on the floor. The projector was next to the couch, aimed at the wall.
“It’s kind of a mess.”
“I promise not to tell your mom,” she said. A thin smile.
I didn’t open the door. “I’m sorry if I upset you,” I said.
“I know what you’re doing, Tim.”
My face went hot, and I smiled automatically. “Yeah?”
“You’re looking out for me. For the baby. But you don’t have to do that.”
“I don’t? That’s what neighbors do for each other.”
“John’s different now. He’s good with William.”
“Hey, that’s great,” I said. “That’s really good.”
“You don’t believe me.”
“I’d like to believe you. Does it matter? I hope you’re right.”
William squawked at me, excited but serious, frowning like Alfred Hitchcock. I held my hands out to him, and he grabbed my fingers, hard. I laughed.
“He stopped drinking, Tim.” She waited until I looked at her. “You know he used to drink?”
I shrugged, still holding William’s hands. I’d only figured this out later, after college, after I’d met a few people who were in recovery. When I was a kid, I’d noticed Mr. Spero always had a drink in his hand. But he wasn’t a drunk. That was Otis on the Andy Griffith Show. “I guess that’s a pretty good excuse,” I said lightly.
“It’s not an excuse!”
I dropped William’s hands, and he leaned toward me. Mrs. Spero shifted him higher on her hip.
“That’s not what I’m saying,” she said, her calm voice back again. “But you have to understand, he was a different person then. He shouldn’t have been so hard on Stevie, but—”
I stared at her. Hard on him? Did she not know? Hadn’t she seen the bruises?
No, of course not. She hadn’t seen a thing. None of us had.
“Tim, people can change. There are second chances. I know you may not want to believe this, but after Steven’s suicide—”
“It wasn’t suicide.” I struggled to keep my voice level.
“He showed me the storyboards. It wasn’t a suicide. It was a plan, in two stages, like—”
“It was a launch. The starfighter is destroyed, but Rocket Boy ejects. The pilot is intact.”
Mrs. Spero shook her head, her eyes wet. “Oh, Tim.” Her voice was full of pity. For me.
“There’s something you need to see,” I said.
The ship, splintered with light. In the middle distance, the hint of bright metal and wooden shards, blurred by speed and spin, slicing toward the lens.
We sat on the couch like a little family, William between us, sitting up by himself and obviously pleased. Mrs. Spero regarded the blank wall, her face composed. She hadn’t commented on the projector, or the box full of videotapes and film cans. She must have recognized them.
I turned on the projector lamp and the light hit the white wall, askew. I adjusted one of the legs and the image straightened. The machine chattered through the blank leader tape.
William ignored the light and sound. He abruptly threw himself forward, making for the floor, and Mrs. Spero automatically put out a hand.
“Could I hold him?” I asked.
She nodded, her attention already on the flickering wall, and I moved my hands under his arms. I was surprised how heavy he was. I sat him on my lap, facing me. He was unimpressed.
The opening titles appeared. The final chapter. If she was surprised, she didn’t show it. I might have been showing her the dense data tables I worked with.
In silence we watched the tiny figure falling out of the sky, falling out of the light. Reentry. The figure drew closer, until finally the rock walls flashed up and Rocket Boy hit the ground.
The camera switched to a point just above the pit floor, tilted slightly down. The sheet—the parachute—settled over the ground and covered a man-shaped lump. Touch down.
Mrs. Spero looked at me.
“Just watch,” I said. “He filmed this himself.” Before the explosion, before the Death of Rocket Boy.
Nobody films in sequence.
William twisted around, looking for his mother. “Don’t worry,” I said. “She’s right there. I got you.” I jiggled him on my good knee, wondering at what frequency and duration his stomach became unstable.
The screen darkened. It was night, and the camera looked down from the top of the quarry. At the bottom, the sheet reflected the moonlight. It was too big to be our handkerchief, and the lump it covered too long to be G.I. Joe.
The camera switched to the floor of the pit, tripod level. The “parachute” glowed prettily, but it was obviously just an ordinary cotton sheet, with none of the sheen of silk.
The sheet moved, and a naked arm reached out, fingers twitching. I had to smile, imagining the melodramatic background music Stevie would have wanted. The arm was streaked with fake-looking blood. Too pale, too shiny. He should have used Karo.
William pulled at my t-shirt, trying to get his feet under him. On screen, Rocket Boy tossed back the sheet.
“Oh God,” Mrs. Spero said.
Stevie was curled into a fetal position, naked. The blood described rivulets across his arms and neck. His back was covered with dark blotches—bruises. On film, they were too flat, too black, like holes through his pale skin, as unconvincing as the blood.
Stevie slowly got to his feet, facing the camera. Naked, pale skin shining. He looked up to the stars.
“The Return of Rocket Boy,” I said to her.
Rocket Boy raised his arms in triumph, held them there. The screen went black.
Mrs. Spero sobbed almost silently, her shoulders jerking with ragged breaths.
The last of the film ejected. The reel continued to spin, the tail of film slapping the body of the projector. Mrs. Spero stared at the square of empty light.
William yanked at the collar of my shirt. I lifted him in the air, and his face cracked open into a wild grin. His eyes were bright.
I recognized that look.
I tilted him left, right, flying him in my arms, and he cackled. Hey there, little man. Can you see me in there? I’m waving at you.