Andrew Hinshaw resides in the Midwest due to a series of questionable decisions. Once a DJ and dog food factory lineman, he now works in a field more suited to his background in psychology. In his free time, he spends his days looking stoic in photos and participating in workshops hosted by author and instructor Seth Harwood. This is his first published short story.
Gary shifted in the bus’s uncomfortable foam seat and let his mind drift to his absent wife as he stared out at the snowcapped Rockies. Stacy had finally fallen asleep after having fought against it, as most children do. Her head rested in his lap and her legs stretched out onto the adjacent window seat. Gary couldn’t remember the last time he’d slept more than a few hours. He envied her that. Despite her pallor, she looked content. For the tenth time Gary pulled out the folded itinerary from his shirt pocket, and verified they’d make it to Baltimore on time. As it stood now, they’d be able to spend a few hours in Huntsville as he’d promised, assuming there was no blown tires or delayed transfers during their thirty hour journey across the Midwest.
He folded the heavily creased paper and stuffed it back into his shirt pocket. He’d brought a book, but it remained packed in his faded olive drab duffle bag that sat on the floor between his feet. Gary used to love getting lost in a good book, but after Madeline had left, he could never focus, often finding himself in the middle and not recalling what he’d read moments before.
Instead, he’d amused himself for the last hour by watching two young brothers bickering across the bus’s aisle. One had been attempting to read Stranger in a Strange Land (Gary spotted it as they boarded; it had been one of Madeline’s favorites). The other, much to his bookish brother’s chagrin, kept trying to swipe a silver flask from the back pocket of a drunken man slumped forward a few seats ahead.
Gary’s smile faded as he looked down at Stacy. He tugged at the bottom of her new dress, pulling it down over her thin legs. He’d purchased the dress just a few hours before on their way to the Denver bus station. On the corner of Sixteenth and Curtis, just feet away from construction workers clad in reflective vests, Stacy had stopped and stared through a dusty storefront window. A featureless face of a child-sized mannequin, ashen and polished smooth, stared back. The doll was clad in a white and yellow summer dress with a narrow, shiny black belt. Madeline had had one just like it.
“Tell me again,” Stacy said. She hadn’t fallen asleep after all.
Gary looked down to see that Stacy was staring forward at the faded paisley blue seat back. She reached out with a small, pink index finger to pick at what looked like a cigarette burn in the fabric.
“I thought you wanted to see the mountains?”
“No,” Stacy pouted, furrowing her brow. She brought her hand to her mouth to stifle a wet cough. “I don't care about the mountains! I want to hear the story.”
Gary let out an exaggerated sigh. “You’re a tough negotiator. But, okay.” He rubbed his face in an attempt to rouse himself, ignoring the calluses that scraped against his greying stubble. “There was once a lovely lady named Madeline. She was very special and very pretty and very smart. She loved all things about the cosmos. And when she was a little girl like you--when all the other kids busied themselves with games and dolls--she spent all her time dreaming of going up into space.”
Stacy looked up at Gary and her face beamed as if his words were pure gold. He looked up at the bus’s grey ceiling, as if he could see right through it, past the clouds above and into the stars beyond.
“And that dream almost came true,” Gary said. “Madeline was a final applicant for NASA’s Astronaut Candidate Program.”
“Don’t you remember?” He looked back down at her with raised eyebrows.
Stacy traced a tattoo on Gary’s forearm that read 4TH INF DIV as she searched for the answer. “Other people who wanted to go to space too, silly,” Gary said before continuing. “And unfortunately, despite all her hard work, they picked one of them instead. But she wasn’t discouraged; she knew she’d find some way to go, even if others could go before her.” Gary smiled a crooked smile. “You know, she used to say the only thing she could love more than all the stars above was a little girl of her own.”
Gary bopped Stacy’s nose with his finger. She giggled.
“So, with her plans delayed, Madeline did the next best thing: she got a job working at Space Camp at the Huntsville U.S. Space and Rocket Center, to show little kids, just like you, how awesome space was.”
“Is that why she left, daddy? Because you didn't want to go to space, too?”
Gary looked again through the window (or squircle, as Madeline would’ve called it because of its rounded corners) and out at the passing trees. The mountains behind the trees remained static and unchanging, as if the landscape was nothing more than a lie, a clever rendition. Gary imagined shattering the glass and pressing a finger through the fabrication on the other side. “Yes,” he said. “I suppose that could be why.”
“Is she there now?”
“Not yet.” He looked down at Stacy and pushed strands of blonde hair behind her ear. “Going to space is really complex. She’s still preparing, but I think she’ll leave soon. And if we get there in time, she’ll be able to take Asti with her.”
At this, Stacy looked down at the small orange and white cooler containing her dead fish. It sat next to her small pink suitcase and both were stuffed under the seat to their left. She craned her neck to look back up at Gary. “Why can't Asti come with us all the way to Mary-Land?”
“They only specialize in helping little girls there,” Gary said. “I’m sorry babe, Asti’s beyond even Dr. Grey’s abilities. Now let’s try and get some sleep.”
As Stacy slept, Gary watched as the mountains levelled out and turned into the flatlands of Kansas. The bus’s engine thrummed through the floor as the pale-yellow hay fields slowly disappeared, replaced with the quaint red and brown buildings of Kansas City. Stacy awoke some time later and, laying her head against Gary’s chest, joined him in silence. Together they watched the buildings become less and less frequent, replaced with empty blackness of night and the steady rhythm of the passing highway lights. As night turned to morning, the landscape changed to the lush greens and sweeping hills of Missouri as they neared St. Louis.
The bus transfer was unremarkable. Despite the salty scent of exhaust and the forgettable view of warped chain link fencing and distant, drab buildings, Gary tried to take some time to stretch and move around before boarding. He tried to get Stacy to eat but she refused. They boarded early into the mostly barren bus. A bespectacled elderly couple sat near the front and offered kind smiles as Gary and Stacy headed down the aisle. He let Stacy pick, and they settled into their seats in the very back for the rest of their trip towards their first stop in Huntsville.
Gary checked his tactical watch on the underside of his wrist. Seven hours to go. They’d arrive in Huntsville at three in the afternoon and would have just over two hours before having to leave again for Baltimore. Then, they’d have another full day of travelling, including two more transfers before arriving in Maryland.
As they drove through Nashville, Gary watched with regret as they passed from afar the Grand Ole Opry. Aside from a purple sign, he couldn’t see much of the building as it was surrounded by green trees and intricately shaped shrubs. Perhaps in the future he and Stacy could go there. He’d show her what real music was.
“This is our stop,” Gary said as the bus came to a halt. “You okay baby? You hungry?”
She shook her head as she struggled to get to her feet, rubbing puffy eyes with her palms. Gary shouldered his duffle bag and grabbed her suitcase, but Stacy insisted on carrying the cooler. The bus’s front doors opened and the humid Alabaman air flooded the cabin. They walked through the aisle, down the black steps and onto the malt colored concrete. As they headed to the street out front, Stacy dragged her hand along the station’s painted brick walls that failed to hide the graffiti underneath.
Gary hailed a cab. As they neared the Space and Rocket Center, Stacy could hardly wait to exit, giddy that she could see the massive rocket from so far away, despite it being surrounded by the museum’s many large buildings. Gary kept a hand on her shoulder as she stepped out, asking her to stay by his side while he paid. The two of them turned and walked towards the entrance. The large rectangular building reflected the clouds above, its walls made entirely of windows. A sleek SR-71 Blackbird jet sat parked outside, gated with knee high railing. The weathered black paint over the jet’s smooth curves had a dusty chalkboard appearance. Still, Gary felt the retired aircraft was a sight to behold.
Rounding the Blackbird, they passed through two large blue columns and up concrete stairs into the air conditioned building. Gary bought tickets from a pretty blonde with a smile full of braces who stood behind a curved graphite ticket desk. She stood next to a life size astronaut cardboard cutout.
As they entered the main exhibit area, Gary had a hoped something would catch Stacy’s eye, such as a series of exhibits chronicling America’s part in the space race or the impressive, domed IMAX with a sixty-seven foot screen. Unfortunately, Stacy ignored these things, eyeing the rocket outside through the many large windows.
She led Gary by hand and they exited the other side of the building and stepped back out onto a hot concrete ramp. Sloping downward, it ended at the edge of a large oblong hexagon of green grass with benches on either side. Stacy momentarily mistook the Saturn I rocket on the other side of the grass as their destination, but Gary lifted her up and rotated right so she could see the much larger Saturn V in the distance. An American flag was painted on the side of the massive, black and white conical rocket, whose base was hidden by green trees with white flowering buds. Gary put Stacy down, and they navigated towards the rocket, heading through swathes of people who gathered around various sites. It was a hot day, despite the increased clouds. Gary’s damp shirt stuck to his back once they arrived.
Stacy stopped and stared up at the Saturn V, her mouth agape from bending her head so far back. To their right, two kids with plaster skin and straight black bangs stood with their father who wore a round straw hat. The man knelt down, closed an eye and lifted a camera to his face, rotating the lenses black barrel. The sidewalk under him curved and narrowed like the tip of a giant red scythe.
“You can touch it if you want,” Gary said from behind her.
The rocket jutted upwards towards the metallic sky, a line of distant bushy, sage green trees drawing a jagged horizon beyond. She hesitated, eyeing the enormous silver fins sticking out from the rocket’s base and the angular, cement blocks that anchored it to the ground. Squat, conical grey engines hung like small huts from the bottom of the rocket but didn’t touch the ground. “Mom’s in there?” Stacy asked, still gawking at the rocket. “Like inside?”
“Yes.” Gary lowered his voice, casting a quick, mischievous glance to the man with the camera. “But we’re not allowed to tell anyone. It’s a secret.”
She turned and looked up at him. “Can we see her?”
“She can’t leave baby. We’ve talked about this.”
She turned back towards the rocket and dropped her gaze down to the cooler that sat in front of her red sneakers. “What if she doesn't like tiger fishes anymore?”
It was a lionfish, but Gary had given up correcting her long ago. “She loves Asti, because she loves you.”
She turned to face him again. “Where do we put her?”
He looked around to make sure no one was listening, then knelt down and beckoned her closer with a single curling finger. “There’s a hidden slot.”
Her eyes widened and she lowered her voice to a whisper. “Where?”
Gary placed a hand on her back and pointed over her shoulder with the other. There was a square opening the width of a deck of cards on the side of one of the massive concrete blocks supporting the rocket. Stacy looked down at the cooler again, then back at Gary. “So we just put Asti in there? That’s it?”
“Yep,” Gary said. “There’s a tank inside.”
Stacy took in a deep, raspy breath and bent down to open the cooler. She reached in and pulled out a clear plastic sandwich bag that had been sitting atop melting ice. Holding the bag in front of her, she examined the dead fish within. Narrow, rusty stripes crossed its cream colored body and its multicolored fins and spines clung to the moisture inside.
The name Astraea was chosen by Madeline after an immortal goddess who abandoned earth to become the constellation Virgo. Stacy, unable to pronounce it, had only ever called the fish Asti. She’d given Astraea to Stacy on her third birthday. It came with a card with a handwritten quote by Henry Van Dyke, which read:
Be glad of life,
because it gives you the chance
to love, work, play
and to look up at the stars.
Gary reached out to retrieve the bag, but Stacy refused to hand it over. She began walking toward the rocket. He grabbed her arm and she turned to face him.
“Sure you don’t want me to go with you, honey?”
“No thanks,” she said, smiling. She mashed away strands of thin hair that had come loose from behind her ear and blew across her face. Her sweet smile dimpled her ivory cheeks but it no longer touched her eyes, giving her the resolute expression of her mother.
Gary swallowed as he let go Stacy’s arm, and watched as his pale-skinned, emaciated daughter, whose dress seemed to have grown larger and looser in just a day's time, turned around and headed towards the defunct rocket. Arriving, she stared again up at the massive conical pillar to the sky, gripping the plastic baggie to her chest.
The man to their right dropped his camera to his chest, still kneeling, and cast a quizzical look towards Gary. Gary replied with a tight smile and the man looked down to one of his kids who were tugging on his pants, pointing at some other distant fascination.
He looked to Stacy and she looked back. He nodded.
The fish’s lifeless body slid out of the bag in one quick blur and disappeared into the small slit in the concrete block. Stacy yelped, dropping the empty bag, which twirled in a soft breeze before hitting the ground. “She bit me!”
Gary ran to Stacy and grabbed her hands, examining both sides. He found no wounds. He knelt down and moved his hands to her shoulders, staring into her eyes.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Stacy said. “Asti just scared me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes,” she said, smiling again. “I love you, Daddy.”
Gary’s sucked in a quick breath. Stacy stared back, innocent, loving. No one else existed for that moment, just the two of them, the feel of her soft dress under his fingers, the warmth of her gaze.
He pressed his hand against Stacy’s pink cheek, wiping away a nonexistent tear with his thumb. “I love you too, baby.” He kissed her on the forehead, then stood up and stared down at her. “So...what do you want to do now?”
Stacy’s eyes brightened and she gripped her fists to her chest. Her two front teeth peeked through her pink lips as she smiled. “Ooh! Let’s go to the tornado machine!”
Gary laughed. “Anything you want, sweetie.” He checked his watch before spinning on his heels and looking around. “I think it was near Shuttle Park.”
Gary and Stacy spent the next two hours visiting the sights, including the Cyclone Generator, in which Stacy squawked in delight as her hair twirled above her head. They poked around at the space memorabilia and watched a three hundred sixty degree, high definition view of earth in the IMAX dome. They even stopped at the Mars Grill, and Gary was pleased to see her munch happily away on a corn dog.
Stacy walked two steps to Gary’s one as they exited the center. Gary hailed a cab. As they pulled away from the curb, Gary rolled down the window and Stacy scooted over to sit on his lap.
“Goodbye Asti! Goodbye Mommy!” Stacy yelled as she waved out the window. Gary waved along with her towards the complex containing the enormous rocket. It passed by on their right before disappearing from view. Gary hugged his daughter and kissed her cheek as droplets of rain began to stick to the windshield.
“Her first time?” The portly, mustached cab driver asked. His brown eyes looked at Gary through the narrow glass of the rearview mirror.
“No,” Gary said, still staring ahead at the rain speckled road. “She’s been there once before. With her mother.”
As they exited the cab and approached the bus station, Gary shifted Stacy to his right, avoiding a man on a red bench who exhaled a plume of smoke while chatting on his cell. After collecting their tickets, they boarded immediately. The large, rectangular navy blue bus’s engine hummed and crackled as Gary helped Stacy walk up the stairs. Several passengers had already boarded, a few of them offering lazy, uninterested glances as Gary and Stacy found their seats. Gary stowed their luggage and sat down. Stacy took a window seat, then resumed her position of lying down in his lap. Rain began to drum against the bus’s roof and streak its large windows. Thunder grumbled in the distance as the achromatic clouds now blotted out the sun entirely.
After an hour on the road, exhaustion struck. It was as if gravity had doubled. Gary’s eyelids drooped. Even keeping his jaw closed took effort. He looked down at Stacy, who had fallen into a deep sleep. She looked so fragile, like a porcelain doll. Before she’d laid down, Stacy had pulled out the card from her suitcase that Madeline had given her. Its tattered edges pressed against her chest as she gripped it tight.
Amid the few coughs, hushed conversations and the treble ticking of a passenger’s headphones, Gary heard something else, something odd. It was coming from the passenger in front of him. The woman’s long, curly blond hair spilled partly over the back of her seat. Leaning forward, Gary noted her hair smelled of lilacs and rain, and realized the woman’s dress was not unlike the one Stacy had on now. He reached to touch the woman’s shoulder, but froze when he saw her phone. On the screen was a blurred object with a expanding vapor trail. Below the image, a news caption read: Unexplained Rocket Launch at U.S. Space and Rocket Center.
The bus struck a pothole and jostled Gary awake.
It had gotten darker out. He rubbed his eyes and checked his watch again. Two hours had passed. He looked down at Stacy and rubbed her back. He didn’t want to wake her, but it was time for her pills. “Stacy?” He said, shaking her shoulder. Her hand opened and Madeline’s card fell to the floor. “Stacy baby? Wake up. It’s time for your medicine.”