The streets were even quieter than usual. Cassie held tight to Shay’s hand as they walked to the corner store. They were out of juice; Cassie didn’t think they’d need any, but Shay was five and demanding, so they went.
The Benson boys were the only other ones out, leaning against the boarded-up window on their usual corner, sharing a cigarette. Their mother had qualified – she was a physics professor – but she’d refused to leave her family, so they simply came and took her late one night while her husband swore and her boys sobbed.
Cassie liked to think Jason had qualified and just hadn’t gotten the chance to tell her before he left. It was better than many of the alternatives.
“Look, Mommy!” Shay pointed, her eyes wide with delight. “Rocket ships!”
Cassie looked south first. If they were launching from the south, that meant shuttles, more of the qualified being borne to the station that awaited high in the thermosphere. You could see it at night, if you knew where and when to look, a bright white dot racing east as if escaping something, only to retread its path two hours later.
The southern skies were clear – but to the north, nine white lines arced ever higher like a pen sketching a fresh blueprint.
Then the shuttles launched.
Cassie looked away. The Benson boys stared at the silvery trails, cigarette forgotten.
“I want to watch them!” Shay cried as Cassie resumed walking.
“We can watch from home, sweetie.”
“They’ll be all gone!”
“There will still be plenty,” Cassie murmured. And they continued towards the store.
Inside, Wendy was on duty, taking off her nametag while she stared at the breaking news. She managed a smile for them, but tears filled her eyes when she spotted Shay. Cassie waved, but made sure Shay walked on her other side, where she couldn’t see Wendy and ask what had made her sad. They had perhaps half an hour; they’d spend it well, without tears.
First, a bottle of wine. Next, ice cream sandwiches – Shay pointed excitedly at the box with the polar bear. Both items went on the conveyor belt.
“But Mommy, you forgot juice!”
“We’re getting ice cream instead.” What five-year-old could argue with that?
Wendy’s keys were out on the counter, her nametag propped up on the top row of her keyboard. The news overhead was a tangle of white contrails – more rockets had launched, many more, very few of them shuttles.
“How does ‘on the house’ sound?” Wendy asked wryly.
“At least pretend?” Cassie mimed scanning. “For her?”
Wendy’s lips compressed, restraining tears, but she scanned the wine and the ice cream and bagged them. She said a price and Cassie handed over a twenty.
Wendy shook her head. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Please?” Cassie whispered. Shay was fidgeting, eyeing the polar bear through the translucent bag.
Wendy opened the drawer and counted out change as swiftly and precisely as she always did. She pressed the coins into Cassie’s hand and squeezed it. Nothing could possibly be said.
Cassie looked back as they left: Wendy was staring up at the news, shredding the twenty into precise confetti.
Back at home, Cassie poured the wine and unwrapped an ice cream sandwich for Shay, who had forgotten all about juice. Fifteen minutes left, perhaps. Ten? The news would have accurate tracking, but Cassie left the TV off. Upstairs, their last remaining neighbors were packing. Cassie hadn’t known their names, didn’t know where they’d go. Their next-door neighbors, the Blackburns, had gone to stay with family upstate. They all knew it wasn’t far enough, but Cassie had wished them well.
She looked around the kitchen, the spaghetti pot still soaking, Shay’s leftover cereal by the sink. The clean dishes in the rack were dry. She thought about putting them away, but instead she opened a cabinet and found one of the gold-rimmed champagne flutes. She poured her wine into the new glass and set the old in the sink.
She turned back to Shay, who was already sticky with ice cream. “Do you want to watch the rockets?”
Shay beamed. “Yeah!”
The small deck faced east. They could see uninterrupted sky, the blue and white china-plate designs becoming ever more complex. The quiet surprised her, but she was grateful for it. She lifted Shay onto her lap.
“Can you count them?” she whispered, brushing trembling fingers through the brown curls.
Shay pointed. “One…two…three…”