Half an Hour

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…”

Save

02:39 UTC

 “We got a good picture now.”

A television hummed in the small family room, broadcasting news that no one was really listening to anymore. Mommy and Daddy and their friends were all on their feet, cheering, clinking beer bottles. Wendy was watching from the top of the stairs. She was supposed to be in bed, but how could she have possibly slept, with those men walking around on that shining crescent out her window?

Onscreen, gray shapes and those impossible words: LIVE FROM THE SURFACE OF THE MOON. They’d landed a whole six hours ago and were just now actually getting to walk on the Moon, and everyone in the world got to watch, live, from an unfathomable two hundred thousand miles away.

“Here he comes!” Mrs. Clawson, who believed in little green men, was the only grown-up still paying attention to the screen. The others hushed. Halfway through clinking bottles with Mr. Watson, Daddy spotted Wendy, her face scrunched between the balusters. She shrank back, torn between fear of her inevitable punishment and wanting to see Commander Armstrong set foot on the Moon.

“Someone’s coming down the ladder!” Mommy whispered.

“There’s a foot coming down,” Walter Cronkite echoed.

Wendy mimed pleading at Daddy, who grinned and gestured downstairs. She skidded down the carpeted steps and climbed into his lap.

The hulking, space-suited figure was making its way down the ladder with agonizing slowness. Wendy’s foot twitched impatiently, and she saw Daddy’s finger tapping against his bottle. No one spoke.

More huge words: ARMSTRONG ON MOON. More clinking glass, and amazed murmurs instead of cheers. Mrs. Clawson dabbed her eyes with her handkerchief.

“Pretty incredible, huh, kiddo?” Daddy said.

“Can I stay up and watch more?” Wendy whispered.

“That’s one small step for man…”

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world.”

Save

Small Mercies

I envy – and I recognize my
irony – those who can pray
praises to fill a censer,
certain of their hope.
Open and raw,
Abba, Father, I cry only
leniency, relief, mercy.
See me? Small though I am?

Oh, I am worn out,
outdone, overrun,
run down. I need filling up.
Upon this rock, I listen:
Envy grows no good fruit –
root down my soul, water me.
Even here, tenderly, meekly,
leaves unfurl, silver and new.

Girly Burger

“It might be the best thing to ever happen to you.”

“I highly doubt that.”

We’re in line at a burger joint, the four of us staring up at the chalkboard menu. This place has a peanut-butter/pickle burger that John swears is phenomenal. I’m more interested in the beer list at this point, if only for their cider selection. My heels hurt, these bra straps keep escaping, and I sat through a three-hour conference call this morning. I’m not even that hungry. I just want a drink.

And John won’t shut up about this burger.

“Seriously, it’s worth trying.”

“I don’t even like pickles!”

“Yeah, but the peanut butter sauce they use – ”

“I. Don’t. Like. Pickles.”

“Just have them leave it off!”

“Will it still be the best thing to ever happen to me if I do?”

“I mean, probably.”

The line advances and we shuffle forward. I watch enviously as the trio of guys in front of us, in tucked-in dress shirts and polished black shoes, orders a pitcher of beer. I’m not actually sure if my work allows me to have a drink over lunch, but it’s probably better not to risk it. That seasonal apricot cider will have to wait.

“Hang on.” I do a double-take at the menu. “They call their smaller burgers girly-size?”

“Yeah.”

“What the hell! Is that some kind of attempt to shame people into buying full-size burgers?”

John shrugs. “Girls like smaller burgers.”

I glance at Dannica, hoping she overheard, but she and Matt are deep in conversation over the beer list. She’s very prim today in her black sheath dress – she doesn’t look like it, but I know she’s capable of annihilating twelve-inch subs and getting hungry again two hours later. A girly-size burger is a nice snack for her.

I actually planned to order a smaller burger, but now I want a full-size one, just for spite. “I don’t want a pickle burger and I’m not ordering anything called ‘girly-size!'”

I want a beer now, too: a huge, manly pint of something bitter and hoppy with too much foam. So what if I can’t actually finish an entire beer without feeling full? So what if it would be nothing more than a waste of money to order a beer I can’t drink and a burger I won’t finish?

I’m not sure why I can’t stomach the idea of just ordering a cider and a small burger, as if ordering the things I like to eat is something to be ashamed of, but the guys ahead of us finish their order and it’s my turn.

“I’ll have a small-size blue cheese burger, no pickles –”

“The girly size?”

I stare at the cashier, aware that it’s not his fault that his stupid company has a stupid item name and that the only effect a scathing tirade would have would be to ruin this kid’s day.

“Sure. With no pickles. And – ” And a porter almost slips out. “And an apricot cider,” I amend.

Screw work. Screw gendered drinks. Screw gendered food sizes. I swipe my credit card, take my cider, and leave. The cider is tart, a good match for my mood.

John sits down across from me with a strange-colored soda. He sees me staring at it and beams.

“Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, and lemonade.”

“See, this is why I don’t take food recommendations from you.”

Seated at the table behind him are the three banker-looking guys with their pitcher. A fourth joins them: our boss, Colin. I try to hide my cider behind my purse.

He waves at us, his hand halting when he sees the poorly-hidden cider. One eyebrow raises.

“Colin! Pull up a chair.” His friend pours him a glass, but Colin gestures for him to wait. He comes to our table and leans down to me.

“Nice job on that call, Cassie.”

“Oh – thanks.”

“The Boston branch can be a handful, huh.”

I laugh weakly. “Yeah.”

“Enjoy lunch.” He claps John on the shoulder, does the smallest of double-takes at his dishwater-colored soda, and sits down with his friends.

I sigh. My feet feel better now that I’m sitting again. A delicious basket of salty, greasy, pickle-free goodness is on its way and I didn’t have to call it “girly.” Best of all, not only is my boss not mad at me, he complimented me. It almost makes me forget it’s only Tuesday.

Matt and Dannica join us and I raise my cider. “Cheers.”

The Dentist’s House

Our pillowcases are already heavy with candy by the time we reach the stucco house on the corner. Candace and I exchange glances beneath our cat masks – this is a house we need to skip.

We try to be subtle, continuing past the house’s inflatable jack-o’-lantern and plastic headstones as if no one was home.

Of course, Dad notices. “Honey? You missed one.”

We stop, my heart sinking.

“We don’t want to go to that one.”

“Why not? Look at all the decorations they have!”

“We just don’t.”

Candace’s dad studies the house. “Who lives there?” He uses a lower pitch, the tone that tells me that just because I can hear him, it doesn’t mean he was asking me. He leans toward my dad. “Are they…weird?”

My dad rolls his eyes. “A dentist lives there.”

“Ah. Sugar-free gum?”

“Sugar-free gum.”

Dad raises an eyebrow at me. I’ve been trying to get my eyebrow to do that so I can make that face back at him sometimes, but it doesn’t work yet. It wouldn’t matter, anyway – he wouldn’t be able to see it under my mask.

“Every house, Bella. Unless you’re ready to go home?”

I sigh. Now I’m glad he can’t see the face I’m making, or he would definitely take me home. “No…”

“Then go do your thing.”

I nod my cat-eared head in agreement and walk with Candace up the cracked concrete steps to the dentist’s house. The only other kids are at least three houses away. Everyone knows to skip Dr. Ferris’ house. Either their parents don’t let them trick-or-treat here, or they don’t care if their kids skip it.

I wish my dad didn’t care.

The door opens and there’s Dr. Ferris, wearing his scrubs like it’s a costume, smiling widely. His teeth are weirdly white.

“Well, hello, girls.” He picks up the neon green plastic bowl full of gum and holds it out to us.

“Trick-or-treat,” we say obediently.

“Your costumes look great.” He curls the fingers of his free hand into claws and meows at us.

Candace snatches a piece of gum and backs away. There’s only room for one of us at a time, so I can’t leave yet, I have to be polite and reach in and grab some gum, but when I do Dr. Ferris grabs my hand.

“You don’t want that flavor,” he says quietly. “There’s some bubblegum in there. You just gotta dig for it.”

I pull my hand away. “This is fine.”

And we run down the walkway. We usually run – trick-or-treating takes way too long if you don’t – but I’m running faster than Candace now, and the back of my neck feels prickly, like I’m an actual cat with my fur standing up.

“What did you get?” Dad knows we only get gum here, and I’m mad at him for not letting us skip it, for Dr. Ferris’ weird smile, for not coming up the walkway with us, for not seeing.

My face is hot under my mask. I fish the gum out of my pillowcase and shove it at him.

“Bubblegum? I thought you liked bubblegum.”

“I don’t want it.”