No Spaceship Go
By Annie Bellet
The boys lay on their backs side by side staring up through the open roof of the abandoned building. Dylan clutched Meek’s hand in anticipation as the ground shook and a roar filled the air. Tiny pebbles danced up from the ground around them and dust ran like water off the crumbling walls.
“Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five,” Dylan whispered, “four… three… two… one.”
The shaking increased and he had to release Meek’s hand to shade his eyes. Smoke billowed up into the air, a streak of fire ahead of it. Then the true sonic blast of the rocketship hit them in a wave as the boys squinted to make out the ship speeding through the atmosphere. It sounded like the crackling of a hundred fires, or perhaps the blast of the biggest blowtorch Dylan could imagine.
Meek whooped and crawled to his knees, staring up into the sky.
“Do you think that’s the one we’ll be on someday?” he asked Dylan.
Dylan rolled to his side and propped himself up on one arm. Dust had accumulated on Meek’s round, tan cheeks and Dylan fought the urge to wipe it away.
“Nah, by the time we’ve saved enough to get our home on Elle Four, the ships’ll all be new I bet. We’ll ride on a superfast one for sure.”
“I want to grow peppers.” Meek smiled up at Dylan, his crooked teeth warping the line of his chapped lips.
“What kind of peppers?” Dylan grinned back. They’d had variations of this conversation before and Dylan didn’t pay much attention to Meek as the boy launched into his usual daydream about gardens and pepper plants.
Dylan daydreamed about something else entirely as he fixated on Meek’s lips, his eyes drifting to the dimple in his friend’s left cheek. He didn’t notice at first that Meek had stopped talking and instead stared up at him with those dark, nearly pupil-less eyes.
“Oh, hmm? I’m sorry.” Dylan murmured.
“Pebble for your thoughts?” Meek smiled again.
Dylan smiled back and chose to show him instead. He bent low and nibbled at Meek’s lower lip before pressing in for a full kiss. Meek tasted of dust and salt and underneath that something else entirely that Dylan couldn’t name but knew was good. Dylan’s hand slipped lower, curling against Meek’s hip as he pushed aside his over-sized flannel shirt. Meek growled in protest and pulled back.
“You have to go, you’ll miss the patrol window.”
Dylan pulled away and stared hard at Meek before looking up into the sky. It was getting late and he knew Meek was right. He stood up with a groan, bits of dirt and crumbling wall drifting away from his jeans.
“When we have our garden, we’ll have a bed, and time.” Dylan brushed dust from his t-shirt.
Meek rose as well and flashed him a dazzling smile. “And a fountain. And all the time in the world.”
“All the time in the universe.” Dylan smiled back. He leaned in for one last kiss before he turned and made his way towards the shadow of the Green Zone walls in the distance.
Twilight deepened on the horizon as Dylan crawled free of the old sewer tunnel and emerged into the dilapidated shed in Mr. Wong’s backyard. He quietly retrieved the clean shirt he’d stashed in the waterproof plastic bin and dropped his ID tags back over his head. He’d pass distant muster, though he thought close scrutiny might show how dirty he was. However, Dylan had long since decided he’d die of shock if his parents ever looked at him that closely. He’d found the old tunnel and dug it clear again nearly a year ago, which meant many a night coming home with unexplainable dirt coating his skin and leaving tracks on the front steps. They’d yet to comment.
No one was in the front hall as he pushed carefully through the bright red door and closed it behind him. He stole up the stairs and dumped his clothing into the laundry hamper, even the cleanish shirt. He banged the worst of the dirt out of his sneakers and climbed into the shower.
Pressing the on button, Dylan leaned into the instant, scalding water and rubbed his hands over his streaked skin, thinking of gardens and a taste he liked but couldn’t place.
His parents didn’t ask him about his day at all; instead his mother talked about the latest ionized fuels her team was developing while his father nodded. Dylan listened with half an ear as he picked selections from the various dishes arrayed on the pristine white table. The noodles were too slippery with sauce and he battled to keep them in his chopsticks. He wondered if they’d taste better with peppers. Meek would know the right kind. None of the aeroponic complexes in the area grew peppers, but Meek had assured him that he’d seen them in the brochures for the space stations. They grew everything up there.
“Are you looking forward to school?”
It took Dylan a moment to realize his father was speaking to him. “Yeah, I guess.” School didn’t start for another month, but at least his father was trying. “I thought I’d see if I could do an independent study. Maybe on agriculture.”
His mother’s mouth tipped downward and she gave his father one of those looks that said ‘”He’s your son.”
“What’s wrong with physics? I thought we agreed that since you struggled so much last term you’d work more on it next year.” His tone carried an unspoken “Don’t upset your mother” in it, and his thin black mustache quivered as he set down the green plastic chopsticks.
“I thought it might be useful, you know, up there.” Dylan stabbed up at the ceiling. “They grow things, lots of things.”
“Dylan, nothing is set yet. Our lottery might not come up to go to Elle Five or its satellites.” Dad’s smile was sad and small.
“What about Elle Four station? They’re taking people. I want to save up, buy a little place.” Dylan shivered. Speaking the plan aloud, even if it was only half of it, felt odd but somehow relieving. Like it might be real.
Mom chuckled. “Jong, please ask my silly adeul where he plans to raise millions of dollars?” She rose and started clearing away the dishes, still shaking her head.
Dylan shifted in his chair, his eyes hot with tears. He glared down at his half-eaten food. “It was just a thought. I’m tired and have reading to do.” He thrust his chair back harder than he meant and winced as it hit the wall.
His father rose more gracefully and moved to intercept Dylan, reaching out to touch his arm. “It’s good to dream, adeul. Just remember the earth under your feet while your head’s in the clouds.”
“Good night, appa.”
Dylan slept late. When he awoke, both of his parents had already left for work. He threw together his day pack and went into the kitchen to scrounge up a picnic for Meek. His father had stacked the mail on the table. Dylan’s delighted eyes fell on the thick envelope addressed to “Dr. and Dr. Bak” from the Elle Five Beta Corp. His father always saved the brochures for Dylan and it made him smile. Meek would be thrilled too. He stuffed the envelope into the larger side-pocket in his cargo shorts, knowing Meek would be happier if he waited for them to open it together.
In the shed Dylan slipped off his ID tags and checked his watch. Getting out of the Green Zone was generally easier than getting back in since security was mostly to keep “the unfortunates,” as his parents called them, out of the compound. The tunnel was narrow but thankfully dry and free of spiders today. It emerged in a crumbling building on the outskirts of what Meek called Barrio Simplicia, though Dylan had never heard anyone else use that name.
Moving like a shadow from building to building, Dylan edged the populated zones and made his way towards the abandoned strip near the rocket launch site. No ship was due out today, but he had in mind a nice picnic on the edge of the scummy reservoir. There was a light breeze blowing that kicked up the hot red dust but kept down the mosquitoes.
Dylan paused atop a pile of rubble and stared toward the colored corrugated roofs of the barrio. He wondered if his parents had left a place like this behind in United Korea. They never spoke of those years and Dylan had been a pinprick in the womb when his parents were smuggled to the Yukon and finally here, to the New Mexico Green Zone. He’d asked about it once when he was maybe five, but all he could recall was his mother turning away and his appa leaning down to hand him a toy truck. Dylan sighed and adjusted the bag on his shoulder. His parents had their secrets and now Dylan had his own. He shrugged and moved on, pushing aside his uncomfortable thoughts.
An hour passed as Dylan lurked in the shade of a wall near the slowly rippling water before he heard Meek’s footsteps. He thought about jumping out and scaring his friend, but decided that wouldn’t exactly set the happy, romantic mood he wanted.
Meek grinned and waved as Dylan rose and motioned to him. He was carrying a greenish bundle.
“I stole a blanket, it was going to the rag bin anyway ’cause Abril wet it too many times, but it’s been cleaned real good so it should be okay,” Meek said.
“Yeah, ick.” Dylan laughed. He held up his own bag. “I brought lunch.”
Meek’s expression took on a decidedly hungry cast. “You’re my hero.”
They set out the blanket which smelled like stale detergent, and dug into the leftovers Dylan had pilfered. Dylan ate as slowly as possible, letting Meek have the lion’s share of the food. He’d run his hands all over Meek’s body; he knew how undernourished his friend really was. Meek had nine brothers and sisters, something Dylan on occasion envied, but food was stretched carefully in his family. He didn’t like to talk about it though; for all his nickname, Meek had a lot of pride.
Dylan waited until Meek was using his fingers to wipe the last of the congealed soy sauce out of the plastic container before he revealed the brochure envelope.
“Can I open it?” Meek smiled, licking his fingers and then wiping them on his faded jeans. Dylan noticed that some of the same twine that had tied up the blanket also served as a belt for Meek’s pants.
“Maybe. What do I get?”
“I dunno. What do you want?” Meek smiled slyly, dipping his head so that his sun-bleached hair fell across his face.
Dylan leaned forward, licking Meek’s lips gently. He tasted the saltiness of the sauce and, as Meek returned the kiss, that indefinable essence beneath the other flavors. He didn’t even notice that Meek had slipped the envelope out of his hand until he broke off the kiss and Meek scrambled across the blanket toward the lake waving it in his hand.
“Cheater.” Dylan smiled.
Meek danced back to the blanket and sank down beside Dylan, his calloused fingers prying open the envelope. He discarded the top bit of paper and opened the first colorful brochure.
“Oh, Dylan, look at the trees! That’s an aspen I think, or maybe a poplar.”
Dylan’s eyes wandered from the silvery leaves of the tree in the high gloss photo to Meek’s rapt face and then down to the discarded sheet of paper the breeze had blown against his leg.
Dear Dr. and Dr. Bak,
It is with greatest pleasure that we invite your family to join Elle Five Beta Corporation on the main station, Sunflower.
Dylan stopped reading and grabbed at the paper. He knew his parents had applied for the lottery to go live on one of the stations and now he recalled something about his mother applying for some kind of job with the Elle Five Beta Corp, but it’d never seemed real. No one he knew really went to space; it was just a dream he and Meek had.
Meek. Dylan froze, clutching the paper in his fist. His mind stalled and he felt as though his heart would punch a hole in his chest. It was what he’d wanted, to go into space. But not like this. In his head his future always included Meek there with him. He figured his parents would understand once he was living with Meek, they wouldn’t have any choice, not once he was in space. They’d have to accept things then.
“I can’t go,” Dylan whispered.
Beside him Meek stopped his rambling one-sided conversation and stared at his friend. “What’s wrong? Can’t go where?”
Dylan mutely shook his head and jumped to his feet. He grabbed his pack, leaving the plastic containers on the blanket, and turned away.
“Dylan! Wait…” Meek yelled after him but Dylan was already running.
“Adeul, slow down. What do you mean we can’t go? I thought this was what you’ve always wanted?” Dylan’s mother wiped her hands on a kitchen towel and then sat carefully on the couch.
“Not to mention huge career opportunities for your mother and I both.” Dylan’s dad added as he set his briefcase down on the coffee table.
Dylan, nervously aware he was still covered in dirt, was too upset to truly care. He tried again, “I do want to go, but not now. I mean, I have friends. I can’t just leave school before the last year.”
“It’ll be a big change, but they have school on Sunflower, even a university. And you can make new friends.”
“It’s not the same. I won’t go.” Dylan put his head down into his hands and hunched his shoulders.
His father patted him gently between the shoulder blades and a little cloud of dust rose up. “We can talk about it more, but we’re going. You know that. You’ll be fine.”
“That’s why decisions aren’t left up to sixteen year old boys,” his mother joked.
“I hate both of you. Why are you trying to ruin my life?” Dylan threw off his father’s hand and stormed upstairs. He heard his mother yell his name but ignored her as he threw himself onto his bed. It wasn’t fair. He couldn’t leave Meek. Not like this. The dream wasn’t the same without his friend. It just couldn’t be.
Two weeks. Dylan sighed. He’d avoided talking to Meek about it, but his friend knew something was wrong anyway. For one, Dylan had barely been out to see him, coming only for the rocketship launches and then leaving quickly and avoiding conversations about the future.
He stared into Meek’s dark eyes, gripping his face between his hands.
“Ow, Dylan, you’re scaring me. What’s up?”
“I can’t see you anymore,” he blurted out and then winced. But it was true; maybe it was best to make the break now.
“What? Did your parents find out or something? I say screw ’em. They’ll get over it, right?”
“No, I mean, no. They don’t know. Nobody knows. But it just isn’t going to work, Meek. I’m going away. Far away.”
Dylan sighed again and stood up. He jabbed his sneaker into the dry earth and refused to meet Meek’s gaze. “Elle Five, Sunflower.”
“Space? You’re going to the station? Without me? How?” Meek grabbed his shoulders and Dylan was forced to look up.
Pain crinkled the corners of Meek’s eyes; his mouth had gone slack in shock or maybe wonder.
“My parents got offered a job. We’re going, I don’t have a choice.”
“You do, too, have a choice. We were going to go together. You promised. We promised.”
Meek was yelling and he never yelled. Dylan’s stomach felt as though it were full of worms. He jerked away.
“Damn it, Meek. It was always a stupid lie, a dumb dream. What kind of moron are you? We’d need millions of dollars to get a place on Elle Four, or some kind of really useful skills like my parents. Since I can’t do physics for shit and you can barely spell your name, how did you think we were going to get there? You’re not like us; you people don’t get up to space. My dad says that the unfortunates never get picked in the lottery; there’s just too many qualified people. It was a lame dream and we were stupid for believing.”
Meek’s lower lip quivered. “But our garden… Dylan, I’m… Don’t say things like that. We’re going to get there; we’re going to have our garden.” He took a step towards Dylan, his face caught between hurt and anger.
“There’s no garden. I hate plants anyway. Go home, Meek. Leave me alone!”
He was too much of a coward to go on. Dylan ran back towards the Green Zone, barely keeping an eye out for the patrols. He lay in the stifling shade of the tunnel for a long time, his belly knotting like he might throw up. His eyes burned but he dug his fingers into his lids, refusing to cry. They were leaving. It had to be done. He whispered this over and over to himself. Finally, he crept home.
His mother was putting dinner on the table. She called out to him as he slunk upstairs to change. Dylan wanted to ignore dinner but knew that might cause more questions than just showing up, and he didn’t feel like an interrogation. His grief lingered near the surface and his skin felt as thin as an eggshell. He figured the wrong kind of question might just break it all loose.
“You okay?” Dylan’s dad asked him as he sat down. “You look pale.”
“He’s always pale; maybe he had a fight with his girlfriend, no?” Dylan’s mother smiled at him.
“You have a girlfriend?” His dad asked.
“Of course he does, he goes out all day and it’s not to study at the library. That’s for sure.”
His mother was too close to the truth for comfort and Dylan shrugged, willing himself to stay silent. It was on the tip of his tongue to correct her, to tell them both about Meek and why he didn’t want to go to space. He’d never been so close to revealing it all, but they were disappointed in him enough so he kept quiet, barely.
“Who is it? Is she mad that you’re leaving? Is that why you didn’t want to go?”
Dylan felt hysterical laughter rising and stuffed his mouth full of noodles, shaking his head.
“Hopefully not that Jill girl, she’s got fat thighs and I think her father is Jewish.”
“Kyon-yon!” His father rapped his chopsticks hard on the table, “that’s enough. Let the boy alone, I want a peaceful dinner if it’s not too much to ask.”
Dylan shoveled down his food; it tasted like cardboard. He excused himself quickly and lay on his bed. Finally the tears came, hot and sticky. He grabbed at handfuls of his blanket, curling around the hollow pain in his chest.
“I’m sorry Meek,” he whispered over and over. “God, I’m so sorry.” He didn’t know how to make it right. Meek would never talk to him again and he’d leave and things would always be poisoned. It was all his fault.
After a long time Dylan rose to wash his face. He stood beside his bedroom window and looked up into the clear sky. Light pollution prevented many stars from shining through, so he dropped his gaze to the yard. The lone maple, straggly and dry with the summer heat, cast strange shadows onto the lawn. Dylan pressed his hand to the glass. He felt the tiny glimmer of a thought building in his mind.
He could make it right, at least a little. All he needed was a garden.
Dylan worked in secret. He crept around the edges of the community, stealing away bits and pieces for his garden. A little potted flower here, a strip of lawn turf there, never enough that someone might notice it missing. He found the perfect spot near the reservoir. It had probably been a courtyard, the flagstones uneven now with weeds bravely growing up between. Dylan removed some of the stones and piled them into a makeshift bench. He used a trowel he’d appropriated from Mr. Wong’s shed to turn over the soil and then brought buckets of water from the lake.
For nearly two weeks, Dylan worked on his garden. He worried that Meek might discover him, see things too early and not understand. But as the days stretched on with no sight of his friend, Dylan recalled the pain and betrayal in Meek’s dark eyes and guessed his friend would avoid the areas where they used to hang out.
A rocketship launched at one point while he worked, the shocks sending pebbles dancing. Dylan shaded his eyes, wondering if Meek was out there somewhere in the ruins, watching it too. He gritted his teeth and returned to work.
The garden was nearly perfect, but Dylan waited until the last night to bring in his masterpiece, his final and perfect touch. A tree.
He’d already scouted out the tree he wanted, a lemon tree growing along the edge of the secondary school’s playground. He knew someone might miss it, but it was back enough from the lights that he thought he could get it out during the night without anyone seeing him.
Dylan waited until it was after midnight before he slipped downstairs and out the sliding glass patio door. He dragged a makeshift sack stitched together from two old shirts and a shovel from under the porch and set off to collect his tree. He’d never snuck out of the Green Zone at night before, but figured in the dark he’d probably be okay since the patrols all carried big lights so hopefully he’d see them coming and be able to hide. He knew the abandoned areas around Barrio Simplicia really well and counted on this.
The tree came free after what felt like too much work but Dylan carefully swathed it in his sack and used an old belt to strap the shovel to the tree. It was heavy and he moved slowly towards the shed, hoping that the tree would fit through the old sewer. He’d chosen this tree, too, because it was slim and not too big yet, but he hoped still big enough to make Meek happy.
Dylan managed to get the tree through the pipe, though a good number of its leaves were left behind. He picked it up again and began making his way in the half-light towards his garden.
It was darker than he thought it would be. The sky out here shone with stars, and Dylan was glad for the almost full moon. He was so busy watching where he was going that he almost ran into the patrol.
A huge light flashed onto him, freezing him where he was. Men called out to him to identify himself and put down whatever he was carrying. Dylan stayed frozen for a moment and the voice repeated itself in Spanish.
He had no tags on him, so he wasn’t sure where he’d end up if they took him in. Would they let him go? Shoot him? Dylan turned and bolted, dodging into the ruined buildings. He waited to feel the sting of a bullet in his back, or maybe a tazer bolt.
There was more yelling and the light swept the landscape around him. Dylan ducked behind a wall as something thunked into the peeling paneling next to him. He bolted through the building and then dropped down behind a pile of rotting wood. It was too dangerous to run without light through the ruins, so he hugged his tree to his chest and hoped it wouldn’t stick up too much.
He heard boot steps very close. His heart pounded and his breathing sounded like angry waves in his ears. He had no idea how the man couldn’t hear it too. He scrunched his eyes shut, ready for discovery. Maybe Meek would find the garden on his own before it died. Dylan hoped so, hoped Meek would know.
The boot steps faded. After what felt like hours, Dylan opened his eyes and tentatively looked around. He saw the light far off in the distance, flickering closer to the Green Zone. Relief made his limbs feel like rubber, but he forced himself up. He still had a tree to plant.
The house looked pale, not yellow, in the pre-dawn light. Meek had pointed it out to Dylan once, particularly proud of the rooster weather vane perched atop the brick chimney. Dylan knew he had the right place once he found the loose fence board Meek had told him about and he slipped through into the yard. It was bare and dirty with broken plastic furniture and a twine clothesline strung across between the house and the shed. Meek slept in the shed with his brothers.
The shed had no door. Dylan flattened himself to the side and peeked around, his eyes adjusting to the dimness. Meek slept on a mattress just inside the door, Dylan recognized his friend’s dark face and unruly hair. He crouched and half-crawled his way to the bed as he kept an eye on the other two sleeping beyond Meek across the little shed.
Placing his hand over Meek’s mouth, Dylan bent down and whispered into his ear, “I know a place no spaceships go.”
Meek woke immediately, eyes wide. He gripped Dylan’s hand, and then nodded. They both crept from the shed, Meek stopping to grab his shoes from beside the door. They paused again outside the fence for Meek to get his shoes on, then Dylan motioned and led the way to his surprise.
Dawn broke as a heady blush on the horizon before they made it out to the reservoir and the garden. Just before the courtyard Dylan stopped and turned to Meek.
“You have to close your eyes and trust me.”
“Okay.” Meek nodded and took a deep breath. Dylan’s chest started to hurt again as he took Meek’s hands and led him carefully forward. His friend was so trusting, even after all he’d done. Dylan hoped this would make it right. It had to make it right.
Dew clung to the grass and the leaves of the lemon tree were still wet from the lake water he’d poured over it. The garden smelled of living things and freshly turned soil and, underneath, something Dylan had no name for.
“Okay, open your eyes.”
Meek opened his eyes and then his mouth. No words came out. He stood for a very long moment as Dylan held his breath, watching Meek’s face. Then his friend, his boyfriend, turned to him and snaked a warm arm around his waist.
“I told you we’d have a garden,” Meek said.
“You did,” Dylan agreed. He led Meek forward into the courtyard, showing him each plant, each tiny flower, each stone he’d found a place for. Elle Five Sunflower, his parents, the ship leaving tomorrow; these faded away.
He hadn’t lied to Meek. This was their place, a place no spaceships could go, a place no one would ever take away. The sunlight glistened on the dew and Dylan clung to Meek, holding onto the moment as hard as he knew how.
By Tina Connolly
I loved this little story by Annie Bellet. Although of course I wanted a happy ending for Dylan and Meek — given the constraints of two 16 year old boys in the real solid world, I love the way that they are able to find a little bit of togetherness. A happy for now, which is shorter than anybody wants, but nonetheless real for the time it lasts.
Annie Bellet noted that this story was inspired by the Arcade Fire song “No Cars Go.” You are all probably much more knowledgeable about music than I am and already knew this song, but I kinda spend my music time obsessing about obscure musical theatre soundtracks and did not. So I pulled it up, and it is exactly my thing, and it feels exactly like this story– both wistful and punk at the same time. An anthem for something that is impossible to get. I recommend giving it a listen now, and then maybe a few more times on repeat, and then you can come listen to this story all over again, and hear the drumbeat and the driving instrumentals in the way that the two boys hope for something that in their heart of their hearts they know they can’t have. But they can have the here and now, and maybe even a lemon tree, or the memory of one, for the future.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please, go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Pablo Neruda, who said:
“Because of you, the heady perfumes of
Summer pain me; because of you, I again
Seek out the signs that precipitate desires:
Shooting stars, falling objects.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
About the Narrator
Andrew K. Hoe practices Choy Li Fut Kung Fu and Tai Chi in Southern California, where he also writes speculative YA fiction. He has been a high school English teacher, an Assistant Language Teacher in Japan, and is now a college professor. He is an Assistant Editor for Cast of Wonders. His stories appear or are forthcoming in Cast of Wonders, Diabolical Plots, Young Explorer’s Adventure Guide, Highlights for Children, and elsewhere. Follow him online or on Twitter.