Featured September 11, 2020 Science Fiction Romance marriage childhood Mars junkyard space flight father

The Family Rocket

By James Van Pelt
Aug 30, 2020 · 2,319 words · 9 minutes

Photo by Kurt Cotoaga via Unsplash.

From the editor:

As a child, Lorenzo’s father took him and his siblings on a fantastic trip to Mars—or so the story goes. But what if none of it happened at all? In this creative sequel to Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket,” James Van Pelt imagines what happens when credulous children grow into skeptical adults.

Van Pelt has been nominated for the Nebula, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, Pushcart Prize, and more. His limited-edition hardcover short story collection, THE BEST OF JAMES VAN PELT, is now available for preorder from Fairwood Press.

From the author: Tolstoy said, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." When a couple contemplates marriage, they are marrying more than each other. They are also marrying their partner's family, which is why meeting the parents can be so fraught. It doesn't help if your father thinks he's been to Mars.

           The thing about stories is there’s the ones you want to tell, and there’s the one that happened.  I’ll hold off telling you which kind this one is:

            “My family is . . . eccentric.”  I helped Rachel squeeze under the chain-link fence.  She’d worn a nice flannel shirt and jeans that were already muddy.  But even by the distant street’s uneven lights wavering through tree branches, she was beautiful.

            I waved at the security camera, although it was unlikely my parents would be watching the monitor.

            She laughed in that low-throated way that made me tingle as she brushed off her pants.  “Everyone’s family is eccentric.  Besides, I love you, Lorenzo.  Are you afraid they’ll scare me off?”

            “We’ll see.”

            “Where are we?”

            I led her onto the beaten and oil soaked dirt inside the fence.  After pushing a hundred yards through damp underbrush, Papa’s salvage was a relief.

            “My father’s junkyard.”

            “You told me already your family was in the recycling business.”

            A mountain of broken cars blocked our view, but the river murmured beyond.  My childhood home stood beside it, out of sight on the yard’s other edge, where my young life had been spent, exploring the ever changing landscape, finding treasure, hunting rats.

            “Papa wanted us to go to space,” I said, holding her hand.  We wended our way through a shadowed passage, metal towering on both sides.

            “That’s a good dream.”

            “No, not a dream.  An obsession.  He lived for Mars and Venus and Neptune.  He filled us with his desire.” 

            Above, in the narrow gap that revealed the sky, Papa’s stars glittered and winked.

            Rachel paused, holding me back for an instant.  I could feel the box with its diamond ring promise weighing heavily in my pocket.  Could I ask her?  Did I dare?

            See, there’s a story about Rachael and the ring.  That’s a story that could go many ways.  In some, I ask her.  In others I don’t.  In a couple, she asks me before I get up the nerve.  Those are nice ones.  And, of course, there’s what actually happened.

            “But your family . . . never any money, you said.”

            Rachel’s family lived with wealth.  She spent summers in Europe, cruised the Bahamas on her parents’ yacht.   

            “The equipment was always a week from breaking down.”

            “A ticket on a rocket ship costs a fortune.”

            “Ten fortunes.”  Commercial space travel had been around my entire life.  Flights left daily for the inner planets, but only the very, very rich could escape.  Space was not for my father, Fiorella Bodini, or my mother, Maria, or the six children.  “But Papa convinced us we went to Mars, one summer.  The trip to Mars . . .” I laughed.  “Mars is the Bodini Santa Claus, and the moon is our Easter Bunny.  Fairies were asteroids and comets were our happily ever after.”

            “So, you never went.”

            “That’s just it.  We did.  Papa bought a rocket ship, worked on it, and took us to Mars.  Oh, it was glorious too.”  I remembered the ship’s rumbling beneath us, the stars through the windows, and then, finally, Mars swimming into view, a ruddy red stoplight.

            “A private citizen can’t buy a spaceship,” Rachel said.  “You can’t launch one from a junkyard.” 

            “That’s true.  I found out about a year later.  He’d faked the whole adventure.  The ship was a mockup he’d bought for the salvage, but instead of melting it down, he bolted automobile engines into its base, and fitted the ports with 3D view screens.  He shepherded us aboard, started the engines, and took us on an imaginary voyage.  We were so young!  But the trip was a fairy tale, all illusion, so we would believe we’d traveled to space.  The thing is, we never talk about it as if it was imaginary.  My family maintains the story, and I think Papa, over time, has come to believe it.  Maybe he always believed it.”

            “Your dad is delusional?”

            “For years.”  The junk yard corridor turned in an unexpected direction and forked.  I took the right passage.  We had moved past cars.  Flattened refrigerators, ovens, washers and dryers, stacked like giant, wrinkled playing cards created the walls.  “He’s eighty, now, retired.  Paolo and Miriamne run the yard while Papa works on his rocket ship.  They say he spends all his time there, tinkering, making ‘improvements,’  He won’t let them near it now.”

            “Your father sounds like a romantic.  Taking his children to space.  That’s sweet.  He must have loved you very much.”

            Before I’d moved away from home for good, we’d fought, standing near his ridiculous rocket, his puppet show.  I’d belittled him.  I’d told him he was a fool.  He’d spent thousands of dollars on his spaceship.  Even as I walked away, I regretted yelling at him.  I loved going to Mars; I loved him for taking me, but when we hurt family, we bring out the nuclear bombs.  For years after he didn’t talk to me.  Even Mama took months to forgive me.  Every time I came home, that argument’s echo filled the house.

Painful parts in real stories are the hardest to tell.  Maybe that’s why we pay professional strangers to listen to them, or we figure ways to disguise them in fiction.  They happen to other characters, not us.  What I’ve said here might have happened exactly the way I’ve said it, or maybe I made myself less an asshole than I was.  There’s no way for you to know, but I do, no matter how often I tell it.

            “He’s an insane saint, my papa.  I want you to see the ship.  It’s the best way you’ll understand what you are getting into with me, with my family.  We are poor, Earthbound, and crazy.”  That came out with more bitterness than I meant.  When I was ten, the summer we flew to Mars, I’d dreamed about the stars.  Papa took me to launches.  Once, we toured a launch pad.  Exhaust had coated every surface within a hundred yards with “blast glass,” a thin, black layer of brittle chemical remnants created in the superheat and rocket fuel and tortured air.

            I’d kept a piece in my dresser for years, like obsidian, dark as space, sharp and cool and magic.

            Papa’s secret.  Papa’s hidden life.  Papa’s reality.  We hadn’t told our cousins or aunts.  The uncles didn’t know, nor did our friends, but now when the children came home for holidays, now with their husbands and wives, we’d be sitting at the table, and Papa, losing his mind, would light his pipe.  “This reminds me of the trip we took.  Remember when we passed the moon?  We were together then, we were.”

            Everyone laughed, even my in-laws.  They nodded knowingly.  Alzheimer’s.  Senile dementia.  I forced my smile.  We never, never, never went to Mars, and we never, never, never escaped for even a minute the junk yard.  The Biondi’s were buzzards.  Hyenas with presumptions of grandeur, feeding off metal carcasses.  If Rachel could love me knowing that, then we had a chance.  I would give her the ring.

            The dogs leapt on us then.  Rachael didn’t scream like many would have.  They almost knocked me over, quiet as ghosts, as deadly as circus clowns.  The two, huge, black and brown dogs licked my hands.

            “Good security force,” she said, then rubbed one playfully between its ears.

            “What’s to steal?”

            “Your life was here, Lorenzo.  This is a valuable place.”  She waved her arm to encompass moon-lit aluminum-can bales, rusted water tanks, jumbled wire in birds-nest bundles.  “And when you were a child, this is where your dad took you to Mars.”

            “This is where my Dad filled my head with . . .”  What?  Junk?  False hope?  Sometimes at night, years later, when I thought I would never get away, I’d lie on the porch, looking at the constellations.  The river whispered its mockery in the background.  Precarious metal mountains teetered in the yard.  Some nights, I’d see a real rocket’s silvery streak, and the noise would caress, like distant thunder rolling, rolling, rolling.

            “You’re too serious,” she said.  “This is beautiful at night.  I’m looking forward to meeting your dad and the whole family.”

            I laughed.  “They won’t know what to make of you.”

            “I wanted to go to Mars too.”

            “But . . . you could.  What’s stopping you?”

            She squeezed my hand.  “There’s country club rich, and there’s buy tickets to space rich.  Besides,” she said,” I didn’t have the right person to go with before.”

            That’s when I knew I would ask her to marry me, regardless of my family, regardless of my dreamer father and his trip to the stars. 

            That’s the truth, no matter how I tell the story.  Before Rachael said I was the right person to take to the stars, I hoped she was the one.  Afterwards, well, the heart knows itself.

            I was eager, now, to find the path through the metal piles and to show her the rocket.  We’d look at it standing in the moon light, and then I’d walk her to the house.  Mama would be at the kitchen table, sorting through the bills or reading a book.  Papa might be there too, although he could be in the yard somewhere, exploring by flashlight, or he could even be at the rocket.  Maybe I’d introduce Rachael to him in the rocket’s night-time shadow.

            The path led downhill, and I knew we were close.  The rocket stood at the bottom of a shallow hollow so it was not visible from the road or the house, and finding it so suddenly startled me.  We rounded twisted iron girders in tumbled stacks and saw her, stained by time, but still glistening, reflecting the moon’s bright light, a tall, silvery bullet.  Rachael gasped.

            “I didn’t imagine it so big,” she whispered.

            The dogs whined and ran back the way we’d come.

            White smoke curled around the rocket’s base.  From within it, a subterranean growl arose.

            “What’s happening?”  Rachael moved closer to me.

            I looked at the grand ship in wonderment.  “He’s started the engines, just like he did so many years ago.  He must have seen us come through the fence.”

            The growl deepened, became more like a roar.  “That doesn’t sound like automobile engines,” Rachael said.

            I took a step toward the ship.  Something crackled beneath my shoe, a thin layer of glass.  I held a piece to the moon.  Black, smooth, razor edged.

            Flame spurted from the rocket’s bottom. 

            I grabbed Rachael’s arm, and we ran from the noise growing so loud that at the end it knocked us down, even behind the sheltering metal barriers we’d put between ourselves and the screaming, howling avalanche illuminating every hubcap and transmission and broken metal sheet with acetylene clarity.

            I rolled onto my back, my ears aching, and watched the flame climb into the sky.  Climb, climb, climb until it was no more.  Until the stars swallowed it and stared back at me.  Rachael lay beside me, watching too.

            “It’s impossible,” I said, barely able to hear myself.  “He waited for me so I would see, and then he left.  It’s impossible.”

            “I never met him.”

            That’s one way the story could go: Papa flying finally, riding a beam of flaming torchlight into the sky, the rocket shouting its long, triumphant song like a million shrieking angels.

            I like that story.

            Or it might have gone exactly the way I’ve told it here until the part where Rachael and I stepped into the hollow with its waiting spaceship.

            No blast glass underfoot.  Just packed dirt.  Instead of exhaust escaping from the rocket, all was still.  Rachael gasped a little, under her breath.  “It’s real,” she said.  “You’re father has a spaceship.”

            “Yes,” I said, seeing it with her eyes.

            At night, it truly was wondrous.  Moonlight transformed jumbled metal around it into alien landscapes where every broken windshield and bent chrome bumper caught reflections like diamonds.

            Then, the hatch in the ship’s base opened, spilling out light.  Papa stood there as a silhouette.  “Come in,” he called, his voice frail with age but still himself, still my father.  “It’s good to see you, Lorenzo.”

            When we got close, he said, “Who is this vision?”

            “It’s Rachael, Papa.  She’s my . . . I wanted to introduce you.”

            “What do you think of space travel?” he asked.  His face dissolved into a thousand wrinkles when he smiled. 

            “I hear you have stories,” Rachael said.

            My father reached for her hand.  “I can do better than that, young lady.  I can take you . . .” he looked up, “. . . if you’d care to go.  I can take you both.”

            We shut the door.  Strapped ourselves in.  Papa sat in the captain’s chair, and he made us count down, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6 . . .

            When I was ten, my Papa took me to space.  We saw the moon and asteroids and comets and Mars.  He gave me Mars when I was ten so I would have it my entire life.  I spent my life not thanking him, but I’ve thanked him now. 

            Rachael and I will be parents someday.  I hope I can do as well for my own children as Papa did for me.




This story originally appeared in Asimov's.

James Van Pelt

An interviewer asked the author if he wanted to be the next Stephen King: he said, "No, I want to be the first James Van Pelt."