A new short story set in the near future - 2010-02-06 12:53:48 Here's a short story I've titled "The Boy Who Looked at the Moon"
• The man stood watching the glowing television sets stacked in the storefront window. The window was dirty, the glass cracked and repaired with a strip of tape. A boy stood beside him. "What are you looking at, Dad?" • "I'm watching the Chinese celebrate the completion of their moonlab, son. Look, there they are on the moon. See how happy they are?" • "They always seem to be so happy. How come nobody around here is ever that happy, Dad?" • The man looked at his son in surprise. "Well, I don't know. I guess I haven't thought much about that." • The boy pondered the flickering screens of the television sets for a while longer. "Are we ever going to be able to get a TV?" he asked. • The man squared his shoulders. "Oh, I've already paid for one, son. We're on the list and the commissioner for consumer goods sent me a letter just the other day to tell me in another six months, maybe less, it would be delivered." • The boy looked dubious. "Will it work? Billy Brown said they got one and it never worked." • "I hope it will! But you know it has to come a long way from China to get here. And a lot of times, it's a used set. But I'm pretty handy with electronics. I bet I can fix it if it doesn't work just right." • The boy smiled a proud smile. "You can fix anything, Dad!" • "I do my best." • When the boy looked up again, he noticed a sad expression on his father's face. "What's wrong, Dad?" • "Well, son, you know we Americans were actually the first to land on the moon. I've seen pictures. I was thinking of your question about us not being very happy and all. It seems like in the pictures we were all happy back then." • The boy frowned. "We were first? How could that be? If we were first, how come we're not up there now?" • The man turned away from the dingy storefront, and took his son by the hand. He wanted to walk in the park but, of course, it was too dangerous. Bad people roamed there, intent on robbing anyone they could find. Not that very many people had any money, just food stamps and that kind of thing, but still... • The man led his son toward their apartment that they shared with two other families. "From what I can tell," he said, as they ambled along the garbage-strewn street, "the leader of the government back then decided we weren't good enough to go back to the moon. The people he appointed covered it up by saying what they were doing was bold and new but nothing much happened after that. I read where some really smart people thought the leader would let them build nuclear and plasma rockets and jump far ahead in space." • Excited, his son grinned. "That sounds great! But what happened?" • "Well, son, for many years, everybody was apparently very happy. There were some wonderful drawings of amazing spaceships and a lot of scientists, even one of our first walkers on the moon, said this was a marvelous plan. But when it came time to actually build those ships, government officials said it was too dangerous to put nuclear reactors in space and that plasma rockets might blow up and hurt people. They also said there wasn't any good reason to do it, anyway. It was best to just research things and hope a magical way to get into space would be created. I saw a picture where one scientist had a chair attached to a flock of doves. It was very well done." • The boy's grin faded away. He and his father walked on, passing the long lines of patient citizens waiting for their daily rations. "Your mother got up at 4 AM this morning to be the first in line," the man said proudly. "There was a rumor that bananas were going to be offered. You like bananas, don't you?" • The boy was still puzzling over the idea of doves tied to a chair. But then he brightened. "Dad, I've been thinking. Do you think I could go to China and study about the moon and rockets and stuff? My teachers say I'm good in math." • The man's first reaction was a nervous chuckle. Then, frowning, he knelt down so he could look his son in the eye. "I think it's wonderful you have a dream but I don't want you to be disappointed. The Chinese only let in students from countries that don't owe them money. And even if you could go, they require all outside students to promise to work for them for room and board for ten years." • "But I would do that, Dad! I would! I want to learn and maybe bring back knowledge that could make things better here! Then, maybe Mom wouldn't have to get up so early and stand in long lines. The Chinese don't have to do that. Why should we?" • The man looked around nervously, then stood up and gripped his son's hand. The boy wailed and tried to pull away. "I tried to talk some sense into you, you little fool!" the man seethed. "To say something like that where anyone can hear you? What were you thinking!" • "I'm sorry, Dad," the boy whimpered. "Please stop. You're hurting me." • "Well, just stop having foolish dreams about being a scientist or an engineer like the Chinese. We don't know how to do things like they do. We never will. Our leaders decided a long time ago that we would buy technology and just about everything from other countries when we needed it. It was so much cheaper to do it that way. Our leaders are so smart." • "But Billy Brown's dad said the other countries don't want to sell us anything because our money's no good." • "Billy's dad will be in jail if he keeps talking like that," the man said, careful that the guard at the corner didn't hear him. • The man and the boy trudged on through the gray streets. Above them the sky was also gray except for the moon which peeked through a dingy cloud. When the man wasn't looking, the boy sneaked a look at the moon and thought, "You're mine, too. You are." • The moon looked back at him but it was only with a baleful stare. There were men and women on the moon and they were very happy. The boy realized then that the moon didn't care anything about him because he didn't know how to get there. He kept thinking about rockets. Maybe they were the key. • All the way home, the boy thought about the moon and rockets and then he remembered a book he'd seen in an old trunk in the storage room of the apartment building. That night, after everyone had gone to bed, he tiptoed past the sleeping people and went upstairs and turned on the dim 15 watt bulb in the storage room. It was the only size bulb allowed in the apartment building. Anyone caught with a larger size was fined. • The boy opened the trunk and smelled must and mildew. It made him sneeze but he moved the books until he found the one he was looking for. It was so old that some of the pages fell out. Its title was Rocket Boys and underneath the title was something about it inspiring a film called October Sky. • He remembered the book now. It was famous because it had been one of the first books that was banned. But it was about rockets so the boy decided to read it, anyway. He began to read the book and the very first words captured him: • Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was at war with itself over its children... • The boy couldn't stop reading about a boy named Sonny who lived in a place called Coalwood a long time ago. But as he read, he kept wondering why this book was banned. What was in it that the officials didn't like? Hours later, the boy came to a paragraph that had Sonny's father saying something that rang very true: • Some will tell you that greedy and compassionate men are in competition but I'm here to tell you they're not. They run in different but parallel packs, but both will destroy this country before they're done. • The boy read on until he reached the last page and the last words: • Even now Coalwood endures, and no one... can ever completely destroy it, not while we who once lived there may recall our life among its places, or especially remember rockets that once leapt into the air, propelled not by physics but by the vibrant love of an honorable people, and the instruction of a dear teacher, and the dreams of boys. • The boy closed the book and noticed there was a light shining through the window in the ceiling and he saw that it was the moon. Somehow, it no longer seemed baleful but friendly and beckoning. He began to think. "Steel tubing, I'll need that. And zinc dust. Not sure what that is but I'll find out. And sulfur. Mom has that to burn when people are sick with colds. Alcohol. Well, Dad and my uncles drink a lot of that. Of course, it has to be pure like Quentin said in the book." • The boy rose at the sound of his mother's voice. "Sonny? Are you up there?" • The boy opened the trapdoor of the storage room and clambered down. His mom was waiting for him. "Sonny, what am I going to do with you? What were you doing up there?" • "Reading," he said. • "Reading what?" • He didn't want to get her into trouble so he didn't answer directly. Instead, he said, "I'm going to build a rocket, Mom." • His mother took a long look at him, then something clicked inside of her, something she didn't even know was there, something very old, yet fresh, new, and alive. "Well," she said, her eyes sparkling, "don't blow yourself up!"