Anthony had finally finished the model rocket. Its body was a sleek white cardboard tube with red fins. He wrote SS Anthony in his best print on the side, and his brother Jack had said, That’s only for boats, stupid.
Today was the day to launch the rocket. When the early sun began to touch his bedroom floor, Anthony was already dressed. He wore his lucky striped shirt that was navy and white.
Last July, the ice cream truck had stopped for Jack while their family was at Cain Beach. The little truck was tinkling out Daisy Bell on repeat and it was getting on Anthony’s nerves. Jack paid for his fudge bar with his father’s five-dollar bill and eagerly sunk his teeth in.
“Come here,” the lady in the ice cream truck called to Anthony. He shuffled forward and gave her a sullen gaze through his blonde summer hair. “This is on the house.” She winked and handed Anthony a strawberry shortcake ice cream bar. The woman had long acrylic nails with a little rhinestone at each tip and these brushed against Anthony’s fingers, tickling him when he reached for the gift.
“I don’t like this kind, Mom,” he mumbled when he returned to his parents lounging by the murky Cain Lake. He held out the ice cream toward her with two fingers.
“Honey, you’ve never even tried this kind.” She opened the wrapper with her teeth and sent him away, clutching the wooden stick. To his sincere surprise, Anthony loved the strawberry shortcake bar, and later that day, he found a shark’s tooth washed up in the seaweed on the beach. When they returned home, all exhausted and pink, Anthony stripped out of his shirt and bathing suit. It was a new shirt, tidy and bright, yet already soft.
“You’re a lucky shirt,” Anthony whispered to it, and folded the shirt on his bed, then tucked it under his pillow. He swore he would save it for special occasions.
And today was the day to wear it. Anthony made his way to the kitchen and sat down to a bowl of Crispix. Jack looked at him and scoffed.
“You look like a sailor leaving on SS Anthony,” he said, and laughed. Anthony looked deep into his cereal bowl. He stood up and went to change his shirt.
“Knock it off, Jack,” said his father, ducking his head into the dining room. “It’s a nice shirt.” He met Anthony’s eyes and motioned him back into the chair. “Sit down and eat your breakfast.”
At ten, they reached the field. It was near an old baseball diamond in Glenwood Park, a ten-minute walk from their house. Anthony held the model rocket tight against his chest as his father carried the launch set and controller. Next to them walked his mother, wearing a flowing yellow sundress and smiling to herself. Jack ran ahead, scouting for a good area to set up. Despite the attention turned on his brother, Jack was caught up in the excitement. He scanned the dry grass for the perfect spot, licked his fingers and held them up to wind as if saluting.
Behind the family trailed a few neighbors and friends. It was a mild Saturday morning and there was no desire among the adults to sit down and pay bills or watch the news. Jasmine, Anthony’s friend from preschool, skipped along with the cheerful procession. She was a slight girl with two glossy brown braids today that danced down her back as she skipped.
In Miss Marie’s class, Jasmine and Anthony had played in the sandbox together. Building insect cities was their favorite game. Both of them hated spiders and liked ants, so it was easy enough to get along. They went to the same daycare, and sometimes their mothers would sit and gossip in the evening before they headed separate ways.
Even though it was against the school rules, sometimes they’d swap snacks. Miss Marie ate her lunch too, in the classroom. She didn’t like the children to see her eating, and so when she turned her back, they found the opportunity to trade. Anthony usually wanted to know if Jasmine had any dessert, as there seemed to be a constant shortage in his own home. She casually donated her leftover Snickers and Skittles from Halloween, treasure that Anthony was not allowed to keep after November first. Jasmine was indifferent towards candy. She preferred fruit, especially the crisp yellow apple slices that Anthony’s mom packed in his lunchbox.
At the beginning of this year, both of them entered first grade, but in different classes. During recess Anthony played kickball.
Jasmine’s father followed behind with their dog Lulu. The neighbors Mr. and Mrs. Larkin were in tow because they had nothing else to do, and the three Flores kids tagged along after them.
“Here!” Jack called, triumphant. He stood grinning with his hands on his hips. Anthony wanted to break into a run but resisted, instead cradling SS Anthony in his arms. Their father kneeled down and began to set up the launch pad.
“Can I help?” Anthony laid the rocket in a patch of grass.
“Yes, but be careful.” His father rummaged through his back pocket and came up with a small bent wire partially covered with paper. “This will ignite the engine. We have to put it in the bottom of the rocket.” He motioned for the sideways craft. Anthony handed it to him. “Take this. It goes here.” He pointed to the gray engine interior that looked like clay on the rocket’s end. They inserted the igniter together.
“Where do these go?” Anthony asked. He snapped the alligator clips, imagining tiny crocodiles electrocuting his spaceship into the sky. His father took the clips and fastened them to the wire ends protruding from the rocket.
“Let me do this part, Tony,” he said. The neighbors had gathered around and were chatting.
“Cool rocket,” Daniel Flores said to Anthony. Impatient, Jack took to leaping around the other children, brandishing an imaginary sword. He stabbed at Daniel’s sisters.
“En garde!” He flourished his sword with a savage thrust at Anthony, who stumbled back directly onto the launch set. He felt a leg of the stand give way and snap quietly beneath his sneaker. It was such a small noise Anthony could almost pretend nothing had happened. He reluctantly lifted his foot.
One of the rocket stand’s three legs had been crunched in half, and now the launch rod upon which the rocket was placed was tilting at a precarious angle. Anthony felt shame bubbling up inside him to replace the exhilaration that drained away. His wide eyes found his father. There was a long pause.
“We can fix this!” his mother interjected, placing a calm hand on her husband’s shoulder and bending down to inspect the damage. Their deft adult fingers straightened the broken limb and struggled to right the stand. She propped up the leg with a stick.
“That should be fine,” his father said. He glanced at his wife for affirmation. Anthony let the panic in his chest slowly dissolve.
Ignoring the accident, Jack crowed to the neighbors, “SS Anthony is going up!” A cheer rose from the children and the adults exchanged expectant smiles.
Anthony and his father slid the rocket down the rod, employing a caution typically reserved for infants and cartons of eggs. They stepped back.
“It’s all yours, kiddo.” The man handed his son the controller.
Anthony and Jasmine had gone to daycare for the last time two Aprils ago. That day, in the Subaru on the way home, Anthony’s mom asked him what he’d done after snack was over.
“We played a game,” he said.
“What game?” She watched him shift uneasily in his booster seat.
“I don’t know the name of it.”
“How do you play?” she asked, staring straight ahead. He was silent for a minute.
“I don’t know.”
“Can you explain it?”
“I’m not allowed to,” he said. Numb. That was how she would describe it later. He seemed numb. Anthony wasn’t really numb; he was distracted, calculating what words would make it sound okay.
“Who did you play with?”
“Jasmine and Max.” An older boy, maybe eleven, at the daycare; the one with dark hair and sour, wide-set eyes. Her heart plummeted.
“Anthony, tell me what the game was.” His mom pulled over at an intersection and turned to face the back seat. “Tell me right now.”
And that was how daycare ended and the fiasco began. The closet game, Anthony told them; they had played it a few times. Max locked them in the downstairs closet, sat outside the door, and told them what to do. Later he would join them inside.
It was difficult for Anthony to describe the game and relay what emotions it brought him, though the adults probed him endlessly. When his father said there would be no more daycare, Anthony protested.
“But I liked that game!” His father slapped him squarely across the face.
“Don’t you ever say that. Don’t even think that. Of course you didn’t like it.”
Anthony retreated into himself and was again unable to articulate what he meant. Although he very clearly understood the reason for his father’s reaction, he did like the game. He enjoyed being pressed between rough wool coats smelling of campfire. He liked hearing Jasmine’s faint sigh in the dark, and her giggling when Max left them alone for a while and they told each other jokes to pass time. He felt there was no time, once inside the closet. Excitement stirred in his stomach when Max would say Let’s go downstairs now.
No, he didn’t like the itchy, cramped feeling when Max shoved his way into the closet. He huddled next to Jasmine and they would communicate in the black stillness. She might brush his hand or he might shield her from Max, who didn’t do much but sit in front of the door and breathe loudly. Sometimes his hand wandered to one of their legs, as if to keep it rooted firmly to the floor. Rarely did he say anything, except Stay here, Shut up, and once, Don’t touch her.
Jack had lingered in the hallway late on a Wednesday night. His mother and father’s voices floated out of their cracked bedroom door.
“Do you think this is why he acts so… strange all the time?”
“He doesn’t act strange.”
“He does. He turns inward. Talks to himself. He plays make-believe.”
“He’s still at an age when that’s normal, Robert. We can’t attribute all his quirks to this incident.”
“His quirks? He’s different. Something’s wrong with him. Messed up.” A rustle of sheets.
“We’ll talk to the therapist.”
“It’s that kid…” Their sounds faded away, lowering, shushing into whispers. Jack leaned his forehead against the cool wall.
Anthony held his breath and pressed the black key. For a millisecond, nothing happened, and he began to wilt with dismay, but then a loud hiss poured forth from the rocket and white smoke shot out from the bottom. Mrs. Larkin made a gasping sound as SS Anthony shot into the sky, carving a curled path across the blue sky as the launch pad fell askew. The broken leg had fallen again.
Alexis Flores screeched with delight. Everyone was craning their necks and shading their eyes from the sun, straining to see the parachute deploy. A soft pop, and the red parachute caught the air, bursting into a vibrant parasol that reached in all directions. The rocket’s leftover body dangled from a string.
Straightaway the children were sprinting towards the falling projectile with outstretched arms. Anthony dropped the controller and ran after them. It was dropping faster than he had expected, and it seemed that he and the rocket were both the exact same distance from its landing site. If he ran hard enough, he thought, maybe he could catch it. The pack raced across the open field, pumping their arms and legs harder. Jasmine’s braids beat a solid note on her back with every step. The adults were far behind now. Alexis had slowed, and Daniel was dropping back now too. Their brother Manny was nearest to the plummeting rocket.
“Stop!” Jack yelled to him. Manny turned back, still running. “It’s Tony’s!”
Anthony’s feet struck the ground in a frenzied rhythm. His legs were strong and confident, propelling him just in time to reach up and grip the cardboard body, pulling the rocket out of the air. It was still warm. He staggered forward and then raised his arms in victory. He liked the idea that the rocket had been in his hands before and after its first flight without ever touching the ground. Jasmine beamed up at him, resting with her hands on her knees. Some strands of hair had escaped her braids. The kids were all panting. Anthony hugged the rocket to him, spreading a black smudge across his lucky shirt. SS Anthony had survived.