It was only the second day of school, and Mrs. Hildegaard's nursery-rhyme voice was already driving us crazy. "Good morning, class," she intoned, smile plastered to her face. "Today's the day we pick partners for our model rocket project. Remember, you'll be working on this all semester, so don't just pick your friend. Choose someone who'll be a responsible partner."
Everyone in my class ended up, of course, picking their best friend.
"Excelsior!" Tyler Mackleroy said to me, with two thumbs up. "This is gonna be awesome, Ash."
Tyler was under the impression that we were still best friends. I hadn't told him otherwise; but summer vacation was over, and now we were in junior high. Kids were organizing themselves into tribes so they could pick on other kids who were different. I'd already been made fun of for years—for things like my shyness, my lack of skill at sports, and my girl's name. Being partners with Tyler again meant that I was his buddy. I was sick of being made fun of, and Tyler just didn't get it.
"Tonight I want you to think about your overall design and what you want to put inside your rocket's cargo hold," Mrs. Hildegaard said, handing out our syllabi. The point of the project was twofold: build a working model rocket, and decide which human cultural wonder we should bestow unto the Watchers.
We knew that our stupid model rockets wouldn't be able to reach the Watchers, and she knew that we knew. But Mrs. Hildegaard had taught kindergarten for fifteen years before teaching science at East Junior High, and old habits die hard. So she gave us our assignment with the conceit that our spray-painted tubes of cardboard would somehow have enough force to break through Earth's atmosphere and grab the Watchers' attention.
"Mrs. Hildegaard?" Tyler raised his hand and wiggled it like a trout on a fishing line. "Are we allowed to use G-class engines for our rockets?"
"Uh—I suppose, but you might have to get clearance from the local air-traffic control."
"Don't worry, I already did," Tyler said. And then, grinning at me, he added, "I wanted to give Ash and me a solid head start, so we can embark on our mission of discovery and pioneer into the future with all Godspeed. Right, buddy?"
Someone behind me laughed.
That evening Tyler came over to work on our rocket. Just like my parents always told him to, he let himself into our house.
"Sorry it took so long. My bike got busted." He had a black eye that wasn't there during school. I didn't ask him about it. It was probably Duke and Fitz anyway.
"That's okay," I said, "I was just watching TV. You ever watch the live footage of the ship?" The image of the rotating spaceship was practically burned into the TV screen in front of me. A banner scrolled at the bottom: Day 36, Hour 4. The Watchers: Are they responsible for yesterday's earthquake in Japan? Interview at 9:00.
"Nah. I think it's uber rude to sit there and watch them like that," Tyler said, opening his spiral notebook.
"But they're watching us."
"How do you know?"
I didn't, of course. The spaceship had appeared in Earth's orbit one afternoon that summer, and no one knew what it was doing. It didn't zip around, or attempt to land, or fire off any weapons. It just showed up and hung in the sky, lazily rotating like a baby's mobile. It looked like one of those old-fashioned wagon wheels—the kind with wooden spokes—except that it was chrome and about a hundred miles in diameter. Nearly every government, independent scientist, radio station, and hippie spiritualist with a communication crystal had tried to contact the ship, but with no success. Some people thought it was a war cruiser ready to snuff us out at any moment, while others thought it was a science vessel sent to run intrusive tests on our species. There were as many theories as there were people on the planet. But everyone agreed on one thing: the ship was watching us.
"Okay, how about something simple and to the point?" my dad said into his cell phone as he barged into the house. He'd been at work for the past six days straight. "How about, 'Disarm your weapon systems, and we'll disarm ours.'" He saluted me and then paced around the living room. He was a seven-foot tall four-star military general, so to say that his presence in the house was intimidating would be an understatement. The man scared the crap out of me. "Oh, and send that in multiple languages, too." He paced some more. "I dunno, get Ling-Comm to put it in Chinese . . . and Korean . . . and Arabic . . . sure, and Russian . . . and . . . have the brains put it in binary. Look, Lieutenant, I have to go. I'm off-duty as of now." He put the phone in his pocket and glanced at the mess of sketches and equations in Tyler's notebook. "What're you two working on? Science project?"
"Affirmative, General Madison," Tyler said, pushing his glasses up on his nose. "It's a model rocket we get to design. See, this is the equation for our thrust. Force equals the mass flow rate times the exit velocity of our exhaust plus our pressure equation times our exhaust area."
"Well, all right, guys. Sounds great." My dad tousled his hair. "Just don't queer-out in here, Ash," he said to me.
"Honey!" my mom shouted from the kitchen.
"What? It's not like he brings any girls home."
"Honestly. Don't embarrass him. Come in here for a sec and talk about this."
"Hey, it was your idea to name him Ashley, remember?" As he made his way to the kitchen, he brushed past me and muttered, "Women," rolling his eyes as if I was supposed to extrapolate an entire wealth of meaning from that one word.
"Something's bothering your dad, huh?" Tyler kept plugging away at his equations.
"Yeah," I said. "It's 'cause he worked real hard all week, and then he comes home to listen to you run your mouth like a nerdy encyclopedia. God, Tyler, you can be so stupid sometimes." I wanted to punch him for overhearing my parents' latest exchange about my less-than-budding heterosexuality. Not that I cared what Tyler thought, but still. I had a reputation to worry about now that we were older.
"At least he just calls you queer. My dad isn't that eloquent. He doesn't even use words when he's mad at me."
"Tyler," I said through my teeth, "shut up! Just drop it, okay?"
Then he put his hand on my shoulder like a comforting friend should do, but I slapped it away so we could finish working on our project in silence.
On our first launch day we were all standing in the dewy field outside East Junior High, trying not to get our sneakers wet. Mrs. Hildegaard bounced from pair to pair, offering last-minute advice as she inspected our cargoes.
I overheard Fitz explaining his: "But Mrs. Hildegaard! The bird was dead before we put it in there."
"That may be, but what does this say about our civilization?"
"It says, 'Stay outta my sky,'" Duke explained.
"Besides," Fitz said, "Penelope and Becca put a pipe bomb in their rocket."
"Oh no no no no no. . . ." Mrs. Hildegaard's voice trailed off as she ran across the field. "What is this? Shrapnel?"
"No, Mrs. Hildegaard," Penelope said. "It's art. The bits of metal symbolize our industrial spirit . . . and the broken glass stands for the fragility of our collective psyche."
"It's postmodern," Becca said.
Mrs. Hildegaard threw up her arms. "Preteens!" She walked over to Tyler and me, shaking her head in despair. "Please don't tell me you two put heroin in your rocket."
I panicked. I hadn't thought to ask Tyler what he'd put inside. Knowing Tyler, it was probably something that would get him beat up—something that would get me beat up. Chess strategies? Cheat codes to his video games? His model dragons and druids?
"It's just a greeting card," Tyler said. My heart stopped racing. "I didn't want to throw the weight off too much. Ya know, so we can keep our trajectory clean." I couldn't believe it. For once, Tyler hadn't been a total geek.
"Interesting," Mrs. Hildegaard said. "May I see your greeting card?"
Tyler pulled out a piece of paper from the cargo hold. It was red and thick and it was rolled up like a scroll. When he opened it up, I could see that it was one of those cheap Valentine's Day cards that six-year-olds pass out to all their classmates. Amidst a halo of hearts and butterflies was a picture of Captain Vincent from the TV show Syzygy 7. Above Captain Vincent's head was his catchphrase: "May your journeys be many and your misfortunes few!"
Of course, by now, my entire class had gathered around our launchpad and was gawking.
"Aw, isn't that cute? The lovebirds put a Valentine in their rocket," Duke said. "I bet Ashley picked it out."
"Wonder Homos, unite!" Fitz shouted, pumping his fist in the air. The whole class laughed.
Mrs. Hildegaard stifled a giggle. "All right. Let's get back to our launch. And remember to keep your eye on your own rocket so you can retrieve it after descent."
The class dispersed, and Tyler set to work on positioning our rocket. I, however, was so mad that I don't even remember the actual launch. I was deep inside myself, roiling with hatred.
When the parachutes unfurled my classmates scrambled around the field in an attempt to intercept their rockets before they hit the ground. Tyler just stood there.
"Well?" I asked. "Aren't you gonna go get it?"
"Unlikely," he said, staring up at the sky with his hand arched above his eyes. "Our craft is probably entering low orbit by now."
My jaw dropped.
Duke was holding his rocket in one hand and a broken-off tail fin in the other when he said, "Nah. I think your rocket's probably in some old man's backyard by now." He slapped the back of Tyler's head, knocking his glasses to the ground. "I'm sure he'll think your Valentine is just fabulous, Ashley."
Tyler knelt down, picked up his glasses, and said, "What better way to make first contact with the aliens than with a greeting of fraternal love from Captain Vincent?"
"Well," Mrs. Hildegaard sighed as she walked over to us. "That may be true. But now you're going to have to either find your rocket or build a new one, I'm afraid. We're doing weekly launches."
"We'll build as many as it takes. Right, buddy?"
"Tyler," I growled, "I am not your buddy. No one is."
He puffed his cheeks with air and turned away from me. The rest of the class jogged back into the school, tossing their rockets up and catching them as they went.
I walked back by myself, cussing under my breath, but I never bothered turning around to see if Tyler was following me.
I was staring at the TV late that night when Tyler came over, raving and wide-eyed.
"What do you want?" I was ready to slam the door on him. Let him ride home on his stupid bike.
"Hey," he said, almost out of breath, "I know you were mad at me for losing the rocket, and I understand that. But, look! I found it."
I couldn't believe it. He actually thought that I was mad at him because he lost the rocket. Still, there it was, and he was damn proud to be holding it. The paint had peeled off, the nose-cone was encrusted with dirt, and the wooden fins were as scorched as used charcoal briquettes.
"Where was it?" I laughed. "On top of the school?"
"No, but you'll never guess." He blinked at me expectantly.
"In my back yard."
"Big deal. So it landed in your back yard. A coincidence."
"No," he said. He held the rocket up in the air, and then lowered it in a spinning motion as he whistled through his teeth. "Ssseeeeooo . . . Thwump! Right in my backyard. I watched it fall with my own eyes . . . ten minutes ago. I came over to tell you as fast as I could."
I looked at the grandfather clock behind me. "It's almost midnight. C'mon, you expect me to believe the rocket was up in the air for fifteen hours?"
Tyler just stood there. Of course he expected me to believe him.
"Hey man," I yawned. "My parents are in bed, and you gotta leave."
"Wait, wait, wait!" he shouted as he halted the closing door with his elbow. "First, check this out." Tyler practically ripped open the rocket's cargo hold and pulled out a rolled-up piece of paper that was cut into a perfect circle. The paper was thin, like tissue, and it was the color of a robin's egg. Written in a tight, blocky script was a message in oily iridescent ink:
"Thank you for the friendship card."
Tyler had obviously written it himself and switched it with the Valentine. And he was probably going to show it to all the kids at school, proud of what a breakthrough he'd made for humankind. We'd get a gold star from Mrs. Hildegaard and a kick in the balls from Duke and Fitz.
"Tyler, we're in the seventh grade now. Grow up."
"But nothing," I shouted. "I wasn't mad at you for losing the rocket. I was mad at you for being such a nerd. I'm not your friend, and I never was." I slammed the door in his face, and I listened to him ride his beat-up bike down to the sidewalk.
Before I went to bed, I watched another hour of TV. They were playing a marathon of Syzygy 7 reruns. In years past, Tyler and I had watched the TV show together during sleepovers, after my parents had gone to bed—episode after episode in which Captain Vincent and Lieutenant Xiro saved each other's lives from hostile Haaraaqaan warships, deadly engineered diseases, and holograms gone amok. I remember thinking how great it was that they were best friends even though they were different species, and that they never let a woman come between them. As a kid I secretly wanted an episode in which Vincent and Xiro got married.
Looking back on it, however, the show seemed stupid, and so I changed the station, trying not to think of Tyler and trying not to think about the past. Instead, I watched the Watchers' spaceship. It was now floating over Seattle, and as I dozed off, the news pundits gave their opinions on whether or not a barrage of nuclear missiles would get them to stop threatening our airspace.
The weeks went by, and life settled into a steady routine of disappointments. The president ordered a nuclear strike on the Watchers' ship, but it failed. Sixty percent of the country's nuclear armaments just disappeared. Poof. One after another, the missiles flew up toward the spaceship. And one after another, the missiles vanished from radar when they approached within a hundred yards of the ship. No explosions, no explanations. The Watchers just kept on their course, drifting in orbit around our planet, seemingly unfazed. When news of the U.S.'s botched strike spread across the world, North Korea accused the U.S. of furnishing arms to the Watchers, Nova Brazil withdrew from the American Union due to the unauthorized use of nuclear weapons, alliances shifted, treaties were broken, and "World War" was on everyone's lips.
When my dad wasn't at work at the base, he was glued to the TV at home. I did my homework in the living room so I could watch it too. Dad was tired, and no amount of coaxing from my mom could get him to spend any less time staring at the TV. But he still found time to ask about my personal life. One minute he'd be zoned-out and slack-jawed, and the next minute he'd say, "I had my first girlfriend when I was thirteen. Aren't you kids today supposed to be growing up faster? Hormones in the food or whatever?"
"I have lots of girlfriends," I lied. "Just don't want to get too serious. Don't want to get tied down, ya know."
"Well don't be afraid to bring any over, son. I'd love to meet one of the lucky ladies."
My dad was getting more suspicious, and I hated myself.
I did well enough to steer clear of ridicule at school though. Surprisingly, Tyler didn't show the "message from the Watchers" to anyone. After I'd slammed the door in his face, he became more introverted. We still worked on our model rocket during class, but he stopped rambling about "drag coefficients" and "minutes of arc." He didn't come over to my house anymore. The model rocket got lost every time we launched it, and I never went to go look for it. The mornings after launch days, Tyler would simply walk up to me in homeroom, tap me on the shoulder, and whisper, "Landed in my back yard again," before returning to his seat, grinning to himself.
On the final launch day Duke and Fitz gave Tyler the thrashing of a lifetime.
It was just after sixth period, and Tyler was getting his backpack out of his locker. I was across the hall, just about to leave school when I heard Duke punch the locker next to Tyler's.
"What's this, Ty? Love letters?" Duke taunted. "Got a lot of 'em in here, huh?"
"Look at him while he's talking to you, dweeb."
Duke was pulling out dozens of circular blue pieces of paper from Tyler's locker and dropping them onto the floor. Tyler stared off into space.
"Where'd you get these letters from? Your mommy?"
Tyler didn't say a word. He just kept staring.
Then they shoved Tyler into his locker, and kids instantly formed a circle and started shouting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!" It was the mob mentality of adolescents taking over.
I pushed my way to the front of the crowd, and there was Tyler, pinned to the locker, with Duke hammering his face. Tyler's lip split open, spots of blood speckled Duke's arm like cinnamon splashing over milk, Tyler doubled over on the floor, and Fitz and Duke took turns kicking him in the stomach.
Tyler didn't fight back. He let them do it. During the whole thing his face was blank, like his mind was somewhere else, and they pummeled him until Mr. Rourke and Mr. Dodds pulled them off. Tyler wasn't moving.
But the worst thing about it was that I didn't help him. I watched the whole thing with everybody else and even though I wasn't chanting, part of me wanted to beat him up too. The other part of me—the part that saw myself in Tyler Mackleroy—wanted to cry.
The two teachers dragged Duke and Fitz to the principal's office, and Mrs. Hildegaard came running down the hall. She picked up Tyler's limp body and carried him to the school nurse while someone called for an ambulance.
After the crowd of gawkers broke up, I picked up the blue papers strewn on the floor and read them. "We are sorry to hear that," one said. "Are all Earth families like this?" another one said. I tried to figure out what order they were supposed to go in, but there were so many of them and they didn't make sense. They were all written in the same neat handwriting as the one he showed me at my house, and it struck me as odd that these snippets were written by the same kid whose chicken scratch was barely decipherable to anyone but himself.
He must've taught himself to write neatly. He'd gone all-out on these letters. They were the perfect thing for Tyler to get obsessed about—just like his fantasy novels or sci fi TV shows or roleplaying games. He just didn't learn when to quit. And now his childish obsession had almost gotten him killed.
That night around ten o'clock Tyler came over to my house. His bike wasn't anywhere in sight. Duke and Fitz must have smashed it at school before they smashed him.
He stood on the porch and waved. "Hey."
"Hey," I said, awkwardly. "You okay?"
"Yeah, my bike's a pretzel, but at least the dentist saved my tooth." He smiled widely. It was a funny juxtaposition: the genuinely happy kid with two black eyes. He always had so many bruises that I couldn't keep track of them all. "Did Duke and Fitz give you those shiners?" I asked, because it was something to say.
And then Tyler said something that I didn't expect. It was only one word, and I'll never forget it.
Had he not been such a strange kid in general, I would've read more into it. "Sometimes." It made me think about why we never worked on class projects at his house, why we always hung out at mine in the five years we'd been friends, why he loved eating dinner with my family so much, why I'd never met his parents, and I tried to remember something he told me once about his dad.
He looked at me for a long time, like he was studying my face.
"So. . . ." I said. "What're you doing here, Tyler?"
"I just wanted to tell you that I'm gonna be leaving tonight. Not running away . . . just leaving."
I didn't respond. There was no point in throwing words at him like salt on a wound, just as there was no point in taking him seriously. "I know we haven't really been on the best terms lately, but I wanted to say thanks for being my friend—for being my only friend," he continued. I rubbed my eyes and winced, like it was painful to be hearing this. "Look, I know I can be weird sometimes. I can't help it. It's just who I am. We got along so well, and I always figured it's because we're both outcasts, ya know? Me being a nerd, and you being a nerd too, except, well . . . different." He shrugged.
"Different?" I felt a lump in my throat that was painful and needy.
"Yeah," he said. "You know, Ash . . . if there's anything you ever want to talk about—I mean anything—you can come to me. I'm here for you."
Then my voice got loud, like the lump in my throat was exploding. "Shut up! I know what you're trying to imply, but it's not true. It's not. Just leave. I never want to see you again." If my parents had been home, they would have grounded me for yelling. But they weren't, so all that followed my tirade was a soft ringing from the chimes in the grandfather clock.
Tyler nodded and left, and then I ran upstairs, tears threatening to fall at any moment.
I knew what I was. Ever since I was a kid. It's stupid, but when you're in the seventh grade, being different is the worst thing imaginable. So I took my difference and balled it up and buried it so deeply that no one would see it, not even myself. Tyler had reached out to me, but I didn't reach back.
That night the Watchers' ship disappeared from the sky.
It left our lives as mysteriously as it had entered them. There were no parades or celebrations, no TV spectaculars or blow-out parties, but most people were relieved that it was gone. The world could go back to normal, nations could get back to hating one another for the usual reasons, news channels could find something else to report about, and a new chapter could be written in the history books that ended on a positive—if not uncertain—note.
True to his word, Tyler didn't come to school the next day. He just disappeared without a trace. No one knew what happened to him, not even his parents, who were interviewed on the local news later that night. I watched the report—his dad said what a shame it was that pedophiles were allowed to live in nice neighborhoods but our system's too lax so what can we do about it, and his mom stared at her feet the entire time the camera rolled, not saying anything. At the end of the interview, Tyler's dad mentioned that the police were conducting an investigation, but he wasn't keeping his hopes up. He adjusted the bill of his baseball cap and put his arm around his wife, like a man who was ready to continue on with his sad life. If Tyler hadn't wanted me to meet his parents, it was for a good reason.
A couple days later I got called down to Principal Knowlton's office, and when I got there, a policeman was sitting next to her. He asked me to close the door, so I did. He asked me if I knew anything about Tyler's disappearance, if Tyler had mentioned anyone lately: a relative, a friend, a stranger, someone who bothered him. He asked me if I knew anything at all. Right there in that cold office, sitting with my hands squeezed under my thighs, I decided not to tell the police officer about the blue scrolls with the shiny ink. It'd just make Tyler look like even more of a troubled case—a hopeless, helpless runway. And if Tyler had been telling the truth about the messages from the Watchers, then, well, that would have made us all look helpless.
When I came home my dad asked me if I needed someone to talk to, if I was shaken up. I told him I'd be all right, and he said, "That's my boy." And, "Your mom's better at this stuff than I am anyway."
Mom tucked me in that night and said, "No more riding your bike outside anymore, okay?" She stroked my hair like she did whenever I was sick as a kid. "At least for awhile."
That night I woke up because I needed to pee, and when I was getting back into bed, something caught the corner of my eye. Something outside my window. It looked like a baseball plummeting to the ground, but it was much faster and it whistled like a firework being launched, until it hit with a thud. A model rocket had landed in my back yard.
I threw on a pair of sweat pants and a dirty white T-shirt and ran outside, careful not to wake my parents. When I picked up the scorched rocket, it was warm. I carried it to my room like a wounded animal and opened the cargo hold. Inside was a circle of tissue-thin paper, the color of a robin's egg, rolled into a scroll, with a message written in Tyler's chicken scratch:
"It's great here. But I miss you."
I tried to send a response. I took books out from the library the next day on how to build the best model rocket, and books about engineering and physics and astronomy, books I couldn't understand but checked out anyway.
I launched it from my back yard over Christmas vacation.
I wrote down so many things: that I was sorry, sorry about how I acted, sorry about his parents, sorry for everything; how I didn't tell the cops about the messages; how Mrs. Hildegaard wondered if the Watchers liked our gifts, and how crazy would it be if she found out the truth; questions about whether the spaceship was capable of light-speed travel or if it just folded space, and if the Watchers were anything like the Naraxians from Syzygy 7; that I really was "different" and that I wished he'd stayed; asking if there were other humans with him in the spaceship, and if I could come along, leaving seventh grade and my life and everything that sucked about it behind. But it was too late. All the important things got left unsaid.
The parachute unfurled, and my message was trapped inside the toy. So I just watched my rocket float back down to Earth, and as I ran through the neighborhood I reached up to catch the blackened tube before it hit the ground, with my hand stretched up in the air like how a friend going away waves goodbye.