When Dex was seven, his father tore up his rocket ship. The metal popped and his father cursed. With Dex’s face stinging from his father’s hand, the boy skidded across the ground. “We don’t have the money for this,” his father said. As the remains were thrown in the back of the truck that smoked and sometimes wouldn’t run, warm tears ran over the boy’s face. “It makes us look like white trash with all this junk in the yard,” his father said. Dex never got off the ground.
Mae would sit in boxes. The other children played in the street, and she would stay on the other side of her chain-linked fence peeking out of the cardboard staring at them. The problem with Mae was that she was too smart. Dex, now in his seventies, still lived in the first house he and his wife bought when they got married, and he’d seen a bunch of neighbors like her. It was always the same. It was never a clever or a cute kind of smart. It was a how-stupid-could-you-be-to-believe-that smart. The box didn’t help. Once Dex — not wanting to talk to her, but too close to pretend she didn’t exist — asked, “Why don’t you go play with those kids?”
“They’ll beat me up.”
“How do you know?”
The box rumbled as she turned toward the old man. “Past experience.”
He already knew, but he asked anyway. “Why did they do that?”
Her eyebrows scrunched and her mouth bunched on one side of her face. He’d seen her take all their bicycle seats after they’d thrown rocks at her box. “Because I’m not stupid. I’m sure you could go play with them.”
Of course, he could go play with them. After his kids moved out, his wife used to make cookies for every adolescent that ran in front of the house. When she died, the kids he liked ran by the house without making eye contact, but the others, forced by their parents, came by offering to help him clean his yard. Back then, he didn’t need help, and now they’d all learned to run by without looking at him, even some of the parents.
He left her sitting in her trashy cardboard box. This conversation wasn’t going anywhere.
A week later, while pulling weeds around his side of the fence, he was forced to acknowledge her again. “Your castle’s nice,” he said.
“It’s not a castle.”
He knew he shouldn’t ask. “What is it, then?”
“What kind of kid plays in a box? I, at least, had a spaceship.”
“Good for you,” she said. “I have a box.”
Dex had actually seen her father give it to her. The thin man left about a week later. That morning, Mae’s dad had slowly closed the side door and pushed a dented old truck down the driveway before jumping in and starting the motor. The driveway had been vacant ever since.
The hardwood floors in his bedroom pressed into his knees. He didn’t move as he stared at the storage containers filled with his wife’s faded yellow, red, and orange folded clothes. Packed between the fabric were paper stars his wife used to hang over the dinner table. He should’ve thrown it all away, but he just stacked it all on her side of the bed before going back outside with the plastic tub.
As he dumped the empty container next to the fence, Mae didn’t move. Unless it rained, she never did.
“Give me your box,” he said.
“No,” she said.
“My spacecraft needs an engine. Give me the box. It’s just creepy you sitting out here in it.”
“Creepier than an old man talking to a little girl?”
“I’m not going away until I get that box.”
“I’ll tell my mom to plant flowers when you drop dead.”
“I’ll turn the sprinkler on.”
She got out of the box.
The plastic creaked as he stood in the middle of his tub. He added another layer of tape to connect her cardboard box to his tub.
When he was done, he said, “I need a pilot for this mission.”
“Are you off your medication?” she asked.
“I wonder what those boys would do to your box if they found all those bicycle seats in the compost heap of your backyard.”
She took her time crawling over the fence, and she took even longer getting in the tub.
Dex got out to inspect the incomplete spacecraft. There was a ripping sound as the tape separated, pulling fragments of cardboard off Mae’s box.
“You’re breaking it,” Mae said. “What are you doing?”
“We need controls.”
To save her box, Mae leaped over the fence and grabbed two branches. She pushed the wood into the ground, and magically, there were two control sticks on either side of the front fuselage.
“Good idea,” Dex said.
“I told you I wasn’t stupid.”
As Mae got back into the box with Dex, his shoes poked her back. She couldn’t tell if the container or Dex was the one that smelled of mothballs, but she held onto the joysticks and tried not to breathe.
“Do you know where you want to go?” Dex asked.
“Mars it is,” Dex said. “Prepare for launch.”
Surrounded by grass, the two just sat as the sounds of children laughing echoed down the street. But for years after, Mae swore she could feel the initial tremble of blast off. And the funny thing was Dex could, too.
Frederick Charles Melancon is a native of New Orleans. Currently, he lives in Mississippi with his family. In his spare time, he cooks, practices kung fu, and builds imaginary airplanes with his daughter.