Richard Thomas is the author of three books—Transubstantiate, Herniated Roots and Staring Into the Abyss. His over 100 publications include Cemetery Dance, PANK, Gargoyle, Weird Fiction Review, Midwestern Gothic, Arcadia, Pear Noir, Chiral Mad 2, and Shivers VI. He is also the editor of three anthologies out in 2014: The New Black (Dark House Press), The Lineup: 25 Provocative Women Authors (Black Lawrence Press) and Burnt Tongues (Medallion Press) with Chuck Palahniuk. In his spare time he writes for The Nervous Breakdown, LitReactor, and is Editor-in-Chief at Dark House Press. For more information visit www.whatdoesnotkillme.com or contact Paula Munier at Talcott Notch.
Tinkering with the Moon
When his father moved out, Tyler went mute, sitting in his room surrounded by Tinkertoys, building cars and houses that would not break. He would ignore the voice of his mother that penetrated the carpeted floor, punctuated with words that made him sweat. About to enter the second grade, he didn’t have many friends. Every year the principal would mix up the classes, once again severing any ties that he had. It was a crapshoot. A word he had picked up from his mother. The more he wanted his friend Ethan to be with him, or the cute girl with ponytails and glasses, Millicent, the more likely they would not be in his class. At the ripe age of seven years old he was learning so many new words: bittersweet; alimony; bitch. The cigarette smoke wound its way up the stairs, so he closed his bedroom door. He coughed into his elbow, sat on the edge of his bed, and stared out into the back yard, the inflated pool filled with shimmering water, the surface dotted with dead bugs and leaves, the grass underneath it surely flat and yellow, the rest of it almost knee high.
It was summer. But he had no energy to run around in the crippling heat, the forecast for Chicago reaching high into the 90s. Thinking of the park up the street and the monkey bars, how he could finally make it across them now, without his father’s sturdy arms beneath him, only left him empty and nauseous. His baseball glove sat gathering dust in the corner, tiny particles like the dissipating trail of a sky bound fairy, sparkling in the sunbeams that split his room in two. He sighed and went back to his Tinkertoys.
“Tyler?” his mother shouted up the stairs.
If he waited long enough, she’d leave him alone.
“Tyler, it’s one o’clock.”
He rooted around in the beige carpet, searching for a blue spool and an orange rod so he could add another floor to his skyscraper.
“Tyler, the yard sale,” she yelled.
He stopped and held the pieces in his hands. Staring at the closed door, he remembered. One o’clock.
There wasn’t much he looked forward to these days. It was a wave of hatred, followed by a gut full of sadness, the little things making him laugh, and then quickly filling his eyes with tears.
One of the only things that he and his mother did together these days, aside from macaroni and cheese in front of the TV, was scouring the yard sales for Tinkertoys. The old wooden ones, the new plastic sets, it didn’t matter, they all worked together. But the bargains, the steals. That’s what his mother called them – steals. His math skills were still developing but he understood what fifty dollars was. He had seen dollar bills, of course. He had 1s and 5s and 10s folded in half and nestled in a cigar box hidden under his bed. The smoky sweetness of his father’s cigars caused a much different reaction than his mother’s new habit, the cheap plastic ashtrays scattered around the house, riddled with lipstick butts and bent shafts.
“This is $39 on Amazon,” she said, “plus shipping,” waving her arm at the squat cylinder sitting on his bedroom floor. “And this set here,” she said, pointing with the toe of her pink fuzzy slipper, nudging the tall metal bin, “saw it on sale for $77 at Target. That’s ridiculous.”
So they made a deal. If they found any Tinkertoys at the garage sales that littered their subdivision, she’d buy them for him. These sideshows for housewives bored out of their minds were their new routine on the weekends. They tried not to make too much eye contact with these women, neighbors they knew, and neighbors they didn’t. Bloodshot eyes and dark puffy circles, they didn’t want to know. It was a little too close to home, being a little bit broke, selling size 7 sweaters for $5 ($23.99 retail), so they kept their heads down as they searched under tables and behind stuffed animals for hidden treasure. They turned into one black tar driveway after another, heat shimmering, quickly ducking into garages overflowing with clutter, the cool concrete a welcome respite while they waited for their eyes to adjust.
The Tinkertoys were his, as long as they were a “steal”. They scoured Salvation Army, and Goodwill, too, in addition to walking the sidewalks in the oppressive heat, and often they came home empty handed. But on the days that they scored, another word of his mother’s, the days they got lucky, it was a short walk home. His sweaty arms wrapped around the blue cylinders, felt no pain as he blew dust off the grey tin lids, humming a song he didn’t really know. And in these moments he would forget the face of his father.
He was building a church today, as rain fell heavy outside. His room was overflowing now, so he was working in the living room, his mother on the phone. She wouldn’t let Tyler talk to him, his father. No matter how he begged.
“No. Size 7-8, at least, he hasn’t worn 5-6 for months.”
He’d only get half of it, these conversations. So he’d try to piece it together.
“Well good for you. I’m sure she’s very nice.”
The cross for the top, it was going to be epic. Three-dimensional, it would be made entirely of orange sticks.
“As long as I get my check, David.”
She hung up the phone, silencing a garbled voice that disappeared into the plastic, going under, and gone in an instant. He turned his eyes back to the cross.
Tyler remembered a message his father had left, the baritone filling the kitchen as his mother stood there with a glass of red wine in one hand, and a cigarette in the other. Tyler was on the stairs, half way down, sitting there in a torn Superman t-shirt and his faded underwear, afraid to walk any farther. She kept playing it back, over and over again, the slurred words hard to understand. He forgot most of it, pushed it away, but one part still came to the surface every time they talked on the phone, rippling across a body of dark water, making waves every time. It frightened Tyler, because he didn’t understand.
She knows how to use her mouth for more than yapping in my ear. She lets me do things with her. To her. I’d forgotten what it feels like to be a man.
Tyler squinted his eyes, rubbing at the back of his neck, setting the cross down for a second. Hands, mouths, tongues: it made him sick. A prickly heat ran down his back as he pictured his father and a strange blonde girl walking out of the grocery store, laughing. This was last week. His mother didn’t notice them, holding hands, or anything else. It wasn’t his babysitter, Jackie. But it was close. Too close. It confused him. A flush filled his cheeks and he looked up at his mother. She was no saint either.
The church expanded at some point, taller and taller, until it wasn’t a church any more. It wasn’t a skyscraper either. It was something else, and he wasn’t quite sure yet what that was. It was evolving, changing, and he liked it.
When he showed his mother, she sighed.
“Tyler, it’s so big,” she said.
He stood beaming, his smile slowly drooping.
“I know, it’s almost as tall as I am,” he said.
“What is it?”
“Well, it used to be a church. Then I scrapped that. I thought maybe a building, a skyscraper. But I think maybe something else,” he paused. “Something special.”
“It is special, darling, it is. But can you move it out from in front of the TV? I’m tired. I just want to sit down and relax and watch something. Can you move it, please?”
He picked it up, and it wobbled. When he straightened up, it banged into the ceiling, shattering the top of it, sending pieces falling down onto his head.
“I’ve got it,” he said, his jaw clenching.
As he walked into the kitchen, he ran it into the ceiling beam that separated the rooms, taking off another six inches. He kept on walking.
“Why don’t you put it in the garage,” his mother yelled. “Plenty of room on the far side where your father used to park.”
He stopped. The garage. Perfect.
Tyler measured 52 inches, pretty tall for his age. He’d need more Tinkertoys, that was for sure. The heat in the garage was stifling, but the structure was entirely too big for anywhere else. He had the garage door open so that a slight breeze pushed its way into the space, mixing oil and gasoline into a subtle headache.
A flash of red, and a low rumble, and Tyler turned his head to see a car parked at the end of the driveway. The driver’s side door opened and out stepped his dad. He looked good. His hair wasn’t as gray, he’d lost some weight, and something else was strange. Oh, right. He was smiling.
Tyler walked out to him, squinting into the sun.
“Tyler, my boy,” he said, arms wide.
He rushed to his father, and held him.
“Hey buddy, good to see you too,” he said, rubbing his head, messing his hair, patting him on the back. He pulled away and knelt in front of him, his eyes full of shimmer and light.
“Your mom home?”
“Sure, want me to go get her?”
“No, no, no. That’s okay. No.”
His father’s eyes darted towards the house and the thin door that separated it all, kept her at bay. He willed it shut.
“Listen, buddy, I’m going on a business trip,” he said. “Down to Florida, you know where that is? NASA, where they build rockets?”
Tyler nodded, but he wasn’t sure.
“It’s hot as hell down there. But I have some opportunities, so I’m driving down.”
“With your friend?” Tyler asked.
His father’s eyes shot back to the red car, the convertible, the big sunglasses unable to hide the young blonde girl in the front seat fiddling with the radio knobs.
“Yes, with my friend.”
“It’s nothing, Tyler. Just business.”
“Give this to your mother. It should keep us square for a couple months,” he said, taking a slip of paper out of his jeans pocket, a check.
“What’s this for?”
“That’s me chipping in, son, me helping out. More than I have to, but not as much as I’d like to.”
“It’s some money. Just give it to her, okay?”
“Okay, Dad. You don’t want to give it to her yourself? What if I lose it?”
“You won’t, sport,” he said. “I trust you.”
“Come here, give me a hug,” he said, and they were still for a moment, the sound of lawnmowers purring in the distance.
“Listen, I gotta go, okay,” he said, standing up. “I’ll give you guys a call in a couple of days.”
“Don’t forget that check,” he said, and walked down the driveway. “Love the rocket,” he said over his shoulder, and he was around the car, door opening and closing, a dull thud, and then they were gone, the rev of an engine loud and violent, but Tyler couldn’t hear a thing.
Rocket was all he heard.
He set the check on the workbench, and picked up a pencil and legal pad. He started sketching the fins, the nosecone, the parts of the rocket that made it a rocket, and a smile crept over his face. An hour later, he set a box of lightbulbs on the bench, on top of the check. So he could move the ladder. And then he draped a blue tarp on top of the box. And later, he set a hammer on the tarp, which was covering the box. And when the sun set, it was forgotten. For months. And by then it was too late.
A voicemail that was never answered, eventually disappearing entirely; nothing but beeps and a shrill sound on the other end of the line; a cell phone number that didn’t go anywhere; an email that bounced back: dead ends.
“You can’t run from me, you son of a bitch. You’re late, very late and my lawyer knows all about it. You can run to the ends of the earth, hell, all the way to the moon, you asshole, I’ll find you.”
Florida. NASA. Rocket. Moon. It all made sense to him now. He measured some more, widened the cylinder and jotted down more notes. He went online, and printed out pages upon pages of cryptic phrases. He stared out the window and collected the fairy dust that sparkled in the moonlight, floating up from the baseball cards, the Frisbee, his soccer cleats. He muttered spells and incantations, and rubbed his body in oils and herbs. He communed with the gods and goddesses alike: Artemis, Diana, Heng-O, Coyolxauhqui. And he prepared himself.
His mother ran out for cigarettes and a bottle of wine. She told him she’d be right back. It wasn’t the first time. He hardly looked up from his Tinkertoys. And she hardly slowed down as she walked away from him.
When the car returned, it stopped at the end of the driveway, garage door open wide, smoke drifting up into the sky, a haze falling across the black charred driveway. It was the ladder that stood out, the first thing to see. It stood in the middle of the driveway, aluminum reaching up into the sky, half of it melted and warped, bent over as if in silent prayer. Scatted around it on the ground was a handful of splintered Tinkertoys, some burnt, some still in flames. They were in a ring around a blast of white, as if a balloon of paint had been dropped from a great height, pushing out in all directions, a ring of black in the middle, around a core of dull red that still pulsed with heat.
The cool air was filled with electricity, summer having turned to fall as a shadow passed in front of the pale white moon, a comet trail fading into oblivion.