Home > All the Birds in the Sky(7)

All the Birds in the Sky(7)
Charlie Jane Anders

“Hey.” Isobel abandoned her chair opposite him and came to sit next to him. “Hey. Hey. It’s okay. Listen, do your parents know where you are?”

“Not…” Laurence sniffled. “Not as such.” He wound up telling her the whole deal, how he’d stolen fifty bucks from his mom, how he’d ditched school and taken the bus and the T. As he told Isobel, he started to feel bad for making his parents worry, but also he knew with increasing certainty that this stunt would not be repeatable. Not a few days from now, at any rate.

“Okay,” Isobel said. “Wow. Well, I guess I oughta call your parents. It’ll take them a while to get here, though. Especially with the confusing directions I’m going to give them for getting to the launch site.”

“Launch site? But…”

“Since that’s where you’re going to be, by the time they arrive.” She patted Laurence’s shoulder.

He had stopped crying, thank god, and was pulling himself back into shape. “Come on, I’m going to show you the rocket. I’ll give you the tour, and introduce you to some of the people.”

She stood up and offered Laurence her hand. He took it.

And that was how Laurence got to meet a dozen or so of the coolest rocket nerds on Earth. Isobel drove him there in her tobacco-scented red Mustang, and Laurence’s feet were buried under Frito bags. Laurence heard MC Frontalot for the first time on her car stereo. “Have you ever read Heinlein?

Maybe a little grown-up, but I bet you could handle his juveniles. Here.” She dug around in the backseat and handed him a battered paperback called Have Space Suit—Will Travel,  which had a pleasingly lurid cover. She said he could keep it, she had another copy.

They drove along Memorial Drive and then through an endless series of identical highways and switchbacks and tunnels, and Laurence realized Isobel was right: His parents would get lost several times trying to come pick him up, even if she gave them perfect, nonconfusing directions. They always complained that driving in Boston was asking for it. The afternoon grew duller as clouds set in, but Laurence didn’t care.

“Behold,” Isobel said, “a single-stage Earth-to-orbit rocket. I drove all the way from Virginia just to help with this. My boyfriend is crazy jealous.”

It was two or three times Laurence’s size, housed in a barn near the water. It glimmered, its pale metal shell catching the streaks of light through the barn windows. Isobel walked Laurence around it, showing him all the cool features, including the carbon nanofiber insulation around the fuel systems and the lightweight silicate/organic polymer casing on the actual engines.

Laurence reached out and touched the rocket, feeling the dimpled skin with his fingertips. People started wandering up, demanding to know who this kid was and why he was touching their precious rocket.

“That’s delicate equipment.” A tight-lipped man in a turtleneck sweater folded his arms.

“We can’t have just random kids running around our rocket barn,” a small woman in overalls said.

“Laurence,” Isobel said. “Show them.” He knew what she meant.

He reached down to his right wrist with his left hand and pressed the little button. He felt the familiar sensation, like a skipped heartbeat or a double breath, that lasted no time at all. And then it was two seconds later, and he was still standing next to a beautiful rocket in a ring of people, who were all staring at him. Everybody clapped. Laurence noticed they were all wearing things on their wrists too, like this was a trend. Or a badge.

After that, they treated him like one of them. He had conquered a small piece of time, and they were conquering a small piece of space. They understood, as he did, that this was a down payment.

One day, they would own a much bigger share of the cosmos, or their descendants would. You celebrated the small victories, and you dreamed of the big ones to come.

“Hey kid,” one hairy guy in jeans and sandals said. “Check out what I did with this thruster design.

It’s pretty sweet.”

“What we did,” Isobel corrected him.

Turtleneck Guy was older, in his thirties or forties, maybe even fifties, with thinning salt-and-pepper hair and big eyebrows. He kept asking Laurence questions and making notes on his phone. He asked Laurence to spell his name, twice. “Remind me to look you up on your eighteenth birthday, kid,” he said. Someone brought Laurence a soda and pizza.

By the time Laurence’s parents arrived, boiling in their own skins after having to figure out the Turnpike and Storrow Drive and the tunnels and everything, Laurence had become the mascot of the Single-Stage Orbital Rocket Gang. On the long drive home, Laurence tuned out his parents explaining to him that life isn’t an adventure, for chrissake, life is a long slog and a series of responsibilities and demands. When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.

The sun went down. The family stopped for burgers and more lecturing. Laurence kept sneaking looks under the table at his propped-open copy of Have Space Suit—Will Travel. He was already halfway through the book.



THE CLASSROOMS ON the western side of Canterbury Academy’s pale cement mausoleum had windows facing the parking lot, the sports fields, and the two-lane highway. But the east windows looked down a muddy slope to a stream, beyond which an uneven fringe of trees shivered in the September wind. In the school’s stale-marshmallow-scented air, Patricia could look east and imagine running wild.

The first week of school, Patricia smuggled an oak leaf in her skirt pocket—the nearest thing she had to a talisman, which she touched until it broke into crumbs. All through Math and English, her two classes with views of the east, she watched the stub of forest. And wished she could escape there and go fulfill her destiny as a witch, instead of sitting and memorizing old speeches by Rutherford B.

Hayes. Her skin crawled under her brand-new training bra, stiff sweater, and school jumper, while around her kids texted and chattered: Is Casey Hamilton going to ask Traci Burt out? Who tried what over the summer? Patricia rocked her chair up and down, up and down, until it struck the floor with a clang that startled everyone at her group table.

Seven years had passed since some birds had told Patricia she was special. Since then, she’d tried every spellbook and every mystical practice on the internet. She’d misplaced herself in the woods over and over until she knew by heart every way to get lost. She carried a first-aid kit, in case she met any more injured creatures. But no wild things ever spoke, and nothing magical ever happened. As if the whole thing had been some kind of prank, or she’d failed a test without knowing.

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