Fiction by Daniel Sutter
Two nights after Apollo 11 shot for the moon, my mother threw a toaster at my dad’s head and called him a word I’d never heard her use before. It got him square on the ear as he walked into the kitchen, and he said something like god damn it, or here we go again. The thing didn’t break, but it knocked a whole tile loose from the floor. My older sister, Dawn, wasn’t home, gone to who-knows-where, so I sat alone at the dinner table, pushing some peas across my plate with the arms of my glasses. In times like these, when particularly anxious, I would often take them off.
My dad rubbed the side of his head and looked at me like I was supposed to help him.
“A teenager,” my mom said. “Now it’s clear who you are. You are the man who sleeps with teenagers.”
“No,” my dad said. “I am not that man, Pamela.” The dog barked like she also had something to say, and my dad pushed her with his foot. “I do not sleep with teenagers,” he said. “This was one. Singular. Seventeen years old. And that does make a difference.”
Janette—a friend of my sister. Plainly and simply, my dad had courted her for more than a year, giving her strange gifts when she’d come over—books of what he claimed was original poetry, a hand-drawn map of Florida with red circles around every city where he owned property. She’d eat here often. And when she did, my dad would make his spinach salad, which he said was good for vitality. She would say thank you, Albert, and he would say no thank you for your thankfulness. I was twelve, and even I saw it coming.
Earlier that day, while my mom and I read the paper together: Earth is here, the moon is here, the rocket is in the middle, Dawn had come home, makeup dripping. She’d seen my father, she told us, mouth to mouth, then body to body, in his car, parked in a section of town where, believe her, no insurance salesman ever parked. She’d snapped photos—proof—with her Instamatic. And to hell with it all, Dawn told us, she was leaving this house and we’d all be lucky if she didn’t come back to burn it down. Dawn went to her room, and ten minutes later she left with a duffel over her shoulder before my mom could find any words.
So now, finally, I spoke up from the dinner table. “Dad, please,” I said. “Stop it.”
My dad pointed at my face, but he looked at my mom. “Here we go, Pamela. See? In front of J. J. You want to do this right now, let the kid see you like this?”
“Just say you’ll stop doing it,” I said. “Just say you’re sorry and you’re wrong and that you love her, and Dawn and me too, and then everything will be fine, and Dawn won’t burn the house down.”
“Oh my God, enough,” my mom said. She stood and left for the living room, crying—sobs that drowned out Cronkite on the television.
“Christ,” my dad said. “Is forgiveness too much to ask for?” He kicked again at the dog. “We’ve got men flying to the moon, but you want to dwell on this? Lecture me in my own house.”
My dad ran the tap and threw water over his face. He didn’t dry it with a towel. Instead he let it drip onto his shirt. He asked where the hell was Dawn, that it was time they took a drive and talked a little about how life works. But my mom lay, face buried into a sofa cushion, silent, and I had to answer for her. When I said Dawn had run away, he told me it figures and went to the garage.
It was useless to say anything to my mom—not because she wouldn’t listen, but because she’d fallen asleep like she always did when overwhelmed. Her body shut down, it seemed, whenever she panicked. It would move on its own, trying to guide my mom to wherever her dreams directed. She was a sleepwalker, had been for a year, and I didn’t disturb her now, so as not to stir up those dreams.
I cleaned my plate and gave the peas to the dog. Then, with the dislodged kitchen tile, I left out the front door to meet Anya, who waited for me in orbit.
For the occasion, Anya and I had built our own lunar module in the woods. We’d stolen three lawn chairs from a neighbor’s patio and draped a blue tarp over them. She was fourteen—had two years on me—and because Anya also had more muscle and height, she’d driven the edges of the tarp deep into the dirt with found railroad spikes. I’d tied the top to a hanging branch to create a point. Anya had cut a small rectangular patch out of the side so we could see the surface, and I’d attached a bunch of my father’s Nixon pins to the outside. After Anya told me Tricky Dick was actually an asshole, I drew wiry antennae on his head and renamed him Dick Slug. I could make her laugh, and that’s why I loved her, why I lay in bed all night imagining us on a desert island for the rest of our lives.
I found Anya inside, sitting cross-legged. Her feet were naked. The shoestring headband I’d given her hung delicately over her ears, and the sequins Dawn had glued on sparkled when Anya turned to say hello. I had put the headband in her mailbox a week after we’d first met a year before, after she answered the door when my mom dragged me and Dawn to offer the new neighbors a casserole. Since then, Anya had worn the headband almost every time I saw her.
“I brought a tile,” I said. “I could tape it somewhere inside, and it could be a control panel or something.”
“That’s a smart idea, J. J.,” she said. “But any additional weight at this point could affect us during re-entry. And you wouldn’t want to burn up in the atmosphere, believe me.”
Confident and calm, she spoke like my mother never could—with a willingness to confront a problem head-on and fix it.
“Of course,” I said.
Now Anya and I lay inside the module, on the dirt, side against side. She wore a dress that looked different than usual, a green one, shorter, more floral and earth-toned, and it showed the pale skin above her knees. I grabbed her hand hard.
“We have to wait two days,” she said, “to get to the moon.”
After a few still moments, a yellow jacket flew straight through the cutout and into the tarp. It hovered above us, showing off its dexterity by jetting quickly to the side, then slowly up and down in some strange, rehearsed pattern. Orbital intruder, Anya called it.
I curled into a ball, sure the yellow jacket had stopped midair to taunt me, give me a wink.
“You’re a baby,” Anya said. “Stop shaking.”
I said that no, no I was not shaking and stood to try what I’d seen my dad do many times—flick the sucker right out of the air.
“Just leave it be,” Anya said. “It’s probably got a kid or two at home, and you don’t want to break up a family.”
I managed to get underneath it, and in one clumsy motion I hit it straight on its middle. The yellow jacket didn’t fall but stammered through the air, only wounded. So I flicked it again and sent it straight down and onto Anya’s neck. The stinger, I saw it, sunk into her skin, and the thing fell limp, dead and partially inside her.
“You idiot,” Anya said, then tore out what she could of the insect.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m sorry. Don’t cry.”
“I’m not going to cry.” She grabbed my wrist and pulled me down to her. “I’m not you.” With the knuckles of her index and middle fingers, she squeezed and then twisted the skin on my neck.
“It’s only fair,” she said. “Now suck it out.”
“The stinger,” she said. “I can’t really do it myself, can I?”
And no she couldn’t, so I went for it. I placed my mouth around the bump, worried my lips were too dry, too wet, too small, too big. I pulled and she told me harder. So I pulled harder, and the stinger, the tiny needle, slid out of her flesh and onto my tongue.
“You guys are fucking,” the older kids said as they pushed through the bottom of the tarp, six of them. I didn’t know any of their names, or how they knew about our module.
Anya said hell no we weren’t, that J. J. would be the very last person she’d do anything like that with.
I don’t know why I then swallowed the stinger. Maybe I didn’t want everyone to see me spit. Maybe I wanted to preserve inside me what had been inside her.
“Where’s Dawn?” a guy said to Anya. His hair was longer than my mother’s. “We haven’t seen her, and she has the acid.”
“How would I know?” Anya said. “Why are you asking me?”
“She’s lost,” I said. “Or missing,” I said. “Dawn’s just gone, okay?”
The guy nodded toward Anya and said she’d know.
The older kids sat in a circle, and Anya joined them, pulling me to the ground with her. She looked at me like Some things, I don’t tell you. A girl rolled a thin piece of paper around some stuff she pulled from her pocket and lit it like a cigarette. When it was passed to her, Anya took a drag. Clearly she’d done this before, with these kids, probably in here. When it was passed to me, I pulled in the smoke and held it, acting as though it didn’t feel like my chest was being ripped open. Then I coughed and they laughed, so I said goodbye. And once I was out of the woods, I gagged myself. I tried to throw up what had stuck in my throat.
On the walk home, I flinched every few steps—something over my shoulder, something breathing on my neck. I asked myself: If shadows had shadows, could those shadows move on their own? I thought I saw a possum with a human face. I stayed in the middle of the road, far from any bushes, houses, or trees.
We lived in a suburb called Hounds Run, along the Gulf Coast and directly across the state from Cape Canaveral. I once asked Anya what she thought of that name, Hounds Run, and she told me it sounded like either a movie about a pack of dogs chasing you or a movie about you chasing a pack of dogs. I asked her which one she thought I’d be, chaser or runner. And she’d told me neither, that I’d just be the one watching the movie.
I pulled open the door to my house and quickly closed it behind me. I locked it, then unlocked it, then locked it again, because I was the only one who cared about keeping my mom safe, keeping her from being taken in her sleep.
In the kitchen, under the harsh light, she stood at the stove frying eggs with her eyes closed. Without saying a word, I led her to the sofa and covered her with a quilt. I wondered where her dreams would take her if she ever made it out of Hounds Run—maybe to Jupiter, Florida, to find the knife salesman who’d once left his card, or maybe to Hollywood where she said her first boyfriend had moved, maybe even to Russia to marry a Communist.
I kissed her forehead, then turned off the burner.
The next day my mom joked about slicing open her eyelid, that maybe if she could never close one she’d never have to completely fall asleep, and I wouldn’t have to worry about her leaving. I said please don’t do that and she said of course she wouldn’t, but I didn’t trust her.
We walked the neighborhood, looking for Dawn—the sun so hot the street and sidewalks looked hazy, like when the television wasn’t tuned correctly.
“Why does it do that?” I said.
“That’s the least of my worries,” my mom said.
A turtle stood in the middle of the road, clearly unsure whether the time and effort to reach the other side were worth it, or if he should just turn around. That summer, Anya and I had already seen four smashed by passing cars. All but one of the turtles died slowly—crushed shell, legs and tail trying their best to keep working. But one, its head slid straight off and into the weeds by the retention pond. Anya fished it out with her bare hands. The eyes remained intact, but they bulged so far out, I thought they’d pop at any second. She told me that’s what I looked like most of the time and tossed it far into the water.
“Where exactly are we going?” I said now to my mom.
“On some sort of mission,” she said.
So we knocked on doors.
The Davidsons hadn’t seen her. Miss Halloway said maybe but it could have been a deer. And the doctor in the two-story said if she’d jumped the fence into his yard the dogs would have torn her to shreds by now. My mom responded, “If you see Dawn say she can come home. If you see her say she doesn’t have to run.”
We found Anya sitting on the steps outside the front door of her house. She threw a yo-yo toward the sky, back and forth.
“Are your parents home?” my mom said.
“They’re at work,” Anya said.
Two cars were parked in the driveway, and it now seemed as if Anya sat guarding, hiding something inside.
I peered into the door window, and her family’s Soviet flag still hung on the living room wall—red, yellow, hammer and sickle. I’d never been inside and never met her parents. But the flag I’d seen many times, when she’d open the door only enough to fit her body through. I often worried Anya would get caught with it, get taken to some room with gray walls and no mirrors. But Anya said it’d be fine. She was an astronaut, not a cosmonaut. Her parents liked the colors better, is all.
“Well, have you seen her,” my mom said, “my Dawn?”
The mark on Anya’s neck had turned redder—a purple outline now around the sting.
“No, ma’am,” Anya said. “Maybe she ran away.”
To get inside the house, I asked if I could have a glass of water. Anya looked toward the door and said, “Um, sure,” and I thought about how if love was knowing secrets, knowing secrets might take some prying. But instead of inviting us in, she went inside and returned with glasses for me and my mother. So I said I needed to use the restroom.
“The toilet’s not working,” Anya said. “The water.”
“But you just gave us a drink.”
Anya shrugged and bent to tie one shoe, then the other—dirty white sneakers, multi-colored laces. They were my sister’s.
“After that,” she said, “it just then stopped working.”
I looked to my mom to see if she’d noticed the shoes. She stared down into her glass. She studied the water and the flecks of dust that floated on top.
Together, at the same time, she and I found Dawn.
Anya gave me an a-okay, meaning we’d meet later, and I hesitated before giving her one back.
My mom and I sat in plastic chairs on our patio. The pool water was stagnant and green, covered in a layer of mosquitos, ants, and the corpses of a few water-bloated frogs. The summer before, when the water was still clean and chlorinated, we’d had an Independence Day party out here—my parents’ friends, clients of my father, cousins and family I’d never met who somehow knew I struggled with my fractions. And Janette. She had just been passing by, my dad said. And she should stay for a bit, my dad said. After swimming, when Janette stepped out of the blue water, wearing what older girls wear when they step out of blue water, my dad motioned to her. He had a towel.
That night, my mom walked in her sleep for the first time. She tried to leave the house barefoot, wearing her church dress and pearls, but I stopped her before she could get the door unlocked.
Whenever I’d tried to clean the pool since, my parents had made me put the net away. There wouldn’t be another party, and they seemed happy to watch the water mold over.
“Dawn will come home soon,” I said. “All of her records are here.”
“Maybe she will,” my mom said. She crossed then uncrossed her legs.
“Why didn’t you tell Anya that you noticed Dawn’s shoes?”
“God knows,” she said. “Why didn’t you?”
I removed my glasses and folded in the arms. “God knows,” I said.
Five sandhill cranes flew in from the west, giant things, and slowly descended, growing larger until they landed in our backyard. One opened its beak and gently closed it around another’s neck. The smallest spread its wings wide to demonstrate its right to be among the group. Stupid birds, I thought. I’d seen one of them choke to death on a live snake.
“Do you think there’s something like them on the moon?” I said.
“Does it matter if there is?” My mom bit at the nail of her index finger.
“I think so.”
“Maybe people who walk in their sleep are space aliens,” she said. “Maybe I finally need to leave for the mothership.”
I told her to please not do that, and as we heard my dad park in the driveway, she said she was only joking. Of course she wouldn’t.
The cranes flew off to invade someone else.
That night Anya arrived, after I did, in a brown dress, even shorter. She breathed heavily and said it was only because she had sprinted the whole way. The sweat on her face seemed different, though—not thick or runny but applied, like make-up. She was glossy of Dawn.
Anya peered through the rectangular cut in the tarp and into the darkness.
“I can see it now,” she said. “The moon. The great nightlight. We will arrive before the next nightfall if this module stays intact.”
Anya retrieved my kitchen tile from the dirt and typed some mathematical predictions on its surface.
“The big cheese,” I said.
She picked up the phone, an old shoe, and said we should call Houston to tell them we were on course, but I said wait, don’t. I didn’t care at all about Houston in that moment.
“Anya,” I said and placed my fingers awkwardly on her back. “Do you think, tonight, that maybe we could do what Dawn’s friends thought we were doing?”
The words were hard to say, and out of fear I might have said them too timidly, I repeated them. My throat felt like chalk.
“You mean fuck,” she said. “You want us to fuck.”
“Yes,” I said. “Like I could put my hand on your leg or something. And you could touch me back. Maybe.”
She squinted through the tarp as if she saw something blocking our path.
“Well, J. J., that would be groovy,” she said, using a word I hated. “But I don’t think Michael Collins, Buzz Aldrin, and Neil Armstrong are fucking each other right now.”
And Anya was right again, and I was embarrassed again, and there was silence again until I finally said it because I had to. “Dawn is in your house,” I said. “And I want to know why.”
She turned to me as if she had been anticipating this, and she held my arms to my sides so I couldn’t mess with my glasses. “Think about how it feels when you hold my hand,” she said. “Think about it really, really hard.” Anya then placed her lips on the bridge of my nose, and my skin went flush. “That’s how it feels when Dawn kisses me, okay?”
If I had been attacked by a million yellow jackets then, it wouldn’t have mattered in the least.
“So what do you think?” Anya released her grip and bent down to reach again for the shoe.
“Call Houston,” I said.
And she did. She put on her deepest voice and faked the sound of static. Everything was fine, Anya told them, as if nothing of any consequence had happened at all.
We both stood, unsure of what to do or say next, and instead of lying on the floor and talking about inertia, trajectory, or whether that Russian dog would ever make it home from space, Anya said she should leave.
“But I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said. “Your house. For the landing.”
“Groovy,” I said.
After she left, I feared this module wouldn’t stay on course at all, that it would float right past the moon and eventually land on some unknown planet where there were no Anyas and they only let you eat cat food.
Outside, I pulled and pulled but couldn’t tear the tarp from its branch. All that fell was a pinecone. I squeezed it until my palm hurt, and when I threw it against a tree, it bounced back and hit me on the chest.
In the driveway, my dad waited with the top down and said, “Get in.” We sat for a while, alone together, until he started the ignition and slowly backed into the street.
“Where’s Mom?” I said. “Is she here?”
The car stammered forward.
“Guess what?” he said. “I kicked the bathroom door in.”
“Are we looking for her?” I said.
“She was just standing there, J. J., not even looking in the mirror,” he said. “She was facing the window. And it was open.”
“Is she still there?” I grabbed the sleeve of my father’s shirt. The wheel jerked a bit to the right before my dad corrected it. “Where are we going?”
“Facing the window, J. J.,” he said. We slowed while passing a green house, and my dad stuck his head out to look for a moment before speeding up again. “Pointing a damn steak knife. Right at her own face.”
She had done it. She had cut her eyelid open. She had hurt herself, probably bleeding, probably crying now, on the bathroom floor with no one to help but the dog because no one had been there to stop her because no one had ever listened.
“No,” my dad said, as if I had spoken aloud, or as if he could hear my thoughts. And maybe I had, or maybe he could. “I took it from her,” he said, “and she just thanked me.”
“And then she ran?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Why didn’t you chase her?
“I was waiting for you.”
“Was she asleep?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I can’t tell anymore.”
We turned down Oak Bend, the street where all the dentists lived, and the moon was now ahead of us, a small waxing crescent—I’d memorized the names. I removed my glasses, and in the sliver of light, I swear I could see a crater on the surface. On one side stood the same five sandhill cranes, flapping their wings, reaching with their beaks. On the other stood Anya and Dawn, looking down at me, mouthing words I couldn’t hear. “Hello,” I whispered. “I see you.”
The car slowed again. “Keep your glasses on,” my dad said. “Or how are you going to find her? How are you ever going to find anything?”
On this street, all the children had strung wires from streetlight to streetlight and hung giant American flags between each. Every flag was attached by its top, so that they ran parallel to the ground and, in this way, created a long row of waving red, white, and blue—a procession that took you to the end, to the cul-de-sac, where one of the banners faced you directly and you had no choice but to admire it for what it was. And what it was to almost everyone in Hounds Run, everyone in the country, was a luminous pride, and a naive but hopeful anticipation of what would come next, after tomorrow, when something that seemed impossibly far away, the moon, was now touchable.
On our way back up the street, as my dad braked to turn onto the main drag, we saw my mom. “She’s dead,” I told my dad, and he said, no, she’s just tangled up in a dentist’s bushes.
I opened the door and ran for her. She had fallen backward into a row of hedges. Her eyes looked like she’d never blinked in her life. I got on my knees and crawled in, positioned myself exactly like her.
“Are you awake?” I said.
“I have the same question.”
She asked me to slap her, so I aimed for her cheek and palmed her.
“Well, why’d you do it so quick and easy?” She smiled. “My own child.”
“I want you to be awake.”
“Yes,” my mom said.
My dad made his way over and raised his finger to yell, but when his mouth opened no sound came out.
My mom asked if he had anything to say.
“This is the part where you finally tell her something, Dad,” I said.
He offered his hand, but my mom wouldn’t accept it. To my right, in the street, what could have been a moccasin from the lake, or what could have been only a tree branch, stretched itself from a storm drain and cast a shadow from the light of the moon. The shadow curled and twisted its way toward the three of us. I thought it might strike.
My dad said, “So what do you think of me, Pamela? Am I the man who sleeps with teenagers? Yes, I am. You said it. Is this excusable? No. Not by you. Not by God himself. Why did I do it? I don’t know. I probably won’t ever know, won’t ever have an answer for it until I’m groveling outside the pearly gates. Do you have an answer for why you sleepwalk? I bet you haven’t got the slightest damn clue. And you know what else is shameful about me? I used to laugh about it. I used to laugh until my eyes were wet as all hell. And Janette. Both of us would just die laughing. ‘Last night Pamela tried to trim the shag carpet with the push mower,’ I’d tell her. ‘Last night Pamela tried to put the dog in the oven.’ ‘Last night Pamela pissed on the fucking floor.’”
“Shut up,” I said. “Shut up. I’ll punch you.”
“But you know what I did yesterday? I felt sorry. I came home early, with a present. Flowers. To make amends, so we can at least get back to pretending we’re a family. You two weren’t there, neither of you, so I actually tried it out. I tried to walk, blind, like you. I tried to connect, tried to understand. I closed my eyes and walked the house. I started at the sofa. And I did it well enough, Pamela. I didn’t think it was all that hard. I poured myself a glass of water. I was able to feed the dog. But then I found the glass doors and went out on the patio. And this is what happened, and you can go ahead and laugh if you want. I walked right into it. Right into that retched-up swimming pool. And then, well, I didn’t feel like I should feel sorry anymore. I woke the hell up. Like you should. I took a long shower, and I drove my guilty ass right back to work like an adult does. Be an adult, Pamela. Do your job. Wake up.”
I looked, and there was no more snake, no more branch. There might never have been.
“It’s one thing to be blind,” she said. “But it’s a completely different thing to be unconscious.” My mom stood and wiped the dirt and pine needles off her sides. “I guess you won’t ever get it,” she said. “But it’s all right, Albert. At least we can say you tried.”
The afternoon Apollo 11 landed on the moon, my mom told me to pack a bag so we could leave for Aunt Rachael’s in the morning. I asked about Dawn, but she said don’t worry about it. Now Dawn could look for us.
I cracked open my bedroom door, and from inside I watched my mom and dad. They sat on the couch staring at the television, the dog lying between them. Without looking, my dad reached to pet its neck and accidentally touched my mom’s hand. He pulled back quickly and cleared his throat out of embarrassment. I wanted my mom to scream, punch, get revenge for all the damage he had done her. But she didn’t.
“We’ve got men trying to land on the moon, and you’re worried about us?” my mom said to my dad. “This, whatever it is, is fine now.”
“Because it’s over,” my dad said.
“Because it’s over,” my mom said.
I lay on the bed and put a pillow over my face. I thought this might be a good time to cry, but I couldn’t force any tears. I heard the front door open and close, then the giggling of Anya and Dawn. Eventually my dad yelled something about the future, history, mankind, and for me to get my ass out there, so I did.
My sister and Anya sat cross-legged and just to the side of the screen, their fingers interlocked.
No one said a thing about it. I was amazed.
We all knew each other as best we could.
Now that I’d be leaving Hounds Run, I wondered whether Dawn would be coming along. But that was a concern for the morning. I pushed the dog off the sofa to sit between my parents, and Cronkite finally shut his hole. My mom took a deep breath, her eyes wider than I’d ever seen. The telephone rang but no one answered, and my dad even muttered the Pledge under his breath.
Finally, we saw it.
After it all, the module rested securely, safely, on the eastern shore of the Sea of Tranquility.
Anya turned to me and put a hand over her mouth to muffle the sound. “We landed, commander?”
We had never discussed rank because I had always assumed Anya to be in charge. But now, for the first time, she’d granted me a title.
I made the same gesture back. “By God,” I said, “I think we did.”