Phase One: The Wheel
The Toy Emporium was a glowing beacon at the far end of a black, desolate strip mall. Of the nine stores available for rent it was the only one occupied. The remaining empty sections consisted of white-washed windows and wordless signs on which it was still possible to see the outlines of letters. Even the street lights had gone dark.
Parked in the middle of a hundred spaces was Greg’s powder blue mini-van. He leaned against it, smoking a cigarette. The phone in his other hand shined brightly in the void of the lot like a star exiled from its galaxy. Compared to such a miniscule amount of light the Toy Emporium was the galaxy from which the star had come. Its colorful, fluorescent sign cast pink and blue reflections off of the puddles that had gathered in the many potholes weathered into the pavement. The windows of the store shone with the white light of a star, illuminating the sidewalk and parking spots in front of them.
Greg turned from the vibrant rays of neon gases and kicked away the box at his feet. The cardboard cube had recently contained his son’s birthday gift and was now filled with ripped plastic and broken styrofoam. The force of Greg’s kick sent it tumbling into an adjacent parking space where it landed on its side. The supposedly bio-degradable wrappings fell out onto the blacktop and the wind carried them off towards the toy store. They were desperate travelers, floating in zero-gravity, trying to fly their way back home.
Greg opened the door of his decade old mini-van and lowered himself inside. In front of him was a grey, faux leather steering wheel. To his right, stuck to the passenger side dashboard, was a red, plastic one. It was the gift he’d purchased at the Toy Emporium for his son, Timothy. It had cost him forty bucks. He’d hoped to find something cheaper, so he could afford another pack of smokes, but the last time he’d seen the boy he’d learned of Timmy’s dream of becoming a race car driver. That was over a month ago.
He’d wanted to visit his son many times since then. But his wife was, justifiably, making that difficult. He’d finally decided to start making it easier beginning with his plan for the following day. It would be Timmy’s birthday and Greg was set to take him out for dinner at their favorite restaurant, Friendly’s.
He studied the fake, hot rod red steering wheel and chuckled to himself. He’d wanted to be a driver when he was young, as well. When your dad sat around, drank beer, and watched NASCAR all day it was hard not to look up to the drivers on television, to dream of passing them by on the motorway. But when you discovered your dad was a dead beat it was even harder to take those dreams seriously. Timmy was growing quickly and Greg was worried the boy may no longer be interested in milkshakes and race cars.
Despite his fears, it was too late for Greg to change his plan now, or return the toy he’d purchased. With phase one of his plan complete, he put his key into the ignition, twisted, and waited for the engine to flip. It took a few tries. As he drove in the direction of the lot’s exit Greg remembered that the last time he was in a car with two steering wheels he’d been learning to drive.
Phase Two: The Co-Pilot
Greg was running early. Nearly an hour early. It was five and he wasn’t scheduled to pick up his son until six. Shelly would probably be pissed. And she would probably think he’d done it on purpose. He hadn’t planned on arriving so early but by four he’d run out of distracting activities and was wandering his apartment aimlessly. Maybe, if he was lucky, her new husband would have to hear about it for the rest of the night. He’d feel slightly less guilty if he managed to ruin that prick’s evening.
As he pulled onto their street he could feel eyes on his car. He knew his run down mini-van seemed primitive compared to the Mercedes and BMW’s that normally drove the block. He was a Martian among Earthians and he could imagine those witnessing the flight of his strange vehicle preparing to phone the authorities in a mix of confusion and panic.
Instead of pulling into the driveway Greg parked next to the curb. He could not see Roger’s car and figured Timmy’s step-dad must be at work. He guessed someone had to make the seven figures required to buy such a house. Even if it meant skipping a birthday or two. Greg honked the horn twice and exited his van.
He leaned back against the car and lit a cigarette. To the right of the rich, wooden front door he saw the curtains of a window twitch slightly. His son’s blue eyes peered out at him. He waved and put out the cigarette. Timmy’s voice passed from inside the house and over the primly manicured front garden as he called for his mother. A minute or two later the door opened and a miniature spaceman ran across the immaculately green grass of the lawn. A short, blonde haired woman stepped onto the stairs after him. Shelly did not wave and did not meet Greg’s eyes.
“Hi Daddy,” Timmy said, jumping to hug his father.
“Hey Timmy,” Greg responded, crouching onto one knee, “Happy Birthday, kid.”
“Did you see my space suit, Dad?”
He had seen his space suit. At least the kid had higher aspirations than his father.
“I did, and it is very awesome,” Greg said. And then, thinking on his feet, “Wait ’till you see what’s in the car. It’ll go perfectly with your new outfit.” The race car wheel would, from then on, be the wheel of a spaceship.
He put Timmy back down and turned towards Shelly. She was looking back this time.
“Greg,” she called, “Have him back by nine?” There was no anger or frustration in her tone. She was asking a sincere question, not making a demand.
“Sure thing,” Greg called back. “Okay buddy, you’re riding up front with me tonight. I need a co-pilot.”
Shelly descended down to the walkway that led from the steps to the driveway. “Timmy,” she said, and Greg thought she was about to tell him to sit in the back, “Have fun, Okay?”
“Okay, Mom,” Timmy said and ran around the van to the passenger side. Greg pressed the unlock button on his keys to make sure the door was open.
Shelly stared at Greg for a few, quiet moments. “Thanks,” she said.
He wasn’t sure what she was thanking him for but he didn’t ask. “You’re welcome,” he responded.
They shared another couple seconds of silence until Greg said, “I’ll see you.”
Shelly whispered back, “See you.”
The woman Greg had once married and still loved watched them drive off. Greg could see her in the rear view mirror and she stood in the same place, eventually casting her gaze down at the grass, until they pulled around the corner.
Phase Three: Training
On their way to Friendly’s the sun was finishing its descent behind the trees, an intergalactic ship encompassed within a force-field of fire. The road they drove weaved through the forest that separated their town from the next. It was not a long trip but the shadow of the mini-van grew noticeably larger and darker along the way.
Throughout the ride Greg and his son pretended they were on a mission to the moon. A wormhole had opened just outside the atmosphere and an ancient alien species poured through with a number of menacing war ships. Their plan was to destroy the earth, but not if Greg and his son had anything to say about it. Timmy, as co-pilot, was in charge of dodging enemy lasers and returning fire. He jerked his toy violently from left to right and used the checkerboard gear shift as the controls for his gun. The enemy fleet, a hundred crafts strong, stood no chance. By the time they pulled into the parking lot of the restaurant Timmy had finished off all but the mothership which was fleeing back towards open space, the wormhole long sealed. Timmy decided they could take a break and catch up with the leader of the alien armada after dinner. For now, the invasion had been defeated, the wormhole closed, and the world saved.
Before they entered the restaurant Greg stopped and leaned over to inspect his front left tire. He’d thought the van had been drifting to the left during the drive. The tire looked a bit low on air, nothing he couldn’t fix for twenty five cents at the nearest gas station.
Although the parking lot was not busy and there was no wait to be seated it was dark before Greg and Timmy shimmied into their booth at the back of the restaurant. Greg had requested the spot because his son loved booths, at least that’s what he remembered. He was quickly reassured that the boy had not outgrown milkshakes when Timmy ordered a cheeseburger, fries, and a malted vanilla shake. Greg said he’d have the same. Timmy said the Malted Vanilla Moo Shake should be called the Malted Vanilla Moon Shake.
Over their food they discussed Timmy’s new aspirations to become a spaceman. In the last month he’d apparently seen every sci-fi and space movie ever made and this had clearly influenced his change of heart. His favorite was Interstellar and he rehashed the plot down to the most miniscule detail. After they’d finished Greg put in an order for two pieces of chocolate cake. He did not tell the waitress it was Timmy’s birthday. He would pay for the dessert instead. When it arrived Greg waited for the waitress to withdraw then he pulled a small wax birthday candle and a lighter out his pocket. He slipped his son a piece of paper on which he’d written the Happy Birthday Song and Timmy blew out the candle.
“Thanks for not telling her it was my birthday, dad,” Timmy said with a shy smile Greg was not accustomed to seeing on the boy’s face.
“Well, I know you don’t like it when they sing to you,” Greg said, “I never liked it either.” The last time he’d taken Timmy out for his birthday he had told the waitress and Timmy ended up crying through the whole song. A childhood trauma, besides that regarding the dead beat dad, they both shared.
“Roger told them to sing to me last night.”
“Oh, I’m sorry buddy. He probably didn’t know.”
“I told him. But it’s okay. He said I should get over my fear. He said being the center of attention is good.”
“Yeah, sometimes. But not if you’re uncomfortable with it,” Greg thought about how to word the next bit and decided the simpler the better, “Do you like Roger?”
“I guess. He gets me cool presents and lets me watch grown up movies with him like Interstellar. But he’s not around that much.”
“He works alot?”
“Yeah, thats what he says. But mom still asks him where he’s going all the time. Why don’t you and mom like each other?”
“It’s not that we don’t like each other, Timmy. I still love your mother. But your old man made some mistakes and now he has to make it up to your mom. And he’s trying really hard to do so.”
“I know you are. Mom says so. I think she misses you. I miss you too.”
“And I miss you both.”
Timmy sat for second, looking at his wringing hands. Then he smiled and looked up to his dad.
“Can I come stay with you this weekend?”
“Maybe, we’ll have to ask your mom.”
“Okay, she’ll say yes if I tell her about the alien invasion. We have to build a base before they come back. They’ll be on the lookout for our ship.”
“I know the perfect place for a fort, right in my living room. And if you haven’t seen them all already we can get some more alien movies, we’ll need to figure out where these aliens are from.”
Timmy started going over all the sci-fi movies he’d seen again. Naming possible origin planets for the aliens they’d just battled along the forested road. Greg listened intently and paid the check. As they stood up to leave Greg looked out the window across from their booth. The sky was clear of any clouds and there were more stars in the sky then Greg had seen in a while. It was as if they really had taken a spaceship to the moon, fighting hostile aliens and landing on the lunar surface to grab some space grub in a nearby colony.
They exited the restaurant into a parking lot much brighter than the one he’d been in the night before. Greg wasn’t sure if the brightness came from light posts or stars.
Phase Four: Lift-Off
The pavement of the street was somehow brighter than that of the parking lot. Apparently, Greg’s dying headlight bulbs had been changed out for the xenon blue LED’s that high class car owners used to blind drivers in opposite lanes. Timmy was co-piloting again. Helping his dad avoid a notorious asteroid belt. He said many great pilots had lost their lives in such belts. The van continued to pull to the left as it had done earlier but now it also felt like it was periodically pulling to the right.
They drove a different road than the one they’d taken to Friendly’s. Greg told Timmy it was to avoid running into the mothership but, in truth, he merely wanted a few extra minutes with his son.
Halfway through the ride home the street guided them uphill where it curved into a long turn around the meridian of a tall hill. The performance of the van grew noticeably more erratic. Greg knew it was too much pull to be caused by a tire slightly low on air and it could not have been the wind as there was none. His ability to steer the car was deteriorating and when they started drifting towards the oncoming lane he started to worry. He peered ahead and could see quite clearly for twenty yards to where his head lights died away. Beyond that was darkness and Greg stared into it anxiously anticipating the appearance of another set of lights. The relfective guardrail on the opposite side of the road made him nervous as well. In the black night behind it was the steep, rocky embankment of a hill that led down into a deep, jagged ravine.
Greg looked over at his son. His son yelled out about an asteroid in their path and pulled his toy wheel to the right. The car swerved right into the ruts off the side of the road and the tires hummed a wake up call all truck drivers dreaded. After the asteriod passed Timmy corrected their course to the left. The car swerved left, back into their lane. Greg realized that he had to pull over.
Greg put on his four way blinkers. Timmy saw an alien ship on their tail, the mothership had found them. Greg pressed the brakes. Timmy had no choice but to shift into hyper-drive and the car sped up.
Outside the windshield the area around the van became vividly illuminated. Suddenly, they were drving in a bubble of broad daylight. The intensity of it surrounded them and beyond its limits there was only the nights and its stars.
“Timmy, I think we got away,” Greg said in a high pitched panic, “Lets stop playing for a bit.”
“Not now dad,” responded Timmy, suddenly serious and closing the facemask of his space helmet, “They’re still on us.”
“No Timmy, really, we have to pull over,” Greg’s voice was shaking audibly in his throat.
Timmy looked his father in the eyes, “Dad, I’ll get us out of here.”
Greg could no longer speak and he could barely see anything outside of the van, the world veiled in white like a sheet had been draped over the vehicle’s exterior.
Timmy took a deep breath and prepared to do something no human had done before. “Light Speed,” he whispered and punched the gear stick on his toy into the forward position.
Greg felt his stomach drop as the car lifted off the road. They crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and Greg caught a quick glimpse of a street sign floating in their path. It was a sparkling yellow picture with black figures. It showed a car smashing through the guardrail and tumbling into the ravine.
There was no jolt when they hit the guardrail and Timmy expertly piloted them out over the ravine .Greg blacked out waiting for the drop.
The next day Greg and Timothy were reported missing and a search party was formed. Shelly had the idea to search the road on the hillside. She’d thought Greg might take the long way back. The broken guardrail was discovered shortly after. Fireman, police, paramedics, and volunteers combed the bottom of the ravine and found nothing. Shelly was the one to find a steering wheel of faux, grey leather. It was from the same make and model as Greg’s mini-van. She’d discovered it laying twisted and broken amongst the rocks.
The search was called off after a week. Months later Greg and Timmy were pronounced dead, cause of death unknwon but presumed to be an auto-accident. Greg may have fallen asleep somone had said. Someone else made the claim that he’d been drunk. Shelly believed neither.
The funerals were held together. A picture of Greg in his military fatigues stood beside a picture of Timmy in his space suit, taken on the morning of his birthday. Next to the boy’s picture was a letter from NASA. When they’d heard of the boy’s disappearance along with his dreams of becoming a spaceman they’d named him an honorary astronaut. If anyone where to search they would find Timmy’s name among others who had braved the void of space. Shelly was told that her son was the youngest astronaut in history. Unlike most children, Timmy never had to grow up to become a spaceman.