Fiction · 11/21/2018

Secret Astronauts

1.

Kelsey knew her Daddy wasn’t around, but she wasn’t old enough to comprehend specifics. Her Momma, Lynn, froze when Kelsey asked where he was.

“Your Daddy’s… up in space.”

It was more specific than “he’s gone,” but vague enough that she had time to let the idea ride before Kelsey smartened up. It was a harmless white lie, like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or true love that lasted beyond someone’s breaking point. She had no idea where he was anyway; he could have been on Neptune just as easily as he could have been in Mississippi or Texas.

Kelsey asked if they could go to the library, get online to see his space pictures.

“It’s a top-secret mission, baby girl. They won’t have those online.”

Instead, she showed Kelsey photos she had in her dresser. She and Jake smiling in smoky bars, enveloped in the flush of young love. Jake holding a newborn Kelsey in the hospital.

“How’d he get that cut?” Kelsey pointed at the scar on his chin. He’d slipped while drunkenly trying to light a cigarette in the toaster. Hell, he was probably better off in space; he could pass out while floating instead of near sharp objects.

“He was hit by a meteor.”

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Kelsey wasn’t the only kid whose Daddy wasn’t there to pick her up. Everyone else had their own beliefs and realities: daddies away on business, up in heaven, living with new families several states away, or just not there anymore, vanished like puffs of their cigarette smoke.

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2.

Kelsey wondered if the men who stayed with Momma were secret astronauts as well. Bobby was in the kitchen almost every morning, having coffee while Kelsey poured cereal into her bowl with both hands. He worked the deli counter at the supermarket. Kelsey assumed all astronauts had regular earth jobs when they weren’t in space. Bobby disappeared after a couple weeks, because they needed sandwiches in space. Alan came by the house when Bobby stopped. He was a mechanic, a more space-like job. He was gone soon, as well.. It made sense: the spaceship needed fixing.

When Momma didn’t have a visitor, she sat with Kelsey outside.

“Maybe we can see Daddy’s spaceship.”

They sat on folding chairs. Momma poured from a small bottle into her mug.

“I want to go to space,” Kelsey said to Momma and the sky.

“You need to study hard. Don’t be going to space to chase after Daddy. Go for yourself. Explore. Don’t chase any man to the ends of space. Promise me that, baby girl.”

Kelsey nodded, then clutched her knees when she saw blinking lights out of the corner of her eye. It was an airplane, but for a second, she was convinced it was a spaceship. She wasn’t thinking about Daddy, but herself, imagining the day she’d be at the controls, gliding around galaxies, in charge of her own ship, her own origin.

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James Yates is a contributing editor to Longform.org and received his MFA from Roosevelt University in Chicago in 2015. His recent fiction has appeared in Hypertrophic Press, Monkeybicycle, and Gulf Stream Magazine. He currently lives and writes in Lafayette, Louisiana.