Drama Contemporary Fiction

Dorothy and I sold our business, downsized, and settled for a quiet life of keeping bees in the country. We were unloading removal boxes when our new neighbour, Mitch Wallace, introduced himself and welcomed us to Platteville. We had no idea that 48 hours later we’d be in hospital after watching him pursue his life’s ambition. Heaven only knows what Mitch would have witnessed if everything had gone according to plan.

   In his former life, Mitch had been an engineer, a police officer and ladies’ hairdresser. However, after his breakdown ten years ago, he and his wife, Clara, moved back to the country. Mitch had inherited a ramshackle seven-bedroom house that they converted into a hotel. Between the two of them, they managed the business and organised the ongoing repairs and maintenance. There wasn’t an enormous turnover, and this gave Mitch the chance to resume his own work. He spent more and more time by himself when he should have been restoring the building. Clara indulged his hobby at first, but when she started paying tradespeople to mend basic items around the hotel, it became a business matter. She had a heart to heart with her husband and presented a litany of complaints. The length of the list surprised Mitch, and he attempted to pull his weight. He’d lost track of how many nights he’d slept in his workshop and left necessary jobs unfinished. It was their joint livelihood at stake, and he reacted in earnest.

   Clara’s forthright approach worked well for a while. Mitch shouldered his share of the duties and accepted some responsibility. However, after three months, he drifted back to his old ways. He devoted ever-increasing amounts of his energy to fulfilling his childhood ambition. He drove Clara to distraction with his obsessional behaviour. They argued whenever he emerged from his workshop, and they slept in separate rooms. The visitors were shocked to hear the raised voices coming from the owner’s quarters and the hotel lost business. The guest book became a testament to the relationship and trip advisor picked up on the issues. Good recommendations travel steadily, but disappointed reviews spread like wildfire. The long-term effect was devastating, and Mitch could do only accept the blame in full. He suggested a fresh start, so they tried changing the trading name and repainted the exterior. It was too little and too late. She left him five years ago and sighted the rocket as the third party in the divorce suit. 

   Mitch’s life long pursuit stemmed from a time in his childhood etched into his psyche. It was 16thof July 1969 when five-year-old Mitch watched the Apollo 11 moonshot on his parent’s fuzzy TV set. What impressed him the most was the image of the Earth appearing over the Moon’s horizon. This was the omnipotent view that no mortal had seen before. The significance didn’t go over Mitch’s head but crept into his soul. It was a lot for an developing mind to comprehend, let alone the minds of a worldwide audience. It was perfection incarnate, with shimmering oceans of cerulean blue and white cloud formations dissolving over distant continents. Only the claustrophobic breaths from inside the astronaut’s helmet and the static crackle of R.T. disturbed the silent vista. The entire viewing public had paused to look at its self, looking at itself.

   Mitch still remembers the moment in part, because of his parent’s reaction. His mother extracted a crushed handkerchief from the sleeve of her blouse and dabbed away a tear from her eyes. His father leaped up from his chair and turned to face his assembled family. He felt moved to remark on his experience and announced that he’d, “had his fill of this rubbish”. His index finger jabbed at the flickering image, and he declared that this didn’t prove the earth wasn’t flat. Furthermore, the fact that he couldn’t see God anywhere only went to show it was all faked.  With that said, Mr Wallace left the dumbfounded congregation to witness humanity’s most remarkable achievement. The sitting-room door slammed behind him and he retired to his wood shed. This was time-zero for Mitch’s mission. That night he set his heart on launching his own rocket into the stratosphere. The youngster was determined to discover the truth either way.

   Mitch was a bright boy who worked hard at school and aspired to be an engineer. He studied the scientific method and set about learning how to detect, measure and explain an array of natural phenomena. He had a questioning disposition and was wary of the conspiracy theories that have besieged humanity for the last five decades. However, when it comes to the shape of the Earth, he has a sticking point. His father was a down-to-earth man and a powerful influence on Mitch’s life. He felt awkward about judging his opinions. Life is full of events that are difficult to comprehend. In a world where quantum physics makes sense, who knows what’s possible any more?

   After Mitch introduced himself outside our new house, he invited us for lunch the next day. We accepted and agreed to reconvene next door at midday. When we arrived, we knocked on the front door but got no reply. The doorbell didn’t appear to work, as we couldn’t hear any sound from inside. I remember thinking the exterior was lacking care, and the garden needed some organisation. Dorothy suggested we go round to the rear as Mitch might be in the kitchen. We followed our noses and heard a metallic screech from one of his garages to the side of the property. As we approached the out building the noise stopped and one of the twelve-foot high wooden doors opened. Mitch removed a cumbersome welding mask and dumped his hefty gauntlets on an old tyre outside. Behind him was a thirty-foot long tubular construction that looked like a relic from a Red Square Military Parade.  The whole device was secured on top of a trailer with eighteen wheels underneath. Dorothy flinched as she scanned the sight and caught my eye as I swallowed my breath. Mitch closed the door behind him without comment and led the way to the back door. He apologised for losing track of the time, but assured us we’d enjoy a satisfying meal.

   Dorothy is very house proud and was pleasantly surprised when we entered the kitchen. Mitch didn’t admit to having help, but certainly it was clean and tidy, unlike the workshop we’d seen. Mitch told us to make ourselves at home and keep an eye on the front door. He was expecting a delivery, and he intended to change out of his work attire.

   In his absence we noticed framed certificates displaying engineering qualifications, pictures of his wife or girlfriend? We weren’t sure. There was no sign of any children or extended family other than a faded picture of a young boy holding a toy rocket. The same youngster is in another photograph and he’s leaning over a birthday cake. In a third shot he’s blowing out candles and is surrounded by applauding relatives. 

   There are four heavy thumps at the front door. Dorothy answers it and receives three parcels from a delivery boy who has no small change. My wife pays the lad and carries the fragrant food to the kitchen. We set the table with cutlery from the surrounding drawers and open the bottle of wine we’ve brought. Mitch appears and apologises once again for his lack of manners. He offers to cover the bill and we decline. Mitch digs out three glasses and pours the wine. He suggests a toast and we drink to our new lives in Platteville. Mitch suggests a second reason to celebrate. He says that tomorrow will be the realization of his childhood dreams. We clink our glasses and wait for him to explain himself. Mitch is evasive and steers the conversation away from the topic. He is very talkative for someone who lives by himself.  Mitch is curious about our move here and offers advice about amenities and local attractions. He’s fascinated by our interest in bees and talks with enthusiasm about their aerodynamic qualities.

   “They shouldn’t be able to fly,” he tells us. “Their wings are too small to get their fat little bodies off the ground.”

   “The bee, of course, flies anyway,” says Dorothy.

   “So much for physics,” I say.

   “Yes, exactly,” he says and smiles.

We finish the meal before Dorothy pushes Mitch about his reason to celebrate. He explains that he’s planning to launch his single seat rocket tomorrow at nine in the morning. The weather prediction is favourable, and he doesn’t expect any delay.

   Dorothy is curious, and he explains it’s been his life’s ambition to find out if the earth is flat. He’s not a fan of conspiracy theories, and he’s no time for Flat Earthers per se.  However, he explains, if you rely on your own senses, there is plenty of evidence around us to suggest that the world is flat. If you are skeptical by nature, you’ll find that the spherical world concept is the idea that has the burden of proof and not flat earth theory. 

   Dorothy opens her mouth to ask Mitch something, but he cuts her off. He just needs to see for himself and live to tell the tale.

   Dorothy furrows her brow and inhales with pursed lips. I’m lost for words and ask if there’s going to be a countdown. Mitch says that there’ll be a hooter and a P.A. with a timing device. He asks if we’re busy tomorrow and I shrug. I’d be eternally grateful, he says, if you’d take some pictures of lift off. I start to respond and Dorothy kicks my ankle with the side of her shoe. Certainly, I say, what time do you need me here? Mitch considers for a moment and says, how about seven thirty? Dorothy jabs my ankle again and I agree to help. I agree to meet Mitch tomorrow morning and I’ll take some snaps for his records.

   The next morning we wake up to a siren that sounds like a remnant from the cold war. It’s a blood curdling wail that would evacuate a town and send terrified citizens deep underground to protect their families from nuclear warfare. It’s Mitch, and it’s six o’clock in the morning. Dorothy had inserted ears plugs before falling asleep and she moves over and snuggles up to me. I half expect to hear a distant emergency response team; a dozen sirens charging down our single-track road. There’s nothing to outside, except early birdsong. An hour later, the P.A. kicks in with a pre-recorded message.

   “Two hours and counting… one hour, fifty nine minutes and counting…”

   I drag Dorothy’s arm off my shoulder, kiss her cheek and shuffle in to the shower. Coffee helps and I grab my camera. I leave a steaming cup on Dorothy’s bedside table and head outside.  There’s a chill in the air and a low mist rising from the surrounding pastureland. A group of cud-chewing shorthorns observe me on my way to Mitch’s house. Their slack jawed acquiescence suggests they’re used to the dress rehearsals. It’s no big deal.

   I arrive at the rear of Mitch’s place and encounter him on top of a ten-foot-high winching system. Mitch has raised the missile to vertical and he’s setting it up ready for take off. He waves and climbs down to greet me. 

   “I wasn’t sure you’d heard my alarm,” he says and hands me a set of printed instructions. I look perplexed and he explains it’s a back-up plan. 

   “In case there’s a problem, I’ve printed a set of instructions.” He suggests I have a read while he checks the fuel lines. Mitch explains it’s a thermal rocket powered by water pressurised to 400 psi. The science is beyond me, but basically a powerful jet of steam is allowed to escape through a nozzle to produce thrust.

   “So, it’s a hot water rocket?” 

   “Yes, correct,” he says as we walk toward the house. We reach the back steps and I question the re-entry procedure. 

   “Assuming all goes well, which it should, I have two parachutes that will deploy at 5,000 feet.”

   “I don’t suppose I can dissuade you from attempting this, Mitch,” I say. 

He shakes his head and points to a low concrete wall. 

   “I guess that’s where I sit?” 

Mitch confirms with a nod and leaves me with the paper work to digest.

   Dorothy appears at the back door in a pair of old denims and a heavy jacket. I get her up to speed and she pulls up close to me. I browse through Mitch’s manual and try to absorb the content. We discuss Bob’s plan and watch him from his kitchen window.

   “Nothing’s going to stop him now?” 

   “I’ve tried already,” I say.

   The P.A. continues its monotonous countdown. The pre-launch hours have slipped past and we are entering the last minutes. There is a crackle over the loud speaker. 

   “Systems set. Take off sequence initiated.” 

Mitch locks himself into the cockpit to prepare for lift off. 

   “Two minutes and counting…”

We leave the comfort of the kitchen and assume our positions behind the concrete wall. The polished aluminium fuselage vibrates in the morning light. Its riveted panels contain an explosive force that will combat gravity and propel our neighbour skyward. 

   “One minute and counting…”

   “One minute to go,” I say, and she grips my arm.

   “I hope that Mitch…”

   “He’ll be all right.”

   “Oh, God, take care…”

   “Thirty seconds and counting…”

   “Watch now.”

   “Fifteen seconds… ten… five…” 

Steam escapes in wild jets from the base. 


   “Four… four… four… three… three…”

Mitch and Dorothy are silent and peek over their protective wall. The P.A. crackles and squawks into life. 

   “Damn it,” he says, “I’m coming out.”

There’s a reverberant clunk, and the lock releases the door catch. The seal hisses and the cockpit door swings open. Two gloved hands appear, followed by Mitch’s helmet. He pulls himself out of the capsule and climbs down the gantry ladder. We stand as he approaches, and he lifts his darkened visor. Behind him, the rocket continues to exude steam jets that scald the earth surrounding the launch platform. The P.A. fizzes and spits overhead.

    “Four… Four...” it sputters.

He frowns.

   “What the?”

   “Three…” it crackles.

We look to Mitch.

   “We’ve got…”


   “Get down!” 


The air is full of noise and steam. We dive for cover and hit the trembling earth. Dirt and debris flies in all directions. The shock wave throws Mitch over the wall and he lands twenty feet behind us. He’s a crumpled pile of shiny metallic fabric and broken visor glass, as if he were a child’s discarded Christmas gift. My ears are whistling. There’s blood all over my chest. I reach out for Dorothy.

   “Are you all right, Dot?”

   “It’s my leg,” she groans. “You?”

   “Not great.”

   “He isn’t moving.”

   “I know,” I say, craning my head back round. “Mitch is messed up.”

   “He won’t find out?”

   “Not now, love,” I whisper and grip her outstretched hand. “He’s let it go and settled for less.”

The End.

November 07, 2020 00:00

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