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St. Augustine the Starfighter by Nicholas Belardes

Nicholas Belardes is a writer and illustrator. Much of his fiction focuses on the realities of societal pressure, homelessness, and Latino issues. He has contributed to Memoir Journal, 826 Seattle’s What to Read in the Rain, Knock Magazine, Mission at Tenth, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings, and others. He illustrated New York Times best-selling novel West of Here, is the author of experimental Twitter Lit, Small Places, and on Ello, So Long. Find out more at nicholasbelardes.com.

 

The spaceship is no more than a wood box.

Twenty feet of air above a slice of brown earth marks the re-entry point and path of the craft.

A cheer goes up as the vessel bursts from the edge of an imaginary vacuum of space.

It flies perilous, downward, tumbling.

There are no re-entry burn marks or parachutes as the box smashes into dirt. Pine boards splinter into a bloom of brokenness.

The ship’s lone occupant, a Peruvian guinea pig named Tim Mercury, lies bloody and exposed, its head crushed in the cockpit. The tiny tongue of the furball, a slice of pink flesh dripping blood, flops cold against a board.

The horror of Tim Mercury’s carcass is interpreted as a failed mission by one of the ground crew (me). I ask why our astronauts always have to die. No one answers. Marco the sheepdog yaps and leaps at the smashed craft. He runs around the side of the barn and won’t be seen again until dinnertime. Had the wreck not crashed so close to his tail, he might have examined or even licked Tim’s dead eyes.

.  .  .

It’s dark in the bedroom when Tyler starts talking from the top bunk.

“This is it,” he says. His nearly thirteen-year-old voice is squeaky.

I’m looking at glowing plastic stars on the wall next to the bed, still thinking about Tim Mercury. Just the day before, I felt its heart beating as I fed him lettuce.

“Are you listening? This is it,” Tyler repeats.

“This is what? You found your brain?” I ask. My voice squeaks too, though I’m younger by more than a year.

The stars on the wall seem real but are fading. I touch one. I can tell Tyler has a flashlight under the covers. A bright streak lights the thin space between the bed and wall near his mattress.

“People die for saying mean things to me,” he says. “Remember Mr. Abernathy? He had a heart attack exactly twelve hours after making fun of my ears.”

My head is against the wall now. I stare up at a sliver of cosmos—all lights and blankets.

“You have nutsack ears,” I say.

“That’s not what he said you stupid liar. He said I have nutty ears. And anyway, he died. His heart exploded. Every girl in class cried. So did Principal Albee.”

I’ve heard the story at least 700 times. Maybe 800.

“And Dr. Jerkins,” he says.

I giggle. “Did he masturbate a lot?”

“No, stupid. You don’t even know what that means. He was our eye doctor. Remember? He said my eyes looked buggy. Three months and seven days later, he was struck by a bus. Boom! Turned into strawberry jam.”

“What flavor?”

“I told you, idiot. Strawberry. That’s what guts look like.”

“Guts are darker than that.” I can feel him staring at something, maybe a comic book. It’s all he ever reads. I sink deeper into my pillow, wanting to sleep.

“You’re so stupid,” he says. “Why don’t you want to know?”

“Know what?”

“What we’re going to do. This is it I’m telling you.”

“You already said that.”

Early that morning, Tim Mercury had been swung around in a box with a rope tied to him. Last minute G-force training, Tyler said. I can still remember my brother’s face. Grim. Determined. No sense of malice. Just stupidity. Who was I to point out torture? Didn’t matter what I wanted to say. I’d be teased forever if I did. Tim Mercury couldn’t walk a straight line afterward. Scrambled brains, like Tyler’s. Then the crash. Mangled guinea pig. Death. The usual negative outcome regarding the survivability of our U.S. space missions.

I look into the dark room, waiting for Tyler’s next words.

“Will you shut up and look? It’s only $13.95,” he says.

“I’m not climbing up there.” I close my eyes.

“This is big. Final voyage of the Russians.”

“I thought we were Americans.”

“Those missions failed. No more astro-pilots. We’re going cosmonaut. New ship design too. No more wood. Either plastic or metal.”

Tyler is always plotting. I can hear in his voice this isn’t just any scheme. This is a top-secret, let’s-call-cousin-Shocky-and-go-to-the-basement-hideout plot.

I climb up to Tyler’s bunk. “Do the animals have to die?” I ask.

“Is it safe to be a human in space?”

.  .  .

Just like clockwork we’re in Shocky’s basement the next day after school where our red-haired cousin keeps an iguana named Rocket Launcher, two dried-out salamanders, a gecko, 7.2 hamsters (includes a mostly eaten carcass and a set of skeletal remains), a magi-pig (an American guinea pig that looks like a wizard), and a collection of 79 dried roly-polies of the 100 collected from the neighborhood. His four-year-old sister Christina ate twenty-one on a peanut-butter dare, right off the sewing pins they’d been stabbed with. (She thought the bugs were candy or something.)

Christina is currently downstairs with us letting a curious beagle named Paris sniff his wet nose between her legs. Her pink dress is the color of pale lips.

Shocky catches Christina and starts laughing. “What are you doing? Stop that? What did Mom tell you?”

“Don’t let the dog sniff there.” Christina pushes Paris’ snout away, then smacks the mutt. “Bad dog.”

Paris blinks, rolls out his tongue, and starts panting.

“Mom’s going to put you in the circus,” Shocky says.

Christina closes her legs. Her brown eyes well up. “No she isn’t.”

“Get out of here. We got man talk.”

“No she isn’t!” Christina jumps up and stomps. “I’m not a circus baby!”

Paris barks twice.

“If you don’t get out of the basement I’m going to pull the ears off Paris and staple them to Rocket Launcher.”

Christina bolts up the steps.

Paris lopes after her, grunting.

Tyler has a Vietnam War U.S. Marine crew cut he got two days ago—the best out of all of us. “Saw it on the television news,” he says. “On a wounded captain.” His head resembles a block of wood over a green, yellow, and white striped shirt.

I’m wearing a Cubs jersey. Got it opening day. We’d taken a big trip. Our parents fought the entire time. Saw my favorite player. Ernie Banks is the best man on the team. He can hold first base like a Roman centurion guarding a bathhouse. That’s what Dad says anyway.

“So what’s this business?” Shocky says.

Tyler gets serious. “We need $13.95. Plus at least four bucks to cover shipping. And we need a lookout for the mail.”

“That’s serious cash,” Shocky says. “Who’s got that kind of dough? And for what? We getting another two-headed snake?”

Tyler ignores the question. “We got $8.30 between us.”

“Not a snake,” I say.

“Live seahorses?”

“Hell no,” Tyler says. “Only girls get those.”

“You’re right,” Shocky says. “Mom would give ‘em to my sister. And she’d probably bite their heads off.”

“She’s like a little devil,” I say.

“Worse. But…”

“But what?” Tyler asks.

“She’s got money. We could lift it,” Shocky says.

“You mean you could lift it.” Tyler throws a baby carrot that bounces off Rocket Launcher’s head. The lizard doesn’t seem to notice. “We can’t be part of a covert operation that rips off little sisters.”

I nod.

“She killed my last guinea pig,” Shocky says.

“Chuck Connors? She got the Rifleman?”

“Smashed him to a pulp with a lead Army tank. She’s like Godzilla, only her feet are smaller.”

“Will you just look?” Tyler says. He’s holding the back page of a comic book ripped from a brand new August 1968 issue of The Amazing Spider-Man. Beneath an ad for seahorses is a photo of a squirrel monkey holding a lollipop.

“‘Darling Pet Monkey.’” Tyler looks up. “You jerks listening?”

We nod.

“‘This Squirrel Monkey makes an adorable pet and companion. Show it affection and enjoy its company. Almost human with its warm eyes. Your family will love it. These young monkeys grow twelve inches high. Eats the same food as you (even likes lollipops); simple to take care of and train. Free cage. Free leather collar and leash. Free monkey toy. Instructions included. Live delivery guaranteed. Only $13.95.’”

The address lists somewhere in St. Augustine, Florida.

“We should get two,” Shocky says. “For Soyuz I and II.”

“We can’t even afford one.” Tyler stuffs the ad in his pocket.

His face is similar to the grimace the day I stole his girlfriend. Betty and I made out three days in a row. All tongue. Felt like I was kissing squid tentacles. Who gets tongue at eleven? Me, that’s who.

“I’ll make you a deal,” Shocky says. He spins the hamster wheel so hard a couple of fuzzballs go flying. “I’ll come up with the rest of the dough. And I’ll hire a lookout. We can send it here. But…”

“But what?” Tyler says.

I grin.

Tyler’s ears are red as hell.

“I get to name it,” Shocky says.

“What the heck? No way,” Tyler says. “You’re not naming my squirrel monkey. Forget it. It was my idea.”

“Fine,” Shocky says. He watches closely, waiting for another hamster to get on the wheel. “Do it all yourself. Raise the cash. Find your own monkey hideout. Apparently you dirtbags don’t need me.”

“Hold on a minute,” I say, laughing at my brother’s red ears. “Hear him out.”

Shocky barely misses flinging another hamster across the cage. The creature scurries under a piece of wood.

“What’s the name?” I ask.

Shocky smiles at me, then at Tyler.

.  .  .

It isn’t long before Shocky says he has the rest of the money. He tells us he took it from two Armenian kids he bullied at school, his little sister’s blue-and-orange Swedish dala horse piggy bank, and the wallet in his dad’s pants next to his parents’ scuffed-up, wood-post bed.

I take an envelope from home, fill it out, and wrap the money in tissue—that way the mailman, who we all think is a drunk, can’t see any dollar bills to steal for his booze.

Four weeks later, Shocky’s spy, Mark Julio, knocks at the screen door.

The kid is all muscle. He’s paid three cents a day to be a lookout. “That’s nearly a quarter a week,” Shocky had said. “I have two spies working for me and can’t afford this for more than a few weeks. That monkey better hurry up and get here.”

“Or what?” I asked.

“Or I guess I’m stealing more from my old man.”

Mark Julio wears aviator glasses his uncle wore during the war and a long white T-shirt with SPY written in black marker. The ‘P’ is backward. He holds a box.

“Got a package,” he says.

“Hi Mark,” I say.

“Name’s not Mark. It’s Agent Hans-Dieter Mundt.” He rattles the box. Something thuds inside. He looks around suspiciously. “You going to take the package? Something’s dead in there.”

“Dead?” I open the screen door and take the box.

“Some kind of dead little cross-eyed man with a vampire face. Appears to be Russian. You gonna pay me?”

“Quit trying to make double.” I slam the screen, take the box to my room, and shut the door.

At one end of the container, which is a little bigger than a shoebox, is an air hole. Peeking inside I can’t see anything. I tilt the box, feeling whatever is inside slide to the end. I slide it back and forth.

I feel a knot in my gut. My heart sinks. Four weeks of waiting for a dead monkey? What’s Tyler going to say? Shocky’s going to kill me if our personal space race is over.

I put the box on my desk and shine a flashlight through the air hole. I see a tuft of yellowish-orange fur and feel tears welling up. I understand astronauts might die out there among the stars. Cosmonauts too. But this is awful.

Tyler sees the box when he gets home from playing baseball. “Why’s that here?” He’s still wearing his blue and white Team Knuckles baseball uniform.

“Agent Dinner Mint brought it over.”

“That’s supposed to go to Shocky’s with all his animals. Mom’s going to kill us if she knows we have a monkey in the house.”

“No she won’t.”

“Yes, she will.”

“No she won’t.”

He grabs the box and tries to look inside. “Why’s it so quiet?”

I shake my head.

“We bought a dead monkey?”

“Yeah.”

“Spaceflight’s been scheduled. Already started construction on a new aluminum craft. Might even be reusable. This ain’t good.”

“Cancel the flight.”

“Did you look?”

“You know I don’t like to see dead things.”

“You’re a pussy.” He shines a light into the box.

“I’ve touched one.”

“No you haven’t. Open the box.”

“I’m not going to open that.”

“Look in it, Richy. That’s an order or you’re off spaceflight crew.”

“You want to see a dead starfighter, you open it.”

“God dang.”

I can’t help thinking about the monkey gasping and dying inside a postal van, probably somewhere in Texas before it reached us in Pasadena. “I’m serious. This is way worse than Tim Mercury. That thing died on the way from Florida. Probably croaked by the Alamo.”

“Like drowning in a U-boat.” Tyler puts the box down.

“Why a U-boat?”

“Why are you so stupid, Richy?”

“So are you.” I grab the box. “You helped pay for it. And since you don’t know what a pussy feels like I’ll open it.”

“I know what they feel like.”

“Right.” I put my nose to the air hole. “It stinks.”

“So do pussies.”

“So does your face.” I pry open the lid. The monkey is curled in a ball.

“Touch it.”

“I’ll throw it against your head if you say that again.”

“Suit yourself. I need to go think.”

I replace the lid and sit with the box on my lap as Tyler grabs his glove and leaves the room.

Apparently he is still thinking because he doesn’t say anything to me when he goes to bed later.

I dream about walking over hot coals in a spacesuit. Rocks break and burn under my boots, smashing into bits of orange flames as if from a Marine’s flamethrower. Steam hisses. I’m on Mercury—somewhere in the middle of the hot side. The sky is burning. A creature resembling a red preying mantis swings its little bug arms at my eyes. I panic, rip off my space helmet, and wake.

Listening to the darkness, I wipe my face and sit up, expecting the red mantis to crawl from the crack between the bed and wall. I grab my flashlight, shine it into the space next to the bed for any sign of the creature, and then I scan the walls, ceiling, and floor for the scurrying red bug.

I hear crunching. Right away I know it isn’t a red mantis or Mercurian coals.

Tyler is eating our stash of Tootsie Pops we were going to use as space fuel for the monkey.

“What are you doing?” I say.

The crunching stops. Wouldn’t be the first time he ate an entire bag of candy in the dark. In a way, I’m happy Tyler is stuffing his face. Means we won’t be putting a little simian in the cockpit of Shocky’s latest piece-of-crap spaceship that already killed several hamsters and Tim Mercury.

I can hear another wrapper opening.

Slipping out of bed, I climb the back of the bunk, crawl over the railing onto Tyler’s bed. I aim my flashlight right for his pig eyes. That’s when I see Tyler terrified, the tiny monkey sitting on his chest staring from its ghoulish white face, licking and crunching the lollipops my dumb brother brought to bed.

. . .

The next day, the three of us are holding down the squirrel monkey in our cousin’s basement, forcing a silvery doll-sized space suit onto the screaming beast Shocky dubbed “St. Augustine the Starfighter.”

“But it’s a Russian spaceship,” Tyler complains. “This is an American suit.”

“Just shut up. Deal’s a deal,” Shocky says. “Besides, everyone’s dying up there. The Chinese are probably next, and I don’t have a suit for them either.”

The monkey screams louder than the time I shoved a squid down cousin Oleta’s pants.

“Eekk! Eee! Eeek!” St. Augustine the Starfighter shrieks.

“Let it up already,” Tyler says.

“It’s hungry,” I bark. “The thing’s half dead.”

“And pissed off. It’s about to eat my arm.” Shocky pulls the metallic jacket onto its little monkey arm. “Hold still you stupid space monkey. Don’t you want to go to the moon? Where’s a banana? Shove one in its mouth.”

“I don’t have a banana.” Tyler holds down its furry legs as well as a skinny arm. “They eat suckers and worms, you moron.”

Pretty soon, the monkey is in a cage bouncing around in its new silver space suit. While it gasps and cries, I walk home to get peanuts leftover from a baseball game the night before. Cubs lost but that’s okay. Dad is asleep, drunk on the couch. Off work for a week, he cancelled our vacation because Mom ran away with some fast-talking washing machine salesman from Fresno. Tyler says he’d rather she stay there, whoring. So does Dad.

I bring back the peanuts and the monkey loves them. “At least it won’t starve,” I say, hoping the animal will somehow survive the space mission. I’m just like everyone else, scared about what people on TV call the “precariousness of space exploration.” It’s why every animal has to die, Shocky tells us when I repeat the phrase. He says the monkey represents man’s fear of the void between stars and planets.

“Fear of what?” Tyler asks.

St. Augustine the Starfighter chews up his spacesuit within a day. Shocky threatens to put one of his sister’s pink doll dresses on it.

“That’s not regulation Cosmo-wear,” Tyler complains.

“The son of a bitch bit me and Mom found out,” Shocky says. He shows us the Band-Aid on the fat part of his palm beneath his thumb. “Says we have to get rid of it. That means no space training. We’ve got one chance for this Soyuz mission. Might as well let it fly in a party dress.”

“You can’t do that,” I say. Suddenly I want to keep the monkey, not let it in our coffin of a ship. I start thinking of ways I can ask Dad. He’s so pissed about Mom, I think he’d let me order five more monkeys, especially if I can train them to play baseball.

Shocky grabs me by the collar. “I can do anything I want, toothpick. Want me to snap you in half?” He lets me go and pulls out a cardboard box where he keeps dolls he stole from Christina.

“Can’t we just use another hamster?” I say.

“We paid big money for this monkey,” Shocky says. “It’s the perfect size for the Soyuz rocket I have in development. Here, look. It can wear this.”

“G.I. Joe.” Tyler smiles. “On a Russian rocket.”

“We take over everything anyway,” Shocky says. “Might as well own Russia’s space program. Here, he can wear some gun belts too.”

.  .  .

Marco is out by the barn scratching at the dirt in the dusk twilight where the spaceship sits. The sheepdog yaps, terrifying St. Augustine the Starfighter, which Shocky has already crammed into the cockpit. The monkey wears nothing more than G.I. Joe fatigue pants and a cross of gun belts originally worn by a Mexican Army doll pulled from a creepy Alamo set. A rope is tied around the spacecraft, something Shocky has nailed and welded together like a kind of hot rod with giant fins and a long cone for a nose. The monkey’s screams sound like it’s being tortured with a hot iron, exciting Marco even more. The dog barks and snaps its jaws, anticipating hell and death.

My stomach is a pit. I want to shrink down, crawl into the cockpit, and fly the ship to a safe place. “Can’t we give it some space fuel?” I ask. “Maybe it won’t scream if it has another cherry sucker.”

“All I got’s a cough drop.” Tyler hands it to me.

Shocky knocks the cough drop to the ground. “We’re going to the moon for real, fellas,” he says. “Probably within weeks. Sacrifices have to be made. The men who sign away their lives have to be ready to do just that. They might explode over the moon or crash into Vietnam burning through the atmosphere. The air might get sucked out and they all choke to death in an airless can. Anything can happen. What we do here today, we do for mankind. We’re more than brothers. We’ve formed a union of bravery. We’ll eat moondust and drink starlight with another successful mission under our belts. Now let’s haul this ship to the launch platform.”

For some reason, I finally half understand him. The monkey has to die because men could die. We have to relive our greatest fear over and over. That’s why we send animals to the edge of space or pretend to die when we play combat games in the neighborhood. We die so others can somehow live. Only, I don’t want the monkey to die at all. I’m scared as hell just thinking about its head popping like a tiny squashed melon.

We all climb to the top of the barn. Shocky pulls the heavy spaceship up by a pulley his dad rigged for hay. Marco jumps and bites after the swinging ship while the monkey screams and claws at the tiny glass windows.

Tyler grabs hold of the spaceship, swinging it onto the launch platform—a springboard Shocky has built between hay bales, which is bolted to the floor. The trajectory is to land the ship in the family pond with the idea that we get to the vessel and release St. Augustine the Starfighter before the monkey completely drowns, although we all know what re-entry and impact has done to every single other animal we’ve sent into spaceflight. Shocky has tested the trajectory with a bag of bricks that now rests as a sort of reef for the two koi fish we can never catch.

The spaceship is loaded. “Soyuz is ready,” Shocky says. “May the Russians never beat us at our own game. Although the only way we might get through the endless desert of this universe may be from team effort. A multinational affair.”

Marco barks from below as the spaceship launches. The dog takes off running. The zooming object must look like a phoenix to the mutt. One long scream pierces our ears as the ship tumbles into space, gleaming with orange reflections of our own star, longing and watchful in the dusk. We’re all boys amazed at creation, at the unknown, at discovery, exploration, and war in the ‘60s. My guts twist inside out, as if I’m in the cockpit screaming too, furry hands against the glass, against g-forces I can’t explain.

Then I witness the unthinkable. Upon re-entry, the ship’s metal fins snap off. Bolts fly, the cockpit snaps loose, and the monkey, screeching like a bomb dropped by a Skyraider on its way to Xom Bang, sails weightless, arms and legs splayed through the dusty evening cosmos, toward the pond, where it disappears.

“Splashdown!” Shocky screams.

I’m already down the rope in the dirt, scooping up the cough drop Shocky knocked out of my brother’s hand, racing toward the pond’s edge where Marco barks and yaps at the crashed and sunken spacecraft.

“Get out of here, Marco,” I say, kicking dirt at the dog.

“Weehoo!” Shocky and Tyler yell, arm in arm on their way to the landing site.

I look for the monkey floating in the pond but don’t see any fur. I’m starting to feel hurt all over again, thinking that discovery means dying, that exploration means tearing the heart out of something, when I hear a whimper from the hickory tree next to the water. The monkey is sitting in a branch in soaked pants, still wearing the gun belts around its furry chest. I unwrap the cough drop and hold it up.

“Come on,” I say.

Shocky and Tyler are whooping at the spacecraft. They’ve picked up the wings and the top of the cockpit and are standing at the edge of the pond with Marco.

“Come on,” I say again to St. Augustine the Starfighter.

The monkey whimpers and leaps all the way to my shoulder, whips its way down my arm, and takes the cough drop before hiding in the crook of my elbow with the cough drop rolling around in its little mouth.

My brother and cousin have dragged the spaceship out of the pond. They’re shaking out the water, laughing. I don’t want them to come my way or see the monkey. I’m done with the space race and feel like all that ever mattered to them were the worst parts of it.

“Hey! He’s got the monkey!” Shocky says.

That’s when I take off running. I run and run with the monkey in the crook of my elbow like a football while my brother and Shocky yell after me. I aim toward a distant darkness. I run and cry. I breathe deep knowing they’re never going to catch me. The dusk creeps toward night as I fly like I’m on fire. Stars light my way. Stars everywhere. I pump my legs and don’t look back as St. Augustine the Starfighter chews and sucks on the cough drop. The monkey feels warm in my arm, like a piece of the sun ready to explode and light up the sky.