The boy sat at the table in the kitchen eating cereal, his mother’s laptop open on the table before him, NASA’s website opened to a page about space travel. His mother found him like that. The sun was barely risen and the chill of night still blanketed the world and the birds were singing insanely through the open window.
“It’s a little chilly,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
He never lifted his eyes from the computer screen to see her standing in her grey robe, her hair wet and her face weary, her eyes barely open and bleared with sleep.
“What are you looking at?” she asked.
“NASA,” he said.
She inhaled and exhaled slowly through solicitous nostrils and walked barefoot across the kitchen linoleum and leaned over the sink to close the window, flicking the lock under the catch and resting her hands on the countertop when she had closed it. She stood like that a moment but she couldn’t tell if he had taken any notice.
“You love your space, don’t you?”
“Yes, ma’am,” he said.
“Don’t be smart,” she said.
“Sorry,” he said.
She began to make herself breakfast and while the bagel was toasting, she packed his lunch in the brown paper bags she used now he and his friends were too old for lunch boxes. A sandwich, an apple, crackers, crisp carrot and celery sticks, a small pot of peanut butter for dipping, a cold box drink wrapped in paper towel and tin foil so it wouldn’t sweat and wet the rest. She buttered her toasted bagel and poured a glass of orange juice and, seeing that he had none, poured another. She sat down at the table and set the glass by him and he took it up without looking and drank deeply.
“Thanks?” she said.
“Thanks,” he said, gasping, wiping cold juice from his chin.
“Any news?” she asked.
“No, ma’am,” he said. He looked up as she frowned and he added, “We’re still waiting.”
“You’re a devil, child,” she said.
“I can’t help it,” he said. “Dad makes me say it.”
“I know, your dad insists. But you can leave that stuff at his place. When you’re here. You know I never liked it.”
“I’m sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be sorry,” she said. “Just be free. Politeness should be about real kindness and gratitude. Not code words and catch phrases.”
“I’ll tell Dad that,” he said.
“You better not,” she said. “He’ll be here at five-thirty so come home right after school so you have time to get ready. I won’t be home until five so I expect you to be all packed and ready to go.”
“Just tell your friends you can’t play after school,” she said.
“Now remember that. You know how he’ll be if you’re a mess when he shows up. It puts him in a bad mood and the ride to his house will be bad.”
“It’s a long ride, you know,” she said.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
“So come home after school and don’t mess around. Get your stuff ready and if you get dirty at school change your clothes and take a shower.”
“Okay,” he said.
“I’m not going to make excuses for you if you set him off,” she said.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Sarcasm. You’re already using sarcasm with your mother? Where does the time go,” she muttered. “What are you reading?” she asked.
“Venus,” he said. “The Soviets sent like eighteen missions to Venus in the twentieth century. Isn’t that amazing. They even sent back pictures from the surface before they melted.”
“What does it look like?” she asked.
“Here.” He turned the computer to show her three strips of pixellated photos in black and white, a dull grey surface with nothing but flat broken rocks as far as the horizon, where a tiny rise implied a possible descent on the other side.
“It looks horrible,” she said.
“It is horrible,” he said. “It’s 860 degrees on the surface and the atmosphere is all carbon dioxide and there are clouds of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid. The probes only lasted like thirty minutes on the surface before the heat destroyed them.”
“It sounds awful,” she said.
“It is.” He turned the computer to face him again and he began to brush his fingers over the trackpad and to click.
“You better save what you’re looking at and get ready for school,” she said.
“Okay, just a minute,” he said.
“No,” she said, “Not just a minute. Save it up and go get ready for school.”
“I just want to finish reading this one thing.”
“Thomas,” she said and his head snapped up at the sound. “I want to check my email.”
“All right,” he said.
“Go,” she said.
“I’m going,” he said. He busily swiped and clicked, swiped and clicked, then jumped up and left the room.
“Dishes,” she said faintly, but without any heart, and drew the computer across the table towards her. “If I could afford it, I’d buy you your own,” she muttered. “But then I’d never see what you did on it.”
Half an hour later they were both in the kitchen again and they were both dressed. She was neatly and subordinately attired. She believed a secretary should never be untidy, but also never dress in a manner that excelled the manner of her boss. Inconspicuous was the watchword. The boy looked like a slob. She tucked his shirt in and twisted his pants until they sat as straight as they would sit on his wiry frame. She pushed down one sock that he’d left pulled right up his calf and retied the knot in his right shoe. She took a brush from her purse and fought for a while with his hair, threshing it mercilessly until it sat somewhat composed upon his head. “Unruly shock,” she kept muttering and he winced with every stroke.
“Don’t forget your lunch,” she said.
“It’s in my backpack,” he said.
“It’s on the counter,” she said.
He put it in his backpack while she watched him and then she surprised him by asking, “Do you think he made it?”
“Who?” he asked.
“The space man,” she said.
“The astronaut. He’s called Silas Cole,” he said. “Of course he did.”
“Then why haven’t they heard from him?” she asked.
“How should I know?” he said. “They’re getting data back.”
“Isn’t all that automated?”
“A lot of it is, but they say he’s there. He has to override the computer sometimes. Sometimes the computer encounters unexpected parameters which require operator involvement. Problems,” he translated for her carefully, “Sometimes the computer has problems it can’t solve on its own. And he has to help it.”
“So you think he’s there?”
“I know he is,” he said. He could see that the evidence of human intervention in the automated sequence didn’t really convince her, so he just said, “He has to be.”
“I hope so,” she said.