The day after he comes home from the hospital, Davis gets busy building. It’s the perfect time to do it, really: nobody’s expecting him to do much of anything these days anyway, and he’s got the whole house to himself from now on. It works out nicely. He has to take taxis going to and from the Home Depot, though, since the car was declared a total loss by the insurance company months ago. No surprises there. Still, the payout’s basically funding the entire project, so Davis can’t really be too upset about that.
A whole lot of other things, sure. He’s raw about plenty.
But the car? Eh, not so much. It’s just a car, and where he’s going, he’s not going to need it anyway. It’s better this way.
He spends the first week going all around town, still wrapped in bandages, hunting for supplies and moving them into the house and turning the girls’ room into a sort of storage locker for everything he buys. He stacks it all against the wall, organized in order of what he thinks he’ll need most and first. There’s a process here. Davis has a system and a schedule that he means to cleave as close to as he reasonably can. He has a plan.
The next week, he has the shed delivered, except shed is sort of a misnomer, maybe undersells the thing by a hair. Truth is, it’s more like a silo than anything, which is actually perfect for Davis’s means.
It’s huge, standing at least as tall as the house itself, all gleaming metal and proud as hell. He has them set it up in the backyard, right in the middle, pays them and sends them on their way. Some of the neighbors keep their distance (well, to be fair, all the neighbors do that) but can see over the fence Davis installing a series of heavy industrial locks on the shed-silo’s only door. Standing away from their windows, they call each other to gossip and speculate.
“Have you seen?”
“What do you think his plan is?”
“What’s he hiding from us?”
“Do you think…?”
Nobody knows what the hell to make of it, but nobody in the neighborhood is rude enough to go and ask. Especially considering everything else. At this point, Davis can grieve and hopefully heal however he damn well pleases, poor man. But that’s not going to stop them from talking.
Especially not after hearing the noises that come out of the giant steel monstrosity at all hours of the day and night. Hammering, clapping, crunching, the squelching whine of power saws, the crackle and hiss of welding torches, the blare of smoke alarms. People hear it all so often that they start to doubt that Davis is sleeping at all, and to be fair, he probably isn’t. They see him around every few days, always looking worse than the last time they saw him: eyes bloodshot to glowing, skin like wet newspaper, cheeks all socked out and hollow. The new thatch of scars that covers the hairless side of his head looks heavier, darker, deeper. Almost like it’s spreading, like a tangle of slow pink vines. Once, a few months in, Mr Lairden approached him on the sidewalk, tried to strike up a conversation like a normal person might. That didn’t go so well for Mr Lairden. They had to hose the blood off the cement, and the day after, one of the neighborhood kids found three broken teeth in the gutter. After that, everybody decided it was probably best to leave Davis be. After all, except for Mr Lairden, it’s not like he hurt anybody, and Mr Lairden’s sort of an asshole anyway.
Davis doesn’t talk to anybody, doesn’t look at anybody, doesn’t give any outward indication he’s aware that he shares the planet with any other people at all.
But he knows. When they’re not looking, Davis watches them back, and he knows.
Whatever. Fuck them. They’re not going to have to deal with it for very much longer.
He disappears inside his silo for whole days at a time, and when he emerges back into the outside world, they can’t help but notice how diminished he looks, worse and worse, like there’s less of him left inside his skin. It’s ghoulish. Davis has packages delivered to his house all the time now, heavy and wrapped in brown paper and stamped in languages nobody around speaks or even recognizes. They appear on his doorstep in the deep of the night by no apparent delivery service, and by the morning, they’re always gone. Some people sneak over before dawn a few times, just to try and see, but it’s no good and they’re too scared, jumping and running at the slightest of suspect noises. They never learn anything, so they turn back inward, going over and over what they think they already know. He’s broken. He’s strange. He’s alone, now. They liked him a lot better before he was alone. He used to go places and do things. He used to work. Some of them think he used to be an engineer. The sounds coming from his property give them nightmares, sometimes. Every once in a while, someone will think they can hear Davis somewhere in the mess of noise, crying or laughing or worse, maybe both.
This goes on for a full year, nearly twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, until one Friday it all just stops, and for the first time since he came home, the Davis house goes still and silent.
Nobody knows what to make of it. They’ve been living with the clatter and clang for this long, it’s weird—almost painful—to not have it around anymore. The silence is brutish and overwhelming, a physical presence pressing against all of them, ballooning out to suffocate the entire neighborhood in its absoluteness.
It only gets worse when they notice the house’s windows are all newspapered over and the doors are hanging open, black portals into nothing. None of the neighbors go on their own to look, none of them are brave enough to. Is he even in there?
Saturday morning, they gather on his front lawn, under the long shadow of the silo, all together now to go inside and look around. They tell themselves it’s because they’re concerned, they just want to make sure he’s okay; maybe some of them even really believe that. Except it doesn’t change the end results. The excuses are just that. Excuses. They swarm through his crumbling home, gawping at the piled-high fast food wrappers and empty pharmaceutical bubblepacks and broken-down cardboard boxes, the black trash bags filling up the kitchen, the tools scattered across every available surface. They inhale it all, consume it, these tragedy tourists. Rubberneckers. Bastards.
Some of them stand in the hallways and try to parse out the meaning of the finger-trails cut through the dust caking the photos on the walls. One of them is missing from its frame, but nobody there is astute enough to notice that. They pore through the archeology of what his life used to be, trying to decipher whatever the hell it turned into. Some of them are almost sentimental about it. A few men break off and move rapidly from room to room with practiced efficiency, playing detective and quietly hoping to find Davis long-dead on the floor, calling out Clear! to one another every time they don’t. He’s not anywhere in here. They don’t even bother hiding the disappointment in their voices when they reconvene to agree. By the look of things, Davis hasn’t been in here in a long time.
Then they hear it.
With dread synchronicity, they all turn toward the back of the house and the strange, enormous silo that looms over them all. As one, a coiled-tense, many-legged animal shot through with nervous eyes, they scutter to the back door to look out.
One by one, panels of the silo are falling away from each other and tumbling to the grass below, a steel house of cards coming entirely undone, the bolts and bonds snapping apart with such sudden singularity, it can’t be unintentional.
The pieces break off, and in the bright yellow morning light, underneath the self-shattering silo, they can see
something. They all lean in to try and get a better view, waiting for another
to show them a little bit more. They realize too late what they’re looking at, understand the shape of the thing inside the silo only in terms of old Looney Tunes and Twilight Zone episodes. They’re the only frame of reference for something like
It takes them all a second to register that the last panel’s finally fallen away, and another for one of their own—none of them are exactly sure who—to say the only thing that’s on their minds.
“Holy Christ, it’s a rocket ship.”
Laying there in the hospital, his body and his life shattered in all the time it took for one drunk motherfucker to run a red light, Davis made up his mind.
If the world insisted on taking away the only parts of his life that made staying even remotely worthwhile, it was time for him to go. Maybe there were places elsewhere that would hurt less than this one. Out beyond the cosmos. Maybe he would even find somewhere he could see them again.
So the day after he came home from the hospital, Davis got busy building.
He stands above them all. Dressed in his homemade flight suit and helmet, he watches them mill out of his house and onto the back lawn, faces turned toward the sky and the sun and God. He tries to imagine missing them but can’t manage it. In time, he’ll forget they ever existed.
Behind the glass faceplate, he gives them a smile he doesn’t mean, and when they don’t react to that, he gives them all the middle finger. That gets a reaction. Good. Davis opens the cockpit hatch and swings in, sealing the pressure locks after him and buckling himself tight to the single seat. There’s an intercom system he installed in the side of the rocket, and for half a moment he considers saying something to them by way of farewell. Anything. Even just, Ha-ha, bon voyage mother fucks, but decides not to waste the energy. They wouldn’t understand anyway.
He runs through the pre-flight checklist, checking all the systems he built himself, making sure the little blinky lights blink just right. Good. That’s real good. For a moment, his hand lingers on the photograph plucked from its frame and stuck to the dashboard with a wad of Bubblicious. One of those posed shopping mall studio jobs, cheeseball and plastic. He admires the smiling faces he sees there, the idle, idiot happiness they wear like bulls-eyes because they don’t know how fast everything can go so wrong. Sitting there in his DIY rocket ship, Davis is ashamed to realize how much he resents them, even hates them. For their naivete, for how much he loved them, for making him believe and then abandoning him here. He tries to shove the feeling away, but it’s already there, stuck in his head and his heart like a burr. Fuck. Fucking… fuck.
Tears play at the corners of his eyes, and he blinks them away as hard as he can. None of that. Not today, of all days. Today, he’s got bigger plans than this horrible little blue marble.
Today, he’s leaving for infinity.
He goes through the list one last time, just to make double god damn sure. Pay attention to this. Nothing else matters. Nothing else is real. Not anymore. Thrusters, fuel tanks, onboard navigation, environmental controls. They’re all just ghosts now. Okay.
Let’s do this.
He floats his hand over the big red GO button, takes a deep breath, looks outside at the shambles that his life used to be. The ruined house and the brown-blotched yard and the shitty neighbors and all the empty spaces where people used to fit. He tells himself he doesn’t need any of it anymore. There’s a whole universe out there waiting for him. A billion-billion worlds, just waiting to be found and explored, by someone with gumption enough. What does one ruined world matter, compared to all that?
Davis presses the button.
And it’s beautiful, and it’s perfect, and people can see it from miles away: a black and orange lily of flame and annihilation blooming out of the earth, ringed in a halo of smoke. The sound of it is great and terrible, the sky tearing itself apart, the Book of Revelations. For one shining moment, it’s really happening—just like all the NASA launches people used to see on TV. Oh, my god, he did it. The crazy, broken son of a bitch really did it.
But Davis isn’t an engineer. He never even passed high school physics.
He’s a 40 year-old claims adjustor from Burlingame.
So he burns.
The explosion tears up the length of the rocket and strips skin from flesh and flesh from bone. Davis claws at the straps with blackening, skeletal hands, bellowing for his life, breathing fire, struggling wildly to get free, too stubborn and scared to realize he’s already dead. His hair turns to ash, his eyes burst, his lungs carbonize and crumble inside his chest. It all happens within the span of a second and a half, while just past the edges of the launchpad, the blast shreds the gathered onlookers and, beyond them, the house.
Shrapnel from the flightless rocket chews the neighbors to rags an instant before the heat burns what’s left of them into Hiroshima shadows on the earth. Further out, the shockwave shatters windows, triggers car alarms, deafens the unwary, sets children crying. It claims it all, this wave of destruction.
Then it’s over just a smoldering black crater the only sign that they were ever there. Smoke rises from the earth in a drifting column, staining the sky above to murky gray. Sirens converge on the neighborhood in a narrowing gyre, and while it will take them months to piece together what happened there, almost none of them will ever fully understand exactly why Davis did what he did. None of them will want to. Maybe the unfortunate ones that do, they’ll pretend at ignorance, play blind man.
Maybe it’s better that way.
But one amongst their number—maybe more, but at the very least one—will see, and they’ll know. It’ll take seed, deep in the fabric of their mind, and after a few days, or a week or a month, or a year, it’ll break them. And then, one day, perhaps without even knowing why exactly, they’ll wake up, and they won’t want to be a part of this world anymore.
Then they’ll start building.