by Kevin Myrick
Jake was tired of being in the car. They'd been driving all day, and his little sister had been pestering him all afternoon wanting to play on his Gameboy. He'd just made it to a new secret level on Zelda when she smacked him with her tiny hands on his leg. Reflexively, and by accident, he kicked the back of the driver's seat. His father jerked forward and scalded his mouth on his fifth cup of coffee. He was always, it seemed, drinking a cup of coffee.
"Jake! Dag nab-it buddy! I burned my tongue! Don't kick the back seat."
"It wasn't my fault," he said with the hurt of a child's voice. "Celina hit my leg and I kicked by accident."
"Well, just don't do it again buddy."
He slipped the headphones of his CD player back on and listened to Simon and Garfunkel "Concert in Central Park." If he inherited one thing from his father, it was his taste in music. He'd first heard it on the stereo during parties at their home with people he had known all his life. Back home in Allendale, they played Pink Floyd and Carly Simon and Fleetwood Mac.
He pressed down hard on the buttons as he tried in vain to beat the level, but there were just too many monsters. He wondered to himself who could ever have thought up something so cool as the rechargeable batteries died. He closed his eyes and let sleep overtake him.
Hours passed in the hot back seat of the car, the Florida summer sun bearing down on them mile after mile. They were in the old Ford Escort station wagon with no air conditioning heading to the beach in late June. The furies could not have picked a worse time to take a vacation.
Most years, his family went to an unknown spot on the gulf coast called Alligator Point. Jake and his dad would go fishing off the rocks, and on a few occasions he'd even fought against stingrays. This year, they were taking their vacation earlier to a new destination, Space Island.
He woke to a hand waving in his face as he removed his earphones and looked at his mom.
"What mom?" he said, the headphones around his neck.
"We're almost there."
He didn't care that much. His dad was so excited about this vacation, had been planning it for months. He even began counting down the days a few weeks ago, and every night Celina ate it up at the dinner table. She kept asking question after question about this new place.
"Do they have alligators there?"
"Of course they have them, it's Florida," Jake said one night. "There's alligator's everywhere. And they like to eat little girls like you!"
He would take his arms and make a chomping motion at her across the table. "Yum yum yum, alligators looooove tasty little Celina's like you."
"Jake stop bugging your sister."
"Daddy, will the alligators really eat me?"
"If you get too close they might try, but I'm not gonna let that happen."
Jake was excited about the trip at first. But then he found out that the Allendale Recreation Little League All Stars baseball tournament was the same week. He'd been selected as the most valuable player last year when he pitched three straight innings of strikes. That'd not been done in the 9-year-old division since Bobby Koffman was a young boy, and he'd played for the Copperheads. He could only hope to do better this year, but then he found out the news he couldn't play.
"It's the family vacation buddy," his dad said to him a few nights before the grueling car ride. "I promise you're going to see something that you'll never forget."
That thing that had his father so excited was the launching of the space shuttle, which could be seen from the island that was only 20 nautical miles away. It took an hour by car to get to Cape Canaveral from the island. To be exact, it took an hour by car to get anywhere from Space Island. So when they finally made it to the coastal highway, it was a long ride out to the two-lane blacktop that stretched on flat and straight for miles. Almost there to his mom meant an hour away, and so he dozed again in the back seat. His sister's hand waved in front of his face again.
"Jake! Daddy's trying to talk to you!"
"OK, jeez. Yeah Dad?"
"Hey buddy, are you excited about seeing the Space Shuttle launch on Sunday?"
"Yeah, whatever." He put his head back down on the pillow leaning against the door. It was the coolest but brightest spot to try and sleep.
"What's the matter bud?"
"Nothin', I'm just trying to sleep."
"Paul, just let him be."
"What? It's the shuttle launch. How cool is that?"
"It's not as cool as being the starting pitcher in the all-star game," Jake said under his breath.
"So Jake, you'd rather have stayed home and played baseball than do all the cool stuff we have planned this week?"
"I don't know, whatever."
"Well, I'll tell you this much. Dr. Cochran said that seeing this is like seeing the pope. A once-in-a-lifetime chance buddy."
"Sure, the pope. Whatever."
He was still dozing when his father yelled out in joy at seeing the faded sign, complete with a cartoon rocket ship flying through the starry blue sky. It read "Welcome to Space Island! Home of the first monkeys in outer space!"
They drove over a bridge that crossed a large salt marsh and shallow tidal creek and then came upon the island's first UFO, a small guard shack that resembled something like a control tower. They spoke to a security guard from above in the air conditioned little shack hanging in the air, and then the gate rose. From there, it was towering house after towering house. Celina asked if the people here lived in spaceships.
"No honey, the houses are just built to look like a UFO."
"Those are silly looking houses Daddy. Why did they put them up so high?"
"Because people thought it was neat back then."
"When was that Paul, 1962?" Jake's mom shot back. She was also annoyed at this trip. For months it was nothing but "we're going to see the space shuttle take off!" then the itinerary grew to include going to Daytona Beach to see the speedway and the shopping. Then maybe even a jaunt on the way home to Disney World for a day. Who knew how they were going to pay for it, she'd said time and time again over dinner.
"You let me worry about that hon," Paul had said.
The concept for the island was born in 1962 with a designer named Oscar Hogart, who worked as a sketch artist in the same firm that was designing the Seattle Space Needle for the World's Fair. He left the firm to finally get his license as an architect, and then took the concept to Florida. He bought a small island and built it up with more land until in 1968 the first house took shape. The standard design on the island was a small cylindrical tower with four large metal supports connected to steel beams buried in concrete. The house itself, a second story dwelling that required climbing a spiral staircase, offered 365 degree views of the Florida Atlantic coastline and other flying saucers from inside. The exterior walls were completely made of tinted glass, offering privacy and allowing for shade from the bright sunny skies.
The ten story rounded condo buildings, three in all built on the marsh side of the island, were completed in 1975, well after a small space museum, a three story high space-themed seafood restaurant at the island's southern tip, and the marina were completed. This is what Jake had read in the visitor's center, where his parents collected brochures for coupons and for things they could do in case the rain kept them from enjoying the beach the first two days of the trip.
The only two buildings on the entire island that Jake noticed during their tour that were remotely in the norm were the police and fire station, located midway down the island's main road. It stretched the long length of the island and was the first thing built at the time when the island was only a few hundred yards wide when Hogart's company finally had filled in enough marsh and lagoons with dirt to complete the golf course and all the pads for the island's 250 houses.
Everything seemed to be towering above him.
They arrived at their beach house, painted at the bottom to look like a moon rocket of old with a big "USA" running up the side. They were fortunate to get a house with a beach view and a semi-circular deck facing the ocean. But when they pulled the car up and looked around, they couldn't figure out immediately where the door was.
"How do we get up into the house?" Jake's mom asked before they got out of the car.
"I don't know."
"Paul, did you really rent us a house we can't get into?"
"Welcome to Space Island!" he said.
The first day on the island was spent on the beach. Jake roamed along the beach, all five miles of it while the rest of the family stayed in front of their house. He forgot his sunscreen and by the end of the day his shoulders were the color of the crab claws they ate later on that evening at the Astro Lounge.
"Jake, let me rub some aloe on you," his mom said as her cold, slimy hands rubbed his shoulders.
"Jeez mom, you gotta warn me before you do that!"
Day two was spent again on the beach. This time he took a old camera he'd bought with his allowance from the Salvation Army, photographing the wildlife and landscape in black and white pictures as he walked along the shoreline. In the afternoon, they took a kayak trip through the salt marsh creek they crossed over, he and his mom paddling along and listening to the tour guide talk about the herons and pelicans and alligators.
"See Celina, I told you there were alligators here that like to eat tasty little girls like you!" he yelled from his kayak to her's.
"Jake, quit that!"
He smirked and they kept paddling along behind the others on the tour, a family of eight he'd seen earlier on the beach with their dog. There was a boy his age paddling a little in front of him, and when they caught up he looked over and nodded.
"Where you from?" the boy asked.
"Ohio. My parents brought us here to see the space shuttle. Are you hear for that too?"
"Oh that's so cool! Won't it be awesome to see it lift off!"
"Yeah, sure. Whatever."
The boy looked at him, a little hurt that Jake didn't share in his excitement. Jake thought he might have seen his eyes water a little behind his glasses.
He asked the four eyes what his name was.
"I'm Jake. Do you like baseball?"
The boy slapped his paddle against the water, splashing his mother in the back.
"Sorry mom," he said. His older siblings laughed.
"Bobby isn't into sports," his older brother shouted over to Jake. "He's a geek, plays on the computer all day."
"I'm not a geek!"
"Boys, quit antagonizing your brother. Bobby paddle harder, we need to catch up with your father."
The family drove back up A1A for two hours and came to Daytona Beach. While his mother and sister enjoyed the shopping along the beach, Jake and his dad went on to Daytona International Speedway to see the race track and the museum there. He snapped photo after photo during the tour while his dad pointed out the slope of the track.
"You see how high the angle is in the turn there? That's 31 degrees. You have to be going really fast to stay on that turn."
"That's great Dad." Jake was trying to pay attention to what the tour guide was saying on the bus.
"You have to go at least 75 miles per hour to stay on this track..."
He wished he'd brought his headphones along so he could listen to music.
"You excited about the launch tomorrow?"
Jake was in his own world, day dreaming about pitching for a major league team one day and playing baseball for a living. That's what he really wanted to be doing right now, was playing baseball. During the all-star league tournament, he'd be playing two games a day, sweating and joking with his friends. They were having a good time. He was just bored.
In the museum, his dad tried to climb up a little replica slice of the track that was built for visitors to experience. He made it halfway up before he came tumbling down, and Jake laughed at him.
"Dad," he said in between chuckles. "That was great."
"Why don't we go get your mother and sister and go get something to eat?"
"That sounds good."
They ate at a hole-in-the-wall seafood restaurant that his mom decided was good because they had fried pickles. Jake had shrimp which he didn't finish and decided he would take with him back to Space Island. Maybe he could have it for a late night snack, he told himself. But then he got hungry in the car, and the shrimp were just sitting there, waiting for him to eat them. They had, in fact, been sitting in the Florida heat for five hours while they enjoyed the beach and a few more cheesy shops selling tourist trinkets and t-shirts. His mom bought a sand dollar for their Christmas tree that had the words "Daytona Beach" printed on them. Jake used a little of what was left of his allowance to buy a t-shirt.
"Are you buying that for your girlfriend?" Celina asked.
"What are you talking about?"
"Briana at school said that her sister was your girlfriend."
"No she isn't."
"She's your girlfriend! She's your girlfriend!" Celina teased and ran around him waving her arms in the store. The clerk behind the counter laughed.
"If you want son, we can find you a girl's shirt instead."
"I'm not buying anything for my girlfriend!"
"See! Jake's got a girlfriend! Jake's got a girlfriend!"
He just stood there, his face red and his blood boiling. On the car ride home after he'd calmed down, he opened the box of shrimp and took a bite.
"What are you eating Jake?"
"The leftover shrimp from lunch. You want some?"
"No thanks bud. I don't know if you should be eating that yourself."
"It tastes OK."
He found out later what his father meant when during the middle of the night he woke to a horrible pain in his belly. He rushed to the bathroom and spent the next two hours sitting or kneeling in front of the toilet as the house swayed back and forth in the wind. Though the island and it's houses had survived tropical storms and hurricanes, residents still felt them moving in the gentlest breeze. It was not helping Jake feel better at all, almost as if he were green with seasickness.
On the morning of the big day, Jake woke early after only a few hours sleep to the smell of bacon frying in the pan. He knew from that sound his dad was cooking, and would likely be making pancakes too. His stomach still hurt, but he was hungry.
"Morning buddy, ready for the big day?"
"Dad, I don't feel so good."
"I told you not to eat the shrimp. Did you get sick last night."
He feebly said yes as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes leaning against the kitchen island where his father was mixing the pancake batter.
"Are you up for eating something?"
He flipped the hotcakes on the griddle while keeping an eye on the bacon behind him. He asked his son if he was ready for the launch.
"I guess so."
"It's going to be so incredible."
Jake hoped so, if only for his father's sake. The reason his dad was so excited about the launch was that an experiment he'd submitted to NASA from one of his students a few years ago was finally going to fly on the Space Shuttle Columbia, where it would spend two weeks in space. The student, a girl named Jillian, wanted to see what effect that weightlessness had on the ability for birds to fly, and so two parakeets named Barney and Wilma were drugged and loaded into a special container and were stowed away two hours before launch.
"The research they conduct during this flight could lead down all sorts of paths and help us in our understanding of how birds fly and learn in new environments," he'd said to his children again and again in class. He even had his former student, now studying to be a veterinarian at Auburn University, come speak about the project to his class before school got out.
"So I got a call from the professor over at Cape Canaveral this morning whose helping the ground team with the loading of the birds," he said as he flipped the pancakes and let them sit before putting them on a plate and sliding it over to Jake. "Eat up buddy, cause we don't have a long time before we need to hit the road."
Jake took a fork and cut into the pancakes, putting in a forkful and chewing while asking his dad what was wrong.
"So the birds are fine? They'll be the first birds to fly in space?"
"That's what it's looking like."
"That's kind of cool."
"Yeah, isn't it?"
His stomach rumbled again, and Jake rushed back to the bathroom with only half of his pancakes eaten. "If you're not back out here in the next few minutes, I'm going to eat your pancakes," his dad yelled back at him.
The car ride down to Cape Canaveral was a grueling, nauseating ordeal for Jake. They stopped twice for him to run into a gas station restroom, and when they finally arrived at the viewing stands area he found a bathroom and sat in there for fifteen minutes.
"Don't you think we should go and check on him?" his mom asked his dad.
"He'll be fine. He'll make it out for the launch."
It was t-minus 15 and counting, and Jake was sitting in the stands in the sunshine with his dad, holding his stomach which pained him.
"I'm sorry you got sick buddy, and that we couldn't leave you alone at the house. But I promise this will be worth it."
"You think so?" he said, meekly.
"Yeah, I do."
From behind Jake heard the boy he'd met two days before, Bobby. He was calling out his name and running over when Jake turned to see him, the four eyes in his sparkling white Space Camp t-shirt.
"You made it to the launch!" he said, running up and slapping him on the back. "Jeez, isn't this awesome? We're going to see the blast off and everything!"
"Are you OK?"
"I ate bad shrimp yesterday in the car on the way home."
"Oh. Sorry Jake."
He felt a rumble in his belly, and with t-minus seven to go he ran for the bathroom, barely making it after what seemed like a hundred yard dash done twice.
As he sat inside and listened to the announcer tell the crowd there were only five minutes left to liftoff, three minutes left, he knew he had to get outside quickly. The crowd was rustling, and it was sixty seconds left to liftoff when he ran from the bathroom out to the viewing stands. As he ran to where his parents were standing, still far off from where he was, he heard the announcer reach ten seconds. The ground began to shake underneath him, and he stopped and turned to where the sensation came from.
"Oh wow," he heard Bobby exclaim from behind him, and then they watched as it left the supports of the launch tower and took off. Jake felt the concussion of the fiery blast in his chest and shielded his eyes from the sun as he watched the Columbia roll toward the heavens.
"Jeez, that's something," Jake said. "Look at it go!"
The whole thing lasted only a minute or two before the Shuttle was well out of sight. He kept staring at where the shuttle could last be see, watching the trail of smoke blow away in the breeze. A minute or two later, his father came up to him from behind, resting his hand on his shoulder.
"Did you get to see it?"
"Yeah dad, and you were right. It was incredible."
I'm toying with a new setting I've developed in this story and would appreciate any feedback on it.