Alec Long missed his mother. On the summer between the fifth and sixth grade of school, Alec had traveled from his grandparent's home in Maryland to visit her for the first time since she had moved away.
Alec's parents had divorced when he was still a baby and after the split, his mother Gina had moved Out West to live with an older man named Carol. Apparently his mom had married Carol years ago, but that marriage had been short-lived and the only thing Gina had to show for it was the rather old and battered Mercedes sedan that Alec was currently sitting in.
The car itself was parked on a desolate stretch of private dirt road somewhere on the sprawling Wyoming ranch of Mr. Simm, a cattleman who owned the bar where Alec's mom served drinks. Mr. Simm's bar was called the Jolly Roger and sported a faux 'pirate' theme. There was a fake pirate ship in the parking lot which Alec thought was funny because the nearest ocean seemed to be at least ten million miles away from the tedious desert landscape surrounding Evanston, the little oilfield town where his mother had settled after her second divorce.
That is stupid, he had laughed to himself, there aren't any pirates in the desert.
Alec didn't like boats.
Most of Alec's young life had been spent with his father's parents, as his father Jeff had taken a job as a steward on a cruise ship two days before Alec's premature birth and was, as his grandfather was fond of saying, lost at sea, although he wasn't truly lost like a Robinson Crusoe shipwreck; Jeff just didn't come home very often and when he did , he tended to show up drunk and stay that way until he left. Which was usually sooner than later.
Last Christmas Jeff had given his son a small bag of brightly-colored toy plastic dinosaurs and claimed that he had brought them special all the way from China, see, it says so right on the bag. Alec knew better but he had been so glad to see his father that he didn't mention seeing those same dinosaurs last week, pegged to the wall at the local 7-11, right next to the store's comic-book rack.
Those same dinosaurs were keeping Alec company as he waited for his mother to return. She had followed Mr. Simm's pickup truck as it drove over the half-graveled road, the Mercedes lurching crazily as it bounced on the uneven surface, headlights casting frenzied searchlight beams into the plume of dust left in Mr. Simm's wake. Mr. Simm is always in a hurry, Gina had told her son, but this car can't go that fast on this road.
After a few miles of turbulent driving, they saw the headlights of Mr. Simm' s Ford. He had turned around a few hundred feet ahead of them and stopped. His headlights flashed twice and then went dark. Gina stopped her car, turned off the engine and opened her door.
Wait here, honey. I need to talk to Mr. Simm for a little bit. I brought your comic-books with us- they are in the backseat, so sit tight until I get back, OK?
Alec wanted to tell her that it wasn't OK. He wanted to tell her that he was scared, that it was dark outside and he couldn't see anything and that if she left now he knew that she would never come back for him. He wanted to tell her that he knew dinosaurs didn't really come special from China just for him. He wanted to scream.
OK, Mom, he said.
Alec clambered into the back and rummaged around in the small red cooler Gina always traveled with, pushing aside the ghastly yellow cans of Coors beer until he finally came up with a chilly can of Coke. He opened it and carefully placed the curled metal tab in the car's ashtray. One of his schoolteachers had told Alec that baby squirrels often strangled on metal pull-tabs that careless people threw out of their car windows. Alec didn't want any part of that.
He had already read the comics at least a dozen times but there wasn't much else to do, so he flicked on the dim overhead lamp and started reading The Amazing Spider-Man again. It was the issue where Peter Parker discovers that the evil Green Goblin is actually his best friend's father. In it, the Green Goblin accidentally gets killed while fighting Spider-Man and now everyone-including Peter's best friend Harry, the New York police and Peter's sickly Aunt May- blames Spider-Man. Peter has to listen to his friends and family talk about how rotten Spider-Man is, when the whole time Peter is Spider-Man. Alec sometimes felt as if his own family secretly hated him. When he thought about his parents, he always wanted to cry, although he also wanted to be strong, even if it was the secret kind of strength like what Peter Parker had, the kind of strength that no one else could ever know about. So most of the time he didn't cry, even when he felt like it.
The comic story made Alec sad so he turned to his favorite part of the book, which was an advertisement for Estes model rockets. One of Alec's classmates owned a model rocket and had taken Alec out on a launch not long ago and ever since then, Alec had been asking his grandparents for a rocket of his own. He wanted a Saturn model, it was excitingly complicated-looking, with multiple engines that would ignite in stages, just like real thing. In his imagination, he painted the rocket in red and blue patches with black webs , just like Spider-Man's costume, and named it AF-15, after the first-ever Spidey book, Amazing Fantasy #15.
Maybe you can get one for Christmas, Granpa had said. But not sooner, we don't have money for trifles. Ask your mother when you get Out West. Maybe she has triflin' money.
After Alec arrived in Wyoming, Gina asked him if there was anything special he wanted. He showed her his tattered mail-order rocket catalog with the Saturn model circled in red magic marker. Gina whistled.
That is a lot of money. How about ice cream? Do you like ice cream?
He was ashamed of it, but he started to cry when Gina asked him if he liked ice cream. He really wanted that rocket and he hadn't seen his mom in forever and she couldn't even give him the rocket he had been dreaming of for so long. And suddenly Gina was crying too and Alec didn't know why , only that the grown-ups he knew seemed to cry a lot more than he did , and he was just a kid. She hugged him and said I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry in a whisper he could barely hear.
I am like Spidey, I am sad and everybody I love hates the real me, but I am strong and I don't cry. But he did cry.
Later, Gina told him that she had talked to Mr. Simm and that he was going to help her buy the rocket for him, the best rocket in the whole catalog, with extra engines, parachutes and decals and a deluxe electronic ignition kit that used a large battery to light the missile, not the cheap and unreliable fuses like Alec's friend had used.
Alec didn't know why Mr. Simm wanted them to drive all the way out to nowhere to talk about rockets, but the grownups in Alec's life were always going off to talk to each other in secret places, usually right before they dumped him off with a relative or family friend for a while. Alec didn't want to live with Mr. Simm, rocket or no rocket. He waited in the car, wondering where he might be tomorrow.
For a while, Alec's dinosaurs had an imaginary argument over which toy would be the first one to ride the rocket into space. That lasted for a few minutes and then he looked again at the rocket advertisement while he finished his Coke. Time passed until he had to step out of the car to pee.
After he was done he stared through the moonless night toward the low shadowy bulk of Mr. Simm's Ford. Without thinking, he crouched and started creeping slowly towards it, walking just off to the side of the road. As he neared it, he could hear faint strains of country-music coming from the cab He couldn't see inside from where he stood, so he snuck closer and stood on his tip-toes, peering diagonally across the truck bed and through the rear cabin window. He remained there for a few minutes.
When he got back to the Mercedes, his mouth was parched dry and he felt like he might choke on the spongy mass of his own tongue. He reached into the cooler for another Coke, but there weren't any, just a half-dozen Coors lazing in the dirty, icy water. Alec had tasted beer before, of course, and found it disgusting, but there was nothing else, so he popped the top of the nearest can. Out of habit, he placed the ring in the ashtray, then he steeled himself and took a small sip, then another, larger one.
It tasted very good to him.