The diner was mostly empty this time of day, but in 15 minutes a dead man would walk through the door and have a seat at the booth. Wayne checked his watch and ordered more coffee. The young woman poured from a full pot, and steam rose from his mug. She wore no apron and did not look like a diner waitress from the movies. Wayne realized he hadn’t been in one for many years. Around the desert, there were no other places to go. Unless you wanted to hold court in a gas station.

Wayne saw the ancient Jeep, a bright yellow thing on enormous tires, swing around the parking lot too fast and coast into a space near his own rental. The license plate read “RCKT MAN.” On its tailgate were three or four bumper stickers he couldn’t make out. The driver slid out the open space where a door should be and ambled toward the diner. The bell rang and Barry Bishop stepped inside.

Wayne fought his way out of the tight space between table and bench and stood to greet his subject. Bishop was dressed like an aging rock star – acid washed jeans with precision rips down each leg, an overlarge silver belt buckle, and a tight black tee-shirt emblazoned with a flashy emblem. The outfit resembled the Jeep: tawdry. Bishop smiled and extended his hand. His teeth were old man’s teeth, and when Bishop removed his aviators, his face was an old man’s face, creased and leathery from the sun. His grey hair was teased and swirled upward at the forehead. In the back, a neat curtain of it covered his neck.

“Thanks for meeting with me, Barry,” Wayne said, setting a tape recorder on the table.

“Well, you weren’t obnoxious in your email. That was the first test. People still write me saying, ‘Hey Psych Ward, how ‘bout a cameo in my car commercial.’ Annoys the shit outta me.”

Wayne thought Bishop looked too skinny. Not capable of enduring the kind volcanic thrust and atmospheric resistance he would face in a few short hours. This guy could fall out of the booth and break his pelvis. The server returned and filled a second cup for Bishop. Wayne said the magazine would pay for the breakfast, but Bishop ordered only grapefruit.

“You do not want to be throwing up sausage and eggs in that little compartment. Besides, I ate early this morning.”

The grapefruit arrived in a glass bowl and smelled tart. Bishop sprinkled sugar over the pulp and speared it with a dull spoon, sending spray across the table, and excavated the pink meat in neat squares. His hands were nubby at the joints.

“Where’s the film crew?” Wayne asked.

“They’re setting up at the site. We had to switch locations at the last minute to appease the Bureau of Land Management and the rest of the pencil pushers. Like it makes any difference. The only things flying this low in the Mojave are UFOs.” This got Bishop chuckling. “Maybe a drone.”

“And you live around here?”

“I do. Have for years. I’ve got a double-wide I share with three tabbies and the most tender Siamese ever.”

“What about family? Your daughter?”

Bishop laughed again, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “You know people think I’m actually getting wealthy off this.” He looked up at Wayne and blinked two sage colored eyes. “I eat dinner out of a can every night. Same as my cats.”

Wayne thought if the rest of him were as young as those sage eyes, he’d be back in business. Clearing 80-foot canyons on his Ducati or jumping off bridges in Humboldt County. Bishop swallowed his coffee the wrong way and coughed furiously into his napkin. The server looked up briefly, then went back to tapping the cash register. 

Wayne remembered something he’d read in the Times. “The Alliance is giving you some bucks, though, right?

“A weekly allowance to buy scrap parts on eBay. They know I’m the best chance they got at spreading the word, maybe finally getting an answer. Every penny goes toward the cause. The rest I pay out of my own pocket fixing HVACs in the desert heat – at my age. We’re on a shoestring budget and the reason we’re as far along as we are now is because Anthony and I know how to bargain hunt and restore things to working condition.”

The woman brought Wayne’s plate of eggs and hash browns, which he regretted ordering. He was easily 50 pounds heavier than Bishop and squeezed into his side of the booth. Dead man or no, it was embarrassing. He pushed the plate aside and took out his notepad.

“I have to tell you, Barry, I talked to a guy at UC Irvine – the physics department chair. He said this whole thing is heartbreaking. He laid a fair amount of blame on me for breathing life into it, as he put it. I told him this was happening whether I show up or not.”

Bishop huffed and rolled his eyes. He pulled out a vape pen from his breast pocket and took a pull.

“In fact . . .” Wayne flipped through the pages of his notepad. “He gave me a list of experiments you could try at home instead of going through with your mission.”

Bishop hit the table with his fist and spat a cloud of white steam like the exhaust of an old car starting up.  

“I wouldn’t believe a word out of that man’s mouth. Don’t be so sure he believes it. All of that . . .” Bishop twirled his hands in the air “. . . Science he talks about is just dressed up mythology. It changes every 50 years for chrissake.” He lifted his coffee cup in the air and looked around, but the young woman was in the kitchen. Bishop took another pull on his vape and fluffed his hair. “Write this down, Wayne. In approximately three hours I’m going to climb into a rocket I designed and built myself and blast off this pancake. And when you see me up there . . .” He pointed to the ceiling. “. . . you’ll know that I’m thumbing my nose at everyone from National Geographic to Mrs. Beryl in 10th grade.”

            “But you might end up dead.”

            “I might, but I’ll be doing something extraordinary. Who else is pulling off stunts like these?”

            “Is this a stunt?”

            “You know what I mean. Something incredible. Maybe even a discovery.”

            “Okay, look.” Wayne dropped his notepad. “I don’t think you’ve ever given a straight answer about this . . . why in the hell don’t you just get on an airplane?”

            “Wouldn’t work.”

            “But why?”

            “First of all, they’re not gonna go high enough for my preference. Second, I don’t trust the windows they use on standard planes. The field of vision is too narrow. Any photo you see has either been doctored or taken with a fish-eye lens. Can’t trust’em. And last, the conditions gotta be perfect. Clear skies, no mountains. I want to pick my spots.”

            Wayne studied the aging stuntman. “Surely there’s a safer way.”

            “I need to control all the variables for this to satisfy me. All the decisions need to come from me and my team so there is no doubt.”

            “What about a balloon?”

            Bishop flashed the smile Wayne recognized from the old posters. “I ain’t got all day.”

With that, Bishop excused himself and walked to the bathroom at the far end. His embroidered jeans were cinched tight around his thin waist with little mass to fill them out. Wayne read over his notes and took a few bites of his lukewarm eggs. Watching the bathroom door, he pulled out his cell phone and tapped a quick text.

With him now. Anything you want me to say?

Bishop exited the bathroom still drying his hands with a paper towel. He’d touched up his hair. Wayne put the phone back in his pocket. The server followed behind Bishop down the aisle, waited for him to sit, and refilled his mug. He thanked her and crossed his arms.  

“I know what you’ve been doing out here.”

Wayne leaned back, looking surprised. “You do?”

“Yeah, I sure do.”

“You’ve been out here preparing all the so-called evidence you’re gonna confront me with. All the factoids you’re gonna drop that leave me stumbling for a response. Well, I got news for you. You don’t have nothing we didn’t already consider.”

Wayne laughed. “Barry, I promise you that’s not what I was doing.”

“Well good.” Bishop sipped his coffee. “Because you’d have been disappointed with the outcome.”

“Look, I’m not going point to point with you, and all these little snippets you have. I don’t have the terminology ready or any measurements off the top of my head.”

“That’s fine preparation for an interview.”

“It’s not what I’m interested in.”

Barry squinted at him. “You think you know something more than me about this.”

“I’m just trying to wrap my head around it.”

“You don’t know shit, brother. And I hate to be the one to tell you this, but some of us are complacent and some of us aren’t. We’re not just gonna sit on the couch and say ‘oh, yeah, well okay, everything they tell us is true.’”

“Barry, I’d like to think I know my limitations, and we should all maintain some healthy skepticism . . .”

Bishop blew his nose like a foghorn into a long diner napkin. Wayne flinched and found somewhere else to look.

“Anthony says I should take this time to reconnect with my daughter. You know, cause of the imminent danger. He’s right, this thing wants to kill you six ways till Sunday. But reconnect? How do I do that now? There was no connection in the first place. Her mother said, ‘you jump that Shiloh Ravine and we’re outta here.’ Well, I jumped the ravine, broke both wrists, a collarbone, and lacerated my spleen. I’m in the hospital two weeks and didn’t get a visit. When I get home, their stuff is cleared out. Everything in the baby’s room is all gone. Crib, changing table, you name it. There was still indents in the carpet, but no baby crying. No sounds of her toys. And here I am wearing two casts on my hands bending over to eat spaghetti straight off the plate like a dog.”

Wayne stopped taking notes.

“She doesn’t know her daddy from a guy on the street. So, you tell me how we’re supposed to reconnect. I don’t know her is the truth.”

            “I think she might appreciate the effort, Barry. I won’t tell you I understand how hard it is because I don’t.”

            Bishop made a phone with his hand and put it to his ear. “Hey girl, it’s Psych. How you doin?”

            “What would you say to her if you had the chance?”

            A middle-aged man, unshaven and wearing plaid, got up from his table and approached them. He held a cell phone encased in a dirty rubber shell. The man smiled down at Bishop and cleared his throat.

            “Morning, Mr. Bishop,” he said. “Sorry to bother you, I was wonderin’ if I could get a little photo op. I used to watch you perform when I was kid.”

            “Hey, all right,” Bishop said heartily. “I think we can manage that. Wayne, would you do the honors.”

            The man beamed, queued up the camera, and thrust the phone into Wayne’s hand.

            Wayne hated using other people’s phones. The settings were never right. He looked at the dark screen and aimed the camera. The fan was already in position, leaning down with one arm around Bishop, and the other giving a peace sign. He spoke while trying to maintain a smile, a bad ventriloquist.

“Got anything big planned, Mr. Bishop?”

            “Stay tuned. It might make the news.”

            “I sure will,” he said through his teeth.

            Wayne tapped out a flurry of pictures and handed back the phone. The man thanked Bishop profusely and examined the screen, swiping his finger. Appearing satisfied, he shook their hands and left.

            “Does that happen often?”

            “Every few weeks. Nobody younger than 40.”

            “Where do you rank this afternoon with your craziest stunts?”

            Bishop winced. “I take exception to the term crazy.”

            “Yeah, poor phrasing. Okay, how about extreme? Or daring?”

            “Every facet of this thing is meticulously planned out by professionals, like yours truly. Every variable you can think of. So, it’s not crazy.”


            “That said, this is in the top three for sure.”

            “Higher than Trinidad Valley?”

            “Oh shit yeah, believe it.”

            Wayne touched his chin and considered this. “I would have to agree.”

            Bishop made a triangle with hands. “The motorcycle wants to land on the ramp. It’s a perfect fit. You just let it all happen, put the pieces in place where they come together in harmony. The rocket does not want to take me up into the sky. Every ounce of that thing is trying to kill you, and every ounce of your body is resisting the trip. It’s a fight against the natural way of things.”

            Wayne looked at his watch. “What time do you need to go?”

            “About 10 minutes.”

            Wayne flagged down the server and asked for the check. The young woman tore out the page of her notebook, set it on the table, and walked to the cash register. Everything was added up in pen. He brought it to the cash register, wallet in hand. Bishop stayed behind, still seated at the booth, head down.

            “Your change, sir,” an impatient voice said.

Wayne looked back at her. She was holding out his money.

“Oh, thanks.”

She gave a curt smile and went back into the kitchen. Wayne retuned to the table and weighed down a five-dollar bill with a napkin dispenser.

“Are you ready?” he asked Bishop.

“Hmm?” Bishop looked up. For a second he looked confused about where he was, or who was speaking to him. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

The bell above the door jingled as they left. It was hotter outside than when Wayne had arrived. The big sky was cloudless and seemed to go on forever. The white sun hung directly above them. Bishop pulled out his aviator sunglasses.

“She’d be about her age,” he said, nodding toward the diner.

Wayne blocked the sun with his hand. “Who?”

“The waitress in there.”

Wayne faced the diner as if seeing it for the first time. The red plastic façade along the exterior had turned pink over the years. “Oh, I see . . .”

“You’ll follow me then?” Bishop said, already walking to his Jeep.

Wayne started up the rental and blasted the air conditioning. He followed the Jeep for 35 minutes down the two-lane road. The area was so flat and vast it seemed like he was driving in place. The mountains around him appeared no closer or farther since they’d left.

The Jeep slowed and turned right onto a gravel road. The terrain became more interesting, with rocky hills and sharp turns. Bishop navigated the road with familiarity, and his yellow Jeep pulled away out of view. Wayne followed the trail of dust until coming to an opening with a dozen vehicles parked in a line, including a van with a large red logo that said Nice Shot Filmz.

Bishop was already out of the car and walking to a camper with several people in tow. One of them Wayne recognized as Bishop’s partner, Anthony Vasquez, who owned the land and handled some promotional duties – a man worth interviewing. Wayne decided to loiter outside the camper and take in the scenery.

The production crew, comprising a cameraman, a tall Scandinavian looking woman holding a boom mic, and a goateed director tying back his ponytail, crab-walked around the main attraction. The body of the 17-foot rocket was painted stark white with bright red fins at the bottom. Several logos from sponsors were meticulously stenciled on its cylindrical shape. The rocket was secured to a metal launch track, like a long piece of roller coaster rail, which stuck out diagonally 25 feet in the air. The whole thing was rigged to the back of a weathered Ram pickup. Its license plate said Farm Use.

The phone buzzed in his pocket. Wayne pulled it out.

I’m not going to be an accomplice to this.

Wayne thought for a moment, then texted a response.

This may be the last chance you get.

The camper door slammed behind him.

“Goddamnit,” a voice hollered. “Get your hands off the rocket!”

Anthony Vasquez stormed past him toward the film crew. The director, who had been inspecting one of the fins, pulled his hand away, feigning innocence. But there was red paint on his fingers, which he tried in vain to wipe away on his khaki shorts.

“I am going to give you guys the boot once and for all if you can’t respect the rules.”

The cameraman and sound engineer faced their new subject, riveted. The director spoke with a European accent.

“I’m sorry, I did not mean to touch it.” He stopped wiping and assumed a regal posture, hands joined behind him.

Anthony walked off to inspect the rocket and launch pad, muttering to himself and checking his clipboard. The director spied Wayne taking notes and started in his direction.

“Welcome to the last picture show.” The director smiled, extending his hand. His teeth were very long, like a gerbil’s. He wore tinted reading glasses speckled with dust.

Wayne shook his sweaty hand, then furtively dried his palm on his pant leg, discovering too late it was not sweat but red paint. The director pretended not to notice. His name was Laurent. He was from southern France, here to make a short piece on Bishop, with a focus on American’s rugged individualism and their entrepreneurial spirit. Exceptionalism was notably absent, Wayne thought.

“And which organization are you with?” His accent was out of place with this crowd, this burnt scenery.

“I’m freelance, but I work closely with a few periodicals.”

The director studied him, considering how hard to press the new arrival.  

Bishop emerged from the camper in a white jumpsuit embroidered with the same unfamiliar logos Wayne noticed on the rocket. The outfit change did wonders for the man’s gravitas, he thought, as now Bishop looked like a man who really might survive blasting off the earth. Bishop strode past them, hitting his vape pen and flashing a smile.

“Can only imagine the stuff you two turds have to discuss.”

Laurent followed him hurriedly to the launch site, peppering him with questions.

Wayne checked his phone. Nothing there. He looked at his watch. One hour until the scheduled launch. He milled around the area, climbing up dunes and other small rock formations, snapping photos of the rocket from every angle with his phone.

There were other hangers on. Who was necessary to the mission who was an observer like him? An obese man in his 40s labored to breathe the desert air. His black collared polo could not encompass his belly, leaving an opening below. Glimpses of pink skin appeared every time he shielded his eyes with a hand. He spent a lot of time on his phone, pacing around the camper.

Finally, after numerous checks, re-checks, indiscernible tinkering, and many conferences between Bishop and his skeleton crew, he kissed two fingers and tapped the rocket, then climbed into the capsule. He slid it shut and gave a thumbs-up. The gathering broke into applause. People whistled and cheered. To his surprise, Wayne found himself clapping, too.

“This is why we do it, right here.”

It was Anthony Vasquez. He was taller now standing next to Wayne.

 “Well, that and the hunt for truth, obviously.”

 “Aren’t you worried?” Wayne practically yelled.

“Of course.” He folded his arms. “Worried and excited. We’ve got three parachutes strapped onto this thing. A backup for the backup. Plus, this guy’s a pro. They don’t make his kind anymore. A throwback to the true explorers. He doesn’t care about the stuff you and I care about. He just wants to get out there.”

“How high will he go?”

“Probably not high enough. We’re still getting there, but every launch brings in a little more attention and little more funding.”

Someone started a countdown and they turned toward the rocket. The wind kicked up.

“. . . Four . . . three . . . two . . . one.”

A torrent of steam burst angrily from the twin nozzles and kicked up a bulbous cloud of orange dust from which it instantly torpedoed toward the blue sky at a hundred-degree angle, a streak of burning white vapor marking its trajectory. It flew so high so fast Wayne backpedaled to keep it in his sights. The rocket arced sideways before tacking and made a last violent push three hundred additional feet in the air, past the first layer of ghostly clouds.

When the engine burned through its payload the hose of steam cut out. It coasted higher still. From the ground, it was impossible to tell when the descent began. Soon it was falling fast. Wayne realized he’d never seen anything that size in the sky before.

It was no longer above them, but very far in the distance, falling like a barrel bomb. Anthony shifted his feet. The rocket picked up speed, looking fast even from here. Somebody yelled “Paul!” but it must have been “Pull,” Wayne thought, and there was a scream, maybe several, as the rocket plummeted the last 200 feet and collided with earth. Pieces of the aircraft scattered, and the wind quickly swept away the cloud made by the crash.

Their hollering was dulled in so much open space. Then it went quiet. People stood around not knowing what to do, hands on their heads or covering their mouths. Wayne noticed Anthony slumped over, cursing. Two men ran to a pickup and sped off towards the crash site.

Wayne’s phone buzzed.

Tell him to stop the insanity. It’s too late to be a father but he can still be a grandfather if he wants. He ambled down the dirt hill, tripping once over sagebrush and catching himself. The rental car was an impossible distance away. He patted himself down. If the keys weren’t in the ignition, he would break down and sob. The phone buzzed again in his pocket. As he made his way across the dirt, Wayne didn’t look back to see Laurent finding his notepad on the ground and leafing through the pages.

Luke Sweeney

Luke Sweeney is a writer originally from Maine who now resides in Richmond, Virginia. He received a BA in philosophy from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has taught ESL in South America and currently writes for a government contractor to pay the bills. His short fiction has appeared in Red Fez and Writ.

Luke Sweeney is a writer originally from Maine who now resides in Richmond, Virginia. He received a BA in philosophy from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. He has taught ESL in South America and currently writes for a government contractor to pay the bills. His short fiction has appeared in Red Fez and Writ.

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