Josh lies on the parquet floor, his head on a couch cushion. He spelled “eggs” and “years” and “home” right today during spelling and Mrs. Alvarez gave him a gold star. He licked the sticky part and stuck it to the back of his hand. He moves his head an inch to the left and looks out the window of the thirty-seventh floor apartment. There’s only sky. Just sky and whipped cream clouds, white on the top and orange on the bottom. Josh starfishes his legs and arms, pretend-swims through his spaceship apartment, keeping his eyes on the window.
He can hear his Mom answering the front door, then calling, “Joshie?” The gold star on his hand glints as he rides the gravity-free air with his palm. It’ll just be Brian from three doors down, and Brian always wants to play Atari and nothing else. Josh hopes his mom won’t let Brian in.
After a moment the front door closes and Josh hears big not-Brian’s feet coming closer and keeps looking at the sky and there’s a word in Josh’s head, his favourite word, and he is so scared he’s wrong about this word that even in his head he whispers it. Over and over again. Not-Brian’s feet stop next to Josh. Josh makes horse blinders from his hands like the horses on TV and turns his head to the left. If he’s wrong, the horse blinders will let him hope for a little bit longer.
He sees his mom’s flip-flops and her nice toes wiggling and next to them a pair of tattered red sneakers. The feet inside are big, and the feet inside are wearing polka-dot socks. Once, he put one of those socks on his hand and made a puppet out of it. Once, he pretended to eat carrot sticks with that sock.
Now the word inside Josh’s head has gotten louder. Not a whisper anymore, it’s what Mrs. Alvarez calls his “inside voice”. He wishes, with his one word, he makes a wish that he’s right.
Keeping his horse blinders on, Josh looks up at the bluer than the sky jeans. He closes his eyes and reaches out his gold star hand, touches one of the sneakers. Like how his mom touches her rosary beads in church.
He chants his favourite word over and over again, louder and louder until it’s so loud it comes out in a very small way from his very small mouth. “Daddy?”
The jeans bend in the middle, revealing a t-shirt with Saturn on it, and then a bearded face. Josh launches himself and his Daddy is bowled over, laughing. Josh buries his face in the t-shirt and smells cigarettes and old, old coffee. Mom sits on the couch and doesn’t say anything, just looks from him to Daddy and back.
Josh sits in Daddy’s lap, touching his beard which was just a moustache the last time Daddy came over but has sprouted like upside down grass on his chin. “Are you staying here?” Josh asks, but quiet, like how Mom says to be with cats or they will run away.
Daddy says, “For a little bit, Joshie.”
Josh understands. It’s a secret, but his Daddy is an astronaut. No one talks about it. If Daddy talked about it, no one would ever leave him alone! People would bang on the door all the time asking for autographs and to go to space with him! Josh only knows the truth because one time he was looking through a box of old stuff and he found a Communicator. Just like on the Enterprise! It said “Paramount” on the back, and when he asked Mom what that word meant she said “most important”. Which means Daddy is not just an astronaut, he’s the most important astronaut.
Josh shows Daddy how to lie with his head on the couch cushion on the floor, how to put his head in exactly the right place so that all he can see is sky. Josh tugs on Daddy’s beard a little and says, “When we have a spaceship, you be the captain, okay?”
Daddy squeezes Josh’s hand and says, “I’ll be the Science Officer. You be Captain Josh.”
Josh looks at Daddy with big eyes. “Wow, okay. Yeah!”
While Mom is cooking tuna noodle casserole for dinner, Josh and Daddy go for a walk.
Josh tells Daddy about the cat in the sandbox at the playground and how last time Brian came over he just restarted the Pac-Man level whenever it ended and said he was “teaching” Josh how to play. Josh doesn’t ask again about when Daddy’s leaving, he puts horse blinders around his ears. He just feels Daddy’s warm hand swallowing his own, making a bubble of safeness around him.
Josh is catching the streetlight with his gold star and Daddy asks what it is. “Mrs. Alvarez gave it to me when I spelled three whole words right,” says Josh.
Three!” says Daddy, and the smile in his voice travels right into Josh’s chest.
While Josh is having his bath, he can hear Mom and Daddy doing dishes together. He lies in the warm water and puts his plastic cup in upside down. When the whole cup is underwater he tips it over and a bubble comes to the surface and pops. In the kitchen, Mom is saying seven months is a lifetime for a kid and Daddy is saying it’s not like the trucking company gives me two weeks of paid vacation, Lisa.
Josh makes a bunch of bubbles by just tipping the underwater cup a little bit. He grins. Pretending to drive a truck is how Daddy hides that he goes to space.
Now there’s just dishes clanking and water. Daddy says besides, I need to be home with — but then someone must have dropped something, because there’s a tinkling sound and Mom comes into the bathroom and says it’s time for Josh to get out of the bath.
When the kitchen is all clean, Daddy tucks Josh in and then lies down next to Josh, on top of Spock, so Captain Kirk is looking at him. Daddy reads a story about a little girl who only likes to eat bread and jam. Josh listens, curling his arms around Daddy’s arm, because he has a plan. He will keep Daddy here because he will hold him so tight that he can’t leave. Josh thinks that he will not even fall asleep. He will just hold Daddy the whole night. But it’s hard to pretend to sleep when he is sleepy. And halfway through the fourth time Daddy reads the book, Josh does fall asleep.
In the morning when he wakes up, Josh’s hands still have an arm in them! He thinks his favourite word over and over and over again and doesn’t even use his horse blinders but when he opens his eyes he can see this arm is smaller. This arm has a nightgown sleeve on it.
When Mom opens her eyes and turns her head, Josh says, “But I thought he’d stay this time.”
Mom holds Josh for a long time. She rubs his back. She says, “It’s okay to cry. You cry as long as you need to.”
At lunch time, Josh is sitting on the soccer field by himself, holding his hands in front of him and looking at the gold star. He gets his lunchbox out of his backpack. He takes his peanut butter and jelly sandwich out of the sandwich bag, and puts the sandwich back in the lunchbox. He shakes all the crumbs, every single one, out onto the grass. Then he smooths the bag so it looks brand new. He peels the sticker off the back of his hand and sticks it to the inside of the sandwich bag instead. He folds the bag in half, making sure that the star doesn’t get crumpled.
Tonight, he’ll ask his Mom if she’ll send it to Daddy. So he doesn’t forget Josh, or their walk, or how someday they will fly away in their own spaceship. And ride among the stars.