A child misunderstands her father. It is a theme close to my heart right now, and Ethel Rohan’s story plays with what Stella can and cannot know, a must with narrators as “unreliable” (in this case, naive) as children are in fiction. What will Stella grow up to be like? Will she be like her mother, her father, like their real selves or her perceptions of them? We don’t know, but we also do, because this story has guided us to an answer as wholly satisfying as it is incomplete, like the wreckage that will become Stella’s rocket. —Matt Salesses, Good Men Project Fiction Editor
By lunch time, Stella’s cheek had swollen, pink with her mother’s handprint. From his end of the kitchen table, Stella caught her daddy look at the warm mark, but he said nothing, just dropped his head and slurped his soup. He’d never hit her, not once.
Stella dragged her spoon through her bowl, her mouth pressed shut. Her mother knew she hated mushrooms and their earthy taste. From the radio came the murmur of the one o’clock news, some man in the next town over accused of killing his wife. They said he folded her into a suitcase and tossed her into the landfill.
Stella’s mother said rumor had it the dead woman had cheated on her husband. “I don’t care what she did, that bastard should be lynched.”
“Nothing’s been proven,” Stella’s daddy said.
“Of course he did it, you clown.”
Stella’s daddy returned to his soup, made slapping sounds with his mouth. Stella worried that her mother would push her daddy too far. Some nights, the shadows were her daddy sneaking up behind her mother and pushing her down the stairs. Stella sometimes saw flashes of her daddy’s calloused hands around her mother’s long throat. She couldn’t decide if his killing her mother would be better or worse than his doing nothing, his looking away and not seeing.
Aside from the radio, the only sound in the room was the bubble of the soup on the stove. Stella mock-sneezed, just to make something give.
In the afternoon, Stella and her parents headed into town, to the only country market. From the front seat, Stella’s mother squinted and complained, blinded by the sun. “Car’s an oven.”
Stella’s daddy handed Stella’s mother his sunglasses and rolled down his window. He said imagine she was at sea, a cool breeze in her hair. Stella’s mother looked at him like he was empty.
From the back seat, Stella said, “I can smell the seaweed, Daddy, and taste the salt, feel the cool breeze tickle me.”
Stella’s mother shook her head. “You two are daft.”
Stella’s daddy winked at Stella in the rearview.
Stella’s daddy killed the engine inside the wrecking yard and disappeared into the office for his paycheck. He’d worked in salvage straight out of school and didn’t know anything else. Stella hated that her daddy worked in salvage, surrounded by brokenness. Although she did like that he’d gotten everything they’d needed for the rocket they were making.
Stella’s daddy climbed back into the car, whistling. Stella’s mother held out her hand for the brown envelope. She counted his wages, twice, and squirreled the money into her purse. Stella’s daddy fell back into silence.
Outside the country market, Stella’s parents struggled free of the hot, sticky car. Stella didn’t want to go shopping, didn’t want to go out into the town’s ruined feeling. As soon as she could, Stella wanted to run away from this town, afraid it would contaminate her like it had everyone else. But she couldn’t leave her daddy alone.
From the sidewalk, Stella’s mother glowered into the car. Stella wanted to sleep across the back seat. The supermarket would be mayhem, especially on account of the holiday, though at least it would be cool inside.
The store customers had the feel of a mob. A voice sounded over the PA, announced all sales were cash or check only, due to trouble with the store’s new credit card machines. Several shoppers got out of line, full carts in tow, and demanded to speak with the manager. Stella’s mother pushed through the dark crowd, smirking. They only ever used cash.
The aisles looked in ruins, produce spilled onto the floor and tossed about the shelves, gaping spaces everywhere. Stella’s daddy looked just as bewildered as Stella felt. Why was everyone acting like it was the eve of a famine? Minutes later, Stella’s mother and another large woman dived at the produce inside an abandoned cart, left by someone without cash or checks. Stella watched the two women, her cheeks hot with shame. A man roared from the back of the shop and Stella watched him and a woman tug-o-war over a bag of potatoes. Everywhere, people manned their carts like tanks. Stella recalled the word she’d learned last week in English class, ominous.
Stella’s daddy watched his wife and the other woman wrangle over the cart’s remaining contents. He used the back of his hand on his mouth, as if trying to clean up a spill. Stella wanted to pull on his hand and run outside.
When they finally returned to the car, Stella’s mother burrowed into the front seat, chuckling. “Did you see that woman try to get the last of those tomatoes? I showed her. Yes I did.”
Stella’s daddy shook his head at his wife, in a way that was more yes than no, and his lips seemed edged with pride. Stella fumed on the back seat, baked and burned and worried she’d evaporate.
That evening, Stella picked at her dinner, remembering how it had felt just as hard to get the food down when she was so sick that one time with bronchitis. After the meal, she cleared and washed the dishes, then went straight to bed. Her parents didn’t ask if she felt sick or if anything might be the matter, didn’t turn their heads from the TV.
Stella awoke in the green dark of her room to the creak of the bed next door. Her parents’ moans climbed. Stella listened, stiff and confused and afraid. She smelled madness in the air, just like in the store earlier, as if she and her parents had carried the chaos home. Several long minutes passed and her parents finally quieted.
Stella sneaked from her bed and out into the chill of the shed. She stretched out on the cold concrete next to the half-made rocket and hugged it hard. She didn’t understand all those crazed shoppers earlier. Didn’t understand how her parents could hate each other one minute and the next roll and moan and hump together. Didn’t understand much of anything.
Stella imagined a hole in the shed’s roof and a telescope at her eye, and she watched and watched, thought someday she might just be able to leave her daddy behind after all. He’d fare just fine without her. Despite her tears, the nightscape she imagined beyond the shed’s roof was clear. She hugged the unfinished rocket harder to her body and hoped maybe, just maybe, it would make it into the sky.