Excerpt: 'Challenger Park'
She thought she had a chance to make the light at the intersection of NASA Road One and Space Center Boulevard, but the driver in front of her maddeningly decelerated as he answered his cell phone, and now he had come to a full stop while the turn arrow was still yellow. Well aware of her own vulnerability to panicky frustration, Lucy Kincheloe made a point to remind herself there was no real hurry. The light was two minutes long at most, the familiar voice on the phone had been calm, and Lucy herself had already made this trip four times this year. She had trained for enough emergencies to know that beneath almost every sort of raging anxiety there was a calm pocket, a perfect little vacuum in which both thoughts and actions were crisp and clear. She could find that place if she needed to, but for now she just lightened her grip on the steering wheel, then stared in contemplation at the recessed Chrysler logo at its center, as if it were some sort of ancient mandala-like emblem.
The man in front of her swung his head back and forth as he talked on his cell phone. He wore a baseball cap and sunglasses, and on the back of his Range Rover there was a bumper sticker that read, "When a Man Is Tired of Lubbock He Is Tired of Life." Very funny. Lucy looked away and gazed out across the lake. The morning haze had burned off, and in the noon light the brackish water appeared deceptively lovely, its surface undisturbed except for a single Jet Ski carving a white wake whose exhausted wavelets lapped at the riprap at the side of the road. On the distant Kemah bridge, where the lake merged into Galveston Bay, a procession of cars glinted in the sun, and a smallish flock of pink spoonbills meandered in from the opposite shore, heading past the Hilton toward the marshy channels and bayous beyond Bay Area Boulevard.
It all made for a lilting tableau, even in her agitated state, even if she knew that beneath its present blue sheen this particular body of water was a mudhole. It had always galled her that these boosterish Texans could get away with calling it Clear Lake. Reared in the honest precincts of New England, she could not get used to Texas place-names that advertised mountains that were barely more than hummocks or supposedly mighty lakes that would not have qualified as a pond back home. Even the storied Rio Grande, which she and Brian had seen on a disagreeable weekend trip several years ago to Matamoros, was hardly more than a drainage ditch.
The light had still not changed. The driver ahead of her was still yammering on his phone. When the sense of alarm she had been holding so coolly at bay suddenly broke through, she made a lightning assessment of the oncoming traffic and with a breathtaking lack of deliberation jerked her steering wheel to the left and whipped past the Range Rover as she made a left turn against the light. She offered a cringing wave of apology to a flabbergasted driver from the opposite corner whose own impending turn she had not taken into consideration. In her rearview mirror she could see the guy in the Range Rover glaring at her through his polarized sunglasses and switching his cell phone to the opposite hand so he could give her the finger, but she didn't dwell on his opinion of her for more than a moment.
As she drove down Space Center Boulevard, the tires of her minivan teased the grooves of the newly resurfaced street, producing a wavering banshee tone that matched the cloudy dread that had suddenly entered her mind. The road curved along the back side of the Johnson Space Center, an expanse of empty ground bordered by leafless winter trees, where deer patrolled the fence line and joggers wended in and out of sight, following the exercise trail through a thin screen of forest. "Go Atlantis!" read a banner attached to the chain-link fence, cheering on the space shuttle that was currently on orbit.
The lights were with her the rest of the way, and it took her only seven or eight minutes more to reach the school. At this hour the circular drive in front was empty of buses and carpooling Suburbans, so she was able to lurch to a stop just steps away from the front door. She left the car in one fluid motion, not even pausing to push the locking button on her security key, and entered the school and walked urgently down the hall, past the display of photographs of "Astronaut Moms and Dads" grinning in their orange pressure suits as they held up models of the space shuttle. When she opened the door to the office, the first thing she saw was Davis sitting all by himself in a chair, staring vacantly at a Black History Month poster of Sojourner Truth on the opposite wall.
"Are you feeling tight, sweetie?" Lucy asked her son as she knelt down in front of him and reflexively stroked his cheek.
"A little," he said.
"Scale of one to ten?"
"It was seven but now it's five."
He nodded, though Lucy could still hear a more-than-faint wheeze in his breathing. His skin was pale, he was trembling, and though he was seven years old he seemed to his distraught mother as vulnerable as a newborn—the whorls of his ears almost translucent, his eyes wondrously blank. Still, she knew he was not in any acute danger. There was no justification at all for the way she had allowed herself to surrender to blind fear. What if she had caused a wreck? What if she had broadsided a child in a car seat? At the very least, if the vindictive man in the Range Rover had had the presence of mind to write down her license plate number, she might still hear from the police.
"His peak's a little better," Lorelei Tran said as she entered the room with Davis's inhaler. "I gave him two puffs right before I called you. We're up to two-ninety now, but he's still pretty constricted."
"I don't think two puffs is going to do it."
"I wanted to wait till you got here to give him another dose. That's a lot of Albuterol. Do you want the machine?"
"No, let's just do the inhaler."
Lorelei attached the spacer and handed it over to her as Davis compliantly opened his mouth. Lucy administered a single sustained dose. She had gotten to the point where the sound of her son taking in this vaporous bronchial-dilating cocktail troubled her as much as it comforted her. She knew that every relief-bringing puff of Albuterol brought with it an unrelenting jitteriness that was as painful for her to watch as it was for Davis to endure. Sometimes, after an intense bout with the nebulizing machine, his hand shook so much that he could not even write his name. And the other medications for asthma often demanded a more powerful reckoning, cruel side effects like weight gain or stunted growth or humped back that could conceivably one day be visited upon the innocent perfection of her little boy's body.
"He told Mrs. Ortiz right away he wasn't feeling well," Lorelei said as she put the inhaler and spacer back into a drawer. "You're a smart kid, aren't you? You don't fool around when you know something's not right."
Davis gave a sideways smile, trying not to show the pleasure he took in this validation of his character from the school nurse, whose wispy sexiness, Lucy suspected, was a factor in the prompt reporting of his symptoms. Lorelei was wearing a cobalt blue polo shirt whose banded sleeves emphasized her slender arms and whose collar rose to meet the feathery edge of her chic haircut. The youngest of seven hyperachieving children of a Vietnamese shrimper in Kemah, she had been born in exile on the South China Sea, her mother going into frightened labor shortly after their refugee boat was boarded by pirates. But not a trace of her family's epic dislocation had Lucy ever seen in Lorelei's demeanor, which was as buoyantly American as a strip shopping mall. The school nurse was Lucy's crucial advocate, never needing to be convinced of the seriousness of Davis's asthma, confident enough in her own judgment to intervene at the moment he needed it, rather than allowing him to suffer while she tried to find Lucy or fretfully sought out approval from some higher medical authority.
Lucy could hear her son's breath returning. In a few minutes Lorelei brought out the peak flow meter, and when Davis blew into it he was back nearly to his normal reading of 380. She thought his trembling lip was just the Albuterol delivering its systemic jolt, but then she noticed that tears were pooling in the bottom of his eyes.
"What's the matter, honey?" she asked, at which point his stoic forbearance gave way. He started to blubber loudly enough for a pair of fourth-grade girls who had just walked by the open door of the office brandishing their hall passes to come back and gawk. Lorelei shooed them away, and Davis, preoccupied with his emotional earthquake, mercifully didn't see them.
"He's all right," Lorelei said. "He's just a little discombobulated."
Just a little terrified, Lucy thought as she held her quaking son. She had no firsthand knowledge of what it was like to feel your breath being squeezed off, to live in a world whose very atmosphere was a constant taunt, whose bountiful oxygen was as capriciously out of reach as a rainbow. The closest she could come was a memory of snorkeling, trying to draw in air from a plastic tube clogged with seaweed. He had asked her once, during a bad stretch six months ago, when he was being treated regularly with formidable steroids, if he was going to die. With a maternal ferocity stronger than any she could recall, she had swooped down upon that tremulous thought and crushed it, almost bellowing her reassurance that he was safe and always would be as long as he let her or his father or Mrs. Ortiz or Ms. Tran know when he was having trouble breathing. But the inchoate survival fear was still there. How could it not be? And on top of it was the more graspable everyday bewilderment of a sick child: the humiliation of being suddenly removed from class, the disappointment of missing a trip to the IMAX theater or to the rain-forest exhibit at Moody Gardens, the growing awareness of a defining and isolating vulnerability.
"Am I going back to school?" he asked when he grew calm again. As he spoke, a little bubble formed from the tears and mucus saturating his upper lip.
"I'll take his peak again after lunch," Lorelei volunteered. "You can go back to work."
"I think I'll keep an eye on him for an hour or so." She looked at her watch and turned to Davis. "Want to have lunch with your mother?"
The McDonald's on NASA Road One, just down the street from the Saturn Lane gate of the Johnson Space Center, featured a giant fiberglass astronaut floating out from the roof in the posture of one of the old Gemini spacewalkers, holding an order of fries in his outstretched left hand. Davis and his sister, Bethie, had been entranced since infancy by this figure, by its bulbous, ghostly white space suit, its forever-unseen face behind the glistening visor of its helmet, its suggestion that perhaps within the interior of the McDonald's there existed some secret gravity-free realm.
The astronaut's mysterious totemic power had ebbed a bit for Davis, but Lucy noticed that he still looked up at it appraisingly as they walked across the parking lot. Inside she ordered him a Happy Meal with no mustard or ketchup on the hamburger—he had a distaste, amounting almost to a horror, of condiments. For herself, she ordered a dispiriting salad and a Coke—a real Coke just this once, not Diet. While Davis took off his shoes and set them in the plastic shoe racks at the base of the giant coiling hamster maze that commanded the front of the restaurant, Lucy sat down beneath a signed poster of the crew of STS-95—an ancient John Glenn among them—and dialed the number of Dr. Trimble's office from memory.
"You definitely want to keep an eye on him," said Margaret, the more up-to-speed of Trimble's two nurses, when Lucy described the details of Davis's latest attack. "And you better neb him every four hours just to be on the safe side, and bring him in tomorrow if he's not feeling better."
Great. Another round of the pitiless nebulizing machine, another night of waking Davis up every four hours so that the hose attached to the shoebox-sized device could deliver the misty medication that would restore his breath but rattle his fragile body. By the time it was over she'd be jumping out of her skin too, sleepless and ragged with worry and no good for work.
As soon as she pressed the End button on her cell phone it rang again. The caller ID displayed a JSC extension number, but not hers. When she answered, the connection was exquisitely clear, with just the faintest suggestion of a voice lag.
"So I was floating through the Node when I saw the green light on the IP phone and I thought I'd just—"
It was her husband, calling from space.
"Pretty amazing, huh? Just pick up the phone and call. Did you watch the docking on the feed?"
"It looked smooth."
"Smoother than any sim they threw at us, that's for sure. And then we ripped through the transfer like you wouldn't believe. So where are you if you're not in your office? I left you a message there, by the way."
"I'm at McDonald's."
"Going on a junk-food binge while I'm gone?"
"I was hoping you'd never find out."
"I'm the eye in the sky, don't forget. I see your every move. Kids okay?"
"They're fine. I took Davis out of school for lunch. He had a little attack this morning."
Excerpted from Challenger Park by Stephen Harrigan. Copyright © 2006 by Stephen Harrigan. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.