(Author's Notes: I was inspired to write this story after a repeat viewing of The Iron Giant, not just a great animated movie but a great movie, period. I figured H.M. Murdock and Hogarth Hughes were roughly the same age growing up during the Fifties and the Red Scare era. The story is set in late 1957, shortly after the launch of Sputnik I.
I myself was paranoid about all things up in the skies when I was a kid, whether it was UFOs, experimental aircrafts, Soviet satellites. This is a little attempt to channel some of that.
The idea for this first came to me when I was out walking by myself late at night. It wrote itself in my head. I enjoy writing about young Murdock so much, especially using the elements of history as well. I may write more of these vignettes.
As for Murdock's dad, I think it's sort of fanon that he might have also been a fighter pilot. Makes sense to me. Grampa Al, my guess is, was a pilot during WWI. Again, just a guess.
The original version of this story had Billy in it. Having read the ATFF pet peeves list, Billy has changed genders and species to a cat called Lulu, whom I'm not sure is visible or not.
That all being said, this is one of my favorites.)
According to the two little metal hands of Daffy Duck, pointing vertically on the face of the alarm clock, it was two minutes before midnight.
Time to go.
The bed's occupant sat upright, stretched, ran fingers through an unruly mane of dark hair. He'd been too anxious to sleep, just like every other night for the last month.
Nothing else stirred, just the clock ticking away softly in the darkness. Even Lulu the cat dozed, fast asleep in her favorite position at end of the bed. The silence, and the near-perfect darkness, made his post-curfew activity, somehow more…what was that word?
Surreptitious. He liked the sound of it.
He didn't bother to change out of his PJs or slip on a pair of high-tops. The faded t-shirt and shorts he wore were enough; it never really got chilly where he lived until after Christmas. From the nightstand, he took his binoculars and a well-loved black baseball cap. He was ready.
The window was already unlocked; he'd made sure of that. He felt the night's warm breath on his bare arms and face. The sky beckoned, pure black velvet, cloudless and shimmering with starlight. There was no moon.
His room was on the second floor of the big old farmhouse. With practiced ease, he swung his lanky frame out and onto the narrow foothold he knew was right below, then, from that awkward stance, sprang onto the ledge three feet away. From there, to the apex of the roof. Nothing to it.
He'd been up here so many times, and still the sight of it never failed to take his breath away. Pegasus the mighty winged horse, Orion the hunter, the reclining figure of Cassiopeia…they all knew him. In some way, he felt he knew them just as well.
But he was not looking for a star. The object he sought was tiny, enigmatic, fleet. It had also proved to be extremely elusive. Almost forty days now, and no sign of it. Not even a glimpse.
It only made him want to try harder.
He scanned the heavens with the binoculars. Nothing yet, just what would have normally been a spectacular glimpse of bright Jupiter and its moons. The warm breeze tickled at the back of his neck. He licked his lips and wished he'd thought to bring a cold Dr. Pepper up here with him.
Patience was needed. It could be an hour, or several. He absently felt at the underside of his cap brim. The lining could use a replacement, but he didn't want to throw his lucky hat out.
His sharp eyes searched. There were the usual false alarms: a small aircraft (he identified it as a Piper) making its way to points west, a couple of meteorites. A family of bats feasting on a buffet of insects. His quarry stayed maddeningly out of sight.
Now his eyes had begun to water. He blinked. How long had he been up here? Long enough for his bladder to begin to complain, for sure. A quick pit stop couldn't hurt.
The acrobatics required to get off the roof were more tricky. One wrong step, and they'd be scraping him off the asphalt when the sun rose. He reminded himself not to look down. One, two…
"H.M.?" The voice was sudden, and it startled him. "What the Sam Hill are you doin' up on that roof?"
One bare foot slid. He quickly regained his balance. "Well, y'know, I was, um, sleepwalking?" He grinned, looking like a cat next to an empty canary cage.
"Get on back in here. C'mon, careful, now…"
H.M. did without blinking. His carefree grin vanished as he looked up and saw the stern expression on his grandfather's normally kind face.
"Now," said Alistair Murdock, "you wanna tell me what you were doin' up there?"
"Can I use the bathroom first?"
Grampa Al nodded. "Come right back here when you're done."
It only took a moment, and when he got back, there was the same question to answer.
"I'm serious. You gotta tell me the truth. What were you doin' up there?"
H.M. gulped. He knew better than to lie to his Grampa Al when he used that tone of voice. Wordlessly, he pointed to the binoculars and his baseball cap, which had been painstakingly lined in aluminum foil.
"Lookin' up at the night fliers again?" A smile pulled at Al's lips. He respected, and understood, his grandson's fascination with all things aeronautical.
"No, Grampa. Somethin' much more dangerous." He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Sputnik."
"That crazy Rooskie space satellite? The one that's been in all the papers? That's why you were up there?"
H.M. nodded, his brown eyes huge. He felt like crying.
Al put one weathered hand on his grandson's shoulder. "Kiddo, lemme tell you somethin'. There's a lotta strange things happenin' in this world, but I don't think one little flyin' potato can do us much harm."
"But, Grampa, it's gonna shoot mind control beams into our brains, and take pictures of us from outer space while we're out playin' kickball, and…"
"That's what they want you to think, tiger." The old man closed the window carefully and led his skinny grandson away from it. They sat together on the bed. "That's why you made that foil hat, right? I know the thought of it's scary. But the more you're afraid, the easier it is for anybody to control you."
"I'm not afraid." H.M. puffed out his chest. Beside him, Lulu briefly woke, stretched, and went back to her feline dreamworld in an instant.
His grandfather chuckled. "I know you're not. But if you spend all your time frettin' about somethin' you can't do anything about, then where does that leave you?"
He hadn't thought about it. "Worried, I guess. But, Grampa," he continued, "the Russians are trying to get us, right? With those A-bombs? We had to do this 'Duck and Cover' thing in school an' all…"
For a moment Al was silent. He rose gingerly, his old wounded leg trembling. Then he gently ruffled his grandson's hair. "Maybe they are. But they'd have to get through the best damn military the world's ever seen before they could get to you or Lulu, or me, or Granny Emma." He turned his head so H.M. wouldn't see the tears beading at the corners of his own eyes.
"Yeah." H.M. smiled, then yawned. He pulled the patchwork quilt up to his chin. "Grampa, can I have a Dr. Pepper? Pleeease?" he implored.
Al glanced at the Woody Woodpecker clock, which now read half-past three. "Sorry, kiddo, but you wouldn't sleep a lick. And you've got school tomorrow. Didn't you say somethin' about a spelling test?"
"Please? I promise I won't go looking for Sputniks or Martians or Red spies in the middle of the night anymore…" H.M's mind raced, thinking of everything except spelling tests.
"No soda pop. We both know you'd be bouncin' off the walls. But I'll get you a glass of water, all right? Then you have to get some sleep." Al hobbled out of the bedroom and returned with a Dixie cup.
H.M. drank it in a single gulp. He frowned. "Grampa?"
"What if the Russians make a better Sputnik? Like, one that does shoot laser beams, or can drop an atomic bomb on us?"
Al thought about it. "Well, you just gotta trust that the best and brightest here in America are workin' around the clock to keep us all safe." He leaned down and kissed H.M.'s forehead. "You sleep tight, and like I said, don't worry."
"What about the Red Chinese?" H.M. whispered.
"I'm sure ol' Ike and the boys in uniform are right on top of things, kiddo." His voice bore the slightest bit of impatience. "Sweet dreams, and I'll see you tomorrow."
"Good night." The door closed behind him.
On his back, H.M. gazed up for a long time at the construction paper stars he'd glued to the ceiling. Not as spectacular a view as the real thing, but at least it was free of the menacing, unseen Sputnik.
Feeling his eyelids droop, he turned onto his side. On the nightstand, the little framed picture of a dark-haired, handsome man in a flight suit remained where it always had been. The man in the photograph, about to climb into the cockpit, flashed a permanent thumbs-up and grinned.
Best and brightest. It sure sounded great. Dad and Grampa Al had both been. Why not him?
H.M. slept. For the first time in many weeks, he did not dream of Sputnik.
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