Shannon Schilling: Planned Heights

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Planned Heights

By Shannon Schilling

Fire blazed from underneath the rocket, a plummet of smoke evacuated from below. Nothing compared to the intensity and verification of a successful launch. The photograph was an original caption of the Apollo 11 spacecraft, complete with slightly curled corners and withering edges, naturally displaying the desaturation of time. The picture lay pinned against the side of Jeffrey’s desk.

  “Dad, that’s really old?” Noah’s father looked over from his screen to notice his son’s eyes firmly preoccupied below.

“Yes, Noah, 1969.” Jeffrey kept looking down. “Your grandma gave that to me as an inspiration, surely, to always pursue greater heights.” Giving a smile, he briefly reminisced about the President Kennedy speech, often framed for him as to discourse aside the launch. Words which emphasized the modulated account of exploration itself.  

        “But,” Noah reviewed his thought. “I don’t get — I don’t get why you don’t have it up where you can see it better?”

        “What’s that?”

        “Isn’t that the point? Or am I wrong?” At 14 years old, Noah was already grasping motivated function and authority. “You really want to be President, don’t you?”


        “You could be the President! President Jeffrey Starks, former NASA engineer.”


        “Dad, you can’t work for NASA if you’re the President.”

        Jeffrey sighed and grinned at his son’s uniformed logic. When he was around Noah’s age, Jeffrey’s mom had repeatedly remarked on the idea of both her sons pursuing the Presidency. Michael was older and probably a bit more stable, and Jeffrey was satisfied with being the smarter of the two. 

        “Have you been talking to your grandma about this?”


       “Why don’t you go now. I’m sure you have schoolwork to get done,” Jeffrey said. Noah nodded aggrievedly, leaving the upstairs office and passing up the chance to argue anymore.

* * *

       Noah’s mom walked in the front door just as he touched the last step down the staircase. 

       “What’s wrong dear?” Sarah dropped her vintage charcoal grey suitcase at the front and slipped off her heels.


       “Okay honey, is your father home? Did Kevin drive him to work today?” 

       “I don’t know, Mom. Do you want me to stay home from school to make sure?”

      “Sure honey, in your dreams,” she said, smiling and ignoring the boy’s sarcasm. “How is debate club going?”

       “Not bad, I guess.”

       “It’s a good chance for you. Make sure you believe in what you say.”

       “That’s the easy part.” Noah watched his mom smile and cautiously carry herself up the soft beige carpeted staircase like she was heading into a sudden November arctic storm. Not an entirely far-fetched hazard, living just outside of Washington, D.C. Noah’s stomach grumbled, inducing his feet to glide across the marble floor and explore the kitchen.

* * *

       Upstairs, Jeffrey sat at his desk fiddling with a replica space shuttle, seemingly searching for authentic answers in a secluded space. Sarah peeked in the scaled-down workroom, tapping lightly on the door.

       “Everything okay, dear?”

       “Yes, of course. Come in.” Jeffrey threw down his miniature space shuttle and waved his wife in the room.

       “What you thinking about, honey?” She went over to his chair and sat comfortably on his lap. “If Noah bothered you, I’m sorry. But he’s a sarcastic teenager.” 

       He shook his head and gazed into her indigo eyes. She adeptly clasped her arms around his neck, responding to a desirable message. 

       “Sweetie, tell me your thoughts,” she whispered.

       “Okay, honey, I need you to move.” He placed his hands on her hips and effortlessly lifted her straight up. 

       “Careful,” she protested and sat in the other chair. “I had to explain ‘climate control’ in a way to apologize to people today.”

      Jeffrey was eagerly opening up a file on his computer screen. “Look at this; it’s my university yearbook.”

       “Yes, dear.”

       “Yes, I’ve been looking through the pages and reviewing my accomplishments.”

       “I’m sure there are many.”

       “Not just math, physics, I excelled at giving speeches as well.” He flipped through the pages onscreen quicker than Sarah could single out a cohesive conclusion. 

       “I’m sure you are confident, sweetheart.”

       “Am I confident enough?”

       “Enough for what?”

       “Sarah,” he clasped her hand. “I think—”

       “I know,” she smiled.

       “I think I want to be the President.”

       “Jeffrey?” she said. In her heart, knowing a decision like this is not something you naively think about but wondered if it was just a self-setting for a hubristic belief. 

* * *

       The deep yellow and red-orange leaves, crisp autumn foliage sheltered over the city streets, some hovering with the wind, some resting amongst the frost. The sight was breathtaking to Kevin. His view at least was winsome, even if it was from inside his SUV.

       “You’re lucky you caught me before I left,” Kevin prematurely appeased his passenger.

       “What’s that?”

      “If you hadn’t called, I was going to take my bike out.”

       “So, we’re both lucky.” Jeffrey grinned.

       “Not at all, still nice out.”

       At this point, Jeffrey received a memorandum on his email from the director; in all likelihood, Kevin did as well. It gave an abbreviated version of the lack of money for unfinished projects and a redistribution of funds.

       “You should read this when you get in.”

       “From Mr. Briddle, sure.” Kevin eagerly changed lanes, almost passing his exit. “On what? Christmas party plans?”

       “On lack of funds.” 

       “You’ve got that look in your eye, you see, it’s haunting.”

       Kevin promptly pulled into the multiple-level parking garage and went to their usual spot near the elevator.

       “I appreciate the ride,” Jeffrey said.

       “Hey, that’s why I’ve got a licence.”

       Jeffrey disregarded Kevin’s sarcasm. He had to reach the director, right away. Jeffrey thought about sending a quick email to allot his pursuit, but would instead contour a personable connection. Gliding up the stairs two steps at a time, Jeffrey almost instantly faced a clash once he reached the decided floor.

“Hello, Mr. Starks! How good it is to see you this morning,” he said. The employee gave a manufactured smile, entirely not engaging any eye movement, but with awkward mouth muscle distortion. The office was sunlit and exposed, glass walls and floors made Jeffrey feel like knowledge was never ceasing.

       “Yes.” Jeffrey shifted. His entrance now blocked any further into the director’s office. “I’d like to see Mr. Briddle, please. It’s urgent.”

       “No, I’m sorry, Mr. Starks. You’ll have to make an appointment.”

       “I’m sure it will be alright.” Jeffrey didn’t mind waiting, but he felt pressured by the interaction and assertively went with the sense of being in the middle of a confrontation.

       “Sir—” the secretary held out his arm.

       “Really, it will just take a moment.”

       “I cannot allow this.”

       Just then, the motion-activated security camera at the top of the office door flashed on, the lock disengaged.

       “Please let Mr. Starks in, Matthew.”

       “Of course, sir.” 

       Matthew gave an impudent reach in front of Jeffrey and opened the translucent door for him.

       Upon entering, Mr. Briddle was finishing up a meeting with his person in charge of ergonomics, Nancy.

       “What can I do for you, Jeffrey?”

       “Mr. Briddle—”

       “Please, call me Robert.”

       “Robert, I had an epiphany yesterday, and I thought I should share it.” Despite being surrounded by glass, Jeffrey had a sense of discreet conversations that took place in this room.

       “Thank you, Nancy. You’ve been very helpful.”

       “Sir, Mr. Starks,” she said. Nancy put away her papers and got up smiling. Her eyes were glancing over Jeffrey’s composure as she walked away briskly.

       “Robert,” Jeffrey secured his attention again. “What is your number one concern?”

       “Presently? I’m concerned with your reasons for abruptly coming into my office, naturally.”

       “I know you have others who can work in my position,” Jeffrey continued. “Look at Kevin. He’s intelligent, hard-working.”

       “I’m hardly unobservant.”

       “I’m wondering what can be done to help the space agency; where do you get assistance?” He looked around the unveiling magnificence surrounding the room’s connection to society.

       “We get it right from taxes. You know that, the White House.”

       “That’s where I want to be!” Jeffrey blurted out. His hands were waving in the air, carving a half-moon around Robert’s face. An illuminated phone vibrated on the desk.

       “I have to take this,” Robert said. Jeffrey meanwhile ran his hands through his blondish-grey hair and turned his back. “Mhm, yes.”

       “I’m sorry to barge in here,” Jeffrey resurrected from silence.

       “You should be.” Robert ended his call. “You are going to your job today, yes?”

“Yes, of course.”

       “Think about your family’s future.”


* * *

       Sarah hung up her phone and stared at the screen; her thoughts crippled with concern over the loss of another sponsor. She placed her device down on the table, firmly holding herself together to restructure another route for exposure. From reviewing her list of former sponsors, including those from environmental agencies, to dipping into the new pallet of a concerned citizenry, she deliberated over her judgement to educate about climate control first. 

       “Melissa?” Sarah caught the attention of her co-worker before she stepped out the door.

       “I’m sorry?”

       “We’ve just lost Alabama’s Agency for sponsorship,” Sarah said.

       “I don’t get it either.” Melissa gave an exhaustive sigh, brushing back her black curls. “Think we can educate anymore?”

       “We don’t have the power,” Sarah said. “We have the evidence, now more than ever. We have polar-orbiting weather satellites able to map the effects of pollution and clearly showing human destruction.”

       “So, I’m going to get us some power!”

       “I’m sorry?”

       “Lunch, honey. Want anything to eat?”

       “No thanks, I’ll just have more coffee,” Sarah said. She glanced at the messy mound of papers on her desk. “I still have phone calls to make.”

       “Your choice.” Melissa subtly stepped through the door, ready to head to one of the available eateries on the first floor. 

       Sarah looked over at her phone and read a text from her son: Hi Mom, debate club tonight…Environmental break-down! She stared at the wind, picking up speed outside her window and wondered just how much her son grasped the reality. Trustfully, balancing the thought with the realization hurricane season was almost officially over.

* * *

Jeffrey was elated to have his car back from the shop, even if it meant having to pick his son up from debate club that night. He entered the prodigious high school in a cozy pair of sneakers, hoping to catch the last few minutes of a good argument. Quietly walking into the double classroom, Jeffrey stood at the back, secluding himself behind rows of grey desks. He noticed his son standing at the front, not under the least bit of intimidation.

       “All you know is that the weather in some places is warmer,” he said. The wavy hair was falling in the freckled face of the boy arguing with Noah.

       “I know that we are to blame!” Noah responded.

       “What are the facts?”

       “It’s a fact of nature. If we don’t stop destroying our climate, then everyone is going to destroy each other!” Noah paused and looked at his dad, standing near the door. “My dad is going to be the President, and I assure you, it’s going to be a high priority.”

       Seeming in unison, the people in the classroom turned their heads to face the back. There were a few smiles, but more curious stares beyond computation.

       “Hey classroom, please keep your attention towards the front.” Jeffrey smiled.

       “What about overpopulation?” he said. The adversary pushed away his carrot locks while being quick to point to another undeniable scare.

       “That’s just going to speed up climate change!”

       “Yeah, well, well.” 

       “Jacoby?” the classroom teacher broke in.

       “What? There’s more to say! I can say more!” His whining signalled a close.

       “That’s a good practice, students,” Mr. Mandleson continued. “Until next week then.”

       Noah ran over to his dad, who remained standing at the back, smiling and faintly clapping his hands.

       “Dad! What’d you think?” Noah practically leaped over the desks.

       “I think you’ve got your work cut out for you,” Jeffrey said.

“Yeah, I know. About what I said, though?”

       “Let’s go now. We’ll talk in the car.”

       “Mr. Starks, is it true?” someone asked. The boy stood proud, fixing his dark coat neatly then black toque on his head.

       “Sir, I have not decided,” Jeffrey conceded. 

       “C’mon dad, we’ll talk in the car,” Noah moaned.

       “Do you know what you’ll run as?” another voice interrupted.

       “Oh, I’m probably Independent right now.”

       “Independents don’t win,” someone crackled. The voice came without a face.

       “He said we haven’t decided yet!” Noah blared out.

       Jeffrey jovially led Noah out of the classroom, messing up his hair in the process.

       “You really want to win, don’t you?” Noah was the first to break the silence once in the car.

       “I really want to know more about this ‘over-population’ concern.” Jeffrey smiled. Noah looked out the window and knew to stop pushing.

* * *

       Jeffrey cast a peek over his coffee mug. Not necessarily preparing himself to take a sip, but paying attention to how the vibrations modified the trembling liquid. He sat inside his white office with the wooden door wide open. Brazen behind his desk with the computer on, Jeffrey was finishing up evaluating aircraft propulsion during the rocket launch. 

       In his form of focus, Jeffrey knew by the end of the day he should have done this required paperwork for the agency. Although, the engineer couldn’t help but wonder why the director called him this morning, right as he opened his office door, for a second opinion on these papers. Then again, Jeffrey always took pride in having remarkable predictions.

            He was interrupted by a knock and a stealth look inside his door.

       “Have you heard yet, Jeffrey?”

       “No, Patricia. What’s the news?”

       “It’s Kevin.” She held her phone tightly and silently waved at him.

       “Patricia, what’s the matter?”

       “He was in a motorcycle crash. He’s alive, but in ICU.”

       Jeffrey instantly got up from his desk. He grabbed his coat hanging on the wall, rigorously pressuring Patricia to give him all the information she knew.

       “I don’t know much.” She paused. “I heard from Lynn down the hall. Happened on his way to work.”

       Jeffrey was already heading to his vehicle, barely listening to her last words, but cautiously assuming control. He rolled out of the parking garage and made it to the General Hospital in record time. Jeffrey began thinking it was likely his brother who phoned Lynn and wondering why it wasn’t himself who was the first person notified. He and Michael weren’t exactly on good speaking terms, not since their father passed away. Jeffrey had hoped to hear good news from Kevin recently during their morning commute. Jeffrey was the one who introduced them, nonetheless. The bright sun was beaming within the indiscriminate bearing, and he tried to gather his attention. 

       Upon entering the hospital parking garage to the hospital, he sent a quick text to Michael to ease any tension before his appearance in the ward. To Jeffrey’s surprise, when he passed through the doors, he saw his brother crippled in the chair.


       “Jeffrey,” he said. Michael’s hand quivering with devastation as he tried to sip from his styrofoam cup. The unit was partially silver mixed with green cushions to give some life.

       “Coffee good here?” 

       “Don’t try to be light with me. I can’t believe this happened,” Michael said. He closed his eyes. Jeffrey wondered if he was searching for the right words to say.

       “Been a while, that’s right,” Jeffrey added.

       “Jeffrey, why do you think I’d even want to talk about things with you now? Look where we are!”

       “Still can’t keep your composure, can you?”

       “Out!” Michael stood up, facing Jeffrey and pointed at the door. Just then the triage nurse came in to tell Michael that Kevin was stable, but needed to have surgery that evening to repair his broken radius and ulna.

       Feeling out of touch in not being shared the current circuit of information, Jeffrey discreetly passed through the sliding doors.  

       Jeffrey sat in his electric car, allowing the heat to distribute itself before backing out. He took that time to think about his fortune and what is to be. To realize the impact of his future in a way that he would be unable to turn back. Life has a way of tweaking with its structure before settling in. Now Jeffrey needed to find his guidance again.

* * *

       “You’ve got to stop barging in here like this, Jeffrey.” 

       “I want you to know how serious I am.”

       “You’re off on the wrong foot then.” Robert closed his computer screen and gave Jeffrey his undivided attention. 


       “Jeffrey, you need to respect everyone like they are the most critical voter out there.”

       “I know, Robert. I need you now. I need you to understand.” He looked across the glass room, imagining now if he was anything more than an engineer.

       “Help me to get on the same wave as you, Jeffrey!”

       “The future is what’s important.” Jeffrey looked outside at the afternoon combustion beginning to grow.

       “That’s what we do here,” he sighed. Robert intended to keep the positivity flowing. 

       “I need time off.”



       “Now is not a good time, if,” Robert said. He peered over his papers. “If you’re planning a leave.”

       “What’s that? But it was okay if I wanted to pursue the Presidency?” 

       “Kevin has just been in an accident. We need you here now, Jeffrey.” Robert was dead serious.

       “I’m sure you have people lined up, eager to familiarize themselves with authentic NASA rockets!”  

       “I have you. You are authentic.” Robert rested both his palms on his desk. “Now go, sit your ass down in that chair, or do something bigger for your country.”


       “Oh yeah, I’m a Democrat right now.”

       “I think I’m an Independent.”

       Robert pulled his glasses off as he nearly collapsed, laughing. “Let me know when you choose.”

       “What’s that?”

       “Research, Jeffrey! Research,” he said. Standing up now to wave his protégé out of the room.

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