Silver Spaceships

Driven only by the knife of teenage hunger and the slanted courage to make it happen, you take the dare

Push open the high school doors during lunch hour and breathe in the salty-sweet air of Burger King and Taco Bell and Starbucks, the delicious temptations of the franchised suburbs. Behind you, forever behind you, the cafeteria food is as appetizing as the Wednesday buffet at a strip-mall Irish pub—steamed cauliflower and yesterday’s flounder—without the booze. Who among us wouldn’t crave the bag of hot, heavily salted fries, the Nachos BellGrande, the sugary, caffeinated comfort of a Frappuccino? Who wouldn’t look at the kids with easier lives, kids with money jammed in their pockets to buy the bliss of filling, empty carbohydrates and think: I’ll do it.

And you do. You, driven only by the knife of teenage hunger and the slanted courage to make it happen, take the dare.

Holy shit, here’s the metallic cicada buzz of the emergency helicopter, here’s the ambulance pulling up on the street that separates the high school from the retention pond and the fast-food restaurants and various shops, here are students gathered in a semicircle at the edge of the retention pond. And here are confused moms walking out of Sprouts on their lunch hour, so good-hearted with their reusable canvas bags jammed full with seeded bread and stone fruit, so sad in their slack-jawed panic as they squint over toward the high school, which their children attend.

The moms are as one in their rocketing dread. What is even happening? Has everything already happened?

Later, in Facebook comments about your accident, a mom will write: PEOPLE, IT’S CALLED EVOLUTION!


A sensitive mom will be outraged by the CONSEQUENCE comment, by the candy-coated bitchiness that renders your tragedy down to some absurd teachable moment for luckier kids. Sensitive Mom indulges in a little Facebook research and learns that she sort of knows Big Consequence Mom: they have eight mutual friends and attend the same church. (But of course Big Consequence Mom is a church lady!) Sensitive Mom goes downtown and purchases a T-shirt from a novelty shop—the Messiah on a mountaintop, his robed arms outstretched and proclaiming his judgment in the exultant third person: Even Jesus Thinks You’re an Asshole—and sends it to Big Consequence Mom anonymously. Sensitive Mom tells no human being about her postal mischief! It’s a big old secret between Sensitive Mom and Jesus, who she imagines gazes down upon her with starry-eyed admiration as he raises a golden chalice. Damn. You are my kind of lady. Let’s grab a drink sometime. By “sometime” I most certainly mean: tonight.

But before all this, Sensitive Mom walks to the far corner of the Sprouts parking lot; from this angle she can get a closer look at what’s happening at the pond. There you are, face down on the embankment by the retention pond, your arms around your head. People have already gathered, holding out their phones. Monstrous adults are filming a motionless boy next to a man-made pond.

Who? Are? You? Sensitive Mom needs to know. As she runs to her car, a carton of blueberries falls out of her bag and pops open on the asphalt—is this impromptu bird buffet the only good part of the story? Is this thinnest of silver linings reserved for the robins? Sensitive Mom knows she must act now, she must not keep staring at the spilled berries, her lips and hands trembling, because if she doesn’t drive closer to the scene, she will never retell the story like this: That poor kid! And oh my God, I was standing right there in the Sprouts parking lot. When I saw him from a distance I thought he might be my . . .

If she just drives on home, you will, in fact, be her son.

Sensitive Mom will get the call, the principal cruelly delegating the task to the high school secretary, a hesitant and sorrowful female voice of doom: Hi. We’re calling to let you know that . . . And so Sensitive Mom must rush over to you, she must attempt to protect herself from devastating surprise.

Because the world is stupid and full of useless, vomity irony, the radio will blast out “Born to Run” when Sensitive Mom turns the ignition. She will franticly pray as she drives closer: Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women. When Sensitive Mom sees that you are not her son, her body lights up with boundless, jittery gratitude: Thank you Blessed Virgin Mary and Jesus and all the saints and angels who have sung your praises throughout the years. THANK YOU. Moms are ever so gross, so brutal in the singularities of their devotion.

On the heels of this ecstasy, Sensitive Mom wonders: Are you alive?

You are so still.

Do not blame yourself. The adolescent brain is biologically immature & prone to risk-taking.

The first responders have arrived and are crowding around you. Once, a grinning priest told Sensitive Mom: Baptism is for the living! But now she sees that the jackass was sort of right, because why would the first responders be working on you if you were not alive, if salvation was not a possibility?

Sensitive Mom drives away from the school, thinking of your poor parents in their dwindling innocence, perhaps still changing IVs or bedpans or PowerPoint-ing away, about to get the call that will transform their last monotonous hours into a real-life Paradise Lost., Sensitive Mom prays for the parents’ last earthly moments of peace to linger: Don’t pick up the phone. Don’t ever answer your phone again. Fuck Alexander Graham Bell and his invention of terror.

She steers with one hand and presses the other to her sternum to feel the miraculous medallion under her shirt, the comfort of that cool silver oval with the stereotypical portrait of Mary: the Botoxed brow and beatific smile, the open, welcoming hands. On the back of the medal is an elegant cross wreathed by stars. Surely, given her son’s experience, the cross is not the Virgin’s favorite image. Guilt and torturous sorrow must have shadowed all her days after her son ascended into heaven; O, how she must have longed for her life before Christ, a time when worry wasn’t her primary emotion.

Sensitive Mom reconsiders and now prays that the parents will look down at their vibrating phone. Oh, shit, they’ll think. That’s the school. Sensitive Mom tries her hand at telepathy: Please please please answer your phone, for your child has never needed you more. Answer the phone and race to your poor baby, your darling boy in his hour of need by the pond.

The rumors begin. You are a ward of the state. You live in the group home / juvenile detention center in the north part of town; you ride to high school in the telltale extended white van.

You had just transferred from the high school across town because the bullying there was getting worse. You thought people were nicer at your new school, in the day and a half you attended. Were you trying to create a new narrative for yourself? Not the bullied kid from the group home, but the crazy kid, the kid who will accept a dare. They say you bolstered your courage with chemicals, as one does, and the high school halls offer up the usual illicit treats for those with cash at the ready, but Ritalin, Oxycontin, crack, meth, Percocet, heroin, and even weed are out of your reach. A three-dollar can of computer duster is your poison. (Huffing. The nostalgic sound of it calls to mind boys in plaid bathrobes building model airplanes on a Saturday morning—the kitchen table crowded with paint brushes and tiny aviation components—and taking breaks to sneak into the bathroom with a paper lunch bag and a bottle of glue.) That’s the rumor, anyway, and the moms on Facebook are vexed that the local paper is mightily reliant on FAKE NEWS and didn’t get the WHOLE TRUTH. The Facebook Moms are positively bursting with insider hot takes and pleas for introspection: MY KIDS GO TO THIS SCHOOL AND BELIEVE ME THERE IS MORE TO THIS STORY and WHY WOULD A KID JUST DO THAT FOR TWENTY DOLLARS? THINK ABOUT IT.

Sensitive Mom thinks about it. Sensitive Mom prides herself on her powers of keen observation; she enjoys creative writing and has been known to sketch a peony. But she has never looked at the white van pulling into the high school parking lot and thought: Oh, hey, I bet those kids don’t have any money to splurge on hot delicious junk food during open lunch period. She has never once thought to buy a stack of Burger King gift certificates and put them in the group home’s mailbox.

She wonders if the rumors are true, if you at least enjoyed the hazy, lost sensation of being high, of your problems blurring into soft focus as you contemplated risk and reward?

You are joking around with other kids as you walk down the high school sidewalk, as you cut across the street that runs between the high school and the pond, where kids like to hang out during the open lunch period.

And then, you are standing at the edge of the retention pond. Are you gathering your courage or staging the moment, a showman’s effect? All eyes are on you, perhaps admiringly or dismissively or imploring don’t. Does anyone look like a future friend?

From your hospital bed, you tell a newspaper reporter that you’re thinking about personal responsibility. Sensitive Mom panics. She wants to call you and say: No! God no! Don’t let your brain mean-mom you into thinking that your lack of personal responsibility is the reason you are in that bed, for the only truth is that you are a teenager. When Sensitive Mom was three years older than you are now, she went sledding after midnight, after a daylong winter storm of varying precipitations had transferred her college campus into a wonderland of soft, heaped snow, of glazed ice illuminated by silver moonlight. Icicles fell from the trees and made a sweeping sound as they pierced the freshest layer of velvet white snow, and then came a crink! as they hit the ice below.

Sensitive Mom was quite high at the time, and she wanted to live inside the perfection of that crystalline crink! and her “sled” was a cafeteria tray; she sat with her legs pulled up to her chest and her arms encircling her legs so she could fit on the tray and there was no such thing as steering as she went flying down the snow-slick hill dotted with cottonwood trees. Another night, on a date, of sorts, she rode in a car with a boy who was so drunk he kept drifting out of his lane on the interstate, and teenage Sensitive Mom did not say: Hey there Scott! Oh Scott, Scott of the pre-ironic mullet, Scott of the Polo cologne and pressed jeans, let me out of this bitching Camaro at once for I am in grave danger! No, she closed her eyes and listened to Neil Young on the radio: I dreamed I saw the silver spaceships flying in the yellow haze of the sun, and in fact the gray Camaro did seem like a silver spaceship hovering over the highway, an interstellar dreamscape punctured by the sound of many drivers screeching their brakes and honking, how rude.

This is not to suggest that Sensitive Mom was a super-fun badass back in the day; she was but a basic girl from the suburbs. That is to say, mere luck kept her from a life-changing accident; the random luck of that night on the highway, of any night, allowed her the glory of sneaking in the house drunk and past curfew and bypassing the bathroom adjacent to her parents’ room for fear of waking them and, instead, peeing a gallon of Bud Light into an empty popcorn tin in her bedroom. Oh, how the pastel carousel horse emblazoned on the decorative tin side-eyed her as she quietly, quietly stumbled into bed.

Honey, please don’t hurt yourself for these people.

What Sensitive Mom really wants to tell you is: Do not blame yourself, because it is a scientific fact that the adolescent brain is biologically immature and prone to risk-taking. There are many legitimate articles about this phenomenon on Facebook, which Sensitive Mom would read with due diligence were she not so busy mocking the other moms and their super-stupid comments.

You were hungry and accepted a dare to jump into a pond for twenty bucks to spend on scrumptious food.

That’s all.

In the water—which is opaque, a deep dove gray—you struggle. You perceive the water as depthless, so it seems that your legs are straight beneath you and that you can’t touch the bottom of the pond. But when you look down, you see what’s really happening. Your legs are straight out in front of you. You are sitting on the bottom of the retention pond.

Of course you are scared, for there in the silver water you are each of us who is called to leave our old world though we cry out: No, not yet; can I get a do-over? I’m not ready for everything to change. You are both John the Baptist and Jesus for you must bless yourself, you must save yourself. You call out to a boy on the bridge by the pond. You tell him you can’t move your legs.

O, do not speak to Sensitive Mom about snowflake Zoomers with their expensive screens and crappy work ethic as opposed to all you intrepid Gen X Moms who were perfectly happy to listen to Kool & the Gang on your AM/FM clock radio when you weren’t toiling away at Fashion Gal.

Because the boy you call out to, a senior, jumps in the water to rescue you. Later, he visits you in the hospital.

            In a newspaper story, you sound upbeat: modestly proud of the progress you have made, the skills you are relearning as you navigate life paralyzed from the chest down. You are touched by the letters and cards you’ve received, by all the support from your fellow students. The Facebook Moms chime in with their belated kindness: WHAT A TERRIFIC ATTITUDE! BEST OF LUCK, YOU ARE A STRONG YOUNG MAN AND WILL GET THROUGH THIS HARD TIME. I KNOW YOU ARE GOING TO DO JUST GREAT! JESUS CHRIST WILL HELP YOU ON YOUR JOURNEY!

            Sensitive Mom thinks: Oh, right. You fucking bet. The savior. Okay! All right. But where was that haloed slacker with his celestial superpowers when you were running toward the retention pond? Jesus Christ. Still, who would know better what a boy like you has to give up in order for people to believe in you?

You’ll never return to the high school bordered by the retention pond or to the group home. You will become an adult in a neighboring state, living with family members.

            But this complicated story awaits you in the future. Right now, for a few more seconds, you are high school royalty, right now you are taking off, a hungry boy running toward milkshakes and tacos and French fries and sweet coffee. Right now the Virgin Mary tries to free herself from the placid composure of all iconography, to clench her outstretched, oil-painted hand into a fist, to open her marble mouth and scream at her own son: It’s all such a bullshit deal! And, motherly, preemptively, and specifically to you, she says: You’ll change from being the invisible boy, sometimes the bullied boy, to the pitied boy. Resist, for all bodies are equal, and our corporeal existence is fleeting. Then, a final note of desperation, a Hail Mary pass of pure maternal longing goes spinning through the centuries: Honey, please don’t hurt yourself for these people.

            But the Holy Mother fails to reach you. And so you’re doing it right now: breaking your own life into before and after. You are running toward the retention pond, where the water is not even two feet deep.

And you’re not even doing anything wrong! And forever and ever you will be the teenager who simply made a jubilant miscalculation at the pond’s edge, like so many who came before you, like all those who will follow you. You propel your body into glorious velocity, but you don’t jump into the water. At the last second you bend down, and dive.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I started writing this essay in the first person, but that didn’t feel quite right; it seemed somehow too casual, too callous, even, when writing a creative essay about a tragedy that didn’t directly involve me or my family. I wanted to lose that emotional distance and observational reserve, so I tried something new. In this version of “Silver Spaceships,” I alternate between the second person point of view, where I address the injured boy directly, and the third person point of view, where I cast myself as the “Sensitive Mom.” I roast myself, not even enough, for thinking of myself as a sensitive person when I’d never truly considered the very hard lives of kids who went to school with my own children. The sort of strange second/third person narration seems the best fit for this essay, for what I was trying to say: I remember this happened. I remember you.

—Mary O’Connell

About the Author

Mary O’Connell

Mary O’Connell is the author of the story collection Living With Saints and the novels The Sharp Time and Dear Reader. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Literary Hub, and Longreads.

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