I am in school when it happens, so I don’t see the y-shaped cloud in real time, the way the people in the bleachers look confused, Christa McAuliffe’s parents holding each other. I see the scene repeated on the news that night, on 20/20, my favorite show. I can trust Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs. I can trust the theme music, its authority. I can trust the way the date is displayed on the screen during the opening credits, proof that we are all on the same calendar. We’ve grown used to wonders in this century. It’s hard to dazzle us, Ronald Reagan says in his near whisper. He’s talking to me, to the school children, telling us that the Challenger crew was pulling us into the future, but I don’t know how they can do that now that they are dead.
At the lunch table in school, Jonathan Wilson tells dirty jokes about Peter Pan, mean jokes about starving Ethiopians and Christa McAuliffe. “What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eyes?” he asks me, and I know the answer, picturing her image on the news, her smile through the glow of the television screen.
I can hardly stand to be around my mother right now because it’s all she wants to talk about, the poor teacher astronaut who exploded in seventy-three seconds, ten miles off the ground.
I know that there are ways to control the world. I’ve been working on them for a while now. If I stomp my feet five times before the garage door closes, then nothing bad will happen to me. If I microwave a hot dog for eleven seconds at a time, hitting start over and over again until it is finally warm, then no more space shuttles will explode.
I don’t tell my mother about the things I do to keep the world safe, but I think she understands somehow. Surely, she was her own ways. Surely, she hears the same desperate voice I hear when I’m brushing my teeth, the voice that says I have to run my toothbrush across the stream of water six times, back and forth, or else. When I’m taking a drink from the water fountain at school it tells me I must take eleven sips of water before I can stop drinking. Do this or else. Do that or else. It never finishes those sentences, never tells me what or else means.
“What color were Christa McAuliffe’s eyes?” Jonathan Wilson asks again. He is agitated now. I give up.
“Her eyes were blue,” I say. “One blew this way, one blew that way.”
Karen Dietrich’s poetry chapbook, Anchor Glass, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2011. Her poems and essays have appeared in The Bellingham Review, PANK, Main Street Rag, Monkeybicycle, and elsewhere. She teaches part-time at a community college and lives near Pittsburgh, PA. This story also appears in her chapbook Girl Years (Matter Press, 2012).