Matthew Lindgren was twelve years old the first time his mother hit him. Earlier that afternoon, he had seen his hero flying high in the sky.

Matt had a purple bruise on his temple by the time he finished his homework and went to bed that evening in his suburban Topeka, Kansas home, but he had the memory of that experimental aircraft to hang onto. It looked a bit like the ones in the posters that hung on his bedroom walls. He also had a crinkled old poster of the Apollo 11 mission on his wall, and the second-best part of shutting his bedroom door, besides blocking the noises of his mother's drunken sobbing downstairs, was seeing that poster with its otherworldly craft on proud display. That mission was almost 30 years before Matt was born, he somehow, he thought that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins were his long-lost brothers.

"Can I go up there sometime, too?" Matt would sometimes ask the heroes on the poster. They never answered, but their confident smiles were always a good sign. It was a better answer than he ever got from his whiskey-soaked mother, or his father, lost last year in a car plant accident.

He didn't get better answers in middle school, either. On the first day of seventh grade, the teacher, an older man named Mr. Hatfield, asked everyone what their ideal future career would be. Football star, rock star, doctor, and racecar driver, all the typical answers, rushed past. Then the spotlight had landed on Matt, and with pride he had stood up at his desk that September afternoon.

"I want to fly high," he announced. "Like Paul Summers, the ace pilot. I wanna get away from it all and see everything from up there. They're trying to make aircraft that can go into space and back again, and I wanna make one and fly it."

Matt didn't realize that his hands had clenched into fists. He still remembered the wake for his father a few months ago. Was that why? That helpless feeling that the Earth swallowed up who it wanted, when it wanted?

Some of the students giggled and whispered the kind of mocking insults that tweens usually concocted, and Mr. Hatfield hesitated before answering. "Okay, uh, good answer, Matt. You can sit down now, please."

It wasn't long before the tough kid in class, Everett, cornered him after gym and shoved him against the wall. "Think we're not good enough for you?" he said, shoving his brick-like face in Matt's. "You wanna get away from it all and fly around all fancy like some fag?"

"No," Matt told him. "It's a real job. Paul Summers does it."

"I don't care, loser. Acting like you're better than us 'cause you wanna be some flyboy?" Everett seized Matt's shirt collar and shoved him onto the paneled wood floor, and for good measure, gave him a kick in the stomach. "Fuck you."

Matt chose to stay laying there in an aching ball as he watched Everett stalk off to chat with his friends on the gym's other side. School was already out; no one else had seen.

Everett's father had run away two years ago, and now lived with his aunt and uncle. Why, then, did a kid who also suffered losing a father, torment another? Did that somehow negate his own confused suffering about his absent father? Or was Everett's brain just rotten?

Carol didn't think that way, though. A few days later, after science class, she gave him a quick smile and a "See you tomorrow, flyboy." Then she vanished through the classroom's door frame with the other students.

Matt stood there, wondering if she had somehow known what Everett had said and done. No, it had to be a coincidence, right? He didn't really know her that well, not really, and maybe she was mocking him more gently than Everett could imagine. He liked to think that she really did, because it was better than imagining the entire school united against him for daring to dream of better.

Back home, Mrs. Lindgren dredged up the old cliche: try to find the answers in the bottom of a bottle. She didn't, but that didn't stop her from looking anyway, and it wasn't long until Matt started getting knocked around. "Makin' me work two damn jobs to feed you and save up for college," she kept saying in an awful slur. Her eyes were unfocused. "Can't save my own damn money with you hangin' on to me." Then she slugged him good and sent him upstairs to bed. It was only 9:34 PM. At least Neil Armstrong was still smiling, oblivious but unwavering.

All that was back in 2010. By the time Matt Lindgren was fifteen, Mrs. Lindgren had knocked out one of his teeth; she still worked manual labor jobs, and Matt was never a big guy. One Internet search and a few phone calls later, and he was under the roof of his foster parents on the other side of Topeka, and a restraining order was slapped onto Mrs. Lindgren's name. Thank God she was either too respectful of Kansas law, or just too intoxicated, to bother trying to violate it. He wouldn't see her face again until 2022, in very different (and in some ways, the same) circumstances.

Kansas law did Matt another favor when his foster parents sued Mrs. Lindgren for the money she had promised to save for Matt's college, and by legal means that went over the teenager's head, secured the funds. Mrs. Lindgren had enough to sustain herself, and a place in AA was offered, but after that point, Matt stopped listening, too bitter to bother. He had the funds, not to mention his posters in his new room. Neil and the other still had their time-frozen smiles on his new bedroom door.

By high school graduation, Matt had worked enough of his own jobs to afford his first real move, and he boarded a flight for Pasadena, California, with barely more than the clothes on his back, and a suitcase that included a few carefully-folded posters.

Getting enrolled in California Institute of Technology, or Caltech, wasn't easy, but he had a clear goal to guide him into the students' ranks. The university was world-renowned for its engineering studies, and Matt felt himself gliding through the academic currents like he'd always meant to be here. Diagrams of aircraft, physics, anything else he needed was here. He spent more than a few late evenings at the Sherman Fairchild Library of Engineering and Applied Science, sometimes asleep at the tables with a book for a pillow. That was where he met Julie.

"Come on. They don't like it when you do that," a girl told him the third time he fell asleep in the library. Matt jolted awake and scrambled to check the time on his smartphone's screen. 10:29 PM.

Matt smiled and tried to straighten his hair. "Oh, sorry. I guess all-nighters aren't my thing after all. Everyone else makes it look good."

He stood up and offered his hand. "Matt Lindgren. I kinda wished I could have met you in more flattering circumstances."

"Julie Calvers. And don't worry about it," the girl said, shaking his hand. "Just means you care enough to sacrifice your health."

"Very funny."

"Where're you from, Matt?" Julie asked with another smile. "Somewhere in the Midwest, I'm guessing?"

Matt nodded. "I grew up in Kansas, and moved here to study. I got into engineering and aeronautics when Paul Summers started flying experimental craft. I've got the posters to prove it. Somehow, I felt like I had a calling from above, but not God's kind of 'above', you know."

Julie giggled. "I getcha. I'm native, so I can show you around sometime if you like. How d'you like Pasadena?"

"It's... pretty big." Matt easily fell into conversation after that with Julie the native. She wasn't quite like the girls back home in Kansas; quick to laugh, liked light clothing, and had a gentle bronze tan from the Californian sun. Not that he had any issue with the girls back home, but Julie had this magnetism that was totally new to him.

The fear of teasing or mocking was long over, but Matt still felt like something was missing in his quest. In a way, being among peers meant he didn't have to defend his passion from others, or to reaffirm it to himself. Concerned over becoming complacent, Matt dived even deeper into his studies, passing up any invitation to dorm parties or weekend trips despite the area's many attractions.

Julie was better integrated into the campus' social fabric, but halfway into his second semester, Matt had just finished cramming for an exam with Julie when she made an interesting offer. Something he'd never even considered before.

"Want to go UFO hunting?" she asked.

Matt looked up from his book. She had asked it with a nonchalance that he didn't think possible for something so outlandish. "Huh?"

Julie smiled, her gum making little popping noises in her mouth. "I'm in a group of amateur UFO hunters. Well, it's more like, we camp out and look around with telescopes and talk about famous cases. Y'know, X-Files stuff."

Matt had only watched that show's first season before finding it too disturbing. "You believe aliens are out there?"

Julie held Matt's shoulders, her eyes focused sharply on his. "There's a lot of things out there we don't understand, Matt. Some people, y'know, experts in their fields, think we've seen or done it all. They forgot the adventure, the wonder of it all, and that makes 'em dead inside."

"Sucks for them, I guess."

Julie's smile flashed again. "Even if you don't believe, Matt, I think it'll be good for you. Take your mind off things, have a little fun. I mean, we all don't know that E.T. is right above Pasadena, but it doesn't hurt to look sometimes and keep the idea alive."

Matt made a nervous return smile. "So are you a believer, or aren't you?"

"I believe in the spirit, Matt," Julie said confidently. "I can't look up without realizing how much spare room is up there, and who might be looking back down. Even if no one else is there, at least we have our eyes on the heavens, and not on the muck down here. I take a night to forget it all."

Matt found himself agreeing before he even realized it. "Okay."

It turned out that Julie's group was a little more gung-ho than Matt was ready for; she was the skeptic among them, but at least they were easygoing when Matt explained that he was treating this more as a fun camping trip than serious scientific work. The unofficial team leader, Kyle, took it in stride as he set up the campfire.

"You ever hear about the Betty and Barney Hill case?" Kyle asked as he fed another handful of sticks into the rock-ringed fire. It was finally dark out, and the group was camped at the edge of a forest. Three tents surrounded the fire, facing it.

Matt frowned. "That sounds vaguely familiar..."

"Dude." Kyle smiled and shook his head. "Gotta know it if you wanna run with us."

Julie intervened. "Matt, it's a famous UFO case from the '60s," she said. "September 1961. Betty and Barney Hill were driving home in New Hampshire when a saucer-shaped craft appeared, and it flew around until it landed and the Hills were abducted."

Matt stared. "What happened to them?"

"Don't worry, they were released," Julie said gently. "But their memories were fragmented, and their watches both stopped working. They had 'missing time', as it's called now, and Betty had intense dreams about it. She even drew a star map, showing where the aliens came from. Zeta Reticuli."

"Never heard of it," Matt admitted, "but it's a cool story. Sorry," he added when Kyle winced.

They never saw a UFO or anything like one, but Matt didn't care. He lay back on his sleeping bag, watching the stars turn as Julie, Kyle, and the others discussed previous cases of fiery orbs or mysterious phenomena in the sky. Up there was freedom from the earth and its preconceived notions of physical possibility and potential... or it could be fantasy. Either way, it beat what was down here, where people lied, tormented and hit each other, stole, destroyed themselves with the bottle or needle...

He didn't realize he had fallen asleep until Julie gently shook him awake the next morning. They had class today, and Matt had to bring himself down to earth to make it back to campus and attend class. Back to the grind.

A few of Matt's classmates wondered if he was planning to date Julie, but she was a friend, another dreamer who wanted another layer to her world. Eventually, she chose to switch majors to microbiology, and Matt stayed the course on aeronautical engineering and applied physics. Some of his classmates graduated with their bachelor's degrees and moved on, while Matt didn't stop until his Master's was firmly in his hands. Graduation should have been the happiest time of his life, untainted joy and possibility.

He got a call two nights later that his mother had died from liver failure in a Topeka hospital. Matt was on the next flight out and attended the funeral. It was early spring 2022. The next great chapter of his life, and his mother wouldn't see it. Matt wondered if she would have been too drunk to appreciate it. Then he wondered if he was being a bastard for wondering that. It was too late now.

Back in Pasadena, Matt applied immediately for a position at the Jet Propulsion Lab, and during his interview, once again declared Paul Summers his personal hero, the one who flew above the world, above its woes. The wide-eyed wonder of UFO hunting and his astronaut posters was gone, relocated to some dusty corner of his mind. He had a proper job now. He was in the game.

Not enough, as he found out. Office politics, trouble with finding funding, and roadblocks in the JPL's projects slowed down Matt's career until he found himself in the director's office, asking if there were greener pastures somewhere in the nation.

"I don't know what else to tell you," the director explained from behind his desk. "National interest in these projects isn't what it used to be."

"What about my atmosphere-to-suborbit aircraft?" Matt demanded. "I think I'm getting close. I need more funding allocation, more -"

"We don't have anything else, Mr. Lindgren," the director said, his patience finally wearing thin. This wasn't the first conversation of its kind. "Most of our funding and manpower is going toward that new lunar rover. Either help us with that, or figure something else out."

Matt didn't have an immediate response to that, and he stalked off with no more solutions since last time. It was summer 2026, and Matt felt like the dream was dead. He imagined what Julie and her amateur ufologist friends would think. Julie's disappointed face filled his mind, and he felt a squirm of guilt that shocked him. His mother had died without seeing his dreams realized. What if he did that to Julie and his peers now? And to himself?

Paul Summers was flying again, this time taking the helm of an experimental space plane intended to carry cargo to the International Space Station without needing wasteful boosters on traditional rockets. It was all over the news, and that evening, Matt was in his sparsely-decorated apartment, seated on the recliner, hunched forward in his work clothes as the news anchor explained Paul Summers' recent exploits to the uninitiated.

The test flight was due to start any minute. Matt opened a beer, his first in three years, and barely sipped it as he watched the screen, his mind itching for Paul to take off. The minutes crawled by. "Fly, you son of a bitch," Matt muttered. He almost laughed at himself.

A shaky camera view from a helicopter filled the screen as Paul Summers roared over the Nevada desert, climbing higher and higher in a new craft, a newfangled machine called the X-44 Peregrine. Developed here in California, but Elon Musk had flown in to lend a hand, generating a little buzz for himself, too, and the SpaceX brand.

Time seemed to hold still as the X-44 failed to generate enough thrust to maintain its trajectory to the ISS. The anchor's voice dissolved into panic as the X-44 fell back to earth, into gravity's waiting jaws. It was only at the last second when Paul Summers got the imperfect ejection system to work and bailed out of the doomed craft. It wasn't until the next day's news when Matt learned that Paul Summers, aviation hero, was now paralyzed from the waist down and would never fly again. "CLIPPED WINGS: PAUL SUMMERS TO RETIRE," the text at the screen's bottom said as it scrolled along.

That was the first time Matt got drunk. He woke up the next morning on his couch, with a half-empty Jack Daniels on the carpet nearby, the 750 milliliter kind. He also had a skull-pounding hangover, a parched mouth, and a great need to vomit in the bathroom. Later that day, he resigned from the JPL. Bastards wouldn't give him his project. Why stay?

It was February 2027 when his cousin Nina, who lived with her husband in Connecticut, called and cheerily asked him on how his rocket science projects were coming along. He couldn't bring himself to mention quitting and getting a management position at the local home appliances store for rent money. He couldn't face the letters JPL or anything that they stood for. He didn't look up much anymore.

Matt didn't get drunk again, and he toyed with the idea of taking a teaching position at a local college. He wondered if he was going to fill the heads of emerging adults with false hope and gilded lies, or whether some bright mind out there would prove him wrong. He couldn't decide if he wanted that or not.

Matt had a day off and stopped by a bookstore chain that afternoon, and after browsing an Abraham Lincoln biography, his eyes landed on another familiar face. The man on the dust jacket had a five o'clock shadow, buzz-cut hair, and deep-set eyes that radiated with lust for the next great adventure.

"Oh my God." Matt stood rooted in place, clenching the books in his hands. He turned it over and found a quote from the author about the spirit and optimism of flight, and Paul Summers had written about 350 pages on the topic. Matt flicked through the pages and felt the corners of his eyes prickle. The book had been written with great haste ever since the X-44 crash, but Matt found a man's lifetime carefully and lovingly encapsulated in hardback form, never wavering.

Matt spend $32.87 on it and promised himself to start reading it tomorrow. He ate a quiet dinner that evening alone, the book propped up on his counter. He didn't even have a bookmark for it yet.

Matt's cell phone was already in his hand, with the JPL director's office number on the screen. Matt sat there, his palm starting to sweat, and Paul Summers' frozen smile, on his autobiography's dust jacket, dredged up something from Matt's boyhood he'd dismissed far too early.

He pressed DIAL.