For an Empty Sky
An off-duty stewardess walked by, tugging at her skirt in a fruitless attempt to preserve the last of her modesty and thighs. Mother pursed her lips. Several businessmen, in turn, frowned at mother. I suppose it’s because we were travelling alone, but maybe they could tell what sort of a women she was by her black dress and calculated perfume. She’d been insisting on wearing black ever since father croaked, but I couldn’t understand why I had to wear those stuffy clothes as well. My suit jacket was too big and it wasn’t as if he could see it from heaven. It’s because we’re flying and you’ll do as you’re told. I should have been excited to fly since it was my first time, but the thought of seeing our world stuffed up under the clouds made me tired. We missed the funeral anyway.
We stood in the middle of the polished floor as mother shuffled through some papers. The men flowed around us, their heads down, their eyes sheltered beneath the brims of their hats, and though they walked with purpose, I wondered if they really knew where they were going. Mother’s steps were perfectly even strides, stepping on every other crack in the tiles as she dragged me over to the payphones. She let go of my hand; but I wasn’t sure if I could let it drop. It hung ludicrously in the air before I finally decided to shove it in my pocket, where it brushed against something wooden; perplexed, I pulled out a yo-yo. Oh boy! A silver lining to a smelly old suit. I looked at mother, barely moving her lips as she spoke into the receiver. I turned away from her, just a little, and edged the tip of my shoe over one of those cracks and into the open space of a free tile. I marveled at how comfortable that space could be and, glancing at mother one last time, carefully sidled off into a blur of pinstriped hustle.
The feeling became more urgent, as I got farther away from her grid, and I rushed onto the observation deck, though I knew full-well I’d pay for wandering off. I reached the far end of the deck, away from most people, and wound the end of the string around my finger. I reveled for a moment in the sight of the pink tip, bulging over the string, and then I let the yo-yo drop. I let myself drop with it. An exhilarating free-fall. The ground rushing up to meet the smooth wood, and then, at the last moment, I’m tugged back up. My heart pounds with excitement as the yo-yo flies back. I thought maybe I was being silly. But it was reckless. It was crazy, daring. It was a leap of faith unlike anything my father ever spoke of. I let it drop again, tumbling down, and then-
“What’chyu got there, boy?”
I caught my breath as the wood clattered to the ground.
He was dressed like a pilot. His hat rested on the ledge next to him with a glass bottle propped inside it. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed he was so close to me before. I looked around, hoping he was talking to somebody else.
“Are ya here to see shomebody off, or are you getting on one of those planes?” he gestured in the wrong direction. I leaned down slowly to pick up my yo-yo, surveying his unshaven face. When I’d straightened up, I told him I was going to see my dead father. He took a swig and squinted at me.
“He’s in heaven,” I said.
“Is he now?” he scratched along his jaw, “Ya know, I been up in those heavens many times and I never saw a single gramma or grandaddy. And you know what I think? I don’t think they’re up there.”
I tried to come up with the words to explain why that was wrong, but they got caught somewhere in the base of my throat, a vague choking sensation. I thought an old lady nearby was looking at me funny.
“Kinda makes you feel stupid, done’it? Being up there, ‘bove the clouds, you see how closed in we are down here. We’re stuffed up under that thick heaven. And we prefer it that way, too. An empty sky has too many questions we can’t answer, you see?”
He glanced at me sideways, “Do you wanna see it? Beyond the heavens? I could show you… we could fly together.”
I told him I wasn’t sure that he could fly, glancing at the sloshing remnants in his bottle.
“You can fly,” he said, grabbing his hat, “You’ll know what to do.”
I sit in my customary spot at the dinning-room table, poking at our Sunday supper, and staring at the pattern around my plate. My throat pounds as I work up my nerve. I look up at him, knowing his hard blue eyes are about to bore into my own.
“Father? I was wondering… well, I was talking to Andy at the library, and he showed me this book about dinosaurs. And I thought maybe—” I can’t continue. The eyes flash up from their plate, they silence my tongue, they scold my soul.
I no longer hesitated. It was reckless. It was crazy, daring. We stumbled down some stairs onto the track, and to the right there was a plane. He told me it was a rather small plane, but it seemed massive as I stood next to it. I could feel the thrill start to build up in my stomach as he gestured politely, swaying on the spot, that I should climb up first. He sat in the seat next to me, slapping his pilot hat on my head; I tilted it on an angle, smiling slightly. My hands shook as he smashed the radio with his bottle, and the yo-yo seemed to quiver through my fingers. He instructed me to push up a switch to make the wing flaps go up, but first I made sure to carefully wind back the string and set the yo-yo in my lap. I was ready. It was time for my leap of faith.
We set the carburetor heat into the cold position, just as I’d once seen on a special; that felt like so long ago. He told me something else about “knots” on the “air speed indicator” but I didn’t care anymore. It was simple. Swing the plane around the bend; line it up with the stripe down the center of the track. I increased the throttle, knowing it was right when the engine noise grew louder. And then I pulled the rod that makes it all go. We started moving forward and as we gained speed the noise crescendoed, pushing my heart into my throat with it. I pulled on the wheel in front of me, and the nose shot up. Too quick! The plane wobbled as we lifted off, needles flying in front of me, but I held fast. I wanted to get up there. I needed to see it. The nose continued going up and up at a hard heady angle until… I broke through the clouds. I could taste them; I could just smell the blue around me. The plane lurched as I evened it out, circling the world. But it wasn’t the world at all. Below me I saw only a never-ending expanse of fluffy white vapor, and it was horrifyingly beautiful. I felt a weight lift from my head and realized that the pilot hat was gone. I didn’t need to glance sideways to know that he was gone too.
“Sit up straight!” she snapped. “Are you even paying attention?” The television screen flashed in the dark, my father’s mouth exercising furiously, his face breaking up in the static. Confess that you’re a sinner, before the fires consume you! Let His precious blood cleanse you of your discretions! Trust that He will come and He will punish those who have strayed from his love! The walls of the room loomed in towards me, stifling, threatening to swallow me up. People in the crowd screamed and stamped and bayed and prayed and my head spun and I couldn’t hold myself still any longer.
I was right all along. Sickening. Down below so many people crawling, pacing along their grids, making up answers, too dull to understand that there aren’t any. There was nothing in front of me, and yet, that was everything. I let go of the wheel, switching off as many dials and buttons and green lights as I can. Sound cuts out and I catch my breath. For a few moments we continue sailing forward, and I grasp my new yo-yo as hard as I can. And then the nose starts tipping over. We pitch down at an awful speed and my heart races with excitement and I see streaks of grass, concrete. My stomach flips, so many things rushing through me all at once. An exhilarating free-fall.
Ella Melker is an English student at Towson University. Her writing often requires several cups of Earl Grey.