“Are you excited?” Mom asks.
Mandy won’t show it, but she is.
Her mom drops her off at Lee’s Airpark, just off Route 2, where she’d seen planes take off and land almost every day, but never dreamed of seeing up close. It was bigger and more intimidating than expected.
Her mom walks with her across the tarmact. It’s a sunny day, perfect and blue, like her eyes, He says. He’s leaning up against the white plane, almost as tall as it, that short dark hair blowing in the wind, aviators on, and no one could be as cool, as sexy. He waves to Mom and Mandy holds back her smile until it hurts. He hugs her, but does not kiss her.
The takeoff is the hardest to stand. She’d flown before, but you feel it more in light aircraft. She’s scared, almost pees herself, but once they’re in the air, He puts his hand on her knee and she calms down. He soars, swoops like she never knew a plane could move so quick. Beats model rockets in Dad’s backyard. Look at that sky. Look at this man next to me who loves Mom better than anything. Will he say he loves me too? It’s so bright. I’m so high.
Euphoric, after days of waiting for Him to come back from his most recent flight, she watches the kite glide through the humid August breeze and wants to go up in the air again. Only next time she wants to be in control.
He walks through the yard, finally back and she wishes she was wearing something sexier than too-big jeans and His worn out Katastrophe t-shirt she took from the laundry when Mom wasn’t watching. What if he gets upset she stole it? Oh, I hope he says I look good in it. He doesn’t say anything though.
Instead, without words, He reaches his arms around her from behind and puts His hands on hers in order to show her how to do it right. The kite twists involuntarily, free but controlled. She likes it this way, him holding her close and showing her the way through the wind.
In that calm time as the sun sets orange, almost vermillion over the River Lethe, Mandy, Mom and Him eat dinner on the back porch as he tells stories of his journeys. He once flew to Venezuela just for the hell of it and stayed there for some time, living out of a rental van and learning to cook Tequenos and serenading pretty girls (an eyebrow raise at Mom). Maybe he’ll fly me and Mom there sometime, or the Caribbean or Europe or why not Canada or California? She was told to help put away dishes and when Mom sees how entranced Mandy is, she lets it go. They get along and that’s a blessing. He has a politician’s way of looking at no one and everyone as he tells a story about almost crashing his first time in the air and having to do his first landing by himself because the man teaching him had a stroke.
He could teach me guitar, too, Mandy thinks. He and Me and Mom and can get out of this. She makes a request, Katastrophe, please and he chuckles a bit. He plays the opening riff of “Trazodone” and sings the chorus as Mandy tries hard not to smile. Once he gets to the end he doesn’t really sing it, but whispers in a way: I like it, I’m not gonna leave. I like it, I’m not gonna leave…
She’s adult and normal and bored now like everybody else, off duty and going back up in the air soon. She’s in the grocery store, trying to decide which bag of chips to buy, a thousand flavors and brands in front of her. What was once so simple an affair now seems an overwhelming duty.
Across from the snack aisle, she spots Him placing ground beef in his cart. His dark hair now a salt and pepper white, His high and taut face, now sagging a bit, the crows feet more noticeable from so much glinting in the sun, but still as handsome as the day He took her up in the plane. She positions herself next to him, too scared because what if it isn’t him?
He makes eye contact and smiles. She smiles back, a middle school girl again.
“They really charge you an arm and a leg nowadays, huh?”
As if it’s her first time being flirted with, she’s not sure what to say and instead shrugs.
“Quiet one.” He looks at her uniform. “Naval Academy?”
“I’m a pilot myself, actually,” he says, like it’s a question and even though she knows He’s still the cocky man He used to be, comfortable with His cool, but unimportant station in life. She still loves that sly humility. “Small cargo and personal passengers mostly. Amateur stuff, really. It’s not the same as The Blue Angels, but I have a good time. Hey, you look familiar.”
That’s when he’s greeted by a woman ten years younger than Him and prettier than Leah, now going by her middle name instead of that childish first name. With the woman is a child, a girl of maybe seven.
She does not remember her response, but she gets out of the conversation and leaves Him to hurt someone else. How dare you leave mom and me. How dare you not remember me. You flew away and never came back. It takes time to admit it, but more than anger, she’s flattered and glad He saw her make it in the air.
Up there it’s just blue. Up there, you’re a god. The takeoff used to be the hardest part, but now it’s just the landing she struggles with. A few more months and she’ll have it down perfect. If only they’d let her go where she wanted. If only they’d let her fly until she’s out of oxygen. She once thought I could die up here, His hands around hers, guiding the way. High. Bright. High.
James Prenatt has published in Crab Fat Magazine, Cactus Heart Magazine, and 34th Parallel. He lives in Baltimore with his dog, his thing, and a little human. He graduated from Towson University with a degree in English and an OK GPA.