G a i l
Age 8, part 4
8 years (in July still)
It’s still dark outside. I’m dressed, sitting on the floor with my back against the bed, looking at my flip-flops. Scared. I am determined to try to fly again. Yes, I said it: “Fly.” That’s what it was, I’ve decided.
Blue and Sissy, my old worn-out stuffed toys, sit on my bed and look at me curiously. Wendy is awake, lying next to me, her head up, alert. The whole house is asleep, and I feel alone in my fear.
The clock is ticking, and time moves on, whether I want it to or not. It’s ten minutes to 7. I stand up, as does Wendy, my insides a ball of nerves. I walk down the hall to the bathroom, turn on the light, focus. Comb my hair, brush my teeth, and take a deep breath.
I have to think about which shoes to put on. Daddy will be furious if he sees that another pair is burned, so I look in the closet for some old ones that nobody will miss. I rummage around for a moment, and suddenly, I come across a bag of Mama’s old shoes — a pair of sandals that I remember her wearing. They are brown leather with little sparkly studs on them. I put them on.
They’re a little loose, but I have long feet for my age, and she – (I never knew this) – must have small feet, because the sandals almost fit me. Carefully, I slip them on, and for a moment stop to realize that the last fingers to buckle the little straps must have been Mama’s. Something in me collapses down, folds up. An ache grabs my chest, and it’s hard to breathe for a second. I hadn’t let myself ache for a long time. But her sandals make me ache. For some reason I don’t take them off. I stand up and look in the full length mirror in the hallway, turning from side to side. The sandals sparkle a little, and I remember how I loved to see them sparkle on Mama’s feet. The mad dog inside is starting to prowl and growl, and all at once, he rips through the thing that had collapsed and folded up. I turn away from myself in the mirror, and run out the door, Wendy at my heels.
I see Shane standing at the bottom of the driveway. “It’s 7:15. I was about to leave,” he says, yawning. His hair is messy and his eyes droopy.
“Sorry,” I say.
Then we just stand there for a moment. Wendy doesn’t run off to sniff, as she normally would. She stands staring up at me, an almost-growl coming from her closed mouth.
“So where are you going to do this?” asks Shane, barely controlling another yawn.
I look down the street. It’s hazy in the cool, wet, summer morning. “Just straight down here.”
Our voices mix with the loud birds chirping to each other. I suddenly feel awkward, doubting myself.
“Ok, well, go ahead, then. I’m watching.”
I swallow hard, give Wendy a little pat on the head, and then crouch down, like I’ve seen runners do at the starts of races. I take a few big breaths. And then I take off running. The air is thick, and I run through it hard. I pump my arms. Behind me, I can hear Wendy barking, but I know she isn’t following me. I move my legs as fast as I can, and I see the houses and yards flash by on either side of me. Mama’s sandals click-clack on the concrete. I move my legs harder, my heart pounding, and I clench my teeth. I try to lose control, searching for that feeling of lift-off. I try to feel like I did that other morning, when I was free and wild as the wind. But the click-clack keeps going. My feet are running on the ground, not on the air.
I reach the end of the road, where it branches off to the right, and stop. I turn around and see Shane petting Wendy, not even looking at me. I jog back.
“It didn’t work that time,” I mumble, as I plop down on the ground, next to Wendy.
“You were going really fast, though,” Shane says, trying to be nice.
“That was no big deal,” I say.
“Well, I’m going back to bed.” Shane gives Wendy another pat on the nose, gets on his bike, and rides home.
I stay sitting in the middle of the road. Wendy sits down next to me. She whines and licks my face. Her eyes are warm and look deep into mine. “Good girl,” I say, and give her a little scratch behind the ears. Then I look at the sandals. No sign of any damage.
All I have are questions.
I’m restless all day. Shane and Terry want to play, but I’m not interested. I do my chores, baby-sit the twins and watch John build a fort out of a set of blocks I’d never seen before.
“Where’d you get those blocks?” I ask.
“Mama,” he says.
“Yeah. She sent them for my birthday. Seven months late.”
John’s birthday is in December. Now it’s July.
I watch my brother carefully setting up the blocks, one by one. The mention of Mama brings back the ache of this morning. I see John’s hands, shaking just the tiniest bit, as they try not to knock over the tall tower they are constructing. His face is concentrated, but behind his eyes, I see sadness that no 7-month-too-late-birthday-set- of-blocks can erase. In the darkness under his eyes, I see tiredness. I remember all the tears those eyes cried. When he thought no one noticed, I did. I feel something angry rising up inside of me. It’s the snapping, snarling thing that rips happiness to shreds. That’s when I stand up without saying another word.
The mad dog is back. Wendy whines briefly, and then barks, as I go to the front door and put on Mama’s sandals. I say to myself, “I want these to burn up.”
Outside, the early evening is hot, humid and green. The huge sound of the cicadas makes the world feel both wild and still at the same time. I get on my bike, not paying attention to Wendy, who tries to follow me. I ride fast and far, and she can’t really keep up. All the way to the edge of town I go. There’s a field there. I drop my bike and walk out into the grass, which is buzzing with insects. Above me is nothing but the huge sky, misty and white, with just the faintest pinkness as the sun prepares to go down.
My insides are aching with the picture of my brother, alone, with his blocks. And I start to run. My legs feel long and strong, even though I know they’re little. The grasses whip against them. I run hard. Maybe I can escape the pictures in my head. I run where there is nothing but grass and sky, no feelings or other things that you can’t explain. Only real things. Only air and dirt. And my heartbeat.
All of a sudden, my legs are just going, and I can’t really feel them. My feet feel lighter and lighter. Then, they are in the air. My legs stop moving, and my arms aren’t pumping anymore. They spread out.