The air was cold and cutting up here, ripping past my face and through my hair, tangling knots that I would never forget. Stirring up, lifting up, until I thought I couldn’t go any farther. But I didn’t stop. It was exhilarating and addicting. Every moment was filled with fear, but I never fell. The air was pure up here, tasting like ice crystals from a fresh fall of snow, and I inhaled it slowly so as not to freeze up my lungs. My skin prickled everywhere in the thrill of the speed. I pushed ever so slightly, pushing forward, going faster. I hovered horizontal, then shot vertical, and horizontal again, pulling farther and farther from the ground. You can’t have me, I said. I’m too far from you now.
“You’ll fly someday,” she said, “but not today.”
I vaguely remember her. She had long black silk hair, sharp features, wide black eyes, and was very tall. At least it seemed that way from a child of six years. She would wake me at six in the morning sometimes. This was not easy for a six year old girl who was born a night person.
“We’ll get donuts,” she said to me as I grumbled in bed. “And then we’ll walk to school.”
That did it. That always does it for a child. Sugar. Well, why the hell not! I’ll get up. I didn’t even hear the school part. She’d brush my long golden hair with slow and gentle strokes. She was always careful with me, as if she was afraid she’d snag a knot somewhere and force a cry of pain from me. Then we’d walk to the donut shop a few blocks away from home. The donut shop was through the tall green trees and across the busy street. I was never allowed to cross the street by myself. But Gretchen was with me. It was okay this time.
She held my hand tight as we crossed, her long fingers wrapped around my tiny hand. Her fingers, long and thin. I would look up at her, her hair flowing long and black and straight. She was always so pretty, I thought.
We walked into the donut shop and ordered a box of donuts, some cake, frosted, crème-filled, bearclaws, and my favorite, glazed rope twist. We sat down on a bench near a park by my school and she handed me my glazed rope twist. I finished it in seconds. I was about to reach in for another donut—I had my eye on the chocolate frosted one—but she held me back.
“These are for everyone else,” she said. “You have to share.”
I pulled my hand back silently. I was tempted to say that nobody else eats donuts, but I couldn’t help but feel a sense of guilt. I could have eaten the entire box, and the idea of sharing was so frustrating.
I looked up at my aunt. She didn’t have a donut. She never ate, not that I saw. She sat quietly, with one arm around my shoulders, staring across the park. The park was empty, which was something I rarely saw. Normally it was filled with kids running, playing tag, with bouncing backpacks on their backs. There was nobody out this early. This’ll be my first day not late for class, I thought vaguely. My father usually took me to school. I always got up too late and we always arrived too late…or barely on time. I’d always be the last to walk in.
Not this time! I thought happily. But it would be my last time.
“You know something?” Gretchen said, breaking the silence. I almost forgot she was next to me.
“What?” I responded.
“We are very special,” she said, but she didn’t look at me. “You know why?”
I shook my head no.
“We are flyers,” she said. “You fly sometimes.”
I opened my mouth to say something, to say how did you know?, but shut my mouth. I always felt like I could fly, and that I did sometimes, but never told anyone. How did my aunt know that I could? But she said she could too.
“I’ll be flying again soon,” she continued, still staring across the empty park. “But I won’t be coming back.”
“Where are you going?” I asked curiously, looking up at her. Her face was pale, always pale and colorless.
She didn’t answer. Her black eyes glazed over and I didn’t understand.
I followed her gaze, across the thick green grass, the soft brown dirt outlining a child’s baseball field, the silver metal swings, but saw nothing out of the ordinary. My aunt continued to stare, however.
“I want to fly there too,” I said absently, if for no other reason but that I didn’t know what to say.
“No,” she said, turning to look at me finally. But her body remained still and cold. Her arm around my shoulders never felt soft, but boney and hard. “You can’t go there. Not yet.”
“How come you’re going then?” I said.
“Because it’s my turn,” she said. “I don’t belong here. Neither do you, but that’s okay. I just can’t stay anymore. You’ll understand, someday.”
“But where are you going?” I pushed. I hated never having all the answers.
“Far away,” she said. “Just for a little while.” But that last comment seemed like an after thought, as if she was saying it just for me.
A blew out a puff of air in frustration. Bad enough I couldn’t eat another donut, but now my aunt wasn’t giving me straight answers. Adults always did that. And I hated it. I crossed my arms in defiance.
She laughed and pulled me close then. “It’s okay, hunny,” she said. “You’ll fly someday. But not today.”
Later, not long after, she died. Shot herself. At least that was what I had heard. A part of me imagined she wasn’t really dead, that she had flown off like she said she would, and that the body in the coffin was just her doppelganger or something.
She flew away to the other side, wherever that may be.
At six, I decided I’d try to follow. It was windy out, so that would help lift me, I thought. The trees’ branches swayed and brushed against the roof of the house. I stood on my bed, leaning out the open window. The wind, warmed by the summer sun, gently played with my long golden curls. My blue-green eyes widened in anticipation. I stepped out the window, my bare feet gripping the rubbery black-blue shingles, and jumped.
I didn’t need a running start, like I thought I would. I hovered a few inches above the roof of my house. I felt heavy, like the ground was trying to pull me back down, but I pushed away with my hands and lifted higher. I pushed again and again until I was a good distance above my house and the trees. I averted my gaze from the ground to the sky, overcast in grey-white clouds, as was typical of Chicago. The sun glowed brightly behind them.
That’s where I was heading. The sun. I pushed hard this time with my arms and flew straight up. The air instantly cooled around me, tugging at my hair, clothes, stinging my eyes as I flew faster. I was aware that I had stopped breathing and couldn’t catch my breath as I continued farther up. I didn’t care. I didn’t need to breathe. I had the air lifting me instead. I pushed through the clouds. Cold moisture immediately layered my body, prickling my skin. The clouds slowed my progress, so I pushed even harder until I broke through the grey and into the bright gold light of the sun’s rays.
Warmth engulfed my body, drying my wet skin and hair. The air was barely a whisper up here just a few feet above the roiling clouds. I stared at the sun.
“You can’t come here,” she said. “Go back.”
“But I can fly there and fly back,” I said.
“No,” her voice echoed from somewhere all around. “It’s not your turn.”
“But I don’t belong here either!” I shouted to the sky. “I want to leave and go where you are!”
“It’s not your turn. Not today.”
“I can’t stay here! I can’t stand it! I’ll fly far, I will!” My feet brushed the tops of the clouds as I said this, briefly catching moisture on my toes. That’s when I realized I was sinking. The pull was strong on my ankles, and then it reached my knees and soon I was waist deep in the grey clouds.
“No! Don’t take it from me,” I cried helplessly, trying to push away from the deep of the clouds, flailing as I was falling through. “I want to go too, I want to go too!”
“You’ll fly someday…but not today…”
And I dropped. I fell backwards, watching the sun vanish behind the roiling grey-white clouds, watching as the puffy moisture swirled as I cut a path through its travels, watching as I broke through only to see a darkening layer of rain cloud forming above me. I reached out as if to grab a hand, but there was nothing there to grab. I continued my fall, my hair clinging and whipping my face as if it were desperately trying to reach out to the sky as well. The air was colder now, cutting through me like icicles. And then I finally landed, flat on my back, in the cushion of green grass. I laid motionless for what felt like forever.
Then a little droplet of water fell into my eye, strangely warm and soothing. I blinked it away and propped myself on my elbows. I was in the park near my school. And it was starting to rain.
But I didn’t care. My wings were gone.
The rain came hard then, soaking my gold hair to dark, sticking my clothes to my skin. And I sat there in the green-brown grass, letting the rain flood my eyes, staring up into the sky, waiting for the day when I could fly again. Someday.