Taking Flight  by Regan Puckett

Competition: Flash Fiction Challenge 2019, 3rd Round

Genre: Open  Location: A cloud or clouds  Object: Binoculars

Original Illustration by Yevgenia Nayberg

 

They’re colder than you think.

            Peering into the sky, a hand cupped above your brow to block the sun’s rays, you ask — what do clouds feel like? You’ve probably wondered before. I used to.

They’re cold, mostly. Damp. Lonely.

A sea of white foam, endless and sparkling. The sky above floods with color, soft pink glow charred black by night.

But I don’t look up, I look down. I look for her.

Mia had her first day of second grade yesterday. Months ago, I helped her pick a special sweater to wear. Bright purple with white stripes, a pink cat face embroidered across the front. She wore it with her brand-new sneakers. I wasn’t there to pick those out.

Now, she explores the new backyard, hands burrowed within the pockets of one of my old hoodies. The binoculars around her neck swing with each step. Her hair is wrapped in a lazy ponytail, halfway collapsed — Noah hasn’t learned how to style it yet. The strands dance around her face as she shakes her head in anger at everything the backyard lacks, golden coils bouncing. She has my hair. I guess that’s where it all went.

When I started treatment, I took Noah’s electric razor to my head. Mia danced into the bathroom, giggling at her attempts to pirouette. Her eyes fell to my honeyed curls, now limp piles on the floor, her face flickering in fear as she looked up to my naked head. She ran out, crying. Scooping handfuls of fallen hair into the trash, listening to the quiet sobs from her bedroom, I cried too.

I didn’t look like Mommy anymore.

Before I got sick, I described myself as comfortable. My arms were the perfect size for a hug, my hips the perfect shape for her tiny legs to wrap around. Then, they weren’t. My skeleton protruded from my skin, bones threatening to cut the flesh that desperately tried to hold itself together. I joked with Noah that, one day, the bones would win. He laughed. Sometimes.

He doesn’t laugh now.

“Mia, tell me what’s wrong with this one,” he begs, releasing a deep sigh.

This is the fifth house they’ve looked at, and she’s hated every one of them.

“There’s no swing set,” she proclaims with a huff.

In our old backyard, there is. Noah and I set it up together, fumbling through the construction process with a few beers and many expletives. That was before. You’ll find days are just that, a series of befores and afters. Before, we had a home together, and a backyard with a swing set. After, they’ll get a new home, absent of memories. Absent of me.

“We can move it here, baby.”

“There’s no bird feeder.”

“We’ll move that, too.”

“So? The birds won’t come. They’ll think I just left them.”

Does she think I left her?

There’s no good way to tell your child that you’re dying. Mia, Mommy’s sick. Mommy’s going to lose her hair. She’ll lose forty pounds. The doctors will tell her that her chances are good. They’ll make her go through seven long months of treatment. She’ll die anyway. There was never a good way to talk about it. So, we didn’t.

Now, Noah squeezes her shoulder. Mia clutches the binoculars to her face, ignoring him. They were a last-minute Christmas gift from years ago, something we bought on a whim. The expensive dollhouse from that year sits in her closet collecting dust, but the cheap binoculars, purple paint cracked and faded, are worn daily. Mia whirls her head around, peering through them. Noah frowns.

Be there for her. That’s what I told him. I’d waited as long as I could to have that conversation. Finally, on a night she slept at a friend’s house, I gave him the rules for raising her without me. I told him how to handle her first period, first dance. First crush, first heartbreak. Her wedding. I instructed him to call my sister when Mia wanted to start wearing makeup — “Do not let my baby sort through that mess on her own” and said that if he ever let her get her face pierced, I’d haunt him for eternity. And when he cried, I held his head and kissed it, and there was nothing that could be done.

“Look, a baby bird.” Noah points to a bluebird, small and screeching. Bending its frail wings, it cranes its head, attempting to take flight. It beats and beats its wings, but it cannot rise.

“There’s no Mommy.”

Mia’s small, frantic whisper meets my ears. Tears drip beneath her binoculars. Noah embraces her, but she shakes him off, gripping the lenses tighter to her face.

“Where’s its Mommy? How’s it gonna fly without her?”

The scariest part of cancer isn’t dying.

It’s watching Noah and Mia live and imagining how they could continue without me. Noah can barely cook. He ‘misplaces’ his keys daily, doesn’t separate the laundry, and he’s putty in Mia’s hands. He can’t style her bun for ballet. He’s never sold a Thin Mint cookie in his life. Mia doesn’t even know how to swim yet. She’s clumsy. Forgetful. She still needs help brushing her teeth. She needs me. They both do.

“Baby, it’ll be okay. It’ll learn to fly without her.”

Above, a flock of birds soar. Noah tilts the binoculars, and Mia’s face follows. The binoculars point up, up, up to the sky. Up to me.

At first, the clouds are cold. Unbearably, unforgivingly cold. You will curl up and look down at the world continuing without you. The fear that they won’t be able to live alone will turn your body to ice.

Keep watching. Let go. Watch them struggle like baby birds, and then, watch them fly. Let their smiles melt your bones. Look up at the pink sky above and know — they can do this.

“Mommy’s still here, baby. Mommy’s still watching.”

And I am.

---

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Regan Puckett is a writer from the Ozarks, an area she finds simultaneously too interesting and not interesting enough. She hopes to strike the balance one day. Read more of her work and her opinions on cappuccinos at https://bit.ly/2yIWFka



 

 


 


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