Secrets

by April on February 23, 2012

Amanda popped her head over the back of the airplane seat. Her mother, a good five rows to the back, raised a pale eyebrow at her. Amanda sent a sheepish smile back. She couldn’t have found a better way to look suspicious if she’d tried. Checking to see if her mom was coming up the aisle was no doubt raising motherly alarm bells all over the place. At least her mom had to keep an eye on her little sister, Grace, back there. Amanda sank back down in her chair. This whole seating snafu was going to give her the chance to find out what her mom had keeping from her for years.

She waited till the plane was high in the air, till they were far higher than the cloud-covered Montana mountains her mom had never let her climb. They were too high, too close to the sky, after all. Why it was okay for everyone else on the planet to touch the sky, but not her and Grace, was something her mom would never explain.

Anxiety beat a staccato tempo in her veins when she reached out one hand to break the cardinal rule of air travel in their family. She slid open the window cover–cracked it really–and drank in the sight of rolling clouds and blueness around her. Her hand inched the cover open, and rays of sun fell across Amanda’s freckled skin. She took a deep breath, her lungs filling with stale plane air as if for the first time. Joy welled up in her chest, replacing the nagging guilt she’d felt while disobeying her mother.

Why would her mom want to keep this from her? Amanda ghosted her breath over the cool window of the airplane and wrote her middle name—the forbidden name, the name she considered more hers than plain Amanda–in the fog. Lily. She slid shut the window cover and faced forward just in time.

“Amanda!” Her mom definitely wasn’t five rows back anymore.

Amanda jumped in her seat, startled, and a guilty relief flooded through her that she hadn’t been caught looking out the window. For some reason, looking out the window while flying was far more forbidden than all the other strange rules her mom had devised over the years to keep Amanda and Grace away from the sky. Needless to say, her mom booked airplane flights only in the most dire of emergencies. Poor winter roads and Grandpa in the hospital counted as that, though he was thankfully okay and on the mend. Christmas vacation was gone now, though, and they were headed back home to Oklahoma.

“Are you following all the rules?” Mom gave her a meaningful glance, and Amanda knew exactly what she was referring to. Keeping the window closed.

“I’m just trying to get comfortable, Mom.” Amanda pushed her hair out of her eyes and tucked the strands behind her ear. She ignored her flipping stomach as she avoided a direct lie to her mother. After all, when would she ever get another chance to look?

Her mom didn’t look convinced. She had an uncanny knack for knowing when her daughters were in danger or trouble. But looking out a window surely didn’t count as either of those.

Amanda’s twinge of guilt deepened. “I’ll try to take a nap. It’s not a long flight.” She nodded at the sleeping passenger beside her. Her mother pressed her lips together before nodding and hurrying back down the aisle.

Did Mom just wring her hands? Amanda wondered. Despite her frustration at not understanding, a familiar spark of wonder flashed through her when she looked at the intricate knot of hair at the nape of her mother’s neck. She’d never seen her mom create the same pattern twice.

For years she’d watched her mom’s fingers flicker in and out of thick strands of hair, twisting and wrestling it into submission with effortless ease. Then she’d smooth her hair over the tips of her ears and pronounce herself done.

Amanda relaxed against her seat as she remembered the times they’d soaked in the morning sunlight on their enclosed porch. They’d sat together in comfortable silence or talked as her mom wove her hair into a new creation. She missed that time together on this busy trip.

Amanda glanced back at her little sister, but she could only see the top of her head from here. No doubt Grace had never thought to look out the window. She was probably lost in a book about fairies, nymphs and dragons. She might notice if the plane crashed. Might.

Amanda curled up in her seat and nestled her head in the crook between the seat and the wall. She forced her eyes closed and concentrated on the gentle buzz of the wall against her cheek. I wish Mom would call me Lily. Amanda hadn’t even known she had a middle name till she’d reached kindergarten ten years ago. Her middle name–chosen by her father–was too fanciful. Amanda shook her head in disagreement. As if flowers were fanciful! At least Grace had won her battle to read about people, places and animals that didn’t exist.

Despite how unreasonable her mom seemed sometimes, Amanda hadn’t protested much after she’d seen the fear in her mom’s sky-blue eyes. Not fear for herself, but fear for Amanda and Grace.

She shifted her hand under her cheek for extra comfort. Behind her closed eyes she could still see how her mother teared up and looked away when Amanda asked her why she couldn’t look out the window. As unlikely as it seemed, something bad had happened to her mom on an airplane. She was sure of it.

Perhaps Amanda could help her if she figured out what it was.

She scooted forward in her seat and pushed the window cover up again, this time only a few inches. From this angle she saw part of the plane wing with the engines hanging below. Her eyes searched the sky, drinking in the ripples and wisps of clouds stretching across it. The brown mountains speckled with green far below looked more like ant hill mounds than majestic peaks. She’d seen pictures like it on the internet, but she’d never felt the sense of completeness and joy she did now–like a missing part of her had slipped into place deep inside.

Wonder filled her. Why would her mom want to keep her from this? Despite that, the tiniest part of Amanda warned her to shut the window, to not find out what caused her mom such pain. Amanda ignored that voice.

She reached one hand up to the window and pushed at the thick plastic. For a moment, her whole being longed to melt away the final barrier between her and the beautiful clear air.

“Miss, would you like something to drink?”

Amanda jerked upright and her breath came in gasps at being ripped away so suddenly from that glorious, blue world outside. She opened her mouth to refuse, but then changed her mind. Maybe she was feeling faint from lack of food. That must be what had just happened. “Some orange juice, please.”

The flight attendant nodded, poured the juice, and handed it to her.

Amanda tried to ignore the window as she sipped her orange juice. Perhaps her mom had a point; it wasn’t kind of Amanda to add to her stress. Her mom was so uptight this trip she radiated tension, and Amanda found that exhausting. With Grandpa in the hospital and Uncle Albert still confined to a mental institution, there hadn’t been much relaxing family time this trip.

She didn’t think her uncle was crazy. Maybe a bit rumpled in his tweed coat with worn elbows, but he always made sense when he talked with her.

Still, Amanda couldn’t wait to go home and see her dad tonight. She was ready for a normal life again.

Vowing to shut the window for good, Amanda reached her hand out to close it, but stopped when she caught a glint of sun off burnished copper. Strange. Maybe a bird? She looked closer and saw that a person–a teenage boy with copper colored hair–was poised to leap off the edge of the airplane wing. Shock whirled through her. How he could be standing, let alone breathing at this altitude? Her mind stuttered to a halt while she tried to grasp the strange vision before her.

Then the boy, clad in light blue clothes, leaped off the wing.

She opened her mouth to scream, but instead of falling, the boy grinned with delight and surfed in the wake of the engine. As he disappeared out of sight, she rubbed her eyes, uncertain if she’d fallen asleep earlier and was still dreaming. She started to pinch herself, but paused with her hand in midair. How would she know if the pinch were real or part of the dream?

Her mouth formed a perfect round “o” of surprise as the boy appeared again, bounding in a great leap toward the wing of the airplane. Small clouds appeared beneath his feet with every step, and he twisted his body forward into a flip mid-leap and landed with a light touch on the hard surface. He turned around and bowed several times, but Amanda couldn’t see to whom.

The plane rocked or bounced each time a little puff of cloud appeared beneath his feet. The jostling caused Amanda’s food tray to fall down from the seat in front of her, and she left it after the third time it happened. Her small frame didn’t need the extra room.

Over the speaker the puzzled pilot apologized for the unexpected turbulence.

Still unable to believe her eyes, Amanda looked around her. Surely someone else noticed what she did. Why wasn’t anyone raising the alarm?

Behind her, a little boy slept with his head crooked at an awkward angle, but the middle-aged lady in front of her gazed out the window without concern, as if at a blank sky.

Perplexed, Amanda’s eyebrows drew together. If she closed the window now, she would always wonder what would have happened. That decided her. She pressed her face up against the window pane and kept her breath shallow to avoid fogging up the plastic.

Several other boys–almost men, really–joined the first. Thick, tight braids ran down their backs, and they all wore varying shades of blue that blended in with the sky. She might not have noticed the first one if his hair hadn’t been such a bright shade of copper. His companions had hair as white as the clouds around them.

While she watched, a part of her mind questioned if she were having an episode of some sort. She’d heard whispers that her Uncle Albert had them from time to time, yet her mom wouldn’t ever tell her what was wrong with him.

Uncle Albert.

A small laugh burbled up inside her as she remembered his bright-eyed nurse scolding him this morning.

“Where you disappear to I have no earthly idea, Albert. It’s freezing outside!”

Her white-haired uncle had winked at Amanda and replied with one hand over his heart. ”Vanessa, I’ve told you all my secrets. I’m wounded you don’t believe me.”

“Humans can’t fly, as you very well know. If I find you poised to leap off this building one more time, I just might go crazy myself.”

Albert patted the gray bedcover between Amanda and him. “There’s plenty of room here, my dear.”

“Oh, you old rogue. Just keep your feet on the ground, do you hear?” Vanessa’s face turned serious. “You have friends who need you.”

Her uncle nodded his head and smiled. After the nurse left to continue her rounds, he’d leaned over and whispered, “That’s why I stay.”

“For the pretty nurses?” Amanda asked, wishing she had hair that curled into gorgeous ringlets the same elegant way Vanessa’s did.

Albert threw his head back and laughed. “No. That’s a bonus, though. Like Vanessa said, I’m needed here. I could leave anytime, you know.” He ran his hand along the tip of his ear, a gesture she’d seen so often she didn’t notice it anymore.

Amanda felt cheered as she returned her full attention to the scene before her. Captivated, she watched the flying boys twist and surf in the air around the plane wing for what seemed like hours. It couldn’t have been that long, of course, since the flight from Billings to Oklahoma was short. Their antics often rocked the airplane, and the passengers around her grumbled about the rough flight.

These teenagers reminded her of her cousins when they cliff-jumped – the higher the cliff, the better. They lined up on the plane wing, jockeyed each other for a place, and boasted with grand gestures about the tricks they would do in the air on the way down. And magnificent tricks they were. But when one boy swung off rods of materializing clouds like a monkey swinging through tree branches, she almost laughed out loud along with his friends. Then the copper-haired boy tossed a puff of cloud at a friend, and they all grinned and jumped off the wing.

Amanda rocked backwards in her seat when one of them tossed a cloud into the plane’s pathway, causing it to drop a few feet like it had hit an air pocket.

Amanda could feel smile after smile stretch across her face while she watched each boy jump, whirl, and stretch to his full height to keep the cloud ball in play. When one team complained with sharp gestures about the wind, she wanted to laugh. What did they expect when bounding around a flying airplane?

The pilot’s voice pulled her back into the real world. “Please keep your seatbelts on. We’re preparing for our descent into Tulsa. Once again, we apologize for the unexpected turbulence, and we hope you fly with us again soon.”

Amanda looked back out her window, worried she might miss something. Sure enough, the game had stopped. Someone new had joined their group, and, judging by her wagging finger, the new girl was giving the boys a resounding scolding.

All four boys ducked their heads  and shuffled their feet on the plane wing. The copper-headed boy clearly wasn’t all that repentant, despite his bowed head. Since she was looking at him from the side instead of straight on, Amanda could see a tiny smile on his face.

The lecture went on for several minutes, and the new girl waved at the airplane several times. Amanda was going to guess that whoever these people were, they didn’t allow plane-surfing.

That was too bad. This was by far the best plane trip she’d ever had. One by one, they dove off the plane wing and disappeared, till only the new girl and the copper-haired boy were left. He waved her on, and she gave him one more disapproving look before jumping.

The boy backed up a few paces on the plane’s wing and prepared to take a running leap when he looked in Amanda’s direction and locked eyes with her. He froze, shock written across his face as the wind blew him backward off the edge. Amanda’s heart jumped into her throat while the boy’s arms windmilled as he tumbled and twisted against the wind, struggling for control.

She held her breath, worried he might be hurt because she’d distracted him. When the boy was a small dot in the distance below, she clenched and unclenched both hands. Would she have nightmares about watching him plummet to his death?

But as she stared at the ground below, the tiny speck grew larger, a string of clouds trailing from his feet. The plane tilted forward now in its descent, the nose angled down as the boy with the copper hair drew even with her window. He smiled at her, and she gave a delighted smile back.

He put his hand against the window, palm flat.

Amanda looked at it and then back at the boy. With a slow motion, as if time had no meaning, she placed her hand against his. The window between them warmed and then became hot, but she didn’t pull her hand back.

Still smiling, his eyes crinkling at the corners, the boy blew out his breath against the window and wrote one word in the fog: Lily.

Amanda’s eyes widened with shock. How could he know her middle name–the one that described her far better than plain, boring Amanda?

When the fog evaporated off her window, the smiling boy was gone without a trace. She looked to the right and to the left, but no puffs of cloud showed her where he went.

She shut the grungy window cover and shivered as she pulled her knees up to her chest in the darkened airplane. The artificial plane light seemed almost malevolent and poisonous now compared to what she’d just seen.

Excitement battled worry and an inexplicable sadness. She wanted to share with Grace everything she’d seen, but what if her mind had been playing tricks on her? She’d heard that happened to people sometimes. Maybe that’s what happened to Uncle Albert. She knew those kinds of things could run in families.

Her mind was still a blur with tumbling thoughts as she grabbed her backpack and shuffled off the plane with everyone else.

“Did everything go okay, Amanda?” Her mom asked, coming up behind her.

Amanda looked away and didn’t answer. That inexplicable sadness was growing stronger the longer she was away from the blue sky, and the guilt worming its way through her didn’t help.

Her mom drew in a deep breath. Not a good sign. That meant she was struggling to keep her patience.

Amanda risked a quick glance at her mom’s face. Her eyes were shiny, almost like her eyes were watering a bit. But her pursed mouth made it clear how unhappy she was with Amanda.

No doubt her mom knew what she’d done.

If only Amanda wasn’t feeling so hurt inside like a part of her had been ripped away and left in behind. Maybe she would have been able to hide things better.

Her mom grabbed her by the arm in a grip that wasn’t quite painful and led her off to a deserted corner of the boarding area. Grace trailed behind, an oblivious nose still stuck deep in her book about dancing fairies.

“After all of my warnings, you looked, didn’t you?”

Amanda had never seen her mom quite this angry before. She looked down and nodded, just like the boys had on the plane wing when they were being scolded. Unfortunately, she was sure she was in far more trouble.

Warmth began to seep into Amanda’s arm where her mother still held her despite the coat and clothes separating them. Amanda couldn’t hear her mom’s furious lecture about following the rules. She just looked at her mom’s hand, so normal looking, as it grew hotter against her skin. Her down coat should make that impossible.

“Are you even listening to me?” Her mom demanded.

The heat coming from her mom’s hand turned searing.

Amanda tried to tug her arm away, “Mom! Ow!”

Her mom’s eyes widened, and she let go abruptly. The smell of burnt cloth filled the space between them.

What had just happened? Amanda flexed her arm. It didn’t seem burned underneath, but the coat would have to be replaced. That hand-shaped black patch on the arm screamed strangeness.

What a useless thought. Here her mom had just burned her coat somehow, Amanda had seen flying sky people, and she was thinking about replacing her coat?

A tear or two spilled down her face, and she shook her head. She didn’t even know why she was crying.

All the anger drained out of her mom. “I’m so sorry, Amanda. I don’t know how…” She trailed off and covered her mouth with a hand for a long moment. Her mom, more sad than angry now, bent down and smoothed Amanda’s hair.

Amanda tried hard not to jerk away. She was sure that whatever had just happened, her mom hadn’t intended it to happen. But from now on, she’d stay several feet away from her mom when she was angry. Just in case.

Now her mom looked sad. That was worse her anger. “I have reasons for my rules. I wish you would have listened. I’ve tried so hard to give you a happy life, a normal life.”

Amanda couldn’t agree. She was glad she’d looked, glad she’d seen the flying boys, even though she’d left a piece of herself up there. She was sure of that now. A wistful longing filled her heart for the clear blue sky and white clouds. Would she ever leap and fly on the clouds herself?

She longed to capture the lost part of herself, so new and yet so familiar. More tears came, and her shoulders began to shake. As she struggled to stop the flood of tears, her mother whispered quiet words of comfort in her ear.

“I know how you feel. I wish you didn’t have to go through this. Just forget all about it. Don’t mention it to anyone, and it will get better in time. I promise.”

Amanda raised her head off her mom’s shoulder and breathed in the stuffy air. Perhaps if she could distract herself for long enough, she’d stop crying for all the years she’d lost out on knowing about this piece of herself that belonged in the sky.

“What will get better?” Grace asked, ever oblivious. “The plane ride wasn’t so bad.” Her thumb still marked the place where she’d stopped reading her book.

Amanda shook her head. She couldn’t talk about it now, but maybe she’d tell Grace someday. She’d pretend she made the story up and see if it sparked something in her sister.

Amanda mopped at her eyes with her sweater sleeve and sniffed several times. Her eyes examined each detail in the diamond-patterned carpet while she trailed behind her mother and sister. Anything to avoid eye contact and see the concerned looks of strangers when they caught sight of her swollen eyes and bright red nose. Not to mention that coat. She pulled it off and stuffed it in a trashcan. Her mom didn’t protest.

To prevent a resurgence of tears, she thought about everything but the color blue.

Their luggage was circling the carousel by the time they reached the baggage area, but Amanda didn’t want to take it. She didn’t want this last part of her plane ride to end, yet in short order her mom had them dragging their bags behind them and walking outside. The car ride home passed by in a blur as she looked up at the evening sky. Bright white lines stood out against the orange-tinged background. She’d been taught all her life those were jet contrails, but now she wondered.

Soon Amanda was in her dad’s arms. “I’m so glad you’re back, my little elf! Both of my little elves.” He pulled Grace in with his other arm.

Amanda hugged her dad back, but she was surprised when her mom didn’t protest the use of her father’s nickname for them this time. Mom always said that the slight points on her children’s ears didn’t make them elves; her daughters were quite human, thank you very much. Amanda smiled into her dad’s shirt at the memory.

Dinner dragged by. The silence at the table was stifling and so unusual. Amanda could tell her mom still felt bad about the coat. Grace looked like she was daydreaming about her fairies and dragons again. And her dad just looked between Amanda and her mother with a concerned expression on his face.

After finishing the last bite of the tasteless sweet potato soufflé – usually her favorite – Amanda excused herself to go to bed early.

She could feel her mom’s worried eyes on her as she climbed the stairs. Halfway up, Amanda stopped and turned around. It was time to revisit a battle she’d lost long ago. Not to be petulant or rebellious, though. If Amanda guessed right, her mom had made her choice to be normal years ago. Now Amanda had to make the same choice.

“I’m going by Lily now. I just wanted to let you know.”

Her dad’s eyes widened. He glanced at her mom, who gave a sad smile of assent.

“Lily it is, then,” her dad said. “I’ve always loved your middle name.”

She was looking forward to finding out where this newly-discovered side of her led.  “Me, too.”

Lily skipped the rest of the way up the stairs and hopped into her neatly-made bed. She sighed with relief when she pulled the covers up over her head. Privacy at last. No concerned eyes watching her. Only then did she trace one hand along the rim of her ear, lingering over the delicate point near the top, the same way her Uncle Albert had done hundreds of times throughout the years.

The boy with copper hair had pointed ears, too.

The End

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