by Charles Rafferty ~ Sandy Hook, Connecticut, USA
Anna regretted not having oiled her wagon. The back wheel was squeaky again, making it sound as though she were followed by a small and curious bird. She was on her way to return a book about the stars when she saw Thomas Brinks sitting on the steps of the Churchville library. He was smoking a cigarette, and Anna paused to watch him from behind some azaleas so fiercely come into bloom you couldn’t see any leaves.
Thomas was the boy every girl wanted to kiss. He was known for the chocolate quartz of his irises, the jaw that could take a beating. Anna watched as he exhaled a huge cloud of smoke that raced away. Then she pushed her palms down the sides of her dress to get rid of the clamminess, and set her wheels to squeaking. When she came out from behind the azaleas, it looked like she was leaving a burning bush.
“I see you’ve got your wagon,” said Thomas. The wagon carried an anvil and two cinder blocks. Anna took it with her whenever she left the house.
“It’s just a precaution,” she said. Anna could see the little cuts and scabs along his knuckles, she saw how the cigarette fit perfectly inside his lips. “It doesn’t happen much. Maybe two, three times a week.”
Thomas took a deep puff and together they watched it float away. “You like space?” he asked, nodding at the book in her hand.
Anna felt a tingle starting in her belly and she positioned herself so she could keep both hands on the wagon, just in case.
“Some stars are bigger than our entire solar system,” she said. A small yellow butterfly bounced by her head and threatened to land there, but Thomas didn’t notice. He was staring at Anna’s feet, which had begun to hover an inch or two above the sidewalk.
“You can’t stop it?” he asked, pointing. “You can’t force yourself to stay on the ground?”
Anna bit her lip and looked at Thomas’s dusty boots. “It’s like a blush,” she said. “Trying to stop it just makes it worse.” She saw that an ash had landed on Thomas’s shoulder, and she took one hand off the handle and brushed it away. She could feel the muscles underneath his shirt, ready to lift and squeeze.
“Well, it’s a good thing you’ve got that wagon,” he said.
But Anna kept rising. Slowly her feet floated up above her head, and her dress slid down to reveal her underwear, which had elephants marching in a line across her bottom, trunk to tail, little behind big. Thomas grinned as Anna struggled to put her dress to rights while keeping one hand on the wagon. It felt like someone was tugging her feet toward heaven, and eventually her hand slipped off and she floated away.
Thomas made a half-hearted leap to catch hold of Anna’s dress as the wind began to carry her, but Anna kept going – until she was higher than the rooftops, higher than the steeple. Thomas stubbed his cigarette out in a windowbox full of impatiens and followed her down the street. Some people began pointing, others called out. Above the gathering crowd, Anna did her best to keep the billowy dress clenched between her knees.
Anna worried she might never stop rising. It was almost evening, and she saw the beginning of a moon. She could feel where the stars were trying to break through the deepening sky. She got up so high she stopped worrying about her dress, and let the breeze blow over her however it wanted.
That’s when she learned that she could swim. If she just kicked her feet and scooped at the air, it was like the sky above her town was a vast invisible lake. She could still see Thomas on the street below her, and she used him as a target, something to keep swimming back toward after the wind had nudged her east again, above a block of freshly tilled earth that would soon be full of corn.
When the spell ended, Anna descended slowly to the street. It was not the plummeting her mother had told her to fear. She was able to do a lazy backstroke to avoid the branches and power lines. Thomas’s face was shining, balanced like a melon above the people surrounding her to see if she was okay.
Anna was fine. She wanted only to pick up the conversation where she and Thomas had left it on the library steps. She told him if you have enough dust it becomes a star. She told him the dust that doesn’t ignite obscures the dust that does. They came to a clearing, and he listened as she named the glittering specks that grew brighter as they walked. Thomas couldn’t help himself. He asked to pull the wagon, he asked to hold her hand. When they finally got to Anna’s house, she yanked up the garage door and pointed to where he should leave it. ■