The Boy Who Flew

This didn’t end the way it started out in my head. I promise to be happier next time.

Evan Wilson Craig was extraordinary. It was hard to tell that from his normal, little-boy face. It was difficult to see when he played with his toys. You had to squint to observe it when he plagued his little sisters. But it was true. Evan was special.

“There’s something about that boy, Jenny,” Tom said to his wife as Evan swiped at his sister Nora with a Lego sword. Nora swept an arm and shattered Evan’s fragile weapon, then charged with gritted determination. Fourteen months younger than Evan, Nora fiercely defended herself from Evan’s predations, sometimes to the point of preemption.

“Yep,” Jenny said as Nora collided with Evan and they both screamed, “he needs more paternal supervision.”

Concentration wrinkling his brow, Tom shook his head. “No, that’s not it.” He lifted a chin in Evan’s direction. “Look at his steps.”

Huffing in frustration, Jenny grabbed Nora, separating her from her brother. “Evan, you can’t do that to Nora. You need to apologize. Now.”

“She started it!” Evan said, offering the time-honored absolute defense. Children have no sense of proportionality. If someone else starts it, for given values of “start” and “it,” the floodgates are open and anything goes.

“You can’t hit your sister,” Jenny said. “Do you need to go to time out?” Unable to comprehend the unjustness of the situation, Evan restated his case with more vehemence on the universally recognized principal that increased volume aids in making oneself understood. “But she started it,” he yelled, adding a few stomps to reinforce his point.

With a stern glance in Tom’s direction, Jenny said, “A little help here?”

Tom shook off her request instead, pointing at Evan. “See, right there.”

Jenny rolled her eyes, but turned her attention to Evan. Oblivious to his parents’ inspection, Evan continued his tantrum apace.

“That!” Tom said. “That’s definitely a float.”  

In her mother’s arms, Nora wriggled. “Let me go, Mom,” she said.

“I don’t care what you say!” Evan shouted, advancing on Nora and pointing at her. “She started it. It’s her fault.”

“Time out, Evan,” Jenny said, pointing to a chair in a corner of the room. “Now.”

Evan collapsed to the floor, tears tracking down his face. “Not time out,” he cried.

“Would you like a do-over?” Jenny asked, her soft, even voice barely audible above Evan’s sobs.

With a nod, Evan took two shaky breaths, wiped his eyes and through a clenched jaw said, “I’m sorry, Nora.”

Oblivious to the drama, Nora finally wiggled her way from Jenny’s grasp and hurried to her toys. “C’mon, Evan. Let’s build a tower.”

And like a summer afternoon thundershower, the storm passed. Evan wiped a sleeve across his nose and joined Nora.

“He’s ready,” Tom said.

“I could’ve used some help there,” Jenny said, looking askance at her husband.

Tom laid a hand on her shoulder. “You’re right, of course.” His eyes shone. “But did you see that?” He pointed at Evan. “That was amazing in a kid his age.”

Reluctance slowing her words, Jenny said, “Maybe. But even if he’s physically ready, he’s too young to be trusted untethered.”

Tom scoffed. “A tether’s only to prevent injury from a fall.” He shook his head. “There’s no chance of that with Evan. Not with the ability he’s shown.”

Bottom lip in her teeth, worry wrinkled Jenny’s brow. “It’s the opposite I’m worried about. You know what will happen if he goes too high.”

Tom smoothed his beard and considered his son now playing peacefully with Nora, their momentary tiff forgotten. “I’ll tell him,” Tom said. “Make sure he knows the limits. You know he’ll be too scared the first few times to get into trouble.”

Doubt still clouding her face, Jenny shook her head. “I don’t know, dear. I still think it’s too early. None of his classmates will be ready for at least two more years.”

“That’s the great part,” Tom said with shining, excited eyes. “Think of the practice he’ll have. How advanced he’ll be. He’ll be doing loops around the others when they’re still trying not to fall to the ground.”

Unconvinced, Jenny shook her head.

“I’ll be there, right there with him.” He rubbed her shoulders and kissed her softly on the cheek. “It’ll be fine. I promise.”

With a sigh, she patted his hands. Giving in to the inevitable, she nodded. “Please be careful,” she said.

The next day dawned brilliant and clear. With a summer sun peaking over the mountains, Tom sat across the table from Evan. “After breakfast Evan, I have a surprise for you.”

Evan perked up and lowered his spoon back into his bowl of cereal. “What is it?”

“A surprise,” Tom said. “Eat up. The sooner you finish, the sooner you find out.”

Nora piped up. “I want a surprise.”

Jenny placed a piece of toast on Nora’s plate. “I have a surprise for you, Nora. After breakfast, just like Evan.”

Jenny and Tom had discussed this the night before and decided it was easier to give something to Nora than it would be to fight yet another “It’s not fair” battle.

Evan slurped the last of the milk from his bowl. “I’m done, Dad! What’s the surprise?”

“Let’s go upstairs and I’ll show you.”

Evan clumped up the stairs, following his dad out onto the rooftop platform. “Are we going somewhere?” Evan asked, glancing about the platform. “Where’s the harness?”

Tom crouched before Evan, holding his gaze. “I’m not taking you anywhere, Evan.” He took Evan by the shoulders. “Today, you’re ready to go on your own.”

Excitement lit Evan’s eyes, and he jumped. It was all Tom could do to keep Evan on the platform. “I’m ready? I knew it.”

Beaming with pride, Tom nodded and squeezed his son’s shoulders. “Yes, you are. But first we need to talk about a few rules.” Evan settled onto the platform and nodded solemnly. Tom had rehearsed this part. At Evan’s age it would do no good to talk about Earth’s magnetic field lines and their interaction with the structure buried deep in his pineal gland, nor would a discussion of the dangers of tangling those field lines in the mid-troposphere. Those lessons would have to wait a few years. Right now, Evan needed a simple rule to follow. Tom produced a device resembling a wrist watch and offered it to Evan. “Do you know what this is?”

Evan took the device by its strap and frowned. With a laugh, the frown disappeared. “Yeah, it’s an almeter, like your.” He pointed at Evan’s wrist.

Tom smiled. “Altimeter. It’s an altimeter, Evan and it’s almost like mine. That dial, see it’s all green? That means you’re at a safe height.”

“Now this is important, Evan. Look at me.” Tom waited until Evan’s eyes met his. “When we go up, if that turns red you have to go back towards the ground.” He searched Evan’s face. “Do you understand me? If that goes red, you could fall.” Again Tom searched Evan’s face for understanding because if Evan hit sixteen thousand feet, magnetic field lines would tangle in his gland and he would fall and the lines would only untangle thirty seconds after he dipped below ten thousand feet. But long before then the ground would stop his fall. Tom had set Evan’s altimeter to turn red at fourteen thousand feet. A buffer of two thousand feet had seemed entirely sufficient.

Evan glanced down at his hand where he was trying to fit the altimeter to his wrist. “Right, Dad.”

Tom squeezed Evan’s shoulders. “Look at me, Evan.” Evan stopped fiddling with the altimeter and met his father’s eyes. “What do you do when it’s red?”

Evan tried to shrug his father’s hands from his shoulders. “Go back to the ground, Dad.”

 With one last squeeze, Tom nodded and released Evan’s shoulders. “Okay,” he said with a grin. “Are you ready for this?”

Evan laughed and leaped. Tom marveled at his control. He’d seen lots of first flights, but none so confident and assured. Evan jetted five hundred feet in the air and hung.

“C’mon, Dad. Try and catch me.” Evan streaked to the south with Tom in pursuit.

As Tom had expected, at this hour on a weekend traffic was light. Warmed by the sun and cooled by the air streaming over his body, Tom exulted again in the freedom of flight. Since his first flight twenty years before, Tom had been drunk on flight. For other flight capable friends, it had become routine. They had settled into it as an efficient means of travel. Tom had never lost the awe from that first moment his feet had left the ground. So he cried out in joy and raced after his son.

A hundred feet away and gaining, Tom reached out to tag Evan’s foot. Impossibly, Evan reversed direction and disappeared, leaving only his high musical laugh behind. Tom slowed and searched and spotted him a hundred yards behind and above. Evan was proving himself a natural.

A delighted grin split Tom’s face and he leaped up and around to intercept. Weaving and dodging, Evan just eluded Tom’s touch, jetting straight up.

Face shining with excitement at the chase, Tom rose in pursuit. Almost within reach once more, Evan eluded Tom yet again. Suspended in time, Tom and his son carved intricate spirals in the air in a magical ballet higher and higher. Until, panting with exertion, Tom hovered marveling at his son’s skill.

Something tickled the back of his mind. With a glance at his wrist, Tom swore to himself. Fifteen Thousand Feet. They were too high. How could he have lost track? Screaming at Evan to come back, Tom streaked after his son. Evan increased his speed. After an agonizing few seconds, Tom caught Evan by the ankle and pulled. “Come down now, Evan!” he screamed. “We’re too high!” Fifteen Thousand seven hundred feet. They slowed, but not enough.

Either unable to hear him or too caught up in the moment, Evan used all his energy to escape. At fifteen thousand nine hundred feet, seconds from disaster, Tom used a trick he had learned years ago. He traded momentum with his boy. Tom shot into the sky and flung Evan lower. Even knowing it was futile, Tom tried to halt his rise. But as he knew it must, his altimeter ground inexorably higher. He topped out at sixteen thousand three hundred feet.

*

It wasn’t fair! Somehow his dad had pushed him down and passed him. Now Dad was on top. Oh, well, at least he was free. About to jet away, Evan paused. What was his dad doing? It looked like he was falling. Was this a new game? He waited for his dad to stop and come after him. His dad fell past saying something Evan couldn’t hear.

“Dad?” Evan yelled. His dad got smaller. He wasn’t stopping. Something grabbed Evan’s guts and squeezed. This game wasn’t fun anymore. He raced after his father. Evan was proud of how fast he was, but even with his speed, he couldn’t catch his dad.

*

In the middle of their neighborhood park, Jenny found Evan shaking Tom’s broken body. “Wake up, dad,” he said. “C’mon let’s play some more. I’ll let you win this time.” As Jenny approached, Evan raised a tear sheened face, “Mom,” he sobbed. “Dad won’t wake up.” His little body shaking, he said, “I want a do-over.”

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