I joined a writers’ club in Shawano in January. We meet once a month to workshop stories. Since we read the stories aloud, I’ve found something like 1,000 words works best. I wrote this little story (1,400 words) last week for them bouncing off two inspirations: (1) discovery I had an ancestor named Riley Riley Vickers, who fought in the revolutionary war. Names were scarce back then, I suppose, and they had to reuse when they could. (2) Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s marvelous story A Very Old Man With Enormous Wings. Let me know what you think…
Riley Martin discovered he could fly in a dream. It was one of those curious dreams where you know you’re asleep. You know you’re warm, under the blanket in your bed, yet here you walk along, chilled slightly as the sun slips behind a fluffy cloud, on a grassy hilltop, feet on a narrow path, dandelions showing golden faces here and there in grass lush from the showers of early spring. Riley turned to face the breeze, sniffed the fresh scent of the dewy grass, and knew he could do it. He knew he could fly. He pinched his shirtsleeve cuffs between his fingers and palms, threw his shoulders back, lifted his arms into the breeze, and simply let himself rise. At first he barely lifted, only a few inches, and quickly slipped downwind off the path. He landed awkwardly, but found his balance before he fell and, all-in-all, felt a boost of confidence. He stepped back onto the path, stretched to his full height, and lifted his arms again. This time when his feet came away from the ground, he brought his arms down to his sides sharply, a move that propelled him straight up, like a Fourth-of-July rocket, but only a few feet before he stalled. The change in momentum at the top of this surge, the sinking, falling feeling, terrified him, but he bent his knees, as he’d learned to do skiing with his father before his father went away, and he landed alright, this time forward of the path, awkward again, but not so awkward as the first time. He braced himself, licked his lips, stepped back onto the path, and before fear could take his resolve, thrust his arms down. Again he leapt into the air; again he stalled and began to fall, but this time he raised his arms quickly and repeated the downward thrust, propelling himself higher. Before he began to stall again, he repeated the stroke of his arms (or shall we call them wings now?) and flew over the grass, bobbing like a robin with each wing thrust. He laughed out loud.
This, of course, was a dream. He flew about the hilly meadow for a time, learned to turn, dive, and soar. As he began to wonder how high he could climb and what he might see from there, he drifted out of the dream, out of his sleep, and found himself facedown in his pillow with the hollow clop of his mother’s footsteps on the stairs. “Riley!” she called. “Time to get up! You’ll be late for work!” As always, hearing his mother say his name brought an acrid taste to the back of his tongue. It was she, his own mother, who should have looked out for his interests above all else, especially when he was a baby, especially when he was a day old. But no, she disputed with his father about his name, pigheadedly insisted it should be her maiden name since Mr. Martin refused to hyphenate the last name, and so Riley was, not just Riley Martin, but, when his father left the hospital in a dramatic tantrum and his mother had no adult supervision whatsoever, Riley Riley Martin. He escaped this name in his early childhood, but it found him again in first grade. “Riley Riley, Really?” Mrs. Smith asked during role call the first day. Thereafter at school he was Riley Riley Really, a label he was convinced put him on the road to an unhappy, unfulfilled life. But, that was before the flying.
All day at work he thought of nothing except the dream. In fact, his supervisor, Mrs. Amos chastised him for his inattentiveness when he forgot to bring the morning mail from the post office. “How can you forget the mail,” she demanded, her voice shrill as police sirens. “It’s practically the only responsibility you have.” Normally such a rebuke would have thrown him into a pit of anger and self-recrimination, but not today, not with the dream so fresh in his mind. He knew the dream was more than a dream. He knew it was a revelation he could fly if only he’d take the chance. And he knew flying would make up for the miserable days in school, the other children tittering when his name was called, the mother who thought winning an argument more important than the name her only child would carry forever, the father who taught him nothing except to fall gracefully and then fell out of his life completely, the three years it took to find a job and then coming home with one requiring only a high school diploma though he had a BA. “Did you tell them about your college?” his mother demanded. “Perhaps I should call them right now and put this straight! Assistant mail clerk, indeed!” Flying might even wipe away the most recent humiliation: Emerald Austin, the only woman who seemed interested in him, cancelled their Friday pizza-and-movie date to go out with Arnold Sweet, a pimply-faced, high-school graduate who walked with a limp and smelled vaguely of urine. And to go where? Pizza and a movie! Perhaps the same movie. Riley didn’t know; He didn’t want to know.
“I don’t feel well,” he told Mrs. Amos in the middle of the afternoon. “I should go home.” “You know the rule,” Mrs. Amos barked, not bothering to turn around. “Bring me an excuse signed by a doctor, or it’s a vacation day.”
He rode his usual bus but, when it came to his stop, lowered his eyes, slunk in his seat, and avoided the bus driver’s stare in the mirror. He rode on. Presently the old neighborhoods near the meat packing plant changed to newer suburbs, with ranch houses and two-car garages. Before long these too thinned out. When most of the remaining passengers stood as the bus squealed to a stop, Riley stood too, lest he be left the only rider remaining, with questions from the driver to answer. He slipped into a clump of passengers and out the back door. The bus pulled away in a cloud of diesel smoke and he turned to survey his situation.
On the side of the road where he stood were several houses and a strip mall. The other bus passengers walked in that direction. But, across the road, across a fence, was a meadow not so different from the one in his dream. He took off his raincoat so he could slip between the wires, and put it on again on the other side. The raincoat worried him at first, but the loose-fitting sleeves seemed helpful for flying, if anything. He stepped gingerly across a shallow depression, muddy in the bottom, soon gained the hill and worked his way to the top. In a few minutes he stood on the crest, breeze blowing in his face, coat flapping at his calves. “Flying doesn’t require strength,” he said confidently. In fact, strength, and the bulk that goes with it, would be nothing but a detriment. Flying is for the insubstantial, the delicate, the ephemeral, weightless and carefree. With this thought in his head he grasped his sleeve cuffs, and lifted his arms.
Police confirmed with the driver and several passengers Riley Martin had ridden the L bus to the last stop. Questioning those living nearby turned up no additional information, and their search found only Riley’s shoes, together on a path at the top of a hill, the laces still tied. Riley’s disappearance troubled local news broadcasts for a week; they explored scenarios of abduction and in one case speculated in the late-night segment about aliens from space and possible witchcraft. The police feinted interest for another several weeks, at least to the extent of retaining his name on their list of open cases. Riley’s mother kept him in her thoughts longer. On the first anniversary of his disappearance, she fashioned a small grotto in the stones that closed the side of her flower garden. In this space she put his shoes and a picture taken on his fifth birthday, the latest she had of him. The bright afternoon sun shone brightly on this monument. “Poor Riley,” she whispered. “If only you’d taken some stock in yourself; you might have done God knows what.” She crossed herself, though she was not Catholic and only vaguely Christian, and stood looking down at her work.
Suddenly the space around the shoes and photo darkened. The sunbeam that lit it disappeared. Surprised, she looked up to see, high above her, a giant bird, a care-free, self-confident bird flying across the face of the sun.