Issue 8, January 2011
When Megan Could Fly: Listen to Robert Eccles read this story
When Megan Could Fly
By Aaron Polson
For a few months during our senior year in high school, Megan McHenry could fly. She flew for the first time on a Friday in September, a humid night before the summer heat became a memory and the cool evenings of autumn only lingered as a vague hope. Most objects succumb to gravity's impartial pull, but not Megan. Not when she could fly.
She'd stolen a small bottle of whiskey from her father's cabinet that night. It wasn't the first time, and she said he'd kill her if he knew. He was a drunk, a roaring, wall-shaking drunk at his worst and a brooding, dark room, flickering television drunk when the booze had less of a hold. I hated whiskey for how it abused Megan through her father's hands. I hated how I could taste the abuse, bitter and hot. But I loved Megan. I loved Megan as much as water or air or the very blood ka-thumping through my seventeen-year-old arteries. She captured almost everyone she met, tied them with her maple-brown hair, looped her long fingers around a boy's throat like twine and squeezed until she became his oxygen, and then cut him to pieces with her blue-green eyes. She did it to me.
Ken and I were there, at Rose Maddox, the little league field, on the night of Megan's maiden flight. The rest of our friends were gone. BJ had lost himself in failed suicide and trailer park certainties. Tony had drifted away in his own surreal landscape of lies and cannabis. Mike had committed mutiny two years before, jumping over the side of the Republic River Bridge. Joel had been dead, drowned in Potter's Pond, since we were in eighth grade. Ken and I survived, in a sense. Wounded, but there. Being with Megan made us forget our history. She was Jack from the story, not afraid to sneak the golden goose from under the slumbering giant, in this case, her monster of a father. She was blue-green eyes and a voice like summer music, the night melody of a billion lustful insects. Magic seeped from her skin, thick and silver-blue like the glint of star shine on bare metal.
"I like the moonless nights the best," she said with a crooked smile hung under her thin, almost-too-long nose.
Ken held the bottle. "The stars? Because you can see the stars, right?" He drank and passed to me.
"The stars are brave," she said. She pulled off her dirt-caked sneakers, tossed them to the grass near a dugout, and spun a cartwheel toward the pitcher's mound. Puffs of dust followed her path.
"They're pretty." I fumbled with the bottle as much as my words.
"No. Not pretty. Such a silly word. They're brave. Big difference. They hang there all day, even when the sun bullies them. They hang there even when we can't see them. But they're there. They don't hide. They don't run away."
"It's not like they have a choice." I took a drink and winced. "Gravity. Gravitational pull. They're locked in orbit."
She shook her head. "Always with the certainties, Aaron. Always." She clambered around the backstop to the corner of a two-story cinderblock building used as a press box and concession stand. Ken took the bottle from me. Megan pointed toward the sky. "I can fly, boys. Just like the stars. Want to watch?" She began shimmying the building, using window ledges and drain pipe as foot holds.
"Meganócome down." The alcohol began to tumble in my gut. If I blinked she might have fallen. If I kept watching, she surely would have. "You can't …"
She said nothing else until hoisting her torso over the top of the roof. We stared in amazement from the infield. Ken wore a grin, wide and dumb, his stock response to anything Megan did. He loved her as much as I did.
"Come down," I said.
A streetlight shone behind her, painting a black Megan-shape against the midnight blue of the sky. "My way," she said. Her arms lifted to either side like wings.
"Don't worry. I've been practicing."
Ken took a few steps toward the building. He dropped the bottle with a dead thud to the dirt.
"Megan …" My eyes clicked shut. I held them closed until Ken punched me in the arm.
"Holy shit … she did it."
Megan took a bow next to second base.
Ken and I held little competitions for Megan's affection. We challenged each other with doodles in art class. He was classic skill and finely curved lines. I was caricature and sarcasm. He sketched a bouquet of flowers, and I penciled a pimple-faced goon holding them. We raced to offer help with trigonometry and physics. She said numbers were for eggheads like the both of us, and we smiled, drinking in every bit of Megan, taking the insult like a Milkbone in the mouth of a well-abused lap dog.
Sometimes she threw pebbles at my window at night, like the Friday we snuck out to see the Elkhart's barn burn. I rubbed sleep from my face and squinted at the window. She waved. Her hair bobbed behind her, swinging back and forth in a ponytail, the way I'll always remember Megan's hair.
"Stays out of my eyes when I'm airborne this way," she'd say later that fall.
I listened for a moment, waiting for a squeak from Mom. Nothing. In five minutes, jeans and sneakers covered my legs and feet. I'd slept in my t-shirt, just in case the tiny clinks of rock on window would rouse my sleep. Anything was possible with Megan; even the granite-clad skeptic inside my skin had moments of blind faith. I crept down the stairs and met her behind the garage. She squeezed me with a quick hug and stepped back.
"How'd you get here?" I asked.
Her thumb jerked toward the street. "Ken, of course. He picked me up out at Countryside."
"Ken?" Jealously cherry-dropped in my gut. "He picked you up?"
Her long fingers squeezed my shoulder. "Soldier up, Ponyboy. We're going to a good old-fashioned barn burning. Flames and everything. Of course this one's an accident. I heard about it on Dad's scanner."
She dragged me along on invisible thread, and I boarded the passenger side of Ken's baby-blue Cutlass. We wheeled away from Webster, two blocks toward the highway. I rolled down the window and felt October play with my hair. Megan giggled and fumbled with Ken's radio, punching plastic silver buttons on the dash.
The fire blazed against the night, bright and orange and alive, fighting the darkness with barred fists and teeth clenched for glory. Ken parked on a dirt road a mile away. We played a makeshift round of secret agents, a game from our childhood, weaving through the big ditches at roadside and ducking under a few limp strands of barbwire. As we came closer, lights from police cruisers and fire trucks flashed silent signals to the flames.
"We can't get caught," Megan whispered, parting her lips in a candied smile.
We hiked a ridge south of the Elkhart's field and hugged the ground like soldiers in a late-night epic. The wind took the fire and smoke off toward the northeast. Great billowing clouds rose up, marring even the nighttime with black ash. Shapes like toy men bounced around the edges of the blaze. The barn was gone. The fire leapt its boundaries and sped across pasture, leaving a charcoal wasteland behind. There was power in the fire. Terrible power. My eyes stung with power even though the wind carried the ash away.
"We shouldn't be here," I said. "We might get caught."
Megan stood. She dared the night. "Caught-smaught. Nobody's looking this way."
Ken sat up.
"Megan," I protested.
She put out her arms like wings and ran toward a rocky outcropping, a spit of granite breaking through the rolling limestone hills. Her hands rested on the rock's bald pate, and her feet swung around. In a moment, she poked the wings out again, this time at the pinnacle of the hill. It was only two or three feet above the ground, but at the crest of the hill made the perfect perch for a flight over the fire.
I caught myself with the thought — flight over the fire — wriggling through my frontal lobe.
"That smoke has balls, boys. Big, brassy things like Old Toro in Dad's south pasture. It isn't afraid to say a big 'fuck you very much' to gravity. Just like me." Her knees bent.
I ran. I launched myself toward the rock, eyes closed, arms outstretched in the worst mock-tackle Spring County had seen in its less-than-illustrious history.
Maybe, for a splinter of a second, I was flying, too.
When we hit the ground, all the air galloped out of my chest, leaving me in a heaving, sputtering mass of sweat and fear. Megan rolled off me. Her hair spread out like a maple-syrup halo lit with moonlight. She laughed, a big, sky-splitting laugh which threatened to bring the Spring County Sheriff to our heels.
She sat up and winked after the laughter slowed. "You nearly had a good lift there. Almost sailed away. Maybe keep your eyes open next time and you could really fly."
After the fire, the score sat firmly at Megan two, Aaron zilch. I'd ignored her magic once, out at Rose Maddox with my eyes sealed. The second time, she nearly goaded me into my own takeoff and laughed big and loud and alive while I coughed for air afterward. She racked up several more points, almost too many to count, skimming the surface of Broughton Creek without wetting her socks, landing once on my roofójust outside my window. Each time, I closed my eyes, pressed them tight and hard. When we danced at homecoming, she burrowed into my pupils with her blue-green gaze. "The dance happens up here." She squeezed my shoulders. "Not the floor. The dance doesn't happen on the floor. You're almost doing it, Aaron. Almost." My legs were the casts of a lead Golem, thudding against tile. I couldn't look down. I wasn't sure her heels touched cafeteria tile-turned-dance floor at all, but I wouldn't look.
Each time we were together, the result was the same, the evidence kneeing my groin with cold reality.
For a short time during our senior year, Megan McHenry could really fly.
We met for the last time on a Friday night. Megan brought another bottle of whiskey, and the three of us shared under the star field at Rose Maddox. Once we hung a good buzz on each of us, she glanced at the tall PA box and shook her head.
"Not tonight, friends."
Megan stood and scampered into the shadows before Ken and I could pry our dizzy bodies from the dirt. We ran after her, stumbling like silver balls in a broken pinball machine. She kept ahead, just out of reach.
"The pool," Ken said.
It was October. The pool was empty.
She tumbled over the chain link fence ahead of us and dropped to the other side. By the time Ken and I crashed poolside, she'd already rounded the far end. The deep end. Dead leaves rattled in circles, caught by autumn breezes. The white bowl of the empty pool reflected starlight, strange and beautiful as the dimples of the moon.
"Stay there," she shouted across the hollow. She climbed the high dive.
Ken grabbed my arm. I didn't have the strength to fight him.
"This one's for you, Aaron," she said. "Watch carefully and you'll see how it's done."
"She spread her arms wide to either side, her feet balanced at the edge of the board. She hovered there, primed for launch, above the deep end. That's how I hold her in my memory: bold and beautiful and lit with night magic at the top of the diving platform. I knew it wouldn't lastóMegan wasn't ours, not really. The pool sat empty since Labor Day; the whitewashed concrete floor waited twenty feet below. If I blinked, she would have been in the air. If I'd closed my eyes, her silhouette would have crossed the sky, winking with the stars. But I didn't blink. I didn't close my eyes. I watched her fall and die, and the memory carved into my brain as sure as any scar on my skin. For a moment, a horrible, selfish moment amped with jealousy, I wanted to be the one to drag her to the ground and break her neck.
But that's not how it should end. That's not the denouement on which I want to rest.
Megan and I kissed one time, the night before she died in the empty pool. We studied for our physics exam on the second floor of Springdale's Carnegie Library. She mocked my precision, my calculations and revisions, the tiny scribbles of numbers on a page.
"It doesn't really tell the story, does it?"
I chewed my lip and asked, "What story? This is just acceleration due to gravity, 9.8 meters per second squared. Simple. Memorize this and the quiz will be a cinch. Easy as … pie, I guess. Whatever that means."
Her head wagged from side to side. She tucked a loose strand of hair behind her right ear. "No," her voice slowed, "none of this explains why I can fly and you … well, can't."
I laid down my pencil. The old building listened, waited for the next moment. I should have said something, told her I wanted to believe. Lied about how much I did believe. She touched my cheek and kissed me on the lips, quick and awkward. In that kiss, in that quick moment, I knew I'd lost her. Megan would never love me like I did her.
"I can fly, Aaron." She studied me with blue-green eyes. "Gravity doesn't own me. This nonsense doesn't own me. It doesn't own you either. Gravity might be a bitch, a calculating bitch, but at least it isn't my master."
"Megan …" My protest limped. It was weak. I tapped the book with one hand, hammering the acceleration due to gravity with my index finger. "Please don't."
Her lips parted enough for a small smile, a knowing, private smile. "You just have too much faith in gravity."
Aaron Polson currently lives in Lawrence, Kansas with his wife, two sons, and a tattooed rabbit. To pay the bills, Aaron attempts to teach high school students the difference between irony and coincidence. His stories have featured magic goldfish, monstrous beetles, and a book of lullabies for baby vampires. Several new stories are forthcoming in Shimmer, Shock Totem, and Space and Time, and other publications. The Saints are Dead, a collection of weird fiction, magical realism, and the kitchen sink, is due from Aqueous Press during Summer 2011. You can visit Aaron on the web at aaronpolson.blogspot.com