Flight 

Cindy

Excerpt from Little Lost River

And then we were flying—and then we were not. The front tire on my side dipped into the gravel on the shoulder in the same minute Rick brought both hands up to the wheel, trying to recover. "Hang on," he said, but I was sliding already, slammed against the passenger door, my hands combing dead air.

You don't expect the whistling. Just like in cartoons, high-pitched and falling right along with you. If I'd tried to imagine that moment, I would have the made the car completely quiet, floating, suspended coyote-like before what you know is going to happen, the return to where you came from.

I would have been way off.

We'd been up at the corral since nine o'clock, pulling beer from kegs in the back of a truck. No one knew exactly who owned the corral, if anyone did. There was no house left near the animal pen, just a big stone chimney that used to be part of one and a barn that was falling-down rotten. Rick thought the whole setup was left over from when people made a living out of breaking wild horses they'd round up on the high mountain plains. That was possible: as far as any of us knew, the corral had been there forever.

That night I was like a wild horse myself: restless, roaming. Everyone else was standing close by the fire in the middle of the big corral, just trying to keep warm. It's hard to see in that kind of darkness, but I knew if I kept the fence to my right I'd end up back where I'd started, eventually.

"What's the matter?" Rick asked. He'd come out of nowhere, out of the black space in front of me.

"Nothing," I said. "Just taking a walk." He stood square in my way. "Is that a problem or something?"

"No," he said, and stepped aside. He stayed to my left, hands jammed in the pockets of his coat, and he didn't say anything else.

I was mad from before he'd even picked me up. In my head, I was still having the fight I hadn't finished with my dad. You just want to run wild all the time, you want to go out with your friends and have fun and forget about school and everything else that really matters—like your family. Well that's not going to happen. Not on my watch.

As if he were actually watching me. As if he knew when I was home and when I wasn't.

You don't know anything about my friends. You don't know anything about me anymore.

And he stood there, slapped.

And I couldn't let it go now, not even when I wanted to. I wanted to stand by the fire and lean back against Rick, drink a beer and feel it flush my cheeks red. I wanted to turn around and hold myself upright against his slick winter coat, kiss the soft space in the bottom of his jaw while he stared at the fire and pretended not to notice what I was doing. I wanted to stand there and breathe until the warm and empty space inside me filled with this air, cold and high and thin, as close to clear as you can get. I wanted to start over, but I didn't know where to begin.

We rounded the end of the corral and I watched my friend Mitzi start dancing by the fire when someone turned up his car stereo, swinging her hips in tight little circles, her arms in the air. She was giving herself to the night.

"Just go back to the party," I told Rick then. "I'm not going to be any fun tonight."

"We can leave, if you want."

"No," I said. "Go talk. Have a good time." And he kissed the top of my head before he peeled away to join the crowd shifting in the circle of the bonfire's heat.

Before long it was too cold to be outside anyway, even standing right by the fire—whichever side of you was facing away from the flames hurt as soon as you turned around. By that time people were standing shoulder to shoulder in a circle, spinning like chickens on a spit. Rick pulled his keys from his pocket and tipped his head toward the car when he saw me look at him. This time I took his suggestion and let him open the door for me.

And then we were flying: on the road, relieved to be getting somewhere together, even going downhill, heading back toward home again. The valley is only one possibility from that distance. You can look out across the big flat and see what you think must be the Oregon border, it looks so far away. But really it's just another little farming town—Eagle, Meridian, Star. One of those places people don't move out of, even when they're old enough to do what they want.

Rick drove with his left hand and smoked with the other. I slid across the bench seat, close to him on his side of the car. The heater blasted so hard, lifting my hair on the hot wind, I almost couldn't hear Rick's voice in my ear, even with his lips brushing right against my skin.

"So what do you feel like doing now?" he said.

"Anything. I don't care."

"You want to go home?"

"No," I said.

"Then you do care." He smiled and kissed my temple.

"Anything but that," I said. "That's the only thing I care about."

He was staring at me then, looking down and in, the way he'd looked the first time we sat together on the back steps at my house. That night he'd been trying to figure out why I had to work so hard to talk myself into going back inside that house. Because I had to give up everything before I could do that—my dad wouldn't want to know where I'd been, or even who with. He'd just be angry that I'd left him in the first place, when he had nowhere to go.

"I'm sorry about before," I said. "My dad—"

My head snapped left. My forehead cracked against his jaw. Then right, hard. The only thing I could think to do was lift my arms, brace my hands against the roof, press my feet against the floorboard, now overhead. And that's when we fell right off the edge of the world, left the ground entirely. I felt my stomach give out, and I couldn't breathe.

"Hang on," Rick said. "Oh shit. Hang on. Hang on!"

Below us, somewhere, was the reservoir. I remembered that now. We were headed for the water with no way to stop.

Sounds are all I remember now: the windows exploding like bottles you throw from the roof just to see how long it takes for them to hit the ground. I'd say now, and nothing. Now. Then, half a second later, the pop you hear when things let go. It was just like that, only louder.

When we finally stopped sliding, the car pitching end to end every time it rammed against something heavier, I lay there for one bright and completely silent moment. The dome light had come on whenever the doors bowed out, like the car had tried to sprout wings. Nothing hurt, or nothing in particular. My whole body was humming. I lay inside the roof of the car, on my back, my right leg wedged against my chest, my left foot where the windshield had been just seconds before. One more roll and I'd be out. And that's when I saw Rick wasn't with me.

I felt glass everywhere I put my hands, trying to push myself along the roof. I tried to slide out the windshield hole and cut my fingers on picky little jags around the edges. My left leg stayed locked out, stiff as a log even when I tried to bend it, to drag myself with my heel. Then a piece of something smooth and dry slid under my right hand all of a sudden, and I closed my fingers around it. A ten dollar bill. I slipped it into the pocket of my coat.

And then, somehow, I was outside. I had a circle of light to work with, but Rick was nowhere. I called his name, thinking I should, not expecting him to answer. My voice came back hollow, just an echo of itself. And then a different one.

"Hey!"

I turned around and looked uphill. A girl was waving at me from the shoulder of the road.

"Up here! Are you all right?"

A boy appeared behind her. It surprised me how well I could hear them when they seemed so far away.

"How many people in there?" he asked the girl.

"I don't know. There's someone." She pointed at me. "Right by the car. She just got out."

"Can you climb up here on your own?" the boy called. "Are you okay?"

"You don't have to yell," I said, and I started up the hill. My eyes were still adjusting to the sudden dark: sagebrush, rocks, the occasional scrubby tree. But Rick was nowhere.

The boy started sliding, bracing himself with his downhill leg, grabbing at the brush for balance. The girl stayed up on the shoulder, hands in her pockets, bouncing to keep herself warm. Once in awhile she'd look up the highway, scanning for headlights coming toward us.

"Can you make it?" the boy asked, when I got as far up as he'd come down.

"I'm all right. I don't know where my boyfriend is, though."

"You go up there with her," he said, pointing at the girl. "I'll find him. What's his name?"

"Rick," I said, and he went on sliding downhill, calling Rick's name, getting only that back. I dragged my leg as far as I could, until the weight of it was more than I could carry. Then I sat down and waited.

"Hey," the girl said, when she saw me stopping. "Are you okay? You need some help?"

I didn't say anything. I just watched the boy sliding, calling for Rick. When he got to the car he bent over and looked inside, like maybe I just hadn't noticed Rick in there with me.

"Hey," the girl said again. Then she started downhill herself, sending rocks and dust and uprooted brush ahead of her. I looked at my left leg sticking out, a dam for all the debris piled up against it. "Are you okay?" she asked again, when she got to where I was sitting.

"Something's wrong with my leg. I just need to rest for a minute."

"Oh. Okay. Sure," she said, and thought about sitting beside me for a minute before she did. "Was it just you and your boyfriend in there?"

"Yeah."

"It's going to be okay. I'm sure Tom will find him."

Tom was nowhere now, too, farther into the dark than we could see from where we were. "Where'd he go?" I said.

"It's okay," she said, misunderstanding me. "Don't worry. Tom's going to find him." Her hand fluttered up to pat my back, then disappeared again. "I'm Frances, by the way."

I nodded. She was no one I recognized from the corral, but I thought I might know her from school. Round face, brown hair straight pulled back in one of those stretchy white headbands most girls give up in third grade. Clean. Not the kind of girl you'd expect to find near the corral on a Friday night. Definitely not the kind of person who would stop to talk to me, under normal circumstances. But I didn't mind the company while I sat cold and humming in the dark, waiting to see what was going to happen next.

She kept staring hard into the nothing ahead of us. My leg felt squeezed now, like my pants were too small for it. My face felt hot and tight. I pretended to be looking up the highway for help when she turned her head toward me again.

"There's no one coming," I said.

"It's okay. I'm going to help you and Tom's going to find your boyfriend."

She put her arm around my shoulders then. The weight of it hurt me, but I let her leave it there.

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