My name is Ronnie Marshall and I was eleven the year the space shuttle blew up. I started flying in my dreams right after those astronauts died. It's not like being Superman--you have to find the right kind of hill and run down it like crazy and throw out your arms like you're going off the high dive and close your eyes and believe. It's not really learning how to fly. Anybody can to do that. The trick is forgetting how to fall back down again.
I'd dream these flying dreams, the long grass slick on my legs as leaves spun in the air. There were always feathers in my dreams, like God had busted His pillow and goose down was snowing on the world. In dreams my feet pounded down a hill, my teeth clacking with every step, and when it came time to leave this earth, that's what I'd do. Mama died one night a couple of years ago, sleeping off the chemo she took for her cancer. This last Christmas, just a couple of months gone by, Daddy flew too, until his truck landed in the San Marcos River. Granddaddy says that was punishment for mocking the angels. But I could soar away on God's feathers and still come back safe. At least in my dreams.
That spring in math class, after we'd all kind of got back to normal about the Challenger blowing up, we were studying angles. Because I do good in class, Mrs. Doornie gave me a protractor to work with, and I used it to measure the angle of my dreams. That's when I figured exactly how steep a hill needed to be for me to fly in real life.
I swiped two surveyor's stakes from Granddaddy's truck and used my coffee can money on a hundred feet of clothesline at Laudermilk's Hardware in town. It was old money, from when Daddy had still given me an allowance, but I didn't have nothing else I wanted anymore, except to see if I could really fly.
There was a big old hill on the Chamberlain place that stuck up all smooth and round like a sand pile, except it was pale rock under the dirt and grass. One giant live oak tree grew up at the top, that kept getting hit by lightning but never stopped growing. I'd rode my bike down that hill a hundred times, until I wiped out on a cow pie and broke my wrist when I was eight and Daddy made me stop. Chamberlain's hill looked like it might be the right angle.
So I took my stakes and my clothesline and a mallet and a level from the tool shed and headed over there early one Saturday. I drove one stake into the ground near the top, where the hill kind of rolled over to the angle it had, and another at the bottom, just before the hill flattened out again. My clothesline barely stretched between them, and it was real saggy, but I used some sticks from the live oak to prop it up in the middle. Then I backed off to the fence line, balanced the level on a post with some pebbles until it was straight, and set the protractor flat edge down on the level and stared through it at the hill and the clothesline.
I was right. It was exactly the angle of my dreams. I picked up my tools and went home to plan my first flight.
Granddaddy was at the door of my room. He was a thin man, "spare" I'd heard him called. I didn't really know what "spare" meant like that, except Granddaddy didn't have much to spare for me or the world. He surveyed land for people and heard a lot of lies and complaints and lawyers talking. Granddaddy had got to where he didn't trust nobody but himself and Jesus. Least that's what he always told me on the way to church Wednesdays and Sundays.
I jumped up from my desk and stood straight, like he'd taught me. "Yes, sir?"
Granddaddy looked me up and down, then shook his head a little tiny bit. "Were you in my truck, Ronnie?"
I stared at my black Keds. He never asked me things he didn't already know the answer to, and I'd learned better than to lie to Granddaddy. "Yes, sir," I muttered.
There was a slithering as Granddaddy slipped his belt off. "Ronnie," he said, his voice sad, "you know the rules. It doesn't matter what you wanted with those stakes. You didn't ask."
My breath caught in my chest, making my whole body shake. "You'd have said no."
"It's my truck, Ronnie." He smacked the belt against his palm. "You can't just do what you want in this world, boy."
I leaned over my desk.
I ate dinner at the kitchen counter, where I could stand up. That night after Granddaddy was asleep, I sat down at my desk again, real careful of my sore butt. I was going to fly tomorrow, and I had to be ready.
There was a newspaper clipping in my drawer, from the Austin American-Statesman. I pulled it out, and copied out the names in my best printing, one at a time onto the back of a picture of Momma and Daddy. Commander Francis Scobee. Michael Smith. Ellison Onizuka. Ronald McNair. Judith Resnik. Gregory Jarvis. Christa McAuliffe.
It was the teacher that broke my heart, that always made me want to cry while I prayed in church. I could see my Mrs. Doornie climbing into that rocket, flying into the sky and never coming home. I guess Mrs. McAuliffe had kids and a husband and maybe her Momma and Daddy who missed her, but I always imagined those kids in her class, waiting at their desks while she never came back until they were covered with chalk dust and pencil shavings and the birds made nests in their hair.
Then I set the list aside with a little space shuttle eraser I'd won in a third grade math contest and went back to bed.