Mar 27

How to Fly

Vera flew. She’d always wished for it, to soar above the ground. She loved the feeling of weightlessness. She wasn’t sure how she was doing it, but she flew. Until, all of a sudden, the sky melted off and she was back in her bed, tucked under rumpled covers, awake again. A dream. It was always a dream, and the dreams always ended before she could really set about doing what she’d wanted to do. If she’d known how short a time she’d be able to fly for she wouldn’t have wasted time doing so many loop-the-loops. She felt cheated, she felt angry, she felt the hairs stand up on the back of her neck. It didn’t count, if she’d just dreamed it. She couldn’t really fly. She wasn’t special, she wasn’t much of anything. She was plain-looking, shy, and had a poor memory. She didn’t have any remarkable skills; she could play the piano but not very well. The only thing she had going for her was that she was very smart, although she was held back by her inability to remember what she was thinking about. Which was nice and all, but what she really wanted was to fly. She’d wanted it ever since she was small. It was so cruel for her dreams to give her her greatest wish and then yank it away again. But what could she do? She could get dressed and go to school, go to her piano lesson, do her homework. So that was exactly what she did.

    The next night she knew she had dreamed but didn’t remember it.

    The night after, she had a dream she’d been having every so often for many years. She had been accepted at a special school where the students learned to make birds’ nests and dig tunnels and mound anthills and bask in the sun like lizards. Her subconscious, teasing her again. Wouldn’t you like to be a bird? Wouldn’t you like to be anything other than you? Vera woke up, got dressed, went to school and then to lacrosse practice, did her homework, cracked open a book to read. Yes, she thought, I would love to be something other than me.

    In addition to being smart, Vera had a couple of other good qualities. She was determined, and she knew how to do her research. She read up on something called lucid dreaming, where you could control your dreams while you were in them. You could go anywhere and do anything. The secret was to recognize the differences between a dream and real life. They are:

The sky looks a bit wrong, almost as though it’s been painted on. Your subconscious can’t really understand what the sky is supposed to look like, so it makes its best guess, like a child drawing a blue line across the top of their drawing in crayon.

You can’t read. Words don’t process. Letters don’t line up. Street signs are missing, or illegible. Knowledge seeps straight into your brain, not through your eyes.

Your skin is too stretchy, your toes are too long, your fingers pass right through your palm. You are aware of your body only as the loosest presence, so some of the details are off when you look closely. If you pull at the skin on the back of your hand, you can pull it for miles.

Time doesn’t pass, or it passes too fast. Clocks and watches are missing, or stuck in one place, or they jump about. The time changes back and forth by hours every time you check it. Nothing is linear. You don’t get bored.

Your feet don’t touch the ground. You hover, just a little bit. Your stride is strange. You are aware of moving forward, but your legs don’t really interact with your surroundings the way they should.

Forget “pinch yourself”, this is how you really tell a dream from reality. Every time she remembered, Vera ran through her checks as quickly as she could, just to get in the habit of it. In dreams, you only did things you did as habits. Sometimes people looked at her a bit strangely. It was a small price to pay for being the master of a dream, doing anything she wanted.

    In addition to the five checks, you could figure out other things specific to you that set your dreams apart from reality. Some people dreamed in black and white, some people couldn’t tell the difference between hot and cold. As for Vera, when she dreamed, she didn’t have a sense of smell. It was a very small thing, because what human being ever thought about their sense of smell?

    She hadn’t committed the checks to memory quite right. The next few nights, she dreamed, but only realized they’d been dreams after she woke up. She went to school, to practice, to her piano lesson. She did her homework. She reread her favorite books. She pinched the skin on the back of her hand and went to bed.

    Vera sat at the piano, running through her scales. Between C and B-flat, she paused. Her sock clad feet were on the ground, her fingers sat properly on the piano keys. She looked out the window. The sky was deep and blue. The stopwatch next to her told her she had another twenty-five minutes of piano practice left to go. “Etude”, she read aloud, “Forte”. Real. All of it was real. She could go back to her practicing now, but she’d lost her place, so she started again with C-scales.

    Vera could see saltwater swirling around her ankles, but her feet felt dry. The sky above her was too small and the stars looked cramped and too close together. Something was pulling her deeper into the ocean. The sand got farther away until she could barely see it anymore. Meanwhile, the sky was drawing closer. Over the crashing of the waves, she heard the last few notes of a piece she was learning to play on the piano. She took a few steps in the direction of the current and the sound got louder and louder. The song reached its conclusion and began playing in reverse. Where she placed her feet, a path of light began to cut across the water as though cast by the sun, although the sun had already set. With each step, she was drawn in faster and the music swelled. At the barely-visible end of the path, she could see a glimmering round shape, a perfect sphere made from some kind of dark but polished metal. She knew instinctively that that was where the music was coming from. Suddenly, something inside of her said to turn around, turn around right now, go back the way you came before it’s too late, but the current was too strong to turn out of and the sphere got closer and closer, the music louder and more discordant until---

    Beep! Beep! Beep!

Vera sat up and punched her alarm clock off. Her lips still tasted like the ocean, but it was only nighttime sweat. Her hair was tousled around her shoulders. “Damn,” she said, “So close. So close.” She put on her glasses and sat at the piano, but she couldn’t get any of the notes she played to come out right.
    Vera remembered a dream she’d had back when she was very small. In the dream, she’d been hiking with her family on a little trail through the woods. It was autumn, and the air was crisp and cool and filled with falling leaves. Vera loved the way they crunched under her feet, and became preoccupied with the sound of her footsteps as she ran a little way ahead of her family. Looking up, she found herself in standing in front of a majestic boulder formation. Three rocks the size of elephants leaned crookedly against one another, recessed gently into the earth. They’d been deposited there by a glacier thousands of years ago and nothing had moved them before or since. In Vera’s woods, there were a lot of glacial rocks. They formed nooks and crannies and hidey-holes called boulder caves that were perfect places for an adventurous girl like Vera to play.

    She began to climb between the rocks and into an interesting little crevice, pulling herself up with her outstretched arms. The rocks felt rough and cool beneath her palms, and scraped a bit on her elbows. She shimmied into a tiny opening beneath the biggest rock, when suddenly she began to smell something absolutely foul. It had a sweetness to it, and a spiciness, a sharp acidity over a fetid smell of rot. Never had she smelled anything like it. The memory simply couldn’t have come from anywhere else. The smell was horrific but Vera couldn’t back down without seeing where it was coming from. Soon she saw it: a pair of sealed black trash bags, bulging oddly and smelling worse than any normal garbage. Little Vera had run away as fast as she could, back up the trail, the scent burning in her nostrils, and---

    “Oh my God,” Vera said aloud. She had just realized.
    Vera was a smart person, a logical person. She kept her bearings in most every situation and wasn’t often stumped, but when she was, she made a plan. Fact: I dreamt about a very specific smell that I couldn’t have made up. Fact: I don’t smell in my dreams, so that dream wasn’t really a dream. Fact: That smell is the smell of decaying human tissue. Fact: There was something in those garbage bags. Fact: I remember those boulders from real life and they are only ten miles away from my house. Fact: Plastic garbage bags and their contents can last for hundreds of years without decaying fully.

    Vera felt her stomach drop out from under her. Am I really going to do this?, she asked herself. Yes. Definitely. Her parents were at work and would be for hours. She didn’t want to rush into things, but she needed answers.

    She emptied the papers out of her school backpack and filled it instead with a warm cardigan, a whistle, and her cellphone. She found her little brother’s nose plug that he used for swimming, albeit ominously encrusted, and washed it with soap and hot water, then threw it into the bag too. She thought for a moment, then added a can of bear spray, super-concentrated pepper spray that could drop a grizzly at one hundred yards. Just to be on the safe side.

    She didn’t want to go alone, so she decided to leash up her family’s old dog and bring her along for a companion. Charlotte was a fourteen year old beagle with mossy teeth and a white muzzle who wouldn’t be much help in a bad situation, but it was reassuring to bring her with her. “Come on, Charlie,” said Vera, trying to hide how much her voice was shaking. “We’re going for walkies, alright?” The old dog thumped her tail in appreciation, and Vera felt a little more confident.

    The walk took a while, especially since Charlotte had to stop several times along the way to relieve herself, but the sky was a beautiful blue and the weather was crisp, and after all, Vera was in no hurry to get to her destination. By the time she reached the trailhead, the sun was directly overhead. She took a deep breath, and stepped onto the trail.

    A moment later, she saw a familiar sight. Three huge rocks the size of elephants leaning against one another. Their bottoms were encased in leaf mould and their craggy tops were outlined against the sky. They were just as big as she’d remembered. She told Charlotte to wait, then stepped off the trail and began to climb.

    After all these years the smell was nearly gone, but a familiar spiciness still hung in the air. Of course it did, there was no circulation deep in the crevices. That air had probably been there since back when Vera was small. She shuddered. Then, there they were, two black trash bags, putrid and bulgy and obviously weathered. “No, no, no,” said Vera. She pulled out her phone and dialed 911.

    “Hello,” she said, “My name is Vera Gietz and I’m a half mile north of the Redwater Trailhead, and…” she paused. What could she say that would get her taken seriously. “I found something very suspicious. I’m not going to poke around, but I think it might be a body. So--so could you maybe send someone?”
    One last dream. Vera recognized it; she’d had it before, and kept having it every so often, since she was small. She had been accepted to a special school, where the students learned how to build birds’ nests and beaver dams and tunnel through the dirt like earthworms. She was placing the final sticks on her first nest when she realized that something was wrong. She looked at her feet. She was standing, but her shoes didn’t touch the ground. Her hands were too long, her watch was missing from her wrist. A dream, she thought, a dream, and then, a second later, a lucid dream. I know I’m in it, so that means I’ve gone lucid, and I can do whatever I want.

    I want to fly, she thought immediately, and she tried to take to the air, but she didn’t really believe she could, so her feet stayed stuck on the ground. I guess I just need a little convincing, she thought. She excused herself from the classroom and went outside, then climbed to the building’s roof. She took a deep breath, and jumped. Then she flew. She could swoop and dive and turn loops. This was exactly what she wanted. Then she was awake, she’d been so excited she woke herself. It wasn’t morning. She rolled back over and went to sleep again, and if she had any dreams, she didn’t remember them.
    “You were very brave, Vera,” said the man with the deep voice. He rested a hand comfortingly on her shoulder, but it made her feel trapped. “You’ve given us an important clue to this case. You did the right thing.” It didn’t feel that way. Since her discovery, she’d fainted twice and been taken to the police station for questioning, “But not as a suspect,” she was reassured again and again.

    If only she could have gone to the police earlier, a few years ago, before it happened. If only she’d remembered the details back when there was time to do anything about it. Maybe her brain had been trying to protect her, keeping secrets from her, but not the secret was out, and she only wished it could have happened sooner. She felt sick to her stomach. Her palms were sweating. She remembered what had happened to her and her friends on a Halloween night back when they were little.

    Vera was eight, she was dressed as a pirate. Her friends Amber and Isaac were parrots. They each carried a pillowcase full of chocolate. They had been trick-or-treating for a couple of hours and the fun was wearing off. They were far from home. They’d promised to have been back twenty minutes ago. Vera was the one who suggested they take a shortcut through the woods. They only had one flashlight between them, and they took turns telling scary stories as they walked along, trying to spook the others. Suddenly, Vera pulled to an abrupt halt and pressed her hand over the torch. Pinkish-orange light shone through her clenched fingers.

    “Did you hear that?”

    “Don’t do that to us, Vera,” whined Amber.

    “Yeah,” said Isaac, giggling, “You really scared us that time.”

    “No,” Vera hissed, “I mean it! I just heard something moving in the woods!”

    “Really?” asked Amber, her eyes wide.

    “What did it sound like?” asked Isaac.

    “Something big,” said Vera, holding out her arms, “Crunching along through the leaves. There! I heard it again, listen!”

    The three children stood silent and began to hear a distant noise of rustling leaves. Whatever it was, it wasn’t used to moving through the woods. It crashed noisily through the brush. “Not a bear or a moose or a deer,” said Vera in a hushed tone.

    A moment later, she remembered running, falling, rolling. Her friends tripping over their colorful parrot wings. Hiding. The flashlight running out of batteries. She was pretty sure she’d hit her head. All the memories from that night were jumbled. What was the point of being a parrot if you couldn’t fly away from danger?


    She was dreaming again. She knew because her hands felt wrong, they weren’t shaped the way they were supposed to be, her fingers stretched for miles. She was walking, but she couldn’t feel her feet on the ground. She wanted to run but she felt like she was moving in quicksand. My mom will be home by now, she thought, she’ll be wondering where I am. She looked instinctively at her watch, but her wrist was bare. Of course. Because I’m dreaming. Of course there wouldn’t be a watch there. Well, she thought, If I’m dreaming, I want to fly. Vera loved to fly. Once she’d started she couldn’t get enough of it. She wished she never woke up so she could keep flying forever. She left up into the air and fell hard on her knees. It was hard to take off from the ground. She grabbed onto the fire escape and swung herself up to the top of the house and leapt.

Suddenly, all around her was sky. Big, beautiful, bright, blue sky, filled with fluffy clouds, dampening yellowish around the horizon. A sky that nobody could imagine, no artist could paint, a sky that simply couldn’t be rendered inside a head, even Vera’s, even as brilliant as she was.

Vera flew.

For the last time.