|I TAKE FLIGHT|
By C.E. Petrichor
When I think of my family, I think of vines. I think of monumental emerald green ropes embellished with thick, needle pointed thorns that wrap themselves around my dainty neck to suffocate me. I see myself as a rose with wilted petals, flaccid in the hot afternoon sun. It’s a dark dream that motivates me to move on.
My pa worked as an electrician for Target stores. He was often absent from home in order to illuminate those beautiful things that our family could only dream of owning. My ma and I were grateful that he was gone so much. He wasn’t a pleasant man.
My ma didn’t do much with her life. She cooked, occasionally cleaned, and spent an inordinate amount of time plopped in front of the television grasping for electric peace. She had a lot of anxiety about things, like germs, freeways, and people. Her hands would sometimes shake when she thought of something that she considered horrid, which was often. She hadn’t left our home in five years. Our additional family members were two cats that just laid on the windowsill and watched our everyday dramas with hooded eyes.
It was the spring of my senior year at Beth Holden High School when I got the letter. I dreaded my graduation with my whole being, as it meant the start of my insignificant adult life on the way to nowhere. My pa despised the idea of me doing anything with my life. He certainly didn’t do much. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year due to a boozy haze and knocked up my mother a year later. Pa struggled to pay the bills until he saved up enough to go to trade school and then got the job with Target. My ma, trapped in her own neurosis, never considered my future.
I sorted through the mail in our kitchen and tried to ignore the sticky countertops on the tips of my fingers. A small tearing sound came whenever I had to them off. The mail made whoosh sounds as I dropped every plain bill and shiny papered advertisement onto the plastic surface. Our whole house was crumbling because we were all too lazy and too poor to fix anything. We lived in a one story place with chipped white walls and permanently shut paneled windows in Bonneville, Kentucky. Bonneville had a dollar store, a Pizza Hut, and a population of five hundred people. I thought about leaving at least thirty times a day.
I rarely got mail. Occasionally one of my aunts or uncles would send me ten bucks for a holiday or my birthday, and I would send a brief, insincere thanks back. Otherwise, I had no one to write to. I didn’t have many friends. Of those that I did have, we never hung out outside of school. Those movies that show teenagers with true loyalty to lifelong friends are pure fiction. In reality, most teens only talk to each other when they’re bored in math class. If they do hang out outside of school, they sabotage each other and use each other for personal gain. No friendships are real. Teenagers are jerks.
So, I was surprised when I saw a thick, ivory papered envelope with my name written on the outside in navy blue cursive. I looked left and right, careful to see that I was alone, and then wasted no time rupturing the seal like a kid with a birthday present. It read:
Dear Ms. McCarthy,
I am pleased to inform that you have been invited to this summer’s session of the Global Young Leaders Conference. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to connect with other accomplished young adults and learn how to make a difference in the world. At the conference, you will learn leadership skills and will experience opportunities for college scholarships and professional internships. Please consider joining us for an incredible summer and respond by April the 25th. Thank you for your consideration.
Joy Richmond, CEO Global Young Leaders Conference
There were other papers inside the envelope. There were pictures of well dressed young adults smiling into the camera and shaking hands with distinguished congressmen. There was a schedule of activities with workshops covering topics like public speaking, job interview skills, and critical thinking. My heart felt like it would burst from my chest and fly away if it beat any faster. The want I felt throbbed in the marrow of my bones. I would have rather died than missed out on this. I leaned on my elbows on the counter and ignored the stickiness that leached onto my skin. I had to go. I had to find a way.
My pa would be coming home that night. My stomach rolled. He had always resented when I’d asked to do something special, like joining the environment club or participating in the local science fair. This was much bigger than a simple baking soda volcano. This was the greatest opportunity I had ever received.
Before dinner I tried to dress like I was put together. I combed through my brown hair that needed a wash, put contacts in my hazel eyes, and even put on some lip gloss. Then, I wore a collared shirt and my only pair of blue jeans without holes. I felt a million miles away from myself, but maybe that wasn’t a bad thing. Ma made Hamburger Helper, pa’s favorite. I felt like fate was rooting for me. Pa was usually in a good mood when he got Hamburger Helper.
My pa was tired when he got in and grumbled about idiot employees who didn’t know anything. He showered, put on ratty sweats and a battered white t shirt, and collapsed into a wooden chair at our kitchen table that rocked on its hind legs. I hastily sat across from him. I’d read an article on Business Insider that said if you made eye contact with your opponent you were more likely to get what you wanted. Ma put the food on the table and sat. We didn’t pray. We only went to church on Sundays so the towns people didn’t whisper about us. We began to eat.
“How was work?” I asked between mouthfuls.
I hoped that I sounded casual. He grunted. My heart sunk.
“You pay the gas, Minerva?” He asked ma.
She fidgeted in her seat.
“Again? God, you’re a wreck.”
He took a swig of Budweiser. Ma pushed her food around her plate. She wasn’t a big fan of hamburger helper. The clock sounded with an audible tock … tock … tock while our silverware screeched against our plates. Pa glanced around the room in annoyance and disapproval, like always. I cleared my throat. This wasn’t a good time, but I was too excited to think clearly. I can still remember it now, the feeling of butterflies in my chest.
“Hey, pa?” My voice quavered at the end.
He looked up and curled his lip.
“What do you want, Shay?”
This wasn’t promising at all.
“I got a letter today.”
I took another bite to look nonchalant.
“From who?” His voice was bland.
“A conference. The Global Young Leaders Conference. I’ve been invited to go this summer.”
His eyes narrowed. A little ‘v’ appeared between his brows.
“The hell is that?”
One of our cats started prowling around my legs in search of a spare drop of food. The tickle of her fur on my calves made it hard for me to think.
“It’s a conference for young leaders. I’ve been invited to go. It’s in Washington D.C.”
My ma’s eyes darted nervously around the kitchen. My pa set down his fork with a loud clang. The butterflies in my chest turned to hornets.
“How do you suppose we’re going to afford a plane ticket to D.C.?” His tone was dangerously calm.
The hairs on the back of my neck stood at attention.
“I’ll get a job. Pizza Hut is hiring.”
He barked out a laugh. “Who would hire you? Who would invite you to this thing anyway? You’re nothing special.”
“I got good grades in school. I was third in my class.” I said quietly.
He wouldn’t know about my grades. He never asked.
He grunted. “Third, huh? So, you think you’re better than us.”
Mother tapped her foot against the floor. I gripped my silverware tight. This was how it was with my pa. He always thought I was stuck up because I wanted to move on from sticky countertops and small towns.
“I think it’s a good opportunity,” I said.
“I think it’ll make your head big. The answer’s no.”
“I’m eighteen. You can’t stop me.” My eyes stung, but my voice was venom.
“You live in my house, so you follow my rules. If you go to this thing, your ass will be on the street.”
He stared me straight in the eyes. Apparently Business Insider worked for him, but not for me. I felt something wet and hot drip down my cheek.
“I hate you.” I rasped.
“We all hate each other.”
He took the last bite of his meal. The only sound for the rest of the night was the tock … tock … tock of the clock.
I had a lot to think about. My pa was sabotaging my future. I didn’t know why, but I did know that if I followed his rules I would never go further than a cashier at the dollar store. Before I knew it, it was already April 21st. I would have to send the letter soon if I sent one at all. I got the job at Pizza Hut, but lied to myself and said that I didn’t get it for a plane ticket. I wouldn’t have enough anyway. I’d put off working and told myself that I should just move on. I’d waited too long and now all was lost.
I walked in the doorway of my home and listened to the sounds of MTV blaring from the living room. I found my ma as I always found her, curled up on the stained, scratchy couch with a cat on her lap and electric light dancing off her blank face.
“I’m home,” I said.
She didn’t look at me. She only dug underneath the cat and pulled out her credit card. She held it out to me. I took it.
“Why are you giving me this?” I asked.
My heart pounded in my chest. She didn’t reply.
“Go.” Was all she said.
I stood for a moment more and waited for an explanation. I waited for her to tell me why she wanted me to move on past what she had done. I waited for her to tell me why she had decided to be brave, why this was worth her courage. I waited in vain. She only stared at the dramas on the television and stroked the cat mechanically.
I turned away and retreated to my room to book the plane ticket and pack my bags. I had never been more grateful in my life. I didn’t know why she had done it, and I wished she had explained it to me, but I did know in that moment that my ma loved me. I felt those vines around my neck loosen ever so slightly.
I wrote back and sent the letter in the mail. By April 30th, I got a reply confirming that my name was on the registry. I had already booked my flight for the 4th of May at one in the morning. I would sneak out and take the bus to the airport. I couldn’t wait.
When the night came, I quietly grabbed my suitcase and crept out into the dark hallway. The moonlight poured in through the windows and cast shadows on the furniture. It made them look like great lumps of monsters. I shuddered. It hit me then that after this I could very well be without a place to call home. I couldn’t afford to dwell right then, however, so I crept through the kitchen and nearly made it to the front door to freedom. The light flicked on. I blinked through the sudden rainbow spots in my eyes to see my pa taking a seat at the kitchen table.
“The two of you think I’m dumb as dirt, don’t you?”
I froze. Bile crept up my throat. It burned like lava.
“Why are you doing this?” I managed.
“You don’t need this great big life you’re dreaming of. You need to appreciate what you got. You were born in Bonneville to an electrician and a nervous nutcase. You need to accept your place.”
I breathed in hastily through my nose. “My place is up to me, not where and to whom I was born.”
He laughed bitterly. “You keep telling yourself that.”
My palms were slick. I felt my face burn red. “You know what I think?” I spat. “I think that you’re a narcissist. I think that you can’t stand me doing better than you because then you’ll have to acknowledge that you’re a failure! That’s what you are. A big, lazy failure.”
He stood and banged his fist on the table. “I did the best with what I had!” He shouted.
“I’m doing better with what I have!” I shouted back. “I’m going to be something. And there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
He stared at me, long and hard. Years worth of adversity and anger passed between us. He thought hard for a few seconds before he realized that he could clip my wings no longer. At last, he sat down heavily. “Get out and don’t come back.”
I walked to the door and opened it. The cool night air swirled around me with the smell of dewy grass and the last remnants of weed smoked by the bored teenagers. I took a step forward onto the cracked concrete step. I could have sworn I heard him whisper ‘good luck’ as I did so, quiet as a whimper. I could have heard what I wanted to hear and made it up in my head. I like to think that it was real, that my pa loved me enough to have one second of clarity as I walked out that door. I looked over my shoulder just once as I started down the path. I saw my pa through the window retrieving a beer from the fridge. He chugged it down and went back to the table. He stared at the wall and didn’t move again. I decided not to stare. I decided to move on.
I shivered in my thin black jacket as I started down the driveway. My suitcase was heavy, and I struggled to walk with it. It would be two miles to reach the nearest bus stop. My feet crunched over the gravel road in a melody with the chirps of crickets and rustles of rabbits in the thick underbrush. Very few cars whizzed by and none of them seemed to notice me. I was grateful. I didn’t want to explain anything.
By the time I got to the bus stop, I was dead tired. My left pinkie toe had a burning blister and my eyes drooped. I would be catching the last bus of the day and was the only person at the stop. At last, the great metal beast huffed to a stop with a plume of smoke. I walked up the steps and sat in the front row. A mother and her baby got off. The child fussed and whined. I was alone then, with only the bus driver for company.
“Awful late, ain’t it?” He drawled, southern twang potent.
I shrugged. “I guess.”
“You’re pretty young to be travelin’ alone at this hour.”
He didn’t sound concerned, just wanted to make conversation. I didn’t feel much like talking.
“I’m older than I look.” I said shortly.
“Where’s your stop?”
He looked mildly surprised.
“That’s a long ride.”
I wished that I had brought a book with me so I had an excuse not to talk. I fiddled with the strap of my bag instead. The bus driver wouldn’t take any of my hints.
“Where you flying to?”
He twisted in his seat to look at me.
“Wow. What’re you doin’ there?”
I sighed and gave up on a quiet ride.
“I’m going to a leadership conference for young adults.”
His eyes bugged. “That’s incredible. Your folks must be pretty thrilled.”
I looked away. “Sure.”
He frowned. “Your folks ain’t?”
I grimaced. “You’re an awful curious guy.”
He laughed. “When you drive buses, you don’t have much else to do but be curious. I’ll stop talkin’ if you want me to.”
It was silent at last. I looked out the window and saw the rolling green hills zoom by in the darkness and saw my somber reflection in the illuminated glass. My eyes were dull and my hair hung limp. I looked tired. I couldn’t stand to face my reflection anymore, so I turned to stare at my lap instead, as if it held all the answers to the questions swarming my mind. I propped my feet up on the seat in front of me and tried to keep myself from sliding down on the plastic. I thought about my father and replayed everything in my mind. I felt like I understood him better than I ever had before.
I felt a strange, bittersweet hope bloom in my chest. I was leaving everything I had ever known in the hopes of finding something better. I doubted whether life would work out for me, but I also felt pure joy at the thought of a chance. I sat for twenty minutes and thought about my life- past, present, and future. As my thoughts deepened, I began to feel less bittersweet and more melancholy. I was excited, but also scared. With every mile forward, I was closer to the unknown. My arms tingled with gooseflesh. I felt bad that I had been rude to the bus driver. I suddenly felt like talking.
“My pa doesn’t approve.”
The bus driver twisted back to look at me again. A car honked as he started to swerve into the left lane. He jerked the wheel and righted himself.
“I figured. Lots o’ folks like that ‘round here. My own pops was like that.”
I sat up straighter.
The bus driver nodded.
“Oh yeah. Didn’t want me to go to college or nothing. So, here I am, drivin’ buses.”
“Do you hate your job?”
He shrugged. “I got nothin’ to compare it to.”
I looked away. “My pa’s been choking me. He’s like a vine with thorns. But, I’m finally free. I guess it feels more daunting than I thought it would.”
He nodded. “That makes sense. I mean, it feelin’ dauntin’. I’d feel scared too. But, you can only go up from here.”
I took in his words. My shoulders fell from my ears.
“Yeah. Only up.”
We arrived at the airport. We said goodbye, and I stepped off into the beginning of my first real adventure. I sat on the plane, the first plane I had ever been on, and thought about what the bus driver had said. Those vines were no longer around my neck. Instead, they stretched tall. Those thorns no longer cut me. Instead, they sharpened me. I would climb those vines with those thorns as footholds into the better above. The plane lifted off and I flew off into the wide and possible moonlit sky.
C. E. Petrichor is currently working towards her AA in Creative Writing. She enjoys writing short stories, plays, and poetry. She is a Las Vegas native who draws her inspiration from frequent Netflix bingeing and reading while nursing a cup of mint tea.