Our new house is just like our old house except it’s underground, like someone picked up our whole house and buried it. The brown carpet is the same, the bathroom soap dish that’s shaped like a seashell is the same, the plates with the brown and orange flowers and the weird lamps that mama loves and daddy hates are the same. Mama still wears her same pink polka dot slippers. She says the oils in your bare feet can really stain up the carpet, even worse than dirty shoes.
I bet you wouldn’t know there’s a house here if you drive by. The only thing you can see from the gravel road is daddy’s flying wall – it’s big and tall and looks like an airplane runway on top. Daddy is always trying to fly away. He bought the windiest spot in the county, put our house right there underground and built himself a flying wall. I imagine him running across the top of the flying wall and jumping off the end, his arms spread wide, his hope strong as the wind. The wind is so strong at our new house.
Daddy’s always hoping for the wind to take him. He thinks if the wind picks him up it will take him to where he can get Jacob and bring him back. I know that’s what he thinks even though he’s never told me.
Sometimes at our old house I’d sit across the street with Mrs. Barnard on her porch and drink iced tea and eat lemon cookies and we’d watch daddy jump off the roof trying to fly away. He never flew, he always just landed hard on the ground, got up, climbed his ladder, tried to fly again. “Your poor, poor father,” Mrs. Barnard was always saying.
Daddy is always bruised and limping from all his trying to fly. One time mama put a band-aid on his forehead to cover a spot where he cut himself from falling on a stick. One side of the band-aid wasn’t sticky enough and the unsticky side of that band-aid just flopped all around until daddy ripped the band-aid off and said he didn’t know why mama thought it would help anyway.
Jeannie climbed daddy’s ladder once while I was sitting on Mrs. Barnard’s porch. She climbed onto the roof, walked to daddy’s jumping off spot, spread her arms wide, jumped and fell hard on the ground. “Try again, Jeannie, you can do it!” I yelled across the street but Mrs. Barnard slapped my arm and told me to shush. Then Mama came out and called us in for dinner.
I waved at Mrs. Barnard when we drove past her house for the last time. There was the same red lipstick stain on her iced tea glass that was always there and I remembered seeing her on tv after the storm a year ago, crying and talking about things making no sense in the world; talking about there being no explanation for a little baby boy being sucked right up out of his daddy’s strong arms and flown away like Jacob was. On tv Mrs. Barnard’s hair looked like it had almost blown off her head and her always red lips weren’t red at all but just plain naked regular colored lips.
“This chicken fried steak is delicious!” I tell mama at our first dinner in our new underground house. “It really does feel like home here! The table is set the same as it’s always been and we’re all sitting in the same places we always have and the only thing different is there was always a window behind mama’s head before – remember how we could look out that window and see Mrs. Barnard on her front porch?” Now there’s a cat calendar hanging where that window used to be. Mama’s just looking at the spot beside daddy where Jacob used to sit. The calendar behind her head has a picture of a cat dressed in a tuxedo.
Jeannie takes a long time cutting her chicken fried steak into tiny pieces. She takes invisible bites, pretends to chew. She pushes her buttered peas and mashed potatoes into a pile and rips her buttermilk biscuit to shreds but doesn’t eat a bite of it. She waits until mama and daddy aren’t looking, then shovels half of her food into the napkin in her lap. I eat two helpings of everything.
Daddy pats me on the back and says how proud he is of me for being such a good eater. He looks at Jeannie but doesn’t say he’s proud of her.
“Jeannie’s looking very light. She needs to eat more,” daddy says, stepping into his flight suit. “We need to feed her more and add more weight to her shoes.” He snaps closed his flight gloves, lowers his goggles, steps into the elevator and shoots up to the flying wall. The elevator sounds like daddy is never coming back. Mama’s slippers shuffle across the linoleum.
I fall asleep reading a book about elephants from the set of “All About Animals” books Mrs. Barnard gave me as a going away present. I dream that Jeannie flies away, up, up, and up until she disappears. I sneak down the hall and see that she is still in her bed. She hasn’t flown away.
My breakfast plate is on the table in the morning heaped with fluffy pancakes and bacon and eggs. The elevator dings and daddy comes inside from his morning flight practice. “How’s the wind out there daddy?” I ask.
“Where is Jeannie?” daddy asks, stepping out of his flight suit. I shrug my shoulders because I don’t know. Maybe she flew away after I checked on her last night. “Jeannie!” I yell, looking down the hall to Jeannie’s room.
“Eat more bacon!” Daddy says, throwing two pieces of bacon on my plate and two on Jeannie’s.
“I already ate three pieces!”
“Eat more!” Daddy hangs his flight suit on the hook by the elevator door. His work pants are all bunched up at the waist under his belt and his shirt hangs loose. He is always yelling at us to eat more but he never eats anything himself.
Jeannie comes out of her room finally after daddy yells two more times. She looks pale walking to the table dragging her heavy shoes, and taller and skinnier, like she grew overnight. She sits at the table but won’t look at her food. She touches her forehead and looks at me and her lips are moving but I can’t hear what she’s saying.
“What are you whispering Jeannie?” Daddy asks and I am sure that she whispering that it’s my fault Jacob flew away. I’m sure of it even though I can’t hear what she’s actually whispering. She touches her forehead and looks at me.
“She says she loves it here in our new underground house!” I say.
“Stop mumbling and eat Jeannie,” daddy says, coming to the table with his tool box. He sits in front of me, lifts my feet, opens the compartment in the bottom of my shoes and adds more weight to each.
“They’re too heavy! I can hardly walk already!”
“Do not take off your shoes,” daddy says, moving to lift Jeannie’s limp legs one at a time to add her weights. We are never without heavy shoes. Not even underground. Daddy puts the weights in our shoes and moved us to this underground house so we don’t fly away like Jacob flew away. I know it even though he’s never said it.
Jeannie sits at the table, pretends to take a bite of pancake, pretends to chew. Daddy leaves up the elevator for work. Mama hums and disappears down the hall to take her morning bath. Mama is always taking a bath.
“Jeannie do you want me to read you a story?” She doesn’t answer. “Do you want me to color you a picture?” She doesn’t answer. “Do you want me to paint your fingernails Jeannie?” She won’t even look at me. She rubs her forehead and I see her lips moving again. “You’re not going to tell that it’s my fault are you?” I whisper. “Please don’t tell!”
Jeannie gets up, drags her shoes to the elevator, pushes the button. “Jeannie what are you doing? You can’t go outside! You know you can’t go outside! Only daddy gets to go outside because daddy still has to go to work at his factory job to make money so we can live in this house and have things like forks and spoons and towels and so we can eat things like mama’s delicious chicken fried steak.” Jeannie closes the elevator door, she doesn’t even wait for me. I stand there looking at the closed door, hearing that same sound I hear when daddy takes the elevator – the sound that sounds like someone leaving forever. I push the elevator button a hundred times. “Stupid elevator.” I pick up my shoe to kick the bottom of the elevator door but my shoe is too heavy so I just put it right back down on the ground.
Finally the elevator door opens. I shuffle in, push the silver button for up, the only way there is to go from here. When I see Mrs. Barnard again I have to remember to tell her we have an elevator. She will love it.
The wind snatches my breath away when I step onto the flying wall. It knocks around the top of me but my shoes are heavy and I am thankful for being anchored. Jeannie’s shoes are sitting beside the elevator. I look up and see her running toward the end of the flying wall. She jumps and I hold what’s left of my breath because without her shoes I know she is going to fly away.
She doesn’t fly. She drops down out of my sight. I shuffle as fast as I can with my heavy shoes to the end of the flying wall. Jeannie is there, silent, lying face down in the landing area grass.
“Jeannie! I was so scared you were going to fly away! Are you hurt from falling?”
She turns over, leans up on her elbows, looks at me. The wind is blowing her hair all around but she just lets it, doesn’t try stopping it. She’s so far away down there. She’s for sure going to have bruises from falling all that way.
“I told Mrs. Barnard I saw Jacob fly away,” I say. Jeannie knows I didn’t see Jacob fly away. Jeannie knows I was in the bathtub with Mama where I was supposed to be because there was a storm coming and that’s where daddy told us to go. Mama was stroking my hair in the tub and all I heard was mama humming and daddy screaming for Jeannie to come inside and the wind howling and sirens wailing and then there wasn’t anything for a long time. Jacob was gone. Just gone. Everything that got picked up by the storm fell back down, except Jacob.
Jeannie lies flat and looks at the sky.
“If I take off my shoes and jump do you think the wind will take me Jeannie? What if the wind tries taking me? Will you grab hold of me? Will you come with me?” Jeannie doesn’t answer but we both know that once the wind gets ahold of you it won’t let you go and it won’t let you take anyone with you. The wind likes you alone.
The wind is screaming in my ears. Jeannie gets up, climbs the ladder slow like she’s hurt. She pushes the elevator button and picks up her shoes and when the elevator door opens mama is standing there in her bathrobe with her hair wrapped in a towel just looking at us.
I pull the brush hard through Jeannie’s blonde hair. “I’m sorry Jeannie but I have to! Your hair is so ratty from the wind!” We play school at the kitchen table and I pretend I’m the teacher and Jeannie is the student. I read the book about giraffes Mrs. Barnard gave me out loud, then write questions for Jeannie on a piece of paper about what I’ve read. She doesn’t even try to read the questions or write any answers. “I’m sorry Jeannie, you’re going to have to listen better!” I mark her quiz with a big fat letter F.
At lunch I eat two grilled cheese sandwiches and cheese doodles and watch Jeannie rip her grilled cheese sandwich into tiny pieces. She is getting skinnier by the second and I wonder if she will fly soon. All of my clothes are getting so tight. I only have three shirts and two pairs of pants that aren’t too small.”Do you want to play dress up like we’re going to a party where there are going to be these cute boys and we’ve really been wanting to see these cute boys and then they are there at this party we go to and then they want to dance and so we say okay and then – Jeannie we’re going to need to know how to dance if we’re going to a party!” Jeannie doesn’t even look at me.
Mama is smoking a cigarette and staring out over the kitchen sink. At our old house there was a window behind the sink but now there’s just the painting of a mountain I did in fourth grade. Mama’s just standing there smoking and rubbing her neck and looking at that painting I did of a mountain.
“It’s not the worst thing being down here with me you know Jeannie! You could at least pretend it’s not the worst thing! But no you can’t even do it! It should have been you the wind took! Not Jacob! You’re the one who ran toward that storm! You’re the reason daddy had to run outside when he was holding Jacob! It’s your fault we’re here anyway!”
There is no more air in the underground house. I can’t breathe and I’m breaking out in splotchy red spots and there are spots in my eyes and I run to my room before mama even has a chance to yell at me to go to my room. I slam my door and curl under my covers and I see Mrs. Barnard in my head, see myself walking across the street to her on her front porch.
“Have a seat sugar plum,” she says, and I feel the cool of the white plastic chair on the back of my thighs when I sit. “It’s nobody’s fault that Jacob flew away,” Mrs. Barnard says, her lips red, her hand curling around mine, giving it a squeeze. And then the wind comes and takes Mrs. Barnard and I am alone sitting in that white plastic chair next to her rocking chair and lipstick stained iced tea glass. Sitting in that chair alone I know it is my fault that Jacob flew away.
I wake up sweating, feeling my heavy shoes. I don’t want to leave my room, don’t want to see mama or Jeannie. I stay in bed a long time thinking of what I’m going to say when Jeannie tells that it’s my fault that Jacob flew away. I know she’s going to tell. Maybe she’s already told. Maybe everybody already knows it’s my fault. Maybe that’s why we’re here in this underground house – maybe mama and daddy and Jeannie have all talked about it already, how it’s my fault that Jacob flew away. Maybe they brought me down here with them so I’ll think we’re all staying down here but maybe they’re going to leave all together and just leave me down here all alone because it’s my fault that Jacob flew away. Maybe Jeannie told mama and daddy a long time ago that it was my fault and they’ve been planning to bring me down here to this underground house forever and just leave me here.
I think about how that lady lawyer on daddy’s favorite tv court show talks, the one he’s always saying is so pretty and smart. “Well first of all, daddy shouldn’t have left his golf clubs sitting out there in the garage like he did,” I’ll say like the lady tv lawyer. “And I know I shouldn’t have been playing with those golf clubs even if daddy did leave them in the garage, but I didn’t know Jeannie was standing behind me when I swung that club back so hard. I heard a crack and I felt that club hit something and then I knew right away that I’d hit Jeannie in the head and I dropped the club and told her I was sorry but then she started acting so funny and she started talking about how birds fly but people can’t and then it got so, so dark and daddy was there at the back door yelling at us to get in the house and everything was happening so fast and I stood there in the yard by that golf club that was there in the grass where I’d dropped it and I was yelling for Jeannie to come with me in the house but she just ran away – she said she wanted to fly!” My mouth is so dry and it’s so hot and I really think daddy forgot to put air down here in this underground house. I can’t breathe.
I can’t breathe. I’m standing at the back door of our old above ground house and the sky is black and there is the storm – I can see the storm coming and I’m yelling at Jeannie to get in the house and daddy is standing beside me yelling for Jeannie to get in the house but Jeannie is just running toward the storm and me and daddy are yelling and yelling and Jacob is crying and then daddy runs right out of the house holding Jacob and he is chasing Jeannie but she is just running toward that storm and then mama is yelling and screaming and she is grabbing me and pulling me with her into the bathtub and I can’t breathe I can’t breathe I can’t breathe.
I know it’s mama knocking at my door even before I open the door and when I open the door mama is standing there holding two pairs of roller skates and I’m just trying to breathe.
I grab both pairs from her and run to Jeannie’s room. Mama brought those glow-in-the-dark stars that were on the ceiling above Jeannie’s bed at our old house and put them above her bed here in our new house and Jeannie’s room is dark and she’s just lying on her bed looking at those stars. “Jeannie look! Mama found our roller skates!”
The bathroom door closes and there’s the sound of running water. “Mama’s taking her afternoon bath. Do you want to roller skate?”
Jeannie gets out of bed, takes all four roller skates from me and walks to the dining room. She arranges the four skates in a square on the floor, picks up her chair from the dining room table like she’s so strong and lowers it carefully, placing each leg of the chair into a roller skate. She rolls the chair across the living room to the elevator. She pushes the elevator button, the elevator door opens, and she pushes the chair in and closes the door without even waiting for me to get in with her. “Jeannie!” I drag my shoes to the elevator, push the button over and over and over.
When I finally step out onto the flying wall Jeannie has taken off her shoes and she’s sitting in the middle of the flying wall in her chair on those roller skates. The chair is rolling back and forth and side to side. I kick my shoes off so hard they fly over the side of the flying wall and land in the grass below.
The wind picks up and I struggle against it rolling and pushing Jeannie’s chair as fast as I can toward the end of the flying wall. “Jeannie the wind is so strong!” I push her away from me with a hard shove. The chair rolls to the end of the flying wall, then past the end of the flying wall.
The roller skates drop to the ground with heavy bangs but Jeannie and her chair stay in the air, lifting and swaying. I bend over, try to catch my breath, look up to see Jeannie flying higher and higher. Jeannie’s bony fingers are curled around the sides of the seat of the chair. Her hair is blowing all over the place. The roller skate wheels are spinning on the ground.
Daddy’s car is coming up the road then, throwing dust all over. The car screeches to a stop and daddy is running from the car, running through all the dust toward the flying wall. “Jeannie!” Daddy yells. “Jeannie!” He jumps and stretches his arms above his head like he’s reaching for Jeannie, like he might be able to jump high enough to pull her back down.
Daddy climbs to the top of the flying wall and runs fast toward the end, readying for take off. His hair blows straight back, his arms point out in front of him, his eyes focus to the end of the flying wall. He jumps, stretching his body up and out. He lands flat on the ground, pounds his fists. “Jeannie!” he yells, turning to look up at the sky. “Jeannie!” He buries his face in the ground and his shoulders are shaking and he is coughing and howling.
Jeannie is flying away, she is only as big as my thumb and she keeps going and going up and up until I can’t see her anymore. I climb down from the flying wall and sit on the ground with daddy. I think of Jeannie, free, flying up, up, up. Daddy, mama – the wind will take them too, like it has taken Jacob and Jeannie. But the wind will not take me. The wind will leave me here, all alone in this underground house with heavy shoes and my clothes that are so tight.
“The wind’s going to take you too daddy. I know it will.” The wind whips my hair, stings my cheeks. But it will not take me.