We are going to be rich.
And I would probably believe it if I hadn’t heard the same words so many times before. If he hadn’t taken us every time to the malls and stores to pick out what we would buy when: cars and bikes and trips around the world. If he hadn’t kept us out of school working on equipment and equations and debugging endless lines of code that didn’t lead to the next big thing or even anywhere at all. We don’t even have our own house anymore. My brother and I have to share a bedroom in our grandparents’ house because there is room for only one genius in my family — my father — and he takes up all the extra space for his work.
“It’ll make petroleum obsolete. Imagine!” His eyes are wide as he dances around the kitchen table and I feel myself getting excited all over again. It’s embarrassing so I try not to look at my brother, Josh. He’ll just make fun of me. “No more pollution!” My father raises his strong arms dirty with grease to the ceiling and I get giddy with hope, leaping into the circle of his arms.
“And we’ll get rich selling the blue in the sky,” he sings and swings me around the kitchen like I am five again.
Because that’s what he has invented, an insect-like thing that converts the blue in the sky to some gravity-defying, undefined stuff that pours it into us like hope. Josh pokes at the metal skin skeptically and my mother smiles a tight smile. Gran just shakes her head and mutters something about people having wings if they were meant to fly. The sky is dark now with the first stars so there is no way to prove him right or wrong.
I look past the new machine to the shadowy failures behind it. A paint-spattered tarp barely covers the melted shell of the Absence Engine. Beside that, the ghostly gray of the perpetual motion machine never rests in its impenetrable obsidian tomb. It whirrs day and night, unreachable inside its opaque shell. Now there is the new thing with the sky.
“But the sky is everyone’s, isn’t it?” I ask without thinking and his eyes light up with that fire I know so well. The spark that means I have followed his script and asked the correct question at the right time. I am golden, basking in his light. Josh scowls behind him and rolls his eyes.
“Exactly! And that’s the beauty of it because we’re not really selling the blue, I just hold the patent on how to extract it.” So it’s not really the sky he is selling, it’s the machinery and means to bring it down to earth.
After the initial excitement wears off and there are only the dirty dishes to wash back at the house and the ugly awkward machine in the garage I am sure it will fade away or begin quietly gathering dust and rust like all the others and I will go back to school. But it doesn’t.
This one actually works.
I won’t try it at first because I still have questions like how will I get down and what color will the sky be when all the blue is gone? But he waves at the hugeness of the sky above us and laughs that big laugh you want to be a part of. Josh seconds my misgivings with his arms crossed and my father offers a test to prove there is no end to the blue. He uses it on himself, taking just a little from his eyes. There are claps and astonished gasps when he floats into the rafters and back down blinking his still-blue eyes. I think I can see the slightest difference between the icy sky of the eyes I remember and the faded jeans color of his steady gaze, but I clap and smile anyway so he won’t be disappointed.
That is the reason I volunteer to be the first to try it the next morning. I can tell my brother’s angry “No way” hurt Dad deeply, so I step quickly into his place. With a shaky smile my father extends a long, metallic needle to my wrist and slowly cranks a gleaming net of filaments over me. I close my eyes as the sky-stealing machine reaches up into the daylight and the engine whirs to life with a sound like the flutter of bird wings.
I imagine it will feel like a slow filling up with helium, a gradual shift to weightlessness as I am lifted up and away from the earth, but it is nothing like that at all. I am made light. All of the years before had been about gravity and earth, things my body understood from the first moment, but now, in the blue, I belong to the sky and I understand all of it. In one horizonless moment I become a piece of that floating blue and the ground is lost to me forever.
But I don’t think anyone else sees it that way. I cry when I have to come down and my father hurries me to the side with a worried smile. When it’s their turn everyone else laughs and squeals like it is an amusement ride. Then again, I’ve always taken things too seriously.
It starts slowly. Only a few people a week, but word spreads quickly. Within a month, they are buzzing around the house like flies, getting stuck in the limbs of the oak trees and my grandmother makes him move his operations to the barn at the far end of the property. I am still sure it will end here, but it keeps growing. Suddenly everyone is ready to give up their cars for a piece of the sky and the bottomless roads up there. It is so much faster to fly to work than stick it out in traffic and besides there is all that room up there and no dirt.
There are problems at first, but my father insists that there always are. Any new paradigm brings an entirely new set of “challenges.” He calls them kinks. At least seven people begin rising and never stop. They must have died eventually from lack of oxygen or the cold, but their bodies are never found and they all signed the release form so they can’t sue anyway. I imagine them sometimes floating silent still at that boundary between space and earth, frozen solid, orbiting us like tiny moons.
We all work the machine, filling people up with a week’s worth of blue like glorified gas station attendants. It doesn’t take long for each fillup, but there are so many and more every day. Finally my father sells the rights to some big company that moves in with dark suits and helicopters. There are government people too. Lots of them in limousines with flags and guns and my father smiling and waving as he signs papers and makes terrible jokes with the lawyers that have appeared suddenly and out of nowhere. There are cameras too and people from the TV station who ask stupid questions and smile a lot more — and other people who don’t smile — all of them there to take a piece of something one way or another.
That’s how I meet you. You arrive carrying a bent white sign, one of a small band of protesters. Your hair is the electric blue of sno-cones. So blue I can taste it. That must be why he picks you to demonstrate his miracle for the TV news cameras and satellite trucks. I watch from the roof as he motions to you and gently pulls you aside. The You Can’t Buy The Sky poster in your hand slowly falls to your side as he explains it all to you with giant gestures. Letting go of my own bit of blue I push down to the ground to join the two of you knowing what is about to happen: he is going to show you how to fly and then your sign and your hair will fade and be meaningless. I chew my fingernails nervously hoping you will find a way to resist and simultaneously hoping you will join us in the floating world.
“What does that do?” Despite your angry bravado with the sign, your voice is sweet and scared and I remember what the machine looked like the first time I saw it all insect-like and spines, so I take the metallic proboscis thing from my father and smile a reassuring smile thinking it will be easier if I do it. Less threatening.
The protests and chants slowly fade as the two of us rise effortlessly and you finally let go of my arm, sure now that you won’t fall. When your eyes meet mine, it is the shock of looking right through to the sky beyond. They are that blue and sad like rain. I just nod and hope you understand that I know too. I know about the sky and the falling earth that isn’t ours anymore.
I have a house now in the sky. My father focuses his research on new ways to use the blue since selling out. Floating, bubble-like things were made first to protect fliers from the weather and sun. Next were houses, of course. Nobody wants to fly home from work at night and go to sleep with gravity clinging to you with its sweaty hands. But floating houses are tricky. Doorways aren’t just in front and back now, but underneath and on top and hallways don’t run just one way. And the whole thing has to be anchored to the ground with long cables of wound steel or the houses will drift with the wind and pressure. It gets confusing, all that furniture floating around inside, so he keeps it all in place with giant elastic bands until the kinks are worked out, but who needs a table when everything floats? My three thousand dollar bed floats unused in a bottomless bedroom. So I sleep curled in an antique armoire, bumping gently all night against the four walls and the door that only opens one way.
“Do you know how much that house cost?” my father yelps incredulous when I ask to move back into my grandparents’ house. I don’t want to hurt his feeling so I end up keeping the house, and go looking instead for you — the girl who didn’t want to fly.
I’m not even sure why, except that I felt lighter with you than I ever have, even with the blue. Maybe it’s the eyes. Maybe I’m looking for a way to leave the sky.
It is eight months before I see you again, walking against the gray line of the sidewalk with headphones on. Your hair is electric pink now, so it takes me a few minutes to really see you. I have been looking for the sno-cone.
You don’t recognize me at first and I have to remind you. There is no slow smile of recognition, just a narrowing of the eyes and a deep furrow forming on your forehead.
“What do you want?”
I try to make small talk about the weather and your political protests and are you a student at the university, but you just keep eyeing me warily.
“I don’t want to fly or float or whatever it is you think you’re doing,” you say finally and I just nod.
“Okay. That’s okay.” I manage, still unsure what I should say. You study me for a few tense moments before walking away.
It takes me a moment to realize I am supposed to follow, but I finally do. It feels strange to walk on the hard, sharp sidewalk again after riding the smooth channels up there for so long. My legs are rubbery and I could swear the soles of my too-new shoes are sticking to the cement. I become self-conscious, sure that I am walking funny, but you walk on the ground so I will. I should have practiced because I trip and fall in a heap behind you. You turn briefly with an unreadable smile. “It’s only two more houses if you can make it.”
You don’t wait for me and when I finally catch up, breathless and sweating, you have just dug your keys out of a well-worn army messenger bag to open a chipped and battered metal door.
“Come in.” Standing there, I can hear your voice growing faint as you walk into the interior of the apartment. “Sorry it’s such a mess.” Your bag hits the scarred hardwood floor with a heavy thunk.
I shut the door behind me and inhale — stale smoke, incense, and cat litter – and everything fastened down without glue or elastic.
“My roommate’s a pig,” you shrug as if this is enough of an explanation and I follow you through a maze of halls to the dark interior of a larger room, somehow wedged between the kitchen and the outside wall.
There is a sort of muffled ruffling in the low light, like a giant bird slowly moving its wings, and I pull my arms in tight against myself. You open heavy curtains and I can see the sky and the traffic on the street below, but no reason for the fluttery sighs. Until I turn to you and see the walls rippling like water as the breeze from the open window moves through. My mind finally rises to understanding: the waves and water are actually blue paint swatches from a hardware store glued to the wall, hundreds of them flapping against the dirty white of the cracked plaster walls. Names like “twilight time” and “indigo enchantment” are written in matching colors on the cards.
“Do you want anything to drink?” you ask, and I turn to find you watching me carefully as if I am dangerous. Or interesting in the wrong way. Your hair is pale and colorless now, bleached white and I wonder where the pink went. Maybe it is a trick of the light.
You walk out without a word and leave me alone in the strange and cluttered room. Piles of books line the walls and crowd the floor. A futon mattress rests on the hardwood floor, overflowing ashtrays and incense burners circle the bed like satellites. Your sheets, I notice are hot white, bleached and perfectly clean, even where they touch the floor.
“All we have is water,” you say with a shrug and hand me a clear glass.
“Thanks,” I mumble and take a long drink to kill some time. There is a wide open silence as we both take sips. You stare at me and I stare anywhere but your blue blue eyes.
“So, you’re a student at UK?” I ask, rolling onto the balls of my feet. The hard floor slips away from my toes and I take a moment to think myself back to gravity and weight.
“Yep,” you answer and drop to sit cross-legged on the floor in one fluid motion. My own descent is not so graceful. The jean-clad legs beneath me don’t seem to bend at the correct angle anymore and I fall clumsily to the floor in front of you.
“I used to be too…a student there,” I stammer.
“What was your major?” you ask with a smirk and I wonder what the joke is.
“I, um, I thought maybe mathematics…or art.”
A wary smile but you just sit there studying me again. Maybe you are a biology student used to formaldehyde, specimens, and pins. I take another sip and look around nervously. A beaten-up Quantum Chromodynamics textbook sits on edge near the head of the bed, a large USED sticker on its spine.
“So,” I try again, but you cut me off.
“I need your help.” I am so surprised I make the mistake of actually looking at you and you hold me with those sky eyes. I wonder what name they would give your eyes, the writers who get paid to come up with names for all those colors. Something about water. Something about deep. No flowers. “With a project I’m working on.”
“Oh, sure,” I mumble imagining a sociology experiment or maybe a math problem. “But it’s been a while since I was in school.”
Your face is cinched up in hard lines, like that day I first saw you, bright eyes hidden behind, like you are squinting against hard sunlight even in this dim room.
“No. Different than that,” you say and look away, scowling at the books leaning against the wall. “I need you to help me get documents…about the machine your father built.”
You are staring at me again and I wince at the hard, painful weight of my pelvic bones against the floorboards that push back.
“Why?” Because it doesn’t make sense. You can’t build your own. The parent company would sue you or just have her killed if you believed Josh. Maybe you don’t know that. Maybe this is some sort of industrial espionage. I have been warned by the men in my father’s company. There was a PowerPoint presentation with graphs, charts, and cartoon men with exaggerated leers and oversized dollar bills.
“Because it’s impossible…that thing. It can’t work.” Your pale eyebrows rise and fall along with your voice and I try but can’t seem to follow.
“I don’t understand. You think there’s a design flaw or something?”
“No.” you say slowly, carefully as if I am deaf or just stupid. “I think it’s impossible to make people fly using the blue in the sky.”
We argue for a bit longer about the difficulty of proving a negative and the fact that it won’t matter anyway. The machine works, it is its own proof, but you are unimpressed.
“It’s just wrong,” you say with a shake of your head, and look longingly out the window at the sky.
Hours later, the window is dark, but I can feel it pulling at me and all the saved-up blue inside so I stare up at the long calculations on your wall and hope their straight lines and meaning will keep me here in the room. The blank surface behind your bed is a white board and you have gone through several colors of pen to explain why my father’s machine cannot possibly work.
“But it does.” I say finally, cutting off a long lecture about Newtonian physics, the Tyndall effect, relativity, and the inverse square law. “Work.”
You frown harder and look to the windows and the night sky, the pen in your hand lowering slowly from the board to dangle from slim fingers at your side.
“I know. That’s why I think there’s something else going on.” Your hand tightens to a fist around the pen and you drop to the futon beside me. “That’s why if I could just take a look at those doc…”
“I’ll get them for you,” I say with a shrug and try not to yawn. It’s not like it matters anyway. The machine works. Maybe your calculations will lead to some sort of improvement. I imagine you working with me and Dad to improve things. The three of us huddled over schematics and computer screens to lift the world.
You don’t say anything, just bite your lip and turn out the lamp with a hard sigh. “I should go,” I say and the moon shines through the glass in a hard rectangle that slices up your comforter. Or maybe it is just a street light lighting up a path to the window. I wonder if you would be offended if I left that way– through the window. I can’t bear the thought of walking through hallways and down steps just to get back up to the sky. A sliver of space opens between my body and the futon just thinking about it.
“Why? You can stay here.” You say and I glance at the rumpled bed trying to buy some time. As if I have to think about it. The side near the window is still made as if no one has ever slept in it. I remember my own unused bed floating unanchored in the airship house. Swallowing hard I look away to the wall of blue paint cards.
“It’s okay, really. Besides, I might float away in the night.” It isn’t much of an argument.
“I can hold you down,” you say softly and I feel the warm weight of your hand on my knee. When you finally kiss me, I can’t help thinking suddenly of all those people in their floating houses — how do they have sex with no up or down? No weighty pull of bodies. I imagine snakes writhing over and around each other, twisting in sinuous spawning knots and shudder.
The pressure of your lips disappears immediately.
“Is this not okay?” This is the way you talk and are, nothing ever in a straight line.
I lean in again and kiss you and the pull of it is overwhelming, bigger than blue or the giant earth. Above your shoulder I see the word Supergravity written in red block letters and think, “yes.”
Later, you ask me to tell you about flying and I try. I try to relay the exquisite lifting haziness and soaring clutch of it, sure that words are inadequate, but you nod with a faint smile as if I was simply confirming something.
“But how do you…?” you trail off. I know what you want. I float awake at night imagining how I would answer this question because the answer is different for everyone but this is how it works for me:
It is not like a flying dream, like swimming in air, or pushing against something. It is like the machine translates blue into motion, talks the greedy ground into finally letting go. It is as easy as thought. I visualize where I want to go and those invisible chromatic muscles move me through space in intangible steps to my destination. There are always adjustments, for buildings, trees and other fliers, but I can feel them coming now, like a stone in a stream, I can feel the ripples stretching before and after.
“Beautiful,” You whisper to yourself. “Perfect.”
Over the next few weeks I gather what I can for you from my father’s office. It is a company secret that he still prefers to work on the ground. The paper and pen he loves don’t float away here and I can fly to retrieve whatever he needs. He talked me into staying out another year of college. “Practical experience,” he says, but I know he wants someone he can trust. More than that, he wants a true-believer. A cheerleader.
“Those models you’re working on in engineering are really something,” he says absently. “I think they just might help me get a handle on this navigation problem.” I photocopy his treasured notes on extraction. The “navigation problem” is our code for those fliers who can’t feel the blue. They flop and turn, pushing against the atmosphere like it is some viscous floating swimming pool, like a bad flying dream.
“I’m sure you’ll get it soon,” I respond in encouraging tones. I don’t tell him about the cluster of floating homes by the lake that blot out the sun in the afternoon or the kids with clear eyes who trade pieces of themselves for some of the sky.
“Yes, yes,” he mumbles and I hear the scratch of his pen pressing on the good linen paper we could never afford before.
The copier blinks and flashes at me in a hard, accusatory rhythm and I subtract the hours to the moment I can see you again.
We have sex in your tiny bathroom while my brother works on the latest equations down the hall. It reminds me of the armoire I don’t sleep in anymore. Knocking against the walls and dark as I float in that tight space.
“So close,” you mumble in my ear. “So close.” And I’m not sure if you’re talking about the work of numbers and equations in your room or an orgasm.
When it’s over, you make your way back to the room before me and by the time I enter the two of you are already engrossed in an excited discussion with red and black pens on the whiteboard. If my brother notices that we are lovers, he doesn’t mention it, so happy to have an ally against our father he works with us around the clock. Maybe I should be jealous.
I wander the canals of available floor space picking at books and magazines, trying not to feel ignored. A quick glance at the deep indigo of the new night sky and the soles of my shoes pull away from the floor a bit. To distract myself back to earth, I turn away from the window and study the names of the cardboard scales on your rippling wall. There are a few gaps now, probably because you are so distracted by work. I reach for the bottle of rubber cement, but it resists, standing in a pool of clear frozen liquid like amber. A tile for “cornflower” is submerged in the hardened material and I can see the black specks of gnats suspended inside. Another tile rests on its edge in the line between floorboards and I pull it out to read the words “summer rain,” but the paper is the dirty white of a hospital floor. Looking up I see that the blank spaces are other cards faded to the same slightly off white.
“You ready?” my brother asks and I snap back to the cluttered bedroom, littered with diagrams and photocopies and my father’s perfect handwriting. I just nod and kiss you good-bye, slithering out the narrow gap of your open window to the cool night air beyond.
I should be dressed up for this dinner party. It should be tuxes and ball gowns, but it is at my father’s house so we are wearing our flying best, sure that the other guests will arrive in their aerodynamic silks and thermals as well.
There is a line at the front door, so we slip in through a window near the kitchen and search for something familiar in the giant floating house. All of the furniture is new and expensive. The comfortable worn couch the dog chewed on is gone, replaced by a gigantic leather creature that consumes most of the living room.
My father has finally found a way to keep the blue from leaking to the furniture from the house, so the couch and chairs and tables sit firmly on the floor, but the guests I notice, keep floating off their seats. The silverware and glasses they touch, hover a breath away from the tablecloth. Dad watches them with a wary smile, hoping they won’t notice the small problems as he explains his new round of discoveries and everyone cheers enthusiastically. They will all be even richer and soon they will be able to say good-bye to the dirty, cluttered world of the ground forever.
Josh smiles enthusiastically and even toasts my father, downing his glass of red wine in one gulp and I know something is up. You must be close to a breakthrough. He never drinks and there is a celebratory swagger about him as his eyes walk around the table.
I wonder for the first time what that will mean — if they are right. If you are right. Will the company fold? Will there be an exposé on the news about the dangers of blue?
“It works.” My father says holding a glass aloft triumphantly. Mom smiles a thin smile and excuses herself, padding carefully across the wooden floor as if she is trying to grip the boards with her toes.
I follow to find her nearly in tears in the kitchen. The caterers are in a frenzy, rolling and turning in the air as they try to catch the bone china desert plates spinning lazily near the ceiling.
“I can’t do this anymore,” she mumbles, taking another sip of wine and I wonder if I can slip out before coffee and desert. Josh and my father are headed for a drunken confrontation and I need suddenly and terribly to get back to the slight weight of you, to the futon on the floor and the walls covered in equations and stolen pieces of “periwinkle promise”and “ocean deep.”
I slip out through the bathroom window and float for a moment studying the stretch of the Milky Way above. It is one of those crisp fall nights and the sky above is a study in contrast — deep black and the cold white spattering of starlight. Floating there in my thermals, I know that I am part of it — a piece of the sky. I am the translated thing, not the blue.
I have been converted.
Smiling and still a little tipsy I turn, letting the blue pull me back to you, feeling it smooth me along those invisible chromatic channels until suddenly, without warning a switch is thrown and I am no longer a part of the sky. The blue pours back out of me and I understand in one smiling ecstatic moment, as the sky pushes down and the earth pulls harder and harder in accelerating increments of calculus, that you have finally proven him wrong.