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Flight to Freedom
By Kayla Rafkin
Sadie sprinted out of the rusted creaky minivan before her mother could reach out to her or even speak a soothing word. She felt her way up the staircase, her puffy red eyes blinded by torrential tears, past her father on his way down to congratulate his brave first-grader on a brilliantly successful beginning.
“Sadie!” he called after her, half-stretching out his hands to stop her, but she had already slipped past. “What happened?”
“Leave me alone!” she hurled behind her, grasping along the walls for her bedroom door. She clawed at the handle, trying to force it to turn faster. She just wanted to escape from the world, to block out the shouts, the laughter, and the jeers from her classmates as they rang in her ears, crowding in from all sides.
Why? Why does this always happen to me? They never understand.
She slung her backpack onto the floor and slumped towards her bed, burrowing into her blankets and making herself as small as possible.
Zubo stood there in the center of Sadie’s room, her face crumpled in confusion. Her narrow hazel eyes were nearly reduced to slits as she squinted around, trying to think, but she was distracted by something below. She stared downwards, watching ten stubby little things burrow themselves into the soft scraggly threads beneath her. The whole floor was covered in the grayish white material, wherever she looked. It felt so new, so soft that those little stubs kept digging in then spreading themselves out, running the material through them. What were those wriggly little things? She knew the word, it was there at the very edge of her mind but she couldn’t get it out. In fact, she didn’t know what anything was, she couldn’t remember the names. Everything was blocked by a wall—the words trying to scale over but failing miserably—filling her with an inexplicable sensation of emptiness. She didn’t understand it.
Finally, she raised her head and her eyes fell on a strange oblong object directly across from her, reaching, at least, a foot above her. There it was again, that feeling that she knew what it was; she could almost say the name but it wouldn’t come out. What was it? It was a bright shiny thing showing an exact replica of the room around her. She vaguely recalled seeing a little girl twirl before this strange entity, admiring her brand-new gymnastics leotard. Raising her hand, she walked up to it, reaching for the smooth surface. Mirror. The word rose, unbidden, from behind the wall and everything began to fall into place. Those little stubs were her toes, that white shaggy thing was a carpet. Everything around her had a name, a color, a texture. But there was still something missing in that mirror. It was resting against the wall, reflecting the light streaming through the window on the opposite wall. And it hit her. She couldn’t see herself in the mirror, she had no reflection. She didn’t truly exist.
Zubo wrenched her eyes away from the mirror and turned to face the room. They darted to the magenta walls, to the neon green desk splattered with paint, to the tiny twin sized bed in the corner covered in a luridly flowered blanket—looking for something or someone. There she was. Sadie. She was sitting cross-legged on her bed, blanket wrapped like a burrito around her head and torso, eyes downcast. Zubo heard a little sniffle emerge from the burrito. Walking up she peered into Sadie’s face, whose shining chestnut eyes were slowly leaking tears, etching wet tracks onto her pale round cheeks. As she watched, Sadie raised her head and her eyes widened as they caught Zubo’s.
“Zubo? Is that you?” she asked timidly, pushing the blankets back.
“You can see me?” Zubo’s voice erupted from her throat in a strange sing-song note. “How do you know me?”
“I have pictures of you,” she said in a matter of fact tone, her voice gaining strength as she wiped her eyes. She pointed to a neat stack of drawings on the painted desk. “Over there.”
Walking over, Zubo picked up the stack and flicked through them. One picture after another of a girl around seven years old, wearing a jean jumper and a yellow and purple striped shirt with black-feathered wings sprouting from her back. There she was in each image flying too close to the sun holding another girl by the hand, over and over again, all signed “Sadie Milner.” Zubo looked down at herself again. It was all there. The jumper, the shirt. The wings? Craning her neck around to peer behind her, Zubo saw those feathery black wings firmly attached to her back. She stared for a moment, then, flexing her shoulders, she spread them wide, brushing the walls on either side of the room.
“How’d you get here?” Sadie asked, reaching up to brush the silky feathers as her innocent eyes probed Zubo’s.
“I don’t know,” Zubo replied, as she turned back to the pictures. “I don’t even know who or what I am.”
Sadie arched her eyebrow and tilted her head, thinking hard. “Does it really matter? I mean, who cares about what you are?”
Zubo shrugged as she put the pictures back—carefully placing them at an exact ninety degree angle against the edge of the desk—wondering if Sadie was right. Maybe it didn’t matter at all, at least no right now. Stretching her wings as far they could go, she turned to Sadie and said with a sudden daring smile, “You wanna see how high we can fly?”
Zubo held her hand out Sadie, who grasped it without hesitation, squeezing it in a convulsion of excitement. They threw the bedroom window open wide and climbed out onto the sloping roof, inching forwards until their toes lined up with the edge. The wings arched and began to beat, slowly at first, gaining rhythm, then more rapidly, preparing to lift them from their perch.
“Ready?” Zubo asked, as if giving Sadie a chance to back out if she wanted to.
“Ready,” came the determined reply. Sadie screwed up her eyes and Zubo had to fight the urge to laugh at her impatient squirming, stifling the unexpected giggle before it came out. She would hate to hurt Sadie by making her think she was laughing at her. This kid needs to have some fun.
“Jump on the count of three, okay?” Zubo beat her wings harder. “One. Two. THREE!”
Listening to the steady beat of the vast wings and keeping her eyes shut tight, Sadie leaped into the open air. She was filled with a sense of weightlessness for a few moments, as if she had become a part of the air surrounding her. Then she began to fall; the wings continued their rhythmic beat, tumbling next to her, gaining speed. Sadie felt her hand being fastened in a tight grip and she finally opened her eyes. She watched, terrified, as Zubo spread her wings just before they hit the ground, catching the sir speeding past them and performing a wondrous reverse-dive into the heavens. Blue sky, burning blood-orange sun, piles of unearthly white clouds. It was all so clear and bright; the expanse of sky and cloud seemed to go on forever, as if she had entered one of her paintings with Zubo. Except for the purple grass, Sadie reminded herself as she looked back at the green and parched yellow backyards surrounding her rapidly shrinking house. And the violet rainbows. Then she felt a jolt on her right arm and was suddenly being driven upwards against the wind as it whipped her curls around her face, tickling her freckled nose and ears. It felt as if she was pushing against a vast cushion, as Zubo dipped beneath the pressure front, making her way to the thin air above.
“Woohoo!” Sadie shouted at the top of her lungs, breathing rapidly. She laughed, feeling the exhilarating freshness of the air. “Higher!” she clamored over the rushing sound of the wind in her ears, her giggles traveling on the air behind her. Zubo arched her back and with one powerful swoosh of wings slicing through the air, they catapulted straight upwards into the clouds. Sadie extended her left hand trying to catch the clouds as they slipped between her fingers, cold and wet. Zubo gradually climbed upwards until they were flying above massive banks of clouds, burned orange from the sun’s rays.
“Oh look…Zubo…look!” Sadie pointed towards a cloud directly beneath them. “It has…wings like you!” Her breath was coming in short gasps now and her head was beginning to spin. She felt Zubo’s grip tighten once more and watched the clouds begin to rise, coming closer and closer, until they were above their heads. “Wait…where are we…going, Zubo? We can’t…go home yet!”
“Sadie you can hardly speak, you can’t stay that high above the clouds for so long or you’ll pass out,” Zubo explained.
Sadie felt her feet land on a hard surface and found herself on the roof outside her window once more. Disappointment welled up within her and she began to the familiar sensation of being trapped. Her hands automatically reached for her ears and she pressed against the sides of her head to calm herself down. Remember, Sadie, breathe in, then breathe out. Keep doing this slowly. She stood there for nearly a full ten minutes, not saying a word, her face blank just staring through the window into her bedroom.
“Sadie? You okay?” Zubo’s voice sounded muffled and far away, as if she were speaking from the other end of a long tunnel. Sadie slowly removed her hands from her ears, keeping her regular breathing going.
“Let’s go inside, I’m getting chilly,” she said, her voice suddenly flat and toneless. She didn’t care to wait for an answer and climbed through the window, leaving Zubo standing on the roof.
“Don’t you wish you could fly for real?” Zubo asked, settling herself on the desk chair and propping her feet up on the wall. She tucked her carefully behind her to avoid knocking over Sadie’s pyramid stack of color-coded paintbrushes.
“What do you mean? We just did,” Sadie asked, pushing her hair back from her eyes as she kicked off her Nikes and lined them up perfectly with her other shoes in a corner. She flopped onto her bed, curling herself around a fluffy frog-shaped pillow with a foot-long fuzzy red tongue lolling out of its open mouth.
“Y’know…on your own, with your own wings.” Zubo carelessly tossed the idea at her. She didn’t expect anything beyond a yes or no.
Sadie looked surprised, as if she thought the answer was obvious. “I can,” she said. “In my dreams. People can do anything in their dreams, they can be anything. Do you have dreams?”
“No,” Zubo answered without giving it a moment’s thought, catching herself off-guard. She started, blinking her eyes rapidly in confusion. No? How could I possibly know that? “Sadie…What am I?” she asked, a new idea occurring to her. “Am I a dream?”
“If you were a dream I wouldn’t be able to feel your wings or hold your hand, would I?” Sadie asked.
“Well if I’m not your dream, then what am I doing here?” Zubo pressed on stubbornly, furrowing her eyebrows. “We both know I’m not real, that much is obvious. So I must be here because of you.”
She had walked into her new school with such high hopes, wearing her brand new Nikes laced up tight—she had finally managed to make the little man go around and through the loop—each bow perched directly on top, standing straight with confidence.
Last night she had been so nervous that her mother had to sing her favorite lullaby, Lavender’s Blue, three times before her cold and clammy hands stopped convulsively seizing the blankets and yanking them up to her eyes.
Before she finally nodded off, she mumbled, “Ma, what do I say to the other kids in my class? What if they don’t like me?”
Her mother ran her long finger through Sadie’s mahogany curls. “Just be yourself, sweetie, and they’ll love you. You’re the best little girl I know and they’ll see it, too.”
Just be yourself. Just be yourself. Just be yourself. Sadie chanted the words as she drifted into sleep. She continued the mantra in her mind the next morning as she got dressed, as she brushed her teeth with her flowered toothbrush, as she ate her Fruit Loops, as the minivan drove towards the squat two-story building that morning, until the car reached the carpool lane.
Just be yourself.
She hopped out onto the yellow-lined drop-zone before the front steps. There were so many steps. She’d have to count them every time she went up and down.
Just be yourself.
She cast one last wistful look over her shoulder at her mother, who waved, smiling her brilliant white smile—it always made Sadie feel like she was safe at home again—before driving away. Sadie turned back to stare at the vast steel doors at the top of the steps. Clang. A boy shoved them open with all his might, slamming both against the walls. Creak. The doors slowly swung shut again.
Just be yourself.
Girls and boys were leaping up the steps carrying skateboards, pushing bikes, and hauling stuffed backpacks in all imaginable patterns and colors—pink and blue argyle, black and yellow stripes, plain muddy brown—there was no escaping the blur of colors rushing past. Do all these kids go to the same school? Her hands began to twitch again, her fingers twisting themselves as she raised them to the sides of her head, pulling on her ears.
Just be yourself.
Sadie forced in a deep breath, dragging her hands away from her ears and clamping them to her sides, her hands balled into tight fists. One. Two. Three. Four. She climbed the steps slowly, concentrating with all her might, making sure to count each one.
Zubo waited patiently for Sadie to stifle the inevitable finger twitching and head-grasping ritual that disrupted her once again. She wanted to do something or say something to help her, but she knew it was no use. Disrupting her coping mechanism would be far worse than simply letting her ride it out. She watched Sadie’s face slowly gradually change from pained concentration to a lethargic, eerie calm; her scrunched up nose and clamped jaws relaxing as her eyes opened and stared straight through Zubo.
“How many stairs were there?” Zubo asked, leaning forward to catch Sadie’s eyes, trying to draw her attention back. Sadie looked at her for a moment, her face blank, hands lying limp on either side of her—the frog-pillow discarded onto the floor, apparently forgotten.
“Thirty-seven,” she whispered, her eyes following the shift of Zubo’s rustling wings.
“Did you make it to the top?” Zubo continued to prod. Come on, Sadie, I know you’re in there. Wake up.
“Yes,” Sadie replied, her voice beginning to tremble.
“What happened next?”
Sadie was the last one to reach the classroom; her feet shuffled as she moved forward, trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze. She ducked low and creeped towards the only empty seat at the back of the classroom.
“Ah!” barked a sharp voice, hard as nails, behind her. “Is that you Miss Sadie Milner?”
Sadie froze in her crouched position, looking like some bizarre overgrown turtle with her green backpack, knees bent double. She did not say Sadie Milner, she did not say Sadie Milner.
“Young lady, will you please turn around,” the voice demanded imperiously.
Sadie straightened up and turned around, facing a multitude of curious faces staring back at her. Her hands began twitching again, but she intertwined her fingers and riveted her hands in front of herself until her knuckles turned bone-white. Just be yourself. Sadie shot a terrified glance towards her teacher—her bony arms crossed—towering over her large wooden desk, which bore a name plaque announcing “Mrs. Trundle.” Breathe in. Breathe out.
“Please come up to the front, Miss Milner, and introduce yourself to the rest of the class.” Mrs. Trundle beckoned her forward with a hand marred by popping veins and arthritic knuckles. Clamping her teeth to keep herself from panicking, Sadie ground herself into motion, stiffly setting one foot in front of the other until she reached the chalkboard and turned to face the class. She couldn’t see their individual features, each one blurred into the next as her breathing came quicker, and her focus slipping entirely. She dropped to her knees, fastened her eyelids together and began to scream as loud as she could, beating her head with her fists.
“Miss Milner, what’s wrong? Have you been hurt?” Mrs. Trundle attempted to shout over her. “Will you stop screaming and tell me what happened?”
But Sadie heard nothing; she continued to jam her knuckles into her forehead, screaming uncontrollably all the while.
“So, you lost control,” Zubo said, with a shrug and a brief grimace. “It’s bound to happen, Sadie. You can’t control everything around you.”
“They hated me, I know it!” Sadie cried, her fingers trying to find something to hold onto. “They were all staring at me, like I was some freak. I won’t go back again. I won’t. I won’t.”
“Yes, you will,” Zubo insisted. “And next I’ll be with you. And the next. And the next. Until you can get through a single day on your own, I will be with you.”
“But I can’t stop the shaking, I can’t make it stop,” Sadie’s voice trailed off in a miniscule quiver. Her finger finally grasped the skin on the inside of her wrist and began twisting. Zubo shot a worried glance at the twisting fingers, wishing she could pull Sadie’s hand away without pushing her into an even worse frenzy of panic.
“Well,” Zubo finally said, “then I’ll make it stop. I’ll hold on to you until the shaking stops. We can do it, Sadie. You can do it. One day you’ll be free.”