This week’s World-A-Week challenge is brought to us by Tom Barnett, who sent in this image via the latenightstirfry email submission box. I believe Mr. Barnett is the crafter of said image. I claim no authorship or attachment to said image, and if you are the owner please contact me if you disapprove of the post. Without further ado…
L i b e r a t o r
Sneezing almost constantly, Alison couldn’t believe that her mother had let this much time pass without them going through their storage unit. Granted, since they had moved it had become more difficult to get to the place, but the trains still ran most of the time and her mother’s almost OCD obsession with cleanliness should’ve had them visiting on at least a monthly basis. Still, there wasn’t much left here, just a few trunks and bins that had been old even before she was born.
Not everything was available via the datasphere, despite what her friends said. And sometimes it was satisfying to hold pictures, books, actual things in your hands rather than just get some weak holographic depiction of them, all ghosty and flickery. So while it was dusty and she was convinced there were spiders here, she was willing to brave them for the sake of what she might find. Her mother was outside, talking in a loud voice to her father though she couldn’t really hear what was said. Too much of that was happening lately, and she never seemed to know what set them off. It seemed to have gotten worse right when her headaches had begun, and when her mom had bought her the dark, almost elbow-length gloves she made Allie wear all the time now.
Anxious to get started and to ignore what was happening a doorway away, Alison shuffled through the storage cubes, finally settling on one covered in dust and cobwebs buried beneath a smaller stack of cubes in the corner. She shuddered as she cleaned it off, her eyes desperately searching for the slightest movement of her eight-legged foes—but it appeared they were nowhere to be found. Breathing a sigh of relief, she accidentally swallowed one of the billows of dust she’d kicked up cleaning off the cube. She coughed and sputtered trying to get it out of her.
Once she settled down, she took the ring of keys out of her pocket and searched for one that fit the old cube. It made her chuckle to even think about things like actual physical keys. Who even used them anymore? Her mother, obviously, and so now she had to go through the ten or so keys on the ring before she finally found one that fit and heard the familiar click and woosh that meant she’d successfully unlocked the box. She opened it quickly, and leaned over, peering in to see what her mom could’ve kept inside.
Some picture frames, of course, though they were older and not even digital. She recognized most of them as being her mom and her sisters, as well as her grandmother. A book of photographs taped together, that seemed to be people she remembered her mom saying were cousins of hers. Some sort of toy, with a detachable yellow head and strange hands that were in c-shapes, with hollow holes inside the legs for feet. The character was dressed like something out of one of the old-school anime she and her mom watched on Sunday mornings, but somehow even more over the top. A toy plane, though not like anything Alison had ever seen in the sky—this thing must’ve been a relic even when her mom was her age. It was big though, and when she’d finally removed all that she thought she’d reached the bottom of the box. Well, interesting enough, she thought, but I was hoping for something a bit more fun. At least give me something to knock mom on about.
Alison went to drop the plane back in the cube, but her pinky slid against the fabric of the bottom and it slid away. Well, well, well, she grinned, whatever do we have here? She pulled the fabric away to reveal what looked like a very old cracked brown leather something, with something else inside it. The larger something seemed to have longer, elasticized strips on its ends that maybe were ties of some kind. It looked sort of like a bag, but with a whole side cut away. Not very useful. But what was inside it, though…that looked interesting, finally.
Old as the leather, maybe older, were what seemed to be some sort of goggles. Brass rimmed, the glass was dusty and fogged with grime even though the stasis box should’ve kept them preserved in a vacuum. She glanced at the door quickly, to see if her mom had finished up berating her dad but, if anything, the conversation had only gotten louder.
Well, then, she won’t mind what she doesn’t know, giggled Alison, taking off her gloves and cleaning the goggles with them before stretching the brass and leather contraption across her head and sliding the lenses into place. Whose were these, she wondered, and how did mom get ahold of them? And then the whole world lurched.
Molly hated how small she was. He mom and dad had taken her to a few doctors, all of whom said that she was just maturing slower and that she’d catch up in a few years to her classmates. Not a big deal. So she sulked a lot around the house, and only John across the street seemed to want to play with her. That was fine, as she wasn’t that big a fan of Monster High or some of the other ‘girly’ toys she saw brought and traded at school. She was perfectly happy playing Avengers with John—and more happy to watch anime and read comics with him and his friends than she was to obsess over Twilight.
She loved old sci-fi movies, the cheesier the better. She’d seen The Rocketeer more times than she could count, and she was convinced that her love for both movies meant that the Hellboy movies and Sky Captain ought to do a mash-up. She’d even started a tumblr about it, though she was pretty sure she’d have gotten a stern talking-to if her parents knew that.
More than anything, though, she wanted to fly. Not like Iron Man, though his suit was sick. She loved the classic planes, bombers, and supersonic jets. She had made her parents call her Amelia, after she’d read about Amelia Earhart in her encyclopedia a few years back. She had even talked her dad into taking her to a local airshow and got to sit in a few cockpits with some real pilots, though she had been too overcome to say much beyond a quiet thank you to them before she left. She searched for pictures of ships, and stories about them, and posted them on her bulletin board. If a comic character had a ship, it went to the top of her stack. So when she’d started to go through the attic to get some extra money from her parents so they’d buy her a complete Last Exile DVD set on eBay (she’d seen an episode on Netflix and talked about it for weeks afterwards), she figured she’d find some roly-poly bugs and organize all the junk up there in some way and call it quits.
What she hadn’t counted on, however, was that some of it wasn’t junk at all. She found an old jewelry box made out of carved wood with what looked like gold handles on the top and some sort of crest on the top. When she opened it, there were a bunch of medals inside. At first, she thought maybe it was her dad’s Boy Scout medal box or something, but the more she looked at them the more she came to think that maybe the medals were legit. So she’d taken them downstairs and shown her mom. Her mom had gone tight-lipped at seeing the box, and when Molly opened it up and showed her one of the medals, what looked like a dark brown metal star attached to blue and white ribbon, her mom grabbed her stomach with her right hand while the left went to her mouth to hide her gasp.
“Those are your Grandpa Henry’s,” her mom said after a moment, still catching her breath from the surprise. “Wherever did you find those?”
“I was cleaning the attic like you asked me to, and there was an old cardboard box buried under a bunch of stuff up there. I found this jewelry box inside, and then the medals were inside. Did I do something bad, mommy?”
“NO! Oh, no, my dear sweet little girl. You didn’t do a single thing wrong. It’s just been so long since I’ve seen these. I’d forgotten we’d taken them from your Grandma Rose.” She dried her last dish, turning away from Molly for a moment to lay down the towel, and said “Why don’t you show me the box you found those in? I think there might be something in there for you.”
Five years ago, Liz wouldn’t have even thought of this, but her mother had passed away and so much of what they’d inherited had been buried in boxes long before then. Besides, she imagined her mother might approve of what she had in mind. She followed Molly up the sharply angled, thin fold-out staircase up to the attic, pausing at the top to notice just how much work her daughter had done during the last few days to get the place in shape. She was pretty impressed. Molly’d labeled most of the boxes, her overly large cursive writing covered them with lists of things inside some, whereas others just said “CLOTHES” in giant block letters.
Liz knelt down next to Molly, who was opening up the box she’d found her grandfather’s medals in. There were old newspaper clipping inside, a few photo albums made of black paper with monochrome pictures taped to the pages. Underneath the albums was one of her father’s spare uniforms, clearly pressed and folded years before when her mother had boxed up Henry’s things. And beneath the uniform was what she was sure had to be there, lying on top of several sheaves of paper. She glanced over at Molly, and her face was dumbstruck.
“Mom…was this Grandpa Henry’s too?” Molly whispered, somewhere between awe and confusion. She lifted out the brown leather aviator hat, its chin strap falling out of where it had been tucked inside. She turned it slowly around, one hand inside stretching the cap out as far as her hands could.
Liz saw how enraptured her daughter was and knew she’d made the right call. She reached out for the hat, gently sliding it from Molly’s grasp. “Yes, sweetie, Grandpa Henry was a pilot. Well, he worked on a plane. During World War II, your grandpa ran secret missions into France with some of his friends, dropping off spies and rescuing people trapped there by the Nazis at night. He worked in a little ball that came down beneath the plane, which he shot out of if the bad guys surprised them. It was very dangerous, because there wasn’t room for even a parachute in the ball with him; he had to keep it inside the plane above him.”
Molly sat for a moment, her brown eyes wide and bright with what Liz thought might’ve been tears. She reached for Molly, smoothing her straight chestnut hair out of her face. Holding the back of the cap in one hand, she grasped the chin strap and loosened it as Molly sat perplexed. That ended quickly, though, as Liz slid the strap underneath her daughter’s chin and slid the cap over her daughter’s head.
Molly was simply overcome, and started to cry. Liz wished her father had lived long enough to have met this girl, so clearly after his own heart. She often struggled to relate to her daughter, who already was so much of a tomboy and seemed to be becoming even more so as she entered her teen years. Then again, Liz barely remembered him herself. She remembered the feel of sitting in his lap, his hand and arm resting against her shoulder, she remembered what she thought was his voice as he played catch with her for the first time. That’d been a disaster, but he hadn’t shown any disappointment. He’d just scooped her up and carried her inside on his shoulders and tickled her as he put her down on the soft rug of the family room. He even went to one of her tea parties once, the only human in a sea of imaginary friends. Yes, he would’ve worshipped the ground Molly walked on.
“He must’ve been so scared, Mommy, to sit in a tiny little ball in the dark, waiting for someone to shoot first.”
“I’m sure he was, Molly. But he was brave, too. He knew that what he was fighting against wasn’t just people, but an idea he thought was evil. And he was willing to be scared to fight that, so that someone else wouldn’t have to be scared. He did it, so that we would be safe, and the people fighting would be safer. So that it would all end sooner, so he could come home. And he did.” Liz reached into the box, as Molly let go of the deathgrip hug she’d latched onto her mother. She pulled out her father’s goggles, gritty with sand and what looked like drywall dust. She handed them to Molly, who quickly put them on, the bronze frames still not dulled by the years. She reached behind Molly’s head, chuckling at the mass of her hair spilling out of the bottom of the cap as she tightened the goggles.
“When I grow up, I’m going to fly just like Grandpa Henry. I’d love to be a pilot, but if I can’t, I’ll do something else. I’m not scared of falling, so they can put me in a ball if they need to. I’ll protect you and Daddy, and John, and even Lisa down the street. So you don’t have to be afraid.”
And then it was Liz’s turn to cry.
It might have been peaceful, even with the ridiculous amount of noise from the engines vibrating through the plane. The moon was not quite full, the clouds from earlier in the afternoon had dissipated a few hours earlier, and the stars were bright this high up from the ground. He could find his bearings by them, if he had to—though he was glad for the maps, too.
Ahead, the black B-24, almost a twin to his own plane save for its black paint and lack of ball turret, started its descent into the French countryside. Usually they floated above the drop craft, but after a few seconds, they too started a rather steep descent. Henry tightened up the goggles, smacked the bulwark a few times and when the others looked at him he motioned with his hands he was headed below. The closer they got to land, the greater the chance they were going to be spotted or heard. He wanted to be sure he was ready.
The guys gave him a lot of grief for the goggles at first, but that stopped after their first few firefights. The goggles had been his dad’s, from World War I, which in turn had been given to him by one of his French compatriots when he was training at Saint-Maixent. His dad had been one of the first thousand airmen America had trained, and he was here to do honor to that as much as stick up for his country. He refused to fly without the goggles, and his quick reflexes in the turret ball had already saved them more than once. In the eyes of the crew, that gave him the right to wear whatever he wanted on his face, as long as his luck continued.
He took out the rough, grease-smeared picture of Rose, wearing the cornflower dress he’d bought her the week before he’d left, and his little Elizabeth with her pigtails and her yellow jumper. Most of the fellas had girls waiting for them back home, but he was the only one on the plane who had a kid. Boy, what a surprise she had been! But he cherished every moment he had with her, even the tea parties where he had to guess where the other celebrants were because they only existed in her curly-haired head. Looking down over the villages that passed beneath him like a river, he wondered how many fathers and daughters slept soundly there. He didn’t begrudge them their time. It just made him all the more eager to do his part, so that this hell of a war would end all the sooner. He was proud to serve his country, and flying in the belly of the beast had its appeal he supposed, but the constant tension ate at him.
From the ground, sudden sparks of light made him refocus. The grind of the engines combined with the wind shear of the descent sometimes made the entire turret shake, and keeping his aim on target was a challenge. This didn’t look good. As they got closer, the jet black 24 ahead of them evened out, trying to fly around the machine gun fire flying up from the ground. It was as if someone had known they were coming. One hand on the trigger, his other put the photo back in his breast pocket. The moonlight finally let him see what was shooting at them. His hand steadied, and he maneuvered the reflector sight until they were square on target. He tapped the goggles twice for luck and pressed the button. Machine guns whirred and fired as the ground guns turned their sights on him and his plane. The Joes would have to be dropped off later. He had to buy them enough time to get away. The gunfire from the ground suddenly seemed a lot louder. He heard a few cracks as some of them bounced or embedded themselves into the metal holding his turret.
Just breathe, he told himself.
Rose, honey. I’m coming back to you.
“What did you just say, Allie?” her mom asked her, looking at Alison with the pursed lips that always meant her mood was going to be rotten for the rest of the day. She was kneeling down next to Alison, her arm draped over her shoulder. Though her mouth said she was angry, her eyes looked worried. Allie reached up to take off the goggles, and got a sharp shock when her hands came in contact with the bronze frames. She actually jumped both because it had surprised her as well as how much it had hurt. Her mother gasped though, and it took her a minute to figure out what had caused her mom to react that way. Her gloves had fallen out of her hands at some point, and her mom had seen her bare arms when she had taken off the goggles.
Molly took her daughter’s face between both her hands, and asked again, “what did you say?”
“I’m coming back to you, Rose. You and Elizabeth”
Quickly, Molly took the goggles from Allie’s hands, throwing them into the box they’d come from. Alison looked a bit pale, and her eyes were unfocused.
“I want to protect you, you and daddy, and John and…” Allie whispered, her eyes fluttering closed, trying desperately to stay open.
Molly’s voice caught in a sob. She remembered that day, all those years ago, in her mother’s attic. She’d worn her grandfather’s goggles and cap for years, eventually using the goggles as some sort of costume thing for some convention somewhere. She’d never flown a plane, but she had flown. The world had changed, and she’d changed with it. But none of it had prepared her for what was happening with Alison. That’s when the fights with Jack had begun, over how to handle it, and had spilled out to cover so much of what had laid between them over the last few years. She didn’t doubt they both had what they thought were Allie’s best interests at heart.
This dear girl in her arms wanted to soar, just like she had. But in a different direction, one which Molly didn’t even know how to describe. And as the months piled on, it was getting harder to hide from Allie her strange affliction. The doctors had tried to caution her to think of it as a gift, but what mother wants their daughter isolated like this, traumatized every time she touched anything—or anyone?
As Allie’s body snuggled into Molly’s embrace, her eyes saw nothing but moonlight spilling across the sky, pricked by stars that seemed impossibly bright. She could hear, every now and then, her mother calling her name. She just wanted one more second here, and then she’d come back.
Caught up in the mute, soundless beauty of it, she held just a single thought.
I want to fly.