The Angle of
name is Ronnie Marshall and I was eleven the year the space shuttle blew up.
I started flying in my dreams right after those astronauts died.
not like being Superman -- you have to find the right kind of hill and run down
it like crazy and throw out your arms like you're going off the high dive and
close your eyes and believe.
It's not really learning how to fly.
Anybody can to do that.
trick is forgetting how to fall back down again.
dream these flying dreams, the long grass slick on my legs as leaves spun in the
air. There were always feathers in
my dreams, like God had busted His pillow and goose down was snowing on the
world. In dreams my feet pounded
down a hill, my teeth clacking with every step, and when it came time to leave
this earth, that's what I'd do.
died one night a couple of years ago, sleeping off the chemo she took for her
cancer. This last Christmas, just a
couple of months gone by, Daddy flew too, until his truck landed in the San Marcos
Granddaddy says that was punishment for mocking the angels.
But I could soar away on God's feathers and still come back safe.
At least in my dreams.
spring in math class, after we'd all kind of got back to normal about the Challenger
blowing up, we were studying angles. Because
I do good in class, Mrs. Doornie gave me a protractor to work with, and I used
it to measure the angle of my dreams. That's
when I figured exactly how steep a hill needed to be for me to fly in real life.
swiped two surveyor's stakes from Granddaddy's truck and used my coffee can
money on a hundred feet of clothesline at Laudermilk's Hardware in town.
It was old money, from when Daddy had still given me an allowance, but I
didn't have nothing else I wanted anymore, except to see if I could really fly.
was a big old hill on the Chamberlain place that stuck up all smooth and round
like a sand pile, except it was pale rock under the dirt and grass.
One giant live oak tree grew up at the top, that kept getting hit by
lightning but never stopped growing. I'd
rode my bike down that hill a hundred times, until I wiped out on a cow pie and
broke my wrist when I was eight and Daddy made me stop.
Chamberlain's hill looked like it might be the right angle.
I took my stakes and my clothesline and a mallet and a level from the tool shed
and headed over there early one Saturday. I
drove one stake into the ground near the top, where the hill kind of rolled over
to the angle it had, and another at the bottom, just before the hill flattened
out again. My clothesline barely
stretched between them, and it was real saggy, but I used some sticks from the
live oak to prop it up in the middle. Then
I backed off to the fence line, balanced the level on a post with some pebbles
until it was straight, and set the protractor flat edge down on the level and
stared through it at the hill and the clothesline.
was right. It was exactly the angle
of my dreams. I picked up my tools
and went home to plan my first flight.
was at the door of my room. He was a
thin man, "spare" I'd heard him called.
didn't really know what "spare" meant like that, except Granddaddy
didn't have much to spare for me or the world.
He surveyed land for people and heard a lot of lies and complaints and
lawyers talking. Granddaddy had got
to where he didn't trust nobody but himself and Jesus.
Least that's what he always told me on the way to church Wednesdays and
jumped up from my desk and stood straight, like he'd taught me.
looked me up and down, then shook his head a little tiny bit.
"Were you in my truck, Ronnie?"
stared at my black Keds. He never
asked me things he didn't already know the answer to, and I'd learned better
than to lie to Granddaddy. "Yes,
sir," I muttered.
was a slithering as Granddaddy slipped his belt off.
"Ronnie," he said, his voice sad, "you know the rules.
It doesn't matter what you wanted with those stakes.
You didn't ask."
breath caught in my chest, making my whole body shake.
"You'd have said no."
my truck, Ronnie." He smacked
the belt against his palm. "You
can't just do what you want in this world, boy."
leaned over my desk.
ate dinner at the kitchen counter, where I could stand up.
That night after Granddaddy was asleep, I sat down at my desk again, real
careful of my sore butt. I was going
to fly tomorrow, and I had to be ready.
was a newspaper clipping in my drawer, from the Austin
American-Statesman. I pulled it
out, and copied out the names in my best printing, one at a time onto the back
of a picture of Momma and Daddy. Commander
Dick Scobee. Michael Smith.
Ellison Onizuka. Ronald
McNair. Judith Resnik.
Gregory Jarvis. Christa
was the teacher that broke my heart, that always made me want to cry while I
prayed in church. I could see my
Mrs. Doornie climbing into that rocket, flying into the sky and never coming
home. I guess Mrs. McAuliffe had
kids and a husband and maybe her Momma and Daddy who missed her, but I always
imagined those kids in her class, waiting at their desks while she never came
back until they were covered with chalk dust and pencil shavings and the birds
made nests in their hair.
I set the list aside with a little space shuttle eraser I'd won in a third grade
math contest and went back to bed.
morning I was up before the grackles. I
grabbed the photograph with the list on the back and the little eraser and put
them in my pocket. Mrs. Doornie's
protractor gleamed in the moonlight from the window, so I grabbed it, too.
Dressed in my blue jeans and my red sweater and my black Keds, I snuck
out for Chamberlain's hill.
the live oak on top of the hill, the sky was the color of a burned-down piece of
charcoal, all black and blue overhead, and kind of gray and orange in the east.
It was cold enough to see my breath, and my throat hurt a little.
The cows complained somewhere off in the darkness, and the morning dew
made their pies stink something awful.
left the protractor in my pocket, took the eraser in one hand and the picture
with the list on the back in my other hand, and closed my eyes real tight.
The hill was the angle of my dreams.
All I had to do was run and never stop and I could soar all the way to
Heaven and find those astronauts. Momma
and Daddy would there with them, everybody laughing at some stupid story Mrs.
McAuliffe was telling about the kids in her class.
Keds smacked into the grass of the hill. My
teeth clacked with each step. I knew
there was nothing between me and the bottom of the hill except some grass, so I
was safe. I stuck my arms out real
far, straining fit to pop my elbows. My
dreams told me what to do. My legs
strained with a red-hot, sour feeling, then there was no more ground.
had forgotten how to fall back down again.
soared through the dawn like a bird set free and nothing in my heart hurt any
more for the first time since I could remember.
The cold air made my chest ache as I breathed, and my body creaked like
the barn in the wind. All I had to
do was angle my hips and shoulders to turn, and I could bank and loop like a
knew Heaven wasn't straight up, like they said at the
was Granddaddy. I looked down.
I had flown over our little farm, and there he was in the front yard of
the house, Bible in one hand while he shook his other fist.
down here right now!"
banked left, slipping over the housetop then back across the front yard the
other way. This time Granddaddy was
thrusting the Bible up at me. "You're
in danger of your mortal soul, boy," he shouted.
"Nobody mocks God's angels."
shook my head, waving my hands as if to push him away.
That was enough for me to remember how to fall.
Head over heels, I tumbled into the yard at Granddaddy's feet.
The last thing I saw was that little photo of Momma and Daddy circling
high on the wind, as if it knew the way to the astronauts in Heaven without me.
head felt like it was inside a bucket that kept rattling as someone was throwing
gravel at it. I tried to shake it
clear, but that only made things hurt worse.
tight, Ronnie," said Granddaddy. His
voice was sadder than I'd heard since Momma died.
I opened my eyes. We were in
his truck, driving real fast down County Road 61 toward town.
happened?" It was a dumb
question. I knew what had happened
to me, but I couldn't think of anything else to say.
fell off the roof."
voice was almost a growl. "You
were sleepwalking and fell off the roof, Ronnie Marshall."
Granddaddy glanced away from the road and met my eye.
"There won't be another word said once we're done with the doctor,
you hear me boy? Not ever."
strange thing was, I didn't even get a whipping.
stayed out of school three days with a concussion.
Mrs. Doornie's protractor was smashed in my pocket, and whenever I could
get out of bed and sit up for a while, I tried to glue it back together.
The picture was gone, and so was my space shuttle eraser.
Wednesday I was better, and that night Granddaddy made me come down to dinner
instead of bringing me soup in my room. After
we said grace over the roasted chicken and buttered green beans, Granddaddy
picked up his knife, then put it back down.
He stared at me, so I put my knife and fork down, too.
I didn't know what I had done wrong.
Granddaddy said real slow, like he wasn't sure what he was saying.
Except Granddaddy was always sure of himself.
"Your Momma..." He
stopped, staring at the butter-and-pepper skin on his half of the chicken.
"She lost her Momma when she was a little girl."
was quiet for a while, like I was supposed to answer.
"My grandmother," I finally said.
almost looked relieved. "Your
grandmother. She ran away from us,
left me to raise your Momma. And
lose your Momma, finally."
hadn't never cried when Momma was sick or when she died.
They had to carry Daddy away from the funeral, but Granddaddy had just
stood at the grave with a face like a hatchet.
I was real afraid he was about to cry now.
grandmother," he said, "climbed a ladder one day when your mother was
a tiny baby, and jumped off the roof."
He grabbed my hand with his, like an old leather bird claw wrapped around
my pale fingers. "She never hit
the ground, Ronnie. You get
flew away," I whispered, tears in my eyes from how much it hurt where he
never again going to lose someone I love like that," Granddaddy hissed, as
my fingers popped and cracked in his grip. "That's
Satan's work, a mockery of God."
was wrong. Flying was being closer
to God, not running away from Him. It
was everything Brother Hardison said prayer was supposed to be.
My heart ached fit to burst for Granddaddy, but he'd never believe me if
I tried to explain.
on restriction," Granddaddy said, "from now on.
You'll be home when you're not in school or church.
And I'll be nailing your window shut so you won't sneak out when I'm
night I said the names of the astronauts over and over again like a prayer,
seeing that smoke cloud from the shuttle in my mind like God's finger pointing
up to His Heaven.
couple of weeks later as I came out of school to catch the bus, Granddaddy was
standing on the steps.
got in the pickup. Granddaddy
started it up and drove out onto U.S. Highway 183.
watched the ranches go flickering by. "Where
we going, sir?"
He didn't explain any further.
hour later we pulled into the parking lot of a hobby shop.
Granddaddy walked in, trusting me to follow.
He was right -- I would have given my front teeth to have a place like
this close to home. Models, rockets,
electric trains, everything I could ever want.
marched up to the counter. "I
want your biggest space shuttle model, and all the supplies we'll need to build
took me a while to close my mouth.
the next few weeks, we built the model on the dining room table and ate in the
kitchen. The gantry was almost four
feet high, the big orange belly tank three feet tall.
I'd never even seen Granddaddy so much as glue two toothpicks together
before, but he was real good. He let
me do a lot of the work, but showed me how on the hard parts.
he'd set his hands on mine, and that was almost like being touched by Momma or
Daddy again. Granddaddy had never
touched me before except to whip me or to drag me along somewhere.
on that model together was almost as good as flying.
We even laughed a few times. One
night he walked into my room and took the nails out of my window.
"I'm trusting you, Ronnie," was all he said.
we were almost done, it was time to place the decals on the model.
I said. "Not Challenger."
raised his eyebrows. "One of
After the teacher."
know who she was." He looked at
the decal sheet. "They didn't
include that one."
want it." I felt stubborn
suddenly, like fighting.
right," he said.
didn't expect that, no hard words for my backtalk or nothing.
Instead Granddaddy got a 00 brush out and the gloss black paint.
He just barely tipped the brush into the paint, sighed, and stared at the
model. After a few moments,
Granddaddy reached over and painted a perfect "M" in four quick
smiled at me, the first time I'd seen that since before Momma died.
"I studied to be an architect. First
thing they teach you is lettering."
thought about that. "But you're
smile died. "First there was
the war, then your grandmother, then your Momma.
I never got to finish college."
hugged him, hugged him so tight I thought his ribs might crack.
Then he finished painting the letters.
Real early the next
morning I slipped on my Keds and stuck the glued-together protractor in my
pocket. Then I went and knocked on
Granddaddy's door. I needed to show
him the most important thing I knew.
whispered real loud. "Wake up,
"What is it,
Ronnie?" Through the door, his
voice sounded like he'd never been asleep.
and come outside. I want to show you
something. It's important,
he started to say, his voice a warning. Then
I could hear him sigh. "All
When he came into
the living room, I had the McAuliffe
cradled in my arms, the empty gantry left behind on the dining table.
"Come on, sir," I said.
We walked through
the pre-dawn gloom, listening the late-hunting nighthawks argue with the
morning's first wrens.
We stood on top of
Chamberlain's hill. The east had
that glowing coal color again. The
cows were quiet that morning.
Granddaddy began, but I grabbed his hand and shushed him.
"Take one of
the McAuliffe's wings," I said,
"and stretch your arms out real far."
"This is wrong,
it," I said. Tears stood in my
eyes. "For me.
The model was heavy
as we each grabbed one wing. McAuliffe's
nose kept dipping down, and I had to twist my wrist back to hold her level.
"Now close your eyes and run down the hill," I said to
Granddaddy. "And when I tell
you to, jump into the sky. Just
forget how to fall."
He shook his head,
but he closed his eyes.
Carrying our regrets
between us, my Granddaddy and I scrambled down the dew-soaked grass, running
together at the angle of my dreams.
This story first appeared in Issue 1 of 3SF in October of 2002.
Copyright © Joseph E. Lake, Jr. 2002-2004
Photo Copyright © Eric Marin 2004
About the Author:
Jay Lake lives in Portland, Oregon with his family and their books. In 2004 his fiction will appear in a wide range of markets, including Asimov's, Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, and Realms of Fantasy. His collection, Greeting from Lake Wu, was a Locus Recommended Book for 2003. Jay can be reached via his web site at http://www.jlake.com.
Lone Star Stories *
Speculative Fiction and Poetry with a Texas Twist * Copyright © 2003-2004
Lone Star Stories * Speculative Fiction and Poetry with a Texas Twist * Copyright © 2003-2004