Weightless

Updated: Aug 28, 2018


Image by Dawn Surratt

Several years ago, I became fascinated by the rise in flash fiction. These are short-short stories generally in the 500-1000 word range. (By contrast, an average short story is traditionally in the 2000-7000 word range.) Flash fiction is a mix of story, poetry, ad copy, and summary that, at its best, could hold a novel's worth of development and intrigue.


Now, the above lengths are only loose parameters, but a literary journal looking for flash fiction will give specific guidelines. I've seen collections featuring stories as short as 100 words. Whether something that short can truly be considered a complete story is a matter of debate, but I believe that pushing the boundaries of tradition is always a good thing.


There are several reasons behind the popularity of flash fiction. In a world of tweets and short attention spans, flash fiction offers readers bite-sized tales that demand just a few seconds of your time. There is also an immediacy to flash fiction that mirrors the go-go-go mindset of today's culture. Social media pares life down to selfies and memes and 140-character opinions, so flash fiction is literature that gets to the point with very little time/patience/room for detailed descriptions or drawn-out dialogue. Since it's so short, flash fiction must act like a gut-punch rather than a slow burn. In a world full of distractions and choices, flash fiction has to scream loudly to get a reader's attention. (This battle for our attention reminds me of the ever-shorter TV ads, some of which are only a few seconds long -- because, you know, the standard thirty seconds feels like an eternity these days.)


I took an online class to learn more about constructing a short-short story. I thought it would be a good way to work on my growing backlog of story ideas. The work, however, turned out to be more difficult than I anticipated. Like writing poetry, the author of a flash fiction piece has to consider the economy of words. Every single one has to matter. Therefore, editing these short-short pieces becomes a violent process of slashing and chopping words that don't hold their weight. I'm not exaggerating: the process felt brutal and frenzied. Editing flash fiction takes no less time than editing a standard-length story.


One of the stories I wrote for that class was originally titled "The Birthday Present." With a lot of help from my writer friends, I cut and re-built the piece several times, eventually changing the title to "Weightless" and submitting to literary journals. The story was accepted by r.kv.r.y Quarterly. It was later nominated for a Pushcart Prize.


I'm grateful to the editors for the opportunity to add my small work to the big conversation. The full story (~1000 words) follows, and can also be seen at r.kv.r.y Quarterly





"Weightless"


Through the front glass, I see only sky. Since we separated from the runway and left Janelle standing beside the small terminal, smiling and holding the video camera and that silly balloon, I’ve kept my eyes straight ahead at the sky.


“These seats are comfortable!” I shout over the engine’s roar. My voice cracks. I sound more sickly than I really am. I should be happy, I know, because I’ve made it to another birthday and because a private flying lesson is a great gift from my wife.


But I’m not happy. I’m scared to death.


Carl the pilot taps the side of his headphones. “You don’t have to shout,” he says.


“Sorry!” I shout. “I’m just nervous!”


As the plane climbs, a pocket of air collapses below us and we jerk downward. My stomach contracts. I feel like I’m going to vomit, but it’s a false alarm. I learned during chemo how to tell a false alarm from the real thing. Still, I’m nauseous. Sweat beads form where my hair has begun to grow back.


“Alright,” says Carl. “Now we’re going to bank.”


“No! No banking!” My skin hurts.


“Don’t freak out on me, chief. We have to bank at some point. Can’t fly straight forever. Remember, it’s your birthday, so just enjoy. Okay?”


“Okay!”


“No. Need. To. Yell,” Carl says, his voice rising. There’s a sharp crack of static after every syllable. “Relax,” he says.


I breathe deeply. Cold air, tinged with the smell of fuel, invades my lungs.


I imagine being in the car, on our way home. Janelle will drive. She will point up at the sky and pat my knee, which will still be shaking. Then we will hit a pothole, and I will bite my tongue.

I hear a crackle in my headphones – a ghost of a sound.


The more I study the sky, the more immense it becomes. I could fall forever there. My fright would shift – from the fear of crashing to the fear of being trapped in perpetual terror.

The plane bounces again – another air pocket.


I think of ways to get back at Janelle for planning this, but not much frightens her – not heights nor speed nor water. And she’ll eat anything…crickets, snake, brains, heart.


I think of telling her the cancer has returned. Or maybe I’ll dress up as a zombie. She hates zombies.


When the plane’s engine slows, I look at the instrument panel and spot a gauge showing two horizontal lines twisting away from one another.


We’re banking right.


“Enjoy the view!” Carl yells.


But I’ve shut my eyes. I slip toward the door and feel weightless for a moment.


Then something sputters and dies.


The engine.


“Shit,” Carl says. I open my eyes wide. Carl is fiddling with knobs and turning the ignition key. His hands are white.


“What?”


“Come on,” he mutters.


We begin to fall.


I’d be panicking if the view wasn’t so astounding. Now, instead of blank sky, I see earth through the windshield. The sun has broken through the clouds, and a shaft of light expands until it bathes the valley in warmth. The fields below are a series of plush carpets in green and gold.


The airport is in the distance. I wonder if Janelle can hear that the engine has died. I wonder, too, if Carl will radio the tower. “Mayday, mayday,” I expect him to say, not that there’s anything they could do. Our fate, I know, is up to us – only us. Still, it seems the normal thing to do.


“Should we call someone?” I ask, noticing the stillness of the ride now that we’ve lost power. Air flows around the plane, enveloping us in an unwavering hum.


“Yes.” Carl’s eyes are moist. He nods, but makes no move toward the radio.


I zero in on it. It looks just like a car radio. I click one button and then another until I hear static, followed by a beep. “Good,” Carl tells me.


“Hello? Is anyone there?” I ask, looking upward through the windshield. “Can anyone hear me?”


A tinny voice answers. “This is control. Carl, you’re losing altitude. What’s your status?”


Silence.


“Carl!” the voice snaps. “What the hell’s going on?”


“Um, we’ve lost power,” I say. “But we’re dropping fast.”


“The engine died!” Carl adds.


“Can’t we just glide?” I ask, imagining a peaceful landing softened by thick alfalfa.


“Of course,” says the voice. “But you’re a lot better off with an engine. You need speed, Carl. Come on, this is standard stuff, for Christ sakes.”


“I tried.” Carl turns the key again but there is no response.


“Drop your nose!”


“I said I tried!”


“More! Do it now, before you run out of room.”


When Carl doesn’t move, I reach for the wheel.


“Now!” the voice commands. My fingertips touch the hard plastic. I look up. The terminal and its short runway are impossibly close. How did they get that close?


For a moment, I’m back in the hospital. Every morning, my room was full of flowers, the only scent that didn’t nauseate me.


“Tell Janelle,” I say. “Tell her I’m okay.”


Leaning forward, I press on the wheel, hard and fast. The plane’s nose sinks. Air rushes by, faster and faster. The windows rattle. Then there is another noise.


Sput-sput-sput.


The engine rumbles to life. The propeller’s blades spin. Carl cheers so loudly that I have to shrug off my headphones. I feel the wheel being pulled back. I release my grip. Carl is re-animated, poking at gauges and rocking in his seat. His smile is wide and he moves his lips, but all I hear is the engine.


Carl banks the plane hard. Again, I slide toward the door. This time, I keep my eyes open. We’re in a low pivot over the runway.

Rising toward the opening in the clouds is a shiny, silver orb: my birthday balloon.


I look down to see Janelle. The camera is at her feet, in pieces, and her hands are raised, high above her head, stretching toward me.