Here's the winning entry for the Romance category for the 7th Annual Writer's Digest Popular Fiction Writing competition by lifestyle columnist and grant processor Karin Fuller.
FEAR OF not FLYING
I held the square of coated paper between my fingers, image side down. Was tempted to look again. Knew it wouldn’t be wise.
A picture of Rick and another woman wouldn’t have surprised me. I’d seen it before. Even Rick and another man wouldn’t have been such a stretch. But this? This caught me completely off guard.
I hadn’t expected to cry. Thought I was years past that kind of reaction. I’d become a master pretender, skilled at deluding myself and diverting the kids and staying so busy there wasn’t energy left for thought.
Rick had apparently ceased feeling a need for discretion a mistress or two back. Once he realized I knew and did nothing, he’d almost seemed challenged to do more—see how much I’d take. I took quite a bit, and didn’t even know why.
But a baby? That changed the game. Why it hurt so much, I’m not sure. But it did.
Still carrying the ultrasound in one hand, I clipped Penny to her leash and stumbled down the lake path to a private bench not far from the flight park. The tears had waited until I’d sat, then they rolled up through me and out in tight choked sobs and hiccup-sounding barks. Ugly noises. Embarrassing.
And then suddenly, there was something in my lap. Something heavier than Penny, my arthritic dachshund. Hard to see through the blur of tears, but it was large and white and—for shit’s sake! A goose. It had apparently heard my distress and come waddling, then launched onto my lap. Her head was pressed to my chest, almost as though she was listening to my heart.
I realized the goose had only one wing. The other appeared to have been severed close to her body, or perhaps never there at all. The place it would’ve been was neatly covered with feathers.
Too stunned to keep crying, I mopped away my tears and was marveling at the goose—a goose wearing not one, but three hot pink bangles around her neck—when I heard a man’s voice.
“Well, I’ll be damned. You’ve gone and stolen my bird.”
The goose, my dog, and I all looked up at the same time. I swear that bird looked guilty. She hopped down from my lap and rushed to his side, wrap- rubbed herself around his legs like a cat, honking what I guessed to be an apology.
The man was thick-chested, white-haired, and bearded. Like a lumberjack Santa, complete with twinkling eyes and grey flannel shirt. But more handsome than jolly.
He reached down and stroked the side of the goose’s neck. She honked softly again, then made clicking sounds with her beak.
“She doesn’t usually leave me,” he said. “Especially here. Can’t risk missing her time in the sky.”
I wanted to ask what he meant by time in the sky, but was afraid my voice hadn’t recovered enough yet to speak. My throat closes when I get upset, tightening until it becomes hard to speak or if words do come out, the tears in them are obvious. I didn’t want this stranger to hear me that way.
I took several deep breaths while he tended his goose, giving her Cheerios from his pocket. My dog apparently decided the excitement was over and let out an exhausted-sounding groan, then collapsed on my feet.
“You okay?” he asked. I nodded, tried to smile. A sniffle escaped. “What’s her name?” I managed to ask. “Fancy Nancy.” She honked at the sound of her name. “Nance to her
friends. She doesn’t often like women. Surprised me to see her take to you that way. She’s a jealous sort, this girl of mine.”
He gestured toward my bench. “Mind if I sit?” I dropped my purse to the ground next to Penny. She made it her pillow
instead of my feet. He sat at the far end and Nancy hopped in between us, using her one wing for balance.
“Was she born that way?” I asked.
He shrugged. “Been that way as long as I’ve known her.”
I ran my hand across the smooth feathers on her back several times. She bent her graceful neck and gently nibbled the skin of my forearm in return.
“What do you know?” He laughed. “She never kisses anyone but me.”
“It’s a first for me, too,” I said. “I’ve had my share of dog kisses, but never a goose.”
Thing was—I realized I wasn’t looking at Nancy when I spoke, but at the man’s mouth. This strangely random thought—Wonder if his whiskers would tickle?—flashed through my head. Surprised, I blinked hard. Looked away.
I’m losing my flipping mind.
Feeling rattled, I sat quietly with the lumberjack Santa and his goose, she alternating her attentions from him to me and then back. It was a relief to have my thoughts distracted away from Rick and his pregnant mistress and our— also newly discovered—mountain of debt.
“I manage the grounds at Berry Hills,” the man said. “South Hills golf course. You know the place?”
“Even the geese there are snobs,” he said. “They were picking on Nancy something awful, so I brought her home.”
I smiled. He had such a nice face. It was well-lined, but the lines appeared caused by a lifetime of smiling. He had kind, happy eyes. A nice mouth.
“She’d go to work with me every day, ride in my cart,” he said. “Followed me around like a pup. Seemed content enough until fall rolled around and the other geese headed south. I watched her watching them fly. . . .”
He was quiet for a moment.
“She’d never seemed to mind not being able to fly until then,” he said. “It hurt to see her that way.”
He gestured toward the sign for the flight park, where adventurous types went to hang glide and parasail.
“That’s why we come here.” I laughed. “You take her flying?” “Every Sunday,” he said. Nancy was looking at him adoringly, as if she understood every word. “We do the kind where the glider is pulled behind a truck and takes off
from there,” he said. “I made Nance her own harness. We get about ten minutes of airtime. Not much, but it makes it makes my girl happy, doesn’t it?”
Nancy flapped her one wing.
“Once she got a taste of flying, there was no turning back. You should try it sometime.”
There was a gentleness to his manner of speaking that touched me, as if he sensed my sadness and was making an effort to distract me away. But there was something else, too. I liked how he looked at me. It made me feel strangely dizzy.
“I’m afraid of heights,” I said. “Wasn’t fond of them myself,” he said. “If it wasn’t for her, I never would’ve
tried. Sure, it’s scary. But you just push yourself through.” He stroked Nancy’s head, “When you’re in love, you do crazy things.”
“Some of us do crazy things when we aren’t,” I said, and then instantly wished I could take the words back. I didn’t want that personal of a conversation.
I saw him glance at my wedding ring. Was grateful he chose not to speak.
Nancy stood then and hopped off the bench, waggled her back side dramatically and honked.
“Figured that was coming,” he said. “Such a nag, that one. If I don’t jump when she commands, it’ll get ugly.”
He extended his hand and I took it. It was strong, I noticed. Rough and calloused. A man’s hand. Nothing like Rick’s.
“Name’s Layne, by the way,” he said. “First or last?” “Both,” he said. “My parents were strange.”
I decided to stay and watch them fly, partly because I was so thoroughly charmed, but also because I wasn’t yet ready to face Rick at home. This had been pleasant. That, likely not.
When they finished and Nancy was unstrapped, she raced toward me, honking so constantly it was as if she was telling every detail.
I sat cross-legged on the grass with a happily chattering goose in my lap. Layne dropped down beside me. Just when we’d think she was finished, she’d remember something else and blurt it all out.
After she settled, Layne shared a few stories, telling about his years in the military, his time overseas, his summers as a whitewater guide. “Tell me about you,” he said. “What kind of nonsense have you gotten into over the years?”
I thought of stories I could tell him. Streaking in college. Skinny dipping with friends. Blowing the whistle on an embezzling boss. The time I busted the window of a new Lexus with a brick to rescue a dog.
Except . . . my stories weren’t mine. For years, I’d told them as if they were, but they weren’t. It had been my friends who’d gone streaking and skinny dipping, who’d left parties with boys they barely knew and kissed strangers in elevators and did the kind of things that make people smile to remember.
But me? I hadn’t even ratted out my swindling boss. He’d left on his own, undetected. And I’d only held the brick in my hand while I stood by that Lexus; imagining so vividly how it would feel to break through the glass that it was almost as if I’d actually done it. Instead, I’d just stood there, feeding squares of ice from my cup to the dog inside that hot car until its owner returned.
I’d spent much of my life on the high dive, but never once jumped.
With Nancy napping on the grass in between us, I shared this with Layne, and then told him about Rick’s infidelities, his pregnant mistress, the debts he’d amassed under our name.
“There are worse things than being alone,” Layne said.
I knew he was right, but change that drastic terrifies me. What I had with Rick wasn’t good, but it still seemed preferable to the unknown.
“Come flying with us next Sunday,” Layne said. As if that was the answer.
I shook my head, suddenly unable to speak. My throat had tightened. Clamped in my words.
Layne took my hand. Squeezed it. His touch set a thousand bees to buzzing inside me, and he seemed completely aware (and thoroughly pleased) with the reaction he’d caused.
“When you’re ready,” he said.
After they left, I stayed for a while, enjoying a strange sort of peace—the absolute last feeling I’d expected to experience.
There are worse things than being alone, Layne had said. You just push yourself through.
I felt ready to push.
I didn’t crumple the picture. Just put it back where I’d found it—tossed casually on Rick’s dresser, with his keys and spare change.
I looked around our bedroom. Oversized furniture. Dull colors. All had been Rick’s choices. He wanted a manly bedroom, no flowers or frills. I’d acquiesced because I didn’t like conflict, but in spite of the many years I’d slept here, I never felt it was mine.
I walked through the rooms of our house, seeing it with fresh eyes. I had to work to find traces of me. The kids were there, as was Rick. Even Penny. But somewhere along the way, I’d stopped leaving my mark, so caught up in them that I forgot about me.
It must’ve happened gradually, much the same way Rick’s arrogance had increased and his character diminished over the years. He’d become someone I
no longer respected, didn’t even much like. And now that the last of our children had gone off to college, it wasn’t them that tethered us together. Our nest had emptied. Maybe that was all the inspiration Rick needed to fertilize a new egg somewhere else.
The image of Layne and his goose came to mind then and I smiled. I knew a bit about geese. Knew they mated for life. They were fiercely loyal creatures, protective of those they loved.
That my husband couldn’t compete with the moral fiber of a goose did not escape me.
So why did I stay? Was I that severe a creature of habit?
I thought again about Layne. The way he’d looked at me. How those looks made me feel. I’d been around him such a short time, but felt almost infected with his brand of alive.
I picked up the square of coated paper, stared hard at the image. That perfect little profile, so much more detailed than the ultrasounds I’d had so many years back. It’s humiliating that it took something so drastic for my backbone to finally be pushed into place, but once it was set, there was no bending it back.
The days that followed were frenzied. So many appointments. It was hard to believe an area as small as ours would have so many divorce attorneys, but I had a consultation with darn near every one before I officially hired The Shark. There’d never been any doubt that I’d hire The Shark, but I met with all those other lawyers so Rick wouldn’t be able to hire them. It would be a conflict of interest since they’d already consulted with me.
I considered some sort of creative revenge—something of legendary proportions, that people would hear about and forward to each other by email, that Snopes would be checked to debunk. Then I decided the best revenge would be to simply step aside and let them be together. They deserved one another.
Funny how a goose led me to a shark to get rid of an ass.
On Sunday, I returned to my bench just outside the flight park, hoping to again see Nancy and Layne. I was not disappointed.
Nancy recognized me from a distance; came honking toward me with her single wing flapping in a wobbly circle. Around her neck, she wore pearls and a wrist watch.
Layne smiled. Looked at me in that way.
I opened my cooler and removed some torn up spinach and fresh peas that I’d brought for Nancy. She gobbled them greedily, pausing only long enough to snatch the crust from Layne’s sandwich.
“I’ve tried teaching her manners,” said Layne. “Can’t get her to use a napkin either.”
We talked easily as we ate our sandwiches and drank our sweet tea. I’d spent years with an unsweetened tea drinker, but somehow intuited that Layne would like sweet. Maybe it was the slight Santa-ness about his appearance that attached him and sugar, but I hadn’t been wrong. He emptied his cup with pleasure apparent, and then asked for more. His hand lingered on mine as I refilled his cup.
“I’ve been pushing myself through,” I told him. “It’s been uncomfortable, but not as hard as I’d thought.”
I explained how every new step started with me scared beyond reason, but somewhere along the way, I realized it wasn’t just fear. I felt something else, too. I felt alive.
And then, that very same afternoon, he took me flying. Without ever once leaving the ground.