[This story was originally published in The Chaffey Review in May of 2009. It is reprinted here with minimal editorial changes.]
by Raul Clement
For a long time after the boy’s death, the father sat in the darkened rooms of the house and stared at his empty hands. They were strange birds. The mother made several delicate attempts to pull him back into their world: she bought tickets to plays, she arranged dinner with the couple down the street, she ironed his suits. Then one afternoon she found him in Derrick’s bedroom, pieces of a remote-operated model Tiger Moth spread before him. With a penknife he was chipping a wing from the battered body of the plane.
“I thought I should rebuild it,” he said.
“How did you get in?” she demanded.
In the yard shadows played on the bleached frame of the shed he’d begun last summer. A tarp serving as a doorway beat in the wind. He was self-employed, a woodworker retouching antiques, and for nearly a month he’d taken no clients.
“Well?” she asked.
He squinted at her and then went back to his tapping, until the motor spilled into his palm. He cradled it, tracing a sloppy scar of glue. “It’s smaller than I would have guessed. Odd…such a little thing could fly.”
He had found the key, then. She remembered locking Derrick’s room the day before the viewing. He should be buried in something nice, the mortician had said. She’d laid out three suits on the bed, ironing them and choosing matching ties, before flinging them to the floor, and the blankets with them, the sheets, the mattress slip. She rested her cheek against the naked mattress, feeling the springs behind its cool drum-tight skin—there was a rust-orange stain at the foot of the bed. Australia, she thought absurdly, it looks like Australia.
At last she stood, wiped the mascara smudges from her cheeks, smoothed her dress. From the closet she took a navy-blue uniform with wings stitched across the shoulders. That Halloween Derrick had been a pilot, part of a year-long obsession that included radio flyers, books on Charles Lindbergh, the Bermuda Triangle. He should be buried in this, not the starchy church attire he’d always hated.
The father had finished breaking down the plane, and had the pieces spread on a square of cloth. With a thin brush, he dabbed the propeller with red paint. He put on a few black spots.
Ladybug, he thought. Derrick used to pull them apart. Maybe this one would put itself together again and fly away.
She held out her hand. “Give it to me.”
“Is it so late already?” He began to shuffle from the room.
“Where’s the key? How did you get in?”
He glared at her as if she were being willfully dense. “He opened it for me.”
She went to the mirror in the hallway and ran her finger over the dusty lip, encountering loose metal. The key was where she’d left it. She locked the room, and taking the key to the basement, hid it behind the boiler, inside a box stuffed with her grandmother’s china.
That night she awoke with a bladder full of the wine she’d had to help her sleep. As she stepped into the hallway, she noticed an alien glow from behind Derrick’s door. She tried the knob and the door swung open. There was a magazine fanned out on the bed, a record jacket on the floor—things not in themselves meaningful, but disturbing because she couldn’t remember how they got there.
She hurried to the basement and dragged the box into the light. She dug around for the key, and when she could not find it, she removed the china, dish by dish. She unwrapped and shook out the brittle newspaper. The pages fell apart, leaving the smudges of letters on her fingertips. She held her shaking hands up to her face, and then spit on them, began rubbing them furiously on her nightgown. Then she remembered herself and let her arms fall to her side, looking about quickly as if to make sure she hadn’t been seen.
In the bedroom she shook him awake. “I don’t know how you did it, but this can’t go on.”
He rolled away from the light, smothering his head with a pillow.
The next morning she found him on the back porch, turning the nearly assembled plane in his hands, noting the way it caught and twisted the light.
He was grinning, proud but sheepish. “It’s really going to fly this time.”
“Stop blaming yourself,” she told him.
But they were talking about different things. They always would be. Because there it was, over his shoulder, the shed—skeletal beams swaying a little in the foundation. As long as it stood, she knew, it would mock even their modest attempts to move on.
When Derrick was eight years old, she enrolled him in Cub Scouts. They met Sunday afternoons in the basement of a block-shaped church—Derrick and a dozen boys his age. She’d had to bribe Derrick with the promise of a new bicycle if he attended the meetings for at least six months. Her hope was that some of the enthusiasm of the other boys would rub off on Derrick, but before the meetings he wouldn’t join them as they traded comic books and dashed through the sprinkler on the lawn. Instead he took a seat on the church steps, waiting to be let inside. Three hours later he would be in the same position, studying his shoelaces in the cricket-filled dusk.
One evening, after several months of meetings, he ran to her car where she idled on the curb. He thrust a paper through the window, some sort of newsletter. “Model plane contest. We’ve got to build our own planes and install our own engines and the one that flies the best wins. Fifty dollars. There’s also a prize for best design.”
A few days later, he sat hunched over the kitchen table, an elaborate spread of penciled forms and symbols before him—blueprints for the assembly of a de Havilland Tiger Moth. From the doorway, she and her husband watched. “You know, the other boys’ fathers will help them,” she told her son.
“The other boys won’t learn anything,” Derrick said.
Two weeks later, everyone gathered in a gravel lot outside of town. The lot was surrounded by toothy columns of pines, and just beyond, the throbbing passage of the river. Birds sang in high branches. The boys fidgeted in their crinkly uniforms, pants rolled up to relieve some of the heat. The planes were lined up in the dirt at one end of the lot, and there was a narrow length of tape at the lot’s opposite end, where onion grass swallowed the gravel.
“You boys ready?” asked the scout leader. “What was that? You didn’t sound ready to me.”
“Yes, sir!” came the boys’ trilling voices, and then one boy’s belated, “Let’s do it!”
The boys took their positions in front of their planes and the scout leader blew the whistle. The parents watched, leaning against the sun-warmed hoods of their cars, as the planes climbed into the air. But one plane wasn’t rising at all, was just bouncing across the pebbly lot, running aground on plastic bags and rocks, wheels spinning desperately, at last breaking free. The other planes had already landed safely and now everyone was waiting, watching the Tiger Moth as it lifted briefly off the earth, came smacking back down. Just before it reached the finish line, the plane leapt as if stung, climbing ten or fifteen feet in the air, before plummeting into the wall of grass.
The boys ran forward, looking for the lost plane. They wandered the field in circles and when that didn’t work, they combed the area in orderly lines. The parents joined them. Derrick drifted back to his parent’s car, and climbed into the back seat, slumping out of sight. The sun was sinking behind the trees before they found the plane, still mostly intact save a wing, buried in an anthill a few yards further on. They carried the broken body back to the cars.
But Derrick was not in the car. So another search party was formed, this one equipped with flashlights and cell phones, with which the parents radioed each other. Hours later, the last smear of sunset draining from a sky thick with crows, they found him in the spidery branches of a tree at a bend in the river. He was out on a thin limb, over an archipelago of slick rocks, the river gushing below him. The branch creaked beneath his weight, as if it might snap at any moment. He refused to come down.
“Let me up there,” his father said, removing his jacket. He scaled the trunk and made his way onto a nearby branch. “Derrick,” he said. “How about you come in a little, so we can talk?” He reached out. “Will you at least hear what I have to say?”
There was a murmur from below as Derrick scooted a little closer to his father, and then a bit more. His father leaned forward, grabbing another branch to brace himself. He spoke in a whisper. He didn’t want all of them listening in.
“I had a dream the other night,” he said. “Do you want to hear?”
Derrick stared at his feet dangling in the air. The river shuffled by. Small furry creatures rustled in the underbrush.
“Me and you,” he continued. “we’re in a plane, and you’re flying. We’re over the coast of a tropical island. The water’s so blue it’s clear and we can see huge cities of coral just below the surface. You’re wearing a pilot’s uniform, a real one. ‘Want to try?’ you ask. I take the controls and I feel the heart of the plane. It’s like something alive, purring, telling us everything’s going to be all right. Don’t you want something like that?”
On the ground, the mother strained to hear. There was a brief quiet where Derrick might have said, “I’m scared.” Then, the father was holding his hand, guiding him down the tree. As the other fathers slapped him on the back saying “Job well done” and other things masculine and appreciative, the mother felt a surge of shame, and deeper than that, anger at Derrick for embarrassing her, at her husband for not helping him, at herself for stepping aside. She hurried back to the car.
In the bathroom that night, she stood behind her husband, watching him reflected as he brushed his teeth. She wanted to make some small gesture of forgiveness. “What did you say up there?”
“The same thing you would have.” But he turned away from the mirror and wouldn’t let her see his face.
That night she awoke again. From the hallway came warbling music, so small and hesitant she couldn’t be sure it wasn’t in her imagination. Her husband was not in their bed. She followed the music into the hall, but it neither grew louder nor softened. Outside Derrick’s room, she pressed her ear to the door—nothing but the creaking of the wood, the hum of the boiler through the skeleton of the house. She turned the knob, but it wouldn’t budge. She kicked the door, making it shudder.
“What’s going on here?” she demanded. But there was nothing but the far-off tick of a clock. She slid down the wall, collapsing on the floor. Tick-tick. Soon it was all she could hear.
It had been a bright Saturday in late winter, a cautious warmth to the air. She woke late, to the twang of a hammer on wood. She padded to the kitchen. She poured herself a cup of coffee and watched steam curl from the brim. She held the mug in both hands, feeling its heat creep up her arms. The cat leapt from the table to brush against her leg before finding its place in the shifting sun, where it yawned and closed its eyes.
She took her coffee and muffin out to the porch to let the sun soak into her bare feet. She didn’t drink in those days and she enjoyed the mornings. The shed was coming along smoothly, she decided, rafters and columns stamping the shape of a future enclosure. Her husband straddled a joist, bearing down with a drill. Derrick—up early the way he never was on school days—ran circles through the shed, squeezing through gaps in the wall. At one point he picked up a hammer and scaled a ladder until he was level with his father. He held out the hammer, but her husband waved it off. It was nice to see Derrick this way again, she thought, after the disappointments of last summer.
Derrick reversed down the ladder, leaping off halfway to land neatly on his feet. He wandered about, running his finger along the edge of a saw, kicking loose screws. He picked up a nail and squatted, writing something in the dirt. Then he looked up and she waved at him. He returned the wave and she went inside to practice piano.
The father, who had noticed the mother there and taken comfort in it, drove another nail home, enjoying the smell of new wood and the warmth of the sun on his back. Spring was coming and then he could lose himself out here, make something real. He’d tried to show this to Derrick, but the boy had never understood.
“Hey dad,” Derrick called. He was halfway up the ladder, leaning forward. “I’m going to measure your angles. Watch.”
“Be careful.” He fished another nail from the pack, bent low over the hammer’s arc. The vibration scooted the ladder to one side.
She was practicing her trills when she heard the small, strangled cry. A moment later, the screen banged shut. She ran into the kitchen to find her husband mashing buttons on the phone. He was shirtless and sweating. He met her gaze with wild eyes, seeming to see right through her.
“He just…” he said. “I didn’t mean….”
She rushed outside, knowing what she would find, but pulled by some hysterical compulsion to see it, to really see. The first thing she came across were his feet, splayed awkwardly in the red Converses she’d bought him for his last birthday. One shoelace was untied. She wanted to tie it, but then she took a step forward and saw his head, twisted and limp on his neck. His arms were beneath him. She pulled him to her and breathed into his mouth. She was still doing this when the ambulance arrived.
A branch battering a window made her jump. She didn’t know how long she’d slept, or if she’d slept at all. The wind howled through the rooms of the house. She tried Derrick’s door again and this time it swung open, almost without her touching it. She hesitated, then stepped inside.
The bed looked slept in, the sheets in disarray. She searched for some familiar shape there—a friendly face, a continent—but there was nothing. Just the empty mattress, begging for his small weight. She remembered his breath as he slept, soft and easy. She’d sometimes sneak in at night and stand in the doorway, trying to imagine his dreams. She could almost hear him now, but it was all too distant, too far away. And it grew further every day.
A crash came from downstairs. She ran down the steps and found the front door banging in its hinges. Her husband stood on the lawn, facing the street, a heavy, square box in his hands. Wind furrowed his hair, tossed leaves in a winding, erratic ballet. There was a shiver in the air. She touched his shoulder, hesitated. He was working the joystick of a remote control, pulling and tapping it with his thumb. A sheet of lightning stamped the sky and she could see the plane as it dived between the tall, dark trees. She wanted to say something, anything.
“Weather’s changing,” he said without turning, voice flat, as if this were the simplest of facts.
A wonderful story. I liked it very much.
I like this one a lot back when you first wrote it, and I still do.
Melancholy and missed opportunities. Enjoyed it, and maybe learned something too.