“Did it slow your fall at all?” Henry came around to the front of the sofa.
I stood up. “How should I know? It’s only three feet from the cushions to the floor!”
“Are you hurt?”
“I guess not.”
“Then it works.”
I pulled first one arm, then the other, out of my improvised parachute harness. “Why am I testing this, anyway?”
Although too young for a beard, Henry scratched his chin thoughtfully—as though deciding whether to let a stranger in on a dark secret.
“C’mon, Henry! Spit it out.”
His face finally lit up. “I’ll show you. ‘Scuse me a sec.” He hurried away to parts unknown. A few minutes later I heard heavy grunts and groans, followed by the reappearan ce of a sweaty-but-all-smiles Henry, hauling behind him some cardboard boxes from the garage.
“Wow, those are really big. I betcha I could fit inside them!”
“Not now, Sarah! Can you pull them open and make ‘em flat?” He produced a small utility knife his mom used for arts and crafts.
I started to unfold the boxes. “Shouldn’t you ask before using that?”
“Nah, it’s all right. ‘Member? Mom’s not s’posed to know about this.”
“Maybe we should just tell her.”
“She’ll say No!” He had a point, so I shut my mouth.
Just as Henry cut the last box open, we heard the soft pad of moccasin slippers approaching our secret operation. It was his dad!
The phone suddenly rang in the next room; the footsteps stopped. Henry took advantage of this opportunity to hide the knife under the boxes, and our faces assumed our best looks of innocence.
“Hello? Oh, hi, honey. Yes, I’m fine, but—well, I don’t know how to tell you this, but the new baby’s dead.”
My mouth dropped open, and a look of anguish crossed Henry’s face. His family had just adopted a kitten named Couscous, the sweetest bundle of joy in the world—and she was gone?
“They said I’ll need to bring it back before they can give me a replacement.”
Tears started to well up in Henry’s eyes. I sympathized—how could his father simply trade in poor Couscous for a new cat? It wouldn’t be the same!
“I think we left it outside too long. The rain and cold must have ruined it. “
Poor Couscous! Rivulets streamed down Henry’s face.
“Yeah, I thought at first it was only a bad mouse.”
Couscous had died from eating a rodent? Something didn’t seem quite right here.
“Now I’m wondering if the brains of the unit got fried. Yes, I will—when I trade it in, I’ll go for a different model. Yes, I know I should’ve listened to you the first time. You were right, darling, as always.”
Henry’s sobs became convulsive, but a realization dawned on me. “Henry,” I began, but his father preempted me.
“Yeah, that’s a good idea. I think I’ll get a Mac next time.”
The sobbing stopped. Henry looked up as an angry frown crossed his face. I chuckled.
“Now, if I can just find the boxes the damned thing came in. All right, I’ll see you this evening. Bye!” A click, and then his father sauntered into the room. “Hey, you two. Have you seen some cardboard boxes?—” He stopped and stared at us; then down at the cardboard sheets on the floor, reduced to little more than children’s toys; then back at us. He shook his head, sighed deeply, and strode off.
Henry sighed with relief. “Whew, that was close.”
Becoming impatient, I interjected, “What exactly are we making here, anyway?”
“I’ll show you.” Henry outlined a long paddle shape with the knife, punched it out, then repeated the process. “Y’see?”
He stood up and held his two paddles in either arm, then flapped his arms and ran around the room like a hyperactive chicken.
“Wings?” I rolled the word around in my mouth, as though I had just learned it for the first time. “Wings.”
“Just in case the parachute doesn’t work, you’ll be able to land safely.”
“I don’t know if—what do you mean, me? I thought you were gonna be the pilot.”
“I can’t fly for beans.” A smug expression crossed his face. “But you have that remote-control helicopter you got for your birthday, so you already know how.”
He had me there. I had flown my little helicopter every day I’d had the chance. Until the day Henry told me he wanted to take it apart and put in a better antenna, so it could fly higher. The thing never worked properly after that.
I threaded my arms through the holes in the bag, and Henry spent some minutes wrapping the wings to my arms with duct tape. We silently crept out the back door and to his playhouse. Once we’d made sure no one was looking, we dragged out The Plane, an affair composed largely of peeling hot-glue and rusty nails.
“I’m not sure I wanna fly that thing.”
“You promised, ‘member?” That settled the matter.
Thanks to the duct tape and wings, I had largely lost the ability to flex my arms, but we managed to get the plane inside and up the stairs. To this day there remains a long groove tracing a winding path along the first floor, etched by one of the nails.
We hastily clambered out onto the roof from his parents’ bedroom and surveyed the neighborhood spread out before us. Just in time, too, as we heard the front door slam—Henry’s mom had arrived home.
“Oh, I almost forgot.” Henry produced a pair of carpenter’s goggles, backed by an elastic strap, from his pocket. “You’ll need these.”
I eyed them suspiciously. “What for?”
“All the aviators on TV wear ‘em.” He placed the goggles over my head, stretching the strap, then let the them snap into place against my face.
“Sorry. Can you fit inside?”
“Henry, I’m not so sure—” Complaints would do no good. I reluctantly strapped myself into the cockpit.
“You all set?”
Maybe it was the way he said it, or maybe I felt something for him back then, too. I guess I liked the thrill and adventure of working with him. “Yeah, let’s fly.” After all, I did have wings and a parachute. It wasn’t as though I were going to get hurt.
I felt a fast shove from behind, then my stomach came up into my throat. I fell, fell, faster and faster. The ground rushed up to greet me, and I felt a shattering impact as my airborne deathtrap slammed down into some rosebushes, utterly obliterating several years’ worth of growth. Thorns tore at my clothing, but the real pain was in my arm.
A shout pierced the warm afternoon air. “What was that? Henry, are you outside?”
I gazed up at Henry, who stood over the gutter and shrugged nervously. “Why didn’t you flap your arms?”
I lay there for a moment or two, still stunned from my flight. “Um, Henry?” I tried to catch my breath. “I think I broke a wing.”
“That’s all right—it looks like the whole thing held together pretty well.”
I winced. “Not the plane’s wing, stupid. My wing. Arm. Wing. Whatever.”
Henry leaned over the edge of the roof to get a better look at me. “Aw, it looks fine. I’m sure you’ll be all right.”
“All I know is I can’t move it, and—” A commotion above cut me off.
I heard two very familiar syllables, much like those uttered by the mother on that old radio show. “Hen-RY! What are you doing?”
“We’re flying, mom.” Henry tried to straighten.
“Henry, really, I—” I heard a startled woman’s gasp, and suddenly the figure of Henry tumbled off the edge of the gutter and onto the one remaining rose bush, snapping it from its base. I have to give him credit, though—unlike me, he actually flapped his arms. Also, unlike me, he had chosen to wear short sleeves that day. He still has the scars to prove it.
A shout came from above. “Henry! Are you all right? Wait there—I’ll come right down.” A couple of minutes later Henry’s mother came around the side of the house, panting. Her eyes took in the scene—years of horticulture ruined in a single afternoon—and her mouth opened, releasing a hysterical screech that oscillated in pitch from a low moan to a deathly wail, and back again, over and over. “My roses!” Henry covered his ears, and I tried to follow suit—at least with my good wing.
It turned out that I had only sprained my arm, but Henry and I each got grounded for a month. The punishment didn’t put any long-term damper on his creative genius; in fact, quite the opposite. The next time I saw him he convinced me to help him build a hot-air balloon with a lawn chair and some garbage bags.
For about five minutes I floated high above the neighborhood, but my journey ended when the big kids next door brought out their pellet guns and popped the makeshift balloons one by one. That time, I missed the flower garden, but landed on the toolshed. Henry’s mother, planting new roses nearby with help from my own mom, stood up in bewilderment at the sight.
I tried to wave, but the roof of the rickety structure suddenly collapsed under my weight. As I fell inside, I narrowly avoided dismemberment from a pair of ancient pruning shears, an old machete, and some rusted circular saw blades. Henry ran over, but once he had helped me out of the shed, both mothers approached cautiously.
“Henry?” His mother smiled pleasantly.
Henry knew what was coming. “Yes, Mom?”
The smile faded. “For the next week, you are grounded, mister!”
My mother pursed her lips. “You, too, Sarah. One week.”
Henry and I waved to one another as we parted ways. The cycle of mad capers always seemed to repeat itself. We both knew what would happen the minute our house arrest ended.
Our mothers tossed resigned glances at one another. I think they knew, too.
I smiled in anticipation.