By E. M. Francisco
“Over the Beyond” placed fourth in Southern New Hampshire University’s 2020 Fall Fiction Contest.
Florence’s plane is bright. It streaks through the sky like a shooting star, a cigarette carelessly tossed aside. Her breaths are heavy as she fights with the stick. Clouds whip past her as she struggles to gain control of the craft, parting to reveal the ocean below.
Through singed glass and tongues of flame, she can see the distorted reflection of her plane. Her hands sweat through leather gloves as she grips the controls. Her eyes screw shut.
Florence steps out her front door and onto the porch, a lit cigarette dangling from her knuckles. She breathes out a lungful of smoke and watches it mix with the thick fog that covers the town like a goose-feather blanket.
It’s a terrible habit, she knows. But the taste of ash and tobacco in her lungs brings back the smell of engine oil and the taste of leather and metal in her mouth.
A stiff wind blows through the town, whipping her dressing gown and tangling her hair. Thick clouds of fog skid across the grassy lawns.
Through the quiet, she can hear words drifting.
“But what if she’s sleepin’, Frankie?” It’s a young girl’s chirp, thick with the drawl of poverty but light without the knowledge of it.
“If she’s sleepin’, then we’ll just head out and come back later. Jeepers, Tessie, come on.” Frankie’s voice is more like a flute.
Florence remembers when her voice used to sound like that. Before it became low and rough with years of smoke and practice. She doesn’t turn in the direction of the voices. A smile curls the corner of one lip. She takes another drag of her cigarette.
“But Frankie, this is trespassin’. What if we get caught? My brother got caught for trespassin’ before. He had to spend a night in jail. Jail, Frankie.”
“We just hafta not get caught.”
The rustling of tall grasses comes closer, all the way to the edge of the ramshackle fence and the wild roses that grow uninhibited around it. Several of the neighbors have made veiled suggestions that Florence clean up her yard, and she has pointedly ignored them. She likes the reminders of the wild Beyond, of the mushroom sprites and cat witches and goblin traders. It tempers her desire to go back.
The girls are talking in hushed whispers again.
“See, Tessie? She’s awake!”
Tessie huffs. “Yeah, I see, I see. You got your look. Can’t we go now? The school mistress will be lookin’ for us.”
“No she ain’t. It’s Saturday.”
There’s a moment of silence. Florence takes another drag of her cigarette – down to the filter now – waiting to see what the girls will do.
“I gotta feed the dragon, Frankie. Momma will get mad.”
“Pepper’s got enough meat on him that an hour won’t matter none.”
Another short pause, then:
“I’m leavin’, Frankie. This place gives me the creeps.”
The grass rustles. Florence puts out her cigarette in a small dish of brown glass and turns her head to look at the fence.
“Can I interest you in some breakfast, Frankie?” she asks.
It’s been a while since she last heard her own voice. It’s hoarse, gravelly, more of a croak than anything else.
There’s a small thwack and a curse and a girl’s head pops up over the fence line, one hand on her forehead. She looks abashed, but her big eyes are bright with curiosity.
“How’d you know I was here?” she asks.
Florence smiles. “Fog makes voices carry. Something to keep in mind. Breakfast?”
Frankie hesitates for a minute before slipping through a gap between the fence slats. She marches up to the front porch steps and cranes her neck to look at Florence.
Florence gestures for Frankie to follow and opens the door. The kitchen is in the back of the house. Light filters through the windows, illuminating the mess of cups and dishes. She sets about making eggs while Frankie settles herself onto a stool.
The young girl’s eyes are fixed on Florence as she moves through the kitchen. Florence says nothing, waiting for Frankie to gather enough courage to say what she wants to.
The silence brings memories of wringing leather gloves between her fingers as she sat before her commanding officer. Chin lifted, tremors masked, fear clogging the back of her throat. Florence remembers the hard look in his eyes, how proud she felt to be appraised as though she and her pilots were worth something, and the exhilarating feeling of freedom as she walked out of the office with signed orders.
Yes, this silence feels just like that.
“Is it true, what Mama’s sayin’ ‘bout you?” When Florence looks, Frankie’s cheeks are red with embarrassment, but she meets Florence’s eyes even as she ducks her chin.
Florence serves her guest, resting her elbows on the counter and her chin on her hands. “That would depend on what’s being said. People say lots of things about me.”
Frankie talks with her mouth full of food. “Mama says that you used t’be a pilot. She said that you don’t know your place and…” she pauses, trying to remember, “You’re a disgrace to your sex.”
In any other mouth, the words would have sounded like they were being spat, but Frankie breathes them like gospel, face shining with hope.
Florence laughs. “I was a pilot. My girls and I flew reconnaissance over the Beyond.” She remembers islands dotted with tiny houses and rope bridges, of migratory forests escorted by deer whose antlers touched the canopy.
“That’s your place, then?” Frankie’s breath is bated, her eyes wide. “Your place is in the sky, ain’t it?”
Florence nods. “It was, yes.”
Frankie drops her fork down with a clatter, lifting herself over the counter. “Me too! That’s where I wanna be! I wanna be a pilot and go have adventures like my brother!”
“And what does your brother do?”
“He works for the military,” Frankie says, returning her attention to her food, “goes into the Beyond like you, and he writes me lots. He says there’s magic in the Beyond, big magic! Bigger than the king’s magics, even!”
“He’s not wrong.” Florence worries at the cuff of her dressing gown with cold fingers. “What’s his name?”
“Thaddeus! His name is Thaddeus and I wanna be just like him.” Frankie droops suddenly, playing the last bits of her eggs. “Tessie says girls don’t get to go to the Beyond. And Mama said that I was bein’ foolish and that I should be workin’ on my sewin’.” She looks up, determination etched into her face. “But I heard what Mama was sayin’ to her sewin’ group and if you’re a pilot, then that means I could be one too, right?”
“I’m not a pilot anymore, I’m afraid.” The words taste heavy on Florence’s tongue.
Frankie looks confused. “Why ain’t you a pilot if that’s where you belong?”
There is no good answer to the question. No way to explain how many years Florence spent clawing her way into the cockpit. The insults, jeers, and sideways looks. Vandalized planes and shredded bunks. Uniforms thrown in slop from the mess hall. Fistfights with fellow pilots. Bloody rags and cold compresses. Withheld fuel and sputtering engines. Impossible flights between suspended archipelagos. Burnt hands and feet. Their escort opening fire from behind. The tightening panic as bullets shook her fuselage. Fire going up from the engine. Her girls going down like comets around her.
There is no good answer for a girl so young.
“There was no one left for me to fight for.” She stares at the scratches in the wood. Florence had lost more than just six pilots to the ocean that day.
“What about yourself?”
A pile of silverware slides into a plate with a few clinks. A windchime sings. Florence looks up.
Frankie sets her fork on her plate. “You wanna fly, ain’t that right?”
She says nothing. She does. More than anything else.
Frankie continues in a rush. “And I just, I wanna do that too. I don’t wanna sit around town sewin’ and talkin’ and keepin’ house.”
Florence doesn’t respond. She sees Frankie off and lights another cigarette as the young girl disappears into the fog. The dream still clings to her shoulders like a frightened child, emboldened by muscle memories of the crash and the cold of the ocean.
It’s an old dream. One she’s had a thousand times before.
Florence breathes out a cloud of smoke and taps her ash into the brown glass. She slips a hand into the pocket of her dressing gown and pulls out a tarnished badge. The edges are worn underneath her fingers, and Florence considers it for a long time, turning it over and over in her hand. Her uniform is still in her closet.
Florence grinds out her cigarette, pockets her badge, and goes back inside.
Category: Competition, Featured, Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Student