Sunday, November 23, 2014

The End

The End.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Chapter Twenty

After the picnic, Veronica went home, changed into a clean pair of Toughskins, and went out into the back yard to pack up the flying suit. She lingered over the tail section: the bent tubing from the hard landing the night before, the embroidered cat on the pale pink silk. She pulled hard on the threads that held the bracelet to the tail until she made it unravel, and she transferred the bracelet to her wrist. Leonardo rolled in the dirt and shook hard, keeping a close eye on his friend.

 As she worked, Cork and Rackoo came to visit. They made her recount the whole evening’s events, sharing every detail. At first Veronica was wary about reliving it, but she realized that in telling the story she could get it out, all the fear that she had overcome but still weighed on her. Veronica poured the evening out into the air and let it go. Rackoo in particular asked her questions about the flying. Veronica told them about the extreme altitude she’d attained. She showed them the damage to the tail.

“Will you fix it?” asked Cork. “Will you keep flying?”

 “I don’t know,” said Veronica as she zipped up the case. “Gram doesn’t want me to. She worries about me. But I confess I love it. I feel like I was born to it, I guess.”

“We got you a present. I almost forgot!” cawed Rackoo. She disappeared up over the silo and was back a moment later. In her beak was a beautiful hairclip of silver and turquoise. She placed it at Veronica’s feet.

Veronica picked it up and laughed. “It’s beautiful, but I can’t keep this. Where did you get it?”

Cork squawked at Rackoo, “I told you she wouldn’t approve. We took it from the cabin.”

“You need to take it back where Billie can find it,” said Veronica. “But thank you for thinking of me. You don’t need to get me a gift.”

 “I couldn’t help myself,” said Rackoo. “It’s so shiny. But I’ll take it back,” she agreed.

“If you want my opinion,” said Cork, “you should keep flying. Rackoo hasn’t even taught you the fun stuff: barrel rolls, flying upside-down. Lots to learn still.” Rackoo nodded.

Veronica smiled, “and my name is Skypilot, the little blue flower that grows on top of a mountain. We’ll see.” She considered that she had a name now, at 127 points, that didn’t need to match anything. She hoisted the wing case onto her shoulder. “I think I need to go see my grandmother.”

They said their goodbyes and the ravens promised to visit regularly. Veronica carried the suit into the silo, piece by piece, and left it in the workshop. Then she gathered her six precious pieces of parchment and went inside where Gram was cleaning up dishes from the picnic. It was time to talk.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Chapter Nineteen

Veronica woke to a cold breeze blowing her hair around her face and the sound of car wheels pulling on to the gravel next to the road. Light was cracking open the sky in the east. She’d seen enough sunrises this week to last her a year. As she awoke she remembered where she was and turned to see Billie George’s yellow pick-up truck pulled alongside the road where she had been sleeping, tucked in among some acacia bushes. His boots walked around the truck and he came to stand over her.

“I don’t even know what to say, Veronica.”

“I’ve got people coming.”

“I bet you do. Just tell me one thing: are they gone?”

“I thought you didn’t believe in them.” Veronica stood up and looked out in the direction of the ribbon of light, or where she thought it had been—hard to say in the end.

“My father knew them, was visited by them in the mountains,” said Billie. “He never told anybody but me because I was little and I believed him. I feel like I’ve spent my life haunted by those ghosts. I could never tell anybody neither, like it was our secret. So many secrets, so much to be ashamed of. Gets so I don’t even know who I am anymore.”

Veronica kicked at the ground, not sure why Billie was telling her all this. But he continued. “I guess I thought if I could make those ghosts disappear there wouldn’t be any more secrets, that maybe they’d take my ghosts with them.”

“Well, they’re gone.” Veronica looked at Billie’s sad face and realized hers probably looked the same. “I hope it works out for you.”

“Yeah,” said Billie. “You too.” They shared a raw moment. Then Billie turned to leave. “You really got people coming for you?”

“I do, yes.” He tossed her a bottle of Gatorade and she watched Billie drive away. Only later did she realize that she needed to tell him to go search that cabin for the stolen jewelry, but maybe he knew that too.

Sure enough, it wasn’t another half hour when down the road Veronica saw the white Jeep driving her way. Alkali pulled up, rolled down his window, and nonchalant as you please asked Veronica if she needed a ride somewhere. Before he could even open his door, tears were rolling down her cheeks. He hopped out and held her as she fell down on the pavement and bawled like a child.

When Alkali dropped Veronica at home, Gram had already gone to church but Leonardo was standing guard on the porch awaiting her safe return. Johanna’s horses and the ghost burros were out in the pasture with the goats, and Johanna was asleep in Veronica’s bed. Veronica crawled in beside her with Leonardo and was soon asleep herself. After church was out at Gram’s church and mass was done at the Catholic Church, Gram and Aileen George came and woke them up, then went and got Rita. Mrs. Salazar and Ramón were down in Carpathia at the hospital. Although exhausted, the girls managed to bathe and dress in the pretty clothes put in front of them to wear to the picnic. Veronica even let Gram comb out her hair.

Every Easter the three churches in town worked together to put on the community picnic in the village park. The picnic tables were set up at the opposite end from the engraved stone tablets of the Little Pine Veterans Memorial. The whole town arrived wearing their best clothes. Little girls in long pastel dresses and boys in suits they would soon outgrow ran around the park, hunting for eggs and chasing the dogs that came to enjoy the picnic too. Streamers decorated the gazebo where a mariachi band played. Tables laden with food represented the blend of cultures that made up the small town: baked hams and deviled eggs, roasted goat and tamales, and mesquite fry bread with honey.

The girls saw that everyone from town had come out today. They waved hello to Miss Bernal and Mr. César serving food, and there was Miss Esperanza enjoying a laugh with the couple who ran the café who were sitting next to Mr. Lautenbacher and the rent-a-cops. Across the park, they saw Alkali sitting at an empty table. He waved them over. In the tree above him, Veronica saw Rackoo and Cork. She called up to them and they responded in their raven caws. Rackoo hopped down next to them on the ground, nibbling a friendly hello on Leonardo’s ear, where she wouldn’t be noticed by the crowd.

“You did well, I hear,” said Rackoo.


“We want to hear all about it later,” said Rackoo. She cocked her head and looked up at Veronica. “I’m proud of you.” Then she took off and Cork joined her, flying away above the town.

The girls sat with Alkali and didn’t talk much. They all had just one thing on their minds, and they didn’t want to discuss it in such a public setting.

Alkali broke the silence, “Have you heard from your mother, Rita? About Ramón?”

“She called a little while ago,” said Rita. “He’s gonna be OK. He’s dehydrated and he needed stitches for a cut on his leg. They should be back soon.”

“Too bad Miss Guy isn’t here. I think she would like a party,” said Veronica, looking around at the crowd.

Alkali smiled and said, “She throws her own Easter party and usually I attend, but today I wanted to be here with you. She sends her regards, by the way. And she’s ready to tell you what she saw in those tea leaves, but it’s nothing that you don’t already know.”

Gram and Aileen came and sat down with them, their plates full of good food. Gram added some things to Veronica’s plate. Then Johanna saw her father drive up the street and park by the fence along the side of the park. She waved him over to them. As he walked up, John looked serious. The girls made room for him to sit down.

“No, I can’t stay,” said John. “I just wanted you all to know what’s going on. Billie rode up to that cabin this morning and found all the stolen jewelry, some of it going back decades. I guess you girls know all about that.”

“I’m sorry Dad. We didn’t know what we were getting into,” interrupted Johanna.

John put his hand on her shoulder. “No, honey, I’m sorry. We can talk more about it later, but, but…my daughter took down Los Descarriados! I’m just so proud of you girls.”

Johanna looked at her friends. They didn’t feel proud; they felt exhausted.

Alkali, more than the other adults, recognized what the girls were feeling. “I think we need a ritual,” he suggested. “A ceremony.”

“You’re absolutely right, my friend. Hang on, I’ll be right back.” John walked over to talk to some of his tribemates who were setting up their drum circle in the gazebo to play next. He asked them to play a warrior song. Then he walked to his car and dug around in the trunk for a few minutes. He found what he was looking for and came back to the table. As the drum group started playing and singing, John presided over the makeshift ceremony.

He began by lighting the bundle of sweetgrass in his hand. As he spoke, he wafted the smoke around the girls. “To the warriors of our families who have risked much to provide heroic services to our community, we thank you. We give you honor for putting the needs of the community above your own needs. And we rejoice in your safe return.”

People at other tables were watching what was going on without understanding the reason. But they knew John to be a serious and good man and stopped talking and eating for a few minutes; many of them stood. When John was finished, Gram chimed in with “Amen.” Others at the table followed.

Then Alkali stood and took a turn. “You all were curious about how I got my name Alkali. Such a name may not be chosen, but only given. And today you have each earned a name. You may use it if you like, or keep it to yourself. For Rita, brave and true Rita, I would like to call you Cielita Valienta, our brave little heaven. Johanna, I call you Wind Horse, a symbol of strength and well-being. And Veronica, Skypilot. This is a small blue flower that grows on the tallest mountains, high above any other plant. You must venture very high to find its smiling face. Yes, you are our Skypilot.” To close, Alkali put his hands together as if to pray and made a bow to the girls. “Mazel tov,” he whispered.

As the crowd was thinning out, Rita was leaving with Johanna’s family, and Gram was making herself busy packing up casserole dishes, Alkali took Veronica aside. He took from his inner jacket pocket one more piece of parchment paper, unfolded it, and handed it to Veronica. “We are now at liberty to discuss this when you would like.”

Veronica took the paper which had a drawing of a bird flying over a river and a family with a baby sitting by the river.

Dear Polly,
The flower has bloomed and it seems impossible that the creator could not love her creation. What looks like un-love is another kind of love that wants to be love. I will love my beautiful blue-eyed flower who wants to be everything including a flower, a bird, a river, a mountain, and a star. And if a sound wants to be something not a sound, I will close my eyes and feel the vibration of the moment on my tear-stained cheek and fall to the ground in gratitude for joy of the sound not sounding. My flower will fly and I will blow the wind that carries her wings. We have named you Veronica and I will be the love that loves what she is and what she wants to be.

“You are Polly,” said Alkali. “Short for polliwog, who wants to be a frog.” Your mother wrote these for you when she was pregnant with you. And then you were born.”

“But they’re in my father’s handwriting.”

“He wanted to make you a book as you grew up so he made the drawings on the nice paper and added your mother’s words.”

“My flower will fly and I will blow the wind that carries her wings.” Veronica read. “Maybe that’s why it’s so much easier for me to fly than it was for him, because he didn’t have his mother blowing his wind.” And Alkali gave Veronica a long, firm hug so that she wouldn’t see the tears forming, this time, in his eyes.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Chapter Eighteen

Ramón ran up to Virgilio and Eloy as they returned to the campfire for the big surprise of guests. Rita listened as Ramón explained who the girls were, hoping that they could talk their way out of this. She translated for Johanna who was removing the flashlight and the colored plastic from her pocket to signal red to Veronica: emergency, don’t land. Then Ramón ran back to Rita and asked why Veronica was flying around. Rita was taken aback that he could know that. She told him that they had come to rescue him.

 “No offense,” said Rita to the ghosts, “but his mom is real worried about him.” She was relieved when the ghosts nodded in understanding.

Then Virgilio, whom Rita took to be the leader of the group, spoke. She had a bit of trouble understanding his accent and old fashioned language, but she did her best to translate: “We have enjoyed the boy too long, we know. I apologize. Don’t worry—we fed him and gave him water and a good place to sleep. I think he has enjoyed us too. He has been missing his father and brothers and does not know his grandfathers. Maybe we can be his grandfathers.”

Then Ramón spoke up: “Do I have to go home, Rita? I like it here. They only have to take a bath once a year!” Johanna laughed at this translation despite the stress of their situation. They smelled like they never took a bath. Must be coming up on the annual event.

Veronica continued circling overhead, ignoring the red light and fearing for her friends. Trusting, hoping, that the ghosts meant them no harm, Johanna told Rita to ask them if they would allow their friend to land. Of course, they said. She flashed the white light until Veronica landed near the fire. Ramón ran over and grabbed Veronica around the waist, and she maneuvered to not let him hurt the suit. Rita explained to the ghosts about the suit and about their planned rescue attempt. In all, Los Descarriados were being perfect gentleman. Santiago even asked Johanna if she would like a can of beans. Through gestures and her broken Spanish, she declined.

With help from her friends, Veronica removed her suit and the seven of them sat down around the campfire in an uneasy truce. Ramón took responsibility for adding more wood when needed. Under the light of the moon, the ghosts told many stories of their long years of wandering, translated by Rita and embellished by Ramón who had been listening to their stories for many days.

They told stories of the people they had watched, talking to the occasional person who noticed them: stories of heartbroken hard times, hobos on trains without enough food or clothes against the bitter winds, farmers escaping ruin by drought brought down by battering floods, evil swindlers who preyed on the beaten down, women dying in childbirth, the babies unable to break their way out in time, the fearful, the lonely, the desperately bored. Virgilio tried to intersperse these with happy moments they had glimpsed: a laughing family panning for gold for fun along a cold, fast-flowing creek in the high Rockies of Colorado just a few years ago, the strains of an accordion deep into a starry night with the earth-shaking pulse of one hundred dancing feet, their very own Little Pine Easter picnics from years past, the medicinal smell of the high desert after a cooling rain. Yes, Virgilio smiled, they could still smell. And he apologized for their present odor.

Then Virgilio told a story of a vagabond philosopher they had met many decades ago, a young man who also traveled by burro in the red-tinged canyon country of southern Utah. The young gringo man befuddled the men with his philosophic ramblings in broken Spanish during their time camped out together along a small stream that flowed into the San Juan River. But they enjoyed each other’s company. They taught him a trick to catching rabbits with a stick and a string. In exchange, this young man, Len, taught them to see stories in the stars: the animals, the warriors, the saints. Virgilio confessed that in thirty-two years of living and forty-eight years of death up until that time, he had never allowed himself to ponder the meaning of the stars that filled the heavens.

“What happened to Len?” asked Veronica.

“We heard he disappeared. They wrote a song for him,” said Virgilio.

“Which shows, as you know, that it is short, life,” added Eloy. “Unlike death, which is long.”

Then Santiago, the quiet one, spoke up. “But it won’t be for you because you can fly, so don’t worry about it.”

“True, true,” said Eloy. “Alas, we are ghosts who cannot fly. That is why we are stuck here, forever to wander.”

“What does flying have to do with it?” asked Rita.

“Have you ever heard of a ghost who can’t fly?” asked Eloy. “That’s how you move on to the next world. Your soul leaves your body and it floats up into the air. It finds a path to the portal and then is gone. Easy. But something happened when we died and we don’t float, don’t fly, can’t get to the portal.” The three ghosts sat in the firelight: dejected, lost, wayward.

“And you keep coming back to this spot because it’s where you died so you think you might find something you missed before?” asked Veronica.

“Oh no, it’s depressing to come back here,” said Virgilio. “We come back here because there is a portal nearby.”

“And that nice woman leaves the whiskey for us,” admitted Santiago.

At Johanna’s request, Virgilio told about the portal. Los Descarriados had heard many times from recently deceased ghosts who floated by about the portal just south of here at a place called Warnock Flat. If a spirit could follow a path to the portal, it would be transported on to the next world on a ribbon of light.

Veronica and Johanna looked at each other as their eyes grew wide: the Bee Springs Lights. For decades, myths and suspicions existed about this strange twinkling of lights in the night sky down south of Bee Springs. They had learned in school how scientists attributed the lights to a unique localized atmospheric condition, explaining away all paranormal theories. But now they were being told it was, in fact, related to ghosts.

Virgilio continued complaining about their inability to access the portal, being those rare earthbound ghosts. And then Veronica got thinking. “Do you suppose,” she asked, “a live human being could find that portal?”

Virgilio eyed the strange flying contraption. “You mean with that?” The three ghosts and the three girls looked over at the flying suit on the ground. If it was a bad idea, none of them would say. Virgilio stood up and inspected the suit. As he talked to Eloy and Santiago, Rita translated that they were trying to figure out how to hang on or attach themselves.

“Can we do this?” asked Virgilio. “We would very much like to do this.”

Veronica answered. “We can try to do this. I can’t guarantee that we can find the portal. I also don’t know if I can carry enough fuel to get us there. I don’t even know if I can fly with you hanging on.”

“OK, so we try,” smiled Virgilio. He marched into the cabin as Eloy gestured the girls to follow.

“Come, we can pay you,” explained Eloy. The girls followed. Ramón came after them with a burning stick to light up the rooms. Virgilio got down on his hands and knees and removed an old straw mat from the floor. Underneath, he lifted up some floor boards and exposed a wooden crate stamped with the name Arbuckle Coffee full of a small portion of a hundred years of burglaries. Jewelry, paper money, and coins filled the old wooden box. The girls were speechless.

Rita found her voice and thanked them and said there was no way they could accept this. Johanna and Veronica nodded. No one spoke for a moment.

“But we have collected this all these years so that someone would help us,” said Virgilio.

Veronica understood and gave him the answer they sought. “We will take this. This is fair trade.” Virgilio smiled and ushered them all outside.

Johanna was concerned for her friend and took her aside, but Veronica was beyond her fear. In the conversation of the evening, she had come to feel great sympathy for the ghosts and their plight. Maybe for this I have been learning courage, she thought. She assured Johanna that she wanted to do this. “I’m sure I won’t have fuel to get back, though, so send Alkali to find me when it gets light. Tell him to look for me on a road with stripes.”

And so Veronica suited up with Rita’s help. The ghosts grabbed on to the suit where Veronica told them to hold. Johanna returned from the clearing with kerosene and topped off her tanks. In the flurry of activity, only Ramón stayed by the fire, quiet. As Veronica prepared to take off with his friends, he began wailing inconsolably. Santiago stepped away from Veronica and held the boy in his stinking, vaporous arms. He whispered in Ramón’s ear all that he had learned: “Be true, my son, and follow your dreams.”

Veronica met no resistance on take-off with her unusual cargo. She climbed as high as she had ever been and headed south toward this place called Warnock Flat. She could hear the ghosts talking to each other, yelling over the sound of the jet pack. But she didn’t think they were talking to her, so she paid attention to finding winds to conserve her fuel.

She flew out over the southern edge of the Matilda Mountains, over the lights of Little Pine far below, and over the long, sloping plain toward Bee Springs. The rocky outcroppings were just tiny moonlit scabs on the surface of the land from that far up in the sky.

After a little while, she saw the lights of Bee Springs approach and pass underneath and she continued on. Not long after, Virgilio called her name and said something that Veronica understood to mean that he saw something. He said, “left,” and “a little, a little,” and she followed his directions. His words then became more animated and she couldn’t understand. She also felt a growing updraft and reduced her fuel. Then the three of them started shouting like crazy. Virgilio again called her name and offered a clear simple direction to turn right and then go straight ahead. The ghosts were quiet.

Then as if a light had been switched on, they entered a silver ribbon of light. The sensation for Veronica was of pure, blinding daylight as if she had flown into the very heart of a white sun. She felt a powerful updraft sweep under her, and she cut the engine and fought to hold the wings steady. Instead of being silent, though, without the engine, the light was full of sounds that she would never be able to describe—a combination of electronic buzz, voices, and hum. She could only describe later the overwhelming and inexplicable sense of chaotic peace or peaceful chaos that she felt being in the light.

When she had stabilized her suit, she looked around to consult with her crew, but could not see them. She called out their names but got no answer. They were gone, and she hadn’t had a chance to give them a message to her parents.

Veronica realized, with momentary panic, that she needed to get out of the portal. She fired up the jet pack, pulled full power in the direction she was facing, and roared out of the light. Just like that she was back into the night. She reduced power and circled around to look where she had been. As her eyes readjusted to the darkness, she could just make out the twinkling edges of the ribbon, enough to avoid flying back into it. And then she looked down.

The updraft had brought her so high that she could see a hundred miles in each direction. Below her, the lights of Bee Springs were but a speck. She caught her breath as the panic came back, and she felt disoriented. She concentrated on getting out of the updraft and losing altitude. Her training kicked in, and she began a slow spiral downward. Veronica didn’t even think about getting home; she just wanted to be on the ground.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Chapter Seventeen

Veronica bicycled out to the meeting spot. Johanna was already there with two saddled horses: her palomino Penny and her aunt’s bay mare. Rita arrived not long after on her bike. In the dying light, they looked at the map one more time. Johanna pulled out a flashlight to give them an advantage. She traced the route that she and Rita would follow to the cabin. Part of it was on the main road and part was on an old road that split off the main road, paralleled it, and cut down to the clearing Veronica had landed in earlier. It was one of the old dirt roads that hadn’t been on the modern map but appeared on the older map. From what Veronica had seen, vehicles didn’t use this road any more, but who knew about ghosts?

Johanna and Rita took off on the horses toward the mountains loaded with gear. Johanna estimated the ride would take three hours, so Veronica sat in the ditch on the side of the road and waited for the just-past-full moon to rise.

Veronica checked her watch and decided the time had come to suit up. She strapped on her helmet, tucking her hair beneath. Then she double checked her fuel tanks: full. She tipped the cumbersome suit up on the tail and fit herself in the harness. A quick check of the controls and she was ready to fly.

With the light of the moon, Veronica could see the landscape and flew straight toward the area of the mountains that held the cabin. She hoped the ghosts would be burning a fire again tonight, or she didn’t know how she would be able to find them. She soon learned that she didn’t need to worry. As she flew high over the cabin, she could see plenty of light from a fire against the deep black hillside. She reduced power to the jet pack and circled over the cabin. She could see the three hazy men sitting around the campfire with Ramón.

A little way up the hill, she saw Johanna’s flashlight blinking white light to her, letting her know that they were in place and ready. They had arranged the light signals ahead of time: white meant Veronica should land, green meant all was good and Veronica didn’t need to land, and red meant there was an emergency and Veronica shouldn’t land. She knew they could hear and see her jet pack because they were looking for it. She hoped the men wouldn’t think to look up beyond the crackling of the fire.

Veronica flew up over the clearing and came in for a landing. The girls helped attach a duffel bag to her chest. Johanna added kerosene to her fuel tanks from the cans they’d carried. Soon Veronica was in the air again and circling around the cabin, a bit unsteady with the extra weight on her chest. She flew up to the mine entrance now in the dark and came down for a landing on the small platform at the top of the high scaffolding outside the mouth of the mine. She balanced herself and the suit as she unzipped the duffel bag on her chest. Johanna and Rita had prepared five Molotov cocktails: cheap, amateur bombs. Each one was an empty glass bottle that Johanna had scrounged from the tribe recycling bins, now filled with gasoline. Also in the bag were five additional lids for the bottles that the girls had punched holes in and run pieces of cloth through. The cloths were soaked in kerosene. Veronica took the first bottle of gasoline and unscrewed the lid and put that back in the bag. She then attached a lid with the soaked cloth on the bottle. She set this on an arm of the scaffolding and prepared the remaining bottles.

After Veronica took off from the clearing, Johanna and Rita moved to get into place. They tied the horses to tree branches and snuck through the trees to safe hiding places in view of the cabin. Johanna carried the flashlight in her pocket. They waited, hidden, watching the ghosts and Ramón around the fire. They dared not move, though, until the ghosts were distracted—which should be happening any minute now.

After Veronica finished constructing the devices, she unhooked the kerosene-smelling bag from her chest and let it drop away to the ground, unneeded. Then she felt in her jeans pocket for the lighter. She had one in each pocket, right and left, in case the first one failed or got lost. As she pulled it out, she practiced getting her arms into flight position a couple of times just to make sure she was ready to move fast. Then she lit the first bomb and threw it as far as she could toward the cabin. She heard and saw it land on some rocks: a perfect hit and far enough from her that she could remain in place, unseen.

Johanna and Rita heard the hit and watched the fire burst up in the shrubbery behind the cabin. But it was too far behind the cabin, and the men didn’t notice. Veronica waited, holding her breath, for a reaction. Nothing. So she lit another one, and threw it a little farther to the left. Again, a good solid hit on the rocks. This time the little bomb set a whole bush on fire. From the trees, Johanna and Rita watched the reaction of the ghosts. Veronica could see them too. They looked around trying to find out where the fire had come from. Veronica calculated what would cause the most confusion, lit the third cocktail, and let it sail in a different direction. When the flame burst out, she could see the chaos setting in among the men. Then she watched as something happened that she had feared. With their rapid movements, Veronica could not distinguish them anymore. They turned back into turbulent heat waves. Some of it was moving her way, but she couldn’t be sure where all three were.

Still hidden in the shadows, Veronica got ready for the grand finale. Johanna and Rita looked uphill toward the mine in anticipation. Veronica lit both remaining cocktails and held them in one hand while she started the jet pack with the other. Then she switched hands, pulled power on the jet pack and as she rose up from the scaffolding, she threw the cocktails down on the mouth of the mine. The fire exploded up the scaffolding and drew the attention of the men up the hill. Veronica gained altitude but continued to fly over the mine to make sure the men didn’t return to the cabin in the next few minutes.

This was the girls’ chance. They snuck around the cabin and found Ramón by himself by the fire. Rita grabbed his hand and tried to pull him away, explaining their plan. He was happy to see her but reluctant to leave the fire. Johanna tried enticing him by telling him that he could ride her horse. Rita kept an eye out for the ghosts, but she too had trouble seeing them when they moved so fast. She asked Ramón if the men were around, if he could see any of them. He answered that Eloy and Virgilio had run up the hill to see what Veronica was doing, but that Santiago was sitting right here by the door if they wanted to talk to him.

Rita turned to face the cabin and saw, sitting not six feet away, the Descarriado known as Santiago. He smiled at her and nodded hello. Busted.

“Johanna, there’s one of them right here,” Rita whispered. She stood up straight and let go of Ramón. “Right here smiling at us.”

Johanna turned and saw him too. “Can we run?”

“Not with Ramón. He doesn’t seem to want to go.” Rita smiled and nodded back at Santiago.

Overhead, Veronica watched her friends not leaving the scene and was concerned. She saw the mirage moving back down toward the fire. Leave! She wanted to scream. GET AWAY! But it was too late.

Alkali faced himself in his bathroom mirror as he brushed his teeth. The clock read just past ten o’clock. He studied the wrinkles around his mouth. There always seemed to be a new one. He didn’t pay attention anymore to the wrinkles around his eyes; they were so entrenched. He did look, though, into his watery blue eyes and tried not to be too hard on himself.

For all his grand theories on fear and courage and useless things, he felt like a sham. The girls were out there right now risking their lives to save that little boy. And he wasn’t with them—he hadn’t offered to help or even to call the State Police. He just said to call him when they got back. Sure he had stories of grand adventures: travels to foreign lands and the women he had loved. But who was he today? He was a mailman in a Podunk town too scared to do the very things he told others to do. These girls were the real thing, though, like he thought he once had been. Maybe he could get it back; maybe he could learn something from them. From the outside, his life looked pretty well put together. Maybe it wasn’t too late to get his courage back.

A knock on the door broke him away from his thoughts. Sarah Lawson stood outside his back door. Alkali didn’t need to ask why she was there. He just invited her in and brewed a pot of coffee. They sat together in the kitchen waiting for the phone to ring, hoping to everything they held dear that the girls were OK out there.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Chapter Sixteen

Saturday morning the girls met early on the silo roof and shared their experiences from the night before. Johanna was worried, Rita was sad, but Veronica was determined like her friends had never seen her. First, they spent some time looking at the map. Veronica traced with her finger where she believed she had flown. The tiny circles that represented mountain tops were helpful. There on the 1982 map, she showed her friends where she thought she had seen the campfire. Sure enough, there was a mine site there and according to this map, a cabin.

“The name of that mine is Pearl Jumbo?” Veronica asked her friends for confirmation.

“Yeah,” said Johanna, looking closely.

Veronica looked off in the distance a moment, calculating. “One-thirteen. And what was the name of Los Descarriados’ mine?”

“Copo de Nieve,” said Rita. “It means snowflake.”

Veronica nodded. “One-thirteen. The names of both mines add up the same. That’s where they are—Pearl Jumbo.”

“You think the ghosts add letters up like you do,” asked Rita.

“No. Probably just a coincidence. But a good one, huh?” Veronica smiled. She wanted to fly out there this morning and scout it out in the daylight.

“Is it safe to fly around during the daytime?” asked Johanna.

“Out there, yes,” said Veronica. “As long as I stay low I should be fine. But I can’t fly from here; somebody would see me. Well, I guess the whole town would see me. Ugh, I should have left the suit out there last night. We’ll have to carry it out past town.” She pointed to other spots on the map as she talked. “Here’s where I landed last night, after I ran out of fuel. I was able to glide all the way from here…to here.”

“OK, and here’s where we took you to practice yesterday,” Johanna pointed out. “We could ride our bikes out there with your gear and you could fly up there and check it out.”

“Right. And Alkali has more fuel in his garage. You could make a couple of trips out with more fuel,” said Veronica. She knew Alkali had morning hours at the post office and couldn’t help them this time.

“Where’s Billie at today?” asked Rita. “We don’t want him to see us: either doing this or being together. Especially after last night.”

“He told my dad he had business to take care of up in Midland, be gone the whole weekend. My dad says what for? It’s Easter. But Billie said it was none of his business. So I guess he’s gone,” said Johanna.

“I think we need to be careful with that,” said Veronica. “Maybe he’s in Midland, but keep an eye out just the same.”

The girls rode their bikes out of town with their awkward load, taking a ranch road through fields to get to their destination without being noticed. They found a good staging spot with a deep ditch alongside a row of oak trees that would hide the leather cases, Veronica’s bike, and the kerosene canisters to come.

“I wish Rackoo was here,” said Veronica as she put the suit together. “I didn’t tell them I’d be out this morning.”

“You can do it without her, can’t you,” asked Rita. “You did it last night.”

“Yeah,” said Veronica. “It would just be nice…”

Johanna sensed the hesitation in her friend’s voice. “Veronica, I know you wish you didn’t have to do this alone. And as much as Rita and I want to support you, we can’t be up there with you. But I know you can do this.” Veronica nodded because Johanna had said out loud what was in her own head.

Rita joined in, “I know you can do it too, Veronica. And you know what? We’re gonna wait right here until you get back. We can go get fuel later, or have Alkali help us.”

“That’s a good idea,” admitted Veronica. “I think it’s called mitigating the risk.”

The girls helped Veronica get the suit on her back and get strapped in. She took one last look at the map and shooed her friends away. She fired up the jet pack with a pull of her thumb and up she went. Johanna and Rita watched her fly away toward the mountains. Then they sat down to wait.

Veronica felt good in the air. Despite the stress of the situation and the pressure to rescue Ramón, she had to admit that the freedom she felt flying in the suit made up for everything. Up here she was free from her everyday life, even free from the mystery of the letters to Polly.

She stayed low as she approached the mountains, balancing safe altitude with being seen, and avoided following the roads in case anyone was driving on them today. She had a pretty good idea of how to find the cabin without following the roads. As the ground began to rise below her and the piñon, juniper, and gray oak trees grew thicker, she remembered the lines on the map that she had studied. She circled around a bit to the west and found the drainage that she wanted to follow. It didn’t take too long before she saw the glint of sunlight off glass and metal among the trees: a cabin. She flew a wide circle around the area, scouting a place to land. Not far up the hill from the cabin, she saw a small clearing. She approached it from the uphill side, away from the cabin, and executed a good vertical landing; the only problem was brushing up against a cholla, a jumping cactus, putting a cluster of spines through her purple jeans.

She walked with her suit on into the trees and found a couple of sticks to dislodge the cactus from her leg. After unsuiting and taking off her goggles, she leaned the suit into a tree to make it hard to see if anyone came along. Then she picked a route down toward the cabin through the thickest section of trees, careful to walk on soft ground and avoid sticks. She stopped short when she heard a sound. An unmistakable hiss from a snake filled her ears but she couldn’t see a snake. She started to walk again, but the hiss continued. The more she listened, the more confused she became. Was it coming from above her? She looked up, afraid to find a snake hanging in the tree.

She about collapsed with relief when above her in the piñon tree she saw the raven who wanted to be a snake—Cork imitating a snake and laughing. He flew down and landed at her feet. Then Rackoo came down from another branch and joined them.

“Shh, what are you doing?” whispered Veronica.

“Your friends said you might need some help,” Cork whispered back. They all talked for a minute and devised a surveillance plan. Although the ravens hadn’t figured out how to see the ghosts, they could see Ramón if he was captive at the cabin. Veronica didn’t dare get too close to the cabin because she, too, hadn’t learned yet how to see the ghosts, although Rita had done a good job explaining the trick.

In the dirt out in front of the cabin, the warm remnants of a campfire gave off a trickle of smoke. Cork landed by the campfire and stood where he could see the entire cabin. Rackoo landed by the open door and took a cautious step inside. The smell was overpowering but, as a raven, to her liking. She hopped around the three spartan rooms. A bed was made up on the floor in one of the rooms just the size for a child. She saw no one and didn’t feel the presence of anyone. She looked in each corner, looking for the heat waves that Veronica had described. Nothing. She did stick her beak into some of the empty bean and stew cans lying on the floor. A tasty snack, but she had work to do.

She walked back out the door into the sunlight. She squarked at Cork and together they took off and flew around the immediate area trying to find the boy and his keepers. A little farther down the hill, on a rocky outcropping, they saw Ramón sitting and looking off in the distance, appearing to be absorbed in conversation with himself.

Rackoo reported this sighting to Veronica who waited back in the trees. Rackoo then led her down the slope until she was in sight of, but behind, Ramón and his phantom friend. At first Veronica could only see the customary waves of a mirage, but as she did as Rita instructed and relaxed her eyes, almost going cross-eyed, the image flickered into view. One Descarriado sat on the rock talking and gesturing with Ramón, who looked in good shape, if a bit dirty and ragged.

Veronica turned and made her way back toward the cabin. She didn’t dare step out into open ground in case the other ghosts were there and she couldn’t see them. But she was able to get the lay of the area. The left side of the cabin, looking uphill, bordered the edge of small ravine that came from the spring just up the hill. A small trickle of water ran down the ravine. On the other side of the cabin, and up a hill were the remains of the old Pearl Jumbo Mine. During the years following the time Los Descarriados had mined silver in these hills, prospectors had dug out tungsten, copper, and silver from this mine—but never enough to make it profitable. Veronica studied the remains of the mine: the piles of gravel at the mouth of the mine cave, a rusted out red bulldozer, and the aging wooden scaffolding structure that stood twenty feet in the air and at one time helped bring ore to the surface.

Then she heard voices of men and she ducked down in the duff beneath the trees. She looked down the old road leading away from the cabin down the slope. Sure enough, she saw the mirage and then with a little effort saw two men on burros riding up to the cabin. The third burro trailed behind. She waited until the cabin blocked the line of sight between them and herself, then she ran as quietly as possible through the trees. She heard the ravens making a ruckus on the other side of the cabin.

Back up the hill in the clearing, Veronica suited up and prepared for take-off. Rackoo and Cork arrived and landed at her feet.

“Going so soon?” asked Rackoo.

“Yeah, that was close. Thanks for covering for me,” said Veronica.

“But you didn’t get Ramón,” said Cork.

Veronica looked at him funny. “I can’t get him by myself. But now we know he’s here and he’s OK.”

“So how are you gonna get him?” asked Rackoo.

Veronica smiled. “With a little help from my friends. Come on, let’s go.” She lifted off and flew down off the mountain.

Back in the field, Johanna and Rita were relieved when Veronica returned. Cork and Rackoo arrived a few minutes later. Together the girls and the ravens gathered around the map and shared what they had learned. Veronica turned the map over and drew a detailed diagram of the cabin area including the mine, the ravine, and the clearing. Then they studied the roads on the map, exploring their options. Together they agreed on a plan to rescue Ramón.

“Well, good luck girls. I guess we’ll find out how it turns out in the morning,” said Cork.

“What!?” exclaimed Rita. “You’re not going to be there tonight?”

“Ravens don’t fly at night,” said Veronica matter-of-factly. “It’s OK, we’ll be fine.” In fact, Veronica didn’t know if they would be fine, but it was true that the ravens roosted at night and nothing would persuade them otherwise. This was their nature.

Johanna stood up and looked toward the mountains. Then she looked at Cork and Rackoo. “Do you have any final words of advice?”

“Yes,” said Rackoo. “Along the road up on top of the mountain, there are three dead rabbits. Do not eat them. They are full of poison intended to kill coyotes. Do not eat them. Understand?”

“That’s it?” asked Rita. “Don’t eat the dead rabbits?”

Veronica laughed, “Welcome to my world.” And with that, the girls packed up the flying suit, hid it in the ditch, and biked back to town to haul kerosene.

Between the bumpy dirt road and the weight of the kerosene cans, the girls walked their bikes out to the dirt road ditch. Johanna was telling a story about her cousin Cody, one of the teenagers who lived on the reservation and went to high school in Fort Woodrow. His handsome smile and baseball skills made him popular at school. Like the other older kids in her family, Cody picked on Johanna as the youngest. She had learned from her brothers, who were out of school and worked on oil rigs in the Gulf, not to react to their taunting; but she never missed a chance to get them back.

“So his mom bought him a new pair of jeans for the sports banquet at school, but she bought ‘em at the second hand store and wasn’t paying attention. So he puts them on and thinks they’re a little baggy, but he just puts on a belt. And he goes to the banquet. And his friends are all asking him if he messed in his pants cause they’re all baggy there and stuff. And it turns out they’re girl jeans for a girl with hips. They even have these fancy decorations on the back pockets.”

Veronica and Rita laugh, knowing the embarrassment this would cause Cody, and well deserved at that. Johanna continued the story, imitating Cody and her other cousins making a big deal about the girl pants. The three of them laughed hard walking down the road with their load of fuel.

Johanna continued: “We haven’t had that much fun since Chuck broke the sink. Do you remember that?”

“You have to tell Rita,” said Veronica.

“So Chuck, a couple years ago maybe, was in the bathroom. He sat on the toilet so long his feet fell asleep. Then when he tries to stand up, his feet didn’t work so well and his pants were still down around his knees…” Johanna stopped talking and walking, doubled over with laughter at the memory. Veronica and Rita experienced sympathetic laughter and they were unable to proceed. “Chuck is almost falling over, so he reaches out to catch himself on the sink…which wasn’t attached. My Uncle Archie never attached it.”

Johanna, trying to catch her breath, choked out the rest of the story which involved the crash of the sink, Chuck’s mother running into the bathroom, and Chuck on the floor with his pants around his ankles and the broken sink on the floor. Within minutes everybody on the reservation had heard the story. Johanna suggested that Cody and his girl pants might finally make people forget about Chuck and his sleepy feet.

After a few minutes they had composed themselves enough to continue walking down the road, but Rita couldn’t help picturing Chuck, whom she’d met at Johanna’s—cool high school Chuck—in such a position. She laughed so hard she snorted, which got Veronica and Johanna laughing all over again. And for a few minutes Veronica forgot about counting things or about Polly, Rita forgot to sing her song or be sad about Ramón, and Johanna didn’t worry about Veronica or anything else. For a few minutes, they were just girls.

After they were done hauling, weary and hot, Veronica treated them to a root beer at The Pit, thinking to ask Miss Esperanza some questions. The place was quiet in the lull between the lunch and dinner crowds. The girls sat down at stools at the long, wooden bar as Miss Esperanza poured them root beer from the tap into glass mugs fresh from the freezer. Rita drank hers too fast and put her hand to her forehead as the pain hit.

Veronica wasted no time getting to the point. “Miss E., we need to know everything about that bottle of whiskey you put in the cabinet out back. We know who it’s for and we know where they live.”

Miss Esperanza let out a long whistle and looked each girl in the eyes. They each returned a steady gaze: no messing around, no joking. “What did they do this time?” she asked.

“That doesn’t matter,” said Veronica.

Johanna interrupted Veronica before she could say more. She spoke like she was talking to a spooked horse, reassuring. “They’re just up to their old tricks, aren’t they? Some robberies, nothing serious, but making themselves known. Right? Coming around here more?”

“Yeah…” said Miss Esperanza.

“So what’s your story? Why the whiskey?”

Miss Esperanza let out a hard sigh and told her story. Her grandfather had started the restaurant decades ago, first as a diner, then as a bar, then with the barbecue. Her aunt took over and ran it for years until she took off with a rodeo cowboy, a roper. The last thing her aunt told her before leaving her the keys to the place was to be sure to keep a bottle of whiskey in the cabinet out back in case Los Descarriados ever came back. The old ghost story. But now, sure enough, they were back. And she didn’t mind because they were happy with the cheap stuff and never drank too much anyway. She could see the ghosts just fine, didn’t understand how other people couldn’t. They never gave her any trouble, but then Miss Esperanza wasn’t the kind of person you’d want to give any trouble to. They were always polite and tried to pay with stolen jewelry. Miss Esperanza said she told the men to take those nice things back where they got them, but she didn’t know if they ever did.

“Do you get a sense of what they want?” asked Johanna.

“Whew, I don’t know. They seem so tired, so unhappy. Hard to say. They’ve been traveling around on those burros now well over a hundred years. They said they’ve gone back to their homeland in Mexico and all the way up to the Dakotas where they got stuck in a snowstorm. Imagine that, being a ghost stuck in a snowstorm.” Miss Esperanza laughed a cold laugh.

Without revealing the predicament with Ramón, Johanna didn’t know what else to say. She looked at Veronica who was deep in thought: of all the useless gossip she’d heard in Little Pine, how had she never heard this? Then Rita spoke up. “Do you know what would make them happy?”

Miss Esperanza thought about it. “You know, I think back then when they were alive they came here hoping to make some money, go back home and marry a pretty girl, raise a family. Just normal stuff. They never got to do that, but they watch people over and over live a normal life. They don’t fit in here. I don’t think they’d mind being dead if they were around other dead people. Well, that sounds funny I guess, but you know what I mean—where they can just be themselves in all their authentic deadness.”

The girls nodded. They did know what Miss Esperanza meant.

Gram walked in from church as the afternoon faded into evening and found Veronica washing her hands in the kitchen sink. Gram sat down at the table and waited for Veronica to join her.

“I had a talk with Howard today,” said Gram. Veronica looked at her with a confused expression. “Howard, Alkali.” Veronica nodded. Gram continued, “He explained some things to me.”

“I should have told you,” said Veronica. “But I kind of knew how you’d react.” She tried smiling at her grandmother who just gave a slight nod in return. “We never talk about my parents. You sometimes talk about mom when she was little, but never anything after he came here."

“It’s just so painful, honey,” Gram said. “First losing Grandpa and then my Jenny. I’m afraid if I talk about it, I’ll be swallowed up into this bottomless pit of pain.” She whispered the last of that. Veronica squeezed her hand.

“You know, they stayed on after Grandpa died when they didn’t have to. I never gave Paul credit for that. She would have gone away with him so fast; she never fit in here. I just was so afraid of losing her. I’m afraid to lose you too.” Veronica thought about how maybe that kind of fear was the useless kind, like never hiking in the hills for fear of rattlesnakes. People went away regardless. Gram’s worst fear had come true and all the fear in the world couldn’t stop it.

Then Gram took a deep breath and told Veronica what she had been practicing to say all afternoon. “Howard told me all about your father’s flying project today; he knew all along. He says that you’ve taken to it like a natural. I know I can’t stop you, but I’m still afraid.”

Fear is like an iron thing, thought Veronica, and she stared it in the eye. “I know,” she told Gram and gave her a quick, awkward hug. “Don’t wait up for me. I’ll see you for church.” And she hurried out the front door, loving the grandmother who wanted to be the one not left behind.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Chapter Fifteen

As the night turned cold, Veronica filled the kerosene tanks and suited up. She thought, “I’ll just practice my vertical take-offs and landings right here on the roof.” The full moon was rising, a giant orb at the edge of the world.

The first take-off made Veronica nervous. She went up about ten feet and brought it back down. She didn’t even put her legs in the holders, keeping them out to be able to use her bent knees as a cushion on landing. It seemed easy. She tried it again: no problem.

With the blazing moonlight, Veronica decided to try a short flight, just out over the pasture. She took off straight up and leveled off a few hundred feet up. Altitude above, she thought, and climbed a little higher. Once in the air, she decided to fly over town. She gained yet a little more altitude so that the noise of the jet pack wouldn’t attract attention. She flew over her church, where the ladies were still finishing their preparations, then over the Catholic Church where she knew her friends were attending Good Friday service. Then she flew up Main Street, over The Pit full of Friday night patrons, even on Good Friday. Flying over the center of town, Veronica practiced her turns, first to the left, then back to the right. She practiced gaining and losing altitude. Then as she reached the edge of town and was circling to head home, she decided to have an adventure.

She flew out north of town following the road that led past the Montoyas’ house, then followed the road up into the mountains. The lights of town and the sporadic lights of farm yards fell behind, and she was wrapped in the darkness of the mountains. The moon allowed her to distinguish shapes and distance, but not the fine details of the landscape. She gained altitude as the mountains rose up beneath her and kept the lights of town in sight behind her to find her way home.

After performing some lazy gliding circles without power, Veronica decided to do one last sweep around the northern side of the rocky tower of Matilda Peak and then head home. On this loop, a small spot of light caught her eye. She glided down to get a better view. It felt dangerous, but she thought it was worth it. As she got closer, she could see it was a campfire in what looked to be a small clearing with a cabin. She wanted to dive right down and get a good look but she knew that would be unwise. If anything went wrong with her suit, she wouldn’t be able to see well enough to land in the trees. And if it was the campfire of Los Descarriados, she would be in big trouble.

She climbed back up to a safe altitude and did her best to gauge where on the map this campfire might be located. She tried to remember seeing a road or a cabin site on that side of that mountain. Well, they could look at the map again in the morning: time to head home. She sailed out over the mountainside toward town. And then she ran out of fuel.

Across town Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church was filled for the Good Friday evening service. Rita and her mother sat in the back, a few rows behind Johanna and her parents. Everyone was dressed in their drabbest outfits, many in black. Even Rita wore a black ribbon in her hair. The altar was without its normal decorations of cloths and candles. Rita and her mother bowed their heads as the priest read the story of the Passion of Christ.

As the service continued, Billie George entered the back of the church, still in his uniform, and stood against the back wall. He made some noise coughing and a number of parishioners turned to see who made the noise. One of these was Johanna’s mother, a tall Apache woman married to Billie’s brother. As she turned her head, she caught Rita’s eye and smiled at the girl. Rita smiled back, then turned to look at Billie who witnessed the interaction.

The long service concluded without music and with a final reading from the priest: “God of our redemption, abundantly bless your people who have devoutly recalled the death of Christ; grant us forgiveness, renew us, strengthen our faith, and increase in us the fullness of life; we ask this through Christ our Savior.”

Together the congregation finished, “Amen.”

For Rita, her mother, Johanna, and Johanna’s mother, the only prayer on their minds was the safety of Ramón. “God of our redemption,” prayed Rita, “do not do this to my mother.”

People began to stream out of church into the moonlit night. Rita tried to avoid saying hello to Johanna’s family or putting them in the awkward position of having to say hello to her. But a shift in the flow of the faithful—like ice breaking up on a fast moving river—led Johanna’s mother to Rita and her mother. Aileen George wasted no time in putting her arms around Rita and holding her tight. She used her few words of Spanish to greet Rita’s mother, and in the crowd, they flowed out the door together.


The engine sputtered so Veronica increased the throttle. Then the engine died. She tried a restart with her left thumb, but no good. After a moment of panic, she thanked her lucky stars for her gliding training from Rackoo and started thinking about where she could put down. And she understood what Alkali had said about altitude above.

The moon was bright enough to see landforms by, but she decided the road would be the easiest place to see well enough for a smooth landing. She turned toward the road into town, conserving her altitude as best as she could. The downdraft continued until she got away from the mountains. Then the still night air held her aloft better than she could have expected. She made it all the way to the paved road before coming in for a landing. She was grateful for a quiet night with no traffic. The moonlight illuminated the yellow stripes down the middle of the road and she glided above those stripes as long as she could, losing speed just like Rackoo taught her. At the last possible moment, she released her feet and pulled up, running along until the speed was all gone. She took her arms out of their cradles and shook them out. She estimated that she was still two miles from town.

With the moon for a friend and time on her side, Veronica hid the flying suit in the ditch alongside the road, walked to her house, and shuttled pieces home on her bike for the next couple of hours. Along about the last trip home with the left wing slung over her shoulder, Veronica thought about the futility of wishing for a profound experience. She was pretty sure she was having one, but it didn’t have anything to do with Borneo or California or the Congo. She kept having a conversation with herself or with her father or mother or whomever Polly was about whether a mother could love a sound who didn’t want to be a sound. Her brain couldn’t quite wrap around this, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it. What is a sound that doesn’t want to be a sound? She wondered if snow could be that sound? What if falling snow didn’t want to make a sound, even when its sound could save you? And if destiny has no beginning and no end, then do we ever reach the thing that we must be? Every one of these conversations that Veronica had with herself came around one question: who or what was it that she was meant to be? Veronica didn’t have the answer but at least these questions kept her from counting things for a little while. Flying did that too. When she was flying she had no time for the infernal counting games her brain played, and that was a relief.

Billie watched the cozy goodnights between his brother’s family and Rita’s family outside the church. Then Johanna’s father went to talk to him, wanting to make small talk and calm Billie down from whatever had him worked up tonight. “Good you could make it tonight, Billie,” greeted John, reaching out to give Billie a half-handshake, half-hug. Billie stepped back in refusal.

“You all never listen to a word I say, do you brother?” accused Billie, loud enough for others to hear.

“What are you talking about, Billie? What’s got into you tonight, a holy night after all?” John asked.

“You know darn well. It’s them Mexicans Johanna’s friends with. And now Aileen acting like they’re all family,” Billie complained. Johanna’s mom whispered to Johanna to see Rita and her mom home and wait for her there. She stood in the light streaming out the open door and watched her husband with his brother.

“That girl’s Johanna’s friend. They’re in school together,” said John.

“And they’re lying about that boy, I tell you. He’s gone off with his father, and now if I don’t bring him back, I’m the one that’s gonna get blamed. Don’t you get it? He’s not coming back and somebody’s gonna pin it on me!” He was shouting by the end and many people turned to watch. Johanna could hear Billie shouting as they disappeared into the shadows. His voice rang in her head, “He’s not coming back. He’s not coming back.”

“Hey, take it easy man,” said John to Billie. “If you’re that worried about it, turn it over to the state police.”

“I can’t do that!” shouted Billie. “I can’t do that.” He broke away from John and got in his patrol truck and drove away.

Veronica was biking the last piece of her suit home, the left wing wrapped up in its leather case. She kept to the side street to avoid the lights of Main Street, but she was close enough that she noticed when Billie George’s truck sped up Main Street. She felt the pressure; time was running out.

Veronica pulled into her dark driveway, glad to be done with the hauling. She was thinking about the care she would need to take with conserving fuel and wondering if she could stash kerosene somewhere on the mountain when the porch light came on. Her grandmother was standing in the doorway.

“Veronica, you come on up here and tell me where you’ve been,” Gram said, not sounding very happy to Veronica’s ears. “And bring with you what you’ve got there.”

“Yes, ma’am.” Veronica flipped down the kickstand of her bike and left it in the driveway. She carried the case up on to the porch with her. She set it down in front of her grandmother who had taken a seat on the wicker bench.

“Go on. What’s inside there?” asked Gram. Veronica unzipped the case and flipped open the top, revealing the pink silk wing. Gram took a moment to respond, then, “Please tell me that is not what I think it is.”

“Yes,” admitted Veronica, “it’s the dress.”

“That’s not what I mean,” said Gram. “Tell me that isn’t your father’s flying suit.”

“It is, Gram,” said Veronica. “And it works. I can fly.” She looked up to face her grandmother who had tears falling down her face. “Gram,” exclaimed Veronica. “What’s wrong with that?”

Gram had trouble getting her words out between the sobs. “I never wanted that for you. I should have destroyed it all years ago. You’re gonna get yourself killed just like he did to my baby.” This was a gut punch to Veronica who never knew her grandmother felt this way.

“I thought it was an accident,” said Veronica, “caused by the weather…”

“Sure, there was a snowstorm,” said Gram. “But it was just a matter of time anyway, all his reckless ideas. I will not have you taking after him this way!”

“I have to Gram. I think it’s the only way we’ll find Ramón,” Veronica explained. She stood up and zipped the case closed again.

“You’re pigheaded, Veronica, just like your mother,” hissed Gram. This was another hard blow to Veronica who was not accustomed to such words from her grandmother.

“I’m sorry Gram.” Veronica carried the wing back to the silo with the rest of the gear, Leonardo falling in step behind her. Veronica wanted to find a way to be gentle with Gram, to find the right words to explain, while staying strong for the task at hand. But she had no precedent.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Chapter Fourteen

Good Friday dawned cool and clear. Veronica met Alkali for an early breakfast at the Pines Café after she finished her chores, leaving Rita to make excuses to Gram. The girls had the day off from school, and Alkali reduced the hours at the post office and had no rural delivery. Veronica wrapped her scrambled eggs and chorizo in a corn tortilla while Alkali chased his runny egg yolk around the plate with some toast. Veronica was a little grossed out by the uncooked nature of his eggs, but she kept her mouth shut about it.

Veronica wanted to talk more about the poetic letters from her parents, but she had to admit that Alkali was right about letting that go for now. So instead, she posed a question about Alkali’s project. “Where does fear fit into the Encyclopœdia?”

“Excellent. Yes, fear.” He popped a soggy piece of toast in his mouth, chewed it, and answered. “When you’re out hiking in the hills and you come across a rattlesnake, good fear causes you to step back, walk around it giving it plenty of space, and keep an eye out for more as you hike—it’s called mitigating the risk, to make the danger less. Now, bad fear may cause you to kill the rattlesnake, but as you know rattlesnakes are an important part of the ecosystem, or you may avoid hiking in the hills completely. So it depends on the kind of fear that you are talking about.”

“I see. It’s not always useless.”

“Not at all. Without fear you might go around trying to pick up rattlesnakes. The secret is to not be ruled by your fear. Courage is not the absence of fear. A lot of people make that mistake. Courage is looking fear in the eye and not giving in to it.” He made an exaggerated point of looking her in the eye and smiled. “And here’s another secret: every time you use that courage, you’re building the courage muscle and it’ll be easier next time.”

Veronica groaned at the idea of next time. Alkali gave a knowing laugh. “Yup, life will just keep requiring courage.” Then he got serious. “And if you figure out courage, you’ll be the king of the world.”

After breakfast, Veronica and Rita headed out the back door to get the flying suit parts out of the silo when Gram called out. “Veronica, are you going to help me today?” Good Friday was a day of preparations for Easter at Veronica’s house. Gram cooked and baked for the big community Easter picnic. Veronica always helped and had her own tasks, like making the deviled eggs.

“Later Gram. We won’t be gone too long this morning, then Rita and I can both help this afternoon. OK?” Veronica was not accustomed to saying things like this to her grandmother. Gram did not respond, so Veronica and Rita continued their work. Shortly Alkali drove up and they all piled the suit and cans of kerosene into the Jeep. They picked up Johanna on the way out of town.

Alkali drove them out past the edge of town, down a dirt road far from any houses, to a crossroads of empty scrub land. A grazing pronghorn eyed them and wandered away. As Veronica assembled the flight suit, the ravens arrived. Johanna helped Veronica fill her tanks with kerosene while Alkali shared his snack of matzo crackers and canned sardines with the ravens.

Now with the jet pack, Veronica needed help from Johanna and Rita to get the contraption on her back and get suited up. Rita handed her the flight helmet under which Veronica tucked her unruly hair. She put the goggles on and she was set to go.

“You look great, kiddo,” said Alkali, admiring the fabric work on the wings and the tail. “You sure you’re ready?”

“Of course she’s ready,” said Rackoo. “Who do you think’s been teaching her?” Then she turned to Veronica. “This is different now, with the jet pack. We’ll just do a short flight to start. It’s most important to practice your landings with the extra weight.”

“I know, I’ve been reading up on it,” said Veronica.

“The good news is that your take-offs are a lot easier,” explained Rackoo. “You can just take off straight up, then level off a couple hundred feet up. So you can start with your legs already in their cradles.”

Veronica tried this, sliding her legs in their holders. She had to stand on her toes as well as leaning forward. But it did seem like an improvement on hoisting her legs in once airborne. “Well, I guess we’d better give it a try,” she said, a bit apprehensive. Everyone stepped back as she pulled with her left thumb and the jet sprang to life. The initial thrust gave her a small jolt but she stayed in place.

“Give it some gas and see what happens,” shouted Rackoo over the noise. Veronica increased the thrust with her right thumb and the engine roared. A little more and she began to lift off the ground. She straightened out her legs and her back and vaulted skyward. As she rose away from the ground, she pulled down elevator and leveled out over the plain. She could see Rackoo flying behind her trying to catch up so she reduced the engine thrust. Soon Rackoo caught up and started shouting instructions, trying to be heard over the engine. Veronica responded and allowed herself to be led through many of the same maneuvers as before, but this time with power. She learned that she couldn’t fly as slowly with the extra weight. But also, she was not dependent on the wind for getting around.

Finally Rackoo’s voice wore out and she suggested they land. She instructed Veronica to kill the engine and come in for a gliding landing like they had done before. Even with the extra weight, Veronica nailed the landing down the dirt road, getting just the right timing for tilting the wings up and releasing her legs. For the next flight, Cork took her up to practice a jet pack landing. The brilliant thing about the jet pack, he told her, is that she can land just like how she took off, in a standing position. After a few circles around, he had her come in low and slow like a gliding landing; but about twenty feet off the ground, he told her to give full up elevator to get herself into an upright position. Then as he hovered with her, he told her to reduce the thrust while descending to the ground.

Alkali, Johanna, and Rita watched from the side of the road as Veronica came in for this new kind of landing. Nervous for her star pupil, Rackoo absentmindedly lifted her right foot and picked at her bum toe with her beak. As Veronica got closer to the ground, Rackoo started screaming out, “Too fast! Too fast! More thrust!” But it was too late. Veronica hit the ground too hard and was thrown forward onto her belly into the dirt without the benefit of having her arms free to break her fall. Alkali and the girls ran out to help her.

Rita and Johanna grabbed Veronica by her armpits and lifted her up, removing her legs from their cradles. Alkali brushed the schmutz off her face and removed her goggles. Veronica was conscious but slack. Alkali called out her name and looked in her wide eyes. Veronica’s mouth was gaping open but no sound emerged.

“What’s wrong? Are you OK?” shouted Rita. Alkali unbuckled Veronica from her suit and laid her on the ground as Johanna and Rita held the suit. Cork landed and made loud fretting noises.

Veronica took a deep breath of air. “I think I’m OK,” she said with great difficulty.

“You got the wind knocked out of you,” said Alkali. “But let’s check for breaks. Try moving your legs and feet.” Veronica complied, then moved her arms all around.

Rackoo was scolding Cork. “No, it’s my fault,” said Veronica. “I pulled on the wrong cable at the wrong time.”

“Maybe that’s enough for today,” said Alkali.

“Hard landings could be a useless thing,” supposed Rita.

Alkali shook his head, “No. Not at all. This was a good lesson for Veronica. She made a mistake and she won’t make that one again. Mistakes are incredibly useful.”

They let the jet cool down and Veronica catch her breath. Then they packed up the suit, and Alkali drove them back to Veronica’s house.

Later the girls sat up on the silo roof eating their lunch and looking at the topo map and the 3-D book from Mrs. Montoya. Veronica felt low about her earlier landing, despite its potential usefulness.

Johanna said, “You know, V., you don’t have to do this. We can find Ramón another way.”

Rita kept quiet for a moment. She had no idea how to find Ramón if Veronica couldn’t learn how to fly. Then, “Johanna’s right. I don’t know how we’ll find him. But it shouldn’t be all on you.”

“Thanks,” Veronica mumbled. “I don’t know what happened today. I got confused, I wasn’t paying attention. I don’t know.” She nibbled at her sandwich. “The thing is, I like it. It’s the most amazing feeling I’ve ever had.” She studied their faces for understanding. “I get why my dad had this dream. And part of me feels like I need to see it through for him.”

“But not at the risk of you getting hurt,” said Johanna.

Veronica thought about that. This morning’s bad landing was a result of a mistake, but it was an easy mistake to make. A different mistake could end much worse. She pushed the thought out of her mind and thought about Ramón. He was out there with bad ghost men. How could she stop now?

They looked at the map and Johanna told stories of time spent in the mountains with her family. She had seen a few of the cabins on the map, been to a few of the old mine sites and springs. She remembered the mine where the ghosts had been killed, but there was no cabin there anymore. Veronica tried to memorize each road and feature on the map. When she was flying her hands were full: no place for a map while airborne.

After lunch, the girls helped Gram in the kitchen, then Gram headed over to the church for last minute cleaning and preparations. The girls finished up baking the Easter breads and icing the rolls. Then Johanna and Rita headed home. Rita’s mother was on her way home for the Easter weekend, another week gone by without Ramón, a weekend of celebration with sadness in their hearts.

As evening fell, Veronica once again climbed up on the silo roof to contemplate the parchments. She watched a hawk circle overhead in the evening breeze. She noticed how it moved certain wing feathers to stay with the current. She looked at birds differently now, trying to pick up tips. And she reread the latest letter to Polly. “We are the creator…the mother who loves the boy who wants to be a bird, the girl who wants to be a river.” Was Veronica the bird that wants to be a girl? Or was she the girl that wants to be a bird?

Veronica stood on top of a high rocky mountain overlooking a dusty sagebrush plain. Two ravens floated up past her in a thermal updraft and she knew them to be Cork and Rackoo although they didn’t talk to each other. Instead, it seemed like she could now read their minds. They were calling to her to join them even though she didn’t have the suit with her. She didn’t need it, she heard them say.

And so she stepped out into the thermal and in the stepping was transformed into a raven. She leveled out and bent her wings to mimic their shape and caught the updraft. With an unprecedented ease, she rode the wind and enjoyed the pure joy of flight. Yes, just like breathing. She followed them as they sailed out over the plain.

They wanted to show her all the marvels of their territory, and they told her little stories as they flew of things that had happened to them down below: a memorable nosh along that road, a nest they used to have in those trees. And then they came to the rent in the landscape, the Pecos River Gorge, that held the lifeblood of the land.

Rackoo and Cork began descending over the river, intending to lead Veronica down for a drink and a splash bath. But Veronica could not figure out how to descend. She listened to them offering advice, but it was striking her human ears and not her raven ears. She couldn’t, despite all efforts, move in such a way that would allow descent.

After circling the river until her teachers grew weary, Veronica realized that if she changed back into a human she would have no choice but to descend. Then as she grew close to the river she would change back into a raven.

The first part of her plan worked; she shifted into human form and fell like a stone toward the river. The view was glorious and she enjoyed the sensation of falling. But as she grew closer and entered the walls of the gorge, she found she could not turn back into the raven. She was going to crash into the boulders in the river and her adventure, her flying, her dull but precious Little Pine life was about to come to an end. Veronica heard Rackoo screaming at her to change back, change back! But Veronica didn’t have the strength to do it. And fear was creeping in.

And then Veronica heard Rackoo’s voice, out loud this time, close in her ear: “Don’t think about the fear; think about how strong you are.” And in a final push as the river grew close enough to fill her view, Veronica found a well of strength deep inside and changed back into the raven. She pulled up and glided along the top of the water, dipping her black, leathery, raven feet in for a splash.

She heard her teachers talking between themselves and understood that that was too close a call and she needed to try again. They flew with her up, up into the sky above the river and helped her practice the changing. Again and again, Veronica practiced changing from a raven into her human form, falling, and changing back into a raven before hitting the water. Eventually it was easy. Then they coached her through controlled descent as a raven, again and again until it was second nature. And they flew down the deep gorge of the river, under the high bridges, and out over the confluence of the Rio Grande.

Veronica lay in the dark on the silo roof with her eyes open. It didn’t feel like a dream, although she’d intended to take a quick nap, but more like watching herself on a movie screen on the sky. Whatever it was—dream, vision, flight of fancy—she did not doubt that she had had the experience: a gift, a lesson, from the bird, the river, her teachers. And she knew what she had to do.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Chapter Thirteen

Veronica was awake the next morning before the sun rose, before Rita or Gram was awake, and even before Leonardo had any inclination of leaving the warm bed. She climbed up on the roof of the silo with the flight suit. She was glad to notice the wind from last night was still blowing strong. This morning she wore a bandana around her head to keep her hair out of her eyes. She attached the wings to the body of the suit, taking care with the wings not to damage the fabric. This morning, though, now that the wings were dry, they felt indestructible. She tried twisting the little knobs at the end of the control cables and found they had some slack that needed tightening. That made the controls more sensitive to her finger movements.

As she suited up, the ravens arrived just like they had promised. Rackoo turned out to make a good coach; she was patient and encouraging but exacting. Veronica trusted her. Veronica stood up with her suit on and asked if she looked ready.

Cork hopped around at her feet and inspected all the elements of the flight suit. “Always test your controls before every flight,” he instructed. Veronica tested each hand control; everything checked out. Then she leaned over and got in position.

“Do you want to get up on the wall here?” asked Rackoo, standing on the wall, wings outspread into the wind.

“Sure, let’s give that a try,” answered Veronica as she tried to make the big step up onto the wall without use of her hands or arms. As the wings tilted upward, the wind caught them and lifted her into the air. It was clumsy for a minute as the rig pulled her up and she fought to lift her legs into their cradles. The wind blew her backwards away from the silo and the wings up at an unsafe angle.

“Down elevator, down elevator,” called Rackoo flying after her. Veronica pulled firmly with the first two fingers of her left hand and the wings lowered into the wind. She continued to gain elevation, but controlled. Rackoo joined her and continued cawing out instructions. In the east, a slight light began to build at the edge of the sky—enough to see by, but not enough for any of the neighbors to notice the remarkable flight of an eleven-year-old girl out beyond the rim of their first cup of steaming morning coffee.

For the next forty-five minutes, Rackoo led Veronica through a series of maneuvers designed to teach her how to control the aircraft. Once they had gained enough elevation to put a safe distance between Veronica and the ground, Rackoo taught her to do slow climbing turns in an updraft: both to the right and the left, both steep turns and gentle turns. She taught her to fly slowly, at the edge of what was safe before stopping and falling. And a few times, she brought her right down almost to the ground in preparation for landing before catching the wind and returning back up on an updraft. Veronica wasn’t sure how Rackoo could read the wind so accurately, but she trusted and followed instructions. In one treasured moment, when Rackoo left her side and flew ahead to check the wind, Veronica felt a freedom she had never known—she might even call it joy. As the sun burst forth over the Orejas rocks out along the eastern horizon and the wind rushed past her cheeks, Veronica felt a deep and ancient connection with her father and the whole wide blue world.

The moment was just that: a fleeting moment in time. Rackoo returned and it was back to work. There would be time for poetry later, thought Veronica. Then Rackoo asked Veronica if she wanted to try landing on the silo roof. Veronica declined, opting again for the grassland as a landing spot. Like the night before, Rackoo guided her down to a long glide above the flat land. This time Veronica was prepared for the action of the flight suit when she eased back on the elevator and released her legs. She ran a few steps, straightening up to let the drag of the wings stop her, and it was over, like waking from a dream.

Cork flew down from above where he had been observing. This morning he was full of critiques. He chattered away with a whole list of improvements Veronica could make. She listened as she disassembled the suit and carried each piece across the field, around the goat pasture, and back to the silo. Rackoo agreed with what Cork said and added her own comments.

An exhausted Veronica closed the silo door behind her and sat down on the bench next to the water spigot. “So I guess I’ve got a lot to do to improve.” She sounded dejected.

“Yes, you do,” admitted Rackoo. “But don’t let this old bird discourage you. You did it. You’re doing it. You are doing the thing that even your father couldn’t do.”

“What do you mean?” asked Veronica.

“Your father built that suit, but he never flew it. Not like that,” said Cork. “The reason that I’ve given you all that criticism is that I know you can do it. You were born to fly.” He tilted his head and peered into her face.

“But you’d better find that power pack,” said Rackoo. “Gliding around on a strong wind is fun, but it won’t find the boy.”

“I’ve looked everywhere for it,” said Veronica. “It’s not here.”

Cork started laughing. “You should ask your friend Alkali. I bet he’s seen it.”

“True, true,” Rackoo joined him in laughter. Veronica stood up and stretched. Her arms were sore and she knew they’d get more sore before the day was out.

After she put the suit away in the silo, Veronica went over every inch of the workshop again looking for the jet pack and more of the parchment paper drawings and letters. She doubted they could have missed something as large and distinctive as a jet pack, but she wasn’t sure about a piece of paper. And sure enough, she found a thin manila envelope on the floor wedged under a board. She opened it and found the next letter.

Dear Polly,
So different was the girl from her creator, but he loved her—delighting that what he created was moving in directions he could never imagine. And then her creator died and she thought that maybe he wanted to become a flower, a valley, and had never had a chance until now. The other creator who didn’t love her path, who fought so hard to love her at all, beheld an alien and fought to turn her into a daughter. She did not love the sound who didn’t want to be a sound. She did not love the child that waited to learn from the rain when she herself had learned to not need the rain.

At first Veronica thought the creator was still God who created the dinosaur who wanted to be a bird. But then she thought that if her father was writing about her mother then the creator would be her grandfather. And then the other creator would have to be Gram who didn’t love Jenny, which again confused her. Why would she see Jenny as an alien? And how did her father know that Gram had learned not to need the rain? Veronica wanted to know the answers to these questions, but she was also afraid to know these things about her family. It was time to get some help.

The girls decided they couldn’t skip another day of school, especially since this was Easter week and they would be off on Friday anyway. So this Thursday morning Veronica hurried about her chores while Rita made their lunches. Gram set out their breakfasts and got to work boiling eggs for Easter Sunday. As soon as school was out, Veronica hurried to the post office to talk to Alkali about the jet pack.

She burst in to the post office, but held back when she saw that Alkali had customers. She checked her mailbox, pulled out some junk mail for the trash, and slid the couple of pieces of real mail into her pocket once Alkali was free.

“What do you know about the jet pack?” she asked.

Alkali smiled. “Are you ready for it? I should say, do our friends say that you are ready for it?” he asked.

“I guess so because they told me to ask you.”

Alkali looked across the counter at her with the kindest eyes. “I have to tell you Veronica, I did not think this day would come. I know that you are motivated to help your friend. But most people under pressure perform worse. And it would seem that you—you are doing just fine.”

Veronica thought about this. “I don’t have a choice,” she said, almost whispered.

“No,” Alkali agreed. “Go out back to my garage. You will find what you are looking for.”

“I have another question.” Veronica looked out the door to make sure no one was coming. “What do you know about the letters to Polly?”

“I’m glad that you are finding those,” answered Alkali. “I think that they will explain themselves at the right time.” He smiled at her, which this time she found infuriating.

“You’re not going to help me figure them out?” she demanded.

“You don’t need them to fly the suit. You need them to live your life, but today you only need to fly the suit.” Alkali turned and walked away to the back of the post office, pretending to sort some mail. Then, “Hey, wait Veronica.” He stopped her before she stormed out the door. “There is something you should know, something from the Encyclopœdia of Useless Things. Something your dad taught me.”


“Two useless things to a pilot are altitude above and runway behind.” He continued, noticing that Veronica needed an explanation. “Altitude above as a useless thing means that whenever possible, put some distance between you and the ground. That way, if you do make a mistake, you have room to fix it. All that sky above you doesn’t matter if you can’t use it.” She nodded. This made good sense. “Second, and this may not apply so much to you, is when you are taking off or landing, do it economically. Some pilots see a long runway and take off at the last possible minute. But again, if you have a problem, then you have no options for coming back down. Same with landing. I guess the point to both of these is to always expect that something will go wrong. Be prepared.” Veronica nodded again, but thought to herself how full her brain was and how the filling must stop.

Alkali gauged Veronica’s confusion and invited her to have breakfast with him the next day at the café, his treat. She agreed.

Veronica walked out the door of the post office, around the building, and across the yard to Alkali’s garage. The Jeep was parked outside by the alley. She turned the handle on the garage door, pushed it open, and found the light switch. She could see why the Jeep was parked outside: no room in the garage. Alkali’s garage reminded her of what her father’s workshop would have looked like if it hadn’t been piled full of junk. Mechanical projects, spare parts and equipment, and half-finished art projects competed for space on the shelves and tables. But there on Alkali’s workbench, cleared of all objects but one, Veronica saw the jet pack. She touched it: the long singular jet engine in the middle; the fuel tanks on either side; the frame that held it together; and, as she turned it over, the devices that attached it to the truss of the flying suit. She noted the hand controls that she imagined setting in place on the flying suit. Everything was here, including a letter and a drawing showing the flight suit that included the mounting and use of the jet pack.

Dear Polly,
With our seed growing into a flower, we are now the creator. I only want to be the mother who loves the sound that doesn’t want to be a sound, the mother who loves the boy who wants to be a bird, the mother who loves the girl who wants to be a river, the creator who sees that all is change and is the one who created the change. The future is growing and I want to love the star that disintegrates to dust. We are about to enter a new world. Have we learned enough?

Now Veronica was confused because it seemed obvious to her that her mother had written this but it was in her father’s handwriting, written again to Polly, the mystery woman. And she couldn’t be mad at Alkali because he was helping her. But she was desperate to know who Polly was and why her parents were sharing their innermost secrets with her.

Veronica read the instructions for fueling the pack with kerosene. Alkali had a whole metal shelving unit full of kerosene canisters. She looked around for something to put the jet pack in to carry it home. Maybe a box? She picked up the jet pack to test the weight. Heavier than she had thought, too heavy to carry home in her sore arms. Then she saw it, on the floor under the work bench: a leather backpack similar to the leather cases that carried the wings. She picked it up, opened it, and pulled out a leather flying helmet and a pair of goggles. Hmm. She slid the jet pack into the backpack then tucked the drawings, helmet, and goggles in alongside and zipped it up. She hoisted the weight onto her back and shoulders and adjusted the straps. She debated trying to carry some kerosene home in the same trip and decided against it. She’d make a second trip on her bicycle.

Up on the silo roof after supper, Veronica experimented with the jet pack before attaching it to the frame. It was loud, like a blow torch times ten. And now she understood why the frame was constructed to keep the jet off her back; the heat was impressive. She discovered that the hand controls were designed to be maneuvered by her thumbs: the left thumb controlled the on/off switch and the right thumb controlled the throttle which increased or decreased the thrust.

She then went about attaching the jet pack to the frame of the flying suit. Using the drawings as a guide and now being quite handy with the suit, Veronica had the jet pack attached and cabled up in no time. The only thing that worried her was that with the jet pack, the suit had now doubled its weight. From her reading on weight and balance she knew that this would make the suit fly differently. She hoped it wouldn’t make too much of a difference.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chapter Twelve

Veronica finished feeding and watering the goats, fed Harold the Fourth and Leonardo, and finally sat down and fed herself. Rita hadn’t come home yet, so Veronica suspected they’d gotten a lead. The ravens were right; as dusk was coming on, the wind picked up. She didn’t expect Gram home until after dark.

She carried the sections of the flying suit up a ladder onto the back side of the barn which was only ten feet off the ground. If she fell from here, it wouldn’t do much damage; but she hoped that wouldn’t be the case. She fought with the sections in the wind and wished that Rita was there to help her hold it all together as she reconnected the wiring and frame. But she managed to work it all into place and fit herself into the suit. She had braided her wild hair to keep it out of her face. As she was strapping herself in, fighting the wind, Cork flew down and landed at her feet.

“Perfect wind, Veronica. You can’t fail,” he said with assurance.

“OK, but you’ll have to tell me what to do.”

“We’re with you every step of the way.” Just above them, Rackoo circled. She squawked out a hello. “OK, get into position facing into the wind.” Cork showed her where to stand and he himself put out his wings to mimic her stance. “Now tilt your wings until you don’t feel like you’re fighting it,” he instructed. Veronica bent at the waist until the wings were parallel with the ground. This made a huge difference, and she didn’t feel like a human sailboat any longer. She tiptoed over to the edge where Cork was standing.

Cork gave her a few last reminders: “Now don’t move your ailerons to start; you don’t want to go left or right. Just think about going up and down a little with your elevator. Got it? Your first two fingers.”

Veronica nodded and moved her elevator to show him she understood. When she moved the up elevator with her right fingers, she felt herself lift off the roof about a foot and travel backwards. Being startled, she brought the elevator down and came back down on to the roof.

“Hey, you did it,” cawed Cork. “Do it again?” Veronica walked back to the edge, stood a minute steeling herself, then moved the elevator into the up position. Again, she began to rise and drift backwards in the wind. As she hovered a few feet off the roof, Rackoo came and hovered next to her. “Can you raise your legs up into the cradles?”

“I don’t think so,” said Veronica. She dropped back down to the roof and raised her right leg into its cradle and stood on her left leg in flight position. She lifted off again, this time going a little higher and getting blown back farther, getting a little more confident. Using all her strength, she lifted that left leg, adjusting the elevator against the force necessary for lifting, and tucked in: now in true flight formation.

Rackoo continued to talk to her. “Ok, gain a little more altitude, but not much.” Veronica complied. “Now, you want to get out over the pasture, so apply just a tiny bit of left aileron.” Veronica squeezed the ring finger and pinky on her left hand. Nothing happened. She tried a little more and a little more until the left wing dropped and she followed it in an arcing turn. She was blown across the goat pasture and fence and out above the scrubby desert grass dotted with prickly things: yucca, cactus, spiny little bushes. “Give yourself a little more up elevator,” called Rackoo. Veronica did as she was told and she leveled out. “Now turn a little bit to the right,” called Rackoo. Veronica squeezed hard on the ring finger and pinky of her right hand, and she came back to facing into the wind where she felt stable again. Then she hit a lull in the wind and sank back down to about ten feet off the ground. She wanted to land but wasn’t sure how.

Again, Rackoo was right there with her. “We’re just going to glide here, keep the elevator stable before you land. Then when I say go, I want you to ease the elevator in the up direction, just enough to let you get your legs out of the cradle and underneath. Understand?”

Veronica shouted against the wind, louder than necessary. “Got it.” She could feel herself losing speed and getting closer to the ground, gliding more slowly than she ever could have imagined. She continued to hold steady as Rackoo instructed, trusting the slow pull of gravity to ease her down. Her legs were tense in preparation to free themselves from their resting place to be used as landing gear.

Finally, when Veronica thought they were already much too low, but over an open grassy area, Rackoo began landing instructions: “Ok, here we go, up elevator and release your feet. Up. Up.” As Veronica pulled up elevator, the wings tipped up catching air and slowing the whole contraption down even more. Simultaneously as she removed her feet, which came down much easier than putting them up, the wings leveled themselves and before she knew it she was planted back on earth with just a few jogging steps to bring her to a halt. She was numb in awe of what had just happened, but Rackoo and Cork, who had just flown down to join her, were beside themselves with calls and hoots of appreciation. The maiden voyage had gone off without a hitch. Veronica had flown.

After rounds with Alkali, Johanna and Rita left the post office at separate times in separate directions and met up in the museum to do more research. Alkali suggested that Mr. César might be able to help them find some maps of the Matilda Mountains. He was tapping at a computer at the desk when Rita and Johanna came in.

“How can I help you girls?” asked Mr. César.

“We need to see some maps,” began Rita, “maps of the mountains, I guess.”

“You mean hiking maps?”

“Uh…maybe,” said Rita. “But more like road maps or maps that…”

Johanna interrupted, “Yeah, road maps.”

“Of course, come with me.” Mr. César burst into helpful mode and led the girls back down the hallway to the reading room. He pulled out a drawer of a heavy wooden map case. “This drawer has the very latest topographical maps put out by the USGS for all of Presidio County. You’re welcome to look at those.”

“I’m sorry,” confessed Rita, “the what by the who?”

Mr. César pulled the top map from the pile and laid it on the table. “Here, I’ll show you. These are special maps made by the United States Geological Society, a government agency. One of their jobs is to make these ‘topo’ maps; they show details of the earth’s surface. See these contour lines? Each line represents a different elevation. So when you see lines like this all next to each other, that means the elevation is changing rapidly: it’s a hill. And see here, this line represents a river—or out here a dry gully that may have water when it rains. These maps show mountains, valleys, lakes, as well as roads, major buildings, and railroad tracks. Now that may be more information than you’re looking for, so in this drawer are the county maps.” He opened the next drawer down and revealed more possibilities: state and federal agency maps.

“Wow, that’s amazing,” said Rita. “Thanks Mr. César.” The curator whisked himself out of the room and left the girls staring at the open drawers of maps.

Johanna looked at the topo map still on the table. The hill that Mr. César had used for an example was named, and Johanna knew its location: too far south to be useful. “I think we should start with these,” she said. “They have a lot of detail.” She pulled the stack of maps out of the drawer and set them on the table. The detailed contour lines on the maps confused the girls at first. Then Johanna noticed a legend at the bottom of each map showing the county outline and where each map fit in the county. “Ok, here,” she pointed. “We want map number fifteen.” Rita came around to Johanna’s side of the table and started to put back in the drawer the maps from the pile that Johanna rejected.

Then Johanna found the right one. She pushed aside the others which Rita put away. Rita tried to follow Johanna’s finger tracking on the map. “I don’t understand how to read this,” confessed Rita.

Johanna explained while pointing out features on the map. “OK, I think I get it. See this is Alkali’s mail route. Here’s where we turned on to the first dirt road. And here is where the Montoya’s house is and the hill behind their house. And here’s the dirt road that leads up into the mountains. The lines all close together here mean a change in elevation. This area here is all flat.” The flat area was about half the map. “Up here in the mountains is where we need to look.” Her finger followed the mountain road all the way across the Matilda Mountains until it doubled back around and came out on the paved road east of Fort Woodrow.

“Oh, so are these the mountain peaks?” asked Rita, pointing to places where the lines became little concentric circles.

“Yeah,” Johanna smiled. They were figuring it out. “And these must be creeks coming out of the mountains.” She pointed to thin blue lines that seemed to drag the topo lines upward, like running a toothpick across lines of frosting on a cake like she’d seen on a cooking show.

They could see a few more dirt roads branching off the main one, ending in dead ends. “So how do we figure out where they are? Nothing seems obvious. What is this?” Rita asked.

Johanna looked at what Rita was pointing at. “Looks like old mines,” answered Johanna. “Look. There’s a bunch of them.” She noticed the little symbol for mine in at least eight places. “And Alkali said we should see old cabins on the map too. But I don’t see those. And there’s nothing on the legend.”

“So you’ve spent time up there, in the mountains?” Rita asked her friend.

Johanna’s family had been on the reservation for four generations, since they were moved from another reservation in New Mexico. “Yeah, I’ve been up there hunting with my dad and my brothers, when they were still in high school. And once I went berry picking with my aunties when we had a good blackberry year. That was a few years back; we had a lot of rain. There’s an old homestead up there, just a foundation now. But they planted apple trees and blackberries.” She traced the main dirt road with her finger.

“Do you see the old homestead on the map?” asked Rita.

“No,” said Johanna. “Seems to me there’s more roads up there than what’s shown on this map.”

Rita looked at Johanna, feeling helpless. “This isn’t helping us, is it?”

“Actually,” Johanna said, “it helps us a lot. But it doesn’t help us enough.”

“Maybe because the homestead is gone…well, and maybe the cabins are all gone too. That’s why they’re not on the map,” suggested Rita.

“Yeah,” said Johanna as she looked around the edges of the map for a date. Sure enough, it was just three years old. “This map is pretty new.”

The girls went back to the other drawers that Mr. César had referenced. Some of the maps were older and two of them covered the same mountain area they were interested in. But they didn’t have the level of detail that the topo map had, and they didn’t show cabins either or any more side roads. They carefully put everything back the way they found it. As Johanna closed the drawer on the topo maps she noted the name and number of the map they had used.

At the museum desk, they stopped to thank Mr. César for his help.

“Were you successful?” asked Mr. César.

“Not really,” admitted Johanna. “Those maps are great. The topo map is really impressive. But I think maybe what we’re looking for is too old to be on the map. But thank you.” The girls started to leave.

Mr. César stopped them. “Maybe an older version would be better?”

“Do you keep old maps?” asked Rita.

“We sure do,” said Mr. César. “It’s worth checking. Come on.” He led the girls down the hallway, through a heavy door, and down stairs into the basement. He turned on the light to the rarely used room. The girls smelled the heavy odor of dank earth. Despite the smell, the room was clean and organized. Bookshelves lined the walls and various cabinets filled the room. Mr. César led them to the far end of the room where on the wall was a tall cabinet divided into a multitude of cubbies all containing rolled up maps.

“I’m afraid this isn’t very well organized,” said Mr. César, despite the neatness of the maps. “But feel free to look through these. And honestly, if you see anything you like, you can take it. These are all available on line nowadays. We just save them because somebody might want them someday. Well, like you girls.”

“Wow,” Rita assessed the treasure trove. “Thank you.” After Mr. César left them to their quest, Johanna pulled a chair over to reach the top cubbies. She handed rolled up maps down to Rita, then they unrolled just the corner of each to see the name and number of the map. Finally by the twelfth cubbie, all ten maps were the area in question. Rita carried them over to the table, took the rubber band off the first one, and unrolled it for them to look at. The light wasn’t as good as upstairs but they could see the contour lines and the roads just fine. Johanna again traced the roads with her fingers. Many more roads crisscrossed the mountain on this map. And sure enough, there by Grapevine Spring was identified the Johnson Homestead.

“This is it,” whispered Johanna. As her finger continued around, they saw cabins denoted at the Pearl Jumbo Mine, the Whiskey Jack Mine, and the Tierra Gorda Mine sites.

“Jackpot,” Rita’s eyes lit up.