Flight of Angels
Every time things got life-threatening, he would hear the same comments from Rodney.
“Remember, I died saving kids.”
It was routine. Normal. A source of comfort, really. It was something better to look forward to than the terrifying something that was threatening them.
“And…tell my sister…tell her I really did love her.”
It was always the last thing on Rodney’s mind. His gone-but-not-forgotten sister. John sometimes wondered what she was like. If her mind was just as quick as Rodney’s. Or maybe she had taken a different route. Maybe she was the artist to Rodney’s scientific mind. Did she look like Rodney? Or did Rodney take after one parent while his sister took after the other?
“We haven’t been close in…well, forever. But she’s still my sister.”
Twenty years ago
“Johnny, read me a story?”
The girl was eight years old. Too old for storybooks, he thought, but she was his only sister, so he humored her.
“All right, Crys, what do you want to hear?”
Her face screwed up in mock concentration, causing him to laugh. She was definitely the prankster in the family. Johnny’s parents always said that she was his smile. And it was true. She could put the brightness into a room just by being there. Even to a “troubled teen” like Johnny.
“I want The Fledgling.”
“Surprise, surprise,” Johnny muttered, heading into Crys’ room to pick of the book. It was one of her favorites. She’d had an obsession with flying ever since the family had taken a trip to visit Grams in Florida. He didn’t understand it, personally. Flying made him nervous. He knew the science behind it and yet it still seemed like they were defying the laws of gravity.
“Do you think I’ll be able to fly, someday, Johnny?” she asked, crawling into his lap.
“Sure, Georgie. I think you’ll be able to do anything you put your mind to. You’re my little sister, remember.”
Thinking about Rodney’s sister had brought back memories of his own. She’d been his mirror. Light to his dark, smiles to his frowns. He’d missed her when he went away to college. Granted, he didn’t have a pesky little sister tagging along everywhere he went, but he missed sitting on the bed reading to her. He missed the monthly trips to the museums and her sudden delight when she passed exhibits on birds and planes; the same exhibits she saw time and again.
Eighteen years ago
“Hey, Shep, man,” his roommate called. John was down the hallway in the dorm kitchen studiously watching the pot of water, daring it to over-boil.
“I’m a little busy, here,” he yelled back. “What is it?”
“It’s your mom,” Dex said. “Sounds important.”
“Of course it is,” John muttered, sighing and turning down the heat. He ran down to his room and took the phone from Dex.
“Hi, mom. What’s up?”
“When will you be down? I need to make plans to pick you up from the airport.”
“Down? What d’you mean? I can’t come down. I already made plans with Mitch and Dex to go to Mitch’s uncle’s in Vegas. I thought I told you.”
“John Sheppard, are you telling me that you’re not going to be here for Thanksgiving?”
It hit him like a ton of bricks. November. It was the end of November. He’d known about the vacation. Obviously, since he was going to Vegas. But he’d forgotten why there was a vacation. Spring break didn’t have any holiday associated with it.
“Oh, god, mom. I’m sorry. I completely forgot. And I can’t cancel. I already have the tickets.”
He heard a deep sigh over the phone and he felt like such a dud.
“I’m really sorry, mom.”
“I know you are, sweetheart. Look, at least talk to Crystal for a few minutes. She was looking forward to seeing you.”
He heard a loud tap as his mother put down the phone and went to look for his sister. Great. Now he felt worse. Not only had he forgotten the entire Thanksgiving holiday, he’d have to disappoint his sister.
“Johnny! Mom said you were on the phone. How are you? When’ll you be here? Are you coming by plane? You’re going to have to tell me all about it, you know. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to visit. Or, better, until I’m old enough to be a pilot. Then you can go anywhere you want and I’ll fly you there. So when are you coming back?”
“Uh. I’m not. At least not until Christmas. I forgot about Thanksgiving and made plans with some friends of mine.”
If his heart was slowly breaking just thinking about how hurt his mother had been, it shattered at the small hurt sounds that Crys made.
“I’m so sorry, Crys. If I hadn’t already paid for the tickets, I’d cancel in a second and be out there.”
“No, I know,” she said, still sounding like someone had killed her favorite pet. “Besides, you get to go on another plane, right? It’ll be more stories for Christmas.”
He stayed on the phone with her for a while, telling her all about school and his friends. When he finally got off the phone with her, he felt a little better, but not much.
“Hey, sorry, man,” Dex said, when John hung up the phone. “You’re not the only one who…. What’s that smell?”
John cursed and raced down to repair what he could of his dinner.
“We’re going to die,” were the first words John heard, upon finding Rodney.
“No, Rodney, we’re not going to die.”
“Well, maybe not you, but I’m definitely going to die.”
He was the ultimate pessimist, John thought, but still he managed to save the day.
“You’re not going to die, McKay.”
“Look, I’ve left my will in the top drawer of my nightstand. Tell my sister I died saving….”
“The kids, yes, I know. You’re not going to die, Rodney, so I’m not going to have to tell your sister anything.”
“You just don’t appreciate the sibling bond, Colonel. Just because you’ve never had a sister….”
The “I never said I didn’t,” slipped out before he could stop it. He hadn’t meant to say that. Hadn’t meant to stir up old memories. Memories best kept in the deep, dark recesses of his heart. Memories like Colonel Sumner, Mitch and Dex, and his sister.
18 years ago – One week before Christmas break
“It’s your mom, again.” The shout came from Dex. Again, John was cooking dinner. This time, he turned the heat all the way off and took the food off the burner before heading back to his room. He picked up the phone and listened for a moment, puzzling over the odd sounds. It sounded like…crying.
“Mom? What’s wrong?”
“Oh, god, John.” The crying got worse. “Crystal’s…she’s…dead, John.”
John was quiet for a moment, waiting for the punch line.
“But, she can’t be dead. I talked to her a couple of weeks ago. She was fine.”
“She was riding her bike. We’d just gotten her a new one. Ten-speed. She said it felt like she was flying. A car…came out of nowhere. It hit her and then left.”
He hadn’t even realized he’d been backing up until his legs hit the bed and he collapsed onto it.
“When can you….”
“Today. I’ll get Dex to drive me down to the airport. It may cost a little more, but I should be able to get a flight out today.”
They said quiet goodbyes and hung up. John packed while he told Dex what had happened and his friend quickly agreed to give him a ride to the airport. The entire way there, John thought of the last conversation he’d had with his sister. The quiet resignation in her voice when he’d told her he wouldn’t be coming. The fake happiness that was so out of place for her as she’d switched from one topic to another, trying to reassure him she was going to be all right.
The next few months were hard on him. He’d been expecting a release from the stress of school during the winter break. Instead, he had heartbreak and shouting and pain. His parents kept bickering at each other, for no reason that he could think of, and every time he walked past his sister’s room, he burst into tears. Finally, near the end of the break, he broke down and went into her room. Grabbing The Fledgling, he curled up on her bed and read it one last time. Sometimes, at certain favorite parts of the book, he could almost hear her laughter and when he finally left the room, his heart was a little bit lighter.
Sixteen years ago – Graduation
“You don’t want to do this, Johnny,” his mom pleaded, tears in her eyes. “Think what you’re giving up. A whole life ahead of you, a promising career, wasted for what? So you can get killed the next time our country decides to do something stupid?”
“I’m not giving up anything, mom,” John said, repeating what he had told his father earlier that day. The pair had not showed up together. In fact, John was pretty sure that they had purposefully stayed away from each other. Crys’ death hadn’t been easy on any of them.
“But…why?” she asked, all of her pain and anger and confusion pushing out of that one word.
“I disappointed Crys once, Mom. I’m not going to do it again. One of us is going to live her dream.”
“It was hers,” she said, forcefully, “not yours.”
“Maybe not, but it’s what I want to do. And who knows? Maybe what made her happy can make me happy, too. God knows, not much else has been able to, lately.”
She stood staring at him for long moment until finally, with a shake of her head and a small cry, John’s mother pushed away from him. He watched her blend into the crowd and didn’t follow.
“You have a sister, Colonel? What’s her name?”
For a moment, John looked out in the distance and almost saw a shadow. If he listened hard enough, he almost heard a child’s laughter.
“Had. She died when I was still in college. Her name….her name was Crys.”
“Oh,” Rodney said, looking down. “How’d she die?”
John considered the question for a moment. Thoughts whirled in his head until they finally came to a sudden stop and he spoke.
“She died flying.”