Your mother used to say you came out of her womb floating on air—literally; you never touched the floor. When you first learned to crawl, you tried to patter along like the ground was made of glass, except it didn’t work. It took you until you were two to figure out you could only push the air, not walk on it, at least not very quickly. Inevitably, you were the tortoise at the end of every race and your parents soon figured it was easier to grab you by the wrist and pull you along like a train on its tracks.
An only child, you don’t fully understand that not everyone is born this way. Your parents tried to explain it when you were three and asked why their feet touched the ground and not yours. “Well Beth, most people’s feet touch the ground. You’re just…special.” The smile hiding their worried expression fell through as soon as you asked why. Your father shook his head and walked out of the room muttering angry gibberish, while your mother hustled you into the kitchen for a cookie. “A special treat for a special girl.” They try to warn you again before starting first grade (your parents homeschooled you for kindergarten, afraid you weren’t quite ready to make your debut in society), but you don’t pay much attention. There had to be other special kids.
Your first day is overwhelming; you’ve never been around so many kids in your life, all full of stares and questions.
“Are you an alien?”
“Do you have magic pixie dust like Peter Pan?”
“Can you teach me how to fly?”
You immediately check everyone’s feet searching for a thin slip of air and find nothing but solid legs. Disappointment pricks you in the stomach like a pen, inking across nervous butterfly corpses until it dulls. Your teacher (whose name you forgot amid the excitement) momentarily suspends your disappointment in selecting a student to be your personal buddy, a.k.a. someone to sit next to and pull you around on the playground and between classes. A girl named Pam (whom everyone can already tell will be the teacher’s pet) is chosen from the gaggle of eager kids jumping from their desks to volunteer.
“So, is it fun?” Pam whispers to you while the teacher passes out crayons and a Getting to Know You sheet.
“Is what fun?”
“You know, floating.”
“I don’t know. I never thought about it.”
“It looks like fun. You’re like an ice skater, except on air.” She turns and smiles. You decide the two of you will be good friends.
The next handful of years glide by in a blur of pull-along tag-team races and three people pyramids where you’re always delegated the top, prized spot because you don’t have to climb on anyone. For a while, you show off your contortionistic talent by bending any which way to imitate the clouds. You hold it for at least five seconds, a mimic image floating underneath the sky. Other kids start having contests to see who can stay in the air the longest to try to match you, bobbing up and down for the whole fifteen-minute recess.
This doesn’t last long. Everyone gets tired of jumping and used to the pliable girl who balances a foot above the ground. Pam’s the only one who doesn’t run off toward the see-saws or a game of Red Rover. She sits by you on the bench and asks what you want to do. You tell her it doesn’t matter, as long as you do it together.
Your world turns upside down in middle school. The endocrine system is doing double duty and your hormones cause you to tip off balance—literally. You float sideways for half of your seventh-grade year. The questions from elementary school have turned into taunts:
“There goes Beth the Bendy Ghost!”
“Hey Casper, still haunting the halls?”
“Why don’t you fly home to the mothership?”
At least you’re not fully alone. Pam still walks you to class; flat hair and braces don’t exactly make her the talk of the town. She doesn’t seem to mind until Tracy Kirken invites her to go shopping at the mall after school, “minus the human charm bracelet,” (her words, not yours) as you float behind Pam, invisible. “Uh, I don’t know Tracy, I’ll get back to you.”
As soon as her half-inch heels click away, you ask. “Would you really go?”
“Without you? Of course not.” Pam searches the inside of her locker for a comb and mini bottle of hairspray. She turns to the tiny mirror on the inside of the door to do a makeshift tease of her hair, which only lifts a few straggly pieces at the top, stunting every other strand into crunchy-looking spaghetti.
“Yeah, but do you want to?” The words come out hard like a bowling ball hitting pavement, but you don’t take them back.
“Don’t be silly.” She puts the cap back on the hairspray and gives a slight scrunch, breaking up the stiff left half.
She avoids your eyes as she grabs her biology book and slams her locker, but you notice her gaze arc back towards Tracy, whose clicks echo on the linoleum as she struts into the bathroom with her usual herd of mannequins following close behind.
It turns out Tracy only invited Pam so she could be the group’s personal caddy and trash consultant. You only know this because Pam ends up calling you that night, crying, to say she’ll never abandon you again. Your parents are yelling in the living room, something about horizontal doorways and teacher emails. Your flightiness has always seemed to weigh them down, too. You want to mention how this whole situation makes you feel like a discarded napkin, or an actual ghost. You don’t want to haunt anyone; you just can’t help it. But Pam anticipates your forgiveness and hangs up the phone before you can get a word in.
Pam hangs around until high school, which was longer than you expected. She was true to her word that night until the fall of freshman year. She got her braces off that July, and her mom finally allowed her to get a perm, which actually gave her hair some volume and made her face seem fuller. She came into high school looking like a new person while the only growth your body made was in distance from the ground.
Before there was only room for a couple magazines or a thin book. Now someone could fit almost an entire footstool underneath you.
Your parents are tense; they had hoped your feet would touch the ground by the teenage years, growing weight counteracting whatever supernatural force was keeping you up. It seemed to have the opposite effect. Other students stopped with the nicknames but still avoided you, not wanting your weird to ruin their chance at a fresh high school reputation.
Pam’s newfound popularity turned out to be the boost she needed to kick you to the curb. In order to be on time to class, you push both arms against the lockers like a first-time roller skater and find it’s easier to situate yourself between the books on the top shelf in the library to eat your lunch. In class, teachers make you tie a string from ankle to chair leg to stay anchored in desks. A couple weeks of this go by before you feel yourself start to disappear altogether.
You audition for Hamlet at the request of your English teacher, Ms. Burnett, the only person to notice your quarantined status. “It’ll be good for you,” she says, pressing a hand on your shoulder to meet your eye level. “It’ll feel good to be a part of something. Besides, the theatre department is always looking for the next big thing, and my dear, with your abilities,” (she pauses to look down at the air suspended between your feet and the floor), “you might just be it.”
You just hope those so-called ‘abilities’ won’t get in the way of landing the role of Ophelia or Gertrude. You’d rather be the mad, loved girl than the seduced queen, but any role where you get to wear a dress that touches the floor will do. However, the drama teacher has other ideas; the girls outnumber the guys three to one, and you’re asked to play the role of Ghost, the apparition of the dead king, because, “Well, uh, you just fit the part.” Pam lands the role of Ophelia, and Tracy Kirken (now second in the popularity chain after gaining wider hips and a pooch over the summer) is chosen for Gertrude. You wonder if you’ll ever retire this recurring role.
Rehearsals are agony as you float this way and that, urging Hamlet (played by sidelined football player Max Hewing) to avenge your death. You hoped this play would get you noticed, maybe even by Max, whose dark eyes make you feel lost in a dream. He seems uninterested, turned off by the fake beard they keep making you wear to get into character.
It isn’t until after rehearsal one day that something finally clicks. You’re in the girl’s dressing room, exchanging the makeshift suit of armor and beard for a sundress when Horatio (a.k.a. Jared Pletido, tight end of the football team) saunters in unannounced.
“Yo, Pam, nice ass.”
You spin around quickly, covering your tail-end decked out in high-cut briefs with embroidered flowers lining the top.
“Woah, Beth! Who knew you had all that floating under there?” He gives you a wink and walks out before you have a chance to respond. A small tornado stirs in the pit of your stomach, a feeling you’re supposed to be ashamed or at least offended, but instead feels good. That look in his eye is something you don’t want to lose.
The next day you bump into Jared in the hallway, stumbling just enough for your skirt to slide up your thigh. He offers to take you home after school. You accept, lulling to the sound of his whistle resounding off the lockers.
On the way home, Jared asks if you want to make a detour. “It’ll be worth your time, I promise,” and you go along with it, a thousand nerves swarming your brain. He takes the backroad exit and pulls off next to a rundown Christmas tree farm. He turns off the engine and looks at you like you’re the answer.
“So,” he says, raising an inch out of his seat to close in on you. “How about we see what really makes you float.” His breath fogs your face and you don’t think twice before twisting your lips into his, sending your heart into bursting thumps. Jared reclines the seats and climbs over to press on top of you. You nearly run out of air before he pulls his mouth down over your jaw, your neck, your chest. You sink, letting the weight of his body pin you to the shag seat cover, calming your nerves.
Word gets around at school about your afternoon car ride with Jared. Other girls look appalled, avoiding eye contact and sharing jealous whispers, while the football players eye you with wonder, piqued interests. The nickname “Beth the Bendy Ghost” starts floating around once again, but you don’t mind.
Jared was a one-time deal; his attention is back on Pam, who’s running for Freshman Class Sweetheart. It doesn’t matter. The eyes of the rest of the football team are on you. You have a different ride home each night, a new boy, a new layout. It doesn’t always go far, usually just enough to get them hovering before you sit up and tell them to take you home.
You don’t pay much attention to the fact that they never invite you on real dates, or to hang out with their friends, or to meet their parents. You never invite them to meet yours either (not that your parents notice the conveyor belt of strange cars dropping you off each night between their so-called “heated discussions”). You don’t mind going out with them even after they’ve taken their “proper” girlfriends home. You only care for the lowered front seat, the feeling of someone hanging over you.
It only takes a couple weeks before Max stops by the dressing room to ask if he can drive you home. He knocks, unlike Jared, but you can still sense the same desire beneath his hooded eyes. You nod and follow him out to his car, an old Ford pickup.
He seems almost nervous as he drives, barely pausing to look your direction. He goes straight to your house and parks out front, fumbling with the key. You turn to him and wait, hoping he’ll make a move, say something, do anything. The only response you get is a fidgety side-glance filled with that same longing you saw in the dressing room. You smirk before planting a kiss straight on his lips. He pulls back but only long enough for a smile to spread across his face before reattaching it to yours. You evaporate toward your house thirty minutes later with hair out of place, bra strap showing.
You date for the next couple of months, spending most of your time pinned in his truck and going to private places to talk. Your favorite spot is in the small forest behind Mr. McFarland’s farm; his pasture spreads over five miles, plenty of backroad room and silence. Max is the first person who really talks to you like you’re normal, like you’ve been kindred spirits.
“My dad used to say each man has to find his own strength. I think it’s here,” he gestures to the tall pines standing at attention above us. “Where I get to feel small. It’s overpowering, in a good way.”
“Exactly,” you say. “The trees seem to pin you down. In a good way.” You laugh and roll your head to face Max, who pulls you close to his chest, kissing the crease in your forehead and working his way down.
He takes you on a hunting trip, his favorite pastime, and you learn he’s a skilled shot. Only once did he miss his target by shooting it in the neck while aiming for its head. It was a grey, short-haired bunny, still alive, but unable to move. Max didn’t even blink before sending another bullet through its head, a small burst of blood polka-dotting his leather work boots.
“Max! What’s wrong with you? Why’d you do that?”
“I had to,” he says with a straight face. “It wasn’t going to survive. It’s better to kill it than watch it suffer.” He picks it up by the bum leg and throws it in with the others piled in the back of his truck. The two of you head home.
On your three-month anniversary, you start to question why Max has never taken you home to meet his parents, or out to a restaurant, or really any public places. You decide to ask him about it after school at the usual spot in the woods.
“When am I going to get to meet your parents?”
He tilts his head up from the ground, an anxious wrinkle furrowing his brow. "I don’t know.”
“What about Saturday? We could all go out to eat, or I could help cook a dinner. I make a mean casserole.”
“I can’t Saturday.”
“I’ve got a party to go to.”
You laugh, trying to catch the joke. “And you weren’t going to invite me?”
“Well, it’s at Tracy’s house, so I didn’t think you’d want to come.”
“What if I do?”
“You really want to come?” He hesitates, as if taking a brief intermission so that he can come up with an excuse he thinks you’ll swallow. “I don’t think it’d be such a good idea.”
Max stumbles to his feet, causing you to float up next to him. “Because I can’t be seen with ‘Beth the Bendy Ghost’ at a party with people like that.”
“With people like what? What’s so special about them?”
“It’s just that I have a sort of reputation.”
“And I would ruin that for you? Hell, Max, I’ve ridden with half the guys that would be at that party.”
“Exactly, that’s the point, Beth! Riding around is one thing, being a couple is another.”
“So, all of this has meant nothing to you? The past few months have just been about hooking up in your car?”
“Hey, don’t act like that was all me. You never asked to do anything else before.”
“What about our conversations? What about—”
“Look, if you’re going to get so worked up about this, I don’t think we should be together at all.”
You hang there as if tied to a stake, petrified and burning. “Are you dumping me?”
He looks at you, suspending you down a black hole with those deep, brown eyes. “Yeah. I guess I am.”
He turns to walk back to the truck before remembering he drove you here. He pivots back and grabs your wrist, pulling your unwilling body back to the truck to take you home in silence.
Opening night is a week away and you’re losing your mind. Since Max broke up with you, it’s been excruciating. People started to think you were a somewhat decent girl if Max was spending time on you, but they wasted no time reverting to “Beth the Bendy Ghost” once he cut you loose. Your days consist of floating through the halls, floating on and offstage during rehearsal, and floating yourself home.
Your parents’ fights have gotten so bad, they’ve stopped altogether. It’s silent in the kitchen when your mother makes breakfast. It’s silent when your father comes home from work and shuts the bedroom door. It’s silent during dinner where the only sound heard is the scraping of silverware cutting the etched flowers on your mother’s porcelain plates. They barely say two words to you, they’re so drenched in quiet. You notice a stack of papers marked DIVORCE sitting next to the counter when you come home from school. Your parents don’t even mention it to you, possibly pretending it doesn’t exist or maybe that you don’t.
All your teachers have had to move you to the back; even sitting now causes your body to rise over everyone’s heads. You think if someone really let you go you would float up to the sky and out of existence. Then again, what you really needed was someone to hold onto, someone to pull you back down.
You start daydreaming in class about floating over the ocean or drifting into a cloud. It’s all you think about, flying off into the sunset. It turns more desperate as your need heightens, a vision you can’t escape. Everyone grows irritated and starts to ignore you even more than before, but you can’t stop. There has to be someone willing to save you.
After rehearsal, you poke at Jared, whining about how you’d rather die than keep living like this, and he should push you out into the open air, leave you there. He just shakes his head and gives you wink. “Sure thing, but after you float back down, you’ve gotta take another ride with me. You scratch my back, I scratch yours.”
You try Pam next, hoping there might be a thread of friendship still intact.
“Ugh, stop being so dramatic, Beth. Like you don’t get enough attention already.”
Your last resort is Max. He’s really the first person that came to mind, but you were trying to wait out this moment. If he didn’t need you, why should you come crawling back? But your mind won’t let you rest; he’s the one you really want.
You follow him out to his truck after rehearsal, still struggling to fit your sleeve through your sweater after your costume change.
“Hey Max, I have a favor I need to ask.”
“What is it now?”
“I need you to release me.”
“Release you? What are you talking about?”
“Release me. Like give me a shove and send me out into space.” You look at him with your most desperate eyes. “I can’t do this anymore.” He thinks it’s a game.
“Beth, honestly, I thought you were done with the dramatics. It’s been a couple weeks already. We’re over. We’re not getting back together.”
He walks away, leaving you drifting.
You’re in Max’s truck stopped in front of the house. It’s been a couple days since you last asked him for the favor, but you had to try again. You begged him to take you home because of the rain.
“I need you to do this for me.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
“Come on Beth, aren’t you tired?”
Tiny droplets hit the windshield like they’re made of metal. You need him to see the desperation in your eyes, notice the twinge in your voice. “This isn’t a game.” You turn his shoulders to face you and look him square in the eye until all you see is one dark swirl. “I need you to do this for me.”
He’s silent for a moment; you wonder if he’ll take the bait, if he’ll really do anything for you.
“Okay. When do you want to do it?”
“Tonight. Our spot in the woods. Pick me up at eight.” You squeeze his neck, your teeth breaking through in a smile. “You don’t know how much this means to me.”
You float out of the car before he can change his mind, warming at the thought of Max Hewing setting you free.
Eight o’clock can’t come fast enough, and Max arrives right on time, per usual. Your mother is cleaning up dinner in the kitchen, whisper-shouting curse words at your absent father who skipped the meal in favor of a beer and the TV. You float through each room in an effort to say goodbye, but they barely look up before you leave. You hear your mother call out “What time will you be—” but slam the front door shut before giving an answer. Max meets you on the front step to pull you to the car. He doesn’t say anything as he sits down behind the wheel, and you figure it’s unnecessary to add voice to this special moment. A special moment for a special girl.
You pull up to the pines and Max steps around the side to open your door, a perfect gentleman. He strings you along toward the middle of the woods before asking, “Are you sure you want to do this?” His eyes are not emotional, just searching, but you mistake a glimmer as an unshed tear.
“Of course.” You smile, an act of reassurance. “This is what I want, Max.” You touch his cheek, smooth with a spiny texture. He’s just shaved. “But I do have one last request.”
He looks uncomfortable at first but lets it go. He leans down, covering your mouth with his, and you are already lighter. This is it. No turning back.
You break away and look up to his face. Still no emotion, but you don’t notice. You’re too busy waiting to hear those five words: I can’t let you go.
To your surprise, Max takes a step back, still holding your hand. He drops it without looking down, watching your face with a blank expression as you start to drift. His arms extend outward as if to bar you from his sight, but they keep going until they meet your shoulders, a strength your body can’t combat.
You want to scream or cry or do anything to save yourself, but it’s like you’re a hot air balloon, your weightlessness defying your efforts. The wind bustles, taking your body up, up, towards the trees, the moon. It’s too late; you are gone, lost, set free by the last person you thought loved you.