The Floating Away School
by Dana Diehl & Melissa Goodrich
“The chop-chop-chop of the helicopters, helicopter-sized, outside our windows.”
She’s been smoking by the windows. Cigarettes we didn’t even know she had. We’re not used to teachers being this way.
“CALM DOWN,” THE TEACHER says when the lights flicker out and the projectors darken. “Everything’s fine, relax,” she tells us, as the earth rumbles and we feel the school tip. “There is no need for anyone to be standing up,” she barks, even though our desks are sliding slantwise towards the windows. Our Trapper Keepers do cartwheels. Ramona covers her mouth, is going to be sick. But our teacher, Ms. Susan, is steady as a barbell. She is a physicist. A horseback rider. No stranger to momentum. When something scrapes against the side of our building, she pushes though the desks and chairs and our tiny human bodies, hoisting the blinds so our classroom fills with sunshine and takes a good long look outside.
We look too, ignoring her directions to stay seated and pressing our faces flat against the windowpanes.
What we see is the tops of trees. What we see is our neighborhood shrinking. Our school seems ripped from the earth, pipes and cables trailing behind us like roots. Outside our window we still have the edge of a sidewalk, half our playground with a jagged drop at one end, and a bicycle teetering over the edge and then back towards us, trying hard not to fall.
We float over the city streets, over midday traffic clogging Broadway. We float over a bowling alley and a baseball diamond and a crematorium and a carwash. The buildings are getting smaller. Soon we won’t be able to recognize them for what they are.
“Is this supposed to happen?” asks Justice, looking back over his shoulder, hands knuckled on the window’s edge.
Ms. Susan chews her lips and decides to say, “This is a scientific opportunity. The hypothesis is our school is floating away. Now, let’s observe. What do you notice?”
The school lurches. Some of us scream.
She gets the word “blue” out of us. “Sky.” “Clouds.”
“Go on,” she says. She’s steady in her flat-bottomed sneakers and her practical, black skirt. We’re inching higher slowly, slowly. It’s like what we imagined being in a hot air balloon would feel like, except without the comforting puff of flames, the warm smell of the hand-woven basket.
“We see a little town below us.”
“That little town is our town,” she reminds us kindly. “It only seems small because of perspective.”
“A squad of police cars.”
“Excellent,” she says. “What else?”
“Well, Ms. Susan,” says Annabelle, pushing a braid over one shoulder. Her hands shake, so she stuffs them in her pockets. “I can see part of the playground has torn away. But we still have one swing.”
“It’s yellow. It moves in the wind,” says Euphoria.
“Moves?” prompts Ms. Susan. “Can we think of a stronger word than ‘moves’?”
“Twirls? Spins? Swings? Flails?”
“I like ‘flails’ best,” explains Ms. Susan, “since it lets us know the fierceness of the wind.”
And it’s true, glancing outside, we can see the swing twisting uncontrollably. How fast are we traveling? How high are we getting? Is someone steering us, or are we at the whim of the wind currents, like a hot-air balloon?
This is what we wonder as Ms. Susan fists opens the windows a crack so we can use our other senses: smell and touch.
“It’s cooler out here,” we say, surprised by the sharp wind, by the hairs on our arms extending.
“And what else?” she asks, poking a barometer into the wind.
“I’m touching a cloud,” says Juan Pablo. “Whoa.”
“Describe the cloud. What does a cloud feel like?”
“Like a wet lamb!”
“Like a cotton swab!”
“Marvelous!” cries Ms. Susan, scribbling beautifully on the white board. We love her for the way she can write in cursive without even looking, her marker to the board, her face to us. “What else do you notice?”
“Mountains. Um . . . pointy? . . . mountains.” They loom far away on the horizon. They make a fence between us and the sky.
“Good,” she says. “Anything else?”
“And could you give me a more detailed description please?”
“The chop-chop-chop of the helicopters, helicopter-sized, outside our windows.”
“Like, a lot of them.”
They have headsets and goggles, and point to us, mouths moving, not knowing what to say.
I TAKE THE MEN in helicopters as a good sign. They repel carefully to the jagged edge of the playground, anchor themselves to the post holding the swing. “That swing’s a death trap,” one of them says. He has a radio strapped to his shoulder, long sideburns, a knife Velcroed to his chest. He cuts the swing free and it flies off somewhere. Back down to earth. I imagine it getting caught in some lady’s swimming pool, her dog dragging it inside like a dead bird. Then he maneuvers towards our windows, squeezes into our Science classroom.
He’s shiny and bulky and brought a duffle bag full of sandwiches, and the only one who can’t eat them is Ramona, because she’s allergic to raspberry jam.
“Some nice women at St. Anne’s set to making them as soon as they saw you float away,” he says to her. Ramona stalks off to the far corner near the door and sits with a sweater over her face as the rest of us nibble our food curiously. The sun is setting. Technically, we’re still at school. We chew around the crusts while the man hands Ms. Susan an electric lantern, a case of protein bars to last days, an emergency radio, shows her the switches to flip, gives her a little manual on Morse Code “in case” he keeps saying “in case” and “we wouldn’t want to upset the children” and he keeps counting us over and over like we are a flock of sacred sheep.
He drops a duffle of army-issue blankets. “No pillows,” he grunts, and we start to wonder if Ms. Susan will make us sleep sitting-up, in STAR position, our hands folded in front of us on our desks. We haven’t been allowed to leave the classroom, even to use the bathroom, and we begin to wonder how our friends in other classrooms are faring. We wonder if they got dessert with their sandwiches. Some of us have little sisters or brothers.
“Um,” Ms. Susan whispers, but we are adept at teacher whispering. “I have a dog back in my apartment. I’m growing . . . concerned.”
The man with the sideburns, with the shiny muscles, says something about atmospheric forces. Something about how they can’t remove any students or teachers from the school at this time. “A slight decrease in weight,” he says, “might send your school soaring toward the stratosphere. And no one wants that.”
“Can I give you my address? There’s a key hidden in the planter.” She’s already written it out on a post-it note, a real pro of a teacher. She hasn’t even opened her peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich yet, is looking the man dead-on in the eyes like she does when she knows someone’s cheating. He takes the paper from her, but he doesn’t really answer her, doesn’t even nod, just slips back out the window without so much as a “yes.”
EVERYTHING’S FINE FOR a couple of days. Now that we’re at cloud level, we don’t seem to be rising or falling. Ms. Susan is extra nice to us, gives us leisurely breaks, lets us lie on our backs while she reads, lets us close our eyes, comb each other’s hair with our fingers. She lets us push our desks against the walls, lets us stomp our feet and holler, teaches us to stretch, teaches us to sleep back to back so we’re comfortable. We eat protein bars and stale sandwiches during our regular snack breaks. We stop remembering to be afraid. In one voice, we scream into the air vents, “MR. PHILIPS. ALL GOOD?” And after a minute, we hear twenty-eight voices shout back, “ALL GOOD!”
Twice a day we take observations, try to identify the clouds and what they mean. Today, they make a ceiling over us and a floor below us. There’s a storm bubbling out there. Rain patters across the rooftop and streaks down the windows. We count the seconds between a lightning and its thunder. Ms. Susan leads us through the scientific process: we create a hypothesis to answer the question: how will we be rescued?
We think: a flock of birds picks us up and takes us to our parents.
We think: airplanes will sidle up and scoop us out.
We think: we’ll crash into a mountain, and we’ll be saved by mountain men.
When the storm is all around us, it’s much louder, it’s banging, like softballs, it cracks a window, darkens around us, we scream—but it passes. When the clouds clear we realize we’re not just floating, but moving. The pointy mountains we’d seen on the first day are closer than they were before. The school is taking us to them.
THE HELICOPTERS COME again on day five. Ms. Susan is livid with the men when they arrive. Ms. Susan uses her I-saw-you-put-gum-in-that-girl’s-hair look that sends us hiding under our desks.
“It’s been almost a week, and we’re still here. We’ve almost finished the cell biology unit, and we weren’t supposed to get to that lesson until April.”
The man takes her by the arm and whispers in her ear. He gestures to us. He’s speaking quietly enough that we can’t catch the words, but we think we can imagine what he’s saying, “You understand, miss,” or “There’s nothing we can do.”
Ms. Susan tries harder, switches tones, says, “Please, my sister is in the hospital,” says, “I need to renew my auto insurance,” says, “I think I have Jury Duty today—is it the 18th? Sir, you need to take me down.”
But the man just hands her sandwiches and dried shampoo and tic-tacs and a hairbrush, delivers a load of hand-knit sweaters that some concerned troupe of grandmothers made for the poor schoolchildren-who-floated-away. He climbs out the window.
“How long are we expected to just stay up here like this?” she calls to him, indignant, still in her sneakers, her skirt covered in shed hairs and pencil shavings, her hair pinned back fiercely. As she says this, a helicopter swoops down to pick him up, and maybe he doesn’t hear her, or maybe he chooses not to. The helicopter hovers above the schoolyard, not wanted to disrupt the equilibrium, not wanting us to tip. The lights swing back and forth, blinding us, emptying the shadowed corners of the room. The man climbs in, and the helicopters take off. I think, if he couldn’t take us, maybe he could have taken letters to loved ones, to families. I think too late of my parents down there, in a square roof-shaped box. The further we drift, the closer to the mountains we float, the less they feel my own.
WHEN THE HELICOPTERS don’t return, we try calling them on the radios, but all we get is static. We’re almost out of protein bars, and the hungriest of us chew down pencils and grind our molars against the wooden rulers. Ms. Susan pulls the plastic wrapping off of unopened stacks of paper and hangs it outside the windows to collect dew. She says we can go weeks without food, as long as we have water.
One night it storms. Ms. Susan pulls down the blinds to block out the lightning, but still we can hear it. We lean into each others’ backs and wonder if we can pretend ourselves into sleep. When the storm is over, it’s nearly dawn, and there are apples. Apples all over the half-playground. Red and perfect and ours.
We wait for Ms. Susan to explain it. We wait for her to demand we hypothesize, but she can just stare.
“Go,” she says.
Ms. Susan allows the smallest and fastest of us to climb out the window and into the wet grass to gather the fruits. We’re afraid it’s a trick at first, that she might change her mind at the last moment and we’ll be banned from games for the day, but she nods us forward. I’m the smallest and the fastest, but I take my time. It’s the first time I’ve left the classroom in days, and I walk barefoot through the grass that’s grown as high as my ankles.
I eat an apple from the ground. It’s sour and delicious. Its skin is as cool as the sky.
THE STORMS KEEP COMING. The storms keep bringing us things: a monsoon of toothbrushes, a drizzle of nutragrain bars, a blizzard of celery and carrots. “The sky is our mother now!” Justice decides. Because it’s true, we never go hungry. Ms. Susan isn’t in charge any more than we are. We just keep moving towards those mountains that used to be scenery and are now almost foreground, closer, coming in.
One day Ms. Susan says, “To hell with it,” and swings open our classroom door. At first, we’re afraid of the structural integrity of the hallway, afraid the school will suddenly tilt and propel us through the halls like a loogie shooting out of a straw. But the promise of movement, of sliding in our socks down the shiny, waxed floor, makes us brave. We peer into other classrooms, where kids are sitting quietly at their desks, rationing protein bars, doing what they’re supposed to, and we stick our tongues out at them.
We return to our classroom only to climb out the windows into the playground. As our feet land on grass, and then blacktop, a flock of butterflies descends on us, swirls around our building like a tornado. There’s thousands of them. I’ve never seen so many butterflies. Ms. Susan joins us in the playground. The wind whips her hair out of its pins, and she sits cross-legged on the end of the slide. She tells us a group of butterflies is called a “kaleidoscope,” a “rabble,” a “swarm,” but we like “kaleidoscope” best, the way monarchs and blue morphos and Goliath birdwings and mourning cloaks and peacock butterflies and postmans and red admirals and summer Azores and tiger swallowtails and all the other butterflies not listed in our science books swirl—like tiny construction paper triangles—like the recycle bin from art class got dumped: except these are wings and legs, not paper and glue, these are landing on the lawn and taking off like thoughtlessness.
IT’S BEEN THREE WEEKS. We still find the crushed wings of the butterflies in our windows, in our hair, under our shoes. We’ve had two Saturdays in the sky. It rained meatballs, it rained warm soup. We’re higher than the houses, lower than the airplanes. The mountains are close enough for us to see shadows from clouds moving across them, but not close enough to know if we’ll be able to clear the peaks or if we’ll crash into them. The air up here is thin, cool. Even when we take deep breaths, it feels like breathing through a straw. It reminds us of health class, how the teacher would have us try breathing through straws the size of coffee stirrers and say, “This is what smokers feel.” But this airlessness is different. It makes us euphoric, light.
We catch Ms. Susan on the lawn one morning, the lawn outside our classroom windows, the lawn where the earth cracked apart before we floated away. She is crawling on her knees, grabbing the grass in fistfuls. Maybe she’s pretending to be her horse, the horse she used to ride on desert trails, the horse she must miss. She stands, staggering, trying not to lose her bearings. It starts raining shampoo. It is soapy and rainbow like the suds in car washes. Rainbows form in the sheen of the bubbles. She stands there soaking, her skirt billowing, her hair a flag.
When she crawls back inside, we see that her eyes are red.
“Class,” she says. “I just don’t know anymore.”
She drips suds onto the floor, and we move so that they don’t touch us.
ALL THIS TIME THE power’s been out, but we learn how to talk to each other by tuning our radios into the right frequency. Sometimes the front office ladies say the things that pilots say, like, “We’re cruising at a steady altitude of 30,000 feet” or “We apologize to any students who experience turbulence” or “A message to our students this morning: your parents love you very much.” Sometimes a woman reads to us, and we don’t know who she is. Has she been hired to be our mother? Was she dropped off the last time the helicopters landed?
Even with our newfound freedom of the school and playground, we grow anxious, we grow bored, tired of the empty space that contains us. We return to our abandoned hypotheses. This time, our guiding question is how do we save ourselves. We learn constellations and record barometrics and deconstruct tables and hypothesiz and make predictions and prototypes on the whiteboard of the aircraft that we will make to save us. Of the wings we will glue to our arms. Of the ropes we braid together so they will not break.
“Can’t we just turn the tables into a plane?” we ask Ms. Susan.
“Do we have anything to make a rocket, a jetpack, something soft to land on?”
Ms. Susan has stopped teaching, stopping asking us to analyze and observe. But she’s been measuring our desks and tables with a meter stick. She’s been scratching at the walls at night. She’s been smoking by the windows. Cigarettes we didn’t even know she had. We’re not used to teachers being this way.
Ms. Susan asks us if we want to learn how to smoke, and of course we all say yes. It’s all about the inhale, she says, and we practice, choking. Tyler’s being a real sissy about it, says it causes cancer, but those of us with Ms. Susan don’t give a shit. She taught us the word shit. She’s been writing curse words on the board, showing us how to spit them out.
“Hell, let’s go outside. Let’s look over the edge,” she says, so we do.
We link hands but not because we’re told to. We walk to the end of the playground, where blacktop turns to crumbling dirt. We can feel the unsteadiness of the ground underneath us. It’s just a thin crust. It sounds like it’s cracking.
“What if we fall,” asks Melody.
“Then we die,” says Ms. Susan.
We walk to the edge of the earth together, our hair blowing back, our legs shaking, the foundation whining. There are shelf clouds on the horizon. And there are the mountains right in front of us. After all these weeks of watching them grow closer, now we could reach out and grab them by the trees. I can’t believe how beautiful it is. The smell is evergreen and earthy. We reach out and touch the mountain—the soft tips of evergreen, a flock of crows, a dry squirrel nest. It’s not just Ms. Susan’s class in the playground now. It’s the whole school. All of those teachers and students who had hidden in their classrooms for weeks, doing the safe thing, while we tempted fate in the hallways and the open blacktop—they’ve all emptied from the windows, from the emergency exits, and into the playground. They are watching our fingertips brush the tips of trees, the first anchored thing we’ve touched since the school shook loose. Their mouths seem to be watering.
“What mountain range is this?” Annabelle asks. “What is our elevation above sea level?”
Ms. Susan shushes her. For weeks we took data, tested hypotheses, ruminated over cloud charts. Now it’s time to observe without naming.
The ground under us tilts. Our floating school is tilting under the weight of all us convened in one place. We dig our heels into the dirt. Those of us with our feet still in lawn grab fistfuls of grass in one hand and the backs of classmates’ T-shirts with the other. We lean toward and away from the mountain at the same time.
Ms. Susan says “Let go,” and she sounds like herself again. She’s telling us to jump like she has told us to study, to double-check our answers, to wash our hands before lunch. And we try to, we do, but we’ve spent our whole lives learning not to fall.
“This is my job,” Ms. Susan says. “To help you let go.”
We are all afraid, but one voice says, “I have to, I can’t take it,” and he leaps from our floating school to the mountain top.
We pitch on our floating school. We rise just enough to notice the difference. We can still touch the trees, but just barely. We realize: we either all jump now, or those of us left will float higher, get further from the earth. This might be our last chance—and that feeling descends on us, soundless and simple as snow.
Ramona jumps next. We see her land, miraculously, in an eagle’s nest. She waves at us. We rise just a little bit more. Tyler jumps next, then Juan Pablo. A whole sixth grade class holds hands and leaps into a patch of oak trees. Justice jumps. Then I do, my legs pinwheeling. I fall into a pine tree and hug its needled branches, the trunk bending against my weight but not breaking. I look up. With every person who leaves, the school loses a little bit of what’s holding it back and rises higher into the sky. Soon, the school will be too high for anyone else to survive the jump onto the mountain.
Ms. Susan stays on the cracked edge of the playground. She sits. Her feet dangle over the edge.
“What are you doing, Ms. Susan?” we ask.
“Come with us!”
“You never taught us how wolves evolved into whales. Or why time moves slower in outer space than it does here.”
“We don’t know the way home,” we say.
We can see the bottoms of her feet now. “You guys looks beautiful,” she tells us. “You guys. This is my job.”
We swing from treetops, sap staining our hands, and we yell up to her, “What about Jury Duty? What about your cat? Or was it a dog?”
Up, up the school goes. From the bottom, it’s a nest of dirt and roots and wires. We watch it float over the mountain and sail out of sight on breezes we can’t see.
SOME DAYS I THINK about the school, about whoever’s left up there. When we climbed down our trees to the mountain floor, we counted ourselves again and again. We couldn’t remember how many of us there were to start out with, but we knew it couldn’t just be Ms. Susan up there in the sky. There’s got to be some students left, some teachers, some birds who busted through windows. Maybe she found a new class to care for. Maybe, for the last few weeks, they’ve been unknitting our sweaters. Reknitting our sweaters. If we can make a big enough parachute, Ms. Susan maybe tells them, the rest of you can all make it back to earth.
Maybe they find land higher than our mountaintop. Maybe they land in Cairo, start a new life balanced on the tippy top of the Great Pyramid.
Maybe they drift over Everest, nab a victory flag from an American climber, take turns wearing it like a cape.
Maybe they’re pulled into the Bermuda Triangle and find Amelia Earhart drinking tea on a cloud.
Maybe one of them has learned to lasso flocks of migrating geese and harness them like a pack of sled dogs.
Those of us who jumped have a lot of time to wonder. It takes us three days to hike down the mountain. Our feet move slowly on an earth that is too big for us to feel its movement. We chew on pine needles to trick our hunger. We ask each other, “Why didn’t they jump?” and “Why didn’t she jump?” We wonder if the more interesting question is “Why did we?”
None of us can see the school anymore, even when we climb to the top of the tallest trees.
We think: Maybe when Ms. Susan looks out the window all she sees is blackness, all she sees is space.
The school lurches. Some of us scream.
The helicopter hovers above the schoolyard, not wanted to disrupt the equilibrium, not wanting us to tip.
DANA DIEHL’s fiction has previously appeared in Hobart, Yemassee, Funhouse, New South, Sonora Review, and others, and her first book is forthcoming from Jellyfish Highway Press.
MELISSA GOODRICH's work has previously appeared in PANK, The Kenyon Review Online, Sundog Lit, Gigantic Sequins, Word Riot, and others. She is the author of the short story collection Daughters of Monsters, published by Jellyfish Highway Press.
The truth may be stretched thin, but it never breaks, and it always surfaces above lies, as oil floats on water.
—Cervantes, Don Quixote
© 2016 The Indianola Review