Taking Flight, by JC Hemphill


“Come on, Becky, just this once,” Mike said to his fiancée as she unraveled newspaper from an indigo vase. A plastic baggy containing two lime-green pills in the shape of footballs rested on the coffee table between them. “After the move and the funeral, we deserve to let loose. You know? You deserve to let loose.”

She avoided his gaze, feigning interest in an ad on the crinkled paper in her hand. Her face sagged as if the weight on her mind had settled in her cheeks and the folds beneath her eyes. Mike wished he could do more to assuage her anguish. She wasn’t herself anymore. Large chunks of her personality had seceded to the melancholy of loss since her brother Frank died four months ago, and he wanted desperately to see her old spunk and spirit again.

Becky glanced at him from the corner of her eye as she centered the vase on the coffee table and removed another item from the moving box. “Don’t pressure me. We have no idea what’s in that stuff. What if something goes wrong? Angela’s cousin bought cocaine from that gas station attendant in Pickens last year, remember?”

Mike nodded. “Yeah. He died because there was Drano or something in it.”

“Uh-huh. Angela said it ate a hole in his nose.”

Becky didn’t even know the worst of it. Angela’s husband told Mike that the poor guy died alone in his apartment. When the neighbor found the body, she said there were red freckles all over the place like he had been sneezing blood uncontrollably.

A shudder rippled through his body, and his proposition lost much of its appeal.

“Where’d you get that stuff, anyways?” Becky asked, placing an antique music box next to the vase.

“This guy from work, Carl. You met him at the Halloween party last year.”

Her eyebrows dropped and her chin jutted in deep concentration–a gesture that always made Mike laugh. He called it her cavewoman face. She pretended to hate that, but he knew better.

The cavewoman disappeared, replaced by the bright enlightenment of remembrance. “The guy with the little mustache who kept asking me if I had any single friends?”

“Yep, that’s Carl. He told me about this stuff a while back, but I didn’t really get the idea until last week. I remembered him saying that the experience really ‘set him free.’ I dismissed him at the time, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that Carl’s a bright guy. Real bright. In fact, he makes me look like a stain on a white T-shirt. He started working there seven months after me, but he’s already two tiers higher on the totem.”

“He seemed kinda silly to me.”

“Oh, he is. No doubt. But he’s still as smart as they come.” Mike paused and placed a hand on her knee to grab her attention before proceeding. He wanted to ensure his point was made. “I don’t want to pressure you. If you’re uncomfortable, I’ll flush these pills right now. Seriously. We can unpack the DVD player, curl up on the couch and watch a flick. Don’t think I’ll be resentful or anything. It was just an idea, nothing more.”

Picking up the plastic baggy, he walked toward the kitchen. “As a matter of fact,” he said without looking back, “I’m dumping them down the sink right now.”

“Well … wait. I didn’t say no. I just want to feel like I have a choice.”

Mike stopped and turned around. “Okay…”

“What do they do? All I know about Flight is what you hear on the news. Your body tingles and you hallucinate. But they say you can’t move or control yourself. Sharon Summers did that special on CNN and said users turn into catatonic vegetables.”

Mike shuffled his feet. He wasn’t sure himself. He knew most people called it Flight, but some referred to it as Fourth Dimension, Limes, or OB for Out of Body.

“Carl said he couldn’t really explain what happened. He said to take one pill, wait about fifty minutes, and then Boom! your world changes. He said on one end, it’s like you’re in a paint-by-numbers picture. You see this general outline of the world around you, all black and white and gray. But you can change the colors just by thinking about them. On the other end, it’s like you’re a guardian angel for yourself. I’m not sure what that means, but it sounds cool.”

Her face showed horrified fascination as he relayed Carl’s explanation. What he left out was that new drugs like Flight were untested. No FDA studies on the long-term or even mid-term effects existed. For all they knew, they might grow tentacles and crave salt water three years after dosing.

“I’ve never done any drugs,” she muttered. The cavewoman was back.

“Pfff. You need coffee like diabetics need insulin.”

“Hey!” She scoffed at him mockingly. “You better watch it, Waltz.”

Mike grinned. Ever since he proposed, she had made a conscious effort to work his last name into her vocabulary as often as possible. The idea of changing the name you grew up with seemed absurd to Mike. For twenty-nine years she had faced the world as Becky Milford. Nearly three decades of teachers, friends, co-workers, doctors, dentists, and magazine subscriptions had recorded her name as Milford. But now, because they had chosen to spend their lives together, that name was being erased. Mike couldn’t imagine changing his and was more than prepared for her to hyphenate her own. But that idea didn’t even seem to occur to Becky. She was a Waltz now, and always had been.

“I don’t know,” Becky said. “What if we get addicted?”

“We’ll make a pact. Just this once. Then, never again.”

The weight gone from her face, she said, “Okay. Let’s do it.”


Becky organized the boxes in the bedroom, laid out the Egyptian cotton sheets, and fluffed the pillows. She draped a silk scarf over the shade, and the room bloomed with a diffused red light.

Meanwhile, Mike showered. Nervousness excited his thoughts, and he fantasized about the adventure to come. What would it be like? What would they see, feel, hear, taste, experience? Would they emphatically tell their friends about it as Carl had? One beer got Becky buzzed, how would she react to a hallucinogen? Hell, how would he react? He had toked (did people even say that anymore?) some weed in college, but this stuff wouldn’t, couldn’t compare to that.

Simply anticipating the drug was a high.

When he got out of the shower, he dressed and entered the bedroom to find Becky sitting on the edge of the bed with her hair tied back into a bun and her feet pulled beneath her in the straight-backed pose of an enlightened monk.

She was nervous, but at least her mind was off of her brother for once.

“You ready?” Mike asked.

She looked at him with wide eyes that said no. “Sure,” she said in a frail voice, and opened her hand to reveal the tiny lime-green football in her palm.

Mike approached and clasped her open hand between both of his. “We don’t have to do this.”

“No. I mean … I want to.” She tried to smile, but faltered.


She popped her hand to her mouth in response. Her throat and mouth worked as she collected enough saliva to swallow the pill.

Mike looked at her with pride. “Impressive. Didn’t even need water. You sure you’ve never done this before?”

She giggled and said, “That’s right, Waltz, I’m down to get high.” She drew the last word out as if she were receiving a pleasant shot of morphine. “So what now?”

“Should be awhile before it kicks in, which reminds me.” Mike grabbed his pill from the dresser, and swallowed it. “We’re supposed to hold hands when it starts. Carl said we’ll go together, whatever that means.”

“Ok. What should we do until then?”

Mike sat on the bed next to her, wrapped an arm around her waist, and pulled her in tight. “Tell me about how we’re gonna decorate the new house.”


Forty-minutes and a lifetime of plans and dreams passed while they talked. The conversation came naturally and in excited bursts. Mike rejoiced as he saw the old Becky coming out. Her ears perked, the green of her eyes sharpened, and she seemed to gain a general interest in life again. The drug–or as he began to think of it, the solution to Becky’s slough–was producing better results than he had hoped for.

“Mike,” she said, lying back on the bed. Her legs dangled off, and she began swinging them, lightly kicking the mattress with her heels.


“I think I’m feeling something…” she trailed off as if she had forgotten to end her sentence.

“Lay back on the pillow. I’ll get on the other side.”

They lay next to each other, stretched out on the king-size mattress like two strangers sharing a bed. A tingle crept up Mike’s spine, and nestled in the back of his mind where head met pillow. He reached for Becky, found her smooth forearm, and grasped her hand. He sensed her head roll to face him, and Mike realized that he was unable to do the same. It wasn’t that his head was too heavy or that he didn’t have the will to move. He simply couldn’t.

“Whoa,” Becky said from inside a dream.

Mike wanted to respond, but the ceiling had captured his attention. The popcorn texture was moving. The entire ceiling was covered in lines of marching white ants. His view of the room tilted. The ceiling vanished, giving way to the wall at the foot of the bed. Mike knew the wall was empty–they were still the clean white of a fresh home–yet black lines swayed and swooped down the wall in long, sinuous tendrils. They writhed on the white canvas, dancing like a canopy of vines in a gentle breeze.

A memory popped into mind. Carl’s words. ‘…you can change the colors just by thinking about them.’ As soon as the thought came to full fruition in his mind, the black vines turned red, then green. The boxes in the corner melted and reformed into green vegetation. The white behind the vines vanished, replaced by dark undergrowth. The scent of humidity and compost wafted in and out of his nostrils, teasing him with the pungent odor.

The tingle in the back of his head seeped to all parts of his body as he lifted into the air. He rose higher and higher until he had a landscape view of the jungle that was once a house. The sun stuck to the horizon like a painted backdrop in an old western. The moon, shy and faded, was beginning to show itself in the farthest reaches of the sky from the sun. The jungle throbbed with life, and in a clearing at the heart of the thicket, the bed. Amazingly, Mike saw himself lying there. His hand still gripped Becky’s as their eyes darted and twitched beneath closed lids.

Mike wondered if she saw the jungle, too. He hoped so, because this was the most incredible thing he had ever seen. He almost couldn’t wait to get back to reality so he could tell her about how their new home had transformed into Tarzan’s backyard.

A rainbow extended from the jungle floor in the distance and slowly arched across the sky until the other end met the side of a mountain.

“Pretty cool, huh?”

Mike twisted around in mid-air, unsure and uncaring of the hows or whys of it, and found Becky floating behind him. She was leaning back with her hands behind her head in defiance of gravity.

“Becky,” he said. “So this is what Carl meant about us going together.”

“I suppose. Did you like what I did with the rainbow?”

“You did that?”

“Sure. Aren’t you the one who put us in a jungle?”

“I guess so,” he said, knowing it was true, but only realizing it as a result of the question.

“What else do you think we can do?” She started flying in slow circles around Mike, moving fluidly through the air.

Mike scanned the area, and caught sight of a colorful bird. He thought of the botanical gardens where he had proposed. Besides exotic flowers and hedges in the shape of elephants and rearing horses, Wemberly Gardens had one of the largest aviaries in the southeast. And Becky loved birds.

Mike shut his eyes and tried to picture every detail of the day he popped the question–the misting rain, air cold enough to bunch them together, but not drive them indoors, and even the Asian couple who couldn’t stop taking pictures. When he reopened his eyes, the jungle was gone, replaced by neat rows of hedges, intertwined with a concrete path. To the right, near a grand fountain, was the glass and steel dome of the aviary. Small shadows glided around inside. A camera flash popped.

“Oh, Mike,” Becky exclaimed. Happiness radiated from her with enough intensity to make the sun jealous. She drifted to him. They embraced, and slowly sank toward the ground. They kissed with the passion of a forbidden love and held each other until their feet found the bed.

Mike briefly wondered what had happened to their bodies, but lust soon made him forget. They made love for what seemed like hours, days, months.

All thoughts and sensations seemed both ephemeral and eternal at the same moment as their bodies became one.


When Mike and Becky came to, they found themselves in the same plank-like positions. Becky’s face said it all. Incredible. Amazing. Stupendous.

Wow, just wow.

They went to sleep in each other’s arms–the first time since her brother’s death–and in the morning, Mike awoke to Marvin Gaye and bacon.


“So-ooo, how was your flight?” Carl asked the following Monday in the break room.

“In-effing-credible,” Mike responded. He glanced at the white-shirted supervisor who was digging for something in the back of the fridge. They waited for the rotund man to find what he needed and leave before continuing. “I wouldn’t be caught dead using a phrase like ‘that blew my mind,’ but I can’t think of any better expression for what happened to us.”

Carl clapped him on the back. “I don’t like giving too many details away to virgins. Adventure is in the exploration.” He grinned wisely.

“Could you…,” Mike glanced around, “get some more of that? Becky wants to try it one more time.”

The wise grin morphed into concern. “You sure? I thought this was a one time deal?”

“We’re making it a two time deal. Becks has been down for the past while and I think the other night really took a load off.”

“Okay, but you guys need to be careful. Flight isn’t addictive in the physical sense. But it is in the mental sense.” He pushed a stiff finger against his temple. “Especially for people who are trying to escape reality. But … I’m not one to deny anybody a goodtime. After all, life is all about impulse and satisfying those impulses, am I right?”

Such philosophical ideas were beyond Mike. Life is all about impulses? “Sure, sounds good. So you’ll do it?”

“For you, buddy? The world.”


The second time was better than the first. They planned ahead, mapping out everything they wanted to try. She wanted to see the wonders of the world. But not the current wonders–anyone could grab a National Geographic and see the Great Wall or the Pyramids. She wanted to stroll through the Hanging Gardens of ancient Babylon and climb the lighthouse of Alexandria and sit on Zeus’ lap like some gargantuan Santa Clause.

And they did all that. They even had time to throw red rocks a hundred miles across the surface of Mars and watch the Earth rise from the moon. The reality of the Earthrise was so vivid and breathtaking that tears built in Becky’s eyes. Mike could almost see the changes taking place in his fiancée as the white-blue swirl broke the moon’s horizon.


“You should see if Carl can get some more Flight,” Becky said the next morning as casually as a Sunday drive.

“I don’t know, Beck. Carl said we could get addicted.”

“Addicted? I thought you said that stuff was safe?”

“It is. But if you recall, this was a one time thing.”

She nodded. Her gaze dropped to her hands, and the old darkness seemed to slide over her. “I suppose you’re right.”


“OB can take you out of yourself in more ways than one,” Carl warned. Mike sat on the visitor’s side of a mahogany desk in Carl’s spacious office. He’d been promoted again, putting him three levels above Mike on the totem. “Like I told you, life is about impulses. If she had continued on her merry way, ignorant to the little green pill, she’d be fine. All of her impulses would be satisfied. But oh wait, something new and amazing comes along and she’s no longer satisfied. Funny, huh?”

“Not really.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, buddy. Tell her I’m dry. My guy is all out. The feds busted him. Whatever, just tell her you can’t get anymore.” He sat back in his leather chair, and pushed the fingertips of each hand together. “Problem solved.”

“You think?”

“Yep. I told you, OB isn’t physically addictive. Before long, she’ll forget all about it. You’ll be saying ‘Remember the time we flew together?’ in weeks.”

Hope rose in Mike. Carl was right, of course. After all, he’s a bright guy.


When he told Becky the news–Carl’s supply got pinched, so no more Flight–she peered at him for a long time. He wasn’t a good liar. She smiled, conveyed her disappointment, and agreed that it was for the best.

Secretly, Mike shook his head at their role reversal. Hadn’t she always been the levelheaded decision maker in the relationship? When he had decided to buy a new car, she talked him out of it with calm reason, pointing out that his current car was paid off and running well. Why take on a car payment? For new and shiny? What about the future? Starting a family, she had said in a not so subtle hint, takes a lot of dough.

And here he was, worried he’d find her in a back alley somewhere, clutching a handful of lime-green pills. Ridiculous.

He embraced her in a full-bodied hug, and whispered in her ear, “I love you.”
“I know you do, Waltz.”


Work got busy, and even though they weren’t together as much as either would like, Becky’s good mood endured. She let Mike hold her at night, she focused on preparing a different gourmet meal on the weekends and every so often they would make love in the shower.

A full month passed before the prophecy was fulfilled.

They were driving home from steaks and drinks at Prime Cuts when Becky, staring at the moon, said, “Remember when we flew and watched the Earth rise?”

“How could I forget?”


Another month came and went, as did the season. With the first snow of winter, Mike wasn’t surprised to find the office nearly deserted. He went to his cubicle, logged into the system and started filtering his e-mails.

Not more than ten-minutes later, someone knocked on the carpeted wall behind him.

“Hey, Mike,” Pauline, the head of his department, said. Her stout frame filled the only exit.

“Morning, Pauline. What’s up?”

“Snow day,” she exclaimed, and her arms shot over her head as if she were declaring the field goal good. “The plow company that handles Mercer County has their trucks in Hastings. I guess the storm hit really bad over there. And since half our office lives in Mercer, and none of them can get out of their driveways, the benevolent whip-crackers on the tenth floor decided to give us poor souls who trudged our way to work the day off, too.”


“What the heck are you still doing here? Go home.” She shooed him with both hands. “Go on, get.” She laughed and disappeared to spread the word.

Mike barely remembered to log out of the computer before hurrying to the parking garage. The prospect of some alone time at home motivated him to weave through traffic and grey slushes of snow.

He slowed as he rounded the sign reading Fairfield. They had chosen a good neighborhood. After an exhaustive search, they had finally settled here because the properties were larger than average. The houses were smaller, but big enough for the two of them, plus a couple of kids. If needed. They hadn’t really talked about kids, yet. Becky wanted them, he knew, and so did he, but they had never openly admitted it to each other.

Mike turned left onto Saw Mill Lane, and spotted his house. A part of him had worried Becky would be home. As a daycare teacher, she often got released early on those random days parents were forced to stay home with their children–such as snow days. But today he was lucky. No lights were on.

The tires lost traction and slid diagonally, almost pitching him into the yard. A thin layer of ice covered the driveway. That’s what I get for shoveling in a hurry, he scolded himself.

He shut the car off, and walked through the snow lining the driveway so he wouldn’t slip. When he opened the back door, a rush of warm air invited him in, and he breathed in the scent of home.

Looking at the neat arrangement of photos hanging on the breakfast nook wall, he almost felt guilty for being there without Becky. He recalled her careful planning when choosing where to place each picture and which frame to hang it in. The pictures were in four neat rows of four pictures each, forming a mosaic-like square. Some pictures were of them at the beach, on top of a skyscraper, vacation in Baja. But a few, scattered in strategic locations for the sake of art, were black-and-white prints of Ansel Adam’s work in Yellowstone.

He pulled his collar open, made a sandwich, grabbed a beer from the back of the fridge, and plopped his happy ass on the couch. It’s only ten-thirty, he marveled. But, of course, the satellite’s out. Storm must’ve moved the dish again.

There was too much snow and ice on the roof to fix it, so he cranked the stereo instead. He put on his favorite Chili Peppers album, but after listening to a couple of songs while staring at a blank television, that grew old. He considered calling Becky at work, but thought better. If she wasn’t home, she was probably knee deep in toddlers.

Time alone wasn’t as much fun as he expected.

He decided to change out of his work clothes and into his sweat pants; maybe do some exercises. He flexed his buttocks as he walked, wondering when the last time he had lifted anything heavier than a ream of paper was.

When he walked into the bedroom, he paused at the sight of an unmade bed. Becky never left the house without making it. Not once since they moved in together. The comforter was pulled up to pillows that still held concave divots from where their heads had lain. Mike’s heart froze when the comforter began shifting. A tired moan followed. Becky? He grabbed the end of the comforter and whipped it off, revealing the disheveled lump of pale skin and auburn hair that was Becky. She still wore her pajamas, her arms and legs writhed slowly as if she were dreaming about trying to escape a tar pit, and she clutched a medicine bottle in one hand. Mike’s first thought was that she must be sick.

He pried the bottle from her fingers without waking her. He figured he could tell what was wrong by what she had taken, but the label was peeled away, leaving only a sticky residue.

He shook her. “Becky, wake up, I’m home. Becky.”

Her eyes floated open.

“Hey, are you alright?”

She reached an arm to his face and patted it as if she didn’t believe he was real.

“Do I need to call nine-one-one?” He tried to keep the worry out of his voice, and tried to pretend he didn’t already know what was wrong.

She smiled, reminding him of the blissfully ignorant grin babies have when they poop themselves. Her hand fell back to the bed, and her lips moved. Nothing came out at first, but little-by-little, words formed, then sentences and finally, a coherent thought.

“What you doing home … Waltz?” she said in a drunken voice.

“Tell me you’re sick.”

Her eyes wandered around the room, lost. “Sick? Not sick. I feel better than ever. Why? Are you sick?”

Rage was building near the surface. She was high. If Mike were younger and down with the lingo, he’d say she had just landed. “Where’d you get them, Beck?”

“What?” she blurted. “I already told you I’m not sick.”

“The pills,” he screamed, surprising himself. Becky didn’t seem to notice.

“I don’t have any pills. Why would I have pills?”

He continued yelling, far beyond any kind of rational behavior. “Then what the hell are these?” Mike opened the medicine bottle, and spilled at least six tiny green footballs on the bed next to her. “Don’t lie, either. I want to know.”

A semblance of clarity returned to her eyes as she sat up. Her ears glowed with shame. “I didn’t know where else to go…”

“Becks. Please.”

“Carl,” she said with disdain. The rage in Mike died, and from the ashes came fear and sorrow. Carl. His friend. His confidant. And the way she said his name. It was like she was saying ‘Don’t expect me to stop, either.’

“You’ve been seeing Carl?” Just then, he flashed back to a time when his high school girlfriend admitted to dating him so she could get closer to his older brother.

“So. It’s just once in a while. I deserve to let loose once in a while.”

His entire body convulsed. He wanted to heave and cry, scream and punch, hate and die all at the same time. He wanted to burn the house down, but he also wanted to crawl beneath it and never come out. He looked at her, his eyes hot with tears, and she looked away. He stared until she caved and glanced back. Her eyes softened. The old, beautiful, caring Becky was still in there. Somewhere.

“I’m sorry, Mike. Frank died and you’re always working and I thought I could handle it, I mean, I was handling it, right? You had no idea, and it’s been weeks. And I … I …” Her face paled, and he could see a mental struggle occurring within her. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I need to go back.” She picked two pills off the bed, swallowed them without remorse, and laid back. “Frank’s there, you know.”

“I know.”

“Come with me. You remember how beautiful it was? Remember watching the Earth rise?”

Mike couldn’t help but cry. How long had she been hiding this? Worse yet, how did he not notice? This wasn’t the person he had proposed to. This wasn’t the Becky who had become more than just part of his life, but the whole thing. That Becky was gone. A stranger lay in his bed.

“It comes faster now,” she said from a dream, and slipped away.

Mike cried until his body couldn’t produce another drop. Then he sat and watched her face as she slept–as she flew. She would wake up eventually, but not really. She’d never really be free. Once you experience a world like the one Flight offered, this one seemed almost painful in comparison.

He wrote a note on an index card, and took his time to find the perfect message for when she woke up. He wanted to be clear so she wouldn’t be confused. When he was finished, he placed it on her nightstand and turned the lamp on so she couldn’t miss it. Even if she didn’t come back until it was dark. It was important that she understand what he had done.

Mike tucked Becky into the comforter, leaving her arms exposed so she wouldn’t get too hot. He kissed her on the forehead, the nose, and the mouth. She was stiff and distant, and she would always feel that way now.

He gathered the remaining pills and set them next to his note. He then walked around the bed, lay next to his fiancée, and took her hand in his.

With his free hand, he quickly swallowed two of the pills he had kept for himself. The excitement of that first night built in him. He closed his eyes and thought about all the things he would do when he got there–when he flew with Becky.

And then he waited.


Dear Becky,

I’d go with you anywhere.

Catch you on the moon,



Tagged with: , ,
Posted in 2012, Fiction, Romance
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