Grounded: A Short Story

Today I’m trying something a little different. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m writing a novel…but they say writing is like a muscle. You need to use it in order to improve. And so, to ensure I am working out regularly, I’m experimenting with a few short stories, which I’ll be posting here once a month. Some will be travel inspired, others not so travel themed, but hopefully they’ll all inspire you or make you smile. Here’s my first one. I hope you enjoy it…

Grounded: A Short Story by Elle Croft

She had always wanted just one thing in life: independence.

When she was two, she announced to her parents that she was moving out of home. She made it no further than the end of their curved driveway before running, crying fearfully, back to her laughing mother’s arms.

Apparently.

Her mum never let her live it down, although she couldn’t remember the incident at all.

Her memory, however, did stretch back to the time when, aged seven, she’d decided to cook herself dinner while her mum was busy sewing in the next room. Whenever she spied the shiny burn across her forearm she smiled wryly at the painful memory.

At thirteen, she would sneak out at night, not to cause mischief but simply to sample that thing called freedom; to reach out and touch the forbidden fruit, even though she couldn’t yet taste it. She’d wander to the pond at the end of her garden and watch the frogs leaping and the fireflies decorating the sky, and she’d dream about the places she’d go and the things that she would see, just as soon as she had her prize: independence.

At sixteen she went against her mother’s wishes and secured herself a job. She stacked shelves at a supermarket at night, and loved every second of it. As she shuffled tins of peas and litres of milk she could practically sense the swelling of her bank account. Her freedom was getting closer. With each shift it became more tangible, as though she could feel it crinkling between her fingers like the crisp packets she’d carefully rearranged. After each stacking session her Mum would be waiting outside the supermarket, nursing a hot coffee she’d brought from home. She’d try to look mad at her daughter for putting her through this regular ordeal, but she secretly felt a kind of personal pride in the work ethic she’d passed down to her only child.

Her friends constantly asked why she wasn’t coming to the cinema with them, why she always brought her own lunch when there was a perfectly good cafeteria at school. She explained it to them, but they didn’t understand. “But how do you know you want to be a pilot?” they’d ask. “You’ve never even been in a plane!” She didn’t have an answer. She just knew.

She’d spend lazy summer evenings staring at the patterns the planes left as they cross-crossed the sky and she pictured herself, free as the birds themselves, let loose from the restrictions of earth. Independent.

The evening of her accident she’d been buoyant, her bank account inflated to the very penny she’d planned for, a tidy bounty she’d take with her to university. Anything extra that she earned over summer would be a bonus, stored away for the second phase of her plan. But the second phase never began. Not after that tangle of metal and searing hot pain that ran up her legs, just for an excruciating moment before she stopped feeling things there forever. She often wondered, looking back, if she’d rather live with that pain or nothing at all. She never decided either way.

Dependence was the new normal for the girl who longed for nothing more than freedom. Eating. Sneezing. Showering. Tying her shoelaces. These little liberties, which once she’d thought nothing of, were now taken from her along with her dreams, her hopes, her future. Pilots needed bodies that could function. The skies were reserved for those who were unencumbered. Independent.

She still watched the planes when she could see through the haze of her saltwater eyes, but that soaring hope she’d once associated with the sight had been shot down to earth like a duck in hunting season. Her family and friends tried to cheer her up, but nothing lifted her spirits. Gravity had taken its toll on those too, it seemed.

Years passed and she worked harder than ever before, once again for independence. This time, though, she longed for what had once been hers. All those years she’d spent wishing and hoping, but she didn’t realise that she already had the one thing that she so desperately wanted: independence.

Her 21st birthday arrived and her friends and family gathered around her to celebrate her life and achievements. They clapped as she cut the cake with ease, and she beamed like a child as she ate a slice of caramel cheesecake unassisted, without dropping a crumb. Just that week she’d been promoted at work, and her bank account was once again puffed up like her mother’s pride for her. In just a few months she would be able to afford her own house, one with a special lift that would get her up and down the stairs, alone. She would be just a little bit more independent.

Grounded: A Short Story by Elle Croft

After the last guest had left, she watched the green balloons swaying as her mother handed her an envelope. “Happy birthday, darling. You deserve your dream.” Inside the card was a voucher for a hot air balloon experience. She stared at the voucher. “I know it’s not flying,” her mum said apologetically, “but it’s meant to be wonderful.”

Her mother’s face blurred and she looked away, embarrassed. “I love it,” she said. “Thank you.”

In the weeks that led to her skyward adventure, she spent hours imagining the weightless sensation she’d soon experience. She could almost feel the wind on her face, and she decided that balloon flight would be even better than a plane. This way, she’d be just like the birds. Unhindered by walls or windows. Free. Independent.

The day arrived and her stomach turned to jelly, wobbling inside her and making her feel ill. Her mum laughed and told her it was just nerves. She was documenting the day on her new toy, a shiny silver camera.

There was a whoosh of heat and sound as the flame in the balloon came alive, and she watched the silk gracefully billow, reaching for the sky, stretching, expanding, swelling like her anticipation. She ran her fingers over the edge of the basket and tried to memorise every sensation, every texture of the day. The basket jolted once, twice, and then ever-so-gently slid into the sky, as though it was trying to slip off the earth undetected. She felt a strange sensation in her stomach, like the jelly had all been dropped from the bowl at once. She clutched the side of her wheelchair and closed her eyes, breathing deeply in the hope that she would recover. Peering out of one eye, she spied a bird swishing past as a treetop descended out of sight. She was terrified.

When she looked at the photos later that afternoon, she laughed at the ghostly figure clinging to the arms of her chair, knuckles yellow with strain. “We weren’t even twenty feet up,” her mum teased gently. She rolled her eyes and nibbled a small piece of plain toast. It was all she’d managed to keep down after her stomach had transformed from dropped jelly to roaring waves. “Well,” she declared, “I never thought I’d say this, but gravity suits me just fine.”

She laughed with her mother for another few minutes until she felt well enough to leave. As she got into the car she’d saved for, the one that allowed her to drive alone, and steered towards the small ground-floor unit that she had rented the previous year and decorated by herself, she smiled. It had happened. Without her realising, it had happened. Crept up on her, really.

But here she was: happy. Free.

Independent.

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