The Balsa Airplane

The girl wound the rubber band propeller of the balsa wood airplane. She examined the small aircraft: the right wing had a small chunk missing, the red propeller was gouged deeply, and the thin line of the belly was splintered. She looked sidelong at her little brother, his eyes wide.

“Can I throw this one?” he asked.

“You just threw it, like five throws ago.”

“Yea, but you threw more than me.” The girl held his blue eyes in hers until he bowed his head, trying to concentrate on the dinosaurs that ran up and down the sleeves of his shirt. Her red hair burned in the glowing sun and her eyes didn’t move from the top of his head. Her long finger wound the propeller.

“Of course I threw more than you. I throw it better.”

“Yea, but I just want to throw it. Mom said to let me throw it sometimes.”

“Fine, you can throw this next one. Just don’t break it or anything. Just throw it across the grass there, not toward the trees, or the school, or the playground. Just throw it that way,” she pointed at the open field.

She stretched her hands out, her right supporting the wooden fuselage and the left holding the steady tension in the rubber band. “Take it!” she yelled.

The boy’s hands shot clumsily forward. She jammed the plane towards them. For a moment, the propeller unwound, whirring open and sending the rubber band’s energy into the ether.

“You idiot! Hold the plane! You need to hold the propeller!” The boy stood with the plane in his upraised hands as she spun the propeller back to full power. She crossed her arms and looked out across the patch of grass. “Throw it you spaz. Hurry up!”

He loaded his arm back and released the tension in the propeller. The plane whirled past his ear and ahead of his hand, his small body unable to keep up with the physics of the vehicle. It flew wildly from his hand, gaining altitude at a high angle and floating toward the line of trees that bordered the schoolyard. It climbed nearly vertically, rolling over on its right side as it drifted toward the tall pines. It pulled a rolling backflip, dove toward the ground for a moment, then shot upward, higher than the trees, where it’s rubber band power was exhausted. It stalled, and fluttered like a dead bird into the upper reaches of a strong pine.

“You are an idiot!”

The girl broke into a run across the yard and leaped into the tree. Her lithe body moved upward, as if being drawn on a string. Her feet pranced off one branch, then another as she made her choreographed ascent. Halfway up the tree, she turned and looked down at the boy who stood below her.

“You coming up or what?”

The boy didn’t answer. The girl snapped her head around, her fiery pony tail lashing out behind her as she scaled the tree higher. Her freckled face was round, not chubby, but solidly round. Her hands, although thin, were strong for a child of nine, and her quiet coldness was that of a woman who scoffs at smudged silverware.

“Come on,” she hissed at the boy. Her eyes grew wider and sharper. “Mom will see you if you’re just standing there. Either climb up here, or go away! Go hide around the corner of the school before Mom comes out!” Her eyes held his.

The boy kicked at the ground and the smooth skin around his eyes grew puffy. He swung his arms, seeking solace in the dinosaurs. Finding none there, he turned around, hoping to find another child, or an adult, or anyone else in the schoolyard.

“What are you doing?!”

The girl caught glimpses of his tortured, reddening face through the pine needles; she refused to release him.

“Do something! Just go away!” the girl cried from above. She heaved an animal sigh and sent an unspeakable word down to her brother. When he heard it, his nervous motion halted and his eyes swelled. He rubbed his shirt sleeve across his face; a green triceratops with a toothy smile soaked in his quiet tears. Noiselessly, he turned from the base of the tree and ran toward the school.

The girl watched him enter the heavy double doors before turning back toward the plane. She climbed, her body being supported by thinner and thinner branches as she reached the upper canopy. The thinning trunk began to sway with her weight, gently leaning away from the breeze before snapping supply back upright. The canopy of thin needles obscured her view of the plane, and the sun rained in on her through fluttering gaps. Her strong fingers reached out to the plane, hung on a tuft of green needles; she nudged the red propeller that lay just out of reach. The wind swam softly through her red hair, floating it into her eyes. Her fingers nudged the red propeller again. She wedged her foot higher into a small branch and pushed.

“Alexandra! You had better not be where I think you are!” her mother’s voice rang up from below. She was unseen at the base of the tree, but the girl could picture her: her brown hair was swept back, exposing the dangling, gold earrings. The neckline of her modest shirt plunged, exposing her ornate necklace. And she yelled through her thin lips without her face moving much.

“Get down here right now!”

The young boy stood at his mother’s side, looking into the tree that had swallowed up his sister. The delicate skin around his eyes was red and swollen.

The girl felt a slight sway in the tree. She pushed harder into her foothold. Her body tensed as she floated with the breeze toward the balsa wood plane. In the next moment, she reached it and was flying along with it. The upper bough broke with a silent crack, and the red haired girl fell through the thin branches of green needles. She rolled sideways over the first thick branch she encountered, then plummeted headfirst past another. Her legs struck the trunk beside her, and she turned over. Her mother screamed and her brother held his breath as the limbs moved above them. She came tumbling into sight, legs scraping branches and her free hand grasping at air. Her body rolled over, her back arched over a thick, low branch, and her trembling legs found another. She stuck there like a piece of bologna on the cafeteria floor.

“Alexandra! Are you alright!? Alexandra, say something!”

The girl pulled herself up, tears rolling rapidly from her eyes. Pine needles clung to her hair as she swung down from the low canopy and into the arms of her mother.

Their mother drove in silence, her thin lips pursed.

“How are you feeling? Your back doesn’t hurt too much?” She rubbed the girl’s back and caressed her scratched, stinging arms.

“I’m okay,” the girl whispered as she looked out of the passenger window.

“Ok, we’ll get home and give you some ibuprofen and put some ice on it. And we’ll get all those little scrapes cleaned up.” Her mother cast a glance toward her before pulling through a stop sign. “It will be ok.”

The boy sat in the back seat, his eyes cast forward through the front windshield. As his fingers ran silently over the broken body of the balsa airplane, he found himself wishing that something else had happened. He wondered, for the first time in his life, what it would be like if he didn’t have an older sister.

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