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Back To School, Flying Birds

In the past, Jay Hougart enjoyed first days, the most important being the first day of the fall semester, but the first day after winter break was also significant. This year, with his arm in a sling, and a nagging cold to boot, Jay was not feeling as chirpy as he knew he could have been. The pain in his shoulder was a constant nag, never going away, and if he took the meds his doctor in Boston prescribed him, he felt loopy and not as sharp as he knew he needed to be. Simple things like opening the door and carrying two things at once took on new perspective. At home, Laura had to cut his food for him.

He was more than a little pleased with the reaction of his students, though. One measure shock, two measures concern with a splash of love and a drop of hero worship actually, plainly expressed on the faces of the students got him feeling better by the end of the day. Jay took comfort in that validation. They do love me, he thought, which was not always as important as they do learn from me, but which today helped assuage the throbbing pain.

After second period, his advisee, Craig, hung around after class.

“Did you have a good holiday, son?” Jay asked.

Craig nodded. “So do you need a hand with anything?”

Jay was sitting on the edge of the classroom’s large round table. “Actually, could you erase the board for me?”

“No problem,” Craig said, heading toward the antique black board. He clapped the two felt erasers together and wiped them through Hougart’s introduction to Macbeth’s principal characters. “So how did it happen? If you don’t mind me asking.”

Jay watched Craig methodically move across the board and decided he would not play it down, as he had for his colleagues. For some reason, he felt the urge to tell Craig the absolute truth. “I took the dog out and I slipped on some ice. Went down like a sack of potatoes.”

Craig turned around wearing an expression of empathy. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Hougart. That really sucks.”

“It does suck. And it really hurts.”

“Right now?”

Jay nodded. “A throbbing pain. But it reminds me that I am alive.”

Craig finished wiping down the board. “Do you need anything else?”

“No, that’s fine. You better get going.”

Craig said, “Yes, sir,” and collected his bag. Students from the next class began to trickle in and Jay shook the sentimentality out of his head and focused on the lesson he was to deliver.

At lunch time, Jay did not go to the cafeteria to join the community. He trudged back across the JV boys lacrosse field and sat down in his kitchen. Laura was in Cambridge for the day, so the house was empty, but for Bailey, who was surprised to see him. “Do you need to go out?” Jay asked. Bailey stood, yawned deep and shook himself. “All right, boy, let’s go.”

Jay walked around back and Bailey followed, going to the shrubs. The sun was strong, the sky bright blue. Ice melted, dripping everywhere. The snow was thinning for the moment, but that night it would freeze again. Jay glared at the spot where he had slipped a week ago.

Meanwhile, Craig was also skipping lunch. He had gone back to his room and changed into thermal tops and bottoms. He felt the need to stretch his wings.

The grounds were quiet during school hours, as most of the students were in the main building, so he didn’t come across many others on his walk across campus. He went down the hill past the hockey ponds, through the entrance in the pines that lead to the cross country course, towards the stables. They no longer housed horses, but the name had stuck. Instead, various sports equipment were stored there, among them a selection of Pelican and Seagull glider machines.

Craig selected his favorite, a gray Pelican 360, and pulled it out into the field, servo legs moving slowly to conserve energy, wings tucked close. It was about ten feet long, with a hatch that opened up into the cockpit. He lay down inside the bubble and felt the leg straps feeling for his ankles and snugging close. His Invisilens began to communicate with the Pelican’s computer, and weather information, wind speed, altitude took their place as dials in his outer vision. Lying belly down on the bed, he took hold of the arm pulleys and the transparant cockpit door closed shut and sealed. The exoskeleton of the Pelican was made of plastic layers, with a super light gas injected inbetween to help offset weight. Before taking off, Craig needed to prime the bird’s spring coil, which he did by kicking his legs as if he were swimming the crawl, and curling his arms while holding the pulley handles, transfering energy. On his head’s up display, he saw the potential torque growing in a Packman disc that soon closed its mouth all the way and then changed from red to green to bright green.

By this time, Craig was sweating through his long sleeved thermals, but the excitement of a flight was growing inside him and he was eager to take off. He released the break and the Pelican began waldling off down the field, wings flapping. As the Pelican sped up to a run, the wing force increased, using power from the spring coil. Craig watched the pie chart diminish from green to red and topped up the power, pulling hard. Soon he was feeling the sense of weightlessness that happened right before take off. With plenty of brown field grass in front of him, the Pelican tucked its legs away as Craig gave five good beats to raise his altitude before engaging the spring coil so he could rest a bit. At a comfortable 100 feet, he glided towards Standish main campus, kicking his legs, watching the grounds pass beneath him. As he crossed the road he turned left with a combination of pully manipulation and body weight adjustment. He flew over the JV Boys Lacrosse field and was surprised to see Hougart crane his head backwards and give a short wave.

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