A few moments with a stranger at a random stop, a sleeve of photographs, a small moment taken for granted with a loved one. Small objects, small moments, all leading to deeply felt change. This is the hub of "No Matter the Reality."
This collection of three short stories revolves around the little things. Even though these stories are in the middle of big events, they seek to be small in scale and in time to draw attention to how little things make a big impact
The checkpoint sat on the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland. It was a standard. Every Transatlantic and Circum-nav class race set a checkpoint there because it was so dramatic. There were grey cliffs towering over the grey Atlantic, with an emerald green oasis on top. They were always cloaked in a thin mist from the waves crashing into the cliff walls. Spectacular. The first time Starla Jones landed there the first official she contacted joked that if you happened to fall off you should look to your right, so you could watch the most breathtaking sunset in the western hemisphere during your ninety foot drop to death.READ MORE
Looking out into white nothingness Starla pointed her Stingray Glider toward the checkpoint's orange flags. They were nearly imperceptible in the early morning light. At least, it would be to all but the Sky Racers in their nuclear gliders. She spotted the little tangerine flicker through the clouds just after sunrise. She would have known it was coming sooner if she didn't insist on flying "natural". That is, without the electronic positioners and beacons everyone else used. That was how Zip did it. That was how she did it. To her, doing things like Zip was like using "the force." Not that it did her any good. Starla had never placed higher than forty-third in a sky race.
“Better than fifty,” her Pops would say every time she came back from a run exhausted and grumpy about her terrible stats.
“Not by much,” her Mums would say. Mums didn’t want her daughter involved in “suicidal pleasure runs.” She didn't just object to flying at ten-thousand feet in a mini nuclear reactor, she had gotten the idea in her head that the check points were just stages for giant pagan orgies or something like that.
"Not when you're forty third place and sleep in your glider, Mums," Starla would joke. Maybe Mums was right, she'd never know it. She had no idea what happened before she got there. When she showed up, all the lights except the little landing strips and the lighted beacons were put up. Forty third place meant you got the last spots in the camp ground, if it even made sense to sleep. Sleeping at forty third place meant you probably missed all the press and the official morning takeoff. Not to mention breakfast. Starla had spent many mornings taking hurried shots of go-juice after only a few hours of sleep just to get a tiny lead on what she had the day before. The whole point of the checkpoints was to cause the possibility of the riotous upset, the real underdog taking the lead under insurmountable odds. It made video coverage better, upped the viewership. Starla had been told many times that she ruined her chances by pushing too hard, but it was just in her nature.
Still better than fifty. If you're number fifty they might have assumed you gave up and went home. At fifty you might as well go home, no one cared whether you finished or not. Well, maybe the stats guys, but they would be mostly doing it to show everyone how safe it really was, and that the odds of dying in a glider race were insignificant.
Even then Starla would be touching down. It was the way she was, no matter the reality.
Starla tensed for the approach. She was on the balls of her feet crouched on the top of her 4400 Calitech Stingray. It was a short C class glider. That meant it was made for quick turning and for stunt work. She made sure it was sea green, the same color of her eyes. It was silly, but she thought it would look better on the cereal boxes if there was a kind of design appeal to her glider. It was way too short even if it wasn't the wrong kind. It should have been a few feet taller than she was from nose to tail. She had bought it before her growth spurt, so it was the same five foot nothing that she was. It was bad because she couldn't sprawl out on top of the glider so that she could reduce wind resistance.
If she weren't going transatlantic she would have gone barefoot, but the thin boxer's boots she wore worked well enough. She liked to feel the wind. It was a spiritual experience. She could feel the wind lashing around the underside of the glider like waves. She could sense the perfect moment to descend. She gripped the controls and settled one foot on each wing before releasing the controls from the body of the glider.
The handles came loose attached by long cables that connected to the flaps. Slowly she stood up, feeling the force field gradually adjust to her new height. She always loved this position. She felt like she was riding a great dragon with a foot on each shoulder, her hands clutching the reigns. With a little flick of her wrists the flaps broke free of their cruising position allowing her to slow and drop toward the little speck of color below.
She made a shaky arc to the right, then yanked herself in a harsher turn to the left, continuing in S curves downward toward her target. She always started her descent too late, which left her scrambling to avoid overshooting the checkpoint. She had to be a little extreme to do what she wanted. So the best part of her racing was always the dismount.
Just above the little tent Starla pulled up on her tethers as hard as she could, causing the glider to flip. Before it completely lost lift, she slammed the power panel with her foot disintegrating the force field and stopping the jets. She hung from the tethers as the glider floated straight down like a parachute.
The soil crunched under her feet as she landed. She slammed a button, collapsing her glider before it could catch the wind and fly off like a giant kite, then strapped it to her back. Like always, the solid ground felt strange after a day in the sky. She took her time lumbering over to the official race tent to check-in, fighting her long blonde hair all the way.
She couldn't help but notice the thousands of little ribbons and scraps of cloth set up on stakes across the edge of the cliff. People put them up for fallen racers. Starla had never seen so many.
And she had never seen a checkpoint so empty. Usually there were still mechanics and advertisers, officials and families of the racers, and, of course, those racers that had quit. The rookies always quit during their first Transatlantic flight.
All that was here was a lonely tent with a lone attendant. Starla fought to see through her long blond hair whipping the wrong way in the wind. It was a pain, but she couldn't cut it. The attendant was tipped back in his chair, with his feet on the table, twisting a long blade of grass into a little rope. He had a name tag made of folded plastic and a stick pin that said "Steve." He was so very interested in what he was doing that he didn't notice her at all. Then Starla noticed the tiny earbuds jammed into his ears. That damned cliff was too cold for her to wait in just her little racing jacket while he jammed out. Starla slapped the table hard, causing the attendant to jump.
"Jeezus!" the attendant, gasped, yanking out his left speaker, then recognized her and smiled sheepishly. "Hey! It's you! Finally!"
"Am I last?" Starla asked disappointedly. She had never been dead last. The thought clutched at her gut making her feel nauseous. Finally fiftieth, Mums.
“Technically you’re in no place. The race has been canceled, but we knew that you fly natural so they made me stick around to tell you. If you’re gonna fly blind you should at least turn on your ears.”
The attendant put away papers and folded up chairs as he spoke. His long hair kept getting in the way, making him shake his head to continue his task. It made him look worried as he rushed about.
"I’m surprised anyone‘s paying any attention to what I do… given that I don’t place well,” she mused. She had no idea the race officials cared. Steve looked up at that statement.
"A hotdog like you doesn't need to earn trophies to get attention. Why aren't you doing trick flying competitions instead of distance races? You'd be good. Besides, those Stingrays aren't made for this," he said, shoving a bunch of papers into a box.
"Tell that to Zip Derenger. He's had the same Ray glider since before there was any official racing," she scoffed.
Like everything else, if it was good for Zip it was good for her.
Zip Derenger was the father of sky racing. He was the first to turn a modified surf board into a nuclear powered flying machine and ride it like riding waves. He was the first one to fly across the Atlantic ocean, then first across the Pacific.
And he was the first one to tell her that she didn't need to cut her hair to race.
That was how she was able to convince her mother to let her buy a little Stingray. Her mother was very strict, very conservative, and very religious. It was a sin for a woman to look like a man. All the female racers had pixie cuts.
"Just like a man with lipstick. If they even bother with something like that," Mums scoffed.
It was Zip's word that pushed it over. If the guy who invented the sport said you didn't need to have short hair to fly, then how could she say he was wrong? Starla was able to get her glider the next day.
The attendant paused, looking pale. He stopped packing up his boxes and tables.
"Did... do you know Zip?" he asked.
She smiled and shook her head.
"No, but I met him once, got his autograph. He told me I could be a good racer someday." She smiled at the memory. "I'm sure he said that to all the kids but, you know..."
The attendant shook his head again. This time it wasn't to flick away a stray hair. He held her in a hard stare.
"You really need to turn your ears on when you race, kid," he said, his voice cracking slightly. He came out of the tent and cradled her hands in his.
"Zip died last night, just past the half-way point."
Starla felt the world go silent.
"He tried to fly the doldrums and his glider went down."
Blood pounded in her ears. She felt a little dizzy.
"But... no one flies the doldrums. He wouldn't..." she sputtered, trying to explain it all away.
But she couldn't. She was surrounded by thousands of fluttering ribbons. Each one a little banner saying the same thing: "He is dead." No wonder there were so many. Every race fan in Ireland must have put one there today.
The wind gusted through her long blond hair, flinging the ends like hundreds of little ribbons. She looked out over the ocean toward the next checkpoint that wasn't there anymore and she felt the tears overflow and slither down her cheeks. The rest of the race was being torn down. No, she was last, they were already packed up hours ago. Gone. Just like her dreams of flying with him, competing for the same place in the same race. Gone, just like Zip.
"Do you have some scissors?" Starla asked. The attendant found a pair and handed them to her. She grabbed a long lock of hair and cut it. She then threaded it through the handles on the scissors and stabbed the blades into the ground at the front of the field of offerings. The attendant didn't protest, just watched with tears in his eyes.
"Y'know... The race is only officially over. At least twenty other racers took off to finish in Zip's honor. It was only a few hours ago. Maybe you can catch them," the attendant suggested.
Starla sighed, then smiled to herself.
"I'd better get going then, shouldn't I?" she whispered, wiping the tears off her face. The attendant nodded.
Starla leaped into action. She pulled her radios out of her pocket shoving them in her ears. She slammed the button releasing the wings and swung it onto her back by the tethers.
The attendant watched with disbelief as she ran off of the cliff, just barely missing the sea of ribbons. She flipped upside down, pulling her feet straight to touch the glider, then kicked on the jets. She spun upright in a barrel roll then crouched down as the glider shot off toward the horizon.
The attendant breathed deep, then wiped his eyes with the palm of his hand before going back to his work.COLLAPSE