One evening, after supper, while doing dishes in the kitchen, Zachary noticed his mother floating. His mother was washing, he was drying. He had dropped a fork and bent down to get it when he saw that his mother was about an inch off the floor. He looked up. Her face seemed fine. Same as ever. She was singing along with the radio. She didn’t know the words so she was singing: “Mmhmm, love, mmhmm, mmhmm.”
Zachary figured what he saw was a trick of the light. He lay down on his belly on the black and white tiles of the checkerboard linoleum for a closer look. No, her bare feet were definitely not touching the floor. He flattened his hand and passed it underneath her. The tiny hairs on the tops of his knuckles must have tickled her soles, for she looked down at him and smiled. “What are you doing down there?” she asked.
Zachary stood up fast, waving the fork. “Getting this,” he said.
“Well, give it to me,” said his mother. “I’ll wash it again.”
And he did.
But the next morning, when Zachary went downstairs, his mother was floating higher off the kitchen floor than she’d been the night before. A couple of feet higher. And that afternoon when she met him at school, she was floating that much higher off the sidewalk again than when she’d seen him off that morning. The other kids’ mothers didn’t come to get them at school any more, so Zachary usually walked ahead of his mother until they both turned the corner. Then he’d let her take his hand.
Today, though, although he stretched way up and she bent way down — in fact for one dizzy spinning moment, she somersaulted upside down and then back to right-side up — they couldn’t reach. They couldn’t get their hands to touch. When that happened, his mother opened her purse and threw her wallet down to Zachary. Zachary took it and ran into the corner store where he bought a roll of white string. Back outside, he bit the plastic covering off, spit it into the street, and scrabbled for the end of the string. He grabbed a piece of flinty blue rock out of the gutter and tied the string around it, using a slipknot he’d learned at Boy Scouts. Then he threw the rock up to his mother. She caught it, undid it, and put the piece of rock in her purse. And then, using only her right hand, she tied the string around her left wrist. It took her some time. She blew him a kiss when she was finished.
“Is it double-knotted?” Zachary called.
“It’s double-knotted!” said Zachary’s mother. She laughed and pointed at his undone sneakers. Sheepish, Zachary grinned. He turtle-hunched on the uneven sidewalk — bum set firmly on the roll of string, tongue between teeth — and retied his laces. A lone blade of grass was growing out of a crack in the cement.
They headed home, his mother trailing Zachary like a balloon. By the time they got there, she was more like a kite. Too high up to get in the house. Zachary tugged on the string for a while, trying to pull her down out of the sky, but each time he tugged, she seemed to float up that much higher. So he stopped.
Zachary made dinner while his mother hovered outside. He liked being the one in charge for a change. He prepared foods that were good to throw. Boiled eggs and bagels. He took them outside and threw his mother an egg. She peeled it and sprinkled the eggshell on him, for a joke. After that, he tossed a bagel way up beside her; she caught it on her index finger and spun it around a couple of times before eating it. For the finale, Zachary threw her a container of chocolate milk.
“Good one!” called his mother approvingly. “This serves as both a beverage and a delicious dessert!”
When he went in for the night, he had to leave the kitchen door open a crack for the string. He had to unwind it some more as he made his way up the stairs. Inside his bedroom, he stuck the roll of string on one of his bedposts. He thought he’d skip his bath, since his mother couldn’t see what he was doing inside the house. But when he stuck his head outside the window to say good night, she called down to him. “I can still see eggshells in your hair!” she said. “Have you washed?”
Zachary had to admit he hadn’t. He took the roll of string with him into the bathroom, unwinding it even more. He couldn’t risk leaving it.
He went back to the window with wet hair.
“Good, now get in bed,” his mother called. “And I’ll sing you to sleep.” She sang the song from the radio, the one without words. “Mmhmm, love, mmhmm, mmhmm,” she sang.
Zachary hummed along until he fell asleep.
Every so often during the night he heard the roll spin around the bedpost as his mother drifted further into the sky.
The next morning he couldn’t throw the food high enough. He stood in the backyard, trying to throw an apple up to her but it kept plummeting back to earth. The air smelled of bruised apple; his tears tasted like salt. Zachary threw the apple into the air again and again until, finally, it hit the chimney and exploded. At that, he collapsed onto the lawn and pushed his face into the dirt.
“Don’t worry, baby!” his mother called. Faint and faraway. “The birds will feed me now. They’ll feed me seeds and…”
Something else; he couldn’t hear. Worms?
A robin lifted off the roof with a piece of apple in its beak. Soaring toward his mother. He could hardly see her now. A shadow against the sun. He looked down at his hands; the roll of string was almost completely unwound. Zachary shot into the house, desperate for something to anchor her.
The heavy armchair in the living room. There was just enough string to go around the fattest part. He went outside and yelled up to his mother to tell her; if she answered, he couldn’t hear it. As he stepped back inside, the chair moved to meet him. It slid out of the living room, across the kitchen floor, and slammed against the back door. The frame buckled.
His mother’s scarf was hanging on a hook. Zachary grabbed it and tied it around one of the armchair’s stubby legs.
Zachary’s hands gripped the end of the scarf so tightly that his fingernails bit into his palms. When the door gave way, Zachary was already running. The armchair hovered a foot or so off the ground as he headed for the highest point in town, a hill three streets over.
Zachary ran up the crooked sidewalk. At first the armchair hovered low beside him, then it pulled ahead of him and rose higher. The scarf began to stretch tight. By the time Zachary got to the top of the hill his arms reached straight up over his head. He panted for air; he couldn’t bend over. He stood straighter than he’d ever stood before. He stretched higher, until he was standing on the tips of his toes. Then Zachary was suspended an inch off the ground, and he looked up for his mother.
He couldn’t really see her. All she was, if that was her, was a smudge in the sky. Still, he thought he could hear her calling to him. He thought he could hear her saying: “Let go, Zachary! Let go!”
He wasn’t sure. It would be a lie to say he knew, absolutely, that’s what she said.
He let go.
The armchair flew up. The scarf snapped in the wind. The tail end of it fluttered.
He watched it all go. The speck that was his mother, the string, the armchair, and the scarf.
Was there a place in the sky where his mother would stop?
He walked to the library and checked out some books. Books about science. He lay down on the lawn and opened the first book. It said there was a blanket of air around the earth that kept everything tucked in. If that were true, then his mother wouldn’t be able to break through that blanket. She could rest up there, with her back pressed against it. Like lying down to go to sleep, only in reverse. He liked to think of her that way.
But the books were wrong about the thing they called gravity. So maybe they were wrong about other things, too. And maybe his mother would float up to the moon. Or maybe his mother would float past it. What would she see out there? Could the birds fly that far to feed her?