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       A Pair of Wings for Christmas, p.1

           Rene Natan
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A Pair of Wings for Christmas
A Pair of Wings for Christmas

  (A small tribute to the centennial of the first powered flight)

  Copyright © 2012 Rene Natan

  All Rights Reserved.

  Contact: [email protected]

  A Pair of Wings for Christmas

  Borgobello, Michigan

  Fall 2003

  Kendrick Malloy plodded along Newton Road, dragging one foot after the other. Life was full of miseries; he would receive no more subsidies from the Detroit Unemployment Agency.

  With a smirk on his face, as if he knew how much he hated any work, the employee at the agency had said, “I have a job just made for you, Mr. Malloy. You told me you like driving. There is an opening for a chauffeur. A Mrs. Lockhart needs a driver. She lives in Borgobello, a beautiful place in the country, 25 miles from the city limits.”

  What nerve! Kendrick loved to feel the wind on his face and arms while speeding away in a convertible; he loved to race cars; he even liked to participate in farming equipment competitions…but wearing a monkey suit and a funny hat? It was out of his league. “Don’t you have anything else?” he’d asked in an undertone.

  “Yes, we have an opening for a cook’s assistant with the same family.” The smirk hadn’t left the guy’s face. “But you’d need credentials for that job—and your resumé doesn’t show any.”

  Of course not. Cooking was for women.

  Kendrick sighed at the memory of that last meeting. He’d had no choice but to accept the job, and here he was sweating his way to Borgobello on an empty road. He looked around. Large, well-paved driveways streamed off the road, disappearing into manicured gardens or secretive woods. Seldom could one spot a house; most mansions were well sheltered from curious bystanders. The neighborhood had money to spare—maybe some would rub off on him.

  He unfolded the map he held in his hands and checked his position. The Lockhart estate was just on the other side of the crossing ahead; he could already see the brick wall surrounding the vast property. He sighed with relief. Walking wasn’t his favorite pastime—and he’d hitched a ride only for three-quarters of the distance. He finally reached the stop sign. A truck was approaching from the left; a kid stood across the road holding onto a dog, waiting for the vehicle to go by.

  Then it happened. The dog sprang free and the kid chased after the dog. Kendrick heard a shriek of brakes as he leaped into the road. With one powerful thrust he propelled the dog against the kid and carried them both to safety.

  With a horrifying bang the truck smashed into the brick wall. A smell of burning diesel filled the air as Kendrick landed on the shoulder.

  He heard voices and felt a crunch on the left side of his body; then a grinding of muscles and organs replaced the crunch. His strength fading away, he closed his eyes.

  When he reopened them, a man was kneeling beside him saying something about an ambulance as he unbuttoned his shirt and loosened his belt. Kendrick wanted to ask about the kid, whether he was safe; but he couldn’t, since torpor was taking hold of his entire body. And in no time he succumbed to the unbearable pain.

  There were beds left and right, and a nurse stood close to him. Bright lights were turned on. There was glare, and then more glare until the place became a big globe immersed in blinding light. The nurse bent over him and screamed, “Stay with me, stay with me! Don’t let go!” And then, “Help! I’m losing him! Help!”

  Kendrick made an effort to keep his eyes open as the brilliance of the room washed away, giving place to a velvet haze. Again he heard the nurse shouting, “Help!” Then, “I think I lost him.”

  A voice from far away howled, “Give him ephedrine!” And a mask was thrust over his mouth and nose.

  Kendrick inhaled as the room became darker and darker…

  Up Above

  Banks of fog shifted rapidly and clouds were everywhere. The place had a keen smell—mint, Kendrick identified without hesitation, and he looked around for a plant. He expected to see at least something green. There was nothing of the sort.

  From the clouds emerged a slender figure of medium height, with spiky hair and slanted eyes. “I am Xiao Chang, your guide. I’ve been waiting for you.” He made an about-face and flapped two wings in front of Kendrick. “You see I am missing only a few feathers? I have to do only a couple of good deeds before Christmas to gain the status of angel and be able to fly. Look in the mirror to see how many feathers you have.”

  Kendrick laughed—a mirror? The place had no furniture!

  Xiao turned Kendrick’s shoulders and said, “Look!”

  Reflected on a silver cloud was his image: he had only the skeletons of wings covered by a handful of feathers. Astonished, Kendrick flapped his wings then looked at Xiao. “Are we… dead?” he murmured, afraid of pronouncing those fatal words.

  Xiao laughed. “Of course! We died in the same accident. You saved the life of a kid and a dog; I pulled the truck driver out of his cabin. When the truck exploded, the debris killed me, but the man was safe, sheltered by my body.” He seemed proud of what had happened. “So now we qualify to become guardian angels. As such, we’ll be able to go back to earth in one capacity or another.”

  Kendrick shot him a curious look. “Where did you learn to speak so funny?”

  “I am—pardon me, was—a member of Mensa, the society for smart people. I was 16 when I died but I was already in college, second-year engineering.”

  Kendrick jerked his head as he heard his nickname called from a near cloud. Then again, “Kenny, Kenny!” This time the sound was muffled. “Who is calling me?” Kendrick asked Xiao.

  “Nobody. People often hear voices around here.” He paused. “Sorry to rush you, but there is an emergency. We have to go down to earth right away. We’re expected to help a little boy.”

  “Don’t I get a chance to meet the Big Boss?” He wasn’t anxious to meet Him, but, on the other hand, Xiao, ten years his junior, seemed too young to be in charge.

  “Later. I’m in charge to brief you on what you have to know—when and as necessary.”

  It didn’t sound right, but Kendrick hadn’t much time to think about it. In a jiffy he found himself deprived of wings and dressed in casual clothes.

  They were in front of a Victorian-style mansion. A boy sat on the bottom of the stairs that led to the entrance. He looked sad. With one hand he fiddled with a baseball glove; with the other he rhythmically petted a puppy.

  Xiao just had time to say, “This is the place,” when the door swung open and a tall woman, with a bag swinging free from one of her shoulders, faced them.

  “Here you are! Two hours late!” She rushed down the stairs and tossed a set of keys to Kendrick. “The place is all yours! For nothing in the world will I come back here. The staff replacement doesn’t show up in time, Mateo is nothing but trouble, and the dog stinks like you can’t believe. If I had managed to catch him, I’d have plunged him into a pail of bleach, I guarantee you!”

  She rushed toward the car parked in front of the house, followed by a lukewarm, “’Bye, Adria,” from the kid.

  Xiao pointed at the child and murmured, “His parents died in an automobile accident three months ago. His grandmother broke a leg trying to get him down from a tree.”

  “Why didn’t she call for help?”

  “She didn’t think it was necessary. She’d rescued the kid from that predicament before, she said. Unfortunately this time the boy fell on top of her from 30 feet. She ended up in a hospital. That’s why we are here—to take care of the child. Six years old, always on the go.” He looked at Kendrick and said, “Would you mind playing with him? Meanwhile I’ll go see what has to be done in the house; I’ll fix lunch, too.”

bsp; Kendrick approached the child, who was watching them with resignation. “My name is Kendrick Malloy,” he said, and picked up a ball lying on the ground. “Like to play?” The kid shook his head. “What’s your name?”

  “Mateo. And his name is Attila,” he said and scratched the dog behind the ears. The dog, a pup blacker than coal, with red eyes, began licking Mateo’s face. “He likes me,” he said. “Attila likes me.”

  “I’m sure he does. What happened to him? He smells strong.”

  “Adria says it’s the skunk. The one around here, she says.”

  “Don’t you think we should give Attila a good bath?” The dog whined and retreated immediately underneath the stairs.

  “He doesn’t like baths.”

  The kid needed a good bath too, but first he had to make him feel at ease. Kendrick extended his hand to Mateo. “Let’s go inside and see what my friend Xiao has gotten for us. I bet you’re hungry.”

  Mateo sprang up, took Kendrick’s hand, and with unexpected energy pulled him up the stairs.

  It was almost midnight when the two would-be angels sat in the kitchen nook to eat supper. A three-course meal of Chinese food was lying on the oval table and a steaming pot of tea stood in the middle.

  “Don’t they have booze around here?” Kendrick asked.

  “Yes, they do, but for each two ounces of alcohol one of your feathers comes off—they want you to abstain from alcoholic beverages.”

  “I see,” Kendrick said and poured a cup of tea. He loaded his plate. He began savoring the sweet-and-sour chicken balls then tackled the stir-fried pork with sweet peas. “Delicious,” he said to Xiao. “You know how to cook.”

  “I learned from my father; he’s a professional chef.” He pushed away his dish.

  “Are you finished already?” Kendrick asked as he gobbled up the honey chicken with orange peelings.

  “Yes. You see, in order to be able to fly, the ratio of weight to the number of feathers has to be below a certain value. A purple martin, for instance, weighs about 2 ounces; his wing span is 12 inches; and each wing has 15 feathers—2 inches long and less than an inch wide.” Xiao cupped his hands to show the space the bird would fill with his wings unfolded. “See how big?” He then lifted two scoops of rice onto his plate. “And yet, the bird weighs less than this amount of rice.” He smiled at Kendrick. “Got the message? If you put weight on, you’ll need more feathers—and you already have a long way to go! Oh, I forgot to tell you, the deal is you have to become an angel before Christmas, and that is less than three months away.”

  Kendrick pushed his dish toward the middle of the table. “I can’t drink, I can’t eat. It’s going to be tough around here. Did I gain anything for what I did today?”

  “Probably.” Xiao laughed aloud. “Catching Attila was worth being recorded. To start with, the dog, as young as he is, already understands the word bath; and as soon as he hears it he hightails it.”

  Kendrick nodded. “I chased him through all the rooms. And I would still be after him, if Mateo hadn’t lured him with a juicy piece of meat.” Kendrick sipped his tea. “And it wasn’t a common bath, either: immersed in tomato juice, he looked as if he was swimming in a pool of blood. You had trouble keeping him still while I scrubbed him.”

  “And you scrubbed him hard!”

  “Had to. But I was impressed with Mateo, when we bathed him. He had fun, I believe.”

  Xiao yawned and rose. “Time to go to bed. I’m tired, with all the laundry we had to do on top of shopping, cooking, and vacuuming.”

  Kendrick nodded. “This mansion is suited to a big family.” He nibbled on a chicken ball. “What did you say we do tomorrow?”

  “Fly to Albany. Mrs. Lockhart wanted to be operated on by her brother, who is a surgeon over there. She likes to see the kid.”

  The plane was only half full, so Kendrick stretched a sleepy Mateo over two vacant seats. “I’m happy Mateo fell asleep, since the weather forecasts a thunderstorm coming this way.” He took his place next to Xiao. “What’s this story about the three months I have to get my wings? What else didn’t you tell me?”

  Xiao pushed the seat back and relaxed in it. “You see, one of the qualifications for becoming an angel is repairing what you haven’t done right in your life. You weren’t a very good kid; as a teenager, you were even worse. You pestered your sister and, when you became a 6-foot, 200-pound brute at the age of 14, you searched for any fight you could win…”

  “What should I’ve looked for, the ones I’d lose? All boys do that at some point—then they cool off.” He shot Xiao an angry look. Did he really have to listen to this snot-nose?

  Xiao didn’t pay any attention to him, and continued, “This awful behavior has been compensated by giving your life for Mateo’s. All cleared out.” He smiled at Kendrick. “However, you have to make up for being kicked out of school. Bad record, since you had an IQ of 125. You could have sailed through it, if it hadn’t been for your attitude. Especially in Leonard Derozier’s class.”

  “I couldn’t follow his lectures. He’d mumble for 10 minutes, then he’d spring from his chair, adjust his glasses, grab a black marker, and write symbols and numbers on the board. Then he’d turn around—heavenly happiness painted on his face—and say, ‘See how simple it is? Just a little formula to sum up all I said!’ ” Kendrick sighed. “I didn’t understand what was going on. Then he’d ask, ‘Who can read this formula; that is, say what it means in plain English?’ I still remember the last formula he wrote on the board: there was a capital E on the left of an equals sign; at the right, there was a number, followed by an m and a v with a hat up and on the side.”

  “That wasn’t a hat! It was the number 2. That’s the formula for kinetic energy. And the 2 is very, very important. If the truck that hit you had traveled at 10 miles per hour, its energy would have been proportional to 100; at 50 miles per hour, that is 5 times faster, its energy was 25 times higher. Got it? Not 5, but 25! See the power of notation? It tells a lot in a short form.” He gave Kendrick a severe look. “In your class, nobody would answer?”

  Kendrick rolled his eyes. “Yes, the usual two or three Doogies would. Most of the class got frustrated.”

  “No reason to hit him in the eyes with your toy!”

  “That was an accident. Everybody believed so, except the principal. He was an acid old man-spinster.”

  “Man-spinster? Never heard that word! But let’s set this aside. You had no business taking a remote-controlled miniature airplane to school.”

  “And why not? The class, that day, was about flying! Mr. Derozier had his back toward me, so I aimed at his ass. Unfortunately he dropped the marker, and quickly turned around to pick it up. I hit his glasses and injured his eye.” Kendrick sighed. “They made a big deal out of it.”

  “That and other things. Poor marks in English, history…”

  Kendrick threw up his arms. “Okay. I was a poor student!” He looked at Xiao. “Spell out my punishment and let’s get over with it.”

  “No punishment, just a make-up. Maybe we should stick to flying, since this year is the centennial of the first flight by the Wright Brothers. A 625-pound machine with a 12.5-horsepower motor took off and flew for a full 12 seconds.”

  “Twelve seconds? I’m happy they’ve improved on it since then. I also hope they make planes a bit stronger nowadays, or with this wind we’d be tossed about like a piece of paper.” The storm was in full swing, and rain splashed all over the windows. The captain urged everybody to stay seated and fasten their belts.

  “Let’s forget about the storm. It can’t hurt us, right? We are angels—well, almost angels. Let’s have a go at our flying lesson. When a purple martin flaps its wings, it pushes air down. In return the air exercises an upward force. So birds fly. Tell me now why a human can’t fly, but an aircraft can.”

  “The first one doesn’t have the muscular power to do so; the second…” He looked at Xiao, trying to find inspiration. “The reason for the second
is more complicated—gliders can’t fly on their own, so maybe because of power engines, in addition to the wing shape?”

  “Both right, but there is more to that. Do you know the third law of mechanics?”

  “Of course I do. If I hit you in your kisser—and I’ve been tempted to do so many times since we met—your jaw would hurt, but so would my fist. Right?”

  Xiao’s eyes sparkled. “Right on two counts. Right on the reaction you’d get in your fist, and right in refraining yourself from hitting me. Probably all your feathers would drop off.”

  “I suspected something of the kind. So, professor, talk about flying and leave out formulas!”

  “Actually things are simple. Do you crawl when you swim?”

  “Of course, but don’t change the subject now. Stick to flying.”

  “When you extend your arm forward and plunge it into water, you push the water past your body, then the water reacts by pushing you. So you were right: power engines provide the necessary propulsion for aircrafts. The forward force on the plane is the reaction to the backward force on the ejected material created by burning. But that’s not all: the engines generate speed, a much-needed ingredient for the lift, which is a plane’s ability to stay in the air. Then…”

  “Stop. What the lift does, precisely?” Kendrick asked.

  “Oh, the word says it all! It counteracts the plane’s weight.”

  “Why didn’t you say so in the beginning? And I’m not quite convinced about the role of speed.”

  “But that is everyday experience! Have you ever stuck a hand out a car window? You can feel a force lifting your hand—and that force increases with the car speed.”

  “That’s right! I know it’s true, because I used to drive a convertible and feel the air.”

  “And you liked to drive fast—so you surely know about speed.” He looked at Kendrick and added, “Not to mention speeding! You lost all your points, at one time,” Xiao said, and laughed.

  “Let’s not talk about that.” Did Xiao have to know about all his misfortunes?

  Xiao continued, “Now, let me give you an example of the importance of speed in flying. Remember the accident Mario Andretti had when he was testing a car for his son? He hit a piece of debris, was thrown high into the air and flew for a few hundred feet. The TV reporters marveled that he wasn’t hurt in spite of the high speed—but actually it was that speed that kept him in the air, and long enough to allow him to lose energy gradually.”

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