Weak Bones

JESSICA WALLACE

For the longest time, Elinor Franklin thought her grandfather had been a pilot. In the only photograph she’d seen of him outside the carefully-posed family portraits, he stood beside an airplane. Chin raised, hands clasped behind his back in quiet dignity.

The photograph was in the living room of her grandmother’s apartment; a large black and white print propped up on the electric fireplace. Elinor would stand on her tiptoes after every Sunday dinner and let her imagination spin. This unfettered version of her grandfather seemed to whisper persistently, promising untold adventures, stories itching for air. She strained to listen, sucking slowly on butter mints and feeling convinced that this man had once truly existed. That, indeed, the world had existed before her eyes had opened to it.

He must have been a very brave man, she decided, to fly a plane.

“Did Grandpa die in a plane crash?” Elinor asked from the back seat of the family Cordoba when she was too young.

Her mother turned her head to peek through the front seats. “No. Why would you think that?”

Elinor shrugged, looking curiously at her father’s eyes in the rear view mirror before he shifted his focus back to the road.

Her grandmother lined the apartment’s single hallway with family portraits, marking time in yearly intervals from the living room entrance to the bathroom door. Elinor would study these on Sundays as well, too old to jump on the spare bed with Lucy and too young to follow the adult conversation that hung in the air with cigarette smoke. She lingered in the hallway, intrigued by these thinner, less harried aunts and uncles who met her gaze from behind the thin glass.

“You will be an accountant,” she whispered to her Uncle Phil, age seven.

“And you will have twin babies. A boy and a girl,” she told her Aunt Elizabeth.

Elinor’s father Daniel was the oldest of seven children and seemed to be rooted to the back-row centre where his height balanced the image. His siblings shifted – Phil from his sister’s lap in one year to the floor in the next – but the photographer had found Daniel’s backbone unwavering.

And then, after the photograph in which Daniel was 15, a cocky smile beginning to find a home on his face, Elinor had reached the corner. And the photographs stopped.

“Where did Grandpa fly?”

“What? Where did he fly when?”

“In his airplane.”

“Your Grandpa Franklin was a surgeon.” Her mother was pulling Elinor’s hair back into a ponytail, alternating between a brush stroke and a smoothing with her palm until she had gathered it all at the crown. She met Elinor’s eyes in the mirror while Lucy wriggled on her parents’ bed behind them, trying to wait her turn. “He didn’t have an airplane.”

“He was a doctor?” Elinor frowned.

“Yes. A surgeon. He performed operations.”

“How did he die?”

Mr.s Franklin glanced back at Lucy’s expectant face. “Mmm … Let’s talk about that another time,” she said, and turned back to Elinor. “How’s the ponytail? Good?”

“Nope,” Elinor wrinkled her nose. “Tighter.”

A few months later, Elinor learned that at the end of her grandmother’s single hallway – where the wall angled toward the bathroom, and Daniel was eternally fifteen years old – Dr Franklin, the surgeon, had jumped from the twenty first floor of a psychiatric hospital.

Elinor soon stopped sneaking extra butter mints from her grandmother’s candy dish. She kept away from the airplane photograph, not wanting to be privy to her grandfather’s untold anything. Instead, she found herself searching worriedly for pieces of her grandfather in her father’s face – inspecting the angle of his jaw line, the bridge of his nose when he wasn’t looking.  She was thankful to find none. Mr. Franklin had made himself into a strong man; his bones strong enough, on some weekend afternoons, to bench press Elinor’s giggling sister twenty five times without slowing down.

***

On the evening of November tenth, Elinor lay in bed with a flashlight and a Judy Blume book. She snapped it shut as her father entered, careful to hide the grown-up-looking cover of Tiger Eyes.

“Would you like to come to school with me tomorrow?” Mr. Franklin’s voice revealed the degree of honour he was bestowing upon her. Each year for the past seven, he had been in charge of the Remembrance Day assembly at Chesterton Elementary. The level of seriousness with which he took this task resulted in Elinor’s increasing interest.

She swallowed thickly and found she could only nod.

In the morning, she wore a skirt made of pink corduroy and, at her mother’s insistence, dark brown tights to shield her legs from the wind. Her hands were nearly shaking as she fastened the seat belt of the Cordoba. The front bucket seats had her sitting uncomfortably low and she held the belt with one hand to keep it below her cheek.

Elinor followed him through the school corridors, passing through groups of rough-housing students who behaved – as Elinor deemed them – rather childish, considering the occasion. She lifted her chin slightly and let her toes hit the floor before her heels as though she were a ballerina or a gymnast or a child of similar grace.

In Mr. Franklin’s office, she sat gingerly on a chair, letting her coat fall from her shoulders. A bell sounded and gradually the jumble of laughter and shouting was muted by teachers and their classroom doors.

“You’ll be all right here for awhile?” her father asked, but his mind was on other things and he let the door close behind him.

At 10:30 the school secretary led Elinor to the gymnasium and placed her on a wooden bench pushed against the side wall.

“Thank you,” Elinor whispered, reluctant to let her voice disturb the room’s silence. She played with the hem of her skirt and blinked quickly until classes began filing in. They seated themselves at designated markers: kindergarten at the front, grade six at the back, nearest the chairs for parents and teachers. Only Elinor sat on the bench. She swallowed.

All murmurs ceased as Mr. Franklin walked to the front podium. He was solemn as he welcomed Chesterton Elementary and guests to the assembly. The overhead projector clicked on to illuminate the humming image of a poppy.

“Today I want to talk to you about this symbol,” he said, shifting slightly. “The poppy. We all wear one.” He gestured at his own. “You see them for sale at supermarkets, on street corners. But what do they mean? Why this flower?”

Elinor watched her father control the room with his voice. He gave the history of Flanders Fields, lhis words transforming the gymnasium into a graveyard; poppies blowing despite the stillness.

“We wear the poppy to honour those who fell in battle.” Mr. Franklin leaned onto the podium. “It reminds us of those brave enough to fight when they were needed. Those who gave their lives that we might live in peace.”

Elinor fingered her own felt poppy, wondering whether someone would ever need her to be brave enough to give her life. To fall. She closed her eyes, imagining air rushing at her face until it became hard to breathe. She wondered whether falling and jumping would feel the same once you left the ground.

Mr. Franklin stepped aside, then, keeping his hands clasped in front of him while a sixth-grader made her way to the podium for the roll call. In a small voice, she named soldiers from their town who had fought and died in battle. Chesterton’s fallen soldiers. Elinor’s eyes widened as the names continued, knowing, for each one, a family had mourned, trying to be comforted by words like bravery and freedom. She watched her father bow his head in respect.

When the Last Post began to sound, Elinor feared to move, scanning the room only with her eyes. Her head suddenly felt very full, and she lowered her gaze to the ground with relief as the music gave way to silence.

***

 It was on the morning she turned fifteen that Elinor slid out of her bed feeling as though she had not quite woken up. She got ready for school in a thin but distinctive haze, showering and putting on jeans and a new sweater. She watched her face closely in the mirror as she put on make-up – tasteful make-up, as she had negotiated with her parents. A few brushes of mascara and lip gloss, most days. Today, though, on this special occasion, she smoothed a darker shade of red onto her lips, pressing them together to even out the colour.

And then she paused mid-movement, having noticed something in her reflection. Something that made the inside of her stomach feel cool, as though she had just gulped down a pitcher of ice water. Elinor turned her head slightly to the side, tracing the bridge of her nose slowly with her fingertip.

Jessica Wallace is a writer and content strategist for Data with a Soul in Burnaby, BC. Her poetry and short fiction has been published in several international magazines, including the Antigonish Review, 3AM Magazine, Orbis International Literary Journal and 14 Magazine. She received her MA in Creative Writing from the University of Sussex in 2011 and also holds undergraduate degrees in English Literature and Psychology.

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