Figgie is easy to miss, despite her proximity to the fish, or maybe because of it.
She sits in front of Mr. Briggs’s tank. The students wander her way, not to see her, but to find the seahorse or note which side the starfish has adhered to or watch the clownfish whip through the manufactured ruin of a castle. Mr. Briggs lets minutes slip away in the beginning of the period, while he searches for his glasses, a stack of worksheets, or the remote. Then, long before the end bell, he’s lost the class’s attention again. The students have regular opportunities to gaze at the sea life. The tank helps pass the time.
Figgie is small for sixteen and green-eyed in the murky way of the algae creeping in the tank. Her hair, brown and flat, hangs straight over her cheeks to her shoulders. She disappears in her post by the tank and, for her classmates, is just something to look past.
This wouldn’t bother Figgie, a girl who uses her hair as a veil, if it weren’t for her recent (and hopeless, she understands this, she knows, she knows) desire to befriend two classmates: Odin, who sits in a sullen sprawl and as close to the door as possible, but who Figgie has decided hides an ocean of mysteries, and his girlfriend, the tall, vibrant-with-laughter Angela, whose wavy hair can’t just be called brown since it springs about her head in an entire spectrum of earthy shades, from clover honey to wood on fire.
Figgie admires Angela and, two months ago when she turned sixteen, thought she’d become a little more like her. At the very least, Figgie anticipated a surge in height, a zap of confidence, an energy in her lank hair.
But only one thing has changed since early December: Figgie no longer flies in her dreams. She feels the loss of this—her single extraordinary feat—acutely.
The last flying episode happened the night of her birthday. The family dinner disappointed her. Even before the dinner, Figgie felt deflated: her mother called after school to wish her a happy birthday but cancelled her plan to join the party, on account of Jessie and Sam both coming down with a cold. Jessie and Sam are Figgie’s half-brother and stepfather. She doesn’t know them well enough to wrap her mind around the loose-linking family titles, and it was hard to care about their sniffles.
Then there was the problem with the presents. Figgie wasn’t sure what she’d expected from her two older sisters or her father; she only knew the gifts weren’t right. When the microscope, baby-blue flannel pajamas, glossy-paged Birds of Lake Ontario, stuffed animal, and basket of chocolates piled up around her place at the table; she gazed past the unwrapped presents, the ravaged pizza box, the empty ice cream carton, and the half-eaten tiara-shaped birthday cake and tried to smile at her sisters and dad. But she was picturing Angela in biology. What did Angela get when she turned sixteen? Makeup, music, outfits, smartphone? She bet a stuffed monkey wasn’t part of the occasion.
Figgie went to bed that night feeling miffed. She slept fitfully and dreamed excessively. In the last dream, she sat in the high school gymnasium during a pep rally. Slouching on the bottom bleacher, away from the others like a dark smudge in the corner of a page, she waited for the period to end, then winced and hunched lower when the cheerleaders leaped across the court and spurred her class, the sophomores, into a frenzy of pounding feet and laughter.
As soon as Figgie felt the swift rush of air under her body, a sensation that always indicated her readiness to fly, she wanted to cheer, too.
Escape, at last.
But instead of waving her arms like a swimmer treading water and navigating herself out of the gymnasium, as she would have and could have in past dreams, she shot straight up like a balloon to the high ceiling. Indeed, she was just like a balloon, bumping along the florescent lights and metal beams, weightless and unmanageable.
While she drifted, the gymnasium shook with the force of the spectators’ screams. Football players shot balls into her aerial path to try to bring her down; cheerleaders hurled up their pom-poms. And in the middle of the sophomores’ section, Odin stood and shouted, “Witch!”
She’d lost her voice and couldn’t defend herself. She couldn’t even will herself to the ground and flee. She was entirely at her buoyant body’s mercy.
When she hit the edge of the scoreboard, she popped and immediately awoke, sweating and panting.
She hasn’t dreamed of flying since.
Now Figgie ponders that nightmare in her cavernous spot by the fish tank. Mr. Briggs is introducing a group assignment to the class, but she’s wondering how she can get back into flying at night without uncontrollably floating. Dream flying was too good to lose.
Something swishes behind her. She turns. The starfish has glued itself to the section of glass closest to her head. One of its blue, spiny arms is bent. It looks like it’s waving.
She studies the tank contents, awash in a sickly green. Mr. Briggs should replace the water. The clownfish darts around the seahorse, like a bully in an orange jersey. The seahorse, as clumsy as a novice knight unaccustomed to his armor, slowly lurches over the castle ruins in an attempt to avoid the aggressor. The seahorse strikes Figgie as pathetic, a bobbing, tipping question mark. Its plight sickens her, and she glances away.
To the right of the tank, on the back wall, a long window frames the parking lot. Snowflakes, the size of small feathers, ride the wind in zigzags and settle on cars. A woman and a girl trudge through the white air to a red van. The girl climbs in and slams her door shut, while the mother uses her coat sleeve to wipe off her door’s glass. After she joins her daughter, she starts the engine and windshield wipers, but the two don’t leave immediately. They sit in the van and talk.
Figgie can’t remember the last time she and her mom sat and talked, just the two of them.
Mr. Briggs clears his throat. “Coming, dear?”
Figgie hastily wipes her eyes and turns around in time to catch the last student leaving the classroom.
The teacher moves to the doorway, his hand reaching for the light switch. “The librarian’s waiting.”
The students have already paired off when she and Mr. Briggs arrive. For Figgie, group activities fall in the same category as pep rallies, gym class, lunchtime, and all auditorium events: excruciating. “I can do the project by myself,” she says hopefully.
“No, no.” Mr. Briggs scans the tables and computer stations where students chat, check their email, and flick through magazines. “Angela?” he calls.
Sitting with her long legs crossed, in one of the cushy chairs by the round coffee table, Angela finishes texting and lowers her phone. She looks up, her fine, dark eyebrows raised in inquiry.
“Who’s your partner?”
Odin, standing at the magazine rack, looks over his shoulder at Mr. Briggs. “Me.”
“Mind if Figgie joins you?”
The couple shares a glance. Odin doesn’t respond, but Angela shakes her head.
“Fine, fine.” Mr. Briggs nudges Figgie in their direction, looks around the library, and announces in a tone more pleading than commanding, “Better get going, people. You need to have a topic ready by the end of the period.”
Figgie makes her way toward her new partners. Her wonder at this startling development and her yearning and nervousness instill a gliding sense of unreality to the crossing. The dreamy passage ends at the coffee table. There are two chairs. Odin now slouches in one; Angela, the other. Figgie falls to the floor by their feet.
Odin is scowling at Angela. He mutters something under his breath before opening the magazine on his lap.
Angela smiles down at Figgie. “You’re the smart one in our group. Got any good ideas for us?”
Figgie’s cheeks warm. Angela Is Nice to Everyone: The whole world knows that. But Figgie can’t help herself. She receives the compliment as if it were a gift. Not wanting to admit she has no idea what Mr. Briggs has asked them to accomplish, she quickly smooths the handout she crumpled and skims the directions. Winter in western New York…the effects of the colder temperatures on nature…winter solstice…night sky…hibernation…dormancy…
While Figgie thinks hard, Angela goes back to texting, and Odin flicks through the magazine.
A few minutes later, Angela turns her phone to show it to Odin. “Remember this?”
He squints at the photo. “That was a long time ago.”
Her smile slips, and her hand falls in her lap. She rubs her stomach.
“Stop that,” he snaps.
Instead, she grips her belly with both hands, as if to goad him.
Figgie watches, confused, then looks around and tries to think of a good topic, one that might cheer up Angela. Her gaze stops at the library window over the copier. The snow blows so furiously, she can’t see through the white. “Snowflakes,” she decides.
“No two exactly alike.” Angela shrugs and smiles. “Okay.” Her phone, metallic pink, still rests in her lap, and she idly strokes it with her middle finger.
Mr. Briggs only reserved the library for the one day, so Figgie spends the remaining twenty minutes at the computer, gathering sources. After school, she walks to the drugstore and buys blank note cards.
At home, her older sisters nudge her toward a wrapped present on the kitchen counter. “From Mom,” one darkly says. “A million days late,” the other darkly adds.
Figgie looks for a card. There isn’t one. Her sisters watch her rip open the wrapping paper, jiggle off the box lid, part the white tissue paper, and pull out a pretty lavender sweater. Under the sweater is a pair of jeans. Figgie enjoys a moment of happiness before she checks the tags and sees they’re two sizes too big for her.
“It’s not normal that a mom doesn’t even know her own daughter’s size,” one sister says; “It’s not normal that a mom ditches her whole family and starts a new one,” the other sister adds with a snort. Despite the grumbles, something like satisfaction lightens their faces.
What’s so satisfying? Figgie wonders, annoyed. At least Mom didn’t buy her a stuffed animal.
That night, Figgie rereads the group project directions. She studies what she gathered on the topic of snow, takes notes, and cites each fact. Then she organizes the cards and sits at her dad’s computer to transfer the information.
The next day, by the fish tank with Angela and Odin, she shyly presents each of them with a copy of the typed notes. “I haven’t thought about our visual yet, and I don’t know what angle we should take”—she squeezes her hands in her lap and focuses on Angela, who’s smiling at her—“but here are some of the basics.”
Angela tucks a strand of hair behind her ear and runs her gaze down the paper. “You make me feel guilty, how you’re doing all the work.”
“I don’t mind.” Figgie really doesn’t. Working with these two might be the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to her.
Angela rests the paper on her desk, sits up, and takes out her pen. She reads, pausing occasionally to underline something. When she finishes, she glances across her desk and makes a face at Odin. “Aren’t you going to read it?”
He’s tapping the desk with his copy, now scrunched into a scroll. “Why?”
“So you know what we’re presenting on,” Angela says slowly and succinctly, the tone a parent uses with a misbehaving child.
He waves the rolled paper in the direction of the classroom window. “A raindrop freezes. Presto. You got snow.”
Angela makes a disgusted sound. “No, you don’t. What do you get, Figgie?”
Figgie coughs. “Sleet. Frozen rain makes sleet.” On her own copy, she points to a fact at the top of the paper.
Odin doesn’t even glance at her. He’s lightly but decisively striking the desk with the rolled paper and staring hard at Angela.
Glaring back at him, Angela surges forward. Her dark hair pools across the metal surface of the desk. “You’d know that if you bothered to read it, if you’d just stop thinking about yourself and what you want and what makes you happy. Man up, Odin.” She jerks back, and her hair whips off the desk. “Jesus Christ. You are so incredibly selfish.”
In one fluid motion, Odin rises and slaps the side of the tank with the paper. “I am sixteen years old. Sixteen fucking years old.” He storms to the front of the room, snatches the wooden hallway pass off of Mr. Briggs’s desk, and, without a backward glance, says to the startled teacher, “I need a drink.”
“We could always cut out snowflakes.” Even as Figgie suggests this for their visual aid, she’s shaking her head. Too predictable.
Angela sighs. “We’ve made those since kindergarten. I want to do something different.” Chin braced in her hand, she looks toward the tank, as if the creatures inside might advise her.
She doesn’t bother consulting Odin. Though he’s sitting near Angela, he never turned his desk, as the two girls did, to make collaboration easier. If anything, given the way he’s played with his phone and worked on his trig homework and spun his baseball cap, he’s doing his best not to look invested in their project.
But he is interested, at least in Angela. Figgie frequently catches him soberly studying her.
“The water’s better,” Angela says.
Angela’s right. The fish tank isn’t nearly so green. Mr. Briggs must be changing the water. The artificial coral looks brighter, too, like he removed and scrubbed it. She notices a new clump of plastic seagrass quivering in the front left corner. Between the blades, the seahorse bobs.
Angela has gone back to reading the information on the fact sheet and murmuring phrases aloud from time to time. “I guess we could show how the snowflake changes. Start with a picture of the dust speck in the cloud, then follow it up with a picture of the seed crystal.” She shrugs. “Draw some sketches to give everyone an idea of how the flake emerges.”
“Or we could show different types of snowflakes,” Figgie says, “and explain how humidity and temperature affect their shape.” Figgie, who’s much better at science than she is at art, prefers her own suggestion since she’s pretty sure she can find diagrams online that already do this.
Angela is obviously not keen on either plan. She’s staring at the fact sheet when a laugh escapes her. She smiles tiredly at Figgie. “We could do an interpretive snowflake dance.” She rubs her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Can you picture me dressed like a snowflake?”
Figgie grins. “You’d be a very fancy one: a good example of high humidity crystal formation.”
“Thanks.” Still smiling, she stands. “Okay…how would this dance look? A lot of twirling, for sure, and some floating.” She demonstrates, spinning with her arms outstretched and her hands splaying out her hair, probably to give the impression of a multi-armed lattice. “And we can’t forget the possibility of snow crystal agglomerations. Come on, Figgie. Let’s form a puff-ball.” She’s laughing, and the students in the other groups are smiling at her. “Stand up.” She grabs Figgie’s clenched hands. “Dance with me.”
Hot with panic, Figgie’s instinct is to pull free, even hook her foot on the leg of the desk to keep herself safely stationed. But Angela, giggling and waiting, is humming a familiar song about flying, a tune Figgie recognizes from years ago when she used to watch old Disney movies on Friday nights with her mother. Instead of Mom’s hands holding her, Angela’s got her. And Figgie, who decides she’ll never dance with Angela, or maybe anyone else, ever again, takes a deep breath, clumsily gets to her feet, and follows the other girl.
Their arms make a circle. As they go around, they bump into desks. Figgie trips over her backpack, and though Angela starts adding words to her song—“‘I can show you the world’”—her laughter breaks up the lyrics.
Now Figgie’s laughing, too, and remembering the song: soaring, tumbling, freewheeling, through an endless diamond sky. Dancing with Angela isn’t at all like flying or even floating. Figgie feels gravity’s resolution in their awkward lurches. The taller girl’s hands grip Figgie’s tightly. Even Angela’s hair has a hold on her. It’s draped over Figgie’s shoulders, intertwining with the plain brown strands there, so that for once in her life, Figgie can see something intriguing in her own boring tresses.
Angela slows, flushed and breathing heavily. After nodding at their clasped hands and bound hair, she announces, “Successfully stuck together and shot from the clouds. Let’s throw out some dendritic arms: Stick out your right leg, Figgie, and I’ll do the same. Good. Ta-da! That’s our final shape.”
Classmates clap, and Figgie and Angela, each on one foot, wobble and try to brace each other.
When they lose their balance, Angela breaks away. With a dramatic shout, she spins, like a snowflake caught on a wind, and lands heavily against Odin’s back. He scowls and stiffens. Angela, ignoring his annoyed reaction, continues to giggle and sings, “‘I can open your eyes, take you wonder by wonder,’” even as she stands behind him and blindfolds him with her hair. As soon as he slaps the strands from his eyes, she rearranges her hair so that it flops over his head. “This is Odin, as a girl.”
Laughter ripples around the room. He shakes himself and swats at the strands on his arms. Her hair, however, is twisted between his fingers, and when he tries to extricate himself, Angela goads him further by grabbing a handful of her hair and whisking it directly in his face.
He jerks away. “Stop it.”
Figgie, who no longer admires Odin or imagines hidden depths in him, stares. His expression arrests her. There’s more than irritation there. Trying to detach himself from Angela’s hair, he looks alarmed. He starts to struggle like a shark in a net.
Angela clamps his shoulders and smiles down at him, sympathetically, even mournfully. “Oh, Odin, Odin. My poor, poor boy. You’re caught.”
Then she straightens and releases him.
At the end of the week, on Friday, the last day for presentation preparations, Figgie notices a new tank. Mr. Briggs has arranged it next to the original one. Though smaller than the first, the second container also sports an underwater castle, this one purple rather than pink. The tank is filled with water. It doesn’t, however, hold fish.
Crouched beside Figgie’s desk, Angela peers into the old tank, her long fingers caressing the glass at the bottom where the seahorse has wound its tail around an undulating blade of plastic seagrass.
Odin stands at the window, arms crossed over his chest. “More snow.”
Figgie sighs. Sleet, not snow. He still doesn’t know the difference. She glances at Angela to share her exasperation. But Angela keeps her eyes on the tank. She won’t acknowledge anything Odin says. She and he aren’t talking. They aren’t even looking at each other anymore.
Figgie shuffles the note cards into a neat stack. While she writes out Odin’s part of the presentation, Mr. Briggs comes their way, a small net in his hand. He leans over the girls’ heads, scoops the clownfish, and transfers it to the new tank.
“The little bugger was torturing the seahorse,” he explains to Figgie and Angela. After shaking the damp net over the small tank, he lets it rest at his side. Angela resumes her dreamy inspection of the old tank’s contents, and Mr. Briggs smiles at her. “Which is your favorite?”
“The seahorse.” She’s so close to the tank, the two words spawn a fog on the glass.
“Fascinating creature. What do you like about it?”
“Its stillness.” With a self-conscious smile for Figgie, she adds, “And the little crown.”
“The coronet.” Mr. Briggs nods. “You know, seahorses are unusual fish.”
“Bad swimmers,” Figgie murmurs, as she turns to stare at the seahorse, too. She’s relieved the clownfish can’t bother it anymore.
Mr. Briggs laughs. “Really bad. Really, really slow. But they’re different in other ways. Did you know, after the mating ritual, the male seahorse takes the female’s eggs and carries them through the gestation period?”
Figgie didn’t know this. Uncomfortable hearing her teacher talk about mating and eggs, she avoids looking at him.
But amazement blooms in Angela’s face. “No kidding?”
“It’s true. And the male feeds the developing eggs prolactin. That’s the same hormone responsible for milk production in pregnant mammals. Isn’t that something?”
“Imagine.” Angela’s finger skates the glass, outlining the curved shape of the seahorse. “Imagine a male being the one with that job, doing the work. All of it.” Her voice is liquid soft. In her eyes, misery makes room for bemusement.
Figgie, stricken, looks away. Another student calls Mr. Briggs to the front of the classroom, but Angela and Figgie remain where they are, as still as the seahorse.
On the tank’s glass, Angela’s reflection is faint, but even so, Figgie can make out the girl’s sadness. It ghosts the glass, hovers over the aquarium contents, threads through the castle walls, curls up the seahorse’s tail, arches along the starfish’s bent arm…
Angela looks older, as if grief has aged her.
Or maybe it’s just that the grief is old. Is grief the oldest emotion? What does sadness look like? How does it sound? Figgie tries to imagine its music but can only muddle out a theme—something like knowledge. Sadness’s song has to be knowledge, a knowledge as heavy as an anchor, the kind that steals a child’s flight.
Beside Angela’s reflection, Figgie sees her own. It looks less distinct than Angela’s, less drowned in pure grimness.
A sudden recollection of a dream teases Figgie. At night, she’s begun to soar again. Even though she has lost her volition, even though she’s subject to wind and turbulence that are not of her making, she stays afloat. She is getting used to the helplessness.
Her eyes meet Angela’s in the glass. Angela, like a wild-haired, sea-born creature who sings from the rocks and seizes in hunger and warning: what she knows grazes Figgie.
It is a knowledge that holds the power, the unspeakable fullness, to burst life asunder.
Figgie senses in Angela the imminence of loss. And she’s sorry for her friend.