Janie leaned against the hood of the compact SUV that she and her husband Frank owned. Frank had wanted to trade in Janie’s college days Escort for a pick-up, while Janie campaigned for a small sedan. The smaller than standard SUV was a compromise. The hood was still warm and it felt good against Janie’s back. It was a sunny day in southern California, and the thermometers read 75 degrees. The wind, though, whipped flags and Janie’s thick, auburn hair to a frenzy. So Janie zipped up her little white windbreaker and pulled her hair into a ponytail. She laughed at Frank as he flapped his long arms and turned slowly in place like a condor looking for an updraft.
They had arrived early and could have parked closer to the row of vendors’ buildings that faced the end of the narrow road beside them. But Janie liked to walk. It relieved the tension that hours at her desk knotted into her back. Other cars were pulling up behind them. People were getting out, talking, calling.
“Look! Geese!” cried a young voice.
Janie looked up. There were ducks, actually, flying downward over the vendors’ row, already flocked with customers, toward the little lake beyond where the festival was taking place.
“Look there,” Frank said, pointing straight overhead. There was a sign in the sky — two signs. Janie wasn’t sure if they were some kind of projections large transparent banners being pulled by small airplanes. The bright sunlight made it hard to tell. She shielded her eyes with one hand, but still could only make out a few words. Something about ducks and other birds using updrafts to help them fly long distances. She thought it would be nice if she could lay atop the SUV wearing expensive high-definition sunglasses so she could read the whole thing.
“Well, let’s head out,” said Frank. He was rocking from one foot to the other, hands in his cargo pants pockets.
“Okay-ay, mister antsy,” Janie said.
Frank made his ant face and jerked his head from side to side, making his curly hair jiggle below his ball cap. Janie laughed. Like echoes, there was childish laughter behind her. Janie turned and leaned to see past the SUV. Two kids in brightly colored shirts were jumping and pointing, causing the arms of the adult who held their hands to wave madly. The woman was a short Chicana wearing a windbreaker. It was a white windbreaker with blue and green trim and a yellow logo. A brown scarf held her salt-and-pepper hair away from her smiling face.
Janie looked across the narrow road to the empty green field that stretched at least a hundred yards from the vendors’ row to Janie’s right. Something was swooping across the field from left to right. Two somethings. No, three. At first Janie thought they must be kites. There were electrical line poles bordering the field across the narrow road, and a scattering of skinny-trunked trees, still mostly winter-bare, between the tall wooden poles and the narrow road. The first thing — a bright, white thing — swooped to the middle of the field, while the other two — one appeared to be mostly red, the other one black and larger — circled at the vendor end of the field. Now the white one was spinning in the air, then pulling quick loops, then it did it all again. As it finally angled in for its landing, Janie realized it was a man — a man in a loose, white clown-like outfit.
As the other two flyers landed in mid-field, Janie could see that one was a woman also in clownish garb — blue and green and yellow, and a lot of red. The other one was a man who appeared to be twice the size of the other two. Janie thought it might be owing to his over-sized black coat that flapped and billowed un-buttoned in the wind, and his black stove-pipe pants that stopped at the top of his black high-top shoes, and the ridiculously tall black top hat that somehow stayed fastened to the curly black mop that Janie presumed was a wig. The man in black and the woman immediately turned and ran back to the vendors’ row where they apparently — there were people and light poles and trees in the way — clambered up a ladder to some kind of parapet atop one of the stalls and launched themselves into the wild wind, and swooped this way and that.
The man in white also started running toward the vendor end of the field, but as soon as the other two launched themselves, he made a hard left turn and ran hard for the poles. He ran halfway up one of them just as a gust of wind pushed through the rattling branches and whipped Janie’s ponytail up and about so she had to put her hands up to protect her eyes from the whipping strands. Now all three swooping clowns were in the air and a small crowd had collected off to Janie’s right. It was a fantastic sight — these humans swooping this way and that in mid-air.
“How are they doing this?” Janie heard herself ask aloud.
Frank shrugged. “Maybe something hidden under their costumes,” he suggested.
The man in white was at it again, looping and spinning at mid-field for the smaller audience. Janie noticed that the big, black swooper and the woman in mostly red appeared about to come in for a landing near the swooper in white, but turned about abruptly. When she looked back to the white swooper, Janie’s view of him was blurred by the enmeshed branches of two trees grown up close together. What was he doing?
“We should back up,” Frank said, touching Janie’s arm.
“What?” Janie mumbled without taking her eyes off the white blur.
“We’re too close,” Frank answered.
Janie looked at the road and saw that they, along with the rest of the little crowd, had moved into the road.
“If he crashes into those lines,” Frank was saying, “and gets himself electrocuted, we could get hurt, too.” He pulled at Janie’s elbow and she backed up a few steps. The rest of the little crowd seemed to have heard Frank and followed suit. The white swooper was doing loops that brought him ever closer to the poles.
How the heck is he doing all that? Janie wondered. The thought was hardly completed when the white swooper fulfilled Frank’s worry by slamming into one of the poles, causing a wild spray of sparks that sent the little crowd scrambling back a lot further than a few steps. Janie felt Frank’s grip on her elbow and heard herself scream.
Now Janie felt a hand shaking her. She was on the ground. No, not the ground. There was a pillow under her head. Frank was leaning over her. He was wearing only his boxers. She was in their bed. At home.
“You were dreaming,” said Frank.
“Huh,” she said, trying to sit up. Outside, wind whistled through trees and past their windows.
Frank took her hand and helped her as she struggled out from under the covers.
“A dream,” Janie mumbled. “It was so real.” She shook her head and pushed hair out of her face.
“Come to the window,” Frank beckoned as he crossed the bedroom to the window that gave onto a view of a valley encircled by a mountain range.
“What’s up?” Janie rose and tugged down the hem of her t-shirt so it covered her panties.
“I knew you’d want to see this,” Frank said. He had a pair of binoculars in his hand. When Janie was in front of the wide window, he pulled a cord that parted the drapes. Janie blinked. Frank pointed off to the right toward a high hill jutted out at the top, like a platform. “See those condors?”
Janie nodded. She saw three specks, anyway, that would be about the size of condors. She had seen condors before, but not in this part of California. There had been too much development in the region — like the townhouse complex in which they lived. Frank handed her the binoculars.
“Only they’re not condors,” Frank said.
Janie pointed the binoculars at the not-condors, found her target and adjusted the sights until the not-condors were distinct enough so she could see what they were
They were hang-gliders. Janie only saw two at first, but then a third came into view. They were high above the valley floor, soaring much like condors on the magic carpet of moving air.
“We oughta try that someday,” Frank said.
“Sure thing,” Janie drawled, “right after I parachute out of a perfectly good airplane.” Standing at the window on the second floor of their townhouse, gazing beyond the lawn that sloped downward from the townhouses to the bluff and the tall fence that kept balls and puppies and kids from rolling over the edge, Janie was as close to being in mid-air without engines as Frank would ever get her. And he knew it. She only flew on airliners when she absolutely had to and would drive a hundred miles rather than board a short-haul airplane.
“Oh, look,” Janie said, “they’ve formed a circle. Pretty cool.”
“Let me see.”
Janie handed Frank the binoculars. “Seems like it would be too windy, you know?” she said. “I mean, to maneuver like that.”
“Well, they must know what they’re doing,” Frank answered. “‘Round and ’round they go. Oh, they’re breaking up now. Going three different directions.”
“Let me see.” Frank handed the binoculars back to Janie again. “Now they’re all circling back,” she reported.
“Yeah,” Frank said. “Looks like they’re headed this direction. Can you make out any details?”
“Well, one is brown, I think.” Janie waited till the brown one got a little closer. “Uh, no,” she corrected, “it’s actually several colors, maybe green and blue…oh, I see! It’s green and blue, and there’s some yellow markings on it, and the guy flying it is wearing red.” A moment later, the multi-colored hang glider was close enough for Janie to make out the contours of the flyer’s body. “Um, the guy in red is a woman,” she said.
“How about the other two?” Frank asked.
“I’m not sure,” Janie answered. “They’re kind of lagging behind. Well! Scratch that,” she said. “They just caught up.”
“They’re moving really fast.”
“Yeah, and one is passing the woman. It’s all white. And the guy’s in a white jumpsuit. He’s really zooming. The third one is all black, I think. Yeah, even his jumpsuit.” Janie lowered the binoculars and squinted at Frank. “You think they’re doing this for some kind of Spring festival and we didn’t hear about it?” she asked.
Frank laughed. “Don’t know,” he said, “but we’re getting quite a show now.” He looked back at the window. “Hey, they’re all the way to our side of the valley already. You don’t even need the binoculars now.”
Janie could see that. The hang gliders swooped in a wide arc, one by one, just below the fence and so near to it they half disappeared behind it, each one in turn. Janie sucked in her breath. “Crap!”
Frank laughed again. “Pretty crazy, huh? You sure you don’t want to try some of that?” He nudged her arm.
“I’m real sure,” she asserted. Her eyes were locked onto the white hang glider. All three swooped by the fence once more then maneuvered farther away so that the next swoop was not nearly so close. Janie let her breath out.
Frank touched Janie’s back. “You okay?” he asked.
“Fine. I just was afraid…I just thought one of them was too close to the fence for safety.”
“They do seem to be dare-devils,” Frank said.
A gust of wind rattled the window panes. The white hang glider was swooping toward them. Not toward the fence — toward their window! Janie’s scream was mixed with the shattering of glass and the screech of scraping metal and howls of pain.
Janie blacked out.