by Rachael K. Jones
My best friend LaToya was utterly fearless. In middle school she could jump farther than any kid. We'd compete for hours after school on the playground, waiting for our dads to pick us up, she in her green-soled Nikes and me in my Reeboks, digging our heels into gravel as we counted down together: "Three--two--one--go!" Then a cloud of dust. We raced three steps and launched heels-first into the sand, ploughing long ditches, stretching our gangly adolescent legs to hit the farthest mark. LaToya usually won.
"Best of three," I'd say, and then amend it: "Best of five?"
"It's okay, Shane. You're still the best boy jumper," LaToya said. She didn't mean it as a taunt, but I'd bridle anyway, dig in my shoes, and challenge her to another round.
In my heart, though, I never minded losing to her. LaToya felt like home to me.
In high school we chased each other around the track, LaToya leaping hurdles in her green soles, me locked into the smooth, steady lope of the distance runner. My heaven was a road without end, racing into a sunset I could never chase down, breath synced with heartbeat. LaToya, though, longed to leave gravity behind altogether, to bound up the horizon and rest her heels on the sun.
"I'm going to run on the moon someday," she told me, and I believed her. Nobody could stop her. She was a racing comet.
In college, she was driving too fast when she smashed her car into the minivan with the family of four. Only LaToya walked away, whole outside but broken within, her dreams of NASA smothered in a guilt that pursued her everywhere.
So she ran from it. Dropped out of engineering school in her last semester and hit the road with just her Nikes and backpack, and never returned. Occasionally she'd drop me a note, a paragraph or two on stationary smelling like the ocean, sealed in sandy envelopes postmarked from towns I'd never heard of. I missed her terribly.
One day she left me a voicemail from a commune in Oregon. She wanted to see me. I called in sick at my law office and flew out that night.
I found her sitting barefoot, lotus-style, on a woven wool mat. She looked older and thinner. A little scar I didn't remember creased her chin. "LaToya? It's Shane." I toed the dirt, self-conscious, intensely aware of my potbelly and graying temples and my expensive lawyer suit.
But she broke into that grin I remembered from middle school and flung her arms around me. "It's been too long."
I didn't ask, Why did you run away? I didn't ask, Did you miss me like I missed you? I only offered her the gift I brought: a shoebox.
She turned over the brand-new green-soled Nikes, inhaling their rubber. "You remembered my size." An old spark rekindled in her eyes, something beaten but not broken lifting its head and testing the air.
"When you run, don't forget me," I said.
I heard it on the news first: Rogue One-Woman Spacecraft Breaks Atmosphere. LaToya in orbit, leaping so high she finally won her lifelong argument with gravity.
I saw photos of her rig. She'd painted it neon green. The talking heads dubbed it the Beer Can Shuttle. I don't think it was really made of cans. Only LaToya would know for sure.
Afterwards, they investigated at the hippie ranch, interviewed her neighbors, filmed the shed where she'd built the shuttle with a battered laptop, the Internet, and a decade's elbow grease. She'd been in correspondence with half the physicists of the world, it seemed, and a few had even flown out now and then to consult on her project, although none expected she was so close to her breakthrough.
It hurt, watching that video. She'd kept her secret from all her oldest friends, even from me. It hurt, tracing the shining speck of her life as it fled this world to wherever she thought she had to go.
It hurt, knowing I would never see her again. That she'd left without me.
A week later, I got a box in the mail. The green-heeled Nikes, brand new, in my size. There was a note:
Gone to kick up moon dust. Now you're the best jumper on Earth. Dare you to catch me.
I shrugged off my suit.
Best of three.
I laced up the shoes.
Best of five.
I hit the road.
It was sunset. A thumbnail moon hung overhead. The road stretched west. The cold air tasted good in my burning lungs. The wind pulled at my tireless legs, my shirt, my heartbeat, my whole self, called me to a never-ending race, a trail without end. I chased LaToya. I chased the sun. Way off in the orange glow, I chased flickering green.
Home receded behind me. As it faded, home drew closer, one stride at a time.
This story was first published on Tuesday, June 23rd, 2015