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The Good Stuff
Short Story

Flying Solo

by Willis Whyte
Length: 1,830 words

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Flying Solo

New York City, April 1953

It was a cold, grey, spring day in Manhattan. The dense cloud cover made it impossible to catch even a glimpse of the sun. Wednesday night’s torrential downpour made the sewer run-off drains overflow. This caused the water to back up and cascade into the gutters all along East 82nd Street.

Nancy stood at the corner of Third Avenue and East 82nd Street, her mother close by her side.

“I said ye should have worn yer boots. Look at that water gushing down the street. Ye’ll be coming back with a cold from getting’ yer feet soaked. And besides do ye even remember the things we talked about this morning?”

“I know, I know! Look both ways when I cross the street, and don’t talk to anybody I don’t know, except for the police. Momma, I promise I won’t forget. Can I please go now?”

“I’m not sure I want ye goin’ off like this on yer own. Who’ll be lookin’ after ye? What if somethin’ happens, how would I ever know?” Nan Kelly squeezed her daughter’s hand.

Nancy looked at her mother and smiled. “Momma, remember the first time you let me go outside to play with the other kids by myself? You didn’t want to do that either. I promised then, like I am now, I’ll do what you said. You don’t have to worry, nothing’s going to happen.”

“The first time you went outside by yourself, I could see you from the front room window. You were never out of my sight. This time you want to go all the way to the museum by yerself. I just don’t like it.” Nan paused for a moment, then continued, “How about this, I’ll walk up to the museum with ye. Ye can go in on yer own. I’ll just wait outside. OK?” Nan gently brushed her daughter’s bangs aside with her free hand. “Ye look so grown-up today, I know, but ye’re still barely nine years old. I think we might wait another year before we do this. OK?”

“No, Momma, it’s not OK! You promised I could go to the museum by myself today, and that’s what I’m going to do. If you want, we can go together tomorrow. Today, I’m going alone.” The light turned green for the third time since Nancy and her mother had gotten to the corner.

Wrestling her hand free from her mother’s grip, Nancy looked both ways and then stepped into the street.

Nan stood on the pavement and watched as her daughter hurried to the other side of Third Avenue. Waiting for the light to change again, she blessed herself, and mumbled aloud, “Sweet Jesus, watch over that child. Don’t let her do anything stupid. Forgive me for lying to her, but in case ye’re busy, I’ll just follow along behind and make sure she’s safe. But please, don’t let her see me following her. Amen.” Nan blessed herself again, and then crossed the street; clandestinely following her daughter.

Halfway between Third and Lexington Avenues, Nancy opened the top button of her blue wool coat. She removed the velvet princess cap from her head and stuffed it into her empty pocket. I’ll put that back on before I go home so my mother won’t be mad at me. She skipped along the city street that led to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Her anticipation growing with each step, she could hardly wait to get there. She was completely on her own, for the first time in her life.

Stopping at each street corner, she checked that the light was green, and that there were no cars coming, just as her mother had instructed. Lexington, Park, Madison and then Fifth, only four more blocks and I’ll be there.

Moments later Nancy arrived at the corner of 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue. She stood there waiting for the light to turn green. She heard a drum beating close by. She looked around for the street musicians that usually played in front of the museum; they weren’t there today. She wondered if anyone else heard the drums. It was then she realized that what she was hearing was her own heartbeat.

She smiled. I’m almost to heaven. Nancy watched the light change. She looked across the street, focusing on the building that housed one of the world’s great art museums. There, rising into the sky, sat the two-story, sand colored, Sphinxes that guarded each side of the entrance. Massive and intimidating, they loomed above the steps that led to three brass revolving doors. Nancy could feel their eyes watching her as she crossed the avenue.

She looked up. Bright, colorful banners flew over all three of the main entryways. There’s a special show today: that’s good. Nancy slowly and deliberately climbed the widest part of the front steps and crossed to the stationary door on the right side of the building. It was marked ‘special circumstance entry’. Here comes the second hardest part she thought. Getting my mother to let me do this was the first hardest, this is the second. Nancy had never gone to the museum alone before. She wondered if the guards would even let her in.

She had stuffed her hat into the right hand pocket of her coat. The left pocket held her life savings, twenty-five cents, a single silver quarter. It was just enough money to get her into heaven, if they made her pay because she was alone. It was also enough money for a cup of hot chocolate and a piece of cake if they didn’t.

When she went to the museum with her mother, they always went on “free admission” day. Today wasn’t a free day for adults, but because it was Easter break and a school holiday, kids who were under twelve were supposed to be allowed in free.

Nancy hesitated; the tiny hairs on the tops of her hands were standing at attention. The drums had subsided, but now she had the eerie feeling someone was watching her. She turned and scanned the steps, the street, and the avenue to see if she could determine what made her feel this way. She couldn’t see anything, or anyone, that might cause er discomfort. She shrugged her shoulders and turned back towards the entrance. Nancy didn’t see Nan Kelly duck behind the base of the Sphinx, or take a seat on one of the side steps to wait for her daughter.

The brass, iron, and glass door was heavy; Nancy struggled using both hands to open it.

“Hello there, Miss. May I help you?” The museum guard smiled. The brass buttons on his uniform glittered, as though they had just been polished. “Are you all alone?” he asked. He held the door open wide enough for Nancy to duck under his arm and enter the building lobby.

The guard wore a dark green uniform, and a hat that looked like the ones police officers wore. His smile revealed a perfect set of teeth. At least Nancy thought they were perfect. He also had on a nametag that read "Ed Vydnansky". Nancy wondered how you pronounced a name like "Vydnansky". She also wondered if talking to him counted the same as talking to the police. She hoped so, she wouldn’t want to upset her mother by talking to someone she shouldn’t have. Although, she did wonder how her mother would ever know.

“Yes, sir, I am. Do I have to pay because I’m alone?” Nancy held the quarter tightly in her fist. She was prepared to pay the admission fee but hoped she wouldn’t have to. Most importantly, she wanted to make sure she wouldn’t be asked to leave because she was alone.

“No, Miss, you don’t have to pay. Kids are free all this week. Are your parents on their way?” The guard made Nancy uncomfortable asking about parents. Maybe it isn’t the same as being a police officer.

“No, sir, I live down the block, on the other side of Third Avenue, and my mother said it was all right for me to come here alone today. That’s OK, isn’t it?” Nancy was shifting her weight from one foot to the other. A nervous habit she tried hard to control.

“I think it’s OK, but I have to check with my supervisor. You can wait here.” The guard began to walk across the cavernous entry hall. Turning back to where Nancy was standing he smiled and asked “How old are you anyway?”

Nancy stood up as straight as she could. She was trying to exhibit all of her five feet one inch to its best advantage. “I’m nine. I’ll be ten on my next birthday.” Nancy wasn’t lying; she just wasn’t being a hundred percent truthful.

“And when might that be?” the guard waited for her to reply.

Nancy lowered her head, and dropped her shoulders, her voice was barely audible, “A year from today.”

“Sorry, Miss, I didn’t hear you. When is your next birthday?” The guard put his hand in front of his face so that Nancy could not see him smile.

Nancy stood up straight once again. She took her hands out of her coat pockets and then planted her feet firmly on the marble floor, before she spoke. “I said, today is my birthday. Next year on this same day I will be ten years old.” She held her breath waiting for the guard to respond.

“Oh, so then it’s your birthday? Well that’s special circumstances for sure,” the guard looked around the room. “Ahem … Ahem …” he cleared his throat. “ I don’t see my supervisor.”

Nancy let her shoulders droop, she anticipated the rest – "sorry, I can’t let you in here alone" would be his response, she was sure of it.

“But I’m sure if I did, see him that is, he’d agree that this is special circumstances.” The guard paused, “So young lady, enjoy your day. Happy Birthday.” This time the guard did not hide his smile, instead he displayed a wide, toothy grin as he pinned an "entrance paid" badge to Nancy’s coat collar. “Now go on, off with you. And remember, don’t touch anything.”

Nancy watched as the guard returned to his post at the "special circumstances" entry. When he looked back, Nancy raised her hand and waved. “Thank you, Mr. Vy – nan - sky” she called. He smiled.

“That’s Vid – nan – ski.” He said then nodded his head and saluted her casually. Nancy returned the gesture.

I’m finally flying solo and in heaven too, she thought as she moved swiftly across the lobby. Her fist, pushed deep into the pocket of her coat, still clutched the quarter she had brought with her. The museum held many treasures, all of which she was anxious to see, but first she would take time for hot chocolate and cake.

Outside, on the steps, Nan Kelly sat waiting, just in case.

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 Interior, Metropolitan Museum, New York City
Interior, Metropolitan Museum, New York City Art Print
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