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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Summer Stories: ‘Escape Velocity’

 (Molly Quinn/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Tara Karr Roberts

Jessy uses her lawn-mowing money to buy a map of Idaho and a map of Washington at the quick stop. She cuts them apart, glues them together on a piece of cardboard like a puzzle, and measures out a hundred kilometers along Highway 2 from her house to Spokane. The line lands in a blue stripe of river. She didn’t even know there was a river in Spokane.

She goes to the city every year, twice a year, with her grandma: to Sears for school clothes in August, to White Elephant for Christmas presents in November. Sometimes, if they have a little money left, they stop at China Dragon for almond chicken. But that’s it. Never as far as that river.

When Jessy tells her parents she wants to go to Spokane, her mom just says, “Ugh, why?” and her dad says, “I hate driving in the city.” But Jordan, her brother, signs up for Hoopfest 1995 with his buddies, and her parents say she can go, too. Jordan complains, but they threaten to make him stay home and dig post holes, so he shuts up.

Jessy’s in the way-back seat of a Suburban with greasy gas-station pizza pocket wrappers on the floor, trying to focus on Carl Sagan’s “Cosmos” instead of a bunch of guys shouting over each other about girls and basketball. If her parents think Spokane is so bad, she doesn’t understand why they’re willing to let her go there in a vehicle driven by a 16-year-old boy whose nickname is Toast.

“Your little sister looks like a baller,” says another guy – Chase – when they get out of the van and Jessy stretches.

“Nah,” Jordan says. “She’s just a tall nerd.”

Jessy doesn’t even roll her eyes. From the top of the parking garage, she can see the river, gray-blue, weaving through the city. They’ve crossed it. She’s more than a hundred kilometers away from home. She’s been farther, technically: camping in Montana, visiting her aunt in Colville. But she knows distance is about more than miles.

She has to run to catch up with Jordan and his friends and forgets “Cosmos” in the Suburban.

Jessy follows the boys around as they watch a few games, then head to their court to warm up. Toast won’t give her his keys to go back and get her book. She’s not sure she could find the parking garage on her own, anyway, so she sits on the sidewalk, feeling warm and bored and sleepy.

When the game’s about to start, Chase sits on the curb next to her and gulps down a blue Gatorade. He smells like B.O. and cologne, his own personal atmosphere. She can feel the heat of his leg, just a few inches away. He looks like he’s watching the other guys shoot, but he tilts his knee until it touches hers and leaves it there.

“You gonna be a freshman in the fall?” he asks, eyes still on the court.

“Eighth grade.”

“Damn. You are tall.” He finally turns to her and smiles, white teeth and pink lips, his eyes squinting in the sun beneath the blond-streaked hair that flops over his sweatband.

Jessy knows she’s supposed to smile back. Ashlee, her seventh-grade lab partner who lectured her on flirting while Jessy was dissecting their frog, would yell at her to smile back. But all she can manage to do is shrug.

Toast airballs it and Chase laughs. “What was that book you were so into in the car?” he says.

She doesn’t realize at first that he’s still talking to her. “Oh. ‘Cosmos’.”

“Like the magazine?”

Jessy shrugs again.

“I’m gonna leave my bag over here with you,” Chase says. “I feel like you’ll take good care of it.” He winks. Ashlee would die.

Chase sits back down with his Chicago Bulls duffel and almost whacks Jessy in the head with it when he reaches around her. His damp armpit hair brushes against her shoulder as he sets the bag on the sidewalk beside her. Jessy is suddenly, wildly, awake. Pinned like a pickled frog.

She freezes until he heads back to the court, winking one more time as he turns away. Her brother never tells her about his friends. Maybe Chase brings a book with him everywhere, too. Maybe he lives in the library. Maybe he reads Philip K. Dick and Ursula K. Le Guin. Marry him, Ashlee would say. She’d written in Jessy’s yearbook, I hope you find a sweetie as smart as you!

Chase waits until Jordan is looking the other direction before he waves at Jessy. Jessy waits until Chase is looking the other direction before she unzips his bag.

She peels the top flap back, letting out a puff of sweat-stale air. It’s probably only gym socks and underwear in there. She prods the outside for a second before deciding there’s nothing book-shaped inside. But she peeks in and sees Chase’s wallet at the top.

At a time out, she yells to Jordan that she’s going to buy a Coke.

She winds through the courts and the crowds, flipping through Chase’s wallet. A magazine cutout of a blonde in a bikini. A scrap of paper with a phone number and the name “Nicole.” No library card. Four ones and a $50 bill. She buys a Coke and chugs the pop as she wanders. She’s pulled in by a window display of books about basketball. It takes her a second to realize the window is part of a bookstore, the biggest she’s ever seen, filling up a whole building. It takes her a second longer to remember she’s allowed to go inside.

A clerk asks if she’s looking for something and she shakes her head. How could she choose something from everything? In the Science section she starts to feel nauseated. Probably from drinking the Coke too fast. She leaves the store and walks until she realizes she has no idea how to get back to Jordan’s court.

What would her parents say if she called to say she’s lost in Spokane? That she stole a guy’s money but couldn’t even manage to buy a book with it? That she has disappointed Ashlee forever?

But she’s never going to tell Ashlee, and she’s never going to tell her parents. She has no idea how she’s going to find her way back, but she’s not sure if she cares. She’s a hundred kilometers away from home.

She got stuck on that number when she was watching a PBS show about spaceflight and the host talked about the Kármán line: a hundred kilometers above sea level, the imaginary barrier between air and space. The host explained the line is arbitrary, mostly a concern of government policy. Leaving Earth is about velocity, not height.

But when the hundred-kilometer line on her pasted-together map reached the river in Spokane, Jessy knew she had to go, even if she didn’t know what she’d do there. Even if, now that she’s arrived, she doesn’t know what she’s doing. It felt like the difference between being weightless and being stuck on this planet forever.

A street sign says Spokane Falls Boulevard. Jessy wishes she’d brought her map with her, but it was a little awkward, glued to cardboard and all. She follows a path into a park. The crowd thins out as she heads toward a blue metal bridge. Standing on it, she can finally hear the rush of water.

She’s never liked bridges much, but she hasn’t been on many. She inches to the edge and looks down at the river. The bridge isn’t even that high. Barely off the surface of the Earth, compared to how high there is to go.

She takes out the $50 bill and drops Chase’s wallet into the river, watching it flap as it falls, an injured bird plummeting to its doom. After a second she tosses the bill, too. It catches the wind and drifts, but eventually it hits the surface, puddling with water before it sinks and disappears. In the river beyond, she sees three basketballs that have somehow escaped their games and are bobbing along with the current.

Jessy wonders what she has to fill herself with to stay afloat, let alone fly. She wonders what will happen when those basketballs make their way down to the falls – the falls she hadn’t known existed, on the river she hadn’t known existed. She imagines them tumbling through water, bouncing off rocks, plunging, then skyborne, for a moment outside the bounds of gravity, spinning like stars in a churning universe.

Tara Karr Roberts lives in Moscow, Idaho, with her husband and sons, and grew up in Laclede, Idaho, a 100-kilometer drive from the Spokane River. Her novel “Wild and Distant Seas” was published in January 2024.