Finalist : Terrain.org 7th Annual Contest in Fiction
IIn those days the corner of the two main streets in my neighborhood was occupied by a large newsstand. It was a small brick hut with several racks full of papers and magazines from all over the world. A couple of years ago they closed down and the building is now a Mexican fast-food joint, but I still go by there from time to time to get the feeling of how it used to be, now that I’ve gone on to other things, things that you probably would not be able to understand.
The owner, Louie, had gotten used to seeing me over the years. He was dutifully polite when I walked in every once in a while; extended warmer greetings when I started going there more often and became known as a “steady customer”; and finally seemed slightly alarmed when, due to circumstances beyond my control, I started to spend hours at the place on a daily or weekly basis, but erratically and usually without buying anything. Louie’s friendly welcomes, which once seemed genuine, dried up and were replaced by grudging grunts of recognition.
On the day in question, I was in the back, leafing through the foreign periodicals. The photos and advertisements in them (particularly the ones devoted to entertainment) amused me, and my inability to read the texts in the various languages spurred my imagination. I looked at a photo of a European film actress, or a Brazilian model, or a Japanese temple, or a Taiwanese businessman proudly showing off his new car, and I made up little stories in my head about these people and places. It was a way to escape from the now, and a promise to myself that things could be different. Anyway, on this day, I was in need of a stronger dose of distraction than usual: my dog had died a few days before, my wife had lost her job a little before that, my finances were pinched, and work—doing the accounts at a large furniture-importing company—was wearing me out. It made me grateful for our infertility, given the expense of raising a child. To make matters worse, after ten years of marriage, fifteen of the job, and a whole life in the same suburban square mile, I was possessed by a feeling I couldn’t shake: that this was all there was to life, that the combination of elements that made up my existence would just go on for years with as much surprise as the change of the seasons. Endless banality until the grave would be my fate.
After glancing through one of the magazines, I decided to put it back on the rack, but was thrown into confusion. Before my eyes was the brick wall of the stand, and several feet below, about where my knees were, stood the rack I was looking for. At the same height were the heads of the other customers. I was floating several feet above the ground.
As I remember it, my first thought was, “I must try, as quietly as possible and without calling attention to myself, to get back onto the ground, without anyone noticing me.” It’s possible I felt panic, and a sense of vertigo, but I’m not sure. I do know that I felt foolish and helpless. I had been brought up in a scientific and rationalist spirit, and things like this weren’t supposed to happen in the world I knew, so I wasn’t equipped to deal with it.
Where the rational mind has no answers, one is forced to rely on impulse and the will. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and tried to force myself down. With relief I felt my body budge downward a few inches. I continued to push myself down, having to make a greater effort each time. As I couldn’t huff, puff, and shout—that would disturb the other customers—I started to run out of energy, and my head heated up from the strain. A gray and purple film, like a sudden rush of clouds, appeared before my eyes; I relaxed and the atmosphere cleared. I looked down: I was now only six inches off the ground. Unfortunately I couldn’t go any lower; there seemed to be a hard glassy surface under my feet. An idea hit me: if I can’t move down, try moving from side to side. I put the magazine back on the rack—it was crumpled and damp with sweat—and pushed myself away from the stand, not taking steps but moving like a skater across ice. To my joy and relief, it worked.
I slid away from the foreign-periodical rack into an unpopulated corner of the building and pondered my next move. I bent down and felt for the plate or surface that was holding me up, but found nothing, only air. The idea of a dash for the exit tempted me, but I rejected it: people might see me, and once outside, without the benefit of a ceiling over my head, I might rise up in the air to God knows what height. This second fear now received some confirmation. I stood erect and instantly felt giddy, as though I were on the observation deck of a skyscraper. At the same time I began to pitch back and forth like a ship in a violent storm. With horror and disgust I realized I was rising again, elevated by some draft-like pressure from below. I grasped with sweat-slicked hands at the nearest shelf and was able, with some muscular effort and (so it seemed) strong force of will, to arrest my rise. I looked down and figured I had gained about six inches. Now, concentrating very hard, I commanded myself to go down. Slowly and smoothly I returned to my previous height. Standing again, I began to concentrate even harder, making a final effort to reach ground level, grunting under my breath, praying and ordering myself to crack through the invisible barrier.
A loud crash (like glass shattering) broke the silence and I went sprawling and hit the floor hard. The customers turned their faces all at once toward me. Some faces expressed curiosity, others fear. A couple of magazines fell from the rack and landed on me. I heard steps approaching, familiar in their heavy thud. Louie, the owner of the newsstand, suddenly appeared and fixed his alarmed gaze on my prone body, hurting from strain and the violence of the fall. I tried to get up and dust myself off nonchalantly as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, but the damage was already done.
“What’s going on?” said Louie.
“I can see that. Did you hurt yourself?”
“I’m fine, I think.” I stretched my limbs and flexed my joints; everything was in good working order. “I’ve been having trouble with this leg…”
The look of concern on the owner’s face started to fade. “Okay,” he said. “Is it slippery there?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. He stared at the area where I had fallen as I started to move away. The other customers were still looking in my direction, which made me uncomfortable. Louie came closer. He looked me over closely, as if suspicious.
“Are things okay with you?” he said.
“You mean… generally?”
He nodded. I managed to say something along the lines of, “It’s complicated, but I expect things to improve in the near future.” He moved away slowly, back to his post. I slipped quietly out the door.
Cars and people zoomed past. I expected my fellow pedestrians to stare at me as though I had two heads, but none of them reacted to me at all. I was grateful for the solidity of the ground, something I had never really thought about before. Though relieved to be free, I hesitated over each step for fear that I might start ascending an invisible staircase. The sky was darkening; or was it just my vision? I headed straight home, intending to get a roof over my head and think things over.
A block from my house I saw a man who stood eerily still and regarded me with an enigmatic smile. He was dressed in tweeds, wore a beret, and carried a gnarled black walking stick. For some reason I was afraid of him. I tried to go past him as calmly as I could, but he said in a grandfatherly voice, “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”
I froze. “What?”
He said, “The second time is usually easier.”
I tried to say something, but my voice came out cracked and squeaky. He cut me short with a wave of his hand, saying, “Now, son, I understand how you feel. There’s no point in getting upset. Rather, you ought to be in ecstasy. Millions of people have dreamed of receiving the gift of flight.”
“Use it wisely.” He waved goodbye, then disappeared into the bushes so fast I didn’t even see him go. After standing in shock for a second, I stuck my head timidly into the bushes, trying to find him, but it was in vain. I was alone again, but somehow I felt a bit less alarmed and fearful.
My feet stayed on the ground all the rest of the way to my house. I arrived to find my wife sitting in her accustomed position: at the kitchen table, perched on a chair, with a magazine and a mug of coffee in front of her. Since losing her job a few weeks before she had spent a lot of time in this state, which I described, cruelly, as “perpetual lunch.” She lingered here for hours in an almost catatonic trance, looking either as though she were just about to enjoy a refreshing coffee break (after a hard spell of work) or just about to rise and begin a hard spell of work (after a refreshing coffee break). “She’ll snap out of it,” I thought; but how well I knew that feeling!
“Hello dear,” she said, barely looking up. “Did you have a nice day?”
I couldn’t really answer this question, so I contented myself with a few platitudes. It was sad that I was afraid to tell the truth to someone who was supposed to be so close to me. “And how have you been today?” I blurted.
“Keeping busy.” It was the answer I expected. I continued, with just a touch of acidity: “I can see. But wouldn’t it be better if you could ‘keep busy’ a bit more profitably? I don’t mean to make you angry, of course, but I saw a couple of positions advertised on the bulletin board at work that I think you should consider applying for.”
She raised her face. I could tell she was annoyed. I felt stupid: she hated to be pushed and prodded, so why did I say that? “You’re not helping,” she droned. She was withdrawing into herself again, leaving me totally alone. I decided to risk everything.
“I can fly.”
She raised her eyebrow and emitted a faint laugh. “Oh, really? I wish I could fly! I’d fly right out of here.”
My attempt had failed. She was again withdrawing from me. Try something more mundane, I thought. On top of today’s mail, I saw a red metal canister, a curious object that looked like some piece of ordnance. “Hey, what’s this?” I asked, picking it up.
She barely looked up. “It’s Waldo,” she said.
“Oh.” Good God, was that really all of him? Such a big dog, and now so light! I shook him gently. It just made me sadder.
My wife vanished back into her magazine.
I took Waldo’s ashes into the living room and set them down on the table. Next to them was a letter addressed to me. It was from my credit card company. It said that I had missed my last payment, so a late fee was being charged against me.
That night I stood in the kitchen, brewing a pot of tea. Nothing out of the ordinary had happened for several hours, and I was on the verge of convincing myself that the afternoon’s event had been a hallucination brought on by recent pressures. Even if true, this was not very comforting, because of what it might say about my mental state. Since every conclusion looked bad, I avoided drawing any. I stopped thinking about it.
The evening was cool, and I had opened the window because I liked to bathe in cold air every once in a while; it made me feel fresh and energetic. There was a full moon out, and it illuminated the kitchen with bright bluish light. At the same time my wife sat in the living room, soaking up the artificial light of the television set.
I felt powerful. The circumstances I found myself in seemed to matter less and less. All the conditions and limitations of my life were melting away like ice under a hot sun. All wives, credit card companies, and employers shrank to mere cardboard figures, distant and harmless. I could mock them with impunity, and trample them if they blocked my way. The wind was playing a triumphal fanfare for me; curtains parted and fluttered in my honor. The world was waiting for me to embrace it and carry it away.
The tea was ready. I picked up the pot and positioned it over my cup, ready to pour. As I poured I missed the cup, which appeared to be standing at an unfamiliar angle. Tea spilled over the counter. I looked down: I was beginning, for the second time today, to rise into the air.
What was it the man with the gnarled stick had said? “Use it wisely.” Flight was a gift, granted to me for unknown reasons, but one thing was clear: they (whoever they were) wanted me to use this gift, and if I fought them, I would only be hurting myself. I was still only a few inches off the floor, but already I knew that I would no longer be afraid to fly. Since it was cool outside, I grabbed my jacket from the back of the chair where it was hanging, and put it on. Then I concentrated and used my will together with the force that was pushing me up, in concert with it, and tried to make it work for me. I was flooded with happiness: I vividly imagined myself as a fish released from captivity into the current of a swiftly flowing river. Steadying my position, I rose majestically several feet into the air, and flew out the window.
Once free, I was faced with the problem of how precisely to use my newfound powers; but first I wanted to experiment, to test myself, to discover the full extent of my abilities. So I zoomed high into the air, far above the city, and began to trace various shapes and figures. The ease with which I created circles, triangles, and figure eights exhilarated me; I thought of myself as a screensaver etching patterns in the sky. As I swooped and dived the blazing yellow of city lights revolved around me at a dizzying pace. There seemed to be no limits to my mobility and speed. To test this I came roaring down almost to street level and paused above one of the city’s main arteries. I then propelled myself forward with incredible speed, passing one block each second and laughing at earthbound motorists and the ridiculous traffic signals they had to obey. In the light of the street lamps and the full moon I must have been briefly visible as I flew by; I was dimly aware of a commotion beneath me. Joyful and unrestrained, I came down even lower, almost to head height, and slowly circled a busy intersection. Expressions of total disbelief were stamped on the faces of pedestrians. Some pointed, others screamed. A dog howled. Car horns honked.
This chaos was amusing, but I soon got tired of it and decided to find a place where I could sit for a while and plot my next move. I composed myself, slowed down, and landed on the unlit roof of a fairly tall building. I looked down on the city. Some people had gathered in a group and were shouting and gesticulating; they were obviously talking about me. The thought struck me that some kind of ultimate test was in order here, something that would really stretch my powers. I set my mind to finding an appropriate goal. I considered certain skyscrapers but rejected them: they were not impressive enough, and too familiar; their top floors were always accessible by elevator. Mountains, on the other hand, were a real challenge—Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Elbrus, Erebus, Everest… from the ground they looked unattainable, floating as if suspended in midair. But in my current state they challenged me to conquer them, above all Everest, supreme among them… Yes: tonight I would conquer Everest, and I would do it with unprecedented speed and suavity.
But first, a drink. Once more I ascended and made my way, via side streets and back alleys, to my favorite pub.
The pub’s windows were steamed up from the conviviality inside. I walked through the door firmly and with confidence. Feeling like a new man, I ordered a beer.
“Hey!” said a voice behind me. I turned around. It was Phil, one of my colleagues from work. He did some kind of sales-related job, and spent his free time either in various watering holes drinking too much, or at home in front of the TV, watching sports and nature documentaries. Normally I wouldn’t have wanted to chat, as we didn’t generally hang out away from the office, but in my expansive mood of the moment, I felt friendly. I joined him and his beer at a corner table. We made small talk.
“Are you taking those pills?” he asked, after we had gone through the banalities of the day.
“Pills?” I wondered, then remembered. It was some medication he had recommended to me; he had been concerned about my low level of vitality. “No. Why?”
“You look rejuvenated. Like they’ve given you an energy shot or something.”
“I do? Well, that’s good. No, it’s not the pills.”
My mouth opened, and a river of words flowed out. “No, I’m not taking the pills at all. Don’t need to. All I need—all you need, or anyone—is to be open to the world and all the things in it. Do you know that feeling, when you’ve discovered a new talent and realize that maybe it’s been there all along? And you were too blind or depressed or worn down by life to know about it, and suddenly it’s there, and you’re looking for things to do with it? Miracles do happen. By saying they don’t, we close ourselves off from the possibility that they might come true. But the potential is always there. Do you know what I’m talking about?”
I went on for a while in that vein. By the time I finished, Phil looked totally lost. He took a few confused sips of his beer.
“Ah well, maybe I’ll give you the whole story later,” I said. Use it wisely, I thought. It was time to escape from human society. Everest was waiting for me.
“See you at the office,” he said as I walked away.
From blue romantic night to bright blazing day; from noisy autumnal streetscape to silent snowy peak: I had arrived. The entire journey had taken only an hour, or maybe two—my grasp of time was a bit weak. To my surprise I could breathe quite freely, and extraordinary warmth generated by my own body kept me from shivering. Miraculously, my clothes, though a little rumpled, still clung to me; I had expected that they would be torn or burned away during the flight. It seemed that my whole body, as it developed the capacity for flight, had also grown inured to its hardships. Anyway, here I was: trudging around awkwardly through a vast tract of snow, giddy with the vertigo-inducing view of distant clouds below, and quite literally on top of the world. This was the most stupefying thing of all. Overwhelmed by it, I lay down in the snow and stared up at the dark blue sky, crystalline in its immobility, and knew I was looking into outer space. Resting, cushioned by the snow, I thought of the difficult struggle of the first conquerors of Everest, and the dangers they had to endure, and I felt blessed.
I dozed for a bit, then heard footsteps. “Damn,” I thought, “I can’t even get to sleep on the summit of Mount Everest.” I tried to turn away from the noise, and then it hit me: who… and how…? Startled, I looked up. Before me was the mysterious man himself, the man with the gnarled black stick, upon which he was leaning at a rakish angle. In contrast to me, he looked immaculate: not a thread of his clothing was out of place, and his beret was perched jauntily on his carefully groomed head. Before I could say anything, he called out in a friendly tone, “So, how was it this time?”
“Very fine, thank you.” I got up and brushed the snow off my clothes. “I’m tired now, but when I arrived here, I felt powerful, yet serene.”
“Ah yes. I figured you might make an attempt at coming here. The first time is just getting used to the thing. You’re a bit scared at first. Then a few hours pass, and ambition creeps in. You want to do the things you always thought about, but couldn’t do. And onward from there… but I won’t tell you that now. You’ll find it out for yourself.”
“Tell me,” I said, burning with curiosity, “why did you choose me? And who are you anyway?”
“Now, son, you know that’s a secret I am not authorized to reveal.” He smiled condescendingly at me.
“Oh, you messengers from beyond are all the same!”
“Calm down, son. How many messengers from beyond do you know, that you can talk like that? Anyway, you’d better get back to your wife. She’s worried about you, and might call the police, who won’t be able to find you.”
He was right; I had completely forgotten her. As an afterthought, he shouted: “And that tea you were making is now completely undrinkable!”
“I’d better leave right away,” I said. “It’s a long flight back.”
“Oh, I can help you. I’ll give you a whack with this stick, and you’ll be there in no time.”
I stared at him skeptically.
“Trust me,” he said. “Bend over.”
So like a schoolboy faced with a caning, I offered him my backside. For a second I was even afraid that someone would see me in this ridiculous posture. As he took aim I asked, “Will I ever see you again?”
“That depends on you,” he said. Then he swung. The sky shattered into countless fragments, and I went spinning into space. I became dizzy and might have fainted for a moment; I remember floating in a milky twilight, suspended between light and dark, which appeared as two paths challenging me to choose one or the other. Groggily, I surged toward the darkness, propelled by instinct. Suddenly everything snapped into focus: I was plunged into the luxurious, bottomless world of night, and recognized down below the illuminated outlines of my city. I felt a jolt and the smell of the earth in my face. Looking up, I saw that I had landed in the middle of a park not far from my home. I staggered to my feet and oriented myself. Besides my tousled hair, a rip in my jacket, and some dirt on my clothes, I was not damaged or hurt. I started walking, gradually regaining my equilibrium. A few minutes later I was standing on the street, in front of my house.
In the window a lamp was on. I was afraid to enter. During the entire time I had been away, I never gave a thought to what I was going to tell my wife. I couldn’t tell her the truth, she might call the men in the white coats, and I would find myself in confinement with no company but other truth-tellers. Obviously I had to come up with something. A late night at the pub, then some tomfoolery with a few friends, accounting for my haggard looks and torn clothing? If necessary, my colleague at the pub who had recommended the pills to me might serve as an alibi.
I turned the door handle and entered as quietly as possible. There she was, the first thing I saw, stretched out on the couch and asleep. An empty coffee mug stood on the table in front of her, next to Waldo’s ashes. I was tiptoeing toward the bedroom when she stirred. Her eyes opened; she fixed them on me and sprang to vengeful life. “Well, it’s about time!”
“Hi,” I said softly. “Sorry I didn’t call.”
“Where were you, for God’s sake? And why did you leave through the back door? And why didn’t you tell me where you were going? This isn’t like you.”
“Yes, I’m sorry, I don’t know what got into me.”
“I was about to call the police.”
“I’m glad you didn’t, that would’ve been embarrassing. No, I went to the pub… intending only to stay for a moment, have one beer and then go… and I ran into Harry. You know, who used to walk his dog with Waldo and us? Back about two, three years ago? And he started telling me about this new business he’s starting, has something to do with clothes, urban outfitting, that sort of thing—so of course I thought of you, maybe a chance there… and while he was telling me about this, we were joined by—” I continued on my desperate way, improvising a long, only marginally believable story. Finally I finished up with with “then we went over to Harry’s house, and we tried to cut through the park at night like a pack of idiots, and I slipped and fell and that’s how I tore my jacket.” She wasn’t convinced. Acting on impulse I lowered my voice to a sincere, confidential pitch: “And then I picked myself up, rose into the air and flew away. I flew to the top of Mount Everest, then turned around and came back here. All of that in a few hours.”
And an extraordinary thing happened. Her hard, stony face softened and took on a look of disturbed compassion, as if it had just dawned on her that I might not be entirely happy. The anger and frustration were gone. I stood silently, not quite knowing what to do, but feeling less nervous. “Please,” she said, “you don’t have to tell me these stories. You can be honest with me. I know things have been tough for you, but don’t feel that you have to fly away from home. You know, don’t you, that I understand, and you don’t have to tease me…” She was exhausted and began to stumble over her words. I mumbled a few words of gratitude, thankful for her concern. My fear had passed; I was again in familiar surroundings, secure and relieved.
My wife said she was going to bed and asked if I was coming with her. I said that I wanted to stay up for just a few more minutes. She nodded and trod away softly.
I sat down on the couch. I was too wide awake to go to bed, so I turned down the lamp and stared out the window. After a while the night began to turn pale around its edges. In the predawn twilight I stood and started to pace restlessly around the room. Objects, caught in the delicate grayish light, looked solid and peaceful. The coffee mug appeared statuesque and eternal, as if made of marble. The strong, reassuring wood of tables and chairs gleamed. I was conscious of meek underground noises, like moles burrowing and the rush of flowing water. The earth and all the objects on it seemed almost on the verge of speech. Just then I heard a decisive thud on the grass in front of my house. I went outside to investigate.
There, shiny on the grass like a black snake, was my angelic friend’s own gnarled walking stick. I bent over slowly and picked it up. As I closed my hand around it I felt a surge of power like an electric charge; but whether it came from the stick, or was generated by me, remained unclear. Solemnly I carried this treasure indoors. With care I cleared a space for it in the hall closet, and put it away amidst hats, coats, and umbrellas. Then I returned to the couch.
The sky was rosy; birds announced the new day. I began to hear the purposeful zoom of cars as they multiplied in the streets. In a couple of hours it would be time to head off to work, there to chat, busy myself with various pieces of nonsense, and on this day especially, ward off sleep with a steady flow of coffee. But for now I would rest. As I lay down the image of the walking stick flashed through my head, and I wondered if it would ever reveal its secrets. Yet already I felt a bond forming between it and myself; even now it seemed to be trying to communicate with me. As I dozed, I heard its distant buzzing in my mind, like a coded message sent by wire. It was a sound, I thought sadly, that I alone was able to hear.
Read “Lux Aeterna,” a story by Scott Spires previously appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo Mount Everest by crazy777, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Scott Spires by Olga Uspenskaya.