by Daniel Deisinger
In January, Jama skimmed down the park’s big hill and hit a jump; his sled skittered on the hard-packed snow without him and a moment later he landed, heart pounding and head spinning through the air. His mother, shivering on a bench, hadn’t noticed.
He went down the hill, again and again, trying to recreate the curious sensation. It reminded him of coming to America as their boat rolled over ocean waves and sank his stomach to his toes. The rest of the day he did little other than go sledding or sit in front of the TV, but exhaustion left him limp by eight P.M. when his father carried him to bed.
Two days later, on Monday, his bus took him past the park, and he inspected the snowy hill. Tall buildings surrounded the park’s glittering fresh snow and forest pathways, but Jama only had eyes for the hill.
Clouds filled his dreams.
At recess, dressed in padded snow clothes, he had the perfect chance to try again. Kids bounced, ran, and played all over; they didn’t pay any attention to him. He climbed onto the jungle gym and positioned himself above a big pile of soft snow. He jumped.
When he landed, he wasn’t hurt, but he still laid in the snow for a few minutes.
The rest of the school day blurred. His teacher had to wake him up near the end of the day, and he fell asleep right after getting home.
Two days later he tried again. Clouds still filled his dreams, surrounding him as he soared. He found another big pile of snow, climbed onto the jungle gym, and leaped off.
Two seconds this time.
Still, no one noticed him. A thrill bounced his heart. He wasn’t imagining things.
In a few weeks, he floated five seconds at a time. He imagined an energy meter, and every time it emptied it flashed alien color, leaving him weak and dizzy. He stopped practicing during recess–he didn’t want anyone to notice. He pushed all the snow in his backyard together into a big pile under the deck and spent all night jumping over and over again. Every time he climbed the deck’s stairs his arms and legs weighed more. Every time he reached the top the meter grew. It strengthened. Over and over, until his mother slid open the screen door and demanded he come back in. She watched her only child climb onto the deck and jump off over and over again, and each time he reappeared he had a bigger smile. She didn’t want him to stop smiling, but he still needed to go to bed.
Snow melted and refroze and turned to hard, sharp ice. Then it melted and stayed so. He had a new goal–land on his feet. For his birthday, in March, he asked for a bike helmet. He didn’t have a bike–too expensive for his family–and his parents asked him why.
Jama laughed. “To protect my head!”
March eighteenth he strapped on his new helmet and ran to the park, past rivers of melting snow and big piles of ice still holding on in shady spots. A few other people occupied the park, taking walks or going for runs, but the playground kept silent. He found the perfect spot on the jungle gym–about four feet off the ground, plenty of space around him for his limbs to move, and out of sight. Soggy wood chips would soften the fall. He secured his helmet tight and fell off the jungle gym.
He twisted himself in the air; the meter drained in a blink. He landed on his back and laid on the soggy wood chips for a minute before climbing back up. He took huge breaths and blew them out again.
Clouds drifted high above.
He fell and landed on his shoulder. Unkind tingles swept down his arm, and he sat on the ground, massaging the spot.
On his fifth try his helmet came in handy; he knocked his knuckles on it with a smile as he climbed again.
He got his feet under him on his tenth try, landing in a crouch. He then collapsed onto his butt, panting. Sweat trickled down his face and matted his short, curly hair under his helmet. One more time.
He fell and halted himself in midair. His stomach plummeted to his feet as he maneuvered them under himself. He held himself there as long as he could. The meter dwindled, and as it neared empty colors of exhaustion and fear and pain flashed. When it emptied he lost control and fell, landing feet-first but crumpling to his hands and knees. A hot, sharp feeling penetrated his body, through the front of his chest and out the back. After a few good, deep breaths of cold late-winter air, the burning cooled. But the meter stayed empty, and he stumbled home–exhausted like he had run miles without stopping. Burning, like he had dipped himself in a boiling bathtub for too long. Nervous, like he was on his way up the world’s longest, fastest roller coaster. Excited.
Excited like coming to America. Excited like the last day of school. Excited like his favorite television show starting. Not even about to start–like he was the main character. Like he was Superman, and he needed his cape. Like he was a hero. Like he flew above notice among the clouds.
Snow melted, trees budded, and the meter extended. He toppled over when he landed, so he worked on his center of balance. His feet slipped, so he learned to control them as he came down. He whacked his arm on the jungle gym and started keeping track of them.
Try as he might, his parents noticed. He returned from the playground with more bruises and cuts and their worry grew, but try as they might they could never get a clear answer out of him. “I’m just playing,” he said. He’d knock his knuckles on his helmet. “Don’t worry, my head is safe!” And then he would get a smile they couldn’t help but enjoy. So big. So bright! Maybe he had a friend? As long as he did his homework.
Nights warmed up. In April kids went to the park more, and Jama lost his hidden spot on the jungle gym. He took to the trees and the running paths, hiding out of sight when someone approached and floating from tree to tree when alone. Every day, until the meter flashed painful colors, and he lost even the strength to stand for a few minutes.
Once the high branches of a tree caught him, too tired to lower himself. The sun sank, and the park’s sounds dwindled. After a little while, an elderly man strolled past, and Jama shouted for help. The old man jumped out of his skin but hurriedly called the fire department.
The firefighter who brought him down gave Jama a stern warning about climbing trees. Safe on the ground, Jama nodded over and over through the entire speech and acted properly shamed when the fire truck brought him home and the firefighter explained things to his parents.
“I was just climbing trees!” Jama said when his parents pressed.
They sent him to bed. In their own bed, they discussed getting him a cell phone. He had become more independent–out all day on his own. It wasn’t safe for a child, especially the child of an immigrant.
When they fell asleep, Jama snuck out to the back yard, going through the garage door and past his father’s red car with the dented roof so he didn’t have to pass his parent’s room. He tightened his helmet and stood on the cool grass under the deck as crickets and night birds beeped and rustled. He could lower himself–could he raise himself? He had drained the meter and got stuck in the tree, but the meter refilled faster than before. The hot, sharp sensation bothered him less every day.
Just once. Just the one time. And then to bed.
Breath in–his lungs inflated to their limit. Breath out–they shriveled like balloons. He lifted his eyes to the deck railing, ten feet over his head. He raised his arms.
The meter refilled faster, but it hadn’t filled up yet. It began blinking right away, a moment after his toes left the ground. He locked his arms straight, just like Superman, and the deck railing got closer and closer. Inch by inch. The meter flashed brighter, and he shut his eyes, groaning, straining. His entire body squeezed; the meter blazed–burned through his brain. Brighter, brighter and brighter, until it filled him, and then his fingertips touched the railing.
His hands latched on, and his shoes found the deck. He gasped down air, and the meter’s painful flashing dimmed until he opened his eyes and wrapped his arm around the deck railing.
As he climbed the railing, the deck’s motion-sensor light came on. He froze, and a moment later his parent’s bedroom lit up.
His father slid the door open and stepped out, cricket bat raised and eyes darting side-to-side. Nothing showed itself, and the cricket bat drooped. Jama’s mother stood behind her husband in a dressing gown, hands over her mouth. It must have been an animal, his father said, and he closed the sliding door.
Jama lay pressed against the roof. Gritty shingles bit into his hands, arms, and legs. His chest puffed up and down. Like his mother, he covered his mouth.
He had leaped. He had pushed off into the air and landed on the roof as easily as climbing the stairs.
He had flown.
He sat up and got to his knees. The meter blared to light and sound, and he sucked in cold air until the sharp sensation between his stomach and lungs slipped away. The meter’s bright, unnamed color settled–it returned when he lowered himself to the grass from the corner of the roof. He stumbled to the garage door and let himself in. He long overslept, and even after his mother managed to wake him his day at school was a blur. Instead of learning long division, or Civil War history, or gerunds, Jama drifted among clouds.
Darkness came earlier every day, and when fall began and chill set in, Jama focused. Going farther, reaching higher, and staying up longer. The meter no longer slurped away in the blink of an eye. Now it dripped, bit by bit, like a melting icicle. He hovered for eleven minutes and nineteen seconds—an inch off the ground in the park. He walked through the air for more than nine minutes. He lifted himself to the top of a tall tree and then lowered himself over and over until the meter ran dry.
The sun went down before seven o’clock. By eight most kids went home. On October third he stood on the hill where it had first happened, where he had frozen in the winter air. Tall buildings surrounded the park, and the highest rose in front of him. A hundred feet, a thousand feet, may it be a mile, it didn’t matter. He was headed to the top. A radio tower blinked there, flashing red. Though the sun had set and cast a blanket of darkness over the park, the top of the building and the clouds above it glowed bright orange.
Jama turned a hundred and eighty degrees. He’d spent the last hour floating around, never letting the meter get even close to empty. It filled up, and he marched to the bottom of the hill. He unclipped his helmet and pulled it off, dropping it into the grass. If he fell, a helmet wouldn’t help him.
Breath in. Breath out.
Feet flying, heart pounding, up the hill. To the top. Past the top! Into the air! Flying! No helmet to weigh him down! Toes pointed back, hands out behind him, face into the wind and mouth open in an exultant smile!
The meter shrank.
High! Higher! Over the trees in the park! Into the unknown dark sky!
The wind tore at his smile! It stung his eyes! It flapped his clothes like a cape, and he pushed his hands out in front, sharpening them into knives to slice through the air. Car lights wound through streets under him. The curious sensation of his stomach dropping into his feet didn’t come–instead, nothing but the thrill of power roared across his skin.
The meter shrank.
The tall building rose over him.
Then go higher.
He rose. Smaller buildings passed under his feet. They weren’t worth his time! They—
The meter was half empty.
His eyes narrowed. Reach the building. Stand on the roof. Look over the city and know you are special. Icy wind stung his eyes and pushed him around. His mouth pressed into a thin line. Faster. Higher. Don’t let anything stop you.
The meter drained.
His fingers spread. The radio tower flashed as the meter blinked. A simple warning at first—you’re getting close. The city dwindled under him and the flashing gained power. Watch out. Be careful.
The building got closer and closer. Ever closer.
This is becoming dangerous.
No other buildings. Nothing to land on. The windows had no sills. Reach the top of the building or fall. You’ll be noticed then, won’t you, child? Boy? They will notice your splattered body and wonder where you came from.
The meter blared out unknown light. YOU ARE IN DANGER.
His heart crashed inside his chest. He stretched his hands to their limit.
A foot. He caught himself and clenched his jaw; he rose back up. The meter drained away. The sun painted him orange and the top of the building came within reach. His fingers brushed stone. The meter emptied. He plummeted.
His upper half landed on the roof; his legs flopped against the side of the building, hundreds of feet over the street. He slipped backward. Kicking, pulling, gasping for breath, vision flashing. A white-hot knife buried itself in his body. He yanked himself forward until his legs laid on the roof.
Nothing but the in-out feeling of breath. The meter stayed empty, and each time it blinked pain surged in his torso.
Furious wind pulled his body as he rested. He giggled to himself and lifted his hand, turning it in the wind. His hand dropped to the roof, and for some time he did nothing but breathe.
He crawled to the edge of the roof. Small, dark people walked under him, streetlights illuminating them. Toy cars drove back and forth. The park was a small, distant dark green square. Every few seconds the radio tower’s light turned him red.
The pain in his body didn’t fade. The meter remained empty. He sat huddled next to the radio tower, knees against his chest and arms around his legs. Breath in. Breath out.
But the meter didn’t fill. It lay dormant and colorless. Hunger and exhaustion left him weak.
The roof had an access door in one corner. He stood up–the wind bullied him back down. He growled and stood up again, this time keeping his feet. He stumbled over to the access door. The building’s front doors were probably locked. He would have to find someone inside and get them to let him out. He could say his father worked in the building, and he had gotten lost while visiting.
What if they suspected foul play and called the police? Jama would apologize, promise not to do it again. Say he just wanted to see what was inside the big building. Swear he wouldn’t do it again.
And all the while, cheer inside his head.
He grabbed the door’s handle; it didn’t have one. Nothing but a lock set in the door looked back at him. He pushed against the door. It didn’t budge. He brushed his hands over it, trying to find something, anything, he could use to get it open. He worked his fingers around the lock, but they slipped without giving him any purchase.
He stumbled backward. Cold sweat sprang out on his brow, and laughing wind froze him.
He pounded on the door, banging with all his strength and calling for help until his lungs emptied and pain bloomed from his hand to his arm. After a few minutes, he slumped against the door and pulled his knees up to his chest again. The meter was still empty. No one knew he was there. No one would come to check on an empty roof.
His parents would raise an alarm. They would get people looking. But they would never think to look on top of a high building. They would look in the neighborhood, the park, or maybe the school, but never the top of a distant building.
The wind picked up. Sweat dried on his skin, and as light faded from the sky a cold fist squeezed him. He wore a tank top and shorts–lighter clothing. He wrapped his arms around his knees and huddled against the door for a little bit of protection from the wind.
The sharp, hot feeling remained, like an old burn, but it didn’t warm him. He shivered, teeth clanking together–he couldn’t stop them. He stood up, shaking his arms and pumping his legs, but he didn’t have enough energy to keep moving–he sat against the door again, panting.
The building shifted under him, and his heart jumped. It tilted a few inches, and Jama clung to the ground. The wind died down and the building shifted back. His heart spasmed inside his throat. He pounded on the door again, longer this time, until he exhausted every ounce of energy.
The meter was still empty.
A sleepless blur. A dark, starless hood covered him, except for the blinking red light on the top of the radio antenna. He pressed against the door, every few minutes pounding on it, as wind stole his heat and dried his tears.
He slept a little. He kept jerking awake, cheek pressed against cold stone.
Once the meter had a bit in it. His heart leaped, but there wasn’t enough. As soon as he stepped off the roof it would empty out and he would plummet the rest of the way. Someone would find him. Someone had to find him.
By now his parents would be in a frenzy. They thought him dead in a ditch or trapped in an evil man’s basement. They would have gone to the police. He crawled to the edge of the roof and peeked down. A few cars had red and blue lights as they drove, through the streets far below.
His head pounded when he woke up. Harsh wind pushed him toward the edge of the roof. A little bit of light in the sky’s corner. Morning!
He lifted his head. It didn’t pound–the air did. A news helicopter flew past, staying far away from the building. Jama stood up and waved his hands, but it flew off, and Jama banged on the door, crying and screaming for help.
Invisible bugs rippled across his skin, and warped sounds filled his ears. Other buildings in the city flickered and wavered like mirages. He rubbed his arms, up and down, never stopping, never falling still, trying for warmth, trying for comfort.
The meter sat at a third. Jama got to his feet. His head swam. His mouth had dried out during the night. His stomach contracted. He sniffed and wiped his nose, tottering to the edge of the roof. Even as the sun brushed his skin, the city below still lay in night. Early-risers had already taken to the streets, and none of them looked up.
Somehow he had moisture for tears when the sun finally reached him. Yet the wind snatched away the warmth it brought.
He sat on the edge of the roof. If he slipped, he could get back up. He had that much. The meter stayed at one third.
Higher. The sun crowned over buildings. Jama guessed he had been on the roof for twelve hours. He went to the door and pounded on it more. He went from the door to the edge of the roof and back, pounding for help and looking for a way down. Swallowing sent sharp pain into his throat. Hard jolts came up from his empty stomach. His head pounded.
A crowd collected at the base of the building. Plenty of tiny dot-people. Vehicles. A big red firetruck. An ambulance. When he stood on the edge of the building all the dot-people shifted and vibrated. He rubbed his eyes, blinking a few times in the dry wind and blinding sun. More and more cars pulled up and people got out.
Then a car Jama recognized. From this high up it was a toy. An old red car with a dented roof. Two figures got out of the car and went to the front of the crowd. People smashed in around them. They would send someone up to unlock the door.
No one came. He sat on the edge of the building, waiting for the adventure to end, but it never did. The door never opened.
The day turned warm. Clouds drifted in. Jama stood.
The edge of the roof–like taking a step down the stairs.
He controlled his fall as much as he could. The meter flashed. He dipped and bucked as wind cut across his cracked lips. His eyelids sank, and he smiled at the onrushing ground. It was a dream. He was about to wake up.
A lightning bolt of alien color tore his vision in half, and terror burned his body. Pain tore him as he jolted to a stop in midair. His empty stomach split itself open and his lungs flopped inside him. The meter flashed light through him. Emptier, emptier, emptier. Down, down, down. He lowered himself. Dot-people grew to terrified faces. His parents held each other, and as the meter drained and the ground grew, their faces changed to wonder.
He fell at last; they caught him. They roared, whistled, jabbered, screamed, whispered, and spoke to him at last. They crushed him between them, pulled him apart, and the crowd pressed in closer. Reporters held cameras and microphones. Emergency people making sure he was safe. Dozens of celebrating pedestrians. The curious sensation of their eyes on him faded as everything turned black, and sounds grew muffled.
He fell asleep in his parents’ arms. Reporters pushed in as police officers kept them back. The custodian who couldn’t find the key to the roof apologized over and over–Jama’s parents laughed. Their child had just come from the sky! He was safe. He was safe. They thanked the man who had noticed Jama from the next building over until they couldn’t talk, and once the police let them go they put their child in the car. They kept looking back at him as they went home. He slept and dreamed of clouds.
Daniel Deisinger lives in Minnesota and writes for work and fun. His work has appeared in nearly twenty publications, including Havik, White Wall Review, Castabout Literature, Defenestration Magazine, and Ripples in Space. His book, Smiles Under the Moon, is available on Kindle. His twitter is @Danny_Deisinger, and his website is saturdaystory-Time.weebly.com.