Kai Raine ( http://www.kairaine.com/ ) is a world citizen and an ex-biologist. Kai is currently attempting a career in writing whilst relative-hopping, living out of a suitcase.
The smoke coils and dances through the air and up into the sky. I wish that I were that rising snake.
If I close my eyes and open my mind, I can feel the wind whipping my hair back again. I can feel it embracing my body in arms that are tangible for only this briefest instant in the history of time. I can forget the slithering lizard in my chest and remember how the world seemed to spread out before me, and the illusion that gravity had lost its ceaseless battle with the air. The sky came close, and I thought that I might be able to reach out and touch it. I was totally and utterly free.
But it only lasted for a moment, because humans don’t fly. They can’t, as it happens. Gravity never stops fighting and was quick to reassert its claim on me. Legally, the court ruled that I was coerced while under the influence and was not in any condition to consent to that stunt. I let the lawyer say what she wanted, and said what she told me to say when I was put on the witness stand. I didn’t lie; everything I said on the stand was the truth. Why should I have? I couldn’t care if I tried. Or maybe I didn’t want to try.
I can still remember the elation of those brief seconds; I still wake in the middle of the night drenched in a sweat, half lost in a dream where I flew again. My heart races in my chest, and then strangles me as wakefulness reminds me that it will never happen again.
It wasn’t fear—never fear. What did I have to fear? What isn’t worth those few moments of truly feeling alive?
Because I was the only one inebriated and the film was theirs, the boys lost the dispute and had to pay a fine. I got compensated for medical bills and some extra savings. None of it made me feel any better—if anything, it made me feel nauseous and I had to run to the bathroom as soon as court let out—but I kept my mouth shut because I couldn’t find a reason to care.
It would have driven my lawyer insane. Driven her sanity up in tangles into the air, just like these dancing coils: these coils that I wish I were.
Jeff and Brian don’t speak to me. The money that went towards the fine was money they’d been saving to finish the production. Sometimes I have to bite my lip when I see them across a room or a store or a street. Sometimes I end up running into a bathroom anyway, heaving as my body expels the meager portion that I called a meal that morning.
Greg is still my lab partner in our chemistry night class. On the first day after I got out of the hospital, he asked if I was alright. I said I was. He started talking about Lena, referencing Jeff and Brian without ever really talking about them. Maybe he was trying to build a bridge to mend things between us; maybe he was trying to dispel the awkward silence; maybe he just wanted to see how I would react.
I didn’t say anything, but something built up in my stomach. It was different from the strangled sensation of waking after a flying dream. It was a viper embraced by blue-hot flames, creeping up on me in mere discomfort that belied its destructive potential. When it struck at last, Greg was just referencing the latest monthly dinner—the first one that hadn’t included me since our group formed five years ago.
When I had to run to the sink at the back of the room, the class assumed that it was a lingering effect of my injuries. Greg assumed that I was grieving the loss of the “family” that had been mine a month ago.
I told him I didn’t care. I wasn’t lying. If some broken corner of my soul was bathing in freezing flames with a desire to break out of its cage, Greg didn’t ask and I couldn’t say. After that, our conversations were strictly chemistry.
I wonder sometimes if it would be easier if I talked to them. But I seriously doubt it.
Work and night classes are my life now, punctuated by strenuous walks through the mountains when I find time that I’ve failed to fill. My grades are probably falling, and I keep breaking things at work. I don’t care enough to want to care, and my boss forces to me to take breaks that I don’t want.
The creak of the back door opening snags my attention away from the beautiful wisps.
“Why’re you-” Lena starts as she pokes her head out the back door. She sees me and stops short. I wonder if she’ll go back inside. She merely closes the door and comes to sit on the crate beside me. “Think you could spare one?” she asks. Her voice is light, as though she believes that the rift is gone.
I hold out the box and she takes one. I offer her my lighter. She takes it and lights the cigarette with practiced fingers.
“I didn’t know you smoked,” Lena remarks.
A breeze brushes across my hair. I wish it would blow harder, like the wind that embraced me through me in the sky.
“Took it up last month.”
She raises an eyebrow but doesn’t comment. I watch her for another moment before I look back at the coils.
The human catapult was in the papers, and most people are eager to talk about it--Dedication to the art of film production, one flyer lauded. Film enthusiast injured in stunt with human-launching catapult, said a single tiny paragraph on page twelve of the city paper. I couldn’t find a reason to care about those, either. Maybe it bothers me that my friends are gone. I think it might be literally killing me that I got a taste of freedom for a few seconds, which is just enough that it whets the thirst for more—all the more so knowing that it’s never going to happen again.
“Things’ve been rough since that thing with Jeff’s catapult, huh?” Lena comments lightly. I bite down on the cigarette and say nothing. “Must’ve been amazing to be in the sky like that. You look as if you’re flying onscreen.”
“Not as if,” I say before I can think to bite away the words. “I was flying.”
“Must’ve been awesome—right up ‘til you hit the lake,” grins Lena, and I wonder if the wistfulness in her smile is something I’m imagining—me projecting my own feelings onto her.
“It was,” I whisper, taking the cigarette out of my mouth. “It really was.”
Suddenly, the thing tastes like cancer and disease and death. The coils are mocking grins and cruel laughs. I drop the scalding coal and crush it under my heel. Lena takes one last drag and does the same. She’s looking at me with a glint in her eyes that I’ve never seen there. I pretend not to notice.
“Greg’s worried about you,” she says suddenly.
I am taken aback for a moment, and then an ironic laugh bursts forth from my mouth. It makes an ugly sound, somewhere between a guffaw and a snort.
“And why doesn’t he talk to me? Have we backpedaled to high school? Shall I send my reply through Brian on a scribbled note torn out of a notebook?”
Lena smiles wryly. “He didn’t ask me to talk to you.”
“Then what are you trying to do?”
“To understand,” says Lena, and just like that the smile is gone. “I’m trying to understand how a little drunken fiasco with a home-made catapult could ruin your friendship just like that. I know Jeff’s a bit bitter—you did drag him through court—but you don’t even seem to want to change things.”
“You can’t understand.” After the words leave my mouth, I realize how childish that sounds. I won’t take it back.
Still Lena persists. “This isn’t the worst you’ve ever been injured pulling a stunt—remember that time with the cliff? It’s not even the first time you guys have gotten mixed up with the legal system. What the hell happened that you can’t just let it go like all the other stupid things you’ve gotten arrested for?”
“I persecuted them in court.”
It was a good question. I’d wondered it myself often enough. The wind changes direction, and this breeze carries something sweet and soft that tastes like the clouds.
I knew the answer, really. “Because the world was beautiful for a moment. And then it…wasn’t.” I wish that words weren’t so small.
Her eyes flash—she hasn’t understood. “You’re trying to get revenge over an adrenaline rush?”
She can’t believe it. Neither do I—because it was more than an adrenaline rush. It was flight. What words could do that justice?
But I don’t explain. She won’t understand, I know.
She’d tell me to go bungee jumping, or skydiving. I’ll explain that those are finite, with a near end right there, and she’ll roll her eyes.
So go to flight school, become a pilot, she’ll say.
It’s hardly the same thing to be flying inside a smooth metal box rigged with an engine, I’ll reply.
You know gliders? You can fly those in the open air with no engine. Just like you want.
But that wouldn’t be flight.
Parachuting. Hang-gliding. Parasailing! There’re any number of things to keep you and your damned adrenal gland happy!
All the ropes, all the weights on my body, and more than anything the knowledge that they’re there—how will that ever seem like flying after my moment in the air with nothing at all?
Are you trying to make yourself miserable? No, scratch that—you are. You’re determined to be miserable. This isn’t you.
This wasn’t me before. It’s me now.
Forget it, this is a waste of my time, she’d finally huff—though maybe I’m not giving her enough credit, maybe she’d argue a bit more—but in the end she’d leave.
I turn and walk away without another word.
“No, wait! I’m sorry, I’ll listen. I want to hear about it. Wait—your shift isn’t even over!”
Two more hours at a bar mixing drinks for whiny customers, mostly students who’ve just hit twenty-one and are overenthusiastic in their alcohol habits. Oh, joy. I can’t imagine why I’d want to miss that.
I haven’t drunk since that night, and it’s been getting harder to watch the kids around me at work. I wonder why I’ve been pushing through with my job at all.
The only positive thing to be said about living in a college town in the middle of nowhere is that it’s easy to find deserted places when you really need them. Tonight, I walk longer and further than I ever have, with no particular destination in mind.
I just need to go somewhere. Somewhere not here. Somewhere closer to there—closer to the sky.
I think about Jeff and Greg and Brian, and wonder if I ought to talk to them. The idea is drowned a moment later, because beyond all reason, against all rationale, the thought of what they’ve done to me sets my heart aflame.
But they’ve been my best friends since my first semester at university, and Lena’s two years with Greg have made her no less important in our little makeshift family. Family, I think. Family is supposed to trump everything in the end, except true love. Family is supposed to be more important than obsessions.
I’m not so far gone that I don’t realize that I’m obsessed. Seconds—mere seconds—and I throw myself into their memory every chance I get.
Light on the horizon. How long have I been walking? I look around me. It looks the same as anywhere else in these mountains, but I guess I’ve never been this far.
There isn’t any way I can see to climb any higher.
If only there were a cliff—on a cliff high enough, I could fly forever. No water to break my fall this time—a proper flight that would last for my eternity. I wonder for a moment if I’ve gone insane. But I don’t want to die, so maybe not. I just want to fly.
Of course, these mountains aren’t like that anyway—smooth and gentle mounds rounded at every edge and covered in greenery. I’m at the top of a hill: I can only assume so, because there’s no other path that will bring me closer the sky.
But even here, the sky is obscured by the branches of the trees around me. The weight of the Earth shackles me through my feet. Something catches in the back of my mouth. My throat is closed, and I can’t breathe. My eyes burn.
It all clears with the self-assurance that pine trees aren’t hard to climb. I reach for the lowest branch of the ancient tree beside me. It’s too high. I wrap my arms around the thick trunk as far as they reach and scramble with my feet. Earth is heavy, pulling me down.
Why have I been blaming my friends—my dearest family? Gravity is my foe.
A new fire blazes in my chest for a month’s worth of useless accusations and irreparable damage. I use it to fuel my arms and legs, and amidst scratches on my arms and palms and a tear in my jeans, I’ve managed to pull myself onto the lowest branch. Triumph sings through my muscles and bones, because Gravity isn’t winning this time.
It gets easier from there, but my limbs aren’t used to this much exertion and finally I am forced to rest to quell the shaking of my arms. I do so straddling a branch with my back against the trunk. The wind is a little stronger and Earth has fallen away a little further, and hope burns in me like an ember slowly rekindled.
The branches are thinner now; they creak under my weight. I pick the longest of the thicker branches and crawl up its length, scrambling around knots and over protruding branches amongst the tangle of the green needles that are beginning to redden my skin. The ember bursts into a small flame that carries me each forward scoot by scoot.
The world opens before me, and it is green and brown and red and yellow and gray and far away. I don’t realize until the fear leaves me that I was afraid after all. With the fear the fire that blazed against everything—gravity, my friends, the world—is gone without so much as a trace of ash.
The wind whips my hair around me, urging me to my feet atop the branch. All my senses take in everything as it is—from the icy fingers of the wind to the trees and roads and buildings that are all tiny specks below; from the fresh scent of pine and morning and autumn to the soft songs of chickadees and the hoarse caws of crows—and I love everything around me with all my heart. I open my arms, knowing that for the first time, I’m feeling the entire world.
When I open my eyes, the first thing that hits me is the gravity. A close second the darkness. Third comes the coarse texture of cloth against my arm, leg and cheek, and with it all the rest. My leg is numb. I roll over to relieve it.
I close my eyes; my body is still humming with the exhilaration, with the lightness. I can feel the air, dancing around me as I rise and fall through the sky as I please. But gravity and darkness are too powerful, in the end. The memories fade by the second.
I give up and open my eyes. I succumb to the magnetism of reality. The clock by my bed says it’s nearly sunrise. I think of checking my email; I choose not to. There will be an email waiting for me from my boss. I won’t be forgiven for leaving on-shift like that. There might be one from Lena, too. Maybe she’ll have covered for me.
I can’t figure which would be worse. I don’t enjoy the curdling in my throat, so I close my eyes instead. I beg silently for the embrace of flight once more—just one more time, I think.
I’ll be better tomorrow. I’ll find a job. Today, I want to fly.
I consider taking a walk like the one from my dream. Maybe I’d find a tree like that, perfect for a climb. Maybe I’d reach the top. Maybe I could fly.
It’s a silly thought. I’d die trying. It’s not worth death, I think. I suspect that falling off a tree wouldn’t feel remotely like flying anyway. The ground would never go anywhere but closer.