23 … 24 … 25 … Mom’s not going to be happy … 28 … 29 … ding! The suit next to me gets off the elevator without even a nod at the scrawny teenager in the worn black mantle slouched in the corner, tripled by the mirrors on both sides of the elevator walls. The mantle belonged to my grandfather, whom I never knew, but I grew up hearing tales of his hermitism and love of birds. He must have been an odd bird himself, and that makes me at home with my secondhand memories of him.
The doors close and I’m left alone with the musk of the suit’s CK One. I bet that guy passed his trigonometry tests when he was my age. 34 … 35 … The fat, red “F” on the test crumpled in my hand goads me. I asked around at school, ostensibly to study the right solutions, but on no other paper had Mr. Farkas scrawled a grade over a student’s name like he had over “Chris Abadia.”
40 … 41 … ding! The doors open. Mom insists I bring failed tests to her work after school so we can correct them together “while it’s still fresh.” I’ll probably thank her when I’m older, like adults always say. Like maybe once I find something—anything—I’m good at.
I hang back. I know exactly when the elevator doors will close, and I wait for that moment before slipping out.
Urgh! is all I say before a burly hand covers my mouth and I am lifted by one man per arm and hauled backwards into the elevator. A third hits the button to close the doors, jams a key into the maintenance override, and punches an orange button labelled “ROOF.” The elevator jolts up.
The man on my left rumbles, “Where’d you get the key, boss?”
The man standing before me is pot-bellied, sports a glistening pate with a ring of thinning hair around the back of his head from ear to ear, and looks Italian. “The janitor is a former business associate,” he says. “He excelled at cleaning up the family’s messes.”
Thick fingers dig into my arms and hold me off the ground as we step through the doors. A stiff New York City wind rips at my mantle and freezes me in my short sleeves. At least my mouth is free.
“Who are you guys? What do you want from me?” I try to twist, but the men have me tight. No matter where you are on a roof, there’s really only one place you can go: the edge.
The pot-bellied man smirks. “Kid, I have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for you.”
The man holding my left arm yanks my backpack off the shoulder it’s slung across and tosses it to the rooftop.
My weight shifts as the other man leans over the edge. “Are you sure this is the right guy, Vinny?”
The pot-bellied man smiles. “Positive. His grandfather, may he rest in peace—“ Vinny crosses himself, “—was part of the family, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. Boys, teach him to fly.”
A shove back and I’m falling forty-three stories, feet first. My Adam’s apple squeezes toward my palate and forces a scream out ahead of it. My grandfather’s mantle snaps and twists above me.
The sidewalk observes me, welcomes me with arms stretched from the Hudson to the East River. It soothes me with its Zen acceptance of sidewalk inferiority and promises I’ll never take another trigonometry test again.
Suddenly, all I want is to take trigonometry tests, one after another, until I’m wall-eyed.
Searing pain rips through my shoulder blades, and something in me tries to escape—to molt. My shirt is stretched against my chest, vising the breath from my lungs. An instinct asserts itself and I scratch, tear, beat, but not with my fingers. The sound of cloth ripping is audible over the wind in my ears, and a nascent force stretches from my body like a second pair of arms. I beat. I beat for life. I don’t know how I’m doing it, but I beat.
The sidewalk slows its approach, then halts, still ruminating on me from twenty stories distant. I stick my tongue out at it between my dangling feet.
My breath is heavy from the unaccustomed effort. I rise past the twenty-three stories above me as fast as fury rises within my chest. I rip the trigonometry test I still clutch in half, cast it to the wind, and ball my fists.
The Italian still smirks when I alight on the rooftop. I wanted to exact revenge, but I’m too winded even for an intimidating display of power. I kneel to catch my breath and let my arced wings collapse around me, cocoon-like, my grandfather’s black mantle resting on my back between them. Sunlight pours in from above, and I am cradled by a prism of azure bespeckled with flame-orange and fringed with emerald as the sun greets my feathers.
Hands grasp me under my arms and lift me, gentler this time. Vinny beams.
“I’ve got a job for someone with your special talents. A once-in-a-lifetime offer.” He motions to the men at my sides, who release me but make sure I’m balanced. “On your left is Joseph, my man for dough.”
“The mantle’s a nice touch,” rumbles Joseph from somewhere under his fulsome mustache. At his mention of the mantle, my grandfather’s fabled avian predilection clicks into focus.
“On your right stands Mack.”
Mack is a giant of a man. He nods curtly and adds, “Toppings. Sorry about before.”
“Chris, I’m Vinny, your second cousin twice removed, and I’d like to offer you a job at Vinny’s Old Italy, the best pizza parlor in NYC, because son, you’re going to be the best pizza delivery boy in the Big Apple.”
Andrew Rucker Jones is a former IT expert and American expatriate living in Germany with his Georgian wife and their three children. He quit his day job to become an author, and he has yet to regret it. You can read his blog at http://selfdefeatistnavelgazing.wordpress.com/.