Taking Flight

Short Story

I’m surrounded by concrete buildings, as hollow as cicada shells. No more than a story tall — two at the most — the windowless grey edifices dot the immediate landscape around me. Beyond these concrete exoskeletons lies a flat desert.

I walk through the serpentine roads that weave between the buildings and reach the outskirts of the city. I look out into the expanse set out before me. White. Barren. Infinite.

As my eyes adjust to the piercing light, I begin to notice something peculiar — something about the desert surrounding this empty concrete graveyard; it looks like it’s peeling off of the horizon onto which it’s pasted. Like the desert itself is an ancient painting, time slowly chipping it away from its canvas.

Without increasing my speed, I decide to keep on walking past the buildings, into the desert.

About 400 meters out, I realize that this is no illusion. In front of me is a wall made of thin steel, onto which the rest of this eternal desert looks to be plastered. I give it a touch and a sandy-brown sliver of dried paint falls off.

I try and look over this wall, but I can’t; it’s too tall. All I catch is a glimpse of red and black clouds in the skies beyond.

It’s been about three weeks since the first occurrence of this dream, and since then, it’s been repeated five more times. Each time, I seem to reach the same wall — impenetrable as always — and, each time, I wake up before I can see what lies under those coal-colored clouds.

The first three times, I thought nothing of it.

The fourth time, I awoke to find myself in my bed next to a stranger. Her back was turned to me, and in the early hour, her silhouette seemed to float in the deep blue ocean of twilight. Golden hair fell along her neck, and I smelled the distinct aroma of spring flowers. At least I think they were spring flowers. When else do flowers grow, after all?

Other than the appearance of this woman, the rest of my apartment looked normal. A little messy, but that was to be expected – the usual signs of a night out drinking were notably absent. My shoes were even neatly organized by the door, rather than kicked off with an urgency that only besets a person when drunk.

Plus, I didn’t remember drinking a drop last night. It was Tuesday, after all, and I was – at worst – a functional alcoholic, which meant I didn’t drink heavily until – at earliest – Wednesday.

And yet, when I diverted my attention back to the girl, I found myself greeted by an emptiness as dark as oblivion. I couldn’t recall her name, nor could I imagine what her face looked like. Simple facts eluded me, running through my fingers as I tried to grasp them.

I had this vague feeling that her favorite color was mustard yellow — a rather ugly shade that I instantly knew I hated — and that she was the kind of girl who was perpetually cold. But that was it.

In that liminal hour between day and night, I sat awake trying to rack my brain, deciphering the strangely familiar lines of her body.

It was odd, like looking at a map of my childhood neighborhood. The longer I looked, the more the cold, hard lines seemed to gain content, becoming saturated with flashes of vibrant smells, colors and feelings – yet that’s all they ever amounted to — flashes.

Confused, I decided to get a drink to pull myself together. I silently filled up a glass with water from the bathroom. As I gulped down the liquid, I steadied myself against the sink and looked in the mirror.

Something caught my eye behind me and I jumped. But upon second glance, it turned out to be my own shadow.

Literally scared of my own shadow, I thought to myself. Maybe I had been smoking too much lately. That always seemed to get me a little jumpy.

Still, my shadow had never looked so odd — so autonomous and alive in its own right. I stared into the mirror for a little longer, but I figured I was imagining things and went back to bed.

As I got settled back under the covers, she woke up and turned to me with a smile.

“Good morning, dear.”

Dear?

“Good morning,” I replied.

For a brief moment, I considered asking who she was, but quickly realized that that was the singularly worst thing to ask anyone who had just woken up in your bed. So instead, I asked her if she wanted coffee. She declined, saying she was running late for work and that she would see me soon.

She kissed me on the cheek, got dressed and left.

She called me “dear” again.

As the door closed behind her, I thought about how effortlessly cool she looked once dressed. I still hated mustard, but if this girl — who had a disheveled elegance that only occurs after a hyper-fashionable person stops thinking about looking fashionable — liked the color, maybe I was the one in the wrong.

The rest of that day proceeded rather normally. I went to work at the newspaper I wrote for. It was a small, left-leaning daily paper, and at the time I was working on a rather dead-end piece on some statue that allegedly had been stolen from a park. There were no leads, and I essentially was making up fluff to take up space.

As I sat at my desk trying to come up with something to say about a statue that had essentially vanished into thin air — “The police commissioner suspects that it may have been teenagers, or mobsters or maybe neo-fascists…” — my thoughts kept on going back to the woman.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time that I had woken up to find a stranger in bed. It’s almost a rite of passage nowadays. But that wasn’t what kept her on my mind.

Rather, it was her unsettling familiarity that kept me in that closed loop, perpetually revolving around her. Seeing her, I felt like I had seen the cover of a book I had read long ago, the story since forgotten. I knew that I knew something, I just didn’t know what.

I decided to clear my head by going on a walk to the park I was writing about. It was April, and my knit sweater did what it could to fight the lingering dredge of winter cold.

I arrived at the patch of grass that used to carpet the statue – still lain flat by its weight – and lit a cigarette.

I had seen the statue a few times before its disappearance, but it had never struck me as particularly remarkable. Made of bare, unpolished steel, the fixture was composed of a round center with rods that jutted out at unnatural, almost grotesque angles.

It was as if the artist had somehow studied all the ways a leg, stem or branch — any naturally occurring extremity, really— tended to depart from its point of origin and then ensured that his statue had nothing in common with this organic flow.

I thought it resembled, if it could be said to resemble anything at all, a bug writhing in pain the moment immediately preceding its death — but its title, A Bird in Flight, extinguished that hypothesis before it could ever get off the ground.

Despite my personal apathy toward the aesthetics of the statue, I had been forced to look at pictures of that bizarre object for what felt like hours on end in the process of writing my article. I had grown to, if not understand it, at least feel that it had some important role in the ecosystem of the park. An importance that I felt I had only scratched the surface of.

In its absence, the park looked unnervingly empty. It was like walking into the home of a new widow. A vacuum swelled up, engulfing the place, stifling breath.

I stood in front of this now empty space for a while before I left. I don’t know why, but eventually, something about staring at that patch of grass made me feel uneasy. Like I was witnessing something unnatural. Something I shouldn’t be there for.

I awoke from the fifth night of this dream to find the woman once again next to me. Once again, her hair smelled of flowers. As I turned to look at her, I noticed that she was shivering slightly. Confusion aside, I still had common decency, so I pulled a blanket over her and she let out a purring sigh.

So I was right. She did seem to get cold quite easily.

It had been about four days since I last had my dream — since I had woken up to this same woman and gone afterward to stare at empty space. I hadn’t seen her since.

The intervening days had passed rather uneventfully, like so many identical business cards given by identical car salesmen in identical car dealerships. I went to work, exercised, saw some friends and went to sleep alone, as I always had. I had managed to smoke a little less, though.

Even so, I woke up during these days with a rather queer feeling — as if something in my own ecosystem had been knocked out of place since I had seen that woman. A vague feeling of emptiness, an absence. The bed now felt too big for itself, as if it had become swollen, and I thought I felt slightly more lonely — okay, slightly more aroused — than usual upon waking each morning.

At the time, I had figured this was my mind playing tricks on me and ignored it. Work was becoming busier, and the feeling that one’s bed had grown overnight was too absurd to dedicate any time to.

So when I awoke to find this woman next to me again, I wondered whether I had been right to dismiss my suspicious as merely that.

This time, I didn’t have to wait before she stirred awake. Had she been up already? She rolled onto her side to face me, took my hand and wrapped it around her waist. Looking at her face, I noticed that gentle strips of moisture, almost fully evaporated, marked her cheeks.

Had she been crying — shivering not from the cold but from suppressing tears?

“Everything okay?” I asked her. The damp had turned her eyes from blue to a greenish gold, eyes that contained an entire arboreal sunset.

“It’s just … this is going to sound ridiculous.”

I tell her that it’s fine, and nudge her to go on.

“Okay … well, so I saw someone yesterday. A friend from a long time ago, back before I moved to the city.”

I let out a small mm-hmm to indicate my attentiveness.

“We used to tell each other we were in love back in high school. I don’t think we were lying at the time, but who knows. I still used to have erotic dreams involving boy bands back then, so maybe I wasn’t capable of anything like it.

Anyway, he was in town and we caught up. He told me about his life, I told him about mine, his problems, mine, and it went on like that for a while. Both of us trying the best we could to understand one another, like back when we were able to sit comfortably for hours in silence.

I don’t know … Things change. They always have. And I guess that’s the problem, or just the thing about it. Each day is just barely different from the last, but eventually you look around and you don’t recognize anything anymore. Eventually you have a last, final dream about a boy band, without even realizing that that was it,” she chuckles.

A pause.

Her brows suddenly furrow as if she’s trying to string together a phonemic key that would allow me to, for a moment, enter her own world.

“Back during college,” she begins slowly, “I once had a conversation with a friend about the idea of reincarnation. I thought it was pretty. The same soul — something I could call me — being at one time a princess, dying, being reborn a farmer, dying, and on and on and on. But I never really got whether or not I was supposed to find it comforting. What was the point of being a princess if the farmer me wouldn’t remember it?”

I nodded.

“I know I’m being silly,” she concluded in a rather definitive way.

I told her that I didn’t think any such thing.

“Either way,” she said, a feline grin slowly emerging from her countenance, “I’m happy that whatever I lost, I think I found again.” Her lips now curled gently in an affectionate smile, and she stroked my hair and began to kiss me.

Another flash. But this time, it lingers and I can see what it illuminates. There’s a tree that arches over a river. It’s Spring. Or maybe Fall. The girl is there, as am I. There’s a small radio somewhere, and from it comes a melody. Jacques Dutronc. A song I haven’t heard in years. We may be speaking, but about what, I don’t know. We’re laughing. She puts her hand over mine and my fingers fall into place between hers. I feel a warmth emanating from my body. Contentment. The kind so pure that I now only find it in the form of poorly made photocopies during nostalgic reflections of youth.

The flash eventually dissipates into reality and I’m brought back to my room.

Barely three minutes had past and I had already come. Not my best.

We laid in bed afterward, holding each other. During that time, I thought about attempting to tactically piece together the fragmented reality that surrounded this woman without giving away my own ignorance.

“Other than the incident with the friend, how was the rest of your day?” I could ask — that would at least give me a brief glimpse into her mysterious world — or maybe I could inquire about her plans for the upcoming day.

But something held me back. Seeped in floral air with this golden haired girl, I couldn’t bring myself to utter a single word. I was overcome in this moment with the silence that often accompanies the sudden appearance of a beautiful bird, a silence brought on by a mix of reverence, but also fear that the slightest breath could make it take flight.

I wanted it to go on for as long as it could. I didn’t know why, but I knew that if I had a single desire at that very second, that was it. To stay in this absurd, serene, happy moment that seemed suspended from reality, that reached across the seemingly infinite space that separates two beings.

Holding her, I felt wave after wave of sentiment rush over me, and then past me, a baptism washing away the “how” or “why” of it all.

I fell asleep as this was happening, with her in my arms.

Once again, I’m surrounded by concrete buildings. Empty cicada shells between winding roads. I walk toward the edge of this dead city, toward the desert. As always, I’m greeted by the same wall — impenetrable as always.

As I go to touch it, I feel that something’s changed. There’s a presence beyond me on the other side of this wall. A faint but unmistakable heartbeat.

I press my ear against the cold metal. A light breathing. I try once again to peer over, and that’s when I notice that the sky beyond the wall is blue. I then turn my eyes upward, and see that above me is a heaven set ablaze. The skies are hot charcoal, glowing red.

My eyes open to the sound of raindrops against my window. A gentle grey has blanketed my room, softening hard edges. I look around. No sign of the woman.

“Dreaming again,” I mutter to myself, a little unsure as to whether or not I’m referring to the woman.

An empty condom wrapper on the floor is the only sign that she was really here. A fortunate reminder of her, and a less fortunate reminder of my less than stellar performance. All in all, a rather poor object to act as a keepsake. I would have even preferred something in mustard.

I feel the urge to go on a walk, something to get me out of this dream world that I seem to be drifting in. I put on a tan Mackintosh raincoat over my shirt and slip into a pair of boots.

I walk out of my apartment, past the front desk, and out the door. I’m not sure where I’m going but that doesn’t matter. I just need to be moving. Every once in awhile, the sky splits in two somewhere off in the distance with a crack of lightning.

The streets have emptied because of the spring downpour and I find myself largely alone navigating the lattice of roads.

My meandering takes me in front of a small church named after a saint I don’t recognize. A gothic structure jutting out from the earth — probably Catholic, given its imposing presence. As I pass in front of its doors, I hear a stifled sound, a hiccup. I turn to see a college-aged girl sitting on the steps with her head in her hands.

She’s a speck against this monolith, and I don’t notice her until she’s effectively right in front of me. A lone figure draped in black collapsed on the stone.

What could be the cause of such a surreal scene?

I work up the initiative to ask if she’s okay. She looks up at me, and despite the rain, I can see her tears, set apart in their sorrow from the raindrops on her face.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” she replies, forcing a smile.

I ask if I can sit next to her for a moment, and she says yes. We stay like that for a while before anyone says anything, all the while rain pouring around us, a metronome keeping us in time.

The girl is the one to break the silence.

“It’s just … I can’t believe she’s gone … like that. We had so many plans, so many unmade stories left to exchange.

Hiccup.

We used to have a little joke. If the flowers at one of our funerals were … some color I can’t remember … it meant that we were signaling to the other that we faked our own death.

We’d walk into the funeral and see those flowers be the only ones to know that it was all some practical joke, meant to mess with the other.

‘To hell with you, you almost got me this time,’ we would react.

I know it was a dumb thing to have as an inside joke, a joke with some bad punchline light years away from reality. But still … it was our dumb joke, you know?”

I stay silent.

“I just wish I could remember what color we said we would use … But for the life of me, I can’t,” she says.

After a few minutes, I get up.

“I’d better be going now. I hope you feel better,” I tell her. The girl on the steps sputters out a few sweet words of thanks in response.

I continue to roam aimlessly around town, past my office. At some point, I find myself at the park I had visited only earlier that week. The rain had given the trees and grass a deep emerald hue as they opened up their pores, and sweet smell of plant life perfumed the air. I decide to head down the path to see that patch of empty grass.

When I get there, I find, in place of emptiness, a metal sculpture. Next to it, there’s a small plaque that says A Bird in Flight.

I stand there, blinking. This can’t be real. A touch of the cold steel tells me it is.

I step back to look at the statue. The park had seemed to have already settled around it, the state of nature back in its rightful place, an ecosystem restored.

In that instant, I realize that I’ll never see that strange woman again. The ghost has gone for good, taking her golden flower-scented hair and mustard-colored clothing with her.

As I stare at the statue, trying to make sense of everything, the rain begins to intensify. Water starts to pile up on top of each other. Puddles expand outward and then begin to crawl upward, while hidden fissures in the earth begin to spurt up water. I feel a lump in my throat. Splashes reach my ankle, then my knee, then my waist. A sudden pressure engulfs me. It’s up to my shoulders now, and then before I know it, my neck. Every other breath, I get small a mouthful of water. I feel heavy and tired, like I’ve been treading water for years. I can’t stay afloat. I give myself one final breath before a wave pushes me under and sweeps me away. Above me, above the water, the street lights begin to flicker into being, fireflies glowing to signal the coming of nightfall. As the current pulls me away, I catch a glimpse of the statue, immobile. Yet due to my own relative motion and weightlessness, for a moment, I see it. A bird in flight. Closing my eyes, I know that tonight, my sleep will be dreamless.

more by CHARLES LIVINGSTON WALKER

photograph by Lauren Lukacek

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  • Peter Odeon

    Awesomely fine story. Thanks for a good read.

  • A great read Charles, thanks for sharing.