6.24.2003 by , every Tuesday.
This story disturbs me in a variety of ways, but once I started I had to finish. It's also kinda unpolished, but I think there are neat elements in it. Neat, but creepy.
(Once you've read it, you might want to go here for cheering-up.)
Next week, expect an awesome guest column from comic-column-writer Scott, once I stop being a bad emailer and get back to him.
Jillian walked to work the same way every day. She passed down Danforth street and over the hill, cut through the pine woods and under the highway overpass; her workplace, Sag’s little Convenience Store, sat hunched at the end of Bernard, two blocks east of the highway. Jillian didn’t mind walking so far to work, and she didn’t really mind working cash while old men alternately ogled her and stole magazines (both with a decided lack of style). She did, however, mind the thirty seconds of her day in which she hustled under the hulking overpass.
Jillian wasn’t a woman given to fright. At eight she’d climbed out her bedroom window and heaved herself up to the roof so she could cheer on the hawks swirling in the updrafts, migrating south. At seventeen she made liquor runs for her friends; her confidence, charm and easy manner were so convincing that she often left the store with additional packs of cigarettes and free candy. At nineteen she lived on her own, working long hours to pay for an eventual bachelor’s degree.
But, the overpass.
The overpass made her uneasy.
There was a pile of old coats, like a great dead beast, under the overpass. It stank of whisky and vomit, and the homeless people of the city avoided it at all costs, even though the space beneath the overpass was warm, snug and free of snow in the winter. Their avoidance would have been enough to make Jillian nervous, since she imagined that the homeless people must be infinitely tougher and more fearless than herself. Furthermore, every now and then, she was sure she saw the pile of coats twitch and move.
One cold April morning Jillian pulled her oversize coat close and hurried out of the sweet smelling woods. With quick sharp steps she crossed the street and went beneath the overpass. Half-way through she thought she caught movement at the corner of her eye, and, unable to stop natural curiosity, she wheeled around.
The pile of coats had been pushed aside, and there stood a very furry, wizened man. He grinned a wide grin that pushed the fat and skin of his cheeks into thick ripples.
“Girl,” he said. “I can tell you what you want to know.”
Jillian blinked and took a step back. “What do you want?” she said, vaguely surprised that her voice sounded so measured and calm.
The man grinned even wider. “It’s not what I want that’s important,” he said. “It’s what you want, dearie. And what I know.”
“I don’t understand,” said Jillian. She turned and began to walk on.
“Wait,” barked the man. “I bet I can guess. I bet I can.”
Jillian stepped forward. Only a few more steps, and the bright sunlight of the morning would bathe her comfortingly.
“Flight,” he said.
And she stopped.
The man grinned, and chuckled quietly, a grating chuckle, like an old pencil sharpener in action. “Nailed it in one, I see,” he said.
Jillian turned around quickly. In spite of herself her face was quite red. “What the hell do you want with me?” she demanded.
“Nothing, nothing,” said the man. “Oh, you are indeed slow. Flight, is it? Always wanted to fly? I can, you see, teach you how.”
Five minutes later, Jillian sat on a flat filthy stone under the overpass, and wondered silently at her foolishness. The man, who had introduced himself as Caliar, sat on the smelly pile of coats.
“The secret to flying,” he was saying, “is that there’s nothing anatomically required at all. Birds have hollow bones, my dear, they have flight feathers and curved wings for lift, but that’s not why they stay aloft. No, the secret is that anyone can fly; it’s only a matter of getting, well...” He coughed a little, and grinned. “Lighter.”
“And how do I get lighter?” inquried Jillian. She was playing absently with a long sleeve of her jacket. “I’m already quite light, you know.”
“Oh, you certainly look it,” said the man, and Jillian blushed furiously once more. “Foolish girl. Your mind is still too firmly rooted in the physical.” He grinned again, and Jillian began to realize how much she hated that grin. It made her spine tickle and her teeth grate.
“There is, you see, a certain lightness of... being. Of thinking. All that matters is that one remove certain things from one’s mind.”
“Things? What sorts of things?” This was getting old.
“Oh, you know, clutter. We tend to be mental pack-rats, you see, we people. We grab experiences, painful or pleasurable, and clutch onto them with a death-grip in the very backs of our minds until we cough our last. It’s foolish, very foolish, and pointless! Think of all of the things you experience in a day, right there in the lonely amphitheater of your mind. Just try it.”
Jillian gave a shrug and thought about all of the things she’d been concerned with just this morning. Bills, worry about work, her boss’s recent cruel spell, the new boy she’d been seeing... her mother’s ill health, wars in faraway nations, the decline of the spotted snail in her home town. There was a run in her favourite pair of stockings, and her period was a day early... and was that a pimple developing on her forehead? She needed more toothpaste, was her hair ugly, there was a CD she wanted to buy if only she had money! and more, there were delicate, half formed dreams, visions of strange creatures, and why did she feel so terribly lonely in big crowds...
She looked up and was disconcerted to see Caliar’s face only inches away, his small eyes scrutinizing her every expression. He smirked. “See?” he said.
Jillian winced. She could see every deep fold and rift in his pocked skin. “Okay, I got it, I got it,” she said.
Caliar spat, and said, “Clutter. And now, now, my dear, I offer you a choice.”
“Who are you?” asked Jillian suddenly. There was something about Caliar that made her think of the books about Faerie that an overeager and romantically-minded young man had once loaned her.
“No matter,” barked Caliar. “And now, the choice.” He cleared his throat slowly in a gritty, gravelly roll. “Fly. Don’t fly. It is that simple.”
Jillian opened her mouth to protest, but a flabby, cold hand snaked up to cover her lips. “Shhh,” said Caliar. “Shhh now. It’s not that kind of choice. Not a verbal one, you see.”
Jillian quirked her eyebrows, pulling her face away from the cold, damp hand.
Caliar grinned, then his expression turned deadly serious. “I don’t trust words,” he whispered in a hoarse, close way that made Jillian shiver. “They lie, and besides, I have the Sight to see past them.” He moved his head close to Jillian’s, and clamped his eyes on hers. Sweat prickled out on her forehead, but she was locked firmly in his gaze.
“Fly,” he said. “Don’t fly.”
Part of Jillian’s mind careened about in panic, and part of it burned with indignity and disgust. A tiny part, though, a part locked away in a dusty corner, poked and prodded at the offering. To her surprise she felt a tiny tendril of thought, “What, if?” And she felt her mind step tentatively down the path, and weigh the options. And then her mind squeaked out a tiny squeak of a dream, a little gasp, that reverberated beneath the terror and rage.
“What if?” she thought. “Fly...”
Caliar’s face cracked into a pestilent grin. His eyes were on fire. “Yes,” he hissed. “Yesss. There it is.” And he reached out a gnarled hand and pressed two fingertips against her forehead.
“It’s not fair!” Jillian screamed in her mind. She thought about the secret ideas she’d entertained, the tiny considerations everyone had, the dirty little... everyone has these, she thought. The point is that we can overcome...
Some time later, the girl stood up. Her legs felt stiff. The light was fading fast, and the encroaching chill in the gloom under the overpass bit through her clothes and made her feel almost naked. She went out from under the bridge to find daylight draining steadily from the sky, the road ahead becoming a black river, street-lights blazing above like unwavering eyes. She rubbed her head absently. “Where?” she asked, but it didn’t seem to matter. She reached out her arms, and felt herself rising, slowly, so that the soles of her feet cleared the cool evening grass, and then higher, and gusts cooling and drying the hair from her sweating scalp, and higher still into the cold night air. Bats danced and darted around her, snapping up moths. Higher still a seagull rowed briskly westward past her left hand. Suddenly the girl considered, and felt confused by, a sense of loss she could not place. Her brow crinkled. No matter. She rose higher still.