Written for the prompt: "I remember. . . ."
|I remember feeling so good, so confident. . . .
I had just landed the Gimmelfarb account and was everyone’s fair-haired boy. The bosses loved me, the other middle managers envied me, and the next time a promotion came down the figurative pike it was, beyond all doubt, mine.
I was on top of the world.
Almost literally, I thought as I stared at the cigarette-littered rooftop around me and, further out, the glistening city below. As always, from a height and with the aggressive sunlight beating down, it looked like what it was: a glittering, modern miracle of glass and steel. I welled up with pride—this was my city, and the world was my oyster—and lit my second of four cigarettes for the day.
I kicked a loose brick back into the doorway to act as a jamb, and made my way toward the east-facing ledge. That was the best view, in my humble opinion, and I’d enjoyed many a cancer-stick while contemplating it.
Though, admittedly, few of those times had been this sweet.
I was halfway to the ledge when a voice called from behind me: “Nice going on snagging the Gimmelfarb account.”
Startled, I nearly dropped my cigarette, and got a two lungs full of smoke for my trouble.
Coughing, I turned around.
Straddling the west-facing ledge was a mousy, but vaguely familiar-looking young guy. He had one leg on the rooftop and the other swung out over the city. His off-the-rack clothes of button-down olive shirt, grey slacks, and a blue, probably clip-on tie, seemed to bag on his slight frame. Huge, hideous glasses sat on a pale, peaked face with fine features and topped by carrot-y, thatchy hair grown out of any style.
“You’re Wayne Burrell, right?” the guy prodded intently, and I nodded with one last cough to clear my lungs.
“Somebody’s gotta be,” I said, shrugging. “And you are. . . ?”
The guy smiled. Rather, he stretched a thin-lipped grimace over his teeth and shook his head wryly.
“Doesn’t matter,” he said softly, though his voice, an almost musical tenor, seemed a bit crest-fallen. “Or it won’t, in a few moments.”
“Uh,” I said, and the guy swung his other leg over the ledge so that they were both dangling over the city, and he was facing west. “What’re you doing?”
“None of it matters, anymore, Wayne, don’t you see?” the guy said absently and, damnit, I still couldn’t place his face—IT? Marketing? Creative? He looked like a creative—I suddenly knew what he was up here for. A cold frisson worked its way down my back and the cigarette fell from my nerveless fingers.
“Shit—now, hold on, buddy—” I began, trying to hurry toward him without startling him into something . . . precipitous. Not that he was paying me any mind. He was laughing a little: quiet, cynical, and slightly unhinged.
“You don’t even know my name—don’t remember me, do you?” he asked, glancing at me over his bony shoulder. There were tears shining on his cheeks. “You really don’t know who I am.”
“Sure, I do.” I put on the grin that’d helped me secure the Gimmelfarb account. “And if you just . . . move away from that ledge, we can get all caught up since the last time we, uh, talked.” I worked that smile for all it was worth.
And believe you, me, as of that morning, it was worth a lot.
But not to this guy. He merely snorted, and looked out over the western part of the city. Then he braced his hands on the ledge, as if he was going to push himself off.
“No!” I shouted, frozen in place. “You have so much to live for! Don’t do it!”
The guy glanced around again, annoyed. “Don’t do what? And how do you know what I have to live for? You—wait a second.” The guy grinned suddenly, then laughed. “You think I’m up here to kill myself?”
I blinked. Edged a little closer to him. I was only two yards away, now. “Well . . . yeah. I mean, isn’t that what you’re about to do? Jump off the ledge?”
He snorted again. “Hardly.” He looked back over the city again and sighed. “I,” he went on loftily, “am going to fly.”
Nonplussed, I paused my stealthy approach. “Beg pardon?”
“Fly, Mr. Burrell. I’m going to fly!” he exclaimed, then with a laugh and a big shove, hurled himself off the roof, whooping. I lunged forward to grab him and missed—both him and my footing, which sent me toppling forward over the ledge with a shout, pin-wheeling my arms. . . .
The sensation of falling from a great height is awful. Seeing the world turn and turn about you as the ground rushes up toward you is the worst feeling I’ve ever felt. I screamed more from that, than from the sudden stop I knew was coming shortly.
And come, it did.
Not from the parking lot speeding up toward me, but from above.
“Unh! You’re heavier than you look,” a disgruntled voice huffed as I was slowly lowered, by my ankle, to the macadam. In utter shock, I looked up.
The guy from the roof was hovering, in mid-air, unassisted, a look of concentration and strain on his thin face.
“What the fuck?!” I screeched, teetering on the very edge of sanity. “What. The. FUCK?!”
Then my back touched the ground, followed unceremoniously by the rest of me as the guy let go of my ankle with a grunt and I dropped to the ground between two rows of shiny, happy cars.
I was alive.
I was alive.
I was curling up in a fetal ball on the ground, shaking and shivering, dry-heaving and moaning.
Cheap sneakers touched the ground near my head. Then a narrow, worried face was hovering in front of my own as the guy knelt in front of me.
“Uh,” he said nervously, seeming extremely concerned. “Are you gonna be okay?”
“Y-You can f-fly.”
“Well, duh.” He rolled his eyes and smiled. “Anyway, I can make a controlled descent, at least. If not for you, I might be winging my way off into the sunset, by now.”
“We coulda d-died,” I mumbled, closing my eyes and shuddering. I felt the guy’s hand settle on my shoulder, warm and steady.
“Well, you coulda. But you didn’t,” he quickly added when I moaned. “I caught you, right? Right.”
“People don’t fly.”
“No, most people don’t,” the guy agreed cheerily. “Doesn’t mean they can’t, though. You’d be surprised how many of us there are.”
I opened my eyes and stared into his. They were the same olive-green as his stupid shirt. “There are m-more of you out there?”
“Best guarded secret in the world.” The guy nodded. “Can’t have the government getting their dirty-filthy paws on us, dissecting us, seeing what makes us able to defy the laws of gravity.”
I moaned again and hugged my knees closer to my chest. “This is a dream, right? I’m really back on the roof, having a nervous breakdown from all the stress of fighting for the Gimmelfarb account, right?”
The guy snorted. “Please. Wayne Burrell eats stress for breakfast.”
My eyes widened. “How—how’d you know I say that?”
The guy’s smile was self-deprecating and wry, but kind. “You really, truly don’t remember me.”
I shook my head. “Sorry, but I don’t. Dunno how I could’ve forgotten a guy who can fly, though.”
“Well,” the guy said, tugging on my arm till I let go of my knees and slowly, s-l-o-w-l-y sat up, trying to ignore the way the world was spinning. When I was fully upright, he joined me on the ground, tailor-fashion. “You didn’t know I could fly, then. You didn’t know anything about me . . . except that I was new at the company, and having an anxiety attack in the men’s room.” The guy searched my eyes, then shook his head, laughing a little. “You were the first and only person who was even remotely kind to me since I’ve been here. Got me calmed down enough to take me up to the roof for air, and talked to me—rather, let me talk at you—till I was something that could pass for normal. Then you walked me back to my desk, got me a cup of water, and gave me your email addy. Said if I ever needed to talk again, I could email you any time.”
I blinked and shook my head twice. “I don’t remember that, at all.”
“Well, it was five years ago.”
“Shit,” I said, startled to realize that I’d been at the company for almost ten years, now. “And you remember something that happened five years ago?”
“It may not have been a big deal to you, but it was to me.” The guy said, a little defensively, adjusting his ugly glasses. “You’re the reason I made it through that first day, first week, first month, first year. Whenever I thought I couldn’t handle this place, I’d think of you and the things you said, and that gave me the strength to go on.” Smiling again, he held out his hand. “Thanks.”
I snorted, but took his hand and shook it, noticing how cold my own was, despite the warmth of the day. “I think you’ve more than repaid me.”
The guy laughed and let go of my hand, blushing. “Hey, you thought you were saving my life. You wouldn’t have fallen if I hadn’t jumped. Sorry.”
“No harm, no foul,” I said with a slightly hysterical laugh, shuddering, and the guy’s smile faded a bit.
“Seriously, though . . . are you gonna be okay?”
I opened my mouth to say: Of course! So you can fly? BFD! but what came out was a belch and a groan. “I dunno. Dunno anything, anymore.”
“I’m sorry,” the guy said again, and I laughed once more.
“It’s not your fault. Or maybe it is. I dunno,” I repeated, wrapping my arms around myself and glancing around me at all the shiny, happy cars parked neatly in their slots. They were completely indifferent to the fact that this guy could fly, and that I was apparently going into shock of some kind.
“Look, you seem . . . like a man who needs a drink,” the guy started, and I snorted.
“Yeah. My thoughts, exactly. And it’s almost lunch time. What say I take you to O’Flannigan’s for a few drinks to calm your nerves?”
I looked into the guy’s kind, worried eyes, and chewed my lip: a nervous habit I thought I’d gotten rid of years ago. “What’s your name?”
The guy smiled again, bright and pleased. “You’re the first person at this company who’s ever asked me that. You’re just all kinds of wonderful, aren’t you, Mr. Burrell?”
I snorted again. “Yeah . . . I’m a real prince.”
The guy chuckled. He had a nice one, low and slow and infectious. “Well, I don’t know about that, but you were sure my knight in shining armor, once upon a terrible time.”
“I wish I could remember,” I said, and meant it. And it’s weird that I don’t remember. I usually have a great memory for faces. One has to, in this business. But this guy’s face, pale, thin, and young, like a Dickensian orphan’s, was turning up the big goose egg.
“Well, you might’ve remembered me better if I’d ever emailed you and maybe offered to take you to lunch or drinks back then. At least to say thanks for keeping me from having a complete meltdown.” The guy sighed and shrugged.
“Why . . . why didn’t you?” I asked, sitting up straighter, stretching a little as the sun finally began to warm my cold, shivering body. The guy watched me with those wry, self-deprecating green eyes.
“Honestly? Because I thought you wouldn’t remember me, or care. Or that you’d say no.”
“I wouldn’t have,” I said softly, without knowing whether that was true.
“Perhaps. But you were middle management, popular, good-looking, and upwardly-mobile . . . everything I wasn’t. You were so out of my league. I just plain didn’t have the stones to ask you out in any capacity,” The guy said matter-of-factly, and I gaped. He gaped back, mirroring the look I’m sure was on my face, then laughing. “Don’t act so surprised, Mr. Burrell. Half of Creative and all of Secretarial wants to bag you. But rumor has it you don’t talk about your personal life and you most definitely don’t shit where you eat.”
“I don’t,” I averred, blushing. “I learned the hard way what happens to people who fuck their superiors at my last company. Nothing good, let me assure you.”
“Well, let’s just say I’m from Missouri, on that subject. Depending on the superior.” The guy gave me a once-over that was rather heated, then laughed again, seemingly at himself, before jumping to his feet and extending his hand to me. “C’mon, Mr. Burrell, let’s get started on those drinks. My treat.”
I hesitated a moment, then took his hand and got slowly to my feet. The world still spun a little, but squinching my eyes shut and counting to ten made it stop. When I opened my eyes again, the guy was watching me patiently with raised eyebrows.
I nodded. “Better, anyway.”
“Good.” The guy winked and let go of my hand. I hadn’t even realized he was still holding it. “My car isn’t far.”
“You mean we’re not gonna fly there?” I asked, almost smiling myself as he took his keys out of his pocket and jingled them merrily.
“Nah.” He shook his head and laughed a little, sadly. “I was having a . . . moment of crisis. Flying off into the sunset was my plan of last resort. A way of leaving my shitty life behind me, never to be seen again. A chance at starting over somewhere far away and . . . different. Where I could be different, too. C’mon.”
The guy started walking and I caught up with him, a second later. My legs were slightly rubbery, but serviceable. “And what happened to change all that?”
Green eyes cast a sideways glance at me and the guy smiled. “Let’s just say that I suddenly feel as if I’ve got a reason to stay. Or at least a reason to consider staying.”
I turned crimson again and looked down at my feet. But I was, inexplicably, almost smiling.
“You never did tell me your name,” I said quietly, almost desperately. The guy laughed again.
“You’re gonna think I’m shining you on, when I do. . . .” He sighed and crossed his arms over his chest, looking down at his moving feet for a few moments before looking up at me again challengingly. “Thomas Anderson.”
I was gaping again, wondering if I really was having a nervous breakdown up on the roof. Or worse: at my desk. “And is your hacker alias Neo, as well?”
“Nope. I’m not that kind of geek.” He elbowed me gently and pointed at a blue Ford Focus in the row to our left. “And my middle initial, isn’t A. Its O.”
“This has been the most insane fifteen minutes of my life,” I noted quite sanguinely as Thomas Anderson unlocked the passenger side of his car, then elbowed me again. I got in when he opened the door for me, then looked up at him as he leaned on the open door.
“But, hey, at least you were alive to enjoy them, right?”
Sighing, I looked up at the blue sky; at the bright sun shining out of it; at the beautiful world around me—which was apparently much stranger than I’d ever thought it to be—and had to agree. “Yeah. I guess that’s the best way to look at it. . . .”
Smiling kindly, Thomas Anderson shut the door and jogged around the back of it to get to the driver’s side. He slid in easily, locked the doors, and started the car up.
His eyes met mine in the mirror, cheeky and admiring all at once, and I flushed again.
“Buckle up, Wayne,” he said jauntily, doing so himself, before tear-assing out of the spot, and thence out of the parking lot.
I buckled my seatbelt, and held on for dear life, watching traffic and Main Street speed by and wondering what the next fifteen minutes would bring.